Nuria scoops the rabbit and squirrel right off the track as she passes over them. Her pursuit of the fox isn’t as taxing as before but it takes her until the latter half of the track to yank it loose with both hands. She sets her eyes on the plump raccoon as it speeds away.
Nuria changes from a gliding flight pattern to a diving one. She folds her wings at an angle parallel to her shoulders, lessening the drag on her body and increasing her speed remarkably. The numerous branches in her way are now a challenge she can overcome. Whenever she needs to turn, she adjusts the wing closer to that direction.
The phoenix soars over the raccoon but opts not to yank it off the track like the others. She sucks in her wings as she vaults a low branch. As she rotates, creating friction with her barefoot against the ground, infusing solar energy into her foot simultaneously, she punts the plump raccoon into the air.
As the burning gilded mass returns to the ground, Reddic sidesteps it. It fizzles into steam on the lake’s surface. Nuria’s taken to trying to strike Reddic from the air. Though not consistent, her Primal Sense triggers when she’s airborne and it helps her track his moves better.
Might as well use my new move while my eyes are at their peak.
Nuria loops vertically and flies at Reddic while low to the ground. She pushes her focus to the limit by spreading solar energy to six points on her hand, the largest source in her open palm. Five golden embers dot her fingertips and one brilliant gilded flame swirls in her palm. She fires the embers first, creating a field to cage Reddic in. She fires the brilliant flame a second later with enough propulsion that it still reaches him first.
She ignores Reddic’s reaction, knowing he’ll find the time to dodge. As the air around him vibrates, she sees a superimposed image of him move to his right. She cuts off his escape and repeats the six-point attack from point-blank range. Again, she isn’t so ignorant to believe she had him cornered, but she smiles when she lands anyway.
“And when did you come up with that trick?” Reddic asks, amazed. He rotates his shoulder gently.
“Necessity. I knew straightforward attacks would never hit you. Even with six fireballs at once I couldn’t hit you.” Nuria huffs and takes a breath. “Oh, well. Maybe next time.”
“Who said you missed?”
Nuria freezes in the middle of kicking dirt onto her fires. “What?”
Reddic snickers and turns his back to her, pointing to a burn cutting through his double-breasted vest and dress shirt. A small patch of smoking, black and red skin rests underneath. “One of the outer embers grazed me during your follow-up attack just now.”
Nuria is about ready to foam at the mouth. “Oh, wow! I mean, I’m sorry I hurt you! But are you saying–”
“You’ve passed two of the three exercises, and the two most necessary for Manifestation. We can start your summoning training tomorrow.”
The phoenix feels a catch in her throat. She’s worked so hard for this, but somewhere through all the exercises, trials, and distractions (welcome and unwelcome), it seemed so far off. To be so close now, it’s like a dream.
Am I about to achieve a dream?
“Wow…but what about the cutouts? Are we stopping that exercise?”
“We can do it once more today but then resume it next semester. Remember, phoenix vision is your greatest skill, but that also makes it the toughest to master. But when you do, you’ll feel it was worth the struggle.”
Nuria grins confidently. “Go get the cutouts, Reddic! Oh, and grab a bandage, too! I’ll be awaiting your return!”
“That makes two of us!”
Nuria’s ears perk up. “Oh, yeah?”
Rum marches down the hill at a calm pace, hands in his pockets, buster sword strapped to him via a sash with magnetic clips on the ends. “Yeah, I wanna give it a shot.”
“Once I fetch Stark, it’ll be a party.” Reddic puts a spring in his step toward the cabin.
“So, how’s it going? Any closer to mastering Manifestation?”
Nuria unloads the details she hasn’t had time to share between her twelve-hour training (more like eighteen) and resting. She can’t put her finger on it, but something bugs her brother during the explanation. After so long with Reddic’s immortal joy, she’s more attuned to pick up on anything less. Her brother smiles and engages with questions positively, so she concludes it isn’t jealousy.
No…more like sadness. Maybe his training isn’t going so well. Let’s see.
“How’s that sword-mind-lift thing going?”
“Sword-mi… Oh, you must mean this?” Rum detaches the magnetic clips and generates blue electric currents between his fingers to levitate his buster sword around in front of him. “This is the true benefit of Bond of the Blade. An Ohaida that perfects it can fight alongside their weapon.”
Nuria looks at his sparking hand. “You need your lightning for it?”
Rum unloads a litany of details this time. Nuria eats it all up, from his ability to call others’ weapons, his lightning-call technique, and his rising level of electrical control.
Guess it isn’t his training…
“I’m a little jealous. Your clothes aren’t affected by your powers like mine.” Nuria points to her feet and wiggles her toes. “I can’t wear shoes if I wanna use my feet as a panic button.”
“If you’re flying as well as Reddic says, I don’t think a panic button is necessary,” Stark declares, carrying a matching five cutouts to Reddic’s load.
“We’re jumping right in, Nuria, so about-face.”
“I guess that means me too,” Rum says, turning with his sister.
“You sure you don’t wanna focus on your stuff?” Nuria asks.
Rum winks. “Who says I’m not?”
She flounders, at a loss for why he exudes less sadness now, so she steers into the skid instead. “Bring it on.”
“Since we have an extra attendant, we’ll do things a little differently. I’ll plant one cutout at a time and have you both try and recall as many details as you can commit to memory in ten seconds. Whoever gets more details right wins a point. First to six points wins. Nuria, we’ll start with you. About-face.”
The phoenix puts on her game face and looks the cutout up and down, scanning every piece swiftly, only to get to the face and forget what colors the shoes were. She scrambles and looks down when Reddic says, “Time’s up. Turn around.”
“How many details can you recall?”
“Um, they had on…black shoes with white stripes?”
“I’m sorry. That’s incorrect,” Reddic states.
Nuria watches him in her periphery, curious what his strategy is. Her brother’s always had a more analytical mind than her and she hopes to emulate him here. His eyes move over the cutout calmly, never stopping or reversing direction.
“Time. Turn around,” Reddic commands. “How many details do you recall?”
“She has dark hair, 5’2” tall, wears a yellow windbreaker, blue sweatpants, and white shoes with black stripes.” He looks Nuria in her eyes smugly. “One point to me.”
“Okay, what? Did you really just get that on your first try?”
“Sure did. Not as hard as I expected,” Rum teases.
Nuria holds her peeved expression a little longer, then cracks a smile. “How’d you do it?”
Rum narrows his eyes. “Since when do you ask for the answers?”
“I’m not as proud of my ability to learn it all on my own as I used to be. I’ve learned a lot from Tyra, Shuri, and some others. Might as well learn from you, too.”
Rum just stands there with his mouth wide open and looks to Stark. The officer nods to him, the gesture lost on Nuria. He turns back to her and says, “Nine Box.”
Nuria stares at him blankly for a moment, then facepalms. “Of course you did.”
“Nine Box?” Reddic asks.
“A child’s game,” Stark says.
“A mathematical and spatial awareness game,” Rum corrects. Stark raises her hands in apology.
“I just envision the Nine Box grid in my mind and apply it to the cutout. Put that together with the fact she’s shorter than me, and I can remember her height easily. The rest is just trial and error on which details stick with me and which ones don’t,” Rum clarifies.
“I see.” Nuria turns to the cutout and puts it out of focus as she applies her own grid. It was a great help during her time perfecting free falling. It’s her first time using it for a stationary action, but after Rum’s explanation, it’s the only tactic available to her. “Okay, I’m ready for round two.”
“Then put your backs to us, please.”
Nuria swings around so fast that her loose braid smacks her in the face. She looks forward to having her brother redo it for her soon. She feels he can intuit her thoughts because he looks devoid of any sadness when she peeks at him.
“Reminds you of when we were homeschooled, doesn’t it?”
“A little, yeah,” the phoenix says. “But this is better.”
“I mean, you’re finally putting in work to master your lightning…and I–” Nuria stops herself from looking over her shoulder. “Let’s just say I’ve found what Neth promised I would.”
Rum expresses acknowledgment with a slow nod, though his warmth catches a chill.
What did I say?
“Who wants to go first?”
“I’m intruding, so Nuria can go first each round if that’s okay?”
“Fine with me.”
The phoenix spins and takes half her time to affix her grid to the space without it moving with her. She’s used to having it move with her during her dives and freefalls. She uses the latter half to identify the cutout’s height, gender, hair color, and hand jewelry.
“Time. Turn around and tell me what you saw,” Reddic instructs.
“She’s 5’11” like me, has dark hair and terrible bangs, and has a bejeweled bracelet on both hands.”
“Not bad, Nuria,” Reddic says, granting her soft applause.
“Wait, you’re 5’11”? Since when? You were only an inch taller than me when school started.”
“I know, right? Look!” Nuria stands next to the cutout and proves it, pointing to the height label. “I grew one inch right after school started, and another since we’ve been here. I wouldn’t argue with a couple more. Being six feet even seems weird to me for some reason.”
Rum grumbles, then accidentally looks closer at the cutout, noticing the sapphires in the bracelets. “Just give this round to Nuria.”
“Yay!” Nuria cheers.
“All right, the score’s all tied up. Let’s see who goes home a champion!” Reddic announces.
The contest takes a competitive turn as Nuria temporarily loses sight of her true objective, the fun of competing with her brother almost trapping her in a fog of nostalgia. She focuses on trying to streamline her process but in the end, she still requires three to four seconds to apply and steady her grid. The contest ends 7-3 in her brother’s favor.
“Good to know I can still outdo you somewhere,” Rum says.
“For now. Wait till I get my process down pat.”
“Then it won’t be long. Developing a process is the biggest step,” Stark says.
“You can do it, too?”
“I’m an officer, Nuria. Being able to recall details, especially of suspects, is crucial. I learned when I was a little older than you are now.”
Nuria hums in thought then faces Reddic. “And you?”
Reddic smirks and shrugs. “My eyes got better post-Sudita and I didn’t want to waste them.”
Nuria gives him an impatient look.
“Speed reading should help,” he says quickly.
“Speed…reading,” the phoenix mumbles. “Oh!”
“What?” Reddic queries.
“That’s it!” She points to her brother. “Driving! That’s why you’re down! You’ve been reading all those car magazines, and now you’re ready to learn!”
“I mean, I am but–”
“Oh? I’d be fine teaching you while we’re here.”
“Not you,” Nuria declares. “Reddic will.”
“Yep! Right now!” Nuria latches onto Stark. “The officer and I have some things to discuss in the meantime.
“Are you okay with that, Aurum?”
Rum hesitates to answer and looks to Nuria with a lost expression.
“Think of what our spring break could be if you get your license. Brother and sister trips to the city, late-night movies and concerts, you eventually teaching me to drive, and whatever else you can think of, too.”
And just like that, the last vestiges of Rum’s sadness evaporate. Nuria and Rum exchange promising nods, then he and Reddic go about their business, crossing paths with Shuri and Fanger descending the hill. Nuria giggles as Rum still gives Fanger a wide berth.
“Well, well, well. Look what the cat dragged in,” Nuria says, almost biting her tongue.
I’ll have to ask Koren if that’s offensive later on.
“Sorry. Looks like I missed quite the show.” Shuri gestures to the burn marks grouped in sets of six.
“I think we’re the ones who missed out,” Stark states. “You and your grandfather must have had a nice talk for as long as you were gone.”
Nuria frowns when it appears Rum’s sadness has latched onto Shuri.
“It might have, but all I did was get his voicemail. He didn’t answer a single time all day.”