As a cultivator with body fitness level at the sixth gate of the Seven Stages Of Bodily Refinement, as long as he did not exercise and exhaust himself, Zax could stay awake and energetic for days and weeks.
Early morning, when the Nightly Cover formation gradually deactivated and the cold air of the night condensed to refreshing dew, Zax stood in front the apartment building were Serah and her parents lived.
At some point during the night Zetsa returned to help their parents since she was not tired and for the time being could also stay at home.
Zax, who felt fine outside, remembered that Troel, Serah’s father, leaves to work at an early hour. If Serah’s parents learned of his return from his mom or dad, he might as well see one of them first as a warm up.
A tell figure was coming out from the building’s entrance. On one shoulder the man carried a backpack and his hands he stuffed in the pockets of the coat he wore.
“Good morning, uncle”. Zax waited in a visible place from the building lobby, so as not to startle Troel when he came down.
Troel did see Zax when he came down the last stairs, but the young man outside was not the boy he remembered or imagine that he will meet as he goes to work, so his attention was elsewhere before the young man turned to him.
“Good morning, son, do I know…” It took him but a moment of concentration to recognize the familiar facial feature that matured a lot since last he saw him. “Zax?!”
“Yes, uncle, it’s me”. Zax smiled softly and raised his hand.
The backpack slid from Troel’s shoulder to the ground. Troel slapped Zax’s hand and hugged him. “Brat, you were gone for a few years and suddenly became so formal?” He laughed and released him. Holding his shoulders, he took a good look at the boy that used to spend many weekends at his home, playing with his daughter.
“Walk with me to the bus stop”. Troel picked up his backpack and gestured to the direction he was going.
“Sure, uncle”. Zax said.
“My, Zax, I congratulated your mother and father yesterday for the new baby. They told me that you returned, but it did not occur to me to, at the time, to congratulate them for you, too. Moreover, you also deserve congratulation for being a big brother!” If when he left home Troel still was slightly tired, now he completely woke up and stared at Zax with wide opened eyes.
“Thanks, uncle. You don’t need to go that far. I came back for a few days, to see mom, dad and Liz, my new baby sister”.
“’Liz’, so they kept the ‘Z’ but put it at the end… You know, after you left and your parents began to explain your situation, people…” Troel looked at Zax with a hint of pity. He tilted his head to the road, to not sullen the mood. “Never mind”. He said and changed to subject. “How well your soul training has been?”
“Pretty decent, uncle, better than what most would think, so no need to feel bad for me”. Zax said resolutely.
Since his return, Troel was not the first one to show sympathy for his circumstance. At the hospital, too, there were a few, which despite the cheerfulness, revealed a sorry expression on their faces.
The two arrived to the bus stop. Other than them were two other people that waited on a bench, an old couple.
“Decent is what all of us should aspire to achieve”. Troel said.
Like those at the hospital and any other person in Kingdom Earth, only mist cultivation could move him. That being said, he and no one else were looking down on Zax. At the end of the day, the sort of cultivation that meant anything was only a wishful dream to the common people, and dreams were not something substantial to build one’s life around.
Only those of the high class with either experts in their roots or a lot of money, could afford or had the means to turn dreams to reality.
“You came to see Serah?” Troel asked, though the answer was obvious.
“Yes”. Zax replied. He could find out the answer on his own with his Soul Sense, but refrained from doing so. He rather preferred to see her when both of them stand face to face.
The bus made a turn at the corner of the street and the old couple stood up.
“I’m sorry, Zax. Serah can come home from the dorms only during the weekends”.
This was a possibility within Zax’s expectations. If Serah was accepted to a Martial school, naturally there will be restriction on her free time. And whether it was Serah, Dane, Anet or anyone else from their Earth’s Core searching group, with their beneficial finds, it was clear to Zax that none of them may be at home.
“Did you come just for her, or to see all of the others from your group at the Great Earth’s Core Pursuit?” Troel suddenly asked.
“No, I came to see everyone”. Zax said.
The bus doors stayed opened and Troel was with one leg in, delaying the driver who showed patience.
“…I don’t know for sure about all of you kids, but Serah told me…” He seemed as if a touchy subject was at the tip of his tongue. “Go to Anet, that girl should be home…”
His other leg climbed the step to the bus and the doors closed before he had the chance to say goodbye.
“Of everyone Anet is the one at home…” The one who was accepted to the most prestigious Martial school in El-Eden, one of the three greatest Martial schools in Kingdom Earth, Eden Formation?
Even if back then all she received was a two years scholarship, with the Earth’s Core she possessed and her diligence, acquiring an extension for further years should have been a small matter.
Zax was not impervious to the frown on Troel’s face or the concern in his voice and so he wanted to ask Troel if there was a special reason for Anet to be at home. However, the bus’s doors closed and stopping it was not the same as forcefully stopping a big savage beast.
Of all those who were with him in the same group in the Great Earth’s Core Pursuit, Zax knew where every one of his former friends lived.
He did not hurry to Anet home and took his time walking there. In case Anet was still sleeping, Zax decided to wait for the atmosphere to get livelier before going over to see her.
The apartment building she lived in was not far from their pre Core School which helped Zax to be precise on the current time. The first ring of the school bell was at eight o’clock in the morning; the second was at nine, the third at nine forty five at the fourth at ten.
Zax waited in the park near the school. He could gather his resolve better when he was alone, that was why he did not go home.
Till the fourth ring of the school bell Zax ran in his head all the scenarios that could happen when he will meet Anet. He started them over and over with different opening words each time, facing a surprised Anet, an angry Anet, a thrilled Anet, an impassive Anet and the door to her house…
It was somewhat hard to drag the scenarios farther than the initial encounter, since Zax could not predict how much Anet changed and in what way in the past three years. The Anet in his head was the ten years old girl that first was just another girl in his class and then became his friend through Serah and lastly a friend close to his heart.
The bells finished to ring and the kids in the school’s playground made their way back to class as Zax joined them and left, too, to Anet’s home.
“Yes? Who are you?” A middle age feminine voice asked from the other side of the door.
“It’s Zax Zel, Anet’s friend”. Zax said.
After a bit of quiet the door opened and a woman that looked like a housewife in her late forties stood at the entrance.
“You are Laylen’s son?” The woman asked.
Zax never had been to Anet’s house before. He saw her mother couple of times in the past and she did not change much. He, in contrast, had grown and transformed. Even if she remembered how he looked in the past, she did not recognize him now.
“Yes, Mrs. Lensi”. Zax answered. He did not know Anet’s mother’s name and was not familiar with her enough, like with Serah’s parents, to call her “Aunty”.
Mrs. Lensi gauged the young man in front of her and stepped back. “Come in, Zax”. Opposite from Zax, she, was acquainted with his mother and knew his name.
“Thank you, Mrs. Lensi”.
“My daughter’s friends do not call me ‘Mrs. Lensi’. Call me ‘Aunt Beka’ or ‘Aunty’”. Anet’s mother, Beak, said.
“Ah… okay, aunty”.
Zax surveyed the house with his eyes the instant he entered, searching for Anet.
“Anet is in her home, if you want to see her, I guess you do… She won’t come out…” Beka showed Zax where to go in the house that was fairly big, bigger than his parent’s, at least. She seemed drained and troubled, not in a talkative state of mind like Troel.
Zax nodded and walked through the hallway to the third room on the right.
He knocked but received no answer, so he knocked again.
“Anet… are you wake? It’s Zax”. He said loud enough for her to hear but not wake up if she was asleep.
Beka watched him from the other side of the hallway. “You can open the door, she probably doesn’t hear you”.
Zax looked at her, said nothing and grabbed the round door knob, twisting it clockwise to the right.
A cold, bitter, gloomy environmental essence was perceived by Zax when he opened the door. He frowned and a bad feeling emerged in his heart. ‘What’s the meaning of this aberrant environmental essence?’ He asked himself and looked for Anet.
Sitting on a bed, covered with a blanket up to her knees was a young teenage girl, Anet. Headphones pressed against her unbound blond flowing hair and the Screen in front of her bed was on.
She looked at him and expected to see her mother. When she realized it was not her mother, her eyes widened in distress as if she saw a ghost.
“Anet”. She read his lips since the headphones were on full volume. She kept staring, uncertain, heavily breathing.
Zax walked closer. ‘What’s up?! What’s wrong?!’ She looked like a frightened mouse, cowering.
“Zax…?” She asked in a feeble voice, lowering the headphones and wondering in incredulity.
Of those he called “Friends” Zax considered only seven as true ones, whether they were thinking the same of him today or not. His seven group members during the Great Earth’s Core Pursuit.
‘She is so…’ Zax, in turn, after hearing her pronouncing his name, could not utter a word. He saw the Anet that he remembered in the face of the girl before him, but he also saw another, gorgeous girl that even in her worst days seem capable to bewitch every man, certainly a teenage boy that for the past four years or so secluded himself in training.
“Are you really Zax?!” The mesmerizing girl leaned forward, the rims of her eyes turning red.
“It’s me-” By the time he answered she already made out his mature appearance with his childish one. Her left leg slid from the bed, in one step she closed the distance between them and flung herself at him.
Zax felt his heart pounding. Anet was as tall at him, at most one centimeter difference like his big sister. She clanged to him, buried her sobbing face in his neck, all of her weight was between his arm as if she did not have the power to stand herself.
Outside of the room, at the other side of the hallway, Beka heard her daughter’s voice asking, the blanket falling to the floor and the sobs the boy she let in aroused in her daughter. She silently moved away.
“I’m sorry…” Anet murmured to Zax’s ear while crying, “I’m sorry for not understanding. I’m sorry, I’m sorry”.
‘’Anet, stop!” Zax pulled away her arms and she fell to her knees, holding her face and crying.
‘What is wrong? What in the name of the Supreme Rulers happened to her?!’ Zax grimaced. He sensed that the environmental essence in the room was affected by Anet’s emotional state. He got down on one knee and pulled Anet’s hands, once more, this time from her face.
In the past three years, when Zax reminisced about his friends, not once did he feel toward Anet what he was feeling right now. But what was Anet to him in the past? Third best friend after Serah and Dane, second best female friend after Serah… was that all? No. He never had the same open brother sister relationship with Anet the same way that he had it with Serah. Anet was someone he opened up to much later, in his last year of pre Core School. She was the girl that joined their group, the girl he unjustly resented, the girl whom made him overwhelmed when he realized that he mistreated. The girls which warmed her way to his heart without clarifying her place in it.
In this moment, Anet was the girl which awestricken his teenage heart and solidified her place in it as something first.
To deal with her, Zax had to toughen up. He grabbed Anet’s cheeks softly and raised her hand. “Tell me what happened? Why are you crying?” Whatever it was, Zax had a sensed of obligation to make it vanish.
Anet said nothing. She hid her eyes with her hands and cried and cried.
Zax saw that while in this state he could not get through to her so he waited. After thirty or forty minutes Anet’s emotional crisis gradually subsided.
“Zax”, she called to him. The two of them were sitting on the floor, no longer touching, and she raised her head on her own.
“Hi, Anet”. Zax responded. He wanted to smile to her, to lighten her mood, but could not force himself.
“Hi”, Anet answered back, mostly because she could not think of something better to say, an excuse to justify her actions.
“Why were you crying? How come you at home?” Zax asked. It did not seem right to him and deduced that it had to do with her outburst.
Hearing his questions, Anet began to shake like the moment she saw him on the doorstep.
“Stop shaking, Anet”, Zax grabbed her arm but did not extract force; she already appeared to him too fragile. “Tell me, are you scared of something, someone?”
“I’m sorry, Zax”, Anet replied. “I did not know how painful it was to you back then, how hard it is…”
‘What!’ An implausible thought emerged in Zax’s head. “Did something happen to your Qi… mist channels?!”
“No”. Anet said almost inaudibly, but with reassurance.
“What then is bothering you? Tell me and I’ll fix it!” Whether if for that he came or to simply reconnect with his friends, Zax was determined. Knowing himself and what he was capable, if it is a matter of strength he will gladly comply.
“It won’t do, Zax… you can’t”. In her voice and how she gazed at him, Anet, immerse in despair, saw only the young Zax she could relate with.
“I’ve changed, Anet, I’ve became stronger. I’m not the boy you saw beaten in the Young Mist Users Conference. I can fend for myself and others now!”
“How? You unclogged you Qi channels? Even if you did… you… even big sister Zetsa, is not enough. Please, Zax, I’m sorry, forget about how I am. It happened and it’s over. I’m okay with it”. Although she said it firmly and steadily, tears could not help but spill in two streams from her eyes.
Zax wanted to prove her, yet Anet still had things to say and he chose to not interrupt her. “Don’t pay attention to me. I was just swamped with all kinds of emotions when I saw you. I was thinking of you a lot since… When we were children it was difficult for me to understand the importance of what you lost and why you secluded yourself from others. But when I had to shut myself, to submit… I began to identify with you even if both of us deal with different cases”. Saying so far, Anet finally felt some ease and regulated her breathing.
“From what I hear you still feel sorry for me and now even look down on me”. Zax said sternly.
“No!” Anet yelped. “I’m not, I just don’t want anyone else to get involve and hurt”.
“Anet, I do want to sit with you and tell you everything that happened to me in the past three years, and hear all the things and everything that you experienced. But of those I came back to see, you are the first, and I can’t stand seeing you like this. Even if I can’t do anything about it, tell me and let me decide!” Zax persisted.
Anet lower her head, contemplating. She bit her lips, turned her back to him, pushed her hair to the side and lifted her shirt.
Zax watched her without disruption, however when the shirt was up and her back was expose to him, his eyes turned blood red and his contained killing intent went wild.
On Anet’s back a long and repugnant scar stretched from the back of her neck to her tailbone as if acid spelled on it.
Zax gnashed his teeth. “Who did this to you?!”