Kaelith threw a colored ring that landed accurately around one of the many small wooden poles in her sight. She flashed a smirk at Rakna who was staring at her with a blank expression with Pronos having decided to return on his shoulder after all the… jiggling had made him dizzy.
“Seriously? Don’t act smug about that when you probably have hundreds of points in dexterity,” Rakna uttered and the vixen gave him a pout. While strolling through the town, they had ended up in a street that seemingly was in an eternal state of festivity.
Several stalls were hosting small games like this ring toss and they even offered rewards such as plushies or toys, not much different from Earth in that regard. Kaelith immediately suggested playing them and this was their third one. She had already won several toys on the way.
“Unwind, wolfy,” she retorted with a huff and handed him one of the rings which he received. He looked at it and he let his mind and body instinctively feel the weight and shape before throwing it to the side without even looking. It perfectly landed around its target and the stall owner gawked at the sight.
Even Kaelith seemed to be a bit surprised. “What did you just do? It’s as if you didn’t even think about what you were doing but it still ended as a bullseye.”
Rakna didn’t answer right away. His expression didn’t show it but he was a bit confused himself. He looked at his hand and repeatedly opened and closed it. For a second, as he was tossing that ring, he felt something take over his body.
“Hey, can you give me the rest of the rings?” He asked and Kaelith tilted her head before handing the three remaining rings. He grabbed them all with one hand and juggled them a bit. This time, he went as far as closing his eyes before throwing them over his shoulder.
The owner and Kaelith watched them fly all the way until a target each. When they confirmed with their own eyes that it had flawlessly wrapped around the rods, they became stupefied.
Meanwhile, Rakna received a simple notification from the System.
❮◈❯ Eyes of the Soul has leveled up! ❮◈❯
‘I think I get it,’ he thought to himself. This weird feeling he perceived came from his soul. He didn’t know for sure what, but something had changed ever since he woke up earlier.
[Rakna, this is a theory but, I believe it may have something to do with your crippled state,] Alexa spoke up on her own. [Since both your internal force and mana are completely depleted, probably for the first time in your life as well, they have left a void. This void seems to have been filled by the power that you were already slowly grasping; Soul Power.]
‘I see. In other words, since everything about my body is weak right now, it leaves a place for my soul to be more predominant. My instincts feel considerably boosted. When I grabbed that ring, it felt as if I could predict its trajectory to the last detail no matter how or where I threw it.’
As he was contemplating that idea, Kaelith quickly shrugged off what happened and shamelessly went to grab the prizes from the stall owner. After picking a large teddy bear, she returned to his side and pushed his shoulders to make him walk, forcing him to stop his musing.
“I don’t know what you’re thinking about wolfy, but it has not even been twenty minutes since we left the Pavilion and you’re already distracted. You’re not a good date, you know that?”
Rakna grunted as he started walking alongside her so that she would stop pushing him. “Why are you saying that as if I was the one who came up with the idea?”
“Because it’s the man’s job to spoil the woman,” she replied with a smile.
“I don’t think that’s a thing, foxy. Borderline double standard.”
“Semantics,” she waved her hand. “Anyhow, did you eat breakfast today yet?”
Rakna paused as he was about to answer. His mind briefly flashed back to when he swallowed Verias whole and he blinked dazedly. He didn’t want to acknowledge that as food. “No…?”
She looked at him with a faint scowl. “Why do you sound hesitant?”
“…nothing to worry about. Even if I had eaten breakfast, I could probably still eat more.”
“Ah, true. You wolves do have a big appetite,” she commented and put a hand on her chin. “Now, let’s see…” She muttered and looked around before pointing at one of the street angles. “Let’s go there. There should be a nice café around that corner.”
“How do you know that?”
“Map,” Kaelith replied simply as they headed in the direction she pointed at.
“Have you been here before?”
“Well, not exactly. I did, of course, come to the Fifth Plateau in the past but the town I was in at the time wasn’t this one. However, that doesn’t mean I can’t have the map of this area.”
Rakna blinked in confusion. “I’m not sure I follow.”
Kaelith giggled. “It’s simple; maps can be bought from the System.”
“Really? Sounds a bit too easy.”
“That’s because you don’t know everything. Firstly, you can’t buy the maps of Plateaus that you haven’t conquered yet, and secondly, they only include key locations like towns, Dungeons, and other things that are not affected by the reset,” she explained as she checked the itinerary after taking a turn.
Rakna hummed passively as he heard that and his attention was progressively caught by the looks the passersby kept giving Kaelith. They were of all genders and ages; not only was she drawing attention with her beauty but also her race.
‘Well, I guess that’s to be excepted. I got the same kind of reactions in Black Steel as well,’ he said inwardly and before he knew, they had reached their destination.
They entered the café and with just a smile and a bit of convincing in the form of a pile of Talys, Kaelith demanded from the owner to have a private room, which they awkwardly agreed to. The truth was that they simply didn’t have such a room but the vixen took complete advantage of her status to force him to accommodate them in a staff room instead.
‘Poor guys,’ Rakna thought as he sat down at a table in what seemed to be a break room for the staff. When both of them were settled, a waitress came to them with a nervous expression to take their orders.
Once they were alone again, Kaelith leaned her head on her arm. “Now, let’s talk. The logical thing to do here would be to learn more about each other, don’t you think? So, why don’t you start?”
Rakna scowled at her. “Shouldn’t you be the one to start and give the example?”
“As if. Knowing you, you would take this as an opportunity to learn more about the System through me while you will just say something like your age and name.”
“What? Am I wrong?”
Kaelith sighed exasperatedly. “What happened in your life for you to be so damn secretive? Are you like that to your friends as well?” His silence was all the answer she needed. “Really, you need to get rid of that anti-socialism, you know?”
“I wouldn’t call it being anti-social. I just avoid talking to people to…” Rakna paused and looked up for a few seconds. “All right. Point taken. I’m anti-social.”
Kaelith deadpanned at him. “I’m waiting,” she uttered.
He sighed and leaned back on his chair. “Why do you want to know about me anyway?”
“Do I really have to tell you the definition of a date?” She retorted. “You’re surprisingly dense for someone with a mind as sharp as yours. I don’t know if your past is too hurtful or maybe you just think that it is boring but you must let it out. Never confiding in others isn’t a good thing. The more you hide, the harder it gets.”
Rakna stared at her through half-lidded eyes and as he was about to refuse, he happened to see Pronos looking at him with a curious and hopeful face, one that was mirrored by Kaelith.
He clicked his tongue inwardly and focused on the vixen’s eyes. Even he wasn’t stupid enough to see that she truly was willing to get to know him. Why? As if he knew. Nonetheless, he knew for a fact that she was being genuine and even he felt a bit bad to reject such an earnest sentiment.
As he was deliberating what to do, the waitress came back with a tray in her hands. She placed the two cups on the table, a small plate filled with a variety of snacks for Pronos, and two sweets; a crepe-like dish for Kaelith and a strawberry sundae for Rakna.
She did all of it whilst the room was in complete silence and as the two customers stared at each other in the eyes without saying anything. After she was done, she timidly backtracked her steps and exited the room again.
“Fine,” Rakna finally said and Kaelith’s eyes brightened. “My name is Rakna Xiorra, as you already know. Though I have no idea of what calendar you people use here, my birthday is on the 7th of September. I was born on Earth, quite obviously, in a backwater country,” he said as he scooped a bit of his sundae with his spoon and ate it.
“I hate guns,” he abruptly declared, which confused Kaelith a bit. “Funnily enough, firearms were a key element of my childhood. Kind of hard not to be since the basement was full of them.”
“What do you mean?”
“Gun traffickers,” Rakna replied emotionlessly. “That’s what my parents were. They made their livelihood by selling weapons to the best buyers. Terrorists, mercenaries, rebels, civilians; all of them were potential buyers and they didn’t make distinctions. They had more blood on their hands than actual murderers.”
“One day, I was faced with the harsh reality. I was out to play when I heard a gunshot. I turned around and what did I see? A robbery. A pair of armed men were robbing a shop and they did not even care about threatening the owner. They killed him on the spot, took the money, and ran away before the enforcers could get them.”
“I ran too. Though, to be honest, I didn’t even know what I was running away from. The only thing I could think about was the indistinct but deeply rooted conviction that the weapons those two criminals wielded had probably been sold by my parents; used to rob a shop which I frequently visited right in front of my eyes and whose owner was someone I considered the closest thing I had to a grandfather. I was seven when that happened.”
Kaelith frowned sadly at that.
“From that day onward, I learned to live with the constant shame, guilt, fear, and disgust caused by my parents’ dealings. The worst of it all is that they didn’t even bother to hide it from me and I was too much of a coward to denounce my own family to the authorities. I just needed to make a call and Aurora would have probably had them incarcerated within a day but I was too afraid. I felt like I was drowning and suffocating under my own thoughts every hour of the day.”
“Fast forward a year or two, something happened. My parents got on the bad side of the wrong people and I found them dead, a bullet to the head each, in the living room. I wasn’t even upset. In fact, I was relieved. They had gotten what they deserved and I could finally stop living like I was stuck underwater.”
“If only…” Rakna clenched his hands and his Obsidian Blood acted up. Kaelith watched concerned as one of his eyes turned red a raw wave of fury emanated from him. She almost wanted to stop him now. He had already said more than what she had ever expected him to. But for some reason, she couldn’t bring herself to interrupt him.
“If only it could have stopped there,” he continued and took a deep breath. “The people who killed my parents were apparently looking for something and when they didn’t find it at our home, for some godforsaken reason, they thought that I had the answer. So, they kidnapped me and tried to get the info out of me.”
Kaelith held back a gasp as she realized the implications of that and Pronos seemed to be about to cry.
“That lasted a month... They found out early that I had no idea of the location of their target but that didn’t stop them. Maybe they thought I could be used as bait for my parent’s colleagues or relatives, I don’t know. At the end of it all, I was rescued by someone.”
Rakna started calming down right after that and his eye returned to normal. “The strongest man I have ever met, both inside and out. I saw him march through hails of bullets, kill two men by crushing their throats with one hand simultaneously, pull out a knife stabbed in his leg without even pausing for a millisecond, and rip the metal restraints binding me barehanded.”
Kaelith squinted her eyes as she recognized the respectful tone that she had already heard him use before. “Was he your uncle?”
Rakna nodded. “He pulled me out of there and took me in after learning I had nowhere to go. He said he wasn’t fit to be a father figure and arbitrarily decided to falsify official documents so that he would be seen as my uncle.” He snorted in amusement as he remembered that.
“He taught me how to be somewhat human again after losing most of my saneness. He taught me how to fight and use the spear. He taught me morals and what strength truly meant. I owe him everything that I am today.”
After that last statement, the room fell silent and he imperturbably finished his sundae before drinking his cup of water. When he put the cup down, he abruptly opened his mouth, “Ah, and by the way, I was lying when I said that I was a beast-man before arriving here.”
Kaelith almost face-faulted at the casual remark after all this. “I-I think I already knew that. There is simply no way for you to have been. Especially after you barged into the shop with a second tail.”
“Oh, I see. You’re not as clueless as I thought then.”
Surprisingly, she didn’t snap back at him for that. Instead, she observed him mindfully. “If you are trying to force yourself to make me more comfortable, you don’t need to-”
“Don’t overthink it, foxy. I got over it years ago. One of the many things the old man taught me was how to never live in the past. I’m not putting up an act. And I didn’t even tell you everything so you can keep your comforting for another day.”
Kaelith’s face changed into an expression that screamed ‘There’s more!?’ and he shrugged at her before continuing, “It’s your turn now.”
She groaned as she took a bite of her food. “Making me go after that, you’re seriously cruel. Well, since you told me about your past, I suppose I should return the favor. I don’t think I have told you before but I am a Descendant. I was born inside the System from Host parents.”
“As such, I was allowed to live the first eighteen years of my life without being affected by the System so my childhood was spent on the 500th Plateau, Old Eden, where the Nine-Tailed Clan has its Main Quarters.”
“Compared to you, I have to admit, I lived very comfortably. You could even say luxurious since, well, I’m the successor of the Nine-Tailed Foxes. My father is the Patriarch of our race and I’m the one to succeed after him.”
“Uh, so you’re some kind of princess.”
Kaelith snickered. “You could say that. That’s pretty much how I was treated. But, as luxurious as it was, as fancy as my meals and garderobe were, I frankly felt sick. I was sick of all the attention, of the expectations that were put on me, or the fake relationships I was forced to make. And don’t get me started on the disgusting bastards that aimed for my status and body.”
“I have been tolerating those ever since I was twelve, can you believe it? I lost count of how many times people have sent requests to my parents to take my hand in marriage. Most from people I hadn’t even met. Obviously, I refused them all and I threatened my parents that I would either quit the clan or kill myself if they ever tried to pair me with someone without my consent.”
“Other than that, I suffered many abduction attempts. They all failed but the first time it happened to me, I was so scared that I refused to leave my room for an entire week,” she said with a crooked smile. “In the end, it was like living behind bars. But that all changed when I turned eighteen and the System acknowledged me as a new Host before sending me to the Tutorial.”
“I felt free for the first time in my life and I conquered Plateau after Plateau thanks to my natural gift as a Nine-Tailed Fox. Though, that never stopped the damn stares or the fake relationships. I tried so hard to make friends, you know? But most of them were either opportunists, betrayers, or… I guess idiots.”
Rakna snorted at that and she chuckled. “That’s all there is to know about me. I just got sick of everything and decided to aim for the top. I became one of the strongest Hosts so that no one would approach me with their disgustingly fake faces. Now, a lot of people fear me, but I honestly prefer that to liars.”
“And then… there’s you,” she said as she pointed at Rakna with her fingers. “Do you know why I got so much curious about you?”
He raised an eyebrow and tilted his head to convey his puzzlement.
“When you first saw me, there was something different. Of course, you had no idea of who I was or what I was but that won’t make me forget the way you looked at me. Evidently, I’ve met people in the past who both ignored or simply resisted my charms; that’s not what I’m talking about here.”
“When you looked at me, you silently acknowledged my appearance. Then, you threw me off guard by asking a random question-”
“No, I was truly confused why there was an aisle dedicated to blankets.”
“Don’t interrupt, wolfy,” she retorted dryly and he shrugged. “In any case, there is one thing for sure, and it’s that the second you laid your eyes on me, you tried to look through me. Once again, that’s nothing that hasn’t happened to me before. But what you did after that is another story; you pulled back.”
“You tried to see through my intentions, then once you were done, you pulled back as if it had never happened. You didn’t put up any sort of obnoxious guard against me and you even openly got along with my teasing and returned it right back at me. It honestly felt refreshing to interact with someone who felt like he wouldn’t care about my identity no matter what it was. And it was fun. It was truly fun. That’s why I chose to become your shopkeeper.”
She paused to catch her breath and smiled at Rakna. “So, let me ask you this straight, wolfy. In a more official kind of way. Do you want to be friends?”
He snorted and his expression softened a bit. “You are the one who sounds like an anti-social who was bullied at school.”
“Hey!” She shouted in indignation and the beginnings of a smile surfaced on his expression.
“Sure… I’ll be your friend. Why would I not?”
She crossed her arms with a huff but she couldn’t hide her grin. “I hope you don’t take that back in the future, wolfy… I’m looking forward to our friendship.”
“Same here, foxy.”