The allure of the music section is a great obstacle upon entering the library, but Nuria perseveres and goes straight to the front counter and asks for guides on Vanusi Sudita, hoping any triggers she might not have noticed can be explained by them.
Tyra’s advice was interesting, but in the long run, it wasn’t quite so viable. Nuria wasted two days already trying to get it to yield fruit. Although her memories were a fine thing to relive, the void of her being at the end left her cold and in pain like her life was absent for those brief seconds.
Nuria sequesters a small table in the rear and covers it entirely in her recommended reading material. She gambles that these guides will make up for her last two days and prove useful. Most only recite the details that she knows, it’s a process that comes with swelling of heat in or near the heart or brain. Some cite environmental triggers, such as how predatory Vanusi might require something to invoke their hunter’s instincts. She traces her thumb underneath a passage with specific details.
“A Vanusi with the creature form of a snake might realize this transformation sooner in a dry environment teeming with mice, lizards, and other small creatures it could swallow. Substitute dry for wet when referring to anacondas.”
I live in a desert, so I can rule out snakes. Then again, not certain of any snake that can produce golden flames. Perhaps focusing on that one detail isn’t helping. I should have some sort of animal features I can imitate. Maybe there are tests I can employ to bring them out?
Nuria shelves her thoughts and continues her studies. Nothing she finds makes it clear how to go about discovering her creature form. She spies a myriad of recurring phrases she plans to look up later, but her stomach is shouting at her to stop. She finds a nearby clock and sees it’s nearly 7 pm.
I’ll grab a quick meal and resume after.
She gathers her books into a neat pile, dog-earring the pages to hold her place. She scoots the books to the edge of the table against the wall and vacates in a haste. She dodges clusters of students leaving the cafeteria. She keeps an eye out for any that may be transformed, hoping to study how natural they appear in normal conversation. She finds none and continues on her way.
As she completes her own meal, she smiles to see Carnya still in attendance, devouring the last of a stack of muffins of what she assumes is her eighth or ninth tray of food. Nuria grabs a muffin of her own before joining the glutton.
Carnya tries to suck back down a belch as she notices Nuria take a seat, but she ends up choking on the rush of inhaled air. Nuria races over and smacks the center of her back, expelling not only the choked air but the remainder of the interrupted belch. The sound carries through the cafeteria and a mix of amused and disgusted faces whirl on the girls.
“Don’t hate on the best burps on campus,” Nuria boasts defensively.
Carnya wipes excess saliva from the corners of her mouth. “Best belches period,” she corrects loud and proud.
“You heard her.”
The situation dies out with quiet snickering and murmured groans of revulsion. The girls join the former. By the time they finally get around to actually eating, the cafeteria is only occupied by the two of them.
“So, what happened to you after class?” Carnya asks, dabbing a napkin to her lips. “You took off kind of quick.”
“Had a lot to look up today. Trying to figure out this transformation thing.”
“Not to rain on your parade, but that’s not gonna be possible in so short a time.”
“What do you mean?”
“You said you only just learned of your Vanusi half. It’s gonna take time to access the ability to transform, even partially. More than a week, that’s for sure.”
“How long did it take you?”
“I didn’t have my Sudita until five years ago. Took me another two to learn to transform, and I wish I waited to do it here. I rushed into it when I felt something different, and the doctors say it impaired my cellular system, hence the hyperactive venom glands and metabolism.”
“Wait, go back. What was that different thing you felt?”
Carnya gives Nuria a guarded expression. Though her features are soft, they are on the edge of hardening to steel in an instant.
“I’m sorry, it’s a personal question.” Nuria withdraws back into her chair. “I just need some kind of comparison for this feeling I got trying to rush my own transformation.”
“Wait, you felt that weird limbo state, too?” Carnya asks in a rush of words.
Nuria leans forward with a surge of energy. “Yes. I thought it was just my mind hitting a wall, but when I peeled away, I felt like my body wasn’t really…there. Like a shell.”
“I don’t know how you got there, but I’d recommend against it. I paid my price, and it’s not worth the cost for a silly assignment.”
“But what if breaking that wall is the key?” Nuria finds herself asking, despite believing Carnya’s warning the easier road to travel.
“Do you think you can?”
Nuria shrugs. “I punched an alligator through a swamp. One wall shouldn’t keep me out forever.”
Carnya stares at Nuria with wide eyes. “You- an allig- huh?”
Nuria snickers around her next words. “Yeah, the headmaster’s grandson didn’t believe me at first either.”
“Umm.” Carnya gets stuck on the one syllable for a time. “Okay, how?”
“How did you punch an alligator through an entire swamp? That requires a lot of strength. And while you don’t look weak, you’re still small.”
“It’s never a matter of size in combat,” Nuria says. “My mother was in the Ohaida army before my brother and I were born. She taught us a few things that she learned to keep us safe.” She sees the rising panic on Carnya’s face and adds hastily, “I’d never use those moves on a student, though. That gator was asking for it.”
“So, you think the wall can be broken down?”
“Maybe, I don’t know. I know it’s a shortcut, but it might be what I need to ace this first assignment.”
“I’d still advise against it, but it sounds like you really want to.”
“I can’t help it. I grew up with an older brother who thinks himself better than me in everything. I always try to show him up.”
“Do you ever?” Carnya asks playfully.
Nuria looks down at her t-shirt, a cartoon man singing before a full concert hall. “At a couple things.”
The guides all start to confuse Nuria, each one written by a different author with vastly differing opinions and observations of Vanusi. In some cases, she finds the authors confusing Vanusi with actual animals, themselves being unable to distinguish between the two irking her greatly.
How can you be so inept as to confuse your subject matter with what they imitate? It’s like confusing a live cow with local fast food.
The offenses she finds don’t end there. After the myriad of confusing details, she also finds that some keywords and phrases they mutually share are defined so differently.
This is absurd. How am I supposed to learn anything from these books? This is almost as bad as the do–
“I’m an idiot. Zathony would’ve been the one to order these books, at least according to the rulebook. I’m willing to bet these aren’t at all credible. Another of his stupid games.”
But what would the point be of this one? Not to stump us, I’d think. He doesn’t seem the type to withhold information purposefully. He’d- duh, of course. He wants me to come to him so he can win. Fat chance, professor. I have a shortcut I can use.
The contest between Nuria and Professor Zathony continues in and out of the classroom. She gives him a good run in vocabulary and chemistry, the two subjects she put effort into in her elementary school days. At the others, however, she comes up short. In most sessions, the other students and Professor Marmagar purposefully bow out to watch them go at it.
Outside their scheduled sessions, Nuria dives headfirst into her shortcut. On occasion Tyra gives her pointers, telling her that a direct approach will not work. Her instincts always lead her to that tactic when faced with a dead end. She rocks sideways on her bed, the soft mattress cradling her motions nicely.
“You said you were born into your abilities, right?”
Tyra nods while flipping through a journal with a white “D” on the cover.
“Were you born transformed or born into Sudita?” Nuria opens her left eye as she awaits an answer.
Tyra’s lips slowly twist up into a grin. “I was wondering when you’d get around to that question.” She shuts the notebook. “I was born into Sudita. I didn’t gain the ability to transform until I was six. My mother coached me into it the day after my birthday.”
“It only took you one day to learn?”
Tyra shakes her head. “It wasn’t that simple. My body had years to acclimate to my creature state. By the time I tried, it was a seamless coming together of my conscious effort and my body’s anatomy. Plus, my mother did the same thing with hers, and so did my grandmother before that.”
“Wait, you’re all the same creature?” Nuria asks curiously.
“Yes, we are,” she replies coolly. “Creature forms pass down just like any other physical trait in the gene pool.”
“I see,” Nuria slowly agrees.
My mother isn’t Vanusi, and I’ve never met any other relatives. I mean, I know she’s not our real mother, but she raised Rum and me. Maybe that’s why she always gave me the edited blood tests. Wouldn’t give me any reason to go looking for ghost parents. Then again, I’ve never really cared for that. I have Auriel and Rum. That’s all I need. Right?
“How come you haven’t asked what my creature form is yet?” Tyra asks, breaking Nuria’s internal monologue.
Nuria stares blankly at Tyra a moment, her mind still caught in a web of its own design. After a moment she recovers her wits. “Sorry about that. I just figured it was rude to ask. Carnya all but volunteered the information herself, but you and Syl seemed cagier about it.”
“If you knew your creature form, would you tell me?”
“If I knew, I’d broadcast it to the world,” Nuria says half-jokingly.
Tyra again applies her laser focus to Nuria’s eyes but looks beyond the color this time. She withdraws from them a warm, lively energy. Deep within she sees the crimson streaks of doubt, fear, and anxiety.
Tyra releases a controlled exhale. “I need you to keep this between us. I’ll let the others know on my own time.” When Nuria nods she continues to say, “I come from a line of angels. My grandmother, my mother, myself. We don’t reveal ourselves to strangers easily. They generally have the wrong idea of us in their minds, and those misconceptions tend to hurt the chances for making friends.”
“Then why tell me?” Nuria asks ruefully.
“I can’t tell you that part actually. My mother would be angry enough I told you that.”
Nuria gives Tyra a sideways look. After a moment, as she recalls the fireflies clearly buzzing all around her, she has a revelation. “You think you know what I am, don’t you?”
“I do, and if it turns out to be what I’m thinking, I can tell you the rest of what I can’t tell you.” Tyra wrinkles her nose, kicking herself over the conundrum that statement produces.
“Fair enough. I’ll try this a couple more times before I join you at dinner.”