The heavy-handedness of it raining today is not lost on her. Still, she can only think of one thing as she stands in her doorway. One step into the rain and she’ll feel the presence of the one who took her father away. She hasn’t been able to function properly in the week since; taking showers is out of the question, she can’t cook with water or drink it from bottles, and her black suit is heavily wrinkled. She tried to use an iron on her other suits on the hope the heat might scare away her father’s murderer, but with her shaky hands she ended up burning them.
She’s angry with herself, having already missed the funeral, terror-stricken too great to move forward or back. A black limo pulls up to her front yard, just beyond the white picket fence. A face she knows all too well steps through the fence and climbs the steps of the hardwood porch. She doesn’t wish to see him either, too distraught over their family’s recently shared history. Her breathing takes a turn for the worse, becoming fast and shallow, the young woman on the verge of hyperventilating.
The man kneels down in his dark grey suit with a bittersweet smile. He holds out his umbrella with one hand while extending the other. “We’ve both lost a lot, Stark,” he says somberly. “Let’s not lose each other, too.”
Stark shuffles closer slowly and takes his hand and umbrella, hugging close to him, counting every drop of rain she can all the way to the funeral grounds where grief overtakes her.
“All hands on deck!” Stark shouts as she races out of her office. “There’s a hostile in the Star Derby arena! Jeana, Rox, and Kandass, stay put and coordinate with the Jupiter City police, 9th precinct! The rest of you, with me!”
Stark comes to the exit of the security building and charges into the rain without even blinking. To the army of officers behind her, she says, “Your first priority is evacuation! Make sure every student is accounted for before escorting them back to the security building basement! The hostile is powered, so leave them to me!”
“Yes, sir!” her officers shout in tandem.
Stark raises her tablet to keep it in her periphery as she leads the charge. The hostile is without a doubt the same woman from Jojen’s Dojo. Stark was already furious when she attacked Nuria, but now she attacks the entire audience at once. The tablet is muted, but she can hear the destruction of the glass roof as well as the screams of the students.
She curses as the students are forced to fend for themselves and others, noting Tyra being shielded by Aven and Trixee tackling Alcott and Valine to the floor to avoid the hostile’s whirlpool arms as she spins with stretched and liquefied hands angled toward the audience. The larger shards of glass all miss the students, but the smaller ones cut and scrape a couple dozen of them.
Stark throws the tablet to a nearby officer. “Get in touch with Jeana and coordinate an appropriate EMT response!” Stark orders.
The officer nods and jumps on their radio immediately as Stark leads the charge inside the arena. She bursts through the double doors and races to the hostile who smiles upon seeing her.
“Ah, there you are,” the hostile greets calmly.
Stark refuses to stop and chat and cocks her fist back. The hostile takes the blow to her cheek, but her skin ripples like a pond upon impact and she looks as if nothing happened.
“Poor girl. Did you truly mean the punch to be so weak? Surely you’re angry enough to have made it make me reel backward.”
“Shut up!” Stark shouts. “You’re under arrest!” Stark grabs the hostile’s arm and throws her to the ground forcefully, but the woman splashes apart as water and wraps herself around Stark, reconstituting with the security officer in a chokehold.
“You shouldn’t be here! Why force me to be the one to stop you?”
“I told you back at that dojo what I wanted, and I’ve waited long–”
The hostile’s head is popped apart when the Star Derby game ball slams against her temple. Her grip on Stark lessens none even as her head sprouts back, forming from the collection of raindrops pouring in through the destroyed roof. She turns and glares at Shuri.
“Get off of her!” he shouts adamantly.
“It’s a real shame Saario couldn’t kill you,” she says. “You’ll hate how I do it!” She lifts and liquefies one of her arms to attack Shuri, but Stark capitalizes on the lack of pressure and jumps up and slams the back of her head into the hostile’s face, this time with enough force to make her nose bleed.
Stark steps between the hostile and Shuri. “You leave him out of this!” Stark hopes to keep the hostile’s attention on her without telegraphing to the evacuation currently underway, or to Roark sneaking over to grab an unconscious Nuria. “You wanted me, so here I am!”
The hostile smirks as she raises her right middle and index fingers. “Yes, but I owe you some suffering first.” She keeps her eyes on Stark as she points toward Roark and fires a condensed ball of rain as a bullet.
“Roark, incoming!” Stark orders.
The nearly bald blonde man whirls, keeping Nuria directly behind him, and holds out one palm toward the rain bullet. A small mirror appears in the middle of his palm. It absorbs the bullet before firing it back twice as fast. It explodes apart upon contact with the hostile’s chin.
Stark rushes the woman from behind, grabbing a blue badge from her belt pouch, three barbed hooks on the bottom. She tries to tackle the woman to the floor, but sails through a liquid tunnel in her body that the hostile creates. She grabs Stark’s ankles and whirls around, tossing her toward Roark.
Stark gets back to her feet and races after the hostile, but panics when she realizes she won’t get to Shuri’s defense in time. No! If she kills him…
A sudden and intense gale swirls throughout the arena, sweeping the rain along the currents, but is light enough to keep the shards of glass from doing the same.
Neth steps just past her and he looks savagely angry. He points his cane to the hostile and the gale focuses on her and slams her against the arena wall and it keeps her glued there. While keeping the woman pinned, he uses a second current to gently carry Shuri, as well as the other Freshman Derby contestants and coaches over behind them and deposits his grandson beside Nuria.
“Good job, Stark. When I failed to act promptly, your swift response helped us to get the students to safety. A few are hurt, but thankfully nothing serious, and no casualties. All thanks to you.”
“So, you leave the rest to us,” Professor Tameri says, taking the barbed badge from Stark. She moves into a lineup with Neth and the other professors.
“It appears she wishes to speak, sir,” Professor Cwen says, noticing the flapping of her cheeks beside her slow-moving mouth.
“Y-You…what are you doing here?” Stark asks with a shaky voice.
“Why have you come here and ruined our school’s most sacred tradition?” Neth asks, still highly incensed. “Why have you tried to harm my grandson?”
“That’s what I’m here to explain. Ears open.”
Stark shivers, knowing the truth is inescapable. She rises and prepares to face whatever judgment is to come, letting the conversation play out with a heavy heart.
Neth removes enough force from the gale so that she may speak.
“I wanted to take him from you…because you took my daughter from me.” She raises her head and hollers, “You have corrupted her!”
“Your daughter?” Neth asks. “You and I have never met.”
“You and this damned school have turned her against me! Against The Pure!”
“Give her back to me!” the hostile shouts madly. “Give me Stark!”
Neth turns and looks at Stark with such a tortured expression, which the other professors all emulate. They just stare at her in disbelief as the rain showers them relentlessly once the headmaster’s gale falls. The hostile quickly catches her breath after dropping to her feet.
“You’re telling me you never wondered how my colleagues and I targeted the school and dojo so well? The night of that fire was supposed to be our first attack, but that one,” she points to Nuria, leering at her with spite in her eyes, “was somehow able to stop one of my best people. I told Stark to kill her quietly after, but apparently, nobody ever left her side. And then that one,” she points to Shuri and gives him an equally spiteful glare, “managed to snag a photo of me and Saario when we were being careless. Killing all the filthy little Bigene brats here has been more difficult than we anticipated. And if you’re still unsure, just look from her to me. If the resemblance doesn’t do it for you, the look on her face will.”
Stark wants to protest and defend herself, but she can tell the damage has been done, knowing they’ve heard all of her mother’s words come from her mouth from the way they regard her now. The professors and Neth don’t take their eyes off of Stark. Her mother’s no longer enemy number one, she is.
“Let us be on our way, Stark,” her mother says. “There’s no more use to be had having you here.”
Neth whirls, his eyes wide with fury. “If you think–” He stops when he notices a thick plume of steam crawling past him.
He and all the others turn to see the steam flowing outward from Nuria, the air around her warped by humidity. The rain that falls in her immediate vicinity evaporates before touching her or the floor. As Nuria rises, Stark sees her irises blink in and out of existence, making her enraged demeanor much more frightening. In fact, all of the other contestants and coaches back away from her, save for Shuri.
Nuria starts to march forward menacingly, bringing with her a plume of steam. She ignites both her fists with auburn flames, and it causes the heat coming off her body to become so intense that Stark, Neth, and the professors are forced to step back from her. Stark looks into Nuria’s eyes and she definitely sees a glow this time, but it proceeds a real intense flare of golden light. Once Stark can see again she follows a trail of molten red footprints are in Nuria’s wake as she throws a punch at her mother. Her auburn flames turn golden right before making contact.
The hostile blocks with her liquid forearms but she hollers as the flames still sear her, steam streaming away from the point of impact. Nuria hollers fiercely as she pushes against the woman and slams her straight through both the auxiliary goals and against the wall.
Stark stands by helplessly as Nuria chases her mother around that end of the gym, shrouding their battle in a thick layer of steam. She uses the flares produced by Nuria making contact with her mother, as well as the silhouettes they produce to gauge the situation. She sees her mother is definitely on the losing end, having taken no less than three direct hits. Stark flinches when her mother suddenly sails from within the steam cloud and falls onto her back.
The hostile has severe burn wounds on both arms, left cheek, her right thigh has a burn visible through her partially incinerated pants leg. Stark almost can’t believe the look of fear on the woman’s face when Nuria emerges from the steam cloud, hands still ignited with golden flames. The warm glow of the flames at her front and sides and wispy cool vapors at her back make her appear like a warrior descending from the heavens. The young woman crouches and prepares to lunge once more.
“I’ll never give you the satisfaction!” the woman says venomously. She barely manages to slow Nuria’s attack by blasting both her knees with rain bullets, but they evaporate so much that they lack even the force to break her skin. She cradles her arms against her chest as she leaps into the air. She commands the raindrops to gather and forms a spiraling wave to raise herself high, soaring through the destroyed roof, using the storm to cover her escape route.
Nuria stops and stares after the hostile. She summons her phoenix wings and unfurls them completely, ready to fly after the hostile, but soon as she flaps them once, she cries out in pain. She falls to her knees and groans when her wings forcefully slip right back into her shoulder blades. Her snowy irises reappear just as she falls headfirst onto the floor. The last look she gives Stark before falling unconscious is one of intense rage.
Stark chooses to ignore the expression. “Nuria!” Her path to Nuria is cut off by both her professors. “What are you doing? Nuria’s hurt!”
“Yes, and she just beat your mother down,” Zathony says pointedly. “You’ll have to excuse us if we don’t trust her in your care moving forward.”
Professor Tameri steps closer and holds out the barbed badge, her other hand grasping the hilt of her spadroon. “Do us all a favor, Stark, and do it yourself. If you don’t, I will.”
Stark again neglects to defend herself, and this time she wants nothing more than to welcome her punishment. The one student she’s grown attached to has been hurt in spite of her duty to protect her, and that violation of the vow she made to Warden Crata is also a violation of her personal law.
Stark takes the barbed badge.