Chapter 99:

Volume 4, Interlude D: Things To Come

Heroes of the Past

Champ, after seeing Yuka off, rode the bus home. He listened to an audio book but his attention was elsewhere. He kept revisiting the events involving Tomo Yuki. The man resolved not to cause further trouble for Lilith and the entire team, yet ended up in another precarious situation. That woman, she was the culprit for his irregular behavior. However, whenever he attempted to recollect his interactions with her, his mind drew a blank. Damn, what exactly did she do to him? The rookie hero questioned his own gullibility, falling for the same trick twice.Bookmark here

“I’m not helping anyone, am I?” he muttered to himself, staring out the window.Bookmark here

“Oh, you’ve helped me out quite a bit, though. Don’t be so hard on yourself. You showed really great promise,” someone responded to his worries.Bookmark here

Champ looked around, searching for the source of the voice. The seats around him were all occupied but no one looked in his direction. They were all interacting with their phones, oblivious to his existence. He inspected the window, expecting his reflection, but instead found a masked woman’s face looking back at him. It was a familiar sight even if his memories of it were murky.Bookmark here

“You!” he accused, keeping his voice low in fear of disturbing those around him.Bookmark here

“Don’t be so mean. I merely gave a little motivation to pursue your true desires. Isn’t it more fun to fully recognize what you can really do instead of just lazing around?” the woman questioned.Bookmark here

“You’ve caused me so much trouble! Betraying my teammates and going after Tomo when she never was my target to begin with!” he disagreed.Bookmark here

“Tomo Yuki, best friends with your very cute girlfriend, Yuka. You say Tomo isn’t a target but she’s with those degenerates, isn’t she? Not a very good influence on dear Yuki. Who’s to say that those poor people’s tastes and habits won’t eventually make their way to your beloved Yuka? A noble and fair goal if you ask me,” she countered, her tone constant.Bookmark here

“Don’t play mind games with me. I’ve had enough of them. Your lies won’t convince me anymore,” the man refuted.Bookmark here

The masked woman shook her head in pity. Al warned her not to interfere with Champ, considering him a failed test subject. However, she believed he could still be convinced and utilized as a valuable asset in the final stages of her plan. Just one more “push” and he would recognize the errors of his ways, finally joining the correct side. She stared directly into Champ’s eyes, influencing him yet again with her hypnotic suggestions. A piercing headache developed after five seconds, forcing her to break eye contact. She tried again but it only aggravated her head pains.Bookmark here

“We’re done here,” Champ declared, turning his head away from the window and closed his eyes.Bookmark here

Still, he couldn’t discount the woman’s words. He worried about the potential influence Tomo Yuki wielded over Yuka. After all, they were close friends, acquainted since middle school. The masked woman wasn’t incorrect about Tess’ party members either. They lacked discipline, often bending rules and didn’t follow proper protocol. But, he needed to trust Yuka. At the same, he also needed to reflect on his own insecurities.Bookmark here

“Lilith, are you busy? I have something to talk to you about,” he said, calling the leader.Bookmark here

***Bookmark here

“Oh well, should have known that Tess caught on. She’s always been a smart one,” the masked woman admitted, leaning back in her chair.Bookmark here

She draped a fancy cloth, embroidered with roses, over the vanity mirror on her office desk. The woman pressed a white button on her office phone, calling Al over. Her loyal attendant arrived within half a minute, awaiting her request.Bookmark here

“Al, you can definitely remove Champ Shinji from the list now. He is now one of Lilith’s lackeys through and through. To a certain extent, Tess’ as well. Please take away the mirror too. I have no need for it anymore,” she commanded.Bookmark here

“Of course, my lady. I don’t want to overstep my bounds, but I did give you fair warning about pursuing Champ again. Any negative effects interacting with him?” Al inquired.Bookmark here

“Just a little headache, it’s nothing to worry about. Have the preparations been made?” she replied.Bookmark here

“Yes. We did run into a bit of trouble with Ace and her companion. However, it’s been resolved. The key masks are all ready to be distributed. Have you obtained sufficient information or should we continue to gather more?” Al replied.Bookmark here

“No, it’s satisfactory. We’ll return to the Mirror and refine it there. Prepare the things. We’ll leave in an hour,” the woman instructed.Bookmark here

Al nodded, picking up the mirror. The woman removed her mask, staring at it. Champ Shinji failed at his task but Tomo Yuki would have another challenger soon enough. And this one wasn’t a pushover either, much more formidable. She picked up her clipboard, staring at the names listed. Yes, it was time to decide which masks were the right fit for them.Bookmark here

“Tess, time is ticking for you,” the woman declared, grinning at what was to come.Bookmark here

***Bookmark here

“Hand me the case, Al,” a man commanded.Bookmark here

Al nodded, transferring possession of the briefcase over to his master. The man, in his early fifties, strolled past a long line of well-dressed servants, who flanked him on both sides. When he walked past, they bowed their head in respect, courteous expressions on their faces. Al remained behind, watching him walk through an open ornate door. A pair of servants closed the door and stood to the side, guarding it. Al walked over to the waiting room sat down in a booth, answering an incoming call.Bookmark here

“Are they impressed?” a female voice questioned with excitement.Bookmark here

“My lady, the official meeting hasn’t even begun. I am waiting for Master to complete his demonstration. Once he is finished, I will update you with the latest information,” Al assured the orange haired woman.Bookmark here

“You better, Al. Gotta go! Training for the new recruits is starting soon. I can’t be late!” she said, hanging up.Bookmark here

The young lady dedicated many hours to this project. It would be a shame if it wasn’t well-received. He stood up and stretched, hoping for great success.Bookmark here

***Bookmark here

“I will provide an example of its capabilities,” the man announced, setting his briefcase down on the table.Bookmark here

The audience watched in silence. They were a group of influential people in the Mirror, responsible for planning the Masquerade and the actual operation of the event itself. Al’s master revealed three masks. Two were plain in design, resembling ones worn in dramatic operas. The third was a kitsune mask, decorated with sparkling glitter and sharp red scratch-like marks underneath the eye holes.Bookmark here

“My daughter made great strides in developing this most recent batch. Allow me to demonstrate,” the man explained.Bookmark here

“Mr. S, I have prepared everything,” one of the audience members spoke, clapping his hands.Bookmark here

The stage curtains rose, revealing a man wearing Shakespearean clothing. He wielded a rapier, awaiting his opponent. Mr. S went backstage, returning in three minutes. A woman, donning the kitsune mask, appeared on stage shortly after. Bookmark here

“This will be a standard exhibition battle within a bounded area. Participants will work within this space and are not allowed to exit until a winner is decided. You may begin,” Mr. S explained the rules before raising his hand in the air.Bookmark here

The man began with a flurry of rapid stabs at the masked woman. She avoided his attacks with ease and stomped her left foot. Sharp rocks shot up from the ground. He swiped his pointer finger across his blade, cancelling her magical projectiles. The masked woman stared at his hand, a slight smile on her face. She took small steps toward him, knowing he couldn’t retaliate. The man stared at her in confusion, unable to strike. Bookmark here

She stole his rapier and then poked him in the forehead. He fell downward, regaining movement again. The masked woman thrust the rapier at the man, landing thirty consecutive blows. Each blow alternated between the fire and wind elemental. The man’s left and right arm became enveloped in flames. Bursts of wind struck his chest and stomach, creating dark bruises everywhere on the upper body. She tossed away his weapon and pointed at the ground. A portal whisked away the man and he reappeared in the air.Bookmark here

Tears started running down the man’s face. He agreed to this because of the money offered. It wouldn’t matter though if he ended up spending all of it on medical costs. He plummeted, striking the ground hard. The man coughed out blood, blacking out. Mr. S declared the match over, announcing the masked woman as the winner.Bookmark here

“I’m not quite impressed yet,” one of the audience members said.Bookmark here

“I must see more before making a decision. It has promise though,” another commented.Bookmark here

“Yes, it will make for great entertainment in the Masquerade,” someone else agreed.Bookmark here

“Mr. S, that was a good showing. Let’s see more. Onto the next one,” a person in the front row demanded.Bookmark here

“As you wish,” Mr. S agreed. Bookmark here

The curtains closed. After one minute, they slid open, revealing a new challenger. This time it was a woman, wearing a regal dress, who carried a staff. Mr. S motioned for the match to begin.Bookmark here

“Oh, you managed to get someone from the previous Masquerade. How did you manage to convince Ms. Stella?” an elderly woman in the front row questioned.Bookmark here

“She’s one of my many clients. It was easy to invite her,” a middle-aged man, wearing a white suit, replied with a slight grin.Bookmark here

Ms. Stella raised her staff in the air and the entire area plunged into darkness. Those in the audience heard sounds of two weapons striking against each other. When the darkness subsided, Ms. Stella held her glowing staff against her foe’s neck. The fox-masked woman stared at her opponent’s weapon and its glow vanished. Ms. Stella dropped her staff, clutching her right hand in pain. The masked woman took possession of the staff, feeling a sudden shock. She dropped the weapon, seeing burn marks on her hands.Bookmark here

“Mr. S, we never got to hear what her name was,” a young man in the middle row remarked.Bookmark here

“Renee, beta tester No. 5, one of our promising,” Mr. S answered.Bookmark here

Ms. Stella tapped her right foot and her staff flew back into her hands. She raised her staff again and ice shards flew at Renee. The masked woman unleashed a stream of flames from her hands, countering the attack. Ms. Stella swung her staff and a magical circle appeared underneath Renee. The masked woman knelt, placing her hand down on the ground. Initially, the magical circle dimmed in brightness, losing its form. However, it soon stabilized, and Ms. Stella chanted an incantation. Three dozen wispy hands burst from the magical circle and latched onto Renee’s legs. The masked woman fired off bolts of magical energy but failed at extricating herself. Soon, she vanished, dragged into the unknown abyss.Bookmark here

The magical circle dissipated, tiny orbs of light rising into the air. Ms. Stella’s brow furrowed, forming a protective barrier. The orbs of light, originally light in hue, turned a scarlet red. They clumped together, merging into the shape of a spear. It shot towards Ms. Stella, piercing through the woman’s barrier.Bookmark here

The Masquerade participant blocked the spear with her staff, pushing against it. As she struggled, a dark tinted magical circle formed underneath Ms. Stella. The same hands which dragged Renee downward now lifted her upward. Renee shoved Ms. Stella forward as her staff shattered. The spear struck Ms. Stella in the chest and a dark mist enveloped her. She screamed out in pain, falling unconscious onto the stage.Bookmark here

“The winner, Renee!” Mr. S shouted.Bookmark here

The curtains closed for the second time and Mr. S spoke with a few people in the front row. He nodded and accepted a piece of paper from a woman with a fur scarf.Bookmark here

“We have a special request from the audience. They wish to nominate a special guest of honor to test Renee. I accept this challenge,” Mr. S revealed, bowing to the woman.Bookmark here

***Bookmark here

Jessica Staccato sat in the middle row, intrigued by the sudden development. It was true the second challenger was a Masquerade participant, but she didn’t make it past the initial elimination round. To her, Renee’s first two opponents gave her no indication of what the woman was truly capable of. However, this special guest of honor might change her opinion.Bookmark here

A man, wearing an eyepatch emblazoned with a stylized P and the number 3, appeared on the stage. He wore a dark military coat with a silver metal hanging from the right breast pocket. Jessica sat up straight with a smile.Bookmark here

“Our third contestant is a not a Mirror native but has trained with countless Masquerade participants including those that have made it to the final rounds. He’s known as Professor Tri. Let the match begin!” Mr. S proclaimed.Bookmark here

Jessica took out her phone, reading the information she requested on Mr. S. He was a businessman, doing business in both the Mirror and other places. She scrolled further down, expecting a full name, but found most of the data redacted. How very strange. Her clearance was high, allowing her access to sensitive information that even local authorities couldn’t access. This man had clout, able to prevent anyone from digging further.Bookmark here

Professor Tri took one step forward and appeared in front of Renee right away, despite being five feet away from her initially. The masked woman leaped into a portal, avoiding his flurry of punches. She appeared behind him but was suddenly struck by those same punches she avoided seconds ago. The woman teleported away again, this time into the air. Mr. Tri appeared above her, sending Renee face first into the ground. She clutched her fractured jaw as blood leaked out of her nose. Mr. Tri wasted no time in attacking, hurling the woman into a nearby stage scaffolding. The back of her head struck the metal and a big welt formed. She stood up dazed, blocking the man’s kicks.Bookmark here

“Well done, young lady. However, you lack form. Those powers you have won’t carry you too far if you don’t hone them,” Professor Tri admonished, landing a kick on her arm.Bookmark here

The man leaped over her, kicking the scaffolding. It fell over, crushing Renee. She finally managed to throw it off and swung the scaffolding around. Her wild attack struck Professor Tri in the stomach. At least, that’s what she saw. The man already avoided her attack and stole the scaffolding. He kicked the woman’s legs, knocking her prone. He lifted the scaffolding above his head and threw it downward at Renee. The scaffolding decimated her back, leaving her unable to move.Bookmark here

Renee’s fingers twitched and the piece of metal flew off her back. She attempted to stand but lacked the stamina. Multiple portals surrounded Professor Tri and sharp projectiles shot out. Daggers, swords, ice pellets, sharp rocks, and compressed magic all struck the man. Jessica saw through it right away, aware Professor Tri already escaped. The man reached for the woman’s mask, but Mr. S warped to her position, stymieing him.Bookmark here

“I like to protect my client’s identity. You’ve already won,” Mr. S said.Bookmark here

“As you wish. Let’s see how far these masks will get you,” Professor Tri relented, stepping back.Bookmark here

Renee was inexperienced, unable to see through his mirages and tricks. Jessica, an experienced fighter, even had trouble locating his true location at times. This man was dangerous because he was holding back. She could tell from his strikes that he wasn’t putting full power behind them. The woman wondered if he was connected to the strange occurrences happening near the Mirror border.Bookmark here

Bookmark here

“I apologize for creating such an unfavorable situation for you, Mr. S. Professor Tri has beaten many upper tier Masquerade participants before. Thank you for humoring me,” the woman said.Bookmark here

“It’s no problem at all. I’m always thankful for a chance to see strong people such as him,” Mr. S responded.Bookmark here

“Mr. S, that’s enough for now. We’ll discuss it among ourselves and contact you once a decision is made,” a man wearing a monocle said.Bookmark here

Mr. S nodded and called over audience members to test the plain masks in his briefcase. He asked them to wear it and then whispered commands into their ears. Almost every tester followed their orders without disobedience, except for higher ranking members. Mr. S assured them the final versions would work on anyone, no matter their willpower or magical resistance. He glanced upwards, finally noticing Jessica Staccato. She gave him a pleasant smile and departed.Bookmark here

He required her assistance in the future. For now, he depended on his daughter to complete the initial phases of the plan. However, he wasn’t naïve to believe she wouldn’t fail. There was always a backup in place. Mr. S hoped it wouldn’t come to that.Bookmark here

Bookmark here

The orange-haired woman stared at her three candidates. She held up masks, deciding which ones fit them. Usually, there were five people, but one of them was on loan to her father for his demonstration. Another was busy, learning how to harness her true potential.Bookmark here

“Remember, you’re all capable of beating anyone. This potential lies within all of you and these masks are a conduit for channeling that. You’ve all been vetted and selected based on your skills and performance. Keep that in mind when facing enemies,” she said.Bookmark here

All three nodded. She finally handed everyone their masks and led them out into the training field. The woman instructed them on their postures, pointing out their mistakes and re-positioned their body parts. She sparred with everyone, pushing them to their limit. By the end, they were exhausted, their masks containing cracks and dins. The woman dismissed them for the day, taking the masks back home for analysis.Bookmark here

Arriving at home, she stared at the one mask not worn yet. She was especially proud of the butterfly adorned on the eye hole. Yes, this mask was intended for one very special individual. And soon, they would make their debut along with the other four people. The woman couldn’t wait to see them finally crush Tess and her uninspired group of “heroes”.Bookmark here

You can resume reading from this paragraph.