After a few months of training, Rika ordered me to increase my counting-game - that’s what she called it - to twice a second over a period of sixty minutes. We also spent a lot of time practicing flicks, since it turned out that I was pretty bad at learning them. My instructor’s harsh training covered my body in bruises, and every session added a few more.
“Oh, Nate!” Alan intercepted me after we had just finished another session. “I’ve got a job in a new hunting group, wanna come with us next month?”
I was about to come up with an excuse, but Rika intervened before I could do so. “That would be great! Especially since we’re going to the mountains next year, the extra experience wouldn’t hurt.”
Alan’s face contorted in an expression of mild shock, “Rika, you aren’t serious, are you?”
“About what?” her eyes blinked confused.
“Only raid groups step into the mountain lairs...and you wanna take a child with you?”
“Naw~ don’t worry! The lairs are mostly cleared anyway and it’s me he’s going with, not some casual.” Rika’s lips rose into a mild, cheeky grin, but it’s been obvious that she meant a good chunk of her words. Unable to come up with an answer, Alan was left biting his tongue. Their sudden conversation made me realize that I was pretty much clueless about Rika’s plans with me.
“Umm, sorry, but what is in these mountains?” I asked.
“Oh nothing, Alan here is just a little crybaby.” Rika responded while patting Alan on the back. Deciding to just leave it at that, before this would somehow escalate, I went for a bath before returning to my room.
Evelyn and Alan had decided to head downtown this evening, leaving Mae and me in the care of Vivien and Thomas tonight. Besides training, I spent most of my time in my room engulfing myself in books. There wasn’t much I could mess up while reading, except for my sleeping schedule which had gotten slightly out of control during these last weeks. Picking up the book on my bedside table, I flipped through the pages until I found the passage I had left at. The old pages filled my nose with their sweet, musky scent as I wrapped myself in the blanket.
I was just a few minutes in when my door opened. Two dark eyes were peeking at me through the gap, before Mae overcame her shyness and stepped inside - a small teddy in one, a thin book in the other hand.
“You said you’d read me a story.” she reminded me.
I looked at her for a short second, then quietly slid to the side. Her lips curved into a content smile as she walked into the room and made herself comfortable next to me - handing me the book and hugging her teddy tightly.
It was a short story for children. A little chick and caterpillar met under a large mushroom when it was raining heavily. After exchanging all kinds of thoughts about the world, they became friends. Once the rain had stopped, they parted ways and left for their homes - the chick went back to its nest and the little caterpillar continued to feast on leaves. Since the nest was high up in a blooming tree, they would meet regularly though. Until one day, the caterpillar didn’t meet the chick at the agreed place, causing his friend to fall into deep sadness. The ending was left open, but the last page showed a bird and a butterfly flying next to each other through a bright blue sky.
“Why didn’t the caterpillar visit his friend? Is he dead?” Mae puffed sadly, her head resting on my shoulder.
“No, look! They’ve met again.” I pointed at the last picture.
Leaning forward, Mae studied it more intensely, but didn’t quite seem to understand what I was trying to show her.
“He went through metamorphosis and turned into a butterfly.” I explained.
“It’s when animals drastically change their appearance while they grow up - the little caterpillar turned into a butterfly.”
She wiped a tear away with her wrist. “S-so he isn’t dead?” her sobbing slowly disappeared.
“No he isn't. They're still flying around together.”
Mae wanted to say something, but only managed a yawn.
“It’s probably time to sleep.” I told her, rather duplicitous since I would’ve stayed up for a few more hours despite being the first one to wake up in the morning.
“Brother, can I sleep here? It’s scary without mom and dad.”
“Oh, sure.” There was no way I could refuse her.
“You know, my birthday is in a few weeks, or is it months? Anyway,” Mae yawned once more, “I wish for a pocket watch.”
She then sunk down, her head leaning against my arm, and fell asleep. I read only a few more pages before I forced myself to extinguish the light.
My heartbeat drummed in my head when I woke up. Mae was still lying next to me, breathing in a melodic rhythm. My eyes hurt and struggled to stay open while my mind was still mostly asleep. The room was dark, but a thin tray of light underneath the door told me that I likely haven’t been asleep for long.
“She’s with him in his room, look!” Vivien’s gentle voice sounded from behind the door, which opened just enough so that two blurry heads could peak through.
“Ahh, how sweet.” Evelyn’s voice sounded a few octaves higher than normally. Once my heartbeat had calmed down again, my heavy eyelids fell shut and I went back to sleep.
Can’t be too tired when I train with Rika.
A kick into my side let me stumble over my feet, but at least I wasn’t sent flying into the ground again.
“I’m curious. For a ten year old you don’t ask much, don’t you wanna know about magic stuff or something?” Rika asked out of the blue.
“...I’m eleven, you know?”
I stared at my instructor, then forced myself back up and dusted off some dirt from my shirt. “I know that there’s something wrong with me, and I’m afraid that what you’d tell me could be connected to it.” I murmured while watching some ants crawl through the short grass.
“Hee~, don’t you wanna learn more?”
“I’m not sure. Evelyn seems to struggle because of me, and there’s no guarantee it wouldn’t get worse. So I think it may be better to leave everything the way it is.”
Rika burst into laughter. I always thought it to be strange. Whenever the sun fell on her white hair and honey eyes, she seemed to glow like an angel - yet her personality reminded me more of a demon.
“You’re a good one, Nathan Aubrey!” she wiped a tear from the corner of her eye, “But you can’t hide from it forever, you know?”
“But I can try to enjoy my current life for as long as possible, can’t I?” I asked, staring at the blue sky which was streaked by frackled clouds.
“Who knows...but it’s your decision.”
Right after lunch, Alan took me with him to the inner city in order to buy some gear for our upcoming trip. The central market and shopping malls were only twenty minutes away via carriage. We followed a street that curved through the many pompous estates and green gardens, leading us down the mosaic of terraces. Behind us towered the outermost caldera walls, which had eroded in a way that made them look like giant canines in some places. Our street led us further and further into the crater, while the buildings around us rose ever so higher, until we finally turned onto a broad, straight road.
We dropped off in front of a large plaza. Alan threw the carter a few coins, who answered with a polite nod before driving away.