The Selection

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Chapter 51 - Avarice - Secrets

“How could you…” Ariane mutters and then bawls. This is really bad. She sluggishly walks toward Ragnar and then falls to her knees. “Ragnar…”

“Ar-Ariane it-it’s not wha-what it looks like,” I say. My entire body’s stiff. “I know... I know it…looks like that I—“

“Killed Ragnar…? I trusted you. I want to trust you, but…” Ariane sniffles. “I heard it. You wanted Ragnar to pay for killing those two.”

“Dear lord…” the chief says behind me. The chief walks in and glances at me. He closes his eyes and shakes his head. I know what he’s thinking. It’s not right.

“N-no... I didn’t do it.” I say and shake my head. “I-I can explain.”

“There is no need. You did not forgive Ragnar for taking the lives of those two men.”

“No, yo-you don’t understand…”

“I understand that you wanted to execute him yourself.”

“No! I thought no there was someone else here with a white mask that I met in the past and I know it was him and—“

“Please, save the excuses. Is that not his blood on your weapons?”

Blood drips from both of my weapons. Ragnar’s head is separated from his body. None of this makes any sense to me. But this is a truth I can’t deny. I killed Ragnar.

I sheath both of my weapons. I walk toward Ariane and reach for her shoulder. “Ariane, I’m sorry.”

Someone grabs my arm before it reaches her. It’s Ariane’s father. Her mother is here too. He says, “How could you do such a thing?”

I don’t say anything and look away. No one here’s going to believe me with these circumstances. It doesn’t matter what I say. “Because of you, my daughter is in tears.”

“I’m really sorry,” I say.

“Save it,” he says and then lets go of my arm. “I’m thankful that you brought Ariane back, but what you just did is unforgivable. We’ll meet you back at our house when we’ve finished things here. Hand you the reward for bringing Ariane back so you can be on your way.”

“Okay,” I answer. But there’s one thing that’s bothering me. I don’t think I should mention this, but this other part of me really wants to ask. The urge is too strong. The more money we bring back, the lesser punishment we’ll receive, after all. “What about the partial reward for bringing Ragnar back?”

Ariane’s parents glare at me. The chief turns around and asks, “You have the gall to ask for such a thing after what you did?”

Stupid. I’m so stupid. I turn around and head out. Why’d I decide to ask that in this situation? Outside, everyone else that was at the chief’s place stares at me. Kama and Vicki are standing farther away from me compared to Jetia and Marin.

Jetia smiles and then says, “I was wrong about you, Kai. You played me. You played all of us. It was an ingenious plan because they may not have chosen to execute him if you chose to give him a punishment. Man, I really thought you were going to forgive him.”

“It’s not what you think,” I say with a frown. “I did forgive him. This was all an accident.”

“Right, you accidentally took out your swords and killed him. For once, you did something befitting of a leader. You killed him acting on the platoon’s best interests. Don’t be ashamed. Dano and Banni can rest in peace now.”

It seems pointless to explain any further. I don’t want to discuss this anymore with other villagers around. Things look bad enough, but I need everyone to be up to speed first before explaining it to Ariane. “They want us to wait outside Ariane’s house until they take care of things here. We head there now. I’ll explain everything when we get there.”

“Whatever you say, Kai. We’ll meet you and Marin there. We’re going to stop by a local diner first. We left the four we rescued there.”

“Okay,” I answer. Jetia walks away with Kama and Vicki. I look toward Marin, finding it strange that she hasn’t said a word. She looks at me with the same look the chief and Ariane’s parents gave me. I automatically assumed that she would believe me without a second thought, but now I’m not so sure. Does she believe me? I’m sure she does. This is Marin I’m talking about. Why wouldn’t she? I refrain from asking and simply say, “Let’s go.”

She doesn’t say anything but follows. I think nothing of it as she tends to be quiet around people she isn’t familiar with. With these villagers nearby, it isn’t anything out of the ordinary. My paranoia of her doubt still lurks the back of my mind. We leave the jailhouse and head over to Ariane’s house.

Neither of us says anything along the way. Several of the villagers glare at us. I wonder if the news has spread already. We arrive at our transportation, finding that Ruby’s still fast asleep. We sit on the wagon.

“What were you going to tell me earlier?” Marin asks.

I did promise her that I would explain the stuff that happened with Ragnar back in the forest. Since she didn’t ask about what happened in the jailhouse, that means she believes me, right? Should I tell her about the Void magic or my Mana first? “Right, well. There are two things that—“

“Hey!” Derek exclaims. He runs up to us from Ariane’s house. “Big sis’!”

Marin and I exchange glances briefly. I shrug. Derek’s grin drops into a frown when he reaches us. “Big sis’… You brought her back, right?”

“Yeah,” I answer.

“She’s okay, right?”

I don’t respond immediately. She was completely fine when we brought her back, but things have gotten complicated. She’s fine, but she’s not fine. Her little brother’s probably thinking of her physical health. I don’t think he can understand why she would be hurting right now. I also don’t want to mention it because I’m the cause. “Yeah, she’s in good health.”

Derek smiles. “That’s good! ’Cause I was really worried! I miss her. Where’s she now?”

The happy look he has right now. It fills me with guilt. I look away before answering, “She’s with your parents right now. They’ll be back soon.”

“Hmm… Okay. I’ll wait here until she comes back.”

I don’t want him to be here when the others come back and I have to explain what happened earlier. I suggest, “Why don’t you wait inside? You can surprise Ariane when she comes home.”

“That’s a good idea! I’ll do that!” he exclaims and then runs inside.

The wagon shakes slightly. Ruby yawns while sitting up. “Mmm… Kai?”

“Did you have a good nap?” I ask. She stretches and then rubs her eyes. Suddenly, she lunges toward me and puts her hand on my face. It makes my heart race. She strokes my cheek with her fingers.

“What happened? Are ya hurt?” she asks. She takes her hand off, showing blood on her fingertips; Ragnar’s blood. ”This much blood. Wasn’t here before.”

I turn away and say, “It’s not mine. It was from an accident.”

Ruby yawns. “’Kay, that’s good. When’re we leavin’?”

It’s good that Ruby seems to take no interest in the accident. I don’t want to have to explain to her what happened. It might do something worse to her. “Soon. You can go back to sleep, if you want. Just waiting for everyone to get back.”

“’Kay… I’m goin’ back ta sleep.”

Ruby lays down on the wagon again. It worries me a little if she’s overworking herself, but it’s probably nothing. I look toward Marin, smile and then shrug. I whisper, “Tonight, okay?”

“Fine,” she whispers back.

The family of four are walking in the distance, but not toward us. Jetia and the others aren’t with them. “Those four…where’re they going? I’m gonna check it out. Wait here.”

“Okay.”

I hop off the wagon and jog toward them. I ask, “Where’re you guys going?”

They stop walking and turn toward me. The two young girls hide quickly behind their parents. I cock an eyebrow. The man says, “We just want to go home.”

They’re scared, but why? I think of the glares we received on our way here. What kind of news has been spreading? It’s been less than twenty minutes since Ariane found Ragnar in that state. I respond, “Right…but we promised that we would bring you to Drymo. We’re going to leave soon.”

“We’re thankful that you saved us, but I think we’re fine from here. We will ask for a separate escort. We don’t want to trouble you too much.”

I won’t accept this. If they aren’t with us, then we won’t get any credit for saving them. It will all be for naught. Then the punishment will come down harder. “That’ll take at least a day, maybe more. Come with us, I insist. We can get you home tonight.”

“We’ll do as you say. Just don’t hurt us, please.”

“I’m not going to hurt you… Just wait in the same wagon over there,” I say while pointing to the wagon behind Ruby and Marin. The man says nothing more and walks in that direction with his family.

“I thought he was a good person…” one of the two young girls mutters.

“Shh,” the woman whispers. “Be quiet.”

I sigh. I want to clear up this misunderstanding as soon as possible. I don’t want everyone to think I’m some kind of monster. I rejoin with Marin at the wagon.

“Where were they going?” Marin asks quietly.

“They were trying to hitch a ride somewhere else. They…” I pause for a moment, not wanting to acknowledge to Marin how they were acting toward me. “…were scared of me.”

“I’m not scared of you.” Marin puts her hands on top of mine. “You made a mistake. Everyone makes mistakes.”

A mistake? No, it was an accident. The paranoia that Marin doesn’t trust me grows. The person I trust most in the world right now. I need her to believe me. “But it was an accident…not a mistake.”

“Mistake, accident, same thing.”

“It’s not the same thing!” I exclaim while throwing my arms in the air, removing her hands from mine. I didn’t mean to say that so loud, but it just happened. Ruby doesn’t flinch.

Marin frowns. “Well, I won’t know if it was a mistake or an accident unless you tell me about it. I only know that you killed Ragnar…”

I take a deep breath. “You’re right… I’m sorry. I’ll make sure to explain it all when Jetia and the others arrive.”

The three of them are walking toward us now. I tap Marin’s shoulder and nudge my head in their direction. I want to meet them a bit away from the wagon so that Ruby doesn’t hear it in case she wakes up. We hop off the wagon and then meet them half-way.

“We didn’t find those four anywhere. Looks like they’re back here,” Jetia says.

“Yeah,” I reply. So it wasn’t Jetia who told them about what happened. “Well, now that we’re here alone, let me tell you what happened.”

I explain to everyone what happened exactly when I went to the jailhouse. Everyone gives me weird looks and doesn’t say anything in response. I ask, “So? What do you guys think?”

“Wow. So let me get this straight. So, you thought Ragnar was that guy with a white mask that killed your friends from the Academy, so you killed him. Afterward, you realized he wasn’t wearing a white mask, and it was just Ragnar.”

It doesn’t sound the same when he repeats it, but it’s right. So I answer, “Yeah.”

Jetia laughs. “Look, there was nothing wrong with yer decision to take out Ragnar. You did yer job as the leader, Kai. There’s no need to make up this crazy story that you can’t possibly think anyone would believe.”

“I’m not making this up! It happened! It’s true!” I exclaim. I can’t believe this. Kama and Vicki not saying anything is one thing, but Marin too. Does this mean she really doesn’t believe me, or is she just hesitant on saying something?

“You had questions you were going to ask Ragnar. That’s why you wanted to get him yerself, right? Tell us about those questions.”

“Of course. I wanted to ask him…” I pause. I wanted to ask him about how he beat my Mana using only Rich Mana or worse. I can’t exactly tell everyone here about that. I quickly think of something else. “…how he was able to make Fire magic cold and stuff like that again. He wasn’t very clear the first time.”

“Why’d you have to do it in secrecy? You told Marin that you wanted to go on your own when she offered.”

I open my mouth to say something, but there’s nothing. I’m trapped. I can’t say anything in my defense. I simply answer, “You’re just gonna have to trust me on this.”

“I trust yer decision to execute Ragnar. He had it coming. Don’t believe this crazy story of yers, though.”

It doesn’t bother me a great deal that Jetia doesn’t believe me. I’m used to him constantly disagreeing, but Marin. I need her to believe me. To trust me. If I gather everyone’s opinion one by one, Marin would feel more comfortable sharing her thoughts.

“What about you, Kama?” I ask. “Look, I’m also really sorry about earlier. You weren’t wrong.”

He rolls his eyes and then says, “I don’t know, Kai. You probably thought killing Ragnar would make me feel better about you…but I don’t. Your story is too far-fetched even for you.”

“Vicki?”

“I think you regretted your decision to kill him…and now you’re making up this story,” she responds.

My palms sweat. “Marin?”

“Well…I…” she mutters while looking at the ground. Ariane’s walking quickly this way. I gulp.

“Wait, hold that thought, Marin. Ariane’s back. I need to talk to her,” I say and then walk toward her. Her head is tilted down. “Hey, Ariane.”

She walks past me without saying a word. I match her pace and walk by her side. “Listen, I need to talk to you about what happened.”

She remains quiet. She’s headed to her house. I continue, “Long story short, when I got to the jailhouse, there was someone else there. It wasn’t Ragnar. He was the one who killed my friends during the attack. It sounded like him and he wore the same white mask. So, I killed him. But then I realized it was actually Ragnar. So it was an accident. Do you understand now?”

Still, nothing. “I didn’t want to kill him. In fact, I wanted him to teach me about all the magic he learned how he do on his own. I wouldn’t want to kill him. You believe me, right? Say something.”

We reach the front door of her house. She opens it. Derek’s standing in the middle, blocking her way in. He exclaims with a grin, “Big sis’! Welcome home!”

Ariane doesn’t move or say anything for several seconds. “Sis’? What’s wrong with your eyes? They’re so red…”

For some reason, those words remind me of the red eyes I encountered that day in the forest. The Anomaly. It had bright red eyes. I grab Ariane and then turn her body around to face me. The eyes aren’t the same. Her eyes are simply red from crying. An appearance I’m very familiar with. She shoves me away and then slams the door behind her. “Sis’? Say something!”

I stand outside of her door for a while longer, eventually hearing another door slam.

“Big sis’!” Derek yells. The banging of a door resounds. I should know what she’s feeling like. I experienced it myself. She’ll come to understand that I’m telling the truth when she calms down.

I turn around to rejoin with the others. Looks like they’ve returned to the wagon. Marin with Ruby at the front. I walk over and sit next to Marin. I ask, “What were you gonna say earlier?”

She’s quiet for several seconds. “I need more time to think about it, sorry.”

Not the answer I was looking forward to, but it doesn’t mean that she doesn’t trust me. It’s a lot of information to take in. She knows me. She knows that I’m not the kind of person to do something like this. She’ll come to the right conclusion in the end. I wait in silence with Marin while waiting for the return of Ariane’s parents. I think about telling them the full story too, but I should probably refrain. They’re a stubborn bunch. It takes them around ten minutes to arrive.

We hop off the wagon to greet her parents together. Ariane’s father asks, “Sergeant Kai, have you seen my daughter?”

“Yeah, went into the house about ten minutes ago,” I inform.

“See, you had nothing to worry about, dear,” Ariane’s father says.

Ariane’s mother takes a deep breath and then says, “Thank goodness. She said she was going to go back early to see Derek, but she seemed strange. It was Ragnar’s funeral that she left early.”

“She realized he was gone and moved on. She’s a big girl now. Anyway, come inside, and we’ll hand you the reward so you can be on your way.”

“Right,” I say and then follow him into the house. Derek’s laying down on the floor at the end of the hallway in front of a door.

“Derek, what’re you doing? If you’re sleepy, sleep in your bed!” Ariane’s mother exclaims as she walks over to him.

“Wait here, I’ll grab your reward,” Ariane’s father says as he walks into the adjacent room.

“Big sis’… She came home and didn’t say anything to me. She went into her room and locked the door. Does she hate me now?” Derek asks and then cries.

Ariane’s mother hugs Derek and says, “It’s okay, Derek. She doesn’t hate you. She’s had a rough day. Let me try talking to her.”

She knocks on the door. “Ariane? Are you in there?”

Ariane’s father comes back. He opens his palms and says, “Here, take it.”

A gold coin is in his palms. I widen my eyes. “A gold coin? Are you sure?”

“Yes, we’re really happy Ariane is back with us. Take it before I change my mind. I’m trying to keep composure. I still can’t forgive you for what you did.”

I take it the coin from him. A gold coin is a very large amount for requests from the army. We’ve typically received no reward at all since they are all people in need who can’t afford the expensive services of Adventurers.

“Honey, Ariane’s not answering and the door is locked,” Ariane’s mother informs. “She completely ignored Derek when she got home. I’m worried about her.”

“I’m coming, dear,” Ariane’s father says. “Be on your way now that you’ve received your reward.”

He walks over to the end of the hallway. Marin says, “We should go.”

“Ariane?” Ariane’s father asks as he knocks on the door. “Unlock the door this instant. Don’t make me break it down, because I will.”

A bad feeling lurks at the back of my mind. Something’s not right here. I feel partially responsible because I’m the one who killed Ragnar. The most important person to Ariane. The one she loves. I took it. Just like how that masked man took mine… But my case was an accident. I didn’t mean to. I really want her to know that.

“Yeah…but I’m worried about Ariane. I want to make sure she’s okay,” I say. Ariane’s father rams the door with his shoulder. I walk down the hallway and say, “Sir, I can help you get into the room.”

“Didn’t I tell you to leave? You’ve received your reward.”

“I’m worried about Ariane too. She seemed off when she came home.”

“Get out, we don’t need your help. If you actually cared about my daughter, you wouldn’t have killed Rag—“ The door busts open. Ariane’s father falls forward.

Ariane’s mother shrieks. My heart races.

“Big sis’!” Derek exclaims as he runs into the room.

Oh my god!” Ariane’s father screams. “Ariane!”

“Derek, no!” Ariane’s mother yells and rushes into the room. I follow.

No way… I can’t believe my eyes. Ariane’s lying flat on her back on top of her bed. Her sheets are completely drenched in blood. So much that it has started to drip onto the floor. She stabbed herself in the throat. I shake my head slowly. Ariane’s mother holds Derek tightly.

“Mommy, what’s wrong with big sis’…?” Derek asks. His mother doesn’t answer.

“Dear…she’s…gone…” Ariane’s father informs.

Ariane’s mother cries. Derek follows shortly afterward. Ariane’s father stands up and turns to me with tears dripping down his face. His eyebrows are narrowed and he grimaces before exclaiming, “You!”

He rushes toward me and then shoves me into the wall in the hallway. “This was all because of you! You knew that Ariane couldn’t live without Ragnar, but you killed him anyway! Now, Ariane’s gone. It’s all your fault!”

He opens my palm forcefully and rips the gold coin out. “Get out of here!

He stops pushing me into the wall and drops to the ground in tears. Because of me…Ariane’s…dead…?

I should’ve known she was acting strange when she got home… I should’ve known exactly how she was feeling. I could’ve stopped her before she took a knife to her throat. My mind goes completely blank.

Someone pulls on my arm. Marin says, “Kai, we need to go.”

“Yeah…” I answer weakly. We leave the house, shutting the door behind us. I still hear their cries.

“Kai, I know you always blame yourself, but it’s not your fault.”

“But it is, isn’t it…? I took away Ariane’s most important person…and she…”

“You couldn’t have known that Ariane would do that. Like Jetia said, you did what you had to as the leader. It was only right that Ragnar had to die for killing Dano and Banni.”

“Are you saying you don’t believe my story?”

“I’m still deciding… I want to believe you. Those two things you were going to tell me earlier. Are they related to what you had to ask Ragnar by yourself?”

“Yeah, it is.”

“Then I’ll decide after you tell me about that, okay?”

“Okay…”

“I’ll take us back to Drymo, so you take it easy until then, okay?”

I climb onto the wagon where Ruby’s still sleeping tight. The Artificial Magic Weapons we took earlier are all stored on this wagon. I rearrange them a little bit and then lay against the back of the wagon next to Ruby. Marin can take care of the rest. I look at Ruby. She’s sleeping so peacefully with a smile. I close my eyes and try to do the same.

Something tickles my nose. Marin says, “Kai, wake up.”

I open my eyes immediately and scratch my nose. Marin’s holding an arrow with the back end pointed toward me. I yawn and ask, “What’re you doing…?”

“Sorry, you wouldn’t wake up otherwise,” she says and then takes the arrow and tickles Ruby’s nose with the fletching. “Ruby, time to get up.”

“Mmm…” Ruby groans. She yawns and rubs her eyes. “Are we home yet?”

“Yeah, we’re back at the Castle,” Marin informs. We’re moving upward. Must be on the Elevator. A guard is with us. I’ve been out for a while. Not sure what’s happening now. “Jetia and the others went to rest. We’re on our way now to store the Artificial Magic Weapons we found in the armory.”

“What happened to the four we rescued?” I ask.

“I know you wanted them to stay until we got to the Castle…but they left before that.”

“What?” If they left before that, we don’t have any proof we saved them. I mean, it’s great that we saved them, but we really need everything we can to reduce the punishment we’ll receive. They were also robbed of everything… We could’ve provided them with something. I thought Marin could take care of everything. The Elevator stops moving.

“Jetia told me they insisted on leaving when we arrived in the Residential District. I didn’t know until we got to the Castle.” I bite my lip. Of course, it was Jetia. He wants nothing more than to see us receive the worst punishment possible. “Umm… Kai?”

Finding her tone strange, I look up, Captain Albius is walking in our direction. Oh, shit…

He smiles. “Sergeant Kai, how’d your missions go? I heard you brought back a load of supplies for us. It must’ve been a huge success! I want to hear all about it…”

My palms sweat and I gulp. He picks up the hammer that tripped me earlier in the day. He presses the button which launches the hammer to the left, but he’s in complete control and balance. “Artificial Magic Weapons, very nice. You’re well on your way on becomin’ a Lieutenant.”

He puts the weapon back on the wagon. He looks toward Marin and Ruby. “These two sweethearts can take these to the Armory by themselves, right?”

Ruby looks away. I hope she doesn’t make a scene here, especially since how she tried to kill him the last time they met. But, she should remember that we have to respect our superiors. I need her to be compliant since Marin isn’t as comfortable. I hop off the wagon and ask, “You two can take care of the rest, right Ruby?”

“Anythin’ fer ya, Kai!” Ruby exclaims. “Let’s go, Marin.”

With that, Ruby takes the reins of the horses and leaves in the direction of the Armory. Why does she have to completely ignore Captain Albius in a time like this?

“Those two are beautiful, aren’t they?” Captain Albius asks while watching them leave. It doesn’t seem like he’s insulted in any way but have no idea what he’s getting at. “Let’s go for a walk.”

I follow him along the hallway perpendicular to where the girls were going. I think the best thing to do in this situation is to agree. “Yeah…”

“The red long haired one is a little cold and aggressive.”

“Sir, she didn’t mean to disrespect you in any way.”

“Oh no, I’m not offended. I don’t dislike it when they’re a little feisty. It makes my job more interestin’, you know?”

“Yeah…”

“You’re a lucky man to be surrounded by these two beauties every day. You’ve known them for a while, right? Are you particularly close to either of them?”

He can’t be possibly asking about that, right? Does he know about Marin and I? Or is he suspicious? I don’t know why he’s asking me this or how it’s related to anything.

Captain Albius laughs and then says, “Not much of a conversationalist, are you? Well, tell me how you bested outlaws and saved lives today.”

“Right…” I don’t know where to start. I should probably clear up the misunderstanding that the mission was a success. It was the complete opposite. I don’t want to keep him out of the loop for too long or it might seem like I’m trying to lie to him. I take a deep breath. “Actually, we weren’t very successful…”

“Oh? That’s disappointin’.”

“But it was completely out of our control! There were a lot of misunderstandings, and one thing happened after another. We did rescue a family of four from a bandit group and collected those weapons.”

“That’s all you did? What about the four requests you took on?”

“Tha-that is…well…it didn’t go as planned.”

“So, you failed to complete all four requests?”

“Well, we did complete one, but then something happened… Look, it’s really complicated, but I assure you that it wasn’t our fault. We found one bandit group which led to another—“

“It sounds like you have a lot to explain. Give me the full report tomorrow morning in my office. I’ll have to report this to General Nero too, but don’t worry. He’s a really understandin’ guy. You brought back a lot of valuable items and dependin’ on what happened, you won’t be penalized. There won’t be a punishment.”

“Really?” That’s great to hear. General Nero was the one who easily forgave us for letting Sofiel go. If he’s involved, I’m not worried about anything. Maybe he’s the reason we didn’t receive anything bad after the disaster last week. But then again, those could be freebies because of our good performance early on.

“That depends on your report and General Nero. That’s all I have for you. Keep up the good work, Sergeant Kai.”

“Yes, sir!” I exclaim and then head for the Armory.

Marin and Ruby are coming out with the wagon. It looks like they finished transporting everything. Marin asks, “How’d it go with Captain Albius?”

“I’m not sure. I have to give him the full report tomorrow morning. He’s going to report it to General Nero too. It doesn’t sound like we’ll receive that bad of a punishment, but I’m not sure. We’ve been only getting bad results lately. I don’t want to be demoted because we’ll be farther away from reaching our goal.”

“Didn’t we do good this time?” Ruby asks. Right. She doesn’t know because she hasn’t been paying attention to the mission details lately. “We took out the bad guys!”

“Well, the mission wasn’t to take them out. We had to save certain people...and we didn’t succeed,” I inform.

“It’s okay. We’ll do a better job next time! I’ll work extra hard fer ya and everythin’ will be okay!” Ruby exclaims with a grin.

“How can you be so sure?” I ask.

“I just know.”

She’s definitely has been overworking herself with how often she’s been taking naps today. I can’t rely on Ruby to work even harder. She’s been putting in a lot of work, but everything lately has been my fault. It won’t help us much more if Ruby puts in more effort than she has been. Marin’s right. I’ve been trying to do everything on my own. If we all work hard together, we can achieve anything. “You’re right.”

Getting demoted is one thing, but I don’t want Ruby or Marin to suffer the consequences of my mistakes. “I’m just concerned about the punishment if there is one.”

“You said Captain Albius will report it to General Nero, right?” Marin asks.

“Yeah,” I respond.

“He forgave us easily when we let Sofiel escape. I’m not worried.”

“I guess. I’ve never heard of what punishments entail and I’m just worried.”

“I’ll endure anythin’ fer ya, Kai!” Ruby exclaims.

“I’m glad to hear that, Ruby. But if something’s bothering you, let me know immediately, okay?”

“’Kay!”

“Well, I can take the transportation back to the stables and then you two can head to bed,” I offer.

“No, I can do that,” Ruby says. “I slept lots…and I’m not tired anymore!”

“Okay, good night.”

Ruby smiles and answers, “Good night, Kai and Marin.”

“Good night,” Marin says. With that, she leads the wagon to the Elevator. I exchange a glance with Marin. I still owe her an explanation for earlier. We go our separate ways for now. I head back to my room. I take off all my armor and then take a shower. Afterward, I rest on my bed. I collect my thoughts on how to explain everything to Marin.

Someone knocks on my door. I walk over to open it, expecting Marin. I invite her inside and then lock the door. She sits on my bed and says nothing else. She’s probably expecting me to go right into it. It’s going to be easier to show her and explain at the same time.

“Okay, well… As you know, there are three grades of Mana,” I say. I open my palm and emit Scrap Mana.

“Scrap Mana.” I do the same for the rest. “Unrefined Mana, and Rich Mana.”

Marin gives me a look like she’s running out of patience. “So, on the first day of the Academy, these were the three I saw, but the one Emdos taught me how to control is neither of them.”

I release my Mana through my palm. One that is a deeper blue than Rich Mana. Marin widens her eyes and exclaims, “Wow!”

She stands up and moves closer to the hand emitting my Mana. “So that hole you saw in the rock before… I utilized Layered magic by using all four grades of Mana that I have, with this last one in the middle. I was planning to surprise Ragnar with it since he was so strong. That’s when I saw Ariane and tried to warn Ragnar. He tackled it head-on and stopped my attack. I couldn’t believe how he managed to do that because Scrap Mana can’t beat Unrefined Mana, Unrefined Mana can’t beat Rich Mana so nothing can beat my Mana which is stronger than Rich Mana.”

“I see, it all makes sense now. You wanted to ask Ragnar about how he stopped it with his magic, right?”

“Yeah… He seems to know so many things we don’t. Like making a rock soft like paper and making fire cold. There must be a reason. So, there’s no way I would kill him like everyone thinks I did!”

Marin frowns. “But…you did kill him, right?”

“I…did…but it was an accident. You remember what I told you, right? I saw that masked man. The same white mask. His voice. Everything was the same. You believe me, right?”

She doesn’t answer immediately. I told her everything she needs to know to understand I didn’t want to kill him. I concentrate deeply on her eyes. My heart pounds rapidly. She will believe me. I need her to. She will. She’s thinking about how to say it.

“Of course I do!” she exclaims with a smile. “I know you wouldn’t lie about something like this.”

I let out a breath of relief. I knew it. She believes me. I can’t believe how worried I was that she wouldn’t. She asks, “Were you worried I wouldn’t?”

“A-a little bit,” I admit.

“Tell me more about your Mana! There’s more, right? You said there were two things. Can Emdos use this too?”

“One question at a time. I’ll get to everything,” I say. “Emdos doesn’t have this Mana, but he taught me how to manipulate Mana before I went to the Academy. I’ve told you this before, but you didn’t know about my Mana.”

“That’s amazing, Kai… Rich Mana is already so hard to control, but you managed to control this before going to the Academy! Oh…”

“What?”

“I remember when Moria announced that you had E ranks for the three Mana qualities. You said you were going to show everyone your true power.” Flashbacks to my first day of the Academy. I immediately think back to that soup. Oh, god, no. It was the absolute worst thing I ever tasted. “But then, you didn’t.”

“Oh, that… Yeah, I was planning on showing everyone my special Mana, but I felt something cold. Like something was telling me not to do it. I think it was Emdos…but I’m not sure. He told me to never show anyone my Mana or the book.”

“Book?”

“It’s gone now. The book had a note from my father and information about Void magic.”

“What do you mean it’s gone? And what’s Void magic…?”

“It’s easier to show you. I have to use my Mana with Void magic or else it doesn’t work,” I say while writing instructions and bonding my Void Affinity to my Mana. I instruct them to create the same purple portal as I always do. I release my Mana and then activate it. Two identical purple portals appear; one behind the other. It extends from the floor to several inches higher than my head. The width is a bit wider than the frame of my body with my arms resting on my sides.“Try walking through the one in the front from the middle. Don’t let any part of your body leave the edge.”

“Wha-what happens if I do? Is this going to hurt?”

“Nothing happens, literally. Watch.” I stand in the middle between the two portals. I walk forward and lean forward so that only my head goes through.

“Yo-your he-head!”

I see the back of my body going through the portal in front. “If your body is within the boundary of the portal, you can go through to the other side. But, if you let any part of your body outside this boundary…”

I extend my arm into the portal in front so that it comes from the back like my head. But then I stretch it to the left, eventually leaving the edge of the purple portal. My vision changes instantly. The wall in front of the first portal is now visible. I take a few steps back. “See? No pain and nothing happens if you leave the boundary. Stay in the boundary, you go to the other side.”

“Ca-can I try…?” Marin asks. She still seems a little shaken.

“Sure,” I answer. I move aside. She stands between the two portals and then walks forward. She keeps her arms close to her body as she slowly enters the purple portal in front.

“I see my back!” Marin exclaims. She walks forward, eventually standing in the same position as she did before. She grins. She walks forward into the portal again, this time faster. Faster and faster. She’s practically running now.

“Uh, I’d be careful if I were you,” I warn. “If any part of your body leaves the boundary—“

“I’ll hit the wall, I know!” Watching this makes me feel nervous. “This is fun!”

She stops running. Now standing practically behind the first portal. She balances herself on one leg with the other one stretched behind her. She leans forward and reaches her leg with an arm. She’s already found an interaction I never thought of on my own. I think about deactivating the portals so she’ll lose her balance and fall. She doesn’t know that I can do that and I can pass it off as the Mana ran out of juice but I refrain. I ask, “Can I continue?”

She lets go of herself and then moves out of the way. “Yeah.”

“Well, these things are two-sided. You can do the same for the other side. I can decide which side goes to which side. Magic goes through too,” I inform. I know what she’s going to ask next with that smile of hers. “No.”

She frowns. I continue, “Well, this is the magic that I learned using a Magic Scroll that was inside the book. I learned it during my second year, but I didn’t want to get too far ahead, so I didn’t read more. When we were moving to our new rooms after the tournament, Hiro was about to find it, so I had to take it with me in a backpack. I think I lost the book in those caves down there…”

I try not to think about Hiro or any of the others. “I see… What’d the note from your father say?”

“I don’t remember exactly. Something about me being the last hope. It didn’t make that much sense to me. I don’t know anything about him other than that he left this book for me…and I lost it. If only I had taken training more seriously. I might’ve been able to learn some really strong magic and prevented all this from happening.”

“Stop blaming yourself for everything that’s happened, Kai. It’s not your fault. Things might’ve still happened the same way even if you did learn more from the book. So what if you lost it? We can always go back to get it. You’re sure that you lost it in that place, right?”

“I think so…but are you sure you want to go back there?” I ask. With those blue blobs that kill things with a touch. We barely made it out alive. “The only entrance we know is buried under rubble and it’s dangerous inside.”

“Moria and the other teachers will rebuild the living quarters eventually. The next time we go, we’ll be more prepared. Bring strong people with us so we don’t have to be scared. I’m saying the book isn’t gone forever.”

“I guess you’re right,” I admit. Though I wouldn’t want to go back there regardless.

“Does Emdos know anything about your father?”

“He said he knew my father and that he passed away, but he wouldn’t tell me more than that. I would ask him if I see him again, but…”

“It’s okay, Kai. You’ll meet him again, eventually. He wouldn’t leave forever without saying goodbye.”

“Yeah, I know… By the way, did you know you could deactivate magic after activating it?”

“Yeah, why?”

“Oh… it’s nothing,” I say. Good thing I didn’t decide to play that prank on her. I suppose with Marin’s expertise in Runic and Earth magic combined with her curiosity, it isn’t too strange that she tested that already. Does Ruby know too? It doesn’t make sense that she would because deactivating Fire magic mid-flight or Wind magic serves no purpose. I’ll ask her tomorrow. “Anyway, I’ve been doing my own training with this, trying to find other uses for Void magic.”

I send out a bit of my Mana to deactivate both of the purple portals. They disappear immediately. I write new instructions. Marin asks, “How long do these portals last when you don’t deactivate them?”

“It depends on how much Mana I supply to them and the size of the portal. I think these would last several minutes.”

“Can you create more than two pairs of entrances and exits?”

“I think so, but I never tried.”

“Have you tested the upper limits of how much Void magic you can use?”

Must be talking about what’s the largest portal I can make. “I haven’t tried that. This stuff drains my Mana pretty fast, and I haven’t gotten that comfortable manipulating it yet. I think doing something like that would drain me and I would get nothing from it. I can’t see a situation where doing something like that would be useful.”

“I see…” she says and nods her head. Looks like she’s in deep thought. “Continue.”

“I found that you can create one-sided portals, but it’s really weird.” I activate my Mana, creating two portals in the same place as last time. Going through the front leads to the one in the back. This time, there’s nothing on the other side.

“What’s different?”

“Take a look at the front of the first portal and the back of the second one,” I say. She moves behind it, so I can’t see her, but she should be able to see me. “It’s completely blank and you can see through it like it’s not even there, but it is there from the other side.”

“Wow… Can you see me?”

“Nope. And you can see me, right?”

“Yep.”

“Yeah, so I think I could use this to secretly use Void magic so no one finds out, but people could be able to see me go from one place to the next which brings too much attention to me,” I say and then walk through the front of the portal.

“Wait, Kai, do that again!” Marin exclaims suddenly.

“What’s wrong?”

“Walk through the portal again, slowly.” Unsure of what she’s planning, I do as she says. I slowly walk into the portal. “Stop!”

I stop. I wonder what’s on her mind now. I see the back of my body as before. She hasn’t said anything in several seconds. “Marin?”

“Kai…you disappeared from the portal in front. I only see your head in the portal behind you.”

I widen my eyes. “What?”

“See for yourself,” Marin says and then comes out from behind the first portal. “Stand behind there and watch me do the same thing.”

“O-okay.” Still a bit shocked, I do as she says and stand behind the portal in front.

“I’m going to put my hand through now.”

“Okay,” I answer, not sure what to expect. Marin slowly extends her arm in front of her. I blink once and she was gone. What the hell happened? But her hand is on the other side, behind where she should be, but she isn’t. “Marin?”

“I’m still here,” she responds. It sounds like she’s right in front of me. I walk out, finding that she really is there, but it’s strange. If I’m not looking from behind the portal, she’s completely visible. Looking at it from an angle, she’s half invisible, half not.

“Looks like you’re only invisible if someone looks from the opposite side of the one sided purple portal. Can you try one thing for me?” I ask and then stand behind the purple portal again.

“Sure, what is it?”

“Can you try extending your other arm to your side but not past the boundary of the purple portal?”

“Okay,” she says. Her arm is visible to me, so my theory is correct.

“Thanks, Marin. You can rest now. I could see your arm.”

“Really? That’s interesting.”

“I know. I could do a lot with this. I’ll have to keep training.”

Marin smiles. “Thanks for telling me your secret. It’s safe with me, I promise. I remember what happened to Ragnar’s parents and… I wouldn’t want the same thing to happen to you.”

“Yeah, I know.”

“Does Ruby know?”

“No, and I wanna keep it that way.”

“So I’m the only one who knows about it other than Emdos?” Marin asks and then smiles. “I feel special.”

I smile back and respond, “Well, you are special to me…”

We stare into each other’s eyes without saying a word for several seconds. Marin looks away and then says, “Well…since you shared one of your secrets with me, it’s only fair that I tell you some of mine too.”

I send out some of my Mana to deactivate the one-sided portals. It disappears. I wonder what kind of secrets Marin has. It always seems like she follows rules and regulations. Maybe she broke a rule once here and there? Or maybe she put something in our food… I don’t let my intense curiosity show or else Marin might not be inclined to share everything. “Sure, what is it?”

“Starting from our…third year in the Academy… Sometimes I would go into your room when no one was home and lay on your bed…”

Hmm…so that’s why my bed smelled strange from time to time. I smile. She did tell me she had a crush on me for a while, so that’s normal. I mean, I had an urge to lay on her bed too in those days because her scent would be strongest there.

“…and smell it because it smelled like you… And it would make me feel really hot down there… and I would feel overwhelmed…” Marin’s face turns beet red. I have a feeling I know where this is going. I gulp. “So I touched myself until I felt…better?”

Wow. Was that the strange smell…or was that Marin? I can’t remember. “How often did you…?”

“Whenever I could,” she admits. Well, I was mostly at home during the fourth year, so there’s no way it could’ve been that often then. “Are you mad?”

“No, not really. I just didn’t know you were that crazy about me for so long,” I say and then kiss her. “We both feel the same now, so…”

“Yeah,” Marin says with a smile. She pulls me in closer to her. Just another night for us.

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