A chilling wind swept through the midnight forest, filling the tranquility with a howling dirge. Hidden from the moon’s gaze, underneath the forest canopy, a figure walked along the road. He moved merely by the dim light of the blue halo that hung above his head, something he had done for the countless years that he had walked this Nameless World. At first, roaming alone had been lonesome, but over time he had adjusted to the solitary life.
Regardless of if he was in company or not was beside the point. What mattered was where he was going and who he needed to find.
The Angel exited the forest, the fullness of the moon illuminating the silver buckles and buttons on his red coat. He noticed something—a quite obvious detail—one he could not deduce from within the suffocating woods behind him.
He noticed that the rain had stopped.
The moon shone down upon the vibrant halo above his head. He stared back, the light of the celestial rock reflecting off his steely blue eyes...
And thus begins the Tale of Gods and Men.
Philos sat, staring out the window of Burns’ Coffeehouse, his mind melding with the rain as it pelted upon the dark streets. The shop had closed and locked up since ten o’clock, and now closer to midnight, the city of Apocrypha was asleep.
All but Philos, or so it seemed; Philos could never sleep.
“It bothers you, doesn’t it, grandson.” a calm voice said.
Philos placed his hand upon his chest and gripped his shirt as if holding a wound. “It does.”
He turned to see his grandfather, Pal Burns, placing an unfinished coffee mug upon the table.
“You know that thinking about it won’t undo it, my boy,” his grandfather said.
“I know. But it’s not something I can so easily forget.”
“Listen, my dear grandson,” Pal began as he swirled the coffee in his mug. “You’re safe now. You’re home now. Far away from the Angels and their machinations. You aren’t a slave to anyone anymore, Philos. You’re a free man now, and you have your family and friends who love you dearly.”
Philos sighed deeply, a smile forming on his face. He looked at the stairway in the back of the shop. He knew that down that hall, his friends had already drifted asleep and would wake up in a few hours for another day of work.
“You’re right. I have my family again.”
“Now,” Pal chuckled as he stood and walked to the bar. “How does some chamomile tea sound to soothe your dreams?”
The streets were silent save for the patter of rain upon the puddles. Astrid maneuvered through the darkness, led by the hand of a guardsman. She didn’t mind the silent streets; the quiet was welcome. At least at night she couldn’t feel the glaring glances or harsh jeers of the people of Apocrypha.
“This way, honey,” the guard said as he turned a corner.
Yes, she liked the silence. She liked the darkness. The darkness didn’t care if she was different. It didn’t judge her.
“And here we are, darling!” the guardsman said, smirking as he opened the door to his home. “Now go get ready.”
Without a word, she stepped through the door.
“Oh, and by the way, you brought the blue contacts, right?” he asked.
“I did.” Astrid said with a sigh.
“Good. You’re gorgeous, but your eyes are sorta...well they’re creepy. No offense.”
“Bathroom is over there. Hurry up.”
Of course there was no offense, she thought as she entered the bathroom. For a moment, she stared at her eyes in the mirror. Solid black eyeballs, with pale white irises. No wonder everyone hates me, she thought. No wonder they ostracized her. She was a freak. Astrid had to admit, her eyes were at least odd, if not...creepy. She reached into the pocket of her skirt and pulled out a small box.
Blue. All the men in Apocrypha City love blue eyes. She pushed back her scarlet hair and put in the contacts.
“Hurry up, kitten,” the man called from outside. “The lion’s getting hungry!”
What a bastard. She gritted her teeth as she stared into the mirror once more. To think that she’d dance for him. I don’t even know his name!
But this wasn’t unusual, she told herself. No, she’d done much worse. Fatter, greasier, hairier...she’d seen it all. So what was the difference with this man? After all, she was just a dancer trying to make some extra money she knew he wouldn’t pay her. But she didn’t mind thievery either.
She looked at herself in the mirror.
Blue eyes. I hate them all.
Morning came slowly. Too slowly. Astrid awoke to the sounds of more rain upon the window. She knew that she didn’t want to roll over; she didn’t want to see who she danced for last night; she knew that if she did, if she saw the greasiness or grossness of the man who took her home, she might throw up.
Instead, she slipped stealthily out from under the covers and reached for her clothes. There wasn’t much to dress. She was a dancer, after all. Honestly, she really had no choice other than that, to be a “dancer.” But that was life, apparently. There were no other alternatives for her, because...
She touched her black eyes.
The contacts burned off again...
Astrid knew she was different. She knew why they hated her, why they reviled her so. It was her eyes, her ghastly eyes . She was unique, and that was her one unforgivable, indelible sin.
Outside, the precipitation was soft against the loathsome streets, raindrops rippling as they dripped into the windswept puddles. Astrid held her coat close, trying her best to keep her long red hair dry. She could hear them—as always—as she walked the sidewalk. The murmurs. It wasn’t uncommon, they always did it. She passed through the crowds.
“He’s back from Angel country? Is he a runaway slave?” a voice cut through the din.
“Yeah! And they say he was covered in scars and bruises!”
Nonsense, Astrid spat in a small puddle on the ground. But I don’t mind the chatter. At least they aren’t ridiculing me for once.
“I don’t believe that!” another voice rose. “I saw that young man yesterday at the coffeehouse, and he didn’t have a scratch on him!”
Who’s so popular today? She wondered.
The smoky sky above was dismal, a gray veil that shielded the visage of the city from the hopeful warmth of the sun. Astrid looked behind her once then twice before deciding she had succeeded. She reached into her coat pocket and pulled out a black wallet.
That bastard wants it for free, huh? She smirked in spite of herself as she pulled out several credits from the pouch. Free? More like thirty sylver.
Not much, but enough for some breakfast. It wouldn’t be long before the man found out about the theft, and, true, she might get caught, but he was a guard, so probably not. A clever grin crossed her face. What? What could he do? Admit to his captain that he had been messing with a dancer?
His captain might be a good man...maybe.
The bakery was busy.
Eyes turned to Astrid, scowls accompanying them. She examined the people in line, their judgmental gazes quickly looking away once they noticed she was staring at them. She could feel herself incensing as each and every one of them glanced away.
Cowards. She gritted her teeth. They act like they’re so much better, but they won’t say it to my face.
It was true. They were all afraid of looking, scared that their so-called “devil” would look back at them.
You’re the real devils, she thought, every last one of you...
Astrid sighed and got in line. She was here for bread, after all, and her growling stomach was enough to allow her to endure the discrimination. Besides, what did they know? Astrid lowered her head and pulled her hood closer. As she bowed her head, she saw a little girl who was staring at her. She was small, and her bright blue eyes stared quizzically into Astrid’s strange black ones. For a moment, the two froze, their gazes locked upon one another.
Poor thing, Astrid thought as a small smile softened her face. She must be terrified.
“Hi there, darling,” Astrid said, and knelt down to the girl’s eye level. “I’m Astrid. What’s your name?”
“Astrid is a pretty name!” the girl exploded with delight. “My name is—”
“Chelsea,” a woman’s stern voice cut in, causing the little girl to jump. “Come here this instant!”
Before she could finish, the woman took hold of her daughter and jerked her away.
“Come on, Chelsea. We don’t associate with filth.”
And there it is...of course...
It was to be expected, this pervasive hate. In times past, as a child upon the streets, Astrid had wondered why they hated so much. Was it just because she was different? Were her eyes really so awful?
Time passed, every moment of which Astrid spent thinking about the hunger in her stomach.
“Next customer!” the baker at the counter called out.
He was round man. Tall and beefy, but round. His rosy cheeks made his laugh lines more pronounced. Astrid approached the counter slowly, her hands on her hood to conceal her eyes. It would only cause trouble if he saw whom he was serving.
“I’ll take the thirty sylver bread basket,” she said as she reached into the wallet, her fingers filing through the credits.
“Scored big time, didn’t ya?” The baker’s kind face contorted into a stony grimace. “What? Doing some ‘private dances,’ or did you just steal it?”
The baker raised his arm to swing. “I don’t serve your kind here!”
Astrid flinched, her eyes shutting as she anticipated the blow.
But, nothing came.
“Sorry, Mr. Avery. She’s actually on a delivery run for the coffee shop. See, we’ve been working so hard that Pal sent her to get the staff some treats as our reward,” a young man said with a small laugh. “I didn’t know that the Happy Bakery treated people so rudely.”
Astrid opened her eyes to see a young man, not much older than herself, with blondish hair and reddish-brown eyes holding the man’s hand back.
“Philos! I,” the baker began.
“Was going to hit her?” Philos completed his sentence. He released the baker’s hand and smiled. “One bread basket please!”
The baker groaned as he shook his arm. “Right, right.”
Astrid and Philos walked silently down the sidewalk. The rain had softened some, now a spectral mist that alighted upon Apocrypha City’s gray stones.
“Alright,” Astrid said, stopping, her eyes locked onto the mysterious young man. “How much?”
“How much?” Philos cocked his head to the side, his eyes clueless. “How much for what?”
He must be playing stupid!
“How much for, y’know...” Astrid made a circle with her fingers and poked other her finger through the hole in a lewd fashion. “How much for that?”
He suddenly burst into laughter. “I don’t what that!”
“Then what do you want, idiot?!”
The other smiled, his face full of light. “I want to be your friend!”
Astrid's face grew hot. “F-fr—”
“Over there!” a voice exploded in the distance. “That’s her! That’s the thief who stole my wallet!”
Dammit! Astrid turned to see the guardsman she danced for the night before, two guards at his side.
“In trouble, huh?” Philos smiled.
Astrid gave him a sour frown. “What do you think? C’mon, use your brain—if you even have one behind all of those dumb smiles.”
The other merely took her by the hand.
“Run with me!”
Philos suddenly bolted, Astrid’s hand in his. The two coursed through the city alleyways, swiftly switching lefts and rights in an attempt to elude their pursuers until taking a final right.
“Oops...” Philos laughed scratching his head. “This city has really changed since I’ve been gone, hasn’t it?”
“You’re an idiot!” Astrid exploded, shaking the young man, her hands gripping his shoulders. “I can’t go to jail; I don’t want to!”
“Well, well...” the guardsman said as he approached. “Come here baby-doll. I might forget all of this if you give me a free private dance.”
“Kinda gross.” Philos said as he stood between the two.
“Listen here, punk!” the guardsman laughed. “I’m the law! Move or I’ll throw you in jail.”
“Law, huh?” Philos’ voice was cold and stalwart. “Maybe you should be protecting citizens instead of trying to get some from a troubled girl.”
Tr-troubled? Astrid frowned. H-hey!
The guardsman balled his fist tightly, knuckles white with hot rage.
“You punk!” he raged as he threw his fist in sheer ire. The guardsman’s hand swung in a blur, his full weight behind it, dropping his head. He felt the impact with his whole body as he struck Philos’ face.
“Stop!” Astrid screamed. “Go away! I’ll give you the wallet back, just go away!”
“Shut up!” the guard yelled in return as he drew his blade. “You’re nothing but a worthless tramp!”
Philos stood once more. The guardsman watched as the bruise upon the young man’s face slowly faded away.
“That all you got, big man?” Philos taunted.
“And you’re the same as her!” he said as he pointed at Philos’ disappearing bruise. A freak! Just like this devil!”
As the man’s blade raced toward his head, Philos stepped inward, taking the guard’s arm in his hands. The man shrieked at the scorching pain of his arm snapping at the elbow.
“My arm! My arm—”
“Shut up!” Philos warned.
With one giant swing, his fist collided with the guard’s face, his knuckles slamming him clean on the nose with a loud, sickening crunch. Philos felt the crack as the man’s eyes rolled back into his head.
“If I ever hear you,” Philos growled, “talk to her like that again. I will tear you in half.” He turned his piercing reddish-brown eyes to the other guards who just watched their comrade fall to the ground with a thud. “Any of you have a problem?”
“P-problem?! N-no!” The others shook their heads, stumbling as they ran away. “Just leave us alone!”
Silence filled the alleyway, broken all but the faint humming of the wind blowing the mists against their faces.
“Why?” Astrid finally said.
“Why what?” Philos’ voice was low, solemn.
“Why did you help me?”
“Because you needed help.”
“I don’t understand.”
Philos looked up at the gray skies, his hand slowly gripping his chest as if holding a painful scar. His eyes were somewhat hollow, filled with sorrow and loss.
“We’re a lot alike. That’s all.” He smiled a small smile. “By the way, what’s your name?”
A lot alike? Astrid thought.
“Astrid,” she said after a while. “My name is Astrid.”
“It’s a good name,” Philos said, almost wistfully. “Don’t lose it.”
He turned, his eyes meeting hers with a cheerful smile.
“You’re quite the company, Astrid!”
Astrid scowled. “You’re stupid.”
“By the way,” the young man began, reaching into his pocket and pulling out a small business card, “if you need food, I’ll make sure you get some. Just ask for ‘Philos.’” He smiled stupidly. “You’re a welcome customer now, after all.”
Astrid looked at the card.
13 Apocrypha Avenue
“Thank you—” Astrid looked upward.
Philos was gone.
“Great...” she groaned, rolling her eyes.
The mists were clearing with the heat of the midday. Astrid looked down at the unconscious guardsman and smiled. With all her might, she raised her foot, pounding her heel into his nose several times.
She smiled a sinister grin. “I hope you feel that in the morning.”
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