The surroundings were dim, damp, and still. For a long while, no sound could be heard inside the confined cave except for the occasional waterdrop that coalesced and dropped down from the tips of the stalactites that littered the cave's ceiling. The only light in the cave originated from small groups of luminescent fungi that covered the surfaces of the cave in an even uneven matter.
The sudden rustling of clothes next to me grabbed my attention. The low glow emitted throughout the cave let me make out the features of a familiar figure. The figure let out a small groan as it moved.
"Be careful. you're hurt." I told the figure, who was trying to stand up. It took no heed to my warning and subsequently fell when it tried supporting itself on its injured leg.
I let out a sigh. "I told you so."
"...Where are we?" Ken spoke with a drained voice.
"I'm not sure. This place is so large, so I lost track. But I don't think we went any further down, so we should still be somewhere on the upper floor."
He looked up at me with apprehensive eyes. "Where are the others?"
I looked at him in silence.
I shook my head slowly.
I shook my head again.
Tears were starting to form in his eyes as he hesitated to ask again. "...Jen?"
I looked away from him and studied the walls of the cave. "...We're the only ones who made it."
Weak rustling could be heard next to me, and silence descended upon the cave once more. My breath was heavy, and my pulse was high despite having hidden in this cave for almost half a day. I spent several minutes trying to calm down my pulse before Ken spoke once again.
"Why?" He asked out loud. "We'd all gone through so much together climbing this damn place. Why did Mary betray us like that?" His voice was as low as a whisper.
I clenched my fist as I thought about that person. "Because she was a god damn devil. That bastard had been playing us all along." I said, my speech filled with pent up rage. "I swear, next time I see her, I'm going to tear her apart."
I turned toward Ken and looked at him with conviction. "And then, we'll leave this place behind and reach the top by ourselves."
He looked down at the ground. "...And then what?"
A confused expression formed on my face. "...What?"
"I said, 'and then what?'" He clasped the ground with his scarred and dirty hands. "What happens next?! So what if we reach the top? Everybody else will still be dead. We don't even know what happens when we reach the top. For all we know, this could all be for nothing!" He yelled and glared at me.
"Ken, you saw the message that the citadel first showed us when we entered. As long as we reach the top, we'll survive." I tried to sound convincing with my statement, but I barely managed to convince myself.
"That's what the citadel told us! Just look at what all of the other citadels outside did! Why would this citadel be any different?!"
He was right. Who knows if what the Citadel of Hope had told us was the truth? For all we knew, this could all be part of some sick game, meant to amuse an even sicker god. It's not like the thought hadn’t crossed my mind before. Sometimes, when I thought about that, I just wanted to lie down and curl up into a ball. Give up on the world and just let it all end, putting a stop to all the suffering. No doubt that is what Ken wanted to do now too. But I refused to give up that easily. I wouldn't let those monsters win without a fight, and I'd make sure that Mary and all the other devils like her paid for they had done.
With confidence, I looked Ken in the eyes.
"So what if it is?" I asked him. "Even if this is all just one giant trap, do you seriously want to give up just like that?"
Ken seemed to hesitate at what I had said, but I didn't give him any time to waver.
"Jen and the others sacrificed themselves so that we could live on. Are you seriously going to give up and throw away what they gave their all to protect? Do you not want to get revenge?!" I pressed on.
He stared at me with wide eyes and looked down at the ground. Without any warning, he started laughing. He laughed and laughed, and I started to get afraid that he'd lost it. But then he spoke. "You're right. They sacrificed themselves for us. I might be tired of living in this hell, but I will at least make sure that their sacrifice won't be in vain."
He looked up at me again, but now he had a sad smile on his face. "Kim, what are you going to do when you reach the top?"
His sudden change surprised me, but a smile soon formed on my face. "Me? I'll live. I'll make sure that I live. And then, eventually, I'll get revenge. Revenge for my family and for all the people who died to get us here." I shrugged my shoulders.
"Good. That's what I've always liked about you, Kim. You never give up. It's amazing. I think that's what the others thought too..."
"Huh? Thanks, I guess.” I wasn’t good with praise. “But what about you? What will you do when we reach the top? Got any plans for the future?"
"Plans for the future? Not really. I guess I'll have to think about it..." His voice sounded oddly melancholic as he said those words.
I woke up with a bolt. My body was drenched with sweat and my clothes stuck to my skin. Faint traces of light shone in through the curtains and illuminated the bedroom. It was morning.
I turned around and looked at my watch that lay next to me on my bedside table. it was six o'clock. It was time for me to wake up soon anyway. I sat up on my bed and rubbed the sleep out of my eyes.
I'd had one of those dreams again. They had been going on for almost a week now. Memories from my old world. Memories of my friends and family. Both pleasant and unpleasant...
This dream had been one of the last peaceful memories I had with Ken. After that, it had almost been non-stop action until we reached the top of the Citadel of Hope. Looking back at it with a fresh perspective, I realized the mistake I made at the time. I neglected Ken in the end and thought he was fine when it was apparent that he wasn't. I wonder. If I'd noticed, would that have made any difference? Would he have had a chance to survive? I fell into a state of contemplation.
Then, I slapped myself on my cheeks. There was no point in regretting any of that now. I told him I'd live and get revenge, and that's what I'd do.
With that conviction, I got about my morning business — a quick run around the campus, followed by a nice hot shower. Then a large breakfast before heading out of the dorms for the first lesson.
On the way, I met Raul, who waved at me as he walked over to me.
"Hey, Kim! Ready for the test results today? Do you think it went well for you?" He asked with the same smile that he always wore in the morning.
I nodded my head at question and smiled. "Yeah, probably. I felt pretty confident about my answers. What about you?"
He scratched the back of his neck. "Well, I think I at least got a passing grade, thanks to the study group. Probably not much more than that, though..."
"Yeah, that's about what I'd expect of you."
"Hey, not everyone can be as smart as you. You're like a friggin’ calculator."
I laughed at what he said. "You're not far off..."
"See?! Life just ain't fair, I tell you."
I raised my eyebrows. "Weren't you the one who said that heroes don't have to be good at things like that?"
"Yeah, but still. It doesn't hurt to be a genius."
"I'm not a genius, though."
"Says the guy who can calculate the square root of 175 000 in just a few seconds."
I should probably dial down my use of the Authority a bit, especially when I'm with other people.
We kept arguing back and forth over whether I was a genius or not until we arrived in the classroom. Then, I promptly sat down in my usual seat by the door. Kay was sitting next to me, not paying attention to my arrival as usual. Even though we didn't have predetermined seats, the two of us always chose to sit in the same places. I did it because I wanted to be close to the exit, and Kay did it because...
I wasn't really sure. She refused to change seats once she had picked one. She was just stubborn, I think. She was weird like that.
Not long after I sat down, Mr. Basara entered the classroom. The classroom went silent, and everybody focused their attention on him.
"Morning students. I hope you're all ready because today you'll be getting the results for the written exams that you wrote a few days ago. I'm glad to say that everyone passed, although I was hoping that some of you would perform better than you did." He tapped at his smartwatch. I large hologram with lists appeared. "Here are the results from this time. Hopefully, this will also work to encourage some of you guys to aim a bit higher next time." He added with a smile.
I studied the list carefully. As I thought, my results were good. I got second place on the Ethereal Beast Analysis exam, third place on the Group Subjugation Design exam, and first place on the Metaphysical Formation Analysis.
A surprised sound could be heard from the back of the classroom. I turned around and looked back. A girl with long brown hair was looking at the results with wide eyes. I remember her name was Jasmine.
Liang, who was sitting behind me, grinned as she looked at me. "Congratulations, Kim. You beat the princess."
I looked at her with a confused expression and turned back to the scoring list. Then, I noticed that Jasmine Silvia Sibylla was listed as the top scorer for the other two subjects. But on Metaphysical Formation Design, she was number two. So that was what Liang meant.
I turned around and observed Jasmine. I almost felt a little bit bad. She looked like the world had just ended.