Flame and Shadow

By Joshua Carr All Rights Reserved ©

Adventure / Other

Chapter 21

Mahsa marched away, and left the three of us alone. Josie was still clinging to me, making moving a bit challenging.

“Well,” I said, attempting to pry the remora-like girl off of me. “What do you guys want to do?”

Kyle shrugged again, but Josie piped up:

“I have to go to the bathroom all of a sudden! Be right back!”

And with that, she released me and made a dash for the restroom. Kyle and I stood in silence for a moment. At last, I spoke.

“Ah, she’s not a bad kid, just a little…enthusiastic.” I rotated my arms to try to get a kink out of my back. “And she’s got a heck of a death grip.”

“Yeah, I guess…” Kyle scratched his head self-consciously.

Again, there was quiet, until I remembered something that I had been meaning to say.

“Hey, Kyle! I was wondering something.”

“Y-yes?”

“You’ve been training here in the Exosia division for, like, six years now, but you’ve never really looked like you really wanted to get better. Why is that?”

“Oh, ha ha! Um, I guess my reasons for being here are different from everybody else’s…”

“Gotcha. I was just wondering if you would want to join me for my normal after-hours training session tonight, if you wanted to try it out. But if you’re not interested…”

“No no! I’m definitely interested!” He quickly interjected. “I’d love to get in some…extra practice with you tonight. It would be good for me, I think.”

I smiled.

“Alright! So, it’s a plan, then? How does 11:00 sound?”

“Sounds-“ Kyle cleared his throat. “Sounds good to me! So, uh…I’ll see you then?”

“See you then! Later, Kyle!”

With that, he began walking away, and we waved farewell. He’s still a weird dude, but he’s pretty nice.

Shortly after Kyle left, Josie returned. She was excitedly running toward me, when she tripped and stumbled to the ground. I was worried for a second, and rushed over to where she had fallen. When I kneeled down to see if she was OK, she didn’t look happy. Large tears were in her eyes, which she attempted not to shed. I saw the blood marks on her sleeve from where Bethany had grabbed her before, but no other visible injury.

“Are you alright?” I asked.

She nodded without a word, and shivered.

“You’re not hurt, are you?”

She tried to hide her sleeves from me, and shook her head.

I could sense that she wasn’t really hurt, only embarrassed.

“Hey! It’s OK, everybody falls sometimes. Even me!” I consoled.

“No it isn’t!” She cried. “Everywhere I go, I wreck everything. I ruined my entire family, because I’m so stupid and clumsy. I’ve already shown how much of an idiot I am in front of you, too! Now you’ll want to leave me alone like everyone else!”

“Naw, you’re not so bad! Who wouldn’t like you, just because you’re a little clumsy?”

She looked down and didn’t say a word. Then she shivered again.

“Come on, I’m sure it’s not that bad! I mean, families love no matter what, right?”

“Not mine.” She said, gloomily. “I don’t really want to talk about it, but I never had any nice things. No friends, no one who would love me. I was trying to start over here, but now, I’ve already ruined my chance!”

I gave her a solemn look.

“No you haven’t. You’ve got me.”

“Really?” She sniffed.

“Oh, yeah. I’m a loser too, remember? We’ve gotta stick together!”

She grabbed me in a grateful embrace. “Thank you Sera! Nobody’s ever been like this to me before!”

After a few seconds, I started pulling away, and she let me this time.

“So…what do you want to do?”

“I don’t know. This is my first day here; I don’t really know what there is to do.” Josie admitted.

“I see. Hm, well, we don’t have training or anything today.” I snapped my fingers. “Hey! I’ve got it! You say you’ve never had any nice things, right?”

“Yeah?” She gave me a weird look.

“Well, come with me!”

I started walking away from the training center, and Josie quickly followed me like a baby robin. After we walked for a few minutes, she started passing me with exaggerated giant steps. I laughed, and hurried my pace to lead again. Then, she began to go faster, and go in front again. Well, we couldn’t have that, so I quickened my own speed to overtake her. Next, Josie jogged out from behind me. Sensing a challenge, I jogged faster and went ahead. Suddenly, she dashed past me at full speed.

“Slowpoke!” She called.

Oh, it’s a race she wants? Well, I can give her one! I took off running as well, and we tore through the small city, exchanging leads, jumping over stuff, and running around people.

“Excuse me! Sorry!” I cried, laughing, as I almost crashed into a couple of pedestrians.

That gave Josie the opportunity she needed to take the lead. Only one block to go! I pushed my legs as hard as they would go. My feeling of excitement and competition swept aside any soreness or fatigue in my body, and my senses were sharpened. This is what battle must feel like. This was war!

Dodging obstacles and civilians, I closed the gap on my rival until we were neck and neck!

“Where are we going!?” Josie asked though heavy breathing.

I pointed to the mansion ahead.

“Right there! Last one in has to try the chef’s halibut caviar tartare!”

We both pushed our speed to the max. Even though I was older, she was pretty fast! Neither one of us had a noticeable lead over the other. We approached the door quickly, and I thought about pulling back to as not to crash into it. Just then, Francois opened the portal to the outside. A second later, he was pummeled to the ground by two racing girls.

Josie and I rolled to the side, and lay on the ground laughing for a long while. Francois got to his feet, and brushed himself off, quite flustered.

“Excuse me, mademoiselle. I was merely exciting the house for a moment to check on the groundskeeper.”

I was barely able to speak due to being out of breath and dying of laughter, but I managed to get out:

“You’re good, Francois! You’re good!”

He went about his business while the two of us girls recovered.

“Whew!” I sighed, finally able to stop laughing and panting. “OK, here we are!”

“Huh?” Josie giggled. “Where is this?”

I stood up and spread my arms out wide.

“This is my mansion! This is where I live!”

“WHAAAAAT?!” Josie was obviously taken aback. “You live here! It’s huge! And beautiful! Are you a princess?!”

I laughed.

“No, not really. They say that I’m The Fiery One, and I was prophesied to bring peace to the world or something. I haven’t really done anything yet, but they’ve been treating me like I’m a big deal ever since I came here.”

“Whoa! Should I, uh, bow or something?”

“No, no, no! Actually, I just feel like a normal person. I don’t even feel right accepting most of the stuff they try to give me. But, I think that someone who’s had a bit of a rough go of it so far in life deserves the chance to do some fun stuff, don’t you?”

“Um…”

I grabbed her long sleeve, and pulled her after me.

“Come with me!”

The first place I took Josie was to the long hardwood hallway. I positioned her at the far end.

“OK. Wait here for a minute.”

I quickly rolled up all of the plush rugs lining the corridor, until I was on the opposite side from my friend.

“Alright. This is how you do it!”

I took off my shoes, and started running down the hallway in my socks. After going a few feet, I stopped running and slid at high speed the rest of the way.

“Woohooo!” I shouted, and almost collided with Josie at the other end. Her eyes widened.

“Whoa! Are you allowed to do that?” She asked, incredulous.

“I can do whatever I want, here.” Was my response. “Usually I don’t stay long enough to take advantage of it, because I don’t like feeling privileged. But with you here, I think I can make an exception.”

She looked around nervously.

“So, the servants won’t mind?”

“Naw! They’re cool.” I prodded her. “Come on! Off with your shoes!”

She carefully took them off, and stood in her socks like an airplane with a runway before it.

“Alright! Now run as fast as you can, and slide!”

Josie took one step, which slid out in front of her. In a scramble of feet attempting to regain her balance, she crashed to the ground on her butt. Ooh! Ouch! I made a pained face.

When she looked totally dejected, I gave my words of comfort.

“Hey! It’s OK! Hold still!”

I put my hands on her shoulders, and started dashing down the hall, pushing her in front of me like a bobsled. Then, I removed my hands, and sent her flying across the floor like a curling stone.

“Whooooooaa!” She shouted while sliding along the highly varnished floor.

Just then, Freddie Mac stepped out into the hall to see what the commotion was about. My hands covered my face as the Josie-bowling ball swept out the servant’s legs, sending him careening into the air and falling to the ground.

“Sorry! My bad!!” I called out.

Boy, I felt horrible! I didn’t know he would be walking out like that! I hope he’s either OK, or too injured to catch us if he tries chasing.

Freddie Mac got up on his knees and grabbed Josie. She squealed and struggled to escape, but he sat her down in front of him, and gave her a massive shove. The girl went sliding down the hall toward me. I lifted my foot to stop her as though she was a soccer ball, and looked up at the servant.

Standing up, he dusted off his clothes, smiled, and bowed slightly to say goodbye. Alright! Everything was cool. I looked at Josie.

“Alright! Are you ready to try this again?”

The girl nodded.

“Uh-huh!”

We carefully shuffled to one end of the hallway, and prepared for another slide.

“1…2…3!”

I counted down, and we took off running. Halfway down the hall, we stopped running, and slid in our socked feet the rest of the way. I steadied Josie with my hand to keep her from falling. She gripped my arm like some kind of bird of prey holding onto its catch, but we stayed vertical the whole way down. After slowing to a stop, she moved from her frozen pose.

“Wheeeee! That was awesome! Let’s do it again!”

So we did. Multiple times. Back and forth across the hallway, just sliding around and having fun, forgetting about the cares and responsibilities of the world. After nearly an hour, I proposed our next activity.

“Hey, did you know this place has a pool?”

“A pool?!” Josie gasped. “I’ve never been swimming before! Can we try it?”

“Of course! Today is about doing stuff you’ve never done!”

We obtained a bathing suit from one of the servants, and walked around back to the in-ground pool. Josie carefully dipped her foot into the water.

“Ooh! It’s pretty warm!” She exclaimed, and leapt into the pool.

I defended against the splash with an umbrella I had carried out with me.

“Come on in! The water’s great!”

I shook my head.

“No thanks. I don’t really swim. Not a big fan of the water, for some reason. You can swim as much as you want, and we’ll do something else after you’re done.”

She nodded, and began paddling around the pool. For being her first time swimming, she was doing pretty well.

“A-a-actually. I’m getting pretty c-c-cold in here. I-I-I think I’m ready to get out!”

“Alrighty!” I chuckled, having a towel ready for her. “You sure get cold easily, don’t you?”

“Y-yeah. I’m always cold.”

“Huh. I’m kinda the opposite! I’m always hot!” After handing her the towel, we went back into the giant abode.

“Are you hungry, Josie?” I asked.

“Are you kidding? I’m always hungry!” She burst out excitedly. “Is it dinnertime?”

“I believe it is.” I stated, holding in a laugh.

Josie got dressed, and we made our way down to the dining room. I looked for Francois, and found him making preparations for food.

“Hi Francois!”

“Good evening, mademoiselle. I trust you will be having the usual? Cap’n Crunch?”

“Actually, things are a little different tonight. Have the chef make his best foods! We have a guest!”

A slight smile came to Francois’ lips, but his eyes showed a sparkle that revealed how truly overjoyed he was.

“Very well. We shall commence the serving of our finest feast. I do hope you are hungry.”

Josie and I were seated at the expansive table, and Francois ensured that we were comfortable. He then proceeded to bring course after course from the kitchen and place it before us. He gave the name of each dish, but they meant nothing to me. “Croquembouche, Bouchée à la reine, Kouign amann, Escargots de Bourgogne, Bouillabaisse.” All this French stuff was good, but I wasn’t really into the haute cuisine that much. After a few of the dishes, I was pretty much done.

Josie, however, was a different story. She gushed about how much she loved everything, and kept telling Francois how delicious it was. While eating the Escargots de Bourgogne (absolutely vile), she asked Francois if he would tell the chef how good the food was.

The butler beamed.

“With pleasure, mademoiselle!”

He then scurried off to the kitchen.

After he left, Josie ravenously scarfed everything that was left on the table. I shook my head in amazement.

“I have no idea how you’re doing that. I thought I had a big appetite, but that’s incredible!”

Without pausing her chewing, she gave her explanation.

“Well, at home, I never had enough to eat. I’ve never seen so much food in my entire life, and now I’m actually allowed to eat as much as I want! It’s awesome! I’m so hungry, I think I’d like it if I were eating slugs or snails or something!”

“Josie, you are.” I pointed out, slightly disgusted. “Those are snails baked in their shells.”

“Oh. Well these are the darn best baked snails I’ve ever had!”

Wow. She wasn’t kidding. Francois emerged from the kitchen, with the chef following close behind. They were talking in French, with the chef’s conversation being highly animated. This guy could speak no English, so I didn’t even know his name.

After he jabbered for a while, Francois translated:

“Chef Francois is very pleased that you enjoy his cooking, mademoiselles.”

The chef had a very proud look on his face.

“Wait a second, ‘Chef Francois’? I thought you were Francois!” I was a bit confused.

“I am, and so is he.” The butler Francois explained patiently. “We are both Francois. There is no relation between us, only that we share the same name.”

Okaaaaay. Fine. That probably shouldn’t be too surprising. Those French (or French-Canadians) seem to not have immense creativity in the naming department. Oh, well.

After several more courses which Josie completely obliterated, it was proclaimed to be the end of dinner.

“Alright Josie, did you have a good meal?” I asked.

“Oh, yeah! I’m stuffed! I can’t even remember ever being this full!” She patted her stomach.

“Was everything to your satisfaction, mademoiselles?” The butler Francois asked.

Josie just groaned, so I answered.

“Yep! Thanks a lot Francois! And you too Francois!” I also commended the chef.

As we left the table, Chef Francois was kissing Josie’s hand and babbling in French. We quickly made our way out of the dining room so escape this strange behavior.

“Alright, there’s one more thing I want to show you.” I declared. “Are you ready?”

The girl nodded enthusiastically.

“OK then! Follow me!”

I led her down the hallway where we had slid before, and into my room.

“Whoa…” Josie gazed in awe around the bedroom. “This’s bigger than my entire old house!”

“Yeah, it’s pretty huge. This place could be the bedroom for an entire family. Honestly, I haven’t even explored a lot of the drawers and closets.”

My friend gasped.

“Look at that bed! It’s huge! An entire army of Ewoks could fit in there!”

“How do you know there isn’t one right now?” I suggested.

She looked at me for a second, then leapt onto the bed and began bouncing up and down.

“Die Ewoks! Long live the empire!” She shouted, laughing.

“No, Josie! Don’t-“

I started to stop her, but then thought better of it. She had probably never gotten the chance to do anything that kids were supposed to do. Seriously, though. Was I like this when I was 14? I thought for sure I was more mature and responsible than this girl. Jumping on the bed? That’s a child’s game.

As I watched her, though, I began to think otherwise. It actually did look like fun, but I was definitely not going to admit that. Just then, she called out to me.

“Come on, Sera! Jump on!”

I shook my head.

“No thanks. I’m good!”

“Come on! Don’t be a whimp!” She beckoned to me again. “Jump up here!”

“Hm…well, if you insist!”

With a running leap, I ascended onto the bed, and the two of us bounced like it was a giant trampoline. We both laughed like crazy little kids at a slumber party after consuming one too many packages of Twizzlers.

Bouncing up and down, we managed a sort of conversation in between hops.

“This is the most fun…I’ve had in years!”

“Yeah!...Me too!”

“Usually…I’m a lot more…serious…But today…has been pretty fun!”

“Yeah!...I’ve never really…had anyone…to have fun with…before!”

After a bit more time, the mood seemed to change a bit. My stomach was leading my mind in a different direction.

“You know…We probably…shouldn’t have eaten…all that French food!”

“Maybe…You’re right…I’m feeling a little…weird…”

The next few bounces were spent in silence, as we both concentrated on keeping our dinner down in our stomachs. Eventually, I couldn’t take it anymore. With a mighty bound, I sprung across the room in the direction of the bathroom. Josie quickly followed me. We both scrambled into the large, conjoining bathroom. The scene that unfolded next was highly unpleasant. Nothing more really needs to be said.

The two of us lumbered back into the room, and flopped on the bed. Boy, repeatedly bouncing with a belly full of froufrou crap was not a good idea. I could tell by the faint moaning next to me that Josie agreed. After my body began to return to normal, it occurred to me just how goofy the whole situation was. I started to chuckle. The giggle was apparently quite contagious, because Josie began to emulate me. Soon, the small chuckle grew into a hearty laugh. Eventually, both of us were rolling around on the bed, laughing. Not specifically about anything, it was just the result of a long, crazy day spent having fun, which was something that neither of us had done in a long while.

My sides started to hurt from laughing so hard, and our mirth started to die off.

“Whew.” I sighed. “That was a pretty crazy day.”

“Yeah.” Josie responded. “I’ve never had so much fun in my entire life!”

I wondered what kind of life Josie had before coming here. It didn’t sound like a very enjoyable one, but I wasn’t sure how to ask. How to get her to talk about it… After a brief pause, she started to speak again, and I waited to hear if she would tell me about herself.

“All my life, I never felt like I really belonged. My family was…not right. I’ve always been too afraid to try to make friends, because I didn’t want to scare them away. I’ve been alone almost my whole life.”

“I get that.” I replied, feeling her pain. “You know, I never really had a family. All I ever wanted was to be a big sister.”

I choked a little, unintentionally. I had fully come to terms with the way things were, but sometimes, I still become a bit depressed.

I could hear the top blanket rustle and I knew Josie turned toward me without having to look.

“I think you’d be a great big sister! You’re selfless, and compassionate, and I think you really care about people. I wish that I had someone like you in my life.”

There was a period of silence, as I didn’t know what to say, but Josie spoke again.

“Um, Sera? Would you want to be my big sister?”

I propped myself up on one arm to look at her.

“You really mean that?”

“Yes.” She nodded. “You’re awesome. I want to be just like you. And if I’m close to you, then maybe I’ll be as cool as you are, someday.”

“Well, OK. If you’re sure.” I said, beaming. “But I’m not that cool.”

“Yes you are!” Josie asserted.

“Not I’m not!”

“Yes you are!”

“I’m certainly not!” I poked her.

“Yes you are!” She poked me back.

Soon we were in an absolute poke battle, tickling and poking each other back and forth. The two of us had started laughing weakly again. After it had nearly escalated to a full-blown war, one especially large shove had resulted in me tumbling off the bed. I fell to the floor with a thud, and we both froze.

“Hm…” I pondered. “I think I’ll stay down here tonight. You can have the bed.”

Her large icy-blue eyes peered over the edge of the expansive bed down at me.

“Are you sure? There’s plenty of room up here…”

“No, that’s alright. You won it fair and square. I’m fine with the floor.”

“OK, then.” Josie started climbing down next to me. “Then I’m sleeping down here too!”

Before I knew it, she had snuggled up on the hard floor next to me. I was a little hesitant to let her, but if what she had told me was true, she may never have had the chance to feel safe and secure, sleeping next to someone. Poor kid.

I put my arm around her.

“Alright. You can stay on my floor, I guess.”

“Thanks, Sera! I still can hardly believe anyone would be so nice to me!” She hugged me back, and her hand touched my skin.

“HOLY COW! Your hands are freezing!!” I exclaimed, but that didn’t stop her from cuddling. “You’re like a human ice cube!”

“I know. But you’re so warm! Maybe you can warm me up.”

I decided not to fight her. Instead, I just lay there on the floor. Maybe we needed each other. She needed someone to care about her, and I needed someone to be a big sister to. It had been a long day, and I was certainly ready to go to sleep. Judging by her steady breathing, Josie was ready as well. Just as I was beginning to drift off, I heard her drowsy voice again.

“Sera. Thank you for being so nice to me. I finally feel like I belong somewhere.”

“No problem. Thanks for being my little sister today.”

With that, the room seemed to fade out, and be replaced by a numbing darkness.

Some time later, I blinked heavy eyelids as I groggily woke up. Josie had rolled over, so there were a few inches between us. My body heat must have been too much. What time was it? I craned my neck to look at the clock. It was ten minutes after eleven.

Oh crap! I was supposed to meet Kyle at eleven! Instantly, I was wide awake. As I started hurrying to get out the door, I thought about Josie. Alright. She’s still asleep. She’ll be fine.

I sprinted as hard as I could toward the training center. Poor Kyle. He probably thinks I’m standing him up! I had totally forgotten I was going to meet him. Hopefully he’s still there. Crap.

My heart raced as I dashed through the darkened city. The overhead solar-imitation lights were completely extinguished, and the only light came from a system of streetlights. After a couple of minutes, I made it to the gym area. No sign of Kyle. Maybe he went into the physical training room, where I always practice during the late nights.

I burst through the door, slamming it against the wall as it flew open. Kyle jolted with a start.

“Hi Kyle!” I shouted, panting. “Sorry I’m late!”

He attempted to regain his composure.

“Hey, it’s fine. I never really expected you to be here on time.”

I guess I have a reputation of being late.

“Sorry…I guess I’m just a delay fish.”

“No, no, no! Don’t worry about it!” He hastily remarked. “I don’t mind your…delays. It’s one of the things about you that I think are charming. I wouldn’t change a thing.”

“Thanks.” I held my hand over my heart. “Whew, I think that was a record sprint for me. Gimmie a minute…”

“You’re fine. No hurry here.”

After half a minute of recovery time, I was ready. I stepped forward toward an array of heavy punching bags.

“Alright, Kyle. This is what I’ve been working on. I don’t really have a lot to work with, but I try my best.”

He nodded. “I’m sure it’s great.”

I took a deep breath, and focused my mind on my targets. Rotating my wrists and head to get the kinks out, everything in my body was as ready as it could be. In an instant, I sprung forward, and struck the first bag. After a quick combo, I fluidly moved diagonally to the next target with a spin kick. Back and forth to each of the 9 heavy bags I went, delivering quick strikes or powerful blows with everything I had.

As I approached the end of my demonstration, I formed as much of a flame as I could muster. It flowed through my movements, growing stronger and hotter. Finally, I leapt as high and far as possible toward the last punching bag. Twisting my body, I delivered a flying back kick incorporating all of my accumulated fire.

The target was rocked with the force, knocking it off of one of its hanging chains and leaving it as a burning wreckage.

My heart was beating like a war drum, and I was out of breath, but that was one of the best times I had ever performed my fighting technique. Mahsa would be proud.

“Wow. That was incredible!” Kyle praised, clapping his hands.

I wiped sweat away from my brow.

“Thanks. My powers are almost non-existent, so I have to make the most of what I have. I have to fight just to compete around here.”

“Hm…I was never too worried about competing. I guess that’s why I haven’t been training as much as you.” He scratched behind his head. “Maybe I should give it a shot, just so I’m not a burden.”

I gestured to one of the punching bags.

“Go ahead! Give it a try! I promise I won’t laugh if it isn’t very good.”

“OK…”

The young man hesitantly approached the target. With a valiant effort, he reared back and punched it. The bag slightly swayed back and forth. Kyle shook out his hand with a grimace on his face as he looked over to see my reaction.

I attempted to maintain an encouraging expression.

“Not bad. Try kicking it! It probably won’t hurt so much.”

“Right, ah, yes.”

He took a step backward, and lunged forward to kick it with his right leg. After the initial contact, the heavy bag swung backward. He glanced at me with a pleased appearance on his face.

“How was that--OOF!!!”

The target had swung back and knocked Kyle off his feet. He landed flat on his back with a thud.

“owww…” He moaned.

“You alright?” I stepped over to where he lay.

The boy coughed.

“I guess so. That wasn’t very impressive was it?”

I just smiled and offered him my hand. He took it, and I helped him to his feet.

“Thanks for not laughing.” He expressed his gratitude.

“No problemo.” I replied lightly. “Not everybody’s cut out to be a fighter. That’s perfectly fine. Plus, it’s your first time doing this. You should’ve seen me on my first day. That was pathetic!”

“Almost as pathetic as your everyday existence!” A familiar, teasing voice sounded.

Startled, I turned my head around, although I knew exactly who it would be.

“What’s going on in loserville, population: 2?” Reese harassed.

“Getting some extra training, huh? ’cause that’s gonna help so much.” Bethany also added her mockery.

“What are you guys doing here?” I asked coolly. “Shouldn’t you be getting ready for your mission?”

“What mission? What are you talking about?”

“You really think we’re so stupid to fall for something like that? No, we’re here for you, and you can’t send us off looking for some phony mission so easily!”

“No, I’m serious. Mahsa told me-“

“Mahsa didn’t tell you shit!” Reese proclaimed, stepping toward me. “And she isn’t around!”

“Ya know, Reese and I were thinkin’,” Bethany sneered. “And we’re gettin’ pretty tired of you standing up against us like you’re somethin’ special.”

“Yeah, that’s gotta stop!” Reese quipped.

“And now that nobody’s around to get in the way, I think now is a good time to teach you a lesson in humility.”

“Wait a second!” Kyle interrupted, stepping up beside me. “Sera’s just doing what she thinks is right, and if you-“

Without a word, Bethany fired an energy beam at Kyle’s feet, sending him flying backward.

I clenched my fists.

“Leave him out of this! It isn’t about him!”

“Damn right it isn’t!” Reese agreed. “He’s just a helpless lemming. You, however, are the one who needs to get put in your place.”

“Right here, right now?” I asked through clenched teeth.

“Right here. Right now.” Bethany confirmed.

“Rules?”

“No lethal strikes. Anything else is fair game.”

“Good. Let’s get this started then.”

I formed a burning flame around my fist, which was about as big as I could go. Reese laughed, and a crackling bolt of electricity appeared between his hands. Bethany powered up her energy, and the air was almost palpable with force. In all seriousness, I knew there was no way I would have a chance against both of them…or even one realistically. They had incredible abilities, and I was just…me. They just needed someone to stand up to them, and even if I took a beating, at least they would know they couldn’t just walk all over anyone they pleased.

Kyle scooted himself behind a rack of weights for cover.

Things are about to get hairy.”

Bethany made the first move. She fired an energy beam at me. In a quick movement, I did a backward handspring to dodge. Before I could make a counter attack, Reese added his own attack to the mix. A bolt of electricity flew across the room, and I narrowly avoided it. Wow! It’s a good thing their powers didn’t actually move at the speed of light, or I’d be toast right now.

If they were annoyed that their first attacks didn’t connect, they didn’t show it. Reese sneered as he continued firing sparks, and Bethany, well, she was laughing like a psychopath as she kept releasing beams of pinkish energy. I ran in a wide arc around them, dodging as I went. I weaved through the midst of the hanging punching bags for cover. One of Reese’s lightning bolts burned a hole through a target, while the concussive force from Bethany’s ray knocked one for a loop.

Changing my angle, I circled in toward the pair. The direction of my approach placed Reese in between Bethany and myself, so I only had his attacks to worry about. Dodging acrobatically, I came in with a right punch, flames surrounding my fist. He blocked my strike with his forearm. I felt a jolt of electricity when I touched him, but it appeared that my fire had burned him too. He winced as he also blocked my left punch. The punches were only a distraction, though, and I quickly delivered a strong side kick to his gut.

The blond-haired boy buckled and fell backward a bit. My brief triumph quickly faded as I found myself completely wide open to an attack from my other enemy. She unleashed a powerful beam at me. Off balance, I spun to dodge, but the blast still clipped my arm. I was sent flying backward, and landed on the ground. The wind was totally knocked out of me, and it was hard to breathe. I looked up to see Bethany staring smugly back at me. She could have smoked me again, but didn’t.

“Get up! I want to see you scramble around some more!” She sneered.

I hastened to my feet, and dashed in to attack. My foe just smiled and waited for me. Just as I was closing in to hit her, Reese had gotten back up, and shot a spark of electricity at me. I narrowly avoided the shock, and quickly retreated.

Drat! Facing the two of them together was harder than I thought it’d be. I ran for my life away from them, dodging the bombardment of energy blasts. Once more I weaved my way in, targeting Bethany this time. When I was only a few feet away from her, she released a radial pulse of her power that sent me careening to the ground.

Again, the two just jeered at me.

“What’s wrong? Are you a pacifist or something?” Bethany taunted. “Afraid to hit me? Come on!”

“Yeah, you call this a fight? If it weren’t for your constant whining, I wouldn’t even know you’re here!” Reese added.

I raised myself up on one knee, and spat. It tasted like blood. My eyes glared at the two arrogant chumps before me. I knew I couldn’t win. I just wanted to wipe that smug grin off Bethany’s face one time before they beat me to where I couldn’t fight anymore.

Like a sprinter, I took off and charged them again. My body pulled from the last of its strength to nimbly dodge each incoming projectile. The smirks on their faces turned into expressions of concentration. I ducked under a lightning bolt, and rolled to the right to evade an energy blast. From there, I performed a low spin kick to sweep out Reese’s legs. He got his feet back underneath him and barely managed to retain his balance. Immediately flowing from my low spin, I used my momentum to throw my legs up into a cartwheel kick at my target’s face. The force of the blow knocked him to the ground.

I completed the cartwheel, and rushed toward Bethany. Our eyes locked as I came in for the kill (not literally). I sensed her charging up her power, so I did the same. I put everything I had into the flame on my right hand. Leaping into the air, I prepared to come down with a fiery punch. She released her charged beam while, simultaneously, Reese discharged a bolt of electricity in our direction. Time seemed to slow almost to a stop. As though we were suddenly in The Matrix, I was aware of everything. The crackling lightning, the miniature inferno in my hand, the rose colored blast. This was going to be close.

At the last instant before impact, all of our energy attacks suddenly redirected into the air. Bethany and I were thrown apart by the motion. I looked up to see our three elements floating above us. They hung there for several seconds, glowing like some kind of light show. Then, like they were being sucked into a vacuum sweeper, they all disappeared in the long, draping sleeves of a Nahalore robe.

“Children, this is no time to fight amongst yourselves!” Oro Sherman scolded.

He had appeared in the physical training gym, along with Mahsa and Doshi. Over the years, I had learned that Sherman was an Omni-caller; capable of manipulating existing energy of any kind. There was only one Omni-caller at any time in Nahalore, which signified that individual was the current bishop.

“Bethany! Reese! Shouldn’t you be getting ready for the mission, rather than picking fights?” Mahsa reprimanded.

“What mission?” Bethany demanded. “No one told me anything!”

“Did you not get my message?” Mahsa asked, directing her gaze at me.

“Hey, I told them, as soon as I saw them! I can’t help it that it was only about 15 minutes ago.” I defended myself.

“If you really were the ‘Fiery One’,” Sherman scoffed. “I would expect you to be above petty squabbles like this.”

I struggled to keep my mouth shut. Sometimes actions speak louder than words, and this was a time when nothing I could say would fix anything. The authorities of Nahalore turned and walked away, followed by my rivals. Before leaving, they turned around to get in one last venomous sting.

“Yeah, little Zippo Girl! We all expected so much better of you!” Reese sneered.

“You’re getting off lucky this time. Next time, when I’m through with you, you won’t have any hands to make another flame!” Bethany threatened.

I sincerely considered giving them the finger, but elected against it. It was time for me to be the big girl.

In a moment, I was left standing alone. That didn’t go exactly as planned, but at least I was still able to walk. Kyle came out from behind his cover and approached me.

“I don’t care what they say, Sera.” He began. “What you did was really brave, and super cool. I’m glad someone around here has enough courage to stand up for people, unlike me.”

Kyle looked at the ground, ashamed of himself. He must not feel like a man, being unable to fight against people who mistreat him, or his friends.

I put my arm around his shoulder.

“Hey, you know what? Do you know how I can stand up to them?”

He blushed, and didn’t make eye contact.

“How?”

“It’s because I know you’re there. I mean, I know there’s not too much you can really do to help, but just because you believe in me, I feel like I have the strength to fight.”

“Really?” He seemed incredulous.

“Really. Kyle, you’re the only one I can really call my friend. You and Josie…”

Suddenly I remembered poor Josie. If she woke up, she’d probably freak out with me not being there.

“Oh my gosh! Josie!”

I pulled my arm away, accidentally smacking Kyle in the face.

“Sorry, Kyle! I’ve gotta run! I’ll see you tomorrow!”

“Yeah, uh, OK! Good night!” He called after me.

I rushed back to the mansion. Sorry for leaving you, Josie. Please don’t freak out too much! I’m coming! The poor kid was really unstable, and if she found herself alone in a strange place she’s never been, well, I don’t know what she’d do.

As I made it to the front of the mansion, I began to think more logically. I mean, chances are she’s still asleep. And if she did wake up, what’s the worst that could happen? She’d probably be a little scared, but she’s a big girl. She could handle it.

After a minute, I opened the door to my room. It was dark, but the beam of light from the portal to the hallway pierced the blackness enough for me to make out the area. The first place my eyes went was to the floor by the bed, where I had left Josie. She wasn’t there. She also wasn’t in the bed, nor in any of the huge bean bags.

Maybe I was a little worried. I walked silently in to the room, and whispered her name.

“Josie! Josie, are you here?”

Then, I noticed a crack of light underneath the door to the conjoined bathroom. My heart relaxed its beating to a more normal pace. OK, she’s just in the bathroom. I raised my voice a little, to let her know I was there.

“Hey, Josie! I’m back!”

A small crash sounded from within the restroom. Whoops. I must have startled her. In a moment, the door opened an inch or two. Josie stood there, staring at me with a horrified expression on her face. She was holding her arms behind her back.

“Josie?” I inquired, a bit hesitantly. “What’s wrong?”

“S-S-Sera? I thought you left me! I thought you left me like everyone else!”

“No, Josie!” I tried to act cheerful. “I wouldn’t-“

Josie continued, nearly in tears.

“I looked around, and I waited, and waited, but you weren’t there, and I was alone, and I didn’t know what to do!”

The girl started to cry. I guess it was a little worse than I thought.

“Sh-sh-sh…It’s OK.” I attempted to soothe her, and approach for a hug. “I’m here. I told you I’d never leave, I just had something I needed to do. I’m really sorry-“

When I came close to her she thrashed and backed away.

“Don’t! Don’t touch me! I’m…I’m…horrible…”

I was slightly shocked at her reaction. This wasn’t like the Josie I had known since…earlier today/yesterday. I wonder what’s wrong. Then it occurred to me…

“Josie, are you…stealing?”

She violently shook her head.

“No! Not at all! I would never steal from you!”

“Then what were you doing in the bathroom that you could come out so fast, and what are you holding behind your back? And why are you acting so guilty?”

“No, it’s not…I was just…I can’t-“ The tears continued to flow from her eyes.

“It’s OK.” I said softly.

I think I understand now. The poor girl must have spent her life as a thief to survive or something. Well, it didn’t have to be that way.

“You don’t have to steal anything here. We’ll give you anything you ask for!”

“But! But I wasn’t-“

“It’s OK.” I repeated. “If you can forget about it, I’ll forget about it too. I’ll never mention what happened.”

She looked at me through tear-filled eyes.

“But you don’t know…who I am…”

“I don’t need to, to know that you’re my sister.”

With that, I wrapped my arms in a loving embrace around the shaking girl. She didn’t fight me this time.

“You don’t have to worry anymore. I’ll always be here for you. I promise.”

I felt the tears flow silently from her eyes onto my shoulder, but she didn’t say a word. Then, whatever she was holding behind her back dropped to the floor as she slid her arms around me. I didn’t even care to see what the item was. All I cared about was that Josie would feel at home.

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