Four months and counting, maybe. That was a long time to be unable to do anything except think. The world was in clear focus through the eyes I no longer considered my own. I watched constantly, since there was nothing else to do. I saw Temps, I mean, my body, twist and bend to please those that ordered him, er, me about. I screamed. I threatened. I banged on the fucking wall that I could no longer push through. I was ready to try to get through the wall again, but… I couldn’t.
My emotions slipped away as well and, with an internal sigh, I embraced the role of the detached observer.
Thomas Frankie’s surprisingly delicate care was enough to get me to pay attention to every detail of every action that he made. His large hands tended my wounds every night. His pitying gaze followed Te- my movements. Regrettably, I no longer had access to my sense of hearing. The world had gone silent, so I filled in what he must have been saying to me.
I wondered how accurate I was.
If I had to have guessed, something else that was going on in his life was wavering on unsteady ground, so he began using me as an excuse to expend his energy. From how quickly he seemed to show up when my blood was watering whichever alley’s packed ground to rescue my sorry ass, I wondered if he had some sort of tracker on me.
Thomas’ delicate touches while he tried to discern the locations of my injuries were a little uncanny. I mean, really, you don’t see a big muscle bound guy volunteering to play nurse maid that often. More curious than his sudden interest in my well-being, was that he stopped taking me to see Cherise after I was peeled off the ground. It was like he was volunteering.
‘Why?’ I wondered. ‘Don’t you have something better to do with your time, you big lug? Where’s the pretty girl I know you must have wrapped around your finger?’ My thoughts never formed into words. My lips never spoke all that I wanted to say.
One overcast morning, my open eyes revealed something I had been hoping wouldn’t happen: I was losing my vision. The edges of my last window to the world were going dark. When that last connection failed, I wanted to know about what would happen to me. Not that I didn’t want to disappear, since dying seemed like a welcome freedom from my prison. I was simply hoping that I would not be trapped in the darkness of my mind forever. And, Aksa, my mind was darker than a moonless midnight locked in a basement with no windows.
It was also one of those days that the other Yin-Yang students decided it would be fun to see how close they could take me to a Restart without actually killing me. Oh, I was sure they really wanted me dead, but something told me they were more scared of what Frankie would do to them if they actually succeeded. At least when I was a living mound of flesh for him to scrape off the ground, he wouldn’t bother chasing down the kids.
Temps, I mean… oh fuck it, I had gotten into the habit of calling the body I was trapped in “Temps” since he could still hear what was going on and respond to his name, where I was tucked away in the dark recesses of Temps’ mind.
So, as I was saying, Temps was wandering over the Complex grounds unattended. I think Frankie must have said something like: “Temps! Go get me food!” After all, it seemed like we were headed to the cafeteria. My little movie changed directions abruptly and I glimpsed the Yin-Yangs loitering next to an alley, this one was conveniently blocked by a large dumpster except for a small gap. Damn.
You know those old classical horror films? The ones where you know something bad is going to happen to the protagonist and you can’t help but yell at the screen? “Turn back you stupid fuck! You’re gonna get eaten if you go in there! And for fuck’s sake, if you do go in, look up!” Yeah, that’s how I felt whenever I spotted other Yin-Yangs near secluded areas that Temps just happened to be heading. Something bad was going to happen, like it always did, and I was panicking.
Or, I would have if I still could muster the energy to hold onto my emotions. I got a small blip on the radar of emotion. A little “ping” in the back of Temps’ mind. I was a fucking “ping”.
The closer I got to the alley, the more I realized that this was going to be a very bad trip. There were only two young men waiting, but one was smiling cold enough to put a chill into the late summer air. I didn’t even know their names and they wanted my corpse in the ground. Lovely.
Temps walked into the shade of the buildings, then passed between the dumpster and the wall, into the narrow unused space.
I saw a fist bludgeon Temps’ face, then, lower, presumably in the abdominal area since my body curled up on a reflex I had gotten used to seeing. Next the face again, with a knee this time, they were mixing it up which was nice. Temps’ nose wasn’t broken yet, but it wouldn’t be long at the rate it was going…
What the fuck?
The other guy stepped in for a moment and the lights went out. This better not be fucking permanent.
I wallowed in the darkness of my mind, counting. I got to one hundred before I got bored and tried a different game. But there really wasn’t much to do when you can’t see anything and you have no physical form. I sang about beer bottles on walls, then I just sang about anything that came to me. It made no sense, but no one could hear me anyway.
A Gypsy rover went over the hill, into the valley so shady…
“Would you stop that god awful noise?”
“Fucking ungrateful mortal. Shut up and let me concentrate.”
Aksa? How was he talking to me?
“I’m a god. Now, shut up,” he growled. Like that was a good reason? Please. Cheater. Show off. Prick.
I did my best to stop thinking, but have you ever tried to stop thinking? It’s not possible. In fact, thinking how little I should have been thinking was the most thinking I had done… except for the singing apparently.
“There you are.” Fingers reached into the wall and I could see their glowing outline in the black ink that I was cocooned in. They kept coming forward until two whole hands enclosed me, cupping between the glowing palms. “Now. Try not to scream.”
Excuse me? Scream? Why would I-? Oh, shit on a burning stick. Aksa was going to pull out my soul. Soul’s were his thing when he was still a hot shot god, so I guessed he was making use of his old talents and dragging me though hell in the process. I couldn’t even imagine how much it was going to hurt, especially since I hadn’t been feeling anything a long while.
The moment I felt him start to pull his hands out again, with me in the middle, I braced myself. The soul searing, paralyzing pain that lasted a day less than eternity to me, was a small price to pay for the gift that Aksa had just offered.
Cool air traveled over me and through me, cooling the burns as I lay gasping on the hard ground of the alley. I had to squint against the sun, even in the shade it was still too much. When I could make out what was before me I stared.
Temps glared back at me, his silver eyes bloodshot and his lips split from the abuse he had just been through. His breathing was erratic as I watched some blood drip from the inside of his mouth.
“I told you not to scream,” he grumbled faintly, but to my unaccustomed ears he was the one screaming.
“Aksa?” I croaked. “What are you doing in my body?” I barely had the energy to speak. “And I didn’t scream.”
“You don’t remember screaming. Stupid mortal. Now you’ve gone and attracted attention.”
I wasn’t listening to him, since I had just realized something very terrifying. “Your hair’s black.”
“This is a surprise? Did you forget what a Carte Noire is?” Aksa tried moving my body to sit up, and could only move his right arm. “Damn, I don’t think I can force this form to move. It’s as broken as you are, mortal.”
“Look at your hand.”
I slid my hand up along the ground and forgot to breathe when it came into view. Parts of it were missing, like someone had just cut away at me and left the rest to play with later. My finger tips floated where they would have been, if they hadn’t been detached already.
Aksa went on. “The lack of use of your Skill and your confinement has caused your soul to crumble. Then there’s the gaps from where your senses were, your strong emotions have even left a large whole in your chest as they deteriorated as well. Do you see why I had to do this? You didn’t have much time left.”
“I would have died?” I asked, dreading the answer.
“No. You would have disappeared.”
I didn’t get a chance to respond. Someone rolled me onto my back and I came face to face with a young man that I didn’t recognize. He smiled down at me from his crouch. His blond hair caught the light of the sun’s rays, even in the shade. He had bright clear blue eyes that betrayed his emotions. My first thought was something along the lines of: “What the hell was a Creator doing on the Complex?” Then I realized he’d just been able to touch me, when I was nothing but spirit. Was I facing another god? This day was just getting crazier by the second.
“Well, ‘ello there,” the blond said looking between Aksa and myself. “Enjoying your out of body experience young man? Or was this against your will?” He spoke with a very old accent, and it took some concentration to understand him.
“Leave us, Sulien. He’s under my protection,” Aksa snapped, and Temps’ eyes sharpened with his fury.
“Hmm, I doubt it, Jackass. It looks to me like you’re bound for the rubbish in your state. How threatening you are from the ground,” he cooed. He flipped a hand in dismissal at Aksa’ sputtering. “Oh well, no matter. My better half is almost here.”
“No. If Temps is seen like this-”
“Loup will help.”
“Loup Sorne?” I asked, appalled. “That teacher’s pet?”
Sulien grinned. “So, you have noticed him? Good.” He rested his chin on his right hand, completely relaxed in a situation that would have had most people, or spirits, walking the other way. “And here he comes, not a moment too soon. It’s a good thing too, I was worried that poor little mortal body was going to bleed out.”
At both of our stunned faces Sulien raised an eyebrow. “You didn’t notice?”
“What? Why is Temps bleeding?” I asked.
That earned me two odd looks, and I realized that I had made the mistake of not claiming the given name that I should have.
The sun-shiny spirit traded a confused glance with Aksa. “Is he, you know, all there? About the bend a bit?” He twirled his finger about the side of his head. I glared. He ignored me with an exaggerated look towards the concealed sky.
“Sulien?” A soft voice called out. “Are you in here?”
“Yup! ‘Bout bloody time you got here too.”
“What’s going on… Oh, shit.” I saw Sorne enter the alley and falter when he spotted my body, his gold eyes passed right over me. “What happened?” he asked as he rushed forward. His chin length hair was pulled back into a short ponytail.
“Long story or short?”
“Some kids stabbed this kid, and to save his life, Aksa took out this kid’s soul and jumped right in. You know, hence the black hair.” He waved a hand in Aksa’ direction lazily.
“I didn’t pull out his soul because of a lousy knife wound. He was fading.”
Sulien turned serious eyes upon me. “He is, isn’t he?”
“Robins is here?” Sorne asked.
Sulien shrugged. “You won’t be able to see him, but yes, he’s here. Mostly, sort of, a little bit, yeah.”
Sorne was rolling Aksa on his back and pulling off his jacket to cover the wound as he spoke. “Robins? Not everyone on this Complex hates you, but I think you’ve been so focused on your own misery that you haven’t noticed. Before things got so out of hand that your parents had to drug you, you should have tried talking to someone.”
“Like you?” I grumbled.
Sulien was trying to make me sit up but his hands kept falling through the gaps in my soul. That was just freaky, actually. His hand just popped right out of my chest at one point. Ew. “He means it, kid. Now, seriously, I need you to work with me here.”
“What is going on here?” A woman asked from between the dumpster and the building, in our exit route.
Sulien groaned. “What timing you have, oh wise one.”
I was able to get into a sitting position with the spirit’s help, and to avoid staring at the holes in my body I turned my face upwards, to study the newcomer. This little alley was getting crowded. The woman was wearing a baggy sweatshirt and even baggier cargo pants. Combat boots peaked out from under the hems. She reminded me of a gang leader, all except for the long braided hair that was coiled about her head. She even had a scar that run right down over her left eye. Who was she supposed to be? Sulien had talked to her, so, with the bizzare brown colored hair, I assumed she was also a deity of sorts. Great.
Oblivious little Sorne was too focused on getting Aksa to sit up to notice his Sulien’s words. Aksa was also a little preoccupied with the pain of trying to move the battered husk I had been trapped in. I wondered if I could just stay out of it forever. That kind of freedom sounded like the best thing in the world. Assuming that I was able to piece my soul back together.
The woman glared at us with bottomless eyes.
Sulien gave in first, and something told me he had trouble keeping his mouth shut at all. Least of all when he had the ability to goad someone. I felt sorry for Sorne. “So, Zofia, what brings you to our humble abode?”
“Cut the shit, Sulien. What do you think you are all doing? Do you realize what sort of repercussions could happen if someone but our own Vassals see Temps Robins? What of the other gods? Don’t you think they might get the idea from Aksa and start pulling out souls so they can take over the bodies? This could start another Yin War. Regrettably, I don’t think we’d ever have the option of that, since you can be sure that once Sylvain Robins finds out this is a possibility, he’ll slaughter the whole clan.”
Sulien pouted. “What a speech. But you and I both know we’re not going to let that happen. And contrary to your fears, I think the deities are a little attached to their kids to just rip out their souls. Would you pull out Thomas’ soul?”
Zofia scowled. “Don’t be daft,” she said. “But there are those like Thanatos that would love a crack at taking over Sinclair.”
“Thanatos is insane and power hungry, but not all of us are-”
Growling, as Sorne maneuvered him into a sitting position, Aksa cut in. “Enough, Zofia. Sulien, shut up. We’re all here to help Temps Robins, right? As long as we can keep him alive, which is going to be quite a feat right now, then we can save the chit chat for when we have time later.”
Sorne looked around the alley, confused. To him, it was just the possessed Temps and himself, unless Sulien wanted Sorne to see him, of course. His gaze landed on Sulien and Sorne gave him a look.
“Fucking mortal, help me up,” Aksa grumbled. “We need to get off the Complex and out of the Directors’ influence.”
I studied Zofia, then asked. “Who is your Vassal?” She seemed familiar.
“Thomas Frankie, who is just about here. You should be thanking me while you can still see.”
“Ah.” So Frankie had asked her to keep an eye on me to make sure nothing got out of hand. It was an oddly touching thought. “Thank you.”
She raised her eyebrows. “I didn’t think you were the sort to be polite.”
Great. Never mind, then.
“Zofia! Good. Is Robins in here?” Frankie rumbled off as he shoved the dumpster aside to make room for his expansive shoulders. “We really need to get the fuck out of here.”
“He’s over there.”
“I see him, but why are you here, Sorne?”
The other Yin-Yang’s eyebrows pulled down. “I wanted to help.”
“Okay, then. You make sure the coast is clear and I’m going to carry this piece of shit out of here,” Frankie said, he was already heading towards Aksa. His foot went right through my stomach when he stooped to scoop up the god stuck in my body. “Zofia, ask Robins where his ID card is.”
“My sister took it when she gave me the Med Band from hell,” I responded, annoyed.
Aksa cut her off. “Cherise Robins has it.”
Frankie rolled his eyes. “And what, pray tell, must have happened when Aksa jumped into Temps’ body?”
Oh. Oh, shit.
“You think it changed to a Black Card?” Sorne asked.
Frankie glared. “You think? Now who would little Red Robins tell but her dearest dad? We’re in a bad place right now, kiddos. Sylvain Robins is on his way, and I didn’t get much of a lead on him from the time that Zofia called me out here.”
Sulien looked up at Zofia. “Could you give me a hand here?”
Sorne led the way out of the alley, followed by Zofia, Sulien, and myself supported between them. Frankie took the rear, he had tossed his jacket over Aksa’ head to cover the black hair while Aksa tried to hold Sorne’s jacket to the knife wound. We were able to make it as far as the cafeteria, which was right in view of the Complex gates when all of our luck ran out.
Framed by the open gates stood my father and sister. Next to them I could see Thanatos looming. His shoulders, though muscled, were hunched down in a slouch. His skin was ashen and his eyes were colder than the dark side of the moon. Unlike my family, which were staring at Frankie and my body, Thanatos was watching me like he thought I was the juiciest bit of steak he had ever seen. I knew then where my father had picked up some of his coldness; and a lot of the craziness.
All of us stopped well out of Sylvain’s attack range and waited to see who would make the first move.
Sylvain sneered. “I hope you were not planning on helping out the Carte Noire much more, Thomas Frankie and Loup Sorne. I would rather spare the lives of two of our students that can easily walk away. I will not suffer the abomination, that Temps has become, to live. This is your only warning.”
Cherise shifted next to him, but made no move to get out of the way of our father’s fury. I wondered why she was still there at all. And where was my mother?
Thanatos spoke. “Sulien and Zofia, you’d best take your Vassals away from here. You don’t want anything to happen to them, do you?”
“Thanatos, you’re going to have to be a little more threatening if you want us to leave,” Zofia sneered in response.
“I refuse!” Frankie barked, glaring at my father, which was something that not many people ever had the guts to do to his face. He set Aksa on his feet gently next to Sorne who immediately offered his shoulder for support. “Master Robins, I won’t do as you ask. I am under orders to keep this young man alive, and I refuse to turn my back on my leader.”
“Who is your leader?”
“None of your business.”
“Thomas Frankie, if you do not move aside this instant, I will assume you are a Rogue.”
“Go ahead, Robins.”
“If you insist.”
I had never seen my father fight before. Not like that, at any rate. He pulled his saber from the sheath at his left hip then rushed forward. Frankie stalked forward to distance himself from us, but he wasn’t stupid enough to jump into a fight when he knew little of his opponent. As he walked, Frankie strapped metal plated gloves on that covered from his hands to crooks of his elbows. “You realize that you’re breaking your own rules, by fighting me Director Robins.”
“A Carte Noire is not under the protection of the Yin-Yang rules. The abomination deserves nothing save death.”
Zofia growled and let go of me, leaving me with Sulien alone to hold me up. She stalked after Frankie. “Tell him, Thomas!”
“I declare Temps Robins as Prey just as I declare that I am his Guard. You cannot interfere where only a Stalker can!”
For a moment I thought it might work, but Sylvain laughed darkly. “You are no longer of use to us, Rogue. You are not his Guard, since he is not Prey. The Prophets have not spoken for him.”
A yawn splitting Cherise’s face brought my attention to her. She looked dreadfully bored given the circumstances, and I couldn’t help but scowl at her. Did she not care that her father was rather happy with the idea of killing her little brother? Did she not fucking care? At least she was keeping her attention trained on Aksa and not Father or Frankie.
A thunderous clang of metal rang out when my father reached Frankie. The Yin-Yang had been able to stop the saber with his gloves, but I knew he wouldn’t last for long. When compared, the grace and speed of Sylvain outclassed the stalwart weight of Frankie. My roommate might have had metal bones, but he still had all of those squishy organs that my father was more than capable of skewering through with the ease of picking a flower.
Although… Frankie really did put up a good fight and was a lot quicker than he looked. He was blocking my father’s sword with ease, but it was easy to see that he was also wearing himself out by keeping up with the Black Card. Sparks flew as the saber slid along Frankie’s right glove until it embedded itself in the inside of his elbow.
I felt ill as the skin and muscle gave way to the weapon until it rested on his humerus. Blood leaked out of the wound and soaked into the glove. Frankie stumbled, losing his concentration and he fumbled his next block. Luck saved his meaty neck. His right arm was useless and he didn’t seem ready to appropriate his defense to the use of just his left arm. The shock and blood loss must not have been any help, either.
I thought it was over for a moment, but Sylvain recoiled from a blast of air that hit him across the chest. I snapped my attention to the direction it had come from and saw Sorne stalking forward. His arms were stiff, one held in front of him and one down to the side. He was lean, like my father, but he was not intimidating in the least.
“Out of the way Frankie! You’ll die if you keep going!” Sorne snarled, sounding like the wolf that he was named in honor of.
Frankie pivoted on his feet and rolled out of Sylvain’s range. He looked back and saw Aksa slumped on the ground. He clutched his freely bleeding arm and staggered towards the possessed Temps. Zofia was beside him, watching my father warily. But she shouldn’t have worried, since the Black Card was focused on Sorne.
“You’re a promising student, Loup Sorne. I do not want you to throw you life away for a piece of trash.”
Sulien fidgeted, upsetting my balance. “Would you be alright if I went to help him?” he asked.
I smiled. “Go, he’s going to need your extra eyes to see any openings.”
Sulien let go of me with a nod and sprinted over to his Yin-Yang. I didn’t know Sorne. I didn’t know why he was helping me. I didn’t care. If he, or Frankie for that matter, got killed trying to help my sorry ass… I would never forgive myself. I didn’t deserve their aid and I wanted to be sure I didn’t owe them any service in the future.
I tipped to the right on my spiritual legs, then stabilized.
My head snapped around to stare at Aksa, he was trying to crawl towards me with my battered body. Loup’s jacket lay forgotten on the ground a few paces behind him. Blood stained the ground in a crimson trail.
“Get out of there!”
What? I spun to look around and found myself face to face with Thanatos.
The death deity leered at me. “Hello, little lamb.”
Oh fuck. I wanted to run, but being pierced by those black eyes paralyzed me.
He went on. “I have seen what you have been doing, and I have judged you myself. Only God or Satan himself can change your fate now, and I doubt they will step from their thrones to aid you. You will travel the road to Tartarus.”
“Excuse me?” my mouth wasn’t paralyzed at least.
Thanatos’ leer grew into a smirk. “My part of the Underlands for evil souls. You’ve been escaping death a little too easily, and it’s time I finished what should have happened when you were thirteen.”
I struggled to swallow, my body shook, I choked on fear. I was caught in the viper’s trap and I knew I was dead -no- worse than dead. I was able to take a step back, but I was helpless as his arm stretched out and reached towards me. His long fingers unfurled into a claw, ready to latch onto my soul.
“Damn it, Temps!” Aksa yelled. “Get your ass over here!” He was getting closer.
“Thanatos!” Zofia screamed in rage. “Leave the boy alone!”
I wanted to know how close they were to me, but I couldn’t take my eyes from the god of the underworld. “I’m sorry, Aksa,” I choked out.
“Don’t you dare fucking say that, mortal!” I heard just as I was slammed into solid blackness.