Reddic lounges on the hood of “FHA_030”, the jeep nestled and concealed from the road by a thicket of heart trees. Their thick roots exposed above ground shield the tires, the lush canopy keeping sunlight from reflecting off the metal. If for nothing else, Reddic would appreciate the heart trees for their camouflaging ability alone. Fortunately, he’s aware of their truest gift to Avinia and appreciates that nearly as much as he does Fanger.
The leopard’s spotted tail wags from side to side from a branch adjacent to the hood of the jeep. The beast lounges just like Reddic, flat against his perch, head resting on his paws. His muscles remain supple, his breathing a seamless circuit from his nostrils to his lungs and back again. Occasionally, he whips his head left and right, lowering it again slowly.
“Relax, Fanger,” Reddic says with a grin.
Fanger yowls lowly.
“Or, are you just eager to see Nuria again?”
The leopard repeats the low yowl and turns away from Reddic.
The man-leopard laughs softly. He loves that Fanger likes Nuria, too. Having someone on campus that he doesn’t have to hide Fanger from makes his job easier. He wouldn’t have to wait until sunset to get back to campus, sure that most of the students and faculty will be preoccupied with dinner to notice his partner in crime.
Hopefully, Nuria isn’t too disappointed that I’m late. Maybe surprising her after dinner will make up for it.
Kirby’s words come back to him. Not that Kirby’s tone is ever nagging, but Reddic affords what he says the most respect of anyone he knows with the exception of one.
She’s a child, Reddic. She will do as she pleases. Let her be a child while she can, Kirby said.
Reddic scowls, uncertain of how successful she was at that in his absence. He left her in Vanusi House, the location that seemed the source of her grief when the year began. She seemed to have made friends with some of the S’nue students, barring Evic, but Cwen has since notified him of her absence at choir rehearsal. Not since Fanger’s birth has Reddic ever known true loneliness, but suspects no child can acclimate to that state of being for long without going mad. He wants nothing of the sort to happen to Nuria.
Just like Kirby hopes for Rum. His voice, ringing all tones of nonnegotiable, comes roaring back.
Whatever you need to get him in your class, just say the word.
Reddic replays the entire conversation before he knows it.
You think too straightforward, Kirby. Trapping flies with honey is better than using a flyswatter. I will keep your son safe, and all I need is permission to access the hills.
Consider my end delivered. Make the deals you need to make now.
Reddic made and executed his deals swiftly, which forced him to corral Lulu for the road trip. She tried her best to convince him to take her to Four Hearts, but their connection cannot be exposed. He told her should the day come that she can fully transform that the skies above the campus are free rein. He smiles, recalling her jovial response to his challenge.
Fanger yowls like he’s saying, “Psst.”
Reddic raises his head to see another Four Hearts jeep pass by, headed toward the campus. Despite the warm glow bouncing off the windows, he identifies the driver and passengers as Tameri, and Rum and Pan respectively. When the orange and pink sky gets his attention, he’s unsure if he was remembering his talk with Kirby or dreaming it.
Fanger yowls once more.
“Yeah, yeah, I’m ready, too.”
The leopard pounces the earth silently, even as his camouflaged paws pancake the grass. Reddic’s dark dress shoes add two indents, his shadow distorted in the refraction of Fanger’s haunches. Together, the two of them abandon the natural concealment of the heart trees, gazing at the setting sun fondly. They turn to one another and exchange charged looks, aware that the other just replayed the same memory.
“If all goes as well, that memory can be ours again. And it will be ours again.”
Fanger’s yowl starts supportive, turning on its head and becoming scolding a second later.
“Right. You’re right. Not just ours,” Reddic amends. He opens the jeep door before facing Fanger. “Meet me at the fence shed. I’ll corral Nuria and let you in after it gets dark.”
Fanger nods and races across the street, entirely invisible before dashing through the grass on the other side.
Reddic’s sole leg of the journey feels like it takes a year. Without Fanger and the sun too low for him to see past the canopy, and his uncertainty about Nuria’s mental state, his mind anticipates every negative scenario. While accustomed to handling numerous variables, expected or not, he takes nothing for granted in regards to those three relationships. His nails lengthen as he grips the steering wheel tighter and tighter.
Explaining the sun aspect to her alone will be a great challenge. The sun seeds…
Reddic terminates that harrowing train of thought as the school’s onyx gate comes into view. He narrows his eyes as a shadowy speck approaches from the sky. As the shadow nears, the silhouette of a person takes shape before a golden light. A fiery one.
Reddic stops the jeep immediately.
A sienna braid whips like an angry viper, crimson feather blaze in the warm light, and a pair of gilded eyes obliterate the silhouette as the figure crosses the onyx gate. The young lady absorbs her wings into her back and curls into a ball. She somersaults in midair, golden flames dancing in her wake. She lands in a crouch before the jeep. The golden flames lower around her in orbit, fizzling out quietly.
Reddic disembarks the jeep and meets Nuria’s bright and proud expression with his own. A moment later, the phoenix crosses her arms, puffs out her cheeks, and turns her head.
“What took you so long, geez? Any longer and I would’ve mastered Manifestation without you!”
His silence forces her to turn back, but Reddic has yet to move past his bright and proud mood.
Did she really tap into both Primal Sense and Mother’s Source in the short time I was away?
The man-leopard gives Nuria an inspecting once over. His one yellow eye and one white eye dart from the ribbon in her hair to her bare feet and back again, witnessing her gilded eyes regain their wintry color.
“So, how do you like my welcome back surprise- good or bad?” Nuria asks.
Reddic flashes her his trademark jocund grin. “The best.” Nuria turns to hide her smile but fails. Reddic crosses to her. “Now, tell me how this came to be. Don’t spare any detail.”
For a brief instant, he senses her hesitation. When she starts speaking in a rush of excited words, Reddic knows she’ll exclude some details. And he’s fine with that. He has truths unknown to her, as well. One day, they’ll break down those truths, but today, he has his ears focused on what she reports, finding every detail more charming than the last.
Two of the nine screens, organized in Numpad notation (4 and 6), display articles defaming the name of Four Hearts Academy and strengthening the threat of The Pure. The article on the left is titled “Zero Hearts Academy: No Incoming Freshmen”. The article on the right is called “Jupiter Mall Bombing: Just The Beginning”. Screens 1-3 and 7-9 are video feeds of several dark rooms with projectors showing a small, vacant stage. In the center of the nine screens, screen 5 shows the same image of the vacant stage. A pair of cables connect the middle screen to a camera atop a movable tripod.
A full head of red hair strained into a ponytail dangles over a sleeveless violet shirt. Liamria crosses her arms, taps her fingers against the cast on her right arm, observing that the number of guests is fewer than expected. “This is such bullshit.”
“And whose fault is that?”
Liamria fights a shiver, still unable to detect Victa when he endeavors to sneak up on her. She whirls swiftly, leering defiantly, hoping to get one word in before–
Victa manacles her throat and lifts her with a third arm, his original two crossed. The third arm is connected to his right at his shoulder. His emerald eyes clash with Liamria’s sapphire eyes fiercely, a hot blaze of lethality burning within.
“Who the hell told you to attack Jupiter Mall early?” he whispers menacingly. He tightens his vice grip as he berates Liamria. “Our plan was to bomb the mall the same morning we attacked the school. Remotely. None of our operatives should’ve been present. I’m not going to hurt you further because none of them were positively identified, thus making their recruitment moot. Unfortunately, your rash attack has given half our expected audience cold feet.”
Victa drops Liamria. His two right arms fuse into one, both vibrating intensely until they reach a singular wavelength. Liamria stays on her feet and glares defiantly, even though she hurts for breath. Victa ignores her ire and continues. “You will not join me on stage as intended. Your wounds will annihilate any remaining interest we’ve gathered.”
“All the more reason to kill that phoenix bitch now! As you warned, Reddic’s tutelage is problematic. She can’t defeat me, but she’s capable of hurting me, and that chafes! In another few months, there’s no telling how strong the little cunt will become.”
“A moot concern. Reddic and Stark have resurfaced. She’s no longer the premier threat. We’ll have to watch their moves closely while we prepare.”
“And the brat? He’s cooperating?”
Victa cuts her a sharp look. “More than you have.”
“Tell me that when he beats the phoenix bitch,” she counters.
“Just man the camera.”
Victa shelves his foul mood for later. He sees the vengeance boiling up in Liamria’s gaze, and expects his night to be a long one. She tolerates men quite poorly, and not even he is immune to her wrath. For the moment, however, he addresses his crowd as he takes the stage, now appearing on every screen but 4 and 6.
“Thank you all for coming. By now, you’ve surely heard of our attack on Jupiter Mall. The destruction we sowed has melted the backbone of many we expected here tonight. However, I’m fine with that. Those in our viewing audience have just told me they have the discipline and courage to sow that same destruction for our now unified mission. As of this moment, our shared mission is–”
“–shared mission is to bring back the old blood to supremacy! The new blood- the Bigene mutation- is our duty to bring to extinction! I have a plan that will act as our rally into action! The world at large will no longer ignore The Pure! We will bring the world to share our vision!”
Victa continues his haughty speech, this time live on a laptop screen. A pair of earphones transmits it all into the mind of Evic, who listens reverently, mouthing the words alongside Victa, wisps of smoke wafting around his shoulders.