CURSED (Estrange Reality book II)

CURSED Estrange Reality Series volume IIPublisher detail

When Alma Del Aqua embarks on a campaign to rescuer her lover’s soul, she doesn’t know that her genetic ability makes her the only one with the ability to discover a treasure that will change her dystopian future by restoring her lover. But it all becomes horrifyingly real when she finds the treasure chest that contains Eulil’s body, one of the Originals, the vampires that came to Earth thousands of years ago and who are responsible for the creation of mankind. Suddenly, Eulil has become the only one protecting the Human race from extinction.

Alma uncovers the fact that her genetic gift is the keystone of something much more sinister: an international conspiracy, a genetic modification of the human race in order to eliminate all vampires remaining on Earth. With the help of her lover’s friend—Sasakawa—, can she unravel the mystery of her existence, and of her uncanny link with the man she loves?

Risking everything, she travels to another dimension and becomes a hostage to get the essence of the originals that can restore her lover, Estrange, and prevent the chain of events that might follow.

Can Alma save Estrange? Changing the present is risking her life to bring back his soul. If she succeeds, the man she loves—a vampire—could change the course of history and his race’s destiny.

Regardless of Alma’s motives, does this secret organization working in the shadows, genetically modifying humans to hunt vampires, have the right to manipulate the entire world?

Here is a detail of CURSED novel:

I do not know where I am

Standing in the dark

Tired of waiting

Waiting here patiently, hoping that

I’ll find my hunting.

 

 

Prologue

 

 

 

Shivering and glancing at the crazy look of his companion, he staggered of horror when he saw his left hand plunge into the chest of the man who was lying there and come out with a still beating heart. At the same time, the claws of his right hand exerted more and more pressure, and with a wet ripping sound, tore the head from its body.

The head fell to the ground with a thud. It rolled, and every time the face appeared, its eyes seemed to observe the two men carefully. Then it stopped in the middle of the room.

He opened his backpack and took out a beautifully carved silver box, opened it, and laid the heart inside. Then he returned the box to the backpack.

Without paying attention to his companion, he approached the head which was lying in a pool of blood and grabbed it by the hair. He looked at it with a smile, turned it to the right and then to the left and then to his partner, who had a scared look on his face.

“You see? It was not so complicated at the end! Ha! Ha! Ha!”

Still laughing, he put the backpack on the ground at his feet, still holding the head, and pulled out another box. A silver plated box of rose tree wood carved with filigree, almost blackened by time. He jammed the head inside.

 

 

1

Abyss

 

 

 

“Maybe it will not be necessary. That is the best way to think about it, right?” It was a male voice vaguely known to me.

“Yes, please,” said a feminine voice, “I’m really scared.”

The man laughed softly.

I heard a slight rubbing of fingers twisting a strand – I imagined the girl stroked her hair.

“It was quite an interesting day for you, right?” he continued jokingly.

The girl laughed with him. Her laughter was somewhat bitter. The footsteps went away and I found myself abandoned.

“No! Come back!” cried my distorted thinking.

My mind ran into madness and hallucination, obstructing my perception, and became the source of my distraught:

 

Water flowed over my face and I managed painfully to keep my eyes open, as it flowed endlessly, preventing me from seeing clearly. My arms were stretched forward, heavy and pulling me down to the ground like magnets. I wanted to throw off my burden because it weighed me down and paralyzed me. I made a move.

At that moment, a light breeze touched me. In a fleeting movement, some airborne material grazed my cheek and I saw something gray – a cold wet rough cloth. The wind grew stronger and the material whipped my face, hit me hard and stuck to my cheek.

The water continued to fall, dripping endlessly and overwhelming. My eyes struggled to stay open. I shook my head quickly, wanting to remove this thing which was now firmly attached, but I couldn’t manage it. I waved my head, growling, and the material left my cheek, hit my neck and slipped, frozen and ugly and so disgusting that I wanted to get rid of it with a quick motion. Stretching my neck to the right, I tilted my head and screamed. My mouth puckered, my eyes widened and my knees bent. I touched the bottom, bruised; I collapsed in pain and discovered what I was protecting in my arms. The blanket fell and a frail and lifeless body slid to the floor. Simultaneously, a huge wave appeared.

“Lieutenant! How do we get out of this?” said a distant voice.

I was floating between two waters, I was alone and my soul had left me.

 

“What happened to him?” asked the girl.

I should get up, maybe… to say that I’m here.

But I could not. How could I make them understand that I was okay? Apparently, I looked in worse shape than I thought and the man’s attention was focused on me while the girl was waiting.

 

My outstretched arms pushed the huge wave while still trying to protect my body, and from contact with water my hands burned, drops parted, and molecules formed heavy ribbons of steam. Sand rose up, attracted by the fluid of my palms, and when it met this hot and humid atmosphere, it began to align, establishing chemical connections that began to merge, glittering in their transparency, into thin splinters of glass.

The drops were gone.

The monotonous sound was furious. Its squeaky texture lacerated me while an intense scent overwhelmed me. From my wounded eyes, I saw a vortex whirling around me, faster and faster. Bursts of light seared me and I tried to protect my eyes with my arm. I lifted my arm, instinctively, but it did not react. I felt my other arm block it, preventing detachment from its grip, and forcing it to follow the graceful curve of what it sheltered. Without really understanding, my arms tightened, and I tried to understand the importance of this act.

Time stood still, the glass shards fell.

My body bowed, my back bent, my arms approached and bending my head my lips touched a particular texture, which was silky. I walked in sniffing, and the thing that stood between my arms got heavier.

My eyes opened and I was mesmerized, I discovered what I was trying to protect, what my arms kept preciously.

My gaze was penetrating, exploring beyond the form collapsed in my arms, and met the dull gray of dead eyes.

The shards of glass continued to fall, deafening me and creating stars illuminating the dark of my nightmare.

 

“I don’t understand!” said the girl, angry, coming and going constantly.

 

The sky was approaching, a diaphanous intangible blue. Cumulus clouds seemed transparent, almost ephemeral, like the nimbus of an angel.

Penetrating through the clouds, bright beams of light darted toward me.

The sun looked tiny through the ethereal clouds and I sighed, overwhelmed at the sight.

I closed my eyes. I inhaled the fresh air of early morning, smiling. I opened my eyes and reveled in this picture which I loved.

The shape of the sun grew, as I looked through parted eyelids, and I felt it coming. I narrowed my eyes, but the image did not slip away. Contrary to the Newtonian law, the sun grew in my eyes, and it was dangerously close to becoming more and more frightening every time I blinked, threatening to collapse on me. Its glare was a subtle copper, turning to bright gold, and at each millionth of a second that passed, I saw it advance and rotate. It was beginning to flatten out, looking less like a sphere, showing two sides with an image on each one: a head… and…

“For once… Well! » The man’s voice got lost in space and became a distant echo.

 

“Stop walking,” shouted the man who was next to me. “Try to be calm!”

“I can’t,” replied the girl. “I don’t know what to do! I must find a way to heal him.”

 

The coin flashed for just a second and fell into a dirty palm. The homeless man rushed to hide the coin in his pocket and threw himself flat on his stomach without looking at the pen that rolled dizzily on the sidewalk near his feet to catch an apple.

The man in the cloak continued his impassive walk, and stopped in front of the subway station, hiding in the shadow of the newsstands. He pretended to be interested in the magazines that were on display. A smile appeared on his face when the he heard the screech of brakes from a bus. He saw in the reflection of the glass pane an ambulance approaching. The doctor, followed by his assistant, put the injured person on a stretcher. The man in the cloak, with a pen in his hand, went down in the subway station as if nothing had happened.

 

“What about him?”

The voice sounded even closer – the girl was worried about my condition.

“I don’t know,” the man said, clearing his throat, “but I know he will come back. If anyone has a reason for living, it’s him. It’s just that he has to become aware that you are alive, that’s all.”

The man remained behind and trusted his instinct. He was apparently consumed by guilt and his apologies seemed inexhaustible. He wanted to know what she thought and she found he was a good listener.

I had a moment of tension when he asked her how she was. I waited breathlessly, as she hesitated.

“Um…”

I heard her say, as she twisted her hair constantly. Then she stopped while the man wondered if his question had confused her. Finally, she continued:

“I did not feel any pain. I don’t feel at all for that matter. I wasn’t even aware I had a body. My mind was somewhere else, weightless, floating. I heard sounds, but they were unintelligible. It was as if they floated along with me. I was in a confined space. I don’t know where I was when I was assaulted by intense smells – especially fuel burning in an engine. A truck! I inhaled deeply. I had this sudden urge to breathe and discover each scent.”

“Yes,” said a tired voice that came from inside the van, behind me to my right.

With the voice, a different smell reached me – one of sweat, meat and tobacco. My mind sprang forward, captivated by these emanations and I found myself in front of the source of this attraction. I was shocked to discover that I was in front of the face of a man. He did not see me and continued his call. Then I caught another scent, slightly different. They were two. One was driving the van; the other was sitting on the passenger seat.

“Is it good?” asked a voice at the other end; I heard that voice inside my head.

I had no idea how to interpret this phenomenon, but the voice continued without giving me time to think:

“Did you?”

“Oh yes, sir! That’s it!”

This voice also took the same path and the discussion was now taking place entirely inside my head. But I wasn’t imagining it, I could hear it. I began to wonder how I could find myself in the front of the van, looking at the two people, while being invisible to them. How did I get here?

“Good! You know what you have to do…”

Feeling came back to me in bits and pieces. I began to vaguely regain consciousness. A continuous buzzing, tingling and a feeling of collapse coursed through me, followed by a feeling of confinement. All the freedom of movement that I had before was gone. I became aware of every cell in my body and I heard a low hum coming from within. My skin began to heat up dangerously and my temperature increased with each heartbeat. My pulse quickened and my temples began to beat the rhythm of an infernal tambourine. My whole body was activated by a signal. I felt at once myself, as I lay, advancing, running to a specific destination at the same speed as the truck.

I opened my eyes painfully and the glow hurt me. Sunlight was passing through the rear windows of the van and I saw a ray of sun turning into something that looked like a rainbow in the sky, but its spectrum exceeded the seven known colors. I closed my eyes then I opened them, eager to ensure that all this beauty was real.

“Yes, sir!” uttered the voice, laughing at the end.

A feeling of panic startled me and a red veil fell and darkened my eyes. My heart suddenly stopped beating, my pulse was imperceptible and my body temperature began to descend.

The van stopped and suddenly the rear doors opened. I felt the sunlight hurting me – my closed eyelids apparently did not help, because I felt the white of my eyes burn and my pupils became incandescent. Unconsciously, I writhed in pain and a low moan came out of my chest. I wanted to protect my face with my arm but a cold hard thing prevented me. I was strapped to a stretcher, wrists and ankles bound with heavy metal handcuffs. At that time, the two men grabbed the stretcher and lifted it, swinging it from right to left.

“Looks like she is still moving,” one of them said huskily, pulling a cloth over my face and covering it completely.

“Stop making your movie! We are finished! One deposit, and then… sort this out!” the man replied in a weary voice.

“Don’t you think she should be dead already?” asked the other. “You saw the accident… the bus rolled over her outright! Have you seen her move?”

“No.”

Petals of white roses mingled with portraits a little further on the street… With a look to the right, I saw a homeless man, flat on his stomach, an apple in his hand… The green light of the traffic signal in front of the pedestrian crossing was reflected in the sunlight… The shadow of the bus crawled to the pedestrian crossing and occupied the narrow corridor in front of me and on which, strangely, nobody dared to come forward… Even though the light was green… The shadow advanced quickly, obscuring the narrow passage, and I hurried to get to the other side when… a cry, a squeaking, and the twilight occulted the light that I wanted to reach, on the other side…

“Since when are you a doctor?” groused the weary voice exhaling loudly near my face. “You’re just my assistant.”

“Since I have this white coat,” he answered with a hoarse laugh. “Bah! What do I give a fuck?”

“Yes! Stop asking questions. They are always a headache to think about too!”

They continued on their way swinging the stretcher roughly from side to side and knocked on a door.

“Who is it?” asked a female voice.

“A delivery! For our chef!”

“Who is your leader?” demanded the voice, troubled.

“Sergeant Marcus.”

“Wait here! Do not move!”

The phone rang twice and a hurry voice answered:

“Yes!”

I recognized the voice from before, from the telephone conversation inside the van.

“Sergeant Marcus?” the woman asked.

“Yes, it’s me!”

“Apparently, there’s a delivery for you…”

“Good! Tell them to wait. I’m coming!”

“He is coming!” the woman repeated as she replaced the handset. “Put yourself on the right; do not stand in front of the door!”

The bed sheet still stuck to my face, I dare open my eyes, but every other muscle refused to move. I was stuck in a cataleptic state of fear. I heard everything that moved in the hall where I was and I could even distinguish the beating of hearts, breath, breaths. Above all, there was smells! The smell of blood floating around me, but I did not linger on it! There was something that drew me. It was a faint smell, distant and sinuating. A fragrance that seemed familiar to me, but I could not define it. It was slightly sweet with deep floral notes of gently caffeinated bergamot, without being heavy, with a spicy touch of basil, finely measured by a woody scent of cedar. And finally, my nostrils were strangely warmed by the smell of benzoin. The mixture of scents reminded me of Pegasus spraying Olympus with a light rain before being transformed into a constellation.

I wanted to think more about the flavor, but footsteps approached, and a sickening mixture of sweat and garlic almost made me vomit. I concentrated and did all that was left in my power not to move.

A hand suddenly snatched the cloth under which I was hiding and the smell suffocated me.

“Oh!” exploded the voice of garlic scent. “She is covered in blood!”

“You told us not to touch her, sir!” replied the man with the weary voice.

“She was still touched,” said the second embodying his hoarse laugh.

“What?” cried their leader.

“Well! When she was laid on the stretcher,” he said quickly.

“You’re stupid!” his colleague muttered in disgust.

“Good! That’s it! Follow me,” scolded their leader who smelled of garlic.

The stretcher was lifted and I was ruthlessly brought to a staircase. My body slid all its weight downward while the handcuffs attached to my hands and feet and fixed to the stretcher hurt my skin. I felt their friction shredding me as they continually scraped against my wounds with each step down. But I did not feel a hint of pain.

They continued straight, after going down the stairs, and I heard the voice of their leader rising.

“Open the door for me! I’ll take room number 3. I will do the questioning.”

“Room 3 is already taken, sir,” replied another voice after a slight pause, as if to check availability. “By you, too.”

“Well, I take number 4 then.”

I heard a grinding sound – an iron gate. The atmosphere changed and a breath of fresh air gently lifted the corners of the sheet covering me. They descended twenty steps and after opening another iron door, they threw the stretcher on the floor and left. A key turned in the lock and they went away fast.

I waited alone during the longest hours I’ve ever experienced, listening to the sounds crawling around. With stubbornness, I tried to hold on to these sounds, I forced myself to capture details that could help me understand. I tried to detect a known odor, but it was impossible. I tried to move, to detach myself, to no avail. This anxiety, this fear blocking my muscles, apparently, I had not found a solution that would free me. Not yet at least.

After an endless wait, I heard a distant creak followed by the sound of footsteps which advanced towards me and stopped at the door. After lingering for a few seconds, the footsteps continued to the left, slamming hard on concrete slabs and then stopped for a short time, when the sound of a key in a lock was followed by an unpleasant squeaking door. The person did not stop after passing the door, and then a metallic popping noise broke the silence. The footsteps changed direction and walked towards me.

“Let’s see what it is,” said the voice, which I recognized as the man with garlic breath: Marcus. “Um, apparently it did not go as expected. Should I reveal it to them? I’m impressed, but I’ll keep that to myself.”

He took two steps. I heard a popping sound, and then something heavy fell and made him take a step back.

“Damn!” he whispered. “Hey! Wake up! I know you can hear me,” he continued, raising his voice slightly.

I heard a different creaking, a groan, and still that noise of a falling bag.

“It’s better. Good. Look at me! Do not dare make a bad move! Otherwise, you see this? This will put you down before you even start, without even requiring me to make a move. This is good! Come with me now,” he ordered.

He turned around and I heard the door.

In the hallway, approaching the room where I was, I distinguished two different steps: Marcus was followed by someone weakened and that person’s footsteps were swifter. He turned the key in the lock and the door opened.

“Sit there,” he ordered, and the footsteps, lame, passed near me and then stopped.

“Like that,” he said, as a slight click was heard, “I will be safe. Although… I’m sure you’ll be more interested in something else in no time.”

A new smell. The smell… there was something in this second flavor that bothered me slightly and burned my tongue, but there was also another one, undefined, which stopped me. I closed my eyes, concentrating on these puzzles.

Marcus approached me and suddenly snatched off the cloth which covered me. I heard a gasp behind Marcus who was laughing, happy.

“Ah! You were not expecting this! Yes, this is her. Except she is no longer your friend, but your enemy! We’ll get her back on their feet. I also think she is ready!”

He untied my feet and then my hands. I kept my eyes closed and I did not move. My instinct told me to jump on him by surprise, quickly, but I was afraid and I did nothing. The slap he gave me burned me with his hatred and I wanted to reply, but finally, due to fear, I did nothing. He picked me up and put me harshly on a chair, tying my hands behind my back. I let my head down, chin pressed against my chest and waited.

“I hope it will not be long now,” continued Marcus. “Raise your head!” He barked and another slap exploded up on my cheek.

“No, don’t do it!”

I raised my head and I opened my eyes, expecting to find before me, a face that I already hated. It was as I expected: a big, bloated face with light brown hair and small hazelnut eyes. His creepy look rested upon me and made me think of a reptile. He could have given me the creeps, to scare me, but I began to realize he did not deserve such an honor. I straightened my head and looked into his eyes. He was not the type to enjoy a challenge to his authority. I still risked a slap. So what?

“Ha, ha, ha!”

The slap he gave me was followed by his silly laugh.

“You, you do not seem scared at all,” he said, walking away.

A slight noise, a friction along the wall outside the room, distracted me from his question. I was sure there was someone out there; there was danger. This person walked along the wall as he approached the door. It could not be one of his acolytes. But who was it? Marcus continued to spy on me, waiting for my reaction.

“I’m not at all,” I finally articulated, my mind was elsewhere.

A strange feeling that I could qualify as joy set out from the center of my body, flew down my spine and was transmitted to each cell through my nervous system.

“It will soon be over! You – both – will join our ranks quickly, but in a different form… Our research teams need lab rats. Enough with the experiments on our own…”

“And you…” he continued, turning on his heels, “Tyrone had a little trouble listening to us, but with you as a hostage, as well as administering the same treatment to you, he cannot escape us.”

“Ah!”

That voice made me turn my head and I saw, to my surprise, a face that I looked carefully at. The burn came back to me, but when the girl smiled shyly, a memory surfaced and I realized that it was Vera! What was my friend Vera doing here? Why?

I did not finish my thought, because the friction from outside came again and another face, indistinctly, arose from the depths of my memory and the image of a rain of stars with its fragrant smell of benzoin exploded the inside of my head. Scattered pieces of old memories regrouped quickly and clung like dispersed snapshots in sepia and formed a film which began to play back inside my head. This film took up all the space in my vision and everything that surrounded me disappeared strangely.

“Just like that, there will be two Infectores1 to hunt… inhuman, like you… Ha! Ha! Ha!”

The air breezed my cheek when his arm slapped Vera.

“What?” Vera said, turning towards me, with a questioning look. “What does he say?”

“You were not informed? Tyrone didn’t say anything to you? Yet he knew it… Oh, I forgot! He did not have time for that. That means… you either…” he said looking at me. “It does not surprise me from him. Flyer thought he was going to hide your existence for long enough, an aberration, as it is!”

Flyer? Marcus… did not know his real name? Me, though! Now… I remembered him and Sasakawa also. Marcus continued his monologue, but the words came to me no more. They stood back and each time they moved closer to me a barrier sent them back from where they came from. Memories turned in my head, I saw his face and then I realized that my life before had found a way back. I do not know what he was; I did not know where he came from, his origins, his parents, his life – nothing. But one thing was certain: I was looking for him.

Marcus suddenly stopped his speech and turned a disgusted face towards the door where the stealthy footsteps had previously approached and moved away and now several voices echoed. Marcus glanced at us again and walked towards the door, before focusing, listening.

I distinguished footsteps approaching, running, weapons pointing, voices turning into cries of anguish, and I found myself thinking that whoever was there, near the door, it was for something big. In my heart, I hoped that my ordeal was nearing its end, but I did not want him to get caught!

Marcus stiffened near the door, his hands were plated over and he quickly turned his face towards us – I saw fear disfiguring his mouth into a grotesque grin.

The screams continued, cries for help too, but apparently those who were attacked and several others were suffering. Marcus waited a few more seconds, his ear glued to the door, when the noise stopped, and after giving us another treacherous look, he silently opened the door.

Another stealthy noise came, then a click followed by squeaking glass brushing against the metal frame and the mirror behind me slid to the right, in a continuous motion.

“Perhaps you will want to review your last request!” He said in his silky voice. I sighed and my muscles relaxed and hope grew in me.

Marcus winced at the door, clinging to the handle, staring at the man he hated most in the world, forever. His hands slid down his pants. This crawling movement of his fingers gave me goose bumps, without being able to really identify the reason.

The creaking of the sliding glass continued imperturbably, and slowly like a theater curtain, unveiled what it was hiding on the other side. Stale air and musty breath filled the room. One hand rested on the edge of the panel and a body was leaping in that direction. The jump was light and feet hardly touched the ground before landing. I focused on this apparition trying to better understand the purpose of this maneuver and I was strangely surprised when Vera’s face lit up at once. I narrowed my eyes, turned my head and found, to my surprise, a face that I barely knew. The man rushed to the chair where Vera was sitting with bare hands and tore off the chains holding her handcuffs. He threw himself upon her, took her in his arms and pressed a little too hard against him. She hid her face in the crook of his neck and sighed in wonder. After a few long seconds, Vera raised her head and looked at me, a little embarrassed.

I still started at Marcus, he wished to do away with his enemy who attacked him, but he was afraid, I felt. He would not risk his life – he was not sure of being able to resist, able to hold out. A sudden cry rang out, followed by another squeaking and a scream, and Marcus froze, his right arm suspended, his left hand slipped to the back of his pants, and it reappeared in a wild scream. In a final effort, in a final spasm, his head turned backwards, giving me one last look, saliva flowing from the corners of his mouth. He muttered incomprehensible words, while stooping.

“You wanted me to hunt you?” continued my beloved, and I wanted to throw myself toward him.

I imagined his face, because I only could hear his voice – Marcus was obscuring my vision and I was not able to see him. I tried to advance towards the door, to move the chair, jump with it to be a little closer.

In my rush, the chair wobbled, slipped to the side and my weight tilted it. I lost my balance. I found myself on the ground, unable to move. In my haste, without realizing it, in my fall, apparently something happened. All of a sudden, I realized that I felt wrong. My right arm was burning me and I wanted to wrench it to stop this pain. The pain was terrible. It was incomprehensible, unknown and unexpected. Painfully, I turned my head to the right and I saw, as in a mist a red wire, shiny like silk, coming down from the ceiling, winding, and ending at the place where my wrist was held tight in the handcuffs. With what remained of mind, I realized what this thing represented. Gasping, my head spun and in a final effort my teeth grabbed the tie which bound me to my torment and sliced through. The taste of blood filled my mouth. My head smacked the concrete.

Silence settled.

Rapid footsteps surged and approached, I felt my body being lifted up.

“Oh, the atrocity!” said a voice that I recognized, surprised in my delirium.

I continued to be transported when my holder stopped, sighing after only a few steps. His hands searched me, and I felt them touching me intermittently, as if they were looking for a specific thing without finding it, and then continued.

“Stop, Tyrone!” said the voice, irritated. “Don’t even think about it! You’d do well to go!”

Hands laid me on something cold.

“What are you gonna do now?” said another voice.

“Do not worry about me…”

“It is not for you I care,” insisted the voice, growling dangerously.

“Oh no? For whom then? Huh? Tell me that?” the voice was annoyed now. “You should have thought of that before it all began! You should act responsibly! You’d better go now. I’ll take care of them. Take Vera, but be careful! Find yourself a good hideout. It will not be easy for you. They will hunt you down. Come on! The clock is ticking.”

The man threw me over his shoulder in a hurry. I found myself upside down, a sudden urge to vomit took me and, without thinking, my mouth opened and a stream of blood flowed out. He put me on feet, worried about me, took my head in his hands and gently opened my eyes with his fingers, he told me:

“Alma! Look at me! Yes, try it! This is good!”

I opened my eyes, and his worried face smiled.

“Sasakawa…”

“Yes, it’s me,” he smiled. “I’m glad it’s all over now.”

“Estrange,” I whispered. “Where is he?”

Sasakawa cleared his throat, trying to talk normally:

“Right there!”

His gaze slid to me, pointing to the place where, to my great sorrow, I saw his body on the ground. My hands rested on his cheeks and instinctively I turned his head toward me. I noticed his eyes fixed now and his smile turned into a grin. A strange shadow, violet, ran under his skin, changing its color, I loved him so much.

“What has happened?” I said, almost speechless. “He cannot die! »

I tried to understand what he said, in my sorrow.

He raised his hand and opened his fingers, and he showed me. I understood then the last act of Marcus. What his hand in a final and repugnant movement had managed to accomplish. A syringe half emptied. I looked Sasakawa, unable to ask what it could be.

“It must be analyzed to be sure, but I’m afraid it is still a discovery from Marcus,” he said, rumbling. “We must go now. It will not be long until day and it will be difficult to hide. We must not be late. I cannot see myself spending another day in this country!”

“What? Where do you want to go?”

“To Japan! We’ll be safe there! Can you walk? I will take Estrange – they are arriving. We will take the other exit – where Tyrone arrived! Follow me!”

“But… I cannot go to Japan,” I cried, and my eyes were fixed eagerly on a face increasingly distorted – the object of my devouring passion.

“Are you sure?” Sasakawa said following my gaze and smiled.

“Hmm… what about my parents?” I continued holding out my hand, caressing the burning cheek.

“In life, we must not only make choices,” he said with a chuckle, “we must also assume. Make up your mind!”

And without thinking, I followed my instinct and I stepped forward, I took his dangling hand and said:

“Come on! Time is running out, you’re right!”

On the other side of the mirror, a corridor led us directly to a door in a backyard where a black car, headlights off, took us, at breakneck speed, straight to the airport.”

The man cleared his throat, not knowing if she had really finished her story.

“He is not seriously injured, I hope! Tell me not! I do not see any visible injuries,” she said, and her hands touched my shoulder with her fingertips. “His skin has changed; it’s starting to regain its beautiful color.”

The young woman sat next to me and the mattress barely sank on receiving her light weight. Her hand lingered on my shoulder and I felt her touch deeply, like a dagger in the heart.

I had no clothes and apparently I was lying covered with only something that ended at my chest. I felt the smell of cotton, but not that of hospital. My skin was cold compared to hers and I felt it warm up at her touch.

She went on her way, caressing down along my arm and placed her palm inside my elbow – her burning heat went inside my muscles up to my heart, flooding it. My fingers stiffened, the heat was so strong.

She sighed and her hand went down to my fingers. I felt a pressure on them, something wanted to open my clenched fist, but it would never be stronger than my claws. I could crush it just by pressing a bit without too much effort, just enough. The thing was insistent, tickling me obstinately to let it pass. I did not want it to. I could show it that I did not want it to! But I felt her fingers caress my clenched fist; her hand wrapped my fist and her fingers tightened over it, forming another fist – a fist gently pressing mine now.

She sighed, shook her head slightly and her long hair rubbing against my cloth sounded like screeching. A strand lightly touched my elbow – I perceived a slight scratch.

There was a sudden weight on my chest and this strange smell burned my nostrils. My mouth wanted to open in search of some fresh air, but my jaw buckled on demand and locked into an impossible machinery to dominate.

Her head was lying on my chest and the top touched my face. Her breath was hot and each exhalation reached my nose. I had the impression, on breathing it in, that she was nourished by my aroma. I felt her eyelids closing with each inhalation and extending this moment, keeping the air into her lungs as long as possible, like snorkeling. She curled up half on my chest, continuing to observe me, insatiable. Hesitant, her fingers continued their exploration.

“His skin is pale and soft…,” her voice was a whisper.

Her face was now inches from mine and I just could not go back. I was unable to move, and she did not move either. I should retreat before this sudden proximity, but I did not. I wanted to feel her approach, feel her floral breath invade me.

“I love you, Estrange. Since I met you the first time… I’ve always loved you, I think,” she whispered in my ear.

I could not recall her face, her figure, the color of her hair or her eyes. Nothing! She was unknown to me! But she was sad. I imagined the expression of the young woman who uttered these words. I had never heard my name uttered with such fervor. I liked the way it sounded – even though I could not see her lips move. I wanted to hear it again…

“Estrange,” she repeated as if she had guessed what I was thinking.

I saw myself in a car with my hands on the wheel… I can still hear that voice say my name. My desire to see her was growing stronger.

Steps approached and lingered near my deathbed. Not the same footsteps as before.

She sat up halfway and turned her face toward the newcomer.

“What is it?”

“Research has given nothing more.”

“We’ve been here for months!” she complained. “How long will it take?”

“Yes, I know, the man replied weakly. I wish I could say it’s over, but…”

“How is it you don’t know yet? You? Sasakawa said…”

“Unfortunately, Sasakawa hoped for… I do not know what to do. I tried all possible and impossible combinations particularly in his case. But that gave nothing! As you can see! If we remove the infusion, he will become such as Sasakawa has found him out there, half dead. The infusion is the only chance to keep him alive, even if he is frozen in his current state. Unfortunately, the pure blood that I have given does not cure him! It keeps him only in this state of… standby. He is frozen!”

“But how is this possible?”

“He was poisoned. What he was injected with contained something… I cannot stop wondering what it was… Only the blood of a killer could reverse the process of regeneration. DNA tests are not finished yet. I still have to do other calculations. I’ll eventually find the solution but that takes time, lots of time, I’m afraid.”

The girl jumped up and after a brief moment of reflection, she walked away wondering, in a hurry:

“Where can I find Sasakawa?”

“He is in the garden, meditating. He knew that you would like to see him after our discussion. He told me that you can go to him, he is waiting for you.”

“Thank you, Kenshi,” said the young woman, and she took another step, walking away from me, then she suddenly stopped and turned around. She approached, stroked my face with her satin fingers, and whispered: “Wait for me! Do not go away without me!”

Her soft voice echoed in my mind and her demand engraved in my soul.

What was I doing here? Where was I?

And this girl, who was she to ask me such a thing? I felt like I knew her flavor, her scent came back to me in waves, from the depths of my memory, but the memories did not reach up to my mind… I did not find the answer…

Who was she? Who was I?

I do not know where I was, but I knew she was no longer with me and I knew that I wasn’t in heaven. Not without her. I did not have the right…

 

 

 

 

 

 

2

Facts

 

 

 

The color of the sun was no longer the same. The red Cyclopean eye on the powdery white background of the sky they had found upon arrival at the airport had changed, replaced by an ivory colored disc, almost white. The temperature did not increase at all, even if winter was coming to an end. It was still dreary weather but miraculously, it was not raining!

The atmosphere was icy on the island. The wind was blowing from Siberia and this winter episode could be extended until June. It was only the beginning of April! The June heat was, for Alma, far away. At least as far away as the awakening of Estrange…

It was better for her not to think about that! Not in that way… otherwise, she would eventually take refuge in an obscure part of the garden with only her memories…

She missed him…

Alma left the main house of the monastery, which was also her residence now, behind. She headed to the garden. Her feet moved slowly in the moss that covered the shaded corners. That made her think of the creators of this garden who wanted to maintain the quiet, calm, monastic feeling of this retreat in the mountains and prepare the guests who would cross the garden to the tea ceremony.

She was sure to find Sasakawa meditating somewhere in this vast garden. Every day, Alma visited him while following a complicated ritual for herself, while respecting the customs of this country she had begun to love. She had never met such devoted and respectful people.

And each day that passed, Sasakawa was in a different place, giving the impression that he was following a path in his meditation and in his journey he increasingly approached the tea house.

Sasakawa had given Alma, upon arrival, a copy of an ancient manuscript, written around 1200: Sakuteiki2, and told her to enjoy the garden while trying to understand it. He told her that the day she knew the hidden meaning of each representation made by the landscaper monks that creating this secluded corner of the universe, she would understand another side of Estrange personality – he had also spent years meditating in this same garden.

At first, all she managed to do was read a few lines, and then with the book under her arm, she went walking in the garden, as if she was in a park. Alma examined the trees without knowing their names. The stones were gathered in strange bunch, without any apparent reason, surely, to be there forever. Flowers and shrubs surrounded them gently and found their place, according to her naive impression, right where whey needed to fill the empty spaces.

Then she felt a little stupid and tried harder to understand. She asked Kenshi to help her decipher the hidden message. And in return, she had another book. She thought maybe she was placing her feet in footsteps left by Estrange before, and it was enough to make her continue…

Thanks to the second book she managed to decode all representative elements of the Japanese scenery and realized the importance the Shintoists and Buddhist traditions gave to trees and their ability to collect the beneficial celestial flow.

The garden was planted with plum and cherry trees and cultivated by the monks for a beautiful bloom in spring. Maples grew freely, but despite their perfect fall color, their branches were cut too thin. Her palms touched the trunk of a cherry tree and her gaze marveled at the beauty of the floral crown and its frail boughs up towards the sky.

Alma was strolling in the garden, willow and pine greeted her – their timelessness made them trees of choice for gardeners. She sank further into this living labyrinth, discovering at every step a new piece of paradise forgotten by the world of the living.

A rounded gap, with a passage under two crossed cherry tree branches that formed a crown appeared in front of her. Amazed by this wonderful discovery, Alma walked into a clearing that seemed perfectly circular. The central disk was covered in moss dotted here and there with little freesias with their colored bells of pastel shades, and it seemed supernatural. She stopped at the edge, refusing to move forward, for fear the vision would disappear as soon as she touched it with the tip of her foot.

The sky was a brilliant blue and a huge glittering cloud floated just above the clearing like a wide open dragon’s jaw, ready to swallow her as soon as she touched its treasure. A gust of wind scattered the dragon, separating the head and tail from the rest of its body, and gave her the courage to move forward into this magical landscape.

She took a few steps, stopped in the middle and looked around. She put her books on the moss and getting up, stretched out her arms like two wings and began to spin slowly on tiptoe. She spun around like a top, increasingly her speed quickly, and saw the cherry and plum trees unfold before her eyes, followed by willows and pines and the show of the four seasons dazzled her. Yes! It was not just about beauty in this garden. Everything was calm and scarcely did the time pass – it was stuck in a period that no longer existed!

Alma closed her eyes and smiled. The light wind suddenly stopped after tilting her curls forward, covering her face. With her eyes closed, Alma raised her hand and pushed away her hair. After a long breath, she opened her eyes wide.

Before her, a dozen steps in a total nebulosity that spread in the center of the clearing, appeared an opaque disc – like a 45 rpm record – surrounded by an azure light, in which a shape was born. The inside of this shape became more and more visible, and its contours thickened.

Alma took a step back and stared at the apparition that looked now like a human form. The azure light that surrounded it changed and became turquoise, the shape vibrated, and suddenly someone emerged…

A woman looked at Alma with a dazzling smile, she was blonde, her hair fell in heavy and perfectly coiffed locks to the waist and her eyes were emerald green. She wore a long dress in satin veil, peach in color, and held in her hands something that Alma could not distinguish. The woman took a step, then another, advancing towards Alma without touching the ground with her feet. Barely touching the grass on tiptoe, the woman floated to Alma, the diaphanous material of her dress fluttering around her and when she got close enough, she held out what she was keeping in her hands.

Alma listened to the sounds for a long time. The apparition disappeared in the same way that it had come, when Alma blinked to make sure she was not the subject of a hallucination. She wanted to persuade herself the woman was real, that she really existed.

Now Alma was alone, amazed, in the middle of the clearing, trying to find something that could testify that this thing… well, that this woman had been there.

But there was nothing!

And what the woman held in her hands and had stretched to Alma before disappearing reminded her of nothing!

How was it that this woman had appeared here? And to her? What did this mean? The woman reminded her of something… Or maybe someone?

What she held in her fingers meant nothing to her – she had no knowledge of this silver filigree box, which looked like a big old jewelry box. The woman had stretched it out to her as if she wanted to give it to her as a gift and her face had changed at that time – she had become sad, as is she was filled with grief by the departure of a person who was dear to her, and who had died! The woman’s face was covered with tears, like sparkling diamonds that tarnished, became opaque and changed color. Her tears turned into drops of blood and ran down her cheeks on her white skin which made the blood appear darker… The traces of these drops continued to her neckline and her pretty dress was stained at the place where the woman had something on her skin, something that Alma could not clearly distinguish…

Time passed slowly and after an eternity, Alma began to walk. She had to see Sasakawa! Should she tell him about this? This appearance she had witnessed? She trusted Sasakawa, but she doubted that what she saw was true and thought it only a figment of her imagination; she would look ridiculous telling him about it! An idea resurfaced from the depths of her being: was this the result of this emergence? It did not matter now!

She walked through an open space towards the lake which was fed by a watercourse from the north-east. The moss that covered the base of each group of stones confirmed it. It grew on the same side for five groups of fifteen stones arranged in two, three and five representing the mountains. The lake represented the ocean, and it was located south from the position of the sun.

She nearly fell when she stopped suddenly, almost instinctively, in front a compact form, brown with the appearance of a wrinkled epidermis, which appeared before her. A turtle! At the lake, the turtle slowly warmed itself in the sun.

“Another symbol – the longevity and stability of the earth,” Alma said, sighing.

The lake was considered the central point of the garden’s surface. It showed off the banks and gave scope to the garden. In the book was written:

“Its dimensions and edges indicate the scale and form of the whole garden. According to the rules established in the Sakuteiki… Where is this page?” Alma muttered, turning several pages at once. “Ah, there! So the water comes from there,” she said aloud, and she turned and pointed at the specified location: “the north-northeast. The moss and the sun say… yes, the north-east. Then it bypasses the tea pavilion and continues south to the southwest. Oh, just like in the old manuscript! The lake must be populated with koi carps and turtles, surely.”

A red wooden bridge appeared in the direction her finger was pointing. The bridge evoked the transition to spiritual elevation and provided access to the island – the symbol of paradise. Its perfect curvature semicircle suggested, by its reflection in the water, the lunar disk. Alma went over the bridge – the purifying passage – and reached the paradise on the other side.

During her time strolling in the garden, she had discovered other wonders, but no trace of Sasakawa. Was he already gone? Or maybe he had completed his journey and was waiting for her near the pavilion? A feeling of accomplishment made her think that the discussion she would shortly have with him would be not like the others.

After ritually purifying herself by washing her hands and rinsing her mouth with water from a small stone basin that was just after the bridge, Alma continued along a roji3. When she approached the house, the little door opened. Sasakawa bowed and invited her inside. Alma bowed in turn, took off her shoes and entered.

Different scrolls were hung on the walls. Her eyes landed, irresistibly drawn to the one that was facing the entrance. The beautifully written poem on the scroll intrigued her. It was not in Japanese. Its calligraphy was perfect, keeping the style, and it read:

Money

Gold, jewelry,

What is this?

The most expensive treasure

Is it comparable to a child?

Sasakawa’s gaze lingered on Alma’s surprised face and he smiled.

“It is fabulous! Is this is a Haïku4?”

Alma pointed to the bottom of the scroll.

“No,” he said, motioning Alma to move forward and showing her where to sit. “Tanka5 is a much older form of Japanese poetry than Haiku. During some periods of antiquity, this form of poetry was called Hanka6, or reversed poetry since the 5-7-5 tercet form was derived from the conclusion. The short form of an a choka7 stanza is a continuation of sentences transposed into a poem.”

Alma was getting impatient; she wanted to know how it was possible that Sasakawa had violated a strict rule about calligraphy hanging on the wall. The rollers are often written by famous calligraphers or Buddhist monks. They are related to the season, the time or with a particular tea ceremony theme. The rolls may include well-known texts, especially related to Buddhism, poems, descriptions of famous places, but this one… No!

“Sasakawa, how did this happen?”

“What is it?” he replied, pretending not to understand what she meant.

“You know! The calligraphy!”

“Oh, that!”

He went to the place where all the tea utensils were placed. He did not answer. Sasakawa said nothing else and Alma understood that, according to the ritual, she must wait until he spoke to her.

Inside the tea house – in a room of 4 and a half Mate8 – the mats were placed in a circle around a central mat. Alma avoided stepping on the central mat, as well as put it in the palm sitting because this mat was like a table: tea utensils were placed on it to be admired and tea bowls were arranged for service to guests. To avoid making a wrong step, she walked around on the other mats.

Alma sat senzei9 where Sasakawa had indicated to her and waited. Her eyes followed Sasakawa’s fingers as he unfolded the chakin10. For the tea ceremony, Sasakawa was wearing a kimono11 and a hakama12. His feet were shod in white tabi13. His movements followed an ancestral technique and looked like a dance.

Profound bowls that keep the tea hot longer, in lacquer of different colors and ages, were spread out before her. The trolley ceramic tea was long and narrow and its ivory cover was decorated with gold leaf – it was used to store tea. Each tool was ritually cleaned in a specific order with prescribed gestures. The utensils were placed in the order of the ritual performed. When the cleaning and preparation of utensils was completed by his long fingers, Sasakawa took the tea scoop, also of ivory, and began to pour directly into the bowl, with precise movements, a measure of green powder tea that was in the trolley. He added the appropriate quantity of hot water, brewing the tea with planned movements. The tea was soon ready. He held the bowl to Alma, bowing and always keeping his encouraging smile.

Carefully taking the bowl, Alma took a SIP14 and whispered the usual expression, giving thanks and keeping the bowl in her hands which rested on her thighs.

Spring was represented harmoniously in the interior decoration of the tea room, with the scrolls that were on the walls and chabana15. The traditional Japanese flower arrangement which was used by tea masters to symbolize the flowery tea. In large narrow ceramic vases were flowering branches of cherry and plum. By their arrangement the flowers always leaned toward her, facing her.

Tea was served by Sasakawa was an usucha16. Alma took a kobukusa17 and began to bite into a tartlet. She conformed to the ritual; she could say it was part of learning patience, which Sasakawa tried to get her to accept all these months, since she had been there.

Alma chewed mechanically; her thoughts were elsewhere, her gaze fixed on the single scroll that she happened to decipher.

“You miss him,” Sasakawa asserted, raising his head and looking at her from the corner of his eye.

His senzei position was a thousand times better than hers. His decades of practice, even centuries, gave Alma the impression that he was the living model of an old painting that was on the right wall. She found, looking longer, that he really resembled it! He did not move. His bowl was in his hands which were resting on his knees.

“I miss him,” she nodded, and she sighed, biting a fragment of cake.

She chewed and waited dutifully, looking into space. Her spine bent down and standing forward, her shoulders ached. Certainly, she did not practice enough! She resumed and, stretching her shoulders, tried to at least maintain correct posture.

“Yes, certainly. You miss him.”

Sasakawa frowned and his face approached the bowl of tea he carefully kept in his hands. He inhaled the aroma and drink carefully.

Alma sighed again and turned her gaze to the scroll, waiting.

“Certainly. Yes. I miss him.”

Finally finishing her cake, Alma lifted her tea bowl slowly closer to her face, and then she looked at her reflection in the water. The blackened and distorted image seemed realistic. Yes, she had to look something like this with the dark circles under her eyes caused by sleepless nights, with the hope that shown in her eyes and the fear which was digging deep wrinkles on her face.

As time passed, her joy went with it.

She did not know much regarding her parents – Sasakawa was responsible for giving her news of them every week. He filled his role well in dealing with everything. It was strange, but Alma did not think much about her parents and didn’t miss them. Neither did she miss college, her classes, teachers and peers. She knew nothing about Vera either. Life there, in Paris, continued its course without her. She had missed the first quarter, and the second had already started some time ago, without her being present.

Her parents… Why was she worried about them less than before? What had happened to make her feel this way? What had caused her sudden carelessness about them? It was true that she had never had a very warm relationship with them, but… Why? She had not seen them since… uh, since she had met Estrange. Yes. Things had gone so quickly after that! She had not realized how the appearance of Estrange in her life had changed everything! Her life had changed, and she was carried forward on a different path, an unknown destination.

“Hmm!” Sasakawa said, looking up, Alma caught his gaze attempting to decipher the thoughts swirling in her head.

She squared her shoulders took another sip and stared on the scroll that was hanging on the wall in front of them.

“This is a gift from Estrange. Kenshi allowed me to hang it here. When I showed him the scroll, without saying from whom it came from, Kenshi replied to me that since it came from Estrange, I could display it wherever I wanted. For every stranger you show me that knows nothing of Buddhism, I will show you a Buddhist who has nothing of Buddhism. I do not see why I would make him suffer the prejudices of others when I myself do not have them. These were the Kenshi’s words and for many years the scroll is still there. It still remains even while the tea room undergoes a seasonal decoration change… I was sitting here the day he called me and asked me to join him. I had not seen him for ten years and I waited for his call. I guessed a change was coming. My meditations always project me in the near future and the changes that I had glimpsed were so well defined that I was almost living in them. I saw terrible things… to come… things that have not happened yet, I’m afraid. The future holds a strange surprise!”

His angular face was slightly lifted, his chin pointed forward, and his elongated eyes were half open, giving him a dreamy expression. His gaunt skin tone gave him an expression of barely being alive. He seemed completely lost in his thoughts, thinking about something else, far beyond where he was. His body had not changed its position. He was planted in the middle of the room – like a tree waiting for the sun to wake him as soon as spring arrived.

After a long time, he sighed, his eyes still fixed on the lines of the poem in front of him, and he got up almost reluctantly. This was the signal that the tea ceremony was at an end. His slender fingers took utensils, brought them together and cleaned them one after another. Without a word, they both left the tea house, as soon as each object was stored in its place.

They crossed the bridge, took the same path that Alma had used on arrival. Sasakawa advanced, his hands hidden in the long sleeves of his kimono and his head down, and while walking his feet did not exceed the hem of his garment.

In that way, with Sasakawa at her side, Alma felt closer to him than ever – she had the impression that a certain connection existed between them. She was aware that this link was their affection for one who was not there – Estrange.

“I…”

Alma tried to speak, but the words came together in a big ball that refused to exit her mouth. What would she say to him? What he did not already know? That Estrange was missing her more than anything else? Than in her life she had no joy without him? That her existence had no meaning? She saw her energy scatter for nothing? She felt unable to help him? And in all this, when she thought of him beyond all these resentments, she felt he was still with her? Why? He was close to her, but locked in a place from which she had to free him! This feeling of helplessness made her increasingly think she should leave.

Contrary to this attachment which made her feel chained to him, the idea of leaving became more and more in focus each day. It was, perhaps, a solution to the deadlock in which they found themselves.

“I know, Alma,” Sasakawa gently interrupted her thoughts. “You think to leave, again. And I’ve meditated on it. I could tell you that I do not think it’s a good idea, but of course, it will not do anything because you’re intrepid enough to determine your future and change your destiny. Which has already started, I’m afraid.”

He took a long time, without looking at her advancing to the temple.

“I cannot stand idly by, Sasakawa! Seeing him in this state for months kills me too! My instinct tells me to go ahead and leave as soon as possible. I cannot ask you to accompany me…”

“Stop your nonsense!” Sasakawa brutally cut her off. “Estrange still hears. Of course I’ll go with you! How could I look him in the eye if something happened to you? What would Kenshi say if a disaster occurred? How could I look at myself, after all? I’ll be your shadow until he is back! I do not know what you have in mind, but apparently this is a solution.”

“How do you know what I think? And do you think it is a good solution?” she said in a whisper, and her voice betrayed the joy that began to invade her.

“I did not say it is a good solution, only that it is a solution. This morning, I was meditating just before you came, and I saw that your determination opened a path which Estrange could be drawn from this hopeless situation he finds himself in. For now, don’t give me any details, and I will ask for them as soon as I finish what I have to do. I beg you to be patient a little longer. I have to see a few people before leaving. If you want to come with me, you’re welcome. I have to meet the leaders.”

“Oh! I don’t want to intrude! They do not know me.”

“That’s what you think – they do not know you. Without Estrange, the clan would not exist today. We owe him more than you think. Estrange is not one to count the services provided, but we do. I know that his friendship with me is what made him call me your rescue, not because he expected that we would. I’ll pick you up as soon as I see Kenshi. Be ready!”

 

 

Less than two hours after their departure the car entered the giant city. They had left the temple hidden in the mountains early in the morning, in a sad and cold rain. The road was long and the landscape began to change as they gradually got closer to the city. In resplendent greatness, The City of Edo18 welcomed them and Alma’s preconceived idea that everything was little in Japan changed.

An almost alien decor met her eyes and Alma was impressed by the city that stretched endlessly under an azure sky. The rain was still behind them and the weather had changed, the morning was slightly sunny.

The City of Edo of the 15th century was destroyed by earthquakes and by the Second World War. The sunlight illuminated the tall towers of the city, with the most advanced and dashing architectures in the world. The glass towers darted into space like wands planted in the ground. Tokyo made Paris look like a village!

Sasakawa was heading the car at high speed toward the heart of the metropolis, in a continuous slalom. By themselves, billboards of all styles and neon signs of all colors were a great distraction. Despite the constant swarm of the crowd, the abundance of shops and vehicles, everything was spotlessly clean.

“The Japanese are clean,” said Alma in a low voice.

“Ha!” Sasakawa chuckled, making Alma frown. “They do not get dirty in the first place! It’s a secret of the purification of the spirit: do not try to clean something, but stop constantly soiling it.”

Alma did not answer. What for? What could be said? She shut herself up thinking that pretty soon all this would be a memory. That her greatest desire – to end Estrange’s illness – would become reality. She had waited so long, trying to comply with the unspoken, the taboos, the same laws…

Sasakawa led them to a parking lot that seemed tiny compared to what she used to see in France. He got out of the car and walked towards the entrance of a building and then hopped out right away, ticket in hand, he got back in the car and pulled forward another ten yards.

“Come on!” he said, opening the car door for Alma. “We continue on foot.”

He reached down and helped Alma. No sooner had they made a dozen steps, they heard a clanking of chains. Alma was startled and looked. To her surprise, she saw Sasakawa’s car rise to a higher floor, while another car took its place back from the depths. The noise ended and a man who was right next to them got in and started the engine immediately.

“I forgot, I’m sorry. In France it’s different. In Tokyo we building parking lots and we do not get tired walking around to locate cars. We get them back at the bottom. The cars use the elevators, not us. It’s more convenient.”

“If you say so, it must be true,” said Alma, who had not previously thought about the practical.

Alma felt they were walking randomly in the giant city. Without daring to speak to Sasakawa about it, she followed him. Focusing on everything around her, she found that people seemed rushed.

In this district, all the men and women appeared to be businesspeople. They were all dressed in the European fashion. They walked quickly, in a direction known only to them, staring at the road just in front of them, without looking to the right or left. Only the birds gave the impression of taking their time.

The sun lingered on colored glass, metal reflections on the zebra crossing pedestrian appeared milky white, just under her feet, when the light changed to a ghostly green.

At one point, two young people walking near Alma addressed her in Japanese while smiling at her. Sasakawa growled and they went away, pushing, not without throwing them a last look, no smile this time.

“Who was that?” she said, wanting to understand.

“Never mind! They are young! We are in the Shibuya district – the trendy district of Tokyo. By itself, this area is half of Paris.”

Alma understood why there were so many commercials and videos that displayed on screens so big that they sometimes monopolized the entire surface of the towers on which they were attached.

“The clothes are so amazing that their function appears to be an accessory! Not to mention hairstyles, jewelry?”

“Yes,” said Sasakawa, who seemed irritated. “Visually, the young population destroys any chance of rest for the eye. It has nothing to do with Paris, right? Capital of fashion, it seems.”

geNki19.”

A voice sounded behind Alma, a soft but artificial tone, which gave her the creeps. She flinched and did not have the courage to turn. Alma froze in place and Sasakawa spun around. She saw in the blink of an eye the outline of his body circumvent hers and get behind her like a shield.

uN genKi20,” Sasakawa said in her stead.

Sasakawa’s voice became a rumble. His palms were placed on the Alma’s back up to her hips. She did not move – her instinct forbade her from showing weakness and prevented her from shaking. Alma blinked to give herself courage and jumped aside and on opening her eyes, she was surprised to see the stranger’s face in front of her, leaning toward her and watching with curiosity.

doko no kuni kara ki ta no21?”

She had hardly opened her mouth to reply before Sasakawa placed himself between her and the newcomer.

acchi ni itte kudasai22” Sasakawa hissed between his teeth, and with a sudden movement, he pushed Alma back away.

Alma heard their discussion, still in Japanese. An exchange of whistles, so fast that it looked like a whole other language. Sasakawa joined her as soon as he was assured that the intruder was far enough away.

“Who was that?” she asked, concerned by this sudden intrusion.

“A new recruit.”

“New? What do you mean? He is part of the clan?”

“No, not of our clan. Unfortunately, I do not know how we found him here, just when we approached the location of the headquarters. It’s very annoying! Come on, we have no time to lose!”

Sasakawa took the street on the right, and then began to run. They ran in the narrow passage along the road that seemed endless. At one point, he stopped, looked up and reached Alma, preventing her from moving. The street continued, the tall buildings on both sides went up to the heavens. In front of her the crossroads of two streets created a large perfectly square space, completely empty.

Alma found it odd that Sasakawa stopped right there in the middle of nowhere. Impatiently, he raised the right sleeve of his jacket, rolled up his shirt and passed his left hand over his forearm. With a surprised look, Alma saw a screen appear in the Sasakawa’s pale skin. His cheek creased in a smile as he turned his face half towards her. Alma followed the movement of his fingers on his forearm which turned into a video screen. She saw it scrolling data.

Subdermal display23. Nanotechnology, quite simply. Nothing new! Considering how science evolves today! Some nanoparticles implanted under the skin that can be assembled to form an image. We can display 3 million pixels on a surface of 5 cm by 6 cm. This system is connected to sensors placed here,” he said, pointing to the right wall, “but invisible to normal humans. Information comes from the highest source you could believe. The information system is connected by radio to satellites, and the data is displayed on this screen at my request. The latest news without having to go to the newsstand! Ha! And in this case, an electromagnetic detection revealed under our eyes…”

A light appeared in front of Alma in the middle of the square and changed and suddenly became white with golden highlights and started to flow over the sides like streams; light sketched a shape. The perspective metamorphosed as she looked at it. A gigantic form appeared, but its contours were distorted by a liquid that overwhelmed it, preventing it from revealing its nature. Alma realized that a barrier – which allowed it to withdraw anything from their view – separated them from the magician cape form that was on the other side.

“This invisibility shield deflects the light rays so that they are curved enough to avoid the object it conceals.”

“A shield of invisibility? How is this possible?”

Alma looked felt really stupid saying that. Her face was red as well. She was truly ignorant! So far behind… and Sasakawa and Estrange knew so much… things unbelievable, difficult even to conceive. A few months ago, Alma did not even believe that vampires existed. Definitely not! She had a rather rational mind… and all these innovations, vampires, medical research with genetic modifications… it seemed impossible and unconventional… until she happened to see with her own eyes, and even worse… Why worse, anyway? Hmm! Is that what happened to her, that she had to consider the worst thing? No! Deep down inside, no! She had become satisfied. Now Alma felt closer Estrange.

Alma was examining Sasakawa from the corner of her eye, expecting to see him disappear. She blinked several times. No! He was yet there! Despite his slight smile, his brow was furrowed – he was worried. Was he thinking like her of Estrange? As often as she did? She thought no more as before. Alma felt that at first she thought about him from time to time only. Then, thinking so often at his appearance in her life, her thoughts turned, they became continuous and all her arguments converged on a single horizon and as a network of streams, thoughts flowed and formed a great river, the river of her existence. All that kept Alma alive today was a dream. One day Estrange would return. And to make this dream a reality, she would do anything – even at the risk of her life!

Turning slightly to Sasakawa, Alma gazed at him. He was focused at the data appearing on his forearms. Information scrolling at incredible speed. He frowned and looked at her. He made a movement with his head and pointed to the square space, of which now the edges were beginning to vibrate.

“It intrigues you,” he laughs. “It’s a bit like opening a hole in space. The light flows along the object protected by a shield and surrounds it like water around a rock and then returns to normal, downstream. Thus, the object, which is not reached by light, becomes invisible.”

His back straightened, his head leaned back and a satisfied smile appeared on his face. Alma followed, concerned the direction of his gaze and her pupils widened in surprise.

The roof of a residency hidden behind a high wall of concrete came out of nothingness. At the top of these walls, fragments of swords planted a short distance from each other gave an impression of a thousand lights of shiny wire in the morning sun. Huge gates opened by themselves, and they both crossed the threshold. With her head down, looking carefully where her feet arose, moving slowly, Alma tried to figure out where she was.

The courtyard was huge and seemed devoid of life. A feeling of abandoned space enveloped the building and exacerbated the desert that was already in her heart. Alma saw before her a ten yard high statue representing a Samurai in a fighting stance, its sword pointing directly at her, it half-open eyes and tense face had an expression of coldness.

In their approach, the opaque windows of the residence passed ink navy hues of emerald and purple, and finally became transparent. Above the arch of the front door, on a display screen, an unknown face appeared and then disappeared after a quick hello. The door opened, letting them discover that it was protecting.

A slight whispering, barely audible, surrounded them as soon as the doors began to close. Alma felt Sasakawa’s hesitation and stood on the threshold. Her feet seemed glued to the doormat and she felt a sudden urge to turn back. She looked out of the corner of her eye at what was on the right, expecting a physical host, an individual, but there was nothing. Scrolls and paintings hung on the walls throughout the length of the corridor leading to another hall she distinguished at end. The left side of the hallway stopped in front of a dark marble stairway. It provided a red and gold ramp, which rose in a sinuous movement to the upper floor. The entire length of the left wall held paintings which correlated with those next to it on the other wall of the corridor. The images represented ancient samurai leaders, emperors, and who knows what else?

The whispering suddenly changed. Musical notes slowly intensified, the sounds became more daring and a familiar tune began. Imperceptibly, Alma turned her head towards Sasakawa and his smile reassured her.

“Do you still believe that they are not aware of your existence?”

His eyes narrowed and his smile encouraged her. Sasakawa reached out, beckoning her to follow and her legs started trembling, and Alma walked into the room at the other end of the corridor. She passed near the first scroll on her right and a crumpling sound made her look. A gentle stream of air, like a wing beat and – to her great surprise – a scroll of two meters high rolled itself up and another scroll took its place. Another poem, still in Japanese unfortunately, took the place of the first. Alma moved forward, nonchalantly, and the painting placed two yards from the scroll changed. A video replaced it and successive images displayed at high-speed. She watched with amazement the hypnotic movements of two skaters moving on the ice, which evoked memories of Swan Lake. Alma stopped, Sasakawa on her left, her eyes fixed on the screen.

Sasakawa sighed slightly behind her. Alma felt his presence near her, even closer than before. Why did she feel that he supported her constantly? Why did she think that she could count on him, no matter what she planned to do? And this video, what did it mean? Still… how had Estrange said it? A headache! Yes, a headache!

“Apparently, they understand you more than you thought, I think!”

He frowned and his teeth chattered as they closed.

“I did not expect anything! Seriously, nothing!”

“Don’t be afraid…”

“Why this moment of the ballet? Why just the scene when the black swan appears?”

“Um, I understand that a fight occurs inside you. You should not really be aware of it. In any case, the scrolls, such as paints, react primarily to your moods.”

“And second?”

“Second…”

“Sasakawa…” said Alma, stunned by an abnormal urge to sleep.

Her muscles grew heavy, her senses became more sensitive than usual and a sudden desire to lie down where she was prevented her from following his speech. Scarcely had she uttered these words before she felt herself sinking. Her body was lifted up gently and she was taken.

“Was it necessary?”

Sasakawa seemed irritated, but his voice remained strangely courteous. He said nothing. Silence ensured for a long time, broken by no one.

A distant crumpling of fabric and a silk smell reached her gently, and footsteps advanced rapidly towards them.

“No! Absolutely not!” Sasakawa demanded, breaking the silence and Alma felt the chill of his body closer to her.

Sasakawa clasped his arms around her body and took a step back. His chin brushed Alma’s jacket and her head fell. Her position was uncomfortable, her head was swinging to the rhythm of his steps; Alma thought he walked into the room which was down the hall. Her position did not seem totally unknown at Alma – it reminded her of something.

“Unfortunately, for us, I mean, her gifts have developed a lot lately. Akitaka confirmed. Apparently, meditation has sped things up. Hmm! More than we expected.”

Alma heard every voice; she discerned their intonation easily and found that the lack of feeling in her body helped her to better understand.

The man’s voice was calm and steady. At the end of his last sentence, Alma heard footsteps again – a sign he approached. The footsteps made a detour moving away from her and stopped. She heard a sigh.

“What does this mean?” said Sasakawa anxiously.

“I don’t know anything more! The Seītaishōgun wants to see her and then decide! That’s all I can say. Follow me! Here!”

Alma cared less about what was happening around her. The strange sensation of being weightless imposed again.

Other footsteps joined the man. One person on each side, they were escorting her in silence. Sasakawa was carrying and Akitaka preceded him. Their procession was heading to an unknown destination.

The scents became stronger. Two men were close behind and everyone that emerged had a particular fragrance. A mixture of incense and freshly cut grass, sun and ground returned. A feeling of peace and tranquility pushed to the extreme invaded the atmosphere and Alma thought that nothing mattered.

None of what happened before her arrival in Japan was important any longer. Okay, what happened in Paris had been important! She had known Estrange – that was important – , but the fact that Marcus had done everything to eliminate her was not so serious! He had not managed to kill her after all the labor he had taken to poison her with this damn blood transfusion – it was something! However, Estrange was no longer be the same after attempting to deliver her from the clutches of Marcus and his henchmen, – that was quite another matter!

Maybe he should have taken her away and not waited until the end of the academic year? Maybe if she had made it clear that being with him was all she needed… Why did he want her to finish the academic year? He did not stop to focus on her research, if it was going well, if she did not need to see another exhibition or visit who-knows-what museum lost in the depths of the countryside! All of which would have put her ahead in her studies! However without knowing it, he had put his life in danger to save hers. And if nothing had happened, would he have stayed for her to finish the next year too?

“Seītaishōgun!”

Sasakawa had stopped and the host walked away to meet a man whom he called seītaishōgun. His voice was so low it was almost inaudible and that of seītaishōgun was even worse. It seemed to come from the depths of him.

“Hmm!”

“They have arrived!”

“Let them in, Akitaka!”

“Seītaishōgun!”

Only the rustle of clothing, one touching the other by walking, indicated Akitaka approached. He stopped near Sasakawa, without saying a word. They well understood, even as Alma heard the touch of silk while Sasakawa had her in his arms, and followed him.

After ten yards, Akitaka stopped and Sasakawa continued, followed by two bodyguards. He stopped after about twenty yards and put Alma gently ashore.

“Leave us!” the seītaishōgun said with a faint voice, and the men went away immediately.

The tatami floor squeaked imperceptibly when Sasakawa sat. His hand grazed the top of Alma’s head slightly. He exhaled heavily and the air came out of his chest in a whistle.

Alma was lying in an awkward position, on the right side, as he had sat her on the tatami. Her head was leaning against her palms which were joined together making a pillow. Her hair was covering half her face and hiding it from the sunlight, which hurt her even through her closed eyelids. Sasakawa’s hand touched a strand of Alma’s hair trying to throw it back and then it stopped abruptly.

“You worry about her,” said the seītaishōgun, his voice sounded close to Alma.

She had not heard his steps approach. Or the rustling of his clothes! How did he do it? He approached without noise?

“Hmm!” Sasakawa said.

“A little too much, perhaps?” he continued, thinking aloud. “Hmm! I see! You’ve always been inhabited by an excessive loyalty, even for a samurai. That time is over, you know, and today it’s different. What you’re thinking of doing is unusual. I would say it is rather suicidal. Have you considered that?”

“You know I have! You’ve seen!”

“Yes, I know! You also know that you risk losing lives by starting! You saw the end! As I did, Sasakawa!”

“Seītaishōgun, let me…”

“I know what you want to say, but that’s not why you’re here! I know what we owe him and I know that by offering to help him, you sacrifice yourself for us! I will never forget how your friend, without knowing us, came to help us! At that time, our fate was sealed, nobody…”

“At that time, you had seen the end…”

“That’s why I wanted to talk to you. I want you to explain to me, how does it happen? Your insurance, where does it come from?”

“I… Besides, this is not my idea, and at first I thought it was not important, but… I think he was right at the end!”

“You think so?”

“I’m sure, my Seītaishōgun, everything is within our reach! Our present and future. You know, you too! They teach us from the beginning! And we can change our future, I believe it!”

“You thing not changing your mind and focusing on the intended change is enough? Only that?”

“I know it is… Like I told you that with only a flower…”

“Yes, it’s crazy, I admit it! But you’re dauntless enough to believe – that it is possible. There is one thing I am sure: if we believe we have made it half way, we still have the other half to go. And this way, I’ve never… continued to the end. I always trusted in my visions as they are always verified, I did not think to change the future.”

He walked over and gently touched the Alma’s hair, moving it away from her face. Alma felt the pressure of his fingers on her temples, and down along her spine she the pressure changed. He placed his right palm against her back, opposite her heart, and his left hand directly on it. Alma’s heart stopped beating. The seītaishōgun has disconnected the batteries.

“I want to help her,” Sasakawa murmured. “I do not just think that I have a debt to him, I think it would be unfair for both of them. When I think of what he endured throughout his life… I cannot sit idly by.”

“It might be the more reasonable way. He would finally be at peace! You know that you should not intervene in the course of the universe! It could be a disaster! And she could find…”

“She… it will destroy her life! I am sure! She is so attached to him that I do not know how she managed to keep it together so long.”

“Yes. She never stops! She tries to find a solution, any solution, which could bring him back. This determination and willingness has boosted her gifts. She has an idea in mind, you saw it too! Hmm! Moreover, it is on this idea that you have built your argument and you have decided to intervene. I do not know if I hope you succeed. I meditated on it already, and I do not have a single valid response. The universe has a perfect move and every action can create catastrophic effects. I stand by my opinion: you must not get involved! Have you seen anything else lately? I feel you have changed, you are in a hurry. It seems that for you there is not enough time and the moment to act is now. I think sometimes this Ronin influenced you. He is a strange being and he frightens me. We’re lucky he is on our side. Maybe this is why I think we should let fate take its course. Where he is now on the edge of reality, his gifts are going to change. If he can come back, he will be more dangerous than before. And those who want to slaughter him will become furious; a real war will trigger. You will have to choose. Our calm and our peace go up in smoke if you pursue your purpose. I will once again ask: Have you thought through the way in which even you have not seen the end? Do you think this feeling that animates you is enough to put our lives in jeopardy?”

“He has not thought for a long time to come to your aid. I saw the first end – there is no hope after… after it will be our turn – all those of our race! You know it!”

“Yes, I can confirm, but is it worth it?”

“It is true that I have not seen the second end, it is too early and the end depends on so many things… and then, as long as she is there, he will be well…”

“Hmm! I fear you rely a little too much on her! She is young, so young! And so unstable at the same time! She has lost her bearings and her roots, she does not know either. Oh! I fear that the existence of our race – the future – depends on them, as they are dependent on one another. What will become of us if you do not win your bet?”

“Why shouldn’t I bet? Can you blame me? We are talking about the disappearance of a whole race! And for whose benefit? Are they better than us? Softer? Have they not pushed us to the edge of society and life? Have they not always used us? In exchange for having saved our lives? As if we needed them to…”

“Sasakawa! I forbid you to talk like that in my presence and in my house! I understand your anger, as I understand your life choices, but do not exceed the limits of good behavior!”

“I’m sorry, my seītaishōgun. I got carried away and I have no excuse! I…”

“No! You do not have an excuse! But as I understand the challenge that you’re launched on, I personally accept your apology!”

“If we worship the gods, should we not expect from them victory!” enunciated Sasakawa.

“You’re right. We go through hard times. The clan is weakened. These new ones have no restraint and are difficult to control.”

“When I arrived here, I saw a recruit belonging to Tara’s clan.”

“Where?”

“I crossed Shibuya quickly, and he felt Alma. He approached her and started talking to her without embarrassment.”

“Oh yes. Their attitude begins to look odd. The Tara Clan becomes more powerful with each new recruit, but also unmanageable. They are younger and younger and without restraint. They dominate us in number, not knowledge.”

“You think Tara No Takeda prepares an army? Why would he do that, it’s absurd. It is you, Keiki Shichirō, The Shogun!”

“Why were there so many wars between the clans forever? To acquire power. I do not like war, but I’m afraid I have no choice! I would prefer that you stayed. I need you to enhance the knowledge of our fighters.”

“You do not need me! Your presence alone is enough to motivate them, you know that!”

“Hmm! Thank you and I hope that this will always be true. I understand that you want leave; Akitaka and Akimata will accompany you. They will be your shadows.”

“The Matsudaira twin boys? No, my seītaishōgun! They are your best samurais. I cannot accept them! This is only one round trip. We will be back soon and without complications. I’ll manage well alone. And Alma…”

“You must protect Alma as the light of your eye! You should not risk her life! Never! Otherwise, you would do well to return before Estrange awakens and slaughter him with your own hand!”

“My seītaishōgun!”

“I know you find it shocking, but their minds are bound for a good reason. I feel he is right there beside her and that has been since you arrived. I feel him, but in a slightly different way than people of our race. I do not know how, but I think he is even aware of our discussion. I would say he lives through her, and simultaneously. If you accompany her, you must bring her back too!”

“He knows that I will do everything in my power for him and it will be the same for her! I could not leave her unprotected. I do not know what she plans to do. I forbade her to reveal it to me.”

“She has a pretty peculiar gift. She is able to discover objects, the kind of things we need when we are in trouble and when our life depends. Let’s call them treasures.”

“And you think she found what Estrange really needs – to bring him back to life, I mean?”

“Yes, I think she knows now what she needs to start – because to achieve this feat she will need several things. Too bad it’s so far away!”

“How has she has found it?”

“In fact, when this object was found near her and made itself heard, Alma was not aware of what it represented. At that time her gift was not so highly developed as now and for Alma what she had discovered was just an attractive antiquity and nothing more. You will have to assist and of course help her.”

“What’s happening to her? Why is she like this? Is that you?”

“Yes. I preferred to change her state. She was able, out of fear, to object to any intervention on my part, and this was necessary. At this point, the cosmic energy exploring her body is in harmony with the universe. I know she hears us. She will remember this discussion, but not me. The time that she knows who I am has not yet come. We will meet officially at another time. You must leave now. Akitaka and Akimata will join you as soon as you are ready.”

 

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estrange_reality_achesThe first book in Estrange Reality series is ACHES