Chapter 9: The Other Student
The alien invader yelled out as a bolt of liquid plasma reduced him to liquid goo. His comrades rallied around him, their pattern of attack unchanged as one then another met a similar fate.
Arthur slammed down on the joystick, getting his virtual avatar out of the way of mortal danger just in time, before rapidly pressing down on the ‘Fire’ button to destroy his assailants. The arcade machine beeped and pinged as the counter in the corner of the screen tracked Arthur’s progress towards the high score.
The other kids of the town surrounded the machine, cheering on the strange boy who was close to beating the high score of Space Prisoners Escape! which had dominated the leaderboard of the machine for as long as any could remember. No one knew who the mysterious RIL was, but in a small town with so little to do the high score on the pizza shop’s ancient arcade machine was something of a local legend. Even the adults were taking notice of Arthur’s streak, the customers pretending not to be interested while the owners strained their neck to watch from behind the counter. This might just be history in the making.
Arthur was down to his last life and he was running out of health but his score was so, so close. If he could hit one more boost the score was his for sure. The crowd went silent as the requisite glowing green icon spawned at the top of the screen. The intensity in the air was palatable as the virtual avatar made its way to its the icon ….
A hand forcefully slammed down on the arcade machine, startling Arthur and causing the joystick to slip in his hands. A bright red message appeared in the middle of the screen informing him that his avatar had met its end.
Before he even looked Arthur knew who the hand belonged to. Ai, his fellow apprentice under Ryu, looked at him with an expression somewhere between exasperation and anger. It made her look more like a jilted housewife than a girl barely into her teenage years.
“Aw, man, your Mother’s here,” said a boy with a beak-like nose. Arthur was an oddity to the kids in town; he didn’t go to the same school, he didn’t show up to events, he didn’t even go to church, only ever making brief trips down from the farmhouse where he lived. Ai, however, was even stranger, with her serious attitude and haughty manner. The parental-like way she treated Arthur earned her the nickname ‘Mother’ despite only being a year older than him.
“Why’d ya do that, lady?” asked another boy, a large child used to getting his way through physical intimidation. He straightened up, intending to stare down the smaller girl, but one look from her sent him slinking back away.
“This is not why you were sent here,” Ai declared. “Time to go.”
Arthur was going to argue, looking to the others boys for backup, but they were already leaving, mumbling about the unfairness of it all but unwilling to contend with Ai. Seeing no help coming, Arthur dejectedly left the pizza shop.
“I almost had the high score, you know?” Arthur grumbled as the two walked down the street together. “I’ll never get a chance like that again! Couldn’t you have waited? Why are you here, anyway? Ryu said I could run the errands today!”
Ai waited until Arthur had finished his little rant before replying. “You’ve been gone for three hours. Ryu got worried and sent me to look for you. Though I thought it was pretty obvious what I would find you doing.”
Arthur reached around to the hat tied around the back of his neck and put it on his head. The straw hat was still big on him, but the gift from Ryu made him feel more mature and on Ai’s level. “He never sends me after you when you’re late running errands.”
Ai shrugged. “I’ve never been late because I stopped for pizza and games. Ryu is going to be furious.”
“Wait-wait-wait!” Arthur protested. “You can’t tell Ryu that! The next time he’ll let me leave the farm I’ll be as old as him.”
“He’s going to want to know why you are late.” Ai sighed. “I suppose we can tell him the grocery store was busy tonight. It’s happened before.”
“You’d do that for me?” Arthur sounded incredulous.
“Sure.” The faintest of smiles crossed Ai’s lips. “But I’m going to take this for the rest of the day.” In one rapid motion she snatched the hat off of Arthur’s head and put it on her own.
“Hey!” Arthur called out, grabbing at his hat-less head. “Give it back!” But Ai was already running down the street. He chased after her as the two made their way back towards the farmhouse.
“So I got one of these fragmenty things inside me?” Marco asked, spitting bits of eggs as he did.
Ryu and his students sat around the antique wooden dining table and ate a simple breakfast of eggs and bacon. To his surprise, Marco had opted to wait until morning to get his answers, deciding he would rather get some rest first. He was taking the news fairly well, in Ryu’s estimation. At the very least, it had not affected his massive appetite in any way.
“That’s right,” Ryu answered. “You are a carrier. The fragment inside you grants you power over your element greater than any normal man, but also makes you a target for the Dark God and his minions.”
Marco chewed on a mouthful of bacon while mulling this over. “I’d say you were all crazy, but I definitely saw things yesterday that don’t make sense.” He paused for just a moment to shovel more eggs in his mouth, then continued while still chewing, “Alright, say I believe you. What next?”
“I teach you how to command your element so you can defend yourself from those forces that would try to harm you.” He scratched his head as he contemplated the big man. “Though from what I’ve heard from Arthur, you’ve already tapped into your Stone Element, albeit accidentally.”
Marco was confused enough to stop eating for a moment. “What are you talking about?”
Ryu turned so that he was no longer addressing just Marco but Sam and Peter as well. It was a lecture that they would all need to hear at some point. “Drawing power from your element enhances your physical body. While channeling you will feel stronger and faster, with sharper vision and clearer hearer. The exact effect varies from element to element. Stone Elementalists can enhance their strength and durability far beyond others as their bodies take on the properties of the rock they are channeling.”
“Wait just a minute!” Marco said, pointing a meaty finger accusingly at the old man. “My strength is the result of years of hard work and training! I didn’t even know about all this element stuff before!”
“You’ve never felt sudden a sudden burst of strength?” Ryu asked. “Have you ever felt like for a brief moment you were capable of hitting harder, with far more force than you should be able to, more than should be even physically possible?”
Marco was silent for a moment, his wide eyes giving evidence to his sudden realization. “Ah, shit! When I was disqualified from boxing for rocks in my gloves … I accused my manager, my publicist, my opponent’s manager, my ex-girlfriend, anyone who might want to sabotage me. But that was my fault, wasn’t it?”
One of Ryu’s eyebrows raised. “As a carrier, your connection to your element is so strong that you moments of stress, when you are incredibly focused on a single goal, you could channel accidentally. I am truly amazed that you could create a physical manifestation of your element like that, but the power of carriers always surprises me.”
Leaning back in his chair, Marco ran a hand through his stubbly hair. “I owe some people an apology.”
“Hey, does that mean that I can go full superhero?” Sam chimed in. “I want super strength!”
Ryu gave Sam an apologetic look. “My experience with Fire Elements is a little … limited. I’m afraid I’m not sure what effect channeling fire has on your body.”
“Just on the mind,” Arthur added under his breath, getting a warning glance from his teacher in response.
As the shock wore off, Marco dug back into his plate. “Ah, well. Can’t blame me for not knowing I’m magic. I bet there are no rules in the WBA about it, either. Wonder if I can get my disqualification overturned.”
The conversation from there was mostly Marco talking about his boxing career and the others politely feigning interest. There was a brief moment of genuine connection when Peter brought up an older boxing game that he recognized Marco as a character from, quickly broken when he accidentally let slip how bad Marco’s stats were in the game.
After breakfast Ryu wanted to run his youngest students through their exercises to give Marco an example of how an element is grasped. They had just finished gathering outside when a cab pulled up on the outskirts of the farm.
Ai looked much the same as she did yesterday, as if no time had passed since she had parted with Arthur. Ryu, moving much faster than you’d expect for such an old guy, crossed the field to greet his long-gone student.
“I’m so glad you are back,” he said as he put a familiar hand on her shoulder. “Things are progressing faster than I could have imagined. Arthur and you are going to have your hands full. I hope you’re ready.”
She gave a simple nod before taking in the rest of the group. “I know the big one’s a carrier. The other two as well?”
“One of them is. I’ll explain later.”
He turned to the rest of the group, who had gathered around the new arrival. “Everyone, I’d like to introduce you to my student, Ai. She’ll be assisting in your training from now on.”
“Nice to see you again,” Marco said. “I don’t think I got a chance to properly thank you for saving our hides last night. I’m Marco Mascle. You may know me from my pro-boxing career.”
“Sorry, I’m not familiar,” Ai replied.
Peter raised his hand in a casual wave. “I’m Peter. Not a carrier, but very interested in learning my element. I look forward to learning from you.”
Ai turned to the last member of the group she was unfamiliar with. The red-headed boy’s pale skin turned a bright pink under her attention.
“Oh, hi, I’m Sam,” he managed with a squeaky voice. “I carry fire. I mean, I’m a Fire Element. And a carrier.”
She gave Sam a long, curious look, which somehow made him turn even pinker. “Fire, huh? That is interesting. I’d like to talk to you more about that later.”
“Yes!” he immediately enthusiastically replied. “I mean, yeah, sure, we can do that.”
“Smooth, Fariman,” Peter said with a chuckle.
Arthur stood back and waited for the introductions to be finished. Finally, Ai broke away from the farm’s newest residents and approached him.
“Glad you could finally join us, Ai,” Arthur said lightly. “I was beginning to think that you had decided your globe-trotting vacation was more important. Bring back any seniors, at least? T-shirt, coffee mug, maybe a collectible snow globe?”
She didn’t rise to the bait. “Believe me, it was no vacation.”
He knew that she wouldn’t give him any more than that as to where she had been or what she had been doing. The assignments Ryu gave her were a mystery to him, one that got the old man uncharacteristically frustrated when pressed for details. ‘Scouting’ was the only word they used for it.
“Well, it’s no big deal, anyway” Arthur said flippantly. “While you were gone, I’ve managed to fend off the bad guys and keep the carriers safe on my own.”
For a brief moment something close to guilt seemed to cross Ai’s face, but it was gone so quickly Arthur couldn’t be sure if he had imagined it. “I’m going to want to go over your confrontations in detail later. I want to know our enemies’ skills, tactics, methodology. If we analyze them, we may be able to better predict our future opponents.”
Before giving Arthur a chance to reply, she turned back to the others and gave them a glare that would make any drill-sergeant proud. “Well, what are you all standing around for? Powerful enemies are out to kill you and you think you have time to go cloud-gazing? Physical exercises, let’s go! And I don’t want to hear that it’s early and you’re tired, I just got off an 8-hour flight and you won’t see me complaining.”
Just like that Ai had taken complete charge and even Arthur was powerless against her orders as she had them running laps, doing push-ups and crunches, and putting them through some weird yoga-like poses that seemed like a break at first, until holding the pose for minutes at a time proved to be greater torture than any of the other exercises. It was a a grueling lesson in just how easy on them Ryu had been. Despite appearing extra motivated today, Sam collapsed near the end, while Peter and Arthur seemed barely able to remain on their feet afterwards.
Everything Ai made them do she did herself, but she seemed to be barely even breathing hard at the end of it. The only other one who took the exercises well was Marco, who was covered in a thin sheen of sweat but otherwise appeared to be as energetic as ever.
“That was a pretty good one,” he said as he stretched out a sore muscle in his arm. “Not as intense as the workouts my personal trainers used to put me through, but not bad. Makes me realize just how out of shape I let myself get. Although, no offense ….” He looked over the small set of dumbbells and single kettlebell that they used for wait training. “I’m going to need some more substantial equipment if I’m going to get back to my boxing form.”
“There’s a town nearby,” Peter said between gasping breaths. “Me and Fariman have been planning to check it and pick up some things we need to be more comfortable here. Maybe we can find what you need there?” Truthfully, he was just hoping to get away from this Ai woman before she had them do anything else.
“It’s not safe …” Arthur started before finding himself needing to pause to catch a few breaths first. “Not safe to leave farm. Ryu cloaks your presence here, but if you leave and the ones who are hunting notice you …”
“Short trips should be fine,” Ryu said. “My barrier’s effect does weaken the further they get from the farm, but the town is pretty close. As long as they’re not gone for more than a few hours there shouldn’t be any danger.”
“They’re not prisoners here,” Ai added. “Let them go.”
“Great!” Peter said, a second-wind coming to him at the thought of spending some money. “Whatever anyone needs, my treat. Well, dad’s. You coming, Fariman?”
Sam lay where he fell, groaning on the ground. “Just kill me now.”
“Come on!” Peter said as he pulled Sam to his feet. “We’ll see if they have any of those energy drinks. Remember, when that World of Warcraft expansion launched during summer break?”
“Alpha Mark Energy,” Sam replied. “We didn’t sleep for three days and didn’t even feel tired until we suddenly crashed.”
Arthur watched the three of them walk down the path, feeling uneasy. “Is it really alright to just let them go, unguarded? Maybe one of us should go with them.”
Ai shook her head. “They’ll be fine. If the danger was close then we wouldn’t be safe here. Besides, I wanted a few moments with you.”
Immediately, Arthur’s suspicions rose. Whatever Ai had in mind could not be good for him. “Did you?”
She squared off with him, somehow making herself seem the taller and more imposing of the two. “You and I are going to spar. I need to see where your skill is at now.”
Arthur would have had some choice words for her then and there if Ryu hadn’t been watching. Ai had always had a habit of acting superior, sometimes even condescending, but she had never given him such a direct order before. “What do you mean ‘see where my skill is at’? While you’ve been running around, doing god knows what, I’ve been keeping up my training. I’ve fought the Adaghast’s minions, twice! Maybe I should test to see where your skill”s at!”
Ai didn’t blink. “That’s fine. You can test me, then.”
He cursed himself for running his big mouth. His lungs were still burning and his heart was still racing from their work-out. There was no way he was in any condition for a fight. But after all that talk, there was no way he could back out now.
“I’ll get the circle ready!” Ryu cheerfully declared. Arthur had the suspicion that Ryu knew exactly how he was feeling right now and was looking forward to seeing his student humbled.
A few minutes later they were standing within the freshly drawn chalk outlines of the sparring circle. Twenty-feet in diameter, with simple white chalk marking the outlines in the dirt of the training area, its unassuming form had marked some of the most stressful moment’s of Arthur’s young life. It was here he and Ai had pushed themselves, their bodies, and their connections to their elements to their breaking point in their efforts to one-up one another, over and over again.
And now here they were again. It had been a while, more than a year at the very least, yet it felt like their last duel could have been yesterday. Arthur still felt the same kind of nervous tension he had felt when he first stepped into the circle with her, the very first time he had been instructed to test his power against another, all those years ago.
“Right, you know the rules,” Ryu started, as he always did. “The goal is to get the other to concede or to knock them out of the circle. And I probably shouldn’t have to specify this, but you’re both strong enough now that I will: try not to kill one another.”
His two students faced off, one showing his nerves and exhaustion clear on his face, the other as calm and cool as if she was on a Sunday stroll.
Ryu raised an arm into the air. “Begin!”
Arthur rushed forward, one arm pointed at the ground as he formed his sword. He hoped to catch Ai off-guard with how fast he could channel his sword now. If he could raise it to strike in the few strides it took to reach he could force her to back out of the circle to avoid getting hit. Pride swelled within him as he grasped the familiar hilt just in time to angle it for a thrust against his opponent.
Tremors ran down his arm as his thrust was stopped by the sudden appearance of Ai’s radiant shield. Her arm was raised just slightly, angled so the palm of her hand was in the direction of the thrust, her fingers cupped in a ‘V’ formation. This shield was much smaller than the one she had used the other day, much more focused in shape and intensity. Arthur’s blade sunk in just a few inches, and is it did the swirling patterns running through the barrier circled around it.
He pulled back, practically leaping away from the shield, freeing his sword before before its power could be turned back against him. His eyes darted to the edge of the circle to make sure he didn’t accidentally go over it. Once he was safely back where he had started he took a moment to take stock of the situation.
Her barrier had formed so fast! One second it appeared she hadn’t even begun to channel, the next it had fully materialized with the power to stop Arthur’s sword. He had learned the hard way, repeatedly, that trying to brute-force his way through that shield was pointless, she would only turn his effort against him. The only option was to be quick and clever, striking fast in areas the shield couldn’t protect.
Leveling his sword at Ai, he channeled his Light through the blade’s tip and sent forth a beam of searing light at her. Before it had reached her he was already rushing along the sides of of the circle at her. She would need to use her shield to deflect the beam, and while the shield was occupied he could strike at her side. It was a trick he had used successfully against her in the past, and now he was faster, and his beam was stronger, harder to deflect. He had her now!
Or so he thought. Without inching off her spot in the circle, Ai raised her other hand, and to Arthur’s amazement another shield, identical to the first, took shape. Arthur’s sword clashed with the shield, and for moment, as their elements collided, it appeared the sheer difference in their power would be enough for Arthur, that his Light would simply overwhelm and envelop hers. Ai’s eyes narrowed as she focused, her shield stabilized, and the swirling patterns sought to repel Arthur’s attack right back at him.
Arthur didn’t have time to wonder since when Ai was able to form multiple shields. By choosing to come at Ai from the side, he had left his back dangerously close to the edge of the circle. There was no where for him to back off to, so to avoid having his own power turned against him he had no choice but to let the sword go. It dissolved into pure Light the moment it left his hands. That was one problem solved. The next was Ai’s shield coming right at him.
Though its form wasn’t of a traditional weapon, her shield was nonetheless composed of Ai’s pure Light Element and it would single an opponent it touches. Weaponless, Arthur’s smartest move would have been to back out of the circle. But exhausted, frustrated, and prideful as he was there was no way he was backing down now. He channeled forcefully, pushing as much of his Light through him as his body could handle, and focused it in-between him and the shield. It didn’t take a proper form, instead coalescing into a chaotic blob of white light bright enough that he couldn’t look right at it, but through the merit of his sheer power it kept Ai’s shield from touching him.
That didn’t stop the shield from progressing, though. Arthur felt his feet slide across the dirt, growing ever so slightly closer to the edge of the circle, unable to stop the determined path of Ai’s shield. There was only moments left to act. Arthur closed his eyes and focused, extending his right arm out to his side, and held out his pointer finger. He could spare very little of his element from his clumsy barrier, and this was a technique he had never tried before, but he had been thinking about it ever since his fight with Spike. It would have been nice to be able to practice it first.
Where his finger pointed, a long, slender spear of Light began to take shape. It was a different kind of challenge getting your Element to follow your orders at a point that did not originate from your body. You needed to create a direct flow between the Element being channeled through you and the spot you wished to interact with. Arthur had practiced with making objects lightly glow from a distance but had never tried anything like this before. The gestures Spike had made with his fingers during their fight had given him the idea: by channeling from a very small point on your body, like the tip of a finger, you might be able to create a much more controlled, albeit smaller, flow.
His theory proved correct as the spear finished forming, smaller and glowing duller than he would have wished but certainly enough to push Ai out of her spot. He aimed it at a vulnerable spot between her two shields and prepared to launch it –
And then he was hurtling forward, foot over foot, stumbling and unable to control his momentum. He had been so focused on his spear that it took him a second to even realize what had happened: Ai had dropped her shield, and with all the force he had put into keeping himself from being pushed out the circle he had launched forward like a sprinter. He tried to regain his balance in time, but a light tap from Ai on his back sent him the extra few steps. With great embarrassment he saw that left foot had landed outside of the circle.
“Alright, that’s it!” Ryu called out. “This one goes to Ai!”
Arthur was already cursing himself for falling for such a stupid trick when Ai came up beside him. It wasn’t like her to gloat over her victory, actually she was usually annoyingly passive about it, but he wouldn’t be surprised if this time was an exception after how big he had talked.
“That was very impressive,” Ai said instead. “That last technique would have had me, if you were just a second quicker.”
He glanced at her, looking carefully at her face for any signs of sarcasm or condescension, but she seemed to be genuine.
“I’m sorry,” she continued. “I just had to be sure. I’ve been out in the world, and I’ve seen how strong other Elementalists can be, and I’ve worked hard to keep up with them. I had to be sure, if we were going to be fighting side by side against them, that you could fight at the same level.” She nodded at him. “I am satisfied.”
“Well, gee, thanks,” Arthur said with a bitterness he didn’t really feel. If he was being honest, the compliment made him strangely uncomfortable.
After an awkward moment of silence, Ai finally said, “Alright, well, I’ve been traveling for a while, and I worked up a bit of a sweat here, so I’m going to go take a shower.”
Arthur called after her as she walked towards the farmhouse. “Just out of curiosity, what would have happened if you didn’t decide I was good enough?”
She looked back at him. “Then, instead of being my partner, you would have been my student.” The faintest of smiles formed on her lips. “You know, you really do look better without the hat.”
Arthur was left shaking his head at all of it, and yet he couldn’t deny one simple fact: it was good to have Ai back.