Evoke Chapter 5-7

V: Slow Is Smooth

As I headed back to Crossroads, a stiffness nagged at my shoulder reminiscent of Royal Verdallyn Academy’s swim team tryout dec. I hated how that dull ache lingered until my body could adjust to intense daily exercise. The three instructional vids on the data stick Shawin had given me weren’t as hard to follow as I’d imagined. It featured the men I saw sparring at Crossroads, back when their hair was less gray and still covered their whole heads. And despite the low budget look and feel of them, the vids were thorough enough to both teach the basics and leave me pretty wiped after each session.

It’d been a dec since the disaster with my new accelerated healing ability. So, I could probably manage to get some use out of it without passing out in a pool of sweat so easily. Still, probably wasn’t definitely, and just the thought of reliving that experience was enough to unnerve me from trying.

“Another few days won’t hurt,” I told myself.

And on the day I was set to meet up with Shawin, I felt close enough to normal to not really need it anyway. Which was good, since I still wasn’t convinced I could pull it off without any snags. I was definitely wrestling with the idea of when it might be best to practice using it again, which is probably why the last couple streets leading to Crossroads Academy seemed to zip by.

Shawin spotted me before I could even enter the building. “How are you, Serec?” The glint in his eyes that was hard to miss.

“Smooth. You?”

“I’m well. What’s for lunch today?”

“Aren’t we right to the point?”

“Should we not be?”

I started to point out the etiquette of small talk—and rhetorical questions for that matter. But, to be honest, I wasn’t feeling too chatty myself. So, I shrugged instead. “I have a place in mind.”

Shawin led the way, turning the first corner, then heading straight for the next few blocks. There was something unusual about him though. He had a listless quality that made his company not unlike that of a mannequin or a machine without conversational programming.

“So, how long have you worked at Crossroads?” I finally asked.

“Nine decs.”

“How was the hiring process?”

“The application and interview took a day. But I was searching for almost three decs before learning that they were hiring.”

“Which site did you use?”

“Eyesight.”

Alright, smart guy. “I mean, which net site did you use?”

“Net site?”

“Yeah, net site.”

“What's that?” Is he serious? “And why are you frowning at me?”

“Haven't you ever been on the arnet?”

“Ar…nat?”

“Is this a joke or something?”

Shawin’s expression remained blank. “About…?”

I paused and cocked my head to one side. “Where did you say you were from?”

“Aruria.”

“Have you ever heard of a processor?”

“I use a processor at work sometimes. That’s the...net site, right?”

I shook my head. “You’ve gotta be close to my age. How do you not know what the arnet is?”

“What’s your age?”

“Seventeen.”

“I’m sixteen.”

Another pause. “Okay.”

“Perhaps, your additional anum of life—”

“I’ve known about the arnet since I was small!”

He paused. “I see. So, if you have knowledge of the net site, why don’t you have a job?”

“I lost my job.”

“Why?”

“I punched my platoon leader in the face.”

Shawin paused again. “Did he deserve it?” It was a reasonable question that no one had ever bothered to ask since the day it happened. Maybe that’s why I couldn’t help grinning. “Did my question amuse you?”

“It kinda did. And yeah, he totally deserved it.”

Shawin led me through a wooden gate and into the small backyard of a beige, cube-shaped, two-story house. The mostly concrete yard was unremarkable, save for a large red-leaved fleeting tree, surrounded by pink rocks.

“You into landscaping?” I asked.

“My landlords are,” Shawin said. “They live on the top floor.”

“Must be nice, living on your own. Sometimes I can’t even eat without my uncle suggesting a better way to do it.”

“You must have lively dinner conversations.”

“Not lately.”

“That’s unfortunate. I really enjoyed dinner conversations with my family.”

“Where are they?”

Shawin smiled wistfully. “Too far away to drop in for a meal. But that’s where you come in. Now, show me what you’ve learned.”

Shawin leaned against the tree and watched as I went through the moves I’d seen in the instructional vids.

“You have impressive memory, to recall so many movements after one dec,” Shawin remarked.

I shrugged to downplay the pride welling in my chest. “Thanks.”

“Our next step will be correcting your form. Then, we can expand on the basics.”

I frowned. “Correcting? I did everything exactly like in the vid.”

“Yes, but if you recall, I mentioned that the masters at Crossroads have poor form. So, I have my work cut out for me.” His tone was annoyingly chipper. Especially after what felt like a recant of his compliment about my memory.

“Sloppy,” I said. “You said their form was sloppy, not poor.”

“You’re right. I did. In this context, it’s essentially the same as saying their form is poor though.”

I frowned. “Right. So, the vids were a waste of time then or what?” The words came out sharper than intended, but Shawin expression didn’t change in the least.

“Correcting your form is easier and faster than teaching you from scratch. The vids saved me time with covering the basics. So, once your form is correct, I can expand on it.”

The tightness in my jaw eased slightly. “So, what am I about to learn?”

“It’s a fighting style called Yenta-Gin.”

“That’s the style with perfect defense, right?”

“There’s no such thing as perfect defense. Yenta-Gin simply reduces openings, and uses an attacker’s momentum against him.”

“Very smooth. How long does it take to master stuff like that?”

“That is highly dependent on you. Yenta-Gin is very different from other martial arts. Slow, deliberate movement and perception are vital. In other words, the more you learn to slow down, the faster you progress.”

“Uh huh. So, like, in days, what are we talking?”

His lips pressed into a thin line. “We have a saying back home: ‘slow is smooth.’ All good things come in time. And rushing only distracts from your ultimate goal.”

I almost wanted to clarify that my ultimate goal was to learn as quickly as possible, but I resisted.

We focused on breathing and defensive movements specifically, avoiding oncoming attacks. But the multi-step maneuvers were making avoiding practically impossible.

“You think we can just skip to the attacks?” I finally asked. “I’m not much of a dodger.”

Shawin looked at me thoughtfully. “Is punching your opponent on your way to the ground more important to you than avoiding the ground altogether?”

“If I hit harder than my opponent, I'll never see the ground.”

“Unless they can take the hit better than you can.”

“If I learn to hit hard enough, I’ll take them down first.”

“You assume hitting harder gives you an advantage.”

“Doesn’t it?”

Shawin studied me with stoic eyes. “Which requires more power: a fist that can break stone or a finger that can stop a heart?”

“Unless the finger can also break stones, the answer’s pretty obvious.”

“Which attack would end a fight faster?” I started to answer, but paused as his question sunk in. “We fight the same way we train. And impatience is the worst trait to have in a fight. But, if it’s that important to you, we can skip everything required to use Yenta-Gin effectively, and I'll just teach you to break things.”

I looked down, feeling pretty stupid. “No, sorry. Let’s just...get back to dodging.”

“How about I show you one offensive maneuver in good faith?”

“Like, right now?”

“Sure. It’s a simple technique for disabling an attacker at close range.”

Shawin grabbed a handful of rocks and placed them in my hand. “This technique works best when the person’s hands are full because the nerves and muscles bulge more.” He gripped my wrist with one hand. “Watch closely. I doubt you’ll want to see this a second time.”

What’s that supposed to mean? I found out soon enough, when he successively jabbed two fingers into three different points under my forearm, keeping constant pressure on the last spot. My hand jerked open as a burning numbness raced up my arm. The burning intensified as I attempted to abandon the rocks and pull away. But his grip was much stronger than I’d expected.

“Okay,” I said through gritted teeth, cringing until my eyes nearly closed.

“Watch,” Shawin said, easing his grip. “If your finger placement is right, it won’t take much pressure to disable an attacker.” My jaw clenched as I studied Shawin’s finger placement, anxious to commit the image to memory before I lost all feeling in my arm. I nodded, and Shawin released my arm. Light red splotches lingered where his fingers had been. Shawin was right about one thing. I did not want to see that move a second time.

I was happy to spend the next segment on defensive exercises before we quit and ordered lunch.

Shawin led me down a small, empty hallway that ended at his bathroom. To my right was one other room. But it was practically empty, save for a bed roll and four neatly folded piles of clothes.

“How long have you lived here?” I asked.

“Just over twelve decs.”

“It’s emptier than I expected.”

“I only have what I need. Plus, I’m still paying my landlords back for letting me live here rent free while I was searching for a job. So, credits are tight.”

By the time I cleaned up and made it to the table, the food was already laid out. Shawin was sitting on a box, leaving the only chair for me.

"Hope you don’t mind, but I started without you.” He said, mouth half-stuffed.

I shrugged and grabbed two pumil wraps. The first bite was the best. An explosion of plant green and cheese flavors covered in a mild sauce that practically begged you to keep eating it.

“How long did it take you to get smooth with that dodging maneuver?” I managed between bites.

“Not long. With enough practice, it becomes second nature.”

That should’ve put my mind at ease. But it only reminded me of my issues with my powers.

“Are you going to finish that?” Shawin asked, eyeing my remaining pumil wrap.

“I guess you can have—”

By the time the words reached his ears, he’d already confiscated what remained on my plate. Watching as he devoured food for dear life made one thing very clear: unless we’re at an all-you-can-eat establishment, I might want to make a habit of eating alone.

The next couple decs were more of the same. My days were divided between practicing Shawin's teachings and filling out job applications on the arnet. Unfortunately, the latter turned out to be a monumental waste of time. Despite filling out over a hundred applications ranging from PED patrolman to nightclub security guard to deliveryman, only three employers even bothered with the courtesy of letting me know they weren’t interested. It was a sad reminder that you can make a valiant effort, but when a dishonorable discharge comes up in your background check, you become about as desirable as dry dirt.

Shawin was waiting under the fleeting tree when I walked up. At least, I think he was waiting. The way he stared into space sometimes, he could’ve just been watching leaves or daydreaming.

“Hey Serec,” Shawin said, holding out a closed fist.

“Hey.” I looked down at his fist, then back at his expectant expression. Maybe he wants to see what I can do after two decs of practice.

I stepped right, and leaned forward, dipping under his fist. His arm followed, and I twisted right to avoid it. I dipped back, careful not to touch his arm. He kept up perfectly with every movement I made. The more I dodged, the faster his arm followed, until I could swear his hand was beating me to where I was going.

I needed to hold my focus with smooth nerves. But I ended up trying to predict his next move, which only made me more tense. I unconsciously tried to use my power to stay one step ahead of him and felt a sharp, stabbing pain in my eyes, that stopped me cold.

“You okay?” Shawin asked after a beat.

“Yeah. I just...didn’t know what to do next.”

“What were you trying to do?”

“Avoid your arm.”

“Why?”

I frowned. “Because you were testing me.”

“I was trying to bump fists with you, before starting today’s session. It’s an act of acknowledgment between warriors in Yenta-Gin.”

“Why didn’t you say something before?”

“When you began darting around, I grew curious about your intentions.”

I wondered if Shawin had that kind of offbeat humor my brain couldn’t hope to latch on to. “What province did you say you were from again?”

“I didn’t.” He raised his fist again. I sighed and bumped his fist. “Anyway, since your form is improving faster than expected, today would be a good day to try dynamic meditation.”

“That some kinda ultra-level meditation or something?”

“It’s a form of meditation performed while moving.”

He said it like the chances of running face-first into a wall or tree weren’t extremely high. But Shawin’s nonchalance and constant reminders weren’t enough to stop instinct from compelling my hands in front of me every few steps.

“It works better if you walk normally,” he said.

“Maybe if my body didn’t feel so off, I would.”

“You feel off because you’re fighting it.”

“I’m fighting to keep my face from hitting a wall, which is inevitable when you walk around with your eyes closed.”

“Yenta-Gin is all about perception. It requires calm flow with every movement. Trying to force anything will only make things harder for you.”

“How am I supposed to fix that before I flatten my face?”

“Exactly my point.”

I frowned. “What?”

“Your only concern is how quickly you can fix the problem. But remember, slow is smooth. You should ignore your impatient nature and find the cause. You must train slower to learn faster.”

The more I thought about it, the less sense his advice made. “Sorry,” I said, “but I still haven’t figured out what that’s supposed to mean.”

Shawin sighed.

“Let’s try some offensive maneuvers. Maybe then you’ll better understand what I’m saying.”

“Won’t argue with that,” I said, excited for the change of pace.

“You’ll start by sparring with me.”

“But you haven’t taught me how to attack.”

“Something tells me you’ve thrown a punch before.”

I may have had my share of fights recently. But, even with my powers, I wasn’t sure I could do much against Shawin. I hesitated.

“You look worried,” Shawin began. “But don’t be. I intend to hold back.”

So much for the vote of confidence. I got into a stance.

I didn’t know what I was expecting. But the moment Shawin dipped out of sight, I’d totally lost sight of him. And before I could find him, his hand was under my arm, and his fist was pressing into my ribs.

“Don’t freeze up, just because I’ve caught you. You need to move, or you’ll leave yourself open for more.” I nodded, and Shawin stepped back. “Let’s try again.”

We tried three more times, but every attempt ended the same.

Shawin kept me completely off track, zipping around and knocking me off balance repeatedly. Worst of all, my eyes couldn't catch any of it until it was too late.

“Maybe one try won’t hurt,” I said to myself, fixing my eyes on Shawin and concentrating. He dipped low again, but this time my eyes followed him perfectly. Two half-steps forward and Shawin appeared, reaching for my arm again. I moved my hand to block it. But before my hand found his, a horrible pain stung the back of my eyes, and they shut on reflex.

I flailed and stumbled back, shaking my head in a panic. When I opened my eyes, Shawin was standing in place, watching me curiously.

“You okay?”

I cleared my throat. “Yeah, of course.”

Shawin leaned in, close. Like, violating-my-personal-space close. He looked up at me, squinting, his grey eyes shifting back and forth between mine.

“What?” I said, leaning away.

“How long have your eyes been bothering you?”

“Not long,” I lied. “I didn’t get much sleep last night. That’s all.” Without a word, Shawin’s eyes kept shifting, and the heaviness in my stomach grew tight. “But it’s nothing. I’m sure I’ll be fine by tomorrow.”

“No,” Shawin said in a half-whisper. “You won’t. Your eyes are suffering from overexertion, which should be expected, considering your lack of control over your powers.”

My face went numb as Shawin flashed a grin.

“How long have you known?” I asked cautiously.

“I’ve had my suspicions since day one.”

“Are you gonna report me?”

“To whom?”

“The PEDs.” Shawin’s thick eyebrows furrowed. “You mean the Peace Enforcement Department? There’s no lack of peace requiring enforcement.” Judging by his tone, he probably wasn’t playing dumb. So, I took a risk at stating the obvious.

“Using your powers is illegal.”

“You’ve avoided using your powers for quite some time, which is disappointing in its own right.”

“What’s that supposed to mean?”

“Your ability could have accelerated this process, and yet you’ve decided against using it.” A larger smile crept onto Shawin’s face. “Not an ideal situation for you, but it does allow me additional free lunches.”

I smirked as the realization set in. “Your power is in your eyes too, isn’t it?”

“It is.”

“You gonna tell me what it is?”

“Certainly. I’m a precognitor. pre-cog for short.”

I took a moment to digest his words. “You lost me.”

“A pre-cog can see what happens before it happens.”

“Like a psychic?”

“Psychics are said to experience visions surrounding someone’s life by attuning themselves to that person's fate. They can usually see far into the future. But I’ve honestly never heard of anyone possessing such an ability.”

I nodded. “So, does your foresight let you see what you’re going to figure out in the future or something?”

Shawin shook his head. “A pre-cog sees what will happen mere moments before it happens. In my case, I can only see what will happen to me. It’s a pitifully selfish ability.” His tone was sharp.

“But that doesn’t make you a selfish person. I mean, you’re helping me right now. That counts for something, right?”

Shawin took a breath and looked away. “We should refocus on your training. I haven’t earned my lunch yet.”

“Okay,” I said, not wanting to press the issue.

“Can you tell me how your ability works?”

"It's referred to as adaptive muscle memory, but I call it mimicry. Basically, it allows me to copy whatever I see. It's mostly useful for mimicking fighting moves, but recently, I've been able to copy other abilities too. I definitely haven’t figured out the nuances of that part though. My body nearly shut down a few decs ago just trying to use one ability."

“How long have you known about your powers?” Shawin asked.

“Since I was small. But my uncle wasn’t exactly keen on the idea of me using my powers.”

“So, you haven’t used your ability since you were a child?”

“Pretty much. The past few decs, I’ve been trying to get a better grasp of it, but it’s not exactly working out as I’d hoped.”

“That explains your symptoms of overuse. My guess is that you’ve temporarily burned out your nervous system.”

“How do I unburn it?”

“Give it time. It could take a couple decs, but it’ll heal eventually.”

I cleared my throat. “Okay, so I know we keep hashing on this whole ‘rushing’ thing. But isn’t there some faster way than ‘eventually?’”

“Maybe.”

“Why ‘maybe?’”

“I’m not a doctor. So, I can’t be certain my technique will solve your problem.”

I thought for a beat. “Does it hurt to try though?”

Shawin paused to consider my question. “I suppose not.” He rubbed his hands together, then held his palms close to my face. “Keep your eyes open.”

He didn’t hold them there for long, but I felt a warmth radiating from his hands that was oddly soothing. A light tingling spread throughout my entire face until he pulled them away.

“How do your eyes feel?” he asked.

I blinked a couple times and looked around. “The pain’s gone. Did you fix my nervous system?”

“I promoted a gentle healing to speed up your recovery. But you’ll still need to take it slow until you’ve completely healed.”

“How will I know if I’m burning out my nervous system?”

“Basic sense, really. Listen to your body. Allow your brain the necessary time to adjust to your ability.”

His words were reassuring. Still, I could’ve done without the ‘basic sense’ remark.

“Before bed, I suggest you practice that healing ability you mentioned. But, you should focus the healing inward. Specifically, on your nervous system.”

Trying to imagine what he was suggesting only brought a foggy visual to mind. “And how do I do that?”

“Visualize the energy running throughout your body. Once you have a clear image in your mind, strengthen that flow of energy.” Even as he said it, I couldn’t formulate a clear picture. But I nodded anyway. “Don’t expect to heal completely. The goal is to give your nervous system a gentle nudge.”

“You sure you’re not a doctor?”

“Positive. I’m just showing you a couple of things, someone taught me.” Shawin’s tone suddenly became flat and lifeless. Well, flatter than normal.

“You say it like it’s a bad thing.”

“It’s not. It’s just that it reminded me…” Shawin cleared his throat and folded his arms.

“Hey man. You okay?”

“We’re friends, right Serec?”

“What else could we be after all this time?”

His eyes trailed to the ground. “And friends shouldn’t keep secrets from each other, should they?”

That kind of depends a lot on the secret. It’s one thing to secretly be a mogul living a pauper’s life. It’s an entirely different thing to be a serial killer who targets his closest friends. Not that Shawin struck me as either. But his tone wasn’t too encouraging. “I — guess not.”

“There’s something very important, I’m hoping you can help me with while there’s still time. But, as my friend, I need your word that you’ll keep it a secret.”

VI: Intention

“Okay,” I said. “Shoot.”

“Shoot what?”

“It means tell me.”

“I don’t see how shooting and telling are connected.”

I sighed. “Can you just tell me the secret?”

Shawin took a breath. “I’m looking for my uncle. I haven’t seen him in a long time, but he comes from the same place as me.”

“Aruria?”

“Not exactly. Although I am considered a citizen of Aruria, I’m actually Vallahn.”

I raised an eyebrow. “...Fallen?”

“Vallahn. I was born on the island of Vallah.”

My breath caught. “Seriously?! Isn’t that like where secret Gifted tribes live or something?”

“Something like that.”

“So, you’re from one of the tribes?”

Shawin nodded.

“That is so smooth! I can’t believe I know someone from a Gifted tribe. In my geography classes, they claimed Vallah was uninhabited, but I figured they were lying.” I snorted. “They probably just didn’t know.”

“As far as mainlanders know, the island is uninhabited. And it’s crucial that you help maintain the integrity of this secret.”

With a broad smile, I placed my right fist over my heart. A gesture that served as an affirmation of fidelity and the Arurian military salute. “You have my word, man. So... your uncle is here too?”

Shawin nodded. “And I need to speak to him before my Journey of Intention ends.”

“What’s that?”

“It’s a rite of passage that will determine my path in life.”

“That’s pretty deep.”

“At the end of my uncle’s Journey of Intention, he chose to remain on the mainland, and I haven’t seen him since. I came to New Callastryne hoping to ask why, before making my own decision.”

“You can’t ask after your decision?”

He shook his head. “The decision includes where I will live for the rest of my life. And once the choice is made, it's final.”

“Is that why your uncle hasn’t returned?”

“I believe so. He’s not forbidden from visiting. But to maintain his decision and prevent outsiders from discovering us, he’s probably keeping his distance.”

“Wild.” I leaned close. “Can you tell me anything else about your tribe?” Shawin hesitated. “It’s fine if you don’t want to tell me.”

“We’re called the Wolfhounds.” I froze; wide-eyed and mouth agape. “What’s wrong?”

“Did you say Wolfhounds!?” I asked in an excited whisper. Shawin nodded.

Since I was a kid, I’d been engrossed in the tales of secret clans around the world. Clans with unique fighting styles and mysterious abilities. And no clan was more mysterious and intriguing than the Wolfhounds. I would sometimes fantasize about what it would be like to meet someone from one of the clans, but most of the information surrounding their existence only made them out to be a myth. Several characters from the Power Clash comics franchise hailed from the Wolfhounds. But details about their home and past were always murky. At least now I understood why.

“We are one of many factions of Gifted that live in secrecy,” Shawin said. “The rumors are a necessity since our clan has become the target of a very aggressive faction that’s been going to great lengths to coerce our allegiance. We’ve had to take multiple countermeasures to avoid them. So, public knowledge of our existence is practically placing a target on our backs.”

“Aren’t you taking a huge risk telling me?”

“I trust the purity of your heart. Also, I need your help.”

“My help?”

“The net you mentioned—the one that searches for employment.”

“You mean the arnet?”

Shawin nodded. “Can it also locate a person?”

“Possibly. There’s no guarantee it would work though.”

“All the same, I believe you and your arnet could make greater strides in finding my Uncle Kaz than I have in the last few decs.”

I doubted I could be of much help. But I wouldn’t be much of a friend if I let him put himself and his clan at risk for nothing.

“I’ll start looking today,” I assured him. “If he’s in Aruria, we’re bound to find him.”

I wished I were half as confident as I sounded. If Shawin was right about his uncle keeping to the shadows, the arnet would probably be of little to no help.

That night, I had a weird dream. Shawin and Fat Felo were standing in front of me, trying to show me how to use my healing ability. Needless to say, their methods clashed. “Listen to your body,” Shawin kept saying. “It’s basic sense.”

Fat Felo’s approach was even more abrasive. So abrasive I wanted to punch him. “Deep breath in, hold it, breath out, and erase the pain. It’s simple, stupid.” It was annoying trying to make sense of his instructions. But I really wanted to get the hang of it.

Still, at one point, I had my fill of insults and I remember yelling, “You're stupid!” at the top of my lungs. They laughed in unison — which was strange, considering I'd never seen Shawin laugh. But that didn’t matter. It was infuriating being the object of their amusement. And that fury quickly became a heat that enveloped my entire body. They fell silent as a hot energy surged through me. And just as my pride started to get the better of me, the blue-eyed Anne appeared.

“Access to one power means access to them all.” Her words penetrated my mind so easily it almost felt like I was thinking them.

“Anne, wait!” I called, springing up in the classic please-don’t-go waking position. Then, I realized it was only a dream. I carefully twisted left and right, as the hollow popping of joints echoed deep in my ears.

Anne’s words lingered like a riddle. "’Access to one power — access to them all.’ Does she mean my healing ability?" I was too tired to try healing my nervous system the night before. So, that seemed as good a place to start as any. I sat cross-legged on my bed and closed my eyes, trying to build up a mental picture of my nervous system.

I visualized a wave of energy flowing throughout my body, not sure if I was feeling what I was supposed to. But whatever I felt, it was different from before. This feeling was soothing and cool all over. But the feeling was short-lived; replaced by a geyser of heat, radiating in every direction.

My breaths grew shallow. My heart raced. Fatigue followed as I trembled so much I couldn’t hold myself up. Vertigo took hold, before I flopped onto my back, eyes wide. My room looked fuzzy, and sweat rolled down my face as I fought to regain control over my breathing. It may not have been as terrifying as before, but I wasn’t feeling especially anxious to try again before meeting up with Shawin.

When I told him what happened, he made an expression I wasn’t at all expecting. “Are my eyes still acting up or are you happy that I was in pain this morning?” I asked him.

“What you’re describing sounds normal. Your body might’ve gone into a temporary shock, but it sounds like you’re making great progress in recuperating. I wouldn’t be surprised if your recovery time was half of what I originally expected.”

“Does that mean it’ll take less time to learn what you teach me?”

“As far as technique goes, I can only hope so. I’ve taken a job as a school groundskeeper, which leaves me nine days to teach you all I can.”

I frowned. “You can never just have good news can you?”

“I need the money. But if you’re up for it, we can train five segments daily until I start this new job.”

Five segments was a lot, even by my standards. And whether I wanted to or not, I knew my body might give out well before my willpower did. Still, I had to try.

“I'm up for it if you are,” I said.

The next eight days were some of the most physically demanding days I’d had since my time in the Army. Five segments of training with Shawin, with two more at home, turned napping into the only reasonable way to spend my downtime. And with helping Shawin find his uncle, every night after dinner, I had almost no energy left to search for employment. Especially since neither was seeming to yield any decent results. The fact Shawin was able to find a second job when I couldn't even secure one was even more discouraging.

“Morning Serec,” Shawin said through a yawn.

“It’s midday.”

“Oh. Well, I guess we should…” He stopped to inhale the aroma, which locked his attention onto the large bag in my hand. “Is that nibos?”

“Good nose,” I said, holding up the bag. “It’s your favorite, right?”

His excited nod was gratifying for more than one reason. There were only two nibos farms in all of Aruria; mainly because the large six-horned beasts were so aggressive that raising them was both dangerous and expensive. My union account had taken a serious hit in ordering it for our final lunch together. A hit made more severe, considering I’d ordered it from The Blue Leaf, one of the top restaurants in Verdallyn. They made flaky steamed cheese and veggie pumil wraps like you wouldn’t believe. And all for a price that you didn’t want to believe. But again, it was our final lunch. So, I figured it should be a memorable one.

“We should hurry before the food gets cold,” Shawin said.

“What are we covering today?”

“Sparring.”

“That’s it?”

Shawin shrugged. “Unfortunately, I have nothing new to teach you.” He smiled.

I frowned. “Then, why are you smiling?”

“Because, fortunately, I have nothing new to teach you. We’ve covered plenty. Now, we can put it to the test.”

If this test had a score, I might’ve flunked. Shawin made it look easy dodging most everything I threw at him. And the few attacks that connected somehow still ended with me flopping to the ground.

By the end of the match, two things were undeniably evident. One was that Shawin had been holding back the whole time. The other was that defensive maneuvers could be just as effective as attacking, if you knew what you were doing. And Shawin knew exactly what he was doing.

“Perhaps it’s good our training has come to an end,” Shawin said. “You might’ve caught up with me in a few more decs.”

I wondered if he really meant that. I decided against doubting him, since he was so straightforward. “Thanks for teaching me. I really appreciate it.”

“And I appreciated the food.” I don’t know why I was surprised that food was never not on his mind. “So, what will you do now?”

“Once I’ve got a little more control of my accelerated healing, I’ll pick up where I left off with patrolling the streets.”

“What do you hope to accomplish?”

“As long as there are criminals, there’ll be victims. Even if I have a small part to play, I want to save as many people as I can.”

Shawin paused. “Do you have someone you wish to improve your world for?”

“I never really thought about it.”

Shawin paused again. “I see.”

“You look like there’s something else you want to ask me.”

“Well, there is. When I went to speak with my new employer yesterday, I met this girl on the caelrail.”

A wide smile pressed into my face. “Oh, you want advice on girls.”

“Aside from my little sister, I’m not very experienced with talking to girls.”

“Well, I’m not sure how much help I can be. My uncle’s compounding list of restrictions deterred me from the dating scene. Plus, I uhh…” I trailed off as an image rose to the surface of my mind.

“You what?”

“Uhh, nothing,” I said, shaking my head. “Just a random memory of someone I used to be really close with.”

“Did something happen?”

“Huh?”

“You said you used to be close. Are you not anymore?”

“I honestly don’t know. I haven’t seen or spoken to her since I moved away seven anums ago. But anyway, you should just tell this girl what’s on your mind.”

Shawin nodded thoughtfully. “Then what?”

I shrugged. “That’s it. Girls are complicated. But I know they like guys who speak their mind.”

Shawin smiled. “Thanks, brother. Don’t become scarce. Training or no, we’re still friends, right?” Shawin reached out his fist.

I bumped my fist against his. “You know it.”

The whole way back home my mind swam through memories of her face. And the more I thought about her, the worse I felt. We were best friends. And when I moved to Olde Callastryne with Hachi, I’d left without so much as a goodbye. I wouldn’t be surprised if she hated me by now, or forgot all about me too. I told myself if I ever saw Liza again, I’d do everything in my power to make things right between us.

I stopped as I came to the end of my block. My house was eleventh from where I stood, and the fastest I’d ever covered that distance was about fourteen beats. I’d put most of my effort into using the healing ability I’d copied. But standing there, another thought struck me. Why not try the enhanced speed ability again?

I slowed my breathing and visualized a pool of energy pouring into my legs. The warm tingle grew into that same jittery heat I felt during my fight with Fat Felo. I started the timer on my timechain and crouched into position. My heart raced with anticipation, and I inhaled all the air my lungs could take.

BEEP!

At the start of the timer, I stutter-stepped into a stride. Somewhere around the fourth or fifth house, the wind started whistling past my ears, and the edges of my vision became blurred. The moment I reached my house, I leapt and tapped my timechain again.

BEEP!

When I finally came to a stop and checked my timechain, I could hardly believe the time.

“Seven beats?!” I said in a loud whisper. How fast could I have been running to cut my time in half? By the time I was inside the jittery feeling in my legs was replaced with an empty throbbing. As if I’d just run across the entire province. I caught myself against the wall and sank to the floor. I looked at my timechain again to make sure I hadn’t imagined it. Then, a well of laughter erupted from deep within me as the next thought hit me. Maybe I am ready. And if I’m smart about preparations, I can be back on patrol by tomorrow night.

VII: Opportunity

The Central District was business as usual, except that it wasn’t. Four nights in, I hadn’t seen so much as a litterbug. It was starting to look like Hachi was right about the Department of Peace getting things under control. As far as I was concerned, their timing couldn’t have been worse.

On one hand, I wouldn’t have to worry about being kicked out of the house for fighting anymore. But that meant the only thing left for me to do was live a boring life doing some spirit-crushing job. It would be a slap in the face, just quitting after all my time with Shawin. But four fruitless nights had already sown a seed of disappointment in the pit of my stomach that was beginning to bud.

I detoured through Monument Park to help ease my mind. Aio’s pale glow barely penetrated the clouds. And yet, through the park’s cluster of bushy trees, it shined like it did before the sky’s color changed. Before everything changed.

As the name implied, Monument Park had its fair share of monuments. Mainly national figures, like previous monarchs, generals, and civil rights leaders. But the most significant monument in my mind was the one standing before me. A stone representation of a fleeting tree sat in the center of a square garden; a narrow stone path leading to its trunk. I ran my hands over the trunk, painful memories rising to the surface of my mind. Inscribed into the trunk were names; names of PED officers and BNP agents who lost their lives that day. The day four Gifted terrorists attacked Hiyama Square, killing and wounding hundreds. Over a hundred Department of Peace officials fought to save innocent lives that day. Among them were Vyctor and Marra Hayden, NaRyn’s parents. I never thought I’d be the one consoling someone who’d lost their parents. But I guess my circumstances made me especially qualified.

The night air brushed my brow, and I started to pull back my hood when a female voice grazed my ear. “Heroes aren’t defined by what they do in times of peace, but in moments of crisis.”

“That’s a quote from the monarch, ri—?” Ribbons of unmistakable red hair waved in front of me, and I immediately realized it was the only person it could be. “Anne?”

“You know your quotes… and your stalkers,” she remarked playfully. “Of course, I wouldn’t be surprised if you were the one following me.” We hugged, and the scent of serenity blooms filled my nose so quickly it was like I inhaled a shot of calm.

“I hate to disagree with you,” I said, “but this is the second time you’ve appeared behind me. So, what brings you here tonight?”

“Evening stroll. You?”

“Uh, same.” I wasn't exactly a lie considering how quiet things had been.

She looked up at the fleeting tree. “This is my favorite monument in the park. It’s a wonderful reminder of the beauty and fragility of life. So many sacrificed themselves to save others. Not at all unlike what you did for me.”

Her autumn eyes found mine and my cheeks went warm. Anne was probably one of the prettiest and kindest people I'd ever met. Just knowing her made two things clear to me. I had to preserve the beauty in this world, and when the time came, whomever I ended up marrying had to be the kind of woman she was.

“Oh, you’re um...you're welcome.” I cleared my throat, wishing for a redo.

“Spoken like a true hero.” The chuckle in her voice ended with a sigh that might as well have been a lumen pointed directly at my face for good measure. “I’d best head home before it gets too late. If I get into trouble too often, you may think I’m just trying to get your attention.” We shared a laugh, although mine somehow sounded a lot more nervous and awkward than it should've. “Don’t stay out too late yourself, okay?”

I nodded, and Anne placed a hand on my cheek. Her skin was so soft—soothing even—I could hardly think to respond, before she turned away; her scarlet hair dancing in the wind like a gentle fire.

Anne had the right idea. The night was nearly over, and my focus was quickly shifting to getting home before it got any chillier. At least, until the scream rang out behind me so suddenly it made the hairs on the back of my neck stand on end.

I ran through the fleeing crowd as it radiated outward from the center of the park. Once I’d made it around the tall row of bushes and gotten a clear view of what everyone was running from, even my first impulse was to follow the crowd.

A pot-bellied humanoid beast was gripping a young boy between the long, stubby fingers of its left hand. Its dark gray skin was a sharp contrast to the glow in those piercing orange eyes sunken in their sockets. Saliva dripped from its jagged fangs as it twisted around and snarled. If the creature hadn’t erupted with a blood-curdling roar, I wouldn’t been certain I was hallucinating.

Even as I stood there, breathless and afraid, the part of my brain that wanted me to live to see tomorrow kept telling me to run. But, judging by the darkening red hue in the boy’s face, my time to make a decision was running short.

“Help!” the boy managed in a raspy voice.

I had to act fast if I wanted to free him from the creature. And if not for the man and woman sprawled on the ground just behind him, my doubts might not have kicked in so strong. If saving one person from a monster with claws long enough to eviscerate me in one swipe was a bad gamble at best, then saving three people would be borderline impossible. But, given the situation, I had to at least try.

“I said I wanted to save people,” I thought aloud.

The two on the ground weren’t easy to make out, but I could only assume they were the boy’s parents. I could only pray that—by El’s blessing—they were still alive. With a deep, focused breath, I willed my body’s flow of energy into a condensed ball around my heart, and held it there until chest went warm and my skin started tingling so intensely it made my body vibrate.

Without a moment of hesitation, I ran straight ahead and swung my fist with enough force to punch a hole in a brick wall. But the monster leaned below my attack and slashed with its free hand. I barely dipped in time to save my face, before throwing another punch that connected just under the creature’s arm. It yelped and tried to reposition itself. But it was too slow to avoid my follow-up attack aimed at the center of its stomach. Its body was like a solid tree trunk, but I wasn’t about to let up.

The beast stumbled back, and I lunged forward, preparing to kick it like an enraged nibos when it held the young boy in between us. I tripped over myself, trying to slow my momentum, and the monster used the opening to swat me away with the force of a boulder.

I pushed off the ground, wincing at the shooting pain in my right shoulder. For a wild beast, it was surprisingly smart.

“That thing’s out of your league, Kid,” a voice called from behind. “We’ll handle it from here.”

I glanced back at a tall man with his hands in his pockets as he stood between two women. They were all dressed in sleek, black combat gear, and their eyes were hidden behind what looked like thin rectangular visors. Are these guys from the Bureau? Those uniforms definitely aren’t standard issue.

“I’ve got this,” I called over my shoulder as I brushed the dirt from my arm. I rushed the creature again. I may have let hesitation get the better of me at first, but it was clear the creature’s power couldn’t compensate for its slower movements. I just needed to keep it on the offensive in order to control the fight.

As soon as I was in range, the creature unleashed a small flurry of attacks that gave me a bit of trouble trying to slip between. I rolled behind it and jammed an elbow into the center of its back.

The creature stumbled forward, and my heart flipped as it nearly toppled over and flattened the boy.

“Careful, Kid!” the guy in the visor shouted. “Don’t get the hostage killed!”

Anxiety gripped me as the monster held the boy close to its fangs, reminding me who had the advantage. I was starting to think I should’ve accepted the visor guy’s help when the idea finally hit me. Slow is smooth.

I held my hands up and crept toward the monster; my heart gonging louder in my ears with every step. The beast tensed, but I avoided sudden movements.

“It’s smooth,” I said, trying to keep a calm voice. “Everything’s...smooth.”

The monster growled, shielding itself behind the boy again. I stopped within range of the boy—close enough to see the snot and dried tears covering his face.

Our eyes locked and I nodded to reassure him. Then, with my focus on the creature, I crouched low and shifted my weight onto my back foot. Staring into its glassy eyes was like staring into the soul of a minion of death. But I only needed to hold its attention until I made my move.

Without warning, I lunged forward, grabbing the creature’s wrist and jamming two fingers under its forearm in three places, before digging my thumb into the final pressure point.

The monster shrieked and roared, trying to pull away. But I dug my heels into the ground and held firm. The monster’s hand jerked open, and the boy dropped to the ground. I released the monster’s arm, grabbed the boy, and jumped away before the monster could even think to retaliate.

I lowered the boy next to the unconscious man and woman and turned to face the creature again. It snarled, trying to back away while nursing its arm. But I wasn’t about to let it find another victim. Then, just as I inched closer, it lunged at me so suddenly I couldn’t react in time to stop it. And to be clear as quartz, not reacting in time to stop it probably meant death. Just as I flinched into the least smooth pose before death imaginable, my senses went haywire.

Something shot past me, crashing into the monster with a thunderous flash. Blue sparks fizzled around the beast as it struggled to its feet. Looking over my shoulder, I saw one of the two women was holding an odd-looking bow with blue sparks dripping from it.

With a sharp twist, the monster charged at the woman. But the visor guy was ready for him. He thrust his hands forward and a furious wind tore the monster from the ground.

“Are they all Gifted?” I thought aloud.

The monster screeched wildly, and I snapped back to focus. The creature lunged at me again, flailing wildly. I leapt back, narrowly dodging its flurry of attacks. But the berserk beast was coming at me too fast for me to back away forever. At this rate, I’d be the next victim on the news stream.

I don’t exactly know what happened. Maybe it was instinct, when reflex forced my eyes shut. I just knew I couldn’t die yet; not while this monster was on the loose. I punched out in front of me, and felt a flash of warm light engulf me. At first, my arm tingled with a pulsating energy I’d never felt before. When I opened my eyes again, the monster stood frozen, its mouth wide open, with fangs so close i could smell its putrid breath. I jerked away and a dark liquid spilled out from its belly.

Stumbling away, I realized that liquid was blood — the same blood covering my arm. The monster groaned, holding its stomach as it staggered toward the tall row of hedges. After some fight to pull itself up, it made it over with a delayed thud, followed by slow, heavy footsteps.

I started to go after it, but my legs refused.

“Good work, Kid,” the man in the visor said; moving closer.

“Oh, uhh...thanks,” I said.

He waved me toward him. “What’s your name?” he whispered.

“Serec,” I whispered back.

“We have work to do,” the woman with the bow called, as she and the other woman started in the monster’s direction. “Aid the victims.”

“Yeah,” the man yelled. “I’m on it.” He turned back to me. “Serec, huh? That’s different. Do me a favor and stay here for a beat, alright Serec?”

I nodded.

The man in the visor knelt in front of the boy and said something I couldn’t quite make out. The boy looked up at him and nodded; still half-curled in a ball with fresh tears in his eyes. The man rubbed his hands together and held them over the boy’s stomach. After a moment, the boy sat up, wiped his tears, and offered a weak smile. Next, the man placed his hands on the foreheads of the unconscious woman and man. The moment they began to stir a weight lifted from my chest. He said something else to the boy, then walked back over to me.

“Everyone’s alright, and the boy should be fine until medics arrive. You should go.”

“Hold on,” I said. “What was that creature anyway? And on that note, who are you?”

“I’m sure you’re flustered,” the man replied, “but now’s not the time for questions. Everyone’s alive, thanks to you. But peace enforcement is close by, so you might wanna get going before you end up in detention.”

“But, I don’t—”

“You’ve got real potential. And I’d like to think we have a use for it. But you’re no good to anyone if you’re caught at the scene.” He hurried past me. “We’ll be in touch.”

“What do you mean?” I called after him. “You don’t have my chainlink.”

“Don’t need it.” With the sweep of his hands, he leapt high and zipped out of sight.

Over the next dec, the streets had gone quiet again. I hadn’t heard anything from the man in the visor, and my job search had been as fruitless as ever. The lower the number of credits read in my union account, the closer I came to financial desperation. Aruria was undergoing a bit of a technological revolution coupled with an infrastructure revitalization. So, I knew there was an abundance of jobs in both engineering and construction which were about the closest things I could find to manual labor, and about all I was good for. Unfortunately, neither were enough of a manual labor position for me to actually be qualified for hire.

With all the segments I’d been putting into searching for Shawin’s uncle, trying to find a job I actually liked and qualified for, and running patrols, life was starting to wear on me. I needed some time to consider my next move without the pressure that came from even being in the same house as Hachi. If I had to be a caged bird, the least I could do was perch near my favorite tree for a while.

I walked into Olde Hill Park feeling like my timing couldn’t have been better. It was just after 13.00, which meant the majority of Olde Callastryne’s well-to-do retirees were either tuned in to some boring justice stream or taking an afternoon nap. I sat on the grass and leaned against Brain. The bright and peaceful backdrop of the city brought my focus to my sheltered upbringing in Olde Callastryne. The thought made it difficult not to feel some resentment towards Hachi for stifling my progression with my abilities and subjecting me to a monotonous existence ‘for my own good.’ But it would be equally unfair not to acknowledge all the sacrifices he made to keep NaRyn and me safe. Fleeting as it was, neither of us could've done a better job than Hachi had.

I laced my fingers and sank against Brain’s trunk with a sigh, as the cool breeze blew over my skin. In no time at all, my eyelids started to feel heavy, and my vision blurred.

“Is this how you kids spend your free time nowadays? Must be nice.” The voice was so close, my body jerked up awkwardly. I twisted around to find a tall man in a designer suit and shades, looking down at me curiously.

“Do I know you?” I asked, unapologetic about my tone.

“Not yet. But don’t act like we’ve never met.”

What’s that supposed to mean? I frowned. “When have I seen you?”

“Just the other day.” His casual tone only worked to annoy me further.

“I think you’ve got the wrong guy.”

He raised an eyebrow. “Forgot me that fast, huh Kid?”

I squinted at him. “Where did we meet?”

He sighed. “Monument Park. Four nights ago.” It finally clicked. “Oh, the visor guy, right?”

His eyebrows lifted. “Visor guy, huh?” He half-mumbled. “This where you waste all your teenage afternoons?”

“I’m not wasting anything. How’d you find me anyway?”

“What’s it matter, so long as I found you?”

“Can you just answer my question without asking another question?”

“Why? That bother you?”

“Not as much as waiting to hear from you in the first place.”

“So, waiting also bothers you?”

“Did you just come here to see how I think or something?”

“I came here to offer you a job.”

“Doing what?”

“The same kind of thing you did at the park.”

I paused. “I don't even know your name.”

“And?”

“How do I know you're offer is legitimate?”

“How does knowing someone’s name make anything legitimate?”

“I don't know. But you look an awful lot like some kinda hitman or something.”

“And?”

“Are you?”

“No.”

“Then, why are you still hiding your face when no one's around?”

“Aren’t you around?”

At this point, I didn’t know which was more irritating; his overly casual tone or the fact that he was still answers my questions with more questions.

“You want me in your group, right?”

“Organization,” he corrected. “And I’m not certain, since you haven’t accepted my offer yet.”

“How can I when I’m not sure I can trust you?”

“I’m not asking you to trust me.”

“But you expect me to say yes?”

“Not necessarily. But we don’t usually ask twice. So, if you would rather not be in consideration, you are free to decline — in which case, this will be the last time we speak.”

“I’m not saying no. I’m just…Wait. You just said you don’t ‘usually’ ask twice, right?”

“Glad you’re listening.”

I decided against an otherwise aggressive response for sake of the more pressing question. “Can this be one of those times you ask twice?”

“Want some time to think it over, huh?” He ran his finger through his short neatly trimmed hair. “Yeah, I guess it’s fine if you want to consult your physician or librarian or whatever.”

“You don’t have to be so sarcastic about it.”

“Point taken,” he began, turning away. “Man, Ari and Amani must’ve had their hands full with you,” he said just loud enough for me to hear.

His words were like an arrow to the chest, triggering a boiling anger that I couldn’t ignore. “What did you just say?”

“You have until tomorrow to decide.”

“Wait! How do you know my parents?” I demanded, starting after him. But he swung his hand forming a small cyclone of wind around him. “I know you heard me!” I shielded my eyes from the leaves and dust swirling into the air, and by the time the wind had died down, he was gone. And with my peace and concentration thoroughly ruined, I couldn’t think of anything better to do than head back home.

I spent the rest of my afternoon watching the lines of sunlight that shined through my window and painted the ceiling in stripes of yellow-green. Why’d I even bother asking for more time? I already knew what I’d wanted to say. I’d lucked into a once-in-a-lifetime offer. But I couldn’t help feeling anxious about it.

Of course, for all I knew this ‘organization’ was another army disaster waiting to happen. And if it was, there’d be no Hachi to bail me out this time around. Still, it wasn’t like I had much time to think it over. In fact, I had already taken so much time thinking, it was getting dark out. “A quick patrol might help me come up with something,” I said to myself, getting up to change. “Hopefully.”

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