3 Off the Wheaten Path

Noble said no more for a moment. She wanted to focus as the train took a turn and lifted in the air to tower above the homes and businesses before lowering back down for the next stop. If her body slid contrary to the train, people could become suspicious that she was not actually seated but floating. That would be a problem. 

 

As it was, both teens sitting across from her had dropped their communicators into their laps. Had they heard correctly? A front-row seat in the Dreamscape!

 

The two had only been able to watch the epic battle on small screens. The Awakened before them must have had one of the VIP tickets to the virtual match and had had the full experience!

 

Both boys were tongue-tied for many seconds before they burst with dozens of questions. Noble answered them as best she could, describing the arena and the participants in great detail.

 

"No matter how you look at it, it was a harrowing battle…" Noble realized she had gained the attention of most of the train car. She did not like the idea of so many eyes on her in this setting.

 

"So, then, what do you think…Did Queen Bee lose on purpose?" the golden-eyed man finally circled back to his original query.

 

Noble hesitated.

 

In truth, she hadn't planned on entering at all, but Honey had talked about how much she admired the tournament, and Noble's vanity had gotten the better of her. Now faced with the question, she wasn't sure of her answer.

 

While she had never used her Aspect in combat, she could have. Noble could have levitated Mongrel for a short period of time, but that felt like cheating.

 

And in the end, would that have given her the edge she needed to win? She wasn't sure.

 

"I wouldn't say Queen Bee lost on purpose," Noble answered at last. "But I also don't think she gave it all she had. It was a tournament duel, not a life-or-death battle. If Mongrel had actually wanted to kill her, I don't think the battle would have been so clear cut."

 

Noble cringed at her own words. Her abdomen suddenly hurt where the blade had sliced through her torso.

 

"I told you she didn't lose on purpose," the pale boy gloated.

 

"You just heard her say that Queen Bee had more to give! She is an inspiration unlike Mongrel who spouts nonsense." The golden-eyed boy tilted up his chin defiantly.

 

"What is your name?" Noble couldn't help but ask.

 

The young man flashed a charming smile. "I am Ash, ma'am."

 

"Well, Ash, I know Queen Bee would be honored by your words." Noble had planned to leave the matter there, but Ash was not through.

 

"I hope so! I am probably her biggest fan. I would love to be able to fight like her." The determination in Ash's words touched Noble deeply. She knew she had fans but meeting one that was so passionate was a new experience.

 

"How old are you?" The words came out before Noble realized that they might sound rude.

 

"I'll be eighteen tomorrow," Ash answered without hesitation. He seemed to read Noble's thoughts. "No Nightmare Spell for me, it seems. So, I'll be enlisting in the military next week. I will do my part to defend humanity even if I cannot be an Awakened."

 

Noble's heart clenched. He was so young and yet so willing. "I wish you well, Ash. With people like you, humanity has a fighting chance." Noble closed her eyes. She could feel them flickering through the various colors until her emotions settled.

 

When she opened them again, the train was descending as it came to the next stop. The pale boy stood. "That's enough wholesomeness for me today. I'm out of here."

 

Ash stood with him. "Thanks for talking to us ma'am." He gave a small bow and then a salute.

 

As the two boys exited the train, Ash turned to his friend. "I didn't mean to get so heated." 

The pale young man brushed away the comment. "It's algds." 

Ash rubbed his eyes. "It's weird when you text it and far weirder when you say it…like the word is still loading or something." 

Clicking his tongue, the friend shook his head. "You went from apologizing to insulting me in the blink of an eye. Such a backstabber!" The boys continued their playful banter on the platform.

"Have a wonderful day!" Noble called after them as the doors closed. They seemed like nice kids…young adults. She thought about the life awaiting Ash as a soldier. Her lips pressed together. 'Stay safe.'

Noble looked at her watch. She still had over a half hour before she needed to be at the academy. Things this morning had just gone smoothly. It might be nice to make a little stop along the way. 

At the next station, Noble exited the train and adjusted the tight bun on the top of her head. This street had survived the recent opening of a gate relatively unscathed. The surrounding areas had not been so lucky. 

Noble's eyes swirled slightly as she thought about that time. She had not been close enough to help during that crucial moment when part of the NQSC was suddenly ripped apart by the hellish gate. If not for Mongrel's heroism, she could have lost everything.

 

'Maybe I did let him win as a thank you,' Noble shook off her gloom and forced a smile. People could see her, and as an Awakened she needed to put on a brave face.

 

Though because of where she was going, the woman was sure to be genuinely smiling in no time. Those who noticed Noble on the street gave her a respectful nod and made way for her on the path. Something about her presence made people seem to float away from her. Perhaps it was part of her flaw.

 

But it did make her hold even tighter to the few that decided to stick around. One of those people was who she was hoping to see at the end of her morning walk.

 

Soon enough, she spotted a bustling cafe. It had an extra-large crowd pushing into the doors as the smell of fresh bread and coffee wafted out onto the street.

 

Noble chuckled softly as she looked up at the sign over the door which usually held the shop's name "Off the Wheaten Path." But instead of the curly script and friendly coffee and scone, a white sheet was draped over it with a message that was drawing the crowd.

 

On it a small flame was drawn next to three simple words: 88 kill streak!

 

She rolled her eyes and laughed softly. "Seems like I've come to the right place." 

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