Chapter 6: I, Interlude
"A year's care, a minute's ruin, huh?"
The phrase bled into the blank canvas of my mind as Guan and I stepped out of the treeline. It had been a silent walk back to the temple; one which I was way too happy to maintain. Nerves shot up to the sky, my stomach still clenching due to guilt, there was no way I wouldn't screw up any further by carelessly opening my dumb-ass maw.
So, I didn't. Jaw clenched shut, I stared at the ground, my shoulders tense at the feeling of the monk's hand around my forearm. His grip felt lax, yet firm enough to dissuade me from attempting to shake it off. I tried to convince myself that the reason for this was to keep me from falling, my legs somewhat numb from being bonded for so long. That was a comforting thought.
It was a pity that I knew better.
The sound of my name didn't register at first. I blinked owlishly at Lu, who was running to me at an alarming speed. Guan's arm snaked around my torso. I felt the teen's form crash against mine half a second later, making me stumble and almost fall had it not been for the older monk holding me back.
He took my wrists in his hands. His brown eyes peered into mine, and I saw my haggard reflection ripple on their surface. Guan barked an order somewhere behind my back. Hesitant, he let me go.
Looking over Lu's shoulder, I saw several monks scrambling, emptying the court. At this point, I recognized most of them. Many threw me worried glances before going on their way.
I frowned, confused at their actions. I hadn't been gone that long, had I?
"Call off the search party." Master monk Guan ordered someone just out of my field of vision. The person, whom I realized to be Bai, answered with obedience and I felt another small part of me wilting from the inside.
Tired of being ignored, Lu snatched back my attention with the tug of my limb. Not quite knowing what to do with myself, I stared at a mole right below his left eye.
"We looked for you everywhere!" Worry shifted into anger, confusion, and then anger again. "Are you OK!?"
Disconcerted at his tone, my mouth parted to speak, yet no word came out. I settled for a nod. It didn't seem to assuage his worries.
"At ease, young monk." Calm as it sounded, Guan's voice left no room for argument. "This does not concern you. Return to the training grounds to await instructions." His touch lingered, but the apprentice did take a step back. His mouth opened and closed in silent protest, eyes alternating between gawking at my face and the face of his mentor, as if weighing the ended up settling on me. "I'll come to see you later, alright?" His feet shifted in their place as he told me this, deliberately ignoring Guan. "I'll come to get you in the evening." There was a moment of hesitation. "We are getting pudding for tonight's dessert."
"He says that like he wants to tempt me."
I felt like almost cracking a smile. I would have, had Guan not reminded me of the severity of the situation.
"Lu." He chided. The warning in this single word was strict enough to make me shiver. Despite his usual rashness, Lu wasn't immune to it either, flinching at his own name. His worried frown only deepened.
"I need to take the reins."
Inhaling deeply through my nose, I mustered up enough courage for a smile.
"I'm fine, kid. But I can't keep you company tonight." My fingers twitched, and I considered my next words. Settling a hand over his head, I mussed his shorts strands of hair. "Tomorrow morning, yeah?" The hand fell back to my side. I gave Guan an affirmative nod, eyes on his chin, not yet prepared to meet his gaze.
The silence that followed didn't last more than a couple of seconds; it felt longer than that.
"Let's go to your room now. We shall talk later." That was a promise I would hold him onto.
To my initial surprise, Guan wasn't the one to escort me back to my bedroom. Then again, he probably had better things to do. And when didn't he?
"Master Monk! Wait!—" Lu pleaded in the distance, and I hoped he wouldn't get in too much trouble.
Arriving at my room, overwhelmed with the events of the day, I sat on the mat and thought: Having failed to be good, the only thing left for me was to be careful. "Ya kinda failed at that, too." Trying again wouldn't worsen the situation. "You sure?" Head hitting the pillow, I began to brainstorm what to tell Guan. "Think." Whatever came next, I had to minimize the damages. "Think. What would someone who is actually smart do? Aside from not being in this situation in the first place? Seph would've been fine."
I couldn't blame anyone but myself.
'Your issue is that you believe that not thinking about a problem you can't face is akin to not having said problem anymore. That you can take things lightly and that no one will care. You're like a child.'
My brother, Joseph, had been a non-nonsense man once. To the surprise of no one, we didn't get along very well back then, me being an absurd human being and whatnot. This had changed somewhat on the day of Samuel's birth. And although I loved my older brother to bits, ―although he had become a more understanding and patient person― those had always been a few words from his past that stuck. Hurt. Mostly because he'd been right about it.
To think I had done so much progress towards being better.
Two steps forwards, and three backflips back.
Why had I not told Guan the truth?
"Because I didn't want them to bother."
"No." This time, my brother's voice retorted. "It's because you didn't want to bother."
Somewhere inside me, something wanted to crack.
Words, like whistling ghosts —words that I hadn't dared to utter until this moment, slipped out of my lips before I could stop them. "Mom. Mooom...". But no one answered back.
"I want to go home."
My nap lasted until somewhen in the night, eyes opening to complete darkness as I clutched a couple of pillows against my body. I remembered lying down, although I didn't remember falling asleep. My throat felt too dry and it also occurred to me that I hadn't had any liquids since breakfast.
Brain turned slushy, incapable of higher functions, I opted to simply remain calm under my cover. My eyes wandered around the inky blackness of the room; the sound of my own breathing suddenly too loud to be comfortable. Something weighted heavily on my chest. While I had come to a decision at one point before blacking out, I still need to act on it. And wasn't that always the hardest part?
"I haven't been grounded like this since I was, what, thirteen?" The thought, sudden as it was welcome, made me snort to myself. I rubbed my eyes with the back of my hand, grunting as the bracelet scraped against an eyelid. Frustrated, I brought my other hand to the afflicted area and kneaded, fabric rustling as it shifted. It was here when I realized that someone had tucked me in during my sleep.
I didn't have to wonder for too long. Prompting myself up, my body froze as the hand that was about to hold me upright sank into something mushy, lukewarm, that most definitely wasn't floor. I brought a sticky finger to my nose and inhaled: Pudding. Lu. Right; How great. And, at this point, why the hell not?
"He could at least have brought a spoon."
Not too long after this thought, the door opened.
With a flick of his finger, the room was bathed in light, my eyes squinting at its sudden intrusion. Guan's determined look morphed into one of confusion, and I realized I had my fingers inside my mouth. Mortification crashed into me in waves for a fraction of a second before I quickly put down my hand. Messy bed hair, bloodshot eyes, a hand smeared with gooey goodness— I was probably a sight to behold.
An awkward silence passed between us. And, in ridiculous wonder, that had been exactly what I needed. 'Two steps forwards, three backflips back'. It occurred to me, I might as well take a leap of faith.
Because, as much as I hated to admit it, I couldn't keep doing this alone.
"You know, I know this is a tired line, but it wasn't really what it looked like. For the most part."
By the look that he threw at me, I knew I was going to love this conversation.
It had still been dark when he returned to the temple. A nervous thrum buzzed beneath his skin, as it hadn't done in a long time. The remnants of her magic had yet to completely dissipate from the air around the compound.
"This is serious." Were his thoughts at the time before his first departure. That had been an understatement of the situation at hand.
In the weeks he had gotten to know her, Master Monk Guan discovered many things about his new protegee. She preferred salty foods over sweets, ate her food in a particular order, liked to fiddle with her bracelet as she remained in deep thought, and had a soft spot for those young. She was also a creature bathed in melancholy.
Melancholy, and something a bit more. He could always sense that bit of more; swirling gently in her body, thrumming against her skin. Then, she made a tree grow.
No. She had created one.
A goddess, the goblins had called her.
'Hypothetically speaking, would you be able to send me back?'
Maybe she wasn't a demon, nor a deity. He was sure she wasn't either. But as much as he had learned about the earthly and spiritual realms during the centuries he'd been alive, Guan would've been foolish to consider himself infallible. Perhaps, she was something worse. Something more ancient. Problematic. He couldn't keep assuming and take her word for granted. He had started to have the feeling that her own word mattered little to her.
"You were right. We need to talk." Eliza told him after another bout of silence had passed. He stared into her eyes, and for once, he found them to be too bright, —too sharp—, their usual gray subduedness absent. "Heads up; I'm not too familiar with interrogations, so you might have to have a bit of patience with me." Her trembling hand betrayed her cheeky tone. Guan narrowed his eyes.
"This is not an interrogation, Eliza."
"Dude." She chortled. Almost immediately, she cleared her throat, as if reminding herself of the situation at hand. "Listen. Let's just get this over with. You want to talk about what happened with the goblins, right? And please, stop calling me Eliza. It's starting to scare me."
Ignoring her last comment, Guan leveled her with a stare. It hadn't been the only thing he'd wanted to talk about, but he wouldn't reject the information if she so willingly offered it to him.
"Start with the beginning. What did they want with you?"
She first glared at him, then, at an invisible point above his shoulder, face scrunched up in a pain filled expression. "Eliza." He insisted, not wanting to give her too much time to think her way out of the question. The woman huffed.
"It's a bit complicated to explain. They seem to have a problem with something someone named Dashi did to their people in the past. They thought summoning a deity from hell would help their plight, and thought that would be me."
"Do I look like a deity to you?"
He chose not to answer her. "And where are you from? Or are you still going to say your memory fails you?"
She flinched, then glared at him. "So she lied about that as well?" Her clean hand twitched at her side. Guan had no doubt she would have thrown something at him had the circumstances been less dire.
"I'm from Toronto."
"Yeah. Toronto, Canada. Not exactly hell, but traffic during rush hour can get pretty hellish in the 401."
He looked into her eyes, looking for any sign of deceit, yet found none. Granted, she had proven herself to be a spectacular liar. Still, every cell and instinct in his body were telling him that she spoke the truth. How could the goblins commit such a blunder? While, yes, their magic affinity had diminished considerably throughout time —his old master had made sure of it—, even then, a mistake like this one simply made no sense. Magic was a core part to their existence. It tended to follow their words as if it were law. It was what had made them so dangerous during their Golden Era.
Something wasn't adding up. He expressed this much out loud.
Eliza took in his question in thoughtful silence, eyes downcast and brow furrowed. It was only when she asked him for a napkin that he realized she'd been looking at her dirty hand.
"Eliza." He chided warningly, but her gaze held seriousness as it focused on him once more.
"I'm not sure what to tell you. I haven't messed with my own magic for too long, so I don't even know how the basics work, but— if my theory is worth something to you, I think it was a problem of relativity."
The Monk frowned. "Relativity?"
"Well." Eliza cringed. "I guess that, to you people, Hell can easily be a relative place." His back straightened at this, mind going over her words again and again, trying to catch up with what wasn't being explicitly said. The one conclusion he came up with wasn't one he liked. Her final words came down like a hammer on nails, sealing the coffin. "I said I was from Toronto. Just not this world's Toronto. Yeah."
It was Guan's turn to look away from her.
"You knew of me." He said. It wasn't a question.
"I did." Something in her voice commanded attention, so he gave it to her. "That's part of the problem. I know too much. But I just want to go back."
"How much do you know?"
"I don't think it's a good idea for me to say."
That had been, perhaps, the worst answer she could have given him. Guan's mind raced under his calm demeanor. "A profetic woman, with powerful creation magic that couldn't control her abilities, had just happened to appear not long after the return of the Heylin forces. This could prove to be troublesome."
He must have been been lost in these thoughts for too long, for she grew tiring of waiting. "Guan?"
"And your powers? How do they work?"
"I don't know."
"You do not?"
"No, I told you I don't." She growled, sounding frustrated. Guan didn't know what she was so irritated about. Couldn't she see the importance of her information? Of what was on the line?
It was then when he looked at her. Really looked at her: Phantom eyes rimmed with red, tired, and flat. Her dark hair, messily framing her round and tanned face, appeared to be drier than it had been before he'd left. The sight of what she was, of what she had always been; a scared, young woman looking for a way home, chipped away at his anger. Everything had been worse than he'd expected. In spite of this, for some reason, he couldn't help but to feel a little bit relieved. He, of course did not not reveal any of this in his expression.
"Go wash your hands. I still have more questions to ask."
Something in her expression started to crumble. He couldn't have felt more evil without joining the Heylin ranks. But he couldn't let up just yet. "Just a bit more".
"I really, really just want to go home."
"I know." He simply stated.
Eliza's gazed settled onto his own, searching for something and filing what she found as insufficient. Had her eyes always looked with such intensity? Had he been a less time-weathered man; the impulsive youth he'd been back then, as a student of Master Monk Dashi, he'd been tempted to look away. But he wasn't, so he didn't, and he disliked the fact that he felt he couldn't.
"I need your help." She said. "Please, just... Don't just go away this time, please?"
And he couldn't look away.