Despite the cloudy sky promising a downpour any minute, Reddic’s gaze is drawn to the sunlight shining on the horizon in the distance. He relishes the joy that swells in his heart, a face coming into focus in his mind. The shadows from the clouds overhead keep it from forming completely, but enough of the image shapes that he sees a smile aimed at him. The dream that fuels his smile, and the one of his imagined compatriot, is within reach.
The highway travel has been peaceful since they departed Springspell at first light. Reddic’s kept his eyes peeled for any black trucks or tails of any kind. Nothing triggers his alarms in five hours of checking, so he concludes that at the least Liamria has lost their scent or lost interest.
A shame. I had plans for her.
Reddic looks at Nuria through the rearview mirror, the young phoenix enjoying her new music player- courtesy of Gordon- eyes closed, head swaying rhythmically.
Time to focus on my plans for her now.
Reddic shifts his attention to the trailer connected to the jeep. His tools for her training are stored inside, ready to help her improve every skill at her disposal, as well as to give her some new ones.
Reddic scans the road around them one more time before checking on Rum and Shuri. The latter nurses his shoulder wound, a splint in place to ease the stress. The splint is signed by Gordon, Gates, and Gevie. However, it doesn’t stop the young man from snapping and inspecting photos one-handed. Reddic imagines the photos will be pristine, given how steady and fluid Shuri’s motions are, despite the rocking of the jeep along the dirt roads they transition to from the highway. The former is absorbed, mind and soul, by his collection of HPAA (Horse Power Auto Association) magazines, also courtesy of Gordon. Reddic previously worried that Rum’s hawk-eyed attention toward Stark was because he inherited Tameri’s distrust of Stark like Nuria had, but now he knows he’s just eager to drive.
Finally, Reddic checks on the passenger seat, most curious to see how Stark is absorbing the abbreviated tale he told her this morning prior to their departure. Her eyes still dart back and forth as she nibbles on her fingernails. Reddic grins as he wonders what she’s trying to work out now: the timeline or just simply how.
Stark settled her right arm into a sling as Reddic stood and watched quietly. The moment the club physician finished his treatment of Stark, she asked immediately, “How’d your interrogations go?”
“Interrogation. Singular. It would not have helped to put me in the same room as Tamara. The one with Darla went as expected,” Reddic said. “But I’m sure that’s not the burning question…s that are on your mind.”
Stark attempted to keep a serious expression but Reddic’s undying smirk made her adopt one of her own. “Might as well start with a big one, then. What is your connection to Kirby? What’s his interest in Rum?”
“He’s my best friend. And what father wouldn’t have an interest in their child’s life?” Reddic said plainly, watching Stark flinch from surprise.
“Wait…is that true? How…I mean…how?”
“Are you asking how babies are made? Well–”
Stark cut him a silencing glare. “Okay, so he’s Rum’s dad. Who’s his mom? Auriel? I’ve spoken with her and she has that soldier tone, so it’s not crazy to think that they–”
Reddic laughed, his grin ear to ear. “I would’ve love to see her reaction to you saying that one day. But no, while Aurum and Auriel are related by blood, it’s not as mother-son, but rather as aunt-nephew. Kirby entered the family by marrying Auriel’s older sister.”
Stark tensed. “Does this older sister also happen to have a name that starts with “Au”?”
“Ah, so you did have an idea before.”
“Only a suspicion. Neth and I couldn’t imagine how Auriel was able to donate that amount of money. Neth is still hesitant to allocate those funds anywhere.”
Reddic shrugged. “I’m sure he’ll use it wisely.”
“So…Rum’s name is true. He really is heir to the world’s richest organization.”
“Well,” Reddic hedged, “not exactly.”
“How do you mean?”
“Like most corporations who produce metallic currency, such as Sallow Co., the Aurivellor Group is elitist, purist, egotistic, etc. Only someone with pure Aurivellor blood can be an heir. Both Auriel and Rum forfeited their right to inherit at birth. Right now, the fortune is controlled by Rum’s grandparents. His mother qualifies as an heir, but can only collect if she takes over the company. Rum’s uncle…” Reddic paused, working to keep his fangs from distending. “He’s disqualified and has chosen to cause his family trouble.”
Stark shook away her speechlessness and said, “Okay, let’s return to that topic later. My next question- you told Kirby that Manifestation was the ultimate Ibri power. I don’t need to know how, but is Nuria truly capable of achieving a power like that in just two weeks? What’s the purpose of the…technique, I suppose is the right word?”
“An apt choice, yes. I’ll explain it more in detail when we reach the camp. Also, are you sure you don’t wanna tell Neth about the attack?”
Stark nodded. “If we do, he’ll hunt us down to make sure we return. Nuria and I have only just made up. If I bring this trip to a halt…”
“She’ll freeze you out again.”
“Not to mention Shuri could also use some time away from Neth. That relationship is tilting on a cliff. And since we’re still on the topic of family, I just have to know- who are Nuria’s parents? Do you know?”
“I will say that if everything goes according to plan, Nuria will meet her mother by the time our trip is over.”
“I see,” Stark replied, clearly dissatisfied.
“But,” Reddic announced grandly, “if you want, I can tell you Nuria’s mother’s name.”
Stark inhaled sharply, suddenly more alert than before. Her eyes widened as the identity was revealed.
The officer’s eyes widen and her pupils constrict as the sunlight strikes her. She blinks and stares up at the sun, now mesmerized by the glow.
“You know, staring at the sun too long is how you go blind,” Reddic teases.
“Sorry,” Stark mumbles softly.
Reddic shrugs but he’s glad he told Stark the truth. At the least, he’s able to gauge her reaction to help him predict how Nuria will take the news. At most, he sees that Stark won’t discuss the secret with anyone until she wraps her mind around it, which he respects and appreciates. He leaves her to it as the drive continues, the section of dirt road slick with puddles now far behind them. The jeep ascends higher into a forested mountain range, the dirt road flanked by heart trees. It takes longer than anticipated but finally comes the complaint he’s been waiting for.
“Hey, I just lost the radio signal,” Nuria announces, draping the earbuds around her neck.
Reddic parks the jeep and trailer in a clearing, a circle of dry earth surrounded by lush trees. He turns and faces the curious children. “We’ve reached our destination. Phone signals will only get worse from here, so if there’s anyone you wish to call or text, do it now.”
“Only this once?” Rum asks.
Reddic exits the jeep and calls Stark to his side as Nuria and the boys line up. “No. Every morning we’re here, if you wish to, ask one of the three of us to escort you back to this spot so you may make another call or text.”
Rum jumps on the stand-out detail just as Stark looks to the skies with anticipation. “Three?”
“Yes. There’s one goal for this trip. I’m going to show you what that is now.”
Without warning, Reddic demonstrates the depths of his light powers by creating a powerful blazing aura around himself, dust from the dry earth blowing out away from him. He keeps a smile on his face to keep from unnerving Rum or Shuri, and the two boys remain relatively calm. At least until his eyes resemble those of a true leopard. The blazing aura detaches from his person and floats between him and the students. The light expands into the shape of a large beast. The intense breeze dies as the blazing aura dissipates, revealing a spotted leopard from the end of his tail to the tips of sharp fangs as the leopard yowls.
Reddic turns to the boys after catching his breath, expecting them to be in awe of the wild animal. However, both Rum and Shuri shiver uncontrollably, locked in place on shaky legs.
I saw the footage of the way they fought Darla. Did not expect them to be scared of Fanger. Then again, so was Nuria, and clearly, none of the other students are as fearless as she. Oh well, maybe they’ll overcome the fear like she did.
“What I just performed for you all is a technique called Manifestation. It is the ability for an Ibri to properly fuse their two individual talents into one physical embodiment. My two powers are the ability to manipulate light,” he makes his legs invisible like Fanger’s, “and to transform parts of my physiology to mirror those of a leopard.” A spotted tail swings out from behind Reddic’s back. “Fanger here is what I’m able to bring forth with that power. If Stark or I are unable to bring you here in the morning, Fanger will be your escort.”
Rum and Shuri stop shivering slowly but choose to keep their distance from Fanger.
Rum eyes the beast warily. “I’ll just send all the ones I need to send now.”
“Ditto,” Shuri says, though he neglects to pull his phone out.
“Nuria?” Reddic asks.
“No need. I said my pieces to who I needed to before we left. I’m here for one thing and one thing only. To master Manifestation!” Nuria looks up into the forested mountain range looming before her, the peaks and valleys stretching as far as the eye can see. “By the way, where is here?”
“I was wondering when one of you would get to that question. When we stopped in Springspell- apologies for the extra day there, by the way- I wanted the three of you to get a taste of a specific culture. Did any of you learn what that culture was?”
“The Church of Drijad,” Shuri says.
“That’s right. Drijad is a champion for Ibri, often declared by his followers as an Ibri himself. Some, myself included, believe he was the first Ibri ever born.”
“You’re a member of the church?” Shuri asks.
“Oh, yes.” Reddic unbuttons his double-breasted brown vest and reveals the Drijad charm fastened to it on the inside. “I didn’t choose this location for no reason. In fact, I chose it for two. One, phoenixes like Nuria grow more easily at higher altitudes. Two, these mountains are dubbed the Drijadi Hills, a 2,000 square mile landmark that is owned equally by all four nations, similar to Four Hearts Academy. Also, another of Drijad’s legends says that he single-handedly carved these mountains into existence.”
Reddic waits a few moments to allow his party to absorb the majesty of the Drijadi Hills. The air is fresh and full, despite the altitude they’re at. The nature around them seems muted, though there are birds flying overhead and deer tracks throughout the entire dry circle. Not one cloud hangs over the hills, an azure sky sea surrounding the island of the sun.
“Concluding the first semester of Ibri class at the location of such a renowned and powerful Ibri being was always my plan.” Reddic faces the children. “I want to use this time to mold the next generation to become Avinia’s next legends. Are you three up to it?”
While Rum hesitates. Nuria and Shuri step forward brazenly. “Hell, yeah!” they both declare.