The waves rippled serenely on the moonlit shore. All was quiet, stark, and beautiful.
A lone gull cawed in the distance, staying up late like some teenage girl who wanted to be on her phone long past curfew.
The rippling water could hardly be called “small waves” without some dramatic hyperbole.
The moon was a bright disc in the sky.
The California coast was quiet, deathly quiet, aside from the gull and the waves.
And then a figure burst from the surface of the water.
His messy dark brown hair had been kept dry by the bubble he had worn on his head as he’d sailed under the surface. His green eyes were weary and his tan skin was gray, as if he’d swam for hours and hours in the cold autumn ocean, like he had.
He stepped out of the water carefully, looking back and forth. After assuring himself that the coast was clear, he gestured to the sea.
If anyone was underwater at the moment, they might have seen the sand on the seafloor turn into a message floating in the water:
A few seconds later, a gasping girl broke the surface. Her brown hair was soaked, her blue shirt clinging to her scrawny ribs. She was thin and tall with sharp blue eyes, and she frowned at the teenage boy like he'd done something wrong. He hadn’t.
“What was that about, Isaac?” she hissed. “My bubble just vanished! You know I don’t like getting wet!”
“I only manipulated the sand. I can’t do water. Only earth.”
“Fiiiiiiiiine.” she gave a teenage eyeroll.
“Okay, okay. Where’s the others? Did they drown?”
“No, they’re…somewhere? GUYS!”
Three more heads burst to the surface, bubbles popping.
One belonged to a girl with short brown hair, streaked with vivid blue. Her eyes sparked with knowledge and a bit of humor,a s if the whole thing was a prank. Isaac knew, though, that she’d been through a lot, and even though she looked confident, Sia had been the prisoner of the Pyline for six whole months. Her cream-colored-skin was covered in scars from her time of torture.
The other belonged to another girl, her hair purple, flecked with gold sparkles. Her thick eyebrows were furrowed in concentration, but her eyes, gold with purple flecks, always looked magical,no matter what the rest of her face said. Her skin was the color of polished ivory. Amethyst was extremely smart, considering her mind-reading powers. Isaac thought she was pretty, but she already had a girlfriend.
The final head belonged to Sapphire, a girl who Isaac didn’t really trust. Her black hair was fading to silver, and her eyes already were the color of the moon. She raised an eyebrow at Isaac and Adoree, the girl who’d emerged first. Isaac knew that Sapphire was an important part of their mission, but he never liked her. There was something...off about her.
“Okay, everyone’s here? Good,” Isaac whispered. He was proud of his blue Council Member uniform and wanted to show everyone that he deserved it.
Just as the three girls, Sia, Amethyst, and Sapphire, left the water, a final head emerged.
Her hair was light purple,way paler than Amethyst’s, and her skin was as pale as Snow White’s. She had a determined look on her cute face. Isaac remembered a time when her hair had been long and silky brown, though. Isaac knew this girl well.
“Don’t laugh at me! I nearly drowned trying to get here!” she said, using her good arm to pull herself towards the shore.
Oh, B. Sooner or later she’s gonna get herself killed.
“You were going on a top secret mission and I couldn’t come along! So I followed you and my bubble popped and that’s why I’m soaking wet and I want to help!”
“B, you’re only eleven. You’ll have plenty of time to go on missions.”
“Yeah, but...what if the Pyline kills me before Iget as old as you?”
“If you stop sneaking onto battlefields you’ll survive,” Sapphire commented.
“I want to help!” B. W. protested, pulling herself out of the water with ehr good arm.
Isaac willed Adoree not to stare, but despite her Talent to produce ice, she didn’t have a cold heart. And this was her first time seeing little B without her gloves on.
If anything, Adoree was too compassionate. So compassionate, in fact, that it became an issue.
Metallic fingers dug into the sand, B. W. kneeled on the shore, ehr bobotic left arm fully revealed.
Fromehr elbow down, a sleek, futuristic device existed instead of a hand. It was the most reasonable thing to do,especially for someone so young with such potential. Her limb had been restored, but as a thing of science, not magic.
“So, that’s how come you weren't allowed,” Adoree said in shock. “What happened? Are you okay? Did it hurt? Was it the Pyline?”
B blushed. Isaac knew she was embarrassed by her arm.
“Itriedtofightammmmmmr,” she said.
“You tried to fight a what?” Adoree asked.
B stood up, hands on her hips. Her violet eyes were full of pride and something else--if only Isaac was a mind-reader! Then he’d know what B thought about.
“Here’s a life hack they don’t have on Youtube,” B. W. said proudly. “Never fistfight a fire golem, no matter what they do to the camp.”
“She tried to fight a golem, and…Well, it grabbed her arm. It held on until there was nothing left to hold, not even bones.” Isaac told B’s story to Adoree as best as he could. B glared at him, stomping her foot in an immature way.
“You can’t send me back,” she said spunkily. “The gate closed already.”
“Oh. Well, there may be more golems.”
“Bring ‘em on! They can’t melt through metal.” B gave herself a fistbump,which Isaac didn’t even know was possible before she started doing it.
“You still have other body parts, you know.”
But B. W. had already raced up the beach with Sapphire, Sia, and Amethyst, Adoree trailing behind them.
Again, he was all alone.
One year and three days ago, he would have had someone with him. But no, he just had to leave, had to show off his uniform to his parents, had to ignore the warning signs of the Pyline coming, had to say “they’re the Champions. Even if the Pyline comes, they’ll survive.”
And now, his little sister and only real friend was gone.
Isaac brushed the tears from his eyes and commanded himself to look like a Council Member. Then he followed his companions, out to rescue his sister’s replacements.
The world spun into view slowly, a rush of tingles filling my skin as my eyelids fluttered open. Everything was flickering and gold, before becoming dark once more.
“That took you just the right amount of time. Just enough for me to run off and start a few fires elsewhere. No one cares about a restaurant with no one in it if the orphanage is ablaze.”
“What?” I tried to say. Tried because there waa=s something in my mouth, red-hot and metallic-flavored, some sort of… I wasn’t sure what. It reminded me of something you’d have in your mouth if you were getting braces, or maybe a torture device. They were pretty similar, anyway.
My eyes blurred, then everything snapped into view.
“I deactivated the fire alarms, evacuated the people. The fire department won’t care about an empty restaurant, especially if it’s only the kitchen that’s harmed, not when the library, the hospital, and the orphanage coincidentally all had an electrical fire.”
Stupid, lying, controlling, evil Franklin had done what? Started fires in flammable places full of chemicals and paper, burned buildings full of innocent people? I knew he was bad, but...this was crazy. He would pay. So what, I had a dental appliance/torture device in my mouth and the kitchen of the restaurant was on fire. I could take him down. All I needed was a plant to trap him with.
I reached around me, but only found a few feeble wildflowers in vases around the place, some already burning away. There wasn’t a way that a ditzy daisy could reach from the table to the kitchen. I could always get up and wack him in the face, but last time he’d overpowered me with a single blow, and I wasn’t a karate master or anything--
I couldn’t even move,I realized.
My torso was wrapped in tight, heat-emitting chains, the thick links biting into my skin, certain to leave a mark, my hands pressed against Luna’s, held by more, thrice-wrapped chains. I could feel more on my ankles as well. They glowed with a strange heat, made of embers that weren’t as searing and hot as the ones that had previously held Luna. but it still wasn’t comfortable, and I instantly regretted ever thinking that I could beat this Franklin guy. There wasn’t much room for regret, since I hadn’t really thought about fighting him. He’d almost gotten me under his control with his strange power, and I hadn’t been conscious for most of the time he was out doing evil.
“You know, Emerald, we could have worked together. We could have conquered everyone in our path. We could have had the world at our feet. I’m sorry you have to die.”
I was going to yell something extremely impolite at him, but found my tongue wasn’t working.
“I’ll go out and find the others. Maybe one of them is like you, only better. Maybe I was wrong, and you were the horrible one, the one who deserves to die. Or maybe they’re all self-obsessed fools, then I'll have to kill them, which is a shame. I don't like killing very much.”
You shouldn’t, I thought. No one likes killing except for every fantasy villain ever. And even then, they don’t just kill and kill and kill, they have moments of remorse where the hero can escape.
I needed to escape from this nightmare.
I knew, though, that no matter how scary this all was, I knew, that no matter how many times I pinched myself, I wasn’t going to wake up.
For one thing, I was already in pain. Have you ever been cooking and touched the pan by accident? It hurts like heck. The chains felt like hot pans pressing through my thin blue dress, which was nothing like an oven mitt ahd provided almost no protection. I cursed the outfit I’d thought would impress Adam Wyse and remained glad that I wore my combat boots. That protected my ankles from the considerably-hotter chains wrapped around them, although, since my legs were tucked underneath me, I could still feel their painful heat on the backs of my thighs.
And for another, there was no way this could be a nightmare. It was too terrifyingly real.
“Apologies again, Emerald. It would be terrible to let such power,such promise, go to waste like that. But you lost your chance already. You’ll enve be strong if you hurt the only one who’ll ever see your heart.”
Would’ve been scarier in your normal voice, I thought at Franklin, whose body was followed by an aura of flame as he walked around the kitchen, a fiery afterimage trailing after him. The kitchen was surrounded by fire, but there was a ring of safety around me and Luna where the whit tile floor had yet to burn. Could tile burn? Even if it couldn’t, the wooden roof above us certainly could. Either way, this palace was a doomscheme. If we didn’t get out, we’d be toast. Burnt toast. On-fire toast.
“I hear your worries, Emerald. Such a shame that all your potential has to go to waste. Unfortunately, I have a mission.”
So kill me, I thought. If you’re so loyal to your freaking Master, maybe you should do what he says, not rant in a burning restaurant like a fool.
“I would, Emerald, believe me, I would,” Franklin said, leering at me like a gargoyle with fire in his eyes and a shadow made of rippling heat.
“But, I feel like you need one more chance.”
The fire-shadow vanished. His eyes returned to a normal color. He smiled.
Oh mother of chicken biscuits he can read my mind.
I had just been thinking in the back of my head that I liked him when he was a normal kid.
“Yes. Mental manipulation is a talent most coveted among master’s loyalist minions.”
How come it’s wasted on you, then?
“You have a sick sense of humor. Then again, I do as well.”
I can tell.
“I know you thought you were fighting for the ‘greater good’ out there or something, but trust me. There is no good. There is only he who makes the first mistake and she who blames him for it, she who throws the first punch and he who throws the second. If a man kills another man, he is called a murderer and thrown in jail. But if someone kills the man who killed first, they are the hero. The other man is just he who acted first.”
You’re wrong. Killing is pure evil, no matter who did what. And, uh, have you seen the news lately? Have you heard of Black Lives Matter?
“I’m afraid that our kind is immune to that.”
Immune to all people being equal, on matter their gender or race?
“Nah. Immune to rules.”
Dude, I need a camera crew in here. Breaking news: scary fire kid says people with magic are immune to equality.
“Not like that! I meant we don’t follow rules like that. We just are. No one is better or worse under the gaze of the Pyline.”
Just people to kill and people to kill later.
“You’re so evil, Emerald.”
Really? You’re the one who started a bunch of fires so he could kill some people who were cooler than him.
“See? That is rude. I am in no way less cool than you.”
You were on fire.
You aren’t very wise.
A DING! rang out from his smartwatch. I was surprised it still worked, after Franklin caught on fire.
“Oh. Looks Like my...ugh...girlfriend...got a few more of them.”
Who’d love you?
“I never said I wanted her. Now, this is all a distraction you’ve planned, isn’t it? To break free you’d need time, and what better way to get time than to mentally berate me?”
I didn’t know you could read minds and control me!
“They go hand in hand. I’m sorry to say this, but your plan will fail.”
“You don’t have one? Oh. I thought you were gonna try to break out of the chains and beat me up.”
For a mind-reader, you sure don't know what I’m thinking.
“I’ll ignore that and tell you this: the chains will dissolve once you die. Or,they won’t go away until you’re half-dead, at least. They won’t crumble away until whoever they’re holding catches on fire. So, yeah. You’d be trapped in this place, on fire and you’d die. That’s no way to win. And the reason they go away in the first place is because people might notice if there were chains lying around.”
I had thought about that. It sounded stupid to have stuff that vanished. Especially if the stuff was meant to keep prisoners and not just to disappear.
“Also, the thing in your mouth--it will turn redhot if you try to say spell components. Or generally yell. Or move your tongue.”
Franklin’s eyes flickered into flames, before turning a normal amber color. Then again, even amber reminded me of the fire that followed him.
Yay. Redhot dental appliance/torture device.
“It prevents your tongue from moving, anyway, so you shouldn’t have to worry about triggering it.”
Franklin turned around, staring at me.
“I could let you out.”
Wouldn’t your Master hate that?
“Not if you promised loyalty to him.”
LOYALTY TO A MONSTER CAT?
“We can betray him later. You and me, against the world. Who needs the Champions? Who needs the others? Let them do whatever they want. We can have it all…”
My mind went:YES, TOTALLY, CUTE-EVIL-MASTERMIND-WHO-IS-PROBABLY-CONTROLLING-ME-AT-THE-MINUTE.
But then it went: it’s a trap. He’s taking over your senses. Filling your head with big, bad ideas. He mind-controlled the most popular Champion to betray you, then tried to use a weird metal eye on you, then chained you to Luna in a burning restaurant. Why would you trust him?
“Because I could give you the world on a silver platter and also, I am so handsome.”
No thanks, captain stupid. You have creepy eyes and a fire ghost.
“Fine. But...No one’s going to save you. You’re gonna die.”
I’ll save me. I have magic, by the way.
“Fine. save yourself. But that was your last chance. You’re gonna die here,most likely. Even if you get yourself free, you’re still leaving her here.” he gestured to Luna, unconscious behind me.
“And, most of the kitchen's on fire, including any possible exits. It’s over, Emerald. You’re gonna die and no one will save you.”
And that’ where you’re wrong.
“I’m sorry you didn’t choose me,” he said.
And then Franklin walked through a wall of fire, a small explosion prompting his return to evil-Franklin, leaving me in the burning restaurant with Luna chained to my back.
My magic could help me, if there were any plants. I reached around the building. Most of them were cut flowers, behind the wall(both the fire one and the solid stone)who couldn’t make it that far.
But there! A small jar of water lay, broken, the water spilling out of it. A few hardy-looking…somethings with pink petals and a thick green stem lay on the counter, a nearby breadbox bursting into flames.
The water wouldn’t keep the flowers for long. They were already wilting. But...I closed my eyes.
Can you hear me?
They sent a vibration through their stems that meant yes.
I need you to grow. Do you remember roots?
Bring them back.
Let them grow.
Let yourself become taller and more powerful.
I could feel them growing. I let them have a bit of my energy, and although my eyelids began to flutter, I let them have a little more. I could hang on.
Beautiful, white roots stretched towards me like lifelines. They were as white as pearls and as wonderful as dreams.
I tried to open my mouth without the thing inside burning me. It was hard, but--joy of all joys--I got the plants to reach their roots to the thing that unhitched the device.
It clattered to the ground with a hard, sharp prick.
Now, can you reach for the chains?
The flowers tried to reach it, but their roots had stretched too far. They had already run out longer that they would have naturally. The fire from the breadbox was reaching for the petals of one flower already. The puddle around them was shrinking. One was already drying up and dying.
Just a little further…
The fire reached one of the flowers. In seconds my little assistants were dead, ashes drifting away.
I tried to stand, but I was never very strong, and Luna was a little too heavy for me to drag with chains on my feet. Giving the flowers all my energy wasn’t helping.
I tried uselessly to drag Luna forward, but I couldn’t.
I looked at the fire making its way along the ceiling, the flames surrounding my little circle of safety, and the rubble that blocked the door.
The sharp smell of smoke filled my nose.
Ash drifted through the air.
And, running out clean air, I sank to my knees.
Luna had woken up.The device was dislodged from her mouth.
“That’s the first time you’ve said my name,”I said. She’d only called me Mouse.
“I...I have something to tell you,”she gasped. “Something extremely important. Before…”
Isaac raced through the streets,looking at the sky. The stars shone down on them, obscured by one thing:a pillar of smoke.
“That’s it,” Sia said.
Isaac gritted his teeth and stared at the smoke.
It was time for him to save someone--hopefully this time, he’d succeed.