Gael and Veris stood outside of the room. Veris looked down from the balcony to the wide main hall of the ground floor. He knew what was going to happen next – what he should do next. He looked at Gael who was staring at the room’s door, folding his hands, calm.
They were waiting for the others to come back out. Felaris said if they didn’t emerge from the room fifteen minutes later, Gael and he were to leave the place and acted as if nothing happened the next day. If those three powerful girls couldn’t get out from whatever they faced inside the room, Gael and Veris wouldn’t stand a chance. Gael wasn’t a Fighter. Veris wasn’t cut out to be one.
Veris sighed. He also wasn’t cut out to be a spy. What was he thinking when he volunteered to check on the Natron’s office? How could he be so reckless, when recklessness wasn’t in his nature? He could feel the hotness of the tattoo etched on his chest. He hated it. He feared what they could do to him – what they could prevent him from doing. He was so weak. What was the point of being smart if you could easily be manipulated? Stupid, stupid Veris.
Gael took out his watch. ‘It’s been twenty minutes already,’ he said. ‘They’re supposed to be here.’
‘We should go,’ Veris replied, turning his attention to the wooden stick lying on the floor behind Gael. He rubbed his arm. He was the one who had put it there, long before they reached the office. ‘We’ve waited more than we should. If we wait here any longer, whoever stopping those girls inside would reach us.’
‘Or maybe we should help them,’ Gael said. He sounded confident – too confident. ‘With the element of surprise, we can catch whoever fighting them inside off-guard.’
‘I don’t know, Gael. What’s your plan?’ Veris said, slowly reaching the wooden stick. Gael and he weren’t good in fighting, but he knew for sure he was better at it than Gael was.
‘We’re cloaked by a powerful artifact,’ Gael said, his back still on Veris. ‘Even if we couldn’t take down the enemy, we could still escape. I say we take the risk. At least we know what we’re facing against, even if we have to get away from the enemy. Your Lio-blessing and my – ’
‘I’m sorry, Gael,’ Veris whispered as he raised the stick, poised at striking Gael’s head.
The stick was about to reach its target when Gael suddenly turned, his eyes shockingly sharp. Swiftly, he kicked Veris’s stomach, pushing him away.
‘So this is what’s going to happen this time,’ Gael said softly. ‘You can’t possibly think you can attack me from behind – but then again, I can’t blame you.’
What happened? Tears started to dwell in Veris’s eyes as he thought about what he should do to Gael – what he was forced to do. He rubbed his chest. The tattoo was getting hotter and hotter. ‘I’m – I’m so sorry, Gael. I have to do it. Please. Surrender yourself. The church – it’s bigger than all of us. We can’t fight it. I failed, Gael. Can’t you see?’
‘Traitor,’ Gael said, venom in his voice. He uttered a spell. Fire formed in his wand, long and moving.
Veris’s eyes widened, so shocked was he that he couldn’t react to the whip of fire thrown at him, wrapping around him and pulling him towards Gael. All of this – all of this was impossible.
‘H – how?’ he said as he felt the whip tightening around him. He was forced to drop the stick due to the pressure.
‘I’m not Gael,’ Gael said, before punching Veris’s head, turning the world into pitch black.
Veris opened his eyes, then winced. He rubbed his head, soothing the pain drumming there. When it subsided, he opened his eyes again, now slowly. Light came to illuminate the surrounding, and the first face he saw was of Gael. But was he the real Gael? Gael couldn’t summon fire.
Gael glanced at him with disinterested eyes. ‘You tried to knock me out. Thank Xesar we followed Mr. Haifei’s plan.’
Veris tried to get up, but pain pressed down his body. He could still feel the heat of fire. His eyes took the wall of the room. It was painted scarlet. Where was he? Turning to Gael, he focused on Gael’s words.
‘What… what do you mean with Mr. Haifei’s plan?’
Gael paused for a few seconds, then sighed. ‘He told Gael and me to keep it as a secret. It was an emergency plan, in case your plan failed.’
Veris frowned, trying to grasp his words. ‘Gael… and you? What are you...’
‘You’re supposed to be the smart one. I’m Ilami, Veris. Not Gael. Both of us swapped places.’ Gael – Ilami? – stared at the wall. ‘I was against it – there was no sure I was going to let Gael entered the office. But he agreed to it in an instant. What a stupid boy.’
Veris smiled dryly. That was how Gael could sense his attack, something a Scholar fight wasn’t trained to do. The fire spells – of course. He should’ve seen it.
Ilami – he would call her that, despite the disguise – leaned forward. ‘Now, tell me. Why did you attack me back there?’
‘I –’ as he was about to say it, the tattoo on his chest burned him. He screamed as if a drop of hell fire touched the skin. ‘I – I cannot tell!’ he managed to say, before the pain subsided. He rubbed his chest, covered by his shirt.
Ilami was quick to push his hand away and pulled the shirt down. The sight of the tattoo – now turning dark red – was in full view. She kept her silence, as if she’d seen it before. Had she checked his body when he was unconscious? ‘What is this?’
Veris sobbed. He wanted to say this was a curse, put by the Church to silent him, to force him to do whatever they said. He was caught when he tried to sneak into the office. He thought no one was around there when all of a sudden the door was pushed open and a priest quickly bound him with his Lio spells. He shouldn’t have done it. He shouldn’t overestimate himself. Now, he couldn’t do anything. He was useless. In their group, his presence was unnecessary.
Be a Fighter. Make me proud, at least for once. Father’s words, thick with disappointment, rang at his ear.
Useless. Useless, useless Veris.
‘Crying won’t help you,’ Ilami said, watching him humiliate himself. She stood up – the movement so swift and effortless, so unlike Gael – and started to leave the room.
‘Wait!’ Veris said. Ilami wasn’t his favourite person, but he preferred to have a company in a place no one knew. ‘Where are you going? Don’t you worry I could somehow escape?’
Ilami snorted. ‘No, I don’t worry at all.’ Then she left, the door clicking.
Veris fell back on the bed. The room had no window. He could chant a few Lio spells to push the door open… but he didn’t feel like doing it. He was sure guards stood watch outside the room; he wouldn’t be able to take them down. Heck, he failed to bring Ilami – who was supposed to be Gael – to Kestari, but at least he wasn’t within their reach. He was useless to them now, and despite knowing Ilami could make him suffer for his traitorous role in the group, he felt at peace with that. He deserved it. That was the only thing he deserved.
He rubbed his chest. He needed to remove it. He just didn’t know how. No, he did – for every legendary artifact, there would always be its counterpart. Like Haka’s artifacts, Farava’s twin bracelets – one to drain energy, one to supply it. He sighed. The problem was, such counterpart would be in Kestari’s possession. That Natron was one of the few people he knew that had a large storage of artifacts.
And he was Lio’s priest. Veris rubbed his eyes. He didn’t feel good about his god right now. If he were a religious person, he’d worship Xesar or Wermin – those who were blessed by them, like Ilami, Felaris and Seya – turned out to be fierce Fighters.
But Haka is too, a part of him whispered. Urgh. Haka be damned. He didn’t want to think about Haka or what had happened between him and Gael. He needed to think of something else.
At least Ilami managed to stop him before he did something bad. He closed his eyes. He would help her. Hopefully, after all of this was over, he could forget about this and moved on with his life. He was just tired. He was tired being played and pressured by others. He had enough doing what others asked of him.