Nuria closes her connection to the outside world. To her senses, she’s seated in a tinted glass box, the walls changing colors as music plays. Vibrant shades of blues, yellows, and oranges dance over the walls, each color more dominant dependent on the artist. Orange is for the party songs that the band Entro sings. Yellow is for the jazzy songs that Juggar creates. The phoenix reserves blue- her household favorite color- for everything The Four Feathermen produce or that features their lead singer Calil. She feels lost a moment when her vibrant haven fades.
“Hey, I just lost the radio signal,” Nuria says. She sighs as she drapes the earbuds around her shoulders. She wiggles her nose, still fitfully adjusting to the bandage, then takes a second to realize the highway they were on is no longer within sight.
Reddic says, “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.”
Rum snaps his head away from his HPAA magazine. “Only this once?”
Nuria exits the jeep a second after Reddic, curious about the grin on his face. It’s the same one he had when he first escorted her to Ibri House.
“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 send another few texts.”
While Rum asks about the number, Nuria knows what it means and clenches her fists excitedly.
“Yes. There’s one goal for this trip. I’m going to show you what that is now.”
When Reddic’s person blazes with white light and the air pressure scatters the dust away from him, Nuria knows she’s right. Still, it’s only her second time witnessing the technique in action, so she’s as mesmerized as Rum and Shuri are. When Fanger emerges, the biggest smile forms on Nuria’s face. At least until the scratching of pants gets her attention, then she sees that both young men are terrified of Fanger.
Nuria winces at her own cowardice as she thinks, I’ve been there.
“What I just performed for you all is a technique called Manifestation. It is the ability for an Ibri to properly fuse their individual talents into one physical embodiment. My two powers are to manipulate light and transform parts of my physiology to mirror those of a leopard.” He demonstrates by mirroring Fanger’s invisible legs and sprouting a matching spotted tail. “Fanger here is what I’m able to bring forth with my power. If Stark or I are unable to bring you here in the morning, Fanger will be your escort.”
The two stop shivering but look no more comfortable than before.
“I’ll just send all the ones I need to now,” Rum says.
“Ditto,” Shuri says, but reaches for his camera instead of his phone.
“Nuria?” Reddic queries.
She shrugs. “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!” That’s when Nuria finally registers the environment around her, looking at the forested mountain peaks that stretch for miles. She’s suddenly struck by a strange but soothing energy that seems to tug at her spirit. She fails to comprehend the source but determines it to be benevolent and dismisses it swiftly. “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 answers.
“That’s right. Drijad is a champion for Ibri, often declared by his followers as an Ibri himself. Some Avinians, 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 vest, turning one side to reveal the Drijad charm fastened to it. Nuria eyes the charm curiously.
Gates didn’t have a necklace, so maybe his was also fastened inside his jacket?
“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.”
That must be why I feel that energy!
“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.”
Nuria looks up the peaks around them, now welcoming the energy to wash over and through her. She didn’t feel anything like this when she tapped into the sun. She can’t be sure of the legends, but it’s obvious to her this place is indeed special.
“Concluding the first semester of Ibri class at the location made renowned by such a powerful Ibri being was always my plan.” Reddic turns to Nuria and the boys. “I want to use this time to mold the next generation to become Avinia’s next legends. Are you three up to it?”
Nuria’s proud when at least Shuri steps forward with her. “Hell, yeah!” they declare simultaneously.
“Excellent.” Reddic directs Stark to a dirt trail going up into the mountain. “The trail there will take you another third of a mile up the mountain. You’ll find a two-story cabin on a level section. A lake at the base of the northern hill and a slope hosting a thicket of heart trees to the south is how you’ll know you’ve made it. Take the kids there and get settled, and we’ll meet you as soon as we can.”
“What are you gonna be doing?” Nuria asks.
Reddic smirks, crosses his arms, and leans against the trailer connected to the jeep. “I have to get your exercises ready. We start at 6 A.M. tomorrow.”
“Okay!” Nuria cheers.
“What about Shuri and I?” Rum asks as he pockets his phone. “What do you have for us to do?”
Reddic keeps his casual pose as he replies. “I’d hoped to have you all settled before I explained this part, but so be it. The five core Sulublei powers: fire, water, earth, wi9nd, and lightning may seem daunting to learn at first, but I have a little-known system that should help you and Shuri improve. And in the latter’s case, it may very well lead you to master your own Manifestation.”
Shuri blinks. “What?”
“I watched the footage of the attack and that wrist blade you formed is precisely what Manifestation is. However, my little trick should help you learn how to fully detach and wield that wrist blade properly.” He faces Rum next. “And it’ll help you realize that the lightning you produce isn’t drawn to metal.”
“But it’s broken swords apart before.”
“Your lightning, the blue lightning, rejects metal. Flesh and blood are the sources. Only because of your Bond of the Blade does your buster sword never break.”
But he didn’t bond with it…
Nuria turns to Rum and sees that same problem has occurred to him as well.
“Anyway, here’s the hint. Each of the core Sulublei powers can be mastered by applying knowledge of basic types of energy. Earth-based powers rely on potential energy, as do water-based powers. Wind-based powers are tied to kinetic energy. Vibration and rotation are key to how to direct that kinetic energy. For most lightning-based powers, electrical energy is a no-brainer. For you, Aurum, it is bioelectrical. The power comes from within you.”
Rum narrows his eyes and thinks a moment. “Is that why it always came back every 24 hours before?”
“Yes. Think of your body like a self-charging battery. While we’re here, learn to identify the sources of lightning in your body and practice using them. The more you do, the greater the capacity for those sources becomes and the more lightning you’ll be able to use.”
“You’ve met other people who use blue lightning?” Rum asks solemnly.
“Blue, yellow, etc. I’ve met so many people and seen so many powers, some of which you couldn’t even imagine they were so bizarre. But I have to get Nuria’s exercises ready before I share those stories. Fanger, let’s mo–”
“Wait,” Rum calls out and points to his sister, “what about fire?”
Reddic smirks. “Enlighten him, Nuria.”
“Heat energy. I can either create heat through friction or take in heat from the air. I’ve learned that absorbing heat from the sun is how to use my golden flames. It’s a fireball for feathers. Feathers, phoenix, golden flames are a phoenix power…you get it.”
“Uh-huh,” Rum says dryly.
“Okay guys, save the rest of your questions. We have a cabin to find,” Stark orders.
“Oh, one last thing,” Reddic announces. “The cabin is open, save for the basement and one room on the second floor. You’ll know which one by two carve marks over the doorknob. Okay, that’s it.”
Nuria sits tight while Reddic and Fanger disconnect the trailer and haul it into the woods. She curbs her desire to follow them only due to his promise to return tonight. Too much of their semester has been spent apart and she looks forward to studying directly under Reddic again. After turning away, she keeps from reversing direction by chasing after Stark and the others, and by the soothing energy’s effect on her. The high she climbs, the more potent the soothing, as well as its pull on her. Once she starts running, she finds it impossible to stop until finding the cabin Reddic mentioned. She ignores the cabin, lake, and heart trees, dropping her suitcase before launching into the sky.
She labors to breathe at first in the thin air, still not entirely used to the change. However, even as high up as she is, the lower clouds at eye level, the magnetic soothing energy doesn’t wane.
Okay, this energy must have something to do with phoenix growth. Now I just have to figure out how to use it. Can it be used?
The phoenix reluctantly lands in the yard before the cabin, her suitcase nowhere to be seen. She folds her wings but keeps them out as she steps through the front door. The inside is instantly familiar, the silver and peach furniture the spitting image of what’s at Ibri House. The same model of fireplace is in the center of the living room wall. There are three open bedroom doors on the first floor, a fourth one shut in the right corner. On the left is a staircase that leads to the second floor, a railing along the walkway connecting two other rooms.
Rum hands Nuria her suitcase. “You can pick first.”
Nuria flies up and lands on the walkway. The door nearest the staircase has the carvings Reddic brought up. Nuria absorbs her wings and moves to the door on the right. “Thanks, bro.”
Like the rest of the cabin, her bedroom is a perfect reflection of the Ibri House dorms. She dumps her clothes over her peach comforter and reaches for a tattered shirt. She holds it up proudly, fondly remembering her first day at Four Hearts Academy. She never expected her journey to go where it’s gone, but she wouldn’t have it any other way. She lies on her bed, sticks her earbuds in, and lets her tinted glass box with light-up walls ferry her to sleep.
“Ah, so that’s why you wear that shirt,” Reddic says, holding the cabin door open.
“Yep,” Nuria replies, following her mentor to the heart tree hill. Fanger slumbers peacefully near the top. “Cool, right?”
“So, Reddic, what’s our first exercise?”
“You might wanna ration that eagerness. Each day from here on out is going to be intense.”
“We’re going to have full twelve-hour training sessions every day. Six hours before lunch and another six between then and dinner. To even attempt Manifestation, your morpu must be a high enough level. The next six days of training, our mission is to get you to that level.”
Nuria nods. “I gotcha.”
“Our first task is to improve your grasp of Primal Sense while in motion. Stop right there and look at the tree four to your right.”
Not so hidden between blades of grass is a bunny so still that Nuria takes a second to recognize that it’s dead.
“I don’t have to eat that, do I?”
“Even if it can’t infect you with virecia, it’s still very toxic to consume, so no. You will have to chase it, though.”
“But it’s dead.”
Reddic waves a remote in her face. “It’s attached to a motorized trolley. Last night, I rigged four of these together in a sort of taxidermy train line. The objective is to chase the bunny and other animals through the trees using only your Vanusi powers. Just your eyes and wings. You earn points from this exercise each time you touch one of the stuffed animals before the end of its track. Once you’ve chased all four, we’ll reset the tracks and start again. After two hours of this, we’ll move on to the next task.”
Nuria turns to the bunny, eyes glued on the ears sticking straight up.
Since it’s stuffed, the ears should stay up. I’ll track it using those.
“Let me know when you’re ready. We’ll start on the count of three.”
Nuria smiles cockily. “I’m ready!”
“Three!” Reddic announces.
“Hey, that’s my trick,” the phoenix clarifies.
“The rabbit’s getting away.”
“Oh, sh- okay!”
Nuria summons her wings as she breaks into a run. She leaps into the air and clumsily initiates flight, following the back of the cable twisting and weaving around trees. By the time she catches the rabbit, it’s already at the end of the track. She squats and pouts as faces Reddic.
“No time for that, Nuria. Second tree on your left. Go!”
Nuria stumbles into flight once more. Her target this time is a black squirrel with a very fluffy tail she uses to keep sight of it. She stays hot on its trail until heart trees with numerous branches create obstacles for her. Yet again, she reaches the end of the track later than her target.
The third track has her chasing a plump raccoon, but that trolley moves faster than the first two. She grows angry when she notices Reddic outpacing her and the raccoon on his two feet. Both reach the end of the track after he does. Her frustration only grows during the final track. She sees the stuffed fox twice, at the start and end of the track. She groans and kicks a rock, heated from her failure. A gentle hand on her shoulder arrests her foul mood.
“Now, now, there’s no need for that,” Reddic says with a laugh. She faces him slowly. “If you were already capable, this training wouldn’t be necessary.”
“Are you trying to cheer me up or kick me while I’m down?”
“I’m trying to tell you that it’s okay not to get the hang of things right away. However, I know the depths of your talent. At the start of the school year, I didn’t, and I told you it would take the whole school year to master. Now, I believe you’ll have it down by the time we leave here. And that’s because I know your talent rests upon a foundation of yearning, imagination, and hard work I didn’t possess at your age. So, turn that frown upside down, and let’s do what we came here to do!”
Nuria smiles from ear to ear. “Yes, sir!”
With a renewed jovial spirit, Nuria returns to the exercise with a clear focus. The rabbit and black squirrel are eventually the ones who have to keep up with her. At the end of the two hours, the raccoon, fox, and Reddic still outpace her, however. She looks on the bright side by recognizing she can fly a little faster than before, but it doesn’t stop her from whining internally.
If I could use my mezzo flames, this wouldn’t be anything close to a challenge!
Nuria follows Reddic away from the heart tree hill. She listens to his favorable critique of her flying technique, as well as a couple of pointers until they reach the summit. Rum and Shuri stand side-by-side, executing steps to some form of dance, leading their floating swords through the whole thing. She comes up with a thousand and one questions to ask them the next chance she gets. She waves to Fanger in passing, the leopard lying lazily in the grass.
They get to the lake and Nuria stares out at the surface, a flabbergasted look on her face. Out in the center, Stark casually marches on the water barefoot, pants rolled up to her knees. Stark salutes the two of them before submerging like an ice cube dropped into a glass.
Since when can she walk on water?
“Seems she understood my potential energy clue after all,” Reddic teases. “She’ll be much stronger when we leave.”
“Don’t think I won’t be!” Nuria boasts.
“That’s the plan.” Reddic turns his back to the lake. “Summon your golden flames for me. Just to your hands.”
Nuria snaps her fingers on both hands and ignites her index fingers. She gazes up at the sun and draws a small amount of solar energy into her body. After directing it to her fingers, her hands erupt with golden flames.
“Superb control, but can you extinguish them just as fast?”
The phoenix shakes her head. “Nope. I have to shake my hands pretty hard to make ‘em go away.”
“That’s because you don’t extinguish them. You release them.”
“That’s right. I’m going to teach you how to throw fireballs.”
“What?!” Nuria exclaims excitedly.
“Hold your hands up. Imagine a slingshot in your hand. Release the band and–”
Nuria stumbles back when her wings abruptly sprout in full, stretching two existing tears in the back of her shirt. “Whoops, sorry. Tyra helped me with my wings with finger tricks. Got anything else?” She absorbs her wings into her shoulder blades.
“Hmm. Okay. Well, you’re fairly innovative. I’ll let you come up with a system.”
Nuria doesn’t even have to think twice. Her first successful summoning of her golden flames happened when she sang in front of Tyra, her brother, and all of Sulublei class. While performing for Reddic isn’t as daunting, she’s concerned about getting too into the music and burning her clothes away again. The shirt she has on is one she truly can’t let burn. She imagines a tinted glass box around her as she sings to herself. The walls light up as she recites the verse:
Patient from my seat
Not patient on my feet
Timers on blast anything but sweet
Running around and burning up concrete
Nuria swings her arms across her chest and the golden fire around both fists sails through the air. They arch over Reddic and crash and sizzle in the lake. He whistles to express his awe.
“I expected nothing less.”
“So, what do I do now?”
“What you just did. Over and over. Your objective this time is to try and hit me with your fireballs.”
“You’re joking,” Nuria says with a start. “These flames blew up that glass wall when my mezzo flames could only crack it, and my mezzo flames could kill you.”
“You’ll never hit me, but by simply trying, you’ll make the process of summoning and releasing your golden flames more efficient.
Nuria’s left eye twitches. “You just wait until the day comes when you won’t be able to dismiss me like that.”
“I’m looking forward to that day more than you can imagine. Until then, our time is better spent getting you to that level,” Reddic states, but adds, “If you’ve got what it takes.”
Nuria responds to his challenge with a brazen smile. Her imaginary glass box emits blues, oranges, and yellows of all shades as she chases Reddic along the bank, hurling fireballs relentlessly. At first, she struggles to combine her singing with proper control of absorbing energy. After an hour of trial and error, she decides to let the tempo of every song she sings dictate the flow of energy throughout her body. Even with the improved process, she fails to hit Reddic as the jocund professor predicted. Between the excessive heat and her profuse sweating, she loses the bandage on her nose, the cut still healing.
Nuria takes a second to wipe her brow dry. She lifts her head and her left eye twitches when she sees Reddic lying in the grass, his back to her.
Oh, that’s it!
Nuria recites the earlier verse thrice as she ignites both fists wholly in her normal flames. Then she draws power from the sunlight. The flames on both fists merge as they take on a gilded brilliance. She nearly topples trying to balance the miniature golden nova, now bigger in circumference than the jeep they traveled in.
“Dodge this!” she hollers, using all of her might to lob the miniature nova.
Reddic turns casually but jumps to his feet when he sees the size. He hastily jumps to the side.
Nuria grinds her teeth as she joins Reddic watch her attack go to a watery grave, scorching a trail in its wake. As luck would have it, its point of impact is right where Stark emerges from the water.
“Oh, crap! Stark, watch–”
Reddic leaves Nuria speechless when he shows an even higher degree of speed by lapping Nuria’s fireball to Stark, lifting the officer, and again jumping to safety.
How in the- what?!
The steam rolling from the lake after Nuria’s attack blankets the ground around Reddic and Stark.
“Thanks,” the stupefied officer says.
Nuria stomps opn over. “Okay, how did you do that?”
Reddic lifts a brow. “Did you want the fireball to hit Stark?”
“Of course, not. I meant your speed. How did you move like that just now?”
“Sure you wanna know?”
She nods vehemently, stars in her eyes.
“It’s a high-level Vanusi skill accessible only to those who’ve achieved full transformation. With very precise control, I can change the muscles inside my body to improve my physical ability; my speed, strength, balance, endurance, etc.”
Nuria’s mouth hangs open so long that she drools. “You can fully transform? Into a leopard like Fanger? There can be two Fangers?!”
“Believe me, there can only be one Fanger,” Reddic clarifies.
“How do I fully transform? What’s that first step?”
“You won’t have to worry about that for a while. For now–”
“Oh, come on! Just think what I could do if I could move like you, just, you know, in the sky! I’d be the fastest bird alive! Oooh! Marmagar would lose next time we race! Without my mezzo flames!”
Stark laughs softly. “Welcome to Nuria’s style of learning. She loves to do it all at once. The more you show her is possible, the more she wants to learn. She drove Zathony crazy last year.”
“She’s always been that way,” Rum says, resting an arm on her shoulder and brings attention to his, Shuri’s, and Fanger’s arrival. “When her Sulublei Sudita activated, she became obsessed with mastering her fire powers. Honestly,” Rum lifts his hand and generates sparks between his fingers, “I could’ve used that same drive and abandon.”
“Abandon?” Stark inquires.
Rum hesitates briefly before explaining. “Our mom was always sensitive about my lightning powers, so I never tested my powers too much. I still haven’t. She told us about how she was struck by lightning half a dozen times as a child, and I couldn’t practice thinking it might make her relive those moments…or risk electrocuting her myself.” Rum gestures to the burned grass trail leading to the lake. “Is it okay Nuria did that?”
“There’s no damage you can do here that won’t repair itself with time. You can practice your lightning as much as you want.” Reddic turns to advise Shuri next. “Your wrist blade? Is that what caused the laceration on your shoulder?”
Shuri rotates his right shoulder gently. “No, it was a prior wound that opened from the stress of the fight with Darla.”
“And if you practice safely, the wound will stay closed?”
“It will. It’s already less than fifty percent its original size. Plus, I don’t intend to repeat what caused it in the first place.”
“Stay close when you do try, just in case. Aurum, there’s a stone quarry a quarter of a mile north of the cabin. That area won’t take damage from your lightning.”
“All right. I’ll see you later.”
“Me, too. And don’t worry, I won’t use my wrist blade. Just going to take some pictures.”
“Very well,” Reddic says and permits them to go about their business. “Now, back to you. Where were we?”
“You were about to tell me how to fully transform,” Nuria says, hoping to convince him before he works up the nerve to turn her down. No professor she’s ever had has not only been able to match her pace, but Reddic seems willing to push it even further. And she loves that.
“I will say that I’m no Professor Zathony. I applaud your drive.”
Stark cuts him a stern look.
“…However, perhaps we save your transformation efforts for next semester. Is that fine with you, Nuria?”
“Fine, but I’m holding you to that. What’s next, Reddic?”
“I know you will. Right now, I need you to wait here and keep Fanger company. Stark, I could use your assistance for this next exercise.”
Only when Nuria watches everyone vanish over the top of the hill does she realize she didn’t ask Rum, Shuri, or Stark about their previous training.
Oh, well. I’ve got enough to focus on without their regimens on my mind.
She lies down on the hill beside her cuddly companion. “Hey, Fanger, are you as fast as Reddic?”
The leopard sticks his nose into the air.
“Faster?!” Nuria exclaims.
Fanger opens one eye, his smug countenance clear even through his feline features.
Does this mean the phoenix I summon will be stronger than me? I will summon a phoenix…right?
Nuria imagines herself playing amongst the clouds with her ally phoenix. Verm from Halko’s Notes is her only idea of how a phoenix looks, so her imaginary flying partner has a darker vermillion plumage compared to her own.
I hope it’ll be as fun as I think.
“Up and at ‘em, Nuria,” Reddic orders. He and Stark enter Nuria’s view upside down and remain that way as she speaks.
“Two quick questions.”
“You’re a Vanusi-Sulublei Ibri like me, right? Does that mean my Manifestation will conjure a phoenix like you conjured Fanger?”
Reddic moves out of her view, soft thuds sounding nearby. “That is the idea.”
Nuria grins, satisfied with that answer. “Question number two- where’s the other Fanger?” She sits up in time to see Reddic’s perplexed expression. “Or are there three? You’ve performed Manifestation twice for me, and I assume he existed before that. So, how many are there?”
“I must admit that I’m curious myself,” Stark says, carrying large pieces of cardboard down the hill.
“There is only one Fanger, as I said earlier. But I understand the confusion. Each time I- we,” he points to Fanger, “demonstrate the technique for the first time to someone, we impress upon the scope of its importance and power with our light show. The Fanger I showed you and the boys are the same Fanger. A Manifestation summoning can only be performed once and is a partnership for life. The phoenix you summon will be the same for you.”
At that moment, all four of them are drawn to look into the sky. Nuria doesn’t concern herself with their reasons, but she makes a promise to herself that one day she and her future phoenix will return to these mountains. She shakes her head and rises. “Next task, Reddic.”
The Ibri professor steps to the side and reveals a series of cardboard cutouts of varying individuals. Some are normal, some have weapons, some have hooves or gills, but all of them have a protruding label with heights scribbled on them.
“This is the third and final task I’ve planned for you, Nuria. The objective is to increase your visual prowess, awareness, and recollection all in one. I want you to turn around.”
“Roger that,” Nuria replies and obeys. She hears four more soft thuds, meaning there are a total of ten cutouts behind her.
“Through this task, it should start the process of making your Primal Sense second nature. It may not be as flashy as your gold fire, but your phoenix vision will be your greatest strength.”
“Phoenix vision is number one. Got it.”
“When I say “about-face”, I want you to turn around and take ten seconds to absorb as many details about the cutouts as you can, then turn around again. I will ask you two questions regarding the details and you will do your best to answer. But do not guess. If you can’t answer, say “pass” instead. We’ll do this for two hours, have lunch, and then start over again at the taxidermy train line.”
“I’m ready when you are.”
Nuria rotates and hastily picks out one or two details from each cutout that include: a braid like hers but blonde, a height of 5’7”, a hammer with a red handle, gills and a yellow plaid shirt, white stockings, singing into a comb, plucking guitar strings, wearing a watch, bear tattoo on the left calf, and a height of 6’six balancing a knife on a finger.
Nuria snaps her eyes shut and one-eighties.
“The cutout labeled 5’7”- what color were her pants?”
“The one wearing the watch- what time did it have?”
Damn, this is going to be a long two weeks!
The remainder of the task goes just as well.