Bright sunlight streamed down from a clear, blue sky. Seagulls flew around in circles, screeching at each other. A beach, really? Tess, I don’t think this is the most appropriate location.
“Nice, a beach! This certainly is a nice change of pace,” Bartholomew commented, shielding his eyes from the sunlight.
“Didn’t really think we come to a place like this, but it’s not bad,” Ichaival agreed.
Champ sat down, letting his crutches drop down with a soft plop. Tess scooped up sand, watching it stream back downward. I didn’t understand the Gatekeeper’s motives, taking us to such a relaxing location.
“Darryl and Bartholomew, head into the nearby forest and collect firewood,” Tess instructed, sitting down as well.
“Can I….,” I started but Tess shot me down with a sharp look.
“You got it,” Ichaival responded.
Bartholomew limped behind him. Tess patted the sand and dug into it with a nearby stick. Tess, are you really building a sandcastle? Champ observed the waves, a slight smile developing on his face. What the hell was I supposed to do if there were no enemies around?
“Tess, what am I suppose to exactly do around here?” I questioned.
“Tomo, it’s a beach. Execute whatever actions you deem appropriate,” Tess directed.
I couldn’t determine if Tess was messing with me. She continued construction of her sand castle, placing an incredible amount of effort into it, resembling a Japanese fort in shogun times. The Gatekeeper looked up as she finished the roof.
“Something wrong, Tomo?” Tess questioned.
“I am always at a loss for words when you do something like this,” I sighed, shaking my head.
“You seem rather bored, perhaps converse with Champ,” Tess suggested.
“I don’t think Champ wants to talk to anyone. He needs to work things out on his own,” I pointed out.
“Another person can provide a fresh perspective. Seeing as you have nothing else to do, it’s the best course of action for you,” Tess convinced.
I walked over to Champ. What to talk about? Yuka was the only connection he and I shared. Actually, this was a good time to discuss that with the man.
“Champ, I want to talk about Yuka,” I said, sitting down enxt to him.
“Yeah, I get it. You have a lot of concerns about me, especially after all the dumb crap I did,” Champ obliged.
“Anyone would! Just to make sure, Yuka doesn’t know anything right? She better not be involved in any of this. It’s already bad enough I’m hiding this from her,” I questioned.
“No, she doesn’t. I’m hoping to keep it that way. I really do care about her. You’ll do the same, right?” Champ’s propped himself upward with his crutches.
“Of course. After what happened Felicity, I want to make sure she’s not a target. Okay, I want to know what’s been going on with you. Tess said ‘You’re safe from her’, what does that mean?” I interrogated.
Champ divulged his experience concerning the masked woman and her powerful hypnotic suggestions. He was responsible for his actions, but he had been influenced. That explained his aggressive behavior towards us and his pursuit of Jacque.
“Tomo, I’m not like that around Yuka. I’m quite mild mannered. However, that woman awakened a less than desirable side of me. I really need better self-control,” Champ assured me, an earnest look on his face.
“It’s still your fault, Champ. But, everything makes more sense now. Still, what did she play on? You adopted a whole new persona, unless….,” I realized something.
“Yeah, not my proudest moment,” Champ admitted, cleaning his glasses.
“You’ve read way too many books, Champ,” I remarked.
“I am guilty, Tomo. Engrossing myself into a character or an exciting storyline, a book’s most powerful weapon. She exploited my weakness and I wasn’t strong enough to realize the error of my ways,” Champ said, shaking his head.
“Champ, is she the reason why you came after me so hard?” I connected all the dots.
“Yes, same with Jacque. She’s recruiting people, trying to form a group, I suspect. In fact, she’s probably the reason why Mirei came after everyone. I was just her puppet, saying whatever was on her mind,” Champ replied.
For once, an actual productive talk, who would have thought? Champ was an easy person to speak with, honest about himself. Wish it was that easy for people like Zhuyu, it’d make honing and copying powers so much easier.
“Tomo, anything else? I’ve already admitted how broken I am. Maybe more secrets about myself?” Champ chuckled.
“That’s enough from me for now. Just remember Yuka likes the person she met at the bookstore, not the dumbass puppet you were,” I reminded him, returning back to Tess.
“Ah, welcome back. You did well, Tomo,” Tess remarked, brushing off the sand from her pants.
“You did that on purpose,” I remarked.
“Maybe you’re finally getting to know everyone better. It’s up to your interpretation,” Tess said.
Ichaival and Bartholomew returned, carrying a pile of sticks and large branches. I didn’t see any signs of outward hatred between the two. A good sign?
“Four sandcastles, huh? Tess, you’re a madwoman. Hm, where’s Champ?” Bartholomew questioned.
“I saw him walking off somewhere,” I revealed.
“He had a lot on his mind. You sure he’s fine by himself?” Lionel’s protégé placed his pile down.
“Tess, are we trying to cook something?” Ichaival inquired.
“Correct. However, not all of the sticks and branches are for that purpose. Why don’t the two of you search around for anything edible? Tomo, come over here, assist me with this,” Tess ordered.
She pulled out a knife from the back of her belt, tossing it to me. She pointed at the branches, instructing me to cut them into smaller pieces.
“What am I doing this for again?” I asked, peeling off the exterior layer.
“Reinforcing the sand castle,” Tess answered, building a stone wall.
“Tess, are you messing with us just for the fun of it?” I asked, shaving off the bark.
“At times. However, sending Ichaival and Bartholomew off together serves a purpose. My sand castles are just a pastime. It has no real meaning other than for my own personal enjoyment,” Tess replied, placing the finishing touches on one of the buildings.
“Is that why you picked this place?” I brushed the wood shavings off my shirt.
“Would you prefer a rugged terrain filled with steep cliffs and neglected, rotten bridges?” Tess offered an alternative.
“This place is awesome! You think Bartholomew and Ichaival are getting along?” I asked, handing a finished stick over to her.
“I believe in time they will grow to be strong partners. Maybe even better than his partnership with Shigetzu. It’ll take time though, which we do not have much of. If Ace can prolong it, I would prefer that,” Tess answered.
“Really? Seems hard to top his chemistry with Shan, considering they’ve known each other for several years,” I remarked.
“We’ll see. Darryl and Bartholomew will be solid together. Let’s hope my prediction comes to fruition,” Tess said, taking her shoes off and then stepped into the water.
“What about Champ?” I asked.
“With no external influences clouding his mind, he will show his true worth. The newfound powers he develops may prove useful to the two,” Tess replied, splashing water onto her face.
Ichaival and Bartholomew returned, carrying fruit in their arms. Tess pointed at the water. The false archer stared at the Gatekeeper in confusioon. Bartholomew nodded in understanding and a fishing pole appeared in his hand. A cat design bobber was attached at the end. I stared at it and noticed the cat’s mouth actually opened and closed.
“Tess, I can’t do that. I’ll let Bartholomew handle it,” Ichaival said.
“You are capable, Darryl. Tomo, show him how it’s done,” Tess instructed.
I pondered for a few seconds and stared out into the water, searching for fish. I located a shadow and created a portal. Another one opened up besides me and water spilled out from it along with a flopping fish.
“Tess, is that what you had in mind?” I picked up the fish.
“Good job, Tomo. Darryl, you know what to do. We’ll only need six fish. Champ should be returning soon,” Tess complimented.
“Yeah, I can do taht,” Ichaival nodded.
The two completed Tess’ quota within a few minutes. The sky now turned a faded orange, evening arriving. I swear we hadn’t even been here that long. Bartholomew built a fire pit, cooking the fish over it.
“Bartholomew, you have a lot of experience,” I noted.
“I like camping and my family always goes on trips to the back country whenever they’re free,” Bartholomew revealed, handing a finished fish over to me.
“Thanks. Tess, shouldn’t we be looking for Champ? He’s been gone for a pretty long time,” I suggested.
“Tomo, do you mind searching for him? Or would you rather have Darryl or Bartholomew do it?” Tess asked.
“I can do it. Ichaival and Bartholomew have been walking around the whole day so it’s my turn now,” I replied, handing my fish over to Tess.
“Be careful, Tomo,” Tess warned.
I followed his footsteps, eventually hearing sounds of heavy breathing.
“Champ, is that you?” I called out.
I saw a shadow bounding in that direction. I followed it and saw Champ collapsed on the ground. A small cat jumped on top of his stomach, purring.
“Champ, you good?” I bent down, shining my torch light in his face.
“Yeah, I’m okay. Just exhausted. You know the way back?” he asked.
“This little guy will take us back,” I answered, pointing at the cat.
“Bartholomew, huh? He’s not a bad guy. Mind giving me a hand?” Champ requested.
I hauled Champ up. The cat guided us back and soon the bright fire Bartholomew started was in our sights.
“How long has your cat been following me?” Champ asked, accepting a grilled fish from the man.
“After your talk with Tomo. Come on, don’t hold it against me. You’re still my teammate, man,” Bartholomew answered.
“No, I really appreciate it. Thanks, Bartholomew,” Champ said.
“No problem, man. Hey, you’re finally starting to be yourself again. Tomo helped you out after all,” Lionel’s protégé remarked.
“Tess, we leaving soon? It’s already pretty dark,” I questioned.
“In time, Tomo. Let’s sit down and stare at the fire. Enjoy it,” Tess directed.
This was a nice reprieve from the grind of schoolwork. Tess stood up, staring out into the darkness.
“Champ, have you arrived at a decision yet?” Tess asked, sitting back down.
“Yeah. I’ll go along with these two. Might as well learn a few things and figure out what my role is,” Champ answered, a calm look on his face.
“Good, you’ve arrived at an answer,” Tess stated.
“Took awhile but I just need to get over it. I’m just a pathetic bookworm in the end,” Champ said with a chuckle.
“You are able to fight, even with new powers. Although it is presumptuous of me to assume you’ll relinquish your current power. The choice is yours,” Tess said, staring at him.
“Tess, I’ll do it,” Champ agreed.
“Good, I’ll set it up for you along with Jacque tomorrow,” Tess said.
Late Afternoon, Spring Break Day 5
“Tomo, I would like for you to accompany me tomorrow. Both Ace and Mirei expect answers from you on Sunday. I will be by your side the entire time that day,” Tess informed me before I headed out.
“Oh, for Champ’s thing?” I asked.
“Yes and Jacque as well. Until tomorrow,” Tess said, siting down at a table and checking her tablet.
I entered my car and realized something. Oh yeah, Jacque. Tess probably handled it, right? To drive the man or abandon him? No, I couldn’t do that. Jacque already suffered enough. I rather not cause him any more troubles if possible. I headed back inside, waiting for Shan and the others to return.
“Jacque, let’s go,” I greeted him as he returned from his excursion.
“Oh s***, you actually waited? You’re awesome, Tomo. I thought you might have gone home already,” Jacque remarked.
“I was thinking about it,” I admitted.
“I would have driven Jacque back. Ksi, you need a ride?” Shan offered.
Ksi shook her head, leaving without a word. Great team chemistry there. Already saw the potential.
“Bro, she didn’t even say anything. Damn,” Jacque observed.
“She’s not use to us yet. Don’t worry, she’ll get there. Tomo, Darryl already leave?” Shan questioned.
“Yeah, he did. Wait, didn’t you drive him here? He’s probably outside waiting for you,” I recalled.
“Yeah, probably is. Better check this first,” Shan decided, tapping his phone.
“Bro, really?” Jacque stared at the older man.
“It’ll just be a minute or two. He can wait. Don’t worry about him,” Shan replied.
As I neared my house after dropping Jacque off, I saw Yukie on the porch. She held a camera, pointing it at the street.
“Yukie, what’s going on?” I called out, opening the car window.
“Ah, Yuki. I’m installing a security system and currently determining which angles are the
most vulnerable,” Yukie revealed.
“Good luck with that. I’ll be in my room if you need me for anything,” I said.
I sat down in my office chair, spinning around. I wonder how Ace would contact me. Actually, I was pretty scared of her potential methods. No use dwelling on it. Like Tess, I’m sure Ace would make her presence known when required. If anything, Mirei was a bigger threat because of her proximity to me.