Chapter 10 – The Veil Falls

Michael arrived at the eastern city gate just as the sun was about a third of the way through its descent to the western horizon.

“Afternoon, sir,” he greeted one of the guards at the gate.

“Afternoon,” the guard answered.

“I’m going to be leaving the city for a hunting trip.  Is there a permit I need to purchase or something of that sort for my entry afterwards?”

The guard looked him over once or twice.  When he saw Devil’s Cry’s badge where it hung, pinned to Michael’s chest, his expression relaxed.

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Chapter 9 – Charles

Michael tied the two bags of vegetables to one another, hung them around his neck, and moved on to the next shop on his list.  He found the shop a few stalls further down along the side of the plaza.  It sold backs, backpacks and other related items.  From it he bought a big backpack, two pairs of wooden sandals, and other essentials such as a piece of fabric with which to make a small one-man tent, and a thick woollen blanket.  The first pair consisted of three parts of wood, one flat piece on which the foot rested, and two pieces that protruded from it towards the ground.

The foot was held in place by three straps.  The first two were secured at one end to the forward vertical piece of wood through the flat piece.  They curled around and secured to the sides of the horizontal piece of wood about two thirds of the way back.  The third strap emerged from the back of the flat piece of wood, where both ends were secured, and went around the ankle.  Together the three straps kept the sandal firmly attached to the foot and prevented any tripping.

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Chapter 7 – Extraordinary Skills of a Foreign Origin

“Alright, that’s good, you’re done.” Don said, staring at the results recorded on his record sheet.

“Already?” Michael asked.

“Yes.  You can go wipe off at the pool over there, I’ll hand in your results in the meantime.  When you’re done head to the counter, they should have your recommendation ready by then.”

Michael bowed to Don slightly.

“Thank you for your hard work!” he said before heading off to the pool to wipe off the sweat.

‘My, even this is so realistic!  I feel sticky and completely covered in dust,’ Michael thought.

Don watched him walk away, and looked down at the record sheet in his hand.

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Chapter 6 – An Old Man in the Park

“Ahh!  That Doctor Wallin really is a monster!” Antoine exclaimed as he massaged his sore right hand, “He made us write a whole essay in the period.  Where does he even get the time to mark all of those?”

Next to him Lily was also massaging her writing hand.  He cheeks were puffed and her eyes frowned slightly.  It was actually a arather comical look, like a little pouting puppy.  Just by looking at her face Antoine could feel his sour mood lightening up.

‘I guess there advantages to having her as a friend,’ he thought.

“Hey, Antoine, let’s go get something to eat,” Lily said, hopping out in front of him happily.

‘She does switch between moods quite quickly,’ he thought.

“You know I can’t afford that gold you eat for food,” he answered.

Lily puffed her cheeks once more.

“Don’t be such a pooper!  I’ve told you before that you don’t have to worry about the cost.  I’m inviting you to lunch, so of course I’ll pay.”

“No, absolutely not.  I might not be rich, but I’ll pay for my own food.  If I can’t afford it, I won’t eat it.  One I’ll earn enough to pay for that gold, only then will I eat it,” Antoine said, puffing out his chest as if declaring some noble ideal.

‘Well, that’s not really the reason.  I can’t bare all those venomous stares from the other students.  If looks could kill, I would be dead the moment I sat down at the same as you.’

Of course, looks would likely not be what actually killed him.  He was keenly aware of the massive status gap between himself and the people who ate in the hall where Lily would no doubt take him.  In the Royal Academy he wasn’t just at the bottom of the social ladder, he was the ground it stood on.  How would the students all along the ladder possibly tolerate a pebble like him eating with the top step of the ladder?  If he was truly to do something like that, it was most likely that his body would be found with several dozen knives sticking out of it a day later!

‘No thank you, I like living quite a bit.’

This was one thing that Lily couldn’t overpower him on.  His holy rule, as it were; he would not eat with her.  In the three years they had known each other, he had never budged on this even once, no matter what Lily tried.  She also knew this well, and though she frequently tried to get him to eat with her, she had long since given up doing any more than make the occasional invitation.

“Fine, you go and eat that sludge you call food.  If you change your mind, you know where to find me,” she said before dashing off.

“Ugh… She really is a handful.”

Antoine stretched once more before turning in the opposite direction Lily had left.  He walked past several buildings before coming to a small park.  Well, ‘small’ wasn’t really the correct way to describe it.  It was about a whole square kilometre.  It was about the same size as his hometown, and yet it only accounted for about one twentieth of the entire surface area of the Royal Academy, excluding residences.

The campus was so massive it had taken Antoine two whole months to familiarise himself with the various building he had to go to on a regular basis, and those were spread over just a third of the entire academy.  He still didn’t know the first thing about the other two thirds.

After about ten minutes of walking, the park stretched out in front of him.  The park was a beautiful, and perfectly maintained, but hardly anyone ever used it.  It was the perfect place for someone who stood out like a sore thumb, namely him, to find a respite from everyone and everything.

Antoine sighed, and entered the park.

He walked about two hundred metres into the park before he neared the spot he usually had his lunch at.  However, instead of the usually empty bench, he found someone sitting on it this time.  It was an old man.

Antoine approached the bench from behind.  He circled it at a distance of about ten metres until he could see the old man’s face.  Indeed, the face had decades written on it.  The old man was at least seventy years old, quite possibly more.  His skin was pullled down by gravity, leaving deep wrinkles on his face.  His hair was copletely white, even his eyebrows were white.  He had a slight stubble on his face.  His face was very friendly, though.  He had a slight sile on it that appeared as though it had been carved by a mason into a mountainside.  It seemed to be as old as the man himself.  Antoine felt that the smile must have weathered everything the man had lived through right alongside him.

“Hello there, young man,” the old man greeted suddenly.

Antoine jumped slightly.  Truthfully, he had begun to wonder if the man was a wax statue.  He hadn’t seen the man breathe since he had first laid eyes on him, so the sudden greeting caught him off guard and surprised him.

The old man smiled at his surprise and patted beside him on the bench.

“Don’t worry, unlike most old people, I don’t bite,” he said amusedly.

Antoine stared at him for a moment, baffled by his sense of humour.

‘MOST old people don’t bite, you know,’ he tsukkomi’d in his mind.

He sat down beside the old man, none-the less.

“It’s fine to eat, I don’t mind,” the old man said, unperturbed by the fact that antoine had yet to greet him or introduce himself as was appropriate for a junior to do.

The words snapped Antoine out of his stupor.

“I-I’m sorry.  I’m being very rude.  My name’s Antoine.”

“Hello, Antoine.  You can call me Mister Mika,” the old man answered.

“Mika?  It’s a rare name, Uncle.”

“So I’ve heard,” was the simple answer.

Antoine looked at him for a few more momens before he shrugged his shoulders and unpacked his lunch.

It was as Lily had said, a simple sealed bowl of cold soup.  It wasn’t very tasty, but it had all the nutrition he would need, and most important of all, it was cheap.  Antoine’s scholarship gave him a small allowance, but it wasn’t much compared to how the academy priced most of the things its stores and vendors sold.

Antoine kept an eye on the old man as he took a sip from his bowl, but the old man did nothing.  A few sips later the old man couldn’t hold himself back, and smiled.

“What’s so funny?” Antoine asked in an irritated, yet respectful manner.

One never knew who one could meet in the Royal Academy.  He had to be especially careful, since a solitary old man like the one sitting beside him, all alone, was likely to be some eccentric noble.  If he angered the old man, he might just end up the first Royal Academy student in its (admittedly short) history to be jailed and executed.

“Oh, nothing much, really.  I just find your way of eating refreshing,” the old man said.

‘Sure enough, he is an eccentric noble,’ Antoine thought.

“Refreshing?” he asked.

“Yes.  Most of the nobles are so concerned with etiquette and image that they completely forget about the simplest truth about eating and food.”

“And that is?”

“To feed your body.  If possible, food should also be enjoyed, but the most basic function of food is to serve as fuel for the body.  Similarly, the simplest function of eating is to put food into one’s body.  All those convoluted etiquettes regarding what knife and fork to use when, when to eat what, what dish should be eaten first, what dishes should be served together…  They all are completely superfluous in the end.  What does it really matter?  Besides making food that is tasty and enjoyable, one should primarily be concerned with making sure that one has everything one needs to keep oneself well-fed and healthy.  Everything else is just a luxury.”

Antoine stared at the old man blankly.  How on earth did he, a noble, understand the basic function of food?  Nobles only ever ate as enjoyment.  They had never suffered through hunger or hardship.  THey’d never had to live off the most basic of meals.  They could eat as much as they wanted, and if they got sick from not eating right, they could afford to have a healer come to their mansion and heal them.  What did they know about eating healthily and making to have a balanced diet?

The old man smiled again.

“I know what you’re thinking.  ‘What does an old noble like me know about hardship and hunger, how could I know about eating healthily, and appreciate the basic function of food and eating’, right?”

Antoine couldn’t help but nod.

“How about i tell you a story?” the old man asked, “You don’t have to worry about missing your class, I’ll explain everything to your lecturer, they’ll understand.”

Again, Antoine couldn’t help but nod.

“Ah, let’s see, this was many years ago.  What has it een, fifty-three, fifty-four years?” he began.

 

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Chapter 5 – A Crimson Coloured World

The trees flashed by quickly.  Several rabbits were startled as shadows streaked by them.

“What on earth is Migal thinking?  I thought the frail were supposed to be a little smarter than the brawny, but his brain seems to be just as shrivelled up as his body!”

“Shut up and move faster.  We have to catch up to him!”

The group sped through the forest as fast as they could.  They didn’t bother to pay attention to how much noise they were making, nor trying to keep that noise low.  They simply pushed their bodies to move as fast as possible.  If they weren’t fast enough, surely their comrade would be dead.

However, as they came closer to the source of the naked devils’ smell, Dawn slowed them down.  Something wasn’t right.  They should be hearing sounds of combat by now.  Sure, Migal was much weaker than any of the other howlers of his or the previous generation, but the difference in strength between howlers and naked devils wasn’t small enough that his comparative weakness should allow him to be so quickly and easily dispatched.

A few steps later, however, Dawn winced.  He grew even more unsettled.  This time it was not due to the absence of sound, but the presence of two strong scents, and the contradictory picture they portrayed.

The first of the two smells was that of blood, not howler blood, but naked devil blood.  In essence this wasn’t surprising.  Even if Migal had been defeated, he should have put up a decent fight, his hatred alone would have allowed him to inflict severe wounds on his opponents – even had he been a naked devil – and given that he was a howler, his strength should have been enough to even mortally wound or kill one or two of them.  What truly unsettled Dawn, though, was the second smell.

A stench of urine stained his nose.  It seeped into his nostrils and carved its way into his olfactory nerve.  It made him want to sneeze.  The smell would have been enough to overpower even the horrible sense of smell of naked devils.  Howles’sense of smell was several times more sensitive and acute than that of naked devils, so it was even worse for them.  Several of the other members of the group couldn’t supress their reflex and bellowed out sneezes that echoed into the forest.

Dawn gave them an angry glare, but couldn’t reprimand them.  They had no experience when it came to hunting, or combat, and couldn’t really be relied on much.  Besides, he was more concerned by what the smell signified.

Urine was released naturally when an animal died.  After the initial muscle convulsions that followed shortly after death as the muscles fought for air, they would all relax.  This included the sphincter muscles that kept the bladder closed.  This was true for all animals with bladders.  However, the amount wasn’t typically all that much.  Since the animal would typically be laying down, there wasn’t too much pressure to force the urine out of the bladder.  Whilst there would be a smell from the little that leaked out, it shouldn’t be anywhere near this strong.  This strong smell could only come from a complete bladder discharge.  Which meant that the dead had relieved themselves before their death.

As for the nature of the smell itself, that also told him two important facts about the situation that lay beyond the next couple of trees.  First off, each species had a different smell to their urine, and he could clearly tell this was naked devil urine, not howler urine.  This told him that Migal wasn’t dead.  But if he wasn’t dead, then where was he?  And why was the fight over already?

The second thing about the urine, was that amidst the normal stench of urine, there was mixed in the distinct flavour of fear.  It was the smell of a particularly intense kind of fear, a terror that shook the very core of the reliever.  The naked devils didn’t just die in fear, they died in abject terror.

This kind of terror, however, wasn’t something howlers could cause.  For all the evils of the naked devils, Dawn had to give it to them, they were smart.  They had come to understand the nature of the howlers, and the limits of their capabilities, so when faced with a howler, even a particularly desperately fighting one, much less a frail one such as Migal, they shouldn’t be releasing urine at all, not to speak of urine that wreaked of sanity destroying terror.

‘What exactly happened down there?’ Dawn thought.

If not for the absolute trust he had in his own sense of smell, he might have thought that some other, as yet unsmelt, creature was involved.  He drummed up his courage and determination with a cold ‘humph’ at his own hesitation, and stepped forward.

“Come on, let’s move!”

The others hesitated for a moment before following him.  They closed the remaining distance slowly and quietly.  Nowhere along their approach could they hear any sounds; the forest was completely silent.  The silence was to the extent that they could hear their own hearts beating, and their compatriots’ breathing.  Despite the attention they paid to being silent, they could hear their footsteps.  No leaf rustled.  No nocturnal birds chirped.  No animal moved, even in the distance.  It felt like they were in the graveyard of a vampire’s castle town.

The trees suddenly thinned, and they were confronted with a scene they had never seen before.  Out of the group of fifteen wolves, only Dawn had seen something in the same hemisphere as this.  The group grabbed either their stomachs or mouths in unison.  Some turned around and emptied their stomachs, whilst others couldn’t turn around fast enough and their lunches spewed forth in arcs.

The word in front of them was crimson.

The red covered the leaves like early winter snowfall.  It clung to the bark of the trees like honey.  Chunks of firmness hung on low hanging branches.  A few arms could be distinguished, and a hand clung to the hilt of a spear as if still ready to pierce through anything that approached it.  A head lay next to what seemed to be the leftovers of a cuirass, probably belonging to the leader of the former group.

“What, what’s going on here?” Kor asked.

“Wh-What happened?” Dick followed.

“This, this looks like the gateway to hell…”

“No, this, this… I don’t know what this is.”

“A slaughter.”

Everyone stared in disbelief, some vomited a second or even a third time.  Dawn took a step forward, and as if moving purely based on his body’s own momentum, he walked.  It couldn’t really be called walking, it was more like his body was drifting forward, and he was just keeping his legs beneath it.

“Migal,” he called out.

There was no answer.

The sound of incongruent whimpering entered his ear.  It appeared to be coming from behind a tree at the other end of the crimson world.  A pair of legs lay before the tree, and a blood trail led around it.  His body moved to the tree, and as he peered around it, he found the upper half of the body there.

The naked devil’s intestines were trailing in a small arc back the way the blood trail came.  It was holding a small pendant in its hand, whimpering what Dawn could only assume was meant to be a religious recitation, or perhaps what the naked devils called a ‘prayer’.

Its face slowly lifted to look at him.  Its entire face shook as it did so.  It seemed as though it was freezing from the cold, even though winter was still far away, and it was laying square in the fading afternoon sunshine.  In its eyes Dawn saw terror, and elation?

“P-Please…” the devil whimpered.

Dawn knelt and placed his ear closer to hear the last words of the devil.  It might be a naked devil, but the dying could be extended at least the small courtesy of having their last words heard.

“P-Please…” the whimpering came again, “k-kill me… Before, it c-comes back…”

The voice faded, and all life left the devil’s eyes.  The terror, however, remained, destined to remain in those glassy, lifeless eyes until they rotted away.

‘What, what demon did this?’ Dawn asked himself, ‘What being could move so swiftly.  What creature could kill these notoriously tenacious naked devils so quickly, and instil in them a fear that made them ask the creatures traditionally their enemies, for the mercy of death?  And more importantly, what did it do with Migal?’

It was at this moment that the rest of the group had finally managed to cross the clearing, and came around the tree.  When they saw the upper half of the devil, several convulsed as if to vomit, but their already empty stomachs refused to give them the satisfaction of expelling something from their bowels.  In the end, they could only convulse stupidly, like a fish struggling to breath out of water.

“What do we do now, boss?” one of the group asked.

“We spread out and search for him,” Dawn answered after collecting himself, “Since there doesn’t seem to be any indication that Migal is among those here, whatever did this must either have him, or be chasing him currently.”

Kor raised a paw, as though they were still sitting under the old tree of wisdom back near the cave.

“What is it, Kor?” Dawn asked.

“If the thing was powerful enough to do this so quickly, wouldn’t we only be making ourselves more vulnerable than we already are by splitting up?”

“Damnit!” Dawn slammed his fist into the tree, causing several pieces of bark to splinter off and fall around the corpse, “You’re right.  Alright, we’ll have to search for him together.”

“Can’t we just leave him and return to the cave?  If there really is a monster that can do this, we need to warn the rest of the pack, and Migal was the one who rushed off without a concern for his own safety in the first place!” another voiced their protest.

None of the others said as much, but they nodded in agreement.

‘Ah, they really haven’t had a chance to learn anything yet,’ Dawn thought, ‘If we howlers were so quick to abandon our own kind, we would have gone extinct long ago.’

“No.  We need to find Migal.  It would be a complete disgrace if we were to return to the pack without him,” Dawn added underneath his breath, “or at least a piece of his corpse.”

He shook his head once again and looked at everyone with the stern face he knew they all needed to see from the alpha-male in the group right now.

“Spread out and search around the edge of the clearing.  Find me some trail of blood that could indicate in which direction Migal and whatever did this went!  With this much blood around, there’s no way they didn’t get some of it on their feet.”

The others nodded and immediately spread out.

 

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Chapter 4 – Hymn of the Night Sky

Well, it’s time for another chapter, chapter 4 this time, and also time to introduce the final of the three primary protagonists.  I also went with a different style in this chapter.  I focused a lot more on dialogue, as I wanted a condensed characterisation.  Let me know what you think and if you’d like to see more of this style in the future.


The group continued their march through the forest.

“The Naked Devils will never catch us.  They’re so loud when they move you could hear them from hundreds of strides away.”

“Yeah.  Unlike them we Howlers are born to the forest.  We know how to move through the forest: like the stars in the night sky.”

“Hear, hear.”

Migal only rolled his eyes.

‘Aren’t you being noisy now?’ he thought.

“Don’t you agree, Migal?”

“Don’t bother.  He’s even quieter than us.  I’ve only heard him make a sound twice since he joined us, and both times it was a fart!”

The rest burst out in laughter.

“Migal the Mute isn’t called that for nothing, I guess.”

“Quiet down.  You’re worse than the devils,” the leader silenced them.

Dawn was the leader of this hunting party; a tall, brawny howler.  He was named for his fur coat, which was like the dawn: a soft yellow-orange that darkened as it descended from his head to his tail, the tip of which ended in a flash of crimson.

“Yes boss!” the rest answered, and nothing could be heard from them for quite some time.

The group moved non-stop for several hours, only stopping once the nightsun was high in the sky.

“We’ll stop here for the night,” Dawn said when they reached a small patch of thinned forest.

The group immediately found small spots for themselves to rest.  Each claimed a tree and curled up next to it.  It wasn’t long before the majority were snoring away.  Migal didn’t fall asleep, however.  He waited until he was sure everyone was out cold, and snuck off.  He crept up the hillside until he found himself above the treeline, in a clearing at the top of the hill.

Above was a canopy of stars.  They were bright, shining like diamonds in the dark of the night.  Each had its own hue, its own shimmer.  He found himself a spot where the ground looked softer, and the grass a little greener, and lay down.  With his hands beneath his head he lay, gazing up at the sky.

Slowly, a lonely, solemn voice drifted from the hill-top.  It flowed down the hill and into the forest, weaving its way through the trees.  It found its way to a stream, where it drifted with the current, away into the unknown.

No matter how much I draw, it doesn’t become beautiful

The paints that I chose are not at fault

That shooting star I saw last midnight

I can still remember it

I was waiting for you

Hello shooting star, Hello shooting star

Again

I’ve been waiting for you

That girl who dreams

Is still right here, ah ah

Just like that day, ah ah

Hello shooting star, Hello shooting star

Again

I’m waiting for you

Please don’t stop dreaming

Even if you’re crying, ah ah

Even if you’re smiling, ah ah

Shine again and dispel

The darkness in my heart

The shadow in my soul (1)

The night, which was quiet already before, was completely silent when the voice faded away at last.  A shadow emerged from the forest, ascended the hill-top, and came to a sit next to Migal.

“It’s a sad song.”

“Ah,” Migal answered.

“Where did you hear it?  It’s not a song I know.”

“It drifts around in my dreams.”

“You hear songs in your dreams?” Dawn asked, “I thought all howlers dreamt of only two things.”

“And what would those two things be?”

“Hunting and howling at the nightsun, of course,” Dawn looked at Migal, slightly baffled, “It seems what they say is true.”

“They say many things; you’ll have to be more specific than that.”

“You really aren’t very good at being a howler, are you?  You don’t dream of hunting or howling.  You don’t howl at the nightsun, but instead you hymn to the stars.  You’re not big or brawny, and you refuse to hunt deer or any other animal for that matter.  I’ve heard all you eat are roots and plants, is that true?”

“I do hunt,” Migal answered.

“Oh?  What do you hunt?”

“Naked devils.”

Migal’s lips curled into a snarl as he spat out the two words like so many pieces of rotten meat.

“So that’s true as well.”

“What?”

“You have a deeper hatred for the naked devils than most.  I wonder why that is.  As far as I know you haven’t had any noteworthy encounters with them.  None of your family have been killed-“

“I don’t need to have lost someone to that filth to hate them.”

“…I see.”

Silence descended on the hill-top for a few minutes before Dawn spoke again.

“So tell me, why did you come on this hunt?”

“You really do talk a lot, you know that?”

“I do, now tell me.”

“Ah… You’re supposed to pass at least one hunt to become an adult, right?”

“That’s true, but only if you want to be allowed to leave the pack on missions, or if you want to join another pack.  You can live a good life within the pack even if you don’t pass a hunt.”

“I need to pass the hunt.  I have naked devils to kill, and they won’t be polite enough to come to the pack for their deaths.”

“Ugh, there you go again.  Why exactly do you hate the naked devils so much?”

“I have my reasons.”

“Humph.  Kid, let me tell you this: it would be best if you stayed at the back of the group for now.  Your slim body doesn’t have much strength in it, you’d only get hurt if you tried to do more than you’re capable of.”

“I don’t need lecturing.  I might not be as strong as any of you, or look as intimidating, but I kill just fine.”

“Don’t say I didn’t warn you.”

Dawn said as he stood up.  He descended the hill, heading back into the forest.  His voice echoed from the treeline.

“Don’t fall asleep up here, you’ll catch a cold.  I don’t want to have to carry you around for the rest of the hunt!”

Migal drew his knees against his chest and stared at the mountains in the distance.

“I’m not as weak as you think I am,” he whispered.


The morning was slow to come.  Migal spent most of the night gazing up at the stars as they marched across the sky.

‘How marvellous would it be if people were like that?  Just always walking the right path.  Marching to their destiny, never swayed by temptation or greed.’

He stood up slowly, and left the hill-top as the sky began to brighten and the stars fade.  He arrived back at the resting place of the group just as Dawn was kicking everyone awake.

“Come on, get up!  It’s time to get moving you bunch of bastards!” He laughed as kick after kick landed on the howlers, rousing them from their slumber.

“Oh, damn boss.  Why do you always have to kick us awake?  Can’t you nibble my ear or something instead?” Kor protested.

“Shit Kor, I didn’t know your tail curled!” Dawn rebutted.

Everyone burst out in laughter.  Some even rolled on the floor.

“Dick, you’ll have to be careful.  Next time you might want to pick a tree further away from Kor!”

“Stop it! You guys know I didn’t mean it like that!”

The teasing continued for several minutes, and by the time everyone had calmed down, the rude wake-up call was all but forgotten.

“Right, enough playing around.  We’re heading out.  We should be reaching the hunting grounds soon, so stay alert and keep an eye out for good pray!” Dawn shouted as he started heading off into the forest.

Everyone followed and soon the group had already travelled several thousand strides.

The forest was lush.  Every possible paw of ground was covered with one kind of foliage or another.  From his time spent in the forest, Migal could identify most of the plants, and those he couldn’t he knew he didn’t have to pay any attention to.  He knew every one of the important plants, the poisonous and the edible, everything else was useless and didn’t pose any threat to him.

The group was immersed in their banter the whole time, but Migal didn’t participate.  He remained as silent as the night.  Only his breathing, and the gentle swoosh of his tail kept Dawn aware of his presence.

“He’s quite silent that guy.  Not just doesn’t he talk, but his movements all seam deliberately made to be as quiet as possible.  I can’t hear any unnecessary sound coming from him.  If not for his weak physique, he would make a pretty decent hunter.  Ah, all the talent is wasted on the weak.’

Dawn could do nothing but lament nature’s twisted sense of humour.  Why was it that those with the brightest minds, or the greatest talent, always had the worst bodies?  His own elder brother was one such person: blessed with great tracking skills, but born without a tail.  Whilst this didn’t impede his normal day-to-day life, it prevented him from hunting.  The tail was essential to maintaining balance and performing fast and tight manoeuvres.  Without it there was no way one could catch anything faster or more agile than a tortoise.  As a result, his brother was relegated to teaching the concepts of tracking, whilst Dawn himself had to take the groups of youngsters out to practice their knowledge in the field.

‘Oh well, we each do what we can,’ Dawn thought.

He shook his head lightly and didn’t pay it any more heed.  He had a job to do after all.

The group slinked through the forest.  The sun slowly climbed up into the sky where it seared a golden hole in the azure blanket.

“Migal, come over here,” Dawn called.

“Ooo, seems Migal is in trouble,” one of the group teased.

“Doesn’t it seem like the boss has been far chattier with him since this morning?”

“You can’t really call that chatting, can you?  He’s the only one talking.  All Migal does is grunt or nod or shake his head from time to time.”

“That’s about as chatty as he’s likely ever to be, and it’s far more than he’s ever been before, wouldn’t you say?” Kor interjected.

“Of course, curl-tail Kor would know a lot more about how other males act, wouldn’t he?”

Everyone laughed.

“Come on, drop it already.  I told you guys it’s nothing like that!”

Migal glanced at them over his shoulder for a moment before merely shaking his head.

“Bunch of useless brats.”

“Ah, you shouldn’t be so self-deprecating, Migal.  You’re not completely useless,” Dawn answered sarcastically.

Migal only shot him an irritated glance before falling into silence once more.  A few minutes passed in such partial silence.

Suddenly, Migal stopped dead in his tracks.

“What’s the mat-” Dawn only uttered half his sentence before shutting up immediately as well.

“Hey, shut up back there!  Get down!” he yelled at the group behind him.

He turned back to Migal, observing him quietly.  Migal’s nose twitched several times, and his ears moved from side to side, scanning his surroundings.  A fire ignited in his eyes, and his lips curled into a demented, devilish smile.

“Naked devils.”

The words had barely left his mouth before he vanished into the trees.  Dawn felt a cold spark run up and down his spine.

‘So much hatred,’ he thought, ‘What exactly birthed such a loathing, such a thirst for vengeance in that kid?  Nevermind that, where did he go?  I can’t hear anything.  Is his stealth that good?’

Dawn was puzzled for half a moment before his eyes widened.

“The fucker!  He’s a complete idiot.  What can he do against a group of eight or more naked devils?”

He turned to the rest of the group.

“Listen up you bastards!  That idiot Migal rushed ahead at a bunch of naked devils like an idiot!  We better move and save him!”

“Oh come on!  It was bad enough that he was dead weight on the trip so far, but now he’s even sinking and dragging us with him?  I’m going to beat him up when I get my hands on him!” someone protested.

No one disobeyed, however, and the group dashed forward, trying to catch up to the shadow that slowly disappeared in the canopy amongst the branches and leaves.

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  1. Lyrics adapted from Hello shooting star

Chapter 3 – Predator and Prey

The image in Antoine’s mind overlapped with the man sitting in front of him, and the two merged into one seamlessly.  He gave a deep bow.

“Good morning, Your Royal Majesty,” he greeted before slowly returning to the vertical.

The Emperor merely smiled at him and gestured majestically to the two seats in front of the desk.  Antoine took his seat, paying attention to always maintain a straight, neat posture.  Even in the seat, he could not relax.  The agonising seen of earlier that afternoon kept coming up in his mind every time he thought about relaxing.

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Chapter 2 – The old Emperor and the young Assistant

Author’s Note:

I felt that this chapter was too short and didn’t have enough happening in it to merrit being a regular chapter.  I try to have my chapters be around 2 000 words long.  So from now on, if a chapter is shorter than around 1 700 – 1 800, I will publish it on a Wednesday as a bonus chapter!  Unless I only finish it afterwards, in which case I’ll release it alongside the regular one on a Sunday.

Oh, and don’t forget to check the links I have in chapters (like this chapter’s one regarding epaulettes).  If I use a term or saying, or refer to something I think many might have questions about, or had to look up myself, I’ll link it in the text to help you guys out!

Enjoy!

 


 

Antoine half-trotted along.  His footsteps echoed up and down the long, wide hallway.  His pace was brisk, causing his hair to sway gently.  The right side of the corridor was lined with massive windows.  They stretched from the floor to the ceiling, and cast regular boxes of light across the hallway and onto the wall opposite.  The wall opposite, on the other hand, was a beautiful white wall.  Every couple of steps was a door leading to the office of one official or another.

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Chapter 1 – A new arrival

The world faded in in fits and starts.  It wasn’t smooth as had become the standard for similar games.  It was a sensation not too easy to describe, it was almost like a series of bubble popping.  For every bubble that popped, a new part of the world, a building, a group of people, a tree, a bench, etc., existed.

“Haa, finally I can relax a little!” a young boy sounded, elated, “I know this is supposed to be a preparatory year for when I begin to work, but they really are driving me to my wit’s end!”

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Prologue

The cicadas drummed away, their humming echoing back and forth underneath the canopy where the leaves rustled and cracked in the wind which weaved like a flame through the trees in waves deep into the forest.  The sun needled through the canopy, lensing to the underbrush where it scattered the insects whom only moved far enough to avoid the light before droning on once again.  Every now and again a stronger, more abrupt rustle trudged forth from someplace or other in the forest.

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