“We lost six people on the mission, plus her, but I think we can call it a victory.” Mahsa explained, looking forward at a wall within the medical center. “Considering that their objective was to wipe us out, but we did the same to them, we can hold our heads high.”
I nodded. It didn’t come naturally for me to accept casualties and feel a sense of victory when not everyone made it home, but I suppose I should get used to it.
“And then there’s you.” Mahsa turned to face me. “I’ve always believed that you shouldn’t be limited by the hand that you were dealt, but didn’t actually think that you were actually the Fiery One. Now…I’m not so sure. You were incredible out there.”
I had honestly never heard Mahsa say anything remotely friendly to anyone, so her compliment took me absolutely by surprise. I blushed and looked down.
“Honestly, I couldn’t have planned it any better myself. Making you work hard at first with weak powers so you could learn fighting skills and humility, then turning up the heat.”
“Well, I have you to thank for getting me through, Mahsa. Without you, I’d probably be out there, learning to be a balloon animal tier or something.”
“I’m just doing what I’m meant to do.” With that, she walked away.
She was a bit rough around the edges, but not a bad person at all.
Upon returning from the battle against Teklos, a number of the Ircabim headed directly for the medical center to take care of injuries they had received. Mahsa had a few scratches, and was patched up in no time. After making sure that Bethany was put on a stretcher and taken to the emergency room, I followed Mahsa to the medical center, where we had our conversation. Then, I decided to check on Bethany.
When I arrived at her room, the door was closed, and Reese was sitting on a bench outside of it. He was leaning forward with his elbows on his knees and his hands folded, fingers intertwined. His head was down, and his sunglasses were still missing. I was still not used to seeing his face without them.
I sat down next to my rival without a word. What could I say? Without looking up, the blonde young man spoke.
“Thank you. For what you did. She would have died…if you hadn’t…” He stopped, being too much of a stupid man to let anyone see him cry; he didn’t want to continue, or the tears might come.
“No problemo.” I said quietly. “I’d do it for anyone.”
There was so much that could have been said by either party; such as “Sorry for being a jerk all of these years”, or “What’s she to you?”, or “Why would you help people who’ve treated you wrongly?”, but neither of us said anything. Sometimes, it was best just to let healing occur on its own.
Eventually, Reese started talking.
“I don’t know what I’d do without her. We grew up together, and been best friends since before we could walk. I never thought of her as a girlfriend or anything, really. I mean, she was a classmate, and a training mate, just never a matemate just more like… well, we did it that one time 1 year 2 months and 17 days ago but…OH GOD!”
He slapped his hand over his mouth, then looked at me with fearful eyes.
“Don’t tell her I told you! She’d kill me!”
Despite my initial shock at his accidental revelation, I mimed zipping my lips shut.
Reese relaxed, and confessed.
“It was just sort of a one-time thing, because we were curious. It was kinda awkward, though, so we decided that it would be better if we just stayed friends. And…that’s fine with me.” Emotions started welling up, and he tried his best not to cry. “She’s all I have. Nobody else likes us. It’s just the two of us. Maybe it’s because we’re mean to people, I don’t know. I just hope she makes it.”
I placed my hand on his shoulder.
“She will. She’s tough, and defiant, and an all-around bratty malevolent jerk. That’s exactly how I know she’ll pull through. You just watch.”
The young man smiled.
“Thanks. You know, you’re not as bad as I always thought.” Then his expression changed. “Just remember, we’re still not friends. There’s a lot of space before something like that could happen.”
I stood up.
“No worries. Your coolness is still intact. I know you might lose it if you hung around me too long!”
After talking to Reese, I headed out of the medical center, not heading anywhere in particular. I had a lot to think about. The emergence of my power, all of the words of Dorian Peterson, Mahsa’s acceptance of me, and a growing disillusion with Nahalore as a whole. It seemed like those in power were just pumping up everyone’s egos by calling them “chosen” and “predestined” and stuff. Then, everybody thinks that they’re better than everyone else, mostly better than people outside of Nahalore, but also within the organization, hence the whole “power scale” thing. I thought of individuals like Mahsa and Todd. They were fully capable of making a difference, but they were judged as weaklings their whole lives. I was too, but now things were different.
While walking, lost in thought, Kyle ran up to me.
I turned around, and saw him coming. He was carrying a box of something.
“Oh, hey Kyle! How’s it going?”
“I’m OK. I’m just so glad you made it back without getting hurt.”
“Oh, I was hurt. Actually, I almost died, but something weird happened, and now, I don’t even have a scratch! Look!” I lifted my shirt up to expose where I had been stabbed. “See! I had a knife sticking out of me right here, but you can’t even tell! It’s like somebody used a max potion on me or something.”
Kyle’s cheeks reddened and he turned his head away.
“Well, I’m glad you’re OK. Uh…I have something for you.”
The boy handed me the box he had been holding. I took it, quizzically. I didn’t know exactly when my birthday was. Everyone had always told me that it was March 1st, so that’s when I celebrated it., but that was months ago. Seeing my confusion, Kyle quickly added: “Go ahead and open it.”
I opened the flaps on the plain cardboard box. Inside lay a pair of shoes. They weren’t just any shoes. They were black Converse, an exact replica of the ones that Bethany had ruined.
“Wow! Thanks Kyle!” I exclaimed joyfully. “How did you get these?”
He looked down and scratched behind his head. “Ah, when I came by the preparation room to say goodbye, everyone was already gone, and your shoes were left lying there, all disgusting and stuff. So, uh, it was the day for the food truck driver to make his delivery, and I bought them off of him just like you did.”
“They’re perfect! What are the odds that it was delivery day?”
Kyle stood awkwardly while I discarded the garish white and orange Nahalorian shoes and sat down to put the replacement Converse on my feet. How convenient it was that that delivery truck guy wore the same size as I did! After I got back up, I examined my new footwear.
“Aw yeah! Thanks Kyle! These are super awesome. Way better than those crappy white things.”
“You’re, um…you’re welcome. You look great…I mean they look…I mean… the shoes look good on you.” He stammered.
“Thanks! I don’t know why, but I’ve always liked this style.”
There was another pause, as Kyle struggled to think of something to say. He looked even more nervous and shaky than normal.
“Um…did anything feel…weird about those shoes?”
“No! They feel great! Just like my last ones.”
“Does it feel like there’s anything…um…stuck inside? Like…a piece of paper, or something?”
“Hm, nah. I don’t feel anything.”
“Oh. Uh, well, I, um…I was just going to say…or actually, I wasn’t going to say, because the paper said, I mean, I said on the paper, that…um…I thought…I just wanted to tell you…”
As he faltered with his words, he stepped closer to me, within a foot. I didn’t really understand what he was doing. Did he have an embarrassing secret that he wanted to tell me? Poor guy. For all this time, I’ve been his only friend, and he still felt too awkward to talk to me about everything. I smiled at him.
“Hey, it’s alright. You can tell me anything, I’ll understand. But if you don’t feel like you can tell me, that’s OK too.”
“No! It’s not that! I just wanted to tell you that I…I wanted to let you know that I’mmmmm… really glad you made it back OK. I was worried…and…stuff.”
“Ah. Well, thank you very much for your concern, Kyle.”
His face reddened again, and he hurriedly walked away. He was a bit of a strange guy. I decided that I would go talk to him one-on-one later to see if he would tell me what was bothering him. But first, I needed to think some more about everything that had happened. I’ll be honest. I’m not the brightest firefly in the woods. Sometimes, I just need a little extra time to figure out what to do.
I walked with purpose toward the garage. Since Teklos’ attack, it was much easier to go in and out of the secret tunnel leading to the garage, and I was able to go outside without having to mess with anything that I wasn’t supposed to. They were working on repairing it, but for now, I would enjoy it. I wanted to go outside, and see if I could get the jumble inside of my head all sorted out.
When I entered the garage, it was surprisingly devoid of activity. In fact, there wasn’t a soul around. I guess everyone was near the center of town of the medical area to get information about how the battle with Teklos went. As I passed by one of the support pillars, I spotted a dark form dash behind some cover. Who was that? I had the feeling it was someone who shouldn’t be here.
I started to pursue them immediately. Suddenly, a bullet flew past my head. I dodged backward, and instinctively ignited a fire in my right hand. The large flame still somewhat surprised me because I was so used to my miniscule one. I backed slowly away from the tool chest behind which I had seen the intruder disappear, and put my left hand over my right, forming a fireball. The next time the man popped out, I hurled it in his direction. It exploded against the tool chest. He rolled out from behind it, and ran behind a support pillar, firing off a shot in my direction. I ducked, and sprinted toward where he had gone, emitting a fire from both hands for the first time.
Just then, he made a dash from his cover toward the door from the garage into the rest of the underground city. I didn’t know what he hoped he could accomplish, but there was no way I would let him through there. I released a torrent of flames to block his path, and he immediately changed direction to go around it. His new path was longer, so I sprinted to intercept him. I skidded to a stop in between the intruder and the door.
He held his pistol out in front of him, pointing at my head. I held out my hands, a burning flame surrounding both of them. We glared at each other for a long time. It was then that I finally got a good look at him. It appeared that he was wearing some variant of the Tsalderek uniform. He had very dark hair, a muscular build, and steel grey eyes that gave the impression of being equally cold, determined, hurt, and passionate. I had never seen anything like them. Somehow, he looked…familiar, but I couldn’t place it.
Our stalemate lasted several seconds, until he was the first to speak.
“Look. I don’t want to kill you. I just need to get through that door.”
I shook my head.
“I don’t think so.”
“Are you going to make me shoot you?”
“If that’s the way it has to be, then yes. I’m not moving, but I swear I’ll give you a burn you won’t forget.”
“Tell you what.” He calmly stated. “How about I drop my gun, you cool off your hands, and we settle this just you and me. No weapons, no powers, no handicaps. Just my fighting skill versus yours.”
I knew this deal would be in his favor. I tried my best, but I couldn’t really hope to defeat him hand-to-hand. However, I would do whatever it took to slow him down. Maybe I could just delay him long enough for the security to come and stop him. Shoot! The security systems and cameras were all down! Who knows how long it’ll be before anyone arrives? Well, I had little choice. I would fight with all that I had.
“OK. Don’t try anything dirty, or I’ll roast you.”
“I promise I’ll do what I said I’d do.”
The young man slowly held his gun out to his right, and I slowly moved my arms out to my sides. We stayed like that for a moment. Then, he began to count.
On zero, he dropped the weapon, and I quenched my flames. He smiled maliciously, and I realized that I probably made a mistake. He leapt forward with a jumping front kick. I managed to back away from it, but he quickly followed with a spinning back fist, and a low spin kick. I continued to backpedal, barely avoiding each strike. My opponent threw a hard round right punch. I raised an arm to block, but he went directly into a back kick to my stomach which knocked me back even further.
I coughed and doubled over with pain, trying to catch my breath from the attack. He had already driven me nearly all the way to the door. I couldn’t retreat any longer. I would stand my ground.
“Look, you can give up now.” He coldly informed me. “I don’t want to have to kill you.”
In response, I stood up straight again, and took a fighting pose. I thought about shouting “YOU SHALL NOT PASS”, but honestly didn’t feel confident enough to say that.
He pressed the attack again, but I refused to retreat an inch. As fast as I could, I defended against each blow. There was no time for me to even attempt to counter between the rapid punches and kicks. I was hit with a knife hand strike, which dazed me enough for him to make contact with a powerful side kick. I stumbled backward, and fell to my knees. The wind was knocked from my lungs, and I coughed violently.
“Now, get out of my way, Damn Nephilim.”
At this point any sane person would have quit. However, I’ve never been so audacious as to refer to myself as sane. I forced myself to my feet. He’s not getting past, no matter what it cost.
“If you keep getting up, I’m going to keep knocking you down.”
I tried to think of something clever to say, but my…everything… hurt too much to come up with anything. As soon as I resumed my fighting position, he attacked again, even more fiercely.
Low spin, high spin, palm strike. I managed to catch his wrist, and attempted to force him backward. He tried to hit me with his other fist, but I blocked his attack with his own arm, then kicked as hard as I could at his knee. The strike had little effect on him, and he twisted my hand and flipped me over. I managed to land on my feet, and face him again, just in time to catch a powerful right punch to the face.
The force knocked me backward to the ground, and I sprawled out sideways. The intruder attempted to walk past me, but I put myself in his path. I pulled myself to my hands and knees. Blood dripped from my nose and mouth, and every bruise and cut screamed out its presence. This young man watched me with some apparent irritation.
“Why don’t you stay down? I don’t have time for this.”
I stood to my feet, but was still hunched over, holding my stomach and face.
“Your MOM doesn’t have time for this…” was the best I could think of to mutter.
With great effort, I raised my body to an erect posture.
“I can’t let you past. Too many of us have died. I can’t let you kill anyone else. I’ll fight you until you break every bone in my body.”
He growled loudly, and resumed his offensive. This time, it was impossible for me to keep up with defending against the barrage of attacks. I found myself getting bludgeoned repeatedly by knees, fists, and feet. There was nothing I could do to stave off the painful blows that send sharp impacts of agony through my body to my head. I didn’t know how much longer I could keep resisting.
Just then, my foe unleashed a powerful spinning kick that collided with my face at maximum force.
I didn’t even feel myself hit the ground.