Merlin opened his eyes, seeing the morning light shine on him. Soft winds drifted in his room, the curtains swaying with the gentle breeze. He got up, putting his feet on the wooden floor. A stinging feeling made him repulse back. His legs and arms were wrapped with white bandages, some parts still bloodied from the wounds. He was lightheaded, though it wasn’t enough to make him lie back on his bed. Folding his arms, he took some time to contemplate.
The incident from the Forest of Sorrows had happened days ago. The Damorian army pushed the offensive deeper after the explosion. They hunted those shadow monsters down until none were left. He, Layette, and Archimedes recovered Aren after his fight with the Omega. The sight of the aftermath left an impression on them: the peaceful-looking environment surrounding the ruined cathedral was nothing more than a massive crater. Merlin gritted his teeth. He wondered why Aren did not use that same strength to save everyone; he wondered why he couldn’t save Senior when he had the chance. Ill thoughts came through his mind, which tensed his muscles and caused more pain. He let out an annoying sigh and fell back into his bed, staring at the ceiling.
“If I had that power, I would use it to save everyone,” he thought out loud. “What is giving him power: is it the Shawl of Destiny or some other relic? I must get it so I…”
So, he can what, exactly? It was wishful thinking, considering he could barely cast spells at the whim. Compared to his peers at the Academy, he was always one step behind: always limited and never found out the reason.
His room door opened. A woman carrying a bowl of water with some towels on her arm. Merlin’s eyes widened: it was the Head Maester! Pain surged through his body when he tried to get up and he fell back to bed, once again.
“M-Mrs. Gloria, why are you here?” Merlin said.
“You never stop addressing me properly, little one.” She put her hand on his forehead. “You are warmer than usual. Come now, relax. You have been through enough.”
She dipped the towel in the bowl, placing it on Merlin’s head after she squeezed the water out. Gloria lowered her eyes, showing a worrisome look.
“Mrs. Gloria, I can—”
“No need to explain. I was told everything. Only if I knew about the dreadful place, you would not be there.”
Merlin was quiet for a moment. He wanted to ask about Senior’s funeral, though hesitated to inquire. Gloria knew, and so she brought it out as bluntly as possible.
“They found him, the soldiers. Senior was in a horrendous state: pieces of his flesh and bones were all over the grounds. It took some time for them to display a more… appealing form of his deceased body. The Conclave was met with saddening news, but honored his action of duty. His burial session is going as we speak.”
“I wish I can attend but… I doubt I can face Senior again. It is my fault he’s dead. I shouldn’t—”
“It matters not. Stick your head up high and keep his spirit in your heart. What’s done is done.” Gloria shook her head. “He did his duty to protect you. You should be proud of him and honor his legacy by living.”
Merlin laughed awkwardly. “Miss Layette told me that too. Perhaps that’s a sign.”
Gloria sat on the bed, putting his head on her lap. She stared down at him with brown eyes, while her green hair waved along with the wind. It was a peaceful moment for the two, and when she smiled, Merlin couldn’t help but feel embarrassed for being treated this way.
“My, are you flustered?” she said, giggling.
“Come on, let me hear you say it. While we are here alone.”
Merlin’s cheeks puffed up. “Do I have to?”
Gloria smiled, giving him the obvious answer. He opened his mouth and before any words came out, the door opened. It was a middle-aged man with a large scar across his pale-skinned face. He glanced at them with his sleepy, gray eyes, and took out a pipe from his long, white coat. After taking a good puff, he fixed his round-shaped glasses before speaking.
“Gloria, Mr. Merlin,” he said.
“Frank Wolfenstein,” Gloria replied with narrowed eyes.
“How many times I gotta tell you not to call me that. My ears are in pain to hear that many syllables. For the last and many times after this, Stein is fine.”
“What are you doing here?”
“Were you two having a bonding session or something? Well, that’s gotta wait.” Stein pointed his pipe at Merlin. “You assigned me to take care of him, remember? He’s my patient and you already know what my job is. Oh right, I don’t want to appear rude, but I’m kind of in a tight schedule: have to teach a class in ten minutes.”
Gloria cleared her throat, then got on her two feet to approach him in a professional matter. “Ah, yes, forgive my inattention. I will take my leave to do other matters.”
“Sure, sure. Take it easy, Miss Head Maester.” Stein tapped his head with his pipe. “Oh, before I forget, he wants to see you. Apparently, it’s important.”
Gloria bowed and upon the door’s entrance, she waved Merlin goodbye before leaving. Stein gestured his nurses to come inside. He checked on his patient’s injuries and after confirming the infection was gone, his assistants healed the wounds with his guidance. They took off the bandages and Merlin rolled his shoulder.
“How’s it, kid?” Stein asked. “That infection was a nasty b*****.”
“It’s stingy, but it is much better than before.”
“Don’t do anything reckless, all right? My job here is done. She wants you back on your feet as soon as possible. After all, you missed a lot of classes. Homework’s piling.”
“Did you contribute to the pile, Mr. Stein?”
Stein chuckled, placing a stack of papers on the desk near him. “Just a bit. Read the chapters I’ve assigned here and you’ll be swell.”
Stein puffed his pipe, then letting the smoke loose in the room. “Well, I’m off. You’ll be back in class in a day or two, so enjoy it while you can. I got some dissecting to do, tada.”
The doctor waved goodbye and his nurses followed him, closing the door upon exiting the room. Merlin looked outside the window for some time, contemplating on what to do. His stomach growled, and he let out a deep sigh: time for him to dig into some tasty meals.
“How long is it going to take him to wake up? Geez, I hate waiting…”
The moon was close to its peak, and the gentle flame of a candle flickered in the Academy’s infirmary. Layette crossed her arms and glanced at Aren, who was lying in bed in front of her. He had been in a comatose ever since the fight with the Omega. Though she didn’t want to admit it, without his sacrifice, she wouldn’t be here staring down at him today. Her thanks to him would be enough, though her patience was running thin on each passing day. However, that was not the only reason: Aren mentioned something about her changing the course of history. What part of history would she change, what did the future have in store for her? An answer to one of these questions would ease her mind.
She touched her chin. “Destiny, future, heroic qualities… Maybe I am looking too deep into this. He is crazy.”
“Crazy, huh? That’s one way of describing him.”
Layette jumped, falling off from her chair. She looked up, expressing her frustration. It was Frank Wolfenstein, her father’s right-hand man. He helped her up by lending his hand and chuckled.
“Looks like little miss birdie is too busy in her own thoughts. What luck I have to witness the Phoenix of Damore jump up in fright,” he remarked.
“That will not happen again… At least not for a while, Mr. Stein.” Layette sat back down in her chair, sighing. “Since you are one of my father’s closest friends, the lecturing can wait.”
“Now that you mentioned lecturing, I heard about an incident during one of your martial training classes. I know you came to this school to show your skills and pass them on to those with potential, but what you did was—”
“One of the boys called me cute, so I accidentally broke his arm. The session ended early because of my… unrestraint.”
Stein winced. “I don’t think that’s an accident if you did it on purpose.”
“Hehe, go figure,” Layette said, expressing a dumbfounded look on her face.
Stein shook his head, then turned his attention to the sleeping Aren. “Noticed you made a lot of trips to see this patient. Worried about him?”
“Just want to get things out of way. Hate it when I owe people a favor, especially to this brat. When he wakes up, I will say my thanks and walk away.”
“Is that so?” Stein said, grabbing a chair and sat on it backwards. He smoked from his pipe, exhaling the smoke at the ceiling. “You sure it’s not for any other reasons? He seems like a fascinating fellow.”
“He is indeed fascinating… It was very heroic of him to—” Layette blushed and shot up from her seat. “W-W-What are you trying to insinuate, you idiot?!”
“Aren’t you at least curious of his origins? What do you think I was referring to?”
“R-Right, of course,” Layette said, coughing out her embarrassment and settled back down on her chair. “Continue.”
Stein pointed his pipe at certain points of Aren’s body. “Did some research about the Omega. A single strike from it makes your skin melt like butter. From the holes and blood from his shirt, this kid took more than a single hit, yet came out alive. We will have to test his mental state when he wakes, but from what I can tell, he survived to which none other can.”
“What are you trying to say, Mr. Stein?”
Stein came close, grinning devilishly. “He’s not any normal mortal. There must be some secret behind his crazy regeneration, since it is enough to outdo the acids of the Omega. Aren’t you at least curious? We can dissect him and reveal his mysteries out into the world!”
“Um, yes, maybe? May you please back away now?”
“O-Oh, sorry. Got too excited.” Stein smoked from his pipe again, then grunted. “An interesting fellow, that kid is. No wonder why your father is so eager to meet him.”
Layette lowered her eyes. “Yes, though I wonder why.”
“Who knows? Your father keeps a lot of secrets. Perhaps it should stay that way.” Stein patted Layette on her shoulder, then pushed her to the entrance of the infirmary. “Now with that out of the way, you should go to your quarters. It’s around closing time.”
Layette flailed her arms around. “W-W-Wait, what if he wakes up?! I have to be—”
“No buts, no waits. Good evening and day, Miss Hawkwood!”
Stein waved goodbye and closed the door in front of her. She stomped her foot, erupting a burst of fire, then continued down the hall in the same matter. He sighed, using water magic to extinguish the flames.
“Another door falls to the fury of Destro Lady.” He turned to Aren, seeing his eyes flinch. “The sedative’s effects should be gone. Time to get some answers from you.”