Fade – A Different Version

•April 12, 2012 • Leave a Comment

I found this version of the short story ‘Fade’ in the back reaches of my hard drive. Thought I’d chuck it up here too for everyone to see. Personally, I think I like this version better. But oh well…

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Screeching filled the air along with the smell of burning tires. Bang! Then silence. Not long after that the s0ft sound of sirens shattered the quiet. People stood on the sidewalks, frozen in shock and horror as they stared at the scene before them. As the sirens grew louder they were started into action.

They scattered, every one of them trying to be as far from the area as possible before the ambulance arrived. No one wanted to explain or describe what had happened. Nobody wanted to know about it.

The ambulance squealed to a stop by the now destroyed car. It was followed quickly by a pair of police cars. What happened next passed by in a flash. The police examined the scene and the medics removed the bodies. Two bodies were removed from the wreckage, one went to the morgue straight away, and the other went to the hospital.

 

Beep.

Silence.

Beep.

I lay there on the cold white bed, my eyes closed, my limbs stiff. I couldn’t move, but I fought anyway. It was as though some strange power had taken over my body and was preventing me from doing what my mind wanted to do.

Beep.

The instrument beside the bed continued to announce quietly to the room that I was still alive. But only just. The door opened and I tried to look at who it was, but as before, I was frozen.

When the door closed, I could almost be sure that at least four people had entered. The first spoke quietly, explaining what had happened to the others. A car had spun out of control, hitting me as it slammed into a shop along the road. The driver had been killed instantly, I was in a coma. They didn’t know when, if at all, I would wake.

One of the other people began to sob almost inaudibly and a deep voice spoke back to the medic. What could be done? Was there any possibility at all that I might recover?

The medic replied that everything that could be done was being done, but as to whether I might recover… Well, not many people woke up from a coma. But there was a chance. The option was theirs.

My parents… it occurred to me that my parents wouldn’t know what to do. I vaguely remembered a conversation had with them a long time ago. A conversation about people in coma’s.

Beep.

We were watching one of those pathetic medical shows on TV. Someone had fallen from a cliff while climbing and ended in a coma. The family had been given the choice of letting them live, attached to a machine in the hopes they would wake. And if they did wake there was always the possibility that they would be a vegetable for the rest of their life. Or, the family could ‘pull the plug’ and let them die.

I seemed to recall that I had told my mother, if that sort of thing ever happened to me, I would want to be pulled. I didn’t want to live as a mentally inactive lump for what was left of my life. I would want to be able to take care of myself, and if I couldn’t, then there was no point in living.

I started to struggle at the darkness that bound me. I tried to scream, to tell them that I could hear them, that I was awake. I fought and kicked and screamed in my mind, but my body remained frustratingly still.

Beep.

Don’t do it! My mind bellowed at them. I’m still here! I’m alive!

An ominous silence filled the room, but the loud battle that was going on in my mind rattled back and forth as I clashed with the coma. I wanted so badly to just twitch a finger or frown or something that would let them know I was still there, still with them.

Beep.

Still the machine told them I was alive. In my head, I screamed at them, pleaded with them to listen to the machine. To listen to what it was telling them. That I was alive.

Beep.

The battle raged on.

Please, I begged them in my mind. Please listen to the machine. Please…

My mother was still crying softly. My father was silent and the medic was patiently awaiting an answer. A pen scrabbled across a surface. More silence.

The medic spoke in a low voice. Something about having finished. Whatever it was, it was done and it sounded ominous to me.

Beep.

Again I strained at the hazy blackness that surrounded me.

Wake up! I roared at myself. Get up! Move! Live!

I thrashed my unresponsive body and my mind screamed for my parents to see reason. To listen to the machine. To see me there alive. I begged my body, my eyes to open, but no matter how hard I fought the darkness, this almost waking state I was trapped in, it didn’t let go. I was a prisoner in my own mind, unable to tell people where I was, incapable of escape.

Beep.

Heavy footsteps moved across the room and my mother’s soft sniffles turned into sobs that wracked her body.

Beep.

I could almost see her shaking there.

Beep.

I heard my father take a deep breath as he forced himself across the room.

Beep.

I felt, more than heard, as he grabbed something by my bedside.

Beep.

He sucked in one more deep breath and pulled.

Beeee…

My mother’s tears increased and my father broke down, but I didn’t really hear this. As soon as my father pulled that plug, my mind began to wander. The darkness rushed in as it tried to crush me. I didn’t fight it now, I couldn’t concentrate on what I wanted to do, I just let it carry me away, drifting on it’s suddenly kind and gentle waves.

The machine that had once pulsed with the unseen life within me was now the only thing in the room that knew what had been done. The battle was over.

Dantean Thought Process Excerpt

•April 12, 2012 • Leave a Comment

This is a short sample of what goes on behind the scenes in my mind. I kid you not, this legitimately happened one fine night. Dantean was a story I planned on writing, but the plot got to convoluted, complicated and bizarre. Not to mention that the number of characters and species just went whoosh out the window, because there was… Just. Too. Much.

This excerpt comes from the middle of the thought process, so most of it won’t make any sense to you, dear reader. But it is one hell of a funny read. Hope you enjoy this trip into my subconscious.

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Crowd: *gasp*

I know unprecedented, right? But we’re not there yet, so we’ll keep that in the back of my mind. Where did Lucern learn his Corruption and why did he want to dominate the world? Well because secretly he wasn’t the Corruption’s origin, he was just a tool! Oh noes! They didn’t kill the bad guy? No, they didn’t and this bad guy won’t be the boss either, BUT he will tell them what they need to know to work out that its Bandar. Now… what can his power be? … We know it will probably be Kandric’s dear old dad but what does he do that’s so darn terrible?

Let’s introduce a new creature.

(Huh?)

Well we’ve got dragons and nightwraiths; let’s get a new one.

(Oh…)

So, what can it be…?

(Why don’t you think along the lines of wispy screelings?)

Ah, that’s a fine plan.

(I know).

Shut up. So, a skeletal looking bastard that is wispy? Good, what can we call it?

(…)

Not screelings, that would be plagiarism.

(Oh darn).

What about darklings? That’s a story and a plot that I’m never going to use again, I might as well reuse the names, I’ve done it before.

(Isn’t that plagiarising?)

You can’t plagiarise yourself, can you? Don’t answer that.

(…)

Darklings it is then. J what do they do… well, let me explain:

A darkling is something that can be controlled by a daichan who has control over what we call umbraldachau, which is basically –

(Not really, it’s more complicated than basic, but whatever.)

BASICALLY, an evildachauthat allows the user to summon darklings. It is rare and isn’t really defined anywhere as a specificdachauin and of itself –

(Because it’s so damn complicated.)

Shush. It is similar to Corruption in that it allows you to control people, but these people are really being controlled by darklings and give the human host powers.

(Hence Lucern’s Corruption power, it wasn’t his, he it was the darkling’s.)

Thisdachaugoes beyond that though, this is power over the shadows, over night itself. And the dead.

(So it’s known to normal people as necromancy).

Whatever, just shut up. As the dead are ruled by a man –

(Man or demon?)

Does it matter? Let me tell this. A man/demon who is supposed to walk the world of the living bent on world domination, he takes control of humans to do his bidding, be it through persuasion or simply taking their lives, they become his unknowing slaves and they do everything he commands. That’s why no one knows that it’s him doing all the nasty stuff in the world. He believes that if he can provide enough distractions and a plot thick enough –

(To make a trilogy)

– he can divert attention from himself and keep people chasing their tails.

(So he’s a myth).

No, he’s very real, he’s called Temptation.

(But in this story let’s call him Bandar).

No, Bandar is the Dragon Lord of Elua, Temptation is controlling him, like a host.

(That’s not plagiarism).

It’s not, my idea, all mine.

(So… Temptation is using Bandar as a physical host.)

Yes and Akiro doesn’t know.

 (Right, and he’s using Bandar to make false bad guys to give you two books so you can conclude this as a trilogy, yes?)

Well, yes… but…

(No wait, how do you plan on getting these characters of yours to kill him if he’s the equivalent of the devil?)

I was getting to that before you interrupted me. So, he’s a demon, or a darkling, but the most powerful darkling ever to have existed – not Lucifer, or the devil, or a demon, a darkling called Temptation – and the only thing that can kill a darkling is Destruction dachau. Thedachauthat can destroy anything that it’s used against.

(Great, so now you need a character with this power, a power that drives them mad. Where are you going to find one of them?)

Luckily for me, I already have one.

(Oh really?)

Yes, Kandric.

(Nuh-uh, he’s a Telekinesis daichan.)

Or is he? Destruction daichan still have control over that power. He is from Aeliteir and Gehenna is his. Or rather, his mother gave Gehenna to Bandar to give to him when he was old enough.

(So are you saying that Bandar got a hold of the weapon and the child that could kill him and he let them live?)

If he killed Kandric and kept the sword don’t you think he’d look very much a bad guy?

(Yeah, he would, but he’d be a smart, invulnerable bad guy.)

(Gotcha!)

No, he wouldn’t, because Gehenna still has Destructiondachauin it-

(You never mentioned that before. You’re just making it up now.)

Am not. It was implied that Gehenna had Destruction, you just weren’t listening. So as I was saying, Gehenna has Destruction and so can be wielded by anyone to kill Temptation, it’s just easier for Kandric to use it because it’s his sword and I like his character.

(Blah! You got sidetracked. If there is going to be a boss bad guy in Bandar/Temptation, who’s going to be the mini bad guy in the second one that you don’t have a plot for yet? And what happens to the Duen-Jaana-Kandric triangle?)

So now you’re curious… Well, there can be another darkling, oh btws, a darkling was controlling Lucern but we don’t know that yet. Anyway, what are some names for the dark riders?

(War, famine, plague… I don’t know…)

What about the deadly sins?

(Gluttony, greed, sloth, wrath, yup, I’m out)

Fat lot of help you are. Here the dictionary bloody has them listed: pride, covetousness, lust, anger, gluttony, envy and sloth.

(Well, I’m sorry.)

You bloody well should be. Doesn’t matter now, I’ve got them.

(Now what are you going to do with them, after all that?)

I’m going to base my other two darklings off them. I’ve got Temptation which might as well just be called Sin, so I might as well have two lesser darklings which are more specific in what they do.

(So Lucern?)

Covetousness I think covers him the best. But I want a synonym.

(Yay [!])

Not in my presence thank you very much!

([!] [!] [!])

Or maybe greed, I know that’s not listed as a sin, but he likes lots of power and money and control… yea, perhaps greed.

(That’s lust you dolt!)

Whatevs. How about Avarice?

(… hrm, I like it)

Good, now, onto the new guy… should we name him? Let’s see, how about… Teron… yes, interesting and slightly new. At least it’s not entirely repetitive. And think, what can his power be. Ohs, I’ve actually thought of something original! Hows about this guy can summon more darklings, lesser ones, that take control of people to do his bidding? Oh, that’s fantastic. I wuvs it! Now, onto his sin. Malapert… whaddya think o’ that? Eh?

(What the hells is malapert?)

Pride, stupid.

(Can’t you call it something easier… like… Condescension?)

But that’s so boring, everyone knows what condescension means.

(Do you want them to go and pick up the dictionary while they’re in the middle of reading this story then?)

No, but I just like names that are a little bit more complex, especially since I’m naming these characters after sins.

(So pick another sin).

… So, what, like Anarchism or something?

(Yes, another).

Pique, Vehemence, Irascibility, Diabolism, Visigoth, Truculence, Vengeance, Lysis, Esurience, Arriviste, Insolence, Impertinence, Impudence, Supercilious… how about that?

(Go overboard why don’t you?)

Any thoughts?

(I think… what if Temptation had a second in command, someone who was hard to raise from the land of the dead, and we need a chick. I think Malapert is fine for a proud bad guy, but give him a lady friend, that would make things fun).

Right, so what if Lysis was Malapert’s besty and they ruled Aeliteir together, the way the country was supposed to be run.

(Good, yes. What about Temptation’s friend?)

Not a friend, more of a monster.

(Oh?)

Yes, what if he’s got a little fellow – or big fellow – who ran around killing people and setting aside folk to be sent into the underworld torture chamber, bringing him folkies to give over to the little darklings and generally being badass?

(I like, a name please?)

Visigoth, duh! *face-palm*

(Uh, right…)

I got so sidetracked tonight.

(Yes, but now you have two plots and enough bad guys to start a conservation reserve.)

Thanks. [!]

(Oh, hey! Isn’t Bandar’s power summoning little darklings?)

Yeah, so?

(Well you’ve given that power to Malapert as well.)

Oh shite. Well, maybe seeing as he’s just a little guy, he can have… whisperer summoning powers…

(Whisperers? Now you’re just pulling names out of a hat.)

So?

(What do they do then? *sigh*)

Possess peeps, same as the darklings, only these guys can be kicked out of hosts, whereas to get rid of a darkling you have to kill the host. Less permanent for a less important darkling.

(And Lysis?)

Seduction.

(Eh?)

What do you mean ‘eh?’ That is the most simple concept I’ve come up with so far!

(I know, hence the ‘eh?’)

*fumes* Fine.

(Do you realise how far away you’ve gotten from the first plot?)

… Wow, that is a long way. Luckily for me, I haven’t actually started writing the first one yet – let alone the second or third – so I have plenty of time and words to make changes to the first plot so that it all fits nicely together.

(Well bully for you, but how are you planning on doing that exactly?)

I’m not. It’s going to do it all on its lonesome. I’ve given it a plot and characters, I’ve given it direction, a sequel and all it has to do is go where I want. Now that I know I’ve got darklings and sin-possessed peeps it shouldn’t be too hard to get it where I want.

(So you’re just going to let this story write itself?)

Yup, pretty much. Didn’t you know, all the best stories are written by the characters? I’m not the author, I’m just writing down their tale.

(How poetic. Are you finished with this plot thing yet?)

Ah… yes… any more and the characters will have nothing to write. I’ve gotta let them stand on their own eventually.

(So you’re giving them a whole two books to do that in? Isn’t that a bit much?)

*Shrugs* Maybs, but I don’ care. They didn’t do anything in the first one, that was all me and I even started the second one for them. The rest is up to them.

(Great, so get writing).

Can’t.

(Whut?)

I can’t.

(And why not, you’ve done it before?)

I’m just not inspired right now.

(So you’re going to let another story rust in the back of your mind? Gathering dust? Forgotten? Untold?)

Yeah, yeah, I get it. Write the story, motivate yourself. But how?

(I don’t know, I’m just the part of you that wants to write all the damn time. Motivation isn’t my forte.)

Yea, I know that. Okay. I’ll set myself a goal then. I will write one page minimum every day until it’s done. Hows that?

(Good, start tonight by editing the prologue that you wrote and is now irrelevant.)

Buts! I’m tired!

(Just. Deal.)

*grumbles*

Well, I’m now going to ignore you for a while, coz I gots some brand new ideas that need to be writed down befores I forget them. Kay?

The Game

•April 12, 2012 • Leave a Comment

Another relatively ‘bleh’ story thing. It’s much like the other short story, in that it’s totally morbid. Oh well, violence is fun to write about. And that doesn’t make me sound crazy at all, does it?

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Amelia stood with her back to the large tree. Shouts echoed all around her, mostly they came from behind, though. Mingled with the shouts were the distinctive barks and howls of hunting dogs. Panting, she risked a glance behind the tree. There was no one in sight. Sighing, she pushed off from the rough bark and darted through the thickly treed enclosure.

There had to be an exit somewhere. The cage she had been in before had been mounted on a truck, so it had to get in from somewhere. A gate, a fence, any clue at all that might lead to her escape.

A knurled tree root sprang as if from nowhere to trip her, sending her sprawling to the rocky ground, skin scraping off her knees and hands. Blood trickled down her palms and she recalled the night she saw her parents’ murders. A robber had broken into their house one night, she’d been very small and she had stood in the doorway and watched as the robber slit her parents’ throats. She had hidden under the bed and screamed until someone had found her. Since then, every time she saw blood, she remembered that night.

Now, rough snarl of a dog jarred her back to herself. Stumbling off her knees, she raced through the trees some more. There had been four other people in the cage with her, all of them had been snatched from their lives and stuffed into the mesh impound with no explanation as to why they were there. Then a man with a long barrelled shotgun and a slobbering German Sheppard had unhitched the latch and guided them out. He and several other men stood there glaring at her and the others.

“Run,” the man said in a monotone. And run they had. All five of them had bolted in every direction, fear lighting their eyes and adrenaline pounding through them, blood roaring in their ears. Quick as hares, they had bounded off through the low scrub and into the thick trees.

That had been an hour and a half ago, since then there had only been variations in silence. Sometimes, her breathing sounded too loud in her ears and sometimes the dogs sounded like they could reach out and snap at her heels.

A gunshot cracked through the forest. Then an ear-splitting scream rend the air. A dog yapped happily somewhere in the distance. Her heart stopped cold in her chest as she realised what had just happened. One of the other ‘competitors’ as the men had called them, had just been shot. She stood frozen to the spot for several moments before her breath caught and she shot off the spot and into the shadow of a bush. Tears welled up in her eyes even though she didn’t know the person who had been killed.

She staggered out of the bush and walked round a corner, tears blurring her vision. A dog snapped somewhere nearby. She wiped her eyes clear and lurched into a faltering run, weaving blindly through the forest she walked right into two men.

Their Winchester M1897’s snapping up in surprise to aim at her head. Flinching, she darted off the path in hurtled headlong into the bushes.

The men grunted in shock and crashed after her breaking the flimsy branches of several bushes. Seeing an angel oak to her right, she sped towards it and ran, less than gracefully, up one of its long trailing branches. Clambering ever higher into the tree, she heard the men arrive at the base of the tree, peering up into its dark green canopy. This tree was massive and just a little further and she could slide down another long limb and escape these crazy people. The dogs were barking up the trunk as she carefully, quietly climbed down the thick branch and tumbled into the underbrush and out of sight.

One of the men let out a cry of alarm and two bullets whizzed past her head. Amelia crawled through the tangled underbrush and saw, not far in front of her, a gleaming metallic fence.

Freedom! She thought as she dashed over to the high barbed wire screen. Tripping into a run, she trailed one hand along the fence for a few hundred metres before she finally encountered a wide gate in the fence. It was locked tightly with a thick chain and padlock. One of the corners of the gate was bent outwards slightly and she collapsed to the ground next to it, trying desperately to twist it slightly further back to allow her to escape.

She kicked and wrestled with the metal gate, but no matter how hard she tried, it wouldn’t bend much further than it already had. Giving up, she threw her small frame through the gap and wriggled until she was out the other side.

A bellow sounded behind her as the two men thundered out of the shrubs behind her, guns whipped up, eyes peering through the sights. Their dogs were salivating at the gate, barking as they tried to get through after her.

She spun and fled as fast as she could towards the safety of the trees not far away. A small smile crept onto her face at the thought of escaping. Twin shots sounded behind her followed by the sound of the men forcing the pumps back on their guns for a second shot.

The trees were upon her when she collapsed, suddenly tired at their edge. One hand was caught under her as she lay face down in the dirt. She twisted the hand free and brought it to her face and began to sob quietly. One of the men approached her and rolled her roughly onto her back, a long serrated knife glinting in the afternoon sunlight.

The wide ribbon of blood that coursed from her neck looked just like a red silk ribbon.

Fade

•April 12, 2012 • Leave a Comment

A quick literate doodle. Just. Bleh.

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Screeching tires. My parents were dead, lying cold in the morgue. The car crash had taken their lives and left behind four children. There were no grandparents, no aunts or uncles. They had no one. The oldest child, at twenty, would take care of them

It had been like this for a while, but I didn’t talk about it. I just ignored it, pretending that one day it would go, it would leave. Something in my mind felt out of place. I had this urge to break things, this strange need to be destructive. I wanted some one else to fell the pain that I had bottled up inside me, the hurt. I wanted to scream. I wanted to express myself.

My brother did it for me.

I remember his face, so happy, so bright, alive. Then is was gone, faded into the hazy mist of my past, of my memories. Just another happy moment best forgotten. Just something more to cause pain.

The car had slammed int othe concrete wall. My brother had died on impact. It was delibereate, no accident. No one had known what he was going through, what he had been planning. No going back now.

Still, I fought back the raw emotion raging in me.

End it, my little inner voice said. Finish this.

I stayed my hand. While I fought my battle, I was unaware of the crisis my younger brother was going through. It wasn’t until he was hanging from the gymnasium rafters that I realised, he had been fighting too.

That just left me and my little sister, she was barely even two years old. I wasn’t paying attention. The car was stopped at a red light. I should have locked the doors. I didn’t.

I was on the street, lying frozen in the gutter. Helplessly, my ming screaming, I watched as my little sister was tossed out after me. I watched as another car slammed on its brakes too late.

My heart hardened. Sorrow sank into my soul. Darkness settled on my shoulders. That was it. The battle was lost. I had to end it.

The ocean shimmered in the dying afternoon sunlight. Orange and gold light danced across its mirror like surface. Waves threw themselves against the jagged rocks lining the bottom of the cliff. I couldn’t see any of it.

All I could see was my past. The things, the people that I had known. I saw my family, gathered on the lawn, laughing once more. It was just a dream.

I shook myself, hating who I was, what it had come to. My hand hung heavy at my side, weighed down, my eyes stared at the horizon, unseeing.

As I stood, unmoving, thoughts whirled around in my mind. So far as I could see, I had two choices left to me. And they were just variations that ended the same. It was easier to forget, easier to let go.

It is simple. Just do it.

I shivered, my heavy hand moving slowly. I was just so tired.

End this battle, finish the fight.

I closed my eyes. Red from the sun flickered against the backs of my eyelids.

End it.

I pulled the trigger.

 

Blam!

Light. A bright flash of white light. Pain. Darkness.

A German Sheppard and big black Labrador rolled around in the long waving green grass of a paddock. The sky was a magnificent blue and large fluffy clouds floated lazily across the sky.

Static interrupted the image and black and white danced across the scene as it disappeared. Pain.

A small boy with ruffled brown hair smiled happily holding the hand of an unseen person. He laughed and tugged on the hand.

Fog rolled in on the image and it vanished, more static.

The sun was shining down on a girl on horse back; she had no features, just a blurry, colourless outline. A farm house was visible in the background. Like the woman, it had no distinguishable features.

Static.

It was cold and the fire was warm and crackled soundlessly. The blurry woman sat on a large couch in front of the fire curled up with an equally indistinct man. Children hid on the staircase.

Static.

It was Christmas and the two dogs lay on the hearth in front of the fire. A Chrismas tree stood in one corner with presents underneath. The blurry man and woman sat on the floor with the dark haired boy opening the boxes. An older boy sat on a chair and a girl was spread out on the rug. The woman’s belly was swollen with another child.

Pain. Static. Ear-shattering screams echoed in an unseen room.

Blackness. Pain. More darkness.

Intense light. Nothing but a bright white light.

A throbbing pain. Blackness.

Drip.

Water. I could taste metal. Cold.

Drip. Drip.

Drip.

Pain. Darkness.

Splash!

No more would her heart pulse with the life within.

The battle was over.

The Empty Land – Prologue

•April 12, 2012 • Leave a Comment

~ Prologue – The Art of Deception

            She stood on the edge of the balcony, the lack of any kind of railing not bothering her. Her keen blue-grey eyes surveyed the landscape below her with an ever growing sense of unease. Something wasn’t right. It was a twisting feeling in her gut more than anything that spoke of ill fortune.

Below her, the white and gold city sprawled away, the sun glinting off roofs as people hurried about their business. Even so early in the morning the city was still a hive of bustling motion.  Beyond the tall spires, slender arching bridges and airy walks above the streets stood the wall. Grand and made entirely of white stone so thick that five wagons could trundle abreast across its top with enough room for people to walk comfortably between them. Those walls had never in her memory been assaulted and never in written history been breached. This high in the mountains any attacking force would have to be stupid on several levels to attempt a siege on the city.

Past the walls at this, the back of the city, fields and rolling hills ran away into the distance. The only thing in that direction was farmland and the occasional small town. To the left rose the rocky peak of the mountain and from it spewed the River Tryn. A waterfall that cascaded down the face of the cliff, collected in a bowl and ran straight past the rear of the city. It continued on down the mountain in just such a fashion before reaching the plains at the bottom and rolling on towards the distant ocean. Bridges crossed the river on the zigzagging route that wound its way up the mountain.

But these thoughts were merely relieving distractions from what was really on her mind. There had been disturbances recently, she’d felt them tingling in the depths of her soul. None had been reported she knew, that would only cause the spread of noxious panic. Not something that anyone would risk. There were troubles on the plains, the sea folk had been up in arms about something just recently, the ice nomads had been arguing with their plain dwelling human neighbours in the south and even the normally misanthropic and predominantly peaceful desert dwellers had been on their borders in skirmishes with their human neighbours. On top of that, this façade of serenity amongst her people was giving her an itch. And that sense of uneasiness kept her awake at night.

Now, she rolled her shoulders and closed her eyes against the sunlight. She wasn’t looking forward to the day’s events. Not at all. In fact, she’d been dreading this day for the last eighteen years. She didn’t think she was even slightly ready to face this. Not with the disturbances troubling her so. She had to believe that there was someone else who could feel it as strongly as she could. Even if it was just a niggling to them, there had to be someone who would feel it too.

Behind her the soft swish of the glass door being pulled open announced a presence invading her solitude. A light breeze whooshed down out of the mountains as she turned; hardening her heart to what she knew was coming. It stirred her hair and feathers and tugged at her light cloak. She pulled its folds tighter about herself as Tyrath’s dark eyes regarded her solemnly. His tall frame stood tightly wound in the doorway, his silver gilded armour and leather bindings glinted dully. His shaggy shoulder length hair wasn’t disturbed by the breeze as he had it pulled back into a rough ponytail.

He nodded sombrely. “She’s waiting,” he said in his deep lilt. Slowly, he stepped aside so she could enter the room behind him.

She didn’t like leaving the quiet shelter of the balcony, but nor did she like the repercussions should she miss this meeting. As such, she took a deep breath and entered.

The meeting hall was an airy place, as were most buildings here, with a great glass dome that let in the light, a pool and fountain in the middle and open sided balconies that ringed the room. Mosaics decorated the walls in bright colours and the light drapes fluttered in the soft gusts let in by the open windows. Colours tinted the windows and sent shafts of multi-hued light across the room, splashing on the tiled floor in puddles of luminous intangible paint. Trees and grasses grew in half sections of a circle in places out from the pool, fluted columns stood nestled in their midst seeming to disappear among foliage that embraced the white stone. Nothing in the room seemed out of place and there was no sharp contrast in the way everything seemed to just fit as though this was how nature had always intended. Vines crept up the walls and columns and branches hung out over the courtyard making it seem welcoming for all.

Ever since she’d been six, however, Elina had dreaded this hall and all it entailed for her. Not once had she been free to play in the shadows of those trees. Not once had she rolled in the grass. Not once.

The dais at the far side of the round room bore the reason for her joyless childhood. A great wooden chair, gnarled and knotted like the roots of the trees from which it was made. It was inlaid with gold and silver filigree and stood as a constant reminder of the lie she lived every day.

On that chair sat a woman who was as opposite in appearance to the chair she sat on as one could possibly find. She was smooth and tanned, her golden hair, skin and feathers stood out against the dark wood of her chair. Among her yellow curls sat an equally yellow crown and those amber eyes rested on Elina’s shoulders bearing every ounce of weight that she felt crushing her every hour of every day.

People often noted the difference between the two of them. Where she was tanned and golden, Elina was fair and dark of hair. They knew the truth; they alone knew the reason for all the burdens placed solely upon Elina. They alone held that secret. Well, they two and a few trusted advisors.

Tyrath was one. Elina’s lady’s maid another. And Gerritch, the tall thin bean pole of a man standing at the golden woman’s shoulder was the other. His black beady eyes shimmered in the coloured light; his pointy face seemed permanently affixed with an expression of consternation, occasionally anger and frequently disapproval. The lines across his weather board features testified to that. The man looked as if he had been bound in parchment where everyone else was bound in skin. His spine was as rigid as an iron pole and his demeanour was very much like an iron pole also. He had the personality of a teaspoon and was rather pernickety about his habits. And something about his person just seemed a little off to Elina. Nothing she could place a finger on, mind, he seemed untrustworthy to her is all. Which, considering the uses her mother put him to, seemed rather strange.

Her mother, the golden lady on the twisting wooden throne, sat regal in her layered blue dress, pleats striped a deep aqua and a sash of the colour of the winter sky cinched it at her waist. She leaned forward as Elina entered, her elbows resting on her knees, her long fingers interlocked to support her chin, those amber eyes never missing a thing.

Behind Elina, Tyrath bowed and stood beneath one of the arching branches of a tree, the thumb of one hand tucked behind his belt and the other hand resting on the pommel of his sword. His sharp eyes watched Elina’s every movement. Ever since she’d been a little girl, someone had always been there to watch her. Her wet-nurse was first, then her tutors and then, despite them having grown up together, sat in classes together, watched the sun set from the top of the Star Spire together, Tyrath had taken over. He was only a few years older than her and she’d always felt uncomfortable that he was seen as her personal bodyguard. Especially when, as ten year olds, they’d laughed at the scholars as they tripped over the hems of their long robes as they stumbled up the steep steps of the library under the weight of countless books and eaten frozen yellow-apple juice on sticks under the shelter of the training hall roof as they watched the soldiers train even though her mother had specifically told them not to. Elina didn’t like that Tyrath took his job so seriously either. Sometimes she wondered if he might, on occasion, borrow Gerritch’s iron pole. On that note, she thought perhaps her mother had one as well. In fact, most people in her life had iron poles hidden in their closets, of that she was sure.

Now, Gerritch twitched and brought her back to where she was presently. Twitching was not a habit Gerritch practised and Elina found it disturbingly out of character. Also disturbingly out of character was the request her mother had made of her: this meeting. Moreover, the fact that she had asked the meeting take place in this, of all the many halls strewn throughout the palace, made the unpleasant knot in her stomach twist all the harder. There was something not right and she wished more than anything that she could work out just what it was she felt was so out of place.

Beyond all the obvious things of course. Elina sighed inwardly, deciding that at the very least; talking to her mother now, would be a very good start. It wasn’t as though this thing would present itself in a timely and pleasant fashion after all. Nothing was ever easy.

“Elina,” her mother breathed tiredly. Now Elina noticed something else out of the ordinary: the drawn quality to her mother’s face. A frown began to form on her brow. The queen looked worn, tired… sickly. The normally olive tone to her skin that was the mark of the royal family now seemed slightly pallid and the tone of her voice didn’t seem quite right. It sounded raspy. On top of that, Gerritch’s normal facial expression had been replaced now by something that looked horribly like smugness. The very thought of something making that slimy stalk smug made the hair on the back of her neck stand on end. Oh yes, there was something dreadfully out of sorts today. Her mother took another deep, shuddering breath.

“Elina,” she tried again, there was no improvement in her voice and no matter how hard she tried to force a smile, it wouldn’t come. Only the shadow of something that, if stretched, might resemble the likeness of a smile. “I’m dying.”

She didn’t register what her mother had said at first. It was so outlandish and improbable. Her mother would be what… one hundred and fifty? That’s nothing; she still looked thirty and should live to see at the very minimum five hundred or so. Sure, one fifty was a good deal of that, but still, death should have been a long way off. Something in the back of Elina’s mind though told her that the words were the truth. She could see it in her eyes, her manner, her face, and her words. Death was standing in the shadows behind her throne, just waiting, biding his time.

“You must take the throne,” she said in a whisper. “I have to step down. I will not let this become something that happens only in the event of some tragedy. A crowning should be a celebration, not the reception of a funeral.”

Elina felt more than she saw Tyrath stir off to her right. Again, Gerritch twitched. And still that feeling of unease.

“Elina?” her mother asked. “Did you hear me?”

She took a deep breath. “Yes, you want me to take the throne.” She’d known her mother wanted her to ascend the throne soon, but the blunt announcement of her approaching demise was something of a shock.

Her mother shook her weary head. “You must, there is no one else. I will not let this become a contest of power. We are above that.”

No, mother, thought Elina. We are above the clouds. Emotions we still have. But she didn’t give those thoughts voice. There was no need to start that argument again.

Instead she said: “How? When?” The how was for the sickness that was ravaging her mother’s body. The when, for the coronation.

Her mother shrugged. “Some things just are. Who are we to question nature’s way? And you’re to be crowned on the morrow. Gerritch’s people have had all the necessary preparations done; we’ve been planning this for months.”

Elina was restraining anger at her mother’s flat acceptance of her death. Why would she not fight it? Had she taken no medicines? Had there been no signs? At the same time she was furious that they’d do this without her consent, marvelling at the fact that they’d kept it under wraps for so long and mentally adding a new layer of anxiety to her already lofty pile. Everything seemed to be unravelling. And still the unease. Nothing said so far had given her clues. The only thing that seemed to be connected was that ghostly smirk on Gerritch’s face. The lines on his parchment features hadn’t been made to accept such an expression. The next thing she knew he’d be grinning like a gleeman at the Aeruin el Kaestrin.

“Fine,” said Elina in a clipped voice. It was more of a snap than she’d intended, but all those warring emotions were hard to control. And it was predominantly anger anyway. Anger and confusion. “What needs to be done?”

Her mother seemed startled; possibly that Elina had agreed so quickly to something that she’d been sure would take days of fighting. That’s how it had always been between them. Mother would suggest something and Elina would fight against it. Her tutors had long since learned that once she dug her heels in it was near to impossible to get her to see reason. The stubbornness was something that had come as quite a shock considering she was normally so mildly mannered.

Now though, her mother only looked relieved. Elina’s answer also prompted another twitch from Gerritch. This time it almost tugged his lips into a smile. Those hard, emotionless eyes were never meant to be accompanied by a smile. It made Elina cringe inwardly to think of him smiling. It was just plain wrong.

“Thank you, Elina,” her mother breathed, slumping against the back of the chair. All of a sudden the iron was gone. It was as though someone had removed all the bones from her body. She seemed so much weaker now than she had before, so much less intimidating, frail and… surprisingly mortal. It was a strange thing for Elina to contemplate: her mother’s mortality. Ever since she could remember she’d just assumed that the ageless face of her mother’s would be there to watch over her. Perhaps she’d been distant and cold at times, but she was still her mother and the spirits knew that she’d done more for Elina than she deserved. It made Elina feel sick in her stomach. This was the real test.

Elina curtsied shortly and meandered out the door, Tyrath not far behind her. He never was. Sometimes she pondered what life would be like without her heavily armoured friend shadowing her everywhere. The notion of being without him was always quickly dismissed however, she knew that he was the best friend she’d ever had and part of her wished that they could remain thusly for the rest of their lives: just friends, nothing more. She wished protocol and custom and all sorts of ‘dignified lady-like behaviour’ didn’t detract from something that had once been so simple. She sighed, aloud this time, eliciting a curious glance from Tyrath, but he was too… proper to ask anything of her. How she wished he would speak his mind in front of her like he used to, she wished that he would call her El again and not ‘M’Lady’ or ‘Highness’ as he was required to do these days.

When she finally drifted into her rooms, sometime just before the sun set, it was with great reluctance only. These rooms were where she could be found with the most reliability and she loathed being here when something of import was about to happen, it made her only too easily found by nitpicky servants and her elderly lady’s maid Enyd. Now, she knew, Enyd would be on her way here with a tailor, no doubt, to fashion a dress for tomorrow’s ceremony. It would be all in a rush, why she couldn’t just wear a dress already in her wardrobe she’d never know. It wasn’t as though the dress she was given for the next day would ever be worn again. It would sit in the back of her wardrobe gathering the dust as her mother’s wedding dress did. Only, the coronation gown could at least be said to have been worn, that was something that her mother’s wedding dress had never managed.

Sure enough, Enyd arrived not long after with the royal tailor in tow, fabric draped over his arms, making him seem so much smaller, and he wasn’t a tall man to begin with. The rest of the evening was spent with needles and pins holding the fabric in place as Enyd and the tailor scurried about making adjustments. Tyrath stood, motionless and dark, in the corner like just another of many shadows. Her shadow.

As darkness fell outside and a chill settled over the palace, the tailor pulled the last pin out of her waistline and stepped back, his tongue between his teeth, his scruffy head tilted. Enyd was standing beside him, her head cocked at much the same angle, her arms folded under her breasts. Almost at the same time, they tilted their heads the other way.

“Well,” said the tailor in a wavering wispy voice. “It’s not the best work I’ve ever done, but on a moment’s notice it’s probably the best that’ll you’ll get.”

Enyd sighed. “I know, if only Marytha had given me more warning.”

Then they bustled about taking the dress off and getting everything laid out for the next morning. It was another long hour before Enyd and the tailor had finally left, leaving her and Tyrath alone. He asked the maid to bring food up, it being well after meal time in the hall.

“I don’t understand why there has to be so much fuss,” said Elina softly, sinking into a padded chair under her favourite window, right next to the bookcase. “It’s such a hideous thing.”

“Because you’re being crowned,” he replied. “And you looked lovely.”

She turned her face away. The gnawing in her stomach had been growing in intensity all evening. The spirits alone knew how she would sleep this evening. Tyrath at least had nothing to worry about. While waiting for the food to arrive, Elina took the opportunity to bathe and wrap herself in warm clothes. Nights this high got bitingly cold.

Tyrath was still, when she emerged, sitting by the door. He looked up, his eyes flat and his face expressionless, but she could read him like an open book. He knew when she was frazzled and deep in his blue eyes she knew he was asking questions.

She took a deep breath. “Just… politics…” she murmured, sliding back into her chair. And her worries weren’t unfounded. There were three high ranking noble families other than her own and two of them had daughters around her age. Both of these daughters could become, in extenuating circumstances, the legal heir to the throne. And Elina had every reason to be afraid that such circumstances might arise; there were legal difficulties surrounding her ascension, but none of them were known by the public. Great lengths had been gone to in order to see that this secret was well kept.

Dinner was brought up and the pair of them ate in complete silence. Tension was everywhere and Elina was preoccupied by the itch in the back of her mind. As there was very little to do and Elina was quite keen to get this darn thing over with, she determined that it would be for the best just to sleep. Tyrath, of course, would stay in the greeting room. He always slept there, right beside her door with a bell tied above the main door so that if it should open he would be there to greet whoever it was. The windows were always locked at night. Tyrath was paranoid but it kept her mother happy and so Elina held her peace.

Her mind was in turmoil that night, whirling in overdrive trying to work out what was wrong. It was hard to ignore such a feeling as she had, but it was also rather trying to attempt to unravel it. If only there was something to distract her from her thoughts. Not even her mother’s surprise announcement about the pending coronation could sidetrack her.

Slowly, listening to the starswallow singing its melancholy song outside her window, sleep found her. It pulled her into its dark, warm, blissfully dreamless depths. And then, too soon, Enyd was banging on her door, the sun slipping in through cracks in the curtains.

Enyd backed through the door, placed a tray of warm pastries and bread – her breakfast – on the table beside her bed. Then she threw the drapes aside, letting the sunlight stream in. Elina groaned as the light hit her grainy eyes.

“Hustle,” said Enyd, clapping her hands as she rummaged through the closet trying to find something. Probably slippers or a hair net or clips. She peered briefly over her shoulder at Elina to make sure the young woman was moving and then resumed her search.

Elina sighed and sat up; pushing the sheets away, then she lifted the tray onto her lap and started eating. Tyrath knocked and stuck his head past the door, already dressed and eaten no doubt.

“Enyd,” he said softly, “the tailor’s here. He has the dress with him. And from the way he’s muttering, he’s not in a good mood.”

“It’s because I dragged him out of bed early today,” Enyd muttered, her head still in the closet. Then she made a happy sounding grunt and came up with a pair of silver slippers. They were the least comfortable pair of all the pairs Elina owned, which was why they were at the bottom of the closet.

“I know the feeling,” Elina muttered, eyeing the slippers with apprehension. Tyrath snorted and left. Enyd took the platter away and set it on another bench, stripping the blankets off the bed. Then Tyrath re-entered briefly with the dress. He draped it over the back of a chair before promptly exiting once more.

“Come on,” said Enyd. “You’ve got to be under the marquee in less than an hour and I’ve still to do something with your hair.”

Elina grumbled some more, but hauled herself out of bed, ruffling her feathers to settle them. She’d been pushing it recently and it was near a feeding for her poor friend, but he would have to wait for just one more day. With Enyd’s help, she stepped into the dress, it was long and trailing but thankfully not too puffy, just a simple silver and blue silk dress. No fancy lace work or frills or shiny decorative buttons, just the necessities. Enyd laced up the back of the dress as Elina rifled through her draw looking for that string of sapphires her mother had given her. A slender moonstone bracelet on one wrist and the ring of her house on the other hand. Then she came up with the chain of sparkling blue stones.

Enyd ‘tched’. “I must fix your hair first girl,” she muttered, picking up Elina’s ivory brush. “It’s a right mess.”

While Enyd tugged at some of the more stubborn knots in her long wavy black hair, Elina pulled on the demonically uncomfortable silver slippers. They were just as horrid as she remembered; tight about the toes and slightly loose at the heel so that they slipped when she walked. She resolved to get a new pair. If she was going to be queen, she was at the very least going to be a comfortable queen.

Finally, Enyd stopped pulling at her curls and threaded the stones through a few simple braids arranged down the side of her head and gathered in a fluffy, slightly wayward tangle at the back. The stones shone in the early morning light as she stood and donned her customary dark blue cloak.

“Great,” Elina murmured. “Now can we get this hopeless thing over with so I can do something else today? I’d like this ceremony not to ruin my day.”

“Is that so?” asked Enyd, folding her arms under her breasts. “And what, pray tell, does your jam packed schedule tell you you’re doing today, princess?”

Elina scowled, something her mother told her was most unbecoming for a lady, let alone a princess, but that never stopped Elina from practicing the art of the unladylike. Goodness knows that if she listened to everything her mother told her she might as well be one of the marble statues on the grand balcony entrance steps. What point to life if it wasn’t to do some things that you’re told not to?

“Come on then, your Surliness,” growled Enyd, ushering her out the door. “You needn’t keep your people waiting.”

“Enyd, it’s not even nine in the morning,” Elina protested.

“I didn’t organise this,” she said defensively. “You’ll have to take that complaint up with Gerritch.”

“What was Gerritch thinking?” Elina asked plaintively of the ceiling. “Why would he plan it for such an ungodly hour if this had been part of some scheme he and mother had been cooking for months now? Surely he could have picked a more agreeable time of day.”

“Apparently not,” said her maid. “Now stop your whinging and get to the courtyard.” She flicked her hands at Tyrath who was instantly on his feet, his eyes fixed on Elina. There were words he was holding back, she could tell, there would be time for them later.

The tailor was standing by the window, dry washing his hands. As Enyd swept into the room the tailor, along with Elina and Tyrath, was herded out the door. Then she sent him scurrying off down the corridor with one withering look before hurrying Elina and Tyrath along the other way. The elderly maid set such a whirlwind pace that Elina had no chance to even marvel at the stonework and the tapestries and the statues as she normally did. Even born in the palace, growing up and learning here, the mastery with which everything was done never ceased to amaze her. Now though, there was no time. They blew along the corridors until they reached the back of the grand courtyard. Tyrath peered out from behind the thick dark blue curtains. Elina just waited.

Then her mother appeared behind them, Gerritch at her side. A few paces behind them was the High Chronicler, basically just a librarian and historian. Her mother was dressed in a magnificent golden gown that put Elina’s to shame, but she was queen, she was allowed to outshine everyone else.

“Let’s go then,” muttered Gerritch in his course reedy voice. “We have to get this over with quickly.”

The way he said that troubled Elina to no small degree. Something about the phrasing, his expression… his eyes… the man seemed even less trustworthy today than on any other day. Again the twisting anxiety in her stomach lurched. She felt sick.

“Yes let’s,” she agreed in spite of her ever growing doubts. “The sooner the better in my opinion.”

Her mother lifted an eyebrow. “On with it then,” she muttered. She stood straight today, but looked no better than she had the day before. In fact, there was a grey cast to her face and she looked more drawn. Like her skin was becoming parchment.

Tyrath threw open the curtain and Elina’s mother stepped out first. An instant hush fell over the crowd gathered below the railing in the bottom section of the courtyard. She was followed by the High Chronicler, then Gerritch, then Elina and finally Tyrath, who would, as always, be standing by her side.

Royal guards in polished silver lobstered plate armour stood to either side of the small gathering, by the stairs. There were four guards at the top of the stairs and another six at the bottom to hold back the crowds. There were also guards on the roofing around the edge of the courtyard, most with long bows, but a few had crossbows and a few on the lower ledges even had a trio of long tipped spears. Elina wondered briefly at the show of force, but then, this was a coronation, no point crowning her if some crazy lout could throw a knife into her from the gathered masses.

Gerritch would speak first, addressing the crowd before the High Chronicler began the traditional intonations for the crowning itself. Her mother would also be given a chance to speak after Gerritch, but she could barely speak in a whisper, let alone speak in a carrying voice to this crowd. At the end, Elina would be given the same opportunity to address her people, but that was just formality and besides, she’d been put on the spot with no time to prepare something. She’d just have to ad hoc.

“Welcome,” said Gerritch in a surprisingly loud voice that Elina knew would have no trouble reaching even the farthest corners of the courtyard. “Brothers and sisters, to this, the coronation, of our eighty-fifth queen, Elina Aedraan. The aedryn have always been ruled by a fitting queen and I see no reason why this tradition should not be continued.” Here he paused as though gathering his thoughts. “As such, I find it only decent to remind you all that only an aedryn, one of our glorious kind, has the right to rule over such a fine people as yourselves. So, it is only fitting that I tell you now, that Elina Aedraan will not be crowned this day.”

A chill swept through her body as she realised what was happening. Suddenly everything was so clear to her, as if a fog had just dissipated. The nervous itch, the sleepless nights, Ero’s strange moods of late and, more importantly, Gerritch’s uncharacteristically good moods – smiles even. Lead settled in her feet and she felt strangely numb, as though she couldn’t move, think, not even breathe.

Curious mutters drifted through the crowd as she felt Tyrath stiffen beside her, one hand on the hilt of his sword, the other twitched in the direction of a spear on a rack on the wall behind him. His dark eyes were suddenly no longer concerned with the crowd, now they watched and waited for a reaction from either Gerritch or the Royal Guards. Even they, normally certain of who they were meant to be protecting, seemed unsure of what they should do. Did they dare strike down the advisor of the queen for insurrection? Or did they hear out what he had to say and then decide on an appropriate course of action?

Elina’s mother took a step forward, but then froze as if she too had been rooted to the spot. She was too weak; Elina realised, to do anything to stop Gerritch from saying anything else. The nearest guard would not even hear her orders, should she give them. Elina considered briefly telling Tyrath to strike Gerritch down on the spot, but that would look bad, then they would know the royal family had been keeping secrets. Secrets pertaining to the succession no less.

There was nothing she could do, not without serious repercussions. Curse politics and all these bastards (namely Gerritch) to a fiery fate in the depths of Veth. Gerritch, now, lifted his arms high. One was outstretched to the people and the other was held up straight.

“Dear people, they have been deceiving you for twenty-four years,” he proclaimed. “That long have these two women been hiding from you that which you, as their subjects, have every right to know. Well no more.” With a grand sweep of one arm, he pointed at Elina. “The crown princess is not one of us,” he said. “She is a liar and an impostor to a place that belongs rightfully to one of our own. She is aodryn!”

Now the whispers in the crowd were angry.

“Let’s see you prove it,” came a cry from the back of the crowd. Soldiers now eyed Elina warily. Gerritch only smiled, a disturbing sight on his menacing face. Now she realised why those eyes never seemed to hold emotion, they were dead, angry and evil. Empty pits of darkness that let into a depraved soul. Only the spirits knew how he could have hidden that from so many for so long.

“With pleasure,” he growled.

Gerritch stepped up behind her, Tyrath moved to intercept him, but Gerritch just shoved him aside. There was nothing to be done. Any attempt now to stop him would only prove she bore a guilty conscience. It would achieve nothing. Now, Elina was resigned to her fate.

Her mother’s advisor squeezed the dark fluff at the back of her neck. A high pitched squeal erupted from beneath his fingers. Then darkness whirled around Elina’s figure. It filled the air like black dust, swarming between the people on the balcony as though trying to find space to settle, which, in truth, it was. Finally, the eyes of everyone on the dust, great black wings snapped into being above the crowd. They beat at the air in a steady rhythm even as the rest of the dust attached itself, slowly filling out the great, magnificent form of a nightwraith, black as pitch. It bellowed at Gerritch as it flapped, its sharp black beak turned in his direction, the big blue eyes fixed on his comparatively small person in fiery anger.

“Ero!” called Elina pleadingly. The crowd refocused their attention on their now wingless princess. Her eyes met those of her dearest friend and he nodded his great head in understanding. Even mid air she could see his body tense.

“Behold,” cried Gerritch triumphantly, still smiling that sinister smile. “The false princess revealed for what she truly is: a lying aodryn charlatan!” A few paces away, Elina’s mother broke down into a fit of blubbering. Enyd poked her head out from behind the curtains, her eyes wide with shock.

“Come forth Cherysa,” called Gerritch. “Cherysa Midraea, the next in line for the throne. This is your coronation now.”

A young blonde woman appeared at the foot of the stairs, the guards parted to let her up, shock still plastered across their faces. Above them, Ero still hovered, watching the proceedings with immense curiosity despite himself. Cherysa stood, a smug smile curving her mouth up monstrously as she regarded Elina with disdain and something akin to the triumphant glee Gerritch had shown earlier.

“What do you wish done with the traitors?” asked Gerritch of the little blond woman.

“Take their heads!” she proclaimed. “Traitors, they are all, to the throne.”

Soldiers moved forwards and Tyrath drew his sword with a ring and a roar. Then chaos erupted. Elina ducked blades and crossbow bolts as they swished over her head. She tried to get to her mother, but part of her cursed that for folly and told her to stay close to Tyrath. Yet another part wanted desperately to get to Ero and another wanted to strangle that smug bastard Gerritch, and possibly Cherysa too.

Men charged, one stopped momentarily to swing his sword. At first Elina though it was meant for her and cringed, closing her eyes. Too late she realised that he was still too far away. Her eyes snapped open just in time to see the curving silver blade scythe neatly through the flesh of her mother’s neck. A red spurt jetted from the hole as the head rolled away. The soldier never even broke stride as he made a beeline for Elina. She cast her eyes about for anything she could use as a weapon.

She lifted a series of spears and halberds in front of her like a wall with her gift and backed away. She screamed when someone grabbed her collar. Then they spun her around and she saw it was Tyrath.

“Ero,” she yelled at him as he dragged her one handed across the balcony. “You have to get to Ero.” His sword was a blur, his spear gone, her floating barrier the only thing keeping more guards away from them. He nodded, the only response she got from him.

Slowly, they reached the railing, one guard now making his way around her wall of steel by walking along the railing. She snatched at the nearest spear and stabbed him with it. He fell with a cry off the railing and plummeted to the courtyard below.

Now Ero trumpeted loudly, the rhythm of his wing strokes changing slightly. Elina had heard them do that before and knew what was coming. Tyrath, however, didn’t.

Elina tucked the spear against her chest and clutched at his lapels. “Tyrath!” she yelled. “Arms in!” He glanced over at her, just managing to tuck his arms in to his sides in time.

Ero reached them in a mass of sharp claws, ripping beak and whirling feathers. Men dived out of his way as he fell from the sky. He should have crashed to the balcony, but, his wings curled protectively around Tyrath and Elina, began to shimmer before that happened. Elina was holding tightly to Tyrath’s hand as she felt one of Ero’s great clawed hands grab her shoulder. His other hand was on Tyrath’s as they were sucked into blackness.

The last thing she saw was the smiling face of Gerritch, someone she once trusted. She found in herself, only the emotion regret. Regret that he survived.

Watch Me Burn – Chapter Ten

•April 12, 2012 • Leave a Comment

Ten –

The beginning of the end

That’s right, you didn’t read that wrong. He kissed me. Not just a peck on the cheek either. Oh no, he had to push himself. Although I give him leeway for at least waiting until there was no one around. Still, I’d warned him and now he was going to cop it.

I’ll just have you know that I didn’t participate in it. No I didn’t. I did, however, give him a good kick where it counts.

“Ow!” he screeched, staggering away from me.

I didn’t even bother with giving him a chance to explain, I just stalked off. Making my way to the main training yard, I tried to put him from my mind. It wouldn’t do to go into a fight angry. Dad always told me not to fight in a temper. He meant with fists, but I guess it holds true for a Phantom battle too. Even just a training one.

Pacing in the waiting chamber at one end of the court, I ran over my battle strategy. I’d let Winter out and he was standing there regarding me with an appraising look that felt strange coming from him. His arms were folded and he had one golden brow raised, I felt like he was judging me.

“Stop looking at me like that,” I said at last, but continued my pacing.

Just calm down, he replied. Does this really matter?

“Not really,” I conceded. “But I’m not angry about the match.”

You won’t think straight if you don’t forget it.

“That’s a little hard to do,” I said sardonically.

Concentrate on something else.

“That’s easy for you to say.”

He growled. Then focus your anger on him and only him. Allow it to give you purpose, a sense of need. Then, when you face him in the court, release it, give it back to him. Take it out on him during battle.

I started. “Will that work?”

He shrugged. It might. For some people it works like a charm and for others… not so much.

“Let’s hope I can be grouped with the former,” I said, rolling my shoulders. I was ready for this. I was not ready to look at Daniel’s smug face.

Nor was I particularly relishing the idea of speaking to my friends afterwards.

The bell tolled and it was time for me to head out onto the court. I put Winter away lest they think he was my first Phantom. That would give Daniel an unfair advantage.

I did as Winter had suggested and focused my anger to one point. I held Daniel in my mind and mentally flogged him with my anger. When I saw him at the other end of the field, it only magnified what he was coping in my mind.

He grinned at me with a smug little smirk just the way I knew he would. What he didn’t realise was that he was giving me ammunition. I smiled back, I knew it probably looked a little sadistic, but I didn’t care. It wiped the snicker off his face at any rate.

“Would you all please welcome Kirin Quinn and Daniel Martin,” said Mitchell into the speaker phone. “Today’s first contestants.” The crowd applauded then he stepped out onto the court with a coin.

I don’t remember much of the tournament. My battle with Daniel is no exception either. I feel as though I should remember it, but most of what happened at SPIRIT has been blocked out in my mind. I just refuse to think about it. Ever. Consequently, most of this is a little blurry. Especially the bits that involve Daniel.

In Phantom battling (the fair kind that uses rules and stuff) both people send their first Phantom into the fight at the same time. No one has any advantage and the consequent match is based almost entirely on pure luck. Not that any one class has a significant advantage over the others. With the proper training any Phantom can defeat any other Phantom. Although, defence Phantoms have a higher natural defence (Lara’s florastormer, Furzy), likewise with attacking Phantoms (Winter) and those with impressive speed (Fallow), and may benefit from those skills. It’s not as though we designate Phantoms to certain categories or anything, some are just naturally stronger than others. But then, some specialise in close combat (Faith’s stronghorn, Calyx), while others hang back to shoot projectiles at their enemies (Rose’s firewisp, Azaria).

You’re not allowed to kill your opponent’s Phantoms in proper battling, only render them useless. Sometimes, they do it for you. A tired Phantom can’t fight. But deaths do occur, it can’t be helped, some Phantoms just use powerful attacks that the others can’t dull. Some Phantoms just don’t know their own strength.

Now, some people choose to give their Phantoms commands in a battle (possibly thinking that this will prevent the aforementioned deaths), most people use verbal commands, but that has obvious drawbacks. In the end, that kind of thing can result in two people bellowing incomprehensible things to their poor Phantoms. Daniel was inventive and had chosen to use hand signals to tell his what to do. I however, had countered this when I gave Fallow that camera. We’d studied his battles and knew what each hand sign meant so that what would have been an advantage was essentially cancelled out. I chose to let my Phantoms do what they will. They’re not stupid creatures, far from it, and I believed that in a fight, their natural instincts would kick in giving them a better chance at surviving (or winning as the case may be) a battle than if I was telling them what to do. They appreciated the freedom this gave them. It made me happy. In fact, the freedom I gave my friends is probably the reason they’re all still with me.

I know that his first Phantom was knocked out by Fallow who’d grown a lot recently. She had learned how to use atomisation to her advantage and use it she did. Daniel’s earth class (don’t remember what it was, but I do remember that he had three earth classes and his greymatter which, as you may recall, is a light shadow-subclass) didn’t really stand much of a chance. The earth class was an attacker but was no match for Fallow’s speed.

The second battle pitted another of his earth classes against Arcari. He was quite pleased that I’d held to my promise: that he would get to fight. This battle was two fast earth classes and would be rather interesting. Daniel’s made the mistake of atomising to various places around the stadium. It ran as fast as it could, using it’s atomisation as best as it could. But none of the projectile attacks it launched hit the much faster Arcari. Eventually, (I remember this bit because Arcari likes to tell people about his first fight with me) Arcari grew bored and rested his weight on the hilt of his massive double handed blade (he’d compromised and fused his usual two little blades into the one far more powerful one, he didn’t like the fight style though and later gave up on it), his eyes lidded.

Do you think it would be obvious if I took a nap? he asked.

I laughed. “I should say so.”

Finally, the earth class stopped launching attacks and paused, puffing tiredly. Arcari had exhausted the other Phantom, wearing him down. The poor earth class stood on the other end of the field, his chest heaving as he gulped in air. Arcari straightened.

At last, he sighed.

He charged the other Phantom, his sword held low behind him, as he whipped it up a great burst of green light charged towards the earth class. It dove out of the road, just barely avoiding the dangerous green razor that sliced towards him. Arcari spun (he can turn on a dime that fellow) and raced back across the field. His hands tugged at his sword, atoms flickered around it as he pulled it in two, he was moving so fast it seemed his feet weren’t really touching the ground. He whirled the blades in his hands expertly, conjuring two more deadly green razors that scythed across the field at the other Phantom. The poor dear didn’t even have the strength to atomise out the road, let alone move. The first razor caught him across the chest and sent him flying, the second, higher blade, caught him under the chin as he flew back at Daniel, slamming him into the ground to skid on the dirt.

Arcari had barely even broken a sweat. Or at least, that’s the story as he tells it. Proudly too, I might add.

It was two-nil in my favour. This was the last battle if I won.

His last earth class, an attacker, was against Tierra. It was one sided from the onset. Daniel’s launched an attack that glanced off Tierra’s tough plating. Then she fuzzed momentarily as her armour shrunk and the spike on her tail grew larger. One great thwack from that tail spike was all it took to knock out the attacker.

All this time Mitchell had been commentating loudly but I’d been zoned out. Now, his voice, magnified by the megaphone, crashed in on me.

“That’s three wins toKirin,” Mitchell announced to the crowd like they didn’t already know that. “Kirinhas won the first match of the tournament. Daniel, would you like to try to beat her in one last battle?”

I was stunned, I’d won, why was he even letting a fourth battle be an option? It shouldn’t be. Surprising me, Daniel opted to fight me one last time with the last of his Phantoms. His greymatter was the only one he had left.

And Winter was all I was left with. He burst onto the field, bouncing and excited. Fire sputtered between his teeth as he danced around, happy to be allowed to fight. A hush fell over the crowd as he settled, his icy eyes settling on the greymatter.

A quick glance over his shoulder with a wispy smile was all the acknowledgement he gave me. By this point, his shoulders reached my middle, he was growing so fast. I had trouble imagining Daniel’s greymatter (the tiny little thing) would stand much chance against Winter’s size and firepower (pardon the pun).

Winter did what we’d practiced and sat down, resting his head on the ground as he went to sleep. A mutter rippled through the crowd as Mitchell told them what Winter was doing.

“It’s a pity this fight wasn’t an earlier one,” he said. “Daniel might have stood a chance if this easy win had been the first fight.”

The greymatter fluttered in closer, my face a mask of horror as it approached my apparently sleeping Phantom. When the greymatter got within Winter’s range of attack he leapt to his feet. Fire wreathed his body as he flapped his little wings, straining against gravity. Flames spewed from his mouth and exploded outwards with ferocity that alarmed me.

The greymatter flew through the air with the force of the attack. The power of it whipped up the sand, ruffled my hair and made me feel as though I was burning. Greymatter hit the ground at Daniel’s feet, it’s breathing shallow. I hoped Winter hadn’t killed it.

The crowd was on its feet. Silence reigned throughout the stadium.

Finally, the little Phantom opened its eyes and struggled weakly to rise. Daniel bent and tenderly picked it up off the dirt floor. For that moment, even Mitchell was blissfully silent.

Winter, however, was bouncing up and down, clearly thrilled with what he done. I couldn’t help but smile at him as he fluttered his wings, still useless for flight. That was a while away yet.

Then the roar started as the crowd finally realised what had happened. It had been a landslide in my favour. The applause was deafening.

Even my mouth was open; I couldn’t believe I’d won the match. I knew it was only a small bump, but I was thrilled. Winter and I walked to the other end of the field to congratulate Daniel on a good game. I didn’t want to be such a good sport, but I knew I couldn’t handle much more guilt.

“Good match,” I said to him softly. The crowd was still roaring behind us.

He nodded dumbly. “How did you do it?” he asked. “He’s only just barely old enough to atomise.”

Winter folded his arms, outraged. It was true though, until he learned to control his form better he would be at a marked disadvantage against those who did, but he thought he could take on anything. He’d learn better once he was fully grown.

I decided not to answer that question lest I sound too full of myself. Rather, I just smiled and walked back the way we’d come. Winter however, wasn’t going to just let it go; he poked his tongue out before stalking off after me. I felt like I’d won a resounding victory, but I knew I was just blowing things out of proportion.

We met up with Faith just before she went to fight Jessica. Because she’d had to go down into the waiting room, she’d missed the epic fire attack from Winter. Winter was pleased enough to tell her all about it, through me anyway. He was bouncing up and down when we found her.

“That’s great,” she said, scratching him under a horn. He purred softly, enjoying the praise. “Good for you, Winter.”

“So,” I said, “got a game plan?”

She just laughed. “Go down swinging and have a good time. I’m not here to win; I’m here to fill a place.”

“Not worried about beating her then?” I asked.

“I don’t really care if I beat her or not,” she confessed. “Mostly I just want to see the look on her face when she wins and Dave doesn’t give her a second glance.”

I laughed. “So true, I’ll video it for you, how’s that?”

“Great, good on you for beating Daniel anyway. At least he won’t be winning the contest.” I nodded, thinking about what Stephanie had said earlier about only soldiers ever winning this thing. That was one soldier down of I think eight.

Winter and I trotted up the stairs and found Rose and Dave sitting third row back. We sat with them, Winter on my lap so he could see. We got there just as Mitchell was announcing who would be fighting next.

Faith and Jessica entered the court. The battle was pretty standard, I won’t detail it here. That’s just too much rambling about Phantom battles. Jess forced a tie breaker though after Faith won rounds two and three; they both won two matches and had to go to a fifth which was nice considering she wasn’t really trying. I would have liked to see her beat Jess in a surprise victory, I believe she could have if she’d tried, but Faith’s a lover not a fighter and so didn’t really bother. But Jess took out the match by beating Faith in the tie breaker round. At one point in the fourth round the crowd was on its feet, hands over mouths as they waited with baited breath to see if Faith, the unlikely, would defeat Jess, the favourite in this fight. It was intense.

Not as intense as the last round though. That round the crowd was entirely silent, not a sound to be heard. The quiet was broken only by the rustle of the crowd as they all stood at the same time. All of Bisque was allowed to attend the tournaments and that day most of the town had turned out.

But like I said, Jess beat Faith in the breaker. It was a little unfortunate, but it had kind of been expected.

Faith is a graceful loser though and had fought well. It had been a near thing and Jessica was only moving on through a harrowing close call. Jess looked up into the crowd, I gather she was looking for Dave but he was busy talking to Rose. Faith had been right.

The next battle was after lunch and was between a pair of people you don’t know all that well. The winner was a soldier though. After that, there were no more matches for the rest of the day.

The tournament lasted a great many days and I made it all the way to the semi finals. I won’t bore you with repeated strategies and attacks and whatnot. Pandora won her battle, but she was in the other half of the draw so I wasn’t going to fight her. Patrick and Rose were both knocked out, but I don’t think they tried too hard. David was engaged in a tie breaker in his first match but picked up a bit of a rhythm after that and Lara lost the first round in her match against Patrick but won the other three. I’ve got to say, their’s was the best.

The evening before the semis Lara, Patrick and I were all sitting in Lara’s living room eating noodles Patrick had bought us from town. Rose and Faith had gone out and David was with Daniel, I’m trying not to think about what they were doing. We were watching reruns of an old TV show and waiting for replies to our emails from home.

Winter, Furzy and Canon were in the kitchen eating stuffs. Furzy had finally reached atomising age after straining for it in her battle with Patrick, but Canon was still unable to utilise that skill, something he resented. Because Arcari liked his freedom, I’d told him he could go hunting for bugs in the park, he enjoyed that and Fallow was sitting on the balcony railing watching the stars. I had let Tierra out downstairs, but she hadn’t wanted to go with Arcari and nor had she wanted to be alone, so she was back in my brace. Patrick and Lara didn’t have the same inclination as me in letting their Phantoms have such freedom. But then not many people did.

You might think something amazing is going to happen here, but no such luck. Although it wasn’t so much amazing, more unfortunate, it was still quite the event.

A knock came at the door.

“I’ll get it,” said Lara, standing up. I thought it was pretty fast, even for her, but maybe I was mistaken.

I was watching the show, though, so I didn’t see who it was. Lara had to come back down the hall to tell us. But by then, the person was already in the rooms.

“Hey guys,” she said, “he’s looking for youKirin.”

I started and looked around, a fork full of noodles half way to my mouth. I didn’t recognise the guy, but that didn’t mean much. On days like today when I got to hang out with Lara and Patty I didn’t much appreciate people interrupting, but from the look on this guys face, it was serious.

“KirinQuinn?” he asked.

I nodded and he handed me an envelope. It was sealed with wax, something you don’t see often these days. The stamp was that of the government’s defence office.

“Are you sure you’ve got the right person?” I asked, waving the envelope at him.

“Pretty darn,” he replied. “Mitchell told me your name, gave me your picture and told me the numbers of all the rooms you were likely to be in. It’s for you.”

I frowned. “Mitchell sent this to me?”

He picked up on my incredulity and shared my frown. “No, I spoke to him regarding where I could find you. This is from the government to you, not Mitchell.”

“What is it? Surely the head of defence doesn’t want a kid like me seeing what’s in here,” I said.

Patrick snatched the envelope off me. “This is from the government?” He studied the seal and when he was happy it was he handed it back.

“That doesn’t seem right,” mused Lara. “Why would the government give this toKirin? She hasn’t even graduated yet.”

The man shrugged. “Don’t ask me, I’m just the messenger. If you’ve got queries, take them up with Mitchell. Or government management.”

I tapped the envelope on the palm of my hand as he left. I wasn’t sure whether to open it or not. There was something potentially huge in this piece of folded paper. And whatever it was, this was a group thing.

“Call everyone,” I said, “we need a team meeting.”

“Who does this include?” asked Patrick as he grabbed his mobile.

“Everyone except Daniel.”

“Even Pandora,” Lara wanted to know.

I hesitated. “No, not Pandora. Just Faith, Rose and Dave.”

We each called one of them and asked them to come to Lara’s apartment. I asked Dave to give Dan some excuse or another that would make him less suspicious. I didn’t want him doddering around looking for me. He’d probably come here second and we couldn’t have that.

“On second thought,” I said, “go to the hedge field. We’ll meet at the entrance and then find somewhere else.” Lara and Patrick nodded and relayed the information.

Fifteen minutes later we were all standing two turns into the hedge field. It was grown about six metres tall and functioned as a labyrinth. Sometimes the teachers would use it as part of an obstacle course. Tonight, it served the purpose of keeping us hidden.

“What’s up guys?” asked Rose, the first to speak.

“A guy came round to our apartment,” said Lara. “He brought an envelope from the defence office of the government. It was addressed toKirin.”

Rose sucked in a deep breath. “It’s not about…” she trailed off, leaving it up to us to figure out what she meant. She wanted to know if it was regarding my surname fraud.

“No,” I said. Then I amended that. “Well we don’t know, I haven’t opened it yet. I wanted you all to be here in case I needed objective opinions.”

Faith nodded at the wisdom, but Dave was still caught up on what Rose had said. “Not about what, Rin? What does Rose know that we don’t?” He scratched his chin as he spoke.

I sighed. “I guess I can trust you guys right?” They nodded. “You need to be able to keep a secret, a deadly secret that could kill one or more of us.” They exchanged nervous glances.

“What’s this about, Rin?” asked Faith, clearly concerned.

“I’m a Pyrol.”

I’ve never heard louder silence than that day. Well, maybe a few times, but I could probably count them on one hand with fingers to spare.

“I’m sorry, you say what?” asked Dave.

“I’m not saying it again,” I said. “Even though we’re out here, someone could be listening. I’m just starting to enjoy my life you know.”

Faith pushed hair behind one ear and leaned in closer. “Rose knew?”

I went red. “Yeah, we kind of had to tell her when I threw up in her toilet.”

She leaned back. “Ah.”

“Open the darn letter,” said Patrick, trying to alleviate some of the tension suddenly permeating the air. “I want to know what it says.”

The others all murmured their agreement. So I slid a fingernail under the wax and pried it up. Inside was a piece of folded parchment. It wasn’t paper, it had torn edges all the way around, dark marks where the density of the paper changed and it was more of a yellow colour than the stark white of real paper.

I don’t remember what the letter said, but at the bottom it had ‘burn this once you’ve read it and understand what you must do’. So once I had the gist of it, I torched it. I do remember what it said though. It went something along the lines of the following:

To,KirinQuinn. We have heard about your skill in a fight and your unique talents in keeping Phantoms and people safe and finding resolutions that meet the needs of both parties. On the behalf of the Kalidor Government Defence Office, I, Stanton Marcus, wish to ask your indulgence. South of Quilla in Gaurin, across the water, is a large amount of uninhabited land. Uninhabited by people that is. In this area, some strange happenings have been occurring with curious regularity. We have reason to believe that some highly organised poachers may be at work there devising a way to control Phantoms from a distance with the use of a chip that can be implanted in their brain. They have been stealing Phantoms from national reserves the world over for this cause and should they be allowed to continue their research the consequences could be dire. We believe they are being funded by a large organisation or corporate entity; if you find any information while you are there, please send it to the address enclosed for study. We are in the process of trying to uncover who their associates might be and any information that could further our investigation would be greatly appreciated. We have informed one other trustworthy member of your society who will meet you near the site at these coordinates (I don’t remember what they were) and who will assist you in your task. On the disk also enclosed is the information we have obtained already on this topic. The reason for giving you this task not through the usual system is because we believe the people in management at SPIRIT may be involved. If you have the time and inclination, would you please look into this for us, again, information is what will solve this mystery. Please keep this mission a secret from those who cannot be trusted, although we understand that some outside assistance may be required, we will trust your judgement on who can be involved.

Sincerely,StantonMarcus, Undersecretary of the Minister for Defence.

And then there was the please burn after reading bit. Blah, blah, blah. You know how it goes. I read it to my friends who then unwittingly found themselves in the middle of this secret mission thing. Faith looked markedly concerned but the others all seemed thrilled.

“This is awesome,” said Lara.

“I don’t know,” said Faith. “Show us the disk.”

I handed it to her, wondering what was on it. I imagined it was all the informationStantonsaid they had. There was nothing else in the envelope so that had to be it.

“Can you get the information off it?” I asked.

“Can I,” she scoffed. “The bigger question is what’s on here that Mitchell couldn’t see.”

None of us had the answer to that.

I had Winter burn the letter and envelope on the spot. I have a good memory and it wasn’t too hard to remember the important details. There were the coordinates which I have long since forgotten and an address that could easily be found on the internet. Everything else was pretty much a given. Go here, save some Phantoms, beat the bad guys and get what information you can. Oh, and don’t die.

I asked Faith to look into any information trees there might be on the great entity that is the internet. She said that she’d do anything to keep me out of harm’s way. Even if that meant hacking into Mitchell’s computer hard drive thing. Which, as it turns out, it did.

But first, I had to lose my next battle in the tournament.

The next day I was placed against Lara, but we both knew what had to be done so it was an easy match to rig. We both explained the situation to our Phantoms and just had them do whatever. It was very boring and simple. Lara got first draw and my Phantoms basically just threw their fights. It wasn’t hard really.

From what I heard later, the crowd was very upset about the whole thing. They’d thought I was going to take out the title. Something about me being so good in a fight or whatever. As it was, the two people in the finals turned out to be Lara and Pandora, neither of which was a soldier. Thus Steph’s wish of a soldier not winning this year’s start of year tournament was a success. I hear Pandora took it out.

I didn’t know and I didn’t see the match. I managed to talk Daniel’s greymatter into sending me to the coordinates. He was pretty okay with taking me there, it was the lying to Dan he didn’t like.

Just so you all know, I did warm up to the whole kissing thing, but Daniel didn’t know at the time. I did kiss him just before I left, but I didn’t see him when greymatter was taking me there. I deliberately didn’t go and see him. I knew there’d be some kind of fight thing and he’d have all these good reasons for me not to go.

My standard response to reasons against my going was ‘it’s the government defence office, I can’t just not go’. It sounded good in my mind, but I wasn’t sure it would work in practice and I didn’t want to find out. I was happy in my delusional little bubble.

Winter on the other hand, was thrilled to be going on such a dangerous excursion. Fallow, being a reasonable little dear, was slightly more cautious about it, she pointed out the whole ‘it could be a trap’ thing and I ignored her. Well, I didn’t ignore her, I just said my ‘but I have to’ and she gave in. Tierra was looking forward to a challenge and to stretch out a bit. It must be hard being such a large Phantom. You wouldn’t get out half as much as the smaller ones.

Arcari.

Oh, I love him to death, but he was even more keen to get sliced up than Winter was. He was all ‘I’m a great warrior, I’ll not be defeated’ and the like. I admired his confidence, but even I was scared out of my wits.

Got to tell you, my fears really came to the fore right before we left. I did my ‘what if’ and regretting going already thing and Winter talked some sense into me. Rose and Dave were the only two there to see me off. Lara was fighting Pandora and Faith was already on the computer. Oh, and Patrick was supporting Lara, she had to have even a small cheer squad. One was better than none, so Patrick was being a supportive little sunstreamer.

“Are you sure you’ll be okay?” asked Rose.

Oh my god. I forgot to tell you something. So, the guy who gave me the envelope came back the very next day with a small parcel wrapped in the typical nondescript brown paper bag. I again waited for him to leave before opening it. It was only Lara with me at the time because I didn’t want to bother all the others so early in the morning. Lara and I usually went for a walk at around six in the morning because it was so lovely in the park at that time. So quiet and just generally divine.

We both stared at the box as though it held… oh I don’t know… explosives. It did look just like a parcel bomb now that I think about it. The thought didn’t cross my mind at the time. It had my initials on it.

So, at Lara’s insistence, I ripped of the paper bag and opened a shoe box. Um, yeah, it was a shoe box. Talk about suspiciously ordinary.

It was…

A handgun.

And a big-ass one at that. It was all nice and shiny and came with five extra cases of ammunition. The card in the box read ‘just in case’. And that was it.

Naturally, I looked for the instruction manual, but it turned out to be rather easy to use. I found the safety catch, and the trigger and I also figured out how to reload it all by my lonesome. The rest was child’s play. Which was scary because that thought brought to mind a child playing with such a big gun.

I mean, it was small enough that I could slip it behind my belt and no one would be any the wiser, but when I fired it the first time it sent tingles up my arm. God it fired with some grunt. The second time I was ready for the recoil, but it still shocked me. But we haven’t gotten to the first time I pulled it on someone, let alone firing it so I’ll leave that alone for a moment.

Anyway, back to Rose.

“Yeah Rose I’ll be fine,” I replied. I hiked my pack up a little higher. I didn’t know how long I’d be gone so Rose packed me some stuff.

“If you need us just give us a call,” said Dave. “We still have the coordinates and Dan’s greymatter can take us there in a wink.”

I was fidgeting with my new gun. “Yeah, I know. ButStantonsaid I’d have a partner there, so with any luck you guys won’t even get a call.”

Rose smiled sadly. “You have to at least text us when you get to the spot. I don’t want to be thinking you went astray or something.”

“Got it,” I said. “Anything else? Can I go?”

Dave grinned. “Are you excited or something? Where’s the fear, Rin?”

I glared. “Not excited, it’s just that the sooner I get there, the sooner I can do this thing and be back. Hopefully without any close calls.”

Rose hugged me. “Be very careful. It wouldn’t do to lose you now.”

I returned her hug, it gave me warm fuzzies. “I know. I hate to leave now too.”

I caught the secret meaning in her words, but I think Dave just took them at face value. In fact, I’m not sure she had any secret meaning there or if she just genuinely would miss me if I died. Death. I tried not to think about it.

I hugged Dave too before I left. There was this strange feeling lurking in the pit of my stomach. It was a feeling that said ‘you might not come back’. It scared the shit out of me.

At that moment, I wanted more than anything to stay. I had all these new friends when I’d thought I would never be more than a farm girl. At the same time, I felt strong. But the question still remained.

Why did Stanton Marcus contact me? Of all people.

It didn’t take me long to see the irony of it all. Not long at all.

In fact, just after I arrived at the destination I began to question if Fate had some kind of evil genius plan that involved my demise. I began to wonder if the universe was conspiring against me. I began to wonder if I really would ever see my friends again.

Tempting as it is to believe that maybe I just kept coping it over and over was because the world hated me. I actually believe more now than I ever did that some people are just born lucky. At the time I didn’t know it, I was too busy having an internal breakdown because I was convinced my life as I knew it was over. But I really am the luckiest person alive.

But, my life as I knew it was over. I had to face that, the sooner I grew out of my cautious, fearful and uncertain ways the better, and easier, my life would be. If only it was as easy as writing it on paper.

Anyway, I landed in a clearing. Greymatter popped back to SPIRIT as soon as we got there. It was a small irregularly shaped grove made up mostly of bushes but there was a great number of tall trees nearby too. I dropped my pack under one of the trees and collapsed to the ground. The grass beneath my feet was soft and springy and the air smelt of rain.

There was a rustling noise in the tree above me and I thought for a moment I’d disturbed a flitterwing or something. No, it wasn’t a flitterwing. Oh for it to have been a flitterwing. It was much, much worse.

Well, at least at the time it was. But we’ll get to that later.

I screamed.

Watch Me Burn – Chapter Nine

•April 12, 2012 • Leave a Comment

Nine –

I know you’re not that stupid

Most of the students were still away somewhere completing their requests, but a few had only had simple ones near to town. Mostly these were the kids doing tech or conservation; they didn’t really need to go far to find problems. As such, Faith was there when I got back, but she was the only one.

“HeyKirin,” she said, looking up from her computer as I walked in. “How’d it go?”

I shrugged. “Not bad. I got my extra Phantoms.”

She beamed. “Yeah? Me too. What did you find?”

“A swiftwing, a platesnake and a swiftblade. What about you?” The Phantoms I’d found were pretty common place if tough when fully grown. The ones Faith had found blew me away.

She shrugged. “I don’t plan on facing much competition and fighting isn’t a priority of mine, but I got an ironrodent and a pair of deepcrow twins.” Ironrodents are mice of the earth mineral-subclass that can manipulate the metal components in things. Deepcrows are dark light-subclass birds that are used mainly as messengers because they travel faster than most birds through shadows. In fact, I think they’re the only teleport capable birds. Oh no, there’s sunsparrows as well but they can’t exactly carry large loads.

I gasped. “Where did you find them?” Faith’s first Phantom had been a stronghorn, and I’d always wondered how such an indoorsie person like Faith could end up with a physical outdoors Phantom. The ironrodent was far more her style. Faith has a gift that allows her to… well, her gift makes her a computer whiz. She can do anything on a computer, there’s nothing she can’t in fact. She explained it once by saying her mind links with the computer by a touch connection. This connection can be as simple as typing on the keyboard. But once that connection is made (and while it remains thusly) she can do whatever she likes. It’s like she asks it to do something and it does. Simple.

“About,” she said with a shrug. “The ironrodent was a gift from a programming company in Malva and the others I found. There’s a deepcrow breeder in Tyrith, did you know that?”

“No. How about that.”

We were quiet a long time; I was sitting slouched on her sofa while she played with something on the computer. I wondered how long it would take the others to get back. Mitchell had said that the tournament would start on the eleventh of the next month which was only around eighteen or so days away. I figured it was set up like that to give everyone a chance to get back and practice with their new found Phantoms.

“Faith, who else is back?” I asked, staring at the ceiling.

“No one I don’t think. Just you and me. Oh, Daniel’s back though, he got back yesterday afternoon.”

I groaned and slumped further into my chair. Faith swivelled her chair around to look at me, one eyebrow raised, questioningly.

“From your tone I take it you don’t like him,” she said. She leaned right forward, elbows on her knees and her hands hanging between them.

I sighed. “You want an explanation?”

Grinning, she pushed her chair closer. “Only of course.”

Taking a deep breath I wondered where to start. “He looks at me funny.”

Faith just laughed.

“What?” I asked, thinking I’d said something I hadn’t meant to.

“He likes you,Kirin,” she said, fighting down the laughter. “You’ve never had a boyfriend have you?”

I went red. “Not really. How is that relevant?”

She cleared her throat. “Sorry, I’ll clarify. He likes you,Kirin.”

“Daniel? Are we talking about the same guy?”

“Sure.”

“But he looks at me like a paedophile looks at small kids,” I protested. She had to be wrong.

“Yeah, that’s because he wants to ask you out but… well, you’re scary.” She was still giggling.

“I’m not scary.”

“Please,Kirin,” she said. “You practically ooze guy hate. I kinda feel sorry for him.” She was still grinning.

“I don’t think it’s funny,” I huffed, folding my arms.

She leaned further forward. “If he asks you out what will you say?”

“Uh, no. Why would I go out with him?”

Faith smacked her forehead. “You don’t understand the concept of a boyfriend do you?”

“Yeah I do.”

Her broad grin became a sly smile. “You need a practical experience. Let’s go.”

“Um, where are we going?” I asked as she hauled me to my feet.

“You’ll see.”

She held onto my wrist with an iron grip as though she was afraid I would bolt. And with good reason. We went straight out the girls’ dorm across the courtyard and into the guys’ dorm.

“Oh no,” I pleaded, straining at her hold on me. “Let me go, I don’t like this.”

“You knowKirin,” she said over her shoulder. “I don’t care.”

We stopped in front of a door on the second floor. I was kind of curious as to how she knew which room was his, but not enough to ask.

“Now, just stand here for a moment,” she said with a warning look in my direction. “Can you do that?”

As she let go of me I folded my arms and growled.

She smiled. “Good girl.” Then she knocked on the door. Watching me, she turned away from the door to wait, presumably so she could catch me if I decided to bolt.

Not long after she’d knocked it opened. A girl with long thick chestnut dual plaits peeked outside. I knew her vaguely, but her name escaped me for a moment.

“Hey Jess,” said Faith. “Is Dan in there?”

She pulled the door open further, looking curiously at me. “He’s just in on one of the computers at the moment, printing something off. I dare say he’ll be out in a second.” She had a very thick south country accent, an archipelago native then. That also explained her chocolate skin and black eyes.

“This isKirin,” said Faith pushing me in ahead of her. I resisted to the best of my ability but she was a lot stronger than she looked. Not to mention she had a few inches on me. “I hope we’re not interrupting anything.”

“No, we’re just talking.” Jessica sat on a chair and motioned for us to sit as well. “What are you here about?”

“Kirinand I were thinking about going into town this evening and I knew Dan was back so we thought we’d invite him. I didn’t know you were back too, you’re more than welcome to come along.” From the way Jess was studying me, the expression on my face told her that I was not under any stretch of the imagination a willing party in this nonsense.

“I see,” she said slowly. “I got a message from Daisy not long ago; she said she’ll be home soon. You guys can go ahead and I’ll catch up with you when Daisy gets back.”

Faith nodded. “Okay. We’ll probably be at the pub.”

“Sure.” She stood. “I’m going back to my rooms in case she gets back early.”

I watched her walk out thinking something wasn’t right. I was actually on the verge of saying something when I caught myself. I remembered that I was supposed to be in a bad mood and fixed my surly expression back in place and glowered at Faith. I wasn’t really angry at her, but she deserved the guilt that I hoped was settling into the pit of her stomach.

“Sorry that took so long, Jess,” said Daniel studying a piece of paper as he came in. “I couldn’t find― Oh,” he cut himself off as he looked up and saw us. “Hi, where did Jess go?”

“Back to her rooms to wait for Daisy,” said Faith, an anticipated expression plastered right across her face. You couldn’t have mistaken it if she had been bouncing on her chair.

“I see,” he said in exactly the same tone Jess had used earlier. “Why are you here?” he asked, his eyes narrowing with suspicion.

“We want to know if you’ll come out with us this evening,” Faith said. “Jess will catch up with Daisy when she gets here.”

He scratched his head. “Won’t that be weird?” he asked, clearly confused.

Faith gave him her best innocent look. “Weird how?”

“Well, I’ll be the only guy there,” he said as though that should explain his confusion.

“Nah, why would that be weird?” asked Faith, trying with only marginal success to alleviate his obviously growing anxiety.

His gaze left Faith briefly and settled on me. I turned my glower from Faith to him and he quickly went back to looking at Faith. “Kirindoesn’t seem keen to be here.” He said it like a question, but not specifically in the form of a question. Still, there was definitely a query in there.

“Doesn’t she?” Faith looked at me with big eyes pleading me to be nice.

“I don’t want to be here,” I said flatly.

“Come on, Rin,” pleaded Faith. “One night out won’t hurt.” Her eyes were as round as saucers.

I sighed. “Fine. But just this one time and don’t expect me to jump through any hoops,” I warned.

She just smiled. It would have been in a nice way except I could see her plotting in her eyes. This night would not go well. Not for me.

“Great,” said Daniel, his eyes too were clearly plotting something at my expense. “I’ll see you girls in town.”

Faith stood and I followed her lead, only too happy to be out of his apartment. She waved over her shoulder as we left, her grin never once failing her. In that short instant, I hated her.

“See,” she bubbled, “this is going to be great.” Then she bounced off down the hall towards the stairs. “You’ll see, Rin, you’ll have a ball.”

“I highly doubt that,” I muttered, thrusting my hands into my pockets. “This is my nightmare.”

“HeyKirin,” came a soft voice over my shoulder. I cringed slightly and turned, hating myself, hating life, hating him. Still I found the self-control to soften my glare.

“Yeah?” I asked, my voice was dead and there was nothing I could do to sound at all enthusiastic about anything. Talking to him reminded me of Terence. And not in a good way.

“Do you want to train together tomorrow?” he asked, surprising me. I thought he’d been going to ask me out. “After lunch, maybe?”

I thought about that. The implication was there for this to be taken as a date and I didn’t want that. But perhaps he really just wanted to train, nothing else.

I frowned. “What’s the catch?”

He raised his hands in suppliance. “No catch. I just want to train with you.”

My eyes narrowed. “What’s in it for you?”

His smile answered my question. My fists balled and for a moment there I thought I actually would hit him. But I didn’t. Lucky.

“It will depend on my mood,” I replied. “And the people I can get to come with me,” I added under my breath.

Daniel just kept smiling. I spun on my heel and stalked down the corridor trying very hard to ignore his eyes on me as I left. I caught up to Faith at the bottom of the stairs, she was frowning worriedly. Until that moment, I hadn’t known you could do that. It was a skill I picked up quickly.

“What happened to you?” she asked.

“I was visually raped,” I replied sourly, stalking past her.

Her grin came back. “As opposed to…?”

“Being physically raped,” I snapped.

She flinched. “Why are you so opposed to going out with a guy? There has to be a story in there.”

“I’m here to work,” I replied. “Not date.”

“Not good enough,” she pressed.

I rounded on her. “Do you really want to know?” She nodded, although hesitantly now, I think I’d scared her a little. I slumped to the bench in the park. “There was a guy once,” I said softly as I stared out at the lake. “His name is Terence, I ran into him just the other day.”

“Well that―” she began but I cut her off.

“If you want to hear shut up.” Her mouth clicked shut and I instantly regretted being so harsh. It wasn’t like me, but Terence was a terrible storm of emotions. “He lives in Carissa and his parents are close with mine. We used to stay with him once a year for a holiday. Every year since I was about six we’ve been staying with his parents, they’re fully loaded too which was nice. We were always close friends but as soon as we hit about twelve things started to get real awkward between the two of us. Totally beyond mood swings and that, I’m talking super awkward turtle.

“After a few years it wasn’t so bad and it was a lot easier to cope with because we only saw each other a few weeks out of the year. Still, things went from playtime at the park to seeing movies and walking the streets around his neighbourhood. Very personal stuff. When I was about fifteen, I got that heart pounding feeling every time I was with him. I was absolutely dying for him to ask me out, to kiss me, whatever. He never did.

“We were there after my seventeenth birthday and my parents were resigned to the fact that it would be the last year I went with them. They knew that after I turned eighteen I wouldn’t want to keep going. The thing was though, Terence knew that too. The whole time I was there that year, two and a half weeks, mind, I was silently praying that he’d give me a reason to come back the next year. The very last day we were there he had an opening. A moment where he could have made a move. I saw it and I know he saw it, but he just sat there. Mentally I was screaming at him.

“That was it, after that I went home and the next year I didn’t go back. I didn’t have a reason to. I think he believed that I would return, you know, give him a second chance. What he didn’t realise was that he was on his third and he blew it. Again. I was done; he’d ripped me up a little and combined with my irrational fear of things going wrong I decided getting involved with a guy probably wasn’t worth it anyway.”

I was quiet a long time, just staring. Faith looked stunned that something like that had happened to me. I wanted to leave, but I knew she had to have questions.

“How weird must it have been to see him again,” she breathed.

I nodded. “Neither of us wanted to see the other, but neither of us wanted to be the first to leave. It was terrible.”

“I didn’t know,” she said. “I’m sorry.”

I plastered a fake smile on my face. “Hey, it’s not like he broke my heart or anything.”

She looked sympathetic. “Sounds like he shredded it actually.”

She was right, but I didn’t want to admit that.

“Come on,” she said, pulling me to my feet. “I’ll tell them you weren’t feeling so good. Stay in.”

I looked up, stunned. “Why the sudden change of heart?”

She grimaced. “I know how hard it is to dredge up painful things like that. I know if it were me I’d be in no shape to go anywhere, let alone confront a new prospect.”

“Daniel is not a prospect,” I growled through gritted teeth.

Faith just smiled. “The longer you deny that, the harder you’re making it on yourself.”

I looked away from her, refusing to rise to her bait. She wrapped one arm around my shoulders and urged me towards our building. I realised I hadn’t had lunch yet as my stomach began to grumble.

“Let’s go into town and get something to eat,” I said. “I’m starved.”

A blissful change in topic. Just what I needed right then. Together we walked down the road to the bike stand in wonderful silence. I wished she would just stop talking about that forever. But as I soon came to appreciate, setting people up was something of a hobby for Faith. Like trying to live without air, she just couldn’t stop herself.

We borrowed a pair of bikes to ride into town as it was just way too far to walk and we powered down the hill. I’ve got to tell you, I hate riding bikes on hills. Around the campus or town it was fine because both were pretty much flat, but to and from was a nightmare.

Once we were down the hill, it was great to just coast for a bit on the speed we’d built up on the way down. Not as much could be said for the ride back up the hill. But with any luck we wouldn’t have to worry about that for a while. Aside from the pub, there were a few nice outdoor cafes one could eat at and a fish and chip shop. For the life of me I don’t know where the fish come from; there weren’t many good fishing spots for miles around.

We settled at one of the cafes and ordered a pair of grilled sandwiches. It wasn’t cold enough to warrant them being grilled, we both just preferred them that way. Happily, David walked in.

“Hey guys,” he said. “I just got back. How long have you been here?” He asked, settling into a chair beside me and ordering a sandwich, not grilled.

“I’ve been back almost two days,” said Faith, her eyes intent on his face. “Kirinjust got back today.”

“What did you have to do?” he asked me, clearly already knowing what Faith had done.

“Stop some swiftwings from eating a farmer’s crop, rated two. Stop a Phantom that was attacking humans. It had already killed one and put two others in hospital, rated six. And find and disarm a bloke using a Phantom to possess and control the minds of others to attack townsfolk, rated eight to nine with a questionable danger,” I said, ticking them off as I said them. “How about you?”

He whistled. “Nothing like that. You must tell me how you did it.” I don’t remember what he said he had though. The Phantoms David keeps in his company changes on a regular basis. In fact, that’s the case for most people. He’s bonded to a tenstep though. A spider earth class Phantom named because that’s how far you get once it’s poisoned you before you die. They grow to about the size of a small or medium sized dog and they move incredibly fast. He had to deal with tasks rated one, seven and eight but I forget most of the details.

I shrugged. “Sounds easy enough. Did you get your extra three Phantoms?”

“Sure, how about you?”

I winced. I’d been hoping not to have to tell them. “Well, I can sort of… talk to Phantoms,” I said slowly. I then told them the story you got in detail in a much more abridged fashion with a shrug.

They were both staring at me, mouths agape. Our sandwiches had arrived. They were both ignoring theirs, but I was hungry and started eating.

“You look like a pair of dead fish,” I said.

They shut their mouths.

“You… can talk to… Phantoms?” asked Dave.

“Yeah, I guess,” I replied nonchalantly.

“That’s huge, Rin,” said Faith. “You should totally tell someone.”

I waved her away. “I don’t want to be famous. That’s why I don’t tell people.”

They exchanged wondering glances but, being the intelligent people they are, decided to drop it. It took Faith a while, but clearly she did pick up on some things. Just wouldn’t drop the guy thing.

“I don’t want you guys making a big deal out of this,” I said. “I don’t want people knowing.”

Faith took a deep breath. “Rose said something about you being an honorary Phantom and I didn’t believe her,” she whispered. “You really are something.”

Dave’s eyes went even wider. “You’re an honorary Phantom?”

“Keep your voice down,” I urged. “Maybe. That’s the only reason the ones I spoke to did as I asked, they all know me. It’s really weird.”

Faith let out her ironrodent. The little steel grey Phantom sat there staring up at us. Faith and Dave were staring at me.

“Do something,” said Dave.

“What?”

“Talk to her,” said Faith.

“You guys can do it too,” I said.

“Yeah, but we can’t understand what they’re saying,” Dave pointed out.

“Hi,” I said to the little Phantom. “What do you think of this conversation?”

I think it’s pointless, she said. But your friends have a point, red one. This skill of yours is unique. I’ve never heard of someone else like you and I would have if they existed.

I sighed. “That’s what I thought.”

They both leaned forward. “What did she say?” asked Faith.

“She said the conversation we’re having is pointless.” They deflated. “But that you have a point, my talent is unique. She says she’s never heard of someone like me before.”

“Hah,” said Dave, slapping his knee. “Told you.”

“Nothing I didn’t already know,” I retorted.

“True,” Faith agreed. “But you have to know which battles to fight.”

“I’m fighting you on this one,” I said. “Just like that last one. But this time, I know I don’t want fame, this time, we play by my rules. You will not tell anyone about this,” I said resolutely. When they nodded I let my gaze soften. “Good, I’m glad we agree on this.”

“So what Phantoms did you catch, Rin?” asked Dave.

“The ones I was hired to take care of,” I replied, glad he wasn’t still pressing the communication thing.

“Are any mature yet?” he asked.

“Both the swiftwing and Winter are mature enough to use atomisation and I think the platesnake might be too. I know the swiftblade is,” I said. “Didn’t I already say that?”

They both shook their heads.

“Oh, sorry.”

“I didn’t realise… uh… Phantoms like Winter matured so quickly,” mused Faith.

I sighed. “Yeah, how come you won’t say that but you can announce to the world that I can understand Phantoms?”

She went red. “I guess I just thought this was a more immediate danger to your health.”

Thinking about dangers to my health brought me back to what Rose had said a few days ago about my family. I really did need to trust more people, but were these the right ones? Faith liked to talk, but she had sworn not to tell anyone about my Phantom communication skills. This was a lot more of an immediate danger though and if someone found out I was screwed. If the wrong person found out I was dead. I decided to wait just a bit longer.

After lunch was over we went back up to SPIRIT, the bike ride was tolerable but only just. I stayed at Faith’s that night because I wanted the company as Pandora wasn’t back yet. She, Lara and Patrick all got back the next day, their last assignments had been in the same place which was lucky. Rose got back at around lunch, so we were all together for that. Pandora ate with us too because despite what Jess had said the day before, Daisy still wasn’t back so Jess had gone to lunch with Grace instead. It surprised me just how easily I was picking up the names of people.

Then I silently and quickly excused myself, not wanting to draw attention to where I was going. I went the long way to the court Dan had mentioned the day before. I didn’t really want to admit it at the time, but Faith had been right. I did like him, I was just fighting that because I was used to fighting everything inside me. I was denying that too because it was the only way I knew how to deal with it. It irked me that she had been right.

He was waiting for me when I walked in. Just the sight of him made me want to leave again. I was half ready to go back out the door, but he saw me.

“HeyKirin,” he said, smiling. Not a sleazy smile, not a conspiratorial smile, just happy to see me. Which, strangely, confused me.

“Hi,” I replied, trying to give life to my voice and failing.

His smile faded. “Are you never happy to see me?”

“Honestly? I’m neutral,” I said with a shrug.

“What’s that supposed to mean?” he asked.

“Well I don’t hate you I suppose, but I don’t exactly count you among my closest friends,” I said, feeling brutally honest for no real reason.

“Do you hate all guys?”

“No, I’m friends with Patrick and Dave.”

“That’s two, the rest of your friends are all girls.”

“What,” I snapped. “Would you prefer me to be a whore?”

He retreated a step. “That’s not what I meant.”

“That’s what I heard.”

“Why can’t you be civil to me?” he asked, a pained expression smeared across his face. I think I’d hurt him somewhere in there. It shocked me just how mean I was being. In just the last few days I’d said nasty things to Rose, Faith and now him. I mean, it didn’t really cut me up that I’d been nasty to him, but the fact that the words had come out of my mouth made me collapse.

Not figuratively either, I actually fell to my knees in the middle of the court. He was stunned I think. Concerned that something bad had happened to me, but scared to get too close. Faith had been right about that too, he was scared of me. I was repulsed by myself. I felt like a monster.

I think I actually started crying. Then he came closer. There was a mushy bit I’ll leave out because I don’t really want to detail it for you, just know it happened. There was a short conversation there too which I’m also going to omit simply because I can’t believe I said those things. I’m shuddering at the thought.

Somehow that day though, amid the yelling and the hate filled words and the crying, he got over his fear for me. No, his fear of me, which is worse. Anyway, somehow we started going out.

There were plenty of conditions laid down though. He was not, by any stretch of the imagination, absolutely positively not to count himself as my boyfriend. That I wasn’t going to allow. We could go places together, but only if there were other people there too. Meaning one of my friends, Pandora included. Alone time was only for study and stuff like that, preparation for the tournament. He was not allowed to touch me. Ever. Basically we agreed to be friends, or a stalemate or something. He really wasn’t my boyfriend even if in his head he liked to think of himself as such.

Lara was gob smacked, Patrick thought it was a hilarious joke, Rose thought I’d lost my marbles, but was secretly a little happy, Dave thought I should see a doctor, Pandora was mostly just jealous and Faith, duh, was as happy as a pig in shit. For about three days after Daniel had blurted out what happened she walked around with a stupid grin on her face. Slapping her was out of the question. But only because she’d been right, about everything. I forgave her eventually.

Then, one day, we were all in one of the courts watching Faith and Rose have a friendly match with each other when one of Mitchell’s little lackeys came in.

“You’re all to go straight to the theatre,” he said in an official tone. Then he spun and went in search of the next lot of students.

Slowly and very resignedly, we filed out of the court, down the halls and into the theatre. We snagged our back row seats and prepared to mock whoever was speaking. Unfortunately, it was Mitchell who was speaking. This was unfortunate because we never knew which bit to mock. The way he dressed, the way he spoke or the way he held himself. I think he thought he was some kind of superstar.

“Students,” he began, sounding pompous and nasal. “We have for you here, the draw of the tournament.”

We went quiet, putting off the mockery for a moment. We all wanted to see who we’d be fighting. We wanted to know which field we’d be on.

Planning for this was essential, and this was all the information we would need to make a great strategy.

A round robin table popped up on the screen. I won’t tell you who everyone was against. Just a few key people. Faith was against Jess which I thought was a little ironic because Jess had a thing for Dave. Rose was against Pandora, Lara was fighting Patrick and I was placed against… that’s right Daniel. Great.

I slumped further into my seat. Just what I didn’t want. This was the feeling you get before you go into battle and you know there’s really no chance you’ll win. It’s the feeling of knowing you’ve lost before it happens.

And that feeling was followed swiftly by the knowledge that if you’ve got to go down, you’re going down swinging. I wasn’t going down easy and we never had fought, but I’d seen him against a lot of other people. I personally, hated to train in front of people, even Lara. It weirded me out, thus I had an advantage.

But Daniel wasn’t going to play fair. He knew how to make me mad, get me riled right up before the match in the hopes that I’d screw up and make a mistake. Oh, I think he’d been planning this for a long time. It was his entire game plan.

I was going to crush him just for thinking it would throw me off.

So for two days we all sat on our own working on plans, showing our Phantoms diagrams in the hopes that they would remember it all. Well, that’s what the others were doing anyway. I gave Fallow a camera and showed her how to record with it and got plenty of good material on Daniel. Then we all sat and watched it, picking out the holes in the way he fought. We didn’t scramble, or fight lots; we just sat and watched telly.

Everyone thought we were crazy, but I’d show them. Even Dan thought I’d lost my marbles. Then on the eve of battle, he showed how bad a sportsman he really is.

Okay, so it wasn’t the eve of battle, it was just after breakfast. We’d drawn first lot and so were the first to fight that morning. Which sucked even more for what he did.

You’ll never guess. No, he didn’t sabotage my atombrace and he didn’t spike our food. He didn’t do anything that was really foul play by normal standards. But since that day on the court, he’d learned exactly what to do to rub me just the wrong way.

Think really hard on what he might have done that made me yabber on like this for so long. Think really, really hard. I guarantee it’ll come to you.

Still haven’t got it?

What have you been doing? Sleeping while you were reading this? I swear, do I need to spell everything out for you?

I mean, I basically told you what he could do just before.

Oh my god, you people are thick.

Still nothing? Fine I’ll just tell you.

He kissed me.