I didn’t expect the game development studio to be open again so soon after I had visited. And, well, it wasn’t, but the sight that awaited me when I arrived gave me quite the shock. They had lost a good chunk of workers on that day, so the building was acting as a makeshift vigil for those that had been taken, people coming in and out to pay respects.
I staked it out for a good long while. Visitors were smart enough not to carry any obvious signs of their relationship status, and I wouldn’t risk searching them. I couldn’t jeopardize my plan. That Nielson kid or his girlfriend never showed up, but I got the next best thing.
A woman, whom I had recognized as working on Nielson’s floor, stepped out of a car in formal attire and went to join the proceedings. I ducked out of my hiding spot, spread my wings, and made my move. Using my wings to propel me, I leapt for the woman, getting a good strike in on her and shoving her to the ground. Once I had a clear advantage over the woman, I drew my dagger.
The others wouldn’t dare interrupt, though I could feel their shocked and sobbing eyes all fixated on me. All knew of the Auburn Demon’s power, and none wanted to become his next victim.
“I-… I don’t know!”
“Then what do you know?”
“N-not much… We just work together, I don't really know him…”
“Then who does?”
“I really don’t know! Please don’t kill me!”
I gritted my teeth, glancing around at the crowd that had gathered. All were scared to make a sound and risk me turning my attention to them. I moved my dagger to the woman’s throat.
“Someone better start talking, or I will slice her open.”
I brought the knife closer.
“And then I’m going to slice my way through each and every one of you. I’m not leaving until somebody tells me about Nielson. If I have to slaughter every single person here, I will. Don’t even think about playing any games.”
I had no intention of taking any of their lives. Yet, I knew that they wouldn’t dare call my bluff. The Auburn Demon held all of them in the palm of his hand. I could manipulate them without even speaking a single word. They didn’t know of my human side, only of the blade that tore through their town.
“I know about him!” somebody piped up from the crowd. I turned my eyes toward them, lifting my foot off of the woman I had been holding captive, and dissipating my dagger.
“He’s dating someone…”
“You’re gonna have to give me something better than that.”
“H-her name is… Oh, Penny! That’s right! Her name is Penny!”
“I… When he was on the phone with her, I think I overheard him mention she works in a clockshop…”
Someone else decided to jump in, “No, no, they’re right! Penny works in a clockshop!”
“There aren't many around here… But I’m pretty sure there’s one down by Lakeside…”
“You better be right.”
I turned my back to the crowd, sprinting to get a running start before taking off into the sky once more. I was absolutely certain that the news channels got notified immediately after I left. I let the public fawn over me as much as they wanted, as getting my message out to everyone was worth having to deal with that silly nickname, or rumors being told about me in the shadows.
“I heard that he’s immortal…”
“Well, I heard that he can take over the bodies of other people!”
“He’s a poltergeist that’s haunting the streets of Auburn!”
Paranoia. Hysteria. Their seemingly infinite attempts to rationalize the situation got fairly close to figuring me out a few times, but each correct guess was buried under a mountain of unsubstantiated bullshit. Well, you know what they say. Monkeys slamming on typewriters will eventually write poetry.
Before I was able to get too far off the ground, I heard one voice from the crowd call out to me, piercing like a bullet through the otherwise dead silence. A younger man, fighting to be heard.
I indulged the soul for a moment, stopping my ascent and turning to face them, still using my wings to hover. Others tried to stop them from getting too close to me, but the crowd member pushed through, insistent on getting their message out.
“W-why us? Why?! We’ve done nothing to you! What do you hope to accomplish? Anarchy? Chaos? Do you wish to watch the world be torn apart at its seams? What message do you wish to be understood, carrying out these tragedies under the guise of one of us?! Speak to me, demon, speak to me! Who are you to play God?”
I stayed silent, slowly lowering myself to the ground. Once my feet touched solid concrete, I began to reply to the man’s comment.
“My name is Travis. I’m not this embodiment of evil that you seem so eager to paint me as, and I will not be spoken to as if I am subhuman. I’m more human than any one of you could ever hope to be. I kill to put the sick out of their misery before they can infect others, for the pollution of this world has destroyed a once prosperous race. Look at where your love has led you. Cowering in fear, afraid to end up on the wrong side of a blade.”
I took a step forward, which was counterbalanced by the man’s sudden retreat.
“You think I enjoy having these wings? You think I enjoy having to watch a human bleed? I’m starting to.” The man took a swing at me, but I was able to sidestep it without much effort. With all my might, I raised my hand, and with the back of it, struck him across the face in his defenseless state. He tumbled to the ground with a hard thud, blood starting to ooze from his nose
“Take a good, long look at me, humanity. Look at what you’ve done. Put this in whatever newspaper you wish, for I want the whole world to know. I take lives not for me, but for each and every one of you who refuse to listen. Then when the generations of the future shine you in the destructive light that you so rightfully deserve, don’t come crying to me.”
“Let him be the first. Let Nielson be the second. It’s up to you if there’s a third.”
Tick, tock. Tick, tock.
It had gotten so lonely without Penny around… The clock shop’s power had gone out in the days after she left, which had the side effect of rendering Tockman unable to do any actual work in his windowless lab. He had to retreat down into the clock shop, and that’s where he stayed for the most part.
I still came by every day. We had the occasional flying practice or sword fight, but it was far from lively. Tockman and I barely spoke a word to each other, and I didn’t need to exert any effort to accomplish his vague and dumbed-down requests.
His face was expressionless and grey, so different from the determined and self-assured Tockman that I had grown to expect. I noticed that, on the rare occasions when we were able to carry an actual conversation, that he never even bothered bringing up time travel. It was always about Penny, or the demon, or me, and he dodged the question every time I wanted to learn a little more about him.
Because of that, I was coming in not for me, but for him. Even if Tockman didn’t give any indication of it, I knew that he actually really appreciated having me around. Leaving him alone would help no one, and the constant metronome of the clocks helped to keep both of us from being completely swept up by the situation.
That day, when I came in to visit Tockman, I saw him behind the desk for once. He wasn’t manning the register, though. The store hadn’t opened once since Penny left, and even if it did, I doubted that anybody was thinking about clocks with everything at stake. Tockman’s goggles were resting on the counter, and his eyes were focused on something.
“Oh, hello Ava… Nice of you to drop by.”
“I don’t know. Just… Come look at this.”
Tockman gestured for me to come and get a glimpse at whatever he was looking at. When I joined him behind the desk, I saw that he had been looking over Penny’s old work space. She never even came by to take any of it home.
There were multiple framed photos of herself and Zinovi, of her out with friends, of her back at home with her family… Other similar polaroid photos were behind the desk, clipped to a string hanging on the wall with clothespins. Her writing notes were in a red notebook, some doodles and little sketches drawn in the margins. The little kitty I had made for her was placed right next to the register, and it seemed to be what Tockman was staring at. That, and Penny’s watch, which was sitting nearby.
While it seemed that everything was set up randomly, closer examination showed that Penny definitely had her own organization set up for everything. Photos were hanging at the same distance apart from each other, everything on the desk had its own place, and her notes were very precisely placed on the paper, even the added margin scribbles.
“You’ve never seen any of this before?”
“No, no, she never let me see most of this… I can’t imagine why-”
“Would you have scolded her?”
Tockman looked me in the eye, but quickly turned away afterward. His eyelids fell shut, and he spoke with a broken voice. “Maybe… I don’t know, Ava. I don’t know anything anymore.”
Wanting to distract both myself and Tockman, I picked up Penny’s writing notes and began thumbing through them. As I worked my way through, they became less of a coherent series of plans and more scattered notes and reference drawings, all in the same blue pen’s ink.
Penny clearly poured her experiences into that ink, because I started to see drawings that looked like her. There were drawings of Zinovi, too, and a few of her cat, Cine. In some of the later entries, I saw doodles of a ginger girl with fiery orange wings, labeled “The Phoenix”…
Tockman had been looking over my shoulder, and he commented on the note sheets. “Are there any of me?”
When I flipped back through the stack of papers, there were some of the doctor, but… His likeness was used as betrayers or villains ruling over kingdoms with an iron fist. I saw Tockman’s face drop lower than it had before.
“…Oh. I see.”
Tockman slipped his clock goggles back on, and as he walked past me, I worked up the courage to speak to him.
“Tockman… You really cared about her, didn’t you?”
I didn’t get a response to that, but the way Tockman bowed his head in shame told me all that I needed to know without him taking a single breath
“Here, I wanna show you something.”
I got Tockman’s attention back on me as I opened the door to the storage room, feeling around in the dark before I came to the large dresser in the corner. Opening up the top drawer, I took out the object I was looking for and brought it over for him to see.
It was a small black box, and when I opened it up, there was a piercing emerald atop of an engagement ring. Tockman seemed speechless, his jaw dropping open as he leaned in to get a closer look.
“What is the meaning of this?”
“Zinovi gave it to me.”
“Yeah, he… When he was here for a bit, he wanted me to look after it. When all this blows over, I think he wants to marry her.”
Tockman thought for a moment before raising his hand to the box and clicking it shut.
“Very well, then. Tuck it somewhere safe.”
I caught a glimpse of Tockman as I put the box back into its hiding spot. He had a wide smile on his face and seemed to be deep in thought. When I turned back to him, he spoke with a chuckle. “Heh… He really seems to love her, doesn’t he?”
I gave a slight nod, then watched as Tockman’s expression and posture straightened up into a more serious demeanor. He took my place in the storage room, going for the grandfather clock and taking out his shortsword.
“You wanna practice a bit?”
“What’s got you all worked up all of a sudden?”
“What about him?”
“I’m going to kill him.”
“…That’s a big step.”
“I don’t particularly care.”
I manifested my sword as well, stepping back out into the open floor of the clock shop.
“Good. Me neither. Wanna go for a round or two?”
The sun had already begun to set by the time Penny showed up at the office. A sudden slam of a door and frantic ring of a bell was enough to send a cold chill through my entire body, but turning around to see Penny’s emotionless face only served to amplify that fear tenfold.
She walked right past me and didn't even give me a passing glance. Her clothes were dark in color, a far cry from the vibrant colors I had grown accustomed to. Her hair was pulled back and out of its typical ponytail. There was no bounce in her gait. She didn't even bring her cat with her.
I winced. The energy I felt from that passing… It alone told me she wouldn’t power anything of mine in a million years. Not only would she most certainly… Refuse if I asked, but she just seemed… …Well… If she was an endless battery before, then she was a dead battery leaking acid now…
I wanted to speak, I truly did, but I doubt Penny wanted to listen. The only acknowledgement Ava and I got was a side-eyed glare before Penny started scooping up the keepsakes and notes that she had left at the writing station. I shot a look at Ava, and she returned it, eyes full of despair and hesitation.
Tick, tock. Tick, tock.
The response was cold and sharp enough to make me reevaluate my entire approach. She wanted absolutely nothing to do with me, and I doubted that there was much I could do to change that.
“Do you, um… Want to talk about anything?”
“Why the hell would you think I would want to talk with you?”
“Right, stupid question, uh… Do you want to fence? Or something?”
“Why can’t you fence with Ava?”
“Because I want to fence with you. You’re not Ava.”
“Ain’t that a shame?”
Penny looked over her shoulder, and at the sight of the desperation on my face, let out an annoyed sigh. She fully turned around to face me, and shot out, “If I fence with you, will you leave me the hell alone?”
In trying to make progress, I had pole vaulted in the exact wrong direction. I made an attempt to salvage the situation with my reply, “Y-yeah… Of course. Whatever you want.”
Feeling that I was finally starting to inch my way back, I gave the gesture for Ava to step out of the way, a suggestion which Ava accepted without question. Penny and I had certainly sparred before, but I knew that neither of us would be approaching the situation as if it was normal.
Penny rummaged around in the darkness until she found her sabre, while I already had my sword out from a practice session with Avalonia. We slipped on our gear, ducked out into the parking lot where we wouldn’t break any of the clocks, and began our match.
Immediately, I noticed that Penny certainly wasn’t fighting like she usually did. Her strikes were without pattern, aggressive, and every swing seemed to either be directed toward my neck or my face. It caught me off guard. I had certainly fought an intense individual or two in my day, but I found myself unable to defend against most of Penny’s advances.
This was a complete and utter stark contrast to how she usually fought. As we fought, I flashed back to one of Penny’s earlier fencing days at Auburn’s old school. I had come to let off some steam, and she had been there for lessons.
I got into my gear and stretched, watching the on-going matches and waiting for an open strip. One of them was Penny and an instructor. I scowled when I heard some gentlemen that were also waiting for a turn to fence calling out to Penny despite the instructors telling them to stop. Evidently, adults and children alike are unable to listen to authorities and unable to stay quiet and wait their turns. It was annoying and aggravating to me, and I wasn’t even the focus of their attention.
They laughed or joked whenever she made a mistake or got a point against her. They taunted and jeered and teased her as well. She seemed to be getting flustered from this, because her fencing became more and more irregular. Eventually, she retreated so much so that she tripped over herself and fell back.
Her hands flew back to catch her and she cried out as her left hand hit the reel box. Stunned, flustered, and panting, Penny slowly got up, wincing. The instructor that was her opponent took off his helmet and walked over to check on her. She took off her helmet and pulled her left hand close to her—her palm was bleeding from it being cut on the corner of the reel box.
The instructor unhooked himself from his reel and got her some bandages, the other men slow-clapping as they walked over to my assistant. Before the instructor could reprimand them more, Penny glared at the leader. “If you think you’re so great, then hook yourself up and put your foil where your mouth is.”
The resulting bout was surprisingly closer than I thought it was going to be. Her opponent was obviously more skilled than Penny, but she was able to hold her own. She mainly stayed on the defensive for a while to figure out his pattern, then began to go in for points once she learned it and he became tired and frustrated.
Penny didn’t win the bout, but the ending score was 4-5 and none of the other boys dared go to fight Penny once their leader showed off the 4 points she scored on him—they all were terrible bruises on his chest, stomach, and shoulder. I had to admit, it was entertaining seeing a novice fencer shorter than her opponent almost best him and mark him up in warning. He should have seen it coming.
After that, we had fenced a few times, but I was always the winner in the end. Now… I wasn’t too sure that those results would occur again this time. I flashed back just in time to parry a hit from Penny. I felt like that obnoxious boy that had taunted her that day, but this was far worse.
Even after she had landed multiple hits on me, Penny would not relent or even give me a second to breathe. I couldn’t keep up with her, and her attacks were only getting angrier.
“P-Penny! Slow down a bit! Round is over!”
Right after I said that, Penny swung her fist at me, landing a sharp hit right to my jaw. I stumbled backward, eventually losing my balance and falling to the hard concrete of the sidewalk, back first. I sat up and shouted out, “What are you doing?!”
She grabbed my mask with one hand, tearing it off and revealing my dishevelled hair atop a paled face. Penny brought her sabre to my exposed throat, and my breathing suddenly became sporadic as fear began to spread throughout my entire body, effectively paralyzing me.
“P-Penny…” I managed to struggle out. “You don’t want to kill me… D-Do you?”
She seemed to hesitate as if thinking things through, though the blade pointed at my neck did not move. Slowly, Penny maneuvered the blade away and back to her side, before dropping it all together. Then, all at once, Penny took off her own mask and dropped that to the ground as well.
“…No. I don’t.”
“Then what was that about-”
“I don’t know!”
Penny’s tone was one of true despair, and it was unlike anything I had ever heard before, let alone anything I would expect to come out of Penny’s mouth. Her face looked even worse than it had, sunken deeper than a lost ship, and obviously fighting the urge to cry.
She couldn’t fight forever, but Penny wasn’t going to let me see her cry. She flicked her head around and tried to mask her sobs, giving me the chance to get back to my feet. I slowly dragged my feet behind me as I approached Penny, before placing a hand on her shoulder.
Penny shrugged off my hand with a cold, “Don’t touch me.”
“Right, I’m sorry.”
She paused before saying, “I really did care, Doc.”
“About you. About time travel. About all those experiments you ran. I looked up to you because I’ve never been good at math and science like you are, and you treated me like garbage!”
“And that was wrong of me. I promise, I-”
“I’ve had enough of your promises, Doc. I don’t care anymore. I don’t care about anything you say anymore. I might never see Zinovi or my family or friends ever again, and you’re over here having a fit over Ava like always. Nothing ever mattered to you, Doc. I never mattered to you. Did you honestly think that swinging swords would change that?”
“You’re right, Penny… You’re right about all those things, you’re right about everything you said. Earlier, I…”
“I… I was scared. Scared that I’d let myself be distracted by you.”
“Oh, I’m a distraction now?”
“Yes, Penny, you are! You always were! You were everything that I wasn’t! I was afraid that one day I would wake up and not stand to look at myself in the mirror, because I knew that I could never be you!”
“Well it’s too late for that now, isn’t it?”
“I had some image in my mind that you would somehow make my life a living hell… I was wrong.”
“Was that really the reason?”
“Part of it. I was even more terrified at the possibility that you’d make my life so much better… And that I wouldn’t be able to live with myself if I had you torn away from me…”
Penny didn’t respond to me anymore after that, but she didn’t need to. And as she walked away, everything that was running in my brain seemed to halt all at once, rusted away…
What had I become?
After Doc tried in vain to explain himself, I gathered up my fencing stuff along with the supplies at my workspace, packing it all up and leaving. With all that was going on, I did not need any other stresses in my life, and most certainly didn’t need Ava to remind me of all that had gone wrong.
However, my attempts to escape the demon were all in vain, as he soon found his way back to me…
I was walking to my car when a figure jumped me from behind and put a dagger to my throat. The violet hue of the blade was enough to clue me in on the perpetrator, but the sudden voice served to solidify it. A voice I knew all too well…
When Travis snatched me from behind, I was ready for him. I slammed my head backwards, making contact with what I could safely assume was the demon’s nose.
Travis released me without question, stepping away in recoil, bringing his free hand to his now blood-gushing nose.
“You’ve got a lot of nerve to strike me…”
“You’ve got a lot of nerve showing your ugly face again. What makes you think I’m going to tell you jack shit?”
“Sure, keep that attitude, see how well it works for you.”
The demon removed his hand from his nose, with it being miraculously healed and free of blood. He was only slightly taller than I was, and had the figure of a nerdy teenager from every single high school movie ever. I had heard much more about Travis than I had ever wanted to, both from Ava’s ramblings and the news reports. He wasn’t half as scary as the public wanted to think he was, crappy one-liners aside.
I dove for my sabre, drawing it, and pointing it toward the demon. This one was a real sword, far deadlier than any fencing sabre that you’d get in school. I didn’t hesitate going in for the kill, but Travis had a bit more skill than I had anticipated. He summoned a purple shield on both of his wrists, holding them up in an x-block to negate my attack.
When I went in for another attack, Travis instead grabbed my arm, using his foot to kick at my dominant hand and send the sword flying out of my grasp.
“I’m not going to kill you.”
“You want to kill Zinovi! You want to kill Ava! You want to kill most everyone in this town, why not me?”
“I never said I didn’t want to kill you. Oh, no, I do, and if it were up to me, I would burn you at the stake and roast a marshmallow over it. Unfortunately, there are bigger fish to fry.”
“Oh, it’s not up to you?! Who the hell is it up to then?!”
“Who are you to question me?! You’re just an insignificant child!”
“I’m older than you!”
I struck Travis in the stomach with my elbow, knocking his grip off me and sending the wind flying out of him, but I knew that I couldn’t hold him for long. By the time I had run over and scooped my sword off the ground, the demon had already manifested a blade of his own.
Travis backed up, eyes burning with hatred, and spread his wings wide off to each side, slowly flapping them until he was gliding a few feet off the ground. He spun the handle of the sword around in his hand, revving up to dive at me.
“Tell me where Nielson is, or I’ll gut you like a pig.”
Travis growled, before tucking his wings behind himself and diving at me. I took a few steps back, and before he could reach me, I jumped off toward the side, leading to the demon’s blade missing me by a hair. He quickly switched his dive to feet-first, skidding against the concrete but landing without much trouble.
I rushed forward toward Travis’ exposed back, but before I could get a hit in, he turned around, raised up his leg, and struck forward. His kick didn’t hit me, but was a good-enough distraction in order to allow Travis to block my strike with his shield.
Keeping my sabre at bay with one hand, Travis swung his sword toward my midsection. With us being fairly close to each other, I couldn’t formulate a good counter, so I just ended up jumping backwards to escape the approaching blade.
That little maneuver screwed up my balance, so a strong punch from Travis was all it took to toss me to the ground. In this vulnerable position, the demon attempted to stab at me from above, but I was narrowly able to block each downward strike with a swipe from my own blade.
In a bad position, I thought quickly and kicked with the heel of my foot into Travis’ kneecap. It was a precise enough hit to send him kneeling to the ground, and it gave me time to pick myself back up. Now with the high ground on the demon, I went in for a slice to the neck, but Travis negated that by simply bringing up his shielded wrist to block it.
“You don’t let up, do you?” Travis angrily asked, jumping up and out of my range. He was gritting his teeth, clearly having expected to have gotten what he had wanted already.
“That boy is not worth dying for!”
“He’s worth that and so much more!”
“You’re letting him turn you into something despicable!”
“So being an actual human being is ‘something despicable’ but slaughtering countless innocents isn’t?!”
“I’m not the biggest fan of it either, but it’s what needs to be done to keep humanity from devolving back into mindless beasts.”
“You really think this is justified?! No one would ever submit to you!”
“You can’t seem to comprehend the slightest thing about how the world works.”
“Maybe not, but I know more about being human than you could ever hope to! You don’t deserve to call yourself one of us!”
“I don’t want to be one of you anymore, but I’m stuck like this!”
With that last shout, Travis summoned a knife to occupy his free hand, before extending it out into a second sword with a flick of his wrist.
“I’ll show you what it means to be a human!”
This was the first time that Travis was truly able to intimidate me. I knew that I couldn’t fend off dual weapons, and believing that I could would be absurd. The only chance that I had to stay on the same level as the demon would be if I had a second blade as well. And I knew where more were. I broke into a sprint, back toward the clock shop.
Travis ran after me, eventually taking to the sky and trying to catch me from above. Now I was starting to panic, pushing myself to run harder and faster. I just had a bit more to go before the shop, though…! Almost there…!
It wasn’t long before the Auburn Demon was able to catch me, though, grabbing me from behind and slamming me up against the clock shop wall. I gasped in pain, my head pounding and my shoulder aching as they hit the cold brick. I could feel something wet on my head…
“Where. Is. Nielson?”
After uttering that, Travis turned me to face him and slammed me against the wall once more, this time with it doing a number on my back… It hurt like hell.
“…Where… …You’ll never hurt him again…” I panted. I knew there wasn’t an easy way to escape his grasp.
At least… Not alone.