A pair of fingers streak through the dirt coating the side of a silver bus. The matching fingers on the other hand hold firm to a pair of ruined sneakers. The connected shoulders carry a backpack with one strap, the other one missing entirely. A pair of bruised legs carry Nuria into the heart of campus.
She lifts her head and soaks up the atmosphere of the campus in one sweeping gaze. Her smile empowers her to keep advancing, stopping at the nearest fountain. The ladies gathered there soaking their feet draw back from her, unnerved by her appearance.
“Hey, you guys know where I could–”
“Take a bath?” says one of the girls, snickering derisively. Her entourage giggles behind her.
“I could use one of those, too. However, I was asking about food.”
“This is a private institution, not some homeless shelter. Leave before we call security,” the lead girl demands.
Nuria leers crossly at them before turning away.
“Filthy rat,” the girl whispers loud enough for Nuria to hear.
As if stalled by a magnet, Nuria freezes in place. A facetious smile tugs at her lips as she whirls back to the fountain ladies. “You know what, I will take that bath.”
Nuria races right toward them, leaps, then splashes down in the fountain with all her might. A wall of water slams into the ladies and knocks them over the edge of the fountain and onto the ground. Nuria rests her elbows on the edge of the fountain, showing them the same smile.
“Thanks for the advice. In exchange, I’ll let you know that you’ll need a mirror to fix yourselves up.”
Laughter sounds from other clusters of students spread around the courtyard, most at the expense of the newly drenched ladies, their hair and makeup in shambles. They rush to their feet and vacate the area in a haste.
Nuria flips onto her back and floats atop the remaining fountain water. The chill massages away the pain shooting through her bruises and sores. She hums as her fatigue vanishes. That’s the stuff, she thinks.
She soaks a moment longer, then her stomach rumbles and gives her pause. Right, still hungry. She ventures away from the fountain and turns her head on a swivel, surveying the area for somewhere to eat. The myriad of buildings ends up confusing her, so she instead looks to find the tallest one. A flagpole rests at the top, and she grins. Good enough vantage point as any.
Nuria puts her sneakers on, her toes sticking through the fronts, then sprints toward the building with the flagpole. She cuts through the courtyard in no time, but when she rounds a corner leading to one of the outside pathways, she slams face-to-chest with Shuri. Shuri reacts quickly enough, using her momentum to fuel his rotation, and stays on his feet. His maneuver sends Nuria to the ground.
Nuria groans as she holds her head, feeling a little dizzy, hunger and exhaustion getting to her.
“Watch where you’re going,” Shuri says, then turns to leave her behind. He halts when she grabs the sheathes of his blades.
“Hold up. I need you to point me in the direction of somewhere to eat,” she asks, her voice weak.
Shuri turns back to her, then notices the scratches on her arms, tears, and holes in her shirt and pants, and the leaves in her hair. “What happened to you?”
“Take me to lunch and I’ll tell you,” she promises.
Shuri rubs the back of his head. “Perhaps the infirmary would be better? It’s in the lower level of the main admin building.”
“Are your nurses here allowed to take blood?”
“They’re legally allowed to from the students and faculty, yes.”
“Then good news.” Nuria reveals her acceptance letter to Shuri, though it’s in even worse shape. The soot stains have been washed away as the paper is one damp mass with smeared ink.
“How’d you get here? I didn’t see you get off the bus before.”
“Lunch. Infirmary. Storytime. That’s the deal. Take it or leave it.” Nuria crosses her arms, and sections of her bra peek through the holes in her shirt. Shuri turns his reddening cheeks away from her.
“Come with me.”
Nuria races around the different buffet stations, marveling at the selection. The scents of lemon sauce, spicy carrot hash, chocolate cake, and steamed rice mix to form an exhilarating sensation in Nuria’s mouth, causing her to drool.
“You guys really have all this on a daily basis?” she asks excitedly.
“Can you just choose something?”
“Hold your horses,” she says. “I haven’t had real food for a while. I’m having trouble deciding.”
“Try the carrot hash. It’s good for you,” Shuri advises.
“Thanks, diet guide, but I want something bad for me.” Nuria rises and points at the chocolate cake. “I’d like a piece of that, please. Actually, make it two,” she asks the server opposite herself.
“You know what, I don’t need to hear your story that bad,” Shuri says. He starts to turn away when Nuria hands him one of the pieces of cake, fork plunged deep inside.
“Fine, but at least eat with me. I’ll find my own way to the infirmary after that.”
“You promise to leave me be after this?”
“Yes. Now, let’s eat. I’m hungry!”
Nuria doesn’t even hear his response, rushing past to find the first table that she can. She deposits her cake, then races to and fro the buffet lines, assembling a great feast for herself, which includes a small portion of the spicy carrot hash. Shuri’s halfway through his piece of cake by the time she settles down to begin consuming her own meal.
Nuria tosses four scallops down her throat, then asks “You seem to know an awful lot about this place? You a sophomore or something?”
“Oh, c’mon. Share a little bit. I’ll even go first.” Nuria pauses to bite off a piece of a cheeseburger. “I fought an alligator on my way here.”
“There are no wild animals like that in the vicinity of this campus.”
“Maybe not the immediate vicinity, but about eighty or so miles out, yeah. There’s a swampy area next to some crazy hills.” She points to her torn shirt. “How do you think I ended up like this?”
“Alligator brawl wouldn’t be anyone’s first guess. And you’ll have to forgive me if I don’t take your word for it.”
“You don’t have to. My brother will- Oh, wait!”
“Brother?” Shuri raises an eyebrow.
“You said you saw the other students get off a bus, right? Do you know where they’d be right now?”
“I do, but I’m not done eating. Wait, hey!”
Nuria grabs Shuri’s plate and inhales the last half of his cake in one bite. She works a little hard to swallow it, then takes a deep breath. “There, now we can go.”
“You run into me, spin these wild tales, and then eat my lunch. Why should I help you?”
This guy’s a little uptight, but he’s very curious. Let’s try this. “You wanna see how I beat the alligator?”
“You flailing around for your life doesn’t sound fun.”
“I’m afraid I’m a little more coordinated than that.” Nuria grabs her bag to leave. Shuri narrows his eyes when he notices the excess water leaving her clothes as steam as if her body were acting as a dryer. Without hesitation, he chases after her. Nuria smiles as she peers over her shoulder at him.
There are four rectangular, elevated stages spread through a wide, flat field. Each elevated stage has four staircases at each of its corners. In a clockwise manner, from the one at the bottom left, the stages are designated for specific classes: Ohaida, Sulublei, Vanusi, and S’nue. The Ohaida stage is covered in a plethora of ring targets.
Shuri leads Nuria up the steps, and they stand before the sea of targets. Nuria takes a step forward, slapping her palms against each other. “Allow me to show you how I flail around.”
“What now?” Nuria asks, but her eyes widen when she sees the young man unsheathe his twin swords. The sunlight’s reflections sprint down the blades’ edges as he lowers them from his waist at forty-five-degree angles.
“Let’s see who can destroy the most targets. When they’re all down, we’ll count how many are cut in half versus, well, plain broken.”
“I accept, but mine won’t be broken,” Nuria states boldly. She rubs her palms together, rapidly generating heat. As her hands become a blur of motion, wisps of smoke rise from her fingertips. The moment the smoke surrounds both her hands entirely, she separates them like a snap of her fingers. A pair of flames roar and crackle around her fists, but her flesh doesn’t char. In fact, the heat and light coming off of her fists seems to be one and the same with her skin.
“They’ll be burned.”
Shuri awes at her gumption, then finds himself smiling despite himself. “On the count of three.”
“Three!” Nuria shouts.
Nuria launches forward first, leaving Shuri to follow in her wake. She skids to a stop before one of the targets, cocks her right fist back, shifts her weight with her ankles, and delivers a powerful blow to the center. The target is blown to pieces by an eruption of flames. Kindling sprinkles the stage.
Shuri stops before he downswings against his own target, stunned by the blast. What the hell?
Nuria uses her ignited fingers to brush the bangs from her face, but her hair remains unburnt. She turns a smug grin Shuri’s direction. “Believe me now?”
“Did you kill the alligator?” he asks, still lost in a stupor.
“By Drijad, no. I’m not a monster. I simply gave him a love tap. It went something like this.”
Nuria hops over the kindling and steps closer to a second target. She performs a straight jab, and her fiery fist penetrates the target clean through. The flames spread out from the hole and eat at the target like a parasite. She topples it over and whirls on Shuri. Waves of humidity warp the air behind her, making her appear as an otherworldly entity stepping through a rift in space.
“That’s two to zero, by the way. Better get a move on.”
The race commences straight away. Shuri makes up the gap in no time, slicing through two targets in quick succession, employing a swift and graceful circular dance. From there, they match pace, incinerating and splitting targets with ease. Between points scored, they lock gazes and exchange slight grins. The gaiety reaches its peak as the number of targets greatly dwindles.
They both lock on the final target simultaneously. Nuria, being further from it, charges straight away.
Shuri takes a second to correct his stance before following Nuria’s lead. He raises his swords to his sides to thrust at the target, but then he glimpses his grandfather’s reflection in the metal. Shuri stumbles when he notices the audience that has gathered. His nerve drops so low that he loses grip of his swords, and they clatter on the ground.
The ringing of the swords dropping captures Nuria’s attention and she turns to the crowd as well.
Headmaster Neth lets out a hearty sigh before turning to the group of students behind him. “I must apologize for my grandson and his friend. I was hoping to have you all demonstrate your own abilities on the targets that were assembled. Instead, I will like you all to gather around the professor of the house you would like to learn from. I hope you’ve had time to truly consider your options, for that choice, will be your home for the next year.”
The professors space themselves apart and wait for the students to approach them. Tameri finds herself with four new students, of which Rum (who cuts Nuria a gaze full of angst) and Pan are a part of. Lynald manages to garner the most attention of the group with five students introducing themselves to him. Cwen warmly greets the four that come to her, including the young charge from the auditorium. The finely dressed young woman and her lunchtime friend step to Zathony and Marmagar, as does another male student.
Neth turns and faces Nuria and Shuri, both of whom hesitate to join the other groups. “Now, what am I to do with the two of you?”