Ignis, the Vampire General of Rage, said as he heard what had happened.
It was only a day after the attack on one of their battalion’s hideouts that the news of it had reached the Vampire Kingdom’s leaders and they were all called on for a meeting.
Aquarius: “It is rather hard to believe that, isn’t it?”
Looking troubled and pondering on everything he had been told, Aquarius, the Vampire General of Serenity, leaned back on his chair as he said so.
Gaiz: “I … have to say, Achlyz, are you sure that nothing in this report is exaggerated?”
Despite looking calmer than the other two, Gaiz, the Vampire General of Storm, was more shocked after hearing about the incident than anyone else present there was.
Achlyz: “How many times do I have to say it, Gaiz? No matter how unbelievable it seems, that is what happened.”
Finally, Achlyz, the Vampire General of Silence, sighed and said it once again in a loud enough voice for all present in the meeting to hear clearly.
Achlyz: “Everything that you have been told is the one and absolute truth.”
Hearing him say so, not only were the rest of the three Vampire Generals finding it hard to believe but Valdis, the queen of the Vampire Kingdom, was having a hard time swallowing everything as well.
She had chosen to remain silent at that moment, probably because there were too many thoughts in her mind and she needed to organize them before saying anything.
Using that chance however, the leader of the Vampire Generals asked,
Reid: “Barry, isn’t the Spirit-user mentioned here the same as the one who stole a dead tiger’s teeth from one of our hideouts a few days ago?”
He asked so in a cold voice, showing no emotions. And that voice was easily the scariest of all.
Barry: “Well, what can I say? I believe you already know the answer.”
He said so with a slightly hinging smile. He surely was conflicted about this whole incident and was probably chiding Sona within his mind for doing something like this, turning the Vampire Kingdom against her.
Even with all the influence Barry had, he was not sure he would be able to stop them from considering her an enemy of the Vampire Kingdom.
Reid: “And what about the other one? That Psychic. Do you know anything about her too?”
Barry was not sure how to answer.
Sure, he could have just told the truth but maybe lying could lead to a more beneficial scenario. Maybe he could play that Psychic up as a really fearsome opponent that the Vampire Kingdom shouldn’t go up against to make sure Sona, being her ally, got some leeway.
But then again, that Psychic ran away from Achlyz without even fighting back once. How far could his lies have taken him?
Reid: “Oi, what’s wrong? Do you know her or not?”
With his eyebrows twitching in irritation on receiving no answer, Reid asked again.
Barry: “I, well,”
But then, the one man whose expressions hadn’t changed at all interjected in the conversation,
Bronzer: “Now, now. I think there is something more important to focus on here rather than if Barry knows that woman or not.”
With a smile, the strategist stated so.
Sighing, Reid looked his way with a blank expression, asking him to go on.
Bronzer: “Whoever that Psychic was, she was certainly skilled, wasn’t she?”
Achlyz: “Yes, she had a few tricks up her sleeve, I guess.”
Achlyz wasn’t that impressed with her, especially seeing as how she had run away just from sensing his aura. He was far more impressed by the Spirit-user who had done considerable damage to the battalion’s hideout.
Bronzer: “Then, she may become associated with Vermillion at some point in the near future, if she already isn’t, that is.”
His irritated expression was to say that he understood what the strategist was getting at.
Reid: “You are saying going after her could lead us into a direct confrontation with Vermillion?”
Bronzer just smiled like an innocent boy who was enjoying the conversation going on there.
That said though, the truth of what Bronzer had pointed out was quite worrisome for more than one reason for the four Generals, Valdis as well as Reid.
Darcy: “Even so,”
And surprising all, it was Darcy who came up with an argument against Bronzer’s point instead of anyone else.
Darcy: “We should at least do a little digging, find out more information about her. Who knows? She may not be a member of Vermillion yet and we may be free to go in on her.”
The reason Darcy was doing something she did so rarely, that is, arguing against Bronzer’s point, was simply because she knew that the strategist had something more in mind and needed someone to argue against him to make that point. As he got the opportunity to do so, he mentioned it with a smile.
Bronzer: “See, that’s the thing. The Phoenix would have already reached out to her by this point in time.”
Reid: “And how would you know that?”
Bronzer: “Um, let’s just say I am good at predicting what people will do.”
An evil, creepy and strangely alluring smile creeps up on his face, one that leaves all but Darcy astonished.
Bronzer: “I can predict people. I can predict a lot of people, be it Walter Schmidt or Reid Vezalius Rosevelt.”
Silenced by astonishment, no one said anything for a good while, until finally,
Valdis: “Both these women should be labelled as enemies of the Vampire Kingdom, but they are not to be actively hunted. We cannot afford to lose more men in trying to capture one of the two only to end up in a direct confrontation with Vermillion before we are ready.”
The queen gave her verdict, and no one objected.
Having escaped from the battle, abandoning Sona, Angela Holystone couldn’t bring herself to meet Sona even after learning that she was able to escape safe and sound.
Even if she did go meet her, what would she have said to her?
‘Sorry, even though I acted like a strong and arrogant Psychic, I couldn’t do anything and ran away because I was afraid.’
Just saying that line inside her head made her want to curl up in a ball and die.
Even after a day or so, she could only curse her weakness as she fled from one place to another to carefully avoid being caught by the Vampires who would probably be looking for her.
She realized that while she may have thought herself capable of being promoted from a Flare to a Volcano just from her potential alone, she isn’t worthy of such a title at all. Not at all.
But then, out of nowhere,
“Are you Angela Holystone?”
Surprising her when she was busy drowning in self-pity, an emotionless and powerful voice resonated in her ears.
As she was in the middle of a market in a rural area with lots of people around, she couldn’t quite make out who that voice belonged to, especially as it seemed to have resonated within her mind directly rather than come from any particular direction.
“I’ll take that as a yes. Come to the bridge 100 metres away from the intersection to your right.”
The voice seemed to be ordering her rather than telling her, something she found scary at the time.
“W-why would I listen to you? I don’t even know you.”
The voice in her head resonated with a little irritation at that retort,
“I guess we are doing it the hard way then.”
As soon as those words resonated within her head, she felt something happen to her, something she couldn’t quite put into words, but it felt like flicking a switch to turn it from ‘on’ to ‘off’. But, what was it that was turned off. What exactly happened?
She got the answer shortly as she realized that the scenery around her was moving backwards, only to then realize that she was walking forward. What more? She was walking right in the direction that the voice in her head had told her to go in. And no matter how much she tried to stop, she couldn’t even twitch a muscle.
It was like the connection of her mind from her body was broken down and someone else had taken over her body.
If this was the doing of the one whose voice she had heard earlier, that man must be a monster.
And soon enough, she found out who that monster was.
It was right as she arrived at the mentioned bridge and saw the figure of a man, disguised as an ordinary man, who maliciously smiled at her. To a Psychic, the disguise wasn’t very hard to recognize but more importantly, the aura coming from him said for itself.
That aura far dwarfed that of Achlyz. While against Achlyz it felt to Angela that she could land some hits but eventually lose, against him it was clear as day to see that she would be evaporated in an instant if he so wished to do so.
There could only be two Psychics with this powerful of an aura. And from what she had heard, she doubted that Walter Schmidt would have so much malice in his aura. Hence, this man could only be
Angela: “The Phoenix?”
He smiled, and that was enough of an answer.
Angela: “W-w-why are … you-“
Rosevelt: “There’s no need to be so nervous. And the answer to your question is rather simple. I heard about what happened to one of the hideouts of Vampire Kingdom recently. I just came to check out the one who caused that.”
It made sense.
Angela realized that it made complete sense. Of course, he was here for something like that.
Rosevelt: “So, you were responsible for it, weren’t you?”
Angela: “W-well, actually …”
Her words halted, because of one thought in her mind.
The thought that she could use this opportunity to be promoted to a higher rank. It’s true that she didn’t earn it but that didn’t change the fact that she wanted it.
If she acted like it was all her doing, maybe she could gain a rank that’s actually respectable.
Angela: “Y-yes, it was my doing.”
If it was a lie, it wouldn’t have worked against a Psychic, much less working against the Phoenix.
However, it was not a lie, not completely anyway.
She was undeniably responsible for the damage caused to that hideout. Without her, Sona couldn’t have pulled it off. So, it’s not like she was lying. Then, it should be fine, right? It should be fine to take credit here, right?
Rosevelt: “Is that so?”
He smirked as if he saw right through her facade. And honestly, what could have possibly stopped him from doing so?
Her self-pity, her self-derision, her self-esteem that had taken a major hit after running away, it’s not like those emotions had disappeared. No matter how opportunistic this woman was, she couldn’t completely erase the feelings she was absorbed in just a while ago.
So, seeing through her facade and realizing the truth was as easy as eating a pie to Reid Vezalius Rosevelt.
Rosevelt: “I see then.”
He acted like he did not know, surprising Angela.
Rosevelt: “You are a Flare, aren’t you?”
Angela: “Y-y-y … yes.”
Stuttering for even more reasons than before, she was somehow able to still squeeze out an answer.
Rosevelt: “If you can accomplish such feats by yourself, then I think you deserve to be promoted to a Volcano.”
Of course, she was speechless. Her dream was about to be fulfilled, and that too through a lie that didn’t even work. More than elation, she was confused when she heard the Phoenix’s words.
Rosevelt: “To be honest, I don’t think any of the Volcanoes can accomplish that alone. Maybe you should be promoted to an even higher rank.”
But as she heard that, it wasn’t elation or confusion that was colluding her thoughts, it was fear.
What the Phoenix was saying was that he would make her a Hellfire, one of the 10 people whose authority was second only to himself. In that case, she would be given responsibilities that could only be handled by Psychics of that level.
Someone like her could never manage to do anything in that position.
She would only be an object of constant disappointment, derision and maybe even envy by those in lower positions than her who were more suitable for the rank. Could she handle it all? Could she manage to stay in there for even a month? Could she not become a laughingstock by everyone around her?
If she were promoted to the rank of a Hellfire, she will be crushed. Not just her pride, not just her dignity, not just her life, but her very reason to exist would be crushed.
This was the worst-case scenario, and it was the result of abandoning Sona, choosing to run instead of toughing it out and eventually taking credit for the deed alongside her.
Angela: “I … don’t think … I will … be able to …”
Won’t be able to do what? Fulfil a Hellfire’s duties? Live up to the expectations? Not bring shame to the title? Not bring shame to his decision of making her a Hellfire?
No matter what, all self-derisive thoughts in her mind seemed to fit right with the situation. And no matter what, no words came out of her mouth.
Rosevelt: “Hmm, say Angela Holystone, do you know about the war?”
He asked with a grin.
Angela: “W-war? I-I guess I have h-heard about it.”
Rosevelt: “I guess a Flare wouldn’t know the details. You see, there is a war coming, a war between supernatural factions. A war that will tear this world apart, and not just the supernatural part of it.”
What was he saying? Was he serious? Was there really such a terrible war coming? And, who were the ones fighting in the war?
Rosevelt: “The Vampire Kingdom is a big part of this war. In fact, they constitute one of the two factions that are going to be fighting in it. The other one is kind of a lot of supernatural factions teaming up, which is causing problems since no one wants to team up with the others.”
The more he rambled on, the more confused his listener became. But, that didn’t matter. What mattered was the trap lying beneath those words of his, a trap that succeeded in catching its prey with these next words,
Rosevelt: “Are you even listening?”
He asked with an annoyed face.
Angela: “Y-yes, of course.”
Rosevelt: “Good. This isn’t something just anyone could tell you about, you know. Those who do not have enough of a reason to know about this cannot know about this. They are to be silenced if they ever find out.”
Rosevelt: “Don’t worry. Being a high ranking member in Vermillion gives you enough of a reason to know about it.”
And then it dawned on her. If she tried to refuse the ‘high-ranking position’ he was offering her, because she knew something she would lose the authority to know, she would be killed. The same fate would await her if she tried to leave Vermillion.
As it stood, she had no choice but to do as the ringmaster told her to. After all, it was her stupidity and cowardice that had caused her to become his pawn in the first place.
Rosevelt: “Well then,”
But even so, even Rosevelt wouldn’t go so far as to give a position as important as that of a Hellfire to someone who didn’t deserve it.
Rosevelt: “I think you should be promoted to the position of a Volcano for now. You are not quite ready for the Hellfire position yet.”
Knowing that he had given her enough of a scare by just proposing the idea, he gave his actual verdict.
Angela, feeling relieved that it was at least not as bad as it could have been if she had become a Hellfire, stayed silent and looked down.
Rosevelt: “Well, that said though, you are more like a Demi-Hellfire.”
He said so and turned around,
Rosevelt: “Come to the main branch of Vermillion as soon as you can so we can make this official.”
And saying so, he vanished, leaving the Psychic who had so foolishly fallen for his trap alone.
What the Phoenix was doing was not merely trying to toy with her as much as he could though. The reason why he had chosen to make her a Volcano while making sure she can’t refuse, was because he saw the potential for something different in her.
He didn’t care about the potential she had as a Psychic, but he revelled in seeing her potential as a weapon in the upcoming war. He knew that this woman, while broken down and despaired at that moment, would eventually pick her up and start striving to earn the position she had gotten, and then surpass it.
After having told that there was no way out, he knew that this woman won’t even look for a way out but steel herself for what was about to come.
He knew that she will one day herself come hunting for the title of a Hellfire.
Bronzer: “Didn’t know you liked sightseeing.”
Said the strategist as he stepped into the balcony on the fifth floor of the palace of the Vampire Kingdom. The view that one could see from here encompassed all of the Vampire Kingdom.
Barry: “I occasionally do it to relax myself.”
This dark, grim place filled with Vampires and built beneath the surface, where the air was relatively harder to breathe for a human, this place of neverending night, it was still beautiful nonetheless.
Sure, it was inhabited by a race that fed on humans and the fact that it was built beneath the ground symbolised nothing but the cowardice of the race, unwilling to face other supernatural factions head-on and hiding beneath their feet.
But, even so, the two in the entire Vampire Kingdom who weren’t Vampires still saw a fleeting sense of beauty in it.
And for some reason, while it was neither’s primary drive or motivation, they wanted to still protect this beauty.
Barry: “Thanks for all that back then in the conference. I doubt I would have come up with all that talk about going against Vermillion and so at that moment.”
Because of Bronzer’s warning about making enemies out of Vermillion, Vampire Kingdom was forced to back away from launching an active search for Angela and Sona. Thus, Sona would not become find Vampires constantly on her tail, something Barry wanted to ensure. And it was all thanks to the strategist’s unrelenting aura of certainty.
Bronzer: “Well, I didn’t exactly do that just for you. I had my own interests in my mind.”
He said as he leaned himself on the fence, looking at the scenery Barry had been looking at for a while.
Barry: “Well, whatever the case may be, I still am grateful to you.”
Bronzer: “Oh, then would you like, do anything I say?”
Making a promise like that to a man like that was probably the most idiotic thing one could do in their life. And Barry, while not being a genius, was no idiot either.
With a disappointed face, Bronzer’ shoulders drooped. In contrast though,
Barry: “But still, if the time ever calls for it, I will follow your orders without question.”
In Barry’s words was a rare genuine emotion. And on Bronzer’s face was a rare genuine surprise as heard those words.
Barry: “I think I can trust you enough to do that.”
Barry said so with a smile, which only amplified the surprise on Bronzer’s face.
Bronzer: “You know, most people would, charitably, refer to me as ‘the crown prince of assholes’, ‘the man to never be trusted’ and so on. You sure you wanna trust me that much?”
Barry: “Well, at least you are self-aware.”
Said Barry while laughing mildly to Bronzer’s reaction, causing him to smile as well.
Barry: “You aren’t wrong, Bronzer. People do refer to you that way. But I know that you have a reason to do what you do, there’s always a motive behind your actions, and that there is a goal you want to reach.”
Barry: “While I don’t fully comprehend what those are, I know that you are not a man who will abandon anyone.”
Barry: “Unlike a certain someone who abandoned a kid brother for his elder sister, I know that you will find a way to save both of them. I know that. That is why, I can trust you, no matter how uncanny and unreasonable your orders seem, I will know that there IS a reason behind them and that they WILL lead to a better outcome than I could EVER reach on my own. So, as I said, I’ll trust you.”
At that moment, the strategist who constantly annoyed those around him by never shutting up was not able to utter a single word.
As he saw that genuine look on Barry’s face, as he saw that he truly meant what he said, he couldn’t bring himself to utter any words.
To say that so much trust shouldn’t be placed on him, that it might be a burden too big to bear for someone like him, saying those words meant going against the only hope Barry had. So, he covered up his weaknesses, stepped on the fragility of his heart, and said,
Bronzer: “Barry, if you die on your next mission, know that I will make your dream come true in your stead. Your dreams and your hopes, they will never be forgotten.”
He said, without flinching for a second, words with no decorum or lies, but just a tinge of kinship and hope.
Barry: “I see.”
He smiled as he heard those words.
Barry: “You have some nerve thinking I’ll die on my next mission!”
Bronzer: “Well, you never know what the future holds.”
Barry: “So you think that it’s an actual possibility?!”
Bronzer: “Well, realistically speaking, yes.”
And so the two started bickering.
Barry, who had been a little brother as well as an elder brother but never just a friend of equal status. And Bronzer, who had been a villain and a messiah, but never just a friend either.
The two friends bickered.
Much later, on a certain island, Barry would meet his end by the hands of a man he may also have become friends with if they were on the same side. And when that would happen, he would say that he’s happy to be dying like that, to be getting freed from the burdens of his life.
He would say those words not because his worries for his sister and his stupid little brother were gone, not because his payback to Ozyllus stopped mattering to him and not because he had given up on reaching his only true dream of seeing the few people he cherished finding a happy ending.
He would say those words because he believed that his friend will finish everything he was leaving undone. That was the sacred trust between those two men, the trust put in the man whose name meant hope itself.