Nuria watches Tyra’s town car vanish into the sea of shuttles, standing safely on the side with her egg, its heat pulsing in her arms. Her farewell to the angel has her amused and emboldened. She hopes her message gets delivered, ready to back it up if she’s forced to. Tyra seemed to be on board but Nuria knows she’ll have to nudge her a time or two more to get them on the same page.
She knows I will and I know she’ll listen!
Still brimming with energy, Nuria turns back to campus, eager to check on the remainder of her classmates. Time, since the war ended, has felt nebulous but now she wants every second to count. Unfortunately, the next voice she hears stops the phoenix in her tracks.
“You may not realize it but what you just said is practically a declaration of war,” Reddic says with a laugh. Her jaunty mentor hops down from one of the stone pillars framing the front gate.
“No, I’m aware of that. And if Tyra’s mom tries to test me, she’ll get what I promised.”
Reddic laughs nervously. “Oh, boy.”
“But Tyra and I have that covered. What have you been up to, by the way? Feels like forever since we talked.”
“That’s why I’m here. I’ve been trying to extinguish every fire that started because of The Pure’s attack. I have one more left. Come with me.”
“Okay…” Nuria mumbles but follows her jaunty mentor all the same.
The look on Reddic’s face isn’t brimming with the enthusiasm he exhibits as he moves past Nuria, and this is the first time she’s seen him walk with his hands in his pockets. With his back to her as well, every way she has to perceive his mood change is eliminated. So, she tries a direct approach.
“My…lucky tooth is back at Ibri House.” Reddic turns to her and winks.
Nuria nods and keeps her head low to glance at the soldiers and officers around.
So, this is a serious talk and he doesn’t want any of these guys to overhear. The phoenix beams. About time! It’s gotta be news for next year! He’ll probably teach me something even greater than Manifestation! She follows Reddic more eagerly now.
Not even the disheveled state of Ibri House dampens her excitement. The broken doors and windows, cracked floorboards, ripped open pillows, smashed stove, and the rest of the damages leave her mind promptly. Oh, is this the final fire? Announcing the reconstruction? Guess I should act surprised.
Fanger comes out of hiding as Reddic sits on the least ruined couch. He pats the seat beside him and Nuria takes it.
“Sorry for vanishing on you the way I did. With Neth and Tameri out of commission and the other professors in the conditions they were in, Stark and I had to move quickly to get ahead of the fallout. Do you understand so far?”
“You mean the news, don’t you?”
“I figured. They weren’t kind to Stark before, so I can see them being meaner after all of this.” Her locked arms keep her from gesturing to the room, so she whips her braid around instead.
“To keep her name clear, I’d already taken precautions before we joined the battle. Without proof, defending Stark a second time would be impossible. So, I positioned Shuri’s camera strategically to capture footage of the battle.”
“Does the news have this footage?”
Reddic pulls out his phone and shows the broadcast paused with Stark’s victory pose and anchor on screen together.
“That’d make a great poster.”
Reddic chuckles. “That fire needed to be addressed first because it set off several extended disasters. First and foremost, the officers assigned to the campus in our absence were all sleeper agents for The Pure. Jupiter City is a haven for interracial business, so officers being identified as part of The Pure has damaged the city’s reputation. JC officials, Stark, and I banked our hopes on Eye-Site News targeting Stark as the source so we could use the footage,” he wiggles his phone, “to stem that damage. It’s not perfect but people will rally behind a publicized hero. So, we had several students send in recorded testimonials praising Stark, starting with your class.”
Nuria smiles at first, then scoffs. “Why didn’t you ask me?”
Reddic nods to her egg. “The mystery in your hands would become its own story. Plus, best not to announce to the world straight away that you’ve brought the phoenix species back from extinction. You and your future child can have an easier time that way. Besides, you aren’t hurt. We asked students with bruises and scrapes to amp up sympathy for them and more of a heroic picture of Stark.”
“I guess that’s fair,” Nuria says with a pout. “What’s the last fire? Can I help with it?”
Reddic’s smile is squashed by the wistful luster of his yellow and white eyes. “You can…but you’re not going to like how.” He moves the player of the video two minutes and eighteen seconds ahead. “Listen carefully.”
He hits play.
“And we’re back. Continuing with coverage of the War of FHA, we’ve determined the remainder of the video appropriate for all audiences but the language and rhetoric spoken do not reflect the views of Eye-Site News. Take a look.”
Nuria watches Victa come to Liamria’s defense, cursing Stark in the process. His bloody face is turned away from the camera.
“I wouldn’t concern myself with her condition if I were you. Your ledger is due. That’s right. I remember who you are. No amount of blood will disguise you from me. I look forward to delivering you to Warden Crata.”
That’s right, he killed Stark’s best friend. Warden Crata’s old, so maybe that friend was his child. If I ever get the chance, I’m strangling that asshole!
Nuria watches the next part with keen interest. She sees a singular, thin trail of ice race her to Victa and win. It spreads out and the ice wall erects even faster than she realized. She feels the cold surface all over again as she hears her fist collide with it. That chill grows as she sees four robed people march along the trail of ice and join Victa, the one in the center dragging a robe large enough to be a circus tent. Soon, that robe is filled out as the wearer’s size balloons to over twenty feet tall.
Is that a Vanusi transformation? The other three were Sulublei. Maybe it was just a trick and that one isn’t an actual giant? I can’t think of an animal that large.
Nuria hears her own voice shout, “That’s big talk from the back of your beast! I dare any of you to say it to my face! Or, if you prefer, I can come to you!”
Damn, I sound kind of badass there.
“Our next encounter will come soon enough,” the man with the crimson sparks threatens.
“As long as Ibri House exists, Four Hearts Academy will never again be safe,” says the man with the ice powers.
Just like his ice wall chilled her powers, his words now chill Nuria’s soul when Reddic pauses the broadcast. She sees the truth in his wistful expression. All of sudden, the damage to Ibri House is more distressing. The doors she first walked through in the company of the very news network covering the war will not be reconnected. The stove Reddic cooked the majority of her meals all semester will end up refuge in some random landfill. The downstairs classroom and gym will be torn down. The bedroom upstairs where she and her classmates hunkered down after a terrible day at the mall will no longer exist. The final fire for Reddic to put out…
Nuria’s arms drop from her egg, numb from a pain she can’t even comprehend the extent of. Her original goal for coming to FHA was to determine the significance of her golden flames. Not even a full year under Reddic’s tutelage, and she feels she succeeded. To now have her chance to advance even further beyond stripped from her leaves the phoenix despondent.
It takes her a while just to find the strength to lift her head.
“You’re leaving.” Her voice doesn’t even rise at the end to form a proper question.
“I am,” Reddic admits. He changes the tab on his phone to show a live press conference. Stark, Crata, Syerus, Commissioner Daci, and the mayor are all in attendance. The conference is muted but the title at the bottom of the screen reads “The End Of Ibri House?” Stark appears to be responding to the most questions.
“Why?” Nuria asks tonelessly, unable to commit to a single emotion.
“For Four Heart’s future. The war we just went through needed to have a point. Something we could counter in hopes of keeping the academy alive. If it looked like The Pure attacked just because, nobody would ever trust their children to us again. Right now, Stark is, well, listen.”
Reddic unmutes the press conference.
“Yes, the Ibri Professor has agreed to step down, but whose idea was it to instate that house in the first place?”
“It was the unanimous idea of Headmaster Neth, the professors, and myself. We knew the risk but deemed it worthwhile to take that step. We are appalled by the response that members of our community in Jupiter City- especially the turncoat officers- showed us. We will track each of them down and bring them to justice. In the meantime, as we allow our city and Four Hearts Academy to heal, Ibri House will be retired indefinitely.”
Reddic mutes the conference and puts his phone away. Both he and Fanger gaze upon Nuria, aware her heart is breaking all over again, even if she’s too numb to cry.
“When?” she says after a long pause.
“As soon as I can. I promised Stark I’d help track down the members of The Pure who escaped. But I have one last lesson for you before I go.”
Nuria slowly wraps her arms around her egg and sits forward.
“We’ve had a great time, short as it was. I’ll cherish this as long as I live. You know why; because you took me away from a dark place. This reprieve was exactly what I needed. However, it was made special by having you as a student. It reminded me of what’s great about Avinia again. You are part of the future I want for our world. And to that end, I have one last piece of advice.
“Put a lower degree of importance on your powers. The Pure is full of individuals who glorify or scrutinize one by their blood and abilities because they obsess over them. You may be a phoenix, but you are so much more. You have a beautiful singing voice, an impressive imagination, and even better friends than I. Don’t let any of it go to waste. Can you do that for me?”
While her physical proximity to jaunty mentor is within inches, his voice sounds far away. In the imagined space between them, she sees transparent glimpses of Tyra braiding her hair, singing with Professor Cwen, Shuri encouraging her at the Drijadi Hills, and her and Rum working together against their mother. She feels disconnected from those moments but knows she wants them back.
“I can,” she says meekly.
“Then I have no qualms presenting this to you.” Reddic pulls a folded paper from his vest. He opens it for Nuria. “Read it.”
In light of recent and unfortunate events, I have to present this to you in this manner the note that reflects your commitment and ingenuity concerning the lessons and exercises assigned to you. It’s my pleasure to announce you as valedictorian of the first-ever graduating class of Ibri House. Carry this honor with you in my absence and promise to continue to excel at each and every task I’ve given you, the last three in particular. Congratulations, my dear.
Nuria blinks when the letter flutters down onto the couch in front of her. She hastily stands and calls out, “Reddic… Fanger…” The memory of him and Fanger approaching from a river becomes as transparent as any of the others she has of them. She sinks to her knees, numb all over, and settles of a frightening revelation.
I’m not coming back to Four Hearts Academy.