Rum marches through the stone quarry, arms full of pebbles he made by crushing a boulder with his sword. Despite the size and density of the boulder, his buster sword smashed it without being nicked on the blade, hilt, pommel, or even the glass disc in the base of the blade. Inside the glass disc is a hollow black circle with five lines radiating to the edge; two of the lines are straight left and right, the other three evenly spaced in between.
His training at the Drijadi Hills has helped him realize the key reason his sword survives his lightning is because of the glass disc. Whenever he performs a successful lightning-call, the electricity from his hand retreats into that disc and vanishes. Wherever his mother obtained the sword and disc is just another question he’s dying to have answered.
Among the other thousand.
Rum lay his sword next to his dog-eared HPAA magazine, using his lightning-call on a sole raised pinky. He squats and carefully lowers his pile of pebbles on the ground when he hears a camera shutter. He rolls his eyes and turns.
“You didn’t get enough of me crushing the boulder?”
Shuri keeps his eyes on his camera as he sits cross-legged across the way. “I’ll finish deleting most soon. Didn’t find a good angle until near the end.”
“Why’s that camera so important to you?” Rum rises and juggles a couple of pebbles. “Not sure I ever asked.”
“It was my dad’s.”
Rum tosses the pebbles straight up into the air. When they lower just above his head, he fires two blasts of blue lightning, not much bigger than the pebbles, and blows them apart.
“‘Was’?” Oh, man. I’m sorry to hear that.”
Shuri swings his head side to side. “Don’t be. I never knew him. My grandfather said I lost my parents shortly after I was born. This camera was my dad’s favorite tool. He was a high-profile freelance photographer for some state newspapers. My grandfather was fine letting it stay set dressing until he saw me playing with it.”
Rum arcs more pebbles three inches away from him and blows them to pieces too. “So, it’s some kind of inheritance?”
“I guess you could say that. I never really started using it for real until we had our Vanusi field trips. I wasn’t sure if or when I’d be banned from joining you guys, so I took as many pictures of the outside world as I could. Stark even said my pictures helped in the aftermath of the dojo bombing.” Shuri aims the camera at Rum. “Let me see if I can get lightning on camera.”
“Can a camera even take pictures that fast?”
Shuri smirks. “It’s you versus my high-shutter function.”
“Bring it on.”
Rum ignores the ceaseless shuttering as he arcs the pebbles farther away from him, one inch at a time. He misses the first time he arcs them six inches away, and then the lightning blasts fizzle out the second time. For his third attempt, he focuses on the buildup of the power in his fingers and runs it back and forth several times to maximize the force. The extra force helps the blasts travel the six inches and destroy the pebbles.
“I got it!” Rum and Shuri profess simultaneously.
“You gotta see this!” Shuri waves Rum over.
Shuri’s last photo is a snapshot of a thin stream of white electricity emitting a blue aura contrasted with a white star at the point of impact with the pebble that emits an orange aura.
“One point to high-shutter.” Rum playfully nudges Shuri’s shoulder. “Maybe you should become a high-profile freelance photographer.”
Shuri swings his head again. “It’s only a hobby. My dream job is just a tad more grandiose than that.”
Rum sniggers. “Nuria says the same thing about singing. I’ll be there to tell you both “I told you so”.”
Shuri lowers the camera and gestures to the pile of pebbles. “Don’t you have practice to get back to?”
Rum sighs dejectedly. “I’ve exhausted all my ideas. My power is good when connected to any part of me, but I can’t discharge and fire it like Nuria can. It took all I had to fire it six inches from me and I have to take extra time to build up power just to do that.” Rum fires another quick-to-die lightning blast. “If I keep it connected to me, I can make it go at least ten times that distance.”
“So, what’s your next move?”
Rum shows his younger classmate a knowing look. “You can stop fishing for knowledge here. I know you’ve been taking pics of me to try and glean a new tactic for yourself. We’ve both hit dead ends.”
“Reddic’s hint helped me stabilize my WEBs and I can control the gusts they produce better, but I still can’t detach them as actual swords.” Shuri hesitates before adding, “We could ask Nuria. She’s good at learning new tricks.”
“And interrupt her training? No, thanks. I didn’t come to drive a bigger wedge between us.”
“Reddic? He has a Sulublei power, too.”
“Nah, same problem as the first. But we have another Sulublei on hand we can talk to.”
While humming quietly to herself, a young Stark marched through the halls of her home, dressed in a one-piece violet bathing suit. In her arms, she carried a fishbowl crowded with ornaments, fake grass, and half a plastic castle. The goldfish inside swam erratically as their home bounced with each stride. The glass of the fishbowl caught Liamria’s reflection as Stark closed the bathroom door.
The young lady balanced the fishbowl on the edge of the bathtub, then filled it to the rim. She lowered the ornaments, grass, and castle into the water first. She lowered the goldfish next, entering herself right after, the bathwater spilling out onto the floor. The goldfish swam in odd patterns between Stark and the drain. Stark knew it was only a matter of time before they settled down. They always did.
And that moment was when Stark started having fun. She dangled her pinkies in the water like worms and watched her pets chase them all around the tub. She was always careful not to submerge her whole hands, or she would spook them and have to wait all over again.
The bathroom door slowly creaked open and Liamria wandered inside. Stark reacted by stopping her splashing and freezing like a rabbit suddenly cornered by a fox. Her breathing grew shallow when her mother shut and locked the door, the click booming in Stark’s ears.
Liamria crossed to the bathtub slowly, lifting the fishbowl into the sink opposite.
“Mommy…” Stark squeaked.
Liamria forced Stark’s head underneath the water. Stark’s cries were cut off by gurgling. The little girl tried several times to rise.
The goldfish remained panicked for as long as Stark splashed, coming to a rest as the bubbles decreased in frequency. Liamria glared deathly at her child losing steam.
“No child of mine would drown. Get up, Stark. Get up. Get up, Stark! Get–”
Stark’s tiny fist rose from the depths of the tub and struck Liamria’s jaw. While it did no damage, it did make Liamria smile.
Stark gripped the edge of the tub for dear life, gasping for air like one of the goldfish on the floor. Liamria lifted Stark out of the tub.
“You will be strong one day, Stark. This was just my way of seeing how strong. However…”
Liamria hefted the suffocating goldfish and tossed it into the tub alongside its partner. Stark rushed forward the moment her mother removed the stopper from the drain but was swiftly restrained.
Liamria whispered, “Let them go, Stark. Ties to others or things won’t do you any good. Let them go.”
Stark sniffled and sobbed. “But…”
“No buts, Stark.”
Stark stood there, utterly still, and watched her goldfish ushered closer and closer to the drain by the shrinking water level. After the first one vanished, the second attempted to hide in the castle. Liamria quickly put an end to that. Stark looked away at the last moment but could hear the last bit of water slurped down by the drain.
Stark has no lack of childhood trauma linked to her mother, but next to the death of her father, that one has tormented her the most.
They were my pets!
She can clearly see the fishbowl atop the dresser in her quarters at FHA. She carries it all these years later.
They were mine to protect!
She loses herself to anger as every attack on FHA plays in her mind. The interruption of the Freshman Derby, the double assassins on campus and Jojen’s Dojo, the next double assassins in Springspell, the destruction of Jupiter Mall, and the targeted attacks on Nuria. The latter pushes Stark over the deep end.
It comes to an end now!
Stark tries to move past her mother to the formless, shadowy threats that Reddic has made her aware of, but the rage she feels refuses to be directed and swirls around Liamria’s face. Her fury is so palpable that she feels she could reach out and–
The resonation of two conjoined, familiar voices dispels the officer’s fury. She realizes the torrential waves across the lake’s entirety coming from the whirlpool of which she rests in the center. The distressed looks on Rum’s and Shuri’s faces hurt her because she knows if how she felt came across subconsciously through her powers, it pains her to even imagine their thoughts. She lets the whirlpool collapse on top of her.
Stark sinks to the bottom of the lake. She imagines her previous eruption of emotion as high tide. After a few minutes of sheer focus, she aligns her mood with a low tide. She takes a relaxing breath and the soil beneath her feet pops softly. She marches straight ahead until she exits the water, coming up to face the still distressed teenagers.
Stark calmly asks, “What are you two doing over here?”
“Are you okay?” Shuri asks.
“We don’t want to bother you if you’re busy,” Rum says.
“Out with it. I know you’re here for something.”
“It’s all right. We just came at a bad time. We’ll–”
“I briefly allowed myself to be overcome…to be angry. The moment has passed Aurum.” Stark goes and sits on the grass, still dripping wet. She invites the boys to join her by pointing to the spot before her. She resumes speaking once they reluctantly oblige. “I assume this is about your powers.”
“What’s going on?”
“The advice Reddic gave me has dried up. I don’t know what to do,” Rum says.
Stark shrugs. “That’s only natural. No one strategy is the end-all-be-all.”
Shuri says, “Yeah, but Nuria–”
“How about you boys go and talk to Nuria? She’ll tell you all about what she’s picked up from the other classes this semester. I guarantee she’ll have lots to say. She could probably learn a thing or two from you, and vice versa.”
The boys look at one another uneasily.
Stark hopes she’s mistaken on what she’s picking up from them. “You boys aren’t scared of Nuria, are you?”
Shuri scoffs and says, “No.”
“Scared isn’t the right word,” Rum says slowly.
“What’s that mean?”
Rum takes a long breath before answering. “Nuria’s…different.” He takes another long breath. “My powers came to me. One day my lightning just activated when I broke a lamp. A month later, my mom gave me my sword. Neither felt earned.”
“Aurum, most Avinians awaken their powers through random accidents like that,” Stark explains.
He shakes his head. “Not Nuria. She awakened her fire powers dancing with fireflies. She awakened her golden flames, hence her phoenix powers, when she first read her acceptance letter to FHA.”
Stark narrows her eyes curiously. “Is that right?”
“See, even you see how hers seem so…incredible.”
“Aurum, your powers of lightning truly awakened when you saved Pan and Shuri. What’s not incredible about that?” She watches some of his insecurity erode, though a mountain remains.
“Anyway, I got off-topic. Our powers activated around the same time, and ever since it’s felt like we’ve grown farther apart, even when we were homeschooled together. She was emboldened to move onto the next thing whenever she learned something new, and I just sat still. This past spring break we stayed together but didn’t live together. She was off every day learning to fly. We barely spoke, only to come here on rough terms I feel we never actually amended. And now–”
“Reddic has her all to himself.”
“And that stupid leopard,” Rum grumbles.
Stark keeps her laughter inside. “You didn’t come to train. You came to be with your sister.”
“Then be with her. Yes, it’ll be tough to interrupt her training, so maybe that’s where you start. Join in on it. Get her attention and then seize it. Take it from me, the girl has buttons that can be pushed. Her impromptu concert yesterday- all me. And as long as you’ve lived together, you should know a few.”
The mischievous grin he forms concerns Stark but far be it for her to discourage him now. She turns to Shuri.
“Might as well counsel you, too. Have you even considered talking to your grandfather since we’ve been here?”
Shuri tries to disguise his sudden discomfort with a noncommittal shrug. “Not really.”
“Why? To torture him? You know what he must be going through with you so far from home.”
He stops hiding his discomfort. “Why are you taking his side? Do you know what he’s done to me since I became a student?”
“I do, and because I have to take his side. I’m on yours, too.” Stark leans in closer. Shuri is as stubborn as Nuria when it comes to his grandfather, so she recognizes her best chance to change his mind is with a full-frontal assault. “You two are each other’s last living blood relative. The toxicity of your relationship has to cease, Shuri. One of you has to make that first step.”
“He apologized,” Shuri says after a lengthy silence.
“He did? When? About what?”
“Everything, pretty much. The night of the mall attack. I was working up the nerve to accept his apology. I came to have lunch with him one day. You and he were in his office and then…”
Stark bows her head. “I see.”
Shuri huffs and bends over, resting his arms on his knees. “I’d love to change things, but I don’t think he can change.” He lifts his head. “Wouldn’t it just be better to let our relationship die than to force it?”
“It wouldn’t die. The harder you tried to pull away or to push Neth away, the harder he’d fight to keep you close. That kind of conflict can quickly spiral into something worse than you can imagine. Take it from me, that’s not what you want.”
“But he can’t not be suffocating. If I forgive him, what’s to stop him from doing it all over again?”
“That would be you, Shuri. You have more command over the future of your relationship than you think. Tell me- what do you know about your parents?”
Stark hums softly. “It’s not my place to give details, but the day Neth met you for the first time was the day your parents died.”
“What?” Shuri and Rum blurt.
“You, Shuri, are his last chance to pass on the better parts of his lineage, the skills he’s spent a lifetime mastering. You’re stuck on detaching your WEBs. He can help. Maybe ask him about your parents once in a while. Help him keep those memories alive. Develop a healthy two-way relationship.” Stark rises and places a hand on both of the boys’ shoulders. “Both of you.” She heads back toward the lake.
“Where are you going?” Rum asks after her.
“You two have your own missions to prepare for.”
She walks right across the lake’s surface, a fiercely determined look on her face.
And I have mine!