Julia and Khit stared at each other for barely three seconds before Julia ran towards her son to give him a giant hug. No words were exchanged those first couple of moments, but in that hug were words enough to express a mother’s love for her son for a lifetime.
I smiled and sighed, feeling like an outsider viewing a private moment.
But then Julia turned around. “Come here, Caren. You need a hug too.”
I received the tightest hug of my life, as Julia started lecturing me on how I should never have put myself into danger.
“I appreciate that you were trying to warn me, but some things just aren’t worth it,” she scolded. “They would have sentenced you to death if we weren’t so lucky that Eden had other things planned for you.”
Then Khit started in on the scolding. “You’re such an idiot! Do you know how worried I was when you never came back?”
If he expected me to apologize, he would just have to wait until the sun self-destructed.
“This isn’t the time for you two to focus on me,” I told them. “You should have some private time to talk. I’ll just go get some water from the kitchen.”
The stress of the past few hours had made me very thirsty. “I’ll get water for you too.”
Julia sighed. “All right, dear. But don’t think you’re getting away from this subject.”
Mother and son made a great team, ganging up against a tiny college girl. They looked ready to pulverize me with a good dressing-down.
I fled to the kitchen.
When I returned with two and a half bottles of water (I had chugged half of mine down in the kitchen), Khit and Julia were seated at one of the tables, deep in conversation. I decided not to disturb them. As quietly as possible, I sat down at a table on the other side of the restaurant and looked around. I had not noticed until now that the restaurant had shrunk in size. It seemed that the magic cast upon the restaurant had vanished with the yaojing.
There were no more balconies, and the entire seating arrangement could probably only seat at most, three hundred guests. The Grill House was just another ordinary restaurant, and one would never have guessed that a thousand yaojing had gathered here.
The stage was still there, unchanged. I guessed that people probably sang karaoke there, or maybe some unknown singers or bands were given the opportunity to perform. It was a nice setting, and I probably would have tried the restaurant out if I had never met the owner.
Scyther’s face popped into my head, and I shuddered. If I never met that snake again, I would die happy. In fact, make that any yaojing, except Khit and Julia. Of course, I knew that wasn’t possible, as Eden had required my presence a year from now when Julia had to face her final task.
I wondered what the leaders had planned for her, for us. And why did Eden want me to marry Khit? Did our marriage have something to do with the final task?
And why wasn’t I horrified at the thought of marriage to Khit, who wasn’t my soul mate?
Then the realization crashed into me at the velocity of a meteor, caught by Earth’s gravitational pull.
I loved Khit. It was as simple as that.
And I no longer cared who was my soul mate. I could determine my own soul mate…this was my own life, my own story, and I could manipulate the ending if I wanted. Liana was right. I had been so caught up in that stupid library dream that I had substituted it for reality. But it was time for me to live in my reality, to give reality a chance by living in the now.
I secretly grinned, thinking about what I would tell Khit later. My wild imaginings absorbed my mind for quite some time.
And then, out of the corner of my eye, I saw a flash of green and black behind the curtains on the stage. It disappeared, and I ignored it, thinking it had only been my imagination.
Then I continued to daydream. About romantic dates on the beach, candlelight dinners, moonlight kisses, midnight waltzes. All the romantic notions I had read in books and watched in movies would finally become a reality in my life, instead of—
Something wrapped around my ankle. I screamed, grabbing hold of the table as I was pulled to the ground.
My resistance only dragged the table down along with me. Utensils and plates crashed and broke into one heaping mess, and I found myself dazed, staring at the ceiling. There was still something tied around my feet, and I felt it crawling up my body until it finally came into my field of vision.
A snake. Scyther.
“Let her go!” I heard Khit shout.
If snakes could grin, I would have sworn that Scyther gave an evil leer in response. Then he slithered back down my body.
I felt him sliding under my skirt until he had reached my thigh. And then there was pain. Not a lot, but enough to cause a few tears.
Then I heard his oily voice. “What’s wrong Khit? Too scared to attack?”
“You can’t, son!” Julia cried. “He’s too close to Caren.”
I opened my eyes again to see that Scyther’s head was in human form, but his body was still in snake form, coiled tightly around my legs.
“Don’t worry, Khit,” he said. “I only bit her as a warning. If you come closer, I’ll kill her.”
“What do you want?” Khit growled.
“I want your mother. But since she won’t willingly come with me, I’ll have to kill the girl. My mother says the girl plays a huge role in the final task, but if she’s dead, then the final task will never take place, and that means Julia will never be able to return to your father.”
So he intended to kill me no matter what. I tried to lift my head a bit to get a better view of Khit. He looked so helpless that my heart felt like it was bleeding for him. His knees shook a bit, as if he were about to collapse, and then I realized what he was going to do.
“No!” I shouted. “Don’t beg!”
But Khit had already fallen to his knees, his head bowed shamefully.
“Get up!” I cried. The last thing I wanted Khit to do was kneel in front of a worthless snake. It was demeaning, and I’d rather die than force Khit to humiliate himself.
He ignored me. “Please Scyther. I’ll do anything for you if you let her go.”
Scyther laughed. “You really love this worthless human, don’t you? I’ll never understand you or your mother. But I didn’t mean for you to shamelessly throw yourself down. There’s another option.”
Khit’s head jerked up. “What?”
I gasped. I had forgotten to ask Khit about his phone call with his dad, if he had convinced his father not to come.
“You probably think you stopped him from coming here,” Scyther said. “He called me and said that he got lost because his stupid son gave him the wrong directions. So I was kind enough to give him the right directions, and he should be here, let’s see, in fifteen minutes or so.”
I saw where Scyther was going with this. Although Eden had allowed Julia to reunite with Khit, Julia still was not allowed to see her husband. If Ben Inari came to the restaurant and laid eyes on Julia, the deal with the yaojing leaders would be off, and Julia would not be allowed to return to him.
“So, the other option is that we wait for your father to get here. And as soon as he sees your mother, I will let the girl go.”
Khit was silent. For the second time tonight, he had to choose between his parents or me. It was too heart-wrenching to force him to make that decision.
“Julia, leave now!” I cried. “You’ve worked too hard to give up on—”
My words were cut off by a stinging slap on my cheek. Scyther had transformed his entire upper body into his human form now. “You, shut up,” he snapped at me.
“Don’t touch her!” Khit roared. But it wasn’t as if he could do anything about it.
Scyther chuckled. “I’d hate to be in your position right now. It’s like choosing between the life of your son or your daughter.”
Julia patted Khit’s shoulder. “It’s your choice Khit. I won’t hold anything against you no matter what you do.”
“I—I’m sorry, Mom.” He sounded so torn and battered. “I can’t lose her.”
“I understand,” Julia said. “I would hate to lose Caren too. Besides, once your father knows why I left him, he’ll know that I’ve always loved him. That should be enough.”
She sounded so heartbroken too, and yet, she was trying to be positive for my sake. I couldn’t let them do this, but I had no idea how to get out of this mess.
“All right then,” Scyther said. “I will spare the girl’s life. You, Khit, just stay there where I can see you.”
He let go of my legs to transform back into a full human. I took the brief respite to subtly look around the ground where the table had fallen beside me, thinking there might be a knife or a fork to defend myself. But I saw something better.
A pepper shaker. I grabbed it, and realized that if I folded my hands as if I were humbly praying, it would be concealed.
Scyther was too busy with his transformation and keeping an eye on Khit to notice what I had done. To him, I was simply a worthless human, weak and frail. I couldn’t wait to prove him wrong.
He was completely naked after his transformation, and it felt entirely awkward when he dragged me off the ground.
He grinned at my blush. “No worries. I always keep extra clothes stashed behind the stage curtains.
From the table next to him, Scyther grabbed a sharp chef’s knife he had probably snatched up from the kitchen. “Just for extra security, you can fetch my pants, and I’ll follow you.” He shrugged. “Don’t mind the knife. It’s just in case I can’t transform in time if you or Khit try something silly.” He clicked his tongue and made a cutting motion against his throat, “So don’t try anything.”
I looked at the distance between the stage and Khit. It actually put me closer to him, so I did have a chance to act out my plan of escape. I just had to wait for the right moment.
I hobbled up the steps of the stage, thinking that the pain in my leg was worsening. It was a good guess that Scyther was a poisonous snake. As to if the poison was deadly, I didn’t know.
Scyther held the knife to my back; its blade dug into my skin. “There they are,” he said.
A pile of clothes lay haphazardly folded on the floor. I bent down to retrieve a pair of jeans and realized this was my chance. Beneath the cover of the jeans, I quietly opened the pepper shaker.
Then I got up…
And flung the pants into the air while sprinkling the pepper at the same time.
Pepper sprayed everywhere, catching Scyther by surprise. To my triumph, the pepper caught him right in the face. He dropped the knife to cling to his nose, and his other arm swung right towards me. I saw it but didn’t have the reflexes to move quickly enough.
I crashed to the floor, somersaulted down the stairs of the stage, and heard, more than felt, my head bang hard against something. It was hard enough to knock me out for several seconds.
By the time I re-opened my eyes, the whole world was swirling around me, and my head throbbed angrily. I also noticed that I couldn’t move my lower body. It was completely paralyzed.
Julia was kneeling beside me, a concerned expression in her eyes. “Can you hear me Caren?”
“Yes,” I said feebly. “What’s happening? Are you and Khit all right? Where’s the snake?”
“We’re not out of deep water yet. Just try not to move, dear. Scyther’s poison has paralyzed your legs. Already gave you the antidote, but it will take awhile to work.”
That explained the numbness in my legs.
“Also, your ankle is swelling, and I think you twisted it when you fell down the stairs. The only reason you don’t feel it is because your leg is numb. After Khit deals with Scyther, we’re taking you straight to the hospital.”
An enraged growl followed by the sound of a heavy slam against wood caused me to jerk my head to the source of the noise. The pain in my head protested the sudden movement, but I needed to know what was happening.
A white fox and a green serpent were dueling.
To my horror, I saw that Scyther had wrapped himself around Khit’s neck and was trying to choke him. But Khit was not without his wiles. He swiped an angry paw at Scyther, and his sharp nails pierced through Scyther’s skin. A writhing hiss came from Scyther, who immediately withdrew from Khit.
He transformed back into a man. “It’s obvious you’re stronger as a yaojing, but let’s see which of us is stronger in human form.”
That deceitful, cowardly sneak! He was definitely planning something. There was no way he would want to battle as a human, when he clearly knew that he was stronger as a snake. And besides that, Khit was stronger than Scyther in human or yaojing form, so it didn’t matter how they fought.
Khit must know that, I thought. He couldn’t possibly agree. He should just take the opportunity to finish that snake off.
But Khit was being more gallant than I could ever be. He morphed into himself again. “Since you’re still half blind from the pepper, I guess it’s fair that you choose how we fight. But toss me an extra pair of pants first. It’s too awkward to battle in the nude.”
Scyther groped behind him until he felt the stage curtains. Then he knelt to the floor and felt around until he had found two pairs of pants. He blindly threw one pair in Khit’s direction, and as Khit quickly donned his pants, I averted my eyes, only now realizing that I had been staring shamelessly.
But that embarrassment couldn’t snuff out the satisfaction I felt in knowing that my tactic of numbing Scyther’s sense of smell with the pepper had worked. He was already weaker than Khit, but now he had a double weakness by being blind. There was no way he would win.
But I had forgotten about the knife Scyther had dropped among the pile of clothes. And apparently, so had Khit. I looked back up to the Scyther and Khit, only to gasp in pure horror as I saw the glint of metal flashing across the stage as Scyther flew towards Khit.
Khit dodged, but not quickly enough. The knife grazed him in the side, and blue spots of blood leaked down to the floor, glistening from the stage lights.
“Can’t you go help him?” I pleaded with her.
With terrified eyes, she looked at me. “I want to, but I can’t. The Elite took away my fighting power when they forced me to leave Ben, so I’m nowhere as strong as Scyther. If he somehow turned me into a hostage, it would only make things worse for Khit.”
I winced, as over and over, Scyther lunged at Khit, the blade now stained with blood. Now no longer unaware, Khit was able to dodge the blade beautifully every single time. He grabbed hold of Scyther’s arm, trying to wrestle the knife away.
My heart soared with hope. Khit was not kidding when he claimed to be stronger than Scyther.
But that snake had one more trick up his sleeve—the ability to turn parts of himself into a serpent, while keeping other parts of his body human. He had never clothed himself, so he easily changed his lower body into a serpent to wrap it around Khit’s legs.
Khit crashed to the ground, struggling to keep Scyther from stabbing him.
This time, my scream was louder than Julia’s.
The knife was an inch away from his face.
With all his might, Khit somehow managed to twist Scyther’s arm away, and the knife fell harmlessly to the floor.
I breathed a sigh of relief, but it was only a brief sigh, as Scyther made the full transformation to his serpent self. He coiled himself tightly around Khit’s body. Khit wriggled, trying to break free of the hold. He managed to free one arm before Scyther sank his teeth into the shoulder attached to that same arm.
Khit’s slight grunt of pain, although low, sounded like an amplified speakerphone to my ears. Tears filled my eyes, and I felt like I was experiencing his pain. My shoulder literally burned the same way my thigh had when Scyther had bitten me.
I couldn’t watch anymore. But I couldn’t bring myself to turn away either. My gaze riveted upon Khit, whose free hand was feeling for something.
The knife. It lay inches away from his hand.
Just a bit more wriggling, and he reached it…
And plunged the tip straight down into Scyther’s body.
All at once, Scyther let go and fell into a green heap to the floor. A pool of red blood gathered around him, dripping from where the knife had pierced him.
“Why is it red?” I asked Julia. “Isn’t yaojing blood supposed to be blue?”
“When a yaojing dies, his blood becomes red. Khit stabbed Scyther right in the heart.”