Chapter 2: My Will
The guard feigned ignorance and left without another word. The door clicked shut, and I felt a strange foreboding pierce through my spine.
He should have killed me, but he didn’t. They had given us translation runes, but why? How did that help them?
I shook my head—no point in pondering. ‘I just need a plan.’
I looked toward the people who the guard had called “chosen.” They each wore different styles, and the colors came together to make the dull room look quite gaudy. One lady wore a hat that featured a tower of pillows. She matched my gaze then snorted.
Another, a little girl around the age of ten, looked at me in horror then quickly hid behind a boy by her side. He gazed at my clothes and his brow wrinkled.
I looked at my clothing or what was left of it.
‘Is this all my blood? Do humans have that much?’
I began to feel faint, so I lifted my hand to rub my temple. Grime.
‘It must be from…no…not that. I don’t remember…I don’t want to-
‘I must have fallen asleep on the pavement…by a pile of trash. That was it.’
Laughter rang. It came from the right side of the room. There the most flamboyant of chosen held either handkerchiefs, fans, or sleeves over their mouths. Arrogance glinted within their eyes, matching the shimmering of their jewelry.
But the left side was different. They snorted, nothing less and nothing more. No diamonds flashed around them, and they wore no flowing clothes. Streamlined and efficient—just like their muscles. Standing tall, a young man who was a bit older than me used his thumb to push up on the hilt of his sword. The base of the blade came unsheathed, and he narrowed his eyes at me.
‘Was that a challenge or a threat?’
I turned my head away, and it was the people in the middle of the room who seemed most pitiable. Neither strong nor rich, all devoid of pride and confidence. I belonged there, but I saw it in their eyes…
Mocking humor. They too looked down upon me.
I sighed. There was something about me that never failed to irk people.
I froze; a figure caught me from the corner of my eye. Something about him attracted my attention, and he leaned against the far wall. His hood covered his face in shadows, but the black robe was missing its sleeves. His arms, which were pale white and rather delicate for a boy, were crossed in front of his body. A vain attempt to appear tougher, as his nervous shifting betrayed his cool demeanor.
I felt his gaze, and due to his odd nervousness, I approached him. His body jolted upright; his eyes, a strange flash beneath his hood, diverted to the side. The closer I walked, the further he inched and the more he pulled at his own skin. Soon, I was next to him.
“Scram,” he mustered in a cold voice, but I disregarded it and looked him up and down.
Five and a half feet tall, neither bony nor muscular, somewhat delicate…his build was like mine, but I was a couple inches taller.
‘But what’s with his hood?’ I thought. Except for the light of his eyes, I couldn’t see his face at all. It was a blur.
“My name’s Kaiden,” I said.
The boy grabbed my collar and pulled my face close to his. His fist twisted my shirt, and I thought I heard a small sound of disgust escape his lips.
“Who are you?” he asked.
“No.” His grip tightened, causing my collar to dig into my neck. “Who are you?
Why was I always pushed around?
I replied, “I don’t understand.”
“You can’t fool me.” He pulled me closer, and I smelled a faint fragrance on his body. “Who sent you, and how did you find me?”
‘He’s so paranoid…’
I shrugged. “Love sent me, and your glorious perfume dancing in the wind called out to me to ask for my hand in marriage.” A poor joke. A very poor joke, and I must have sounded like an idiot.
The boy gasped, and whatever was left of his nervous shifting vanished. His arms trembled: I felt his rage and a deep murderous heart. He released my collar then gave me a hard shove. I stumbled, and he turned his back to me. He walked away, muttering something beneath his breath.
I hit the ground, and the chosen laughed. Their voices were loud and clear without shame. I was a spectacle to them in the same way I was a spectacle to my classmates. And that kid with the crooked nose; oh, how he hated me…
“Hey, you little dirtface! Why don’t you-”
No. Not those memories. They’d lead to others…
“Kaiden, you should have-”
My chest ached, heart constricting. Where was my denial and courage when I needed it? I would never see my parents again or live the life I wanted. It was already over.
‘Death is all that awaits me; why remember my failings?’ I didn’t want to…
I lifted my hand to my eye—to check for tears. None, and my face hadn’t moved. I still wore that indifferent expression, the mask that nothing was wrong. Calm and collected.
But the chosen were laughing. An instant had passed for them but an eternity for me.
‘That’s right… I have a second chance. I’ll live my life, and those who cannot see my worth are nothing more than insects beneath my feet.’
I smiled. The chosen were disgusting with their smug smiles and discriminatory groupings. Their childish sneers made me want to puke, and they weren’t worth my time.
I turned around and chased after the paranoid boy. He was either lost in thought or ignoring me, but either way I grabbed onto the collar of his robe. He gasped and I pulled him close the same way he had done so to me.
“We’ll be dead by sunrise,” the words left my lips, and I felt a heavy burden leave my chest. Had it always been there?
The boy swatted my hand then adjusted his black robe. “Why haven’t you tattled?”
“We’ll be dead by sunrise,” I said again but with more articulation.
“I heard you the first time.” He pulled away. “Are you here to help? Who sent you?”
“We need to escape. They’ll kill us. I’ve already been to death’s door, and I don’t want to die.”
His foot tapped against the floor. “You have a plan?”
His arms crossed. “Can you cast magic runes?”
I shook my head. ‘So he knew something about runes…’
“Do you have any stone runes?” he asked.
“Just a translation rune.”
“No,” I replied.
The boy gave a loud sigh and made to leave. A false pretence. There was nothing about it that hid his poorly schemed ploy. It made him look childish, but something about the action made him likeable.
“My soul rune,” I said with a light smile.
His head whipped around, and he asked in a smug voice, “Oh. Is it combat based?”
“Then what? I’ll make use of it.”
‘He isn’t going to like this,’ I thought. And, I could be wrong…
“Translation,” I told him.
He gasped then slowly looked me up and down. “You’re useless!”
What was he expecting? He didn’t even know the whole story…I was uncoordinated, failed every test, and lost every game whether they be based on strategy or luck. My lack of talents should’ve been a unique skill.
My self-esteem plummeted to an all time low, but I remained prideful. I snorted at him and returned an insult—something I had never done.
“What about you? I don’t see you doing anything useful.”
“I’m really good with runes,” he said, and to my grief he boasted. “I’m well educated and can speak three languages. I know proper court etiquette and others praise me for my grace. Everyone envies my skills in poetry, dance, and song. My footwork is extraordinary.”
I resisted the urge to make a sarcastic comment about modesty. “So what about your soul rune?”
He chuckled. “Everyone loves me. No man can resist my charm: be it friend or foe, male or female.”
“What?” My eyes widened; his egotism knew no bounds. It far outstripped his paranoia.
The egotist placed his hands on his hips. I could almost feel his pride radiating off his body.
“Think about it. If no one sent you, why would you come talk to me? Aren’t I your favorite person in this whole room?”
He was ridiculous, but it seemed true. Was that why I thought I needed him? Why he had caught my eye despite standing by the far wall? He had yanked at my collar and insulted me, but I felt no hatred towards him.
“You’re obnoxious,” I spat, angry at myself for failing to dislike him.
‘My mind is mine,’ I thought, but soon mixed feelings surfaced on my heart. Shame. Relief. Disgust. Exhilaration.
‘How could I say that he’s obnoxious when I don’t believe it?’
Others had deserved it more.
“What?” the egotist gasped. His body shook, nearly collapsing to the floor in dramatic splendor.
I extended my hand to help but then pulled it back just as quickly.
‘He’ll be endlessly adored because of his soul rune,’ I told myself. This egotist needed to be knocked down from time to time.
I smiled, and it became all too transparent that there was something wrong.
This wasn’t me—or was it? Everything had become jumbled: ‘who am I?’
“You’re obnoxious,” I repeated. Happily.
I watched as the words did a final strike. The egotist tumbled to the floor. He landed with a loud thud, and then he gripped his stomach.
My eyes widened. At first he chuckled, but then he laughed like a raging lunatic.
No, his laughter wasn’t harsh or malicious. It was oddly serene, and each breath carried a deadly charm. A siren’s song.
The room fell dazed. All the chosen stood still with blank expressions, but their eyes were filled with longing. Of what, I didn’t know.
“Kaiden,” said the egotist. He was still sitting on the floor, but now he was gazing at me. Our eyes must have met, as he then said, “I like you.”
My heart skipped a beat then began to thump wildly within my chest. I mustered the will to resist, but then a thought crossed my mind. I had imagined his smile.
A shiver shot down my spine, but with it his powers vanished.
‘This guy’s dangerous…and weird.’
The egotist stood up, unaware of my thoughts. He brushed off his robe as though nothing had happened.
“Time to go,” he said. “They’ll be dazed for a while longer.”
He grabbed my arm as he would a teddy bear—arms wrapped around it. He pulled me forward to the wooden door on the other side of the room. Only now did I realize that there was no one guarding it.
The egotist lifted his hand, and the tip of his finger glew with a faint light. He traced it through the air and drew a white rune. “Fifty-fourth Room” it had read before it vanished.
The door swung open, and the boy pulled me inside. Looking behind us, he stuck his head through the doorway. Upon seeing the chosen still dazed, he slammed the door shut.
I looked around the new room. Grime was nowhere to be seen, and paintings hung freely and orderly against spotless stone walls. Even a lush blue carpet covered the floor. There was a matching chair, too. And a cluttered table.
‘So the runes control the doors…’
“Hey,” the egotist called for my attention. He hustled to a small wooden bookcase then crouched by its side. He pushed against it and it moved, revealing a small passageway. Stale air rushed into the room.
“Don’t stand there like an idiot.” He waved his hand at me. “Hurry up and go in first.”
My brows furrowed. “If you could control the doors, why’d you go to where they gathered the chosen? Are you really trying to escape? And why would they wait till sunrise to kill us? Was there even a purpose to summoning us?”
I stuck my hand into my pocket and pulled out the translation rune. “Why did they give these to us?”
The egotist lowered his head. I kept a watchful eye on him and observed his every action—from the frowning of his brow to the biting of his lip.
“I don’t know,” he said after a long pause. He looked down the small passageway, but he sounded sullen. “It’s what the prophecy said.”
‘He knows as much as me…’
The egotist lifted his hand. “Let me see the rune.”
I tossed it to him, but although my aim was off, he still caught it with a quick outreaching of his arm. He turned the rune over in his hand, observing every inch.
“Nothing seems wrong, but just in case…” his voice trailed, and he moved his right index finger around the stone in a spiral motion, creating faint lines within the air. The lines soon transformed into chains that hovered just above the rune. After a single breath, the chains shrunk and shattered the stone into small bits.
I gulped at his display of force: ‘What would happen if he did that to my finger out of annoyance?’ I pulled my hands closer to my body.
The egotist didn’t see my actions. He only stared at the broken pieces, and the light of his eyes beneath his hood dimmed. His thoughts seemed to drift to another time.
Leaving him be, I raised my hand to the wooden door. I closed my eyes.
‘I’m not sure if this’ll work…’
I tried to image the rune for “Exit.” Nothing came to mind, but then I thought “Fifty-fourth Room” and a complex symbol appeared in my head. The same happened for “First Kitchen.”
Some time passed as I thought of different words that would lead us out of this place.
The closest word that came to mind was “Main Entrance.” It was tempting, but I doubted anyone would leave the entrance unguarded. It might even bring us to a group of people.
I wasn’t the smartest, but I also wasn’t that foolish.
‘A back door maybe? Got it! “First Garden.”’
“What are you doing?” asked the egotist.
I opened my eyes and gave him a sly smile. It wasn’t an exit, but it was close enough.
I moved my finger to imitate the scribbles of the rune. To my disappointment no light appeared to make a glowing trail.
“Give up.” The egotist shook his head. “It’s not some random lines. It’s a complex system of movements based on the callings of the soul and the breath of the earth.”
I scowled at him and tried again. I knew the symbol. I just needed to inscribe it, but they had made it look so effortless.
“A person with average talent needs ten years to learn how to use magic runes. I myself took three,” said the egotist. I was amazed that he could boast at a time like this.
I nodded to myself, ‘I was right to call him an egotist.’
“You’ve got a white core,” the egotist continued. “You can’t cast runes. At best you can use common stone runes. Anything else is out of your reach. But as for me, I can use runes far exceeding my level.”
His words ignited my spirit. I refused to admit that I was talentless in everything. Even if I was, I needed to try my best.
Clenching my teeth, I focused on the symbol that I wanted to write. In my mind it seemed elusive as if there was something more to its outward appearance. I shut my eyes and forced the rune to become more clear.
I felt it…the difference.
Suddenly, an ancient word resounded within my ears. My eyes shot open. Everything was in monochrome, and the world turned silent.
My finger moved fluidly, leaving a crimson trail within its wake. Every curve and turn looked alive as if it held the breath of the world. I smiled and let the sensation carry me.
The egotist’s voice broke through the silence. “Impossible,” he whispered.
The rune slowly formed, and as I wrote more, I fell deeper into a trance. Nothing else mattered. Time slowed. An archaic energy pulsed within my body.
One beat…two beats…three beats…
Everything stopped; I had completed the last loop. The entirety of the rune wriggled alive and squirmed for freedom. It flashed with a bright red vigor then vanished into nothingness.
The door creaked open…
Color returned to my sight, but soon everything blurred. Exhaustion swamped my body and an iron taste filled my mouth. A sudden, sharp pain throbbed near my upper stomach. I tried gripping it with my hand.
I couldn’t reach it—it was within my soul.
My body lurched. I vomited blood. It poured in an endless flow.
Darkness. I felt myself falling.