Counter 3: Murky Image
Twenty-ninth day of Sat’xahr, Jeti’zien
Past six in the morning
The academy’s cafeteria
“That person,” Primrose says while looking away from her brother. Duke turns in her direction while placing the tray with three cheese breads and two tetra packs of milk down on the table. “Azalea, she seems so close to us but she is somewhat unreachable.”
There are very few students in the cafeteria during the weekends’ early morning. Most students take their time to sleep more. Only those who have weekend duties or club activities takes the effort to leave their bed and start their day early. For that reason some students from the red zone chooses to have their meal here.
Duke pauses while looking around. “Isn’t that the reason why she opened up a little?” He recalls the conversation they had with Smash and the things Azalea revealed about herself.
In the past night, Duke has already told Prim about the meeting they had with Smash. He reported every detail without missing any. She is well informed about their alliance, the conditions that came with it, and also Azalea’s circumstances. For her, it all sounds so reckless but at the same time they also somehow make sense.
“That’s probably some great leap for her,” says she. “You did tell me that she told you all some stuff about her. But then again, it also sounded like she deliberately used it to cover the more important parts.” She grabs one of the cheese breads. She stares at it for a while as if she is deep in thought. “In a sense, I can trust that she isn’t using us as pawns. However, something is missing.”
Duke smiles lightly. He looks a little down and sad. “Why do you distrust her so much?”
“I don’t simply distrust her,” she replies with the same straight face. “I do not trust everyone. Of course you’re an exception, brother.”
“Don’t you think she’s worth giving the chance?” He responds with the same sad smile. “Not just Azalea, I mean this whole club, its members… They aren’t the same as the others.”
Primrose looks at him showing no trace of emotion.
Duke recalls his time with the club. He then returns his kind smile, as if to reassure his little sister. “Well, I don’t think they are bad people. You should make friends when you can.”
Primrose continues eating her cheese bread while staring blankly down the table. “Maybe,” she says softly while reaching for the tetra pack and then she pokes the straw in. “She said… I don’t understand why Azalea would be so eager to get this collar off me. It’s just strange.” She takes a sip of her milk “I’ll try… but if something strange comes up-…”
“I guess… you should take your time…” Duke sighs heavily. He grabs the tetra pack and then he turns away, as if he is staring at something far in the distance. “This is the first time she tried to keep others company since she was taken by HHI. Coming here is definitely the right choice.” He tells himself.
“What’s wrong?” Primrose worries when she notices her brother being too quiet all of a sudden.
“Nothing,” he smiles at her. “I was just caught in my train of thought. Ah, let’s grab some more snacks before we leave, I know you’ll be hungry again soon enough.”
She nods and then takes a peek at her phone. It seems that she got a message. She replies shortly, only tapping a few times. It must be from Asylum. She does not have any other contact other than them whom she would give a reply to. They left the cafeteria shortly after.
Thirtieth day of Sat’xahr, Wieh’zien
Past four in the afternoon
Fourth watch tower, Asylum’s clubroom
Zharyx, Victor and Earl Spade are marching towards the clubroom when they sniff something odd that catches their unwanted attention. As they come closer, the stronger the stench they smell. They sees light smoke coming from the side of the fourth tower which abruptly gives them a bad feeling about what might be the cause of it. They rush in the direction of the smoke only to discover a couple of student grilling something.
“What in the world is that?” Earl Spade grunts while covering his nose.
“It’s dried squid,” the red-haired girl sitting beside the grill answers with unconcerned wide grin. A kitten is sitting by her right shoulder and another is dozing off on her head.
“Fuck! It stinks!” He continues to complain while turning away. “Why in the world are you grilling that?!”
“Why? Of course we want to eat it.” She answers casually while carefully flipping the dried squids. “Would you like to have some, we got plenty.” Several more kittens have run towards them.
“What’s with the cats?” Earl Spade wonders.
“But I want to eat them all,” another girl with short black hair pouts sitting beside the red-haired one. “Don’t come here, furry little balls with killer claws!” She stops the kitten from getting closer.
“Come on, don’t be too greedy!”
“I like food.”
“These kids,” Earl Spade mumbles after clicking his tongue. “That mage sprout really did get some amazingly weird group of people here.”
“Where is Azalea?” Zharyx asks in a polite fashion.
“Shouldn’t you be looking for our club prez?” The small girl with curly and messy hair answers slightly tilting her head.
“Prim, you know this uptight-looking dude?” The red-haired girl asks while impolitely pointing at them.
“Yeah,” Primrose answers casually. “I meet him a few times. He’s the president of SC and the headmaster’s eldest son.”
Zharyx fixes his eyes on the red-haired girl. “Seems that you have a bad memory there, Miss Blair Lisiantha.”
“Ah! I know you too!” She says in high pitch tone then she rubs her nape while laughing slightly. “You’re there when I got suspended. Az is inside the club room, just go in and you’ll see her immediately.”
Earl Spade peers at them. “Aren’t you two coming inside?”
“No,” Blair answers while taking the well-grilled dried squids and lining them up on a plate.
“We still have plenty to grill here. If you like, you can bring some of it inside with you.”
“No, thanks.” Zharyx replies. Then he leads Earl Spade and Victor inside the fourth watch tower. After opening the front door, he straight away spots Azalea who is sitting on the couch in a laidback manner. By the chair on beside is Evancross, he looks like he is calmly reading something in his tablet but at the same time he gives off an intimidating aura.
“Good afternoon, Asylum.” Zharyx greets as he makes his way inside. “May we start the discussion right away?”
Azalea pauses momentarily while staring at him. “Should you be here, SC prez?”
“Is that how you’re supposed to welcome me?” He asks as if he is joking though with a chilling serious tone. He allows himself into the room then Victor and Earl Spade follows.
“Good day,” greets Evan. He gives them a polite smile while he turns off his tablet. “What might have brought you here without prior notice, President?”
“I purposely didn’t send a notice so that it’ll look like surprise visit,” he answers while taking his seat on the chair across Azalea.
“It’s very suspicious when the SC president randomly goes on visiting some lame club like ours, you know.” Azalea replies impolitely.
“Let’s just say this visit has nothing to do with me being the SC president,” he says with a suspiciously polite smile. “I’m simply here to see the treasured little sister of my senior who took good care of me.”
“I’m not sure if you are joking or whatever,” she answers rolling her eyes. “Evan, call our prez, he should be here.”
Then Evan nods before leaving to go to the second floor.
Once Evan is no longer in sight, she turns her gaze back at Zharyx’ group again. “We haven’t really discovered that much, your visit is too early. Still, I think I should make use of this opportunity, there’s something I want you to look into.”
“As long as it’s within our authority.” Zharyx replies, his tone deliberately lowered.
“The merchant convoys in District 3,” she continues with a calm low-pitched voice. “There are a lot of them, some got these large ships at that.”
He touches his chin and then thinks deeply. “I see that’s really suspicious.” He comes with a conclusion after assessing the situation in mind. He must have already have an idea about what is going on.
“That’s out of our jurisdiction,” Victor interrupts. He stands straight behind Zharyx before stepping forward. He made a clear look at Zharyx then turns towards Azalea. “Merchants or whatever in District 3 does not concern the academy.”
“Don’t stray too far from what you’re supposed to do,” Earl Spade snorts then he makes a mocking smirk.
Azalea smiles back at him. “Idiot clowns should in the circus.”
“What did you say?!”
“IDIOT CLOWNS SHOULD STAY IN THE CIRCUS, YOU DEAF MORON!”
Zharyx knocks on the wooden table in front to get their attention. “Stop it you two.” The sound turns everyone’s attention to him. He glares at both of them and then silence follows.
“Just as Vic said, anything outside the academy is not within our authority; however I can still ask someone with the right power and influence to look into the mentioned case.”
“Please do,” Azalea responds with a serious tone.
The heavy atmosphere is broken when creeks resound from the stairs. Following the sound, they see Tristan’s silhouette going down. Tristan leads the way while Evan, Duke, and Emil follow closely behind him. They are leisurely going down into the first floor.
“What’s with the shouting a while ago?” Tristan asks. His eyes settle at Azalea.
“That was Azalea’s voice, wasn’t it?” Evan says while taking the same sit.
Azalea let out a forced laugh. “Don’t mind it, don’t mind it.”
“Ah, I can still smell those squids.” Emil complains stopping by the stair. “Are we going to call those two in here?”
“Would you like the stench of those squids stick inside the clubroom?” Duke replies with a slight laugh following Emil.
“Never mind then,” he answers with a depressing sigh.
“More weirdos,” Earl Spade mumbles. “Anyway, we’re here to help you a little, just a little, with your investigation.” He says acting confidently. “I have already contacted someone I know from the red zone; she’s a member of the club called Headless Warriors.”
“So that’s why he’s here even though he’s not a member of SC,” Azalea shakes her head.
“Hey! I heard you!” Earl Spade turns.
“Why don’t they get along?” Tristan asks softly looking at the two. He then takes his seat beside Azalea.
“Are you even taking this seriously, huh?” Earl Spade raises one of his brows while his words fall on deaf ears. “Alright,” he sighed heavily. “I’ll give you her contact information.” He pulls a piece of paper from this back pocket and then hands it to Tristan. “And don’t forget to meet her in the third floor of the library. Lieta’zien, during lunch break. Okay?”
“Minerva Penta,” Tristan reads the name on the piece of paper after unfolding it. He unlocks his phone then he adds it into his contacts.
“This person,” Emil leans on the wall. “How did you get to know a student from the red zone?”
After hearing the question from another person in the red, Earl Spade stares suspiciously at him for a moment. He forces a laughed. “We were from the same hometown.” It is obvious from his tone that it is a topic he does not want anyone to pry in deeper. “Adillac, the war-torn country. My family moved away before the war got more intense. Stuff happened.”
“I see,” Azalea suddenly blurts out. She takes a deep breath and then exhales heavily. “Your acquaintance had witnessed war first hand. Simple talking might not be enough to get her to help us.”
“Is that so?” Zharyx slightly narrows his eyes at her.
“Don’t look at me like that,” she chuckles. “We’ll just have to rethink our approach.”
“You don’t have to worry about anything. She’s real nice.” Earl Spade reassures them. “I already talked to her about this. You can trust her.”
“Mhm… I see, that’s interesting.”
“It’s getting late,” Zharyx stands up after a long pause. “We’re leaving.” He takes the lead towards the door, while Victor politely nods before following him. Earl Spade follows them casually leaving no words behind.
When they are about to go out, Blair and Primrose carrying two plates each filled with grilled dried squids are standing on their way. Without realizing it, the three have covered their noses as they pave way for the girls.
“You’re leaving already?” Blair asks as she walks inside.
With a squid in her mouth Prim follows. “Leaving just when we finished grilling… Do you hate squids that much?”
“What the hell do you think this clubroom is for?” Earl Spade grits his teeth.
“For miscellaneous stuff and whatever.” She answers in monotone while putting the dishes down.
Earl Spade’s brow twitches while mumbling, “So these kinds of people do exist.”
Victor taps Earl Spade’s shoulder and then makes eye contact with him. “We’re going ahead, you all should return to your dorms before curfew.” He warns the kids before they all leave the fourth watch tower.
After Zharyx’ and company has left, Asylum’s members are unexpectedly staying quiet for several minutes. Primrose and Blair are just eating the grilled dried squids without saying a word while the guys are keeping their mouth shut as if waiting for something.
Amidst the silence, Azalea then stretches her arms forward. “It’s almost curfew, in less than an hour,” says she. “Before we end this, I’d like to ask something from Tristan.”
“M-me?!” He jolts. “What is it about?”
“Ah! Before that, Evan, give me the card you got from the guard of the cargo ship.” She adds.
Evan takes out his handkerchief and unfolds it revealing the key card he has kept in his possession since then. “How did you know I got something like this?”
“Blair told me about it,” she answers with a bright smile. “Now Tristan, if you don’t mind, could you look into the cards memory and show it to me as well?”
Tristan pauses for a while before fixing his eyes on Azalea like he is carefully observing her expression. “Honestly… I do not know how to respond to that request.” He turns his gaze down. “The information that this card’s memories hold… the flow is hard to control so… you might find something disturbing and… well… I won’t recommend it.”
“You don’t have to worry about me,” Azalea answers. Her tone is cheerful but the smile she wears shows no pretense. It gives off a melancholic feeling. “I’ve probably seen much worse.” She then forces a laugh as if she is trying to sweep away the dark atmosphere she called in herself. “All I need is your cooperation. You’ve experienced what kind of people we might be crossing this time, if you decide that you don’t want to get involved any further then I won’t force you to. However, right now I need whatever information I can get from this cards. Please.”
He closes his eyes and then takes a deep breath. “Okay.” He opens his eyes. They are burning with determination as he looks straight back at Azalea. “I don’t know where this might lead us. Take the card and hold it for a while.”
While Azalea holds the card on her palms, Tristan takes his white gloves off. He then moves beside her. He opens his palm and asks for the card.
“Get your right hand with the card over my left palm and then hold on my right hand.” He instructs.
Azalea cooperates without any complains. All of a sudden an explosion of distorted images flashes into their minds like they are dreaming about a never-ending spiral of lost photos. It is a roller coaster of thoughts, a train of emotion, cluster of inaudible noises and vague chatters, a never ending journey into the depths of a different consciousness.
Not even a minute passed when Tristan decides to let go of Azalea’s hands along with the card key. “Are you okay?”
Everyone’s attention is fixed on the two of them. They show questioning eyes yet they are holding on their silent voices. This is the first time they witness what kind of power Tristan have. He can feel their eyes ogling at him as though he is being judged by a larger crowd. He feels very uncomfortable and tense every time he uses his psychometry. It is like watching someone else’s dream without permission.
Azalea rests her head on her hands. “I feel like I wanna puke,” she says in a weak tone with her hands covering her face. “It’s like a roller coaster ride in the speed of a bullet train.”
“Sorry, I still don’t know which memories are of significant value to us so I needed to search a little.” Tristan explains while patting Azalea’s back.
“We should end it here today,” Evan suggests while looking at them.
“I’m fine,” she says while sitting up straight. “I have collected my thoughts, let’s continue.” Then she stretches her arms forward in the same manner previously. She smiles looking fine. “Nothing ventured, nothing gained.”
“I think you’re using that quote wrong.” Tristan mumbles. Without realizing it he is already getting swept away by Azalea’s pace as he is preparing his hands to continue with the psychometry.
While watching them, Blair crosses her arms. “You sure? You really look sick to me.” Azalea simply forces a business smile back at her. “Ugh, how stubborn.”
Tristan pauses, gazing at Azalea. His hands are above hers, just a little distance separating them from touching. “Sometimes I think it’s amazing how you drag people to go with your pace.” He says softly. He knows she is determined and there is no way for him to convince her in other way around it. “Okay, brace yourself. This might not be any different from the first one.”
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The Bewitched Demon Hunter
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