Steampunk Hazard (updated)

Sypnosis: At the Berette’s Seer Academy, 7th grade normal-stream pupils are required to spend half a year training in Eon before they reach Seerhood. Oh well, but they are grouped into three-man cells to complete tasks ranked by difficulty. Then there’s Sierra; a girl living under the custody of her grandmother with her mother dead and her father divorced, Umber; a mysterious boy with enigmatic origins and several rings on his fingers as well as Jack; Sierra’s hot-headed classmate whose mother doesn’t even remember him, save for his name and his very existence. The mismatched trio are sent to Eotra together with their class and given a 99-task mission to complete and a high-ranked mission to a top-security area in Eotra. Does that have anything to do with Sierra’s ‘dead’ mother, her amazing abilities that enabled her to escape death, the past of Umber and Jack’s parents? Maybe. Set 3 months after the events of Moon Type (in Oct).

Time: Late Jan to Early Feb

Characters: Jack, Sierra and Umber

Location: Eon, Odd Jobs Guild, Eotra, Hazard

Main Characters: Umber, Sierra, Jack

Prologue:

There was a teacher at the Berette’s Seer Academy in Xenda, by the name of Ms. Hannah. She was a gentle and kind lady who often wore purple blouses, grey skirts, round-rimmed glasses and a pair of bright red sandals that were the only bright contrast she had to her drab clothes. She had her brown hair bobbed and her eyes always shone whenever she demonstrated Seercraft to her young and impatient students. Yet she had never yearned for adventure, something a normal seer would do, for she was brought up in the countryside region of Eon.

Maybe that was why the Principal had sent her on a long field trip to Eon, away from the campus ground they were so familiar with. This was something ordinary teachers would have anticipated, but not for Miss Hannah, for it was her first time teaching 7th graders! Poor Ms. Hannah was the one who aspired the young souls that watched her lessons, for the very first time in their lives, flames of different colour spring from her fingers. Thus the principal had thought the trip with her students as a reward for her excellent contributions to the Academy and sent her forth.

But this story was not about this ordinary miss or whatnot, it is the story of the adventures of 3 of Miss Hannah’s students that she later came to learn of.

Chapter 1:

“Class!” The petite lady shouted, tiptoeing to project her voice further through the throng of students surrounding her. “Class!” She yelled again, this time sterner, harsher and louder; a tone that promised punishment to those that disobeyed. “Class, today, you are going to register yourselves as part of the Odd Jobs Guild where your future assignments will come from. Pay attention, for I am not going to repeat myself. You are to line up according to your class register number and fill out this form that I will be handing to you shortly. Please do not attempt to make a fool of yourselves for there are powerful runes written on every slip, therefore the consequences that wait should anyone you attempt are severe. The runes are hard to undo, so please do check before you submit.” She instructed while passing the small scroll-like slips to each and every one of her students. They had neatly filled up the forms and all of the applications had been accepted, much to her relief and now her entire class, including her, was a member of the Guild.

They were then taken for a tour around the guild building that resembled a tavern of sorts. “There’s a canteen in the west wing where you can have your meals. In the lobby area, there are also vendors selling various items such as herbs, runes, seals and other items necessary for your missions or tasks. Speaking of missions, there are 2 main types of missions. One is more commonly known as tasks, self-assigned and are mostly put up by others at the board over there. The other is rarer and mostly reserved for those higher-ranking; these are missions, mostly to investigate some place or something similar…” The guide continued with the basic information they would have require to start with their first task. They were then separated into groups and led to their dorms.

“Group Sierra-Umber-Jack, Miss Hannah requests to see you!” A classmate had cheerfully called out to Sierra who was walking along the east wing of the dorm building to her room. Sierra sighed and got to work unpacking her luggage. A sudden thump on her windowsill caused her to look up. It turned out to be a dark shadow with gleaming purple eyes. She strained her eyes to make out its form hidden behind the black cloak that it wore. The door creaked open behind her and Sierra threw a backwards glance. It was another boy, presumably the ‘Jack’ person that Miss Hannah had mentioned. He was fair-skinned and had ash blonde hair with dark green eyes; wearing a brown vest over a long-sleeved white shirt with brown knickerbockers. The ‘black thing’ had gotten up and was seated comfortably at the windowsill edge, watching Sierra with an amused expression. She whisked around after hearing a faint snortle coming behind her, ‘it’ was really a boy; a black-haired boy with cold purple eyes.

“You must be Sierra,” both boys uttered at the same time. The blonde proceeded to smile while the other smirked, his eyes cold and calculating. “I’m Umber, your teammate. Nice to meet you,” Umber got up and extended a hand to Sierra. “Yeah… and I’m Jack Russell. Nice to meet you …” Jack had trailed off, looking uncertainly from Umber to Sierra and back again. “Hello? Umm… is anyone there? Miss Hannah here…” A small voice came behind the door and the familiar face of their teacher peeked through. “So you’ve gathered and found your room. That’s good since your first task starts tomorrow,” Miss Hannah sighed in relief. “Well, there’s a task ready for you, if you want to, you can start today. Collect the task at the counter, please.” Miss Hannah smiled for the last time before timidly exiting the room.

Umber sighed, setting himself on one of the 2 beds in the room, ignoring the stuff that Sierra had put on the bed. She was a little frustrated indeed, but she chose to check out the task that was awaiting them at the counter, as Miss Hannah had instructed and approached the desk clerk gingerly. “Uh… I’m here to request the task that Miss Hannah has reserved for Group Sierra-Umber-Jack. She mentioned that we could start today, so I’d like to get a look at it on behalf of my teammates. Oh, and I’m Sierra,” Sierra briefly explained to the desk clerk, a fair-skinned lass with ash grey hair who nodded and took an old and thick leather ring-bound folder from the antique-looking shelf behind the counter after punching a few keys on the computer keyboard. “Ah… this should be it. Not much of an easy task though, you’ll have to accomplish a total of 99 tasks; 5 D-class, 25 C-class, 2 B-class and 1 A-class task to each seer in the group as the requirements for this S-class mission. Materials necessary will be provided, such as your weapons so you’ll have to collect them from the lobby starting tomorrow. You’re a lucky bunch, you know. If you accomplish this mission, you might get a transfer to other guild branches all around Eon,” she had said, smiling sadly with a small hint of nostalgia in her slate grey eyes. “Eotra’s not the best place to train since only watchmakers come here. Well, it’s ‘Automaton Haven’ so it can’t be helped…” Her eyes suddenly became clouded and downcast and she lowered her heads, allowing Sierra to catch her name.

“Sierra.”

Umber was walking towards them, his hands in his pockets and his purple eyes staring straight at her. “Sierra,” this time Umber repeated it louder as if he was a young child learning a new word and smiled, ”Sierra, Ms Hannah requests we get the sleeping arrangements done by today and after that we can go around to explore the city.” The desk clerk Alcara handed Sierra a moleskine notebook and smiled. Sierra smiled back shyly before walking away towards the elevator that awaited them.

“Good luck.” She heard the timid whisper from the counter and waved back once she got into the elevator. The brass elevator was old fashioned and hummed slowly to the top floor, where they were greeted by the panoramic view of Eotra with its Victorian architecture. Sierra looked at Umber quizzically who in turn continued to smile while delicately raising an eyebrow. “We’re done with the arrangements though Jack was quite cooperative, so let’s enjoy the view for now till Jack calms down.” Umber pointed to the seat right by the window and pulled out a chair.

“So… where do I sleep?” Sierra couldn’t help but ask once they were seated. Umber’s smile faded for a moment before he replied. “Jack requested that he would very much like an individual bed. However, only two twin beds were provided upon our arrival and I have requested for another bed to be brought down. For the time being, you shall have to put up with me.” Umber’s last sentence took Sierra a few moments to process and the result left her in utter shock and disbelief. Part of her wanted to bash up Jack and the other wanted to bash up Umber. For a few moments, all she could do was to stare into Umber’s purple eyes in bright contrast to his black hair as well as clothing and fair skin while he set some cookies on a porcelain saucer before her. A distant yet loud thumping of footsteps shook Sierra out of her reverie and she turned her head just in time to see her fuming mad teammate make his way towards them.

“Jack.” Umber calmly addressed him, motioning to the empty seat in between Sierra and Umber. “What is it?” Jack growled as he sat down reluctantly. Umber’s grin only grew wider as he cast a sideways glance at Sierra. “The mission, of course. We’re here to discuss about the mission. After that you may excuse yourself to your private activities but for now, just cool down and listen. We’ve been tasked to 33 missions each, the allocation is as such:  5 D-class, 25 C-class, 3 B-class and 1 A-class missions to everyone in the group. However, not every task requires individual completion, so we might as well save time by doing the harder ones together. After the 99 missions, we get the real thing and then we’ll get transferred out. Chances are that we’ll end up in different branches as well as different class so you won’t get to see me again. Is that a deal, Jack?” Umber explained, his chin resting delicately on his right hand as he regarded Jack with those cold purple eyes of his.

“Fine.” The syllable was hissed with much annoyance but Sierra was sure her hotheaded classmate would’ve pulled punches had it not been Umber. It was pure awe on the account of how he managed to pull such a feat but it left Sierra with a sense of respect to the boy sitting right opposite her. Jack had hurriedly left, silently muttering curses under his breath. She stared at the scenery that was laid before her, the grey skies, and the clock tower that stood in the town center, the low-rise Victorian shop houses and the tall skyscrapers with buildings stacked atop each other like a mille feuille. Everything was a shade of grimy black, as if someone had accidentally smeared oil onto the entire city. The tall skyscrapers jutted out of the city line, though the Guild building was definitely not one of the tallest. Bridges connected the buildings to each other and passageways led to tunnels going to literally everywhere. Umber clearing his throat shook Sierra out of her reverie once again, only to see a cranberry cookie offered to her. Umber nodded, pushing a cup of tea that appeared out of nowhere towards her. “I’ll take you somewhere you need to know after this. Oh, and you should know, if we were to do those tasks together, the number would be reduced by half. If the total tasks we need to complete is 66, it’ll be reduced to 33 if we do them together. I hope you’ll understand,” Umber suggested, avoiding eye contact while stirring his cup of tea. Sierra took a quick bite of the cookie while pondering about his words. Almost immediately the cherry sweetness of the cranberry raisin overwhelmed her, leaving her craving for more. Umber broke into a thin smile as he sipped his tea. “Yeah… I guess.” Sierra timidly mumbled between bites of the delicious cookie. He nodded in return and both bathed in the awkward silence for a few moments. “Sierra, where are you from?” The question had caught her off guard, something he did not dismiss as her eyes became downcast and she demurred. Umber sighed, opening his mouth to quickly apologize but stopped when he heard a timid whisper. “Umm… Pumpkin Ville actually.” Umber raised an eyebrow and nodded.

“Sierra, you’re new to this region. I’ll teach you some things you should know here; the safe tunnels and streets. Mark my words when I tell you this: no place is safe except for the Guild building, your dorm room and the Library. Don’t go anywhere else unless there’s a need to such as for tasks. Don’t walk alone in the underground tunnels or even the streets, especially at night. Make sure your door has a personalized rune-lock. Understood?” Sierra looked up in surprise and shock at his words. He stood up and offered her a hand to steady herself. “The library has half a million runes protecting it, you’ll be safe there. If you know a transverse spell, try not to cast runes, use keys. Collapse any tunnels you dig, close all dimensions you transverse in. This isn’t a joke. Aura is more important you ever think it is. You know why it became like this, huh? Eotra’s history…” Umber sighed as both of them walked to the elevator that led them to a wooden door past the lobby,” is half the reason why this place resembles East End so much. You’ve read of it, haven’t you? The place is like a dark alley, or some slum if you prefer it that way. It looks nice, with those buildings and the reason why watchmakers come here is because of the freedom. The freedom to create any automaton they want since those don’t rely on Aura. Go to other places in Eon, you’ll wish you never came here in the first place. It’s twice as brutal as in the Victorian era, trust me on that. Bump into misfortune once and you’ll end up dead like those dogs in the alley. Commit crimes and soon justice will catch up with you, or else your conscience will. A moment of folly will cause to you regret for the rest of your life or have you kicking the bucket. People here are half as happy as those outside, you’ll see why later. It’s a sad place.” They were walking down one of the bridges, outside Sierra saw a lone watchmaker slogging away in his workshop, grey pigeons flying past, a figure praying in a church and a building full of people. Umber was right, so right, in a way she wanted to deny. She thought of the places in Eon, with smiles as bright as the sun and their sunny cobblestone streets with flowers everywhere. Instead of the azure skies and everlasting greenery that was supposed to greet her, she was met with grey skies and skyscrapers bundled with a hot-headed teammate. Umber’s footsteps ceased and they stopped at a junction, turning right before coming to a blocked wall. He clicked his fingers and a small key appeared. “Here,” Umber instructed, gesturing for her to place her hand on the key,” you open runes with this. Make it recognize your aura.” The bricks of the wall crumbled, revealing a passageway towards the large wooden door at the end. “Come on, we don’t have all day.” A faint chuckle was heard from Umber as he grabbed her wrist and pulled her along, her surprise at seeing the wall crumble very much amusing to him. “Welcome to the library, Sierra.” He said while opening the door and led her in. They found a comfortable spot surrounded by groves of shelves and Sierra sank into the comfort of the cushioned seats under the bookshelves that seemed to stretch on forever. Ladders were placed everywhere and Umber smiled inwardly when he saw Sierra’s eyes glow at the sight of the books. “Miss Hannah.” Sierra stared at Umber in surprise at the mention of their teacher’s name. “Have you heard of Jeckel Russell? He should be pretty famous in Pumpkin Ville and Eotra, in the other way. The famous scientist or alchemist that is with the Eotran congregation. Help me get a book on him, under the biography sector. Try the autobiographies if it doesn’t work,” Umber calmly instructed, flipping through the pages of the moleskine notebook Alcara had given her. Sierra promptly returned with said book and presented it to Umber, who simply nodded and continued.

“Please don’t be surprised,” he said while flipping through the book, showing Sierra a page on his relations,” he used to conduct experiments on people before he was caught by the Council but the congregation requested for his release and he was brought to where he is now. Miss Hannah, or simply Hannah Russell, was his wife, Jack being his son. Both were his first succeeding experiments, though Miss Hannah has no memory of it but Jack has some part of it in his dreams. That’s the reason why he got mad just now.” Sierra nodded but her puzzled expression nonetheless was noticed by Umber. He pointed to the alternate page, one on his criminal record. The paragraph on Pumpkin Ville caught her eye and Sierra read on with utter disbelief. It was on the Pumpkin Ville Fair massacre that Sierra happened to survive. Dark memories were appearing in her mind and tears welled up in her eyes, dripping down messily on the pages.

Figures were appearing in her mind as her vision started turned foggy from the tears. Her head hurt almost suddenly. She staggered, clutching her head with Umber watching with mild concern. She stumbled and fell, Umber standing up just in time to catch her. She sobbed in his arms, tears rolling uncontrollably down her cheeks, staining his shirt. He held out the book, scanning through the paragraph. Sierra’s head rested on his shoulder, her muscles twitched uncontrollably and her tears were causing a puddle on his coat. He waited for a few uncomfortable seconds before straightening her body and pushing her shoulders backwards so that she almost stood straight against him.

“Stop crying.” Her sobbing ceased and she stared blankly at Umber. “Take deep breathes to steady your breathing. Why did you cry, Sierra, please explain. I have hardly any idea as to why. Jeckel was indeed the mastermind behind assassin Alibadad. Don’t tell me…” He was slowly putting the pieces together, those of the mystery of assassin Alibadad’s death. Assassins hardly die, a ridiculous thing and a hasty demise of such the notorious assassin. Alibadad, at least before he died, was previously an assassin as well as one of the lords belonging to the Underworld in Eon. In fact, the very last one, if one were not to count Reverend John, the council head of the ever-corrupt Eotra congregation. The dirtily wealthy Arab assassin had a rotund figure, his belly protruding in the costumes he wore but his assassination techniques were hard to describe and even harder to discuss. However, he was dead and officials had the hundred percent proof of it.

Jeckel, on the other hand, was a skunk of a criminal as compared to Alibadad and Rev. John’s ever-smiling figure. The scum worked like a scavenger, a timid hyena compared to the fierce and greedy lions they were. “Sierra, you survived the massacre didn’t you?” A nod between stifled sobs. Umber sat her down facing him and handed her a handkerchief. “That’s why you’re here. I see now…” She stared him, taken off guard from his words. Umber could see the fear creeping into her eyes which were now blank. Footsteps approached them and Umber hurriedly placed a finger to her lips, telling her to keep quiet. “Oh, it’s just you two. Huh… what a waste of time!” The person whined, obviously annoyed. Once he was gone, Umber heaved a sigh of relief. “You’ve learned about Aura haven’t you? As living creatures have souls, non-living things have auras. A place devoid of aura would have been already destroyed, if not an obvious illusion. There are certain special cases, such as the mortal Tartarus gates. A region can be destroyed and still have large reserves of aura enough for it to survive as an individual island, those can be found throughout the Mirage archipelago. Eotra is a region with very low reserves of that stuff, though it is not entirely without it. However, there is two sources of aura that are almost tenfold of its original aura. Unfortunately, both are external and only one is indigent to Eotra. The former the gathering of seers, the latter being the Aurora golem of Hazard. Our mission is to check out Castle Hazard, where the Aurora golem is said to be located. If need be, to liberate it. The main objective is to wipe out the troll and kraken-troll populations residing in it and report the rest.” Sierra nodded. Umber sat down facing her, clasping both hands over his chest whilst slumping back into his seat and showed her the very next paragraph. A thin gasp was heard from Sierra, almost inaudible as Umber’s lips twitched into a thin smile.

“Wha- Why did they burn the place?” Umber’s eyes were closed but he slowly opened them, leaning back into the cushioned chair as he stared at Sierra, calculating his next move. “The rings on my hand, Sierra. They were carved from debris of the golem itself, considered the family heirloom. Eotra Congregation head Reverend John is older than he seems, craftier than he looks. He burned down Castle Hazard six years ago. You can never wipe out any human population, since they are bound to come back and settle down after some time, just as you never can drive away birds; but you can destroy them, by taking away the things they love, milestones they take pride in. Only then have you truly destroyed a human; creating a monster in its place. However, you would have to live in fear of this monster. The first part was his theory when he made a deal towards my family to hand over the golem in exchange to a seat in the Congregate. We refused, after all, this was something that belonged to us, the people of Eotra. To us, it was an important part of history, of course we wanted to preserve it. What he wanted was to use it as a weapon to gain upper hand control of Eotra. Furthermore, we never had plans to enter the Congregate. Something…that my parents never wanted to give up. He took to burning the Castle, hoping to have them hand over the golem. Almost the entire household was killed, with the exception of a few. My parents… they were killed in the fire. They would rather have lived their lives as commoners than to give it up. We did them real good. Real good. Till now Rev. J still has not recovered his forces. The common peeps are less willing to work with him. He would’ve given up if not for Jeckel. The bastard had long joined with the Congregation since he was a nobleman’s son and for reasons you’d have to ask Jack yourself. He just wouldn’t tell me, you know. Anyways, the noble himself was killed in the fire too but due to lack of forces they had to find reasons for the public to accept him. Moreover, I didn’t really like his face. He was an alchemist constantly seeking out avenues to test out his theories. Your mother… wasn’t she one of the experiments? They lacked manpower but they make up for that in terms of power. He had divorced his wife and left his children once he heard of the scheme. In her grief, his wife, Miss Hannah suffered amnesia, causing her to lose part of her memory. “Sierra stared at him, dumbfounded in shock as her mind went blank. His eyes bore into her expectantly. It took a few seconds for her to gather her wits, but this time she knew the exact words to say.

“Umber… forest fires destroy the place, but seeds are released afterwards. Everything will be fine in the end, but if it isn’t, it’s not the end. Not just yet. Everyone suffers, yet the thing that brings people together are sometimes the laughter, sometimes the scars; those that each of us bear. No pain no gain huh? It isn’t fun if you never get hurt.” Umber smiled, standing up and handing her the notebook, surprise eminent in those cold purple eyes of his “It’s getting late, so we need to get back before dinner.” He smirked and grabbed her by the wrist, dragging her out of the library back to the dorm.

“We’ll start out with setting the rune-locks first. I expect that you would’ve read of casting runes, after having dinner I’ll have you start out on weapons. Some tasks have due dates, or even specific dates for them. We’ll have to sort those out and complete the higher ranking and easier. For now, we must be going for dinner. “Sierra found herself staring into his eyes once more; through the enigmatic swirling purple ocean that swallowed her whole. Almost at once she knew in her bones that he was dangerous, very strong. Still she found herself stuck to him; fate must’ve been very cruel or fond of practical jokes. She saw both cold and kindness in his ways, not radiating through his skin but… the way was just so Umber. Oh, great, she thought. His words were like commands in some way or another, but she never saw him truly smile; he was so cold, yet an odd warmth radiated from within. All logic failed against him, for he was an enigma himself; one she had no power to figure out. Perhaps all she needed was a break, a daydream, a hot bath or even a power nap from this monster before her. They trudged to the elevator that took them to the canteen where the others had long sat in the same silence. He paid no heed to Sierra, who was staring at the ground. Yet she could feel his eyes boring into her, searching her face and scorching into her skull. “We’re here…” He stopped before the canteen door, opening it for her and motioning for her to step in. His cold hand grasped her arm and walked her to a table. Both of them sat down; Umber leaving shortly afterwards to get their food. Sierra turned and spotted the other girls, most with memorabilia in their hands and chatting among themselves, she suddenly felt so alone. She wanted to curl up and cry or even sleep everything away. Then she felt a hand running through her hair and a bowl of mushroom soup was presented before her. She looked up but found her eyes covered by the same pair of hands. The person smelled like strawberries, oddly.

“Sierra, I’m back. We have mushroom soup, fried rice, coleslaw and cranberry pie for dinner. Now, guess, who am I?” The voice had calmly instructed and she could smell the pie that caused her to salivate. “Umber…” The hands were removed, revealing Umber smiling at her. Sierra stared at the food and mouthed a quick thank you to him. He handed her a slip of paper and clasped it between her fingers with instructions to let her aura flow through the paper. Three symbols appeared on the paper: a flame, a lightning bolt and a teardrop. “You’re a natural tri-element seer, huh. That’s good, but it’s up to you if you want to combine any of the two to create something unique to you. Looks like we’ll have to make an early trip to the weaponry tonight. Butler doesn’t like it when he has unexpected guests though.” Umber said between sips of the mushroom soup. “Butler?” The question slipped Sierra’s mind as she stared at him quizzically. “Not literally, since the last official butler of the household died shortly after the fire. I left the household to pursue my goals, the remaining dispatched soon after as I heard from Butler and entered the Academy. There isn’t much left of my household aside from Butler, just two maidservants, a gardener and a pageboy.” Both of them had tucked into the fried rice, though Umber had licked his bowl of soup clean, something that made Sierra giggle mentally. They ate the rest of their dinner in silence once again, afterwards they headed back to their room towards the dorm bath-house since the rooms did not offer showering facilities.

“Sierra, can you cast transportation spells or teleportation runes?” He had asked in their room once both were done. The facility was truly amazing indeed, but unfortunately, Sierra could do neither. “Nope.” Umber simply nodded, hanging his towel onto the bathroom’s stand before handing her a necklace with a star attached to it. “There, that stuff allows you to use aura everywhere. I’ll teach you the basics tomorrow, though it seems for now I’ll have some trouble teleporting you to the Butler. Very well then,” he said while scooping her up effortlessly as a glowing turquoise circle appeared on the ground. They found themselves before a shop located along a row of shops in a street Sierra did not recognize in a few seconds. Umber pushed open the heavy glass door to reveal a neat antique shop with an old man snoozing by the counter. The wind chime sang to signal their presence in the shop and the old man got up immediately.

“Welcome back, Young Master.”

Umber nodded at the man’s acknowledgement.

“I’d like some weapons for both of us here, Butler.”  Butler smiled and transformed into a young man resembling an older version of Jack in a puff of smoke, startling Sierra. He led them to the back of the shop where a giant switch was located and flipped it. The entire shop changed from inside out and all the antiques previously aligned on the shelves had been replaced by weapons of all sorts. “Just as you’ve requested, young master. Over the years, I’ve used some of the extra revenue to upgrade the store, so I guess it’s much better than the ‘old wooden shack’ you bought, huh?” Umber nodded again, browsing through the shelves. He stopped to take something down from the topmost tier and handed it to Sierra, instructing her to put it on. It was a pair of half-finger gloves with a token sewn onto the top. “I’ll take these then. I won’t need anything else since I’ve already taken what I need to, but if there’s anything else that I require, this lady here shall be sent to pick it up.” Butler nodded at Umber’s words, regarding Sierra with a new sense of curiosity. “She is Sierra, my team-mate. I trust of you not to take anyone else in except for people I have specially identified. Sierra here will be working with me for the Congregation’s upcoming mission indirectly commissioned to us; to wipe out the populations of troll and kraken-troll at the site. If need be, we are to liberate the Aurora golem itself. I need your assistance for this, Butler, but I shall inform you at the appropriate time. Meanwhile, keep out for any suspicious characters in the region. I shall leave this to you.” Umber instructed with Butler nodding as usual.

“What about them?” Sierra saw a tiny flicker of surprise in Umber’s eyes at the mention. He had turned around to face Butler. The latter swallowed as he handed a newspaper article to Umber. “They’ll come back, I’m sure. Butler, the mission in itself is a feast for vultures, the consequences shall be decided later.”

Within seconds Sierra found herself standing by her room with Umber tracing circles on the door.  By then her eyelids were feeling as heavy as cement blocks and equally as droopy as well and she changed in the bathroom quickly, tucking into bed. Sierra fell asleep against a back that oddly smelled like strawberries, a scent that overwhelmed her and dragged her closer to the cliffs of consciousness and she drifted off to dreamland.

“Sierra, tomorrow we’ll start on our tasks. Good night.”

Chapter 2:

Umber woke up with a warm body against his chest and the light seeping through the window in his face. His mind raced as he slowly clambered out of the warm bed he and his teammate Sierra shared, though he wondered why he had agreed to Jack’s deal. Perhaps he was too mad back then to think properly, he thought while brushing his teeth. Cold water to his face did him good and within seconds of that rinse he was up and ready to go. Part of his mind wondered why he was in a foreign room and sleeping beside a girl in a twin bed he hardly knew instead of being woken up by Butler in the master bedroom suite he had all to himself. He strode towards the bed, where a mop of hair clad in yellow pajamas sat, yawning. “You’re awake, Sierra.” The name came out smooth and the statement felt natural to his tongue. Sierra shuffled past him as he made his way to Jack’s bed and he caught a weary morning from Sierra. Jack was not yet awake, his bed hair spiking in all directions. In fact, he was still sleeping in, trying to catch a few more winks. “Wake up.” Umber’s words made him jump out of his skin from under the covers. “Wha-“Umber had his arms akimbo, his purple eyes boring into Jack’s sleepy emerald green eyes and Jack hesitantly lugged himself out of bed.

The cold rinse in the morning after brushing her teeth made Sierra wide awake again, though part of her longed to snooze in the warm bed. She caught sight of Jack shuffling lazily towards the bathroom and stifled a giggle; it was all too comical. A hand grabbed her and she found herself whisked towards the elevator and towards the canteen where hordes of half-awake schoolchildren await for breakfast. Already there was a slight chatter and calls of “good morning” echoed around the hall with the entering of people every few seconds. They found their table and quickly settled down to find breakfast already set for them. The warm toast with jam did some good to her growling stomach which she washed down with some of the hot chocolate which she had taken note to dilute. As she ate she can’t help but to stare at Umber who happened to be sitting across her on the round table and also the only one. Jack promptly arrived, though sleep was not yet rubbed clear of his eyes but nevertheless chomped down breakfast.

“The tasks we are supposed to do have already been picked out. As you may know, some of them have deadlines. There is no limit to doing the tasks daily, with the exception of the time limit of 5 hours to each person. We start at 8:30 am each day, so we’ll have to end at 3:30 pm and afterwards we’ll meet up at the library. This applies to you too, Jack. I’ll inform you beforehand if there is a change in the meeting day and I wish you a good day ahead. We need to go now, Sierra.” With that Umber walked Sierra out of the canteen towards the receptionist where Alcara sat with sheafs of papers in her hand. She waved them over, presenting the papers which Sierra guessed were their first tasks. “What… what’s with the simple ones…? Proceed to the Clock Tower. Talk to Mr Tour Guide in the blue fedora hat… then obtain key to gain access to top floor. Find the items hidden on that storey. List will be provided by Mr Tour Guide. Are you sure this isn’t some script for some video game, huh?” She exclaimed as she scanned through the sheet of paper, Alcara sighing in response. “That’ll make a total of about 5 tasks, including the last one where you’ll obtain the key for permanent access to the clock tower. Get 6 consecutive ‘chain’ tasks like these and you’ll soon be done. I think the rest will turn out to be the same, since the places they send you to, most probably are famous tourist destinations for those normal folk visiting the ‘Timeless City’ where time appears to stop at a standstill. What better is there to do than to observe seers from the renowned Odd Jobs Guild in town at work? Your efforts help the Eotran tourism board, y’know.” She nodded, peering at the street directory some distance away. Oddly, it was marked with pictograms. The clock tower pictogram didn’t seem too far away from the guild building. “2 o’clock, Sierra.” Umber’s voice came behind her, causing her to jump out of her skin. “Head straight out past the main door of the building and turn right.” Sierra found herself out of the guild building in a matter of seconds, staring at the buildings towering her. “Head straight… turn right…” She muttered to herself and soon found the entrance to the clock tower. “Now, where’s Umber?” She thought she’d heard faint sounds of clothes ruffling in the wind and footsteps closely trailing after her as she ran there. A light chuckle was heard from above and she turned her head to see Umber; a rare sight since he was regarding her with the same amused expression when they had first met. “Let’s go, Sierra.” She was dragged into the clock tower in the same manner as the previous day but she still couldn’t help to notice the playful spark in his purple eyes that danced like wildfire on a cool summer night.

Umber watched intently as his teammate ran from the guild building to the clock tower while he was trailing after her mid-air. He had dragged her into the clock tower, taking notice of the astonishment in her eyes as she took in the antique interior of the clock tower. Mr Tour Guide was nowhere to be found as they walked across the sparse lobby, the polished grey marble floors under their feet. Sierra was just any typical girl out on the streets, yet she was not any of them. She was not Willow; impulsive and controlling, neither was she Doll; quiet with her unique innocence that would look nice on Jack indeed. She didn’t have Jumbo’s loyalty, nor Joker’s playfulness and manipulability. He stopped short as he spotted Mr Tour Guide in the shadows, waiting by a table towards the end of the lobby. Scars. He stared at his hands and back at her; her ordinary greyish auburn hair, brown eyes. There was indeed something to her, her smiles. Strongblood, of course. That was it! The golem told no lies; the last time he saw it was before it sealed itself, speaking of ruins to Eotra and doom to scum. All that was needed was to liberate it from the clutches of its weariness and the only remedy was a corrupt nobleman’s sins. What better example was there than Reverend John? A heroine that escaped from the grasp of the white hyena, the albino offspring and of course, you, the wielder of the key, Young Master. He had first spoken to the golem on the day of his parent’s death and the golem predicted him gathering an army in which a lost lamb would him to the fallen scavenger’s den. Since then, their conversations had become more frequent and the golem began to address him by the title of Young Master. It spoke of the heroine who would slay the corrupt beast lurking in the gutters and alleyways of Eotra. True, the golem told no lies, but its truths were hard to decipher.

“Hey Umber, I’ve found Mr Tour Guide!” Sierra yelled, waving Umber over to where the in his outstanding blue fedora hat. He seemed to have either been blanking out or she must’ve been dreaming. They walked towards the Tour Guide, who stared at them with those grey eyes of his. “Odd Job Guild seers Sierra and Umber, I presume? Here’s the list and the key, have a nice day.” He smiled and dissipated in a flash of light. “Let’s go, Sierra.” A hand was clamped over her wrist, gently leading away towards the door at the back of the lobby behind the souvenir shop. She stared at Umber, who was grasping her hand tightly and at the spiralling stairs leading upwards towards the final platform. They were making their way upwards swiftly upwards since he had miraculously opened it while she was spacing out. “Sierra. We’re here. Next time we won’t have to climb all the stairs, you can be sure ‘bout that.” His voice suddenly came from behind her and she stared straight ahead, at the heap of knickknacks around the room. “What do we have to find?” She scanned through the list and started walking around the room, scouring through the corners of the room. Her sharp eyes found them soon enough, though all the while Umber stood by the door watching her silently. She could still feel his gaze tracking her every move.

“Done.” She deadpanned after about an hour, stretching herself and noticed him staring downwards towards the floorboards. The pale white sunlight that was coming through the window nearby even though it was already noontime, Sierra felt the cold gnaw at her fingers, oddly. She hadn’t packed any woolly sweaters or that sort but she made her way towards the window, only to find a snow white wonderland below. Wow… it’s snowing, how could it be? I don’t remember it being temperate. She thought to herself. She turned to Umber for an explanation though she could not find one when she searched his face. It always seemed so blank; almost as though he had seen so much that he’d forgotten how to smile… “It’s snowing…” He was staring at it with a profound awe, like a young child staring at sweets through a shop window. The downy white flakes were falling down, as though there was a giant bird moulting above the Eotra, in the same melodramatic fashion like rose petals descending from the depths of heaven.

How could he ever forget the day when his parents died and Castle Hazard was on fire? The fated day was also when the Aurora golem had truly awakened and the ‘key’ it fabled was Umber’s strongblood. He remembered the downy white scales carpeting the scorching fiery red of the flames on the slate grey bricks. It had been rebuilt over the years by the help of Jumbo and Butler. He had long understood, at least a part of him did, and every single word of what the golem said. It had snowed again, an omen of the golem’s awakening. It had snowed, the first time in the whole Eotra’s sad history the very day that Castle Hazard was burned. Yet the snow had only came when the smoke had choked almost everyone, with younger Umber staring at the ruins. It was also in the ruins after the snow that he found Willow, Doll, Jumbo and Joker with the help of Butler. There were no other survivors.

The Castle had been rebuild, the golem returning to its slumber five years later when he turned twelve, stating it would need energy to be able to witness the final battle. Heh, that wouldn’t be much help, he had thought back then. The rest of the servants, less Butler had left under Joker half a year earlier and he bought an antique store that he assigned Butler to run as an operation base. The servants’ leave had been rather unexpected, though some part of him had predicted it when he first set eyes on Joker. Oddly, he had never been mentioned by the golem. He had entered the Academy five months prior, though the first three months had been part of the holiday and he hadn’t really seen Sierra back then. The school trip to Eotra had taken place at the start of the school year. He often wondered why they left. Joker was the only one questionable. Doll was childish and naïve, something he had decided long ago would fit Jack, who gave him a punch in the face on his very first day. Jumbo would’ve been dragged out by Doll, whom Umber had known idolised Joker from the very start of their days. They seemed like probably the best urchin gang match-up. Not for long, Umber thought to himself and smirked mentally.

“Sierra, I’ll show you the way back. Sorry, but I’ll have to go first since I’ve got something on.” That was a lie, of course, all he needed was time to sort his thoughts without Sierra. She was no hindrance, but he very much preferred to have his thoughts in private. That was a lie that he’d regret telling. He showed her the tunnel route towards the guild building which wasn’t very long at the least. Never in his wildest dreams did he predict another person tracking their moves, gaze intent on Sierra. He went back after dismissing her.

Sierra made her way through the passageway, running her hands on the stone windowsills as cold yellowish stone clacked under her feet. The cityscape was spread below the windows and pale light filtered through the windows. The snow had stopped though the city was still blanketed in snow, a sight she relished. Footsteps, silent and perhaps muffled. Her sharp ears picked out the noise which she initially dismissed as a rat. The passageways to her resembled sewers with windows as holes blasted at regular intervals at the sides. She had chuckled playfully at that thought. But not anymore, as she whipped her head around to see a big-boned youth following her. He was sure bigly built, with droopy grey eyes and matted greyish blond hair. Without warning he lunged at her, it was with pure instinct that she dodged and in turn sent sparks going his way that scorched part of his hair and shirt, missing his face by mere centimetres. Sparks? She stared in wonder before the boy lunged at her again, his fist enveloped in fire. Sheer instinct caused her to clasp her hands together and thus a wall of water was formed. Then Sierra noticed a tickling sensation at her palms and a bolt of lightning was sent in the boy’s way. “Heh, you’re a tough missy. Too bad, Buster ain’t stopping!” The boy who identified himself as Buster lunged at her once again, though he distanced himself. As he came nearer she could feel the heat from him and she took note of the flames springing from his entire body like as though he was a meteorite charging her way. Umber had mentioned something about merging elements; water would carry the electricity through the ground towards her target and fire could ride on as static or even friction. Sierra had read about aura control, something very similar to a beginner flipping gang signals. Hilarious to think about things at such a time. Now! I have to channel my water aura underground in 0.1 seconds and have my voltage follow 0.05 seconds after the water immobilizes Buster. The effect won’t last long though, so I’ll have to try to hit his vital points for aura release. Meanwhile with his fire… I’ll have to find a way to make it work against him…. The precious second seemed awfully long for her as she felt her aura past through the stone ground with surprising ease and then the faint crackling of electricity when the water pressure punctured zigzag marks on the stone floor. Then the current, resembling a blue dragon riding translucent clouds shot up the floor, curling its snake-like body up Butler’s feet. Butler opened his mouth in a scream, but no sound came up. The blue aura disappeared and the water stung his charred skin that was already black beyond belief. He fell to the floor on his knees clutching his chest in agony and teleported away. Sierra sighed, the fight left her both exhausted and excited at the same time. Now, where did I get that from? She didn’t remember her mother fighting, her stay-at-home hobo of a dad was really out of the point. Her gran… well, she wasn’t really sure. Perhaps it was really from her mum’s side. Umber had mentioned her being Jeckel’s experiments, hadn’t he? Then she must’ve really been alive. But Sierra couldn’t really be sure, since the last she saw of her was six years ago, though all she truly cared for now was rushing back and taking a warm bath. So she ran all the way back, dismissing the thoughts that had started to fill up her mind since she could always consult her walking encyclopaedia anytime later.

Umber heard a soft knock at the door and strode towards it, half expecting Sierra to be at the door. Well, she was but he sensed something else. Her aura flow was fluctuating; she had been in a fight, judging from how fast it was going. Her first fight, that was. Maybe he shouldn’t have let her walk alone, but perhaps she so happened to be plagued with such luck. “Take a bath. You don’t have any untreated wounds, have you?” He simply ordered as he watched her retreating figure trudge towards the door. “Umber.” He looked up, albeit surprised. “Can I ask you something later?” The question was asked with mild hesitation and lots of thinking through, as though she had personally hand-picked all the words to use. “Yes, please do.” His reply was automatic and he noticed that her footsteps became lighter soon afterwards, as though a burden was lifted off her shoulders. His attempts to avoid the topic and concentrate at the task at hand was to no avail and out of boredom he completed another six tasks around the town which he considered meaningful sightseeing trips. But Sierra had been taking a terribly long time just to get back, since Umber estimated the walk would only take her a good fifteen minutes if she strolled leisurely. Instead she took more than thrice the time and he had already accomplished the task of thoroughly exhausting his body so his troublesome thoughts would have to shut up and wait.

Well, Umber worked like that. He slumped back in his chair and took off his coat. The annoying jabot he wore almost every time he visited the city was gone, much to his everlasting relief, since that happened four long years ago. After the death of his parents, Umber thought himself how to think. Be automatic, he told himself. Be smart, think smart and always be steps ahead of your opponent. Unless it really bothered him to no qualms, his oh-so-philosophical thoughts would have to wait. But he would have given everything he had in possession to have his parents back, though at current he had nothing save for the castle, the antique shop he rented, the rings on his hand and the sleeping golem. The last of the servants had long been dismissed, those that came with the castle and the furniture. He stared at the blue grey bezel of the silver signet rings on his hands. They contained runes that could be used everywhere in Xenda. That included Eotra, of course. The golem’s awakened form was a yellow cat with black markings all over its body, though Umber had no idea which part of the monster’s body his rings came from. Sierra had amazed him in many ways, he had been able to sense her active aura but much of it lay dominant, her strongblood was probably the one still dominant. But matters could wait, he thought of the amount of missions they had completed thus far, one-third through the thirty-three. He knew Jack could manage, though he was an experiment failure; success in the terms that he had survived but a failure since he could only use limited aura. He, in simple terms was something that Jeckel did not want; an outlier. Sierra’s mother Tania, was one of the two successful experiments. The other, was his classmate, Miranda.

Sierra sighed as she trudged down the corridor to the bath house, thinking about the events of the day. She thought of her mother. Umber had mentioned that she really was alive, though she had no idea after she barely escaped Alibadad. The whole incident had been a scary one, now that she learnt that it had been a massacre from Umber. What happened to Dad after he left? The last she had heard of him was six months ago. He had been none of her concern so he would continue to be. She thought back to the happier times and realised how short they were. Six years since she lost her mother. The year after, she was juggled between relatives before her Gran decided to take her in. Not once did he interfere, but Gran was as kind as her mother’s tales said she was and Sierra was enrolled into Berette’s Academy soon after. It was only a month or two ago that both were invited to the funeral of her dad’s late wife, Nicole. He had wept buckets throughout the entire event as they watched with disgust and contempt. It was so much more than he had done at the news of her mother’s apparent ‘death’. In fact, Sierra was sure he had laughed with joy and relish, since he was free to wander the streets all he liked without having to return to anywhere. That man… she never considered him a father, just a regular hobo sitting on their sofa. In her thoughts she had made her way to the bath house and started bathing once she found an empty bathroom to use.  As she lathered soap onto her hair, Sierra’s mind went back to all that happened; her mother and the events leading to her disappearance.

Umber slumped back into the chair, silently scanning through the almanac published by the locale newsprint. It was sure fun whenever Rev. John publicly published his future plans shamelessly in the newspaper. But he chose his words carefully, so carefully such that his citizens would’ve thought they were similar to building new buildings or new transportation. In a few days’ time there would be a cabinet meeting discussing the possibility of re-opening Hazard to public. So much for that. He sighed as he crawled onto the bed whilst waiting for Sierra to be back. Oh, well, it wouldn’t hurt to crack a joke, would it? He smiled to himself while taking a medical eye patch from the nearby drawer and wore it over his left eye before dozing for a quick nap.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

My mother’s name was Tania, though she sometimes called herself Storm. But that was when she cried and told herself to be stronger, for me and herself. Honestly, I wouldn’t have known how to survive in this world if not for her. She had the most beautiful brown hair I ever saw; it was smooth and silky and cascaded down her shoulders before ending in a small braid at her waist. She also had the liveliest dark brown eyes I ever saw, they seemed to bore straight into your soul and sparks of warmth danced in them. It was as though the great heavens had come forth and sent her; an angel of perfection onto this earth as a ray of light to guide the lost souls in overwhelming darkness. Perhaps a goddess, jealous of her beauty and good fortune, had put a curse on her, forcing her to have the worst of luck. Maybe, that was what I told myself. I simply couldn’t bring myself to think that she would go, just like that. I remember the festivals on the outskirts of Pumpinville, where she and I would go to watch the fireworks and set up stalls for extra income. There she would dance while I indulged myself in the spirit of the festivals, looking at the gypsy camps of the mysterious fortune telling folk that visited every festival and brought along their bonfires and music. That was when I would see the angel part of her, when I saw her dance without a worry in the world; as if it was all that mattered. Those were the halcyon days.

I don’t wish to remember anything about the man I called father. In fact, sometimes I wish he never was. Then he wouldn’t cause so much hurt to Tania. It’s odd isn’t it? The things you thought would hurt actually didn’t and you’d forget about them as time passes. But I want to remember her, my mother, my angel. Yet along with those happy memories comes the darkness that overwhelms. Till now I would never forget the silhouette that slouched on the sofa or in the private study. Occasionally I’d think of the times they quarrelled— mainly him shouting and then I’d think of Nicole and the funeral. Perhaps it was better that she died during childbirth. Her un-born child went with her, to heaven where the angels wait, where the jealous goddess that cast my angel onto Earth lay in wait. I remember the white flowers that were lain on the wooden abode of their bodies, having faltered under the toll of this world. The long one belonging to Nicole and the small square-ish one holding the baby’s body.  

With that I’d think about the day Tania disappeared, or died, as he calls it. The last day of the last festival we went to. It all happened so fast; the heat of the fiery flames that engulfed everything and the people shouting in so many languages. I looked around for Tania; she was gone. I was lucky most of my valuables were left at home since that day; no one survived. I ran out of the festival grounds, veering far away from the stampede at the entrance where all the people were struggling to get out and then into the forest. As I ran, I heard a scream belonging to my mother. She was standing there, a few feet away though a grossly fat man was grasping her arm and going to cup her mouth. She was struggling. “Run, Sierra!” She screamed, struggling to escape from the man’s grasp. “RUN!” She screamed once more before a burning pillar separated us. I was crying so much, though my feet carried me towards the forest and my mind was blank. It was nightfall when I reached it and I fell to the ground on my knees, grasping my head. My mother was gone. My angel was engulfed in the fire and the fat man was to blame. Then I remembered his name, Alibadad. My mother was no more… Tears were gushing out of my eyes and my vision got hazy from crying. My feet felt heavy and I collapsed; the running had taken a toll on my body and the scene before my successful escape was burned into my mind. No matter how much I want to forget, I simply cannot. The fire, the fiery flames and the stampede of people fighting to get out at the gate, though the path would certainly have led to their ultimate doom. I had escaped death. Yet the price I paid was simply too hefty a sum.

After the night in the woods, I picked myself up and then walked home, too traumatised to talk. Almost every word I spoke would lead to tears gushing out of my eyes and the terrible memory of the fire. Had the pillar not fallen, I certainly would have wrestled the man and rescued Tania. Then we would’ve ran to the woods and went home together. Even if that was not the case, it would have been much nicer to die in my mother’s embrace than lead this life of loneliness. Gran had took custody me after much of the legal stuff had been sorted out. He wanted nothing, none at all, as long as all of her worldly possessions granted him the freedom he yearned for. She was, much to my relief, as kind as she was when I was young. It was partly thanks to her that I remembered how to smile, though I lost my angel. Tania, my mother, my angel. I wasn’t ever sure she was dead, though in weeks to come newspapers headlines were filled with the latest investigation reports of the tragic incident. The fire turned out not to be real flames, but a special fire commonly deployed in assassination missions carried out by Alibadad. So that was the name of the fat man. The fat man that killed Tania, he killed the rest of the festival people. They were innocent, weren’t they? The fun-loving and kind travelling folk… That explained why they couldn’t escape. Then why could I? Then why… why was he…   What about mother and my natural fighting instinct?

The draft of cool air that rushed in as she opened the door shook Sierra from her thoughts. Strongblood. Was that what it was? She would have to ask Umber then. She gave a satisfied yawn as she trudged back to her dorm room clad in her clean pyjamas since her dirty clothes were being washed by the automatic laundry machine and then sent to her clothes cupboard automatically after they were dry. Her stomach was growling in hunger and she checked the clock that hung on the nearby wall. 4 o’clock. She sighed, two more hours to dinner. It would be long till then. She opened the dorm door, taking care to undo the rune-lock as Umber had instructed before entering the room. “Umber…” She stopped short in her sentence. Umber had an eye patch over his left eye and he roused himself from the bed to meet her eyes.

“What is it?”

“Your eye…” Umber raised an eyebrow, his cold purple eyes watching her every move.

“What about it?”  Honestly, he was enjoying it to the very core. Surprise was written all over her face and then some concern that made him feel a little guilty about playing the joke. Nonetheless, he kept them to himself and did not show them.

“What happened to it… you weren’t wearing it just now…” He was a little surprised. So she had noticed. Or perhaps it was just him being careless. She warily approached him and took of his eye patch. “It’s alright though…” He smiled.

“What did you want to ask me just now?” Umber took off the eye patch and blinked to show her his eye was alright before asking.

“The massacre…” He nodded. Should he tell her about the golem? Probably later. What about Strongblood? Then he’d be telling her too much. He briefly considered his answer just in case she’d ask. But she didn’t.

“What happened to the people afterwards? They didn’t die, did they? Then what happened to Alibadad?” He’d thought that she would ask about her newfound abilities, but she hadn’t.

“No, they didn’t,” he knew that part all too well, “they were knocked out during the fire but Alibadad was killed by your mother. Then Jeckel went to collect their bodies and had them transported to his lab. Majority of the people were sub-conscious, though they were forced to forget the entire incident through the sedatives he had put in their food. Your mother… she was the only successful experiment that survived and if you manage to search up Rev. John’s top military personnel, then you’ll find someone resembling her named Storm. She’s alive.” She nodded.

“Then why call it a massacre?”

“Rev. John is the council head of the Eotran Congregate that controls the board the published the book we saw that day. Of course, it was to fool the general public. What else? You survived it yet you have no idea what it was. It was not because of genuine luck that you escaped. They could kill if you wanted to, but you knew nothing and your mother… she made sure that never happened.” He could see tears welling up in her eyes. Perhaps a bit of training would take her mind off those thoughts. “Sierra, come with me.” She nodded and found herself outside the same antique shop as last night, but it seemed a little different. “Ah, Young Master. I see you’ve come again.” It was Butler who greeted them.

“Teach Sierra how to fight.”

“That’s an odd request, but I’ll take it. You’re Sierra, aren’t ya?”

“This afternoon she had her first fight. She’s a tri-element: water, fire and electricity with Strongblood. She can use a bit of the others, though she has the potential to be able to create her own merefire.”

“That’s why, Young Master! Come this way, lady Sierra~” Sierra was grabbed by the wrist as Butler dragged her into the shop which had been turned into an arena.

“We’ll start our training now. First we’ll have a demonstration of a fight~”

Umber looked up from his book and stared at the clock. “It’s time to head back, Sierra.” She nodded. “Eh?” Came the immediate reply from Butler. “It’s alright, remember to come back for additional training tomorrow, Sierra. She’s tired, Butler. Besides, we need to head back for dinner and a bath; it’s been a long day for her.” Butler nodded and ushered them out of his shop to the streets. “See ya tomorrow!” He yelled waving comically as Umber teleported both of them back to their room. “Go take a bath. Don’t wait for me, just go straight to for your dinner afterwards.” Sierra grabbed her towel and made a beeline for the bath house. Seeing that she was gone, Umber grabbed his own towel and walked in the dorm room’s bathroom.

He had made his way back on his own after dinner, though he had seen Sierra mixing with some friends among the dinnertime crowd. The corridors were quite with not a living soul in sight since they were most probably at the canteen or sleeping in. He arrived shortly before his dorm room, the one he shared with Sierra and Jack and took a step back to admire it. The corridor was carpeted like as though it was a hotel and he sighed, undoing the rune-lock he had specifically set while noting himself how lonely it was to be alone. Or rather, he never had been. The first seven years of his life he had his parents and the rest of the household but even after they were gone, he had Butler and the rest of them—Willow, Jumbo, Doll and Joker. Shortly afterwards, he had been joined by Sierra and Jack. The door swerved open to reveal the room just as he had left it, the bed and sheets neatly done and his book open by the table with the armchair by its side.  He strode over to the armchair after taking caution to close the door behind him and slumped back on it with the almanac in his hands.  The night air was crisp and he couldn’t resist the urge to gaze out of the window for a look at the streets below. From the window he could spot a small procession, a night market perhaps with their colourful lanterns illuminated by fluorescent bulbs, along a particular street. Night-time was most probably the time where the gypsy folk and their travelling camps would sometimes set up fairs for the common folk young and old alike; the time where the cat slept and the mice came out to play. He gave the cityscape one last glance before closing the window and slouching back into the chair since the night gale was really cold due to the snow earlier that morning. As minutes passed, Umber found his eyelids getting heavier and within moments, he drifted to the depths of dreamland.

Oh, if you could see me now…

Chapter 3:

Flames. The fiery orange ones that scorched the stony walls of the castle and the heavy grey smoke that made me splutter and cough. I stare at the orange butterfly that transforms into a raging monster within seconds but even as my mind screamed at me to run, my legs remained frozen despite the raging heat; then I am scooped up by a pair of hands off the ground but my eyes continue to be transfixed on the burning halls. Man-shaped shadows are everywhere and I smell the scorched arrows that fly pass me and my saviour   though they narrowly miss my saviour by inches. I turn my head back to study my saviour; it was Ryan, the Butler and at his heels, Taneki. “Young Master,” Ryan addresses me as he sprints down the stone hallways with the fire-monster chasing after us and I sense the anxiety in his voice.

“Young Master… your parents… they have requested for you to be evacuated from the manor at once.” I nod at the severity of their request, but yet another doubt surfaces in my mind that was previously hazy with the flames and heat. What about them? “Here’s the point where they asked me to drop you down… you’ll be safe here. I’ll have to go and help…” Ryan set me down softly on the ground somewhere far away from the fire and he ran back. I stared at Taneki, who was walking around me in circles with one paw pointing to another corridor. Go, he seemed to say as he nudged my leg. “No… Taneki… we can’t go there… Ryan said not to…” Several minutes later, sounds were heard, the desperate cries followed by bodies thumping on the ground and then the shouts that penetrated the air. A sense of dread overwhelmed me as I heard more thumps and then some banging on the door down the corridor. “Where are you going, recruit? The battle ain’t over yet! Come back-“The yell was cut short with two loud thumps as I slumped back against the wall with a hand clasped over my mouth; so there were soldiers, guards sent in by that man. I peeked over the corridor and saw the blood, the bodies of the soldiers then the some of the maidservants lying on the floor, their bodies covered in blood, obvious signs of a messy massacre. I found myself walking over and picking up a weapon lying on the floor; it was a short thin knife. A stiletto dagger? Ryan had mentioned those before; the thin ones used mainly for assassination. “Taneki… let’s go find Ma and Pa…” I found him sniffing at the corpse and prodding one belonging to the fallen soldiers. “No… it’s no time to do that… Taneki…”

As we walked away from the scene, I noticed that the flames continued to devour and sparks flew as we neared someplace. In my mind I wasn’t sure, but somewhere in my heart… I knew that they were there. They were in somewhere I shouldn’t go… Something whizzed past my ear and lodged itself in the wall nearby. A bullet. I turned around. It was another horde of guards, with one of them pointing a gun in my direction. “Oh, just a kid. Some kid you are. And you are unscathed! You can’t be…”

“The heir of the Aurora Golem! That’s him! Men, capture him! We want him alive, understood?”  The lead guard yelled at the rest behind him who instantly picked up their guns and started firing. I eyed my dagger and then their guns; it was no use at all. Still I remembered something Ryan had said some time ago to a maid who was given the very dagger he held in his hands.

‘It’s all right, this dagger can transform into any other weapon as long as you know how to use it.’

As long as I knew… how to use it. I needed something that could probably be my defence and my offense. What could it be? A long-range musket, probably, but I still needed it for close-range combat. A whole shower of bullets flew past me and one grazed my cheek. My hand immediately went to nurse the wound while I simply stared, dumbfounded. Please, please, please. Let this be a dream! That was then the arrows came. No, no, no… I covered my ears with my hands and bent over. It couldn’t be happening. Ma and Pa had promised me… they wouldn’t attack. If they ever were to, they’d protect me. Where are they now? I felt so helpless, as tears gushed from my eyes that stung with the smoke and I bent over, coughing madly due to the smoke. Taneki pads over and gently licks my hand. The thumping of footsteps, most probably of boots on the stone floors that were oddly cold belonging to the man became louder.

“What a kid you are…” His voice was coarse, gruff. Yet I could smell the stench he wore like a second skin. Sweat, alcohol. The smoke had probably engulfed the room now and I felt Taneki whimper beside me as his body convulsing in fear snuggled next to my crouching figure.

“Some kid you are…” His voice came again, this time harsh and grating. I cupped my ears and hugged Taneki closer to block out his voice. I didn’t like it at all, not one bit. Timidly, I peered upwards from my position and was just in time to dodge a kick from the man. A grunt was heard before I was lifted up by my collar and slammed into the wall.

No… His grip was getting tighter as seconds passed and breathing was getting difficult. I hated it, the rough calloused fingers that tightened themselves on my shirt collar and I was a little thankful for its existence as it rubbed against my neck. It was probably the closest I got to death. I wanted to fight, yet the will was diminishing as his grip tightened even more and I could feel the cold stone walls behind me. It was hard to keep my eyes open as the smoke thickened and the wind blew ashes onto my face. The ashes of my home, those of my… household. They were part of my family, a part of me, that one part that never chose to leave the castle. Never chose to leave all the memories behind, the good, the bad, the happy and the sad. I didn’t want them to leave me, ever… like I wouldn’t go anywhere without Taneki. But those were the times. The last of my halcyon days that I would never forget. I had thought that my childhood ended at that moment.

Turns out, it never did.

I peered at his face through my half-open eyes.I didn’t like what I saw, in fact, when he noticed the repulsion in my eyes, the grip on my collar only tightened. “You don’t like my face, boy? Too bad, you’ll have to look at it every day since we’ve got you captured. Some boy you are, now I see. Really, like a sissy-boy. As I expected, the product of those pansy-folk. Heritage? Hah!” He sneered and his bushy moustache twitched as he taunted. “Believe this useless golem of yours can save your little souls! Look what happened now? It may only be you left and then where would your Momma be, Momma’s boy?”

The golem was not a religion, it would never be equivalent to a god of any sorts, whatever they may be. It was essentially part of the way things work. It was not ours, it belonged to everyone, the people of Eotra and beyond, not only to one person. What this man said was based off part ignorance and pride since he never chose to belief in the part of himself that wanted peace, a place to belong instead of being lost forever. Was it too late? Maybe, since that guy is going to choke me to death. Damn. Who is that Rev. J man anyway? Tears, was that the memories that roughened these calloused hands? Amazing how water can drip through stone. What am I becoming? Lawliet? Heh, probably not, I’m Umber. Death… isn’t his only solace. It is never too late, to make a U-turn instead of crashing down to doom. If only… he would let go, then I’d help him. Nah, Lawliet wouldn’t do such a thing.

“…” A grunt. Did it work?

No… it only made breathing harder as I felt myself being lifted higher against the stone wall and the tears ran freely down my cheeks as my eyes stung. All I could see was a desolate blackness before my eyes. Was I going to die? A part of my mind told me, yes, I was going to. Another part told me to wake up, to fight back, and to attack. No… I imagined myself thinking back about the carefree days of my childhood, the merry times we had spent and more tears sprung up. Then I thought about Ma and Pa as well as the rest of the household. Where were they? Were they safe? Please…

Please… I want things to return to normal, the perfect way life was before all this. I wanted them back.

If you want them back, will you promise something?

What… who are you?

Child, I am the Aurora Golem of Castle Hazard. Promise me that you will fight. You will fight for their sake. You will vanquish this land of the perpetrator.

How…

What is important sometimes cannot be seen by the eye, they can only be seen by your heart. Follow what your heart tells you to.

The spots of black before my eyes dilated and I saw a boy, with his eyes shut crying as he was held against the wall by another man. The boy was me. Had I died?

No, of course not, Child. Yet your parents have fallen, so have the household.

Why not? I want to be with them, if they are dead, allow me to die with them. It is easier that way.

But how will you promise me that you can live if you already are dead? You shall see and decide for yourself, Child. You will not die, you will live. You will fight and survive, Umber!

This man… how abominable… I wonder how the golem keeps up with this, huh. Was this why they said never to think during wartime? To see through your puppet strings… and to topple the leader, the resulting hero might as well be a hermit for the rest of his life. A tale of grudges… Romeo and Juliet perhaps? You’re good as dead once you start thinking, probably what veteran’s would say. The opposition might not be pure evil, but I’m pretty sure Rev. J was. Hitler? Maybe. Let’s just hope he suicides before any more people dies. My captor was mad since I was rapidly shaken and I could smell him as his face neared me. His anger fluctuated upon seeing my ignorance and I felt the ripples in his aura, high-low, low-high. I wanted… to reach out my hand towards this misguided soul. Yet the only thing I did was to tighten my grasp around the dagger. I would break his illusion. I would free him.

My hand lost grip to the dagger as fists landed on parts of my body as well as my face. I heard it land on the stone floor with a resounding clang but it did not embed itself into the stone. Would I fight? Would I survive… or will I fall and die? I want it all to be a dream. I want to wake up and find everything okay. No, please… Don’t… I was half-consciously aware of it transforming into something flat and large as well as the mob gasping.  I felt the man loosen his grip on me and allowed myself a secret smile before kicking him in the ribs. My leg found its target and I mentally congratulated myself upon seeing blood emerge from his lips. That was when I noticed the shadows that had surrounded the man who had been knocked. They remained frozen where the mob were moments ago. How could it be? I realised the glowing circle on the ground surrounding me. It was a seal. The golem was right. I would fight and survive. He had found his solace, the place for misguided souls to be sent back on track. I opened my eyes. There he lay on his chest, a halo of blood around him.

“What are you…” My captor thinly heaved as he gasped at me. He was a soldier and blood was splattered all over his face. Terror was written all over his features and his fingers tightened their grip on his gun to be raised in a final effort for shooting.

“What are you… you killed my comrades…” Then I heard sounds of another regiment approaching as the light in his eyes faded to a pale, soulless white.

“Sleep. Do not wake until the master tells you to.” I bent forward and closed his eyelids, setting his face in a peaceful state as though he was merely asleep. The words themselves had spilled out of my mouth effortlessly. I turned to face them. Oh, how wrong was I; it was simply another mob like the above. No, I told myself, never think on the battlefield. They did not take heed of me and carried the fallen soldier away while one man stayed behind. Warily, I approached him to get the burning question off my mind.

“Mister, have you seen… the owners of the castle?” I hesitated for a while, praying hard that it would not give away my identity.

“Ah,” the man turned to look at me, a flicker of surprise in his blank onyx eyes. He came out of the shadows and now I could see that he wore an attire completely different to that of the previous mob. He was dressed in a blue Hanfu with a stiff black hat that were commonly worn by the executors in the Chinese drama. As if I knew anything about them though. He had fair skin and jet-black hair, probably the most naturally intimidating thing was his eyes; they were soulless and blank, occasionally they would produce sparks of emotions. “I’m a medic, you see. So I really haven’t any idea where they might be..”

“Then… what are you here for?”

“To heal my wounded comrades, of course. May I ask the same of you?”

“I…”

“Never mind, just show me the dog.”

“No.”

“Show me the dog and I’ll tell you where they are. Do not try to fool me. I know exactly who you are. “

“No.”

“This is the last time I’ll ask. Yes, or no?”

I shook my head. No, I would not. But I was too slow to move Taneki out of his attack’s way, though I was barely able to dodge it. Turning back, I gasped in shock; Taneki was bleeding. “Taneki… Taneki, no…” my words were cut short when the man teleported behind Taneki and stepped on him forcefully. I heard bones breaking and his spine broke. My beloved puppy was reduced to a bloody and mangled heap of fur.

“TANEKI! NO!” Tears were blurring my eyesight and just as I was about to shut down from fear, I saw his attack in slow motion and a blue-grey aura was surrounding him. Then I peered at Taneki and saw what actually had happened. The first attack dealt internal damage, the second weakened his overall bone structure, making him vulnerable to even the slightest kick in the shin. Then came the third and it was strong enough to kill, if not permanently paralyze. Something clicked in me that caused the dagger to transmute into many small knifes assailing towards him.

“Some weapon you have there…” he coolly remarked before clasping his hands together to form a seal. No… rather, he was executing a move. His lips moved to mouth the move’s name, something common so as to remember the aura needed by the body to execute it. I needed to mitigate Taneki’s injuries, fast as well as to block or dodge that incoming attack. The knives had lodged themselves into the man and dug themselves deep into his clothes. The blue Hanfu had splotches of deep red blood in them and that had stained it purple. He lay soundlessly on the ground, his eyes blank like it always was. “Taneki…” I bent down and scooped Taneki from the ground. He whined rather pitifully in pain and I hugged him closer to me. Heal. I commanded my aura. Mend his bones. Almost immediately he was engulfed in a green aura that soothed him and within moments his breathing stablelised. He had fallen asleep in my embrace and if not for the blood on his flank, he would’ve looked as if nothing had happened.

The man was not dead. Not just yet. Some kind of impulse that had awakened in me told me that this was…

Pure evil. A blank, blank evil. His eyes were soulless. They did not hold the brute determination like the previous, but they held a secret pain that dulled his eyes. The glimmer yearned for happiness, having experienced the bitter sorrow after the saccharine sweetness. He yearned to smile. He never wanted to fight, yet was forced to. I dragged his unconscious body towards Taneki’s and drew a circle like Dad had taught me some time ago. Distance the two subjects, cast the runes and you’re good to go. Yeah, right. I raised my right hand and pointed my index and middle fingers towards the rune.

“I command thee, by the rules of Lore… to make an equivalent trade of knowledge for vitality, from which either side comes more, hither to the other.” A gust of wind accompanied by the green light from the casted runes. The man opened his eyes and I took off his hat. I gasped. It was Ryan. It was my butler that had betrayed the household… the most trusted that had caused the demise of his kin. Or was it? Had my judgement failed me?

“Ryan Riley…” Calmly, I addressed him as I helped him up.

“Young Master? What am I doing… here?” he asked, confused. The Chinese scholar-like appearance disappeared slowly and then I realised why… Rev. J was so much feared and respected. Or was it the person behind this soul-exchange? He had indeed masked his aura signature well, but I took note to remember it anyways.

“Ah! Young Master! Sir and Madame…”

“Yes, what is it?” His words welcomed the inevitable. I had known, yet I feared the moment to come.

“They… have requested to see you.” I nodded, it wouldn’t be that bad. I picked Taneki up and hurriedly followed Ryan as he ran. He picked up speed and I tugged on his pants. I remembered something important.

“Carry me.” He smiled and I stared back at him, caught off guard at his reaction.

“You’re still Young Master after all, I’m sorry I forgot.” I pouted almost immediately as he hoisted me up. Then he quickly cast a rune that allowed fast transportation. That I knew, since he was the one who taught me that. I gripped his shoulders tightly as he picked up speed and I took in the scent of his cologne that he always wore very lightly. It brought a sense of security to me, as though someone was watching over me.

“Where are they?”

“In the courtyard. They sent me to fetch you in the midst of a battle.”

“Will they die?” I couldn’t help but to ask that question and I mentally smacked myself for using that naïve seven year-old voice. I was the heir to the household, but I was a child at the same time. I couldn’t handle the ache in my heart; it was twisted with worry and anxiety and I found it harder to breathe. I just needed to ask.

“No, Young Master. I don’t think so.” I watched his eyes darken. Was he lying?

“Why, Ryan?” He could be. Yet all he did was to stare affectionately at me.

“I have faith in them, they won’t die. Not like that.” His reply was sincere. That helped to ease the ache in my heart and I nuzzled on his shoulder like Taneki did. I felt secure like that, as though there was nothing in the world that could harm me. Ryan Riley was the closest thing I had to an older brother… Being with him… felt like living a sweet dream that couldn’t possibly come true. It wasn’t the saccharine sweetness that I would’ve hated. To me, he was something like a role-model brother, but he wasn’t at the same time. He was the butler. Mine, to be exact.

“Mister Riley…” his scent was soothing, it brought a serene calm that washed over me like waves along the seashore.

“Yeah?”

“I’ve never seen them fight before… and how did you find me?”

“Exactly?”
“Yeah… you’d have no idea how to find me after you left me back… there.” He smiled. It was a sign to show that he acknowledged whatever I had said.

“I sensed your aura signature.”
“What’s that?”

“Mmm… it’s something that everyone has. But it’s differs from people to people. The really specialised can pinpoint the exact difference from the real to the fake, no matter how similar the two are.”

“So you sensed mine?”

“Yep. And besides, you executed a pretty powerful move there. Did anything happen?”

“I spoke to the golem.”

“No, I meant the fight, Young Master. What had caused the golem to awaken?”

“There was this… man. He was pinning me up against the wall… he was suffocating me… then all of a sudden I was talking to the golem. He told me that the rest of the household had fallen. So have Mom and Dad.”  Ryan didn’t reply.

“Ryan?” I asked, my voice sounding so scared that I doubted whether I had taken too much after Taneki.

“Yeah?”

“Are we there yet?” I sensed something in the air, a familiar ‘aura signature’ from the suspicious guy before.

“Comin’ close. But there’s someone strong up ahead. I sense this is the same person that had possessed me earlier on.”

“Mmm. I sensed this too.”

“You can? Of course, I forgot you are the Young Master.”  His eyes were warm. Then I realised somewhere in me that this world I had called Wonderland was going to turn topsy-turvy. Things would never be the same. Never again. My sweet dreamland was over, just like I’d known it would someday, but that thought had previously existed only in my worst nightmares. I squeezed Ryan’s shoulder even tighter. I feared that thought, I didn’t want it to end… I wanted everything to be the same again.

“Ryan Riley…”

“Yeah?” Ryan sounded shocked and even surprised at me addressing him by his full name.

“Promise me that you will always be by my side… please.” The request brought tears to my eyes. I didn’t want them to go… not like that.

“Yes, Young Master. You need not worry. We will be by your side. We shall and will always be.”

“Forever?”

“Forever.”

“Thank you, Ryan.”

“Was it something that the golem told you?” I nodded.

“He told me to fight… for their sake.” Ryan nodded slowly as we slowly landed near the rose courtyard. He set me down and I carried Taneki in my arms as we walked past what was left of the stained glass windows from the earlier fighting.  The sills were charred, the

 

 

Umber woke up, his eyes teary as he briefly recalled the memory. That was when he realised that there was a blanket covering him as he had dozed off and the almanac that was previously in his hands had taken its position on the table nearby. His eyes wandered across the room, taking in the wonder of everything lightly coated with moonbeams coming through the window. They found Jack, sprawled on his bed with his pillow sideways and he smirked at how silly he was. He got up and folded back the blanket and walked towards his bed where Sierra was sleeping soundly without a blanket. “Don’t do that, you might catch a cold, Sierra.” He allowed a smile to spread across his face and strode towards the mirror where he changed. Staring into the mirror, he saw a fair boy with black hair and purple eyes staring back. The white shirt, sleek black pants and the black coat exchanged themselves with the pyjamas and he peered at it once again. Then he walked back towards the bed, spread the blanket and tucked himself in.

“Good night.”

 

 


 

Sierra awoke the next morning, deadbeat tired. She hurried to get ready before making her way downstairs for breakfast. “Today, feel free to explore the town. You’ll need to make this trip in case you get lost. I’ll do the rest of the missions, so don’t worry. Don’t forget to practise what we taught you yesterday. We’ll meet up in our room once you’re done.” Umber had instructed before teleporting away to start off with his missions. “Sierra~” A cheery voice called out to her and Sierra turned around to see Alcara waving at her. “I heard you’re going to explore the town today… Well, it’s my day off and I was just wondering if I could…” Alcara flashed a wide smile as she explained the reason she was in casual wear and beat around the bush for her real request. “Yeah…” Sierra deadpanned after hearing her blabber. “And we’ll practise afterwards!” Alcara piped in. “Wait, how you knew about that…” She smiled playfully as she dragged Sierra outside. “I’m an Alcaloid, so of course I do! Now, let’s start with Alcara’s Eotra tour!” She exclaimed as she fistpumped the air in enthusiasm.

She was led around the many streets with their numerous shops and then the tourist attractions; workshops, museums, shops, giant marts, cafes, she saw them all. Last she came to the front steps of the Cathedral, where the Parliament was housed within the higher floors and its secret hallways. “Hey, aren’t we going inside?” Alcara shook her head. No, they would not. Why? The inevitable question was asked. “It’s not usually open, but we could head to the shops at the side if you want to see its architecture so badly. Besides, if you’re here to find Rev. John, he’s usually at the other church I showed you.”

“Nah, not really. “ Sierra shook her head.

“Alright then. There’s a café nearby, I’m going to get us lunch, so don’t go too far, okay?”

“Yeah sure thing.” Sierra sighed, indeed, her stomach was growling. She started towards the cathedral to find a bench. Then a blob of familiar brown hair caught her eye. No, it couldn’t be Umber, his was jet-black but this was brown. “Jack?” The name slipped her mouth. Her classmate appeared from the alley with a scruffy white and ginger cat in hand, he smiled. “Hi Sierra!”

“Hey… you’re more cheerful than before… and what’s with the cat?” She inquired, noting the smile that could rival the sun’s vibrant rays on his face. It suited him and that was a nice change from seeing him mad, angry and frustrated.

“Hehe, my mission objective. How’s the thing goin’? Of course I am! Where’s Umber?” He lifted the cat and she saw it had a red collar around its neck; the owner must’ve commissioned to have it back.

“We’re almost through… He went off to do missions…” He nodded. She saw the spark in his eyes; warm. It felt different from Umber’s; the sun cast its rays on him and illuminated his eyes and his smile. Umber had a calm, overwhelming gaze that seemed so brittle; he felt, he understood but it was not cold. Somewhere in him a fire was burning, little by little, Sierra could feel that. He used to be Jack, but he would never be Jack. Someone who had… loved everything, lost everything he loves and had loved. Yet that person was still willing to face the world, he was brave enough to tame the goddess who had took everything from him, to wipe away her tears. Is that what heroes are?

“Anyways, what’re you here for?” He tucked the cat in a cage labelled Tabby and passed it a tuna sandwich.

“A tour around the place. Afterwards we’re going for training.” He stared quizzically at her.

“You and who?” She couldn’t help but chuckle at the clueless look in his eyes. He blinked at her and frowned a little.

“Alcara.” He nodded and let his signature smile spread across his face.

“Hey, Sierra. Do you have parents at home?” She shook her head, no.

“Don’t mind me asking but…”

“Yeah?”

“What happened to Miss Hannah… no, I mean, your parents?” he simply stared at her and let his gaze drop to the ground. Was it a painful memory, Sierra thought, maybe she shouldn’t have asked?

“It’s okay, if you don’t want to tell its fine with me… I was just curious…” He glanced up, sighed and smiled.

“It’s alright… I guess. But the only way to forgive others is by letting it out…”

“Then why not?”

“Tell me about your family afterwards. Promise?”

“Yeah.” She had plenty of time anyways.

“How does it feel being forced to live, when you really want to die? The things I thought belonged to me were taken away by the very person who gave them onto me and sometimes I wonder why he would give them to me in the first place… I only yearned for some sort of fatherly affection, instead, someone had to come along and take everything that was ours. It wasn’t fair, she was nothing and yet she was everything. My father… he would dedicate all his time and resources to her and only her. Mother and I were deprived of the fatherly affection… not even the least for a boy to grow, she’d say, this man is heartless. I miss them, Jeckel Hyde Russel, Laura Hannah and me. The me that used to exist, the me that would’ve existed if not for her. I… hated him, for what we’ve become. It hurts, seeing her suffer, witnessing her cry. I remember the first time she stepped into my house, that moment I knew something was different, it would be a fact that never would be changed. Some nights I hear her crying to herself, saying that he never had loved her in her dreams. It was a truth we tried to deny, the darkness we forced out our minds and hearts. I hated him. To the extent one evening I picked up a knife I had found in the kitchen and raised it against my wrist. The coldness of the knife was a stark contrast against my skin and I imagined the red blood spilling out as well as the pain. It was as beautiful as it was deadly, perhaps that was why people killed. They simple loved the beauty of death like watching snowflakes melt in your hands. The knife went closer to my skin and I gasped at the coldness. It was like something blank and… so knifelike. It was something that couldn’t think, so blank, so hollow. To think such a thing make legends, like the Excalibur. What was the use of power, when you simply are something hollow inside…? Perhaps… its creator only meant for it to protect the weak…

Then I stopped. I was in the warm embrace of someone who slowly pried the knife from my fingers. She was crying. Her face, it was so familiar, like someone I had met in my previous life, perhaps, yet so foreign. Then I realised, she was my mother. I had thought she’d forgotten me… I thought she’d stop caring… Yet it was me that forgot her. She told me she remembered caring for me and apologised when she couldn’t remember the other things. I used to hate it, but now I guess, it’s still the best way. So that she can live, even when the man she so dearly loved has abandoned her, the only thing that hurts would’ve been her memories. To numb them would be temporarily removing them from her, though there was a price to pay. Jeckel, he never loved her at all, not even for a second of his life. He was a perfectionist, he yearned for things that were perfect, Miranda was. This was no excuse, since he had created her…”

“But you don’t know true love until you’ve lost it…” She caught the glimpse of initial shock, then sympathy in his eyes. He understood her pain, her scars. It couldn’t just be that which had brought them together, could it? No… there was something else. Something that Umber might’ve known.

“You alright? Sierra~ Oh hi! You must be Jack…” Alcara’s cheery voice rang in her ears and Sierra turned to see Alcara with two mashed egg and tuna sandwiches. Jack nodded, got up from the bench and stretched himself.

“Mmm yeah I’m alright. Anyways, Sierra, I’m taking all the easier missions. Or I took them. Tell Umber, hope he doesn’t get mad. How’re your missions, by the way?” He lifted the cage and turned to Sierra.

“Umber’s doing majority of them and we’re training afterwards. Just me and Alcara.” He nodded. She didn’t mention about Butler, nor of whatever Umber had said. Something in her told her he’d know later but she felt guilty nevertheless.

“You mind if I show you ‘round town afterwards? I just need to return her to the old granny. It wouldn’t be long I guess.” He offered and the guilt in her heart grew to become a stone that weighed her down. She just needed to tell, she couldn’t lie. Jack was nice… but a lie… just a little white lie. It wouldn’t hurt, would it? Well, he’d be terribly disappointed.

“Hey, Jack… Umber told me…”

“Yeah?” His playful brown eyes bore into her inquisitively.

“About his… family. He has… members of his household in town. Most of them have already left him, though his butler is operating a shop here…”

“Thanks then! It’s nice to know… after all.” His smile faded a little as they headed through the streets, past the white gothic cathedral, through the streets with their numerous shop houses that lined the streets. He came to a stop up the steps to a cottage once they were in the suburbs. Then he set the cage to the ground and pressed the doorbell. A voice from inside beckoned Jack in and he stepped through the threshold and returned the cat to its owner, an old lady. He sighed, staring at the sheaf of papers in his hand.

“How many tasks to go?”

“I’ve completed those on my end. I want to do more…”

“Then why the glum look?”

“Umber’s completed them all.” He deadpanned, waving the top sheet of paper at her.

“Woah.” The word slipped out of her mouth. Then she remembered the training and lunch.

“But not on your side. Can we half-half that?” She nodded.

“Ummm… Jack. We’d promised to train after lunch… so…” He thought for a moment before replying nonetheless.

“Nah, it’s alright. We’ll meet up in front of the cathedral after you’re done.” Sierra promptly agreed before being dragged away by Alcara.

 

 

 

“Sierra. We’re leaving for Castle Hazard tomorrow. We’ll make the last of the preparations today. Also, there is no direct route to the castle so we’ll have to go by train and then by horse. The train station is 10 o’clock, twelve minutes’ walk and five if you choose to go aerially. Anyways, our tickets are booked, two hours before noon to keep from the noontime crowd. The ride is about five hours and half an hour on the horse carriage. Butler and Ryan will be joining us. I trust that you’ve completed your end of the missions, Jack? Very well then.” Umber announced, staring at the tickets and at his teammates.

 

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