Day Two: Dawn
Michael tried to regulate his breathing, but each breath he took in was like fire in his lungs. His entire body trembled, racked by pain and exhaustion. He winced as a ray of new sunshine penetrated the canopy of the odd forest and touched the left side of his face. The gentle warmth was refreshing, but also a grim reminder that he had gone twenty-four hours without rest.
The rapid pace of his breathing caused his injuries to spasm, and Michael moaned as he reached to touch his injured knee and shoulder. The dead beast behind him had sunk its teeth so deeply into him that the wounds had gone clear through his body. Had the demon’s teeth gone through his heart, not even his mother’s tie would have saved him. Michael stood in a pool of his own blood, but he could feel the gradual soothing of his body beginning to heal itself. Even so, it would be hours before he was back in fighting condition.
Hours I don’t have, Michael thought.
“You must be Michael.” The demon before him spoke in a guttural, throaty voice, tearing Michael from his thoughts and forcing him back to the present.
Michael raised his head to look at the demon. This was the same creature Michael had first engaged when he entered Beal City, although the demon had healed from Michael’s near-shattering of its jaw. Michael had to keep from retching at the gothic sight; the demon’s head was a bulbous, deformed orb with two oversized eyes and six tentacle-like mouths that wiggled and squeaked like hungry worms as it spoke. Michael could only see the demon’s feet at the end of its long body. It looked as though something had taken its head and feet, placed them at opposite ends of a long black ebony casket, and then set it upright.
Michael lacked the strength to answer; even if he had been able, his response would’ve been hateful. Unable to slow his breathing, Michael was mildly shocked as his legs began to tremble involuntarily. Michael clutched his injured shoulder and silently prayed for a miracle; he needed a way to save himself. Slowly, Michael dropped to his knee. He noted with some surprise that the demon had not advanced.
“You are Michael St. Ambrose. Only those of the Ambrose line carry the Four-Way Fighting Style.,” the demon said definitively, bowing its head. “It’s an honor to meet you. I have a message from your father.”
Both surprised and curious at this statement, Michael raised his head.
“Your father wishes to know,” the demon began hesitantly, “how your mother is faring.”
Michael couldn’t explain the sudden rage that flooded him. All he knew was that he needed to see this creature dead.
Power returned to his legs. His pain evaporated. From his kneeling position, Michael sprung forward, charging straight at the demon. He heard a scream as he charged; he wasn’t sure if it was his own or the demon’s.
Just before Michael came within striking distance, the demon’s casket-like body split in two with a loud thwack. Michael registered an elongated body—and six equally elongated arms protruding from it. There were two claw-like talons protruding from each arm. The demon took a step back, its arms bent in anticipation.
Michael screamed as he thrust his rear hand forward, leaving his fingers straightened and to the side in a spearhand technique. It would’ve impaled the beast—if it had connected. The demon swayed to Michael’s right. Michael immediately bent his arm and brought it back towards the creature, attempting to jam his elbow into the demon’s extended solar plexus. Its six arms came together, deflecting the blow. Michael pressed the advantage, bringing his left leg up and throwing it toward the demon’s head, spinning as he completed his roundhouse kick. The pain that shot through Michael’s body as he hyperextended his knee let him know that he still wasn’t ready for a full-out fight, but if he could put the demon down in a few seconds…
Something audibly chattered as the demon quickly shot beneath the kick and pivoted, stepping to Michael’s left. The demon retaliated; all three of its right arms flew toward Michael’s top half. At the last moment, Michael brought both of his hands—and one knee—up to his body. His knee blocked the lowest arm, and he caught the other two in his hands. Before he could figure out the next move, something jammed into the inside of his standing knee, and Michael shrieked in surprise as he found himself floored. Did he just kick me?!
“Yes, I did,” the demon replied, even as Michael rolled back onto his hands and jumped up. The demon was walking toward him at an angle, prepping his next attack. “We’ve learned much from your father since his arrival.”
The demon attacked. High jab, right side, Michael parried. Middle jab, right side, Michael parried again. The high jab came back, faster than Michael could block, and he took it beside his eye. His vision flashed white momentarily before he felt something strike the middle of his body, jarring him and disrupting his rhythm. Instinctively, Michael raised his hand and caught a high jab before he could be hit again. Michael stepped in, holding the arm, knowing he only had seconds. He drove an uppercut-reverse between its middle and lower arms, moved in, delivered a hard outside chop to its chest, and relished it when the demon forced out a breath.
Michael was going for a high backhand to the demon’s face when something struck the back of his legs, and Michael fell to the ground. He quickly crossed his arms in front of his face and body, but was still knocked back by the oncoming front kick the demon sent his way. Michael rolled with the impact, falling backwards and rolling on to his feet.
The demon stepped into him and threw all six of its arms at Michael at dizzying speeds. Michael had no choice but to keep giving ground; defending himself against six arms was a nightmare. Although he did his very best to push away all the blows that came toward him, Michael was tagged frequently, and soon dull pains rose in his head and chest as he was peppered by the demon’s attacks.
Slapping away an arm, Michael threw his left leg straight into the air, forcing the demon to sway back. Michael lowered his leg and immediately brought it back, turning his hip over and thrusting a side kick towards the demon’s midsection. The demon simultaneously jumped back and blocked downward. The demon came back, throwing a front kick aimed at Michael’s torso—and Michael was ready for it. As he took firm hold of the leg, Michael stepped into the demon and drove a reverse punch with such force that it nearly penetrated the beast’s midsection. As the demon doubled over in surprise and anguish, Michael slammed his forearm into the demon’s mandible, forcing his head to snap back. Michael took the same arm and jammed it into the top of the demons’ knee, feeling the kneecap buckle and sink in beneath the blow. As the demon screamed, Michael lowered the leg to the ground.
Michael stood and waited, his body still healing. The demon came forward again, striking with all six of its arms. Michael saw it coming; he stepped to the side, blocking the arms to his outside. Michael pinned two of the arms together, and in a scream of profound rage, Michael brought his right leg up, crashing the inside of his heel through the elbows of the top two arms. The demon did not scream as Michael jerked, ripping the arms free. As the demon staggered forward, Michael jumped, chambering his right leg and then thrusting it into outside of the demon’s knee. The demon’s bones cracked and splintered beneath the impact, and the demon helplessly dropped to its good knee. Michael raised his right leg again and smashed the heel of his into the demon’s eye. The eye popped, bursting as it caved in. Before lowering his leg, Michael turned his hip over again and sent the instep of his foot crashing into the back of the demon’s head. The demon fell forward, landing face-first on the floor of the jungle.
Michael exhaled. “That’s how my mother’s doing–.”
Something stung him. Michael slapped his neck where he felt the sting, only to have something sting him in the face just below the eye. Before Michael could bring his hand up, he saw something tiny fly away from his face. Another sting caught him on his left arm. Then another on the left side of his neck.
Michael looked down to the lifeless demon and saw that it was coated with what appeared to be fruit flies. They were pouring out of the open wounds on the beast’s arms and legs, buzzing angrily—and rising up toward Michael.
Michael threw the beast’s severed arms down and tried to back away as he was swarmed, but his legs failed him and he fell backward. He was stung repeatedly over the face and neck. He swatted violently, fruitlessly at the miniscule insects. In retaliation, the insects struck at his hands, repeatedly attacking his face and chest. They crawled along his body, their feet digging into his skin and scraping as they moved. Some found their way into his open wounds, disrupting his healing process as they stung repeatedly. Sweating as though his skin was on fire, Michael screamed as his strength left him, and he fell back onto his back. When he did, the flies left him.
Michael heard the leaves shift where the demon had fallen. He raised his head and saw the demon roll to its back and sit up, as though its energy had been restored. When the demon, surrounded by the fruit flies, turned to look at Michael, Michael fell back to the ground; he lacked the energy to mount a defense.
“It will be awhile before either of us are combat-ready,” the demon said. “May we speak for awhile?”
Astonished, Michael raised his head. Slowly, the pain ebbed and he sat up, raising his knees to his chest as though preparing to get to his feet. He glowered as the demon turned to face him.
“Come now,” the demon chided. “Have we lost so much of ourselves that a simple conversation is no longer possible?”
“Fine!” Michael spat. “What do you want to talk about?” You talk. I’ll heal, and then I’ll kill you.
“When you’re finished healing,” the demon spoke nonchalantly, “You’re welcome to try. I was enjoying our match.”
Michael scowled. “Since when can demons Reach when they’re in Heaven?”
“I told you, your father has taught us much since his arrival. I’m honored to serve him. I’m just as honored to meet you, Michael. He speaks very highly of you.”
Michael didn’t know what to make of that. “My dad…he’s alive?”
The demon nodded, and quickly raised his three arms as he shook his head apologetically. “Yes, but please forgive me for neglecting my manners. My name is Balaam; I am the ruler of my mistress’ Rodentia army.”
“And you beat children,” Michael growled. “I know who you are.”
“I follow orders, just like you, Michael,” Balaam quickly countered. “But to give you a more thorough answer, your father is alive, and in good spirits—save for his occasional longing for you and your mother. He misses you terribly, you know.”
“Then why doesn’t he come see us?” Michael challenged. “He misses us so much, why doesn’t he come say hello? He obviously knows how to pass between worlds.”
“You know it’s not that simple,” Balaam said knowingly. “Are you telling me that you wouldn’t kill him on sight?”
Michael shook his head. “I don’t want to kill my father. I want to talk to him.”
“Really. What would you say?”
“I…” Michael hesitated. If he lied, Balaam would simply read his mind and discover the truth anyway. “I want him to come home.”
Balaam said nothing. Michael did his best to steel himself. “Damn you,” He whispered. “Dad—Dad hasn’t been gone that long. He hasn’t done anything irredeemable yet. Something could be worked out…” Michael raised his head, locking eyes with Balaam. “My mom—she’s wasting away without him. We have no friends. We’ve been exiled. I have to hunt in the wild so we can survive. I just—I want him to come home…so things can go back to normal.”
“Son,” Balaam began compassionately, “You have no idea what your father has done since he joined us. Even if your father desired to return to Heaven—which he doesn’t—things could never go back to the way they were.” A pang of sorrow formed in Michael’s gut. Balaam bowed his head before he continued, “Your father told me to pass that along to you.”
The sorrow was replaced by rage. Michael clenched a fist, but lacked the energy to act on his impulse. He sat and waited.
“Tell me, then,” Michael growled a moment later. “Tell me what my father has done.”
“He has ordered me to destroy Beal City,” Balaam replied casually.
Michael nodded. “I figured as much. I’m here to stop you.”
Balaam shrugged. “I was told to expect as much.”
“Why?” Michael pressed. “Why Beal City?”
Balaam shook his head. “Young man, do you even know who it is you serve? You have this arcane notion of right and wrong that you serve blindly, without meaning, simply because you are told to.”
“No one told me to do anything,” Michael barked. “I’m here because I choose to be.”
“I’m sure you believe that,” Balaam continued. “Michael, are you so naïve? That boy? The one you saved? He drew you to his town. He wanted you to follow him that day.”
“So what if he did? You were holding his people hostage and you tried to kill their children. He did what he had to,” Michael replied.
Balaam chuckled; it was the same sound as someone clearing his throat. “Actually, it was not I who set the church on fire. You chased me away before that happened. Michael, do you know who that boy is? Who his people are? Why he’s so intent on keeping you in that city when you obviously have more pressing business?”
Michael said nothing; he had no answer.
“If you believe nothing else I say, I promise you that Anders and his people are quite capable of defending themselves. They simply choose not to; they would rather endanger the lives of others rather than take up arms themselves. Did you know that your father lobbied to have them imprisoned when he still resided here? He is their enemy now; it’s only logical that he would want such a threat eliminated.”
“I don’t believe you,” Michael growled, lying to himself. “I don’t believe they would place other people in harm’s way if they could defend themselves.”
Thunder boomed in the sky behind Michael. Thick, black clouds appeared out of nowhere and began to roll, tumbling over themselves as they moved over the jungle.
“You’ll see,” Balaam said patiently. “Tell me, Michael, do you know why your father left?”
Michael opened his mouth. Surprisingly, he couldn’t speak. He had no idea what to say.
Balaam nodded, looking at the darkening sky overhead. “Okay. We’ll come back to that.”
Michael then realized his fist was still clenched, and his arm was shaking. Two bolts of sky-blue lightning struck on either side of Michael, and there was a quick crack of thunder.
“Instead, I ask you: how will you save the people of Beal City? Four-Way Fighting or not, you cannot stand up to the Eternally Damned. The Sefiroth won’t arrive in time; they may not even be aware of Beal City’s existence. I wonder; will you finally release the power your mother taught you to wield?”
How does he know that?!
Three lightning bolts struck in rapid succession inches from Michael. Thunder split the sky in half; the ground trembled.
“Michael,” Balaam said softly, “Your father speaks often of your mother. He tells of how she called the rain to bless a harvest or entertained your people with a fireworks display. Of course, that was before they realized how powerful your mother was, wasn’t it?”
Michael’s heart raced so quickly he felt that it might explode. He no longer felt any pain throughout his body. Instead, he was overcome by sheer, unadulterated rage. This thing, this enemy…this demon had intimate knowledge of Michael’s most cherished memories. And his father had enabled it.
“And when they realized how powerful your mother was…they outlawed her, didn’t they?”
Blue lightning illuminated the sky. With the next crack of thunder, the skies opened, and a torrential rainstorm poured down upon them. “But she taught you to use it, didn’t she?” Balaam pushed. “If you used your power—your syonic power—you could very easily crush anything we sent your way, couldn’t you?”
Control. Get it under control.
The rain was icy. It came hard, soaking Michael’s clothes and binding them to his body, causing his hair became matted. Michael looked at his fist; he was concealing a blue light that matched the lightning that struck the ground throughout the jungle. The storm created a dark orchestra of sorts; rain rhythmically pounding the thick, heavy leaves of the jungle as lightning danced across black clouds, chased closely by tremendous, thunderous applause.
Balaam kept pushing. “But if you did… you would be executed, wouldn’t you?” Balaam leaned forward. “This is the truth of the one you serve, Michael. He’s a spoiled child, and he’s a coward. Anything he does not understand, he casts out. He preaches forgiveness and then turns public opinion on you. And you know this firsthand, don’t you?!”
Michael inhaled, but had a hard time exhaling. He remembered when he and his mother had to leave Yevon in the dead of night to avoid further persecution—just after his father had left. His father…
“No,” Michael said firmly, shaking his head. He looked at Balaam through the sheet of rain that separated them. Michael looked harder; the brood of flies that surrounded Balaam…they had dwindled in number. “I will not join you, even if it means seeing dad again.”
“Join–?” Balaam let his head fall back and let loose a terrible, guttural laughter that could easily have been mistaken for someone being tortured. “I’m not here to recruit you, Michael. I’m here to destroy the Great Wind Gate.”
“But you just said–.”
“The Eternally Damned will see to Beal City. I will see to the Gate.”
Michael chuckled. “You’ll never get past Dominiom, he said plainly. “He’ll send you right back into the lake if you get within one hundred feet of the gate.”
“Dominiom was old when I was a resident here. He’s decrepit now. And with this heavy rain in…” Balaam trailed off, looking to the sky, “He’ll never see me coming in time.”
As Balaam lowered his head towards Michael, his eyes were red. Michael realized with horror that the fruit flies were gone. “I have you to thank for that, Michael.”
Balaam sprung forward and tackled Michael to the ground before Michael even registered what was happening. Balaam quickly rose—all six of his arms were now healed—and clutched Michael’s left leg. Without a word, Balaam brought all three of his arms down as though breaking boards—and broke Michael’s leg instead, striking at the outside of the knee. Michael screamed, his agony masked by the rolling thunder.
Balaam then pivoted, stepping over Michael and holding his leg like a lever, and jerked hard to the left.
Michael, on his stomach, screamed endlessly. He had never known pain like this before. Although it numbed within seconds, the consistent throb at his ruined joint felt like something in his knee was violently trying to push its way out.
Michael only ceased his screaming because his voice had given out. His breathing was irregular, he tried to reach down to his leg, but his entire body felt light, as though he was floating. No, don’t go into shock!
The stench of decaying flesh was upon him, and he heard Balaam speak beside his left ear. “Listen to me, Michael,” he whispered. “Hate me if you will, but nothing I have told you here is a lie. I am going to destroy the Great Wind Gate, and there is nothing you can do to stop me. However, you can save Beal City. You must simply choose between what is right and what is the law.”
Michael opened his mouth, even though he couldn’t open his eyes. He wanted to spit, he wanted to curse, he wanted to suddenly reach up and tear Balaam’s throat out. But he couldn’t move. He could barely think.
“It is a choice,” Balaam concluded, “I leave to you.”
There was an audible chittering sound that quickly faded into the sky. Balaam had flown away.
His leg had gone almost completely numb; even the pain had receded, but he couldn’t feel anything below his knee at all. Compound fracture…
Despair began to set in. He knew he would never fight again.
But Balaam was right. Michael had other powers, other abilities…abilities he had kept his mother from using the night he had left home.
Focus. Focus…Beal City. Focus.
It was the rain that kept him awake. In his mind’s eye, Michael envisioned the ruined church, where he and Azrael had saved the children, and where Anders had taken a vicious beating. He kept his mind there, at that place.
A thick, branching bolt of blue lightning struck Michael directly in the chest.
The storm almost immediately ceased.
(c) Avery K. Tingle for Akting Out LLC
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