When her first move is to start jogging in place with an enthused air about her, Reddic is not surprised after she leaped down the basement stairs three at a time and sprinted past the desks. Although, her attire gives him some pause. Her bare feet pound against the earthen floor like hammers. Her thighs and calves rub together rapidly, flesh to flesh, thanks to her short shorts. Her top is cut above her stomach, barely concealing her navy sports bra.
“Two questions,” Reddic announces. “What’s with the outfit? And aren’t you expending necessary energy prematurely?”
Nuria answers without breaking rhythm. “My answer to both is wait and see.”
Reddic gives her a modest bow. “Then, please, go on.”
Nuria runs in place a few more seconds then jumps. She slides her right foot down her left leg swiftly, and it slams into the exercise mat already ignited. The mat catches fire and Reddic is forced to retreat from his zone as its engulfed in flames wholly.
Reddic hums. She ended the contest by eliminating my zone. Without it, I’m forced to surrender to her. Genius!
“Hold on a second,” Nuria says. She goes around and kicks dirt over the burning remnants of the exercise mat, eradicating all evidence of her vandalism. “Now, we can really begin! With the mat gone, and you free to move all around, this’ll tell me if I’m truly up to the challenge or not!”
Reddic smiles dismally on the outside but laughs on the inside. This girl…
“Are you sure, Nuria? It’ll be much harder to grab my tail that way.”
“Easier, actually,” she boasts. “The mat’s friction would’ve decreased the effectiveness of my next move.”
“There’s a next move?”
Nuria pouts. “Yeah, and I hate you’ve forced me to use it now. I was hoping to blow the minds of my old professors with it first. But I know that without it, I can’t pass this assignment.”
Reddic watches silently as Nuria mentally accepts her frustration and shelves it, putting all her focus on this next attempt. She lowers into a racer’s takeoff stance and takes measures to balance her stance properly. Reddic prepares himself to avoid the attack, applying his partial transformation to just his muscles, making his lithe figure as nimble as possible. It’s how he’s stayed out of her reach to this point. He knows no non-transformed Vanusi has a chance to catch him, which is why he always encouraged her to use her powers. And now, it seems like she’s showing me her very best.
“Okay, Nuria, whenever–”
A blinding explosion of white light alarms Reddic, though not as much as the force of getting hit square in his chest by Nuria’s shoulder, or the echo ringing in his ears. With his vision blurred and impacted breathing and balance, he fails to fight back when she pushes him to the floor. They slide together to the wall, stopping just short of crashing into it. Reddic raises his head with a guttural moan, but he can already feel Nuria’s fingers combing through his tail fur.
She wipes the sweat from her brow with her other hand. “Oh, man, am I glad I held back. We both might’ve gone through the wall if I hadn’t. My bad.”
He cherishes the innocence behind her confusion after he laughs uproariously. “No apologies necessary, Nuria. I’m the fool who took your words lightly.” He sits up and looks around the room in one swift glance. Both the corner windows are shattered, the floor from where Nuria launched from to two spots on the wall are burnt black, and the most impressive bit of property damage is at the glass wall. One of the panels perpendicular to Nuria’s launch position sports a tiny crack. And I won’t be making that mistake again.
He turns to her and asks, “What did you just do?”
The phoenix’s face lights up instantly. “Okay, so, I spent a lot of time learning how to fly this past spring. I ate a lot of sand, but one day, I figured why not really test my skills and see how high I could go. I got right above the lower clouds when my body and flames both temporarily lost too much oxygen. Now, I know what you’re thinking, but listen to this next part. I only survived by concentrating really hard on concentrating my flames beneath my feet. That’s when my mezzo flames kicked in and saved my life.”
There’s a lot there he wants to address, but he allows her spirit to stay upbeat by saying, “Mezzo flames?”
“All right, so I have this thing I do where I assign titles to different temperatures. Any flames as cool as two hundred and forty-nine degrees or lower is tenor. Alto is for 250 to 349. Baritone is 350 to 450. My soprano flames have only gotten as hot as 600 degrees so far. So, I chose to name my mezzo flames for the propulsion, not temp. And, I can control the scope of the mezzo flames. This is what they look like.”
Nuria holds up a finger and wisps climb to the tip until they merge and condense into a solid white flame with an orange dot near the base. It produces a soft whistle each time it flickers. “I blasted off with two bigger versions of this just now. Cool, right?” She terminates the mezzo flame by shaking her finger. “Wait, what’s wrong?”
Reddic knows his stoic expression appears grave when he’s normally his ebullient self, but he takes his next choice that seriously. He anticipated Nuria may have been ready after their last physical training session, so he made the proper preparations. He expects more brick walls from Neth, but he’s also nervous about what effect his true objective will have on Nuria moving forward. Come on, Reddic. You knew it would come to this eventually. It’s why you’re here.
“Reddic?” Nuria asks apprehensively. She stares up at him with heated concern.
He turns his smile back on. “Nuria, I have a confession to make.”
“What’s that?” The nerves in her tone are still absent, despite the heavy tone he employs to grab her undivided attention.
“When I started this class, I only had one true thing I wanted to teach my students. It’s a powerful technique exclusive to Ibri only. And I know that because I’m the one who created it.”
“More powerful than my mezzo flames?” Nuria asks, though more out of excitement than arrogance.
Nuria bites her lip to muffle her excited squealing.
“It’s a bit tricky to explain alone, so I’ll have to show you it in action. Mind coming with me just a bit off campus?”
“Lead the way!”
“Are you one hundred percent positive, Roark?” Stark says into her cellphone. She and Warden Crata are leaned above it on opposite sides of his desk.
“Unequivocally. I’m in the Ibri house basement now. I got reports from several students of a loud noise, and now there’s glass on the floor and burn marks on the floor and wall.”
“You need to tell Neth immediately and find her ASAP!” Stark orders. “I’ll be there as soon as I can!”
“Roger that,” Roark says before hanging up.
“Wait a second, Stark,” Crata calls to her the moment she reaches for his office door.
“And let him get away with Nuria? Are you–”
“Officer Stark, stand down!” Crata shouts. “That’s an order!”
Stark silences her protests and goes back to his desk when he beckons her with a hand. “I understand your desire to keep her safe, however, you staying here gives us a later advantage.”
“What later advantage? He’s taking her to the world government as we speak.”
“One. We don’t know that for a fact. Two, we haven’t learned anything about Reddic after a solid week of investigating, so we can rightly assume he’s not sloppy enough to kidnap the only student he has, which over a hundred state and national news organizations have since covered. And three, keeping you and him apart in oppositional situations won’t impair your relationship with Nuria.”
Stark acknowledges the logic of the first two points, but the third still bothers her. “Well, we’ve already had one.”
“Then convince him it was just a professional clash of duties when you see him next.”
“Why? What’s the play there, sir?”
“You and Neth are thinking too directly about Nuria’s future fate. The Avinian world government doesn’t have to abduct Nuria to train her. You said Nuria proved to you this Reddic is aware of phoenix lore, right? That, mixed with the fact he’s likely our hand thief and the one who planted “Halko’s Notes”, I surmise that he was hired to provide Nuria a curriculum disguised as intensive military training.”
“And you want me to be his pal to potentially ferret his secrets from him? You said it yourself, he’s too careful. He’d never trust me, an officer, with such sensitive information.”
“No, I need you to become a part of that circle to be Nuria’s shield. The more you make sure to stay around her, the more she may reveal about her training, and thus the more we have to try and identify Reddic and who he’s working for.”
Nuria follows Reddic through the woods, though her mind is not on her surroundings. She fantasizes about this powerful technique instead. Okay, so it’s an Ibri technique, so it has to involve both his powers to work. He’s a leopard who can manipulate light, so…
She imagines Reddic transforming his arms to model a leopard’s front legs, then turning them invisible. He uses his unseen claws to hack away at a tree. The next fantasy is Reddic applying the transformation to his arms and legs, but instead of turning them invisible, he does it to his head only so his opponents have no clue what he’s targeting. She imagines him fighting the only enemies she’s ever known, Kari and Liamria. Nuria swiftly abandons that fantasy, not liking thinking of Reddic as someone so brutal, or to see anyone, even Liamria, attacked so viciously.
It sucked enough when it happened to me. I don’t want to see that happen to anyone ever. Maybe this technique will help me keep my friends safe. And not just because my inner phoenix awakens. I will be the real defender next time!
“Whoa, there,” Reddic warns as he pulls Nuria back. “Unless you want an excuse to do that drying thing of yours.”
Nuria blinks a couple of times when she realizes she’s ankle-deep in a stream. She absorbs the majesty of her surroundings slowly, taking it all in. The trees here all have their roots partially exposed above ground, and under some on the other side of the river, she can see squirrels enjoying the shade. The stream teems with spotted trout darting in every direction. She watches them occupy the space she vacates when joining Reddic on the bank.
“What were you thinking about so hard?”
Reddic silences her with his trademark jocund laughter. “You can keep it to yourself. However, before we start, I need one thing from you.” He continues after Nuria nods. “This technique is near and dear to my heart, so I don’t tell people easily. Once I show you, I’m letting you into the small circle of those that know it exists, and I’d appreciate it greatly if you didn’t enlarge that group. Hence why we’re off-campus. Can you do that for me?”
Nuria grins. “You did save me from drowning just now, so it’s the least I could do. Secret’s safe with me, Reddic.”
“Excellent. Now, stay there and watch me closely.”
Nuria keeps her eyes peeled, prepared not to miss a single detail. Too bad for that once Reddic walks into the middle of the stream and puts his palms together, waves of light pulsate from his body, the first few forcing the phoenix to blink until her eyes adjust. Air flows outward alongside the waves of light, heavy and dense, churning the water violently. The squirrels underneath the tree roots flee up high, and the air pressure suspends the spotted trout midair. Nuria watches with absolute awe, her braid whipping around wildly behind her.
Parts of Reddic’s body fade in and out of visibility as he reverses the direction of the waves of light, condensing the brilliance into a sphere. The sphere expands and forms the shape of a quadrupedal beast. Once the brilliance vanishes, a full-grown leopard stands between Reddic and Nuria. When it lifts its head and roars, Nuria shivers as she takes a cautious step back. The beast stands on invisible legs, but its tail swishes side-to-side. The air pressure stabilizes and as the fish fall, the leopard snatches one of them out of the air with its jaws. The phoenix takes another step back when Reddic and the leopard advance.
“There’s no need to be afraid, Nuria,” Reddic says gently, though he freezes halfway to the bank.
Nuria doesn’t respond, instead looking at the fish bleeding to death between the leopard’s teeth.
“Ah.” Reddic gives the leopard a stern look. “Fanger, drop it.” He gives the leopard a harder look when it doesn’t relinquish the fish right away. He scratches it behind the ear when it obeys. “That’s a good boy.”
Some of Nuria’s terror leaves her when she hears Fanger purr appreciatively. “What did you just do?”
“I can explain, but you’ll have to allow us on dry land first.”
Nuria nods, then fights the urge to back away when they climb onto the bank.
“The technique is called Manifestation.”
Reddic shrugs. “It was the best word I could find for what the technique does. Manifestation means an event, action, or object that clearly shows or embodies something, especially a theory or an abstract idea.”
Nuria eyes the leopard inquisitively. “And Fanger’s the embodiment?”
“He’s the embodiment of,” she looks at where his invisible legs like are, “your powers into a physical form!”
Fanger yowls his agreement.
“That’s…that’s incredible! How’d you ever come up with such a technique?”
“I had a lot of help a few years back. But let me tell you now, learning this technique will not be an easy task. I suspect it’ll take the entire school year.”
“How’s it work?”
“There are three steps in all. Step one: Active Meditation. Step two: Primal Sense. Step three: unifying both your separate powers into one energy.”
Nuria frowns at that last step. “I can see why it’ll be difficult. I’m still barely scratching the surface of my phoenix powers. Combining them with my flames…yeesh.”
Reddic’s smile takes on a reassuring vibe. “Breathe easy, Nuria. I plan to take you to heights even above the clouds.”
Nuria’s grin is packed with an unshakable passion. Her goals align perfectly with her professor’s, and she feels his with instruction and her fervor, she’ll reach the heights he’s promised.
And then some!