“You’re clear, Nico. Hurry!” I whispered, looking over my shoulder in case someone passed by, since seeing two adolescent boys huddled up in front of a house door only spelled trouble.
“Just stay on guard, Grey. I think I’m close to unlocking it,” my dark-haired companion hissed back as he worked on the doorknob.
I watched in doubt as Nico fumbled with the hairpins he had stolen from one of the older girls into the keyhole. “Are you sure you can open it?”
“This is,” he said impatiently through gritted teeth, “a lot harder than that guy at the alleyway made it seem.”
Suddenly, the doorknob clicked and both our eyes brightened. “You did it!” I exclaimed in a loud whisper.
“Bow down to my powers!” Nico proclaimed, holding up the colorful hairpin he had used to pick the lock high in the hair.
I smacked him on the shoulder and pressed my finger to my lips. Nico shoved the hairpin back in his zippered pocket and nodded at me before we tiptoed in through the wooden door.
“And you made sure that the owners are out today?” I verified, scanning the meticulously furnished house.
“I scanned this house last week. Both the husband and wife go out at this time and don’t come back for another hour or so. We have plenty of time to grab a few things and go,” Nico answered, his eyes scanning for anything of value that we can stuff into a bag.
Letting out a deep breath, I reasoned to myself that it was necessary. Stealing from someone—however rich they were—didn’t sit right with me, but I had overheard the conversation between the orphanage headmaster and those government people. I was only able to hear a few comments but it seemed like our orphanage was in danger because we didn’t have enough money.
“This should be enough,” Nico nodded as we both looked inside the backpack we had brought.
“Now how are we going to get money for this?” I questioned. “We can’t exactly give Headmaster Wilbeck all of this jewelry.”
“Way ahead of you,” he smirked. “I found a guy willing to pay cash for anything he finds interesting.”
“And this ‘guy’ is okay buying off two twelve-year-olds?”
“He doesn’t ask questions, I don’t ask questions. Simple as that,” Nico shrugged as we headed out the door.
Taking the back route toward the back end of the city, we blended in with the crowd of people walking along the cracked sidewalk. Keeping our heads low and paces brisk, we veered left into an alleyway. Weaving through the piles of trash and stacked boxes of who knows what, we stopped in front of faded red door protected behind another gated metal door.
“We’re here,” Nico spoke as he motioned for the bag. Slipping it off my shoulders and handing it to him, my friend knocked the door four times in an unfamiliar rhythm.
Slicking his black hair and puffing his chest out, he let out a couple coughs and narrowed his eyes to appear more intimidating—as intimidating as any scrawny ten-year-old can be, anyway.
After a few seconds, a rangy old man in a worn-out suit came out from the other side of the red door. He stared down at us from behind the metal gate with a scrutinizing eye.
“Ah, the rather persistent child. I see you brought a friend,” he said, unwilling to open the gate.
Nico let out another cough to clear his voice. “I’ve brought some items you might have interest in.”
My friend spoke in a deeper tone than normal, but surprisingly, it didn’t sound fake. He opened the drawstring bag in his hands to show the lanky, narrow-eyed man a peek at some of the jewelry we had just stolen.
Raising a brow, the man unhinged the lock on the gate, opening it slightly with a shrill creak. As he scanned the area around us, he bent down to examine the bag. “Not a bad collection. Did you steal this from your mother, perhaps?”
“No questions, remember?” Nico reminded, tightening the string to close the bag. “Now can we come in and discuss prices?”
The thin man looked around once more with suspicion in his eyes but eventually let us in. “Close the door behind you.”
As we arrived inside the dainty shop, a thick layer of smoke greeted us. From the other side of the room, two men were puffing out clouds of smoke, each with a cigarette between their fingers. While the dense cloud of grey covered much of their facial features, I could at least distinguish their general shapes. One of the men was burly—muscles clearly displayed underneath his tank top. The other man was much more round, but with thick, firm limbs that showed he wasn’t any weaker than the other man.
“Come, children. Let’s get this over with,” the thin man said as he scratched his unshaven cheeks.
Nico and I exchanged glances but only he went up to the counter as I looked around the shelves displaying various books and gadgets.
After a few minutes, my gaze fell on a thin, tattered book. From the few words I could make out from the spine of the book, it seemed to be a rather old instruction manual on ki. Gingerly removing it from the shelf, the first thing that struck me was that half of the front cover had been ripped off.
My first instinct was to put it back; after all, the orphanage had books in much better condition on core developing for ki use. However, my fingers seemed to move on their own as they flipped through the pages. Inside it were pictures and diagrams of a person in different poses with arrows and other lines around the figure. I wanted to take it with me and was half tempted to ask for the price, but I held myself back. This book was a luxury when we needed the money to save our home.
As I continued my attempt at discerning the vague instructions, I lost interest, and my eyes kept falling back on the two men playing cards on the foldable table. The two had been taking glances at Nico as he and the shop owner did business. I buried my face in the old book, taking a peek from behind the pages. I wasn’t sure what they were up to, but I didn’t want to stay long enough to find out.
Fortunately, Nico had just finished his transaction and approached me, flashing a quick smirk before putting his stoic face back on.
“Did you find something interesting?” he asked, eyeing the book in my hand.
“It’s nothing,” I said, quickly putting the thin, coverless book back on the shelf.
“You can take it if you want,” the rangy store owner said from behind as he leaned his elbow on the front counter. “No one knows how to read it and it’s just been collecting dust here.”
“Really?” I asked, suspicion surfacing on my face.
He revealed his abnormally white teeth in something akin to a smile as he nodded.
Without another word, I quickly tucked the book in the bag and murmured a thanks to him. As Nico and I left the store through the back door we had entered from, my friend unzipped his jacket and showed me the wad of crinkled cash.
“See, I told you it’d all work out,” he beamed.
“I guess so,” I replied, still skeptical about this whole endeavor. I felt bad for the couple who lived there but I comforted myself in the fact that we didn’t take much of their jewelry. Nico explained that only taking a few items might make them suspicious, but they’d be hesitant in calling authorities for potential theft.
Also, since the married couple that lived there were well past their retirement age, the cops would most likely assume that they had just forgotten or misplaced the items. I let out a relieved sigh as we made our way back to the orphanage. The further we were away from the scene of the crime, the better I felt.
“What did I even come here for, Nico?” I asked, dodging people as we walked down the street. “Feels like you did this all on your own.”
“Hey, you got a free book out of this, right?” Nico patted my shoulder. “Besides, it’s more fun—”
“We’re being followed,” I cut in, whispering as I continued looking ahead. I had felt two pairs of eyes practically boring a hole in my back almost as soon as we had left the shop, but since we were going straight, I didn’t want to assume. However, I had been able to catch glimpse of one of the guys, and I instantly recognized him as one of the smokers from the shop.
“This way,” Nico ordered in a hushed tone.
As we reached the outskirts of the city, we took a right into an alleyway, hopping on top of a trashcan to reach the other side of the locked fence.
I landed nimbly on my feet as Nico clawed out at the fence to keep from losing balance as he fell to his feet. Quickly, we ran down the old alley that smelled like a mixture of rat turd and rotten eggs. Hiding behind a particularly large pile of trash, we waited.
Soon, two pairs of footsteps could be heard, growing louder as they approached.
“Little rats made it easy for us,” a hoarse voice snickered.
“A fitting grave for them,” a gravelly voice replied.
“It’s the two men from the shop!” Nico cursed as he quickly hid behind the trash again after taking a peek.
“I knew it,” I clicked my tongue as my eyes began scanning for anything I could use as a weapon.
“They’re probably here to either get the shop owner’s money back for him, or to steal it for themselves,” Nico deduced, clutching the money in his jacket tightly.
Suddenly, a darkened figure leaped out from the other side of the pile of trash we were hiding behind, casting a giant shadow over us.
“Surprise!” the barrel-chested thug exclaimed with a sinister grin.
“Run!” I screamed at Nico, pushing my friend forward.
He had no time to retort as he briskly made his way down the narrow alleyway darkened by the tall buildings around us.
As the muscular man swung his beefy hand, I back-stepped out of reach. The sharp air from the force of his strike tickled my nose as I immediately reached down and swung a broken plank I had spotted on the floor just below his ribs.
The burly man buckled, more from surprise than pain. I used that chance to bolt toward Nico, who was getting chased by the burly thug’s round companion. But before I could get there, the man smacked Nico to the ground, knocking the wind out of my friend.
As Nico gasped for breath, the pumpkin-bodied goon lifted his right leg over my friend’s body.
“Over here, pig!” I roared, hoping the provocation would make him turn.
“Whaddya say?” the thug snarled, turning around to face me.
I didn’t stop running as the brawny thug approached from behind. My mind whirled, thinking of possible ways to get out of this situation despite how hopeless it seemed.
My eyes darted around until they fell onto the sight of a loose nail stuck inside a brick of a building’s wall nearby, about almost three meters off the ground.
Cursing once more under my breath, I feigned to my right just before the musclehead behind me could make a grab. Sidestepping without even glancing back, I leaped up, hoping to reach the nail.
As my body shot up, for some reason, everything around me turned silent. The world around me slowed as I could hear my heart thumping erratically, as if every other noise had been tuned out.
I realized mid-jump that I wouldn’t be able to reach the nail, but I was surprisingly calm. My peripheral view all came into focus as if I was looking at everything around me all at once. Utilizing a deep crack in one of the lower bricks, I sprung myself off to reach the rusted nail.
As I pried out the nail, I pushed off the wall with my feet to accelerate towards the hefty thug. I could slowly see the man’s expression change from surprise to grim concentration. I could clearly see his right arm about to intercept my attack somehow, just from seeing the twitch in his right shoulder.
I used my free hand to vault off of his right arm as it formed an arc toward me. In that same instant, I jabbed the nail in my hand directly into his eye—even feeling the sensation of the tip burying itself inside.
At the shrill howl of the chunky goon, the world came back to normal. I tumbled gracelessly into a pile of old boxes as my opponent frantically clawed at his face, too afraid to go near the nail in his left eye.
“Come on,” I urged, pulling the wide-eyed Nico back up to his feet. I looked back once more to spot the muscular thug trying to tend to his friend’s injury to no avail.
Out of breath and sweating out of every pore in my body, we collapsed behind a local convenience store just outside the city.
As we leaned against the wall, too tired to care about how many drunks and homeless people vomited and peed here, Nico ripped off his jacket and lifted up his shirt to cool himself off.
“That is what you came here for,” he panted, smacking my thigh. “Oh man, if only you could’ve seen yourself, Grey! Your body flew around like those kings fighting in duels!”
I shook my head, still trying to catch my breath. “I don’t know what I did. Everything just started moving really slow.”
“I knew you had it in you!” my friend breathed. “Remember that time Pavia dropped all those dishes next to you?”
“Yeah. I caught them, why?”
“You caught three dishes and two bowls, Grey!” Nico exclaimed. “And you weren’t even paying attention when she had dropped them.”
“I mean, catching something is one thing, but that has nothing to do with fighting,” I argued, sagging further down against the wall.
“You’ll realize soon,” he replied, too tired to keep disputing. “Now let’s go, I don’t want to be doing extra chores for being out past sundown!”
“Let’s go,” I agreed, jogging alongside him.
We arrived at the old, two-story house that served as the orphanage just a bit before dinner—plenty of time to wash up and be on-time without looking suspicious. Nico slowly opened the back door, wincing as the old hinge began creaking. Keeping the lights off, we tiptoed down the unlit hallway, and just as we were about to reach our rooms, the orphanage’s headmaster’s clear voice called out from the living room.
“Grey, Nico. Can you come here for a moment?” she said in a quiet yet frighteningly stern voice.
Nico and I traded glances, fear evident in both of our eyes. Nico quickly threw his jacket and drawstring bag into the room and closed back the door.
“Do you think she already found out?” I whispered.
“I’d normally say it’d be impossible, but it’s headmaster we’re talking about,” Nico replied, his normally confident demeanor shadowed by dread.
We arrived in the brightly lit living room, our clothes dirty and our hair and face unruly.
Sitting in perfect posture on the couch was our headmaster, an elderly woman all the kids called the Sorceress. Just next to her was a girl about our age with dusty brown hair that fell over her shoulders and a creamy complexion. She wore a luxurious red dress that not even the money we had just acquired could purchase.
The headmaster regarded us with a raised brow but didn’t question our disheveled state. Gently grabbing ahold of the unfamiliar girl’s tiny hand, the two of them walked toward us.
As the two approached, I couldn’t help but shiver at the cold, emotionless eyes of the girl as she lifted her gaze to match mine.
“Grey. Nico.” The headmaster nudged the brown-haired girl softly. “I’d like you two to meet Cecilia. You three are the same age, so I hope you can show her around and become friends.”
ARTHUR LEYWIN’S POV:
My eyes opened as if I had just blinked, yet it felt like I had been sleeping for days. I sat up in my bed, a mixture of feelings weighing down my shoulders.
‘Why was this memory coming to me again after so long?’ I thought. My insides twisted in guilt at the thought of Nico and Cecilia.
“Is everything all right?” Sylvie asked, curled up in her miniature form at the foot of my bed.
“Yeah, I’m fine,” I lied, running my fingers through my long, messy hair that now passed my chin.
The dream had been so clear and accurate that it had felt like I was back on Earth in my previous life.
I remained dazed, unable to get out of bed, when someone knocked at the door of my room.
“Come in,” I answered, thinking it was either my parents or my sister. However, a man that appeared to be in his late twenties, dressed in black clothes underneath a thin leather armor used by scouts, came in. He dipped his head in a respectful bow before relaying a message.
“General Leywin, the meeting place of the Alacryan messenger has been decided. Commander Virion has asked me to inform you to get ready to meet with the messenger along with him and Lord Aldir.”
“Got it. I’ll be out in ten minutes,” I replied, getting out of bed.
“Shall I send over a maid to help you get ready?” he asked.
I shook my head. “No need.”
“Very well.” The man left after another bow, closing the door behind him.
After quickly washing up, I tied back my hair at the crown of my head, leaving my bangs to fall just past my forehead. With my hair tied neatly and my body clothed in a fine white tunic trimmed with gold to compliment the dark mantle I wore over it, I looked like a very dashing noble. I was still unused to the tightness of the pants in this world but I had to admit that it offered great mobility and freedom when fighting.
“A rather dapper appearance for one about to fight in a war,” Virion remarked as I approached him and Aldir with Sylvie right beside me. While Aldir’s wardrobe practically lit up from the amount of gold and gems it contained, Virion wore a simple black robe as he was still in mourning over Director Cynthia’s murder.
“Thanks,” I winked, smoothing my sleeve.
Only a few days had passed since that day, but Virion appeared to have aged a century during that time.
By the signature black metal spike jutting out of Cynthia’s chest, it was obvious that the assassination was done by one that possessed the powers of the Vritra Clan. It was unlikely that an actual clan member had performed the attack since that would jeopardize the no-asura agreement in the war, but that didn’t mean one of their descendants couldn’t have done it.
The only question that ate at my—and Virion’s—mind was how they had done it. According to the guards and the nurse in her care, nobody had seen anyone leave or enter the floor and the door that had been closed and locked hadn’t been tampered with either. Everything but one fact remained a mystery; that somehow, the Vritra was involved.
“The ships are about a day away from reaching our shore, Arthur. Are you ready to meet this messenger?” Virion asked.
“Are you ready?” I asked back, genuinely concerned. “You’re not going to kill the messenger, right?”
Revealing a faint smile, Tessia’s grandfather shook his head.
Aldir stepped forward in front of the glowing teleportation gate. “Good, then let us depart.”