Magical Juggernaut Heather Crunch and Magical Ascetic Valentina Tenko
A loud voice snaps me out of my torpor. It’s coming from my cell, informing me that I have a phone call. I flip the display open to see that it’s coming from the number listed for Kyoko, and shows a picture of her grinning. Hesitantly, as if I can’t believe what I’m seeing, I take the call.
“Kyoko?” I ask.
“Yo, Hothead!” rings Kyoko’s cheery voice, “why’d ya leave me eight messages of you blubberin’?”
“I was worried,” I confess, slightly embarrassed by how I reacted. “I thought everybody suddenly wanted nothing to do with me.”
Kyoko just laughs at this. “Nah, I just couldn’t find my phone again,” she admits sheepishly. “Turns out I left it in the fridge this time.”
“HAH!” I laugh in return, my spirits rising in relief. “YOU should tie it to a string or something, Kyokoooo!” I scold her!
“Yeah, Sayaka really chewed me out when she found out about it,” she mutters, then returns to cheerful form. “Anyway,” she asks, “about that, uh, ‘love’ question training whatchamahoosit?”
“Oh, right!” I exclaim, having forgotten all about that.
“If I had to describe it, it’s like a potluck dinner.” Kyoko informs me, sounding slightly embarrassed. “’cuz everybody’s gotta chip in and bring somethin’ to the table, an’ sometimes people get greedy and don’t share with ya.” She then hastily adds, “but even then it’s really good and totally worth it!”
“Got it!” I tell her, committing her answer to memory. “You have my UTMOST GRATITUDE!”
“Hey, no problemo. Ya gonna be okay?” she inquires.
“ABSOLUTELY!” I declare! “For, even if the rest of the world has forsaken me, I-“
“YOU HAVE A PHONE CALL!” my phone screams, startling me. Kyoko’s face is switched out for the smirking portrait of Madge, indicating just who’s calling.
“-am getting a call from Madge,” I finish lamely.
“Yeah, better not keep Her Majesty waitin’,” Kyoko answers sympathetically, then initiates her goodbyes. “So long, Hothead! And have a MAXIMUM day!”
“FAREWELL, KYOKOOOO!” I respond, adding, “AND GIVE MY REGARDS TO STRINGBEEEAN!” before she hangs up.
I take the next call, and proceed to get a tongue-lashing from Madge. She tells me not to be a drama queen just because everybody’s too busy to talk. After a bit more dialogue between us, she then gives her response: love is something you have to invest time in. And then hangs up as soon as I tell her I got it.
However, I soon get another call, this time from Cress. She also chides me for my behavior, and gives an answer: love is a treasure more valuable than any other. Oddly sappy for her, but okay. Bluebell calls next, asking what the hell is happening, and saying love needs to be stoked but gives light and warmth (that’s just fire, though…). After her, the Warmaster tells me to suck it up, and says it comes in the most unlikely places – that love can bloom even on the battlefield. I am mortified, but no longer despairing.
And then Slam calls. She earnestly asks me if everything is alright, and keeps asking if anything is still bothering me. The more she asks, the closer to a lie my affirmations become, as I start to feel guilt for my lack of faith in these people, and for involving Slam in the first place. She doesn’t have an answer for the Soul Temperer’s assignment, but she promises to get Cooldown to call me back. Sure enough, minutes later, Cooldown begrudgingly calls back, says I’m not blocked, and tells me that love is like a greasy meal: delicious, bad for you, and something you’ll keep coming back for.
…I should have known that if they wanted me gone, they wouldn’t have been passive aggressive about it. But I didn’t have faith in them and believed that they had abandoned me. Just thinking about how weak my trust in them was makes me cringe from humiliation.
I haven’t been this disappointed with myself since I spectacularly failed to cheer up Miss Valnikov. Finishing my call, I head into the kitchen and pour myself some cereal, not really in the mood to cook anything. It tastes like wheat gravel, but I eat it all before I move on to exercising.
My confidence is shaken, though, and so my energy isn’t coming back either. It takes a tremendous amount of effort just to perform the bare minimum one hundred push-ups, crunches, and squats. I think I’ll have to save the running for later. For now I’ll just get cleaned up.
Next I step into the bathroom and start the shower. Stripping off the nightgown and underwear, I step in and work the shampoo into a lather. Then I scrub down my body and rinse everything off, and get out to brush my teeth and dry my hair. Looking at my face in the mirror, my eyes look dull, as though the fire in them was extinguished, and my face is stuck in a frown. On a whim, I press my fingers against the corners of my mouth and drag it up into a smile. My eyes spark a little in response, but I’m still bothered by what happened, so it doesn’t stick. I mean, I’m in a better mood than I was a few hours ago, but it’s soured by the doubts I had in the people I confided in.
There’s no point in lingering around. With that stuff done, I find myself drawn back to putting on the outfit they made for me. It’s relevant to what the Soul Temperer said I should do – go around without transforming all the time. Unfortunately the maid uniform is wrinkled and wet from being wrung out last night. It feels cold and clammy against my skin, so I try to dry it off with the hair dryer. It helps a little, at least, but it’s still severely wrinkled.
…I don’t want to go back to sleep, but I can’t do much else until I’m supposed to meet with the Soul Temperer. So I examine and take apart the beam katana I won off of Nakajima.
Once I’ve put everything back together, I flick the switch. The beam katana hums and projects a stable green blade of energy. I wave it slightly to test it, and see that its shape remains consistent. I seem to have reassembled it correctly.
There’s no receiver at the end to give it a definite size, which is why that massive attack she did was even possible after she switched off the limiters. This one wasn’t designed to sustain a blade of such size for more than a few seconds. In fact, there was a failsafe designed to power it off after it reached a certain temperature to keep it from exploding or destroying the motherboard. It still would scorch an ordinary person’s hands until they were charred black, but it’s better than being perforated with white-hot shrapnel.
And from what I can tell, she made it herself. A stylized drawing of her face was on the motherboard, anyway. I have to hand it to Nakajima, this is one of the most well made beam katanas I’ve ever come across. I power it off and put it back into my inventory.
This sort of thing usually makes me happy. To take a weapon apart, see how it works, how it was made, and then put it back together. Whenever I felt depressed, this always cheered me up. However, this time, after everything is fitted back together, I am still troubled. I feel better, yes, but I can’t quite get over how I let myself think that all my comrades had betrayed me. And, more than I’d like to admit, that fear of crushing, suffocating loneliness still hangs over me. Like this is just a dream, and I’ll wake up to find myself isolated from everyone I ever knew.
…I’m sincerely starting to miss Nakajima. This issue may be worse than I had originally been led to believe. Or it may be sheer desperation. Neither possibility is good. I have to do –something- about this, but I can’t just call everyone up again so soon.
I’ll just go see the Soul Temperer and see if we can start early today.
My return to the Seventh Officio building is depressingly uneventful, so I had nothing to occupy myself with other than my own thoughts. Thoughts where that voice of self-loathing kept giving its unwanted opinion on things. After a while I shut it out by pointing out it was wrong about me being abandoned, and stopped listening to what it had to say. Again, I feel better than I did, but it’s nowhere near my usual vigor and energy.
To my relief, the gates of the Seventh are open to me now. The monastery itself has its doors open as well, as though welcoming me back. Heading in and through the building, the utter silence is oppressive enough to put me on edge. I go towards where I’m very sure I remember the Soul Temperer’s room being and throw the door open, not wanting to linger out here any longer.
I was right on the money. The rows and rows of swords lining the wall confirm it. And there she is, in the center of the room, but she’s not really reacting to my arrival. She’s sitting in front of a small table with some incense sticks burning, and she has her eyes closed, as if she’s sleeping. I walk over and wave my hand in front of her face – nothing. Is that what meditation is like? If that’s the case, I wasn’t even –close- to this state the other day. And if I were surrounded by weapons while meditating, I would probably just have dreams I couldn’t share with anyone.
…Okay, this persistent pessimism is pissing me off.
I lean in close to the Soul Temperer, close enough to smell peaches, and take a deep breath. “Soul Temperer!” I shout in her ear, attempting to rouse her and take my mind off my inadequacies.
The Soul Temperer shivers slightly and makes a small noise before opening her eyes, her formerly blank expression curling into a smile. “Have I reached heaven?” she asks me. “Am I dreaming?”
“I understand that I am a sight to behold,” I answer her, trying to look confident, “but no. I just came in early today.”
The Soul Temperer smiles slightly wider, rubbing her eyes. “Same thing, then,” she says.
“Speak plainly!” I order her. I don’t have the patience for her parables!
“Is there a particular reason you have graced me with your presence so early today, Truth-Seeker?” Tenko inquires, studying me with an eye of appraisal. “You have a look of someone who has tried to move mountains.”
“Hah! I was told a long time ago never to try that again,” I confess, reminded of my failed attempts to make a Mount Heatherest. “But I digress. For now the –real- training of the day can begin!”
“Hold, Truth-Seeker” the Soul Temperer tells me, her smile vanishing. “The blight surrounding your soul has not abated. It has merely changed its form.”
“But I did what I was told to do!” I argue, stamping my foot in irritation.
“And that is what we will focus on later,” she says, pointing to the ground. “Right now, however, you will sit.”
Perhaps she had something in mind. For now, I did as she asked and sat on the ground, my legs crossed and back straight. The Soul Temperer’s gaze lingers on my legs, but otherwise she seems serious.
“So,” she begins, “the avalanche comes forth with the throw of a single stone.”
“What is it that is troubling you this time, Seeker of Wisdom?” she clarifies.
I take a deep breath that comes out as a sigh. “Doubt,” I respond. “I called everyone I knew to answer your question. All but one of them didn’t pick up, and the one that did hung up immediately.” The Soul Temperer nodded along in understanding, bringing her hands up to rest her chin on them, so I continued. “I called them many times and nobody answered, and I started to despair. I began listening to that wicked voice of self-loathing that insisted it was my fault they weren’t calling.” Hanging my head, I murmur, “All of them called back earlier. They were concerned, even the kid that I’d gotten hurt.”
I look the Soul Temperer in the eyes as I get to the crux of the issue, even though my shame makes me want to turn away. “I had –doubts- in other people,” I explain, spitting out the words as though they were poison. “I –doubted- people I should have trusted. I thought they had –abandoned- me here.” Letting out a sigh, I murmur, “and I’m angry at –myself- for not trusting them, not thinking better of them.”
The Soul Temperer drinks this in with an impassive look on her face the entire time. I thought she wanted me to keep talking, but she spoke up first. “I see,” she says, leaning forward and resting her arms on the table. “Was this perhaps related to you banging on the gates last night?”
“My apologies, Truth-Seeker,” the Soul Temperer apologizes with a bitter smile. “I had believed it was necessary at the time, but perhaps that was just the Black Templar in me talking, though.
“-You- were a Black Templar?!” I shout in genuine surprise. She really didn’t seem the type. They were so… uptight.
“It is not something I think back on fondly, nor do I enjoy talking about it,” she admitted, staring ahead at the empty space behind me. “I have remade myself since then as penance, though even that may not be enough for what I’ve done. The point is, we have all made mistakes.”
I shake my head. “I know that.” I tell her. “And yet,” I sigh again, bringing up my knees and hugging them. “Sometimes I wonder if that voice has a point. If I’m not only less great than I like to think I am, but also that I am actually an outright horrible, selfish person. That all the insults flung at me are true. That I’m wrong –all the time-.” Burying my face in my knees, my voice sounds muffled because I almost don’t want her to hear me when I say, “and that worries me.”
The Soul Temperer pauses for some time. And then…
“Once upon a time,” she began, “all the animals were called to a banquet.”
I lift my head up to ask her what she’s doing, but she continues before I have the chance. “Each animal group had to bring something to eat that could be shared with the others. The agile monkeys had picked bananas. The cunning wolves had harvested potatoes. And the proud lions were to bring grapes. However, the lions were very territorial, and could not tolerate the presence of other animals in their land. So when the laughing hyenas passed through, the lions chased them for days and days until they were gone. And in the process, the lions had let their grapes rot, and then trampled them underfoot. Too proud to arrive with nothing to show, the lions had to make do with the rotten fruit. So they gathered it in bowls of stone and presented it at the banquet.”
I raise an eyebrow at her. Why would the wolves have potatoes? And why do the lions have grapes? This story makes no sense! But before I can voice this, the Soul Temperer continues, “the other animals laughed at the lions, especially the hyenas, whose mocking laughter rose above the others. And yet, when the animals tasted what the lions had brought, they discovered something miraculous: the rotten grapes had turned to delicious wine.” The Soul Temperer stop speaking and looks at me expectantly.
…I was about to point out the inconsistencies, but she seems to be waiting for me to provide the moral of that fable. Hmm…
“You can mess up,” I venture, “but… it can still turn out okay?”
She nods once. “Even the greatest of kings were fallible,” the Soul Temperer explains, “and yet they are still remembered as the greatest of kings. Why do you suppose that is?”
Another question? “Because of the fact,” I start slowly, trying to put the answer in my head into words, “that they were still great?”
She nods again. “And so, what does that say about you?” she asks me.
Taking a little bit of time to piece everything together in my head, I speak with a bit more confidence this time. “Just because I have made mistakes, doesn’t mean I’m not great, right?” I questioned.
The Soul Temperer smiles warmly and places her hands on my shoulders.
“If that voice says things that make you think less of yourself,” she orders, “you tell it to be silent. Because you –are- great, Seeker of Enlightenment.” The Soul Temperer squeezes my shoulders slightly and says, “you are every bit as great as you say you are. And you should never, ever let anyone convince you otherwise. Not even yourself.”
…That is the nicest thing anybody has ever said to me.
The Soul Temperer draws back and stands up, motioning for me to do the same. “Now,” she asks, “what does the caterpillar want to become when she emerges from her cocoon?”
It takes me some time to get my voice back. Long enough to process what she said and understand it fully. “I… I WANT TO BECOME A BETTER PERSON!” I speak with conviction, standing tall again. “And I’ve come to realize I can’t accomplish that entirely on my own.” Curling my fingers into fists, I beseech her, “Can you help me, Soul Temperer?”
“It would be my pleasure,” the Soul Temperer responds. “As a duckling stays close to its mother, so too must you follow behind me, Truth-Seeker.” With that rather odd comparison, she heads out, beckoning me to follow after her.
I gladly oblige, feeling pumped up. “LET’S GET TO IT, THEN!” I shout, urging her to move FASTER! “ONWARD TO -GLORY-, SOUL TEMPERER!”