1.5: Nuria’s Challenge

Nuria keeps one hand on her towel and the other at her waist. As she takes a step away from the bath she holds the icy woman’s gaze, not wanting to draw attention to her feet or the steam. Even now, she draws power into her feet, but the icy floor slows her progress. Eventually, the extra steam will trigger the icy woman into attacking.

     Hopefully, I can stall her until I have some power saved up.

     “So, Liamria sent you after me again? You’d think that you and she would’ve given up on reversing this losing streak by now?”

     The icy woman’s posture doesn’t change, though her tone chills. “You were carried away during our last confrontation. Liamria was injected with paralyzing venom. Her best tactical move at that point was retreat.”

     “The alternative being that she faces the truth. I beat her on my own last year, too. Did she mention that? Probably not. I suspect women like you and her have trouble admitting weakness.”

     Nuria steps forward to hide the growing steam behind her, then blinks when the icy woman takes a step back.

     She’s nervous. Okay, I can work with that.

     “Where is the witch, anyway?” Nuria asks, positioning herself perpendicular to the door.

     “Liamria has her own target. As does my partner.”

     Rum and Shuri. Stark…

     “We plan to group you all together once you’ve been captured. We’ll–”

     Nuria feigns a jump forward and forces the icy woman to stumble. Nuria slips on the ice and uses it in combination with her mezzo flames to gain enough momentum to crash through the door. She shields her head with her arms. She rises and races away, trying to draw in more heat along the way, but it proves more difficult while in motion.

     If I can make it to the terrace, I can kick her butt. I just need the sun!

     A crackling sound alarms the phoenix. She whirls and watches a trail of ice chasing her. She slips and falls on her butt as the trail passes her, then the ice rises to connect to the ceiling, barring her escape.

     Damn it!

     “Where’d all that bravado go?” the icy woman asks. She expels another wave of cold air that burns Nuria’s muscles from the inside out, her open pores defenseless after her soak in the hot tub. The phoenix’s shivering makes the icy woman smile. “Or is running all you can do?”

     Nuria rushes and absorbs a lot of heat at once, but her haphazard control leads to her body igniting in random areas; two of the ignited areas burn the towel and only one shin is set ablaze. Nuria dashes forward and kicks at the icy woman with her blazing shin. A blast of cold air extinguishes the flame and sears Nuria’s muscle, but she keeps the kick on target and smacks the icy woman’s left temple, sending her to the floor.

     Nuria rises above the desire to taunt the icy woman and turns to shatter the wall of ice. She pauses briefly in response to her inflamed muscles, then breaks the wall with two fiery punches. She throws her burning towel to the floor and extinguishes it before grabbing a fresh one and marching on.

     I’m coming, guys!

     Nuria finds the exit to the spa’s foyer when the coldest thing she’s ever felt clamps down on her shoulder like a pair of pliers. When the pliers are yanked free, she feels her skin tear in a few places and screams. The phoenix is spun and around and then struck across her face with a gelid fist, skin from the bridge of her nose scraped away in the process.

     Nuria feebly opens the door and wobbles into the foyer. The other guests gasp and scream when they see her.

     “You all need…to run away. The Pure…is–”

     A heel kicks down on the inside of Nuria’s leg and she sinks to her knees, then gets kicked across the floor. She lands in the section of emerald carpet high-lighted by the sunlight pouring in through the windows. Nuria feigns weakness as some of the guests flee as instructed, leaving only her, the icy woman, Gevie, and another attendant. Nuria plans to stop the icy woman from hurting anyone else, absorbing a small amount of solar heat into her right arm. She just needs one thing first.

     “The last time I fought an assassin Liamria sent after me, I made two mistakes. Let me correct one now- what’s your name?”

     “Why?”

     “I didn’t learn the last one’s name until after I killed her. If this fight is gonna stick with me, too, then I’d like a name to attach to the memory,” Nuria explains.

     “Don’t you worry! There’s no way you’re killing me!” the woman taunts as she charges, forging icy talons along her fingers. “There’s a special place in hell for cocky Bigene mongrels like you!”

     Nuria snaps her fingers to generate a small ember. She feeds the solar heat to it and watches the gilded flame overtake her entire fist. She uses her left arm to divert the icy woman’s attack, then slams her blazing fist into her side. The force of the blow and flames propel the icy woman into the wall so hard that she crashes straight through it and splashes into the communal bath. She hollers as the steaming water burns her already seared flesh. Nuria stomps down in front of her as she escapes the bath, her damp collar bent over to reveal her white heart tattoo- the insignia of The Pure.

     “I asked for your name,” Nuria repeats, both of her hands ablaze with golden flames now. “Last chance.”

     The woman nurses her burn wound while grinding her teeth but eventually relents. “It’s…Tamara.”

     “Thank you.” Nuria raises her golden fists and witnesses Tamara shut her eyes in a moment of solemn acceptance. However, instead of wiping the assassin from this world, Nuria shakes the flames from her hands before lifting Tamara onto her shoulder.

     “I thought you were going to kill me…”

     Nuria dumps Tamara into one of the chairs in the foyer. “I told you I made two mistakes, remember. Killing that last assassin was the second. I’m not making it again, even if you deserve it.” She turns to Gevie. “You’ve called the cops, right?”

     “Yes, Mistress Nuria.”

     “Tell them there’s another here and another out in the city. I’m going–”

     A muted crash gets everyone’s attention. Nuria watches as a dining table splashes into the everglade below.

     “Get them here ASAP!” Nuria orders. She leaps to the shelf and snatches her basket down. She grabs her shirt and pants and discards the rest. She jumps into the air and slides her legs into her pants on the way down. She puts her shirt on over the towel, dropping it as she rounds the next corner.

     Rum, Shuri, Stark! Stay alive!

-FHA-

     “My sister won’t be as easy to capture as you think,” Rum whispers sharply, annoyed at the officer behind him, steak knife inches from his spine. Even so, the mosaic in his mind retains its beautiful mix of colors as he remains calm.

     “A smart-ass kid like her is easy prey,” the officer retorts. “Case in point. Pick up the pace.” She lightly jabs Rum’s flesh with the knife, marching him and Shuri along the top level of the dining hall.

     Rum adheres to her orders after Shuri does, hoping to stall as long as possible to think of a plan. So far, none of the other attendees have noticed the kidnapping in progress, but he finds that advantageous. A panic might incite the fake officer to run his body through.

     My sword’s MIA, and with all this metal around, my lightning wouldn’t fully stay under my control. If I can get a signal to Gordon, maybe he’d be able to help us.

     “Stop,” the fake cop commands.

     Shuri halts and stands ramrod straight, but Rum peers over his shoulder defiantly. The officer turns her attention to the tables on the other side of the dining hall. Still gripping the steak knife, she extends her other hand outward and an unseen force shoots a table through one of the windows. A crowd swiftly gathers around it. Rum grimaces when he notices Gordon leave his post to investigate.

     Damn it! Time to be a little stupid, I guess.

     “That’s good. Now, let’s–”

     Rum whirls and grabs the officer’s wrist, squeezes and twists, then steals the steak knife. “Try something now.” He pushes Shuri back, guiding their retreat to the exit.

     “Still a fool.”

     The lady officer aims her hands at Rum and Shuri. Rum curses when the steak knife presses against his chest and again when he’s pushed away while Shuri is drawn to her, the camera around his neck acting like a homing device. Rum slams through one of the tables. As he untangles from the tablecloth, he loses the steak knife. He looks forward and tenses up.

     The lady officer has Shuri against the floor, hand on his throat, already in possession of another steak knife poised to end his friend’s life.

     Not on my watch!

     Rum raises a hand and aims to use his Bond of the Blade on the knife. His goal is to draw it to him but he overshoots. A plate from the table behind the fake officer sails through the air and slams into her right temple. Shuri climbs out from under her in no time.

     “Shuri, let’s go!” Rum shouts. He waits until Shuri races up the stairs to follow him to the exit. Several plates crash and shatter against the steps ahead of them. Shortly after, the corrupt officer lands at the top, using her magnetic powers on the banisters to slowly descend.

     “You boys will not escape me. And once I’m done with you, that pesky archer’s next.”

     “What? Why are you so fixated on Pan and me?” Rum asks.

     “Because you Bigene mongrels made a fool of me at the train station last year! I lost my job because of that! Why? Because your kind breaks every rule and the world lets you get away with it! The world is wrong! I’ll correct it by removing you and her from the equation!”

     Shuri says, “Are you mad? That doesn’t–”

     Rum catapults himself upward, using the ends of the banisters as anchors, and slams against the fake officer shoulder-first. He propels them both up onto the landing between staircases. After they regain their footing, Rum rushes her down and forces her into hand-to-hand combat. He matches her police training with the moves his ex-soldier mother taught him.

     “That archer must mean a lot to you. The face she makes when I tell her of your death will put a thousand smiles on my face! Her death will fuel the next thousand!”

     Rum suffers from a sneak attack when the mosaic in his mind is overrun with red. Instead of dodging the former officer’s next punch, he takes it in the hopes of delivering his own. When he misses his mark, he finds himself in a headlock.

     “I love it when you Bigene mongrels stop pretending like you have a brain.”

     Rum panics and claws at her arms as he feels the pressure on his neck increase. It immediately lessens when a sudden whirlwind kicks up. He and the former officer witness the air pressure coming from Shuri, specifically his right arm blazing with white light. A vibrating sword takes shape, extending from his wrist. He grips his right wrist and hollers as he swings the white blade forward. The air pressure surges toward Rum and the former cop, striking with such force that it knocks them both over the landing and beyond the elephant statue.

     Rum takes too long to collect his wits and the former officer kicks him between his ribs. He holds his side as he rolls toward the statue. He wants badly to use his lightning but refuses to ruin the statue out of anger.

     Can’t make those mistakes again!

     Shuri lands beside him, using the white blade to cut off one of the statue’s tusks. He hollers once again as he uses the air pressure to launch the tusk at the woman. She holds her ground and uses her magnetic powers to harmlessly deflect the tusk behind her. The unnerved crowd behind her gasps collectively.

     Rum sees that Shuri’s right arm is shaking terribly. He cuts a hand in front of his classmate. “Take it easy. I’ll handle the rest.”

     “No,” Gordon says. He descends the steps at a calm pace, unbuttoning his navy suit jacket in the process, reaching the bottom by the time Shuri’s white blade dissipates. “Your fight has gone on long enough and done enough damage to our club.” He stands before Rum and Shuri with his arms folded behind his back. “I’ve been informed that an accomplice of yours has been detained at the spa. Surrender, please. The authorities are already en route.”

     “What?” the former cop asks, enraged.

     “It appears the child she attacked was victorious…at great cost to our establishment.”

     “That’s not possible.”

     Rum steps beside Gordon. “I told you my sister wouldn’t be easy to take down.” He turns to Gordon. “I apologize for my classmates. Their level of restraint is…lacking. I could’ve ended our fight much quicker if I’d just electrocuted her, but I didn’t wish to damage your property.” Rum demonstrates his power by running blue electricity between his fingers for a few seconds. “That’s right, Darla. I held back against you.”

     Darla glares lethally. “How do you know my name?”

     Rum holds up an open wallet. “That archer you hate so much taught me a couple of things she learned growing up. When you had me in that headlock, I liberated it from your back pocket. That way if you flee like the coward you are, you won’t make it far.”

     “My, my,” Gordon comments. “Quite impressive, Master Rum.” He accepts the proffered wallet. “Now, Ms. Darla, if you would, please stand down. I shall not ask again.”

     Rum shifts his gaze when a thick black fog rises the hands behind his back and billows out around his feet.

     Darla snarls and launches into a rant. “You mongrels and heretics deserve one another! Hide behind your legends and powers all you want, but your kind is a dying breed! Avinia will–”

     The severed tusk clangs against the back of Darla’s skull and knocks her to the ground. Her feet fall last and stay down. The horn rolls to her head and rests against it.

     “Sorry for using the tusk, but I’d heard enough from her,” Rum says.

     “Agreed,” Gordon replies, turning with Rum. “Master Shuri, are you unharmed?”

     “Not exactly,” he says roughly. He removes a hand from his right shoulder and it comes away bloody.

     “Shuri, what happened? Did she stab you?” Rum queries.

     “Rum! Shuri!” Nuria shouts.

     Rum swivels as she breaks through the crowd and he immediately zeroes in on the blood on her face and shoulder, the latter evident through the stains on her shirt. He welcomes her embrace but feels the red in his mind growing again, this time a shade darker.

     So much for looking out for them. They look like hell and I’m fine. I have to do a better job next time. No holding back!

-FHA-

     Even with a whole waiting room separating them, Nuria can feel Rum’s gaze glued to her through the wall. The whole way to the club apothecary, Rum scolded her and Shuri over how carelessly they used their powers. Gordon tried to ease their guilt, but he couldn’t bring himself to not mention the damages every other sentence. Gates himself didn’t verbally address the damage, but his frequent solemn glances toward the elephant statue told Nuria enough.

     I wonder why the statue means so much to him. He didn’t have on a Drijad charm necklace like the others.

     The club physician treats and bandages Nuria’s wounds before he excuses himself to attend to Shuri next. She replaces her bloody shirt with a souvenir t-shirt from the Springspell club, a picture of the building on the front, which was already outfitted with her exact avian dimensions without her request. Nuria tests them out anyway, her wings fitting through them coming out and going in. She makes certain her bandages are secure next. After, she bends over to recheck her shoelaces.

     Okay, enough stalling, Nuria. Rum’s gonna lecture me no matter how long I take. Just deal with it. You made new mistakes. Take the lesson to heart and don’t do it again.

     Nuria pulls the curtain aside and the wind is knocked out of her when a redheaded net ensnares her tightly. Nuria wiggles loose enough to headbutt her attacker. Without skipping a beat, the phoenix somersaults into the air to deliver an axe kick. A bare hand stops her.

     “Easy, Nuria. It’s not Liamria,” Reddic says, keeping the phoenix from falling.

     Nuria turns to her victim and winces. Stark wipes fresh blood from the new cut on her forehead, creating a smear to match the ones on her cheeks. Unlike Nuria’s wounds, Stark’s have yet to be treated.

     “By Drijad, Stark, are you okay? Did your mother do this to you? Is she still here?” Nuria’s pupils expand as her eyes lose their wintry hue in favor of a bronze one. “Tell me she’s still here!”

     “Don’t worry about her. She’s gone.” Stark chooses to ignore the headbutt. “How are you?”

     “Fit as a fiddle. After I took down that Tamara lady, the doc here took care of me.”

     “That’s not what I mean, Nuria. The last time you were targeted, I took you to a counselor to sort through what you felt and experienced. Do you remember what you asked me then?”

     Nuria doesn’t even have to take a second to recall. “I didn’t want to talk to a stranger. I wanted to talk to you.”

     Stark gets on her knees and gingerly grabs Nuria’s shoulders. “This time, you weren’t just a target by chance. You were her intended target. Whatever that makes you feel, I’m still the one you can talk to.”

     Nuria feels tears sting the back of her eyes. “But…” She turns to Reddic, flinching when Fanger pads into view from the shadows, becoming visible from his shoulders and hips up. “Fanger, what are you- get out of here!”

     “She knows, Nuria,” Reddic says, grinning widely. “She’s still one of us.”

     “Still?”

     “Whether or not she knew about Fanger or our lesson plans didn’t matter. It shouldn’t have bothered you so, Nuria, but that’s my fault. I hadn’t realized our relationship was hurting the one you and Stark shared until yesterday in Neth’s office. One of my goals for this stop was to correct the situation. I knew Stark would follow me and I intended to bring her into the fold. She and I are on better terms, and my hope is that now you two will be also.”

     Nuria looks between the two of them several times, then sighs. She asks Reddic, “You sure it’s okay to not know everything?” She shoots a suggestive look in Stark’s direction.

     Reddic chuckles heartily. “Message received. I’ll grab the boys and take them to our upgraded penthouse suite. All five rooms in one massive space. Here’s your key. Take all the time you need.”

     Stark takes the card. “What about the le- Fanger?”

     “Oh, he loves the everglade. No other apex predators to compete with for food.”

     Fanger yowls quietly before turning completely invisible.

     Stark shakes her head. “That’ll take some–”

     Nuria hits Stark with an ensnare of her own, burying her face in Stark’s shoulder.

     “–getting used to.”

     “I’m sorry,” Nuria says between sobs.

     “You don’t have anything to apologize for.”

     “Yes, I do,” Nuria whines. “I treated you like everyone else did last year. I shut you out for no reason. Even Reddic told me to let it go, but I…” Nuria inhales sharply and pulls her head back. “The night you came back, I should’ve told you I saw your mother. You would’ve been more prepared to face her. I’m the reason she hurt you.”

     Stark mimics Reddic’s jocund grin. “Never think that for a second, Nuria. Until last year, I was too afraid to face my past, my mother included. It’s the reason I wasn’t in the Freshman Derby arena until after the attack started. I could never go out in the rain out of fear my mother was nearby. That day, I didn’t hesitate a second to race through the rain. Why? Because a young lady with no fear of the world, that sees enjoyment in everything she does, pours her heart and soul into improving herself, who slipped into my heart before I knew it and has a head as hard as a rock was in danger. And that was before you came to my aid during the trial. I will always look after you. My former conflict with Reddic won’t be the last time it angers you, but know it’s all from a place of love.”

     Nuria stops fighting the tears. “I love you, too.”

     They ensnare one another once more.

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