It gave me a fleeting, sad look before perking up as its owner called it from behind. It dashed over to the old man and cuddled with him once again.
Zoe had been staring at the dog for a while now, fascinated by the little creature but unwilling to go over to it. Sensing her reluctance, Kai walked up to the dog and petted it. The dog rolled over as Kai rubbed its belly and messed up its fur. The dog barked happily and wagged its tail as Kai asked the old man if he could borrow it for a bit.
The old man agreed and Kai released the dog from its leash. He brought it over to Zoe and told her to pet it. Zoe’s eyes widened as she stared at the dog before gingerly reaching for its head and petting it lightly.
The dog barked and wagged its tail. Zoe smiled and played with it some more.
The old man had to leave so he called the dog over. Zoe hugged it one last time before letting it go scurrying back to its owner, scaring the birds yet again.
We walked over to a store with a glass window showing a young couple standing behind a desk inside.
Mannequins wearing bright, flashy dresses stood next to the couple as they flirted with each other. A bell rang as we opened the door and the couple ran to welcome us.
They had some scrolls framed on the wall behind the storefront, with the Academy’s insignia on them. The couple saw us looking at the scrolls and smiled proudly. They asked us if we were studying at the Academy and when we nodded, their grins widened.
Happy to see their juniors, they promised to give us great deals and to show us a little trick. They snapped their fingers and someone screamed.
Zoe was on the floor, staring at a mannequin with its head tilted to its side. The mannequin had its hand outstretched. The couple giggled, the mannequin pulled back its hand, bowed and turned around.
Other mannequins jumped out of their positions. They brought out a couch, pushed Kai and I onto it, and paraded in front of us while showing off their dresses.
A mannequin in a brilliant blue dress picked Zoe up and tossed her onto its shoulder. It proceeded to dance and twirl with a screaming Zoe hugging its faceless head. The mannequin threw Zoe to the next one in line – a mannequin in a green suit.
This time, it danced while holding onto Zoe’s arms.
She swirled and jumped to the beat of the music that had appeared out of nowhere. With a final pirouette, the mannequins threw Zoe into our laps. The couple clapped their hands and the mannequins froze again.
Kai and I exchanged glances, overwhelmed by what we’d just experienced. Then we heard someone giggling. Surprised, we looked around for the source. Zoe squirmed and raised her head. She was giggling uncontrollably.
We ended up buying a lot of dresses, and to be fair to the young couple, they did give us incredibly low prices. Zoe walked out of the shop wearing a brilliant blue dress, waving at the storefront as we walked down the street.
A wooden hand waved back from behind the glass door.
Back at the Academy, we saw Lily confronting Runir for not meeting her at the cafeteria. Even as she scolded Runir, her hands fidgeted behind her back. Runir said something and her hands stopped. She opened her fists and I saw something flash inside them for a second but it disappeared before I could see it properly.
She turned around, her face away from us. Zoe greeted them and soon enough, we were out visiting all the local attractions and eating ice cream – again.
Probably not the healthiest of days, but it was a fond memory worth cherishing.
The days whizzed by in a blur. Runir attended classes, sometimes managing to drag some of us with him.
Zoe was mostly happy, although she would sometimes suddenly begin crying or screaming in the night. She ended up cuddling next to me almost every night but during the day, she was a joyful bundle of energy.
Lily went to the Academy every day but she never went to class. Whenever Runir asked her to come with him to a lecture, she’d ignore him completely.
Well, that wasn’t completely true. I noticed her bite her lips and stare at her hands whenever he wasn’t around.
I spent most of my time taking care of Zoe, enjoying Lily and Runir’s arguments, or trying to make fun of Kai.
The last one might seem a little uncharacteristic but for some reason, I’d started to notice Kai more and more. There was something about the way he talked, the way he walked, and the way he smiled. I found myself staring at him quite often. I thought about him a lot too.
It was strange.
He was strange. Strange and unusual.
But not in a good way.
You see, I’d slowly come to realize something about him. Something I wasn’t sure he was aware of himself either…
He wasn’t acting like himself.
Or rather, he was acting like himself. As if he was putting on a show.
It was the mannequins that had made me realize it.
Kai was perfect.
He walked perfectly. Talked perfectly. His every word came out of his mouth clear and crisp. His voice was calm yet powerful. He carried himself so immaculately that you couldn’t help but like him, or at least respect him, when he entered the room.
He was smart. He was kind. He was a good cook. A good craftsman. He had an answer for everything and a story for every occasion.
He was perfect. Too perfect. Like a perfectly carved, magically operated mannequin.
So I tried to trip him up countless times, but it didn’t work. It never worked. Everything I tried bounced off of his chest like it was nothing.
No prank, no insult, no amount of teasing could get through to him. All throughout our journey, I’d been trying to make him slip up but it was all in vain.
Now as our final exam approached, I felt convinced that Kai could walk in without ever having set foot in a class after our first day here, and walk out with a perfect score if he wanted to.
We went to sleep early because the exam was early in the morning. Of course, I didn’t really go to ‘sleep,’ since I didn’t need to. Instead, I made sure Zoe was sleeping properly. Sure enough, she was cuddled next to me, her chest rising gently as she breathed in.
I cautiously left the room and checked up on Lily. Surprisingly, the door to her room was open. Somewhat concerned, I peered in and saw an empty bed with its sheets in disarray. My heart skipped a beat as I suddenly began to worry.
I searched the room, peeking into the bathroom, crawling under the bed and checking every nook and cranny.
Where was she? How could I have left her alone like this? I had come to protect her, to protect the Hero!
Wasn’t that the reason I’d come in the first place?
At the start of our journey, I used to pretend to go to sleep in my room while secretly staking out Lily’s room. Since when had I stopped doing that?
Something brushed against me. I turned to see an open window with curtains fluttering in the wind. Without hesitating, I jumped out.
The ground was soggy – it had probably rained earlier in the night. I followed the muddy footprints leading from the window. They led me to a little thicket of trees just outside of town. A clear stream flowed into the thicket from the other side and fed a tiny lake.
Someone sat on the edge of the lake. The figure picked up something from the ground and threw it into the lake.
It waited a few moments, then picked up another rock and threw it even further.
She waited again, then threw another rock.
I stood quietly behind a tree, sensing that this wasn’t something I wanted to interrupt.
Exhausted, Lily fell on her back and grunted loudly.
I didn’t try to help her. She’d obviously come all the way out here to avoid being seen. She wanted to vent her frustration, to release the emotions she’d been bottling up for a long time.
So I let her scream and cry for a little while, before following her back to the hotel.
She was a tough one but everyone had to let loose once in a while. The real question was: why was she so upset in the first place?
We got up early the next day. Attending the exam was mandatory, even if passing wasn’t. Breakfast was a quiet affair as we planned the rest of the day out.
The results would be released early in the afternoon and the top three students would leave for the Dark Goddess’ shrine in the evening.
The plan was to follow Runir from a distance and make it to the shrine. Once there, we would get the Goddess to bless the Hero and ask her for a way to get to Earth.
I felt a pang of guilt at that, because I was sure that Lunaris did not know how to get to Earth. Of course she was the most likely to know, since she was the most mysterious of all my sisters, but I doubted that she knew regardless.
Because if she’d known a way to leave this world, she would have left a long time ago. It was the only thing the rest of the Goddesses knew for certain about Lunaris: she hated Fate more than anyone else. If she could leave Fate’s clutches, she would have definitely done so already.
We went to the examination hall and found our seats. The instructor signaled the start of the exam and the hall was filled with the sound of papers being flipped over.
There were loud groans and frustrated tapping. This paper was apparently a tough one.
I wouldn’t know though. I’d handed it in empty as soon as the exam began.
I left the hall with the examiner’s angry glare following me out the door.
I waited outside for the others but surprisingly, none of them left early. Even Zoe seemed to be taking the exam seriously. None of the other students had finished early either.
Eventually, a few students came out of the door, cursing their bad luck or praying to the Goddesses for help. Kai appeared a few minutes before the bell rang, after which students began filing out of the hall.
Zoe was smiling, proud that she’d managed to finish the exam.
She frowned when Kai told her that she hadn’t finished the exam. Apparently handing in an empty paper after sitting through to the end doesn’t count as ‘finishing’ an exam.
We had lunch in the cafeteria. Sometime in the afternoon, groups of students started leaving to check the results that had been posted to a wall by the dean’s office.
The wall was surrounded by a crowd of students but we could see the top of the list from the back. As the words came into view, we froze.
Instantly, we all turned to face Lily, who was whistling innocently behind us. Even Kai was speechless.
I blinked and turned to read the names at the top of the list again, just to be sure.
Third Place: Persephone Beruse
Second Place: Saariel Jadus
First Place: Rose Gray
Runir’s fake name appeared several pages down, near the end. In fact, he’d failed like the rest of our group.
The corner of Runir’s eyes twitched but he all he could do was sigh and shake his head. Lily smirked at him before casting her gaze at the top of the list again.
For a moment, her eyes narrowed and she glared at the names at the top of the list.
This wasn’t an ordinary prank.
As we left the Academy to have dinner at a restaurant in the town, we passed by a small shop near the corner of the street. Zoe pulled me in as soon as she saw it, saying that she’d seen the place before and wanted to check it out before we left the city.
We pushed aside the curtains that hung in place of the door and stepped inside.
It was a small, dimly lit store with a dusty smell. The walls were plastered with pictures and portraits. An old man wobbled out from behind the desk at the back of the store. He had thick, white eyebrows that nearly covered his droopy eyes. His face was full of wrinkles and his back was hunched so badly that he had to use a cane to walk properly.
“What do you want?” asked the old man.
Before anyone else could reply, Kai said:
The old man nodded and ushered us through a door I hadn’t even noticed. Once inside, he snapped his fingers and the room was flooded with a blinding light. The walls were made of a strange kind of stone that glimmered and shone on its own.
The old man threw aside his cane and his thick eyebrows lifted to reveal bright blue eyes sparkling with life and energy. He took out a strange contraption and told us to get ready.
Lily and Runir suddenly realized what was going on as they hurriedly gathered us together. Unsure, I let myself be pulled awkwardly close to the others and forced out a smile when Lily told me to.
The old man grunted and there was a flash of light.
We tried to pay the old man but he kept refusing, saying that he was too moved by Kai’s answer to accept any money from us. We forced him to take it anyway.
It was his own money after all.
The time for our departure came at last as evening approached. We met Professor Rowetta, who would be escorting Lily and the others to the shrine, and waved Lily farewell before darting inside an alley and following them from a distance.
Looking back, this was probably the point where everything started to fall to pieces. This was the last day time that we were all happy together.
And for me, this was definitely my final, fond memory.