Nuria panics as she plummets through the sky, none of her powers at her disposal to arrest her momentum. With her eyes not at their peak, the rush of wind makes it impossible to tell how near or far the ground is at any moment. She would scream, but she’s been falling so long that she knows what comes next.
The terrain around her transitions from a cool, high altitude to a blazing inferno. She holds her breath lest she inhale the flames and incinerates her insides again. The weird thing is that it doesn’t burn her otherwise. It doesn’t even feel hot.
A woman’s voice calls to her, “My, my, who are you?”
Nuria’s transported back to falling, though she crashes a second later.
Nuria lunges forward in her bed, her head feeling the weight of her undone braid. She suffers labored breaths as she sweats uncontrollably, still reeling from her nightmare burning. She brushes the damp strands of her hair from her forehead and huffs. The voice in her dream sounded just like the energy of the Drijadi Hills- soothing. It also came from all around her, as if the inferno itself was speaking.
It’s as possible as resurrection, I guess. Oh, what if that was my inner phoenix? Is my inner phoenix what I’ll summon with Manifestation?
Nuria haggardly climbs out of bed, displeased with her appearance in the mirror. She’s not a fan of her hair hanging free down to the small of her back. It was too hard to manage her old dives and free falls with such an uncontained mess whipping all over behind her.
Only one thing to do.
Nuria peeks her head outside her bedroom door and shouts, “RUUUUUUUM!” She nearly ducks back inside when Reddic chokes on his tea.
“Quite the pair of morning lungs,” Reddic says, digging into his ears.
A door outside of Nuria’s view creaks open. “That’s her fix-my-braid scream,” Rum says. He steps next to her professor and smiles up at her. “Haven’t heard that in a while.”
“Hasn’t her braid come loose already this year?”
“I’m guessing she had Tyra do it. She’s touchy about her hair.”
“Yeah, well, it’s your turn, so get up here!” Nuria orders.
“That’s no way to ask for a favor. As a penalty, you’ll have to come to me.”
“Rum, I’m serious,” Nuria fumes.
“Me, too,” he counters.
“Don’t be shy, Nuria. I guarantee you’re the only one embarrassed by your hair.”
Nuria peers out as far as she can without exposing her disheveled hairdo. “Are Shuri and Stark down there?”
Reddic lifts a hand, cutting off Rum’s snarky retort. “Stark’s off making certain the young man doesn’t let his hurt feelings get him into trouble.”
Nuria groans disgustedly. “Fine. I’m coming.”
The phoenix slams her door shut, dries her forehead on her comforter, scoops up her sienna locks, grabs her yellow ribbon, takes a deep breath, then races downstairs before any second thoughts turn her back around. She slaps the ribbon in her brother’s palm.
“Do it up like you usually do, just make sure to add that into the mix.”
Rum looks from the ribbon to Nuria’s hair several times, then smirks and nods. “I got this. No worries.”
Nuria’s heart isn’t entirely calm, but she trusts her brother. She leads him to the nearest couch and leans against his knees as he toils exactingly with her hair. She fights the urge to flinch when Reddic sits opposite the two of them.
“How were the driving lessons?” she asks, hoping to distract her professor from her hair.
“Quite well. Aurum is a quick study.”
“U-turns are fun,” Rum states.
“U-turns on the highway?”
Reddic shrugs. “It’s a fairly empty highway most of the time. No danger.”
“How come there aren’t any flying vehicles?” Nuria asks. “Trains are fast, but surely travel by flight is possible.”
“There have been research studies, but nothing could handle that fueled solely by electrical or solar energy.”
“Not unless the phoenix you summon is game to give rides,” Rum says.
Nuria puffs out her cheeks. “Fat chance. We’ll have better things to do.”
“More than you know,” Reddic says pointedly, capturing Nuria’s attention. “And since I have your undivided attention, I shall explain how Manifestation the technique is executed. Before I laid out the three steps to prepare. The first step was Active Meditation. The second step was Primal Sense. Both of which you’ve gained an adequate handle on. The final step is to find a way to combine your two separate powers, turn the power to eleven, and then separate the power from yourself.”
“Separate? Like how I throw my fireballs?”
“Not exactly. To separate the energy from yourself, you have to return that energy to the world around you. Nature will handle the rest.”
“How’s that possible?”
Reddic winks. “I’ve seen you accomplish the combine and turn up steps through your own devices, so you’ll get this one, too. I’m sure of it.”
“Reddic, come on. Just one hint.”
He shrugs again. “If I had one, I’d supply it. The final stage of creating Manifestation wasn’t clear to me either. The woman who helped me achieve it only told me to ‘trust the hills’.”
“‘Trust the hills’?”
“That’s it. Later that same day, Fanger was born.”
Nuria hears Fanger yowl behind her, then yowls herself when Rum jerks and pulls on her braid.
“Sorry, the stupid cat–”
“Leopard,” Nuria and Reddic correct.
“–caught me off guard.” He shivers under the scrutiny of their judging gazes. “So, who was the woman that helped you? Can’t she be here to help Nuria, too?”
Nuria turns back around, curious to hear the answer, but Reddic’s smile distracts her. She’s only seen that smile on him once before. He was peering into the sun when he whispered, “For you, my love.”
“Time will tell,” Reddic teases.
Nuria looks Reddic in his two different colored eyes, nervous to ask the question burning her lips.
Were you in love with the woman who helped you?
“It’s nothing,” the phoenix says.
“Yeah. Asking would just be a distraction and I wanna keep my mind one hundred percent focused on the task at hand. We only have a few more days here and I’m not letting Fanger be the only animal we return with!”
“Then if your braid was your only concern about your appearance, you’re one hundred percent ready physically, too. Go take a look,” Rum suggests.
Nuria sprints to the mirror in her brother’s room, nearly tripping over his weapon case in the process. She whips her braid over her shoulder. The ribbon is knotted at the bottom in a bow, the length of it weaving through the links of her braid immaculately. Like always, the braid is firm and beautiful. She gives Rum two thumbs up when she exits his room.
“Told you I had it!”
“And now it’s my turn!” Nuria slams her knuckles together so hard that smoke pops up between them. “Let’s go!”
Nuria keeps her spirits high as she leads her brother and mentor toward the lakeside hill. She puts her tumultuous dream and therefore her subsequent awakening, and curiosity over Reddic’s love life on the backburner. She stops at the hill’s peak, stretching her arms outward.
“You two should stay here. If I’ve learned anything while we’ve been here, it’s that I need to respect my abilities. In this instance, it means respecting the range of my full powers. A distance this far should keep you both safe.”
“Read you loud and clear,” Rum says.
“Show us what you got!” Reddic cheers.
Nuria syncs her breathing with the wavelength of her spirit, streaking down the hill unified in body and mind. She grinds her bare feet against the ground as she nears the base of the hill. She slides backward onto her hands as she redirects all the heat in her legs to her soles, marrying it to solar energy seconds before release.
The spray of golden fire is so massive and powerful that Nuria is blown away from it in the opposite direction. The golden fire cuts a steaming gash into the lake’s surface. Nearly across the entire lake before it loses momentum, the golden fire meets a slow demise.
Nuria rests on her back, unable to think of anything but her next breath for several minutes. She’s not even sure when her brother and Reddic find their way to her. The last time she felt anything like this was when she noticed she’d stopped taking her medicine. The craving she has for it now feels one thousand times worse.
Rum whistles, staring at the steamy lake surface. “So, that’s your power turned up to eleven?”
Nuria nods, unable to speak presently.
“Impressive seems too weak a description of what you just did,” Reddic mentions.
Nuria tries to smile, unsure if her muscles obey or not.
“It was a brilliant exhibition of the first two steps,” Reddic says. “Once you nail the third, you’ll have mastered Manifestation.”
Nuria’s response is a mess of unintelligible noises.
Reddic chuckles softly. “I can read lips, Nuria. No need to speak until you’re ready.”
Nuria mouths her question. Does this get easier in time?
“The level of stress of using your full power never lowers, but as your body and experience matures and grows, you’ll feel the impact less. You’ve seen my skill and when I flexed my powers to falsely perform Manifestation, I was left with labored breaths for a few moments. How was it the first time you used your mezzo flames?”
Nuria shivers as she recalls baking on her back in the hot sand; the next moment, she’s amused by her helplessness.
It wasn’t as bad but I get your point.
“We’ll only try four more times today. I want you to get an idea of the process. But no nighttime training. It wouldn’t be possible without the sun up anyway. And absolutely no exceeding the daily limits I’m about to list. Each day following today, we’ll add two more attempts, ending with an eleven-attempt day.”
Nuria beams as she finds the strength to sit forward. “Sounds…good.”
“What if she used sun seeds? Those replenish her energy in an instant,” Rum says.
“No!” Nuria croaks, then coughs.
“But they’ll increase your chances of summoning. I brought an extra pouch I had Mom send after you burned the last batch.” He removes the pouch from his jacket pocket.
Nuria shakes her head violently, ignoring her headache. “Never. Again. My. Power. My. Phoenix. Mine. No. Seeds.” She holds out her hand.
Rum groans and reluctantly turns the seeds over to her. She snaps her fingers over the pouch and lets it burn to ash in her palm.
“Go…back up. I still…have work to do,” Nuria states. “Don’t argue…please. Voice…hurts.”
“Just be careful,” Rum says before marching away.
“I’m sure you know this but stay focused,” Reddic warns.
Nuria nods and dismisses her mentor. She turns forward as the last traces of steam from her first burst of power fade.
When I’m done, there won’t be a lake left!
Nuria switches from using her feet to her hands, hoping to brace herself better against her maximum powers. It’s for naught as she ends up on her back after every attempt. Whether the attack comes from her fists, palms, fingertips, or even her elbows, it’s always equal to the previous attempt. The phoenix realizes halfway through that she’s learned to only take in the tiniest portion of solar energy.
Maybe I need more for Manifestation?
She spends her seven-attempt day drawing in twice as much solar energy prior to release. It barely increases the power but doubles her recovery time. She almost fails to get in all seven attempts by the time the sun sets.
By the time her nine-attempt day rolls around, Shuri seems to be calm again, so he and Stark join her audience. Shuri’s confident expressions show he’s overcome his latest trial. The phoenix starts to feel the pressure, being the only one left unaccomplished. In the middle of her summoning attempts, she loses her composure and tries to pack the energy for two separate attempts into one shot.
She fights to remain conscious but the second her knees hit the ground her vision goes black.
Then it immediately returns as she’s again falling through the sky at great speeds. Aware of her dreaming, Nuria doesn’t panic this time. She simply waits until transitioning to the realm of fire. She willingly inhales the flames this time but wishes she hadn’t when glimpses a woman in black in the distance.
Nuria screams as she nearly headbutts Stark, clutching her throat, still feeling the start of internal burning.
“Can you stop giving us heart attacks?” Stark says with a relieved huff. “Are you okay? What’s wrong with your throat?”
“Nothing. Just needed to wake up fast.” Nuria barely manages to sit up on the couch. She looks through the windows and sees that night has arrived. “How many attempts do I have left today?”
“Nuria, you’ve been out for the last twenty hours. I think it’s time to slow this down. Right, Reddic?”
Nuria and Stark turn to Reddic, both silently trying to sway him with their expressions. Reddic looks at Nuria seriously, examining her head to toe. Nuria follows his eyes and finds it curious that they linger on her neck.
“Why did you wake up clutching your throat? What did you see?”
“What does that have to do with anything?” Rum asks.
“Agreed,” Stark adds.
“I was in a world of fire. I inhaled it on purpose, using the pain to force myself awake. It was only real to me in the dream. I’m fine.”
Rum narrows his eyes. “Your throat was sore a couple of days ago.”
“It was dry from my first one hundred percent power flex.”
“Did you dream about that fire world then, too?”
“I–” Nuria turns away guiltily, then turns back annoyed. “It doesn’t matter, okay? They’re just dreams. I have a goal here to see through! Do you have my back or not?”
Rum and Stark exchange uneasy looks.
“I say go for it!” Shuri says from the rear, making his way to the front of the group. “It’s important to you, right?”
“Then do it. Rum and Stark mean well; they just hate to see you hurt. But when you dream big, everything else is big, too. The pain, the joy, failures, and successes.”
“Sounds like you dream big, too?”
Shuri flashes her a smile on par with Reddic’s. “One day, I’m going to be Avinia’s number one dual-wielding swordsman! Nothing will stop me from succeeding! This is going to be a big success for you! Don’t stop unless it’s your decision! I believe you can do it!”
“As do I,” Reddic chimes in. To Rum and Stark he says, “Just watch. She’s going to show you a miracle today. Only she could’ve gotten to this point, and she did it on her own. Let’s–”
“No. Not on my own,” Nuria corrects. “Just like you, I had help with this. This ultimate Ibri technique- Manifestation- I’m only this close because of help from every class at Four Hearts Academy. S’nue, Vanusi, Sulublei, and Ohaida. Lauron, Tyra, Koren, Sutar, Rum, and Shuri. I only got to this point because of each of them. I have to succeed for them!”
And my inner phoenix, too! Whoever she is!
“Today’s my last chance, right? Eleven attempts?”
“That’s right,” Reddic replies.
“Then let’s go!”
Nuria races right out of the cabin without arguing further. She sprints down the hill using the same tactic as her first summoning attempt. She recalls her training with Lauron and sings to herself as she prepares to fire.
Running all night through the streets
Sitting most days in the heat
Stuck looking from the window seat
While you’re alone in the loveseat
I’m done being patient from my seat
Never patient on my feet!
Nuria flips upside down on her hands and blasts gilded flames into the sky with such force that hot air explodes out in every direction. She maintains her balance by expelling mezzo flames from her palms. She sinks to the ground slowly, her breathing a chore following the burst of power. She nearly curses when she opens one eye and watches something fluttering towards her.
A sole vermillion feather plops onto her chest.
Now we’re getting somewhere!
Nuria implies every tactic she knows to get her phoenix to appear. After the first try, the singing fails to work again, so she thinks of Sutar’s oxygen clue. The multiplication gets Nuria thinking combining her powers a different way. She coats her left hand in golden fire and her right hand with her auburn flames. She maximizes her power in both hands and tries to combine the fire blasts midair. It takes a chunk of her attempts to find the answer by calling both flames to one hand. She ends up on the ground with two feathers afterward.
Only two attempts left.
Nuria looks into the sky and the sun is well past its noon position. Knowing time is of the essence, she forces herself to stand, ignoring the cries of concern from her brother.
“If you…can’t watch…then leave.” The fury is clear even in her tired eyes. “Are we…a-a team…or not?”
Rum scratches his head furiously but raises it with a wry smile. “Go big, sis.”
Nuria mimics his smile. “Coming up.”
Gotta risk it! Two attempts in one! I’m not going back empty-handed!
Nuria starts running in place to build up heat through her entire body at once. Her body is so worked up that flames sprout on her arms and legs without her conscious command. They grow as the faces of those most impactful to her previous exercises come to mind. Rum, Shuri, Stark, and Reddic come to her heart and the circle they form warms it greatly. She puts all of her energy into this next attempt to give it back to them.
My respect and my love, she looks to the sun with gilded irises, it’s for you!
Nuria gathers her golden flames into a ball between her hands. She hurls it into the sky, the blaze eclipsing the sun from her view at launch. She watches her attack closely, waiting for more than one feather to fall this time. Alas, the fireball fizzles out without producing anything.
Nuria’s tears bounce off her face when she falls onto her knees. Her grand attempt has failed. She scrubs at her eyes frantically, upset to have let down her friends, herself, and her inner phoenix.
Never, young one, the voice from her dream says.
Nuria looks through her tear-filled eyes to a phantom dressed in black. Her ethereal form and the pink glow from the sunset make it hard to make out the details of her face aside from her golden eyes.
But I failed! I couldn’t summon a phoenix!
It was never your job. Trust the hills. Let them do what you can’t.
Nuria blinks her tears away. You’re her! The woman Reddic loves!
Focus, young one. No distractions, remember? Rise.
These hills are the birthplace of Manifestation. You’ve sensed what makes this place special. Let that guide you, young one.
The phantom dressed in black fades away whilst reaching for Nuria’s forehead. The phoenix somehow still feels the phantom’s gentle strokes through her hair.
“Trust the hills,” Nuria whispers. She chooses not to work herself up like before. Instead, as she absorbs the limited solar energy in the air, she releases it right back out through tiny embers popping off random spots around her body, save for her hair. The sheen from the floating embers cast a brilliant golden aura around Nuria. Before long, the embers move of their own accord and Nuria stops her part.
The embers swirl and form a shell around Nuria. Soon, the swirl moves so fast that Nuria is encased in the shell with no view of the outside world. As the shell shrinks, the portions that slide over Nuria feel as if they carry away parts of her essence. The shell condenses into an oval shape. Once the golden glow fades, what’s left behind falls to the ground, but Nuria saves it swiftly.
The large egg feels warm in her arms, like a freshly dried blanket. The majority of the shell is a rich vermillion color, but three sides of the tip have golden spots with a fourth orbiting just south of them. More tears stream down Nuria’s cheeks as she rests her forehead against the fourth spot.
Thank you…she says to the phantom, hoping she’s still listening.
Nuria whirls, ready for congratulations and cheering, and looks to Reddic first.
His expression is a composite of sheer regret and disappointment.