CHAMPIONS: AT FIRE'S END
The Champions series
Eyes bore down on me from all directions. They glared as if they knew, as if they saw me for what I was, for where I was heading. A sea of cheerful faces surrounded me. I moved decisively through bustling streets. Head down, hands buried in my jacket pockets, I continued on, sure to avoid eye contact with anyone who might be watching. I dropped my gaze and let a deep, purposeful breath fill my lungs. Calm. I forced myself to see the truth. There was no danger here, only townsfolk going about their business in Caria’s streets and alleys which had come alive with nightfall.
The night air was mild and coloured with a comforting hint of summer. Bright melodies interlaced with soulful blues as I strode through vibrant night streets. Each alley way was illuminated by streams of white globes hanging from eaves of rickety, aged buildings. Thatched, tiled and rusted tin rooftops mixed into a patchwork of ageing brick, stone and wooden buildings. They had been pieced together over time using whatever was on hand, including any remnants of Old Caria that could be salvaged in the wake of its destruction over a hundred years ago. Lining, or more like forming, the alleyways were tall, short, narrow and stout buildings, many with a noticeable lean that closed in over the streets in a way that narrowed the view from street to sky and made the stars above feel close enough to touch. But, as I moved through the crowd-filled streets, anyone could be watching. Or no-one might be out there at all. And yet I couldn’t shake the feeling that something ominous was slinking in the shadows, just beyond the corner of my eye.
Each alley folded into the next and became steadily narrower until, finally, a clear view opened out before me. Cobblestones turned to red dirt. I caught sight of a three-storey cream brick building standing tall and looking reasonably solid across the street. As casually as I could manage, I leaned against a crumbling wall opposite to take a glance rapidly up and down the street. It was filled with townspeople walking in and out of stores, homes, and establishments. Concern filtered through my mind as I realised that I was not the only one who would see this street for what it was – perfect cover. Music and ruckus voices echoed from the building. I spied an open gate which led to the bar’s loading dock. I weaved between cheery townspeople and stepped off across the street. Amidst the distractions of daily life, no one noticed a single pedestrian slip from view. With a final glance over my shoulder, I ducked into the loading bay.
Breathing fast, I scanned the empty dock now shrouded in darkness. Thin slivers of moonlight sprawled over the walls and floor to illuminate a small, wooden door. Anxiety threatened to crush me to a halt. The sound of muffled footsteps reached my ears. In a rush, I slid through the open basement door and clicked it shut behind me. They were always watching, but this was something different. Maybe spending too long in their world had made me paranoid. What am I talking about ‘maybe’? Of course it had. I drew a calming breath and crept down a flight of worn stairs that were made of stone and carved into Caria’s bedrock. I was relieved to find that the basement beneath, with its carved stone walls, was empty.
With sure footsteps, I strode to a far corner. There was a heavy, rusted iron ventilation plate fixed into the bottom edge of the wall. An odd place for an old vent but, then again, this was far more than simply a pathway to an external wall. It was a long forgotten remnant of a saving grace that I now hoped would bring my salvation by taking the opposite path as that which had carried Caria’s original people to safety. The iron grate lifted in my hands with a gentle creak. I climbed through, closed the grate once more, and started running through the darkness of the narrow tunnel which now lay before me. With a flick of my hand, a bright blue orb illuminated to cast an eerie glow that bounced from the rock tunnel walls. Enough to light the way. A faint creak echoed across soft stone, or did I imagine it? I must have; the sound was too soft to be real, too distant… But still unnerving. Darkness always enjoyed playing tricks on me.
The blue orb fell from existence as I climbed crumbling steps cut into heavy soil. My hand came to rest on another iron grate. He has to be here. But what if he isn’t, and I am truly all alone in this war? I heaved open the grate above my head and dragged myself out. I suddenly found myself scrambling to my feet within the shattered remains of a once grand clock tower, now nothing more than a skeleton littered with rubble and scarred with scorch marks. In silence, I stood for a moment to look out over a field of ruins that held Caria’s broken Old Clock Tower at its epicentre. All life and energy had long since faded. Now, the only movement came in the scurrying of mice and the crumbling of a civic centre long forgotten but forever remembered in the hearts and minds of New Caria now thriving a short distance upstream.
I took care to step on solid footing and skipped hurriedly down crumbling stone stairs that held ghosts of grandeur atop a clearing that once took pride of place in a flourishing town. It was the site where, we had been told during school field trips, terror had pitted neighbours against each other until the town tore itself apart. I took in a steadying breath and then made a run for cover. And for an old friend.
“Where are you?” I spoke to the shadows of a town now built on ghosts. A man dropped down from above, and landed effortlessly on the shattered cobblestones before me as if a three storey drop from an unstable building meant nothing. A lanky figure with unkempt, dirty blonde hair strode towards me, menacing. “Not sure jeans and a t-shirt do you justice, Ares.” I noted as I watched the powerful Immortal figure reach me.
“An attempt to fit in. Or stand out less,” he explained. He appeared calm but wary, curious but bored, in control but ready to snap at an instant. Everything about him seemed mortal, as you would expect from anyone else walking on the street, except for the long blade sheathed across his back. Menace melted abruptly into a wide grin.
“So. You’re still alive, then?”
“Afraid so.” I grinned.
Ares drew me in for a rough hug, then stepped away, reluctant to let his guard down under the watchful gaze that always followed their Champions. It was a curiosity to see someone who seemed to care so little for everyone else care so much for a single person who meant barely nothing to the rest of the world. Ares looked at the field of ruins surrounding us.
“Old Caria truly was magnificent,” he said, reminiscent.
“Until they all turned on each other. Over a witch.” I scoffed. “Fear, more like it, for whatever it was that the town couldn’t understand. They flipped out and decided that setting her and her sister on fire was their best option.”
“You should be less flippant, Kyle. Fear is powerful. It brought you here, didn’t it?”
I hesitated. He was right.
“Ares, I don’t know what to do,” I let out, rushed and suddenly breathless.
“Kyle Haze not knowing what to do,” he appeared to revel in it. “Well, well, isn’t this a change? What can I do for you?” Rustling and crumbling echoed from the ruins behind us. “Not here.” Ares noted, wary, and took my arm to hurry to cover behind another set of ruins.
“I need a way out,” I went on, more urgent than before. “These abilities you gave us. I need a way to get rid of them.”
Curiosity illuminated Ares’ ageless eyes.
“And here I was thinking you had always enjoyed your abilities, young mortal.”
“Not for me. My future’s sealed. But hers… She doesn’t deserve to be part of this world.”
Another chunk of ruins crumbled nearby. My head spun around to look, but all I could see were shadows cast between moonlight. And maybe the faint red glow of a sunset that should have reached the ruins hours earlier…
“Caria’s a good place, Kyle. It is worth our war.” Sadness filtered through Ares’ usually effortless, powerful tone. “These people are worth it, worth our sacrifices. Don’t let centuries of battle have been for nothing. I implore you to make this end. You, and April, are the only beings who can. And we are waiting.”
“Maybe just me, then.” I replied. Ares threw me a stare filled with questions at my mention of my fellow Champions and holder of the red Flame. “April is… nowhere. She hasn’t contacted me in nearly a year, since she left. What if something happened?”
“You shouldn’t worry about her. She’ll come back for you.”
“Is there a way? To hide her?”
Ares paused. His eyes glanced to the shadows with what was a keen skill developed over centuries of battle and deception.
“No,” he replied, distant. “It seems the Immortals have already expended their quota for meddling in her life.”
“What does that mean?” But we were interrupted by the unshakeable feeling of being watched.
“Someone followed you here,” Ares whispered, urgent. “There is a way to achieve what I think you’re looking for. But you’re not going to like it.”
Ares smiled, then leaned closer to whisper in my ear. He leaned away to once again send his attention to the shadowed ruins around us. “You should take appropriate steps,” he added. “Should you both wish to survive this.”
“I don’t believe you.”
“Yes you do. You simply don’t want to.” Suddenly, Ares raised a finger to his lips and glanced to the ruins above us. His gaze locked on mine, suddenly fierce. “Get out of here,” he whispered and drew the single blade slowly from behind his back.
“You get out of here.”
“Where’s the fun in that?” Ares grinned and nodded in the opposite direction. “Now!”
Bright blue orbs of water burst to life in my hands and we dived into the ruins in opposite directions. Crumbling pieces of stone and wooden debris erupted around us. Tiny chunks flew skyward and then rained down with force and precision only possible using Immortal power. Stone pieces catapulted towards me. I did my best to shoot them down in jets of glimmering bright blue water. My eyes dashed over the scene but, with every glimpse of the assailant, shadows took their place. It was as if traces of light folded in on themselves to leave behind only darkness. And a faint, red glow that seemed oddly familiar… Our attacker was agile and fast, but not as fast as Ares, who darted around the ruin field blocking attack after attack with ease.
Another cluster of debris flew our way. I blasted out at it with a wave of icy water that shattered through and crunched into a rickety stone pillar in front of us. Whoever was out there was sticking to the shadows, using abilities to keep the light away and remain hidden. Using abilities to channel the light… Water fell away in my hands, useless, as realisation dawned. I stood motionless and defenceless in the middle of the debris field, wide open. But it can’t be. There’s no fire.
“You’re back…” I mumbled under my breath and on the edge of silence.
A heavy piece of stone ricocheted towards me, but I didn’t react. I couldn’t.
“Kyle!” Ares shouted. He leaped towards me and dragged me to the ground. I heard him cry out. The onslaught ceased. Debris fell away around us to return to its ghostly home among the ruins of Old Caria.
“Ares!” I rushed to gather his shoulders in my hands. The powerful Immortal lay sprawled across shattered cobblestones.
Blood oozed from a chunk torn in his side where our attacker’s stone had struck him instead of me. But the blood stopped. Muscle and skin twined themselves together beneath my hands as the gaping hole seemed to repair itself. In moments, Ares was brushing himself off. The bloodied tear in his shirt was the only reminder of a near miss.
Footsteps fell behind us. Rage boiled to life behind Ares’ eyes.
“Jesus Christ, April!” he shouted at the darkness. “You could have killed him!”
“He was supposed to move,” a girl’s voice defended, with reproach and strength that I never thought I would hear again. A tall girl with olive skin and flowing dark hair threw a hand at Ares and dragged him from the ground before pushing him aside.
“Get away from him,” she warned Ares as if I wasn’t there.
“Not sure if you witnessed which of us tried to kill him,” Ares pushed her in return, but they both stood down. “Much can change in a single mortal year.”
Her reply was scathing.
“Do the High Council know you’re down here?”
“They do, as a matter of fact,” Ares’ grin returned. “Bet they didn’t know you were here, though. You shouldn’t’ve stepped from the shadows.”
Ares glanced from me to April, regaining his composure.
“Right. That’s me done,” he noted with a glance skyward. “Kyle. April. Always a pleasure.”
“You are back,” I let out, astounded. I dusted myself off and clambered up from the debris. Ares vanished into the shadows.
“I am,” she noted. “You’re rusty.”
“Nice trip?” I asked, ignoring her and the fact that she had almost taken me out.
“Not at all.”
“Hermes tried to murder me.”
“That’s not surprising,” she paused, and then let her matter-of-fact tone slip into something that sounded almost compassionate. “I’m sad to hear it, though. Do you want to…. talk about it?”
“No, I’m good. All part of the job.”
I scanned the crumbling ruins. April had cast shimmering white-red light to hide herself from me and Ares. I felt a pang of jealousy at the thought of the second elemental control which the Immortals had felt necessary to bestow upon her Flame. But the telekinesis… no matter how long she’d been away for, there was no way that kind of power could have manifested with such strength. Was there?
“When did you learn to move things through the air like that?” I asked and gestured to the pieces of ruins littering the ground around us.
April snapped her fingers.
I blinked. The battle field wasn’t there anymore. Instead, the ruins looked as they had before objects apparently started flying through the air. I looked back to April.
“But I can make you think I can,” she quipped and tapped her forehead with a wink.
“Telepathy,” I could have sworn the debris had been real. And yet, with a show of strength I hadn’t seen before, April had made sure none of it had been real at all. “But Ares… a chunk tore straight through him…”
“Friendly fire.” April gestured to the pillar my last blast wave had collided with. A hefty chunk was missing. Webs of ice crystals plastered at the blast crater’s edge. “Watch what you’re blasting at, Kyle.”
“I thought I was…” Confusion took hold for a moment. I was suddenly in awe of the strength of April’s telepathy – the unexpected strength. Something was there that I didn’t know about – some reason, some event, that had led to the rapid shift in capability. Something April might tell me later, but probably wouldn’t. When I’d last seen her a year before, there was no way she would have been capable of messing with my mind like this. Yet, in the entire altercation, she hadn’t used her primary elemental control once.
“But why? Why isn’t this place on fire?”
“Sorry for not wanting to break you. Even though it looks like I almost did anyway.”
“When did you get back from Japan?”
“Last week,” but her voice rose, then fell in an obvious lie. “Figured I should come find you.”
“A text would’ve done the trick. Rather than stalking me through Caria’s streets. New and Old.”
“I missed Caria.”
In that moment, seeing her again standing in front of me, I felt a deep sense of loneliness wash away as if the year without word had never happened; replaced with comfort, warmth and belonging, that only existed when we were together, and that had vanished while she was away. I stepped closer and drew her in for a rough hug.
“It’s good to see you.” I broke into an unshakeable grin.
“You too.” I felt her smile against my neck before she stepped away.
“Feels familiar.” I noted, still grinning. The mood between us relaxed. “Last time you were hunting me through the streets, we found out what we each were and they threw us at the drama in Bayside City.”
April laughed a laugh I had almost forgotten, but that seemed uncharacteristic to the stone cold hunter who faced a devastated world head on.
“They had to do something. We’d almost ruined a wing of Caria getting to know each other.”
I cast my thoughts back, amazed at how much can change in eighteen months.
“We really didn’t get along back then.”
A comfortable silence fell.
“You and Hermes were nowhere. I needed some advice.”
A moment’s hesitation fell over me before I could bring myself to speak.
“I found one.”
April seemed surprised, but relieved.
“While you were in Japan, I kept searching here,” I explained with a grin. “Six months ago I struck gold. It’s taken seventeen years, but I found the third Champion.”
“Are you sure?”
“I saw it. The air element. I saw someone use it.”
April threw me a smile that lit up the dark night streets.
“Did you find any traces?” I asked. “I know it’s not why you were away, but… still.”
“No, nothing,” she replied, cold and sharp. “Only… only that our Flames should have been drawn together by now. They were supposed to find each other eventually…”
“Are you serious?” Anger flared. “So we could have just waited here for them to find us?”
“But we want them to be on the back foot. Them not knowing who we are is the best advantage we’ve got.”
Tension and uncertainty lingered between us. I reached a hand into her jeans pocket and withdrew her phone.
“You’ll be back in school now, yeah?” I asked, unsure, and began typing an address.
“It’s been a while, but I’ll be there.”
“Great,” I smiled and handed back the phone. “Then meet me in the tree line, here. Tomorrow morning before school. I have something to show you.”
And with that, April turned away and began walking back through the disaster zone that was Old Caria as if it were nothing more than a Sunday afternoon stroll. I watched her disappear into the ruins of the Old Clock Tower with happiness and trepidation. I no longer had to do this alone. Yet April’s return marked the beginning of the end. I thought we’d have more time before the final battle began. I thought I’d have more time to hide her. But Ares was right. The people of Caria are worth our sacrifices. Not even a year apart could falter a resolve which had been instilled in us since birth. But we still had a chance to survive, and I was going to take it.