Arc 2: Chapter 19: Black Smoke

The darkness made of black smoke envelops him.

All around him, this darkness seems to exist.

And only this darkness seems to exist.

Ethan Kales does his best to understand this darkness, this concentration of horrendous smoke, but he doesn’t make any progress at all. Despite all his efforts at trying to come up with an explanation or meaning for it, this darkness seems to just simply be darkness.

Ethan: “Why doesn’t it ever go away?”

He questions himself.

Ever since gaining the Eyes of Truth, Ethan has seen this black smoke all around him whenever he has tried to sleep.

This is the reason why, ever since that day 12 years ago, this man had never been able to sleep peacefully. After all, this uncomfortable darkness is what he finds himself in as soon as he closes his eyes.

The sleep he finds himself in while in the middle of the smoky darkness, it can never be a peaceful slumber.

Ethan: “Just go away already!”

He yells at the smoke, but no response comes back.

Ethan: “Just … let me sleep for one night, damnit!”

He even begs, but no response comes back.

What is the meaning of this black smoke? Is there any meaning at all?

Ethan has asked himself those questions many a times, but never once had he found answers. There were no books on this subject and there was no theory he could come up with that he was able to confirm.

“You didn’t have any purpose to live.”

Yet, when a particular ‘god’ said particular words to him, Ethan found himself getting closer to unveiling the mystery of this smoke.

“It was as if, you were living for the sake of living.”

When he heard those irksome words back on the island during the reverse time dilation fiasco, Ethan’s mind froze with the image of this place coming in the forefront of his brain.

“It was as if, no, you really were … hollow inside.”

Ozyllus had given that observation of his 8-year-old self, and said that he thought giving Ethan the purpose of something as grand as saving the world would fill that hollowness inside him.

But, he had also himself realized that this boy wasn’t completely hollow either. There was … something … inside him.

Something?

*******************************

Gabriel: “Are you kidding me!?”

Gabriel Washington asks with an expression that would tell any onlooker that he is at a loss-for-words.

It makes sense for him to be at a loss-for-words though. He is looking at an apartment complex, a place where Kais used to live, being used for something completely different.

A jet – broken into a thousand different pieces – with each apartment in the apartment complex having 3-4 pieces hidden in them.

Gabriel: “Wasn’t this place supposed to be turned into something different? I had heard the government had plans to make a-”

Sneha: “Yeah, they are about to extend the neighboring shopping mart to this place.”

She says in a casual tone.

Sneha: “There job starts 2 days from now and before then, if any of them comes here, they will find the illusion of a perfectly normal and abandoned apartment complex.”

Hearing that, Gabriel Washington really finds himself at a loss-for-words.

Abgere: “Not a bad strategy to hide your stolen jet here, though, I guess it is kinda … weird.”

Sneha: “Well,”

She says with an awkward smile,

Sneha: “Weirdness is always a part of our head of the strategy department’s schemes.”

Abgere: “Please don’t!”

Gabriel: “Stop!”

They both say to her, almost at the same time.

Gabriel: “I can see Kais and Sona using that ‘head of strategy department’ bullshit but it is just plain heart-breaking to see you using it.”

Sneha: “…”

Abgere: “Although I hate to agree with him, you feel much more like a normal person than those two and so it is pretty uncomfortable seeing you use their jokes.”

Sneha: “…”

And so, Sneha Stone finds herself at a loss-for-words now.

Sona: “Are you guys done with your chit-chat? We could really use some help.”

Sona says from a distance away.

Abgere: “Why should I help? I wasn’t even-”

Sona: “Get your asses to work!”

Abgere: “… fine!”

Abgere clicks his tongue and starts heading towards the upper floors. Gabriel sighs and starts heading towards the lower floors.

Sneha, who carries the pieces of the plane from the room they were all in just a moment ago, smiles sheepishly.

Sona: “Speaking of helping though, where the heck is Ethan?”

She asks, quite annoyed by not seeing him helping.

Sneha: “He said he had some business to take care of back at his house so he’ll be joining us some time after.”

Sona: “Tsk!”

Hearing that not so comforting answer, the blonde-haired spirit-user clicks her tongue and says,

Sona: “I am gonna ask him what exactly he had to take care of when he gets here. It better be something really important or he’s going to go through hell pretty soon.”

Though she could, Sneha Stone decides to rather not comment on that statement made by the hot-head of their group.

And so, the five people continue their work as they slowly bring out all pieces of the jet out in the open and finally, with help from Sona’s spirits, Gabriel and Kais’ psychic and Sneha’s aural abilities, they reassemble the jet.

*******************************

Ethan: “What the hell do you want now?”

He asks, quite irritated, to the person on the other end of the call he is on.

Bronzer: “Are you alone?”

The man on the other end casually asks as if he’s oblivious to Ethan’s irritation.

Ethan: “Yeah, I am alone. Now what the hell do you want!?”

Bronzer sighs and it only gets on Ethan’s nerves even more.

Bronzer: “You know when I hear all these exploits of you being all cool and stuff, I think you might have matured somewhat. But I see that I was clearly wrong in thinking that.”

Ethan: “Tsk!”

Bronzer: “You can only act cool in front of those that you have convinced yourself are below you in intelligence. When having to talk to someone like me, you lose all that and become just a shell of a man who is … completely hollow inside.”

A sound of a plastic object hitting the floor does not reverberate. If it did, the sound of a Smartphone hitting the floor right now would be reverberating pretty hard.

Bronzer: “Throwing away your phone only proves my point, you know?”

With a toe, Ethan turns the call to loudspeaker mode and says,

Ethan: “I’m getting sick and tired of listening to you.”

Bronzer: “And yet, you are listening nonetheless.”

Ethan: “Tsk!”

Bronzer: “Oh, don’t be mad. I like that you have so much trust in me that you don’t hang up the phone no matter how irritated you become.”

Ethan: “Tsk!”

Bronzer: “It is trust, isn’t it, Ethan? Or … is it fear?”

His eyes starting to form a glint in them, Ethan Kales yells.

Ethan: “THAT’S ENOUGH OF YOUR BULLCRAP!”

Hearing so, the man on the other end sighs and says calmly,

Bronzer: “Alright, alright, I’ll get to the point.”

Ethan barely holds himself back from yelling pointless things at Bronzer as he listens to what the strategist of the Vampire Kingdom has to say.

Bronzer: “I am assuming you guys have teamed up with Abgere already. So, what are you planning to do next?”

Ethan can only hope that Bronzer does not come to know about Abgere having an aunt, who happens to be a psychic.

Ethan: “We are planning to go to Reid Vezalius Rosevelt and ask him some questions.”

Bronzer: “Is that so?”

Bronzer asks with a doubtful voice.

Bronzer: “I am assuming this came about because of the hints Barry left those two when they were little.”

Ethan: “…”

Bronzer: “He did leave them a lot of hints so it’s good that you guys are capitalizing on that. However,”

In a disapproving voice,

Bronzer: “It’s not like the Phoenix would just tell you what you want to know and none of you stand a chance against him so you can’t force the answers out of him either.”

Ethan’s fists tighten.

Bronzer: “I really don’t see how going to Rosevelt would accomplish anything, especially at this stage. Better to think some more before you act, Ethan Kales.”

Silently cursing him, Ethan picks up the Smartphone and says.

Ethan: “Well, I guess I didn’t think of that.”

Bronzer: “Nah, I am willing to bet you did think of it.”

Ethan: “…”

Bronzer: “And you are probably not going to Rosevelt. You probably have some other strategy in mind.”

Ethan: “…”

The voices everywhere grow silent. Silence would permeate the room if Bronzer’s voice wasn’t coming through the cell.

Bronzer: “Well, whatever your plans are, I am going to be at the edge of my seat waiting for you to reveal them.”

In this silence that is haunting for Ethan, only one man’s voice exists.

Bronzer: “Good luck, Ethan!”

Just like in that black smoke, the silence that comes about when that call ends is not comfortable at all. It’s not peaceful at all.

It’s a chaotic and nauseous silence, a silence that grips at Ethan’s soul and tries its best to tear it apart.

Ethan: “Damn you, Bronzer!”

*******************************

Six people sit in the jet as they fly off to a place not too far away but far enough that taking a train would have cost many hours.

Gabriel: “This isn’t the first time I am travelling on a jet but this experience never gets boring, does it?”

Abgere: “Yes, it does.”

The two out of the six people who have the most animosity between them glare at each other.

Abgere: “What is so fun about this anyway? It’s just a 40-minutes trip in the sky.”

Gabriel: “Exactly! It’s a 40-minutes trip in the SKY!”

Abgere: “Hah!”

Abgere mockingly sighs and looks away. Gabriel clicks his tongue in response and also looks away.

Despite his attitude though, Abgere doesn’t seem to be that bored by the journey as he stares out the window.

Since his face has already been shown to everyone here, he isn’t wearing his devil mask anymore in front of them and so, it is plain as day to see that this man is fascinated by the scenery he sees from the windows near him.

Sona: “So,”

Seeing their dispute being over, Sona intends to start one of herself.

Sona: “Where were you all this time, head of strategy department?”

She glares at the man who didn’t participate in the whole gathering up and reassembling of the jet they are travelling in.

Ethan: “… I don’t find any obligation to answer that.”

He avoids the question knowing he can’t let Bronzer’s name slip here.

Sona: “Is that so?”

Despite being a hot-head though, seeing his uncharacteristically troubled face, Sona backs down.

Sona: “Fine then. But one of these days, you are going to answer all these questions.”

Ethan smiles a bit as he says,

Ethan: “Yeah, one of these days, I will.”

That leads to silence coming back to the jet.

And once more, unlike the five people who enjoy the silence, Ethan Kales finds it uncomfortable.

He isn’t able to help but grip his chest as he tries to distract himself with his thoughts.

Kais: “You are not so hollow, you know.”

And then, out of the blue, the man sitting across him says with a serious attitude.

Ethan: “…?”

Ethan sends a questioning gaze at him, which he receives and says,

Kais: “You are not hollow inside. There’s far too much character in you for you to be considered hollow.”

Despite the soothing words, neither Ethan’s heart nor his mind feel elated at all. How can he, when he does not believe those words in the slightest?

Ethan: “You don’t know me as well as I do, Kais.”

He says without any emotions at all. But then, Kais sighs and says with a mocking smile.

Kais: “I don’t need to know about everything in the container. Even if I just know about one thing inside of it, that is enough to say that the container isn’t empty.”

Hearing so, Ethan smiles and asks.

Ethan: “And what is that ‘one thing’ you know about me?”

What would it be?

That he is calculating? That he is manipulative? That he is a half-sadist half-masochistic asshole?

None of them can really convince him on this matter, none at all.

Kais: “I know that you are emotional.”

Ethan: “What!?”

Kais: “You may try to pass it off as being impulsive but I can tell that is not all there’s to it when you run off to do things that nobody predicts you’ll do.”

Ethan: “…”

Kais: “For instance, you had a peaceful conversation with Barry and Ro, who were supposed to be somewhat like enemies to you, back on the island. That wasn’t just an impulsive decision. It was born from the emotions of being similar to Barry and having trust for him build inside of you because of it.”

Ethan: “T-that’s …”

Ethan Kales finds himself troubled, unable to deny Kais’ words.

After all, this man promised to himself to never look away from reality. And so, when his mind wells inside him that those words are the truth, he cannot bring himself to refute them.

Kais: “Emotional – is someone far from being hollow.”

Kais says with a cheeky smile, and Ethan can only lean back and sighs.

The rest of the group, somewhat at a distance, doesn’t hear much of the conversation and doesn’t take much interest in it either. And so, it stays between these two men who understand themselves much less than they think and understand each other much more than they realize.

*******************************

After a 42-minute journey through the air, their jet reaches its destination and as it starts nearing a hangar, they quickly begin their brainwashing process to manipulate all the officials on the hangar into letting them land safely and consider it a completely non-suspicious everyday landing that totally has nothing to do with stolen jets or anything like that.

Once they are done with that, Gabriel and Kais quickly disassemble the jet and teleport it back to the apartment complex.

With that out of the way, they head to the house belonging to the seer they want to have a meeting with.

And even with not much talking on the way, time passes by rather quickly as they reach the seer’s house by lunchtime.

Kais: “Go ahead!”

Kais urges Abgere, whose aunt the house belongs to, to be the one ringing the doorbell and introducing everyone.

Abgere sighs and rings the doorbell.

After a few seconds, it opens and a slim woman in her fifties, with grey hair and grey eyes, appears before them.

Abgere: “Aunt Trisha, it’s good to see you!”

He does his best to greet her in a ‘normal’ way and seeing that, his aunt, while somewhat overwhelmed, manages to return his greeting with a smile.

Trisha: “It’s good to see you too, Abgere.”

The others find themselves surprised on seeing even his aunt call him by that name instead of whatever real name he has.

Abgere: “Sorry to surprise you and all but,”

He looks back at the other five as he continues.

Abgere: “these people want your help.”

Trisha: “My help?”

She makes a confused face, as if to say that she being helpful to them looks doubtful. Seeing that, Abgere says with a wry smile.

Abgere: “They … could use a seer.”

Trisha: “Ah, I see.”

She smiles and politely gestures them all to come in.

*******************************

Sona: “For someone as edgy as you, your aunt sure seems nice.”

Sona says as she sips the cup of coffee offered to her.

Gabriel: “Isn’t that the truth?”

Gabriel asks with a mocking smile,

Gabriel: “Does she know about what you have been doing recently? Specifically, does she know about your house-visits to some of my colleagues?”

Abgere: “No, she doesn’t. And if you dare tell her, you’ll die.”

Gabriel: “Oh, I’m so scared!”

While their hostile banter continues, Kais’ and Sona’s gazes turn to Ethan, who would generally be mocking them because of how cliché their banter is but is staying quiet.

However, when they see him staring at a purple crystal ball kept on the fireplace like a decoration, they don’t say anything, thinking he might be busy analyzing it with his Eyes of Truth or something like that.

Trisha, then, comes back from the kitchen with a tray full of cookies and a warm smile.

Trisha: “Now then,”

She says as she sits on a rather comfortable chair herself.

Trisha: “who is it you all want me to Scry on for you?”

As soon as her question finishes, the answer comes from Ethan Kales.

Ethan: “If you actually go through with this, I should tell you – you’ll be committing a taboo.”

As all eyes turn to him and Trisha cocks her head in confusion, Ethan says.

Ethan: “What we want to know about is not a person but the location of a place. I am guessing you’d be able to make a list of all the people who know the location of that place through your Scrying. That is why we are here.”

Trisha: “I see. And since you said earlier that doing this would be a taboo, I am assuming Vermillion doesn’t want people to find out the location of this place.”

With eyes turning slowly to Gabriel, he quickly starts denying that assumption.

Ethan: “Vermillion, officially, has no qualms with this. However, forces beyond Vermillion are at play here.”

When he says so, the actual members of the third faction immediately think of the so-called god and the so-called devil and understand what Ethan is trying to say. The other three, however, remain confused.

Ethan: “It’ll be too much of a pain to explain so the crux of the situation is that your life will be in danger 24×7 after you do this.”

Even though Abyss wants them to find out the location of the Psychic Library despite not telling them himself, Ozyllus doesn’t want to let them near the library. So, anyone who helps them on this endeavor could be targeted by Ozyllus.

Trisha contemplates for a moment about what Ethan says and then nods with a smile.

Trisha: “I’ll help you, on one condition.”

They all look at her for her to continue and so she does.

Trisha: “Let me Scry the heart of this man before.”

She says as she points at Ethan.

Ethan: “…”

Dumbfounded, Ethan only gawks at her with a deadpan face while others agree to her condition without asking for his consent at all.

Trisha quickly brings the purple crystal ball from the fire place and places it on the table. Retaking her seat, she puts a hand on top of the ball and closes her eyes.

The others wait for something to happen as they look at the scene while Trisha keeps herself in that position for a good half a minute.

And then, the crystal ball finally starts glowing.

Trisha: “Yes, I see it now. I see your mind, clear as day.”

She says with a faint smile.

Trisha: “You were once a shell but now are not. Yet, you still consider yourself one.”

Ethan stares at her, wide-eyed, seeing for the first-time the extent of the ability called Scrying.

Trisha: “You were given a purpose by the god and the devil, and that filled the emptiness inside of you. Yet, the fact that you still consider yourself empty means that you want something more, something more than just that one purpose you have, the purpose of saving the world.”

All of them stare at her, awaiting her words, while a little of their attention lies on Ethan as well.

Trisha: “The purpose given to you to fill that emptiness is not a solid foundation, not yet anyway. It is like a smoke that covers the darkness of your emptiness but that does not change its color, as it too is black itself.”

Ethan almost asks her to stop when Trisha puts up a hand and tells him to let her continue.

Trisha: “But there is a man, within that darkness, with you. He stays in your memories, in your soul, in your heart.”

Ethan: “…”

Trisha: “You try your best to not look at him, letting the smoke cover him up. But, the strange dim light coming from him does not allow you to do so.”

Ethan Kales knows that the world is filled with monsters. And he prides himself to be a human standing among and maybe even above most of those monsters. But,

Trisha: “And even though you try your best, at the end of it all; you cannot help but fear that man, the only monster more human than you.”

But, he knows – there is someone else in the world, someone who doesn’t even have the Eyes of Truth he has, and still stands far above him, to the point that an entire race hands him their future in the hopes of winning an impossible war.

He knows this man, and he fears this man.

Ozyllus had realized 12 years ago.

Ethan Kales was not completely hollow. There was something inside him. But what was that something?

The answer to that he had realized back on the island.

It was fear, the fear of going up against the most monstrous human.

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