“Seriously? Are you guys going to study at all?” I asked, exasperated.
We were having breakfast at the Inn and preparing to go back to the Academy. Or at least, I was preparing to go to the Academy. For some reason; Kai, Amy and Zoe didn’t want to go and it seemed like Lily might ditch it too.
“There’s no point if you’re going to ace it for us anyways,” said Kai. “We could spend this time more productively outside.”
“We don’t have improv today so it’ll be boring as hell…” grumbled Zoe.
“So you’re going to have fun without me?” I asked.
“We’ll be preparing for the difficult times ahead,” said Amy.
“Oh? Are you going to train?”
“No, we’re going shopping.”
“What essentials? We already have a ton of food in our Storages and we can make water with magic.”
“The clothes here are the best on Erath,” said Amy. “And they’re affordable too.”
“You’re going shopping for clothes?” I asked.
“Yep,” replied Kai.
“Wait, why are you going?” I asked, narrowing my eyes.
“What, I need new robes,” he said.
“Bullshit! You’ve been wearing the same set of robes since we met!” I said.
“Exactly!” He smiled.
I sighed. I wasn’t going to win this argument so I gave up on persuading them. Lily, on the other hand, had been strangely silent.
“You said you might ditch today, Lily. But if you’re not going shopping, you might as well come with me,” I said, facing her.
“Oh I’ll come with you all right, but I sure as hell won’t be going to any of those boring classes again,” she said.
“Then what will you be doing?” I asked, annoyed.
I knew I’d have to carry the team this time but I didn’t think they’d bail on me after one day of classes. It wasn’t like I liked studying anyways. I already knew enough to ace the test so the only reason I wanted to go to class was to search for information I might have missed. I couldn’t let my plan fail because I didn’t know about some monster’s den or active volcano.
“It’s none of your business!” said Lily, tersely.
What the hell?
She left without another word. The others finished their breakfast and offered to let me join them but I declined.
At least one of us needed to keep their shit together.
I resigned myself to attending another round of boring lectures and made my way to the Academy. I was considering whether to try an off-beat class like improv because of the way Kai and the others had reacted last night but decided against it. That wasn’t my kind of thing.
“Hm? Watch where you’re going,” I said.
Someone had bumped into me as I turned the street. I wasn’t fazed at all but the other person had fallen on the ground. That wasn’t surprising – my level was much higher than that of most people.
What was surprising, however, was who I’d bumped into.
“Wow, you’re a lot sturdier than I thought you’d be,” said Saar.
“Yeah, well, I work out,” I said, offering her my hand.
“Thanks,” she said, getting up and brushing herself off.
She was wearing a red shirt with a long purple skirt, which made her instantly stand out because almost everybody else wore robes and dully colored shirts and trousers. Fashion wasn’t a big deal on Erath, it seemed.
“You know, I didn’t hear you apologize for bumping into me earlier,” she said.
“You’re the one who bumped into me,” I replied.
“Yeah well I’m the one who fell over,” she said. “Besides, you just knocked a pretty girl off her feet. Most people would apologize just so I wouldn’t stop talking to them.” She smiled.
“But you stop talking to them anyway, don’t you?”
“Only if they tried to apologize,” she said, chuckling.
“You’re weird,” I said.
I hadn’t noticed but we’d started walking together.
“Are you sure you’re going the right way for your class?” I asked.
“Yeah, the evolution of political theory and discourse; Hall 12. Should be at the end of the hallway,” she said.
“Oh, I have that class too,” I said.
“Cool, at least I’ll have someone to talk to.”
“You don’t have any friends?”
“Not a lot of people willing to be friends with a backbencher here,” she scoffed. “Too caught up in their obsession with grades and connections. Always in a rush to get ahead of the curve. Land their dream job. That kind of thing.”
“And you don’t want any of that?” I asked.
We entered the hall. A few people shot some curious glances at me but that changed to looks of disdain and ridicule as we made our way to the seats at the back.
“No,” she said. “I’m not after any of that useless stuff.”
“Useless? How so?” I asked.
“Well, what’s the point of living for that stuff? Study and work until you’re about to collapse from fatigue and for what? So you can land a job in the government? Just another cog in the machine. Worthless,” she said. “Working hard is worthless if your goals are worthless too.”
Interesting, she might be even more cynical than I was back on Earth.
“But that begs the question,” I said. “If none of this entices you then what are you after?”
Down below, the professor was giving an animated lecture with his hands flying all over the place. It would have been annoying if I had actually been trying to listen but his voice had faded into the background by now.
Saar smiled. “Purpose. Meaning. That’s what I’m after. Although in a way, that’s what we’re all after. Only most of us won’t admit it.”
“So you came to the Academy to search for a purpose?” I said.
“Yep,” she said, leaning closer. “And I can tell that you’re searching for something like that too. And just like me, you’ve found a way – or you think you’ve found a way – to give your life meaning. To do something that validates your existence.”
What the hell?
“It’s okay,” she continued, while brushing her hair over her ear. “You don’t have to say anything. Your face says it all.”
I cursed inwardly. She was reading me like a book.
But what did she mean by that? She couldn’t know about my plan. No, she saw something in me. Something that fascinated her and drew her to me.
“Alright,” I said. “I’ll play your little game too.”
She smiled. “There is no game and even if there was, you don’t need to play it. I just found you interesting, that’s all.”
“Oh but I find you interesting too,” I said.
“Are you flirting with me?” she said, with a soft chuckle.
“Maybe,” I said, jokingly reaching for her hand. “Or maybe I’m just curious why someone with an Ability like that and brains like those could still be level 23.”
Her smile froze. I smirked.
“Or perhaps I’m wondering why you’re so obsessed with me. For some reason, I find the idea that you approached me for kicks almost as unlikely as the idea that you fell for me. Even if you do see me as a kindred spirit, you wouldn’t endanger your plan by approaching me for nothing.”
“Smarter than I thought,” she muttered. “But it’s not that complicated. I was bored, that’s all.”
“You might have been bored but if you’re anything like me, you would never risk failing to achieve your goals,” I said.
“Really? What about that girl you were hanging out with yesterday?” she said.
“Oh, so you’re a stalker too. And what does Lily have to do with any of this?” I said, feeling slightly uncomfortable.
“She’s a danger to your goals, isn’t she. You get distracted by her so easily.” She smirked. “Then again, it isn’t that hard to distract you.”
She dropped my pen onto my lap. I hadn’t noticed her take it but I didn’t let my surprise show on my face.
She stared at my face.
“You’ve gotten better at it,” she said.
“I’ve always had a great poker face,” I replied.
“So why were you so easy to read when we first met?” she asked. “Admit it, she’s a distraction. But that’s besides the point. You keep her around presumably because it’s fun to tease her the way you did yesterday, and I approached you because I was bored and thought you would be able to entertain me. And since this conversation is the most fun I’ve had in months, I think I was right.”
I was about to retort that we were nothing alike because I wasn’t keeping Lily around because it was fun – that was just a bonus – but because I needed her for my plan. However, I stopped myself.
I couldn’t tell her that I was keeping Lily around because I needed her. Not only would that reveal a very important part of my plan but it would end up revealing a potential weakness that someone like Saar would be able to exploit instantly.
“Fine, you’re right. She’s fun to be around,” I said. “But why do you care about what I do?”
She smiled and shuffled closer, intending to whisper into my ear. An invasion of privacy like this was not something I was usually comfortable with but for some reason, rather than push her away, I found myself leaning closer and letting her brush my hair with her fingers.
“Because I’m even more fun to be around,” she whispered.
“I see,” I said, calmly.
She sat back in her seat. “The class is almost over. How about we continue this conversation over lunch? Of course, I understand if you’d rather have lunch with your friends,” she said.
The professor dismissed the class and the students started to file out.
“I’m sure they’ll understand.” I stood up and followed her outside.
We went to a little restaurant on the other side of the campus rather than the main cafeteria. We ordered some food and sat down.
It was tiny, dimly lit place with candles and torches illuminating the richly decorated interior. Would’ve been a great place for dinner with a date.
“So we’re going out on a date already?” I mused. “You work fast, don’t you.”
“I had to,” she said, browsing through the menu. “The final exams are right around the corner and I have no idea if you’ll come back next year.”
“Why wouldn’t I?” I said.
“You came here at the end of the term, somehow managed to get in, and seem to know enough of the course to be bored in every class,” she said, calling the waiter. “Doesn’t take a genius to figure out that you aren’t here to graduate.”
I twirled the fork in my hand while thinking over what she’d said. Her analysis was perfect and her reasoning flawless. She was smart, crafty, observant, and just a little crazy.
Maybe we were meant for each other after all.
We gave our orders to the waiter and sat in silence. She had a slight smile on her face, probably because everything had been going exactly as she’d wanted it. So I decided to go on the offensive.
“Your Ability,” I said, causing her to look up. “What does it do?”
“You know it’s rude to ask a girl her Ability on your first date,” she said.
“So this is a date…” I muttered.
“What, never had one before?” She smirked.
I frowned. She was good at getting under my skin. Time for some revenge.
“Fine then, I’ll just have to tell you what I know about your Ability,” I said. “I know I’m right so you don’t need to confirm anything.”
“Go ahead,” she replied.
“First, I know it’s not a physical Ability and it’s not a mental Ability either. Hence, it’s a metaphysical Ability. It deals with existence directly rather than a target or whatever,” I said.
“That much was obvious,” she said.
“Don’t interrupt,” I said. “Second, I know your Ability can’t tell the future.”
“And how do you know that?” she said.
I threw my fork at the glass of water in front of her. It toppled over, spilling water over her dress.
“Because if it did, you would’ve dodged that,” I said.
She frowned, picking at her dress.
“Alright, I can’t tell the future,” she admitted. “But there is one prediction I can make for sure.”
“You’ll never be popular with girls,” she stated.
“Fair enough,” I said. “Third-”
“If you throw water at me again, I’ll slap you,” she said, tersely.
“Third,” I said, ignoring her. “The way its description is worded suggests that it doesn’t give you any options to choose from or any hints regarding the possible choices that you may make but rather, it facilitates you with making decisions for the future.” I stirred the wine in my glass and sipped it. “With wisdom and imagination, if I remember correctly.”
She raised her eyebrows and sat back in her seat.
“While you’re not completely right…”
“I’m not completely wrong either.”
“You have to admit,” I said. “I’m pretty impressive.”
“Impressively full of yourself.” She chortled.
“Narcissism is a virtue, not a vice,” I said proudly. “Although I am surprised by your reaction to my findings; doesn’t it bother you that I know what your Ability does?”
“No, not really,” she said, leaning on the table. “Because I know all about you too.”
“Oh, more of that face reading shit, right?” I said.
“Mostly, but that’s irrelevant. What matters is that I know that you’re just like me,” she said, playing with the knife in her hand. “Cold and calculating yet driven by a purpose born from a lack of purpose. You and I may not have the same goals but I’m sure we can help each other out.”
“How so?” I asked.
“Judging by the time you transferred in, I assume you’re here for the final exams,” she said. “Or more specifically, the reward that comes after it.”
“You want to meet the Dark goddess too?” I said.
“Of course, I mean, who doesn’t?” she added.
“I get the feeling you’re not a typical devout believer who wants to meet their revered deity.”
“No,” she admitted, lightly stabbing the tablecloth with her knife. “I am not typical in any way whatsoever.”
“I can tell. After all, you did manage to rope me into a date,” I said.
She smiled. “True, a guy like you probably hasn’t been on a date in his life.”
“Of course I have!”
“Play-dates don’t count.”
I smirked. “We’re getting off-track-”
“Sure, change the subject…” she muttered.
“The Dark goddess,” I continued, ignoring her. “Why do you want to meet her?”
I didn’t notice the tables around us clear up or the candles that had been blown out. They only lit candles for tables that were occupied.
However, as Saar settled into her chair with a contemplative look on her face, the shadows crept over her eyes and she put the knife on the table gently.
Her voice rippled with emotion as she spoke. “I want to ask her a question.” She stopped. “That’s all.”
We didn’t talk much after that. Our dinner arrived and we ate in silence, more candles being blown out and some being lit up again as more guests arrived. Once we were done, we paid the bill and left the restaurant.
On the main street, Saar turned around and smiled.
“It was nice hanging out with you,” she said.
“I don’t know if I can say the same,” I said, honestly.
She nodded. “It’s okay. I know what you really think.”
“Read my face again?”
“No,” she said, quickly running forward and giving me a peck on the cheek. “I just know.”
She ran down the street, vanishing into the crowd. I stood there for a while, trying to understand what just happened.
It wasn’t like I’d never gone out with anyone before. I’d been fairly popular in school but I’d never felt this way before. A myriad of conflicting emotions cascaded inside my head: joy, unease, satisfaction and reluctance. I felt something for this girl. A strange attraction that wasn’t quite love…or maybe it was?
No! Focus Runir! The plan. The plan comes first. Let these confusing feelings go and focus!
I was woken from my mental pep talk by a flick on the ear.
“Why didn’t you come to the cafeteria? I was looking for you everywhere,” said Lily.
“Aw, you really do care,” I teased.
She narrowed her eyes but strangely enough, she didn’t rebuke me. Instead, she sighed and turned around.
I frowned. It wasn’t like Lily to back down from one of our verbal battles.
“Oh, hi there nerds!” said someone from behind us.
We turned to see Kai, Amy and Zoe walking down the street wearing weird hats and glasses. Zoe was the one who had spoken out, presumably because she was in one of her more outgoing phases.
“Done shopping?” I asked.
“Yep, do you have any classes this afternoon?” asked Kai.
“Yeah but…” I said, glancing at the others while thinking about what Saar had said.
“Screw it. Let’s go sight-seeing.”
“All right!” said Kai, smiling.
We spent the rest of the day visiting the local tourist attractions. There was a museum full of strange artifacts and bones, some of which hadn’t been in the game. There was a water park run by the LeAgua company, that had a giant water-slide and rapids. We went to the zoo and saw a bunch of animals and monsters, although we had to restrain Zoe from jumping out to play with them.
And we ended the day with ice-cream.
All in all, after a strange yet fulfilling day, I plopped down onto my bed and fell asleep immediately.
But although I had fallen asleep calm and satisfied, my dreams were incredibly unsettling.
Someone was singing and humming in a low tone. Several voices, pushing and pulling at me with their words, scrambling my emotions and sending me spiraling into confusion.
They were sowing doubts in my mind. Doubts about my plan. They wanted me to reconsider what I was about to do, I could finally tell that they wanted me to abort the plan.
But when I awoke, I remembered none of it. No voices, no doubts, no bitter confusion.
Not even the words that sent chills down my spine as I dreamed:
Your castle will crumble…piece by piece. So escape while you can or be buried within.