3.4: Phantom Slayer

Each step forward breaks Tameri’s heart. Standing between her and three of her students, all in need of immediate medical attention, is the man who almost made them corpses, husks of lifelessness that she’d never have the chance to again foster knowledge unto because she’d have failed at her secondary duty, to be their protector.

     Aven lies between a broken door and the wall, an island amid a sea of glass. Inside the spar chamber, both Shuri and Pan breathe pained breaths. Behind Tameri, Rum clutches a laceration with blood dripping onto his sneakers. Jojen’s Dojo is in disrepair and blazing down below. Two things keep her from weeping as she approaches the scarred man, the most comforting being the relief that Roy is still safe out in the courtyard.

     She stops and stares at the scarred man in his eyes. She gleams in them fear, pride and pleasure. The latter dangles a match above an oil drum holding Tameri’s fury in check. Instead of launching into swordplay straight away, she packs her eyes with several emotions and memories.

     She lowers two round objects into a small cooler, the edges marred by tiny nicks; she trudges through a stone quarry at a young age, dragging two bodies inside a sleeping bag; she stares up into a tinted window while chained to a slab, a powerful overhead light bathing her person, a nearby doctor in silhouette.

     She plays that last memory until the doctor raises a scalpel to her eyes- that’s when the axe-wielder flinches- and then she pounces. She shuts down her emotions in the same fashion as Rum and attacks with deadly celerity and precision. The axe-wielder, still disturbed by what both Tameri and Rum have shown him, is slow to respond to Tameri’s every thrust, slash, and swing of her spadroon, suffering nicks and lacerations on his hands, arms and legs.

     She ignores his chest when he correctly predicts her move to strike there. In one smooth motion, she tosses her spadroon to her left hand and slices through the belt holding his capsules. The axe-wielder snatches one capsule back before she takes the belt away. He removes the bomb from within and hovers his finger above the arming button.

     “You take one more step and I’ll blow us all to pieces!” he shouts. “Try me if you dare!”

     Tameri narrows her eyes, freezing in mid lunge, the match getting closer to the oil drum, floating just above the hole in the top.

     No time to panic, she thinks. Stay focused and find a way to stop him from hitting that button.

     Tameri lowers to the floor and carefully places the belt of explosives down. She rises just as slowly, keeping eye contact with the axe-wielder, though unnerved by his retreating steps.

     “I’m getting what I came here for and then I’m leaving,” he says, never taking his eyes off Tameri. His thumb trembles above the button.

     Something has him spooked. He’s not scared of death from me, but of something else… or someone else. Perhaps he has a boss he can’t afford to fail. Still, I can’t bet he won’t push the button. If he kills us all, himself included, he may still achieve his objective. I have to end it now.

     The axe-wielder pushes the button.

     The match drops into the oil drum.

     Tameri screams furiously as she charges forward. She thrusts her blade at the man’s chest. Even with his axe held up in defense, her spadroon pierces steel and flesh, however, neither axe nor sternum show signs of penetration, yet and still the man’s body trembles. Tameri yanks her spadroon back forcefully, grabs the bomb from his hand, fingers slipping through the gel as if it were a projection and wrapping around the screen.

     “How do I diffuse it?” Tameri asks in a low tone, her flowery voice seeming to echo.

     “Tameri,” Jojen says with a touch of warning.

     “Stay back and stay quiet,” she tosses over her shoulder with the same tone. She lowers her gaze as the axe-wielder falls to his knees, clutching his chest and heaving. She says to him, “I missed your heart on purpose. Tell me how to stop this or it’s my next target.” The timer drops below twenty-two seconds.

     Blood flows between his teeth as he smiles. “You’ll never diffuse them all in time,” he taunts.

     “All?”

     Tameri opens her eyes wide and whirls, finally cognizant of the beeping coming from within the closed capsules. The beeps ring in perfect concert with the one in her hand and she figures they all have less than twenty seconds remaining.

     “It was a master switch!” the axe-wielder announces as he rises. He slaps Tameri with the back of his hand, then knees her back into the wall. “We’re all dying here today!” He brings his axe down, aiming for Tameri’s skull, but it collides with metal yet again, though this time, not a shield.

     Tameri’s stunned to see Rum between herself and the axe-wielder, the belt of closed capsules draped across his body like a sash.

     “Wrong class, asshole!”

     Rum leaps forward and forces the axe into the air, using the axe-wielder’s favored kneeing tactic against him by striking him beneath his chin. He whirls midair and slices at the scarred man’s face and adds a future one between his right eye and nose in a diagonal line. The man catches himself before falling out of one of the blown-out windows by using his axe as an anchor. He swings back into the hall and races for the spar chamber. Rum snatches the last bomb from his professor and gives chase.

     “Aurum, stop!” Tameri pleads.

     The axe-wielder races through the doorway and nears Pan’s unconscious body.

     “Get away from them!” Rum hollers. His body comes alive with wildly surging blue electricity. Like before, the explosives deaden in his hands and the powder within spills to the floor, even from the ones still inside the belt capsules. After he grabs his hilt with both hands, all the electricity flows into his buster sword. The white disc in the base blazes with pulsing cobalt light.

     Rum hefts the buster sword and tosses it through the air like a javelin. Loose currents of electricity singe and burn the black mat along the way, leaving dots and streaks of red-hot embers. When it severs the axe-wielder’s outstretched left hand it leaves his stump of a wrist searing with those same embers.

     Rum slips past him as the man grips his stump, hollering in absolute pain. Once Rum has his sword back in his grasp, he takes a defensive post before Pan. He steals a quick glance over his shoulder at her, then does a double-take. Half of her face is covered in dark blood. His sword lights up for the third time.

     Tameri recognizes the look in his eyes and knows instantly that when she shouts, “Aurum, no!” that it won’t register. She watches in terror as Rum thrusts his blade through the axe-wielder’s chest with hate in his eyes. The man’s body is coated from head to toe in the azure lightning. His muscles writhe as they’re burned from the inside out. His clothing melts underneath the heat the lightning generates and melds to his skin, the contours of the fusion glowing bright red. Smoke billows out from his throat before Rum even finishes, only wresting his blade free once the axe-wielder’s eyes roll back into his skull.

     Tameri seethes at her own poor judgment when the axe-wielder’s body remains on its knees in a blackened crisp. She was ready to show the bomber the same mercy, and before she began the fight, she urged Rum to pay close attention to her actions. She knows the filter of admiration he sees her through from their last private talk.

     I don’t deserve my title.

     I shouldn’t be the Phantom Slayer.

     Today’s worse than a reset.

-FHA-

     Watching the white smoke billowing out of the wrecked entrance to Jojen’s Dojo runs its course in Tameri’s mind. The building remains standing, and that’s what she finds solace in. The memories and ties it holds and represents will persevere. She keeps her mind on the present status on Vanis Town as a whole, happy it and the citizens- her citizens- have survived. Right now, the bulk of them stand outside the caution tape placed by the firemen and police officers. She gives them a reassuring smile.

     Thank goodness none of the children were here today.

     She steps away from the school and approaches the lead officer, Sheriff Will. He wears a dark brown uniform with beige stripes going down his pants legs. Tied to his waist via a harness identical to Tameri’s is a sheathed baselard, the tip pointing behind his back. He tips his hat to Tameri when she sidles close, his smoke-colored eyes radiating regret.

     “I’m sorry, Tameri,” he says softly, but then his tone hardens when he looks at the coroner van. “I should’ve been here to stop them. Still can’t believe I let the partner escape.”

     “You didn’t,” Stark says. She hefts half a metal mask. “I had her in my sights. She–”

     Tameri asks, “Did you get a good look at her face?” She eyes the clean-cut down the mask.

     “No. Just as I managed to break it–”

     “By the time we put out the fires at the power station and mayor’s office we’d heard two explosions over here. In our haste to assist you, we ran into the middle of Officer Stark’s pursuit of the other perpetrator. She used the ensuing chaos to evade capture.”

     “Chaos?”

     “To avoid being run over I had to liquefy my entire being. I covered the windshield on impact and they had to skid to a stop,” Stark explains.

     “Any clue what they were after?” Sheriff Will asks.

     “Something in the spar chamber. He seemed desperate for it. Like his life depended on it.”

     “Not Jojen’s office?” Will asks in a near hush.

     “What’s so valuable in Jojen’s office? I was in there and nothing looked worth all this,” Stark comments.

     “Irrelevant,” Tameri replies. “He was targeting the spar chamber. Jojen will corroborate.”

     “I’ll go and take his statement.” The sheriff gestures over his shoulder. “All the kids should be awake now.”

     “Shall we?” she asks Stark, missing the haunted look on the officer’s face as she leads the way.

     “Are you guys okay?” Tameri asks her class, kneeling down at the rear of the ambulance they’re seated in, save for Roy who stands against one of the rear doors. Shuri turns his hung head her way, his left wrist in a cast. Across from him, Aven sits upright on the other bench. He keeps his eyes pointed up; his myriad of bruises uncovered. The cut across Pan’s forehead is covered, but faint streaks of blood are cut into by slow-moving tears. Rum sits in the back of the ambulance, the last of his stitches put in place by the paramedic. Tameri’s own wounds, cuts, and scrapes from being thrown by the initial explosion, have been treated and covered by a mixture of gauze tape and bandages, but she could care less about them. The sight of her students in this state breaks her heart all over again.

     “I’m sorry I couldn’t protect you all today. As a professor of Four Hearts Academy, I welcome all students under my protection, not just my tutelage. I failed wholly today in my position.”

     “Professor Tameri,” Stark interjects solemnly. When their eyes lock Stark shakes her head. “Their protection is both our responsibility. We’ve succeeded today. Yes, they were harmed, and we will answer for that, but they all survived. You made that happen.”

     Tameri notices the spirit in all their eyes return, but she raises a hand in defiance. I want them placing credit where it is due.

     “Do not thank me,” she tells her students. “The one who saved you is right there.” She smiles at the awe and gratitude on all their faces, even Aven’s, when they follow her finger to Rum.

     “Whoa, whoa, whoa. Slow down, Shuri!” Tameri urges when he forces himself to stand. “Where are you going?”

Shuri grins through the pain. “We need a picture of the hero. My camera’s in the spar chamber. Hopefully, it’s not broken.”

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