Blyss of the TrueHearts

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III

The Soul is the most powerful and the most vulnerable thing in our world. It is our core, harboring our darkest secrets and sheltering our most fervent beliefs. Some say it is the most valuable part of us, for it lasts long after death. It’s why Good and Ruling Evil fight over it so much. When Souls are won over, they bring strength. For the Good, it means a better future for the realms. For Ruling Evil, it means a chance to dominate, to increase power and destruction.

Ludovic had told us this morning that the Soul would appear different to each TrueHeart. What I saw was a small room. Dark wooden walls, plain carpeted floor, and a low hanging ceiling made up the interior. Nothing hung on the walls. No light was strung from the ceiling. The only out of place feature was a small window at the other end of the room. Particles of dust floated through its beam of light and disappeared once they passed the window. Overall, the room felt neither good or bad. It was neutral. It was the terrain between two enemies, open to be lured to either side.

A rectangular desk was resting in the middle of the room. Two wooden chairs were seated on either side. Following instinct, I sat in the chair that faced the window. As soon as I did, Anthony appeared in a corner of the room. He emerged lifelessly from the shadows and stiffly sat in the chair across from me. As the window’s light poured onto Anthony’s back, he suddenly reanimated himself, and looked at me with a warm smile.

“Hello,” he greeted. I cocked my head to the side.

“You represent his Soul, don’t you?” I asked. Anthony nodded.

“Ask me anything, and it shall be truthfully revealed.” I could ask the Soul whatever I wanted. I could learn of the past and the present, using both to convince the Soul to stay away from Ruling Evil. Perhaps the TrueHearts’ purpose is more than just to ensure Story characters make “the right choice.” Our job is to fight for the Soul. It means more to us than our own life because the Soul will last, even when we do not.

“Does Anthony despise me?” I decided to ask, though my motives were more than a little bit selfish.

“You must be more specific.” I furrowed my brow, not sure if I knew what he meant.

“Does Anthony despise Blyss Bannon?” The Soul hesitated.

“He is threatened by you. He sees great power in you, but he worries if you’ll stay true the side of the Good.” My shoulders slumped.

“Well, is Anthony true to the side of the Good?” His Soul nodded.

“With a burning passion. It does not show as effectively as he wishes it to. Would you like to see?” Not knowing what to expect, I replied affirmatively. Anthony’s Soul stood up and returned to one of the shadowy corners. He remained still as the window’s light began to sputter and flash. I began to see images, but they were hard to discern. I quickly left my chair and came closer to the window.

“I’m trying, Elhanan, I’m trying!” an angry voice came from the window. Finally, the image stayed still, and I could see through the window into Elhanan’s study.

“When was this?” I asked the Soul.

“Half an hour after Thomas’s shooting,” was the reply. I looked at the Soul oddly, trying to remember what I was doing then. I must’ve been still out at the archery range, having my second strange encounter with the man in black.

Through the window, Elhanan said, “Anthony, you have such goodness inside you. And you are a born leader. But this? You’re just acting like a petty schoolboy.” Anthony sat down dejectedly.

“I really am sorry, but why is she even here?”

Elhanan laughed, “She asked the same thing about you.” Anthony rolled his eyes, but Elhanan continued. “Both of you have issues from the past that you’re dealing with. Give each other time. You two will be friends yet. In the meantime, try to be nicer. I promise I’ll talk to her as well.”

“She shot an innocent man, Elhanan! How can you expect me to be friends with someone like that?” he retorted with bitter disgust. Elhanan gave him a chiding look. Anthony groaned and left his study. The image disappeared and return to a dim yellow light. Anthony’s Soul guided me back to my seat.

“What was Elhanan referring to?” I asked as I sat back down. “What issues from the past?” His Soul pursed his lips and adjusted his posture.

“Anthony was a good child, very kind and loving. His humbleness was unparalleled, but he didn’t even realize it. When he was sixteen, Anthony took his younger sisters to the river to teach them how to swim. His sisters were wild and mischievous, constantly pretending that they were drowning to make him panic. Eventually, he began to ignore them. When his youngest sister began to shout, he did nothing. It was only when the yelling stopped abruptly that he actually took notice. He turned around to make sure she came back up for air, but unfortunately she never did. Since her drowning, Anthony has hardened himself, but the goodness inside him has never left.”

“That’s why he was selected by the TrueHearts,” I finished. His Soul nodded. Of course, I felt guilty now. How could I not? He was just like me. As I had lost my father, he had lost a sister. Both of us had felt the pain of mourning. His sister’s death certainly didn’t excuse his cruel behavior, but it at least explained it.

“Thank you,” I said with a nod. I began to stand up, but his Soul spoke again.

“Aren’t you going to ask it?” he said curiously.

“Ask what?”

“The question you keep thinking about?”

“I’m not thinking about any question.” The Soul nodded bizarrely.

“Yes, you are, but perhaps you don’t realize it.” I waited for him to continue. “Would you like me to answer it?”

“Yes!” I cried. His Soul did not react.

“You wonder what Anthony saw while he was inside your Soul.” I clenched my jaw and cleared my throat uncomfortably.

“Yes, I suppose I was wondering that. You wouldn’t happen to know-”

“He saw your father’s execution.” I winced as the memory returned. The slice of the blade, the quick splatter of blood, the gasp of the crowd as they realized what they had just allowed.

“You think of it now,” Anthony’s Soul stated, almost as if it were an inquiry. I swallowed the lump in my throat and nodded.

“Was that all he saw?” I asked.

“No. He asked to see your journey in the recent Month of Midnights. He saw the dwarf and the faery, he saw you resist Maleficent’s temptations, he saw you plummet off the bridge, he saw you fight the sirens, he saw you trapped in BlueBeard’s room, he saw you come free of Maleficent’s grasp, he saw you convince the Writer to erase BlueBeard’s Story, he saw you-”

“Stop!” I yelled. “Please, just stop.” Every night I worked to suppress those memories. I didn’t want to hear them again.

Anthony’s Soul folded his hands uncomfortably as he spoke. “He was very struck by what he saw. He did not realize how much you had suffered and isn’t processing it well.” My eyes fell to my lap.

“He doesn’t feel sorry for me, does he?” The last thing I wanted from him was pity.

“It is not sorriness he feels. It is empathy. He has felt your pain before, but he doesn’t understand how you hold it all inside. It’s unbearable for him.”

“Well, I have no control over what he feels. And I have to hold it in, especially because of people like him!” I snapped.

“I can see you are angry. Perhaps you ought to go,” his Soul advised.

“Perhaps I ought to!” I shot up from my chair and walked away from the desk.

Stopping abruptly, I asked, “How do I get out of here?”

“Release me of thy Soul’s captivity and send me back to my own reality,” was the reply. I repeated the words and left the strange room the same way I came. I took myself out of my transparency and found myself back in the courtyard packed with TrueHearts. Still fuming with probably unjustified anger, I stormed up to Anthony and Elhanan. I opened my mouth to yell at Anthony, but one look in his eyes, and I could see the pain of his grief. Had it always been there? Yes, it had. I had been too angry to notice. I shut my mouth and quickly came up with something else to say.

“I’m so sorry.” He rolled his eyes.

“I don’t know what you learned in there, but I do not want your pity!” Of course, he’d say something like that. It’s exactly what I would’ve said.

“No, no, I’m sorry for my behavior. I’ve treated you terribly.” Anthony looked past me as I spoke to him. “Look, I know what you saw in my Soul,” I said, “but I don’t want your pity either. Truth is, I can barely hold it all in. Getting up every day is a challenge, but I do it anyways. And so do you. We both know what we have in common. What happens from here is up to you, Anthony. I’m willing to move forward if you are.” Anthony took a hard look at me, his eyes burning with an emotion I could not identify. Just like that, he left. He walked back into the castle without a word.

“May I go, Elhanan? I think we’re done Soul Slipping for today,” I said quietly. Elhanan nodded and let me return to my room. At suppertime, I willed myself to come down and socialize as pleasantly as I could. I noticed Anthony’s little posse looking for him, but they had no luck. It would be the first of many nights he’d skip supper.

I listened to my friends as they described what they saw in the Soul. Piper met her Soul’s representative in a meadow, Larkin met hers on a cliff, and Lachlan in the center of an empty village. Halfway through his description of the village, Lachlan was called over by Claris. He spent the rest of supper with her. Larkin merely rolled her eyes at the sight of them, but I saw the underlying delight Larkin had for her brother.

Piper wanted to know all about Anthony and me. According to her, our late entrance into the courtyard had caused quite a commotion, and rumors of every shape and color were flying around. I told Piper that Anthony and I were absolutely fine, knowing that she would surely tell many people this. Hopefully, the rumors would cease after that.

After two weeks of Anthony’s absences, not just as meals but in trainings too, I began to wonder why Elhanan or the other instructors hadn’t done something. One look from Elhanan though, and I knew exactly why. Near the beginning of supper one night, I convinced the chef to give me two plates instead of one. I gave a vague explanation to my friends why I wouldn’t be joining them and proceeded to look for Elhanan. When I approached him, he already knew what I wanted to ask.

“332,” was all he said. I nodded and carried the food up several flights of stairs as I searched for room 332. Balancing both plates on one arm, I knocked several times. Hearing no answer, I gingerly opened the door and risked stepping into the room, technically uninvited. I saw Anthony sitting at a little table positioned by his window. He didn’t seem surprised to see me. After acknowledging I was there, he turned back to the window and looked at the remaining tip of the sunset as it disappeared below the land. I set a plate in front of him and pulled up a chair across the table. For a while, he didn’t eat. He didn’t speak. I expected as much and went ahead with my meal. When I had finished devouring my potatoes, I heard a slight clinking and saw that he was finally eating too. When both of us had finished, he nodded to me, and I took our plates away. I did this for every supper. We never talked, but I was beginning to think he was looking forward to my company.

No one ever spoke about Anthony and me now. In fact, many TrueHearts gave me nods of respect as I left the dining hall. Elhanan took the most pride in it though. He and Vangelis always beamed at me when I passed by. Another two months came and left, and I felt the urge to start talking to Anthony. I told him about the trainings he was missing, and he quietly took notes in his books. When this was done, I would tell more stories of the Month of Midnights. He looked at me with genuine interest but said nothing. I even told him of Rudy, though it hurt to think about him again. The Istorian Guard was still finishing the boot camps and making rounds in the other two realms. They wouldn’t return to Katharos until near the end of the year.

“I know a girl in the Guard,” Anthony said out of the blue one night. I tilted my head.

“Was she from your village?” Anthony nodded.

“I grew up with Violet. She was my best friend,” he said. His eyes were lost in the memory of her. “It didn’t make sense we were friends. She was a firecracker. All the boys were scared of her. And me...well, you know how I was before-” he stopped before he had to speak the words he so clearly wanted to avoid.

“You were polar opposites,” I offered as an alternative to mentioning the drowning.

“Precisely. But still, she was my best friend. She was so gentle and kind with me. After the accident, I was terrible to her. She didn’t speak to me for several years until the last day in the Month of Midnights when she came to say goodbye. She had been chosen for the Guard, and at the time, I still thought I’d be one of the prince’s sailors in the Little Mermaid. I haven’t seen or written to her since.”

“You’ll see her soon though,” I pointed out, “when the Guard comes back to PearlGate. Perhaps you can make amends with her.” Anthony shook his head.

“Not after how I was to her. You think I was terrible to you?” he scoffed at himself. “She didn’t deserve anything I did to her, and she still had to decency to bid me farewell.” Anthony looked outside as if he were lost in a different world, and I wasn’t about to shatter that with some half hearted comment of pity. Eventually I reached out to grab his plate for him, but Anthony stopped me and took it himself.

“What are you doing?”

“I’ll take it down tonight.” Anthony gave me a reassuring smile and stood up. We walked silently together back down to the deserted dining hall. Only a few chefs remained in the kitchen, all busy cleaning the dishes. As we set our plates down, a bright color caught my eye. Resting on a nearby table were two little plates with slices of steaming cherry pie. Anthony, curious to see what I was looking at, turned and chuckled when he saw the pie.

“Looks like someone left us dessert,” he said almost giddily as he picked up the plates.

“Wonder who did,” I replied, looking suspiciously around the empty dining hall.

“Mm,” Anthony mumbled as he took a bite, “cherry’s my favorite.” Perhaps, Elhanan was right. We’re a lot more alike than I thought.

A few more weeks passed like this before I stopped coming up to join him. Anthony was present for more meals now, joining his old posse and letting things return to normal. He never made fun of me anymore, but in turn, I stayed away from the archery range. When other TrueHearts saw that Anthony was backing off, they followed his example, and slowly my life became more bearable.

That being said, time still didn’t race by. Each day felt long and weary, and it hurt to do the same thing over and over again. I waited and waited for a reply from Mother and Leo, but a letter never came. With so much free time now, my range of spells increased, and I began to improve on my Soul Slipping. I was paired with several different people over the year, and each time I ended up back in that same little room with a different Soul to talk with and ask questions. Unfortunately, every partner I had came back from my Soul either crying or in a state of shock and speechlessness. All of them required extensive counseling from Elhanan. Thanks to my partners’ gossip, I went from being the villian girl to the emotionally traumatized girl. I’m still not sure which one is worse. Thankfully, after my fifth partner finished her counseling, Elhanan pulled me aside and told me I would be given a permanent partner who could handle my “history.” Of course, that had to be Anthony. I didn’t bother arguing with Elhanan; I was too curious to visit Anthony’s Soul again.

“Scared them all away, didn’t you?” Anthony laughed when I told him of our new situation.

“It would appear so,” I admitted. Anthony took it well though. He didn’t mind being my partner, especially because I knew he was curious too, particularly about Rudy. He asked me a lot of questions about him, and the ones I refused to answer, I’m sure he asked my Soul. To make it equal though, I pressed him for details about Violet. The color of her hair, her favorite time of the day, I asked it all just for the pure joy of seeing Anthony squirm uncomfortably. The subject of Rudy and Violet soon became a sort of teaser for us. Just as he bugged me about Rudy, I bugged him about Violet. Despite all the joking, I could think about Rudy now without it hurting as much. His pearl white skin, his curly hair, his kind smile, his-

“Blyss?”

I snapped out of another one of my daydreams.

“Yeah?” Anthony, Lachlan, and Claris were all staring at me.

“She does that a lot, doesn’t she?” Anthony asked. Lachlan nodded.

“You have no idea,” he laughed.

“Blyss, you coming?” Claris asked sweetly. I looked between the three of them. It didn’t take a genius to figure out we were going to Soul Slip.

“Sorry,” I blushed as I stood up. “Did I hear Ludovic say something about choosing partners this time?” All three of them nodded.

“I figured we might as well just stay in our normal pairing,” said Anthony nonchalantly. “It’s not like you have much of an option.” I rolled my eyes.

“Thanks for staying,” I said to all three. I walked with them out to the courtyard. Today’s Soul Slipping would be the last before our winter break. All the TrueHearts who usually were sent out on missions into Istoria made sure to return for the “great winter break.” I didn’t see what was so fantastic about it. We were given three free weeks, but we were still trapped in the PearlGate estate. That being said, most sections of the Guard would be staying at the castle with us which meant lots of festivities and lots of food.

“Blyss!”

I realized I zoned out again.

“Sorry!” Anthony rolled his eyes.

“You gotta work on that.”

“Right, right.” I let Anthony Soul Slip first; I wasn’t done thinking about the upcoming break. Only volunteers from the Guard would stay out in the realms to patrol. The rest could come to PearlGate if they liked. I assumed Rudy would come back to Katharos, but I had no way of knowing what his plans were. It was too hard to send letters when he was constantly on the move.

Soon Anthony reappeared, far less traumatized than the first time, and he gestured for me to go. I recited both the transparency spell and the Slipping Chant, and I returned back to the same room I had visited several times now. I sat down and watched as Anthony’s Soul sat across from me.

“What would you like to know today?” it asked automatically. I asked the usual questions, most of them about Violet. As tempting as it was, I never asked to see her through the window. I wanted to see her for the first time in person. As I rose up to leave, a sudden recollection of Ludovic’s directions came back to me. There was a new question we had to ask. Of course, in the midst of all my daydreams, I stupidly forgot to pay attention. It had to do with evil, that I remembered. There was a word Ludovic used; an l-word, that’s what it was. Was it latching? It had to be. Latching, evil, those words went together, didn’t they?

“Um, could you show me the Latching Evil on this Soul?” I guessed. Was that the question we were supposed to ask? Why didn’t you pay attention, Blyss? I scolded myself. The Soul widened his eyes.

“Are you sure?” he asked.

“Yes?” I had no clue if I was doing the right thing.

“Well,” said the Soul as he shifted uncomfortably, “there is some Latching Evil present, as is true for every one. You said you wanted to see it?”

“You know, I’ve actually changed my mind. I’m going to leave, but thank-”

“It’s not polite to ditch a guest you invited,” a new voice growled. A silhouette appeared from behind the window. It looked like Anthony, but I knew that was only a facade. Just as his Soul took on the form of Anthony, so did his Latching Evil.

“Has he always been there?” I asked with a quivering voice. Anthony’s Soul nodded.

“He can’t go inside anymore. Thanks to you, Anthony pushed him out. He can only look through the window now.” Well, at least I had done one thing successful as a TrueHeart. After all, it was our job to push Latching Evil out. Unfortunately, that didn’t bring me much comfort as the Latching Evil began to laugh.

“You haven’t won yet, little TrueHeart,” it jeered. I peered over the Soul’s shoulder to look at the silhouette. Slowly, I rose from my seat and crept towards the window. I came closer and closer until I was only inches from the glass. The silhouette pressed his dark hand up against the window. I mirrored this with my own hand.

“You serve a greater master,” I whispered. It lifted its head up and down in a strange nod.

“You’ve met it.” A flash of the man in black appeared across the window. I gasped and pulled my hand away, leaving the Soul as fast as I could.

“What took you so long?” Anthony asked when I got out. “Did you ask the question?”

“What was the question?” I asked him breathlessly. “What did Ludovic tell us to ask?”

“We were supposed to ask if there was any evil lurking, but we couldn’t engage with it yet. Don’t tell me you-”

“I’m sorry! I-I thought he said Latching Evil. I asked...I asked to see-”

“Blyss!” Anthony shouted angrily. The people around us were suddenly quiet. Even the white robed TrueHearts at the head of the courtyard began eyeing us. When the others began to resume their Soul Slipping, I walked briskly up to Anthony.

“I don’t know what’s happening. I can’t focus anymore. I just have so much going on in my head and-”

“It doesn’t matter, Blyss. I get you have pressure on you, but you’re putting me in danger! You’re going to put others in danger. You can’t keep daydreaming anymore. You have to focus. You have to really want this, or you shouldn’t be out here,” Anthony whispered harshly. I knew he had a point. There wasn’t any room for indecisiveness anymore.

“You’re right,” I admitted. Anthony knew I meant more than those two words, but he didn’t push me to say anything more.

When the majority of the TrueHearts had finished their Soul Slipping, Vangelis rose up again and called us to attention. He congratulated us on making it through to our first winter break, then following up with all the rules we had to follow when the Guard arrived. Luckily, TrueHearts were naturally well behaved, so it was unlikely any of us would break them.

“And finally, I am pleased to announce that the Istorian Guard will actually be arriving early this year. They shall be here by the end of the week!” All TrueHearts, inside and outside the castle, began to cheer. The volume was so deafening, I began to feel the grass beneath me quiver and tremble. Having the Guard visit was the highlight of the year for TrueHearts. It was no wonder everyone would go ballistic to hear they were coming earlier than planned.

“That means I get to meet Rudy sooner,” Anthony taunted.

“And Violet too,” I pointed out. Anthony narrowed his eyes and looked away. When Vangelis was done speaking, the TrueHearts began to pour back into PearlGate. Piper caught me on her way out.

“Did you hear? Isn’t it amazing! The Guard’s coming early! We can meet Rudy and-”

“Yes, I heard, Piper,” I laughed as I tried to pull her off my arm.

“Do you think I’ll meet someone? I mean it’s either the Guard or the TrueHearts. And I’ve looked around the TrueHearts, and frankly I’m not feeling it with anyone which means the Guard is my last chance to find-”

Again, I interrupted her. “It’s not about finding someone. You should be worrying about your trainings and your spells, not finding someone to court you. Let it happen on its own.” Piper looked at me as if I had just transformed into her mother.

“Oh, I suppose you’re right. I’m just so tired of waiting! And look at you! You already found your soulmate!” Piper whined.

“I wouldn’t call him my soulmate,” I said rolling my eyes. Piper looked at me suspiciously. “Not yet anyways,” I finally added for her sake. She squealed, squeezing my arm tighter. Just bringing up the subject of Rudy made my heart flutter, but I had to keep my feelings at bay. I needed to stay focused.

I waited impatiently for each day to pass. The more I thought about the Guard coming, the more I wanted them to arrive sooner. With no trainings to distract me, my mind wandered into dangerous doubts. Perhaps he’s changed? Maybe he is dreading coming back? What if he’s met someone else? Does he think I’m just weighing him down? Oh, I loathed myself for being so silly! Paranoia like this was something only the frilly girls in Chorio had. I always thought sensibility was one of my better qualities, but during the wait for the Guard to return, I began to think my sanity was slipping away.

“It’s normal to have these doubts,” Larkin reminded me, “just don’t let them control you.” For a girl who never experienced this sort of drama her entire life, Larkin gave the most useful, straightforward advice. Despite that, I was still disgusted at myself for even needing this conversation.

“I’m worrying over nothing,” I said for the hundredth time. Larkin nodded and laughed.

“Absolutely nothing,” she agreed as she looked back at her book. Larkin and I had found sanctuary in the grand library since winter break had begun. With so many activities offered at PearlGate, not many TrueHearts spent their time reading old manuals or biographies of ancient heroes. We loved to come here though; I read the strange myths written about realms, and Larkin read anything by members of the Istorian Guard. She confessed to me how much she had hoped to be apart of Guard, and while she was grateful for becoming a TrueHeart, I could tell she longed to be out in the realms with a sword and shield.

Seeing that Larkin no longer wanted to talk, I returned to my own book and halfheartedly began to read again. A low rumbling in my stomach reminded me how much I was craving the cookies they were making downstairs, and I almost asked Larkin to come get some with me when the doors of the library were suddenly thrown open.

“They’re here!” a girl practically screamed. Even the old TrueHeart who had volunteered as our librarian rushed up from her seat, not bothering to silence anyone. The library was emptied in a matter of seconds, leaving only Larkin and me.

Larkin lifted her head towards a window that was pouring in the dusk light. “Just in time for supper,” she said playfully. She rose from her seat and looked at me curiously when she saw I did not move. “Aren’t you coming?” she asked.

“I guess I’ll have to come down at some point,” I said as I finally stood up. Larkin patted my shoulder.

“Remember, you’re worrying-”

“-over nothing,” I finished. Larkin smiled and led me forward. After descending many staircases, we joined the large crowd of TrueHearts that clustered near the main doors of the castle. Many were peering out the side windows, watching eagerly as the Guard passed the main gate and began treading down the final pathway.

“Oh, this is so exciting!” Piper shrieked as she tightly hugged Larkin and me.

“Careful there,” Larkin laughed as she moved Piper away.

“Sorry, Larkin! I’m just so anxious-ah, they’re almost here!” she squealed as she pointed to one of the windows. Even in the fading daylight, I could see the glint of the polished silver armor as it marched towards the castle. Seeing how close they were made my head spin.

“I’m gonna step back a bit. I don’t want be in the crowd when they open the doors,” I said quickly as I excused myself from Larkin and Piper. Both were too distracted to pay my leaving any mind.

I darted in between impatient TrueHearts until I finally reached the foot of the staircase that opened its large mouth into the main room. I climbed up a few steps so I could look over the sea of blue robes huddled by the doors. I spotted Lachlan joining his sister and Piper, as well as Anthony and his posse waiting near a window. He caught my glance and gave me a friendly wink before one of his friends tapped his shoulder and pointed back outside. Anthony quickly turned back, probably to search for Violet.

Before any of us could truly prepare for it, the doors swung open, and hundreds of soldiers flooded into PearlGate. One by one, each soldier removed their helmet, revealing their face to a loved one. There were kisses and hugs as the soldiers greeted their spouses, their little children, and their dear friends. There wasn’t a person, soldier or TrueHeart, that didn’t have a smile on their face. I even saw Anthony approaching a young woman eagerly; though I could not see her well, I knew it had to be Violet. In the midst of all the reunions, my eyes quickly swept the room, scanning each soldier to see if it was Rudy under all the armor. As more men and women passed through the doors, discouragement rose in my chest. Rudy was nowhere to be found. As the last generals passed through and the doors began to shut, I was ready to assume Rudy was not coming. I turned my back to the happy people and began to plod up the steps.

“Wait! Excuse me, miss! Yes, you! Are you Blyss Bannon?” A soldier quickly bounded up the staircase to meet me.

“Yes, that’s me,” I answered suspiciously. “How do you know my name?”

“Because I recognized you,” he replied. How could he recognize me? The voice didn’t belong to Rudy or to anyone I had met in the past.

“How is that? Have we met before?”

“Well, no not technically. But, uh, that’s not the point. Could you just go to the stables? He didn’t want you to think he wasn’t coming, so he sent me.” I barely could keep myself still long enough to thank the soldier before I sprinted away. Of course, Rudy would be in the stables! How could I forget that? After a mistake in his bestowed magic, he developed the ability to shapeshift between horse and human. When Rudy first came with me to PearlGate, Elhanan took away his Story magic and bestowed his real Guard magic. After a lot of convincing, Elhanan agreed to leave in the horse glitch so Rudy could keep his unique power. Naturally, the Guard must’ve seen what an asset Rudy was with his powers and likely had him train in both human and horse forms.

All this came back to me as I ran down empty corridors and tiny stairwells to PearlGate’s stables. By the time I came outside, most of the soldiers had already taken care of their horses and were heading back into the castle. Seeing that Rudy was not among them, I ventured further into the stables. I searched among the horses, but I saw none that were magnificently white like Rudy was. I looked in every row, in every stall, but I could find him nowhere in either human or horse form.

“Rudy, I swear,” I spoke aloud to myself, “if you’re truly not here, I’m done-” I became paralyzed as someone clasped their arms around my waist and dragged me towards them. Their hand pressed against my forehead, and the world sank into darkness.

That was the other unique think about Rudy’s glitch. In addition to his shapeshifting ability, Rudy could do something he liked to call “thought projecting.” Placing his hand or forehead against another’s forehead, he could communicate to you purely through thought. He could also show his memories but never at the same time as his thoughts. During our time together in Istoria, thought or memory projecting was sometimes the only way we could speak to each other, and it ended up saving my life. Now, trapped in darkness, I knew all too well who was behind it.

“I can’t believe you actually screamed. It’s just me,” I heard a familiar voice say. My heart melted to hear it again.

“I did not scream,” I retorted. “I gasped.”

“That was the farthest thing from a gasp.”

“Fine, we’ll call it a yelp.”

“Scream.”

“Yelp.”

“Scream.”

“Why are we still talking about this?” I heard Rudy laugh.

“Point taken. You have to admit, you were pretty surprised.”

“Surprised? Rudy, I thought you didn’t come at all!” I snapped.

“Why wouldn’t I come?”

“Well, why would you send a random person to tell me where you were?”

“Hey, that was no random person. That was my brother,” Rudy insisted.

“That was Jamie?” I winced to think of how quickly I left him on the stairs. Jamie, two years younger than Rudy and one year younger than me, had been assigned to the Istorian Guard since the Day of the Choosing. Unlike TrueHearts, those chosen for the Guard found out right away. Rudy had to be the exception since Vangelis wanted him to accompany me on my journey. Because of this, Rudy received a fake role just like me and had to admire Jamie’s success for almost a month before he was told his true destiny.

“We look alike. How could you not know that was him?” Rudy asked.

“He kept his helmet on. I never saw his face,” I said.

“Of course, he did,” Rudy said bitterly. I chuckled.

“I’m glad you’re back, Rudy,” I said softly.

“Ah, I take it you missed me?” When I didn’t answer, he asked again quieter, “Blyss?”

“Yeah, I missed you alright,” I whispered. The darkness was pulled away, and this time I was looking straight into Rudy’s chocolate eyes.

“What’s wrong?” he asked. I smiled though there were tears in my eyes. Before my father was executed, he told me to find a constant. Constants are people to rely on, who could be trusted with your life, who would jump on a sinking ship if it meant they could save you. I was sure now that Rudy was that person for me, and hopefully I for him.

“Nothing’s wrong. My constant is back,” I said smiling wider. Rudy grinned and placed his hand against my hair. His other arm locked around my waist, and after months of separation, I got to kiss my best friend again. I relaxed against his arms, letting my fingers run gently through his curly black hair. Rudy began to laugh as he lifted me off the ground and whisked me in circles. When he set me down, I wrapped my arms around his neck and embraced him as tight as I could. Larkin was right. I had been worrying over nothing. Just a simple embrace and I knew nothing had changed.

Rudy eventually pulled away and began to kiss me again when a horse somewhere in the stable began to whinny anxiously. Rudy rolled his eyes and muttered, “Not Bishop again.” Rudy slid his hand into mine and reluctantly walked me to a stall where an antsy horse flicked its tail against the wall. “Blyss, meet Bishop. Bishop, meet Blyss,” Rudy said as he opened the little gate into the stall. Covered in a spotty gray coat with a long silver mane, Bishop was quite possibly the largest horse I had ever seen.

“Hi, Bishop,” I chuckled as the horse backed up nervously. “Does he not like stables?”

“He hates them. He can’t even stand being tied to a tree,” Rudy said in great annoyance. He must’ve dealt with Bishop many times before. “They found him at an abandoned Madmag camp when he was just a little foal. Looked like he was abused and developed a fear of being tied up or trapped.” I was well aware of the Madmags and their terrible ways. The “mad magics” as they named themselves, were people originally selected for minor roles in the Stories. In rebellion against the Writer and other leaders, they ditched their Stories, teamed up in gangs, and created trouble wherever they went.

“I try to show him some of my memories,” Rudy continued. “Things like peaceful meadows and sunsets mainly. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t.” He tried to pet the Bishop’s thrashing head, but the horse dodged his hand. “Of course, I can’t do that if you keep moving!” Rudy gritted under his teeth. I recalled a spell I had learned that was sometimes used to calm the Soul if it began to panic. I never had to use it with Anthony, but perhaps it could work on something besides a human. Carefully, I lifted the latch and let myself into the stall with Rudy and Bishop. I lifted my robe off and set it over the gate so I could be free to work in my black dress. Rudy furrowed his brow, not entirely sure what I was doing, but he didn’t stop me from proceeding. I lifted my hand and gently touched Bishop’s shoulder. He tried to move away, but Rudy was there to keep him relatively still. I closed my eyes and let the magic from my hand flow into Bishop. I whispered a few words of comfort to the horse, and slowly, I could feel him become still. I opened back up my eyes and nodded to Rudy. He placed his hand on the horse’s forehead and showed him memories of beautiful, peaceful things. Between the two of us, we had the horse as calm and gentle as could be.

“How did you do that?” Rudy asked as I grabbed my blue robe.

“Calming spell,” I shrugged.

“Well, it sure worked,” said Rudy as he looked at Bishop in amazement.

“What can I say? We make a good team,” I grinned. I waited patiently while Rudy closed the gate behind us.

“Yeah, we do, don’t we?” Rudy chuckled, stepping closer to me again.

“Ah ah ah,” I said raising my robe between us. Rudy peeked around the robe and fluttered his eyelids sadly. When I would not give in, he yanked the robe out of my hands and began to sprint away. He wouldn’t give it back until I let him kiss me again.

I agreed to his terms happily.

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