Chapter 1:

Victory Isn't Cliche

Aria-Cherishment: My Final Performance

“Tch. Stupid girl,” Kuria sneered. “Don’t forget you challenged me first. You did this to yourself.”

With a black flash, the devil vanished leaving Millee in a disheveled heap on the ground. Hair clung to her face like a wet noodle, her clothes looked like they’d been through a woodchipper they were so finely shredded, and blood seeped into the ground beneath her. She’d been utterly humiliated in a battle where life and death had become too synonymous with each other and now she was helpless, watching as fresh raindrops began to fall, masking her tears.

Kuria was far stronger than she’d expected. She couldn’t even hold a candle to the devil’s frightening strength. Not only did she manage to underestimate Kuria’s strength, she’d also overestimated herself—not something she took lightly. Their fight lasted all of thirty minutes which was probably generous. She’d been slammed into the trunks of trees with enough force to knock limbs loose, impaled through the stomach, healed, and impaled again, and given a potent neurotoxin that would gradually degrade each of her five senses.

She knew she was putting her own life at risk, being the vanguard front, but to be defeated so soundly and so quickly… Everyone else was busy fighting their own battles; she had already accepted that help wasn’t coming; this would be where she died. No amount of pity would make up for her failure, and the unfortunate reality that she’d just burdened the rest of the group wasn’t a pleasant thought.

The sky had become a torrent as the rain continued to fall. Begrudgingly, she managed to roll on to one side as she examined herself in a puddle. Her complexion startled her. Truthfully, she wasn’t surprised, but complacency didn’t help to temper the pain. Blood smeared the corners of her mouth and lips, innumerable cuts and scrapes littered her face, and a pair of black eyes seemed to suck the last of the light from them. She was broken, bruised, and bleeding.

She clasped her hands over her mouth as a small sigh escaped her lips, wishing she could have those final few breaths of life back. “I screwed up. I knew better than to fight her after running halfway across the world—now look at me,” she whispered to herself. “No. If I just give up here, what will happen to everyone else and how will I ever apologize to Brendan for just disappearing like I did? I can’t give up…”

She planted her palms into the muddy earth, but her knees slipped in the muck as she dove face-first into the mud where, embarrassingly, she stayed for several excruciating moments. The mud had managed to cover much of her body, though that wasn’t saying much considering her clothes were in tatters. It was one thing to lose and accept the shame that came with defeat; it was another to lose and get stripped down to almost nothing. If by some miracle she didn’t manage to die and the world wasn’t totally rewritten, she’d try to finally live a little.

Tears fell down her cheeks like the pouring rain as she lifted her face from the mud, hair dangling in front of her. Her arms shook both from humiliating embarrassment and the neurotoxin now working its way through her bloodstream. It seemed her sense of taste would be the first to go; the bitterness of blood was nothing more than the flavorless composition of water at this point.

A bright flash of lightning illuminated the overcast, rainy night sky. She screamed out in frustration, mashing her fists into the ground—an appropriate reaction by her standards. Large purple bruises covered her body where the rain would wash the mud away, forming a bloody, muddy puddle beneath her. Staggering into a wobbly stance, she promptly found herself hunched over in pain. Blood poured from her mouth. She felt like death warmed over except that she was soaked to the bone and freezing cold.

“I guess I’m in a lot worse shape than I real…ized.” In a clumsy stupor, she spiraled back into the mud, using her shoulder to break the fall. “Ya know,” she said to herself, staring up at the sky, “I actually had a lot of fun. I wasn’t the lucky girl who got the guy but, in the end, I’d like to think I was happy.”

Brendan crossed her mind first. She genuinely felt guilty for erasing his memories and leaving him behind like she did, but what were the odds he’d get mixed up with Lacia of all people? Was he just destined to be an inevitable piece to an impossible puzzle? What kind of cruel fate was that? At the same time, however, she was happy he’d managed to worm his way back in, despite her best efforts to keep him out. She never could have imagined how serious the reality of the situation was, and with Lacia practically being her half-sister, Brendan’s involvement allowed her to discover a side of the family she hadn’t the slightest idea of.

“Dammit, though,” she said weakly, “I came in to avenge Lacia but what all did that manage to accomplish?” All she could think to do was laugh. “Not only do I get to die in the most disgraceful way possible, but I also dishonored my family name, and failed to protect the ones I care about most.”

Despite the unfathomable situation, there was still a silver lining. She bought time and right now, time was as good as gold. Wherever Kuria had whooshed off to, she would be coming in late and not at full strength. Yeah, she felt disgusting, wallowing in the mud like some kind of animal. Even though she knew what she was getting into, the possibility she might die here wasn’t an easy pill to swallow. After all, she was only twenty-two; she had so much life ahead of her still, but that brought her back to her first point.

“It doesn’t matter how long I live. If we lose this war, we lose everything we’ve ever known: home-cooked meals, night drives with the windows down, getting all dressed up…” A fresh coat of blood painted her lips as she broke into a coughing fit. She clutched her chest in immense pain; her heart raced; time moved in slow motion. Shakily, she took a deep breath, giving herself a moment to calm down. “I think what I’ll miss the most… is music. I know we joke about playing our favorite songs at our funerals, but it would be really nice to sing along in the shower just one more time.”

The neurotoxin was now fully embedded in her bloodstream, imbuing toxicity throughout every inch of her body: her muscles had grown exceptionally weak, her breathing was inconsistent, and her mind was fighting a war about how she was going to get home to water her plants. She imagined herself dashing into the kitchen for a watering pail. When was the last time she’d watered the plants or picked up the fallen, dead leaves from their soil? What about sunlight? It took several more minutes before she realized that it was all just a figment of her imagination brought on by the toxin.

“No… I can’t let this thing win— Ahhh, but I’m hungry and it’s time for dinn—” With what strength she could muster, she bit down on her lower lip. She couldn’t tell what hurt worse: the bite or prickly static from a nearby lightning strike. Focus was fading and the raindrops had begun to lose their soothing touch as they dripped across her face. “If only I could buy time for myself,” she pleaded. “Is that a selfish thought? Don’t I deserve at least that much—enough to say goodbye?”

She began to write on the air. Emboldened scarlet letters blazed forth as she scripted what would be both an apology and an explanation. Keeping secrets wasn’t her forte and if she died without ever explaining herself to Brendan… she didn’t know if she would be able to live with herself—dead or alive. Using the dwindling traces of mana she could retain, she attached her memories to the short letter; they would explain more in less time:

In the event you’re reading this, I didn’t make it, but I’ve provided you with that explanation I promised. Haha. Yeah, this stinks. I can’t believe I’m writing this either, but here we are.

I’ve attached my memories to this letter; all you need to access them… Just absorb the residual mana. I… wish I could have explained this to you guys in person instead, but I guess it didn’t quite work out that way, huh?

…I’m sorry. I kept secrets from all of you for so long and haven’t explained who I am, really, and why—I’m talking in present tense. Oops. Long story short, these memories will serve as the explanation to my involvement in this battle and who I was when I was still, uh, alive.

No matter what, Lacia must be kept alive. Please do everything in your power to keep her safe. That is my one and only wish… and, of course, please remember me.

—Yours truly,

Millee xoxo

The back of her writing hand slammed into the muddy earth with a plop, audible even amidst the rainstorm’s torrent. Her senses continued to dull further. Even if the neurotoxin didn’t kill her, she didn’t have enough mana left to expel it—so long as it coursed through her veins—nor would she have any left if she somehow did have enough. Neither option presented itself as an overly favorable outcome. There was a chance she survived the poisoning, but for what good? She would be blind and deaf, have no sense of taste, touch, or smell—she would have zero of her five senses; it was a death sentence either way. Help was unlikely to arrive—everyone had their own battles to fight. The most likely outcome resulted in her death either way. Expelling the toxin was an option, she would regain the functionality of all five senses, but she would have to borrow mana she didn’t have. She would have to suffer through mana-contraction fully sensualized and, again, alone. With no way to replenish her own reserves in such an event, her body would shut down like a sepsis patient. Someone would have to forcefully reset her magic circuits and only then would she have a fighting chance.

No matter how she spun things, it was a lose-lose situation and Kuria didn’t even have to try. She knew the group had been separated. “All she had to do was wear me out, making poison an easy finisher—it was the perfect way to ensure I not only lost the fight, but died… I’m such an idiot for not seeing through something so simple,” she said frustratingly.

A horrifying thought popped into her head: “What if the purpose of the neurotoxin was just to dull my senses completely? What if the idea was to make me so miserable, so afraid of death, that I took my own life?

She concluded it wasn’t an unreasonable thought. At the rate of which things were progressing, it wouldn’t be long before she was devoid of all physical feeling. Her sense of taste had faded entirely and the raindrops on her skin felt more like tiny cold spots than actual liquid water. She could wait for her mana to replenish, she thought, but there was no guarantee it would be an effective solution. The chance that the reversal of a lost sense took more strength than what she could muster, she’d only plunge herself into a senseless hell, devoid of all physicality, as she descended into the darkest depths of her mind.

The devils were not stupid, and they sure as hell wouldn’t butcher an attempt to eliminate one of the greatest threats to their operation by hitting her with only a mild poison, but she didn’t have many options left. Dying in a blank, dark world alone wasn’t an enticing thought.

She ran through every possible scenario, even shouting into the forest in the hopes that someone would hear her cries for help. “Hope,” she said aloud, “what a funny word. It’s only four letters but it carries so much meaning—so much power.” Once more, she staggered to her feet, this time using a nearby tree for support. “If a simple four-letter word can provide so many people with so much strength, I can use my own strength to use that hope to keep moving—I have to.”

Much to her surprise, it seemed miracles did exist. As she stumbled forward, tree after tree, she stumbled into another, smaller, clearing. At first, she thought the neurotoxin was causing her to hallucinate, but no. Leaning against the trunk of a tree, impatiently frowning, was Hika.

“What the hell happened to you?” she interrogated. “Omnis—I mean Ethera sent me to help you with Kuria, but I never could have imagined she was able to put someone of the Iliern bloodline through such trial.”

Sensing her exhaustion, she hurried things along. “My name is Hika, and I was Lacia’s guardian Aurei. She’s fine for now, but I was sent to help you.” She looked Mille up and down. “I’m not the most effective at treating poisonings but fixing you up is priority number one right now.”

“It’s a neurotoxin—”

“Same difference. Let me see the palm of your hand. The coagulation of your blood will determine how we go about this.”

Reluctantly, Millee held out her hand only for Hika to impatiently snatch her wrist. A small, blue blade of mana materialized over the palm of her hand as it carved out a small cut in the center. Several tense seconds later, the fresh wound finally began to bleed; thick, dark red blood oozed from her palm and down her arm. Under normal conditions, she would have bled almost immediately; the delay in reception of blood to the wound’s surface was troubling.

“You’re sooo lucky. Had you stumbled in any later… Let’s not think about that right now.” Hika acted quickly. She levitated a drop of Millee’s blood so it hovered between the two girls. “I’m going to separate the poison from your blood, dispel it, then restore the filtered blood back to your body. This is going to take a while and you need to be about as still as if you actually had died. Got it?”

“But that makes us both vulnerable and I didn’t place any defensive spells. You realize if Kuria senses your presence, we both die? She was immensely stronger than what she should have been, and I don’t have an explanation for that.”

Millee’s eyes doubled in size as she fell onto her rear with a graceless stumble. A large gash squeezed its way between her breasts and across her chest. Time seemed to slow to a crawl. She couldn’t think straight, drawing blank after blank, trying to understand what had just happened… and then the pain hit. Her body felt like it had caught fire.

Several larger gashes appeared across her arms and legs adding to the torment of her already ailing condition. Her heart pounded in her ears; her muscles screamed at her. It was almost dream-like, but instead of being asleep, unconscious, she was acutely aware of what was happening, yet she felt trapped somewhere between life and death. She could hear Hika explaining something, but the words weren’t making sense; nothing was making sense. Or was it? In-between fleeting seconds of clarity, she recalled Hika’s instructions: stay still. She was targeting areas with more mass in an effort to intercept the poison before it reached her heart.

Stray thoughts wandered into her mind; blood rushed in her ears; her pupils dilated. Her skin grew cold with frost; breath manifested in icy clouds as everything began to spin. She squeezed her eyelids shut. When she reopened them, she found herself alone in a windowless room of white walls.

It would seem our little healing party hit a snag.” Hika’s voice reverberated through her mind. “I hate to admit that you were right, but we had to take the risk. Sorry, Millee.”

She slapped herself across the face to reengage her focus. Everything felt like a dream, and it had come on so suddenly, too. She still wasn’t entirely certain what was real and what was just a figment of her imagination. Lifting a foot, she subsequently slammed it into the ground with enough force to send shockwaves through her body. While her foot now ached, it was a good sign, helping to shrug off some of the remaining sluggishness. If she had to estimate, she’d say she was only operating at about sixty percent. Even so, it was better than nothing and the feeling of nothing frightened her.

“This is definitely real; I’m definitely awake, but,” she stooped down, putting her hands on her knees, “where did this water come from? Better yet, where even am I?”

Hika’s form shimmered before her. She was dressed in an eloquent gown that trailed down the backs of her legs, skirt shorter in the front. Her form had changed entirely; the only way Millee could describe her was enviously beautiful. Unfortunately, the appearance of the new outfit could only mean one thing.

Millee shook her head, stumbling backwards, water sloshing beneath her feet. “You didn’t—”

“You were in no condition to fight. We gambled with as much time as we could have; we were lucky we managed ten minutes, much less three times that.” She sighed. “Healing you took a lot out of me, but you are Chiipha’s princess; you cannot lay down your life here. That is my duty if such need should arise.”

Millee curled her fists as she bounced on the balls of her feet. Taking a deep breath, she recognized the sweet aroma of azaleas which meant Hika really had healed her. “Let me fight with you! I can do this; we can tag-team—we have to! I still have to avenge Lacia and—”

Hika’s face twisted in frustration and annoyance. “Millee, shut up,” she emphasized. “Have you even seen yourself since regaining your senses? Do you know what Kuria did to you? Practice your temperance and look down.”

Peering into the shallow floor beneath her feet, Millee examined herself in the reflection. She’d heard people talk about color draining from one’s face, but to watch the color drain from her own was startling.

She was emaciated—not even clothes could hide the loss of body mass. Deep purple bruises had amassed across her arms and chest from Kuria’s thrashings. Small, pinhole scars were punched all throughout her abdomen, her ribs were overtly apparent whenever she took a breath, and hair was matted against her face with dried mud.

“How did I get so thin?” Her voice became a sharp whisper. She knew she’d taken Kuria’s attacks without reprieve, but the shock of her frail body was just that—astonishing.

“You’ll be fine with some rest while your body heals, but until then, you’re staying right here. You must rendezvous with Lacia and Mana afterwards, though. Defeating Lucifero, again, will send a strong signal. Ahzef isn’t as focused on Kuria seeing as she’s more of a rogue soul.” Hika’s expression was that of a concerned parent. “Time works a little differently in here, so take your time.”

Her appearance continued to change. Embroidered gold and white tights shimmered up her legs as her hair neatly pinned itself in a series of loops, bangs clipped out of her face. Her cheeks blushed with a rosy pink, lips a matte red. The fabric of the dress itself seemed to colorize in conjunction with the glamorous glow-up; shades of magenta entered a dazzling dance with hues of crimson and cherry as they twirled around the folds and pleats. A golden tiara of light shone with blazing brilliance across her forehead, throwing waves of divine magical energy in dizzying spirals.

“You obtained the power of the Halifer, didn’t you? Then, that means— That means we’re officially at war…” Millee fell to knees. Palms pressed against the watery floor, she stared at her face for a lengthy minute. Feelings of uselessness and incompetence began to swallow her like quicksand as the thoughts in her mind crept around like a thief in the night.

Hika turned to face her, aware of the internal struggle she faced. She knelt down, embracing Millee in a lovingly-warm hug. “I know you have a lot to think about but try to find the balance between power and emotion. If you allow your emotions to swallow you whole, you will fall into the same trap the last two princesses did.” Her voice was soft but forewarning. “My duty is to protect Earth’s princess, but right now, I have to protect you because you are just as integral and special as she is.”

Genuine surprise grew across Millee’s face as she let the tears flow. Compliments had always been an oddity for her. Not because she never got any, she’d received plenty over the years from the boys and even some envious girls, but because they were always the same thing:

“You’re really cute! Let’s go out,” “Damn, girl. Looking good,” “I love your skin! What products do you use on it?”

Hika’s words unlocked a part of her heart she’d abandoned the key to long ago. She’d accepted the half-baked, shallow, gross comments as an inevitable part of life. The boys would stare at her as she walked through the halls on her way to class; those who were bold enough would trap her on the stairs between floors, relentlessly vying for her contact information; she lost count of how many times she had to change her phone number.

Sometimes, a group of girls would watch and snicker. They’d whisper heartless comments before walking off, leaving her at the mercy of the stairs and unpleasant male students. She’d be pinned against the wall, arms clinging to her school bag for dear life, enduring the hot breath and invasion of personal space by those that wished for more than a phone number.

“Let it all out, Millee. Fight your demons now before they become too powerful…”


The hallway glowed, lit by the setting sun, casting the window-lined corridor in soft, orange light. It was a late Friday afternoon; most students had already expressed their goodbyes and headed home for the weekend with the hope to see their friends again at the start of the new school week.

Millee crossed the hall, feeding a few coins into a vending machine for some sugar; she was staying late for a tutoring session. The machine greedily gulped the metallic change as it spat out a small chocolate bar. The after-school lessons weren’t all bad, she supposed, but she was tired, and her slipping grades only attributed to the dark circles under her eyes.

She took a seat in the window with her back against the sun-warmed glass and closed her eyes for a moment. Her brown hair transformed into sun-kissed amber as it slipped out from its tuck behind her ear. Moving a hand to fix it, she came up with nothing but air. Surprised, she opened her eyes and was graced by the unfortunate presence of two girls, snickering, holding a lock of her hair in one hand and a pair of scissors in the other.

“Oh. I’m sorry. Did you want this back?”

Ignoring their childish behavior, she moved out of the window and began the walk back to the classroom. Before she could react, a hand grabbed her hair and yanked down with enough force she stumbled back, ultimately ending up on her rear.

The tile floors of the school were always cold despite receiving direct sunlight. This time was no different as the cold seeped through her clothes, abruptly consuming the warmth she’d received from the amplified sun in the window. Maniacal laughter echoed through the halls as the severed lock of her hair was thrown at her feet.

“Is the pwetty wittle pwincess just going to sit there or are you going to do something?” the girls taunted.

She let her bangs cover her eyes so as not to face the shitty reality of the world; if she couldn’t see it, it didn’t exist—all the reasoning she needed.

One of the girls huffed. “You’re not fun to mess with anymore, Millee. What happened? Did your boyfriends go home for the day already?”

The other girl piped up. “You know, Millee, these pictures look a lot like you. See?” She held her phone screen up to her face. “If you don’t want these getting out, then how about we play a little game?”

With a quick swoosh, the door to the tutoring room swung open as one of the teachers stepped out. “Knock it off, you two. There is no room for the irreprehensible bullying of another student.”

“Oh, come on now, Mr. Cline. We were just having a friendly little chat. No harm, no foul, right? You wouldn’t want to make a mistake, now, would you?” The girl with the phone moved her finger as if she were about to send something.

“I’ll take that, thank you,” came a male student’s voice. He snatched the phone from the girl’s hand. “Now, what were you planning to do with all of these photos? That’s super uncool, ya know?” He swiped across the screen. “Delete, delete, delete…all gone,” he said, holding the girl at bay with just an arm before returning the phone to her hands.

“Thank you, Kayde. I’ll leave Millee to you, then.” Mr. Cline’s face turned solemn as he addressed the other two girls. “What is this, your third write-up now? This means either a full school year suspension or full expulsion, you know? We take bullying, especially sexual harassment, very seriously. I’d like to hear your explanations in my office, now.” He turned to Millee, brushing herself off. “You’re free to head on home for the weekend, Millee. We can pick things up on Monday.”

“Mm. Thank you, Mr. Cline,” she said, walking past him to collect her things from the classroom.


Why me? Why is it always me?” She stood at her locker, placing her books and other materials inside. “How is being pretty such a curse?”

A small metallic knock came from a few lockers up. She closed her locker door and spun the dial to ensure it was locked. “How are you doing? Blackmail is pretty scary, especially when it involves photos like those,” Kayde said concernedly. “I’m here if you need someone to talk to, you know?”

“Thank you,” she said, “but I’ll be fine. You deleted the photos, right? Then I don’t have to worry about them getting out. They were the only copies anyways since they were kind of, umm, taken against my will.”

The sun was now level with the horizon as the sky began to unfold into hues of purples and oranges. It seemed even the sun had a long day. Shadows fell across the school as the final rays of sunlight eclipsed the horizon, signaling the end of another grueling twenty-four hours. Her lower back ached from the fall and her tailbone was likely bruised; sitting would be difficult for a while.

She sighed. “I’m going home. Thank you for… the… help…?” Kayde swopped in, wrapping his arms around her.

“You know, I just did you a huge favor, so the least you can do is offer to make it up to me, right?” he said, sending chills down Millee’s spine.

She scrambled out from underneath his arms, only to be tripped up by his foot, hidden in the shadows. The floor grew closer with each passing second as she realized the mistake she’d made. Instead of stopping at the lockers, she should have gone straight home. If he wasn’t waiting on a friend and thus following her around, that could only mean one thing, and he’d already made clear he wanted compensation.

“Those were really nice photos, Millee, and I had to delete them,” he said. “Such a shame because if they were on my phone, I wouldn’t even have to share, and we wouldn’t be here right now.” He grabbed the back of her sweater, perhaps to try and break her fall some, but it slipped off her arms without much avail.

Smack. Her head buzzed from the impact against the floor as her eyes glazed over. The last thing she remembered was Kayde stepping over her body, grinning. She blacked out.


The sun had fully set. Night had fallen onto the school grounds. Small solar powered lights lined the sidewalks; dim yellow light harbored itself inside the school building as if it were afraid of the dark while an announcement played across the intercom:

Campus is now closed for the weekend. Any students remaining on campus, please finish what you are doing and head home. Campus will reopen at 7am Monday morning. Thank you.

Another student appeared in the illuminated double doors of the school entrance, juxtaposed against the artificial lights inside and the natural darkness outside.

“Go home, Brendan. You can come back at 7am on Monday. Your grades are excellent; you don’t need extra tutoring,” Mr. Cline said, half pushing, half dragging him out of the building. “Us teachers have lives to live too, now please go home. I’ll see you bright and early Monday morning.”

“But college entrance exams start next semester. I’ve gotta get the best grades I can so I can get scholarships. We…can’t afford to send me to college otherwise,” he said. “So that means lots of studying and after-school-tutoring!”

“Goodnight, Brendan.” With one last shove, Mr. Cline pushed him out of the building, closing, and subsequently locking, the doors behind him.

He checked the time on his phone as the screen glowed in the inky darkness: 6:37pm. “Maybe it is time to go home. I’ve been here almost twelve hours already,” he said, laughing. He opened the Phone app, prepared to explain his late arrival, but he forgot his parents were away on a business trip. “Looks like it’s just me tonight, huh?

Turning his back to the doors, he began the trek home for the evening. The air had turned chilly; snow was expected that weekend. Streetlamps flickered on, casting a dim yellow hue over the roads and sidewalks, forcing the night to retreat in its wake. Rubber soles pounded the pavement beneath his feet as he wrapped his scarf around his neck, exhaling warm clouds of frosty breath.

As he approached the school gates, he realized he must have misplaced his ID. He’d be unable to properly check out without it. Frantically, he removed his jacket, checking the pockets before dumping the contents of his bag on the ground. He sighed. No luck.

He walked up to the scanner after throwing everything back inside. “Brendan Greyriter checking out. I lost my Student ID so I don’t exactly have one to scan at…the…moment…”

Muffled scuffling came from an open recreational building, hidden away in a back corner of campus. Cautiously, he pointed his phone’s flashlight towards the building name as the noises grew louder. The flashlight revealed it was the storeroom for outdoor equipment, things such as bikes and sports balls.

What sounded like a hushed whisper rose from inside. The door was slightly ajar, but it was pitch as black. “Why would anyone be playing around in the storeroom anyways?” he concluded. He pointed the phone down to turn the flashlight off, but something was off. The door was open when it should have been locked and he could have sworn he’d heard whispering coming from inside.

A brisk wind blasted him with bone-chilling cold…and the sweet scent of perfume. “That blew from my front which means the perfume I smelled also came from somewhere in front of me, seeing as I didn’t catch it until the wind blew.” Taking a few quiet steps back, he nestled his bag against the edge of a set of concrete steps and returned to the front of the storeroom where he crouched down, listening intently for any additional whispers.

The wind blew from his front again. The scent of perfume was stronger. If he was closer to the ground and the scent was more prominent… He didn’t move an inch. The ruffling of his clothes could be mistaken for a whisper—the one thing he was waiting for. Several minutes passed before a new sound emanated from inside—a pants zipper. Brendan moved without thinking.

He burst into the storeroom, flipping every light switch on the wall, temporarily blinding himself. Fortunately, it brought an abrupt halt to whatever was about to happen, the perpetrators’ pants at their feet. “Kayde,” Brendan seethed, “what the hell are you doing?”

“Don’t be such a damn killjoy, Brendan. Nobody even likes her anyways, so what does she have to lo—”

“Hey, Kayde?”


Brendan sucker punched Kayde in the face, forcing him to bite his tongue, knocking him into a rack of locked bicycles. Tunnel vision clouded his judgment, but it didn’t matter. He followed up by grabbing the collar of Kayde’s shirt. “You were about to do something immoral to,” he looked around for the source of the perfume as his eyes settled on Millee’s unconscious body, “that girl weren’t you, you bastard?”

“And so what if I was?” Kayde replied through a swollen jaw and broken nose. “She owes me a favor after—”

“She doesn’t owe you a single damn thing!” He threw Kayde to the ground. “If you ever so much as look at her funny, I will find you and beat the shit out of you. Be a man, Kayde. You’re an embarrassment to the male population—people like you make me sick.”

Millee began to stir, visibly shivering. Her clothes were torn in various places, her lip gloss was smeared like she’d been kissed in the dark, and her wrists were covered in visible scrapes. The sight of Brendan and Kayde filled her with mixed reactions. On the one hand, Kayde’s pants were at his feet. Likewise, her clothes were torn. On the other, a boy she’d never seen before shook with rage as he held Kayde in a chokehold. Her heart was ready to beat out of her chest and she was freezing cold. She crossed her arms against her chest as she retreated to the back wall.

“Don’t ever let me see you again or you’ll wish you were in the zoo with the rest of the animals.” Brendan pulled his hand from Kayde’s collar, thrusting him towards the door. “How many other girls have you done this to, I wonder? Maybe I should skip reporting you to the school and go straight to the police instead.”

“Tch. Dammit Greyriter. You’ll get yours! Just you wait!”

Brendan tilted his head back, giving Kayde the most vile, terror-inducing, stare. “Wanna say that again, you heap of human garbage?” He stood in the doorway as he watched Kayde run through campus with his pants still at his feet. With Kayde now out of the picture, he turned his attention to Millee.

“You can stay where you are or you can walk out of that door right now if that’s what your head is telling you to do, but at least let me give you this.” He took his jacket off, holding it out for her to take. He avoided direct eye contact, knowing that once she came off the adrenaline high, she’d realize she was indecent; he couldn’t call himself a man if he looked.

“K-Kayde called you Greyriter.” Her teeth chattered, but she remained unmoved. “Are you by chance Brendan Greyriter?”

Surprised at the sound of his full name, he replied. “That would be me, but how do you know who I am? No offense, but I don’t believe we’ve met before.”

“M-m-my name is Millee, Millee Ekair. Your name floats around the tutoring room every once in a while. The t-teachers laugh about how you never leave,” she said, somewhat more relaxed.

“Oh. Yeah, I mean, gotta study for entrance exams next semester, ya know?” The alarm on his phone began to ring. “Guess that means it’s almost eight. I don’t know how long you’ve been in here or what he did to you, but what say we at least get you somewhere warm? Sound good?”

She nodded. “I-I’ll take the jacket now. Thank you.”


A week passed since the ordeal with Kayde. Even the girls who normally teased her expressed their sympathies for what had happened, stating they were wrongfully jealous of her looks; they would never wish something so awful on anyone. All she could do was offer up a weak “Yeah.”

She couldn’t stop thinking about it. She’d been stopped in the hall before, but never had she been purposefully knocked out and taken into some dusty storeroom tucked away in a remote corner of campus. She shuddered. On another note, there was Brendan to deal with now. He explained how he found her, waiting patiently out in the cold. His ability to analyze a situation like that and sense something was off was incredible; she’d feel safe with someone like that around—preferably in a romantic sort of way!

“Is this what they mean by falling head over heels for someone?” she groaned. Her time in high school had been anything but favorable and she’d closed her heart off because of that fact. The sudden addition of Brendan in her life confused her. Was she just a scared little girl who couldn’t defend herself? Did she need a big, strong man to protect her? “No… I just want to feel like someone in my life gives a damn about me for once…” A cup of hot chocolate slid its way onto her desk in front of her; the steam was still billowing out from the top.

“Not to eavesdrop or anything, but I couldn’t help but overhear what you said and, honestly, I’m a little too warm for hot chocolate right now.” Brendan gave her a beaming smile.

She swore her heart skipped a beat. “Oh. Uhhh… Yeah, the window seat is kinda cold, ya know? Haha.” She scolded herself for such a blatantly stupid response. “Thank you for this, though. I really appreciate it.”

She rotated the cup in her hands so she could take a sip. Written in sharpie, on the front, was her name. Withdrawing her attention from the cup, she wanted to ask why her name was written on it and not his, but he was already gone, seated on the opposite side of the classroom.

Her heart danced around in her chest as she put two and two together. She finally had someone who was looking out for her, and she couldn’t be happier.


Hika smiled, sensing the myriad of emotions she felt. “These are good emotions, Millee. You’ve been strong for too long. When Kuria defeated you, you laid there, confused. I could have helped, but… You needed to remember who you were and who you’ve always been; you needed to remember the days you’ve wished for so long to forget. They are the basis of an entirely different kind of strength, one that is important not just now, but always.”

“So, you watched as I almost died and then relived some of the darkest days of my life,” Millee said, laughing through tears. “But you chose to gamble your life on mine for this? For me of all people? I’m a wreck. I’m crying over something as simple as a compliment, but it was so genuine,” she said, defending her position. “Thank you for reminding me that my life has value and I’m not the girl that’s too pretty for anyone to care, after all.”

“Don’t mention it,” she winked. “Rest here. This is a space I was able to create. It sits in a dimension of its own and cannot be accessed by anyone other than those I’ve granted permission. You’ll be safe here until you recover. In the meantime, let me handle Kuria—save your vengeance for Lacia for the devil that truly deserves it. There’s no need to waste resources on second-rate, right?”

Mille raised her head and gave an affirmative “Mm!”

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