I put myself in my glass box, waves of blue light popping all around, and I belted every voice and chorus until my one-person concert hall fell silent.
“Go, Carnya! Go!” Dig cheers.
“Don’t forget to chew this time! Explore the flavors!” Swallow and describe!” Barry orders, holding up a pencil and napkin to take more notes.
Carnya powers her way through the chunk of steak in her mouth, chewing it down into the largest possible pieces she can swallow. She looks pained as she does so but moves on to the next dish without delay.
Barry swats her hand. “Nun-uh. Explain the taste first. The cake can wait!”
Pan laughs at their hijinks from across the restaurant, mostly because they run through the dishes without making a mess, and some of the cooks and guests are amazed by Carnya’s impressive palette.
“She makes competitive eating look not gross. It’s so weird,” Pan states.
“All the people recording her might make her go viral.”
“I don’t think virecia would affect her,” Rum says in a dull tone.
“Virecia? What are–” Pan stops herself. The look in his eyes is still a million miles away. He’s been a wreck ever since Nuria blew his eardrums to hell. She knows his mind is at work to think through his dilemma. His regret over destroying her journal, wanting to be mad at her, and wanting to go to and skip the concert are all duking it out to see which one prevails tonight. Pan chooses to aid the underdog. She opts for a swift but shrewd offensive. “Rummy, do you trust me?”
The challenge to their relationship jars his senses. “Trust you? Of course, I do.”
She slaps him across the face, the sound alarming nearby patrons.
He turns to her slowly, letting his cheek rest unattended. “May I ask why?”
“That was for being an ass again. You had it coming and your sentence is served. Unless you’d like another one. My hand’s warmed up now.”
“No, that’ll do,” he groans.
“Good because owwwww.” She massages her palm. “It was like smacking an anvil.”
“So, what was I supposed to trust about you there? That you can smack me and I wouldn’t hit you back. Shouldn’t that be about you trusting me?”
“Shut up. I’m not done.”
“Go ahead,” he says. Rum may fold his arms but his demeanor portrays calm.
Pan obliterates that calm in one shot. “We’re going to the concert. We’re not gonna waste away in here all night.”
“Not happening,” Rum argues.
He gives Pan a nasty look. “You know which one!”
Pan doesn’t want to resort to this but she doesn’t have the time to be subtle. She leans back, crosses her arms, and puts as much frost into her gaze as possible. “I am not missing that concert. Am I going with my boyfriend or am I leaving him here?”
Rum’s brow dampens in seconds, one more decision to agonize over. With her message no doubt received, she believes it’s only a matter of time before he concedes.
I hate to use an ultimatum like that. It’s what my parents would’ve done.
“Why?” he asks. “Why are you on her side? Everyone keeps taking her side!”
Pan sighs out of frustration. “Fine, if you’re deadest on viewing it that way, so be it but just so you know, I’m on your side. I always have been. I am right now.”
“Then why are you trying to get me to go to that concert?”
Pan slams her palms down on the table as she rises, rattling their silverware. Most of the restaurant turns to them now. “Because you’re in pain! And you won’t fix the problem on your own! I’m sick of seeing you like this! So, put an end to your pain or put an end to us! I’ve seen one family torn apart! I will not go through that again!”
Pan keeps her furious gaze locked on Rum’s eyes, unblinking, not giving him any chance to retreat. She doesn’t dare cry either, though her heart’s too heart for that anyway. Apparently, Rum’s is too. He matches her energy as he rises.
“Do I trust you?” he barks. “That has nothing to do with this!”
It has everything to do with it!
Evic bangs his fist against the back of his stall, dislodging some of the tiles. The pieces splash into the toilet alongside drops of sweat. The smoke trapped within him does not try to escape. It could if it wanted to but it aims to weaken Evic enough so that their connection isn’t ruined because the vessel fled. The smoke bounces throughout his body, targeting every weak point it discovers. The back of his eyes, underneath his fingernails, between his teeth.
Your father will err! He may be a man of vision but lacks the ability to achieve it! I will see my objective through to completion. Now! Move!
Fuck your objective!
Evic wants to scream as the smoke starts to push his nails upward.
Do not push me, Evic. You know I can take control any moment I wish but I do not wish to treat you as such. You are mine and I will always respect you. Your father is not capable of doing what I have asked. You are. I need you to carry me. We will end the deal that your father and I struck. You will get your mother back.
Evic hates the deal in question. He hates that his father made it to begin with. To sacrifice his mother for such an ill-fated title. To lead The Pure is a crusade that puts the world at your throat, not its beck and call.
That is your father’s dilemma now. I entertained him only because it lined up with my objective. While he has not deviated, his reasons no longer align with mine. His patience has abandoned him and his desperation travels him to his demise.
His mother is one thing but Evic has long since stopped caring about the consequences that befall his father. Victa left him to contend with his monstrous parasite on his own. If demise is his future, Evic wishes for it fervently.
I do not fault you your reservations, Evic but this opportunity is one we cannot pass up. Two of my targets are in this city and neither will fall without us.
Then they won’t fall!
Why do you deny me, Evic?
The smoke’s pressure recedes gradually, relieving the stress on his eyes, nails, and teeth. His parasite’s voice comes to him calmly. Evic does not let the con lull his defenses.
Because you are no different from my father. You have a use for me now, the same as he did. He has cast me out, and so too, will you. Why should I obey either of you? Neither of you are trustworthy. Neither of you loves me. When you’re done with my body, you’ll have no need of this vessel and discard me, too.
Evic vacates the stall, done waiting on his parasite to respond. He dampens a paper towel and scrubs the sweat away. He dries his face slowly and when he looks in the mirror, he curses. Thin streams of smoke leak from his eyes, flowing like tears.
It is true that I have no love for you. I will not claim you in that fashion. But as my vessel, for as long as you remain such, I will see to your needs. But you must realize the longer our deal goes unresolved, the longer your mother’s torment persists. Will you deny her love for you? She longs to see you again, Evic. Is Nuria’s life more important than hers?
That is the only conundrum at Evic’s doorstep. His newfound friendship with Nuria is not simply a curse. He does not only think of her as a target anymore. Her confession to him that his life has value to someone else when that value isn’t predetermined or conditional, was his first taste of unadulterated happiness in ages. He can barely recall the last.
He lay in bed with his mother, his snowy ponytail and her raven mane mingling across both their shoulders. She was reading him a bedtime story, something about talking vegetables and a warren of rabbits. His mother loved the story more than he did but between his lack of interest and her melodious laughter, he fell asleep as peacefully as could be.
One year later, he couldn’t risk sleeping soundly without Liamria preying on him. His hate for that woman grew as high as it could for anyone he didn’t love. However, once he started at FHA, Lauron would test that limit.
Do not emulate your father’s ignorance, Evic. Do not vacillate. You cannot have both women in your life so long as you are my vessel. And until I vanquish Nuria, you will have neither of them.
He stares at the smoke streaming from his eyes fiercely. The vapors plaguing him will not be a repeat of his home life with Victa and Liamria. He will not submit to their torment any longer.
I told you already! That’s not how this ends!
Evic connects his senses to the smoke leaking from his eyes. The world he perceives is no longer a mere bathroom but a shadowy temple. The ground is shrouded beneath a thick blanket of smoke. The bricks of the corridor and ceiling are disconnected chunks that float in the air. The primordial space beyond the walls is full of countless violet stars.
Evic retains his dark suit, white tie, and white shoes, as well as his longsword. He will need it for the fight to come. He begins his march down the corridor, ready to take his life in his hands.
Nuria’s head snaps back, her nose hot on the inside. She keeps her balance as she stumbles backward, despite the breeze whipping around her, aiming to keep her gifted outfit clean. She wipes the blood from her face, smearing it on the back of her hand. Her fury provokes her eyes to change, her pupils expanding inside of her irises. The reflection of her attacker fits neatly in the center of her gaze.
Norris’s swaggering forward with his wavy brown hair bouncing and pearly teeth exposed through his cocky smile annoys Nuria. He feels proud of his cheap shot.
Nuria sniffles and wipes her nose one last time. “You know, I’m in a good mood, so I’ll let you have that one free shot.”
“It’s not about what you’ll let me have. I’m here to take what I want!”
Nuria intuits what he means and he’ll never have it again. Not from her. Willing or otherwise. “Did I hurt your feelings, is that it? You aren’t man enough to earn it, so you’ll take it. Go ahead and try!”
He checks himself quickly but not quickly enough to hide his wounded pride. “You think I’m here to rape you? Please! I’ve had all of that fun with your body I wanted!”
“Then why are you bothering me?”
“Drawing first blood wasn’t obvious enough? I’m here to kill you.”
Nuria almost laughs but his demeanor changes. The dark pools of his eyes omit any playfulness or ego, his lips bend and snarl, and his posture becomes rigid. He’s serious about ending her life.
Why hasn’t he continued his attack? He had me dead to rights before.
“Then get on with it! I’d like to stop you and get a move on! I have a concert to get to, ya know!”
“Hughie!” Norris barks in a tight, guttural voice.
“Two more minutes.”
Nuria uses her peripheral vision as much as she can without letting Norris out of her sight. She watches the phantom image of Hugh walk out from the topiary bull while checking his watch before he comes to a halt in the open.
“But that’s an eternity!” Devito whines, stepping from behind the tiger-shaped bush on the opposite side.
One by one, the other transfer students emerge from the other topiaries. Mac from the porcupine, Mila from the owl, and Fain from the raven. Their gazes are a mix of giddy, cold, and demure but are mutually focused, and their focus is Nuria.
“So, what, are you all here to kill me?”
“Essentially,” Hugh answers plainly.
Another year and another group of assassins? Yeah, this one’s obvious.
“Is Liamria that scared of me?”
Hugh’s eyes twitch.
“Well, you guys chose the worst boss. Liamria only has two brain cells. One tells her to hurt Stark and the other to hire assassins. At least this time, she tried to be clever about it. Too bad she’s relying on kids with the same amount of brain cells between the six of them.”
“How much longer, Hughie?” Norris demands, foaming at the mouth for blood.
Waiting for orders? That’s not like Norris. That means Hugh must be stronger. If I can’t escape, then he goes first.
“You in that much of a rush to eat the dirt?” Nuria taunts.
“After I bury you, I’m sure it’ll taste sweet!”
Nuria can sense it then. The man across from her is more animal than human. He salivates between his growing, serrated teeth. His gills flare more fiercely than his nostrils. Protrusions extend from his milk-toned elbows, very similar to pectoral fins. Norris isn’t simply transforming his body. His mind is changing, too. Nuria faces a starved predator preparing to hunt.
Is this why he held back when we had sex? Because he can’t control it? Wait, no, he went as wild as I did. Is there some kind of trigger for this? I remember Devito said some–
“You’re clear to act.”
“Finally!” Norris charges Nuria at a wild speed. “Hold her still, Hughie! I’ll just bite her head clean off!”
“No! It can’t be that bloody!” Hugh orders with stretched hands.
Norris lunges at the phoenix mouth-first, his jaw open wider than normal. Nuria ducks and drives her fist into his gut. He scrapes his gums when his mouth shuts. Nuria spins and kicks him square in his ribs. However, the thickness of his muscles dulls her blow. He manages to stay on his feet and turns his feral gaze on Hugh.
“What part of “hold her still” did you not understand?” Norris shouts.
“I am! It’s not working!” Hugh says.
Nuria peers at his trembling hands and recalls his telekinesis. She inspects herself next, curious about her golden aura.
Is it because of this? Did my inner phoenix see this coming? If it did, how’d it know?
“Fuck this! I’ll handle it myself!”
“Stop! We don’t have time to play this by ear!”
“Then you figure out your plan! I have mine!”
Nuria feels more validated about her brain cells critique now. His skin and teeth may be tougher and sharper but his sluggish attacks and her phoenix vision turn each of his strikes into clumsy flails, and each miss only makes Norris angrier and sloppier.
I can take Norris down first since Hugh’s powers don’t work on me. One golden fire punch should do the trick!
Nuria dodges another bite, plants her feet, cocks her fist back, and draws on the power of the sun through the windows. Her body’s golden aura brightens as she directs the heat to her fist. She strikes at Norris’s arm with an ignited fist.
Or what she thought would be the case.
Her bare fist is stopped by Norris’s thick skin.
What the hell? Where’re my flames?
Norris slides his arm up and slices all of Nuria’s fingers with his pectoral fin, the edge hard and sharp as a pocket knife. Nuria hops away to avoid the follow-up aimed at her throat. She squeezes her bleeding fingers tightly and stares at her skin.
Is it because of the glow? I suppose it’s a blessing in disguise. I wouldn’t want to set fire to this place anyway.
Nuria reassesses her strategy. The six still have her surrounded with Norris between her and the doors. She can’t risk escaping with him at her back, which means the windows are her only option.
Wings, if I ever needed you to work, it would be now!
She imagines opening up a pair of extra hands. Her wings obey, slicing through the back of her shirt and vest, the golden aura applying to them as well.
She turns and flies to the highest point of the windows. She can tell the glass is so thick that it would take more than her punch to get through. She inhales deeply.
Sonic voice, I need you! Come out!
A soft scream is all she produces. Drops of sweat fall into her mouth, agape from the terror of the situation. Her last option now is to fight. Against six people. With only her wings and eyes to rely on.
“Where’s all that bravado at now?” Norris calls to her.
Nuria whirls and punches the glass with all her might. Not one crack forms on its surface. All she does is leave more and more blood on it as she delves into her insanity.
Let me out! Let me out! Let me out!
Until now, she’s never felt death so close at hand. Or rather, not when she was powerless to stop it. She can’t land without falling into their trap. Nobody knows where she is and they’ll be getting into their seats soon, ready to watch her show. And if she falls, nobody will be able to warn them.
I’m my only chance1 Their only chance1 And my powers have been hijacked! Give! Them! Back!
Nuria attunes her senses and focuses on the solar aura around her body. She meets resistance when she tries to absorb it for her use.
Cease this, young one. It will do you no good.
Shut up! It’s my life, they’re my powers! It’s my decision!
“Fine, stay up there, girlie! I’ll wait! We can go after the other targets. Dev, Mac, go and kill the other students,” Norris orders.
Nuria whips her head around immediately.
“And start with her brother!”
Young one, please. Don’t–
Shut the hell up!
Nuria usurps control of the solar aura and it fades. She navigates half the energy to her feet and half to her hands. She blasts down toward Norris and his crew, propelled by the fusion of her golden and mezzo flames, blowing out a portion of the glass behind her. The shoes and socks from Reddic are incinerated in a flash. She pivots right before landing and rockets for Norris, both fists hot and gilded.
Her momentum arrests so abruptly that between the invisible force and her amped-up jets, her ankles crack under the pressure. She feels like she’s choking but none of her muscles answer her, not even her nose. Her eyes bleed just from moving her gaze to Hugh. Both of his hands are extended and his feet are firmly planted at the end of two depression lines in the garden.
He drops his hands so he can catch his breath. Nuria falls flat on her stomach. Her ankles send waves of pain through her whole body any time she moves.
“She’s crippled now. Finish her and let’s go!” Hugh orders.
Nuria watches in terror as Norris approaches ominously, her bleeding eyes quivering.
Nuria and Rum shared a look for the first time in months, both just that stupefied by their mother’s condition for their return to Four Hearts. One year prior, she urged them to do the exact opposite.
“What changed?” Rum asked.
“Everything. I knew that once I let you two back into the world proper that your needs would evolve. I never expected war to become a factor in that evolution, so now I have to adapt. I forced myself to change for that very reason. I would not let you two become afraid of the outside world.”
“Is that why…you let me stay at Mount Handreau all that time?”
“Yes,” Auriel replied plainly.
“And why I got o stay with Pan, too?”
“Yes, again. I am not the only person in your lives anymore. So, you have my permission to exercise force to follow my one condition.”
Nuria growls and forces herself to sit up, her ankles’ protest disregarded. She hollers she unfurls her wings to float just off the ground. She holds up her fists, her spirit as hot as the burning garden at her rear.
“Protect your new family!”
Norris laughs boisterously. “You can’t just lie down and die, huh?”
“You’re gonna have to work hard for that! Let’s see if you got what it takes!”
When Norris comes at her, she uses her in-air snowboarding moves to evade his blows. However, none of her counterattacks do any damage to him since she can’t get enough momentum without giving Hugh the chance to break more of her bones.
When Norris raises his fists and clasps them above his head, Nuria flings the blood from her sliced fingers into his face. She uses the distraction to flutter behind him, grabbing his arms and using them for leverage. She slams her knees into his back and knocks his face into the dirt. Her ankles take a hit but she rolls with the pain and keeps moving, using the momentum to race to the door.
She could contend with the bone fractures but once her ankles are sliced, she falls to her knees. Nuria turns as she falters, Devito’s claws slick with her blood, a giddy smile on his face. His joy annoys her so much that she doesn’t realize she never hit the ground until she’s yanked upright and positioned directly over the fire. She can writhe slightly, Hugh’s powers only coming from one hand this time.
“Put her down!” Norris argues, wiping the dirt off his face. “I will kill her this time!”
“In a moment. Mac, do your thing.”
“Oh, yeah! My turn! Everyone, take your pills!” He pulls a tiny cerulean pill from his pocket and swallows it. The others do the same, Norris stubbornly going last. Mac leans back, puffs up his chest, leans forward, and spews a rushing cloud of purple gas Nuria’s way. The grass in its wake is eaten away in seconds. The gas envelops Nuria as it simultaneously puts out the fire. The moment the phoenix inhales the gas, her limbs grow heavy and limp. Her pain magnifies and her vision blurs. Her sense of balance vanishes. It reverses direction and returns down Mac’s throat. He burps afterward and a small bit of gas pops out.
When Hugh drops Nuria this time, another force holds her up. Norris holds her up by her collar. “You are a lucky one, girlie. I’m not able to bite your head off like I wanted. Wouldn’t be able to pick you out of my teeth in time, anyway.”
He jams his left pectoral fin straight through her shoulder. She has no more energy to scream but her eyes express it all, and Norris eats it all up. He wriggles his pectoral fin inside her flesh for a few seconds. He removes his fin and holds it out. Hugh uses his telekinesis to remove the blood from his person.
Nuria’s arms droop, soaking in the blood from her shoulder. Her legs are done. Even her wings remain limp.
Think, Nuria! You gotta do something! Anything! You can’t die here!
“Oh, I have a fun idea. Fain, cut her open with that thing you do!”
Nuria’s heart beats so fast that her whole body jerks with each one. Norris holds her body out away from him, making her an easy target.
“But…she’s already…dead. Her organs…will fail…soon.”
“This is an all-hands-on-deck, situation. You slice her open now or I bite your head off! Test me if you dare!”
Fain looks to Hugh but the response there is another threat s he raises an open palm in Fain’s direction.
“Chop, chop!” Norris barks.
Devito blows a raspberry and chuckles.
“For what it’s worth, I’m sorry it came to this,” Fain says.
If Nuria had any control of her body left, she’d tell him that his pity isn’t worth a damn. She tries to convey that with just her sharp eyes. The edges dull when they widen. Fain swipes his hand across her chest and she feels a buzzing energy sever her collarbone. The blood that erupts from her chest cascades down the front of her clothes. The pain doesn’t register but she can feel the warmth drain from her body, something she’s only felt during a blizzard on a snowy mountaintop. She isn’t sure when but she hits the ground when Norris drops her.
“Lift her head,” Mila says.
“Girlie, you do it1 I’m done with this crap!” Norris says.
Mila rolls her eyes. She grabs a fistful of Nuria’s hair, twists it around, and yanks her head up. Her eyes glow red and brighten as she delivers her threat. “You never had a chance to stop us, Nuria. Not even Norris here used his full power. None of us did. You failed to stop us and so will your classmates. The sooner you accept that the easier your death will be.”
She throws Nuria’s head back against the ground. That’s when Nuria’s sense of pain returns. A ripping inside her body sends waves of hot and cold throughout every muscle fiber and bone she possesses. All of her promises and ambitions are one moment from dying along with her. She can’t allow her friends and family to die because she failed. She refuses to fail here. If she does, she knows her loved ones will suffer. She’s seen them suffer enough. When she stands, her next goal is to wipe her enemies away.
“Stop,” she calls out weakly but her voice is enough to spook Norris and his peers. They gaze upon Nuria, terrified. Except for Norris, exclusively pleased by the development.
“No way! Her anger should be so high that her heart should’ve exploded!” Mila says.
“Stop,” Nuria repeats, shambling forward dizzily.
“Relax, it worked. She’s not really there. Her body just hasn’t learned it yet,” Hugh explains.
Nuria’s eyes roll back into her skull and tip the scales so she lands on her back. Her world now is a white void, hearing the only sense she’s left with.
“No wonder Liamria had so much trouble killing her,” Norris says, sounding oddly close to a compliment.
“Do we really just leave her here?”
“Of course. The cameras will cut back on in ten minutes and she’ll be found after we–”
The sound of the doors closing cuts off the rest of that conversation. Now, all Nuria has left is the void. She doesn’t want her final minutes to be empty. And she feels her time coming, the cold creeping through her body at an alarming rate. She envisions her two families.
Stark pulls up to the JC train station and gets out of her jeep slowly. The entire building is up in flames. The fire engines gathered do all they can to control the inferno from spreading to the other buildings but the center of the inferno doesn’t cave. Stark moves closer to the site to help.
Stark, don’t blame yourself for this! Don’t give Liamria the satisfaction!
Wallace stays outside the theater as Roy, Donovan, and Professor Lynald venture inside, determined to wait for Sutar.
Everyone, please, stick together!
Auriel, for once, wears something other than her body armor. Her cream dress hugs her curves nicely, a fresh diamond necklace brightening her cleavage. She turns heads as she marches to her seat. She turns off her animosity for Reddic temporarily. She has a direct view of Nuria’s microphone thanks to him. She even verbalizes her gratitude, making his smile even brighter.
Mom, I’m so sorry! I gave it my best shot! And Reddic…
Evic huffs coarsely, the breeze on the roof helping him cool off. He stares down the angled glass wall of the garden, concerned about the glass shards on the exterior grounds. He takes one step closer, smoke leaking from his curious gaze, then he turns and goes the other way.
Don’t fall for their games!
Valine and Cwen turn to Gwen racing in their direction, all three flustered and confused. Valine looks all around in a panic until Cwen bends down to calm her nerves.
Professor Cwen…Valine…our show would’ve been beautiful!
Tyra sits with crossed legs, alone with Professor Tameri in the VIP area. A newcomer gets their attention, making them both smile from ear to ear.
Tyra, Rum…don’t blame yourselves! I made this mistake! I’m the one who failed! Not you!
Her imaginations are consumed slowly by a dark vacuity.
This is my last mistake. Please, none of you repeat it! If you don’t…then I can…rest…easy…
A large orange beak penetrates the lake in the oasis. The bird fills their bill and lifts their head, the crown of bronze feathers blowing in the sirocco. They lean back and swallows the water, their neck parallel to the stone spire overlooking the lake. The bird snaps its head to the west suddenly, its attention caught in a magnetic pull. It flaps its large crimson wings, kicking up the sand around it. With one mighty beat of its wings, the bird takes flight, the three long tail feathers billowing behind. The desert below vanishes when it ventures into the clouds.