“We have to go talk to them!” I urged Violet as I already began to head in their direction.
“You can’t!” Violet worriedly responded to me as she held me back.
I insisted, “I’ve got to! They’re my parents, and look where they are!” I indicated to the handsome, older couple waiting in that long line to get into the soup kitchen’s doors. “How can I ignore that?”
Violet advised me, “You love them, and you want to protect them, but the best way to do that right now is to pretend you don’t know them!” I opened my mouth to protest, but Violet cut me off by gently reminding me, “Birsha’s Army went after my grandmother ‘cause they knew we were associated with her! They almost hexed her! Do you want that to happen to your family?”
“Well, of course not! But…!” I trailed off as I couldn’t summon up the words to properly explain how devastating it was to see that my mom and dad were struggling with hunger! Food is essential for survival, so it felt like I was watching them dying! I couldn’t stand it!
“I know!” Violet put a sympathetic arm around me and reassured me, “I know it’s not an easy sight to see! As a Guardian, I don’t ever like to see good people suffering, but if we want them to live, we can’t be seen having a close relationship with anyone! Birsha has plants all over the city, all over the world actually, so the only way to keep people safe is to leave them alone ‘til this is all over.”
She definitely spoke the truth, and while I loathed the concept of my support getting them put in harm’s way, I had a hard time accepting that I was powerless to help them out of such a critical situation! I felt as though I was acting cruelly by not rushing to give them assistance, and I became overwhelmed by guilt for not doing something sooner to prevent this from occurring! “Last time I talked to them, they were fine! That was just fine! That was just days ago! How could they have gotten to this point so fast?”
Violet wisely stated, “Sometimes, all it takes is a day! One piece of bad luck could turn your whole life upside down! I’ve seen hundreds of people in Sylph’s Hollow who lost their home through no fault of their own. Some people were victims of some harsh new from crooked politicians, and others lost their place in a fire or natural disaster. It’s gut wrenching to witness, which is why my life force is so depleted! I couldn’t let them starve to death! I guess it’s dangerous to give too much of yourself to others!”
My respect for Violet heightened by hearing how selfless she had become, and I got significant comfort from our close stance in that moment- the heat from her body warmed me like a cozy blanket! I still didn’t enjoy viewing my folks in such a vulnerable position, but I started to convince myself that things would turn out okay for them eventually! “Well, at least they’re getting a meal today! If we solve this-.”
In the middle of my sentence, somebody from inside of the soup kitchen came out to whisper something to the man at the door who was greeting everyone, and the greeting man then addressed the crowd, “Sorry, everybody! We’re out of rations! You’ll have to come back another day!”
The vast expanse of visitors to this building all groaned at this news, and most of them glumly dispersed. My parents lingered though, clearly stunned by what they heard, and as the workers tried to shut the door, my father asked them, “You said another day, what day will that be?”
“Hopefully tomorrow,” the man dismally answered him, “but I can’t guarantee anything. It all depends on what gets donated.”
“Okay…” my dad unwillingly accepted. He turned to my mom and promised her, “Don’t worry, we’ll figure something out!”
I nearly ran up to them as they sadly walked away from the scene, but Violet prevented me from doing that. I queried, “Can’t we give them one of our food pills?”
Violet kindly shot back, “The Fallens will know we singled them out for a reason. I’d magick some over to them, but… well… you know…” A pit developed at the bottom of my stomach, and I couldn’t prevent myself from tearing up! Violet embraced me and empathetically regarded me, “I’m so sorry!”
“Thanks!” I croaked out. After I allowed myself to emote for a minute, I channeled this pain into fuel for me to take action! “The sooner we can find the Arch Deity, the faster I can reunite with my family and… Oh, I should say we! I’m sure you miss your family too!”
“I do, but I doubt they’re eager to have me return to them!” Violet lamented. I gave her a quizzical look, so she clarified, “They never approved of the persona I presented to the public. They thought I had become a monster, and they didn’t wanna have anything to do with me ‘til I changed my ways! I’m positive they dismissed me completely after I got accused of murder! Well, I suppose the one good thing about this is I don’t gotta worry about keeping them guarded during our quest!”
It surprised me to hear about this unfortunate detail, and I couldn’t believe how much she had to sacrifice in order to take down the dark forces that plagued our planet! I couldn’t imagine being in her shoes, but then I recalled a recent event that put things into a different perspective. “I wonder if Mom and Dad disowned me too once they heard that I was suspected of murdering that Fallen! I’d like to believe they’d know in their hearts that I’m innocent, but…” I frowned at the possibility of my folks having this reprehensible opinion of me, and it certainly made my yearning to run after them disappear! I reckoned that it was wiser to have them adopt this false narrative of me, but it hurt to picture them rejecting me if I tried to visit them in the future! I shook my head and declared, “We gotta put a stop to Birsha’s regime and clear our names! Maybe Nicole and Jeremy will…” I paused as I made a noteworthy observation. “Hey, where are they? They had us come here for a reason, it couldn’t have just been for me to see what happened to my parents!”
Violet conjectured, “That man at the door said that they were waiting for donations, maybe Nicole and Jeremy are responsible for that.” My expression appeared somewhat skeptical, so Violet bargained with me, “Let’s wait here for a bit longer. If they take too long to get here, then we’ll go somewhere else and… Oh, look!”
We spotted Nicole and Jeremy casually walking into the alley behind the soup kitchen, which certainly captured our interest! Why wouldn’t they use the front entrance if they were welcomed there? At first, we assumed that they volunteered here, but now my curiosity led me to wonder if there was more to this space than met the eye! Since Jeremy gave us the business card for this establishment, we could assume that whatever they were up to back there, they wanted us to get involved. If we hadn’t heard about Nicole’s plight with the Fallen executives at the news station, I wouldn’t have gone into such a narrow area with someone whose motives were still unestablished, but since she had accompanied him, we followed them back there. My nerves were still rattling throughout my body as if some unknown peril lurked in the shadows, but we couldn’t waste this opportunity! If we lost the chance to get a key shred of evidence, I never would have forgiven myself, so I raised no objections about this move for us.
They alleyway was dark and shabby as the ones featured in horror flicks, and I had to keep telling myself that these ominous signs merely stemmed from my imagination running wild! I was absolutely convinced that Nicole was our friend and would not lure us into any sort of trap! The path we traversed branched off into an aisle behind the soup kitchen, and when Violet and I glanced down this corridor, we saw two silhouettes standing in a pose that suggested they were waiting for something. We took a deep breath as we inched our way towards them, and one of those two exhaled a puff of smoke from a cigarette. I inwardly reasoned that if they meant to attack us, neither of them would do an activity that required a degree of stillness like that. It seemed so logical that they had chosen this site because of the privacy it offered, so nothing appeared very threatening to us… So, why did my apprehension refuse to budge?
When we got closer, a dim light illuminated Nicole and Jeremy, who smiled and put out his cigarette upon our appearance. “You got my hint!” Jeremy rejoiced.
“I told you they would!” Nicole asserted as we joined them.
“How did you find out about this place?” Violet inquired.
Nicole replied, “Jeremy has been volunteering here for years, and I decided to join him so I could do a little good for the world after spreading all the lies and misinformation that those executives always force me to dish out! It’s nice to have something that makes me remember that deep down, I’m a decent person!”
Jeremy jumped in at this juncture, “I went to this joint when I was a kid, and since it prevented me from starving to death, I like to give back to it now that I’m doing well! I do all I can to ensure that nobody starves to death, but no matter how much I do, it never seems to be enough!”
“Yeah, we saw that they had to close their doors and turn away a lot of hungry people!” I deemed it prudent not to mention that my parents were among those who got denied food. Since our main focus of this rendezvous was to obtain information regarding the Arch Deity, I didn’t want to prolong this conversation about the soup kitchen!
“It’s sickening when they gotta do that before dinnertime!” Jeremy wistfully remarked. “I used to use my magic to supply them with more, but I went overboard and nearly depleted my life force! Between that and my damn smoking habit, I feel like I don’t have much time left…”
Nicole scolded him, “Don’t say that! We’re gonna find the Arch Deity and restore your life force, so you’ll be here for decades more!”
My heart sunk to hear all of this! It was distressing to hear that he may not live a full life, but it was devastating to discover that neither of them was the Arch Deity as I had hoped! My aspirations of quickly unearthing the person who could both save the world and save Violet got unceremoniously dashed, and it was discouraging to know that our search would last more extensively than I would prefer, but I wasn’t about to let any of this deter me from reaching this goal so vital in rescuing so many innocent souls! I pressed them, “So, you guys don’t have any clues to their whereabouts?”
The pair of them grew crestfallen at my query, and Jeremy revealed, “We were kinda hoping it might be one of the two of you!”
“Unfortunately, it’s not. I’m actually on the same page as you with a depleted life force.”
“What about you?” Nicole petitioned me.
I shook my head and informed her, “I’m not a Guardian at all.”
Nicole ranted, “Oh, great! We have two powerless beings and two Deities with weak powers! How are we supposed to free ourselves form Birsha’s tyranny now?”
“Our biggest lead is that the Arch Deity would seek out an area they’re needed most, but something is preventing them from finishing this oppression once and for all,” I relayed to them. “Do you have any ideas of someplace where they could be stuck?”
“You mean like a location where the Fallen have taken over and won’t let them leave?” Jeremy probed.
Violet entertained that notion, “Possibly. If they’re trapped ‘cause of anything else, they could be anywhere! We planned on looking for them all over Earth anyways, so we may as well begin there. If the Arch Deity isn’t there, we would eliminate one spot at the minimum. Do you know anywhere like that?”
Nicole dejectedly spat out, “Everywhere! I don’t think there’s any section of the land that Birsha hasn’t touched!”
“That’s not true!” Jeremy disagreed. “She wants you to believe crap like this! There are certain sites she can’t reach ‘cause it’s too full of good and honest people! Like this soup kitchen! She never sunk her claws into this territory! If she had, we would never have been able to meet our secret sources here!”
“Well, a lot of buildings may have a Fallen or tow haunting the premises, but what’s somewhere that probably has more Fallens than usual?” I posed to them.
Jeremy suggested, “Maybe they’re at one of the businesses that Birsha sponsors.”
Nicole tacked on to that theory, “Most of them just line themselves up with Nancy Nox ‘cause she makes them tons of money, but some of them get very vocal on their allegiance to her. Nathair Shuman is the worst about that! He-.”
From behind Violet and me, a gravelly voice menacingly articulated, “Oh look, Boss! They’re talking about you!”