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I couldn’t wait to leave the hospital. Okay, it was more like I ran out of there like my butt was on fire. There wasn’t a lot of time before 8 pm hit and the Gate closed. Since my armor wasn’t in any shape to fight in, I wore the spare jeans and a t-shirt that I had in my Items Bag. Yes, I called myself crazy for doing it, but I didn’t have anything else to wear. Her Resistance was the only armor that I owned.

Technically I could just step right inside the Gate, sit down and cultivate there. Only that meant that I’d be visible to any Hunter that entered or exited. With so many people after my head right now, that didn’t seem like a good idea. If I hurried, there was enough time to sprint to Fogmire, cultivate, and sprint back.

“Lesson learned,” I mumbled to myself as I walked into Gate Square. “Cultivate first, then go on dangerous missions.” It was a stupid move.

It was late enough in the day that there were only a handful of people going into the large square. Everyone else was exiting the Gate and leaving to go home or joining the line forming at the hospital, all in various battleworn stages. Lights were starting to turn on in the surrounding red brick buildings, getting ready for nightfall. Construction workers that were reassembling the buildings from the world-wide Gate Surge were already gone. From the looks of it, they were just about to start on the finishing touches.

A familiar presence approached me and I looked over to see Kesstel in casual wear, walking up to me. He looked at me as if he didn’t know what expression he should show — concern or a smile.

“All better?”

I paused. “What do you mean?”

He nodded over my shoulder towards the hospital. “You were in there for a couple hours. What happened?” He glanced at my damaged hip satchel and his lips thinned.

My head tilted to the side, completely not knowing what to feel. Exasperation? Still, a small part of me appreciated that he was concerned. “You always know where I am. Did you know there’s a word for that? Stalker, I think is the term.” Really with him, he just kinda showed up whenever he wanted, like a cat. A very dangerous cat.

He winced and ran a hand through his hair. “I know. I don’t purposefully do it, but I do notice when you’re in my vicinity. And I’ve never noticed you in the hospital before, especially for a long time.”

I started to walk toward the Gate and he fell into step with me. “How widespread is your area of awareness?”

He frowned and didn’t answer.

I looked up, waiting for a response.

His head tilted to the side. “If I focused my mind on searching, and if I was standing at the Gate in the middle of the city, I could find you anywhere in Eden. If you left Eden and I was at the Gate, that would be beyond my reach.”

My eyes widened. “That’s … really far.” Miles, that was like over ten miles.

He nodded. “I know. Unless you’re close, I only check your general direction in the evenings to make sure you made it out of the Gate.” He looked up at the giant black arch looming over us. “Which still makes me think I’m out of my mind.”

I stopped walking and turned to face him. Hunters were walking out of the Gate less than thirty feet away, but I couldn’t hold back my questions. “What do you want from me?” I shook my head, frowning and confused. “You said to Bethany Wilks that I was your partner. It’s a joke right? Even if I did partner up, I’m so much weaker than you, no one — not even me — would take it seriously.”

An invisible barrier surrounded us, blocking out the noise. He really didn’t like people overhearing him, did he? “But you won’t always be. Although I don’t know how, you are stronger every time I see you. You could be the same as me someday.” He paused, frowning. “I want … to be friends.” His mouth wrinkled and he looked away. Wait, were the tips of his ears pink?

My eyes widened. “What?”

He glanced at me out of the corner of his eyes without turning his face. Then he tipped his head back and looked back up at the Gate. “I forgot … how nice it was to feel something. It’s been so long. I forgot how wonderful it felt to talk freely. About my past, about the present. And to think that the future might not be so lonely. It’s nice to care about the wellbeing of a person again.”

His hands fisted at his side. “I’ve gotten good at displaying the right emotion at the right time, but it was all superficial. No matter where I’d go, there was always a … barrier around me. Separating me from the current intelligent species. It’s like standing in the middle of a play, watching faceless dolls move about. Or maybe I was the empty doll, just biding my time until I moved to the next world,” he whispered. He pressed his right hand over the lower left side of his chest. He looked at me, his brows wrinkled in confusion. “I don’t know why it’s you. The irony almost kills me. But I enjoy being with you, I enjoy feeling and smiling again. I enjoy feeling emotions. And I want to do that more. That only happens around you.”

I stared at him, so frazzled I felt like my head was going to explode. Honestly, I didn’t think being friends was a good idea. It was like a noose around my neck, tightening the more I was around him. But I did like hanging out with him. I felt … safe with him. Even when he was angry. It’s stupid, but I felt that as long as he was there, I wasn’t going to get hurt. There wasn’t a single person in the whole world I could say that about. Not even at Aunt Mina’s home in Garden City, where I could have fun but I had to guard my words to protect my family.

That fact alone made me want to run away. I didn’t want to lean on anyone. I didn’t want to need someone there as a crutch. I couldn’t bear my soul to someone and let them have that degree of control over me.

But I also couldn’t kick Kesstel away. Not when he was so honest and open about a simple wish for a friend. Because I knew what it was like to look around and know that you were completely alone in another world.

I bit my lips and looked up at him. “I … don’t partner up,” I said softly. I’d never level up if he was around, since apparently I didn’t get EXP for monsters that other people helped me with the kill. “But I don’t mind hanging out and stuff.” I smiled softly.

He nodded. “I can do that.” Then he paused and smiled. “Can I get your number so I can just text you instead of hunting you down every time?”

The smile slipped from my face. “Ah, I don’t have a phone.”

“Hm. We should go buy one for you,” he muttered.

I shook my head. “No, I have more important things to do first. I’ll get one when I have the money for it. For now, I really do have to go.” This conversation was eating up valuable time. I took a couple steps towards the Gate and the sound barrier popped.

Kesstel frowned. “Where are you going?”

I motioned to the huge black arch ahead of me. “I have something I have to do in there. Right now.”

He fell into step beside me. “What? It’s getting too late for you to be in the Gate. And you’re not even in armor.”

I checked the clock on my System. I had enough time — barely. I glanced at him then passed through the Gate. “I know.”

Kesstel stayed at my side, he even kept up with me as I activated Feather Step and sprinted as fast as I could towards Fogmire.

“Where are we going?” Kesstel’s running form was almost leisurely as if he wasn’t even putting effort into it. Then again, with his stats, he didn’t need to.

I glanced at him, trying to decide if I should chase him away or not. But he already knew about me being a Warrior of Mist. I didn’t know what all I couldn’t show him, but it shouldn’t be a problem if he saw me cultivate, right? Then again, if weaker monsters ran away from him, I wouldn’t have to worry about attacks breaking up my time and spending longer than I wanted to. “Fogmire. I have something to do there.”

The golden plains between the Gate and Fogmire flashed by us. The metallic heads of six-foot tall grass whispered as they swayed and brushed around us.

Hunters followed the path that cut through the plain, all walking towards the Gate to go home. Every person that we passed wore armor of some sort or another. I bet Kesstel and I were the only ones in the whole Vale that were in street clothes.

Some Hunters jumped out of the way as we ran by. Others scowled and glared as if daring us to make them move. Before I could jump over one such guy, Kesstel’s hand flicked out. A bright blue flash of light like a whip smacked the man to the side, flinging him over ten feet into the golden grass. Kesstel did it so smoothly, he and I didn’t even have to break a step. Kesstel only had to do that one more time for others to realize it was better to just get out of the way.

Kesstel glanced at me. “You know, I could carry you and we’d be there a lot faster.”

“I bet.” And I’d die before I asked him to carry me. “But there’s nothing wrong with a little exercise.”

He bobbed his head. “Are you going to tell me what you have to do that’s so important before we get there?”

I shook my head. “Nope. Honestly, I’m not even sure that I can tell you.”

“What’s that supposed to mean?” His brows pulled together.

My lips twisted. “It’s just … complicated.”

We sprinted around a corner and Fogmire came into view at the end of the path. It’s gloomy, misty tree’d border loomed over the brightly flashing fields in sharp contrast.

There wasn’t a need to go far into the forest, so I leaped onto a tree just a couple feet in where the mist really started to pool, and sat down on a thick branch. Kesstel landed lightly on the branch next to me and watched with interest as I crossed my legs and put my hands together in the correct position.

“Is there a particular reason why you came out here to do yoga?” He didn’t even bother lowering his voice.

Right next to us, a Treant peeked its eyes open and looked at Kesstel. It immediately shut them and pretended to be a dead tree.

My mouth twitched, looking between the monster and the man. “Cultivating. It’s called cultivating. It’s a lot different than yoga.” It wasn’t until the words were out that I realized what I said. I got my Mist power by cultivating, so I always thought it was in the ‘you can’t tell anyone about this’ category. Could I tell Kesstel about it, since he already knew what I was? “It’s going to take forty-five minutes and I can’t talk. If you want to go back, you can.”

He hopped onto a tree a couple feet away and leaned back onto the trunk. “I’ll be fine.” He rested his hands behind his head and one leg dangling down as if he didn’t care that he was laying on a Treant. He probably didn’t. The monster didn’t budge a millimeter.

Should I laugh, sigh, or cry? Someday, I told myself, someday I’ll be that strong. And to get there, I needed to cultivate.

Since I first figured out how, I’d never put a lot of thought into it. But now that I had an audience, my body felt so rigid and my hands were awkward. Stop it, I ordered myself and closed my eyes. I reached out my awareness and instantly felt Kesstel’s presence. I frowned and disregarded him. As soon as I did, I could feel the familiar and soothing mist swirling and pooling in the air. Mentally, I grabbed onto the particles and drew it to me. All thoughts outside of cultivating disappeared and my mind cleared as habit took over.

In no time at all, my System dinged, letting me know that my task was done.

I slowly opened my eyes. Kesstel was sitting right next to me, watching me closely. I jumped and nearly fell out of the tree. I knew that he was around me, but last I looked, he was on a different tree. When did he move right beside me?

I rightened myself and sat normal on the branch, letting my feet hang down. When I originally planned to come, it was going to be a quick in-and-out. With Kesstel here, the sense of urgency lowered and I felt like I could actually take time. It was turning into a bad habit — a really bad habit. But I was curious what he was curious about.

“So that was cultivating. I’ve never heard or seen it before.” Slowly, Kesstel reached out and touched my stomach with the barest tips of his fingers — the mist I drew in pooled there.

“It’s almost like an energy crystal, but not,” he observed. “Just raw power collecting, without an item to anchor it in place.” His features were solemn.

I nodded, wondering how much he understood. “Cultivating is basically absorbing the compatible element around me to strengthen myself. It’s a Warrior of Mist thing. It’s very helpful.” I lifted my hand and summoned a thick cloud of mist around my fingers.

Interest gleamed in his eyes and he reached out to touch the mist. It swirled and curled around his fingers. The gleam in his eyes turned to a sharp glint, but I didn’t feel threatened. He pulled back and shook the water drops that collected on his fingers then looked around the forest, where the white particles were so thick, the naked eye couldn’t see more than five feet away. “I imagine this place is perfect for you then.”

A thought came to me. “Ah, but I don’t want you to cultivate.” He glanced at me with surprise. “It’s just, the other Hunter that I saw cultivate turned into a monster. That would be bad if you did.” My voice died out, pathetically.

The corner of Kesstel’s mouth hooked up. “It wouldn’t do me any good, anyway. There isn’t a compatible element to me here.” His long sword appeared in his hand, so beautiful and noble looking. A second later, a pale blue glow surrounded the pattern-welded blade. “My magic is more of a force type, where I can add non-elemental magic damage to my attacks. It’s pliable, but really only meant for offense.”

I could feel the power radiating from the light and didn’t dare touch it like he did my mist.

“How did you learn to cultivate?” he asked.

My lips twisted together. Should I try? He knew so much about everything else, if he also knew about the System, maybe we could work together to find a cure for the Sleepers and figure out a way to save Earth. I paused. “I ha—” My voice cut out.

[Warning! Sharing information about the System with outsiders is restricted. Please cease your actions.]

“You what?” Kesstel encouraged.

I sighed and dropped my face in my hands. “Nothing. It’s nothing.” I jumped lightly to the ground and nodded towards the Gate. “Let’s go.”

*****

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About the author

MichelleRReid

Bio: 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.
I’ve had a vivid imagination since I was a child. And as much as I wish I could actually live in the worlds in my head, the closest I can get is with the words I put on the page. These characters are like real people to me. The funny lines they say, their emotions that make my heart bleed, the amazing things they can do that I physically can’t, the adventures and sights that I can see in my head. I love sharing those things with my readers and hope that they can feel at least a part of what I do.
I do have other works that are published through Amazon. They are not LitPRG, but I'm still really proud of them. Check them out if you have the chance.

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