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      "Over my dead body," Keris snapped, glaring at the friend she made. "Now are you going to kill me? See to the outcome of it and let me the hell out of here."

     Her friend chuckled at her dark humor. Keris couldn't see the person's face or body. All she could see were two pale and bared feet and she could tell by the amused voice that was of a girl's. 

     This vision was one of dreams again. It was no wonder that she didn't bother panicking because it had happened countless of times. 

     "Dear Keris," the girl said, "do not fret. You won't last long in this one. This dream is a special one. One that you and I created. Can't you see the destruction you made inside your mind? Look around." 

     "We're inside a room," Keris reminded with a smirk.

     Unlike any other visions Keris had, this one seemed . . . less life threatening. Her hands were chained up to the wall behind behind her. Everything in this room reeked of blood and carrion. Nothing else was easily distinguished with the darkness that lurked around. It was less disturbing to see the bones on the dirty matter stones. 

     Because that's what we witches do. It's a reasonable reason to survive.

     There were ones when she visited her own dreams and she found herself hanging over a cliff with only a pinkie. A volcano was bubbling with molten lava underneath at that time and the heat felt real. When she had slipped, she felt her heart stopped and she had woken up with sweat all over. Another memorable one was claustrophobic. She was trapped inside a ghostly castle and she had fallen into one of its secret traps. Needles and sharp blades were poking out of  the walls and they enclosed, squeezing the life and blood out of her. 

     Many of those dreams involved her in her death scenes. Episodes and newer episodes played in her in-accidental deaths with each ones more violent than the last. But this time, it's different. It's more—

     "Corrupted?" Her friend suggested. Keris scowled, "I'm in your head. Of course I can hear your thoughts. Give it up, Keris. You've done enough. Just let me take over."

     "Over my damn dead body," Keris said again. "You can blabber shit all you want about how dumb it is to poke Isidore with a stick, but I'm going to become Queen."

     "That shameless hope again? No wonder you're still this weak. In real life, you won't even need your fire to break off those chains," the girl sassed. 

     "Come at little closer and I'll show you how I break faces."

     The room shook and dust started raining from the small holes of the cobble ceiling. The sound of footsteps and clinging armors became more audible every passing second.

     "Reconsider my request, Keris. I do not want to take over just for the fun of it. I have other things in store," the girl said. Her voice was laced with an uncanny hate. One that Keris recognized all too well. "For now, I must say goodbye, my friend. Until another dream."

     Keris heard the door to her cellar burst with force and immediately the inquisitors poured into the red room. 

     One of the masked inquisitors, kneed her in the stomach. Keris gasped for air at the pain that shot through her as the other one cut her loose from her chained. 

     Before her knees even touched the stones, hands grabbed her by her arms and hair and they began dragging her forward. 

     Don't fight back. The back of her mind hissed. It will only delayed the dream to go on longer. You're going to die again anyways.

     As she was being dragged forth—mainly, by the hair—Keris gritted her teeth as her head ached. It felt as if her entire scalp might rip off.

     They opened two sets of heavy doors and Keris heard the cheers from the crowd erupted, drowning her ears. The light outside was that merciful either. It was bright enough to blind her. At least she was grateful that her keen nose didn't have to rot along with the smell of carrion in the red room, but she was not so sure she liked the smell of sweaty humans.

     One of the Inquisitors, chained her hands behind her back and he kicked up onto her death stage. 

     "Die, you witch! You unholy monster of a bitch!" The crowds screamed along with hatful words. Some started throwing tomatoes and beard into her face as she was forced to bend down under a guillotine. Pathetic.

     Keris lips twitched. Some part of her wanted to laugh while the other part of her was annoyed to the point where she wanted to slaughter them all. Damn, it all. All I needed was some goodnight's rest.

     Keris didn't see it coming down, but she felt the blood and pain spreading like a field of lilies blooming all at once. Her vision was still sharp, but when she caught a glimpse of the crowd everyone last one of them were faceless. She was still conscious even after her head rolled over the boards of the stage. She could still hear the crowd screaming in excitement over her dead body, but what she couldn't hear was the beating of her heart. 

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 PART I: The Most Dangerous Games

     Astoria was a beautiful city, Keris Eindride thought as her fire flickered teasingly at the ends of her fingertips. Just behind the blur of her red flames, the sun was setting into a dull glow of crimson and orange. The busy crowds were fading into a ringing drone, and the smell of burning embers tickled her nostrils. Keris didn't know how much time have long passed since she had sat by her window with her spell book propped open before her. Nor did she care enough to continue witchcraft.

     She jumped at the sound of her chamber door slamming against the wall just when she was about to doze off. The candlelit chandelier rattled against each other like chimes. When she turned around, she was greeted by an irksome scowl from no one other than her sister, Lyra.

     "If you don't come to the court entrance right this moment, I'll make sure you wake up every morning with wet hair," Lyra threatened, glaring at her sister. 

     Keris responded by rolling her eyes. She shut her spell book softly, and followed Lyra hastily. The thought of having her flames putout before she can even dezombify herself from her slothful mornings sent chills along her unflattering biceps. 

     Their walk to the dinning hall was awkwardly quiet. Back on the Good Lyra Days, the two sisters would spend hours roaming Astoria's vast forest to catch a good deer. They would fantasize and talk nonstop about how much their life would've been different if they were human beings. But all those talks were all just a hoax; all futile and childish. 

     "Nothing but a waste of time," Lyra had said a few years after she went passed her witchhood.

     Keris often caught herself admiring her older sister's black glossy hair. She had always wanted that hair, though she'd never tell her that. Where Lyra's hair was like silk, hers was what they called raw brown. A darker shade of cedar on the roots, and dark beech at the ends. Witches often referred witchlings with hairs like Keris' as boring brown. It was insulting.

     "Everyone in Astoria will be watching, Keris," said Lyra, turning to face her. Her eyes—same as Keris'— were blue, but a shade darker. It wasn't the color that made them look cold and menacing. It had always been the darker side of her. Keris had caught glimpses of those uncanny jealousy that were masked beneath her perfections during their quarrels. She was aware sometimes that she may be a goner if she ever step on the line. 

     "You have an amazing gift, and pray to the Kins, that I didn't have a good for nothing sister. Tonight will be your night, and people will always be viewing you as an heir. So, don't screw yourself in front of the audience," Lyra scolded. Once in a while, Lyra would sound like their absent mother—always logical and reasoning—except that Lyra could be a savage jester whenever she felt like using one of her crude sarcasm.

     "Whoopsies," Keris faked a stumble, added with a pair of rolling eyes. If that was Lyra's way of wanting to show support for her upcoming trial, it did not help to her as much as she thought it would. 

     Keris occupied her time by dragging her eyes across the old saffron walls during their insufferable walk. There were old rusty burn marks on them. The result of her untamable flames during witchhood. It was a memory she would never recover from, but she won't ever get to see them again in a matter of days.

     Every month, the sorceresses would organize a feast, a trial, or a ritual as human sacrifice for their desires and satisfactions once they caught humans. Nowadays, humans had managed to slip passed the boundary, and disappeared deep into the witches' territory. The humans believed that the witches were a curse upon their world because before war broke out between them about five hundred years ago, the witches had enslaved and murdered two out of five of the seven billion humans in the mortal realm. The oldest Queen of the Witch Kingdom had cast a border in between, casting the male witches to the mortal land. The witches were enraged for what their own queen had done. Their population had gone down like wildfire without the males and mortal flesh, and they were starved to the point where madness consumed them. They soon learned to adapt to the environment and hunt animals for food instead, but some witches had thrown themselves against the border. Many had dissolved into ashes when their skin connected with metal. They were desperate for flesh and red blood. The Queen was finally overthrown after her two hundred years reign. Monarchy was abandoned for three hundred more years, and . . .  it will rise again. 

     Lyra pushed the heavy set of doors and walked swiftly inside, leaving Keris in her dust. The room was large with a vast veranda overlooking the quiet streets of the city. The sun had already been long gone, making the sky bleed to a rotting grey. Witches alike stood isolated on the balcony, practically thrumming with bloodlust. 

     The three grand sorceresses of the Witch Kingdom stood before the gathered group. Her aunt Vivienne Faramond, who was a sorceress from Tiordan, was also among them. They were each flanked by their own heirs, facing toward the open doors through which Keris and Lyra had exit. 

     Keris' cousin, Isidore Faramond, stood beside Vivienne, grinning at her challengingly the moment their eyes made contact. Keris was never fond of Isidore, and nor was she was to Keris. The two had always been too different for each other; two opposites. Isidore was the heir of ice, the northern wolf of Tiordon, while Keris was fire, the fire witch.

     Keris teared her gaze away first because the sweet alluring aroma of metallic pungency was pulling at her instincts. Deliriously, her eyes followed the trail of blood across the rusty floor, and in the center of the podium was a young man. His wrists and ankles were bounded, making the him look helpless and easy to prey on.  

     The only male in a room full of witches. 

     "Trespasser," Lyra hissed the moment her taunting eyes landed on him. In a flash, her claws flicked out. The human whimpered at the sight of her grown talons that were snapping like bear traps. 

     "Patience, Eindride. You will have your turn to feed on him," said Vivienne, turning to walk up on higher ground. Her clothes and white hair were matted with blood, and Keris knew that several more humans had crossed their border again. Humans weren't the rarest types of specie that the witches have seen everyday. They weren't much of a surprise anymore, just an insignificant meal for dinner once they were caught. Vivienne had talked Keris into Manhunt before because more and more humans had managed to escape deeper within their territory and caused several damage, but she had no spark of interest to shed blood for sports. 

     "For honor, tonight we will preform the feeding ceremony. It will be our heirs' last feast among us all, so let's make it a memorial night for our future queen and sorceresses!" Vivienne announced. Her face was passive even when the crowd were blazing with cheers and hungry cries. Vivienne beckoned Keris and the other heirs—Isidore, Jadis, Morrigan—up to stand beside her, and turned to face the frightful human, "we have warned you before, human. Any trespassing will be our property. Now tell me, where are the more of you filth hiding?" She demanded.

     "I-I don't know. I don't know anything!" The man exclaimed, wobbling on his knees, "I haven't the slightest clue where they are! Please, please, do not harm me!"

     "There is no use pleading, pig," Isidore grinned murderously. Ice was forming below her feet, snaking its way toward the man, who released a panicked scream, "you—"

     "Enough," Vivienne hollered, glaring at her daughter, who shrank back frightfully with humiliation, "you have no right to utter a word among the elders."  

     With a snap of Vivienne's fingers, three Seskos appeared, along with a huge velvet chest. Since tonight will be the last of her slackened days, Lyra must've mentioned to her aunt that choosing a blade will be useful on the heir's journey. Like Reapers, the Seskos were not only the ones who could serve live and death, but they were also the witch's shamans. Without them, the witches would've perished centuries ago. 

     Keris' guts twisted; not because she was losing her nerve, nor because her mind was screaming 'no.' It was because she was hungry for blood, and she had always dreamt of carving human flesh. 

     Vivienne turned to Keris with a hint of smirk playing on the corner of her lips and said, "Keris, my dear niece. You are free to go first."

     The guest of honor, I see. 

     It would be pointless to deny the sorcerer's insistence. Anxiously, Keris let out a long breath, and walked toward Seskos with a menacing and tranquil swiftness, blocking out all the irresoluteness that were beginning to snake around her control. The three Seskos opened the chest for Keris—various legendary blades from her ancestors were shown before her. Without a moment's delay, Keris picked a dagger with a tip that was hollow grounded, and tested its weight in her hand. It was a sacred-looking object that felt both advanced and used, and she felt a strong pang of force from the mysterious aura around it that seemed to be crying for her will. 

     "Give the blade its name," Vivienne said, picking the dried blood off her iron nails. Keris felt Isidore staring daggers into her back, and turned to her with a triumph smirk that made the lone wolf bared her teeth back in response.

     "Clytemnestra," Keris called out skeptically. The room fell silent as she walked up to the human male, avoiding the ice trail Isidore had marked. He was trembling rapidly on his knees. His eyes were the color of emerald, opened wide and teary with fear, and she couldn't make out much of his face because of the blood on him. His comrades' blood.  

     "What's your name, human?" Keris asked. Her voice was rough, but deceivingly dangerous despised her losing nerve. She gripped her new weapon tightly to keep her shaky hand under control.

     "J-Jacob, m-ma'm," the man whimpered, shaking harder. "Jacob Welling. P-please, spare me, lady. I-I'm so sorry!" 

     Without hesitation, Keris lifted her weapon high, and she waited. She waited for the weak compassion to come and consume her, but there was nothing. Control was gripped tenaciously in her hand. 

     "Let this be a message to all of you mortal filth," Keris deadpanned.

     In a blink of an eye, Keris brought Clytemnestra down and severed the poor man's head from his body. The audience roared in exhilaration as the head tumbled and rolled across the floor, leaving a splattering chase of blood in its wake. Warm blood was sprayed onto Keris, tickling down her skin with its teasing appearance. The sight of blood made her instincts flattered with thirst, and her canines ached painfully to sink into the fresh skin of the man's corpse. 

     Keris whipped her head to her superiors and her fellow heirs—their eyes were flashing and loathing with hate, except for Vivienne. She was smiling darkly; not a hint of disappointment was shown, just a cold victorious smile.

   She noticed my hesitation. She had been expecting this, Keris realized.  

    Lividly, Keris gritted her teeth, and marched toward the exit with her new trophy coated with blood. Her hunger had been long forgotten when she reached her chambers.

     It was mercy that she had shown the man. One swift and clean death, just a contemporary and imaginative pain, and he was free. Free and spared from the long and torturous pain from the long line of starving witches, who were willing devour him piece by piece.

     She peered down at the blade. It was a silly name that she had chosen because she was no queen nor goddess of the underworld, but she was death herself who will deliver any unfortunate soul to the other side. 

     Astoria will be flooded with rumors about the new executioner, and her trial against the other heirs as queen. Lyra had specifically told her not to draw too much attention before the big games, but it was too late to turn back now. What was done was done. There was no resolution to undo what she had brought upon herself. 

     "You dug this grave; you go lie in it," Keris scolded herself, and disappeared out into the open night.

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 PART I: The Most Dangerous Games

     Jurian Redmond tilted his head back and stared absently into the depths of the gloomy grey sky. He chewed and rubbed his tongue over his teeth, savoring the lingering taste of tobacco. It looked like it was going to come down; they had better find shelter soon. 

     His fellow travelers were by the river, rubbing the blue stains off of their clothing and weapons, but Jurian wasn't bothered by the enemies' blood on him. In fact, he wore his bloodstained tunic as if it was trophy that had been carved out from a witch's skin. 

     Jurian glanced-sidelong at Gwendolyn Welling who was mourning over the loss of her kidnapped brother. It hadn't been an hour, and yet, her eyes were already blotchy and bloodshot. She was in safe hands to say at least. 

     In Edmund Smith's, that is, Jurian's thoughts echoed. People told him that he wasn't the comforting type. Whenever he tried to, he ended up provoking them with one of his agonized jokes. His eyes were lingering on Edmund's hands which were circling and rubbing on Gwen's arms and shoulders.

     Whatever horrific episodes had flashed into her mind, it will scar her heart each time.

     "Master Jurian," Gideon said, snapping Jurian out of his misery, "if we continue our path to the southward, there's a higher chance that we'll be attacked again."

     Gideon Calore was a ginger-headed young apprentice of Jurian's. His father was King Liam, the King of Queens, but Gideon had said that he never felt like a son around his father. More specifically, his father was more of a lazy lump, who looked unfit for the throne. 

     In response, Jurian fumbled into his saddle bag, searching blindly until his hand enclosed around a round cool metal. He studied the handle of the compass that pointed to his chest (north), and he showed it to Gideon. 

    "See that metal bar right there?" Gideon gave his master a puzzled look. Jurian grinned and knocked him on the head. "There's no better direction, idiot. We're in the Witch Kingdom. So, no matter where we go, there'll always be witches waiting for us."

     "I'm trying to say that we should avoid going southward, and take the east or west instead," said Gideon, rubbing the top of his shady head. 

     Jurian let out another sigh. "Do I look like I own a ship in the Witch Kingdom? Sure, we can go west or east, Gideon. But you will have to swim us all the way across the sea." 

     Gideon's cheeks burnt, and Jurian laughed and puffed his chest like an old man. "Here's the map, kiddo," Jurian said, tossing Gideon the map from his saddle bag.

     "Where did you get it?"

     "I bought it."

     "But, I thought the witch's map weren't available in Queens—"

     "All right, team!" Jurian announced, looking around at group. Gideon sewed his mouth shut. He knew Jurian would be cross, so as apprentice, he didn't dare push the question. "We have lost three of our fellow followers, but do not be pressured. Vengeance will be served! We will shelter here for the night. Eat and rest, we have a big journey tomorrow."

     The group— Samson, Romero, Julia, and Elliot— began to set up tents, and light up a camp fire as their quiet talks were disrupted by the windy evening. Edmund helped Gwen up, and walked her into the tent Samson had set up. Jurian felt his chest tighten again, but he looked away and walked to the pond before he could see the two of them disappearing inside.

     He washed the blues off of his toned body. He ripped the shirt away, discharging it by a dead tree, and sat still against it. Off into the distance, there was a line that glowed like a river of burning lava. The sky was darkening, the stars were gathering around the visible clouds, forming a line of stardust. And Jurian thought back to the days Edmund, Gwen, and him spent together under the stars in Queensland.

     Edmund was like a brother to Jurian, but he was also an opposite. Gwen had said that Jurian was rougher and tougher than the soft and gentle Edmund, whose fingers were long and delicate, and purported to a musical insturment. It had flattered him at first, but Jurian knew better than to show off his strength. 

     "Jurian," a deep voice uttered from behind Jurian, making him blink in surprise. It was Romero, "the boys and I are going hunting. Do you want to come with?"

     "I'll stay here, and wait for my dinner to be butchered."

     Romero shook his head, and was about to comment on Jurian's reply when Samson's pitching voice bloomed, "Romero! Get your ass here! If we don't come back before night, then we'll be the ones getting butchered!"

     Without a second delay, Romero wisely left Jurian and ran off to the mad-capped idiot. 


      Samson, Romero and Elliot returned shortly, drenched in crimson with a beast. The moment Samson saw Jurian, he hurled the anomalous beast's decapitated head with a huge grin plastered on his face. Despite wanting to wait around for dinner, Jurian decided to take the beast from Romero, and offered to butcher the rest of the parts. 

     It was dark by the time the insurgents sat by the fire, hovering beside each other for warmth and comfort for the long foreboding night. The beast had a queer seasoning taste—funny, but good. Jurian just hope that the meat was meant for humans. 

     After everyone had crawled into their personal spaces, Jurian stayed up during the first watch. The fire was put out, and they had to endure the cold bizarre night because any lighting would rise suspicions among the creatures in this strange human-forsaken realm. Jurian didn't mind the cold that was tingling on the bared parts of his skin, nor the suffocating silence of a lone time. In fact, he relished every minute of his time in the quiet of the night,—the sound of rustling leaves like thin papers, the soft hum of the flowing river, and the refreshing breeze in the dark woods—it was what a man like Jurian wished for. A quiet night.

     A distant howl cried out, making Jurian's eyes snap open in disturbance. He had fallen asleep. Sedately, Jurian got up from his resting position and moved to the direction of the previous howl. He waited—every muscles in his body tensing as he grips onto his sai— for another sound. 

      There it was. Jurian wanted to warn his companions about the approaching danger, but then he remembered their tired sullen faces from the restless weeks of travel all the way from Queens, and decided against it. He began to walk away from their site, strapping his daggers onto his thighs and boots, his sai behind his back along with a quiver of arrows, and a bow. Sweat was breaking, running painfully slow down his temple, but he chose not to acknowledge it. He was heavily armored. As he began to merge forward, the gears clanged against each other which will give him away easily. Once he was on high grounds, he peered over the ledge, and they were in huge number. 

     He was no match for them. 

     A second later, he knew that they were approaching their site. He quickly drew an arrow from his quiver, and pulled it tight with a satisfying taunt string. He aimed, shaking relentlessly.

     "This had better be worth it," he mumbled, and fired. One of the hounds fell with a strangling cry, and as soon as they heard one of their own companions died, they whipped their heads toward Jurian and growled. 

     "Well, shit," Jurian cursed and broke into a run. This was not what he had in mind, but what choice did he have? Mourning for the bones of his friends tomorrow morning for his betrayal, or turn himself into steak? 

     Steak, that is, it seems, he thought.

     Jurian could feel the hounds hovering behind his vulnerable back. Their pace became an enhancing plummet against the moss ground, making the scent of dewy grass sharper as Jurian ran. 

     They were gaining on him. 

     It was the only thing he could think to do to undertake; outsmart those dumb dogs by making them chase their bait. Except that he was the bait. The mere thought about becoming dog food made him sprint harder into the deep of the forest. He ran blindly in the dark, darting the branches and trunks as thighs and calves burn with great anticipation, but he didn't cease his speed. Adrenaline was coursing through his veins, and he knew that some part of him was satisfied. 

     Jurian could hear their growls growing more audible. Suddenly, from his periphery, one of hounds came sailing from his side, knocking his body to the side and the bow out of his grip. Jurian hissed when his arm slide across the twigs and sharp-jacked rocks, that was tearing his tunic. Instantly, his hand flew to his thigh to unstrap one of his daggers. The hound released a whimper of pain when the blade hit its shoulder. It staggered backwards to rest of the packs that were now hovering over his body like Thanksgiving turkey. 

     On impulse, Jurian flipped onto his feet, and pulled out both his sais, holding them out before the hounds. 

     "Come on, you mangy mutts," he goaded, baring his teeth, "you want a piece of me?"

     Their responds were simply a sharp angry snarl with flashing eyes, "then come and get me," Jurian breathed as mere as a whisper. He whipped his sai when the wolf—closest to him—leaped, knocking some hell out of the wolf. Its companions launched forward after a heartbeat.

     Jurian found himself in alone in a crowd of wolves, slowly corroding and drifting in and out of consciousness as the wolves bit and tear about his skin and clothes. He did not compute the dangers, nor willing to cry out for help. It was useless.

     As if some miracle had shown clemency, the nibbling, tearing, and digesting all ceased at once to a cold commanding voice. Everything hurt, and the air had never been so stale and thin to take in, even though he was no longer feasted upon numerous of savage wolves. There were dark spots that blinded Jurian's vision, but as he lifted his head from his position, he could make out a feminine shape sashaying toward him. 

     Those penetrating eyes gleamed in the shadows as they fell upon his disfigured display, surveying him like a predator. The hands were instantly around him, dragging him by the arms and shoulders. And he wanted to scurry away from the person, but his body felt stiff and uselessly sore with a binding pain. Eventually, he stopped struggling and went numb as his eyes casted downward, and the accumulating dark spots blackened his vision. 

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