A Girl in Central Park
One... Two... Three!
Pai inwardly counted to three and then cast the spell. It wasn't one of her usual ice spells; it was new magic that employed the various elements that filled the forest. The small light that glowed green blinked, and then started changing its color. Red, blue, yellow, and...
The mana that formed the light started dissipating. Alarmed, Pai gritted her teeth and clutched onto her staff, her forehead covered with sweat.
Despite her effort, the spell failed. With a small popping sound, the mana exploded, its particles blowing away in the wind. For a while, Pai just watched the light scatter, and then flopped to the ground with a sigh.
How many times have I failed?
It was difficult to create new magic that combines various elements. Especially for Pai, who was trained in one specific school of magic since she was young. She swept her matted hair away from her face as she leaned against the tree. The leaves rubbed together in the wind, comforting her with their rustling sound.
It'd been a month since Niu left Central Park with some of the other Guardians.
Niu usually traveled Pandemonium alone to locate strange phenomena and help people. Knowing that she was accompanied by others this time should have been reassuring to Pai, but she didn't feel that way.
'Am I worried?'
'Yes and no.'
Pai hugged her staff tightly.
Kate made this staff for her after Werry disappeared. He was a bigmouth and not entirely a likable character, but she thought they'd be together forever. After he left all of a sudden, she lost confidence in her ability to cast magic. Kate carved this staff out of an old elemental tree to encourage her. She was grateful for that, but she couldn't stop thinking about Werry.
'He left because I was weak...'
She looked at her hands. Compared to Niu, who trained all the time, she was pathetically weak. There was little wonder no one counted on her. Can I help the others? Make them feel safe?
"Yes, you can."
Niu told her. She said Pai could do anything. She always said so. Pai had to believe that.
"Pai, where are you? You'd better come back before I eat all of the pie!"
The hopeful look on Pai's face turned sulky.
Central Park was the miraculous forests that Kate the famous summoner created. She tended to it, even when Pandemonium was filled with nothing but darkness. Now she lived here with the mages who followed her in a small village that they built together. The young girls, Pai and Pipi, were like family to Kate, and they were already accomplished mages in their own right.
But the sight of Pai, who was walking with puffed-up cheeks and a pouty mouth, followed by Pipi, who nervously stole glances at the other, was far from magic, the essence of nature's mysteries itself.
"Did you girls fight again?"
The Red Witch, who was sitting on the best seat at the table, drinking tea, asked primly.
"Did you play rock-paper-scissors on who'd win more slices of pie? Pai, did you lose?"
"No. I'm not angry. Don't worry about me."
But the look on her face said otherwise. The guilty party, Pipi, flailed her arms wildly at the Red Witch, silently asking not to pry into the situation. The Red grinned mischievously. "Oh, really?" The meek boy Joshua sensed the impending disaster and quickly picked up his cup and saucer.
"Wow, something smells delicious!"
With that, the table stayed upright, and everyone's face turned toward the familiar boy who came running, following the smell of freshly baked bread, which, by the way, distracted him so much that he forgot to even say hello.
Kate, as she removed the last cookie out of the oven, greeted him.
"Hello, Arthur. How's Isys-Prey?"
"...And that's how Prey saved one more poor Pandemonian!"
Arthur shrugged, his face beaming with pride. He would've looked more like the faithful follower of the Apostle he was if his mouth was covered with bread crumbs from eating while talking.
"By the way, where did Isys-Prey come from?"
Pipi looked at him, and Arthur slightly blushed. He scratched his pinked cheek as he answered.
"That... Prey wouldn't tell me. And I asked him several times. He said I don't need to know. He probably said that because I can't go there, even if I wanted to. He had this sad look in his eyes, so I could tell he misses his home world."
"You call yourself his follower, and yet you know nothing about him."
Arthur glared at the Red Witch, but said nothing. He knew better than try to argue with this woman, and he learned it the hard way. Knowing this, Kate smiled gently.
"Yes. I'm glad Prey is taking good care of Pandemonium. When he flies on his wings, patrolling, even the Kashipas and thieves go into hiding. By the way, Arthur, what brings you here today?"
"Oh right, I almost forgot. He asked me to get updates on the Kashipas' movement. Is Niu not here?"
"Niu went to check around Harlem. She also might drop by Elting Memorial on her way back."
Elting Memorial. Every day, accidents happened there because of the dangerous experiments that the witches who lived there conducted. But most of all, Arthur didn't like that place because, even though they were supported by Hilder, they insisted on a neutral stand on the war against the Kashipas.
In fact, Elting Memorial was already under Kashipa's control. Not only it was conveniently located right next to its base, Harlem, but its resident witches were cooperating with the organization's research requests. But even Kashipa's leader, Black-eyed Sarpoza, had announced that he respected their neutral stand. It was probably because he didn't want to make an enemy of Hilder. Elting Memorial was filled with nothing but eccentric witches and old, dusty books. It wasn't worth fighting for.
And that made Arthur more upset. The witches of Elting Memorial should know this. They shouldn't be so content with their current situation. They should fight the Kashipas. They even had a powerful ally, Hilder, for the gods' sake! Or they could always join forces with the mages of Central Park against the Kashipas. That could change the situation of Pandemonium nicely. It was a well-known fact that those witches didn't think like everyone else, but they were also Pandemonians. They must learn from Isys-Prey's righteous mindset and put their skills to good use, instead of wasting them on some terrible experiments while hiding from everyone else.
"The Kashipas called people from outside Harlem outsiders. I wonder if that's how they think of the people of Elting Memorial."
"Probably. Those witches are as wary of strangers as they are. Perhaps the Kashipas have learned from them, having visited them many times."
"I don't like that the Pandemonians are split in factions. I hope peace will return soon. Pandemonium would be a better place if there were only good people who get along well with one another."
Pipi spoke, her face gloomy, probably from thinking of someone. Arthur kept stealing glances at her until Pai pinched him the back of his hand. "Cut it out." Flushed, Arthur was thinking hard to come up with some excuse when...
A wind blew.
It wasn't one of those ordinary winds from the Wind Canyon. It was a ground tremor caused by powerful waves of mana. Those who were deeply related to mana knew how serious this movement was. Kate was watching the children talk, and suddenly the look in her eyes changed. The Red Witch pursed her lips. Pipi clenched her hands. Joshua turned his head toward Harlem. Pai's shoulders shrank in spite of herself.
"Prey is angry."
Arthur mumbled, and got startled by his own words. "Prey is angry... Did something happen to him!?" He suddenly rose from his chair, knocking it backward with a loud noise.
"I'd better go!"
Arthur ignored Kate and started running. When he ran with the wind wrapped around him, he was unstoppable. His attention was solely focused on Isys-Prey, whom he worshipped like a god—no, he was a god in all things that mattered to Arthur.
"What's going on?"
The party was over. The Red Witch fretted and grumbled and left for the forest without saying goodbye. Kate and Pipi also headed out to the forest. Joshua bid Pai farewell and headed out to the hill in the Wasteland to watch over Harlem.
Pai, sitting alone at the big table, hugged her doll tightly to her chest.
The next day, Kate told Pipi and Pai that she didn't think what happened yesterday was serious and they shouldn't worry about it.
Pipi smiled brightly and let out a sigh of relief. "It can't be, right? Even if it is, Prey can take care of it."
But Pai couldn't understand it. Arthur wouldn't have left in such a hurry if it wasn't serious. Pai said so to Kate. Kate said he could've been mistaken, and that even if something happened, it had to have been finished by now, seeing how quiet things were at this moment. Don't worry, Kate said as she patted Pai on the head. Pai didn't say anything.
'If I was Niu...'
If I was as strong and reliable as her...
If she was, Kate's words might have been different. She might have told her the truth and wanted to discuss some solutions with her. Right now, Niu was away, Pipi was too young, and she was...
"I'm going to go take a walk."
Without waiting for Kate's response, Pai headed out to the forest. Her small body quickly disappeared among the tall, lush trees. After a while, Pai looked back. She couldn't see the village anymore.
The forests of Central Park were large. They became larger than the first time the Adventurer arrived. When they left for the Castle of the Dead where Apostle Luke was, Kate tried to hide the sad look on her face and told everyone that everything would be okay. And then, she spent most of her time tending to the trees and plants as if she needed the distraction. Pai tried to help, and Kate told her not to worry and go relax. She knew Kate was being nice, but that hurt her a little bit.
I can help you.
When she was deemed too weak to become a mage, and when she had to leave her family to live with Niu, everyone was worried about her. She was worried about herself too, but she wanted others to have more faith in her. Why is everyone trying so hard to protect me?
"I'm a mage, too."
Pai sat on a rock. Mages walked alongside Death. Even the simplest mistake could cause the greatest of all mages to die in excruciating pain, his mana running amok in his blood. Worse, he could go mad. Becoming a mage was not an easy decision to make, even for those born with a great talent for magic. But Pai was grateful for her magical talent. Since she decided never to run away from it, she'd never regretted becoming a mage. But still that wasn't enough, was it?
"What can I do?"
What do I do to become as strong as my sisters?
She couldn't fight the Kashipas like Niu. She wasn't as famous as Kate, either. She wanted to help others, but she was too shy to pay visits to unfamiliar villages. She didn't want to make others worry by leaving without telling them where she was going, either.
So instead, she headed out to the forest on the edge of Central Park.
It was where visitors of Central Park often came through. Sometimes, they were found lying there, barely breathing, so she made it a habit to check this forest on a regular basis.
But she rarely visited it alone. That was why she became slightly nervous when she heard a rustling noise. She clutched her staff. She couldn't see clearly through the tree leaves and underbrush. She couldn't even detect their mana because of the magic that Kate had cast around the forests a while ago. Pai hid behind a big tree and looked around, and...
Thwack! Pai swung her staff with all her strength and hit something. It was Joshua who came out of the underbrush. For acting out of character and pulling a childish prank, he got smacked by Pai's staff. It missed his head, but hit him squarely on the back. While Joshua coughed and groaned in pain, Pai composed herself.
"Why did you do that?"
"You looked upset. I just wanted to cheer you up. Where are you going?"
Pai mumbled, "The forest at the border."
"Why? I just came from the Wasteland. Nothing's happening out there right now."
She didn't know how to answer to that. How disappointing? That's good? Pai settled for a sullen nod. Joshua scratched his nose.
"I'll go with you, then."
"If you're going there to get some fresh air, you could use a companion, right? If there's an animal that needs rescue, two's better than one, too."
Pai thinks about it for a while, and then nods her head.
The bordering forest of Central Park, adjacent to the Wasteland connected to Harlem. On the other side of that vast chunk of wasteland stood the Corrupt Forest and Kashipa's base, Harlem. The Corrupt Forest grew big, just like the other forests with Kate's magic, but unlike the others it was dark and evil. Pai thought that forest might never change, for its name's sake, if nothing else. The same might go for Kashipa, the group of corrupt mages...
"No, maybe not."
Joshua, who turned to look at her, grinned and resumed walking.
Looking at his back, Pai recalled the first time she met this boy who was originally a member of Kashipa. Anyone who knew Joshua now wouldn't believe what she saw back then. Who would believe that such a cheerful person was once filled with sadness and anger? If Kate and Kasijas didn't persuade him, he still could've been the same tormented person he was back then, and that would've been tragic.
"Joshua, when you came to Central Park... what did Kasijas say to you?"
Pai had always wanted to know what that scary-looking, brusque Kasijas told Joshua.
"He said I should live however I wanted, following my heart. And that thinking wouldn't help. In the end, my heart would always win, so I'd better get out of there the first chance I got."
"Really? Did Kasijas really say that?"
"Yes, or at least that was what he meant, according to Kate."
"According to Kate?"
The boy and girl giggled at the same time. Pai felt slightly better. She mindlessly swung her staff that she was holding in one hand.
"Hey, Joshua. Do you have a lot of experience when it comes to fighting?"
"I had to fight to survive where I came from, so yes. Why, Miss Pai, do you want to fight?"
"No... But I have to... to be helpful."
"You think so?"
Joshua responded nonchalantly. Suddenly Pai wondered if she was being stubborn and unreasonable. Should I really insist on fighting? What if I only get in the way of others? Pai stabbed her staff at the ground for no reason, sending dirt flying everywhere. Any other times, she would never do this because it left scratches on her staff, but right now she needed the distraction to keep herself from wallowing in depressing thoughts. Careful not to hit Joshua in front of her, Pai swung her staff a few more times. Suddenly Joshua grabbed her by the shoulder. He placed one finger in front of his mouth and pulled her behind a tree.
"Someone else is here. I didn't see him when I passed here the last time. He must have crossed the Wasteland just now."
They watched the stranger who was resting with his back against a rock.
He didn't radiate enough mana to indicate he was a mage, but the daggers he had belted around his waist and the injury on his face were enough to make them feel wary of them. Could he be an adventurer or traveler? No. Joshua shook his head.
Having watched the stranger for a while, Joshua shot an icicle. It hit a tree in the distance with a shattering noise. The stranger quickly raised himself and crouched into a fighting stance with naturalness from having it done many times. He sniffed at the air and then came to where the two youngsters were instead of the shaken tree.
"Are you the Witch of the Forest? Please show yourself. I have no intention of hurting you."
He sounded as rugged as he looked. Pai clutched onto her staff with both hands. Joshua tapped her on the head. She looked up and found him smiling.
Joshua gestured to her to stay still, and then moved away from the tree.
"Hello. May I ask who you are?"
"I'm a merchant. On the run. Are you alone?"
"Are you on your way to Central Park?"
"I told you, I'm on the run. I couldn't think of anywhere else to go. I almost died crossing the Wasteland."
The self-styled merchant wiped the blood from the injury on his face. Pai peeked from behind the tree. Seen from the front, his head was missing half of one ear. It was an old, healed injury, but Pai still flinched in spite of herself.
"You're hurt. Where are you going?"
"Well, here and there, maybe. But why don't you let your friend come out? I'd feel much more relieved if they did."
Hesitantly, Pai showed her face. The merchant guffawed.
"You don't have to be scared of me. I'm not gonna bite ya. Let's see... I've got only this dagger to give you in return. Wanna try it? Oh right—name's Shawfield."
Shawfield raised a rusty dagger and guffawed again. Pai didn't like his big, yellowed fangs.
Shawfield said he came from Harlem where Kashipa ruled. He got dumped by his girlfriend, and he went to the casino to distract himself from the heartache. The next thing he knew, he was selling stuff.
"So, you did business in Harlem."
"Sure, I did. I may not know how to use magic, but I'm a born businessman. At first I didn't know what I was doing, but it didn't take long for me to get the hang of it. I saved money and sold everything I could buy with the money... I spent money as fast as I made it, though. Still, it was a good life."
"Then why did you run?"
Shawfield shook the dirt on his matted tail.
"Well, that... because of a love quarrel, if you will. The casino's boss loves women. I was having a thing about this pretty dealer, who turned out to be one of the boss's love interests. I skipped town as soon as I caught wind of that. Someone as powerful like him can easily get rid of a helpless outsider like me without a trace, you know. And then, I got caught by some hunters on my way out."
"I don't think they'd follow me all the way across the Wasteland, but right now I'm too weak to go any farther. I wish I could have some food..."
"I see. If you promise you'll stay here quietly, then I'll get you some food."
Joshua was friendly toward Shawfield and didn't look at all like he was scared of him. On the other hand, Pai stayed close to Joshua and watched the stranger from the corner of her eye. Once she made eye contact with him and got startled. She quickly averted her eyes, but it was too late. He knew what she was doing. Shawfield sighed and dropped all his old daggers onto the ground.
"There. Are we good now? I understand you're being careful, but I swear I'm just a hungry fugitive. I know I look scarier than most Roccas, but if you're going to glance at someone, do it without letting them know. You'll never win gambles that way."
Pai's face reddened. "Sorry..."
They'd been walking together for some time now. They reached the central forest of Central Park, and Shawfield suddenly screamed and collapsed to the ground. His leg got caught in a trap spell set up to stop intruders. Shawfield's slim, strong leg was being held in place by a pale blue light. Shawfield screamed in pain. Joshua scratched his head.
"We're sorry, but only the Witch can disarm that spell. If we messed with it, we could end up blowing up all the hidden trap spells in this area..."
"What? Come on! It's tightening around my leg! Do something!"
"I'll go find the Witch. Miss Pai, would you stay with him? I'll be right back!"
Without waiting for Pai's response, Joshua sprinted away into the forest.
Pai didn't feel comfortable being left alone with a stranger. But Shawfield was lying on the ground, screaming for help. She had to do something before he attracted the violent spirits and animals that lived in the forest. Pai knelt beside his trapped leg.
"Hang in there. Let me try to weaken the trap."
"Ouch, ouch, ouch! Are you sure you know what you're doing? Arrgggh!"
Shawfield's screaming voice became louder, but the trap wouldn't budge. Pai tightened her lips and concentrated her mind on understanding the spell.
'I could've done this more quickly if Joshua was here to help me.'
'I can't focus when he keeps screaming into my ears like this...'
'What kind of spell is this? It's nothing like anything I've seen...'
Pai looked at Shawfield. His body was covered in big and small scars. He was tough enough to survive them, but even he couldn't withstand the pain from this trap, and there was nothing she could do to help. She hated her inadequacy. Pai turned her head in the direction to which Joshua left. What's taking him so long? Is the Red Witch so far away? Impatient, Pai tried to stand up and was stopped by Shawfield's clutching hand.
"*Sigh* I know you're just a kid, but this is ridiculous."
"What are you doing? Help me up!"
Her shoulders shrunken at his barking voice, Pai carefully helped him sit up. Spewing a geyser of expletives, he produced a sharp dagger from his back pocket. "Ah...!" Alarmed, Pai quickly stepped backward. Shawfield ignored her and swung the dagger at the magical trap around his leg. Clang! Blue sparks of mana flew everywhere.
"Err? What the...?!"
Mana, when the spell that bound it was disarmed, usually became dispersed and merged with the environmental mana. That didn't happen in this case. The mana looked as if it disappeared, but then it emitted a blue light again and started freezing the moisture in the air. Soon ice formed around Shawfield's trapped leg as well as around his dagger hand. With an ominous cracking noise, the ice quickly traveled up to his knee and elbow. Shawfield tried to break the ice with his dagger, and it caused him so much pain that he had to stop. He lay back down on the ground and started screaming again. Pai covered her mouth with both hands.
"I knew he was a Kashipa."
It was Joshua. His sudden appearance startled Pai more than his words did. He walked toward her with a cold look on his face. When he noticed the surprise in her eyes, he shrugged.
"It wasn't me who ran off; it was a magic snowflake I created. I hid my magic power and watched him from nearby."
"Then... did you create this trap?"
Joshua nodded demurely. Pai stared at him. He was the same kind boy with whom she laughed and chatted until yesterday, but somehow looked unfamiliar now. The ex-Kashipa boy averted his eyes, as if to run away from her gaze.
"He was being suspicious. He didn't look like someone who had hunters snapping at his heels, and the mana I felt from him was familiar. It may not be of the Abyss, but it's definitely of the popular magic used among the Kashipas. Ah, don't be hard on yourself because you couldn't disarm this spell. It's used by the Kashipas. Of course, it's unfamiliar to you. Besides you're too shaken up by his injury to be able to focus your mind on it."
While saying that, Joshua removed Shawfield's dagger. Shawfield was now covered in ice up to his thigh and shoulder. Shawfield forced himself to speak, his teeth chattering from the cold and pain.
"N-no. I-I'm not a Kashipa... I won that dagger... in a bet..."
"You're lying. This spell can be easily disarmed if you have a proper magic tool, but you still have to be capable of magic to be able to use that tool. If you're not a Kashipa, how do you know their magic?"
The look in Joshua's eyes changed as he turned them from Pai and focused them on Shawfield. Not knowing how to answer that, Shawfield started groaning and twisting his body instead. Watching the two interact, Pai clutched onto her staff. She then hit Joshua, accurately on the back of his head this time.
"Ouch! Aww, Miss Pai! What did you do that for?!"
"Stop torturing him. He's in pain. You didn't even give him a chance to explain himself. Even if he's a Kashipa, this is not what you really want to do to him, is it?"
"But what else can I do? This is the only thing I know. I can't talk to people like Kate can..."
Joshua answered sullenly. Pai's heart sank in her chest. Joshua has problems of his own, too. If I were as strong as Niu, would he have confided in me earlier? If I was more reliable, Joshua wouldn't have had to torture Shawfield... Pai's arms drooped.
She shook her head. She was being selfish. Joshua finally confided in her, and she was being rude to him and to herself, whom Joshua trusted enough to speak his mind to. Pai held Joshua's arm. It was pretty cold from the freezing spell, but she didn't care.
"We can do it. We just need more time."
Shawfield, rubbing his arm and leg to get the blood circulating in them again, admitted that he was a Kashipa. However, he insisted that he really ran away. He lost one of the slaves that he managed, and the Kashipas were going to auction him off as a slave to make up for the loss. The word, slaves, made Pai scowl. It didn't faze Joshua.
"He sounds honest enough, even though there's no way to confirm what he says."
"Just believe me. Have you been lied to all your life?"
That shut Shawfield up. Joshua examined the dagger he seized from him.
"This dagger itself is nothing special. Who cast the magic on it?"
"I stole a book for Elting Memorial and got that in return. There were more, but I broke the rest on my way here. Bah, that's the last weapon I have left!"
Shawfield grumbled, but answered his question nonetheless. It was because the smile that Joshua showed him was different from the one he showed Pai.
Kate, having received a message from the two, was sitting alone outside the village. She was singing a song for the spirits around her. When the children came into sight, she stood up with a bright smile on her face. Pai felt as if she was caught doing some mischief. Her shoulders sunk, she peeked at Joshua through the lock of hair that fell over her face. He looked just as guilty.
"You're our guest from Harlem. Welcome to Central Park. I'm Kate."
Shawfield was a Kashipa, but Kate treated him just like her other guests, but with enough dignity and authority that he couldn't look down upon her. She wasn't trying to intimidate him. She was opening her arms to him without making herself look weak. Shawfield stopped huffing and puffing and scratched his round nose, with his tail between his legs.
"I'm Shawfield... I ran away. I couldn't stay with the Kashipas... I have no intention of causing trouble here."
"I see. You're welcome here. Is there any way we can help you?"
Shawfield's eyes grew big. For his not so short life, he'd never heard such kind words before. Who in her sane mind would offer help before the other party asked first? Old habits die hard. He automatically became suspicious of her intention, but that quickly faded away. For some reason, he had a feeling that he could trust this woman, Kate.
Having forgotten that the two children were still watching him, Shawfield opened his mouth, his eyes filled with unshed tears.
"I didn't want to live like this, either, you know..."
After Shawfield left Central Park with a bag full of traveling supplies that Kate packed for him, she brewed magic potions with Pai's help. Pai asked in a small, hesitant voice.
"Kate, I've got a question... What should I do to become like you?"
"What do you mean, Pai?"
"You have this ability to make everyone feel comfortable enough to tell you everything. How do you do that? Everyone relies on you... wants help from you."
Pipi left to look for the Red Witch, and Joshua was outside, wiping the table. Knowing that there was no one else to hear their conversation gave Pai the strength to speak her mind. Kate stopped her hand that was reaching for a thick book and came to Pai. She soothingly ran her fingers through Pai's pink hair.
"You want to become like me? But Pai, do you really want to be the kind of person who listens to everyone else's problems and helps them?"
"Shawfield was a Kashipa. He may have chosen the wrong path by mistake, but he might have killed people while he was on it. Or he could hurt our friends in the future."
"...But you helped him."
"I made that choice. I've decided to help others because Pandemonium isn't a place you can survive alone. But even I can't know everyone I'm helping. What if one of the people I helped becomes an obstacle for everyone else in Pandemonium? Did I do the right thing by helping them?"
"You can't know what others might do in the future."
"No, I can't. Still, I help strangers because I want to believe there's good in everyone. Because I hope at least a few out of a hundred people I help will change for the better."
Pai thought about asking her more questions, but decided against it.
Joshua was so wary of the Kashipa that he used such a drastic method to test him, and then attacked him when he knew he was a Kashipa. Kate, on the other hand, even though she knew Shawfield was a Kashipa, believed him when he said he ran away, and helped him as best as she could. Maybe Joshua was wrong, and Kate was right. Or the other way around. Either way, Joshua was still a good, kind boy, and Kate could be stern when she needed to.
"Okay... I'll think about that for a little longer."
The next day, Pai was alone in the forest. Holding her staff with both hands, she was trying hard to catch the shadow of the new spell that came to her mind.
A little closer...
If she could stretch her hand a little farther out, she might catch it. Sweat dripped from her chin, hitting the leaves underneath, their sound amplified by the quiet around her. Pai bit her lower lip. She was seeing the natural elements that only mages could see. They were dancing in the air like butterflies. She watched them dance and found the concentration point of their mana. Flash! Something sparkled.
"One... Two... Three!"
Pai swung her staff.
The small orb that glowed pale green in front of her staff suddenly expanded and changed to different colors, rising in the air. Pai gingerly opened her eyes and watched it. The radiant orb continued to grow until it reached the top of a big tree. Pai waved her hand, and it shattered into shards of ice that sparkled in rainbow colors. One of them fell and melted onto her small hand holding the staff. If she had an injury on that hand, it would've healed. These icicles didn't have great healing power, but still they could come in handy in an emergency.
Clap, clap, clap.
Startled by the loud clapping noise, Pai turned and found Joshua standing there.
"That was an amazing spell. I've never seen anyone combining so many elements together. Did you create it?"
"Yes. When did you get here?"
"Not too long ago. I didn't say anything because I didn't want to break your concentration. Sorry."
Pai waved at Joshua to come closer. They sat under the great canopy of leaves, facing each other.
"I came to apologize in case I shocked you yesterday. I... Even though I had my eyes on you, I left you alone with a stranger, too..."
"It's all right. You did it to protect Central Park."
"Yes, but still... I hate that I had to lie to you. I don't want to lie to you or my other friends. I'm sorry."
"I don't want you to feel uncomfortable, either. I accept your apology. But under one condition: could you stop calling me Miss?"
"Huh? Sure, but can I ask you why?"
"Well... I want to change." Pai hugged her staff like a toy. "At first, I just wanted to be strong, but now I know better. There are many ways of being strong, and I don't know which way I want. So... I've been thinking all night..." She tried to translate her swirling thoughts into words. Joshua waited patiently, and one by one the words she needed came to her mind.
"So... I've decided to change myself a little bit at a time. If I keep looking carefully, one day I might find the path that I want to stay on. Of course, I'll keep practicing my magic skills in the meantime. I need them to navigate my way."
Slightly blushing, Pai looked into Joshua's eyes.
"I wanted to become like Niu or Kate. I still do. But... I'm not them. I want to become strong in my own way. So... Joshua, maybe you should put behind your past as a Kashipa and find your path, too. You don't have to rush... I'll help you."
Does he understand what I mean? She wanted to tell him more. That she was relieved when she realized Joshua was in the same predicament as she was. She thought he was always peaceful and had no problems at all, and knowing that he was just as troubled as she was helped her change her mind. That if he didn't confide in her, she still would've been wallowing in sad thoughts. That because he taught her a valuable lesson, she didn't want him to call him Miss.
But she was too embarrassed to say them. She was barely keeping herself from running away embarrassed. What if he thinks I'm being patronizing? Fortunately, Joshua showed her his usual kind smile.
"Thank you, Pai. Yes, let's try it together."
Finally, the tension left her and her mouth slowly stretched into a sheepish smile. She was happy that they understood each other. Kate's ability to commune with others must be from experiences like this. She still felt shy and embarrassed, but she wanted to cherish this moment that she was having with her friend who'd be on the same path as she...
"Y-yes... Let's do just that... Poof!"
Suddenly, a third voice was heard, making Pai jump like a cat that had a bucket of water poured on it all of a sudden. The Red Witch! Pai couldn't see her, but her high-pitched cackling voice was unmistakable. Pai's face was completely flushed. Joshua's cheeks were pink.
"Oh, I'm sorry. I wanted to apologize you so badly that... erm, I asked the Red Witch where you were...! I just didn't have a chance—"
Joshua couldn't finish his sentence, too busy avoiding Pai's staff that she was swinging with misty eyes.
"Pai, why are you so sulky?"
She snapped at Pipi. That didn't help her forget about the embarrassing moment that she never wanted to think about ever again.
"Look, I've made this while I practiced my elemental skills."
Without explanation, Pai demonstrated the spell that she completed earlier that day. Pipi watched, holding her hands together, her eyes sparkling with curiosity. When it was done, she held Pai's hands, jumping and yelling how pretty that spell was. Usually, Pipi's overly animated personality bothered Pai, but at this moment it helped distract her from the embarrassment that she found impossible to forget.
"Pai, you're studying magic so hard. I'd better do the same. I feel as if I've been falling behind."
Is Pipi having the same problem as I am? Pai wondered, half-listening to Pipi's rambling that would go on for a while, as usual. Pipi's young, but not much younger than I am. Come to think of it, I've always had many problems. Could Niu have the same problem as I did? The Niu she'd known since she was young was strong, kind, and reliable. Pai always thought she was different from her, but now that she thought of it, there was no way Niu hadn't had problems of her own. Not just serious problems like Kashipa or the future of Pandemonium, but also small—in a way, silly—problems like Pai and Pipi were having right now.
Niu once complained how she didn't look good in skirts...
I didn't think she looked too bad in that skirt.
She felt relieved.
Nothing had changed. She was still weak, didn't know about many things, and hadn't decided which path she wanted to choose. Maybe these problems wouldn't leave her for the rest of her life. But somehow, she felt as if she'd taken one step forward solving them. So far, she only tried to hide from them, but now she wanted to face and solve them on her own. So that one day, her family in Central Park could rely on her. So that her mother in her hometown would be proud. Hoping that day would come soon, Pai finished making the rose corsage that the Red Witch demanded in exchange for her discretion.
"Girls, Niu is on her way back home. Could you help me bake some bread?"
Pai ran to Kate with Pipi.
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