Prelude: Only a Day Away
Chapter I: Vexations
Chapter II: Bad Omens
Chapter III: Magic


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Vex’s eyes blurred their focus on the grey steam rising from her cup of hot cocoa. She savored the flavor of a sip; then exhaled softly to listen to the sound of her own breath against the quiet. The hush that blanketed Mill Avenue knew no limit to its embrace.

The simple pleasure of the hot chocolate took Vex away from the violence and horrors she had witnessed over the past hectic days. Without a thought, she dropped her hand and let it rest on the handgun sitting on the table in front of her. She ran her finger down the cold, black exterior, feeling the pits and impressions of letters and numbers in the barrel.

A week ago, Vex would have never touched such a weapon, yet here she sat, drinking a cup of cocoa, the gun’s holster poking into her ribs.

A week earlier a lot of things were different.

Vex turned her head, her eyes sweeping across the ruins of Coffee Plantation. The coffee house looked as if it had been struck by a bomb. All of the glass windows in the front and the sides were blown out, the glass shattered and sparkling on the ground—the unbearable heat from outside floated in through the broken windows, barely reduced by the shade and the deepening twilight. Vex could distinctly recall the crunch of the shards under her boots from when she walked in. The tables and chairs usually set out for patrons lay twisted, broken, and scattered across the cracked floor. It was a miracle that the machine that heated up the milk for hot cocoa still worked.

Through one broken window Vex could see the building across Mill Avenue. It had been rendered into a smoldering ruin. Nobody would be buying anything from Campus Corner anytime soon. The very road around the building rose up in great bulges where the heat of the fire that consumed the building had melted the asphalt. Urban Outfitters was in no better shape, just kitty corner from where Vex sat. Although the building’s glass front had been smashed open as if by some giant hand, the lettering with the store’s name still gleamed brightly on broken red brick between two barely standing pillars like a twisted urban Stonehenge.

The scattering of trees and bushes that lined Mill would no longer be providing shade and solace form the desert sun; they had been burnt to cinders or blasted to splinters from the violence that had ravaged the area around Arizona State University. It left the shattered buildings and blistered roads as a blackened testament to the battle that had been fought there merely a day before.

Nothing had withstood the wrath that descended the previous night. The Harkins Centerpoint Cinema wouldn’t be showing any more movies, except for maybe a post apocalyptic reality film. Even the Brickyard hadn’t been spared from the cataclysm; it had been razed to a smoking crater in the ground. While Vex would shed no tears for that eyesore, she would miss the Borders that the building contained.

Somewhere amidst the desolation a solitary cicada buzzed a melancholy call.

After a moment of reminiscing over the collateral damage, Vex discovered that her cocoa had grown cold. She shook her head and pushed it away from herself. While she liked drinking it hot, she hated it cold.

Paaaaaaper flowers…

In the distance a voice rose up from the descending twilight as an Evanescence song began to play. A smile touched Vex’s lips and she stood.

The handgun came to her hands with a conscious motion and she seized the grip tightly with her right hand and pulled the slide back with her left. It pulled back with a smooth movement and came to a solid stop about half-way as she expected, the gleam of a silver shell casing glinted up at her from inside and she let it go. The slide yanked itself back into place with an audible click.

Certain that the gun was in safe condition, she shoved it snug into the holster and walked out of Coffee Plantation.

Once again, glass shards crunched beneath her boots. It reminded her less of walking over the shattered remains of windows, tables, and chairs, and more like walking on gravel. The notion was dispelled from her mind when she had to step through one of the blasted windows because the doorway had been melted and twisted into an impassable tangle.

The others lurked around one of the few intact tables, nestled up against a shattered wall that used to be Duck Soup. Two dozen eyes immediately flashed to her as she walked through the swiftly deepening shadows of twilight and extended her hands towards them. They huddled in the shadows, sat in groups sipping water from plastic cups pilfered from the remains of Coffee Plantation, and waited. There they were, the only people left to take a stand against the darkness and fight the final battle, a ragtag and bobtail group of unlikely saviors: the street rats.

Silent, for once, they all waited. Vex could hear their breathing, loud and harsh in the quiet night, an irregular beat echoed against the Evanescence music in the background.

“It’s time to mount up, kids,” Vex said. “That’s our battle cry. Come, follow me. For I will lead you into fire.”

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