“This view is amazing,” he said, gazing out of the passenger car at the land below.
Although I had seen a lot of amazing views and picturesque landscapes in my centuries of wandering, for some reason, this particular scene struck a very deep chord with me.
There was something calming about the rolling hills that weren’t all that high but still managed to reach the clouds because of the high altitude of the ground. A stream gushed out of a hilltop covered with a low lying cloud, as if the heavens themselves were bestowing their favor upon the land. The sun shed a brilliant golden glow all over the already picturesque scene and turned it into something ethereal, perhaps bordering the divine.
“They say nature is the greatest artist of all,” he said. “Looking at this, wouldn’t you agree?”
It was like a painting. A painting with dashes of brilliant gold and deep black accentuating a landscape exemplifying everything I loved about my world. There were people living down there; all of them with their own lives, their own families, struggles, dreams and beliefs. They lived with the world around them yet did not rely on it for their survival.
I’d always admired them. Admired people, that is. But I never wanted to get involved in their stories. To get involved in their struggles, dreams and aspirations. I had never, in all those centuries of wandering aimlessly around the world, wanted to get to know someone. I had never wanted to risk being hurt again.
Because they were human. They could look up at the hills and the clouds and the stream gushing out from the heavens and think that there was something above them. They could look at the world around them and appreciate it. They could admire the scenery. They could admire the painting in front of them. They could love, dream, hate and cry.
But I couldn’t. For the longest time, I couldn’t admire the painting. I couldn’t let myself stare at the scenery and go ‘wow, that’s amazing!’
Or perhaps, it wasn’t that I couldn’t but that I wouldn’t. After I lost Jeffi and Yunni, I had let my emotions explode so powerfully that when they eventually simmered down, I was empty. An empty husk that didn’t care, for the longest time, about anyone or anything else. I wouldn’t let myself care about people anymore.
They could love their family. Have fun with their friends. They could live a normal life because even though there would be pain and suffering, and there would be goodbyes and farewells, that was okay… because they were human.
They didn’t have to live with it forever. Their pain would end. And for most people, they would be content with death. Because they could look up at the sky and think of something above them. For them, the Goddesses were absolute. Many believed that they would become a part of their Goddess and reincarnate once again. Their Goddess would judge them based on their merits and bestow upon them salvation or punishment.
But I couldn’t do that. I couldn’t look up to the heavens and pray to some higher being for salvation. There was no contentment for me. No religion to comfort the reality that I faced.
Because I knew that I wasn’t what people thought I was. I couldn’t absorb someone’s essence or soul or mana or whatever and regurgitate it according to my will. Although I didn’t know for sure if I was doing it without realizing it, I felt as certain as I could be that I wasn’t doing anything of the sort. These people weren’t being reincarnated. They were being comforted by empty promises and dreams as intangible as the clouds that covered the hills down below.
There was no salvation. The Goddesses were useless. Our existences had no meaning beyond giving people a pipe dream to cling to or something to be afraid of.
So I could never live like an ordinary person. I couldn’t live an ordinary life. I didn’t want to care about anyone ever again because I knew… I knew… that once they were gone…
… they were never coming back.
If there was a way to bring someone back. If there was something after death. Then the only one who knew… was Fate.
And in some ways, that was even more disheartening.
“You’re not going to enjoy it if you’re all tensed up like that,” he said. “Come on. Learn to let loose. There’s no harm in trying it.” He smiled. “Who knows, you might just end up liking it!”
He had said that before getting on the Ferris wheel when he saw that I was hesitating. And yet, it rang true in so many ways. Right now he was staring out at the hills and the forest, but perhaps unknowingly, he was staring at my insecurities too and telling me exactly what I needed to do to overcome them.
So I followed Kai’s gaze to the awe-inspiring scenery below and let myself enjoy it. I let myself forget everything and admire the world around me. It was an experience unlike any other. Something I had never let myself do before.
And that’s how I started appreciating the world. My world; Erath.
It was strange how quickly things changed. Centuries of stagnation and self-imposed isolation and now I was sitting on a Ferris wheel with friends.
In fact, having friends was strange enough. Jeffi and Yunni… I cared for them, I loved them but they weren’t friends as much as they were family. My relationship with Lily and the others was different.
Sure I wanted to protect Lily, or at least that’s what I wanted to do at first, but now I cared for her and laughed with her. We went shopping together, gossiped together and even pulled a prank or two on the boys.
And although I was skeptical of Runir’s motives and didn’t trust him one bit, I had developed an odd liking for him. Watching him bickering with Lily was one of my most enjoyable pastimes and he was, arguably, the leader of the group.
Of course, there was also…
“The wind’s nice up here,” said Kai, his hair blowing in the wind.
“Yes,” I said. “It’s very nice up here.”
He turned to me and smiled. He was about to say something important. I could tell by the way his eyes were staring straight into mine. I held my breath, waiting for him to speak.
“Wake up!” said a voice that did not sound like Kai’s.
The Ferris wheel shook. The mountains and forests rumbled. The painting collapsed.
And I awoke.
“I didn’t think you were the sort to fall asleep in class.”
“What? Oh, sorry,” I mumbled.
That’s strange; I’m not supposed to feel tired. I could go without sleep for centuries.
“Can’t blame you though. This class is boring as hell,” he said. “How to resolve conflicts in an eternally conflicted world. That sounded so kick-ass on paper but I should have known that it’d be just another class on politics and government.”
“Why’d you take it then?” I asked, rubbing my eyes.
“Just checking it out. Probably won’t come back to it again,” he said. “A better question would be: why did you take it?”
“Because Zoe took it,” I replied, gesturing to the little girl snoring next to us. “And she took it because you did.”
“Because of me?” he asked.
“Yeah, for whatever reason, she really looks up to you. Did you say something to her?” I said.
“Nah, she probably has a crush on me or something,” he said. “Kids these days.” He shook his head.
“Right,” I said, giving him a deadpan stare.
The class ended and the other students started filing out of the room. I shook Zoe awake.
She stretched and yawned. “School is nicer than I thought it would be.”
“But you’ve slept through every class so far,” I said.
We walked down the hallway to our next class. Another boring one, I assumed.
Why did Kai pick all of these boring classes? He doesn’t listen to the professors anyways. He probably already knows most of this stuff or doesn’t care about it… so why did he pick them?
We went down a few staircases and soon the crowds of students walking in the hallways got thinner and thinner. We were deep inside the Academy now. Kai opened a rusty iron door and we followed him inside.
“Oh, you must be the new kids!” said someone with a husky voice. “I thought I’d be all alone down here for another year. Welcome! Please sit down!”
An old man with a long, gray beard sat behind a lone desk inside the dark, damp room. There was a single dust-covered bench in front of the desk and a couple of flickering torches on the walls on either side of the bench.
Kai walked into the room unfazed and sat down. Zoe followed him curiously, pulling me along. The situation was unsettling and made me uncomfortable so I ended up glancing all over the place until I met the seemingly crazy old man’s pensive stare.
And then he confirmed his craziness by spontaneously bursting into laughter.
“I love it, I absolutely love it!” he cackled wildly. “I’m Professor Doodeduddy, but you can call me Professor Doode.”
Yes, he is most definitely crazy.
“And if you thought that I was just a crazy old man,” he said, causing me to jump. Had he read my mind?
“Then you should know,” he continued. “That you were absolutely right!” He cackled wildly again.
Even Zoe was growing a little apprehensive yet Kai acted as if nothing was wrong at all. In fact, he was taking notes.
Why is this the only class you’re taking notes for?
“Introduce yourselves already or I’ll give you nicknames myself,” said Professor Doode.
“Amia,” I said, using one of the fake names we’d decided to use at the Academy.
The chances of someone looking for us were slim but it never hurt to be careful.
He snorted and grabbed a bottle that he chugged down ferociously.
“Those names are terrible. You,” he said, pointing at me. “You’re red. You.” He gestured towards Zoe. “Cookie.”
He threw away the empty bottle.
“And you,” he said, pointing at Kai. “You’re taking notes. Good kid. You can keep your name.”
That’s not fair! What is up with this guy?
“Anyways, thank you for expressing interest in one of the most ancient arts known to mankind. It is a skill that anyone can learn but not many can master and possesses the power to shape the minds and hearts of its targets.”
I didn’t even check this class’s name. Is he going to teach us some mysterious forbidden magic or arcane art?
“Welcome to…” He struck a strange pose. “Improv 901!”
“Improv?” I said, confused. “What’s that?”
“Exactly!” he said. “It’s absurd that such an illustrious art-form is so widely unknown to the people of Erath. It’s one of our most wonderful traditions and used to form an integral part of our culture yet nobody even knows about it anymore!” He tried to stroke his beard but it fell off. “Strange isn’t it?”
We nodded slowly.
“Good! Finally, a batch that gets it! Now then, let us get the basics out of the way,” he said, throwing away his fake beard. “First rule of improv: nobody talks about improv. It’ll ruin your social life.”
He paused, probably waiting for laughter or applause.
He got neither.
“Second rule of improv,” he continued, apparently unperturbed by our less than enthusiastic response to his jokes. “Always put the other person first. Accept what they’ve come up with and roll with it.”
He clapped his hands together. “And that’s it! That’s the last lecture you’ll be getting from me. Now get off of that bench!”
“Kai, this is really weird. Can we ditch this class?” I whispered.
“I heard that red!” said Doode. “For that you’ll be helping me demonstrate a bit of improv for the rest of the class. Sit down on the bench again.”
“Make up your mind,” I grumbled under my breath.
“What was that?”
I didn’t reply.
“Let’s get down to it then! Imagine you’re on a bench at the park. Someone sits next to you on the bench and does something that makes you want to run away.” He sat down next to me. “Like this!”
He put a finger in his nose and tried to touch me with it. I promptly shot out of my seat.
“That’s the spirit! Go with the flow. Accept your partner’s actions!” He grinned maniacally.
“I really don’t like this class…” I muttered.
“Your turn, cookie. Do something to make me get off the bench,” he said, grinning at Zoe.
“Okay!” she said, smiling as she skipped up to him and plopped onto the bench.
“Smiling isn’t going to make me-”
She lifted her shirt a little.
“Sweet Goddess below!” he cried.
Zoe let go off her shirt and began swinging her feet.
“This is fun!”
“What in the name of the Goddess… no never mind, best not to talk about it,” said Doode, wiping the sweat from his brow. “Note taker, go on. Try to be gentle though. The cookie’s been through a lot.”
Kai sat next to Zoe and flashed her a smile. She grinned back.
“I’d really appreciate it if you got off of this bench,” he said.
“Sure,” she replied, strutting away happily.
I exchanged a glance with the professor.
“That was… actually you know what, I don’t think I have a funny quip for this one,” said the professor.
Kai shrugged and beckoned with his hands. Doode cracked a smile and started the next round.
Soon, we were on a spy mission but kept getting our partner caught in outlandish ways. We did inappropriate things at a funeral: ironing clothes or sunbathing on the coffin. We were princes and princesses trying to convince our parents to let us marry commoners. A pirate being made to walk the plank but doing something unexpected instead.
I have to admit, it was the most fun I had had in a long time.
Zoe threw a spider at the professor and made him scream. We danced with our feet tied together, tripping over each other and falling flat on our faces. Had a water balloon fight. Reacted to each other in crazy ways. Died dramatic deaths. Laughed at the most random of jokes. And had a great time playing with the old man’s fake beard.
Before we knew it, the class was over and we bid professor Doode farewell before walking back up to meet Runir and Lily.
“Why do you guys look so… happy?” asked Lily, puzzled.
“Nah, it’s nothing,” said Kai.
Zoe tugged his sleeve and he bent down. She whispered something in his ear that made him laugh uncontrollably. Zoe started laughing too and since I had a fair idea of what she had said, I joined in.
Lily and Runir stared at us blankly.
“What the hell happened to them?” mused Runir.
“Must have finally cracked. I always thought we’d all go crazy eventually,” said Lily.
“Crazy?” I said, smiling. “Yes, I suppose that’s true, in a way.”
“And she admits it…” muttered Lily.
The sun was beginning to set and crowds of students were making their way to the dorms. A few of them followed us outside the Academy, presumably because they lived outside or were renting rooms in an Inn like we were.
On the way back, we talked about what we’d done during the day. Although we tried to share the craziness of our last class with Runir and Lily, they didn’t seem to understand just how much fun improv could be. In fact, if it wasn’t for Zoe being absolutely in love with the class, I suspected that Lily would have told us to drop it immediately.
Contrarily, Runir and Lily told us about their seemingly ordinary day. They attended a few boring lectures, made some new acquaintances and explored the campus a bit. No strange old men dancing with weird beards in the basement.
Yet, they obviously weren’t telling us everything. There was a certain tension between them and Runir in particular was very reluctant to provide details about their day- brushing off most of our questions and repeatedly remarking about the dullness of their day.
But since they didn’t seem to be at each others’ throats just yet, I decided not to probe too deeply into the matter.
The sun set over the horizon just as we stepped into the Inn. We had dinner, chatted for a few more hours and then made our way to our rooms. I was sharing a room with Zoe so I could keep an eye on her.
However, she immediately collapsed onto her bed and fell asleep today. She slept calmly and peacefully, just like she always did after Kai gave her that ring. But unlike her, I was restless.
Thinking about our day made me remember some of the things that Runir had mentioned last night.
Just what were the limits to Kai’s Ability and how did it work in the first place? Several instances from today buzzed around inside my head. I couldn’t dismiss the feeling that something wasn’t right. Or maybe, everything had been too right. It was something I’d noticed whilst traveling with Kai.
A lot of things just seemed a little too perfect.
The improv class had come at just the right time to help fix Zoe’s mood and resolve my own anxieties as well. The randomness had been exhilarating. The break from social norms had been liberating. And the overall experience had been just what we had needed.
Was all of that a coincidence? Had Kai stumbled upon the improv class or chosen it because he thought it sounded interesting, or had he known how it would affect us? Had he wanted to make us laugh and forget our worries, or had he wanted to manipulate our emotions for whatever reasons?
You’re over-thinking this Aia. The real problem is that you aren’t willing to trust him because you don’t know how powerful he is. He’s fun, kind and caring and has done nothing to earn your mistrust.
I thought back to the Ferris wheel.
Yeah, you’re being paranoid.
Since I didn’t need to sleep and Zoe seemed to be fine, I left the room to stretch my legs. However, I bumped into someone as I closed the door to my room.
“Oh, Amy, couldn’t fall asleep?” said Kai.
“Yes,” I replied.
“Well after the day we had, I can understand if you’re a little too pumped up to fall asleep,” he said. “I was going for a short walk. Care to join me?”
“Sure,” I said.
We walked down the hallway in silence – the only sounds the snoring of the people sleeping inside their rooms.
Might as well ask…
“Hey Kai,” I said. “Why did you pick the improv class?”
“It seemed interesting,” he said, nonchalantly.
“Did you know what it was about?”
“I had a hunch but needless to say, it went well beyond my expectations.” He grinned.
We walked out onto a balcony. We stood there gazing at the stars for a while.
“So you knew it would be a fun class?” I asked.
“I knew that improv is fun in general but like I said, I hadn’t expected it to be this entertaining,” he said.
“So you wanted us to take a fun class?” I asked.
“I wanted to take a fun class myself. You two followed me off your own volition,” he said.
“Yeah but you knew Zoe would choose the same classes as you and that I’d tag along to take care of her,” I said, turning to face him.
He hesitated, then released a quiet breath and smiled.
“Well sue me for wanting to have a good time with my friends,” he said.
I couldn’t process that for a while. The word seemed both familiar and alien at the same time. I could feel that we were friendly – despite all the underlying tension and intrigue within our party – yet I hadn’t had any friends… ever.
It was strange hearing someone say that I was their friend.
“Besides, after the laugh we had in the Wastes, I realized that the two of you were the only ones with a decent sense of humor,” he said, shaking his head. “That uptight demon lord and that self-righteous Hero couldn’t appreciate the beauty of improv if you hit them in the face with an imaginary pie!”
“See?” he said.
“Well that joke was a funny one,” I said, remembering the joke he’d told Zoe and I while we were sitting on the deck of the ship whilst traveling across the Alderan Wastes.
We chatted for a little bit before going back to our rooms. I lay on my bed like always and began waiting for the morning. I didn’t like sleeping and tended to avoid it if I could.
However, for some reason, I found myself drifting off for the second time that day.
Well, a little nap couldn’t hurt…
“Amy, Zoe, wanna hear something funny?” said Kai.
“Sure!” chimed Zoe.
The boat was whizzing past the swirling mists and gliding over the oozing sludge. Lily had gone to give Runir something to eat and Zoe was getting restless. It would be nice to have something to occupy her for a while.
“It’s a really funny joke. I know you’ll love it!” he teased.
“Quit stalling and tell us already!” complained Zoe.
“Fine, fine,” he said. “It goes like…”
After hearing the joke, I started giggling. Zoe was bent over with laughter and had tears in her eyes. I couldn’t control myself and started laughing like crazy too. Kai sat there smugly nodding his head with his arms crossed.
“The chicken gets them every time,” he muttered.