Chest two, unopened. Chest three, unopened…
“Woman, I know you’re enjoying tree-gazing, or whatever,” Sharpshoot complained. “But it’s getting boring real fast here.”
“Now, Sharpshoot, we need to survey our traps,” she replied, although she did take some time gazing at their surroundings as they walked through the forest. She liked to pick up details, see a landmark or secret they missed.
“Maggie sounds better,” she replied, “Sharpshoot is nice, but it’s not like I’ve got a secret identity anymore.”
“Whichever you prefer.” To Ace, names were like jobs. Tags you put on at a point of your life before you changed once you outgrew them; as she abandoned her patronym, Saga Freyson, when she left Concordia. She had had many names before taking that of Ace, and it would not be her last.
It didn’t mean she forgot her past, nor buried it. That would be disrespectful.
“Look, it’s useless,” Maggie kept complaining. The more Ace observed her, the more she grew convinced she was an adrenaline junkie in need of a fix. “Why don’t we ask Stitch to create us a tracking hound or something?”
“Now, now, patience is a virtue,” Ace replied. “There is power in waiting and letting the other make the first move.”
“Ugh, the power of wasting time?”
“The power of getting to know the other better.” Which was what Ace was pulling on the other woman here.
The truth is, the younger woman had been giving Ace the cold shoulder since she asked her to join her on this survey—she thought it would help them know one another, and considering that team’s poor track record with ambushes, make her task safer.
Ace had a keen insight into people, or so she thought. She was always very good at sensing what they wanted, not what they said they wanted. Maybe she was born with a stronger sense of empathy than most or having worked with multiple, various groups for years sharpened her emotional skills. Humans’ ability to adapt to social groups had made them valued as lieutenants and diplomats by various galactic powers, a niche which Ace had exploited to get ahead in life.
And she could tell Maggie Powells didn’t like her on principle. It bothered Ace. She knew she couldn’t get along with everyone, but a part of her wanted to be liked.
“That sounds like a bad pick up tactic,” Maggie replied with condescension.
Mmm… romance. What an odd choice of discussion. Random choice? She could sense an undercurrent of frustration there. Then again, Maggie Powells seemed to be a frustrated person in general. “You were dating someone before joining this group, is it not?”
She guessed right. “It went nowhere. Guy asked me out for a party which I didn’t even go to. Instead, I almost got killed.”
“I heard. That was when Shroud wiped out the Evermarsh cult?”
“He told you?” she asked, astonished.
No, but she had researched the group the second they arrived in the Midnight Market. Being a key part of Mammon’s business empire meant she could get access to excellent intelligence in record time, just by asking the right person.
Maggie’s reaction did catch her interest. “Was that supposed to stay a secret?”
“No, no, of course not!” Maggie crossed her arms. “I didn’t know the nerd bragged to any girl he meets.”
Ah. Ace understood the problem. “You care about him a lot.”
“The nerd saved my life, so yeah, I owe him. If you hurt the nerd, I’m going to bury your ass in some dumpster.”
“You cannot,” Ace corrected her. “It’s tossing into a dumpster, not burying.”
“You get the message, smartass. No hurting the nerd’s feeling. He’s an idiot thinking with his dick, but he’s my best sidekick.”
Ace looked at her teammate straight in the eyes, then smiled.
“Get that shitty grin off your face,” she warned, her tone rising.
“You don’t like his interest in me.”
“Yeah, gotta be honest here, I would prefer he ends up with Matsumoto,” she said, trying to throw Ace off the scent. “I almost get diabetes when I see them, and you’re a bit too shifty.”
“He sees Kari as the younger sister he never had,” Ace replied. She believed Matsumoto too closed off and traumatized to entertain romantic thoughts before a long, long emotional journey. Making her open to the team as a friend would already be a milestone. “Men and women can be friends, Maggie.”
“Doubt that,” Maggie replied. “If you spent too much time with someone, there’s going to be tensions.”
“Shroud, are you listening?” Ace spoke up, checking if the sorcerer was listening in at this moment. Thankfully, no answer came back, letting them speak their mind. “In that case, Maggie, you should tell him.”
“Shroud. You should tell him how you really feel before he commits to someone else.”
Maggie gave her an indignant look. “You think I’m jealous?”
Ace just smiled. She knew the younger woman wouldn’t resist the silence’s weight.
She couldn’t. “Shut the hell up.”
“I didn’t say anything.”
“You were thinking too loud!” Her tone raised, although Ace didn’t respond. “You don’t know shit! I survived in a family of psychos who tried to kill me, twice! You think I’m just falling from the first boy who tried to help me with that?”
“It would be perfectly normal. Maybe not healthy, but understandable.”
“Well, well… well, fuck your cliche movie logic! You think I’m some damsel in distress looking for the first prince charming around?! I don’t need him! I don’t need anyone! I don’t need a boy, I don’t you!”
Ace watched her colleague with a zen, meditative attitude, letting her vent out. Getting her emotions out of her system would help Maggie feel better, instead of bottling them up.
Of course, Ace was no mental health specialist—Shroud was the best suited for it with his abilities, but she noticed that he focused on the big picture, the larger team dynamics rather than the Players’ individual hang-ups. His Network power biased his vision, blinded him to smaller problems, or perhaps he had too much on his plate. If he had noticed Maggie’s pent-up frustration, he made no sign to acknowledge it.
So it fell to Ace, who had noticed Maggie’s pent-up frustrations, to act as her sounding board. Whatever made her happier.
“You know what, that’s stupid!” Maggie finally said, troubled by Ace’s complete lack of an answer. “You want the nerd? Take him, I don’t care.”
“I like his company,” Ace admitted. “But I’m a free spirit, fooling around, never tied down. I fancy you a tiny bit more actually. You have a pretty nice ass, firm and soft.”
“You…” Maggie blushed. “You… what?”
Ace laughed at her embarrassment, causing the girl to point her gun at the explorer’s face. “Stop that, jackass!”
“No seriously, you’re pretty cute,” Ace said, undisturbed. “Especially when angry and flustered. I like girls who do exercise.”
“I don’t swing that way. Even when Perse had her phase I…” Realizing she had dug herself deeper, Maggie let out a groan. “Shut up!”
“I didn’t say a thing.”
“Then say something!”
“You are adorable when you are angry.”
Maggie snarled and pointed her middle finger at Ace. “Is this supposed to mean something?” the older woman asked, puzzled. A Firman custom perhaps?
“There, right there. That’s the proof you aren’t really one of us. Why do you even help us? Mur wants power and money, the bone doctor is curious, but you… I don’t get what you want.”
Ace chuckled. “I’m not that different than Stitch, although my drive is different. I want to explore what the system offers. But mostly, I’m doing it because it’s fate.”
The sound of a screaming animal interrupted the conversation. Maggie clocked her gun, while Ace grabbed two throwing knives.
After walking towards the source of the noise, they found themselves facing a scene straight out of a comedy movie.
A regal monkey whose species Ace couldn’t identify kicked back a hungry chest mimic with a long crimson rod. Powerfully built with brown fur and lionish white mane, the bipedal animal wore ancient golden armor and the monkey emblem on a golden headband.
Also, he carried a bag on his back, full of treasures from golden vajras to potions.
“Stay back, you fanged… box… thing!” Ace recognized the language as an old Firman dialect, one of the three hundred whose knowledge Mammon had her implanted with when she became his assistant. Old Chinese. The mimic fruitlessly attempted to bite him, whining every time the monkey hit him. Eventually, the mimic crawled away in frustration, disappointed at missing his meal.
Maggie pointed a gun at the monkey, the animal turning at them upon hearing the duo approach. He had sharp ears. “We caught you, you dumb thief!”
“Oh?” The monkey looked at them with old, wise eyes. “So, you are the chosen ones. I am honored to meet you. I am Sun Wukong, the Monkey King of the Zodiac.”
Ace… she couldn’t put her finger on it, but that monkey sounded fake and untrustworthy, somehow. Even if he looked wise and respectable, the woman had seen enough scoundrels to be wary of him.
“If you’re that honored, then hand us over our treasures!” Maggie said, keeping the gun pointed at him. “That’s our stuff you’re stealing.”
“This?” Sun Wukong glanced at the treasures in his bag. “Oh, I see. You did not understand.”
“The test,” the Monkey said, his voice deepening. “I am trying to teach you a lesson. That real power does not come from trinkets, but from within.”
Maggie frowned. “What, really?”
“Yes. You see, I own the treasures I set around the forest.”
Ace didn’t buy it. “Why set the treasures there in the first place then?”
“By putting them here and depriving you of them at the last second, you are experiencing frustration, which breeds creativity. Patience and self-reliance are key, yes, key, to enlightenment.”
Something didn’t add up, and from the insistent gaze he sent her, the Monkey knew she knew.
Sun Wukong’s eyes suddenly widened, as he glanced at something behind both women. He put his rod in a guard stance. “What the—”
Ace and Maggie turned their head, finding themselves facing a…
A perfectly normal tree.
Ace glanced back at Sun Wukong, the monkey already vanishing from her sight by leaping on the trees, his laugh echoing through the forest.
Like a bull seeing red, Maggie fumed, her body crackling with electricity, and chased after the monkey like a torpedo. Ace, more measured, sent a message to Shroud first. Within seconds the forest echoed with the sound of Maggie firing like a maniac through the forest. “Ace?” Shroud’s voice called her from within her own mind. She found it both slightly creepy, and a little thrilling.
“We’ve found the Monkey,” she said, summoning the rain with Rainmaker to try cover more ground. “And he’s heading for the teleporter.”
“We will intercept him.”
“Oh, I think the struggle will be keeping him alive. Sharpshoot is out for his blood; just listen to the tune of bullets flying.”
She could have sworn Shroud rolled his eyes on the other side.
Ace quickly used Spash to teleport on to a branch, and then another. I can’t believe I got played by the oldest trick in the book, she thought, ashamed of herself.
As she crossed the forest, taking a bit more time to look around, Ace received another message from Shroud. “Ace. Ace.” She thought he would call her to his location but didn’t. “Do you hear me?”
“What is it?” she asked.
“Maggie arrived at the teleporter, kicking and raging. But not the Monkey.”
Ace stopped, standing on a branch. Sun Wukong escaped? As far as she knew, the ape had fled in a straight line. Considering Maggie’s speed when casting Thunderling, he mustn’t have maintained an advance long.
An idea crossing her mind, Ace used Splash to move backward, redoing Wukong’s supposed progress in reverse. After long minutes of searching, she noticed a small mound rising from below a tree.
Teleporting next to it with Splash, Ace noticed a metal conduit, well hidden by moss and roots. So small only one person could crawl inside at a time.
Mmm… specters had attacked the area last night, in spite of the wards. What if they hadn’t broken past the wards, but moved around them?
“Shroud, I found a tunnel,” Ace said. “You are seeing it? I believe it may lead to other areas.”
“I’ll send Maggie on your way. We keep watch of the teleporter in case the monkey returns.”
Ace lowered herself, seeing no way to get inside the tunnel without dirtying her clothes. A shame, as she really liked her current outfit.
Maggie arrived at her location soon afterward, drenched and pissed. “Where. Is. He?”
Ace pointed a finger at the tunnel. “I don’t have your offensive options, and it will be difficult to turn around if we both crawl at once. It is better that you go first, with your guns ready, and then call me.”
Maggie was too eager to get after the Monkey to contest her logic, crawling into the tunnel like a frustrated predator chasing after bothersome prey. She vanished into the darkness as Ace watched.
While waiting for her colleague to call, Ace grabbed the tarot card deck in one of her pockets and read her future. Since Booz had brought this game from Terra Firma and sold it to her, she had grown obsessed with it. Games meant to predict the future were nothing new; everyone wanted to gain foresight across the stars because everyone feared the unexpected.
Ace enjoyed new discoveries but hated unwelcome surprises. Inevitably, the game drew her in. She also liked that the cards showed a person’s journey, embodying people through archetypes; it helped make sense out of others.
Shroud was the World, with the power to connect with others and become complete, yet driven by his lack of closure over his past and unable to find fulfillment; he had some elements of the Fool as well, with great potential but also naive and eager to take risks. Kari was the Star, spiritual, hopeful, serene, but often falling prey to despair and isolation. Mur was, of course, the Devil. Seeking material power and down to earth comfort, but needing to break free to achieve his full potential. Just as obviously, Solomon was the Hierophant, the incarnation of faith and structure, struggling against his own rigidity. Stitch was the Magician, with great talents and skills, but a shady, selfish, manipulative side she could glimpse at sometimes. Maggie… she struck Ace as the Chariot, a juggernaut of willpower, but who covered up her weakness and doubts with aimless aggression.
As for herself… probably the Wheel of Fortune, considering all the bizarre events in her life and her belief men and women were not the masters of their destiny. Or the High Priestess. Ace knew better than believe she could ever see herself objectively.
She wondered if she could create a Hack that could synergize with these cards, giving her an actual ability to decide her fate rather than trying to guess it.
Or maybe she was just a superstitious fool trying to make sense out of a senseless world.
Ace heard the call of Castling, the voice of Maggie echoing in her mind, and making contact through her Lock. Castling gave her a slight familiarity with the caller, giving her a rough intuition about the person’s character. She put the deck back in a pocket and activated her Lock.
In a blink of purple light, she teleported right next to a dirtied Maggie, at the exit of a tunnel. The sight bothered her.
The tunnel led to a wide open metal dome, unclean and covered with dirt; golden animal statues representing the Zodiac stood in a half-circle, watching over a dozen tunnels.
A building stood strong at the very center, a two-floors high structure whom Ace identified as a pre-Conquest Chinese pagoda. A thick smell of tea and alcohol came from it, and the remains of two Gearsmen’s armor stood as decoration and wardens. Whoever lived here had a bone to pick with Concordia.
“What is this place?” Ace wondered. “Certainly not the Wood Dragon Forest.”
“I’ve no fucking idea,” Maggie replied, removing the dirt off her costume. “But I ain’t going into another tunnel.”
“Agreed. Let’s check the house first.” Ace grabbed her knives, stealthily moving towards the entrance…
Or she would have, had Maggie not decided to keep up the conversation. “I don’t like the nerd. I’m just…”
“Just?” Did she realize Shroud could eavesdrop?
“I’m frustrated, and nerd is the only male of the team who isn’t a rotting face, a demon, or a Catholic priest! With Ulysses there was no excitement of any kind, he was like a robot! And I didn’t get… I didn’t get it since like, forever!”
“On that Ulysses fellow, maybe you were both too closed off to enjoy your time together,” Ace suggested.
“Closed off? Me?”
“I assume this relationship took place while on Earth?” Maggie nodded. “Did you confide in him about your troubles? Maybe not about Mathias’ identity, but your family issues?”
“No,” she admitted, “But neither did he.”
“That may be his fault, but this doesn’t excuse yours.”
“What are you getting at?”
“That if you put too many barriers between you and someone else, your relationships will naturally be unfulfilling on both ends.”
“It’s stupid. Just because I’m keeping my problems to myself…” Maggie frowned. “Ergh, I scolded Matsumoto about doing it before.”
“And you like Shroud because he may be the first person to have broken through and helped you with your problems. You should come in the open about it.”
“I don’t like, like him. Not the way you think. I don’t want to like him. He pisses me off as much as I enjoy hanging out with him. Hell, if Sol were fifty years younger I would give him a go instead.”
Ace chuckled. “Really?”
“Yeah, I like the strong, quiet type. Sol says little, and only speak when it matters. That’s my type.” She crossed her arms. “And why the hell are you pushing me, when he’s making the move on you?”
“I’m a people pleaser,” Ace replied with a coy smile.
“That’s stupid. You should show some backbone. Defend your stuff.”
The older woman shrugged. “I can, and do, but Shroud and I aren’t close enough that I am willing to fight tooth and nail over him. I went past that phase long ago, and if it makes you a happier person, good.”
Maggie gave her a long, hard glance. “There’s something wrong with you, nobody’s that nice.”
“Also, you’re fun to tease,” Ace added, as they reached the pagoda’s entrance and its richly decorated golden doors.
“I take that back, you’re an asshole. Do we break the door? Get through the windows?”
“Later.” Ace politely knocked on the door, keeping her knives behind her back. Maggie rolled her eyes, drawing her guns and pointing at the gate.
“Coming!” a new, jovial voice called from within. A bipedal boar with a big belly opened the doors, wearing rich, ample black and golden robes, alongside a rounded hat. Having seen far more terrible faces daily, unlike Maggie, Ace didn’t recoil in horror at the sight of his horrible visage, mixing both human and pig features. She saw a glimmer of kindness in the beastman’s eyes, right before they settled on her chest, and then Maggie’s.
“What the hell are you looking at, you perv?” Maggie snarled, pointing her guns at him. Ace rolled her eyes at her reaction; she should have used her looks to get the advantage instead.
“Oh, such pretty ladies!” the pig scratched the back of his ears with a hint of shyness, either ignoring or uncaring about the gun pointed at him. “Have you heard of the great Zhu Baije and come to party with me?”
“Certainly,” Ace replied politely with a friendly smile. “Are you the great Pig Zodiac everyone praised?”
“Of course, of course! That is me!” The pig man nodded happily, eager to impress a pretty woman. “I earned my place at the very last moment you know? It was a great struggle to finish that race, especially after all the food I ate!”
“Where the hell is the Monkey?” Maggie threatened, having no patience for the social ritual.
The pig sighed, then turned his head back inside and shouted, “Sun! What have you done this time?”
“What haven’t I done?” a familiar voice replied from within the walls, Maggie’s eyes shining with a vicious glint behind her mask.
“Come in,” the pig said, inviting the two women, “Make yourselves at home.”
The two eagerly walked in, the pigman closing the door behind.
Sun Wukong, clearly having taken a few drinks already, lifted a cup of beer with his tail as he saw them arrive. He sat in front of a table, covered with various items, holding cards with his hands. Ace recognized the game played as Poker, one of the many fads in the Midnight Market.
The Monkey took their presence in stride. “Oh, you followed me there? Please don’t litter the tunnels with your medic’s creatures please, I cleaned them up last week.”
“What is this place?” Ace asked, curious, putting her knives back under her cloak upon realizing there would be no fight.
“You’re smart, figure it out.”
“This is my house,” Zhu clarified. “And Sun’s, since he spends all his time play with me now.”
“Since I cannot go back to Earth until the Sun Empress obliges,” Sun Wukong replied, shifting his cards. “I must occupy my time outside cultivation exercises as I can.”
“Who cares,” Maggie replied. She hadn’t lowered her weapons, eyeing the treasure on the table. “You took our stuff to… to what, gamble?”
“I was out of funds to play poker,” Sun Wukong said, although Ace smelled a lie. “And to pay for my beer tab with Zhu.”
“… I’m going to kill you,” Maggie said, with a stony tone, pointing her gun at his face. “I’m going to shoot you. Like Harembe.”
“Nope, you will not,” Sun replied. “If you try, I will punish you.”
Maggie pulled the trigger.
The bullet stopped within an inch of Sun Wukong’s face, floating in midair. The Monkey hadn’t even looked at it.
“Are you insane?!” Ace lambasted her colleague, grabbing the gun off her hands before she could react.
“Hey!” she complained, struggling to get it back. “That’s my stuff.”
“You think violence will solve all your problems?” Ace replied, slightly angered at her reaction.
“Oh, this is fine,” Zhu Baije replied with cheerfulness. “Everyone has tried to kill Sun at one point.”
“Even you?” Ace asked, curious, as she kept the gun out of Maggie’s range.
“Except me, and maybe Shifuyáng, who is great in his wisdom and patience.”
“He got me into the Zodiac, I could never bother that goat,” Sun Wukong replied, sending Maggie’s bullet back in its barrel with a thought. “I am the Monkey King, Sun Wukong. I laid waste to Heaven’s’ armies and lifted mountains by myself. You will not succeed where they failed. But I will gladly give you my emblem as a token of good faith. Here.”
He grabbed his emblem with one of his four hands, tossing it at Maggie.
Ace, sensing a trap, released her ally and attempted to catch the item, but an invisible force moved it out of her fingers’ grasp. Instead, the headband opened and caught Maggie’s forehead by surprise, tightening around it.
“What the—” Maggie raised a gun at Wukong, only for the headband to shine and tighten. The pain made her drop her weapon and fall to her knees.
“Your punishment of course,” Sun Wukong replied. “The headband will hurt you if you ever try to hurt someone else in any way.”
“You fucking—” Maggie screamed, as the headband shone brighter.
“Even verbally,” Sun Wukong said, sipping his drink.
“Now this is a bit much, Sun,” the Pig pleaded, as Ace immediately rushed to the Red Sorceress’ side. “Tang never used it on you for insults. Remember that event with the dragon?”
“I must teach her in days what I learned in years,” Sun Wukong defended his choice. “Stern teaching makes for quick progress.”
Ace tried to grab the headband, which wouldn’t budge. Eventually, Maggie calmed herself and stopped struggling, the headband stopping to shine and returning to normal size.
“On the bright side,” Sun Wukong said. “If you spend twenty-four hours without triggering it, it will fall down, and you will have my emblem. I promise it as the Monkey King, may the Buddha drop a mountain on me should I lie.”
“You already did,” Ace lambasted him.
“Yes, hence why I made a vow on the Buddha,” Sun Wukong replied. “Also if you had asked nicely for the treasures, I would have returned them.”
“That’s not fair, you stole them from us!” Maggie complained. “You stole our stuff!”
“Hey, the chests were laying around for everyone to open them! You humans always feel so entitled.”
“The treasures are mine, actually,” Zhu Baije said sheepishly. “I wanted to help Players so much and left our treasure around the Lair for you to find. Sun Wukong said I was too generous—”
“You are,” the Monkey interrupted him. “You teach them a bad lesson. Remember all the trouble we had on our journey? What was the cause? What led them here?”
“Greed,” Ace guessed.
“Greed. Greed makes you pick fights you should not, for one more trinket. Adventurers always tell themselves they will be satisfied this time, but they never are. If your group is to follow in our footsteps and live through your journey, then you needed to learn to let go of what does not matter.”
“We came here to get stronger!” Maggie snarled at the Monkey, her hand almost reaching for the gun, but stopping at the last moment. Pain made for a strong teacher.
“They already have all the tools to succeed,” Sun Wukong said, and this time, Ace believed him, “I did not lie on this. You, Players, have sorcery, and brains. You should practice with them instead of relying on shiny, outdated weapons.”
“Then, this was all a test?” Ace guessed, glancing at the stash.
“Zhu is too nice to hold debts,” Sun Wukong chuckled. “I was trying your patience. Some of the monkeys you slew were friends, and I worried your friend might be too rude and violent. So I set to test your temper, as the Buddha did with me long ago.”
“Have you seen Mur?” Maggie hissed. “He’s way worse than me!”
“Yes,” Sun Wukong admitted. “But unlike him, you are not bound by a fiendish nature, but by your will alone. You can temper yourself. Anyway, you failed my test. In a moment of rage, you would have stuck me dead under Zhu’s roof, and so you will learn patience and restraint as my trial.”
“Sun Wukong and I decided early that we did not want to threaten our successors with bodily harm, the way others Zodiac members decided to,” Zhu Baije said. “We thought we should rather help you grow instead of trying to kill you or push our own agenda.”
“Successors,” Ace noted. “Odd choice of word.”
“You’re just passing the responsibility to free Earth to us!” Maggie complained, grabbing the headband but unable to remove it, nor willing to admit defeat.
“We intend to help when the time comes,” Sun Wukong said, but then added, sheepishly, “This old monkey here can pack a punch still, but our skills have diminished. I remain the strongest of the Zodiac, mind you.”
“Except the Tiger,” Zhu Baije said, the Monkey King pouting in response.
Ace glanced at Maggie, who seethed in silence, and at the headband. The treasures weren’t important. The emblems were, and they had one, in a fashion. “Zhu Baije,” the diplomat asked the Pig. “What is your trial?”
“Oh, my trial?” the Pig laughed. “Curiosity? I left my emblem inside a treasure chest.”
“I didn’t take it,” Sun Wukong said. “Even if I think it is too easy.”
“If you keep looking, you will find it. You could say it is… hidden in plain sight!” Zhu Baije added a dramatic intonation to his voice as if he had given them a difficult hint.
Ace, ever the seeker, quickly figured it out. “In that case, we will go look for it.”
“So soon? I would be very glad to exchange tales around a cup of tea,” Zhu Baije said. “Would you like to play a game?”
Ace glanced at Maggie, who kept glaring at the Monkey King. “No thanks.”
As Ace had figured out, Zhu Baije had hidden the chest containing his emblem in the very first room, inside the golden earth replica. After some effort and checking, Ace had found a lock opening it up like an egg, with the treasure at its center.
Hidden in plain sight. A landmark the Players would have needed to go through no matter what area they explored afterward. The very first.
More importantly, they had confirmed the tunnels linked the various areas, using one to go back to the northern water reservoir. Ace was now convinced the spirits moved from the south to the forest, circumventing the wards, through them.
All in all, the backtracking with a seething, miserable Maggie had been the hardest part of the journey by far. And while the Pig’s trial was so easy it hurt, Maggie struggled with her own. “This is humiliating,” she said, finally giving up on removing the headband forcefully.
“Yes,” Ace agreed. Even if she earned that punishment. “It’s only one day.”
“I can’t stop being assertive for one day!” Maggie complained.
“That… that is not assertiveness, Maggie,” Ace said, before realizing she had hit the root of her ally’s problems. “Maggie, trying to hurt or shout at people is not strength.”
“That’s the only way to get respect,” Maggie countered.
“No. If anything, it lessens respect others have for you.”
“You’re starting to speak like the Monkey,” Maggie glared back, “You had a bad family time?”
“No, my parents are happily married, although I haven’t talked to them in a long while.”
“You killed someone?”
“Never outside of self-defense.”
“And that’s why you can’t understand,” Maggie replied. “You never had to fight to live.”
Ace inhaled deeply and resisted the urge to slap her. “I fought, more than you know,” she replied. “Against my fate. Against Concordia. I don’t have to suffer through the same hardship as you to understand where you come from, and to tell you your behavior is incorrect.”
“Really? Well, I think it’s all a game to you. I amuse you. You don’t really care about anything yourself, do you?” Ace replied with a heavy silence, letting Maggie speak her mind. “It clicked, over time. You’re too selfless, it’s not normal. Nobody’s that kind. You just don’t care. Or you’re afraid to.”
“In an instant, we are alive, in the next second, we are gone, like light,” Ace replied, “Time consumes us all in time. Empires rise and fall in the face of an uncertain future, and all that remains of our actions are the ruins and impact we leave behind. Even over that, we have little power.”
“I’m pretty sure I know that if I kill someone, it’s because I wanted it.”
“Or so you think, but think about it… are the events we face coincidences? Were my meeting with your group and what came after chance, or premeditated. Maggie, we are not free, or not fully. There is a force bigger than all of us, and all we can do is go along with the flow; if you go against it, you suffer, always. This is how the universe works. I’m at peace with it. And this is why I want people to be happy and live without regret. Because so few of our choices matter and our lives are so short, they are all the more precious.”
“What kind of mindset is that? You think we don’t have power, and that we should make peace with it?” Maggie shook her head, unable to come to terms with it. “It’s creepy as hell. I don’t want it. It’s cowardly, I don’t ever want it.”
“Believe what you want,” Ace replied. “I don’t expect you to come around to my worldview.” She had wanted to make an analogy to the headband but decided Maggie wouldn’t listen then.
Her fingers brushed against Maggie’s headband. “Maggie, I really want you to feel better, but you earned that punishment. Why did you pull the trigger?”
Maggie almost slapped her hand away, before the headband shone in alarm. “None of your business.”
Ace looked at her dead in the eyes and waited for an answer.
“Alright, because it makes me feel strong,” she admitted. “I didn’t want to look weak. Happy?”
“Can you honestly tell me that you were happy, fully happy, even before?”
“That’s…” She marked a short pause. “I was happy. Happiest weeks of my life, ever since I…” Another pause, but longer this time. She struggled to find her words or lies to tell. “If I don’t fight I… I can’t live without it… I’m useless if I can’t fight!”
“Maggie, you’re not a victim.” Ace hugged her, the other woman freezing, “Strength isn’t putting a gun in someone’s face. Strength is standing strong even in the face of torment, and not being afraid of being vulnerable. And you’ve strength aplenty.”
Maggie just stood still. Perhaps she had never been hugged before. Ace released her hold, putting both hands on her shoulders. “You will conquer that headband,” Ace declared, “By will alone.”
“I… I don’t need your support,” Maggie replied brashly.
“No, you don’t,” Ace agreed, “Just be honest and focused, and prove that ape wrong.”
Maggie looked down, then tightened her left hand into a fist. “Damn right.”
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