Chapter 19:

A Hero's Retirement

The Life of Death

“I’m not going to ask again. What is going on here? Milo, Ava!” Logan seethed with anger. Despite his appearance he radiated power, his glare towards me breaking through to my very core. Bookmark here

“I can’t remember anything.” Ava said, her mouth hanging agape in bewilderment. She relaxed her shoulders and stretched her arms, causing Logan to release his hold of her head.Bookmark here

Despite the vicious battle, she looked healthy with no lasting damage from the fight between us, nor her stab wound. Now that I thought about it, I didn’t feel much pain in my body either. Somehow both of us came out of our frenzy still in one piece. Bookmark here

“And what about you?” Logan growled, his eyes in a deadlock with mine. Bookmark here

I avoided from his gaze, speechless and only able to shake my head in confusion. This motion freed me from his grip and I backed away. My body shook as glimpses of our fight played through my mind, images of my teeth sinking into the darkness Ava produced deeply etched into my memory. I couldn’t let them know what I remembered. If they knew, I would be forced to leave. I wouldn’t be able to look at Ava again if it meant I’d receive an expression of terror in return.Bookmark here

“I don’t know either.” I lied, attempting to hide my shame behind a mask of uncertainty. Logan eased up, his body finally reacting to the wounds he’d sustained. He collapsed to the ground, narrowly catching himself before his face collided with the concrete. Bookmark here

Ava rushed to his side, my legs kicking into gear shortly after. Logan was in bad shape, a spray of black mist erupting from his pained coughs. Bookmark here

“Aoki’s here, isn’t she? You two need to get out of here before she finds her way to us. I’ll stay to buy a little time-”Bookmark here

“You’re crazy if you think we’re leaving you behind!” Ava interrupted Logan, smacking him in the shoulder to knock sense into him. Bookmark here

“Erik and Reggie are still here too. We can’t leave without them.” I said, attempting to strengthen Ava’s argument. At the mention of Reggie's name her expression contorted into one of rage, her teeth physically cutting into her bottom lip to hold back a retort.Bookmark here

“This isn’t just another crypt. Aoki’s a judge. Do you even comprehend what that means? Instead of falling into oblivion like most deaths, she persevered and became something greater. The process tears away your humanity. She’s a devil with a sinister essence, just like all the judges.” Logan reasoned. His voice was strained, talking only making his cough worse. Bookmark here

“You can’t ask us to retreat with tails between our legs. We didn’t come here expecting to leave without facing Aoki.” My resolve was firm, the strength in my voice returning. Bookmark here

Crash!Bookmark here

“What was that?” Ava asked, rushing over to the edge of the roof. I went to follow her, but Logan yanked on the cuff of my pants. Bookmark here

“Milo, don’t let it out again. I’ve seen it twice now and whatever side of you that is, it doesn’t have the same desires as you. If I wasn’t like this right now, I’d restrain you until I knew more, but you’re going to have to restrain yourself. If you let it run rampant like that again, it will result in someone dying. Don’t be reckless.” Logan released his hold, as his breathing became more irregular and weak. Bookmark here

“I won’t.” I couldn’t tell if he heard me before losing consciousness, but the small smile on the corner of his mouth gave me hope he had faith in me. Bookmark here

“Milo! It’s her, she’s on the street!” Ava shouted, waving her hand vigorously for me to take a look. Bookmark here

I came up beside her, peering over the side of the building. Aoki was hunched over, black mist seeping from her wounds. Two others were in the street with her, also in bad shape. Bookmark here

“It’s Erik and Reggie! What are they doing? They’re going to get themselves killed!” I said, scratching my fingertips against the edge of the roof. We were multiple floors up, but I was still able to judge their state. The outlook was bad, both of them using the other for support to stand. Bookmark here

“We need to get down there now!” I could feel my muscles constrict, my anticipation coursing through my veins. Bookmark here

Aren’t you worried about me? You were lucky that man you call Logan interfered. He’s strong, but look how badly that ended for him. You really think you have the strength to hold me back forever? Bookmark here

It was the first time I'd heard my reflection since regaining consciousness. His presence felt weak, drifting further away from my mind like withered clouds on a windy day. His hold over me was lax. My body felt lighter, freely able to move with only my intentions in control. Bookmark here

I took a dive inward, coming to confront the mirror. My reflection was faded, the form loose like thin smoke produced by a small fire. His usual smile was gone, replaced by a grim expression. Bookmark here

“Looks like you failed to stay in control. From now on I’m the Milo that will decide how we live. Got that?” I slammed my foot down to further my stance. I returned his gaze with my own hard glare. Bookmark here

“I’ll be back. You took great care setting up defense mechanisms twenty years ago. That took me by surprise. Next time I’ll be ready for them and you’ll be the one trapped in the mirror.” His image vanished, leaving no reflection behind in the glass. Bookmark here

I snapped back to the rooftop, the situation below unchanged. Ava had her attention on me, awaiting an idea I didn’t have on how to reach Aoki. I suppose it could be simple, one path was a sure way to get us there. I peered over the side once more, our height above the ground making me dizzy with the plan I had in mind. Bookmark here

“Get on my back.” I spoke calmly, my idea chilling my emotions. If I misjudged the timing, we could end up splattered on the street. I’d probably survive the fall, but not Ava. It would leave us wide open for even an injured Aoki to make swift work of us. Bookmark here

“What exactly are you thinking, Milo?” She was skeptical, but complied nonetheless as she adjusted herself on my back. Her arms wrapped loosely around my neck, her thighs firmly within my palms. Bookmark here

“You’re going to want to hold on tighter than that.” Bookmark here

I leapt off the roof, my feet fluttering as they sought solid ground. There was none. We dropped, speeding down two floors with Ava’s scream deafening my right ear. If she kept it up there was a very real chance I was going to fail in pulling this off. Bookmark here

“Dark Passage.” I said, the hex materializing below us. The cool darkness crept up my legs, pulling us into its depths. Bookmark here

Everything went black, my senses unable to register any stimuli. We were weightless, gravity nonexistent within this realm. I couldn’t feel Ava on me any longer, forced to trust she was still there with my body numb. We stayed suspended in space. It was impossible to know for how long, time stopped in this in-between world. Bookmark here

A speck of light formed below, slowly expanding and dispersing the darkness around us. My sense of touch returned, Ava’s warm breath softly breezing across my neck. The hair on my arms stood erect as electricity ran across, erasing the hypothermic state I was in. Hot air rushed in, forming a vortex that bellowed with turbulence. The light conquered, exposing us to the real world once more. Bookmark here

“Crap, I miscalculated!” We were still two floors above the ground. The street drew near, my eyes now able to see the asphalt in greater detail as the scent of tar seeped into my nose.Bookmark here

I braced for impact, my options limited with Ava in my possession. The splintering pain came first, followed by the numbing sensation in my toes. Chunks of the asphalt erupted, exploded as they smashed into the side of the building. Bookmark here

My legs gave out and I lost my hold of Ava, her body rolling away as I sat in the street. I couldn’t stand back up. My legs were severely cracked and lagging to heal. I heard Erik and Reggie call out, their shouts growing louder over time. It sounded like I was dwelling within the deep recesses of a cave and they were yelling from its entrance. Someone shook my shoulder as the ringing in my ears subsided. Bookmark here

“Milo! You okay?” Erik asked, crouching down to my level. I nodded in reassurance, but felt the opposite. My legs burned, the cracks in them finally beginning to heal. Clouds of black fumed from them like molten steam. Bookmark here

“Where’s Amber?” I asked, still trying to pull myself out of a daze. Bookmark here

“She’s still on the second floor. Tied up, but safe. Aoki dragged us down here after Reggie cut off her arm.” Erik replied, doing his best to stay calm. His eyes told a different story, the fear and anxiety evident within his irises. Bookmark here

“Look out. Here she comes!” Reggie said, taking a feeble stance with the dagger he used to stab Ava. Erik averted his attention to the woman steamrolling towards us, her body surrounded in black smoke. Bookmark here

“So happy you could join us. Milo!” Aiko cackled, her tone filled with a hunger for our souls. Bookmark here

“How about you go back to hell!” Ava yelled right before a massive chunk of the asphalt I uprooted collided with Aoki’s face. The force was strong enough to redirect her momentum, her body slamming into the apartment building. Debris crumbled over her in a storm of dust, leaving her buried underneath. Bookmark here

As if orchestrated, all three of us turned to Ava, her face beaming with confidence. She laughed with dark amusement, the satisfaction in her work apparent, like a medal of honor pinned to her shirt. The piece of rock she flung was too large to have been thrown by her, or at least the Ava I knew. Darkness coiled around her arm, like a snake poised by its master’s side. Bookmark here

“Wow! Now that was amazing!” She grinned, her smile joyful, but with a wicked undertone unlike herself. Bookmark here

“First we are dragged out here with that psycho, and now Ava is capable of doing that?” Erik muttered, his inflection filled with disbelief. Bookmark here

“She’s full of surprises, that’s for sure.” I was grateful for the help, but suspicious as to how. Her use of darkness was unsettling, an ability too similar to a death’s. She still smelt human, the same way she always had and that was at least reassuring. Bookmark here

“What a brat! How dare you ruin my face!” Aoki stirred from under the debris, her head breaching the pile. Half her face was gone, her features crumbled away to reveal the swirling mass of darkness raging underneath. With only half a mouth, her voice was distorted, coming out deeper and slurred. Bookmark here

My legs sizzled as the last cracks sealed shut. They were finally ready to go. I was back on my feet at the same time Aoki fully broke through the rubble. She hissed, her hair a frayed web of black strands. Her body was breaking apart, her right arm still unhealed. There was no smoke rising from it, black ink still dripping from the cold stump.Bookmark here

“Alright Aoki, let’s settle this. It’s just you and me.” I said, my head held high. In her state, I knew I could hold my own and with a little luck pull off a win. Bookmark here

Her one, black eye showed her anger. Creases formed along her eyebrow like it always did when she was displeased. I used to think she was cute when she let her emotions show, using her face as her canvas.Bookmark here

Wait how do I know she does that? But mostly, why do I like it?Bookmark here

Like a trigger, that thought brought back remnants of the visions I saw while trapped within the mirror. I saw the fireworks and the hordes of people. Most important of all, I saw Aoki dressed in a red sweater, peering at me with concern. The distraction gave Aoki the opening she needed to advance. She relished in her chance, her teeth barred and arm extended.Bookmark here

I don’t want to hurt you. But why?Bookmark here

Instead of swinging with a left hook to exploit her missing arm, I blocked her strike. I crossed my arms to shield my face and absorb the blow, the force of her attack propelling me backwards. My feet skidded against the asphalt, the smell of burning rubber leaving a stench in my nostrils that caused them to flare in discomfort. Bookmark here

“What are you doing? You had a chance to hit her!” Ava said, jumping into action. She was being reckless, a behavior she normally wouldn’t be caught dead exhibiting. Bookmark here

“Don’t rush in!” Bookmark here

It was already too late, Ava clashing arms with Aoki. Both were cloaked in darkness, exerting a pressure that excited the atmosphere around us. It was a dry static, the type of sensation produced when lightning strikes without rain.Bookmark here

Despite her new confidence, Ava’s strength was not equivalent to Aoki’s. Her lack of experience was evident as she sloppily swung her arm a second time. It was a complete miss, Aoki ducking with ease and countering with a left kick to Ava’s ribs. She was slow to regroup, her footwork amatuer and her glasses almost falling off her face. If Aoki was at full strength, Ava would have been run through and left for dead by now. Bookmark here

“You going to keep letting people fight for you? You’ve always been a coward. Strike me already!” Aoki said, her voice strained with frustration as she directed her insult at me. Her anger had evolved into something else, an emotion closer to anguish.Bookmark here

I clenched my fist, those fleeting memories starting to infuriate me. Even if I may have known Aoki, that didn’t matter now. She was the threat that needed to be driven away. I stepped forward, prepared to clash with Aoki once more, only this time with the resolve to end her.Bookmark here

As my arm connected with hers, I felt the vibrations ripple through my body. She attempted the same kick she used on Ava, but I was ready, intercepting her with my free hand. Her missing arm was the only reason I stood a chance, my left side fully exposed. Bookmark here

We refused to budge, neither of our attacks strong enough to overpower the other’s. The side of her face was reforming, a new piece settling into place every time I took in a breath. She readjusted her jaw, flexing the joint into working order. Before she could use that as a weapon against me, I tightened my grip on her shin. The unsettling crunch of her shell cracking under the pressure forced her to grimace, successfully delaying her next move. Bookmark here

“You wanted me to fight back? Well, here it comes!” I lunged, slamming my forehead into hers. It was enough to knock her back, leaving my arms available for the assault. Darkness ignited around my fists, like aggressive flames poised to set the world ablaze. Bookmark here

Let me just get three good shots in. That’ll do it, I can feel it!Bookmark here

I punched with my right fist, the darkness burning through Aoki’s skin. It crumpled away as my attack dove into the side of her chest. Bookmark here

That’s one.Bookmark here

I withdrew the hand while revving up my left one. I swung, connecting with her gut this time. Just as before, her skin disintegrated, granting easy access to her core. I felt her body shiver, her healed eyes glazed over with a cold stare. Bookmark here

That’s two.Bookmark here

I readied one last punch, Aoki’s guard practically nonexistent. She was gravely injured, but maneuvered to the side and evaded me before I could land the last blow. I thought she was attempting her own attack, but it never came. Her hair brushed against my cheek as she flew by, the faint scent of lavender hinting at my nose. Time stalled as I realized I wasn’t the target.Bookmark here

Her speed was remarkable, reaching Reggie and Erik before I could fully turn to watch it all unfold. Reggie positioned himself to defend with the dagger, but Aoki gave into her inner demon and sank her teeth into his wrist. Bookmark here

Pop!Bookmark here

My body ran cold as Reggie’s hand was wrenched from his arm, and the dagger went clanking to the ground. His mouth hung open, a brief delay before his blood-curdling scream. Erik ran to help, but was stopped by Aoki as she pressed her palm to his chest. A blue light emerged out of it, his body going limp as Aoki yanked out his soul. Bookmark here

She opened a dark passage, stepping into it as I struggled to reach them in time. Reggie rebounded, reaching for Erik’s soul in one last attempt to stop Aoki. He managed to tear it in two, one half still in Aoki’s hand, the other fluttering back into Erik’s body. Bookmark here

“That’s the last time you interfere. Pests like you deserve to rot!” Aoki clenched Erik’s soul between her teeth, using her free hand to wring Reggie’s neck. As his body stiffened she flung him into the portal like a doll, turning to me as she removed Erik’s soul from her mouth. Bookmark here

“I’ll see you again in the Underworld. I’ll be happy to introduce you to your friends’ new home!” Aoki’s sinister laughter plagued my ears as she disappeared into the darkness. My hand grabbed for the portal as it began to fade, the last black wisps wiggling through my fingers as it evaporated into nothingness. Bookmark here

Without my reflection I truly was weak, not even able to save my only friends from death. Reggie wouldn’t survive the journey; no human body could withstand such a drastic change as going into the Underworld. I looked over to Erik, his chest slowly rising as he drew breaths. He was alive, but unmoving with eyes still closed. Only half a soul wasn’t enough to bring him back to his normal self. I didn’t know if he would ever wake. Bookmark here

“Dammit!” I slammed a fist into the ground, the force enough to crack the street around the epicenter. Bookmark here

What was the point of keeping the power of my reflection sealed away if I was this weak without it? It would be better to let loose the evil. I’d save those I cared about by killing all the deaths that threatened them. Even if it meant I’d become a monster, I was willing. I was insufficient every time I needed to save someone, even my successes having negative outcomes that forever changed lives. I looked at Ava, the only person I’d ever been able to save. She was in shock, her expression blank as the darkness around her arm receded.Bookmark here

But did I even really save her? Bookmark here

I wasn’t meant for this role as the hero any longer.Bookmark here

Maybe it was time to be the villain.     Bookmark here

Abraham B. A.
Taylor Victoria
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