3 days had passed and nothing big happened. I managed to see my friends less, only glimpsing one of them occasionally. Kalo must've been told about my interactions with the other members of Berserk Soul, because I never once encountered him.
Though it hurt not being able to talk to my only friends, I had to admit that the lack of distractions made me considerably stronger. The 3 days of nonstop Infest slaughter made me more prone to anticipate their attacks without the use of Berserk Mode. Even if I did use Berserk Mode, I could hold the mode for longer periods of time.
Prof. Req more or less let me do what I wanted, only intervening to tweak my combat style or to give me tips on Soul consumption. We sparred at the end of every day, to see where my vigorous training had gotten me to. By the end of the second day, I was able to keep pace with Prof. Req for several minutes.
I was laying on the floor in front of the massive painting, trying to regain my breath. I just finished cutting through a swarm of Stage 3 Infests, which severely depleted my Soul pool. As I laid on the ground, I thought about what Prof. Req said a few days ago.
"That Infest blood is somehow working with your body and enhancing it. Maybe it's due to your Berserk Mode, but normally, people with an Infest infection would've turned in less than 3 days. You said you were infected when you met Bella? If that's the case, then the infection only served as a benefit, since you should've been turned a while ago. If you ask me, I'd keep the infection for a few days, to see where it goes. The IDA should have restocked on the Infest Dragon blood by then, so even if you start to turn, we can get a vial and cure you."
I replied by spitting out my hatred of Infests and insisted on going back to the dragon. Hell, even if it took me 3 years instead of 3 days to get to the level I was currently at with Infest blood, I'd still choose 3 years.
Maybe I was an asshole after all.
I growled and sat up, collecting my swords I dropped. Prof. Req was silent in the weapon room, as he had become; most likely keeping his distance away from me.
I didn't ask him to keep his distance, but I guess the actions I took in pushing my friends away must've told him I didn't want anyone to distract me.
The DAI instructor walked out of the weapon room and glanced at me, giving a nod. I got up off the floor and realized how awkward it now was between me and the professor. If things were like this between teacher and student, how would they be between me and my friends?
Prof. Req gave a soft cough and finally spoke with his back turned to me as he stared at the painting.
"Your birthday is today, you know."
I was dimly aware of that this morning when I woke up, but I had pushed it to the back of my mind. I never really cared about my birthday. Why should I? I rarely had parties thrown for me, and not many people knew about it anyway.
I shrugged, and upon noticing that Prof. Req wasn't facing me, I sighed.
"It should. It's a day to celebrate your birth."
"If that's the case, then we should celebrate every living thing's birth."
"It's not healthy to be so pessimistic." The instructor finally turned around with a weary look, almost as if he didn't know what to do with me. I was hit by a fleeting moment of guilt, but it passed as soon as I heard a knock on the door.
"That must be the helpers I asked for." Prof. Req said as he walked past me and opened the door to reveal a single woman.
"Or.. just a single helper."
The woman walked in without so much as a glance to Prof. Req and looked around the room.
I was allured by her appearance. Even though it embarrassed me, I couldn't help but let my gaze be attracted to this woman.
She was dressed in a black and red checkered blouse with a dark red skirt to match. She wore red heels and a red bow in her brown hair. Heck, the only thing that wasn't red on her was her black thighighs. I noticed that my jaw was a bit loose, and I hurriedly closed it. Prof. Req, however, was unfazed by this glamorous woman.
"Aidi, is this the classroom you're in charge of?" Heck, even her airy voice charmed me. I was slightly aware of how creepy I was being, so I tore my gaze away with all my willpower.
"Yes. Did the city only send you?" My teacher frowned as he closed the door.
"Afraid so. Belrus and Tyson are out on a mission, and I was the only one available." The woman then noticed me. "Oh, who do we have here?" She beamed at me, and I was mesmerized.
Prof. Req sighed and stepped in between us.
"Dren, this is Venus; Venus, Dren."
The woman named Venus gave me a little wave and I had no choice but to wave back.
Wait, her name was Venus?
I must've had a confused look on my face, because Prof. Req explained.
"No one really knows her real name. Venus herself claims to not know as well, but I have a feeling she's faking it just so she can be called Venus."
"And why shouldn't I, Aidi? I'm just as beautiful, right?" She batted her crystal blue eyes at Prof. Req.
Prof. Req sighed in response and moved towards the painting. I was surprised; I had never seen Prof. Req be exasperated with a person.
"Don't call me Aidi, Venus. We're not in a team anymore."
"Oh, come on. Just because the team's been broken up doesn't mean I can't call you Aidi." Venus pouted, and even that was attractive.
"Venus, I have a son."
"Oh, pooh. You're no fun." Venus walked up to the painting and joined Prof. Req.
There was definitely some history between these two, but I didn't want to pry into their lives.
Prof. Req tossed a glance at me.
"Venus and I used to be on a team, just like you are in Berserk Soul. The two people she mentioned earlier were also in our team. As for the last two members.." The DAI instructor grew quiet, and headed into the weapon room.
Venus turned toward me, her expression suddenly solemn.
"Mareth went missing and the last member... " Pain flashed in her eyes. "Clarisa... Aidan's wife.. died." Her sunny personality was gone now, replaced by a fog of sadness.
Heck, even I felt the heavy atmosphere that settled onto the room. I didn't know how to respond, so I just awkwardly stood there until Venus forced a happy smile on her face.
"Well, sorry to dampen the mood. Anyway, I hear you're going to face the dragon to cure your infection?"
I shrugged. "Pretty much, yeah."
Venus came closer to me and leaned in, peering at me curiously. I could feel my ears burning as she inspected every inch of me.
Finally, she stepped back, giving me my precious space again. I let out a sigh I hadn't realized I was holding.
"Mmm, well you don't look infected to me. I hear you're a Berserker like Aidi too, so maybe that has something to do with it? I'm no doctor, but I'm pretty sure that you're immune to the infection. Otherwise, you would've been growing weird things by now." Venus concluded and gave me a thumbs up to which I responded with a weak smile.
Her bubbling aura reminded me of Sena, which in turn made that sick guilt boiling in my stomach at the thought of my friends.
Prof. Req finally came out of the weapon room. He glanced at Venus and nodded.
"Hopefully we're ready."
A wave of nervousness hit me. I was determined to face the dragon again, but I wasn't sure if I'd do it this time without being frozen in shock.
Venus took her place at the side of the painting, giving me a reassuring smile. To be honest, just having here her was enough to reassure me. I blushed and shook that thought out of my mind.
"Did I ever tell you how I got that painting?" The professor started up a conversation while he strapped his daggers into place.
Venus giggled. "It was one of the best moments of our lives. Aidi had to wade through mud fighting off Infests trying to find it in the huge dirt lake."
Prof. Req grimaced. "It didn't help that you guys set up a picnic while I had to fight off swarms of Infests. You could've at least helped with that."
The brunette laughed. "Oh, come on. They were little bitty Stage 1 flying Infests. In my opinion, they were actually kind of cute."
I made a face. Infests, cute? Never in my life would I ever say that.
"Anyway, in the end, I managed to recover the painting that was a portal and engraved my impression on it. My other team members did the same, even though I think they didn't deserve it." My teacher said that last part rather quietly. "I'll tell you more about it one day, but for now, let's try to make it back safely."
"You guys will do fine. I've seen the raw power of a Berserker up close, and if you're the one training DrenDren, I'm sure he'll be fine." Venus smiled and held a hand to the painting.
I shook my head and prepared to jump the portal.
"Sorry. I'm an Assassin, not a Paladin or Spellcaster, so I can't bind you guys. All I can do for you is cheer you on." The assassin gave me a wink, and I was pretty sure my face was burning.
"Dren." I glanced at Prof. Req.
"Get your Berserk Mode on." The DAI instructor turned his eye on. I did the same and found the lack of anger- ridden thoughts a comfort.
"Wow, so cool.. two generations of Berserkers standing side by side." Venus sounded in awe as the portal hummed to life. Prof. Req placed a hand on the painting, and I followed his lead.
"The portal will be ready in a few seconds, so be prepared." Prof. Req notified me.
"That quickly?" I was surprised. It took quite a while for the first time I went through.
"Eh, that's cause you have me, Aidi!" Venus beamed.
"No, that's because I'm helping you open the portal with my Soul. The more Soul used to open the portal, the less time it takes." Prof. Req shot her down so quickly, even I had to feel a bit bad for his old teammate.
The assassin merely pouted again.
"Is this what it's like between me and Sena?"
"You.. could say that." My DAI instructor groaned.
"Ah, the portal's done." Venus glanced at us.
I took a deep breath.
"Ready?" Prof. Req stared at the painting.
And then everything was a blur as we got sucked through the painting.
The darkness cleared, and I felt myself being planted on solid ground. The now familiar heat wave struck me, and tinges of red colored my view. I blinked my eyes and saw that the volcano was a few miles away, a subtle difference from the first time I came here.
"You ok?" I turned to see Prof. Req with his daggers already drawn. Behind him, I could see a white portal.
"Yeah." I drew both my blades out.
"You guys ok in there?" I heard Venus's faint voice coming from the white portal.
"I'm assuming that's our exit?" I asked. Prof. Req nodded.
"Hey, are you guys all right?" The assassin called.
"Let's go." Prof. Req ignored her and ran ahead. I felt obliged to give his old teammate some reassurance like she had to me.
"Yeah, we made it through!" I yelled back and followed my instructor.
Prof. Req slowed his pace so I could catch up, but as soon as I did, the ground started to rumble.
"Shoot. The dragon only reacts to Infest, human, or other dragon blood, so I thought if you had Berserk Mode on, you'd be able to mask your infection. Apparently, that didn't work, so we're going with plan C."
"What was plan B?"
"This was plan B."
"And plan A?"
"I didn't have one."
"How do you skip-"
Prof. Req cut me off short as he dashed ahead at what looked like a... tail?!
I frantically dashed after Prof. Req and noticed how the rumbling grew louder. The dragon was beginning to wake up, and that meant we were almost out of time. I cursed under my breath as I caught up to Prof. Req, who was already hacking at the enormous tail of the dragon.
"Damn piece of shit." I stared at Prof. Req. Never before had I heard him curse. The DAI teacher looked at me and gave an apologetic smile.
"Sorry. Forgot his tail was a real pain to break through. Stand back."
I did as I was told and moved a few paces back, watching him.
Prof. Req gripped one of his daggers tightly, and ignited his Soul Burning.
"Whoa." Was the only thing I could think of to say. Prof. Req was able to stack his Berserk Mode on top of his Soul Burning, so I could only imagine the strain and power it created.
My teacher Cloaked his dagger, and, with a roar, slashed at the tail. A huge burst of Soul exploded from the impact point. I had to shield my eyes from the shockwave that was created from the attack.
The Soul cleared, and I was left staring in shock. Prof. Req's attack made a huge gash in the tail, red blood pouring out of the wound like a mini waterfall.
The instructor quickly pulled out a small vial. Holding it to the now thin stream, he collected the blood, corked it, and turned around.
A roar that sounded like an atomic bomb raged across the land, blasting me and Prof. Req away. Pain flared in my left eye, but I quickly got up and searched around for my teacher. A rising panic threatened to overtake me, but I pushed it down.
"Dren! Shit, where's my pendant?"
I whirled around and saw Prof. Req halfway there to the portal.
"Dren, I'm sorry, but I dropped the vial! Let's get out of here and we can do this again when it's safer." He hurried toward the exit. I began to run, but not before I spotted two gleaming objects on each of my sides.
To the right, there was something gold, maybe Prof. Req's pendant? To my left, I could see the vial that contained the cure to my infection.
A roar echoed again, and I turned to see the dragon dragging its head to face me. I cursed, feeling the rising panic again.
I had the time to choose one of the objects and get away, but the problem was which one.
The pendant, which seemed important to the professor, or the vial, which contained my cure?
I cursed again and headed toward one of the items with dragon on my ass.
"SCREW THIS SHIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIT!" I yelled as I popped back into the DAI classroom. My swords scattered to the ground, but I didn't care. I survived the fire with my life, and I was sure my heart was racing a mile a minute.
I had landed face down, so I probably looked uncool, but I didn't care. I grinned as I sat up.
"Guys?" My grin turned into a frown when I saw all the members of team Berserk Soul standing in front of me. My heart hurt to see them after all my efforts to avoid them.
Kalo, Lupus, Sena, Bella, Kiere, all of them were looking at me. An awkward silence drifted between us before I got up and walked in front of them.
I looked each of them in the eyes, my heart still racing. I was glad for that. I probably looked like trash, but I didn't care. I was pretty sure blood was smeared across my clothes, but it didn't matter to me. Lupus and Bella looked like they were still angry at me. Kalo's impassive gaze somehow contained a bit of annoyance. Sena frantically looked back and forth between me and the other members, worried. Kiere had her arms folded and looked like she was waiting for something. I knew what it was. But I didn't know if it would help. I took a deep breath.
"Guys.. I'm.. sorry I said all those mean things to you. I know this apology might not seem like much, but I really am sorry. I know I'm an asshole, and I know how much of a jerk I can be, but it's just my habit I guess. All those years of growing up alone just kind of.. made me forget what it was like to have friends." Words I never knew I could say spilled out of me. As I rambled, I realized why they were here.
They weren't here for an apology. They most likely knew what I was going to do and came to support me.
That alone made me question what the hell I was doing up to this point.
"So.. yeah." I pulled out the vial and tossed it on the ground. It was empty.
"I drank the dragon blood and immediately felt the infection go away. So I'm back to my normal, asshole, jerk self. I don't think it's much of an improvement compared to when I had the infection.. but after my two encounters with the dragon, I've finally learned to realize the importance of life. Yeah, it sounds kind of cheesy, but I guess it was too late to realize how important you guys are to me. I mean, look at what we've done in the past. I learned how to smile again. I've told you guys about my parents and shit; I've done so much with you guys than I've ever done with anyone else. You guys were my first friends in a while, and I don't see how I deserve you guys."
I dropped my gaze.
"Knowing me, I might push you guys away again. So, I wouldn't hold it against you if you decide to cut things off for good here." I finished.
For a long time, no one said anything. I was sure that they were looking at me in disgust.
Someone walked up to me, and I looked up to see Lupus. He balled his fist and drew it back. I prepared to take his punch, but he simply extended his arm out to me. I blinked in confusion.
"Yeah, you may be an asshole, but you wouldn't have bothered to push us away or apologize every time if you didn't care about us. I guess I should say sorry for what I said about you before. I was just getting sick and tired of the same thing being repeated, so I just kinda blew up. You probably went through some rough shit like we all have, but I didn't take that into account when I yelled at you cause I was feeling pressured too. So.. I'm sorry. Bros?" Lupus no longer looked angry.
I smiled gratefully and fist bumped him. "Thanks."
"Dren!" Sena tackled me into a hug.
I was taken aback, but I returned her embrace.
She shook her head.
"You don't have to apologize. Just make it up through your actions, ok?"
"Yeah.. I will." And I would vow to keep that promise, even if my hatred of Infests got in the way.
Sena broke free and wiped her eyes. I hadn't realize she was crying, but maybe the dried blood on my clothes blocked the moisture.
"Wait, did you just hug me when I'm covered in dragon blood?"
The Playful Paladin blinked once, and then shrieked in disgust. We all laughed.
Kalo walked up to me and nodded. I returned the nod and knew we were good, even though we hadn't had a fight with each other yet.
I turned to Bella and Kiere.
"Bella, Kiere, I'm sorry for talking about your parents like that."
Bella puffed a lock of hair from her face, but then gave me a smile. Kiere waved a hand.
"It's fine, but more importantly, today's your birthday, right?"
"Ah! It is! Shoot, what are we going to do?" Sena momentarily forgot her disgust and started to list off things for a made up party. At least, I hoped it was a made up party.
I smiled as my team converged around me.
Movement behind them caught my eye, and I saw Prof. Req beginning to leave with Venus.
"Professor." I called out.
He turned around. My friends grew silent.
I pulled out the pendant from my pocket and tossed it at him.
"I think you dropped this." I avoided his gaze.
Prof. Req's face was full of shock, but then a slow tear rolled down his face, which shocked all of us.
"Thank you." He smiled. I had to smile back.
"Oh, and happy birthday." He turned and walked away with Venus.
"Thanks." I watched him go as my friends resumed their chatter.
I didn't mean to get a look of what was inside, but I realized why that pendant was important to him.
It contained a picture of him, his wife, and a young Jack who all were smiling. I guess he wanted to preserve the memories of those he lost. Just like how I wanted to preserve the friends I had right now.