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March 3, 2092, in a secret military base somewhere in Antarctica.
"Ruby, are you ready for your lesson? A dry, authoritative voice jolted a crippled little girl awake.
Recognizing the voice, the girl began to tremble in fear, although it was hard to tell the difference from the tremors caused by her muscular dystrophy. With what little strength she was able to muster, she yanked the quilt over her and curled up into a ball underneath.
Unfortunately, that didn't stop the clatter of pumps on the floor from drawing closer. An exasperated sigh sounded just above her, a few inches from her nightstand.
"No need to hide, I know where you are." Phoebe Hale dully pulled down the bedspread, exposing the terrified kid in her pajamas.
Anyone who looked at the child would have only seen a hideous, misshapen, sickly runt, but a loving, albeit slightly worried smile softened the face of the young woman in uniform.
The handicapped girl and the good-looking military woman in uniform looked blatantly alike, like two sisters if one ignored the child's bone deformities and thinness. Outsiders would see it as a family bond of mother and daughter, but the one Ruby called her aunt knew it wasn't so.
She had 'seen' what Ruby looked like when she was born and she knew her origins. She wasn't sure before, but as time went on she became convinced that the girl was subconsciously trying to look like her. Literally.
"I don't want to go Aunt Hale! They'll still… look at me funny." Ruby sobbed, hiding her head under her pillow.
"Tsk, stop pretending. Of course they look at you funny!" Phoebe rolled her eyes as she lifted her by the armpits and dropped her into the tub. "And don't forget to call me Captain Hale in public. The other students will end up thinking I'm playing favorites."
Little Ruby stuck out her tongue as she allowed herself to be undressed by the young woman. Aunt Hale, who was not at the time a cruel and dreaded colonel of New Earth, began to scrub her body vigorously with soap and a washcloth, and the girl let herself be shampooed unabashedly.
This had been her daily routine for as long as she could remember. Even going to the bathroom… it was complicated. Thinking about the mockery the other kids would throw at her when Phoebe's back was turned, she began to tear up against her will, but the water of the shower covered her sadness.
A few minutes later, dried off and dressed, the Captain in the medal-studded uniform exclaimed,
"There you go, all dressed up to go to school."
"It's not really a school…" Ruby pouted crankily, but it sounded more like a sneer.
"You have classes, there are students your age and there are teachers. If that's not a school I don't know what is." Phoebe flicked her head.
" Ouch!" The little girl squealed with a falsely hurt look on her face. "On TV, the teachers are never in military uniforms."
"Eeeeeeexcept when it's a military school. In a military base." The young captain countered in a tone that brooked no argument.
"Don't complain. How many schools let you play video games all day?" Phoebe ruffled her hair affectionately.
"None, but it's ALWAYS the same game! And you always end up dying in excruciating pain!" Ruby protested. "Did anyone even finish this Eighth Ordeal once? I can never get past it!"
"And that's why you have to keep going to school. Make friends. Learn to cooperate." The soldier lectured her patiently.
"Why?" The girl questioned. "I'm good on my own! I'm doing better than the whole class at Trial Worlds!"
"First of all you are only third out of the 100 Prodigies under my supervision. Aaaaaand you are in a friggin' wheelchair. Don't forget it."
The child's face immediately grew somber.
"Thank you for reminding me… That I can't do anything by myself."
Phoebe sighed, a heart-wrenching feeling squeezing her chest.
"I'm sorry, Ruby." She apologized, giving her a hug. "You know I didn't mean any harm."
"I know…" The kid grumbled.
"No you don't understand. You may not be able to do anything on your own for now, and someday I promise you'll be able to do all these things on your own. But trust me. There will always be something you can't do alone. Everyone always needs someone. If one day you feel overwhelmed, if you feel yourself drowning, don't forget that you are not alone."
The girl's amethyst eye faintly flashed at these words and the young woman recoiled abruptly. Neither Ruby nor Phoebe made any comment, but the soldier saw the child's hurt expression. Sighing again, she forced herself to smile buoyantly and said,
"Well, shall we go to that school?
In the present.
Ruby painfully opened her eyes and gazed up at the high ceiling of ice above her. She felt as if she had been through a long dream, or rather an endless nightmare with no way out.
The storm of rage and hatred against everything that had been plaguing her incessantly had retreated, muted by an irrepressible force. Alas, that force had ebbed away and slowly she could feel those alien emotions creeping back into her. But unlike before, their intensity was negligible and she could easily appreciate their significance.
Being lucid and calm again for the first time in ages, she replayed the events of the last months and years and realized how much harm she had done. She felt an unbearable guilt, but strangely she embraced this pain in her chest, happy to be able to feel it again.
The young woman turned her head and suddenly noticed the presence of the two men beside her. The first, a little chubby and with a worried face, the other handsome and… unsympathetic.
Craig and Jake.
When she saw them, she remembered her aunt's words.
"Don't forget you're not alone."
For a brief moment, the time of a fleeting thought, she wanted to believe it. She was overwhelmed by the same instinct that a drowning man has when he sees a buoy or a lifeboat. This impulse to cling with all her strength to anything that could bring her hope, however small and vain.
But very quickly, this thought disappeared, replaced by an irrepressible and unconditional hatred towards the two humans who were staring at her. She even wanted to… eat them.
The magnitude of this hostility was still low, but the two men watching her every move felt it distinctly, their hairs bristling in alarm.
"Here we go again." Jake growled as he prepared to knock her out at the slightest sign of transformation.
With unspoken agreement, the two budding Aetherists began to weave a flurry of Placating Spells. Neither of them were well versed in Spirit Magic, and all mind-related spells had always been extremely complex, far more so than any other spell.
As a result, their spells were rudimentary and crude. Their Placating Spells would placate… everything. After her body was covered in Aether Symbols, Ruby found herself completely neurasthenic. It was beyond apathy. An emotional blankness that was beyond words, yet restful.
And yet, even then she could still feel a hint of anger threatening to flare up at the slightest lapse.
"It doesn't work. Unless we stay here until the end of time to sustain the Aether flow, the spell will eventually end."
"I can see that…" Jake winced as he shifted into high gear.
He was usually reluctant to tap into his " wealth ", but this time he decided to make an exception. Mainly because he hadn't gone to too much trouble to obtain it.
An Aether Core from his collection appeared above his palm and he began to carefully draw new Aether Symbols intertwined around this foundation. The Aether Core would become the power source for the spell.
He then used his Soul Class Skill Aether Compression to miniaturize the symbol and inserted it into Ruby's Spirit Body, using the prerogatives of the Slave Contract to prevent her from resisting.
Aiming for someone's Soul was difficult when the target was expecting it. It could become as tiny and elusive as a Divinity and looking for the Soul in the middle of the Spirit Body was like looking for a needle in a haystack.
However, it was different when an Evolver merged its consciousness with its Spirit Body to spread its mental sense, for example. Ruby was unable to disobey, so all he had to do was insert the Aether Symbol into her Spirit Body to reach her Soul.
The lingering hatred was immediately quenched and for the first time in at least three Ordeals, Ruby finally felt Zen.
A little too Zen.