Chapter 16:

The Wind Always Blowing, Final Erosion to Sand

Setting Sun Story: Beta


Eastern Alleys - Arrabelle - ???

Sneaking her way through the plethora of alleyways that weave in and out of the East End, the Barracks Sector, and the city center, Arrabelle comes to a crossroad. The tall buildings that keep her hidden, apartments and government structures whose make and use goes unquestioned by the public, meet in a grid formation at this one spot.

She rests her head on the wall next to her, pulling back to bring her face upward, and take in steady breaths through a straightened neck.

To her left, the road heads off into the sounds of warfare, raging deeper in the barracks. To her right...

Zalach, lying motionless, his eyes closed, his front bloodied, and his left arm resting over his chest, covering something. His broken arm sits over his legs.

His great-sword is unscathed, but seemingly took a hefty chunk out of the ground.

"Zalach!" She cries, limping with a hand at her kidney, keeping stress on the area down.

One of his eyes fidgets beneath the lid, Arrabelle dropping to a knee and putting her burn-scarred hand on his shoulder.

The stands of his eyelashes unfold and fan out, a dull brown eye peeking out at Arrabelle.

She holds her breath. It's strange, there doesn't seem to be any light, any pop, or color coming from it. It reminds her of someone else, someone long gone.

The graying face of his lost soul pulls itself together.

Zalach smiles.

"What the hell is that getup?" He jests, a whisper all he can muster in bearing such little energy.

She pauses for a moment, looking down at the corny uniform, her apron now cut up, burnt at, and stained in blood.

When she turns her eyes back to Zalach, she notices his arm, crushed into broken mess from stopping his fall.

"What happened to you?" She asks.

He leans forward just a touch, his ruined armor squeaking with each adjustment.

The metal frame pulling from the wall, Arrabelle spots the wine red fluids that drip down it, puddling at the corner.

She gasps, moving his arm away from his chest, revealing a heavy gash where Lerik's blade ended him.

"You- we need to stop your bleeding!" Arrabelle orders in a panic.

She tears another piece of fabric from her apron, pulling Zalach forward to try and help.

He actively works against her, wrenching himself out of her grasp despite the pain it causes to the massive hole through his body.

"Stop," Zalach mutters.

"D-d-d... Don't move," she commands.

"Let- go!" Zalach shouts as he wriggles. Arrabelle once more ignores him.

"DAMMIT ARRABELLE CUT IT OUT!" Zalach bellows, grabbing her arms with his left hand as he starts up in an intense coughing fit.

She finally stops, her eyes dashing across every small wound on his body.

Having her attention, he softens his throat, and looks into her eyes.

"I need you to listen to me," he explains, keeping a tight grip on her hands. "These guys are no small fry. You hear me? You aren't going to win this fight."

Zalach notices something, turning her hands over in his to reveal her right. Her knuckles are balled up one fold in, so her bandage is still visible.

"You tried to pick up one of their swords, didn't you?" He inquires, knowing full well she did.

"How did you-?"

"That settles it... you're leaving, now."

Arrabelle rips her hands back, grabbing his right arm, and getting under it to help him up.

His arm, as well as the rest of his destroyed body, alights with pain.

"We need to get you to safety, Zalach," she cries in a choked voice, never before seen from Arrabelle. She pulls up, and Zalach groans, bringing his left arm over to plant it on her face, palming her away.

"Leave, Arra."

"My first job is to help you!" She yells with confidence.

"You don't have a job you stupid little brat! We kept you out for a reason!" He lectures in return.

"What?"

Arrabelle's mouth curls downward in scared surprise. She has no clue what he's talking about, but something about it strikes her poorly.

"You don't have to fight for this, it's meaningless now," Zalach insists, grabbing his broken arm, and leaning it back in his lap.

He looks over to Mountaincleaver. Arrabelle can't see it, but Zalach is sure that the heart still beats softly inside.

"You knew that no matter how it did... this day would've come at some point, right?" Zalach asks her.

He leans over to it, crawling toward his blade as more blood seeps from the stab wound. The dirty slash is made clear as his back turns up, Arrabelle unable to pry her eyes from the unsightly ripping of metal in his battered gear.

He stops and breathes deeply after reaching her... his truest friend.

Grabbing the heavy weapon, he slides the handle back, turning his head over to spot Arrabelle, whose eyes bear great pity.

Zalach holds it out to her.

"It's time to see the world, Arra..." Zalach says, fully aware of a sly callback he's making to time only he and Arrabelle know.

"This isn't what I want anymore, I'm not sure it ever was," Arrabelle admits.

"I know."

The mournful understanding is followed with his signature smile...

Always smiling...

The two lifelong friends sit in silence for a moment, mentally saying their goodbyes to one another, something they could never do verbally, it just wouldn't be right.

As Zalach's thoughts begin to slow, his heart reaching the conclusion to the song it for so long beat, an exceptionally large boom is heard in the Barracks Sector... the doors to the training hall have now been breached.

"Everything's going down, Arra, it's over for this place."

She looks over her shoulder as smoke rises to the black, gray and orange sky, visible only in the pocket of space between buildings.

Mountaincleaver is put right in her face.

"I hope you can recognize her true feelings," Zalach says, hiding his desire to scream countless pleas for her future.

Arrabelle stands up, looking down over her old mentor, who only hangs on in waiting to see his dramatic legacy continue. Her nose is stuffed and runny, something she'll later blame on the poor air quality.

Her hand takes what feels like a year to move, but eventually does, strapping her damaged skin over the old leather handle, and wrenching it up over her back, her other hand running along the ever-smooth surface of its curved spine.

A delayed breeze, drawn out by the shock of nearby combat, blows through the alley, catching her hair, skirt, and frills of the well-worn uniform.

She looks queenly from Zalach's angle, but just the same as a heartfelt goodbye, he couldn't give her some sappy truth. Taking a different approach to it...

"I just saw your panties," Zalach says, using his last chance at friendly embarrassment.

She lets it slide. In fact, she knows what he's really thinking, holding back rare and uncharacteristically delicate tears.

"Get out of here kid... carve a path, right out of this place," Zalach whispers to his greatest apprentice, pushing his head toward the street to the city center.

No words can fall from her mouth without showing something she wouldn't wish anyone see, so she decides simply to walk on, without another comment.

"Ah, one more thing before I head out," he calls out, putting up his hand to beckon her.

"Don't do this, Zalach, just leave it there," she responds, holding back everything.

"Shut it, ya' punk. I want you to take this to heart, really."

Arrabelle waits, as Zalach nods, beginning.

"I'm saying this to you, not as your mentor, not as a soldier... but a friend. You aren't some kind of freak. There's nothing wrong with you, you got that? Just keep moving, and you will find your stride. It's a little awkward at first, for sure... taking on roles such as ours. But that isn't even all there is, I mean, what, you're twenty now? How many times I gotta tell you, what anybody else thinks, it doesn't fucking matter. It's only you... only what you think of yourself, and that you know you're worth something."

Arrabelle starts to nod quietly.

"-and not as a hand! Not as a head! You're a fucking human being, Arra! For once in your life, understand that!"

She turns around fully to deliver a response of understanding, but he's already gone. With those last words, his eyes closed, and he planted on his face an everlasting smile.

Always with that Goddamn smile...

She drops the blade, and embraces his abandoned vessel, her tears swelling and dropping down onto his metal shell... This moment is only between Zalach and herself... no one will ever hear of it.

The Winds of Change: Outro

???

Zalach lays back, the calm yet overwhelming warmth of unconsciousness rinsing away every sin that lie embedded in his flesh-bound life. He surely closed his eyes, embracing the end, but somehow, he still feels.

He opens them back up, finding nothing but pure black: no shade, no texture... just complete nothingness.

His naked body appears in full, but no light touches this place, nothing to illuminate him. Everywhere, up, down, left, and right... Is void.

Slowly, like the flare of the Sun's light against the lens of the eye, the soft shine of a bubble appears.

It's perfect and grand.

Each color seems to bounce off of its form in full scale, swirling around inside the spherical mass endlessly.

Then, as if catching it from nowhere, the birth of a light, expanding from the bubble's deepest heart. The golden hue cuts at the bubble's rim, and trillions of tiny dots push their way through the surface.

"No fucking way," Zalach whispers, breaking the mood.

As it grows and grows, the bubble's form becomes weak, and with a loud, simple, and gratifying pop, Zalach's becomes encompassed in a world of stars.

Tallsoul Residence - Arrabelle - ???

I don't think this was ever how I wanted it to go.

Long ago, I dreamt of some valiant means of obtaining my role in this world; dreamt of all sorts of things I now know to be horrific.

To take up the mantle of a friend lost in death, to carry the weight of their lifetime... what a glorious story, I must seem so strong to an onlooker.

Arrabelle reflects solemnly on what the world brought to her doorstep.

Zalach was right, I can't fight here... but does that mean the only option is to escape?

Arrabelle, no longer trying to hide, stands on a doorstep herself; her own.

The winding paths through the East End lead her to her house, front and center on the Main Road, where most of her neighboring abodes currently lay destroyed. The invaders on the East side are still focused on the assault of the barracks, and any stragglers most likely were drawn down into the East End Residential District, as the Main Road here was practically empty.

She could've strolled off into freedom, but something had to be done first.

In the center of the first floor's hall. The painting still stands.

For the first time in years, Arrabelle faces it head on.

With frail, white skin, her mother's forced smile carries on. Under a sheet of fading black hair, her dull, gray eyes look outward... such a sight she painfully saw in Zalach's final moments.

Arrabelle stares eye to eye with her.

"This is the last time I'll get to see you like this," she sighs.

The painting obviously doesn't respond... and Arrabelle, after withdrawing from her mother's eyes so many years ago, feels she can't even imagine a farewell response.

"I'm sorry things had to end the way they did... I'll never forget it."

Having said her last goodbye, she makes for the door, ready to put Baustas behind her.