A day-and-a-half passed since the confrontation between Merlin and Gloria. Since then, Merlin stayed in his room, locking the door and hiding under his covers. Now and then, he heard the Head Maester’s voice through the door. At first, she was demanding, asking him to open the door at once. After a couple more visits, she approached in a calmer yet heartbroken tone. She could open the door easily, though it seemed as if she wanted to respect his privacy. Tears streamed down from his face and he couldn’t stop crying until he fell asleep. When he woke up, his eyes were still watery and his nose all stuffy from the nonstop weeping.
He still couldn’t believe it. Gloria knew at he was a demon all this time and did not bother help him because of it. Was it why she never tried to find better teachers for him, why she never sought a way to end the bullying he received? Was pity the reason she cared for him? These thoughts clouded his mind as he searched for the reason for his suffering. A knock from the door interrupted his self-reflection.
“Hey, kid.” It was Aren. “How’s it hanging?”
“Is she asking you to open the door so she can come in? I won’t let you!”
“Don’t worry, I’m alone. I got some of this pumpkin pie from the Academy.”
Merlin’s stomach rumbled. “I-I’m not hungry!”
“Come on, you are gonna lose some inches if you’re not eating.”
Merlin hesitated for a moment, but walked up and open the door. Sure enough, it was Aren holding a silver tray of pumpkin pie, a glass of milk, and utensils. He placed the tray on top of a desk as Merlin sat back on his bed.
“You’re lying, by the way. The Head Maester is great at making pumpkin pie. She always makes pastries for me when I’m down.”
“I’m game if you aren’t down to eat the pie. Smells delicious!”
“N-No, I want it!” Merlin rushed over and grabbed the tray. He wolfed down the food. “Opffmahn, it’sswtillteshtsgrate!”
“Hey, no speaking when your mouth is full. Here, drink some milk, then you can talk.”
Merlin took the bottle, consuming the milk in a couple of gulps. After he was finished, Aren set the plate aside, and the two were silent. Aren spoke out first, twiddling his thumbs.
“So, um, that was pretty bold of you to say.”
“To say she wasn’t your mother. I mean, yeah, technically that is the case, but you know what I mean.”
Merlin didn’t reply.
“Your actual parents left you on the streets without your regard. Had she not come that day, you could’ve been starving, struggling to get even a pinch of food for a day. Even when learning about your demonic side, she still raised and cared for you.”
“I know, I know… Still, why didn’t she tell me I was different?” Merlin said with an angry pout look. “If wasn’t for you, I would never have found out nor be able to cast magic. Everyone would still bully me, calling me a stinky deadweight.”
Aren raised his brows, nodding in approval. “Guess so. But I’m sure she isn’t the villain you are portraying her to be. She’s a wonderful mother, for sure.”
“How would you know?”
“She’s the type of person who wouldn’t do things without reason. If I were her, I would probably do the same thing.”
“Why? How can you support her decision?”
Aren flicked Merlin’s forehead. “Think about it, kid. Demons have a tendency to be naturally attuned to mana. Mana is required in magic in order for the spells to work, right? So, putting two-and-two together…?”
“Ow… I-I don’t get it.”
“I was a little vague. They are afraid your demon power might awaken because of the magic casting. She probably would’ve told you that if you didn’t run off while she was trying to explain it!”
Merlin expressed a dumbfounded look. “O-Oh, I see.”
“It’s a hunch, but from my knowledge, it can work that way. To be honest, I never encountered someone like you. That’s big, considering when I was your age, I was fighting them.”
“Y-You’ve seen and fought one before, Mr. Aren?! And what do you mean—”
“AYE, THAT’S RIGHT! I, uh, had a few run-ins with a couple.”
“Can you tell me about it?”
Aren reminisced about the time where he met demons the first time. It was on an icy snow cliff and a blizzard was raging through. The ringing sounds of metal and torn flesh were coming back to him. A faint voice called to him and he heard his own, telling someone to run. Not before long, he felt a sharp unbearable pain in his right eye and had his hand cover it. Merlin noticed his discomfort at the subject. It was best to avoid discussing it further.
“M-Mr. Aren, it’s okay if you don’t want to discuss it.”
“Really now? Not even a hint of curiosity from you?”
Merlin shook his head.
“It’s a pretty juicy story, but all right. Now then, what are you going to do?”
“What do you mean?”
Aren smacked Merlin’s head. “What do you mean ‘what do you mean?’ You and Head Maester, of course! Are you going to hear her out?”
“B-But… After what I said, will she even meet with me?”
“WHAT?! Of course, she will! It’s almost night, so hurry. Don’t you dare come back without making amends to her.”
Merlin said his farewell and went to apologize to the Head Maester. Aren watched the young lad hurrying past the corridors. After he was gone, he let out a deep sigh and stroked his right eyelid. It was years since he last spoke to someone about the demons: a personal story only those close to him would know. Perhaps his parental instincts were kicking in. After all, he was a father of two beautiful daughters. The thought of it gave him a nostalgic feeling. Before he could ponder further into those happy memories, he felt his shoulder tense, as if it were to be grabbed. His back was pinned against the wall and a hand slammed firmly against the wall. Sure enough, it was the person he last wanted to meet: Layette.
“I got you now.”
“Oh, it’s you,” he said.
“You have been avoiding me for several days! And it is by choice!”
“It’s been a busy week so I’ll—”
She leaned in closer. “I. Need. To. Talk. To. You. Understand?”
Aren raised his hands, gesturing her to back off. “All right, all right. Sorry.”
They walked to the nearest courtyard and sat down on a bench. The orange afternoon sky was fading away: the stars above revealed themselves, twinkling in their glory. Aren glanced at her with a raised brow, wondering why she became so silent. After a while, she pointed at the brightest star in the evening azure.
“There’s a story my father always read at bed time when I was young. The story of The Wishing Star. It was about a young girl who was constantly bullied for being the ugliest in her village. Many called her the ugly duckling. One day, while she cried near the river banks, she looked up to see the brightest star in the sky glowing brighter than before. She wished to be lifted from this curse of the face. The star granted her wish, and she became a beauty unparalleled to many. It turns out, she’s actually—”
“Are we here to talk about your fairy tale? As a lovely of a story, it is, but it kinda doesn’t warrant the aggressive behavior from before.”
“B-Be quiet! This is the first time I have ever owed anyone in a long time!”
“Who was the first?”
“My brother, Segenam. Us two, alongside a close friend, Saria, within the Royal Knights, set out to slay a couple of werebeasts on the outskirts of a village. My brother was experienced in the field, whereas it was the first mission me and Saria had ever set out on. We were too reckless and… Saria lost her life because of it.”
She went into her pockets, taking out an ornamented golden coin. “She gave this to me on her dying breath. Since then, I promised myself to get stronger, for her and my sake.”
Aren saw something shine under the moonlight: a golden necklace. “And that golden necklace is hers too?”
“Oh, this? No, it is not.” She untangled the necklace and opened it, revealing a golden carved rose. “To be honest, I don’t know where this came from. I cling onto it like it is important, but the reason is still a mystery to me.”
“Well, I dunno what to say other than you’re weird.”
“You truly have no manners, do you?”
“Sorry, sorry. It was rude, yeah.” Aren looked off into the distance. “It took me months just to get to Damore. The last contact I had with a living creature was a week ago or so. And it was a tortoise, out of all of things it could be.”
Layette was silent for a moment. “It must be hard, traveling alone. I can see why you lack tact in some situations.”
“Heh. All my time spent trying to find the glorious Phoenix of Damore. I thought you would be all that I needed to deter the fate of this world, but you’re just a normal, pretty looking gal. Oh, fate be damned.”
He turned to see her face turning bright red. “What?”
“N-Nothing! R-Right, I have something to return to you.”
She stood up, unbuckling the Jeweled Sky from her belt and handing it over. Aren had his hand over it, but pushed the sword back to her.
“You do not want it?! I can have the sword more decorated and—!”
“No, it’s nothing like that. Think of it as a, um, friendship gift. We started off on the wrong foot and I didn’t intend to end it there. Okay, maybe I wanted to end it, but forget about it: the past is in the past, right?”
She held the sword tight. “Thank you.”
“Glad we were able to have a friendly chat. Is that all you came for?”
She told him about the conversation she had with her father. Thereafter, Aren touched his chin in contemplation. It was not a bad idea, though it relied on Layette’s ability to dish out the information. He didn’t believe she could carry out the plan, so he told her straight off the bat. She stomped her feet and folded her arms.
“W-W-What?! Of course, I could do it! Such a meager task is easily achievable by a person of my standards!”
Aren raised his brow. “Okay, so convince me.”
“Yeah, prove it to me. Let’s pretend I’m this Harley person and you want to know about his motives without being obvious.”
Layette was dumbfounded and was considering how to approach the topic. However, no matter what she thought of, everything she would say was conspicuous. Her body tensed up and her face once again turned bright red in embarrassment. Aren saw this and shook his head.
“See? Talk is cheap. You gotta prove your statements through action, not words, dumb-dumb.” He sighed. “I hope he has a backup plan, cause this ain’t gonna work.”
“Well, do you have anything else to propose?”
Before Aren could open his mouth, an explosion erupted. A stinging pain ran its course through his head: a vision clouded in red aura appeared in his subconscious. Blood forming a pool of blood on Gloria’s lifeless body and a demon staring him back with fiery eyes. He shook his head, regaining his senses.
“Are you okay?” Layette said. “The Academy is under attack! Stay here if you do not fare well. We will continue our conversation later.”
Layette nodded and ran off into the distance. Aren looked up at the tower where the Head Maester’s office would be. He gritted his teeth and made haste to there. Not only he feared the fate of the Head Maester, but what lied after it. That demon could be no other than Merlin. Under his breath, he prayed he would make it in time before it was too late.
Before he could continue, he felt a familiar presence. He turned to see a black hooded figure standing menacingly behind him. “…Oh gods, you’re the one behind this?” he said. “What in hell are you doing?!”
“Forcing a crossroads, dear friend. Both will succumb to their fates. I’ll let you choose between them: the future of the world or the fate of a single young man.” The black hooded man looked up at the sky. “However, you need not to pick. If you use your powers here, you can easily save both, though I doubt that. You’re afraid, ever since their deaths. I did what needed to be done.”
“Damn you!” Aren manifested a mana sword and swung at the black hooded man. His target dissipated into shadows, leaving not a trace behind. He gripped his sword tighter as he gritted his teeth. “I’m sorry, Layette. I will not let a child die for the sake of the world. Not again.”