Two people sat huddled around a blank holographic screen. Suffocating, damp concrete walls loomed over their hunched figures. The asphalt beneath them glistened with stagnant puddles of rainwater, reflecting the dull yellow streetlights above.
The atmosphere was tense with anticipation as they stared unblinkingly at the screen.
When the screen finally lit up with an incoming call, the man instantaneously pressed the answer button. A hologram of a professional-looking corporate worker projected onto the screen. They would have appeared quite ordinary, had there not been an iron mask covering their entire face, barring their eyes and mouth.
Both people reflexively bowed their heads in respect.
“I’ll be brief, operatives. Your next target is a girl named Rui Chen. She is a reincarnation of a powerful sorcerer and thus poses a significant threat. To increase your chances of success, we have approved the use of the organisation’s strongest weapons for this mission. Please utilise them as you see fit.”
This foreboding message made both operatives shiver. It was rare for the stingy corporation to relinquish their tight clutches on the expensive equipment.
Despite the heavy weight in their stomachs, the pair obediently nodded in gratitude.
“Be careful, operatives. Despite being the best team at our disposal, even you could fall prey to this target,” the masked person warned. “You are dismissed.”
The hologram flickered, then it disappeared for good. Once again, they were left with a blank screen.
Just how powerful was this Rui Chen?
Rui Chen was currently in school, playing Tetris on her laptop at the back of the maths classroom.
Even though she had her headphones on and was clearly not paying attention to the board, the teacher continued to talk as if Rui wasn’t in the room.
Amidst the loud music blasting in her ears, Rui heard a voice say something indiscernible on her right. She turned towards the source and met eyes with a boy who was expectantly waiting for an answer.
“What?” she hissed, taking off her headphones to hear better.
The boy tried to move closer as indiscreetly as he could, in a poor attempt to avoid drawing the teacher’s attention. Since everybody in the class gave Rui a wide berth, there was an impossibly wide stretch of desks between them. It took him an awkward 3 seconds to cross the chasm between them, and another 2 seconds to muster the courage to speak.
“Can I borrow your ruler?” the boy whispered.
Rui was so appalled that she merely stared back at him. He had so many people sitting right next to him, and yet he chose to move halfway across the classroom to ask her for one. God knows if she even had a ruler. She hadn’t touched her pencil case in years and wasn’t keen on ending the streak anytime soon.
“Go ask the people around you, idiot,” she muttered back. “Surely at least one of them have a ruler.”
The boy scowled and slid back to his seat. With her headphones still off, Rui could acutely hear the boy and his friends whispering amongst each other. At first, she thought that he was asking them for a ruler, but they exchanged nothing physical between them. Rui quickly looked away when one of them darted a glance at her.
Once she was sure that the boy wouldn’t bother her again, Rui slipped her headphones back on. If she turned up the sound of the music loud enough, she could pretend that she wasn’t in class.
This was the routine that she went through every day, in every class. The only relief was that Rui’s school life would be over shortly, in less than a year's time. It provided some solace, but not enough to stave off the dread that inevitably followed the thought of attending class.
School was excessively boring.
No, life was boring.
As if something in the universe had heard her thoughts, the door to the classroom was flung open with teeth-rattling force. Two black-clad police officers, one woman and one man, stormed into the room.
“Apologies for the interruption,” the policeman said in an unapologetic tone. “We need to speak with Rui Chen.”
His curt and direct tone left no room for protest, and the teacher seemed all too willing to comply.
“Y-Yes, of course!” he said, glancing nervously over at the girl in question. “Rui?”
At the mention of her name, Rui finally looked up from her laptop. After receiving nothing but stares from everybody in the classroom, she groaned and slowly slid off her headphones. The screeching distorted guitars slowly faded away, highlighting the near pin-drop silence that cloaked the room.
The officer impatiently tapped his foot as Rui leisurely meandered her way towards the front. As she ambled past the rows of wooden desks, she heard hushed whispers from her classmates. She was pretty sure she heard the words ‘killing a family of 7’, but Rui didn’t care enough to point out the absurdity of the claim. Once she was within comfortable speaking distance with the officers, she immediately attempted to prove her innocence.
“Whatever it was, it wasn’t m-” Rui started, but the policeman cut her off.
“We will talk outside, Miss Chen,” he said in a flat tone.
She barely had time to protest against the unsympathetic treatment before he began striding out of the classroom. Rui didn’t have to turn around to know that the other officer was following right behind her, because the woman was practically breathing down her neck. If she wasn’t being so closely watched, Rui might have rolled her eyes at the overly dramatic way that she was being handled.
The policeman led them down the hallway outside the classroom, abruptly stopping halfway without a word. They were still in view of the classroom windows, and Rui could see all the students staring at them in her peripheral vision.
Ignoring the students’ gaze, the policeman bluntly asked Rui, “You seem to have no companions in this establishment. Do you still think that your kind is above other humans?”
“No, I’m just naturally unlikeable,” Rui deadpanned. “And don’t point out so frankly that I have no friends. What the hell do you mean by ‘your kind’ anyway?”
Instead of answering Rui’s question, the officer simply said, “It appears that you have lost your memory. We will note that down.”
Rui raised an eyebrow as the policewoman nodded and whispered something into her earpiece. Both officers paused for a moment, then swiftly drew out their guns. Reflexively, Rui stepped back towards the exit, but a warning glance quickly stopped any further movements.
“If you would be still for a moment… you’d make our job a lot easier.”
“And what exactly is your job? I’m no police officer expert, but killing someone in plain sight isn’t usually what they do,” Rui halted. “No, I take that back. But you’re definitely not just an officer.”
“Our job is to terminate you. Now stay still,” the officer replied unflinchingly, raising the gun.
“Unfortunately, I’m inclined to reject your generous offer.”
“Do you think that your poor attempts at snarky quips will save you? Even if you survive, do you believe that you can simply return to your old life?”
This prompted a sarcastically thoughtful expression from Rui.
“You’re suggesting that the only solution is for someone to die, right?” Rui asked. “Sorry, but it won’t be me today.”
She winced internally at the cliché sentence. Good thing nobody could hear her, apart from these two phony officers.
To the people watching from the classroom, it happened out of nowhere. Rui was suddenly flung against the wall by some invisible force, dazedly groaning as she slid down to the floor. To any other normal human being, Rui looked like she was having an asthma attack as she brought her hands up to her throat, gasping for air.
“An enchantment that reflects the intent of the magic upon the original caster,” the policewoman remarked as she looked at the spectacle.
Her eyes widened as Rui started coughing and taking deep breaths, miraculously free of the bind around her throat.
“You… finally talked… bitch,” Rui said, still panting. “And for your information, that so-called enchantment could barely have held back a baby.”
The policeman seemed completely calm. “This was expected from our target. Fear not, we have many more- HEY, WHERE ARE YOU GOING?”
“What happened to regular guns, anyway?” Rui muttered to herself as she ignored the shouts of the officers behind her. “Enchantments are cheating if you’re just a normal person.”
Despite what she said earlier, Rui had no plans to kill the self-proclaimed officers. She could get away from two officers, but it would be ten times harder to get away with a charge for first-degree murder.
Behind her, Rui could hear the officers’ heavy boots pounding against the tiled floors of the hallway. They were keeping up with her pace, but still quite behind her. She was agile, but hardly fit. The last time she had properly ran was in primary school, if she was being generous. Rui was outrunning them for now, but she could already feel each breath becoming more laborious.
She had bolted in the opposite direction to the officers out of instinct, but Rui quickly realised that her path was leading straight into a dead-end. A quick glance to her right revealed a promise for escape: an ajar window. They were on the third floor, but it was her only choice.
This was either going to look badass or be the most embarrassing moment in her life.
Rui practically flung herself out of the window and managed to grab onto a nearby ledge as she went. It took a couple of tries, but she swung herself towards a nearby sturdy-looking pole. The metal squealed against the skin on her bare hands as she slid down. Painful, but not as bad as dying. Probably.
Looking up, she saw the two officers leaning out of the window to stare down at her. They didn’t look like they were planning to follow her; she was probably the only one stupid enough to leap out a window. Rui quickly ran to a shaded area, away from their watchful eyes.
In a moment of rest, Rui frantically racked her brain for options to escape. The first idea that came to mind was hiding in the bathrooms. Partially because it was the easiest option, and she was too lazy to think of anything that required fighting or running. Very quickly, however, Rui realised that she would probably end up cornered. And dead, of course.
A better idea would be to leave the school entirely. Once she was out, the officers would have to search a much wider area, and hopefully lose track of her. The main gate wasn’t an option, for obvious reasons, so Rui started heading towards the side gate. It began as a brisk walk, but was swiftly replaced by a sluggish trudge.
The term ‘side gate’ was an overstatement, given that it was merely a gap in the fence behind a thick row of hedges. The area was tucked away behind one of the older buildings at the back of the school. It was infamous among the students who frequently skipped class, but virtually unknown to anyone else. At the very least, the teachers didn’t care enough to raise the issue.
The adrenaline had already worn off, leaving Rui’s body fatigued and her heart still pounding from the whole situation. It was difficult to concentrate with her entire body complaining about the impromptu, yet sorely needed, exercise.
With great difficulty, Rui reached the side gate. A cursory glance at the hedges quickly caused her to duck behind a wall. Not only was it blocked by caution tape, but it was being patrolled by the female officer from earlier.
“Looks like she did her research,” Rui muttered under her breath. “No reason for her to be so extra, but whatever.”
It seemed that she would have to put more than one brain cell into escaping. A real pity, since she was eager to go home and immediately collapse into the comfort of her bed.
The obvious answer would be to bolt towards the gate and slip past the tape while the officer wasn’t watching. But again, it was too much effort for such a high risk. Rui wanted- no, needed- an easier solution that didn’t rely on her nonexistent combat skills. She racked her brain for a plan, but unsurprisingly, she only came up with ideas to do once she escaped. Like sleeping. Or playing a match of League. Literally anything but physical exercise.
Suddenly, a brilliant idea struck her. In fact, it was so brilliant that Rui considered giving herself a Nobel Peace Prize for thinking of something so wise.
She could trigger the fire alarms in the school. That way, she could casually leave through the main gate, hidden by the evacuating students and teachers. Efficient, easy, and probably the greatest idea she had concocted since inventing a way to cook an entire meal during an online match’s queue time.
“I am such a fucking genius,” she hissed to herself as she slowly snuck away from her hiding spot.
It was almost too easy to enact her master plan. All she had to do was stroll into the nearby building and find a fire alarm pull box. A brief glance down one of the abandoned hallways easily revealed a bright red box with ‘fire’ written across it in capitals. It was almost too simple, really. Rui simply walked up to the box and pulled down on the latch. Immediately, an ear-shattering wave of blaring fire alarms washed over the entire school. Rui jumped at the sound and automatically backed away from the fire alarm latch as if it were about to suddenly explode.
The screams of panicked children outside reminded Rui of her original plan, and she peered out of the nearest window to observe what was happening. The building faced a courtyard, so she could watch calmly as hordes of students were ushered out of their classrooms.
Rui cursed under her breath as she saw some important-looking personnel heading in her direction. They must’ve realised that the fire alarm was pulled from here. Damn technology and useful inventions.
With no other choice, Rui had to run out and blend in with the human stampede. Once again, it was surprisingly easy, given that everybody was busy trying to get themselves to safety. At one point, a teacher looked at Rui in surprise when they bumped shoulders, but she was pretty sure that the surprise was due to her being at school.
The crowd continued to ebb and flow, gradually moving towards the exit. If there was a real fire, Rui was confident that she would have been nothing but ashes by now. But at least within the safety of human walls, there was no chance that the two officers could pick her out from the hundreds of other students. Even if they could, it was impossible to reach her from h-
“You are one sly ferret,” the policewoman muttered in her ear.
A sharp, growing pain in Rui’s stomach forced her to look down at the wound. The gleaming tip of a knife poked out from her uniform — a silver shark’s fin in a gushing river of crimson blood.
Rui was vaguely aware of people screaming and running away from her, but everything felt like a blur.
“At this point, I think dying would’ve been easier anyway,” Rui coughed. “Damn, if only it didn’t hurt so much.”