Counter 1: Behind the Scenes
The fourteenth day of Triini’xahr, year 4044 AOT. Past nine in the morning
AB Academy, Administration Building, Headmaster’s Office
“What do you intend to do?” Oryx asks the man sitting on the couch inside his office. He touches his chin while staring directly at the guest. “It’s true that I’m looking for the demon hunter known as Azalea the Bewitched.”
The man has gentle dark brown eyes behind his round frameless glasses which contrast to the look of his unshaved growing beard and long black hair tied in a ponytail. He is wearing white long sleeve polo tucked in his light blue jeans, and a pair of white neat shoes. He dresses in a simple but presentable fashion. At first glance, one would not even realize how wealthy this merchant must be.
“I spent a few months already trying to get whatever information about her whereabouts.” Oryx rests his arms on his table. The stick of cigarette on his right hand is standing still. “It has been more than four months now, I got nothing. Yet, you just appear out of nowhere and then you’re telling me that you’ve got all the information I needed all along?”
“Precisely,” he answers bluntly. His smile has no sign of deception. “I am personally connected to Azalea Blakewood; and I know exactly where she’s headed because we talked about it last time we saw each other.” He looks so confident. The morning breeze blew his bangs that falls a little below his eyes. His eyes are clear as they gaze directly back at the headmaster. “I can even help you with your plan to get her into the academy. She’s one stubborn child, you know.”
“I have a lot of doubts about this man.” Oryx ponders.
While he appears composed, rolling cigarette between his fingers, Oryx is deep in thought considering his proposal. “What’s in it for you?”
He has no idea whether the man is telling the truth but it might be worth checking out. No one would offer to give information without a price, and to think that this person is a merchant of all people. If he asks for an impossible huge price, it might as well be a scam.
“Merchant Li, was it? I’m not that rich but I could be quite generous depending on how helpful you can be.”
“I’m not offering this for money,” he smiles like an innocent child. However, there is a hint of sadness hidden behind it. He fixes his glasses and then clasps his hands. “If I could ask you for anything in return, then…” He takes a deep breath as if he is preparing to pull a mass of heavy cloud out of his chest. “Could you please save that girl?”
“H-huh--?!!” Due to the unexpected request, Oryx chokes on his spit and then coughs. The cigarette stick on his hand brakes in two. “S-save her? Is she in danger right now?”
“Sorry, that’s not what I mean.” Merchant Li chuckles while scratching the back of his head. “I want you to help me take her away from her solitary demon hunting life. It’s my fault… or should I say, I’m partly at fault why she ended up like that.”
“What is he trying to tell me now?” Oryx asks himself, still confused.
Merchant Li pulls out a tablet from his bag. “I did everything I can to save her, to help her,” he continues while tapping on his tablet like he is preparing something. “But it seems that she’s stuck now and there’s nothing else I can do on my own. If she continues on her solitary hunting life, I’m afraid there will be no space for progress to come in. She will only keep on prancing back and forth on that path she’s treading, and without advancing I don’t know how long she’ll be able to hold on.” He stands up and then walks closer to the headmaster’s table.
“I can’t explain it in detail, but some things happened. I can no longer hide her in this same environment. It has become a disadvantage and it won’t be long before they exploit this weakness.” He lays the tablet on the table with Azalea’s profile displayed on screen. “What do you think of her, Headmaster Dimasalang?”
“This is Azalea Blakewood?” Oryx asks while staring intensely on the tablet. His eyes are focused specifically on the photo.
The merchant just nods with a fixed serious expression on his face.
“I see… The rumors about her appearance is true. Those rare purple eyes.” He mumbles while putting the broken cigarette stick aside. “I can’t guarantee anything just from a photo,” he coughs trying to regain his composure. “With that tone of yours, may I assume that you are aware of who may this person really be?”
“I’ve made my own little research as I travel.” He answers without hesitation. “It took me three years to gather this much information. I connected the dots and came up with this conclusion.”
“Sure enough,” Oryx replies while thinking over everything he heard by far. He pulls a cigarette pack from his coat’s pocket and then taps one stick out. “What is she to you?”
“She is someone I decided to help but I couldn’t do enough for her.” Merchant Li says with a calm face. He takes flash drive out from his back pocket. “I am not related to her by blood. I’m just a passing stranger who wasn’t able to turn his back from that girl drowning in despair.” He puts the flash drive on the table before passing it to the headmaster. “I helped her because she reminded me of a past failure I can never fix. Sadly, I am hitting a dead end again... But, this time I don’t want to just give up.”
“So, are you a traveling hero?” He asks teasingly while inspecting the flash drive. The merchant is not making any distinct reaction. “Do you think it is your obligation to keep lending her your hand? Don’t you think it’s time for her to help herself?”
Merchant Li stands straight; his figure towering over the headmaster. “I need to give her a push.” He turns towards the open window as if looking at something so far away. “There is no doubt that she’s struggling. She is fighting a demon no one else can see. She has lost a lot, that’s why she refuses to gain any more.” He smiles kindly looking back into Oryx’s eyes.
“Please, help her by giving her something akin to a normal school-life where she can meet more people, kids her age and develop bonds. Teach her the warmth of having a home and a place where she belongs.”
“I can’t promise that,” I answers sincerely. “You know this academy is nothing near ‘normal,’ furthermore, Miss Blakewood is already beyond ‘extra-ordinary,’ isn’t she?” Oryx starts playing with cigarette stick on his hand.
Merchant Li keeps looking at him with a gentle expression on his face as if he already knows the response he is about to receive.
“I am naturally repulsive of that kind of personality, but I believe this person is worth trusting.”
Oryx silently evaluates the merchant. “Yeah right,” he mumbles while he sets the stick to stand on its own on the table. “I understand your intention well enough… so, about the planning… Mind sharing your thoughts to me?”
“Yes, of course,” an enthusiastic answer. Merchant Li points at the flash drive. “This flash drive has all information I have gathered about her background, and I’ve also included description of her ability in it though I doubt she’ll still be in the same level by the time your team meets her.”
“Yes, one person won’t be enough.” Merchant Li answers proudly. “Ah! I mean there is no point in forcing her to come along so here’s the deal…” He continues explaining while Oryx is left speechless listening to him. “First, I’d like to ask. Who was that girl who escorted me in here? I remember, she’s part of the Student Council?”
“Hmm… that must be the president,” Oryx answers. His face is wearing the mask of composure while feeling doubtful within. “May be I should not tell him too much about Miss Adams.” He tells himself.
“The StuCo president, huh.” Merchant Li fixes his glasses. “She must be quite skillful to be able to keep that position.”
“Why are you asking about another student now?” Oryx asks staring at the seemingly amused merchant.
“I just thought that it’ll be a great help if she joins the hunt.” He answers sharply.
“What hunt?!!” Oryx suddenly stands up, making the table shake that caused the cigarette stick to fall. “What do you mean?”
“Azalea went to Dimatagpuan Region of Uar to hunt the demon named Al Duran.” Merchant Li explains wearing his business smile. “You can’t convince her using brute force. You have to win her over through a psychological battle.”
Oryx raises a brow as he listens to the merchant.
Merchant Li knows well enough that this plan is something that Azalea cannot turn down. Oryx observes him as he shares his plan. After half an hour, the merchant left the headmaster’s office with a confident smile.
“He decided that Lillian Adams must be in that team without knowing much about her other than her appearance and that she is the current student council president.” Oryx mumbles as he checks on the contents of the flash drive. “That choice of people that I cannot understand, he said I’ll find the answer here.” He scans through the files until something caught his attention, a list of children in Young Angel’s Hope Orphanage. “I see. What a cunning man.”
After pondering about it for a while, the headmaster finalizes his choices. He calls on his son. Then he gives him the task of forming a team of five including himself and Lillian. He must choose his three most trusted members for the hunt.
The goal is to hunt the rank-A demon, Al Duran and bring back the demon hunter Azalea Blakewood. The more members for the team would have been better; however, there is the matter of secrecy. Azalea Blakewood has complicated circumstances that could greatly affect the path she will take in the future. With that in mind, Oryx instructs his son to handle the situation skillfully and discretely.
Zharyx decides on the members of his team immediately. By making it sound like a normal extra-curricular activity for the SC, Lillian is not posing any objection. Victor, a close friend of Zharyx, joins without question. Ivanryd is a very capable man, he holds Zharyx’ skills in high regard. He agrees to join despite the limited information given to him. The last member is a volunteer, Earl Spade. Even though he is not an official of BK or a member of SC, the young lad shows great enthusiasm towards the mission. It seems that he is trying to prove something to himself.
The line-up should have been more than enough. Unfortunately, a day before their departure for the mission, Ivanryd could not come due to a family-related matter. Due to the lack of time, they are unable to recruit a new member. So, they ended up with that unstable team.
The tenth day of Sat’xahr, year 4044 AOT
Tnej’zien, past five o’clock in the afternoon
AB Academy, Administration Building, Guidance Councilor’s Office
Out of the blue, surely out of his whims, Headmaster Dimasalang decides to make another unreasonable visit in Guidance Councilor’s Office.
Oryx graduated from the same university as Sadi. He is three years her junior. Sadi started working as Sociology professor in AB Academy soon after graduation while Oryx first entered this academy as a teaching student assisting three professors at the same time. He got hired as Biochemistry instructor right after graduating.
“We’ve known each other way to long. I know him well enough; he is a very cunning man.” Sadi thought as she takes a sip of her tea. “At the same right, he is also well aware of my notable skills at reading people.”
The pale orange light from the outside is slipping from the gaps between the curtains producing striped lines on the floor which is then obstructed by a man cozily standing near the window.
“Now, what brought you here?” Sadi asks while turning her sight on the headmaster.
The grown man sat on the swivel chair making himself feel at home. He laughs a sound that feels a little forced. “I shouldn’t beat around the bush when talking with you, huh.” He turns the swivel chair around like a kid. “I heard you called my three little angels in your office today. How were they like?”
“You sound like a dirty old man.” Sadi shakes her head. “By the way, I called four students this morning, why are you counting only three?” She removes her glasses to wipe them.
“Ah~ha~… Is that so?” He deliberately averts his eyes from the councilor. “I miscounted. So there were four… What do you think about them?”
“They are going to be a lot of work.” She answers while wearing her glasses back. “They must have gone through a lot. Mister Saintgregor isn’t someone easy to figure out, I can’t see his eyes after all, though his behavior suggests that his one mature young lad. Miss Lisiantha appears to be quite cheerful with bad temper. It seems that she’ll be facing more ordeals in the future, whether it’s good for her or not, I don’t know. Miss Blakewood and Miss Saintgregor, I can’t fully grasp their soul. However, just one look into their eyes; and you’ll see the abyssal darkness that hovering over their heart.” She pauses looking at her half-finished tea. “Well, it’s normal to have several problem children every year.”
Oryx stops his swirling on the chair to get a good look at the expression of his friend. “They may be just problematic kids now.” He fixes his eyes at her as she takes another sip of her tea. The clarity in his eyes speaks of something deeper then what one would originally think. “Maybe we could just scoop out all the problem children and put them in one group.” He suggests forcing a laugh while rubbing his nape like a mischievous monkey.
“I almost thought that he has something meaningful to say.” The old councilor sighs while processing her thoughts. “Maybe I should go see the eye doctor soon.”
“Don’t you think that they will spice up this school year deliciously?” He jests.
“You are planning something, aren’t you?” Sadi raises her brow. Her eyes are looking at the crafty headmaster sharply.
“I’m always considering what’s best for my dear students,” he answers with an obvious fake smile. “This school year and the coming years may bring unprecedented events to the academy, and so our students will surely get dragged into them.” His expression turns serious again as he continue to narrate his seemingly nonsense ideas. While playing with a stick of cigarette on his right hand, his deep-toned voice resonates inside the office. “Some evil organizations are surely plotting a lot of villainous traps for our dear children! We have to be ready when the time comes. We must protect the students and their limitless future with all our might. The only way we can do that is by guiding them into taking the right path, the path full of dreams and hope!” He sounds too serious for the context of what he says.
“He may not be lying but he is definitely hiding something,” she observes.
Sadi exhales, breathing out all of the stress from within. “Okay, I see your point. If you want to group the kids together, there are plenty of clubs around. However, judging their personality, I highly doubt that they are going to join any of those soon. We can wait for them to make up their minds until the club recruitment time ends. Ah, but the orientation of the clubs is scheduled this afternoon.”
“Is something wrong?”
“Who knows they might have already chosen the club they wanted to join in.”
He suddenly stands up with eyes wide open. “No, seriously?” He mumbles as the swivel chair rolls on its wheels away. “It’ll be much safer if the three of them are together.”
“The “three” of them again? I still cannot believe how much drive he got on this.”
“Is there another way around this?” He drops the cigarette stick and then clasps his head with both his hands.
“He is being hysterical about this. Watching him is depressing.”
“Well, I’m sure they haven’t joined any,” the councilor has given up on his childish antics.
“Those children… I even doubt that they went to attend that orientation. So, what are you scheming this time?”
“Until now, I’m at lost whether his actions are products of his calculating mind or just the result of his foolishness.” She thought while fixing her glasses.
“What’s with the scheming?” He replies while making weird pose as if he is in deep thought. “I told you, my intentions are pure, Sadi.”
“With that goofiness of yours, how could someone believe you?” She responds. Her brows furrow looking at him. The sunlight stripes on the floor are getting darker. He is not looking back at her; he is just keeping that stupid pose. “I think I have an idea as to what you are thinking right now. Oryx… Headmaster Dimasalang, you can’t force your students to be in the same club if they don’t want to.”
He then slowly turns his head towards the councilor. His eyes that are looking at her are like that of a puppy, begging for sympathy.
“Please sit down properly. Aren’t you ashamed of your behavior right now?”
“I am just trying to rid myself of stress through different bodily movements,” he answers while taking the swivel chair back and then he cleans off the dust. “I have been acting all composed and uptight most of the time. You know I’m a very friendly and easy-going person. I’d go insane if I continue with all these formalities.” He then settles down. “So… You see, the academy rules say that all students must join a club right? You know the thing.”
Sadi peers at him while pressing the bridge of her nose. “Right,” she sighs again. “I can give those kids a push… but I will not take part in their decision making. Whatever they decide to do is out of my authority.”
After hearing her reply, the headmaster looks kind of happy and gentle at the same time.
“I doubt this will go the way you thought it would.” She answers with a teasing smile.
“I’m not that confident either…” Oryx says relaxing his pose. “After all, that girl –Azalea Blakewood –always manages to pull something unexpected out of the blue. Her mind is full of surprises, as well as her existence.” He continues. “There are a lot of things that didn’t turn out the way I wanted them to.” He smiles trying to look cool.
“Yeah right.” She answers with a cold tone. “If you’re done complaining and goofing around, then just go back in your own office.”
“Alright, alright.” He stands up and then fixes the chair back to where it should be. “Sadi,” he calls again. She turns her piercing gaze back at him. That gaze is her strongest charm. “Take care of the kids.”
“That’s a given,” she answers instantly while waving her hand to shoo the headmaster away.
“She is always like that, cool and kind.” He mumbles as he leaves the office.
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