1.1: Execumama

“Am I home?”

Auriel marched down a long, black-bricked stairwell lit by mounted furnaces spaced fifteen apart. Her three shadows moved on the walls, her only company beside her executioner’s blade fastened to her back by leather bands and metal braces. Tried as she did to infuse her strides with confidence, descending into basements of any kind made her head grow cold, the headache a nuisance. However, come what hells may, the depths she explored were her choice to do so.

     Her wardrobe during her descent was her black body suit with riveted metal along her abs and shoulders. Her boots were tied with lightweight laces comprised of the same material. It was the suit her older sister invented and it saved them both at a young age. No matter the situation between them now, she loved her sister for bequeathing her a set. In fact, whether intended or not, the goal Auriel sought now was due to her sister. Failing would besmirch her name. But even worse than that, it would infringe upon her family’s reputation. The Aurivellor legacy would lose face. Auriel smirked crossly.

     As if my existence wasn’t enough of a stain. They probably wish I was a mediocre, untalented, and temporary fancy.

     A black door with a brick façade rested at the bottom of the stairwell. A thin groove in the middle was the only way to grip it. With one strong pull, Auriel hefted the door to the ceiling. She expected to walk inside for a duel but a large three-foot silver sword flew right at her. Her hesitation lasted half a second because half a second later she would’ve been skewered and she would not do her family the honor of dying that way.

     She wrenched her executioner’s blade loose and parried the thrust. Still, the weight of the silver sword forced her up the stairs. The constraints of the stairwell didn’t impact her swordsmanship because she’s practiced at fighting in small spaces, with and without Bond of the Blade. However, she realized that her fight against the silver sword was a losing one. Each parry and block forced her up the stairs. She needed to enter that room if she was ever going to stay with the only family she wanted.

     Auriel guarded an overhead strike and angled her sword to the right, jamming the silver sword between a mounted furnace and her executioner’s blade. She vaulted the furnace on the opposite side and raced down the steps, using her Bond of the Blade to keep the silver sword from pursuing her. At the same time, she used Bulis (a technique that allows an Ohaida to manipulate the mystic energy shared between them and their bonded weapon) to erect a radar around her in a one-hundred-foot radius. Only four pings registered. Ariel canceled the radar to apply Bulis to her body.

     No more setbacks.

     Auriel somersaulted into the room and took a crouched, reactive stance. Her mentor stood in the center of the room, his aura imposing with his calm demeanor and a full set of silver armor. His lapis eyes cut as much as his silver sword, brooking no weakness to exist, especially in this room. The three seated behind him were the same, though the one in the middle had the same effect even when amused.

     “That was only supposed to take you three seconds,” her mentor said tersely.

     “I took seven. I heard it took you twelve,” Auriel rejoined.

     Without any change in his posture, gaze, or attitude, Auriel felt his next attack half a second early. She crossed her arms above her head and stopped the silver sword from splitting her skull. The bricked floor cracked beneath her boots. Drops of blood spilled into the cracks.

     Auriel raised her head and stared at her mentor triumphantly, the blood from her forearms produced by shallow cuts…from the full force of the Ohai nation’s knight, the premiere warrior of the entire army.

     “That was supposed to split me in half, huh,” Auriel said proudly.

     “And it didn’t. Good.”

     Soft applause rang from behind her mentor. The woman in the middle leaned forward with a coy smile. “Come now, Kirby. Not even I can block your full-powered strike without harm. Surely “good” isn’t the extent of your praise.”

     “But it is,” Auriel said in tandem with her mentor.

     Auriel continued and said, “It’s welcomed. One day, I will impress Kirby and he won’t be able to hide it. Until then, I will simply take his job and do it better than he ever could.”

     “Oh,” the seated woman said. “Anything to that, Kirby?”

     Kirby called his silver sword back to him as he addressed Auriel with his sharp gaze. It only took him showing her a brief smile to turn his demeanor from disapproving to proud. With his dark hair, bronze skin, and lapis eyes, the smile makes him look drop-dead gorgeous.

     No wonder Autry took to him.

     “Only that I’m sure to leave my position in good hands.”

     Auriel bowed graciously after calling her executioner’s blade to her side. She grew up with very little positive reinforcement aside from her own and learned never to crave it from others, but simply to respect and appreciate when it’s given. All the training Kirby gave her was worth more than any compliment. She had developed a life and purpose outside her family’s influence thanks to him. No matter the issues she faced, he was there to keep her afloat, focused, and dutiful. The wedding was still a ways away but to her, Kirby was already her big brother. She was ready to give him the retirement he deserved.

     Security is Auriel’s specialty. She knows how to spot gaps and shore them up. The key is to get surveillance, manpower, and protocols to support one another in an efficient loop. Surveillance requires manpower that must adhere to the protocol as one cohesive unit. If the manpower lacks, the security fails. If the protocols aren’t followed or sloppily constructed, yet another failure. The means of surveillance must be polished and impregnable. It was the failure to uphold those three exploited by the double agents placed by The Pure that allowed The War of FHA to occur.

     The reports that Auriel reads through- a collection of in-depth background and psyche checks- tell her that those issues may not repeat themselves. The two signatures at the bottom of every report belong to the two officers on Neth’s side. All three bask in the sunlight of a beautiful summer day. Auriel shuts the dossier and snaps her face up. Officers Stark and Roark meet her gaze solidly. However, Headmaster Neth’s shoulders are droopy and his eyes are soft.

     He’s still nervous. Pathetic.

     “This is not promising.” Auriel lay the dossier on Neth’s desk. “I expected more powered individuals on the security team. Why was that not a priority?”

     “It was,” Neth replies wearily. “Our efforts were rebuffed.”

     She waits for a second to see if he explains further. When he doesn’t, she sighs and crosses her legs. “You promised me absolute transparency, headmaster. How were your efforts rebuffed?”


     “By me,” Stark states boldly. “I decided to overrule that decision.”

     “Why?” Auriel asks, but she already knows from the officer’s resolute demeanor that an explanation’s guaranteed.

     “While I was successful in rounding up all the refugees and corrupt cops from the war, Victa and my mother remain at large. Until captured, I’ll already have to split my time between hunting them and my time here on campus. Their influence is too great to ignore and powered individuals are all they have to guarantee a resurgence. Until I hold up my responsibility, powered people on campus will remain in homeostasis.”

     Auriel faces Officer Roark. “How are you?” She asks to gauge the extent of his rehabilitation.

     “I am fit for duty. My recertification and medical history were first in that dossier. Neither were falsified.”

     Roark presses a palm flat against the circular window. In a flash, the entire pane is coated with a dark tint. When he removes it and the sunlight rushes back in to bathe them all, Auriel witnesses a curious flicker of light to Stark’s right. She doesn’t look in that direction but scowls all the same. That flicker tells her that something is being held back from her.

     That’s why Neth’s nervous. Reddic will have to work on his poker face. Still, I’ll get nothing probative this way.

     “Stark, will you take a drive with me? I think Nuria and Rum would like to see you,” Auriel says.

     “Oh, if they’re here, then perhaps–”

     “They’re not here, headmaster. If I let them set foot on campus, taking them home would be impossible. And I’m not yet convinced I should let them stay.” Auriel rises from her chair gracefully, dismissing herself from the meeting. “Shall we?”

     “We shall.”

     “Thank you for your time, gentlemen.”

     “Of course,” Neth says. “Give Nuria and Aurum my sincere condolences.”

     Auriel nods before leading Stark to the office’s door. She gestures for Stark to exit first, following behind on her heels, and shutting the door straight away. She listens intently for the door opening, even as she and Stark descend to the foyer by one of the curving staircases. Auriel stares at her reflection in the glass doors and leers when she sees that same flicker at the second-floor railing.

     You aren’t going to know everything either.

     “Given your appropriate concern for Nuria and Rum’s safety, I can’t imagine you left them by themselves.”

     “The 61st Regiment. My former CO is grooming the captain there,” Auriel says. “She’s young but she’s impressive.”

     “Ah, so that’s the connection,” Stark says, leading Auriel around the repaired courtyard fountain. The water pours into the fountain from the hands of the newly erected statue in the center.


     “Your connection to Reddic. He’s connected to Kirby and Kirby to you.”

     Auriel regards Stark curiously. “He told you about Kirby?”

     “Not quite. The road to trust between us was bumpy. Much like the road you’re still on.” Stark asks the next question with her eyes.

     “I trust Reddic to a point. A man like him always has more hidden than open. Kirby’s relationship with him always puts a target on his position. And now your headmaster’s in the same predicament. A shield for Reddic to hide his dirty work behind.”

     “So, you noticed, did you?” Stark asks with a laugh.

     “There are signs I’ve flagged to detect him under bright light. His invisibility isn’t perfect.”

     “I use smell. He can never fully get the stench of Fanger off.”

     Auriel chuffs as she unlocks her jeep via fob. She and Stark climb in promptly. The second the jeep starts the radio blares, “–the jam goes on next with “Keep Your Love On The Left Side” by The Fo–”

     Auriel mutes the radio.

     “Good to hear Nuria hasn’t changed too much,” Stark says.

     “Hold that thought,” Auriel says eerily.

     “Was it the war?”

     “Worse.” Auriel reverses and prepares to turn down the two-lane road leading away from campus. An FHA bus approaches from the opposite direction.

     “Is she okay? What’s her state of mind like?”

     “In pieces.”

     “I suspect seeing me only to leave after will break her further.”

     Auriel replies gravely, “Only if you fail to change my mind. You’re the only one who can.”

     Stark shakes her head. “I don’t intend to do so.”

     Auriel asks her next question with her mind.

     “We held psyche evals for both new and old faculty. Returning to Four Hearts now isn’t easy. The bus passing us now has less than twenty students on it and it will be the only trip that the bus takes. Just setting foot on this campus will take their breath away. If Nuria and Rum aren’t ready, or if you aren’t convinced they’ll be safe, or if their returning comes too soon, then take them home.” Stark looks Auriel in the eyes and challenges the animosity within. “But don’t refuse them this opportunity to spite Reddic.”

     Stark nods toward the bus as students disembark. “Perhaps they can help Nuria pick up the pieces.”

     Auriel gazes at the students through her side view mirror, remembering a few from broadcast testimonials defending Stark. However, the one she specifically looks for is absent. “Where’s–”

     A shadow sails overhead and uncovers an unwelcome flicker. Auriel turns away and watches as the shadow’s owner lands in front of the jeep.

     After her moonlight wings retreat into her shoulders, after her ruby haori with midnight butterflies all over it falls back over her shoulders, after letting her pearl kimono and midnight obi settle, Tyra rises. She smooths her neck-length raven hair and inhales sharply before moving to the driver-side window. She waits patiently as an amused Auriel lowers the window. She’s impressed when Tyra doesn’t break eye contact with her silvery gaze.

     Tyra bows her head slightly. “You’ll have to pardon my intrusion but I sensed greater than average distress from Officer Stark as new souls entered the campus. I came to make certain the students and Stark were fine. I’m Tyra, by the way. And you are?”

     “Tyra, this is–”

     Auriel silences Stark with a raised hand. “If she’s been using her emotional scrying this whole time, then she’ll know who I am when I say Nuria.”

     A slight smile tugs at Tyra’s lips. She extends her hand and Auriel shakes it firmly. “It’s a pleasure to finally meet you. I wanted to be at the meeting proper but Neth was concerned about me inadvertently revealing things I shouldn’t.”

     Auriel lifts a brow. “Such as?”

     Tyra whispers, “Reddic.”

     Auriel keeps her calm but knows the angel can divine her emotions regardless.

     Tyra continues whispering, evident she’s aware Reddic is nearby. “Rest assured, I will not tell Nuria you know him or that you carry disdain for him. You will tell her when you’re ready.”

     “You won’t get the chance to tell her, regardless. I’m taking Nuria and Rum home.”

     Tyra raises her voice to room volume as she says, “And that is your choice as her mother. However, as her sister, I have a promise to keep. She and I will never be torn apart again. Wherever it is you take her, I will find. And if my mother couldn’t keep us apart, then you stand no chance. Nuria brought me above water and gave me my first taste of fresh air. She keeps me afloat. For as long as I live, I’ll do the same for her; here at Four Hearts Academy and beyond.”

     Auriel hums in thought. “What about Rum?”

     Tyra smirks. “Right now, one of my classmates is staring at this jeep and her soul is alight with love and worry. I believe she recognizes this jeep and thinks Rum’s inside. She’s the one who will fight for him. Because you see, that’s what we do here. We fight for each other. We protect each other. Everyone that’s returned is my family. Nuria’s family. Rum’s family.” Tyra lay a hand on the base of the open window. “Please don’t try to tear our family apart.”

     Auriel turns and looks down the road. “Stark, you may step out now.”

     Stark nods and humbly exits the jeep.

     Auriel knows the officer would understand if she kept Nuria and Rum away but the flaw here is that they do. Nuria and Rum’s peers do as well but they still see victory as a given. When they banded together and survived, a collective ego was born. It only lasts long as the collective remains.

     If I don’t bring them back, how long will their façade last? How much longer can Nuria hold onto herself by herself? Would she and Rum make up otherwise?


     “How were they?” Auriel asks, standing beside Captain Venesi at the entrance to the 61st Regiment’s bunker. Nuria and Rum are both in the backseat, sitting as far from the other as possible.

     Captain Venesi’s blue eyes rest in the middle of the battlefield her pale skin and raven hair wage war on. As usual, her snowflake-shaped ring sword hangs on her back. She replies in a soft tone, “They were… more demure than expected. I saw footage of them during The War of FHA and expected more energetic and troublesome teenagers.”

     “Normally, yes, they’d be a handful,” Auriel says ruefully.

     “May I ask a personal question?” Venesi asks.

     “About my children?”

     “About you.”

     Auriel thinks a moment then nods.

     “As you’re aware, Kirby is training me to take his place as Knight. What you don’t know, however, is that I wasn’t his first choice. Only once I met him did I realize that it wasn’t his choice. After turning down hundreds of potential candidates, I was forced onto him by the Silent Slayers. When I first met him, he told me that I was a consolation. That nobody would ever surpass the only person he nominated for the role.”

     “That’s just his–”

     “No, you misunderstand. I’m nobody’s consolation and told him I’d earn the spot. And I will. What I’m wondering after doing the math to understand he meant you is why you never accepted the role. Was it because of your kids?”

     Auriel stares at the backseat tenderly. At one point in her life, Kirby and her sister were the centers of her universe. Her goal was to take over Kirby’s position so they could lead new lives, though she was sure her sister would never retire willingly. That plan withered to dust when Nuria and Rum were born. The centers of her universe shifted. She was no longer a soldier. She became a mother. Auriel smiles wide.

     And it’s more important to me than I ever imagined it could be!

     “No, it wasn’t because of my kids. I’d never blame them after making my life better.”

     They’re my family! The day I treat them the way my family treated me is never coming! No matter what parts of me I sacrifice or prejudices I put aside! They will be happy!

     “Be well, captain,” Auriel says.

     “You as well.”

     Auriel climbs into the jeep with a smile she shines on Nuria and Rum.

“Turn those frowns upside down. I’m taking you home.”

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