It had been so long since I left the human world. After twenty years, I decided to join my old alumni, taking on the identity of an absent student using a charm spell. Boy, it was such a rush. You see, I never actually graduated from school. I left school when I was 14 or 15. Had a big fight with my father too because of that.
Anyway, everything was different from what I could remember. The school that I used to study at was larger after twenty years, taking in the surrounding lands that used to be residential land. Where it was once only a high school, now it also included elementary and college diploma studies. Truly amazing how much change twenty years could have.
That day, I was studying quietly in one of the classes. Apparently, this girl I was impersonating was the class monitor in charge of high school Year 4, Class 2. Good job, girl. I was a class monitor too back in my day, but I couldn’t remember much about what I did back then. I recalled sleeping in class a lot, though.
It turned out that the teacher for the last class was absent so the class would be taken over by one of the senior teachers who was free. During one of the classes in the middle of the day, I asked to be excused as I had been holding my piss in for hours. The teacher looked relieved for some reason. Strange, my old teachers from twenty years ago would’ve told me to finish my business quickly.
So I went out and damn, had everything changed! Some of the old buildings still stood where they were, but they had completely reworked the walkways and redecorated the bushes. This sucked. So being the awesome witch that I was, I flew over to the other side of the tall bushes, expecting a toilet on the other side. But nope, it was another building full of classrooms.
Some of the students saw me and whispered to another friend. That friend also whispered to another friend. I didn’t care much and just walked around. Witches were not a new occurence. Back when I was in school, there were even a few of the witches and mages around. They were adored. One of my former school teachers was one and it was from her that I learned magic.
When she quit her job, I quit school and went with her. We went deep into the mountains and from there, gated into another world. A world of magic and fantasy, where your survival depended only on your own strength. When my teacher passed away, I thought that was enough travelling. I came home, being one who could already be counted as the ace of aces, the greatest witch in the world, if such a title existed.
I finally found the toilet. It was amazing how I had to walk this far just to go to the toilet. I wondered who designed these new buildings?
I got lost again when I wanted to return to class. Seriously, who designed these new buildings? So confusing!
I came across Tahira, the girl who sat next to me in class. I called out to her. She asked me what I was doing and I told her I was in the toilet. She told me how she couldn’t believe I would take so long finding the toilet.
It was not my fault, okay. The school was confusing.
So I followed her back to the classroom. As I sat back on my seat, I noticed the piercing glare of the substitute teacher of the last class. He looked at me as if trying to pierce through me for some reason. It was a strange feeling.
He handed the class a sheet of paper, telling us we were doing a little quiz. Oh how I loved quizzes back in my day. I recall this part about my old school life. So they still do this, huh? I thought.
The moment I touched the paper, it shone brightly. The light was so blinding, it seemed to illuminate the entire classroom. That was unexpected. It must’ve been a special paper that took in my magic and turned it into light. Amazing how technology progressed after twenty years.
When the paper was wrenched away from me, it slowly lost its light and everyone in the class looked at me with eyes of shock. Even Tahira couldn’t keep her mouth closed.
_Yeah, you caught me, I’m a witch. That’s right, the one and only, the most amazing witch in the world. Be amazed.
You can all applaude now, tell me how much you want to learn magic from me.
Contrary to my expectations, everyone had a look of fear on their faces. I couldn’t understand why. Why were they afraid? Witches weren’t something new, they’ve been around for millenias, but it was only recently that they made their presence public.
There were whispers of “A monster”, “She’s a monster, right?” and “Shouldn’t we contact...”
Something was definitely wrong. At that time, I knew that I had overextended my welcome. Turning to Tahira, I said, “Sorry about this. I guess it’s time for me to go.”
I cast the spell of invisibility, to the audible gasp of everyone in class. All of them had moved closer to the doors by now. When they saw the chair moving back without anything touching it, they scampered out of the classroom, trampling on each other. That left only me, Tahira and that substitute teacher.
Tahira mouthed a word towards my invisible self, which I assumed to be, “Run.”
So I ran. Left everything behind, even my first school bag in twenty years. I just ran. Where tall bushes or walls became obstacles, I flew past it. Still invisible, I ran out through the school’s wide open front gate.
I ran a few more kilometres away from the school. Only when I was far enough away did I stop to catch my breath and with it, my invisibility was dispelled. I had forgotten about my invisibility spell. It was not a problem even if I wanted to keep the invisibility spell on for several days. It had been years since I was bothered by the amount of mana spent on maintaining invisibility. It wasn’t the lack of mana that removed my invisibility, it was the shock of being feared.
I couldn’t understand. Back in my day at school, mages were revered. I even asked my teacher to show us some of her magic after class. In school assemblies, some of the teachers even performed magic to keep us awake. How come now people look at me with fear?
I walked aimlessly like this for hours. Only noticing my surroundings when everything around me became quiet. I looked around and for some reason, everyone was looking at me with eyes full of fear. Some were whispering among each other. I was confused until I saw my face on the TV.
“Doppelganger #2884. Wanted alive. Known powers include invisibility, charm and flight. Contact COCOM if you have any information.”
Doppelganger #2884? Me? I’m not a doppelganger! I’m a witch! I screamed inside, but that was no longer the point. The point was, I was a wanted person. Why? I asked myself. Witches were respected when I left. Even I was a respected witch in the other world, young as I was. Had things changed so much since twenty years ago?
I looked around trying to find a way to escape, but there was none. It would be impossible for me to slip through the tight crowd, especially since everyone’s eyes were on me. So I jumped to the sky, activated invisibility and flew away. It was too bad that my mastery over flight skill was very low, allowing me to only drift slowly instead of rushing through the air, but there was no other way. I had to escape before they call whoever they were supposed to call.
My feet touched down far from that crowd in front of an old clothing store. I recalled this store. When I was younger, my parents would take me here to shop for clothes. It was one of the few memories I could still recall clearly.
That’s right. I should go home! Mom and dad is surely there. They won’t be afraid of me. They won’t call whoever COCOM is supposed to be. They will certainly welcome me home!
And so I ran again, back to the old neighbourhood near the school. Back to the rows of old terraced houses where I once lived. I knocked on the door, with no response. I called mom and dad as I knocked again. When I was younger, both would be out at work at around this time, but they should both be retired now. I hoped they weren’t on a vacation somewhere. Or moved somewhere. I was this time that I wished I didn’t lose my keys during the battle against that mad god.
The front door to the house next door opened while I was knocking on my front door. This neighbour was unfamiliar to me. Maybe she moved in after I was gone. Twenty years is a long time after all.
“Are you the daughter of the Arkans?” she asked.
“Yes, can you tell me where they are?”
“I’m sorry. I’m sure this is going to be hard for you to take in, but they both died six years ago. This house had been unoccupied since then.” she said before she went back into her home and coming out with a key.
She handed me the key and went back into her home. It was the key to my home. I didn’t know how she got it, but didn’t care.
I grabbed the key so hard that it felt like the keys dug into my palm. With the key at my chest, my tears fell, one after another. I was a fool. The last thing I could recall of my father was how we argued over my decision to quit school and learn magic from my teacher. My last memory of mother was making her cry. I always thought if things didn’t work out, I could always return home.
I turned the key and pushed open the front door. It was a familiar guesthall. Cobwebs covered the ceiling and furniture, but everything was pretty much the way I had left it. The old CRT TV, so retro even when I was a child was still there. My father’s old radio which played cassettes in the age of MP3s were still there on the cupboard. I repeatedly told him to sell it because he had not used it at all, but he always refused. He told me that radio was how he met my mother.
I looked at the walls, where the framed certificates of excellence from my school years were hung. At the corner was a glass display case, where trophies from my school days were displayed. I was such a great student back then.
Ah, why is my face so wet?
A name on one of the trophies caught my eye. Aya, poet of the year. That’s right. There’s still Aya, my little sister!
I ran up the staircase two at a time. Running through the hallway of the second floor, I stopped in front of a door with ‘Aya’ written on the plaque that hung in front of the door. I opened the door with what must’ve been a smiling face, full of hope.
“Aya, I’m ba-”
There was nothing there in the room. The little wooden bed where I used to read fairytales to her before sleep was now dull and broken. The glass window had a hole in it, the culprit of which I traced to a baseball on the corner. The vanity she inherited from mother was covered in cobwebs. I opened her dresser and saw nothing in there. Not even a single piece of old clothes.
My steps were heavy as I left her room, barely recalling to close it behind me out of ... I don’t know ... Was it out of respect? Habit? Disappointment? Maybe all of them? It didn’t matter. She wasn’t there. She hadn’t been there for years.
I opened the door to my room, which was right in front of hers. It was certainly my room. The vanity that I insisted my father to buy when I turned 14 was still there. There was the old computer I used to play games on which was outdated even back when I was still in school. The bed I used to sleep in at night was tidy, just like the day I left it. The closet even still had my clothes. Nothing had changed. Everything was exactly the way it was when I left it. Did my parents leave it that way, hoping for all these years that I would come home?
How long did they wait? How long did they keep their hopes up? Did they ever thought that I wouldn’t be coming home at all?
My hands stopped right before I touched the doorknob of the door that separated their bedroom from the hallway. Could I handle this? I was afraid. I was deathly afraid. Even now, in my mind’s eye, memories ran through my head. Of how I used to sleep with them when I was a child, afraid of the dark, afraid of thunder, afraid even of the shadows the tree outside my window cast that made father cut it down when I was twelve. I recalled mother’s gentle smile as she hugged me with love and affection only a mother could offer. I recalled father’s stern and firm ways, who would scold me for the slightest mistakes, but always helped me silently, in ways not so obvious from a glance.
Then I recalled Aya, my dear little sister who was only 6 when I left. How she would call me big sister. How she would ask me to play with her, which I always tried to find my way out of. When my friends came to play, she also wanted to be there, and I always told her to leave. How I wish I could turn back time. Perhaps if I had studied more instead of having fun for this past twenty years, I would’ve found a way to turn back time. To return to that time in the past and stop myself from leaving.
I didn’t remember when, but my legs eventually went out. I sat on the floor, my back against the wall, sobbing by myself. I couldn’t even dare myself to open my parents’ bedroom. I couldn’t dare to see for myself if they were truly gone. I was nothing more than a coward. In my mind, I could only say, “I’m sorry” repeatedly, for who knows how long.
What is left for me now?
Empty. Everything here is empty. No father. No mother. No Aya. Nothing.
Eventually I noticed the ringing of the front door bell. It was an old bell, antique even. Instead of running on electricity, it was mechanical in nature. So even in the darkness of my house, I could still hear it.
I stood up with unsteady feet. Dragging my feet down the staircase, I walked to the front door without any urge to hurry. I didn’t even look through the peephole, not caring that my face was red from crying when I opened the front door. Standing in front of me was a man in his late 30s wearing a business suit. His dark hair looked reddish under the light of the evening sun.
“Good evening. My name is Michael Hart. May I ask if you are Charlotte Arkan?” he said with a smile which for some reason, I felt somewhat unnerving.
“Yes, what is it?” I asked. It couldn’t be a debt collector, could it?
“I am a staff of COCOM, here is my card,” he said as he brought out a fancy business card.
I took the card. COCOM sounded familiar, but I couldn’t recall what it was with the shock I had just received. Looking at the card, I could see the words Michael Hart, Troubleshooter, Department of Monster Classification, Organisation for the Command & Control of Monsters.
Suddenly I remembered. That wanted ad, to call COCOM if they saw me. Do COCOM arrest monsters? Am I a monster?
He smiled as he said, “Please follow me. If you do not try to fight, I can assure you, you will not be harmed. However, in case you want to escape, I must assure you that we have evacuated this neighbourhood and you are currently surrounded by elite enforcers of COCOM. Attempting to escape will be quite unpleasant. For you, that is. Me, it’s just another batch of paperwork.”
His smile never left his face this whole time. Not even once did his smile slip. As he kept smiling, he walked past me into the house before placing a black briefcase on the shoe rack. He opened the briefcase and inside it was a silvery metallic circle. It was ornately carved with symbols, some of which I understood as arcane symbols while the rest were foreign to me.
He took out the silvery circlet thing and pressed a button, opening it into half-circles around some kind of hinge in front. “Now turn around and raise your hair. I can assure you this is in no way painful. Though there may be some discomfort.”
Wait, is that a collar? Is he telling me he’s going to put a collar on me? I’m not a dog!
“I can see that you are quite shocked. No need to worry. This collar will not kill you. It will only remove your powers and return you to your true form, whatever that may be.”
I stepped away from him. The smile that was only a mild unpleasantness before this suddenly felt oppressing. That smile, made seemingly carelessly felt nauseating, scary and threatening. It felt as if I would be killed if I didn’t let him put that collar around my neck.
I, a great witch who once slew dragons, overturn mountains and consorted with gods, were afraid of this man in a business suit. How could that be?
“Don’t be afraid,” he said with a smile, “This will not hurt you one bit.”
His voice was strangely hypnotic. Had it been anyone else, he probably would’ve gotten his way. But I was a great witch. How could I ever be taken in by that hypnotic voice? I have withstood far worst.
Yet at that time, it felt like he was the greatest threat I have ever encountered. None others from my past could ever compare. Not the flame dragon Rakthul. Not the mad god Allurien. Not the evil sage Amarillis.
I have to admit, I was terrified of this man, Michael Hart.
I ran again, smashing through the front door of my house. I applied every enhancement magic I could recall, trying to escape from this man. I was scared, for some reason, something about this man terrified me more than a mad god.
But before I could take another step outside of the house, I received a sudden strong impact on my left breast. It was a bullet. A very large bullet, probably the same kind used in anti-tank rifles. I looked at the place it hit, imagining how it must’ve at least broken a few ribs considering how painful it felt despite my personal shield.
But there was no time to think. I had to escape. So I ran again, casting an additional barrier from the direction the previous bullet came from. But this time, not only did the barrier was attacked, more bullets came from three different angles. I was barely able to avoid them.
So I kept running. What choice did I have? There was no time to think. No braincells to spare. Even with my physical enhancements, mana shield and barrier spell, many of their bullets still hit me. I hadn’t even run for 200 metres before one of the bullets flew through the gap in my barrier, broke through my mana shield and hit me straight in the heart.
I fell on the road, coughing blood. My wounds bled the red liquid that sustained my life as it spilled on the asphalt road. The very same road I used to run around as a child. The very same road where I greeted my friends on my way to school. The very same road I used to chase my father’s car as he went to work in my kindergarten days.
Now I was lying on this road on my back, in a pool made of my own blood.
“You shouldn’t have run. This is what happens when you run. Seriously, you monsters just can’t see reason. Sometimes I wonder if you even have a brain. Maybe that thing up top is just decoration. Well, doesn’t matter. Even dead your body can be a good research material,” the man said as he stood above my head.
Hearing his words, any thoughts of dying disappeared. As I struggled to push my body up, I told him, “Not die ... not die ... here ... not you...” I said, barely coherent in my voice and mind.
“Oh? Still has strength, huh?” he said as he took out a gun from his coat pocket. “Guess I’ll just give you the final blow, then.”
“AHHHHHHH!!!” I screamed, releasing a great blast of mana as a fiery explosion. The explosion expanded, encompassing a large area that even swallowed my old home. No doubt even that man, Michael Hart was caught in the explosion. Nothing could’ve escaped the destruction.
Nothing except for me. For I had cast both invisibility and phasing spell on myself, which shifted my invisible body to another dimension. In effect, both spells made me invisible to the naked eye and invulnerable to any weapon of this world. I should’ve done this from the start. I guess my fear of that man stripped me of all reasoning.
As the smoke cleared, I heard footsteps approaching.
Then I heard that man’s voice, clear as day.
“Spread out. Find out where she ran off to. She’s still alive. This is nothing more than diversion.”
How could he have escaped the explosion? He was right next to me! He couldn’t have enough time to escape.
As many thoughts raced inside my head, I slowly healed my body. Despite releasing a large amount just now, I still had some mana, barely enough to maintain invisibility and phasing. Healing my body would be stretching it further, but I had no other choice. Even if I had to crawl away, I had to escape from this man who was strangely coming closer to the center of the crater.
For some reason, this man, Michael Hart, squatted next to my prone body. He looked straight at my face as he said, “What a foolish effort. Now you’re marked as being a monster with multiple lives in COCOM’s database. You have only raised your threat factor from D to B. COCOM will expend more effort to capture or kill you now.”
Could he see me? How could he? My invisibility was perfect. I even had phasing on. As my body was still healing, I could only move my right hand. So I raised my hand, waving it left and right in front of his face. He didn’t blink nor show any sign that he was affected by my hand in front of his face. He couldn’t actually see me, so how was he so confident that I was still alive and still lying here?
He reached out his hand. I thought he was trying to grab my hand, but that was not the case. As his hand came closer and closer to my face, I wondered, was I wrong? Could he in fact see me? Could he even touch me?
But he couldn’t touch me. His fingers slipped through into my face, going forward until it touched the ground under my head. As he pulled his hand back, I had the strangest indescribable sensation. A tingling in a part of my brain not normally felt nor noticed.
“So you have become incorporeal. Perhaps you are not a doppelganger, but a spectre?” he said as he dusted his suit and stood up. “Doesn’t matter. You will slip up sooner or later. I’ll be waiting then.”
By now I have healed enough that I could get up with difficulty. But the whole thing made me wonder. If he couldn’t see me, then why was he so sure that I was still alive? It was beyond mere suspicion. He knew I was alive, as if he had seen me. But he didn’t see me, he couldn’t see me.
This man, Michael Hart is perhaps the toughest enemy I have ever face.
He said what I did merely raised my threat factor to B from D? Why? Just because I didn’t die in the explosion? Or was it because he believed I have multiple lives? While I admit, enemies with multiple lives are troublesome to kill, it is only a hassle. It doesn’t make someone with attack power of 100 become 1000 just because he has ten lives.
However, if I did become more ‘threatening’, more people would be dispatched my way. I could probably handle a couple of hundreds on a good day, but what if their organization was much larger? What if by defeating this couple of hundreds of men meant my threat factor would be increased again.
No, I must stop that from happening. I must prevent my threat factor from being raised. For that, I must stop him before he make his report to his superiors.
So for that reason, I hitched a ride on the boot of his car. It is imperative that I must stop him from making that report. If he wrote it on paper, I must remove any incriminating report or swap it with my own version. If he typed it into his computer, I must delete any reference to me having multiple lives. I was phased, but I have learned from experience that I could still use telekinesis to affect the physical world. It was through this telekinesis that I managed to cling on to the boot of his car.
“Oy, what are you doing keeping the bar down? I want to get back to my office ASAP!” this man said to the front gate guard of COCOM’s headquarters the moment the car arrived.
“Sorry sir, we still have to run a scan-”
“Don’t bother me with that useless thing! Don’t you know who I am? I am tired and I can get you fired with a snap of my fingers, girl!” Michael Hart said, using a completely different tone from the one he used on me.
“Ye-yes! Please excuse my insolence!” she said, pressing a button that raised the iron bar that blocked his access up.