Chapter 21:

The Aftermath

The Life of Death

Three weeks had passed and still Amber only spoke in short sentences. She was no longer a loudmouthed genius. Instead, she’d been replaced with a cardboard cutout of her former self. She sat next to Erik, staring blankly while her hand gently held onto his. This was usually how I found them whenever I came to replace the hydrangeas on the bedside table. That was only every few days. Amber was here after school each day to monitor him, her notes and books scattered around the table the nurses had wheeled in. I had a front row seat that day to witness Amber nearly bite off a nurse’s head when she was told this wasn’t a place for studying. She’d gotten her way, the table brought in later that day. Bookmark here

“Is he still the same?” I asked, extracting the wilting flowers from the vase to replace them with a new vibrant bouquet of lavender. Bookmark here

Amber nodded but said nothing. We watched the steady rise and fall of Erik’s chest. It had been a long time since I last saw his eyes, my memories of us on the roof of the school slowly becoming hazy.Bookmark here

“He would’ve been impressed you stayed in school know.” I nervously scratched the back of my head as I attempted to make conversation. Erik didn’t receive many visitors, most of the time only Amber and I were in the room. Even his parents rarely stopped by. They cared, but his mother had struggled to look at her son being so still. Bookmark here

“He would’ve been disappointed had I not. I haven’t seen you around school though lately. Where’ve you been?” It was one of Amber’s longer sentences in a month. Bookmark here

“Not much point in going anymore.” I shrugged my shoulders, my hands stuffed into my pockets. Attending Arcaya Academy no longer held any interest to me, the only reasons why I went were now gone.Bookmark here

“Yet, I still see you walking Ava to the entrance every day. Are you two an item now? The ‘class know it all’ dating a dead man. It has an interesting ring to it.” She raised an eyebrow, causing it to disappear underneath her ungroomed, auburn hair. Normally, she’d never be caught dead looking so unkept, but considering what we’d all endured it wasn’t surprising.Bookmark here

“I only do it to make sure she gets there safely.” I challenged her stare with my own.Bookmark here

“If you’re her bodyguard then why aren’t you with her now if she’s that important to you?” Amber returned to looking over Erik, gently dabbing at his forehead with a damp rag. Bookmark here

“She’s safe in Animus. Getting her to stay there is the hard part.” Bookmark here

Ava had been changing recently. She was still the caring and outgoing girl I’d come to enjoy by my side, but her recklessness was starting to get out of hand.Bookmark here

“Take care of her, Milo. I don’t like to think Erik ended up like this for nothing. You still planning to bring his soul-” Bookmark here

“Quiet down!” My volume was low, but the urgency of my tone was not. More deaths had been popping up in Arcaya lately and I trusted nowhere to be safe. Bookmark here

I joined Amber on her side of the bed, crouching down to whisper in her ear.Bookmark here

“I’ll be leaving soon to retrieve it. I promise. Just make sure to stick to the story we fabricated if anyone comes asking questions about what happened in Roku.”Bookmark here

She nodded in understanding, her eyes brimming with tears. Bookmark here

“Just bring him back to me. Please.”Bookmark here

I stepped out into the hall, leaving her to continue her daily ritual of caring for her brother. The smell in the hospital was nauseating. Everything was too clean, the scent of disinfectant and antibacterial hand sanitizer so thick within the building it made my head dizzy. I rushed out of there as quickly as I could before all the chemical smells completed their mission to make me pass out.Bookmark here

The hospital was the first stop in my routine. Three times a week I came here and then left for Roku District. It was a mundane system, the streets of Arcaya looking bleaker every day. It was me of course that made it that way, everything I saw was in monochrome as if the vibrant colors I used to see in life were erased from my visual spectrum. Bookmark here

My own thoughts annoyed me. I sounded like an angsty child and it was irredeemable. Honestly, it made me disappointed. I’d been planning my next move for weeks but failed to even take the first step due to my self-loathing. I lost two of the lights I had in this world, but I of all people should know that death is not the end.Bookmark here

I shook myself out of it as I crossed into the district. This was not a place I could dwell on my thoughts. Here was unforgivable, rundown, and even disgusting, but it did make for a lush hunting ground. Bookmark here

I sniffed the air, my sense of smell much improved since the days I struggled to comb through the scents of garbage and excrement. Each smell was like a thread, leading to their point of origin like floating ribbons just waiting to be followed. Bookmark here

“Found you.” Bookmark here

I tracked the scent past Reggie’s old apartment. The holes in the road from my battle with Aoki were still present, the city never bothering to fix anything in the slums.Bookmark here

I pitied his mother. She hadn’t been able to understand Reggie was gone when I told her, instead picking up a pencil and drawing his face repeatedly on scraps of paper. I’m sure she was still there, scribbling away in her own personal hell. Bookmark here

“Seems you’re hiding out here.” It felt weird to talk to myself, but ever since the voice of my reflection disappeared, I’d been feeling...empty. It didn’t feel right to miss such a monster, but I longed to hear one of his snarky comments. It was better than the silence. Bookmark here

The scent had led me to a park, a dismantled one at that. If a kid tried climbing the playground area he’d contract tetanus without a doubt, the rust eroding away the metal framing. It couldn’t have been touched in years. Bookmark here

A peeling mural caught my eye, the colors worn, but the beauty still there. Out of everything in the park, this was the only part still in one piece. It was exquisite despite its age. A lone butterfly, still holding on to its shade of purple, was perched on a white flower. Its wings were detailed, the pattern resembling stardust on a clear night. I was absorbed in the art, my nose not catching a whiff of the threat until the last moment. Bookmark here

“That was a close one.” Bookmark here

I spun out of the way as razor-sharp teeth snapped at the air where I had stood. She smelt particularly rotten; her greasy, black hair matted to her face. Flies buzzed around her, swarming to pick at her rotten flesh. They were misguided insects, any of them unlucky enough to touch her instantly vaporizing from the darkness she excreted. Bookmark here

“You really reek, miss. Even for a crypt you are repulsive.” Bookmark here

She screeched in response, her voice muffled since her face was in the dirt. Her stance was contorted. Her backside angled upward as her spine curved abnormally sharp, pressing her chest into the ground. Black eyes peeked through her hair, one larger than the other. Bookmark here

She was quick, running on all fours to attack. Unfortunately for her, I was faster. My movements had grown more fluid with Logan’s training over the past month, but that wasn’t what truly made me stronger.Bookmark here

I jumped onto her back, riding her like a wild bull. She attempted to fling me off, using her back legs to jostle me about. Her desperation was in vain. Bookmark here

“It’s been fun, but I think it’s time for my lunch.” Bookmark here

I yanked on her hair, pulling her head back to expose her face to the world. Her mouth hung open as she shrieked for help. The noise was short lived, my arm silencing her as I reached down her throat. Her teeth sank into my forearm, but I hardly felt the pain. Bookmark here

“Found it.” Bookmark here

As quickly as I’d inserted my hand, I retracted it, only this time holding tightly onto my reward. The crypt’s body stiffened the moment my arm was free, already starting to dissolve as I inspected her black soul. Bookmark here

I hastily consumed it, the sweet nectar trickling down my esophagus like a spoonful of honey. It was my third crypt this week, but the taste of her soul was the best of them all. It was bliss on the tongue and satisfying to my stomach. It had been so long since I’d ever felt so full in the afterlife. This was how I should’ve lived as a death from the start.Bookmark here

“So, you eat them too?” Bookmark here

I was startled by a voice behind me, the source of it creeping up to my ear before I could even turn around. Bookmark here

“It’s taboo to do such a thing. So, what’s your reasoning?” His voice was confident, boisterous even, as though produced by a man speaking through a megaphone.Bookmark here

I whirled around to meet the newcomer eye to eye. His hair was bright red, the locks swaying in the wind like a roaring fire. His clothes were singed and riddled with holes. It did little to improve his already dirty appearance. He was covered in smudge from head to toe, the black residue a stark contrast to his skin.Bookmark here

“Who’s asking?” I had to keep a level head. Most couldn’t sneak up on me the way he did. I didn’t even get a whiff of him until now. His scent was heavy with death, his soul a jumbled mess of energy.Bookmark here

“I’m no one important. Just a simple scavenger from the Litchi Clan looking for a meal, but here you are beating me to it. Luckily for you Roku District is unclaimed territory, or the clan would have your head!” He smirked, his demeanor ripe with spirit.Bookmark here

“Can’t say I’ve heard of them. Are they supposed to be someone important?” I asked, my eyes darting left and right to form an exit strategy. I had to stay on guard around this one. Bookmark here

“It’s one of the top clans in the city, probably even the country! You seriously never heard of us? Did you just become a death yesterday?” He was getting condescending, and it was irritating. The more he talked the more I felt the urge to throw one firm punch at his face.Bookmark here

“Doesn’t matter to me.” I turned to leave, done with the discussion. I was on a tight schedule and Logan would kill me if I didn’t return to Animus before our evening training session. Bookmark here

“Woah now, we aren’t done here.” He said, zipping by to block my exit. He was fast, I’ll give him that. Bookmark here

“What more could you possibly want?” I imbued my voice with a thick layer of annoyance. He failed to take the hint. Bookmark here

“We can start off with a name, can’t we? Come on, share.” He was egging me on, fishing for more information. I sighed in defeat, not in the mood to fight him off any longer. Bookmark here

“It’s Milo. That enough for you?”Bookmark here

“Now we are getting somewhere! The name’s Dex and I think it’d be a great idea for us to team up when hunting crypts. Us freaks have to stick together!” He jumped with excitement, his body vibrating like a phone blaring a morning alarm. Bookmark here

“Not a chance.” I moved past Dex, bumping my shoulder into his to further decline his offer. He placed a hand on me, gripping with such pressure that I felt my skin crack.Bookmark here

“Tell me why you hunt them at least.” This time, Dex’s voice was cold. The excited tone he used was replaced by an icy calm that revealed his true strength. I had gravely misjudged him.Bookmark here

“You really want to know?” I said, turning to meet his hard stare. His blue eyes shimmered in the sunlight as he waited to hear more. “It’s because of the taste, nothing more.”Bookmark here

“Really? That’s it? Not because of the energy you get, or the power each soul holds?” Dex looked stunned, his flustered questions proof he wasn’t expecting such a simple answer.Bookmark here

“Doesn’t really matter to me.” I hoped this would be the end of it. The sun was already starting to drop in the sky, my deadline coming up. Logan was really going to wring me a new one when I got back.Bookmark here

“What if I told you I was looking for someone to accompany me to the Underworld?”Bookmark here

Now this was enough to halt my attempt to leave. Bookmark here

Everything around us stopped. The wind ceased, the leaves of trees all settling on the ground. The world seemed to hold its breath as if startled by Dex’s comment. Bookmark here

“What makes you think I care?” Bookmark here

“Because I know what happened three weeks ago. Did you really think a battle with a judge wouldn’t attract attention? I was nearby, and well, the energy released during it was too strong to ignore.” Dex’s fingers restlessly tapped each other. He started with thumb to pointer finger, all the way to his pinky, and back again. It was like a nervous tick, his fingers mindlessly repeating the cycle as he waited for me to respond. Bookmark here

“You want me to join you then? Why would you want to go below?” I kept my voice steady. The proposal was more intriguing now, but I didn’t want Dex to pick up on my growing interest. Bookmark here

Dex beamed, his smile somehow brighter than his hair. I knew he’d already figured me out, my efforts to stay unexcited a failure. He had reeled me in, successfully hooking me with his ridiculous idea. He ran his tongue under his upper teeth, making sure to glide past each one before answering. Bookmark here

“You aren’t the only one with a grudge against the judges.”   Bookmark here

Abraham B. A.
Taylor Victoria
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