Nuria awakens from another dreamless night, so the week-long streak stands. She didn’t notice in the nights following the war, distracted by her peers, but she’s had no visits to that fiery world since leaving the Drijadi Hills. It’s another broken connection to the life she had. She turns over in bed and looks at the floor. Her egg lay in the open, uncovered and growing colder by the minute.
My inner phoenix doesn’t even make me hold it anymore.
There’s a knock at her door but the phoenix ignores it.
“Nuria, sweetie, come eat with us.” Auriel’s voice floats into the room softly. She typically only uses that tone when she or her brother are sick. The warmth it usually bestows Nuria doesn’t come today. However, her stomach growl reverberates around the dark room.
“I made spaghetti and garlic bread. Come get it while it’s hot.”
Like it matters.
Nuria gets out of bed at an agonizingly slow pace. She doesn’t bother to change out of her pajamas, brush her hair or teeth, or even glance at her egg. Clothes, hygiene, her powers (all incarnations), they’re all inconsequential to the apathetic teenager. If it didn’t take more energy on top of getting out of bed, she’d be naked.
Nuria leaves her door open on her way downstairs, traversing the black and chrome furniture lethargically. Her mother and brother are already eating at the dining table, a third plate set and waiting just for her. Auriel invites her over with a smile but Rum turns away in annoyance. Neither reaction reaches her; she takes the seat simply to conserve what little energy she has left.
Her hunger weakens in the presence of the spaghetti and garlic bread. The mixed aromas of the meat, marinara, parmesan, and butter chase her appetite away. Her family members suffer no such fate, digging into their plates with zest. A hazy memory starts to form in the back of Nuria’s mind, a conversation with Shuri playing out in black and white. She can’t recall the words he said, she just has the sense that the plate before her is…somehow incomplete.
She lifts her head and stares at the ceiling, strands of her hair falling onto her face, and sighs through her nose. Every day since she’s been home has been a struggle. Everything provokes her mind to conjure a memory she can’t comprehend. Try as she might, each of them has eluded her. She doesn’t wish to remain in her lethargic mood, but nothing that brings her joy or anger or sadness sticks. She wants to join her mother and brother’s conversation, but no words come to her tongue.
“Don’t worry, sweetie,” Auriel says and gestures to the plate. “I’ll save it for you for later. But maybe you can help us with the dishes. I know you like singing and using the dishrag as a microphone. Come on.”
Nuria doesn’t fight as Auriel guides her to the sink, too busy trying to remember all the times she’s sung into a dishrag in full detail. There’s one where she was seven years old, another when she had two teeth missing, and yet another when she was grounded and doing the dishes alone but still singing her heart out. She can tell those versions of herself were happy, however, none of the songs they sang are clear to her.
Nuria stands at the third station of their dishwashing assembly line. The first station, cleaning, is Auriel’s. Rum handles rinsing. Nuria’s job has always been drying. A fractured memory of a melted plate floats through her mind. She tries to focus on her warped reflection in the molten ceramic, hoping to finally reclaim a memory through self-recognition. Melting things back then was as much a part of her life as anything, and if she can reconnect to that, she hopes it’ll make the rest easier. Just as color returns to the memory, her focus is broken by her brother. He nudges her elbow fiercely before jamming the first plate in her hands.
She dries the plate and doesn’t stop, wiping ceaselessly in circles. The last time a plate was forced on her was when Tyra cooked her bacon and eggs. This memory is the most complete. It’s in full color, the hunger she felt then hits her now, Tyra’s motherly side was endearing, but she can’t hear the words they exchanged or realize why she was so tired. She commits to reading their lips when–
“Go upstairs, sweetie. We’ll finish the dishes,” Auriel commands.
The phoenix is too eager to oblige, tired from her physical and mental pressure. She ignores the food put in a container for her, simply wanting to go back to bed. Being awake hurts her too much. She curses when her legs give out right outside her bedroom door. She pouts as more loose hairs droop across her face. She rolls over so she can see her bed and imagines herself on it. Just as her eyelids grow heavy, her family’s voices echo upstairs.
“Honestly, not as much as I thought. But on days like today, it’s hard to resist the urge to call my former CO.”
“Commanding Officer. He was my mentor back then. He taught me everything I know.”
Immediately, Nuria feels like she’s back at the FHA auditorium, eyes magnetically drawn to everywhere Reddic is. His white and yellow eyes, double-breasted vest, folded back sleeve cuffs are crystal clear, as are the first words she heard him say.
I know I’m new here, but believe this promise. I am not here just to propel Four Hearts Academy into a new era, but also to expand your growth beyond the scope of just your latent powers.
Nuria strays away from the memory willingly, eager to hear what else her mother has to say, hoping it’ll trigger more memories to come back.
“When I left active duty to raise you and your sister, he understood. I didn’t.”
Nuria feels the sting of realizing she’s angry at Reddic. She understands why he left, but she hates that he left her. Given the choice, she would’ve chosen to go with him. Not even to keep learning about her phoenix powers, but in the hopes she would continue to enjoy life. His near eternal joviality got to her. Her time with him was too short, and she wishes more than anything she could have him back.
“The world that was taking shape around me was glorious. It hurt like hell to leave. I felt just like how Nuria does now. Only, I had two children depending on me, so I didn’t have the luxury of healing at my own pace. Funny thing, though. It didn’t take long anyway.”
Nuria peeks through her open door and straight at her egg collecting dust on the floor. The product of her whole semester’s efforts and she’s treating it like a pair of shoes.
Worse. I make sure to take off my shoes before using my fire powers. But this…
She doesn’t have to remember anything to know Auriel never treated her or Rum that way. But here she is, acting as if she has the time to entertain her pity party. She and Reddic shared a dream and she’s not gonna forsake it for anything. All the help and assistance given to her can’t amount to nothing. She drags herself into her room despite her hunger and body aches, aware that the pain she feels will worsen if she lets her child perish from neglect.
There are three golden spots at the tip and one south of those in the center. Nuria rests her head against the latter.
Reddic. Tyra. Everyone. You. I’m sorry.
Nuria fights to get back on her feet, using her bed for leverage. She’s amazed she finds the energy to lift her egg. However, she uses the banister to descend the stairs, clutching her egg more out of fear of dropping it than with her inner phoenix grip.
No more mother rabbit energy, I guess.
She marches into the kitchen, upset that she can’t thank her mother and brother for their patience, too worried to spend too long away from the safety of her bed. Once she swipes the plastic container, she makes the slowest beeline for the stairs. When music from the tv stops her short. The three dishrag microphone memories come back to her. This time, she knows the song titles.
“Run, Gyara”, “Never Patient”, and “Fame Rhythm”.
The first concert Auriel ever took her to was where “Fame Rhythm” debuted. It’s not Nuria’s favorite song or album of The Four Feathermen, but it will always be a special moment. Aside from the blown-up poster that she took with her cellphone she keeps as a souvenir, that was when her love for music and singing was truly born. With that memory warming her heart, Nuria carefully returns to the second floor.
“Enjoy the meal, sweetie.”
Nuria crests the mountainous staircase and takes a deserved breath. She leans back against her bedroom door to close it. She rocks herself side to side until gathering enough momentum to move off the door, only to end up heading for the floor. She manages to lay her egg on the bed but falls onto her chin for the second time in recent memory. It comes out dry and strained but she laughs as she ruminates on the time she tried to mimic Koren’s jungle gym tricks. Her hunger returns just from her recalling that physical failure.
The last of her physical strength fades when she pops off the container lid. The mixed aromas of the meat, marinara, parmesan, and butter make the phoenix salivate. She doesn’t let her energy drought stop her from enjoying the meal. She slams her face into the food, grabs a mouthful, lifts her head, and slurps and chews desperately. She doesn’t care when her loose hairs stay in the food or the sauce and parmesan that sticks to her face. Every mouthful is another welcomed shot of energy to fuel her muscles. She sits up and swallows the garlic bread in two bites. She shovels the spaghetti into her mouth with both hands, finishing off the two meatballs last.
She leans against her bed and belches with intense satisfaction. Every breath she takes feels brand new as if she were back at the Drijadi Hills.
It’s crazy that the last time I felt like this was right after I made my egg. And speaking of…
Nuria spins and rests her head on her hands.
“I know the perfect name for you,” Nuria says, her voice coarse and raspy.
Now that more of her memories are becoming accessible, one thing she remembers about The Four Feathermen that no other band or artist has is their rehearsal routine. Each of the band members are always mobile at concerts, even the drummer. They use four specific marks during rehearsals: X (bridge), A (verse), I (chorus), and another X (bar). They kept A’s universal meaning but switched B and C with I and X. Since they have four bandmates and didn’t; want to add another letter, they doubled up on X and gave it a second meaning.
Nuria uses the four letters, X-A-I-X to christen her child. “Xaix (pronounced psyches). Do you like it?”
She reaches out to touch the egg when the shell suddenly cracks. Her shocked gasp comes out as a coughing spell. The cracks spiderweb outward and golden light shines through. When the light overtakes Nuria’s wintry eyes, the phoenix is temporarily blinded by an explosion of gilded flames.
Nuria’s sight returns just as she hears glass shattering. When a set of long vermillion tail feathers vanish below her window’s horizon, she panics. Her burning room, posters and all, no longer signify. She can’t lose her child on day one.
Auriel and Rum dash upstairs hastily but Nuria barrels past them as she barks orders. “Rum, put the fire out!”
As expected, her mother pursues her down the steps. “Nuria, what happened?”
“My egg hatched! I’m going after it!”
“Go on ahead! I’ll be right behind you!” Auriel declares, moving to the garage.
Nuria runs outside, kicks off her shoes, gathers heat from the sand in the soles of her feet, and blasts off. A wave of burnt sand backdrops her takeoff. However, she didn’t gain much altitude, flying close to the ground, and with the force of her mezzo flames and shaky constitution, she’s unable to climb higher. Nuria groans when she sees her summoned phoenix blitzing through the sky effortlessly, the tail feathers whipping about gracefully in its wake.
Damn it! If I’d taken better care of myself, I’d catch her in no time!
The shame she feels grows in proportion to the distance between them, and the gap lengthens both vertically and horizontally.
I only have one chance. I’ll use the oasis nearby to create one of those steamy explosions. I’ll use that momentum to close the distance and correct my trajectory. I’m coming for you, Xaix!
With limited morpu and only one shot, Nuria closes her left eye, using phoenix sight in just her right one. Ten meters ahead is the oasis. She prepares to generate the phreatic explosion when somehow that still oasis generates a vibration phantom.
A woman with coiled blonde hair pokes her head out the water. She and Nuria lock eyes briefly and in that instant, Nuria’s aware that they both can predict how to avoid a collision. They break the clash of their snowy eyes when Nuria extinguishes her mezzo flames and rolls through the sand while the blonde submerges. Nuria doesn’t even have time to entertain why she’s just encountered another Hero’s class member with Xaix getting away. She coughs profusely as she scans the sky. The tail feathers entering the clouds is the last she sees of her progeny.
Nuria cries out and slams her fists against the sand.
NO! No time to wallow! That’s over!
The phoenix jumps up, dusts herself off, and speed walks back home. She’s already formulated a strategy for how to resume the chase when Auriel comes and picks her up with her motorcycle. She knows her mother will veto her plan, so she keeps it to herself. She barges up to her room, no longer on fire, though she can tell by the extent of the damage that Rum made sure to save her cellphone poster first.
Nuria grabs her cellphone now and fires off two texts, one to Reddic and the other to Tyra.
Sorry for the radio silence. Give me another week, T. I’ll explain later.
Hey. I hope you’re not busy because…I need serious help. Phoenixes are drawn to higher altitudes because they grow faster there, right? I like in and around the Sakela area. What’s the highest peak in my area? You can guess why I’m asking.
Both responses are instant.
Looking forward to it.
Did the egg hatch? What does it look like? Have you given it a name yet? Try to be more original than I was.
She replies impatiently.
Answer my question first. Please.
Mount Handreau. Be warned. The winters there are harsh. Sakela’s a desert region, so best pack warm. If you need help, just let me know. Once a mentor, always a mentor. Be careful, Nuria.
Nuria smiles but doesn’t feel exuberant. In her heart, she knows Reddic left for the right reasons…but if he left once, he could leave again. She replies one last time with that fear in mind.
Thanks. I’ll take it from here.
Nuria pockets her phone and frantically searches her room for the atlas she used to chart her course to Four Hearts last year. It takes her only a minute to find a map of Vanu that shows the general distance between Sakela Falls and Mount Handreau. She rips that page and the following one out the book, pockets the former, and folds the latter.
The next things on her checklist are a small knapsack, three changes of clothes, a journal, and an emergency sun seed stash her mother made her keep in her closet. She ingests two now, stashes two in her knapsack, and burns the rest, unwilling to battle that addiction a second time. She uses a partially melted pen to scribble a message on the folded page.
“You guys will always be part of my world! <3”
She cracks her window, takes in the energy from the afternoon sun, and spreads her wings. Gilded embers detach from her feathers dazzlingly.
But my new world is right around the corner!
Without a second’s hesitation more, Nuria soars into the sky and resumes the chase for Xaix. She has no clue where she’ll go, what she’ll see and experience, but if it brings her and Xaix back together, she’ll tackle it head-on. She follows Xaix into the clouds, the desert below her a thing of the past. Wherever she exits this fluffy white void, she’ll descend with the intent to conquer her world.
And I’ll conquer it in no time at all!