Welcome to Gaia: Side Stories - Side One

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Status: In Progress  |  Genre: Fantasy  |  House: Booksie Classic
WARNING: If you have not already read the "Welcome to Gaia" series by the same author, this is NOT a good jumping-on point! That being said, this is a series of stories written to enhance the understanding of characters from the above series. These side stories will focus on happenings with many of those characters and detail events that are happening between books. Enjoy!

Submitted: December 19, 2015

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Submitted: December 19, 2015

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Magicians of Gaia Side Stories

Side One

By: TheEsper

 

 

Chapter 1 - Villainy through Heroism - Part 1

The young girl wiped the sweat from her brow, but in the process smeared dirt all over her forehead. She was tired, her fingers hurt, and on top of that, she was filthy now. She'd spent the better part of free time for the past week weeding, planting, watering, and otherwise tending to several people's gardens. She had to; these were gardens she had personally destroyed in the past year.

Sabina struggled on a bit longer before she was finally done weeding the garden before falling backwards, the seat of her pants hitting the dirt as she relaxed for a moment. Though the chilly wind of fall was now picking up, all the hard work had her feeling hot, even with the kind, cool breeze blowing her way. There were still several more houses she had to do this for, but she was done with this house now, at least.

This was all part of the plan- making amends. In order to be a proper villain, she needed to convince everyone that she was someone they'd want to follow. That's what her maestro had told her to do, so she intended to stick with it. Actually, she still remembered the odd look on Scott's face when she said she wanted to call him "maestro". He looked a bit embarrassed and asked her not to call him that, but of course that reaction just made her more certain she wanted to call him that. She didn't know why, but teasing her maestro was incredibly fun.

For the first step, she had to make every effort possible to show people that she had changed, most especially to those whom she had inconvenienced  in some manner. Unfortunately for her, this meant a lot of physical labor, as she had broken a lot of things in her short reign of mindless terror. It was funny that she had been able to cause so much damage in such a short amount of time, yet fixing all the stuff she damaged seemed to take a hundred times longer.

Things had been rough so far. Getting started on this part was the hardest thing she'd ever done. Her maestro had made it clear that just an offer to make amends was useless and that she had to show actions and effort. That sounded easy enough, but when you are known for causing trouble, and had previously ruined someone's property in some way, knocking on their door was a frightening ordeal. Not only that, but the usual response to "I'd like to fix what I broke" was usually a slammed door to the face. In light of this, she'd learned two thing. First, be persistent. Don't let having a door slammed on you stop you from righting your wrongs. Second, open with a very sincere apology. That's what most people want to hear anyway.

The next problem was that, in many cases, the things she broke were either already fixed or replaced, meaning she couldn't directly correct her error. That's why she was weeding the garden now instead of planting new seeds. She had trashed this small plot of land mercilessly, but the owner had already replanted by the time Sabina came to offer to do it herself. Weeding was the next best option, as it allowed for her to show an action that reflected her willingness to "be good". In other cases where she couldn't do anything like that, she would offer to work off the expenses caused by her damage with cleaning and running errands. Again, it just came down to a lot of manual labor.

The door to the home opened and a woman walked out, holding a large cup. She looked down kindly towards Sabina and said, "You've been at this for a long time. Would you like some water?"

Complaints about the hard work it took to get people to finally forgive her aside, Sabina had to admit that it was getting easier every day. Word was spreading quickly around this town she called "home". In the past month since she started her campaign to turn things around, the whispers of how the little terror that caused chaos wherever she went was now kind, docile and helpful were worming their way into everyone's ears. For the first time, the looks of caution and suspicion that used to be cast her way, while still very much present, were slowly disappearing. In their place, she was being given a different kind of look that she wasn't exactly sure how to describe.

The young girl shook her head. "Oh, no," she said. "Don't worry about me. I'll go down the road and-"

"Nonsense," the woman interrupted. "You've been working very hard today, and you're pouring sweat." The woman approached Sabina and placed the cup in her hands. "Now drink," she instructed.

Sabina did as she was told and tried to wrap her head around this odd yet forceful act of kindness. Slowly, things seemed to be going in the direction she was aiming, and at a good pace. All the same, she didn't know what she needed to do after making things right with everyone, nor did she think that she was going to be elevated much higher than the average "good girl" status that most of her peers had already achieved. How was she going to make these people her subordinates and followers if this was as far as she could get? She needed to ask her maestro.

It was too late to try and start on another house at this point, and Sabina was finally finished here, so after drinking down the water, she thanked the woman for allowing her to help tend to her garden (another trick she had picked up in the past month) and headed home. On the way, she couldn't shake the feeling that she was going to get "stuck" on her path to becoming a true villain. She didn't want to think that way and tried to push those thoughts out of her mind, but she still felt worried.

The walk home was fairly short, and she was greeted by her older brother, Milan, who gave a small smirk when he saw her. His green eyes examined the dirtied girl from behind his dark brown hair, the bangs of which were just long enough to start affecting his vision. For the majority of this past month, he had been more skeptical of his little sister's change of heart than anyone, but the effort she was putting in looked very genuine, and he came around often to make sure she had been behaving and staying on task.

"Another rough day, huh?" he asked.

Sabina grunted in agreement, too tired to give a much better answer. She looked at the way he was smirking at her. Milan had changed his behavior towards her also. Before, it seemed like he was always a breath away from scolding and punishing her (usually because she deserved it), but now he seemed much more docile and boyish. It was probably just as odd for her to see him acting this way as it was for him to see her acting apologetic and helpful.

"I'm making stew for dinner, so it'll be a little while longer," Milan informed her. "Why don't you go tell mom how your day was. I bet she'd love to hear about it."

Sabina hesitated. "I... I'll tell her later. I'm going to go take a bath first."

"Oh. Okay," Milan replied. There was a small amount of disappointment in his tone that he couldn't quite mask.

Sabina went and relaxed in a nice warm bath. The bath always took a while to warm up, as the boiler needed time to heat up enough water for the entire tub. It was only a small inconvenience in the long run, especially for the enjoyment of a long, peaceful bath. Unfortunately, it seemed like the moment she had stepped in, the stew was done, so she had to rush more than she would have preferred this time, not giving her a chance to relax and calm the brewing storm in her mind.

The two of them enjoyed dinner together afterwards, and Sabina explained how she wasn't looking forward to the next house she was going to visit, as she had been avoiding it on purpose. Not only had she caused the worst damage to that house overall, but the woman living there were notoriously ill-tempered. Milan told her to just go for it with confidence, even if she had to take a little yelling. He reminded her that she had brought it upon herself, after all. Sabina agreed and told him she'd give it her best try.

She felt slightly guilty for not explaining to her brother that she wasn't doing this out of the kindness of her heart, but he seemed too happy to tear down his illusions of her as a truly reformed little sister. She had always been honest with him about her intentions to become a villain. She never hid it from anyone and always spoke proudly of her ambitions. Right now, though, she'd let him think the best of her. It might be the only chance he'd get before she became a true villain.

Exhausted, the young girl retired to her room and collapsed on her bed. If anyone had told her a few months ago that she'd be going around apologizing and making up for all the bad things she'd done, she'd have laughed at them. Now, her hands were still stinging a bit from pulling all those weeds. She only hoped that all of this would be worth it in the end. If it wasn't, she swore that she'd cause more trouble than ever.

No... Thinking like that was bad. She had to believe in her maestro's words. She'd only spoken with him twice since he'd arrived, but he knew what he was talking about. He would help her reach her goal, so she had to keep fighting.

That was all she could think before sleep finally overtook her conscious mind.

* **

"Making amends" held a much different meaning at school. Mostly, it was much more difficult to deal with teachers now for various reasons, not the least of which being that she'd proven herself to be less than trustworthy. At the same time, she was also unable to really resolve the issue of the huge amount of property damage she had inflicted upon the building, nor would they really give her any opportunity to do so. This meant that the only real way for her to prove herself at school was to become a model student. It was the only option she had left. Be on time, be attentive, make good grades, and participate as much as she could.

Well, she was fairly smart anyways, so as long as she studied a bit, she could make the grades, but "participation" was the hardest part. Even when volunteering, teachers seemed wary to allow her to help out or answer questions, and the students still seemed to be cold towards her. She wasn't sure how to make them see that she didn't want to cause any harm, but her past reputation seemed cemented as "the bad girl" at this point. All she could really do was keep trying, but every day seemed to challenge her a bit more.

As classes came to a close for the day, Sabina gathered her belongings, notes mostly, and went to leave for her next attempt at making up for past mistakes. She left the classroom by herself, alone as usual. The feeling of isolation had never been this strong before, so why was it that when she was trying her best to be good, she could feel this twinge of... loneliness?

Sabina closed her eyes and sighed heavily, but in doing so, was unable to see the girl crossing her path. The two smacked into each other painfully, but Sabina only wobbled on her feet while the other girl hit ground, rear-first. It took the two a moment to realize what happened. The two apologized as Sabina realized who she just ran into. She wasn't hard to miss- her golden eyes, skin milky pale, but with a very light green hue, and green hair gave away her identity immediately as the only Tameran in their school. In other words, a girl whose parents were from another realm. Her name was Rayen.

Tamerans were a unique type of people, as anyone in Gaia would gladly tell you. If it wasn't immediately apparent from their appearance, their realm was much different from Gaia. Though there was an entire branch of science dedicated to understanding different realms and how humans had been changed, Tamerans were exceptional in that they likely were the furthest deviation from normal humans that were still in every other way "human". They were able to absorb several types of chemicals and nutrients through their skin, as well as photosynthesize using sunlight. In short, they were plant-like humans.

Before Sabina could say anything to the girl she had accidentally knocked over, she saw a small, black, cloth wallet at her feet. It wasn't hers, so she assumed Rayen had dropped it when they collided. She was the one whom bumped into the Tameran girl by mistake, so it would have been rude not to pick it up for her and return it. Even little things like this were considered "making amends", right?

It wasn't until after she had picked it up and turned to Rayen that she saw the look of sheer terror in her eyes. It was more intense than the rest of the class, as though Rayen was expecting Sabina to start beating her for bumping into her. She looked like she might even burst into tears.

Sabina was stunned by the look that greeted her. She knew there had been some pretty horrible rumors about her, but she had always done well to never cause any actual, physical harm to anyone. It was clear to see that the past month had amounted to nothing in the eyes of this girl, even though she was always kind to everyone. Was it already too late to change some of these people's minds about her now?

As she worried about these things, she gripped the cloth bag in her hand tightly. Once she did, her mind snapped back to the current situation. 'No,' she thought, 'I can show her.' Sabina held out the wallet towards the girl. "This is-"

"Yours!" the girl yelled out quickly. She had jumped in fright as Sabina spoke, even though the words had been soft. "Y-You can keep it!"

Sabina's head whirled in confusion for a moment. "Huh? Um, no. I-"

"I'm sorry! I won't do it again!" The girl yelled in a panic. Before Sabina could even utter another word, the girl grabbed her belongings and got to her feet, dashing away in a full sprint. Sabina was left holding the girl's wallet, unable to comprehend what had just happened so suddenly. Her only saving grace was that no one else saw what just happened, as only more rumors would have started, she was sure.

There was nothing else Sabina could do in this situation. Rayen had run off faster than she could have possibly caught up with her, so her only choice was to hold on to her wallet and try to return it again the next day. She had to clear up the misunderstanding. It wasn't just a matter of making amends, but what if Rayen told people about how Sabina had knocked her down and robbed her? An entire month of doing good would be completely wiped away and she might never get the others to trust her again!

* **

The rest of Sabina's day didn't improve from there. After school, she always took an extra hour to sit alone somewhere and study the notes she had taken during the day, but by the time she finished today, it had started to drizzle lightly. She didn't believe it was going to get much worse, so she decided to go on and continue with her goal of righting past wrongs. It seemed, however, that as soon as she arrived and knocked on the door of a woman well known for her grumpiness, that the drizzle quickly evolved into strong rain.

Sabina stood in the rain for two hours pleading for the woman to allow her to help fix what she'd done any way she could and stubbornly refusing to leave when told to do so. She weathered the insults thrown at her as she was completely soaked head-to-toe in the downpour. In the end, all she could get was a sour "Are you crazy? Look how hard it's raining! Come back tomorrow, you little brat. I'll have something for you to do then." and a door slammed in her face. It was interesting that the woman didn't seem to mind that Sabina was standing in that rain for two hours before commenting on it. She probably enjoyed how miserable the little girl looked.

She was forced to trudge home in the pouring rain (which, of course, only started to let up after she got inside) and quickly started up the boiler for another hot bath. That was the only real bright spot in her day, but even that was clouded by the persistent worry that had been plaguing her all day. She was barely able to concentrate on studying at all because of what happened with Rayen.

If Rayen decided to tell the school about what happened, that was it. Sabina wouldn't be able to fix things anymore. The rumors would spread quickly outside of school, and the strange looks that people were giving her now would go back to being cautious and untrusting. She needed to talk with Rayen tomorrow before classes began and set the record straight. It was the only way she could make sure she didn't lose all the progress she'd made.

As Sabina sat down to dinner with Milan, she thought about asking him what he thought, but he seemed very tired, so she just left out that incident when she talked about her day, deciding to vent to him about the time she spent in the rain instead. He responded with a simple pat on the head and told her that she shouldn't be pushing herself too hard. He also suggested she tell their mother about her day before going to bed. She didn't answer, nor did she follow his advice. She went to bed quietly and tried to put this harsh day behind her.

* **

Though she made sure to be early for school every day since she began her movement to change people's minds about her, Sabina left home even earlier the next morning. She had to make sure she caught up with Rayen before things got out of hand. It was going to be simple, she assured herself. All she needed to do was explain the situation and apologize for not giving her the wallet back sooner. Well, she didn't feel it was her fault this time, but that wasn't the point. She would apologize anyway.

The schoolyard looked to be nearly deserted when she arrived. She thought that perhaps she really did leave too early, but that was fine. She'd just wait for the plant-like girl to arrive. She was about to start wondering what she should do if Rayen wasn't alone when she showed up, but the silent atmosphere was broken as she heard someone make a loud noise behind the school building. Curious, she went to check it out, and she was immediately struck by what she saw.

"I don't... have it..." Rayen muttered pitifully. She had her back against the wall and looked even more pale than usual as three girls surrounded her, trapping her in a small area.

Sabina didn't recognize the other girls, but they must have been only a year or two older than she was. The tallest of the girls, obviously the leader of the group, leaned in very close, but talked loudly, trying to intimidate her prey. "What do you mean you don't have your wallet? Are you lying to me so you won't have to pay?" The hostility in her voice made it clear that if Rayen wasn't telling the truth to her, she would regret it.

"She's lying," the girl on the right, the shortest of the bullies declared, almost singing the words.

"She just doesn't want to pay for our kindness, Lanna" the third girl, her hair tied back even though it was rather short, said with a sneer.

Rayen shook her head. "No, it's the truth! I swear!" She seemed like she might start crying at any moment, but held on strong.

"Well, go home and get it!" the tall girl, Lanna, demanded, her blue eyes wide and unblinking as she ordered the girl to do what Sabina already knew was impossible.

"I... I can't," Rayen answered in a small voice, almost as if she were in pain.

The bully put her palm against Rayen's collar bone and pushed against her, pinning her strongly against the wall. "Why not?"

The green-haired girl struggled a bit, forcing out her words, which seemed stuck in her throat. "Sa... Someone took it," she said.

"Who took it?! I'll just take it back!"

"..." Rayen turned her head away and didn't respond.

Sabina felt a pang of guilt hit her while she eavesdropped from around the corner. Everything was starting to make sense now. This explained why Rayen was so wary of her; she still saw her as a bully, no different from the three gleefully torturing her right now. To make matters worse, Sabina accidentally "stealing" her money put her in a much worse position than before, as now she couldn't just pay them off, as it appears she had been doing all along.

The worst part, though, was that Rayen could have easily just told the bullies that Sabina had her money and they might have come looking to harass her instead, but she didn't. She stayed quiet, even in the worst situation, not wanting to get anyone else caught up in her troubles. To Sabina, this was no longer a simple misunderstanding. She really did need to make amends for the trouble she was causing.

Lanna stared down Rayen for a while, though the golden eyes refused to return contact. After a while, the tall girl shot an evil grin her way. "Fine. If you want to be that way, then we'll have fun doing something you don't need money for."

The shortest of the bullies looked confused for a second before her eyes lit up. "OH! I know! You're going to-"

Lanna held up a hand to silence her partner but never took her eyes off Rayen. "Not now. She'll have until sundown to think about what we're going to have her do," she said. "Do you know where that old woman who likes to sell bouquets and flower seeds usually sets up her stall in the market?" she asked, this time speaking to her prey once more.

"Y-Yeah," Rayen answered.

"Be there before the sun sets- or else," she ordered, glancing over to the girl at her left before grabbing Rayen by the shirt and throwing her towards the short-haired girl. She responded by sticking out her leg and tripping her victim.

Rayen hit the ground on her hands and knees and the others girls laughed at her expense. She held back as hard as she could, holding back her tears, but the anguish on her face and the slight shaking of her body showed very well how upset she was. She didn't have to look to see the horrible, pleased looks on their faces. She'd seen them enough already for that image to be burned into her mind. She just wanted them to leave her alone!

The girls continued to taunt her as they walked away and Sabina ducked back around the corner and hid out of sight. Honestly, those girls were intimidating, even to her. Even the shortest one was several inches taller than her. If they really wanted to, they could easily hurt her much worse than they had hurt Rayen.

Sabina decided to hold on to the wallet for now. It seemed like a bad time to give it back to her, and even if she tried, how could she face those golden eyes after seeing all that? What was she supposed to say? She had just made her life much worse by holding on to her wallet, yet Rayen never mentioned Sabina's name to anyone about it.

Even as the school day passed, Sabina never heard a word from anyone about a stolen wallet. Rayen had kept it to herself the entire time, which assured that Sabina's reputation didn't take a hit. Everyone acted normally, as though nothing was wrong. Apparently, Rayen had been keeping everything bottled up, pretending to be her usual cheerful self, even though she must have been terrified of what was going to happen to her at sundown.

Sabina ended up going on with her normal schedule after class. She would have to figure out a way to return the wallet later. There was nothing she could do anyway, so she would just leave things as they were. She was going to be a villain, after all, so something like a classmate being bullied shouldn't bother her... right? The more she thought about it, the more it made her head hurt.

She arrived at the house of the woman who made her wait in the rain for two hours the day before and knocked on the door. There was no answer, so she knocked again, but the door didn't open. Sabina paused for a bit, but decided to give it one more try before moving on to the next house. She wasn't about to wait outside of this hour for another few hours for nothing.

She knocked much louder this time and called out afterwards, "Chloé, it's Sabina! I'm here like you wanted!" She waited another moment, but there was no answer. She turned around to leave, but a rumble behind her made her stop and turn back. As if a large beast was running through the house, a loud commotion of rampaging footsteps quickly raced for the door, which flung open violently, though Sabina was thankfully out of range for it to hit her.

"YOU'RE LATE!" the older woman, Chloé, barked.

Sabina reeled back a bit, trying to get her mind around why it took her so long to come to the door and why she was suddenly being yelled at. "I-I came right over after sch-" she tried to explain, but the woman just seemed to want to yell at her.

"I'm busy right now! Go grab my medicine from Slaine and bring it right back! If you take so much as a second longer than you should, I'll make sure you regret playing around!"

Sabina wanted to yell back at the old woman, tell her off and call her names, but she held her tongue. She couldn't lose to her temper now after she had come so far. With a deep breath, she nodded and responded in the most level voice she could manage, "I'll go and get that for you, then."

"Don't take that tone with me!" Chloé roared. "You should be thankful I'm even giving you the privilege to make up for your horrible behavior. Now hurry up and get my medicine before I change my mind!"

The young girl couldn't respond any more kindly than before and didn't want to be accused of being rude, so she only nodded and walked away as quickly as she could, managing to suppress the internal screaming in her mind. This woman was going to be the death of her; she was certain of it. How long was she going to have to deal with her? The thought of that woman taking advantage of her situation and dragging out Sabina's atonement made her feel a little sick.

Slaine's clinic wasn't that far of a walk. As she made her way there, she looked out at the sun, which was already starting to dip towards the horizon. It was getting close to winter, so it made sense for it to be getting dark sooner, but Sabina wasn't thinking about that. In an hour or so, whatever evil plans Lanna and the others had in store for Rayen would be underway. 'Maybe if I head over there right now,' Sabina thought, 'I might be able to stop them.' She stopped walking stared off in the direction of the marketplace. She stood there, rooted in place for a few moments before lowering her head and continuing on her path to the clinic.

She felt more and more helpless with each step she took. By the time she reached her destination, she felt completely worthless, both as a villain and a human. She walked sullenly towards the clinic, past the crowd of people and knocked of the exit door. Thankfully, picking up medicine that was already prepared was a simple matter handled by the assistants. The line was only meant for those whom needed to have injuries looked at or some other form of consultation.

Sabina explained the situation to Slaine's assistant, Odella, a tall, plump woman with rosy cheeks, but was met with an untrusting gaze. In a tone that matched the look of suspicion on her face, Odella plainly told her, "I won't be able to give the medicine to you. She'll have to come and pick it up for herself."

The idea of Sabina walking back to Chloé's house and informing her of this made her chest feel tight. She was sure she was going to be yelled at for bringing her the medicine too slowly if she did manage to bring it, so she could only imagine what she'd hear from that old hag if she came back empty-handed. Not wanting to go through that ordeal, Sabina pleaded with Odella, but was met with a stern "No" at every angle.

Dejected, Sabina saw that she wasn't going to win this argument. This awful day just wouldn't let up for her. She was turning around for the hike back to Chloé's house when a voice caught her by surprise.

"It should be fine, shouldn't it?"

Sabina stopped in her tracks and spun around. Just coming out of the clinic were Slaine and...

"Maestro!" she raced towards the boy she hadn't seen in nearly a month. "What are you doing here?"

Scott sighed. He clearly still wasn't comfortable with that title, but decided to ignore it. He pointed to the bandage wrapped around his right arm. "Just getting blood taken, as usual," he said, sounding a bit annoyed, but quickly rebounded. "Anyway, you're running errands right now, aren't you?"

"Yeah, but..." Sabina frowned and her shoulders slumped as she trailed off.

Scott gave a quick look over towards Slaine. "Didn't you say she was doing really well lately? Maybe well enough to trust with delivering some medicine this one time?"

Slaine opened her mouth to say something, but stopped herself, seeming to reconsider whatever she had in mind. Figuring out exactly what she wanted to say, she told Scott, "While I admit I'm impressed with Sabina's behavior lately, the medicine she's asking for is a very strong laxative. In the wrong hands, the results could be very... unpleasant."

Scott nodded. "It's fine. I'll take full responsibility if anything like that happens."

Slaine gave the boy a skeptical look. "You shouldn't be so generous with your words. I know you and Sabina have some sort of agreement, but you haven't known her that long."

"It's fine," Scott replied. "If she's serious about what she wants, then I don't have anything to worry about. I'll trust her."

"Maestro..." Sabina felt a strange weight on her heart when she heard those words. It was the feeling of expectations and responsibility being placed on her by someone she respected, but she didn't fully understand the significance of that weight.

Slaine gave Scott a long stare, measuring how confident he seemed in his own wored. After a while of doing this, she looked at her assistant and shrugged, giving up. "You heard him."

Odella stayed silent as she stared at the doctor, the look on her face seeming to ask if she was sure of this, but when it was clear Slaine wasn't changing her mind, she reluctantly handed the medicine over to Sabina. It all screamed of being an awful idea, but her boss's word was law, so she would abide.

Sabina grabbed the medicine quickly from Odella before Slaine withdrew her offer, though she still thanked Odella and Slaine as she took it. She thought about hurrying back to Chloé's house to give her the medicine, but since she was going to get yelled out for being too slow no matter what, she decided to postpone the verbal punishment awaiting her for now. She looked at her maestro and asked, "So, you're going back to Himmel now, Maestro?"

Scott looked around a bit. "Well, Eren brought me here and was supposed to pick me up when I was done, but I think we finished a little early, so I guess I'm stuck here for now." He looked down at the young girl, her brown eyes staring intently at him behind her short black hair. It didn't take much effort to guess what she wanted to talk about. "I hear everything's been going according to plan. Everyone's been really surprised by the way you've been acting lately."

"Maestro, I..." Sabina tried to put exactly what she was feeling into words, but seemed stuck. She had so many misgivings lately about what she was doing and how it was supposed to help her become a villain- No, that wasn't quite right. The plan itself was fine; the fault was with her. Once she made amends with everyone, she didn't see how she could turn that into the power she needed to lead people. She felt like she was missing something. She felt...

"Maestro... am I too weak to be a real villain?"

She felt worse than ever after asking, especially with the look of disbelief her maestro was giving her. It felt like even asking that question was a betrayal of his expectations. Even worse, wasn't the fact that she had to ask the same as admitting that she was too weak? Without realizing it, she was holding her breath while she waited for the reply.

Scott didn't answer immediately, but thought honestly about the reply for a while before asking Sabina a question in return. "Aren't you a villain because you're weak?"

"Wh...What?" The young girl wasn't expecting that.

"The strong become heroes and the weak become villains, right?" Scott continued. "You're powerless, but very intelligent. That intelligence is what separates a real villain from a common criminal. You can't fight directly, so you use tools and tricks to overcome your challenges, even if it means cheating and playing dirty. You gain the trust of those standing in your way, and those who won't give you their trust, you crush with the number of allies you've gained."

"But I don't have anyone that stands with me, Maestro," Sabina said in a small voice, lowering her head. "I can't even make amends right because..." she couldn't find her voice to say that she was scared; not to her maestro.

"Why don't you start from the beginning?" Scott suggested. He wasn't sure of the situation, so he was having trouble giving her advice. "There really shouldn't be anyone standing in your way of making amends this early on, and even if there were, they shouldn't be bothering you this much."

Sabina hesitated before explaining the situation with Rayen. She did her best to avoid outright saying she was too much of a coward to stop the older girls, but she could tell that her maestro saw through her. She felt a little sick, though he never gave any indication of being disappointed with her. In fact, he seemed very understanding as she told him everything. Seeing that made her feel a little less ashamed of her fear.

"Alright, I see now," Scott said after hearing the full story. "I thought you were having trouble convincing someone you wronged that you weren't going to be harassing people anymore, but that's not it. This is about bullies that you've never met before and a classmate that has the wrong impression of you." Scott nodded blankly for a bit, then smirked wickedly at Sabina. "So? What's the problem?"

Sabina wasn't sure how to answer the question. Was he not listening to her story? "Maestro, I took her wallet. I still have it! Taking it caused her more trouble, so I have to make amends, right?"

"Yeah, giving the wallet back and explaining the misunderstanding would be enough to properly make amends," Scott explained. "After all, she doesn't know you know anything about her bullies, so she couldn't stay mad at you for getting her in trouble with them."

"Ah..." He was right, but...

"But that's not enough for you, is it?" Scott continued. "These bullies are more than just some kids harassing a classmate; they're your rivals, in a way."

"Rivals?" Sabina was seriously confused now. If he meant anything by that, it must have been... "Because they're villains too?"

"Exactly," Scott nodded, "but now that you're improving yourself as a villain, seeing these low-class thugs on your territory must be rough, especially since they're bigger and older than you."

"Maestro, I don't get what you're trying to say!" Sabina snapped as he hit a nerve. She didn't mean to yell at him, but he was saying exactly what she didn't want to hear.

"Well, I'm trying to say what I already said. What's the problem? You're a higher class of villain than these girls. When these kind of pests get out of control, it's your job as the proper villain to squash them," Scott told her, slapping his hands together to emphasize a "squashing" motion.

The young girl reeled back cautiously. "I... I have to beat them up?"

"No no no," Scott spoke quickly and shook his head. "You're still going to carry on with how you have been for the most part. Keep being nice and helpful to those you've caused trouble for and be a good example in school. Any time you're in the public eye, you are to behave like a role model."

"Then how do I-"

"Outside of the public eye, you're allow to bend the rules a bit," Scott said, that smirk returning. "Hurting others physically is always forbidden, and doing anything outside of school is probably a bad idea also, but other than that, you're free to do whatever you want to those would-be villains that don't know their place." Sabina still looked lost, so Scott decided to go on a bit further. "Would you say this Rayen girl is well-liked?"

"Well, she's really nice and helps everyone that asks her to do something for them. She's easy to boss around, but everyone likes her," she answered.

"And if your class were to find out that she were being bullied, what would they do?"

"...I don't know. Probably nothing," Sabina replied honestly. She wasn't sure, but she hadn't done anything in that situation, at least.

Scott laughed. "Yeah, that sounds about right. Everyone would want to help someone they liked if they were in trouble, but few people actually know what to do when things get serious." He gave a long, exaggerated shrug. "Buuuut that doesn't mean they won't act. They just need to be pushed into acting by someone who will lead them. In other words, they need someone to follow."

Sabina's eyes lit up. So she just had to lead the class into fighting again the bullies? She might be able to do that, but how? Just as she started to think of ways to do this, Scott interrupted her scheming.

"Don't get ahead of yourself," he warned.

"But, Maestro, you just said-"

"Getting the class behind you is the easy part, but you didn't fix the first problem."

"The first problem?"

"Your rivals," Scott reminded her. "If you jump straight to having the class help you defeat them, then there's a chance it won't work. Villains don't always back down against larger numbers. If things went badly, you might have an entire class getting bullied by a few girls because you didn't properly crush their spirits before you attacked them."

Sabina bit her lower lip for a moment, then asked, "How do I crush their spirits without using force? Even if I tried to fight them, I don't think I could win, so how do I win against them without fighting?"

Scott shook his head. "No, I never said you can't fight them. I said you can't hurt them physically. By all means, take the fight to them. I mean, you're more suited to wage war on bullies than anyone at your school right now."

"Because I'm a becoming a higher class of villain?" Sabina inquired.

"No," Scott said simply, "because you've already proved you're the most dangerous person there. Wasn't it you who broke every single window in the school?"

Sabina blushed and looked away, embarrassed. "You... heard about that?"

"I think everyone has," Scott said with a big smile, "but that's a good thing in this situation. Villains might not always be scared of a hero that opposes them, but a stronger villain? That's terrifying. Right now, those girls aren't worried about how 'high class' of a villain you are, but they do know what you did as a low class villain. Whether you like it or not, Sabina, your reputation is going to be your strongest weapon against them."

"So my-" Sabina stopped herself as what her maestro was saying finally sank in. Her eyes went wide as she looked at him and asked, "I get it! I see what I'm supposed to do now!"

Scott reached out and ruffled Sabina's hair. "Good. Now, I'll give you two gifts to help you out on your first big trial."

"Oh," A familiar voice called from behind Scott. "I'm not late, am I?"

Scott turned to Eren. "No, I got out early. You couldn't possibly have timed that better." He looked back at Sabina. "Actually, I misspoke. I'm going to give you one gift, and Eren's going to give you another."

"I'm... what?" The broom-wielding asked. "I-I'm sorry. I didn't bring anything. Was I supposed to?" she asked, flustered and trying to remember if she had promised such a thing.

Scott waved his in front of Eren to calm her down. "No, you're fine. It's just that it's almost sundown and Sabina needs to be somewhere right now. Could you use your magic to help her?"

"Oh, uh..." Eren hesitated a bit as her eyes locked onto the young girl. Her caution was always triggered when it came to Sabina. It was more of a conditioned response than anything. She consciously knew that Sabina had been working hard to change her ways, but her mind automatically triggered an alert anyway. She had to forcefully push away those worries before finally agreeing.

Eren readied a gate the market, but before Sabina told her she was ready to leave, she turned to Scott. "Maestro, you said there were two gifts, right? What's the other?"

Scott showed his most devious smile yet. It was a smile neither of the girls had seen before, and even Ian would have had a hard time believing it was something Scott was capable of, but for some reason, the situation was just right. "Oh, that? Well..."

* **

She understood! She understood perfectly now!

As Sabina dashed through the marketplace, she glanced up at the sun. It was very close to vanishing beyond the horizon. Chances were that Rayen had already met with Lanna and the other bullies, but even if there was a small possibility that she could stop Rayen from her demented captors, she had to try. It was important that she didn't let this opportunity slip away.

There! Just behind the largest tool shop in town, she spotted the group of four. It was obvious that it was them even from a distance. The way the three grouped around Rayen, as if forming a wall in front of her, gave it away. Sabina edged in closer the girls, keeping out of sight. She got just close enough to eavesdrop on their conversation, as she had done before. The group was quieter now due to the large crowd still shopping the marketplace in the last hour before all the stalls closed for the day.

"No, I can't do it! That's too much!" Rayen pleaded.

"Don't be a baby. We've all done it," the shortest girl said in a condescending tone.

"Listen," Lanna said, "just grab one and run. We'll watch you from here, so don't try anything funny."

Rayen shook her head fiercely, looking as though she might cry any second. "I can't! I'll get in trouble! I'm not stealing anything!"

"You won't get in trouble," the short girl assured her. "It's getting dark, and that old man doesn't have very good eyesight."

Rayen grabbed a lock of her green hair. "I won't be hard to recognize!"

Lanna grabbed the Tameran girl by the collar of her shirt and yanked her close so that their noses where nearly touching. "What are you saying? After how nice we've been to you, you won't even grab us one lousy apple? Do you want us to start being mean, Rayen?"

Rayen closed her eyes tight to try and stop from crying, but it was no use as she could only sniff pathetically, tears rolling down her cheeks. "...No..." she managed weakly with a quaking voice.

"Good. Then go grab me an apple and bring it back here," Lanna ordered, releasing her victim.

Sabina gained an understanding of the situation and left quickly. She knew what to do and would just wait for the right opportunity. The path to victory was clear to her now. All she had to do was go on the attack from here onward. Her maestro had given her all she needed to win this fight. She wouldn't let his advice or his "gift" go to waste.

* **

Rayen had no such confidence. Stealing? Her? She'd never even considered it before, but suddenly she was forced to do it or her life would become unlivable. No, even if she did, she was going to get in trouble. Her life was falling apart, and there was nothing she could do. No matter what choice she made, she was going to lose.

The girls walked out from behind the building and Rayen could see the large crowd of people, all soon to be witnesses to her forced crime. Lanna laid a hand on her shoulder from behind. Without looking, the gold-eyed girl could tell she was smiling as she whispered. "Go on. We'll watch your first theft from here. Don't disappoint us, okay?" With those words, Rayne was pushed roughly forward, only just keeping her balance as she stumbled a few feet.

She took a deep breath and began walking towards the fruit stand that was run by an old, balding man she could tell at a glance was very kind. With each step she made towards the stand, she felt heart beat faster, almost suffocating her. Why was this happening to her? What had she done to deserve this? Was it because she was a Tameran? She knew she looked odd in comparison to other Gaians, so did that mean it was okay to pick on her and make her life so miserable? She just wanted to live in peace!

Ever since new school year began, Lanna and her friends decided to do everything in their power to torture her. Whether it was stealing her money, destroying her belongings, or even hitting her, they just did whatever they wanted. She was afraid if she told anyone, the harassment would only get worse, so she suffered silently. She could deal with their threats, taunts and abuse, but making her steal? This was too much.

Before she knew it, Rayen was at the fruit stand, staring the old man in the eye. He looked at her curiously and smiled.

"What would you like today?" he asked. He looked at her with a soft and unsuspecting gaze, like a grandfather would his own granddaughter.

Rayen was supposed to have just dashed in, taken the apple, and ran before anyone saw her, but she was so caught up in her own head that she forgot all about not letting her face be seen (even though she knew she was the only Tameran her age in this town). Her eyes looked down at the display and her hands instinctively reach out for a large, healthy-looking apple. She picked it up and slowly pulled it to her chest.

"Oh, that's an excellent choice. Do you have the thirteen copper to pay for that?"

Rayen opened her mouth, but it was so dry she couldn't speak. She swallowed hard and tried again. "I... I, um..."

'Run. RUN!' her mind told her, but her legs were too slow to react. With all her might, she forced herself to move. First a step back, then another. Her eyes remained locked on the old man's, and she could see his expression suddenly change. He knew. He knew exactly what she was about to do, but she was already moving. It was too late to stop now. Rayen forcefully turned her body and ran with all her power, but...

A powerful force grabbed her by the wrist. She'd... she'd been caught! This was the end for her. She couldn't turn to face the old man. All she could do was clutch the apple as tightly as she could with her remaining hand. She could feel her fingers indenting the fruit as she did so.

"You'll have to forgive my friend. She's not good with strangers," the voice Rayen heard wasn't one she recognized right away. It took her a second to realize this was the voice of the person that had grabbed her wrist. She slowly turned her head, only to see an even worse sight than the old man, though. It was Sabina, the girl that had been terrorizing the town and... the person who recently took her wallet. This was too much. There was only so much bad luck a person should be allowed to have.

Rayen couldn't help but think this way at first, but what happened next completely changed that. She watched as Sabina pulled out a small, black, cloth sack with her free hand and, with a look to the green-haired girl, let her hand go so she could rummage through the wallet and pull out thirteen copper pieces. The bits of metal were all uniform, rectangular and indented in the middle. Tiny writing along the backside of the copper pieces all read "Blessed by the Seven" while the front had a group of three insignias, all representing the three largest continents in Gaia.

Sabina handed these to the old man and his expression changed back to normal, his suspicion of Rayen disappearing almost immediately. "Oh, I'm sorry. She was just being timid."

"Yeah, Rayen's shy, but she's a really good girl. Please treat her well when you see her," Sabina said, smiling.

"Of course," the old man nodded, smiling just as much as she was. "Oh, and Sabina, since you fixed my fence door last week, it's been acting better than when I bought it brand new. You did excellent work on it."

Sabina shook her head. "No, don't thank me. I needed to fix it since I was the one that broke it."

"Yes, but I wanted to thank you anyway," the old man told her.

After a kindly goodbye, Sabina looked at Rayen and grabbed her wrist once more, turning her hand so that her palm faced upwards and dropping the wallet onto it. She motioned to the wallet with her head and said, "You dropped this. Sorry it took so long to give it back to you."

Rayen felt like her understanding of reality was slipping away from her. She had heard that Sabina was acting good lately, but she was still a bully, wasn't she? Bullies never changed; they only learned to hide their crimes better over time. Sabina was the same as all the others... wasn't she? If not, then hadn't she treated her horribly by running away from her yesterday?

Before she could make a solid decision one way or another on Sabina, she felt herself being led by the wrist.

"Wh-Where are we going?" Rayen asked. Suddenly, she felt that she had just given this girl too much credit. Sabina was taking her in the direction she least wanted to go- back towards Lanna and the others. No, they weren't simply going in the same direction, they were heading right for them! Was Sabina a friend of Lanna's? Wait, that wouldn't make any sense after what had just happened.

After being practically dragged back to Lanna, she could see right away that they were definitely not comfortable as they watched Sabina approaching. There was no way these two were friends. She could even hear the short-haired girl whispering loudly to Lanna in a panic, "That girl! It's Sabina! What's she doing here?!"

Lanna whispered something back, but Rayen couldn't hear her. By the time the two reached the trio of tormenters, Lanna stood in front of the other two, looking annoyed with her arms crossed over her chest. She spoke confidently, looking down at the much shorter Sabina, "I hope you know you just ruined all our fun."

Sabina smiled wide and stretched her arms out. "The fun's just starting," she proclaimed. The look in her eyes could only be described as "wild" as she stared at Lanna, her gaze almost passing right through her.

Lanna hesitated only for a moment before regained her composure. "What do you want? If you're looking to join our group, I'm sure we can make you and Rayen partners. I'm sure she wouldn't mind having someone to share in our games." She gave a small laugh, thinking her threat was funny. The shortest of the bullies tried to call to Lanna in a worried voice, but was waved off.

"I don't mind joining," Sabina said plainly, her expression unchanged. Lanna was caught off guard by this response and struggled for a way to reply, but the younger girl continued, "I don't think you'll want Rayen in the group anymore, though. With me joining, the games are going to change, and I doubt she wants to learn the new rules. My games are more fun than yours, though."

Lanna narrowed her eyes. "Are... Are you threatening us?" she demanded.

Sabina shook her head. "No, of course not. Please bully me all you want in Rayen's place. Bully me until it hurts," she lower her voice for the last part, her face becoming very serious and her stare even more intense. She gave Lanna moment to respond, but the tall girl wavered and pulled back slightly.

Sabina smiled. "Well then, see you in school tomorrow," she said cheerfully. She grabbed Rayen by the wrist and turned her back to the bullies, walking away calmly as they remained dumbfounded by what just happened.

Rayen stared in awe of Sabina. There was no doubt she had been completely wrong about her all this time. She wasn't completely sure what just happened, but Sabina had either just given herself to her oppressors to save someone she barely knew... or she was planning on fighting them. Either way, she had come to her rescue, despite the two of them not being friends. Even worse, Rayen had treated Sabina as though she was no better than Lanna and the others. Yet still, Sabina had-

Her thoughts were stopped and Sabina suddenly turned her head to her, still leading her away from the marketplace.

"Hey, can you tell me what you know about those girls?" Sabina asked. The look on her face was normal once again, much to Rayen relief.

"Are... Are you going to fight them?" Rayen asked, worried.

"Fight? No, that'd be impossible."

Rayen gave a silent sigh of relief. She knew Sabina couldn't win in a fight against those girls. At the same time, she felt even more fearful for Sabina now, as that meant she really did intend to get bullied by them in her place. She couldn't let that happen. As happy as she was that someone was kind enough to take her place, her conscience wouldn't allow it. She stopped and turned to Sabina, ready to tell her that she couldn't let her do that, but before she could open her mouth, Sabina added-

"I won't fight them. I'll just dominate them."

Rayen felt her mind completely go blank as she was led away. The next thing she knew, she had found her way home somehow. She stumbled uneasily to her bed, the words echoing her in her mind. Dominate them? "Dominate"? What in the world did that mean? What was she supposed to think or say to a proclamation like that?

Rayen didn't sleep much that night, as she feared for the morning to arrive and for the horrors of the next day to reveal themselves.

 

 

 

Chapter 2 - The Young Songbird's Wings

In the crowded concert hall, thousands had come to hear her sing. There were murmurs among the crowd, excited for the start of the show. For many, it was their first time while others had travelled across the globe just to hear her again. Anyone who heard her song was mesmerized, as though a magical charm had been placed upon them.

The sweet, yet powerful voice of Songbird was known well across all of Gaia.

The one person whom admired her voice the most, however, was her own daughter. She aspired to her just like her mother and capture the heart of the world with her own singing. She practiced her singing thoroughly every day. She had the talent for it, budding as it was at her young age of ten. She had to fly high and reach the same level as the mother she idolized-- no, she had to reach even higher!

As the curtain rose, the audience fell silent. Every ear in the room wanted to hear the voice that was widely recognized as a treasure. They were greeted with a serene smile by a woman wearing finely tailored (as well as a bit flashy) clothing. In appearance alone, she was beautiful and majestic. An aura of confidence glimmered around her as she stood there, looking into the crowd with a gentle gaze. One might have thought that the crowd only hushed because they had become entranced by this woman.

Musical instruments varied between Gaia and other realms, but many of the concepts behind them were similar. For instance, a stringed instrument wherein the press of a key would trigger the string to be struck is notable in many realms by many different names. In Gaia, this type of instrument was called a "vascus". A vascus was a large instrument that curved around one playing it in a large semicircle. By its very nature, it was difficult for most musicians to play, but for the talented few, it meant steady employment by talented singers, and the woman lovingly dubbed "Songbird" was no exception. Most of her songs were done with the accompaniment of the vascus.

The melodic tone of filled the room and Songbird swayed slightly as she felt the music flowing through the air. The moment she opened her mouth, the entire concert hall was thrown back into their seats by the unexpectedly powerful voice that boomed from the woman's small frame. That wasn't the only thing that shook the audience, though; it was the emotion in her voice and the subtle body language that called out to them.

Her daughter stood just out of view of the audience. She had heard her mother's singing more than anyone else in the world, yet she never grew tired of it. Even so, it was only when her mother was on stage, singing to crowds this large that she felt her chest tighten. What was it that made singing to so many people so much more fulfilling? She wanted desperately for her day to come where she could do the same. She wanted to feel this way every single night, the way her mother must have felt right in this moment.

* **

Years passed and the daughter's wings spread as her talent blossomed spectacularly. By the time she turned fifteen, she felt ready to perform to live audiences as well. While most would agree that she was an excellent singer, there were critics who were skeptical that she was ready for the fame she was already receiving. They were aware that part of her early peek towards celebrity was due to her mother, but the harshest criticism she was given was that she was too inexperienced to be receiving the same amount of recognition at half the age. They worried she would burn out... or worse.

The girl never worried about things like that, though. Her goal was in sight; she was getting better every day and practicing tirelessly whenever she had free time. The crowds were getting bigger each night and that feeling she remembered so vividly when her mother sang to large crowds, she could feel it now as well, no matter how many people were listening to her sing. She couldn't get enough of that feeling. It was like an addiction. She wanted to keep singing until the day she died-- for the whole world to hear her voice.

Needless to say, her mother, though very proud of her daughter's ambition, began to worry. The woman, whose real name was Cassandra, tried her best to talk to her daughter. She told her of the dangers that stemmed from pushing herself too hard too fast, but her warnings were ignored. To her daughter, those words sounded hollow. Maybe she thought that Cassandra was jealous of her talent and was afraid of being overshadowed by her own offspring. Maybe it was just too late for the young songbird to do anything except the one thing that came naturally and fly ever higher towards the sun.

Sing. Practice. Emote. Project. Sing songs people love. Memorize. Write your own songs. Memorize. Sing louder. Sing more passionately. Become more beloved. More. More! Reach out and grab the heart of even those that want to see you fall! Don't stop! Don't falter! Reach higher... REACH HIGHER!

...And the young songbird's wings began to grow tired, despite her spirit to soar at the highest it had ever been. Her throat was sore for some reason, though she had been taking care of her beloved instrument properly. To be safe, she went to the doctor. She figured it was just a little fatigue and that there was nothing to worry about, but she didn't want to take any big risks with a possible cold or flu before any of her shows. As it stood, she already had five major performances lined up over the course of the next three days.

However, the doctor's diagnosis wasn't a simple cold or flu bringing on fatigue. Life was never so simple.

"It's good that you came in when you did," the doctor told her. "It appears to be the onset of acute laryngitis, but as long as you rest your throat and drink plenty of liquids, you should be fine. Just take it easy for the next two to three weeks and come back to-"

"Two to three weeks?" the girl was certain she heard her wrong. "I can't wait that long. I already have at least fifteen performances lined up in the next two weeks. I can't just cancel them all! I'll-" she stopped as a tickle in her throat make her start coughing unexpectedly. She had only strained her voice a bit, but it was already giving her this much trouble?

"I understand your concerns, but what's more important-- disappointing a lot of people for the next few weeks or permanently damaging your voice and never singing again?" the doctor asked pointedly.

Defeated, the young songbird closed her eyes and sighed quietly. "I hate it, but I don't have a choice, do I?"

The doctor smiled. "If you truly love singing, then no."

* **

The next two weeks were hard on the girl. She had put everything she had into becoming one of the best singers in the world, and while she knew she was still far from reaching her goal, she couldn't help but feel that every day she went without singing pushed her further and further back. To her, it was maddening. Every fiber of her being begged her to serenade the world with all her heart and soul, but she held back with all her might. "It's just for a few more days," she repeatedly told herself.

The concerts she had lined up came and went without her. The venues filled her spot with somewhat less notable, yet still talented, singers who all wished for their own time in the sun. There seemed to be a momentary panic with rumors about the young songbird being seriously ill, some even exaggerating the news to her being on her deathbed. That all died down pretty quickly as she was still seen walking the streets, looking perfectly fine.

It was a bit painful, to tell the truth. The girl wished she was indeed on her deathbed sometimes as everyone she looked at seemed to be giving her a look of disapproval. She could see it in their eyes, the questions they wanted to ask. "You look fine. Why did you cancel your show?", "Do you really think you should be showing your face in public right now?", and even worse "Don't you care about anyone but yourself?".

In reality, no one was really thinking such things, but the young girl's guilt over all of her missed concerts was making her feel paranoid. By the end of the second week, she was truly terrified that no one was going to remember her. No matter what others told her, she was certain that she had fallen from the hearts of those who had adored her only a short while ago. They were merely the misgivings of youth and inexperience, but to her, these worries were her reality.

She endured this self-inflicted torture for two painful weeks and returned to the doctor to be cleared to sing once again and regain what she believed she had lost. She hadn't felt any irritation for a few days now, and as much as she would have liked to start back on her usual path the moment she felt even slightly better, she forced herself to hold back. It was only when she met with the doctor that she reached her limit.

"What do you mean 'one more week'? I feel fine!" she declared. She couldn't believe the doctor was suggesting she go a third week without exerting her voice.

"I'm sorry, but there's still a lot of redness. I won't feel comfortable enough to let you go out there and sing like that," the doctor informed her. "You'll just have to tough it out for another week until we can be sure you don't strain anything." The doctor handed the young songbird another prescription for a week's worth of antibiotics and led her out the door, not hearing a single word more of protest.

After being led out, the young girl looked at the piece of paper in her hand for a long while in silence. At that moment, something in her mind snapped. She couldn't take another week without singing. It was her life, her love, her destiny to be the best, and if she didn't achieve it now, she may never be able to do it. That's what she thought as the crumpled prescription found its way into the trash.

She knew herself well enough to say that she was fine now. She'd take care of her voice like she always had and if she started feeling like she was pushing herself, she'd stop. That's what she told herself as she left the doctor's office, ignoring the warnings given to her and following her heart back onto the stage where she belonged. She had been gone too long already, and it was time now for her to reclaim her rightful place at the top.

Over the next couple of days, the young girl found that setting things back on track was surprisingly easy. It was so simple, she actually began to realize her own paranoia at the idea that people had forgotten her so quickly. Of course no one would forget her so easily. After all, she was going to be the single best singer to ever grace the stage. The mere notion was insanity, she understood, but while her fears shrank, her ego expanded larger than ever. Her sole purpose was so clear to her now that all she could see was the stage where her future self would stand dominant over all others.

With that, the young song bird spread her wings wider than she had ever done before. The crowds were even larger than before, and she felt a strong sense of relief. People had missed hearing her sing. They wanted to see her return even stronger than she had been before. It was a very moving sentiment to her, and she didn't want to let down their expectations.

The first couple of concerts went wonderfully. She took back to the stage as though she had never left and was in top form. She went through the entire concert without ever feeling any irritation at all in her vocal cords for two nights in a row. After the second concert was over, she knew the doctor had just been overly cautious. Her worries wholly disappeared... until the third night.

It was here that she started to feel that tiny bit of irritation again. It wasn't much, though; at least no more than it had been when she first went to the doctor as a precaution. This time, she convinced herself that it was her imagination. She knew she was better now. She had done everything she needed to and took her medicine diligently the two weeks before. The discomfort she felt was all in her head, caused by her lingering worries and paranoia from disobeying the doctor's wishes. She had to force herself to believe this, as the alternative was to start cancelling concerts again, and she absolutely would not allow herself to do that.

The fourth night, during her second concert of the night, she felt herself slip. It was only a slight crack in her voice and was so minor, no one in the audience was likely to have caught it. She knew, though. The young songbird felt herself flying too high for her own safety. She knew this, but continued to go higher. It was too late to stop her ascent after she had come so far, so she would keep going until she had to stop.

Night seven came, and it was here that she finally started to feel some legitimate pain in her throat as she sang. She had been doing her utmost best to rest and nurture her voice when she wasn't singing, but the strain was getting to be too much. The idea of stopping blinked in and out of her mind, but she wouldn't allow the thought to settle even for a moment. She had to push forward. If she stopped again, people would lose faith in her.

It was night eight that really did it for the young girl, though. She had two concerts that night, and the pain was already feeling worse than ever. The first concert was an outright disaster, as the cracking in her voice was noticeable to everyone in the audience. It was an unpleasant sounding tone that was almost incapable of being called "singing", and it occurred more and more frequently as the night progressed. By the end of the first performance, she felt ashamed of herself, despite the fact that the audience seemed willing to overlook her mishaps.

It was the second concert of the night that would be her downfall. Ignoring what should have been the obvious option to anyone, the young songbird decided to push herself and her voice to the absolute limit. It was the worst possible decision she could make, and even she knew this. However, in her mind, it was impossible for her to make the right decision. She had set herself up for what was to come.

As she forced herself through her now constantly cracking and squeaking voice, she could only see the disappointment and disgust of those in the audience. She could tell exactly what they were thinking as she poured her heart and soul into the cacophony of lyrics. "This is the daughter of the songbird?" "Everyone said she was really good, but this is unbearable!" "I want my money back!"

This time, it wasn't paranoia that made her think this. Anyone with a working pair of ears could tell you that she shouldn't have been on stage.

Even though she knew what everyone was thinking, she forced herself to continue... and held back her tears. What was she even doing? Why was this happening? Why had she been so stubborn? She had been messing everything up, hadn't she? She'd definitely go back to the doctor tomorrow. This was too much for her. She should have listened.

And then it happened.

The young songbird's wings, as though made of wax, melted away as she flew towards the sun, blinded by her own ambitions. She stopped singing in the middle of her song, not because she was forced to stop, but because her voice left her. She tried to sing, forced her voice even more than before, causing an intense pain, but nothing came. And just as she realized it was gone, so too did her senses leave her.

She could barely understand why she was sinking. Her knees buckled and she fell, but her arms couldn't support her as she collapsed in the center of the stage. All she knew was that her face was wet from some reason. Was she crying? Why? Why did it feel as though she had lost something so important, yet only had herself to blame? She didn't understand in that moment. All she knew was that her heart and mind were being rent and darkness was flooding into the gaps that opened.

* **

"What do you mean 'nervous breakdown'?! She's only fifteen!"

"Even so, it appears she's been pushing herself, even against my orders for her to hold off another week before resuming her performances. I don't know what drove her to think she had to get back on stage so quickly, but it's clear that she was putting a lot of pressure on herself."

The young songbird-- no, that wasn't right anymore. Without wings or a voice, the girl couldn't think of herself as such a beautiful creature anymore. From her hospital bed, the young girl listened to her mother frantically trying to make sense of what had happened as the poor doctor, the one she had so deliberately disobeyed, explained what she understood of the situation.

Honestly, she could barely hear any of what they were saying. She just stared lethargically in the direction from which the noise was coming. The world around her was a blank white canvas. There were no colors or beauty in anything she saw, even the clear blue sky outside her window or the dozens upon dozens of people that sent their best wishes for a fast recovery. These were the people that had attended her past concerts and had become fans. Well, they were former fans now. No one would want to attend the concert of a muted girl, would they?

Weeks passed, and the young girl's voice eventually returned, but not in the form it was before. It was a raspy, scratchy voice that she, for the longest while, refused to acknowledge as her own. When she spoke, she could see people cringe, and that caused the cracks in her heart to widen even more. Any time she saw that look on a person's face, she immediately stopped speaking, and often refused to talk again for the rest of the day... sometimes several days.

With no progress being made, her doctor spoke again with her mother to offer a solution. She told her she knew of a shrine that was wonderful at helping girls her age overcome all sorts of problems. She told her that, with luck, she might start showing some improvement within a few weeks, maybe sooner. Songbird was reluctant to agree to this, but the doctor assured her that her daughter wasn't going to start feeling better by staying in a small room all alone. If she was going to start seeing any improvements, it was only going to be after she was forced to interact socially with her peers in a safe area.

When Songbird continued to show hesitation, the doctor laughed. "Did I mention the shrine I was thinking of was in Himmel?" she asked with a knowing smile.

It took Songbird a moment to process what that had to do with anything, but her eyes grew large as it dawned on her. There was no doubt that Himmel Shrine was the place where one of the Magicians of Gaia resided. Yes, everyone knew about the horrible incident that led to her being sheltered there by now, but that was beside the point. What was important right now was...

"You could... have her accepted there? We're several towns away. They'd likely tell us to find a closer shrine."

The doctor nodded. "Yes, under normal circumstances, that might be the case, but the shrine head just happens to be my sister, and while she might not just accept your daughter on my word alone, I do know she's been getting a lot of flak from some of the other shrines lately for having some considerably underwhelming winter festivals lately."

"I'm afraid I don't follow," Songbird seemed a bit worried about the direction this was heading. Was the doctor asking her to sing at the festivals? She wasn't against doing so in general, but she was afraid how it would look, having her daughter only being taken in by the shrine because her mother was performing for them.

"Don't get the wrong idea," the doctor said, waving her hand as though she were brushing away the negative thoughts in Songbird's mind. "I'm saying the festivals she would like to throw are just out of her budget, but I'm sure a donation from a certain entertainer might just be able to help her out."

"So a bribe..."

"We'll call it 'funding'," the doctor said with a smirk.

"I'm not too sure about this," Songbird mumbled quietly. She didn't like the idea of bribing a shrine head, and it wasn't even that different from being asked to sing for them. It was just money instead of services.

"Listen," the doctor's tone shifted to a much more serious one. "A bribe alone would never get your daughter into Himmel. Trust me, I know more wealthy people than you have tried. The difference here is that you not only have the money to offer, but you also have not only your own, but your daughter's notoriety of fame. With those and my suggestion, well pleading, really," the doctor looked away and mumbled those last few words under her breath before resuming normally, "I'm sure she'll accept your daughter into Himmel Shrine. My sister doesn't care much about money in most cases, but more about reputation. If she sees your daughter's presence as a boost in her shrine's reputation, she'll gladly accept her. The rest is just incentive."

Songbird stayed quiet for a while and contemplated the offer the doctor was making. She'd never personally attended a shrine before, but knew the good (and bad) that could be brought out of a person under the right conditions. Many of the wonderful musicians she'd known had been orphaned and raised in shrines, but this wasn't some orphan they were talking about, it was her daughter.

In the end, all Songbird could say was that she'd want to meet with the shrine head first before deciding anything. If this woman was too shady, she would flat-out reject any notion of her daughter attending. She'd also have a chance to talk with the people at the shrine and see how they liked it there. Also, if she were being completely honest, she wouldn't have turned down the offer to talk with young Jorri. Even for a well-known singer like herself, opportunities like that weren't very common.

By the time preparations were made for the visit, the young girl had stopped speaking entirely, too disgusted by the sound of her own voice to even speak. From the moment she left the hospital to the time she arrived at the shrine, her gaze was distant and she was unresponsive. She understood well enough to know what was happening around her, but her interpretation was that she was "broken" and coming to this place would "fix" her. She knew better than that, though; she couldn't be fixed now.

Rife with self-pity, the girl was escorted out of the carriage and towards a series of massive archways that led to the shrine's entrance. At the first archway where a long, paved walkway began, there stood two women. The first, the taller of the two, seemed very busy and was quickly coordinating with several other girls and women, some as young as ten and others old enough to be her grandmother. Everyone aside from these two women were wearing plain white robes, meaning they were just ordinary clerics, maybe even volunteers; it was impossible to tell just by looking.

The taller woman seemed to be in charge based on how she was issuing out orders. The girl couldn't really tell what she was doing, but if she had to guess, she seemed to be making sure everything was perfect for this visit up until the very last second. The shorter, slightly older woman that was there to greet them didn't seem to be in any sort of hurry, though. She just stood there casually and politely bowed her head to the two as they approached.

"It's nice to finally meet you two," the shorter woman said in a kind and gentle tone. She looked at the mother. "You must be the one they call 'Songbird'- oh, but that's so awkward. May I call you Cassandra? Or how about Cassy?"

The young girl, feeling like she had been in a dreamlike state up to this point, looked up at the older woman. The fog in her mind seemed to momentarily fade as this woman spoke. Was... Was this woman being serious? Her mother, the woman she personally referred to as "mom", but millions around the world lovely dubbed "Songbird"-- she wanted to call her "Cassy"? She was practically dismissing the entire point of the nickname, given to the woman with the golden voice. Yet the way she talked gave no indication of disrespect. Her demeanor was that of a close friend. It was a bit of a shock to the young girl, but not as much as the next words her mother spoke.

"Oh, I can tell just by the description your sister gave; you must be Shrine Head Elise."

THIS woman was the head of the shrine?! Not the taller woman behind her taking care of all the extra duties for her visit? While the fog in her mind had dissipated, a new kind of numbness was setting in as her mother continued to speak with the Shrine Head. It was a bit hard for her to keep track as she wondered if she should really be staying in such a strange place. It wasn't until she felt her mother's soft hand on her back that she realized she was being spoken to. She looked up with a confused look at Elise, but didn't say anything. Rather, she wouldn't say anything. That much she had already decided. She refused to speak unless she had no other choice.

Shrine Head Elise, seeing the confusion in the girl's eyes repeated herself. "I was saying that I've been wanting to meet you since my sister informed me of your troubles. It must have been tough on you." Her tone and gaze were both very soft, giving off a motherly vibe.

The young girl was caught off guard for just a moment, so much so that she nearly opened her mouth to respond verbally, but she forced back this desire quickly and looked down. She knew it; she didn't want to be here after all. This woman was just pitying her, but she was already doing that on her own. She didn't need to come this far just to have others pity her as well.

"Well, it's fine if you don't wish to speak. I understand," Elise said with a small nod. "Instead, how about we have a look around? We've prepared a little bit for your arrival."

'A little bit, huh?' the young girl couldn't help but think as she looked back at the taller woman, who was heading back into the shrine now, quietly talking with a couple of girls, though her expression still seemed rather urgent. Again, she wasn't certain, but she was growing more and sure that this woman was in charge of some big ordeal for her arrival. Watching her, she could only wonder what was inside. Well, it would have been rude not to at least check and see.

The girl gave a small nod and Elise clasped her hands together and smiled brightly. "Good!" she cheered. "Follow me! Follow me!" As she said this, the older woman, no younger than her mid-fifties, began skipping towards the shrine's entrance, suddenly making the girl feel as though going back to a small hospital room was indeed the best decision to make right now. Still, with another coaxing hand at her back from her mother, she moved forward.

She noted as she approached that the doors to the shrine were much larger than she first thought. They were so large, in fact, that they couldn't be opened manually, but instead relied on a contraption of magic and... well, okay, she didn't actually know how the door opened from the first glance at it, but it moved on its own by the pull of a handle. This, she admitted, was incredibly neat, though equally pointless in her opinion. Later, she would actually find that the way the doors opened was entirely mechanical. She had just assumed it was magical because of one of the shrine's residents.

The doors slowly creaked open, revealing two young girls around her age. The first was a girl with waist-length, wavy, dark brown hair. It was the first feature of this girl that drew the eye, but her eyes were the very next thing someone would focus on, though it was hard to express why, exactly. In a word, the way she looked at her was "sharp". It felt like she was seeing the girl in a different way than other people saw her. She couldn't say why that was, though, and everything else about this girl said she was a gentle person. Maybe she was imagining things?

The other girl, the braided redhead, was obviously that girl-- the famous young Magician of Gaia and poster child of Himmel Shrine, possibly even the poster child for the entire town of Himmel. Just say the town's name, and the reply always leads to her, Jorri, illusionary magician. The young girl knew about Jorri as much as most others did, even why she was living at this shrine in the first place, but you wouldn't know it by looking at her. The smile she gave was completely, genuinely from the bottom of her heart. No amount of acting or illusions could reproduce such a smile. She couldn't help but be a little awestruck.

Elise gestured to the two. "As is custom here, we like to have some of the clerics that live here show newcomers around," she explained. "Usually, we have someone else handle this, but that person has recently left our shrine to pursue her own future endeavors. In the meantime, we'll be having one of our newer residents, Edith, showing you around, but since this is her first time, we're going to have a certain someone accompanying her." She couldn't help but smirk at the mother and daughter as she said that.

Jorri approached the young girl and offered her hand out towards her. "Nice to meet you. I'm Jorri. What's your name?" The serene smile never left her face as she spoke, giving a calming effect.

The young girl opened her mouth automatically to answer, her guard down, but held back for just a moment. That's right, she wasn't going to speak. Of course, she couldn't very well snub one of the most important people on Gaia, so her hand had been forced. The hesitation was forced away just as soon as it had arrived and the young girl reluctantly answered.

"My name.... is Hilja," she said, wincing internally at her own voice. That would have been bad enough by itself, but just for an second, she could see it. The brightness behind Jorri's smile faded and the look in her eye changed, but it returned almost instantly. If she hadn't been staring the cleric right in the eye as she spoke, she would most probably have missed it, but she was absolutely sure that Jorri, even as positive of a person as she seemed, was off-put by the wretched sound of her voice. More than ever, Hilja wanted to turn around and leave.

She might have actually done so if not for the fact that Jorri was making such an effort to hide her discomfort, and again, she couldn't exactly storm out on one of the saviors of the world. All the same, she was well aware of what her decision would be by the end of this visit. This shrine simply wasn't for her. She didn't want to alienate everyone here with her noise.

As Hilja was reaching this decision, her mind was snapped back to her current situation as Jorri suddenly grabbed her by the wrist and began leading her down the hallway. "Come on," she urged, "there's a lot to see!"

Hilja went along with it, mostly still confused by the sudden act. Wasn't Jorri being a little overly friendly right now? Was this how she normally was? Actually, maybe this was more normal than she realized, Hilja debated. She had focused so much on singing, but never really cared much about making friends. She was travelling so much that even if she started to get close to anyone, she would almost always be heading to another town the next day. Was this...?

She shook her head. No, she was just getting caught up in Jorri's pace. She shouldn't let this kindness fool her. Hilja had already seen that look in her eyes. Jorri was just being nice because she was supposed to act that way. It was expected of her as a Magician of Gaia. She had to make sure she didn't confuse that with a legitimate offering of friendship.

"Hey, Jorri!" the other girl, Edith, protested, "I'm supposed to be the one showing her around!" she yelled out towards the two, having been left behind unexpectedly.

Jorri looked back with a mischievous grin and called back, "I've always wanted to do the tours myself. I'll take care of it this time, and you can have the next time."

"Th-THAT'S NOT FAIR, JORRI!" Edith shouted down the hall and burst into a full sprint to catch up to the two of them.

As the girls disappeared out of sight, Songbird looked at Elise and mused, "Introducing Hilja to Jorri so soon, huh? You're really trying your best to get her to want to stay. I'm surprised you didn't have her outside waiting for the carriage to arrive."

Elise raised an eyebrow. "You're suggesting I'm using Jorri's fame to persuade your daughter into staying?"

"Aren't you?"

"Dear," Elise said, half laughing, "if I was so desperate to convince your daughter to stay, I'd have invited you to come for dinner. If she stays around long enough to taste Morina's cooking, she won't be leaving."

Songbird rolled her eyes. "Oh, don't play dumb. I saw how frantic your high priestess was out there, running around trying to make sure everything's perfect for our visit."

"Oh, that reminds me!" Elise said, raising a finger as she recalled something important. She looked around for the high priestess in question and called out to her. "Kathryn! How are the preparations coming along?"

High Priestess Kathryn, who was just finishing instructing a few more volunteer clerics on something, nodded and walked towards Elise. She was a bit stressed, but hid it well enough. "Well, we're not looking too bad. We've had a great turnout for the number of volunteers this time around, so we should be able to get everything together by the end of the day. The alumni will be very pleased, I think, even if the altar room is a bit cramped."

Songbird couldn't have but grimace slightly as she realized she was about to look very foolish. "A...Alumni?"

Kathryn gave a big smile as she nodded. "Yes! Around this time every year, we hold a big ceremony for those who used to live in the shrine, but were able to move past whatever events led them here and start their life over. There's food, drink, emotional speeches made by those that wish to share-- we try to make it a bit casual and easy to attend. Most of the younger clerics don't really find it that interesting, but you're more than welcome to come and enjoy the event. We won't ask you to sing, of course; you can just visit quietly, if you'd like."

Songbird felt a little sick as her suspicion of looking like a fool was right on target, and Elise's smirk wasn't helping matters. She tried her best to hide this as the shrine head chirped, "Just remember that Hilja's future is up for her to decide on, but as far as you're concerned," she put her hand on the singer's shoulder and said in a smug tone, "I'm just doing you a favor. Please remember that, Cassy." The smile remained after she spoke, but the look in her eyes turned somewhat malicious. They challenged Songbird to go against her.

Songbird nodded meekly, only now realizing what the doctor had been telling her before when she said she only cared about the reputation of her shrine. She didn't mean that she wanted to use the fame of others to boost its reputation, at least not at face value. As far as this woman went, the Himmel Shrine's reputation and her own were the same. Anything that interfered with the harmony of either was considered poison. She wasn't going to use Hilja to boost the shrine's reputation, she was allowing her the opportunity to add to the foundation she had already solidified.

As this understanding crept into Songbird's mind, she could only smile and lower her head in defeat. "I'll be sure to remember that," she said, giving in to the pressure of the older woman's strong spirit.

The shrine head beamed. "Good! Now, while the girls are showing young Hilja around, why don't you come with me. I'll give you a look at what we have to offer. I'd have suggested you take the tour along with Hilja, but we old folks really do suck all the fun out of the experience, don't you think?"

"I-I'm only thirty-four, though," Songbird protested in a small voice.

"Thirty-four and already turning grey. I know how hard that can be, Cassie," Elise said, her words sounding cheerful, but the intent behind them was anything but.

Songbird winced slightly at the words and was about to retort, but Kathryn took a few steps forward and whispered to her, "I don't know what happened, but it seems you might have said something that struck her the wrong way. Just play along with her and she'll calm down, okay?"

Songbird let out a small sigh and nodded. She gave up what little pride she was holding onto for the sake of her daughter and her own sanity. "Yes, Shrine Head Elise, I'd be very grateful for a personal tour."

"I knew you'd see things my way," Elise cheered. Now follow me and we can discuss what arrangements would need to be made in case your daughter chooses to stay here. There's also the other private matter of the donation my sister said you would be willing to give."

"'Donation', huh?" Songbird couldn't help but give a wry smile as she heard that word. It did sound a lot better than "bribe". She followed Elise, and two walked off in down the hall and down a separate corridor than the girls. Sensing the vocalist's defeat, the shrine head went a bit easier on her from there on.

* **

"This is the garden area," Jorri told Hilja, making a sweeping gesture as she opened a door leading outside to a massive field of flowers and plants. There were all sorts of blossoms and herbs, but Hilja could only name a few just by looking at them. It was fairly impressive, she had to admit.

Edith, begrudgingly forced to play tagalong this time, said, "This is probably Jorri's favorite place in the whole shrine. What do you think of it, Hilja?"

Hilja had been getting prodded and prodded the entire tour to talk, but she kept her mouth shut. She didn't care at this point if she was seen as snubbing the two (which she wasn't). Instead, she just smiled and nodded strongly, even giving a thumbs up to show her appreciation for the garden.

Edith and Jorri exchanged glances, but didn't say anything. They had both been informed of Hilja's circumstances, and didn't entirely expect to get her to open up easily, but they were trying. They thought they were doing a pretty good job of easing the questions in without pestering her, but weren't entirely sure. Either way, they weren't getting anywhere.

They continued to lead Hilja here and there, a few of times passing by a large area marked "Altar Room". The first couple of times they passed by it, there were several people busily moving things like chairs and tables in and out, but this time things appeared to have calmed down. Curiosity got the best of her, so she inquired about it to her two tour guides, pointing to the room wordlessly.

"Oh, that?" Edith said, sounding a bit puzzled as she stared hard at the room. The shrine was rather large, and though she'd been living there for almost two years now, she was drawing a blank. For the first time since she started showing Hilja around, Edith was thankful that Jorri had butted into her tour so that she could give her the answer.

"The altar room is mostly used for major ceremonies, though we also sometimes use it during festivals when the overflow of patrons is higher. On one occasion, it's also been used by the town council, but only because the town hall had been, um... destroyed," Jorri sheepishly admitted.

"Hm?" Hilja asked wordlessly. The look on her face clearly expressed how she felt without the need to speak, as it asked, "Destroyed?! How? Why?"

"I don't know all the details, but apparently one of the resident fire elemental magicians was having issues with them and lost her tempter." In response to Jorri's explanation, Hilja could only give her an odd look, but seemed at a loss for words, so Jorri quickly changed the subject. "So, want to take a look inside? It's usually nothing special, but they're going to have a big thing tomorrow night, so it's being decorated right now."

Hilja hesitantly gave a small nod in agreement, looking uneasy, but following Jorri's lead anyway.

Once inside, the girls saw exactly how far along the setup for the room had come. There was still much work to be done, but it was clearly coming together. The chairs were almost all in order, the tables were arranged properly and only needed to be set and have food put on them, and the stage was already put together at the front of the room, ready for anyone willing to make a speech. The stage wasn't that large, but it was large enough to someone to walk around a bit comfortably and a large, red velvet curtain was set as the backdrop, eclipsing the entire wall behind it. The main thing that needed attention right now was the decorating along the walls.

The unique thing about the walls of this room was that they were all made of smooth, black slate. This meant that anyone that had access to chalk and desired to make a statement could come in and write down any messages they needed, or in the present case, with several different colored chalks, they could create interesting designs and pictures. Some of the ones already on display were quite impressive while others... well, the people that drew their pictures had tried their best for sure. Still, the majority of the walls were still blank, so there was a lot of creative work still needed to be done.

Edith appeared quickly by Hilja's side, wrapping an arm around her shoulder and holding a few different sticks of colored chalk. "So how good are you at drawing?"

Hilja broke away quickly and waved her hands desperately in front of her. Her skills at singing might have been very good, but drawing? No, she was notoriously bad with things like that. She was so bad, even the art classes she took when she was younger gave her an "exempt" after each student had been asked to do a portrait of the person beside them. All she had done was take some artistic liberties, but she never meant to make anyone cry... especially the teacher.

Edith waved away Hilja's worries and forcibly placed the chalk in her hands. "Don't worry if you're not good at it. Just make some wavy designs or something. It doesn't need to be anything amazing." She smiled and led the former singer to the blackboard. "Just express yourself however you want. If you end up not liking it, just remember you can always erase it."

Hilja stood uneasily in front of the clean, black slate. Well, if they were going to make her draw, she would just draw something simple, she decided. She knew drawing anything realistic was likely a bad idea, so she'd try some fancy design like Edith suggested. She slowly raised a green piece of chalk to the board and-

"HELP! JORRI! EDITH!" A loud shout came from the doorway, and everyone's heads turned quickly to see a girl, maybe ten years old, looking terrified.

"Calm down, Seble," Jorri urged. "What's wrong?"

The girl was trembling and her voice shook as she tried to explain. "Z-Zuri was, um, she was carrying one of the old chairs out, and um, she... she dropped it, but it hit her ankle, and it started bleeding! A lot!"

"Where is she?" Edith asked, a very serious and professional demeanor resonated from her.

"Just down the hall," Seble answered, pointing in the proper direction.

"I'll grab Lannashé," Jorri told her.

"I'll get the first aid kit," Edith followed up, but turned quickly to Hilja before heading to leave. "Sorry, Hilja, but could you wait here for a bit? We just have to take care of this." Hilja nodded understandingly and Edith thanked her, adding, "Go ahead and draw whatever's in your heart. Jorri and I will check it out when we get back, okay?" Without waiting for a reply this time, Edith moved quickly out of the room to grab the first aid kit and attempt to help with the situation down the hall.

Hilja was left alone in the room, not sure what to do, but decided to just draw something anyway. She wasn't much use in difficult situations to begin with, and was unable to perform any sort of first aid, so she'd let the other two handle things. All she could do was just follow their instructions, but there wasn't anything her "heart" was telling her to draw. She put her hand to her chest and searched for what she wanted most. Each beat of her heart spoke the same desire, and her eyes wandered to the stage set up in the room. What she wanted most couldn't be expressed visually.

With a quick glance around the room, Hilja confirmed she was alone, and she quickly walked to the open door of the altar room and closed it. Just once more. She needed to get this out of her system or she'd never be satisfied; she had to sing her favorite song one more time and then never again. She had to... say goodbye to her past self, even if it was painful to hear her own voice destroying something she loved.

She slowly walked onto the stage and stood there, unable to actually allow herself to start singing. To say goodbye to something so dear to her was cruel to even suggest, but she knew she had failed as a singer. She hadn't just failed herself, though, she failed everyone that supported her. She had to stop allowing these feelings to linger. A failure had to learn to give up.

With these bitter emotions fueling her, Hilja sang for a few seconds before stopping. The singing was half-hearted and her voice was no different than if she were running broken glass against the slate walls. What was she even doing? Couldn't she just let everything go and act like a decent failure? The entire point of quitting was because of how awful she sounded, so why was it so hard to just admit to herself she needed to stop? Why... Why did she still want to sing so badly even though she hated this voice so much?!

She was driving herself mad. 'Sing your final song so you can stop forever,' she told herself. 'Don't sing with that awful voice!' another part of her countered. 'Sing because you love it!' 'No, give up! You're not worthy to represent the songs you love!' She grit her teeth, on the verge of another breakdown when an unexpected question was asked of her, one she had already asked herself.

"Why'd, you stop?"

A small, surprised noised escaped Hilja's lips before she could catch it. She was sure no one had been in the room with her when she closed the door. She looked behind her where the question had come from, but no one was there, only the large velvet curtain. It took her a second to piece together the fact that the stage's backdrop was hiding an extra room, much to her complete terror.

A small hand reached out from behind the curtain and moved it aside, revealing the owner of the voice and a small storage room. The girl who had asked the question was Hilja's age. She had a cute, round face, slightly-longer-than shoulder length hair which was light brown and curled naturally at the tip. She gave Hilja a curious look, interested in the answer to her question.

Hilja could only manage to respond in a small voice. "...I'm sorry. I thought I was alone." There was little point in hiding her voice since that girl had just heard her singing a moment ago.

"I saw you when you arrived," the girl told her. "When you came in here, I was already in the back room, but I didn't want to interrupt your tour." She turned slightly red, and Hilja might have caught on that she was hiding something if she herself was not so completely embarrassed by the situation. "So why did you stop singing?" The girl decided to push the issue.

Hilja looked away before answering. Her voice was still small, but this time she sounded a little annoyed, as though she thought she were being made fun of. "You could hear it for yourself, couldn't you?"

"I don't care." The girl sounded almost defiant in her response.

"Huh?" Hilja was so caught off guard that she could only make a confused noise. She turned to give the girl a look as though she were crazy, but the stare she was met with, a piercing, yet meaningful stare, met her as she did. This further threw her off.

"I said I don't care," the girl told her, sounding very serious. "Music has the power to help people-- your music has helped people."

Hilja fought back the urge to argue as a suspicion crept up on her. Instead of denying that her music could help anyone or saying that she never sang to help people in the first place, she instead just asked, "...Like who?" The long pause that followed and this girl's intent stare gave her the answer she felt she already knew. "You? You've... heard me sing before?"

"Once," she answered, "in Lyria."

Hilja actually had to think back and search her memory. She had almost forgotten that small, cramped room from a couple of years ago. "Lyria," she mumbled, lost in her own world for a moment. "My first concert." As the memories came flooding back, she recalled that first concert as if it was in a completely different reality.

She remembered how absolutely nothing had gone right that night. Most notably, she recalled how she had been promised a much larger room to hold the concert in, but a last-minute conflict arose wherein she and another performer had been double-booked for the same night. She was moved to a much smaller room under the assumption that the other performer, a regular with a large, established fan base, would need space for a larger crowd. However, the crowd wasn't there to see her this time; they went to see the daughter of the greatest singer alive. The small room was packed full to the brim.

The room wasn't the one she had prepared for, but aside from it making her adjust for the different acoustics due to its size, the performance itself didn't suffer as much as it could have. Still, Hilja always felt guilty for that night. At the time, she was thrilled that so many more people came to see her than expected, but looking back, everything was sloppy in comparison to what she would have been capable of a little over a year later. The guilt set in as she realized she took those people away from other performers not for her own talent, but because of her mother's fame overshadowing her.

It was such a crazy night, and she sang her heart out. Everyone cheered and sang along with the songs they knew. She had practiced so much, but was still so nervous before she started singing, but once she started, she almost couldn't stop. In a way, it was her most meaningful performance, as it was just her proving she could hold down a stage as well or better than any other performer out there. Naturally, it wasn't as easy in reality as it seemed in her head, but she put every ounce of herself into every word she sang and every movement she made. Every performance after that was just an attempt to improve and perfect what she wasn't satisfied with from the previous concert.

It was a blur of a night, and she had several small issues throughout the concert, but she loved every moment of it. In the end, she only remembered bits and pieces, but this girl didn't seem familiar at all. She never expected to remember every face at a concert she did so long ago, but it was a shame because this girl remembered that night well judging from the way she was looking at her.

Hilja's thoughts must have been plastered all over her face because the girl smiled and said, "Don't worry. I don't expect you to remember me. I wasn't even in the building while you were singing."

"But you said-" Hilja started, but the round-faced girl interrupted.

"I could hear you just fine from outside," she said. "You voice carried far enough for everyone to hear."

Hilja could see a bit of... what was that just peeking out from this girl's smile? If she had to put a word to it, maybe sorrow? It was just a flicker of emotion that escaped, hidden behind those bright eyes, but Hilja caught it. She didn't know why, but something drove her to find out more.

"You weren't able to come in?" she asked. If she recalled correctly, the admission to her concert was fairly small, since it was her debut. She just wanted to cover the costs of the band and the room (which was discounted after the earlier issues arose).

The girl shook her head. "My circumstances aren't anything special, but I'll tell you if you care to listen. All I ask is to hear one more song. I don't care if your voice has changed. Your voice isn't the reason people enjoyed your music." She stated these words as if they were obvious facts.

Hilja stared silently at the girl for a long while. She really didn't want to sing-- no, that wasn't true. She wanted to sing, but she didn't want anyone to actually hear her. She didn't even want to hear herself right now. She wanted to refuse, and was just about to when she realized that no one may ever ask for her to sing for them again after hearing what she sounded like now. This might be the last time. If that was the case, she needed to know one very important thing before she agreed to anything.

"At least tell me one thing."

"What's that?"

"Your name."

The young girl was a bit caught off guard by the sudden request, but her expression went from surprised and back to smiling, maybe a much more genuine smile than before, as she answered, "Morina. I'd ask you the same, but I don't think there's anyone for miles that doesn't know the name of the famous 'Young Songbird', Hilja."

Hilja blushed a dim shade of pink. Either this girl was laying the flattery on thick to get her to sing or she was teasing her. It wasn't easy to tell with her just yet. She took a moment, still hesitating about whether or not she could actually allow herself to sing. In the end, all she could tell this girl, Morina, was, "Don't blame me if it hurts your ears. I warned you, okay?"

Morina, in response, took one of the chairs set at the tables and pulled it to the very front of the stage and sat in it. She was so close, she could have laid her head down and took a nap on the stage if she desired, but of course she didn't. Her eyes locked onto Hilja's expectantly. She had made herself clear by this point. No matter how bad Hilja sounded, she really wanted to hear her sing.

Hilja felt a familiar feeling of nervousness that still seemed so foreign to her after all her performances. Singing in front of someone with her warped voice made her stomach tense up painfully. This really was like the first time she had sang in that small room so long ago. It was almost nostalgic.

Biting back these feelings, Hilja opened her mouth to sing, but nothing came out at first. It was as if all her doubt and fears were pressing themselves against her throat, keeping her quiet. She thought about running away again. If she left and said she didn't want to be here, she could go back, right? She didn't have to be here and do this!

Hilja looked down desperately, almost as if asking for reassurance from someone, anyone, but only saw the eyes of someone who only wanted to hear her sing one last time. It was the eager look of someone about to be given a gift they'd been wanting to receive for a long time. As she saw this expression, she felt the invisible hands pull away from her throat.

'That's right,' she thought, 'I'm an entertainer. My pride won't allow me to leave the stage without giving my best effort to my audience, no matter how big or small it is. I just have to sing. That's my only job right now.' Hilja closed her eyes and took a deep breath...

And she sang.

She released the pent-up desire within her all at once and sang, however horribly, with all she had. A wave of emotion poured from her heart like a river as she gave it everything she had. She knew this would be the last time she would allow herself to sing, so she wanted to put absolutely everything she had into this one song. If she could at least do that, she could forgive herself for ruining what she loved so much.

Every word that escaped Hilja's mouth hurt her. She knew full well that she was butchering her favorite song, but every time she wished to stop, she looked down and saw Morina staring at her, completely mesmerized by the tune. Hilja didn't understand why she looked so content listening to the racket she was producing, but she kept singing. Even if she was using Morina as excuse to keep going, she was really singing just as much for herself, if not more so. She needed this moment.

While the young songbird sang, she could feel her wings spread once again as she took flight for the first time in what felt like an eternity. Her wings were now ugly and stained, beyond repair and unable to be hidden, but they were her wings! In this moment, Hilja could feel something changing within her. It was such a bittersweet feeling as she was forced to face herself. She now finally heard how she sounded when singing. It was something she needed to hear.

One horribly mangled song later, Hilja closed her eyes tightly and let out a small sigh. She felt a bit lighter now, as if a big weight had been removed from her chest. It wasn't a feeling of happiness or even relief, but more of being complete. Singing wasn't just a tool she used to surpass her mother's fame; it was a part of her. Naively, she thought she could just leave something so precious to her behind, but after finally letting herself go, she was able to see that she couldn't go without it in her life anymore. She would keep on singing, if only to herself in a quiet place where no one else could hear her.

This epiphany hit her so hard and so suddenly that she took a moment to realize Morina was still in the room. She looked down at her from the stage. If not for this girl, she would have never understood this simple fact. The two stared at each other, each with a serene look on their face, and at the same time, both said to one other...

"Thank you."

Hilja was almost surprised to hear the girl saying these words. Despite her asking for it, she thought that once she actually heard the horrible voice singing to her, she might have regretted asking for the song, but Morina had her own reasons to listen to Hilja's singing, and she had to know what those reasons were.

"It's your turn now," Hilja said. "Why was my singing so important to you?"

Morina paused awkwardly for a while, hesitating to answer. Eventually, she gave in an opened her mouth to answer, but as she did the doors to the altar room opened, revealing Jorri and Edith.

"Sorry it took us so long," Jorri apologized. "We stayed to help our doctor-- well, Edith did, anyway," she admitted.

"I see you've met our resident chef," Edith teased.

Morina looked cautiously at the two girls and back to Hilja. "You're thinking about staying here for a while, right?" she asked, and then continued before waiting for an answer. "If you really want to know, I'll tell you tomorrow... if you're still here," she said with a small grin.

"Hey! That's no fair!" Hilja complained, but Morina's grin only grew wider as she backed away, looking pleased with herself. She turned away after a few steps and quickly gave Jorri and Edith a pleasant exchange of words before leaving the room.

"That girl is really something else," Hilja grumbled loudly to the two remaining clerics as Morina disappeared down the hall. It wasn't that she forgot that she didn't want them to hear her voice anymore, but more that she just... didn't care about that. She knew she sounded awful, but she could still sing. Even if it was only for herself, she was fine with that. Even if it sounded selfish, it didn't matter to her what anyone else thought of her voice as long as she could sing. Even so, that girl had just come out of nowhere, given her back something monumentally dear to her, and left without telling Hilja anything about herself but her name.

The two girls, surprised to see Hilja talking, quickly tried to take advantage of the situation to get her to talk more.

"You don't like Morina?" Edith asked.

"She's-" Hilja stopped herself, trying to figure out how to put her feelings into words. Morina was very sneaky, but it didn't seem to be for any sort of selfish reason-- at least not obviously so. Getting her to sing was of mutual benefit to both of them, and she seemed to be aware of that, but just leaving like that was strange. Did she not want to discuss her past in front of Jorri and Edith, or did she really want Hilja to stay? Why? So she could hear her sing again?

She looked at the other two, unsure of how she should feel. Instead of being lost, she decided to ask, "What kind of person is Morina?"

Jorri and Edith exchanged thoughtful looks before Edith answered, "She nice and considerate, a good cook, and... well, she doesn't talk about herself too much. I can only say that she's a really good person at heart, so if she made you angry, don't hold it against her. I'm sure she didn't mean any harm by it." As she finished her analysis of Morina, Jorri gave a nod in agreement.

Those answers just made it harder for Hilja to figure out what to think. If that was all she had to go on, then it was more than likely that she was right and Morina didn't want to talk about herself in front of others. It was an annoyance, though. A girl like that just made her frustrated. The more she dwelled on it, the more peeved she felt. She wasn't exactly sure why, but she didn't like feeling as though she had been helped so one-sidedly by someone she'd only met a few minutes ago.

Hilja's temper began to flare up for reasons even she didn't fully understand, and she blurted out without thinking. "FINE! Tell my mom to grab my stuff! I'm going to be staying her for a while!" She was almost defiant in her sudden decision. Some part of her felt like she had a score to settle, even if it wasn't for all that great of a reason.

Edith and Jorri were both shocked and thrilled by the sudden declaration and quickly began moving. Edith went to inform Shrine Head Elise and Hilja's mother of her decision while Jorri quickly started showing Hilja all around the rest of the shrine in a rush, almost as though she though the girl would change her mind if she didn't act quickly enough showing Hilja to her room.

* **

Hilja didn't realize the weight of her hasty decision at first as she was hastily moved into the shrine of Himmel, a town she had only passed through once or twice on her way to bigger concerts. All her belongings were jammed inside a room she had only just been shown, and her mother was acting strange around the shrine head for some reason. In all the chaos, she was never able to find time to get a moment alone with Morina, so she decided to wait for the best opportunity.

She was also unprepared for the large workload clerics had to undertake, of which she had no experience. She was a performer and a hard worker, but keeping yourself in good condition and lighting up a stage wasn't the same type of job as weeding a garden and running shopping errands. Then again, they were quite considerate of Hilja and didn't ask too much of her right away, and they were very understanding when she started to stress out and needed to be alone.

Things weren't perfect, but she was mostly content with the changes. She had found a small piece of mind after nearly losing everything. For that, she owed a great deal to those in the shrine. She understood she still had a lot of issues to work out, but she would face those problems as they arose. For now, she was happy just being somewhere she felt secure.

Hilja's story didn't end there, of course. She still had a lot of growing and learning to do, but it wasn't until she talked with Morina that her world started to move again. The girl who both saved her and frustrated her would entwine herself in Hilja's life when they finally met again. Until then, all Hilja really knew about that girl was that her cooking was on par- no, possibly better than most of the rank 10 restaurants she had performed at just before her incident.

This only frustrated her more, as this mysterious girl kept adding to the pool of questions in which Hilja was drowning.

 

Chapter 3 - A Place to Belong - Part 1

[Roughly Thirty-five Years Ago]

The young lady sighed deeply as she stirred the large, simmering stew once more, making sure it wasn't sticking to the bottom of the pot. Usually, she wouldn't have been so worried, but she was currently had six pots going at the same time and had never worried about making such a large quantity of food all at once. At most, she had made meals for her small family of four, but starting today, she was in charge of making enough servings to feed over ten times that many people. It was stressful, to put it mildly.

For a moment, she wondered how she got conned into this mess. Her mind drifted back to yesterday evening.

* **

"Pleeeeease, Kathrin! I promised the shrine I'd find someone," the shorter, blonde-haired girl pleaded. The girl was on her knees with her hands tightly clutched into fisted and pressed to her chest. She looked desperate. It was a sad scene to behold.

Kathrin's sharp hazel eyes stared apathetically from behind her brunette bangs at the pathetic sight. "I told you not to make promises like that, didn't I? Do you remember what I said?"

"Don't make promises I can't keep..." the blonde, only a few years older than Kathrin, said in a small voice, looking even more miserable now.

"Right," Kathrin nodded, "so would you care to explain why I should help you out... again?"

The blonde whimpered somewhat before answering, "This is different."

"Oh?" Kathrin's voice rang out in false bemusement. "Tell me then, Elise. Explain how this is 'different'."

"Well..." Elise managed, "to start, this is more serious than last time-"

"The last couple dozen times?" Kathrin interrupted, reminding Elise that she hasn't just been put in this position to help the shrine once or twice before. No, Elise had done this a great deal since she became a full-time cleric several years ago, asking Kathrin to drop everything she was doing and to help out at the shrine when they were shorthanded.

"Ah, yes," Elise quickly said in agreement, "the last several times. This time isn't just a matter of not having enough people- or, well, it is, but, um..."

"'But'?" Kathrin demanded, putting a strong pressure on Elise, who was already struggling to explain herself.

"B-But..." the blonde shoulders suddenly relaxed and she put her hands down and rose to her feet. All the tension and nervousness she was showing a moment ago vanished as she looked a Kathrin with a very serious, but still pleading expression. "Almost everyone is sick. There's a nasty bug going around town and nearly everyone in the shrine is too weak to get out of bed. Everyone who isn't ill is trying their best to take care of the sick, both in and out of the shrine. We need your help, Kathrin."

Kathrin's rigidness chipped as Elise's demeanor suddenly changed, but she stood firm. "There are plenty of other people you could ask besides me. Elise, you're my friend and I'll always appreciate how you used to looked after me, but I can't always drop what I'm doing to help you out when you're in a tough situation."

Elise looked as though she wanted to say something for all of a split second but closed her eyes and turned away instead. At first, Kathrin thought she upset her and felt guilty, but then Elise said in her normal, carefree attitude, "Oh, there was one more thing that's different this time around. Since this is a little beyond normal volunteer work, they're willing to pay for your help." It was obvious she had a big smile on her face without having to even look at her.

Kathrin's rigidness did more than just chip away this time; it crumbled. That Elise knew exactly what to say to make her do what she wanted. Kathrin had been bouncing around jobs since she left school four years ago, never feeling satisfied and knowing she had the potential to do more-- something... meaningful with her life. However, chasing dreams was often a pursuit that left a person's wallet empty. Even so, she didn't want to give Elise the satisfaction of knowing she was right.

"I'll see you tomorrow morning, then," Elise said, the smugness in her voice unable to be kept in check as she casually walked away without even turning around to look back at her friend. She happily took long, slow strides, causing the evening sun to cast strange shadows over the mostly empty street of the residential area.

"Hey, wait!" Kathrin called out in annoyance. "I never said I'd help you!"

Elise stopped in mid-stride, almost as if frozen in place. After a couple of seconds, she stood back in a normal position and shrugged. "You didn't say it, but you will." She turned her head back slightly, just enough to catch Kathrin's frown in her peripheral. "You're the type of person who will help those in need, just like me. That's how I know you'll be there, and you would be even if I didn't mention the pay. You and me, we were born with something that's not native to most people, I think."

Kathrin hesitated before asking, "What would that be?"

Elise turned her head back around and started briskly walking away again as she called back, "It's no fun if I tell you. You have to figure it out on your own."

Kathrin raged a bit as the blonde strolled away, but in the end, she couldn't really be angry. Elise was right. Bright and early the next morning, she stood in front of the large shrine doors and was greeted with Elise's smile. This girl, who had taken a role as a cleric the day after she finished school, beamed brightly at the taller girl.

"You're cooking today!" she informed her merrily.

Kathrin couldn't even find the energy to retort so early in the morning, so she simply answered, "Show me where you keep the pots."

* **

Kathrin tested her cooking as it was nearing completion. She let the taste of the stew settle on her tongue and contemplated the flavor. "Hmm," she muttered to herself. "As I thought, that was a bit too much onion." She wasn't thrilled with the finished product, but she was just being picky. Overall, it was actually pretty good-- better than she thought it'd turn out, at least.

The stew was one made especially for those with illness, and while different parts of the world had their own ideas of what to feed the ill, around Himmel, "corshew" is the go-to for those with a cold or flu. Corshew is a vegetable stew made mostly from corchorus plants as the main ingredient, thus combining "corchorus" and "stew", the shorthand "corshew" was born. Corchorus has a reputation of being very healthy, and so even the tea that's meant to be drank with corshew is made from the plant's dried leaves. When it comes together properly, it's a revitalizing meal.

Kathrin was disappointed that her version didn't taste much like her mother's, but as she was trying to figure out where she went wrong, she overheard one of the few clerics still unaffected by illness pleading with one of the high priestesses. Looking at her, you could see how stressed out she was. Without meaning to, Kathrin eavesdropped on their conversation from the small square window that was used for collecting dishes and utensils from the dining area for washing.

The stressed cleric, a girl named Sofia, rubbed her face and messed with her short, chestnut-color hair, probably not even aware she was doing it as she rambled to the older woman. "It's just... this isn't my job, you know? Miguel is usually the one that shows people around. I can, but this girl is, well you talked with her, right?! I thought having a magician around would be fun, but... NO! I can't do this! I won't!"

The high priestess (Kathrin seemed to recall that her name was Anna... probably), sighed, but the look on her face showed understanding. "Yes, she is certainly hard to approach, but that doesn't mean it's fine to just give up. You said you would show her around when she arrived. You took on this responsibility willingly, so you should see it through."

Sofia shook her head fiercely. "No, I can't! I feel like I'm being violated just being in the same room as her." She squirmed uncomfortably as she said this. It looked as though she wanted to get out of her own body. "Why did she have to come now of all times? Why couldn't the last shrine just keep her? Why did she even need to come here?"

"That's enough!" Anna reached her limit and snapped at the cleric. "You don't know what Ivory's been through since she arrived in Gaia. Everywhere she's gone, they've all treated her the exact way you are right now, wanting to just pass her off somewhere else so they don't have to deal with her anymore. You should be ashamed for even letting those thoughts in your head."

Sofia glared at Anna. "Isn't that exactly why I'm the last person you'd want showing her around?" she asked.

A deeply disappointed look glossed over High Priestess Anna's face, and she could only shakes her head in disgust. She didn't even have a response, but Kathrin couldn't determine whether or not that was because she was too fed up with Sofia or because she actually thought she had a point, even if she was begrudging to admit it. Kathrin didn't understand the situation, but...

"If you want, I can help out," she offered. "I can't say I know where everything is, but I've visited the temple enough times, so I at least won't get lost... I think."

Both of the others turned to her, surprised that someone was in the adjacent room. They probably shouldn't have been, considering the aroma of the corshew was not the least bit subtle, but they had been so engrossed in their conversation that they must not have even given it a thought. Anna started to tell Kathrin that she really didn't need to if she didn't want to, but the young cleric grabbed onto the opportunity as it was presented to her and shouted, "YES! PLEASE! I'll finish the cooking for you!"

Kathrin shook her head. "The food is just about done. Let it sit another five minutes or so and then start making the dishes."

"Kathrin," Anna started, "you've already helped us so much." It was clear by the way she spoke that she was trying to give the young lady some type of warning, though she couldn't come right out and say what she wanted to say.

Kathrin stretched, looking bored. "I haven't done much. All I've done is chop a few vegetable, throw them into a pot of water and let it cook. If I'm actually getting paid this time, I'll feel bad if I don't at least do something a little more challenging." She was being modest. The effort she put into cooking was much more than she described, but she wanted to help, maybe a little out of boredom or just to help the frazzled cleric that obviously needed a break, and for Anna, who was in similar condition.

Sofia nearly sprinted over to Kathrin and grasped her hands, looking at her as though she were her new savior. "I'll take care of everything here. Just leave it to me," she swore. Kathrin nodded, but when she tried to pull away, the girl gripped her hands even tighter, not letting her go. Sofia brought her voice down to a whisper as she leaned in towards Kathrin and spoke seriously. "Try to think of music when you're around that girl. I think that will help."

Kathrin furrowed her brow in confusion, but Sofia just nodded intently. What she said must have made some sense to her, but "think of music" was not something anyone had ever told her to do before. Kathrin was able to pull her hands away this time and she wandered over to Anna, her mind a bit clouded by questions now.

"Are you sure you want to do this?" Anna asked her, that tone of warning still lingering. Kathrin was a little less sure of herself now, but said she was. "Alright, well... You know, I think informing people about what kind of magician Ivory is might have been a mistake in the first place. Instead, is it okay if I just ask you to show her around as you would any non-magician?"

Something was definitely strange. Kathrin knew this before, but the way Anna was speaking was just sending out alarm signals all over the place. Still, she had committed herself to this, so she would see it through. She wasn't the type of person to break her word, so even if this was going to be an uncomfortable experience (which the stressed-out cleric seemed to suggest it would be), she was going to finish this tour. At best, nothing strange would happen and she'd make a new friend. At worst, she'd have a rough hour or so ahead of her.

Anna led her down the winding corridors of the shrine back to the entrance, and Kathrin could tell at a glance what the two had been talking about when they said Ivory wasn't very approachable. It may not have been as evident to everyone as it was to her. For most people, their eyes might have been drawn to the short red hair of the young girl, maybe around twelve or thirteen, as red hair wasn't a very common sight in Gaia. Aside from that, one might notice that she was short for her age, not even five feet tall. Details like this detracted from what really stood out about this girl-- her eyes.

The deep brown eyes this girl had were, to use the only word Kathrin could think of to describe them, "empty". There seemed to be a vacant look in them, and, at first, Kathrin thought she might be blind. The girl barely even seemed to register that Kathrin was approaching her when she went to greet her, and even when she did eventually look in her direction, it felt more that she was looking right through her.

It took Kathrin some time to realize she wasn't blind. The look in her eyes was just dull from a lack of emotional expression. She appeared to be uninterested in her surroundings and tired. Kathrin wasn't sure what to make of this girl, but for some reason, her heart hurt when she saw that look in her eyes. She wanted to remove that emotionless, glazed-over look on her face, even if it meant replacing it with anger or sadness... anything would have been better than the absence of heart she had on display now.

Kathrin decided she would give it her all and try to make this girl feel welcome. She forced as positive of a smile as she could and began, "Hi, I'm Kathrin. You're Ivory, right? It's a-"

"Hypocrite," Ivory cut her off with a single, sharp word. Her monotone voice matched her expression perfectly. Even saying this word, though, she didn't so much as glance at Kathrin. Instead, she stared straight ahead blankly.

"H-Huh?" Kathrin blurted out, caught off guard.

"Ivory, please," Anna said, almost begging.

"It's not my fault," Ivory explained flatly. "She shouldn't be so concerned with my expression if he's going to pretend to smile like that."

Kathrin couldn't reply immediately, but there were a few ideas that sprang into her mind as to what magical abilities this girl might have. In any case, she decided not to try and think too hard on it. Instead, she would do what she said she would do and pretend Ivory were any other girl. She composed herself and decided that the girl was right. If she were going to make her feel welcome, she had to do it naturally. A fake smile wasn't how you greet a new friend. For now, she'd treat her like she'd treat Elise.

Kathrin rolled her eyes. "Ah, stop complaining already and come on. I'm in charge of this tour, and you're going to get lost in here with me because I don't know my way around here too well. Now, hurry up so we can figure out where we are in time for lunch."

Kathrin couldn't be sure, but for an instant, she thought she saw a glimmer of surprise in Ivory's eyes before she returned to her blank stare. She paused briefly before saying, "You're strange," and walking over to Kathrin, ready to start the tour.

As the two disappeared into the shrine, Anna gave a loud sigh in relief. Ivory seemed to be in good hands, possibly even showing signs of being comfortable around Kathrin. Anna decided that she'd have to see about getting Kathrin a little extra payment for all her trouble and hoped things didn't take a turn for the worst, especially when Kathrin realized the full potential of Ivory's magic.


* **

"So how much of the shrine did Sofia show you?" Kathrin asked, trying to make conversation with Ivory as they browsed the shrine. The girl's silence wasn't giving her much with which to work.

"We didn't get that far. I had a few words with her and she ran off," the girl replied. "It's nothing unusual."

"I see," Kathrin replied quietly. She wasn't sure exactly how to reply to this, so she decided to focus on the tour. Maybe getting her to relax a bit would ease her tension. If all else failed, she'd switch to "Plan B".

"What are you scheming?"

The question caught Kathrin off guard. Had she been smirking just then? Well, she had reason to smirk. "I don't scheme; I solve problems."

"That's the same thing."

"Only if you consider yourself a problem." Now Kathrin was smirking as she lightly ribbed the young magician, but Ivory gave no reaction. She simple responded--

"...I'm not the problem."

With a smile, Kathrin began showing Ivory around, and no, she didn't get lost (for long). Every once in a while, Ivory would pipe up, saying something about the room that Kathrin was about to say, showing advanced knowledge of the shrine she had supposedly never visited before. It was the third time that it happened that Kathrin finally realized the girl's magical ability.

"These are the bedrooms. I don't know which room is supposed to be yours, actually, but my bet would be the room where they put all your belongings." Kathrin grinned at her own joke and turned her head to the girl to see if her joke got any sort of reaction out of her. Unfortunately, it didn't, aside from a very faint eye roll. "Oh, that was funny and you know it," Kathrin said, half pouting. Kathrin sighed, but stopped as she wondered if she should have brought her book of jokes from her home. It was probably too late to run grab it now, though it would have certainly got a laugh out of Ivory.

"You don't live here?"

"No, I'm just helpi-" Kathrin began to answer but stopped cold. "Ah, so it's telepathy, huh?"

"..." Ivory gave no reply and only stared at Kathrin, her eyes even more lifeless now than when they first met. Kathrin got the impression that she was preparing for the worst.

"Well, being able to read people's minds isn't one you see too often," Kathrin said matter-of-factly. "Though that explains why Sofia told me to 'think of music'. Don't mind her, though. She's had a lot of issues that she probably doesn't want other people to know about."

Ivory narrowed her eyes just slightly. She was a bit perplexed. "You're taking this rather well. Aren't you worried? I can keep into your mind." There was almost a slight threat in her words, or maybe it was just the appearance of a threat, like a small animal imitating its parents.

Kathrin imagined Ivory as a newborn wackel cub standing on its hind legs and trying to make a dangerous roar, only to make a high-pitched squeak. "Look at me!" little wackel Ivory was shouting. "I'm scary! Stay away! RAWR!"

Normally, this thought would have never been known to anyone but Kathrin, but Ivory, for the first time, broke out of her expressionless state and shook Kathrin, yelling, "Stop that right now! This is serious!" Her eyes were wide and a faint redness covered her cheeks.

In response to her demands, Kathrin smiled boastfully at the young girl. Without needing to read her mind, Ivory could tell that Kathrin was happy to get a reaction of her, even if it was one of anger and embarrassment. Ivory realized her mistake immediately and looked away, relaxing herself and returning to her original state of mind. Once she had done so, she said in monotone, "Laugh if you want. Once you realize that your most sacred place is no longer private, though, you'll want me gone... just like everyone else."

Kathrin nodded. "It's true that having someone who can read your thoughts is a little intimidating, and maybe you already know a few secrets I'd rather take to my grave-"

"You see? Even you think I'm-" Ivory cut her off, but was interrupted in kind.

"BUT," Kathrin continued, "I know that's not your fault. I'm sure if you could turn it off, you would."

Ivory paused before saying, "Sometimes I can control it and block out the voices, or rather, it seems to turn off randomly, but I don't know how to make it stay that way. Sometimes, I'll only hear one voice, but other times..." she looked around at all the bedrooms. "Can we go?"

Kathrin was confused for a moment, but it eventually dawned on her what Ivory was telling her. 'The bedrooms. Everyone's sick and must be in a lot of pain. She's probably hearing them all at once, anguishing over their illnesses. I wonder what she's hearing, exactly.'

Ivory stared at Kathrin with the usual blank look. "You don't want to know."

Kathrin understood that much. If a shrine was a place people went to when they had lost everything but their health, then even that betraying them must have been severely painful. "Okay," she said. "Let's go. We can grab a quick drink while I show you the dining hall."

"Corchorus tea doesn't agree with me. I'll have some water," the young magician informed her. Kathrin felt like a fool as, for a split second, she tried to figure out how Ivory knew about the corchorus tea before she had told her. She didn't say anything about it, but Ivory responded, "You might be starting to realize it now."

"You're all doom and gloom, little girl," Kathrin told her. "Maybe we should get you some zinzo instead of water to help you relax a little."

"I'm not familiar with 'zinzo'. What is it?"

Kathrin narrowed her eyes at young magician. "Either you haven't been in Gaia for very long, or the other shrines you've visited have failed you on several levels. Come on," she instructed, grabbing Ivory's hand and leading her quickly towards the dining hall.

** *

The older's girl's sharp eyes pierced Ivory as a look of triumph washed over her face. The redhead had maybe taken three sips of zinzo before putting her head down on the table. Zinzo was one of the most beloved (and tasty) stress relievers across all of Gaia, and Kathrin could think of few people that could have benefitted more from it than this girl.

"Shut it," Ivory spoke up. "I can feel your gloating."

"I wasn't even thinking of anything like that," Kathrin protested.

"I can do more than just read your thoughts. I can sense your intent too."

"Oh." Well, she had Kathrin on that one. Her "gloating" was certainly an internalized feeling that she wasn't actively thinking about. Still, looking at this girl now, it was hard not to feel like a small victory had been achieved. "So, how are you feeling?"

"..." Ivory held back from answering that question directly. Admitting that she felt a little better would have led to something even more painful. She'd been down this road before. There was at least one person like this at very shrine to which she was "relocated"-- a person with good intentions that would pretend that having her mind read didn't bother her. This person would usually behave in an overly friendly manner and would keep it up for as long as she could, usually a few days at most, until she came to realize the weight of her powers.

Ivory moved her head and peeked at Kathrin. These people were the worst because just before they turned on her, she would start to trust them. The more trust she gave these people, the more it would hurt when they would turn on her so abruptly. Without any warning, the person she called a friend would stop speaking to her, or worse, actively antagonize her and break her spirit. Ivory looked back down at the table and closed her eyes. 'No, never again,' she thought. 'This feeling of relief is a lie brought on by some strange drink. Don't let yourself be fooled again. You absolutely cannot.'

The young magician's telepathic ability was on constant transmission, hearing everything Kathrin was thinking. It wasn't much, just a series of irrelevant thoughts that most people had circling through their heads. They were things she either didn't know or didn't care about. Specifically, Kathrin was worried she had made either too much or too little food for the sick clerics. It wasn't anything that concerned her, so she was fine with whatever she was thinking.

Besides Kathrin, there were a few times other voices would pop into her head-- others walking close by and entering her telepathic range. Those people fell into three categories: those that were curious as to who she was, those that mistook her for someone else entirely, and those that knew who she was. The first two groups were fine, if not a bit annoying, but the third group usually thought of annoying things like complex math problems or loud music to try and drown out Ivory's ability to hear them. Word about her had apparently spread quickly. That Sofia girl had to be the one to blame. Clerics were such gossips.

Without any warning, Ivory was shown an image of Kathrin in her mind. It wasn't Kathrin as she knew her now, but a much younger version of around seven or eight, though it was undeniably her. She was looking at this younger version through the eyes of someone else, so she didn't know whose perspective this was. The person, someone nearly a foot taller than Kathrin, held out something towards her.

Young Kathrin reeled back, visibly uncomfortable. Ivory tried to focus on what was being offered to her. It was green and... moving?! It hit her all at once that the strange thing being offered to her was some sort of reptile. It wasn't one she was familiar with, as all the animals in Gaia were different from any in her realm, but it was clearly lizard-like in appearance. She watched as Kathrin timidly stared at the odd creature.

"Go on. Take it," the voice of the person she was viewing this scene from coaxed gently; it was a girl's voice. There was no ill intent in her words, but Ivory sensed a mischievous undertone in what was about to transpire.

Young Kathrin stared at the lizard a bit longer without uttering a word. The green head and tail wiggled helplessly as it tried to escape from the grasp of the other girl. After a while, Kathrin finally mustered up the courage to reach out for it and take it in her own hands. She stared at it as though it would try to eat her if she let it go. Kathrin gave an unsure look back towards the other girl. "Are you sure eating this will make me smarter?" she asked. Her words made it sound as though she were hoping the answer would be "No", which was only natural.

"Of course it will!" The girl stated this as though it was the most obvious truth in the world. "I'm really smart, aren't I?"

The young Kathrin looked from the lizard, then to the girl talking to her, and back to the lizard again, debating on whether or not she should believe such a crazy idea. Ivory could only look on, wanting to warn Kathrin not to do it, but the only one she could realistically warn was the older version, so it was probably a little late to tell her now. She could only watch as Kathrin took a few deep breaths and... swallowed the lizard whole. Ivory cringed as she watched this unfold and squirmed in her seat as the young Kathrin tensed up and looked sick immediately after ingesting the small animal.

Ivory hear the muffled attempt to hold back laughter the other girl gave and imagined she was biting her lip to keep from bursting out into hysterics. She managed to force herself to calm down and asked, "Well? Do you feel smarter?"

Young Kathrin paused and waited for something. It was hard to tell exactly what she expected to happen. She shook her head "no" after a moment of waiting for some sign that she had become smarter, but obviously felt no different. "I don't feel anything," she mumbled in a small voice, the shadow of realization slowly creeping up on her. "You... YOU LIED, ELISE!!!"

Ivory could hear "Elise" let out a laugh she so desperately tried to hold in, but to no avail. "No, no no," she said, trying to recover. "You're definitely smarter, and I can prove it!"

"You can?" A flicker of hope filled young Kathrin's eyes for just a moment, but she quickly changed her attitude with an angry stare. "Prove it, then!" She wasn't going to let Elise trick her again.

"Okay," Elise said. "Now that you've eaten the chariburro, you've learned one very important thing that you never knew before."

"What?" Kathrin asked in a defiant tone.

"Well, now you know that eating a chariburro won't make you smarter."

A loud laugh escaped Ivory's lips so suddenly that she was forced to slap her hand over her mouth to stop. Her goal was to keep her mannerisms outwardly cold towards others and push them away so that no one could get close to her, but this scene had tickled her unexpectedly. That sort of thing wasn't fair!

"W-What's so funny?" Kathrin asked. The outburst had alarmed her.

Ivory sat up and stared at Kathrin with wide eyes, dropping her facade without thinking about it. "Don't give me that! What kind of images are you showing me?!"

"What are you talking about? I-" Kathrin stopped and her expression soured as her gaze shifted past Ivory. "Elise," she said sternly, "what are you thinking about?"

Ivory's head snapped over towards the older girl's stare. The name was instantly recognizable, and she had to know to whom it belonged, partly out of curiosity, but more for her own mental wellbeing. If this person was wandering around the shrine, it might be dangerous. This Elise person was thinking of such crazy things in the middle of the day, yet as the bright-eyed blonde stood there, looking confused, Ivory felt her sense of caution evaporating. For a moment, she thought this person had brought up those thoughts to tease her or purposefully try to get a reaction out of her, but that naive look she had was probably her true nature. She just happened to be thinking of Kathrin at that moment.

"What did I do? You usually don't lecture me until I've done something wrong," Elise said defensively.

Kathrin's expression softened and she backed down quickly. "You're right. You didn't do anything wrong. I'm sorry for getting on you like that."

"Exactly," Elise said with a strong nod. She stood there for a moment before the corners of her mouth curved upward just slightly. "But to answer your question, I was just thinking about how smart you are."

"What?" Kathrin gave a baffled look while Ivory went rigid. She held her breath, trying not to laugh and praying internally that Elise stop right now and not say anything more. Otherwise, she'd lose it.

"Yeah, you've always been really smart, even when you were little."

Ivory put her head back down on the table, pressing her forehead into the cool oak wood. She wasn't going to do it. She wasn't going to let Kathrin see it. 'Don't smile,' she told herself, biting her lower lip until it hurt. 'Don't smile. Don't laugh. It's not even funny. It's not funny at all! It's not-'

"Of course, you have me to thank for turning out that way," Elise boasted. "I've taught you some valuable lessons over the years." As Ivory struggled to keep herself together, she couldn't help but release a small, high-pitched whine. Neither of the other two seemed to take note of this and Elise continued. "Remember that time you were failing all your courses and begged me to help make you smarter?"

Ivory sensed the quick train of thoughts passing through Kathrin's mind. It was actually amazing how fast she put everything together in such a small amount of time. She couldn't help but peek up and see the look on Kathrin's face; it was a soft smile.

"Yeah, I remember," she said with a fond look in her eyes. "You took me to the pet store and taught me about all the animals there because I was most upset about my animals study grade. My favorite was the chariburro. You thought it'd be funny to lie and tell me that if I ate it, I'd become smart enough to pass all my classes."

Elise gave a puzzled stare at Kathrin. She obviously didn't remember that part at all. After a moment, she decided she just forgot about it or simply misremembered it. "And then we must have bought one or found one by the creek, right? And I convinced you to eat it," she proclaimed, though she was less sure of her own memory now.

Kathrin rolled her eyes. "Oh come on, Elise. I wasn't a smart child, but I wasn't that dumb."

Elise darted through her memory once more, but now it was more fuzzy and uncertain. "Oh." She was a little disappointed, to be honest. She settled on the idea that her memory of the events was the right one and that Kathrin must have been so traumatized that she recreated her own reality.

"Now come sit over here and stop being rude," Kathrin said, pouring another cup of tea. "You haven't even introduced yourself to the new cleric yet." She motioned to the young magician, who quickly avoided eye contact with either of the others.

Elise, finally realizing the third person in the room, quickly went around the table and sat down next to Kathrin. "Ah, I'm so sorry! It's a pleasure to meet-" Like a serpent, a strong arm struck out and coiled around Elise's neck, squeezed tightly and pulled her into a deadly headlock. In hindsight, she should have seen this trap coming.

"YOU THINK I FORGOT WHAT YOU MADE ME DO, YOU IDIOT?!" Kathrin hissed in a rage. "YOU TOLD ME THAT EATING IT MEANT I WAS GOING TO GIVE BIRTH TO A CHARIBURRO BABY!"

"Ow! Owww! I'm sorry! I'm sorrrrrryyyyy!" Elise whined in pain. "I couldn't help it! It was too funny to- OOOWWWW!!!"

Ivory, unable to contain it any longer, roared in laughter. These two were no fair at all. How was she supposed to maintain control with them playing this comedy act? Even though they were staring at her, even as tears welled in the corners of her eyes, she couldn't help but to laugh out. She couldn't stop; it was as if she were making up for all the time she spent keeping up her apathetic outward persona.

"Let goooo," Elise whined. "The new girl is laughing at us!"

Kathrin's grip loosened around the neck of the cleric. It wasn't out of embarrassment, but out of shock. They had actually gotten this much of a laugh out of Ivory? No, maybe she was just surprised that she could laugh so wholeheartedly. Her expression turned from one of surprise to delight as she watched the young girl. Kathrin didn't even mind when Elise managed to pull herself free.

"See?" Elise said, pointing to Ivory. "She laughing at you."

"Me? You said 'us' a second ago," Kathrin reminded her.

Elise gave Kathrin a look as though she were crazy. "No, why would she be laughing at me? I'm not the one who ate the cha- NO! Mercy! Merrrrrcyyyyy!" Elise found herself in a familiar position again. She never knew when to give up, but sometimes that wasn't a terrible thing, Kathrin thought as she stared at Ivory. She knew she could understand what she was thinking, but Ivory was now too busy clutching her sides to even attempt another try as her usual straight face.

It took several minutes for the scene to deescalate to anything resembling normality. Elise, on the promise to be on her best behavior, was released for the second time while Ivory sat, unmoving, with her face firmly planted against the oak table.

"Did we break her?" Elise whispered, though she purposefully kept her voice loud enough for Ivory to hear.

Kathrin smirked. "In a way, I think we did."

Elise leaned over and gave the girl a gentle poke to the top of her head. "Hey. Everyone who isn't dead, raise your head."

Ivory took in a deep breath and exhaled slowly, calming herself down. She raised her head to look at Elise with as cold of a glare as she could force, but one look at the girl broke her willpower as every fiber of her being wanted to start laughing again. She could feel her throat tighten and abdomen quaking as she held back the desire to laugh, but as soon as her lips began to quiver and give way, she planted her face back onto the table, unable to contain the chuckle that forced its way out of her.

Elise nodded. "Yeah, that's a death giggle. She's moved on to meet with the goddess. We should let Xiao know right away so she can start preparations for the burial." Everything she was saying was nonsense, but Ivory couldn't help but laugh even louder as she rattled off such idiotic lines. This only made Elise smile as she turned to Kathrin and stated, "I like her. She's got a good sense of humor."

"Well, if she's laughing at your jokes, I don't know if that's accurate," Kathrin teased, "but at least we know she can laugh."

Elise playfully ruffled the young magician's hair. "Maybe I'll let her replace you as my best friend. She seems easier to get along with," she jabbed back with a sly grin towards Kathrin. However, this look faded as the laughter from the young girl stopped abruptly.

Ivory grabbed Elise by the wrist and removed her hand from her head. She raised her head from the table and wiped her eyes, which were wet from the tears she had formed while laughing. She kept her face down until she had relaxed enough and looked back up at Elise once more. She took a deep breath, and this time she didn't falter. "While I appreciate the laugh, don't call me your friend." Her monotonous tone returned. "Kathrin, could you find out which room I'm supposed to be in and take me there? I'd like to lie down."

"O-Oh... I'm sorry," Elise stuttered, looking somewhat dazed and hurt by the sudden change in Ivory's mood. It wasn't an expression Kathrin was able to see the blonde make very often. "I didn't mean to upset you."

Kathrin stood up from the table and gathered the emptied dishes. "Yeah, we can go ask one of the high priestesses or Shrine Head Xiao if they don't know." As she took the dishes over to the small window she had overheard Sofia and Anna arguing from before, she thought in a loud and clear voice, 'I don't think you should run away, though. Elise is one of those rare people that you never want worrying about you. If she thinks you need special attention, she'll give you special attention.'

"I don't want to hear about what bad decisions I'm making from someone who keeps worrying about how disgusted she is with her own life choices," Ivory decided to hold back a little less with her scathing remarks. She had let this girl get too close, so she had to push away before... before it was too late.

"What are you talking about? I'm not disgusted. I'm happy with where I am," Kathrin protested, but was clearly shaken by Ivory's criticism.

"What are you two talking about? Where did this come from?" Elise asked, bewildered by this second shift in atmosphere.

Paying her no attention, Ivory cocked her head to the side and smirked, Kathrin didn't need to be a mind reader to understand Ivory was silently saying, "Come on. Who do you think you're talking to?"

"Just because it's not at the base of your thoughts doesn't mean I can't hear it. Your subconscious can be just vocal as your spoken words. It's what I hear when you're not really thinking anything at all. You've been bouncing around jobs, trying to find something that doesn't leave you empty inside, but every day, you just hate yourself more for not living up to your own expectations or the expectations of those that said you had the potential to make a difference in the world. Today, you feel satisfied with yourself for helping out, but your fear tomorrow because all it means is you go back to being a person that no one needs to rely on."

Kathrin stared at Ivory for several seconds, unable to speak or form a coherent thought in her mind. She stood there, rooted in place, petrified like stone. She didn't want to think it, and tried her best to hold back even feeling it with all her might, but she had far less control over her inner workings than she realized as the thought quickly bubbled to the surface.

'This girl's ability is way too scary. I don't want to be near someone who can see into me like this.' Kathrin regretted thinking this with all her heart as soon as the words formed in her mind, but it was too late. Ivory was no longer smirking. She went back to the same state Kathrin had become so used to once again-- a state where she was used to those she trusted turning on her. Kathrin could see now why Ivory had been shuffled around so much since entering Gaia. She understood Sofia's harsh words as well.

Her throat was dry, and she swallowed hard as she managed to tell Ivory, "I'll, um... go find out which room is supposed to be yours."

Ivory nodded. "I'll wait here."

Kathrin took two slow steps backwards before turning around and walking as quickly as she could towards the dining hall exit. It was all she could do to not break into a full sprint. She just needed to get away for a moment. That experience shook her to the core, rattling her resolve and her spirit. To have someone look inside of her and so accurately explain how she felt, even when she tried so hard to hide those thoughts from herself...

It hurt. It hurt so much she wanted to cry.

But she wasn't going to cry. She just needed time to think. While she did, she left Ivory with someone who she couldn't probe quite so easily. That person wouldn't run or cry when faced with herself. She could force her way forward because she was too much of a fool to turn back. Kathrin stopped right as she reached the exit and glanced back towards Elise who wore a worried expression.

"Elise," Kathrin spoke, though her voice was clearly shaky, "the new girl's name is Ivory. She can read minds and was bullied because for it at her previous shrines. Please make sure you talk to her and make her feel welcome, okay?" She didn't wait for a reply as she hurried out of the room.

Ivory looked at Elise who kept on staring towards the door long after her friend had left. Her mind was a mess with the sort of confusion you'd expect from this kind of situation, but as an epiphany struck her, the thoughts stabilized and became easier to comprehend. Elise looked over towards Ivory and asked, "So you saw the memory I was thinking of earlier? With the chariburro?"

"I did," Ivory answered flatly.

"That's why she got so upset! She was embarrassed."

"No, I think she was upset because you appeared to be gloating about it," Ivory paused and added, "and you told her she'd have reptile babies."

Elise shook her head. "No, that's crazy. Chariburros are amphibians," she informed her, matter-of-factly. Ivory started to argue, but she didn't really have a response for that, so she said nothing. Seeing this, Elise continued, "Anyway, it looks like you're in my care now. Before we get started, though, I have one thing to ask of you."

"I'm afraid I can't control my mind reading abilities. If I could, I wouldn't be here in the first place," Ivory answered her before Elise could make her request.

"Ah, I see. Then, instead, do me a different favor." There was an intentional pause this time, as Elise allowed Ivory to probe her mind again.

Ivory's posture fell just a bit. A perceptive person could see that she didn't like what Elise was asking of her.

Things in Himmel shrine were about to pick up in a big way as the telepathic magician took up residence there. The next several weeks would prove to be both very strange and very interesting, not only for the clerics, but for Kathrin as well. Ivory, the girl that had been given up on, and in turn had given up on others, was about to be tested by the most mischievous blonde in Himmel. There no way she could have been prepared for this young woman.

 

Chapter 4 - A Place to Belong - Part 2

[Three Days Later]

In Gaia, attending classes was mandatory until the age of thirteen wherein a young man or lady was considered an adult. A student would stay only seek further education if they wished to enter a technical field such as medicine or engineering, the latter of which was slowly starting to integrate ideas such as "magical fuel" in their work (though this was still in its infancy). Another, more common, option was to take an apprenticeship and learn directly from a master of whichever craft you chose to pursue.

In Ivory's case, she wanted to be a veterinarian. She couldn't hear the inner thoughts of animals, so it seemed like a good fit. Really, anything that didn't deal too much with people was fine with her. Unfortunately, she knew she might not ever be able to achieve that goal. Due to a lot of circumstances, she was far behind everyone else in terms of basic education, partially due to the fact that she arrived in Gaia a few years ago where a lot of normalities of her world had changed, including the animal life. On top of that, there was the fact that school wasn't exactly the most comfortable place for her to learn. If she wasn't being bullied outright, she could at least hear the cruel thoughts and intentions of others.

Himmel Shrine, like most shrines in Gaia, had classrooms similar to anywhere else, except that the ages of the students varied anywhere from five to fifteen in this class of twenty-four people. Shrines were odd in this manner, as they allowed residents to attend classes without leaving the building, which was necessary for the more troubled young people that had deep-seeded issues and needed to be someplace they felt safe.

In this type of situation, the teacher, a woman named Sierra who was hired by the shrine, would rely on the elder students to help tutor the younger ones if they were able. It was understandable for someone trying to keep everyone on track while dealing with teaching the younger kids the fundamentals of math and language while at the same time teaching the older students the technical aspects of whatever field they wished to enter. Teaching was a difficult job, but it paid well, especially if you landed a job at a shrine.

Aside from Ivory, there were nine other students close to her own age, twelve. There were two girls at the age of thirteen, one about to finish school and see about getting an apprenticeship with some local farmers while the other wanted to continue her education to become a "magic coordinator". Ivory had no idea what this was, and she wasn't sure this girl knew what it was either. The others were two girls and a boy her own age, three girls a year younger, and a girl of ten years. There may have been a few more students in the class, but people were still getting over their sicknesses, and most everyone seemed to still have some signs of lingering illness about them. The teacher even had a (now nearly empty) box of tissues on her desk for those in need.

Word spread as quickly of her abilities as she assumed it would, and she could hear the excited thoughts of the classroom before she was even introduced to the group of students. Only a few people were really worried about their thoughts being read while most others were excited to have a magician attending the same class as them. It wasn't unusual for that kind of mentality to prevail. Mind reading sounded like a really amazing skill for a magician to possess... until you had a secret you wanted to keep. Naturally, Ivory wasn't going to start telling everyone's secrets, but the fear of someone knowing your secret crush or your hidden shame could be frightening.

'Just leave me alone,' Ivory thought. 'Pretend I'm not here. Stop worrying about what I can hear or what I know.' Ivory's actions reflected this line of thinking, as she wore the same face she always wore. This was a bit of an off-putting sight for the class. They speculated as to why she looked so serious and why she barely spoke at all, yet as they found a bit of free time in their day, many of the students would gather around her desk and attempt to chat in a friendly manner with her.

A girl with short black hair and a small, crescent-shaped pendant around her neck was the first to approach her; she was one of the students a year younger than herself. She smiled and tried to start a pleasant conversation. "Hey! Nice to meet you! I know it must be hard getting used to Gaia, so please let me know if you need anything, okay?" Unfortunately, her thought process was slightly different that her spoken words as she thought, 'I bet she tells me to go away. She definitely looks like she wants me to go away.'

This was difficult for Ivory. She wanted to say, "If you think I want to tell you to go away, then why did you come over here?" Instead, she held back this snap statement and read the girl's intentions. She was a kind person and meant well by this gesture. She was afraid to approach Ivory, but wanted to show kindness towards her because she looked troubled. Ivory took in this information and responded, "I appreciate the gesture," in her usual monotone.

The girl stood there a moment longer, expecting there to be more to that statement, maybe a "but" to accompany this sentence that would imply she should leave Ivory alone. Once the girl realized that Ivory wasn't speaking anymore, she gave a nervous nod and walked away quickly. Her mind was blurred in confusion, as she wasn't sure if Ivory was genuinely thankful or if she just said that to get rid of her.

Similar situations occurred throughout the course of Ivory's first day at this shrine's school, each conversation ending in a similar fashion. She continued to read and react to people based on their intentions rather than their thoughts, but it was frustrating that Ivory couldn't say what was on her mind.

'I don't see how this is any different from before,' Ivory thought, 'but a promise is a promise, I suppose.'

She still wasn't sure how she got talked into all of this or why she agreed to anything, but there was no use worrying about it now. As lunch time began, she unpacked a small meal that had been made in the kitchen just moments before, which thankfully wasn't curshew, as she had feared it would be. As she indulged in what she now was fairly certain was "bertoko", some sort of four-winged bird that that Gaians enjoyed eating, she began thinking back to the odd conversation she had three days ago with the strange older girl after she had arrived at the shrine.

* * *

Ivory sighed internally. "I'm not going to pretend I can't read people's minds," she struck preemptively. This was the usual "favor" people would ask of her. Honestly, she knew it made sense from everyone else's perspective. "Pretend to be normal," they would say in a stressed or even condescending manner. She hated to hear people say that.

Of course, it's not to say she hadn't tried hiding it before. No, that was one of the first things she tried to do when people started to get paranoid and fearful around her back in her own realm, but it was too late at that point. Her power was widely known at that point, and there was no way to hide it. When she came to Gaia, she tried again, but she was quickly seen through with only the slip of her tongue. She missed her one chance for normalcy simply because she replied to someone's thoughts without realizing they hadn't actually spoken to her. She really was an idiot sometimes.

In the end, Ivory decided that she would just be who she was, even if it meant pushing everyone else away. She would live as the person she was born to be and not try to pander to others just because it was convenient for them. Even at the age of twelve, she had learned an important lesson that many people never figured out. At the same time, missed out on many other important lessons that would help give her the perspective she needed.

Elise shook her head. "No, that's not the favor I was going to ask of you," she told her.

Ivory paused. That was a lie. She clearly heard the blonde girl asking her to hide her ability in her mind. Did she change her favor when she saw Ivory's reaction? No, she could still read the cleric's wish for her to ignore what others were thinking. "Then what?"

Elise patted the seat beside her. "Come. Sit and talk with me a bit."

Ivory didn't move even after Elise assured her that she wouldn't bite (though after seeing what Elise did to Kathrin in that flashback, she wasn't entirely convinced). She tried reading the older girl's intent instead. There wasn't anything shady about what she was asking. She truly did want to just sit and talk, so why was her mind so set on making her pretend she couldn't hear what others were thinking? Ivory was confused, but she sat with Elise. She purposefully chose to sit across from her rather than beside her like she had indicated.

"I'm listening."

"You make it sound like I'm trying to lecture you," Elise mumbled, but pushed on in a normal voice. "Ivory, I know very little about you except for your name, that you just moved here, and that you can read minds. I also know that the ability to read minds has led you to a lot of grief and, from what I saw, can inflict grief on others when used improperly."

"So you want to tell me how to 'properly' use my powers when I have no control over it?" Ivory asked. It took some effort to keep her irritation in check.

Elise ran her right index finger across the grain of the wooden table. It was very smooth and well polished, but she could still feel the texture of the old tree that was used to make it. It was just something she was doing mindlessly; she never broke eye contact with Ivory. "Well, that wouldn't be fair to you for someone that doesn't understand your magic to tell you how to use it, but I also heard what you said to Kathrin. You can do more than just read minds. You can view people on a deeper level."

"That's right," Ivory said bluntly. "And?" She already knew what Elise was going to ask at this point, but it was surprisingly difficult to keep up with her train of thought, as it seemed to rearrange and grow along with Ivory's responses. Elise was taking the few words Ivory was saying and considering them in great detail. Her intentions even seemed to fluctuate very slightly as they spoke.

Elise began scratching lightly at the wood, not enough to harm the table's polish, but just enough to let her fingernail tap along the wooden grooves. "And I would like to hear more about your magic. How deep into a person can you see, and in what way do you process their thoughts? Is it interpreted as audio? Can you see images also? Can you also understand their feelings? How about-"

"One at a time, please." The younger girl stopped her.

Elise gave a small laugh. "Sorry. I got carried away. Can we start with how much you can read from a person? Use me, for example. I'll clear my mind and you tell me what you can see, okay?"

Ivory stared at Elise and held back a sigh. "That's not clearing your mind," she deadpanned. "I can hear you humming internally."

"Oh," Elise gave a look like she just realized she had been standing on Ivory's foot. "Sorry. How about now?"

"Now you're imagining yourself playing a card game."

"Oh, so you can see images too. That means you really did see Kathrin when she-" Elise started to snicker as the memory started to play over again in her head.

Ivory's expression turned into alarm briefly. She didn't want to sit through that scene again and lose her composure like last time. "A-Anyway," she stammered, "I can read current thoughts, intentions, and subconscious thoughts that people hide, even from themselves. That's all."

"Intentions?" Elise was intrigued by this. "Can you read my intentions right now?"

"You want to help. It's a strong urge, but..."

"But?"

Ivory allowed herself a wry smile for just a moment. "Intentions don't mean anything. They can change without warning or meaning. They're pointless to take into consideration for anything long-term."

"You have such a mature way of viewing the world, Ivory," Elise praised her. "Unfortunately, it's also very pessimistic."

"It's not pessimistic; it's realistic."

"Is that so?" Elise paused and thought for a moment. "You know what? I changed my mind. I don't want you to do me a favor."

"Your joke is too late. I already know the punch line," Ivory stopped the young woman in her tracks for the second time. "Now you want two favors."

Elise looked defeated by having her joke taken away before she could make it. "Aw, geez. At least let me tell it myself. You don't have to laugh at it or anything."

"Don't worry. I wasn't going to." Ivory's sharp tongue struck again.

"I didn't expect you to," Elise said, still smiling. "Well, then I assume you know what those favors are, right?" Ivory only nodded in response, so Elise asked, "And do you know why I'm asking you to do these things?"

Ivory blinked hard so that wouldn't see her rolling her eyes. Of course she knew, but that didn't mean anything would change. As kind as her intentions were, all she was doing was asking her deceive other people. Well, maybe not "deceive", but more to muffle her own thoughts. The young magician thought a bit more seriously about what Elise was asking of her.

The two favors included that, first, she never use someone's subconscious thoughts against them like she did with Kathrin. The only exception for this was if she were being harassed to the point she needed to defend herself. Well, as a first favor, this was fine. She did feel somewhat guilty about snapping at Kathrin like she had, but it was the easiest way to get her point across that she should stay away.

The second favor was the one she didn't care so much for, but again, she understood the purpose of the request. As part of this favor, she was to ignore the thoughts at the front of people's minds and only react to the words they spoke and their intent. The reason behind this was that she believed the thoughts at the front of a person's mind were where they sketched out and organized their truth thoughts, and that what actually came out was what they truly wanted to say. Whether it was a truth or a lie, Ivory should be able to easily determine just by reading their intent. As long as their words matched their intent, she should accept that as their honest feelings.

It made sense on the surface, but Ivory knew better. Intent wasn't something you could rely on for more than that one moment they were speaking, and it could change as fast as the wind could alter direction, but with less meaning and purpose. She shook her head and expressed this to Elise, saying in no uncertain terms that people were completely untrustworthy, including the cleric that sat before her.

Elise was surprised by the bold statement, but began to understand Ivory more and more as she spoke to her. 'Well,' she thought, 'what does it take- wait, no... First, why do you think people are so... um... What's the word?'

"Untrustworthy?" Ivory offered.

"FICKLE!" Elise yelled, pointing at Ivory triumphantly, as if to say "Ha! I guess you don't know what I'm thinking all the time."

Ivory couldn't help but drop her guard and give the blonde an annoyed look. "You just remembered the word yourself. Don't look so smug."

As Ivory dropped her monotone, Elise actually did give her a boastful look, but not because she couldn't guess the word she was trying to remember. Elise, like Kathrin, just enjoyed getting a reaction out of her. This only prompted Ivory to redouble her efforts as she took in another deep breath and gave the cleric a stony stare.

"So? Why do you think people are so fickle when it comes to you?" Elise resumed her questioning after having her fun.

This wasn't a question Ivory hadn't asked herself many times before. "It's obvious; people get paranoid when they think you can instantly know every dark secret they have to hide. While I'm not that powerful of a magician, I can't say I don't catch glimpses of those secrets, and the more they try to not think about them, the easier they are to see."

"And what about those who have nothing to hide?"

"People like that don't exist," Ivory replied frankly. "Everyone has secrets, especially clerics. They have the darkest ones."

"Is that so?"

"Yeah, even you have secrets, don't you?"

Elise smiled. "You're the mind reader. Why don't you tell me what you see?"

Ivory stopped and debated about doing so. She knew no good would come of this, but she wanted to prove a point. "You can only blame yourself if I find anything you didn't want me to know." She closed her eyes and listened quietly. This time, the forethoughts of Elise's mind were completely silent, not humming or picturing strange things anymore. It was the perfect time to dwell into her subconscious.

What Ivory saw were the usual things you could find in most people-- worries for the future, worries for her family and friends, hidden resentment for people she'd never see again and resentment for herself for feeling that way. Elise wasn't perfect, as no human was, but this didn't satisfy Ivory. No, if she looked a little deeper, she was sure she could find something else. Everyone had at least one thing they considered taboo to talk about, even if it was something they had long since buried in the past.

There! She found what could only be called a heartbreaking secret found buried as far back as Elise could push it. It wasn't something Ivory felt comfortable with bringing up like she did with Kathrin's subconscious thoughts, as her secret was just her being unhappy with the choices she'd made. That wasn't something permanent or scarring, and it was something she could still fix. Elise's, however...

"You're not very good at keeping that straight face, are you?" Elise asked her. Ivory didn't realize she was frowning until the cleric spoke up. "I'm guessing by the expression you're seeing my sister and I when we were at the ocean?" Elise didn't give an outward impression that she was in pain, and Ivory couldn't read a person's emotions unless their thoughts clearly gave them away.

"She kept calling for you, but you thought she was playing around." Since Elise was the one that brought it up, Ivory was more willing to discuss what she saw. "She was a better swimmer than you, so you didn't realize she could be in danger of the current carrying her away, even when she was so far out. You wonder if you could have gone and gotten help if you saw that she was in trouble sooner, but even though you know it's not likely, you won't ever really know." Ivory's voice let slip a bit of emotion as she spoke, and she paused, feeling uncomfortable revealing something that personal.

Elise only responded by closing her eyes, resting her elbow on the table and covering her mouth with her hand. She didn't look like she was going to cry or anything, but more that she just needed to rest and calm herself. Ivory could pretty much see her packing the memory back down into her subconscious, as it wasn't something she wanted to think of right now. After a couple of minutes, she sighed, removed her hand from her mouth, and opened her eyes, smiling at Ivory as though nothing had happened. "Anything else?"

Ivory felt guilty now, but she could at least answer honestly. "No, nothing in particular," her monotone was completely gone now as she spoke in small, wary voice.

"Oh? I thought I had more to hide than that. Maybe you can't see as much as you think you can," she teased.

"I see too much already. Maybe you're just better at hiding your secrets than other people."

"Maybe," Elise said with a smirk. "Now then, I suppose I have nothing left to hide from you if that's all you can see. As long as you don't go spreading that sad story around to everyone like I requested with my first favor, then we can get along fine, right?"

Ivory wasn't sure how to respond. She still felt very awkward. This was the first time anyone had every asked her to dig up their most painful memories and talk about them. What was she supposed to say in the situation like this? Before she could formulate any sort of response, Kathrin was back.

Entering the dining hall, Kathrin looked more guarded this time. Ivory could overhear her thinking to herself to act natural and casual, and then immediately remembering that Ivory could hear her and scolding herself for being an idiot. It would have been more amusing if Ivory hadn't already seen so many other people doing the exact same thing before.

"I know which room you're staying in now," Kathrin informed her. "I'll take you there now, if you still feel like resting."

Ivory glanced at Elise and then back to Kathrin. She didn't know why she answered in the way she did, but the conversation with Elise made her feel like she didn't want to be alone with her thoughts for a while. Not to mention, if she were to, for a time, go along with the cleric's request, then this was the first step.

"If you don't mind, can we finish the tour, and... and I'm sorry for what I said earlier." These weren't heartfelt words; Ivory reverted herself to as much of an emotionless state as she ever had. Still, Elise was an odd person, and she felt that maybe something would happen if she abided by the favors asked of her. She would refuse to let anyone get close to her, though. At the end of the day, even if Elise was a strange person, that didn't mean should wasn't as cruel as everyone else. She was just better at hiding it... probably.

Kathrin looked surprised by the sudden apology. "Ah... No... Well..." she stumbled over herself trying to figure out how to respond. "It's okay. I'm not mad at you," she said after gathering her wits. "It's not like you were entirely wrong, either," she admitted. "I feel like I've let a lot of people down, including myself. I don't feel like I'm doing what I need to be doing, but I don't know what I should be doing either. All I know is that I want to help people when they need it."

"Then you should become a cleric like me," Elise interjected quickly. She had been waiting for the brunette to give her the right opening.

"Not happening," Kathrin answered just as rapidly as Elise had made the suggestion.

Ivory looked at Kathrin and felt something stirring inside of her, an unfamiliar feeling. It was a strange mixture of anger, envy, and even admiration. Kathrin had so many options available to her, but wasn't content with any. Meanwhile, Ivory felt she was forced into a cage, unable to escape the cruelty of others, both internally and externally. At the same time, she felt Kathrin was doing her best to help others, even if Ivory didn't believe she was as capable or as strong as she believed she was. She didn't trust Kathrin, but only because no one was trustworthy. Even so... Even so...

"Why don't you join the shrine? You can help more people that way, and you wouldn't feel like you were betraying everyone's expectations, right?" Ivory asked with her usual bluntness.

Both of the older girls looked at her with stunned expressions, but Elise was the first to speak up, her face lighting up as she cheered, "Yeah! I couldn't have said it better myself!" She rushed over to  Ivory and crouched to so that they were the same height and put an arm around her, pulling her into a tight embrace. She then proceeded to ruffle her hair.

"Please don't touch me," Ivory's annoyance leaked out a bit on that one, and it only grew stronger as Elise completely ignored her and continued to dote on her like an obnoxious older sister.

Kathrin raised her eyebrows slightly. "I didn't expect you of all people to ask such a question."

"What do you mean?" Ivory asked, now physically pushing Elise away, though it didn't seem to be making matters any better. The cleric was much older and had the advantage of a longer reach.

"I've heard how many shrines you've been to since you arrived here," there was a sudden seriousness to Kathrin's words. "Judging from the results of those shrines, I would say they've only hurt you. Shrines are magical buildings that help anyone in need just by being in one. Sure, they do a lot for the community and assist as many people as they can, but they aren't above passing their problems onto others when they don't have a simple solution. Shrines are about aiding people, not helping them."

Elise stopped playing around with Ivory and stood up. Her seriousness matched the sharp-eyed Kathrin's as she approached her, moving only inches away from her and looking her straight in the eyes. Ivory thought for sure she was going to strike her, and from the look Kathrin was giving, she was prepared for it. Fortunately, that was not the case.

"That's why we need you here," Elise explained. There was a mixture of desperation and pleading hidden in her tone, and you could hear it coming right from her heart. "You and me, together, we can change things for the better. We can help people, Kathrin. That's why I came here in the first place. I'm going for the top and I need someone like you with me to make sure I don't fall on my face."

Kathrin looked absolutely floored by the sudden declaration Elise was making. She opened her mouth to reply, but nothing came out. Her eyes moved around the room, looking for an answer, or maybe an escape, when they locked on Ivory.

"Ah, yeah! I, um... We need to finish the tour," she blurted out and walked over to Ivory as quickly as possible, grabbing the girl by the hand and leading her out. Well, "leading" might not have been the correct term, as Ivory had to nearly jog alongside the older girl in order to not get dragged out of the room.

Elise didn't say anything as the two left, but Ivory glanced back at her, only to see a strange look of both determination and worry on her face.

* * *

Classes droned on, and Ivory was doing her best to keep up with the lessons, but she was behind in a lot of subjects. Part of this was because she was constantly having to learn new things about Gaia that most others already taken as common knowledge, and partly because everyone was so noisy... or, well, their noisy thoughts were distracting her. Most of them weren't focusing on the lessons, but just thinking some nonsense or another. It made it nearly impossible to concentrate when her ability was in full effect, forcing her to listen to all the goings-on of the classroom.

Somehow, she managed to get through the day without issue. The teacher was experienced enough to keep the class in order, and she explained things well, so Ivory was able to keep up with most things being discussed. It felt like she was slowing the pace of the classroom intentionally so that Ivory could keep up, but she didn't get that impression from reading her thoughts or intent, so she settled on that just being Sierra's normal style of teaching. If that was the case, she didn't mind attending classes while Sierra was here or asking for help when she needed it.

As Ivory began to pack away her belongings, the door at the back of the room was yanked open abruptly, and everyone turned to see who had suddenly decided to burst into the room in such a manner. Just about everyone's eyes lit up, aside from the teacher who just rolled her eyes, used to Elise's "energetic" nature.

"Elise!"

A crowd of young students gathered around the smiling blonde. "Thanks for coming over and taking care of my family like that," one of the students said, giving her a hug. A few of the other students nodded in agreement and giving a sentimental, "Yeah, same here." and "Me too!"

Elise laughed. "I didn't do much. I just brought over some food and medicine. I didn't even have time to- Hey! Not so fast!"

Ivory stopped mid-step. She had quickly finished packing her belongs away and was attempting to sneak out the front of the classroom while everyone was distracting Elise. She didn't feel like dealing with the older girl right now. Unfortunately, she had been caught. Resigning herself, she turned towards the cleric and asked, "Is there something you need from me?"

Elise pretended to think a bit before showing a broad smile. "Sure. Eternal friendship and a smooch on the cheek!"

Ivory bit the inside of her lip in frustration so that she didn't show any more outward emotions to this woman that had already seen more than she should. Ivory replied with a blank look, "Sorry. I'm fresh out of both."

The students weren't too secretive about their feelings because their whispers were loud enough to be heard by everyone. "Elise, it's okay. I don't think she wants to be friends with anyone."

"Yeah," another student, the girl with the star-shaped pendant, chimed in, "we've tried to be friendly with her, but..."

"Besides, I heard she can read your mind," another said. "It's kind of scary."

Ivory, hearing all of this, shrugged and kept walking, but stopped as she heard the thought process in Elise's mind. Ivory turned to her, dumbfounded by what was about to come out of that girl's mouth. There was nothing she could do to stop it.

"You have it all wrong," Elise told them. "Ivory's really nice, but her old realm was funny about how you were supposed to make friends." Elise couldn't help but grin when she saw the young girl giving her a death glare. 'Yeah,' Elise thought, 'I'm lying, but it's for your own good.' She looked away from the magician before she was subjected to another angry look.

"You see," she continued, "in Ivory's realm, you had to do something very specific in order to become friends."

The small crowd of kids mumbled quietly amongst themselves. This was all new information to them. They asked the older cleric how people in Ivory's realm made friends. Some were curious out of a genuine desire to become friends with her, while others were simply interested in hearing about other realms.

"So, in order to become friends with people from Ivory's realm, you only have to do two things," Elise explained the work of fiction she had created for the young girl. "First, you have to make her laugh."

"Huh?!" Each and every head snapped quickly in the direction of the stone-faced girl. You didn't need to be a mind reader in order to understand what they were thinking. Regardless, the words "That's impossible!" resounded in chorus in her head.

"Second, you have to give her a big hug!" Elise proclaimed. In response to this, all eyes that were already on Ivory widened as much as they could, forcing the magician's entire face to turn a deep shade of red. Ivory nearly sprinted out of the room as a feeling of embarrassment washed over her. After she was gone, Elise grinned wider than ever. She got another wonderful reaction out of her. "Well, getting a hug from her might be a bit difficult. She's really shy, you know?"

The students were in disbelief. "Elise, you're making this up!" one accused her.

"Yeah, there's no way anyone could do that with her," another confirmed. "She's not friendly at all."

"Oh?" Elise feigned surprise. "Did she say anything mean or rude to anyone?" She saw a few students open their mouths, then think about the actual few words they had shared with Ivory, and then decide against saying anything. In truth, while Ivory had been very terse, she hadn't spoken any harsh words to anyone. Everyone came to speak to her with good intentions, and she responded accurately to those intentions. It was just the way she spoke that left the impression of rudeness.

This realization seemed to get through to those that had approached her, but it left them with more questions. "How are we supposed to make her laugh?" "Does she even laugh?" "There's no way she'll let anyone hug her; that's for sure!"

"What are you talking about?" Elise gave an exaggerated shrug, as if you say "It's no big deal". "I made her laugh and gave her a hug within the first thirty minute of meeting her. You kids just aren't trying hard enough."

Once again, the small crowd was shocked and immediately expressed their disbelief, one saying, "She didn't act friendly with you, though."

"She just hasn't gotten used to the fact that we tease our friends a lot in this realm as a sign of friendship, so I've been making sure to give her extra teasing until she gets used to it." Elise didn't need to say any more. The students could only imagine the kind of teasing Elise was capable of when she was specifically targeting someone. On the bright side for them, at least she had never convinced anyone in the class to swallow any chariburros.

With minimal effort, it seemed Elise's plan had succeeded, as some of the students seemed prepared to try their best to give the two-part condition of friendship a try. However, that was only part of the problem. There was still the bigger issue at hand that needed to be dealt with. Having Ivory ignore the forethoughts of people's minds was just a temporary solution-- a bandage on a larger wound. She needed a more permanent solution, but she really wasn't sure what to do. She needed some help with this one and wondered if Kathrin would be willing to lend a hand again. Ivory had shaken her pretty good, but she hoped it wouldn't be enough to keep her away.

Elise talked a while with the students, joking and having fun with them. She was cheerful and full of energy, and the kids reacted well to her good nature. They really loved her and hated when she had to say goodbye, but she had some business to attend to now. As she left, she was planning to go into town, hoping to find Kathrin just finishing with her job.

"Hey! Elise!" a voice called out from behind her as she was preparing to open the grand wooden doors at the shrine's entrance. She turned around, certain she had heard wrong.

"Kathrin?" Sure enough, she was met by the very person she wanted to see the most.

Kathrin waved at her from across the corridor and made a casual jog towards her direction. "I've been looking for you for a little while now. What were you up to?"

"I was just over by the classrooms," Elise replied. "You know, I was just wanting to talk with-"

"Wait," Kathrin interrupted. Elise might have pushed a bit harder to have Kathrin hear her out, but she seemed very serious right now, so she let her continue. She'd discuss Ivory with her right after she let the brunette say what she needed to say.

"I just wanted to make sure Ivory was doing okay. It's been a few days now, and I've been worrying..."

Elise blinked, then blinked again. After several seconds of just staring wordlessly at her friend, she leaned in and wrapped her arms around her, lifting Kathrin off her feet. "I TOLD YOU SO! I TOLD YOU SO!" she yelled out in one of the most cheerful voices Kathrin had ever heard her make.

This crazy reaction that seemingly came out of nowhere left Kathrin, now at the mercy of a strangely intense embrace, stammering in confusion. "W-WAIT! WHAT ARE- NO, NO! P-P-PUT ME DOWN!!!" It took a great deal of yelling, (and eventually some threatening) before Kathrin returned to solid ground. Embarrassed, she asked Elise why she was acting so excited.

Elise beamed. "You were worried about Ivory!" The way she said it gave off the impression that she was teasing her.

Kathrin didn't see the issue, however. "Of course I am. Aren't you?"

Elise nodded and answered. "I'm worried about everyone. I'm a meddler, aren't I?"

"I can't argue with that," Kathrin mumbled loudly with a small smirk.

"And so are you," the cleric declared, poking Kathrin's chest. "That's why I need your help. Together, we're going to meddle up something wonderful and help out a hopeless little magician, even if she ends up hating us for it."

Kathrin swatted away Elise's hand and grumbled, "I'm not a meddler."

Ignoring that, Elise explained the current situation with Ivory. Kathrin couldn't help but laugh. While she could see someone maybe getting a laugh out of Ivory, there was no way she thought for even a moment she would allow anyone to hug her. Elise couldn't argue, but they both ended up agreeing that this was a good first step, as the students would at least start to work towards the goal of cracking the hard outer shell of the clammed up magician.

"So, here's where I really need help," Elise informed Kathrin. The two had been walking around the garden at this point, talking freely amongst the lilacs which were painted with a soft purple hue as they began to bloom. "Ivory's telepathy is still going to be a big hurdle for people to get over. The kids in her class are still just excited that there's a magician in the room, but a lot of the older clerics are already starting to avoiding her."

Kathrin huffed an annoyed sigh. "Why did they even become clerics if they're going to-"

Elise quickly put a hand up to stop the younger girl. "Watch it. I know how you feel, but the clerics here are my family. I won't let you talk badly of them just like I wouldn't let them talk badly of you." Kathrin looked as though she would retort for just a second, but then looked down, feeling a bit guilty, and nodded. Elise gave a small smile and nodded in return. "Thanks. That said, what in the world is wrong with them?! Why are they even clerics if they're going to act this way?!"

Kathrin's jaw dropped. "But you just said-"

"I can talk harshly of my family all I want," Elise said with a shrug. "Anyway, I don't want their behavior spreading and cutting Ivory's ties to her classmates, but I don't even know where to start! How do you stop people from being scared of someone that can read your mind and see right through you?!"

The two stood there in silence, contemplating this question. Why was everyone being so cruel? Couldn't they see Ivory had no say over what she overheard? Then again, were the clerics really overreacting? After all, this paranoia and pain had repeated itself half a dozen times now. Was it just human nature to be afraid of people with this kind of power? If that was an unstoppable truth, then was there any way to fix it?

What was the root of the problem? Where could they strike so that everyone could live peacefully together? Was there even such a way to for that to become a reality? Kathrin and Elise both thought deeply on this, not just while they were out in the garden, but for the entire day, even as they were crawling into their respective beds. Neither had come up with a single possible solution that would work.

By the next morning, Elise was groggily cleaning the floor at the entrance of the shrine. She hadn't gotten much sleep, as her thoughts were so jumbled with incomplete thoughts and fears, as the answer to Ivory's problem only seemed to get further away the more she tried to search for it. She had slept for less than an hour total.

Only halfway done with mopping the floor, and far ahead of schedule, she sat down to change the sponge attachment on the mop. This should have been done by the last cleric that was in charge of mopping this area, but she was too tired to let this trivial matter get to her. She was also too tired to stay awake while changing out the sponge. She found an oddly comfortable sitting position and her body and mind relaxed while she set herself into routine mode, as she'd done this chore countless times for nearly a decade now.

It was a quiet day, and her sleep went interrupted as most other clerics were busy with their own work and there wasn't much traffic coming into or leaving the shrine, more than likely because Shrine Head Xiao was out for the morning on some business or other. If she had been caught sleeping, she wouldn't have gotten in trouble. In fact, people would probably be concerned more than anything else, as she was considered an exemplary cleric by any means.

It was good, though, that no one was around to wake her up. These twenty minutes of quiet rest gave her a small dream that felt as though it lasted a couple of hours. The moment she awoke, her eyes shined brightly with glorious revelation-- a perfect epiphany that pushed all her drowsiness away. In an instant, she dropped everything she was doing and sprinted at her top speed out of the shrine and to the local bakery nearly half a mile away.

Once there, Elise threw the door open and locked eyes with Kathrin, who was lifelessly kneading a large pile of fluffy-looking dough, her eyes half-open as she glanced up towards the door. It took her a moment to register who it was. "Oh, Elise," she sounded as tired as she looked, murmuring the words quietly. "I didn't think it was your turn to buy bread for the shrine." She let out a large yawn after speaking, the kind that made everyone else around her want to yawn, which they did, customers and coworkers alike.

Elise smiled. "You look out of it."

"Yeah, I didn't sleep much last night. I was up all night thi-"

"Thinking about what to do with Ivory," Elise finished her sentence for her. They really were just alike. "About that, I think I figured out how to fix everything."

Kathrin seemed to liven upon hearing this news. "Really? What's your idea? Is there anything I can do to help?"

"Actually," Elise said, acting as though she were just now considering letting Kathrin help her out, "how are you with begging?"

Kathrin narrowed her eyes at the older girl. "This is going to be one of those plans, isn't it?" she asked. It was apparent she was already used to these types of schemes.

"YEP!" Elise chirped.

* * *

Much to Kathrin's chagrin, Elise's plan was the best solution they'd ever have. While this was splendid news in every other way, it also meant that Kathrin was soon humbling herself in complete humility before several people... right after she worked the rest of her shift at the bakery in what could best be described as a stupor.

First, the duo pleaded with the high priestesses, just to get them to allow the two a chance to speak with the already overbooked shrine head. This might have actually been the hardest part of the whole ordeal, as Xiao was constantly on the move. Whatever it was she was working on, it was giving her an excessive amount of trouble. In the end, through persistence and Elise being... Elise, they were able to arrange a very short time in which they could speak with her. They were given a five minute gap in her schedule wherein they would be allowed to share a carriage ride with her from one appointment to the next.

Things began even worse than they anticipated as they were rushed into the carriage. They were met by Xiao and the most senior high priestess, who was miraculously crafting a meal for Xiao in the very cramped area of the carriage. In this short, precious span of time, this was going to be the only nourishment she would receive for the next ten hours, if that.

Shrine Head Xiao, a dark-skinned woman only a few inches over five feet tall, looked much more intense than they were expecting, but only spoke two words to them.

"Speak. Now." Her eyes burned into Elise's. They almost dared her to look away.

It didn't matter than the woman was so small, nor that Elise had spoken with her numerous times before this, always in a jovial manner. Right now, the cleric felt that if Shrine Head Xiao thought her time was being wasted, she'd fling her out the carriage window without a second thought. Nonetheless, she recalled the dark, emotionless look in Ivory's eyes and pressed forward. Elise swallowed hard, shook off her worries, and spoke clearly and concisely.

"I need your help with contacting the Magicians of Gaia. I believe that they are the only ones that can stop the cycle of pain and harassment that Ivory's been put through in every other shrine she's been to, and from the looks of it, is about to experience again. I want their help, as I believe they are the only ones that can find someone suitable to help Ivory learn to control her magic. If she can do that, I fully believe she'll be able to live a somewhat normal life, even if there's still some issues that-"

"Stop." Xiao's single word made Elise's mouth shut almost immediately. Kathrin had never seen such a thing, but it wasn't as though she couldn't understand the situation. At Xiao's word, Elise wasn't just in danger of being thrown out of the carriage, but Himmel Shrine also. To add to that pressure, Xiao wasn't in the best of moods.

"Not you," Xiao told Elise. "I SAID STOP!" With that, the large, hulking ivor that was leading the carriage was pulled to a halt by the driver outside. Both girls' eyes went wide, a feeling of worry cascading over them as they questioned why this insanely busy person would come to a complete stop like this. Kathrin glanced over nervously to Elise, but Elise refused to break eye contact with the shrine head, not even to blink. Kathrin saw that she was trying to keep up an air of seriousness and confidence, but she couldn't hide the fact that her hands, balled tightly into fists, were trembling as they pressed into her thighs.

"What did you just say?" Xiao demanded. "Repeat every word you just said right now as though we had travelled back in time. I want to hear you say it again."

It was a killing blow for Elise, who blinked hard at this request. Repeat every word she just said? Verbatim?! She was having trouble remembering her name at this very moment. No, she had to remember. She had to somehow say it again. Elise opened her mouth, but found no voice. She felt completely suffocated under the expectant, crushing gaze of Shrine Head Xiao. She let out a weak noise as she tried to say something, anything, but...

"'I need your help with contacting the Magicians of Gaia.'"

Suddenly, she heard Kathrin's voice.

"'I think they are the only ones that can stop the pain and harassment that Ivory's been put through in all the other shrines she been to and is about to experience again at Himmel. I want their help. I believe they are the only ones that can find someone to help Ivory learn to control her magic. If she can do that, I believe she'll be able to live a normal life, even if...' and then you cut her off." It wasn't perfectly word-for-word, but it was very close. Unlike Elise, Kathrin didn't have anything to lose here, and when she saw that her friend wasn't able to answer Shrine Head Xiao's request, she gave it her best attempt. They'd already come this far, and even if they had the option to turn back, she'd refuse it. She wasn't here for Elise, Xiao or the shrine. She was here because she was concerned about Ivory.

Xiao turned to Kathrin and looked at her, showing an acknowledgement of her existence in this carriage for the first time since she entered. "You must be Kathrin."

"Oh... Yes." Kathrin was unsure of how to react to this. Over the course of several years that she had been helping out Himmel Shrine, she made maybe spoken with Xiao a total of three times, and only one or two sentences each encounter. She always seemed so busy that she didn't want to bother her, so it threw her off guard when she was able to recall her name so easily.

Handing Shrine head Xiao a surprisingly well-stacked sandwich, loaded with no less than three different types of meat, the senior high priestess quietly spoke, "Xiao, if we're skipping the meeting, let me know now so I can draft a formal apology letter to Remas and the others."

"Don't you dare. We'll let them sweat it out." Xiao never removed her eyes from Kathrin as she addressed her aide. The dark brown spheres didn't reveal the same level of threat as they did when she glared at Elise, but the pressure in the small compartment still felt thick and oppressing. She started back to the brunette.

"Kathrin, you helped us out a few days ago when everyone was sick. Even before that, you've helped us out every time we've been in a tough situation, even as young as you are. You've helped us a time or two while still attending school, if I recall. I suppose we have Elise to thank for that on some level, but I want to give you my thanks for all you've done. Believe it or not, I do keep tabs on those kinds of things people do and make sure to return that kindness if they ever find themselves in need." Xiao's words felt honest enough to allow Kathrin to relax a small amount, but the tension in her voice never allowed her to feel completely calm. This feeling persisted as Xiao continued.

"Let's talk seriously for a moment," Xiao said.

Elise and Kathrin both felt a tremendous amount of stress weighing on them as she said this. 'We weren't talking seriously already?' they both thought in more or less the same words.

"Kathrin, I know you went above what was asked of you when you helped show Ivory around. I would be the one to know. After all, I'm the one that rewrote the check after Anna spoke with me about giving you a little extra. I know it was a meager amount, but I hope you found it worth the added effort."

Kathrin responded by waving her arms frantically. "Ah, no! I didn't do it for money or anything!"

"You didn't turn it away, either," Xiao shot back immediately. She was obviously prepared for that response. Her eyes shot back over to Elise. "Oh, calm down. I'm just teasing her."

Kathrin glanced quickly over towards Elise, catching the end of an angry glare before the cleric's expression changed to one that was simply displeased. Xiao's jab had riled her up enough that Elise seemed like she would snap at her if she tried to imply that Kathrin was acting out of greed or self-interest.

"That's good, though," Xiao told the blonde. "I like that you two are looking out for each other, and even more so that you're both so concerned about Ivory that you would be willing to spend a carriage ride trying to convince me to bring in the most powerful people in all of Gaia to help her. Honestly, if I had one word for your idea, it would have to be-"

"Xiao." The senior high priestess spoke up at the most inopportune time.

"What?" Shrine Head Xiao asked. The girls had a feeling that if absolutely anyone else had interrupted her like that, she would have stared them down and sounded much more annoyed, but with this woman, the word "what" rolled out so naturally that she simply sounded curious.

"You're forgetting to eat again."

Xiao looked down at the sandwich in her hand. It was a look that suggested she didn't recall where she got it from or when it was handed to her. This woman was undoubtedly one of the most stressed out women in all of Gaia, the girls thought.

"Oh," was Xiao's only response as she looked blankly at the sandwich in her hands a while longer before taking the first bite out of it. Doing so visibly made her relax; her shoulder slumped and her posture practically melted. "It's good," she said in a single, happy breath, but immediately mumbled, "You forgot the cucumbers again, though."

"Say again," the senior high priestess said, leaning in uncomfortably close to the shrine head.

It was Xiao that was now under the intense pressure. "I said it was perfect as always," she lied, giving a fake smile and taking another huge bite. The woman appeared to be pleased with this response, or at least enough to pull away and start preparing some water for her boss to drink.

Xiao gave quiet sigh of relief as she glanced at her aide from the corner of her eye. She then went back to talking to Kathrin. "Getting back on topic, it's clear if your interest was solely money, you wouldn't be here now, nor would you have been there for us all those other times Elise enlisted your help. I'll be honest, it was disheartening when the letter we sent you a few months ago went unanswered."

"...Letter?" Elise turned her head to face Kathrin, but the hazel eyes avoid making contact, so she turned back to Xiao. "What letter?" The only response she received was Xiao raising her hands up haplessly and tilting her head, as if to say "Who knows?" Elise had an idea of what "letter" she was referring to and was justifiably peeved that Kathrin never mentioned it. "You got an offer from Himmel Shrine for a staffing position, didn't you?"

"I've been telling you I wouldn't join the shrine since day one," Kathrin told her, still avoiding eye contact. "This isn't any different."

"It is different!" Elise proclaimed angrily. "Do you know how rare it is for a shrine to send out a job offer like that?! You wouldn't have even had to officially become a cleric, yet you would have still gotten all the benefits and would have been given a job helping people! It's the perfect solution to all your problems, and you just ignored it?! What is wrong with you?"

Kathrin had never had Elise speak so angrily with her, and that anger latched on and spread into her. She spoke without considering her words, "I've never wanted to join your stupid shrine and I never will!"

"YOU-" Elise started, but Xiao spoke over her.

"Words like that sting, you know?" She didn't show any sort of anger at the harsh words and was instead rather calm and collected as she casually enjoyed another bite of her sandwich. After following that with a mouthful of water, she spoke again. "What's so bad about our shrine in particular that would make you say something so cruel?"

Kathrin's anger hadn't faded, so her inhibitions were still strong enough to allow her to speak her mind. "The fact that we're here is proof enough. Elise and I are the only ones that are trying to help Ivory. Everyone else is avoiding her, and I hear you haven't even gone to see her or ask her how she's doing!" She didn't hold back even remotely with her verbal assault and refused to back down when Xiao shot her an icy glare.

"She doesn't mean that..." Elise said, her voice begging the woman to forgive Kathrin for speaking without thinking.

"Oh, I'm sure she does mean it," Xiao replied, "and that's just fine." She took another long drink of water. Her eyes locked back onto Kathrin, though this time it was a less hostile look than before. "Kathrin, you have no idea what I've been doing this past week, do you?"

Kathrin had to admit to herself that she didn't and shook her head in response.

"Well, seeing as how I suddenly have a little free time, let's relax with a short story, shall we?"

Kathrin felt panic spread through her. It wasn't because she felt that Xiao was angry at her, nor was it because she felt she had done anything wrong. She wasn't even worried that her plan to help Ivory was in danger, as she could have always gone to others to request help contacting the Magicians of Gaia if she absolutely had no other options. No, what made her heart begin to beat rapidly was the oppressing and crippling atmosphere in the carriage that was created... when Xiao grinned at her.

She couldn't have explained why this got to her so much, but she felt she had just awoken a beast. She stared into the eye of a predator and remained silent, knowing she would be eaten alive if she didn't calm down and behave as expected.

Shrine Head Xiao... What kind of person was she?!

 

Chapter 5 - A Place to Belong - Part 3

Content from her sandwich, Xiao sipped from a fresh cup of tea, savoring the calmness of the moment. Blowing off the meeting with Remas was probably the best decision she'd made in days (for her mental wellbeing if nothing else). Her eyes connected with Kathrin's again. She didn't say anything for a long period of time, instead just staring at the girl with a stern look on her face. It was an agonizing silence, and Kathrin couldn't say anything, partially because she didn't know what to say, but also her instincts told her to hold her tongue.

At long last, Xiao mercifully broke the silence with a grim look in her eyes. "Several days ago, I received a letter from a good friend of mine, Gwyneth, who is the shrine head over in Lingston." She motioned her head in the general direction of the city just under a hundred miles north-northeast of Himmel. It was known for being an affluent city, though not for much else. "As it turned out, she was in a bad situation and I was the only person she trusted enough to help her. I'm sure you can guess without me telling you, but her trouble was with Ivory."

"The clerics and other residents were having trouble dealing with her, right?" Elise asked.

"Oh no," Xiao told her. "Gwyneth's troubles with her started before Ivory even arrived in Lingston. As you know, sometimes new magicians lose their way and end up stranded in Gaia, but that's maybe one or two a year, at most. Most are perfectly able of finding their way back home and others... don't." Xiao chose to be more discrete about the more well-known "realm crashers" that tend to find their way into Gaia and the unpleasant fate that awaits them.

"As such," she continued, "magicians with no place to go sometimes accept the hospitality of shrines until they can find a way to put their skills to use and leave the shrine to start a new life. What might be less obvious is that a fair number of shrines work behind the scenes in what essentially is a bidding war, trying to get the magician into their grasp. There are a number of reasons to do this, but all those reasons ultimately lead to gold."

Kathrin looked away, but the look on her face gave way to the disgust she felt, and Xiao was quick to respond. "Don't. I feel the same way as you, and I assure you that the number of shrines that do this are in the vast minority. If I had my way, I'd remove them from their positions and impose a hefty fine on them all, including Gwyneth. She saw that the shrine before hers was having issues dealing with Ivory and, likely influenced by the fools around her, offered up an undisclosed sum of money to that shrine to allow for Ivory to come and stay in Lingston."

Elise nodded wisely. "I might be making assumption here, but if I had to guess, those shrines are making the magicians into spectacles, hoping to draw in more clerics and volunteers on the premise that maybe they'd be able to see her using her magic."

"Or worse," Xiao explained, "they may be conning the confused and unfortunate magicians to act as a side show and draw in a crowd. The more people they can get, the more money that will flow into their shrine... or their pockets." She watched Kathrin fuming at the very idea of these kinds of things happening. From that reaction alone, her opinion of the young girl rose  dramatically. That was the same reaction she had when she first heard about all of this.

"However, like I was saying, Gwyneth's troubles started from the moment she, well, 'paid for' Ivory. You see, Gwyneth honestly isn't a greedy or scheming type of woman, but she has not always made the best decisions. I'm sure that she was convinced this deal was wholly for the betterment of her shrine and nothing more, and that Ivory would love it in Lingston and she'd never actually have to deal with the complications of having a magician welcomed into her home." Xiao rolled her eyes and let out a small laugh at the naivety of her old friend. "She was wrong."

"You said her troubles started before Ivory arrived at the shrine," Kathrin recalled. "What was causing her trouble?"

Xiao frowned at this question, looking at though the words had sucked the life out of her. "There's a thing to be said about people that are extremely greedy. They are often extremely crafty." When asked what she meant by that, Xiao explained, "Sometimes, when a shrine that has never had a magician as a resident suddenly has such a person in their care, the less ethical shrines will put pressure on people like Gwyneth to relinquish the magician from their care."

"I'm even more confused now," Kathrin admitted. "How do they 'put pressure on' those shrines and why?"

"Simple. All one has to do is make an appeal that a shrine that has never housed a magician is not fit to take care of their specific needs. It's an easy claim to make and even easier to back up, but extremely hard to fight against since 'the needs of a magician' is a vague concept to begin with, so it can be manipulated into meaning whatever a person wants. As for why they do it, well, it's just a matter of getting the magician 'back on the market' for those selfish shrines to begin the process all over again."

"Despicable," Elise muttered angrily.

"Indeed," Xiao nodded in agreement. "Gwyneth wasn't able to cope with all the pressure, and when Ivory arrived at her shrine, she didn't get along with anyone, so it made it even more difficult to prove she was capable of taking care of her. In desperation, she wrote to me, explaining the situation and asking me if I would take in Ivory. She had no idea of the chaos involved when she was convinced that she should put in a 'bid' for a magician."

"So... that's what you've been doing all this time? You're going through the same troubles as Lingston's shrine head?" Kathrin looked a little pale, feeling embarrassed for accusing Xiao of not caring just moments ago.

Xiao gave a sour look. "More or less. I wasn't blindsided by this like Gwyneth, so I'm holding up better than she was by this point, but there's now allegations of me extorting Gwyneth to get Ivory, so now I have multiple investigations happening at once, and I won't even get into some of the more ridiculous accusations being leveled at me. Sheryl says it's because I have such a hostile personality," she said, motioning to her aide, "but that's nonsense. I don't have a hostile personality, do I, Elise?" She turned her attention to the cleric and glared menacing at her. "I don't, right?"

Elise couldn't answer verbally as an overwhelming pressure descended onto her chest, so she could only shake her head in response. There wasn't even the option of implying anything else.

"See? I told you," Xiao said with a look to Sheryl.

"I stand corrected," Sheryl answered flatly. There was no sign of sarcasm in her voice, but for some reason, Kathrin and Elise were certain she was making fun of Xiao.

"Trust me," Xiao went on, either not sensing the sarcasm or choosing to ignore it, "there's nothing more I'd like to be doing right now than taking care of the shrine like I do any other day. I had originally planned to have a long talk with Ivory when she arrived, but as you can, my free time has been limited."

"I'm sorry." Kathrin lowered her head. "I didn't-"

"Why are you apologizing?" Xiao asked abruptly. "I'm not angry with you. Even if I was, I'd be in the wrong for feeling that way. You girls came here on a mission to seek help for Ivory, which just so happens to coincide with my own goals. Even if it didn't, I'd seriously be taking your request into consideration, but since it does..." she smiled again. The kind of smile Xiao had could only be described as one that had a devious plan. Maybe it was the kind of smile one gave when they saw a clear path to revolution.

"Sheryl, cancel the rest of our meetings for the day," the shrine head instructed.

"Are you sure that's wise?" her aide asked. She didn't give the impression that she thought it was unwise, but appeared to be making sure that Xiao was certain of her own plans. It was as though she were tethering Xiao to a sense of rationality and reason so that she didn't make any rash decisions.

"They won't be able to say anything," Xiao replied. "After all, what could be more important that contacting the Magician of Gaia for help?" Her smile grew as she looked at the two girls across from her. "Wouldn't you agree?"

Kathrin and Elise's eyes widened in realization as Xiao's words unfolded before them. She was going to go with their plan?! No, it was much more than that. If they were to go by just the pleased look on her face, it was obvious that Xiao was stirring up some trouble-- the good kind of trouble.

Kathrin found herself wondering what Ivory would see if she were to read Xiao's mind right now. Would she be able to see a hopeful future ahead?

* * *

As it turned out, she would be able to see that future soon enough-- two days to be exact.  That was all the time it took for a letter (those marked "urgent" were giving higher priority) to reach the Library of Magic, where a Magician of Gaia resided. This magician was usually one capable of communicating quickly with the others so that any important messages were received as soon as possible. Knowing this, Xiao still nearly jumped over her desk when a magic gate opened in her office and a group of four entered.

An older, white-haired woman grinned. "Oh my, I must be getting rusty. I meant to arrive just outside your office, not inside."

"Save it, Bastet," Xiao growled. "I see your habit of surprising people hasn't diminished with age. I'm not a child anymore, you know. You could give me a heart attack doing that!" Even though she said that, Xiao had been waiting for their arrival, knowing they wouldn't be long. Still, there was something to be said about the proper way to visit someone.

"And I see you're still no fun as usual," the elderly dimensional magician, Bastet, shot back. "Anyway, your letter was very enlightening in a number of ways. I wish you had written me about some of these things sooner, though."

"I tend to no pick fights unless they spill over into my own yard," Xiao explained. "That's not to say I wasn't planning to inform you eventually, but..."

"You thought you might have to deal with Julia?" Bastet playfully jabbed, bringing up Xiao's old love. Though ancient history now, the old magicians knew Xiao was the kind of woman who couldn't get over such things very easily.

"..." Xiao avoided eye contact and didn't respond, though these mannerisms spoke volumes. Seeing a smirk spread across her face, Xiao fought back against the slow red glow that started to cover her cheeks and changed the subject. "So I see you brought the current guard responsible for Gaia's safety. Are they here to see Ivory also?" She motioned to the group of three younger magicians, all in their mid-to-late twenties, who stood to the side quietly as the two older ladies talked.

"Something like that," Bastet responded. "I suppose this could be more of a late-term educational visit than anything else." She looked over impatiently towards the younger girls and gestured towards the shrine head. "Aren't you girls going to say hello to Xiao? I know you haven't forgotten her that quickly."

The girls standing over to the side all gave a quiet nod, uneasy about responding. The enchanting specialist gave more of a dull, somewhat vacant look towards Xiao. This young woman, Marjani, was the oldest of the three at twenty-eight and always wore the same tired expression in any and every situation she encountered, as though sleepwalking through life. She stared at Xiao through her sandy-colored bangs, apparently recognizing her, but saying nothing to indicate that she did.

The second oldest of the three at twenty-six, the bonding specialist named Dora, looked nervously at Xiao, then at the floor. She seemed unsure of what to say or how to respond to the situation, so she just started fixated on the floor before giving a meek, "Nice to see you again." It was hard to explain this girl's behavior at a glance, and she might have been wrongly accused of being shy, but in reality, she was bad with delicate situations. She was the type that often said the exact wrong thing at the exact wrong time and became cautious with her words as a result. In this case, she knew Xiao mainly from her old romance with Julia, another Magician of Gaia, but she didn't want to bring it up.

The youngest of the three was a raven-haired girl named Rheia. She was twenty-three, though just shy of another birthday that was coming at the end of the week. Her expression was more that of someone struggling to remember something as she looked from Xiao to Bastet and back to Xiao again. Eventually, with a guilty look on her face, she admitted that she had no idea who Xiao was.

"Really?" Bastet was a bit surprised by this, "Don't you remember how Jul-"

Xiao was quick to stop her before she blurted out some unnecessary things. "W-Well, it was all a long time ago. Let's not dwell on the past," she said in a rush before once again trying to veer the subject away from that matter. "So, let's go see Ivory, shall we? She's in class right now, but I doubt it will hurt Sierra's feelings too much if we make a short stop by the classroom and interrupt her lesson for a moment. Besides, I'm sure meeting four of the Magicians of Gaia is educational in its own right."

"If it's fine with you, we'd appreciate it very much," Bastet said with a smile and nod.

Xiao led the way towards the classroom, the three younger magicians following the elder ladies in tow. Once there, Xiao smirked and motioned quietly for the others to move out of sight. They understood without needing to be told that this was supposed to be a surprise. It was always amusing to see the various reactions that would get from people when they showed up unannounced. Well, that habit belonged more to Bastet than anything.

Xiao knocked on the door of the classroom and opened it just enough to stick her head inside and call out to the teacher, "Sierra, could I have a moment?" She received a surprised look, but anticipated the larger surprised that stood behind her.

Sierra gave her a nod and instructed the students to review a section in their reading (each age group had different books, though), saying they would be writing a page on their impressions of the essay when she returned. After being met with a chorus of groans, she walked out of the classroom to speak with Xiao, but her eyes widened at the sight of the majority of the Magicians of Gaia that gathered in the hallway. After a moment, she smirked and asked, "Am I  more popular today than I thought?"

Xiao frowned and turned to Bastet. "And you said I was no fun." Bastet shrugged and the shrine head directed her attention back to Sierra. "Listen, we need to talk about Ivory. I hear she's been having trouble getting along with the others since she arrived. Have the students been giving her a hard time?"

Sierra chuckled uncharacteristically at the question. "'Giving her a hard time' is certainly one way to put it."

"What do you mean? Are they treating her poorly or aren't they?" Bastet asked.

Sierra thought to answer, but grinned instead. "Let me show you." With that, she cracked the door open and called inside to the student. "Everyone, there's been a sudden change of plans. Go ahead and have some free time. We'll get back to the essay later." She closed the door back, this time to the sound of energetic chatter amongst the students. The others looked at her in confusion and she held up a finger to urge their patience. "Give them a minute."

"You know I sign your paycheck, right?" Xiao asked, raising a threatening eyebrow.

"You pay me to teach," Sierra countered, "so let me teach you something interesting."

"And what would that be?"

Sierra tilted her head in thought before replying, "I suppose there are many lessons we can learn from this. The first is that you have some pretty amazing clerics working here. The second is... well, I suppose your lesson will begin if you peek inside the classroom right now."

Xiao couldn't say she wasn't curious. She looked back at Bastet and the girls and motioned her head towards the classroom door. She could tell they were just as interested in what lesson Sierra's class had for them as she was. The five of them gathered (awkwardly) around the door and edged it open just enough to peer inside. To their surprise, most of the classroom has gathered around Ivory in this short time frame, but they were not harassing her. On the contrary, many seemed to be fighting for her attention, falling over themselves to tell her different jokes, many of them incredibly old, but all new to the magician from another realm. A number of students were arguing over which version of the certain jokes was "the right one".

During all the commotion, Ivory had her head down on her desk with a large book draped over it, as though that would help to hide her. The most outrageous thing of all, however, was that from under the book came the sound of laughter. Ivory was apparently trying her level best to not let herself get caught up in the students' jokes, but she was failing miserably.

"I thought Ivory was having serious issues fitting in with everyone," Bastet said, giving Xiao a look of suspicion. "That is not what I'm seeing."

"I'm as confused as you are," Xiao responded with incredulity. She looked over at the teacher and asked, "Sierra, what in the world did you do to make everyone get along like this?"

Sierra shook her head. "As much as I wish I could take credit for it, you're forgetting the first lesson."

Xiao processed this for a short time before the realization hit her. "Elise," she stated.

Sierra nodded in response. "She has a way with the children and an even more dangerous way with words."

"So then," Dora spoke up, less cautious now than earlier, "your clerics are taking care of things? We don't have to worry about Ivory after all?"

"I have a feeling we're not going to get off so easily," Bastet informed her. "We never do with Xiao is involved."

"I'd argue with you, but you're not entirely wrong," Xiao said, giving a tired look. "Alright, let me grab Elise. Once we talk with her-"

"Where is she?" Bastet asked, interrupting the shrine head.

"I believe today was her turn to clean the residential halls. Why?"

Without a word, a interrealm gate opened right beside the elder magician and a very small shockwave spread through the area, barely noticeable to the others. It had taken Bastet years to reduce the amount of stress opening a gate took on the surrounding area. All dimensional magicians had to work on it at some point, as opening one inside a building tended to knock items over and off of shelves. Younger magicians were often told explicitly to never open them inside for that very reason.

Bastet poked her head inside the wormhole-like gate and then pulled back and turned to Xiao. "Is she a blonde?"

"Yeah," Xiao answered, somewhat uneasily.

"Does she usually make this face?" Bastet followed up with another question, this time making her eyes go wide and leaving her mouth partially open, a look of certain shock.

"I think anyone would make that face if you opened a gate right next to them and poked your head out," Rheia replied, covering her face with her hands in exasperation of the older woman.

Bastet nodded, as if she had never realized this before. "I see. Well then," she reached inside the gate once more without looked and tugged out a startled-looking blonde girl that, thankfully, was the right cleric.

Elise barely kept her balance as she came through the other side of the swirling pool of black mana and tensed up, as though she expected something painful to happen. When that turned out not to be the case, she looked around, trying to get her bearings. After realizing who was surrounding her, she let out a nervous laugh. "You all got here a lot faster than I expected. There's hot tea in the cafeteria, if you're interested."

"Oh! I'll-" Rheia started, but caught a stern look from Bastet and reconsidered, "I'll, um... grab a cup after we finish helping Ivory." She looked back over towards Bastet who nodded in approval.

Xiao, trying to keep everyone focused, asked Elise, "Didn't you say Ivory was having serious trouble here? I mean, I'm thrilled the students have taken a liking to her, but if that's the case, why did you come to me with the idea of calling the Magicians of Gaia here? It seems you took care of things well enough without them."

Elise's expression changed to one that was very serious. "You're wrong. Ivory's situation is just as terrible now as it's ever been. I've only slowed down the clock. If we don't get her some help soon, then Ivory is going to get hurt worse than ever when all the friends she's about to make suddenly realize how scary it is that she can read their minds and abandon her." Elise took a step back so that she could fully address all the magicians in front of her and bowed her head down respectfully. "That's why I had to get you here. Please help Ivory find someone to teacher to how to control her ability!"

"That's a hefty gamble you made," Bastet said, sounding impressed more than anything. "What would you do, though, if we said there was no one that could teach her how to use her abilities? How would you take responsibility for causing Ivory so much more unnecessary harm?"

Elise's expression remained unchanged as she look up at Bastet and answered, "If that were the case, and Ivory had nowhere to go and no one to rely on, I would leave the shrine and create a place for her alongside me."

"That's easy to say, but do you honestly-"

"There's no room to joke about something so important," Elise cut Bastet off before she could even finish her question.

The older magician gave a surprised look by the bluntness of the blonde, but that surprise quickly grew into a grin. She decided to press Elise a bit more. "You'd give up everything for just one girl-- your current life, your day-to-day comforts, your privacy and maybe even your happiness?"

Elise gave a slow, deep nod. "If I don't, who will?" she asked, but then added, "But my happiness won't be taken from me. I create my own. Even if I forget how to do that, I'll share in the happiness I created for Ivory."

Bastet's grin stretched into a huge, toothy smile. "I like her! She's got a lot of heart!"

"Is she single?" Rheia asked, half joking.

"Sorry, but she's currently married to the shrine," Xiao told her, pulling Elise back from the group of magicians by the collar and bringing her close, as if the group might try to abduct her if she weren't careful.

"So we should start looking for a tutor for Ivory right away," Dora said with a look towards her fellow magic users. "I don't know any other telepaths, though."

Bastet shook her head, "It doesn't need to be a telepath that teaches her how to use her powers. It's just more helpful when a magician learns from someone that has similar magic. Anyone who uses the same principals of telepathy in their magic would be perfect for the job. We'd need someone who works specifically with mental aspects, such as changing the landscape of someone's thoughts or processing signals of the brain in ways no one else can."

Dora struggled as she wracked her brain for any of the magicians they'd been in contact with over the years that matched that description. There were a few, but those people either went back home to their realm or were killed when they became too aggressive to talk down. She tried her hardest, but just couldn't come up with anyone. In distress, she looked to Bastet to ask if she knew anyone like that, only to be startled by everyone staring intently at her.

Dora looked at Rheia who was giving her the greatest look of absurdity. It was as if Rheia was seeing a girl with two heads in Dora's place. Confused, she began to ask, "What are-"

"IT'S YOU, YOU IDIOT!" Rheia yelled, unable to hold in her astonishment that the older girl had yet to connect the dots.

"Me?" Dora asked before the answer practically slammed into her at full force. Once she realized it, the obviousness of the situation was almost painfully embarrassing. She was, after all, the bonding specialist-- the single most expert in all of Gaia when it came to transferring the path of information between people and, if she truly desired it, the only person that could alter the way a person was able to think. She hadn't considered of the Magicians of Gaia as possible teachers, but if she had, she was the only acceptable choice.

"W-Wait! I'm not a teacher! I don't know how to explain to-"

The door to the classroom opened suddenly and a couple of students poked their heads out. "Hey, we heard yelling. Is everything- OH MY GODDESS!!!"

"Well, that didn't last long," Sierra said with a sigh, but at the same time, she couldn't help but smile. She knew this was going to be a big treat for the class.

There was no doubting it; the entire class spilled into the hallway in a matter of moments, all of them wanting to get a good look at the women who were essentially the saviors of their realm. Sierra did her best to try and calm down the group of loud, overly excited students, but there was no helping it, especially with the young ones, all of whom wanted to ask the four as many questions as they possibly could before they had to leave. Questions ranged from what their favorite food was to what kind of magicians they ran into and, of course, how many of those magicians they've had to kill. Kids really didn't pull any punches.

Breaking away from the group, Dora managed to grab Baster's ear. "Bastet, I don't know anything about telepathy!" she whispered urgently. "How am I supposed to teach Ivory how to deal with her powers when I don't understand them myself?"

"Don't worry," Bastet answered, though she never looked away from the students as she spoke to Dora. "If it makes you feel any better, you can think of it as practice for when you have to teach the next generation."

"That... That's different," the bonding magician tried to argue, but even she was having issues explaining why. Maybe she was just nervous at the prospect of teaching in general or maybe she, like so many others, feared the young magician's abilities. If that was the case, she had no right to be the one teaching her.

"So even the most power magicians in Gaia are afraid?" the voice of a young girl came from behind Dora. Dora froze and looked at Bastet in shock, but the elder magician could only close her eyes and pucker her lips, as though she tasted something sour. Without a doubt, Dora knew that voice.

"I-I didn't... say that," the words spilled out of Dora's mouth clumsily as she struggled to regain control of the situation. She turned to look at Ivory, but saw only the stony expression of someone she barely recognized. Was this the same girl her group had rescued only a few weeks ago?

Ivory tilted her head ever-so-slightly to the side. "It's been a while."

"Ivory?" Dora had to ask to be sure. When she last saw this girl, she was smiling as they told her they found a place for her where she could be safe and happy. They had told her to leave the worries of her previous realm behind her, but from the look on Ivory's face, it seemed like they followed her. She never would have guess things would have gotten this bad for her.

Seeing things getting serious, Sierra decided the kids had their treat and called out loudly over the rambunctious group, "Listen up! Our guests have a lot of important business to deal with, so we're going to have to let them go for now." The devastated cry that resounded from the group was many times more sorrowful than when she told them they would be writing a page for the essay in their books (which she was still going to make them do). "Yes, so please thank them from your heart for coming to visit and wish them many years of peace." Heartbroken, the group gave a fond farewell and were ushered back inside the classroom, though a couple of the younger children were a bit teary. It must have meant a lot to them to have some genuine heroes stop by and take a few moments to talk with them.

When everyone went back inside, Dora went back on the defensive. "Listen, Ivory, I won't say I might have some things I don't want anyone else to know, but that's not why I'm worried about teaching you," she tried desperately to explain.

"You're lying," Ivory accused. "The more you think about how much you don't want me to see, the more worried you're getting that I might see it. Why can't you just be honest?"

"I... I'm not..." Dora tried hard to fight against Ivory's points, but she was absolutely right. She had been cornered by a girl less than half her age.

"Bastet," Elise stepped in, saving the befuddled magician, "do you know the bakery down the road? The one with the orange roof?"

Bastet thought for a moment, then nodded. "Oh yes, I remember that place. I think Xiao still buys all the shrine's fresh bread from there, right?"

"I do," Xiao answered. "What about it?"

"Well..." Elise explained how a certain meddler by the name of Kathrin might be of help right about now and asked Bastet if she would grab her from her work. Bastet didn't particularly like the idea of pulling someone from their job for reasons that didn't concern them, but Elise assured her that Kathrin wouldn't mind and that she wasn't entirely unrelated.

Bastet turned to Xiao. "Is it okay to be letting this girl-- Elise, was it?-- do as she pleases? It seems like she's running the place."

"It's only a matter of time," Elise said with an unapologetic smugness.

Xiao could only smirk. "I'd rather not give her a large ego, but if I had to be honest, I trust her judgment almost as much as Sheryl's."

Bastet nodded. "I think I might understand why. Alright, I'll grab your friend Kathrin, but I don't see how she could be of much help at this point." Bastet was intent on just allowing Dora to supervise Ivory's training, even if it wasn't the optimal solution. Still, for Elise to ask her to bring someone else to help them at this point must have meant she had some plan of her own. She had only know this girl for a short while now, but she had "schemer" written all over her... though that wasn't necessarily a bad thing. If nothing else, she was curious to see what this girl wished to set into motion.

Bastet closed her eyes and pictured the old bakery in her mind. It's been a while since she'd been there, but she could still see it. 'As long as the interior hasn't changed, this shouldn't be a problem,' she thought, opening a gate beside her. If she was correct, the other side should lead directly into the bakery. She peeked through and was happy to see she was right.

She smiled brightly as the eyes of every worker and patron there, opened as wide as they could go, landed on her. "Hello, everyone," she called out cheerfully. "Sorry to intrude, but is there a young lady named Kathrin working here today?"

A stunned brunette behind the counter raised her hand, unable to form any words. She was even more confused when the head disappeared back into the dark mass.

Bastet, fully in the shrine once again, turned to Elise. "Oh, she's cute. Your girlfriend?"

Elise waved her hand in front of her and shook her head. "Nothing like that." She tilted her head up thoughtfully. "I suppose she's more of my protégé."

Ivory lost herself for just a second and let out a reflexive laugh. Elise turned to her, pretending to be offended. "What's so funny? She is! She's my protégé!"

Ivory recovered quickly, reverting back to her usual self. "I believe she sees you as more of a troublesome big sister, at best. I didn't even need to read her mind to figure that one out."

"That's not true. Bring her here and I'll prove it!" Elise demanded. Bastet,  impressed by the reaction she got out of Ivory (and vice versa), gladly did as instructed. She looked again back through the gate, finding a small crowd gathered around now. She couldn't help but think that sometimes adults weren't much different from children, reminded of how the students had so quickly gathered around as well.

It didn't take long to find Kathrin again as she was pushed to the front of the group once the magician reappeared. This time, she had a large basket in her hands, one overflowing with all sorts of baked goods. The somewhat disoriented girl looked at Bastet and offered her the basket. "Um... assorted pastries? The owner insists."

Bastet stared down at the basket of muffins, bagels, breads and all other types of freshly baked items, then up at Kathrin, but ultimately turned her head to the owner, a white-haired old woman who bowed her head intently as Bastet made eye contact with her. "That was fast," Bastet commented.

The owner looked up and smiled warmly. "I'll never forget forty years ago when I was living in Windon how a spry young magician saved the lives of my mother and I. We were trying to flee from town after a powerful mrealm crasher appeared and were almost crushed by a collapsing building. Thankfully, that young magicians opened up a strange portal at our feet and sent us to safety before we were crushed to death," the older woman told her.

Bastet thought back and nodded sagely. "Yes, of course." She then paused for a while and shrugged. "No, I don't remember that at all. I'm sorry," she said with a laugh.

The shop owner gave a small laugh. "That's fine. I'll remember it for the both of us then."

"I'd appreciate it," Bastet said merrily. "Hey, do  you mind if I borrow an employee of yours for a while? It's for official business and I'll return her relatively safely."

"Do what you have to do. If you kill her, I don't have to pay her," the woman joked.

"You're always watching out for me," Kathrin responded wryly.

Bastet urged Kathrin to come along, but she stalled in front of the gate hesitantly. She looked to the magician and asked, "Does it hurt to go through one of those? I heard it hurts to go through them."

"Where do you girls hear such strange rumors?" Bastet mumbled to herself. Kathrin didn't catch it and asked her to repeat herself, but instead, she put her hand on the back of the young lady and smiled. "Only one way to find out," she said, pushing Kathrin through. She turned around to the small crowd that had gathered around and wished them all farewell. Again, their disappointed reactions weren't much different from the school children from earlier.

Kathrin, having been forced through the gate, tensed up, similar to how Elise had done before. "Oh. I guess it doesn't hurt after all," she said with a sigh of relief. Bastet appeared again behind her and the gate vanished. Kathrin took a quick glance at her surroundings and the people in the room, then groaned. "What did Elise do this time?"

"Hey!" Elise actually did take umbrage this time.

Kathrin waved her objection off with a half-smile. "I'm kidding. I'm kidding. I can guess the real reason for all these important people to be here is because of Ivory, but why am I here? I don't think I can be of much help from here on," she told the group frankly.

"Really?" Bastet pondered. "Elise told us otherwise."

Kathrin looked to Elise who gave her a confident nod. She wasn't sure what the blonde was getting at, but if Elise had a plan, she was up for it. She wasn't going to turn back now if she could still be of use. "Alright. I'll do whatever I can to make sure Ivory can be happy."

"That's why you say," Ivory grumbled, giving a loud huff in annoyance.

"No, I mean it, Ivory! I want to help you... and I'm sorry if I've given you any impression that might make you think otherwise," Kathrin spoke sincerely to the young girl, but she wasn't having it.

It was hard to tell if Ivory couldn't look Kathrin in the eye or if she simply refused to, but the message was clear-- she was still upset at her from the incident last week. "I don't trust you. You act like you care, but you're really no different from anyone else that said the same things! You think you're special, then why don't you let me read your subconscious for you? I bet you'll think about how scary I am and run off crying again. It's not like you'll ever change. You're just a- NO, LET ME FINISH!"

No one had interrupted Ivory's tirade, not even Kathrin, who took the verbal blows without a single sign of being hurt by the harsh criticism. Elise, though on the edge of being the one to jump in to rescue Kathrin, held back with a surprising amount of willpower, knowing Ivory needed to get this off of her chest. That's why it was strange that Ivory suddenly yelled at seemingly no one. That wasn't the end, though, as her one-sided conversation continued from there.

"I... I don't know." Ivory paused. "Well, yeah, but-" Another pause. "That doesn't mean anything to me." This time, Ivory paused for a lengthy period of time. She looked over to Marjani who stared silently at the young girl with her sleepy-looking eyes. Ivory's crumbling outer facade vanished, and she started to resemble something more along the lines of a scolded pet. "You... You mean it? You aren't lying?" The response was a slow, tired blink. Ivory nodded and turned back to Kathrin. "Alright. I'm sorry... again. It's just-"

"No, you're right," Kathrin said. "You have every right to be mad at me for running off like I did. I was scared, but I was wrong when I thought your power was what frightened me. I wasn't scared of you, Ivory. I was scared to admit you were right. I suppose I'm more scared of myself and my own shortcomings than anything else in the world." Kathrin gave a sad smile that seemed to hurt more than if she had just frowned.

Ivory didn't know what to say in response to this, so she let her gaze drop and stared at the ground. She felt herself slipping away, as though if Kathrin said any more, she'd forget that she shouldn't trust her. No, she couldn't. She wasn't allowed to fall for this trick again. Over and over. Over and over. Over and-

She stopped as she felt a hand rest on top of her head. She hadn't realized that Kathrin had walked over to her while she was wrapped up in her own thoughts. Ivory pleaded internally that Kathrin wouldn't speak. If she did, she might...

Kathrin seemed to sense Ivory's feelings and gave her the last push she needed. "You know better than anyone that I'm not perfect. I make mistakes because I'm a little lost, and sometimes those mistakes cause others to be hurt. I won't say I'm going to stop making those mistakes or that I'll find a way to stop hurting people, but if you can learn to accept me and every stupid flaw I have, and if you can forgive me for every dumb thing I do or think, then I promise you'll never have a more loyal friend than me."

Ivory didn't respond, but just stood there as every defense she had set up was wiped away by the heartfelt words of the girl with sharp hazel eyes. She tried to resist like she usually did, but this time her heart betrayed her. She wanted to believe in Kathrin. She needed for someone to say those words to her-- for someone to be honest enough with her to say they were going to hurt her, but that even if they did... they still cared about her. Why did it take so long for someone to finally say it?

Before she realized it, Ivory felt a warm, wet sensation running along her cheeks. It surprised her at first, as she honestly had no clue what was happening. She touched her cheeks and pulled her hand back to examine the clear liquid. Tears? She was... crying? No, she couldn't cry. She told herself she wouldn't allow it anymore. She was done with tears. She was done letting people make her cry. It hurt too much to let people in, so she had closed herself off as best as she could, yet these tears had found their way out after so long.

She looked up at Kathrin who now resembled little more than a blurry image. She gave a pained look as the flood of tears refused to stop, no matter how much she tried to hold them back. She grabbed the older girl by the shirt, clenching her fists as tightly as she could into the cloth and laying her head against Kathrin's abdomen. She continued to cry, as if making up for all the times she had forced herself to stay strong when those around her gave her reason after reason to feel broken and defective. Kathrin responded in kind by embracing the young girl.

Elise gave Bastet another smug look as she motioned to Kathrin. She didn't need to say anything for the "I told you so" to ring out as clearly as if she had screamed it from the top of her lungs; it was that kind of look.

Bastet leaned in towards Xiao. "I see you've got a talented little group of your own."

Xiao shrugged. "That one isn't mine... yet." She paused and added, "I'm actually impressed at how well Marjani did with Ivory. She must have a very high level of control over her thoughts to calm her down so easily."

Bastet was the one to give a smug look this time. "Marjani is impressive in a lot of different ways. She doesn't get along well with people in general, but despite how she looks, she's got an incredibly sharp mind and even sharper intuition."

"You sound like a doting parent," Xiao teased.

"I'm fine with that," Bastet responded. She looked again at Kathrin and Ivory and gave a bothered look. "This would be easier if Kathrin were on your payroll." Before Xiao could ask what Bastet was talking about, the older magician approached the two that were caught up in their own little moment. "Sorry to bother you, but we need to start seriously discussing Ivory's training."

Kathrin loosened her grip on Ivory, but Ivory just dug deeper into her. Kathrin looked at Bastet apologetically. "Uh, well, could you give us another few minutes? I mean, I hope that's okay. I'm sure Ivory is ready to start training as soon as possible"

Bastet tilted her head from side to side, trying to find the right words. Once she did, Ivory looked over to her, wiping the tears out of her eyes as the flow finally came to a stop. "Well, no. I should rephrase that. When I say 'we', I included you also," she said, pointing to Kathrin. In response to Kathrin's bewildered look, she continued. "Unlike that one over there," she motioned to Elise, "I can't have Xiao tell you to pack your bags for a while and come help us out. Nonetheless, if you could come help us out for a time while we help Ivory with controlling her magic, it'd mean a great deal to us."

Kathrin just stood there, staring at Bastet for a good while before the ability to form words returned to her. "Why me?" It was a simple question, but a very important one to her.

Bastet motioned to Ivory, still intently clinging to Kathrin. The look on the older magician's face gave the impression that Kathrin had asked a dumb question. "Kathrin, learning magic is a difficult and strenuous task, even more so when working with mentally exhausting abilities. It's stressful, annoyingly difficult, and gives the magician a massive headache, both metaphorically and literally. During times like those, do you know what the most precious asset a magician should have with her is?"

Kathrin looked from Bastet, then down to Ivory who seemed to be listening intently to the older magician. Ivory must have heard the answer, as she looked up towards Kathrin, her eyes red from tears, but her cheeks slightly pink. Kathrin would have known the answer without the look Ivory gave her, but the slight blush told her she was correct. "A good friend," she answered. "Someone you can rely on when you're in pain or angry. Someone who will listen to you complain, but won't let you go overboard. Someone that will keep you focused and clear-minded."

"Do you think you can be that person for Ivory over the next few weeks? Maybe even longer?" Bastet asked.

Kathrin smiled as she felt Ivory's fingers dig into her. She got to hear the answer before anyone else, so it was only natural. "I already told you my answer when I first arrived. I'll do whatever I can for her."

Dora let out a small, quiet laugh. "She's something else."

"Bastet or Kathrin?" Rheia asked. Dora only shrugged in response.

Elise gave a definite nod. "That's Kathrin for you. It'll be a bit lonely without her around, but I'll-"

"You're going too," Xiao stated abruptly.

"...What?" Elise froze in place, looking dazed.

"Pack up. You started this, and now you're going to see this through to the end." Xiao cocked her head to the side and gave Elise a dangerous look, challenging her. "Problem?"

Elise narrowed her eyes and asked, "You're telling me to go spend a few weeks, possibly over a month with some of the most powerful and respected people in the world? No, there's no problem."

Xiao cracked a smile. "Consider it a vacation. You did well. You two were the only ones that came to me when you saw that Ivory needed help. Not only that, but you had an admittedly good idea to go with it, saving me a lot of hassle. As it turns out, a lot of supposed investigations close fairly quickly when you make it known you've called in the Magicians of Gaia to help you. While you're away, I'll be having a nice, long talk with those that never tried to speak with me about Ivory, especially the ones on my payroll." Xiao's tone implied that many of the clerics Elise knew might be unemployed when she returned.

"Speaking of which," Bastet added, "didn't we need to have a talk about that? I was quite unhappy to hear about the games being played with all those wonderful magicians I've helped over the years." She gave a dark look for the first time. It was reminiscent of Xiao's overwhelming seriousness in the carriage.

"Don't worry. We'll go talk with Gwyneth after we're through here. She'll be able to tell you more than I would."

"That's fine," Bastet said, then turned around back towards her pupils. Her expression returned to her normal cheerfulness as if a switch had been flipped. "Alright, girls, Kathrin and Elise need time to pack up, so Marjani, you take care of Ivory, but otherwise, enjoy some free time at the shrine. Get some lunch here; it's always wonderful. I'll head over to Kathrin's work and talk with the owner again. I don't think she'll have any problems about my plans to steal one of her workers for a little while longer."

"Actually..." Kathrin turned to address Xiao. "Is it true you're going to change the way those shrines operate?"

Xiao gave a solemn nod. "I suspect they'll be under new management within a month's time, if not sooner."

"Then..." the words stuck in Kathrin's throat. She thought about saying "nevermind", but then felt a tug on her sleeve by Ivory.

"Just say it," the young magician coaxed her.

Kathrin looked down at Ivory. For some reason she couldn't explain, she felt her courage return in full as she looked into those hopeful eyes. Kathrin swallowed hard and made her move forward. She bowed her head politely towards Xiao. "Then, I think I'd like to take you up on your offer to join your shrine, if you'll still have me."

Xiao rolled her eyes and waved Kathrin's gesture off. "Oh, enough with the formalities. If you weren't aware of it by now, I've kind of grown a liking to you. You're just the kind of person this place needs, and I would be willing to bet, this place is exactly the kind of place you've been looking for, isn't that right? After all, we're a lot alike, you and I."

Kathrin had heard that before. She didn't understand what it meant back then, but now she thought she knew. The way she was like Elise and Xiao was that they all shared a certain understanding of what was right and what was wrong. No, maybe it was simpler than that. They just didn't want to see anyone get hurt, and if there was anything they could do to aid those in need, they would give everything to do it. In that sense, there were no better people to have in a shrine. A shrine was where people went when they had nowhere else to turn, so it needed people that shared that ideal more than anywhere else. That's why, as long as Xiao and Elise were there, Kathrin felt she would be in the right place-- somewhere she could make a difference.

* * *

There wasn't much to be said about what happened afterwards. Kathrin, Elise and Ivory spent a total of eighteen days as guests at Dora's home while she taught Ivory the intricacies of how to use thought-based magic. It surprised her how quickly the young girl was able to pick up and adapt to her teachings. She was also very grateful for this, as she had to adapt her own way of thinking when she was around Ivory. Overall, it was hard for her to feel comfortable around Ivory, worried about her intruding on her thoughts. This only made it more difficult on Ivory, as she could clearly sense Dora's discomfort around her.

In the end, Dora spoke with Kathrin and Elise, who encouraged her to open up herself to Ivory and stop worrying about her knowing her secrets. They told the bonding magician that the best way to be comfortable around Ivory was to let her see everything, even if it made her looks bad.

Dora gave this a shot, and, true to their word, once she exposed all her secrets to the young girl and talked with her about them, she felt a great sense of relief. It was strangely refreshing to have someone else know about the things she thought for sure she'd take to her grave. After that, she felt completely at ease talking with Ivory and teaching her. By the time Ivory had a grasp on how to control her ability, Dora felt she had grown as a magician herself. She understood where they went wrong with Ivory and decided to make sure to that she and the next generation of magicians made sure to understand the needs of younger magicians with incomplete control over their magic.

During this time, Xiao was speaking side-by-side with Bastet in front of slew of different people, but most importantly, they spoke with the Elders who were the final say in global lawmaking. It didn't take much convincing for her to get the fire brought down upon some of the more corrupt shrines and to completely reestablish the way magicians from other realms (and magicians in general) were housed.

That was the first step for Xiao, but it was a lengthy process. With little options left to her, she decided to leave the "education" of her clerics to Sheryl. She knew the senior high priestess would likely terrify the bunch into understanding where they went wrong with Ivory, but Xiao knew she would have likely done the same... except probably with less fear of scrubbing toilets for the next several years and more fear of finding a job outside the shrine (but hey, rumor had it that the nearby bakery had a position to fill). Still, if you were going to be a cleric, evoking the anger of the senior high priestess was not wise.

As for Ivory, she was able to return to the shrine, now with (mostly) full control of her abilities. Thanks to the atmosphere Elise had set up prior to her leaving, Ivory was still getting mobbed by the entire class every chance they got to make her laugh and, more importantly, get a hug from her-- a sign of friendship according to Elise's lies. Ivory never corrected that falsehood, though; she enjoyed the unprecedented amount of affection being thrown her way, even if she'd never admit it.

Ivory no longer worried about hearing things she didn't want to and when asked if she ever listened to people's thoughts secretly, she'd honestly tell them that before she didn't have a choice, but now, she was just enjoying the quiet. Most people understood and believed this, while others remained untrusting. It was understandable, but it didn't matter to Ivory; she was content with the way things were.

She'd once heard someone say that there's nothing in the world that's better off not knowing than knowing, but she knew that was wrong. Sometimes, the best kind of peace a person could ever ask for was to live in ignorance. Maybe the search for answers was what made the human experience so wonderful, instead of always knowing. The concept of "I like this person, but do they like me?" was thrilling. That wasn't to say there wasn't a time and place that an ability to know a person's true intentions could be useful, but when it came to making real, meaningful connections, it was pointless if both parties weren't on equal standing.

You could call it blind faith... but that was human. She was human. Finally.

 

Chapter 6 - Villainy through Heroism - Part 2

Rayen rolled out of bed in a groggy state and opened her bedroom curtains, letting in some nourishing sunlight. The sun was only just rising, so she couldn't feel it as strong as she could in the middle of the day, but a process similar to photosynthesis was occurring within her, providing her with some much-needed morning energy. She hadn't slept much last night after what happened with Sabina, and she wasn't looking forward to seeing what the consequences of her actions would be. Still, Sabina had looked so confident. Rayen wished she could be that confident too.

The young Tameran closed her eyes and leaned her head towards the window, absorbing a little more energy before finally getting ready for school. On her way out, she had a large glass of water and said goodbye to her mother before stepping out and basking directly in the sunlight. Yes, direct contact was the best! Tamerans were an easy people to keep happy. With a lot of water and plenty of sunlight, they were perfectly content. They still needed to eat and sleep like everyone else, of course, but their diets tended to be based more on specific nutritional values than taste.

Rayen was halfway to the school before she realized she was heading there early, as she normally would. She came to a complete stop in the middle of the quiet street. It was too early for any school children to be heading out, and that's why Lanna usually had her come at this hour. It was easier to steal her money when no one was around to see. "You don't need money for food. It's supposed to be sunny today," Lanna would inform her with a malicious smile. The reasoning was just to add insult to injury, though. Lanna would say the same type of things even when it was cloudy or storming.

Things were different between today and yesterday, though. Sabina had told Lanna that she'd take Rayen's place-- that Lanna should focus on bullying her instead. If that was the case, couldn't she just go home now and let Sabina deal with Lanna and the others? The green-haired girl stood still for a long while, debating whether or not to move forward or turn back. It wasn't until a thought crept into the back of her mind that she made her choice.

'If something happens to Sabina, it'll be all my fault for dragging her into this.' That thought pushed her feet forward. Rayen decided that she'd just check out the school, and if she didn't see Sabina around anywhere, she'd leave for a while and come back when school was about to start. It'd be the first time in months that Lanna hadn't taken her money before school started, though she wouldn't count herself lucky until she escaped school unharmed and still with some change in her wallet.

A few minutes later, Rayen found herself hiding behind nearby houses, peeking around the corner towards the school, looking for any signs of Lanna's group or Sabina. Unfortunately, she found them both, but in the worst possible situation. Sabina was now cornered in a position Rayen was very familiar with by now. Lanna stood in front of her, leaning in and speaking menacingly while the shorter girl and the girl with tied back hair, Ren and Mira respectively, stood on either side, stopping her from fleeing.

She was too far away to hear what Lanna was saying, but Sabina's confidence from yesterday was nowhere to be seen. Instead, she was just giving meek nods and avoiding eye contact whenever she spoke. Lanna seemed to be enjoying herself, as usual, no doubt mocking Sabina for her foolishness the other day. Just when things were looking their worst, Mira reached over and grabbed a green bag Sabina had been carrying off her shoulder and looked inside. Mira said something to the others before reaching in and pulling out... Rayen wasn't sure, but it looked like some sort of pastries.

Sabina gave a look of panic and desperation and tried to take back what belonged to her, but Lanna roughly shoved her back against the brick building, stopping her advances. Rayen winced, knowing how painful that was. Sabina didn't fully back down, though. Instead, she started talking quickly, but whatever she said, only fueled the girls more as they decided to toss the pastries back into the small bag and take it with them, claiming the prize for themselves. Sabina yelled something at Lanna angrily and received a swift blow to the gut in retaliation.

Rayen grabbed her stomach. How many times had she suffered the same punishment? Was it right to let Sabina suffer in her place? No, of course not, but it wasn't right for her to suffer either! As she contemplated how messed up this whole situation was, she saw Sabina do something she'd never done in her position... Sabina smiled. She smiled and looked up at Lanna, and for some reason, Rayen could read her lips perfectly in this one moment.

"You're going to regret this."

Another, fiercer blow landed in the same place as the last one, causing Sabina to drop to her knees, grabbing her stomach as she doubled over in pain. Lanna and the others laughed as they briskly trotted away, leaving Sabina as she was. Rayen waited a while for Lanna and the others to leave the area before gathering her courage and racing over to Sabina, who was only now getting her feet and dusting herself off.

Sabina looked over towards Rayen and forced a smile as she waved. It was a painful sight for the Tameran, especially since she knew that fake smile better than anyone. She wasn't sure how to respond, feeling guilty that Sabina had just taken a beating in her place. The only thing she could think to ask was the most logical question.

"Are... Are you okay?"

Sabina wobbled a bit on her feet as she took a step towards Rayen, but pretended she was fine. "All according to plan," she said with a bit of effort, though the golden-eyed girl found that hard to believe. Sabina looked around at the still-empty schoolyard. There was still another several minutes before even the teachers would start arriving. "What should we do now?"

'Usually go inside and cry for a while,' Rayen considered saying, but thought better to express the words aloud. Even so, she still felt a severe pain in her chest. Watching someone else getting beat up in her place was worse than taking the beating on her own. This was her fault. She had to take responsibility. Rayen gulped as she opened her mouth. "Sabina, please... stop. You don't have to do this anymore. I'll... I'll..."

"I can't do that," the young villain stated plainly. There wasn't a sense of justice in her voice, nor was she giving the impression she was doing this for herself. She was just stating a fact.

"Why? What are you doing this for?!" Rayen demanded, nearing the end of her wits. "I don't understand you!"

Sabina thought seriously about that question for a long while before replying. "Ask me that again at the end of the day and I'll tell you." Before Rayen could get a response in, Sabina grabbed her wrist and led her away from the school, claiming to know a place where they could get a candy or two while they wait for school to open up. Rayen wasn't really one for candy, but Sabina was a hard person to reject.

By the time they left the vendor, a woman who specialized in strange, sugary confectioneries, the school was bustling with friendly chatter amongst the large crowd of students. While most had already headed inside, several groups stood around the grounds outside, chatting about all sorts of irrelevant things. There was still a bit of time before class started, so there was no rush to get into the classrooms, though breakfast was being served now for those who needed it.

"Oh no!" Rayen lightly smacked her head with her fist, a frustrated look on her face. "Things were so crazy yesterday that I forgot to finish our history homework!"

"You can copy mine," Sabina offered.

The Tameran paused for a moment as it dawned on her that Sabina had recently been making extremely high marks in class, but only just recently. She had gone from being disruptive and challenging the teacher (when she wasn't sleeping in class) to a normal-- no, a perfect student. It was as if a different person had taken over in Sabina's place, like a magician concealing their identity, but doing a terrible impersonation. In any case, Rayen was glad for the help, but she hesitated as she recalled earlier.

"Didn't Lanna take all your homework this morning with your bag?"

Sabina shook her head. "No, I keep all my notes and books at school. I'm busy during the day, so I do all my homework during lunch and after classes."

Rayen recalled seeing Sabina sitting alone at lunch lately, food in one hand, a pen in the other, books and papers strewn all about. So that's what she had been doing? Actually, now that she thought about it, she couldn't help but be curious. "So, what did they take from you?"

Sabina smirked, though it was obvious she was holding back a much larger grin. "Just some bread I made last night. Magic bread."

"Magic bread?" Rayen had to repeat what she heard to make sure she wasn't crazy.

Sabina shrugged. "You'll find out at lunch. They'll make sure to eat it in front of me then so they can tease me." She didn't seem the slightest bit upset about this, which only made Rayen more nervous. "Anyway," she continued, "do you want to copy my homework or not? Class starts in twenty minutes."

With a simple nod, the green hair waved in the draft blowing in from the west. It was at this moment, following behind the former terror of her school, that she began to question whether or not she and Sabina had become more than just classmates. Were they friends or were they just being friendly for now? The more she tried to figure out the answer to this question, the less she knew. The only thing she did know was that she owed Sabina more than she knew how to repay.

* * *

Lunchtime rolled around after several hours and Rayen sat with her usual friends. She knew most of her class well and they all seemed to like her; she tried hard to make sure she didn't create any more enemies. Still, she never could bring herself to tell them that she was being bullied. She told herself that she didn't want to make it their problem, but in reality, she worried that they might distance themselves from her. Rayen didn't want to believe that was true. She wanted to believe that they'd stand up for her if she was in trouble, but she was too scared to find out.

The golden eyes kept shifting over to see Sabina, quietly laying out her books and notes in front of her. She looked so calm, as though nothing had even happened this morning. She was going about her day normally, which was sad in a different sort of way. Rayen frowned as she realized for the first time how lonely Sabina looked sitting all by herself during lunchtime. Would it be fine to leave her friends for a bit and sit by her? Did she even want company?

"Rayen, are you listening?" Henrietta, a girl with long black hair and a small pair of glasses that neatly framed her face, asked. She had mistaken Rayen's thoughtful look for daydreaming.

"It looks like she's staring at Sabina," Alene, a blonde with dark, mischievous eyes, informed her with a sly grin. "I always knew you'd have weird taste in girls. Ow!" The girl laughed as she was met with a swift punch to the thigh by Rayen.

The Tameran gave Alene a dirty look. "I don't want to hear that from you! All you think about is that mushy-gushy stuff."

Henrietta laughed in agreement. "Yeah, out of anyone, you'd be the one most likely to date Sabina, Alene."

The blonde rolled her eyes. "Please, I prefer boys to girls, but even if I did like girls, Sabina is too much of a psycho for me."

"She's not a psycho," Rayen said sternly. The words came out before she could stop them, and she blushed as not only Alene and Henrietta stared at her, but several other friends did as well, most of whom were listening while they ate. It might not have gotten such a big reaction from the group, but Rayen had never really spoken in such a forceful and serious tone before.

One of the girls that had been quiet all this time, Trista, raised an eyebrow. "That was different. Is there something you want to tell us?"

Rayen understood what she was implying, but there actually was something she wanted to tell them. She wanted tell them everything that had been happening and get them to help Sabina before she suffered any more abuse. Even though she wanted to say that, she was too afraid of what they'd say. Saying no would be bad enough, but what if they did something worse? What if they said Sabina deserved what she was getting? She didn't want that. She wanted to convince them that Sabina wasn't who they thought she was first.

"I'm just saying that Sabina is trying really hard to change herself. I think she deserves a second chance," Rayen said, though nearly in a whisper.

"Second chance?" Alene asked, looking at Rayen like she was crazy. "It's too late for that by now. When the teachers don't trust you anymore, you should just give up. She's going to be a bad girl forever, Rayen."

"You're wrong!" she protested. "Everyone can change."

"Oh yeah? Then why is she sitting with all the other bad girls?" Alene asked, pointing towards Sabina who was suddenly surrounded. Lanna sat across from her while Ren and Mira sat on either side of her. They were speaking quietly to Sabina, wearing smug looks as they pulled out the bread they had pilfered earlier in the morning. Sabina's expression remained unchanged; she barely even looked up from her notes as she spoke to them. The smug expressions soon turned irritable as their prey showed them no interest.

"Don't get involved with them, Rayen," Trista said, lowering her tone to a whisper, obviously not wanting to draw any unwanted attention from the group, despite them being across the room. "They'll get you in trouble, especially Sabina. She's probably just waiting for people to trust her so she can hurt them."

Rayen poked at her food in frustration. It seemed like everyone here had already decided that Sabina wasn't ever going to do anything good with her life, but she knew the truth. Unfortunately, she couldn't bring herself to explain to the others how she knew what Sabina was really like. The more they badmouthed her, the more Rayen wanted to tell them the truth. As the urge to tell her friends everything and trust that they wouldn't run away (or maybe she didn't care if they did anymore), she looked at Sabina, and as if feeling Rayen's eyes on her, Sabina's head rose from her notes and turned to look back to meet the green-haired girl's intent stare.

Rayen was caught a bit off guard by the sudden glance in her direction, but froze in horror the moment the other three did the same, as did everyone else at Rayen's table. Lanna and the others had more than likely just turned to see who Sabina was looking at, but the attention of those three was certainly unwanted. Everyone at the table panicked as Sabina said something to the others and stood from the table before making her way over to Rayen.

"She heard you!" Hannah, a girl with a sepia skin tone accused the group, worried she was going to get into trouble even though she hadn't said anything.

"Shut up! Don't say anything stupid!" Alene told everyone, doing her best to act calm.

Sabina's eyes were locked on Rayen the entire way over, only looking over at the others as she got within ear shot of them. Once she arrived by the group, she didn't say anything immediately, but gave a nod to Rayen. The golden eyes looked downward, avoiding Sabina's gesture, not because she was embarrassed to admit she knew Sabina, but because she suddenly felt guilty. She really had left Sabina all alone with deal with Lanna, hadn't she? Had she come to grab Rayen and taken her with her so Lanna could bully them both? If so, she felt like she deserved it this time.

Sabina took a deep breath before announcing to the group, "Rayen has been getting bullied by Lanna. Does anyone here want to do anything about it?"

The Tameran's jaw dropped as Sabina casually told her friends something she had been agonizing over for a while now. Everyone else had a similar expression as they all turned and looked at Rayen in shock. It was evident that no one suspected this in the slightest. It took them a moment to gather their thoughts, but Sabina didn't give them any time to absorb this information.

The young villain slammed her palm onto the table, and the loud noise caused everyone to jump, startled. "YES OR NO?!" she demanded.

Henrietta was the first to answer. Opening her mouth, but too scared to speak, she looked down at her feet and shook her head. Everyone else did the same within seconds. None of them could look at Rayen as they abandoned her. The plant-like girl, finding herself at a loss for anyone to look to, closed her eyes and wondered why this was happening.

"Fine. If you won't do anything about it, I will," Sabina stated. Rayen opened her eyes just long enough to see a smile on Sabina's face as she was turning to leave, walking back over to Lanna and the others. Alene, along wiht the rest of the table, looked up, exchanging curious glances before nervously glancing at Rayen.

"Rayen..." Henrietta began, feeling the most guilty for being the first to sell out her friend, "was it true what she said? Lanna's been bullying you?"

Rayen shot a quick glare at the bespectacled girl before looking back towards Sabina. "It doesn't matter. Sabina said she'd take care of it. You'll see. You'll see how much a person can change."

The group, instead of making excuses and blaming each other for their own cowardice as might be expected of children their age, all turned and looked at Sabina. They didn't know what to expect, but Rayen's confidence in her made them feel like something was definitely going to happen. They didn't know what to expect. All they knew was that their friendly lunch had been interrupted by a series of strange events, and they couldn't turn away now.

* * *

Sabina walked back over to her seat where she saw Ren in the process of "accidentally" spilling a drink on her notebook. She reminded herself that she only had to put up with this a little bit longer. These were no more than irritating pranks being pulled by small-time delinquents that could only dream of reaching her level. If this were several months ago and she were in their shoes, she'd have stolen the notebooks and set them on fire. A little milk wasn't going to trouble her, she reasoned as she began dabbing the soaked papers with a dry cloth.

"Oops. My hand slipped," Ren told her with a wide grin.

"It's okay, Ren," Lanna told her. "It was Sabina's fault for leaving her notes out on the table. Homework is really something you should do at home, you know?" She held back from laughing at what she thought was a clever joke. She went on, "It was rude of you to leave without explaining why. We're your friends, aren't we?" The word "friends" was practically dripping with malicious sarcasm.

Sabina shrugged. "If you want to be my friends, then start by not eating the food I made."

"Don't be so shy," Mira said. "We know you made this for us. Just be honest with yourself. We'll eat it with love."

Lanna chuckled. "Yeah, we'll enjoy every bite today, tomorrow, the day after and every day. You're going to be very busy."

The young girl shook her head. "No, you're not going to eat it. You're going to hand it back to me and apologize to Rayen for everything you've done wrong," Sabina informed Lanna, holding out her hand expectantly for the bread.

Lanna narrowed her eyes at Sabina, but knew that this tough act was all just a show. After all, she was outnumbered, younger and smaller than they were. She was being defiant for now, but they'd get her to break eventually. First, they had to show her that she wasn't going to get what she wanted, no matter how strong she pretended to be.

"Fine. I'll give it back to you," Lanna said with that phony niceness she liked to use to taunt her victims. She acted as though she were going to hand the bread back over to Sabina before snatching her hand back quickly and taking a bite of the baked good. It wasn't very tasty, but she smiled and made a noise as though she were enjoying it. "You can have it back in a day or so." This time she couldn't hold back laughing at her own joke. Ren and Mira laughed along with her before following the example of their leader, also pretending to enjoy the bread.

Sabina sighed and shook her head. "I told you to give it back to me, but you ate it. You shouldn't have done that."

"Oh yeah?" Lanna leaned in threateningly from across the table. "And what are you going to do about it?"

Sabina rested her elbow on the table and propped her head up on a fist, looking bored. "You have no idea why I started being good, do you?"

Lanna raised her hands up, giving a half-shrug, as if to say "who cares?" "Because you're weak? Maybe your mom gave you a good spanking."

Sabina bit the inside of her lip, inducing a painful feeling, but didn't show any signs of being upset on the outside. She took a deep breath to steady herself before answering. "No, that's not the reason."

"You know, that attitude of yours is really-" Lanna started, but was cut short.

"Magic," Sabina stated, knowing the word would stop the bully's tirade.

Lanna gave a quizzical look. "Magic? What are you talking about?"

"I was giving Slaine too much trouble, so she got fed up with me and used some kind of magic to make me stop acting out," she lied.

"That's... not true," Lanna said with a bit of caution. She was well-informed enough to know such a magic really existed, but seemed reasonably sure that the Magicians of Gaia did not have mind control abilities.

Sabina nodded. "It is. She had a magician from another realm do something for her, and then used that magic on me. By the time I realized what she did, it was already too late. Now, if I'm not good, and if I don't make up for all the bad things I've done," she paused, holding back a devious smile, "my stomach will explode."

"There's no way that's true," Mira said, shaking her head. "Slaine wouldn't do that! She's supposed to protect us!"

Sabina shrugged. "I guess she was protecting people from me. She probably thought I was no better than a realm crasher."

"What did you mean by 'something'?" Ren asked cautiously. She was either the most observant of the three or her stomach was already starting to rumble.

"Oh, nothing really amazing to look at. She just enchanted some bread for her," she made sure to put as much of a dark emphasis on the word as possible. She didn't need to, but it was fun to watch the reaction of the three as they realized at what Sabina was hinting.

Lanna tried to give Sabina threatening look, but it came off much more frightened than she wished. "What are you trying to say?"

Sabina gave an innocent smile. "I don't know what you're talking about. I'm not trying to say anything. I just think it would be smart if you went over and apologized to Rayen really soon."

Lanna reached over the table in a fit of rage and grabbed Sabina by the collar. The students that had been making glances in their direction were now fully turning around to what looked to be the start of a fight. "Don't play around! I swear, if you messed with that bread, I'm-" A sudden discomfort in Lanna's stomach forced her to stop. It was an abrupt force that made her feel painfully bloated... like it was about to explode. Ren and Mira were soon in similar positions.

Sabina saw her opportunity and leaned over the table, getting face-to-face with Lanna and placing her hands firmly on either side of the bully's head. She gave a victorious smile with a familiar, wild look in her eyes. "How does it feel? Does it hurt like a punch to the stomach?"

Someone a bit older and wiser might have figured out the truth, but Lanna was only a couple of years older than Sabina. She was more willing to believe that this pain in her stomach was indeed from an chanted piece of bread. This made her start to panic and her logic slipped a bit. "I'm not really... going to explode, right?"

"That's your choice. If I were you, I'd apologize to Rayen right now. Then, you'll probably want to go to the bathroom." She gave a toothy grin as she answered.

Ren and Mira looked at Lanna expectantly. Mira was the one that finally asked, holding her stomach tightly. "We should do it, right?"

The leader of the three looked at her friend and then back towards Sabina. Those wild eyes, the eyes of a girl crazy enough to go through the school late one night and break every window she could get to-- they scared her. If it was anyone else, she might have been able to see through the ruse, but this girl wasn't normal. There was something different about her, a motivation that would make sure she did anything to win.

Lanna bit her lower lip, the pain in her stomach growing ever worse. Hesitantly, she asked, "How long is this going to last?"

"The pain will go away by tomorrow, but only if you start making up for all the bad things you've done and swear you'll never hurt anyone ever again," Sabina stated plainly, as though she were answering a question about homework. "You have to mean it, though, or it'll start again, worse than before."

Lanna continued to hesitate and fight against her own body, but Ren was less willful. She rose quickly from the table. "Forget it, Lanna! It's not worth it! This was all stupid anyway. I'm done with picking on the younger kids. It's not even fun anymore!"

Mira quickly fell behind her. "Yeah! Don't be dumb. Let's go apologize before we explode!" The two began to leave without their (now formal) leader.

"Hey, wait!" Lanna called out after them, but they ignored her.

Sabina laughed. "How does it feel to be alone and in pain? Do you think Rayen felt the same way?"

Lanna stared at Sabina's smiling face and felt the sudden impact of what was happening to her. Sabina was bullying her... and it was the most frightening experience she could ever recall. Without any more hesitation, Lanna got up from the table and ran-- well, hobbled-- quickly to her friends. She gave one quickly glance back over towards the younger girl, only to see that she was back to working on her homework, as though nothing had happened at all.

* * *

Rayen's table froze in fright as it was Lanna's group this time coming to approach them. They were walking in an odd manner, clutching their stomachs, which made them look much less threatening than usual. They had been watching Sabina's table the entire time, but couldn't tell what was going on, only that Sabina and Lanna seemed to be fighting, though they heard nothing of the conversation. Aside from Rayen, everyone at the table remained silent and avoided eye contact with the three approaching.

While she knew it wasn't very likely, Rayen believed in Sabina's ability to change the world around her. She had saved her from becoming a thief and from being targeted by the three approaching her now. She said she would do something about Lanna, and Rayen believed her. It was as simple as having faith in someone that she wanted to consider a friend. If Sabina was brave enough to face those three on her own, then she had to be brave enough to not look away.

As the three arrived at the table, they looked at the Tameran, then nervously exchanged glances. It was humbling and embarrassing, but they all bowed their heads down politely. It was Lanna who spoke first. "We're sorry for everything. We won't pick on you or hurt you anymore, and we won't take your money either." As if timed, her stomach gave a powerful growl, so she added, "We-We'll make sure to pay back what we took from you!"

"We're sorry," Ren proclaimed loudly for everyone to hear.

"We'll be good. We promise!" Mira followed up.

"Please forgive us!" the three finished in chorus.

Jaws dropped, and not just at Rayen's table. Everyone within ear shot was in utter amazement of the scene before them. Lanna was well-known for her hostile nature and even more so for never apologizing for anything. The only person who didn't seem surprised at all by this was Rayen herself. She stared coldly at her former tormentors, all of whom were now in bad shape.

Rayen didn't say anything for a long while, purposefully prolonging the embarrassment these girls were undergoing. Finally, she told them, "I don't care if you pay me back; just stop hurting people. If you promise to do that, I'll forgive you."

The girls nodded emphatically in agreement, nearing their limits. They thanked Rayen and made their way as quickly as they could towards the restrooms. The students couldn't help but snicker at them as they passed. The way they were walking gave away exactly what they needed to do. Their faces burned red with embarrassment, but they couldn't do anything about it.

Rayen didn't require much food, but the small meal she brought for lunch was still mostly uneaten. There wasn't much time left to finish it, but there was one thing that had become apparent to her in the midst of everything that had just occurred. Rayen cast a look towards those gathered at the table with her, then packed her food and rose from her seat. She had only taken a few steps when they called out for her.

"Rayen, where are you going?" Hanna asked.

The Tameran stopped but didn't look anywhere other than her destination. "I'm going to sit with someone else." She tried not to show it, but there was no denying she was angry with them. She went to leave once more, but was called for again.

"Wait!" Henrietta called out before Rayen could get away. When the golden eyes locked on hers, she forced herself not to look away, but it was hard. "I'm... sorry. I should have stuck up for you too." The table was silent, but everyone gave a small, embarrassed nod in agreement. More than guilt, though, they felt ashamed of how scared they had acted.

"Come back and sit with us, okay?" Alene urged.

Rayen shook her head. "No, I'm going to sit with Sabina, but you can come sit with us," she gave the group a sideways glance, "if you're not still scared of her." She continued on her way as she was met with another round of silence.

To be honest, her group was still scared of Sabina, but not in the same sense they used to be. It was apparent to everyone that had witnessed this encounter that Sabina had changed, but she was still a force with which to be reckoned. Instead of creating chaos and fear, now she was creating... What was she creating? It was hard to tell if she was working towards peace, and even harder to tell what her methods for achieving it were, but the longer they looked at the young girl, the less of a threat she seemed. This was punctuated by the kind and peaceful Rayen who took a seat next to her.

Henrietta looked around at the table and nodded to them before packing up her empty lunch, getting from her seat and leaving the table; her destination was obvious. She was the one to first abandon Rayen when she was in trouble, so she needed to be the first one to join her at Sabina's table. Hannah asked in surprise if she was going to sit with Sabina. Without hesitation, Henrietta replied, "I'm sitting with Rayen. If Sabina is Rayen's friend, then she's my friend too."

Henrietta left the group, walked over to the two sitting across the room and sat with them, and one-by-one, the others followed. It wasn't just Rayen's table either. Soon, students from all over the lunchroom were clustering around the table. Some were confused at what was happening while others had seen more or less then entire event. The table quickly filled with people and some even began bringing chairs over to the already-crowded area.

Sabina tried to focus on her work and give little notice to the group forming around her, but soon found herself fielding questions from everyone about what happened with Lanna and the others. She didn't want to confess the entire story, so she avoided explaining anything and instead told everyone that they should be nice to Lanna from now on because she was going to become a good person and make up for being bad. This made her look much better in the eyes of the students than if she had told them what had actually happened.

It was a strange feeling to be surrounded by her peers as they showed an interest in everything she was saying. It was the first time she felt like people were admiring her. She wasn't sure how to handle the sudden boost in popularity, but it worked towards her goals. She was righting her past wrongs and earning back the trust that she had lost. It was a slow process for most of the older people, but the students were easier to overlook her bad deeds when shown proof of her reforming others. She didn't dislike the feeling, but she made sure that she focused on what her real goal was; she had to become the greatest villain she could. Until that time came, she'd enjoy this feeling a bit longer.

After school, Rayen met up with Sabina who was still having a time answering everyone's questions about what happened with Lanna. Eventually, the Tameran managed to pull her friend from the crowd and the two began heading home together, since, as it turned out, they lived only a short distance apart.

"So that bread really was magic?" Rayen asked.

Sabina tilted her head to the side, visibly struggling with whether or not she should give an honest answer. "Not... exactly," she admitted after a short deliberation.

"Oh." Rayen's disappointment was clear from her tone. "So how did you make Lanna do what you wanted? It seemed like she had a stomach ache, so I thought it was the bread."

"It was the bread," Rayen told her, "but it wasn't because of magic. It was actually Maestro's idea."

"Maestro?" This was the first time Sabina had mentioned anyone like that.

Sabina stopped walking and Rayen took a couple of steps before turning around to face her. Rayen didn't want to say anything, as she appeared to be deep in thought. She chose her words carefully before speaking. "Maestro is the one that understands what I'm trying to do. He's helping me become a better villain."

Rayen's head tilted back just a bit, as though the word physically hit her in the face. "A... villain?" To her, Sabina was the furthest thing from a villain; she was a hero. No matter how she looked at it, Sabina had gone beyond what most people would do to help someone she didn't know, even putting herself at harm to do so. That wasn't what a villain would do.

Sabina nodded. "Don't go telling everyone about it. I'm only telling you because I want your help. I need people around me that I can trust, and you're it. I want you to be my frie... ally." Sabina stopped herself before she got carried away.

The Tameran was still dumbfounded by the proclamation. "You're not a villain," she informed Sabina. "Villains don't help people."

"There's a lot of differences between normal criminals and a villain. I'll help people, gain their trust, and become the one that rules the world." At the sight of Rayen's continued puzzled face, Sabina asked, "I'll be fine if you want to stay away from me, but I won't change my mind."

The golden eyes stared off into the distance, lost in thought. She was confused, and the only word that could escape her mouth was, "Why?" If she took Sabina at her word, then she couldn't answer her request without know the reason she wanted to be a villain. If she understood what Sabina wanted to do, she'd know whether or not she could follow her as a friend. Besides, she told Rayen to ask her about it after school. "What are you trying to do?"

Sabina, prepared for this, nodded thoughtfully. "Come to my house. I'll show you."

It sounded like a simple request, but Rayen knew better. She should have thought a bit more on it, maybe hesitated to answer, but instead she told her she'd come visit her house without a second thought. It was the least she could do to hear Sabina out after all she'd done for her. Turning and running away wasn't ever an option.

The two headed towards Sabina's house, but since it was still a ways off, Rayen inquired about everything that happened. She wanted to know more about the not-so-magic bread and about the "maestro" Sabina mentioned. Sabina went back and explained some of the details about how she used to terrorize Slaine and her meeting with Scott. She didn't explain the details of their long talk about becoming a villain, other than it was clear that Scott used to be a villain himself. She explained up to the point where she was in distress about Rayen and her inability to help her.

* * *

"Maestro, you said there were two gifts, right? What's the other?"

"Oh, that? Well..." Scott's devious look caught both Eren and Sabina off guard. "I see that this world is a little easygoing on privacy concerns, huh?" He pointed to the bag of medicine in the young girl's hands. "I've never seen that word in Gaian before, but Jorri's knowledge tells me that's a mild laxative."

"A what?" Sabina looked confused at the bag, unsure of what that word meant.

Eren put a hand on the boy's shoulder. "Scott, I know what you're thinking, but I can't let you have her slipping that kind of stuff into other people's food."

Scott's eyebrows raised in surprise. Eren had perfectly guessed what his plan was without much effort. Still, he wasn't dissuaded yet. "It's fine. I told Slaine I'd take responsibility, didn't I?"

Eren shook her head. "No, I absolutely won't let this happen. It's not right."

She spoke more seriously than Scott was accustomed to hearing, at least for her. Eren was a cheerful and lighthearted person, so Scott explained the situation and that this was just a prank to stop some bullies, certain that Eren would appreciate the clever solution, but she remained steadfast on this and Scott's resolve began to fold. "Ah, well, maybe doing something like that to school children is going a bit too far," he admitted sheepishly.

Eren furrowed her brow in a baffled expression. "No, that's not the problem. The problem is that someone really needs that medicine. It's not right to take things that don't belong to you and give them to others."

Scott returned with a similar look. "Oh, that's what you don't like? Then, if we were to ask to use the medicine, it'd be fine?" At Eren's agreement, Scott looked at Sabina and shrugged. "Let's go ask, then."

While Eren provided a quick gate near Chloé's home, Sabina tried her best to explain that Chloé wouldn't be so easy to convince, but Scott was determined. He asked Eren if she'd ask for Sabina, but only received a vague response that her asking would just make matters worse. With few options left, Scott instructed Eren, "Fine, then would you hit me in the nose-- not hard enough to cause bleeding or anything, but just so it hurts?"

Eren only just barely stopped her jaw before it dropped and caught her wits enough to say, "No. No, I'm not going to do that." She wasn't quite clearheaded enough to ask why he wanted her to hit him, only enough to turn him down.

Scott made an annoyed noise and turned to Sabina. "Okay, you do it."

The young girl made a similar expression before saying, "Maestro, you know you're a boy, right? I can't hit a boy."

"I'm twice your age! Now hit me in the nose! You don't have a lot of time!" he roared. For some reason, having a girl so much younger than him refer to him as a "boy" was irksome. He lowered his head so she would have a better angle to hit him.

Sabina bit her lip, but nodded obediently, pulling back a fist, closing her eyes and striking (a little too hard, she thought) her maestro in the nose. She took in a sharp breath, empathizing with Scott as he made a pained noise. "I'm sorry. I'm so sorry," she said, repeating these words over and over. In most any realm, a girl that struck a boy was considered scum, and even at her worst, she would have never even thought about doing something like that.

"No, it's fine," Scott assured her, holding his nose in pain as his eyes watered. They had just reached the house Sabina had pointed out, so this was good timing. "It's not bleeding, right?" he asked, uncovering his face.

"No, it's just red," Eren answered. She felt like she was dreaming and was anticipating waking up at any moment.

"Perfect," Scott said motioning for Sabina to walk up to the house with him and knocked on the door.

Chloé was surprisingly fast to answer this time around. "HOW LONG DOES IT TAKE TO- Oh." She stopped mid-shriek as she realized the boy in front of her. She suddenly felt embarrassed at the awkward situation. "I-I'm sorry. Who might you be?"

"I'm s-s-sorry," Scott sniffed loudly. "I don't m-mean to dis... disturb you, but..." Scott took a deep breath and swallowed, as if something was stuck in his throat. He looked absolutely pitiful with his red eyes and running nose. As if those weren't bad enough, now his voice was trembling, like he was on the brink of actual tears. Of course, the old woman had no idea that Scott's watery eyes weren't already actual tears. It was an incredible performance.

"Wait. Calm down," Chloé urged in a tone that didn't seem suitable for the grouchy old lady. "Take a deep breath and tell me what's wrong."

Between stuffy sobs and a fluctuating tone of voice, Scott began to weave a story about how his mother has recently passed away and that his grandmother was inflicted with the same, unknown illness. He went on about how there was nothing anyone could do, and how doctors were refusing to see his sister now. He explained how she was taking care of both the mother and grandmother while they were ill, but since the unknown disease seemed to be contagious, doctors were refusing to see his sister, even though all she needed was a few laxatives. He begged Chloé, asking if she could find it in her heart to spare three of her pills, saying doctors were now even refusing to see him, just on the off chance he might be sick as well.

It was all completely false, and most people would have never gotten away with such an outrageous lie... but Scott's acting was frighteningly authentic. He sold the performance with such heart-wrenching purity that it was hard not to believe. There were moments when Eren and Sabina were taken in by the story, believing he might actually be telling the truth as they forgot their original purpose of coming out here.

"Oh, you poor dear! Yes, of course. Please, take what you need." Chloé fell for the sob story without any sign of doubt, offering Scott more than the three he asked for, but he gave a smile that looked like his heart ached before lowering his head and thanking her for her kindness. The old woman glared at Sabina, "You make sure he gets that to his sister!"

Scott wiped away his "tears" and gave a warmer smile this time. "Oh, don't worry. Sabina was the one that brought me to you. She heard my story and said she knew you'd be kind enough to help because of how generous and giving you are."

A stunned expression washed over Chloé before it faded into a more flattered one. "You said that? About me?" she asked the young girl.

Sabina's eyes went wide as she was put on the spot. "I..." she tried to force a reply, but Chloé thankfully took this as her being bashful.

"Ah, you're a good kid after all, aren't you?" she asked, grinning wide. "Maybe I was being a bit hard on you before. Listen, you've been doing your best around town, and maybe I didn't give you a fair chance. How about you run and grab my medicine for the rest of the month and after that we'll say your debt's been repaid? Sound fair?"

Sabina's head swam in a daze as she gave a slow nod before being hurried off with Scott. Eren joined them as they walked away, staying hidden for whatever reason while all of the commotion went down. "Maestro, you're amazing... in a lot of ways."

"That's saying too little," Eren said with a laugh. "Where did you learn to lie like that?"

Scott frowned. "It's a good talent to have when you need it, but..." Scott went silent, his thoughts in the past. After a while, Eren called him back to the present and he remembered the most pressing matter at hand. "Oh! The sun's almost set! Eren, can you open up a gate for Sabina to the market now? This took a lot longer than I thought it would."

Eren complied, leaving the questions she had for Scott for a later time. She easily opened a gate leading directly to the market for Sabina, and the young girl thanked them both profusely before bolting through to the other side.

* * *

"Your 'maestro' sounds a little crazy, Sabina," Rayen said with a worried expression.

Sabina laughed. "He used to be a villain in his realm, so he knows what he's doing. I don't understand him very well, though. Oh, my house is that one," she pointed to a small brick house towards the end of the street. "By the way," Sabina turned her head to Rayen and gave her a deathly serious glare, "you shouldn't tell anyone about me trying to become a villain, but especially don't mention it to my brother, alright?"

Rayen gave an understanding nod. It made sense that Sabina didn't want her brother knowing her less-than-upstanding plan. On the other hand, she couldn't say she wasn't a little happy that Sabina trusted her with something so secretive. It gave her the feeling that they really were friends. She only wondered why she only mentioned her brother. Shouldn't she have said not to mention it to anyone in her family? As they reached the house, Rayen soon found the answer to this question.

The two were greeted by Sabina's older brother, Milan, who had just arrived home moments earlier. He gave a bewildered look as he realized Sabina was not alone today. "I didn't know you were bringing a friend over," he said, trying to hide the surprise in his voice. "I don't have much time before I need to leave, but I can make you two a quick snack before I go."

"No, you don't have to-" Rayen tried to decline, but Sabina's hand fell on her shoulder. When she looked over, she saw the villain-in-training shaking her head.

"Don't bother. He wasn't asking. You're going to get a snack whether you like it or not."

Rayen gave a small laugh. "Your brother sounds like my mom." Sabina gave a weak smile which made the Tameran feel like she made a poor choice of joke, but if she did, Sabina never said anything about it, instead leading her by the hand into the doorway which connected to the family room. At Sabina's request, they decided to quickly finish up the homework that, due to the commotion at lunch, neither had yet completed.

Class notes and books were strewn onto the table and the two set to work, but Rayen was still trying to figure out why Sabina brought her here. She decided to try getting the conversation going again. "So your brother is about to leave?"

"Yeah, he has work today," Sabina answered dully.

"He works?" Rayen was surprised by this. Milan didn't seem old enough to work yet, but he might have just appeared to be young. "What does he do?"

Sabina shrugged. "A lot of things," she said, avoiding the topic.

Soon, Milan placed a small bowl of various peeled fruits in front of the girls and headed off to work. Rayen decided not to pursue the issue after hearing Sabina's blunt reaction, but the more she tried to ignore it and focus on her homework, the more the situation nagged at her. Wasn't her purpose of coming here for Sabina to show her the reason she wanted to be a villain? Why were they doing homework now? Initially, she thought they were waiting for Milan to leave, but even after he did, the girls continued diligently with their homework. Soon, that was done as well.

The truth was that Sabina was nervous and her brother hadn't helped at all. He was being overly energetic about her bringing Rayen over and even gave Sabina a thumbs up for bringing a friend home (which thankfully Rayen hadn't seen). It was obvious he was very excited to see Sabina actually making friends, but he was going to make a big deal about this when he got home.

For the time being, Sabina wanted to take things slowly, so once their homework was done, she tried her best at a casual act. "So... I have some cards. You feel like playing 'century' or 'moonlight'?"

"Moonlight is a one-person game," Rayen corrected.

"Yeah, but you can take turns. You switch players every time someone has to discard."

"Ooooh! I've never played it like that," Rayen nodded before remembering her original goal. "Wait! Weren't we going to... um... you know." Now that it came down to the heart of the matter, Rayen started to feel less sure about pushing the topic. Maybe Sabina wasn't ready to show her after all, or maybe she didn't want to know. Thinking this way, it made it more difficult for her to approach her strongly about why she wanted to become a villain.

Even though Sabina knew this was coming, she wasn't prepared with any response. All she could do was sigh inwardly and stand up. There was no use trying to prolong things any more. Rayen had asked her for her reason, and she said she would answer her. The only problem now was that the green-haired girl might decide not to follow her after she found out the truth. Sabina didn't want to lose her as a... friend? Follower? She wasn't sure what to call Rayen, but she didn't want for their partnership to end so quickly.

"No games, then?" Sabina asked with disappointment. "Well, okay. I'll show you. Follow me."

Rayen quickly got to her feet and followed her towards the back of the house to a close-off room. Sabina paused at the doorway, obviously not wanting to enter. She'd spent a lot of time avoiding it entirely whenever she could. This room... This room...

"If you don't want to," Rayen offered, getting cold feet. Just by looking at Sabina's face, she could tell that the door was kept closed for a reason. She began to feel that maybe things were best left unknown.

Sabina felt relief at Rayen's words, and for a while she considered taking her up on that offer, but as she glanced at the Tameran's face, she realized she couldn't do that. Rayen was giving the door a look of fear and that upset her. There wasn't anything scary behind the door, and it was more hurtful to have Rayen  feeling frightened in this situation. Sabina wondered why it was, then, that it was okay for her to be scared but not Rayen. No, that wasn't the case. She wasn't afraid; she was just...

Sabina opened the door without allowing herself to ponder any further. If she did, it was only going to reopen an old wound. The door led to a bedroom, clean and tidy, seeming to belong to an adult, but the main draw of the room was a very noticeable memorial that took up a large section towards the back corner. A few freshly cut flowers, likely obtained earlier in the morning, were nestled in a small vase in front of a portrait of three people, two of whom were Sabina and her brother. The third was an older woman, and Sabina didn't need to explain to Rayen that it was her mother.

Rayen immediately began to regret prying into Sabina's personal matters, but now she knew she must see it through. The two walked over towards the memorial together and bowed their heads politely for a few moments. This was all a general custom of Gaia. After close relatives passed, it was proper to keep their rooms in more or less the condition they left it and add a space for prayer. After a full year had passed (though this timeframe was a suggestion, not a rule of any sort), the room was to be cleaned out entirely and the loved one's personal belongings put away safely.

During the time the memorial was up, family and close friends could come over and say whatever they need to tell the deceased, hoping it would be in their hearts after their reincarnation. Those whom weren't particularly close to the deceased, like Rayen, would just say a small prayer for a peaceful and joyous next life. Even as she did so, she had little experience with this sort of thing and wasn't sure how long she was supposed to keep going. When she finally lifted her head, she saw Sabina looking at her, already done with her prayer. This only made her feel more self-conscious.

Neither of the two spoke for a while, but as the awkward silence grew, Sabina knew she had to be the one to talk. She looked away from Rayen's eyes and said, "I guess I should have said something before bringing you in here."

Rayen opened her mouth to speak, but had to concentrate to find the words. "No, it's okay. I'm the one that asked. I mean... You want to be a villain because your mom..." Her words left her again, leaving her unable to finish the sentence.

Sabina seemed to be struggling just the same. "No... I mean, yes, but..." she shook her head in an attempt to reorganize her thoughts and force herself to make sense. "My mom was a very nice person. She was a hero. She did everything she could for anyone that needed her help, even when it was hard on her. She saved people from pain and fear and kept everyone safe."

"People must have really loved her," Rayen said, still working cautiously with every word.

"No."

"What?"

Sabina shook her head. "No, if they really loved her, then they would have all been here for her when she became sick... but no one came to help her. It was just Milan and me. All the people I watched her help did nothing when it really mattered. Sure, at first they would come over and talk with her, tell her everything was going to be okay, but the more sick she got, the less they came over. In the end, no one was here for her but her family."

Sabina's heavy words left Rayen completely mute. There wasn't anything she could say to protest Sabina's words, nor did she wish to do so. In all honesty, she couldn't say she wouldn't have broken a few windows in protest of an unfair world if that happened to her. This horrible story made her stomach turn.

"Being a hero means nothing in this world unless you're a magician," Sabina continued. "That's why I'm fighting it. I'm going to become a villain to show people how much heroes are needed. I'm going to rule this world." The wild look in Sabina's eye returned as she smiled deviously. It was clear she meant every word of this. With that, she offered her hand out to Rayen. The meaning was clear behind this gesture--

"Are you with me?"

Rayen looked at Sabina's hand and paused, knowing this was a major decision. If she went along with her, what would happen? Where would they ultimately end up? Helping people was fine for now, but how long would it last? She didn't know the answer to these questions, but she knew Sabina wasn't going to back down, with or without her. Aside from that fact, she only knew one thing...

Rayen reached out and took the hand of the rising villain. "I want to see how far you can go with this," she said.

Sabina beamed. "There's a lot to do before that. For now, I only have one very important question for you."

Rayen took an deep breath and nodded seriously. "What is it?"

"Are we playing century or moonlight?"

Rayen's body felt like it deflated as all the stress she didn't even realize she had melted. She gave an exaggerated sigh as Sabina broke the mood. "You have to show me how to play two-person moonlight."

Sabina laughed. "Just be prepared to lose," she teased as the two began to leave. However, just as Rayen left the room, Sabina held back for a moment.

"What's wrong?"

"Oh, nothing. I'm just going to grab the cards, okay?"

Rayen gave a small nod and headed back towards the main room. She didn't say it, but she had guessed Sabina's real purpose in lingering behind. Once she was out of sight, she knew Sabina would go back over to the shrine and say what she really wanted to say to her mother-- something she couldn't say what Rayen was there.

The Tameran was absolutely right. Sabina, looking highly uncomfortable, walked over to the memorial and bowed her head once more.

"Mom... I'm doing well. I'm making progress towards becoming a great villain. For the first time, I'm really happy and... I made a friend. Please, rest well now." It was simple and to the point, but it was the truth and something Sabina hadn't been able to say to her mother since she passed away. She very dearly wanted to let her mother know she was going to be okay, and this was the first time she felt she could speak those words truthfully.

"I'm happy, mom, so please don't worry. I'll be fine. I'll make you proud."

This was the truth, even if it would be an ugly truth by the end. If nothing else, she knew her mother would be able to rest easy, hearing her daughter say these words of comfort. That was all that mattered.

 

 

Afterward

This concludes our side stories for many of the lesser-developed characters in our beloved realm of Gaia. Of course, this was only "Side One", so it's not unlikely we'll be able to see more characters getting fleshed out later and maybe even revisit some of the characters we've already seen here somewhere down the road. I had initially expected this to be a couple of chapters shorter than it turned out, but Ivory's story ended up writing itself a bit more organically than I anticipated.

While I feel these stories could have been written a bit more thoughtfully given more time to draft them, this story is itself a draft. All this writing, from the main story to the revised (and abandoned) version to these side stories have been what allowed me to grow the world of Gaia in my mind as I structure and restructure Gaia's world for the finalized version. Now, I can officially say that I will soon be ready to begin on that final version after years of planning and world-building.

...And I thank you for sharing the experience with me. Even if you have only read this one chapter and thrown the story to the side, or if you've been with me from the start, I thank you. Seeing any amount of interest in my stories has been very helpful and pushed me to believe in myself. I'll admit I'm not a perfect writer, and no matter how much I progress, I'll never view myself as such, but before I begin the finalized version (to be titled Magi of Gaia), I wanted to offer my sincere gratitude. Take it for what it's worth to you. To me, it's meant more than these simple words of thanks can express.

With all this said and things coming to a close on these side stories, I'll be taking a rest from writing on the rough draft version of the main series. This is mostly for the sake of focusing on the final draft (I wish to have it out before the end of next year), but also because the story has evolved so much, it's hardly "rough drafting" anymore; it's an entirely different tale. That's not to say I won't come back to it and begin working on a second Magicians of Gaia, but for now, it's a lower priority for me. If there was anything you didn't understand or wanted to ask about, feel free to send a message my way.

Until then, thanks again for everything. I'll work my hardest from here onward!


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