Chapter 2: A Deal For The Powerful
Author's Note: Hello all! Thank you for all the wonderful reviews- you encourage my efforts and keep me going! I admit this chapter will be a little longer than the others, mainly because I try to make each chapter similar to the length of a real novel. Those of you who are impatient for the interesting bits, it's finally here!
Mrs. Dover, in her glorious lecturing career of twenty years, had never arrived to the class late.
That was why Estelle or Lawrence, including anyone else who wished to stay in her good books, never took toilet breaks if her class were to start in the next period. The prim and proper lady reasoned that they have a full lunch hour and other free periods in their timetable to laze all they want in the restrooms, or any other corner of the college for the matter.
Estelle watched the professional lecturer swing the door open and stride into the cold lecture theatre with a silver laptop and stacks of paper cradled in her right arm, her short heels tapping against the polished tile floor. Josh, who was seated next to Estelle as usual, looked up from his tweeting urgently and scurried his phone into his jeans pocket.
"Good morning, everyone!" Mrs. Dover chimed, her voice bright and precise, as she hooked her laptop to the projector cable. "How are you all?"
Josh nudged Estelle in the ribs. "Look. The papers. Could they be from our test?"
She craned her head forward slightly, trying futilely to make out the line patterns on the first page of the stack. "Maybe yes, maybe no. I can't say for sure."
"How did she manage to mark fifty-two essay papers in just one day, in addition to her normal teaching routine?" Josh whispered in alarm.
A male student among the crowd answered Mrs. Dover loudly. "I couldn't sleep, miss! If I close my eyes I can see your red pen ravaging my essay!" The lecture theatre boomed with peals of laughter, including that of the lecturer.
Just then, the door opened.
The laughter diminished to faint giggles as Dr. Ronald, the college's assistant principal peeked in. "Yo-ho, kids!" The short and balding man turned to Mrs. Dover. "Ah, there you are, Dover! May I borrow a moment?"
The lady stuck her upper body out of the door and held a whispered conversation with her superior. As the exchange progressed, Estelle thought could see Mrs. Dover grip on the door handle tense. She blinked. Was it a hallucination?
She nearly jumped out of her skin at the touch on her shoulder from behind. It was Kazuki Ishii. He handed her a notebook he previously borrowed with a bemused expression. "Sorry to scare you. Thanks for your notes, they were really good!"
Estelle took the book and smiled at the Japanese Bronze Knight. "You're welcomed, Kazuki. I'm sure Lawrence does it better than me."
"Lawrence? I haven't borrowed anything from him." The shy and boyish student swept his long hair away from his eyes. "He and his company make me feel intimidated, unfortunately."
And I am not intimidating?
Abruptly, Mrs. Dover finished her conversation and turned into the lecture theatre, closing the door shut. Estelle snapped back into reality. The whole class fell into a hush as she made it to the centre of the stage and it was not hard to figure out why.
Shuffling quietly behind her was a thin and lanky student. He was dressed simply in a petroleum black sweatshirt with a white jersey underneath and a pair of baggy jeans hanging loosely from his hips. His long untrimmed hair was shaggy and spiked softly in random directions. The boy raised his head slightly, peering from his bangs and everyone could see how pale his complexion was, yet his face was a delicate mix of western and eastern descent.
He looked eccentric and totally out of place.
"Today, we welcome a transfer student from a foreign branch of Felling's College. His name is White Lee, or you may call him White for short. Please lend him any assistance if he needs, will you, children?"
"Any assistance, miss?" A cheeky girl questioned from a corner. The class roared in bawdy hilarity.
"Rachel! I expect you to behave like a decent young lady, as with all of you girls! You are students of Felling's Institutions and therefore have to uphold its reputation!"
Mrs. Dover whispered several questions to White, which were answered with nods and headshakes. From his usual backseat, Lawrence scrutinized the new boy inquisitively. Instead of walking the normal way, White shuffled and dragged his feet, like when he first entered the lecture theatre and later went to sit on the empty space beside Kazuki. However, there was something unusual about him, despite the unappetizing appearance and habit. Something quiet, yet strong. Quiet strength?
The new boy silently removed his textbook from his flimsy backpack and turned around as if he could feel the Gold King's gaze burn into his back. The Cashew stiffened. Those orbs of his eyes were steady yet penetrating.
"Now, as for your assessment results…" Mrs. Dover announced. "The highest score goes to Lawrence Cashew, ninety-eight marks!"
The students cheered and hooted. Estelle clenched her fist subtly and hid it under the table, her face showed no betray of emotion. Josh, equally discreet, patted her arm in consolation. They watched the cinnamon haired boy walk down from his seat to receive his paper, with the same calm expression which bore no obvious signs of rejoicing. But the rivalling king and queen knew. Estelle had learnt that laughter or tears need not be shown to be understood.
"The second highest score goes to Estelle Indigo! Well done, girl. Your performance is outstanding compared to previous tests. Ninety-seven marks!"
Estelle's jaw could have touched the table if it was anatomically possible, but remembering her poise, she resisted the urge to do so. Despite being second in position for most of the time, the score gap between silver and gold was wider.
Just one more mark...
And I would have nailed you, Lawrence. Scared now?
Congratulations, Estelle. You almost defeated me, but not quite yet. I would like to see how this continues…
"The third position goes to Joshua Bright, ninety marks!"
Behind Estelle, Kazuki gasped in painful astonishment. He had been replaced. She could not help but experience mixed sensations- joy for her friend Josh in his victory and sympathy for her fallen comrade Kazuki. But wasn't this part of life?
Newcomer White remained silent in the background while he watched the interesting drama unfold in his class with curiosity. It was a very different culture from his previous college. It was very competitive. He liked it. And it was very, very interesting.
The Gold King glanced at White again, still feeling uneasy from Estelle's close threat. He saw the shabby boy shift his eyes from himself, then to Josh, finally settling on Estelle, as if he knew something that they did not.
"That was unexpected."Josh protested, folding his test paper and tucking it into a folder. His face was a sweet cocktail of humility and pleasant surprise, something so rare on Josh the Jester that Estelle wished she had a camera to snap it. The class was concluded with yet another essay assignment on oligopolies and the prisoner's dilemma, a topic she detested so much that she wanted to incinerate the question handout.
"Maybe you bribed Dover in your dreams." Estelle suggested playfully, though a newfound respect wriggled its way into her heart. Josh replied with a light shove. Students were standing around the lecture theatre, some still discussing, others gathered with their buddies and filing out of the room.
Kazuki came forward to Josh, holding out his hand for a handshake. Estelle noted a hint of disappointment in the corners of his mouth. "Congratulations, Josh."
The new Bronze Knight took the hand solicitously. "Thanks mate. Couldn't have done it without Dover and Estelle here. I ain't that good, really."
The comment evoked an amused grin from the Japanese boy as he turned to Estelle. Behind him, White was standing and looking a little lost, but when asked by a group of classmates if he would like to join them for lunch, he smiled politely and shook his head.
"You must have given Lawrence a hard hitting there, Estelle." Kazuki continued with the grin still hanging on his face. "No one has ever been in such a close scoring range to him. Perhaps I should seek guidance from you too."
"Yeah, time for Lawry to watch his tail." Josh said and filed his last paper away. "I'm ready. Where to now?"
Trying not to appear too obvious, the Silver Queen sneaked a second peek at White. The lecture theatre was emptying rapidly but he was still in his original position, glancing around in an absentminded manner. Lawrence and his cronies were making their way to the door, and just before he exited, her brunet rival caught her eye and smiled.
It looked tender, and if it had been any other girl, he would have melted her heart. She cocked her head her head to the side and returned it.
We never really talked since orientation day, have we, Lawrence? You associated with almost everyone except for me.
True. You were a difficult girl, so maybe now is the time we get to learn each other better?
"White…" Kazuki turned toward the shabby boy affably, catching his attention in an instant. "It's lunch hour now. There is going to be another class coming in soon, so would you like to join us?"
With a closer look, Estelle noted how fine White's facial features were. But there was some kind of aura in those liquid grey pupils that was not to be messed with. He smiled and nodded.
Just some minutes ago, he rejected the previous invitation but now he was accepting theirs. Was he waiting for them to make a move?
Estelle, in her earlier days, had a preference for a small dining group, usually of her few close friends or to dine alone. However, likely due to her merry mood, she welcomed the additional companions. They selected a quaint and private Chinese establishment called Ping An Lou (Peace Tower) for lunch at the Bazaar, which Josh recommended. In contrast to its dingy exterior appearance, she was mildly amazed to discover the interiors luxuriously decorated. The restaurant, dimly illuminated, was shaded in the rich prosperous colour of red. Red draperies of sheer silk was decked out across the ceiling and along the walls, the floor planked in expensive ebony. Plump red Chinese lanterns, bright red crockery and chopsticks, the waitresses were gowned in sensual red cheongsams with a high side split. They were led to a round marble table in one of the curtained back rooms, soothing traditional Chinese music playing over the small speakers. The air carried a faint scent of jasmine incense and steaming oolong tea. With vixen-like women in seductive dress serving as waitresses, the place resembled a classy oriental harem.
"Wow." Kazuki exclaimed after they settled down on a richly carved wooden chairs, shrouded privately by the silk curtain. "I didn't know the Bazaar had a restaurant like that."
"Me neither. Who would guess Josh visited this kind of place?" Estelle mocked, a grin tugging at her lips. This brought a hearty laugh from Kazuki.
"Actually…" The blonde boy took a calm sip of tea while throwing a meaningful look at Estelle. "Lawrence brought me here. Apparently, he and his buddies came here whenever their eyes felt the need to. I suppose he is the Gold King in every aspect of his life."
"Josh!" Kazuki interrupted in alarm with his eyes widening at the suggestive comment. He turned to White politely, trying to participate him I the conversation. "Where are you from, White? It's kind of hard to judge from your appearance."
White chuckled softly. "Many people have asked me the same question. Well, my father is from Taiwan, my mother is German."
Amidst the excited chatter, Estelle felt her phone buzz. She flipped it open. It was an instant message.
23: Do you like to play games?
The hairs on her nape pricked up. Twenty-three? Who was this person? A second later, another message appeared below the previous.
23: I can see you, you know. I can see your friends as well. Go outside and we will have a little chat.
A familiar drop in the temperature made her heart leap to her throat. It was a slow, gradual process and the air in their partition cooled she had felt it somewhere before.
Estelle glanced around the table. No one was paying particular attention to her texting. Discreetly, she typed her reply.
E. Indigo: What if I don't want to?
A short pause. Another beep.
23: I will decapitate one of the waitresses and send her head on a dish to your table.
Estelle forced her breathing to remain even. It would be bad to alert her friends despite the frightening threat- this was her problem and hers alone. Thoughts of action calculated in her mind.
I don't know this mysterious messenger. There is a possibility that he will do what he or she mentioned without hesitation. If I went, I might spare a life and trauma for everyone. However, this also pose a risk of danger to me. Who knew what he or she might do?
She frowned and her brows knitted. No one at the table noticed anything suspicious yet, except for the occasional glances from Josh.
Screw this, I'm going.
"Excuse me, guys." Estelle rose from the table and exited their partition. Just when she reached the main dining room of the restaurant, another message was received.
23: Thank you for your cooperation. Now, please proceed to the front door.
Estelle felt a drip of cold sweat slide down her forehead, but vowed to betray no sign of fear in her actions. If the messenger was really watching her, she should want to appear unaffected. This was likely to strengthen her defences as she seemed unpredictable. She took a deep breath and stepped out from the elaborate lattice doors.
The front porch of 'Ping An Lou' was a canopied high-street, and currently streamed with white collar workers carrying about their business and enjoying lunch. Tall, potted trees rustled softly to the weak wind and aromas of grilled steak and fresh baguettes wafted through the air. Unlike the cool inside of the restaurant, it felt hot and stuffy.
The dark-haired girl smiled. With all these people around, Twenty-three would not stand a chance at harming her and go unnoticed.
23: This is your final term in Felling College, Estelle Indigo. After this, you're a Levels course will be completed and you will be heading to university. Tell me again, do you like to play games?
E. Indigo: It depends on the game itself.
23: Rini offers you the privilege of playing a great game. Something that is only fit for intelligent children like you, Indigo. Rini will reward the winner very nicely.
E. Indigo: Who is this Rini? You certainly are willing to go to great lengths just to have me play her game, including to murder.
At this point, the messenger inserted a picture file into their text conversation. Estelle opened it.
It was an animated picture of a female face. With each frame of animation, the face slowly transformed into that of a ghoul- the flawless complexion decayed, her eye sockets sinking and grew red veins while the eyeballs popped. The woman's sweet sculpted lips shrunk and curled inwards, revealing yellowed and rotting teeth. Estelle gasped and dropped her phone.
The picture looked like the reflection in her dream. It looked like Estelle.
She bent down gingerly to retrieve the device as if it were a dead rat and flicked back to the chat screen.
23: DO NOT taunt me, girl. You have no idea what I'm capable of. Now, since you are doubtful, I shall show you the validity of the offer. Return to the restaurant and get on the second floor. Join me in the furthermost private dining room you see.
A wave of uneasiness overcame her stomach and she bit her lower lip, trying to prevent herself from puking in fear. She wanted to scream and run back to the college for help, to tell the police that there was a dangerous stalker hunting her, but it might just bring nightmarish consequences. Furthermore, her friends were still in the restaurant and potential hazard. Estelle leaned against the wall for support as wave after wave of nausea flooded her system, her head turning light and dizzy.
With what little energy supporting her, Estelle dragged her feet into the restaurant. One foot taking one step, then the other taking the second step like a robot on its test run. Her neck and hairline was slick and uncomfortable with sweat but she failed to acknowledge it. While she climbed the stairs, her thoughts were focused on a single point.
She was scared of who might be in the room she was journeying to, what she might see and the things twenty-three had in mind for her. She was scared because the person was connected to her haunts. It was like finally finding some answers and confronting the truth, but some of them could be so deadly that they should be left undisturbed.
Estelle froze as she reached the entrance of the room. Using a trembling hand, she pushed the curtain aside and entered. Her mouth dropped open with a soundless wail.
Sprawled unceremoniously in one of the chairs was a waitress, foam bubbling from her bluish lips. The woman's head was twisted into an awkward angle and her horrified face was intensified by the dim candlelight and tinted red shade of the illumination. Standing over the poor waitress was a tall female figure dressed in a conservative gown, her abnormally long, midnight-ink hair cascading down her back. A white phone was placed on the edge of the table.
The messenger turned to face Estelle and grinned, allowing her head to loll back lazily on her shoulders. Unhealthily white skin was pulled taut across her face as if she had undergone surgery and gory redness coloured her eyes. Stains of ash and burn marks plastered the figure's left cheek.
Estelle's eyes widened revoltingly and she was ready to bolt from the crime scene but the figure drew her back in with her long arms. The trapped girl squirmed painfully in the creature's grip, trying to yell with the hand clamped over her mouth.
"Shh..." The figure hushed, as if she were talking to a rebelling child. "If you will just relax, I would not look as frightening as you think."
She pressed her face close to Estelle's, her skin felt dreadfully cold, like dry ice. "I am Twenty-three." The messenger whispered.
Estelle slowly ceased her struggles and calmed down, her body shuddering uncontrollably in Twenty-three's hold.
"If I let you go, will you promise me not to run? It would be a trouble to kill another innocent one, hmm?"
The girl nodded briskly. Twenty-three released her and she scrambled to her feet, not taking her eyes off the murderer. "B-but, my friends are waiting. They may be worried if I'm gone too long."
Twenty-three smirked. "The other waitresses are entertaining them. They won't be missing you anytime yet. And please, have a seat."
The female pulled a chair out for Estelle, which she gratefully sank into. She noticed how the woman walked in gliding motions as though she hardly touched the ground, and the rusted manacle wrapping around her right wrist. "So...you mentioned about Rini's offer." Estelle spoke quietly, clasping her hands together while trying to ignore the dead body seated across the table. It was time to regain composure and think rationally.
"Rini is my mistress. I am merely doing her bidding." Twenty-three answered in her hushed, flat voice. She handed Estelle a crusty brown enveloped that probably changed hands several times, marked with the famous Felling initials of FC. She opened it and read the old letter inside. Yellow stains of age dotted the plain paper, the message printed in office block letters.
It is my pleasure to invite you to participate in the Stratagem. The competition is open only to the top students of each senior class in their final college term, whereby to test their ability and wit in eliminating their rival players using the most tactful of methods. The details of the competition will be discussed on a privately arranged meeting with me which all the participating contestants will be attending.
Estelle gasped at the family name of Rini. Felling? Is she somehow related to the college? "Is this competition…official?"
At this point, the woman smiled widely, her lips stretched in an inhuman way and displayed her tiny jagged teeth. "No. It is organised only by Rini alone and the college faculty will not be liable to any related events."
The girl hesitated before asking her next question. "You are not really human, are you?"
It drew an even greater grin from Twenty-three. "Yes."
She took a deep breath and read the letter again. After some interaction, Estelle was getting accustomed to the supernatural presence. "Elimination of rival players?"
"Don't worry; there is nothing illegal or criminal, like a normal game where the players are being eliminated until the winner is found. And you will be able to keep your normal college routine." Twenty-three traced a sharp nail along the painted wall, producing a soft unpleasant screech. "It is just a game of…strategy."
"What's the prize?" Estelle shot back. She was not going to stick her head into something unknown for something that was hardly worth a catch.
The answer sounded ridiculous. "Whatever you want." The servant replied tiredly, still standing in her stock-still, straight posture.
It was too good to be true. "But that's impossible! What if I wanted something impossible, can Rini give it to me?"
The statement brought a sigh from Twenty-three as she glided around the candlelit room. An uncomfortable stall in the conversation ensued as she stopped at the small stand which held crockery and various condiments, then examined a bottle of soy sauce.
Estelle frowned and gripped the edge of the table in revulsion as the creature began pouring a steady stream of the sauce all over the dead body's face. Finally, Twenty-three spoke. "Did I tell you that Rini is no longer a human?"
Twenty-three grabbed the waitress's face and inhaled deeply. A great stench clouded the room as the supernatural creature forcefully pushed her own body into the victim's. the dead muscles split and spluttered, making way for Twenty-three's form until they melted gradually into one.
Estelle watched the gruesome scene in horror. Twenty-three had possessed the body- its face, form and even outfit was a combination of both previously separate entities. When it spoke, it's voice morphed into a more human tone, but with a creepy chime to it. "I shall prove it to you. Give me a wish, and you will witness the truth."
The Silver Queen thought the matter with care before articulating her wish. "The annual Business Enterprise Presentation is coming up. Teams from class A3 has been dominating the championship for several consecutive years and if Rini can make my team win for this round, I accept her invitation."
"Very well." The abomination wiped the soy sauce and foam off her face and slinked out of the dining room. Estelle peered out a moment later, and Twenty-three was gone. She adjusted her blouse and smoothed out her hair, then returned downstairs to her lunch.
What have I done?