Alistair grunted at himself as he leaned against the tree. He picked at the bandages on his arm in spite of what the nurses at the infirmary had told him to do. Nearly every part of his body had some kind of bandage. Apparently the bandages were made of a certain material that served as a catalyst to the regrowth of skin and bone cells so they said it shouldn’t be more than two weeks before he could go back to doing missions.
Al had hated his time in the infirmary, his life being nothing more than the steps between the edges of his bed and sitting in a wheelchair. He was glad Keiko had stayed only briefly in another room so she didn’t have to see that. Otherwise, he would never admit, even under torture, to the bitch that he’d been in a wheelchair. Alistair knew he would never hear the end of it from Keiko.
The only reason the nurses had let him actually walk all the way out he was because he’d convinced them that his invulnerability also acted as a catalyst to wounds and that it’d take an even shorter time to heal, which was bullshit but he told it well enough that they believed him.
As Alistair sat glumly he caught out of the corner of his eye Hale as he tended to the rose bushes, something he’d taken it upon himself to do. Al groaned as he half-crawled, half-hopped over to the older guy. When Hale took notice of Al’s presence the injured boy smiled back up at him.
“Hey!” he said. “I wanted you to know I haven’t gone AWOL or anything! Just got into a really tough fight and been resting up the last few days in the infirmary! If you think I look bad you should see what happened to who I was fighting!”
Hale looked down at Al and gave him a faint smile.
“Oh,” he said. “I…I’m kind of displeased to hear about that. Kelly and I have been on our own and haven’t been able to do a mission without another team member.”
“Yeah,” Al replied. “I here they don’t let you go without at least three in a group. The other guy did a pretty bang up job on me. I don’t even have to move to feel some kind of pain.”
“Oh…” Hale remarked. “Where does it hurt the most?”
Al moved his eyes sideways before pointing to his shoulder.
“Keiko burnt me with her fire here and gave it a pretty bad punch,” he said. “It feels pretty rough.”
“Oh,” Hale said.
He swiftly kicked Al to where he had pointed to which Alistair let out a sick howl of pain, curling over as a blinding burst of agony shook his body, the wound burning.
“I want you to remember that pain,” Hale said. “Remember it like you remember Kelly’s pain…and Mike’s death. Later.”
Al watched Hale walk away, a saddened expression coming across his face as he left to go tend to another rose bush, watering it gently. Alistair then leaned over as he hugged his shoulder in pain as he laid his face in the ground, tears welling up in his eyes.
I…I’m sorry Hale. He said. Did I really do something that wrong? All I remember doing is forgetting that one thing…I…I’m sorry Hale.
Al crawled back over beneath the tree, sobbing a little. He tried his best not to make any expression with his face, doing a good job being stoic had it not been for the tears that wetted his face, falling into his lap. At that moment, Alistair hated himself.
What…what’s wrong with me? He moaned within himself.
“Well, for starters you’re too concerned with what he thinks of you,” she said. “Try not caring.”
Al turned to see Keiko smiling facetiously at him, sitting down in the grass next to him. Her injuries were considerably less as she had one of the specialized bandages on her forehead, a few around her hands, and one on her neck. She gave him a pathetic smile as she looked over his wounds.
“You stayed in that infirmary quite a while,” Keiko said. “I hate to see my favorite sparring partner be out for so long.”
Alistair turned away from her to go back glaring at where Hale had been standing.
“Go away,” he said. “And quit reading my mind. I don’t want you around. I’m kind of busy with thinking about what I’ve done.”
“You mean busy feeling sorry for yourself,” Keiko said in a faux sweet manner. “You want a shoulder to cry on I bet, don’t you? Either that or an assurance getting Mike killed wasn’t your felt when it was.”
“I said go away,” Alistair vented angrily. “I don’t want to hear you crap right now.”
“Oh little Ally,” she said, continuing the sweet voice. “Didn’t I tell you would have to live through your mistakes and that I know that by experience. Why don’t you accept Hale will never forgive you? Move on already.”
Al turned to sob in the grass, the position his neck was in making him feel pain in it.
“It wasn’t my fault,” he said. “I didn’t mean to…I never meant to kill anyone. Anyone.”
“Look Alistair,” Keiko said. “You’re being selfish. Hale is going through something right now that you could never possibly understand and by trying to seek his approval and make amends then you’re just proving how little you really care.”
That made Al’s eyes go agape, his mouth ajar as she’d said that.
She…she may be right. He thought. This may actually be selfish of me.
He then shook his head.
No. He replied to his own thought. I will not admit that to Keiko. I won’t prove her or admit to her being right. About anything.
“No,” Alistair replied. “That’s not true. I think you’re the one being selfish. I told you to go away.”
“Fine,” she said. “Don’t believe me. I have better things to do with my time than deal with a stubborn child.”
Keiko walked away from him as Alistair glared at her the whole time she walked away.
The day after Hale had kicked him and Keiko had heckled him some more he walked a bit dejectedly through down the hallway, his eyes darting to the side whenever he saw anybody. After Keiko had read his mind like a book he felt afraid, as though everybody around him could hear his thoughts. His mind at the moment was so erratic and nervous it was like his brain was shaking.
Alistair sighed as he pressed his hand against the door handle that led to his room, pressing his ear against it as he wanted to see if Hale was in there. Knowing Kelly she probably wouldn’t mind seeing Alistair again but Hale had made it clear he hated the boy’s guts so he wanted to avoid the older boy whenever possible. However, when Alistair pressed his ear against it he heard sobbing.
Al pulled away, groaning to himself as that could have been anyone. He sighed as looked down to see he was standing in a shady spot of the hallway that extended beneath his door. Alistair concentrated and slipped into the shade. He looked around, seeing the silhouettes of the four beds in the room as well as Hale who was lying on his bed with tears rolling down his face. Alistair slipped underneath the bed Hale was lying on before poking his head out of the darkness. If anyone saw him they would only see Alistair’s floating head while the rest of his body was submerged.
All Alistair could hear was Hale’s crying as he laid on the bed from when Alistair was looking at him while in the shadows he could see that Hale’s face was stoic for the most part.
“I’m sorry,” he heard Hale say from beneath the bed. “I failed you Mike. It was all my fault…I knew the plan had too many holes in it. In the back of my mind I knew it was sure to fail. In the end though I just wasn’t good enough.”
Alistair felt guilty peeping in on Hale liked this. He sunk into the shadows before leaving the room. He sauntered away back to the garden.
Five days afterward the nurses said that he could fight without minor injuries. When he went to go train at the command of his instructors he never found Keiko waiting for him in practice. She was far off in the corner of the battlefield, sparring with someone else. Al was surprised as she’d always be able to find him and look forward to beating him senseless. After laying into him she would usually move on to another opponent.
However, Alistair was quite surprised to find that the dark-haired girl was standing over so far from him, using her telekinesis to block the lightning blasts of another Changeling student. Al looked down at himself.
Why do I feel bad about this? He asked himself. This just means I won’t be getting my ass handed to me like I always do. I…won’t have to be staying in the infirmary every three weeks or so because Keiko decided she wanted to play ‘whack-a-mole’ with my noggin. And yet I feel bad…?
He shook his head. Maybe it was because Keiko was standing so far off where she normally would that made Alistair feel bad, as though she were intentionally avoiding the boy. If she was deliberately not trying to see him then…well, that was pretty strange, was it not? He sighed as he looked around for another partner to bash fists with.
Later that day Alistair was sitting underneath the tree, reading to himself. It was a book Soto had personally found while exploring the Bizarre Realm. He couldn’t read the cover as it was mostly obscured by being half-torn but he rather liked it as was about a boy who found a dragon egg. After that Al could predict just about everything that was going to happen, from his immediate family being killed to a mysterious man coming to tell him of his hidden destiny and setting off on a quest to destroy the evil empire. One of Alistair’s wild guesses down the storyline would be that the boy’s mentor would be killed off fairly soon.
Next thing you know the kid will have some kind of mysterious lineage. He thought to himself.
Alistair looked away from his book to see that, right on time, Keiko had shown up to the spot in the garden where she usually stood. Except when she saw him she didn’t give him a glare near as much an apathetic look. Alistair was glad Keiko didn’t seem to care for him before she walked right up to him.
Why me? Alistair groaned as he put the book down.
Al refused to look Keiko in the eyes as he turned his head away from as she sat down beside him, her stoicism taking on an almost melancholic feature. She hung her head slightly as she glanced at him from the side. Keiko was being fairly silent, as though she were trying to ask him something she didn’t know how to put into words. Either that or she was just far too nervous.
Man. Al thought. This girl’s being weirder than usual. Knowing Keiko, she’d be more direct but if she’s this fucking quiet…well, she may sit here all day. Better bite the bullet.
Al grunted as glared at her.
“Hey,” Al said. “Keiko, what is it?”
“Al,” she said. “I was told by someone that…that you killed Winston.”
Al almost fell over from the spot where he sat.
“Who told you?” he asked.
Keiko shook her head.
“I won’t say,” she replied.
Alistair sat back up against the trunk of tree to lean in to it.
“So what of it?” he asked. “I did…I had to. They ordered me to do it. I had no choice.”
“I know,” she said. “There was nothing you could do. If they didn’t force you to kill Winston and the two others then somebody else would have executed him.”
“Well,” Alistair said. “I didn’t know Winston was capable of doing that. I didn’t know he would slaughter other people for…for whatever reason.”
“That’s because he didn’t,” Keiko said. “Winston and the group trying to flee with him killed very few people and none of them were Changeling students. If they killed anybody then they did it out of self-defense. That hardly qualifies as slaughter or murder as your superiors put it.”
Al’s eyes widened with shock again as he stared at Keiko.
“What?” he asked. “You can’t be serious! Are you lying?!”
“Shh!” Keiko hushed. “Keep your voice down! Don’t let other people hear you say that!”
“But what do you mean?!” Alistair asked. “What…what is it you’re talking about-?”
“It’s not a code I’m telling you Al,” Keiko said. “I’m just saying that Winston and those others didn’t do anything wrong. They weren’t out murdering other people like-”
“And how do you know that?!” Al hissed quietly. “How do you know that Winston and those other Changelings didn’t kill them? How do you figure you know more than our superiors?! Do you figure they just had us kill them for the fun of it instead of a true execution?”
“You are going to have to lower your voice,” Keiko gritted. “There are students not far away that, if were even a little bit closer, might be considered eavesdropping. So shut your damn mouth or I will slap you.”
Alistair shook with fury and confusion, his mind blank at the moment as he couldn’t help but shake his head in frustration.
“Fine,” he whispered gently. “Is this okay?”
“It is,” Keiko said resentfully.
“Then answer me this,” Al said. “What the fuck are you talking about? Because I don’t believe you. Spreading rumors like this is stupid of you.”
“This isn’t a rumor,” Keiko said. “I know it firsthand. That was a lie told to you by the higher-ups.”
“Okay,” Al said with restrained anger. “How come? First off how do you know this? Why did they have us kill Winston? If they wanted to kill Winston then why have the likes of us kill him?”
“Alright,” Keiko said. “I’m going to explain something to you so just…try your best not to interject. Winston and a few others were trying to escape this academy but their plan was stopped by their much stronger masters. Almost no one trying to escape was killed and instead captured.”
“But…but…” Al said nervously. “Then…how do you know this? How do I know you’re not…not…”
“Lying?” Keiko asked while raising an eyebrow.
“I was going to say mistaken,” he replied.
“Well, Al,” she said. “You see, I was trying to help them escape. I was being their scout since I’m, you know, telekinetic. However, things got really out of hand and there wasn’t much anyone could do. I barely escaped without being seen from my position.”
Al shook his head.
“Then how do I know you’re not lying?” he asked.
Keiko tapped Al on the head and, as she did, he saw her sitting in her crouched position, alone in the dark, adult Changeling warriors coming at the group of younger Changelings. The youths were standing still in the hallway, many holding up their fists as they attempted to fight back against their advancing former teachers. The vision then ended before Al could see anymore.
Alistair shook his head before leering at her.
“You could easily fake that,” he replied.
“I could,” she said. “Or maybe I’m telling the truth.”
Al glared at her.
“Why would they have us kill Winston?” he asked. “If they wanted an execution-”
“Al,” Keiko interrupted. “Have you ever heard the phrase, it gets easier?”
“It’s when people explain that the more people they kill, the easier it is to further kill in the future when the time calls for it,” she explained. “The reason they wanted you to be the ones to kill them is to make you conditioned to dishing out death on command. They wanted to get you used to killing so that, on the battlefield, you would have no mental objections to it.”
Al recoiled at her words.
“How far did killing Winston happen from your first mission?” she asked.
“It couldn’t have been more than two weeks,” he said. “Between the execution and the mission.”
“That’s right,” Keiko said. “It’s usually about that length for anyone who comes to this school. For most everyone I know it’s not that different.”
“So Winston was innocent?” Al realized. “I...I wish I would have known. I had started using this technique where I could allow other people to slip into the shadows. Maybe I could have-”
“Not much you could do,” Keiko said. “The escape we planned failed and I doubt something like what you’re saying would have worked if it didn’t.”
“Keiko,” Al said. “Why would you want to escape? Is it really that bad here? So long as you don’t try and ditch this place then-”
“Because of the killing you have to do,” she said. “What they send you out to fight for…it’s awful. You went on a mission to obtain blood from a rival Circle before, didn’t you?”
“Then you remember,” she said. “How when you were trying to get it and attacked the Changelings guarding it? You remember how they weren’t evil people, they were only protecting their homes and resources? You remember that?”
Al nodded again.
“That is precisely why,” Keiko replied. “Every Circle does whatever it can to suppress the progress others or steal from them. It’s just that the Circles big enough to form kingdoms are better at it than others. They use us younger Changelings to steal Blood Energy from weaker Circles for twofold reasons. In order to mitigate their growth as a society to squash rising powers as well as have more Blood Energy than rival Kingdoms. Some of us don’t want to waste our lives being attack dogs for the purpose of hurting others.”
Keiko sat up before walking away, her face still melancholic. Before she walked away Al stopped her with a question.
“How do you know all this?” Alistair said. “You said a while ago you were only a year older than me and completely new to this place. How do you know all this?”
Keiko sighed again.
“Because Al,” she replied. “I have killed more people than I can remember or hope to count. I have slaughtered both evil, black hearted people, righteous and innocent as well as people who were just plain trying to not get murdered. Sometimes Changelings, sometimes ordinary Civilians and so on. And I have never taken a single life without being forced to.”
And she walked away.
Alistair’s eyes were blurred now, his thoughts gone as he was almost hearing Keiko from a distance. He couldn’t believe what he was hearing as his only one thought clouded his mind:
So does this mean I can’t help the world around me?