As the darkness faded, the world began to fill once more with a white light. Eventually, Nick had to squint and turn his head so he wouldn’t be overwhelmed by the brightness. Then the light dimmed and began to differentiate into purple, blue, green, yellow, and then red as his eyes slowly began to distinguish the different colors. By the time his vision returned, he felt like he had just been spun around a hundred times and stopped abruptly, the dizziness nearly overwhelming as he tried to get his bearings.
“Mister Gallows, did you hear me?!?” a loud and amazingly loud voice shouted.
The voice cut through the odd visions, colors, and rolling and twisting sensations, and then Nick was looking at an aristocratic-looking face with a perfect complexion, her piercing gaze magnified by old-fashioned glasses that seemingly glowed in the low light.
“Agnes?” Nick looked up in confusion, not expecting the first thing he’d be greeted with to be the younger version of Ms. Wilson, whom he hadn’t seen in twenty years. “You’re . . . beautiful . . .”
“That’s—!!!” The woman looked supremely irritated as she stuttered across her words, “That’s Ms. Wilson to you!” she screeched as gales of laughter erupted all around. “And no amount of flattery will get you out of this test! So please keep your eyes on your own paper, thank you very much!! You are not to look up from your paper until after you have submitted it to the front of the room. Break that rule one more time, and I will fail you right here and now!”
Nick, used to having to follow orders instantly and to the letter after years of working as an assistant to Allen, did exactly as Ms. Wilson said before he even realized his body was moving. Looking down at the papers in front of him, he started to realize where—and when—he was as he took in the blue booklet, number two pencil, and half-filled multiple-choice scantron.
Nick hesitantly opened up the test booklet and flipped through the contents, worried for a moment that he might not remember anything from the subject, much less know enough to pass an exam on it, but as he saw the contents, he immediately felt relief. They were questions that someone from the future like him would be able to answer without a single issue. Simple things about dungeon history, monster anatomy, mana balancing, monster mathematics, and dungeon herbology.
Some of the questions like “Which of the following is an ancient dungeon located in Genovia?” or “What type of creature is most commonly associated with dungeon lairs?” were so easy that Nick couldn’t even imagine someone getting them wrong.
How dumb do kids have to be to need to study for this crap? he wondered as he quickly filled out a few of the answers, marking things like “What dungeon is most likely to be abundant in dark magic?” and “Which monster is most likely to be active in a plant-type dungeon with cyanochastafins?”
He didn’t even need to think as he filled in the answers, selecting the Tower of Babel for the dungeon located in Genovia, insects as the most common lair-type dungeon monster, vampire dungeons as having the most dark magic energy, and dryads as being the most likely monster to appear in a dungeon with “cyanochastafins,” which was just the scientific way to say “Blue Ent,” a distinction he didn’t see the point in until he started to realize only later in life that there were dozens of different types of ents, or chastafins, and at least three of them were kind of blue.
While he didn’t mind filling in a few answers, and doing so was helping him deal with the fog and dizziness from the jump, he started to feel frustrated just sitting in his chair, taking a test like a regular high schooler. He had come back in time to save the world, not to get good grades for Miss Agnes.
No, he scolded himself the moment he thought about just skipping the whole thing and standing up, I’m not Maria or Allen, if I’m going to do anything to help save the world, I’ll need resources, a job, and other things I can only get by being a functioning part of society. I need to finish this frickin’ test whether I like it or not.
The answer to the essay question “What is the purpose of the horn of the horned rabbit?” seemed obvious enough, so he started to write.
The horn of a horned rabbit, properly called a nubbin, has many potential uses. In addition to its primary use as a weapon for the rabbit, the subharmonic sounds it emits act as a warning system, sounding off in order to alert other creatures and potential predators of its presence. It can also act as a form of communication between members of the same family group, different tones and pitches carrying various messages across long distances.
Additionally, adventurers can create wind instruments from the horn that create sounds with specific magical properties, having healing, warding, or prophetic effects depending on how an instrument is used. Moreover, when ground into a fine powder, the horn becomes the base for many potions, including the Elerian healing potions.
The rest of the questions seemed equally easy to him, and he quickly filled in the multiple choice bubbles and answered the essay questions. He did it so fast that by the time he was finished, he looked around and realized that no one else was even close to done yet, many of them barely three or four pages into the booklet.
“That’s it! I warned you!” Agnes called out from her desk. “I told you if you looked around again, I was going to make you turn in your test, so don’t even talk to me or go whining to your father about unfair treatment! I won’t have it! Turn your paper in right now and get out of the class this instant, young man!”
“No need to be so angry, Agn— Ms. Wilson,” Nick replied calmly as he stood up and started walking to the front of the room with his test packet, plopping the finished exam on her desk. “Here’s the test.”
Having seen the future, and knowing they were all going to die without his help, this little drama didn’t bother him at all. He was almost to the door, when his keen eye spotted a nerdy teenage boy sitting in the back row of the classroom. Thick glasses perched on his nose and rumpled blonde hair framed his face. He had acne, an overbite, and he was glaring at Nick. It was the adolescent version of the face he’d been working side by side with for over twenty years, the face of the man who had given him a chance to redeem himself after his life had collapsed, his family had kicked him out onto the streets, his friends had abandoned him, and his arranged fiance had left him—the single most important friend he had in the future and the man he had felt most grateful to in his last life: Allen Hughes.
Just the sight of Allen reminded him instantly of the fact that the man he had known, the one he had spent year after year working twelve-hour days alongside, was now dead. Even though this Allen was still alive and in perfect health, the Allen he knew was gone. And not just Allen either. All of his friends were. Even before he had walked through that portal, every single one of them had died, and he alone was left to carry the memories of their lives.
His body jolted, and his breath quickened as the realization hit him like a ton of bricks. His head spun, and he had to grip the edge of Agnes’s desk with both hands to keep himself upright. The weight of his guilt from being the one to survive, despite being the one who deserved it least, was almost too much to bear.
“Mister Gallows?” Agnes said as she stood up, looking at him intently. “Is your condition acting up again? Do you need to head to the infirmary?”
My condition . . . Nick grimaced. He had forgotten that, at one point, he really believed it was just a condition. He believed what the doctors paid off by his cousin from the clan’s branch family had told him: that the reason he was suffering had something to do with his constitution, that it had flared up in his senior year and that the debilitating effect was something he was born with. It wasn’t until a decade later that he’d find out the truth that he had been poisoned. Not just once too, but every day, three times a day, for years. It was the reason he couldn’t gain levels and that his strength, agility, and constitution were completely stuck no matter how hard he’d trained, and he would constantly suffer debilitating pain in random bursts throughout the day and night, severe enough that it wasn’t until near the end of college that it stopped making him nearly lose his lunch with every episode.
“Mister Gallows?” Agnes repeated again as Nick, still lost in thoughts as he tried to reconcile the past and present, just stood there. Seemingly believing that it really was his condition that was behind his odd behavior, she looked around the room for a minute, unsure of what to do, before finally noticing that Nick wasn’t the only person done with his exam. There was a short asian woman with glasses standing up and walking to the front of the room. “Ah! Seo-ah! Could you help Mister Gallows to the infirmary and call his fiance or his father to take him home since there aren’t any more exams for the day?”
Seo-ah, who was walking toward the front of the room with her exam in hand, flinched as if she had just stepped on a lego the moment Ms. Wilson gave her the assignment. It was clear from the flinch and the cold, dead-eyed stare she gave Nick that it was the last thing she wanted to do. Still, she didn’t complain out loud.
“Yes, Ms. Wilson,” Seo-ah answered, her voice even more lifeless than the stare she was shooting Nick.
“It’s okay. I can go on my own,” Nick tried to protest, not wanting to inconvenience Seo-ah and also not wanting to have to deal with the eighteen-year-old girl he’d just been assigned as he started making plans.
“Just do what your teacher tells you and accept the help, Mr. Gallows,” Ms. Wilson chided, “and if you two would, please make a hasty departure. You’re disrupting the exam.”
“Yes, Ms. Wilson,” Nick acquiesced with an apologetic nod, wanting to get out of the classroom and avoid creating more trouble just as much as he wanted to escape dealing with Seo-ah.
The moment the two had left the classroom and shut the door behind them, Seo-ah let out an exasperated sigh. “Don’t even think about playing hooky and meeting up with those alcoholic, womanizing friends until you check into the nurse’s office. I won’t have you besmirching my perfect record.”
“I’m not going to meet up with my friends,” Nick said. After all, to him, they weren’t even friends anymore. If there was one bitter pill he had never wanted to swallow, it was that his friends were only his friends because of who he was as an heir not who he was as a person. The moment he had lost his heirship, he had lost his friends. They went from “we’ll be there with you forever” to deleting him on social networking sites, pretending not to know him in public, and ignoring his calls and texts.
“Tch,” Seo-ah clicked her tongue at Nick. “I notice you didn’t deny wanting to play hooky though. What? Are you going to use that pain of yours as an excuse to score more drugs from an alchemist?”
Drugs . . . Alchemist . . . That’s— That’s it! Nick couldn’t believe he hadn’t thought of such a simple solution. He felt like a moron. If there was one person who could help him with his condition, it was the alchemist he had been buying painkillers from. He remembered trying to get her to cure him in the past, but she had told him once or twice that she dealt with making poisons, antidotes, healing potions, and temporary boosters—not medicine. What did she used to say? Weak people with weak bodies can’t afford my rates usually, so why bother?
“What? Are you surprised? Did you think I didn’t know?” Seo-ah asked. “Everyone knows. They’re just too polite to your family to say it to your face. I’m only telling you now because as long as you’re Golden Spoon Gallows, no one else will. But if even I can find out about your habits, then your father and grandfather will too, and at that point, there will be no Nick of the Gallows Clan, only Nick the Loser, a piece of trash no one would even want stuck to the back of their shoe. A destined beggar with no hope of being more.”
Even though there wasn’t any malice behind her words, Nick could feel them cut into him. She was right. In the future, no one wanted to deal with him. His failure at the graduation ceremony meant to test the heirs of the school was so well known within the city that even his father and mother were disowned, and the three of them were completely kicked out of the company and left penniless on the streets.
“Ah, we’re here,” she noted coldly. “Well, I’ve dropped you off. At least show your face to the nurse for my sake before you play hooky. In return, I’ll be sure to throw you a few dollars the first time I see you begging.”
Even though he didn’t reply, Nick at least did as she requested. Her words had been harsh, but he couldn’t hate her for saying them. She was correct after all. Without any of the future knowledge he had, she had accurately painted the picture of his coming years and what would happen to him if he didn’t find a way to prove himself.