“Chill, Emerald, chill,” I told myself. “You got an easy one. This guy isn’t the traitor. I think. I hope.”
I adjusted the gold hoop in my left ear. I was only wearing it because Nainika had shot a hole in my earlobe by accident, turning into something with a million needles on its body, and there was a hole in there now. I decided to put it to use. I could also use it to call out to the others if Adam Wyse was indeed a fire-cat’s spy. Adam Wyse. The name was familiar, almost too familiar. Had I met him before? No, in the picture Maya’d shown me, he was a pretty, er, original person. A different color braces band on each tooth, green-and-blue eyes, round glasses with thick dark-blue frames, and a tangle of brown hair. He’d worn a silver earring in his left ear, and there was a tiny, almost-invisible burn scar below his right eye. “Could be from getting too close to his evil master,'' Celeste said spookily, earlier today. “Nainika, I can’t believe you took my place!”
“Look, Maya assigned roles so you wouldn’t be put with one.
“That’s not faaaaaaaaaiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiir. Why do I have to be shielded? Maya basically delivered our only hope into the hands of possible enemies.” Celeste pretended to faint with humiliation.
“What did I do?” Maya was standing in the cliff that led to our meeting place: a stretch of stone cliff overlooking a forest of blue-leaved trees. It was one of the few reminders that we were on our “homeworld”.
“Nothing, just made it so I can’t date Mike.”
”Who’s--oh, the suspect.”
“Yeah, I really wanted to be in on this, but...Nainika is apparently less valuable than me.”
“Cel, it’s because you’re supposedly dead!”
“Oh. Yeah.”She walked away, sighing.
“So, Celeste’s supposedly dead?” I asked.
“Yeah. We’re not supposed to talk about it.”
“Everyone thinks that me and her died in the Pyline attack,” Maya said. “There weren’t any survivors. We can’t exactly be walking around in public when everyone saw the memorial pictures of us online.”
This felt a little awkward, so I went back into my cave. I grabbed several different accessories that could double as weapons, including a phone that could shoot sleep-darts, an invisible crossbow, and a hairclip I could use as a tiny knife.
I left my cave and bumped straight into Jade.
“Sorry, I didn’t see you.”
“No, it’s okay! I just...I was the distracted one.”
She rubbed the scar under her ear, and I wondered where she got it from. She’d said something about the Pyline before the school was...I wouldn’t think about that. And yet she’d said that she snuck to school with Emmie. So how would she have the scar? I suppose she could’ve gotten too close to a candle or something like that, but I didn’t think she’d even know what the Pyline was back then…
I sighed. Maybe after this Adam thing.
The night sky was speckled with stars and the elegant light of the fancy, rich-neighborhood street lamps made everything shine, from the hanging baskets of gorgeous flowers to the cobblestone streets. Adam Wyse was, apparently, the kid of some banker who had a lot of money, and lived in California. California! I’d almost gotten used to our homeworld, and I was already back with the normal people.
I twirled a lock of my red hair around my finger, waiting. Adam said he’d meet me here. I reached out to the plants around me, feeling the glossy sheen of the ivy’s leaves (could choke someone if I needed to) the delicate peonies (could I smell someone into oblivion?) and the springs of something I didn’t recognize, strange and sweet-scented, with bell-shaped flowers pointing downwards. I couldn’t manipulate it-- some things on the homeworld were like that, too complex for me. But Celeste said I should be able to manipulate all Earth plants…maybe she was wrong. Homeworld stuff wouldn’t appear in California, of all places.
“...Hi,” a shyish boy’s voice said. Stepping out of the darkness was the weird boy from the picture. He didn’t look like the servant-spy of a monstrous death cat, but looks could be deceiving. He looked like a shy weirdo in a nice pair of pants. He blinked his weird, different colored eyes at me, looking confused.
“Oh, yeah, I was worried you wouldn’t show up since you weren’t at school today, Jaz,” he said, smiling.
I was stunned. My name wasn’t Jaz and I’d never met him before! Unless this was a trick…
“I mean, I was worried you weren’t coming, but cool haircut! Short looks better than long, actually! Not that long wasn’t cool…”
I remembered what Maya had told me: she’d arranged a way for this “date” to make sense. I guess she must have swapped me with a classmate he actually knew?
“You like it? I missed school to get my hair done,” I said, hoping that the look-alike I’d been swapped with sounded like me.
“Well, it rocks, Jaz.” he grinned, extending his hand. I took it gently, feeling weirder than I’d thought was possible. Here I was, exchanged with this guy’s girlfriend, spying on him to see if he was the minion of a fire cat trying to kill me, and he was holding my hand and hadn’t yet noticed that I was a different person.
“So, we’re going to Erda’s?” he asked me. That must be the restaurant Maya mentioned earlier… I thought.
“Well, I don’t have reservations anywhere else, so…” it was almost easy, talking to him. He’d say something, I’d agree, or make a comment about it. Was real dating this easy, or only fake dating?
We walked to a restaurant, a warm glow coming from the inside. I needed a minute away from Adam--fake dating was hard!
“I’ll just be out here,” I said. “You can run in and check in for the reservation.”
“Okay!” Adam went in, humming merrily.
I looked up at the sky. This was hard. Not only hard, it almost felt...wrong. Wrong, to be pretending to be this “Jaz”. What would the real Jaz think of me, if she met me? Would she laugh about it and forgive me? Hate me for taking her place with Adam? What would Adam think if he knew why I was there? Who I was? Life was hard. Fake-dating was harder. At least I didn’t get any bad vibes from him. At least Adam was a cute weirdo and not a fire-spitting maniac. At least…
A bright flash lit up the alley beside me, to the left of the restaurant. I turned around, the familiar flicker sending an arrow of panic into my chest.
I heard what sounded like voices, panicked and fighting, and another flare lit up the alley. Creeping closer like the idiot I was, I picked up the next thing said.
“Thank you for showing me where the next Champion is, loser.”
At least it didn’t sound like Adam.
I snuck around the corner of the alley like a spy in a movie. A cardboard box full of something had caught fire, as well as some leaves blown in there, but otherwise, the only thing burning was the slim, bony figure of a boy around seventeen. Hi black hair was smoking, his amber eyes turning red in the blaze that surrounded him.
I recognized him from the pictures Maya had shown me: Franklin Fennel. But there, he'd been a normal kid smiling for a school photo. Here, he was a monstrous figure, flames pouring from his body, hate seeping from his eyes. His clawed fingers became fists, fire spewing around them. Boy did I hate fire.
“Hello, Champion. Come to witness the death of the one who betrayed you?” Franklin hissed in the voice of the Pyline. Well, a voice like the Pyline-- this one was male, not female.
“Who betrayed me?” I snarled.
“Oh, yeah. The weird fire-user.”
Luna. Luna had told this monster where I was?
“LUNA, I’M GOING TO--”
“You are doing nothing. Because you’ll be dead soon.”
I reached for the vines of ivy in the flower baskets, but a flick of Franklin’s wrist had them burning--dying. The familiar but painful sensation of knives stabbing my back followed me as I tried to let go of the dying plants.
The rest of the alley exploded into flames, my body unhurt somehow. In the bright, orange-gold light, I saw Luna, lying on the ground, chains made of embers wrapped around her torso and legs. She must have been in so much pain-- sometimes a small burn could hurt worse, since it wouldn’t stun or damage your nervous system. Thank my science teacher for that knowledge.
“Don’t use your magic, Champion. The others died in a fire about the size of the one my Master plans to unleash.”
“Well, I’ll have you know that I’m no-- what was her name-- Rose! I don’t go down easily. So what, I feel like I’ve been stabbed a few dozen times. It’s not a whole forest.”
“The others were just like you, you know…”
“NO! DON’T LISTEN TO HIM!” Luna screamed. “HE CAN GET INSIDE YOUR EHAD, TURN YOUR FEARS AGAINST YOU, MAKE YOU FEEL LIKE THE ONLY WAY TO KEEP YOUR FRIENDS SAFE IS TO DO WHAT HE SAYS! IT’S HORRIBLE, MOUSE! RUN!”
“I AM NOT MOUSE! YOU BETRAYED ME!”
“NO, I DIDN’T! I THOUGHT IT WOULD SAVE YOU! I WAS DUMB TO TRUST HIM!”
“HE ISN’T EVEN YOUR TARGET! HOW’D YOU END UP WITH HIM?”
“I DUNNO! HE FOUND ME!”
Franklin jumped at Luna, hitting her head hard. She slumped against the bricks, knocked out.
“I could bring you to my Master but I’m too kind for that.”
“Kind? You’re a MANIAC!”
“Yes, but I also don’t want you to suffer for days, just minutes.”
I turned to run-- there was a gap in the flames, by the restaurant wall! I could escape!
“Come on, Emerald.”
Franklin’s voice was back to normal. He was only slightly on fire. And he’d used my name.
“Come on, Emerald!” he repeated. “I can’t let you run through a wall of fire. You’d die!”
“You put it there.”
“Yeah, but that wasn’t me! That was the Pyline’s magic, used through me!”
“I don’t care. You’re stalling me so the remaining bit of not-on-fire wall gets on fire.”
I knew I shouldn't turn around, but his voice was so full of longing, so hopeful. The gawas too small, anyway. There had to be a fire extinguisher somewhere, right?
I shouldn't run through.
“Luna betrayed you. She’s a horrible person. She teased you--your name isn't Mouse! You’re amazing, and she would let the Pyline have you if it got her to safety. I put those chains on her so she wouldn’t hurt you.”
Franklin walked closer and closer, the fire around him dying. His eyes were so hopeful. So full of need.
“Emerald, I need you to be by my side. We can bring justice to the world. Forget the others! Have you seen how their minds work? Lying to others about their love, taking the places of their lovers, just to see who they’re allied with? Running away while others die? That Celeste girl saved annoying, bigheaded Luke instead of the thousands trapped at the school. They hid on your homeworld when more schools were burning, more people dying or being injured so bad it felt like death. They hold you back. They let others die. They let others die, so they can remain on their safe homeworld. They didn’t care about the people in the schools--they only cared about the other annoying Champions. Champions of what? Some old, stupid rocks? A lifeless planet? Emerald, I only used the Pyline to get power. To get where I need to be. And that is with you Emerald Glory, Nature-speaker.”
He was so close to me, and I didn’t care. He was so strange, so lonely, so hungry for anyone who understood him...I could be by his side as we rose to power...Anything...for him...my thoughts became blurry and strange. Suddenly, I had floated off the ground, vertically rising, inches away from his face, until he caught me in his arms...I was the missing piece he needed...I was the one…
“Emerald, you are so strong. Too strong. Just join me,a dn we can be what you’d ever be alone. All you need...is to give me this bit of you...let me have some control…”
YES YES ANYTHING FOR THE CUTE PSYCHOPATH, my mind shouted, my green eyes trapped in his amber ones.
Franklin held a small device in his hand. It was shiny and metal, shaped like an eye.
“Abandon the others. We don’t need them. We can be powerful...just give me some of your mind…”
YES YES I WILL GIVE YOU WHATEVER YOU WANT.
“I can give you anything you need, within your wildest dreams. Just let me have this...give yourself to me…”
Give it, my mind said.
Give it, give it, give it.
And then another part of me said no.
And that was all it took.
I leapt to my feet, waving my arms at him, mimicking karate moves I’d seen in a movie. But Franklin just swung his fist at me, stars sparking in my eyes before blackness overtook me.
*The device is the metal eye. The problem is that Emerald needs someone to trust. Franklin manipulates her to want to be with him, and this is her problem-- he made her have the issue so he could give her the solution, which wasn't really a solution, because mind control.*