Chapter 33:

Alliance with the Ancient Enemy


February 1, 2023 AD. Sunview University, California, USA, Earth

Cam gazed at his email on his phone with a mixture of disgust and horror. A piece of fish fell of off his fork, suspended in midair by the shocking news he had just seen. “This is terrible,” he whispered, the sound disappearing into the bustle of the cafeteria at dinnertime.

“Dude, if you’re going to talk to yourself, wait till you’re alone,” Jordan said, sitting across from Cam eating a hamburger.

Cam thrust his phone into Jordan’s face. “See this?” he said. “How could they do this on such short notice?”

Jordan read from the screen “‘Saturday Before Valentine’s Day Formal Dance. Dress up and bring your date to celebrate the day of love on February 11th in this event sponsored by the Sunview Student Activity Board.’” He took another bite of his hamburger. “This has been in planning since the beginning of the year. The SSAB puts on events like this all the time. It’s fine, nobody ever goes to these things.”

“Keep reading!” Cam insisted.

Jordan rolled his eyes but complied. “‘Three lucky couples attending will receive free tuition plus room and board for this semester.’ Oh wow. How the heck did they get the okay from administration on this? That’ll definitely get the students to show up.”

“I’m doomed,” Cam moaned. “I can’t turn down an opportunity like this, but there’s no way I can go to a Valentine’s Day event.”

“Why not? I’m sure any member of your harem would be thrilled if you asked her to go with you.”

Cam rapped Jordan sharply on the head. “Because, like I’ve told you, I’m in kind of a—delicate—place with my love life, all right?”

“Just talk to whoever you invite. Tell them up front that you’re only asking them out for the potential monetary gains for yourself. Take it from a pro, that’s a great way to win a girl’s heart.”

Any comeback Cam planned on making was driven out of his head by the vibration of his phone indicating had just received a new text. Somehow already knowing and dreading what he would find, he opened his Messages App to find this message from Annette: hey so see the news abt the Valentine’s day thing. Wanna go together and earn that $$$ ;)?

Before he could even begin to think how to respond to that, Cam received a new text, this one from Ella. She, too, was asking him to go to the event with her, although she didn’t make it clear if she wanted the chance to win the free tuition or if she genuinely wanted to go with him to the event. When Cam didn’t respond for a while, the two sent him more messages asking why he wasn’t responding, why he didn’t want to go with them, what was wrong with him, etcetera.

Adding to the messages, eventually Bekah began texting Cam too. Although she was much more indirect, making small talk and asking more if he had any major tests or other events coming up in the next two weeks, Cam could read between the lines well enough to tell that it was all just a preamble to her asking him to go with her to the dance as well, especially with all the talk of ‘have you done anything out of your comfort zone lately?’ and ‘did you hear that Sunview is raising tuition again this year?’ He responded to her at first, but when it became clear where her texts were going, he stopped responding to her messages.

Even Dinah got in on the fun, sending a few terse texts flat-out asking if he wanted to be her date. He suspected the shortness was a function of Dinah’s shyness, but it still made for intimidating wordings.

Soon, his phone seemed to be writhing in pain, vibrating almost non-stop at the inflow of texts from the four girls. Cam and Jordan had finished dinner long ago, but Cam had no desire to leave the cafeteria in fear of running into one of the girls in person, and Jordan was enjoying the spectacle, so they sat in the hard seats for quite some time. Eventually, unable to take Jordan’s stifled laughter any longer, Cam violently pressed the buttons on screen that would silence all incoming messages from Annette, Bekah, Dinah, and Ella. He tossed the phone back on the table as it blessedly lay silent. “And then there was peace,” he said, leaning back in his chair with his hands behind his head and a blissful smile on his face.

“You know this is temporary, right,” Jordan said. “You’ll have to make a choice eventually. Why not just choose not to go? Say you’re too busy or something.”

“I guess,” Cam replied. “But I really do want a shot at that free tuition.”

“So which wins out: greed or cowardice? I can’t wait to find out.” Jordan stood up. “Let’s head back.”

“And walk into Annette’s ambush? No thanks,” Cam said. “I’m going to take a walk. You go on ahead.”

“Suit yourself.” As the two began packing up their things, Cam’s phone buzzed again. Wondering if he had somehow forgotten to silence one of the four, Cam checked his phone to see that the text was not from Annette, Bekah, Dinah, or Ella. Instead, the sender was Cindi. Reading over his shoulder, Jordan laughed, saying “the plot thickens!”

Worried and confused, Cam read the text from Cindi. It was just one word: Heyyy

Cautiously, he replied Hello there.

General Kenobi! the reply came. How is everything?

“Do you mind?” Cam said, shoving aside Jordan, who was still trying to read over his shoulder. He sat back down. Jordan, apparently interested in where this was going and apparently with nothing better to do than make fun of Cam’s life, sat down as well.

Cam thought about what to say to Cindi. It’s not like they were close friends; he would be perfectly within his rights to leave her on read. Still, he felt so guilty about leaving so many people on read this evening that he decided to keep the conversation running for a little while longer. Stuff is fine, he sent back. Thinking more, he also texted how did you like D&M that night?

OMG it was SO MUCH FUN she responded. I want to join an ongoing campaign for real. Will you tell me when you start a new one?

Maybe, he said, although privately he thought the chances were very slim. So what’s up? Why’d you text me?

Ok, so this is going to sound weird, but why did we break up again?

Cam froze. He distinctly remembered how they had broken up: last September, he had taken her on a date to a nice restaurant. Too nice, actually: he had been flat broke and had forced Cindi to pick up the entire bill, although he hadn’t told her about that until the end of the dinner. When she had been upset by that fact, Cam remembered maybe having overreacted a little bit, calling her a variety of uninspired insults like ‘cheapskate bimbo’ and ‘selfish bitch.’ She had dumped him over the phone the next day. Cam cringed a bit at the memory as he texted a lie to Cindi saying I don’t remember.

Me neither, came the reply. Weird, since I remember things going well with us. Do you want to give it another try?

As Cam was still processing this enormous plot twist, Cindi texted again. Did you hear about the pre-Valentine’s day thing next week? I bet that would be a good place to start.

“Oh, that makes way more sense,” Cam said to himself. Ignoring Jordan’s admonishment that he shouldn’t talk to himself, Cam texted back so is this about the free tuition thing?

Ha ha, busted, she sent along with an emoji with a grin and its tongue out. I’m serious about trying it out again, though. What do you say?

While it seemed absurd, already having a date would solve some of Cam’s problems in turning down the four girls. In a snap decision, he texted let’s go together on Valentine’s day.

Great! :) she sent back. Cam set down the phone.

“So what’s the big secret this time?” Jordan asked. Cam explained Cindi’s request and his acceptance of it. Jordan looked fairly shocked. “My dude, you have four excellent options, and you somehow miss all of them and pick a fifth choice that is worse than all of them.”

“Hey, it’s a good solution,” Cam defended himself.

“Sure, if you say so.” Jordan stood up again. “I’m heading back now.”

“I’ll come with you.”

When they reached their dorm room, as Cam had expected, Annette barred the path with her arms crossed. “Cam, my good friend,” she said in a tone that could freeze lava, “why did you ghost me all tonight?”

Solemnly clapping Cam on the back, Jordan said “I shall pray for your good fortune” before slipping past Annette into the room, leaving Cam outside alone with her.

“Hi there Annette,” Cam tried. “It’s chilly out. Want to come inside?”

“I’m fine.”

“Right. So, about earlier. Um, I didn’t see your messages?”

“Really. Then why, pray tell, does my phone show that all thirty-seven of my messages sent before 8:23pm were read?” She shook her head in disappointment. “Cam, you are an awful liar.”

“Sorry,” he confessed. “I was a bit overwhelmed.”

“Well, whatever. I can ask you now, although you know what it is. Will you go to the Valentine’s day dance thing with me?”

“For the free tuition thing, or because you actually want to go with me?”

“I’ll leave that up to my dear Watson’s interpretation.”

“It doesn’t really matter. I can’t.”

“Oh?” She raised an eyebrow. “You can’t, or you won’t?”

“I can’t. I already promised to go with someone else.”

“Really? Finally. Glad to see you finally grew a pair. So who did you agree to go with? Is it Dinah? It’s Dinah, isn’t it?”

“No. I agreed to go with Cindi.”

There was no wind that night, and nobody was making much noise in their rooms at the moment. Thus, the two of them stood in silence for a long, long time. The silence was eventually broken by a flat “What.” from Annette.

“I said, I’m going with Cindi. You know, the girl who played D&M with us that night after finals? She played the bard Solnia IV.”

“Your ex.”


She stood stoic for just one second more before completely cracking. Laughing uproariously, she leaned against the wall, totally unintelligible.

“It’s not that funny,” Cam said defensively.

“Oh, oh, it is,” she managed to get out. After another several seconds of wild laughter, she finally controlled herself. Wiping the tears from her eyes, she said “so let me get this straight. You got invitations to go to a nice dance from four separate girls you know well. At least two of them have already explicitly told you they have feelings for you—”

“How did you know—oh, never mind.”

“—and we’ve established that you’re at least a little attracted to all of them—”

“When did we establish that?!”

“—and you somehow chose your ex? The one who, to be fair, is pretty normal, but you apparently hated enough to base an entire boss monster off? Well done, Cam. Congratulations. Amazing. Honestly, I can’t even be mad: you somehow proved that truth is stranger than fiction and that people are unsalvageable idiotic.”

“That kind of hurts,” Cam pouted.

Laughing again, Annette pounded him on the back. “Great work. I support you fully. I can’t wait to see how this catastrophe plays out. Oh man, now I’ve really got something to look forward to!” She walked in the direction of the elevator, still laughing. She turned around and said over her shoulder “and you better not back out when the day comes!” With that parting word, she was gone, although Cam could have sworn he could still hear traces of laughter coming from the elevator shaft.

Feeling confused and a bit sick to his stomach, Cam entered his room, where Jordan cheerfully remarked that based on Cam’s face, the encounter had gone about as well as could have been expected. Cam ignored him, opting to lie in bed in the fetal position for a few minutes before using his phone to awkwardly turn down Bekah, Dinah, and Ella, explaining that he had already promised to go with somebody else. By the first stroke of luck he had had all night, none of them inquired who.

Cam spent the intervening two weeks doing his best to forget about the upcoming event. As usual, he worked out with Ella most mornings and helped her with her novel on a few evenings. They had an unspoken mutual agreement not to talk about what she had told him half a month ago, so they acted normally, or at least tried to. He also started helping Dinah with her homework again—she was taking the next level of calculus this semester. He was also in that same class at the same time, although with a different professor, so it was a lot easier for him to help her since the information was still fresh in his mind. However, she seemed exhausted the few times they could study together. Clearly, her extreme works schedule was getting to her, although she pretended that nothing was wrong. Maybe it was this tiredness that meant that she also never mentioned what she had told him in the last few days of December.

Cam even went to church again with Bekah that Sunday. There he was once again accosted by Bekah’s friend Paul, claiming “it’s good to see you again, Can.” He also had to put up with Paul’s poorly disguised flirting to Bekah after the service, although Cam was secretly happy to see that she rebuffed him more strongly than she had before. Finally, Cam barely saw Annette except when they crossed paths in the hallways.

All told, Cam had almost managed to trick himself into forgetting about the dance until the reminder on his phone buzzed at 4:30pm on Saturday the 11th. He groaned as he began digging through the back of his closet for something resembling a suit to wear.

Jordan, of course, was already impeccably dressed. As he strapped a nice silver watch that Cam had never seen to his wrist, Jordan said “don’t forget, the event starts at 6. Don’t leave your date waiting.”

“Ok, Mom,” Cam grumbled. After Jordan left, Cam threw on a mediocre button-down shirt and acceptable slacks that he hadn’t worn in years. He swiped a jacket and tie from Jordan. He would have to wear his usual sneakers, since he didn’t own another pair of shoes other than flip-flops, but he decided it wasn’t a big deal. When he was done, he sat around the room for a while until Cindi texted him I’m ready. Meet you at the parking lot? Best Cam could recall, she lived off-campus somewhere.

Sure, he responded, joining the flow of nicely-dressed people congregating toward the cafeteria, which had apparently been changed into the venue. He marveled a little at the sheer number of people who had shown up: apparently, a lot of the student population of Sunview was tempted by potential free tuition.

Cam saw Cindi in the parking lot, just as promised. She wore a light blue strap dress and carried an expensive-looking handbag and some high-heeled shoes that looked like they’d be painful to wear sitting down, let alone dancing. The two awkwardly said hi. Cam could tell Cindi was eyeing his sneakers but she didn’t say anything. It was just as well; until now, he had forgotten how cute Cindi could look, and it was interfering with his higher snark facilities.

Silently, the two made the short walk to the cafeteria. They were a few minutes late, so the entrance was mobbed with finely dressed couples queuing for a registration table that, according to the sign, was the place to put your names down if you wanted to be eligible for the tuition. Cindi turned to Cam. “Shall we?” she said.

“We shall,” he replied. He stepped forward as he braced himself to face his looming doom.