After I was certain Rachael was gone, I left the secluded training room. While walking through the now deserted training room, my mind churned like a machine, manufacturing darker and darker thoughts. Everything was now coming together. Everyone hated me, or wanted to use me. Takeji and Trinity must have wanted to use me to spread their potentially heretical doctrines. All of my fellow students hated me. The Bowden brothers, Hanson, and probably over half of the population of Tsalderek hated me. Dani just wanted to use me for…I don’t know what. Her own enjoyment probably.
Other than maybe Sagar, it was just me against the world. Well, if that’s how it had to be, I would just have to play a little harder. Without any distractions, I made a direct path toward the stairway. I quickly ascended four flights of stairs to the top floor. I needed to find some information that I could use to help my cause.
I cautiously approached Hanson’s office. Apparently, he wasn’t in. Good. I entered the room, and began looking on his desk for any pertinent material. Being very careful not to disturb anything, I slid each drawer open, one by one. There was plenty of paperwork, but nothing looked like it related to the recent interception mission. I continued to search for another minute, until my perked ears heard the door to the stairway close.
Reacting quickly, I grabbed a blank piece of paper and pen, and started writing. Hanson entered his own office, and glared at me.
“What the hell are you doing in here?!” He barked.
“The door was unlocked.” I replied. “I came to tell you something, but since you weren’t here, I decided to leave a note.”
I showed him my scribbling on the page.
“Now that you’re here, I can tell you in person.”
“Well, go on! What’s so important that you had to trespass into my office?!”
“I just wanted to tell you that I discovered something very interesting. We’ve been unknowingly harboring a spy from Nahalore.”
“What?!” Hanson roared. “That’s a hell of an accusation! Who is it?”
“Rachael Fox. I witnessed her using wind-based powers. She’s a Nephilim.”
Hanson sputtered a series of profanities, so I continued to recount the occurrence.
“When I found out, she tried to murder me to hide her secret. I easily defeated her, but before I could kill her, she ran away. I don’t think we’ll be seeing her again anytime soon.”
The man turned his furious eyes on me, but it appeared his anger wasn’t directed at me for once.
“Damn me for saying this, but I’m glad that you were there to stop anything from happening before it started.”
“Happy to help.” I responded somewhat sarcastically as I exited the room.
It wouldn’t be long until the story spread all over Tsalderek. If Rachael ever did try to come back, she wouldn’t last very long.
The majority of the rest of the day passed without incident. During the midday meal, Geoffrey and Kazushita appeared genuinely confused about Rachael’s absence. Well, the rumor would reach them soon enough. The afternoon classes were affected by the fact that the girls weren’t there, but no one mentioned it. Just before dinner, Sagar announced that he wanted to meet with the three of us after the meal break. I assumed that it would pertain to Rachael and/or Dani. During dinner, neither of them had been seen.
After dinner, the three of us met back at the training center. Geoffrey, Kazushita and I stood in silence, awaiting our teacher’s words. The man cleared his throat, and explained the recent situation.
“I’m sure you’ve heard about everything that has occurred here recently. Our loss in the skirmish against Nahalore, Rachael being revealed as a Nephilim, Danica’s illness-“
All three of us started. The fact that Rachael was secretly a Nephilim was news to Geoffrey and Kazushita, but obviously not to me. However, I had heard nothing of Dani’s illness. What had happened to her? I had assumed that she was just being a whiner about my eruption at her the previous day. But instead, she was sick? Was it my fault?
During the rest of Sagar’s speech, I was unable to concentrate, only catching bits and pieces. I got the gist of it, though. He was just assuring us that everything would be fine, and not to give up.
“…and I know that we’ll only be stronger because of this.” He concluded. “Are there any questions?”
I immediately raised my hand. This caught Sagar by surprise.
“Uh, yes Milo?”
“What’s wrong with Danica? And where is she staying right now?” I demanded.
“Well, she’s currently recovering in the medical center, room 202.” He looked frankly bamboozled by my concern, but didn’t mention it. “She was afflicted by some kind of food poisoning.
My heart dropped at the words “food poisoning”. Could it be, she had taken poison meant for me?
“Thank you.” I nodded my head respectfully, and quickly dashed out of the gym.
As I ran toward the medical center, I felt sick with the horrible feeling that one gets after screwing up. It’s my fault she’s in there, and I berated her publically for it.
I burst into the medical center, but forced myself to calm down before I reached her room. I took several deep breaths, letting them out as slowly as I could. I didn’t want to panic her, or anyone else for that matter. Pausing just outside of room 202, I pondered what I would say. I had no clue, so I just opened the door.
The young woman lay in the bed, looking thoroughly exhausted and ill. Her eyes were half-closed, but still had that sparkle of excitement that they possessed when wide open, and her smile belied her perpetual cheer. She actually looked happy to see me.
I slowly walked toward her, and said the only thing that ended up coming to my mind.
Brilliant. I sat down at the foot of her bed.
“Hey.” She responded. Her voice sounded tired.
“Been better.” She stretched, and winced from the pain. “Better me than you, though.”
I shook my head.
“Why would you say something like that? Why would you do something like that?”
I gestured to her body.
“Because I didn’t want it to happen to you.” She closed her eyes. “Knowing that you weren’t the one being hit with this made it more bearable.”
“How did you know that food was poisoned?” I asked.
“Well, I wasn’t sure, but when you yelled at me like that, I was sure hoping it was!” She laughed weakly, and my face reddened as I looked down.
“Sorry about that.” I apologized as sincerely as I knew how.
“It’s fine. I know I was being weird. But I knew, if I tried to tell you it was poisoned, you wouldn’t believe me. As soon as I saw Geoffrey coming out of the kitchen, and glancing around that nervously, I had a suspicion that he was trying to screw you up.”
Geoffrey! That bastard! Where did he come up with something like that?! Did Hanson put him up to it!?
Danica continued her explanation.
“I started feeling sick really late that night, just the time that you were on the mission. The doctors said that it was some kind of time-delay neurotoxin. It paralyzed my muscles, and made me vomit like I was some kind of barf-producing volcanic PEZ dispenser.”
I grimaced at the mental image, but then sobered.
“Wow. I only had about one bite of the contaminated food, and I felt the twinge in my stomach and muscles that night. I can’t even imagine what you felt.”
My fists clenched in anger.
“Geoffrey will pay for this.”
Dani reached out her gentle hand, and set it on my tense one.
“Please don’t hate. Hating someone is like drinking poison, and hoping the other person will die. It will destroy you from the inside, and eat you away until nothing is left.”
I closed my eyes, and attempted to relax, but it wasn’t really working. Rage and hatred had become almost a way of life for me. How could I possibly forgive someone who had not only tried to kill me, but had gotten an innocent girl sick and made me publically humiliate her?
Dani seemed to understand my struggle. “It’s OK if you can’t let it go right away. I couldn’t either, until I met you.”
My eyes flew open, and I turned my head to stare at her.
“You see, I had a pretty rough childhood. I don’t really want to talk about it, but everything seemed totally unfair, and I was angry. At people, at the world, and even at God. But then I met you.”
She closed her eyes, apparently exhausted.
“From the second I first saw you, I knew that God had sent you to me to prove that he was still watching out for me. From then on, I could always focus on the positive things, because I always had you. I never cared if you were the Shadowy One or whatever. You’re my one.”
I didn’t really know what else to say. I had always known that she liked me, but I had no idea her feelings were that deep. I cleared my throat, and changed the subject a bit.
“So, are you gonna be OK?”
“Oh, yeah! I’ll be fine!” Her eyes popped open again. “I’ll be out of here by tomorrow, and I’ll be ready to train again by the day after. You can’t be rid of me that easy!”
I nodded, and patted her leg underneath the covers.
“I see. Well then, uh, see you tomorrow, Dani.”
I stood up, and began to walk out of the room. As I reached the door, I felt a pillow hit me in the back. I turned around to see Dani grinning like a dork.
“Goodnight Milo! See you tomorrow!”
I returned to my previous course, and left her alone without a reaction.
The following day, after breakfast, nearly the entirety of Tsalderek had been called to an assembly in the large auditorium. Dani had not joined the class for the morning jog, but she sat beside me during the meeting. I tried my best to treat her civilly, without leading her to believe something that wasn’t true. I wasn’t going to just bow down and let her have her way, just because she confessed her feelings for me. That wasn’t how I worked, and I had no interest in something like that, especially when the fate of mankind could rest upon me.
The Bowden brothers once again delivered the speech for Razo. They professed our superiority, despite the recent defeat. They also confirmed that the rumors floating around about a Nephilim being discovered in our midst were true. I felt half-way proud, and half-way guilty about doing that. I mean, I’m sure that I was right about making her leave, but, for some reason, I couldn’t help but feel guilty that I got her in so much trouble. Oh, well. At least it would make my life that much easier.
As the twins took turns orating, I noticed Dani out of the corner of my eye. She had spotted a thin sheet of foil insulation stuck to the bottom of the theatre-style seat in front of her. The girl leaned down and, working quickly and quietly, peeled the foil off like she was cautiously removing a Band-Aid from a seven-year-old.
I averted my gaze, and looked back up at the speakers. Just then, I felt a poke in my right arm. I warily turned my head toward Dani. She had pressed the foil tightly against her face, forming a perfect metallic mask.
“Look at me!” She whispered. “I’m Dr. Doom!”
I immediately turned away to ignore her. What was she thinking, trying to distract me in the middle of this important meeting? I couldn’t afford to pay attention to horseplay at a time like this! As I tried to push her antics out of my mind, I couldn’t help but think of what she had just been through for me. Maybe she wasn’t trying to use me. She nearly died to save my life, and never asked for anything in return. This girl deserved at least a small thank you.
It was then that I spotted a black Sharpie wedged in the seat in front of me and to the left.
Maybe just this once.
I leaned forward, and rustled around for a moment, before turning to face Dani. With one hand, I slicked my hair over to one side and back. With the other, I held my index finger in front of my upper lip. I had drawn a small, black rectangle on the finger.
“Look at me! I’m Adolf Hitler!”
Dani nearly burst out laughing, then slapped a hand over her mouth. In a moment, she had recovered, and came up with her next idea. She grabbed her blonde ponytail, and forced it across the top of her head like a combover. Then, she puffed her cheeks full of air, and proclaimed:
“I’m Donald Trump!”
I struggled to hold in a guffaw. She looked hilarious. But we were in the middle of an important meeting…
I reached down and grabbed three pencils I saw on the floor. Then, I stuck them up between the fingers of my closed fists.
“Hey, I’m Wolverine!”
She laughed, snatched two of the pencils, and stuck them in her mouth.
“I’m a Walruth!”
Our game went on, us imitating everything from Cap’n Crunch to Grumpy Cat to Commander Razo. Several minutes into the speech, one of the Bowden brothers (not certain which one) proclaimed that we still had hope, because Commander Razo had faith that the Shadowy one would bring an end to the fighting, and a new order would emerge on the earth. At that time, he gestured to me, and all eyes turned. I froze, still holding an olive up in front of each eye, and wearing a bright purple bandana tied around my head.
Everyone in the entire auditorium was staring at me. Dani and I slowly glanced at each other, then back at the stage. I slowly removed the bandana and olives, and tried with all my might to keep a straight face. The room was dead silent for around 15 seconds, before the speaker shook his head, and continued talking.
The two of us desperately attempted to keep from laughing for the remainder of the meeting. It wasn’t easy. I was unable to pay attention to anything else that was said. My heart was racing, and I felt like something was bubbling up from inside me, like a geyser. Was this “fun”? I hadn’t had “fun” in, like…well, forever. Life on the streets wasn’t fun, and I was too focused on my responsibilities within Tsalderek to have fun here. But here we were having fun, and you know what? It felt pretty good!
After the assembly had ended, Dani and I made our way apart from the departing crowd to an area of relative silence.
“Well, Dani, I’ve gotta admit, that was really fun.” I began.
“Yeah! Thanks for joining me on that!”
I nervously looked around. I had something I wanted to say, but I’ve never been good with words.
“Uh, Dani, I was wondering if…you’d want to spend a little more time together? Not just in training, but, outside of that too.”
She laughed cutely.
“I thought you’d never ask!”
The girl hopped forward and gave me a hug. For once, I didn’t resist it.