I followed Kesstel to the small wooded area. He walked to a bench surrounded by some trees and a tall yellow rose bush on the right side. Kesstel sat on the bench and looked up at me expectantly.
I stared down at him and tried not to fidget. That warning still hung over his head. But it’s not like I was trying to provoke him, right? I just wanted to know what was going on. If the System wasn’t going to tell me, then I had to use other means. If Kesstel tried anything, or began acting provoked, I could always just run away, right? I perched on the far side of the bench, my butt barely on the cold stone, and looked up at him.
Kesstel's mouth relaxed into almost a smile, but not quite. Was he amused that I was still on guard? A rosey pink cardboard box appeared in his hand and he set in on the bench between us.
I blinked at it, surprised. The label on the box looked familiar, but I still asked, “What is that?”
“Bribery,” he bluntly stated. He glanced at me, the corner of his mouth still hooked up in a half smile. “You think I haven’t noticed that you run like a bat out of hell whenever you see me? I’m not so uncouth that I’d force my attention on a young woman.” He opened the pastry box. From inside, a waft of sweet heaven drifted into the air. “I thought I’d try a gentler approach to get your attention.”
I stared at him, completely shocked at how shameless and blunt he was. The smell of baked goods coiled around me and I couldn’t resist glancing down. Inside was an éclair and a chocolate tres leche cake. Just like the ones my sister and I had shared. He’d noticed…
“I don’t care for sweets, so if you don’t eat them, they’re going in the trash,” he commented, a slight edge in his tone.
My mouth nearly fell open. One more negative point was tacked on his scoreboard in my mind. It was a sin to waste food — especially dessert! Still, I couldn’t bring myself to reach into the box.
“What did you mean when you said, I’m not wrong?” I looked into his eyes. Instinctively, I wanted to shy away. God, just meeting his gaze, it was as if he could see into my soul. Feeling the residue of his suppressed power, sent a shiver of warning spreading through my whole body. But I refused to let it show. My hands fisted in my lap and I lifted my chin. “Have you seen someone turn into a monster too?”
His eyes narrowed and a frown flashed on his face, so fast that I would have missed it if I wasn’t staring at him so intently. “Yes. But first ...” He waved his hand. A chill went down my spine as a magical dome about ten feet wide appeared over us. It was clear with the barest sheen of light illuminating from it.
The sounds of the city were instantly cut off. It was like we were in our own little world in the corner of the green park. It was obvious that I’d be stuck in here until Kesstel took away the barrier. Oddly, I didn’t feel threatened by being penned up with him, I was only on edge from the pressure that Keestel, as an S, released.
“The receptionist a minute ago,” his words broke through my thoughts, “said the government did testing when the Gates were first opened? If they did, they must have done it on Earth when there wasn’t enough magic in the air. Or it was purposefully prevented from happening in front of human witnesses. It’s unfortunate, really. It's probably never occurred to them that half of the Hunters that go missing might actually be in the Gate still. Then again, even if they knew, it wouldn’t matter anyway.”
It took me a second to realise what he was saying. My heart nearly stopped and I jumped to my feet. “Hang on! Are you telling me some of the monsters in the Gate are actually people?” I thrust a finger towards that black arch that loomed in the sky. “The monsters that we kill everyday?”
Kesstel’s chin tipped up until his eyes locked with mine. “Not some. All.”
I couldn’t seem to get enough air in my lungs. Shock ricocheted around my head, turning my mind to mush. My knees gave out and I sank back down to the bench, unable to take my wide eyes off him.
He hummed low and rubbed his chin, as if he’d just thought of something. “Hm, maybe not all. Animals and plants can transform into monsters too, though it’s more rare. But at least ninety percent of the monsters in Gate Vale were once people — although not all of them look exactly like you and me.”
I gaped at him, trying to digest what he’d just said while hundreds of questions came to my mind.
He didn’t give me the chance to ask one before he spoke again. “Now that I answered two of your questions, you have to answer some of mine.”
I swallowed and nodded. That was only fair. Unfortunately, I might not actually be able to.
He lifted a finger, signalling the number one. “Where did you hear the name Katharian?”
I glanced at the title bar above his head. It had changed a bit from the first time I saw it. It now read:
I opened my mouth. I didn’t know if the System would let me answer, but it was only fair to try in return for his information, even if his answers caused more questions. “My System told me.”
His eyes narrowed. “Is that so?” He frowned at me.
It took everything I had to not squirm under his piercing stare, but I didn’t volunteer any more information. He asked a question and that was the answer. Really, anyone’s System could tell them the same thing. Only, I had a feeling that Kesstel was a bit like me, and other Hunters couldn’t see his real title. There wasn’t any other reason I could think of that would make him care so much about why I could see it. Then again, it didn’t make me very comfortable knowing that he could see my real title bar too. Could he even see my level?
He held up another finger. “Second question. How did a nearly normal human become a fledgling Warrior of Mist?”
My eyes widened. “So you really know what they are?”
“Answer the question first.” His lips thinned.
I bit my lips, wondering how much I could say. “I don’t really know,” I admitted honestly and looked down at my fingers twisting in my lap. A sense of uncertainty built up in me, questioning everything that I was. What if I was a mistake? What if it was an accident that the System attached to me? “I got pulled into a Portal Burst. Just when I was about to die, I heard a voice. Then I woke up in the Hunter Hospital after being unconscious for four days. And I was different. It was only recently that I found out I’m somehow being trained as a Warrior of Mist.”
“A couple weeks ago.” I looked up at him. “I don’t even really know what a Warrior of Mist is. But you do?”
“Somewhat.” He ran a hand through his hair and sighed. “Well, that explains a couple things,” he muttered.
I scowled at him. “Well, what about you? What is a Katharian?”
For a moment, he didn’t move. “Are you sure you want to know? Knowledge is a one way door.”
I paused. I couldn’t deny that a part of me wanted to run away and forget everything I’d just seen in the Gate and learned since — the part of me that was a scared little girl groping in the dark for someone to hold onto. That weakness inside of me that I wanted to kill so badly, it hurt. But for once the rational side of me agreed with her. Instinctively, I knew that whatever was happening was completely over my head and I wasn’t strong enough to survive if I got sucked into it. I’d worked so hard to have a nice, easy life. And I could still choose to cover my ears and have that. Only…
I glanced at the title over Kesstel’s head and remembered watching that Hunter turn into a monster. “What’s a Katharian?” I asked again.
He was quiet for a couple seconds before he softly answered. “Me. The world I’m from was called Kathar.”
I gaped at him. “What?”
He reached out to the bush beside him and broke off a twig like he was picking a flower. “You know how the Gates are on Earth.” He leaned over and drew a circle in the dirt at our feet and wrote Earth inside it. “Every Gate leads to its own individual Gate Vale wherein the Hunters kill monsters, yes?” He drew an oval next to the Earth circle and labeled it Vales. Then he drew several arches, connecting the Earth circle to the Vales oval. “And each Gate Vale has a portal around it that opens every night and refills the Vale with monsters. You know all this, correct?” He drew little circles around the Vales to represent the portals. He looked up and waited for my response.
I nodded. This was something that everyone knew.
He looked back at his picture. “What Earthians don’t understand is that there is a spherical being on the other side of the Vales.” He drew a big circle nearly twice the size of the Earth circle. Then he started to draw arches attaching the portals to the new circle. “This being, this planet, is a parasite that shadows other planets. It consumes other worlds in order to survive.” He sat back and faced me. “My world was devoured two planets ago.”
It took me a second to wrap my mind around what he said. My hands clenched and unclenched. “Wait, what?” I gasped at him.
“These Gates are its ‘mouth.’” He wiggled two fingers in quotation signs. “They attach to a planet and fill it with parasitic magic. When the planet’s soul weakens enough, it gets swallowed up by the parasite. Any remaining land is turned into a portal and the inhabitants that survive transform into monsters to be set loose on the next planet.” His foot swiped across the ground, erasing the picture. His gaze bore into mine. “Do you believe me?”
I gaped at him. This was crazy. What he was saying was crazy. He was crazy. There was no way something like that was happening. There was no giant parasite monster planet on the other side of the Gate waiting to eat our planet and then turn people into…
“Why did that Hunter turn into a monster now?” My voice was weak.
“Energy crystals are a main way this parasite pollutes a world. Monsters carry the crystals out of the Gates and they spread all over the world. In a way, the crystals are a part of the parasite, like scales that it’s shed. So when a Hunter is infected with that magic, they change into monsters. But it only works when there’s enough magic around them to prompt the change. There’s not enough magic in the air on Earth yet, but it has to be getting close. Especially with the effective method you Earthians have created to assist the parasite in spreading crystals.”
Oh my god. My gut twisted painfully as I thought about the thousands, if not millions, of crystals that were taken out of the Gates everyday. “Why haven’t you told anyone?” I jumped to my feet. “People — we — need to know.”
Kesstel shrugged and looking in the direction of the Hunter’s Association Building. “I did. They didn’t believe me.” He paused. “They never do,” he said softly then looked back at me. “And it’s not like I could lead them to where the parasite is. It's on the other side of a portal, but I don’t know which one. If I did, I wouldn’t be here right now.”
How could he be so, so nonchalant?! This was a huge problem. If he was right, then Earth was going to collapse! It was going to get eaten by a huge parasitic planet and any survivors would be turned into monsters. “You could have shown them how people change …” My voice died out as I realized what a horrible thing I was suggesting.
“Who would volunteer?” He smirked. “Once you turn into a monster, there’s no turning back. It’s either a death sentence or a life as a mindless eating machine. The crystals inside the monsters drive them to attack the current species that rules the current infected planet.”
Current species. I’d heard that term before. A chill went down my spine as I remembered a huge, red orc laughing as it slowly sliced me to death. My left hand crossed over my chest and I gripped my right arm, trying to keep my body from shivering.
“The Warriors of Mist,” Kesstel’s voice broke through my thoughts, “are an elite group from a world that the parasite has already devoured.”
My eyes widened and I slowly turned my head to look at him.
He opened his mouth, then paused and looked away, his smile taking on a bitter feel. Suddenly, his expression dropped, his posture straightened. With a quick glance he checked the watch on his wrist and sighed. “I have a prior engagement I’m needed at. Any more questions will have to wait. I’ll leave first.”
He’d quickly drawn me in with the tantalizing detail of where Warrior's of Myst came from. Just as quickly my head was spinning as I watched him walk away with a lazy, predatory gait. The magic dome around us popped as he exited it and the sounds of the city came rushing to my ears. I gaped after him. Kesstel didn’t even look back as he disappeared from my sight.
I sank back against the bench, the pastry box inches from my thigh. I felt like a statue, frozen in place, my mind a shocked block of rock.
Why didn’t I know before? My System had to know already, especially if it had already seen the parasite swallow other worlds. Its own world. Why was I learning this from Kesstel, a man that the System kept warning me away from, and not from the System itself?
A System window popped open. [I am limited. Too much interaction will reveal you to it. You are simply not strong enough to protect yourself yet.]
I stared at the message. This was the first time the System had used the word ‘I.’ I kind of suspected that unlike the guide that Hunters use, there was a person behind my System. But this was the first that it admitted to it.
Who are you? I thought to System. What do you want me to do?
After that, the System didn’t respond to any of my questions.
EXP to Next Lv 462
Strength 39 (+10)
Constitution 31 (+10)
Stat Points 0
Mist (Improved) (20 ft)
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I am an author, mother, wife, and jack of all trades. I mean, every mom is, but I’ve found that through my research for different stories, I’ve picked up a lot of random (and sometimes actually useful) knowledge and skills.
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