In Our Image – Volume 3 Chapter 7

Author’s Note: One of the most action-packed chapters so far, and also the finale of Volume 3! I hope you all enjoy!

Volume 3 – Chapter 7

They weren’t hard to find–by the time that I made it to the park, the strange sensation in my center that I had come to associate with Asher was strong enough that it probably would have been hard for me not to gravitate towards him–and, after minutes of feverish running, I stopped, panting, in front of the park bench.

Asher and Ayame were sitting closely, looking out over a small, dark pond, when I arrived. Although I felt a momentary sense of embarrassment at interrupting them, it didn’t last long, considering the fire-covered creep had already nearly reached us, throwing various  slurs in my direction while charging forward.

Immediately upon noticing my presence, the pair stood up, turning towards me with pretty intense levels of surprise. Not that I could really blame them–how often is your quiet evening in the park interrupted by a flaming maniac chasing a girl with huge sword at her side?

“Cat? What’s going on?” Asher asked, taking a step towards me before halting, staring down at my hand. His mouth actually opened in surprise. “The sword? How did you summon it again?”

“N-not…..much time to talk,” I said, still trying to regain my breath, bending forward and clutching my knees. The tip of the dark blade scraped the ground, gathering a thin film of moisture on its surface. “I need help.”

“You need help?” That was Ayame. “What hap–”

The words died in her throat, her eyes widening as she stared behind me. I didn’t have to turn around to know what had stopped her. Finally catching my breath enough to form a coherent sentence, I straightened up, pointing over my shoulder.

“We’ve got a problem,” I said, surprising even myself with how calm the statement sounded. I looked at Asher, who was also staring down the area just behind my shoulder, his hand raised halfway to his mouth. “Asher, summon your sword. I don’t think I can take this guy alone.”

“W-what….” he began, a look of puzzlement, more than anything, dominating his face. “Where is that thing from?”

“We don’t have time t–”

Although I was ready to explain to Asher that, with a guy who was literally on fire chasing us down, probably prepared to do whatever it took to get back at me for what I’d done to his side, we didn’t really have time to discuss how I ended up in that situation in the first place, I wasn’t given the chance, as he got there first. A wave of heat washing over my back, I finally turned around, coming face to face with the man once again.

He had stopped maybe twenty feet away from us, his chest rising and falling rapidly as he took in deep breaths, massive amounts of air funneling in through the slanted opening he had created in pushing forward his lower jaw. The sun had set and, more than ever, I saw the flames, leaping outwards from his body, so bright that it hurt my eyes just to look at him. For some reason–maybe to conserve energy–the actual area of his body that the flames covered had died down, shifting from near full-body coverage to just spanning the length of his arms, two mini vortices swirling madly around their centers.

I wanted badly for that realization to provide some relief but, of course, the knowledge that now it was just his arms that supported his magical death-flames wasn’t very comforting.

He stared us down, his eyes burning brighter than any flame I had ever seen and, after a few moments of nearly unbearable silence, he grunted, sending a fume of ashy-colored smoke towards the sky.

“Two of you?” he growled, flicking his eyes from me to Asher and Ayame. I wondered briefly if he had had trouble with math in school.

“What’s he talking about?” Asher whispered, not taking his eyes off of the imposing figure in front of us. I shrugged in response.

“I have no idea.”

We didn’t say anything else, instead staring straight ahead at our opposition. Although my instincts were screaming at me to either run or fight–maybe both, if the situation called for it–I quelled the desire, knowing that no good could come from that course of action, at least not yet.

Besides, even though the man stood with one foot forward, looking alternately like a statue and a bull ready to charge, his face was beginning to regain some of the sadistic composure it had seemed to posses when I first ran into him. Maybe, I thought, he was going to try and talk to us before he tried to kill us, like a good villain. That, at least, would give me some time to rest, and hopefully give Asher enough time to kick himself in gear.

“Eh, no matter,” he said suddenly, stepping backwards and assuming a tall, straight stance. A fleeting sense of pride shot through my mind at my correct guess, but I resisted the urge to pat myself on the back. “Two or two hundred, there is no way garden-variety thieves such as yourselves could stand against my might.”

Man, talk about an ego trip, I thought, wondering why he was suddenly so sure he could beat me, especially considering I was the one who had injured him.

Then, something else jumped out at me.

“What do you mean ‘garden-variety thieves?’” I asked loudly, drawing surprised, and at least a little annoyed, glances from Asher and Ayame. To be fair, it might not be the best idea to question the authority of a guy who can light himself on fire and survive, but there was no way I was going to let him insult my–and my friend’s–honor like that. “We’re not thieves.”

“I meant what I said,” he responded. He seemed a little irritated at my denial of his claim, but apparently he was also prepared to defend himself and his words. “How else would you posses that sword? Now, admit to me your origins and relinquish your weapon, and perhaps I won’t kill you just yet.”

He smiled–or, at least, I think it was supposed to be a smile–like he was the kindest man on earth for offering to not kill us immediately. For me, however, it had the opposite effect. Something about his patronizing attitude, along with the fact that he had shifted so quickly from a grunting and growling mass of animal behaviors and wild looks into the kind of person that uses the word “perhaps”, was really pissing me off.

“No way am I giving up my sword,” I said indignantly. “I’m not a thief and, even if I was, what do you want me to do? Turn it over to you, so you can use it yourself?”

That last comment really seemed to get him, and with a puff of his chest, the man held up a flaming arm, as ready to lay into me as I was to shoot it right back at him.

But, of course, Asher stepped in before he could, ruining my fun.

“Who are you?” he asked, loud enough to be heard but not so loud that it sounded like a command. His voice shook, just slightly. “What do you want with us?”

The man cocked his head, maybe deciding whether or not to submit to Asher’s questioning. Then, he cracked a smile.

“Who am I?” His voice, when he continued, was laced with pride. “I am Leonard.”

Not laughing at that was probably the hardest thing I’ve ever done. Rest assured, had the person who so proudly declared “I am Leonard” been anyone other than a deranged man bent on killing me and my friends, I would have been on the ground.

Unfortunately, however, I was forced to remain silent, as the almighty Leonard continued his speech.

“As to what I want with you, the answer is easy: nothing. Not anything in particular at least.” He shrugged, and seemed prepared to leave it at that, at least for a second. Then, his bloodshot eyes drifted back to mine, and he pointed in my direction. “I took this body for myself, to have a little fun. The little bitch is the one that decided to come and mix it up with me.”

His casual, downright erratic use of slurs and derogatory remarks had already ceased to affect me, although the same couldn’t be said for my friends–immediately upon hearing his words, Asher and Ayame’s eyes shifted, narrowing and widening respectively.

Both looked like they were ready to give Leonard a few choice choice words of their own, but I cut in, more worried about the meaning of his words than their level of vulgarity.

“What do you mean you ‘took’ your body?”

Leonard knit his eyebrows, his fiery firsts clenched.

“Don’t act like you don’t know wh–” he began, before throwing his head back in exasperation. His voice lowered to a growl. “Alright, I’m done with all this bullshit. If I keep messing around with you I’m not gonna get to have any fun. Let’s get this over with.”

For a second, I thought that he was going to leave us be, but when he stretched out his arms, revealing the nasty, six inch-long gash on his left side, just below his chest, I remembered why this was all happening in the first place. Leonard began to move forward, eyes flashing and forearms burning.

“Who is this guy?” Asher asked, staring forward and sounding genuinely confused.

“Don’t know, but you might want to try and summon your sword,” I said, hefting my own while keeping my eyes on our adversary. “It doesn’t seem like he’s going to go easy on us.”

“Wait, Cat,” Ayame said suddenly, sounding closer than I remembered her. “Be careful. From what Leonard said, the body isn’t his. Don’t hurt it any more than you have to.”

“You got it, chief,” I said with a smile, sending Ayame a thumbs up over my shoulder. “Oh, and you might want to hide out somewhere. This is probably going to get ugly.”

My method of steeling my nerves in order to do something scary pretty much involves jumping right into it–no thinking allowed, that’ll only mess you up–and so, as Leonard came towards me,holding his fiery arms in the air like a professional wrestler that’s what I did, running straight at him, holding my sword high in both hands.

We reached each other in seconds and, as he threw his arms forward, fingers spread wide, I slashed downwards, hoping to end things before they could really begin.

My blade made direct contact with his left forearm but, to my surprise, had absolutely zero effect, the dark metal slamming on his  bright-red skin and stopping as if his arms were made of stone. He leered at me, continuing forward, and I was forced to jump backwards, the spikes of my blade sliding over his arm harmlessly, simply to avoid being served a hot and spicy knuckle-sandwich.

His fist whisked past my face as I moved, singing the edges of my hair. Luckily, however, he missed making direct contact, and as I struggled to maintain my balance, slamming the heels of my feet onto the ground and sinking into a wide stance, Leonard lost his battle with gravity, crashing straight into the earth with a thud.

To his credit, he sprung back to his feet immediately, his face redder than the flames covering his arms, his expression seething. Then, without a hint of hesitation, he charged forward again.

I wondered briefly how much longer it was going to take Asher to get his sword and come help me out, but I didn’t dare to look–one second of focus lost on Leonard and I’d likely end up a charred Cat-kabob.

Leonard reached me in a second, this time with a little bit more of a well-balanced stance, and reached his hands out again (I guess if something works, why experiment?). With another slice of my blade, I hit his arms, only for the the sword to bounce off once again, forcing me to jump to the side in a hasty dodge.

Well, that about proves it. I wasn’t sure why it was happening, but attacks to the arm were obviously a no-go. If I was going to make any headway in this fight, I was going to have to find some other way to do damage to him.

Then, I remembered the gash in his side, and had an idea. The first time I’d made contact with him, he’d been covered in fire, but my sword had still done some damage. Maybe, since the fire had been spread out back then, it wasn’t able to act as a shield, like the flames on his arms were now….

It was a pretty baseless theory, I’ll admit, but it’s all I had, and I decided to roll with it. No matter what, I decided, I would land a hit on something other than his arms and, with any luck, my suspicions would hold true.

After all, it was our only chance.

So, this time, rather than wait for Leonard to charge at me, arms spread in front of him like a kid who’s been stuck as “it” for far too long, I did the charging. Gripping my fingers around the warm hilt of the sword, I raised it to my side and, upon reaching him, dug my feet into the ground, swinging it in a wide arc like a baseball bat.

Surprisingly, Leonard proved to have pretty amazing reaction speed, turning around upon hearing my rapid footsteps. In the split second before my sword made contact with his ribs, he threw his arm to the side, where he spread his fingers out and actually grabbed the blade of my sword. I struggled, trying to free the weapon from his grasp, but he held fast, small,white-hot flames leaping from his fingertips and onto my sword, before slinking back again.

Usually, in that situation, you would let go of the sword, and I agree that in most cases that would have been the best course of action. But, in this case, I knew that letting go of the sword would be even more of a death sentence than hanging onto it. If I gave it up to him, I’d also be giving up my only fighting chance.

And so, as he wound up a flaming fist, smiling much-too broadly in the process, I remained in front of my enemy, trying desperately to free my sword from his iron hold.

It didn’t work and, with a low grunt, Leonard let his fist fly.

What happened next came as a surprise, even to me. With a quick flash of dull, almost indiscernible gold, and a quiet sound like someone swinging a tennis racket, Leonard fell forward and to the side, his hand sliding away from the surface of my sword as his face hit the earth. Standing above the fallen figure, an elegant-looking blade in his hand, was Asher.

His face was the one of a man who had just received some very surprising news from his long-time girlfriend–although maybe one notch lower on the fear scale–and I could tell that even he couldn’t believe what he’d done.

“You got the sword!” I said, jumping up and stepping around the fallen body of Leonard. “How’d you do it?”

“Not really sure,” he said, his voice slightly shaky. “I just–”

While I was genuinely interested in hearing his process for getting the sword to appear, we weren’t allowed to continue the conversation as Leonard, despite the clean cut across his lower back, rose once again with a throaty bellow.

“That fucking hurt!” he shouted, his variety of language as stellar as always. His eyes caught sight of the sword in Asher’s hand and, pupils dilating, he gritted his teeth. “Another one? How many of us have you damn brats stolen from? Fuck, I really wish you would have minded your own business.”

He didn’t speak again, although he didn’t really need to to get his feelings across–his body spoke for him. The flames surrounding his arms grew ever-brighter, waves of heat and particles of fire rising into the sky and throwing dark shadows over his twisted face, which had already begun to mutate, apparently shifting to fit his mental state.

First, it was the eyes. Up until then, the irises had simply been a fiery orange-red atop bloodshot sclera but, as he stood there, veins popping out of his neck, the whites–now blood red–completely overtook the irises.

Then came the rest of the face.

At first it wasn’t too bad–his face simply seeming to grow wider, the bridge of his nose expanded about two inches, his one-tone eyes drifted apart, and his malicious grin forced its way to the edges of his cheeks. It was after that that things got weird, his lower jaw cracking as it pushed its way forward, elongating until it came to a sharp point, and, finally, the horns erupting from his head.

It happened quickly, but for some, even compared to all of the other bodily transformation I had just seen, the horns appearing grossed me out the most. They erupted from atop his head like teeth from an infant’s jaw, starting off as short, bloody stubs before making their full appearance, two curved, bony structures with points as sharp as a knife.

And, if that wasn’t bad enough, a third, shorter horn broke out a moment later, directly from his forehead.

At that point, it seemed his transformation from a plain old fire-covered maniac into a wild-looking goat-unicorn-man was complete, and he charged forward, emitting a gut-rending screech from his impossibly wide mouth.

I’m going to be completely honest here and say that, after seeing all of that, I was about ready to turn tail, run, and maybe stop at the mall for some new underwear. But, when I thought about Ayame, who I had caught out of the corner of my eye positioned behind a tree, and all of the other people in the neighborhood that Leonard could get to, I knew I couldn’t.

Instead, incredibly, I simply sunk down, preparing for impact. Asher, standing at my side, his sword held loosely in his left hand, did the same.

With two against one, even against a crazed goaticorn-man, I liked our odds.

“Don’t hesitate,” I reminded him hastily. “He’ll kill us without a second thought.”

He nodded, and a moment later, Leonard reached us.

The addition of another person did a lot to speed up the fight, as even though I needed to dodge about as many times as before, Asher was there to pick up the slack when I did, swinging his blade in front of him in wide arcs and succeeding in driving Leonard back, even if just a little. Alternately, when Asher was forced to take a step back, I would dive in, jabbing my blade forward and chopping from over Leonard’s head, attempting to push him to the ground.

Long story short, we kept him busy.

Unfortunately, neither Asher nor I were exactly trained swordsman. While we were able to do a fair bit of damage and hold our own, the fact that both of our opponent’s arms could act as an impenetrable shield didn’t make the fight any easier. Add onto it that, in line with his appearance, Leonard was a pretty ruthless fighter, and you can guess how easy of a time we were having.

Still, Asher had pretty much confirmed to me that, besides the arms, our swords could do significant damage to the beast, and that gave me some hope, even when things began to go bad.

It was bound to happen eventually, and I’m honestly a little surprised that we kept our advantage for as long as we did, so when Leonard finally grabbed our swords with his giant fists, pushing us back onto the ground, our blades thumping on the soft grass, I wasn’t exactly surprised. As he reared back, both his horns and his eyes glinting blood-red, I remember thinking that, if only I had been better with the sword, maybe me and Asher wouldn’t have lost.

Well, it’s too late for that… I thought. My hands slid through the damp grass, and I thought that I would need to find something to wipe them off on before realizing, with a certain undefinable emptiness, that it was too late for that, too.

Leonard was charging us (what else is new?) and, although I contemplated looking away–staring at the sky, catching Asher’s attention, anything–I decided against it.

After all, who doesn’t want to see their undoing, no matter what form it takes?

She was in front of us, facing the charging beast, before I knew what was happening, and by the time I actually figured out what was happening, Leonard had almost reached her, and all I could do was watch.

“Stop!” Ayame yelled it as soon as she made it in front of Asher and me, and that was when it happened.

Leonard, who was running at full speed, throwing, all of his weight behind his movements in an effort to completely destroy anything in his path, stopped as if an invisible wall had erected itself in a split second.

He stopped, and I knew that, now more than ever, we had a chance.

“Asher, go!” I shouted, but he was already moving, grabbing his sword from the ground in front of him and launching to his feet. I did the same, and we ran forward, on either side of Ayame, toward our adversary.

He was struggling against invisible chains, his shoulders shaking,  his head tilting from side to side, his eyes screaming bloody murder as his vocal cords screamed much worse. If it was anyone else, I probably would have felt bad about what I was about to do, but it was Leonard, and that helped me to harden my resolve.

“Ah, fuck, fuck, fuck! You stupid bitch!” he was shouting, trying to move, to gain some purchase in his quest against whatever force held him back, but he didn’t have any luck, as Asher and I reached him within a moment.

Nearly in unison, we both struck, digging into Leonard with our blades, Asher hitting his chest while I slashed at his side. With one, final use of his favorite word, he fell backwards, finally released from the invisible grip, and fell silent.

For a little bit, I stayed on my guard, worried that he would come back, guns–or, well, arms–blazing, ready to duke it out with Asher and me once again, but it quickly became clear that Leonard wasn’t going to be making an appearance any time soon. The first clue came in the disappearance of the horns and other bodily mutations on the man, followed quickly by the various wounds Asher and I had inflicted disappearing.

Then, whoever the guy was simply stood up, eyes closed, and walked away, in the direction of the house I had discovered him behind.

And that was that.   

As soon as we were sure that there were no other fiery enemies to take care of, Asher and I set our swords down against a park bench, and they disappeared soon after. Then, we made our way back over to where Ayame had kneeled on the ground, and sat next to her.

“Ayame, you are officially, one-hundred percent, the best,” I said with a smile.

She tried for a smile of her own, but it came out lopsided. For the first time, I noticed she was shaking.

“Thanks,” she said, sounding a little out of breath. She glanced down at her hands, which were currently vibrating on her lap, and bit her lip. “That was scary.”

“You were amazing, Ayame,” Asher said, echoing my thoughts. “Thank you.”

Slowly, he reached out his hand–a little shaky, itself–and placed it on her shoulder. She turned to face him, giving him the hint of a smile, and some of my original curiosity came leaping back. They had gone to the library together, right? Had that been a date?

I entertained the idea for a brief moment, but ultimately decided to let it slip away. For one, there was almost no way that was the case–I would have known–and, besides, we had more important things to talk about.

“Not to get right down to business,” I said, “but what exactly was that? I mean, I know he said he was Leonard, but what was up with the fire, and the horns?”

Asher let his hand drop, bringing his pointer finger to his temple. He let out an audible sigh.

“That had to have been some kind of possession,” he said, staring at the spot where Leonard had been lying just a few minutes earlier. “I’ve read about it before, where ghosts, or demons, or something takes control of a normal person’s body and uses it for themselves. That makes the most sense. The real question is why was he attacking us.”

I scratched my cheek. “Well, I guess it’s kind of my fault. He didn’t seem too happy when I found him taking over the body, at least.”

“You saw him actually possess the person?” Ayame asked, her voice a bit more level than before. “How?”

“Oh, well, I was sort of able to sense that something was going on,” I said. “Then, when I followed it and found him doing his thing, he got pretty angry and attacked me.”

“You’re saying you sought him out on purpose?” Asher asked immediately, leaning forward. “Why in the world would you do that?”

“Curiosity, I guess,” I said, trying not to think of the old adage. “I didn’t know that I was going to run into a raging goat-man.”

“Cat…” Asher began, before trailing off and pinching the bridge of his nose. After a second of thought, he tried again. “It’s probably not a good idea to seek these things out, the way everything has been going for us. Next time you sense something, it’s best that you avoid it, rather than go towards it.”

The slightly exasperated tone of his words made me want to speak out, and tell him that there was nothing wrong with simply checking it out, but I couldn’t. In the end, when I remembered Asher and myself on the ground while Ayame stood in front of us, unarmed, to stop a human-possessing beast from killing us, I had to agree.

We fell silent, each of us lost in our own worlds of thought, staring up at the black sky, covered in clouds, between the breaks of which dim stars peeked out in random constellations. I have no idea how long we stayed like that before Ayame snapped us out of it.

“It’s getting pretty late,” she said, still looking up. “I think it’s time for me to get home.”

She stood, and Asher and I followed suit, agreeing and wondering what our parents were thinking. Wordlessly, we stepped onto the dirt path and headed back to the entrance of the park and, as I absentmindedly viewed the puffy gray clouds float across the heavens, I shivered from the cold.

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