Sleep seemed to evade Serena as she endlessly tossed and turned in her bed. She had no idea how long she’d been awake for but it was probably past midnight by now. The stars above seemed so distant and strange, yet they were the same stars Serena had slept under for sixteen years. She dared not look at the moon, though, for it only served as a reminder of her coming fate. She reminded herself that this marriage was for the good of the village. But even as she told herself this, she found herself recalling Kakane’s words.
“A king does not serve others.”
“I must remain strong and uncorrupted.”
“I bow down to no one.”
Kakane, it seemed, always acted his own way. It didn’t matter if others tried to dissuade him; he would continue on his path no matter what. Serena had to admit that it was admirable, and he looked so proud to walk that road. But Serena wasn’t Kakane, and she most certainly was not a king. Kakane’s mindset was an interesting one, for sure. Serena has never met someone as headstrong and determined as Kakane. He was the exact opposite of her. Still, she couldn’t help but compare herself to him. His life was so much different from her own.
For as long as she could remember, Serena had always done her best to please others. Whether it was her mother, father, or even the elder, she had always strived to make others happy before herself. Yet Kakane tried to please no one but himself. As they were working on REAN, he seemed to be looking ahead, as if to accomplish some sort of goal through the puppet. Serena never asked why, and it really didn’t matter, as Kakane became entirely invested in REAN. Serena wasn’t sure if it was out of genuine interest or because of his ambitions, but it only proved that there was a huge gap between them.
“Do you even enjoy doing stuff like this, then?”
She did like doing research, especially if it was about magic or plants. It had always been that way. At first, it was just devouring every flora encyclopedia she could get her hands on. Then it extended to field studies, and then one fated day, she discovered she could use magic. It was a gift she had vowed to use for the good of the village.
But what would Kakane have done in her place? Perhaps he would try to become king of the village. Perhaps he would leave to seek adventure elsewhere. Whatever he would have done, he would have been entirely self-driven, that was for sure. But what of Serena?
Thinking back on it now… After she discovered she could use magic, the elder showed up in every single one of her memories. Even in the memories where she was researching or reading. She had welcomed the change at first, since it allowed her inside the archives, but it soon turned sour as she was commissioned to study magical plant after plant. It seemed her interests had been manipulated by the elder ever since way back then. From research to magic, to her love of knowledge. And now…
Ever since the elder found out Serena could use magic, he filled her schedule with magical schooling, research sessions, and relentless practice. As she got older, she received a little more freedom, but she was expected to create devices of magical ingeniousness once or twice every month. This first stemmed from a tiny machine that could collect water by use of wind, fire, and water magic. The elder saw that and from greed, demanded more.
And she had done everything that was expected of her.
“I wonder what new discoveries she’ll make for us?”
They took her for granted. Everyone in the village did, even her own father and mother.
“I’m so happy that you’ll be married to a strong, reliable man.”
Only her sister, Haruka, looked upon her with spite.
“But I’m telling you, if you go back on your word and rat me out, I will kill you, consequences be damned.”
They wanted her to marry because they knew they would have no fear of retaliation. It was because of Serena’s foolishness and their own greed. She had always been obedient and did what was expected of her. She never fought, never argued, never said a word. And now look. Her life had been trapped in a cage as if she were a beautiful bird on display for everyone to marvel at. She was a bird that had been stripped of its wings and its pride.
She was chained down here, manipulated by her own interests and people.
“I do this because I want to do it, for a promise I made to myself, not because I was ordered by someone. You must decide if it’s the same for you, Serena.”
Did she want to stay and marry Kaito Candra? No. Did she want to make any more inventions for the elder? No. Did the people of Zetreum Village truly care for her? No. Did they only see her for her magical prowess? Absolutely.
She was sick of it.
It was high time Serena started living the way she wanted to live, and she realized it then, lying in her cold bed. There was no warmth here. The house was frigid and loveless, a reminder of who Serena was to the village. The village itself was a barren wasteland full of humans cloaked as monsters seeking the glory of treasure and manipulated anyone to obtain it. She had always known it all along, always. Yet she had refused to acknowledge it and shoved it to the back of her mind. It was as if that truth did not exist. What a fool she was. It was time Serena embraced her reality.
The people of the village really didn’t care much for her and frankly, neither did she.
She was not going to be their caged spectacle any longer.
She would not bend to their whims and their gossip.
This bird had now regrown its wings and taken back its pride.
Forget finding the key; she already had it. It had been dangling in front of her all along. She had always opted to ignore it, but no longer.
Serena got up and discretely began packing provisions into a deerskin messenger bag. A few dried medicinal herbs, some dried meat, a spare dress, some research documents; anything useful she could possibly carry on the go for the journey to Poseidos. It would be long and arduous, but Serena trusted Kakane. And she was sick of staying in her cage.
Starting with REAN, Serena was going to be free and take back control of what was rightfully hers: the way she wanted to live. If she really made it to Poseidos and fixed REAN, Serena would conquer everything the elder and village stood for. She intended to do it, to make it a reality. Her new self would be born with REAN’s true awakening.
Remaining absolutely silent, Serena tore down the cheesecloth covering her small circular window. When she looked outside, the first rays of sun were peeking above the forest. Everyone would be up soon. If she got caught, she might never see the light of day again. Serena had no time to waste. She barreled herself through the small window, plopping right into a bush behind her house. Listening closely to ensure that no one was around, she headed for the village gates.
The guards would pay little to no mind to the fact that Serena was up so early. Even if they did have a problem, they were no match for Serena’s magic. The old man at the gates nodded her off and Serena couldn’t help but feel a tinge of guilt. He was a nice old man. He sometimes gave Serena’s family baked goods; his saskatoon buns were to die for. But it was too late to turn back now.
The forest was quiet. Serena could hear the distinct hum of forest life in the air as if it were egging her on and whispering promises of fortune. Standing under her favorite pine tree, Serena said a silent prayer, asking the forest for safety on her travels.
Opening her eyes and placing a hand on the trunk of the pine tree, Serena sighed sadly. With a bittersweet smile, she continued onward only to once again see the majestic white deer with horns of gold. It was just standing there, looking at her, and Serena was tempted to run her hands down its beautiful white coat. For real this time. Instead of running away, just… Stay here in the forest as a hermit. Staring into the deer’s black eyes, Serena turned away from it and hiked to Zee’s Hill, the location of her workshop.
Kakane was sleeping restlessly on a mat on the floor. Seeing as he had nowhere else to stay, Serena had loaned him the cot so he could sleep in a dry place. He was tossing and turning with a pained expression on his face, gasping whispers of agony and grief. He was having a nightmare, but of what horrors, Serena couldn’t begin to imagine. She quickly woke him, and he got up with a start covered in sweat, looking at her in surprise.
“You were having a bad dream. Are you alright?” she asked him in concern.
“Bad dream, bad dream,” Kakane muttered to himself, placing his whole hand on the right side of his cheek and covering his scar. “Right, just a bad dream. A nightmare. I’m fine, I’m fine. It’s all in the past.” He took a deep breath. “What time is it?”
“Sunrise, about.” Serena moved to her worktable. “Help me disassemble REAN. We can’t bring it to Poseidos like this.”
Kakane blinked in surprise before his mouth split into a fanged grin. He leaped to his feet and waltzed over to Serena, putting an elbow on the wall as he leaned into her face with a cunning, boastful smile.
“About time you opened up your eyes and listened to your king!” he cried, very much pleased. “Finally realized I was right about leaving that pitiful village behind, eh? And not too soon!” Serena sighed.
“First of all, you’re not my king. Second, I just realized that I needed to take back control of my own life. I’m not letting myself get manipulated. Not anymore.”
“There’s conviction in your eyes. Good! I like that!” Kakane laughed. He took a hand to his messy black hair and smoothed it back, eyeing Serena with a proud smirk masked in mischievousness.
“Hurry up and help me! We’re wasting time here!” Serena told him, slapping away Kakane’s attempts to put his arm on her shoulder.
“Oh, impatient, are we? Can’t say I don’t like it, though! A little feistiness is always welcome. Let’s be off!”
They dismantled REAN010 quickly, packing him up and splitting the parts between them to carry. Serena also found some heartier, meatier food items such as bread and dried venison, which she had never touched before. She gave these to Kakane to carry, as he was stronger and had more endurance than she did. But she didn’t trust Kakane to cart around her precious blueprints. Instead, Serena folded them up neatly and placed them in her messenger bag.
The sun was bright, warm, and cheerful when they stepped outside. It glinted off the morning dew from last night’s storm, causing the entire forest to look as if it had been adorned in tiny gemstones. In her rush to get away from Zetreum Village, Serena had completely overlooked this scenery. As she breathed in the fresh, rainy air, she realized she would desperately miss this sight, this scent, this feeling. The forest had been her sanctuary for the past sixteen years. She would be sad to leave it, but she had already made up her mind. There was no turning back now. Her cage was broken, and that was how it would stay.
“So, do you even know how to get to Poseidos?” Serena asked. Kakane frowned.
“Roughly,” he said slowly. “We need to take a boat to get there, and the best way to do that is to go to the town of Samsara. It’s on the south end of the peninsula of Echo to the northwest of here. We need to go north first, up near the great plains, then head west. Roughly,” he said again. “I’ve never been to Poseidos, or Samsara, for that matter.”
“What? Will you be able to navigate, then?” Kakane turned to Serena smugly.
“This king never gets lost. Put some faith in my sense of direction, will you?” Serena couldn’t help but laugh.
This was all so new and exciting! She was leaving her home for the first time in sixteen years. She had always known there was a world outside of the village, but only now was she considering how vast and mysterious it could be. No wonder Kakane had spoken so passionately about curiosity and a sense of adventure. The prospect was fascinating. And this sensation. This bubbly feeling inside of her felt… Good! Serena felt alive and free. It was as if a huge weight had been taken off her chest. Her wings were spread, and she was ready to fly.
She would miss the forest and its safe, comforting branches, but to her surprise, Serena was truly happy and relieved she would be leaving Zetreum Village𑁋for good.