Synopsis: A fast-paced story about a youngster who loses everything and everyone he holds dear. Through the only family that still remains with him, his uncle, he gets to choose to dedicate his focus and attention to blacksmithing rather than to fall into depression and street life...
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Zhuyu sat in the living room, drinking water. We were in more dire need of that than him! I then noticed the sweat on his forehead. S***, did Tess make him go through training too?
“Welcome back. How was your orientation?” he asked.
“Bro, f***…. damn, too tired,” Jacque answered.
“Now you see why I didn’t tell you anything,” Zhuyu pointed out.
“You could have given us a hint,” I sulked.
“Well, you got through it. Here’s water,” Zhuyu said, pointing at the box of water bottles.
Jacque rushed over, downing his first bottle right away. I never thought the taste of water could be so damn good.
“It wasn’t as bad as Shigetzu or Jin said, right? You survived,” Zhuyu remarked.
“F*** you, Zhuyu. That’s complete b*******. There was so much suffering. We had to do a damn test! Tess is a scary woman!” I disagreed.
“I’ve never felt my body hurt so much before,” Jacque complained, wincing as he sat down.
“She does work us pretty hard for these things,” Zhuyu said.
“What happened to you?” I asked, pointing at his forehead.
“Oh, this? Tess just made me do cardio,” Zhuyu simply replied.
“I’m impressed. Teach me how to survive,” Jacque begged his friend.
“I’m just desensitized to it,” Zhuyu revealed.
“Oh yeah, Kyoi trains you too. This must be nothing compared to her s***, right?” I asked.
“I wouldn’t say that. Tess’ are definitely harder. Kyoi focuses on a certain part of the body but Tess’ training hurts everywhere,” Zhuyu disagreed.
If someone who underwent Kyoi’s training found Tess’ stuff tough, what did that mean for me? S***, what did that mean for Jacque?
“You should be proud. Not everyone survives Tess’ training the first time. Zhang did it twice before he made it. Hell, I did it twice too,” Zhuyu complimented.
“Doesn’t exactly make my body feel any better,” I pointed out.
“Nothing I can do about that. Jacque, here’s some presents,” Zhuyu said, pulling out an ID badge and key.
“Sweet…. oh, I thought you meant legit presents. What are these?” Jacque’s inquired.
“Yu-…. Tomo can tell you. Damn, I almost called you Yuki by accident. Your mom’s too scary,” Zhuyu said, pointing at me.
“The key’s for entering the Crossroads, you know the place we went last time. ID card lets you get into the training facility anytime you want,” I provided a brief summary.
“Okay, cool. Tess said you were suppose to talk to us about something,” Jacque said, sliding the ID card into his wallet.
“Let me see…. here you go,” Zhuyu said, digging through his bag before handing us a binder.
I flipped through the pages, discovering information on all the heroes, including Lilith’s team. There were addresses, phone numbers, email, social media handles, and much more.
“Is it okay to have all this listed on here?” I asked.
“If anything happens, it’ll be nice to multiple avenues of contact,” Zhuyu explained.
“I feel like you’re suppose to tell us more than just this,” I said, still uneasy about having so much private information.
“Yeah, one more thing. It’s about my job as the record keeper,” Zhuyu said.
“Record keeper?” Jacque inquired.
“For some stuff Tess gathers, I store and keep track of it by hand. Not digitally, all by hand,” Zhuyu disclosed.
“That seems a bit…. unnecessary,” I remarked.
“If anything happens online, it takes awhile to restore. Just a backup plan if the worse were to happen,” Zhuyu explained.
“I guess that makes sense. I think I said it before, that role fits you,” I observed.
“Yeah, you might be right. Anyways, I have records on enemies and history on our…. adventures. If you need anything, I’ll get it to you if it’s not online,” Zhuyu said.
“Wait, you keep all that stuff at your house? I mean, isn’t it dangerous?” I thought about a potential problem resulting from Zhuyu’s duties.
“You remember how Tess set up a barrier around your house the last time Champ came in? She did the same for me. Someone could break in, but no one wants to waste their time looking through papers. Right, Jacque?” Zhuyu looked over at the artist.
“Dude, totally,” Jacque agreed.
“How do you have room?” I wondered.
“I have a spare room in my house. I keep it all there. Doubles as my study room too so it’s perfect. I don’t have everything, just the most pertinent info,” Zhuyu answered.
I continued inspecting the binder contents. Half of it was information I already knew but organized into a more coherent collection. This was actually really useful.
“Damn, you even have stats? Wait, how come I have X’s everywhere? Does that mean I suck?”Jacque exclaimed.
“It means not determined yet. A zero would mean you suck,” Zhuyu clarified.
“Just like school, huh? That reminds me, I have classes until 4:00 next quarter. Why, Long, tell me why?” Jacque lamented.
“Yeah, I can’t do anything about that. I think that’s it from me. Anything else Tess will cover. Just relax for now. Your bodies will hurt a lot tomorrow,” Zhuyu concluded.
“No s*** it will. By the way, Felicity was talking about throwing another party. Did she tell you anything?” I asked, glancing at Zhuyu.
“No. I don’t talk to Felicity that often. Makes me worried something bad will happen. That reminds me, Jacque, how’s the classes Felicity paid for going?” Zhuyu asked his friend.
“They’re pretty helpful. I’m s*** at drawing faces. Well, different ones. They all somehow end up looking the same. Actually I suck at everything so there’s gotta be improvement no matter what,” Jacque answered.
“Damn, Jacque, that’s pretty…. depressing. I’ve seen your drawings before, they aren’t that bad,” I disagreed with his personal assessment.
“Eh, there are better people. My art isn’t anything special. It’d be nice if I could figure it out one day,” Jacque said.
“I believe in you, Jacque. Like I said, your art has potential. These classes will definitely help you reach that goal,” I supported him.
“Tomo, thank you. I might cry,” Jacque responded.
“Tomo, why can’t you be like that for us? Where’s your complete trust for Shigetzu or anyone else for that matter?” Zhuyu entered the conversation with a smile.
“F*** you guys. You don’t need my belief to get through anything. You’re more than capable. Jacque’s different. He needs that extra push,” I replied.
“So cold, Tomo. Jacque, any questions for me? Tomo, you know everything so I won’t answer any of your questions,” Zhuyu said.
“That’s just your way of saying I shouldn’t ask unnecessary questions,” I accused the man.
“Yeah, you got me. But, it’s also Tess’ policy. Can’t go against her, you know? Or I might find myself doing tests for eight hours on a weekend,” Zhuyu confirmed.
That was a horrible punishment. Just thinking about it made my head hurt. Tess, why are you so cruel but incredible at the same time? The Gatekeeper finally arrived in the living room, holding our tests and questionnaire.
“Thank you for updating the records, Long,” Tess said.
“No need. I like doing that sort of thing. Makes me feel better about myself when Tomo insults me,” Zhuyu responded.
“Tomo and Jacque, here are your tests. I’ve written several comments on each page and attached three more pages containing additional information,” Tess revealed.
I checked the score and saw a 85 at the top. Was I hallucinating? This was a test Tess personally wrote herself. How was it possible I obtained such a high score? Jacque’s face also contained surprise when he checked. Tess excused herself, saying she would return in a few minutes.
“Hey, is this normal, Zhuyu?” I pointed at my score.
“Oh, nicely done. Better than me,” Zhuyu congratulated.
“Thanks… .no that’s not what I meant. Why is my score so high? There’s a bunch of answers I know were wrong,” I demanded.
“Tess told you she’s not grading on overall correctness, right? She’s just seeing how much skill you have based on the answers given and converting that to a number score,” Zhuyu explained.
“Wait, Tomo got a higher score than you? Jin must have gotten a 100 then, right?” Jacque’s eyes widened.
“No, Jin got a 70 and I got a 60. Shigetzu, if I remember right, was a 72. Feng was around 75. Zhang got 55 I think. Lau was a 70. Kuan got a 70 too. Darryl got a 65. Can’t remember anyone else’s,” Zhuyu revealed.
“Hold on, this is a 70. I did better than you? How’s that possible?” Jacque stared at his friend in confusion.
“It’s very much a test of potential and drive. When I took it, I didn’t have much experience or desire so that’s why my score sucked,” Zhuyu emphasized.
“This is good?” I asked, pointing at my score.
“Yeah, you definitely have what it takes. Oh, she also uses it to make sure you’re doing well in school. Watch out for that,” Zhuyu warned.
“Wait, Tess tests us on class material?” I asked.
“It’ll be a surprise when she does it. I was caught off guard one time when I went home to watch anime and it was waiting there on my table,” Zhuyu confirmed.
“Damn, that’s scary,” Jacque muttered.
“Is that why our class schedules are in here?” I suddenly recognized the significance of its appearance in the binder.
“Yeah. Also so you can track people down. Same for the addresses,” Zhuyu answered.
Tess returned with a folder. She placed it on the coffee table as Zhuyu smiled and stepped away. What was up with the shift in atmosphere?
“Both of you, read over this document and sign your name at the bottom. Also fingerprint it too,” Tess provided both a pen and the ink.
“What is this?” I inquired, making sure we weren’t selling our souls.
“A contract to be a hero. More or less, it’s an agreement to fulfill your obligations until you quit or until this all concludes. It’s a formality that can’t be ignored,” Tess answered.
I scanned through the single page and found nothing unusual in the wording. Tess wrote it herself so everything was crisp and straight to the point. If at any time I wanted to stop, Tess would find an appropriate replacement and transfer possessions of powers over to the successor. Also, she could strip us of our powers and place us on probation at her discretion.
I picked up the pen, signing it and stamped my fingerprint. Jacque did the same after ten minutes. Tess nodded, picking up our contracts and slipped them back into her folder. She left again and I glanced over at Zhuyu.
“We didn’t just give our souls away, right?” I asked.
“Didn’t you read it? There was nothing in there about that. Tess summons you at inconvenient times, well, that might be equivalent,” Zhuyu replied.
“Please, don’t say such things, Long. It makes me nervous,” Jacque said.
Zhuyu sat on the couch, staring at his phone with a serious expression. Jacque texted someone, swinging his earphones around.
“You’re free to go home. Tomo, I wish to discover what’s inside the fortress within Jin’s dimension. Whenever you’re free this week, tell me and I’ll set up a time matching Jin’s availability,” Tess informed me.
“Definitely not tomorrow after what happened today. I don’t even know if I can walk without hurting,” I said, standing up.
“An astute point. I rather have you in optimal condition,” Tess agreed.
Returning home, I felt pain with each step I took. Mom saw me struggle, not offering any assistance. I almost collapsed but Yukie caught me.
“Yuki, be careful,” Yukie said.
“Wish I could,” I responded.
Mom sat across from me with her usual smile, freaking me out.
“Mom, don’t say anything. I’ve had a really rough day,” I pleaded.
“Yuki, whatever are you thinking of? I just wanted to ask what your schedule looks like for spring quarter. What did you think I was going to say?” Mom played innocent.
“My schedule, here it is,” I answered.
It was about the same as this quarter, just the next class in the series. Math and chemistry again along with an English class meant to fulfill a graduation requirement.
“Have classes been rough for you?” Mom asked, actual concern in her voice.
“Some days. Overall, it’s been so-so,” I replied, feeling pain shoot up my back.
“Good to hear. Despite your lack of trust in me, I am still your mother after all,” Mom reminded me and left.
After dinner, only one thing was on my mind. Sleep. And a lot of it. I slumped down into my bed, not even changing clothes, falling asleep right away.