Mr. Black winced. “I'm fine, Miss Knight. Please don't hug me.”
I didn't know what his body looked like, but I could feel the hardness of his ribcage through his cloak and skin. He squirmed so I released him and stepped back.
“What happened to you?”
“You're not fine. You're injured and you've been starved.”
I crossed my arms. “How long have you been gone?”
He looked away. “Not long enough.” He slammed his scythe against the ground and I jumped. “You should not have made that wager with Tasker Phenic.”
“Don't change the subject. I want to know what punishment you had to go through and why.”
“It’s unlikely that you'll win against him in the first 100.”
“I think I can. Now answer me.”
“That's my business. It shouldn't concern you.”
“You getting punished because of me makes it my business.”
A smirk twisted his lips. “What if I agree to explain my situation if you win your wager?”
“Sounds like you assume I'll lose.”
He walked towards the gray expanse. “Take it or leave it.”
“I'll take it!” I said and followed.
When I reappeared in the blue-tinted room Phenic darted around like an excited fly, laughing maniacally.
“Do you want to know why you'll never win against me, Miss Knight?”
I said nothing.
“I’m not afraid.”
“But you are. Don't you notice how you shrink every time you come close to a trap or a badger?”
“Okay, they’re scary but I’m not afraid to face them.”
“It's not good enough. Your unconscious fear has you slow down when you should speed up. And 100 tries isn't enough to get past that kind of fear.”
I clutched my bow tighter. “You think so, huh?”
“I'll have to prove you wrong.”
The gong sounded.
We both dove into the mine. I had milliseconds to discover that this boss room didn’t stay the same like the first one had, taking out an advantage I’d been counting on.
I clenched my jaw and collected a boulder of aluminum. This time I didn’t follow him and chose my own path. This time I paid attention to my own actions.
As I neared a line of mushroom traps I didn’t notice myself slowing. An ice boulder sat on a ledge. I pushed it on top of a mushroom trap with empty spaces below it and followed. As I neared the traps it outpaced me. The garden of shrooms grew larger and the sharp jolt of adrenaline hit me. I zoomed past the traps and around the boulder.
Phenic wasn’t a square ahead of me yet but after facing several more traps he was. Then he used his cheating armor against a badger and became 4 ahead.
Paying so much attention to my mental state slowed me down even more and I quickly died.
After doing it five more times I found myself back in the gray world with the judging figure of Mr. Black looming over me.
“Give me some time.”
I sat, poorly attempting the lotus position, and concentrated on my breathing to meditate. Truthfully, I only pretended to meditate, but I still tried.
After an hour of resting like that, I started to drool. I wiped my mouth.
“What exactly are you trying?”
“I don't know. To rid myself of fear?”
“Whatever that is, it's not working.”
“It's called meditating and I never could get it right. To me, it always felt like sleeping without the sleep.”
He cleared his throat and turned away from me. That was a strange reaction for him.
“What? Do you know of a way to get rid of fear?”
“You're human. You're supposed to experience emotions.”
I stood up. “You know of a way but you're not telling me because I'll win the bet.”
“I'm not telling you because it's dangerous. Also, because the only magic I agreed to teach you was the pen magic.”
I waved off his last statement. If he had a technique that could help me I had to learn it. “Mysterious reaper pen dangerous or something else dangerous?”
“Reapers must stand in front of newly dead souls and shepherd them to their next journey. They can't risk feeling sympathy or emotions for the people they briefly meet since they may decide to break from their job and revive a soul that should die, or escort a soul that should live. When it becomes unbearable, we have been known to use a technique to stop those emotions.”
“Can you teach it to me?”
“It's too dangerous for you.”
He stared down at me for a long moment, then sighed. “When you're constantly in pain or afraid, removing those emotions sounds like a good idea. But it removes the best parts of you.”
“Fear is not my best part.”
“But empathy is. Your will to fight is.”
“But won’t I be able to turn it off and on?”
“Yes. You can at will but—”
“Then please teach it to me.”
“You don't realize how dangerous it can be.”
“I can't use that as an excuse when children have been kidnapped. Not when I can save them.”
He patted my head and I glowered. “That emotion is what I’m trying to protect.”
“Let me try it and decide for myself. Please?”
His mouth thinned and his brows lowered. “Fine! But if I think you’re abusing it I’ll scour it from your memories.”
“You can do that?”
“I’d have to.” He pressed his hand to my temple and once again whispered slippery words. When his magic stopped he crossed his arms. “This is the last time I’ll let you coerce me into teaching you a Reaper technique.”
I grinned. “Thank you! How does it work?”
“Press your thumb to your ring finger, on either hand.”
My right hand trembled a little as I touched my thumb to my ring finger.
I admit that when I heard about a technique to remove fear, I imagined it being relaxing, like a day at the spa. Instead, I invited the incarnation of death to inhabit my body. Ice ran from my mind outward as if I’d been flash frozen. My tense muscles relaxed and the determination and urge to find and save my brother vanished. I’d suddenly become a different person. If I could have been afraid, the fear of how unnatural this state felt would have sent shudders of terror running through me. To top it all, I had no urge to let go of the chilly peace.
Mr. Black grabbed my fingers and parted them.
My hands shook and my legs became melted glass. I fell to my hands and knees.
“What was that?”
“That was what you asked for.”
After sitting back, I looked away. “It was like...”
“Being dead. I’m familiar with it.”
“I didn’t ask for that.”
He nodded and hope appeared on his face. “Would you care to have the technique removed from your mind?”
“Not yet. It’s a terrifying state of mind but I’m not going to give up on it yet. I think I can use it if I get enough practice.”
I ignored his disapproving stare and the regret that I’d been its cause.
“Are you ready to continue?”
I swallowed. “Yes.”