Since I have been busy with my last month in college, this chapter was written at the pace of a snail. It did not help that once I was free, Athyra became busy. However, it still managed to become "Spectre's" longest chapter yet. We tried to shorten it. We really did. Anyway, enjoy.
III: Angelus Vulneratus
"Here's your tea."
A noblewoman greeted the Duchess with a joyous smile on her face. "I'm really glad that you were able to spare some time and visit me here," she chuckled happily as she poured exquisite tea for her golden-haired visitor to enjoy.
The Duchess smiled in return, pleased that she managed to convince her advisor to clear all her responsibilities for today so she could visit her precious friend. "Oh you, of course I will always find the time for you," she giggled, cerulean eyes sparkling in simple joy. "I have not seen you for a while."
"I know," the brunette sat on the couch across from the blonde, neatly folding the skirt of her dress underneath her, and fondly petted the blonde girl's dog. In response, the affectionate pet warmly nosed her gloved hand. She then beamed like the brilliant sun outside as she stroked the canine a bit more, "Such a good girl, Luna~"
The dog barked enthusiastically as it stood on its hind legs and licked the Countess' face, making the brunette giggle jovially. The warm and rather picturesque scene brought a blissful smile on the Duchess' aristocratic features. The Countess had always loved animals, and the blonde was quite happy by just watching her most important person and her dog enjoy each other's company.
The brunette played with Luna for a few more moments before she settled down. Then she sipped her tea as her warm gaze returned to her esteemed guest. "Will you be able to stay for dinner tonight?"
"Is the Countess inviting me?" The Duchess chuckled albeit teasingly as she watched her dog lie down near her friend's feet. Luna had always loved its former owner and expressed its adoration in any way possible.
"Of course!" The Countess declared rather brusquely, ignoring proper etiquette between their ranks, which amused the Duchess to no end. But then again, they were close and had known each other for years so there was no need for formality. "I'm all alone anyway. Having you here is certainly a nice change, and Luna is always so much fun to play with. Besides," the brunette drank a bit more of her beverage, her smile never leaving her cheery face, "I wouldn't dream of sending you home after such a long journey to get here."
"Why, thank you," the blonde sipped her own cup of tea, "I would love to stay."
Settling the delicate glassware back down on the table, the Duchess noted that there was a lack of pastries being served. Her smile faded like the steam from her hot drink as the reason whispered its grievous reminders in her mind. If circumstances have been different, the Countess would not have to force a cheerful smile or pretend that her eyes were not swollen due to tears. The brunette dwelled in this mansion on her own now after all, servants notwithstanding.
The thought made the blonde's heart sink in her chest. Why was she always so useless? Could she not do anything at all?
The Duchess swallowed the bitter aftertaste of her thoughts and motioned for her attendant, "Bring my gift for the Countess here."
"Yes, Your Highness."
"A gift?" The brunette raised a fine eyebrow in question as she resumed stroking Luna's fluffy white head.
"Did you think I would come here without something to give you?" The regal blonde girl chuckled amiably, hiding her own distress perfectly underneath her lilting voice. "I know how much you love those butter cookies from the capital."
The brunette's face lit up but not as much as the Duchess hoped it would. It was understandable, she supposed, for the Countess was not as happy as she once was. The blonde should treat even the smallest of sparkles in her friend's eyes as a victory.
"Aww~ thank you. You're always so thoughtful!"
"Oh, it is nothing."
I will do anything to return even a sliver of happiness you once had, Love, just to see a real smile on your face again. The Duchess' mood fell, aware that simple things like her gift could not possibly mend the wounds that were etched so painstakingly onto her beloved's being. She had learned from experience that money could not buy happiness, but she could try. She hoped that her simple offerings, however insignificant they might be right now, could bring back the chipper girl she had come to adore.
"I have something for you as well!" The Countess quickly stood from her seat, prying the Duchess from her thoughts, "Please wait here, okay? You too, Luna~" The smart dog thumped its otter-like tail on the plush carpet before lying down and resting it muzzle on its paws.
The blonde smiled, flattered that her normally absentminded friend thought of something for her as well, given the nature of their current circumstances. After watching the brunette leave the room, she took her teacup once again and let her cerulean eyes wander the living room's interior. This place had not changed since she last came here about a few months ago aside from the fact that it seemed quieter and void. The Duchess felt a certain sorrow in her heart. Her friend really did live here alone, did she not?
She furrowed her pale eyebrows and made it her mission to visit her beloved friend as often as she possibly could. The brunette did not have to endure such sorrow alone. Yes, she would make sure she would be here for her.
You are not forsaken.
With her mind dwelling on possible routes she could take to fulfill her wishes, the Duchess sipped her tea. Perhaps she could invite the brunette for a stroll after their afternoon teatime. She had heard that sunlight did wonders to one's spirit, and she determined that staying in this steadily darkening manor might be unhealthy for the Countess. As if sensing her owner's concerns, Luna stood up from where she was lying and curled up next to the Duchess' feet. The blonde girl was forced to smile as she felt the brown and white dog exhale contently, appreciating how the canine was just as good-natured as the sienna-haired girl who gave it to her some years back.
"I'm back, sorry for making you wait~"
"Mmm," the blonde noblewoman shook her head and slightly bent down to place her teacup back on the table, "Oh, it is not a problem at all. I like your tea, by the way. It is so sweet-tasting. Did you add honey while it brewed?"
She looked up and saw a knife.
Her blood ran cold.
"No, I didn't, Your Highness." There was a crazed edge to the Countess' words and smile as she held the knife. Her hand trembled as her knuckles became visible through her pale rose-colored gloves. Anguish and insanity clashed on her features as tears streamed down her face, afraid yet desperate at the same time.
"But I will sweeten it soon enough…"
"What are you—"
A gentle hand brushed the Duchess' silky blonde locks while its owner sobbed pathetically as if possessed by something far beyond their understanding.
"I thank you…" the Countess brokenly lamented, choking as she wept. Her intense auburn eyes were coated with tears of despondency as she gazed down on frightened cerulean, "For what you have given me all this time."
"Y—" the blonde tried to speak but the crying girl hushed her with a pair of fingers against her lips.
"Friendship…" the brunette whimpered out, "…love. Thank you." Yet as she uttered words of gratitude, a waxen smile, so fake and threatening, graced her face. "I wish I could—no," she stubbornly shook her head and sniffled, "She is my treasure."
The Duchess then felt the hand that had lovingly caressed her cheek painfully grip her hair. Terror she had never imagined even in her darkest nightmares consumed her mind and froze her body as the glint of metal came closer and closer. She trusted the Countess, loved her, so why? Why?
The look on the brunette's auburn eyes seemed to reflect both the malice and misery of death itself.
She felt the sharpness of the blade against her neck as her own tears started trickling down her cheeks. From the corner of her vision, she saw Luna looking up at them inquisitively, uncertain as to why its owners acted the way they did. Why was this happening? Was she lost in a nightmare? She clenched her eyelids shut as the sting in her eyes became unbearable. Such searing pain was proof that she was not hallucinating or dreaming, and that hurt her more than the ache on her scalp and sharp prickle on her neck.
The words she heard next clutched and wrung her heart.
"Goodbye, Love," the Countess cried feebly against her cheek, her tears mingling with the blonde's as she also struggled to breathe, "we will never meet again."
Then a kiss, so sweet and tender, was pressed against the Duchess' parted lips. Emotions, like whirling torrents, bled through the loving gesture, making the blonde girl weep tears of terror and anguish, of pity and love.
What have you become, my darling?
Shattered blue diamonds gazed at tormented brown once more. She could not speak even though there were so many words she wished to tell the brunette, for the Countess' gaze left no pause and allowed no mercy.
A sob escaped her throat.
Am I not your treasure too?
She heard an anxious whine near their feet.
Then a second of hesitation flashed in those pools of tears.
With the last wisp of courage left in her limbs, the Duchess touched her lover's quaking yet threatening hand that held the blade against her neck. Yet instead of pushing the Countess' baleful hand away, she gingerly wrapped her trembling fingers around the brunette's knuckles. Though terror gripped her, all she could see was the misery behind those brown orbs, the sorrow of defeat, and the death of the girl she once knew and adored.
I've truly lost you, haven't I?
Despite the wound of betrayal that vainly pulsed in her heart, the Duchess still wished that she could touch her lover's skin instead of the silken texture of the girl's glove. She wished that she could have been able to touch her paramour's gentle hand one last time, not this foreign limb that could only belong to someone filled with malice, someone so surreal.
The Countess leaned closer and rested her lips against the corner of her beloved's mouth then whispered.
"Please forgive me in heaven…"
Then there was only a sharp pain that lasted for a single moment.
The Spectre's eyes fluttered open at the grandfather clock's chime.
Her breathing was labored, and cold sweat dripped down the side of her face as she tried to recall what just transpired in her dream.
But the moment the clock's peal dissipated into the cold morning air, the blurry images in her mind evaporated as well.
"What was…?" The Spectre whispered to herself as the dream completely slipped away from her consciousness. Confused, she slowly lifted her hand and rubbed her eyes with the palm of her hand. She tried to remember but she was unable to discern anything, for the distorted voices and hazy faces were nothing but smudges of paint behind her eyelids now, indiscernible like fog.
Yet, the Spectre felt a tight rope constricting her heart.
Surprise and terror melded together into an imperceptible sensation that was so foreign to the brunette.
As if the dread did not belong to her.
But it was there and she felt it, that raw fear and sense of betrayal that lasted in a mere instant. Yet, without anything else to go by except for a feeling and a fading memory, the Spectre was left quivering and perturbed.
What was that…?
Shaking her head, the horned woman buried her face into her upturned knees. She must have fallen asleep against the grandfather clock again, waiting for a person who might not return. She released a deep sigh that effectively drew her mind away from her peculiar dream and returned her into the dark stillness of her dwelling. The Spectre then raised her head from the sanctuary of her knees to look beyond the glass windows. She saw that it was still fairly dark outside, but the muted light told her that the sun must be rising already.
She frowned at the sight of thick gray clouds obstructing the sky. It had been raining these last few days, so much that it became even harder to determine the difference between night and day. The drizzles would stop every now and then, but the sun had not freely occupied the sky on its own for almost a week, leaving the earth under the veil of dull grayness that did not help the Spectre's loneliness. Despite the depressing atmosphere, however, the brunette remained optimistic because the bad weather gave her a reason to believe that Azusa had not returned like she said she would because of the rain. Yes, that must be it, she thought, the courier could not have lied to her.
The Spectre had doubts because she had not placed any hope on anything for a long time, and Azusa was still just a stranger to her. However, the black-haired woman had been so kind in spite of what transpired between them a number of days ago. The courier's actions and her resolve had moved the Spectre's suspicious and fearful heart enough that the brunette actually wanted to have faith in her. It was just unfortunate that Azusa had yet to fulfill her words.
Perhaps the Spectre should not have expected too much. She had attacked and bitten the courier after all, so why would Azusa even think of returning to this mansion?
The horned woman smiled sadly, knowing that she was hoping for too much. If nothing else, there was a possibility that the courier would return with a band of armed men, ready to hunt her down. She did not mind that thought, she decided, because it only meant that she would not have to live all alone anymore.
The Spectre wrapped her arms around her knees while her eyes were still trained towards the glass plane that valiantly kept rainwater from entering the mansion. Even though she kept telling herself that she should not hope, she still waited and even counted the days since Azusa departed. The base of the grandfather clock had been her post since then because it was situated just above the twin stairs of the grand foyer, overlooking the large double doors of the mansion's entrance. Should Azusa return and wish to enter, she would certainly knock on the door and when she does, the Spectre would be there to open it for her.
Yes, she was definitely hopeless, the horned woman admitted to herself, but it was not as if she had anything else to do in this mansion. She was merely a prisoner in solitary confinement. If there was anything she could set her mind onto, she would, if only to keep her sanity.
It was almost a week and there was still no sign of the courier.
The Spectre thought about things that could have happened to the black-haired woman after she left. Azusa was still bleeding when she departed the mansion that day. Did she get back to town safely? Did she faint on the way there? Was she attacked by wild animals that were attracted by her blood? Had she been treated? Was she healing well?
Was Azusa alright? Where was she?
The brunette began to dislike her own complexity. She was the one who chased the courier away but now she wished that the black-haired woman would return. She might not know Azusa well, and she still feared her own reactions to strangers, but the Spectre knew she could and probably would give anything to hear the sound of knocking on that door.
But, alas, all she heard was the pitter-patter of raindrops against the walls of the mansion and the perpetual ticking of the grandfather clock.
The Spectre sighed and clutched her legs against her body tighter. She was achingly reminded of the time when she was in her room sick, waiting for someone to enter through the solid oak doorframe and speak to her. The more she thought about it, the more she realized how she disliked waiting. Waiting made her feel so helpless.
It made her feel so forgotten.
Was she forgotten once again?
She felt her heart pricked by a thousand needles, and it only made her feel bitter. The brunette immediately shook her head to remove negative thoughts from her mind. Despair had always been her worst enemy and the best lure for the beast that sneered and mocked her. She would not let such consuming emotion take over, not yet anyway.
Azusa might still return, she told herself.
The beast remained silent.
She then shifted, feeling cramped at how she had been sitting, then felt something fall from her lap. With her attention diverted from the windowpane, the Spectre looked down and saw the food pouch that Azusa had left to her. It was mostly empty now; the brittle sound came from the lone biscuit that was left. As a being who had known true hunger, she rationed the food the courier gave her. By doing so, she was able to stretch the few biscuits and the single piece of bread for a couple of days.
She lifted the pouch with her fingers and considered eating the last remaining biscuit. She did not eat the day before, determined to stretch her rations as much as she could. However, hunger was steadily creeping up on her, and she did not want to be that beast again so soon. So, she untied the pouch's opening, fished the final biscuit out of its confines, and looked at it with a sorrowful smile.
This was it, the last piece of sanity she had.
The grandfather clock rumbled and continued to tick behind her, reminding her how futile her wishful thinking was. The Spectre leaned back against the glass cover of the clock's pendulum, feeling the rhythmic vibrations on her back. She looked up and watched the clock's minute hand abandon its stillness and inch towards the next moment. It was like watching herself inching towards subsistence once again.
She bit into hard biscuit, using her fangs to help break the toughened wafer. With a morbid humor, she felt like she was eating her own reason, like she was consuming her own mind with each crunch. In the past… however long it was— the Spectre relived her lonely existence; blindly wandering through the hallways, knowing her world yet not truly seeing.
She supposed that her momentary bout of cognitive clarity was a gift, brought by this courier named Azusa. While she was grateful, a darker portion of mind resented the woman's absence. Did Azusa bring her back to the conscious realm only to make her experience absolute emptiness once again? No, Azusa could not have known her situation and had been kind enough to her already. But where was the courier? The Spectre wished to see her again. She could not have been just a figment of her imagination, right?
Azusa was real, right?
She chewed and finally swallowed the last remnants of the food, and then she pressed her lips together in a thin smile. Now all she had to do was wait to fade into nothingness. The fleeting moments she spent conversing with the courier were her only sources of joy, despite all the fear and blood that came with it. It felt great to speak to someone who spoke back. It felt liberating to watch another person move, and observe that person's facial expressions. Though her hands were now cold, the Spectre could still feel the courier's palm patting her own. She chuckled when she felt a phantom brush, an illusionary sensation on her hand that was deprived of human kindness for so long.
Closing her eyes to relish the only real human contact she had had for a while, the Spectre resigned to her fate. It was only a matter of time before she falls into psychological unconsciousness once again, before the beast awakens to rule over her.
If she tried hard enough, she might be able to make music out of those monotonous clicks.
The brunette opened her eyes and trained her ears to the foreign sound, hoping that she did not just imagine it. She leaned forward and grasped the pouch tightly in her hand. A whisper almost slipped through her parted lips but the sound did not leave her throat.
Is someone there…?
Weak pats echoed through the thin air of the vast room.
The slight sound was quickly overwhelmed by the pounding of her heart. The Spectre straightened and before she realized what she was doing, she was already descending the large staircase to go to the door. She raised a hand towards the fancy doorknob and stopped. She was not hearing things, was she? There was someone beyond the threshold right?
She heard a loud thud that shook the door, and then a pained groan that could not have been a howl of the wind.
The sound snapped the Spectre back into reality and immediately opened the entrance to the mansion.
The brunette's eyes widened at what she saw. The courier was soaked to the bone. Her hair was in disarray instead of her high ponytail. Her previously sharp carnelian eyes were dull and she was slightly trembling under the weight of her satchel. Her breathing was also labored, and the Spectre could hear faint shuddering gasps as the black-haired woman tried to breathe properly.
"Miss… Ui…" the courier panted through gritted teeth. "Is that… you?"
"Y-yes…" The brunette squeaked, unsure of what to do.
"Good," Azusa sighed in relief, as if she had been holding a part of her breath even though she looked like she already had trouble acquiring air.
"W-what happened to you…?" The Spectre lifted her arms as she watched the black-haired woman lean against the doorframe for support, but she was unable to make herself touch the courier. Her mind was racing. She could detect a faint yet peculiar scent on Azusa, and it made her stomach churn.
Lots of blood.
And it did not smell like it was just the courier's own.
"I apologize…" Azusa started while trying to stand straight, "I made you wait."
The brunette shook her head, unable to even think or rejoice about the courier's return. She wished that Azusa would come back, but not like this. The black-haired woman looked like she had been attacked by bandits or something worse. The Spectre was torn between concern and the temptation to scold the foolhardy yet courageous courier. She opened her mouth to say something, anything, but the shorter woman suddenly lurched forward.
"Azusa!" The brunette caught her visitor by the shoulder, "Y-you're hurt!"
"I-I'm fine," the courier stubbornly insisted even though she could barely push herself away from the Spectre's support.
"No, you're not!" The brunette shifted Azusa but as she did, her bare forearm brushed over the messenger's flushed face.
It was so hot that she almost flinched.
"A-Azusa…" the Spectre started but stopped her question short. The courier was obviously not in good shape at all. "You're burning. Y-you're sick. Oh, God… you shouldn't have come!"
Holding her head in one of her hands, the black-haired woman spoke quietly yet firmly, "I told you I'll come back."
The brunette frowned at the tone of the courier's voice as she examined her pale face. The Spectre determined that there was a bull-headed stubbornness in Azusa that allowed her to travel so far in order to return and speak as if her obvious illness did not matter. Biting her lower lip in uncertainty, she held Azusa at arm's length, supporting her with quivering hands. It was too late to turn the sick woman away, and the town was too far and too foreign for the Spectre to even consider taking her back. Hesitantly, the horned woman suggested, "O-okay… just come inside. You're soaked. You're not well…"
The courier nodded a bit too weakly to settle the Spectre's nerves.
She then guided the messenger into the dry environment of the mansion. From the way Azusa stumbled at every step, the brunette knew that the courier was merely inches away from unconsciousness. She carefully supported the shorter woman, painstakingly ignoring the stench of blood. She shook her head in an attempt to distract her senses away from the metallic scent but when she did so, the courier staggered and almost dropped to the floor.
"Azusa!" Fortunately, the Spectre was able to catch the poor woman by her waist. Any more blows to Azusa's already fragile body would be detrimental, the brunette inwardly told herself. She must be more careful.
But the task proved to be a lot more difficult than it should be because her mind reeled at the odor of blood.
"S-sorry," the courier hissed, "I'm a bit dizzy."
The brunette frowned again but instead of retorting, she spoke with new found resolve, "We need to get you out of these clothes. They'll make your fever worse." Azusa came all the way here just to keep her word, so the least the Spectre could do was take care of her.
Even though she did not receive a response from the shorter woman, she led the courier down the long luxurious hallways lined with paintings, through large rustic doors, and finally into the vast bathroom of the mansion. The whole room was constructed with smooth stone, its dark floor lined with even gray slate, and decorated with extravagant baroque fixtures that made it look like a small piece of history depicting the styles of the renaissance. The bath itself was made out of expensive gray marble; its glass-like sheen set it apart from the other minerals used in the room.
The Spectre whispered encouragement to the exhausted courier before gently settling her down on the floor near a large metal hearth. It used to be a kitchen stove but her father, a brilliant man who loved to tinker with things, had converted it into a mechanism that could heat bath water.
"Where… are we?" Azusa asked breathlessly.
"Bath…" the Spectre replied while she quickly busied herself with starting a fire. Since she bathed not too long ago to wash herself of the blood and grime from her last encounter with the courier, she had left all the firewood she was able to salvage from the mansion here. "I-I'm going to start a fire now. Y-You mustn't stay in those clothes any longer."
However, her panicked state of mind prevented her from focusing on the task at hand, and the lack of sparks quickly frustrated her. The Spectre furrowed her brows in determination and kept trying, using Azusa's shuddering yet heavy breaths to fuel her efforts.
Tense minutes elapsed and still no fire.
"…M-Miss Ui." The courier finally spoke up after noticing that the brunette was not getting anywhere.
The Spectre turned and saw her companion inserting a gloved hand into one of her satchel's smaller compartments. "Y-you shouldn't move too much," she said meekly, genuinely concerned for the woman's well-being.
Yet Azusa ignored her and continued to search. The brunette left her place by the hearth to kneel by the courier's side. She could not make herself stop the woman, however, because even though she carried the mailwoman all the way here, fearful instinct prevented her from moving her hands. They remained petrified by her side.
"H-here." The courier extracted a small object from her bag, "A flint. It should help."
It was only when Azusa offered the item that the brunette was able to make her hands move. The courier deposited the flint into the horned woman's palm before her tired limb dropped on her lap. After curiously appraising the item on her palm, the Spectre immediately went back to the hearth, tearing a piece of fabric from her dress to use as tinder. She then awkwardly took the dark piece of flint stone and held it against a small metal rod that was attached to it, unsure of how the tiny items were supposed to make a fire. When she made one for her bath a couple of days prior, it took her hours of rubbing dried wood against each other. Was she supposed to do the same with these?
"Just strike them against each other." The brunette stiffened when the courier suddenly spoke. She looked over her shoulder and saw that Azusa, though barely conscious, cold, and still in pain, watched her with fatigued eyes and offered guidance. The Spectre nodded her head and did as she was told.
She struck the flint against the metal rod and jumped with a loud yelp, unprepared for the bright sparks that the fire-making items produced, and landed quite painfully on her rear.
Her sudden exclamation surprised her guest as well since Azusa swiftly asked, "Are you alright, Miss Ui?"
Embarrassed, the brunette quickly nodded, "Y-yes… I just haven't used these before… I… um…"
"Oh…" the courier blinked in realization, "Let me then…"
The Spectre blanched when the black-haired woman forced herself to move. "No! Just stay there… I can do it. I was just… s-startled. I'm sorry."
Azusa stopped and watched her inquisitively with those carnelian eyes. Glad that the courier heeded her words, the Spectre resumed what she needed to do. She turned back towards the hearth and the firewood within, and struck the flint again. Unfamiliar with the tool, the brunette took a few tries before she figured out how to properly aim the flint's sparks towards the fabric that served as her tinder.
After one last strike, a small flame came to life, weak but brilliant.
The Spectre inwardly sighed in relief. At least she knew how to take care of an existing fire. She patiently raised the tiny flame by feeding it a bit more fabrics torn from her dress before giving it splinters of wood. Quickly, it grew into a sizeable and functioning blaze.
Wiping her sweat with the back of her hand, the brunette turned back towards the sick woman leaning against the wall. "A-Azusa…?"
The courier opened her tired carnelian eyes at the gentle call. The weak gesture germinated a sensation of dread in the Spectre's chest. "I'm going to move you near the fire, okay?"
The brunette forced her hands to move and touch the black-haired woman, but even her best efforts only allowed her to grasp the courier's wet coat. Gently supporting Azusa, the Spectre moved her near the hearth so that the fire's warmth would be able to reach the feverish messenger.
"Thank you," The messenger murmured tiredly and relaxed against the wall she was settled against. The brunette pressed her lips together into an uneasy smile just to show that she accepted the gratitude.
As the horned woman was about to move away, the courier's hand accidentally brushed against the Spectre's forearm as its owner returned it onto her lap. Her damp and stained gloved hand brought a chill up the brunette's spine.
The frigid touch did not sit well with her.
Frantic once again, the brunette quickly brought her clawed hands on the courier's and immediately took the wet gloves off Azusa's trembling digits. The sight of their ashen shade drenched her in cold fear.
"A-Azusa, y-you need to take those clothes off," The horned woman uttered almost incoherently, unsure if she was in a position to say such a thing. "It… it's not helping your fever."
Before the brunette could even finish her stuttering, Azusa nodded and started unbuttoning her coat with great difficulty. Her fingers were so cold that she could not move them with their usual dexterity. After seeing how much the courier struggled, the Spectre willed her own hands to move. She must help or Azusa might become worse. She must quell the fear and uncertainty to reach out.
She squeezed her eyelids together to gather courage before opening them again and clasping the courier's freezing hands in her own.
"S-sorry but l-let me help," The Spectre stuttered but her tone still held a strong determination to offer her aid.
The brunette then stared at the tired but curious gaze that seemed to scrutinize her, only to falter and look away. Those weary carnelian eyes were as piercing as ever and they made the Spectre uncomfortable. It was only after the courier's weak nod that she even dared continue.
Carefully, the brunette helped the messenger out of her soaked coat, taking great care not to aggravate the wounds she knew were there. The Spectre had to shake her head to remove the pungent stench of blood that have been plaguing her nose since Azusa arrival, but she persevered until she was able to toss the soiled coat away. Returning her gaze towards the courier, her eyes widened at the sight of black-haired woman's state. The white shirt that was part of her messenger's uniform was also soaked, and it held a tinge of red that became darker and darker as the Spectre's eyes drew near her shoulder. She opened her mouth to ask once again but decided against it when she saw Azusa shiver despite being so close to an open flame.
The brunette inwardly berated herself for wavering, inhaled shakily, and continued to remove the courier's wet clothes. The black-haired woman seemed to become weaker and weaker by the moment so the Spectre must hurry.
"Modesty? Illness observes no modesty."
"Modesty means nothing to a corpse…" The Spectre found herself whispering under her breath as she heard her father's voice echoing in her mind. Biting her lip to remove any more horrid memories from surfacing, the brunette busied herself with the courier's bloodied shirt. Irresolute fingers undid the buttons one by one as their owner battled emerging memories with the desire to help.
"Miss Ui…" Azusa croaked in her delirium, "… tears... again."
The Spectre blinked and instinctively wiped her eyes with a forearm only discover that there were indeed tears leaking from them. The brunette forced a smile, grateful that the courier pulled her away from her demons again in spite of the situation. After the final button came off, the Spectre peeled the translucent blood-stained fabric from Azusa's body, and winced at the sight of the even darker red staining the courier's undershirt. The dampness was even more widespread on the darker colored garment, making the Spectre wonder just how bad Azusa's injuries were. Just how did she travel all the way out here?
After studying the dark-haired woman's half-lidded eyes, the Spectre carefully hooked her fingers around the hem of the undergarment and urged the courier to lift her arms. Cautiously, the brunette lifted the shirt off, taking great care not to aggravate Azusa's injured joint. She then slowly slid the wet material off the courier's head and pale shoulders, revealing the bleeding wound underneath. Judging from the even stitches still visible through the blood that oozed out of the wound, the suture had been properly treated before it was aggravated.
Fear flickered in the Spectre's eyes. There was little she could do about the wound.
She glanced at Azusa's pale face to somehow dispel the sense of helplessness that started to bud in the pit of her stomach. The tear was not very wide, so the courier's primary foe right now was the cold.
The black-haired woman shuddered as if to affirm her speculations.
The Spectre completely undressed the courier so that her skin may be free of the chilly rainwater and be able to regain heat. After tossing the bloodied garments to the opposite side of the bathroom, the brunette turned her attention to the blazing flame in the hearth. The room was considerably warmer now thanks to the fire but she knew that it might not be enough for the shivering woman.
"A-Azusa?" The Spectre spoke softly, as if waking a child from her nap, "Do you have spare clothes in your bag?"
The courier opened her eyes tiredly and regarded the brunette for a moment before nodding feebly.
The brunette hesitated, feeling that the slight nod was not enough consent for her to rummage through another person's belongings, but she steeled her resolve. She did not want to leave the courier alone just to search the mansion for some dusty covering. And so, the Spectre shifted from where she knelt to pull the messenger's satchel towards her. Uncovering the flap, the brunette searched the bag and felt her eyes dampen upon discovering what lied within.
Inside the bag were pouches of the food Azusa promised to bring to her.
The Spectre spared another glance at the courier before extracting the provisions from the satchel. She would certainly thank Azusa later for her thoughtfulness and kindness but for now, she must find something to cover the courier with. The brunette continued to search and found sets of clothes, tightly packed near the bottom of the bag. Underneath the spare clothes was a rough blanket that had the same color as Azusa's coat. Perhaps the courier used it when she was forced to sleep outdoors.
Unfolding the blanket and spreading it over the sick woman's form, the Spectre said, "Hang on, the water should be warm enough soon."
Azusa did not say anything. Only her weary eyes told the brunette that she was still awake.
The brunette turned her attention back towards the flame in the hearth. She tossed another sizeable piece of wood inside before standing up and walking towards the other side of the marble bath tub. Approaching the looming angel statue that hung from the stone wall, the Spectre took a hanging chain right underneath the marble bust in her hand and pulled, releasing water into the bath. As she watched warm water flow from the vase the statue held, the brunette absently thought of her father, who had placed so much effort in renovating this room in order to put one of his inventions to the test.
That man had been so warm, so happy.
So was I…
But like the steam that quickly enveloped the vast bathroom, terrible recollections quickly blurred the image of a smiling man who was so eager to show his daughters his new contraption.
The sound of quiet coughing tore her away from her thoughts.
The Spectre hastily returned to the courier's side. She gently held the woman by the shoulder and was pleased to know that Azusa was not as cold as she was earlier.
"Azusa…" the brunette started, trying to catch the messenger's unfocused carnelian eyes with her own umber ones even though the gesture made her uncomfortable. "Let me help you get in the bath. The water will warm you up, alright?" She said kindly, "I'll help you clean up as well."
Slowly, she helped the black-haired woman to her feet as the brown blanket fell from the courier's body. When she noticed that Azusa barely had enough energy to walk, the brunette shouldered most of the courier's weight. Upon reaching the bath's edge, she seated Azusa on the warm marble surface and gently swung the black-haired woman's legs into the tepid bath water. The courier flinched at the heat and made the Spectre freeze in place, unwilling to hurt her further.
A gratified sigh answered her.
Taking the soft sound as a sign that the courier was alright, the brunette slowly and steadily lowered her into the lukewarm water.
The Spectre watched as diluted red dispersed through the clear liquid of the bath, freeing the black-haired woman's limbs of crimson and maroon stains. Knowing that Azusa might not be able to bathe herself properly considering the circumstances, the brunette wondered how she might offer her help. She was worried that she would injure the courier again if she touched Azusa with her sharp claws. Searching the bathroom, she saw the piece of cloth she found on the staircase the day after Azusa left. The long piece of fabric hung on another angel statue's arm where she left it a few days prior after she attempted to wash it.
After making sure that the courier was secure in the large tub, the horned woman stood up to retrieve the said cloth and immediately dipped it in the warm water. As she lifted it from the water to fold and wring it, the Spectre became more aware of how familiar the fabric was to her. Under careful scrutiny, the cloth looked a lot like a scarf, if one ignored its unusual thinness because of its aged appearance. Its original color was a pale rose hue, but because of the blood stains that refused to be washed off, the scarf now held an unmistakable maroon pattern of dried blood. What truly brought the Spectre into bouts of nostalgia was the distinct embroidery the fabric had. Two fishes were drawn and carefully knit on it, facing each other much like the twin fishes of stars of her birth.
Two pairs of feet crushed dead leaves on the forest floor.
"Did you bring the leftover vegetables?"
A pair of auburn eyes twinkled in mirth. "Of course I did!"
"Do turtles really eat lettuce?"
"Yeah! I fed it some cucumbers the other day."
"But I read they eat fishes. Are you sure it's okay, Sister? I don't want your pet to get sick."
"It's okay~ it'll be fine. Mother said they eat both fishes and veggies."
The Spectre shook her head to remove the distant memory from her mind. The scarf she held could not possibly be the one she wore around her neck so long ago. She was not the only one who was born under that constellation after all.
Yet she could not recall where she last left the said garment before her rapid descent from humanity began.
The brunette pried her eyes away from the scarf and returned them to the courier, only to find that Azusa was already dozing, lulled to sleep by the warmth of the bathwater.
She blinked, "Azusa…?" But she did not get a reply. At a loss, the Spectre still attempted to wash the sleeping courier and found the task easier without those piercing carnelian eyes watching her. Carefully, she wiped the messenger's face with the wet scarf and removed all the mud and grime that marred it. Next, the Spectre cleansed the courier's uninjured shoulder before moving onto the one that had a bleeding suture. She remembered how her father used to treat wounds when she was still a child, and how careful he had been in cleaning them. She just hoped that she had his dexterity and would not harm the courier even more.
Fortunately, her touch had been gentle enough that she only elicited a small hiss from the sleeping woman as she wiped the sticky blood away from the open wound. It had stopped bleeding, and aside from the red washed off by the wet cloth, nothing else oozed out.
The Spectre dipped the scarf in the water again as she sat on the bath's edge near Azusa. Upon closer inspection, she noticed that she must wash the courier's long lustrous black hair as well because of the small twigs and leaves that jotted out from those silky locks. The messenger must have gone through low hanging branches so vegetation got caught in her hair, or she had fallen on the forest floor. The brunette frowned worriedly as she imagined the worst. Her heart ached at the thought of this kind courier marching from that faraway town in this condition. She had done nothing to deserve such kindness, such resolve.
She could only remember one person who have shown her true compassion, and bitterly pushed the image of a picturesque smile deep within the confines of her mind immediately. That person was no more and she was not coming back.
Minding her sharp claws, the Spectre proceeded to pull out the small twigs and leaves from Azusa's hair and became amazed at the unfamiliar texture of the courier's locks. They felt as smooth as they looked, reminding the brunette of her mother's hair, and how ragged her own must be in comparison. Gently, she combed the courier's long mane with the back of her claws until most of the debris had been removed. Then, as if entranced, the Spectre began to wipe Azusa's hair with the damp scarf, washing off the dirt that remained on those midnight strands. The black-haired woman remained inert aside from the slightest of movements under her eyelids, perhaps lost in a dream.
Similarly, the Spectre was lost in her own world in which the happy sounds of young girls laughing echoed instead of the noise from the intense downpour that drummed outside the manor's walls.
"Hahaha! Take that!"
"Sister, we're making a mess!"
"Daddy said we can play, so don't worry~!"
"Are you sure—kya!"
"C'mon, play with me~"
"Err… I should have known you two will make a lake in here, heh, so how is it? Is the water warm enough?"
"Yeah! This is great, Daddy. You're the best!"
"Nothing less for my little angels. I'll leave your towels and clothes here, alright?"
"Ten more minutes, okay?"
"Ui just recovered from her cold, Darling."
"But the water's warm~"
An exasperated sigh.
An amused chuckle.
"Thank you, Daddy."
"You're welcome, Sweetie."
"Mmm…" The sound of Azusa's mumblings erased the peals of merriment in her mind, and brought the Spectre back into present reality. She had drizzled a bit of water on the courier's head so she might be able to clean Azusa's hair better, but the sensation of the trickling liquid had awakened her.
"O-oh, I didn't mean to wake you…" The brunette spoke softly.
"Yes. It's me," She responded, "How are you feeling?"
The courier did not speak; instead, her deep carnelian eyes looked at the Spectre curiously before roaming her gaze around the steaming room, trying to get reacquainted with her surroundings.
Setting the wet scarf down on her lap, the horned woman tried to explain, "You dozed off… I've been trying to clean you as much as I could. I needed to wash the b-blood away so, um…"
"Ah…" Azusa still looked so drained and, from what the Spectre noticed, her eyelids remained heavy. The brunette examined her for a while more, waiting for the courier to utter something, anything, but it was evident that she was going to succumb to slumber again due to her fever and fatigue. The Spectre's eyes softened in empathy for she knew just how draining it was to be so exhausted and to be plagued by persistent misery.
After the sick woman drifted off, the brunette resumed washing her by gently running the scarf's damp softness down Azusa's hair. She carefully poured a small amount of water on the courier's head once, then twice, and watched as the silken strands regain their former luster. As she continued to work, the Spectre could not help but admire the black-haired woman's locks even more.
She remembered brushing similarly dazzling hair almost every night in the past.
"Hmm? You should be sleeping. You're not completely well yet. Hehe~ couldn't sleep?"
"Oh, no, I just went to the washroom and saw your light is still on. It's late, you should sleep too."
"I will~" A tired yawn, "I just want to finish these notes Dad gave to me earlier."
"You haven't even changed into your nightgown."
"Ehe~ I lost track of time."
"Here, let me comb your hair or else sparrows will nest on your head."
A sheepish grin.
"What am I going to do with you, dear Sister?"
"Aww, am I being scolded?"
"Hush, of course not." Chuckles of endearment floated in the midnight air. "Besides, I haven't brushed your hair for a while now. I miss it."
"I'm so blessed~"
"You sure are."
Quiet giggles danced in the room for a while before the lazy sound of brushing and a content hum replaced it.
"Now, you're making me sleepy."
"I'm almost done, and then you can sleep, hm?"
"Okay~ you really are the best!"
The Spectre smiled in spite of herself as she ran the scarf against Azusa's cheek one last time to push a dark lock of hair away from the courier's face. Then unexpectedly, the brunette felt the black-haired woman press her cheek against her wrist while mumbling something incoherent. The Spectre froze, surprised and unsure how to react. Was Azusa suffering from delirium or was she simply dreaming? The answer came to the brunette quickly and decided that it might be best to remove the courier from the water. Even though the lukewarm bath was a heaven sent gift to Azusa's freezing body, it may also be detrimental if she overheated in her state.
Worried, the horned woman gingerly nudged the courier and spoke softly, "Azusa, wake up."
However, there was no response. The brunette frowned at the unconscious woman and bit her lips nervously. The Spectre drained the water from the bath as she thought about what she could do in this situation. She could try to wake Azusa again but she doubted that the messenger would open her eyes. She knew the feeling of being so sick and so tired that she could not even lift her eyelids. The courier looked stable anyway and her slumber was probably caused by exhaustion, not some grave malady.
She wiped the messenger dry the best she could with the damp scarf and stepped into the drained bath. Delicately, she slipped an arm underneath the courier's knees and snaked the other around her back. She then lifted the sleeping woman from where she sat and strained to reach for the dark brown blanket on the floor. Gently, she wrapped the cloth around Azusa's lithe frame and, after steeling herself, she lifted the courier with relative ease. The Spectre still needed to take a few steadying breaths before even attempting to take the first step. Then, she calmed her racing heart with hazy memories of being stronger than she used to be. She could not have been able to lift Azusa before because she had always been so physically weak. But she managed to do so now, so perhaps she could also carry the smaller woman back into the mansion's parlor where she could settle Azusa to rest and recuperate.
The brunette carried Azusa out of the bathroom and retraced her steps back towards the mansion's parlor, where she had treated the courier after their fateful chase a week ago. She kept her eyes on Azusa as she walked and wondered why the dark-haired woman had such an anxious expression on her face. There was a fearful knot on her brow and the grimace she had implied that she was also gritting her teeth. The courier's pained expression made the Spectre feel helpless, unable to do anything to remedy the obvious hurt the sick woman was experiencing. She knew that it was just a feverish nightmare but when Azusa visibly grasped her blanket and trembled, the brunette could not help but hold her tighter, hoping the gesture could somewhat help the courier's troubled psyche.
"Shh…" The horned woman whispered into the wind, uncertain if her quiet words would even reach the messenger's ears, "You're not alone. Don't be afraid."
Those were the words that her sister used to tell her whenever her fear of the world resurfaced after she woke up from her own nightmares, and they comforted her like no other gesture could. However, Azusa only grimaced even more and let out a strangled murmur that made the brunette more worried.
At a loss, she did the only she thing she could think of and hummed a distant lullaby. She did not even remember what song it was or where she had heard it, but she no longer cared the moment the woman she carried gradually calmed down and settled less fitfully in her arms. Emboldened by Azusa's reaction, the brunette hummed a bit louder, hoping that her untrained voice could chase away whatever phantoms the courier saw in her dreams. She might not be able to save herself from her own nightmares but she could spare Azusa from her own.
The Spectre then heard the courier sigh and watched her rest her dark-haired head against the brunette's shoulder. Bewildered, the horned woman returned her gaze from the dimly-lit hallway towards the person she carried. Umber eyes softened at the sight of Azusa's less troubled demeanor, thankful that the courier's nightmare had passed, at least for now.
After she managed to open the parlor's doors, the brunette laid the dark-haired woman onto the couch, the very same furniture where she let Azusa sleep as she treated her wounds the week before. She placed a pillow under the courier's head and tucked her snuggly underneath the woolen blanket. Azusa was still flushed with fever, but the Spectre assumed that the messenger would sleep soundly for a while longer. The brunette decided to gather all the items they had left in the bathroom in the meantime. She then glanced at the dark fireplace on the other side of the room and reminded herself that she must also start a fire here if she wanted Azusa to recover.
Sparing the courier one last glance, the Spectre left the room and blended into the darkness of the mansion once again. However, unlike before, she held a purpose and a solemn promise.
I will help you.
A girl with chestnut colored hair slowly opened her eyes and saw the white canopy of her bed. Weary and feeling albeit stiff, she gingerly rubbed the sleep from her eyes. This was probably the first time she had woken up for days but she was not sure. All she could remember were the fitful dreams and the feeling of fatigue in her rarely used muscles.
She disliked feeling so exhausted all the time and she detested feeling pain even more, but what could she do? Even though she had only seen fourteen summers, she already felt like she was a century old with her bones creaking and her flesh throbbing with unknown afflictions. Sometimes even the slightest of chores would render her sick in bed for days, or a couple of hours spent outside the mansion's walls would cripple her breathing so much that her parents would forbid her from going outside for weeks.
She knew little about the outside world. The sight she was most familiar with was the white canopy of her bed.
The girl continued to rub her eyes before yawning and attempting to sit up.
Immediately, she noticed the soft sound of even breathing next to her and saw a mass of unkempt brown hair. Chuckling to herself, the bedridden girl reached out and ran her slim fingers through her guardian's locks, earning a sleepy purr then a startled slurp that can only come from one who had been drooling while she slept.
Disoriented, the sleeping girl lifted her head and quickly looked at her charge. "Oh, Ui, you're awake!"
"And you were sleeping," the chestnut haired girl giggled as she attempted to smooth out her sister's bed hair.
"Hehe~… I'm sorry. I guess I kind of dozed off."
"What were you doing?" the younger brunette asked inquisitively as she looked at the pair of knitting needles and balls of yarn strewn over her large bed. "Making something?"
"Oh…" the older girl blinked and looked at a loss for words for a few moments, as if she realized that she should have cleaned up sooner. "Yeah," she chuckled sheepishly as she fiddled her thumbs, "I was making you a scarf for when we go out next time. I guess it won't be much of a surprise now, will it?"
The younger girl giggled in unadulterated amusement, quite charmed by her sister's unpredictable ways. "You're so silly, Sister, but I'll still treasure it."
She bobbed her head, "Really. I promise. I think this is the first time you've even tried knitting." She could not help but continue to chuckle at the thought of her typically uncoordinated sister trying to master the domestic art of knitting. "May I see it?"
"But it's not finished!"
The girl smiled and held an expression of slight exasperation on her face. "Okay then…"
Her sister let out a small sigh of relief, "How are you feeling today?"
"Better," the girl said cheerfully, "A bit stiff but that's because I've been in bed for a while. Will you walk with me later, Sister? Walking takes it away."
"Of course I will," her sister's smile widened and looked at her with genuine happiness glistening in her auburn eyes, "I'm glad, you really do look better today."
"Did you have a nice dream? You were smiling when I was knitting."
"Hmm?" the chestnut haired girl thought for a moment, "I don't really remember but I guess so. I didn't see anything scary, and I think I befriended someone in my dream."
"That's good. I hate to see you having nightmares, Ui. You always look paler when you get nightmares." The older girl then leaned over to brush a lock of hair away from her sister's face and cupped her cheek. "Dreams heal. I can see you had good dreams this time and I'm glad." She smiled softly before reaching over to kiss the younger girl's forehead and giving her a hug.
"Did I worry you again?"
"You always will, Ui, but that's okay! You're my baby sister after all, and I love you. It's a big sister's job to worry, yes?"
"But I don't want you to worry."
"Hehe~ then feel better!" The older girl rubbed her head against her sister's as she cuddled the younger girl, "So there will be no more reasons to worry."
The umber-eyed girl giggled at the rather childish display of affection, and utterly enjoyed the contact. Her sister really made her feel loved. "I am better."
"In that case," her sister declared as she held her at arm's length, "do you want something to eat? It'll give you some energy."
Even though she did not feel particularly hungry, she nodded, "Okay."
"I made you some porridge!"
"Y-you did?" She tried not to sound so surprised. It was quite rare for her sister to cook by herself since the older girl was typically more concerned about the chores their father gave her.
"Mhmm! I had Mother help me so I promise it won't make you sick," the older girl chuckled awkwardly, "Although I think it's quite cold now. Um, let me go heat it up first okay?"
"Okay." The sickly girl beamed and giggled once more as her sister kissed her temple before happily skipping out of her room, carrying all the knitting materials with her.
Happy and feeling healthy for once, the umber-eyed girl waited patiently for her sister to return and trained her gaze outside the windows. The sky was brilliantly blue and she could hear birds chirping from the trees as they hopped from one branch to another. It was as if she had woken up from a dream that consisted of different shades of gray, and was welcomed into this world of color.
She lifted her arms and stretched stiffly to loosen the tight knots brought by long hours of sleep and being bedridden for days. She then reached over for her comb on the nightstand next to her bed and gingerly brushed her hair. She would love to bathe later if her condition allowed it, but, for now, she settled for this simple grooming. As she brushed her shoulder-length chestnut locks, she thought of the friend that accompanied her in her dreams. The creature had a long black tail and spoke in such a formal yet kind tone. It had dark rose-colored eyes but they held no malice in them. The girl felt like she should be wary of that shadowy figure in her dreams but she did not feel any fear despite its dark appearance. Was it a ghost? A phantom? A benevolent spectre?
Her sister returned some minutes later, disrupting the girl's thoughts. The older brunette was mixing a bowl of porridge. Even though she had only entered the room, the delicious aroma of the food awakened the sickly girl's appetite. "I really hope you'll like this," her sister said unsurely as she sat on the girl's bedside, "I tried my best though!"
The chestnut-haired girl only giggled in response, "Oh, I'm sure it's delicious."
The older girl's smile faded as she handed the bowl towards her younger sister. She then revealed a small pouch in her hand, "Father said you should take this…"
"Oh…" the umber-eyed girl stared at the pouch, knowing what it held, "…o-okay."
"I.." her sister started, "I really hope this will help you, Ui."
She only smiled in response as the older girl sprinkled white powder into her porridge.
No, I don't want it…
"I don't want to give it to you either."
"I don't want to see you suffer."
I… I'd rather suffer…
"This is the last one…"
"What do you mean, Sister?"
"You don't need to take any more after this…"
Don't cry… I'll take anything just please don't cry.
"You're such a good girl…"
Stop crying. Do you not know how much it hurts me?
"I-I'm sorry for not being a better sister to you."
Even though her world became blanketed in darkness, the quiet sound of sobbing did not waver. Instead, it became even more pronounced as she heard a sniffle and the sound of restless rustling.
"I tried," the voice whimpered pathetically, "I tried, Mother."
The Spectre fitfully opened her eyes as the blaze in the fireplace cackled. Disoriented, the brunette rubbed her eyelids with the back of her hand before reality flooded her mind.
"P-please… take me with you."
The horned woman immediately turned towards the source of the distressed pleas and found Azusa gripping the layers of blankets as she cried in her sleep. Suddenly reminded of all the events that occurred since the messenger returned, the Spectre shifted onto her knees to take a better look at her charge. The courier was soaked in sweat and she tossed and turned where she lied, obviously lost in a bad dream. Tears streamed down Azusa's pale face and grief was painted on her expression. The Spectre knew from experience that whatever the courier was dreaming about could be even more painful than the illness itself. Taking a small piece of cloth from the black-haired woman's forehead, the brunette dipped in it cool water before returning it to where it was.
Her fever hasn't broken, the Spectre thought worriedly as she gingerly touched the woman's cheek, momentarily forgetting her own qualms and bittersweet memories. She helplessly watched the courier suffer in delirium while she desperately asked herself what she could do for Azusa, but nothing came. She had always been the one being watched over, not the other way around. She had never nursed another person before. Despite her lack of experience, however, the Spectre knew that if the courier did not recover soon, her fever just might claim her life.
She searched her hazy memories for her father's words and her sister's guidance. They often told her what she could and could not do to prevent illness, and what she should do when there was nobody around to help her when she was sick. Unfortunately, such steps required taking medicine, something that she did not have on hand. Returning her umber gaze to Azusa, the brunette became afraid.
She did not want this good courier to die.
The Spectre tentatively placed her left hand over Azusa's in hopes that the touch would stop the intense quivering of the woman's hand. As she did so, she noticed the wrappings binding her own palm and remembered their purpose. Azusa stabbed a knife through her limb when she was last here, awakening her and bringing her back into a dim pillar of light, far away from the pitch black darkness of her cognizance. She did not feel the wound now, only a stubborn stiffness that came with scar tissue. The injury did not embitter the brunette; instead, she felt utter gratitude.
Azusa saved her that day, so she vowed to do the same.
The courier suddenly gripped her hand as she continued to battle the sorrows of her nightmares. The brunette, empathetic to the sick woman's plight, closed her fingers around Azusa's smaller digits.
"Azusa…" She whispered softly, wishing to cry along with the courier.
The Spectre remained where she was and just held Azusa's hand. She could hear the relentless ticking of the grandfather clock from the hallway, feeling it through her bones, and counted somberly.
As she felt time pass by, she recalled distant murmurs from her past. They were mostly unintelligible babbles but the Spectre felt something coming back to her as she listened. She had been locked up in her own mind for so long that details about the very prison she lived in were forgotten under the incapacitating stillness of time. She wanted to forget them back then, but now she commanded them to return. They just might help her save Azusa.
"Good news! Father discovered something awesome!"
"Really? That's great!"
"Yeah, yeah! It cured the mice without a hitch! This might be the medicine we're looking for! Although I think it's weird that it's from mold."
"M-mold? Isn't that bad?"
"I don't know but it did what it did. We'll try our best, Sis! We'll have that—what did Father call it again—P. noto… nota… noti… blah! I'm sorry I can't pronounce it, Ui~"
"You're so silly, Sister."
The Spectre squeezed Azusa's hand a little tighter as she gained some courage about the problem at hand. It had been so long but there was a chance that some of the medicines she had taken back when she was sick were still here, and they could help the courier's condition.
She felt the black-haired woman's grip slacken. Azusa appeared to have gotten past her nightmare and had settled back into dreamless sleep. Quietly releasing an anxious breath, the Spectre reclaimed her hand and removed the damp towel from the courier's forehead to dip it in cold water once again. After wringing the said fabric, the brunette laid it back on the sick woman's head before standing up.
The Spectre glanced at Azusa and wondered if she also looked so small to her sister as well when she was sick. She wondered if her sister felt this pang of helplessness as she watched her suffer. She wondered if she had hurt her sister for being so vulnerable. There was this distinct sting in her chest as she mulled over the different expressions that her dearest angel had shown her in the past. Those smiles, all those laughter, were they all masks?
They must be. Do not be foolish. She couldn't have been happy back then.
The brunette tore her gaze away from the courier and, after making sure that the fire in the fireplace would remain blazing, she left the room to fulfill her mission. Subconscious memory led her through the long hallways that were only partially lit by the muted sunlight that entered through dirty windows. But even though her body knew where she was heading, her mind started panicking once again like a nervous hare. Her fear was instinctual because she did not know when the beast within will start wrestling her weary conscience for dominance. She had limited her range in the mansion in order to minimize the potential of being attacked by her inner phantoms, so this risky venture had upped her nerves. She ran her clawed hands against the walls just to make sure she could still feel and prove that she was indeed in reality, not some made up illusion.
She kept her eyes forward to avoid the lifeless stares of old and discolored paintings, and decorative armors that lined the passages. Although she was well aware that these inanimate objects had no life, the Spectre felt so exposed. Two stone busts seemed to judge her as they reached for the ceiling with their life-like arms despite their headless physique. Their muscles appeared contorted and the angry gashes on their pained bodies painted vivid images of suffering faces into the Spectre's mind.
She soon found herself standing in front of a large hardwood door. The brunette remembered this portal in her memories, and how it led into her father's study. She also remembered the various bottles and canisters of stuffs that he used to work with in there. She held the door's knob with a fearful hand and twisted it, letting the heavy door open itself. As the aperture widened, the Spectre found her nose assaulted by various smells, all unnatural and hostile her to senses. She quickly covered her nose with her bound hand as she saw familiar visages floating within her vision.
She collapsed against the opposite wall of the corridor, growling. They were back, those empty words and frantic calls. She saw tears that do not belong to her flow down white cheeks and mixing with the brilliant scarlet of blood. She heard wordless screams of agony, accusations of betrayal, and howls of fear.
No! Not now! I must remain!
"Is there a purer form of love than this deep color of wine? No, there isn't. Nothing is more potent than this. Nothing is more compelling than the color of blood. Nothing is more addicting…"
Terror that was not her own clenched her limbs, freezing them in place, and damning her to watch this horrifying scene of red. Maroon carpeted the floor while numerous instruments reflected the angry brilliance of flaming torches that hung against the walls. There was someone, a man, hanging from the ceiling and wrapped in rusted chains. Then there were others, imprisoned in cells, reaching out through the iron bars, begging for mercy or crying in sheer agony.
Their cries echoed within the Spectre's skull yet they did not sound like people.
If anything, they moaned like death itself.
"You can't resist for too long. You'll fall too."
I must stay here. I must help her!
"You're nothing but a monster."
"A shadow just like me."
I need to save Azusa. Only I can… no one else.
Feeling the vibrations of the clock's chime against her back, the Spectre's vision cleared from its momentary delusions as her pupils regained their function. She panted against the wall, her hand still pressed tightly against her face as she steadied her own psyche. She almost—no, she did regress. She knew the signs well, and she was aware that she did immerse herself in insanity again.
Her heart raced as she remained frozen where she sat.
I was… spared?
The Spectre removed her hand from her nose and mouth, and found that the thick smells of burnt herbs and acidic concoctions have dissipated. She could still scent them but at least the odor was faint, allowing her to breathe normally without seizing. She struggled to calm her breathing before shakily pushing herself up from the wall she leaned against. From where she stood, she could see the numerous shelves that lined her father's workshop. Light from the windows gave them a frightening silhouette and exposed various containers and books on each console. Perhaps one of those bottles contained the powder she was looking for.
Gathering resolve, the Spectre took a deep breath and held it before marching into the room. She made a beeline towards the closed windows and immediately opened them so the remaining smells would disappear. She perched herself at the window for a while and rubbed her stinging eyes. She took a moment to breathe in the fresh outdoor air before diving back into the room.
Determined, the Spectre rummaged through the shelves and sifted through all the dusty labeled bottles that were arranged in them. All she had was half a name, but if it would save her savior then she vowed to find it. She remembered the effects of that powder; it had been potent and it had cured some of her symptoms when she was sick. However, she quickly found out that she could also get sick from taking it so her father stopped administering the medicine to her so he could work on it a bit more. It was a miracle drug if only it did not backfire.
But if I don't try, she will die.
Clumsy hands with an anxious purpose continued to rummage through the bottles until the muted sunlight revealed a tiny bottle with a white label. On it was her father's graceful cursive.
This must be it. The Spectre thought as she looked upon the bottle that fitted so delicately in her palm. She quickly lifted the container towards the light to inspect if it still had contents, and found that it was indeed half-full of whatever concoction her father had created. Elated, the brunette turned her heel and returned to the parlor as fast as she could without tripping over her own claws.
When she entered, she found Azusa was still sleeping comfortably, or at least she slept soundly without feverish nightmares. Upon closer inspection, however, the courier still burned with fever and sweat continuously trickled down her face.
The horned woman kneeled near the sleeping messenger and wondered how she should give the medicine to Azusa. Her father mixed it with her food and that made her sick even though her other ailments healed rather quickly. The Spectre then glanced at the courier's wounded shoulder and wondered if applying the powder directly to the wound would make it heal faster. After all, the medicine would not need to travel from Azusa's stomach towards the wound. The brunette deliberated with herself as she stared at the tiny bottle.
What should I do?
The courier's slight shift prompted the Spectre to do the only thing she could do right then. The longer she idled the worse Azusa might become, so she must act. She straightened herself and leaned over the sleeping woman as she uncorked the bottled powder. She gingerly pulled the blanket down to fully expose Azusa's wound under the dim luminosity of the fireplace. The gash had already stopped bleeding, however, making the brunette rethink her decision.
Should she risk it?
It was the courier who answered her question with a pained mewl as her nightmares returned. The Spectre wished to wake her but that would not do her any good. Steeling herself, she reached for the black-haired woman's shoulder and examined the wound carefully before sprinkling some of the medicine over it. Will that be enough…? The brunette wondered as she watched the powder remain on top of the lesion. She nibbled her lower lip as she shifted her gaze towards Azusa's face. Silently, the brunette whispered an apology to her before taking a sharp claw and slowly embedding its tip into the stitches' tear until gobbets of blood seeped through the wound. The courier had flinched of course but she did not wake.
An ominous sign.
Quickly wiping the red liquid away from her claw, the Spectre tore her eyes from the small globule of blood that mixed with the powder and firmly planted her gaze on the courier's face. She refused to be seduced by that shade of red after her episode just minutes prior. The Spectre focused on the sick woman's expression, then her lips. Azusa was grimacing again, most likely due to her injury. It pierced the brunette, this expression of agony, and made her wonder if she was doing the right thing. But then again, she thought, this was better than waiting for Azusa to succumb to her scorching fever.
She extended her hand towards the courier's lips and took a moment to smooth the crease of her fitful scowl by carefully using the pads of her fingers. The Spectre recalled that her mother did the same to her in order to persuade her take bitter-tasting herbs or drink similarly tasting teas. It calmed her and allowed her to gather the willpower to ingest such foul things. She did not know if the gesture would have the same effect on the courier until Azusa's grimace loosened into a frown.
"Please…" The Spectre spoke even though she knew the courier might not hear her, "this will help you." She then peppered some of the medicine into the messenger's slightly parted lips and, as gentle as a feather, swept any straggling dust into the courier's mouth with her thumb.
Azusa coughed, obviously unprepared for the medicine in her mouth, and opened her carnelian eyes. Upon sighting them, the Spectre could not help but flinch away, feeling guilty for making the courier take something without her knowledge. But the black-haired woman continued to hack as the powder irritated her dry throat. Realizing that Azusa needed help, the brunette immediately reached for the glass of water she had prepared hours before and timidly helped the courier raise her head so she could drink. After a few frantic gulps of water, the black-haired woman coughed once more and gasped for air, fisting the blankets as she conquers the stings in her throat. Perplexed, all the Spectre could do was support her to keep her upright and stroke her back.
"W-what was…?" The courier tried to speak but her words were quickly smothered by her irritated throat.
The Spectre took a moment to think of the proper words to tell the proper words to tell the sick woman. "Medicine…" She told the courier but she was unable to tear her eyes away from the couch's armrest. She did not want to look at those carnelian eyes.
The brunette flinched, "A doctor used to live here, and I found some of his medicines. D-don't worry… I-I know that particular one. It should help…" She then moved away from Azusa and sat on the floor. She stared blankly at the hem of her dress as her mind wormed through distant images, much like a child who was lost in an extensive gallery of nameless paintings, and tried to put a face to the name no matter how vague it was. When she saw the courier wince due to her lightly bleeding wound, however, the Spectre snapped out of her trance and instinctively pressed one of the cloths she had salvaged from the manor's cabinets against the injury. The gesture earned her a hiss from the disoriented messenger.
"I-I'm sorry…" The horned woman said timidly, unable to tell the courier that it was she who reopened the wound.
Azusa's eyes were clenched shut as she tried to desensitize herself from the strange sting on her shoulder. Gradually the tension relaxed and she was able to open her eyelids once again. She gave the Spectre a sidelong glance as she rested her head against the couch's backrest, "H-How long have I been asleep…?"
The brunette frowned, "Hours…" was all she could say. She was certain was it was evening already, judging from the faint light in the study when she searched for the medicine. But it was hard to tell for thick clouds and the pitter-pattering of rain still dominated the sky.
"I-I see…" The courier breathed shakily, but as she said those words, she did not appear to be fully aware of her surroundings. "My… apologies for imposing…"
The Spectre shook her head, "Y-you're sick and… it's the least I can do…"
She watched the black-haired woman gradually lose consciousness against the couch, evidently still exhausted. Wordlessly, the brunette kneeled in front of the delirious courier and gently lowered her head back on the pillow. She gazed at Azusa's tired yet peaceful expression as she slept. After loosely wrapping the cloth around Azusa's shoulder to impede her bleeding, the Spectre pulled the blankets up towards her chin, tucking the courier in warmth she so desperately needed to combat her illness.
The brunette reached for the wet towel beside Azusa's head and used it to wipe the sweat off the messenger's brow. She fervently hoped that the courier would recover now that she got some medicine. Yet she would have to wait and see if the concoction was still effective. If it failed and the woman's fever did not let up…
I wouldn't know what to do anymore…
..another life is slipping away through my fingers.
Sighing, the Spectre leaned against the one of the couch's legs and gazed down at her hands. She should be used to feeling helpless, useless in the face of tribulation. She had done nothing to help anyone before. She could not even help herself in the past. The brunette sighed despairingly again before taking the small food pouch that had been hanging from her wrist and held it in her clawed hands. She was given hope through this humble item. Even though it was empty now, it filled her with something inexplicable yet wonderful. Could she offer something similar to Azusa in return?
She looked over her shoulder and listened to the courier breathing evenly in her slumber. She looked more relaxed now since the grimace of pain she had worn ever since she returned to the manor was absent on her child-like face. Her lips were slightly parted and her damp fringes were strewn about her forehead. The Spectre idly wondered how young Azusa was, and why she was involved in such a dangerous profession. The courier did not look any older than she did when she—the Spectre halted her thoughts and pressed them deeper into her mind. Curious, the brunette stirred to push Azusa's bangs away from her face in case it bothered her sleep but ceased her movement when her claws came into her view. For the briefest of moments, the brunette saw the talons of a wild animal attempting to ensnare this defenseless woman. Horrified of her own limb, she mutely replaced it on her lap.
Don't forget what you are.
But what am I exactly?
Seconds passed, then minutes. Before long the Spectre had counted thousands of tick tocks as she watched over the person she had been attempting to care for. She grimly wondered just how many of them she had endured now. Just how many grains of sand had already fallen through the hourglass ever since that day she bid her farewell to the light?
She left the courier's side in order to distract herself by feeding the weakening flame in the fireplace with the odds and ends of furniture she had torn down over the years. She then left the room without another glance. Being so close to Azusa made her remember how she was not who she once was. The courier reminded her of what she could never be anymore. She did not fault her though and blamed herself instead. Or at least she tried to. How could she blame herself when she did not even know who she was, what she was? How could an apparition try and judge a phantom? How could a monster punish a demon identical to itself? How could a wingless angel defy God?
The Spectre blindly walked down the corridors, unseeing and unaware where her clawed feet led her through this maze of memories, this labyrinth of sorrow. She thought of how she could further help the courier because she realized that helping Azusa made her feel more human even though she knew she was just pretending to be one. She could dote on her, assist her, and take care of her, but would that erase the horns from her head, peel the scales off her legs, or remove the claws from her hands? No, that was impossible. But there was nothing wrong with giving kindness, was there? It was all she could offer. It was all she had. She was a mere patchwork of essences that should never be, of entities that could never fabricate who she once was.
She existed yet she did not at the same time.
A true Spectre.
How could she feel? How could she see? How could she breathe these familiar scents? How could she embrace this shadow of an existence?
"You should be a philosopher, Dear. You ask the most profound questions."
"Is that bad?"
"Of course not, Darling, I just didn't expect such a wise daughter. Your sister is very intelligent as well but…"
"I just read it in the book you gave me, Mommy."
"Oh? But it was a mere fairytale. Where did those questions come from?"
"The Beast asked in the story after the beautiful lady left."
"Even most grown-ups can't answer those questions, Ui."
"But I want to know."
"I'm sure you will when you're older. You'll be such a beautiful person, wise beyond her years, who can answer even those difficult questions."
"Mother…" the Spectre exhaled as she whispered into the wind. "Do you see me now? Did I become who you thought I would be?"
No… She clenched her right hand bitterly, even though she knew that her mother would never say such a thing. She silently hugged herself as she continued to saunter towards a destination she held close to her heart. The stale air gave way to a gentle breeze as the darkness faded into a subdued clarity. The invisible tendrils that caressed her uneven locks carried a floral scent that was very reminiscent of her mother.
"Are you there…? Where are you?" She hopelessly asked the empty space before stepping out of the corridor's blackness. A world of faint light and gentle song greeted the Spectre as she exposed herself to the crying sky. Her feet left the hard surfaces of flagstones and stepped onto more forgiving soil.
Her feet sank minutely before the soft loam embraced her calloused toes.
She had meandered into her mother's garden, a small expanse of white and purple within this desert of grey and rock. This placed used to be a glowing beacon within this manor, a source of light from the heavens. But as the sky wept its lament, it looked like a counterfeit reflection of what it used to be. Once upon a time, lush bushes of lilacs encircled the garden's perimeter, creating an ethereal mauve cloud around this circular haven. Within the crown of lilacs, white poppies bordered the triangular base of an altar. Their wide-reaching petals welcomed the pillar of light that illuminated the garden as their deep amethyst centers showed reverence to the angel statue that stood proudly at the very center of this floral shrine.
The Spectre looked up at Archangel Raphael as she stood under his kind gaze. He showed the smallest curve of a smile, alleviating the worries and pains of whoever looked up at him. His marble wings gently fanned outward, as if ready embrace those who needed salvation. On his right hand was his characteristic flask that was said to contain God's wonders, while on his left he held his staff ready to guide lost spirits to their destination.
After staring at the Archangel's blank eyes, she then glanced over the remnants of the garden's vegetation. The lilac bushes were still there; their woody branches still barren due to the chill of early spring. The poppies were long gone, however, the horned woman could only discern dried up stems on the mossy ground.
Of course they were gone, she thought, they have done their purpose. She then approached a sleeping bush and hooked a finger around a barren branch. Her fingertips felt small knobs on the thin twig as she was immediately reminded of time spent in this small sanctuary.
"Over here! Come quick!"
"Mind your steps now. You might slip on the fallen petals."
Her mother was sitting on a stool, busying herself in front of her easel as she painted the delicate hues of the abundant flowers onto her canvas. Long sienna hair shimmered under the bright sunlight as a gentle breeze induced them to dance like a silken curtain. There was a content smile on her lips, probably due to the light laughter of two young girls prancing about the garden pretending that the falling purple petals were snowflakes.
"There are so many of them!" The smaller of the two girls expressed in wonder, her umber eyes widening as she watched mauve petals circling and twirling before they fell over her.
"I know~ just like snow!" Her sister grinned before attempting to catch one of the elusive purple fairies. "Except they're not cold! Even better, right?"
She giggled, "You have lot of them on your head, Sister."
"Oh?" The older girl blinked then lowered her head before giggling as well, "Brush them off for me, Ui~"
"Okay!" Happy to help, the little girl wearing a short ponytail reached her tiny hand towards her sister's head and gently brushed the petals away, only to see that there was more of the mauve dust on her sister's sienna hair before she was even done. She looked up and saw her chuckling mother sprinkling the petals over their heads.
"It's raining petals!"
"Mommy is making it rain petals."
"Eh?" Blinking, her sister turned around to see if she was telling the truth.
"Oh, you girls are so adorable~" Their mother exclaimed before gathering both her daughters into her arms and giving both of them kisses on their cheeks.
"Yeah, Mommy, that tickles!" But even though they both squirmed to get away from their mother's feathery kisses, they both clung onto the woman's dress, wishing that playtime with their beloved mother would last forever.
A deep chuckle interrupted their little play as the girls' father came out to join them, "I knew I heard wonderful music coming from here."
"Taking a break, Sweetheart?" Her mother asked.
"After hearing you ladies laughing out here, yes, I might as well." There was an amused and slightly playful tone in her father's voice as he approached them, "They look more and more like you every day, Aki."
"Hmm, you think so?"
"Mhmm," he chuckled quietly as he reached over and brushed his eldest's hair free of purple petals before speaking to his wife once again, "You have a very silly smile on your face, Dear."
The two girls giggled loudly, "Daddy's right," the elder girl said, "You have a silly smile, Mommy."
The younger sibling looked up to see her mother's face but ended up squinting as the sun threatened to burn her eyes. All she saw was the woman's smiling lips. She could not see her mother's eyes but she knew that they must be crinkling in mirth just like the corners of her mouth.
A drop of water suddenly fell on her eyelash, making her surface from the scenic memory that played right in front of her unfocused eyes. Letting go of the twig she held, the brunette returned her gaze towards the angel's face and decided that the Archangel's smile was just like her mother's, calm and serene yet also featuring a small hint of playfulness.
However, despite his perpetual smile, Archangel Raphael seemed to be weeping in grief and sorrow as the rain streamed down his pale marble face like a beacon of hope despairing in solitude.
"You remember, don't you? The people who prayed to you," the Spectre asked the statue before her eyes were blinded by the mists of rain.
The angel remained mute and continued to smile.
The brunette left the company of the lilacs' gnarly branches and ascended onto the first step of the altar. With her feet out of the mud, the Spectre watched as the rain gradually cleansed her clawed and scaled limbs, as if washing away sins that marred her very being. Drop by drop, the dirt was taken away, even the blood that Azusa had smeared on her rough white dress started to fade. She continued to watch this phenomenon in wonder, waiting to see if the divine liquid could wash her away as well and erase her very existence.
She slowly lifted her head to face the heavens, and felt its tears land on her forehead, eyelids, and lips, blessing her in its own wonderful way. She then opened her palms towards the sky to receive the same benediction, and felt the wrapping that encased her injured palm fall near her feet. The sky's sorrows then kissed the angry scar on her palm, anointing the mark with the most potent of potions and taking with it all the remnants of pain it had caused.
"Did you hear them? You were listening, weren't you?" She asked softly, her voice easily smothered by the sky's wail.
"Will you listen to me too? I… understand why my prayers were not granted before." The brunette looked up at the statue's face, "I should not ask for my own sake, shouldn't I? No matter how much I plead, no matter how much I ask, my prayers are nothing but words of selfishness if they were only for me. But there is someone here, someone who had shown so much compassion… she's gravely ill… and I can do little to help her."
The Archangel passed no judgment and uttered no words. He merely looked down upon her with his perpetual expression of kindness.
Comforted by the angel's gentle smile, the Spectre kneeled where she stood with utmost humility, clutching the empty pouch hanging from her wrist. She stilled for a moment and filled her heart with a solemn wish as water dripped down from her horns and through her hair before flowing down her cheeks. She took sanctified air into her lungs and enclosed the pouch in her intertwined fingers before saying, "Please hear me… I need your help."
"Then pray with me…"
She heard her mother's voice as she closed her umber eyes and allowed the rain to completely embrace her.
The Spectre bared her soul to the heavens and prayed.
Please heal her, she who had shown me clemency even though I offered her nothing but agony.
Save her, your lost messenger, gleaming brilliantly in this purgatory of sin,
So she may one day fly back to you.
Rejuvenate her, this wounded angel, for it is much too early for her rejoin her choir.
Spare her… and grant her a gentle fate.
Archangel Raphael continued to smile as the sky darkened further, the rain falling harder on his wings, and somberly listened to this demon who dared to pray to God for the sake of a fallen angel.
Please, hear me…
The Spectre prayed endlessly into the coldness of the night, numb to the outside world and completely immersed in her righteous hope. She prayed and prayed, praising the God that had seemingly abandoned her, entreating His benevolence and His strength. She prayed and joined the timeless world the Archangel resided in, still and unmoving, with the serenity of the angel she once was.
She pleaded and did not care how long she knelt on the hard marble. Her human soul beseeched the Almighty for the salvation of another while her fiendish form endured the cold curtain of the night. She did not tremble despite the chill. She did not move from where she implored for mercy and became like a statue in this ethereal place, her silhouette looking like a wingless gargoyle begging for its life under the scrutiny of a mighty seraph.
Yet, as the rainclouds parted an eternity later, the moon beamed down upon this denizen of darkness and casted a soft glow upon her chestnut hair.
At the beautiful sound, the horned woman opened her eyes and lifted her lips from her entwined fingers. Her gaze, so full of emotion, searched for the source of that enchanting peal and found the messenger in her prayers standing by the doorway, slightly leaning against its frame with her clothes in disarray. But even the disheveled sight was enough to fill the Spectre's heart with beatitude.
The brunette slowly lowered her clawed hands to her sides with her eyes focused on the figure against the door, captivated by the sight before her.
Azusa looked at her, tired but alert, "I… I was looking for you."
She smiled reassuringly as she wiped both her and the heaven's tears from her face, while the courier blinked in wonder.
I'm always here.
Their eyes met for a brief moment before the downpour returned.
"Rain, rain, falling, falling~"
The brown-haired woman twirled her parasol, splashing the clear liquid in every direction. She laughed blithely, the spectral softness of her voice harmonizing impeccably with quiet sobs of rain. She waltzed through the insubstantial curtain under the light shower, making absolutely no sound even as she stepped onto the muddy path.
"She is happily accompanying me with our umbrella~"
The lady smiled prettily and tilted her parasol, allowing a bit of rain to caress her feathery-soft dress. The beads slowly trickled down the fabric, landing onto the murky ground as vermillion droplets. Their vibrant hue vanished within the shadows, instantly absorbed by the darkness of the earth. Her smile remained fixed as she observed the forest around her with a faraway glint in those auburn orbs. The brunette arrived in front of the pond and crouched down in front of its rippling surface. There was only a faint reflection, an ununiformed spectrum of grey that did not shift even as the waves slice through the hazy image.
She reached out and dipped her finger into the pond, its azure color blurring into umber under the sleeping sky. She could almost see another pair of hands beside hers, also curious and expectant. Yet instead of the small, shelled reptile from her memories, innumerous bleached objects greeted her eyes even as they continued to slumber within the murky depths. They all look the same to her, those sharp and blunt edges, protruding from the cracks and piling onto stacks, indistinct and intangible. They all served their purpose though.
"Splish-splish, splash-splash, la la la~"
It was fascinating, really, that these heavenly tears hummed the same song whenever she was immersed with her work. This beautiful melody removed the dreadful silence that made time sludge by so slowly. She giggled and submerged her hand underwater, recalling the gorgeous painting she created with golden strands and golden orbs that contrasted sharply from the usual pile of raven black hair. She enjoyed gathering and creating unusual colors the most, but even the loveliest of hue was dyed with that bothersome maroon. She was very fond of the richness and creaminess of the red though.
And it didn't matter that the colors were tinted because the art she fashioned became beautiful once more, especially when she saw the smile she loved so much. Everything, everything was worth it because in the end, the smile would be eternally bright.
"Splish-splish, splash-splash, la la la~"
Funny, the same tune also echoed within the dungeons when the tools of her trade danced through the air to paint pretty colors on the walls. She had reacted instinctively back then, cracking one of those inhuman horns before it could reach her. Yet she continued to smile, unable to sing along with the melody since her throat was impaled with that osseous fragment wielded like a kitchen knife. Her smile remained even as the crimson paintbrush stroked downwards, drawing stunningly messy pictures on her chest. Even as the smile she loved so much widened and revealed sinister fangs that slowly sank into her flesh, all she did was smile.
They became one.
But they will never be together.
The lady named herself after autumn not because of the brittle evanescence of the falling leaves, but because of the subsequent stage. Until its inevitable arrival whispered the grand finale, she would bury her former existence in the special jar like the one she used to read about in those mythical tales.
But it was just the two of them right now, so there was no need to think about such things. The brunette lifted a smooth cranium from the pond and smiled at its grinning teeth. The sky was clearing yet the forest was still enshrouded in hazy darkness. The starless night was barely visible on the last drop of rain as it dripped down those empty sockets.
Laughing, she embraced the skull tenderly.
"It was night, and the rain fell; and falling, it was rain, but, having fallen, it was blood."
~ Edgar Allan Poe
End of Primus Arcus: Wounded Angel
Athyra: As heaven's tears dropped upon the earth, indiscernable ripples faded into dark maroon and signified the end of Arc1. What will rain and what will fall?
ghikiJ: This chapter was late due to my horrendously busy schedule this past month. Fortunately, college is over for me (for now at least, I am seriously considering getting an higher degree in the future), and this chapter is sort of like a gift to our readers in celebration.
Anyway, this is indeed the end of Arc1. Somehow "Spectre" has evolved into a multi-arc story, but since it keeps changing, I cannot disclose how many chapters it will have right now. I hope you liked this (really) long chapter. If things go as planned, the next one would not be this long. Illustrations will be late this time around because Athyra is trying something new with them. As usual, just stay tuned and check her DA page every now and then to see if they have been uploaded.
P. notatum is the old name of Penicillium chrysogenum, the mold from which the antibiotic Penicillin is extracted from. We are aware that Penicillin was not discovered by Sir Alexander Fleming until the 1928, which is more than a century from the story's timeline. We just decided to take liberties so the story would have a move realistic feel to it despite all the unnatural phenomenons that occur. There are many nameless discoverers whose findings were credited to others in later decades because they were not able to garner enough backing and attention, especially in those eras. Of course, we are not claiming that Sir Fleming was not the true discoverer of Penicillin, so no conspiracy theories here. However, the way the Spectre administered the medication is strictly fictional. While it is true that Sir Fleming did human testing, we simply did not have time to research how he did his studies.