“No, RatBad, I’m not sure why the stream is iffy on your phone. Try connecting on your computer next time,” Pan snaps into her headphones, fuchsia stencil arrowhead designs on each side. She reads the messages climbing the chat bar. “Yes, yes, I know you guys want more but I’ve done a stream every day this week. You’ll be glad to return to the regular schedule soon. Sniper in pink, out!”
Pan cancels the stream and lowers the headphones around her neck. She huffs as she leans back. “Why the hell did I convince myself to do six days in a row of this?”
Aven moves away from the powered-down camera and leans against the corner of her desk. “Because you were bored with your boyfriend or classes.”
Pan eyes him. “Like you aren’t bored, too.”
Aven groans in tandem with Pan. “Tameri’s never been this scattered. Something’s got her off balance, and I doubt it’s something good.”
“Yeah… I’ve been too nervous to ask about going to Vanis Town again.” She removes a bottle of Nadolol from her pocket and wiggles it.
“Is that as useful as desired?” Aven asks.
“Tameri says it should be we haven’t tested it outside a controlled environment. She says it’s too risky.”
Aven shrugs. “She’s not wrong. But still, I wish we had something to do. I bet that if the golden boy was here that we’d have class.”
Pan snorts, then bursts out laughing. “Geez, be a little more jealous, why don’t you. If you want class that much, then just go to Tameri.”
“It’s just pointless to waste our time here. I came here because most of the school’s Ohaida professors are well-renowned figures. I didn’t want to learn from my old man, so I came here instead.”
“Preaching to the choir with that one,” Pan replies. She looks at Aven and swallows, his disposition more bent out of shape than when Rum accidentally called his scythe to him. “But if she isn’t giving you what you want, perhaps leaving is best for you. Although, I’d end up missing my dick.”
Aven smirks. “Don’t you mean–”
“I know what I meant.” She turns him around and ushers him to the door. “We’ll go together. Eagle Eyes has your back.”
The ears on top of Koren’s head twitch as he searches for the sounds of footsteps, clothes rustling, strained breaths, etc. The rest of his body- coated in short, white fur- is motionless, from his whiskers to his tail. His visual senses are hindered by a thick black blindfold. He keeps his legs apart to avoid his cargo pants from scratching against each other. His gray tank top is tucked into his pants to keep him from confusing himself.
His challenge for today is to catch his classmates on the sparring stage by simply tagging them. His first attempt went poorly, but so far he’s found Tyra and Syl. Carnya alone has managed to avoid him.
Thirty seconds, Koren. It’s do or die time!
Koren feints to his left and hears Carnya’s smug snicker behind him. He whirls and chases the source, changing direction when Carnya yelps, panicked. It’s tough, but he ignores the cheers for him coming from Tyra and Syl. He cuts his losses and lunges for her. His hands first come into contact with soft, squishy flesh before they hit the ground together. He gets up hastily and raises his hands. “I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to grab you there.”
“Easy, you little perv. It was my arms. Look.”
Koren removes the blindfold and sees Carnya’s transformed arms, the tentacles blinking blue rings.
“See?” She rises as her arms return to normal, caramel skin and all.
“Good job, Koren,” Professor Zathony says from the side of the stage, standing on his own away from Tyra and Syl. “You’ve earned yourself the B from today’s contest. Syl gets the C, and Tyra the D. Carnya has earned two As, however. One for acing her assignment, and the other for proving how easy partial transformation has become for her.”
“Oh, sweet!” Carnya cheers.
“Before I dismiss you all, I want to remind you that there will be an intense midterm on the Vanusi culture and exercises we’ve been conducting and covering. Starting to study now is the wisest course of action. Enjoy the rest of your day.”
As the professor leaves, Carnya whispers, “This is weird, right?”
“That he wished us well?” Syl asks.
“No, that Marmagar still isn’t here.”
“He’s probably prepping our midterm,” Syl suggests.
“For five days in a row?”
Tyra says, “Zathony said it’ll be big. Maybe it takes a while to prepare. Like how it was for The Winding Hills.”
“You guys suck at gossip.” Carnya turns to Koren. “What do you think, perv?”
“Honestly, until you brought it up, I was ignoring it completely.” Koren hops from the stage and lifts his katana from the ground. White fur like his lines the sides of the hilt. The blade is hidden inside a bamboo sheath. He thought showing it off would help his bond with Syl, and it did. He’s not yet found a boy outside his brother’s that doesn’t find weapons fascinating. However, he hoped to show it to Nuria first.
“Hey, you still with us over there, or are you the one pining after Nuria now?” Carnya accuses.
“I was not pining,” Tyra counters.
“What’s there to pine over?” Koren says shakily.
Carnya points to Tyra. “We’ll tackle your denial later. But you,” she smiles at Koren like he’s a brand-new toy, “I was joking, but perhaps I hit the mark yet again.”
“Of course, not. Who’d like a girl like her?”
“A boy like you. Tell us, what did you and her do in that room before you stole Syl from us?”
Koren shrinks under the scrutiny of Carnya’s teasing. He’s used to just hitting his brothers to change the subject, but he’s already come close to touching her inappropriately once today and refuses to repeat it, so he lets the teasing continue unimpeded. However, he finds it interesting that Tyra abstains from piling on.
Sutar pats down the fresh soil until it’s smoothed out evenly across the flower bed. She pokes eighteen holes in the ground and posits seeds in each of them. She lays her hands above the soil and misty green light washes across the surface. The misty green light first encourages grass to grow rapidly, and second, it encourages the planted seeds to sprout multiple Miss Saori hydrangeas, the only other flower she knows that matches her eye color other than royal Windsor carnations. Sutar wipes her brow and sweeps up the soil crumbs on the laminate walkways.
She sits at the right table of the two in the rear of the greenhouse. Parallel to her position and leaned against the heart tree is Wallace. Without opening his eyes or turning his head, he says, “You know it’s only a matter of time before that flower bed’s ruined again.”
“Then I’ll fix it again. Lynald’s not as slick as he thinks,” she says while rummaging through a stack of books.
Wallace opens one eye and turns his head slightly. “So, you finally saw through his ruse?”
“He’s not cold-hearted. He kept instructing Donovan to destroy my garden to keep me repairing it; to keep me practicing my powers. That’s why I chose hydrangeas. I can’t make carnations yet and I wanted something I wouldn’t care if Donovan ruined. I chose a flower that looks like my eyes.”
Wallace grants her his full attention now. He moves a hand from behind his head and scratches his nose. “I don’t see why. Your eyes are…nice, I guess.”
“I appreciate that…I guess. But what I mean is that my eyes were the first changes from my Sudita. They’re a constant reminder of how clueless I am about myself.”
She finally settles on the thickest book in the stack and cracks it open to the first page. She doesn’t even make it to the end of the first sentence when Wallace groans.
“Seriously, I can’t even read a book now?”
“Just saying, you probably know that entire book verbatim for as often as you read it. So, what’s that book gonna tell you that you don’t already know?”
“Medical skill isn’t about knowledge. It’s about the application of knowledge. Two people suffering from a cold can have different symptoms, from how clammy their skin gets, the degree of nasal congestion, and whether their body temperature increases or decreases. Nuria and I, our powers react differently to oxygen. Without her here to confer with, I’m left with just that knowledge. I need to learn how to direct it.”
Wallace hesitates a moment, then says, “How long have you obsessed over this? Since you Sudita, I imagine.”
Sutar narrows her eyes. “Your point?”
Wallace shrugs. “Take a break.”
“You mean to laze around like you?”
“No, I mean to turn your brain off. Your brain is so stressed that it’s stuck in one place, like a cramped muscle. Relax that supercomputer of yours and return to the question of your…status later.”
“And would you be fine not knowing who you are?”
“I think you mean “what you are” and yes, I’d be fine because I know who I am. A guy who refuses to let my powers run my life. Just because I have electric powers shouldn’t confine me to being an electrician.”
She regards him with less hostility. Out of all their fights, he’s never explained his side of things so fully…or calmly. To him, Sutar recognizes her desires are a slap in the face.
His problems aren’t my fault…but maybe he has a point.
Sutar shuts the books, rises, and crosses to the heart tree, realigning to sit perpendicular to Wallace.
“Will wonders ever cease. I never expected you to listen to me.”
“Unlike some, I don’t see black and white when it comes to how people choose to live.”
“Do you need something for the pain?”
Wallace chortles. “What’s your professional medical recommendation?”
Su looks to her desk of books and medical equipment, thinking of forcing him to take her place. On top of not wanting to insult him and restart their feud, she doesn’t want him to potentially damage her tools. She leans back to think and the breeze ruffles her red hair and the heart tree leaves. She blinks, then looks to her hydrangea patch.
“You like being in the greenhouse as much as I do. How about gardening?”
“Where? You’ve already planted the entire greenhouse.”
Sutar nods. “The hydrangeas.”
“And earn your eternal wrath? No, thanks.”
“This is different. I’m giving you permission.”
Wallace stands and looms over her shoulder. “I have to dig up the plants, too?”
“Fine, you lazy bum.” She rises next to him. “I’ll do half the work for you.” She stretches her palms open. Misty green light flows from the hydrangea patch and into her hands. The grass disappears first, the hydrangeas shriveling down to the stems after. The last petals burst into green mist that she absorbs. The flowerbed is back to being bare soil. “There you go.”
“You could’ve left the grass,” Wallace whines.
“I left you the seeds.” Sutar sits back against the tree. “Get to work.”
“Come on, Lauron. He apologized,” Valine says. “Can’t you at least look in our direction?”
“Nope!” Lauron barks, then slurps her ramen boisterously. She sits cross-legged on the cafeteria table, taking up a whole side of the table with her broadsword acting as the line of demarcation. Valine, Sticker, and Evic sit on the other side.
“Please?” Sticker says meekly.
“Ask me again when he apologizes to Nuria!”
Evic’s eyes twitch at the mention of her name. The weeks since his fight with her, he’s felt compounding interest in the phoenix. He’d hoped it was just a strange sense of guilt from ruining the party that night. He just apologized to his classmates in hopes of alleviating that guilt.
Why can’t I get her out of my head?
“I can’t apologize to someone who isn’t here,” Evic says softly.
“You had plenty of time before she went away,” Lauron counters. “I don’t wanna hear it.”
“Then why are you here?” Evic says with more bite to his tone.
Lauron slams her bowl of ramen down, grabs her sword by the scabbard, then stomps away without another word.
“Evic, come on. We’re trying to fix this,” Valine argues.
“Next time, just go into statue mode or something,” Sticker says.
“Who says it’s broken?”
“You, when you apologized,” Valine argues more. “Or was it empty? Don’t tell me we’re sticking up for you for no reason?”
“You will apologize to Nuria, won’t you?” Sticker asks.
Evic shuts his eyes in an effort to not see her face, but her bright smile and tender eyes burn through the darkness. He scoffs, snaps his eyes open, and chases after Lauron. He calls to her before she leaves the cafeteria.
“You better choose your next words carefully,” she warns while keeping her back to him.
There’s the difference.
Try as Evic might to box Nuria and Lauron together because of their similar attitudes, he only sees the former in a positive light. Lauron always gets on his nerves sooner or later, but Nuria’s attempts to get to know him were…endearing. Knowing where the school year was headed, he couldn’t allow her to succeed. Yes, his apology to his classmates is empty, but to Nuria…
“Get off your high horse,” he snaps, annoyed by the end of his last thought. “You act like I fought you.”
Lauron shrieks and yanks Evic close by his collar. “You broke our class, you jerk! I had someone who could and would keep up with me! Valine had someone she could sing with! Sticker didn’t even mind bringing her into her room full of her precious paintings! Nuria joined and we were all happier during that time! Even you! I don’t care if you admit it or not! And no, you didn’t fight me, but your fight broke up a good thing for us!” She shoves him away from her. “If you won’t fix it, then don’t break it when I do. In fact, stay away from it when I do.”
“I’m S’nue, too. You can’t kick me out of my house.”
“I sure can’t, but I’m Ibri. When Nuria and Reddic return, I have somewhere else to go. I suggest you don’t follow me!” Lauron kicks the cafeteria door open but freezes a mere half a step outside. “What the–”
“Any luck on scrambling the interference?” Tameri asks into her tablet screen. On the other end of the video conference is Officer Roark in the head of security’s office. Marmagar has a clear view from over Tameri’s right shoulder.
“None. The reroute program is very powerful and intricate. I can’t remove it without wiping out what communication we have left available to us. We were only able to detect it at all because of Stark’s cybersecurity system flags.
Tameri bites back a groan. “Is there a way to circumvent the reroute?”
“Messages from outside can get in on occasion but absolutely nothing can get out. The only stable communication we have is between individuals on campus right now.”
“How are they able to sustain it?” Tameri inquires.
“They can’t. Programs like that have a time limit. I can’t pinpoint when it was planted, but it has over a week left on the timer.”
“Liamria must not have lied about a partner, then. They planted it the day she attacked Neth. Her diversion worked.”
“What do you want to do?” Roark asks.
I can’t trust Crata. For all I know, one of his officers could’ve planted it. And with that short of a timer, Liamria will make her move soon. We’ll need backup.
Tameri spins her chair around partially. “Marmagar, how quick can you reach Vanis–”
“What the hell is that noise?”
“Tameri, get to the courtyard! Now!” The professor turns and sees the officer scrambling. “I’ll gather a team and meet you ASAP!” He terminates the call.
Tameri runs through the desk and calls her spadroon to her before reaching the door.
She dies this time!
Liamria stands on the hood of a black Humvee, a large speaker fastened to the roof. She signals a quieting as a crowd gathers in the FHA courtyard, making the roar of the standing waterfall behind her more prevalent. The standing waterfall stretches from one end of the onyx gate to the other. Liamria awaits the opportunity to bring it down but her guest of honor is tardy.
All of the students present express fear as the truth of her identity becomes clear. A rare few, however, show her astounding looks of challenge.
The young man with the scythe, the two from The Winding Hills, and the blonde next to Evic…and Evic himself. Interesting.
Soon, groups of security guards corral the students back and form a straight barrier before them. The professors come next and…
Ah, there you are at last!
Tameri takes the front-most position and places a hand on her spadroon’s hilt.
“Ah-ah,” Liamria says, her voice carried by the speakers via the headset she dons. “You unsheathe that weapon and I lower my curtain.” She gestures to the standing waterfall.
Tameri keeps it sheathed but also keeps her hand on the hilt. “What do you want?”
“I have a proposition for this school. You’ll see it as an ultimatum, but so be it. Anyone who remains on this campus one week from today will become collateral damage in our attack.” Liamria stops there to relish the enraged and horrified looks of the professors, especially Tameri. “However, we of The Pure can be kind to other pure-blooded Avinians. Any who wish to pass through our camp may do so unharmed. But make no mistake, we will be testing everyone to make sure. Any attempts to sneak an Ibri past us only sentences that person to a swifter demise.”
“We wouldn’t send anyone to you even if we believed you would keep that promise. Everyone here is a witness against you. And on the topic of your camp, how do we even know that to be true itself?” Tameri questions.
“Since you asked.”
Liamria’s eyes flash and the standing waterfall crashes down, revealing a small army gathered along the edge of the onyx gate. Liamria moves past the professors to watch the students’ reactions this time. The looks of challenge remain on the ones that expressed them before. Evic’s, however, is now blank and unreadable.
“We’ve brought an army to your doorsteps. We don’t care who sees us.”
Tameri unsheathes her spadroon and the glint of light off the metal unnerves Liamria. “I thought I told you not to unsheathe that weapon. Put it away, or our attack starts now.”
“Go ahead. I’ll cut down as many of you as necessary. You take one step off that jeep, and you’ll be signing your own death sentence.”
Liamria scowls. “Listen you lower life–”
“That’s enough, Lia,” a voice says through the speakers.
The front door of the black Humvee opens and out steps Victa, wearing a matching uniform to Liamria’s, his white instead of purple. He skewers the professors with a chilling, dismissive glare. “Our goal today was to make our intentions known. Leave your grievances with the filthy professor for our invasion.” He turns to Tameri next, removing a bloodied yellow ribbon from his pocket. “If we didn’t make it clear with our last attack, we have already drawn blood. You no doubt recognize that this ribbon belonged to one of your students you believe to be off-campus. I’m afraid that she, and those that were with her, are gone now.” Victa tosses the ribbon across the way, letting it land at Tameri’s feet. “Consider that our declaration of war.”
Liamria shivers when Tameri raises her head from the bloodied ribbon to the two of them, her gaze somehow colder and more void of emotion than Victa.
This woman without emotion is not one to be trifled with. If we don’t leave now…
Liamria turns to Victa in hopes of broadcasting her concern to him. If he picks up her warning, he either disguises it with a wry laugh, or he genuinely finds Tameri’s cold state more interesting. After all, it was her cold attitude that originally drew him to her.
“You have one week to prepare for ruin,” Victa announces, then commands a retreat after uttering one last foreboding word. “Four Hearts Academy’s extinction is nigh.”