“I still can't believe this...” I whispered for the umpteenth time between two sips from my giant ‘I <3 coffee’ mug. I re-read the section in question to make sure I interpreted it properly before I jotted down a few questions into my notebook, crossed out a previous one, and then dropped it all onto the desk with exasperation and stood up from my computer with a low groan.
A quick glance at the clock told me it was well past midnight, and while it wasn’t late per se (the word kind of lost its meaning because of my sleepless lifestyle anyways), it still meant I spent close to seven hours hunched over in front of my monitor. I was fairly certain that was unhealthy, but I continued right where I left off after a quick bathroom break and grabbing some snacks from the fridge downstairs.
I stared at the site still open in front of me and I couldn’t decide whether I should feel incredibly lucky or absolutely terrified. Angie probably had no idea about it (or at least I hoped she didn’t), but this was not just a crappy site designed to show the ropes to newly initiated Celestials (by the way, yes, celestials had to be initiated at a young age before they were even told they were magical). Oh no. It was actually a crappy site designed to show the ropes for the newbies… that also happened to be the hub of the entire Celestial intelligence network! In other words, I just hacked into the Pentagon of the supernatural by complete accident!
I mean, seriously? I knew mundane governments had lots of problems with cyber security, but being able to guess an administrator-level password of an allegedly elite branch of a secret supernatural superpower was a failure of such epic proportions that I was still half-expecting it to be a trap.
Yet the rewards were too great to ignore, and what originally began as a cautious browsing of the more innocent-looking items soon turned into a deep-dive into the secrets of one of the supernatural giants of this world.
Most of the data contained within the databases and reports, which had to be accessed through a separate interface that reminded me of the DOS era, were obviously about Celestials and their sneaky business. Looking at it made me realize just what Angie meant when she said her people ‘had a reputation’ and that everyone would think she was a mole in the group. Hell, after what I saw here, even I wasn’t one hundred percent certain she wasn’t.
But I was getting ahead of myself. According to what I gathered, Celestials were defined by three things: their frantic search for this previously mentioned ‘Deus’ fellow (who contrary to his name wasn’t a god, just a very powerful seraph and a bit of a cult-leader), their rigid adherence to a caste-based society and using third parties and counter-intelligence to keep the other factions at bay.
All three of those were related to said Deus fellow, so I might as well explain his deal. A couple thousand years ago there was apparently a war between the Celestials and the Abyssals. I can’t say I was particularly surprised by that one; angels and demons obviously wouldn’t get along. Anyways, the Abyssals were actually winning, so Deus, the dear leader of all Celestials, hallowed be his holy socks, sacrificed himself in order to create an impenetrable barrier to seal the Abyssals into the Abyss (and just to answer Angie’s off-handed question, yes, apparently they were called so even before they were sealed away).
What’s that? You wonder how Snowy and her big bro are running around if there is a totally impenetrable and no way contrived barrier locking all Abyssals into their underground realm of slight unpleasantness (okay, technically it wasn’t all that unpleasant, one informant in a thread even said they had great vacation spots, but more on that later)? Well, the reason for that was...!
... Entirely unclear to me.
Since Judy didn’t know about all this when she talked with Snowy, she naturally couldn’t inquire about it either, so I supposed it was left to me to ask the girl later. By the way, she also sent me another report with all the info she drilled out of the white-haired Seducer (that was the technical name of her kind, I suppose ‘succubus’ wasn’t on the nose enough), but I was so deep in my site-crawling that I only gave it a quick look before I returned to my machine. I didn’t want to devalue her efforts, but damn, this site was a treasure-trove that was hard to compete with.
Anyways, according to the long mourning diatribes on the basic introduction facet of the site (and I do mean long, there was even a three hours long eulogy there) the Celestials were devastated by the death of their most noble, courageous and charismatic leader and dedicated themselves to upholding ‘the perfect society he created’. Did I mention he was a bit of a creepy cult leader yet? Because he was.
By the way, this is where the Celestial prophecy comes into the picture. According to it, Deus’ soul would be reborn as a human and usher in a new golden age. However, they had absolutely no idea exactly when or where he would return, and they were afraid that if they interbred with humans (which they could apparently do, for your interest) it would make finding the needle in the haystack even harder, so they completely removed themselves from human affairs and then proceeded to work in the shadows to limit the influence of the other factions as well.
What were these other factions? Well, I was already well-acquainted with the Draconians and the Abyssals. The former were apparently descendants of an ancient race of shape-shifting dragons interbreeding with humans and used to be the dominant force in society until about a couple hundred years ago. Then they were hunted down by knights. Whether those knights were also rescuing princesses from tall towers in the process, I had no idea.
Seriously though, there have been a couple of references to something called ‘The Knightly Brotherhood of the Most Heroic Bloodlines’, which was a mouthful of a name if I’ve ever heard one. More relevantly, they appeared to be a sort of secret society that existed for nearly a thousand years and have been fighting the supernatural. The Celestials had a pretty bad opinion on them, calling them a ‘failed experiment’ and whatnot, but they were apparently responsible for the extinction of the real dragons and the Draconians’ decline in power.
By the way, while the Celestials didn’t like the knights, they must have found the dragons incredibly sexy, as Abyssals are actually a race that was born from a CelestialxDragon lineage. The articles on these guys were also all over the place. About half of them described them as crazy, war-mongering madmen leading armies of Fauns (those are some kind of animal-human-hybrid monsters or something, the articles never went into great detail) constantly fighting each other over something called ‘Mana Wells’ in the Abyss, while the other half described them as creepy, manipulative assholes that would sell their own mothers for power. Granted, the two depictions were not mutually exclusive, but then there was a very small minority that said that the Abyssals were perfectly normal people who are just being driven to extremes because of their exile.
Now, the faction I didn’t actually know much about was the Magi. Or Wizards. Or Mages. Or Sorcerers. Or whatever.
I’m serious. It seemed that no one could make up their mind about what these guys were called. I have already referred to them as Magi, since according to Judy that’s what the class rep called her ‘people’, so I decided to stick to that.
Thankfully, what they were was a little bit easier to figure out than what they were called. Magi were, according to the introductory articles, another secret society focused on researching magic and ‘piercing the veil of creation’, whatever the hell that meant. They had a central governmental body called The Assembly, but they otherwise lived and worked in ‘schools’ dedicated to certain pursuits. While I figured this was a reference to different ‘schools of magic’ one would see in an RPG, I had a hunch it might have been fairly literal in our case. In fact I was pretty sure the local ‘school’ was right under our actual school.
More importantly, Magi were something of a grudging ally of the Celestials, or rather, their goals were fairly similar. The Magi wanted to preserve the status quo to be able to research magic and do whatever else they wanted in peace, which was pretty much in line with the Celestials’ non-involvement policy. The grudging part came from the fact that the Magi viewed the Celestials as just as much of a nuisance as the other factions and thus their relationship was less about cooperation and more about turning a blind eye at their activities, so long as it didn’t involve Magi business. So yeah, petty power-politics were very much alive in the supernatural world.
There were also some footnotes about another minor faction in the articles, something called ‘Non-causative Science Research Society’, an off-shoot branch of the Magi which broke off a couple of decades ago. There wasn’t much known about them, and they didn’t seem to be a major player, so I also delegated them to my own footnotes.
Speaking of which, my notebook was getting messy again. I looked over the questions I have written down and decided to start doing pinpoint searches. My first target was the word ‘prophecy’, but when I looked up at the screen I noticed a red exclamation mark on the button just above the search bar. It said ‘Chat’.
I hovered my mouse over it for a moment, uncertain about how safe it would be to make direct contact like this, but curiosity took the better of me. I should have been fairly safe. I was using a proxy and was accessing the site with a browser designed to be hard to track, so unless I made some mistake with the settings, my identity was fairly secure.
I took a deep breath to steel myself and clicked the button. After the site reloaded I was treated to a blank white chat-window. It didn’t stay that way for long.
“MoroseMoose: Heyo Admin! ”
“MoroseMoose: Where have you been?!?!”
“MoroseMoose: We haven’t heard from you for months!!”
I gulped as my fingers hovered over the keyboard, albeit not for long.
“Admin: I was busy with work.”
“MoroseMoose: I figured. ”
“MoroseMoose: Are you back for good?”
“MoroseMoose: It was a pain in the ass to manage the site in your absence, you know? T_T”
“W1NG3D N1NJ4: ADMIN IS BACK?!?!?!?!???1?!!?one (٭°̧̧̧ω°̧̧̧٭)”
“MoroseMoose: Yup! I just noticed it too!”
“W1NG3D N1NJ4: FINALLY!!! (≧∇≦)/”
“W1NG3D N1NJ4: DUDE WE REALLY NEED YOU TO GET RID OF THESE F****G SPAMBOTS!!!
“W1NG3D N1NJ4: WHERE DID YOU DISAPPEAR TO ANYWAYS?!?!?!”
“W1NG3D N1NJ4: HELLO, ARE YOU STILL THERE?!?!?!!!!?!? ( •᷄ὤ•᷅)？”
“Admin: Yeah. Stop yelling.”
“W1NG3D N1NJ4: oops.sorry. ⁄(⁄ ⁄•⁄ω⁄•⁄ ⁄)⁄”
I paused for a moment. I recognized the names from the forums attached to the main site. These guys were some of the regulars, and while they were ‘agents’, they seemed fairly typical as far as internet denizens were concerned. Then again, most Celestials living in the human world only knew this site as a crappy PSA page dedicated to helping newcomers catch up. Because of this we had a lot of fairly normal people who used the forums to ask questions from more ‘experienced’ Celestials while the actual spies and agents only used the site to deposit their reports.
These guys were the middle ground; users who were serious members of the celestial intelligence network but at the same time used the forums and chat to socialize… and I had no idea about how to interact with them. In retrospect, maybe entering into this chatroom was not one of my brighter ideas, but I had no choice but to run with it and improvise as best as I could.
“Admin: I was underground.”
“MoroseMoose: You were in the Abyss?”
“Admin: Not literally.”
“Admin: Also, the Abyss isn’t actually under the ground.”
I paused again and suddenly recalled a fairly recent report I skimmed over a few hours before.
“Admin: I had to move because of the fallout after the Cardhouse incident.”
“W1NG3D N1NJ4: THAT S**T AGAIN?!?! F***K, WAS THERE ANYONE WHO WASN’T F*****D OVER BY THAT S**T?!?!?!!!?!?!?? ( ≧Д≦)”
“W1NG3D N1NJ4: ARE YOU ALL RIGHT?!!?!?!?! (ó﹏ò｡)”
“Admin: Mostly. I have to lie low for a while.”
“MoroseMoose: Good to hear. J“
“MoroseMoose: Are you going to keep managing the site?”
“Admin: Yes, I will try to clean things up a little.”
“W1NG3D N1NJ4: GOOD. START WITH THE M***********G SPAMBOTS!!!!”
“MoroseMoose: I have to agree with my eloquent colleague. ”
“MoroseMoose: I am not joking. It has been a huge problem since you left.”
I massaged my brows to help them unknot as I looked at the chat window. So now that I took the identity of the administrator, I have to keep pretending until I finished getting as much info out of the site as I can. Though, on second thought, having the hub of the Celestial intelligence network at my beck and call had potential. Oh, and danger. Blood-curling, run-for-your-life, the-entire-might-of-the-celestial-people-crashing-onto-your-head kind of danger. Any sane person would have pulled the plug at this point. I suppose it says a lot about me that I just snorted and limbered up my fingers before I continued.
“Admin: Fine. We are going to do a full reset.”
“MoroseMoose: What? :\”
“Admin: We reset all the passwords. I am also going to get rid of the ads, they are a security risk.”
“W1NG3D N1NJ4: AND HOW ARE WE GOING TO PAY FOR THE SERVER?!!!!?!?!”
“Admin: Let me worry about that one. You guys spread the word; I will take care of the new security measures. We need better password security too. I might also hire someone to redesign the main page if I’m at that.”
“Admin: If everything works as planned, we should get the site working as intended in a few days.”
“MoroseMoose: We? Since when are we working on the site?”
“Admin: Since about ten seconds ago. Congratulations on your promotion.”
“W1NG3D N1NJ4: WOW!1!!one! Ｏ(≧▽≦)Ｏ”
“W1NG3D N1NJ4: ADMIN TOOK A LEVEL IN AWESOME!!! I APPROVE!! (●♡∀♡)”
“MoroseMoose: Whatevs. I will do my part. ”
I stretched my fingers and began to enact my plans with enthusiasm that surprised even me.
It was half past six in the morning when I hit the ‘Confirm’ button on the designer app and the new site went online. I knew practically nothing about programming, but as it turned out the original site was made with one of those handy template designer programs, and after reading the documentation and some tutorials on the net I was able to fix the most glaring problems with just a little trial and error.
The reappearance of ‘Admin’ also ran through the community like wildfire, and I was bombarded with questions in the chat about my whereabouts. My cover story was that I was involved in the ‘Cardhouse incident’, where a number of Celestial operatives were caught by the Magi while they tried to infiltrate a School. Since operatives were only briefed on a need-to-know basis, I actually had more info than most of them and thus I was able to uphold my fake identity pretty well. Or at least I hoped so.
As I thought about these things, the site finally finished updating and I was welcomed by the brand new main page. It was nothing special, but it was miles better than the original mess. It hasn’t been up for more than a few seconds when the chat button began flashing again.
“KittYkaTT101: wow great job admin”
“19891224: Where did all the ads go?! How will I get my male enhancement pills now?!”
“MoroseMoose: You talk like you actually need those.”
“19891224: Hey, you can never know when an extra few inches could be useful. ”
“W1NG3D N1NJ4: WHAT ARE YOU TALKING ABOUT?!?!!!? YOU ARE A GIRL!!!1! δ(´д｀; )”
“KittYkaTT101: you are confusing him with his sister 19891223”
“19891224: Common mistake. ”
“Admin: Settle down, kids.”
“MoroseMoose: Look, the man of the day is back!”
“Rock998: Hey man! Great to have you back!”
“19891224: Gimme back my ads! :3”
I chuckled to myself. I never thought top-secret supernatural operatives would be this lively, but I honestly started to like these guys.
“Admin: Behave yourself and you might get to keep one in your sidebar, but only if you promise to take care of it.”
“19891224: Sure daddy, I promise I will take it to walks and everything.”
“MoroseMoose: Are you sure this won’t cause a problem with the servers?”
“Admin: No, they are already paid for.”
In fact the servers didn’t even cost that much. They were on a shady Eastern-European server-farm though, and since I didn’t trust those guys as far as I could throw them, I had to jump through a couple of annoying hoops to pay them, which included setting up fake accounts, buying bitcoin so that it would be harder to track me, losing a thousand Jens in a scam (it happens) and then finally paying them. Still, if they held their end of the bargain, we were in the green for a couple of months.
“W1NG3D N1NJ4: ADMIN IS SUPER-AWESOME!!!one!! (♥ω♥ ) ~♪”
“Admin: I am.”
“Admin: Moose, are you up for what we discussed?”
“MoroseMoose: You mean the database? Sure, I can reorganize it, but it would be hard with just the filenames.”
“Admin: Just do what you can. I plan on getting some help with that from a friend of mine.”
“19891224: A new friend? Do we know him?”
“Admin: It’s a she, and no you don’t. I vouch for her, so be nice to her.”
“W1NG3D N1NJ4: ARE YOU BRIGING YOUR GIRLFRIEND INTO THE BUSINESS?!?!?!!!?!”
“W1NG3D N1NJ4: ARE YOU EVEN ALLOWED TO DO THAT?!?!?!1!?!”
“W1NG3D N1NJ4: AND HOW COME THIS IS THE FIRST TIME I HEAR ABOUT YOU HAVING A GIRLFRIEND?!?!!!?!?????”
“W1NG3D N1NJ4: YOU ARE TEARING ME APART, ADMIN!!!!!!! (ᗒᗩᗕ)՞”
“Admin: To answer your questions in order:”
“Admin: No, no, see answer number one and please settle down.”
“W1NG3D N1NJ4: SOWWY ⁄(⁄ ⁄•⁄ω⁄•⁄ ⁄)⁄”
I was about to continue when I glanced at the clock again and silently gasped. It was after seven already, and I didn’t even pack my bag! In fact, I was usually eating breakfast already by this time and getting ready to pick up Judy. I cursed under my breath and returned to the browser one last time.
“Admin: I have to go now.”
“Admin: I have a meeting to attend.”
“Admin: Spread the word about the security reset.”
I didn’t wait for them to answer. I closed my browser and rushed out of my room post haste. My first destination was the kitchen, where I grabbed some snacks I could eat with one hand while I returned to pack my bag. Afterwards I only washed myself in the sink before I threw my clothes on my back and dashed down the stairs for a second time. I locked the entrance behind myself and headed for the usual intersection with a light jog. I wasn’t late yet, but I still didn’t want to leave Judy waiting if I could help it. I made it there in under a minute and my timing couldn’t have been more perfect, as she was just arriving there herself.
“Good morning chief,” She greeted me, her usual deadpan voice already colored by some curious undertones. It was probably my disheveled appearance that threw her off.
“Morning,” I replied while trying to straighten my shirt.
“Did you sleep in?”
“Not really, I just lost track of time.”
She nodded and stepped closer. She began wordlessly fussing over my clothes before she stood on her tiptoes and reached for my head.
“Lean forwards a little please.”
“Err... Sure,” I complied in a mildly embarrassed daze while she arranged my hair into something I hoped was a bit more presentable. She also muttered something about me being too tall, but that was neither here or there.
At last she stepped back and looked over me from head to toe before she let out a satisfied grunt.
“It will have to do.”
“You are welcome,” She answered with a barely visible bend in her lips and she began walking. I automatically followed after her. “What is the plan for today?”
I thought for a few seconds as we proceeded down another street.
“I think I will go and talk with Snowy. You got a lot out of her, but I have some specific things I’m curious about.”
“I see. What should I do in the meantime?”
“Actually, there is a site I would like you to get familiar with.”
I quickly explained to her the Celestial hub and how I stumbled upon it, including the password, the reports, the other users and I even outlined the mountain of information I have gathered in such a short time.
“I see. That was quite a find.”
I almost nodded, but then I halted. While she might have sounded perfectly dry and deadpan, I could detect some disappointment and even irritation in her voice, and this time I was fairly certain it wasn’t just my imagination. The concern might have showed on my face, as she turned her face away with a tiny little pout on her lips.
It might have been irritating from anyone else, but since Judy was so reserved with her emotions, noticing new ones felt like a brand new discovery that always managed to cheer me up.
“Oh, please,” I chuckled while gently poking her in the side with my elbow. “Don’t be like that. I still appreciate the work you have done.”
“Even though it became redundant?”
Yep, that question sealed it. She was sulking. I half sighed and half chuckled as I let out a deep breath and smiled at her.
“Oh come on dormouse, it’s not like I was about to replace you with a silly website.”
She blinked at me, her cheeks flushed with just a hint of red, and then she pointedly averted her eyes.
“I know. I’m not stupid.”
“Of course you are not. You are the smartest person I know.”
She proceeded to turn her face even further with a short harrumph.
“Now you are just trying to butter me up to change the subject.”
“Guilty as charged,” I answered her with another chuckle as I hooked a finger under her chin and made her look forwards. “You should still pay attention to where you are going though. You are about to hit a street lamp.”
She didn’t give me any over-the top reaction like the princess would have, instead she grunted and circled around said street lamp and got back beside me. It was probably just my imagination, but she might have even walked a little closer than before. Not that I really minded.
“So, what should I do with that site?”
Even though it wasn’t a real change in topics, the question still caught me off-guard and I had to think for a bit.
“Make a throwaway email address and use it to register. I will approve you and give you moderation rights.”
“You can do that?”
“I told you, I got administration access.”
If I was reiterating that, I took the opportunity to tell her all the other things I have done with the site during the night as well. She listened attentively as I explained my changes to the user interface and the databases structure and how I asked some of the regulars to take care of the everyday operation of the site, periodically nodding to herself whenever I went into important details.
“A moment, chief,” She stopped me just as I was about to get into the gritty details of the cross-referencing between reports. “Correct me if I am wrong, but did you just take over a spy ring, spent your own money on hosting it and planning to run it without telling the people reporting there they are no longer under whatever Celestial bureau they used to be working for?”
“In a nutshell, yes.”
“Doesn’t that strike you as incredibly risky?”
“I would say it’s more of an unbelievably, jaw-droppingly risky thing, but I still think it’s worth it. Speaking of which, I will show you how to bounce your IP and hide your online signature when we have the time.”
“In order to mitigate some of the risk? I do the same. It makes us harder to find online. I don’t think they have people competent enough to track us anyways, but it’s better to be on the safe side.”
She nodded, more to herself than in approval of my reasoning, and finally she said, “How about this afternoon then?”
Her sudden request made me pause.
“Sure, why not.”
“Good,” She nodded to herself even as she whipped out her phone and began typing a message.
“What is that about?” I inquired while I was trying to get a look at her screen.
“I’m telling mother that we would have you over for dinner.” She looked up from her phone and gave me a tiny little smirk. “You would come over to set up my computer, right?” I nodded. “Then you should stay until dinner. Mother has been asking me to introduce you to my father.”
“I don’t like the sound of that.”
“Because it sounds like a setup in a sitcom designed to lead to embarrassing misunderstandings that would inevitably lead to your father chasing me out the door with a shotgun in hand.”
“Why would you have a shotgun in hand?” She asked innocently. I gave my dear assistant a wry look and she once again averted her eyes. “What I mean to say was that you are just paranoid. Everything will be fine.”
“If you say so…”
I still wasn’t convinced, but I didn’t want to start a fight over something silly like that, so I wisely shut up and looked ahead… and by complete accident my gaze met a pair of sapphire eyes peeking around the corner. Their owner immediately disappeared behind the building, but the high-pitched ‘Awawaaaa!’ coming from the direction made her identity so obvious she might as well didn’t bother.
I glanced at my assistant and we shared a tired sigh as we walked up to the girl hiding behind the corner. When we rounded it, she was standing in front of us with a transparently fake surprised expression.
“O-Oh! Hi Leo. Judy.” The princess nodded at each of us in turn with a strained smile. “Fancy meeting you here. Quite the coincidence, isn’t it?”
“Why are you here?” Judy spoke before I could, and she was about as blunt as a sledgehammer.
“W-What do you mean?”
“What she means,” I interjected as I stepped between the two of them, “Is that your mansion is in the opposite direction. We literally couldn’t meet up by accident.”
“Y-Yeah… I suppose you are right…” She hung her head and took a step back. “I… I guess I'll just move along then.”
She tried to bolt away, but I quickly reached out and grabbed hold of her shoulder.
“Whoa, easy there, princess. Was there an actual reason why you came here to meet with us?”
She glared at me from behind her bangs but at last she stopped trying to get away and instead turned on her heel again and faced me.
“Why do you think there has to be a reason?! Why can’t I spend time with you…” She stuttered for a second and glanced at my assistant and added, “… two…”, before she regained her composure and finished with, “just because I felt like it?”
“Wait,” I held up an open palm to calm her down a little. “So you just wanted to go to school together? That’s all?”
“Yeah?” She crossed her arms with a pout. “Do you have a problem with that?”
“No. Quite the opposite actually.”
The pout immediately fell away from her face and was replaced with a suspicious squint.
“Yeah. Why didn’t you just say that in the first place?”
“But… I thought…”
She looked at my assistant questioningly. They might have engaged in some-sort of female only telepathy, as they wordlessly went through a series of nods, grimaces and eyebrow-wiggling, culminating in a shrug on the part of Judy.
“We should get going or we will be late,” She spoke in her usual tone as she walked past us. I followed after her by reflex and the princess quickly fell in line with us on my other side.
We walked without uttering a single word for a while, and since I wasn’t a big fan of awkward silences, I quickly cleared my throat and turned to the blonde girl.
“So, how did yesterday’s date go?”
“Wha…?!” The princess stumbled and glared at me once she regained her balance. “What are you talking about?”
“Yesterday? Didn’t you spend the afternoon with Joshua?”
“Arg! You are teasing me again! I told you to stop that!” She protested so loudly I had to gesture for her to tone it down a little.
“But it’s fun.”
“For you, maybe.”
“Come on, don’t sulk,” I waved my hand in front of her to get her to look at me and I flashed a toothy smile to lower her guard. It must have worked, as she promptly cleared her throat.
“A-As I was saying… It wasn’t really a date. We just hung out. Friends do that all the time.” Suddenly she squinted her eyes as if she just remembered something and then she lightly poked me with her finger. “Speaking of which; spend some time with Josh!”
“… Where did that come from?”
She threw her hands into the air with an exasperated snort.
“I had to spend the entire afternoon listening to Josh complaining about how you don’t hang out with him anymore and that all you care about are girls and that he has no one to talk about ‘guy stuff’, whatever the heck that is, and that…”
“So you say it wasn’t fun?” I interjected by using the moment she took a breath and she looked really unsure for a second or five.
“It was, but...” She dropped her shoulders and groaned. “But it was like ‘We used to come to this place with Leo all the time, but not anymore,’ and ‘I couldn’t talk about things with Leo for ages!’ or ‘I wonder what Leo is doing right now, he is always spending time with you girls’ and...”
“All right, all right! I got the gist of it, no need to continue... though I do admit, your imitation of Josh is pretty accurate.”
“Thanks. … I think.”
“So, which was the fun part?” Judy interrupted, though she only asked what I was about to anyway, so there were no hard feelings.
The princess pointed a wry look at her, but then she raised a finger to her mouth, probably to accentuate her thinking.
“That place where you have to sing was nice.”
“Yes, that one! I got a bunch of perfect scores.”
“Really? That’s... pretty amazing.”
The princess giggled with a broad grin that would have been more at home on Angie’s face. Not that it didn’t suit her too; in fact she looked positively radiating for a moment.
“I have been taking singing lessons since I was little, you know?”
“Really?” I whistled in surprise, even though it should not have been one. She was a princess after all; high culture must have come with the package. “Now I really want to hear you sing.”
The princess’ grin faltered and she sheepishly looked away. For a moment I thought I might have said something weird, but then she let out a sharp breath through her nose and faced me, red as a lobster and one finger absentmindedly curling and uncurling her left ringlet.
“Maybe... Maybe next time? I mean...” She paused, during which time I could barely hold myself back from rolling my eyes. I had a very good guess about where this was going. At last she let out another sharp breath and made it a point to look me in the eye. “S-So, since I spent time with Joshua, I think we need to balance the scales.”
“S-Shut up! Don’t interrupt me now!”
“Fine, fine. Geez...”
“So... Um... Would you like to go to the karaoke with me?”
“Well…” She kept staring at me expectantly, so I stopped stalling and told her, “It’s fine by me.”
“Really?” She began grinning again, but then she quickly stopped herself for some reason and began fidgeting. “S-Say, are you free today?”
I really wished she would have decided whether she was forthcoming or shy and stuck to it, but then again, being a little weird like that was one of her charms. I was about to answer when Judy, whom I shamefully forgot was even there, interjected again.
“He is not. I already reserved him.”
The princess nearly stumbled and her shy smile was immediately replaced with a scowl directed at my assistant.
“What is that supposed to mean?”
“It means,” Judy answered while tucking away her phone, “that I already asked him to come over to my place.”
“She did?” The princess looked at me with a betrayed shock.
“Yes. He is going to stay over for dinner.”
The princess’s eyes opened even further.
“Is that true?”
“Yes, but only...”
“He is coming over to introduce himself to my parents,” My assistant cut me off again without giving me a moment of break.
“I-Introducing to… but I thought…”
“And then we are going to discuss our plans for the future.”
“Your plans? What plans?”
I didn’t answer the princess, instead I frowned at my assistant while rubbing my temple and asked her, “You are doing this on purpose, aren’t you?”
She didn’t react to my question, instead she continued where she left off.
“And then, once we get my parents’ approval, we will head up to my room, and then…” She continued even though the princess obviously wasn’t listening anymore. Instead she turned to me and tried to punch me, which I deftly avoided by a hair’s breadth.
“Leo, you idiot! You told me you two are not in that kind of relationship!” She burst out as she began stomping her feet.
“Because we aren’t. Judy is just…”
“I hate you!” She interrupted me and twirled around, ready to dash away. Before I knew it, my hand reached out after her on its own and I managed to hook my fingers into the back of her collar, so when she leaped forwards she got pulled back by her neck and she lurched backwards. I quickly reached out with my other hand and caught her before she could completely fall over. Once I was certain of her safety I let out a small groan and turned a frowned at my assistant.
“Judy? Why did you do that?”
“Because it’s fun to tease her.”
“Agreed, but this is going a little too far.”
The question came from under my chin, and as I looked down I found the princess straining her neck to look up and stare me in the face.
“Y-You don’t need to hold me so hard…” She told me in an uncharacteristically meek mumble. “I-It’s embarrassing.”
It was only then than I realized I had my arm around her and was squashing her against my chest. She was a lot firmer than girls were rumored to be, but on the other hand she was surprisingly warm and pleasant to the touch. I quickly chastised my monkey-brain for suddenly flooding my imagination with R-rated images and took a quick breath to get my voice steady.
“I'll let you go if you promise you won’t try to run away.” She nodded, so I unhanded her and she staggered a little as she stepped back. I saw that Judy was about to say something, so I quickly raised a finger to stop her and focused on the princess again. “Just to set the record straight: I’m going over to set up Judy’s PC, and I was invited to a dinner by her parents. That’s all.”
“Oh... I see...” she lowered her head, probably because of embarrassment over her previous reaction, but then a second later she was up and staring at me again with a new dose of luminescent blush on her cheeks. “S-So today is no good?”
“Yes, I just said that.”
She nodded once, twice and then a third time before she spoke again.
“In that case... how about the weekend...?”
“I already have him reserved,” Judy butted in again to my eternal exasperation.
“And what is that supposed to mean?!” The princess exclaimed in a high-pitched voice. Again.
“I...” I muttered under my breath, but the two girls on my sides didn’t seem to notice or care.
“We agreed with the chief to go on a date.”
“You did what?! When did this happen?”
“After your fight with Neige. He was tired of your antics, so we decided to go on a date to help him relax.”
“I don’t remember us specifying the reason. Or the date, if we are at that…” I mumbled, but I was once again ignored. It seemed like my entire role in this conversation was demoted to being a barrier between the two of them.
“Then you just exploited a moment of weakness! That’s incredibly underhanded!”
“That is just your opinion. He is quite happy with the state of affairs.”
“... Does it even matter how I would answer to that?” I asked no one in particular, and true to form, no one in particular cared.
“Stop hogging him!” The princess exclaimed prompting me to mutter a tired ‘I didn’t think so...’
“Because it’s unfair!” Suddenly the princess stepped closer and grabbed hold of my arm and entwined it with hers. I looked at her with an expression saying ‘Really? Are we really doing this?’
“Unfair to whom?” Judy countered as she stepped closer and grabbed hold of my other arm.
“Et tu, dormouse?” I whispered in a state of utter trepidation.
The exchange between the two continued for a good minute. The situation probably looked hilarious from the outside, but when caught in the crossfire, it wasn’t half as amusing. At last the princess let go and began rummaging through her pockets.
“Fine, let’s do that then!”
I had to blink and rewind the last few seconds of conversation in my head. Judy said something about chance being fair and a coin flip and... No way...
I glanced at the princess and she was brandishing a one Jen coin in her hand. So yes way. Sure, this situation wasn’t silly enough I supposed.
“Heads or tails?”
My assistant thought for a moment before she let me go as well and said, “Tails.”
“Fine!” The princess placed the coin on her thumb and grinned fiercely as she flipped it through the air. It flew high and completely straight up. I let out an annoyed grunt as it reached its peak and I snatched it out of the air as it reached my eye level.
“Hey!” The princess protested and reached for my clenched fist, but I quickly put it inside my pocket and faced her with a frown.
“Would you please stop ignoring me and behave yourselves?”
“But the coin…”
“Listen girls, you either stop bickering or I won’t go anywhere with anyone.”
The two of them looked at each other, more confused than ashamed by my scolding. At last Judy said, “It’s a Schrödinger’s coin.”
“It is a coin that is in a superposition of both heads and tails. That means we both won and lost.”
“Uuuu… I’m not following.” The princess turned to me. “Leo, what is she talking about?”
Before I could tell her that I had no idea about how this was related to anything, my assistant finished with, “We cannot be certain who won until we collapse the wave function.”
“A coin has no wave function to collapse!" I protested. "A coin is not a fundamental particle!”
“Minor details,” My assistant honest to goodness huffed at me and turned to princess. “I propose we compromise.”
“In what way?”
“Let us both presume that we won.”
“But that would mean... we both go on a date with him?” My assistant nodded. “At the same time?” She nodded again.
“It is the best possible outcome. It’s like the prisoner’s dilemma.”
“Exactly,” I agreed. “This is nothing like the prisoner’s dilemma.”
“It is,” She stressed. “We both have two choices: we either assume it was heads or tails. If we both assume it was one or the other, one of us loses. If we both presume the other won, we both lose. Therefore the only good choice is presuming we both won. Quite elementary.”
I stared at her for a few seconds and finally buried my forehead in my palm.
“I don’t know where to even begin commenting on that, so I simply won’t. I have something better.” I reached into my pocket and took out the coin in question. “We’ll just flip again.”
“No!” The princess suddenly cried out, startling me just long enough for her to pry the coin out of my fingers. She cradled it close to her chest and said, “No take-backs! It was decided already!”
“It would be more accurate to say that you guys decided on your own. With a coin flip. That didn’t even happen.”
“What are you saying, chief? Just a few seconds ago you were completely okay with flipping the coin to decide.”
I opened my mouth to retort, but quickly closed it again without saying anything. Damn, she got me.
Judy nodded, her mouth occupied with a hint of a smug smirk.
“I thought so. Where should we go?”
“The karaoke is a must!” The princess butted in with a much more prominent grin, and I couldn’t help but sigh in exhaustion.
The rest of our commute to the school was spent with them discussing their plans about the ‘date’, which at this point sounded more like an obligation than actual fun, but I swallowed my complaints and proceeded to ignore them to the best of my ability.
We were actually a little late, as the familiar armband-guy was just getting ready to close the gates by the time we crossed them. Once we reached the classroom, my assistant and the princess huddled together at the former’s desk and continued their occasionally heated planning. How come the only time these two would work together was when it made my life more complicated?
As for me, I practically fell into my chair and buried my head in my hands. I stayed like that for a few minutes, right until I was tapped on the shoulder, prompting me to glance up groggily.
“Morning,” Josh greeted me with a grin. “Women-problems?”
I am the first to admit that my friend had many good qualities. Tact definitely wasn’t one of them.
“You could say that,” I answered while straightening myself and nodding at him in lieu of a proper greeting.
“Serves you right for playing around,” He quipped with a toothy grin as he sat down as well. He obviously wasn’t serious. Well, probably. Hopefully. “So, what is it this time?” He inquired while nodding towards the two girls.
“They are planning our trip this weekend.”
“You are going on a date? With which one?”
“Both.” Josh whistled, but I continued before he could say anything else. “By the way, I think we should stop calling it a ‘date’ whenever we hang out with one of the girls. It completely dilutes the real meaning of the word.”
He looked unusually thoughtful for a moment and nodded in agreement. “Right, we do that a lot, don’t we? How about we just call them outings unless it involves a goodbye kiss?”
“That sounds reasonable. Speaking of which, how did your outing with the princess go?”
To my surprise my friend averted his eyes and coughed awkwardly.
“Didn’t she tell you already?”
“I’m curious about your impression.”
He shrugged, leaned closer for a conspiratorial huddle and whispered, “Honestly? It was fun, but she couldn’t stop talking about you.”
“Yeah. She was bringing you into all kinds of conversations. She asked about what kind of music you like when we were in the karaoke, she asked about your favorite food when we were at the fast foods...” He paused and leaned closer to me, his voice falling even lower. “Seriously, I am sure you have noticed already, but she seems to like you. A lot. Do you get what I am saying?”
I awarded him a flat look and sighed.
“Thank you captain obvious.”
“You are welcome,” He flashed one of those childish, toothy grins of his before he leaned even closer. In fact, he was leaning forwards so much I was afraid he would fall out of his chair, so I grudgingly leaned in a little so he wouldn’t have to. He nodded in appreciation and whispered, “Listen, I don’t want to stick my nose into your personal life, but do you really think playing around with both of them is a good idea?”
“What are you talking about? I am not ‘playing around’ with them.”
“Fine, so you are just enabling them. Either way, I think you should sit down with them and clear things up before things turn nasty. You know what I’m saying?”
I wish someone took a picture of me at that exact moment. I figured my expression was so flat its edge could be used to split photons, and that didn’t even make any sense!
“Dude… Did you just say what I think you just said?”
“Uh… Depends. What did you hear?”
“Zero self-awareness, for a start,” I grumbled, but seeing that he still didn’t get it, I threw my hands into the air and gave up. “Fine, I get your point.”
Yeah, I actually did. While the previous day’s sudden confession complicated things a bit, the whole situation with Judy and the princess had been brewing for a while, so I had plenty of time to think about it. There was only one itsy-bitsy problem though: I didn’t want to think about it. In fact, the whole romance-business made my skin crawl. I know, I know; it’s a little weird to say that while being trapped in a harem narrative, but it is also kind of the point: This is Josh’s ‘harem’, so to speak. I didn’t want anything to do with it. In fact, I didn’t want anything to do with the opposite sex in a romantic way if I could help it, contrary of what my reputation with the group might have suggested.
And yet, even though I went out of my way to avoid any such complications, I ended up in a love-dodecahedron anyways, because apparently having amnesia, waking up in an unnatural, narrative-driven world and having to scramble to understand the newly revealed supernatural bullshit wasn’t bad enough.
If I sounded ill-tempered, it was probably because I was steadily running out of damns to give. It was no reason to be rude to Josh though. He only tried to help, as clumsy and oblivious as he was, so I had no reason to blow up into his face. I took a deep breath and returned to the conversation with a slightly cooler head.
“I promise to think about it. Is that enough?”
“I suppose,” Josh nodded noncommittally.
The conversation would have probably gone on for a little longer if not for the appearance of Mrs. Applebottom. The classroom quickly fell silent as everyone scurried to their seats, including the princess, who sat down in front of me with a satisfied smile. I honestly didn’t know whether I should feel relieved or afraid…
“No!” Josh yelled at me while he stood in front of me with his arms spread, as if guarding the girl behind his back from a vicious predator. “We just talked about this kind of thing this morning! First you do it with Judy, then with Elly, then with Angie, and now Lili?! I am drawing the line right here and now!”
I suppose the situation probably requires some explanation. It all started with the ringing of the lunch time bell. As per my morning plans (before said morning was derailed by the girls), I was planning to probe Snowy, now that I had enough knowledge about the supernatural world that I could finally go beyond the basics.
The problems started right away. First off, when I tried to ask Judy to come with me and take notes, she declined saying she already had plans with the princess. The last time I saw them, they were heading to the cafeteria while arguing about whether we should go to the zoo or ice-skating. I tried to shrug that off, but then when I tried to leave for the ground floor classrooms I was hijacked by Angie, who pulled me aside (quite literally; my shoulder was still a little sore from all the tugging) to inform me in code-words that the site she introduced to me the day before was resetting everyone’s passwords and that it was a good chance for me to try and get an account.
According to her I could get an account without any problem, so long as she vouched for me. Sure, it would have been a basic account like hers (I checked; she wasn’t part of any of the spy rings so she didn’t have access to the intelligence reporting functions), but it would still be something. Of course I politely declined while making a mental note about the whole ‘vouching’ thing. It was an obvious security risk.
Anyways, once she left I continued on my way to Snowy’s classroom, but by the time I got there, Joshua was already talking with the girl. The rest speaks for itself.
“You are just being irrational,” I told Josh as I tried to take a step towards the confused girl, but he stood his ground and drew a half-circle in front of him with his feet. It was probably supposed to be the proverbial line in the sand, but taken that we were in a hallway, it was more than a little silly.
“I am serious. I am not letting you past this line until you promise to…”
“Snowy, would you come here for a moment?”
The still puzzled girl walked right past Josh and over his imaginary line without a moment of hesitation. Josh looked betrayed, but for the moment I couldn’t care less. I turned to Snowy instead.
“Would you mind if I asked you a few questions?”
I chuckled and smiled at her in reassurance.
“Yeah, me too. There are a few things about your... ‘family situation’ I’m curious about.”
She nodded cautiously and I was just about to grab her hand and drag her with me when Josh inserted himself between the two of us again.
“Dude, I’m serious! You really need to stop hitting on the girls and...”
He continued with what suspiciously sounded like a heartfelt intervention. I only groaned and quickly checked who was the closest scapegoat with my Far Sight. Once I did that I raised an open palm to halt his tirade and turned on my heel without a word. I rushed down the corridor and grabbed hold of the class rep’s hand as she was about to reach the bottom of the stairs. She let out a surprised yelp, but by then I was already towing her back to the others. It was only once we got there that she wormed her hand out of my grasp and glared at me in a manner that was about 70% petulant and 40% curious. Yes, that added up to 110%, but I feel that expressed her over-the-top reaction perfectly. Anyways, she set her feet, arms on her hips, and leaned into her glare before she spoke.
“Leo, what do you think you are doing?”
“Getting Josh a replacement lunch partner. He feels terribly lonely lately, please remedy that,” I told her smoothly as I sidestepped her burning gaze and grabbed hold of Snowy’s shoulder and pulled her over to my side. “Now if you excuse me, we have things to discuss, right Snowy?”
“That is not an excuse to... hey, where are you going!? I haven’t finished with...!”
It was at this point we got out of earshot and rounded the corner leading to the back exit. Thankfully, neither the class rep nor Joshua tried to follow after us. We were almost at the courtyard by the time Snowy finally spoke out.
“Uuuuu... Y-You can let go of my hand. I’m not running away...”
“Oh, right. Sorry. Not that I ever considered you would,” I answered and let go of her. She immediately rubbed her fingers with her other hand. Maybe I was squeezing too hard? Oops. I tried not to get too hung up on that and smiled at her again. “Let’s head to the cafeteria and find a quiet corner, shall we?”
She nodded curtly and we proceeded with our march towards the hall. Once we got in the line I turned to her and asked, “What would you like?”
“I… Don’t have much pocket money, so I think will go with the ‘A’ menu.”
“No, you don’t get it. I am paying, so what would you actually like?”
“You mean… you are treating me?”
“Of course. I dragged you away, so this is the least I could do,” I told her, but then I paused, thinking. “Just for the record though, no matter what Josh says, don’t ask for caviar. It’s not bad, but it isn’t filling at all.”
“I see…” She nodded solemnly like I just said something really profound and she looked over the menu as we inched forwards. “Uuuum…”
She looked up at me and was about to say something, but then she shook her head. “Never mind.”
“Never mind what? I thought there was something you liked.”
“Yes, but…” She raised a hand to her mouth, which meant that for some reason she was regretting blurting that out. I gave her a wry look and tried to find what she was looking at, but it was hard to tell on the crowded menu. At last she let her hand down and gave me an upturned look. “Promise me you wouldn’t laugh.”
“… Is it something I would laugh at?”
“I… don’t know?”
“Was that a question?”
She shook her head so vigorously the tips of her twin-tails nearly hit her in the face. For a moment I almost wondered what kind of conditioner she used that kept her hair flowing together like that, but then I remembered my ‘hair theory of importance’ and it seemed quite obvious why it would act like that. Anyways, she looked up at me with a little pout and said, “Do you promise?”
“Fine, I promise. What would you like?”
She leaned closer, balled up her fists in front of her chest and said, “Apple pie!”
“Apple pie,” She repeated with an enthusiastic nod. To be perfectly honest, I very nearly broke my promise not because of what she asked for, but because of how excited and innocent she sounded while doing so. I tempered the laughter trying to escape my lungs into a broad smile and nodded.
“Very well, and apple pie it is.”
Before I knew it we already reached the counter and I swiftly placed my orders. It bought a fairly boring fried chicken dish and, amidst the frantic (but wholly unconvincing) protests of my current companion, an entire pie fresh out of the oven. I had to wonder where those ovens actually were though. In fact, I had to wonder just how big the kitchens had to be to supply the entire school, but I digressed. I turned around instead and scouted an empty table in the far corner of the hall. It was fairly deserted and I figured it was a good enough place to have our conversation in something approaching privacy. Snowy didn’t seem to care though, as she was completely mesmerized by the still steaming pie in her hands. She was all wide-eyed and sparkly, like a little kid holding her unwrapped christmas present. I couldn’t help but smile at her as we made our way over to our seats and sat down.
“You didn’t have to…” She started again as she put down the tray in her hands, but I gestured for her to stop talking and start eating. She immediately complied… or would have, but apparently she didn’t know how to cut the pie. I sighed and helped her out, all the while feeling like a single father spending quality time with his daughter. It was a weird but not necessarily unpleasant experience.
She took out the first slice and naturally she managed to burn her tongue even though I warned her. After a little blowing and excited waiting it finally reached edible temperatures and she took a large bite. Her face was so blissful I wanted to take a photo and use it as the background on my phone, but I refrained.
“Is it really that good?” I asked, a little dubious about the objective quality of the mass-produced pastry, but she only nodded at me, her cheeks still bathed in bliss.
“Yes, it’s great!”
“You act like you have never eaten one before.”
“Um…” She paused, looking embarrassed for some reason. “I really haven’t. I just saw Joshua eat one the other day and I wanted to try it.”
“Really? Don’t tell me there are no apple trees in the Abyss.”
She twitched a little, automatically checking if anyone was listening, and put down the slice in her hand.
“There are… It’s just that…” Her voice trailed off before she took a sharp breath and continued. “You see, my brother says it’s commoner food, so we never eat it at home, and I never have enough pocket money to buy it myself.”
“Oh come on, it’s not ‘that’ expensive.” She fell into a depressed silence, which told me I said something I probably shouldn’t have, so I entered into backpedal mode and pointed at her tray with a smile. “Let’s eat before it gets cold. I haven’t even touched my plate yet.”
“Yes,” She nodded resolutely (what she was resolute about, I had no idea) and she picked up the slice again, and as she started eating her face once again mellowed out into an expression of pure bliss. I couldn’t help but grin as I began raiding my own plate. I was always a fan of multitasking though, so I never stopped thinking while I did so.
I joked about the apple trees, but as far as the pictures in the reports I read were concerned, the Abyss actually looked remarkably similar to the island we inhabited at the moment. There were even some notes about it being a mirror image with corresponding landscape and all, but I didn’t know the extent of that. Either way, for something called ‘The Abyss’ it seemed relatively cozy, especially considering it was supposed to be something of a supernatural prison for the entire Abyssal race.
Speaking of which, I glanced up from my food and nearly choked as I laid my eyes upon our resident Abyssal. Her eyes were still lost in a sea of bliss, but her face was stuffed to the point it reminded me of a particularly desperate hamster. Was this really one of the famous Seducers of the Inanna family? Though again, this was probably the most ‘seductive’ act I have ever seen from her, and even this only made me want to take her home and adopt her as a little sister.
I actually looked into her family background, if only a little. The Inanna’s were one of the seven dynasties of the abyss clamoring for dominance like warring noble houses ought to do. That made me wonder; just what reason would have both her and her brother leaving that kind of backstabbing-prone situation behind, even if temporarily? Disappearing to the sidelines is usually bad for a political career. Oh, and there was still the question of ‘how’. I still didn’t know how they got through the not-at-all-contrived impenetrable barrier of utter impenetrableness. Though again, I supposed the more one insisted on something being impossible to do in a world like this, the more likely it would happen sooner or later.
Then something quite obvious occurred to me: Why don’t I just ask her? That’s what we were here for, weren’t we? I waited for her to finish her current slice before I drew her attention with a deliberate clatter of utensils.
“So... If I may be a little indiscreet, can I ask you what you are doing here?”
She seemed more than a little conflicted for a moment before she put her own fork down and began talking while her finger absent-mindedly tugged at her choker.
“If you mean why we are in the outside world... It has to do with our prophecy.”
I had to gulp in surprise. That was... refreshingly direct. I smiled at her and pressed on.
“Prophecy, you say? That word seems to come up a lot lately.”
“Yeah, annoyingly so.” I put my hands onto the table and linked my fingers. “What is yours about?”
“Uuuu...” She groaned while she continued to awkwardly tug at her neckwear. “I suppose I can tell you. It’s about the Emperor of the Abyss.”
“The Emperor?” I interrupted before I suddenly recalled a footnote I had read last night and I let out a soft ‘oh’. “Wait, wasn’t that supposed to be your version of that Deus fellow?”
Snowy twitched before she smiled at me awkwardly. “You could say that. The prophecy says there would be a human capable of absorbing the power of the Abyss and use this power to usher in the Emperor.”
“So he wasn’t supposed to be the emperor himself?” Snowy shook her head. “And you say he ‘absorbs’ the power of the Abyss? You mean the mana wells?”
She shook her head again.
“No, it’s rather...” She paused and fell silent for a long time, only her finger tugging, before she continued. “It’s more like he has a lot of power and it can be swayed towards the Abyss by... um....” I waited for her to continue, and once it was obvious I was doing so she hunched over a little and she told me in a low voice. “He can be revealed by injecting a little power into him and then looking for a reaction.”
“Injecting power? That sounds a little vague. How would you even do that?”
Snowy fell completely silent and her cheeks flushed slightly. The confusion must have been visible on my face, for she looked up at me and after a few seconds she mouthed, “E-Exchanging of essences?”
“Essences? What exactly are we talking about here?”
“S-S-Saliva...” She muttered before she lowered her face in what seemed like shame. I was just about to ask her how one would do that, but then the question got caught in my throat as my brain began to reassemble the pieces at Mach 3.
“Okay, let me see if I got this straight: To reveal this Emperor fellow, or rather the one who would reveal the Emperor…” I silently muttered ‘convoluted crap’ under my breath before I continued, “you need to give him some essence?” She nodded. “And to do that, you need to share… fluids.” She nodded again. “So that was the reason you kissed Josh the first time you met? To look for a reaction?” There was a longer pause this time, but she nodded once again. “But how? You didn’t know it was Josh until you kissed him, and there was no reason for you to kiss him unless you knew it already, so...” She lowered her face even further in shame, so I ventured an educated guess. “Don’t tell me you were going around kissing random guys on the street and just stumbled on Josh.”
“Girls too...” She told me feebly, and her body language made me feel a little guilty for bringing the topic up in the first place. She must have taken my momentary silence as a sign of disapproval, for she lowered her head even further, to the point her forehead nearly touched the table, and in a mutter she added: “My brother said it was the only way.”
I looked at her trembling shoulders and once again got reminded that, while she might have been an Abyssal and a Seducer and whatnot, at the end of the day she was still a fragile teenage girl. I suppressed a self-derisive grimace and reached out a hand to rustle the top of her head. She twitched as I touched her, but then a moment later she stopped trembling and she looked up at me, her wet eyes open wide and a little incredulous. I smiled at her reassuringly and continued patting her head.
“You are a good kid. It’s not your fault your brother is a prick.”
She didn’t answer, so I continued patting her until she calmed down. Doing so also made me realize why Judy got into the habit as well. Rubbing her head was strangely relaxing. Anyways, I finally stopped and waited for her to get her bearings before I hit her with my next inquiry.
“Staying on the topic of your quest for this usherer of emperors or whatnot, just what kind of reaction were you looking for?”
Snowy looked at me thoughtfully as she began tugging at her choker again and finally said, “It’s mostly magic. He just… absorbs magic and tunes his own to it… It’s hard to explain.”
“So he turns into an Abyssal?”
“Kind of?” She answered with a question, obviously unsure. “I only saw it once, and it only happened very briefly.” She suddenly flushed again and shyly averted her eyes. “I-It was only a peck… on the lips.”
“So you say that if you two, say, French kissed, the effect would be more pronounced?”
She turned a shade of crimson that, for some reason, reminded me of the princess, and nodded several times in lieu of an answer.
“Interesting. Do you think it would work with the other girls too?”
“I… don’t want to kiss any of them.”
I snorted and shook my head with a little smirk.
“No, I don’t mean you. I mean, would the same reaction happen if Josh was kissed by anyone else?”
Snowy thought hard for several long seconds but in the end she only shook her head dejectedly.
“I don’t know. I didn’t even think it would work until… it happened.”
“I see…” I nodded to myself as I thought about the implications of all this. So, Josh could theoretically become an Abyssal with a kiss, and since no one else mentioned anything about this the first time around, the transformation was only temporary. Furthermore, the same thing might work with others as well. The latter was just my conjecture, but it made sense from a narrative standpoint.
I didn’t know if this trope had a name or not (though it probably did, I just had to look it up later), but this sounded suspiciously like a convenient power-up that is going to come to light at a suitably dramatic moment. I decided to file this information under ‘important stuff to keep track of’ and returned to the conversation, only to find Snowy still tugging at her choker.
“Is it too tight?” She was puzzled by my question, so I reached out to point at her neck. Her eyes opened wide and she reeled back so hard that for a moment I was afraid she would fall over with her chair in tow. She didn’t, but the resounding ‘No!’ she yelled out made me lurch back just as hard. For a couple of seconds we only stared at each other in silence until I threw out a feeler question. “Is there a reason why you don’t want me to touch it?” Snowy hesitated for only a moment before she nodded. “Does it have some sort of sentimental value?” This time she didn’t hesitate before she would shake her head. “So it’s not sentimental. Dangerous?” This time she actually thought about her non-verbal answer for a while before giving another tentative nod. “I see...” I muttered as I linked my fingers again in thought.
So it was something that was dangerous to remove. Or maybe something that was dangerous to me in particular? Either way, it was probably enchanted or somesuch. In fact, when I looked closer I could swear I could see a dim glow surrounding it. It was hard to notice at a glance due to the background light, but after seeing Angie’s lightshow the day before, I was fairly certain it was magic... which of course meant it was high time I admitted that ‘Holy crap, I can see invisible magic stuff!’, but I still haven’t done any controlled tests, so I only considered it a strong possibility and filed it under my ever-growing ‘stuff to look into later’ corner of my poor, overexerted brain.
But back to the choker; I couldn’t help but wonder what it was about. If I had to guess, I would have said it was something like a power-limiter, or at least something to that effect. Those things seemed fairly common in narratives like this, only existing to be released at an opportune moment to provide a sudden boost in power and save the day. A little cheap, but effective, I supposed. Although, on second thought, it might have been a safety power-limiter. For example, Snowy could be unconsciously drinking the souls of everyone around her without it. Or worse yet, it might hold back a cruel and vicious split personality that would take over Snowy and destroy the world. So yeah, there were lots of weird possibilities there, ranging from silly to outright scary, but that’s how these things usually worked.
Anyways, I exhaled slowly before I addressed Snowy again.
“Your pie is getting cold.”
She suddenly perked up at the mention of her treat and quickly put a hand over the pastry. The relief was clearly visible on her face when it turned out it was still warm. I cut her another slice as a symbol of leaving the previous topic behind and allowed both of us a little breather before we returned to the heavy topics.
By the time I returned to the classroom I was well-fed both in terms of food (Snowy gave me the last slice she couldn’t eat) and information. Once I got her talking, Snowy turned out to be quite knowledgeable about Abyssal politics and metaphysics. Most of it was fairly boring technical stuff, but it was still new and probably useful, so it was all good.
But back to the classroom. First off, I noticed that Judy and the princess were still huddled over my assistant’s desk and animatedly discussing something. I didn’t need to peek in with my Far Sight to realize it was still about their ‘date plans’. I would have sighed and wondered just how much time one needed to plan these things out, but then I remembered how I had spent half a night looking up areas of interest before my first outing with Judy. Though that was originally supposed to be a research trip, so I didn’t know how much that applied to the current situation.
Either way, I headed for my desk. I only headed though, as I was flagged down by the class rep after a single step. She waved for me to go over to her desk, so I did just that.
“Leo, we need to talk,” She told me dryly in place of a greeting, already in her authority mode. “Are you free after school?”
I thought about it for a moment. While technically I was only invited to Judy’s place for dinner, we had a lot of things to discuss, and I had a feeling she wouldn’t have taken it well if I told her to go ahead while I talked with the class rep, so in the end I shook my head.
“Sorry, I already have plans for today. Is it urgent?”
“Oooookay...” I quipped in face of the unexpectedly firm answer. “How about the next break then?”
“It will have to do.”
I nodded to her and, since she didn’t say anything else, I continued on my way to my desk. I found Joshua slumped over the neighboring one and he only looked up once he heard the creak of my chair as I sat down.
“Welcome back, Casanova,” He greeted me with a tone that was uncharacteristically acidic.
“… Would you please stop with that?” I answered in kind, with a handful of exasperation sprinkled on top. “Just how many times do I have to tell you I am not flirting with the girls?”
“No matter how many times you say, it doesn’t matter if you keep doing it.” He huffed, but the jab probably let him let out some of the steam, as he continued in a more casual voice. “So, how was your lunch break?”
“It was nice enough. I learned a bunch of new things.”
“Oh? Such as?”
“Snowy’s family situation, amongst other things,” I told him, carefully omitting all the other crazy stuff.
“Her family, huh?” My friend slumped over his desk again and muttered, “She never told me anything about them.”
It took me several seconds to recognize the, in retrospect quite obvious, expression on his face and I raised a hand to my temple to rub it.
“Are you seriously sulking right now?”
“No I’m not!” Josh bit back immediately, but then he averted his eyes and added, “I’m just a little disappointed, that’s all.”
With my temple-rubbing steadily intensifying I leaned back in my chair and dropped my shoulder. I couldn’t believe we were having this conversation.
“I’m sure she will tell you in time. It’s not like it’s going to stay a secret forever… I hope.”
“A secret? What secret?”
“One that wouldn’t be a secret if I told you,” I told him with a wry smile. The grimace he gave me in return made me sigh, so I threw him a bone. “Fine, here’s another secret I can actually tell you.”
“What is it?”
I leaned closer and whispered to him, “She loves apple pies.”
“She likes apple pies?”
“No, she loves them.” I gave a meaningful pause for a few seconds before I winked and said; “Use that information how you will.”
“You are welcome.”
It was a good thing that the teacher showed up at this point, as I had no idea where to take the conversation from there. The lesson itself (biology, FYI) was the same as always and the 45 minutes passed by in the blink of an eye, especially since I had so many things on my mind.
First and foremost, I would be lying if I said I wasn’t curious about what the class rep wanted to talk about. She sounded really serious, so maybe it was something related to the fight a couple of days ago? Or maybe it was because of Judy’s questions on the day before? Or the Magi organization in general? Either way, I was about to find out when the chime finally sounded. Maybe it was because of dumb luck, but Mrs. Applebottom just finished talking about taxonomy, so this time she didn’t leave her sentence half-finished. Yay progress.
Our last class was PE again, so all the placeholders sprung to their feet and began trickling out of the classroom with gym-bags in hand. I was about to get up and head towards the class rep, but I was beaten to the punch by her. She gestured for me to follow, so I did so after grabbing my own gym bag. We exited the classroom post haste and headed in the opposite direction from the others, towards a short dead end leading to the computer room and the emergency fire escape. We didn’t go that far, only a couple of meters so that we would be out of direct earshot.
“We need to talk,” She told me grimly once she stopped and faced me, and I almost gulped in reaction. This had to be big if she was this serious.
“Yes, you already told me that. I’m listening.”
She eyed me suspiciously, as if looking for traces of sarcasm in my words (for the record, there wasn’t any) and at last she looked me in the eye and said, “Leo, you have to stop leading Judy and Eleanor along.”
I blinked at her, opened my mouth to respond, but then I closed it again and instead facepalmed so hard the sound of the impact must have been audible on the frickin moon.
“Are you serious?! Are? You? Serious?!” I hissed through gritted teeth. She was taken aback by my reaction, so I let out most of my pent-up frustration in a breathy groan and threw my arms into the air. “We just had a battle two days ago and the supernatural exploded into the forefront yesterday, but all you guys can talk about is my nonexistent love-life?! Really?!”
“Don’t ‘Leo’ me right now! Do you have any idea how annoying it is to keep explaining this to every single one of you? I have way too much on my plate already; I do not have the time for all this romance crap!”
“Then why are you flirting with them?”
“I am not flirting!” I yelled, turning a few placeholder heads, but I didn’t care. At all. Not one bit. I still lowered my voice a little though. Just because I felt like it. “Why do all of you immediately presume that if I am friendly with a girl I must be automatically flirting?”
“You are doing more than being friendly.”
“That is entirely your subjective opinion.”
She stayed silent for a second as she furrowed her brows and finally said, “And you think that is all the reason they like you? ... You are aware that they like you and not just being ‘friendly’, right?”
I scoffed at her and rolled my eyes.
“Of course I do. I am not Josh.”
“But if you do, then why don’t you tell them?”
“Tell them what? That I am not interested?
“So you really don’t like them back?”
That made me pause for a moment. Without noticing it, my voice also went into a less-shouty range.
“I wouldn’t say that. I do like them, just not in the face-sucking, cuddling, date-going way.”
“Aren’t you going on a date though?”
“It’s more of a group outing, and you are also purposefully misrepresenting my point. Stop it.”
She nodded solemnly and looked me in the eye again. “Listen Leo, you need to tell them how you feel about them. Otherwise everyone will get hurt.”
“Now where have I heard that before…?” I growled in frustration. “Not to mention, that’s rich coming from you of all people.”
She visibly twitched and averted her eyes.
“That was a low blow.”
“... Yeah, I suppose it was, but true. Practice what you preach.”
“But my situation is... different from yours.”
“If you say so. It looks similar in principle.”
“It doesn’t matter,” She burst out while locking eyes with me again. “We are talking about you.”
“And I would prefer if we weren’t.”
“But we have to. Especially if you keep playing with the others too.”
“… Wait, what?”
“I have heard from Joshua. You have been spending a lot of time with Neige and Angie too.”
“If by ‘a lot’ you mean one lunch break and a short afternoon then yes, though I would like to see your dictionary first, because that is the loosest damn definition I have ever heard.” I paused and then let out a soft ‘oh’ as realization dawned on me. “Wait a minute... I get it now! Josh set you up for this!”
“He didn’t set me up; he just shared his worries with me.”
“All the same,” I grumbled as I made a new mental note about whacking the guy over the head for creating even more misunderstandings. “Listen, this is just a case of miscommunication. I was talking to them about supernatural politics and I didn’t want Josh to stick around when we did that, so he is sulking about it. There is nothing more going on.”
“With Angie too?”
I mouthed a silent ‘oh crap’. Right, Angie being a Celestial was supposed to be a secret. I had to salvage this ASAP, though I had no idea how.
“Um… Yeah?” I nearly hit myself in the head for saying that. Stupid brain! That was the opposite of salvaging the situation! “I mean… could you pretend you didn’t hear that? It’s supposed to be a secret for the moment. Not a dangerous kind of secret, mind you, but I would prefer if Angie was the one to tell you, so could you please let it go?”
She gave me a dubious look, but at last she shrugged and said, “Fine, but only if you promise me that you sit down with the others and discuss your…” She coughed pointedly at this point. “Your nonexistent love-life.”
I tried to object, but I was too mentally drained to come up with a witty response (not to mention, at this rate I was only going to dig myself even deeper), so I grabbed hold of the opportunity to end the conversation and gave her a nod.
“Fine, have it your way. We should get going though; we still have to change.”
With that, we began walking. She made me promise several times that I would have that pointless discussion with the girls, but I managed to get her to stop hounding me by the time we reached the changing rooms. When I got there, there was only one thing left to do.
My friend turned to me. He was already wearing his gym clothes and he looked at me skeptically as I walked over to him.
“What?” I smiled at him and then promptly whacked him over the head. He let out a loud ‘ow’ and gave me a look that was equally hurt and confused. “What the hell was that for?!”
I shrugged saying, ”Think about it,” and left him to do just that while I changed.
“And you say this is safe?” Judy asked me as she leaned forward and peeked over my shoulder.
“As safe as I can make it,” I told her while finalizing the last few settings on her new, secure and completely, 100% untraceable browser. Well, so far as I knew at least. I went out of my way to hide her identity behind as many proxies and false accounts as I could, but even then 100% was still a bit of a hyperbole.
“Should that make me relieved?”
She seemed unconvinced, so I gave her an emphatic “Yes.”
She nodded after a few seconds and walked over to her bed and sat down. If the previous conversation didn’t make it abundantly clear, we were in Judy’s room. It was a sparsely decorated place dominated by earth-colors, beige and ocher, including the drapes and the furniture. It wasn’t exactly ‘girly’, but it was neat and had a lived-in sense to it that my own room severely lacked, probably due to me belonging to the sleepless persuasion. In fact, her entire home felt like that, but I didn’t bother to tell her that. Not that I had any chance to do so.
When I arrived I was immediately besieged by her distractingly youthful mother. We had to sit down with her for a while when she invited me for a cup of tea, and while she said she wanted to talk to me, I didn’t think she meant that literally. For about half an hour she kept talking nonstop and about so many different things I lost track of the conversation five minutes in.
Judy gave up as well after several failed attempts at interrupting her and only fidgeted awkwardly at my side. It was fun to see this side of her, but after a while I started feeling sorry for her and decided to politely tell her mother that we had things to do. She finally let us go, much to my assistant’s relief. She apparently was really bad at dealing with her hyperactive mother, which I found absolutely hilarious (though only in private, as Judy’s sour disposition made me consider expressing my feelings a teensy bit dangerous).
I was later also introduced to her father, a stocky fellow with a bushy mustache and a fashion sense right out of the 50s. Thankfully, I didn’t have to interact with him much, but when I did so during the dinner, all his lines were just thinly veiled threats about ‘making his little angel cry’. Judy seemed to be embarrassed by him too, so that was yet another topic I decided to steer clear of.
That left me with focusing on the actual thing I came over for: the site.
“Come back for a moment please,” I gestured for her, and she got up from the bed and walked over to me. “What do you want to be called?”
She thought for a couple of seconds before she leaned over me and began typing with one hand while supporting herself with the other. She was kind of pushing her chest at my shoulder, but I decided it wasn’t polite to mention it, so I bore it until she finished.
“Just ‘Assistant’?” I asked while peering at the screen. She nodded. “I guess it’s fine, but it’s a little plain.”
“You are called Admin on the site. I think it’s fitting.”
I asked her to come up with a password, which she did while still brushing the chest against me, but at this point I didn’t particularly mind anymore. Once she seemed satisfied I clicked the OK button and leaned back, which finally broke our contact.
“I will approve your application once I get home and I will introduce you to the regulars. You should be able to access most of the site. For now we should limit ourselves to browsing it on our PCs; I will look into whether I can get a safe browsing interface on our phones later.”
“Understood. What do you want me to look into first?”
“To be honest, I don’t know. There are thousands of reports there, and even more in the repository. I only skimmed the most recent ones, but the site has been running for a couple of years and the database is a mess. First, we should get that organized a little more than not at all.”
“And after that?”
“It should take us a while, but after that we should focus on our immediate area. The articles are a good primer, but the actual reports are more focused on local and political issues. We should only concentrate on the ones that are related to the island in general and Josh and company in particular.”
“The next step should be…” I started, but then I was interrupted as the door opened without a single knock and Judy’s father stuck his head through the opening.
“Hello!” He greeted us with a strained smile. He changed out of the business suit he was wearing during the dinner, instead sporting jeans and a plaid shirt that was unbuttoned at the top, possibly on purpose to show some chest hair. He looked me in the eye and his smile, barely visible under his mustache, became even more strained. “Good. Good.”
“Father, what are you doing?” Judy asked, and he turned his eyes to her.
“Just checking to see if everything is all right,” He said with fake pleasantry before he looked at me again. “Just a friendly reminder, I have a shotgun.”
“… Duly noted?” I said with no small amount of puzzlement.
“Take care!” He quipped after delivering his message, whatever the hell it was, and closed the door behind him… only to immediately open it again and look us over once more like he was expecting that we would move in the half second he was gone. After he did so, he let out a satisfied grunt and closed the door again, this time very, very slowly.
Once we heard him leave I turned to my assistant and flatly told her, “Your parents are weird.”
“I know,” She agreed immediately, and we left it at that.
It was getting late at this point. It was only half past six, but the sky was already pretty dark outside. It was autumn after all. I said my goodbyes to the family and told Judy I would call her later when I approved her account. Her father gave me the evil eye at that and once again reminded me that he was allowed to legally carry firearms, which obviously made me a little uneasy, but aside of that little intermezzo, I managed to leave without any drama.
Once I was already on my way home I let out an unconscious sigh. This day was way, way too hectic for my taste. The thing that bothered me the most was the entire ‘love life’ business though. Just where did I go wrong? I was one hundred percent sincere when I said I didn’t want to get involved in any kind of dumb romantic drama while I had so many other things to worry about, yet somehow it only led to even more problems. Why can’t anything be simple for once?
I was lucky that even with all my internal grumbling I heard the noise. It was a scraping sound, like shifting gravel reverberating in an empty drum. I instinctively stopped and faced the source of the sound. I had to strain my eyes for a moment, but then I noticed ‘it’.
It was a large shape barely visible in the dark. It was just outside the light-cone of the street-lamps and it was vaguely humanoid, except too big to be a human. Just from a glance, I put it in the ballpark of about two and a half meters, but unlike actual Guinness Record holders, it was also as wide as a car.
Not only that, even a cursory look revealed that there was something wrong with its head. It looked like it had large, ridged horns that curled around its skull, and while I couldn’t see the face, its eyes were glowing with a dull orange light. For a moment I thought it was like a cat’s eye, reflecting light, but the longer I looked at them, the less certain I was about that.
And then it happened. I kept staring into its eyes, and without any warning, our gazes ‘linked’, like two magnets dangling on strings snapping together and refusing to let go. It was a weird and more than a little scary experience, as for a moment I thought I could feel emotions pressing against my forehead. Not literally, of course, but then again, there really isn’t a good way to express how it feels to experience another being’s emotions projected onto you.
I expected something alarming, like anger or an intent to kill, but instead the first emotion that swirled against my consciousness was surprise. Not only that, it was a pleasant surprise, followed by confusion and then, at last, curiosity. There was an undercurrent of hostility deep below these emotions, but for the most part, it was just honest to goodness interest.
He let out a low grunt, but even that didn’t sound particularly aggressive. Bolstered by this I was just about to call out to him when something even weirder happened. As if this wasn’t weird enough already, eh?
His outlines abruptly flashed with the same incandescent orange light as his eyes, accompanied by what looked like a swirl of embers in the air and he lunged at me. Except he didn’t. Only the outlines. I almost let out a panicked scream, but it got trapped in my throat as another amber outline appeared. This one came from me of all places and it ran towards the incoming outline of the creature at an angle. The outline of the huge thing raised its fist, which was about as big as my head, and swung it towards my own outline. It rolled under the strike and sprung to its feet in a single motion and the two constructs of light squared off against each other.
Then, just as I thought the orange silhouette of the creature was about to lunge again, I was hit with another wave of emotion. It was astonishment and… respect? Was respect even an emotion? Either way, ‘he’ let out a noise that sounded like a content chuckle if it was coming from the throat of a whale as he turned around. As our eye-contact broke the orange specters began to rapidly fade away, and by the time I recovered my wits the creature was already gone, his footsteps barely making any noise despite his enormous size.
I took a deep breath, turned around and began hurriedly walking towards my place. I got there in record time, opened the door, closed it behind me, locked it and then immediately went over to the sofa while trying to ignore the cold sweat covering my body. I fell into my seat, held my head in my arms, and asked one, very basic question.
“What… the fuck… was that?!”