The relief was palpable in my sigh when the last bell of the day sounded. Normally I was all over PE classes, but on this particular day I was way too out of it to perform at my best, and the exercise only served as a distraction, interrupting my concentration and preventing me from thinking clearly.
I was standing on the edge of the basketball field, and once the teacher gave us the go I followed after my placeholder classmates and headed towards the changing rooms. The weather had turned for the worse since noon; the sky was covered in thick grey clouds, and I really wanted to get inside and change into something warmer than the gym clothes on my back.
“Why the long face?” Angie sidled up to me after only a couple of steps, torpedoing my plans with nigh-precognitive timing. Not only that, but if the impish smile plastered on her face was any indication, her opening question was only a foot in the door.
“Nothing,” I grunted as I stopped beside her and began looking for my assistant. She was still in the middle of a group of girls leaving the tennis courts, and I almost waved to her, but in the last second I changed my mind. The girl at my side, completely unaware of my considerations, let her smile creep even wider.
“Oh, don’t be a sore loser!” She chuckled like she just said something funny. “You can let him win every once in a blue moon, you know?”
I returned my gaze to her and blinked in confusion. It took me a few seconds to realize what she was talking about, but when I did I could barely stop myself from snorting. Yeah, because losing to Josh at basketball was obviously the biggest of my problems.
No, the reason I was in my current sour mood was because Judy ran out of information to give me. After her last conversation with the class rep she told her that she should know enough to confront me and ask me for the rest. Trying to squeeze more out of her after that would have been way too suspicious, so my assistant wisely went along with her ‘advice’ and abandoned direct questions, but it ultimately meant that the class rep was no longer a free fountain of info to us.
That was, frankly, annoying. We were still only beginning to find our sea-legs, and losing our crutch was a big blow. Still, there were other sources...
I looked down at the short girl still grinning expectantly at me, and after a brief moment of vacillation I made up my mind.
“Are you free this afternoon?”
The mischievous smirk on Angie’s face withered in slow-motion, but then she caught herself and it was replaced by an awkward grimace.
“Wow, that was... A little sudden, don’t you think?”
“Yes, but we need to talk.”
“About what exactly? I’m a little busy right now, and while I would love to hang out, I already have some plans and...”
My hesitation lasted only a moment. It was a stab in the dark, but it was a necessary one. I needed more info, and she was the next on my list anyways. I took a deep breath and leaned closer for a whisper.
“Is it Celestial business?”
Her eyes opened wide as saucers and she glanced left and right like she was expecting a candid camera crew to jump out of a nearby bush. After a few seconds her eyes snapped back to me and her hand lashed out. I twitched, almost expecting a slap to the face, but instead she covered up my mouth with an uncharacteristic frown and whispered, “Not here.”
I let out a sharp snort through my nose, half in amusement and half in irritation, before I proceeded to remove her hand.
“That’s why I asked if you were free this afternoon. Are you still busy?”
She was visibly torn for a moment, but at last she nodded with a slightly wooden smile. “I will make time for you.”
There was a threat of an awkward silence hanging in the air around us, but before it could materialize it was dispelled by a jaunty whistle. It seemed somewhat familiar, but I couldn’t recall where I’ve heard it before.
“What’s with the long face?” Josh asked playfully as he came up to us.
“Was that the victory tune from Final Fantasy?” Angie inquired back without bothering to answer his question.
“Indeed it was,” My friend answered with a shit-eating grin.
“Nice!” She exclaimed and the two high-fived without further prompting. It might have been a childhood friend thing or something.
“So?” I addressed Josh with well-veiled irritation. “Did you just come over to brag?”
“Mostly,” He admitted with the same grin. “Hey, if you are allowed to rub your victories in my face, so am I!”
“When did I ever do that?”
“All the time?”
“I can’t remember.”
“You are getting old then.”
“Or maybe he is amnesiac?” Angie chimed it with the perfect timing of the completely oblivious. “Did you hit your head?”
I could see that Josh was starting to fidget suspiciously, so I punched him in the shoulder with an exaggerated groan.
“Yeah, like that would happen.”
“Uh, yeah,” Josh agreed with a nod.
“So, if that was what you were ‘mostly’ here for, what was the other reason?”
He looked at me blankly for a moment, but then he finally remembered our previous conversation and the smile crept back onto his face.
“Ah, right! Since you refused my invitation during lunch break, I thought I would ask you if you wanted to hang out after school. It’s been a while since we did that, just the two of us.”
I drew in an awkward breath through my teeth and shook my head.
“Sorry, I already have plans.”
“Again!?” He slumped his shoulders in disappointment. “Is it with Elly or Judy? Or are you two-timing?”
“No and no.” I pointed at the girl out our side. “I need to discuss some things with Angie.”
His eyes opened wide as he stared at Angie.
“You are three-timing!? Man, you are crazy!”
I glanced at Angie and there was an unspoken unison between the two of us as we both raised our hands and punched the guy in the opposite shoulders. He staggered back with a surprised yelp and began rubbing his upper arms.
“Ow-ow-ow! Hey, I’m joking!”
“It wasn’t funny,” Angie pouted with an exaggerated sulk.
“Fine, I get it,” He grumbled in defeat, but only to change gears a moment later. “So, can I tag along?”
“Nope,” I told him bluntly.
“Oh come on! We barely hang out lately! At this point I’m becoming a total shut-in!”
“So you want to go into town just for that?”
“Is keeping my social life alive not a good enough reason for you?”
I shrugged. If that’s all he wanted, I could help him. I looked around the field, and once I found her I waved for the princess. She looked at me questioningly as she stepped out of her ring of followers (the placeholder girls really took a liking to her as of late) and after some more urgent waving on my end she apologized to them and strode over to us. She had her hair done up as usual and she was a little disheveled after the class, but she somehow made even that look good.
Anyways, she stopped just outside of arm’s reach and looked over each one of us in turn before finally settling on me.
“Yes? Is there a problem?”
“Nah, nothing of the sort.” While I said so I extended a hand a pushed my friend to the front. “Josh was just feeling down because we couldn’t hang out with him today. Could you stand in for us spend some time with him? As friends?”
Her eyes narrowed in discontent. I guessed she didn’t like my meddling so soon after we both agreed to be vague on our relationship status.
“Don’t I have a say in this?” Josh protested more out of habit than actual displeasure.
“Oh shut up,” I quipped while patting him on the back. “Stop acting like hanging out with pretty girls is new to you.”
After the obligatory blush from the two pretty girls at our side (to her credit, the princess only flushed slightly harder than Angie, probably due to my extensive immunization efforts) Josh finally relented.
“Fine, fine... Geez.” He turned to the princess and tried to smile, though it didn’t quite reach his eyes. “So Elly... are you free this afternoon?”
“I... don’t have any plans, if that’s what you are asking.”
I left the two awkward teenagers to their devices and covertly pulled Angie to the side with a few short gestures.
“Let’s get changed and meet at the lockers.”
“Where are we going to talk? The roof?”
I shook my head. I had way too many serious conversations on the roof already. I could do with a change of scenery.
“I was thinking more along the lines of…” I paused and frowned at no one in particular. Just what other places did I even know where we could discuss things? Should I invite her over to my place; I mused? Nah, that would have been a bit too forward. But then, what else was there? “… the park?”
She nodded as if my awkward suggestion was just what she was thinking of. I also couldn’t help but notice the disapproval in her eyes. She probably didn’t like me setting Josh up with the princess, but then again, sometimes we had to make compromises. Not to mention, things between the princess and I were somewhat troublesome. I mean, it wasn’t like I didn’t like her, and she was pretty, and she was fun to tease, and I liked her cooking, and her explosive shyness was occasionally really cute, but she was supposed to be Josh’s love interest and I felt a little bad for unintentionally coming between them.
Anyways, we waited patiently for the two to agree on their afternoon activities. It included karaoke, which made me really conflicted. I would have absolutely loved to be there when the princess sang. It would have been hilarious. Oh well, maybe next time.
Either way, we headed for the changing rooms. By the time I got in my uniform Judy was already outside, waiting for me with a pair of soda cans. I smiled at her and accepted one of them.
She didn’t say anything, only nodded once before we headed for the classroom to get our bags. In the meantime I shared my plans for the afternoon with her as we reached the stairs. She listened to me carefully while she emptied her can and finally asked; “Isn’t that too soon?”
I shrugged noncommittally.
“We’ll see. We need to get info out of them, and she is the only one who doesn’t already think I know everything.” I paused for a moment as I had a sudden idea. “Say, do you want to come along?”
She was visibly hesitating for a moment (‘visibly’ in this case meaning that anyone could have realized it after intensely studying her for a few weeks under a microscope, but I digress), but in the end she slowly shook her head.
“No. If I were to do that, she might get suspicious. Not to mention, I have other plans.”
“You do?” I might have sounded a little too surprised, as she gave me a hurt look. Maybe she thought I considered her unable to have plans of her own? Before I could correct the misconception however, she continued.
“Yes. I wanted to talk to Neige.”
“Oh...” It made sense in retrospect. If I talked to Angie and the class rep was out of the question, it naturally only left her. Though, there was always the princess, but the two of them didn’t really get along, so I doubted she could have gotten any extra info out of her by asking nicely.
We reached the first floor and after a single glance I gestured for Judy to slow down. She obediently halted and then followed the direction of my gaze, which led to Neige.
“Speak of the devil?” I whispered jovially, though I was actually more curious than anything. It was rare to see her around these parts. First years had their classrooms on the ground floor. She sometimes came up to the second floor, where our classrooms were, but unless she was looking for someone else around here, she should have had no business on the first floor. It didn’t look like she did though. In fact, she was leaning out an open window (a safety hazard if I have ever seen one) and tapping her fingers against the windowsill with a difficult expression. For a moment I entertained the thought of sneaking up on her and scaring her, but I discarded the idea and called out to her from afar. While she wasn’t as clumsy as the princess, I didn’t want to risk her falling out the window by accident.
She twitched as she looked up with a panicked expression, but when she realized it was only the two of us she quickly calmed down. She seemed especially jumpy lately, even before the events of the previous day. I wondered why that was, but I decided to leave the question for a later date.
We walked up to her and she smiled at us. It seemed somewhat strained though.
“What were you looking at?” Judy asked while poking her head through the open window.
“N-Nothing in particular,” She answered nervously. There was something fishy about her behavior, and while normally I would have drilled her until I found out what bothered her, right now I had an appointment to catch. Still, there was just something weird going on.
I stared at Snowy and then I looked out the open window as well. As I did the latter, my eyes caught something peculiar and my brows began to furrow without my consent. I caught it early though and turned to the girl with what I hoped was a natural looking smile.
“You know, we were just talking about you,” I told her as I ushered her towards the stairwell.
“You were?” She asked back dubiously, like she was expecting a trick.
“Yeah. Judy wanted to talk to you. Speaking of which…” I turned to my assistant and said, “Could you two get my bag too? I have to go to the washroom.”
My assistant wanted to object, but I wiggled my eyebrows at her and she got the message. She nodded and grabbed Snowy by the elbow, gently pulling her towards the classroom without a word. To my surprise she didn’t even protest.
I waited for them to reach the stairs before I walked over to the window and looked out. There was nothing strange going on outside. Most of the placeholders were already on their way home, with only a few slowpokes still idling around. All things considered, the scenery looked perfectly normal.
What wasn’t normal, however, was the weird purple glow coming from the outside of the windowsill. I leaned closer to take a better look, but it looked nothing more than an indistinct blotch of luminescence stuck to the wooden frame. If I strained my eyes I could make out a few faint lines in the middle of it, but they were rapidly dissolving by the time I started observing them, and within a few seconds they completely disappeared alongside the glow.
“Well, that was strange,” I mused to myself as I headed for the stairs myself. I had no idea what that was, so I decided to ask Snowy the next time the opportunity presented itself. It probably wasn’t anything important, but one could never know.
I met up with the girls just as they were leaving our classroom and Judy handed me my bag without a word. We left the second floor and greeted Angie, Josh and the princess as we passed by each other on the way down. Once we reached the ground floor, Snowy broke off from us to get her bag, and by the time she returned the aforementioned three also caught up with us.
We went through the usual routine; our group separated at the shoe lockers and we regrouped at the entrance once everyone retrieved their outdoors footwear. I finished first, as usual, since I had a pair of really comfy sneakers I could simply jump into without messing around with shoelaces, so I had time to think about a weird sensation I was getting. There was a person missing from the picture. It didn’t take a genius to figure out who it was.
The last time I saw her, the class rep was heading towards the changing rooms behind the rest of us, yet we didn’t see her since then. I wondered how we could have missed her on our way back, and before long I found myself slipping into Far Sight. It was a little disturbing how naturally it came to me, but I shooed such concerns away and concentrated on finding her.
In my previous experiments, I already determined that I could sense the general direction of the people I was observing, at least in relation to me, so I was a little confused when this internal compass told me the class rep was under our feet by at least several floors. The confusion quickly faded as my vision snapped into place and I found her standing in a familiar room talking to an equally familiar old man.
“... cannot trace them. At first I thought they were just fluctuations, but they happen only during school hours.” Came the class rep’s voice as if through a badly tuned radio, but by the time the other person started talking the sound became crystal clear.
It was the same white-bearded old man I had seen in the morning, and in the very same room to boot. He looked to be at least eighty if not more, and his voice was surprisingly deep yet whimsical, like a grandfather who just returned from bowling and was giddy over breaking his own record.
“So you say someone is using magic under our very noses? How fascinating! We should…”
“Hey, Leo!” I was pulled out of my Far Seeing by a hand shaking me by the shoulder. I opened my eyes, startled, and blinked at the girl at my side. Angie gave me an apprehensive look and stood back. “You were zoning out.”
“Uh, sorry,” I apologized hastily while looking for a plausible excuse. “I... didn’t sleep much last night.”
“Really? You should. Sleep deprivation is bad for your health.”
Well, considering I haven’t slept for over a month, I was holding up pretty well. It wasn’t something I could tell her though, so instead I just agreed with whatever she said. However, as I was nodding away, I finally noticed how there were only the two of us by the entrance.
“Where are the others?” I let the innocent question slip, and Angie’s usually carefree eyes were immediately set into suspicious squints again.
“Did you really fall asleep? They left just a few moments ago.”
As she said that I looked up and I could just catch Snowy’s unmistakable white ponytails disappear behind the school gates.
“Sorry, I’m a little out of it,” I continued with the excuses while I threw my bag over my shoulders and began striding. “A stroll in the park should get me fresh and awake in no time.”
“If you say so...” The girl at my side answered while still eyeing me skeptically, but followed after me all the same.
During our walk to the park, the atmosphere between Angie and I was unusually tense. I was tempted to break the silence several times, but in the end I didn’t have any good topics. Or rather, I had a few, but they all concerned either the supernatural, or my problematic alleged love-life, neither of which was exactly the right material for a light-hearted chat. However, just as I was about to give up and began thinking about how I should lead into my questions once we arrived, I noticed something peculiar.
Angie was humming at my side. It wasn’t a complex tune, more like a nursery rhyme. What really freaked me out for a moment though, was that she was glowing in the rhythm of her humming.
“What are you doing?” I asked her in a whisper that seemed to jolt her out of it and the glow surrounding her dispersed like a thin fog. She blinked at me in surprise and told me in a flat voice;
“I’m humming because I’m bored.”
With that she averted her face with an exaggerated ‘hmpf’ and returned to her humming. I paid closer attention to her this time, and as the glowing started, I noticed a couple of thin lines extending from her. They looked like strands of spider silk in the wind, but they were way too weird to be anything so ordinary. My first instinct was to try and find out what they were connected to, but they were instead passing through objects. In fact, they seemed completely intangible.
After some further observation I noticed something even more troubling: I couldn’t see it at first because we were standing so close together, but there was a string pointed right at my chest. Not only that, it was much thicker than the ones randomly floating around her and it seemed to glow in unison with her weird aura. Speaking of which, how come no one found it strange that she was lighting up like she was bitten by a radioactive fluorescent light bulb? Was it something only I could see?
Those were questions for later, as I was more interested in the line connected to me at the moment. Angie’s humming was getting a little erratic, like she was trying to remember the exact tune of a song, and to my surprise it also made the strand wiggle like it was alive. It was pretty squicky, to be honest.
I reached out a finger and tucked at the string. It was insubstantial, and when I touched it, it felt like there was a mild electric current running through my skin. It wasn’t painful, but it was decidedly unpleasant. It was about this point I got really fed up with the entire situation and I pinched Angie in the side. She literally jumped with a high-pitched yelp and sent me a look of injured pride that only a teenage girl could manage. I stopped and faced her head on.
“What are you doing!?” She exclaimed with a scowl that made me realize why Josh was so afraid of her wrath. In this case though I matched her scowl with one of my own and pointed at the still attached strand between us.
“A better question is this: what are you doing?”
She gave me a puzzled look, and my further gestures only made her look even more incredulous, so in the end I just rolled my eyes, crooked my finger in a hook and slashed at the line in irritation. To my surprise, it actually caught, stretched and then snapped with a barely audible ‘pop’. Angie’s eyes opened wide in surprise, completely wiping away her previous frown. To be honest, I would have probably had a similar expression, but I managed to stay in character and just shook my head.
“Seriously, I have no idea what that was, but stop it.”
“I… Uh… Okay?” She nodded several times in a row as if in a daze, but when I tried to start walking again she called out to me in a borderline panicky voice. “Wait! How did you do that?”
“How did you...” She paused for a moment to make sure no one was in earshot. “How did you dispel my probe spell? Was that a somatic counter spell? But you are not an Abyssal, so that can’t be it...”
I let her mumble to herself for a while. My brain, on the other hand, was just switching to a higher gear.
She said ‘somatic’ just now, didn’t she? That reminded me of a particular byline in one of Judy’s first reports. It said there were three kinds of magic in practice: Vocal, somatic and harmonic. According to the info collected from the class rep, magi like her were using vocal magic. Chants and the like. Somatic magic, at least by the dictionary definition, probably had something to do with the body. I figured it was movement, and according to what Angie just said, it had something to do with Abyssals. More on that later.
However, there was a third one, which made me furrow my brows: harmonics. I didn’t really know what to think of it until a few minutes ago, but in retrospect it seemed pretty obvious it had to do with music. Angie was humming and subsequently there was weird stuff happening. Q.E.D., she was using harmonic magic.
It also raised an intriguing question: were these magic types unique to certain supernatural entities? Magi are vocal, Abyssals are somatic and Celestials are harmonic. It made a certain sense from a constructional standpoint, but at this point it was just a stab in the dark, so I filed it under ‘things to figure out later’ and returned to the conversation.
I had no answer to Angie’s question, and since I had no idea what happened either, bullshitting my way out of answering was too risky. That left only one avenue open for me: a blatant and shameless change of topic.
“What exactly were you probing for, if I may ask?”
Credit where credit’s due, the girl had the decency to act properly self-conscious when faced with the question. She chuckled awkwardly, but when my intent stare made sure I wasn’t giving up on the question she let out a defeated breath and told me, “Nothing intrusive, just checking if you are under the influence.”
“I’m not drinking.”
“Not that kind of influence, silly!” She exclaimed while she swatted at me playfully. She was obviously trying to lower my guard a little, and to be honest, I wasn’t entirely against a less formal conversation, so I smiled at her to encourage her. She grinned back and continued, “It’s to see if you were bewitched.”
“Charmed, controlled, having your free will ripped from you and stuffed in a tiny cage where you can only scream endlessly on the inside as your body is being controlled by malevolent magicks... That kind of thing.”
“... That was needlessly graphic.”
“Sorry,” She said, but according to her grin, she really wasn’t.
“Whatever. But why would you think that in the first place? Isn’t that a bit of a logical leap to make?”
Angie shrugged, which incidentally corresponded with the exact moment we got to the park. It was still in the early afternoon, but the skies were overcast and so it was a little darker than usual, and when you combined that with the leafless autumn trees surrounding us, it created a somewhat eerie atmosphere. It didn’t seem to get to my companion though, as she continued discussing the matter with her usual gusto.
“It wouldn’t be the first time though. For some reason the higher-ups have this creepy obsession with sending random mind-controlled dudes for correspondence. Once they even sent a nine years old girl just to tell me they had nothing new to say, can you believe that?! After I undid the spell on her I had to spend the entire day looking for the poor thing’s parents.” She paused for a moment before she gave me another puzzled look. “Speaking of dispelling, you still haven’t told me how you did that.”
I suppressed a twitch and turned it into a tired sigh instead. It was mostly just to gain a moment to think, but it didn’t actually help, so I put on my best mysterious smile and answered, “We all have our little secrets, don’t we?”
Angie nodded to herself like I just said something really profound, but then her brows knot again.
“Actually, now that you mention it... if it wasn’t the higher-ups that sent you, then how did you know that I...?” Her face suddenly tensed and she looked around again, quickly spotting a deserted bench by a side-path. “Let’s continue this conversation over there. We are in the open.”
I wanted to point out that we would be in the open even if we went there, but I wasn’t entirely against the idea of sitting down, so I curtly nodded and we walked over to the bench without further ado.
Angie dusted the seat and sat down. I was about to do the same, but a small gust of wind made me reconsider. It wasn’t too cold, but it was October already, and considering she only wore her school uniform with its short skirt, I was fairly certain she was feeling its bite more than I did. After a moment I shook my hand left and right to get Angie’s attention.
“Hold my seat; I’m going to go and grab some warm drinks. I’ll be right back.”
She looked at me suspiciously but nodded almost immediately. I smiled at her reassuringly and left in a hurry. It has been a while, but I knew there was a vending machine not too far from where we stood. It was a different one that the one I used when I met Snowy to return her phone, but it was closer. Or so I thought at least. In the end it turned out I had to head for the other one anyways, as part of the park was closed down. According to the sign the police were searching for some kind of large goat or ram that was sighted in the park. I shook my head in disapproval. Just how dangerous a goat could be to warrant locking up half the place?
Anyways, I got the hot cocoa and even managed to get some extra thinking time, so it wasn’t all bad. It didn’t take a genius to figure out that my approach with Angie was the wrong one. While I did get her to talk to me, she was extremely on guard, and while I already learned some tidbits just from observation, I managed to accidentally get her to think I was involved with their magic masquerade as much as the others. That didn’t bode well for my plan of asking about the basics, but at this point all I could do was to grit my teeth and carry on.
I was so lost in thought that I didn’t even notice the faint light down the path until I was staring right at Angie’s form, but I soon had to avert my eyes and only look at her from the edge of my vision. The glow surrounding her was way more intense than when we walked, so much so that it took my eyes several seconds to adjust so that I wouldn’t hurt myself from looking at her.
The first thing that struck me was how many of those familiar strands surrounded her. They didn’t seem to be attached to anything though, instead they slowly undulated around her like the tendrils of a giant jellyfish, slithering around (and sometimes through) trees and other obstacles as if licking them. It was a little creepy, to be honest.
Some of those strands were waving in my direction, and for obvious reasons that needed no stating, I didn’t really want them to touch me. As such I carefully weaved around the tendrils while making sure I wouldn’t spill our drinks, which was getting harder and harder the closer I got to her, but I was always up for a little challenge.
I was practically next to Angie by the time I realized that she was humming again, though at such a low volume I could barely make out the tune. I was more interested in the glow surrounding her though.
To my surprise (though to be perfectly honest, at this point I shouldn’t have been surprised by something like this) I found that the main source of the light was a ring floating over her head. It seemed as insubstantial as the strings and it was slowly rotating in a horizontal plane parallel with the crown of her head. No matter how I looked at it, it was a halo, and not the medieval artwork kind that looked like someone had a stage-light behind their head, but a stereotypical halo you would find over the head of a chubby cherub on a valentine’s card. Speaking of cherubs, she seemed to have a set of similarly insubstantial wings on her back, clipping through the back-rest of the bench even in their folded state. It looked weird but strangely fitting at the same time; so it was double-weird.
I waited for several seconds for her to realize I was beside her, but all I got for my trouble was nearly spilling my drink as I had to continually dodge the tendrils. I soon lost my patience and cleared my throat aloud. Her reaction was several magnitudes more extreme than I expected, as she jumped onto her feet with a loud shriek and raised her hands protectively. It took her a couple of seconds before she realized it was only me and then she began gaping at me in shock.
The couple of seconds of silence between us seemed to last for hours and it was positively deafening.
“Leo...” She spoke finally, her legs still shaking. “... you are freaking me out right now.”
“Why? You don’t like cocoa? I can get you an espresso instead if you want?” Her eyes told me in no uncertain terms that I should stop joking, so I dropped my shoulders in resignation. “Okay, okay. You are not in the mood, I get it. Sorry for startling you.”
“It’s not about that!” She denied, but I could still see her legs trembling a little, so I gestured towards the bench with my chin and she promptly sat down. I followed suit, but I could barely rest my backside before she spoke again. “How did you do that?”
“What exactly do you mean by ‘that’?” I asked innocently while sipping from my cup. “Ah, it’s hot!”
“Leo, stop messing around and answer me seriously.”
“If you mean how I got close to you without you noticing, it wasn’t that hard. You were really caught up in your humming magic or whatever.”
“The entire point of that ‘humming magic’ was to alert me if someone came close.”
“Oh,” I exclaimed as realization dawned on me. So those strands were like tripwires, huh? I shook my head lightly and turned to her with a small smile. “So that’s what it was! … You should work on that, it was pretty easy to dodge.”
She apparently thought I still wasn’t serious, for she snorted and crossed her arms in front of her chest while giving me one of those glares of hers, the one that was probably supposed to look withering but it rather reminded me of a sulky puppy with a missing chew-toy.
“Whatever. You obviously don’t want to answer me.”
“I do, you are just being too tense. Here, have a drink and unwind a little.”
She gave a doubtful glance at the second cup in my hand, but in the end she accepted it all the same. She took a cautious sip and the scowl on her face slowly faded as the warmth spread through her. I waited for her to finish drinking before I got ready to clear things up, but I was beaten to the punch yet again.
“Leo,” She spoke in a soft voice that somehow made her words sound even more meaningful. “We are friends, aren’t we?”
“I was led to believe, yes.”
She looked at me flatly and then proceeded to pinch my forearm. I was expecting it, and it didn’t really hurt, so I only smiled at her in return.
“You can be such a jerk,” She continued pouting. “Please take this seriously.”
She took a deep breath and her voice became soft again.
“I want to believe we are friends, so please tell me... Whose side are you on?”
Now it was my turn to give her a flat look before I buried my forehead in my hand,
“Really? Is this really a stock question around these parts?”
“Yeah. Literally everyone asked me this, some even verbatim.”
She fell silent for a second, thinking.
“By everyone, you mean... um, everyone?”
“You are being redundant, but yes.”
“So... they thought you were associated with someone else?”
“But you are not?”
“Then... who told you about me?”
“I figured it out on my own.”
She paled and leaned closer in a whisper.
For a moment I was tempted to tell her ‘You know your name literally means divine angel, right?’, but I digressed. They were probably unaware of the meaningful names floating around the same way they were ignoring any weird behavior from the placeholders, and I didn’t want to break the illusion by pointing it out. Who knew what I could break by spreading meta-knowledge around?
I still had to give her an answer though, so I said: “Honestly, I just had a hunch. You only confirmed it a few minutes ago.”
She looked me in the eye as if searching it for traces of deceit. I really hoped she didn’t have the ability to detect half-truths. My worries were proven unfounded soon though, as she let out a relieved sigh so over-the-top I was afraid she would fall off the bench before she turned to me and began pummeling my shoulder with her fists. It was only for show, so it didn’t actually hurt or anything, but it was sudden enough to make me instinctively reel back.
“Leo, you jerk! Do you have any idea how scared I was! I thought my cover was compromised!”
“Calm down, calm down...” I gently grabbed hold of her wrists and made her stop hitting me. “It’s not my fault you were jumping to conclusions.”
“Maybe...” She relented with a look to the side before she returned her gaze to me. “But you still nearly blew my cover, so it’s your fault all the same.”
“Yet nothing happened, and you even got a free hot cocoa out of it.”
“That’s a good point,” She nodded like I just said something insightful. I wanted to point out that it was a joke, but in the end I decided to let the topic drop.
“Whatever.” I raised my cup to my mouth to finish it up, though the real reason was to gain a second to think.
The situation has successfully defused itself and Angie was back to being normal. That was good. On the other hand, now she was completely convinced I was neck-deep in their little masquerade, so my original plans were out the window. Still, I could try gathering some info from her all the same.
“So, how long have you been undercover?”
“Yeah. You knew Josh since childhood, right? That means you have been placed pretty early.”
She laughed awkwardly and avoided eye-contact.
“That… was actually just a happy coincidence.”
“Yeah! It’s not like everything we do is part of some long-running nefarious plan, you know? Coincidences happen.”
By ‘we’ I presumed she meant Celestials as a whole.
“So you just accidentally happened to be the childhood friend of the guy around whom the entire universe revolves. That’s some coincidence all right.”
She avoided my eyes again and muttered, “I don’t like it either.”
“Yeah, I figured.”
“It can’t be helped though. The others must have caught wind of the prophecy.”
I tried, I really did, but I still couldn’t stifle the groan. She gave me a funny look, so I cleared my throat and spoke in my most diplomatic voice.
“… There is more than one?”
“Apparently. What is yours?”
She looked dubious, but at last she told me, “Well, it’s actually pretty simple. You know how the Deus sacrificed himself to seal away the Abyssals in the… well, Abyss?” I naturally had no idea, but I nodded anyways. “I always wondered if they were also called Abyssals before that… Anyways, that happened a long time ago. After that we had this prophecy saying that the Deus would be reborn as a human and they would return to us one day.”
“And that would be Josh?”
“… Maybe?” She said cautiously, but then she quickly added, “I mean, there are a couple other candidates, but Josh does seem to be in the center of attention. Maybe they know something we don’t?”
At first I thought it was a rhetorical question, but the way she looked at me made me realize it was aimed at me. I pondered for a moment, but at last I told her; “I think it’s a little more complicated than that.”
I wasn’t lying about that. Anyone with half a brain could see that Josh’s position at the center of the attention was a contrived one. He was not only a harem-protagonist pursued by four girls, all of whom were belonging to different supernatural races to boot, but he was also the focal point of at least two prophecies, and nothing said ‘contrived significance’ like having a prophecy about someone. In fact, I wouldn’t have been surprised if the other two girls and their people also had their own brand of prophecies. It was a little depressing to be honest. I really wasn’t a fan of anything that involved ‘prophecies’ and ‘destinies’ or any other plot-devices that clobbered free will over its head, but I wasn’t exactly in a position where I could do anything about it.
“Complicated, you say? So you do know something about it.”
“Only a little,” I told her while projecting false modesty. I had an image to keep up at this point, and if she was convinced I knew more than I did, then I had to act like that. “I am gathering information for unrelated reasons, and sometimes I just stumble upon interesting things.”
“You are brokering secrets?”
If her tone was any indication, she seemed totally flabbergasted by the idea. I didn’t know whether that was a good thing or not (though I had a feeling it was the latter), so I took a deep breath and engaged in the traditional practice of freeform discussion-derailment.
“I cannot confirm or deny such accusations… But now that you brought it up, just how long do you plan to keep your secret from the others? … Wait, scratch that. The better question is; why do you keep it a secret in the first place?”
If her deadpan gaze was any indication, she might have been onto me, but in the end she only shook her head.
“Leo, you are aware of our reputation, right?” I probably hesitated too long (though to be fair, I really didn’t know whether I should nod or shake my head at that), so she continued, “They would probably think I am here as part of some centuries old master plan. It would be... awkward. Not to mention it could strain our friendship. I don’t want either of those to happen.”
“Are you actually here as a part of a centuries-old master plan?”
“Then I don’t see the problem. They are going to figure it out anyway sooner or later.”
She twitched and glanced at me with a concerned expression.
“What do you mean by that?”
“Well...” I hesitated again, but at last I decided to just run with it. “First off, it probably wouldn’t take them long to realize that Celestials are missing from the picture. We already have a Draconian, a Magi and an Abyssal in the group after all. After that it wouldn’t take long to add two and two together.”
“That doesn’t mean anything. There are no knights or nerds in our group either.”
“Knights and nerds...?” I muttered, but I quickly put the question aside and returned to the main conversation. “Whatever. Listen, what I am saying is that it is not a secret you could, or indeed should keep for long under the current circumstances.”
“What circumstances are we talking about?”
“... You have heard about the battle yesterday, right?”
To my surprise Angie tensed up like a piano wire and exclaimed, “Battle? When? Where?”
“You really don’t know?” She shook her head. “Okay, this is what happened in a nutshell; the princess and Snowy had a little fight that may or may not have been related to yours truly. It escalated and they took it into the purple zone.”
“Restricted space, but that’s beside the point. The important part is that they tried to duke it out between each other after getting horny. Literally, I mean.”
“That sounded really dirty.”
“Yeah,” I said while scratching my cheek. “I realized it by the time I said it. Anyways, I managed to stop them, but they could have gotten really hurt.”
“That’s good to hear, but how does that relate to me?”
I paused to collect my thoughts and purposefully lowered my voice.
“Listen Angie. Tensions are high right now. Whether it comes to light during another crisis or whether you reveal it yourself under controlled conditions could make all the difference between another fight and a peaceful reconciliation. I don’t think it needs saying, but I would prefer the latter, thank you very much.”
“You expect a crisis in the near future?”
I raised an accusative eyebrow at the blatant change of the topic, but her eyes seemed earnest enough, so I let it slide. She let me get away with my topic switches, so this was only fair. Either way, I looked up and took a deep breath. How was I supposed to answer that?
“I don’t know. I don’t know anything. But what I am sure of is that things have been changing at a ridiculous pace lately. As much as I would hate it to happen, I think we reached the point where the current state of things is going to be shaken up. Hard.”
That was a very diplomatic and non-meta way of saying that we reached the end of the preambles and it was time for the main act, and if my research into supernatural harem stories convinced me of anything (aside of them being a lot less entertaining when you were inside one) was that the first act inevitably ends with a bad guy showing up and threatening the life of one or more people. I already had a number of candidates for the role, but that was beside the point.
Something was about to happen, and that something would involve Josh, the girls and, by proxy, me. This reminded me of my current goal: I wasn’t just collecting data because of intellectual goals, nor just to help me answer the big questions about the world I found myself in. It all had a much, much more practical and arguably important reason: I needed knowledge, not just for myself, but so that I could effectively look after my friends when push comes to shove; which would inevitably happen, and rather sooner than later I was afraid.
But back to the current conversation in progress. Angie once again looked me in the eye like she was looking for the truth on my retina.
“So... it’s a hunch?”
“You could say that, yes.”
“I see... And do you expect it would involve a conflict between us?”
She paused, genuinely surprised by my direct answer.
“So, if that happened, whose side would you take?”
“You do realize that was just a rewording of a question I already answered?” She didn’t react, so I closed my eyes and took a big breath. “If you asked me that question a couple of days ago, I would have probably said ‘Joshua’s side’, but that’s not adequate anymore.” I paused, glancing at her still expectantly waiting eyes and finished with saying, “My current answer is this: I wouldn’t take anyone’s side.”
“You want to be neutral?”
“Yes, but not quite. I don’t have anything to do with your goal and prophecies and whatnot. I want only one thing: to keep everyone from getting hurt. I cannot do that if I took sides.”
Well, fine, actually I had two goals, as figuring out the nature of this world was still my primary objective, but it was not something Angie needed to know.
“That’s...” She paused before sniffing and rubbing her eyes. “That’s so admirable.”
“... Are you making fun of me?”
“No!” She protested while rummaging through her bag to get a tissue. “I mean it! I knew you were a good guy, but I never realized you were so...” She blew her nose, and by the time she continued, the end of her sentence got lost.
“I am really not,” I protested, though I had to admit it felt nice to be praised every once in a while, even if the praise was wholly undeserved.
“Can I help?” The question took me aback for a moment, in good part because of its sudden ferocity. “I want everyone to keep getting along too! Please?”
I honestly didn’t know how to answer that. Considering that a few minutes ago she was borderline paranoid about me, her sudden enthusiasm was downright jarring. Still, I had no real reason to doubt her sincerity, so after a little thinking I gave her a tentative nod.
“Fine by me. First things first, you really need to tell them you are a Celestial.”
Her enthusiasm wilted on fast-forward.
“Do I have to?”
“Yes. I told you, I want to get rid of anything extraneous that could cause friction in the group.”
Of course, there was always the main source of said friction, namely Josh, but I couldn’t really do anything about him, now could I?
“But it would compromise my cover…”
“And I tell you that you don’t really need it, but if you really insist, we can make them swear to keep it a secret. We can trust them with that much, can’t we?”
She didn’t sound entirely convinced, so I cleared my throat and moved on before she would lose whatever passion she still had for the idea.
“More importantly though, I could really use some information.”
“What kind?” She immediately perked up, probably happy about leaving the topic of her ‘cover’ behind. “Financial? Political?”
“I was… actually thinking about the basics first.”
“The basics? How basic are we talking about?”
“Very basic.” She looked at me doubtfully, but by then I had a perfectly reasonable explanation in store. “I am in a unique position where I can ask for info from all of you. I want to be able to cross-reference them, and I don’t want to leave any stone unturned.”
I admit, it was a pretty flimsy reason, but I only came up with it a few minutes beforehand, so I decided to cut myself some slack. Angie seemed to be perfectly satisfied with it though, so maybe it wasn’t as bad as I feared.
“That’s pretty smart. For you.”
“Just kidding!” She snickered while she rummaged through her belongings and she handed me a small, dog-eared booklet. I must have looked at it funny, for she rolled her eyes in exaggeration and shook it in front of me. “This is my old field manual. I got it when I was ten, so it’s a little worn out, but it has most of the basics in it.”
“Yeah, I suppose,” She shrugged as she deposited the booklet in my hand. “Not as convenient as the website though.”
I originally wanted to ask her why she was carrying around such a blatantly incriminating book if she cared so much about her cover, but then her words finally registered and I could barely keep my voice down.
“Wait, there is a site for that?!”
“On the internet?”
“Technically it’s in the deep-web, since it’s not indexed by search engines, but yeah.” She stared at me for a moment before a familiar, impish smile crept onto her face. “Why are you so shocked, Leo? It’s the 21st century, you know…”
I wasn’t paying her much attention, instead I got my phone out and fired up the built-in browser.
“Can you give me a URL?”
“It’s kinda long and weird and full of numbers… But…” She turned around again and descended elbow-deep into her bag. “I haven’t been up there for years. It has articles about all the basics a newly initiated Celestial should know, but it is written so dryly and it’s so convoluted that I only looked at it once and I never bothered after that. It’s kind of like that sex ed site we had to check out when we were freshmen.” She paused thoughtfully without stopping her rummaging even for a moment. “Oh, right, you weren’t with us back then. Did you have to go to a site like that?”
“I don’t think we did,” I answered without much thinking. “I can’t even really remember the details.”
Angie giggled with a knowing expression, probably reading something wholly unintended into my words, then she abruptly grinned at me and brandished a torn page from a textbook.
“I knew I still had it on me! Here!”
The page she handed to me contained only a single web address, and she wasn’t kidding when she said it was long and full of numbers. It took me nearly a minute to manually enter it, and once I did it took several seconds for the page to load. When it did I was welcomed by a very simple, white main page with Comic Sans lettering and a whole throng of male enhancement ads filling the sidebars. I gave the girl at my side a wry glance as she shrugged apologetically.
“Hey, you know we are not involved with human society on principle. We have to pay the server bills somehow.”
I only shook my head at her excuses and returned to the screen. On the top of the site there were a number of buttons with text so tiny they were barely readable, and the layout was so horrible any semi-competent web-designer would have gotten a heart attack just from looking at it, but it seemed functional enough. I tried poking at ‘News’, but when I did so the site gave me a pop-up window asking for login information. It seemed like it wouldn’t let me through unless I was registered.
“Ah! I completely forgot about that!” Angie exclaimed at my side. “You can only access the actual articles if they give you an account. Sorry, my bad.”
“Don’t worry about it,” I told her reflexively, though I would be lying if I said I wasn’t a little disappointed. “Is there no way to circumvent it?”
“I don’t think so,” She paused and then reluctantly said. “I can lend you my account if you really need it though. It was…”
She started mumbling at my side, probably trying to remember her password. I felt conflicted about that. I really didn’t want to borrow something like that, since it could get her into trouble, but at the same time access to this site would have potentially made things so much easier for me. I glanced back at the screen and frowned at the login prompt.
“Oh well, here goes nothing…” I muttered as I poked at the screen and entered ‘admin’ for username and ‘password’ for password, and… it didn’t work. Oh well, I thought, and was about to abandon the attempt as a pointless whim, but then I decided that one more try wouldn’t hurt anyone, so I tried ‘admin’ and ‘12345’, and…
“… You’ve got to be shitting me…”
“What?” Angie turned to me, frowning. I quickly put my phone away and tried to flash my innocentest innocent smile.
“Nothing, I was just talking to myself.”
“Oh…” My smile probably wasn’t as perfect as I hoped, for she looked at least a little bit suspicious, but in the end she didn’t pursue the topic and instead she said; “I can’t remember my password, but my username is…”
“Wait!” I stopped her before she could say anything else. “I really don’t want to impose on you any more than I already have.”
“Are you sure?”
“Yeah, I am perfectly fine with what I already have.”
“If you say so…”
She sounded surprisingly dejected, and I needed a quick way to change the direction of the conversation, lest she would realize I accidentally hacked their secret webpage.
“Say, all these heavy topics made me hungry… Do you know any places nearby with good crêpes?”
Saying that ‘she perked up by the mention of sweets’ was an understatement bordering on ‘the ocean is a little wet’ level.
“Yeah, I’m in the mood for some. Are you?”
“Is the sky blue?”
I was tempted to tell her that currently it was rather grey, but I refrained from doing so and instead returned her grin.
“I guess that is a yes.”
“Of course it is a yes!” Saying so she jumped to her feet, all of our previous seriousness evaporating in an instant, and gestured for me to follow. “I know the perfect place; it’s only a stone’s throw from here.”
I stood up with a smile and followed after her, suddenly feeling like the owner of a really energetic puppy. I supposed I could indulge her for the rest of the day. Making my life infinitely easier with a single URL deserved at least that much in return.