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Printed from https://www.writing.com/main/campfires/item_id/921778-Piece-II
Rated: GC · Campfire Creative · Novella · Fantasy · #921778
Six highschool students have two lives to lead. Fantasy, Action, Comedy, Friendship & War.
[Introduction]
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Part II - "Piece$
Part III "Piece$ III



Main Characters


Corey Akaino
Saienta Kureshida
Sirian Tomi
Annaleace Campsall
Ryan Campsall [Twin of Annaleace]
Elli Sennashi
Sunday - Departure

Corey watched the dark water rushing under the boat from the side and heard a murmuring sound coming from Elli’s direction where she had fallen asleep. Saienta looked her way with his hands on the steering wheel and then went back to steering.
         “…my feet hurt…” he heard her say. “…you’re just dying to sleep with me, aren’t you?”
Corey blinked and wondered what kind of dream she was having.
She stirred and then opened her eyes, looking around at the boat and the sky in confusion. She jumped up and screamed. Both Corey and Saienta turned.
She looked frantic. “The boat, why am I in the boat?”
Corey gave her a strange look and Saienta turned back to the steers.
She grabbed Corey. “Tell me, where’s the nightclub? The car?”
Corey blinked and then turned away, uncomfortable. “What do you mean?”
         “And Sirian! You remember that, how could you forget?” She was wide-eyed.
         “Sirian?” he asked and wondered what she had to do with anything.
She gazed at him. “Corey…we were in the bar, and you!” she said, pointing at Saienta, “You were drunk and I beat you in our contest!”
Saienta only looked at her and turned back, shaking his head.
         “You’ve been asleep…” Corey drifted. “We got off the cruise and we took photos, then you fell asleep…”
She shook her head and screamed, “No! It happened! We were having a sleep over!”
         “Er…Where?”
         “At your house!”
Corey shook his head slowly. “No…We haven’t reached shore yet.”
         “But we…we were in the car! I knew what you were thinking!”
He raised his eyebrow and she slumped.
         “Oh…right.” Elli sat down and looked disappointed. She patted the space beside her. “Sit down, dear Corey. I must tell you my dream.”
He sat down warily as she told him brief details. He had a feeling she left some things out though, as she glanced at Saienta.
Corey laughed in some parts and she sighed.
         “Oh…damn, so it wasn’t real? I really didn’t do that to Gwen?”
He thought for a moment. “Actually, you did, some of it anyway.”
She brightened and laughed, reminiscing. “Yesss!”

*


The General didn’t look like one to let them be for disobeying an order so on Wednesday morning Corey planned on skipping school and meeting up with Saienta at the park close to Ellet College just before eight o’clock in the morning.
Grey light let in from the open curtains appeared thick, almost solid across Corey’s bedroom. The sun had risen but there wasn’t any golden light outside, too much cloud to even know the whereabouts of the sun. Already dressed and sitting at the edge of his bed, Corey looked over his shoulder at the bedside table where the digital clock was and in red it flashed 7:00 am. Beside the digital clock was his camera that he took on the cruise. The day before, Corey had gone out to get the film developed and he wondered how the photos would turn out. Only when Corey left his room and descended the staircase to ground floor in a pensive fashion did he realize there were no family photos on the walls.
Corey stood with his back to the toaster waiting for his breakfast. Corey had no photos of his dad, and wanted memories to hang onto, just like those he had taken on the night Saienta, Elli and him had escaped the Shipwrecked Shindig. A charcoal smell could be smelt and Corey turned sharply, pressing a button to stop the toaster from cooking his bread any further, and then held up the two bits of crisp black bread in front of him...
He couldn’t go to training on an empty stomach. There were no two minute Asian noodles in the pantry, but he always kept an emergency packet up in his room. Inside his bedroom Corey heard footsteps in the hall and he turned, listening. His dad passed the room. Hiroka didn’t stop to look in but Corey heard him say, “I’ll be home late, Corey.”
His dad’s face appeared pale for the moment he was in sight. It could’ve been the natural light in the house; it wasn’t too good in the early morning. A thought struck him hard as though he’d been punched in the stomach, and he took the camera from the bedside table and walked out into the hall. At the top of the staircase looking down at the front door holding the camera up ready to take the shot, Corey called, “Dad?”
Hiroka opened the door but didn’t turn back. Corey had expected his dad to turn, but he didn’t and Corey ended up having taken a photo of his dad’s back leaving out the front door. The door closed and his arm with the camera in it fell to his side. Maybe his dad did not hear him. Corey shrugged, thinking no more of it.

Corey sat down on the swing holding onto the chain at the park. The other world was like a dream- an unrealistic dream. To an extent he could relate to dreamlike realities, except the other world was real and wasn’t a dream- just felt like one. The last time he was genuinely happy felt like a dream; it had happened, but had been so long ago it gradually faded into a dream because life changed and hadn’t been the same. But lately Corey had been happy. A small part of him was still expecting the Gate on the school’s fenced roof to disappear. For the past week he thought carefully on Saienta’s words- how things would only get harder and into extreme. Corey lifted his pinkie and gazed at the crisscrossing thread around it…

He remembered sitting across from the General who was looking serious and hardened from war. The General’s eyes were dark and they stared into his. Corey realised just how intense his eyes were. Different to Saienta’s, Corey noted. The General’s eyes were like dark tunnels. At first he had mistaken them to appear empty, but they weren’t. It obtained a hard look about them; a determination that would never waver and had set into solid stone.
         “What’s your answer?”
         “Yes,” Corey answered.
         “Reason?” the General continued. Corey hesitated and quietened. His reasons were personal. He would say anything necessary to answer the reasoning, but would never share his deepest desire…The General watched him expectantly. Corey chose his words carefully.
         “Where I live, I have everything materialistic to keep living, but I haven’t felt more dead. The choices I make have little relevance to me. What I value I don’t have even though I have it close to me. My life revolves around something stagnant without what I don’t have.
My answer is yes ‘cause you gave me that choice. You’re the first to give me a choice relevant to me- what I want. But this place, my world, and having the choice to live more real, it isn’t what I want. If you allow me to stay, nothing here will help me breathe easier. I don’t know how much I understand about war, but I understand my answer penalises being pent-up, death either a step ahead or behind and hard work. No one can pretend to understand, know or feel those, but sooner or later I’ll understand and experience it. Everyone will.
Give me something solid to hang onto and I’ll prove you my determination because this is something I want. It’s the right thing to do, for others and myself.”
Corey eyes lowered toward the floor. He didn’t know whether or not he should share he had a commitment in his world, a commitment he would never part with. He couldn’t, it was important to him, kept him going, even though it was a stagnant existence. Corey decided not to tell. It didn’t matter, he’d handle both worlds.

The sound of a motorbike awoke Corey from thought. It was Saienta and Corey watched as he chained up his bike. Corey raised a hand in greeting when he turned and as Saienta approached he clasped it like in a hand wrestle.
         “We’re meeting the others in the car park area of the school,” Corey told him as Saienta sat down on the swing next to him and he nodded, lighting up a cigarette. Saienta blew out smoke, itched his eyebrow with a thumb and looked at Corey.
         “I wonder what training is going to be like…” Saienta said.
Corey shuffled his feet, pushed back with them and let the swing sway.
         “Why are us six significant? Out of all the people to enter the Gate, why was it us?”
         “Don’t know…I don’t think of it that way.” Saienta waited for an explanation and Corey continued more thoughtfully. “I don’t see how it does make us significant. But if we are how could we be significant? You said a person’s life is in their own hands- If none of us accepted their offer and made no effort to be more, how can we be?” Corey looked across at cloudy sky and inhaled deeply. “Maybe one day we all may amount to something significant.”
Saienta gazed at him with a look of somebody thinking but said nothing. Corey waited for him to finish his cigarette and left the park to meet up with the others.

The six of them stepped out onto the school’s roof and waiting for them at the fence were Ame and two soldiers. She smiled at them all welcomingly. Corey felt a strange uneasy feeling settle in his stomach when he saw the two soldiers looking irritable and were staring at them uninterestedly. They appeared unfriendly; perhaps that was the type of people they were, but as they were taken back to the village, he saw that they only appeared unfriendly to them in particular. When they stopped outside Ame’s house, the two soldiers walked off, waving in greeting to the other soldiers opposite Ame’s house. Corey looked around at the beautiful place, taking in the fresh air of the morning. The only clouds in the blue sky were stationed above the mountains in the distance. It felt strange to come from a world where the sky was milky, not to mention cloudy, and then pass into another world where the sky was clear blue with a bit of cloud bunched up above the mountain. From outside Ame’s house he could hear all types of bird callings through the wind of the trees- the commands from soldiers way out on the fields, and the faint shouts from the village people who called to each other across the street.
Ame studied their clothing critically and clucked her tongue. The six of them looked at each other and back at Ame. Corey wanted to know why she was clucking her tongue so disapprovingly.
         “The General will be here in a moment, in the meantime follow me into the house,” she said. They followed her and they stopped inside a room. Ame looked at Sirian, Annaleace and Elli, and then told them to wait there as she left the room. She entered again with several pairs of black pants and handed one each to of the girls.
         “Put these on. You can change in there,” she pointed into a spare room. The three girls didn’t complain and went to change. Ame’s different but beautiful eyes set onto Ryan and Corey and handed them both the last two pair of pants.
         “Saienta, you won’t have to change, those pants of yours looks strong enough. Ryan and Corey, you can change through there.” Ame pointed opposite the girl’s changing room to another spare room.
Corey changed into the pants. They were strong and comfortable.
         “I gotta get me a pair of these,” Ryan said through the rice paper wall.
         “We can probably keep them,” Corey replied, thinking that there was a lot of tension whenever Sirian and Elli were around each other.
They assembled in the main room. The girls had kept their school shirts on and Sirian kept her visor on.
         “Wonderful,” Ame said, looking them over. “Now you’re ready. You’ll begin immediately.”
The General walked in and looked them over. “We’ll begin with the easiest tasks. The first is far-sight. Your hearing and olfactory senses will develop naturally. Follow me,” he ordered and they filed outside onto the grass nearby, on top of the hill overlooking the mountains in the distance and the forest. Corey thought about the word olfactory and remembered it had something to do with the sense of smell. Corey was anxious but he was also excited to begin their lessons, thinking back to the day when he was bashed.
         “Aside from your far-sight, I must warn you first that you are forbidden to let anyone in your world know of your enhanced abilities or Mythra when you learn. Is that clear?” It wasn’t a question, it was a command.
They nodded. Corey looked over to the opposite side and saw there were many soldiers on the field already beginning their training. The village was already awake and farmers were already on the fields.
The General pointed towards the mountains. “See that?”
They all looked.
         “What?” Ryan asked, shielding his eyes with a hand. “It’s miles away.”
         “Between those tall red-leaf trees on the mountain.”
Corey squinted his eyes and focussed. He searched and spotted two tiny red-leaf trees standing side by side. Tiny from his sight but they were obviously huge trees.
         “I see. Does that mean I pass?” Elli asked.
The General grunted. “What’s between them?”
They all concentrated and stared.
         “I can’t see that far…” Elli said.
         “Come into my office and tell me individually when you discover what it is, don‘t even hint to each other what you see,” he nodded.
         “I know!” Elli said.
The General looked at her.
         “It’s your underwear, isn’t it?” she grinned. Corey wondered if the General was the joking type. Probably not. His face remained expressionless.
         “Oh, I see. Boxers or briefs?” Ryan asked, still squinting into the distance.
The General grunted and turned. “Stay here until you see it.”
         “But it’s so far away…” Elli said under her breath.
         “It’s not impossible. Overcome everything you’ve known,” he said. “For this the only obstacle is your mind.” And left them alone.
They stood for a few minutes peering at the red trees.
         “I don’t see anything. I can scarcely see the trees, how can I see what’s between them?” Sirian asked, shaking her head.
Saienta sat down with a knee up and took out a cigarette, never taking his eyes off the trees.
         “I don’t see a thing,” Annaleace sighed and sat down.
Ryan sat beside her. A few more minutes passed and the six of them sat down, still peering at the designated spot. Ten minutes passed. Corey sat down beside Saienta and had an urge to walk down where those two red trees were to see what was there, he was already bored and it had only been fifteen minutes.
         “I don’t see it,” Ryan sighed. “I don’t see anything. I can’t even see the grass between them.” He groaned. “It could be a leaf for all we know. Or a stick or something.”
         “It could be grass…” Annaleace murmured.
         “I wouldn’t tell him that, not unless we know for sure,” Sirian said. “He must have put something there.”
Half an hour passed and they were getting bored, zoning out and still staring at the spot. It didn’t matter how long they stared, nothing seemed to be changing. Their eyesight remained the same. Corey looked at his watch, it was 10.50 am. The sun was rising in the sky and it was getting warmer.
         “How do we know we’re even looking at the right spot?” Ryan asked.
         “That’s the place he pointed to,” Saienta said.
Elli lay down on her side, propped on an elbow. Corey leaned back on his hands. The minutes seemed to drift by. It seemed to be extremely unproductive sitting on the grass staring at something they couldn’t see no matter how hard they focussed. Corey blinked, his eyes feeling tired and rubbed them to keep himself awake.
         “It still looks the same!” Ryan growled and slammed his fist on the grass. “This is so boring,” he said, looking behind them at the house and the field where the soldiers were training, running back and forth in a blur. Corey glanced at Ryan, discovering how impatient he was.
It had been almost an hour since they had begun. Elli stood up suddenly. They all swivelled their heads to look at her. Her shoulders slumped and she sat down again. They sighed and looked back again.
Annaleace and Sirian were talking and Corey wasn’t listening until he heard Annaleace say, “The nightclub was okay…it’s just not my type of thing.” Corey was surprised that they had gone clubbing and wondered if Elli had overheard them talking before she had her dream. That had to mean Sirian and Annaleace escaped the ship as well. Corey glanced at Ryan. Had he gone too?
Elli looked at Corey with a look of remembering something, and then at Sirian with distaste. Uh oh, Corey thought, remembering about Elli’s dream. She had told Sirian off in her dream and never got a chance to do it for real. Was she going to say it now?
         “Sirian…” Elli said.
Sirian turned slowly. “Mm?”
         “Tell me, why did you go clubbing?”
Sirian sighed and turned back to the trees.
         “Honestly, you don’t have a reason? You have no personality. You’re like a zombie, only with pom-poms, and straight A’s and all that shit. It makes me sick. Why the hell would you go clubbing?”
Sirian looked at her with an annoyed expression. “Elli, I don’t like you enough to give a fuck what you think.”
Elli scoffed. “Did Lina teach you that? Or Phoenix? Following the crowd again, are we? Just latching onto whoever doesn’t reject you.”
Corey could feel the heavy tension and stared ahead. It was…disturbing his training.
Sirian replied, “I don’t know you, you don’t know me and I don’t care to know you right now.”
Elli put up her clenched hand. “How about I introduce you to my fist?”
Everyone tried as best they could to ignore what they were hearing. Saienta stared uncaring into the distance, undisturbed. They couldn’t interfere when none of them really knew each other but Annaleace put her hand on Sirian’s arm and Sirian relaxed a little, ignoring Elli.

         “Yes!” Elli shouted suddenly, breaking her brooding silence, standing up and she ran away inside. They all stared after her in disbelief. Had she seriously seen it? It gave them more hope and they turned to their training again, squinting harder. A minute later Elli skipped to them and sat down, smiling.
         “You were right?” Ryan asked.
She nodded. “Uh huh.”
         “Can you tell us what it is?” he asked hopefully.
         “Nuh uh.” She put a finger to her lips. “Secret.”
         “How did you see that far?” Corey asked. He felt like his eyesight hadn’t changed so how did she see?
         “I’m not sure. I was just looking and then I saw it. I thought I knew what it was that first time I stood but I had to make sure.” She sighed happily and laid down to sleep in the grass.
The rest of them continued to blink, rub their eyes when they grew tired and then examine the place again. Ten more minutes passed. Saienta lit another cigarette. “Shit,” he said suddenly, sitting up. He stood, flicked his cigarette away and walked away towards the office. The rest of them sighed. Another one. It gave them some hope that they would see it too. Corey blinked quickly and gazed at the position…he couldn’t see anything. He wasn’t even sure if his sight had changed or gotten any better.
Saienta returned and laid down beside Corey. The boredom had been exhausting and none of them wanted to look at the trees any longer.
         “You got it too, Saienta?” Elli asked.
         “Got it,” he nodded.
Corey rested on his hand, his elbow on his knee, and wondered if he would ever see it. Another half hour crawled by. Annaleace sat up. “No way…” she breathed.
         “Hey…what is it? You have to tell me, I’m going insane,” Ryan tugged on her shirt.
         “I got it too!” Sirian exclaimed and she looked at Annaleace who was smiling mischievously.
         “Tell me!” Ryan pushed.
She shook her head and the two girls ran inside. They came back and jumped up, falling down onto the grass, Annaleace beside Ryan. She sighed in contentment and fell back onto the grass with her eyes closed.
Corey and Ryan were the only ones left. Elli was asleep and Saienta looked like he was getting there too.
Ten minutes later, a young teenage soldier waltzed up to them and sat beside Ryan. Ryan glanced at him and gave him a weird look but said nothing, concentrating.
         “What are you looking at?” the soldier asked.
         “Between those two red trees. The General said there’s something there,” Ryan answered.
         “Really? I don’t see anything.” He peered out there and shook his head. “You know what?”
         “What?” Ryan asked indifferently.
         “You should run up there and take a look for yourselves, up close so you can see.”
What a good idea, Corey thought, and glanced at Sirian and Annaleace who were also glancing back and forth between Ryan and Sin, talking under their breath so none of them could hear.
Ryan raised an eyebrow. “Whatever kid.”
         “Hey, only a suggestion,” the soldier murmured. “My name’s Sin. Did you know I’m thirteen today?”
         “No. I did not know that, Sin,” Ryan answered mechanically. Ryan shook his head.
Sin reached up and poked Ryan in the eye, and Ryan moved back automatically, blinking. “What the hell are you doing?” Ryan growled, rubbing his eye. Corey glanced across at Ryan and Sin every now and then. Sin was distracting.
         “Just wanted to help you along,” Sin smirked. “Looks like your eyes aren‘t working if you can‘t see what‘s there.” Corey could hear the sarcasm in his voice.
         “Piss off, kid,” Ryan ignored him and concentrated again.
Sin stayed where he was. “How long did it take the others? An hour? Longer? That’s a record…the longest record in the history of our world!” He laughed hysterically and rolled over onto his side.
         “You know what?” Ryan asked him. “You’re really annoying.”
Ryan was not only impatient, he was hot-headed too, but Sin was much worse.
Sin looked at him. “You know what? You’re really ugly.” He burst into hysterics again and Ryan stood up to smash him. As he reached to grab him, Sin disappeared on his feet into a blur a meter away.
         “What the hell?” Ryan blinked.
Sin laughed. “You guys are so slow.” He shook his head sadly.
Elli sat up from the commotion. “You!” she yelled, pointing a finger. “The one who took my bracelet.”
Sin smirked and took it out of his pocket, waving it around. Corey noticed his ring on the bracelet and stood also, irritated. Sin had taken his ring, which was sort of a relief because he thought he had lost it entirely.
Elli got up and walked over to him. Sin looked up at her. She quickly tried to grab his collar with a hand but he shot out of the way. His speed was incredible. He danced around her. Both Ryan, Corey and Elli tried to even touch him but missed every time. Corey reached for him when he got close and grabbed air. Elli screamed in frustration and Saienta sat up, studying the scene. He stood quickly and joined them. Sirian and Annaleace were watching, blinking. They were both probably thinking, ‘Errr...’ Sin looked like he was having the time of his life, playing with them. It looked like everyone had something to get Sin for. Four on one and they couldn’t even touch him.
Corey stopped. It was a waste of time. He sat back down and Ryan followed. Sin disappeared and a minute later he came back to stand at the edge of the green trees, waving red leaves at them and was then dancing in front of them. He ran again in a blur and went to the field.
         “Shit, he’s finally gone,” Ryan said, glaring between the two red trees.
         “I want my bracelet,” Elli blurted.
         “I want my ring,” Corey added.
         “I want to kick his ass,” Saienta said, lying down on the grass.
Ryan’s eyes expanded to some extent in realisation. “I got it.” And he ran off inside repeating “I got it!”
The frustration was building. Corey was the last. He looked harder. There was nothing there. Nothing had changed- no different to the last time he checked. What was it he was overlooking? Corey checked his watch and it was 12:35 pm and had been there since 10:30. The minutes rolled on and in that time he pulled out large amounts of grass while looking ahead. He rubbed his eyes again, discontinuing to pull out grass. What was it?
He searched around him on the ground in boredom and picked up a rock, and then continued to search through between the two trees while passing the rock back and forth in his hands. The General’s voice kept coming to mind, “It’s not impossible. Overcome everything you’ve known. For this the only obstacle is your mind.”
Corey couldn’t see how the two could be related- their sight and mind- if Evriel wanted them to see something. He scanned the rocky mountain and the trees. What was it? It had to be something that set it apart but blended in…What was on the mountain? Animals.
No, Corey told himself, It would have moved.
It had to be something between the trees. A shrub? Corey mentally shook his head at the thought. Corey looked down at the rock in his hand. A rock.? There were plenty of those… He strained his eyes between the two red trees as he rubbed the rock in his hand thoughtfully for the next few minutes. Corey’s frustration increased just when Ryan returned and the others stood around, waiting.
         “Let’s go do something,” Annaleace said suddenly.
         “Like what?” Sirian asked, looking up.
Annaleace shrugged and suggested football.
         “With what?” Ryan asked, raising an eyebrow.
Elli shook her head. “Let’s go wander the village. I’m sure they have markets down there and people.”
Everyone agreed except for Saienta who passed and said he would wait for Corey.
         “I’ll let you concentrate,” Saienta said and went inside, his footsteps over the grass fading.
A thought crossed his mind. Rocks were small, he could scarcely see the two trees. The rock would have to be big enough for them to see and it also had to be distinguishable among the others. He looked down at the rock in his hand and examined it, stopping when a fleck of blue embedded in the rock caught his attention. A colourful rock. It was a crazy idea, but he knew the General had to have put something there. In the hour that passed, Saienta kept checking on him, asking how he was doing. Corey thought inside his head about what made a rock; its density, weight and feel. And the more he thought about the big colourful rock, the more he could envision it in his head. A few more minutes passed and he saw it. Corey stood up, pleased, and he threw the rock in his hand up in the air, caught it and repeated the action. He’d seen it, centred a bit further behind the two trees. It was a colourful rock. So that’s what everyone saw? Why hadn’t he seen it before? It was right there.

Corey slid open the door to the General’s office and the General looked up at Corey expectantly with an air of relief as he entered the room. Corey put his hands into his pockets.
         “It’s a colourful rock,” Corey said.
The General’s face fell and Corey felt unsure of himself.
         “A colourful rock?” the General repeated.
         “Yes. A colourful rock,” Corey replied, more sure of himself. The General gazed at him in silence. Corey took out his hands and explained, “It’s this big- has blue here, and a jade green cross over the side. The surface is multicoloured, like a rainbow.” The General said nothing, only continued to stare narrowly at him, and then he stood up and Corey followed him outside.

Corey pointed out between the trees. He looked up at the General whose face was expressionless and it was hard to determine what could have been going on inside his head.
         “Wait here,” the General ordered, and Corey waited a minute as he ran in a blur up where Corey pointed. Corey put his hands in his pockets and waited another minute. The General came back with the rock in his hand.
The General said nothing, only gazed at him, and said, “Well done.” He walked away into his office.

Corey walked inside Ame’s house to look for Saienta and found him sitting down at a low table on the floor. He joined him and Saienta looked up. He was glad it was over, it was like sitting an exam.
         “Found out what it was?” Saienta asked.
Corey nodded, grinning. “It was bizarre,” he said, picturing the colourful rock. “I never would have guessed.”
         “Me neither. I found out the other abilities, one of them is called a haze-run. That’s why the soldiers move so fast. It explains why we can’t catch Sin as well. The horses haze-run too, and we have to learn how to ride them.”
         “That explains the General, he moved like a blur,” Corey said.

*

Out on the fields, Ame led them down into a valley of grass where the unsaddled horses were grazing and running back and forth, sometimes between the trees. Ame introduced them to a guy who looked around twenty years old, with soft jade green eyes, and platinum blonde, almost white, spiked hair. He turned around and smiled humorously, he probably always smiled that way- it was extremely welcoming.
         “Whoa,” Elli said, shielding her face with a hand and whispering to Corey, “he’s eye appealing.”
Corey blinked at her. Why was she telling him? He almost laughed when he remembered that the people in this world had enhanced abilities and he would have heard it.
She leaned over to Annaleace and he figured she had said the same thing. Annaleace smiled and nodded knowingly.
The guy bowed and Elli gave him a wave. The others said hello.
         “This is Tiyan [Tee - yahn], he tends to the horses and will teach you how to ride them,” Ame said and she waved and left them to his care.
Tiyan smiled at them all and his eyes stopped on Annaleace. He gazed at her and then put two fingers between his lips, letting a shrill whistle echo over the valley.
         “Oh…I know that look,” Elli murmured.
All the horses in the distance looked up but went back to grazing- four of them galloped over and grazed around them.
         “They’re beautiful,” Annaleace said, running a hand over a sandy-coloured mare’s neck. Tiyan agreed and the horse nuzzled his shoulder affectionately while he watched Annaleace with a thoughtful look in his eyes. He clicked his finger and the horse pulled away and folded it’s front legs to lean forward, waiting for Annaleace to mount. Annaleace looked surprised and looked from Tiyan to the mare. “You want me to ride?”
He nodded. “I’m gifting this horse to you. Her name is Neah.”
She looked at him in surprise. “I couldn’t do that.”
Corey was surprised he was giving her a horse.
         “Neah was the foal of my first horse. She has the sweetest temperament of all the others. You do not have to but I would be honoured if you accepted.” Tiyan bowed slightly.
Annaleace mounted the horse and it stood easily. “Whoa,” she breathed as it skittered a little.
Ryan stepped closer to the horse and then looked at Annaleace. “You should take it Lacey. These horses are unbelievable.”
         “There are nothing like them in our world,” Saienta agreed.
“Neah would stay here, wouldn’t she?” Annaleace asked Tiyan.
Tiyan nodded. “She’ll belong to you. You may take her to your home if possible.”
         “C’mon, Lacey,” Ryan prodded.
         “Okay…I guess,” Annaleace said, glancing at her twin who nodded.
Corey felt a slight shove on his shoulder and he turned around. A large chestnut horse bowed it’s head and nuzzled him again. It’s large black eyes gazed at him solemnly.
         “Click your fingers,” Tiyan suggested and Corey did. The horse leaned down and Corey got on it slowly. It was his first time riding on a horse and they had to ride bareback. The horse beneath him felt strange- so unlike riding anything else because a horse was alive and had its own will. He looked down on the others and noticed his was one of the biggest. Unfortunately.
Sirian walked over beside Neah and looked up at Annaleace, and then around at the field, lifting an arm to smooth out her hair that was in a ponytail.
         “That one is Rain,” Tiyan said to Corey. “Neah’s father. A stallion. He is the General’s warhorse- no one has ridden him before.”
He was slightly scared for a number of reasons…
It belonged to a man like the General.
The horse was huge and he had no idea what he was doing.
Saienta had told him they could haze-run, and he was not looking forward to it.
He felt the horse’s strong muscles move beneath him as the horse walked over to Neah and Corey automatically tensed as it reached the mare and began leaning down to clip off grass to eat. Saienta reached out a hand and the horse sniffed it and snorted, prodding his shoulder away with it‘s nose.
         “The cigarettes,” Saienta mused. “Or it might have something against me.”
Corey wondered if anyone was willing to swap places.
Tiyan held out an apple for the horse. “The horses have haze-running ability- swiftly as our own, but horses have much more stamina than people and run for longer periods of time. They will be ideal for travel to save strength for combat. You’ll learn how to ride when you return tomorrow, Ame just wanted you to meet them first. We’ll wait here until you’ve all been chosen.”
Corey was glad they didn’t have to ride them today.
         “Chosen for what?” Sirian asked, looking at the other horses.
Tiyan looked at them in surprise. “Chosen by the horse that will take you as it’s rider. Horses around here are free. They choose their own riders, it may have many or choose to have one or none at all for the rest of it‘s life.”
Corey blinked and looked down at his horse. Tiyan put his fingers between his lips and let another whistle echo through the valley. The horses looked up and a dozen of them walked over slowly. They waited a while and the horses sniffed each one of the people standing on the grass. A dark grey stallion stared at Saienta without moving and Saienta looked around. “Why is he staring at me?”
Tiyan whistled and the horse snorted, as though it didn’t want to be bothered. Corey laughed at Saienta. Saienta was being stared down by a horse.
Corey’s horse stepped forward and he gripped his hands tighter, feeling like he missed a step going downstairs.
The grey horse walked forward and sniffed Saienta from his shoes to his hair and Saienta stood still, waiting. The horse whinnied and then turned, as though rejecting him. Corey laughed again and Saienta looked up at him, grinning. “I think he likes me.”
The other four were mounted already and their horses grazed calmly. Saienta was the only one without a horse. All the horses without riders had drifted away. The grey stallion that had sniffed Saienta was now running over the vale, around the field and back again, then away. Tiyan whistled but the horses didn’t respond. He sighed. “Mind of their own.”
Saienta scratched the back of his hand, looking across at the horses.
Corey’s horse moved to Ryan’s and the horses began nuzzling each other. Sirian and Annaleace were talking about the horses as they stroked their own horses with a hand.
         “Oh gross, they’re lovers or something,” Ryan said, looking up at Corey. It felt strange to have their horses nuzzling each other while they were on them. Corey wriggled and leaned to the left, trying to make it leave but wasn’t sure how to make it move. And gave up. Obviously Corey’s horse and Ryan’s horse were the parents of Neah.
Saienta crouched on the grass and waited. Tiyan shrugged. “You’ll be chosen eventually. It usually takes a moment, there is always one, I’m sure they decide that amongst themselves.”
         “The horses decide together who they want?” Elli asked as her large grey horse with its colour fading down its legs into a cream turned in a circle. Elli turned her head to see them.
         “Maybe. I like to think so. A rider only ever has one horse- unless it isn’t available, another will take it’s place,” Tiyan explained. Tiyan mounted a horse and explained that he was the only one the horses allowed to ride more than one of them. “I’ll take you on the horses down to the trees.”
Saienta looked up at them. “I can wait here if you’re going to take a walk.”
Tiyan nodded. “We should be back soon. You’ll be chosen by then, I’m certain of it.”
Tiyan led the way across the vale and the horses followed. Corey’s walked beside Ryan’s and behind Sirian’s white and black horse. The horse was bumpy, to say the least, as it walked along beneath him and he was glad they weren’t going much faster. Sirian rode with ease, as well as Tiyan, and Corey’s leg muscles were already beginning to hurt from straining them, holding onto the horse. He looked back at Saienta who was sitting with a knee up, watching them.

The dark grey horse that had rejected Saienta ran alongside their group and the other horses snorted, flicking their heads in it’s direction. The grey horse whinnied and pranced, running ahead and back again, as though teasing them for walking so slow.
         “Smoke, away!” Tiyan admonished it, while trying to keep his horse still. The horses skittered, hoping to run as well but Tiyan kept them in line. He made a hissing noise at Smoke, and the grey horse lowered it’s head as though glaring at him, and then jumped up around him, reminding Corey of a dog waiting for it’s master to throw a ball. Sirian laughed. “What a feisty horse.”
         “Seems un-horse-like to me,” Ryan said.
Smoke flicked his head and trotted beside them with an air of arrogance.
         “Hey, the name Smoke suits Saienta. They’d go well together,” Elli called to Corey from behind.
Corey agreed. The grey horse began to walk closer and closer to Corey and he wondered what it was doing. The horse brushed his leg and Corey’s horse began to walk sideways as Smoke walked with it, closer, slowly beginning to push them.
Elli laughed hysterically from behind. “He’s annoying your horse, Corey. He’s doing it on purpose.”
Rain pushed Smoke away with his nose in irritation and the horse ran away to annoy Sirian’s horse instead. Corey gave a small smile, shaking his head. How was it possible that the horses could have so much character?
         “Hey!” Sirian called as Smoke butted her in the leg with his nose and sneezed on her. “Gross,” she said, rubbing her pants. Smoke dashed to the front and stopped Tiyan’s mare. Tiyan made a hissing noise at Smoke, his horse halting abruptly. The others stopped too. “What is wrong with you?” Tiyan asked. The horse turned in a full circle and then galloped away. Corey could almost imagine it laughing.

Tiyan led them across the vale into a dip that led through a trail amongst the trees. It wasn’t part of the forest but it was beautiful nevertheless. Half an hour later, they heard the sounds of galloping hooves and Smoke returned- with a rider this time. Sin was astride Smoke who danced around them and then to the front of the line beside Tiyan. They greeted each other and Sin’s horse looked as though it was about to burst forward, annoyed to be walking. No wonder, Corey thought, looking between rider and horse. The others were probably thinking the same thing.
         “Haze?” Sin asked Tiyan and Tiyan shook his head.
         “They aren’t ready yet.”
Sin looked back at them and laughed derisively. “Of course they aren’t and they never will be.”
         “Hey!” Ryan called. “Watch your mouth.”
         “How? My eyes don’t go down that way,” Sin smiled, looking down his face, “I can’t see past my nose.” His horse flounced around full of energy.
Ryan growled. “Tch.” But said nothing else.
Tiyan gave Sin a disapproving look but Sin ignored it. Corey watched in awe as Sin kicked his horses flanks, leaned down into the horse and ran away in a blur. He disappeared and Corey had doubts he would be able to do that. Annaleace sneezed from the swirling dust and Tiyan handed her a silky embroidered handkerchief. “Thanks,” she smiled and handed it back to him. He put up a hand and shook his head. “You may keep it.”
         “Oh…” She said thank you and pocketed it. Tiyan’s horse stopped suddenly and leaned down to eat at the grass as they came to a clearing. They dismounted and let the horses graze. Corey yawned and stretched. It was peaceful and he rubbed his leg muscles. Saienta was probably still waiting for them. He was glad to be off the horse.
Elli yawned languidly and sat on the grass next to Tiyan and Annaleace. Tiyan was making something out of two long blades of grass and Annaleace was watching with interest. Corey sat down and picked at the grass. Ryan was next to a stream playing with the water and Sirian was lying down in the grass with her eyes closed, an arm over her eyes to shield the sun.
         “What is it?” Annaleace asked as Tiyan’s fingers worked quickly.
A moment later he lifted his creation- two blades of grass intertwined to look like an iris flower.
         “Whoa…” Elli said with her eyebrow raised. “That’s…cool.”
He passed it to Annaleace and she accepted it. “For me?” She looked a little embarrassed and she looked at her brother, then put it in her pocket, the top hanging out to keep from squashing it. “Thank you.”
Tiyan watched Annaleace with misted-over eyes and then turned away, beaming. Corey had a feeling Tiyan liked Annaleace…a lot.
Ryan started a game of rugby with Sirian and they used a rock as a substitute for the football. It didn’t look easy, Corey thought as he watched. That rock was probably heavier than a football and would bruise them- probably. Annaleace joined and she showed Tiyan how to play. “Wanna play?” Annaleace asked Corey and Elli but they declined.
         “I wonder if Saienta’s been chosen yet,” Elli said thoughtfully to Corey.
Corey shrugged. “He might have come already if he was.”
         “This is a strange place- it feels real and unreal at the same time. And to think we would be in class right now. I know I’m here and everything here is…real, but as soon as I leave I’ll be wondering if it really is, you know?”
He nodded in understanding- he felt the same.
         “The horses are amazing, don’t you think?” she asked.
         “Mm…” he agreed.

They rode back to the field quicker than they came and Saienta had disappeared. Corey brushed himself off and dust drifted off his clothing. Tiyan walked with them into Ame’s house and they found her with Saienta in the kitchen, cooking lunch. Saienta put up a hand in greeting. “How was it?” he asked as the other five sat down cross legged around the low table next to the kitchen in the same room.
Corey shrugged, leaning on the bench, watching them cook. “It was good. No horses chose you yet?” he asked.
Saienta shook his head. Tiyan looked up from where he was at the table with them, playing cards. Corey figured someone must have brought the card deck with them. “None of them?” Tiyan looked at Ame while she was stirring the spoon. “That’s strange.”
Tiyan stood up and examined Saienta. “It doesn’t make sense…unless...”
         “Unless?” Saienta asked.
         “You’ve already been chosen.”
         “I don’t think I was, I was rejected once and none of the other horses even came near me.”
          “Do you have a horse at home?” Ame asked over her shoulder, chopping vegetables.
Saienta looked surprised. “I do have a horse at home. Her name’s Rell.”
Corey was surprised, he didn’t know Saienta had a horse. He knew Saienta lived on a farm but didn’t realise he had any animals of his own. Sirian and Elli looked up, surprised- they didn’t know his situation and it would seem strange that he owned a horse.
Tiyan’s eyes widened. “She must have chosen you already and the other horses knew it.”
         “She chose me?” Saienta asked thoughtfully, smiling slightly. “I didn’t think of that.”
         “It should be it, I can’t think of anything else,” Tiyan said.
         “Can you take her into our world?” Ame asked, throwing the vegetables into a boiling pot. She leaned down and stoked the fire beneath the stone stove.
Saienta looked at Corey and grinned- they imagined taking a horse through the school and up onto the roof. “We can try,” Saienta said. “But she wouldn’t be able to run as fast as those other horses.”
Tiyan waved his hand. “I’m sure she could.”
         “Mm…” Ame mumbled. “She can, just let her run with the other horses and they’ll teach her there are no limits.”
         “You’re serious?” Saienta asked.
Tiyan nodded and leaned on the bench next to Corey.
         “Okay,” Saienta shrugged. “You’ll have to help me, Corey.”
Corey nodded.
“Hey, I was thinking, right…do you have cows?” Elli asked, looking up from her cards.
Tiyan nodded, smiling. “Sure, we have cattle, and sheep too.”
“Can they haze?” she asked with a humoured smile that was spreading at the thought of it.
Tiyan laughed and shook his head, still laughing. “No, our cattle don’t haze.”

         “Ame…?” Elli asked, eating the soup while they sat at the table. The soup was clear and had many different types of strange vegetables similar to potato and carrots with a hint of chives- it was delicious.
         “Mm…?” Ame answered.
         “What kind of relationship do you have with the General?”
Ame put her spoon down for a moment and everyone waited for the answer. Tiyan had gone back to the horses. “The General is my father.”
Elli’s eyes widened. “Your father?” Elli put her hands up, weighing each side like scales. “Ame…General…Ame…”
Ame smiled. “Yes Elli, I take after my mother. She died ten years ago.”
         “Oh…sorry,” Elli said. Corey paused with a spoonful of soup as a thought sneaked in and told him his mom was dead too. He waved the thought from his mind like an annoying fly and continued to eat.
Ame smiled. “It’s okay, Elli. Why did you want to know about our relationship?”
Elli glanced at her bowl and didn’t answer, smiling mischievously.
         “Elli…?”
Elli shook her head.
         “Ew…did you suspect we were…?” Ame shook her head in revulsion.
The others laughed, having thought along the same lines.
         “Oh, speaking of lovers, I heard you accepted Tiyan’s proposal, Annaleace,” Ame smiled happily in her direction and Annaleace and her brother looked up quickly.
         “What proposal?” Annaleace asked.
         “Of marriage.”
         “Marriage!” Ryan and Annaleace exclaimed.
Corey suppressed a laugh, surprised. Obviously she knew about no proposal and Corey didn‘t either. It was strange. A marriage proposal? This was their first, proper day there, and it was early afternoon. The day had been different to the every day things he did in the other world- school and work, but he didn’t feel as though the place was alien- presumably because his world and their world were similar in environment. Corey and the five of them stared at Ame waiting for an explanation.
         “Tiyan asked you to marry him and you accepted. Didn’t you?” Ame asked.
She shook her head slowly. “No…why would he say that?”
Ame thought for a moment. “He must have done it the customary way.”
         “Customary? What custom is that?” Ryan asked. “I don’t remember him asking Annaleace for her hand in marriage, I would have had something to say otherwise.”
Annaleace looked around her in desperation. “I don’t remember him asking.”
         “He didn’t, there is a tradition here for the men to give three gifts to the woman he wants to marry. If she accepts all three, she has accepted his proposal. Most men will ask forwardly, unless they’re shy, which explains Tiyan’s method.” Ame posed thoughtfully.
         “I don’t remember three gifts. Maybe a horse, but that was it,” Annaleace reasoned.
         “One gift that is alive, one from childhood, and one created by hand. Anything coming to mind?” Ame asked. It was interesting, their methods.
         “No…I don’t think so…I didn‘t accept anything but the horse.”
Corey thought back over the whole time they were with Tiyan and the pieces started to make sense in his mind.
         “Actually, you did,” Corey interjected into his soup as he stirred it, and then looked up at Annaleace, suppressing a wince, having to break the news to her.
         “I did?” she asked, looking worried.
Corey nodded. “Yeah. The first was the horse, the second was the handkerchief…and the third was the grass flower.”
Her eyes widened in horror as understanding dawned. Corey ate his soup and only listened.
         “But still, that doesn’t mean she said yes to marrying him!” Ryan said.
         “I’m afraid it does,” Ame said slowly. “Since you are from a different world…you didn’t know about the tradition and this case has never occurred before. All women know what it means by the second gift. It isn’t uncommon to be married young and raise a family…”
Sirian listened to Ame’s words thoughtfully and Elli looked interested.
         “Family!” Ryan exclaimed. “She’s already got one of those!”
         “You’re married already?” Ame asked.
Annaleace shook her head fervently. “No, he means our family, with my parents and brothers…oh my God, if they found out, they’d freak.”
         “She can’t marry him, she’s…too young.” Ryan shook his head.
         “I don’t even know him…I mean, he’s nice…and not bad looking…but marriage?” Annaleace’s face paled, and looked a little awkward talking about it in front of people she didn’t know.
         “What happens if she doesn’t?” Saienta asked evenly.
         “Oh…” Ame looked sad. “He would kill himself.”
         “What!” Annaleace sat up quickly. “Why would he do that? That’s ridiculous!”
         “It would be impossible for a man to bear the shame of acceptance and then rejection, even if you are from another world.” Ame sighed.
         “She didn’t even know,” Ryan said, “so it doesn’t apply.”
         “And she’s not from this world,” Sirian said.
         “He would still do it,” Ame replied to both of them.
Annaleace looked around her and back at Ame. “But…can’t we reason with him? He seems like a nice guy, he might change his mind seeing how I didn’t know…”
Ame only shook her head slowly. Corey was very blank minded now that the interest disappeared and things were seeming serious. There were certain words that had either negative or positive connotations. Corey was sure marriage was more of a negative for most youth in his world. Marriage could have had a positive association here though, it was very confusing and he felt sort of…sympathetic...for both Annaleace and Tiyan.
There was silence. Annaleace turned and slapped Ryan on the arm.          “This is all your fault! You said I should take the horse.”
         “What?” He rubbed his arm. “I wasn’t the one who took some handkerchief and whatever else.”
Annaleace looked at the table. Corey glanced at Saienta and was glad that he had the same look of thoughtfulness about it.
         “When does she have to marry him?” Elli asked Ame eagerly.
         “I’m not marrying him!” Annaleace said in shock to Elli.
         “A fortnight from now. But…I think I can give you more time. Maybe a year, if I speak with him and tell him he can‘t interfere with your training for now,” Ame said.
         “Can you tell him not to marry her? What if she says she’ll kill herself if she does have to marry him?” Ryan asked eagerly.
         “Ryan!” Annaleace exclaimed, slapping him again.
         “Then he would kill himself also. He lives for you now,” Ame explained, looking at her. “I’m sorry. This is our tradition and the people here are strong-willed and live for honour, Tiyan is the same.”
         “What if she returns the gifts?” Sirian asked.
         “He wouldn’t accept them and take it as rejection.”
         “And then he’d commit suicide,” Ryan rolled his eyes, “Geez.”
         “It’s kind of sweet,” Elli mumbled thoughtfully. “He’ll die without her…hm…”
         “This is serious. It’s not sweet…it’s…it’s so wrong!” Annaleace said defensively, obviously not angered at Elli, but worried about the situation. She slumped onto the table. “I’m only seventeen…” she murmured.

*

The General and Ame led them to the training field, on the other half were a few dozen soldiers in training. The General took them all the way up to the forest edge and they stood in a line gazing up at him. Ame stood beside him with her hands clasped behind her back smiling and the General stared at them. “I have many conditions for you six in particular before I can allow you into the city,” he spoke in a booming voice. Corey felt like he was being rebuked by a teacher. “Show me that you can do this,” he said, and lifted his leg, kicking down a gigantic Redwood tree look-alike, uprooting it, letting it crash down onto the ground with a thunderous splintering sound. The six of them stepped back unintentionally, freaked out. “There’s no way!” Ryan exclaimed.
The General gave them all a harsh look. “If you can’t do that you will be useless to us and we will send you back, erasing all that you have seen here.”
Corey and Saienta gave each other a disbelieving look. Was he serious? Obviously- he wasn’t exactly the joking type.
Ame sighed. “General, threatening them is not the best strategy.”
He grunted. “Better for them to hear the truth.”
Corey thought the strategy was working well.
         “Now,” he said, leading them to the middle of the field, “my next condition is your running ability- if you can catch up to Ame. She is at an average level, but is fast enough for evasion if the time comes.”
Ame smiled at them and ran in a blur from one side of the field to the other and back again in a few seconds. She appeared in front of them again, her silky hair floating back and forth.
         “Er…” Elli murmured.
         “Show me how fast you can run,” he commanded.
They stood looking at him blankly. Annaleace glanced over at the field of horses and back again at the General.
         “Now!”
They looked at each other consciously and began running. Corey ran following behind Elli and Annaleace, Ryan and Sirian. Saienta was beside him. They ran as fast as possible and Elli slowed down, next to Corey and Saienta. They’re fast, Corey thought looking ahead at Ryan, Annaleace and Sirian’s backs.
They stopped a minute later, catching their breaths. Saienta looked like he was dying, clutching his chest. “Smoker’s lungs,” he explained between breaths.
Corey patted him once on the back and the General and Ame appeared standing in front of them. The General’s face expression was one of deepest…there was no word for it but Corey would never forget that look. It said clearly just how pathetic they were. Ame stared at them with the straightest expression she could manage.
         “That bad?” Elli asked, trying to breathe.
Ame smiled wryly and nodded. “Worse.”
At this rate they would never enter the city, or be allowed out on their own, always having a chaperone- he couldn’t imagine they would be allowed to fight in the war any time soon; or longer. He thought they would be bad, but not pathetic. If there was a word for less than pathetic- they would be it.
The General exhaled and gazed at each of them. “You lead them, Ame.”
         “Where are you going?” she asked.
         “To look over my soldiers,” he said, walking towards the other half of the field. Corey imagined he would be feeling very stressed.
She smiled at them encouragingly. “I will be back in a moment,” she said, haze-running away towards the house. She returned and they all stood in a line before her, she was holding twelve black things and she let them fall onto the grass with a loud thud. Corey could have sworn he saw one of them sink halfway into the firm ground.
         “These are called Jinkai. They are used as weights to strengthen your legs for the haze-running ability, increasing your speed but you won’t be able to do this until you break the barriers in your mind. It is similar to the way you overcame your thought-process during far-sight. Except this also involves using power. Overcome your original idea of speed and strength.”
Corey couldn’t remember how he had done it or if he had done anything physically or mentally in far-sight to pass.
         “Put them on,” she said, throwing them each a pair of the black Jinkai.
Corey sat down and reached forward to pick up the Jinkai and didn’t realise just how heavy they were as he struggled to even lift them. Ame had made them look weightless. He shifted them around on the grass and sat down, unable to pick them up and slipped his leg through one as though putting on pants, they reached up to below his knees and there were straps that went around his thighs, his knees and his ankles. He put on the other one and sat looking to see how the others were doing. They were sitting on the ground as he was and having just as much difficulty. Ame smiled. She saluted and left them to it. “I will return in two hours. Walk from here to there,” she said pointing to the tree the General had knocked down.
She disappeared and they all gazed at each other. Now what?
         “Okay,” Elli said, lifting her body off the ground using her arms. She sat back down with a sigh.
Corey wriggled his feet and used his entire body strength to stand up. Straining, he managed to fall forward onto his knees, the weights pulling him down to the ground painfully. Saienta laughed and did the same. Corey laughed.
         “They’re fucking heavy,” Elli said, rolling onto her front. “How are we supposed to walk with these?”
Ryan and Annaleace were helping each other to stand, using each other as support. The weights pulled them both down and they stood finally, their feet sinking a little.
Sirian pulled her feet towards her with her arms and sat up. Annaleace reached down and helped her up and they both strained as she was pulled to her feet.
Corey planted his feet to the ground and prepared himself to stand, leaning back. Out of balance, he almost fell but Saienta pushed him back up. They helped each other up and after five minutes since Ame had gone, they were all standing, looking around wondering what to do next. It was hard enough to stand, let alone walk…or run. Corey figured they better start trying to walk and used all the muscles in his body to lift his foot. It didn’t move. The others were struggling to do the same. Ryan grew frustrated and reached down with both hands to lift his foot but that barely worked either. Ryan’s leg slid forward an inch. Corey struggled with his legs for a few minutes more and looked to the other side of the field where soldiers were haze-running back and forth with ease. He sighed.
Ten minutes later, they were already exhausted and Corey’s muscles ached. The sun was hot and he was sweating like the others. Saienta pulled out a cigarette while he was training and smoked it, exerting himself to move his leg that barely shifted.

Sin arrived. Ryan scowled and Elli pointed. “You!”
Corey wanted his ring. Saienta wanted to kill him. But they took no notice of him, continuing their training. Sin danced around them, haze-running in front of them and laughing like a maniac. He did a mocking victory dance in front of Ryan and Ryan reached forward as far as possible but got nowhere near him.
         “You guys are slow and weak. You should go home,” he suggested, “It would save you all the trouble.”
Ryan growled and with a great effort, tried to move his legs no matter what. Annaleace looked at him disapprovingly, “Just ignore him, Ryan, it’s not worth it.”
         “Yeah,” Sin grinned. “Listen to her, listen to your girlfriend.”
Annaleace turned. “What! He’s my twin, not my boyfriend.”
Sin shrugged. “Boyfriend, you guys act like lovers, I see marriage in the future.”
         “You little shit!” Ryan yelled, trying to get him. Annaleace looked like she wanted to kill him too- another person with Sin on the hit-list.
         “You went too far that time,” Annaleace growled.
Sin turned to Sirian. “Hey beautiful,” he winked. He ran forward in a haze and zipped back. Corey didn’t see what he had done but Sirian’s face reddened and rage was building. “He touched my breast!” she screamed, trying to scratch his eyes out but he was just out of reach.
         “I liked it.” He did a dance and haze-ran away towards the soldiers.
Everyone inhaled and exhaled deeply to calm themselves.
         “I’m gonna kill him, I’m gonna kill him,” Ryan was chanting under his breath.
Sirian breathed in sharply. “Someone I hate more than Morgan. I thought it was impossible.”
Corey sighed and fell back onto the ground, his Jinkai falling first and sinking into the ground. Saienta joined him and lay down, his face in the sun. Corey was exercising his legs, trying to pull them back and forth, drawing his knees up.
An hour later, they were still struggling to move with the Jinkai and had moved a few inches from their original starting position. Their legs were aching, their backs had strained, and some of the muscles in their legs felt like they had been torn and pulled. It created a burning feeling through his whole body and he winced from the pain. It was getting harder to move, not easier. He looked at the others who w
You’re not one of us,“ he said icily, and they laughed again, haze-running back to where they came.
Ryan didn’t say anything but looked furious. The others were struggling to remain calm and they all stayed silent, working forward with the Jinkai. By the end of two hours they had moved half a meter from where they had begun.

They sat on the riverside in exhaustion, gazing up at Ame. Every movement sent convulsions of pain through Corey’s body.
Before Ame could speak, a number of soldiers, some of them the ones who had talked down on them earlier, walked past and they all bowed low to Ame in respect. She bowed slightly, as she was higher in status and Corey thought about how steeped in tradition this village was. From the marriage proposal tradition to the deep respect one had to show to people higher in the hierarchy. Tradition like this was supposed to be primitive in his own world but he felt it was actually a step forward. The six of them would start having to learn the customs and signs of respect as well. The soldiers walked away and Ame began speaking.
         “You have trained for far-sight, met the haze-horses and began training for the haze-run,” Ame began, “the last is this for now, the water-treading ability.”
Did this mean they would learn to swim fast? he thought tiredly.
         “It is the most energy-consuming of all the abilities and involves strength, a small amount of Mythra, and overcoming your thinking again.”
They watched as Ame stepped out gracefully onto the running water. They stared with gaping mouths as she stepped further across the water, her feet padding lightly as though it was a hard surface with a layer of water over it. She turned and stood on the river looking at them.
         “Er…” Elli murmured.
         “Good luck,” she said and walked away. “I’ll be back in three hours. Aim for five minutes- that is the last condition of travelling into the city on your own,” she called over her shoulder.
         “Wait, what about our Mythra abilities?” Elli called down the river.
         “Not yet,” she replied.

         “Okay…” Elli began, standing up in front of the river.
Corey stood up painfully and crouched by it running his hands through the cold water. The rest of them stood.
         “Cold?” Saienta asked, beside Corey.
         “Extremely.”
Saienta nodded and exhaled. They had taken their jackets off a while back. Saienta began taking off his socks and shoes and the others did the same. Corey took his off and left them on the bank. They all stood in a line, looking at the water. Who would try it first?
Sirian put her foot out and she hovered there for a moment and stuck her foot in, drenching her ankles. She pulled back and sighed.
         “Overcome what we know…” Elli murmured. “Strength, Mythra and breaking the thought pattern.”
         “But what does that mean?” Ryan asked and the three girls turned to listen. “What are we supposed to do? I understood the haze-running part- just lift- the far-sight: just look, but I don’t get this one.”
Corey checked his watch and saw it was 3:37 in the afternoon- school would have ended. Corey turned to Ryan.
         “All three of those have one thing in common,” Corey said and looked down into the flowing river.
         “What?” Ryan asked.
         “To overcome our thinking pattern…” he thought hard, “and the boundaries we lay on ourselves. Our world taught us our limitations and now we have to learn to break them.”
         “I’m sure Mythra is a type of energy and is more than an enhanced ability, therefore, I have a feeling that we need to use it to walk on the water,” Saienta said.
         “But we don’t know how to use Mythra,” Sirian interjected.
         “Then we learn how to use it. It would have something to do with our minds. Ame wouldn’t have left us here if she didn’t think we couldn’t do it,” Saienta reasoned.
         “Come to think of it,” Elli began thoughtfully, “Ame’s explanation suggests everything we’ve been learning today needs to be used to water-tread.”
         “You mean break the mind barriers, use strength, stamina and energy, as well as our Mythra?” Annaleace asked with a hint of wanting reassurance.
Elli shrugged and nodded. “If that’s not it then we’re screwed. I can’t think of anything else it could be. And as Saienta said, Ame wouldn’t have left it to us if she thought we couldn’t do it.”
Annaleace stepped forward and put her foot out over the water, followed by Ryan and Elli. She unbalanced from being on only one foot, but stabled herself and pressed her foot onto the water but it fell straight through. Annaleace breathed in sharply. “It’s freezing!” Annaleace said, pulling her foot out quickly.
Corey’s eyes were lost in the motion of the water, ignoring the contracting pain of his muscles all over his body. His body felt in no condition to be pushed further, but the thought of more pain didn’t cross his mind- only the determination to water-tread.
         “We should probably concentrate before we try,” Sirian suggested. Everyone nodded and no one spoke. Elli’s whole leg fell into the water and she cursed to herself. Ryan was failing too, drenching some of his pants. Sirian had a look of deepest concentration as she tried. Saienta hadn’t tried yet and kept his eyes focused on his feet, concentrating.

Corey watched as a beautiful dragonfly flew upriver; it’s wings a transparent jade, and set itself on the surface of the water. He continued to gaze at it. The dragonfly waved it’s wings almost encouragingly at him and then tucked them close to its body. Corey stepped onto the water quickly to try and place both feet on and sank under so fast, he wasn’t sure if there was any resistance. The icy water ran up his body over his head. A severe pain shot up his back to his brain; the same pain someone receives when drinking down icy water and the brain freezes up, except much worse. Bubbles swirled around him. Corey could hear the sound of water crashing from underneath the surface and the pressure built in his ears. His body froze in instant paralysis and his muscles locked up- he didn’t know if he would die first of drowning or of the pain as he was steadily pulled downriver. He wondered if the others would be too tired to save him but figured he would understand if they were. He gurgled water and screamed underwater from pain. Just as he closed his eyes, a hand reached in and grabbed him by the arm, dragging him up onto the bank.

“You pulled him out in time, Saienta,” a girl’s voice said.
Corey’s eyes were open but barely as he stared up at the sky, focussing and unfocussing. He couldn’t think or feel much from the bitter iciness of the water. His body wouldn’t move; it was still paralysed. He felt warm hands massaging his arms and legs and his chest and heard Sirian’s voice. “It happens sometimes in sport when the body is overworked- the shock…” His body slowly relaxed and he turned his head to see Sirian, Saienta and Annaleace massaging his muscles.
They sat back after a time, seeing he was okay again. “You scared us,” Annaleace said. “Your muscles were rock hard and your veins were showing everywhere.”
He nodded. “Thanks…” he murmured and closed his eyes as the pain lessened to a dull throb.
He sat up half an hour later and saw the others were back at the river. Saienta saw him and put up a hand.
Sirian looked over her shoulder. They were all soaking wet. “Corey, you should stretch before you start again. It should be okay.”
He stretched, watching them and saw that they hadn’t improved much at water-treading since he was asleep. He stood beside Saienta and was tentative about trying again but knew he had to do it. He was grateful toward Saienta, for pulling him out of the river.
Corey stuck out his foot and shivered when the icy water ran over it. He pulled it back up. Saienta’s legs were wet but not his whole body.

Corey decided he would wait until he was a little warmer before starting again and sat down a few meters away on the grass in the sun to watch. He closed his eyes and yawned, lying down. He heard Ryan’s voice minutes later.
         “Screw this shit, when are we going to learn how to fight?” Ryan complained.
         “We’re learning how to walk on water! That’s like…ten times better,” Annaleace said.
         “Shit,” Ryan said, “my foot is stuck on something.”
Corey heard a splash and he sat up quickly. Saienta had disappeared and he figured he must have gone under. The others must have figured he was fine too as they helped Ryan get his foot off something and Corey didn’t worry much until he noticed Saienta wasn’t thrashing around or coming up. He stood quickly and raced to the water edge to see Saienta drifting down the river and ran alongside, catching up with him. Saienta had his eyes closed and Corey ran up further, holding onto the bank with one arm and with the other, he grabbed Saienta by the shirt and pulled with all his strength. The others raced up and helped to pull him out. They lay Saienta down and Corey helped Sirian and Annaleace massage warmth into his muscles.
         “Shit, again?” Ryan said.
         “This will happen more often since we’ve been exerting ourselves so much. We better keep our eyes out,” Annaleace warned.
Elli helped by working on his chest. “Mm…not bad…” she mumbled approvingly.
         “I’m fine,” Saienta murmured, opening his eyes. “You can stop now.”
They sat back and sighed.
They let Saienta rest and they went back to their training.
Saienta awoke half an hour later and joined them again. For the next hour they improved only a fraction- they were beginning to feel a little resistance on the bottom of their feet after concentrating and stepping out.
Corey’s foot wouldn’t stay, however, and the others were improving faster than he was. Saienta growled next to him; he wasn’t having much luck either.
         “I did it!” Elli exclaimed suddenly and she looked at them. “I swear, I had my foot on there, with all my weight for at least a second.”
         “No way…” Annaleace said. “Really?” She looked back at the water.
Elli nodded. “I can do this. We all can, just concentrate on hard surfaces and imagine that water is like…solid while focussing on the soles of your feet. It‘s sort of about…self-belief as well as concentration.”
They nodded and tried her suggestion. For the next half hour, everyone improved. Elli was able to hold her weight on the water with both feet for two seconds. Sirian was able to step onto the water, but fell immediately and Ryan and Annaleace were able to step onto the water with a foot. Saienta and Corey looked at each other- they hadn’t improved at all. It was water! How could they step onto it? They tried nevertheless.

A black haze darted past and they all looked up. Corey’s shoulders slumped when he saw it was Sin. He came back and danced around on the water, jumping back and forth on the surface effortlessly.
         “Hey!” Sin called to get their attention. “I bet you my pants that none of you can even get your feet on,” he smirked and stamped his feet on the river. Water splashed around him and he kicked it at them, splashing them. Ryan growled and clenched his fists.
         “Hey!” Elli shouted. “I’ve been saving this for you,” she called and stepped out onto the water. They stared in disbelief as she stood there for a whole three seconds and fell in, swimming back to the edge and climbing up. Sin screwed up his face. “That was nothing! I’m still here.”
Elli shrugged. “I won the bet though, so pay up. Your pants.”
Sin gaped at her. “What do you mean?”
         “You bet your pants that none of us could get our feet on. I did, so pay up. Come on, pants please.”
Sin gazed at all of them. There was no way he would give up his pants, Corey thought and was shocked when he actually started taking them off. He had boxers on underneath and he threw his pants at Elli who was pointing and laughing at him hysterically. Sin didn’t care, he danced around, and then winked at Sirian. “Hey beautiful,” he said and she rolled her eyes, ignoring him.
He haze-ran away and they sighed in relief.
         “What are you going to do with his pants?” Annaleace asked.
Elli shrugged. “I donno. I’ve got them and that’s all that matters.”
         “Hey, you didn’t tell us you could stay on for a few seconds,” Ryan said.
She stood up and prepared herself again. She stepped out with her whole body and said, “No problem mon,” in a Jamaican accent, doing a three second victory dance while pretending to shake maracas before she fell in with a splash.
Corey laughed.

The others had gone back with Ame but Corey and Saienta were determined to keep trying. They hadn’t improved at all. They spent a few minutes longer until a uniformed soldier walked up to them and asked what they were doing.
         “Need help?” he asked, gazing at them with clear blue eyes.
Corey shrugged. He wasn’t sure if the soldier had good or bad intentions.
He watched them for a few more minutes while they trained. “You should focus Mythra onto your feet,” he said.
         “We don’t know how to,” Saienta replied.
         “We haven’t been taught,” Corey said.
He nodded. “It’s all about concentration and seeing the water as no different than the ground. If you can believe that the ground is always stable beneath your feet and you trust that every step you take will hold you up, then you should be able to do the same for water.”
         “Thanks,” Corey said after a while.
The soldier shrugged. “Good luck.” He walked away.

Corey returned with Saienta to Ame’s house and found the others waiting on the porch for them, looking exhausted. They stood up and Ame came out holding a pile of clothes. “You all smell,” she said as she neared.
Corey sniffed his clothes and the others did the same.
         “I don’t smell anything,” Ryan said.
         “You’re probably used to it. Believe me, it’s putrid. You all need a bath. Follow me,” she said, walking towards a stone building. They stepped inside and she led the guys into one bath house and then the girls into another. She placed a pile of clothes for them to change into and they wore towels to have a bath while Ame washed everyone’s clothes. Ryan turned and noticed the scars all over Saienta’s body and Saienta’s bandaged arm from his elbow to his wrist.
         “What?” Saienta asked.
         “Nothing,” Ryan said, looking away.
The bath was huge, reaching from one side of the wall to the other and Corey stepped into the steaming pool with elation. The three of them sat far away from each other on the bench in the water and Corey sank down, feeling the tension and cold ease out of his body.
         “There’s a fire beneath the stone,” Saienta said, his voice echoing. “It keeps the water warm.”
Ryan sank underwater and came up a minute later.
It was relaxing and Corey had never felt better in his life. It was hard to believe he almost died not long ago. Saienta too, or maybe that was what made life even better- they were still alive.

They washed off and stepped out of the baths a while later, changing into formal grey kimono robes that Ame had left them. Corey walked outside and found the air was warm and they were getting hot- the cold from the river water had gone entirely and they waited for the girls on the porch of Ame’s house, looking down on the village and the horse fields. The girls walked towards them wearing simple light blue kimonos and sat down beside them. Ame came out and sat with them.
         “Your clothes should be dry soon,” Ame said. “I know your bodies must still be aching. I’m preparing a protein drink that will help to repair the muscles.”
Corey nodded, hoping it would work well- his muscles were throbbing with pain. Everyone would be feeling the same.
She went back inside and came out with a drink for them all and they drank it.
         “You should feel better tomorrow,” she smiled. “By the way, Annaleace, I talked to Tiyan and he is prepared to wait a year for you. It is up to you how things turn out- who knows? You might end up liking him by then, even love him.”
Ryan blanched. Annaleace remained expressionless. “Thank you,” she said softly.
         “There is a village festival being held in a few days, would you all like to come?” Ame asked.
         “That would be nice,” Sirian said. Ame left and then came back with a tray of food and they ate while Ame went inside again and returned with their clothes ten minutes later. They went inside to change. Corey came back outside, the first to change, and glanced at his watch. 7.00pm. Tomorrow’s training would be no easier for any of them. They hadn’t even begun trying to ride those haze-horses. Corey’s stomach felt uneasy at the thought when he heard a commotion from the village as people started to come out of their homes and walk towards Ame’s house, screaming with joy and he wondered what all the fuss was about. He saw five uniformed soldiers arrive on horseback and dismount nearby, their horses running on their own to the fields. Whoever the five soldiers were, they looked arrogant. Sirian and the others returned and they stood watching.
A Non-Existent User


The sun was setting and the cicadas had started their shrill song. The hum was loud here, especially in their silence outside and the evening air was warm. Exhausted, Saienta walked outside where Elli, Sirian and Corey stood on the wooden terrace to look at five soldiers who had just arrived. It was cooler outside but still warm and he couldn’t pass up a chance to see the sunset in such a beautiful place. Ryan and Annaleace were sitting down and all eyes were on the black-uniformed soldiers who were being heaped with praise and glory by some of the people who lived in the village, out of their homes to greet them.
Saienta wanted that- he wasn’t sure why. It wasn’t about the attention so much- he remembered the words of the other soldiers that afternoon, You shouldn’t be wearing even half our uniform. You’re not one of us. The words had cut into him and stayed there. They weren’t soldiers. No one acknowledged them as soldiers and it grated at him. Not from Ame though, it had to be someone different- a soldier. Becoming one was the only reason they were here and he wanted the acknowledgement. One day, he thought. Saienta was determined.
The General met them with a salute and the five soldiers bowed. The formal greeting and farewell was either a salute or a bow from the waist, Saienta had discovered. They were a little older than the six of them and they didn’t look over once, but they must have known they were there, Saienta had a feeling. He wondered who they were; they all wore the same uniform as the General but they had silver badges in the shape of a diamond pinned to their chests. There was only one girl among them.
Sin, in a new pair of pants, waltzed up to the downcast-looking group and sat beside Ryan. “Hey, you little shit,” Ryan said casually but with a hint of acid. After all, all of them wanted to kill him by now but what was even more frustrating was that he was better than them in terms of ability and he knew it. They couldn’t catch him if they tried. They had learned to ignore Sin for the most part but sometimes he was useful and when he was there, there was no way to get rid of him. They watched in silence and Saienta rubbed the back of his legs where his muscles were so sore they were pulsating with pain. He was envious of Sin’s energy and obviously painless existence. He tortured them relentlessly and no matter what they said, he was unfazed. None of them even looked at him.
Sin smirked. “You want to know who they are, don’t you? They’re a hundred times better than you six.”
         “Thanks a lot,” Annaleace grimaced. She stretched her arms out and then plunked them in her lap. “You help us out so much. We really value your input.”
         “Hey. It’s what I’m here for. Those good-looking guys there are Diaden. Pronounced die-a-den. Or dee-ay-den, whichever slips off the tongue nicer. They’re not the best, even though they’re a hundred times better than all of you. They’re an independent group- they do their own missions and come back with information for the General. They trained here before until they formed Diaden. They get missions from the General sometimes, when it’s important but usually they work alone.”
         “Like vigilantes?” Saienta asked. “They’re like the village heroes.” He raised an eyebrow as he watched some young boys shake the Diadens’ hands. “Why do they work independently?” They must have believed they could stop the war on their own and receive all the credit. They looked arrogant and obnoxious enough to think so.
         “Duh, they work alone because they’re good enough to. What kind of war do you think this is? We only infiltrate and fight small battles at a time, not go full out with every man.”

Elli sat down, shot an annoyed glance at Sirian and looked off into the forest, bored. The others took the same initiative and sat where they were but kept watching.
         “Who are the best right now?” Corey asked.
Sin scoffed. “The best? The famous-est, and most talented? The group who defeated ten dozen northern soldiers in one night alone? The group who make you guys look like the fungus growing on the top of a turd in the middle of a manure field? The group who only have to piss a mile away and you’d be dead? The-”
         “Sin, shut the fuck up and tell us,” Elli snapped and he did. They were all tired and irritable.
         “Paladin. My brother is one of them. His name is Thale, remember it. He’s one of the best.”
Was it a competition or a war, Saienta wondered. How did they even find out this kind of information unless they gloated about it themselves?
A puppy that was something like a Border collie bounded up to them and yapped. “This is my dog,” Sin said, putting the energetic dog in his lap. “I called him Kitten. I got him for my birthday today. I told you I turned thirteen.”
         “You called your dog Kitten?” Sirian asked and Sin nodded.
         “So, did you guys want to have a round with Diaden? I could always ask, I think it’d be funny watching them kill you all before you guys can blink,” Sin’s mouth widened in a smile, “You guys move in slow motion, like this,” he stood, the puppy leaping off and running away, and showed them, moving something like a robot but at least 50 times slower. He laughed hysterically and sat down. He slapped Ryan on the shoulder and Ryan clenched his teeth.
         “You know what?” Ryan asked him, leaning to the side to take a good look at him, “I think I’m going to get two hundred times better just to kick the shit out of you. That will be my primary goal from this day forward. Forget the war, I’m starting a new one between you and me.” Ryan looked like he was going to tear the boy’s face off.
         “You?” Sin laughed. “Even at your peak, and that won’t happen for another 50 years, you guys will still suck.” He stood, yawned, and was gone.

“Do you think we’ll ever get to be an independent group?” Elli asked, leaning her head to the side, looking at Diaden who were walking into the housing for the soldiers.
Ryan shook his head. “As it is, we aren’t even allowed out without a chaperone. It feels like they’ll never let us out of the village on our own- especially into hostile territory.”
Sirian sighed, ignoring Elli but looking at the others. “Why are they even training us? It feels like we’ll never get to where even Sin is and he’s only thirteen. He’ll get unimaginably better and we’ll still be learning how to lift our feet to haze-run,” she said bitterly.
         “What would we call ourselves, do you think?” Annaleace asked thoughtfully.
         “The Sinister Six. Hah, yeah right. Sin-destroyers. Wait…that sounds bad, I don’t even want his name in it,” Ryan shook his head.
         “Chrysalis,” Corey muttered. Saienta approved.
         “Hey, not bad,” Elli smiled.
         “It’s been a difficult day to say the least. We’re soldiers, right?” Annaleace asked. “It sounds strange…I never would have guessed. We’re soldiers. We’re 11th and 12th year students at Ellet College in one world and soldiers in another.”
         “Sure we are, regardless of what they said about us not being one of them, we‘re soldiers. Double lives. Soldiers ey…? I guess this means we’ll have to learn all that saluting stuff, and formations,” Elli smiled but her smile dropped as two of Diaden began walking over from out of their housing.
The two guy soldiers eyed Sirian, Elli and Annaleace as they came closer.
         “Don’t hold back guys,” Ryan murmured. “Just tell us what fantasies you’re having next time.”
         “Hm…they’re not bad-looking,” Elli muttered without much of her usual enthusiasm.

“Good evening,” one on the right said, and they both bowed, standing in front of them on the grass, only a few inches below. They were both Diaden.
Only Elli reacted. She managed a forced-looking smile. They must have looked like snobs, not that Saienta cared at all, but he knew the others were usually politer. He pulled out a cigarette and began smoking, watching them.
Silence followed. It was awkward on the Diadens’ parts but the six on the verandah didn’t care, they were too tired to move.
         “We, uh…” the one on the left began but caught himself as he gazed at Elli’s serious and bored expression, “My name is Stray, and this is Phix. We were hoping that we could take you three ladies on a walk this fine evening. Just a nice stroll through the track in the forest,” he said, his last word especially emphasized as though it was a great and fantastic thing that couldn’t be passed up. It was, in a way, since they weren’t allowed through the forest at all, without a soldier and there was no one who would bother walking with them, except maybe Tiyan but he was busy. Sirian rubbed her nose and Elli stared, as though she was waiting for something else. Annaleace wasn’t even looking at them. Ryan, Corey, and Saienta didn’t say a word, even though they’d just been rudely exempted. If they were right in their minds, these guys would be better than Sin and there was no point starting anything.
         “Well,” Elli looked up at the orange sky. She looked down at the two waiting soldiers. “I’ll come.” She stood and looked at the girls. “Annaleace? Sirian?”
They shrugged and stood up, stretching. “We’ll come,” Sirian said simply without looking at Elli. “I wanted to see the forest anyway.”
The two soldiers looked like they’d just been laid and smiled at each other happily.
         “Are you serious? Lace? Hey, I’m talking to you,” Ryan poked her in the leg with a knuckle.
         “Yeah, yeah,” she said dismissively, “we’ll be back soon. I wanted to see the forest too. I won’t accept anymore presents this time.”

Ryan sighed, giving up, and lay back on the floorboards. Corey, Saienta and Ryan had no idea what to do in the meantime. Saienta thought about going into the forests without permission but had a feeling he’d be caught. He didn’t want to know what the consequences were; he was tired enough as it was. Saienta sat with his back to the wall and thought about how long and rough the day had been. He found it hard to believe so much had happened. It was going to be just as hard or worse as the days passed. How long would it be until they were just okay? How long until they were good?
         “Hey,” a guy suddenly said, sitting beside Corey on the edge of the floorboards. Saienta only noticed him then and wondered if he had haze-ran or walked there without him noticing. Another Diaden, Saienta saw. They couldn’t be all bad, he figured, but they did look arrogant, especially the way they craved the praise and hero-worship of the villagers. If the Diaden were strong, how much more would the best independent group, Paladin, be? The guy showed his teeth when he smiled and he put a finger to his temple. “Sin told me you’re all pathetic,” he smirked.
Ryan groaned as though he was in pain. “Another one…” he said, without looking up or opening his eyes. “Why don’t you guys let up? We’re new for fuck’s -”
         “I don’t think that’s possible. From what I’ve been hearing, you guys are so bad we can’t let up until you go home crying.”
         “Huh,” Corey grunted, averting his eyes.
         “What makes you think we’re affected by you?” Saienta asked coldly. The guy wasn’t even worth looking at.
He laughed. “Because you aren’t like us- you’re just kids with feelings and no battle experience.”
Saienta gazed at him and smiled darkly. “You should be careful who you provoke. Things won’t always go your way.” He had nothing more to add and the guy’s eyes seemed to narrow and then he smiled tolerably.
         “You want to fight, don’t you?”
         “No,” Corey hissed, turning. He looked as pissed as the Diaden was. “We’ll fight when the sides balance out.”
         “Aww, then it’s a shame you guys are so weak, that means we won’t get to fight ever,” he laughed. He shook his head mockingly and disappeared in a haze-run; Ryan scowled. “Tch, what’s with these guys? They’re all fucking assholes.”
Corey and Saienta agreed.

They were willing to admit they weren’t nearly as good enough to fight them but it was a bitter admission. Never in his life with Red Tide or on his own had he been unable to stand up and fight but to do so here was foolish. It drove him to the brink of insanity- he almost wanted to pick a fight, and use everything he had, even if he got fucked up in the process. He wanted to relieve the slow-building fury created by every word and mocking smile these guys directed at them. It was probably the same for Corey and Ryan but for now they were too sore and worn out to do anything. It was really crushing his spirit…the way nothing could be done. They were considered unworthy of a fight. Too slow. Too inhibited. Too pathetic. Saienta clenched a fist and gritted his teeth. Too fucking weak. There was one thing they weren’t aware of- and that was their willingness to survive anything to get what they wanted. He wanted to get better and he didn’t want them thinking he was using his weakness as an excuse to stop fighting. He wasn’t here for nothing. He was driven and in a way, if he did what he was about to do, his drive would become stronger. His stomach turned heavy and he held it for a moment, focusing his energy on making the nervousness go away until he was cold and hardened.
         “I’ll be back,” Saienta said, standing.
         “Where are you going?” Corey asked, looking up at him as he passed.
Saienta put up a hand. “To get myself fucked up.”

“Hey,” Saienta called as he walked to the field behind the soldier’s housing. The half a dozen soldiers and two Diaden ignored him as they continued gearing up to leave for the city. “Hey,” Saienta called again, louder. “Fucking-” Saienta began as he reached the back of one and caught him on the head with a push of his knuckles. It wasn’t intended as a direct punch but Saienta wished he had punched him, because his fist, for once, came into contact. The soldier turned around in anger and Saienta saw it was the guy earlier who had driven him to this point. The other soldiers paused and stared.
         “What the fuck do you want?” he spat- obviously using anger to mask his embarrassment.
         “Nothing much,” Saienta said as he swung his fist with full force to his face- as usual, he slid out of the way and Saienta hit nothing but damn air. He ignored the looks of incredulity and swung again to the left where he had dodged and hit air again. Saienta kept going and the Diaden kept dodging, without time to even ask what the hell he was trying to do. The other soldiers just stood watching as Saienta hit, in their eyes it would have been slow, and the Diaden darted out of range every time. It went on for the next minute or so and Saienta didn’t pause.
         “Hey,” Saienta heard someone else call and stopped; he needed a rest anyway. He was tired out already but new adrenaline was coursing through his body as though he had just rested for a night. Corey and Ryan raced up to him and stopped. “What are you doing?” Corey asked.
         “Get your friend away from here, he’s crazy,” the Diaden said, obviously tired too, but not as much as Saienta.
         “I wanted a fight,” Saienta breathed and stood up. “With him.”
The Diaden raised an eyebrow. “You wanted a fight with me? What’s the point? You can’t even get a hit in. Get him out of here,” he said to Ryan and Corey dismissively, “we have better things to do.”
         “Wait, wait, wait…” Ryan put a palm up and looked at the guy as if he was a bad smell. “What if we wanted to pick a fight too?”
The Diaden was taken aback and his leader stepped forward. He put up a hand calmly and gazed over Ryan and Corey, then Saienta. “They want to challenge you, Mizu, never disappoint a man, even if he is weaker than you. Especially those who persist; no matter if they are foolish. Respect their decision regardless.”
Saienta bared his teeth in a grin but it was devoid of humour, and Mizu breathed in deeply and exhaled, his dark blue eyes glinting. These soldiers seemed to show even their enemies respect, even though Saienta and his group weren’t enemies, it was obvious they weren’t liked. Corey took his hand out of his pocket and looked up, having thought something over. “Three against one?”
         “So?” Mizu asked scathingly, “None of you will get a hit in regardless. Do you want me to hit with full force or hold back?”
         “Whatever,” Saienta said, “just as long as you don’t kill him,” he motioned with his head at Corey.
Corey looked at him quickly but didn’t comment.
         “Huh,” Mizu scoffed, “that means I’ll have to hold back.”
         “Stop,” a soldier Saienta recognized cut in, “I want to fight also. I want to release some energy.” You’re not the only one, Saienta thought.
         “I can take care of them,” Mizu sneered.
         “Shut up, Mizu,” he snapped and Saienta recognized the guy as the one with blue eyes who had given him and Corey tips on the water-treading ability. “You embarrass us; arrogant and hot-headed child.”
Mizu looked like he’d been slapped and he looked away towards the forest.

The other six soldiers stood expressionless in a half-moon around Corey, Saienta and Ryan. Mizu and the older soldier stood in front of them and Mizu thumbed his nose as though it wasn’t worth getting prepared for a fight. Mizu moved first and darted in front of Ryan who stepped to the side, getting prepared to fend off an attack. Saienta didn’t get a chance to see what happened next, his legs were kicked from underneath him by a sweeping floor kick from the soldier. He fell to the ground and stood up, brushing off his legs. The soldier surveyed him carefully. He was standing still but was prepared for an attack. Saienta moved to strike his jaw and then reverted to driving his knee into the guy’s stomach but he missed his attack, the soldier jumped back too quickly, seeing it. Saienta saw Corey and Ryan trying to rain blows on Mizu but he dodged every one, blurring back and forth, without hitting either of them.
They were being played with.
After another ten minutes of useless attacking and quick evasion, Saienta could feel fury rising in him and his eyes felt as though they were burning. He suppressed the feeling and it faded. He put a hand on Corey who was out of breath next to him, leaning down. The two soldiers stood side by side calmly while Ryan, Saienta and Corey fought to breathe. The sky was growing considerably darker and nevertheless, the mocking grin on Mizu’s face was clear for him to see.
         “Why don’t you just hit us?” Ryan asked in irritation.
The soldier considered them thoughtfully. Saienta noticed a silver string tied around the soldier’s upper arm that was similar to the way the string was tied around his pinkie. He wondered what it represented, no other soldiers had the same symbol.
Mizu shrugged. “Your call. Just tell us when you’re ready.”
         “We’re ready,” Corey said, standing. He exhaled.

“Loser,” Mizu spat, as he darted forward and kneed Saienta in the stomach. Saienta doubled over and spat blood, pain shooting through his entire lower body and his head felt like it was going to implode. It was as though all sound was blocked out and time froze as his body dealt with the shock and he fell to one knee, coughing. Blood and saliva dripped down and he wiped it off his chin, looking up to see Corey elbowed in the face- blood spurted from his nose- and Ryan was punched in the face, then thrown to the ground by Mizu. Saienta had time to see Mizu disappear in a haze and Saienta was struck in the face with the hardest punch he’d ever been struck with. He saw bright white and then red as the pain exploded through his head and warm liquid rushed from his nose: blood.

He knew they hadn’t used their full strength. If they had, he wouldn’t be alive. “You’re a waste of life,” Saienta heard as he lay on the grass, but wasn’t sure if it was in his head. A damn fucking piece of meat. Remember, remember?? It wasn’t not what I thought it would be, if it was, you’d be grey. Never. Fail. Live. Or believe. Another thought ran through his mind, overlapping the voices, if you killed Mizu, would that make things better? Hm? After all, you’re Saienta, no one has fucked you up in a long time. Saienta sat up on the grass in a daze. He could barely see and then his eyes focused- everything was suddenly sharper and defined, the colours more bright and the smallest things were visible to him. He looked across and saw his cigarette pack lying on the grass a few meters away and read the fine print on the side. He looked up at Mizu and Saienta felt the aching and burning sensation behind his eyes. Saienta stood and could hear the voices but nothing else. He could see Mizu and nothing else. He wasn’t aware that there were more soldiers around. Whose right is it? Whose? Yours? Mine? Corey is on the ground, you didn’t know that but now you do. Mizu ran forward and stood in front of him, gazing at him. Did you know that was a haze-run? You just saw him. Congratulations, loser. Saienta’s green eyes travelled upwards as he surveyed every single part of Mizu and then his eyes met his. Mizu looked unsure and Saienta laughed, in his head and not out loud. He felt something swirling in his eyes; it felt like warm water was swirling around in his eyes, that’s what it was. He could feel his darkness taking over, that’s what it was. You could kill him just by looking at him. How embarrassing for him. Poor Mizu- arrogant and hot-headed child. Shut up, he told the voice and it did. He paused for a moment- he had been in his dark state before, but this time was different. He was aware of it now, but he was unable to control his feelings. He was feeling very selfish- if he wanted to get rid of someone he was prepared to. Saienta felt something stream forth out of his eyes as he stared directly into Mizu’s- all his hate, all his fury and the strong assurance that Saienta wanted Mizu dead- and before he could let his energy go completely like he wanted, he saw the Diaden leader run behind him and felt a hand shield his eyes. A tap from behind and Saienta was unconscious.

*


That feeling again – as though he had just awoken from a deep sleep and Saienta was unable to move. He could hear voices first and after a few minutes he opened his eyes to see the room he had woken in the first day they had entered the world. Corey and Ame were looking away from him with concern etched on their faces. He heard Annaleace’s voice on the other side of the room, it held a trace of annoyance and he realized she was giving someone a lecture. “-and how can you even think that you could pick a fight and win? You’re an idiot!”
         “Hey, they started it…” Ryan said defensively.
         “Ya, mm hmm, right! That’s not what I heard.” Annaleace sighed irritably. “And you’re lucky they didn’t use all their strength or you’d be dead. You got away with nothing more than a bloody nose.”
         “Well, we weren’t planning to win-”
         “Then what were you guys doing?”
         “I donno…we were just…fighting.”

“You’re awake,” Ame said, looking down at Saienta.
He only blinked, unable to do anything more. Lethargy was holding him down and there was a painful ache in his stomach and his head.
         “Are you alright? Things got strange after you got hit…” Corey drifted, avoiding the fact he witnessed Saienta in his dark state again. Corey had a trace of dried blood on the inside of his nose but nothing else.
         “You’re lucky Reiki stopped you; you could have hurt Mizu,” Ame chided.
Reiki? Saienta thought about everything that happened and remembered the Diaden leader. So his name was Reiki.
Saienta sat up after a few minutes and the room glowed from lit lamps on the walls. “How did I do it?”
Ame gazed at him, thinking. “I can’t explain that. Maybe you have some idea already. I must talk to you alone, walk with me when you’re ready,” she nodded and stood up, indicating she would wait outside.
Corey looked at him and then exhaled deeply. “Your eyes were swirling…like they held dark mist. You weren’t even there- that’s what it seemed like. The other guys looked unsure about you,” he said in a low voice.
         “Yeah? What about Mizu?” Saienta asked thoughtfully, looking up at the railing.
         “Mizu? He was knocked out.” Corey grinned. “Do you think you could do it again?”
Saienta laughed. “Probably not. Not unless…” Not unless he was in his dark state, they both thought.

He walked with Ame slowly through the village in silence. It was almost 9.30, and it was a clear night. Elli and Sirian had been taken home while Saienta was unconscious, and Ryan and Annaleace some time after. Saienta and Corey planned to stay the night.
Ame’s white dress drifted around her in the wind and she spoke without looking at him. “It’s happened before, hasn’t it?”
He nodded. “A few times.”
         “Do you know why?” Ame asked.
They stopped at the edge of the river by the forest and he shook his head. “There’s something…but it’s always different. I thought it had something to do with being in a violent situation but…” he shook his head again. “It happened once when I was just sitting on the school roof. Another time when I was working the farms.” He gave her more details of the things he thought about at those times.
         “What does it feel like?” She leaned down and picked a blade of grass, twirling it between her fingers. She listened contemplatively as he spoke.
         “I don’t know about the other times. It’s like I hear a voice- my own- but I don’t remember what I say. This time was different, I remember everything. It’s like I could control myself if I wanted to but there’s this side of me that takes over and all I want to do is…I don’t know…do whatever I feel like to make my own existence…better.” The truth was, he didn’t see it as separate from himself or evil and therefore didn’t mind it now that he had control. He wouldn’t admit that out loud…no one would understand. It was his ‘dark’ state and it was expected that he would see it as evil but he didn’t really care, it was just another part of him.
         “In that moment, would you hurt everybody or your enemies?” she asked.
         “My enemies, maybe, but I don’t consider Mizu an enemy.”
         “In that situation you did, didn’t you?”
He nodded slowly. “I suppose.” But in those moments, anyone could be his enemy if he was provoked.

After a long silence she sat down and he sat beside her, the water moving slowly near their feet. “Mythra is different for everybody,” she began, “and yours is new to me also. I’m not sure what you are capable of, as yet, but there is a downside to some types of Mythra. For instance, Sin is able to heal others with his Mythra source upon touching them and drawing out his energy and releasing it. Unfortunately, he is unable to heal as quickly as others do, a wound such as a cut or a bruise may take over two weeks to disappear completely. You cannot use your own Mythra on yourself. Your Mythra in particular must be concentrated in your eyes and in your mind.” She took a moment to get to the real point. Whatever it was she had to say must have been difficult and she was not eager to share. “Saienta…you are a very strong person, but you have many weaknesses. The main one being yourself. You are your own enemy. And you have drawn away from people your whole life and have turned into one who fights to be alone. Until recently, that is, correct? You seem to care about someone in your group…”
         “Corey,” he nodded. “He is different to other people. Maybe…he’s what I would have liked to be if my life hadn’t been this way. He’s honest. He respects people- all people.” Saienta laughed suddenly. “He’s made me laugh a few times. There’s never much to laugh about.”
He struggled to find the right words; he never spoke of people in such a way. He wasn’t even sure what it was that made him like Corey. “I find peace in him.”
         “There is no peace in your life?” Ame asked him sadly.
He laughed but it was without humor. “Never. I probably chose to live this way and I blame no one else but myself.” He thought of Tidus and his words: You just don’t seem to get it…You could go about everything the right way… “I look at my life from the outside sometimes and think about how badly everything turned. I’d rather not dwell on it and have regrets, there doesn’t seem to be enough time for that. I don’t even know what I’m looking for and why I make the decisions that I do.”
         “Does anybody?” Ame asked, mostly to herself. “You seem to blame yourself too much. You don’t have to answer my next question, but…what has your life been like so far?”
He wanted to answer but there was no way he could without cussing at least ten times. He chose his words carefully and didn’t feel he could tell her everything yet. “My life…has been,” he paused and couldn’t think of what to say next. “My life has been hard. I know other people have got it worse, I shouldn’t complain.”
Ame gave a wry smile. “You shouldn’t dismiss the things that happen in your life because someone else has it better or worse. Think it over, Saienta, what do you want and how will you achieve it? Your darkness is caused by your unwillingness to value life or the future- it is caused by your feeling of being trapped or helpless. A hopelessness lies in you and you are using it as a driving force, but it will not lead you to better things. What do you want, Saienta, out of all the things in either world?”
He thought of Corey’s life, he thought of his own and everything leading up to this point in his life. He answered a few minutes later and she gazed at him thoughtfully. “One day,” she replied.

“You do not have to but I would like you to answer this for my own conclusions. Your team…the other five who came through the Gate, what do they mean to you?”
He creased his forehead. “Except for Corey- nothing. I’m learning about him still and I don’t know them at all.”
Ame nodded slowly. “And what would their deaths mean to you?”
         “Nothing.”
If he didn’t care about his death, why would he care for anyone else’s?
         “That seems cold, doesn’t it?”
He knew that already but it was a part of him, how he felt. “I don’t care for them and I don’t know them. It is better for me this way. If we were to fight together, I would not grow any stronger if I had to worry about them. I will retain my loyalty and alliance but there is nothing more.”
She breathed in deeply and exhaled, then turned her head to smile at him warmly. “Have you ever interfered with a spider by forcing it to walk on your finger?”
He didn’t reply, not remembering if he had played with many spiders and didn’t see the relevance.
         “The tiny thread it creates as it falls from your finger to the ground…that is my example of the fragility of loyalty. Energy is even less substantial and energy is what makes everything function- loyalty is in the mind, and that is why it is easy to break. I won’t trivialize the will- the will of a person is strong but still dissolvable. Others have the power to break the tiny web of a spider, and others will have the power to break the will of a man if he lets it become soluble.”
Saienta nodded. “We need more than loyalty to survive as a team.”
She nodded. “It is about the individual and then the collective team. What you need for existence and the will to live is the same as loyalty. I won’t give you any of the answers but you need something both in your mind and out that won’t dissolve. Something substantial. It also has something to do with the ambitions you told me about.”
She smiled and winked.

“About the events earlier, I wish to explain something the General and I have discussed. There is a fearsome thing that lives in your mind and I have only explained the reasons it may occur. I cannot tell you how to prevent it from happening, only you can figure that out. I can tell you that you won’t find it in other people or in anything materialistic. The mind is powerful – it has the power to create and destroy, Mythra is born from it and controlled by it.
Your Mythra reflects your personality. In your case, you want to change yourself and you want control over your life- when you learn, be very careful how you use it, it will affect your darkness. You must be careful from now on- you could be a danger to yourself and to your comrades. If you are an enemy to yourself than no one else is exempt either.”
Wind swept through the trees and blew over them. Except Corey…he thought suddenly. Saienta looked back towards the village where it was lit by flame torches in each house. Darkness, he thought. The word seemed to reverberate through his mind back and forth and he went over every meaning attached to the word.
Ame stood up and gave him time alone to think everything over. He had forgotten to ask more about the war but reminded himself to ask later. He lay in the grass looking up at the stars and wondered if this world was parallel or it was far away from his own. Wherever it was, it was different. Neither one was his home, he realized. It didn’t matter which one he was in, his life was still the same. A struggle to live. What did he want after all? Peace? If he wanted peace he could run far away in his own world and become a farmer or something. Love? If he was looking for love he would have been searching already. Fame? He shook his head, nothing like that would help him. He lit up a cigarette, inhaled deeply and blew out the smoke into the clean night air.

He found Corey training further up the river practicing the water-treading ability. He stood on the bank, concentrating deeply, and then stepped onto the steady flowing water. He got one foot on and then he half fell in with a splash when he put his weight on it for longer than a second. Corey cursed and then stood on the river bank again. Saienta figured he had done this numerous times already. Saienta joined him in the dark and they trained together, hoping to get at least as far as Elli who got both feet and all her weight on the water for three seconds. It felt like it was impossible to get as far as Sin who effortlessly ran back and forth across the river and jumped around as he had showed them earlier. But, as Ryan had said afterwards, if that little shit could do it, so could they. After an hour, Saienta and Corey flopped back onto the grass; the energy exertion was incredible. Corey sat up again. “It feels like we’re going backwards.”
After a thought Saienta sat up too and looked at the water. It was water, a liquid, how could they, as physical and solid human beings, walk on it?
After a thought, Corey looked at him. “Maybe that’s what we’re doing wrong. Did you know the bumblebee can’t fly?”
         “What are you on about Corey?” Saienta asked in puzzlement.
         “Well, physically, the bumblebee’s body is too big for its wings. It’s impossible for it to fly according to our laws of physics. But it flies anyway.”
Saienta nodded thoughtfully. “That’s a good example.”
Corey clenched his hands and stood up. “Just like a solid path, our feet can tread it, no problem.”
Saienta and Corey breathed in deeply and exhaled. They stepped out onto the bank and then concentrated, thinking of solidity.
They stepped onto the water at the same time and quickly put both feet onto the water. They fell in immediately and came up splashing. “That’s a record,” Corey laughed.
         “It’s gotta be at least 1.2 seconds,” Saienta said coming out of the water.
         “We got both feet, though. I’m not sure if one leg fell before the other…I didn’t have much time to think about it.”

They sat on the grass soaking wet and Corey shook the droplets from his hair. “While you were unconscious, there was a fight between a Diaden and Elli, Sirian and Annaleace; it looks like us guys aren’t the only ones having problems.”
         “The Diaden guys had a fight with the girls?” Saienta asked.
         “No, the Diaden girl, her name’s Linx. She started talking down on them and stole Sirian’s visor and Elli’s shoe.”
Saienta shook his head. “What’s with them and stealing everyone’s shit?”
Corey shrugged. “It’s because they know we can’t get it back. She put Sirian’s visor in a tree. Stray got it down for her and he got the shoe back too- the girls said Phix and Stray are the only nice ones, and Tiyan...” Corey drifted.
         “Phix and Stray. Those two guys that took Elli and them for a walk?”
         “Yeah, those two. Apparently they just don’t know how to act in front of girls, that’s what Elli told me.” Corey squeezed water from his pant leg.
         “Sounds like a lot happened while I was knocked out.”
         “A little. That was it, except when Sin volunteered to help heal Ryan’s nose. It was almost broken. Ryan was a little wary but Ame was there to watch over.”
         “Sin healed Ryan? As in the same Sin that is driving Ryan and us to the brink of insanity?”
Corey nodded. “Same guy, hard to believe. But then Sin made sure he demeaned Ryan afterwards- told him he was going to spread a rumour to the soldiers that Ryan is gay.”
Saienta laughed. “Sin is going to get his ass kicked someday. If it isn’t one of us, it’ll be someone else.”
Corey picked a blade of grass. “I was told that he’s a 13-year old genius. I would never have guessed.”
         “Sin?” Saienta asked in astonishment.
Corey nodded as though it had taken him a long time to accept it too. “He has an incredible mind, everything from philosophy to logistics, tactics and military genius, and even his kinetic and combat ability. It’s strange why he acts the way he does considering.”
Saienta laughed in incredulity. It was hard to believe that Sin was a genius. “No shit…” Maybe he was just arrogant because of it but that didn’t seem to explain it, he picked on them but didn’t actually gloat about his own abilities.
Corey threw his grass away but it didn’t go very far and he picked another one. “Not even Phix and Stray could catch him. I want my ring back. They said that he would be allowed to join any independent group but there’s something about his Mythra ability that stops him.”
Saienta nodded, knowing that it was because he couldn’t heal as Ame had explained. If he was cut up in battle he would probably bleed to death and be useless. Saienta explained it to Corey and Corey nodded in understanding.
         “When is next training?” Saienta asked.
         “We have to get a few hours of training in tomorrow morning, before school. Everyday will be similar. Ame said horses will be waiting for us in the city so we can arrive here earlier. The others will be here at 5.30am and then we’ll go straight to school when it starts. Then we come back here after school for a few hours to get more training in. It looks like our days are going to be filled.” Corey sighed. “I’ll be here on the weekends too, from Friday until Monday morning. It’s up to you if you’ll take that much time up.”
Saienta nodded. “I’ll be here probably as much as you. We’ll need it.” They stayed by the river until their clothes were almost dry. Saienta wondered who the older soldier they had fought with, the one who also called Mizu a child, and helped Saienta and Corey by the river was. Saienta made a mental note to ask someone later.

Ame let them into her house, into the same room they had woken in and rolled out two futons and gave them each a blanket. “You will stay here when you need to,” Ame explained. “You are always welcome. There are now guards posted near the Gate at all times. If you ever enter at an unscheduled time, they will bring you here on horses.”
         “Does anyone ever go through to our world?” Saienta asked.
         “No,” she shook her head. “The Gate is not free for anybody’s use. You six are the only exception. I went through without knowing about it,” she said and left, sliding the door shut behind her. “Try and sleep well,” she said through the wall and Saienta watched her shadow disappear.
Corey fell asleep immediately without bothering with the light. Saienta examined the lamp on the wall and turned a small knob. The flame brightened and he turned it the other way until it went out. He fell asleep on the futon and had dreams but remembered none of them.

The next morning, they were woken early and Corey looked at his watch sleepily. “5am…” he mumbled and rolled over onto his side to sleep longer. Saienta shook him, he was used to getting up early even if he had hardly slept at all but they had already slept for six hours and it was more than he usually had.
Saienta sighed and let him have another five minutes while he put his pants on over his boxers. He found Ame outside and she motioned him to a large bucket filled with cold water. “From the river,” she said.
He splashed some on his face and went back inside to wake Corey.
         “Corey,” he said, shaking him.
He murmured and made a grunting sound.
         “Corey!”
He didn’t even move and Saienta wondered how he ever got up for school. Saienta ripped his blankets off but Corey curled up and snuggled into his pillow, still sleeping. He was in his boxers and he hugged his legs to his body to keep warm.
Saienta waited a minute longer. He gave up and went outside.
         “Where is Corey?” Ame asked.
Saienta shrugged. “I can’t wake him.”
She smiled. “I know how to wake him. I deal with these types all the time,” she said mischievously and Saienta followed to see what she would do.
She went inside and sat by Corey who had managed to put the blanket over his head and arms but not his legs. Ame put her hand over Corey’s head and a moment later he jolted awake, looking around and waving his arms around his head.
         “What did you do?” Saienta asked in curiosity when Corey sat up and rubbed his eyes drowsily, pulling the blanket off.
She tapped her fingers together and stood up. “I concentrated my Mythra on him and let him feel like he was falling from a roof straight down into a pit of spiders.”
Spiders… Saienta grinned. “Was it fun?”
         “Always. Especially when I do it to the trained soldiers.”

The other four arrived and had breakfast with them at six in the morning. Sirian and Annaleace looked awake but Elli and Ryan looked as bad as Corey. The half hour horse ride from the city should have woken them. After breakfast they went back to sit on the grass to develop their far-sight further. They had to learn how to harness their far-sight immediately- for now it still took them at least half an hour to focus their eyes and escape the mind block that told them it was impossible to see that far.
         “You know…” Elli began, “I never thought the General would put nothing there, that’s why I had to make sure the second time.”
         “I know!” Annaleace exclaimed. “It was so frustrating, for ages I was staring at nothing and then I realized that there was nothing.”
Corey looked up at them strangely. “What do you mean?”
It was their turn to give him a strange look.
         “Er…what do you mean by nothing?” he asked again.
         “You should know what’s there…nothing,” Elli said slowly.
Corey scratched his hand and looked at them, and then at the spot between the two trees. “Yes there was, there was a colourful rock there. The General picked it up after I finished.”
They stared at him. Ryan gave him a strange look. Saienta felt like laughing, was he serious? Saienta did see nothing there and he wondered what Corey meant.
         “Are you playing with us, Corey? All five of us saw it was nothing and agreed it was nothing, and the General passed us,” Sirian said.
He looked from one person to the other and nodded his head. “It was there.” Corey looked very sure. Saienta rubbed his fingertips together, Corey wouldn’t lie or joke around- he seemed serious but it made no sense...a colourful rock? There was nothing there and all five of them had been right when they had seen the General. Corey was the last and it made no sense that a colourful rock would suddenly appear.
Ame was walking out of her house and they called her over. “Ame…Corey said there was a colourful rock there yesterday but we all saw nothing…” Elli said.
She looked at Corey strangely. “Rock? There was no rock, it was nothing. It was part of the task so that you had to overcome your reasoning that there would be something there and make sure that you really did see with far-sight.”
Corey blinked. “Nothing?”
         “Nothing,” she smiled and walked away to the schoolhouse.
Corey sat down and they gazed towards the mountains again. He’s a mystery, that one, Saienta thought.
After the half hour, they went to the fields and put on the Jinkai weights, still struggling to even lift their legs. They stood on the field together, straining to move their legs for the next hour and a half until they had to leave to ride back to the city and go to school.

They entered from the school roof and were a few minutes late. They ran to class; the first period of Thursday for Saienta was Psychology and he was always late. He went in and sat at the back, having forgotten to put his bag away in his locker, he put it by his feet instead. Annaleace showed at the doorway and ran to a desk near him and put her books on the table as everyone stared at them.
         “You’re both late,” the teacher said, narrowing his eyes. “Reason?”
         “Personal,” Saienta said and leaned on his desk. He always said it was personal, it meant they couldn’t pry any further at risk of sounding rude. His whole body was exhausted.
         “And you?” the teacher asked Annaleace. She looked at her watch. “It’s only been five minutes.”
         “Only?” the teacher asked with wide-eyes. “I have been talking to the entire class for that time and now I’ll have to begin again for your sakes. Detention at recess, both of you.”
Annaleace sighed and sank into her desk. They were both sore from the horse ride and the haze-run training; their eyes and heads aching and dull from staring and straining to look into the mountains.
The teacher’s eyes went to Annaleace’s pants. “Where is your uniform, miss?”
She looked down in horror, and had probably forgotten to change her soldier pants into her school skirt. “I, uh…it’s in the wash. My skirt got dirty.”
         “And you had to wear pants that look even dirtier?” he said, raising an eyebrow.
Annaleace couldn’t help it, she bit her lower lip and burst into laughter. She clasped a hand over her mouth. Some of the students looked at her in disbelief, except Saienta.
         “Huh. Stupid girl,” Saienta said.
He noticed Tidus was in a desk between him and Annaleace; he gazed darkly at Saienta, noticed the string on his finger and then looked at Annaleace’s in suspicion. The teacher’s eyes went back and forth between Saienta and Annaleace. Now they were in for it. He hoped detention wasn’t after school, they had to learn to ride haze-horses and before that he needed to get his horse onto the roof. Saienta exhaled and leaned on the desk with his head in his arms. From another world of killer training for war and feeling like they were the useless outsiders on the bottom of the hierarchy to Psychology class where the teacher was giving them detention for bothering him. If this contrast is bad enough, just wait until we start killing people in a war using Mythra, surrounded by dead bodies in a skeleton of a city, and then the next day we’ll arrive to school to be lectured for handing in an assignment late…I can’t wait, Saienta thought as he listened to three girls in the front giggling girlishly- the Ellet way with high-pitched force and all.




If I marry Tiyan will I ever be able to go back home? Or will I have to stay here, and raise a family while fighting a war I don’t truly understand? Am I sure that’s even what I want? With one hand Annaleace ran her fingers through her hair, and with the other she played with the coin around her neck. But what if… that first day…could anything ever seem…normal again? Maybe I do want to do it…

         “Are you serious? Lace? Hey, I’m talking to you,” Ryan poked her in the leg with a knuckle.

         “Yeah, yeah,” she said dismissively, “we’ll be back soon. I wanted to see the forest too. I won’t accept anymore presents this time.”

The three girls got up off the porch and walked beside the two Diaden, following them down the path into the forest.

Annaleace watched the ground, kicking the dirt as she walked across it. Sirian was beside the Diaden named Stray, who was quiet. He looked over at Sirian, then when she looked up at him he turned to Phix who was staring at the trees. Elli looked bored, she sighed and her fingers played with her belt loops. Annaleace looked up to find the forest really was beautiful, but she didn’t dwell on it long, lost in her thoughts. She listened to the wind through the trees and the birds whistling as she walked.

Elli and Sirian weren't getting along and they walked on opposite sides. Annaleace wasn't about to interfere...but she didn't like the reason they were fighting. It seemed to be a misunderstanding.

         “So… what are your names? I mean we told you ours,” Stray looked over at Sirian and Annaleace, then Elli.

         “Sirian.”

         “Elli,” she looked over at him and he nodded.

Sirian elbowed Annaleace, and without looking up she added, “Annaleace”

Stray and Phix stopped and looked at each other. “So you’re the girl that’s marrying Tiyan.”

Annaleace looked up at them, then at Sirian, “News must get around here fast. Fuck…worse than school.”

Sirian nodded agreeing with her, “It could always be worse.”
Annaleace glanced up at her, waiting for her to finish her thought.
         “It could actually be school.”

Annaleace sighed and then laughed, “Ya, I guess your right, then I’d have to kill myself.”
Sirian and Elli laughed along with her, while the guys scrunched up their faces in confusion.

         “What are you guys doing?” A female soldier, the Diaden they had seen earlier, was walking toward them.

         “Hey Linx, we were just taking these ladies on a walk through the forest,” Phix gestured with his hand toward Elli, Sirian and Annaleace.

         “Not you,” Linx pointed at the girls, “them.”

Elli shook her head and whispered, “Another fucking Sin.”

Sirian looked up at Linx. “What do you mean? We’re not doing anything.”

Linx ran her tongue across her teeth. “Then why are you here? All you’re doing is wasting everyone’s time."

Sirian shook her head and sighed. “Let’s go back to the guys.” She turned around and started to walk back the way they went with Annaleace following her.

"You’re totally hopeless. You suck, and you’ll never improve," Linx said.

Elli stood back and looked at the Diaden, making fists with her hands.

         “What is it with you people? Haven’t you ever heard of manners? Why is it that you all feel the need to act better than us? Jesus, we’re only here to help you.” Elli spat the words out as her face turned red with anger. Annaleace and Sirian stopped and turned around to see what was happening. Phix and Stray looked from Elli to Linx, neither daring to step in.

Annaleace creased her forehead, knowing things would only get worse. Linx laughed, then Elli was lying on the ground: one shoe short. Annaleace and Sirian ran over to her. Linx was standing at the top of a 20 foot tree with Elli’s shoe tied around a branch. “If you think you have potential: go get your shoe.” Linx was back on the ground as Elli stood up.

         “Gimme back my shoe, now!”

         “Fuck! What is with you people and stealing shit?” Sirian stepped forward so she was only a couple inches away from Linx, who just laughed and reached out a hand, grabbing Sirian’s visor. “Hey!!”

Phix and Stray were watching in concern, but didn’t move, looking as though they wanted to see what the three girls would do in defence.

Annaleace stepped forward, wanting it to end. “Why don’t you just give back their things so we can leave?”

         “Cause this is much more fun.” Linx haze-ran and jumped from branch to branch, back up the tree and hung Sirian’s visor over Elli’s shoe.

Phix walked over to Linx, “That’s enough Linx. You’ve had your fun, now leave.” He pointed to the path she had come down.

Linx looked disgusted, “You’re sticking up for them?” The three girls looked at each other and Elli raised an eyebrow.

         “Yes Linx, I am.” Phix looked down at Linx sternly.

Linx shook her head, spat on the ground then turned around and walked back up the path.

Phix sighed, and before Annaleace could thank him, he haze-ran up the tree and came down with Elli’s shoe and Sirian’s visor.

         “Thanks,” Elli muttered from the ground as she began to put her shoe back on.

         “Thanks, maybe we should go back now.” Sirian put her visor back on her head and turned around. The guys looked disappointed but began walking back with them.

**

“Oh my God! Ryan, what happened?” Annaleace glanced over at Saienta who was lying unconscious on a bed in Ame’s house and Corey who was sitting beside him. She looked up at Ryan and grabbed his chin to examine his nose. “And what happened to you?!”

         “The bone is healed now because of-” Ryan looked unsure and cut himself off. “It‘s just blood… It was an accident, Lacey…” Ryan tried to pull away from her, but she tightened her grip on him.

         “An accident? With you, nothing’s an accident,” she replied, gazing at him seriously. “You fight all the time. What’s so different about this time?” Annaleace let go of him and sighed. Why did he always have to get into fights? Especially this time, knowing the soldiers were so many times better. “And how can you even think that you could pick a fight and win? You’re an idiot!”

         “Hey, they started it…” Ryan said defensively and Annaleace knew he wasn’t telling the truth.

         “Ya, mm hmm, right! That’s not what I heard.” Annaleace sighed irritably, not that she had heard but she could take a guess. “And you’re lucky they didn’t use all their strength or you’d be dead. You got away with nothing more than a bloody nose.”

         “Well, we weren’t planning to win-”

Annaleace cut him off, wondering how he could pick a pointless fight. “Then what were you guys doing?”

         “I donno…we were just…fighting.”

Annaleace sighed, “You know…whatever.”
She glanced at Ame and Corey who were talking to Saienta who must have woken up.
Annaleace threw up her hands, just glad her brother was okay. She supposed fights were inevitable with Ryan when there were so many soldiers around, and most of them weren‘t exactly…nice. “Let’s go. Mom and dad are going to flip if we’re not home soon.”

**

Annaleace closed her eyes and took a deep breath.
         “You know you don’t have to marry him, right Lace?” Ryan turned his body to look over at her, as one hand fiddled around with the coin around his neck and the other tightened its grip on the steering wheel while the car was still idle.

Annaleace exhaled and looked up at Ryan. She was unsure how to put what she was thinking into words, and to put it in a way Ryan would understand without… over reacting.

         “Lacey…” Ryan gazed at her and read her silence as only a twin could. “You’re not actually thinking about marrying him, are you?!” Ryan’s mouth dropped and he creased his forehead.

Annaleace looked up again but through the window this time. There was something… that first day… she felt it…he must have too.

         “Are you going to answer me or not?”

She turned to look at him and sighed.

         “I don’t know; everything just seems…entirely fucked up. I can’t let him kill himself because of me… it just… it just seems …wrong.” She never liked seeing people hurt and definitely couldn’t handle seeing Tiyan kill himself. But that wasn’t the main reason she was thinking about whether or not she should marry him…

         “Can’t let him?! Lacey, he basically tricked you into saying yes to his ‘proposal’ or whatever the fuck it was!”

She turned to look at him instead of out the window, “Ryan, just stop, okay? I love you and you mean everything to me but… I… this is something I have to come to on my own…I have to think about it.”

Ryan looked at her stunned, and turned his body so he was facing the front windshield and started the car without speaking. His silence was loud.

Annaleace sighed, he was hurt and that wasn’t what she had meant to do. She only wanted to tell him she had to think about it through and through. Mostly because she didn’t know if she was going to marry Tiyan because she felt she had to or because she wanted to.

The car ride home was quiet, not so much as a word was passed between the two. Nothing changed when they got home, or the next morning. Except that they took their own cars the next day.

**

“Hey.”

Annaleace looked out the window on her driver’s side. It was Sirian.

         “Hey,” she rolled down the window to talk to her.

         “You coming up? Where’s Ryan?” Sirian looked past her and into the empty passenger seat.

Annaleace followed her glace and looked at the empty seat, “He drove his own car today.” She looked back at Sirian after a moment, ”Sorry, ya, I’m coming.” She quickly rolled up the window and got out of the car, locking it with the remote.

         “You okay? You seem kinda out of it today…” Sirian said, examining her face.

         “Ya, I didn’t get much sleep last night, then I had like ten cups of coffee this morning.” She laughed in a wakeful but not alert sort of way. It was 5.30am, after all.

Sirian laughed, “Mm…I know the feeling it was weird last night, like after coming back here everything seemed…different, you know, like everything was a dream.”

         “Ya, it felt so unreal here. Still kinda does.” Annaleace looked down at her feet and watched the steps as she walked up them.

As they opened an unlocked side-door, Sirian glanced over at Annaleace. “Hey, I was thinking this weekend, if we’re not training, we could do something; like a sleepover or whatever, just us girls?”

Annaleace took her attention off her feet, looked up at her and smiled, “Only if we can watch Pretty in Pink.”

Sirian laughed, “Whatever makes your little heart content, Lacy.”

Annaleace looked up at her thoughtfully. “You just called me Lacy.”

         “Did I? I’m sorry.”

         “No, don’t worry about it, it’s just…no one ever calls me that but my brothers and parents. I like it though.”

Annaleace enjoyed the half hour horse ride from the dead city to the village but it didn’t help her out of her tired state much. She was grateful they didn’t have to ride and haze- the soldiers that met them at the Gate explained they would just ride normally until they learned.
She liked Neah, especially, and when she dismounted, Neah nuzzled her affectionately and then trotted back to the fields where Tiyan was.
**

         “And you had to wear pants that look even dirtier?” the Psychology teacher asked, raising an eyebrow at her.

Annaleace couldn’t help it- she had completely forgotten, she bit her lower lip and burst into laughter. She clasped a hand over her mouth, maybe she shouldn‘t be laughing, the look on the teacher‘s face wasn‘t pleasant. Some of the students looked at her in disbelief, except Saienta.

         “Huh. Stupid girl,” Saienta said. Annaleace looked over at him but couldn’t stop laughing.

Finally she managed to choke down her laughter and wipe the smile off her face sheepishly. The teacher looked annoyed with her. “You two- detention for the next week.”

Saienta looked up at him and narrowed his eyes, “I didn’t do anything.” He looked over at Annaleace and she looked down at her desk.

         “Well, you’re late everyday, so why don’t you think of the time as making up for it?” he smiled, then moved back to the chalkboard. “As I was saying…”

Saienta slumped down in his desk and muttered about something in irritation. Annaleace looked over at him. She sighed, great Lace, not as if he doesn’t like you already…

The bell finally rung after what seemed like a lifetime. Annaleace picked up her things and began walking out the door, Saienta behind her. “Remember you two, detention in room 223.”

Annaleace sighed; she had almost forgotten about it. “Saienta, hey wait up!” She was dodging people left and right to catch up with him. Saienta picked up his pace, ignoring her. But she caught up to him, and was walking by his side. “Hey I’m sorry about back there, I just… I don’t know, I hate that guy.”

         “Never mind. We better hope it’s not after school,” he said without tone and went to his locker.

Thursday Morning


         Sirian sighed to herself, it was 2AM and regrettably, sleep was not a viable way to pass the time. She had been up for an hour, trying so hard to forget about everything that had gone on yesterday, but she was doing the exact opposite. Her parents had been sick with worry when she came home late, but Sirian had lied through her teeth, placating them. She was a liar... Even worse, Sirian was a liar who couldn’t get any sleep. She envied the other’s, knowing that they were all sleeping soundly. She thought about Annaleace. In such a short time they had become almost as close as she and Keiji. Sirian didn’t think that she could stand dealing with the world beyond the Gate without Annaleace.
         Then there was Elli. When it came to the older girl, Sirian was so confused. She didn’t know why Elli treated her so cruelly. She had done nothing to give Elli an excuse to verbally abuse her. What was wrong with Sirian liking to make others happy? Why all of a sudden was it a crime for her to want to help create a little joy? Sirian liked being helpful, and a friend to different types of people. It helped her deal with the demons that plagued her daily...
         But Elli’s malice wasn’t the only thing on Sirian’s mind. Training, meeting those horrible soldiers... There had been so many things that Sirian wanted to stop thinking about. But there had been a couple upsides, Stray and Phix standing up for them had been one, but they had been disappointed too. It was almost as if they wanted the two girls to fight to get their things back. Why was it that all Sirian seemed to be doing lately was fighting? The thing in the world that she truly hated had been her driving force lately. Ever since I punched Morgan. That’s really when it all started. My life had been so much more tranquil prior to that . Of course I had problems, but they were easier to fix. Where did I go wrong?
         She sat on her bed for quite a while. Then, unable to stand the silence any longer, she got up. Sirian dressed in a sports tank and shorts. She went downstairs to the basement where the home gym was set up and began working out. Sirian knew that her body would pay for all this abuse later, but at the time being exercise was the only way to soothe her frenetic mind. An hour later, after a Sirian patented “make-any-other-person-cry” workout, she wiped the beading sweat from her brow and went upstairs to take a shower. Fully awake, Sirian quickly drank a protein shake, wrote her parents a note saying that she’d be late and drove to school. She was early and wanted to go through the Gate, but decided to wait for the others.

~*~*~*~


         Sirian, Annaleace, Ryan and Elli went through the Gate. On the way to Ame’s, Sirian and Annaleace talked about the things that had been going on. They kept it lighthearted, neither wanting to bring up any sore subject. Sirian finished breakfast quickly and pulled Ame aside quietly.
         “Ame? Do you have a moment?”
         Ame smiled and nodded. She led Sirian outside and they sat on a bench. Ame turned to Sirian and smiled again. It was a soothing sight.
         “Did you have a good night’s rest?” Ame asked.
         “I couldn’t sleep.”
         “I would have thought that the exhaustion from yesterday would have kept you abed until the last possible moment.”
         “Actually, it’s the exact opposite. Too many things to think of.”
         “Such as?”
         “My purpose for one thing.” Sirian said slowly. “All my life I’ve been taught to be the dream. Then to take the dream and make it a reality.”
         “But you do not know your dream?” Ame said, her eyes burrowing straight into Sirian’s soul.
         “I thought that I did...” Sirian said, head hung low.
Ame looked out across the fields and exhaled deeply. “Sirian, I promised that I would teach you. My offer still stands, but only a willing heart will benefit from my tutoring.”
         “Anything. I’ll do anything to finally know who I am,” Sirian said, fiddling with the rim of her visor. “Just tell me when I need to be here.”
         “Every free moment that you have.” Ame smiled softly.
         Neither spoke for a few minutes. Sirian was thinking again and Ame was watching Sirian. Ame sat down and motioned for Sirian to do the same. She smiled at the young girl and spoke again.
         “I've heard news about you. I spoke with Tiyan and he says that you kept more blanace than the others on their horses." Ame smiled at Sirian and shielded her mouth as though hiding her amused laughter.
         “Oh, I love horses,” Sirian said with a broad grin. “I’ve been around them since before I could walk. But of all the purebreds I’ve seen, none of them match the beauty of the horses here. Before yesterday, I had never seen a black horse with white mane, feathering, and tail.”
         “You’re talking about Spirit then?”
         “He chose me,” Sirian said softly.
         “You seem surprised.” Ame said, though it was more of a question.
         “Well yes... I’ve been wondering why. I look at Spirit and he didn't seem the type to pick me."
Ame‘s brows furrowed a moment, in thought. “The horse chooses the rider. Not the rider chooses the horse. Think carefully on that. Why do you doubt yourself?” Ame asked, watching Sirian carefully. “We don't know why things happen as they do. We can either accept or reject them as truth. A plausible reason why Spirit chose you before any other, may be that he sees something special in you. Something that reflects or compliments his own nature. Perhaps you two are more alike than you realize.”
         Sirian liked the idea that there was more to her than even she understood. Maybe she wasn’t as lost as she thought she was.

~*~*~*~


         They were all tired beyond words, but the training was finished for now. Sirian was grateful for that. She knew that her parents would probably have every major military unit out looking for her if she were later than it said on her note. The funny thing was that at this point, she really didn’t care. It wasn’t that she didn’t still love her parents, but Sirian knew that it was time to let them know that she wanted something more in life. She would keep the necessary obligations, but from now on Sirian’s goal was to learn all she could from Ame. It was the only way that she would ever come to terms with herself.
         “Are you coming?” Elli snapped, pulling Sirian from her thoughts. The others had already gone, but for some reason Elli had stayed behind.
         “When I want to, I will.” Sirian said quietly.
         “You just think you’re above everything don’t you? You’re so high and mighty that school is even below you.”
         Sirian sighed and spoke softly. “Please leave me alone Elli. I just need some time to think things through.”
         “You need to hear this!” Elli started in.
         Sirian walked past Elli, ignoring the other girl. Elli grabbed Sirian by the shoulder and whipped her around.
          “Don’t touch me.” Sirian said calmly, though dangerously.
         “I’ll do whatever I damn well please. It’s about time someone knocked you off your high horse.”
         “Shut up Elli! Just shut the hell up. I haven’t done anything to you. Not a thing! I haven’t belittled or hurt you in an way. In fact, before this whole Gate thing, I hadn’t even met you. I’m ready to be friends with anyone. So why is it that you single me out above everyone else? You think that I have a perfect life, but you don‘t know jack shit about me.”
         “You don’t have any problems! I know enough-” Elli began, but Sirian cut her off.
         “There are demons in my life you couldn’t even begin to comprehend, but I deal with them all everyday and in the only way I know how. I never claimed to be perfect and anyone who actually knows me will say that I’m a strong and independent girl who just wants the world to be a little less hostile. You, on the other hand, didn’t even take two seconds to stop and see that I’m more than my accomplishments.
         “Look, I-”
         “No Elli, you’ve already said your piece! I listened to you, now it’s your turn to listen to what I have to say. And if you took the time to notice, you would see that I’m not just a brainless drone. I have thoughts and feelings of my own. But you didn’t do anything to see that; the first time you spoke to me, you decided that I was to be the target of your unresolved issues. If you weren’t so mean, maybe you’d notice that there are people around you who would help if you asked. But for some reason, in your mind, instead of asking for assistance, it made sense to blame all the world’s inadequacies on me. How can one person take the burden of the entire world? You judged me before you even knew my last name. I have tried to be patient and understanding. Knowing that you have problems and that I was just your scapegoat. But it‘s more than that, you hate me because I like helping people and making others happy.” Sirian paused, wanting Elli to say something. But Elli said nothing. Sirian sighed and pushed a laminated piece of paper into Elli‘s hand. “I know that the world doesn‘t revolve around me Elli. Maybe it‘s time you realized that too.”
         Sirian walked into the school, heading first to her sports locker. Inside, a laminated poster was mounted. In beautiful script, it said the exact same thing as what was on the card that Sirian gave to Elli. Instead of crying about your problems, try to fix them. Sirian had received that saying when she went to therapy as a young girl after Aida Lee died. She had spent the better part of her childhood in therapies of varying sorts. The sessions had helped, but there was only so much good they could do. When Sirian was twelve, she went to her parents and asked them to let her do her own version of healing. That was when she delved headfirst into school, Sirian was actually living for two people... Somehow, in her mind, if she tried enough new things, Aidee would be able to experience what it was like to grow up. And to Sirian, that was comforting.
         Smiling, Sirian grabbed her extra school uniform and changed. She was late to Advanced Anthropology, but Mr. Gentry never bothered to take role call. She slid in her seat next to Keiji and pretended as if nothing happened. Class went on breezily for Sirian, until Mr. Gentry decided to acknowledge her presence.
         ”Miss Tomi, do you have any thoughts on the how the social ordering of today’s classes differ to the Caste System of medieval times?”
         “No.”
         “Excuse me?” He asked out of shock.
         “The question should be: What similarities still exist between the progressive minds of today and the Caste System of previous times? Societal hierarchies are alive and well, even in our so-called modern world. High school is a perfect example.” Sirian said, a little more bitterly than she had intended. “Our world is driven by false characterizations of certain types of people. These types are classified, separated, and often ostracized for breaking some unwritten and unspoken code of honor.”
         Mr. Gentry frowned and was about to say something, when the bell rang. Sirian gathered her things and left with Keiji to go on with the rest of her day.



         Thursday night
Ryan stood before a platform; there were dark shapes of people around him. He tried to see their faces but found that he could not. On the platform his grandfather stood with a book under his arm, he beckoned for Ryan to him. Ryan looked up at him and hesitated. This isn’t right, he thought, my grand fathers dead.
         “I’m only physically dead Ryan,” his grandfather said as if he had read Ryan’s thoughts, “but I’m still here. Come to me.” Ryan slowly stepped up onto the platform and approached his grandfather. “This should be yours,” he said, and handed Ryan the book. Ryan took it in his hands but his grandfather didn’t let go. “If you take this you must keep it and use it only when it becomes needed.”
Ryan looked down off the platform at the human figures that were still wreathed in shadows, and asked, “Who are they?”
His grandfather smiled, “They are your thoughts Ryan. You give them faces.”
One by one the shadows lifted and revealed each person in turn- Annaleace, Ame, General, Cedric, Sin, and Sara.

Ryan turned back to his Grandfather; his Grandmother stepped from the shadows and stood beside him. “You need to choose Ryan,” she said and she held out a sword that bore the same engravings on the pommel as on his coin, “the book or the sword?”
Ryan looked back and forth from each grandparent, his grandfather on his left, and then to his grandmother on his right. “Why can’t I take both?”
His grandparent stepped back, off the platform and in amongst the others. Ryan’s Grandfather held the book in his hand and his Grandmother held the sword in hers. Annaleace, Ame, the General, Cedric, Sin and Sara, including his grandparents, gathered close and spoke a single word “Hyperon”.
The air around them began to shimmer and everyone before him was enveloped in shadow. One by one their shadows combined into each other until there were two standing. They were still shadows without a face and they stepped forward up onto the platform.

Everything changed and it was no longer in his point of view, but an onlooker as Ryan gazed upon himself and the two faceless human shaped figures. There were two beams on like running the big and open black room that appeared to be space from above, ad shone its beams onto the two dark figured. The one of the left was encased in a suit of shining gold armour and held the sword in his hand and a large shield in the other. And the other on the right wore regular clothing, and wasn’t all too different from Ryan other than the fact that he was glowing. He had the book open in his hand.
         “Who are you?” Ryan asked them.
         “I am Ryan the Templar Knight,” answered the armoured one.
         “I am Ryan the Hidden,” answered the glowing one.
         “What is Hyperon?” Ryan asked them curiously.
         “Hyperon is you, it is your true name,” the Hidden answered.
         “You could choose,” they said in unison, “the knight, the hidden, or you can become Hyperon.”

*


Ryan bolted upright in his bed, dripping with sweat.
That was… he couldn’t finish the sentence. He looked at him clock; 2:14. He stared across the room at the wall thinking about his dream.
The Knight and the Hidden, he thought, The knight is Grandma; she’s the Molay- she’s the warrior in armour with the sword.
He clutched the coin around his neck.
The Hidden was my Grandpa, he was the guardian of the coven.
Ryan thought back to the dream and the book. He jumped off the bed and pushed his blanket aside; he reached down and pulled at the loose floor boards till they came off. He pulled out the box inside, it was iron wood with a brass lock. He pulled out the coin and set it down in the round key slot and turned.

The latch came loose and Ryan lifted the lid, and pulled from it the book from his dream… his Grandfathers Grim ward. He set it on his bed and sat down beside it.
If you take this you must keep it…
Ryan sat there for a long while; the sun was peeking through his window. A knock on the door awoke Ryan from his thoughts.
         “Ryan are you awake?” came his sisters voice.
         “Yes,” he replied.
         “I couldn’t sleep,” she said as she came in. “I had a dream about Grandma and Grandpa. They were on a platform and Grandpa had his-” She cause sight of the Grim ward and hissed the next word. “-book” She quickly closed the door. “What are you doing with that? Dad told me Grandpa got rid of that before he died.”

Ryan shook his head. “He lied to dad. Grandpa gave it to me ‘cause he knew that everyone else hated it and would get rid of it. I was the only one who wasn’t scared.”

Annaleace’s mouth dropped. “Scared? of course we were scared, that isn’t something to play with. It is dangerous and Dad knew that. That’s why he tried to keep it from us. He tried to protect us from it.”
         “Protect us?” Ryan almost yelled, “The only thing we needed protecting from was ignorance. Grandpa knew what he was doing and he would never teach me anything that was dangerous. I never did anything to harm anyone.”
         “Did anything!” she said, “did anything, you were practicing that?”
Ryan shrugged. “A little but only when Grandpa was with me and we were alone. Remember the trips we used to take to the pond, how do you think I caught all those big fish? Because Grandpa called them; and taught me how.”
There was nothing magical about it inside the book, but amazing knowledge of things most of humanity wouldn’t accept. Ryan put his hand on the book. “This could help us beyond the gate. Can’t you see how it could help us?”
Annaleace shook her head. “I don’t trust it Ryan, the methods, it can back fire so easily.”
Ryan could feel heat rising in his stomach. “What do you know about it? You avoided Grandpa after he told you what he was, you ran to Grandma instead. You didn’t learn anything about him passed that. You don’t know anything about this book or what it can do. Only what Dad told you about it being dangerous. Its only dangerous if you don’t know what your doing. I know because I didn’t abandon Grandpa like everyone else. And what about that guy your marrying huh? What are you going to do if you marry him? Stay in his world? He can’t come here, mom would freak and dad would cut the guys balls off because he’ll think he’s screwing his daughter. Don’t start with me until you straighten yourself out.”
Annaleace was very quiet; she just stood there with tears welling up behind her eyes.
Ryan felt something tug at his heart strings. “Oh Lace, I didn’t mean that.” He got up and wrapped his arms around his sister and she started crying and he said, “I’m sorry, I shouldn’t have said that.” Tears started running down Ryan’s eyes as well while he held his sister. They both cried out their anger, despair, and all the stress that had been caused by their training. When they both calmed and wiped their tears away with their sleaves Annaleace stepped away from Ryan and looked at the Grim ward.
         “Alright,” she said. Ryan looked into her eyes and thought of Tiyan and said, “Alright.”


*


Beside the river, far beyond the gate, Ryan stood on the water for a full second before his concentration broke and he fell in. He swam back to shore and tried again. He could stand for as long as he could keep his focus but actual walking was next to impossible it felt. The others seemed to be having difficulties too other than Elli; she was walking around far better than any of them.
This is going to be a long time coming, he thought and stepped back out again.


A Non-Existent User


         Friday

          Elli stretched as she looked up at the sky. It was beautiful, like always, and she was tired, like always.

          She looked over at the lake. Everyone was still practicing walking on water. She tried to give them tips, especially Corey, but it didn’t quite work out for them. Elli shrugged. Maybe…maybe this place determines what you do. Maybe it’s tied to your fate…

          She sat up. Soon, it would be snack time, and then they will be going home. As much as Elli loved this place, she missed her dad. She wished she could tell him; he would love it here.

          Standing up, she walked over to where she placed her shoes and bag. Once she got there, she noticed she was missing a shoe. It wasn’t long before she knew that bitch Linx had been here.

          “All right, hand it over, bitch,” Elli yelled out.

          Linx vaporized from behind a tree. “Ohh,” she said in a falsetto voice, “looking for this?”

          She tossed it up into the air casually and it amazingly landed on a branch that was high up. Elli glared at her and tightly clenched her fists. What was with this girl? Did she really want to die?

          The next thing Elli knew, she was on back with dirt in mouth. Linx still stood in her spot near the tree, trying to look innocent. Elli spat and stood up. She ran towards Linx and nearly collided with the tree. She looked around and suddenly got sand in her eyes and mouth. She coughed and was temporarily blind. She took some steps back and fell into a small, muddy ditch. She could hear the laughter nearby.

          “Hahahahahaa!” Linx’s voice was clear and sharp. “Boy, you sure are clumsy. And stupid. And not to mention, ugly. You’re uglier than my dead dog that got ruthlessly mutilated, twice. He still looks pretty attractive compared to you, you redheaded slut.”

          Elli got out of the ditch and dusted herself off. “I am not a slut,” she proclaimed angrily.

          “Well, don’t think you can sleep around with the guys here like you do in your world.”

          Elli was silent. She knew she couldn’t win. Whenever she opened her mouth, Linx would just retort back. It was kind of like fighting with herself.

          “What’s the matter? You too stupid to think of anything to say?” Linx taunted, her hands on her hips.

          Elli’s eyes locked on the tree branch that Linx stood over. If only it could break and fall…if only it could break and fall…fall and crush the bitchy little Linx.

          Suddenly, the branch actually move…not by the wind, but by itself. What the hell? Elli thought, as she blinked a few times. Did it…move? But…how?

          “Hey Elli, it’s time to head to the house,” Annaleace’s voice called out. Elli looked at Linx, who shrugged. “Oh well,” she said. “I guess we can postpone our little get-together another time, okay, bitch?”

          She then quickly disappeared.

          Elli looked up at her hanging shoe. She sighed…


~



          Elli collapsed on her bed. She was exhausted. She didn’t want to ever get up. She wanted sleep…that was it…good ol’ sleep…

          There was a knock at her door. And then it opened.

          Elli sat up. “Dad, how many times do I have to tell you--” she began to say, but saw that it was only her arrogant half-brother, Shaun.

          “What the hell are you doing here?” Elli demanded, sitting up.

          “Haven’t you heard? You didn’t get my message?” he said, sitting in her plush chair. “Mom’s getting married.”

          Elli blinked once. “So?”

          “So, you’re supposed to be her maid of honor and go see her tomorrow after school,” he said.

          “I can’t make it.”

          “How about the day after?”

          “Nope.”

          “How about--”

          “No! I can’t fucking make it, understand? I’ve got things to do; things more important than to tend to my mother.”

          “That’s cold, you know.”

          “Thanks, I got it from our mom.”

          “Elli, you should go, you know. Mom wants you to come.”

          “I’m not going, and you aren’t going to change my mind. I’ve had enough of her, if she wants to marry her fifth husband because he knows how to screw her good, then good for her. I don’t want to be a part of it.”

          Shaun stood up and stared at Elli. He shook his head and left. Once he closed the door, Elli lay back down and began to cry. Her world was crashing down, she was falling…

~


          Elli walked down the hall at school. She reached her locker, opened it, and put her books in. She closed it and noticed Corey walking to his. She walked over to him.

          “Hey,” she said with a small wave.

          “Hey, Elli,” he said, opening his locker. “What’s up?”

          She looked at him with sullen eyes. Corey was the only other person Elli trusted in besides her dad. “Actually, Corey,” she said in a serious voice, “I’m not doing so well…”

          Corey looked up and dropped a book from his locker. “What’s wrong?” he asked, concerned.

          Elli looked up at him. “If I told you everything, you promise not to tell anyone else?” she asked.

          He nodded.

          “Okay...I’ll tell you before we go to you-know-where,” she said, rubbing her wrist.

          He looked up at her. “You miss your bracelet?”

          “You have no idea how dear it is to me,” she said.

          He closed his locker. “Don’t worry,” he said, consoling her. “We’ll get it back.”

          Elli slowly smiled. “Yes,” she said. “I will get it back.”

-------------------------------------------------



It was Thursday afternoon. After school, Corey walked home as usual and came to a halt at the front gate of the Akaino estate. He input the code and the gate swung inward on its own, allowing Corey to pass through to the front door of his house over a concrete path strewn with autumn leaves crunching beneath his feet. There were two orange-leaved trees at either end in the front yard.
Saienta had asked Ame if he and Corey could return to the other world later than the others because they both planned on staying overnight there. That was all Saienta had told him, and they would meet up later that evening.
On Wednesday, their first day of training had been hard. A lot had happened- the soldiers were taking every opportunity to degrade their worth. It left him with a heavy feeling in his stomach. It wasn’t that he cared what they thought- what irritated and angered him were their insults when they knew nothing of why they were there except that the six of them were there to help in the war. Corey didn’t think their reason were good enough to insult them frequently.
There were many things he wanted to see and know about the place, from seeing the village, knowing their traditions and finding meanings to various markings- for instance, the strange silver thread similar to the one on his pinkie around one of the soldier’s upper arm, the same solider who had helped Saienta and him at the river with the water-treading ability.
But today, his troubled mind hadn’t thought of anything else but that morning, when the girls were telling him there was no colourful rock. All five of them had seen nothing, and it didn’t make sense. He didn’t know what to make of it, and had begun doubting if he truly passed or passed on false pretences. Corey couldn’t shake the feeling that his pass wasn’t deserved. With these thoughts in mind, when he was training for far-sight that morning, he wasn’t sure if what he was doing was correct. He would speak to the General tonight. Corey wanted to know, before the thoughts consumed him with a set doubt that would only make training harder.
Corey pushed the key through to unlock the door but had instead locked himself out, which meant the door had been open. His dad must’ve been home, it was the only explanation. Corey smiled, unlocking the door, and shut it closed behind him. Hiroka, Corey’s dad, had just descended the staircase in a grey kimono robe and walked over as Corey slid off both his shoes.
         “Tadaima Otousan [I’m home, dad],” Corey said, holding his school bag in one hand. His dad grinned and patted him on the head affectionately and replied, “O-kaeri [Welcome home].”
         “I thought no one was home,” Corey told his dad. “I thought you were out, I saw you leave this morning.”
         “I was out,” Hiroka paused and asked, “How was school?”
Corey shrugged. School felt somewhat trivial after a day an a half in another world- using all the time he could give to train and get beaten up...He rubbed a hand over his side over a bruise hidden underneath his school uniform. “It was alright.”
His dad nodded, and then smiled in a thoughtful way. “I heard you were school president.”
Corey put a hand in his pocket, considerably surprised how his dad knew this knowledge from a man who thought he played the violin and not the piano. However, his dad was only half correct, but Corey appreciated the interest. It had been a while.
         “I’m not school president,” Corey smiled, “I’m class president.”
         “Oh. What do you do as class president?”
Corey thought for a moment. “Not a lot. It’s not that interesting.”
Hiroka scratched the back of his head as he gazed down at him. “Sou ka [Is that so]?” And then he laughed softly in amusement. Corey nodded, thinking how warmer the house felt. “I’m cooking.”
Cooking? Corey thought as his dad moved over toward the kitchen. Strange. His dad had never cooked a meal before for him, he had never been around to, and he wondered if he was any good. It was a very nice, welcome change. Corey smiled and followed him into the kitchen and saw his dad hadn’t yet begun cooking but was preparing to. On the kitchen bench were many things laid out over it, and Corey looked at it all unsurely when he saw peanut butter, chilli sauce and cheese among vegetables. He wondered with a raised eyebrow what the peanut butter was for, and wasn’t sure if it went with cheese. Corey pulled out his CA7 and left it on the bench, leaving the kitchen to put his bag away upstairs.

Corey descended the staircase into the living room again and heard his dad talking to himself in the kitchen, what he was saying was inaudible. As he walked to the kitchen Corey could make out what his dad was saying.
         “You like broccoli? What about peanut butter? Excellent!”
He must’ve been on the phone. Was he talking to Leon? Corey wondered.
Hiroka laughed. “Well then, I’ll see you in half an hour.”
When Corey reached the kitchen he saw him talking on the phone.
         “Give me a buzz when you get here and park the horse in the yard. Yoi! [good] Bye now.” Hiroka looked up at Corey when he hung up.
Horse? Corey shook his head, probably having misinterpreted it.
         “Who was on the phone?” Corey asked wonderingly, walking over to his phone, and blinked when it wasn’t where he left it.
         “It was your friend, Saienta,” Hiroka grinned. Corey turned and looked at the phone in his dad’s hand, and then up at his dad, horrified. Saienta had called, for the first time, and his dad had taken the call? Did he ring to just say hi or because of something important? If Corey hadn’t known what his dad was like, he would’ve asked what Saienta wanted.
         “What did you say?” Corey questioned him quickly, apprehensive about the answer.
         “I invited him to dinner,” he answered simply, and disappeared into the pantry. He wasn’t sure if other parents invited their sons or daughters friends over because they happened to take the call. This had never happened to him before. Corey didn’t have friends ringing, ever. Any calls he took were from Akaino tech. It surprised him when Elli said she had rung- he would’ve shown his surprise at the restaurant if his mind hadn’t been absorbed in something else- Corey didn’t know she knew his number.
         “What did he say?” Corey asked him, hearing jars being moved around inside the pantry.
“He said yes,” he heard his dad say.
His dad was home, and cooking food for him, and Saienta would be joining them. Corey couldn’t see a downfall…or if there was even a downfall. He turned to go shower.

Corey closed his bedroom door with his hair slightly damp, and paused when he realised he wasn’t wearing his silver ring, but then remembered he didn’t have it, Sin did. When Corey stepped off the last stair of the staircase he turned right toward the kitchen and gaped. Saienta and Hiroka stared at him from across the kitchen, and Saienta was in a grey and black kimono. He realised the kimono was one of his own, and wondered what his dad was trying to do, dressing Saienta up like that. How embarrassing…Corey looked up the staircase longingly and desperately wanted to lock himself in his room and never come out. Saienta was looking expressionless.
         “No!” Hiroka yelled across to him, pointing. Corey blinked, and wondered what he had done wrong. “You can’t wear normal clothes, you must dress formally. This is a special occasion. Get changed!” He sounded enthusiastic and determined. Corey looked down at his clothes- there was nothing wrong with what he was wearing, and then looked back up at his dad and Saienta.
Wearing kimono robes were nothing new in his house, but making guests wear them too? Was that normal? His dad was far from normal though.
Corey put up a hand in greeting to Saienta, but was yelled at by his dad again. “Now!” And he withdrew his hand quickly. Saienta looked up at Hiroka strangely and then at Corey. He sighed without complaint and went back upstairs to put on a kimono robe.

Corey sat with Saienta at the kitchen table in a light and dark grey kimono robe while his dad was cooking. They sat quietly, watching his dad. Saienta looked unsure in a confused way at the ingredients on the bench. His dad was making a lot of noise with the pots and the knife hitting the chopping board. It smelt…strange. Sort of nice, but not in a food way. Maybe he was making dessert first. Corey sat back in his chair, hungry.
         “I was calling you about Rell before,” Saienta said, but didn’t explain the rest. Corey nodded and had wondered before but felt it rude to ask what he rang for. He recalled what his dad had said when he answered his phone and had thought he misinterpreted horse. Had Saienta brought Rell here to his house?
Corey leaned forward on the table. “You brought her?” he asked to make sure.
Saienta nodded and replied. “She’s in the front yard.”
Did this mean they were going to take Rell into the other world tonight? Corey was about to ask but his dad was now at the table with them. His dad sighed loudly and threw down a metal ashtray onto the table. Like Saienta, Corey’s dad was a smoker- it explained how Corey came to tolerate the smell. He didn’t mind, nor care about the smell anymore because he was so used to it. Hiroka pulled out a cigarette and then pointed almost accusingly at Saienta with the cigarette in his hand. “You,” he said, “You’re a smoker, I can tell.” And held out the cigarette for Saienta to take, grinning. Saienta smirked, took it and they both lit up in the house. His dad turned to Corey and held out the cigarette deck in offering. “Want one?” Hiroka asked.
Corey blinked and then shook his head. “Dad, I don’t smoke.”
         “Oh,” his dad said, itching behind his ear, “Good. Don’t smoke- bad habit.” Hiroka blew out smoke and opened all the windows from inside the kitchen to air out the smell, then turned his gaze on Saienta. “What’s your horse’s name?”
         “Rell,” Saienta answered.
Hiroka nodded, then looked up over at the stove where a yellow-green smoke was rising. His eye twitched and he sighed. “Dinner should be ready in ten minutes.”

Corey went out the front onto the green lawn with Saienta, who was still smoking his cigarette, to meet Rell for the first time. He also wanted to get out of the house to talk to Saienta without having his dad overhear that they might be planning on breaking into the school. Rell was a mare and was a rusty red-brown colour. She was slightly smaller than Rain Corey noticed as they both approached her under the large orange-leaved tree. At the trunk of the tree were reins, a saddle and other things but Corey didn’t know what they were. Their footsteps brushing over the grass must’ve alerted Rell because she looked up from grazing and kept her big brown eyes on Saienta. She trotted over to him and Corey saw Saienta grin at her. Rell nuzzled Saienta on the shoulder and leaned her head on it as though in a hug, while Saienta put an arm around her and stroked her mane affectionately. Corey didn’t know Saienta was affectionate, he had never pictured it before in his mind. He stepped forward cautiously and held out a hand tentatively to Rell, and Rell moved toward him attentively. She sniffed his hand first, and then Corey patted her a little on her nose.
         “I’m Corey,” Corey told Rell and grinned.
         “I love Rell,” Saienta said and moved the cigarette up to his mouth for another drag.
Saienta must’ve, Corey thought and nodded, he showed affection. He reached up further to scratch Rell’s cheek. “She’s nice. Did you ride her here?”
Saienta grinned. “Yeah, it was a new experience. Cars kept beeping. It’s her first ride away from the farm, she did well.”
A breeze blew through the yard and the ends of their kimonos swirled. Corey turned to Saienta and asked what he had wanted to ask ever since he learned Rell was in his front yard. “Am I right in thinking we’re taking her to the other world tonight?”
Saienta nodded, flicked away his cigarette and he scratched behind Rell’s ear. “That’s why I rang. I figure we just break into school like we usually do-” Saienta threw him a key from inside the kimono and Corey caught it. “-but you go in first and pause the surveillance videos, then loop the video streaming around so they don’t wonder why we brought a horse onto the roof and go looking for it. Simple enough.”
Corey nodded. Building technology had taught him how to do this kind of thing, and would never have thought it would come in handy with something as this- to break into a school and manipulate the cameras. It didn’t seem such a big deal, breaking in and entering into the school, but they’d both have to be cautious. He looked down at the keys and back up at Saienta who was being nuzzled from head to shoulder by Rell. There was one small problem- streamlines operated like a countdown, but Saienta read him before Corey could say it and he asked, “How much time can you guarantee?”
         “Three minutes,” Corey said seriously as he ran a hand over Rell’s neck. Was three minutes enough to take a horse through the school building onto the roof?
Saienta thought for a second. “Yeah. It should be fine.”

They returned indoors and he put the key safely away into a drawer for him to collect later. He was starving and looked over toward the kitchen table where his dad had laid out plates. Saienta sat down at the kitchen table and Corey joined him. Hiroka placed several bowls of food onto the table. What looked like potato salad was in one bowl, although he wasn’t sure about it because it was yellow and green. Corey suppressed his disgust, and tried to smile but was sure it looked more like a grimace. He didn’t want to disappoint his dad in case he was sensitive about it, having put his time and effort into cooking for them. Saienta looked fascinated rather than disgusted. In another bowl was salad, it looked perfectly normal. There were steaming hot beef strips piled onto a plate, although a charcoal smell came from it, and Corey wondered why when the beef looked perfectly cooked. There was a bowl of- well- he didn’t know what it was, but it didn’t look too bad. It was the colour of curry, but he certainly couldn’t smell traces of curry in it. It had broccoli and grated cheese in it. The rest of the food looked as interesting as the others. Hiroka placed three plates of steaming white rice down under Saienta and Corey’s noses. He sat down happily and waved a hand at them both and said, “Eat, eat!”
Corey picked up his chopsticks and clicked them thoughtfully as he scanned the food on the table. He decided on the curry coloured mix and the nice looking salad. Saienta was looking through each bowl of food carefully with a chopstick. Hiroka piled beef strips and the same curry mix onto his plate. He snatched up a piece of broccoli with his chopsticks and Saienta sat back in his chair watching him, almost as though waiting for something.
         “Itadakimasu [Thank-you for this food],” Hiroka said and put it into his mouth. His expression turned sour quickly and he spat it out onto his plate. “Hmm,” he said without tone, “spicy.”
For a moment Corey worried that the food was bad from his dad’s reaction. Corey liked spicy food. With his chopsticks he picked up some lettuce from the salad and it hovered at his mouth.
         “Itadakimasu,” Corey said and ate. The lettuce was soaking wet, dripping in vinegar. It was very much like drinking vinegar from a bottle and he choked, inhaling the fumes from the vinegar. His throat stung painfully and he shielded his mouth with an arm as he spluttered. Saienta, who held a slice of beef between his chopsticks, looked back and forth between Corey and his dad. Corey reach for a napkin on the table and spat the lettuce out into it. Hiroka had been watching Corey in concern from across the table, and then he picked up piece of lettuce, staring narrowly at it as though it was saying mean things. From out of the corner of Corey’s eye he saw Saienta lower his beef onto his plate. Corey tentatively tried some broccoli from the curry-looking salad. He realised it smelt like peanuts, but ate it anyway, and spat it right back out into his napkin. It was terrible. The creamy stuff was peanut butter mixed with chilli sauce and grated cheese. Corey looked up when his dad began to choke, and he realised he had eaten the vinegar lettuce. Corey was failing at trying to make the dinner special for his dad, since how moments ago he had been so enthusiastic.
         “What’s this called?” Corey asked his dad quietly, trying to pretend to be interested. Hiroka brightened and looked up at him, a little teary eyed.
         “Peanut butter concoction,” he grinned.
         “It’s,” Corey thought hard on a word to describe it and decided on, “interesting.”
His dad gave him a weak smile but looked neither happy nor sad. One more try, Corey thought, and he picked out something else to eat. Saienta was still watching. He chose a beef strip from the edge of the plate and saw underneath that there were many burnt beef strips. So that’s why it smelt like charcoal. Corey looked up at his dad and then back at the burnt beef…He took a bite of the beef and chewed it…Slowly…It tasted odd. He felt his face screw up and he looked down at the beef between his chopsticks. The brown beef was raw on the inside, but cooked on the outside. He swallowed it in disgust. Hiroka leaned forward toward them from across the table and looked at them very seriously.
         “Pizza, anyone?”
Corey nodded eagerly.

They finished the pizza Saienta had offered to make. It was delicious. Hiroka was delighted to hear that you could actually make pizza- he had thought that pizza was something you couldn’t make at home, that it was factory made and sold at pizza shops.
Corey and Saienta gathered their bags that had a spare change of clothes and was about to leave when Hiroka called Corey back into the kitchen. Hiroka was smoking a cigarette as he flicked through the newspaper, and he looked up at him when Corey approached. He wondered what he wanted a word about.
         “Did you finish that paperwork on my desk?” he asked. For the past week Corey had been visiting Akaino tech at night and working until twelve. Leon had called him on Tuesday to tell Corey that he didn’t need him on Wednesday, which had been a relief because that was the same day as their first day at training. Corey shook his head. Hiroka grinned and flicked some ash into the ashtray. “Make sure you finish that tonight- needs to be done by Monday,” he waved his hand with the cigarette in it and drawled the rest of his sentence, “but then you need to post it and that takes time. Best post it tonight. I heard Leon covered for you on Wednesday.”
He felt a heaviness in his stomach again and knew he wouldn’t be able to get much sleep tonight.
Corey nodded. “He called and said he didn’t need me.”
They were silent for a moment as Hiroka looked thoughtful and then went back to his newspaper.

*


It was evening. The stars were coming out and the quarter moon shone brightly. It was quiet outside in the cold. They were outside the entrance gate of Ellet College in casual wear. The streetlights shone brightly, lighting up the ground of the street. Rell lifted her head and whinnied, her tail swishing.
Corey peered through the gap in the gate at the school building and saw new graffiti on the walls. Saienta went to pick the lock of the gate but it was open; it must’ve been the other four. Corey pushed open the gate and Saienta led Rell into the school by her reins.
Outside the entrance of the school building, Saienta waited with Rell while Corey entered by himself. He knew exactly what to do and where to go. The corridors were dark and all was quiet except his footsteps and the inner side of his pants brushing together as he walked. The only source of light came from the moon as it beamed gloomily in through the windows.
Corey came to the surveillance room and he entered with the key Saienta had given him. Inside, there were at least twenty television screens, and on every screen showed different parts of the school inside and outside the building. In the top right-hand corner were green numbers from 1 to 20. The green numbers were the camera names, Corey noted. It would make it easier for him to loop the cameras with their names. The room was very bright from the twenty televisions. Under the televisions was a control panel and Corey walked over to it. He looked over each screen and picked out each corridor and memorised their numbers and set to work.
He finished looping the cameras, erasing himself from the recordings while he was at it. All Corey needed to do was plug the cable back into the control panel and everything would be set for Saienta to go, but couldn’t just yet- he had to notify Saienta like they had planned. He slid his phone out and pranked him.

He plugged the cable in and sat down on the stool in front of the control panel watching the screens, and then no sooner on camera 14 he saw Saienta riding Rell at full speed down the entrance corridor, and could hear hooves echoing through the school. On screen it looked like something from the movies. Amused, Corey laughed and he put his hand down on the edge of the control panel. He heard his own laughter from the announcement speakers, and withdrew his hand quickly from the control panel.
         “Oh. Shit,” he laughed again, glancing up at a different screen where Saienta rode down another corridor. Saienta was grinning, laughing too. Corey searched with a hovering finger over the control panel, found the button he was looking for and pressed it. At once his voice died from the speakers.
He checked his watch and would start running up to the roof when there was two minutes left, but had thirty seconds until then. Corey looked up when something diverted his attention and he squinted at camera 13. It showed the side of a dark figure spray-painting on the wall. Whoever it was wore a bandana, baggy clothes and long gold chains around his neck. In the dark, all Corey could figure was that the person was around his age. The person looked over his shoulder as though checking to see if he was alone and his face was revealed in the light. Corey raised an eyebrow. Was that Cedric? he thought to himself. For the few seconds his face was in the light, it certainly looked a great deal like him. Corey shook his head at the Cedric look-alike. He checked his watch and ran out of the room, locked it with the key. Corey threw the key up into the air, caught it, and began to make his way up onto the roof.

It was windy on the roof. Corey closed the door behind him with a hand, a little out of breath. In the distance he could see the big willow and its long droopy vines sweeping the ground. And above him a cloud crept closer toward the moon. He never thought he’d ever break into the school to loop the cameras and sneak a horse up onto the roof. The usual route the six of them took had no cameras. Everything had gone as planned, although an unexpected occurrence had happened, but it didn’t faze him. Corey looked up and saw Saienta waiting beside the Gate holding onto Rell’s reins. Together they crossed through the Gate into the dark skeleton city onto a low roof. It was low in majority to the other broken and crumbling buildings.
There were two uniformed soldiers on the roof and both of them were peering down the side at something. They appeared to take no notice of them, as if they didn’t realise they were there, but they must’ve known. They did have enhanced hearing after all. The soldier nearest to them crouched and rested his chin on his clenched fist. Saienta gazed at the two soldiers as he held onto Rell’s reins. Only when Rell nuzzled Saienta’s shoulder did he turn his eyes away from them onto her. Corey looked from Rell to the soldiers who continued to stare down the building. Now that they were there he wondered how they were going to get Rell down from the roof.
         “Your friends are coming,” the soldier closest to them said in a bored way. The soldier furthest from them looked their way, examined them, and gave them the same mocking smile he now knew so well after only a days.
Saienta ignored them and patted Rell on the nose.
The soldiers walked towards them and Corey recognised the dark grey hair and blue eyed soldier who had spoken as the same who had helped them down by the river. The soldier put up a hand in greeting to both Saienta and Corey who were watching without expression. He put up his hand and gave an uncertain wave back. Corey didn’t understand him very well- one moment he was fighting them and then he was…sort of nice. He didn’t seem to hate any of the six. Corey wondered what the string around his arm meant.
Without a further word, the soldier with grey hair nodded at the other and they saluted each other. The soldier who had given them the mocking smile, smiled at them in his way again and jumped off the roof, between the two walls. Corey wished he could do that. The soldier with grey hair took Rell’s reins, gazed at the bit in her mouth with an apparent dislike and began to take it off.
         “You won’t need it here,” he said to Saienta and Saienta nodded. He took the reins and other things off and then threw it through the Gate. Saienta and Corey glanced at each other but said nothing.
Rell snorted and then the soldier reached up, feeling around the back of her neck with concentration. Corey and Saienta watched, wondering what he was doing, when the soldier suddenly hit Rell on the side of the head behind the ear and knocked her out. He picked her up with ease and Corey blinked as he threw her unconscious body off the roof. Corey blinked again and then swallowed, glancing at Saienta from the side. Saienta looked shocked and then could almost feel his fury as he gritted his teeth and gazed at the soldier with fierce eyes. He had a sudden urge to run out of the Gate before Saienta began killing people. Was he going to see Saienta in his dark state for the third time? He just lost the only thing he had affection for…
The soldier looked calm as he looked back at them and motioned with his head for them to come over and see. Corey and Saienta approached slowly and he could see Saienta was trying to remain calm. They both looked over the edge to see Rell had been caught by the soldier and had been placed on the ground gently. The other four who had just arrived looked up at them. They had just witnessed a horse thrown from the roof and caught by someone on the ground storeys below. Corey let out a breath of relief and looked at Saienta to see he looked relieved too. Corey could see Ame down below, gazing up at them with her hands clasped in front of her. The soldier moved and Corey turned when he realised the soldier had stopped behind them. With his arms he grabbed both him and Saienta around the middle and crouched, preparing to jump.
Saienta looked like he would rather throw himself off the roof than have someone hold him, as the soldier jumped, still holding them, and then made his way down between the two walls on either side. Corey felt the impact as they rebounded off one side to the other and the gravity, and rush of air hit him as they fell.

The soldier let go of them once they hit the ground and Corey gazed up at Ame who was giving the soldier a strange look. “Why didn’t you let them use the rope ladder?”
Corey looked up and saw the rope ladder that they had been using and wondered the same thing.
The soldier shrugged and grinned. “It was fun. And they take too long.”
Saienta had an air of tension around him and Corey didn’t want to know what he was thinking.
Corey glanced at the other four to see they had bruises and scratches all over them and grass stains and mud on their uniforms. They smelt like grass too and their expressions were dull, as though they hadn’t slept in a long time.
         “Er…how did it go?” Corey asked Elli who managed to look down at him from her horse. She jumped down painfully and trudged to Corey, placing a hand on both his shoulders, looking him in the eye. “Dear Corey…to get off and go home away from this horse is the best moment that has ever happened to me in my 18 years of life…I will cherish it as long as I live. I envy you your painless existence before me…”
Corey nodded and smiled grimly. “That bad?”
She nodded with unfocused eyes, let go of his shoulders and walked away. He turned when he felt a shove on his shoulder and saw the shadow of a big horse- it was Rain. Corey’s eyes slowly drifted up to look Rain in the eyes and slumped. Rain snorted at his un-enthusiasm and bent down for Corey to climb on. He exhaled deeply before taking his time to mount his horse, held tight onto Rain’s mane and tensed as Rain straightened. Ryan, who was massaging his shoulder with a pained expression walked past him.

The several soldiers who rode with Corey and Ame to the village left them outside Ame’s two storey house. He wasn’t wearing his soldier pants which was unfortunate because riding Rain was hurting his leg muscles more than what they would have if he were wearing them. Saienta wasn’t with them, he was back in the dead city waiting for Rell to wake with the soldier who got them down off the roof.
         “Have you eaten?” Ame asked as she dismounted her grey horse, and the horse walked away toward the horse field. Corey nodded, waiting for Rain to let him off but he didn’t. “We’ll wait for Saienta. We can’t start until he gets here.” Corey nodded again and he watched her as she left indoors. Rain jerked forward, causing Corey to draw back with the force. He wondered if Rain had forgotten him as he walked over toward the horse field with him still on his back.
         “Hey,” Corey said, and with a finger he poked Rain, wanting to get off. Rain snorted and ignored him. After a few more failed attempts to try and get Rain to let him off, he gave in. He even clicked his fingers but it was useless. It wasn’t as though he had anything important to do or had a choice for the time being.

The sky looked like an ocean, littered with broken glass thrown carelessly onto the surface, and they would twinkle reflecting light from the moon. He felt the cool rush of wind on his face, running all through his hair as it also flattened the long grass Rain stood in. Corey could hear nothing but the crickets and every now and then a frog. It was so peaceful he felt he could sit on Rain for hours, absorbed in the atmosphere only. It was as though someone had lifted a weight off of him. He felt he needed no one, that he needed nothing. The atmosphere took away every problem and need in his life from both worlds. To exist without problems or worries was to feel like he did.
         “What are you doing out this far?”
Corey turned and saw a shadow of someone walking toward him up the hill. Rain leaned down to graze idly. As the person came closer he realised it was Tiyan, and Tiyan grinned. He was a good guy, unlike the other soldiers he kept meeting. Corey did not hate the soldiers giving the six of them a hard time, it only angered him. He held no grudge against them. They were supposed to be on the same side. They were not enemies.
         “Rain brought me out here,” Corey replied, leaving out the fine detail that Rain had given him no choice. Tiyan stopped beside them and looked thoughtful.
         “He probably wanted to show you around. Saienta’s back, by the way. I met Rell too; nice horse. She’ll like it here. They all do.”
Corey could tell Tiyan was passionate about horses. A content silence lingered as they both looked over the beautiful village, the mountains, the forests, vales and farms, and coming last to the dark and gloomy dead city.
         “You should get back, I reckon Ame will want you and Saienta to start on those haze horses.”
Corey nodded, and then Tiyan nodded back. Tiyan stood where he was as though waiting for Corey to get off Rain, who was still grazing. Corey was afraid of that. He shifted, thinking maybe he could jump off, but then Rain appeared more than capable of crushing him with his hooves. He was unsure if he should try clicking his fingers again, it wasn’t very effective on Rain, it seemed. Corey had no control over his own horse. Tiyan clicked his fingers. He expected Rain to obey Tiyan immediately but he didn’t. It made him feel not as bad that he couldn’t control Rain. A few seconds later Rain straightened and then bended down for him to get off.
Corey rubbed his knees. They were sore from sitting in the same position for too long. He and Tiyan walked down the hill back to Ame’s house with Rain following behind Corey.

Corey found Ame and Saienta, who sat on the grass watching Rell, closely followed by Tiyan. They were still on the horse fields, but closer to the village, and in the dark behind them was Ame’s house which was outlined in silver from the moon. There was no air of tension around Saienta anymore, Corey noticed, as he sat next to him. Tiyan remained standing with both hands in the pockets of his soldier pants as Rain walked passed him toward Rell. Rell looked up from grazing at Rain, looking a little unsure with herself. Corey knew just how she felt.
         “Tiyan,” Ame began, holding two wooden rods that reminded Corey of staffs, and she held one out for Tiyan to take. “Could you please light this torch, while I light this one?”
Tiyan nodded, taking the rod into his hand. Saienta and Corey watched with interest as they both pulled on a string hanging out of the top, and it made a sound like someone playing with a lighter, followed by the spark of a flint and a flame burst out from the top. The glow it cast was impressive and it covered a fair bit of ground. The fire felt warm on his face.
Tiyan and Ame walked a few metres apart from each other and embedded them into the ground, then tested to see if they were firmly placed by pushing on them. Tiyan and Ame walked back over to Corey and Saienta, and then Tiyan held two fingers to his lips, whistling shrilly. He looked up at Tiyan when he spoke, but Saienta watched observantly as many dark horse-shaped figures lifted their heads and trotted over in the dark.
         “We should let the other horses meet Rell before we start,” Tiyan said. Corey could hear many hooves hitting the ground and getting louder. He wondered just how many horses would come to meet Rell, and when the light hit the sum arriving he estimated there were fifteen horses. Corey turned and saw Rain bow his head to Rell, and Rell, after a moment bowed her head in return. Corey thought he’d never see these type of actions from a horse, as if they too held honour and respect highly like the people in their world. Were horses once like these in his world before technology came into existence, and the people domesticated horses to do their biddings? Each horse bowed their head in turn to Rell and then walked back to their grazing or sleeping spot, swallowed into the dark of night and out of the torches’ reach.
While Ame and Tiyan watched Rell being greeted by the horses, making occasional conversation, Corey looked around to take in the night time environment, the sound of the night animals and the wind rushing through the grass, when he noticed the horse at the back had a rider on it. Saienta lit up cigarette and the smoke clouded his vision as the wind swept it across to his side. The light from the torches didn’t reach as far and therefore the horse and rider was unclear for him to see, but whoever it was was young because he or she was small. Corey didn’t have to wait long though, and he sighed at the sight of Sin and his horse Smoke as they stepped into the illuminating light of the torches.

Smoke held his head high in an arrogant, conceited and overly confident stance as he pranced up to Rell, swinging his tail as though shooing away flies, keeping his stance from head to tail while Rell had her head down, grazing, staring at him with her brown eyes. Corey could almost imagine her raising an eyebrow, and he glanced at Saienta who first looked puzzled, and then humoured.
Saienta and Corey watched as Sin jumped off Smoke and walked toward them, he then disappeared and they both blinked in confusion, when Corey felt himself being flicked on the back of his head.
         “Sad. So sad,” he heard Sin say from behind and Corey turned, annoyance pulsing through his entire body as though it was one with him. Saienta turned around sharply. He must’ve been flicked in the head too, and he glared at Sin icily.
         “You both react so slow, I could have run around the horse field twice and you’d still be turning.”
Saienta kept his calm and ignored him, and they both turned back around to watch Rell and Smoke. Sin slapped Corey on the back of the head as he moved over toward Ame and Tiyan, and Corey glared in annoyance at his back.
Smoke bowed his head to Rell. It looked different to the other bows the horses gave, Smoke’s bow was more suave and charming. Corey turned to Rell for her reaction and at first she looked bemused, but then she whinnied gently and turned her head as though shy. She swished her tail almost coquettishly as she gazed at Smoke. Saienta looked wary about what he was seeing. Slowly, Rell walked forward closer to Smoke and stopped to a point where their noses were almost touching. Smoke skittered a little in what Corey supposed was excitement. She hadn’t yet bowed, and he expected her to, but to his surprise her eyes flashed and she sneezed in Smoke’s face. Rell made a complete turn with her nose up and trotted haughtily away towards Saienta and nuzzled him affectionately and both Saienta and Corey, and Tiyan burst out laughing.
         “Rrrejected,” Corey and Saienta said at the same time in amusement. Smoke’s ears drooped sadly, almost depressingly, like a puppy dog’s and his entire body slumped as though all the energy had drained out of him. Tiyan had a humoured grin on his face as he came over to them and said, “Sneezing in someone’s face is a horses worst insult.”
Corey looked over at Ame and Sin. The contrast to the annoying Sin he showed them, and the Sin he was seeing was incomprehensible. Corey couldn’t shake the feeling he was missing something, and he didn't mean his ring. Sin was like a light switch, being turned off and on. Sin had his head down, staring at the ground solemnly and Corey was sure there was an anger in his eyes.
Corey lifted his arm and looked at his watch: 8:09 pm. Rell went back to grazing. Smoke watched her, and then after a moment he hung his head and began walking over toward Saienta. Corey blinked in confusion, glanced at Saienta and then back at Smoke. Smoke stopped in front of them. Saienta looked up at Smoke suspiciously, and waited. Corey wondered what Smoke wanted as he looked up at him. He was oblivious to Rain as Rain looked up from grazing at Corey and slowly walked over. Smoke bowed his head and then bended down to Saienta, and Saienta stared disinterestedly. Tiyan had been watching and he laughed again, shaking his head. Ame and Sin were still talking seriously. Saienta and Corey drew back as Rell stormed over, stamping her feet at Smoke. Corey imagined her telling Smoke to get out of Saienta’s face before she trampled over him with her hooves. She then bent down to Saienta, keeping her glare on Smoke who walked away sadly, glancing back at Rell every now and then and pausing for a depressing effect, and Saienta climbed on. Corey felt a nuzzle on his shoulder and he looked up at Rain, who bent down also and Corey, standing up, slowly got on Rain’s back.
Ame walked over to them and smiled. Sin was not with her, he was approaching Smoke. “We’ll begin now.”

Corey and Saienta sat side by side on their horse’s backs between the torches. Saienta was riding Smoke, to Sin’s disbelief and confusion at Smoke’s allowance as he stood from where they had been sitting, and Rell stood beside their horses next to Smoke, snorting in disapproval. Out of all the enhanced abilities they had to learn, haze-horses had been the ability Corey looked forward to least. He felt unconfident as it was when riding on Rain’s back at a slow paced walk.
         “For this, all you need to do is stay on,” Tiyan said, smiling in his usual humoured way.
It sounded simple enough, but he knew it was far from easy.
         “To do this you need strength in your thighs and arms,” Ame inputted, standing beside Tiyan. “It also incorporates many of the other abilities.”
Tiyan nodded and then whistled. It was a gentle whistle, Corey noticed, and after a moment Neah stepped into the overlapped circles of light from the torches toward Tiyan. He patted her neck and then clicked his fingers. Neah bended down- Tiyan mounted her and moved Neah over to stand in front of Corey and Saienta.
         “Lean into your horse,” Tiyan said and demonstrated. Corey and Saienta followed his instructions. “Keep your legs tucked tight to the sides and your arms holding onto the shoulder muscles. You need to put most of your strength into your legs more than your arms.”
Corey nodded in understanding, determined but at the same time tentative. Tiyan looked at them both questioningly.
“I spoke to Grey, and he said you used some kind of rope to control the horse’s movements.”
Corey didn’t know who Grey was, it could have been any of the soldiers with them in the city. Saienta nodded. “They’re called reins.”
Tiyan nodded. “Now, if want your horse to move left, you tap their left shoulder. Same goes for your right. To stop you pull back on their shoulders with both hands, and to turn completely around, tap them twice on their left or right shoulder. Understand everything so far?” Corey and Saienta nodded. “Alright. Any questions?”
Corey thought for a moment and said casually, “Yeah. If we fall off, how do we prevent ourselves being trampled on?”
         “Fall backwards,” Tiyan replied and grinned, “you won’t fall off any other way.”

Tiyan stood in line with Corey and Saienta. He was going to haze alongside them and watch to see their faults, and tell them how to correct it. Corey could feel Rain’s muscles underneath his legs as he held tight with them. Holding tight was a great effort, and already he could feel the strain on his inner thighs.
         “Ready?” Tiyan asked them from the side, and they both nodded. Their horses shifted a little beneath them in readiness. Corey’s heart began to beat quickly. Tiyan clucked his tongue and the horses began to move into a trot. He could feel his heart beating against his chest as Rain moved the tiniest bit faster and he slipped, out of balance from the bumpy ride, and he felt his hands and body slide backwards.
Falling off was not a good experience as he felt the air rushing against him, as though he was falling off of a cliff, and anticipating colliding into the hard ground as he hit it hard on his side. He heard Sin's hysterical laughter. Ignoring him, Corey pushed himself up with his hands, his hip and backside sore from the force of falling, and he looked up at Saienta who was riding Rell at the same speed as he had gone inside the school. Rell was keeping up, but barely. Smoke jolted a little faster and Corey saw Saienta fall off backwards too. He imagined it must’ve been a lot more painful to hit the ground at that speed than at a trot. Pathetic.
Neah and Smoke began to haze but it was slower than what the horses were usually capable of. Rell couldn’t keep up, but she didn’t stop trying, and the more she ran Corey could see the faster she could go. Corey then shook the legs of his pants to shake off the grass and dirt, and when he looked up again he saw Saienta moving toward him. Corey wondered how the others did in haze-horse ability, and made sure to remind himself to ask Ame later when it was over.
After a few more tries, neither Saienta or Corey had improved. Tiyan would tell him what they needed to improve on after every time they fell off. Corey couldn’t even stay on at a trot, and his strength wasn’t helping him anymore, it had been drained from holding tight to Rain when stationed. The only consoling thought Corey had was he’d never ridden a horse before. Riding horses was something new to him, which meant if he were to get any better, he would first have to learn to ride Rain at a pace only fit for his world.
Rell was improving and learning much quicker than Corey and Saienta at hazing. She could haze but not for long. It was an on and off haze. It was something to admire. Rain didn’t appear pleased with Corey and his lack of ability to stay on. Rain would look at them sternly as though he were General, and he could almost imagine Rain saying how bad he was. It crossed Corey’s mind that if he kept falling off, Rain would regret choosing him as his rider.

When training finished, after asking Ame how the others went with the haze-horse ability, Corey checked his watch and it read 9:34pm. He hadn’t forgot about working that night and helping Leon out at Akaino tech. Saienta, who was beside him, glanced at him, then at the watch, and back out across the fields. They were both tired and drained, and the pain was unbelievable. Corey was glad for the protein drink he drank every night so the next morning his body would be almost feeling painless and his muscles renewed. Saienta lit up a cigarette and they went for a walk around the soldier fields. Torches had been lit and put up around the fields were a few soldiers training around them. Above, three shooting stars streamed across the midnight sky. Corey caught sight of a cricket jumping over the ground, and then it hid under a blade of grass and watched them as though they couldn’t see it.
         “I feel I’m getting older by the day,” Corey said, and rubbed his side where he had fallen onto it.
         “Don’t worry about it, we’ll go into retirement together,” Saienta said, giving him a weak grin, and then winced. Saienta held his elbow. Corey told Saienta about how the others were doing just as bad as they were at horse-hazing as they drifted over toward the edge of the forest, when a torch suddenly lit a few metres away, and they turned their heads toward it. A soldier stood next to it, the same who had gotten them down from the roof that day, and he gazed at them both as they walked. They kept their eyes on him also. Corey wondered if there would be a repeat of Wednesday evening.
         “Hey,” he called. Corey and Saienta both stopped.

Corey and Saienta were on the ground, facing the stars and breathing heavily as though they had run miles. More pain surged through his whole body. He could feel blood dripping from his cut lip onto his chin, and he wiped it off onto his arm. The soldier had challenged them to a fight, but not like they had the right or choice to decline as they were the lowest in rank. Corey sighed and sat up, wiping more blood off with his other arm this time. He stared at his shoes as the memory of last Tuesday came back to him. He had accepted a fight, and had lost appallingly. Corey remembered asking himself then if he would let the others down. He didn’t want that, which was way he’d accept every challenge, even in the state he was in now. The displays of acknowledgement and praise other soldiers received wasn’t what he wanted, even though it’d be nice to be treated better in any way than the treatment they got now. He knew what he wanted, and knew why he was here. Corey would help in any way he could, but there was a big empty space of why. It was hard to explain to even himself, but he found himself asking what he wanted from this world. No answer came. He wasn’t sure. Corey had not even seen the village yet or met any people, other than soldiers. It wasn’t the same knowing what he wanted and why he was there.

It took a lot of effort, but they both managed to walk up a hill, and they sat on top of it overlooking the village. Saienta lit a cigarette and pocketed the lighter along with his deck. Corey remembered something he had forgotten to do the other day.
         “Thanks,” Corey said.
         “No problem.”
Corey wondered if he knew what he was thanking him for, thought about asking, and drifted for a moment.
“Thanks for pulling me out of the river too,” Saienta said, blowing out smoke. “We’re even.”
So Saienta did know what he was going on about. Corey nodded. “No problem.”
Saienta rubbed his leg muscles. “This training shit has been hard, but fun, in a way. Like we’re doing something…”
         “Mmm,” Corey agreed. Sure, they had been beaten every single time they visited, and they were talked down to and insulted, but it was fun, in a way. It was the small things which made it fun, and the idea of actually doing something that would be worth it in the end.
         “What do you think has been the best day in your life?” Saienta asked.
         “The best day of my life in our world?” Corey asked back. Saienta nodded and he thought for a second. “When I was young and my dad took me to buy an instrument, and I chose a grand piano, and he almost died from a heart attack. But he bought it for me anyway. I played all day, smashing the keys.” Corey grinned. “It was fun. What about you?”
Saienta thought for a moment and a smile spread across his face. “The best day of my life was a year ago when I turned 16 and could buy my own cigarettes. Every day before that I had to get Reeva to buy them and if he wasn’t around I had to stand in front of the store and talk a stranger into buying them for me.”
Was he being serious? Corey, after a moment when he realised Saienta was serious, couldn’t help but laugh. He’d probably be bashed for it. Saienta laughed too, to Corey’s relief.
         “The other best day of my life was when I found Rell.”
Corey nodded. He had witnessed all day the relationship he had with his horse and understood. Corey peered down the hill. How long had it been since he rolled down one. Many, many years. It looked inviting. “This hill looks fun to roll down.”
Saienta laughed slightly. “It does. I don’t remember the last time I rolled down a hill.”
Corey turned to him. “Serious?”
Saienta nodded and when Corey grinned, Saienta pushed him. Corey let himself fall and rolled down the hill at full speed and caught a glimpse of Saienta rolling down further up. Was this payback for him laughing at when he turned 16 and was able to buy cigarettes?
         “Ow, fuck!” he heard Saienta say. He wondered why he swore until he hit his head on a small and sharp rock. It hurt, but the ride down was still fun. Corey reached the bottom of the hill and just lay there in the grass, a bit battered from the rocks on the way down. Saienta rolled not far from him and sat up. His head was bleeding like Corey’s, but the ride was fun and they were laughing.

Saienta and Corey took their time returning to Ame’s house because of how their worn bodies felt when Corey stopped abruptly, remembering something. He still needed to speak to the General about the colourful rock. Saienta turned and gazed at him.
         “I’ll catch up in a minute, there’s something I need to do.”
Saienta nodded and continued toward her house, while Corey turned to see the General.
He found the General in his office as he slid open the door after knocking. The General was reading something at his desk, and he looked up at Corey as he closed the door behind him. The General put down whatever it was he was reading and leaned back in his chair.
         “Yes, soldier?” he addressed placidly. It felt strange but nice to be referred to as a soldier. No one they met had said he or the five others were soldiers. Corey put a hand in his pocket.
         “It’s about Wednesday, when you passed me for far-sight.”
         “Mmm,” the General said, permitting him to continue.
         “How did I pass?” Corey went on, thinking of how everyone had seen nothing, and he had seen a colourful rock. Talking about the subject prickled his dignity, and his insides began to heat up in anger. “Did I pass?”
         “I’ve said you’ve passed once, why do you need to hear it again?” The General questioned, pressing the side of his index finger against his bottom lip. He watched Corey in a contemplative way.
         “I wasn’t supposed to see a rock though, was I?” Corey replied, keeping his voice even. He watched the General’s expression carefully. Some expressions needed no words to answer a direct question. “There was nothing there. Everyone had seen nothing, and passed. So how did I pass?”
The General leaned forward and laced his fingers onto his desk, and gave Corey an expressionless look. “You saw as far as they did.”
Corey hadn’t thought of that, but still it confused him. “What does that matter when Ame said the task was to overcome reasoning that there was something there, but I saw a rock and I wasn‘t supposed to, and passed?”
“There is nothing there,” the General nodded. “You saw as far as they did, regardless how.” The General reached an arm out, opened a drawer, took out the rock Corey had found and put it on the desk. “Next time, correct yourself soldier.”

         Thursday night
Corey sat on the tram, swaying with the movement of it. He was on his way to Akaino tech. By the time he had reached Ame’s house, Saienta was already asleep. He’d never know Corey left for work, and come back before sunrise, catching up on some sleep before training.
It didn’t take him long to figure out what the General meant. Even though he was unsuccessful in overcoming reasoning that there was something there, he was successful in far-sight but would have to correct his reasoning next time. He felt a little better now that he knew he wasn’t as pathetic as he had thought to be. Corey checked his watch and it read 11:33pm.

*


On Friday Corey walked with Elli to the rooftop so they wouldn’t be overheard. She said she wasn’t doing so well. He thought back to what Saienta had said, that there was something about Elli, something going on in her life.
Corey stood with his hand on the fence, looking out over the school grounds that was littered with autumn leaves. Elli sat with her back to the fence with a knee up, telling him everything about her life. As the wind blew, she explained how she didn’t live in a big house, how her mother had re-married many men and was now marrying some fool. How her mother rarely had time for her, and how she used to cut herself. Corey turned sharply. She didn’t look up at him, but she held out her arm to him, and he saw the scars. He sat down, thought for a moment and he ran his fingers through his black hair- not sure what to say about her mutilating herself.
         “Why?” Corey asked.
Elli shrugged and then after moment explained. Depression, came to Corey’s mind once he analysed her explanation, and he figured it was mostly likely triggered when she couldn’t handle the situation or know how to release it.
Corey nodded slowly.
He knew what it was like to not see a parent often, but there was no real advice he could give that would help. Except one thing…to not throw away the relationship she had with her mother, even if it’s not a good one, because she could always strengthen it.

A Non-Existent User

Thursday
Saienta stood at his empty locker and thought about putting his bag away, glanced at Corey’s locker and the day he stole his phone, grinned, and thought against it. He leaned on it instead and waited for Corey. He thought about the last two weeks and a half. He had become a Red Tide member, something he had been working for since he was thirteen. Saienta only did missions once or twice a week, and he had more free time and sleep than he ever had, making more money than he ever hoped. He missed his old crew but they were still around and he visited every now and again. He uncrossed one hand and looked at the dirt beneath his fingernails- he still had to work the farms but even that would be over soon. His “parents” had raised a new slave now and Saienta had almost paid off his debt- he would be free to go in less than a month. He had also paid off his school fees in advance. He felt freer now- he had worked hard his whole life for this freedom and it felt good. The other world interested him too. He had been thinking seriously about living there permanently for the last two nights, but hadn’t made a decision yet and knew he wouldn’t for a while. He wasn’t the type to leave without paying all his debts- fair and unfair- and he would, but he wasn’t prepared to leave just yet. Saienta wanted to finish the twelfth year, even if he did end up living in the other world- simply because he had worked hard to get where he was. He wanted to become a leader in Red Tide- he was a member but at one of the lowest points and hadn‘t even met any of the anonymous leaders that controlled the whole network yet.
He knew the others had whole lives, friends and families that they couldn’t leave behind but it was different for Saienta. He thought of Alexia. He would be leaving her behind but she would be fine- she had her loving family and she had Tidus- he had seen they had become close in the short amount of time they were together and it was growing stronger daily. Their relationship wasn’t like the immature ones formed in Ellet- their’s was something different and stronger.
It really made no difference which world Saienta was in for the rest of his life.

Corey showed a minute later as the bell rang and students began to file out into the hallway. A few spiteful glances were made his way and Saienta stared darkly at the lockers across the hall, reminded of who he was, until Corey saw him and nodded, opening his locker. Saienta was about to make a comment about Corey having a new lock, but both their attentions were diverted to the sound of Cedric talking animatedly with his two friends, laughing and talking in his cocky way. Saienta raised an eyebrow. He could only see a part of Cedric, though he thought Cedric would still be devastated about the cruise- everyone had been talking about what had happened to him- but he looked…happy and confident.
         “Yeah bro,” Cedric said in a voice that was not his own. He was…Saienta couldn’t put a description to it, that kind of speech and lingo, it didn’t come to mind when it came out of Cedric’s own mouth. “This mad gang I’m apart of now, it’s the shiiit, I was initiated last night,” Cedric was telling his awed friends.
         “Are you serious?” one of them asked.
         “Yeah dawg,” Cedric said and then his friend moved to the side. Saienta caught a glimpse of Cedric dressed in baggy jeans, a jersey and a red bandana tied around his head. Saienta and Corey looked at each other and gave Saienta gave him a look of disgust. It made him sick. He already knew he couldn’t be talking about Red Tide. He could be lying about being in a gang again. Saienta turned back towards Cedric who had his hand hovering in the air, thinking he was down with the homeboys or something. That’s right, he was talking like a homie and thinking he was good. Saienta despised the fact that he was a rich boy trying to be something he wasn’t. Gangs were created for people who needed to survive. It made Saienta sick and he couldn’t bare to listen to it, even if it was amusing. He listened further, wanting to know what ‘gang’ Cedric had been initiated into.
         “Naw homie, not that small time Red Tide pussy wannabe shit, I’m talkin’ about S.O.W. Soldiers of Wrath, G,” Cedric said and Saienta and Corey suppressed hard laughter that was ready to erupt out of them.
Saienta turned and saw Elli, who had been standing beside Corey watching with them and she grimaced in disgust. They all turned to each other to talk, trying to erase what they had just seen and heard.

“I don’t know which is worse,” Corey said, “the old Cedric or…this one.”
Elli scowled and shook her head in revulsion. “He’s still the same guy, he just looks more stupid than before. Is he serious about being a…Soldiers of Wrath?” she asked, unsure about the name. No one would have heard of them. They turned back to Cedric who was slouching against the wall and bopping his head slowly, while his friends went into their lockers.
         “How did you get initiated?” his friend asked.
Cedric turned his head, shrugged like it was too cool to mention and then lifted his sleeve, showing them an S.O.W tattoo.
Elli burst into laughter and had to hold onto Corey for support. “Sow…Sow!” she managed to say between breaths. “He joined the sows, the adult female pigs.”
Saienta shook his head- it was just sad- and refused to look his way again.
         “He’s down, G,” Elli said, imitating the position of Cedric’s hands in the air as though she was a DJ, and burst into laughter again.
Miss Silvalet came out of the classroom, spotted Cedric and gave him a strange look. She walked over and had a disapproving look on her face. “Cedric Theodore the third,” she admonished, “Where in the world is your uniform?”
Cedric faltered and then tried to look cool again. “Naw, miss, I’m down, I don’t need no uniform. This right here is my uniform, got that babes?”
Miss Silvalet’s expression didn’t change but she narrowed her eyes at him and his friends looked unsure.
         “Call me babes again,” she dared him and his eyes shifted around uneasily.
         “Ah…heh. Miss Silvalet.”
She lifted her head. “Change into your uniform. I will have to call your father about this.”
Cedric looked around and his personality dropped like a curtain, changing into his old self. “Please, Miss Silvalet, please don’t call my dad!”
Saienta heard Corey and Elli laugh.
She eyed him up and down. “Get changed right now and I won’t.”
He nodded his head and scowled at her retreating back. “Dayem that bitch is nasty,” he commented in his newfound personality.

Sirian who was walking past, glanced at Cedric with a raised eyebrow and she rolled her eyes as she approached Corey. “We have a StuCo meeting in half an hour, don‘t forget,” she told him and Corey groaned as she disappeared.

“Cedric?!” a high-pitched voice called out across the hall and they all turned to see Gwen. She approached quickly and Cedric checked her out up and down approvingly.
         “Cedric, my love, what’s happened to you?” she asked desperately. His friends backed away and walked down the hall out of view.
Cedric gave her a strange look. “My bitch! What up, baby?”
Gwen’s mouth opened in horror. “Bitch!” she exclaimed, blubbering.
Saienta saw the amused look on Elli’s face.
         “C’mon now, babes-”
         “Cedric, no, what is this?” Gwen took hold of the bottom of his baggy shirt and dropped it like it was a dirty towel.
         “I’m in a gang now,” Cedric replied.
She shook her head, tears in her eyes, “No! I want my Cedric Theodore the third back!”
         “Dayem bitch, why you gotta be like that for? He’s gone, baby,” he shook his head.
She paused, and tears flowed freely, “It’s over!” she cried and ran away. Cedric sighed and then looked a little unsure, but composed himself. He glanced at Saienta and nodded his way. What? Saienta wondered.
Cedric looked at Corey and Elli, ignored them and walked over looking at Saienta. Cedric held his hand up as though he wanted to clasp hands and Saienta kept his gaze on him, expressionless. Cedric’s hand paused in the air. “We’re down, right?”
Silence. He stared past him coldly, his arms still crossed as he leaned on the locker and refused to acknowledge him.
         “So G, show me this tattoo of yours,” Elli smiled, suppressing a grin.
Cedric nodded like a seal, and then lifted his sleeve to show them.
Elli leaned down and looked closer, then ran a finger over the unscarred, perfect tattoo. “When did you get this done?”
         “Last night.”
         “It doesn’t feel right. I see pixels…pixels, Cedric. Did you print this out?” she asked, raising an eyebrow at him.
         “Naw girl, what are you talking about?” he asked in disbelief.
She raised her other eyebrow at him.
         “Alright, alright, I get the real one in two days. Shiiit,” he said, and put his arm down.
         “Oh Cedric, you poor thing,” Elli sighed sadly. “I almost pity you for your lack of understanding. You may be better off leaving this one on.”
Saienta made a mental note to tell Reeva about Cedric- he would laugh until he died.
Cedric looked at all three of them, patted Saienta once on the shoulder and walked away. If he ever touches me again, I’ll break his face, Saienta thought. For now, he would just tolerate him. It would make life easier for Red Tide, if people like Cedric joined annoying small-time gangs that nipped at their heels. They would eventually cave in on themselves and cease to exist.

Friday
School had finished an hour ago. It had taken half an hour to ride in from the city and Saienta was glad he had been able to ride Rell in such a free place. She was already seeming more energetic and had already begun to break free from the barriers and become a real horse like the others in this world. And he was especially glad to realise the soldiers hadn’t killed her when they threw her from the roof.
The river flowed steadily and Saienta cursed when he unbalanced and almost fell in when his foot slid in without resistance but Corey grabbed him and pulled him back up. They were alone again, after the water-treading training was over. Corey and Saienta were having the most difficulty with the ability and felt they had to put in more time or they would be left behind. After a few minutes Saienta sat on the bank and lit up a cigarette. Corey joined him and Saienta was about to comment on the horses when they were interrupted by a simple “Greetings!” from behind. They turned and an old man with a cheery smile wearing a gigantic olive-green overcoat was standing behind them. He walked purposefully from behind them to stand in front of them and Saienta raised an eyebrow at the strange and happy old man. His coat was bulky, full of things that made him lumpy all over and whatever was inside jangled as he walked, but they didn’t pull him down. The old man had wispy white hair and tortoise shell-coloured eyes and he continued to smile bearing his white crooked teeth.
         “Hello…” Corey drifted, probably not wanting to seem impolite.
Saienta looked down at his feet and noticed he was wearing no shoes or the plain blue sandals the villagers liked to wear for daily use.
         “My, it is a lovely day!” the old man exclaimed congenially and stretched, peering around at the sky.
Saienta saw Corey nod and smile and Saienta took a drag of his cigarette, forgetting that he had one when they had been interrupted.
         “You two are new, correct? Have you had the chance to go into the market?”
Corey shook his head.
         “Ah, excuse my rudeness, or my plain-having-simply-forgotten, where are my manners? My name is…well, they call me Wing-Moth. You can call me Moth.” He chuckled and bowed to them. They nodded their heads, since they were sitting.
Corey told Moth his name and then said, “and this is Saienta,” when Saienta didn’t answer, not sure if he could trust the old man yet.
         “Now, I tell you this, the Sandra market is a wonderful place-”
         “Sandra?” Corey asked.
The man stopped and nodded, smiling. “This village is called Sandra, you didn’t know that yet?”
Corey shook his head.
         “It’s the biggest of the southern villages. Many people from the other 23 villages drift here to sell their wares or buy from the wonderful array of good things. All things good.”
         “Hey…” someone said and Elli appeared beside them, gazing at the old man who gave her a friendly grin. Moth introduced himself and Elli blinked, gave him a tight smile and sat down beside Saienta, and all three looked up at Moth who was gazing up at the sky before he peered down at them.
         “Now, I was talking about our village of Sandra and the market place. Sandra, my good new friends, is the centre of all southern things. If you want the best military training, you’ll find it here under the General of the south himself, don’t go to Illya; no, no, that place has good training but it isn’t the best, now is it?” he asked in a light voice.
Saienta wondered why he was promoting Sandra as though he was selling them the village.
         “Well, Sandra has true comfortable living; no desert in sight, trees all around, rivers, lakes, the best free-running haze-horses- all trained by the master of the horses, Tiyan Kiseki himself; and if you want protection, you have it- two-thirds of the thousands of soldiers are congregated here. Sandra is truly the place to live.”
         “Yes…” Elli said and nodded as though she knew what he was talking about but Saienta had a feeling she didn’t. What did he mean by no deserts in sight? Saienta flicked his cigarette away and drew a knee up to lean on it.
         “You three, lovely new welcome villagers need things, don’t you?” he asked with a twinkle in his eye.
         “Of course!” Elli nodded, still acting as though she knew what he was on about.

Moth grinned and then unfastened his coat, opening it up to reveal an impossible array of trinkets that were tied to the lining of his coat. He had everything from silk scarves, gloves, a Jinkai weight, a shiny saucepan, several knives, a few different weapons, a few sets of keys, a pillow, cups, a colourful painting, scrolls, and decorative items that could be placed around the home.
         “Woah!” Elli exclaimed and burst into laughter.
Corey blinked and Saienta leaned back, surprised that he could carry so much beneath his clothing and still walk.
         “I have the finest but best-priced goods anywhere. Would you like to buy any wares from the Wing-Moth, himself?” he asked. “I am aware you have no money yet but I can create a tab for you each and we’ll call it a debt that can be settled later when you start making money!”
         “How will we make money?” Elli asked.
         “Ah, my good friends, through your military endeavors. The General himself may explain that to you later but you can be sure you will be paid a good amount. The better and best soldiers make hundreds and thousands beyond what mere men can hope for!” he shouted into the trees, splaying his arms towards the heavens and his keys and pots jangled.
         “I’ll buy something. Got a nice hand mirror in there?” Elli asked, smiling.
Corey looked over at her but said nothing. They both wondered what she needed a mirror for.
         “Ah yes I do, good lady,” he murmured, tapping his fingers over several things and searching. He pulled out a silver-backed mirror and passed it to her. “Two silver coins should do it, I’ll put it on your tab.”
         “Need me to sign?” she asked and he shook his head.
         “Wing-Moth remembers all debts paid and unpaid,” he said, tapping a finger to his head. “Let me explain the currency system as best as I can. Let’s see…there are twenty copper coins in a silver, ten silvers in a gold coin- gold is the highest and the average farmer works for three thousand gold coins in a year. Soldier’s wages vary depending on how highly ranked one is, and they make a substantial amount by completing a mission.” He nodded, thinking hard and then nodded. “Now, I would like to give you three a gift.”
         “Ah…heh, no thank you,” Elli said quickly and they all remembered Annaleace’s three gifts from Tiyan.
         “Ah no, no, I heard about the conundrum with your dear friend and Tiyan, Moth knows all things, but I give this to you as a welcoming present to the village of Sandra,” he said, pulling out a flat silver engraved plaque that was A4 size.
He held it up for them by the hook on the back and Saienta read the engraved writing in the shiny silver surface:

Akaino, Kureshida
Sennashi


…and was taken aback. How did he know their last names? And guessing by the look on Elli’s face, Sennashi was her last name, not that she had ever said anything in this world – neither had Saienta.
         “How did-” she began but Moth put up a hand.
         “Buuup, bup, bup- this belongs to you three, to put up at the front of your new house. I have one for your other three friends also.”
Elli’s jaw dropped and Corey unintentionally moved his head back. Elli managed to say, “But we don’t have a house-“
Moth threw back his head and laughed outrageously. “You do now. I’m not just a seller of wares my friends, I also sell all properties in the Sandra area.”
Saienta creased his forehead. How were they supposed to pay for a house? They didn’t buy one…
         “Ah now, here is your plaque for the front door, you don’t need a key, and you’ll find your lovely house nearby, just follow this river up that way opposite to the village and yours is the one that looks out over Sandra and has the path leading to Ame’s, and…good luck! The other three have a house just a small hill away- you’re all neighbours! Ame said you six will be able to pay your debt of one hundred thousand gold coins for each house within the year,” he said and began to walk away. “Have a lovely day!”

In shock the three of them stared at the plaque at their feet. There was no way they could pay for a house within a year or even five years. No way at all, even if they did become soldiers. And Ame…she put them up to this? She bought them a house that they had to pay for on their own by earning money in this world?
         “Hey!” Elli called, standing up. She sat down again when they were ignored.
No one knew what to do. They stared at the plaque. If they were lucky, there might be no house. Saienta peered up the river. There probably was one beyond the bend. One hundred thousand gold coins…Saienta did the math to determine how much it would amount to in their own world if they had to convert it, and Corey must have figured it out first because his mouth opened and he stared at them both in horror. “One hundred thousand gold coins….” he said and looked from Elli to Saienta. “If the average farmer makes three thousand, and the house is worth one hundred thousand…it means we just bought a house worth millions…”
Elli screamed and fell onto her back looking up at the sky. “Let me die, just kill us now…where is Linx?” she asked, turning her head to search. “She’ll happily do it…”
         “Hasn’t anyone seen how bad we are at training?” Saienta asked himself, feeling lost as well. How were they going to make millions of dollars in a year? They had no job, not that a job would help much to gain so much within a year. He guessed that Moth and Ame were depending on their development as soldiers but he didn’t have much faith in that. The way they were going…they wouldn’t even be doing missions within five years. He exhaled and then lit up a cigarette. He stood up and Corey and Elli who were slumped in the grass looked up at him.
         “Let’s go find out about this house,” he said and they nodded, standing up to follow him up the river and around the bend. They looked up on the hill to the left and saw Ame’s house and continued to walk on until they came to a part of the grass that sloped upwards and walked…stopping at the sight of a large house on the top of the hill…
         “It exists…” Elli said and slumped, holding the silver plaque. “Mou…” Geez…
         “Why didn’t we notice it there before?” Saienta asked. The house was bigger than Ame’s.
         “I noticed…but I thought it probably belonged to a villager…not us,” Corey sighed.
It sounded strange that they owned a house. They had only been here twice before and they were only seventeen. He never would have thought he’d own a house, not in a long while. It felt good but…how the hell was he supposed to pay for it? This debt would hang over their heads for a long time.
They climbed up the hill and stared up at the large three-storey house from the outside. It was similar to Ame’s with the wooden veranda going all the way around the first floor but it was bigger. The third floor had no walls but was surrounded by bronze railings and the sloping Japanese ‘A’ shaped roof was held up by mahogany pillars. He guessed the view would be amazing, looking down on the valleys, the village, forests and mountains. They hesitated and walked all the way around the house to the front door. There were sliding door entrances on each wall all the way around that would open onto the porch.
Should they enter? It may belong to them, it may not…it could have been some kind of joke. Elli reached a hand out to pull the sliding door open but froze. She looked back at them. “Are you ready?”

They nodded in anxiety but were excited at the same time. If it belonged to them, they were about to take the first step into their own house.
She opened the door and they held their breaths, exhaling slowly as they looked in on the first floor. It was empty of furniture…which meant it was waiting for new owners to move in…which seemed to suggest it was waiting for them. Elli walked in but Saienta paused, and slipped his shoes off. Corey looked at him strangely.
         “What?” Saienta asked, “No shoes in the house.”
Corey grinned and shrugged, taking off his shoes. Elli looked back at them and then ran back to take off her shoes, leaving them by the front door.
Saienta walked in and gazed around him.
         “Whoa…” he heard Corey say.
The large room, Saienta guessed, was the sitting/dining/or lounge room that connected all the rooms of the first floor. To either side of the front door was a staircase going up to the second floor. The walls were made of rice paper, like all the houses in Sandra, but the connection of the wooden panels was more elaborate and stylish in their own way. Expensive-looking oil lanterns were placed on the walls and Saienta walked in towards the door in front of him. When he reached the door, he stopped and looked to the left. There was one room on the left of the first floor, one in front of him and two beside it. He guessed that the door to the right lead back outside and he slid the door open to reveal a large kitchen area, complete with stone ovens, wood fire stoves and a cool room. He exhaled and then slid the door shut, going into the room next to it on the left, discovering there was a laundry to the right of the kitchen. It was an empty bedroom and had two entrances on both walls that led outside. He would claim this one for himself, he didn’t like sleeping upstairs in houses, he liked to remain firmly grounded. He slid the door shut and moved to the door leading into the smaller room that was placed on the left of the house. It was small and empty and he wondered what they would use it for as he heard Corey and Elli upstairs claiming rooms for themselves. Saienta looked up at the ceiling and walked towards the front entrance and chose the stairs on the right, not that it really mattered.

When he reached the top of the stairs, he noticed that there was a hallway that went around all the rooms. All of the windows around the house of the second floor were open and a cool breeze blew in as he examined the incredible view to the mountains as he walked around the entire floor. There were stairs to the open third floor on either side of the house and doors leading into the rooms. He chose one and found Corey.
         “I claimed this bedroom,” Corey said, lying on the floor. “Elli is across the hall.”
         “Across the hall?” Saienta asked, wondering how when the hall was open to the outside.
         “There’s a hall between the block of rooms if you open that door,” he explained, pointing to a door on the left. “She’s right across there.”
         “Do you really think this place belongs to us?” Saienta asked.
Corey nodded. “I have a feeling.” After a moment, he said, “The architecture of this house is beautiful.”
Saienta nodded. “So is the location. I figure we all just bought the best houses in all of Sandra. If Sandra is the best location around…then we just bought the best house in all of the South.”
They both inhaled and exhaled deeply, as though trying to enjoy their last breath ever.
         “What else is on this floor, not including the two bedrooms?” Saienta asked.
         “There’s a small spare room, a storage room with empty shelves…and I think the biggest room is for…something.”
         “Let’s check out the third floor,” Saienta said, standing. He wanted to see it especially- it was new to him and looked like it would be a great place to sit and smoke.

They found Elli up there sitting on a bench looking out over the village, and Saienta looked up at the crossbeams of the roof then down again to take in the view. He shook his head in awe, stopping in the middle to look at each side. He lit a cigarette and chose a bench facing the mountains and Corey chose a bench facing the forest, village and horse fields. He was glad Rell was running free with them. Ame’s house was visible from where he was, sitting on the next hill and he watched as three people he knew were Annaleace, Ryan and Sirian approach their house. He knew by their different coloured tops, the other soldiers wore black. It was only then he noticed that there was a house located near them on a hill near Ame’s on the opposite side. It was similar to theirs and he figured it belonged to those three.

“Wonderful!” Moth said as all six of them sat on the front porch, as soon as Annaleace and the others had arrived.
         “Do you like your new houses?” Moth asked with a glint in his eyes.
         “Of course,” Elli stated. “Can we move in now?”
Ryan looked at her in disbelief. “We’re not accepting the house, are you guys?”
Elli looked at him strangely. “Of course. It’s nice, why not?”
         “It isn’t only a bad idea, it just won’t work,” Sirian said in annoyance to Elli.
Elli ignored her and smiled happily. Saienta had a feeling that Elli’s resolution to keep the house was now established even more, just because Sirian thought it was a bad idea. “Well we accept our new house. We need things, Moth-man, can you hook us up?”
Saienta knew the other three had conferred about their house more than they had and had made a decision against it.
         “Of course!” Moth exclaimed and laughed heartily. “All of the best things!”
         “Us three are gonna work hard to keep the house, aren’t we guys? We’ll even make a bet that we’ll be able to pay ours off first,” Elli said happily, a hand on her hip and looked straight at Sirian as she said the next part, “Me, Corey and Saienta will work together for this home of ours and have it paid off before the year is out.”
         “Good, it’s settled,” came a sweet voice and a wave of good feelings, and Saienta knew it was Ame. Her presence and words established the fact that the houses were really theirs. She stood beside Moth and smiled at him. They seemed like good friends as Ame bowed low to him and he bowed a little in return, and then hugged her. “Ah…my granddaughter.”
Everyone was caught in the moment of surprise. No way…
         “On your mother’s side, right?” Elli asked, picking out their features.
         “No, no, the good old General is my son,” Moth corrected proudly and Elli’s jaw dropped. She weighed each person in her hands again like scales. The General was definitely not one to be influenced by his family.
Ame laughed and then held her grandfather’s arm, facing them. “Is everyone happy with their new houses?”
         “Ame…we can’t accept…,” Annaleace began, “We don’t have the money to pay for it.”
         “That’s why you’ll work it off. You have a year,” Ame winked and smiled.
         “But…” Ryan drifted. They really didn’t have much of a choice- they were still strangers to this place and couldn’t seem rude.
         “Great! Come in, come in, we can’t let our guests sit outside, we’ll go to the top floor,” Elli said like a good host and Saienta repressed a smile as Annaleace, Ryan and Sirian still looked disapproving.
         “Oh wait,” Elli stopped and she grinned at Saienta and Corey, picking up the plaque she had left by the door. As everyone watched, she hung the plaque up on a hook and Ame and Moth smiled in approval. Corey half-smiled and Saienta nodded. Regardless of their problem with paying it off, Saienta wanted the house and would do anything to have it. He wanted a home, a real one.

They sat on the four benches on either side of the uppermost floor as Ame and her grandfather explained Sandra and the world to them. Saienta asked her about the war and she nodded, telling them she would explain.
         “As you can see, the land here is fertile, and produces extremely good crop. Sandra thrives unlike most other places. Yet if you look over at the city,” she said, pointing in the distance, and they all turned, “You wouldn’t think so.”
The city was dark, gloomy and took up most of the horizon in that direction. Saienta guessed it would stretch for miles and was ten times bigger than any city in his own world. A cool breeze blew over them.
         “This place, all of the South, the village of Sandra, the city and the northern country, are all made up of one nation within a seemingly endless desert. Before the wars, it would be possible to know what lay beyond but everything is gone. There are signs that there was once plant life in the desert but it has all gone to waste after some kind of destructive bombing that took place during the Silver War.”
Elli looked up at them in Corey‘s direction. “An atomic bomb, do you think?”
Corey shrugged. “Was the desert land poisoned before 150 years ago?”
Ame nodded. “It was. The land is unpassable because there is no water. However, this is not what I want to discuss- for now we are concerned with the North and their use of technology. You may have been wondering why we are at war with the North but it is not so simple. In our case, we do not make war with the North, we infiltrate into their camps and bases simply to find information and to destroy any technology to prevent them reviving any destructive bombs that could wipe us all out. The North are trying to destroy us and take our lands.”

That explained why the soldiers didn’t go full-out like Saienta had supposed- Sin had told them they only infiltrated and fought small battles. The Northern lands probably weren’t as healthy as the South. But why had the General said that they would be trained for war?
         “Ah…” Moth said. “Now, enough of all this for now. We’ll explain more later but I think they should go and visit the village centre, market and the people, don’t you think, Ame? Rumours are going around about these other-worlders, that they’re funny-looking animals with big heads and eyes that hang out of their sockets.” Moth scratched his chin in contemplation. “I think that one was started by Sin…”
Ame sighed. “Okay. It would be good for them to meet the other people instead of being stuck here with me all the time. They shouldn’t wait until the festival in a week’s time. They can meet the people they‘ll be protecting,” she smiled.
         “And they can prove the rumours wrong!” Moth said, standing up and stretching, his pots and things jangling under his coat.

As they walked along the grass towards the village, Moth came up beside Saienta and wagged his finger at him. “You’re a quiet one, I’ve heard about you. You’re cautious, aren’t you? You didn’t trust me enough to tell me your name even. Now Elli there, I like that girl, she’s bright. So tell me, what makes a young man like you so cautious of people?”
Saienta stayed silent.
         “Ah…I see, you don’t trust Moth enough to tell him what you feel but you‘ll willingly tell me how to better myself if I asked. Many people trust my granddaughter,” he said and Saienta looked at him and then at Ame in annoyance. Had she told him the things they had discussed by the river?
         “No, no, boy, Ame is a good girl and she hasn’t told me what kind of secrets you might have,” he chuckled jovially. “Let Wing-Moth share some of the knowledge he has gained over his years. I’m an old man, but people like you still astound and puzzle me.” He tapped his temple. “My Mythra occurs in my dreams. I see things of this world- sometimes things that will happen and things that have already passed but they are somewhat unclear- or very unclear to an extent. The future is a very fragile and oft-changing thing. One time I dreamt that I would grow up with no children, and then two days later I met a woman I fell in love with and she had a son already- Evriel. Now, I tell you, I came very close to missing out on this and my dreams changed thereafter. You know what this tells me? Our own decisions and actions may be fated but they are still determined by our own actions and decisions. Ame may have some of this seeing ability but in a very different way.”
That explained how he had known their last names.
         “You must be careful of the people you come into contact with. You all are very tenuous pictures in my dreams- hardly noticeable. This also tells me that you are fading into insignificance, if not by your visible actions than by your thoughts. If something doesn’t change, than you will never be in my dreams again. Not only are you doing it on your own, there are people who will change the futures of you all or destroy it completely. Though all of you are here, there are many who are willing to vote you out back to your own world. It is Ame who keeps you here- they trust her decision but they will not uphold her decision in your favour forever. It was Ame who decided that you needed houses to establish your presence here. But houses are not enough to keep you here. Be wary of this.”

Saienta walked on without speaking, thinking over what he had just said as they came to the village centre. It wasn’t true that the six of them being in Ame’s dream made them significant in anyway, like some of them had supposed. They were easily dismissible- their training could be halted, their memories could be erased and they would be sent back through the Gate without a second thought. It could happen at any time. What had he meant by saying their thoughts could be the reason they were fading from his dreams? He dwelled on this a little more and pushed it away to think about later. It wasn’t a good thought and it sank his spirit about their presence in this place a lot more. What were they even doing here?

*


More houses, built closer together were the first of the entrance until they came to a busier section where many market stalls had been set up and villagers walked back and forth, buying things and browsing. There were also permanent shops behind them selling things like furniture and weapons. The villagers wore light cloth kimonos, of varying earthy colours and the favoured sandals. A few little kids passed Corey by, playing tag, as he turned around to wait for Saienta and they both watched in surprise as the kids blurred back and forth in a haze, chasing each other down the wide dirt pathway, kicking up dust. Geez, even the little ones could haze. A little girl of no more than four or five, in a light grey kimono stopped, and looked around her for her friends, and then she closed her eyes, concentrating. Saienta and Corey stared at her, wondering what she was doing as she pointed in one direction and then another with her eyes still closed, “I’ll find you with my Mythra!” she called and was enveloped darkness even though the day still held light. She disappeared and Saienta and Corey looked around, catching a glimpse of her running further up the road. Saienta’s first glimpse of a Mythra ability- and it was a little girl. Corey blinked and they looked up at each other in disbelief.

Saienta could smell food as he walked and guessed there were food stalls up ahead. Corey nudged him and gave him his ‘I’m hungry’ look. Moth walked with Ame and the six of them walked behind, looking in at the items inside the market stalls in fascination. It was mostly similar to their own market places but in their own way- they sold trinkets, food, vegetables, tools, farming equipment and other various things; a lot of weaponry too, Saienta noticed and guessed it was because Sandra was the closest to the city, closer to the hands of the North, and most of the soldiers of the South were gathered here. There were mostly things like swords, knives, tall fighting staffs, and hand-held scythes. The villagers were mostly women and small children- their husbands and older children must have been working and farming around the village. The roads intersected each other and was laid out like a grid in squares.
         “My dad would like this place,” Corey said to Saienta in a low voice, looking around at the permanent stores, their rooves slanting downwards toward the ground. On one roof, a man was fixing and restoring lost planks of wood.
Saienta glanced at him and kept walking. He rarely mentioned his father.
         “I wish I could show him,” Corey said. “It would remind him of home country. He likes this stuff.”
Saienta wasn’t sure how to answer. His father seemed to be a sensitive subject and his mother was never mentioned at all. “Maybe you could take a photo,” Saienta grinned as an old woman walked passed, clutching her purse, glancing at their clothing and backing away with fear on her face. A moment ago she had bowed and smiled widely to Ame and Moth, now she had completely changed at the sight of them.
         “Yeah,” Corey drifted, and smiled at the thought.
They had already gotten the feeling that any technology or things from their own world would be forbidden in this place. Even their own presence was met with wariness by some, mostly the older people.
A few pairs of eyes followed the six of them as they walked and the others tried not to stare back or look like they took notice. Saienta was used to it. Several villagers smiled politely.
Ame and Moth stopped and they waited while they talked for a moment with an elderly woman and then Ame, turned, smiling widely, waving them closer.

“This is lovely Kuki,” Ame told them, introducing them to the friendly old woman who brightened and clapped her hands at the sight of them. She looked as though she was about to burst with excitement, looking at each of their faces. She especially liked the sight of Annaleace and walked over to her. Before anyone moved, the old woman, Kuki, brought Annaleace’s head forward with her hands and kissed her on the forehead, holding Annaleace to her body, smiling in delight. Villagers walked passed and studied them all but kept walking. Ryan’s eyes widened and he stepped back. Ame and Moth smiled, watching as Kuki hugged her tightly and didn‘t let her go for another thirty seconds. She finally released her but still held her by the shoulders, observing every single part of Annaleace’s face. Annaleace looked uncomfortable but she smiled politely.
         “My beautiful little girl!” the woman called her and Saienta wondered if she was senile.
“Now, now, lovely Kuki,” Ame said in mirth, leading her back a little to give Annaleace some space of her own. Moth leaned closer to the five of them and Annaleace who was looking a little red, and whispered, “You have to call her lovely Kuki, or she’ll pretend she didn’t even hear you. She‘s a crazy, senile old woman.”
         “I heard that!” Kuki called, and Saienta didn’t know how she had when he had whispered, then remembered they had developed hearing senses. “Lovely Kuki is not nearly as crazy and senile as crazy old Wing-Moth!” she said, shaking a finger at him.
He pouted and then shook his head. “Old woman, I’m younger than you are!”
         “Hah!” she exclaimed and put a hand on her hip. “I’m only two hours older than you. Older and wiser!” She laughed and then wheezed. Saienta half-smiled at their banter.
Moth began to laugh at her, maybe because of the wheezing, and then began to wheeze himself, the things in his coat jangling.
Kuki looked at Annaleace again and couldn’t contain herself. She came closer and then embraced her again. “My little grandson Tiyan is all grown up and marrying a beautiful sweet girl like you!”
         “Oh…” Elli said, as they all realised who Kuki was and why she was so attached to Annaleace. Lovely Kuki was Tiyan’s grandmother.

Moth and Ame had an errand to run and left them to wander the village on their own, giving them a few coppers each if they wanted food. Kuki held onto Annaleace’s arm as they walked ahead, and Kuki was gesturing wildly, animatedly, at all the things around them both. The five of them walked slower, watching and broke into separate groups- Corey with Saienta and Sirian, and Ryan with Elli.

A little puppy Saienta recognised yapped as it bounded past and then to their surprise, it hazed and a black blur haze-ran with it. Saienta could only guess it was Sin. His puppy, Kitten and Sin hazing. Dogs could haze?
He looked up to see the villagers watching the sight of a puppy hazing with astonishment and guessed that it probably wasn’t common- or even thought possible. Considering what he had heard about Sin being a thirteen-year old genius, he many have taught the puppy the ability. But already? Saienta shook his head in amazement.

“Yellow…” Sirian said, reading the sign above the entrance.
Corey shrugged. “As long as it has good food.”
Sirian entered the small restaurant first and they followed behind, lifting the flap of the entrance into the wooden shack with a few tables and chairs on the floorboards where a few other customers sat eating. A smell of delicious food rose up around them and they sat down. A waitress with a cute, child-like face in a canary-yellow kimono and symbol of a store drawn on the bottom left of the material, came up and gave them a surprised look of recognition but smiled and bowed low before winking at Corey. Her hair was nearly as long as Ame’s and blue-black. Saienta saw Corey look uncomfortable, smile politely, and turned away as though he didn‘t see the wink and Saienta grinned in the opposite direction, and then they bowed in return.
         “We were just wondering about pricing first…” Sirian said and held up five copper coins. “How much is the food here?” They all had five copper coins each.
The waitress looked around at them and leaned in close, as though divulging a secret, but from the incident with Kuki earlier, Saienta figured secrets weren’t common in Sandra bearing in mind everyone had amazing hearing. “The food here is considered cheap but good- you can get a good meal for fewer than three coppers and a better meal for four. Drinks are one copper each.” She stood up straight again and beamed. She smiled shyly in Corey’s direction and Sirian smiled knowingly at Corey who was staring at the ground as though there was something interesting there.
         “Okay,” Sirian smiled at her and they were led to a table.
They didn’t know what to order from the menu and the waitress told them her favourite dishes and took the order down. Corey was staring at the table and then looked up when the waitress was gone. Saienta only gave him an amused look but said nothing. He needed a cigarette but couldn’t light one up in view of the village, knowing someone might freak out. He didn’t want to cause Ame any more trouble.
They sat in silence for a while and Sirian waved at the doorway. Saienta turned around and Annaleace came in. How she had managed to get away from lovely Kuki, he wasn’t sure. Annaleace sat down in relief. They waved the waitress over again and Corey found something interesting on the wall to stare at again as she made another order for Annaleace. The waitress beamed at Annaleace and she returned the smile. They paid in advance for their food.

Annaleace and Sirian talked for a while and their food came a time later.
Saienta took a bite of his, discovering it was steak but juicier and more tender. He ate quickly and picked at the crisp vegetables that were something like a lettuce salad but the leaves had a hint of spice to them. His drink was the best part- it reminded him of Elli’s three-colour drink from the Chinese restaurant but with two colours. The top was clear and was sweet, but with a slight tang and with a thin stick he twirled the creamy bottom into it, making a swirl of light cream and a juicy nectar made from Jiji fruit, whatever that was. It was icy cold and surprisingly refreshing. He had to remember the name of it for next time.
When they had almost finished eating, about half a dozen teenagers came into the restaurant laughing and chatting, breaking the quiet atmosphere.

Two of them, a guy and a girl, wore the black soldier uniform but the other four wore kimonos, like the other villagers. Two of the girls had modified their kimonos a little, cutting away the length from the bottom so they were above the knees- possibly the fashion for teenage girls and the sleeves hung down longer. The other two girls wore the same light green kimonos and had symbols of two crossed-over knives on the bottom left of their fronts.
They were still laughing and talking and then stopped completely when they spotted the table Saienta was sitting on. He gazed ahead coldly, knowing things were about to turn bad.
Sirian and Annaleace both stopped talking and were no longer smiling, as they finished their food. If the soldiers weren’t afraid to insult them, then why wouldn’t they? Corey was silent and expressionless. It was like they were learning to stay silent, wait for it, and then let it pass.
The six villagers stared them over, examining them as though they weren’t people and then with a flick of her hair, one of them sat at the table immediately behind Sirian. The others followed in silence, but there was an air of hate around them.
Sirian looked ahead at Saienta and Saienta watched as the girl behind turned around and leaned on the chair backing to talk to them. The other girl in her short kimono did the same and then their whole table was watching. Sirian and Annaleace gazed ahead, knowing what was going on behind them and then they turned when the girl behind Sirian tapped Annaleace on the shoulder.
         “You’re Annaleace, right?” the girl asked.
Annaleace nodded. “That’s right…”
The girl behind Annaleace smirked and turned back to her friends, whispering something out of range, and then they burst into laughter. The one who had tapped Annaleace and asked her the question simply smiled.
Annaleace looked annoyed and Saienta saw her grip the chopstick in her hand.
Sirian looked angered but didn’t say anything. There was nothing to say, they were being rude but there was no way to be accusatory when they hadn’t said anything insulting yet.
         “We were just wondering…what did you do to get Tiyan into your vices?” the female soldier asked from across her table.
         “What Mythra did you use?” another girl mocked.
         “Where can I get some?” They laughed derisively.
         “Did you charm him by showing him some skin? Reveal your body?” another girl asked and laughed. “I’m sure she did,” she said to her friends, “There is no other way she would get someone like him being who she is.”
Sirian was breathing in and out furiously and Annaleace was gritting her teeth.
Corey looked annoyed and Saienta watched them, wondering why they were being so disrespectful when other people in the village weren’t the same.
         “Let’s go,” Saienta said, and all four of them stood up, ready to leave.
         “Oh that’s a shame, it really is,” a voice said, “We were hoping to know how a nothing like you got someone like Tiyan. Invite us to the wedding, won‘t you?”
         “And then the divorce, we’ll have the ceremony ourselves…” they heard faintly.

They walked out of the restaurant into the cool air- every one of them in a dangerous mood, nowhere near the same as when they had entered.
They walked in a brooding silence for a time.
         “These are the people we’re protecting?” Sirian asked, voicing their thoughts.
They stopped when they heard a voice. “Wait!”
They all turned and the waitress in the yellow kimono raced up to them, panting. Not a haze-runner, Saienta thought. So not everyone had the ability?
She gave them all a grim smile and looked apologetic. “I’m so, so sorry for their behaviour,” she said, bowing low at them, holding the top of her robe. “I’m sorry,” she said again, and looked up at them. “People here really aren’t like that, I don’t know what’s gotten into them. I must apologize, I should‘ve said something or told them to get out. That kind of thing isn‘t tolerated in Sandra, believe me,” she said, a little out of breath.
Annaleace blinked once and looked less infuriated. The waitress’s apology had softened them all. “It’s okay. Really,” Annaleace said and bowed in return. “It isn’t your fault.”
         “Well,” the waitress said, standing up straight and still looking apologetic. “I hope they don’t spoil your thoughts of our people.” She took a deep breath. “You see…there are many girls in Sandra and even beyond that have been chasing Tiyan ever since he was ten years old. I am a good friend of his- I‘ve seen the measures they would go to but he‘s completely oblivious. He is a wonderful person and he’s one of those people that others love to be around. They have been pursuing him since they were girls. He’s the ideal husband. Erm…Tiyan is not only a good soldier but the best horse-trainer. He’s known all over the south, and he’s also one of the richest soldiers because of it. You can see why many women are in pursuit of him. It’s been going on for so long… And then, all of a sudden, everyone started hearing rumours of an outsider that had gotten engaged to him on the first day!” The waitress paused. “I knew they would be surprised but I didn’t think they would be so disrespectful. I guess the reason has something to do with you all being outsiders; no one understands it. People have been trying to be directed under the command of the General and Ame for years and still haven‘t been initiated. The process isn’t understood and Ame has been strong about the village’s disapproval. They’ve been so rude. I’m sorry…”
Saienta hadn’t realised Ame would have been faced with so much blame for her decision to let them through the Gate.
         “Don’t apologise for them,” Annaleace said. “I don’t blame you even though I was a little angry at them. I know not every one is like that, you‘ve proven it to us.” She exhaled and then smiled at her.
The waitress smiled warmly. “I’m glad.“ She paused, gazing at Annaleace in contemplation. “I know exactly why Tiyan chose you…you’re everything he dreams of and talks about. I always did wonder if he would ever find you…” She paused thoughtfully. “Oh…how rude of me! My name is Nyu,” she said and bowed again.
They introduced themselves and bowed, glad to have met such a nice girl to show them that there were many in the village for them to learn to protect.
         “One more thing,” Nyu said turning to Annaleace, having to return to the restaurant. “Neah is Tiyan’s favoured horse. Except for Tiyan, no one ever let her touch her or ride her before.”

*


Saienta walked with Corey by the river, talking about the other soldiers and the villagers. They stopped and Corey leaned down to put his hand in the water. Saienta noticed his bare hand. “Is there any significance of your silver ring, the one Sin stole?”
Corey looked up and shrugged. “There’s nothing. I’m used to wearing it; I’ve had it for a while now. How about yours?” he asked. Saienta took the ring out from under his shirt, attached to the snake chain. He held it in his hand and answered in a low voice.
         “My name- Saienta Kureshida- is engraved on the inside. It was given to me before I was adopted, by my real parents.”
Corey nodded, and politely asked no more questions but Saienta trusted him and told him things he told no one else.
         “I was adopted when I was three by the two people who still own me now. I have a real father somewhere in Japan who’s also Alexia’s father, and my mother who lives somewhere in Europe. I don’t know anything about them, and I let my past go so I don’t go looking for them. I don’t plan to meet them either.”
Corey nodded and stood up with a hand in his pockets as they watched the water.
         “What happened to your mother?” Saienta asked. He didn’t have to answer if he didn’t want to. Saienta wouldn’t ask about his father though, it seemed to always be a sensitive subject that Corey purposely avoided.
Corey took a deep breath. “She died when I was three years and six months…I sort of remember her, but don’t. It’s hard to explain. It feels like I know she was there, and I know the feeling of her being there but I don’t remember any actual events or seeing her face. Her essence- her presence- is what I remember, and even just that is something I miss.”
A long silence followed as they thought about their family histories and wondered what the other thought about it.

Saienta decided to change the subject and grinned, using Tate and Reeva’s tactics to lighten the mood. “Corey…any girls in your life at the moment?”
Corey looked at him quickly in bewilderment. “What?”
Saienta suppressed a laugh. “ ‘cause you know, uh…Nyu is quite cute and she…seems to like you…”
Corey feigned ignorance. “Nyu? …what are you on about?”
Saienta laughed and Corey punched him in the arm. “How about you and Sirian, huh? I know she asked you to the cruise.”
Saienta looked at him sharply, but was humoured by Corey’s tactics as he went on in a thoughtful way. “And Elli does mention you a lot…”
Saienta, who was in the middle of taking out a cigarette looked at him in disbelief, but he already knew all that. “You know too much. Too far that time,” he said, dropping his cigarettes and pushing Corey into the river as Corey laughed hysterically. Corey held onto his jacket and they fell into the water, choking as they were laughing and swimming back to shore.

*


The six of them walked back to the training fields and were more determined than ever. They stood around, Saienta crouching to have a cigarette, in the middle of the open field. They had learnt a lot about themselves and how others saw them and refused to be crushed by it. They were going to become known as soldiers and they were going to gain the respect of the villagers and the other soldiers.
It was growing dark and some of the true soldiers were still out on the other side of the field. They had to decide on their own which ability they would start on first- they were shit at everything, but where to begin?
         “How about we haze?” Elli suggested. “We may as well- it hurts the most but we can’t ride horses in the dark without torches since we don’t know where they’re kept, and one of us could drown in the river if we can’t see.”
Ryan shook his head. “We don’t know where the Jinkai are kept either and I’m not going to ask them,” he replied, motioning in the soldiers’ direction. They hadn’t told Elli or Ryan about what had happened yet, and he had a feeling Ryan would be furious for his twin sister but Saienta felt something must have happened to Elli and Ryan in the village too because they looked hardened about something and were just as determined.
         “It’s too dark to develop our far-sight too,” Corey added.
         “Hey!” someone called and they all turned. It was a girl’s voice coming from one of the five approaching. Since they could hardly be seen, Saienta figured they were wearing black uniforms.
         “Great, just great,” Elli said sarcastically. “I always wanted more friends.”
They watched as the five soldiers approached and one of them was the older soldier with blue eyes and grey hair that Saienta had fought on their first day of training, the one who had given them advice by the river.
The six of them stared up at the soldiers who were looking down on them expressionlessly.
         “What?” Elli asked, waiting.
         “Are you out here to train?” a girl with a Diaden pin asked derisively.
         “Yes Linx, we are,” Sirian replied, sitting down on the grass.
Linx smirked. “I thought so. We thought we’d join you.”
Elli looked up at Linx with malice in her eyes.
Saienta looked up at the only soldier he knew and remembered fighting him. He was strong and he had an air of confidence and pride around him…he still wondered what the string wrapped around his upper arm meant. He was the one who had also jumped off the roof holding both him and Corey when they were on the roof. Saienta guessed he had to be older than 22.

“We want you to fight us,” a male soldier with a scar slashed diagonally across his eyebrow stated and held up his fists, moving into a fighting stance.
Saienta had no problem with that. He had been in a fight with them once, and he knew he could control himself from getting into his dark state again.
The girls shook their heads, except for Elli who smiled. “That sounds interesting. Why?”
It was a good question.
The soldier Saienta knew stepped forward and he gazed at the string in contemplation.
         “We are challenging you to a fight, would you decline even though you wear our uniform and train on our fields? What are you doing here if you would decline a challenge?” he asked without tone, gazing at them with his severe blue eyes.
Saienta half-smiled but darkly. “I will challenge you.” What did he care if he was fucked up? He still wondered about him though- he seemed like he had wanted to help him and Corey down by the river and didn’t seem to look down on them, but he still wanted to fight them even though he would have known he could beat them easily.
The soldier smiled. “Good. Call me Grey. And your name is?”
         “Saienta.” He took in the last drag of his cigarette and threw it onto the ground, the lit ash brightening and fading.
Grey met the others’ eyes with his eyes, expectation clearly shown.
         “I’ll fight her,” Elli said, inclining her head towards Linx and Linx smiled mockingly.
         “I will fight you two,” Grey said and motioned at Saienta and Corey. “It will even out the numbers.”
         “I’ll fight him,” Ryan said, looking at the soldier with the slash on his eyebrow who was still in a fighting stance. Annaleace shot Ryan a look but he ignored it.
         “I will fight,” Sirian said and Annaleace looked at her in surprise.
         “Then your opponent will be Mira,” Grey stated, looking at a girl with short brown hair. “And you?” he asked Annaleace.
Annaleace looked unsure, obviously not wanting to get into a fight, but not wanting to seem like she was giving up either. She took a moment, lost in her own thoughts and looked up at them with a new light of resolution in her eyes. “I’ll fight.”
Ryan looked at her in worry but then exhaled. They all knew it had to happen. It would only get worse from here on and if they wanted to be acknowledged at all, they couldn’t decline a challenge, even knowing they were going to lose badly. They had their own personal reasons for staying and had made the decision already- there was no backing down from whatever came their way in this world.

It didn’t take long for them to fall.

Saienta and Corey moved away from the others and were faced with Grey. The soldier gazed at them and waited for Corey to strike first. Corey and Saienta took on a defensive stance instead, having observed the stance the soldier with the scar on his eyebrow had taken earlier. Grey nodded in approval and took on an offensive stance, his eyes flicking from one to the other. Saienta looked past Grey for a second to see the others had begun fighting already and there were cries of pain from two of the girls as they were hit. Saienta concentrated on Grey instead, preparing himself for the pain. Grey hazed and kicked at Corey’s face with the bottom of his boot, but Corey saw it- Grey was going slow on purpose- and used both hands to push it away. It wasn’t exactly the type of block one would imagine in a fight- it seemed more like Corey was pushing away someone he didn’t like, and Grey put his foot down, then delivered a hard blow to Corey’s face with a fist. Corey coughed and closed his eyes from the pain, bending over as the force pushed him back. Saienta moved in to strike Grey from the side and Grey hazed backwards, then hazed forward, kneeing Saienta in the stomach. It caused him to double over and put him out of the fight momentarily but it wasn’t as hard as Mizu’s hits from the other night and Saienta figured Grey wanted them to last longer, however, they were still stronger than a punch at full force from a normal person. Saienta could hear the sounds of the others fighting.
         “Strike,” Grey commanded waiting for them both, looking back and forth. Saienta looked over at the others and saw Ryan fighting the soldier who was hazing out of way each time. Elli was doing the sam
A Non-Existent User
Saienta now knew exactly which skills they were lacking in: the ability to see their movements, speed, strength, tactics, reflex, and reflexive actions.

He looked at Corey and figured he would have looked just as bad with cuts, swellings and gashes all over them, their uniform was streaked with mud and grass stains.
Eventually each fight drew closer to a centre point and Saienta looked at the others who were looking and feeling just as bad as he and Corey. The five true soldiers were only a little out of breath but they had no marks on them, whatsoever. Elli raged and hit and missed Linx’s smiling face and fell to her knee, but stood again. Ryan looked enraged as he fought his opponent and Annaleace looked determined but calmer. Sirian looked red and was grinding her teeth; she had probably grown angrier as the fight developed.
They were all getting slower, except for the true soldiers, and after half an hour of fighting, were ready to fall to the ground in exhaustion and pain. Saienta hoped Grey would knock him out already. Grey pressed on and refused to let them stop, and Saienta noticed some of the other soldiers glancing his way when they had time, and then away again.

Saienta went for one last punch, missed and fell to the ground, bleeding from his nose and mouth with his head to the side, and watched Grey knocked Corey to the ground easily without striking him; and Saienta saw the other four soldiers do the same to their opponents, standing with backs straight, over them and searching with their eyes over each person. All six of them had guessed correctly in their minds that this would be the end result. They all looked as bad as each other, or possibly worse.
Linx laughed. “Ah…I never knew this is what our species could have been like,” she mused. “Little children, no soldier will acknowledge any of you as one of us. None of the soldiers can believe Ame gave them the best houses in Sandra. As if it will make a difference to our opinion.” She leaned down to Elli’s ear. “That house won’t be yours for long, don’t get comfortable.”
Grey ignored Linx and seemed as though he didn’t hear as he looked over each of them solemnly. “We will fight again tomorrow.”
Elli groaned from where she was sprawled on the grass near Saienta but Saienta couldn’t turn his head. “Oh…you’re not serious?” she mumbled in pain.
Grey nodded, standing straight up and then he looked at the sky, at the shining stars. He pushed Saienta’s body over with a foot to face the stars and then did the same for the rest of them. Saienta was too exhausted to wonder why and gazed up at the stars, the blood on his face cooling and drying, and he watched vaguely as the soldiers departed, leaving them in the middle of the field in their misery. Saienta didn’t care so much and found it interesting but the pain was definitely not something to enjoy. They stared in silence at the night sky and the half moon, thinking about what had just happened and their entire day. No one moved, they couldn’t.

“What was the point of all this?” Sirian asked in a croaky voice somewhere distant. He couldn’t tell how close they were and the voices were beginning to dim in Saienta‘s head.
         “Don’t know,” Annaleace replied in the same voice.
         “We learned what pain is, that’s for sure,” Elli said. “My whole body…”
         “It hurts,” Annaleace agreed.
         “I can’t keep my eyes open…” Ryan murmured.
“The stars,” Corey said a time later, closer to Saienta than the others. “They’re far…” Saienta heard his hand drop and guessed he had pointed at them. “…but close.”
         “Do we exist?” Saienta asked, thinking about Ame and the two worlds. “Where?”
The stars above were beginning to brighten and fade, feeling close like a blanket and then distant.
         “Here,” Ryan mumbled. “Where ever we are, we exist.”
They weren’t talking straight- they were getting quieter and in more of a daze, speaking as though they couldn‘t hear each other or themselves. A soft haunting melody played in Saienta’s mind.
         “What about when we aren’t here?” Sirian asked. “What are we?”
         “Why are we here?” Annaleace asked.
“To exist,” Corey replied, dozing off. “…I don’t want to be nothing…our existence could be more here than it ever will be in our own world…”
         “We’re here to live, to dream, to be,” Ryan added, also drifting. “We’re here for our own purposes and here for one gathered purpose…”
         “…To exist and help others exist…” Sirian’s voice whispered.
“…mm…and to dream and allow others to dream…” Elli said, her fight with Sirian forgotten for now.
         “Our decisions…We’re fading from this world…” Saienta spoke in almost a whisper, unconsciousness taking him over.
Saienta heard Corey’s distant voice as though it was floating past him into the stars. “…we were in this world’s line of discord and we have to pull ourselves into the stream of harmony…”
         “And we need substance here,” a voice said and Saienta vaguely recognised that it was Annaleace. “…We’re real here…We can’t be a dream, stay a dream and then disappear…Our…”

“…Existence is Substance…” they whispered in unison, but the voices faded away and the stars blurred as Saienta closed his eyes and fell asleep, and like the others, forgetting everything he had just heard.



Annaleace, Sirian, Elli and Ryan went through the Gate right after school on Thursday. Neah and the other three horses were waiting for them. The ride from the city into the village was a calming one. Sirian and Annaleace talked a little, while the other two stayed silent mostly, adding comments occasionally.

Ame was waiting for them outside her house, running a hand down her horses neck. She turned purposefully at Annaleace and smiled greatly; it was a humoured and playful smile. But when she spoke, it was directed at the four of them. “Tiyan is waiting for you.”
She led them down to the horse fields, and while they rode Annaleace rubbed her thighs. Sirian looked over at her.
         “You okay?”
         “Ya, ya my legs are really sore. Not use to riding, I guess.” Annaleace looked up at her. “Yours?”
Sirian shook her head, then shrugged. “Sort of. I used to take lessons when I was a kid.”
It didn’t take long before the horse fields were in front of them. There were horses up the hill, grazing, while Tiyan stood in front of them, smiling.

They began to dismount their horses, then stopped when Tiyan spoke. “No, stay on. You’ll be learning how to haze ride today.” Tiyan smiled from ear to ear. “Just remember hold on tight.” He whistled and Rain came running toward them, slowing as he approached. He mounted the horse then turned back to them. “Good luck.” He clucked his tongue, and the horses began to run.
Annaleace tried to hold on to Neah, but when the ride quickened her hands slipped, causing her to fall back, hitting the grass with a thud. She closed her eyes and laid on the ground breathing deeply.
         “Are you okay?”
Annaleace didn’t open her eyes. “I think so. Haven’t been hit that hard in a while.” She opened her eyes to see Tiyan standing over her.
         “In a while? You get a hit a lot?” He had a questionable look on his face.
         “Ya, when I play around- and four brothers doesn‘t help much either.” Annaleace rubbed her back then took Tiyan’s hand and he pulled her up.
         “Next time try to lean in closer, don’t be afraid to hold on tighter. Neah’s a big horse, she can take a lot.”
         “Thanks, I‘ll try that.” Annaleace wiped the dirt off her jeans then looked up at him. Their eyes met, and he smiled. She realized her hand was gently held in his and her lips parted in a sweet smile. She couldn’t describe it but she felt…safe, protected by just being in his presence.
         “Looks like I’m not the only one who fell.” Sirian was standing to her left, pulling hair back into a ponytail. Elli and Ryan were laying in the grass, looking half-dead, probably cherishing the moments where they weren’t on their horses.
Annaleace dropped Tiyan’s hands and looked over at her. “No I guess not. Ready to try again?”
Sirian nodded, “Yeah, but next time I hope I don’t hit the grass as hard.” They laughed, then Tiyan whistled softly and their horses came trotting toward them. Annaleace pulled herself back on to Neah and got ready to haze.
Tiyan looked back at them. “Ready?”
The girls nodded and Tiyan clicked clucked his tongue and again everything quickened

*


         Friday morning
Annaleace stretched her arm out from underneath the covers and hit the snooze button on her alarm. She pulled the covers off her face and looked over at the clock. 6:30. She sighed and forced herself out of bed. She had a shower, then quickly got into her uniform and went across the hall to Ryan’s room. She knocked on the door and after there was no answer she walked in.
         “Ryan?” The room was empty. He must be up already.

Annaleace made her way down the stairs and into the kitchen. Danny, one of her brothers, was sitting at the table eating breakfast.
         “Hey,” Annaleace said.
         “Well where have you been lately?” Danny looked over at her, as she grabbed the milk from the fridge. “What the fuck happened to your face?!” She couldn’t see his expression as she now had her back to him, and she heard him jump out of his seat and grabbed her chin to look at her eye.
         “Nothing, I got in a fight.” Annaleace pushed him away and brought her food to the table.
         “You got in a fight?” He looked astonished. “Lace, you don‘t fight, Ryan fights. What really happened?”
         “I got into a fight with some chick at school who thought I was checking out her boyfriend, okay? Now back off.”
Danny came back to the table and finished eating. “You and Ryan haven’t been home lately. You’re lucky I covered for you guys last night.”
         “Thanks.”
         “Where’ve you been?” Danny looked up at her, studying her face as she lied through her teeth. Annaleace bite her lip and looked down at her bowl as she put a spoon full of Lucky Charms in her mouth. “In the city, hanging out with some people we met at school.”
Danny picked up his bowl and put it in the sink. He leaned his back onto the counter and looked back at her. “Okay, fine, you don’t wanna tell me. But I‘ll bet you anything it has to do with that black eye you have. Be careful Lace, I‘ve been there.” Danny started walking toward the doorway. “I have to go to work, you guys coming home tonight?” Annaleace shook her head without lifting it. He sighed. “Okay then. Stay out of trouble. Lacey…I mean it.”

Annaleace walked down the halls with a pair of sunglasses to hide her eyes. People on both sides of her still stared at her as she walked past. She ditched into the gym change rooms and got dressed quickly. Gwen and her posse came in behind and were talking about the latest gossip to hit Ellet in weeks.
         “I heard they got in this huge fight and he got so mad he just couldn’t control himself, if you know what I mean.”
         “Who are we talking about now?” asked her friend.
         “Sirian and Keiji.“ Gwen’s eyebrows arched upwards and everyone shook their heads.

Annaleace laughed to herself, is that what everyone thought? That Keiji hit Sirian?

*


Friday afternoon
Annaleace was on the fourth floor of their new house. She looked across at the village, Sandra was what Wing-Moth had called it. The house was beautiful, nothing that she had ever seen. The first floor was open, no doors, only windows side by side, scattered on two walls across from each other. The other two walls weren’t walls but sliding doors. A stair case was on the left hand side, or right depending on which way you came in. The stairs themselves were wooden and polished causing them to shine. The second floor looked like it didn’t belong to the first. There were rice walls everywhere, creating five rooms. The rooms were fairly large, two of them had balconies to the outside looking over the city. There was another set of stairs above the ones leading up the second. The third floor had a large open space, except on the right after getting up the stairs where there was a sliding door. They had a kitchen with full utilities. Ryan had laughed when he’d seen it. “Who cooks?” He had said. She hadn’t had the heart to tell him most people had a fridge full of food not left over take out. The last floor was more of an open roof, reminding Annaleace more of a sunroof but larger. Ryan came up behind her and put his arm around her shoulders. “This house is amazing Lace.”
She nodded, looking across at Ames’ house, then at the house only a hill away from this one. “I know, but we can’t accept it.”
Ryan looked shocked. “Why not?”
         “We haven’t paid for it. It’s wrong.”
Annaleace and Ryan turned their heads as Sirian came up the stairs to join them.
Ryan signed. “Yeah, you’re right. But this house is amazing, am I right?” Sirian and Annaleace laughed, looked at each other and nodded.
         “Let’s go see the others.” Annaleace turned and walked toward the stairs, the others following.

*


Kuki looked at Annaleace again and couldn’t contain herself. She came closer and then embraced her again. “My little grandson Tiyan is all grown up and marrying a beautiful sweet girl like you!”
         “Oh…” Elli said, as they all realized who Kuki was and why she was so attached to Annaleace. Lovely Kuki was Tiyan’s grandmother.
Annaleace smiled, she couldn’t help herself. She thought of her own grandma and the way she would have acted to see the soon-to-be wife of one of Kuki’s grandsons. Kuki looped her arm through Annaleace’s and began walking through the market with her. “I knew my grandson would never marry someone ordinary. I told him when he was a little boy that he would marry a girl like no one he’s ever met.” Kuki nudged her. Annaleace smiled, her hand began to play with the coin around her neck as she listened to Kuki. “He’s special, you know.”

Annaleace walked back through the market. She looked around hoping to find the others, then spotted Sirian in what looked to her like a small restaurant and walked toward it. When she got to the doorway she stopped and looked around, and saw Sirian waving to her from a table close to the back. She went and sat down beside Sirian.
         “Hey, how was Lovely Kuki?” Sirian laughed.
         ”Ummm, interesting, to say the least.” The girls both laughed while Saienta waved the waitress down. She beamed at Annaleace, who smiled back. “I’ll have…mmmm…whatever she’s having.” Annaleace pointed at Sirian. The waitress smiled then left again.

*


         Saturday morning
Annaleace opened her eyes to see Ame standing over her, smiling. “It’s time to get up, your training begins soon.” The others were already sitting upright- Ryan was holding his chest. The six of them had all slept over. It was Annaleace’s first time. Somehow they pulled themselves together and began walking to Ame’s house. The walk seemed to take forever. Every time she stepped, Annaleace could feel pain exploding throughout her entire body.

Ame handed them protein drinks as they sat around the table. They looked like they had been hit by metal poles and felt like it. “I heard about last night, how are you feeling?”
Annaleace looked up at Ame. Her expression was straight. It was a look masking what could’ve been running through her head.
After a moment, there were sighs. “Well…we’re alive, I think.” Annaleace looked up at Ame, forcing a smile on her face.
Sirian looked down at her glass. “Could’ve been worse. They could’ve used all their strength.”

Tiyan came in through the door and bowed to Ame, who bowed in return. “Good morning. I heard you guys had an…interesting night.”
There were grunts at the table- all the talk of the previous night brought back the pain that still lingered in their bodies.
Tiyan turned to Ame, glancing at Annaleace. “Ame do you mind if I borrow Annaleace for a minute?”
Ame nodded. “Training begins soon, so don’t be too long.”
Tiyan’s face broke out into an ear clenching smile as he bowed. “Thank you, we won’t be.” He placed his hand in the air for Annaleace to take, helping her up.

They walked down the porch steps and toward an open field.
         “Does it still hurt?” Tiyan asked.
         “Only when I breath.” Annaleace tried to place her feet on the ground gently. Tiyan frowned a little, thought for a moment, and said suggestively, “Then why don’t we sit…here.” He stopped and Annaleace began to ease herself down. “I heard that you met Lovely Kuki.”
Annaleace smiled. “Ya, she’s really nice and…”
         “A little crazy?” They both laughed. “I hope she didn’t embarrass you too much.”
         “No, not at all. I know how it is. I had a grandma once too.” She played with the necklace around her neck.
         “I talked to Nyu yesterday. I’m sorry. People here aren’t usually that…”

         “Rude,” she finished for him. She looked up into his eyes and she could see he truly felt hurt by his people.
         “Yes. I don’t know- girls here- they don’t understand…” She could tell he was having trouble explaining what he wanted to say. But she caught the drift of it.
She took his hands in hers. “I know, Nyu explained it all yesterday. But I have to know something.” She closed her eyes and took a few breaths, then looked back at him. “Why did you choose me? You could’ve had a girl in Sandra, or in the South from what I’ve heard. So why me?”
Tiyan smiled, and ran his fingers down the side of her face. “I didn‘t choose you. We were meant to be together. Didn’t you feel it, when we met?”
His eyes didn’t pry into hers, just listened, waiting for her reply. Annaleace took a deep breath and smiled widely. It was a feeling extremely hard to forget, and wouldn’t. “Yes.”


Thursday Lunch Period
         School. How could it possibly compare to what Sirian had been doing? Exams, Student Council meetings, sports practice... It all just seemed so surreal. Sirian had changed so much. Outwardly, she lost the jewelry that had once been such an integral part of her “look”. A platinum belt and diamond earrings weren’t exactly conducive to before and after school training sessions. The heels were traded in for durable black running shoes. Her hair didn’t seem to be as big of deal as before and now a simple braid was traded for her stylish hair-do’s.
         Her appearance wasn’t the only thing that was different. Sirian had separated herself more and more from the people that she had grown up with. Keiji was especially beginning to notice it. It wasn’t that she didn’t still want to be his friend. She just hated lying to him. Every time he asked if she was busy, she had to make something up. It was horrible. Not only was Sirian not making any progress with the training, her hard earned life in the supposed “real world” was falling to pieces. Juggling so many things with one life hadn’t been all that difficult before, but now... it was different.
         She had quit three clubs already and she was bracing herself for what would happen when she left her life of sports, especially the football team. Could she do that? Her teammates relied on her. It wasn’t just a position on a team. The others fed off of her strength and in return, their support gave her a sense of achievement as a leader, which only fueled her drive to succeed further. It was a circle of friendship. A circle that had not been shattered, ever. How could she break their trust by quitting without telling them the reason?
         It was a catch-22. Pure and simple. If she told her friends the reason, she would be reneging on her promise to Ame, the General, Annaleace, Ryan and the others, which would result in her loosing her memory anyways. Saving another world had to be so much more important than a football team, but she still didn’t savor the coming conversation with her coach.
         Knocking softly on the door in the boys locker room, Sirian paused, waiting for an answer. She was invited in and saw the coach sitting at his desk eating a ham sandwich.
         “What’s on your mind?” He asked, motioning for her to sit down. “Excited about the tryouts this weekend?”
         ”Coach, this is really hard for me.” Sirian said, without sitting down. “So I’m just going to spit it out and be on my way.”
         ”Is something wrong?”
         ”Yes. I have to quit the teams.”
         ”All the teams?” He choked on his sandwich. After regaining his composure, he leaned forward, eyebrows furrowed. “What are you talking about?”
         ”I won’t be able to participate in any extracurricular activities this year.”
         He brushed it off like Sirian had asked to go home five minutes early. Apparently, he was not taking her seriously. ”If you’re falling behind on schoolwork, I can talk to the Dean. We just can‘t afford to loose you.”
         ”No, Coach, my studies are fine. But I still have to quit.”
         ”I won’t accept that as a practical excuse then.” He said. “You’re going to let down all of your teammates? After all the awards and trophies that you’ve earned for this school, and after everything I went through to get you on the boys’ teams in your freshman year?”
         ”Please don’t make this any harder for me.” Sirian looked at her shoes. She fought against the inevitable onslaught of emotional issues this brought up. “There are plenty of people who want to try out, so you’ll find replacements for me. With time and practice, you will all be fine.”
         ”Is something going on at home? Are your parents putting you up to this? Did a student from a rival school threaten you because of the big game coming up?”
         ”No!” Sirian nearly shouted, unable to suppress herself. “You don’t understand. This is my choice. I’m not going to participate in any extracurricular activities. No sports, no clubs, no committees, no nothing. I don’t have an explanation, but this is the only recourse left open to me. You and the boys will just have to accept my resignation.” Sirian turned to leave the office, but she stopped. “If I had any other choice, you know that I would stay. I’m sorry for this. I’ll be cheering you on and hoping for the best for everyone. I just wish that you all could do the same for me.”
         She left then. Stopping by the bathroom to gather her thoughts before continuing on, Sirian felt close to tears. She hated herself right now. Why had she agreed to this in the first place? To help others and to find myself. I’ve been so caught up in being busy that I never learned who I was. Instead of masking my pain, from now on I’m going to work through it. She patted her misty eyes dry and left the bathroom. She made her way to the courtyard where she promised to meet Lacy and Ryan.
         ”Hey guys.” She said sitting down with them.
         ”Did you do it Siri?” Annaleace asked.
         ”Yea, I did.”
         ”Do what?” Ryan asked, perplexed.
         ”I quit all the sports teams.”
         ”New development much?” Ryan laughed.
         ”Just don’t tell Keiji yet okay?”
         ”Tell me what?” Keiji asked, smiling widely, which was usual for him.
         Sirian, caught unprepared, stuttered but Annaleace jumped in. “It’s a secret. Just between us girls.”
         ”Then why is Ryan in on it?” Keiji grinned.
         ”He’s having a sex change this weekend. We’d better get used to calling her Rei.” Lacy quipped and then jumped up to avoid being slugged by her brother.
         They all laughed, even Ryan, but after a minute Keiji frowned and looked at Sirian.
         ”Si?”
         ”Yah?”
         ”Can we talk?”
         ”Sure.” Sirian got up and followed Keiji a few yards away underneath an old oak tree. The oak tree... I remember Ame saying something about-
         ”There’s some things going on,” Keiji said, interrupting her thoughts.
         ”Nothing new K. There’s always something going on.”
         ”I’m worried about you. Rumors are flying. The bruises. Mysteriously disappearing off the face of the planet. You‘ve changed...You just aren’t the same confident take-over-the-world girl that you used to be. Is someone hurting you?”
         ”Hurting me? You’ve got to be kidding.” Sirian laughed, trying desperately to mask her anxiety. “Keiji. People change. I suppose that now is just my time to try new things out. As for the bruises, I’ve just been over zealous with my work outs. You know how brutal they can be.”
         ”Sirian, please stop lying to me.” Keiji said softly with his head hung low. It almost looked like he was going to cry. “I-I care about you too much to let something bad happen.”
         ”Nothing bad will happen.” Sirian said trying to catch his eye.
         ”You don’t know that!” He nearly screamed. Others in the courtyard turned to look at them. They were, perhaps, the most popular people in school. They were the inner circle of the in-crowd and verbal sparring was not something the popular kids did on a regular basis.
         ”Keiji, calm down.” Sirian spoke quietly.
         ”I won’t! Something is wrong and I need to know!”
         ”Let’s at least talk about this somewhere private okay?”
         ”No,” He said, his voice finally normal again. “I can’t stand all this mysterious bullshit. It pisses me off and I’m not the only one. This isn’t like you. We want the old Sirian back. Tell me what’s going on.” Keiji paused, concern apparent, ”I can help. I’m your best friend, that’s what I’m here for.”
         ”Yes Keiji. You are my best friend, but you can’t help me. There are things in my life right now that you could never understand. When I need help, I’ll ask for it. If you’re my friend, you’ll accept that.”
         The bell rang, signaling the end of lunch period. Sirian sighed and said a quiet goodbye. Before Keiji could stop her, she had disappeared into the building.

Friday Morning


         Sirian went about her morning routine, making sure to put cover-up over all her bruises to disguise the black tinged skin. Stalling as much as she possibly could because once again she was dreading the inevitability of the conversation she faced. This time with her parents. She took a deep breath, grabbed her shoulder bag, and headed downstairs.
         ”Good morning.” She called cheerily, hoping that the subject of her absence would not come up.
         No one answered. She looked around the lower level of the Tomi Mansion. It was empty. She made her way to an intercom and called into it. Still no answer. On the fridge, she found a note from her father stating that he would be working late at his office and on the microwave was a note from her mother. Something about a trip to the botanical gardens in the city. Sirian wrote a quick note saying that she would be spending the night at a friend’s house. Though conveniently forgetting to put which friend’s house she would be at.
         I sure dodged that bullet... She sighed and went to the kitchen for some quick breakfast. Pulling two eggs from the fridge along with some fresh veggies and cheese, Sirian set about making an omelet. The house was quiet... It was so strange. Though only three people inhabited the large home, it was eternally full of noise. Music, television, witty banter... The pleasant and unobtrusive sounds were as much a part of the mansion as the structure itself. Sirian found the quiet truly disquieting. Frowning, she threw the uneaten omelet into the garbage, washed her plate and left the house. Suddenly, all she wanted was to be in a loud and busy environment. Somewhere that was never calm.
         Sirian hopped into her car, revved the engine, and turned the music up. It was a Green Day song. She couldn’t recall the title, but she remembered the words. A song completely dedicated to loneliness and shattered dreams. She couldn’t help but think how true the words rang in her mind.
         ”I walk this empty street along the boulevard of broken dreams...” That’s the name of it Boulevard of Broken Dreams. ”I walk alone and my shadow’s is the only one who walks beside me. My shallow heart‘s the only thing that‘s beating...”
         Isn’t that the truth... Sirian sighed and turned the music louder. She desperately wanted to drown out her thoughts. It would be so wonderful if she had a clear head again. Thinking back to a time when life was much less complicated, Sirian found herself, once again, close to tears.
         ”Is it really so wrong to want to want to be normal...”
         She didn’t think that it was terrible to want a nice, comfortable life. But how could she help if she were always in predictable circumstances. On the other hand, since she had accepted this responsibility, she had been in so many dangerous situations that she was constantly looking over her shoulders for another attack from one of those stupid soldiers. Then why was Sirian looking forward to her time on the other side of the Gate?

Saturday Morning


         Still sore from yesterday, the three housemates made their way to Ame’s house. Sirian was glad that she had spent the night. If she hadn’t, her parents would have gone insane about the puffy black and blue marks on her body and that was the last thing she needed. Her mind wondered back to Ellet. They were holding football try-outs that afternoon. How would her former teammates react when they saw that she was not there on the most important day of the pre-season? Even worse, how would her parents react when she told them about what she had done. Did she even dare tell them? Or could she just keep up the facade? More lies piled on top of lies. It was frightening trying to keep everything straight.
         Sirian and Ryan watched as Annaleace left with Tiyan. She could tell by the look on Ryan’s face that he was anything save happy about their blooming relationship. He was a typical brother. Sirian found his protectiveness commendable, and he reminded her so much of Keiji. But at the same time, she knew that Annaleace wanted to explore her feelings about Tiyan. There was something about them that just clicked.
         ”She can take care of herself you know.” Sirian said softly.
         ”No she can’t. That, that ---” He couldn’t even say Tiyan’s name. Maybe this was more serious that Sirian first anticipated. “He’s taking advantage of her!” Ryan fumed.
         “She’s a big girl, and besides, she likes him.”
         ”Only because she feels obligated.”
         ”I think that it’s more than that. There seems to be a genuine spark between them. You don’t find that kind of connection with just anyone. It‘s a special thing. Love-”
         ”She does not love him! He‘s manipulating her and she‘s not doing anything about it because she doesn‘t want him to commit suicide.”
         Sirian didn’t think that Ryan was grasping the entire picture. He was seeing his sister being supposedly dragged into an unwanted relationship. The funny thing was that Annaleace was pleased. Sirian could tell. By simply looking at Annaleace, anyone would notice the spring in her step. Sirian was glad that her friend had found someone special in this new world. She only hoped that Ryan would grow to the same state of being.
         Tiyan and Annaleace came back and Ame announced that they would be haze riding again today. They traveled to where the horses were grazing in a field and called them over. A new gray horse came trotting up to Ame. She introduced the mare as Mist. Sirian smiled a little to herself thinking of how silly the names of horses back in the “real world” were compared to the natural names given here. She remembered back two years to when her father had bought a million dollar racing horse, Captain Jo Joe. Maybe I should bring that horse here. He’s got to be worth as much as our new house on the hill... Sirian laughed audibly and the others looked at her as if she were insane. She shrugged it off and jumped atop Spirit.
         Spirit tensed underneath her. Yesterday, he had nearly thrown her while they were hazing. Almost as if it were on purpose. He had chosen her, but he appeared to be irritated that Sirian had the audacity to ride him. He was too feral to have a rider and at times, he terrified her. Sirian was not an inexperienced rider. Quite the opposite in actuality, she had been riding horses since she could walk, began training and taking care of them when she hit eight, competing since ten. In her early teen years, she had trained a young Salle Fracais filly for her first sporting competition and together they had won best in show. So why was she having so much trouble with this new horse? Did Spirit need to be broken? Sirian couldn’t bare to think of such a magnificent horse being put through harsh training methods like starvation and whipping. She had never approved of such methods in all her years of equestrian riding and she wasn’t about to start thinking like that now. Spirit just needs to be loved.
         The group started off slow and gained speed at a steady pace. Spirit bucked once, but Sirian leaned in, unwilling to let Spirit throw her. Tiyan rushed over.
         ”Are you okay?” He asked, as the horses came to a stop.
         ”I’m fine. Spirit is just acting a little moody. I don’t know why.”
         ”Could be because he isn’t used to a rider. This is all very new to him, plus he‘s still quite young.” Tiyan excused himself to help Annaleace and Elli who had both fallen off their horses within seconds of each other.
         Ame, atop Mist, came over. She was smiling as usual and Sirian found it hard to fathom how she could be so happy all the time. But then, that was what most people thought about her...
         ”Spirit is a wild one.” Ame laughed politely. “Not like my sweet Mist. She’s as tender as they come.”
         They continued on training. Now more annoyed that Sirian had not fallen, Spirit was hell bent on wreaking as much havoc as possible among the other horses and their riders. Sirian held on for dear life, fearful that if she fell she would have a serious injury. She couldn’t slow him down. Closing her eyes, she screamed as he ran straight into the rest of the herd. Sirian tried desperately to gain control over Spirit, but he just wouldn’t obey her commands. Tiyan came over, making a clicking noise, but Spirit only rushed him and his horse. Upon seeing Smoke, Spirit wheeled about and dashed in his direction. Smoke reared and Spirit stopped dead in his tracks. Sirian’s head flew forward, almost smashing against Spirit’s neck, but she managed to avoid it by moving sideways. However, that motion caused Sirian to fall off Spirit. Avoiding a headfirst collision with her face, Sirian managed to land mostly on her hands and knees. Sirian tucked in, bringing her arms up to protect her head. She rolled a few paces away and as soon as she was off Spirit lunged at Smoke. The two horses went at it. At first it looked like play fighting, but the glint in Spirit’s eyes told Sirian that it was all real.
         Tiyan finally gained enough ground to break the two horses apart, shooing Smoke off and leading Spirit over to where Sirian was still sprawled, shocked on the grassy field. Tiyan dismounted and went to help Sirian to her feet. The others came running.
         “Sirian!” She heard Annaleace call.
         She smoothed her shirt and took a few long breaths. Spirit could have attacked Smoke while I was still astride, but he waited. Like he really didn’t want me to be hurt. Perhaps there’s more to this stallion than I first thought.
         ”Are you all right?” Tiyan asked.
         ”Just my pride.” Sirian laughed nervously, not altogether telling the truth.
         Bits of rock and dirt had imbedded into her hands and arms. They were bleeding freely. Just now had Sirian noticed the blood on her shirt from where her hands had been. Plus, she had landed almost entirely on her right knee. Gravity had caught up with her body, slamming down full force against her knee was not a good thing. Sirian placed a bit of weight on her right leg and found it buckling underneath her. She braced for another impact face first with the grass, but Corey and Ryan caught her before she fell.
         ”More than your pride,” Ame said rolling up Sirian’s pant leg. “Can you help Sirian to my home? Once there, we can take a better look at it.”
         ”Can I come?” Lacy asked, truly concerned. Elli just smirked. Saienta said nothing.
         ”You all may as well come. It’s time to take a break from training anyways. We’ll all have some lunch.”
         Tiyan said that he would stay behind to calm the horses down, and the rest of them made their way to Ame‘s house. Sirian limped heavily, supported very much by Corey and Ryan. She was embarrassed. Never before had she been injured this badly. In football, she had always managed to dodge the heavy blows. Though generally she was half the size of any chosen member on the oncoming team, Sirian was faster. This was different though, Sirian could have been killed because Spirit was in a bad mood. How could she get back on a horse that clearly loathed being ridden? Maybe one of the other horses would choose her after this fiasco. Spirit was simply too much to handle.
         They arrived at Ame’s house and she asked Elli, Saienta, and Annaleace to start on lunch, giving them instructions while examining Sirian’s wounds.
         ”I’ll have to get Sin. He should be at the training grounds now.” Ame said getting up. “Ryan and Corey, please help Sirian cleanse her wounds. I’ll be back in a few minutes.”
          Ame left and everyone was wondering why on earth she wanted to bring Sin. Even Elli, despite her animosity toward Sirian was caught up in the moment. Ryan found clean cloths and Corey located a shallow basin for Sirian to soak her hands and arms in. A few seconds of stabbing pain jetting through her hands and forearms and the water was reddened with blood. Ryan changed the water and Sirian was left to soak her hands while he cleaned her knee. The basin water had to be changed several times more before the bleeding slowed. Ryan apologized in advance and began pulling debris from her right hand. Corey did the same as he too her left hand. Sirian winced, but did not cry out. Teeth gritted and eyes closed, she didn’t notice that Sin and Ame had come back until Sin began snickering. She opened her eyes and grimaced at both the pain and sight of the little urchin.
         “Funny, I figured that he would be the first one hurt.” Sin laughed pointing at Ryan. “That’s okay sexy, you were second on my list.”
         Ryan looked like he was going to burst from the pent up fury. Sirian felt the same way, but she was too busy trying to cope the stinging needles shooting through her body as her damp raw hands hit the air.
         ”Why is he here?” Annaleace hissed, not wanting to be the next target of his venomous tongue.
         ”Sin has been gifted with healing mythra.” Ame said, but Sirian thought That pint sized pipsqueak is not going to touch me. “Sin, please.”
         ”Why should I?” He frowned. “This is proof that they should all just go home and spare themselves the embarrassment.”
         ”They were sent to us for a reason. If you have any respect for the General you will do as I ask.”
         Grumbling audibly, Sin brought his hands over Sirian’s palms. He closed his eyes and his hands began to glow, a soft yet bright blue-white. The strange thing wasn’t that Sirian’s hands were repairing at an amazing speed. No, the oddity was that as Sin used his mythra, Sirian could actually feel the energy emitting from him. In less time than any of the teens expected, Sirian’s hands and arms were healed. Sin began to walk away. Ame’s look was stern.
         ”Her knee as well.”
         He cursed under his breath and repeated the same procedure over her right knee. Once again Sirian felt the energy. Was that normal? She wasn’t even sure that she knew what normal was anymore.

Saturday Evening


         Sirian and Annaleace had decided to go back through the Gate for that night. Sirian not wanting to alarm her parents and Lacy needing a bit of time to talk girl-to-girl about her situation with Tiyan. Ryan had wanted to come, but when the girls told him of their girl’s-night-in plans, he changed his mind. Taking one car from the school’s parking lot seemed a good idea, so they left in Sirian’s car with Lacy driving.
         ”Oh, I never knew that driving was so much fun.” She laughed as she sped out of the school. “Let’s go to your house. We’ll probably get more privacy than with all my brothers.”
         ”Fine by me.”
         Before heading to the Tomi mansion, they stopped for Chinese take-out and video rentals. A half-hour later, they arrived at Sirian’s home both girls weighed down from carrying far too much.
         “Sirian, we need to chat dear.” Miya said coming into the parlor. “Ohh you brought a friend.”
         ”Mom this is Annaleace.”
         ”Pleased to meet you. Are you the friend that she’s been spending so much time with?” Miya asked politely.
         ”Yes Mrs. Tomi.”
         ”Call me Miya.” She smiled.
         ”Miya. My family and I moved here not too long ago. Sirian welcomed me and my brother.”
         ”Of course she did.” Miya beamed. “Our chat can wait until later Siri darling. I’m sure your father would love to meet Annaleace as well.”
         Yukio gave Lacy the same warm welcome and bid the girls a good night as they headed to the pool house.
         ”Why are we going to the pool?” Annaleace asked.
         ”There’s a small mother-in-law cottage behind the pool house and we won‘t disturb my parents if we‘re up late into the night.”
         ”This is small?” Lacy asked when entering, then she laughed. The cottage was a two-story 3,000 square foot building complete with every modern convenience. “You’re crazy.”
         ”I guess that I am.” Sirian laughed along. “But at least I come by it honestly.”
         They unloaded everything and changed out of their training clothes into oversized sleeping shirts. Sirian threw everything in the washer. At least for tomorrow’s training they would be clean.
          “You know, what Sin did this morning was pretty amazing.” Lacy said as she popped in the “Pretty in Pink” video.
         ”Yea, but that doesn’t make him any less of a twerp.”
         ”True.” She laughed.
         Sirian began throwing pillows on the carpet for them to sit on and blanket in case they got cold. She then pulled out the hundred dollars worth of take-out food.
         ”Are you sure that we need all this food?” Sirian asked.
         ”Of course. We’ll need popcorn and ice-cream later too.”
         ”And I’m the crazy one?” Sirian laughed.
         ”I’m not crazy, just famished.” They both tore into the food leaving little more than crumbs. “I think we ate enough food for a small army...”
         ”I think you’re right.”
         The girls busted up laughing and watched the rest of the movie. When the washer buzzed, Sirian put the clothes into the dryer. The movie ended and Annaleace turned to Sirian, completely serious.
         ”What’s wrong Lacy?”
         ”I’ve just been thinking about Tiyan.”
         ”And?”
         So Annaleace spilled everything. The way she felt. The way Tiyan felt. That special connection. Sirian just listened.
         ”I can’t even explain it.”
         ”But it’s still wonderful.” Sirian finished her friend’s thought.
         ”Exactly.” Lacy smiled. “So what about you and Keiji?”
         ”Keiji? He’s just a friend. I don’t understand him sometimes though. He tries to act like a big brother, lecturing me and then he’ll turn around and look like he wants to kiss me. He’s so-”
         ”Conflicted?”
         ”Exactly.” Sirian laughed. “I’ve known Keiji almost my entire life, and he’s been my best friend for just as long. But, I could never see him as a boyfriend.”
         ”Plus, you like Saienta.”
         ”What are you a mind-reader?” Sirian laughed. “Yes, I like Saienta. It’d be nice if he weren’t so closed minded. He acts like he doesn’t care about anyone or anything, but that’s just on the surface. I know that there’s something deeper. It’s so frustrating.”
         ”I hear that. All boys are frustrating.” Lacy sighed. “Okay, no more boy talk. Let’s pull out a chick flick.”

         Saturday Afternoon
Ryan stalked the village like a spectre of hatred manifest in a mortal body, he hated Sin, he hated Sirian having to depend on Sin for healing, and he hated the idea of Annaleace going out with that guy. Ryan wandered on it, not really paying attention to where he was going, just that he was going somewhere- anywhere. He raged and fumed inside till dark before he was calm. He sat down on a bench and tried to think straight; Tiyan wasn’t such a bad guy and Ryan was trying to accept it but, the way he sucked her in. Ryan felt his anger rising again and began thinking about something else. He took a deep breathe to calm himself… and noticed a weird smell. He ignored it and continued to search for a thought to take away his thoughts of Tiyan’s trick, but the smell got stronger, and Ryan recognized it. He stood up and inhaled again. He began to follow the smell, and after walking for a few minutes he came to a plain square building with tents all around it. Their were people moving around from tent to tent carrying bandages, water basins, wicker baskets of various plants, and a variety of other things. It wasn’t till Ryan saw someone with bloody bandages that it dawned on him that this was a hospital. Ryan watched the comings and goings of the people that he assumed were nurses for some time before his thoughts were interrupted by a sudden sense of warmth and calm.
         “Hello Ame,” he said as she came up beside him.
         “Hello Ryan, are you curious about the Medical Centre?” she asked.
         “Yes, I was just watching the nurses’ move around with their herbs and things to figure out where everything was,” Ryan answered.
Ame’s expression turned politely puzzled and she asked, “What do you mean?”
         “Well,” he began, “that tent billows smoke every time someone enters it so they’re using some sort of vapour medication and the herbs they keep bringing in create a sedative when burned so the people in there probably have some sort of injury that would cause a great amount of pain. That tent has bandages going in clean and go out slightly bloodied, so whoever the patient may be is in recovery and they are just changing bandages. But the bandages from that other tent come out heavily drenched in blood. The people in there are terminally injured or freshly wounded. I don’t recognize the herbs they bring into the rest of the tents so I don’t know what’s happening.”
         “You seem to know a lot about this,” Ame replied observationally.
         “My grandfather was a healer of sorts and I learned a lot for him and his book,” Ryan responded.
         “Book?”
         “He kept a record of all the herbs and their applications before he died- I have that book now.”
         “I know someone who you'd be interested to meet,” Ame said. “The head surgeon also keeps such books in his study.”
         “I couldn’t bring the book out,” Ryan stated, “it’s to valuable to go anywhere other than where it is now. I remember most of it."
Ame nodded. “Why not meet him? He will be in the main building, on the second floor,” she said, and pointed to its location.

Ryan paused a moment, thinking about what Ame had said before heading for the building and entering. The place smelled like a hospital cross between a dentists office, except not as strong, and their were rooms full of supplies; it seemed that all the medical practice happened outside. But he could have been wrong. Ryan found the stairs leading to the second floor and began to climb them. Finally he reached a door with the picture of a stone cross, overgrown with weeds, with the words ‘In nature we find peace, in peace we find healing.’
Ryan knocked on the door and waited for a moment before he heard someone say come in from the other side. Ryan turned the door knob and entered the room. The room was big and spacious. There were bookshelves lining the walls and incense burned all over the place. There were several desks, all covered in papers and books. It looked like a study, but felt like some sort of eastern monastery.

Their was a single person in the room, an old man sitting on the floor in the centre of the room, facing the far wall which was one huge window. The man wore a white robe and his grey hair hung in wisps on his head and Ryan immediately felt an almost peace about the man.
         “Come sit,” he said in a quiet voice. Ryan walked over to the man, sat down beside him and faced the great window. He wasn’t sure if it was in incense or the sheer presence of the man he sat beside but he soon felt a calm, not quite like the one Ame generated, but a natural quietness of mind. They sat their for an uncountable amount of time, just looking out at the stars.
Finally the man said, “What can I do for you, Ryan?”
Ryan snapped out of his trance and looked at the kind face beside him, “I have come here to talk to you about medicine.”
         “Oh?”
         “Yes. I have a book that I was told the hospital would be interested in. My grandfather was a healer and he had a book that he wrote about herbal medicine. I have come to know the book quite well. I would like to talk to you about the things I have learned from my grandfather.” Ryan paused as he looked around the room. “You have a great collection of books here, are they all about medicine?”
The old man shook his head. “That one shelf is about healing,” he gestured to the shelf closest to the door, “the rest are Philosophy and History. What do you know of your Grandfathers art?”
Ryan began to explain some of the basic herbal remedies that his Grandfather taught him, asking if this or that plant existed, receiving yes’s and no’s. The old man told Ryan of the plants that existed on this side of the gate and their properties.
         “You seem keen on healing and medicine, Ryan,” the old man drifted. After they had talked for an hour or so they settled onto the floor again and stared out the window. Ryan’s mind took him through all the problem he’s been having in this world; Sin, Tiyan, training, his family, and he looked at them with an almost totally different perception. How wrong he was, about his training, he soon figured out, but at that moment everything seemed more acceptable from this room beside this man.

He checked his watch and saw he had only an hour left until they began far-sight training. Ryan looked out the window he had been staring at for hours and for the first time noticed that it was morning. He had spent the whole night in the hospital with the old man. Ryan was reluctant to leave the old man but he knew he had to. As he headed for the door Ryan said, “I would like to work here with you and help treat others.”
The old man nodded slowly, but did not look at him. “Return tomorrow and I shall fill you in on the rules we follow here.”

As he walked towards the village he notice that everything seemed to look different than it did last night, not a difference in appearance but a difference in their meaning to Ryan. He walked almost in bliss till he came to his house. He saw Annaleace outside and she was with Tiyan. Ryan saw them holding hands but it stirred no anger, no hatred in him; he just saw them together and thought ‘they make a good couple.’ As he walked toward them he remembered the old man said, “What can I do for you Ryan?”… Ryan never told him his name.
A Non-Existent User


Saturday afternoon…
          Elli fell down, her tenth time. “That’s it, I quit,” she said, crossing her arms. “Obviously that animal doesn’t want me on its back, who am I to deny it that pleasure?”

          Tiyan blinked at her, and then helped her up. “Don’t give up, Elli,” he said. “Just keep practicing, you will get it.”

          “Well…I’ve been practicing forever. I’ve got bruises upon bruises upon cuts. Storm thinks I’m some kind of joke. Look at him. He’s laughing at me now.”

          Her dark grey horse looked at her, with twinkling eyes, his head nodding.

          “Well, at least he likes you,” Tiyan said. “And besides, he doesn’t throw you down every day…”

          “Yeah, it’s just every other day,” Elli said in a fake happy voice, dusting herself off. “That means tomorrow, it will be smooth sailing. Oh, how I love to ride horses….if I keep all this training up, maybe I can be a trendsetter and bruises can be the newest fad. I mean, they go with everything. Am I right or am I right?”

          Again Tiyan looked at her strangely and shook his head. Suddenly, Sirian’s horse went out of control, and the next thing Elli knew, she was on the ground, with bloody hands. Tiyan had ran over to stop the commotion.

          Elli glanced at her horse. “Well, I guess I’m lucky you don’t do that to me, right?” she said to him. He nuzzled her shoulder, as if he was agreeing with her.

Later…

          “Bye!” Ame said, as Elli trailed behind Corey and Saienta; it was getting late and time to go home, but the three wanted to check out their new house.

          When they got there, they stood in silence, picturing themselves in it. Elli pictured herself in the kitchen, with Corey and Saienta cooking for her…a cake…a great, big cake for them to share…

          “How about we spend the night here?” Saienta’s voice broke through her thoughts. Corey and Elli looked at him and then at each other.

          “Can we do that?” Elli asked.

          “I don’t see why not, it is our house,” Corey said.

          “Yeah…” Elli said, thinking.

          “What? You have to be at home tonight?” Corey asked her. “Your father, will he…?”

          “Actually, my dad won’t be home tonight,” Elli said rather sadly. “Um…he hasn’t been home a lot these past few nights…”

         Corey went quiet with unfocused eyes. Saienta didn’t say anything and only listened.

          “Well…he heard about mom’s marriage…I think…I think it was a blow to him,” she said slowly. “I know he doesn’t love her as he used to, but he’s worried about her. This bastard she’s marrying…he doesn’t exactly have a clean record, with many skeletons in his closet. But Mom oversees that…she only sees the good things she wants to see…like the money…”

          Elli sighed, and sat on the front step. Corey sat beside her and Saienta leaned against the support beam of the porch, taking out a cigarette.

          “I just wished…my family wasn’t so dysfunctional. All I really have is my dad, and thanks to society’s high standards, I hardly see him because he works so hard. And it’s not fair…I’m just…alone…”

          She looked away, trying not to cry. “I guess I just want to fit in without fitting in. I know I don’t have all the nicest things; I don’t need that, I just want…hell, I don’t know what I want, I just want things to get better. And not…shattered…”

          She then stopped talking. “I don’t want to burden you…” she said, standing up. “In fact, I’ll just leave. I don’t want--”

          “Stay,” Corey told her. Elli stopped, and look from Corey, and then to Saienta, who was looking at Corey, and then he turned away to look across the landscape. "This is our home, as well as the homes we already have."

         After a moment Elli smiled. “All right, I’ll stay,” she said, sitting back down, feeling better. She then looked at them. “So…who’s going to make dinner?”

-------------------------------------------------

         Friday Afternoon
Corey returned to school after leaving on his lunchbreak to pick up photos from the cruise, which were in a yellow envelope in his hand, and to retrieve a CA7 charger for Saienta from his house for he stole just the phone. Soon the CA7 would be available on the market. What was great about the phone was you didn’t have to charge the battery once a week, as you had to with previous phones. The CA7 could be used for an entire month, and even if you were a heavy user where you were always on the phone, as most businessmen were, it wouldn’t drain the battery as much.
Corey looked extremely tired with only a few hours sleep. He stashed away his hands into his pockets, looked toward the sky and began to whistle Higher, by Creed. He rubbed an eye, touching a faint blue bruise underneath that had come from Grey’s fist Thursday evening. It stung like a freshly bitten mosquito bite. His cut lip had started to heal but had swelled on the inside of his mouth. How many fights must he go through before he showed any sign of improvement? But how could he, when no one taught him or the other five how to fight. When would someone begin to teach martial arts to the six of them? All these questions he had thought twice before, and always an uncertainty swelled in him, but there was too much to be going on with to linger on questions that weren‘t answered.
The large ‘Ellet College’ sign at the front of the school in bold blue lettering glinted in the sun on the fence surrounding the entire school. The air was cold, even with the presence of the warm, golden sun in the sky. Coming in and out of Sandra as much as he did, he began to notice just how unclean the air was. The air wasn’t bad, as if he felt like blanching. Now, rather than before, the impurity of the air was more evident. On the ground a few dry and curly red and orange leaves scuttled across one side of the pavement to the other like crabs.
Corey kicked the knee-high brick wall just because he felt like it. Sticking out of the brick wall were metal pickets that looked like spears. He looked to his left through the spaces in the fence and looked at the school building, then further up to the fenced roof where the Gate stood, the students inside the yard oblivious to its existence. He couldn’t see the Gate but knew it was there. Three days inside Sandra had felt like weeks. So much change had to happen that affected his day-to-day life and other certain aspects, although none so big as learning to live and adapt in Sandra.
He came out of his daze and saw on the school wall new graffiti. Corey halted at something in particular written on the wall, which caused his whistling to come to an end. He raised an eyebrow at S.O.W on the wall, then continued on walking as he gazed at in contemplation.
He thought he had seen Cedric spray painting on the wall the other night and he shook his head. He found it plain sad of Cedric- the billionaire’s kid. It was true he had been initiated. Was he even aware what he had to do as a member of a gang? Corey didn’t know himself, but was sure he had more of an idea than Cedric. A few weeks ago he remembered asking Saienta what members had to do. Saienta answered, though had been vague on details. Corey remembered there being more to it. That very same day he had met some of Saienta’s crew. They were just like any other guys he considered normal and out to have fun. But there was something Corey couldn’t get his head around though. Were they dangerous?
He thought of Saienta’s dark state. It was something he’d not forget, but it was the first time he had thought about it since Saienta’s fight with Mizu. He wasn’t ignorant about it, or the scars on Saienta’s body, but kept any subject Saienta didn’t speak of respectfully unsaid or unquestioned. Dark state or not; to Corey, Saienta was a good person.
He rewound his thoughts back on to Cedric. If S.O.W had enough sense, they would spit Cedric back out once they found out just how un-useful he was. But all in all, he supposed the coward in him would most likely betray him, and he imagined Cedric running away, flailing his arms like a little bitch, just as he had done on the cruise as they sped away on the speed boat, at a critical moment in the mission.
He blinked and found himself at the foot of the stairs into the school building, not able to remember the walk from the gate entrance to the steps.

Corey swerved around the students stationed in the middle of the corridor, wondering where Saienta or Elli were. A few heads turned his direction and examined his facial injuries with strange looks. He came by his locker and took the books he needed for Maths, and then stashed away the photos he had in his hand. Saienta and Elli were nowhere to be found, neither were the other three.
         “Corey,” he heard to his right. It was Tidus. His voice wasn’t bitter, and his stance was calm. It appeared as if he had come out of nowhere at his side. He kept his gaze at first in front of him, then onto Corey.
         “I’m not going to get mad at you, alright?” he began, and the both of them stopped in the middle of the corridor. Students had to swerve around them to get past, like he had done before. Tidus’ expression turned serious, as well as his tone. “But what’s going on?”
If Tidus hadn’t have pointed to his face, Corey wouldn’t have known what he meant. And, of course, he couldn’t tell Tidus why he looked as beaten as he did, or as tired. Corey did not reply.
         “What is this, around your pinkie? I swear, I’ve counted, and there are at least five of you. Is this some kind of cult you’ve joined or something?” Corey first thought it was a joke. He almost laughed but stopped himself to the point of a grin. It must’ve looked bad on his part, to grin when Tidus sounded very serious about it. This wiped the grin from his face, the guilt of adding more fuel in the fire. “Where have you been? You’re never around.”
Tidus went quiet to give him a chance to explain himself, but Corey wasn’t going to explain what he couldn’t. He tapped one of his fingers on his textbook, and tried to think of something to say, but nothing came.
         “Why do you hang out with Saienta? It’s not like you.”
A spark of aggravation swelled at his words. “Not like me?” Corey replied in low, placid tones with traces of what he felt, but Tidus went on as though he hadn’t said anything.
         “Who’s beating you up, Corey?” Tidus paused, “Was it Saienta?”
Corey snapped like a pencil. Every time they spoke, he always spoke as though he knew Saienta, and every time he would demean Saienta, or suspect him of every bad thing around him.
         “What?” Corey said, disbelieving at the nerve at his words. “Saienta didn’t hit me. What gives you the right to judge?”
Tidus’ eyes narrowed. “Why don’t you ask him?”
         “No,” Corey replied stubbornly, “I’m asking you.”
He wanted to know, but knew Tidus was too on the surface. Corey watched him silently fume, after that Tidus looked around at the students passing them by, and then looking as though he had come to a decision, he turned back to Corey. What he said next surprised him.
         “Let’s walk,” Tidus said.

They were outside under a tree on a small wooden seat. Autumn had worn the tree to it’s last few red and brown leaves. Corey could see through the fenced wall of the school onto the main road as well as the back of the sign of Ellet College. Corey placed his textbook beside him and waited for Tidus to tell him what he didn’t know.
         “Do you remember that day on the train, Corey?” Tidus began. Puzzled, he looked up at Tidus. He almost shook his head, but something in Tidus’ expression made him see what Tidus meant. Corey nodded. “First day we became friends.”
         “A year earlier, when I was thirteen,” he continued, “I was friends with Sai.”
Perhaps it was the shock, but the words didn’t seem to register even though Corey heard him clearly. What’s more was, Tidus address Saienta as Sai. A name he knew not anyone but the closest could call Saienta Sai. It was something he found out by just hanging around with him. So Saienta and Tidus were once friends? Just from that information, a lot of questions were answered, like a puzzle being put back together. It explained how Saienta appeared to know quite a few things about Tidus, and likewise. For as long as Corey and Tidus had been friends, Tidus hardly ever talked about anything personal and it seemed to be hard for him to begin now.
Tidus went on in a low voice, as though he hated speaking of it. “It was just us two. We used to hang out- but we weren’t exactly close. I suppose it was because we were both in the same situation. We were both new to Ellet- the rich school we both made it into but we couldn’t fit in, even if we tried, because we weren’t rich. We had the same goal when it came to Ellet; we just wanted to do well and graduate.
We hung out at school everyday, but never saw each other’s houses; we talked, but we didn’t share much personal shit about ourselves. We were like allies- given time, we might have become closer…we would have become closer but things change, people change.
Has he told you about how he became a Red Tide?” Tidus turned to look at him, and Corey thought for a moment. He had been told, but Saienta’s explanation had been vague so he shook his head.
Tidus looked in front of him at his hands. “We were both at the arcade and as we were leaving, a bunch of guys jumped us and wanted to beat us up for no reason. Actually, it was ironic, I think they wanted our wallets, but it wasn’t as though we had any money; so they beat us until we were almost unconscious. This guy came along.” Tidus paused and said, “Reeva,” in an unmistakably bitter voice. “Reeva and his crew, we didn’t know they were Red Tide then, decided to help us out and afterwards Reeva took a liking to us both. I don’t know why, I figured it may have been because we looked like street kids, but we were from Ellet so it interested him.” Tidus thought for a moment. “Reeva started hanging around with us, examining us- if I can remember- and he kept Red Tide a secret until the day he said he trusted us both. Don’t get me wrong, I actually liked him back then, and so did Sai…until he asked us to join him. Join a gang?” Tidus scoffed. Corey had a feeling that Tidus must have liked Saienta and Reeva a lot back then, but now hated them for whatever they had done to him.
         “I was pissed when Sai actually considered it but who was I to stop him? We were fourteen by then, and I knew Saienta would say yes. I knew it. I hate him for it.
I said no, and he said yes, but he didn’t have to- that’s what gets me. We stopped hanging out after that. I don’t want to hang around criminals.
I don’t know what kind of shit Red Tide gets up to but I don’t ever want to be involved.” Tidus thought something over and then looked like he wanted to smash something. “He didn’t give a fuck about our friendship. He joined Red Tide and he didn’t care if we never hung out again, or that I had to hang around on my own.”
Tidus glared at Corey. “Reminds me of the way you’re being now, but you’re not like him. You’re not dark, the way he is. He was always like that, I just didn’t realise it. You told me to be careful, when you’re the one who should be careful. First selfish reason Sai gets to fuck you over and he will. Be careful, Corey.”
Corey was taken aback but kept his calm.
         “Now you’re hanging out with him and it’s happening to me all over again. And you know what else gets me? I know you care, but this time you just don’t seem to give a fuck.”
Corey could not believe the shit-talk coming from his mouth, and he felt defensive, but Corey stood up with his textbook without looking at him and began to walk off. If Tidus wanted to believe Corey was severing ties with him, that was up to him. The stubborn side to Corey wasn’t going to make Tidus understand the situation. He did nothing and said nothing to imply he wasn’t a friend. He heard Tidus stand up and call his name. It was then, as Corey stopped just two or so metres away from him, he reconsidered. It was Tidus who didn’t seem to get it.
         “Do you know what I don’t understand, Tidus?” Corey said without turning.
         “What?” Tidus asked.
         “How did I turn my back on you, when you turned yours on me?”
         “What?” Tidus asked, sounding defiant and confused. Corey turned around to face him with a mixed expression because he was feeling so many things. But he didn’t look angry as he stared into Tidus’ narrowed eyes.
         “It was you who wanted nothing to do with me that day under the willow. You didn’t have to say it- I knew- ‘cause of Saienta. I did listen to your warnings, though who are you to choose friends for me? You’re blinded by your bitterness of Saienta, he’s not as you see him.”
True, Saienta may have turned his back on Tidus, but Corey hadn’t. In their case though, Tidus had done it to himself. How would Corey know if Tidus hadn’t done the same thing to Saienta?

With several minutes to spare before Maths, he decided to go to the school library to look up lessons for horse riding. The atmosphere inside the library was the same as being in any other library. There was noise, but not from any loud speaking. People’s footsteps and shuffling of paper as someone turned the page of a book filled the room.
To the chair on Corey’s left he put the textbook down, and began to search with his finger down a list of phone numbers and addresses on the page of a book he had gotten down from a shelf. His finger stopped beneath the closest horse riding club from his house. He estimated it was a thirty minute drive, and it looked as though it was out in the middle of no where. A no man’s land. Under the address were groups which determined what stage someone was at. He was definitely in the beginner group. There was also amateur and advanced. He slid out his phone and dialled the number on the page. He listened to the monotone ring for a while, and tapped on the table almost idly. Perhaps too long. And just as he was about to hang up someone on the other side picked up.
         “Hello, Ruth Mare speaking. How can I help you?” Her voice sounded posh and stern.
         “Hello. I’m interested in beginners lessons.”
He felt he was doing business with some important person. What had one night of hard work at Akaino tech. done to him? Ruth was quiet than she should’ve been, as though she was on the other side of the world and it took a while for his words to get to her end. It made him feel unsure. “May I ask how old you are?”
Corey almost answered sixteen. Seventeen was still too new to him to remember right away. “Seventeen.”
         “Mmm,” she said, “I suggest taking the amateur class.”
It sounded perfect- he was an amateur. But beginners came before amateur, and he really did need to start from the beginning. “No, beginners is fine…”
Again, she was quiet for longer than she should have. “I’ll tell you what- come on Monday afternoon to a lesson as a trial, and at the end of it decide then if you’d still like to continue, or be put with the amateur class.”

Corey put away his phone, put his hand over the book and just as he closed it, a small boy appeared by the table and said, “Hi, Corey.”
He looked up into his face, and then down at the books piled into his small arms. The boy had Saienta’s haircut, except the dark grey blades of hair on his head were even. There was also a tinge of a dark, rich chestnut brown in his hair where light reflected onto it from the ceiling lights. He had hazel eyes of brown and grey, and under his eyes and across his nose were freckles of a light tone. He must’ve been thirteen or so, but he wasn’t sure. The boy did look familiar. Where had he seen him before?
         “Hey,” Corey said. The boy heaved the books onto the table. It must’ve been heavy because it made a thump sound, and then he began to scratch his upper left arm.
         “Um,” the boy began in a small voice, “Tidus said we could hang out sometime. But, he has a girlfriend now.” He looked away and a sudden but subtle nervousness came over him. “So can I hang out with you?”
As soon as he mentioned the name Tidus, Corey understood who he was. He was the boy Tidus and himself had stopped Cedric from picking on. His name was Kai. He felt surprised that Kai had remembered his name, but his surprise didn’t show in his expression. Corey was unsure, and mildly confused about why Kai would want to hang out with him. Nevertheless, when Kai finished speaking, he gave him a small smile.
         “Sure,” Corey said. Kai sat down at his table and started to read the biggest book in the pile. Corey checked his watch, and stood up to go to class. Kai looked up.
         “See you on Monday?” Kai asked him in an uncertain kind of way.
Corey nodded and said firmly, “See you on Monday.”
Kai’s face brightened.

*


         Saturday evening
The sky was awash with brilliant colour as the sun sank further down the horizon. The air was warm. The crickets and cicadas sung a melody in turn that it made it sound like a duet. Corey breathed in deeply and lay back on the wooden terrace outside his house in Sandra. Saienta leaned against a support beam, though he moved to sit down while smoking his cigarette. In Saienta’s hand was an ashtray. Corey figured he brought it from home. Elli was sitting on the front step. The three of them listened to the sounds of the evening as each one of them grew hungry. Saienta put out his cigarette in the metal tray.
         “I’m starving,” Elli said. If someone hadn’t have said it, Corey would’ve, but there was no food in the house. Saienta stood and left his shoes near the front door as Corey watched him.
         “Where are you going?” Corey asked.
Saienta looked over his shoulder. “I have groceries in my bag. I was going to take it home, but I’ll just use it here. I don’t care,” Saienta paused, then turned around to them. “You guys have gotta make dessert though.”
Excitement flared inside him. Saienta’s cooking was always something to look forward to, and it always tasted delicious. Corey and Elli stood up and followed him inside to see what he had brought for them to eat. In the kitchen, they stood aside and watched Saienta unpack his backpack.
         “What are you going to cook?” Elli asked curiously, looking through the groceries he brought which he unpacked onto the kitchen bench.
         “Can you guys go get some more groceries for me, while I prepare the rice for the sushi? I need fresh pink fleshed fish that can be eaten raw.”
         “Something like salmon?” Elli asked.
         “Yes. And while you’re there, get whatever ingredients you need ‘cause you guys are making dessert.”
Corey wasn’t paying too much attention because he wanted to know what else he had brought. He sneaked a peek inside his backpack as he drew back the open flap and whatever inside made a noise of bottles hitting. A bottle of sushi-vinegar clanged against a hard black metal object and Corey realised it was a gun. He pretended not to notice, nodded his head as though he was just interested to find vinegar and drew away. Saienta carried a gun with him? Corey wondered if he carried it everywhere. Had he ever shot anybody? Corey shrugged and decided he wouldn’t dwell on it. Saienta looked at him and Corey thought he saw a hint of a knowing smile playing on his lips.
         “Corey…did you hear what I said?” Elli asked when Corey nodded at what she had been talking about.
He shook his head guiltily.
         “I asked you what kind of dessert we should make.”
Corey shrugged. “We won’t know what kind until we see what kind of ingredients they have here.”
Elli shrugged then, too, and they made their way out of the house to find Moth to borrow some more money. On their way down the hill edged with trees that stood beside the river, they found Wing-Moth dozing in a tree. Elli had pointed him out to Corey, and they moved toward him. He was amazed how the old man could sleep peacefully with his coat on, which was so full of objects and sharp things.
Elli cupped her hands around her mouth and called up the tree as they approached, “Moth-man!”
Corey saw him wake up as though he hadn’t been sleeping at all, but pretending. He looked down at them from his branch, then he sat up and stretched while yawning loudly. He reached inside his coat and from it he took a pouch full of coins. Corey could tell by the way the contents sounded. Wing-Moth threw it down and it landed at their feet. Corey leaned over to pick it up, while Elli thanked him. He looked up again and saw Wing-Moth sleeping once more, but he called back to them as though in his sleep, though he sounded fully awake, “I’ll put it on your tab.”

The first thing that came to Corey’s attention was how smooth the dirt roads were in the village. Someone must have swept them to keep it neat. He didn’t understand why until further in the village. The place was electric with most activity happening in and out of restaurants. Looking back at his first visit into the village, he remembered how discreet the villagers had been to not clatter the roads with anything decorative that would attract customers, but now they were embellished with banners, and coloured lanterns outside restaurants. Hanging out front of stores were some of the most fascinating paper lanterns he had ever seen. Corey examined one animal shaped paper lantern hanging overhead to the entrance of a road. It was two fish bent over another as if swimming in a spiral. One fish was red while the other was purple. The glow it illuminated on the people outside a restaurant was captivating to him, then again he was virgin to that kind of scenery so to anyone else it might not have been as appealing. There was laughter and talking everywhere, and sometimes a scream or a cry from a little child that had fallen over in the dirt.
The wary eyes that followed him and the five others on their first visit were now too busy socialising, or eating, to notice Elli and himself. It was a different case with the soldiers though, the ones who spotted them walking past. They would turn in their seats while at the table and watch them as they sipped at their drinks. Both Corey and Elli ignored their watchful gazes, and Elli seemed sure they wouldn’t do anything while it was so busy, and the villagers who respected them were about. But he wasn’t sure if she was only saying it to reassure herself or not. There weren’t many people who believed they had every right to be here as they did.
Elli pointed at something and Corey followed her line of sight. It was a fish market, and it looked as though they were cleaning up and closing for the night. They rushed over, and once they approached Corey asked if they were too late to buy anything. The man serving them looked no older than thirty with long, sleek black hair he kept out of the way by tying it back. He had the hands of a fisherman- rough looking, and at the same time, youthful.
The man gave them a small smile. “You’re lucky. No.”
Elli put a finger to her lip, scanning the types of fish sectioned in trays along a long narrow table, then up at the man serving them. There was ice in the trays to keep the fish fresh from browning. He wondered where they got the ice from and how they kept it frozen. Corey knew Saienta wanted to make sushi, but he missed what Saienta wanted them to ask for. He was thankful Elli listened at least.
         “Do you have any salmon?” she asked, removing the finger from her lip.
He nodded. “Yes, we have salmon.”
While Elli made an order for some salmon, Corey strolled along the table, looking at the different types of fish with curiosity. On the outside of each tray were the fish’s names. They all looked delicious with their different coloured flesh, tender and healthy looking. Corey came back beside Elli, and saw the man had put the salmon into a box that was cleverly columned to keep fish separated.
Corey looked up at the man and asked, “Do you have any other fish that can be eaten raw?”
He nodded. They followed him along the table, then he stopped and pointed.
         “Strim fish- like salmon but sour. Tangy.”
Strim fish had white flesh with electric blue streams on the outer flesh. They looked like veins, though they weren’t, as the man serving them explained. Corey made an order for some Strim fish, and after watching the man put it into the box with some tongs, they moved along down the table. He must’ve known Corey and Elli were the well-known, unwelcomed by most, outsiders, because he explained details of nearly every fish. In the end, Elli and Corey decided on a strange fleshed fish called Kohamo. It was strange because the flesh was a vibrant, acidic yellow. He covered the box with a lid to prevent escaping smells; and they thanked the man, paid for their fish, and left. As they walked back the way they came, Elli mentioned she had seen a grocery store and that was where they were headed. When they arrived, they stopped outside the shop to take in its appearance. Tee was the name of the place- that was what was written on a sign outside the shop. The front of the shop was open and you could see in. The positioning of the shelves where they stocked their items were like those in his own world, only the shelves were level with Corey’s shoulders.
         “Any ideas on what we should make?” Elli asked him. They hadn’t moved from outside. Corey shrugged. He had not given it a single thought. Any and every dessert was nice, except meringue or anything like meringue. “I was thinking cake. What do you think?”
Eagerly, Corey suggested the first thought that sprung to mind, “Black Forest cake?”
Elli smiled in agreement, and they entered the store. Elli went one way, while Corey took the other. There was a lot of interesting food Corey had never seen before. If there were plates where you could try samples of different types of food, Corey would have tried them all. If he had the money, he would’ve bought them and taken them home to try. As he moved on into the next aisle, he caught sight of something, and he took it into his hands desirably. Coffee. It was the answer to all his prayers. With coffee, he could stay up as long as he wished while the caffeine kept sleep at bay while he worked late. He turned when he heard a peculiar noise, and saw Elli skipping up the aisle with a straw picnic basket filled with groceries.
         “Ahhh,” she said, stopping next to him. “I feel like I’m in a fairy tale.”
         “I have coffee, Elli,” Corey said, as though it were an unbelievably rare jewel.
“Ahhh, coffee. Good old coffee,” she sighed, putting an arm around his shoulder, looking at the floor in reminiscence. He felt her shrug before she went on energetically. “Well, let’s go!”
Corey dropped it into the basket, as well as a percolator to make the coffee, and followed Elli to the counter to pay.

Corey closed the door behind him. Elli raced into the kitchen with the groceries, her feet padding on the tatami flooring.          “Tadaima [I’m home],” Corey called through the house as he checked his watch. After dinner he would leave for work. Already he felt the sleep he lost during the past few nights was gaining on him, and it was only 9.26 p.m. Maybe it wasn’t sleep that made him feel so unenergetic. He hadn’t eaten since lunch. Lack of food may have been his problem. Or perhaps it was a combination of the two.
         “O-kaeri,” he heard Saienta reply. Corey put his hands in his pant pockets and strolled into the kitchen behind Elli.

In the kitchen, Saienta was in the middle of preparing the sushi rice, pouring in small amounts of vinegar and raking the rice with a small paddle. “Help me out for a second, Corey. Just grab something and fan the rice while I do this.” He motioned at his school bag and Corey walked over slowly, not particularly wanting to see the gun again, and took out the first thing he saw, Saienta’s English book. Corey used the textbook to fan the rice for whatever reason because he had no idea why. He looked over his shoulder and saw Elli looking for something in particular.
         “What are you looking for?” Corey asked her.
         “Um, I’m looking for a bowl. I got a really nice mixing bowl from Moth before, but I forgot where I put it.”
         “It’s in the next cabinet,” Saienta said, motioning over to the next cupboard.
         “Why am I doing this?” Corey asked, hoping he understood what he was talking about.
         “To cool down the rice so it doesn’t go soggy while I mix in the vinegar. What did you get for dessert?”
Corey’s wrists were starting to hurt. “Black Forest cake.”
         “What fish did you get?”
He was glad for any excuse to put the book down, and he rushed over to get the fish. He took it over to Saienta, pulled off the lid and showed him.
         “Salmon,” Corey said, pointing with a finger, then moving along, “Strim fish, and Kohamo.”
Saienta nodded and seemed surprised to see they had Salmon.
         “I bought coffee too.”
         “I bought lollies!” Elli told them.
         ”What kind?” Corey asked, watching Saienta cutting the fish, and Elli measuring out flour, sifting it into the bowl.
         ”I have no idea. The hard kind…they look nice though. Jiji and berry flavour.”
Corey stood there for a moment and felt…kind of useless. “Anything I can do?” he asked hopefully.
         “Um…can you break up the chocolate block?” Elli asked. “It’s in Saienta’s bag…I’m so glad you had chocolate,” she said. “Can you believe it? They have no strawberries. You would think if they had salmon, they would have strawberries too. Not even chocolate. We should introduce them to it.” She smiled slyly. “And begin the obesity epidemic!” She laughed evilly, and they knew she was joking.

Elli and Corey had the task of bringing the food all the way up to the dining table on the third floor in the open air. It was a low table with raised mats to sit on cross-legged. There was a proper dining table on the first floor but they wanted to have dinner with the beautiful view. They could see the lights from the village, and hear the faint flow of the river not far from their house. Saienta was in the kitchen fixing up the cake because Elli let Corey pipe on some icing, which was a mistake. All the food was laid out on platters on the table, and Elli expressed her surprise at how professional everything was, like in a restaurant. But Corey wasn’t surprised, because he had seen Saienta cook before. Saienta came up the stairs with the cake and set it on the table. Elli had lit a few lanterns on the table and as soon as Saienta sat down, Corey said, “Itadakimasu.”
Corey was eager to eat the Strim fish. Saienta had made sashimi and various sushi rolls with the Strim and Kohamo fish. The Strim fish tasted like salmon with a dab of lemon. The Kohamo tasted just like any other fish but with a hint of spice. When all their stomachs were fuller, they started on the cake which Elli cut. She passed Corey and Saienta a piece each. Elli was the first to take a bite, and she nodded her head while eating, then swallowed.
         “I am the master of dessert,” she declared. Corey’s thoughts drifted awhile while he ate Elli’s delicious and rich cake, when Tidus came to mind. He looked up at Elli and Saienta, and he laughed, although it sounded more like a scoff.
         “All of Ellet think we’ve joined some cult,” Corey said, examining the thread about his pinkie. They both laughed in disbelief and irony.
         “Who told you that?” Saienta asked. Corey tried to picture Tidus and Saienta being friends, before answering, and looked across at the village where it twinkled with coloured lights.
         “Tidus did... They’re suspicious of our injuries and our unlikely group.”
         “They have a right to be suspicious then,” Saienta replied, putting down his spoon.
Elli looked thoughtful. “Hmm, that’s true- considering our circumstances.” She looked at her thread. “I wish I could tell my dad everything.” Corey felt the only thing stopping her was the pact. He was a little surprised she told Saienta almost everything she had told him on the roof, but then again, she did like him or so he suspected. He wondered why girls liked Saienta when he was kind of scary and they didn’t know him.
         “Should make up a few rumours of our own,” Corey said contemplatively.
         “It’s not a bad idea to create some more rumours; if we have enough going around no one will know what to believe,” Saienta mused.
         “I was thinking Martial Arts,” Corey said. “It would explain our disappearing, our injuries, but not our unlikely group. And rumours that we’ve joined a cult, which is too hard to believe for a lot of people. And another one, that we’ve joined some kind of gang and maybe that we’ve been brain washed by teachers,” he suggested, amused.
Corey glanced at his watch and saw he didn’t have much more time to spare with Saienta and Elli. He thought of the coffee he bought when suddenly Elli slammed her hands onto the table in what Corey supposed was excitement. “Ohhh, I’m good at these things. I’ll take care of the rumours and make sure they’re coming from all sorts of sources. I’ll let Ryan, Annaleace and the other know what we’re planning.”
Elli ate another sushi roll, and then turned to Saienta. “You should be a chef, Saienta. Bet you’d make heaps. Start up your own business.”
Corey turned to Saienta and tried to imagine him as a chef. It suited him, and somehow it didn’t.
Saienta shrugged. “It isn’t exactly my ideal job. I just like to do it for fun.”
Saienta and Elli were thinking. It was Corey’s cue to stand and make himself a strong coffee before leaving. When they asked where he was going, he told them about his wanting a coffee, and they both said they wanted one too.
When Corey came back with three coffees, he pass them around and he sat down.
Saienta lit a cigarette as he drank his coffee. “This is good coffee, Corey.”
         “Thanks.” He sipped at his own and agreed it was nice.
Elli sighed sadly. “I don’t think we’ll be living here long somehow.” She waved her hand at the house. “Which is a shame because I love it here. We don’t even have jobs. We could make money as soldiers but I don’t think that’ll amount to anything.”
Corey was listening, but he couldn’t help noticing how heavy his eyelids were feeling. He was grateful to soldiers who accompanied him to the Gate every late evening, and every early morning.
         “Maybe we could- I don’t know-” Corey struggled to think of something, “sell stuff.”
Elli slammed her hands onto the table. She wore an expression of shock and realisation. “I’ve got it! We start up our own business. A restaurant business! Saienta can be the chef, I can be the checkout chick and waitress, and Corey can,” she paused, “yeah. We’ll bring food from our own world and sell it in our restaurant! I mean, no one here has ever tasted chocolate, let alone strawberries!”
Saienta blew out smoke. “It’s not a bad idea, I suppose.”
         “A restaurant with a good view,” Corey mused, turning in his seat to look all around him, and pointed to the nearest hill. “And also, understand the money currency. Wouldn‘t want someone to pay more for what they can pay less for elsewhere. Our advantage is we can get away with it being our own food.”
         “I think we can do it. It’ll work. All we have to do is scope out the prices of everything in the village. Corey, you can do that, and you have a business mind, you can think of the whole venue and marketing process. Saienta, all you have to do is think of a menu that you can make with food from here, and our world. And I, I’ll find us a restaurant.”
         “What about the others?” Corey asked, looking over where their house was. Saienta listened while putting out his cigarette into the ashtray beside him.
         “Don’t know..."
Corey glanced at the time and mentally sighed. He stood from the table, drank the rest of his coffee down quickly and moved toward the stairs.
         “Where are you going?” Saienta asked.
         “Thought I’d finish off some matters.” And thought with an irritable tone,this coffee better work.

He heard the footsteps before the sliding of his door, and quickly he drew the blanket up and over his head sourly. Corey pressed his face into the pillow, willing himself to suffocate.
         “Corey,” Elli drawled. Her voice sounded husky, she was obviously tired too. He ignored her again when she repeated herself. Eventually he heard her leave his room, but she left his door wide open. It was too cosy in bed, and being the first day of summer, as they all learned last night beside the lake, the air circulating his room from the open window was warm. Corey strained to fall back asleep, but couldn’t. Downstairs he could hear voices and movement. There were more people than Saienta and Elli. He used all his strength in getting up and ready for training, but getting up was training as it was. Corey felt like he was holding two buckets filled with rocks in each hand.

Descending the stairs, Corey saw the left-over sushi and sashimi laid out on the low dining table. Annaleace, Ryan, Sirian and Elli were at the front door, looking out onto the wooden terrace. Saienta was most likely outside, smoking a cigarette. Corey took several sushi rolls and ate them quietly out on the wooden terrace. He knew he wasn’t in best of spirits, and not exactly enthusiastic about training.
While they all sat looking at the same two red trees for the past few days, training their far-sight, Elli told them about the restaurant idea.
         “So, are you in?” Elli asked Sirian, Annaleace and Ryan. Corey had trouble focusing his eyes in his tiredness.
Annaleace nodded and said, “Sounds like a good idea.”
         “The best yet, anyway,” Sirian cut in, stealing a glance at Saienta.
Ryan shrugged at Elli. Elli went into an explanation of what responsibilities Saienta, Corey and she had to make the restaurant work, and then asked if they wanted to help out.
         “I’ll help out when I can,” Ryan said.
Elli shuffled over to Corey's side. He looked at her expectantly by the way she glowed with excitement. She looked him directly in the eye and said in a low voice so the others wouldn't hear, "I heard from Annaleace that Ryan’s got a job.”
         “Serious?” Corey asked. Out of the five, he knew Ryan the least.
Elli nodded. “Something about something. Medical shit, I think.”
Slowly, Corey nodded. As long Ryan's job didn’t interfere with his training, he would be able to keep it. Training always came first.
         “I can’t. Not today, anyway,” Sirian said. “I have some things to do with Ame at her school.”
         “I’m free,” Annaleace told Elli.
         “Cool,” Elli said, “you can help Corey then. We‘re going to have to pull this off as soon as possible if we want to make enough in a year.”
         “How will we buy the restaurant? It’s going to cost a lot just to open it up,” Sirian noted.
Elli shrugged. “Moth. We have to spend money to make money and considering the whole idea works and Sandra like the restaurant, we can really do this. Sandra is the main village and I think if the restaurant gets famous enough, people who visit from other villages will eat there too.”
         “Okay…” Annaleace drifted thoughtfully. “So what will we call it?”
Corey, who was sitting down brooding about his lack of sleep, immediately thought of the two red trees they stared at for hours everyday. Damn those trees, he thought. He could visualise them perfectly, like the others and sometimes they appeared in his mind for no apparent reason. “Gossamer Leaf,” he said out loud while the others were thinking. And he laughed at himself. Saienta approved, Annaleace approved, and so did Sirian and Elli. Ryan shrugged so it was hard to tell. Corey thought it was a terrible name, thought about it again, and decided it wasn’t so bad.

A Non-Existent User

Saturday night

Saienta tossed his phone aside and laid back on his futon with his arms behind his head to gaze up at the ceiling of the dark room. He was used to being up at night and getting hardly any sleep, and now that he had the chance to get plenty of rest- he was the worst kind of insomniac. He closed his eyes and tried to concentrate on hearing nothing but there was still noise, as peaceful as Sandra’s nightlife was. The house was still, with Corey and Elli asleep in their rooms upstairs. Corey had gone out and snuck back in hours later as he had begun doing since their first night in Sandra, and he had never mentioned why to Saienta, not that Saienta expected any explanations. Corey was allowed to keep his secrets from everybody. He was now more irritable, quiet and fatigued than Saienta used to be only two weeks ago.

Saienta thought about the last few days and how filled they had been. He was used to being physically hurt constantly and he had obtained many cuts and bruises from their scheduled fights but he knew he would be healed completely by the time he woke up. The others though…they had a problem. In this world it wasn’t seen with any kind of surprise but in their own world- seen as just normal teenagers who went to school everyday- it was strange and they were causing a lot of concern from people who had known them for a long time. He checked the time on his useless phone- useless because he was in a world with no reception, and no one to call- and saw that it was almost 2am.

There was a sudden clunk from upstairs and the sound of feet running, ten minutes after Corey had returned. He followed with his eyes the direction of the sound but knew it was coming from somewhere further away. The person ran into another room, stopped for a moment, and then ran away towards the stairs. From the enthusiasm of one pair of feet, he knew the first was Elli; and the other, less enthusiastic, trailing slowly, was Corey. Elli slid Saienta’s door open and by her silhouette in the darkness, he could tell she was dressed in her uniform. “Wake up!” she called cheerily as though he had slept in.
Corey followed behind her, rubbing his eyes and he padded over, slumping to the floor next to Saienta’s door to go back to sleep. Elli lit a lamp and tugged on Corey’s shirt. Saienta only watched, wondering why she was so alert at two in the morning and what it was exactly that she wanted to do. Saienta breathed in heavily and shut his eyes. He opened them a moment later. Corey murmured, protesting to Elli’s demands and he heard a vague but angered, “What for…?” from Corey. He had had approximately five minutes of sleep or more if Saienta could count correctly and Saienta was sure Corey would feel death was welcoming at this very moment.
Elli rolled him over and Corey curled up on his back in his shirt and boxers as though he was in great pain and then relaxed his whole body, spreading his body out flat. He was covered in the usual cuts and bruises; some fading, some fresh and he would have been exhausted.
Elli sighed and then poked him in the ribs. “Get up, we’re going out!”
         “Where?” Saienta asked calmly.
          “Why?” Corey mumbled in irritation.
Elli stood up and crossed her arms. “To the lake! You know they’re having some kind of thing that they won’t tell us about and I for one want to know what it is.”
          “At this time?” Corey asked, turning over, showing Saienta again the deep circles forming under his eyes from lack of sleep. “How do you know?” A moment later he added, “Does it even matter?”

Welllll,” she began and changed her voice into a conspiratorial tone, “I overheard some of the soldiers talking about meeting at the lake at exactly two-thirty in the morning, and they mentioned some codename- um…Fireflies, I think it was, and then they said something about all the villagers being there tomorrow night but they’ll be the first so they can’t miss it. I want to know what it is. And I swear they said something about bringing the loves of their lives. Get up, please?”
          “We’ll get in trouble…” Corey said. “The soldiers don’t like us, and they won’t like it if we intrude on them, especially when we’re not invited.”
          “So?” Elli asked, waving her hand. “Not like we’re ever invited to anything. And it’s not like we like them either.”
          “You won’t rest until your curiosity is satisfied,” Saienta said.
          “Nup.”
Corey groaned. “I want to sleep, Elli.” But he had already given in. They were all curious to know why the soldiers wanted to meet and to catch them with ‘the loves of their lives’…what did they act like in front of their girlfriends, these hardened soldiers? Were they as bad as Phix and Stray from Diaden had been the first time they had met Elli, Sirian and Annaleace?

Saienta dressed quickly while Elli waited outside and Corey got changed in his room. They left the house quickly and made their way towards the training fields, and through the forest. It was strange seeing the emptiness of the fields. In a few hours, numerous soldiers would be here, training. It only just occurred to Saienta that the soldiers seemed to use only one half of the field, while there was a whole other half that remained untouched, except by the six of them. Were the soldiers ostracizing them to that extent?

It was a warm night as they made their way on the narrow forest track towards the lake where the soldiers usually trained for water treading. Saienta looked up at the clear sky and the expanse of the bright multitude of stars. He couldn’t see the lake yet as they made their way closer, winding through the trees, and he couldn’t hear any voices either. They remained quiet, in the hopes that no one would see them as they took the path to the side of the dark lake, rather than the main track that the villagers usually took.
As they came closer, Saienta and the other two began to notice a faint glow of pale blue light coming from the lake’s direction and they hurried on. The light became brighter as they came closer and as they passed the last line of trees into the open space of the far-reaching lake, they stopped in awe, covered in the pale blue luminosity coming from the water. There was no way for them to hide and they didn’t bother as they kept their eyes on the lake.
         “Sugoi…” Elli breathed. Amazing…
As the slight wind passed over the water, the ripples in the glowing lake sent reflections of light rippling over them and the trees around them. The water was lit up light blue from the bottom. At the very base it was as black as night; it must have been extremely deep; but almost the entire lake was lit up by thousands of scattered blue lights in the water. Most of the lights were still but some little specks of light raced around the water, and it seemed as though they were staring into the universe at the shooting stars and clusters of light made from blue galaxies. Most of the specks glowed on and off and it seemed as though Saienta really was staring into an alien night sky filled with twinkling stars. Were they glowing minerals? No one spoke as they stared mesmerized into the beautiful water. This was the secret? No wonder the soldiers didn’t want any intrusions…

“Hey!” an angry voice said and Corey, Saienta and Elli snapped out of their reverie, looking up in alarm.
Mizu was there, dressed in a grey kimono, looking extremely annoyed, and following behind him were three village girls in pretty coloured kimonos and two other guys in kimonos that were probably soldiers too. Saienta had to repress a grin. They were on dates?

“What the hell are you guys doing here?” Mizu asked, when he reached them, the glow of the lake made him look somehow, less angry.
The girls giggled and whispered to each other, glancing at Saienta and Corey, and their two dates caught on and glared at Saienta and Corey as if it was their fault.
Elli smirked, and put a hand on her hip. “We’re allowed to be here. What are you doing here?” she asked, reminding him that he was on some kind of date and had to explain himself to them.
He looked embarrassed and then shot a quick look at one of the girls and back at the three of them. “We’re just…training.”
The three village girls looked at Mizu strangely and giggled. Saienta then noticed another girl trailing further behind reluctantly but he couldn’t see her face properly.
         “Uh huh,” Elli said, nodding. “In a kimono? At this time?”
Mizu kept looking back at the others and the two soldiers who seemed extremely shy next to their dates. Elli leaned back behind Corey and made a whipping action to Saienta, suppressing a laugh.
Mizu narrowed his eyes. “I don’t have to explain myself to you. This was supposed to be a secret, how did you find out about it?” he demanded.
Elli laughed. “Ah…poor soldier. I have ears and eyes too. Now, tell me dear boy, what is making the lake glow that way?”
He was extremely reluctant to tell her but obviously didn’t want to look too bad in front of his date. “Firefly eggs. Every year, at the end of summer, the fireflies lay their eggs before they die, and the eggs remain dormant in the water for a year until the first night of summer. Then for two nights, the lake glows as it is now. On the third night, the fireflies awaken and begin their flight. The entire village comes out to see it but this year they thought it would begin tomorrow.”
Elli nodded. “I see…how did you know it would be tonight?”
         “My ability,” he said quickly, glancing at the girls and the other two soldiers. “Anyway, we’ll go over there, and you guys better stay here, if you feel you have to, and you better not bother us either.”

They began to walk away and the girls waved shyly. The girl who was trailing behind them all reluctantly, approached, and Saienta realised who it was, suppressing a grin as she approached them.
         “Good evening,” Nyu bowed, smiling.
Elli smiled. “Good evening,” she bowed. “Who are you?”
Nyu straightened and her smile widened. “My name is Nyu. I met your friends here before, in the restaurant where I work.”
         “Good evening,” Corey murmured and looked into the water, as though he was deeply fascinated, and then Saienta could see, he actually was deeply fascinated by it.
“Good evening,” Saienta said, half-bowing, before sitting down to have a cigarette.
The others sat too and he listened as Nyu and Elli talked about being waitresses, laughing about certain kinds of customers and the irony of how even in different worlds, some things are exactly the same.
         “What were you doing with those soldiers?” Elli asked. “Were you on a date as well?’
Nyu laughed. “Of course not! I was chaperoning my little sister, to be honest. I can’t tell you how boring it was. But I’m sure they’ll be just fine on their own.”

Saienta noticed two people across the river but couldn’t quite make them out. He concentrated for a long time, and for the first time for his own sake, used his far-sight. In ten minutes, because it was closer than the two red trees, he was able to clearly make out Annaleace with Tiyan. Annaleace was wearing tracksuit pants and she looked like she had gotten ready hastily, with a side bag thrown over her shoulder and her hair tied up. She was smiling as Tiyan spoke of something, while she bit her lip; and Saienta was sure that Annaleace had gone home earlier. She must have snuck out of home when Tiyan asked her to meet him here at this time of night. How did he also know that the firefly eggs would light up on this night instead of the next? Maybe the horses told him…Saienta mused about it and then thought it might actually be possible as he unfocused his eyes to give them their privacy.

“She likes you,” Elli said cheekily to Corey as they walked back to their house on the path.
         “What?” Corey asked, as though he didn’t hear her.
         “Nyu, she likes you, and don’t you deny it!” Elli laughed and ran down the path into the darkness. “Go out with her!” she called behind her.
Corey sighed and shook his head, glancing at Saienta.
Saienta shrugged.
“I don’t want to go out with her,” Corey complained, as though Saienta had said something and Saienta grinned.

*

Sunday

Saienta and Corey found the trail that Ame had allowed them to go through and entered the forest, walking along the flattened grass. Saienta observed the many tall trees reaching up into the sky and below where all kinds of shrubs and lush ferns grew. Birds called to each other making a variety of sounds and he could hear voices now and again from the direction of the village behind them and in front. They came to a round clearing surrounded by trees and bushes growing an abundance of fruits. Some trees held blue fruits and the others had yellow. There were a few women picking the fruit in silence, either on their knees or standing, with a large basket in front of them wearing Japanese-style wide brimmed cone hats made out of straw, and dark brown kimonos. One middle-aged woman turned around carrying her basket, spotted them, and smiled. She had a picture of a basket on the bottom- right hand of her kimono and he figured it symbolised her occupation as a fruit-picker. Corey smiled in return and Saienta half-smiled. They kept walking along the path to see how far it would go, through the middle of the clearing until they came upon another clearing and then another, that were the same as the others. Corey stopped, held his stomach and looked at Saienta with his look. He was hungry.
         “We can always go to Yellow, the restaurant where Nyu works,” Saienta grinned.
Corey looked at him with a confused look and then shook his head. “We have no money.”
         “Moth said we could always make a tab for ourselves.”
Corey nodded, thought for a moment, and then shook his head. “We’re already in debt…”
They came to another circular clearing where there were only two girls picking the yellow and blue fruits and stopped in front of a bush with blue fruit. Saienta picked one off, examining it. It was as big as an apple, but with a hard crackly shell like a lychee. He passed it to Corey and he gazed at it in contemplation, turning it over in his hands. His stomach growled and Corey looked around at the two workers who had their backs turned. He said softly, “Do you think they would mind if I stole one?”
Saienta nearly laughed. “I don’t think they would mind and you probably shouldn’t bother trying to hide your voice- enhanced abilities, remember?”
Corey blinked once and then looked down at the fruit in his hand hungrily.
“Ore wa…kufuku desu [I’m…hungry],” Corey said as though talking himself into it.

He began to unpeel it and let the shell pieces fall to the ground. In the end there was a big and juicy looking fruit like a lychee but the flesh was light blue. Corey lifted the fruit to his mouth to take a bite and Saienta jumped back as a hand reached out and slapped it away to the ground. Corey who had his hand up, closed his mouth and blinked, and they turned to see one of the fruit-pickers sigh and put a hand on her hip, her other arm wrapped around the basket. Saienta looked over at the uneaten fruit and back at the woman. She had a round belly and he guessed she was at least six months pregnant. She wagged her finger at Corey like she was his mother and gave him a chiding look. “Do you want to be paralysed for the next twelve hours?”
Corey looked guilty and shook his head.
         “Good, I didn’t think so.” The woman examined them again. “Ah…I see, you’re from the other world. Don’t you know the rule that you shouldn’t eat anything blue unless it has been dyed that way?”
Corey shook his head.
         “You can’t take a bite out of a blue Jiji fruit- it is only used as a wound salve to numb pain and heal cuts.” She sighed and rubbed a hand over her stomach. “You can eat the yellow ones. These fruits grow in abundance so you are free to pick as many as you choose, however, it would be best if you go further down where there are less workers.”
She looked tired and irritable but she smiled at them in spite of it. “If this is your first time trying a Jiji fruit, you should try one with an orange tinge. They’re all incredible but you won’t regret one with an orange tinge.” She winked and then placed the basket in the middle of the clearing, taking an empty one that was beside it. Corey and Saienta went further down the path to another clearing and counted eight clearings from the beginning of the path. At the last clearing there was only one old woman working and in the middle was a cart that could be pulled by horse, containing many baskets full of picked Jiji fruit and some empty ones. Saienta could see the trail it had made all the way down the path to the end.

The trees and shrubs here held the most fruit and they walked to a bush with the yellow Jiji fruit and looked around for some with an orange tinge. Saienta found one and another growing next to it. He picked both and handed one to Corey. Saienta wondered how it would taste. They looked at each other and then began to pull the outsides of them off, letting the peelings fall to the ground. When they had them unpeeled, they looked at each other one more time, and grinned, taking their first bite into a yellow/orange Jiji. The juice and sweet tang filled Saienta’s mouth completely and he felt a slight fizz on his tongue as he took a bite out of the flesh. It was refreshing, and he remembered the taste from the drink he had tried at the restaurant, Yellow. Saienta swallowed and took another bite of the fruit eagerly, enjoying the freshness and fizzy sweet and sour taste of the nectar. He glanced over at Corey who looked like he was on heaven.
They ate a few more and Saienta tried a yellow one without an orange tinge to find that it tasted almost the same but it had no fizz. He looked at his feet to see that the ground around him and Corey was littered with peelings and he kicked as many as he could underneath the bush.

         “I’m full…” Corey mumbled and they sat on the ground watching the old woman loading her full basket onto the cart, taking an empty one back to the bush to start picking again.
Saienta had a cigarette and the old woman looked his way with a strange look on her face but said nothing. He was craving to eat another Jiji fruit but he was too full for the moment. He exhaled in contentment and looked up at the sky through the forest roof, the canopy of green leaves above, and listened to the sounds of birds and swaying of trees as the breeze blew through. Corey yawned and leaned back on his hands to watch the old woman.
Saienta ground out his finished cigarette into the dirt and his head turned at the sound of children laughing and calling to each other coming towards them.
         “Gram-ma!” a little girl called and hazed by to the old woman who turned, delight on her face. Two more kids hazed by and hugged the old woman too and she dropped to one knee to hug them all.
Saienta turned away and looked at Corey who was still watching. “Let’s pick some fruit,” Saienta said to him, motioning to the empty baskets.
Corey looked at him in surprise. Saienta shrugged. He felt like doing something to get rid of the fullness of his stomach and to help in exchange for eating their fruit. Corey nodded and they stood up, taking two empty baskets out of the cart, taking them to the bush, and began to pick Jiji fruit.
Saienta figured there wasn’t much of a technique to it, as he had observed the ready-picked fruit in the other baskets beforehand and they had to be picked off from the stem like peaches. Blue in one basket or yellow. Saienta chose yellow because the bush was closest and Corey chose blue, taking the blue laden Jiji bush nearby. Saienta could hear the sounds of the three children playing behind them, dashing back and forth and turned to see that one of them was the little girl who had used her Mythra in the village- the first Mythra ability he and Corey had ever seen visibly. The little girl gazed at him for a moment with her light brown, almost dark yellow, eyes and then crept forward as though he couldn’t see her. She kept her eyes on him and then peered into his basket carefully. “Yellow,” she said and then hazed to stand next to him, looking into the bush, her dark brown hair swaying behind her. She picked a Jiji fruit and then put it in the basket. She looked up at him, gave him a big smile showing her teeth and then hazed away. Saienta turned back to start picking the fruit again and then looked into his basket to see that it was almost filled. He creased his brow and then turned to see three hazes dart back and forth, picking fruit and dropping them in the three baskets belonging to the old woman, Corey and Saienta.

The hazing children stopped by the cart and the little girl waved at Saienta. He put up a hand indifferently and went back to filling his basket. As he was about to take the basket to the cart, the little girl hazed forward, held onto the edges, smiled up at him, and then closed her eyes, concentrating. She disappeared with the basket and then he looked up when something caught his eye at the cart. She stood with the basket and then shifted it on top of the other baskets for him.

Saienta turned to see that Corey’s basket was full and he was watching as a little boy hazed away with his basket with ease and put it onto the cart without a heave. Saienta was amazed by their strength and speed. He could tell it wasn’t as fast as Sin or the soldiers, but it was still many times more than their own speed. Saienta looked over at Corey and Corey shrugged, smiling in amusement.
They both watched as the three kids brought them all empty baskets and the old woman smiled, patting one of the little boys on the head in gratitude.
The little girl who had brought Saienta a basket smiled up at him and he put a hand on her warm head and then took it off. She beamed. “My name is Tay-Tay.”
Saienta wanted to fill his basket. “Saienta,” he said, and turned back to the Jiji bush.
          “Sai…nen…Sai…ta.” she tried, repeating different parts of his name, struggling to say it and sat down where she was to work it through. “-enta. Senta. Sai-ten….”
          “Saienta,” he said, dropping another Jiji in the basket.
          “Sai…na…” she shook her head, biting on her lip in concentration.
          “Call me Sai,” he said irritably and dropped another Jiji in the basket. He was rarely around children, was he supposed to act different? No…kids were just little people- they just weren’t corrupted yet but had the potential to be. Saienta was a child once.
          “Sai…” she repeated and stood up in victory. “Sai!”
Corey looked over at him, suppressing a grin and Saienta shook his head at him. It’s not what you think, he thought. It took years of trust-developing for Saienta to let anyone call him Sai but this little girl, Tay-Tay was nobody that mattered and she was annoying him.
Tay-Tay clapped her hands, and then tripped backwards over her own foot, almost hitting her head on the basket. Saienta caught her easily and pushed her back up. “Huh. Stupid girl,” he said and went back to picking fruit. She tugged on his shirt and he turned to see her smiling at him. “Thank you,” she said and bowed.
Saienta gazed at her with no expression and then reached down to flick her in the forehead with his middle finger.
She didn’t blink, didn’t even feel it, and continued smiling. He exhaled and then turned, picking a fruit, but turned again to find his basket was gone with Tay-Tay.

*


Saienta was sitting in his room in his new house with his two roommates upstairs, in a new world. The thought humoured him and he half-smiled, lying back on the tatami flooring to stare at the ceiling. Elli and Moth had already begun to fill the house with various things and Saienta had a chest of drawers with a few kimono robes, and a futon with blankets but he had rolled them away for the day. His schoolbag was sitting by it. Wanting a cigarette, he walked to one of two entrances to the porch and chose one, sliding it open to sit on the floorboards to watch the activity over in the village and smoke, thinking about everything that had happened. They had one more hour of free time, since it was Sunday and they could do as they pleased for half the day before they began their training again. Saienta had been in the world since Friday night and would go straight to school on Monday morning.
He was glad he had Rell now. To ride back and forth from the city by horse took only half an hour instead of the two hours walking. He wondered how long it would take to haze by horse from the city…a few minutes maybe? It would take a while to learn to ride the haze-horses. It required so many abilities they hadn’t yet accomplished. All the abilities seemed to be linked- you couldn’t have one without the other except for basic sense development like far-sight, and hearing. Like the others, Saienta found that when he concentrated on a sound far away for long enough, it became louder and the same went for their olfactory senses. Sometimes if he concentrated for at least half an hour on the smell of food from the Yellow restaurant and thought about its location, he could almost smell the food they were cooking if the wind was blowing in his direction. It amazed him but he knew that all their abilities were nothing compared to the people who lived here, especially the soldiers. Where it took the six of them half an hour to see the red trees miles into the distance, it would take an average soldier no time- for them it was like looking at their hand and counting their knuckles.

Saienta looked down at his pants. They were the right colour to pass as a southern soldier but unlike the others, he really wasn’t even wearing half their uniform. He wasn’t one of them in appearance, ability or name. He was Saienta, alone and belonging to or with no one. Only he knew why he did the things he did or why he was the way he was and he planned for it to stay that way. If he had a choice, he would let no one know his name.
The buckles and straps that went around his thighs were used to hold tools and other things when he worked the farms- not that anybody knew that or would care. The scars on his body still hurt sometimes, but at other times there was no feeling on that part of his skin at all. Numb inside and out.

Saienta stood up and walked towards the training fields. The field was gigantic, and half of it was left unused. The thought he had last night came to him again. Why was it unused? Only the six of them were ever the ones to train there…He stopped in the middle, the same place they had been beaten every night and left lying there. He touched the grass with a hand and found a trace of blood near his hand on the grass. He wondered whose it was. Which one of them had bled here? Was it him? Corey? Annaleace? It didn’t matter. They had all bled here and would continue to. He kept walking and came closer to the soldiers where some were hazing back and forth, others were sparring in hand-to-hand combat, breaking into teams and receiving orders from their leaders, and sitting down to take rests. There were at least a hundred of them and no one looked at Saienta as he walked through observing them. He spotted Mizu training with Phix, Stray, and their leader, Reiki; and he expected Mizu to react upon seeing him but he was ignored. His training was obviously more important to him. A soldier hazed past Saienta and he felt the wind a second later. Saienta looked up at the clear blue sky.

“Saienta,” a deep voice called.
Saienta turned and saw Grey in his full uniform and geared up- the side pockets on his pant legs held unknown items he guessed were tools; he had a black strap wrapped around his waist with tools and other things being held in them, and knives were strapped around his thighs, with one strapped around his upper arm with the hilt facing downwards. His other arm had the silver string wrapped around it. Saienta noticed his commanding presence- he could spot a leader a mile away and guessed Grey was higher in ranking than the others. Grey stopped and Saienta saluted him as he had learnt from watching and Grey nodded.
          “Where are the other five?” Grey asked.
Saienta looked towards the house. “Around. We’re on free time.”
He nodded and motioned for Saienta to follow him away towards the river. “I need to talk to you alone.”
Saienta followed and they walked by the other soldiers who stopped if they noticed Grey and saluted him.
They came to the river alone and Saienta wondered what Grey wanted with him. He stood in front of him as Grey stayed silent, thinking. He spoke after a time. “As one of the six that came through the Gate, what is your greatest motivation for advancing as a soldier and fighting?” Grey studied his face carefully.
Saienta thought for a moment and looked at the ground. He shook his head. It was…hard to say. There were a number of things but…he didn’t know for sure.
Grey shook his head in disapproval. “Right there is the reason you will never amount to anything here.”
Saienta looked up into his cool blue eyes, looking for a hint of malice- he didn’t expect it from Grey for some reason- and was glad to see that Grey meant what he said, he wasn’t trying to put him down.

They stayed silent and Saienta listened to the sounds around him. “Why do you fight?” Saienta asked. He was curious, why did anyone in this world fight? What difference did it make where you came from?
Grey half-smiled and sat down, relaxed. Saienta sat down next to him and they both watched the river.
         “I never had family. None that I remember,” Grey began and Saienta was reminded of himself. “I didn’t have friends, only Ame but that began when I was fifteen. Actually…when I see you and Corey, I’m reminded of that time when I was alone.”
Grey looked up at him and Saienta continued to stare ahead.
          “I never hated people, not like you- I feared them.” Grey smiled as though it was ironic and Saienta realised how perceptive both Grey and Ame were, knowing things in a person just by observation alone. “For a long time I only fought because I wanted to become strong and stop being afraid of them. But now…I fight because I want to protect them. I never thought of revenge on the northerners. You would have noticed, there are not many soldiers older than thirty. They sacrificed themselves in the last war. My parents were two of those people.
When I began training here at twelve years old, I had no intentions other than to become strong. And then I met Ame. The way she lives…I saw something in the life that she has and her intentions were nothing like my own. What she had, I wanted it. I thought at the time that it was because she had a father- family- but the General is far from that. Her grandfather was a wanderer- he still is and he didn’t reveal his presence in Sandra until she was nineteen.
Ame is just like me and you- we never depended on anyone but ourselves.” Grey smiled, remembering something. Saienta looked at him. “It was funny the way we became friends and it still humours me. Ame is two years younger than me- she wanted to learn how to fight so the General let her train under me. I was only fifteen. I hated her. I wanted her to suffer and I wanted to push her around. So I did.” Grey grinned. “I was relentless. But the funny thing was, she never gave in even though she could, and she never held any resentment. She always smiled afterwards- nose and lips bleeding and bruises forming all over her, uniform dirty, ripped and torn- and then she would bow to me and thank me. It always made me wonder if she was mentally ill but every day she would come back and it would start again.”
Saienta found it hard to imagine. Ame getting beaten up?

“I asked Ame the same question one day. Why do you fight? She shook her head at me and then laughed. ‘I like people. Why not?’ she said to me. It’s hard to believe. Why not? I didn’t understand it.” Grey laughed at the memory. “She was the first person I ever made friends with and she opened up a doorway. I fight for her, and I fight to protect others, just the way she does. Why not?” Grey looked up at Saienta and gave him an ironic grin and then he became serious- his usual expression. “That isn’t the same reason for you. You don’t care enough about these people here-you don’t know them- so why do you choose to fight? There are those who cannot find the answer so they keep fighting and the power gets to them. They begin to fight just because they can, for their own selfish desires. It becomes twisted. They fight and then search for something to gain. Once they gain it, they keep on killing and it never ends. Your reason must be stable, it must be able to reach an end.”
Saienta felt a heaviness in him. He didn’t know why. He didn’t know why he was here. He didn’t know if there was a point. All he knew was that he was here, he would fight and he would grow stronger and no one would stop him. Saienta stood up and Grey stood also. Saienta looked him in the eyes and half-smiled, then said darkly, “I fight because I feel like it.”
It wasn’t the real answer and they both knew it. Saienta didn’t know why. He had no good reason. He didn’t care if he lived or died, he didn’t care what he was doing. There wasn’t a purpose for anything really, but he did it anyway.
Before Saienta walked away, he heard Grey say, “Find it, soldier.”

Fuck you. Fuck you all, Saienta thought as he walked back through the fields where the soldiers were training. The words fuck you kept repeating themselves over in his mind and he looked up to see Mizu resting after hazing back and forth. “Fuck you,” Saienta stated to himself but knew Mizu could hear him. Mizu looked up with anger flaring. Saienta smirked and this time said it louder while looking at him. “Fuck you.”
He wasn’t sure why he was feeling so tensed up. It had built up since the day he was self-aware, intensified by other people and their uncaring ways towards him all his damn life. So fuck them all was all he could think of or believe in.
Mizu was looking ready for a fight and Saienta wanted him to bring it the fuck on. Saienta stood waiting, smirking at Mizu as he began to walk over but his leader, Reiki, hazed to Mizu and put a hand on his chest to stop him. “Training comes first,” Reiki said without looking Saienta’s way and Mizu relaxed, returning to where he was earlier without a second look at Saienta; and Saienta felt disappointed that he wasn’t able to have the tension beaten out of him. He wanted to kill Mizu. He wanted him and all others like him wiped out of the world. Saienta turned when he was tapped on the shoulder and was ready to lash out and crush the person’s throat. He recognised Corey and the tension and dark feeling drained out of Saienta quickly. Saienta relaxed and studied the concern on Corey’s face. “What?” Saienta asked, returned to his usual self, and turned to watch the soldiers spar.
          “Nothing…” Corey replied quietly and said normally, “Training begins now. I came to tell you.”
Saienta nodded. Corey had relaxed him for now but if he left, Saienta‘s hatred would return- he was only keeping it at bay while Corey was around. Saienta didn’t feel the need to be as angry if he was there.
Corey turned to him. “I’ll be down at the river, are you coming?”
Saienta was about to nod and walk with him but saw Grey returning out of the corner of his eye. He didn’t hate Grey, he respected him, but he wanted to ask him what ranking he was exactly. “I’ll meet you there,” Saienta said and Corey nodded, leaving.
Saienta began to walk but he stopped when a sharp pain shot up his arm from his hand. He looked down at it, lifting his right hand to look at his knuckles. There was nothing there except the scar from when he had punched that brick wall the night he ordered Mekhi and Reeva to shoot themselves. It hurt again, the same pain as that night. He clenched his fist and unclenched it, turning over his hand, wondering why it hurt. Saienta suddenly put a hand to his chest in pain- he couldn’t breathe. He leaned down, inhaling and exhaling with extreme difficulty. He looked up, still trying to breathe and saw so many soldiers. All with their backs turned. No one to help him. Corey and his existence was swept from his mind for the time being and Saienta shut his eyes at the pain shooting through his whole body. So many different types- they brought back all the pain-filled memories. He winced and tried to suppress it. All those times he had been hit, grazed, shot, or cut-up came back to him and enveloped him. Saienta looked up and managed to say, “Fuck…” He shut his eyes to the world and was enveloped in blackness.

In the world of light, he knew what would be there. Other people- this world or that world, it didn’t matter- no one gave a shit about anyone. Saienta wanted the soldiers around him to die. Who cares? Saienta thought to himself. They’re going to fight, just like you, and die anyway, just kill them first- two sides, there’s no right side, just two different views. Saienta was determined.
He opened his eyes, and took his hand from his chest. Everything still hurt and he wasn’t sure how he managed to move forward. He walked forward to the first soldier he saw and was ready to grab him by the throat and crush it when he felt a tap from behind. Saienta turned sharply and swung his fist with full force, driving it into a soldier’s face, knocking the guy to the ground. Others began to notice the guy on the ground and Saienta, fitting the pieces together. Someone hazed to Saienta, holding him back forcefully, and others went to Corey’s aid as he leaned over the grass, blood pouring from his nose and mouth. Not a soldier…Corey, Saienta realised and the darkness disappeared, leaving him numb. The other soldiers looked at Saienta, infuriated.
          “What is this, soldier?” Grey demanded from Saienta, while another soldier held Saienta back. It was unnecessary; he wasn’t going to hit Corey again.
Saienta didn’t answer, only stared at him, wondering if someone would kill him for this. Would Corey hate him now? Saienta wouldn’t blame him if he did. Corey was coughing up blood and a soldier took Saienta away. The other soldiers turned on Saienta with malice in their eyes.
          “What are you doing?” Grey demanded again, coldly.
Saienta didn’t answer. He didn’t know. He had wanted to kill them, not hurt Corey.
Grey shook his head regretfully and spoke to the soldiers. “Put him in the cell until he cools down and tells us why he hit one of his own friends.”

Saienta was put into a dark, cold storage room. A cell. It was clean though, but there was nothing in it, no windows, one door, no light. He sat with his back against one wall, a knee drawn up and he pulled out his cigarettes, smoking one. He regretted hitting Corey. If he had known…why the fuck had he hit Corey? Saienta shook his head at himself. Corey had been through enough, he didn’t need to be hit from a friend as well. An idea was forming in his mind- a decision he wanted to make for Corey’s sake. He would stay out of Corey’s way. Stop speaking. Stop hanging out. He would close all doors, and let Corey live his life without someone like Saienta to fuck him up. He was about to cement the idea in his mind when the door opened and a beam of light shone through.
Corey stood there, and Saienta felt a heaviness weigh on him, expecting Corey to give him a look of hate. Instead Corey smiled wryly and then grinned. “That hurt,” he said as though he had gotten a paper cut.

The heaviness lifted from him and Saienta laughed, mostly at himself. “Gomen, Corey.” Sorry, Corey.
         “What for?” Corey asked casually, walking in and sitting down beside him.
         “For hitting you. I fucked up.”
Corey shook his head. “Don’t be sorry. I’m used to getting hit these days. It was fun.”
Saienta laughed again. “Fun, eh? Want me to do it again?”
Corey looked worried. “Er…not really.” They laughed, sitting on the floor of Saienta’s prison. How long were they planning to hold him here?
         “I told them it was a misunderstanding,” Corey said.
Saienta nodded. “I owe you. I feel like shit. I’ll let you ride my RSV…for a night.” He grinned.
Corey narrowed his eyes. “I can ride your bike for one night? How about a week?”
Saienta laughed. “That’s pushing it. I’ll have no transport. Yes, only if I can use your car.”
Corey grinned- they both knew the answer to that. “No deal.”
         “Alright. I’ll cook for you and your dad for a week,” he said seriously and Corey nodded.
         “Deal.”

They looked up as footsteps approached and the clop of hooves on the floor followed. Elli appeared in the light and she jumped through the doorway, to the side, grinning at them. Following her was Rell and Saienta smiled. Rell walked in slowly with her head down, eyeing Saienta and then stood in the middle of the floor. He got up and ran a hand over her mane, knowing she knew everything that happened, and cared. Elli winked at Corey. “The only reason the soldier let me in was because he couldn’t refuse Rell. They respect the horses than they respect us, mou…” Geez… She rolled her eyes.
         “Ah…bad news, Saienta,” Elli began seriously.
He looked up at her. She stood with a hand on her hip and looked tired. “Some of the soldiers are making an appeal for you to be sent back through the Gate. Permanently.”
         “Who?” Corey asked, standing up to pat Rell’s nose.
Saienta wondered if it was Grey and for some reason, hoped it wasn’t.
         “Weeeell,” Elli said, “You can guess most of them. Linx and Mizu from Diaden for one, and then there are a few others that I don’t know the names of. They would make an appeal for all of us, they hate all six of us, but now hate you the most. They think you’re some kind of deranged psychopath who can’t be trusted if you can hit one of your own. And they seem to have this idea that you want to kill them all.”
         “What?” Corey looked confused. “I told them it was a misunderstanding already.”
Elli shrugged. “They don’t care. Sirian is out there now. As much as I think she’s a prissy wannabe, I gotta hand it to her, she sure knows how to fight with words and legal terms and all that. I helped a little but I think the matter is pretty much safe in her hands.”
Rell sniffed Corey’s chest and then prodded him. Rell looked from one person to the other and then considered that Saienta was feeling better than before and walked out. Saienta lit up a cigarette. “Who are they making an appeal to?”
         “Village leaders. Ame and the General are two of them, so Sirian figures that the appeal won’t be passed.”
Saienta nodded. He wondered why any of the other five would care if he disappeared from this world when it wouldn’t affect them at all. He opened his mouth to speak but paused and then let Corey speak.
         “I’ll go and tell them it’s nothing. They don’t have to make anything out of it,” he said a little angrily. “It’s bullshit…”
Elli sighed deeply. “Doesn’t matter. If they send any of you guys out, then I’m leaving too.”
Corey nodded. “Same here.”
Saienta looked from one to the other. Were they serious? They would pass up a chance to train as soldiers in a different world just because one of them was gone? This is what being a team, and being loyal is all about, he thought. It reminded him of Red Tide. “Let’s make our own pact then,” he said, and drew in from his cigarette. “If one of us leaves, we’re all gone. We‘re all in this together.”
A smile spread on Elli’s face and Corey nodded and put his hand out. Elli put hers on Corey’s and Saienta put his hand on Elli’s. Before they could finalize the pact, the other three walked in, studying them.
Elli motioned to their hands. “We’re making a pact, are you guys in?”
Sirian looked at them, leaving whatever she had come in to say at the back of her mind for now and asked what it was for.
         “We’re all in this world together. If one of us goes, we all do,” Corey explained.
Sirian smiled, nodded, and put her hand on Saienta’s. Annaleace and Ryan looked at each other, smiled and put their hands on. “We’re in,” Ryan said.
         “We’re in this together,” Elli said.
         “Together,” the others agreed.

When the others had gone, Sirian stayed back to talk with Saienta in the cell. He could leave if he wanted but she had told him she wanted to say something in private.
She turned to look at him and smoothed back her braided hair with a hand. “They’re still making an appeal, despite what we’ve told them.”
He crossed his arms and relaxed, putting his weight on one foot. “I know.”
         “There’s a chance we’ll be sent back. After all this…what we’ve been through for the last few days, it doesn’t seem worth it to leave.”
He thought of Rell. If he had to leave…he would let her stay here, free. He would miss her and wonder where she had gone if he lost his memory. “It would be worse if we had trained for longer and were sent back after that.” He paused. “Thanks for defending me from the other soldiers.”
She shrugged. “I did what I had to.” She faltered and turned to go, facing the side. “Saienta…do you still think I’m just a cheerleading people-pleaser?” she asked seriously.
He considered it for a moment but didn‘t reply.
         “I mean…I didn’t think people saw me that way. I’ve only wanted to help people, or get involved with the school to pass time. It’s not just Elli, or you, there are others who think I only do things for the sake of being popular or just…good. I just want to help. What is wrong with that? I don’t understand.” She shook her head and turned to look at him.
         “Nothing,” he answered. It was true. But he and Sirian were completely opposite people in this respect and he couldn’t tell her what she should be doing. They had one thing in common and that was to always be judged by appearance alone. “Sirian. What am I at school?”
She thought for a moment. “What do you mean?”

“What am I? What do people see me as?” He gazed at her seriously, speaking in a low voice. “I’m ‘dangerous’ or I’m this, or I’m some fucked-up criminal who won’t get anywhere. This is how people see me. To be seen as a sensible person like you- there’s nothing wrong with that. Take Phoenix’s advice- just don’t give a fuck what other people think. People have their own issues, and they tend to take it out on the ones who don’t seem to have any. Someone like Elli, for instance. I see the smiles, and I see the jokes, but beneath that is the other person. The same goes for you, for me, for Corey even. There are…as much as we hate it, stereotypes- the exterior of a person. People are diminished to single adjectives describing what they are. You don’t have to break the stereotype but you don’t have to live it either. Let people see what they want. I was given a saying that has stuck with me- it slightly contradicts but involves the ‘who-gives-a-fuck’ aphorism. ‘Those that care don’t matter, and those that matter don’t care’. It will make more sense to someone like you who has caring people around them. Live for yourself- it’s not selfishness- and you’ll live for them. Don’t be held back by someone who doesn’t give a fuck about you.”
Saienta always said what he had to say when he needed to. In this case, Sirian should know that nothing she did would matter to someone who really didn’t give a fuck what happened to her. He didn’t care about her, but he knew others did, and that was the point of him speaking. He lived, barely, and let others live.
Sirian stayed silent and then looked up at him. She then walked out without replying. Unfazed, he walked out moments later, after having another cigarette.

*

Monday

Saienta sat in front of Miss Silvalet’s desk as they had lunch and he listened as she laughed at something funny she had let slip accidentally in the staffroom. “-oh, and Cedric, what an idiot and a half!” she was saying, and she burst into laughter again. “And by the way, your paired-project was great. You and Corey worked well together…”

He was lost in his own thoughts. Tonight he was going to be interrogated by Grey and another soldier to find out what his intentions were and why he had hit another soldier, especially a teammate. They wouldn’t use violence- not physically- they were going to break him down mentally and see if he had any insanity or darkness there. No, no darkness there. No strange voices, no insanity. I’m as normal as they come.
He looked up when he realized she had asked him a question. “What?”
She narrowed her eyes in concern. “I said you’re looking better these days. Are you getting more sleep?”
He nodded. Except that I’m mind-fucked, Grey, did I mention that? But I don’t really care.
She tilted her head slightly, examining his face. “Did you quit that Red thug business?”
He gave a small smile. “Yeah, I did,” he lied, the first time any one had asked.
She paused and then beamed. “Really? That’s wonderful!” She looked like she wanted to hug him and he was glad a desk was separating them. “What made you finally realize you’re so much better than all that?”
He thought for a moment. “It was just a phase, I suppose. I’m over it.”
She smiled and then clapped her hands together. “This calls for a celebration!”
I know, he thought, because I’m an official Red Tide now. And he grinned.
         “How about…dinner?” she asked, making suggestions for him.
He shook his head.
         “...lunch?”
Saienta shook his head again.
         “How about…” she looked around for any unwanted ears, “…a drink?”
He almost laughed. “I’m not old enough, remember?”
She sighed.
“Oh, I know!” she said suddenly. “How about you, me and a friend of yours- Corey, I think- all go to an amusement park?”
He winced. “No thanks…”
She sighed again. “You’re hard to please, Sayenta, really. What would you like to do to celebrate? We’ll go next Saturday.”
         “It’s fine, I don’t need to celebrate. You’ve done enough.”
She waved her hand dismissively. “No, I think we should celebrate, what would you like to do? All expenses are on me…unless you plan on a holiday.”
He thought for a while. What would he like to do? And with a teacher, at that? He came up with something he’d wanted to do for a while after a moment. “You, me, Corey, and your favourite English student to balance out the numbers- paintball skirmish.”
A smile began to form on his face but she gave him a puzzled look. “Paintball skirmish?”
He nodded. “Where you have guns with paint pellets in them and go around shooting each other. We wear white overalls, armor, and goggles.”
She looked a little concerned. “Is it painful?”
         “No,” he lied.
         “What is the armor for?” she asked suspiciously.
         “The pellets leave slight bruises,” he shrugged. “Nothing serious.”
         “Then what are the goggles for?”
         “If you get hit in the eye, you may become blind.”
Miss Silvalet thought for a while and then sighed loudly, but she had already made her decision against her own favour. “How did I know this would end in violence?”

“So who is your favourite student?” Saienta asked, taking a guess of one.
She beamed. “Oh, I thought that would be easy for you to guess. But I really can’t pick between them both so we’ll just take the two of them, won’t we? Sirian and Gwen!”

*
Saienta stood with Ryan, Elli, Corey, Sirian, and Annaleace just outside the school gate, discussing their plans for the rest of the week. A few people glanced their way, at the unlikely formed group, but did little else as they made their way home.
         “So it’ll be the same as last week, in other words?” Elli asked, sighing slightly. A new bruise had formed on her left jaw and an older one that was fading marked her right temple.
         “I suppose it will be,” Annaleace said. “We don’t have much choice. Some nights we stay over, and other times we’ll just go early in the morning.”
         “And on days we don’t go at all, we’ll make up for it on the weekend,” Corey said, his bruised hand in his pocket. Saienta remembered that one- it was the bruise formed when Grey had taken a hit at him and Corey used his hand to block the punch from hitting his chest, but instead, he’d done nothing but bruise his hand as well as his chest. The soldiers seemed to refrain from hitting them around the head area as much as possible, except for Linx who seemed to enjoy colouring Elli’s face even if she wasn’t supposed to. They always looked forward to the long baths afterwards in the bathhouse next to their home in Sandra. The protein drinks were necessary and sleep was cherished.

“Oh yeah,” Sirian said, remembering something. She put her bag on the ground and took out a photo envelope, passing it to Annaleace. “From the cruise,” she explained. “I had doubles printed for you.”
Annaleace took the photos and had a look through them, laughing at some and she passed them to Ryan when she was done. Saienta glanced down and saw a photo of Sirian standing on the deck with Annaleace. Sirian was wearing a pastel blue dress and Annaleace was in a garnet halter-neck dress, smiling into the camera. No bruises, no cuts.
Corey passed Saienta and Elli two photos each. “From the cruise too. I forgot,” he said and Saienta looked down at the top one. He and Corey were in their suits on the speedboat. Saienta had buttoned his suit up but he could still see that he was wearing no shirt. The other photo was the one with him, Corey and Elli in her creamy white dress with her necklace, earrings and diamond tiara sparkling in the light of the flash. It wasn’t possible to see, but she had taken off her glass heels and stood next to Corey who was in the middle with her arm wrapped around his shoulder. No bruises, no cuts.
Elli looked at her photo wistfully. “Thanks, Corey.”

A lot had happened in the last week since the week before the cruise. Their entire frame of mind had shifted dramatically.
         “We need to improve…” Sirian drifted. “Or else the fights are always going to be the same.”
Ryan nodded. “We will get better. Our training isn’t for nothing. All this pain has to amount to something.”
         “I know we will,” Elli said, “It just doesn’t feel like it. We’re ordained! We’re destined for big things.”
Sirian nodded faintly.
         “We’re not ordained for anything,” Saienta said aloud. “No one ever said we were going to be significant.” Saienta remembered what Moth had told him about their presence being faint, and he knew they were on the verge of disappearing completely from Ame’s world. “Forget the dreams. We’re not going to save the world. Realistically, we’ll never amount to much considering how late we’ve started our training.”
There was a long silence.
         “Anyway,” Elli said, changing subjects and looking more cheery. “We’ll have to work hard this week on getting our restaurant up and running, in this world and in Ame’s too. Gossamer Leaf needs work!”
Sirian was about to open her mouth and say something when her eyes widened, as she spotted something and they watched her. Saienta saw a girl he recognised come running through the circle and both Sirian and the girl embraced tightly.

“Rennie!” Sirian almost screamed.
         “Sirian!” Renna replied, while they never let go of each other. Renna held something in each hand.
Sirian pulled back, examining Renna carefully. “What the hell happened to you, Renna? Where did you disappear to?”
Renna shook her head quickly. “I can’t talk about that. I just…I came to say goodbye and thank you…for everything.” Renna blinked back regretful tears. “I told you I was going to Europe, remember? I thought I might find you at school since you’re never home anymore.”
Renna stepped away a little, embarrassed since she was in the middle of a circle of people and she realised she had interrupted them. She noticed Saienta and she gave him a quick smile before turning back to Sirian. “I haven’t got long, they’re waiting for me.” She glanced over at a jet-black Mercedes and Saienta read the license plate, recognised the code of numbers and knew it was an official Red Tide car. It must have been Renna’s uncle- she had mentioned he was in Red Tide.
Sirian looked teary. “How long will you be gone, Ren?”
Renna shrugged. “A few months, maybe longer. I’ll be safe…you know…with um…angels watching over me and everything,” she said carefully, glancing at Saienta to hint she was talking about Red Tide. She must have seen the official symbol also, since it resembled waves as well as wings.
Sirian nodded. “I’m glad…”
Renna hugged her fiercely. “I’ll miss you, Sirian. Tell Keiji I said goodbye too.”
Sirian nodded, blinking back tears that refused to stay inside and Renna pressed one of the objects in her hand into Sirian’s.
         “Remember the promise?” Renna asked quickly and managed to smile, although she was crying too.
“Though not by blood.”
         “And not by law,” Renna followed.
“We are sisters.”
“In spirit and mind.”
         “Always true to the other.” Sirian smiled.
“Forever sisters,” they finished together.
Renna turned to Saienta and held out her hand, pressing the other box into his hands for him to take. “I was going to give this to Sirian to give to you. I owe you…thank you,” she said, and hugged him. Saienta didn’t react and nodded when she moved back. She smiled.
Sirian watched as Renna walked away to the car and gave one last wave as she shut the door.
Sirian was quiet for a long time and no one else spoke.
          “I don’t think I’ll ever see her again. I have a feeling, call it intuition.” Sirian paused and gathered herself together, speaking softly. “Forever sisters.”

*

Once he was alone, Saienta opened the small black box that Renna had given him. Inside was a small folded note and a silver ID bracelet that had Into The Light engraved on the front and on the back he read Always RT. Saienta smiled at the allusion. RT stood for both Renna Tenro and Red Tide. She had left the comma out so he could it read it both ways. He unfolded the note and read the quickly scribbled writing:
“No longer a statue, so thank you. You’re a terrible driver, you owe me a dress. P.S. Stop smoking, it’s bad.”

*

Saienta found Tidus on a bench under a tree in the park and sat next to him, lighting up a cigarette. “Why are you here, Tidus?” Saienta asked after a while, listening to nothing but Tidus’s silence. The tension was thick and harsh, especially while neither spoke but thought deeply. Saienta was supposed to meet Alexia, as he did every week, but found Tidus instead.
Tidus was gazing at the grass between his feet and he half-turned his head to look at him. “Because of Alexia.”
Saienta waited for the explanation.
         “I can’t help loving her, and I can’t help thinking that she’s your half-sister, no matter how hard I try to put it out of my head and tell myself I don’t give a fuck, that it makes no difference, but it does,” Tidus explained, through gritted teeth.
Saienta exhaled smoke. “Why?”
         “Because she cares about you and I can see it. I don’t even know why she cares. She doesn’t need you and you’re not the greatest brother there ever was.” Tidus laughed bitterly and Saienta agreed with him.
         “It doesn’t affect my relationship with her, Sai, I treat her no differently, but it doesn’t help when I don’t want her anywhere near you.” Tidus was speaking calmly, rationally, as though he was confiding in Saienta.
Saienta examined him critically and carefully put everything together. He nodded. “And you want me to walk away from her coldly, with no explanation, to give you peace of mind that I won’t hurt her; am I right?”
Tidus turned sharply but said coolly, “Exactly. You can do it once; you’ll have no problem doing it again.”
Saienta smirked and stood up, watching the agitation showing in Tidus’s movements disappearing. Tidus had been unsure how Saienta would react and was now glad he was consenting. Saienta read and summed up everything quickly.
Both of them- Alexia and Tidus- would be better off this way.
Saienta realised, for the first time, as he imagined he was opening his closed hand to release a trapped butterfly, that he really did care for Alexia. She was his one blood tie, but it wasn’t just that. She was everything he wasn’t, but she still accepted and cared for him despite what he was. She trusted her own judgments. They had spent a few hours together in all, doing nothing in particular on her insistence; she had patience and was slowly working towards finding something in him- he realised it too, but had no idea what she was looking for. With time, he may have changed and become what she was trying to find in him.

But that wouldn’t happen now. Circumstances can change lives.
Saienta didn’t look at him. He flicked his cigarette onto the ground and spoke coldly but fiercely. “For Alexia’s sake, and in respect to the friendship I had with you, Tidus, I’ll give you this. I’ll turn my back, the way we turned our backs on each other four years ago. I won’t promise you she won’t be hurt. But unlike you, I know Alexia will hold no grudge or bitterness. She won’t stop caring.” And I’ll never stop caring for her either, Saienta thought, walking away.

         Saturday
Annaleace looked out over the dead city and signed.
         “What’s going on with you?” Sirian said, who looked over at her.
Annaleace shook her head then rubbed her stomach. “I’m hungry. Lets go out and eat.”
Sirian looked a little taken back from what Annaleace said, but was all for eating. “One tiny problem. Money.”

"Moth," Annaleace smiled, and began to walk down the staircase of their house. Sirian laughed and followed her down the stairs.

They walked side by side into the village of Sandra. They looked across at each street for Wing-Moth and saw him standing with few people around him. They walked over to him.
         “Wing-Moth,” Annaleace said. They took another step and they were in front of him. He smiled graciously at them, taking a small pouch of coins out of one of his many pockets and handed it over to Annaleace.
         “Come to wonder around Sandra have you?” Wing-Moth asked.
Annaleace smiled. “Came to eat.” They laughed.
         “You girls have fun, try not to get into too much trouble.”
They laughed but promised and started to look for a restaurant.
“I’ll add it to your tab.” They heard him say.

Sirian and Annaleace walked up the stairs to Yellow and sat at a table near the back. They saw Nyu coming their way. She smiled and bowed. “Hello. I haven’t seen you two in the village since… the last time. But I’m glad you’re here now.”
Annaleace bowed. “Thank you. We’re glad to be back here.” She glanced over at Sirian. “Can we have what we had last time?”
Nyu nodded. ”Of course, I’ll be back with your drinks.” She bowed then left the table.
Annaleace looked over at Sirian. “How’s everything with Kenji?”

Sirian shook her head. “He’s worried, that’s all. He thinks someone’s beating me up. I haven’t really talked to him since Thursday.”
A sort while later, Nyu appeared again with their drinks and placed them on the table. “I’ll be back with your food as soon as it's ready.” Annaleace and Sirian thanked her, as she walked away.
         “So, where’s Ryan anyway?” Sirian said, taking a long sip of her drink.
         “Working. He’s got this new job with this medical doctor guru guy. I’m not sure exactly what it is. But he’s really excited about it.” Annaleace took a sip and instantly felt shivers going up her arm. She hadn't really give much thought of his new job. “Now if only we could find a job.” Annaleace laughed then thought about it for a moment. “We really should get a job, how else are we ever going to pay back Moth?” She looked up to see Sirian was waving at someone. “Who are you waving at?”
         “Tiyan’s here.”
She turned around to see him as he approached their table.
         “What are you two doing here?” He had the usual smile across his face and his hands were in the pockets of his training pants.
         “Eating. What about you?” Annaleace couldn’t help but smile when he walked into a room. He was always so optimistic and happy.
         “Thought I’d come in and get something to eat- maybe talk to Nyu a little. Then I saw you two over here, so I thought I’d say hi.”
Sirian looked over at Annaleace and smiled. “Want to join us?”
Annaleace felt a rush of excitement as Tiyan sat next to her. He looked between them. “What are we eating?”
Sirian shrugged her shoulders a little. “I’m not sure what it's called exactly… but it's good.”
They laughed. Nyu came over once she saw Tiyan. They talked for a moment, then she wrote down his order. They sat and chatted until their food came. It tasted like a juicy steak, every bite better than the last. Annaleace savoured the taste. After they were done they had another drink.
Tiyan turned to Annaleace. “I’m glad you were here, I was meaning to talk to you today.”
         “Oh?” Annaleace smiled and her eye brow rose with interest. Sirian looked at both of them then excused herself from the table.
         “Can you meet me later tonight in front of your house? There’s something I want to show you by the river.” Tiyan’s smile grew, like a kid trying to hide a secret.
She smiled at his excitement. She looked into his eyes and there was something about him, she couldn’t have said no if she wanted to. “Ok.”
He place his hands over hers and kissed her on the cheek.
         “You’ll love it, I promise.”
Sirian came back and sat down at the table. “Did I miss anything?”

*


Annaleace returned home that evening to her family for a little while. “Hello? Anyone home?” Annaleace closed the front door behind her and walked onto the hardwood floor.
         “In here.”
She followed the voice into the living room to see her brother Sam sitting on the couch watching football. He looked up at her then patted the seat beside him. She went over and sat down. “Haven’t seen you lately.”
Annaleace sat back, allowing her body to relax. “Ya, I’ve been busy.”
         “Oh, I heard about that- black eyes- going into the city- that bruise on your arm. Did I get all of that?”
She shook her head. “Danny and his big fucking mouth.”
Sam managed to tear his eyes from the tv screen. “So, what’s going on Lace?”
She gritted her teeth. “Nothings wrong! I got in a fight last week. And I stayed at Sirian’s house last night and I ran into the side of her hot tub. What’s with you guys? Just stop freaking out. Nothing's wrong.” Annaleace got up and started walking to the stairwell.
         “Lacy, we’re just worried about you.”
         “Well don’t be.” And Annaleace walked into the bathroom.


After her shower Annaleace went back to her room and looked down at her clock. She walked to her closet and picked up a small shoulder bag from the bottom of it. She threw in her mp3 player, even though she knew it was a bad idea, a pair of socks, t-shirt and shorts, an extra school skirt, deodorant and a toothbrush. Quickly she pulled on a pair of red track pants and a tank top. Over the top she threw her sweater and picked up her shoulder bag. She brushed her hair back and pulled it into a ponytail, then walked down the stairs. Sam was still in the living room but got up when he saw her. “Where you going?”

         Out, I’ll probably sleep over at Sirian's, we’re going to this party. Tell mom and dad would you?” She started walking towards the door but was stopped when Sam stepped in front of her.
         “You know no one's met this Sirian girl, why don’t you bring her by the house next week to meet the family.”
Annaleace rolled her eyes. “Ya, whatever, I’ll think about it. Now will you move?” Sam took a step to her left and let her pass. She was already at her car when she heard he call after her. Annaleace stopped. “Where’s Ryan at?”
         “I think he’s at this guy…Corey’s house.” She waited till she heard the door close behind her then jumped in the car.

*


Annaleace made it back through the Gate by evening. Neah had met her and taken her back to the horse fields. As always, she had been accompanied by soldiers and Ame. She dismounted Neah and ran her fingers through her mane. She smiled. “I’ll see you later.” She watched as Neah hazed to the other horses and laughed a little. She felt a hand on her shoulder and turned around. Tiyan was standing behind her and she hugged him.
         “What was that for? Not that I’m complaining.” He smiled.
         “I’m just happy to see you, that’s all.”
         “Well, in that case,” Tiyan pulled her into his arms and held her tightly to her chest. Annaleace felt at ease. Everything seemed to melt away and the frustration inside her was replaced with ease for the minute she was in his hands. He let her go, still keeping his hands in hers. “I would love to stay here with you all day, but I have to get back to training.”
         “It's fine, I should go catch up with the others. I’ll see you tonight.”
         “Tonight.”
He bent down and kissed her on the cheek, then walked toward the horses. Annaleace waited a moment before turning around and walking through the training fields. Soldiers were scattered across half of the field training. She noticed a girl looking at her, and stopped. She thought for a moment, then realized it was the girl from Yellow. She had long brown hair and a slim body. Annaleace stood there while she approached her.
         “What are doing here? Have you come to train?” She smirked.
         “Walking home.” Annaleace turned to leave, but the girl grabbed her arm swiftly.
         “Sandra’s not your home, it never will be. And just because you're marring one of us doesn’t mean you ever will be.”
Annaleace turned to face her again. “What do you want from me?” She had to bite her tongue to keep from saying something she might regret. The girl dropped her arm and ran her tongue across her teeth.
         “A fight.”
Annaleace shook her head. “I don’t have time for it!”
The girl folded her arms across her chest. “What, are you afraid?” She began to laugh.
Annaleace could feel her blood boiling. She took her bag off her shoulder and threw it behind her.
         “Fine.” Annaleace stepped forward with her fist extended, then felt a swift hit from the back. She stumbled around a little but didn’t fall. She turned around to see the girl laughing at her and bit down on the sides of her cheeks, getting ready to attack again. This time she kicked her foot out with full force at the girl in front of her. She felt hands around her foot then was on the ground with her face in the grass. She took a deep breath then pulled herself together. The girl was laughing. “Is that all you got?” She couldn’t take it anymore, the soldiers, the training, her family. Annaleace leapt forward, barley grazing the girls shoulder, and felt a pain across her face. She backed up with the taste of blood in her mouth. The girl didn’t wait to attack this time, she hazed to Annaleace, hitting her in the ribs a few times before kicking her feet out from under her.
         “That’s enough Sera.”
Annaleace opened her eyes to see a soldier walking over toward them. She exhaled. She recognized him as the soldier who had fought Saienta and Corey. Grey. He stood over her. “Are you okay?”
         “I was just getting started,” Sera said who stood smiling a few feet away.
Grey looked over at her. “It’s over, go back to training.” Sera walked back to the group of soldiers who had been watching. “Need help up?” Grey was still looking down at her on the ground.
         “No, I’ll be fine.” She slowly started to sit up then after a few minutes got to her feet. Annaleace felt her fists tighten at her sides. She shook her head. The helplessness was angering her.
Grey nodded and left. Annaleace picked up her bag and began walking to the house. She wiped the blood off her lips as her other hand held her ribs.


Annaleace finally made it to the steps of their house. She slowly opened the door and called out for Ryan and Sirian. When she was sure there was no one home she proceeded to walk up the stairs. Once she reached the top she headed for the bathroom. She looked at the mirror. Her hair was messed up and there was a cut across her bottom lip where a bruise was beginning to form. She took the brush out of her bag and pulled her hair back into a tight ponytail. She pulled up her sweater and looked at her ribs. A large bruise had begun to form. Annaleace sighed as she walked toward her room, closing the door behind her. She place her bag on the floor then eased herself onto the bed that was pushed against the wall, falling asleep instantly.

*


Tiyan and Annaleace walked hand in hand following the narrow forest tracks. “You still haven’t told me what this is?”
Tiyan looked over at her and smiled. “This is a forest.”
         “Ha- ha- ha- you're funny, you really are,” Annaleace teased. He laughed, and Annaleace persisted. “Come on, seriously, what’s the big surprise?”
Tiyan sighed. “You know there’s a reason it’s called a surprise. Just relax, we’re almost there.”
Annaleace took a deep breath, then looked up at him. “Fine, if I must.”

As they got further down the path the trees began to clear and the lake came into view. Annaleace took a deep breath holding it in as she looked across at the lake. It was laminated with a pale blue light, the surface of the lake was lit up with thousands of blue lights.
         “Oh my God. It’s beautiful.”
Tiyan led her by hand down to the edge of the lake and they sat down. Annaleace pointed at the blue lights. “What is it?”

Tiyan was wearing his usual smile. “Firefly eggs. Every year at the end of summer, fireflies lay their eggs before the die. The eggs lay dormant for a year, and then at the first night of summer, the eggs light up and the lake glows like that for two days. On the third night, the fireflies awaken and begin their flight from the water. Everyone around here comes out to see it. It's amazing.”
Annaleace looked in awe of the lake. It was so beautiful. “This is amazing. How did you know it’d be tonight?”
         “The horses told me.” She watched the water, memorized by it. It was amazing, the most beautiful thing she had ever seen. They sat there quietly as they both watched the sight. After a while Tiyan stood up and put his hand out for Annaleace. “Wanna walk?”
She smiled and took his hand, and they both strolled around the edge of the lake.

“So, my family really wants to met you. They were hoping you’d come by sometime soon,” Tiyan said.
Annaleace stopped and looked up at him. It was the first time she had realized how tall he was. “Wow, I never thought about that.”
         “About meeting my family?”
         “Ya, it just sorta slipped past me, I guess.”
He looked toward the water than back at her. “If you're not ready to, they can wait until the wedding to meet you.”
Annaleace looked up at him and smiled. “No, next week is fine.”
He bent down and kissed her, then they continued walking along the lake.

*

         Sunday morning

“Lacy, you awake?”
Annaleace opened her eyes to see Sirian standing in the doorway. “Elli wants us to go over their house, she just left with Ryan, something about a job or something.”
She got out of bed, her body didn’t hurt as much now only a slight aching in the sides. “What happened to you?” Sirian was looking at her face.
         “You know that soldier, the one from Yellow, who asked when the wedding was?” Sirian nodded. “Well, I ran into her walking back from the horse fields.” Sirian nodded, but didn't need to hear the rest. It all ended in the same way; a fight. Together they walked to see the others. Annaleace told Sirian about her nice walk with Tiyan alongside the lake last night and Sirian talked about her day.


         Sunday afternoon

Sirian walked alone towards Ame’s school. It truly was beautiful here. The sun was beginning its descent. Vibrant colors danced across the clear blue sky and Sirian paused just to watch. A calming sensation rushed through her body. Questions poured through her mind of the who, what, how and why of everything. She had problems, everyone did. But why did she always seem to blow them way out of proportion? Sirian had it good, better than good. Why was she stressing about her life then? Perfection was unattainable, certainly. But when had she discovered that? Who knew? She certainly didn’t know.
Resuming her hike, she tried to make herself more aware of her surroundings. There was no one around. Not even soldiers sparring on the fields. It was an unusual sight to see when she had been so accustomed to their presence, but it was nice to have a reprieve from their idiotic sense of a person’s worth. Since when was anyone judged solely on his or her strength? The beginning of time, Sirian answered. It was human nature, no matter which world, for the strong to dominate. Still, she wondered of the soldiers’ absence.
As Sirian neared Ame’s school, these thoughts ran through her mind. They had arranged to meet at this hour, when the school would be empty. Sirian knocked on the door, pausing to notice the oak tree emblem. Ame beckoned Sirian in from behind the door and Sirian went in, closing the sliding door behind her. Sirian bowed, and then looked into Ame face. She wore an odd expression on her face, but Sirian couldn’t figure out what it was.
         “How are you?” Ame asked.
         “Tired, but that’s nothing new.” Sirian smiled. Ame smiled in return and from the corner of the room where sunlight did not shine its bright ray, she took from the top of the pile, two grass-woven mats and laid them out on the floorboards. Sirian did as Ame did- they knelt on both knees, and then sat on their feet.

The sunlight hit across Ame’s eyes and half her body, neglecting the other to shadow. Some of the same warm sunlight hit against Sirian too. Inside the schoolroom was a little cooler than outside in the warm. The windows in the school were open and there were so many things to hear. She heard voices and the wind whistling through the trees.
         “Sirian,” Ame paused, “that day when the six of you stumbled into our world, we asked of several things from each of you. From each of you, we asked what your reasons were for staying. I’m asking you another question, what draws you to Sandra everyday? Forget the pact for the time being, and think back. What brings you here?”
Time ran like water. It could be your worst enemy, and your best friend. Sirian didn’t even realize it had been a minute or so before Ame had spoken.
         “Whatever it is,” Ame went on, “find it. Without it the road becomes limited.”
After that they did stretches.

Once she was outside, she wondered when they were going to use their Mythra. But in a sense, they were using their Mythra; they needed it to water tread. Still, when were they going to find out what kind of Mythra they had? She overheard Sin telling his puppy (Kitten) that no Mythra was the same, and that Kitten wouldn’t be able to use it until he completed the basics. Did that apply to everyone? Sirian thought about it and decided that it probably did apply to everyone. Just then, Sirian saw Elli running. Her expression was strange and urgent looking. Sirian ran to catch up, and once Elli explained hurriedly, followed her to the whereabouts of absent soldiers, and Saienta’s cell.

*


Oh this is bad... Saienta is in some deep shit. But I don’t owe him anything. He hasn’t done anything for me. He doesn’t even give a girl the common courtesy of a hello at school. Not that I can expect any more from someone like him... But still. I have a duty to my friends. It wouldn’t be right for us all to be here without everyone. Even Elli. We’re all here for a reason. So my problem is getting everyone else to realize that.
         Sirian argued her best with the soldiers. Remember, an effective lawyer can make anyone believe anything. After who knows how long arguing, Mizu and some soldiers went to lodge an official complaint against Saienta. She sighed and left to visit him in his cell.

*


Though not by blood.
And not by law,
We are sisters.
In spirit and mind.
Always true to the other.
Forever sisters...

         ”Oh, Rennie...” Sirian sighed as she stepped through the front door of her house. Not a word had been said when her parents mobbed her in the foyer. Sirian yelped at the shock and nearly cursed in front of her parents. Remembering herself, she held her tongue. ”Hi Mom. Hi Daddy.”
         ”Young lady. You are not running out on us this time.” Miya started. This had to be serious. Miya never used the mother‘s “young lady” term.
         ”Your mother is right. We haven’t seen you for days. Your coach called and said that you quit your sports. The vice principal called and said that you quit every club and committee that you were on, only keeping your obligation as Student Council president. So if you quit all these things what are you doing with your time?”
Sirian felt almost resentful toward her ex-coach. From no other teacher would she expect this from. He was as passionate about sports as her friends were, and she figured that he put the principal up to calling her parents.
         ”Can we sit down?” Sirian asked slowly.
         ”Of course sweetheart.” Miya said as they headed into the living area.
         ”We are worried about you.” Yukio said, concerned.
         Sirian sat down on the leather coach. “I’m going through some things.”
         ”Well that’s more than a little obvious.” Miya blurted.
         ”Please Mom. This is hard. I’m trying to find myself.”
         ”Find yourself?” Yukio frowned. “You are who you’ve always been. A Tomi.”
         ”But I don’t just want to be a Tomi. I want to figure out who I really am. I’ve been plagued by so many nightmares. Failure, inadequacy, and death.”
         ”You still grieving for your sister, aren’t you?” Miya sat next to her daughter and brushed a strand of Sirian’s hair from her face. “There’s nothing you can do darling, but-”
         ”I know!” Sirian yelled and stood. “I know I can’t do anything, but I can’t help but think that I should have died in that fire. Not her.”
         ”Hold your tongue!” Yukio shouted. “Sirian Fiora Tomi! Don’t you ever say that!”
Sirian looked up to her father. A tear fell down her cheek and she ran, sprinted out of the room, dashed up the stairs, and raced into her room. She placed the box and letter Renna had given her onto her dresser, then she lay in bed, sobbing. Not thinking. Not wanting to breathe another breath, and Renna’s gift was left to be forgotten for the time being. She simply wanting peace.
         ”Ame,” Sirian whispered. Ame was peace embodied. If anyone would listen and not judge her, it was Ame. She wiped the tears from her eyes and headed downstairs. Her parents watched her come down. She walked past them, grabbed her car keys and called to them.
         ”I’m going out. I love you both.” She closed the front door and jumped into her car.

*

Dusk was slowly giving way to darkness. Like my heart. Sirian sighed as she rode Spirit to Ame’s house while tired soldiers accompanied her. She knocked softly on Ame’s door.

”Sirian?” Ame asked, puzzled. She had known Sirian went home, and didn’t expect to see her again until tomorrow. She could have gone to her home in Sandra, but her purpose was to see Ame.
         ”I... I had to come. You’re always so composed. I need some of your serenity to rub off on me.”
Ame looked uncomfortable at the word serenity, but then looked concerned. “Tell me what happened.”
So Sirian talked. Ame didn’t interrupt, only listened. Sirian told Ame everything, about Aida Lee and school, about her parents and Keiji, and about her doubts and desires. Everything.
         ”Instead of explaining yourself to your parents, you ran away from them,” Ame said.
         “I can’t talk to them anymore. Only you and the others know about this place. I can’t talk to my best friend about why I come to school everyday with bruises and cuts on me. I think our friendship may be comatose now.”
Ame was expressionless for a second or two. ”Your parents know you best than any of the others, including me,” she said firmly, and then smiled. Saddened, Sirian thought deeply. “You’re welcome to stay the night.”
Sirian nodded collapsed on a futon in Ame’s house. Morning came and Sirian woke refreshed. A burden had been lifted and it showed. Ame was in the kitchen cooking breakfast.
         ”I’m not going back today,” Sirian said at the low table to Ame. From the kitchen, she saw Ame looking immersed in what she was cooking. Sirian went on. “Today, I think needs to be about learning of a different kind,” Sirian paused. Once again the confident, business-like teenage girl returned and spoke seriously. “I need to read about history, customs, and the legal system, to help Saienta. I think my time is better spent researching on how to have the charges against him dropped. Is there a library?”
         “Sirian,” Ame said, looking over her shoulder. She smiled. “Don’t you worry about Saienta’s appeal. That is for the General and me to handle. You concentrate on your family, and your training.”

A Non-Existent User


          Elli hurriedly got ready for school. She had overslept, a typical thing to do on a Monday morning, and she knew today was going to be a big day for her. She had a Calculus and a Physics test, for starters.

          She yawned a bit. Those dreams she had…of them…so strange…it felt so weird…

          She sighed, she was so sore. So tired. So stressed out. Alas… She grabbed her lime green iPod and chose Samurai Drive, by Hitomi (she adored Hitomi) and threw her stuff in her book bag. She grabbed it and ran down the stairs, through the kitchen to grab her piece of toast with strawberry jam on it, kissed her father who was making coffee, and headed toward the door.

          “Elli,” her father called.

          Elli slowed down and backed up. “Yeah?” she said.

          “Your mother…she wants to get with you tonight…I think she’s treating you to pizza…”

          “Aw, no!! I don’t want to go. I don’t want to see her. I can’t deal with her now, I’m too busy.”

          “Elli, she is your mother. She has a right to see you. And…besides, I’m a bit worried about you.”

          “What?”

          “What have you been doing lately—those bruises, cuts—do you have a personal trainer I do not know about?”

          “So I’ve been taking some hardcore martial art classes, so what, Dad?” Elli’s lie rolled smoothly off her tongue. “You want your big girl to take care of herself, right? Soon, we get to handle with katanas and things. And that means a yellow tracksuit for me. But don’t worry, Dad, I’ll be fine. Please.”

          She hugged him tightly, biting her tongue to hold back the tears. Yeah, I’ll be all right, she thought to herself. But for how long? How long will I have to live like this?

*


          Still listening to her iPod, Elli closed her locker, and sighed again. She was exhausted, yet she wouldn’t mind to train right now. Better than being in school. She didn’t mind it; she had grown quite accustomed to it, in fact. She loved the house Saienta, Corey, and she kept, the dinners they had. All of them, the five of them, Elli loved in her own way. The kind where each depended on each other and stood by each other.

          As she grabbed a book out of her locker, she noticed a flyer that was stuck under it. She grabbed it and looked at it. It advertised about a university…ah, university, would she really go? Only a few more months and— Corey appeared.

          “Hey,” Corey’s voice spilled into her ear. Elli slightly jumped, turned down her music, and slammed her locker.

*


          “Oh, I know I failed those tests, I just know it…” Elli said, putting her things away. So much to do. So little time.

          The last bell rang. School was officially over for the day. Elli was on her way out of school when, suddenly, Gwen turned the corner, speaking loudly in her annoying snobbish voice. Her hair was slightly red today. Three of her followers accompanied her.

          “I know…she’s so not cool anymore. I mean, have you seen the people she’s hanging with now? Talk about stupid.”

          She walked passed Elli without acknowledging her. Elli suddenly heard Gwen mention Sirian’s name, which made her turn around. Something prickled inside of Elli. She dropped her books at Corey’s feet and followed Gwen. Inside her was built up stress and frustration.

          “Hey, Gwen!” Elli called out.

          Gwen turned around. “Why, look girls. If it isn’t the biggest red bitch I know. How are you? Is hell treating you well? You look just like it.”

          “What did you say about Sirian?”

          “What? That’s none of your business…wait…I guess it might be, seeing you are low of the low,” Gwen stole a glance at Corey. “Yes, I would say Sirian is a disgrace, a-”

          “Watch your mouth,” Elli growled, cracking her knuckles. “Don’t ever besmirch Sirian’s name, or I’ll break you. I’ll do it, I swear.”

         “Humph,” Gwen said, smiling, and left with her friends. Elli kept her fists clenched, a little disappointed she hadn’t provoked her more.

          Everyone who heard stared at Elli.

          “What the fuck are you all looking at?!” she yelled. They quickly resumed.



         Monday - The beginning of a new week

Ryan sat in the back of the class with Sara and Mark. He and Mark were arguing.
         “Just tell us who it is and we’ll beat him black and blue.” Mark said. He and Sara had been noticing the bruises and cuts on Ryan.
         “It’s nothing, don’t worry about it.” Ryan answered for the thousandth time.
         “But we do worry,” Sara said, “we care what happens to you. Please just tell me what is happening.”
She grabbed Ryan’s hand as she pleaded. Ryan felt the warmth. He wanted to tell her, if he could only tell one person, it would be her. It tore Ryan up in side to say this but he did.
         “There is nothing happening, don’t worry about it.” Tears began to well up in Sara’s eyes, and she hugged him around the waist, burring her head in his shoulder.
         “Why wont you tell me?” She whispered.
Ryan wrapped his arms around her, his voice shook as he spoke. “I can’t.”


Ryan was very sombre as he walked home. When he got in the door, Sam looked up from his book. “What’s the matter with you?”
         “Nothing.”
Sam just shook his head and returned to his book. “You need to stop fighting Ryan; Lacey is starting to get into it and she’s going to get herself hurt.”
Ryan looked over at him, while, she’s going to get herself hurt, replayed over in his head.

Ryan dragged himself up the stairs to his room and closed the door behind him. The backpack ended up against the wall and Ryan laid face down on his bed.
She’s going to get herself hurt.
There he lay for a long time, thinking about what he and his sister were involved in. Finally he sat up and pulled up his grandfathers book. On the front cover was his grandfather’s true name, Comerin. He flicked through the pages; journal entries, meditation techniques, herbal formulas and list of hybrid plants. Grandfather is very much like the old man at the hospital. Ryan looked at the clock, he had to get back to the gate.

He ran out the door, calling back to his brother Sam that he would be staying at Corey’s place again. He hopped on his bike and headed for the school. By now the school was closed but he knew how to get in. Ryan hid his bike in a nearby bush and went to the back side of the school. The fire escape ladder for the science room was about eight feet off the ground. He dragged one of the crates from the cafeteria deliveries and placed it a reasonable distance from the ladder, it would look to suspicious if it was directly under the ladder. Ryan jogged back a little before he turned to the crate, and then he sprinted, jumped up on top, then jumped again and grabbed the ladder. He hauled himself up and quickly found himself in front of the Gate.


On the other side he was greeted stiffly by the guards there, and he rode into the village. He quickly made his way to the hospital and into the building and up the stairs. It was Monday, the beginning of a new week, and his first day of work. He knocked on the door and receive a summon to enter. He slipped in and stood beside the old man.
         “I’m here to start work.” Ryan said. The old man looked at him through his pale blue eyes.
He has eyes like my Grandfather, Ryan thought.
         “You will be working with a man called Ozulin. You will assist him as he treats the patients.”
         “Alright, should I change my cloths?” The old man didn’t respond. Ryan stood there a moment before he heard a knock on the door.
         “Come in,” the old man said. A tall man with short black hair and blue long sleeve shirt and pants came into the room. “You must be Ryan. I’m Ozulin. Follow me and I will get you set up.”
Ryan followed him out of the room, down the stairs and into one of the store rooms. Soon Ryan was wearing an outfit like Ozulin except it was white. Ozulin walked out of the room and Ryan followed him out the door outside and into one of the tents. Ryan spent the remainder of the evening changing bandages, grinding up herbs, making salves and cleaning bandages. Once he went into a tent with burning herbs that almost made him fall asleep, but once he got out of there he never once felt tired afterward. He asked Ozulin about this and all he said was, “That healing of others gives strength to the healer.” He laughed at the puzzled look on Ryan’s face. “Not really, Ryan. We weave special herbs into the clothing we wear. It creates a fume that you can’t smell but it re energizes you as you wear it. Sometimes we have to work non stop for days, especially after big battles or assaults on the village. But it-”
Ryan looked down at the clothing. “Could I borrow this for training?”
Ozulin laughed. “No, but I can give you the list of herbs. You can prepare them and make necklaces out of it.”
Ryan took the list. He liked working with Ozulin. It was the closest thing to fun he had every experienced on this side of the Gate. Ryan pocketed the list, this was going to be very handy.
          Sunday
There was something strange about what Corey saw but to explain it seemed impossible. He had trouble comprehending it himself. He wasn’t angry at Saienta for hitting him, nor did he understand why he was hit. The pain in his face stung, but the pain was not much compared to the punches he tolerated from the Sandra soldiers.
He remembered sitting up on the grass with a knee drawn up, and he watched the blood from his nose spill out like drool. The colour of blood painted the grass, and he stared, dazed, feeling very numb as if he was unreal. Every single bit of him was senseless, even his thoughts felt like a dried up lake.
He heard soldiers arguing, boot pounding footsteps all around and the wind blowing. Corey, who had previously drawn up his black sleeve, had wiped the bloody mess of his face onto his bare skin and it dried to look like beetroot stain. As he wiped more blood off again, Sin appeared with a smirk on his face. Corey ignored it.
         “Two,” Sin said simply.
Corey glanced over at him. “Two what?”
         “That’s twice your nose has been broken. I’m counting.” Sin laughed softly. “You break the easiest.” Corey was too numb to react to Sin’s provocation.
Once Sin healed Corey’s nose, so that it was no longer broken, he prepared to get up off the ground when he saw his middle finger ring-less. He looked up and saw Sin walking off.
         “Sin,” Corey called. Sin looked over his shoulder. “Thanks.” Sin raised an eyebrow at Corey as if Saienta hitting him had done more than breaking his nose. “I will take my ring back from you.”
Sin smirked and left.

Corey stood where he was for some time, recalling back to when Saienta turned and punched him. Those eyes, the same as in the Pool Hall. Saienta’s dark state. There was no recognition in his eyes that he knew it was Corey. Corey had seen it. But no one would understand Corey, and he understood why when Saienta was always involved when something went bad, like him knocking Mizu out. Saienta’s hitting Corey was a misunderstanding, he’d have to let Ame and Grey know, even if they saw it differently.

That evening Corey and Annaleace were in the village, doing exactly what Elli had told him to do. It was his responsibility to decide if the restaurant idea would really work, once he inspected the competition, while keeping in mind Wing-Moth’s explanation of the currency system. He planned on writing up how much it would cost them. With the research Annaleace and he was doing popped up a more complicated obstacle if they were to go through with the restaurant idea.
When Corey told Annaleace what he planned on doing, she offered to help him, but he declined and told her not to worry about it just yet. For now, they should concentrate on their training.
Corey put his hands inside his pockets. “When does Ryan start his new job?”
Annaleace brushed a strand of hair that had fallen out of her braid behind her ear. “He starts tomorrow. He seems enthusiastic about working on Mondays and Wednesdays.”
Corey moved aside to let an older woman pass, who might have been in her mid-thirties, wearing a brown robe symbolising fruit picking, and the woman nodded her head to him in gratitude even though the wariness in her eyes was evident. Annaleace, who stopped a few paces ahead of him, waited for Corey to catch up when he unbalanced because the ground he stepped on wasn’t flat. He felt as if in a dream, falling, without any feeling in the stomach as though it were empty. Annaleace extended an arm quickly and pulled him back into balance. He felt relieved.
         “Is that that ladies purse?” Annaleace said, looking down at the ground as Corey leaned over to pick up the thing he stepped on. It was undoubtedly a purse. They both turned sharply to chase after that woman, but then turned sharply again at a voice which was louder than the activity on the road.
“Thief!”

Shit, Corey thought when he saw it was a soldier outside Yellow, pointing a finger directly at him. There were more soldiers around him. They all watched Corey and Annaleace from across the road.
         “What?” Annaleace asked softly but defiantly at the soldier pointing a finger at them. Some of the villagers stopped to watch and some of them watched with accusing stares. Corey was no thief, and he wasn’t about to become one or drop it and run when he did nothing wrong. He ignored the solider and turned to find the woman who dropped her purse. Lucky for him, she was still in sight and had been one of the villagers who stopped to watch. Corey walked over to her, and he saw her eyes dart to the purse in his hands.
         “You dropped-” he began, and then found he was speaking into somebody’s chest. It was a soldier, he knew, because he was in uniform. The soldier must’ve hazed over. Corey marvelled at his speed, and then looked up into his face.

         “You’d steal my mother’s purse?” he said threateningly. He had sharp, dark grey eyes and straight feathering light grey hair that looked like kitten fur.
         “No,” Corey said, but it was drowned by Annaleace saying ‘he didn’t steal it’ to the soldiers surrounding her. Corey looked over his shoulder and saw the soldiers’ expressionless faces as Annaleace fought justice, then back at the soldier in front of him. He felt gratitude toward her for sticking up for him, for the first time, even though he was like a stranger and they didn’t know anything about each other. A high percentage of soldiers disliked the six of them, they had this perception of them being untrustworthy.
The soldier began to laugh, taking Corey by surprise because of the humour in his laughter. He expected it to be humourless. The soldiers behind him encircling Annaleace began to laugh mirthfully too. This confused him.

         “Nah, I’m kidding. I knew you weren’t going to steal it,” he explained, his eyes alight with laughter. Corey half-smiled, but didn’t think the joke funny. “I saw you guys looking for her to give it back.”
         “Jordyn!” the woman who was his mother chided. “Don’t scare them like that.”
Jordyn turned to his mother. “Sorry momma.”
Jordyn’s mother moved to his side and looked up at him. “What for? You’re not sorry!”
Jordyn smiled guilty. Corey watched in amusement.
         “Jordyn!”
A little girl squeezed between the legs of the soldiers surrounding Annaleace and ran up to Jordyn and gave him a great big hug around his leg. Corey realised instantly that it was Tay-Tay, the girl Saienta and him met where the fruit pickers picked.
         “Hey shorty,” Jordyn teased, picking her up into his arms effortlessly, and she laughed in delight.
         “Don’t speak like that to your sister. She’ll soon pick up on your jokes and possibly offend someone.”
         “Sorry, momma.” Again, he didn’t sound sorry, but happy. “Hey guys,” he called out to his soldier friends, and waved them over. They assembled over with Annaleace, who was smiling. They must’ve explained to her their joke, because she wasn’t mad and didn‘t look confused. Jordyn’s mother began to speak to Annaleace, and he heard her introduce herself. After that, Jordyn’s friends joked around with his mother. There was a lot of laughter in the little group they had formed in the middle of the road outside Yellow.
Tay-Tay pulled her head from Jordyn’s chest, looked at Corey, and waved. “Hi Corey.”
Jordyn looked at Tay-Tay, and then at Corey. “Corey, huh? You’ve met before?”
         “Uh-huh,” answered Tay-Tay.
         “Once, in the Jiji groves,” Corey replied.
Jordyn nodded thoughtfully. “Yeah, my mother and grandmother work there. It explains how you two met. I’m Jordyn.”
         “And I’m Shia, Jordyn’s mother,” Shia introduced, jumping into their conversation; Annaleace came to stand beside Corey.
         “Corey.” He smiled, returned her purse, and received her thanks. By now, the spectators were gone- how long it had been that way, he did not know.
         “Are you two hungry? I’m on my way home preparing dinner. You’re welcome to come for returning my purse,” Shia said, smiling invitingly. Corey and Annaleace looked at each other, deciding without speaking if they should or not, and then back at Shia. Corey shrugged, and Annaleace nodded shyly, then said ‘thank you’.
Shia turned around to Jordyn who was joking with his friends about something with Tay-Tay still in his arms. “Come Tay-Tay, we’re leaving.”
Jordyn put Tay-Tay down and turned to his mother. “I’m eating out tonight with friends,” he said. “You know how much Qua loves Nyu. He’ll do anything to see her.”
Shia sighed. “Unless you love her too, I’m expecting you home for dinner.”
         “Ah, momma, that’s a good one,” Jordyn replied, smiling grimly.

Shia’s house stood alone and behind it were farming fields. The ground had been hoed to look like brown waves, and out of the dirt grew interesting plants he had never seen before. It was a nice, comfortable sized house with a porch, white walls and a wooden tiled roof. Annaleace and Corey took off their shoes and left them on the porch before they went inside. The inside was nice, with tatami flooring and mats. Corey liked the feel of tatami flooring beneath his feet, and preferred it over other floorings he was accustomed to back home. He thought of his dad, and how he was at home by himself. A few weeks ago, he had all the time he needed, but it was different now. Now he had hardly any time. To have more time, that was what he wished for, even if an hour.
Corey and Annaleace sat at a low table on the floor, while Tay-Tay ran about in a hurry as if trying to find something. It was entertaining enough to watch while they waited for Shia.
Shia came in the room with cups and a pot of hot tea, pouring each of them a cup, and then she sat down to join them. She sipped her tea and through her facial expression he could tell she was savouring it.
         “It’s been such a long day,” she sighed, “I really needed this.” And she ushered to the tea in her cup with her eyes. Tay-Tay ran into the room and out into another room, and then heard her delightful laughter.
         “I found you!” the three of them heard her yell. Laughter filled the room Tay-Tay was in; male laughter.
         “Boys! Don’t make her any more hyperactive than what she already is!” Shia called. From the open window came a breeze and the faint humming sound of cicadas.
         “Well,” Shia said, examining both their faces carefully. “You two don’t look any different from anyone else here, considering the rumours we’ve been hearing about these outsiders. I heard something about one of you being a maniac as well. Is that true?”
Unfortunately Corey’s first thought was of Saienta but he was far from being a maniac. In the room Tay-Tay had run into, they could hear voices, none of which were audible.
         “That’s definitely just a rumour,” Annaleace smiled. “The other four are as normal as we are.”
         “There’s no chance of any others getting through the Gate, is there?” Shia asked with some concern.
         “No,” Annaleace replied. “There isn’t much chance of that. We wouldn’t have known it was there if one of us didn’t see Ame walk through it.”
         “Hm…” Shia murmured thoughtfully. “Ame was in your world?”
         “Not really,” Corey replied. “I don’t think she was there long.”

         “Anyway,” Shia said brightly, remembering something. “If you’re Annaleace, you must be the one I’m hearing all about. Everyone was surprised by Tiyan’s proposal, it seemed like he was never going to marry! And there were so many girls to choose from.”
Annaleace smiled. “I was surprised myself, believe me. Especially after I heard about his credibility.”
Shia nodded quickly. “Of course! Tiyan was one of the most eligible bachelors in, not just Sandra, but all of the south. I heard he’s going away for a few days in a week’s time.”
Annaleace looked a little unsure. “I didn’t know about that.”
Corey sipped at his tea. “What is Tiyan mostly known for?”
Shia thought for a while. “Besides his ability as a soldier, his incredible ability with horse training and training others to ride them. He communicates with them like no one else can.” Shia laughed mirthfully. “But to tell you the truth, he was, and still is, known for being very good looking and very available,” she said, looking at Annaleace. “But that’s changed now, and so it should! The older people around here are so glad he found someone. Except for the mothers of some of those girls…” she said thoughtfully. “He would make a great son-in-law…” Shia burst into laughter and sipped at her tea. “Sin is probably next in line.”
Annaleace choked on her tea and burst into laughter. “No way!”
Shia smiled. “He’s young of course but give it a few years and he‘ll probably be better looking than Thale,” and she sighed dreamily, “and you haven’t seen how good looking Thale is!”
Annaleace shook her head, smiling. “It’s not that he’s young…he just…Sin? You’re being serious, ya?”
Corey couldn’t see it either.
Shia nodded. “Sin is extremely talented, even more than his brother was at that age. You know Thale is the leader of the best independent group in the south?”
Corey thought back to Sin’s words that first night of training and then nodded. “Paladin.”
Shia nodded and looked dreamy. “I would love for Jordyn to be in a group as amazing as that…it’s his dream after all. I’m so proud that he was able to finally get into the command of the General after all these years of hard work! Honestly, he worked himself so hard, I was afraid for him at times and he would have been so disappointed if it didn‘t pay off.”
Corey was beginning to realise why they were hated so much by other soldiers…they had gotten under the General’s command immediately and they were pathetic.
         “Have you ever seen one of the battles?” Shia asked.
         “What battles?” Corey questioned, noticing the delicious smell of food cooking.
         “Oh, you haven’t! You must! Have you journeyed yet?”
Corey shook his head and Annaleace asked, “Journeyed?”
Shia had a look of disbelief on her face. “Every one in the south has taken the journey at least once when they’re old enough to travel. The journey involves seeing all 23 villages in the south and the surrounding places. It’s a wonderful experience, and no one is supposed to miss it. It allows everyone to expand their views and help them see what they want to do in life.” Shia paused thoughtfully and then looked excited. “The battles are everyone’s favourite form of entertainment. They really are a sight to see! It involves a stage that acts like a tournament ground, and soldiers battle each other, one-on-one. The winner is the one who can immobilise their opponent. No death or fatal injuries of course. They take place here once during the festival but the best tournament ground is in Nersa where there are battles constantly and every soldier looks forward to competing and winning gold and gaining fame! It’s also a way for the independent groups to rise in the ranks- the unbeatable are Paladin but from what I know, they’ve been away beyond the city for a long time. My boys love to see the uses of Mythra. Nersa is known for that in particular, that and the beautiful horses that are bred there. Tiyan visits there often,” Shia told them, winking at Annaleace. “I’m sure he would take you one day, but it’s better for you to see all of the south on the journey.”
         “Has news of us spread past Sandra?” Corey asked.
         “I’d say so,” Shia nodded. “News is always passed back and forth between villages because of the travellers, journeyers, and the trade merchants.”
Corey thought about this for a while when they heard a door open and Jordyn walked in.
         “Dinner ready?” he asked, looking between his mother, Annaleace and Corey.
         “Shouldn’t be too long now,” Shia replied, picking herself up from the table and excused herself from the room. Jordyn sat down with Annaleace and Corey.
         “Excited about Saturday?” he asked, grinning.
         “What happens on Saturday?” Annaleace asked. Corey wanted to know the same thing.
         “Oh.” Jordyn looked between them calculatingly, then smiled. “No one has told you yet. Well, you’re bound to find out before then.”
Tay-Tay and two others ran out of the room into where they were sitting at the sound of Jordyn’s voice. The two were both boys, younger than Jordyn, but older than Tay-Tay. Corey knew by sight they were Shia’s boys.
         “Hey, shorties,” Jordyn said to all three of them. One of the boys with brown hair and the same colour and shaped eyes as Jordyn punched Jordyn on the shoulder. He rubbed his shoulder, pretending to look as if the punched had caused him severe pain. “That hurt, Sen. Man, you’re getting strong.”
Sen scoffed. “Liar.”
Jordyn laughed, then eyed them suspiciously. “What’ve you two been up to, huh?”
         “They’ve been repairing something,” Tay-Tay answered.
         “Tay-Tay!” the brother Corey didn’t know the name of said angrily. He had the same hair as Jordyn, but Tay-Tay’s sharp brown eyes.
         “What’ve you been repairing, Rikyu?” Jordyn questioned, his eyes narrowed.
         “Nothing,” he said defensively.
         “What has he been repairing, Tay-Tay?” Jordyn asked. Rikyu and Sen looked at her warningly, but she didn’t see it. Corey was starting to wish he was invisible for the moment.
         “Momma’s favourite vase,” she answered simply.
         “Oh,” Jordyn drifted, unfazed, then turned to Annaleace and Corey and said in soft whispers. “It wasn’t that beautiful. Rather ugly, if you ask me. I don’t even understand why she likes it so much.” Jordyn turned back to his brothers. “You should be less careless, next time,” he spoke loud enough for Shia to hear, who was in the kitchen, then mouthed to them. “Job well done.” His brothers smirked. “By the way, this is Corey, and that’s Annaleace. Tiyan’s fiancée.”
They said hi.

         “What’s this about? Dinner’s ready,” Shia said, walking into the room.
         “Rikyu and Sen broke your favourite vase!” Tay-Tay answered as simply as she had before.
         “Boys!”
         “I’ll buy you a new one, momma,” Jordyn said.
         “Jordyn!” Shia said, turning her anger on him.


Corey had his mind on Monday morning’s English class. He and Saienta’s paired project got A’s. He was a little surprised about the grade when he and Saienta had rushed it. His expectations were set on a B, not that he was complaining about his mark. However, Miss. Silvalet did state on his paper that it wasn’t to his usual standard.
Elli propped her shoulder up against Saienta’s locker with an amused smile on her face, and rested a hand down on her waist on the band of her grey pleated school skirt. “So, are you leaving soon?” she asked, when Corey continued to stand against his locker with his hands in his pockets idly, waiting. Cedric and his two friends crossed Corey and Elli in the corridor, he was bobbing his body up and down as he walked, looking like a jack-in-the-box, and they watched him pass. In union, they raised an eyebrow. Corey looked around at Elli. “I’m staying a while longer.” She sighed, lowering her head, allowing her red hair to fall in front of her. There was something behind the sigh that he couldn’t figure out. A thought occurred to Corey. “Have the others gone home, or not?”
Elli pushed her shoulder harder into the locker, tilted her head her head and said heavily, “Annaleace, Ryan and the other one all disappeared into the school library because of the ton of homework the teachers have sprung on us. Happens every year on the same day, and the stress of exams begin … Don’t know where Saienta is, probably went home. And no, the others are going elsewhere later.”
Corey nodded. Seniors had half the day off to study or prepare for the approaching exams. Exams would start in November, and from now on until then half-days would become more frequent. Corey wasn’t stressed about the exams, and he wasn’t sure why exactly. Maybe because he knew where his life was heading, straight toward Akaino Tech. A little light was shining his way, when he remembered just yesterday how he had little time on his hands. He may actually get to see his dad more. Another thought occurred, and he looked at Elli. She was in her twelfth year and would be out of school at the end of November. How would she continue to visit Sandra and train? Where was she going after Ellet?
Elli had an air of distance about her as she stared ahead in a daze, and then she left. Saienta joined him moments later, and Corey continued waiting. Saienta looked ready to leave with his backpack over his shoulder.
         “Are you going home?” he asked.
Corey turned to Saienta and shook his head. “I said I’d hang out with this kid, Kai. I don’t really know him. You don’t have to stay.”
Saienta did not move or reply, only shrugged. Corey supposed Saienta wanted to meet the boy too. Soon after that Corey spotted Kai in the corridor as he approached.
         “Hey,” Corey smiled when Kai reached them.
Kai appeared a little uncertain once he saw Saienta’s profile. “Hi, I’m Kai. Nice to meet you,” he introduced to Saienta. After a small pause Saienta put out a hand for Kai to shake, and Kai shook it. “Saienta Cressida.”

They sat outside under the big willow across from the oval on the same wooden bench Tidus and Corey once sat at during lunchbreaks. Saienta lit up a cigarette and Kai watched him quizzically before pointing at the cigarette. “Is that allowed?”
It was a good question, a thought that had never occurred to Corey before because it was figured by Saienta to do what he liked. Saienta looked at the cigarette in his hand with an expression of mild surprise, then at Kai. “No one has ever asked me that before, but no, it’s not.” Saienta expression was as Corey’s, he was amused. Kai nodded slowly, looking between Corey and Saienta in their silence.
         “What year are you in?” Corey asked Kai.
         “It’s my first year here,” he replied. Kai was in year seven.
         “Why Ellet?” Saienta asked, and Kai thought while he watched Corey, who had picked up a leaf that had fallen onto the table, and stripped it of its green.
         “My grandpa wants the best for me. Ellet is the best, he says. I would have been happy with Balwyn though.”
         “If you wanted to go to Balwyn why didn’t you?” Saienta asked. Corey wanted to know the same thing.
Kai rested his arm out on the table. “It doesn’t matter whether I wanted to go to Balwyn or not. My grandpa insisted on Ellet even though he can’t really afford it,” he said sincerely.
Later on the bell rang and Kai left to get back to class, and Corey went home to drive to his first horse riding lesson.


shogun Saienta
At the end of lunch when Corey and Kai had gone, Saienta stood at his locker to take some of his textbooks home when he felt a tap on his shoulder to find Alexia beaming at him with her hands behind her back.
         “Hi Sai!” she said in her usual cheery way, waving at him even though he was standing immediately in front of her.
Saienta felt a sinking feeling in his stomach and his mind blanked. He drew in a breath slowly so she wouldn’t hear. Usually he would give her something close to a smile in return but he had told Tidus that he would turn his back on her. He could ignore her but decided it wouldn’t be enough. “What do you want, Alexia?” he asked coldly looking into his locker.
He couldn’t see her face but he could imagine her crestfallen look. She knew what he was like to other people at times but wouldn’t have imagined he would be the same to her.
         “I just…Sai?” She paused for a while, sounding hurt and then cheery again in case she had heard wrong. “I just wanted to know if you wanted to come out with me after school to make up for missing out on Friday. We could go see a movie, don’t you think…oh wait, you don’t like movies much and I don’t want to see any scary ones. How about coffee and cake? We could ask Corey too. We can sit at that one with a balcony and you can smoke your lungs out like you always love to do! What do you think?”
Saienta didn’t reply for a while. “No, Alexia.”
Realising that she heard right the first time, she asked, “Is something wrong?” in concern.
He didn’t answer for a while. He let his bag drop to the floor with a thud, closed his locker, and turned to her with stony eyes. “Listen to me, Alexia. You can not hang out with me anymore,” he said, pronouncing each word clearly for emphasis. “We are not the same, and though we share the same father, we aren’t connected in any way. Believe me, I regret the decision I made to meet with you that day you and that detective contacted me.” He took off the silver Rolex watch she had given him for his birthday and wanted to avoid looking into her hurt eyes as he pressed it into her hand. He still had the paper stars she had given him also and he would keep those. “Thank you for trying but it’s been too long.”
He shouldered his bag and walked away, the opposite way; even though it was the wrong direction he had planned to take. Unexpectedly, he heard Alexia call after him. No one did that. By her screams he knew she was crying, or trying not to.
         “Tidus couldn’t have been right about you, Sai! They were all lying…weren’t they?”

Saienta began walking towards the park where his bike was chained and sat down on his seat without unchaining it to have a cigarette and think for a while. Alexia’s words could be heard in his mind over and over, and they bit into him. Fuck Tidus and turning his back on the one blood tie he had, and one of the very few that actually cared about him. But it wasn’t really Tidus who was to blame, and he knew it. Next time he saw Alexia…he might apologise or tell her he hadn’t meant what he had said. But how was he supposed to take it all back? What would Corey do? In the first place, Corey wouldn’t have said shit he didn’t mean just to turn someone away. Saienta’s mind was confused but for this one problem, his mind was drawing blanks on how to resolve it. Firmly, he decided he would tell Corey nearly everything and ask what he would do in this situation; Saienta didn’t have an answer and hopefully Corey did- he managed to get things right.


There were horses in the stables beside the house, and they whinnied dully. There was nothing but fields, farms and trees. It was quite nice. The air was chilly, and Corey wished he could put on his jacket, not only to keep him warm, but to cover what he was wearing.
The group formed a line in front of the teacher, as if they were soldiers being put on the front line. It was Ruth Mare teaching them how to ride. The uniform Ruth made him wear made him very uncomfortable. He looked to his left with uncertainty, reminding himself why he was there. Then he looked to his right unsurely, reconsidering to leave while he could. Girls. Young, giggly, ten-year-old girls, which he pretended to act deaf to, were in his beginners class for horse riding lessons, wearing cream tights and bowl-like helmets, just as he was. He wanted to detach himself from there. Was learning to ride a horse worth it? Corey looked, and very much felt, ridiculous.
He looked over his shoulder, where the road was, and saw a black Aston Martin slow down and stop outside Ruth Mare’s house. Whoever owned it, they didn’t have bad taste in cars. Ruth told a little girl to go fetch the gear they would need to ride the horses. And as a group, they made their way over to a small white fenced paddock where two horses stood, staring at the group with their ears up. The little girl returned a moment later, while Ruth explained to them what they would be doing in the lesson. They heard the unmistakable opening and closing of a gate, but he didn’t bother to look to see who it was until Ruth waved to the person. Some of the group turned to see who Ruth was waving at, and he turned. His eyes widened in horror and shock.
         “Sirian!” a little girl called, who was wearing a visor. He blinked, and wondered why Sirian was here. Surely, she didn’t need horse riding lessons. He had seen she was a good rider in Sandra. Sirian seemed just as shocked to see him, as he was seeing her, and she started to laugh as she approached the group. Embarrassed, he turned away.

While two girls went first in riding the horses, with Ruth instructing them, while the other little giggly girls watched them, and Corey with curiosity, Sirian approached Corey. He could see she had to try hard not to laugh and embarrass him even more.
         “What are you doing here, Corey?” she grinned, suppressing her laughter.
Corey shrugged, and didn’t reply. She should’ve plainly known why he was there, to learn how to ride. “What are you doing here?” he asked.
         “I used to come here often. This is where I learnt how to ride.” Sirian turned to the stables and pointed at a snow white horse. “See that horse, the palomino one?” Corey turned and followed her line of sight, and nodded. “I own that horse. Her name is Naomi. I no longer take lessons here, but I like to visit every so often to see her, and help out around here.”
         “Oh,” Corey said.
Sirian looked Corey over again, and burst out laughing. “Well, I’ll see you later. Have fun.”

Corey leant against the white fence, watching the lesson. Before, he was thankful no one he knew would be here. How wrong he had been. At least it was Sirian, rather than the others, and what were the chances he’d see somebody else he knew? Very slim, he thought. Until he heard laughter, familiar and unmistakable laughter, and it was not Sirian. His head dropped, and slowly he turned.
He walked toward Saienta, who could not stop laughing. Saienta was hysterical, and he didn’t blame him for laughing so hard. He would have laughed at Saienta just as hard if he saw him wearing this ridiculous outfit.

He abandoned the lesson, got changed and followed Saienta across some fields to next door, which was where Saienta lived, and on his way over he met a kid called Seff. He reminded Corey of Saienta, who was possibly as dark as Saienta was, but there was good in the kid; he could tell.
They entered into a garage. Not once did Corey think it was Saienta’s actual room, so it was a slight shock when he put the pieces together. It was interesting for Corey to see what kind of place and environment he lived in. Corey looked around Saienta’s room and saw on his desk the photo he had given Saienta. Above his bed was a single shelf where some books were shelved, and a bathroom in the next room. He was confused still from something Saienta had said to him on their way over, and it made him feel uneasy, as if something was going on he didn’t know about and Saienta wasn‘t about to tell him either.
After spending some time at Saienta’s house, Corey went home and Seff and Saienta came too.


Corey went home on Tuesday after school to see his dad for a short time before he had to go to training. Him and his dad had eaten a great amount of the Jiji fruit already, which he had brought with him just yesterday.
         “You’ve got to watch it, Corey. Grave of the Fireflies is a classic!” Hiroka was saying, eating leftovers of Saienta’s cooking at the kitchen table. Saienta and Seff would be at his house soon. Corey sat at the table, listening while twirling a pen in his hand, and every now and then checking the time. “Will you be home tonight? We can watch it then!”
The phone started to ring over Corey’s reply, and for some reason, he felt he couldn‘t look his dad directly in the eye. “I can’t tonight.”
Hiroka sat at the table a little longer as the phone continued to ring. Corey could feel his eyes on him, and then he heard his dad finally stand to answer the phone.
         “Hello, you’ve reached Akaino mansion, man of the house speaking,” Hiroka said jokingly into the phone. Corey watched his dad, and wondered who was on the other side. “Huh? Er … Is he in trouble? Yes. Kakkoi! [Cool!] Yes, we’ll come! You too. We’ll meet you there in front of the school. Looking forward to it! Ja ne! [Bye]”
Hiroka hung up the phone, and sat back at the table. “Guess who that was?”
         “Who?” Corey asked curiously.
         “Your teacher. Miss. Silvalet.”
Corey blinked. The short, one sided conversation didn’t sound as if he was in trouble, yet again, a teacher had never rung his house before. And he spoke some Japanese to his teacher? She wouldn‘t have understood it. “Miss. Silvalet?”
Hiroka nodded. “She invited us to a paint skirmish this Saturday!”
Corey had to wonder about this.
         “Er, why?”
Hiroka shrugged happily.
What teacher invited their students and parents to a paint skirmish? He had to contemplate if it was just him, his dad and the teacher going. It was strange, but he smiled. It was a good chance to spend a little time with his dad.

The air was hot, and the humidity was unbearable as the six of them struggled with their Jinkai. Corey, needing a rest, sat down and watched the rest of them. Saienta had a cigarette in his mouth while he trained, puffing on it and exhaling the smoke through his nose and mouth. Sirian was trying to pull her leg up with her arms, and was failing. Elli fell onto her knees, panting heavily, and as she looked up into the sun she wiped away the beads of sweat on her brow. Annaleace had her arms out, trying to balance herself. Ryan was trying to move his leg, and Corey was surprised at how he didn’t look tired like the others. He glimpsed at the necklace Ryan was wearing. It looked a little strange, reminding him of a daisy chain necklace.
         “Damn sun,” Elli said, reaching behind her to grab the bottle of water she had brought with her. Corey turned away to watch the sparring soldiers on the other fields and became engrossed in it. He wished they’d slow down so he could see more than blurred movements, when he saw the General appear among the soldiers. The General looked their way and started moving toward their little group. Corey figured he was overseeing his soldiers, and they were next. Saienta had noticed the General not long after him.
         “What?” Elli said to Saienta, wanting to know what he was looking at, and moved forward to see. “Oh…”
The General finally approached them, but he did not stop until he was in front of Ryan. Corey watched as the General stared down at Ryan with stony eyes. His expressionless face was scary, as if this man could feel no emotion. With swift movements, causing some of them to jump, the General tore the necklace away from Ryan’s neck. Corey felt his mouth part as Ryan’s eyes closed and he fell backwards. Annaleace, who was behind him, gasped and fell onto her knees to catch his upper body. It was something Corey wouldn’t ever forget. It was as if the General had broken a mask hiding Ryan’s real face, and his real face was full of tiredness. All of them must’ve been in shock, because they were all speechless. What was going on?
The General stood over Ryan, and his shadow blocked the sun from Ryan’s face. He held the necklace out.
         “Bron,” the General stated without tone, and slowly Ryan’s eyelids opened a little. Corey had no idea what Bron meant. “You’ve overexerted yourself, and didn’t realise. Why?”
It seemed no one dared to speak. Ryan slowly blinked, he looked on the verge of sleep. “Bron is used to keep you awake- remove yourself from it and the affects are that you’re too tired to keep going. You will lie there for as long as it takes for your body to stabilise.” He paused and he narrowed his eyes at him. “If you cannot use and build on your own strength, you are no soldier. Rely on nothing but your own strength.”


Corey sat on the bank of the river Tuesday afternoon, wet from his knees down which gave him chills. He had been practising water-treading, but it felt useless, even with the tips Elli had given him. He was doubting the resistance when he put his foot down on the water. He looked up at the evening sky, breathing in, then out deeply and looked back down into the river. Corey swirled his finger around in the water, thought about returning home, then wondered if it were possible for his hand to resist water just like his foot. He experimented for a short while by slapping the water, watching it spray up, then rain down back into the river. He felt the resistance for not even less than a second, but in that short amount of time it felt as if he was hitting his palm on land. It was also easier to see the resistance from where he sat, rather than having to look down at his foot and watch it sink under. His curiosity from a single thought was answered, and it triggered a spark of hope that one day he’d be able to stand on water, like he had seen Elli do many times over the week.
Corey heard footsteps near and he turned. It was Ame and she smiled at him as she neared. He wasn’t really sure if he should bow or salute, so he gave her an unsure bow of his head. She smiled again, this time in amusement, seeing his uncertainty, and he couldn’t help but smile. He wondered what she was doing here when the other five were back at her place, enjoying the end of their training for that day. Corey had not felt like company before, so he stayed behind while the others left, and used the time he spent alone to train, and laze about beside the river, taking in every peaceful sound around him. She sat near him, and he glanced at Ame when she didn’t speak. He and Ame hadn’t really talked much, one on one, like she did with Sirian, Saienta and the others. And the one time they did talk, it was him explaining what happened to Mizu on their very first day at the end of training.
         “I heard from Elli you went and saw the lake on Sunday,” Ame said. It wasn’t possible for him to forget. That night Elli woke him just after he’d gone to bed at two in the morning. Aside from that, the lake was the most amazing sight. Never could he have imagined it, such a peculiar thing as glowing firefly eggs beneath the surface of the inky black water. “Amazing, isn’t it?”
         “Yeah,” he replied, envisioning the lake the same as he had seen it that night.
         “Has anyone told you the significance of those fireflies?” Ame asked, while Corey shook the bottom of his soldier pants to help dry them out, and he shook his head. “Every year when the firefly eggs light the lake, it’s the first day of summer, and on the third day, which is today, they break free from the lake, and the Firefly festival begins. Peculiar as it is, the fireflies signal the start and end of summer, and the New Year. After tonight, five weeks from now, the fireflies mature, and when they do their glow is no longer blue, but white, and the New Year is a week away.”
Corey found the melody of this world interesting. It had a balance that his home could never attain. “Have the fireflies ever been out of time?” he asked curiously.
Ame looked thoughtful as she smiled and nodded her head slowly. “On the rare occasion, yes they have.” In their brief silence they listened to the river drifting down the bend. Corey leaned back on his hands, feeling the mossy grass between his fingers, and after a while they began to itch. Instead, he drew both knees up and put his arms about his legs. Ame laughed, to Corey’s confusion.
         “What?” Corey asked enquiringly, wanting to know the cause to her laughter.
         “I was trying to imagine you stealing Shia’s purse,” she confessed.
Corey blinked. “You heard about that?”
Ame beamed. “I had the pleasure of meeting Shia and her son Jordyn not too long ago with the General, and I happened to cross her again in the village. She told me all about you returning her purse, and Jordyn accusing you for theft as an amusing joke.”
Corey smiled. It wasn’t funny then, but to look back on it made him smile. “Yeah. They’re nice, Shia’s family.”
         “Good, you’ll be seeing a lot of Jordyn throughout the summer,” she said, and he heard a secretive hint in her tone. It made him curious, yet he didn’t ask. But then again, it made sense he would see Jordyn more now that he was training under the General. “What do you think of this place?”
         “It’s nice,” he said, and elaborated further when Ame urged him to continue with a simple nod. “I like it more than home, it’s peaceful and there’s not much noise.” He paused considerately. “But there’s no place like home, just how there’s no place like Sandra- irreplaceable in their own way. Here, people wouldn’t want to be anywhere else because here is home for them. For me, to know and live in two places is to have been to both worlds- a conflict in itself.” Ame nodded again, thoughtfully this time.
They talked for a bit longer about the Firefly festival, but Ame wouldn’t say what the festival had in store, leaving him to be consumed by the suspense. He, and the other five were going to the Firefly festival with Ame.

The occasion reminded him of life at home, and how it might’ve been for his dad when living in Japan all those years ago. At dinner with his dad, everyone had to dress formally in a kimono, and it was the same for the Firefly festival, because it was a traditional celebration. Elli, Corey and Saienta sat outside on the wooden terrace. Elli was in a short white kimono with pink and yellow flowers which Annaleace had given her and Sirian to wear and her hair was done up nicely. Originally, Annaleace was given the kimono by Lovely Kuki. Corey and Saienta had only the kimono’s first given to them by Ame on their first day of training, both grey and reaching down over the ankles. Next time Corey would bring kimono’s with him from home for festivals such as the one he was going to.
Furniture had been moved in not too long ago, yet it looked neither bare of furniture nor empty. In the centre of the room were a few cushions surrounding the low table, several woven matts that were put in front of all the doors on the first and second floor, and some pictures on and to be hung up on the walls. The pictures that were not hung up stood against a wall in the corner of the room, out of everybody’s sight if they peered in from their front door.
         “Toilet!” Elli said, rushing indoors.

Saienta lit up a cigarette in the silence. “There’s something I needed to talk to you about.”
Corey, who was looking out into the forest, turned to him.
         “It’s about Alexia,” Saienta explained in a toneless voice. “I fucked up.”
         “With? What happened?” he asked.
Saienta told him the story, starting with Tidus and the conversation they had last Friday, until yesterday when Alexia had tried to invite him out and he had coldly pushed her away. Corey was angry at Tidus, and didn’t think he would have gone so low as to tell Saienta, Alexia’s half-brother and blood-tie that he should turn his back on her. Saienta explained himself further, “It wasn’t about what Tidus said, so much, it was because of me. Already, I didn’t want to mix with Alexia and fuck her over with the shit that goes on in my life. Tidus was just a catalyst that made me decide to do it for her but now that I’ve done it, I wish I hadn’t. I don‘t know how to tell her sorry, I wouldn‘t know where to begin or if it would even matter to her.”
Even with that said, Corey could tell there was more to it than him not knowing how to say sorry, there was just too much pride in him to bring himself to apologise without bruising his dignity.
         “There is nothing you can do now, Saienta,” Corey lied, forming a plan, and at the same time feeling guilty for the lie. Corey would repay Saienta for what he did that day, after coming from the arcade. He glanced at him to see if he would notice he was lying, Saienta usually noticed, but he was distracted by his own thoughts.

Elli, Saienta and Corey saw Ame approach in a kimono embroidered with misty spring valleys. From their house, they went to the Tomi & Campsall house to collect the other three. Four in fact, Tiyan was there with Annaleace to accompany her to the Firefly festival with the rest of them. Tiyan was in a red, black and white trimmed kimono. Ryan was the one who slid their front door closed. As expected, Ryan was in the same kimono robe as him. Sirian was in a short cotton kimono of pastel blue signifying the sky, and her hair was in a pony tail. The pastel blue greatly matched her eyes. Embroidered on the front of the bottom were iris’s and blossoms positioned enchantingly in front of a lake, and a brilliant green vine entwined on both sides of her kimono. But it was Annaleace who stood out so much she was like a lone firefly in the middle of a black sky. Her ebony hair, which had grown a little, was hanging loosely over her shoulders, reaching past her shoulder blades. It was the first time she had let her hair down. But her hair was the second change everybody noticed before the first. Annaleace was in a one of a kind, work of art kimono, which Corey assumed, might’ve taken years to create with the evident detail and very fine embroidery. Under the white silk folds of her kimono at the front, which transformed into a pink peach at the back, was cotton. Embroidered on the front was an inky night sky meshed with black, blue and purple, flecked with silver stitching of tiny stars. Furthermore, there were several glowing fireflies of blue and white which had scattered across the beautiful night. On the bottom was a reflective lake which a single cherry blossom drifted, and further in land behind it was a forest. Hanging from somewhere unseen between Annaleace’s right shoulder and neck hung a single black vine, and growing from it were ocean blue orchids, which were small for an orchid. Tendrils of the same black vine had inhabited a small part of the forest floor, and had snaked it’s way into the lake. Surprisingly, Corey recognised them as the same flowers Sirian had pointed at on the roof outside the Gate. The back of Annaleace’s kimono was a summer day scene with fields of grass at the bottom, and flying in the pink peach sky were butterflies and dragonflies. The sleeves of her arm took on the summer day scene.
Corey knew back home elaborate kimonos could be as expensive as a car, but never had he seen a kimono such as this one. If, what he assumed was correct, and the kimono was finer than those back home, she could have been wearing a kimono worth hundreds of thousands.
         “She looks nice, huh?” Sirian asked, beaming. Ame beamed at Annaleace, and she hung her head, probably feeling self conscious as her cheeks reddened. Tiyan grinned as he held her from behind and leaned in over her shoulder to see her expression. Ryan stood aside and rubbed the back of his head.
         “You look nice, Annaleace,” Corey agreed. Elli said the same.
         “You look beautiful,” Saienta complimented her. This was the first time Corey had ever heard Saienta compliment anyone. However, he did seem to be in a good mood.
         “You are beautiful,” Tiyan said to Annaleace.
Elli rubbed her wrist. “Where did you get it from, that kimono?”
Annaleace looked up. “From Tiyan.”
         “Lovely Kuki, actually. I only delivered,” Tiyan told Elli.
         “I’m afraid to wear this, because I might get it dirty,” Annaleace said, brushing her hair away from her face.
Ame smiled. “You won’t.”
         “Don‘t worry about it, Lacey,” Ryan said.

Together they walked along the winding path through the forest until they reached the brilliantly lit up lake beyond the clearing. The sight reminded Corey of New Years Eve. It looked as if the entire village had gathered just to see the lake. Some stood while others sat in groups, looking up into the sky patiently, waiting for the fireworks to go off and counting down the seconds. One thing was certain, the place didn’t look festive. There were no stalls, or anything but people, though they wore nicer kimonos instead of their usual cotton ones. Sirian and Ryan stared in awe at the glowing lake with open mouths. Corey remembered neither Sirian or Ryan had actually been to see the lake yet and this was their first time.
         “What are they?” Sirian asked curiously as Ryan crouched to take a better look into the water.
         “Firefly eggs,” Ame answered and explained to her and Ryan what the soldiers had told them. Ame then led them to a patch of grass and together they all sat, except for Sirian and Ryan who wanted to look at the lake for longer. Corey was glad to see he wasn’t the only confused faced among the seven of them. They were there for a festival that was nowhere to be seen.
Elli turned and sang quietly into her hand. “He-ey, where’s the party at? Something, something, where’s the bacardi at?”
Annaleace brushed the hair out of her face again for the fourth time, and leaned back on Tiyan who was sitting behind her. Corey saw several girls around the same age as Elli, or maybe older, turn sharply around at Annaleace and scowl, and their angry whispers began.
         “What are we doing here, waiting?” Annaleace asked suddenly. Tiyan grinned knowingly but said nothing.
         “You’ll see,” Ame replied, enjoying keeping them in suspense.
         “I need a cigarette,” Saienta said to Corey, leaning back on his hands and Corey knew he couldn‘t smoke when he was near so many villagers.
         “Heh-heh, such a shame,” Elli said and smiled unsympathetically.
Saienta shrugged.

The fireflies began to brighten perceptibly at once, and everyone began to hush as the lake began to glow brighter and brighter until it looked like one bright light illuminating the surrounding forest and all the faces around Corey. They watched with silent fascination and as the fireflies burned brighter and brighter, Corey wondered how bright they could possibly become. As soon as it seemed the blue lights would start to hurt their eyes, they faded and the one single cauldron of light broke up and scattered, as each firefly took to the air and each watching person followed with their eyes. Like fireworks, the fireflies dispersed like bright particles in all directions and above them; it seemed like they had joined the stars, blue and white stars, bathing the surrounding area in specks of light. It was one of the most beautiful sights Corey had ever seen and everyone seemed awed by it, even the villagers and Ame who had seen it all before. Yet Corey knew it was something that no one could get used to.
         “Amazing…” Elli breathed in the silence.

Corey watched a firefly fly past him in the street inside the village. The village streets that were once spacious had transformed. It looked as if the entire village was out to celebrate the Firefly festival, and above all the heads were different coloured paper lanterns hanging by thread tied from one rooftop to the next. The sea of villagers in their colourful kimono gave the illusion that the streets were decorated. There were rows of stalls along the sides of the road.
Curiously, the six of them and Ame, stopped at a stall and watched with fascination as an old man, who had a basket full of dried grass, made extremely detailed insects out of it. Corey, who had once thought Tiyan’s flower was amazing, realised the difference in skill.
         “That one is awesome,” Ryan said, pointing a finger at the praying mantis.
Wandering around in fascination they met Grey, who stopped to join their little group, and later on, Sin, who Corey couldn‘t help notice was by himself, also joined them.
         “Annaleace!”
They all turned and saw Lovely Kuki striding toward them with her arms wide to embrace Annaleace. Tiyan, who was right beside Annaleace, pretended to look hurt. “What about me?”
         “What about you, my favourite grandchild?” Lovely Kuki asked, wheezing as she laughed and patted him on the shoulder affectionately.
         “Only grandchild,” Tiyan murmured in reminder, and then smiled.
Lovely Kuki turned to Ame and pointed a finger chidingly at her, her eyes narrowing. “Say no more, Ame, I will take these two burdens off of your hands.”
Ame laughed as Lovely Kuki, with a wave of her open arms, budged Annaleace and Tiyan along up the road.
The next stall they approached sold food. They were yummy little cakes shaped and decorated into fireflies. Corey saw Grey buy one, and then later on up the road, saw him hold his untouched firefly cake out in front of Ame. He thought for a moment Grey was offering it to her.
         “Oh, no, thank you,” Ame said.
Grey turned sharply to her. “What? I wasn’t offering- don’t get any ideas.”
         “Well I know you weren’t stupid enough to offer me a cake as a marriage proposal. It’s not alive, is it? Unless you made it yourself? Or it’s from your childhood?”
         “Pfft,” Grey said, taking a huge bite out of his cake.

Sin’s puppy, Kitten, ran normally between their legs, his tail wagging madly. Corey watched Kitten’s excitement in amusement. “You can pat him, you know. He’s not going to bite you,” Sin said. It was about the nicest thing Sin had ever said. Corey declined, however, when something amazing caught his eye. A couple walked past, and the girl held a flower in her hand. The flower was nothing he had ever seen before, it was so incredible. It looked exactly like a black velvet tulip, except the petals were in the shape of butterfly wings. From the inside shot out sparks of twinkling fragments like a fountain. As soon as the fine, twinkling glitter-like fragments faded to nothing, out shot another. The other five looked amazed by it as well.
As more people passed, he saw more and more of the flowers. Wherever they were being sold must’ve been further up the road.
They saw Annaleace and Tiyan in the street, and she had one of the same flowers.
         “Where did you get that from?” Sirian asked her, pointing to the flower.
         “Oh,” Annaleace turned and pointed to a very happy old woman, standing to one side of the road carrying baskets full of them. She stood as a statue, smiling. The wrinkles around her eyes made her look as though they were closed.
The five of them walked up to the old woman, and they each got a flower.
         “Enjoy,” the old woman said. They were expensive but they were worth it. Corey watched his flower sparkle for a moment in fascination, then looked over at Saienta’s, and blinked. His didn’t look as healthy as the others, even though it sparkled on. A moment ago, it looked as healthy as any other. Saienta looked down at his flower and a crease formed between his eyes. Ame, Grey, Sin, Ryan and the others started down the road.
         “Not a very happy man, are you?” Saienta looked up at the old woman. Corey thought for a moment she was talking to him, but there was no mistake that she was talking to Saienta. “What you’re holding is a Viesen flower. Extremely rare, imported from the top of the mountains in Toba, and very hard to find. The mystery of the Viesen is it knows the wielders emotion, which is why your Viesen appears the way it does. They’ll never die, until it’s owner dies. They’ll feel your sadness, know your happiness- they’ll bloom many times over, once they form a bondage with it’s owner. They know when they’re to be kept by the wielder or not. It doesn’t choose the first person to pick it up, but the one who chooses to keep it…”

It was very late, and the village had quietened and thinned out an extreme amount. It was too late for Corey to go back home and work at Akaino tech for a few hours, so he decided to do overtime tomorrow. There were a lot of fireflies still, especially in the forest. Ame and the six of them slowly walked back to her place, and when they reached the wooden terrace outside her house, she turned to them.
         “The New Year festival isn’t far away.” They were all quiet. “Every year the village leaders will vote in several soldiers to do a traditional dance that celebrates entering into the New Year…And the six of you were voted in.”
There was complete silence followed by this.
         “What?” Elli blinked.
         “There are two others who will be doing the dance with you all.”
         “What?” Elli repeated in the same toneless voice.
         “What kind of dance?” Ryan asked uncertainly. Corey had a bad feeling about this. Was this what Ame wanted to tell him at the riverside. And, who in their right mind would vote them in? They were so bad at everything.
         “Lion dancing. Your first Lion dance training is on Saturday with Grey.”


Sore from Wednesday morning training, Corey walked down the corridor to his next class and passed Alexia on his way. He stopped, immediately remembering something, and turned.
         “Alexia,” Corey said. He didn’t have to call out, she was two footsteps away. He noticed she looked distant and not as cheery as he remembered her. His eyes glimpsed the men’s Rolex she wore, and knew it was Saienta’s. “Are we still going out for coffee and cake this Friday? Saienta mentioned it.”
She looked shocked, and blinked a few times quickly. “Are you sure?”
Corey nodded, smiling. “At the park, right, after school?”
Alexia looked a little confused, but nodded all the same, and then Corey turned to leave for class, hoping his plan would work.

From beside his window, Corey watched the activity below in the village of Sandra, when he should have been doing his homework. He had brought it with him from school to do as it would be coming up in exams. His textbooks, lined paper and pens were laid out beside his futon on the floor, and he had a single wardrobe against a wall, where he put his kimonos and soldier uniform when he wasn’t wearing it. He was too tired, thinking hurt. His eyes were darker than ever. For the past week, he felt this heaviness boiling in him where the slightest thing gone wrong would make him mad, but Corey was someone to hold a lot inside, and tried hard not to take his bad moods out on people or let it show. He felt his lack of sleep wasn’t helping him in his training, either, and it was discouraging him.
His Viesen flower stood up in a penholder that could hold a single pen. He never used it, and he didn’t have a vase or anything proper to put it in, so the penholder would do for now. Corey was amazed by it, how it didn’t need water, like every other plant, flower or tree needed. He watched it sparkle. It was the only source of light in his room, for he had no candles.
The sliding door opened, and Corey turned. Saienta was standing in the doorway, holding a textbook, paper and a pen. He watched his green eyes move to the floor where his homework lay, untouched.
         “Corey,” Saienta said, closing the door behind him. “Help me.”
         “With what?” Corey asked, moving away from the window toward him.
         “With question four, for English.”
Corey picked up his own textbook. “What page?”
         “Page seventy-two.”
Corey flicked to page seventy-two and read question four in his head, then thought for a moment.
         “I don’t get the analysis part,” Saienta informed. Corey explained it out better than the textbook until he understood it.
Corey rubbed his dark ringed eyes once his put down his textbook, and then walked out of his room with Saienta following in step. They descended the stairs down to ground floor, and Corey made his way outside, ready to go to Akaino tech. Saienta went outside too, but not for the same reason. He threw his textbook, paper and pen aside and lit up a cigarette and sat on the wooden terrace. Corey felt uneasy, like he would be questioned for leaving, and then having to make a lame excuse as to why he was going. But Saienta asked no questions. Corey stepped off the wooden terrace and headed slowly to Ame’s house.
         “Take it easy,” he heard Saienta say as Corey walked off. He felt his brow crease, having a suspicion, but put up a hand in departure with his back to him, then pocketed his hands into the comfort of his pants.


On Thursday Elli called the five of them into meeting, and they met at the Campsall and Tomi house instead of their own, seeing as how they always met up at theirs. It was as grand as their own house indoors. The five of them sat on the floor in a circle, while waiting for Sirian to make the tea, and when she came in she served it to each of them.
         “So what’s this about?” Ryan asked Elli.
Elli, who was sitting cross-legged, leaned forward, her hands spread out over the flooring. “Our restaurant, Gossamer Leaf, and if it’s really going to work.” Corey sipped at his tea the same time Annaleace did. “I want to know from everyone here what they’ve found out. Remember the responsibilities I gave you? Except you, Ryan, ‘cause of work. I’ve worked it out, what each of us will be doing if Gossamer Leaf works. Saienta is the chef, Sirian and I will be waitressing and collecting the money after every meal, and sometimes making the cakes, Annaleace is Saienta’s kitchen and preparation hand, as well as a waitress. Corey, you can make coffee and work out expenses and bookkeeping. Saienta, what do you have for us, food wise?”
         “Pastas, pastries, fish, desserts. Should work.”
         “And Corey, what do you think?” Elli asked.
Corey sipped at his tea before replying, thinking back to Sunday. “It depends on a lot. Reputation is one, and individually, or as a group, we don’t have a good reputation.”
         “Thanks to Sin,” Sirian said. Ryan agreed.
         “The villagers will be hesitant not go to Gossamer Leaf because of it. I’ve weighed it’s chances, and it’s not great. It’ll either be a instant failure, or a slow building success based on reputation alone.”
         “What else?” Elli asked, when Corey paused to swirl the tea in his cup.
Corey looked up from his cup. “The expense is something I’ve considered closely. I’ve thought, what if we borrow it from Wing-Moth, but that won’t work. W
          Friday
After school, Corey met Saienta at his locker, and he watched him put his books away. Somehow, he had to convince him to skip the first part of training and go to the park. He pretended to look thoughtful. “Let’s miss the first hour or two of training,” he said casually.
Saienta gave him a strange look. “What for?”
Corey put his hands into his pockets and shrugged. He had to think quickly and keep his expression composed, or Saienta would be onto him, that Corey was up to something. “Because your bike is at the park, isn’t it? Besides, I’m waiting there anyway.”
Saienta gazed at him for a while. “Waiting for what?”
         “Er…I mean I dropped something there. I thought you would help me find it.”
Saienta raised an eyebrow. “You dropped something at the park where I keep my bike and you need to wait there?”
         “…Yeah…” Corey said. “It’s important.”
Saienta gazed at him and then walked with him. “Okay.”

They walked on the pavement toward the park where he, Saienta and Elli once sat, eating pizza.
         “What are we doing at the park?” Saienta asked again.
Corey kicked up a leaf with his foot, and did not look at Saienta. Convincing Saienta wasn’t easy when he was determined to keep his real reason a secret. “I need to be there.”
         “Then why do you need me?”
         “…Your bike is there.”
         “So…”
Corey shrugged and didn’t reply as they turned into the park and went to stand near Saienta’s bike. Saienta lit up a cigarette, then put away his lighter into his pocket. Corey kept up casual conversation until Alexia arrived. All they had to do was wait.
They both looked up when Alexia walked into the park, and Corey smiled, his plan a success so far. He remembered telling Saienta there was nothing he could do then, but it was different now. “Now,” Corey paused, “you can do something.”

shogun
Saienta

Usually, Saienta would have said something about Corey’s evasiveness and very bad string of lies but it was Friday and it was usually the day he went out with Alexia. He was distracted for the most part, and had been looking forward to hard training to get his mind off it. Instead he was at the park for no particular reason. That was until Alexia came.

Saienta had avoided her and if they happened to pass in the school hallways, he had kept his eyes away. He recognised her immediately- for years, how many times had he seen her in her school uniform, walking into the park every week so they could catch up?
For the first time this week he noticed that she was wearing the watch she had given him on her wrist and Saienta walked towards her away from Corey. So this is what he had been planning. But now what? Saienta thought as she came closer tentatively, keeping her eyes averted from his. Finally when she was a step away, she stopped and kept her eyes to the ground. I’m sorry, Alexia, I meant nothing by what I said on Monday. Her head was tilted down so her silky black shoulder-length hair hung over most of her face shielding her jade eyes. I’m selfish, and prideful…how do I say it? Will you even care or accept what I say?
Saienta opened his mouth to speak but had no idea what to say. He gave up on speaking for the moment. Fucking say something, he told himself. She said nothing, did nothing. He forgot Corey was behind him a few metres away, still silent.
Saienta, for the first time, stepped forward, opened his arms and wrapped them around her, pulling her into a hug. For all the times she had hugged him and he had hardly reacted, this was the first time he had given her or anyone a hug, for that matter.
She was like a stone for a moment, and then she reached up and put her hands beneath his shoulder blades, pressing her forehead into the space above his collarbone.
She pulled back and he let her go. Alexia pulled the watch off her wrist and pressed it into his hand. She smiled baring her teeth, her eyes teary. There were no words needed.

“Arigatou, Corey,” Saienta said sincerely when Alexia was ordering the coffee and cake. Thank you.
Corey stretched and grinned. “I was only in it for the coffee and cake,” he lied.


The bath water steamed and hovered over the surface invitingly when Corey and Saienta entered the bath house of Ame’s with only towels around their waists. It was evening and their day’s training had finished. Their voices and footsteps echoed off the walls as if it were a cave. The steam emanating from the water warmed the bath house like the sun that warms the earth. They would have used their own bath house, but decided not to because neither of them were sure how to warm the water with the method the whole of Sandra used.

Corey let himself slowly sink until his head was below the surface, drenching his hair which had grown a little. When he rose and took a breath, he settled himself down against the edge where you could sit in the water. Saienta was at the opposite end of the bath and was deep in thought as he gazed at the water.

         “Corey,” Saienta said seriously, still deep in thought. “That moment I hit you, that very moment…did you feel any anger at me then, and any time after?”
Corey thought about it for a long while. He realised that Saienta must have had regrets. “Maybe for a moment.”
Saienta stopped staring into the water and held his hands over his temples gripping his hair with his fingers in what was the most overt display of emotion Corey had ever seen from him. “This fucking mind…” Saienta said through gritted teeth, breathing heavily, closing his eyes.
Corey couldn‘t lie and tell Saienta that he wasn‘t to blame, but in all honesty, Corey held no bitterness. “For a moment, Saienta, but it wasn’t because you hit me. It was because you didn’t recognise me,” Corey explained further. Saienta opened his eyes and watched Corey with his clear green eyes momentarily.
It took a moment longer but Saienta began to relax and let go, sinking into the water to close his eyes. A few minutes of silence passed. “Reeva asked me something once…a hypothetical question. What would you do, Corey, if you were in a pitch black hallway alone, holding nothing but a flashlight and you heard fearsome noises coming towards you? Would you turn on the flashlight? Run? If you turn it on, whatever it may be will know where you are but you may or may not run into it inevitably.”
Corey thought for quite a while on it before answering, but it was hard to picture. He thought of it as one of those situations where you wouldn’t know what to do until it happened. “I‘m not sure…” he said finally, hearing his words echo off the walls.
         “You could take your chances in that situation. It could be nothing, it could be something. Use your imagination and from what you know about yourself, what would your reaction be?”
Saienta asked questions like these every now and again and from what he remembered, there was usually no right or wrong answer.
Corey thought for a bit longer. “If I knew myself that well, or anyone did, my reaction might not be the reaction I thought to choose. I‘d probably do nothing.”
         “Most people would. The question is based on psychology of the mind. Basically it’s about fear and whether or not you would face trouble, take it if it comes and see what happens, or run from it. If you choose to do nothing, you’re taking your chances and if fate is throwing bad things your way, you’ll handle it then. If you face your fear by turning on the light, it doesn’t mean that you’re courageous- you’re also risking the thing seeing you by turning on the flashlight and turning it on means you’re a risk-taker and willing to let bad things happen, even if it doesn’t have to which is not always a good thing. Running from it is a sign that you would rather run from your fears.”
Corey thought about it for a while. “What did you choose?”
Saienta smirked. “I thought it would be obvious. I turned on the flashlight. I told Reeva I would use it as a weapon and fuck up whatever it ended up being for scaring me.”
Corey laughed.
A Non-Existent User

Monday

Saienta liked Kai as a friend for a number of reasons. His presence was not imposing and there was no sense of expectations from him. He was a very accepting young guy, and he didn’t annoy Saienta with questions. Although he was shy, it seemed he tried as hard as he could to make friends. Saienta expected him to have many friends, but it must have been his willingness to let people accept him or reject him as they please that made most people feel they didn’t have to make an effort. And he was in Ellet College. Kai had very little thoughtless words to say and actions to make, always thinking beforehand, which reminded Saienta of Reeva, although the two of them were worlds apart.
Exams were coming up- hence the twice weekly half-days Ellet was giving it’s seniors for study time. It wouldn’t help the six of them much- they were far too busy with everything and Saienta knew which direction his study scores were going to take this year.

A few minutes passed as he sat on his bike thinking before he unchained his RSV and drove back to the farm to finish off some chores, still thinking about Alexia. He also wanted to help his successor, the boy that was to take Saienta’s place in a few months looking after the farm everyday. The twelve year old boy had been adopted six years ago at the age of six when Saienta was eleven, and had been watching and helping Saienta for the last few years. Alexia had met him once and she had taken a liking to him but Seff was still wary.

Seff Emmerson didn’t smile much, but neither did Saienta. The way they had grown up, there was never much reason to smile, or have conversations, or do things without reason. Seff wore the same pants as Saienta but the straps around his thighs were tightened and he had several tools hanging from them. Seff greeted Saienta with a small nod of his head when he noticed him come into the stable but he kept sweeping the floor of the tractor shed without stopping. The boy’s long dark hair fell over his eyes as he swept and he had the same shadowy look Saienta carried with him. Saienta didn’t mind him much, they kept to themselves. There were times when Saienta was doing a job nearby and he would notice Seff was looking at him as though he wanted to say something serious. When Saienta noticed, Seff would turn away and continue what he was doing with an unreceptive air around him. He was an innocent boy, though Saienta knew nothing of his thoughts. He attended a public school nearby and unlike Saienta, had no intention of joining Red Tide or attending Ellet College. He planned to make his money by working a part-time job or something similar but it concerned Saienta that he didn’t have it planned out. He loved writing and spent most of his time in his notebook, oblivious to the rest of the world. Saienta was surprised by his ambition but it made sense; Seff was quiet, and internalised everything, he lived in his writing, the way Saienta lived as a Red Tide. Saienta found life was amplified the closer it was linked to death. Seff amplified his life in his writing. Saienta had the feeling that Seff would love Ame’s world.
“Why aren’t you at school?” Seff asked after a while as Saienta helped him sweep.

Saienta kept sweeping and his senses were being dulled by the constant motion of the broom but hearing Seff ask a question pulled him into attentiveness. “Half-day. Exams are coming up. Why are you here, Seff? I thought I told you school is more important than doing chores for him. I told you this morning I would do it.”
Seff paused. “He told me to stay here and finish it.”
         “Who gives a shit?” Saienta asked in an irate tone. “The more you say yes, the deeper you’ll be pulled into his trap. He’ll pull you out of school and you’ll have nothing to go into after they kick you out.”
Seff was silent for a long time as they listened to the sounds of the bristles of the brooms scratching against the smooth concrete and echoing off the metal walls.
         “I don’t like school anyway,” Seff said in a low voice.
Saienta stopped and leaned on the handle, studying Seff carefully. Saienta definitely did not envy him his fate on the farm and would have paid for him to be let go but if it wasn’t Seff, it would just be another boy. “Why?”
Seff stopped and gazed at Saienta with clear blue eyes, thinking. Those cold blue eyes held so much underneath. “Same reason as you.”
Saienta’s eyes wandered to the tractor behind Seff and back again. They looked at Seff the same way they looked at Saienta in school, only Saienta probably got it worse as an Ellet student. Was that it? Saienta wondered. Seff did well in school, his English was incredible and he had a deep intuition for everything, including people, that he was able to use to his advantage. “Is that all?” Saienta asked.

Saienta recalled a time a few weeks ago when Seff had invited a boy to the farm. The boy had followed Seff around closely, they didn’t speak to each other much, and Saienta could see they were incompatible as friends. The boy reminded Saienta of someone from Tidus’s group. He had wondered why Seff invited him, and raised an eyebrow when the boy left after ten minutes. “Who was that?” Saienta had asked.
Seff shook his head absently. “Guy from school.”
         “Friend?” From what Saienta knew, like himself, he didn’t have many. Seff had met Reeva once and had taken a liking to him and always every now and again asked if Reeva might come to their house one day, but Saienta always told him Reeva was too busy.
         “No.” And that was all he had said.

Seff shrugged unsurely in reply to Saienta’s question about school, rubbed his thumb over the back of his opposite hand, and began sweeping again. “The other students don’t like me and I don’t like any of them either.” He paused for a long while, gripping the handle of the broom tighter, and said in a deeply bitter, almost sinister voice, “They don’t care to know me and I don’t care what happens to them.” It was the most emotion Saienta had ever seen him express.

“This is not about them,” Saienta said. “Go to school. You’re starting high school next year and there are people who will accept you at Balwyn, if you end up choosing it. You won’t have much chance in anything else if you don’t focus on your self-education. Not starting out in a life like this, anyway.”

They didn’t talk anymore after that. Seff turned around and headed for the tractor. Saienta noticed the notebook and pen he kept in the waistband of his pants. He always had it with him. Seff jumped into the tractor and started it up. Saienta pulled the heavy door of the shed open for him, letting in the bright light of the afternoon and the fresh breeze, and made his way across the fields of grass towards the property next door where one of their horses was being kept. It was a long walk to the next property where the riding school was but Saienta wasn’t tired out by it, especially after all the training he had been doing in the other world.
Saienta didn’t want to get any closer to Seff and vice versa. There was no point. In the end, Saienta would leave, and Seff would take over. They shared in the same kind of life, and that was something that pulled them together and set them apart at the same time. He felt a deep sadness for him- not pity- but knowing he went through the same shit he went through caused Saienta to wish he could become closer with Seff and give him a better life. Seff seemed to immediately trust Saienta and respect him, but it went no further than that. At times, Saienta felt as though he cared about some aspects of Seff’s life, but he immediately felt selfish afterwards because in his mind it seemed as though he only cared because he had been through the same thing before and he didn’t want him to live through it as well. He let Seff do as he wished, as much as he could; that, and he just didn’t know how to get through to him.

The riding school was owned by a refined woman named Ruth Mare who always made a point to ignore him completely with an air of distaste. Saienta hated coming to Ruth Mare’s riding school but it was something he had to do every Monday. All he did was lead one of the horses back to his own farm. It was a quick job and anybody in their right mind would make an effort to be hasty, especially when there were troupes of annoying ten to fourteen year old girls around. They always managed to find him somehow, and once, they had stolen his phone, pranked themselves and managed to give it back without him realising it. Later that night he had received several calls from giggling girls who wanted to go on a date with him. The memory of it made him shudder and he had purchased a new SIM card and number immediately, and also made sure he didn’t carry his phone with him to the riding school.

Seeing Corey forced Saienta into fits of laughter until he was doubled over, unable to breathe. It wasn’t only that, it was a number of things that made him laugh, but Corey’s appearance was completely unexpected. He shook his head. Saienta could see that Corey was embarrassed when he finally approached and it seemed to make the situation more hilarious. What was Corey doing there in the first place? And with a group of little girls at that? He must have chosen the beginners class.

“You should’ve asked me, you can practise on the horses we have on the farm,” Saienta told Corey as they walked across the paddocks.
         “I wish you had told me earlier,” Corey said regretfully.
Saienta laughed. “I had no idea you wanted riding lessons.” He lit a cigarette and became serious again. “What happened with you yesterday after you visited me, when I was locked up?”
         “Me and Annaleace went into Sandra to check out the other restaurants. Actually, it was strange what happened, I met a woman named Shia. She’s Tay-Tay’s mother, and the mother of three other boys, two of them soldiers and the other one a farmer. She invited us back to her house because I picked up the purse she dropped.” Corey told him the story of Jordyn and the soldiers pretending to accuse them as thieves, and Saienta laughed. “She can’t believe we haven’t seen more of Sandra and taken the journey to the other villages yet. It was funny; she thinks that as soldiers it should be our first priority. There is a tournament ground in Nersa where the soldiers and independent groups battle and it’s supposed to be the best thing for younger people to go and see. We should go someday, that is, when we have time off from all this training.”

Saienta half-smiled, but was finding it hard to keep up the lighter side of things, knowing he was going to be interrogated tonight and what it would mean for him. Forget the appeal, once they saw his true nature and the fact that he had wanted to kill them…

…there would be no journey for Saienta.

He spoke carefully; it was hard to say the words without his voice cracking. Corey and Saienta talked often, usually when they were alone in their house, sometimes with Elli, and he knew Corey would know this was something very serious. “Corey…I hope you enjoy your time in Sandra. I know that so far, we’ve experienced it together, with the others, but…” He hated the thought of an interrogation, especially from Grey and a soldier who had some kind of Mythra that would reveal the inner thoughts of his mind. For Saienta it was comparable to torture all over again. The thought of having someone know the things he kept hidden made him sick. He already knew for sure that as soon as he was interrogated, he would be back here again with no string around his pinkie, no memories of having met Ame or the General, and no thoughts of Sandra.
Saienta and Corey walked but Saienta slowed down. “Corey...um…This is weird to say, I’m not used to it.” He never talked about his own problems but wanted to tell Corey that he shouldn’t have any hopes on seeing any more of Ame’s world with him. He never liked to feel helpless, share his burden, and play the role of victim. Saienta realised he was breathing heavily and slowed it down on purpose. Corey stopped and gazed at him levelly and Saienta didn’t look him in the eye. “I find it strange…for me…that for the first time I realised that I want to be able to stay in Ame’s world and never forget a single thing that’s happened. Despite all the shit we’ve been through, and the struggles, there is still a desire in me to be able to go back and forth, to see more, to experience more there.”

Corey withdrew a little. “Saienta, you know the appeal isn’t going to be passed…”
Saienta shook his head. “The appeal doesn’t make a difference. They’ll find out, Corey, and they’ll send me back through the Gate. I want you to do something for me-”
         “Wait,” Corey cut in, “We made a pact, if you’re locked out of the Gate, so are we.”
Saienta laughed softly without humour. “Fuck that pact. That’s what I want you to do for me. If I leave, it doesn’t matter. Continue, with the others, and just…enjoy yourself there. There’ll never be another experience like it, and there’ll be no chance to ever go there again or do the things you’ve done. You’ll never meet those people again- Ame, Tiyan, Nyu, Shia. If they take those memories from you, there’ll be a blank space in your mind for the rest of your life and you’ll always wonder what it is exactly that’s missing, and why you’re living life constantly wondering why you feel so limited and stifled. In that Gate, you’ll be able to do things no one here could even dream of; in that world, Corey, everything is possible and you don’t want to miss something like that.”
Corey creased his brow and only shook his head, following beside Saienta without answering when he kept walking.

Seff turned off the engine and jumped down out of the tractor when Saienta and Corey were standing in his path. He stood in front of them and looked from one to the other unsurely.
         “Seff, this is Corey Akaino; Corey- Seff Emmerson,” Saienta said.
Corey nodded. “Nice to meet you, Seff.”
He only nodded in reply and looked down at the ground. “Do you attend Ellet College also?” he questioned in a low voice.
         “Yes,” Corey replied, keeping his eyes on him. “What school do you attend?” he asked in a kind voice.
         “I’m not in high school yet, I was put down a grade for lack of attendance. I go to Sierra Primary,” Seff said, almost challenging him to look down on him.
         “Really? That’s supposed to be a good school. I’ve read about some of the gifted students in the newspaper.”
         “It’s public,” Seff stated. “There’s nothing good about it. It’s not like Ellet College or Tress Primary; there is no comparison.” Tress Primary was a widely known private school. Most Tress students moved on to Ellet.
Saienta wondered how Corey would handle the situation. Seff wasn’t easy to talk to and to open him up was near impossible for a stranger since he had ideals and created immediate prejudices of people to protect himself.

“Tress Primary?” Corey asked. “Is that a good school?”
Seff gave him a strange look, wondering if Corey was mocking him but Corey looked sincere. “Of course it is; it’s the equivalent of Ellet College in primary school terms.”
         “Oh…I haven’t heard of it.” Corey smiled, a little confused and he blinked up at the sun. “What’s bad about public schools?”
Seff scoffed. “I don’t like school altogether, I don’t care if it’s public or private but others do. I learn nothing.” He made to go away and get back to work but Corey asked him in a serious voice, “What would you want to learn?”
Seff stopped in his tracks and turned to look at him, his long dark hair almost covering the intense blue eyes that gazed out. “About life. It’s all I care about; I don’t need to know something that won’t affect me, ever.”
Saienta watched the exchange without expression and the thoughtful look on Corey’s face. “You’re right, you know.”
Seff shrugged uncaringly. Some time passed and Saienta was surprised to hear Seff ask Corey, “What would you want to learn in school?”
         “Everything. Because everything is life. Learning is a part of that.”
Seff stared at him, thinking about it. Moments later, he faced the tractor and said, “You’re right too, you know.”

“I chose to live in the garage. Seff lives in the house,” Saienta explained as he pulled out his homework from his bag and arranged it on his desk to deal with later.
         “He seems like he wants to enjoy life but doesn’t know how to start,” Corey said, looking at the box of paper flowers and stars Alexia had given him; he then glanced next to the box at the photo frame with the photo taken on the cruise that was sitting on Saienta’s bedside drawer.
         “Seff?” Saienta asked, noting how observant and careful Corey was in summing people up without prejudice.
         “Yeah. You should invite him over for dinner tonight.”
Saienta slung his bag over his shoulder. “Why?”
Corey shrugged. “Have you cooked for him before?”
         “All the time.”
         “Then I’m sure he misses it. I don’t want to take that away from him. I know I’d miss it.”
Saienta nodded slowly. “I’ll ask him then.”
         “Oh yeah,” Corey said, and reached into his bag to take out a black charger. “It’s for the CA7, the charger, I forgot to give it to you with the phone.”
Saienta grinned. “You mean I forgot to steal it from you.”
Corey suppressed a smile. “It wasn’t in my locker but if you had told me you were going to take it, I would’ve left it in there as well.”

*

Saienta was walking along the school hallway to the roof slowly, lost in his thoughts. He barely noticed the very few junior students who were going home who walked by, gazing at him as if to find out for themselves what it was he was thinking so deeply on. Grey and another soldier would interrogate him as soon as he arrived in the other world. He stopped in his tracks, and closed his eyes for a moment, his last thought threatening to overwhelm him. If you are sent out of the other world, you will have lost everything. It made no sense yet it tore at his insides and he remained still, hoping it would go away and felt as though his chest was being crushed by an unseen force. He became aware of his physical presence in the hallway and stood with his eyes closed. He imagined in his mind a hand reaching up to his face and he felt the fingertips brush his forehead. He opened his eyes immediately, sensing no one was there, and continued walking when discovering he had sensed correctly, that the hallway was empty, save for his own presence; and maybe for a fleeting moment, just maybe, that scared him a little.
His fragmented thoughts seemed to echo through his mind the way his footsteps were echoing along the corridors.

Ryan Campsall.

Elli Sennashi.

Annaleace Campsall.

Sirian Tomi.

Corey Akaino.

Who are you?

*

Saienta was met by Grey and another soldier on the grass fields by the river. Saienta remained expressionless and Grey saluted him firmly. Saienta returned it and Grey led him towards a small building made of large grey bricks.
         “This is a holding cell,” Grey explained as he pushed open the heavy steel door. “We’re sorry to have to do it in these conditions but with the hearing senses of people around here, this room ensures no one will hear a single thing and prevents distractions.”
Saienta couldn’t help but notice Grey’s changed manner towards him. He was colder and treated him as a soldier rather than someone he could give advice to as he did yesterday.
No regrets- Saienta wouldn’t even remember him in a few hours.
The room was cold and completely black when the door was shut, and it seemed like an eternally stretching darkness until Grey lit two wall lamps. There were two chairs in the centre of the room facing each other and Grey motioned for him to sit down. The other soldier sat across from him. The room was completely silent save for the noises they made themselves which were amplified. The soldier’s eyes were a strange blue-milky colour, Saienta noticed, as he was stared in the eyes intently. “My name is Forx. If you attempt to break out of my hold or escape, I will capture you and do this by force. Do not struggle, remain calm, and I will not let this hurt.”
Saienta saw Grey leaning against the door with his arms crossed, watching them both with his calm eyes.
Forx pulled his chair forward until they were almost touching knees. What the fuck was he going to do?
Saienta simply remained calm and waited to see what Forx would do but for a moment all he did was stare him in the eyes. Saienta didn’t move his eyes away, didn’t falter, he could hold anyone’s gaze if he wanted to, especially those he disliked. Saienta simply waited as the minutes passed by in silence, holding Forx’s gaze.

No one spoke and Saienta wasn’t about to say anything. He wanted to know when the questions would begin. It was rare for Saienta to keep eye-to-eye contact going on for so long, and Forx was so near his face, he resented the closeness. He was growing bored, thinking about nothing. He wondered if Corey was in Sandra yet, training; he would probably wonder where Saienta was and what was happening to him, Corey had said nothing earlier in reply to Saienta’s words on the field they were walking on. Saienta felt something stir in his mind, and his eyes seemed to be opening. But they were already open, he thought, and a slow but sure building of light seemed to be growing as though in the back of his eyes, brightening the room and he was sure he was the only one seeing it. For some reason, as soon as he recalled the previous event with Corey, something reached out from Forx’s eyes, unseen, and Saienta felt a presence. Like the feel of steam on his skin, the warmth reached out and entered through his pupils and spread out through his entire head. The memory of walking across the field became clear as though it was happening all over again, but only in his mind as he remembered it.

”… for the first time I realised that I want to be able to stay in Ame’s world and never forget a single thing that’s happened…” Saienta was saying to Corey.
The other being in Saienta’s mind watched and listened. Saienta felt the awareness of the other mind but no feelings; as though Forx had closed his own self off. It was the ultimate invasion of privacy…but if that was the only memory Forx could reach, then Saienta had no reason to worry.
Forx and Saienta both felt the same emotion Saienta had felt as he said the words,

…doesn’t make a difference. They’ll find out, Corey, and they’ll send me back through the Gate…

Immediately following, Saienta’s memory linked itself to another one that was related, if only in the slightest. I have to beat him, but how the fuck do you beat someone on an elevator if they all travel the same speed? Saienta was thinking that thought at the time as he travelled upwards in the Akaino tech. elevator, racing Corey. As though it had been discarded, the thought vanished as though it was useless to Forx.

How Forx was reading and bringing forth his memories, Saienta wanted to know.

Saienta tried to close his eyes but his physical body felt elsewhere. He tried to close his mind, if it were possible, but nothing happened, and still, all he could see were memories. Saienta would rather die than let someone see the life he had lived, and like someone who is dying, he fought with everything he had to maintain self-preservation, the instinct for survival told him he should go where Forx was.

A Stream

Saienta laughed as the physical drew away and he was some kind of being hovering over something that looked like a bright and glowing stream, an unmoving river that did not flow, but rather, seemed to contain oversized water droplets as big as trees that were dropping upwards but couldn’t quite disconnect, reaching as far as he could see. He felt Forx’s mind next to his as they drifted, and that was where they had both been all along, Forx was following him, and Saienta didn’t realise. A stream? Saienta found it ironic that his consciousness looked like a stream, yet he felt that the mind really wasn’t like this at all, it had simply taken the form Forx felt was easiest to travel along. Forx followed as Saienta’s mind hovered over one of the memory droplets; Forx was like a weaker animal following the strong predator to find food because it could not find it on its own. Impossible to shake off.
Saienta touched a droplet with his mind and was completely immersed in a memory.

”Fuckin’ try saying you don’t have it again,” Saienta raged, and struck the boy in the face again and again, blood splattering all over them both. A Red Tide mission. Definitely not something Forx should see, Saienta thought and was about to break away from it at his own will, when Forx took over. As one thought leads to another, other related memory droplets pulled themselves towards Forx and Saienta, and they were both immersed in visions, sights, smells, feelings... Saienta felt anger- he had thought the control was his but Forx was stronger than he had believed and anything Saienta tried to do was brushed away although he tried many times to break him away from his memory droplets.
Forx sifted through them- seeing various Red Tide missions, his days in school, working on the farm, cooking food, riding Rell…
It was all useless information, hopeless for Forx and Saienta felt a faint hope simmering. Maybe, just maybe he won’t be able to find something too incriminating, he thought, as long as I don’t think about that day on the field when I hit Corey or about the dark state…
In a flash, Forx grabbed hold of the tendril of thought that escaped from Saienta and he held onto it. The memory came to them at once and Saienta watched as Grey approached, geared up…the memory played out longer as Grey explained why he fought, and Saienta listened, not sure how to answer his final question.
The dark state began.
Saienta felt a slight curiosity leak out from Forx as he watched further.

Fuck you. Fuck you all, Saienta thought as he walked back through the fields…Fuck you. Fuck you. Fuck you.
Something about Corey, darkness dissipated, came back again- all happened.
And then Forx withdrew quickly as Saienta was engulfed with incredible pain and returned to hear Saienta think, Who cares? They’re going to fight, just like you, and die anyway, just kill them first- two sides, there’s no right side, just two different views.
Not good, Saienta thought but there was nothing he could do. Forx had misled him into believing the control was all his and that he was simply following idly. It should have been enough for Forx to go away with and tell Grey about, all his instability and darkness, sending away Saienta for good, but Forx continued. The fact that he wanted to kill them was established. Why he hit Corey was coming up next.

Saienta’s thoughts when Grey asked, “What are you doing?” were simply, I don’t know. I wanted to kill you all, not hurt Corey.
Saienta felt a leak in Forx’s feelings: curiosity about the dark state. And that was one of the last things he wanted to endure again, and let Forx see. But this very thought betrayed him and Forx clutched the tendril; they were inundated with scattered thoughts and every experience he had with his dark state. Watching, Saienta realised it had all begun that day, two years ago…and Saienta had manifested it, letting it take on a more powerful form unintentionally when he stepped through the Gate, releasing it for the first time when he first fought with Mizu.
The truth is, I don’t see it as separate from myself or evil and therefore I don’t mind it now that I have control. It is me and I am it. It doesn’t take over me, I take control of another part of myself. There will come a day when I will use the darkness always and I won’t have to let it go.
Forx seemed to have found what he was looking for because he began to withdraw, down the stream from the way he came. Saienta was hovering above the last thoughts, knowing he was well and truly fucked. No more Sandra, no more training, no nothing.

Helpless.

Saienta laughed in his mind because that’s what it came down to. So I’ll help myself, won’t I? Forx can’t go back, he hasn’t left yet. He can’t leave here with those memories. They belong to me.
The stream darkened as though thunder clouds were forming and blocking the light of the sun.
He knew this feeling- the black mist crept over and enveloped all. Fucking, trying to better my life and this is how it will end? Saienta immediately blocked Forx’s gateway out and Forx halted, fear leaking out for a millisecond. The darkness converged on Forx.
Now, everything was as it should be. Saienta followed the trail of Mythra back to Forx. “You got that, Forx? Got that? Fucking piece of meat.”
Saienta stole his memories back, recreated what Forx was going to remember and withdrew. He had won this time, but he knew the fight wasn’t over. He couldn’t manipulate everyone, and there were many others who would try to make him leave.

Saienta blinked and opened his physical eyes to see Forx move back in his chair watching him with interest. Grey stood up straight as though he had grown tired and bored of waiting.
“How is he?” Grey asked Forx. “Dangerous or not dangerous?”
Forx stretched his arms and cracked his knuckles. “He’s fine. He was just confused. They’ve been beating him up too much; he wanted to hit Mizu. I mean, who doesn’t?”
“Stay or go?” Grey asked, looking slightly relieved.
Forx shrugged and gave Saienta an encouraging smile. “For now, stay. He’s fine.”
Saienta repressed a smile.

*

“It’s all good, Corey,” Saienta said, walking across the field. He checked the time on his watch and saw that it had been only twenty minutes since he had gone into the grey building. Corey was wearing Jinkai weights on both legs and he hadn’t moved more than an inch.
Corey didn’t ask what was all good but smiled. “I’m glad to hear it.”
Saienta shrugged and breathed in the sweet air. “I was interrogated, that’s why I was sure I wouldn’t be staying here. For now you can forget about what I said earlier.” Saienta only shared the nature of the procedure and Forx’s Mythra with Corey but nothing else and gave him the same conclusion that Forx had drawn. Corey smiled. “Then what are you standing around for? Put on the Jinkai.”

*

“Welcome to my home!” Hiroka cried happily, opening the door wearing a navy blue kimono with white trimming. “Yokoso!” Welcome!
Seff walked in with his head down and said softly, “Nice to meet you.” Despite his apprehension, he seemed to be as awed by the inside of the house as the façade and he had trouble hiding it as his eyes went from place to place. He also seemed surprised by Hiroka’s cheery demeanour; he probably had different expectations from a millionaire, yet he still looked intimidated. “Konbanwa, Saienta. And Seff Emmerson, is that correct?”
Seff nodded and Saienta explained that ‘konbanwa’ meant ‘good evening’. “Konbanwa,” Seff managed to say.
         “Konbanwa, Hiroka,” Saienta said and Hiroka beamed, shutting the door and ushering them through, though he led them towards the stairs rather than the kitchen and Saienta wondered why. “Where is Corey?” Saienta asked as they ascended the stairway.
         “Getting changed, just like you two will be doing in a moment,” he declared. Now Saienta understood why they were going upstairs. Hiroka insisted that everyone was dressed in kimono for dinner and Saienta figured this was tributed to his life in Japan. Despite Hiroka’s usual manner, Saienta couldn’t help but notice a slight change in his energy level since he last saw him but it looked like he had overslept, which was probably the case as Hiroka yawned long and languidly.

Seff changed in the bathroom and Saienta was led to a spare bedroom to change into a black kimono with blue trimming. He tucked his silver ring and necklace under his kimono once he was ready and left his folded clothes on the bed to collect later.
Seff was already done by the time he came out and he met both Hiroka and Seff leaning on the balustrade looking over the floor below.
         “Broccoli! That’s great, me too,” Hiroka was saying. “How about peanut butter?”
Seff nodded and kept his eyes on the floor below, wearing a light grey kimono. Saienta was glad Hiroka was not cooking. Hiroka turned as Saienta walked towards them. “Great! Now where is Corey?” He turned towards Corey’s room. “Kori!” he called. Saienta was surprised by the name. Kori in Japanese meant ice and could possibly be Corey’s Japanese name.
Corey appeared a half a minute later wearing a blood-red kimono with lighter red stitching and black kanji symbols embroidered into the material on each sleeve. Saienta noticed again how his eyes had darkened from lack of sleep. Saienta’s own eyes used to look like that but his days hadn’t been as full as they used to with Red Tide and the farm. Despite his tiredness Corey smiled warmly at both Saienta and Seff and his dad ruffled Corey’s neat hair. “Glad you could join us.”

Saienta had a cigarette while he cooked since Hiroka was smoking at the table with Seff seated next to him and Corey across from him. “And you say this girl actually made it herself?” Hiroka asked in astonishment, and laughed outrageously when Seff nodded. Saienta turned back to the stove.
         “She must really like you,” Corey said.
         “Subarashii!” Hiroka exclaimed. Amazing! “You should ask her out on a date and make her a clock too.”
         “I...don’t think so,” Seff replied, his voice quieter than Corey’s and nowhere near as loud as Hiroka’s. Seff was speaking more than Saienta had ever heard him speak and he was sure it was more than he ever did, more than he was ever comfortable with but Hiroka had a way of forcing people to open up and Seff wasn’t about to tell him to shut up. Seff seemed to be enjoying himself, even if he was sitting quietly in his chair, withdrawn as he usually was, and Saienta felt a hint of gratitude towards Hiroka for doing what he couldn’t.
         “Why?” Hiroka asked. “I’m sure she would appreciate it.”
         “A number of reasons, maybe…I don’t know if I would want to date her. She’s nice but what she sees in me may be formed from misguided observation. Besides…I don’t know how to make a clock.”
Hiroka laughed in what Saienta was sure was astonishment. “Of course you do, it’s easy. I could show you. We should make it a clock radio, now I’m sure Lissa would be impressed by that.” He thought for a moment. “But then again, she may think you’re trying to show off your superior skills…no…you should make it the same, but different, pretty, but not too pretty. I have it! Make it cute. Cute is never conceited. We’ll put in a Hello Kitty etching and we’ll make the hands light up pink and purple when you press a button!”

Saienta glanced at Seff and saw him shrug slowly, unsurely. “I’d like to make a clock. It sounds…fun.”
Hiroka became serious all of a sudden and his voice softened, growing intense. “It is. What do you enjoy the most in life, Seff?”
Seff thought for a while. “Writing. Writing is my life.”
         “Aha!” Hiroka slapped the table. “Writing is art, and art is creation. Making things is just like that. I will show you how to make a clock. Make sure you come by tomorrow, we can start straight away. I don’t have to work, you can come over in the morning.”
         “He has school,” Corey said for him when Seff looked unsure about how to answer.
         “I don’t have to go…” Seff drifted.
         “Hrm…after school then?” Hiroka asked.
         “I have to…work, for my parents, that is,” Seff said. Saienta was sure he didn’t want to mention he worked on a farm for his adoptive parents.
         “I’m sure he can tell you when he’s free. Just like me and Saienta, Seff will be busy with school,” Corey explained.
         “Of course! School is important. When are you free?” Hiroka asked. Saienta knew Seff was extremely wary about all this and he was torn between the choice of living life as he usually did, the way he was comfortable, and doing something he had never done before that could bring him enjoyment.
         “I can come here tomorrow at…five?” Seff said.
         “Subarashii! See you again then, tomorrow.”

They ate in the dining room. Hiroka and Corey eager to start eating Saienta’s dishes of soba noodles, fried won tons, and flaky fish. For dessert he had made puff pastries filled with berries and ice cream. Seff was used to the food but he enjoyed it- it had been a while since Saienta had been at the house to cook for the both of them.
Corey presented some Jiji fruit and Saienta was amused by his explanation that it was a breed of lychee bought from a distant and vaguely named marketplace in the city, from somewhere he couldn’t quite remember. Hiroka had had it before but still had a look of heaven, the same one Corey had his first time, and Seff couldn’t suppress his smile.
         “How old are you this year?” Corey asked Seff.
Seff looked up from his Jiji fruit, almost reluctantly, and answered, “Twelve.” He added a second later, “I’m turning thirteen in two days.”
Saienta hadn’t realised that, not that it mattered, birthdays never mattered to either of them.

“Two days! That’s something to celebrate! I hope you’re free in two days, we’ll all celebrate together again, just like this, and we’ll invite Leon too. You’d like Leon, and he’d like you too. Plus Leon knows how to find the best birthday cakes in the world. That reminds me, Corey, I completed half the final report for the Entity project but I need you to do the rest. It’ll be easy; Angela, the receptionist at the office has all the details already and Leon will drop it off for you. I would do it myself, but I’m having trouble putting it all together. I keep getting confused between the Entity project and the Redd project, funny that.” Hiroka laughed softly to himself.
         “Okay,” Corey replied. “I’ll do it as soon as I can.”
Saienta put a few pieces together and finally understood why Corey was getting no sleep.
Hiroka ruffled Seff’s hair. “You should come over when Saienta does, for dinner. I like company.”
Seff nodded vaguely.
Hiroka was staring across at Corey who was picking at his dessert. Saienta saw the look in his eyes and some part of Saienta wished Corey would look up and see it too but he didn’t look up until Hiroka said his name and Hiroka broke into a wide grin instead. “I wish you weren’t so busy with school and your projects all the time. I hoped we could spend some time working on that new phone together. The one with bells and a lighter, remember?”
Hiroka’s words seemed to be darkening Corey, but Saienta knew it was directed at himself and the fact that he couldn’t spend time with his dad was because of the other world and his own decision to stay there. Hiroka’s mention of creating a phone with bells and a lighter made Corey laugh softly. “I thought it had a laser light last time you mentioned it.”
         “It does, Corey, it does! It has everything!”

*

On Wednesday, Saienta prepared another dinner for the five of them. Leon was leaning on the bench wearing his own kimono, and he explained to Saienta he was quite aware of Hiroka’s tradition of dressing up for dinner, so he had bought his own a few years back.
         “Yoi!” Good! Hiroka exclaimed and Saienta turned from chopping vegetables to see him stand up and slap Corey a high-five. “I win again!” Hiroka declared and sat down. “Dominos are my favourite game. Match the numbers, how easy could it be? So simple, and yet…so entertaining.”
         “I thought dominos is a one-person game,” Leon said, watching them.
         “It is…” Hiroka replied, turning to look at him strangely.
         “…then how come you gave Corey a high-five?”
         “Because I won,” Hiroka explained as though it was obvious. Leon laughed.
Saienta brought out the dishes with Leon’s help to the dining table in the other room. He had prepared crumbed chicken, baked, and in the centre of each piece was melted garlic and herb butter, and had crunchy baked potato pieces covered in herbs and spices- Seff’s favourite food. He tossed a salad together with French dressing and for dessert he and Leon had baked a pie with Jiji fruit. Afterwards they would have Corey’s coffee and the cake Leon had bought.

Once it was set out, he told the others and they came in. Hiroka’s eyes lit up at the food and he clapped once, ‘Yosh!” Alright!
While they ate, Hiroka talked and asked questions.
         “Do you cook often?”
“Yes,” Saienta answered.
         “How did you learn to cook?”
“Through books and experimenting.”
         “Have you seen the clock me and Seff made?” Hiroka asked them all, a glint in his eyes. “He’s a talented genius! You should see the words engraved on the back, and the way he fit the cogs in just so; they hardly make a sound. And he even reformed the original design to fit in the pink and purple lights. Did you give it to Lissa yet, Seff?”
Seff looked up and shrugged, withdrawing because of Hiroka’s many compliments. “She wasn’t at school today…”
         “Ah…a shame, you’ll have to give it to her tomorrow. I can tell you how pleased she’ll be. She’ll think of you every time she sees it in her room right by her bed on her nightstand.”
         “How do you know it will be right by the bed?” Leon asked.
Hiroka laughed. “Why shouldn’t it be? It has an alarm, and she’ll want it to be the first thing she sees at night and the first thing she sees in the morning, isn’t that right, Seff?”
         “I don’t know if she really likes me…” Seff said.
         “Sure she does, didn’t she give you her clock? She sent you that letter too, and gave you that birthday card yesterday. She loves you, I’m sure of it.” Hiroka peered at Seff closer as though checking for visible signs of Lissa’s love.
         “Why should she?” Saienta heard Seff murmur.

“Corey, are you free for at least two hours tomorrow?” Saienta asked him.
          “Sure. Why?”
         “Horse riding. We’ll go out across the paddocks tomorrow.”
Corey nodded. “I’ll be free at around five-thirty, is that okay?”
Saienta knew that was straight after training and Corey would probably just travel back with him. He nodded. “Then we can come back here and I’ll cook again for us.”

Leon brought out the cake and Hiroka and Corey’s eyes lit up more than Seff’s. There were thirteen candles lit on top. The cake was ivory coloured, the cream spread out on it had wave patterns all through it and white cream piped on top. Corey brought out cups of coffee for them. They sang ‘happy birthday’ and Seff blew out his candles self-consciously knowing everyone was waiting for him. The cake was delicious and Saienta asked Leon where he had gotten it.
         “Paris,” he answered.
Seff, Corey and Saienta looked at him in surprise. Was he kidding?
         “Paris,” Leon said again, nodding towards Seff. “I had it flown in yesterday when Hiroka told me about your birthday.”
Seff began to eat every bit of his cake with more attention, slowly, as though savouring it.
         “Do you like it?” Leon asked.
Seff nodded. “I’ve never eaten a cake from Paris…Do you always eat cakes from France?”
Leon laughed and smiled at him. “No, only for occasions like this. I have an uncle that lives there. Right now, you are eating his specialty.” Leon took another bite of cake. “Did you enjoy making a clock, Seff?”
Seff nodded sincerely. “It was a new experience and something about the concentration of putting it all together is…something to look forward to, even though it seems boring, it’s not.”
         “And tomorrow, we’re making a radio-slash-MP3 player-slash-telephone!” Hiroka announced. “We’ll start with the easy things. Next thing you know we’ll be making a satellite dish with webcam capability and a pie maker.”
Leon and Corey laughed.
The announcement was new to Seff, apparently. Hiroka grinned at him. Saienta found it hard to see how he could make a phone with an MP3 player and radio so easily but Hiroka was the founder and head technician of Akaino tech. industries, putting together things he already knew how to make was simple. The harder job would be creating new technologies and devices from ideas.

Hiroka disappeared for a few minutes and came in looking victorious; all four of them turned to look at him.
         “No explanations needed, follow me!” he said and led them towards the back door. They followed him out into the cold night air across the grass and out into the open. Saienta shivered in his kimono and wondered what Hiroka was dragging them out into the cold night for.
         “The sky is clear just like I hoped,” Hiroka said, looking up at the stars and they looked up with him. It was beautiful, the open night sky- a vast blanket of deepest black lit by glittering stars. Saienta sank into a deep calm as he gazed upwards. Leon remained thoughtful and silent the whole time.
         “Now,” Hiroka began enthusiastically. He remained thoughtful for a moment, searching the skies, and then he lowered his voice so he sounded thoughtful. “Seff, we’re out here for the stars. As you know, stars can be bought, but I don’t believe in that and neither did my wife, Emera, when she was alive.” Hiroka glanced at Corey who was gazing upwards and looked down at him. Hiroka continued, looking up again. “We started this tradition together. What Emera and I always believed is that every one of us is a free person, living in the world. Each action is our own to make, our thoughts our own, and still, everyone in this universe is somehow linked to another. People may try to change us or tell us that they control some aspect of our lives, but that isn’t true. Each is an individual, existing, and simply because he chooses to, it gives him the power to do as he desires. A question for you: do we give the stars significance and beauty because of our own thoughts and perceptions or does the beauty already exist and we pick up on it with those thoughts and perceptions?”

Seff thought for a long time and they all thought about the answer to the question.
         “It is…” Seff paused, thinking for a moment more, and started again. “As I see it, the world is only as we know it because we exist inside ourselves. I can’t see something the way you truly see, blue could be pink to you, but we only know it as we’ve been told, because our perceptions are so different and every one is an individual, we could never really know what really exists. Beauty is similar but it’s an abstract quality with no substance- what I see as beautiful may not be to someone else, but to me…to me it exists as beautiful and maybe that means beauty exists only in the mind and the stars are beautiful because I believe they are. I could never know if it already exists and I pick up on it, but it doesn’t matter because even if that were so, I could always believe otherwise and then it comes back to my perception all over again.”
They gazed at Seff thoughtfully, especially Hiroka who was smiling. “Good answer. You’re free to believe it, not made to believe it…now, pick a star, any star, Seff, and tell me why it should belong to you.”
Seff stopped gazing at the stars and looked at him unsurely. “Belong to me?”
The wind was calm but brushed over the fields and through nearby trees sending a whispering over their ears.
         “Do you wish to own a star?”
Seff nodded. “I guess…it should belong to me because I’m free to have anything in the realms of my own mind. If I believe it, and even have you believe it with me, no one could tell me it’s not allowed.”
         “So pick one, and tell us which star belongs to thirteen year old Seff Emmerson, the future, world-wide successful, writer,” Hiroka smiled.

Saienta looked at Corey, wondering if he had a star. Yet, this seemed new to him and Saienta knew he could only be disappointed that he didn’t have one.
Seff searched carefully and then pointed. “There,” he said. They followed his directions with their eyes. “See those four stars that form a cross? I choose that’s a little further away, the one at the bottom. It’s faint, but it’s winking and seems brighter every now and again.”
A strange thoughtful expression crossed Hiroka’s face. “That’s a nice star. Happy birthday, Seff, the star is yours.”
         “Happy birthday, Seff,” Saienta said in a soft voice.
Corey and Leon repeated ‘Happy birthday’ and Seff’s lips formed a slight smile.
Minutes passed. “Do you and mom have a star?” Corey asked Hiroka.
Hiroka nodded and smiled. “Right there, Corey,” and he pointed to the same cross Seff had pointed at. “See the tip of the cross, at the top? The bright one…that’s mine. Your mother’s is the one to the right with a blue tinge.”
Corey was silent. “Do I have one?”
A smile spread on Hiroka’s face. “Of course. Your mother chose one for you when you were born but she said with your own free will you’ll choose one of your own one day. See that one?” He pointed in the direction of his own star. “Your own is straight across from hers. The star on the left.”
         “I choose that one too,” Corey said and smiled, as Hiroka ruffled his hair affectionately.
         “It’s yours. Happy birthday, Corey Akaino. Think of me, your mother, and your own life when you see them.”
Saienta couldn’t help but smile.

*
A Non-Existent User
It was Saturday and Gwen was bouncing around on her heels, happily taking out her ringing phone from her Gucci bag with open joy, as though it was something new, but her phone had been ringing almost non-stop since they had arrived in front of the school ten minutes ago at 11am. Saienta had thought Gwen would be completely opposed to having Saienta there or she would ignore him completely with an air of distaste, but she did neither to his surprise, and possibly Sirian’s; Gwen had waved to them both and even chatted idly about nothing in particular until she became busy with her phone. Sirian remained expressionless, wearing a steel-blue designer skirt and comfortable shoes, as opposed to Gwen’s strappy white heels, white skirt, white halter-neck top and silver chain belt. Not exactly appropriate for a paintball skirmish. Saienta lit a cigarette, thinking about how irritated he didn’t become these days. The irritation he had once felt towards people had faded and he now just ignored them, even if they did annoy him. It was attributed to his sleep, work and stress-load – if he had the right balance, he was fine, but in the days before he became an official to make just enough money to scrape through, there was no way he would be standing here in front on the path just now, waiting for Hiroka with Corey and Miss Silvalet to pick them up in their cars. He was in a better mood today because of the way things had gone with Alexia. Corey had helped him do something that would have been impossible to initiate on his own and in a way that only Corey could understand, he hadn’t forced Saienta to do anything or damage his pride. Saienta was still feeling grateful to Corey.

Saienta couldn’t help but notice the change in the other five since they had entered the Gate. Saienta hadn’t changed much but the others seemed to be having a hard time adjusting, or handling everything. Saienta was used to having people fucking with him all the time, and working hard at something that didn’t seem to be taking him anywhere. They were possibly missing the bigger picture, and Saienta had been the same but ever since he was given the threat of being purged forever, he had learnt why he was there.
Not long ago he had been the one with the most loaded life and now he was probably the one with the least.
Gwen was suddenly quiet and they knew she had probably hung up her phone. “Anyway, what was I saying? Oh! Right,” she began as she stood beside Sirian, “it doesn’t matter if he doesn’t go right? It’s all in the past. What ever happens, happens-”
At this point Saienta tuned out again as Gwen picked up with Sirian where she had left off.

Miss Silvalet’s car arrived and they all raised an eyebrow at the rusted, peeling, brown thing that barely passed as a car in front of them. It was not a car worthy of the roads surrounding Ellet College; worthy of any road for that matter...was it road-worthy at all?
         “How much do they pay you again?” Saienta smirked as she opened the door and slammed it shut behind her.
         “Oh shut up, Sayenta, it might be Ellet College but the teacher’s wage doesn’t change,” she replied, smiling.
         “Is the job really worth it?” Gwen asked, still staring at the car.
         “Sure, what would you all do without me?” Miss Silvalet asked smugly, standing in front of them wearing a creamy summer dress and white sneakers. “Don’t answer, Sayenta, or either of you two, it’s a rhetorical question.”
They smiled.
         “Now where are Corey and his father?” Miss Silvalet asked, peering around as though they might be standing around nearby for no reason.
         “Not here yet,” Gwen answered. “Did we really have to meet here in front of the school?”
Miss Silvalet nodded. “Well I figure, if all of you can get here everyday without trouble, then meeting here on a Saturday morning should be no effort.”
         “Why didn’t we meet at the place?” Sirian asked. “It wouldn’t have been much of an effort. We have cars, you know.”
Miss Silvalet gave them a smile. “I know, but a car pool would be better, save the Ozone layer, petrol bills, and so forth.”
Gwen beamed at this for an unknown reason to Saienta. “And we get to be driven by Miss Silvalet in that thing! I’ve never been in a car like that before,” she said enthusiastically.
         “Of course you haven’t, dear, these cars are old. Older than you and possibly me.”

“O-hayo!” Good morning! Hiroka called from his window, though half the people standing on the path weren’t Japanese. “Good morning,” he said again, in English this time, and jumped out of Corey’s silver RX8.
Corey turned off the engine and joined them as they said their greetings and introductions.
Saienta clasped hands with him as they usually did in greeting and Hiroka who was looking cheery as always, pat Saienta on the head once to say hello. Miss Silvalet gave him a look of confusion mixed with surprise and then smiled when Saienta didn’t react.
It was a strange group, Saienta imagined, as they stood on the pathway. Gwen looked involved, as she usually was, and freely spoke with any of them. She seemed different outside of school with this crowd than she did as he usually saw her.
         “Okay, Saienta and Gwen in my car, and Sirian in Corey’s car so you can give him directions,” Miss Silvalet said and they departed immediately after.

Saienta was lost in thoughts of Sandra and training. Gwen was up front, chatting animatedly with Miss Silvalet and Saienta stared out his window at the passing scenery as they drove deeper into the city and out again into farm areas. The paint skirmish place was an hour away in the middle of nowhere since the facility was so large and paint skirmishes were almost illegal in the city.

Saienta hadn’t realised how intense and enjoyable the paintball skirmish would be. He had paired up with Corey, Sirian with Gwen, and Hiroka with Miss Silvalet. They had all changed into plain white overalls, including Gwen who was excited by the prospect, and were now in their teams in the extremely dark skirmish building on three levels. It was separated by a maze of walls with very few open spaces and the other teams could be hiding anywhere as Saienta and Corey stayed on the bridge, looking over two levels, with Saienta as sniper with the rifle equipped with sights and all, and Corey had the palm computer which showed a map of the entire facility and the people Saienta and Corey had fired tracking devices on. The only ones who had tracking devices on them at the moment were Miss Silvalet and Hiroka. Their little dots on the screen flickered on and off and were supposed to fade in a matter of minutes which gave them plenty of planning time.
Corey put his paintball gun rifle and pistol with the tracking devices on the ground as they discussed the plan and sudden footsteps told them Gwen was coming. They could tell by her heels on the metal grating. They hushed immediately and Corey took up his rifle, aiming it towards the wall and only entranceway from there.

“Shh!” they heard Sirian hiss.
         “But they should be around here somewhere.”
         “Which is exactly why you should be quiet.”
Too late for Gwen, Corey shot her once in the front once she appeared and she screamed, running away, laughing. Sirian’s footsteps followed immediately and now Corey and Saienta would have to change positions. Gwen and Sirian couldn’t shoot them back for another ten seconds while their guns were in remission from being shot and once you were shot, you had to escape quickly before you were shot again. The paintballs did hurt a bit, and would leave slight bruises but it didn’t seem to bother Gwen as much as Saienta and the others that knew her thought it would. She actually seemed to be enjoying herself almost as much as Hiroka, who thought it was like a real life version of Counter Strike, and Miss Silvalet who was into the same thing, taking the skirmish very seriously. Saienta and Corey had heard both their voices coming up through a vent and from the way they were talking it seemed like they were planning a serious stratagem for a full-blown war.
Saienta and Corey had only been hit once each so far, ten minutes into the game, and they had shot Gwen twice, and Sirian once. Hiroka and Miss Silvalet were extremely elusive and Saienta had been shot from above and wasn’t even able to spot where they were but Corey had managed to get a tracking device on each of them with the pistol holding tracking devices that couldn’t be felt when hit, and he managed to hit his dad once with the paintball gun; and Saienta hit Miss Silvalet from below a bridge where she was standing at close range through the grating with his sniper rifle.

Saienta waited on another bridge, his eye pressed to the sight, waiting for Miss Silvalet to come out from her hiding place. Corey told him, looking at the map, that their team should be right behind that stack of barrels.
         “Why are they taking so long?” Saienta asked in a hushed voice when three minutes passed with no movement.
         “I don’t know…” Corey said in a confused tone, “Why would they stay there for so long? Maybe this thing is broken…”
Too late, Saienta was hit from above in the back painfully, and he rolled away to prevent himself being hit again. Corey scattered and Saienta followed, taking up his gun quickly. “Shit!” Corey said and laughed as they ran to hide.
         “Who the fuck was that?” Saienta asked, laughing.
Corey slowed and examined the colour of the paint on Saienta’s back.
         “My dad, from the looks of it.”
Saienta gave him a strange look. “But they were supposed to be behind the barrels…”
They heard a very evil laughter – Hiroka’s – and he called out through the facility, “Nice shot, Miss Silvalet!”
Miss Silvalet could be heard laughing. “I know, wasn’t it?”

“You cheated!” Corey called out to his dad with humour. “How did you remove the tracking device?” They kept moving so their voices couldn’t be tracked.
         “We didn’t!” he called back. “Okay, we did, but this is war, Corey! And all is fair in love and war.”

They met again an hour later in the bright room right outside the facility, covered in paint and extremely tired from running around in the dark for the last hour.
Miss Silvalet and Hiroka had the least paint on them and reading the scores on the television screen above their heads, they found that team Kukumalu-malu had won – Miss Silvalet and Hiroka celebrated their victory.
Before they would change and begin another hour of paint skirmish with the same teams; they had lunch in the cafeteria and they were told that they could sit down with wet paint. The chairs were covered in splatters and smudges of paint from people’s overalls and Gwen admired them as though they were art. “Very nice, I think I could do this in my room…what do you think, Sirian?”
Saienta wondered about Gwen’s split personality. She seemed to have a very different, but very real and positive side of her outside of school. Did Sirian notice this? Gwen didn’t even seem to dislike Sirian and Miss Silvalet wouldn’t love Gwen for no reason.
Saienta still didn’t find much reason to like her nevertheless.
Sirian shrugged. “It looks nice but not so nice when it smudges- the colours don’t mix well.”
         “Agreed!” Miss Silvalet beamed. “Now sit, and order, we can discuss interior decorating later.”
They ate, rested for a while, and then went back inside the dark paint skirmish facility.
Hiroka and Miss Silvalet won again.

*
It was Saturday, late afternoon.
Unity – all six of them needed it and Saienta realised this as they stood on the banks of the river during water-tread training. That was not his first thought as he looked at the other five, all concentrating as hard as he was a moment ago, while no one spoke, or hardly acknowledged the presence of the other. They hadn’t had a proper conversation as one group since their first day of training down by the river. Elli and Sirian still had an air of dislike about them towards each other but things had changed slightly- Saienta had heard about Elli defending Sirian, but as far as he knew, Sirian didn’t know, and Sirian too had defended Elli from someone’s words and Elli hadn’t heard about that either. It seemed they a love-hate relationship and the awkwardness and pride they kept prevented them from getting along face-to-face. They still pretended they thought the same of each other but were obviously less spiteful.

Each person had changed drastically since the time they had entered the Gate, and it was hard to point out the one who had changed the most. Ryan had changed in a different way, he was maybe the only one who had changed for the better- he was calmer. Annaleace was also similar, but she had seemed to have discovered a tougher side- she refused to take the bullshit and in her own way fought for her sanity. Tiyan had made her happier as well. Elli was similar to what she once was- she still hid behind her cheeriness, but behind her façade, there was even more of a burden that she carried. Sirian looked as though she was burdened with pent-up frustration that threatened to spill over and render her broken at any moment, and Corey seemed more tired, more quiet, and even more introverted since they had begun. How long would they last like this? And each of them, he could see it, were seeing less and less reason to fight on and endure everything. They were all lacking optimism, compared with their first day, and Saienta should have been the last one to notice this, or even care. Ame had told him on his first night of training that loyalty was as fragile as the thread a spider creates, and Saienta felt that they had not even that. The only connection they had as a team was that they happened to be in the same circumstance, but was it really enough? It should have been, only that none of them ever acknowledged it or leaned on the other for support. In Red Tide one of the most important things they had was the connection as an entire group, and in doing so, a reason to fight on always made itself apparent. Sharing a reason for being there should have been enough.

Ame had said ‘What you need for existence and the will to live is the same as loyalty.
What was it they needed exactly?
He thought back to Moth’s words to him last week when they were walking towards the village for the first time. Moth had said their thoughts alone could mean their existence here could be wiped out entirely. He understood that clearly since the interrogation- they had no determination. If they did, it was faint.
         “Oi,” Saienta called and Corey turned to look at him. In Saienta’s silence the others turned to look as well and he looked at each face lined up along the bank. Elli gave him a puzzled expression.
         “How much have we improved since last Wednesday?” he asked them.
Elli sighed and Annaleace shrugged. They gave him a look that said all too clearly What kind of question is that? The answer was obvious- they had improved by a fraction of a fraction since their first day, and it was hardly worth mentioning.
         “By maybe a fraction of a fraction,” Annaleace said, as though she had read his mind and Saienta found humour in this. They looked relieved to have the momentary break from training.
         “Then why the fuck are still here?” he asked them all seriously.
         “Are you saying we should give up and go back?” Sirian asked, wiping water off her forehead with her sleeve.
         “Would it make everything better if we did?” he asked.
Ryan shrugged and Corey was lost in a thought.
Elli stretched her arms out and yawned. “I suppose. Then again…” She shrugged and tried to think of an answer. “What is the point in this? Like they ask us constantly, why are we here?”
Corey looked up at him and put a hand in his pocket. “The same reason we gave the General that first day.”
         “No,” Saienta said. “The reason we gave the General the first day is why we want to help them, it’s not why we’re still here. Things have changed since that day and we all know it, have felt it individually.”
         “I guess…” Annaleace began thoughtfully. She reached down and trailed her hand through the water. “…it’s because we can, not so much because we want to anymore.”
         “We need a goal,” Sirian said suddenly, looking into the water. “Without one there’s no point.”
         “We knew what we were in for when we were talking at the restaurant,” Ryan said and breathed in heavily.
         “We had a feeling but we didn’t know all that much then. Actually living it is different,” Elli said, “It’s a possibility that we don’t talk about it enough, about what we’re doing here. I don’t even know why anymore. Life is hard enough in one world, living in this one makes it twice as hard. Even though it’s…” she paused and looked around at the forest, “…peaceful here, it isn’t, if that makes sense.”
Annaleace nodded and Sirian agreed.
         “Why do we train together?” Saienta asked. “Why don’t we separate and train individually?”

They gave him a look of shock, and slight disbelief. “If you don’t want to train with us, Saienta-” Sirian began.
He cut her off and smiled without humour. “I’m not implying anything personal, I want to know if we’re in this together or we’re in this alone. By your reactions alone I know you’re already against it. But why?”
         “Because,” said Annaleace, “we began this together and we want to end it together. We all share the connection of coming from the same place, so we have to stick by each other because we understand each other the most. Could you imagine training on our own or with different soldiers? It wouldn’t be right.”
They were getting somewhere- exactly what Saienta wanted them to do.
Corey looked up at him. “The experiences.” Saienta half-smiled. Corey was getting it, and he was thinking back on Saienta’s words on Monday when he had told Corey why he didn’t want to leave Sandra. “There is so much we can do here and to realise our potential would be…an experience we could never find out in our own world. We have the choice to leave, but we don’t because there is too much we want to know.”
Ryan nodded. “And we’re in it together because as Annaleace said, we began together and there is no one else here that would understand that.”
Sirian closed her eyes for a moment and opened them again. “Life is all about experiencing new things. We’re lucky to have come here, we’re almost like children here because everything is new to us and most people don’t ever have that chance. There are so many people we’ve met here, and I would never want to leave them or completely forget about them.”
         “And we don’t know what the limitations here are,” Corey said, “which makes it even more worthwhile. Say we were to become better soldiers, and one day, great soldiers…we would never get a chance like that anywhere else, in our own world, yes, but it wouldn’t be the same. Here, soldiers are respected, it’s nearly everyone’s dream, and they’re known everywhere. They protect people, and they contribute to the war’s resolution.”
Elli sighed happily and wistfully, “To be respected and become famous, to have so many people think of us, to protect people and help end the war…together…that would be so great.”
         “It would be,” Corey said thoughtfully and gave Saienta a meaningful look mixed with gratitude. “And that is our goal from this day forward. In both worlds we work towards significance, to exist and realise our greatest potential.”
Huh, Saienta thought, now he knew how much they had improved since that first Wednesday. So this was why they were here, together. They had improved more in one conversation than they had in a week.
Knowing this, they seemed possibly more optimistic as they continued talking about their hopes for the future and living the dream of becoming an independent group. There was a visible change in them and it was thanks to themselves that they had realised what they were doing. Saienta could have sworn he felt a slight increase in their training performance too, but it could have also been his imagination.

*

Mizu stood apart from them, giving them a cold look and Jordyn stood next to him smiling, just happy to be there.
         “Are we starting now?” Jordyn asked Ame as they stood on her porch looking over the village.
Ame smiled with her hands behind her back and shrugged. “Just maybe. You’ll have to wait until Grey comes back. He learnt it all last year,” she explained to the six of them who weren’t sure why they would be waiting for Grey. “There are a lot of things you’ll have to learn in lion dancing and every one knows this. If you miss something, someone will notice and I can assure you they won’t be pleased.”
         “Huh, they’ll screw it up. Why don’t we get someone else to do it instead of them?” Mizu hissed, finally snapping with all his frustration that they had been chosen.
Ame’s smile faded. “Mizu? Are you refuting the decision that majority of your village leaders have come upon?”
Mizu’s face immediately drained of colour and he almost hung his head. In a lowered voice he said, “No…”
Ame smiled happily, brightening and sending out waves of serenity. “It’s all as it should be then! Now…where is Grey? It’s not like him to be late for anything…especially your first lion dance training, since you’re all new at this, even you Mizu, so I hope you pay attention too.”
         “Of course,” he said and bowed slightly.
         “What is the countdown so far, Ame?” Jordyn asked her mischievously and Ame’s eyes lit up.
         “We’re still on one, Jordyn, I think it will be a long wait until he musters up the courage for number two.”
Saienta had no idea what they were talking about and neither did the others but no one asked.
Jordyn laughed. “You’d think for a lieutenant he’d have some courage but when women come into the picture…” he sighed loudly as though this was a terrible thing to him.
         “How is Shia?” Annaleace asked him.
Jordyn grinned. “Same as ever. My mother sends her regards and she wants you to visit again. She still chastises me for scaring you two about the purse too,” he said and rolled his eyes. “You would think she was over it.”

Saienta and the others were on the field, lined up formally in front of Grey, and they saluted him. Mizu had changed personalities completely once Grey arrived- he was serious as a soldier should be and treated them as he would treat another soldier instead of on a personal level. Jordyn was the same, but smiled every now and again, his real personality showing through. Mizu seemed as though he had to make a great effort to hold back on his hate towards them while Grey, who he highly respected, was around. Saienta also remembered that Grey was the one who had called Mizu an arrogant and hot-headed child that first night. No wonder Mizu had looked wounded once Grey had said that.
         “This is to be your first lion dance training,” Grey stated.
Saienta was sure he heard slight laughter and a cough from Jordyn who was standing up straight next to him, but stopped immediately at the look Grey shot him. Grey had pointed out the obvious and Jordyn couldn’t contain himself.
         “The first objective is for you to choose a partner that you will work with from now until the night. Each lion fits two people. Choose someone you will cooperate with and can carry your weight. Go,” Grey commanded and waited for them with his hands behind his back.
They each looked at the rest of the group. Mizu looked at the six of them and scowled. “Jordyn,” he said, “you’re with me.”
Jordyn nodded slowly, turned away from Mizu and blanched at Corey about it as though the thought disgusted him, and then grinned. Jordyn understood, there was no way Mizu would want to work with either of them, and vice versa.
         “Corey,” Saienta said to him and Corey nodded.
Elli looked at Annaleace, her eyes drifted over Sirian for a second and then Ryan. “I think you and me should pair up,” she told Ryan. “I don’t think they could carry me.” Elli would also have known that Annaleace and Sirian were good friends and wouldn’t have wanted to split them up, not that she would have admitted it.
Sirian and Annaleace looked at each other and then grinned, shrugging. “I guess I’m stuck with you,” Annaleace joked and pretended to be sickened.
         “A shame,” Sirian agreed, laughing.
They lined up again in formation and Grey nodded.
         “We have decided,” Mizu said.
         “Good. Now each of you must pick a lion that you will be linked to for the rest of the summer until the festival.” Grey stood aside and with his hand showed them the four lions on the ground behind him.
They had been glad to discover what lion dancing was. The lions were the same as the ones in his own world- each different coloured, though they were made up of a number of colours each, each lion had two main colours. Red and black, blue and white, gold and black, and maroon and silver. Each lion was made up of the head where one person underneath could control it, that was decorated in many coloured materials, tassels and tassel-like fringing around the entire head and body, and many small mirror fragments, a mouth that flapped open and closed, and big red eyes with a small mirror as the pupil and a red tongue that poked out from the mouth slightly; the body was made of a two metre sheet of decorated material where the second person hid under.
         “They’re kinda scary looking, eh?” Elli asked Corey with one hand on her hip, and the other curled up under her chin thoughtfully as they looked down on the four lions.
Corey nodded.
         “They’re supposed to be-“ Mizu began irritably and Jordyn cut him off with a cheery voice.
“The lions help guard the dragon, and the dragon help protect the village!” Jordyn laughed and nodded. “Yep. Which reminds me,” he said and turned to Grey. “Who is heading the dragon this year?”
Grey looked up at him and grinned. “I am, with Lieutenant Sentreya. She and I are still awed by the decision. It’s an honour.”
         “Congratulations!” Jordyn declared. “I’m not surprised they chose you, though, you deserve it.”
         “Thank you, Jordyn,” Grey replied, still smiling.
         “Well, we choose this one,” Sirian said, standing in front of the maroon and silver lion with Annaleace.
         “We’re taking this one,” Mizu said, standing in front of the gold and black one, but obviously Jordyn hadn’t agreed since he was standing in front of the blue and white one with open fascination a moment ago. Jordyn rolled his eyes when Mizu wasn’t looking.
         “I like this one,” Elli said, and Ryan agreed with her, gazing down at the red and black one, leaving Saienta and Corey with the blue and white one, but they had no objections.

“You won’t be using them yet,” Grey began when they were lined up in formation in front of him again. “First you will learn every custom and the history of the lions and dragons and what each movement symbolises. Grey leaned down and picked up a head of lettuce. “Tell me what this is.”
Elli put up her hand and waved it around.
         “Yes, Elli,” he said. “You don’t need to put up your hand.”
She put it down and held it as though he had hurt her hand’s feelings. “I know. It’s lettuce.” She grinned mischievously.
Grey smiled in humour. “Yes, Elli, it is lettuce. But what does it symbolise.”
Mizu looked as though he would kill someone for the answer as he thought hard. Saienta realised again how competitive he was as a soldier.
Jordyn glanced at Mizu, waited a moment, and then turned back to Grey suppressing a grin. “It’s food. For the lions. They eat it after they’re awakened.”
Mizu looked severely disappointed as Grey nodded. “That is correct.” He put the lettuce down and picked up two golden cymbals with red cloth handles. “Then what is this?” With his other hand he showed them a string covered in red fire crackers. “And this?”
Elli put up her hand and waved it around again even though he had told her it was unnecessary. “It’s an alarm clock for the lions!”
Grey looked at her in puzzlement. “An alarm…clock?” Obviously he had never heard of one.
         “To wake up the lions?” she prompted and he nodded.
“Exactly.”

Mizu looked as though he was ready to tear her throat open for getting the answer before he did, especially because she was a despised outsider, and Elli beamed at him, gloating. Jordyn laughed and then looked around hoping no one noticed.
         “Sirian,” Grey said. “Why should the lions be awakened?”
She thought for a moment and looked a little unsure. It was a strange question and it was hard to tell whether or not the answer was obvious.
Mizu put up his hand and waved it around because he knew the answer. This was beginning to remind them all of school.
         “Because…they’re asleep?” she asked, raising an eyebrow unsurely.
Grey laughed. “Exactly. They’re asleep during the year until they’re awakened at the festival. After they awaken, they eat. It is very simple. The dragon, however, is woken by the lions. The lions, which you eight will control, are guardian to the dragon which will be commandeered by most of us soldiers. The body fits in one hundred soldiers at the most and as you two know,” he said, putting down the firecrackers and cymbals, motioning at Jordyn and Mizu, “the dragon is so large and long that it winds through almost the entire village. It symbolises the guardian and strength of the village.”
         “Why do we eight symbolise the guardian of the dragon this year?” Mizu asked looking at the obvious six, his eyes stopping on Saienta momentarily before darting back to Grey. Saienta stared ahead at Grey.
         “Shouldn’t all the soldiers be…higher in ranking, or at least…highly respected? Last year we had an independent group and the year before that we had Paladin,” Mizu went on to say. From what Saienta knew, you couldn’t get any better than the independent group Paladin, the General, or the Lieutenants.
Grey nodded. “Usually, but the lions are very respected. You hold a very honourable position, awakening the dragon, and even I am not sure why you have been chosen– it is all up to the village leaders to decide. It differs from year to year. It doesn’t matter what ranking you are in truth, you are not the symbol, the lion is.”
         “What do we wear beneath the lion?” Annaleace asked, looking behind Grey at the lions.
         “What you are wearing now,” Grey answered.
Usually in their own world, lion dancers wore silky coloured pants to match the lion.
         “Another question. Corey,” Grey called and Corey snapped to attention and looked reluctant. “Where do the lions and dragon sleep?”
Corey blinked once and looked down at the ground as though searching for the answer there. It wasn’t exactly an easy question and he probably wasn’t expected to answer it right.
         “Tch. In the ground beneath the village,” Mizu spat, answering it for him in frustration. Once he realised he had spoken out of turn, he seemed to look slightly worried for himself and watched for Grey’s reaction.
Grey shot him a look. “I didn’t ask you,” he said in a low voice and then turned back to Corey. “Although Mizu was right, tell me why the dragon would sleep beneath the village.”
Corey thought for a moment and breathed in. “Because…” he began slowly, “it protects the entire village and can be awakened in times of need- symbolically. I’m guessing the dragon also represents the soldiers of the south,” he explained further, “and their role in Sandra, that they can be called forth to protect and defend at any time. They’re also Sandra’s pride and strength, so it is used to introduce the New Year.”
A smile spread on Grey’s face; Corey had fit all the clues he had been given together. “You’re right, Corey. Good.”
Mizu was at boiling point.
Grey explained some more things about the lions and dragons and a brief version of the choreography they would have to do at the festival for the rest of today’s lesson and then told them to return in two days at the same time for another training session.

“It wasn’t what I expected,” Corey said as he, Elli and Saienta walked away together towards the house.
         “Me neither,” Elli agreed. “I thought it would be mind-numbing, and body-destroying like everything else we do around here.”
         “It’ll probably get harder,” Saienta said, lighting up a much-needed cigarette.
         “Are you gonna quit anytime soon?” she asked curiously. “It’s not good for your training. Or your lungs.”
         “No,” Saienta answered simply. “…Sin healed my lungs already.”
Elli raised an eyebrow in disbelief. “Really? That’s cheating! All smokers should face the consequences of their habit.”
Corey laughed and Saienta grinned.
         “Well anyway, I spread those rumours about the six of us at school. I even added in a few new ones- my favourite is that we’ve formed a hardcore rock band and we can’t stop bashing each other with our guitars. Isn’t that creative? It makes no sense whatsoever but they still believe it!”

“Okay, a job, for each of us, that should fulfil our basic daily needs in Sandra, right? We rarely need food but on the occasion that we do, we need the money for it and we don’t want to accumulate more debt from Moth, considering we already have to pay for our houses and Gossamer Leaf when we build it,” Elli was saying as the six of them sat around the low table on the third floor of their house. Saienta, Corey and Elli had begun to feel very comfortable in their new house, so much that it truly felt like home. It was a warm feeling and they could relax there as they pleased. They had finished with the furnishings and had almost everything they needed to live comfortably.
         “I have a job already…” Ryan said.
         “That’s true,” Annaleace nodded, “but we’ll all need one too, and we’ll work maybe once or twice a week for just a few hours. That should be enough. But where to start looking…how did you get yours again, Ryan?”
Ryan shrugged. “I sort of just came on it.”
         “I could ask Tiyan…” Annaleace said.
         “Good idea,” Sirian smiled. “Maybe you could work for him…”
Annaleace laughed and threw a cushion at her. “That would be too weird. Marrying him and working for him.”
It was strange that Annaleace was saying it out loud, though it might have been a slip of the tongue. Saienta and the others were still hearing about it but Annaleace herself didn’t talk about the marriage proposal and her thoughts much to them. And to find out that she did want to marry him after all was interesting, even if it was a slip of the tongue, it revealed much more than she believed. Saienta had a feeling, guessing from Tiyan’s personality that he wouldn’t kill himself if Annaleace said no, he loved her too much, yet she still wanted to marry him. She was young, that was for sure, not that it mattered in Sandra, but it would be strange and difficult for her to be married in one world, and be just a normal teenager with a family in the other, still in school. When were they supposed to marry? A thought came to Saienta…Ame had said that first day that they would have to marry in either a fortnight from that Wednesday, which meant that it was four days from now, or if she wished she could wait a year. Now that she wanted to marry him, or it seemed that way, what would she decide?

*

“Well, Tiyan said we just have to ask around for a job and see if anyone will hire us. And if we have experience, which we don’t, that will help,” Annaleace told them as the five of them without Ryan, who had gone to the medical centre, congregated in front of Ame’s house.
         “It’s like our own world then. Where should we start?” Sirian asked.
Corey put a hand in his pocket. “How about the fish market?”
Elli laughed as though he was only kidding, straightened up, gazed at him intensely and said, “Okay.”

“No luck there, no luck at the bank, no luck in any of the billion restaurants and no luck at the fish market,” Elli sighed in frustration as the five of them slumped down on the hill of grass. “I’m about ready to give up. But before I do, I swear I’ll give that guy from the fish market a good right hook, and show him exactly where I’ll shove his fish.”
Both her and Sirian had broken into a rough argument with the manager of the fish market after he had rudely rejected them all and said that no one would ever hire the five of them because they were untrustworthy. All the other places hadn’t reacted in quite the same manner but it seemed that the reason behind it all was exactly as the fish-store guy had said, they weren’t trusted as outsiders.
         “Now what?” Annaleace asked. “I suppose it isn’t that important but it would be nice to have a job and some spare change that we actually worked for.”
         “We should ask Ame or Moth,” Corey suggested, lying back on the grass.
         “Hey, that’s not a bad idea Mr. Akaino, I think we should,” Elli grinned and lay down on the grass where she was sitting too.
Saienta lit a cigarette and a familiar voice said, “You called?”
Saienta turned his head when he blew out smoke to see Moth and lovely Kuki walking up the hillside to sit with them. Lovely Kuki sat by Annaleace and linked arms with her happily.
Elli turned her head and gave Moth an amused and suspicious look. “You know too much, old man.”
Moth grinned cheerily and opened his olive-green coat to pull out a silver hairbrush, passing it to her. “You wanted one to go with your mirror?”
Her suspicious look deepened as she took the brush. “I did, Moth-man…another two silver coins?”
He nodded. “Yep.”

“We’re looking for jobs,” Annaleace explained.
         “But we only want to work once or twice a week for a few hours,” Sirian included.
Lovely Kuki burst into cheer and clapped her hands, letting go of Annaleace’s arm momentarily and then embraced Annaleace in a fierce hug. “You can work for me, dear girl!”
Moth laughed. “At ‘Lovely Kuki’s Kimono Store’, the most fashionable place this side of the south, all the girls want to work there! Ah…but I thought all the positions were filled?” he questioned, gazing at lovely Kuki sceptically.
Lovely Kuki beamed and held Annaleace around the shoulders again. “Ah no, if she wants to work just one or two hours a week, I’ll happily fire one of my girls.”
         “How long has she been working there?” Sirian asked.
         “Mm…three years?” lovely Kuki murmured.
Annaleace’s eyes widened. “Um…I don’t-”
         “Nonsense! I’ll happily fire all of my girls for you to work there all the time.” Lovely Kuki looked as though the excitement over Annaleace was going to make her do many terrible things.
Elli laughed at lovely Kuki’s words. “Maybe those girls that picked on you in the restaurant work there. This could be the ultimate revenge, Annaleace.”
As much as she tried to hide it, a slight smile formed on Annaleace’s face.
Moth winked at Annaleace. “I can assure you she does, the one who wasn’t a soldier, or a worker in the weaponry store…she was wearing one of lovely Kuki’s fashionable kimonos, this could be an opportunity,” he suggested evilly.
Lovely Kuki looked horrified and her lower lip trembled. “A girl in my kimono store said horrible things to my granddaughter-in-law?”
Moth nodded knowingly. “I know all about it.”
Lovely Kuki looked as though she had eaten something sour. “I’ll fire her right away and give the job to Annaleace!”
Sirian and Elli laughed. “Lucky for you, Annaleace,” Sirian smiled.
         “Careful though with talk of revenge,” Moth said, leaning into Elli, shielding his mouth as though it was a secret, yet all of them could hear him loud and clear, “she may not look it but lovely Kuki was one of the best soldiers of her time. It was a long…long time ago. She’s old, you see.”
Elli laughed and lovely Kuki narrowed her eyes at him, pouting.
         “And for the rest of you, come with me while we leave these two to work out the details,” Moth said, standing and motioning at lovely Kuki and Annaleace.

They stopped outside the fish market store, the same one they had been rejected from. “Er…I don’t know about this one, we already tried it,” Sirian said to Moth.
He shook his head. “I already got you a job here, I sorted it out as soon as you left.”
Elli raised an eyebrow. “How did you know we…? You’re a dodgy old man…”
         “All of us?” Corey asked.
Moth shook his head. “Just those two,” he explained, waving towards Elli and Sirian.
         “What! I don’t want to be a fishmonger with her,” Elli said without actual hostility and turned her back on Sirian, folding her arms across her chest.
         “Huh, and what makes you think I’d like to work with you?” Sirian asked.
         “And as a smelly fishmonger too? I’d rather, by a million and one, work in the kimono store with Annaleace,” Elli said, almost pouting.
         “A job is a job,” Sirian replied, rolling her eyes.
         “Says the girl who probably works in a beautiful lawyer’s office back home making a fortune for doing hardly anything,” Elli said bitterly, turning around.
         “Excuse me, Elli?” Sirian began.
         “Well, let’s go and leave these two at it,” Moth grinned, taking Saienta and Corey away.
Elli and Sirian were still bickering as they left, but without the usual derisiveness and air of hate that used to be around them.

They stopped outside a large stone building where many sounds of metal and hammering were going on inside. A symbol of an anvil and two swords crossed over was out front and Corey and Saienta looked at Wing-Moth inquiringly.
         “A job. Just one, for Corey,” Moth explained, tilting his head towards him.
“What is this place?” Corey asked, putting out a hand to touch the grey wall.
         “One of the blacksmiths,” he grinned. “It’s hard work, and you’ll be like an apprentice, but not quite. You aren’t expected to work here forever,” Moth said. “Just once or twice a week depending on what you decide.”
         “A blacksmith?” Corey asked, creasing his brow. “Where they make weapons and armour?”
Moth nodded fervently and the things in his coat jangled. “Yep! Now get to work, I have to take this one to his workplace.”

“How did you get us these jobs?” Saienta asked him as they both walked towards the village centre. Saienta had to wonder what kind of job he would be getting and if it would be anything like Corey’s. He was concerned that Corey was working even more, at a place like a blacksmith where the workload was strenuous to say the least.
         “Ahh…Moth knows many things and has much influence over people in Sandra.” He grinned mischievously. “I told you that I see things, know certain things, and it was easy to see what you were all looking for so I asked around beforehand, without mentioning any names and it seemed there were many jobs available. I just didn’t tell them who would be taking the jobs until after they told me there were positions. I set my own little trap!” he declared proudly. “And they fell for it!” he laughed jovially.
         “Where am I working?” Saienta asked with some slight concern. There was no way he would be working on the farms. Or would he be given a job as a cleaner? Or maybe a fruit picker…
         “Ah…well…we’re almost there,” the old man said as they moved aside for a load of Jiji fruit being pushed by them on the road.

Maybe Moth would give him a job as some kind of baker or chef.
They stopped outside a formal building with a symbol of a scroll out the front. “This is where you’ll be working, Saienta.”
Saienta examined the symbol with some curiosity. It could be anything.

“The registry office for births, deaths, marriages and Mythra!” Moth exclaimed and chuckled loudly.
Saienta raised an eyebrow disbelievingly.


Wednesday Morning, Annaleace was on a mission searching the halls of Ellet for Ryan. She made her way out to the quad and found him sitting beneath a tree. She went over and sat beside him as he looked over at her. “So I have to ask you for a favour, I sorta have to go to dinner with Tiyan’s parents and I really need you there.”
Ryan looked at her and smiled. “Lacy of course I’ll go. I love you, you’re my other half I’d do anything for you.”
Annaleace beamed and wrapped her arms around him. “ I love you, you’re my favourite brother.”
         “Of course I am, I’m the best.” Annaleace playfully punched him in the arm and they both laughed. “I didn’t say anything cause I thought you’d say no, but it’s tonight.”
         “I have to work later but I’ll stay as long as I can.”

*


Tiyan, Ryan and Annaleace walked through a field of grass away from Sandra. A house similar to Ame’s came into view, cattle and chickens wondering around in front. Annaleace brushed the hair out of her face with the hand that wasn’t held in Tiyan’s, as they walked into the house. A woman with a long dark blue kimono greeted them. She smiled the moment she saw Tiyan and wrapped her arms around him, then stood in front of Annaleace and embraced her too. “You must be the woman that my son could not resist. I’m Cala but you must call me mom, we’ll be family soon enough.” She looked at Ryan. “We have two guests for dinner tonight.”
         “Sorry mom, this is Ryan, Annaleaces’ brother.”
Cala walked over and smiled. “It's good to meet you, Ryan. Lets make our way to the table, your father and grandmother are there.”
They walked through the house to the dinning room, where a tall man wearing a dark green kimono sat. When they entered the room he stood and walked toward them. “Annaleace isn’t it?”
         “Yes.”
         “It is a pleasure to finally meet you, we’ve heard so much about you. I am Kasim. I hope my mother hasn’t caused too much embarrassment for you.” They all laughed except for lovely Kuki who looked dangerous. “And who is this?” He turned his eyes to Ryan.
         “Ryan. Lacy’s Brother.”
         “Oh, well welcome Ryan.” Kasim put his hand out into the open and Ryan shook it.

“Now lets eat! Everyone sit sit.”
Lovely Kuki guided them towards the table and took a seat between her son and Annaleace. On the table was a plate of what looked like grilled salmon, salad and some kind of vegetable. It smelled delicious, Annaleace’s mouth began to water as she filled her plate.
         “So, is your world very different from ours?” Kasim looked beside him at Ryan and Annaleace.
         “Very,” Annaleace took a bite out of the salmon then waited till her mouth wasn’t full to speak again. “At home it's more rushed, you always feel like you forgot something or there’s something you have to do. But here it's-”
         “-Peaceful.”
Annaleace looked at Ryan and smiled, he had taken the words out of her mouth.
         “I see. So you kids are enjoying yourselves here?”
         “Very much, the people are so kind and it's absolutely beautiful.” Annaleace took another bite of the fish before taking a spoonful of salad.
         “Not everyone,” Ryan muttered under his breath.
         “Oh, who’s that?” Ryan looked up and looked a little embarrassed, like he hadn’t meant for anyone to hear it.
         “Just some girls bothering Annaleace-” Annaleace frowned then stretched her leg out under the table in Ryan’s direction.
         “Ow,” Tiyan looked over at her and murmured so his family couldn't hear. “Why’d you kick me?”
         “Sorry-" And she meant it. "just…stretching my leg out.” Annaleace’s face turned red and Tiyan took the hint that it was meant for Ryan.
         “Dad, Ryan’s working at the Medical Centre under Ozulin,” Tiyan said.
Kasim broke into a little smiled. “How do you like that Ryan?”


         Annaleace and Tiyan sat on the deck of Tiyan's 'parents' house. “Was that as bad as you thought it was going to be?” Tiyan was smiling as he pulled her closer to him with the arm that was around her waist.
         “No, I didn’t think it was going to be bad…just- maybe a tiny disaster.” She buried her head in his shoulder as he laughed. “It’s just… we haven’t known each other that long and… I’m from a completely different world… I just thought maybe your parents wouldn’t be as… over joyed as lovely Kuki.”
Tiyan played with her hand that was in his. “My parents love you and Ryan. They really are truly happy with this.”

*


On Thursday, Annaleace sat in English class thinking about dinner with Tiyan’s family the night before. She was glad it had gone well and was actually looking forward to the wedding, something she didn’t think was possible at first. Annaleace looked over at Sirian who sat a couple rows away. She shook her head as she thought of how hard this must be for Sirian. Quitting the teams, not talking to Kenji, arguing with her parents, plus everything in the other world. Annaleace smiled as she produced her cell phone from her bag. She was sure Sirian had gotten her message when she looked up then over at her suddenly.
         'What are you doing after training tonight?' Annaleace mouthed
Sirian mouthed back. 'Sleeping, maybe studying. Why?'
         Why don’t you come over to my house and have dinner?
Sirian glanced at the teacher to see if Miss Silvalet was still distracted. 'I don’t know.'
         'Come over to my parents house. They've have been killing me to get to met you, please?'
Sirian nodded and mouthed, 'Okay.'
         'Yay.'


Annaleace leaned against Sirian’s locker waiting for her to get out of class. She had her blue shoulder bag at her side with her black pants in them. She let her hair down in order to cover the head phones that were in her ears. I wish you’d step out from that ledge my friend, Jumper by Third Eye Blind blasted from her head phones as she bobbed her head up and down to the music. Sirian came up the stairs and smiled when she saw Annaleace. “Hey.” Annaleace pulled her headphones out of her ears as Sirian got closer.
         “Hey. I don’t know why I took advanced chem,” Sirian said.
Annaleace laughed. “Because you’re an over-achiever.”
         “Used to be.“ Sirian laughed nervously as she took her bag out of her locker.
         “Ready?”
         “Ya, I think so.”
They began to make their way toward the roof.

“Oh. and Elli wanted to meet us at our house, something about the restaurant.”


         Sirian watched as the sun dipped lower in the sky. She couldn’t help but think how it wasn’t really the sun moving, but rather the earth rotating on it’s ever spinning axis. What made nature the way it was? Why was it that on this plane of existence there was no such thing as mythra? Or was it just that the mythra was so used up that it could no longer be focused into a “power” such as water-treading or running at an insanely fast pace...? Shaking the deeply philosophical questions from her mind, she lay her cheek on the palm of her hand and looked inward, dissecting her own psyche.
         How much longer would it be? How much more could she take? It felt as if Sirian’s insides were being ripped from her body. Her chat with Ame had helped, but nothing had been cured. Her mind was always elsewhere. Far enough out of reach that neither she, nor anyone she was close to, could quite seize it. Her heart was leaden with sorrow and other unfamiliar feelings. It was becoming increasingly difficult to mask her depression from those around her. The ritual exercising that had once been fun and refreshing, was now an obsession, which she could not rid herself of. The reasoning behind it was that if she were stronger, the training would come easier to her. She began visiting Naomi more often, riding whenever she could. The grades and committees that had once consumed her time, no longer mattered. Childhood friends had been forsaken and family was ignored. But still, nothing had changed.
         She was the same person inside... Wasn’t she? A little thing like attempting to save a parallel world was not enough to shake the foundation of her strong will.
         At least that was what Sirian kept telling herself. But none of the things she was doing was enough. Her transition was still incomplete. There was something more, something missing. So gathering her courage before school, she waited for her parents to convene in the kitchen.
         “Sirian.” Her mother said, surprised. “Usually you’re out of the house earlier than this.”
         “I decided to wait for you.” Sirian paused. “I need something from you.”
         “Anything sweetheart.” Her father smiled softly.
         “I need my inheritance early.”
         “Come again?”
         “My inheritance. I need it to buy a condo or maybe a little house nearer to school. I figured Annaleace and I could room together, maybe ask another girl too.”
         “Why, for goodness sake, would you want to do that?” Miya frowned. “Aren’t you happy here?”
         “It isn’t a question of happiness. It is a question of my need to fulfill my responsibilities.”
         “What responsibilities?” Yukio huffed. “You’ve forsaken everything you worked for throughout your school years when you decided to quit everything.”
         “I’m talking about the responsibility to my friends. I want to tell you. I really do. But I can’t. I ask that you trust me. Trust that I am still the same responsible girl you raised, who would never ask for something if it weren’t absolutely necessary.”
         “I won’t risk your future for a whim Sirian.” Yukio said firmly.
         ”But we’ll buy you a house nearer school.” Miya said. Yukio went to interrupt, but Miya silenced him with a look. “Something big enough for you and at least one friend, if her parents agree with the arrangement.”
         Yukio sighed and then went into logical attorney mode. “We will raise your weekly allowance to pay for things you need, but we will expect certain things from you as well. We will expect you to maintain your exceptional grades and not miss school, save for illness. After a month, if everything is satisfactory for all parties involved, we will make the situation permanent.”
         Sirian could not remember the last time she had felt this good. Her conversation with Ame had paid off and things seemed like they were finally going to go the right way. “Thank you Mom, Daddy.”
          She kissed them both on the cheek and left for school. The day was uneventful and Sirian found herself actually enjoying school for the first time in a long while. Though her mind frequently wandered, she tried her best to stay alert during classes. She checked with each of her teachers to see what was needed to bring her grades back up and found that she wasn’t as far behind as she had thought. Which in turn meant that she would be able to meet her father’s requirements for moving out. Now, she just had to bring it up to Annaleace and Elli.
         Elli? Do I really want to live with that girl? Sirian thought to herself. I’ll leave the choice to her. Maybe we’ll learn to get along with each other. It would be nice to have more than one person to talk to. After all, the two of aren‘t really all that different from each other.
         At the end of classes, she made her way to her locker to meet with Annaleace. They headed up to the roof, chatting idly about nothing in particular. They made their way through the Gate and back to their house. Elli was already there and waiting.
         “Hi girls.” She said cheerily. Boy she’s in a good mood.
         “Hey Elli.” They answered.
         “Hey, before we start talking business, I have something I want to ask you two.” Sirian said quickly.
         Elli narrowed her eyes in thought, but said nothing. Annaleace smiled and told Sirian to go ahead.
         “Now, I’m not saying this to act like some spoiled rich girl or anything, but I asked my parents this morning if I could move out. They agreed to buy me a house near Ellet. Nothing fancy or anything like that. Just something big enough for maybe two or three teenage girls. I was really hoping you two would be my roommates. I know it’s short notice, but it would make things a lot easier on us. At least I think it will. Plus it’ll help us learn to rely on each other. That can’t hurt, right?”
         “I think it’s a great idea. I just need to run it by my parents.” Annaleace said. “I’m just wondering about Ryan though. I’ve never lived away from him.”
         ”Separate bathrooms?” Elli asked.
         “I can try.”
         “I’ll think about it.” Elli answered.
         Better than I was thinking it would go. At least she didn’t just right cuss me out or deck me.
         “So about the restaurant-” Elli began.
         “Shouldn’t we wait for the others?” Lacy asked.
         “Oh yeah I guess so.”

~*~*~*~

         Sirian went home after training that day. She decided to not spend the night on the other side of the Gate. She invited Annaleace over, but she declined. So Sirian drove alone away from the school. It was a wonderful feeling. She had almost forgotten how much she loved the drive from Ellet to her home on the hill. She hit the button to roll the windows down and leaned back further in her seat. She took a deep breath and just drove.
         The drive wound up into the hilly gated community where all the “who’s who” made manors and mansions into their own private abodes, safe from the prying eyes of the outside world. Much like the six teenagers from Ellet did on a daily basis on the other side of the Gate. Sirian watched the inky-blue sky darken further and slowed to see the first stars twinkling brightly. A perfect night for wishing on stars. Sirian laughed to herself, thinking how corny it was and how much Keiji would have appreciated the beautiful night sky.
         As Sirian parked in the wrap-around driveway of the Tomi Mansion, she smiled and paused to look at her home. It truly was lovely. Gazing upon the structure she made a quiet vow to herself. I’ll never take it for granted ever again. Home and all the love it holds. Sirian stepped inside and was greeted cordially by her parents.
         ”Have a good day sweetheart?” Miya asked.
         ”The best in a long time.”
         ”So, I was thinking that tomorrow we’ll pick you and Annaleace from school after lunch to look at houses.” Yukio stated. “I’ll write you both a note and clear it with the Dean and Annaleace’s parents.”
         The Tomi family decided each out of doors, in the gardens, on this glorious autumn evening. They sat down to a delicious three course meal made in part by each of them. The main meal was comprised of miniaturized pastry turnovers filled to the brim with shredded carrots, cabbage, broccoli, and spinach made by Sirian and Yukio seared boneless chicken breasts. All was drizzled with a light three-cheese sauce. A fruit salad made by Miya came as dessert- honeyed hazelnuts, walnuts and cashews, peaches, three types of melons, grapes and berries topped off with light whipped cream. The evening fare was mouth-watering and all three of the Tomi family found that they ate far much more than the should have or even normally would have.
         Sirian bade her parents goodnight after the dinner dishes had all been cleaned and made her way up to her room to begin on the extra credit projects. She changed into a pair of comfy shorts and an oversized shirt, then focused entirely on schoolwork for the next four hours.
         A few minutes shy of midnight, Sirian yawned and stretched, fully intentioned on going to sleep when she noticed the box beside her bed. It was the package that Rennie had given her. Sirian had completely forgotten about it. She picked it up. The box was very light and she found herself wondering what could possibly be inside. It had to be something symbolic. Renna was like that. She had never given anyone something with no meaning. Even when the meaning was as clear as crystal, there was always something hidden deep inside waiting for realization to hit. Gathering every ounce of courage and composure, Sirian untied the simple bow and opened it. Another box lay inside, this one was cherry wood and trimmed in white velvet. A jewelry box? Sirian balanced it in her hand and flipped open the tiny lock. She gasped as she looked inside the wooden case. A stunning platinum and diamond locket gleamed in the pale early morning moonlight. She unhinged the necklace to see two pictures inside. One of herself and one of Ren. Sirian unclasped it and put it on. Touching the surface softly, she brushed away a single tear. Turning her attention to letter that had come with the locket, Sirian braced herself for it’s contents.


         My Darling Sister,

         It amazes me to think of how much as happened since school began. I cannot begin to think of what you have been through. My experiences through out this entire ordeal have taught me so much about life and human nature. There are people out in the world who care more bout their fellow many rather than money and power. I always thought that you and I were the only ones with hearts not made of stone (and credit cards). It lifts my soul to know this.
         Have you opened your present? If not, go for it. Pause for effect.... Just kidding. How do you like it? Did you check behind the pictures? Behind your photo, my name is engraved and your name is engraved behind my photo. On the back of the locket, our poem is etched around the edges. I know that I could never replace Aida Lee, and I would never want to. I just need for you to know that I love you. Please don’t worry about me, I put in a special order for guardian angels for the both of us. Turns out that we already had angels. Aidee sent them to take care of us over a decade ago...
         Smile Sirian, you deserve a little happiness. It has been far too long since you have genuinely smiled. Remember that every time you look at the night sky to check for our star. If you can’t find it, just watch for the one that winks at you. Chances are that Aidee is watching over us both. Hold onto life with both hands and never let go. We’ll meet again. I promise, but for now my sweet sister, just smile.
         Love Always,
         Ren



         By the end of the letter, tears were flowing freely. Sirian could not close the floodgates that had opened. The oddity of the situation was that she was not sad. She was overwhelmed by Renna’s love, generosity and caring heart, awed by her altruistic view of life and grateful for her sense of humor.
         Sirian stepped out to her balcony and looked at the sky. She had barely began to take in the stars when the brightest star winked at her.
         Siri laughed and smiled, ”I love you too.”

It was a cold Monday afternoon. Grey clouds passed over Corey like enormous waves, and he shivered from the wind, tolerating the chill until he was back indoors. He was up on the roof of his house after another short day at school, finishing the installation for the pool project he unintentionally neglected, because his life was demanding. Before that day when the six of them passed through the Gate, Corey had a fair bit of free time. Back then, his dad was rarely home and practically lived in the Akaino building. Corey’s lifestyle was to go to school, come home to an empty house, maybe spend time fixing things or doing projects his dad set for him, and working on Mondays and Fridays; a job he no longer had, because he never went again after that day.
The six of them had a new-found dream which Saienta helped the six of them to realise themselves. But his dream to be a good soldier felt torn between a personal desire. If he had to choose one over the other, he knew which he’d choose. Some things here were more important than Sandra. That’s just what it came down to…
Corey stepped back to bathe in the delight of finishing the installation, and he filled his lungs full of sweet air, stretching. He leaned over, checking all the wires were connected properly. He smiled a sheepish smile at the burn mark, half concealed by the solar panels. Saienta had been there, the last time he had been up on the roof working on this project. It was dangerous and stupid of him to have left the power on while connecting the wires, but the electric volts weren’t strong enough to kill anyone and he knew it, but obviously enough to start a fire.
Corey stood up, taking in the view of the fields and the small forest that was his backyard, and put a hand inside the pocket of his jeans. He blinked, coming out of a daze he had fallen into, and climbed down the ladder.
He walked between the garden bed and the outside wall of the house, and stopped in front of the small flat touch-screen he and Leon made. It was put up beside the open doors into the pool room. Faintly, he could hear four symmetrical thunks sounding from inside from the water features stationed around the room. He turned the flat-screen on and went into ‘settings’ just when he heard his name being called from somewhere indoors, and he called back to his dad that he was outside. In settings, he set the heating to 27 C, and told it to heat the pool three days from now when he knew he had half the day off school and could watch over the process. With his hand, he closed the protective lid to the touch-screen, and then he expectantly stared inside through the glass door.
Hiroka poked his head, wearing a kimono. “Is it finished?”
Corey looked at his dad and nodded once as Hiroka walked over and examined the touch-screen with interest. He straightened up, turned to Corey and ruffled his hair. “Good work.”
Corey smiled. “I won’t know if it’s finished until Thursday though. I might need to make chances if the formula is wrong.”
Hiroka put his hands behind his back and stared down at Corey, and Corey could tell whatever he was about to say was serious. “Actually, there’s something I want to ask you. Tomorrow, could you stay home?”
Corey nodded slowly, ignoring that nagging voice in his head. He had training, but he would miss it. “Why?”
His dad eyes held his gaze. “I just want to spend the day with you. You can take a day off school, can’t you? And also, to visit your mother. Tomorrow is the day she died.”
Corey felt his insides disappear. He had never heard his dad speak so openly about his mother, and it brought forth fresh waves of sadness. When he was young, his dad used to taken him to go see her grave once or twice before, but as he grew older he stopped. It was that long ago that the memories of visiting her were vague. Corey felt a hand brush over his head and he snapped from his reverie and he was back in his backyard in the cold with his dad, the wind still going on strong. He nodded again, slowly.

That late afternoon, the air was warm in Sandra. It was also his first day at work as a blacksmith, and he had no idea what it would be like working as one. When Wing-Moth left him last Saturday, he had briefly met with his new boss, Sythe, and was told to simply return on Monday.
He stood outside the big stone doors with his hands inside the pockets of his soldier pants. Corey looked up and took in the height of the stone walls, listening to the faint tinkering of hammers and workers shouting demands from inside. He raised his arms, and with one arm on each door, he slowly pushed them open.
In neat little columns across the enormous yard were sheds with open doors, that were doorless, and windows, that were glassless. Smoke billowed freely from each of the chimneys. A display of finished swords from the stone doors, to the edge of the walls appeared to make this place appear that much more impressive and professional.
At that moment, his boss came out of a shed to his left, carrying a blazing red sword that looked temporarily like a hot poker. Sythe must’ve seen him from out of the corner of his eye, because he stopped in his step and turned to him. He had an unshaven face, and his short brown hair was uneven and choppy. The scars on face, arms and chest were features of his life, as they were visible proof of his great achievements and acknowledgments; or so Corey had heard. Sythe waved him over indifferently, and walked further on until he reached a barrel of water. He approached his boss, who was now cooling the blade, using the water in the barrel. Steam emitted from it, hissing madly like an angry snake. Sythe was plainly dirty, smelling of all sorts of smells, none of which he could distinguish, except for smoke from a fire. And like all the employees walking around busily, over their bare chests they wore black aprons with the symbol of an anvil and two swords crossed over. Corey had a shrewd thought that he would be as dirty and smelling soon enough.
After several seconds, Sythe broke eye contact, and grunted as he smirked.
Corey was shown around what his boss referred to as the ‘Blacksmith Square’. He was taken into every shed to be introduced to the Head of the shed. It was his first time being inside the sheds, and each one was almost to the brink of unbearable heat. Inside every shed, next to the furnaces, were large piles of coal ready for use. He was shown the tools that he might get to use in due time and the properties of them, including work environment hazards. Corey noticed there were a lot of chemicals, and never would have guessed that they were needed. It was the biggest of work hazards- mixing chemicals.
Sythe took a shovel from its hanging post and a folded apron. “Follow me.”
Corey walked outside with his boss and felt great relief in his lungs. He followed Sythe to the back of the Blacksmith Square, and he wondered what he would see there. When they approached the back, his mouth parted in awe. Along the back wall, there were several steps into an open room, revealing a display wall. Beautifully crafted pillars held up the roof, and as Sythe and Corey near the roofs vast shadow passed over them like an ominous cloud.
         “Where are you going?” Sythe’s distant voice asked. Corey looked around and saw that Sythe wasn’t walking beside him. He looked behind him, and saw him standing beside a pile of coal a mountain high. Corey had been so captivated by the display room that he hadn’t seen anything else, and that was saying something, considering Mount Coal in front of him. Feeling a little awkward for being inattentive, he went to stand next to his boss. “Now, you won’t be working in the sheds. Start from the bottom and work your way up.” Sythe scrutinised him again, and Corey caught the subtle message. He was a branch compared to the other trunk sized employees. He was given the shovel and apron Sythe had been carrying, and Corey accepted it. “I want you to fill the cart with coal and tip it into pile you saw inside those sheds.”
He was then advised to put on his apron and told what time he’d knock off work. Corey watched Sythe leave as he put it on, tying it at the back, and then looked at the shovel as he took it into his hands.
By the end of it, his arms and back were outraged at the toil they had been put under. They protested somewhere from the second cart-full. The stress training put on his body every morning and late afternoon made it sorer. He had the lowest position in the Blacksmith Square, and he was amazed by the amount of physical strength a blacksmith required.
Start from the bottom and work your way up. No wonder.
As he strolled through the village back home, he made a protein drink and took it with him up the flight of stairs, while ignoring Elli’s fleeting looks which burned with interest. He put the empty glass down beside his futon, rolled over and fell asleep.


It was another cold day as they strolled along on the pavement. The trees towering over their heads whispered to each other as they walked by, almost as if they knew where they were headed and their history.
Hiroka and Corey were dressed in their best suits to go and visit his mother’s grave. His dad reassured him that the weather would clear by the afternoon, because the weatherman had said so. They both bought flowers for his mom of their own choice. Corey would’ve liked to have given his mom a Viesen flower, but knew that he couldn’t. He became strangely aware of his heart rate, and felt it beating against his chest. He wasn’t sure what it was he was feeling. Perhaps it was nerves. His dad opened the gate for him into the cemetery, and Corey went in, Hiroka following behind. He heard the gate creak shut as they began to pass through long rows of headstones until they reached his mother’s.
It had been so long since he had seen her grave, and to see it again made him feel strangely heavier. But his pulse beating against him subsided until he couldn’t feel it. Hiroka leaned over and brushed off the orange and red leaves curtly off of her stone, as if mom had asked him kindly for it. Her headstone was cracked at the edges but it still looked almost new.
It reminded Corey that he had had a mother, even though he couldn’t remember her or how she looked. The memories were so dreamlike that it was hard to tell if they were dreams or actually memories. Nevertheless, her presence was not a dream; that, he knew for certain.
Neither of them spoke or moved as they stared down at his mom’s name etched onto the plaque. His dad’s hand rested on his shoulder suddenly, but Corey continued to be still, never tearing his eyes away. Sadness swelled his insides as he wondered what she might’ve been like.
Hiroka laughed softly to himself, and Corey looked up at him. “She was twenty-two when she died, now that I’m old, I always wonder what it would be like if I met that young woman now.” He grinned. “She’d probably think I’m a dirty old man.” He laughed again. It was evident in his tone that his love for his mother had never wavered once in her absence, and Corey smiled.
Change. It was time for change. And there was nothing but change, ever since walking through that Gate. Who knew that around that time, his dad would take time off work to spend it at home with him, whenever Corey could stay home too? Strange how from simply standing in front of his mother’s grave with his dad helped him realised this.
         “But it feels like she’s grown up with me,” Hiroka finished, smiling, and Corey could see wistfulness reflect in his eyes. Corey felt his eyes heat, and his vision blurred from the slow increase of moisture. The sun beamed through gaps in the clouds, some of the light spilling over the cemetery and over her grave. Hiroka leaned over, gently positioning the bunch of irises under her name.
         “You know, dad,” Corey began solemnly, “you’re probably the only person in the world who could make me cry.”
Hiroka laughed at him and ruffled his hair. “You’re lucky then, because I would never want you to cry.”
Corey placed the blood red roses down next to his father’s with a small smile on his face.

There was an entire day to fill, so they decided to eat out somewhere. They decided on a pizza and pasta restaurant. They sat at the window where on the other side of the glass people walked past busily. The waitress gave them each a menu and left, coming back with a bottle of water and glasses, filling them up to the top, and then disappeared again. Corey noted his dad looked a little pale as they sat there talking and sipping their water.
         “Your mother never liked to buy me the things I asked for,” Hiroka was saying, “especially on our anniversary.”
         “What did you ask for?” Corey asked.
Hiroka looked up at the ceiling reminiscently, and then back at him. “Well, there was that time I asked her for an ashtray-”
         “As an anniversary present?” Corey asked in amazement, hiding his laughter.
         “Yeah. And she said no! I then suggested one of those fancy Zippo lighters. I had the perfect one in mind too. I remember seeing it somewhere in the city, but she refused. How about a deck of cigarettes then? Can you believe she said no? I wasn’t asking for much.” Hiroka laughed, and Corey grinned, shaking his head. “Emera didn’t like me smoking.”
         “What did she end up buying for you?” he asked.
Hiroka hung his head in disappointment, as if reliving the moment. “Socks.” He lifted his head quickly, brightening. “I got her a packet of cigarettes!” Corey stared at him, stunned. “She said thanks and took it from me happily, as if it were a bunch of flowers, much to my surprise. I gave them to her only as a joke,” he explained, amused by Corey expression. “Her real present was a necklace. I gave it to her in hope of exchange for my cigarettes, but she wouldn’t give them back! She slaved me around for hours until she finally gave them back and said she couldn’t stand the desperation on my face.”
Corey laughed, and Hiroka smiled at him. They stared at each other for a moment when Hiroka looked up suddenly as the waitress approached them.

Hiroka threw their wrappers into somebody’s bin that was out on the nature strip. They had stopped to eat at a chilli hotdog stand, and then stopped again for ice creams after their chips, nachos and tacos, after having come out of the pizza and pasta restaurant, all in the time span of an hour. As they walked up the pavement right beside the park, holding their gurgling and unhealthy sounding stomachs, they seemed to be walking slower and slower. Corey looked up at his dad and saw he looked in bad condition. He wasn’t looking well, and Corey felt sick as well.
         “Want to sit down?” Corey asked his dad, pointing with a shaky finger at the wooden bench. His dad slowly turned towards it and nodded his head once. It felt they would never reach the bench, as they trailed over to it like snails.
Hiroka sat down and leaned back. “Urgh,” he groaned, “I think I ate too much.” A moment later he clutched his hand over his chest and his throat began to constrict. He threw himself over the bench so fast Corey didn’t catch it all and Hiroka vomited. Feeling even more sick, Corey groaned and could feel the convulsions starting. He leaned sidewards off the seat and threw up, unable to breathe. Even if he did, the air wouldn’t smell sweet.
Corey stood up quickly and rushed to the drinking tap, washing his mouth out of the disgusting taste and his dad did the same. His stomach felt immensely relieved, but he felt a little hungry.
         “Now I’m hungry again,” Hiroka said, stretching in the sun and looking more lively.
         “Let’s get sushi though. It’s lighter,” Corey said, standing next to his dad.
Hiroka smiled, delighted to hear he was hungry too. “Know any good sushi bars, Kori?” His dad steered Corey around and out of the park.
Corey shook his head. “We’re bound to find one.”

Hiroka shut the door behind them when they returned home, and they froze. There was a woman Corey had never seen before, dusting their lounge room. They blinked.
         “Oh, you’re home finally. Good,” a familiar voice called from the kitchen. Leon sat at the kitchen table, reading whatever was in the folder in front of him with a pen in hand. “I thought you were at school today, Corey.”
         “I took the day off,” Corey replied, and took off his shoes.
         “Oh,” Leon said, as Hiroka took off his as well and sat down at the table with Leon. Corey followed, and just as he sat down, Leon closed the folder with a sigh.
         “So, where did you two go?” Leon asked, smiling.
Hiroka ignored him and said just above a whisper, “Who’s that woman cleaning my house?”
Leon shot him a disbelieving look. “She’s your housekeeper. She’s been working here for almost as long as you’ve been living here.”
         “Oh, yeah,” Hiroka said, nodding. “Never seen her before though.”
Corey looked at their housekeeper. “Me neither.”
         “No, I’m not surprised. It’s the middle of the day. Neither of you are usually home on the days she comes to clean,” Leon said.
         “How come I haven’t seen her?” Corey asked, curious to know why when he used to be home a lot more than his dad.
         “She comes once a week when you’re at school.” Leon shook his head at them. “How else would this house stay clean? Your bathrooms would stink, not to mention you’d starve.”
Hiroka turned to Corey. “I thought you did the shopping.”
Corey blinked. “No…Well, sometimes, when we run out of noodles.”
Leon had a sour look on his face as he sniffed the air. “You both smell... What have you been doing?”
         “What’s this?” Hiroka said firmly, and Corey suppressed a smile at the change of subject. Leon looked at him but said nothing. His dad slowly tore his eyes away from the folder and turned to Corey. He grinned. “Hey, I still have Grave of the Fireflies, want to watch it in a moment?”
         “Okay,” Corey shrugged.
         “Good. First shower, then change.”

When Leon had left, and both his dad and Corey were clean and wearing kimono’s, they lounged about in Hiroka’s bedroom on the third floor. His room was large, spacious and neat, like Corey’s, except his room was bigger. The bed was king size, and across from it was a large T.V built into the wall. First, they fluffed up the pillows and leaned back on them, eating chocolate and Japanese ice cream dumplings Saienta had once made for dessert. Then they played Time Crisis 2 against the computer bots. His dad was really good at it, doing better than Corey, and got frustrated when the computer bots cheated death. They stopped playing as they both grew tired. His dad threw and arm over Corey’s shoulders and in their tiredness, they fell asleep on the bed, content.


Leon stormed into the indoor pool room on Thursday. “Did I miss it?”
Corey and Hiroka, who stood at the edge of the pool, turned around and Corey shook his head. “Eight minutes to go.”
Leon went outside to check out the system made for the pool heaters. Corey and his dad stayed put.
         “Hope it works,” Corey said, thinking how much time he put into the entire project.
         “It will,” Hiroka reassured.
He counted the jets with a finger. There were six jets and cursed to himself.
         “I didn’t consider if you need a certain amount of jets to get the heating right. If there’s too little, it might take longer to heat, or it won’t be warm enough. If there are too many, the pool might become a hot spring.”
Hiroka itched the back of his head. “What’s the average amount of jets people usual have in their pool?”
         “Four,” Corey guessed. “They’d also have smaller pools than this.”
Hiroka smiled. “You think too much, Corey. It’ll be fine. Bigger pools would have more jets than smaller ones. Stop worrying,” Hiroka said and ruffled his hair.
Leon came inside and stood with them, grinning from ear to ear and rubbing his hands together. “So, who’s going swimming?”
Corey didn’t feel much like swimming, and none of them were dressed for it. He was saved from that question as the jets began to blow out lots of air bubbles, causing water to shoot up out of the pool and onto the tiles. Leon got out his watch, obviously timing it.
When three minutes was up Leon crouched over the edge and put a finger in. “Ooh, nice and warm. Almost like a bath.”
         “I say we all jump in,” Hiroka said enthusiastically, looking at Leon and then at Corey. A sly grin played on his lips as Corey and Leon looked at him in objection.
         “Corey,” Hiroka drawled playfully. Corey turned to make a run for the exit, but his dad’s arms held him back, and he was picked up and thrown in the pool. The warm water embraced him as he sank. Thankfully it wasn’t as cold as the river he fell into every day at training. As he swam to the surface, Corey began to devise what he could do to his dad as payback. He broke through the surface and wiped away the water from his face. But he was already in the pool. Leon was doubled over, laughing at them.
         “Let’s get him, Corey,” Hiroka called, as he swam to the edge, but didn’t make it in time. Leon was already out of the room.
         “Good work, Corey,” Leon yelled from beyond the arched doorway.
Hiroka stopped and shouted, “You’re fired!”


Corey breathed in deeply that afternoon, smelling the sweet air that only summer could bring. His sleep deprived eyes scanned the sky. Several birds flew overhead, and he watched them almost enviously. They were carefree creatures, doing as they pleased. He suppressed a yawn and forced himself to pay his full attention to Grey, as Mizu, Jordyn and the six of them stood in line with the partner they had chosen last time.
Their paired teams were colour based, using the Lion’s colour to represent them. Mizu and Jordyn were the black and gold team. Sirian and Annaleace were the maroon and silver team. Elli and Ryan were the red and black team, and Corey and Saienta were the blue and white team.
         “As part of the Lion dance, you’re required strength and balance for this. That is, standing on either one of your partner’s shoulders, so decide now which of you will.”
         “I’ll be the head,” Mizu said in a final way, without the slightest consideration for Jordyn, who looked as though he wanted the part too. But he didn’t argue, only turned away and rolled his eyes drawlingly. Mizu was clearly sucking the fun out of Jordyn. Ryan noticed and grinned, reading his expression clearer than a billboard. Corey put a hand in his pocket and wondered what Mizu meant by ‘head’. He looked at Saienta, and Saienta looked back. Grey stood with his hands behind his back, watching them patiently.
         “It’d probably be easier if I carry you,” Saienta said. Corey nodded once, suiting him fine either way.
         “I don’t care. You do it, it’ll be easier,” Ryan said to Elli, who then accused him of being sexist. He shrugged uncaringly at her, then suggested that he stand on her shoulders. She eyed him beadily, getting his point, and they agreed she’d take the part. Annaleace and Sirian took a little longer than the others, but they finally decided on Sirian.
         “Good,” Grey said when there was silence. “Those who took the part will be the Lions head. The rest of you are the Lion’s body. Now, stand opposite your partner, facing away from them.”
They all spread out to give each pair space, and did exactly as Grey had told them. Mizu waved annoyingly at Ryan and Elli and told them to get out of their space.
         “I want all the ‘tails’ to hold out their palms, make sure you lace your fingers tightly together, ready to boost your partner up. Your partner will then step up here-” Grey patted his chest. “and up onto your shoulders.”
         “Wait. Backwards?” Elli said incredulously, pointing behind her.
         “Yes, Elli,” Grey replied.
Sirian looked unsure. “Wouldn’t it be easier to stand facing our partner and do this?” she asked, and Corey wondered the same thing. Mizu snorted as he tried to suppress a laugh, and quietened the instant Grey’s eyes pierced his.
         “I wondered the same thing,” Jordyn said, looking genuinely amazed, and Corey was glad to hear they weren’t the only six in Sandra who knew nothing about Lion dancing. Lion dancing was something both their worlds had in common, he knew, but he never really looked into it as deeply as he had to now.
Grey turned to Sirian. “Yes, it would be easier. But as the head, you should always be facing the audience. You wouldn’t be able to control the head of the Lion if you were facing the back of the Lion’s head, in the dark.”
Elli raised her eyebrows. “Oh…”
         “Any other questions?” Grey asked, and he took their silence for a ‘no’. “Begin.”

Corey looked over his shoulder at Saienta, unsure how he would manage this. He saw out of the corner of his eyes that he had his hands out, ready. Saienta leaned down low and laced his hands palm up. Corey put one foot on it, backwards, and hesitated to jump the instant Saienta lifted his foot. Corey grinned apologetically at him. They tried again, and he managed to step up on Saienta’s chest with the foot that wasn’t being held, but unbalanced and fell onto his hands and knees. He sat up, wiping his stinging hands gingerly over his pants, and looked around to see how the others were coping. But compared to the black and gold team, who had got it right the first time, they were performing better than they were. Corey stood and watched Jordyn and Mizu a little longer, trying to pinpoint what they were lacking in. Saienta waited, watching the others. Corey compared the two with maroon and silver team. He watched the way Jordyn’s hands wrapped around Mizu’s foot firmly and how they had to lift and jump at the same time, and then turned to watch the girls. Annaleace’s hands shook with strain as she caught Sirian’s foot, and he remembered Grey saying they’d need strength and balance.
         “Good,” Grey said approvingly and Mizu beamed with all the arrogance that could match Cedric’s dad.
Elli looked up. “How long are we required to stand on their shoulders in the performance?” she asked.
         “As long as ten minutes, and you’ll be doing it numerous times. When you are able to do this, practice standing on their shoulders while they move around. Do not wait until the next lesson to practice. Practice it in your spare time.”
         “So when do we learn the dance?” Mizu asked rather smugly, as if he had mastered it. Jordyn sighed heavily.
         “When you have at least mastered this,” Grey replied, looking slightly irritated at Mizu’s tone of voice and expression. Mizu waited until Grey wasn’t looking and turned slowly to the six of them and scowled warningly. They all knew that look. Get it right or I’ll kill you.
         “Oh, I’m sorry Sirian!” Annaleace laughed, looking slightly pink in the cheeks. She glanced across the horse fields where Tiyan was. He stood, staring and smiling at Annaleace while he stroked Spirit’s nose. Corey found it unusual that Spirit took the attention whole-heartedly, when he was a horse as strong spirited as Smoke, except with a bigger temper.
Sirian followed her embarrassed gaze and saw Tiyan, then turning to Annaleace she said, “You don’t have any time to be looking away,” Sirian chided, and then smirked knowingly at her. Tiyan waved at Annaleace and she returned it, glowing. They were now married and happy and still getting to know more about each other.
The six of them seemed wary about having to step back onto their partner’s laced hands. Corey turned to Saienta, and Saienta prepared for another attempt. They were lacking strength for this, Corey thought, but with practice they would improve.

A Non-Existent User


Sunday Night
Saienta, Reeva, and the other high ranked Red Tide official he knew only as Noah sat on the couch in front of the five Soldiers of Wrath leaders. The private room of the casino was filled with cigarette smoke and tension was high.
         “No one will be in or out for the next few hours, so we’re free to have our privacy and discuss the details of our alliance and expansion,” one of the leaders said.
Reeva nodded, and smiled. “We’re glad you smoothed out the details beforehand, otherwise this might not go so well.” This was business.
The Red Tide official, Noah, was higher in ranking than Reeva and Saienta, and Saienta had no idea how far up he actually went but he was extremely intelligent and refined. Right now all three of them were playing the part of Red Tide leader and Saienta found this ironic considering he was one of the lowest and hadn’t even met one yet.
         “Red Tide has given you full use of this Casino since you worked hard to get it. The few deaths of our lower Red Tide unofficials ruffled a few feathers but as leaders we respectfully hand over all control of this area.”
Huh, Saienta thought.
         “You’re young for a leader,” one of the Wrath pointed out. So you noticed.
Saienta inclined his head, submitting to his words. His hair had been gelled back neatly and he wore an extremely expensive suit. He looked much older but still young, especially if he was supposed to be a leader.
         “I began early,” Saienta said, which was true. “It did not take me long to rise to the heights of Red Tide. My father was a leader and he taught me everything he knew,” he lied and smiled, though it should have been a smirk.
         “He’s young but there is no cause to be misled by his appearance, he is intelligent and ruthless just like his father,” Noah said, sadistic humour in his eyes as he turned to Saienta.
Saienta smiled as though he was grateful for this compliment, gazing at each of them with a cold expression. The five leaders sitting around the table in front of them began to look relaxed.
         “So the deal is this, we won your Casino fair and square, so you guys all retreat and leave our kids alone, that clear?” one of the leaders said.
Saienta wondered how any leader could willingly meet with their enemies, all together with the other leaders at that, and hope to have Red Tide listen to what they said. They were only here to kill them and hope to get rid of Soldiers of Wrath once and for all. There was no way any Red Tide leader would meet with them. They were not equal, not even close.
         “That sounds clear enough,” Noah smirked and nodded at Reeva, standing up. “It’s time for us to make our leave. Enjoy your stay, gentleman.”
The leaders stood up as they did and they began to shake hands. Saienta reached for one man, Reeva reached for the strongest looking and Noah reached for the one who seemed the most dangerous. They would have killed them all already but they spent time making small-talk to calm them, make them think they were superior, and to sum up their strengths.
The man’s hand was still gripped in Saienta’s as they shook and the leader started looking at him strangely when he did not let go. Noah laughed, still shaking the guy’s hand and said, “As Red Tide leaders, meeting our rivals has been a pleasure.”
At that, Reeva, Saienta and Noah gripped their hands, pulled them forward and killed them quickly. Saienta pulled his charge forward and twisted his head around, pulling out a knife in a flash with his other hand and stabbed him in the throat. Before the other two leaders could even move, Reeva and Noah, who had already killed their two moved on them. Saienta didn’t know how but Reeva, in one quick movement, pulled off the leader’s belt and began to strangle him with it from behind as Noah snapped the last leader’s neck.

Reeva wrapped the belt around the guy’s throat tighter, his fists turning white, until he finally let go, the body slumping to the ground. He nodded towards Saienta, and Saienta pulled the blade out of the Soldier of Wrath leader’s throat, standing up to wipe the blade. Inside his mind there was a maelstrom of thoughts about the person he had just killed but he remained composed, while both Reeva and Noah were standing nearby, having just killed three others without care, the way a Red Tide should be.
Noah examined his face and smirked at Reeva, then looked back at him. “Your first kill, how does it feel?”
Saienta was sure he had not made it obvious but then again, this was an official higher in ranking and they could read people better than the average person. He kept his gaze steady and his voice emotionless. Your first kill, how does it feel? “It is the same as any other mission for Red Tide.” Welcome to Red Tide.
Reeva only stared at him and then turned away towards the door to leave. The Red Tide official walked forward and looked down into Saienta’s face with an almost prideful expression. “You’re just like him when he was your age,” he said mysteriously. “I don’t wonder.”
Saienta didn’t ask who him was. He simply cleaned his fingerprints off the handle of his knife with a cloth and dropped it as they walked out of the private room casually into the bright hallway of the casino. Saienta’s consoling thought was that if he had not done it himself, another Red Tide would have anyway. All Red Tide were prepared for this and he had to be glad that he wasn’t with the crews that specialised in wiping out families of disgraced members. Noah greeted one of the security guards who obviously knew who he was. Red Tide had never and would never hand over control to another. Soldiers of Wrath had been stupid enough to believe they had it for even one fleeting moment.
All three of them looked like casual businessmen in their dark suits and Noah had a few games at the Blackjack table while Reeva and Saienta had a cigarette outside away from the casino. Reeva had not said a word since they left the room ten minutes ago.
         “Mekhi,” Saienta called.
Mekhi turned around, and looked relieved. “How was the meeting?” he asked, walking over. His leg was bandaged underneath his suit pants where he had shot himself. Both Reeva and Mekhi had only skimmed the inner thigh with the bullet, and not close to the bone, so now they were almost fully recovered.
         “Fine. The deal was made,” Saienta replied and looked up and down the street. “Where are Tate and Tye?” he demanded.
         “They’re around the casino.”
Reeva flicked his cigarette and walked away down the street without saying a word.
         “Hey Reeve, where are you going?” Mekhi called, giving Saienta a strange look.
“Home,” Reeva replied without turning.
Mekhi looked Saienta over carefully and knew better than to start asking questions. Reeva had been acting strange lately. Saienta knew he had met some Red Tide leaders recently and something that happened had affected him so that he hardly spoke to either of them. In spite of this, Saienta was still working towards meeting one but couldn’t until he rose higher in the echelon. How many people would he have to kill until he met one? The person he killed had been a gang member, like him, so he had less weighing on his conscience than one might think.

“Get Tate and Tye,” Saienta ordered.
Mekhi nodded and walked away.
         “What were you doing?” Saienta asked coldly when they both returned. They were supposed to be officials, on a mission, not fucking around playing games.
Tate and Tye looked sheepish. Saienta watched Tye’s eye movements carefully when he answered. “We were looking out for you three, in the casino…”
         “Don’t lie to me,” Saienta said.
         “It’s true,” Tate dared to say and Saienta held out his palm.
“Give me your hand,” he said and Tate cautiously reached out and his hand hovered over his. Saienta held it, and wrapped his fingers around Tate’s pinkie finger. He dislocated it, and being an official, Tate’s pride prevented him from crying out as his knees buckled under him, his mouth open in a silent scream. His arm went slack and Saienta let go. As leader they respected him the most, and were grateful that he had chosen to do this rather than have them fucked up for their mistake. A fuck up for every fuck-up, as it was known.
         “We’re sorry,” Tye said sincerely. “We were looking out for these guys that might have been Wrath, but we got sidetracked, and we figured that you and Reeva could handle anything without our help.”
Mekhi wasn’t saying anything and Saienta scanned all three of them with his eyes before helping Tate to his feet.
         “You’re officials now. Don’t fuck up,” Saienta said. “Don’t diverge from the plans given to you.”
Tate nodded and gave Saienta a weak grin. “Sorry, Sai. We knew we weren’t supposed to, but man…we won five grand.”
Saienta’s expression broke and he half-smiled. “How much did you spend?”
         “About…10.”
Saienta shook his head, humour in his eyes.
         “Fucking morons,” Mekhi said as Tate and Tye laughed, and slapped Tate on the back as Tate slipped his finger back into place with an audible cracking sound.

Tate and Mekhi were working on one wall while Saienta and Tye worked the other. Spraying graffiti all over the walls was no longer in their agenda but it was fun to do.
         “Tell me, why do we do this again?” Tate called to them. “It’s not exactly an official mission, is it.”
         “To show the world that Red Tide Rulz,” Mekhi laughed, shaking his spray can with a clacking sound.
         “Right,” Tate replied. “Coz’ we just a buncha thugs, ain’t that right?”
“Hell yeah dawg,” Tye looked over at Saienta, humour in his eyes. They had their faces covered and Saienta had Reeva’s red bandana around the lower half of his face.
Saienta always found this part of Red Tide humorous. He tried to imagine any real Red Tide bothering to graffiti and tag everything if it wasn’t done just to make them look like any other stupid lowly gang, to prevent further inquiry into the actual network of Red Tide. They might actually look strange if they were caught right now, since they were still in their business suits, but they decided to take the risk for old time’s sake.
Saienta sprayed over the Soldiers of Wrath tag that had already been sprayed there.
         “What’s Eventar?” Saienta asked Tye, stepping back to see progress they had made with the beautiful walls of Ellet College.
Tye shrugged. “No fucking clue, but it sounds good. I once saw a tag that said ‘Yellow Banana’. Looked good; damn good surprisingly.”
         “I beat that guy then. Look,” Mekhi said, showing them his great graffiti art of ‘Blue Sea’.
Tate started laughing and punched Mekhi with his good hand. “Fucking smart ass. Red Tide, Blue Sea, I get it.”
         “Anyone know what’s up with Reeva? Aside from not seeing him much since we found out he has better things to do than hang out with a gang of kids, that is,” Tye said.
They stayed silent for a moment. “Who knows,” Mekhi replied dismissively. “You should ask him, Sai. He would tell you.”
Saienta nodded, deciding he would.

*
It was Monday and Saienta had to go into work three times a week for three hours at a time- Saturday, Sunday, and Monday.
Saienta’s job in the Registry was boring, and that was the most he could say about it on his third day. He didn’t do much, other than copy data from one piece of paper to another and then file them away according to last names. As the name suggested, the building was a service to register each person in Sandra- births, deaths, and marriages. There was a record for everyone, including Saienta, Annaleace and the other four. There were minor details included for each person, including Mythra abilities if they were known, and occupations. There were a few files that Saienta could not access, stored away in a locked cabinet and searching other files every now and again, he realised he could not find Ame’s, the General’s or Grey’s and took a guess that they were in the restricted section. Saienta was positioned at the front desk, while his boss, an indifferent old man who didn’t really care what Saienta did, searched through files in the back rooms. People would come in every now and again to check files or change their details, and register their newborns.
As Saienta grew more and more bored, the door flung open and Mizu strode in with a look of deepest rage. The pregnant woman looked at Mizu strangely and stepped aside as he approached the desk. Saienta gazed calmly at him as he slammed his hands on the desk and glared at Saienta. “You should not be working here. Where is your superior? I have a complaint to make.”
Saienta turned around when his boss walked in and Mizu went on about how Saienta could not be trusted around so much information that could potentially be used against them ‘when he goes to the North and starts killing us all’. Saienta moved away into the back room as they had a discussion, Mizu livid and his boss completely calm. Saienta smirked when he saw the file cabinet N and took out a folder. He stood in the doorway open to the front desk and waved the folder at Mizu with a smirk on his face. He opened it, flicked through and began to scan the files, reading:
Nateru, Mizu.
Mythra: Elemental, Water

Saienta scanned Mizu’s younger sister’s file, mouthing her name, and stopped reading, looking up to see Mizu looking like he was going to jump over the desk and start destroying things, namely him. When his boss turned around, Saienta held the files behind the wall out of view, leaning against the doorway, and shrugged as though he couldn’t understand what was wrong with Mizu either.
         “I’m sorry, I’m going to have to ask you to leave. Unless you have proof that my new employee has any history of…betrayal and psychotic tendencies?” Saienta’s boss asked, with an eyebrow raised.
         “I don’t need evidence! This guy is not safe with our files. This is the last place he should be working. He shouldn’t even be in Sandra at all.”
Saienta walked away and put the files back, coming out to resume his job. He helped the woman out with her file and Mizu couldn’t do much more than stand there and glare at Saienta without rudely interrupting one of his seniors. Minutes later he left the office with an air of bitterness around him, promising he would be back. Saienta wasn’t going to stop him; Mizu was the highlight of his working day.

He finished work and set off through the village towards Ame’s house. He stopped and turned when he noticed a few girls in kimonos outside the storefront of Lovely Kuki’s Kimono Store, harassing someone openly. Annaleace.
Despite the cruel words they were throwing at her, Annaleace stood defiant, refusing to be broken down by half a dozen bitches that couldn’t stand the thought of her marrying Tiyan in only two days. Saienta wondered what Annaleace would do from here and he leaned against the wall across the dirt road to watch and listen.
“-were sure he had more sense than to even look at you twice. I swear, if you marry him, we will make sure something happens to you in a tragic accident. Life will be hell for you.”
Annaleace glared at her and looked like she might throw a punch. “Just try it. Thank you for telling me beforehand, in public, so that everyone knows how low you are.”
The very few people wandering by widened their eyes but kept walking away from the conflict, most had already retreated indoors since they had finished work.
         “You’re not even pretty,” one girl said, flicking Annaleace’s hair like it was disgusting, but in truth, Annaleace looked very pretty today, just having finished work wearing the store’s kimono, a symbol of a roll of thread and a kimono on it, and her hair was out, loose over her shoulders.
Saienta turned to see Nyu coming up the road, her expression one of concern. She glanced at Saienta strangely as if to ask why he wasn’t doing anything and then she broke into the circle roughly, showing a lot of courage as she pushed them away from Annaleace in anger. “Get away from her, all of you!” she demanded, even though it would be six on two.
Annaleace looked at Nyu in shock and then she looked grateful, but put her hand on Nyu’s shoulder as if to tell her this wasn’t necessary for her to get involved.
However, the six girls began to look slightly unnerved.
         “This is the most disgraceful thing Sandra has ever had to see, and to think you are supposed to be one of us,” Nyu said in a low biting voice.
Some of the girls began to redden, the ones who hadn’t said a word but were probably there for backup. Saienta shifted his weight onto the other foot.
         “You are insulting your families and the rest of us. Go home,” Nyu hissed, enraged.
The girls at the back departed quickly as if they were ashamed to be outside but the other ones tossed their hair, turning haughtily, and disappeared down the street.
         “Let us go inside,” Nyu said, calming down. Annaleace smiled at her and hugged her around the shoulders.
         “You didn’t need to do that, Nyu, but thank you. I wasn’t sure how it was going to end, maybe that was the scary part.”
Nyu smiled and took a deep breath. “Tiyan and lovely Kuki would hate me if I didn’t help you out. It’s a shame they always miss out, they would have loved to knock them unconscious and humiliate them for you. Those girls really are cowards when you mention the word shame. We value our pride as respectful people of Sandra, civilised, and if you threaten to take that away from them, they break. It only works sometimes, though.” Nyu smiled. “You’re safe for now.”
Both of them had shown courage and they walked into the kimono store together. Saienta walked away and towards the river for a cigarette.

*

All six of them met up for an hour of training near Ame’s house looking out towards the two much-hated red leafed trees. They were used to spending hours looking out into the distance now and it was nowhere near as bad as it was the first time. They came to enjoy the moments of peace they had doing nothing but gazing towards the beautiful mountains and it didn’t take them too long to be able to focus on the trees- although it wasn’t immediate as expected of them. They would speak every now and again but neither one of them minded the silence.
         “It wasn’t all in my head,” Elli was saying to Corey and Annaleace. “I thought I was going insane!”
Annaleace laughed and then said, “Isn’t it normal to sometimes imagine things that you wish were there? Except in this case you weren’t imagining it at all.”
Corey smiled and shrugged about it. Saienta flicked his cigarette away and lit another one.
         “I know…” Elli sighed. “And to think it was just my i-pod earphones beneath my pillow still playing music. I’m so glad I found it. I kept thinking I was imagining the music playing because I missed it so much.”
Sirian smiled in spite herself and made sure Elli didn’t notice.
Ryan looked like he was concentrating hard and didn’t take much part in the conversation.
Sirian stretched out her legs and took a deep breath. “How has work been, Lacey?”
Annaleace shrugged. “It’s good. Lovely Kuki keeps me entertained so it’s not really like work at all. You should see the kimonos they have, they’re amazing.”
         “Didn’t Moth say they were the best in the south?” Elli asked.
         “I wouldn’t be surprised,” Annaleace said. “There are cheaper cotton ones for everyday wear that are nice and then there expensive ones and even more expensive ones that lovely Kuki made herself. They’re the prized ones and some people come in to just look at them, even visitors from other parts of the south.”
Sirian and Elli both sighed at the same time and then glanced at each other. They looked away at the same moment hoping no one noticed.
         “If only the fish market was as nice. We don’t get people from other villages visiting us,” Elli said wistfully. “It smells and we work with a bunch of really old guys who used to be fishermen. We gut fish, we cut up squid, get smelly ink all over our hands, shell prawns, gut and scale some more fish and shove all the guts into a bin and move the bin from one place to another. Tis such a boring and tedious job,” Elli finished in a pompous English accent.
         “How is your job in the blacksmith, Corey?” Saienta asked him.
Corey winced. “Don’t ask. It’s the hardest job I’ve ever had.”
Elli and Annaleace looked sympathetic.
         “What’s harder, training or the job?” Sirian asked curiously.
Corey thought for a moment. “The same really, but in different ways. On the body, training is hard on everything but with the workshop there is constant strain on the arms and back. It’s hot and hard to breathe in the sheds too.”
Saienta shook his head, thinking about the complacent Corey he knew a month ago and the Corey he knew now who did too many things so he lived the day many times over.
         “How is the receptionist job?” Corey asked Saienta, and Saienta smiled at the allusion. He hadn’t thought himself as a receptionist before but that was probably what he was.
“Boring,” Saienta said, “I would rather have your job,” and he meant it honestly.
Corey didn’t seem sure about that.

Saienta spent the day at school the next day as he usually did before he was friends with Corey, on the roof. Corey had rung him the previous night and told him he’d be missing a day of school and training and to explain to anyone who asked that he was doing something important with his dad. He gave the real explanation to Saienta; that he was going to visit his mother’s grave with Hiroka, and also hang out with him for a while at his request. Saienta was glad for them; he knew that Corey never spent much time with his father and knew Corey would be looking forward to it, even if he didn’t give his own opinion about it...or anything personal for that matter. Whatever…Corey’s business was his own.

Saienta was smoking a cigarette, as usual, and was surprised when he heard footsteps behind him. He sat up and turned, again surprised, because the person turned out to be Annaleace. Neither of them spoke to each other much and he wondered what she wanted. She smiled and then asked if she could sit down.
He nodded and continued smoking his cigarette, watching the schoolyard below.
She took a breath of fresh air and looked towards the Gate, sitting down cross-legged. “I thought you might be up here. Corey isn’t here, is he?”
Saienta shook his head. “Not at school, and he’s not coming to training either.”
         “Well, I’ll be honest with you, I was actually hoping to talk to Corey but I won’t mind talking to you either, if you don’t mind, that is.” She half-smiled hopefully and bit her lip.
He nodded. “Talk. Don’t expect an answer.”
She shrugged and shook her head. “I don’t need one, I just want to ask someone who doesn’t know me well if I’m doing the right thing. About Tiyan, I mean. I need an objective opinion. I don’t want anyone to worry or look at me with Tiyan and think I’m having major doubts.”
They both looked towards the Gate, wondering if anyone could hear them through there but they knew that no sound escaped from either side.
Annaleace sighed. “I’m getting married…tomorrow. I’d never thought I would hear myself say that. Especially at seventeen.” She laughed softly. “It’s not that I don’t want to get married. That’s the best part, it’s just everything else about it, you know…
I have no idea how this marriage is going to affect my life but I know it will amount to something significant in both worlds. How will it be for my parents to never see me get married? I don’t know if anyone has wondered what it would be like to keep a secret like this from their own family. It will hurt and I’m not looking forward to it, yet I want to marry Tiyan. It’s what I want to do. There are so many things about it in either world that makes me worry. But I know that marrying him will make me really happy too.
I feel like a hundred different people living in one body. When I’m at home I’m the sister of the family, then I’m at school- just another student, sometimes doing stupid things, and playing rugby or football or whatever, then there is me at training in Ame’s world with you guys and I’m one of the six, you know? Working hard to achieve the impossible. And then there is the me with Tiyan where I feel sort of shy and like…like a normal girl in Sandra who’s supposed to marry and settle down. He makes me feel safe and when he’s there I feel like that I’m the real me.

It seems crazy, I’ve known the guy two weeks. Maybe I can’t say I love him just yet, but the thing is I know I will, and that means just about the same thing. Just because we’re getting married doesn’t mean we have to rush anything. I can still sort of…date him.”
         Saienta thought, and said, “I have a feeling that’s what he wants too. Take it slow. I doubt he’ll want you to be uncomfortable in your relationship.” He was thinking over the other things she was saying as they watched a game of rugby start on the oval in the distance.
Annaleace nodded. “I’ve been thinking about how our world is almost a reflection of their’s in some ways and I just feel like Tiyan is and always will be the one I was supposed to marry. I almost believe there is no one else in this world or theirs that would compare. Don’t worry, I don’t know how to explain it,” she said dismissively, twirling her hair idly, looking down onto the schoolyard.
         She said, as though it was an afterthought, “The hardest part is living two lives. One in Ame’s world where I’ll be happy, and married, and then I think that one day I may even have kids.” She laughed a little and turned serious again. “But then I think about my family here, and how I’m still just a baby, and how they’ll never even meet them, or ever meet Tiyan. That’s hard too. I get angry at my brothers for hassling me, and I don’t blame them, although I do yell at them for it. I know they just care and I’d probably do the same thing in their place. I’ve wanted to have a separate identity from theirs forever and now that I actually have that…” Annaleace paused. “This is the hardest decision I’ve ever had to make. What am I gonna do…?”
Saienta shook his head, drawing what he knew from his observations. “If Tiyan was sitting here, it would be the easiest decision you would make.”
Annaleace smiled at this. “I know that’s true. Tiyan makes everything okay again. Maybe it’s selfish to say, but I want to marry him.”
         “What’s stopping you?” Saienta asked seriously.
“Just…is it right?”
Saienta wasn’t sure how to answer this because it was a tricky situation. “Annaleace, there’s no wonder about why you’re confused. No one else would have to go through this because there usually aren’t two different worlds and two differing sets of morals. It’s right in one world and wrong in another. You need to think about which world you’re going to truly live in for the rest of your life as hard as it will be for you. Unlike us you’ve set yourself up in that world, as well as our own, and you can’t live in both. You know this, that’s why you’re torn. This world or his- that’s the real situation, as fucked up as it is.” Saienta had a feeling this was quite harsh to say but he wasn’t afraid of telling the truth.
Annaleace took it well and smiled grimly. “I knew you would be blunt. I took the risk.” She took a deep breath. “You’re right but… I wish it was easier.”

When the five of them, with Corey absent, finished training that afternoon, Ame invited them all to her house, and they seated themselves around the low table in the main room. They ate a light dinner of fried fish and rice, and were then joined by lovely Kuki, Tiyan and Wing-Moth. Annaleace beamed at the sight of Tiyan. He sat by her side and smiled at all of them.
Annaleace had announced hours before that she was going to marry Tiyan for sure. Saienta wasn’t sure how she had come upon her decision after all but was glad she had made one, a certain one at that and she didn’t seem to regret it one single bit as she sat by his side. It turned out that lovely Kuki was going mad with the arrangements of the wedding and she turned towards her grandson with watery eyes. Lovely Kuki’s lower lip quavered. “Will you both do me the honour of each wearing a kimono I’ve chosen?”
Tiyan started laughing and Annaleace smiled.
         “Where else would we get our kimonos from?” Tiyan asked and he smiled warmly. He laced his fingers together and then stretched out his arms, falling back on the tatami flooring to close his eyes with exhaustion from a long and hard day, and he still managed to be happier than his grandmother, but tried to hide it better than she did. Saienta guessed that the last thing Tiyan wanted to do was make Annaleace feel rushed or uncomfortable about it all. Annaleace laced her fingers through his and there was a flicker of a smile on his face.
Lovely Kuki looked ecstatic and clapped her hands in delight at the news they would wear her kimonos after all.
         “Crazy old Kuki,” Moth muttered. “You have all the best finery. If they didn’t want the best they wouldn’t go to you.”
Ame laughed and hugged her grandfather around the shoulders. “You’re just annoyed that you’ll have to wear one too and that smelly old coat will have to be put aside for a day.”
         “Meh!” Moth replied. “I’ll still be wearing old Wing-Moth coat and have Kuki’s kimono underneath where no one can see it.”
         “What was that, old man?” lovely Kuki asked, inclining her ear towards him.
         “Nothing,” he answered quickly. “I was just telling my granddaughter about how I was going to wear your kimono all day and show it to the world.”
         “That’s what I thought you said, old Moth.”
He leaned in to whisper to the others. “She would take it as the worst offence if I was to wear it under my coat. Never, never, never say bad things about lovely Kuki’s kimonos. You will suffer a terrible wrath if you do.”
Tiyan laughed and nodded, his eyes still closed, affirming this bit of truth.
About the wedding set for tomorrow, Ryan seemed okay with everything, Elli looked happy about it, and Sirian seemed truly happy for Annaleace too.
Saienta was mostly indifferent but was also glad something good was happening. He sipped at his green tea, half-observing what everyone was doing, and half-thinking over what he was supposed to be doing that night in Red Tide.
         “Oh! I forgot to tell you,” Ame said, turning to Annaleace. “There are many things I need to discuss with you about the traditions and things expected of you for tomorrow. Walk with me later and I’ll explain it all.”
Annaleace nodded.
         “Have you decided who you’ll invite?” Wing-Moth asked her.
         “All of you, of course. Just the five I come through the Gate with and every one else, like Nyu and Grey, are already on Tiyan’s list,” Annaleace said.
No one mentioned the lack of people on the bride’s side- her immediate family, parents, brothers, and friends from home; but they all felt it. Ryan punched her in the arm affectionately. “I make up for a hundred people, Lace.”
She laughed and punched him right back. “Sure you do, you’re my twin.”
He laughed, and Tiyan opened one eye. “Did you just hit my fiancée?” he asked, pretending to threaten him.
Annaleace laughed mischievously and slugged Tiyan in the shoulder. Since he was a trained soldier, he hardly seemed to feel it but expressed great pain. “I’m sorry I asked. I’m sorry for trying to protect my soon-to-be wife,” he said and was hit again by his grandmother seated next to him who had stopped drawing out kimono designs for one moment. This time it really did seem to hurt him and he winced. “Why am I getting attacked the day before my wedding?” he asked no one jokingly and a few of them laughed at him with no pity.

*

Wednesday – The Wedding

Elli screamed, long and loud. Corey and Saienta heard laughter and then she came running down the stairs.
They both looked up as she came into the main room where they were seated at the low table having breakfast.
         “It’s Annaleace’s wedding day!” she exclaimed and jumped around happily. Saienta didn’t understand why she was so happy – it wasn’t her wedding day.
She put her hand on her hip when they only smiled in reply and she gazed at them sternly. “I’m expecting more excitement. It’s her wedding day. She’s getting married and we’re invited. We’re going to a friend’s wedding. I wasn’t expecting to go to friends’ weddings for a long while.”
Corey nodded, although he seemed a little blank still. Yes, they were happy for Annaleace but the two of them weren’t the type to show it. They continued to eat. They were going to start getting ready for the wedding as soon as they finished. Elli sat down and began to eat with an air of joyful anticipation. “I can’t wait. The wedding is going to be held here in Sandra, a completely different world. I wonder what it will be like? Japanese style, right? We’re wearing kimonos after all.”
Lovely Kuki had given them all expensive kimonos, but nowhere near as expensive as Tiyan’s and definitely not close to the expense of Annaleace’s. Every kimono had the symbol of Sandra, the blue dragonfly, embroidered on it somewhere – usually on the tomoeri, the collar.
         “I wonder what she’ll look like. Beautiful, of course! Like the day of the Firefly Festival,” Elli mused, barely touching her rice and fried fish. “Do you remember how expensive that kimono would have been? I wonder what her bridal kimono will be like…And then we’re having a huge dinner feast tonight. I can’t wait.”
Corey perked up at the thought of a feast and Saienta half-grinned. How Corey loved food. It was a surprise he wasn’t obese or even slightly chubby.
Elli gave Corey a suspicious look. “So the mention of food gets you listening but the wedding doesn’t?”
Corey smiled, and furrowed his brow. “It’s not like that,” he said, “I was just wondering if Tiyan and Annaleace will be joining in at the dinner or they’ll be going somewhere…Is there going to be a honeymoon?”
Nice way to change the subject, Saienta thought, but it worked.
         “Apparently there is going to be a honeymoon type thing, but not just yet. They’re going somewhere on the weekend.”
         “Where will she live after today?” Corey asked.
         “With Tiyan, I think. She said something about living between houses though, she doesn’t want to leave her original house with the other two, or leave them in debt either.”
         “Where does Tiyan live?” Saienta asked her.
She shook her head. “No idea. He lives alone. I heard he’s rich so I’m guessing he has a house like Ame’s somewhere. Maybe near the horse fields.”

Saienta was in his room, changing into the dark royal blue kimono robe for the wedding. It was black-collared with the Sandra dragonfly symbol embroidered into the upper sleeve. He wore loose black pants underneath- the kimono reached almost to his ankles and he crossed the front left side over right. He was aware that to do it the other way around was only for corpses. He put on the white cotton socks and the blue cloth sandals. He fixed his hair and came out as soon as Corey came down the stairs in a black kimono with a blood red collar and stitching. Saienta checked his watch before taking it off and discovered it was 9am. They were still early but the three of them were supposed to be early- the other three were probably already up at Ame’s house. Tiyan would be with his parents at their home getting prepared and Annaleace would be getting help from Ame and lovely Kuki. The bridal kimono would not be easy to put on and traditionally the art of putting on a kimono was passed from mother to daughter, especially with the elaborate way the obi and everything else was done to specification. There were many undergarments and overgarments for a formal kimono.
         “Where is Elli?” Saienta asked.
Corey shrugged. “Still getting ready, I guess.”
Ten minutes passed and Saienta had a cigarette on the porch. Corey took a deep breath. It was a beautiful day outside since it was the beginning of summer. Sandra was a beautiful place with its valleys, mountains, lakes, rivers and forests and even more so on a clear day like today. The village was bustling with activity in the distance and there were farmers working on the fields with scythes and shovels.
         “Elli,” Saienta called up towards the second level.
         “Coming,” she replied distantly. “I need help with my obi,” she said as an afterthought.
Corey looked unsure. Neither of them knew how to tie a woman’s sash.
         “I’ll go and get Ame or someone…” Corey replied to her before walking away towards Ame’s house.
He came back fifteen minutes later and Ame disappeared upstairs after saying with a smile, “You both look good in kimonos.” Her strange but beautiful blue eyes glinted.
Ame looked nice as well with her dusty pink coloured kimono with white wave patterns- the obi was snowy white also. It reached to the floor and made whispering sounds as she walked. Her black hair was loose around her shoulders, reaching down to her mid-thighs.
         “You two go ahead to the house,” Ame called. “You don’t need to wait here.”
Corey shrugged and they both headed up the hill on the path towards her house, reaching it in five minutes.
Saienta just realised he had no idea where the wedding was going to be held.

They walked onto the porch of Ame’s house and passed the General who was observing his soldiers on the fields from the distance with far-sight. He looked no less mild in his kimono, Saienta observed, especially because it was black with dark olive-green stitching. He nodded at them both and Saienta and Corey bowed formally in return.
         “Go in,” he commanded and they complied immediately. Saienta suppressed a grin- the General was always stern, completely unchanging even for a formal event.

They slid the door open to the usually plain and empty main room and were greeted with an eclectic sight. There were rolls of colourful fabrics and pieces everywhere, reels of cotton, scissors, parts of discarded kimonos, hair pieces, measuring tapes, and not to mention Sirian, lovely Kuki, Nyu and another unfamiliar girl racing around amongst it all. Lovely Kuki threw out frantic commands left and right. Annaleace was on a small platform by herself in the centre of the room watching it all. She wore a thin white kimono that would have only been an undergarment. Her hair had only been brushed and she was probably nowhere near ready. She looked slightly anxious, made worse by the fact she wasn’t allowed off the platform until they were done with her.
         “Maybe we should wait out here,” Corey murmured as they stood in the doorway.
         “Maybe we should,” Saienta replied as he slid the door shut without stepping into the room, and none of the girls had even noticed they had been there.
         “I wouldn’t go in there,” Ryan said, coming into the room wearing a light grey kimono with a darker grey tomoeri and stitching. “It’s been that way all morning, since six.”
Corey and Saienta nodded. “We just saw,” Corey replied.
Ryan looked like he was in a good mood. His sister’s wedding didn’t seem to affect him in a bad way at all.
While the three guys waited, they played cards at the low table in the kitchen, soon joined by Grey who was taught how to play by Ryan.
Elli and Ame soon arrived and disappeared into the room with Annaleace and the other girls.
Annaleace entered the room in a rush and slid the door shut behind her, leaning on it and listening. She turned around to see the four guys watching her, halfway through a game of Hearts. “How did you escape?” Grey asked in puzzlement.
She took a deep breath. “They’re trying to decide which hairpiece I should wear. I think I’m going mad so I thought I’d escape for the next ten seconds until they realise I’m not there anymore.”
         “Wanna play?” Ryan asked.
She shook her head, her back to the door with her hands pressed to it as though she was guarding it. “If I get caught they might punish me.”
         “ANNALEACE!” the girls seemed to be calling at once and Annaleace winced.
“Too late,” she sighed; and in defeat, opened the door and slid it shut behind her to go back.

Annaleace was wearing a pure white cloak and hood, so it was impossible to see what she looked like at present with her face and kimono covered. They were all walking towards the mountains on the other side of the village following a pebbled track through a sparse forest. They had been walking for quite a while, all of them dressed for the wedding, and Saienta had to wonder where they were headed.
         “Where are we going?” Corey asked Ame who was walking beside them. Annaleace was walking with lovely Kuki up further ahead.
         “To the temple,” Ame replied and smiled. “It’s a beautiful place, and everyone in Sandra is married there. I will be married there one day when the time comes.”
Grey, who was beside her made a sniffing-laughing sound and she turned sharply to him. “What is humorous about that?”
         “Nothing,” he shook his head and turned towards the trees. “I was just thinking of something funny I heard once.”
Elli and Sirian were walking with Ryan up ahead. Elli and Sirian looked beautiful- Sirian’s kimono was pastel blue with light green stitching of embroidered wave patterns, and Elli wore a light kimono-dress that stopped above her knees, ivory-coloured with a very light purple swirling pattern. Elli had her hair out but Sirian’s was done up in an elaborate silver hairpiece.
Ame kept a constant flow of peace and joy around them all.
They came to a wall surrounding an intricate gate that was left wide open to reveal the beautiful Japanese-style temple inside the grounds. A stream flowed around the entire temple and shielding the front entrance from them was a water fountain fed by the stream, and a large statue of the Sandra symbol.
         “Woah,” Saienta heard Elli exclaim up ahead.
It was a beautiful place and the temple itself looked as though it had taken many years to build. Gold rimmed the sloped rooves and each corner of the roof heralded an artistic statue of wild and beautiful animals rather than gargoyles – a panther, a stallion, a falcon, and a snow fox. There was a much larger building immediately behind it with a dome glass roof.
Annaleace was led away into a different entrance of the temple but the rest of the guests were led into the front entrance. The interior of the first room was more like the large room of a house with tatami flooring cross sectioned beneath their feet, and crossbeams of dark rosewood above them. They walked further ahead through an archway into the next room. Flecks of silver were ingrained into the flawlessly white walls, and two white spiral staircases of marble led them to a higher level. They ascended the stairs with anticipation and found themselves in an extremely large room, twice the size of a basketball court, with a clear dome of glass open to the blue sky above them. The flooring was the same as the floor below. On the far wall hung a large scroll with kanji symbols, and cushions lined the three remaining walls for all the guests. The three cushions directly in front of the scrolls were for Tiyan and Annaleace when they arrived, and the person marrying them, whoever that was. The room was empty of people for the moment and Corey was carrying the bridal gift that he, Elli and Saienta had bought the day before.
Grey took a cushion on the floor, sitting cross-legged, next to the General and Ame on the right side of the wall, while Sirian and Ryan were told to take the two cushions closest to Annaleace and Tiyan on the left. Sirian nodded. “I need to see Annaleace before it starts.”
Ryan agreed with her.
         “Flip your cushions over to show they’re taken,” Grey said, and Ryan and Sirian left to do that before leaving the room.
Corey took a seat next to Ame, and Saienta and Elli took cushions next to him. Saienta roughly counted the number of soft flat cushions surrounding the room and decided there might be less than sixty or so guests for this part of the wedding.
         “When are the other guests coming?” Elli asked, leaning forward to ask Ame.
         “Soon, I suspect,” Ame answered.
Saienta looked up at the sky through the glass. “We would be at school right now,” he said.
Elli laughed and Corey shrugged, smiling.
         “All six of us were at a wedding. That’s our excuse. I wonder if we’ll get detention if they don’t believe us. We can’t really prove it,” Elli said in amusement. “A nice gift from the teachers to Annaleace.” She put on an annoyed teacher’s voice: “Where were you yesterday, Annaleace?”
         “Getting married,” Corey replied, and they laughed softly.
         “In another world, with a guy none of you will ever meet,” Elli laughed.
Ame turned to them and smiled. “Would that be strange in your world?”
Elli nodded emphatically. “Not just strange; impossible.”
At this point, Grey and the General stopped their serious conversation and turned to listen.
         “There is no Mythra, no hazing, no nothing in our world,” Elli explained further.
Ame nodded. “I figured as much.”
Elli, Saienta and Corey smiled at this. Of course- they had seen the six of them train.
         “But you have advanced technology?” Grey asked.
Corey nodded. “We don’t know how advanced compared to the technology you once had.”
         “Is the technology used often?” the General asked in a rough tone.
“Constantly,” Corey said.
The General nodded once and Ame looked thoughtful.
         “What is it used for?” Grey asked in curiosity.
Elli thought for a while. “Nearly everything. It’s used to make life easier, really. We have machines to transport us from one place to another quickly, and communication devices that allow us to talk to each other from across the world.”
         “That much and they would think it was impossible for Annaleace to marry someone from another world?” Ame asked, puzzled.
Elli nodded. “We live in and beyond an ‘age of reason’.”
         “It makes your people lazy,” the General commented. “If the technology is used to make life easier.”
“Probably,” Elli murmured. “But we don’t have much choice.”

“When is it going to start?” Elli asked. The guests had already filled the outer walls of the room and there was a soft murmuring of conversations drifting around the room. Sirian and Ryan had returned to their cushions across the room. Everyone was dressed in a formal but mostly plain sort of kimono like Saienta’s, and all gifts for the bride and groom were placed behind them out of view.
         “Soon,” Ame smiled at Elli.
Looking at the people, Saienta noticed that around a third of them were soldiers, mostly young, around Tiyan’s age who must have been Tiyan’s friends. There were many older people, including Tiyan’s parents who had greeted them all and Ame and the General with much respect. Everyone who entered the room paid great respect towards Ame, the General, Grey, lovely Kuki, and Wing-Moth. Wing-Moth, wearing is kimono as though it itched, was sitting next to his son, the General, and lovely Kuki was next to Moth, one of the closest to the front of the room where Annaleace and her grandson would be. Nyu was sitting with her parents and her younger sister across the room. There were two girls that Saienta and Corey recognised as the ones who had been in the restaurant, Yellow, the day they were abusing Annaleace, and Sirian noticed too because she looked their way once, and rolled her eyes before whispering to Ryan about who they were.
It was obvious that the majority of people were friends and relatives of Tiyan’s.
The room immediately hushed as an old man strode into the room from a door in the corner Saienta hadn’t even realised was there. He wore a plain light brown kimono of cotton and carried a tray holding a large china tea pot and two porcelain cups.
         “This isn’t a tea party…I think this guy has it all wrong,” Elli whispered to Saienta and Corey with her hand shielding her mouth.
Ame laughed and whispered to Elli with her hand shielding her mouth, “Most people here can hear you, don’t forget.”
Elli’s grey eyes widened and she looked around suspiciously.
         “He is the one who will be marrying them,” Ame explained.
         “Oh…right…” Elli drifted.
The man in the brown robe solemnly took the cushion at the head of the room and all eyes were on him as he sat down and positioned the tray between the two cushions in front of him. He did a few things with a whisk, and a thing that looked like a large paint brush, poured the tea into the two cups and then emptied them back into the pot. After doing this a few times, a young boy in the same brown robe disappeared out the side door and not long after, Tiyan and Annaleace arrived.
A Non-Existent User
Tiyan came in first, walking up the spiral staircase on the right. His kimono was made of a heavy material of blue-black. The tomoeri was royal blue and a large symbol of the Sandra dragonfly was emblazoned on the back. His spiky white-blond hair was styled neatly, although it looked practically the same as it usually did, and his soft jade-green eyes held a deep happiness. The girls who obviously admired him looked like they were going to start crying, and Elli winked at Corey who had no idea what she was winking about.
Everyone was completely still and no one made a sound as they watched.
He came in without looking at anybody and walked slowly to the front of the room. He got to the floor on his knees and bowed to the man in the brown robe. The man nodded once and Tiyan sat on his knees on the cushion in front to his right. Annaleace came in next and everyone watched with awe as she rose up the winding staircase.
Elli gasped as she came into complete view and discreet murmurs rose around the room. “Woah.”

The bride looked beautiful beyond compare and those two girls could do nothing but look upon her enviously and all those in the room simply admired her silently, even Sirian and Ryan who had probably seen her already.
Her kimono was more than beautiful- lovely Kuki had made something extremely artful, and Saienta had never seen anything like it. The bottom half seemed to be made of a floating white material that was like gossamer over the completely snow-white kimono robe. In the heavy fabric that trailed all the way to the floor was silver-thread embroidery, almost invisible, of flitting dragonflies and hummingbirds that showed and shimmered in the light. A silvery-white obi was tied around her waist, glinting in the sunlight as though it was made of diamond dust. Annaleace kept her hands clasped in front of her, hidden in her long sleeves that reached halfway to the floor. Tiny bells hung from the bottom of the skirting like tassels and chimed slightly with every step.
Her shining midnight-black hair, contrasting with the whiteness of her kimono, was held up with a twisting silver hairpiece- it glinted so much from the light, Saienta realised there were crystals in it- and tendrils and wisps of hair fell to her shoulders framing her face. The girl seen at school yesterday was not seen here. This Annaleace was unforgettable to all those in the room.
         Annaleace, as Tiyan did, walked through the centre of the room up to the front without looking at anyone, got on her knees carefully, bowed her head almost to the floor with her hands palm down beside her head – kowtowing. She stood up to sit on her knees on the cushion in front of the man to the left, carefully rearranging her skirts around her. Tiyan had not taken his eyes off her the whole time, and they faced each other. Annaleace smiled shyly and Tiyan looked embarrassed for staring at her so long and hard that he turned away slightly and blinked twice quickly, since he had failed to blink since she had entered the room. There was complete silence and the man held up his hand as though he wanted everyone to be quiet. Annaleace looked at the line of people and her eyes caught Ame’s. She smiled quickly and then looked down as though trying to hide it.
Both Tiyan and Annaleace looked a little nervous. Lovely Kuki was making whimpering noises and her eyes were brimming with tears as she watched them both.
The man in the brown robe began to speak, talking about the value of marriage, and life, and intertwining paths that were now Annaleace and Tiyan’s. They all listened to his words and then he began the vows ten minutes later- explaining to each of them the necessity of faithfulness, love, pride of the family, and the commitment they were making to each other in marriage. In Sandra, there were no divorces.
Annaleace and Tiyan never took their eyes off each other the whole time, listening intently and taking it all in. Annaleace’s eyes grew misty and she bit her lip, realised she was being watched and stopped biting it. Tiyan smiled at her with reassurance and she relaxed. She held out her left hand and Tiyan gently held it between his hands on his knee, the folds of her long sleeve resting on the floor between them.

Tiyan spoke first. “Annaleace…I cannot begin to tell you the honour I feel for you to marry me, for you to be my wife. I had believed for a long time that I would never find you – my life has been spent waiting for the woman I knew existed somewhere – I felt you were somewhere and who would have known you were a world away.” Tiyan smiled at this and Annaleace too. “People told me that dreams are only that, and I was waiting for something that would never substantiate, but then I saw you, you came into my world and my dream is real. No one can imagine the agony tormenting me every moment you’re not in my presence. You are a substance of my dreams no longer, and now I will spend my forever with you, share my dreams with you. I will love and cherish you into the never-ending, as my friend and my wife.”
Tears were threatening to spill from Annaleace’s eyes as she smiled at him. He placed a white-gold wedding ring on her finger and he closed his hands over hers.
The man in the brown robe spoke. “From this day forward, you are Annaleace Campsall Kiseki.”
Annaleace began her vows and Tiyan smiled, tears in his eyes also. He didn’t seem to care about the many people watching him, or his friends and soldiers – there were many but for Tiyan and Annaleace, they were not there presently. She slid a white-gold wedding band on his finger and he leaned forward to brush a finger gently over her lips and kissed her once softly.
Lovely Kuki, who had forced herself to be quiet the whole time, then began to really cry and the couple looked over at her once, Tiyan giving her a wink that made his grandmother cry even more. Moth patted lovely Kuki on the back to comfort her.
The next part involved the tea – it was a symbol of their unity with each other and the rest of Sandra. Tiyan poured a cup for Annaleace and she drank the whole thing. She then poured a cup for Tiyan who drank his. They were now united.
         “You are now to choose the woman who will be your sister and friend, a guardian of your marriage from outside evils,” the man in the brown robe told Annaleace.
Annaleace said in a clear voice: “I have chosen Sirian Fiora Tomi.”
At this point, Sirian stood up, made her way to the front and bowed. She sat on her knees in front of Annaleace who poured her half a cup of tea and the two girls looked at each other once and broke into a grin. Annaleace held it out for her and Sirian placed her hand over hers.
         “With this symbol you are now my sister, Sirian, and when my husband, for any reason, cannot be there, you will be in my confidence and my trust. You promise to help protect my family and be immediate aunt to my children the day they are born. It is my honour.”
Sirian nodded and took the cup, drinking the tea. Annaleace leaned forward and Sirian lowered her head. They had probably practised all this before. Annaleace smiled and then kissed Sirian on the forehead once. Sirian stood up and went back to her place.
The man in the brown robe then began to explain that all the remaining guests in the room would be given one sip of tea from a cup poured by the couple, and it was a symbol of their unity with the villagers and the care the people would have for them and their future family.
Annaleace and Tiyan made their way over to lovely Kuki first, sliding the tray along. Lovely Kuki wiped her tears, and took a sip from the cup poured by Annaleace and Tiyan together, and gave it back. It went down the line, next Wing-Moth, then the General, Grey, Ame, and then Tiyan and Annaleace were kneeling in front of Corey who took the cup from them. Saienta noticed Wing-Moth had a very eager look on his face as he waited for Corey to drink, and he became a little suspicious. That old man knew some things before they happened. Corey drank the whole thing as every one watched in surprise.
         “Co-” Elli began.
Obviously he hadn’t been listening or paying much attention to the last part of the instructions and when Corey’s stomach made a grumbling sound, Saienta knew why. Everyone tried not to laugh but the General began to laugh – and when Corey realised everyone was staring at him in a strange way, and heard the General laugh, he knew something was definitely amiss. Saienta laughed softly at the look on Corey’s face.
Annaleace looked amused and Tiyan laughed. “Does this mean we’re married to Corey as well?”
Corey looked around him, embarrassed. “Is there any way I can give it back?”
         “Not unless you’re planning on throwing up into the teapot, I don’t think,” Elli noted.
Annaleace laugh and they shrugged. “It’s only a symbol, don’t worry Corey.”
         “Much love, Corey, much love,” Elli joked. “How embarrassing. Poor guy. There, there.”
Saienta imagined this had the opposite effect of comfort for Corey.
Saienta took a sip and then after a long process, everyone had their turn. Tiyan and Annaleace returned to their cushions at the front of the room. Each one of Tiyan’s family members – his grandmother, his aunt and uncle, his parents – all stood up and walked forward to welcome Annaleace into the Kiseki family and kiss her once on the forehead. Lovely Kuki was trembling with emotion as she kissed her and held Annaleace’s hand in hers. “Granddaughter of mine,” she said with love and moved away reluctantly.
Tiyan’s mother kissed her on the forehead, “Daughter of mine,” she said and her husband followed.
Tiyan’s aunt and uncle called her “Niece of mine” and moved back to the wall.
Ryan stood up afterwards and remained standing in front of them. Tiyan stood up and at the same time, they bowed low to each other in great respect. “Brother of mine,” Ryan said and moved back to his cushion afterwards. Annaleace was keeping her emotion under control but she couldn’t help her eyes from misting over.
The man in the brown robe disappeared and it was time for each person to present their gifts to the new married couple. One by one, people began to present their gifts and bless them, and Tiyan and Annaleace would smile and speak their gratitude. People around the room had begun to chat quietly as one person would go forward. Tiyan and Annaleace were beginning to look quite bored after half an hour, and others were getting restless with the long process. Saienta noticed there were a lot of fine tea sets.
Ame turned to Corey, Elli and Saienta. “This part is sort of a game, because at the end, Annaleace has to say which one she likes the most out of all the presents.”
Elli grinned. “I hope she likes ours.”
Saienta looked over to see Annaleace whisper something to Tiyan, to which he replied. She then looked astonished and said something that made them both laugh softly.
Elli, Saienta and Corey stood up next and bowed to them. Annaleace smiled at them and Tiyan grinned. Annaleace took the gift from Elli and opened the box to reveal a golden mantel clock that wound up at the back with a glass face. They had bought it in their own world, knowing that people in Sandra carried time pieces around that wound up, and made sure they bought one that didn’t require electric.
         “Thank you,” Tiyan said and Annaleace grinned.
         “Yeah, thanks guys,” she said informally and laughed softly, kidding. “It’s beautiful.”
Ame presented hers, and then the General, Moth, and then Grey. Last of all, Cala and Kasim, Tiyan’s parents, lead their present through the side door. Tiyan and Annaleace looked surprised, and a large grin spread on Tiyan’s face. They had bought them a large warhorse, almost equal to Rain’s size. The large horse neighed softly as it entered, not liking the enclosed space. It was a truly beautiful stallion and Saienta had never seen anything like it. Saienta guessed it was from a different part of the south. Its hooves were dark amber instead of black, and its coat was glossy, coloured an extremely dark cherry red. His mane and tail were black, however. Its strength was visible to all. Making its way in front of the new couple, it bowed its head and eyed them curiously. Tiyan gave a short whistle and smiled. “Fade…is his name.”

After most of the guests had gone, Annaleace and Tiyan stayed with them to talk.
         “My real gift is the same as I give you every night,” Grey said seriously.
Annaleace’s eyes widened at the thought of getting beaten up for her wedding present.
Grey broke into laughter. “I’m kidding, I hope you know that. You get the night off, and maybe once more when you’re pregnant.”
         “That’s a shame. I would’ve helped you out,” Tiyan said, grinning.
Annaleace pretended to look offended and then smilingly punched him in the shoulder. As usual, he hardly felt it but pretended it was killing him. “You know, one day I’ll actually touch a nerve,” she said.
         “What did you say Grey? Not if I was there, you wouldn’t touch her! I’d take you on any day,” lovely Kuki threatened him.
Grey put up his hands in defence. “No thank you. I value my life too much, but I admit I wouldn’t mind seeing how I fare against one of the greatest soldiers to have ever lived.”
Lovely Kuki beamed at the compliment.
Saienta was surprised to hear that lovely Kuki was once a soldier at all let alone one of the greatest. Moth had told them once before, but they hadn’t been sure if they believed it or not.
         “How about that. You learn something new everyday,” Elli said thoughtfully.
Nyu was with them and said, “Yellow is contributing too,” to Tiyan.
         “For the dinner tonight,” Ame explained to the five who didn’t know, “all the restaurants of Sandra are preparing food for a feast that almost all villagers will participate in. A wedding is a great occasion.”

It was now 1.30pm, and the reception had taken three hours. Ryan, Elli, Corey, Saienta and Sirian walked along by themselves through the track back to the village. At present, Tiyan and Annaleace were walking together through the great gardens of the temple and they wouldn’t be seen until the dinner.
         “Saienta,” Corey said in a low voice, “I didn’t ruin the wedding by drinking all the tea in the cup, right?”
Saienta laughed, a cigarette hanging from his mouth that he was about to light. “I don’t think so. As they said, it’s only a symbol and it was funny to watch. I was surprised the General was laughing.”
The two girls, who were bitter towards Annaleace, were among the last of the guests to leave, and Elli had poked her tongue out at their backs. Their eyes held a dangerous look before they left, watching Annaleace carefully, and Sirian was telling Elli who they were.
         “What does it matter?” Elli asked indifferently. “They can’t do anything now that she’s married. What were they doing there anyway?”
         “Friends of Tiyan’s, maybe,” Sirian said as they walked. “They’re probably two-faced, pretending they’re good friends of his and trying to get him to notice them all the time. Too bad for them that Annaleace got him without even trying.”
         “She didn’t have to try. He wouldn’t notice them, even before, while he waited for her,” Elli said dreamily. “Such love. Did you hear his vows?” she sighed. At the moment, both Sirian and Elli were too distracted and feeling too good to realise they were supposed to be hating each other.
         “Fade is beautiful. And her dress! It was amazing,” Sirian said. “Lovely Kuki spent years making it, importing fabrics from all over the south. Apparently it’s worth almost as much as a house and it’s for Annaleace to pass onto her daughters if she has any.”
         “She’s not likely to have any soon, right?” Ryan asked unsurely.
Elli laughed. “Who knows? Ask her.”
Ryan shook his head, probably not wanting to ask or wanting to know. “Annaleace Kiseki,” he murmured, testing out the name.
         “In Japanese, Kiseki means miracle, if you didn’t know,” Elli explained.
         “Miracle?” Ryan asked.
Corey nodded in affirmation.

*

Elli sneakily took out her phone and snapped a photo of the look on Corey’s face. She shoved her phone away quickly. “Priceless, Corey, priceless.”
Saienta laughed. The sight of all the food made Corey’s mouth drop and his face was worth capturing on camera.
The whole village was out on the fields, both the training fields and the horse fields. The night sky was clear and millions of stars twinkled overhead. Bamboo torches had been placed here and there to give them more light. Nearly all the grass was taken up with literally thousands of people out to celebrate Annaleace and Tiyan Kiseki’s wedding; sitting on picnic blankets in large groups and in the middle of every blanket was a wide variety of delicious looking food made by the many restaurants of Sandra. Corey was starving, and Saienta was hungry too, and the smell of food made them hungrier.
         “Where is Annaleace?” Elli asked Sirian who was seated across the blanket. Sirian shrugged.
There was smoked fish, and fried fish of all different kinds, white rice, fresh bread, roasted and seasoned meat, baked vegetables, vegetable pies, many types of salad, and a few dishes Saienta had never seen before.
For dessert there were cream and fruit-filled pies, and raspberry and lemon/lime ice lollies, warm toffees filled with cream, crispy and almost wafer-thin waffles dusted with white icing sugar that broke apart and crumbled in the mouth, wobbling blueberry jelly dishes with slices of fresh fruit in them, and many dishes of fresh fruit – slices of rockmelon, whole raspberries and boysenberries, tiny slivers of Jiji fruit soaked in peach nectar, and more.
Corey and the others fell into everything eagerly, going for seconds when everyone was still on firsts. Sin was sitting next to Ame eating ravenously.
         “All this and they still don’t have chocolate or strawberries,” Elli sighed.
“Elli…please get married,” Corey mumbled through bites of food. “Another feast…”
Annaleace appeared with Tiyan some time later when they were halfway through dinner. They had changed out of their wedding costumes and were both wearing nice kimonos. Annaleace waved happily and sat down, greeted and congratulated by everyone around her. Many eyes turned to stare as they sat down. Ame beamed at Annaleace.
         “I’m starving!” Annaleace exclaimed, sitting down to eat. She piled food on her plate and Tiyan did the same. “We haven’t eaten much all day.”
During the meal, Annaleace looked up at Sin and smiled. He looked at her unsurely and glanced at Tiyan. “Where were you this morning? I was sure I invited you to the wedding, didn’t you get it?” she asked.
Sin swallowed his mouthful of jelly and looked down at his spoon, answering without tone. “You did, but I was busy.”
Saienta couldn’t help noticing his misery, although he was trying to hide it and look bitter instead. Annaleace noticed too and looked a little concerned as she studied him. “It’s okay,” she assured him in a light tone, “you didn’t miss out on much.”
She looked at Tiyan who winked at her, knowing she didn’t mean it like that.
Ame was watching Sin out of the corner of her eye with worry. Sin turned away from the group and began to feed his tame puppy bits of meat. Annaleace shared a meaningful look with Sirian.

“Oh God…” Annaleace breathed to herself as she was made to stand up with Tiyan. A soldier was using his Mythra to cast a spotlight over them and all the thousands of pairs of eyes were on the couple.
         “Annaleace and Tiyan Kiseki!” a soldier announced, one of Tiyan’s friends, and the entire village broke into a roaring cheer. Annaleace smiled, blushing slightly, and Tiyan beamed proudly, his arm around her waist.
Saienta noticed the one using his Light Mythra wore a pin on his chest that meant he belonged to an independent group. Which one? Saienta wondered. The entire field had gone strangely dark, making the spotlight on Tiyan and Annaleace even more bright. How powerful was this soldier…
The pin was shaped like a tiny silver shield with the Sandra dragonfly embossed on it.
         “What group do you think that is?” Elli whispered to Saienta and Corey. They shook their heads, trying to figure it out. Someone was making a speech about the marriage and Annaleace and Tiyan blushed when he made a reference to their wedding night and future children as a result. With their hearing, most people heard it all clearly and laughed with good nature.
Annaleace looked relieved when it was over and the light returned to normal.
         “Kinlen!” a few people called when the soldier with the shield pin was noticed.
The guy, Kinlen, smiled and was accosted by a number of people. He gave Tiyan a bear hug and congratulated him on his marriage, and then complimented his wife.
Kinlen was the same age as Tiyan, and seemed to be known by nearly everyone except for the six who didn’t even know what group he was from. The General strode over and Kinlen bowed to him, receiving a nod in reply. Not long after, many of the villagers realised he was there and all came over to greet him, or ask what he and ‘the others’ were up to and why they hadn’t been in Sandra for so long.
         “I think this guy’s famous…” Elli observed as younger children and even the younger soldiers came over and asked with excitement for information about what he had been doing and where ‘Crow’ or ‘Triennia’ were.
Elli arched an eyebrow. “I see…”

“Were you in Nersa recently?”
         “I heard you were.”
“Did you fight any northern soldiers?”
         “Have you found anymore of them?”
“Can I have your autograph? Or your pin?”
         “My sister wants to marry you.”
Kinlen was laughing as he answered, trying to answer the questions one at a time until Ame came in and bowed. The people took their cues respectfully and backed away, still hovering around the edges.
         “I’m so jealous,” Elli sighed. “I hope that’s us one day.”
         “Mm…” Corey murmured.
Sin shot bitter glances towards Kinlen every now and again but continued playing with Kitten.
         “What group is he from?” Elli asked Sin.
Sin scowled at her and then it faded so he looked empty. “Paladin.”
         “Oh…” Elli’s eyes widened as she watched Kinlen. Excitement was growing in them, despite the fact they didn’t know him at all. They knew and heard enough about Paladin to know they were the best independent group in existence, and if the soldiers they saw were good, these guys would be incredible. At any moment, they imagined he might do something amazing but he did nothing like it, showing no great display of power or strength. For the moment he looked like any other soldier but there was definitely something about him that gave his association with Paladin away.
         “Do you think he’s nice?” Elli whispered.
Corey didn’t seem to be listening. Saienta shrugged his shoulder.
         “What do you care?” Sin asked with annoyance.
         “Huh,” Elli scoffed. “I was just wondering.”
Looking angered, Sin stood up and left, Kitten trailing behind him with enthusiasm.
         “What a cute puppy,” Elli said. “A shame he belongs to such a cruel master.”
         “I thought he treats Kitten well,” Corey murmured.
Elli shrugged. “He does but that doesn’t change the fact that Sin is a little brat.” She was rubbing her wrist where her bracelet should have been.

Back at the house, the three of them stood on their veranda resting from the excitement of the day. The wedding was still being celebrated by most of the village and they were looking at the faraway fields where the lights of the bamboo torches flickered. Many of the older people were drinking; shouting and laughing could be heard, as well as the occasional screams when something exploded, with laughter to follow.
Corey was staring up at the stars. “The stars are different here,” he drifted. “Not the same as the ones in our world. What does that mean?” he seemed to be asking himself.
         “I wanted to meet Kinlen,” Elli sighed. “That would have been nice. Maybe we aren’t worthy.”
         “HelloOOO!” called a voice. They recognised Moth walking up the path with two others.
         “Oh…” Elli said. “I think that’s Ame with him. That old man is so…” she shook her head and looked suspicious. “That’s Kinlen too! Maybe I should do my hair, no wait, I’ve done it already. Have we cleaned the house?”
         “What is there to clean?” Saienta asked. The house wasn’t cluttered; therefore there wasn’t much to mess it up in the first place.
         “How about tea? Yes! Tea will save us. Keep them here while I go in and make tea. Green tea or jasmine? Oolong? No, green tea will do, that’s the common favourite.” She ran away inside and Corey gave Saienta a strange look.

When they finally reached the veranda, Kinlen bowed and surveyed Corey and Saienta carefully. Corey and Saienta stood up and bowed in greeting and they all sat down again.
         “What brings us to your humble abode?” Moth asked and then started laughing. “Pardon me, it’s not quite so humble.”
         “This is Kinlen Tessa,” Ame said, introducing him.
         “Nice to meet you,” Kinlen said with a smile.
“He’s from Paladin,” Moth added, “Not that you didn’t know already.”
The reference didn’t seem to bother Kinlen but he didn’t look arrogant about it.
         “Two of the famous six from the other world,” Kinlen grinned.
         “This is Saienta Kureshida,” Moth said.
Saienta nodded, not unkindly.
         “And Corey Akaino.”
Kinlen smiled at hearing his name. “Oh, I see…the one who drank the whole cup of tea?”
Corey looked embarrassed and shoved a hand in his pocket. “Yeah…”
Ame began to laugh and then tried to stop herself. “I’m sorry, Corey, but it really was funny. It’s never happened before and no one was expecting it to.”
Moth had a humoured smile on his face. “I don’t think you would like to be known as ‘the one who drank all the tea’, would you now?”
Corey looked even more embarrassed and kept his eyes away. He’d probably be able to laugh at it later but not right now.
         “Where is Elli?” Ame asked, right on cue. Elli came out at that moment holding a tray. She grinned and Kinlen bowed. “Nice to meet you,” he said.
Elli paused, stared at him for a second too long, and then disappeared inside the house, along with the tray.
         “Okay…” Kinlen drifted.
Ame laughed softly. “Maybe she forgot something.”
She came back again. “Nice to meet you too, I’m Elli Sennashi.”
         “Kinlen Tessa.”
Elli served the tea to everybody and they sat around, getting comfortable as Kinlen was told about the wedding.
Kinlen talked with them for a while, about his last trip to Sandra that in his mind, was too long ago. Elli was listening attentively. He told them nothing about Paladin, any of the other members, or where they were- it was probably private information.

After a pause, Elli asked, “Moth…do you happen to know why Sin missed the wedding and has been acting all…weird?”
He went quiet at this and Ame looked saddened. Kinlen looked up. “It may be my fault. I was the one that told him his brother Thale wasn’t coming.”
         “He loves his brother, very much. He looks up to him,” Ame told them.
         “Thale is the leader of Paladin, right?” Elli asked.
Kinlen nodded. “He has been kept busy. Only I was able to make it. Besides, Tiyan is a childhood friend and I couldn’t miss out on his wedding. Thale is too, of course, but his role was more important than mine.”
         “Although…” Moth began. “There is more to Sin’s behaviour than Thale’s absence.” He looked at each one of them, making sure they could be trusted and then told them. Elli, Saienta and Corey listened with interest. “As you know, Sin is a great soldier for his age, the best in his group, he outstrips them by far. The only catch is that, with his kind of Mythra, he is unable to actually go out on the field. His own body heals too slowly, one slash would kill him eventually. He can’t involve himself in anything dangerous and this is one of the causes to his great pain. For one so young, he endures too much. For longer than a year, he has been petitioning with all of the village leaders, including the General, lovely Kuki, Ame, Grey, and I. For 370 days he has been asking for permission to read the ancient archives located beneath the temple where Annaleace was married.”
         “What was he looking for?” Corey asked, taking his hand out of his pocket.
         “He had hope that he would find a clue to Healing Mythra, to find anything that would help him fix a very debilitating problem- a way to heal faster, most likely.”
         “Today he was finally able to go into the Archives,” Ame said sadly.
         “And…he found nothing?” Elli asked, looking sorry for him.
Ame nodded. “Nothing. He stayed there for over seven hours, searching everything, relevant or irrelevant, and nothing helped him.”
Kinlen looked thoughtful. “Sin would make a great soldier. Better than Thale was at his age, it’s hard to imagine.” He shook his head. “I wonder if there is nothing that can help him.”
         “He seems to have lost all hope but there is another, more extensive Archive in Toba. I will tell him about it soon,” Ame said, “Hopefully he will find something. We are at a loss here. A few of us have tried but come up with nothing.”
         “I am afraid for him, personally,” Moth said. “Sometimes the greatest desire will overcome better reason. He may leave one day and fight in the city without our permission, and then get himself mortally wounded. That will be a tragic day.”

*

In the morning, all six of them were on the school roof in their uniform, ready to enter the building. It was hard to believe they were at a wedding only yesterday.
         “We aren’t late, right?” Elli asked.
Saienta checked his watch. “We’re on time.”
         “We have psych., Saienta. What a long day it was yester-“ Annaleace began, cut short by a loud announcement over the school speakers. They froze on hearing the first word.
         “Elli Sennashi, Ryan and Annaleace Campsall, Sayenta Cressida, Corey Akaino, Sirian Tomi- all come to the office immediately, please.
The announcement was repeated and they looked at each other in dread, except for Saienta who never cared about being called to the office. Corey looked like the colour had drained from his face; he probably didn’t get in trouble…ever.
         “Oh great…could it possibly get worse? Congratulations on your marriage,” Elli said grimly, clapping Annaleace on the shoulder.
They entered the school office slowly and were told to walk straight into the principal’s office.
         “Oh great…” Elli whispered as they took their time, and once the door opened, catastrophe ensued. Their parents had all been contacted, with the exception of Saienta’s who just wouldn’t give a shit.
         “Elli!” her dad called and embraced her as though he had been worried for her life. He was the only parent there for her and Saienta wondered why her mother wasn’t there.
         “Sirian,” her parents called, and then Annaleace and Ryan’s parents grabbed them too as though they thought they might be dead.
Hiroka was there in his suit, and he stood up, keeping his expressionless eyes on Corey.
Corey walked forward immediately, and he bowed. Hiroka didn’t say anything and the parent’s sat down while the six of them stood in front of the worried-looking principal.
“Where have you been for the last two days?” he asked. “That is the main question. It is inconceivable that all six of you should be away from school on the same day.”
         “Dean Haru-“ Sirian began to protest.
He put up a hand to silence her. “I have been receiving rumours about the six of you. And if something should happen that involves you six in particular, it must be addressed.”
         “Where have you been, Elli? You told me you were at school camp!” her father said, unable to contain himself.
Elli winced with her back turned to him.
Dean Haru went on. “I was made to contact your parents. By contacting the first, I was able to discover that four of you hadn’t been home for the last two nights, and you said you were on school camp? Once I told them the school had nothing at present of the kind, we were immediately concerned about where you actually were.” He was looking at Annaleace, Ryan, Elli, and Sirian as he said this. Saienta didn’t have to make up any excuses, and Corey didn’t tell his dad anything either. Corey had been away on Tuesday as well, legitimately, but the others had been away from home for two nights and away from school for one- for Annaleace’s wedding in Sandra, not that they could say it and it seemed extremely frustrating to them.
         “This is a serious matter,” Dean Haru said.
Sirian’s mother looked outwardly upset. “I didn’t know what to think, Sirian. Where have you been?”
Sirian turned around and faced her parents. “I was with Annaleace.”
         “And where was that?” Annaleace’s mother asked Annaleace.
         “We went out of the country, to Las Vegas,” Ryan said.
         “What!” their parents exclaimed.
Hiroka looked at Corey as if to ask if he had been in Las Vegas, and if it was true, Saienta figured, Hiroka would be very worried.
Corey looked ashamed of himself and his hands were shoved in his pockets. He looked like he was having trouble keeping his head up.
         “There is no need to worry about Corey,” Hiroka cut in calmly. “He has been with me for the last two days, I apologise for his absence.” It was true for the first day.
Dean Haru looked a little suspicious but said nothing, only nodded. There was nothing he could say to refute Hiroka. “Corey is exempt. You may leave if you wish.”
Hiroka stood up to go and Corey followed him. Saienta heard Hiroka say to Corey quietly, “Your studies are important, Corey, I hope you aren’t planning to do this again.”
The others, who were in the middle of detailing their emergency trip to Las Vegas, looked slightly envious of Corey’s exemption.
         “I’m sorry,” Elli was saying to her father. “Gomen nasai,” she said in Japanese and bowed her head.
         “I’m disappointed in your lie,” her father replied sadly. “I thought you were better than that.”
At this, Elli looked like she was about to cry.
While the parents and their children spoke, the Dean spoke to Saienta.
         “Sayenta Cressida. It has come into my notice that you have a few minor offences within this school, but for this, as usual, your parents have nothing to say about it.”
         “They are not my parents.”
Dean Haru nodded respectfully. “I’m sorry. Your legal guardians have not answered my contacts and it has come to my attention that you will answer for yourself on this matter. If you were not with the others, where were you?”
         “It’s personal,” he said, standing up. “I have a medical certificate.” Saienta handed it to him and the Dean looked it over carefully.
         “I’m still moving out,” Sirian told her parents seriously, keeping her eyes on Annaleace. Watching Annaleace seemed to be confirming her decision.
         “Sweetheart, after this tirade, I can’t allow it,” her mother replied.
         “With Annaleace,” Sirian went on and Annaleace bit her lower lip at the look on her parent’s faces.
Sirian shook her head and looked up at the roof as though appealing to it for help. “I’m sorry mom, daddy. With or without your help, I’m moving out.”

“You may go,” Dean Haru said and Saienta left the room. The medical certificate wasn’t a fake, a Red Tide doctor had written it for him when he asked on Monday; he had prepared himself. As a result of this trouble with their parents and the Dean, it looked like they were going to have a rough time for the next few months with school, their parents and trying to escape to Ame’s world often without being noticed.
He walked into the hallway to see Corey with his dad. Hiroka ruffled Corey’s hair, and Saienta approached once Hiroka smiled his way.
         “I hope you’re cooking tonight,” Hiroka grinned. “I promised Corey I would forgive him if you cook for a year.”
         “Serious?” Saienta asked in confusion.
Corey laughed. “No. And his week of cooking is up.”
Hiroka looked disappointed. “A shame…what will I eat?”
Saienta laughed softly. “I’ll come by tonight and every now and again. Seff needs to eat, and you two might starve otherwise.”
Hiroka and Corey brightened at this.

The clouds in the sky were outlined in gold from the sun’s rays. The summer days were getting distinctly warmer in Sandra, while in Corey’s world, the days were growing colder, windier. It was Sunday, the last day of the week, and a new one was beginning.
Corey was at the back of the Blacksmith Square, shovelling coal. He stopped to wipe the sweat from his face on his arm, and continued on as if he hadn’t paused for anything. The strain it put on his body was immense, but not unbearable. He knew his body would eventually adjust to the workload, like how it was adjusting to training. He was a shovel boy, the lowest position possible, and he knew that wouldn’t change until he filled out more. Both times he had gone to work, he had been given pay, like the five others, and surprisingly, he was paid the most. Ame had explained to them that the more hard working the job, the more money. It felt good to be making money, instead of having to borrow from Moth, but managing on their own. They had logbooks for their houses they were to pay off, and the opening of Gossamer Leaf was looking more possible. However, Gossamer Leaf and their jobs were just to get by financially. Their first priority was to be great soldiers.
         “Corey.”
He steadied his shovel and turned to see his boss and unmistakably a soldier approach. Corey held the soldier’s gaze, wondering what business the soldier had with his boss, and if he was somehow involved.
         “This soldier says he needs a word with you,” his boss said. He nodded once and left them to talk. Wonderingly, Corey turned to the soldier.
         “Wing-Moth sent me to give you and the five others a message. Meet him at Ame’s house at exactly fifteen minutes before you get off work. It’s not important, nor does it matter if you can’t attend.” The soldier looked confused as he said these words, unable to comprehend the importance of giving the message if it was a request that wasn’t a compulsory one. He wasn’t the only one puzzled.
The soldier turned around at that moment, and Corey looked too, seeing an employee nearing with an empty cart. It was Gage, a name he knew only by word from the other employees who appeared to dislike his presence. Most he had heard was how intimidating he appeared. A lit cigarette hung from his mouth, blurring his sharp features and strong jaw-line, dark spiky hair and light grey-blue eyes in a cloud of smoke. From his hands up to his shoulders were strange-looking scars. He had the same build as Saienta, and didn’t look that much older than Corey, Corey noticed, which was strange to see when there were mainly older men working within the Blacksmith Square.
The soldier narrowed his eyes at him, crossed his arms and departed. Gage and the soldier stared at each other as they crossed paths and between them the air was formidable. A smirk of slight amusement lit up on Gage’s face as they passed.
Gage parked the cart next to Corey and they glanced at each other. He was a fairly new employee, like Corey. There was something about Gage that made him different, but he couldn’t figure out what. Perhaps it was the smoking, because Corey had the impression Sandra seemed alien toward it. Gage took a drag of his cigarette and pulled it out of his mouth with a free hand. He was a few inches taller than Corey, he noticed.
         “So you’re one of the outsiders?” Gage asked, gazing at Corey placidly as he exhaled smoke. Corey didn’t reply, uncertain if he meant it in a good or bad way; although he didn’t look unfriendly; yet, anyway. Gage softly laughed unexpectedly and there were traces of humour in it. “That’s ironic.”
Corey had to wonder what he meant.
Gage kept surveying him as though amused. After a moment, he passed his cigarette to his left hand and held out his right hand for Corey to shake it. Gage was looking into Corey’s eyes almost challengingly. Corey shook his hand. Gage seemed almost surprised by it, and then he grinned almost slyly. “You’re the first one to shake my hand since I came here over a month ago.” He threw down his cigarette to burn out on the ground.
         “The first?” Corey asked, a little confused.
         “You haven’t figured it out yet, have you? You’ll probably regret shaking my hand then.”
Corey couldn’t see how that was possible.
He stretched, laced his hands and put them behind his head. He kept his eyes on Corey’s and Corey didn’t feel uncomfortable in that gaze. He could see why others would think he was intimidating though.
         “People in Sandra don’t smoke, you probably realised that already. It’s peaceful here. I like it.” He was still watching Corey, smiling slightly. He bared his teeth in a grin. “I’m a Northerne