After approximately three thousand years, here’s the fourth chapter. Constructive criticism welcome.
No sooner had Axel fallen into the dreamless sleep, she woke up to a headache that insisted she didn’t get any sort of rest. Her body ached, and part of her left shoulder had gone numb from her lying on it for too long. She sat upright and suppressed a cough. The numbness subsided as she stood up, replaced by the same dull ache she felt everywhere else. She let the bag slide down to the floor.
The city stood against a bright blue sky as the sun rose, and she wanted to hate it. She remembered the people of Starpoint hated everyone on the Valiance, or at least, she remembered that was something she believed back then. Her memory didn’t offer her any explanation for it, and soon her anger gave way to a sense of wonder.
Bad blood between Starpoint and the Valiance aside, she had to admit the beauty of the city struck her core.
That wonder seized control of her body, and she placed her hand on the window. The cold outside air snapped at every nerve on her fingers and palm, and her breath fogged up the glass. She wiped it clean, focused on Starpoint.
Starpoint stood tall and proud, as if nothing could ever hope to topple it. Compared to it, the Valiance stood out as the wreckage it truly was, and it couldn’t do a thing to prove otherwise. If only she had been a different person, one Starpoint both needed and wanted…
I shouldn’t be so naive. Things are the way they are, and I shouldn’t get caught up in childish dreams.
Axel retrieved the bag and shuffled its contents around, pulling the flashlight and its charger, plugging it in and carrying it as she began her journey back to the man who hired her. She banished thoughts of Starpoint from her mind, considering them traitorous. She focused on the sound of her own footsteps instead, her head pounding at the continuous tapping of her boots against the metal floor.
Thoughts of Starpoint fallen to the wayside, Axel’s mind wandered to other things. She needed water, food, more sleep that wasn’t on a hard, metal floor. She didn’t expect to get much of either, and she remembered everyone else in the valiance had that same problem.
She had been asleep long enough for the dark rooms to gain a balanced temperature, and she sighed in relief.
She unplugged the flashlight and chased away as much of the darkness as she could. She quickened her pace, eager to leave the empty corridors behind. She kept a watchful eye out for any debris, uncomfortably aware of how easily she could fall into the abyss and die on impact.
When she finally reached the populated corridors, she breathed a sigh of relief. Even if they were hostile, she welcomed being around other people for the moment. She had enough loneliness and quiet for at least a few hours, maybe even a whole day.
Axel turned a corner and almost collided with Snow, the girl she’d met alongside Lorelei. She huffed and walked past Snow, keeping her eye forward. She ignored the odd feeling in her stomach when she risked a glance at Snow’s dark brown eyes.
“Hey, Axel!” Snow hopped in front of Axel and waved her hand to get her attention. She brushed her black bangs out of her face and smiled. “I’ve been looking everywhere for you!”
Not sure where you were looking, but it definitely wasn’t where you needed to be… Axel stepped aside and walked away from Snow again, shooting her a glare.
“There’s no need for that,” Snow pouted, moving in front of Axel a second time only to get pushed to the side. “Oh come on, really? Can’t you wait for just one second?”
Snow held her hand out to grab Axel’s shoulder, and Axel slapped it away. Snow yelped and pulled her hand back, staring at Axel and continuing to follow her. “Geez, what’s your damage? Listen, Lorelei went to go talk to Steel, since it’s been about a day and you didn’t come back… She’s trying to convince him to pay her for the job, since in her words, even if you’re dead, things actually got better and she is the leader of our group…”
Axel stopped and let Snow get in front of her, bile creeping up her throat and setting it on fire. She growled under her breath and shook her head, leaving Snow behind and opting to silently fume over Lorelei’s behavior. How could she do that? And yet, a voice in the back of her mind told Lorelei did this sort of thing more often than not.
“Hey, wait up!” Snow ran after Axel. “That was just her words, not mine, okay? I never doubted you for a second! But yeah… You really should go straighten this out with Steel before Lorelei gets through to him. I think she scares him…”
Axel didn’t feel surprised in the slightest and quickened her pace, mentally growling when Snow walked faster to keep up. She wanted to scream at the younger woman to leave her alone, and settled for simply cursing at her inside her mind. Even if Snow couldn’t hear it, Axel’s mood softened just a bit.
“So…” Snow spoke up after an hour of walking. She ignored Axel tensing up and offered a thin smile. The light in her eyes had dimmed just a bit, and her voice went low and quiet. “You are gonna clear this up with Steel, right?”
Axel resisted the urge to turn her head and glare at Snow to make her go away and leave her alone. She nodded instead, hoping that action would be enough to satisfy Snow’s curiosity. She didn’t want to actually get mean, not when Snow hadn’t really done anything to deserve it.
Snow licked her lips and her eyes darted around under Axel’s gaze. She was catching on, much to Axel’s relief which felt more like dread. Snow’s body tensed and she looked at everyone and everything except Axel. “Well, uh… You walked past the corridor.”
Axel exhaled loudly through her nostrils, the sound drowned out by another whine of steam being released nearby. She shrugged after a moment of silence from Snow, earning a hum in response as proof the girl had, in fact, not abandoned her endeavour to follow Axel down every corridor and staircase.
“…Oh, this is where you were going…” Snow whispered, stopping behind Axel and letting her open the door to her room, releasing Cirrus. Her face brightened when Cirrus looked up at her and wagged her tail. “You wanted your dog.”
Glad you’ve finally solved the mystery, Axel thought, brushing past Snow without even looking at her. She stopped walking when she realized Cirrus wasn’t following her, and she turned around to find Cirrus licking Snow’s hands. Her shoulders slumped and she released a scratchy whine from her throat. Snow and Cirrus didn’t hear her.
Fortunately, Cirrus quickly tired of Snow’s company and rushed over to Axel, standing up on her hindlegs and pushing into Axel’s abdomen with her front paws. Axel stumbled back, righting herself before Cirrus could knock her over. She placed her hands on Cirrus’ sides, gently pushing her back and making her stand on all four feet.
“I can help you straighten things out with Steel if you want,” Snow took a step forward and placed her hands behind her back, flashing Axel a hopeful smile. “You know… Since you still can’t talk.”
Axel stiffened at Snow’s words and glared at her yet again, narrowing her eyes just a bit more and scrunching up her nose. Fists clenched and muscles tensed, and Snow’s smile vanished in an instant. The girl stepped back, and Axel eased up, having gotten her message across.
“That’s fine…” Snow sighed, slumping her shoulders and staring down at the dirty floor. The corners of her eyes glistened, but she turned away from Axel. “I’ll just… Go hang out with my brother. See you later.”
Snow walked down the corridor, leaving Axel and Cirrus behind. Cirrus whined and pawed at the floor, and Axel felt guilty instead of relieved. She reached a hand out towards Snow’s retreating form, letting it fall back to her side seconds after. She hated the feeling gnawing at her, and part of her needed to apologize to Snow. She stamped it out as quickly as possible and turned to walk away. She didn’t have time to chase Snow down, not when she needed to try to talk to Steel.
When Axel made it back to Steel’s room, she found him and Lorelei sitting across the table from each other, him looking incredibly tired and Lorelei looking frustrated. Lorelei noticed Axel in the corner of her eye and directed her venomous glare towards her. Axel wanted to flinch, but her desire to keep Lorelei from having that satisfaction won out. She glared back, and Lorelei’s frown managed to get bigger and her eyes narrowed even more.
“…See, she’s fine,” Steel’s lips curled into a half-smile, one that vanished the second Lorelei whirled around to glare at him. He shifted in his chair, muscles tensed. He cast Lorelei a glance, and then looked down at his desk, pretending to be interested in it instead of Lorelei or Axel. He sighed, raising his head and holding up his free hand to get Lorelei’s attention. He didn’t react to the death glare she sent him. “You know the rules, Lorelei…”
“Glad to see you’re alive and well, Axel,” Lorelei rolled her eyes and shrugged, tapping her foot on the floor. Dropping her murderous glare, she gave Axel a look of parental disapproval. She clenched her fists. “But really, Axel? I help wrench you away from the jaws of certain death, and this is how you repay me? By making me think you died all over again? You think this is funny?”
Axel didn’t see how anyone could find it funny, and with her throat too dry for her to even think of trying to speak, she responded with a shake of her head. Exhaustion, thirst, and starvation chipped away at her mental barriers, and she realized how pathetic she looked to Lorelei and Steel. She gritted her teeth, desperate to retain some shred of dignity and strength. Steel shrugged and Lorelei’s expression remained unchanged.
“Well, your awful stunt aside,” Lorelei shoved a bag into Axel’s hands, “here’s your share of the payment. You did finish the job, after all. Good to know we can still count on you even after you sustain potentially life-ruining injuries. That’s something Steel could stand to learn from you.”
Axel pretended not to notice Steel’s face fall at Lorelei’s comment. She couldn’t help but notice him clutch his injured arm, however, and a tinge of pity poked at her heart. She wouldn’t let it show.
She looked down at the bag, eager to get her mind off of Lorelei and Steel. The bag contained a meal bar, a bottle of water, and a bone. Vague recollection flickered within her mind, telling her this was the norm and that she shouldn’t expect anything different or more substantial. Resources were scarce, after all.
“What’s so interesting about that bag?” Lorelei grumbled, snapping Axel out of her reverie. “That accident really did scramble your brain. God. Hand me your card, you still have that, right? Don’t look at me like that, I’m sure you want your share of the money. Unless you fancy begging me later so you don’t starve.”
Axel couldn’t see any reason why Lorelei needed to do that, but she lacked the energy to bite back and pulled the card out of her pocket. Lorelei snatched it from her hand, and she flinched. Lorelei rolled her eyes and gave it to Steel, who swiped in a small reader and moved to return it to Axel. Lorelei yanked it out of his grasp and threw it at Axel, finally getting the reaction she wanted.
I’ve had enough, Axel mouthed the thought, hoping Lorelei could at least read her lip movements. She placed her hand on Cirrus’ head when the dog started to growl, calming her enough so she wouldn’t launch herself at the elderly woman. Clutching the bag and putting her card back in her pocket, she turned around and left the room.
Axel spared a thought to Snow, only to dismiss it and make her way to her room. She didn’t remember where Snow’s room was, if she ever knew at all. She ignored everyone else she passed by, relief washing over her when she reached her room and opened the door. Her patience had worn out and she desired solitude more than anything else.
Cirrus dashed into the room and pushed a blue plastic bowl across the floor, looking up at Axel when she stepped inside and the door closed behind her. Axel noticed Cirrus’ eyes were on the bottle of water, and she smiled in response, popping the lid off the bottle and pouring half of the water into the bowl. Cirrus happily lapped it up, and Axel smiled again, putting the lid back on the bottle and setting the bone on the floor, next to Cirrus.
With Cirrus taken care of, Axel set the bottle down on the small table next to her bed. She stood there for a moment, unwrapping the bar and sitting on the bed. A full meal in one bar, so the packaging advertised. She shrugged and set it down, her stomach aching yet churning at the same time and making her want to vomit.
Her eyes turned to the bottle, and she picked it up without a second thought. She held it to her mouth, the cold liquid splashing against her chapped lips. Pain erupted in her throat, but the coldness soothed it. Within seconds, the bottle was empty.
Axel felt better than ever before, the half-bottle of water having done more for her than the stimulants did, and probably ever did. She breathed in deep, and when she exhaled, all the good feelings vanished. She sighed and pushed her disappointment away. Nothing good lasted in the Valiance, and accepting that fact made things easier.
She looked at the bar again, her cold stomach still churning and threatening to lose what little it did have. Hunger gnawed at her in the background of the sickness, pushing more and more to the forefront. Her brain screamed at her that she needed to eat it, that she needed more than just a stimulant and actual water.
The sound of Cirrus’ crunching up the bone with her teeth filled Axel’s ears, and she shivered. Soundless recollections of a little girl and a small puppy flashed across her vision, and she split the bar in half, tossing one half to the floor near Cirrus. The crunching stopped and she leaned to the side, seeing Cirrus looking at the bar with interest, gobbling it up seconds after. Axel righted herself and the crunching resumed.
Axel kept her eyes on the wall in front of her, biting into her half of the bar and ignoring the nausea. The bar didn’t taste bad, but it didn’t taste good, either. Another bite assured her it didn’t taste like anything at all. She considered the idea that her senses were simply weak.
The nausea ebbed away as she ate, but she didn’t notice. Each movement was automatic, and she finished eating within a few minutes. She tossed the empty wrapper aside and stared at the ceiling, her mind totally blank. Her vision blurred and eventually faded, unconsciousness stealing her away.
Axel woke up after what felt like only a few minutes, a cool breeze brushing against her skin and chasing the lingering sleep away. A lush green forest and pristine waterfall greeted her, and she gripped the soft grass underneath her hands. She raised her head, taking in the sight of the cloudy blue sky and the birds flying above. She saw a mountain range in the distance.
She looked down at her arm, seeing no scars. Her eyes widened and she pushed herself to her feet, walking over to the river. She sat down on a large, smooth stone near the edge, peering at her reflection and tensing up. No scars littered her face or indeed any of the skin left exposed by the cream-coloured shirt and shorts she wore, and she watched her jaw ease open and hang there. She raised her hand to her face, placing it over her right eye, the one that should’ve been gone. This isn’t real…
Real or not, Axel couldn’t help but be drawn to the water in front of her, and she stepped into it, the water reaching up to her knees. She welcomed the coldness even as it made her shiver, and she walked to the center of the pond, where the water reached her chest.
She closed her eyes and held still, focusing on the sounds of the rushing water, the rustling leaves, and the cries of the animals. She swished her hands through the water, taking in deep breaths and reaching a state of calmness she didn’t remember ever feeling. A stray, naive thought of wishing it would last forever wandered to the surface, and she dismissed it. Dreams couldn’t last, and with no way of knowing how long this one would, she wanted to take it all in while she could rather than wishing for things she simply couldn’t have.
What seemed like hours passed, and Axel opened her eyes when she no longer felt the breeze or heard the sounds of nature. The water had been replaced with mud, the landscape scarred and barren, the waterfall blocked by boulders and what looked like scrap metal. Bitter disappointment filled her, and she turned to step out of the pond, trying to force her real eye open so she could leave the deadscape behind. Her eye didn’t open, a sign of the dream’s refusal to let her go. Was I really that exhausted?
Axel tensed up, looking at the desolate landscape in front of her, absorbing every detail from the dead plants to the cracks in the soil. It all looked real. She raised her right hand out of the mud, rubbing her fingers together and feeling the mud on her skin. It felt real. Everything around her seemed so real. But it’s not…
She took a step forward, the mud proving to be thicker than it actually looked. She gritted her teeth and growled within her throat, pushing through the mud. Each step she took should’ve brought her closer to the edge, yet she found herself drifting further away and away from it. She reached her hand out to grab one of the stones in front of her, closing her eyes for a split second.
The landscape changed again, and Axel shrieked at the blood leaking through her fist. She opened her hand, watching the rest of the blood fall back into the red ocean she now stood in. She turned her head this way and that, seeing only blood and a crimson sky. All of her senses dulled, and she tried to open her eye again.
“What…” Axel tried to move, putting all of her strength into taking just one step. The blood held her in place like concrete. She smacked it, watching it ripple as her stomach churned. She turned her head, a gasp catching in her throat when she saw the twisted metal standing behind her. Something familiar…