Evoke Chapter 1-4

I: Fatal Decision

The sickly green sky loomed overhead; a reminder of how far we’d come; how much we’d lost. Saldarian Flats sat at the far end of New Callastryne so it took nearly a segment to reach it by terrarail. The azure glow of Aio—our larger moon—beamed along the edges of the clouds, as the sun retreated behind the mountains. I navigated the cluster of condemned buildings and barred windows, trying to ignore the shifty-eyes targeting me from every direction. Busted street lumens littered the road replaced by several trash bin fires that filled the air with a noxious stench. I glanced at my timechain; 17.55. A segment on the ground and the smell was the worst of the threats I could detect. As I made one final pass, something moved erratically in my peripheral.

A shadow wildly flailing across an alley wall. I jogged over to investigate. But all I found was an empty corridor.

“Must’ve been my imagin—”

“No—!”

The cry pinged sharply in my right ear, then cut off as suddenly as it started. I raced down the alley and peeked around the corner.

The sight was enough to churn the bile in my stomach. A sloppy blob of a man was pinned over a woman. She kicked and shrieked as he tore at her dress like a starved predator ripping into prey. Her resistance earned her a hard smack to the face.

“Keep it up, and I’ll knock your teeth down your windpipe,” he spat.

The woman fell quiet. Her petite frame trembling in an attempt to stifle the sound of her breathing. But I could hear it all the same. The plea for help that accompanied every inhale; resonating so deep in my chest, I might as well have been in her place. I wish I could say this was an uncommon scene in Aruria. But, for as long as I can remember, the weak have been victimized under the inattentive eye of the Department of Peace. That’s where I entered the equation.

A flame ignited within me, setting my body on autopilot. My fists clenched, and my legs propelled me forward.

“Hey, you disgusting creep! Let her go before I bash your face into the pavement!” My voice was more forceful than I expected.

The fat man twisted around with wild eyes that gave me a once-over as I advanced. “You’re gonna regret sticking your nose in other people’s business, you little punk.”

I charged him. My jaw tightened as if I’d feel what would happen when my foot made contact with his teeth. But, just as I twisted my weight behind my attack, something blurred, and I was suddenly tumbling backward. He was quicker than expected. Too quick to ignore the obvious.

I sprang to my feet, and his dark sunken eyes trained on me, filling my veins with ice as I realized I was facing off with another gifted. My mind raced as much as my heart. But I tuned out my nerves and started toward him again.

“Don’t be stupid,” he grumbled. “Mind your damn business, or I’ll take it out on her.”

His words nearly stole my nerve. But, if I didn’t act, it just meant he could do what he’d planned from the start with no resistance from me or the woman under him. No threats he made against her could be any worse. Still, I couldn’t exactly take him on with her trapped under him.

Scanning the area, I spotted a loose metal pipe between some carbonized trash bins. I felt his eyes on me as I moved to pick up the pipe. My face didn’t show it, but my shaky hands probably did. Tapping the pipe on my heel brought reassurance. Sturdy enough.

I removed one of the trash lids, nearly gagging at the odor of rotting who-knows-what. Better than nothing. Maybe. With tools in hand, I turned and met eyes with Aruria’s fattest sexual predator. But I wasn’t about to give him the time to determine my next move.

I rushed at him, my elbow high as I reached across my body and launched the metal disc toward his face. He effortlessly leaned to one side, and the lid shot clear past him.

I knew he wouldn’t pass up on the chance to take another swing at me. Especially at such close range. But I wasn’t about to let him knock me out of striking distance this time.

His expression intensified, and his arm became a blur again. I lunged at him, swinging the pipe from my shoulder like a peace enforcement baton. His arm moved up just in time to deny me my target. Just in time to complete my plan. The hard thwack rang in the alley, from the trash lid curving around and catching him in the back of the neck. He nearly toppled over. It was the perfect setup to distract him long enough for me to strike him clean across the face with the pipe, sending a second hollow ping echoing deep in my ears as he lumbered to one side and collapsed.

I rolled him away so the woman could get up. “You okay?” I asked. She lifted her head, and my breath caught as her large autumn eyes snapped onto mine. A cold prickle crept down my spine. She’s stunning. Thankfully, the lapse between my thoughts and my words kept the situation from turning awkward.

“It’s you,” she whispered with wide eyes. There was a subtle edge to her voice that felt as sobering as it was serene. “I’ve finally found you.”

Before I could respond, she took my hand, and the world fell silent. Energy pulsed from her hand into mine surging through me like electricity. A blinding flash followed, engulfing everything around us in darkness. I found myself floating in cold, deafening nothingness. Separate from the world… separate from myself. Am I dead?

Another blinding light provided my answer. Bathed in radiance, the woman reappeared. Her golden skin gleamed. Her hair sparkled a fiery scarlet. Her eyes now a luminous, winter blue. She looked like the woman I’d just saved in the alley. And yet, I somehow knew I was looking at an entirely different person.

“Your path leads only to ruin. Intervention is required.” Her frigid voice resonated deep in my chest. It felt like she was speaking to my very soul. Infecting my consciousness with awe, until I could hardly speak. “Fate is an illusion, experienced by the ignorant.”

I tried to ask what she meant. But my tongue felt heavy; my mouth, disconnected from my brain.

“What if I told you this life is one of many — infinitely branching — on an endless river of time and space?” Every word she spoke was an invasion of my mind and body — becoming a seamless piece of me. “This world is full of beauty — a beauty that must be preserved.”

A rich array of images flashed before my eyes: A child playing, waves washing over the beach, a blooming flower, a vibrant sunset, Aio and Karon glimmering in the night sky, each one pulled at me, compelled me. “A war rages in the shadows, as a great malevolence toils to bring it to light. I offer you the power to take arms against this force and break free of fate. Should you accept this power, you will embark on a journey unlike any other. Outside of time. Outside observation. Observation reality itself. Mathematica, mens, animus, aether, tempus, materia, vis — all will bend to your will. You need only accept this mantle and begin your journey.”

I could hardly breathe. Much less make sense of her words. And yet, in that moment, I knew what I had to do. “I — I accept,” I said, taking her hand.

“So, let it continue,” her voice boomed, as everything went dark. When the darkness lifted, I was at the edge of the alley. Alone.

I checked my timechain and nearly collapsed. 17.55?! How is that possible?! The answer was simple: it wasn’t possible. If it was 17.55, that meant that somehow, I hadn’t yet stumbled upon... “No—!” a woman shrieked. “Stop!”

I turned to find the fat man backing the woman into the alley. The attack hadn’t happened yet. And this time, I would ensure it didn’t. I peeked around the wall. The hefty man had his back to me, fully engaged in forcing the shrieking woman down, as she fought with all she had to stay on her feet. The pipe was right where I remembered it. I grabbed it and crept up behind big rapey, my heart throbbing in my ears. With a grip so tight, I thought the metal would crumble in my hands, I raised the pipe high...and swung.

I was so determined not to screw it up, I nearly screwed it up, tripping over a crack. A grunt hissed through my teeth, and the man turned just in time to catch the pipe with his face. His eyes went dead, as he collapsed like a sack of oaniqun seeds.

I turned to the woman. Her eyes were back to their beautiful autumn hue. “You okay?” I asked.

“Yeah,” she sighed, reaching for my hand. I hesitated.

“Can you help me up please?”

“S-sure.”

I braced myself and took her hand, a little surprised when the woman only pulled herself back to her feet and brushed the dirt off her clothes. She offered a curious glance. “Everything okay?”

“Huh? Y-yeah. You?”

“Thanks to you.” She smiled. “My hero.”

A wide smile painted my face, as the word sunk in. ‘Hero.’ It sounded even better coming from a beautiful woman. But the moment was short-lived. A weak groan escaped the fat man. “You should go,” I prompted.

“What about you?”

“I’ll keep him busy. Call the PEDs.” Not that calling them would do much good. But getting her out of danger would at least free me up to make sure my new friend didn’t escape to find more victims.

She nodded and hurried off. “Be careful,” she yelled over her shoulder.

The groan intensified. He was already back on his feet, blood trickling from the open gash on the side of his face.

“Appalling how disrespectful kids today are. Interrupting other people’s favorite pastimes.” Malice overtook his eyes. “Guess I’ll have to discipline you like your dad should’ve.” He settled into a wide stance, closed his eyes, and loudly sucked the air into his flared nostrils. In almost no time the bleeding had slowed to a trickle, and his skin was knitting itself back together.

He has more than one ability?! It was the first thought to cross my mind, as he charged me. The second, more critical thought was that I probably should’ve run when I had the chance.

I narrowly dodged and made a show of cracking my neck to hide the trembling in my jaw. “Watch it, big guy. Or maybe I should call you Fat Felo.”

“What in Hadal are you talking about?”

I don’t know why I’d said it. But at a glance, the guy was a saggy ball, turned human, turned sex offender. A fat guy who commits felonies. So, Fat Felo. “You heard me.”

His cruel eyes locked onto me as he inhaled; holding for a moment. Then, with a sinister smile, his image blurred momentarily then disappeared. I tensed, guarding my face just in time for something to plow into my forearms with enough force to nearly fracture them. Fat Felo stood in front of me with a toothy grin.

Pain drew my focus to my arms. And in that moment, something blurred in front of me at the top of my peripheral. Fat Felo was gone. Panic gripped me; my eyes darting through the empty whirling wind around me. By the time I thought I heard something, I was knocked into the air by what felt like a battering ram; jerking my head forward, while my body pulled in the opposite direction.

My turbulent flight was brought to a sudden stop by the hard embrace of a lumen pole. I slid to the ground, huffing as a thick, warm liquid trickled down my face and collected at my chin. Sharp pain ricocheted down my spine and ignited my limbs. I blinked hard, waiting for the ground to steady out. It didn’t. I closed my eyes and desperately took hold of my shallow breaths.

“You take hits pretty well. Let’s see how good you do when I throw some weight into it.”

The sound of air rushing through his huge nostrils was haunting. But, as my wits returned, it became instructional. Using the pole as support, I forced myself to stand in time for the thump of approaching feet to trigger my reflexes. I involuntarily dipped right, just in time for his fist to catch the light pole. I seized the opportunity to retreat across the alley and get to my feet. Fat Felo yanked his arm from the pole, and a hollow screech echoed as it bent past ninety degrees, the lumen halfheartedly flickering. He turned and smiled, probably noting how petrified I looked.

This monster of a man was more than I could’ve hoped to handle. And were it not for the fact that I’d actually saved someone, I’d have regretted ever stepping foot into that alley. Another breath, and he disappeared again. But his power was finally starting to make sense. Fat Felo only had to focus his breathing for his face to heal so perfectly that it looked like I’d never hit him. The super speed and strength were also connected to his breathing somehow. Was it possible for me to pull something like that off? If I had that kind of power, I cou—

My head jerked left, and the rest of my body followed. Everything tilted to one side as the ground embraced me with open arms. Blood trickled across my cheek, rolling into a crimson pool. A stinging pain radiated from the right side of my face; my ears ringing so loud, my eardrums felt like they would burst.

I squeezed my eyes shut and slowed my breathing—my sole focus filling my lungs with air, and controlling the release. The pain radiating from my chest and face gnawed at my concentration, but I persisted; even as Fat Felo closed in on me.

Slower. Deeper. Control it.

I needed it to work or I wouldn’t stand a chance. I drew in one more breath, and something finally clicked. Suddenly, the echo of mad laughter abruptly cut through the ringing. Something was happening. The dizziness drained from my head my body went from painful throbbing to buzzing with energy.

I opened my eyes to a world in vivid slow-motion. The air sparkled around me like near-microscopic stars. What is this feeling? And why do I suddenly feel so light?

“How are you standing?” he asked darkly, as I straightened.

I shrugged. “Maybe you hit like a girl. Is that why you pick on them?”

His face went red—a vein bulging from his forehead, as his nostrils flared wildly.

Another enhancement. But this time, I was ready. I closed my eyes and visualized every muscle vibrating with energy. As I exhaled, a warm tingle enveloped me like a thick coat. My body went heavy. But this feeling was different. This feeling was...powerful.

Fat Felo let out a war cry and stampeded toward me. Four strides put me in striking range, where I leaped at him. I pulled as far back as my shoulder could manage, then hammered down, crunching my knuckles into Fat Felo’s jaw with all the force I could. A crack drowned out all other sounds at that moment, and his head jolted back so hard, his body couldn’t help but follow. Fat Felo teetered back like a massive tree uprooting from its base until finally, he crumpled to the ground with a loud thump.

“Doesn’t feel so good, does it?” I taunted. He took a beat before rolling over and pressing onto all fours; the struggle to control his breathing almost palpable. He was trying to heal. But I had other plans for him.

I took another step, and fire shot up through my legs. The air grew thin, and everything began to blur. I squeezed my eyelids shut; forcing shaky breaths. But my knees buckled, and I hit the ground.

Laughter was close in tow, and I forced my eyes open to find Fat Felo back on his feet. His prodigious girth eclipsing the street lumens.

“Pushed too hard,” he said, his voice thick with nauseating satisfaction. A sharp pinch from Fat Felo dug into the back of my neck, yanking me to my feet, and my arms locked in a painful shrug.

“Amazing how similar people are to animals,” he mused. “Even some of the pressure points. Since you cost me such a gorgeous piece of tail, how ‘bout I show you what I mean?”

Declining his offer was a no-brainer. But I could barely move my arms. Fat Felo cackled sadistically. “It’s more fun when they put up a fight. Thrill of the kill.” He smacked his palm against my temple, and the ringing returned. Darkness crept into my field of view. My body felt like it was shutting down. I had to do something—anything before it was too late.

Desperately, I lifted my leg and jammed my foot down behind me. My heel caught Fat Felo’s kneecap, and his leg buckled, forcing him to release my neck. The pressure subsided in my neck, as I hit the ground like a puppet. If the rest of my body wasn’t feeling so numb, I probably would’ve felt it everywhere else on the impact.

Somehow, I managed to get back on my feet. Without hesitation, I drew back my leg and drove my foot into his face like my life depended on it. His head jerked back with a bit of resistance, so I kicked harder the second time, losing my balance and falling onto his wide, pudgy back. The stench of his sweat unapologetically invaded my nostrils. But I was too tired to be grossed out. PED sirens, blaring in the distance, registered over the ringing in my ears. My cue to exit.

“They actually came,” I chuckled to myself.

II: Good Intentions

“18.5: As good a time as any for breaking and entering,” I told myself, easing the back window shut. I paused, peering into the darkness. Every little hum and creak in the house was deafening. And it had my nerves firing fiercely, all while the night replayed in my head like a glitched recording. Fat Felo, the woman, and whatever happened when she took my hand. It was a lot to process. But until I reached my room, it only served as a distraction.

I crept forward, legs trembling; eyes hovering in front of me until my bedroom door glided into view. Four long strides could put me there. But the pins shooting up my feet would make it nearly impossible to get past Hachi’s razor-sharp senses. At least the Royal Army was good for something.

Hachi’s door squeaked open and my only option was to ignore the heat flaring up my legs and make a clumsy leap toward the corner wall, where I could brace myself before he appeared in the hallway. I held for a few beats; the cold burn of oxygen clawing down my throat. With every beat, the pain grew. If only I could’ve willed the door shut. But El didn’t see fit to give me that power. Three agonizingly stifled breaths later, the knob gave a second squeak, and the door clicked shut.

I peeked around the corner and sighed, relieved an empty hallway was the only thing staring back. With my back still against the wall, I carefully slid past Hachi’s door and found my own. A slow twist of the door knob and I was in.

I sunk into the carpet, gasping for air. My heartbeat rhythmically gonged in my eardrums as I crawled to my bathroom. Leaning into the wall, I wrestled my clothes off and nearly lost my balance tapping the light switches. The buzzing light, the shower vent, and the deep ringing in my ears were competing for my attention. None obtained it.

Icicles shot up my legs with each step along the frozen blocks of bathroom tile. I paused at the mirror, which clued me in on how much of a beating I’d actually taken. I blinked hard at the battered face looking back at me. Whatever power I used to heal before, had long since abandoned me. All that remained was the dirt and dried blood smearing the right side of my face, a deep red bruise along my left cheekbone, and a busted bottom lip. No way I’m sleeping this off. But a shower won’t hurt.

I turned the handle and waited as water vapor billowed around the ceiling light. My skin tingled as the water made contact. But I was too tired to tell if the sensation was more of a dull sting or a lackluster soothing. Verdallyn’s autumn nights were unexpectedly cold after sunset. A fact I’d only realized while shivering outside on my way home. With most of the dirt and dried blood flowing down the drain, I slipped into a soft pair of clean shorts and shirt, and burrowed under my thick stack of blankets. I hardly remember closing my eyes, before the world fell silent.

I awoke to bright bars of lemon-lime sunlight flooding my bedroom. I rolled over and stared at my blurry ceiling fan; a large blue ‘X’ against a sea of white. Creatively speaking, it wasn’t much to look at. Hachi’s strict rules innervated much of my life, so even this was a bit of a stretch for him. Whether or not I was the only one affected by it, I still had to buy all the materials myself and get his approval on my setup before starting. But it was also a reminder that Hachi could be reasoned with, under the right circumstances. Unfortunately, I strongly doubted that he’d find any part of my situation reasonable.

The hum of my processor drew my eyes toward the swaying trees in the backyard, and I opened the window to let in a breeze. The sweet scent of honey and buttery bread danced in the air and my stomach went ballistic; suddenly aware of the void.

According to my Power Clash Comics timeboard, it was 6.05. The earliest I’d been up in a while. Hachi would be halfway to the Bureau, which gave me time to focus on my appearance after resolving my hunger issue. As I rolled out of bed, memories of the previous night grasped at my attention.

Did I really copy that fat guy’s powers? And what about that woman with the autumn—or blue eyes? What on Orbis was she talking about? Fate is an illusion. What does that even mean? Too many questions to process without adequate brain fuel. So, I decided not to think about any of it until after breakfast.

I opened my door, and the aroma of freshly baked bread and scratch-made otamo sauce hit me like cool water on a scorching afternoon. Macha rolls for breakfast seemed unusual. But the lake forming in my mouth meant my stomach had no qualms about it. The smell grew stronger as I entered the kitchen, where the temperature suddenly shot up. The oven light was on, a dish of cheesy macha rolls bubbling inside.

It wasn’t like Hachi to leave in such a hurry that he forgot to turn off an appliance that could put the whole house in flames. And he’d never let me hear the end of it if the tables were turned. Still, it wasn’t like I could just wait for him to return to point out how he could make mistakes, same as the rest of us.

I reached for the off button, when the door suddenly opened and Hachi stepped in. I froze, mouth agape.

“You’ve been in night clothes all da—” He paused, incredulous eyes scanning me. “What happened to your face!?”

“Nothing, I... umm.” My mind blanked so quickly, I couldn’t even come up with a bad excuse.

“You what?” His tone was stern. Scary stern. “Why is your face covered in bruises?”

“I umm...” Now the sign was clear in my head: Back in twenty, but don’t wait up.

“Were you fighting again?”

My brain was so not ready for the scenario that only the truth seemed logical. A terrible sign. “Yeah, but I...”

“Yeah, but what?! You felt like my rules became invalid once you turned seventeen? Or perhaps you felt like I wouldn’t find out?”

“No,” I said. “I didn’t ‘feel’ anything.”

“Well, you had to be feeling something, because you certainly weren’t thinking.”

Biting back a response made my jaw so tight the muscles in my neck started twitching. Hachi studied me, irritation bubbling in his eyes like the macha rolls in the oven. “What happened?”

“Nothing happened.”

“What...happened?”

My face felt like it was being squeezed, as I forced a deep breath through flared nostrils. “A woman was being attacked.” I shrugged. “I jumped in and helped.”

“You—” His eyes trailed into his classic ‘how stupid can you be’ look. “You ‘jumped in?’” He was nodding his head as he repeated my words; confirming to himself exactly how ridiculous it all sounded out loud.

“Whatever,” I muttered.

Hachi’s head jerked up. But I didn’t wait for his eyes to find mine before retreating to my room.

“You have ten hashes to change and find your way back to the table,” The boom in Hachi’s voice echoed through my chest. “NaRyn will be here any moment.”

“Yes, sir!” I nearly yelled back, before storming into my room and slamming the door behind me.

I glanced at my Power Clash timeboard again; 16.14. Thanks, Serec! Way to pay attention.

I thrusted my palms against the bathroom sink; my arms trembling as dry heat swirled around my face. If not for NaRyn I would’ve skipped dinner altogether. But I wasn’t about to hold NaRyn up on her studies. Royal Verdallyn Academy—Aruria’s top university prep school—was borderline sadistic with their curriculum. She was probably drowning in schoolwork, and I’d be just as angry at myself as I was at Hachi if I let our issues weigh her down.

If nothing else, changing afforded me time to cool off a little. I paused at my door. Keep the peace — for NaRyn. I closed my eyes, took a deep breath, and opened the door.

The moment I stepped out, I was tackled.

“Rec Rec!” NaRyn bubbled. Her slender arms squeezed my torso with an unexpectedly strong grip that might as well have been sandpaper against open skin. I winced as she took her time releasing me.

“Not so tight, Ryn Ryn,” I groaned.

“What do you mea—” Her eyes widened when she finally noticed. “Ohmygosh! What happened to your face?”

“Your cousin,” Hachi interjected, “thought it wise to play peace enforcer for an evening. Now that we—and the rest of Aruria—understand how manly he can be, let’s have dinner.”

Dinner with NaRyn only happened every few decs. So, as usual, Hachi filled the table with enough food for her to take back to her dorm. Steamed plant greens, fresh bread, and Hachi’s signature triple-cheese macha rolls. It all looked as good as it smelled. And the sooner I could focus on eating, the sooner I could tune out Hachi’s usual small talk.

“So,” Hachi started, “how are your studies, NaRyn?”

“I thought I’d be more stressed,” NaRyn said. “Finals are approaching fast, and my interview for King Martinel University is coming up. But for some reason, I’m really excited.”

“You should be. With your work ethic and responsibility, you’ll be a great candidate for KMU.”

Hachi threw a quick glance in my direction. If my mouth wasn’t full of food, I might’ve reminded him that NaRyn was the non-male seated to my right.

“Principal Matta also tells me you’re in the running for the King Elite Youth Scholars top ten?” NaRyn’s smile widened. “If I’m not mistaken, a near-perfect career grade average is a prerequisite.”

“It is,” NaRyn answered. Then she looked over at me. “But, I’m only at a 99.75%.”

“No need for modesty,” Hachi said. “I’m very proud of you. You’ve got your cousin’s average beat by 12.86%.”

I stabbed some steamed greens, and my fork clanked against the plate. “Sorry,” I said without looking up. “I got distracted from all the non-eating at the dinner table.”

“You shouldn’t be so averse to talking,” Hachi replied. “If you employed a bit more of it perhaps you wouldn’t experience so many situations escalating to fisticuffs.”

“There’s a theory.”

“These macha rolls are delicious,” NaRyn said with forced enthusiasm.

“Here’s another theory,” Hachi said. “The D.O.P. hired peace enforcers to quell the city’s squabbles. Not you.”

I forced a smile. “And yet they’re never around when you need them.”

“They’re so cheesy, and I love the spices,” NaRyn continued.

“Exactly what authorization were you given to act on their behalf?” Hachi asked.

My eyes snapped up from my plate to meet his. “How much authorization do I need when crime is at a record high? Or would you rather I just ignore it when I see a woman in danger like any other coward on the street?”

“How about calling for help? They can’t see everything that happens in Callastryne, and you’ve already had a close call with detention. Or have you forgotten how many favors I had to call in to reduce your five-anum confinement to 60 days of house arrest?”

“If only I could. But it’s not like you’ll ever let me live it down!” I yelled.

“Because I need you to understand that I can’t bail you out of every mess you get yourself into! You’re not helping people; you’re looking for trouble. And if you’re even suspected of using your powers, there isn’t a thing I can do to get you out of that kind of trouble.” His intensity matched mine.

The longer I stared into his wild eyes, the hotter my face went, until I could’ve warmed what was left of the macha rolls on my plate. I pressed my teeth tightly together, hoping to temporarily sever the connection between my brain and mouth before I ended up saying something I regretted.

I usually looked forward to NaRyn’s visits. But thanks to Hachi’s small talk escalating into a shouting match, all I wanted was to go back to my quiet non-meddling room.

“Even the plant greens complement the bread well,” NaRyn said with a forced smile. “You want to try some, Serec?”

“No,” I said. “I just want to live my life without spoon-fed opinions on how I can do better.”

“Then do better,” Hachi said flatly.

“Please don’t argue,” NaRyn pleaded. This was the closest thing to a family dinner any of us were going to get. Considering how stressful school life often was for her, she probably needed it more than Hachi or I did.

Hachi laced his fingers and rested his chin against his thumbs. “We’re not arguing. Because this discussion just ended.”

We could at least agree on that much. With the hollow screech of my chair legs over the floor, I pushed away from the dinner table and hurried off to my room.

I plopped into my squoosh bag and shut my eyes. Despite the fact that it was just a cheap piece of novelty furniture, letting myself sink into it always seemed to sink my problems right along with it. My mind tuned everything out so quickly, I almost didn’t hear the knocking on my door.

“Rec Rec? May I come in?”

“Is your uncle with you?” I called back.

“No.”

I paused for a breath. “It's open.”

With the clank of the knob, the door smoothed over the plush carpet, and NaRyn stepped in with a timid look on her face.

“You want the squoosh bag?” I asked.

“I’m fine,” NaRyn sighed.

I slid onto the floor cross-legged. “Go ahead.”

She sat on the bag. “Uncle Hachi wanted me to remind you to wash your plate.”

"You offered to clean it again, didn’t you?"

“I'm a guest.”

“No, you're family. And I can handle my own mess.”

“I just wanted to buy you some time to cool off.”

I snorted and shook my head. I’d never known anyone sweeter than NaRyn. We were always close growing up. But things between us drastically changed when I lost my parents, and moved to Callastryne with Hachi. I was in a dark place. And she was my light. She’s always been that way. Which made me feel even worse for allowing Hachi to get under my skin during dinner.

“Thanks, Ryn. But you’ve got plenty on your plate already. No pun intended.”

“How'd you get into a fight anyway?”

Before I could answer, Hachi’s voice penetrated the door. “Goodnight, NaRyn.”

“Goodnight Uncle Hachi! Thank you for dinner!”

“I’m glad you could join us. Did you tell Serec to wash his plate?”

I rolled my eyes. “She told me.”

There was a pause before his door clicked shut signaling the ‘all clear.' I hopped to my feet.

“I need some fresh air. Wanna come?”

Aio hung lazily in the sky as we hiked up the steep hill.

“Remember back in intermediate school?” I asked. “When I fought those kids for picking on you?”

“How could I forget when they were twice my size?” NaRyn said with a soft chuckle. “And replace ‘fought’ with pummeled.”

A grin pressed into my mouth even as I had to squint through the walls of chilled wind, whistling against my face. I looked up, noticing the thick clouds dampening Aio’s soothing blue light.

“You know how I feel about unfair fights.”

NaRyn sighed. “Yeah. But you know how Uncle Hachi feels about you fighting at all.”

My grin faded. “He wasn’t there. There isn’t always time to get help. Sometimes you have to be the help.”

NaRyn went quiet; her eyes trailing the sidewalk. “If you get caught using your powers, then what? The punishment is pretty severe.”

I shrugged. “It’s not like anyone can tell when I use it anyway.”

That much was true. Mostly. Despite the utility of adaptive muscle memory, it would’ve taken a trained eye to detect it. My newer ability of mimicking other powers, however, might have been a little harder to hide.

“Serec, I’m serious!”

“Be smooth Ryn, I’ll be careful.”

NaRyn sighed. “Is it any easier for you to control it?”

“Hit or miss. Simple moves are a cinch to copy. Advanced moves are still usually a miss. Weird as it may sound though, I think that might’ve changed recently.”

“Changed how?”

“I think I copied a healing ability during my fight last night.”

NaRyn studied me for a moment. “Then, what’s up with your face? Or am I looking at the healed version?”

“So funny. Too bad telling jokes doesn’t improve your ranking for the KEYS 100. But I'll bet if I could copy something smooth like gravity, I’d have all of Royal Verdallyn Academy eating out of my hands too.”

NaRyn nudged me. “Don’t be so frostie, Rec Rec. I’m more popular than you were because I’m smoother than you. That’s all there is to it.”

“You’re still a nerd.”

The highest point in Callastryne, the cozy half-park, half-landmark known as Olde Hill, sat on the southwest edge of town. Entirely contained within Olde Callastryne, and complete with trees, a track, and a few benches.

For NaRyn and me, it was a great place to think — mostly because it was usually empty. But there was one other thing. An inspiring, peaceful view, overlooking most of New Callastryne from the far edge of Olde Hill, where our favorite koa tree, Brain grew.

Coming up with the name was easy enough for NaRyn and me. It was exceptionally large, with thick, abnormally-curving branches that looked the way a child might doodle a brain. Perched on the edge of the hill, Brain stood watch over all of Callastryne for generations. And every time we sat under Brain, our thoughts just flowed effortlessly.

I sat in the grass and leaned back against Brain. NaRyn followed pulling her knees to her chest.

“It looks so eerie tonight,” NaRyn said.

“When doesn’t a green sky look eerie at night?” Leftover sarcasm polluted my words. I’d have to work on that.

“So, what changed?”

“With the sky?”

“With Uncle Hachi’s rules. You haven’t broken them in anums. And I’ve never seen you guys argue like that. I can only imagine how that would have gone if he knew about the other four times.”

I looked out at the twinkling city lights and wondered if they ever changed color or arrangement while the world was too busy to notice. “He also caught me like two decs ago. The conversation was pretty similar, since he refuses to ever see my side on anything. After my time in the Royal Army and the six decs of house arrest it earned me, I’ve spent a lot of time reflecting—ya know? What kind of impact I’m making on the world with the gifts I’ve been given.”

“Like Uncle Amani used to say?” NaRyn asked. I nodded, and she responded with a smile before wistfully returning her attention to the sky. The waning glow reflected softly over her hazel eyes. “How can you be certain you’re doing what your parents would have wanted?”

I shrugged. “It just feels right I guess.” It wasn’t much of an answer. But it was true for me.

“Even if it means ignoring Uncle Hachi’s rules? The public isn’t too fond of people like us, and he’s just trying to protect you.”

Leave it to NaRyn to be the voice of reason. It’s my favorite quality of her’s that I absolutely hate.

“You’re probably right. But keeping in line all this time hasn’t made life easier for anyone but me. I have to try something new. Even if there's a risk. Even if Hachi doesn’t approve.”

“So, is your plan to just jump into the deep end and see what happens?”

I chuckled. “When you put it that way, it sounds pretty half-baked. I guess I just want to do what peace enforcers do, without all the rules and bureaucracy. Despite how Hachi feels about it, I say there can be honor and merit in vigilantism.”

NaRyn raised an eyebrow. Most girls her age weren’t so analytical. Of course, most girls hadn’t been through what she had in her fifteen anums of life. “It may not be the best plan, but I don’t hate it.”

I sighed. “Sounds like that’s the best I’m gonna get as far as support.”

“For now. But seriously, I’m proud that you’re trying to continue in your parents’ legacy.” She frowned. “Sometimes I wonder if that should’ve been the case for me too. But it’s not like we spent that much time figuring that kind of stuff out.”

“You’ve got time. Just keep living. If I can do it, then you definitely can.”

“Think so?”

“You’re smarter than me, more personable, more talented, and your crazy-good grade average ranks you in the top twenty of the KEYS 100. Are you seriously asking or do you just like being reminded how amazing you are?”

NaRyn shrugged, her face colored with smug. “Little from column A, little from column B.”

I rolled my eyes. “Anyway, I’m crazy-proud of you, and I know uncle Vyctor and aunt Mara would back me on that if they were still here. Besides, you should be focused on what you want for yourself at this point.”

“Sounds ideal. But what if I’m not sure what I want after Royal Verdallyn? KMU sounds great, but I’ve also been toying with the idea of joining the Bureau of National Peace, like mom and dad. I’d be helping people, and the fact that Uncle Hachi’s the Director would help with the application process.”

“I imagine so. Which department are you considering? Intelligence?”

“Occult Division.”

Even though I tried, it was hard to imagine someone like NaRyn as a BNP agent, especially in the Occult Division — a unit that specializes in altercations with Gifted. Physically, she was more than capable; especially with her powers. But she’d always been too mild-mannered and way too anti-violent for something like that.

“Wouldn’t you have to fight against other Gifted?”

“Only if I fail to apprehend them peacefully.”

“Are you expecting every criminal to come along quietly?”

NaRyn scrunched her face and shrugged. “I said I’m toying with the idea, didn’t I?”

There was a hint of frustration in her voice that felt too familiar not to notice. From the outside listening in, it was enough to pinch at my stomach.

“Sorry,” I said. “I’m just…giving you a hard time. Honestly, I’d be more worried if you didn’t at least have some ideas floating around.”

“Why’s that?”

“I’d hate to see that much brain power go to waste.” I gestured toward her head. “You could probably fuel a machine with that thing.”

She nudged me. “Quiet you,” she said with a chuckle. “But thanks, Rec Rec.”

I wrapped an arm around her shoulder and squeezed. “Welcome, Ryn Ryn.”

“Ready to head back?” I asked.

“Actually, can we sit here a little while longer?”

“Sure,” I said, and leaned onto Brain’s trunk. “But don’t you need to get ready for class?”

NaRyn snorted. “I need as much peace from school life as humanly possible. This anum has been a huge dose of stressful, and—per usual—that stupid attention hog, Mina, goes out of her way to outdo me in everything.”

“Isn’t that what prep school is all about? Drama, rivals, and a bunch of other crap that only matters until you graduate. And then, before you know it, school’s done, and you’ll never see her again.”

“I can only hope,” NaRyn scoffed, then paused. “I wonder how she did it.”

“Mina?”

“Blissful Martinel. She also ranked thirteenth in the KEYS 100 during her eleventh anum. But by the end of her final anum, she was number one.”

I had a few theories as to whether or not Aruria’s beloved princess earned the top ranking, on merit alone. But the last thing NaRyn needed was someone to deflate her dreams when there was so much ahead of her.

“Two anums is a long time,” I said. “If she can do it, I’m sure you can too.”

“If nothing else, fighting seems to be improving your encouragement skills.”

“See? That’s the kind of stuff Hachi needs to hear.”

We shared a chuckle and looked out at the twinkling city lights. A smooth breeze roused the grass and leaves around us, carrying a crisp scent that relaxed me more than anything. At least, until my timechain beeped. I fished it out of my pocket and frowned as soon as Hachi’s face appeared on the tiny screen. I sighed inwardly as he began with, “You forgot to clean your plate. But that’s not why I linked. Come to my study when you get home. There’s a matter we need to discuss.”

III: Ultimatum

Hachi’s study was equal parts library and military history museum. The antique weapons, military uniforms, and even suit of armor predating the Martinel dynasty were a stark contrast to the books on philosophy, strategy, and politics lining the shelves. But it summed up the legendary career of Royal Army General Hachinatus “the Hatchet” Arenyu rather well. And although Hachi was understandably proud of his accomplishments, I always respected how humble he was about the whole thing. He’d helped our kingdom win its longest and bloodiest conflict but most would never know he was even in the military. Unless they entered this room.

“You wanted to see me?” I asked, as the controlled flames coming from the corner fireplace drew my attention. Hachi was sitting in one of two large plush chairs that looked even more inviting than the fire. He gestured to the empty chair, and waited for me to get comfortable before starting.

“I’m going to be very direct with you and I only ask you do the same.”

“Fair enough.”

His eyes found mine. “We never finished our conversation and the more I think about it, the more I must know what possessed you to risk your safety and freedom playing peace enforcer.”

I should have known he wouldn’t take the abrupt ending to our conversation lightly. Hachi was never one for unfinished business. Unfortunately, my time with NaRyn had afforded me no good excuses.

My eyes lowered. “I... well, I...”

“Speak up, Serec.”

I knew he wouldn’t understand if I told him everything that happened. But my brain was too sluggish to determine which details to leave out without him finding holes in my story. “Like I said before, a woman was being attacked. So, I—”

“Took it upon yourself to police the situation, despite my warning.” He practically spat.

“She would’ve gotten raped if I didn’t step in.”

“You should’ve helped by calling the Peace Enforcement Department.”

“There wasn’t time.”

“How would you know if you didn’t even try?”

“You weren’t even there,” I said more forcefully than I meant to. “Would you have just sat back and waited for PEDs to show?”

“This isn't about me, Serec. It's about you disobeying my rules and breaking the law.”

“I'm not some stupid little kid who needs rules. I'm seventeen — old enough to do what I want with my life. I can start a career, go into detention, or rescue someone from a predator if I want to."

Hachi’s jaw tightened, and his eyes twitched as he glared with the intensity of a silent storm. I’d gotten myself into quite the mess. But it was too late to back down.

“It sounds to me,” he said, “like you feel ready to live by your own rules. Am I hearing you correctly?”

His tone was flat. Another sign that a storm was brewing inside him. I needed to choose my words wisely, or all Hadal would break open. “The Department of Peace is struggling in Verdallyn—especially New Callastryne. And the Bureau hasn’t been able to bridge every gap the PEDs have missed.”

Hachi tilted his head. “And you don’t find it presumptuous to think you—a boy with seventeen anums and no formal training—can single-handedly bridge that gap?”

“I never said I could do it alone. But just because someone can’t do everything, doesn’t mean no one should do anything.”

I might’ve imagined it, but the sharpness in Hachi’s eyes seemed to briefly soften. “Serec, do you remember the first thing I told you when we moved here?”

I tried to remember. But, tired as I was, recalling memories from as few as seven segments ago felt nearly impossible, much less seven anums. I shrugged.

“‘Do your best to blend in,’” Hachi said. “This was supposed to be a second chance. ‘A clean slate’, remember?’”

An image of my parents flashed through my head. And with it, memories of my last day in Frilare. The worst day of my life.

“Yeah,” I said quietly.

“We’ve been fortunate, living so peacefully for all these anums. But that can change for you, NaRyn, and me in an instant, if your attempts at vigilantism bring unwanted attention.”

“I wouldn’t have needed a second chance if the world wasn’t so quick to turn a blind eye to people in need. My parents would still be here.”

Hachi’s mouth pressed into a tight line, and an ache formed in the base of my throat as the look in his eyes turned glassy. My comment was unfair, hurtful even. And it affected him more than I’d expected. I’d always focused so intently on how I’d lost a dad and mom. Sometimes, I forgot that meant Hachi lost a brother and a close friend.

“I’m not asking, Serec,” he finally said.

“Uncle Hachi, I’m of age.”

“Then act like it! You want to live your life your way, then do it under your own roof. I promised Amani and Arianna that I would keep you safe. And as long as you’re under my care, I intend to keep my promise.” Hachi leaned in closer. “So, allow me to be as clear as quartz here. You can either stay here and abide by my rules or you can do as you please, while fending for yourself. Because the next time I catch you fighting, your bags had better be packed. Have I made myself clear?”

For as long as I’d known Hachi, there was never an instance where his words could be taken at anything less than face value. So, the gravity in his ultimatum was almost as intense as the news that I’d never see my parents again. Ironically, Hachi was on the sending end of those words as well. The muscles in my face tightened, as fire pricked at the back of my eyes. I turned away, blinking to keep tears from forming. “As quartz,” I said.

“Then, get some rest. That energy is better spent searching for a job.”

The conversation left me burdened with emptiness. By the time I was finally under the covers, Hachi’s ultimatum was the only thing floating through my head. I read once that being a hero was often a thankless job. And it still sounded better than my situation.

IV: Reunion and Acquaintance

My day started the same way the night before had ended: Stuck on Hachi’s ultimatum. I couldn’t just stop helping people. But I barely had six decs of wages left from my twelve dec stint as a Royal Army Cadet. I’d have to halt all fighting until I could secure gainful employment.

As much as I hated to admit it, I’d barely made it out of Saldarian Flats alive. I couldn’t control my new powers like Fat Felo could. And if luck ever wasn’t on my side, things could get bad, quick. A short break might be for the best.

I stepped out of my room to find Hachi checking himself in the entryway mirror. “You’re up early,” he noted. Considering it was 6.03, I’d call that the understatement of the anum.

“It’s too hot to sleep. And I’m sure you’d complain if I ran the heat dampeners too long.” Olde Callastryne — and most of Verdallyn province had been suffering from an unexpected autumn heatwave. Which I'd had to endure while I worked on feeling like my brand-new old self again.

“Just sleep without covers.” He said, smoothing his uniform to a creased perfection.

“Why didn’t I think of that?” In Hachi’s mind, every problem had a solution so simple most people couldn’t see it. “Don’t you think it’s a little hot to wear your army uniform?”

“Not when it’s a special invite from the Monarch.”

“How special can it be if he invites you to every event he has?”

“Today is the thirtieth anniversary of the Monarch’s coronation. I would think that counts as fairly special.”

“Monarch’s Day?” I sucked my teeth. “So much for hitting the comic bars.”

“Why are comics your primary focus when you still don’t have a job?”

“Because I have an interview next dec.”

That caught him off guard. A small win but, still a win. “I should look your credential sheet over. Make sure you’ve avoided unnecessary mistakes.”

“Are you gonna be in Regalia all day?” I asked, eager to deviate from the topic.

“Most of the day. I may stop by the Bureau to check in on—”

“Really, Uncle Hachi? It’s a royal holiday. Even national security threats recognize Monarch’s Day.”

Hachi paused at the door. “Possibly. We’ll see how things go. See you tonight.” That was the best I was going to get out of a man whose generation had been hardened by fear and conflict. If we were talking about nightlife, I could understand his sentiments. But during the day, life in modern-day Aruria was relatively peaceful.

Of course, keeping fear at the forefront of everyone’s attention proved advantageous to people like Nel Laurelli. Even on Monarch’s Day, it was hardly a surprise seeing the political reporter and commentator’s face plastered on the vid screen in the den. What was surprising, however, was that after a quick bout of stream hopping, I found he was the only reporter in the entire kingdom, not covering the Monarch’s thirtieth anum on the throne. Clearly, it wasn’t controversial enough of a story for someone like him.

Nel Laurelli, was notorious not only for bashing the Crown, but also for his shamelessly persistent promotion of political reform. If you needed a daily dose of negativity, Nel Laurelli was happy to provide it. His current report on Saldarian Flats, aside from being incredibly coincidental, served as a prime example.

“Saldarian Flats remains one of the most dangerous districts in New Callastryne,” he preached. “Crime rates have nearly tripled in recent anums, and statistics have shown an undeniable link to the spread of both the plague and consumption. I’ve also received reports of Rho criminal activity spiking in impoverished districts just like this one. All the signs are clear and still the Department of Peace has yet to devise a plan to address these issues. It’s more than a little obvious to me that they understand just as well as the residents of this forsaken district that some places are beyond saving.”

There was little to like about the Nel Laurellis of this world. Focusing the public eye on the worst of times, went a long way to kill the hopes of the masses. Although we actually agreed on this issue, I couldn’t appreciate hearing his bleak truth after what I’d experienced firsthand.

Still, his mention of the plagued and consumed pointed to a greater issue that had to be more complex than the Department of Peace was equipped to handle. With the arrival of the viridescent sky came Plaga Viridi and Malachite’s Consumption; two prominent disorders that had become a significant challenge for the medical and law enforcement communities.

In the six anums following the sky’s sudden and unexplained shift from blue to green, many people had become stricken with either of these ailments. Plaga Viridi was an autoimmune disorder that caused symptoms ranging from muscle weakness to full paralysis. Malachite's Consumption, however, was far more sinister. Affecting the part of the brain governing self-control and reason, the consumption lowered the inhibitions of its victims. This caused them to exhibit more aggressive behavior leading to outbursts of anger and even acts of violence. It wouldn’t surprise me to hear that Fat Felo had been consumed though a part of me suspected that pervert had been a bloated tub of sadism long before the sky changed.

The thought of that night and what might’ve happened to that woman was plenty reason to change the stream. I stood in front of the vid screen sensor and motioned a finger flick with my right hand. The stream changed to one of those tawdry this-changed-my-life-forever ads for a martial arts academy in New Callastryne. “...because in these times, learning the fundamentals of self-defense could save your life. In honor of our noble Monarch, your first dec is our gift to you. So, come on in today!”

“Seriously?! Ulti-smooth!” I whispered loudly. A dec of watching martial arts masters in action would be great training for my eyes. It was low-risk, and I could avoid all the bruising I’d taken from real fights. And all for the amazing price of free!

The Crossroads Martial Arts Academy sat a few blocks into New Callastryne, about fourteen hashes by terrarail. I went into my bathroom to prepare my mind for what everyone would see when I stepped into the academy. But, to my complete surprise, the face staring back showed almost no signs of the punching bag treatment I’d seen on it less than two days ago.

But even as I marveled at how one problem had literally solved itself, I wondered why the rest of my body hardly felt any better. Is there a limit to how much I can speed my healing? This was the first power I’d copied. Maybe I’d done it wrong. Maybe the ability had worn off. That would’ve sucked, considering all I had to go through to get it. I had to make sure I still had it.

I sat in a comfortable position and closed my eyes. I visualized myself healing and held the image; breathing deep and slow through my nose. But even after several breaths, the aching persisted. Something’s off.

“Am I doing it wrong?” I pushed to my feet, and suddenly, the air went thin. Heat radiated from every pore until my face and neck were beaded with sweat. I struggled to open my eyes, as the air caught in my throat.

I rolled onto my back, my lungs begging for oxygen, as the room went hazy. I tried to focus only on breathing. But each strained breath felt like it might be my last.

My throat tightened until my eyes felt like they were in a vice grip. My vision was dimming and I could hardly move as everything blurred out of focus. Suddenly, my throat opened and air flooded my lungs so violently, it was like fire scraping my throat. I curled up in a hard fit of coughing.

By the time my breathing had calmed enough for my body to reach a reasonable temperature, I was drenched in sweat and confusion. I cautiously pushed to my feet and ran the shower as cold as I could bear.

Hungry and thirsty from my bout with suffocation, I diverted to the closest soho shop in New Callastryne. Sohos were by far my favorite drink; especially on a hot day. Made from blending soho juice and frozen fruits that had been ground into an icy powder, the drink provided a burst of cool sweetness along with restorative nutrients.

The line to the soho shop stretched out the door, compliments of the autumn heatwave.

A woman behind me sighed. “Can you believe this? They’re only holding us out here to increase soho sales,” she remarked. Her voice sounded familiar, but I fought the urge to look back. “A reply wouldn’t hurt, you know.”

I turned. “Sorry,” I said. “I didn’t know if you were...” I trailed off. Golden skin. Fiery red hair. Wintery blue — no warm autumn eyes. “You.” I nearly yelled.

“Who else would I be?” The pep in her voice was a stark clash to her sarcasm.

“From the other day.” She nodded, her lips curling into a soft smile. “I didn’t expect to see you— or...um...” She lifted her thin eyebrows and tilted her head. “I mean, are you okay?”

Her smile widened. “Thanks to you, I’m great,” she said with a wink that made my cheeks go warm. “I’m Anne.” The woman with eyes of blue ice flashed through my head. “And you are?” she prompted, and I realized she was holding her hand out.

I blinked the thought away. “Sorry,” I said, gripping her wrist. “I’m Serec.”

Seeing her in the daylight, it was safe to assume she was nearly twice my age. But that didn’t detract from how pretty she was.

“You from around here?” I asked.

“I live nearby. You?”

“Olde Callastryne.”

Her eyes twinkled. “You must not be a fan of Soho Time if you came all this way.”

“Actually, I am. But this is just a detour. The martial arts academies in Olde Callastryne are fatally expensive, so my search for affordable instruction brought me here.”

“Martial arts?” She grinned. “Looking to pummel more criminals.”

“That depends on the criminals.”

“Aren’t you a little young to be so cynical?”

I snorted. “You sound like my uncle.”

“Your uncle must be a wise man.”

“He has his moments.”

“May I take your order?” the cashier called once we’d finally reached the counter. Her voice was distant, as if the life had been sucked out of her.

“Oh,” I said, examining the menu. I’d gotten so caught up in our conversation, I hadn’t even considered what to order.

“You like candor fruit?” Anne asked.

“Sure. Why?”

She slapped her hand on the counter revealing a data ring. “Two large Soho Truths, please,” she said as her ring projected an image of a digital credit chip.

“No. I can’t let you—”

“It’s the least I can do to say thanks.” She smiled, and warmth bubbled up in my chest.

“Yeah,” I said, suddenly feeling shy. “Any time.”

“I suppose you’ll be heading off to the academy now,” Anne said between sips.

“Yeah. But we should…” I was frozen at the sight of Anne’s sidelong gaze.

“We should?” Anne said, turning to face me.

Blue eyes. Just like...

“We should?” she repeated slower. Is she...?

She snapped, and I flinched. “Are you alright?”

In the beat it took to refocus, the blue eyes in her irises returned to autumn.

“Serec?”

“Yeah? I mean, we umm...we should...do this again.”

Anne frowned and chuckled. “Okay. Brain freeze?”

“What? Oh, yeah!” I blurted. “Brain freeze.”

“I hope so. You’re too young for senior moments.”

I laughed nervously. “Right.”

“Sorry,” Anne said, pulling out her timechain. It was much sleeker than mine; a Locket Omnia model. Newest version. I knew whatever she did for a living, it paid well. “I’m on call.” She opened it and looked at the screen. “This is Dr. Kartnia. Yes. I’m on my way.” She closed it. “It would seem we both have somewhere to be. But I’m glad I was able to thank you in person, Serec.”

“Yeah. Same here.”

“Until we next meet.” She hugged me, and the aroma of serenity blooms filled me with a nostalgic feeling that reminded me what it was like to feel safe and loved from a simple embrace. Not too different from the feeling I got when my mom used to wrap her arms around me and squeeze tight. For those few beats, everything felt right in the world.

Before I could begin to collect my thoughts, Anne released me and hurried off; disappearing into the sea of people. I waved goodbye, wondering if I would ever see her again in so grossly overcrowded a city. The Regalia Metropolitan Area consisted of Olde Callastryne, where I lived; New Callastryne, the largest region; Vista, mostly populated by the affluent; and Regalia, our nation’s capital. Collectively, the densest population of Arurian citizens lived between these four regions. It was more likely I’d be struck by lightning than it was that we’d coincidentally cross paths again. But, in that moment, I allowed hope to get the better of me.

I entered the academy to find only three people inside. And one of them was off in the far corner, sweeping the floor. Probably a custodian. The other two were older men—one with grey hair and the other completely bald. They moved fluidly, sparring with the kind of focused expressions I’d seen in some of the martial arts vids I’d watched as a kid.

“Are you requiring assistance, patron?” I jumped and looked over my shoulder. The young custodian was standing behind me, still holding his broom. Seeing him up close, he looked to be about my age.

“I’m good, thanks.”

“Did I startle you?” he asked flatly.

“Yeah, you kinda did.”

“That wasn’t my intention.” He said it so matter-of-factly.

“Don’t worry about it.” He nodded, maintaining his uncomfortably close distance as he stared blankly. “You’re not from around here, are you?”

“I’m a citizen of Aruria.” He sounded almost defensive.

“Okay. Congratulations. So, I’m looking for someone who can sign me up for classes here. Do you know who I need to talk to?”

He nodded, but didn’t move.

I nodded back and forced a smile. “Like, right now?”

He nodded again. “Follow me please.” Instead of taking me to an office or desk, he led me over to the two men sparring...while they were still sparring. “Here they are.”

“Great,” I said. “I guess I can take it from here.”

He nodded, still watching me and not leaving. The distant look in his uncanny grey eyes was starting to creep me out.

“You know, it’s not polite to stare.”

“Do you find it to be impolite?”

“Not just me,” I said with a forced smile.

His eyes lowered momentarily. Did I hurt his feelings? His face was so stoic it was hard to tell.

“Shawin,” the bald man said. “How many times have I told you not to…” He trailed off when he noticed me. “May I help you?”

“Uh, yeah. I saw your ad on the vid stream and was hoping to sign up for classes.”

“Were you interested in our eight dec or twenty dec program?”

“Oh, I just wanted the one free dec that you are offering for Monarch’s Day.”

The men glanced at each other before their mouths curled into a grin. “I believe you’ve suffered a misunderstanding young man. Our ad states that there is no charge for your first dec. However, you still must sign up and pay in advance for one of our programs.”

I should have known. Smooth wording to get people in the door only to crush their dreams and siphon their union accounts.

“Seriously?!” I said. “I don’t have that kind of money.”

“Then, I suppose we’re done here,” the man said, turning his back to me.

“But—” I couldn’t even come up with a good argument. It was my fault for assuming that anyone in the most materialistic place in Aruria would be that charitable. I let out a heavy sigh and walked out.

“Do you think it’s wise to abandon your goal so easily?” a voice called from behind me. It was the custodian, Shawin.

“That a problem?” I asked.

“Not if your intention was to waste time and leave empty handed.”

The words: “Can you just get to the point and leave me alone?” almost escaped my mouth. But, I decided: “I don’t have the credits to pay for a program here,” was the better response.

“Perhaps you should seek a different instructor.”

Oh, really? I hadn’t thought of that. My frustration had piqued and my patience was on the brink of collapse. “Look, guy.”

“Shawin.”

I sighed. “Shawin. I can’t afford to pay a different instructor.”

“What if you paid with food?”

“What kind of instructor would take food as payment?”

“I would.”

I paused. Is this guy for real? “You know martial arts?” He nodded. “And you would teach me martial arts in exchange for food?”

“That’s what I was implying. Sorry if I wasn’t clear.”

I paused again. “Why?”

“Because I didn’t mean to confuse you with my lack of clarity. I guess everything is subjective in—”

“No. Why would you teach for food?”

“The pay here isn’t great, which leaves few credits for food. Also, I can’t cook.”

“What if you don’t like what I bring you?”

“I’m not picky. I’m sure it’s better than anything I can make.”

“You any good?”

“I’ve never lost a fight. And you’re better off learning efficient technique from me than you are learning the sloppy technique they use.” he nodded toward the academy.

Sloppy technique? “If you’re so much better than them, why were you sweeping the floor?”

He half-frowned. “Because it was dirty. Why else would you sweep?” He extended his hand. His eyes held a curious warmth that shined through his otherwise apathetic expression. “Do we have a deal?” Maybe I should’ve given it more thought, but I had nothing to lose minus a few credits on lunch.

I gripped his wrist. “When do we start?”

“In one dec, if that works for you. I have a vid I’d like you to watch to familiarize yourself with the basics first. Never got your name, by the way.”

“Serec.”

He nodded. “Good name. I’ll see you next dec, Serec.”


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