Chapter 12:

Level the Playing Field

The Life of Death

I thought about what I saw, the monster in the mirror. I couldn’t decide if he was me or I was him. Both states felt natural, so fluid. One was fueled by hunger, the other by a will to survive. It was unclear to me which was the more efficient fuel, but it was even more maddening trying to decide which one I enjoyed more. If only I could be both.Bookmark here

I came to, the darkness dissolving away as the battleground returned to focus. It was hazy to start, but bits and pieces of my vision slowly came together, morphing until I saw Logan grappling with Aoki. It was a deadlock, fists countering fists, blood coating each of their hands. Bookmark here

Logan connected with Aoki’s cheek, the impact shattering the side of her face. She took the blow in stride, countering with a swipe to Logan’s chin. A large gash, the length of a finger stretched from his lip to his neck. Smoke emitted from the wound as the blood dripped onto his clothing.Bookmark here

They separated, needing a moment to catch a breath. They were labored, both hunched over like they were afflicted with exhaustion. I didn’t know how long I was out but based on each of their appearances it had to have been a while. Bookmark here

Logan’s clothes were torn, the shreds of his brightly colored over-shirt draped on his white tee. Cuts covered his face and arms, Aoki’s nails digging so deep that the wounds were slow to heal. Despite the damage he’d sustained, he still beamed with enjoyment. He flexed his fingers, a flash of bronze glinting through the black stains. His knuckles were coated in metal, a pair of brass knuckles firmly in his grip. Bookmark here

“Son of a-” Aoki broke out in a fit of raspy coughs. She was sickly pale, her body barely keeping it together as bits of her shell broke away piece by piece. Bookmark here

“You may be older, but you haven’t been in as many fights as I have. It’s horribly obvious.” Logan said, baiting Aoki to lose her cool. It was a success. She lunged, baring her teeth in anger. Bookmark here

In a single motion, Logan not only dodged, but countered. His fist scored a critical hit into Aoki’s chest, sending her spiraling into the fence. The chains rattled from the impact, a ball-sized dent where Aoki had crashed. She lay in a heap, her clothes splattered with a mix of dirt and blood. There was a considerable amount of wobbling, but she still got back on her feet. Bookmark here

Her amusement was gone. The cruel smile, the glee in her eyes, all of it was gone. All that was left was a body in tatters and a face filled with frustration. Pieces of her jaw broke away as she gritted her teeth, every grind leaving her with more darkness on her face than skin. Bookmark here

“I can’t believe you are all buddy-buddy with Milo. Infuriating! Ex-gang leader of Brothers Grimm, Logan Dolore, when are you going to stop being a nuisance to everyone?” Desperation hung on her words; her anger only able to thinly coat the emotion seeping out. Bookmark here

“It’s done Aoki, give it up. You’re spent and I’m satisfied. Why don’t you just run along home already.” Logan said, passively shooing her away with his hand. Bookmark here

I dug my fingers into the dirt and flexed my toes, testing my movement. Everything seemed to be working well enough. It was difficult, but I managed to move, my vision shifting out of focus from the exertion. Bookmark here

Useless! I can’t even stand without almost passing out. Pathetic!Bookmark here

I settled on kneeling, the only way I could sit up while still being able to see. The battle was frozen, each of them shakily drawing in oxygen. Aoki shifted her eyes to me. The black pits of anger stopping my thoughts as I waited for her to make a move. Bookmark here

“Don’t even think about it.” Logan redirected Aoki’s attention away from me. He flashed me a smirk, proof that he was in control. Bookmark here

He took a step towards Aoki. Her body stiffened, her eyes jumping about, frantically searching for an escape. There was no time to react as she sprinted towards the school’s entrance. Parts of her broke away, her body slowly becoming nothing but the darkness underneath her skin. Logan was quick to pursue, realizing her intentions before I could. Bookmark here

She extended her hand, the tips of her fingers reaching for Ava’s unmoving body. Logan anticipated her actions, grabbing Ava first and moving her safely out of Aoki’s grasp. She barely hesitated, wrapping her arms around the next closest body. Amber was shrouded in Aoki’s arms, a dark passage forming behind them. Bookmark here

I was on my feet, but still sluggish. There was no way I would make it in time to stop her. Logan didn’t have the chance to either. She was already falling back into the portal with an amused expression stretched across face. As fast as it came, the portal was gone. Amber was gone with Aoki, both sucked into the darkness. Bookmark here

“I wasn’t enough…” I stood where Amber was just moments before. There was no evidence she was ever even there. Too many people were getting involved now. So much interference with the living, so much manipulation to their souls. I didn’t know how much more they’d be able to take. Bookmark here

“Milo, get it together. We need to get out of here before her Portal Manifestation crumbles. We don’t want to be seen like this.” He handed me Ava, gently placing her in my arms. She was heavier than I was expecting, her body a pile of deadweight due to Aoki’s hex. Bookmark here

“Wait, we need him too.” I nodded my head towards Erik. Bookmark here

“You sure?”Bookmark here

I shook my head to further affirm my decision. Erik was now also a part of this world. Logan rolled his eyes and grunted with disapproval but complied. Erik hung over his shoulder like a towel, his arms dangling past Logan’s lower back like a limp puppet. It was awkward watching his body sway back and forth as we ran. He had no control over his movements, making him look like a corpse. Bookmark here

And we probably look like killers. Great. Bookmark here

The dome around the school began to dissolve, the sun breaking through the dark barrier. I hadn’t noticed till then, but the sounds of the city had been blocked out by Aoki’s attack. The hum of car engines flowed back into the air as I felt the breeze once again. We passed through the archway, just as students began to regain consciousness. They proceeded to class like nothing happened, only a few taking a second to gawk at the uprooted soccer field. Bookmark here

We peeled off onto the nearest side street, averting as many eyes as possible. Luckily our bodies were nearly healed, so we didn’t look half dead anymore. Now if only we could change up the clothes, we’d be all set. They were stained black and barely performing their purpose as clothing by this point. The smell was the worst, don’t even get me started on how rancid the scent forcibly invading my nose was. Bookmark here

“You ever going to let me down Milo?” Ava said raspily. Her voice caught me off guard, the surprise nearly making me drop her on the street. She’d be worse off than Aoki if I did, I'm sure of it. I skidded to a halt, securely setting Ava down without an issue. Bookmark here

“What’s going on!” There was a shriek from Erik as he flapped his arms in dismay. Bookmark here

“Will you stop slapping my ass!” Logan shrugged Erik off. He had awful balance, his feet tripping over themselves the instant they touched the asphalt. He cowered under Logan, nervously scratching his nails into the road. The sound of his teeth chattering was so loud I could hear it from several feet away, his panic displayed obviously on his face. If he didn’t calm down soon, he was going to provoke an anxiety attack with how fast he was breathing. Bookmark here

“Erik, relax. I can explain-” Bookmark here

“Where’s Amber? Who’s this man? Why are your clothes destroyed? What is that horrible smell?” He was hysterical, the rambling a nonstop onslaught of questions. Bookmark here

I settled beside him, placing a reassuring hand on his shoulder. It was a weak attempt to comfort him, but I wasn’t the most comforting person to begin with. A few minutes passed before his breathing finally began to slow and his game of twenty questions came to an end. It was the explanation that was going to be hard. Hopefully he’d be able to handle it, I’m not really sure what would be the next step if he couldn’t. Bookmark here

“This is going to be a lot to take in, but every word of it is the truth. Let’s start with the worst news. I can’t beat around the bush with this so here it goes. Your sister has been abducted.” Bookmark here

***Bookmark here

You’re a monster. You’re a monster. You’re a monster!Bookmark here

I couldn’t breathe. Speaking wasn’t possible so I could only think of the words I wanted to say. Aoki had her shadowy hand around my throat. She didn’t appreciate when I had called her a monster the first time out loud. My punishment being my current predicament. It was all so sudden. First, she stole me away from my life and showed me secrets to a world I never imagined, and now she’s trying to kill me. A tragic end to Reggie Sims. A tragic end to a sad life. At least I’d be going out without the voices pounding in my head. It was a tiny positive I could hold onto. Bookmark here

“Never mind.” Her grip loosened, the air flowing back into my lungs as I desperately drew in breaths. I was on my knees, my face pressed against the carpet of my bedroom floor. Aoki’s shoes were all I could see. They were coated black, the original color impossible to tell by this point.Bookmark here

“Get up already! I might still need you.” She kicked me away. I obeyed, picking myself off the floor awkwardly. Aoki barely looked human. Half her face was slowly reconstructing itself, but both her arms were nothing more than clouds of black. Bookmark here

There was a shift from my bed as Amber squirmed. I tried to avoid looking in her direction. The sight of her restrained and gagged was too difficult to look at. What made it worse was that I was the one that had done it to her. Bookmark here

Her attempts at screaming made her hard not to ignore. Her hair, red in the light from my window, was matted to her forehead with sweat. She glared at me with more hatred in her eyes than I’d ever witnessed before. I never even looked at Dad like that. Bookmark here

“Will you shut up!” Aoki exclaimed, smacking her on the head. I turned away from the bed, trying to focus on random objects in my room. Nothing did the trick, my gaze always returning to Amber, her cold stare there to greet me.Bookmark here

“What are you going to do to her?” Bookmark here

“You should be more worried about yourself after what you pulled earlier. You were supposed to grab Ava as soon as I had Milo distracted. If you can’t even do that, I don’t see the point in keeping you around.” Her tone was deadly, emotionless. The girl I met last night was not the same as the girl sitting in my chair now. She really was a monster.Bookmark here

“I told you beforehand I wouldn’t do it till you told me why. I only introduced you at all because you threatened my life.” It was useless trying to argue, but I did it anyways. Aoki seethed with anger; her jaw clenched so tightly her freshly healed teeth threatened to shatter.Bookmark here

“Next time you’ll do as you’re told. She’s going to be bait and you’ll kill Milo Lethe! I know you saw what he became. You saw everything from your hiding place at the edge of the dome, didn’t you? Can you really view a monster like that as a friend anymore anyways?” I was left feeling cold, gripped by the cold hand of death. What if she was right about Milo, could I ever look at him the same way again?Bookmark here

She opened a small portal, the darkness warping, swirling like a black hole. She reached an arm in, feeling around until she drew out a small steel dagger, the portal closing quickly after. The handle and blade were extended the length of my forearm. She held the weapon out, displaying it towards me. Black lines laced up the blade, the weapon giving off a sinister aura.Bookmark here

“You’ll use this. Only a few were ever crafted but it’s perfect for killing a death.”Bookmark here

“What about Amber?” I tried to keep my voice steady, but I knew every syllable was off-key as my voice cracked. Bookmark here

“Do what I said, and I’ll let both of you live.” She left the chair, creeping closer to me on the edge of the bed. Her arms were almost fully healed as she brushed the back of her hand against my cheek. I felt every muscle in my body stiffen, high on alert from her touch. Her mouth was near, her breath cold as she breathed on my nose. Bookmark here

“But betray me again and I’ll put you through the worst hell of your life. And don’t worry, we’ll continue it in the Underworld if we have to.”     Bookmark here

You can resume reading from this paragraph.