One: Backhand Fist
What hope do you see in this glass star, anyway? Good core but next to no livable surface area thanks to a generous coating of toxic minerals. You can call the military shielding an act of Phate if you want, but I say blind luck was our savior. I don’t care it’s the ‘miracle mineral’, either. I don’t have the same respect you do for Canor’s survival.
We know why it happened, but that’s no good to us. You’re always saying Buddy’s a good kid, but so were we. Grenadier isn’t the sharing type, but he’s hinted he fought in the war. When he does talk. What debt do you owe me you decided I should be a Lady of this blasted bastion? Inherit what? C’mon. You still won’t tell anyone what Windshifter promised you.
He did, right?
I get a little jealous about the kids sometimes. Sonata and Buddy have these wild imaginations—or code—something, I don’t know. Then they draw you in because we risked everything for them… and you, and us. How am I supposed to measure up to that? I decided finally I wasn’t going to try. So here it is, my little tale of why I joined the KnightsMage.
Just like I promised.
I could tell you about the circuit, but it all starts with my legs. No avoiding that. See, when I got to be about ten I found out I was a runner. I was the one doing laps while the other kids complained about it. You dropped out of school, if I remember, but I never really hated school, I just never caught the glint.
My passion for running had all sorts of consequences like a social life including a string of boyfriends most of whom never saw me for me – just pretty eyes and long legs. That wasn’t especially wounding, since I was the Breakneck Bunters All Star. Clueless bliss. The awards and prizes made Mom’n’Pop happy and left me alone to play drums when I wanted, so whatever. Music was my backup plan.
I still love drums, I just bang Catalyst heads together now. Different scene, same music the way I play.
There was this one thought I couldn’t get out of Pop’s head, and that was the strange idea he had about me and marathon running. Built like I was Doctor Namiki warned me I’d pop a lung, so I put my foot down and raised my voice at Pop about it. It was because of that clap-trap he refused to let me compete offside.
Not like I cried about it.
A lot of stuff was important to me, but… the year-end meet at Columnar Secondary took first place. This was an annual meet, and in five years Dad hadn’t missed a solitary event. Working his skin to the bone, and I noticed. Boy howdy did I notice.
I did my long jump, 100-meter dash, and was gettin’ ready for my big run when I got called over by J. Tennison, my new coach. Pretty guy, strict as law. I was crushin’ on him pretty hard. Mr. Tennison looked unsettled and sad.
He gave me his phone. It was Mom.
Pop had been killed in some kind of accident or something. Tennison was busy apologizing and explaining as if I gave a wick. I’ve never cried so hard in my life about anything.
A Catalyst raid had hit his traffic route and vaped him and a bunch of others who were too close to the Allied Water Purification Plant they’d targeted. It got complex then. I quit track, sorta. Didn’t mean to, but I was so messed up about Pop … and then other things got in the way.
Plural, and yeah, I’ll get to them.
The funeral was a stupid little affair. Because they vaporized him all we had was a little eulogy and an epitaph. I hated everything. Do you know this lyric? ‘Burst the shroud, sink the shards’. Ayani does. That was my soul-song for a while.
A little later I put the story together and decided who to hate for stealing Pop away. Wasn’t long after that we moved to Angel City. While Mom’s credentials were clearing we stayed with the Sagers. Family friends, once upon a time. Good people. Friends for life. Finally they did and we moved to North Eversay, just up street from Farthing Corridor in Sector 7.
Mom was different, distant and lonely. She asked me if I wanted to compete again, but my heart wasn’t in it. Instead, I took up martial arts and quickly became pretty dangerous. Like your daughter I excelled at hand-to-hand-fracas. Unlike her, busting out a few bra sizes didn’t hurt my skills.
My career as a runner was crushed by that fact, and it hurt me big time. I could fight, and that eased the ill a little. Not much though. I carried a grudge as heavy as I could lift and smacked a few undeserving schmoes with it. Yeah, that was the time my wish was granted and you had your accident.
Flying off to Ansile Colony to join the KnightsMage elect affected me, but you know I never said a word. Why should I? Wasn’t going to quake your ride. With my grades and scholarships I hadn’t needed to make any big decisions about my career future. I had a habit of good academics, and I kept it so teachers didn’t hassle me about my new attitude and style.
Then life throws you a ball and you realize you should have dodged it.
I had some real interesting courses and teachers, but since James Tennison, only my Retail Finances teacher gave a shard. Renaldo Samus had an impact on me, too, now I think on it. He was stylish and charming, but he wasn’t exactly attractive. He was all about social responsibility and good, clean hard work.
It would matter to me after I’d nearly hung myself out to dry. I guess he kinda saved my life in a way. ‘Course there was Master Iridian, but we weren’t acquainted then. She just gave me – more – focus.
Likewise, the Principal of Dodge High tried to impress upon me the pride that ‘one can feel striving for the utmost of excellence in academics.’ Said the school was named after some ancient Crysolen master. Yeah, so what? She should have been happy I didn’t decide to nap during that part.
I wanted to get social, since I missed it, but I made the self-destructive choice to limit myself to martial arts and found no outlet. You know how all the answers don’t come all at once after your wish is granted.
I was trying to sleep, asking that I might get a little help settling the score with Pop’s killer when I broke my mobile. Smashed the thing into teenie shards of plastic in my hand. Sharding pain, you know. Stupidly, it didn’t hurt.
I didn’t see how the extra strength would help. It was hard to explain to Mom in the morning, but the irritation of handling ‘man chores’ made me forget about it and boast even less. Upper body strength has its uses, but I was feeling selfish.
Only about a week passed before I cultivated a rep for being rough and tumble. Can you imagine waking up being four times stronger than everyone? Took me a week to figure out how to suppress it, but by then I got tagged by the kids who were paying any attention.
I know Master Iridian would’ve had me over a gunpike. Funny thing was I didn’t meet her until just after you returned from Ansile Colony. Weird huh?
Dodge High had a dress code, and I liked to abuse it by adding my own accessories to the black, red and yellow uniforms. The short skirt bugged me, so I wore leggings, and a uniform coat or a sweater when the weather let me.
My attitude didn’t intimidate Bobby Shattering. We had a pride-and-stupidity thing going right out of the school that should have stayed there. Instead our words became violence and a blocked knife-hand became his broken wrist. I admitted it was my fault, what could I do? In a hundred years maybe a handful are granted the kind of strength I had, but they admonished me anyway.
I hated it. The teachers told me it was accidental, even though I said it wasn’t. Self defense is my right, but my suspension was theirs. Shattering was warned, but that wouldn’t be the last time we locked horns. It was then Master Iridian assumed control of our martial arts school.
Maybe the events were related, but who cares?
Master Iridian sorted us out by having him tossed out of the school. Turns out she knew him and he had a record for excessive force. Only reason he got in in the first place was Master Rainscott wasn’t discerning in the least.
My reprieve didn’t last very long, though.
It was a week I was away, and when I got back, word had gotten around I was a Berserker. This made me angrier than ever and I had no one to blame for it but me. It was all so stupid, I just felt worse about … all of it.
I found refuge under a tall oak tree in the empty field where a new development had stalled. There weren’t enough credits to prepare the foundation for the new workshop they wanted to build. Whenever I showed up people quietly scattered.
Except Ayani, one day.
She was reading, and I figured she didn’t see me flash my teeth at her, looming like a black hydra. So I let her be… I liked how calm she was without being scared or insulting. It was a weird impulse that I chose not to ignore. I rationalized it by telling myself I was getting depressed and lonely. It was more true than I realized. Anyway, a little bit on I realized she was humming.
“What the flak are you so cheery ’bout?” Profanities were another refuge of mine. She laughed. It was refreshing to hear someone laugh in a way that wasn’t false or nervous. I thought she was stoved, or wicking.
“Deep Shiv’s new album.”
Ayani’s so sweet looking, and I was surprised someone like her would be into music so brutal. I didn’t know anything about people. Sure it was an Indie album with no reputation, but it was honest, harsh stuff about betrayal, suicide and hope. Pure.
“Yeh? Anything specific?”
I was silently flabbergasted. Not a ruffle out of place, copper-red pigtail hair shiny and smelling nice. I got the impression that she dolled up in the mirror when I would dull up just looking at myself. I’m pretty, but I wasn’t attractive back then because I didn’t want to be.
Dunno why but she was on my watch list, but… she had been all year. I guess on some level I always knew we’d become friends. Pop always said my heart was wiser than my head. That was my favorite track, and I had memorized it, covering the drums – well enough.
Matsui Granidez was so blasted talented. So we kept meeting like that, talkin’ music and whatever. Eventually she introduced herself. Guess it didn’t take long. Ayani’s a heckuva lot braver than I am. Still is.
“That a fact?” I lurched forward, getting in her face hoping for a reaction. Nothin’. I liked that too. “Masurani, if you can tolerate me.”
In my head I was thinking, trying to decide of she was brave or stupid enough to carry on with me, what with my reputation. We did, and maybe I was grateful for any time she wanted to share with me. Now I know why, but not then.
She wasn’t judgmental, and I was depressed. Bit like you, too—wise beyond her years. At that time I swore she was the cutest geek I’d ever met. I grew really fond of her, but never said it. There was this thing that solidified our friendship, you see. It happened that fall … mid-October.
Sometimes when the rain gets toxic the shield doesn’t protect us, so we have to stay under cover. Our tree wasn’t safe because all of the leaves had gotten soaked underneath. Can’t sit on that, right?
“Spatter Kids gonna be in Battle of the Brats,” I chuckled, thinking of Mr. Samus’ pun: ‘It was going to be a school-wide brattle.’
She smiled, winningly, and waited for me to gush about what track we were pushing for. Darcy was slacking the vocals, but we trusted him to nail it onstage. That was his quirk: Live Show Genius. He was an idiot but had a good heart and the voice of a black shroud.
We were somewhere between the shop and the library, under the lip of the roof. Well, didn’t we hear desperate little chirps up the way in a corridor between buildings. Turned out to be my good-as-sister Naritha Sager being Godzilla’d by Shattering and two of his cronies.
I tensed right up, heart rate jumping as I took stock of ’em and gave Ayani a meaningful glance with fists clenched by my face. She shook her head and made like she was ready for it. I frowned deeply and rooted myself while she decided what to do.
Ready for that? How?! That’s the dimension of calm I’ve always admired about her.
Bobby Shattering wasn’t happy to see Ayani, and when he noticed me he turned white, then scarlet. I saw his healed wrist twitch. He hadn’t forgotten any of the embarrassments I’d caused him.
So’s the better for me, I thought. With him off balance we had the advantage. A little heat in the right direction gave him the idea Ayani wasn’t afraid to burn him and all of his posterity. Looking back now I see what she did, but right then all I saw was his face turn paler.
He scrammed real quick with his pals, empty curses in their wake. Naritha apologetically entered the fold, promising to be more assertive. She also stuck close to us.
It took Shattering six months to pool enough of his scummy power to get revenge. Wasn’t a little gamble either. He caught us during a long break at our tree, knowing the school cameras weren’t angled to cover that spot.
It was all gonna be about degrees of violence, anyhow.
“That’s our tree, Coates.” Shattering addressed Ayani, of course. I looked up from my scrolltext, thinking ‘What the hell?’
“What will you do to claim it?” she demanded. No wit-dulling banter. Why are you really here? We all wanted to know that.
Shattering chuckled and snarled. From under his coat came a little black handle I didn’t see at first. Ayani deflected his overhand swing at her head wrist to wrist, and I was assaulted by the sour smell of trelic. Naritha was hiding behind the tree, so we squared off against the three scum-scrapers he’d dragged along as muscle.
“What’re you doing with a blade?” I scowled. “Flakkin’ things are illegal!”
“Gonna argue? Go ahead, bubblegal!” he jeered, turning at me. His tone shook me inside, and I was too stunned to avoid the swift slash of his long right arm. The world flashed brightly in my eyes and I dropped to my knees. I’d fully expected the energy blade to slice off my forearm.
“Masurani!” Ayani cried, and then I heard a loud thump and grunt.
“Coates, you—” His words were cut off by a wash of heat and the noise of the three boys running screaming across the field. Naritha’s gentle voice was at my ear while tears streamed down my face. My coat, shirt and bra were slipping off my shoulders. Clumsily I grasped at them as they disintegrated in my hands.
The flush of shame lit my cheeks, and then Ayani’s shadow landed on me followed by her large, long sleeved uniform jacket. Naritha made comforting sounds and pushed tissue into one of my hands.
“Thank you,” she said. I still couldn’t see straight. What would Mom think?
I sat, head hung, unmoving and deathly embarrassed. Softly I explained why I always wore loose sweaters and jacket tops. Bobby’s lusting was degrading, and it was worse he usually tried to paw me at the worst times, like some stupid game.
“I hate ’em!” I gasped, fists against my chest.
“Then you hate yourself?” Naritha was so self-assured I did not have the nerve to question her.
I tried to explain that it wasn’t me, it was the dumbbells hangin’ on my chest, and my Pop’s death, and my running career and… Naritha stopped my blathering. Blithering? Maybe I was doing both.
If I’m anything like pretty she’s angelic, and so sincere. You met her once, right? It was as if she understood my soul and felt my pain. I didn’t know she was an empath and a mighty heart.
I’ve never forgotten what she said next: “You are beautiful and strong, brave and a protector. From you I have learned what these things mean. From you I learned that being who I am is not wrong. I am imperfect, I am young. Thank you.”
Looking at it on the screen like that makes it seem just a little bit corny, but not with her resolute, soothing voice crooning to my vandalized heart. She meant every word, and I’ve never doubted her sincerity. Seems she’d made her wish not long ago and received a Shard for it.
I covered myself up properly by the time the teachers heard about all the noise. For a while it looked like we were in real hot water until Janus stepped up as a witness, bringing her cadre along. Shattering was expelled in the long run for carrying an unlicensed weapon. His cronies left us alone meanwhile, and that was enough.
I never pressed charges, even though Mom wanted to. She was furious as hellfire, which made me feel pretty good. Toped most of the time, but then, you knew that and so did Ayani.
Our reputation as ‘Reckless Yearlings’ spread throughout Angel City, something we’d face later. In the meantime nobody messed with us, which was nice. I mean, I was used to fighting for my peace. Until Edyon’s crew threatened Ayani I thought I had her figured out.
I mean seriously, the KnightsMage? Those were chops I figured she didn’t have.
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