“Um…So, I was thinking…maybe I shouldn’t go through with this whole tournament. Maybe I should just make some excuse for the teacher and keep my head down.” said Innes. As she sat in an out of the way corner of the outer-courtyard of the academy. Hidden behind some shrubbery. Accompanied only by her pink cat.
“Mhmew?” said the cat. Dozing. Lazily glancing at her with eyes of red crystal.
The girl toyed with a bit of grass. Tearing it up, throwing it away. Her brow furrowing as thoughts quietly whirred in her head.
On the one hand, she knew it’d probably look bad to bow out without trying. Possibly bad enough to get her harshly punished. Though hopefully not bad enough to get her expelled.
Especially after she’d bumped so many other people off of the billing by winning in the class tourney. On the other hand, she’d started to get the feeling that winning like she had, had gotten her too much exposure. That getting even more exposure by fighting in the inter-school tournament would be a bad idea.
In the weeks since the class tests the girl had found herself with uneasy feeling that she was being stared at. It was occurring to her that perhaps she’d done too well. People noticed when she went places now.
There were too many people who were suddenly interested in talking to her. Too many people who suddenly gave a damn about who she was. People, who wouldn’t have paid any heed if she were choking to death right in front of them, just a few months ago, wanted to shake her hand. This was both the reward and punishment of success. For the somewhat misanthropic girl it was more punishment than reward.
If there had been a set of interclass matches or some kind of interclass tournament, she’d have likely backpedalled a bit by purposefully losing. Unfortunately for the girl, Dusk-Sea Academy was one of those schools and sects, that believed in collecting only jewels in hopes of finding “real” treasures, rather than just collecting whatever and hoping for rare finds.
A small establishment that focused its efforts on cultivating a small bumper crop of excellent seeds. Purposefully being choosey from the outset because they didn’t have the leeway to try developing just anyone who came through their doors.
As such the leadership of the school saw fit to forgo having an interclass competition and just skip ahead to the inter-school tournament. So long as one ranked well in the tournament it would be enough to be counted as a core student of the Academy. The rewards from the both the school and the inter-kingdom union of sects and schools that hosted the tournament would be rich. And fame and fortune beyond reckoning would showered on those who stood out, for the next five years.
Which, speaking quite frankly put the girl in a bit of a bind.
Innes Kaufman was a girl who did best in the shadows. Someone who much preferred just being another face in the crowd. Nothing good had ever come from her being noticed or pointed out.
It was the taller trees that caught the most wind and the highest mountains that were struck by the most lightning after all. This was something that the girl had already learned long ago. And as if the world thought that she needed a refresher she’d been forced to spend almost every other day of the last month or so, receiving and answering challenges. Called to duel with her position in the tournament as the stake.
In a perfect world she would have been able to throw the fight and lose in the very first duel that came her way.
Unfortunately the world was not that simple. And while the climate and the stakes had never been so extreme as they were in this world, her old school and her current one ran with similar rules. Rules that she was slowly starting to realize would probably still be in effect in the world at large as was often the case for the more cogent life lessons one learned in school.
It would have been fine if she’d just passed that first class test normal. It would probably have even been fine if she’d failed it. She was still just a first year and there’d have been time to recoup the loss.
What wouldn’t be fine is losing, now that’d she’d already stood out as a contender. Throwing away all the face and status that she’d inadvertently bought herself by becoming one the champions of Teacher Markel’s hall and one the treasured young seeds of the school.
As the saying went, it was sometimes better to just be a soul in purgatory than to try and fly out and fall into hell.
Those flights often made one many enemies. People who were jealous. People who were angered. People who swore revenge for the perceived slight that came with being surpassed. One couldn’t climb over others without at least seeming to step on the heads of the people below after all.
It would have been different if she was a “somebody” but even with her relative success and new popularity the girl was still more or less a nobody.
As a commoner, a stranger that the academy invited in from out of the wastes, her status was too thin. A thin status that grew too bright and then allowed itself to grow dim would be crushed like a firefly.
In short all those entitled sons and daughters of heaven. The young heirs and heiresses from the local clans and families who challenged her, had done it with the intent of using her as a stepping stone. Something to push into the mire while they climbed to the heights that were theirs by birth.
Thus she fought and won, every single last duel she was challenged to. While it was no sin for a person to try and progress, stepping backwards was a sign of weakness. A drop of blood in the water that would draw every single person who thought it in their interests to tear her apart. And in this world that likely would be literal.
Falling now, would mean falling out of the Academy’s good graces and falling out of the Academies good graces could well be fatal for her.
Innes wasn’t sure that she could trust that the retaliation of the foes she’d inexplicably managed to collect for herself would stop things at just some petty pranks and some bullying.
She had a gnawing sense that any attempt to step down from the humble height that she’d inadvertently climbed to could cost her.
And knowing that even this much success and attention had turned out to have such dire consequences she couldn’t help being afraid of what would happen if she did rank well.
It goes without saying, that she was aware of how egotistical she was being here. Being presumptuous in the extreme. There was no guarantee that she’d rank at all, never mind ranking well.
But somehow going and not doing well in the tourney didn’t sit well with her. In all likelihood throwing the towel there would be the same as throwing the towel in any of the duels she’d been challenged to. A catastrophic step backwards that would bring her to the edge of a social cliff.
And Her experiences in her old world had taught her that false humility was just another type of arrogance. One had to be objective about ones strengths and witness if one wished to go far in life.
And if the girl was being objective…she knew that in all likelihood, if she seriously competed in the tournament, while she wouldn’t necessarily be able to win. She’d definitely be able to place. Climbing over thousands of others to reach the top at the minimum.
The leveling system may not have supplied any actual stats besides talent points and levels, but one didn’t need them to know ones strength. If one fought and trained long enough one would eventually learn from experience just how far their fists could carry them.
The Little Pink Master’s Dream Time Tutoring sessions and her jaunts in the deep wastes, Wandering in territories that warrior who held levels several ranks above her own, wouldn’t dare wander on their own, made her certain of it.
Even if two thirds of her survival in those dire circumstances was down to the buffs and equipments bestowed upon her by her master, she was certain that the widening level gap between her and the foes that she could fell was an indication of how strong she was getting.
In other words, she felt certain within a seventy-five percent safety margin that her results in the inter-kingdom/ inter-school tournament would be more than average
Results that would increase the spotlight that hung above her head and the number of eyes that turned towards her direction.
Results that would reduce her ability to live as peacefully and inconspicuously as she’d prefer.
Innes sighed. Feeling fatigued already despite the fact that the actual tournament was still days away. Weeks even.
“What do you think, sir? Maybe I’m over thinking it? Putting the cart before the horse?”
Again there was no answer from the cat that napped at her side. Stirring only once to strike a bird down from out of the air and pull into its cute but sharply toothed pink maw.
“Do “you” want me to enter the tournament, master?” asked the girl. Turning towards the cat.
She stared at the creature pretending to be an ordinary feline till finally it peeked out at her with one eye. Yawning as it sat up, its actions slightly more human than it might have intended.
“Um….I don’t really care….more importantly, “do” you want to enter the tournament little one?”
She frowned, unhappy because that was yet another question that she didn’t know the answer to. While she’d eventually gained anathema to her mother’s ambitiousness, the girl had still kept a certain amount of the familial obsession with “winning” or rather it was an obsession with not taking a loss.
“I…th- that doesn’t really matter here does it? Do you think I should do the tourney or not, sir?” said Innes.
The cat pat her on the forehead, the pads of its paws soft and eerily cool. The sensation not entirely unpleasant.
“You do as you think you should, little apprentice. This old man just cares that you’re happy.” said the cat. Yawning once more as if speaking had taken all its energy. Falling back to all fours and going back to sleep.
Her master’s words trumped the old dilemma by bringing up new questions of whether he’d actually meant that.
She was used to having people say they care about her, but it was usually combined with a barb, or some prodding, or some other type of emotional manipulation.
She’d grown used to such things that she honestly didn’t know what to do, in the face of the little pink monster’s sincerity.
She generally didn’t know what to do about her master. He was yet another wildcard in a life that had become more than fifty-percent unknowns after her entry into a new world.
Initially she’d believed that there was an angle to his actions. Even as he trained her and healed her and helped her increase her strength, she’d told herself that there was likely some sinister endgame. Perhaps some plot on her body or her soul, if souls were a real thing. Or some dark deed she’d be expected to do later as payment.
Then time wore on, and the strange being had continued to do things for her and continued to show her things. Things that started to slowly erode her belief that the monster that slept beneath her bed as a nebulous black and pink, red-eyed shadow and accompanied her during the daytime as squishy pink cat, had anything that it wanted from her, anything that she could give it, that it couldn’t get on its own. Or just make her give it.
This feeling grew stronger as their relationship progressed. She learned it could easily mold and alter minds and consciousness when it created a literal school of “thought”. A psychic realm that existed within its dreams that she’d entered when she was sleeping to be tutored in various subjects for what felt like years at a time.
The idea that there was something that it simply needed an extra body to do, went away when the creature created several copies of her, that were each stronger, faster and smarter by several realms. Teaching her how to project her consciousness so she could possess the bodies and try them out, so they figure out what settings would be best for the creation of her current form.
Eventually she just had to accept that there was nothing that the being needed from her, that it couldn’t do on its own. And even if she was exaggerating its capabilities or misunderstanding them to some extent, she knew enough to know that if it made similar offers to people in higher ranks, the being known as Samhain could have easily had as many willing subjects as it wanted.
Like a devil of folklore, its power held an allure that could entice even a king. It had no need to trick and coax a random urchin like herself.
Thus having eliminated the possibility that this was all a trick, she had to turn to another thought she’d quietly begun to have.
Living together as they did, despite the fact that she was the human and it was a cat. It occurred to her one day, that she was probably being treated as some kind of pet by the creature.
The girl didn’t believe in gods, angels or fairies, but she did accept that there were such things as superior existences. Higher beings. Sufficiently advanced aliens.
She sort of had to, her world was destroyed by race of such creatures. And she and several others of her world were transported her by another race of superior existences. Gray faced horned beings who flew on wings of luminous shadow.
Following that line of thought she’d eventually come to the conclusion that her master was yet another variation of superior being. Perhaps his was a species that compared to humans, stood in the same relative evolutionary vantage point, that humans had over their other compatriots in the animal kingdom. Or more likely they stood in the same position that a human would have over a jellyfish, though she tried not to push it that far, lest her own ego as a sentient start to fade away.
While she’d like to think that her ability to think and reason, and feel would at least warrant her counting as fellow sentient, there were things she’d seen in her master’s head that made her feel like his sentience and her sentience were on different levels.
Thus eventually those feelings cemented into a growing certainty that if she looked at things objectively she, the human was the pet and the cat her owner.
And she had no clue how to feel about that.
As a human, as the proud member of race that once held dominance over the entire planet, there was a part of her that rejected that conclusion. That said even if she was below the creature, it was a question of status and power, it wasn’t something so absolute, as to be based in their very natures.
However, her self-doubt and gnawing uncertainty kept coming back to this line of thought as the only plausible explanation for why the creature would spend so much time and energy taking care of her. Making sure she was fed, and clothed. Fussing over her health. Training her to be best of her fellows.
It was something humans did to animals. It’s something she, herself, had once done.
Volunteering in animal shelters and taking care of wounded animals. It wasn’t about the animal, it was about the feeling that came from helping the animal. It was about the way nursing and looking after another life helped one turn ones focus from one’s own. They way it helped a person get their head on straight, by helping them shift their perspective of things.
A line of thought that once again, inflicted yet another blow to the ego. Because it meant she was being treated like a broken bird. A thing to look after while her inscrutable master worked his own issues out, whatever those issues might have been.
Thinking about it too much made her head hurt. And it made her feel small, far smaller than even the girl who often wished she could shrink herself, could standing feeling.
Making her meditate on her cosmic insignificance as part of one single barely civilized race amongst heavens only knows, how many billions and trillions of others.
There “was” a third line of course, one born from a small voice in her head that she’d learn to recognize as being fruitlessly optimistic. The parts of her that were still stupid after twelve years of hard lessons.
This line of thought was the one that took peoples striking up conversations with her as a sign of their wanting to be friends. The voice in her head that heard people saying “hi, how are you” and actually believed that they cared about how she was doing. It was the line of thought that believed that sometimes her mother did indeed actually love her.
This same voice saw the creatures care and effort and wanted to believe that Innes had actually found herself a bit of honest support in this world. Someone to care about a little girl who was a million light-years and whole dimension away from home.
Naturally, she knew enough not to believe a single word that voice said.
In the end she just decided that for now she’d simply accept the strange cat’s good will. So long as its intents and expectation didn’t exceed her bottom line, she was fine with acquiescing. And if something she couldn’t manage, or that exceeded that bottom line came up, she’d try to run away or die trying.
Pathetic as it was to say, her wariness and misgivings notwithstanding, it’d been so long since she had anyone actually care about her little life, that she couldn’t help wanting to luxuriate in the feeling for as long she could.
Frowning she sat, legs wrapped up in her arms as she stared up at the cloudy sky. Still unsure of what to do.