Wednesday, August 23, 2017

Character building

Long time no post. Sorry about that. Really been focused on writing. And recently, I went on the Writing Excuses Writing Retreat (WXR17). It was wonderful, and I learned so much. There, one of the things that really stuck with me was a character building exercise/lecture that Thomas Olde Heuvelt gave. It was amazing. So, I took notes and added a few things and tried to be as detailed as possible. It's long, but that's only because I go step by step through the process. I hope it helps out. (Sorry for any typos and grammar errors in advance, though I don't think there are any. I just don't have the time to comb through it.)

Also, if you love horror, please check out his book Hex





Character building


Brief outline: 14 steps
1. Basic character description
2. Background
3. Inciting incident
4. Consequences
5. Dilemmas
6. Greatest desires
7. Themes
8. Messages
9. Traits
10. Elements that lead to change
11. Immediate game changer
12. Character development
13. Outcome
14. Symbolism



1. Basic character description
First of all, you don’t want to be too detailed here or you can make writing a bit tedious and remove the reader’s imagination/bog you down when writing. You can always add more later and fix major points, depending on your writing process.

First, start with a name. Every character needs a name, and they should know their own name, or at least what they are called. (Amnesia stories still usually call a character something, right?)

Next, age. How old is the character? Is that adulthood? Near adulthood? A child? Depending on society, the age can be very important, or not at all, but it’s still a good starting point.

After that, five basic physical descriptions. Emotional stuff comes later, but this is the stuff that you would use via a mirror or another character to describe the character. (Please don’t use a mirror) Remember, these are minor, like hair color, height, clothing, etc.

Second to last, a major distinguishing feature. This is the first thing other characters (most of them) will notice about the character and describe it. Do they have a scar? A face tattoo? Pink hair in a black and white society? Abnormally tall in Japan? What is something that really just stands out.

Last (and this doesn’t really have to be the last thing, depending on your process), a major feature of the character that no one else (or very few people) know about that the character doesn’t advertise. Three nipples? Sixteen toes? Carries a locket of a secret lover/puppy? Give us something that really shows who the character is to themselves.
Example 1:
-Andy Paterson.
-27 years old.
-Brown hair and eyes, 5’8’’, goatee, wide shoulders and often wears black and green clothes.
-Always wears a flamboyant hat to draw attention.
-Has a tattoo of his original family name (Darwin) across his left breast.



2. Background
This is where we find out about the character (and a flash of the world) prior to the story starting, and even some things that might happen/be on page before the inciting incident. Don’t go into too much detail here, just a few to give you a basic idea.

First, start with a single line about the setting. Is it real world? Sci-Fi? Medieval? Horror fantasy?

Then, try to answer some of these questions (3-5 is good, more is okay based on your process):
-Who is the character in life?
-What does the character do?
-What is the character’s family situation?
-Does the character have any pets or special items?
-Are there any secret relationships or family ties, known or unknown to the character?
-Is there a defining incident that has shaped the character?
-Where does the character spend most of their time?
-Who is important to the character?
-When does the character do something important in their life?
-Why does the character value something? (This one is not so important, but just in case)
-What has the character done that is important/significant?
-Why is the character important to those around them?
-What kind of training does the character have?
-Does the character have any special skills/magic/tech?
-Are there any particular things that have caused the character to repeat mistakes?
Example 2:
-Real world with hidden fantasy elements, starts in Scotland, moves to South America
-YouTube channel where he whispers to different animals
-Descendant of Charles Darwin, but his family has long since changed his name
-Has a brother who is also his YouTube editor and a hedgehog named Milo



3. Inciting incident
This is the big moment that will change the character’s life and start to move them towards the main plot, whatever it may be. This is really important (and though it may be edited out, changed when the scene arrives or be reworked from a different angle, it’s worth the time to think about it).

What will drag the character out of their everyday life?
-Did they piss on a grave and get possessed by a ghost?
-Did someone discover their secret?
-Are they being blackmailed?
-Was there a dead body in the bed with them when they woke up?

Just spend a few moments to think about this and think about what kind of event would shake the character. What kind of event would move them towards the plot, whatever it may be. (I mostly pants, more of a gardener at least, so I don’t like outlines/knowing the ending, but this method has been really good for me to look at stories, and this part in particular helps story doctor it up.)

Everything that happens after this (well, almost everything) will be based on what the inciting incident is.
Example 3:
-The KGB shows up one day during filming, kidnaps his brother and gives him the secret diary of Charles Darwin that shows Dragons exist, and that it breaks the link of evolution.



4. Consequences
This is mostly a reaction to the inciting incident and how it changes the character’s life. Focusing on the character’s initial emotions and what has changed about them (inside and out sometimes) will help you get a picture of what the character is made of.

You don’t want to focus too much on how they physically react, sticking more to their emotional reactions to the inciting incident.

How do they feel?
Do they have newfound emotional issues or have old issues gotten worse?
Have they become attached to something?
What (if anything) in their belief system has changed?
Have their family/personal relationships changed?
Is something more/less important to them after the inciting incident?
Have they finally accepted/began denying something?
Do they want to do something they know they shouldn’t? (or feel like it’s not such a bad thing?)

These questions are just to give you an idea of what you could ask the character, but I’m sure there are many more.
Example 4:
-Becomes paranoid
-Emotionally attached to Milo the hedgehog
-resentful of Charles Darwin
-Believes in destiny now



5. Dilemmas:
This is where you have to think back to the inciting incident and come up with two problems the character will have to face before the end of the story. (Again, these are not set in stone, but they will give you a good idea of where the story could go before you write/detailed outline and some more tests for the character and how it will shape them.)

First, come up with a big dilemma. What is something that the character must face before then end? And not gumdrops or kittens (unless it’s choke his family with gumdrops or murder all the kittens in the world). It needs to be a tough option, where neither choice is really good. (This can go into the ‘Third option’ that I learned from Dave Farland, but that’s a different discussion).

For the second dilemma, depending on how long you are thinking the story will be, will determine how related to your first dilemma the second is. If your story is short, the two dilemmas should be interconnected. If it’s really long, they should be a world apart (at least on the outside/first glance).

Review these dilemmas and look back to the inciting incident as they will be important for shaping who the character is and what they will become.
Example 5:
-Train the dragons and give them to Russia or allow the KGB to kill his brother and protect the dragons
-Will he tell the world that his grandfather was wrong and that dragons exist



6 Greatest desires:
The character’s desires are very important, but focusing on the ones they want above all others is better for this part of the process. Though, adding in a minor desire does help round the character out, so it is important to not completely avoid it.

First, what does the character want most before the inciting incident? Come up with one or two things here to give the character initial motivation and make them more proactive at the start. You might also want to think about something character wants the least/is trying to avoid from happening. A negative desire is still a goal.

Second, what does the character want most after the inciting incident? Come up with at least two (no more than four) things here to add more layers to the character. You really want to dive into this and show that the plot, while important, isn’t the only driving factor here for the character. Think about the dilemmas and how they could tie into the character’s desires.

Finally, what is something small the character wants before and after the inciting incident? It could be a chocolate bar because they gave up chocolate and suddenly a super villain blew up the only store in their area that sold it. Try to stick to only one desire for before and one desire for after, as to not bog the character’s thought process down. (In the outline/writing, adding more is not a bad thing, in fact, it’s really awesome in most cases as small goals and desires help move the story along, but at this part, you don’t want to overthink it.)

Having the desires in mind at this point will help shape the character to the end.
Example 6:
-Wants to reach 1million YouTube subscribers
-Train unknown and great animals
-Train the dragons
-Save his brother
-Get revenge on the KGB
-Have people understand him without having to speak one word at a time or without subtitles



7. Theme:
Focusing too much on the theme can ruin the story, but not looking at it all can also have a negative impact on it. Here, you’re not really coming up with the final theme of the story, or even the final theme of what the character is doing. You just want to think of a theme or two (no more than four) that could really show off parts of the character, world and plot. In the end, this probably won’t survive the first draft (or detailed outline in some cases), and that’s a good thing. (You don’t want to take a ham-handed approach here.) But this will drive arguments and character interactions, so it is important to at least give it a bit of your time.

Thinking back to the inciting incident, why did it affect the character? This will give you the biggest connection to your theme. If you can answer this question with more than one theme, that’s fine, but you don’t want to have too many as that will make the character and their interactions seem scatterbrained.
Example 7:
-Family love
-Truth and lies



8. Message:
Like the theme, you don’t want to harp on this too much, and it often won’t survive the first draft/detailed outline. But this will give the character a good idea of how the character will look at their dilemmas and their thought process during dialogue/action/fun-bits. It will also show a bit of the character arc and something the character is wrestling with.

Usually this is related to one of the dilemmas, but it doesn’t have to be. Again, it will wash away with the later drafts/detailed outlines, and that is a good thing as it will keep it from being ham-handed.

For this, really think about what the dilemma (or dilemmas if you chose both of them) means to the character. What would making either choice mean? That will usually give you your message.
Example 8:
- The truth has consequences



9. Traits:
Traits are things that make the character special. They don’t have to be personal traits, but most of them will be. Sometimes, a trait can be an item or something that is special to the character. Negative traits are also important as they will help shape how the character reacts to certain situations.

First, let’s look at positive traits. What are two or three things that make the character stand out in a good way? You don’t want to give the character too many of these (though more will come up as the story progresses, and some of the negative traits can be turned into positive ones throughout the story), so try to stick to three at this point.
-Does the character have a magical power/special ability/item? Be detailed here.
-Why is this the character needed to be in this story?

Next, look at the character’s negative traits. What are two or three things that make the character a pain/stand out in a bad way? More is okay here, especially if you want to turn them into a character arc to correct them or add more conflict with them, but don’t just add them for no reason. These are as important, if not more important, than the positive traits, so be as detailed as you can here.
-You may even want to detail how the trait must be overcome for a happy ending.

Finally, go back over each of the traits and look at how they relate to the dilemmas, inciting incident and desires. Try to mold them a bit to have more synergy.
Example 9:
- Animal whisperer (magically)
-A loyal following on YouTube, getting about 500k views within the first day his videos are up
-A strong memory
-Doesn’t know how computers work
-Super Scottish accent to the point most Scottish people can’t understand him
-Dislikes smaller animals because they aren’t worth his time
-Never had a girlfriend
-Likes to hide in booze when things get tough



10. Elements that lead to change:
This is basically small bumps in the road that will alter where the character goes and how they may see the dilemmas differently. These are things that the character will have to overcome, maybe not move past or defeat, but things that must be dealt with before the story can progress to the conclusion.

Think about the things in the characters life:
-What are the other people in the story doing?
-What is something that jumps out of nowhere and tries to push the character off course?
-Any romance or other cross-genre elements?
-Any new/broken attachments?
-Anything surprising that makes the character thing differently?

These are important to give a bit of extra thought to since they will help shape how you’ll view the character arc.
Example 10:
- His Russian liaison and translator can understand him, and he falls in love with her
-Finds his dream when he sees the dragons and becomes attached to them at first sight
-Dragons are human whispers, but his power cancels it out, slowly overriding it
-Followers threatening to unsubscribe if he doesn’t release a new video soon



11. Immediate game changer:
This is something that changes everything for the character. If the dilemma seemed like an easy choice (even if awful) at first, this is something that makes it a much tougher decision. This is also something that throws everything the character knew, thought they knew or believed into the blender. This is also a hard stop for some of the character’s desires, and makes them question things.

Think of this as the brick wall that can’t be climbed over, and once the character got too close to it, the path behind them fell away. This is a major thing that will make them look at the world and themselves differently (in most cases), and it will (should) change how they look at the other characters, conflict and resolution.
-What will shake the character’s world?

Coming up with more than one of these is okay, but be careful not to overdo it, and the more there are, the longer the story will be.

Also, this doesn’t always make it to the first draft/detailed outline, (and often it is changed unless you are using this exercise like a story doctor) but it will give the character a second major moment (after the inciting incident) for change, and that is important for moving towards the end.
Example 11:
- The dragons whispered to Charles Darwin to make him keep them out of his studies, and they gave him the ideas for his Theory of Evolution
-Dragons manipulate evolution



12. Character development:
From the background to the inciting incident, to immediate game changer, the character will change. Their thoughts and ideas will change. Their plans and goals will change. Even some of their desires and relationships will change. For this section, you need to figure out how the character will be influenced by all this and come out after the immediate game changer?
-Will they be broken and ready to give up?
-Was that the hardening they needed to move forward?
-Does everything make sense?

Try to come up with at least one development to their plan and one emotional/relationship development for the character to go through, but try not to do more than four developments here. (More will come in the drafts and/or outlines, so it’s not all that important to harp on it here.)
Example 12:
- This revelation makes him want to train the dragons to take down Russia and save his brother
-Finds peace with Charles Darwin, moving from resentment to understanding
-Sees a blend between destiny and science
-So excited, starts dating his liaison and they have the fun-bits



13. Outcome:
This is where everything comes together. How will the character choose during the dilemmas? What will they use to reach the ‘happy’ third option where they make their own rules/choice?

A key here is to go back through this exercise and look for anything you hadn’t used/brought up after introducing it, and have it be a part of the conclusion/climax. This is another reason, while you may add more details in later on, you didn’t want to add too many here, as these are only the keys.

Often, this will not survive drafts/outlines, but it’s a good starting point for looking at the character.
Example 13:
- Once he gets the dragons trained for war, his liaison betrays him, taking the dragons with her back to the KGB. He stops himself from drowning himself in booze and hanks Milo for comforting him.
            He overcomes his disdain for smaller creatures and tells Milo he loves him and is sorry for not being able to save his brother. Milo transforms into a dragon, revealing that he’d been with the family since Charles Darwin, watching over them. But one dragon against hundreds isn’t enough, but this is when he, poorly, goes to his YouTube channel and calls out to his followers, bringing them down to South America.
            Milo transforms them into dragons (without the power to control evolution, but more the standard war type), and they fly on Russia, rescuing his brother and the dragons at the cost of Milo’s and the liaison’s lives. Despite her betrayal, he feels hurt by her loss and by the loss of Milo.
            In the end, the dragons return everyone to normal and transform themselves before (possibly) removing their ability to manipulate evolution. But his video calling out his followers exploded, pushing him over 10 million subscribers and the video going everywhere. The science community is devastated, and the world is not looking towards brighter days after the attack on Russia and this information.



14. Symbolism:
This is important to help tie your story down in reality. Think of things in our world that you can attach to your world to help create a hook for the reader that will help them suspend their disbelief. This doesn’t have to be anything major, just small things that will anchor your story.
-Answer the question: How will you add reality to this story?

Often, these will stick to the story, though they may not be apparent after several drafts/outlines, but they will be there to solidify your world and character.
Example 14:
- Truth hurts
-Accepting heritage and family
-Bonds of family will drive someone to do something awful



That is the basics of the character building exercise. It’s a good way to look at a new story, doctor an old story or go through a story you’re in the middle of to help shore things up.

I hope this helps and my explanations make sense.

Here are all the examples typed into one place to give you an idea of what it all looks like together. This was the group brainstormed character at WXR17, and I’m looking to write it soon, but if you feel the itch, go ahead and try it out.

1. Andy Paterson.
-27 years old.
-Brown hair and eyes, 5’8’’, goatee, wide shoulders and often wears black and green clothes.
-Always wears a flamboyant hat to draw attention.
-Has a tattoo of his original family name (Darwin) across his left breast.

2. Real world with hidden fantasy elements, starts in Scotland, moves to South America
-YouTube channel where he whispers to different animals
-Descendant of Charles Darwin, but his family has long since changed his name
-Has a brother who is also his YouTube editor and a hedgehog named Milo

3. The KGB shows up one day during filming, kidnaps his brother and gives him the secret diary of Charles Darwin that shows Dragons exist, and that it breaks the link of evolution.

4. Becomes paranoid
-Emotionally attached to Milo the hedgehog
-resentful of Charles Darwin
-Believes in destiny now

5. Train the dragons and give them to Russia or allow the KGB to kill his brother and protect the dragons
-Will he tell the world that his grandfather was wrong and that dragons exist

6. Wants to reach 1million YouTube subscribers
-Train unknown and great animals
-Train the dragons
-Save his brother
-Get revenge on the KGB
-Have people understand him without having to speak one word at a time or without subtitles

7. Family love
-Truth and lies

8. The truth has consequences

9. Animal whisperer (magically)
-A loyal following on YouTube, getting about 500k views within the first day his videos are up
-A strong memory
-Doesn’t know how computers work
-Super Scottish accent to the point most Scottish people can’t understand him
-Dislikes smaller animals because they aren’t worth his time
-Never had a girlfriend
-Likes to hide in booze when things get tough

10. His Russian liaison and translator can understand him, and he falls in love with her
-Finds his dream when he sees the dragons and becomes attached to them at first sight
-Dragons are human whispers, but his power cancels it out, slowly overriding it
-Followers threatening to unsubscribe if he doesn’t release a new video soon

11. The dragons whispered to Charles Darwin to make him keep them out of his studies, and they gave him the ideas for his Theory of Evolution
-Dragons manipulate evolution

12. This revelation makes him want to train the dragons to take down Russia and save his brother
-Finds peace with Charles Darwin, moving from resentment to understanding
-Sees a blend between destiny and science
-So excited, starts dating his liaison and they have the fun-bits

13. Once he gets the dragons trained for war, his liaison betrays him, taking the dragons with her back to the KGB. He stops himself from drowning himself in booze and hanks Milo for comforting him.
            He overcomes his disdain for smaller creatures and tells Milo he loves him and is sorry for not being able to save his brother. Milo transforms into a dragon, revealing that he’d been with the family since Charles Darwin, watching over them. But one dragon against hundreds isn’t enough, but this is when he, poorly, goes to his YouTube channel and calls out to his followers, bringing them down to South America.
            Milo transforms them into dragons (without the power to control evolution, but more the standard war type), and they fly on Russia, rescuing his brother and the dragons at the cost of Milo’s and the liaison’s lives. Despite her betrayal, he feels hurt by her loss and by the loss of Milo.
            In the end, the dragons return everyone to normal and transform themselves before (possibly) removing their ability to manipulate evolution. But his video calling out his followers exploded, pushing him over 10 million subscribers and the video going everywhere. The science community is devastated, and the world is not looking towards brighter days after the attack on Russia and this information.

14. Truth hurts
-Accepting heritage and family
-Bonds of family will drive someone to do something awful

Sunday, November 27, 2016

By Your Powers Combined Short Story

This is the semi-final draft, the one I submitted to Writers Of The Future and got an honorable mention for. (I'll post more updates on that when I find out more) It's a bit long, over 10k words and almost 40 pages, but I hope it reads easy enough that it doesn't feel this way.

Also, one of my students may make a webcomic out of the story, so stay tuned for more information about that.

As far as other news goes, still working on my urban fantasy, hopefully yall will hear some good news about that soon enough.

Anyway, without further hemming and hawing, here is the story:





By Your Powers Combined

            Smoke billowed from the factory across the street and left an oily taste in my mouth, but still, I grinned at Igu. This was our sparring spot, no matter what was being made here. Clutching the azure-forged hammer, I squared my feet; my shoulders screamed from the weight. The instant exhaustion was worse than working overtime in the azure-ore mines.
            Igu pointed the tip of her whip-blade at me, the ocean-blue ripples across its steel matching my hammer. “Tima, are you sure you don’t want to use the practice weapons one last time?” Her voice was softer than the tunics we both wore.
            I couldn’t wait to get my soul crystal implanted into the hammer after this morning’s ceremony. Fire … The best of the four powers.
            Shaggy hair whipped across my face as I shook my head. “You scared?” Just maintaining my stance strained my muscles to the point of breaking: only years of mining gave me the strength to step forward. The One! Without the soul crystal’s weight reduction, my hammer weighed a ton, but I’d power through it like I did everything else. “Like a little baby?”
            “Don’t cry when I cut you.”
            “I don’t cry.”
            “You do, too.” Igu edged to her right. She was average height for someone in our village, which put her up to my chest.
            “Liar. I haven’t cried since I was a child.”
            Igu rolled her eyes. “You just turned sixteen.”
            “Which means I’m an adult.”
            “Not until we get our soul crystals removed.”
            She was down the mine this morning, acting all pissed off and touchy for no reason. It was like she didn’t want to leave the village with me. If she’d told anyone about our plans, they’d stop us—
            Igu would never do that.
            “Just shut up.” I charged, and gripping the four-foot handle, I turned my hips into the swing.
            Igu rolled under the strike and pulled her whip-blade’s trigger. The sword blade elongated and extended like a lasso around my feet. “Should have thought first.”
            I released my grip on the hammer and allowed it to flip through the air and thunk to the ground. The lack of weight threw my body into a quick spin, and my knee caught Igu in the chest.
            She grunted, dropping her whip-blade before the impact lifted her into the air.
            Hardly surprising considering I was almost twice her weight.
            Igu tumbled upon hitting the ground with liquid grace. Grime coated her inch-long pink hair, a shade lighter than mine. “We’re supposed to be practicing with our weapons.” Her off-white eyes burned with indignation.
            “We can’t just rely on our weapons or powers in the Gladiatorium. We have to be ready to change at a moment’s notice. Adapt.” I kicked her whip-blade behind me, and glanced at my hammer.
            “Think, stupid.” Igu was right in front of me, her open palm smacking me in the chin and sending me staggering backwards. She leaped forward and planted a boot in my chest.
            I turned with the blow, shrugging it aside with raw power and pulling her into a bear-hug. “No need.” I lifted her into the air as the Ritual Temple’s bell chimed: time’s up. I set her down then hurried to pick up our weapons.
            Staring at us from an entrance into the factory were four adults of the same height: short. They didn’t look much older than me, but instead of the milky white eyes of childhood, they each had colored irises to represent their powers.
            Red, a fire wielder and the only woman in the group, had maroon hair to match her eyes and wore a scowl that made my hands tremble.
            I wasn’t nervous or scared of her … much. Really, I wasn’t.
            Green, the bald earth wielder, looked like a twig while Yellow—the wind wielder—turned to Blue and kissed him. Ugh, why would Yellow stoop to kissing Blue? Didn’t Yellow know water was a worthless element?
            All had on sleeveless fighter’s tunics like me and Igu, but they each had metallic tattoos covering their arms: they were Regime Hunters. Dogs doing whatever job the Regime sent them out for, without care of cost or collateral damage.
            A shiver twisted my gut, and I turned away, handing Igu her whip-blade. “Ready?” I asked, voice cracking.
            “Of course,” Igu said. “But, you know, if you go into a fight with the One like that—” She nudged me in the side, “—you’re going to get roasted.” Her joking tone about religious fairy tales helped me forget the bastards staring a hole into my back, whom Igu didn’t even seem to notice.
            Wait, was she still going on about that think-before-I-act nonsense?
            I squeezed the bridge of my nose. “Just leave off.”
            “Tima …”
            “The One was shattered long ago to save everyone; he was going to kill every last man, woman and child to protect the planet.”
            “That doesn’t make him any less frightening.” She shivered. “If anything, more so.”
            “I’m not scared of a God who can’t stay out past sundown. I’m an adult.”
            “Not yet.”
            Starting towards the Ritual Temple, I waved for Igu to hurry it up. “Look, as bulky as I am, I need to be fluid if I’m going to win the Gladiatorium and convince Aisa to marry me.”
            Igu scoffed. “One, she’s twice as old as you, and two—”
            “What are you getting at?”
            “That you should find someone closer to your age.”
            “Like who? Ekanli? She’s taken.”
            Igu puffed out her cheeks then crossed her arms, glancing at the ground. “There’s me.”
            Bursting into laughter, I stumbled over my own feet. “You’re. Not. A girl.”
            Igu’s whip-blade shot out in its solid form, the cold azure-steel pressing against my ribs. “What was that?”
            I grinned down at her. “You’re my best friend. Nothing can come between us.”
            She lowered her whip-blade and muttered something.
            “Cheer up. By this time tomorrow, we’ll be living the dream. Never having to go back to the mine, sneaking out of the village, finally getting out of here like we’ve always wanted, just you and me, riding off on a big adventure.”
            “And you promise we’ll leave together?”
            “I promise.”

###

            After placing our weapons in one of the Ritual Temple’s lockers and throwing on brown robes, I motioned for Igu to go in first. A few deep breaths and some focus would do me good. My soul crystal had to be fire. My training with Mother, my size and my fighting style were all based on the inherent strength fire granted, though the speed from wind or the endurance from earth wouldn’t go to waste.
            Just as long as it wasn’t water, whatever its inherent ability was. I’d have to study water’s power after becoming an adult in case I fought someone with water, but that could come later. Water wasn’t important enough to really merit my time.
            Though the power of any element was amazing, it was countered easily enough with an azure-forged weapon or defensive use of an element.
            I ducked through the high archway. Centering the whole chamber was the ancient device granted by the One to remove soul crystals from our bodies. The same device that gave rise to the Regime’s factories and new technology: high-calorie food, medical equipment, weapons. Some ever claimed the Regime was being foolish and trying to replace horses, building some machine here in the village, in that factory. Several gears churned in the main device, which was connected to four tables, all forged from azure-ore.
            The mayor and village elders stood around the circular room and wore bored expressions. Mother and my uncles were there, too, among others; at least, they wore smiles. All here would bear witness to our ascent into adulthood and bless our futures by adding their prayers to ours.
            Aisa, the village healer, was in her early thirties, tall compared to the other villagers—almost up to my chin—and had held my heart for the last seven years. At the moment, she stood next to two of my friends: Ekanli and Modaj. Her beautiful red eyes marked her as a fire-wielder, and after today, my eyes would no longer be a stark white; we’d match.
            On the third ritual table, Igu grinned up at me, her lips quivering. Despite the solid stone she lay on, she looked more nervous than uncomfortable.
            Forcing the biggest smile I could manage, I nodded. When the tension in her face relaxed, I moved to the last ritual table and lay down.
            Aisa’s robes swished as she came over to me.
            I bit into my lower lip, cheeks warm.
            “Are you nervous, Tima?” Aisa’s voice was a mix of honey and sweet cakes: delicious to hear.
            “No, I’m ready.”
            “Good,” Aisa said. “Remember, Tima, you can’t get off the table.”
            “Can we start?”
            “Okay,” Aisa said before projecting her voice to everyone, “let’s pray.”
            “May the Four shelter us from the One until day becomes night and takes his power away,” I said along with everyone else. “And may the One be just while reigning over the day and only punish those who draw his gaze.”
            The chamber fell silent, and the ritual device buzzed to life; the four fist-sized crystals mounted atop it bursting to light, each emulating a different element’s color.
            Everything went white, and pain locked my joints into place. Ahhhhhh! My toes curled. Teeth gritted. Not right! My joints were being jerked out to the side, or at least they felt like that. My legs contorted, and every hair on my body was being ripped free.
            Can’t die here. I—
            Flopping to the side, I came to the edge of the table.
            Someone screamed, a woman. Silence. Two more screams filled the void. A fourth.
            My voice?
            Distant, Aisa cried out a warning, then something about the other three children. The other three …
            My friends were dying! Igu was dying! I pushed myself up, vision gone. I had to get to them, to save them.
            Rough hands seized my shoulders and pressed me flat onto my back.
            I thrashed against those holding me down until my muscles revolted. No matter how strong I was. No matter how much Mother had trained me. I was helpless. Unable to save my friends. Dead. Worthless—
            Couldn’t breathe.
            The white faded.
            Darkness.
            Needed air!
            I sat up, gasping. I … had passed out during the ritual? The ritual … Why had I passed out? How long had I been out? A haze hung over my thoughts; I was forgetting something. Something very important. I ran my fingers through my hair: it was matted with sweat.
            My gray tunic and shorts were no longer covered in dust and grime.
            Huh?
            The purple couch underneath me said I was in Aisa’s house, one leg sprawled across the coffee table. Maybe she’d washed my clothes. By the door were my hammer and a backpack.
            How much time had been wasted sleeping?
            A pounding headache kicked me in the skull, and something drew my attention to the fireplace. It felt like something was pulling me to it.
            On the mantel, inside a small glass box lay a blue crystal as big as my thumbnail. The crystal pulsed and magnified my headache.
            “What,” I said. “Is. Happening?”
            “Establishing our link,” a baritone voice said inside my head as a thin, blue line of light extended from my chest to the crystal. It was the crystal speaking. “Filthy human.”
            Once connected, dizziness smacked me across the face, and I stumbled backwards; the coffee table took my legs out from under me. I landed on the couch, but my head thunked into the wall.
            “Filth, was that necessary?” the crystal asked.
            “What?”
            “Filth, I am Barges, and I am a water soul crystal.”
            “Water?” I ground my teeth then punched the couch as my stomach sank. The One, it felt like I’d swallowed a chunk of azure-ore. My research and training had all been a waste of time. The One, the One, the One! “It shouldn’t be like this. I’m a fire wielder. This has to be a mistake.”
            “It isn’t.”
            “Worthless! Why do I have such a worthless element like water?”
            “You think water is worthless?” Barges asked. “Filthy human.”
            “No strength to overpower my opponents. No endurance to shrug off attacks. No speed to strike like lightning.”
            “The inherent abilities offered by fire, earth and wind are nice, but what I offer is far more grand.”
            “And what’s that?” Hope threatened reality, but I knew better.
            “Grace.”
            “I’m never going to win the Gladiatorium.” But that wouldn’t stop me from trying. Since I hadn’t had the time to study water, maybe I could find a way to use it—
            “Filth, I can hear your thoughts; you do not have to speak aloud.”
            “Don’t need you telling me what to do.”
            “Yes, you do,” Barges said, his voice oozing with contempt. Our link was thin at this distance, and I could only see it while focusing. “I am supposed to teach you how to harness my rather incredible power.”
            “Wait, harness?” My throat was scratchy. Can’t you use it yourself?
            “I can levitate myself and make whatever object I inhabit lighter, but unless you ingest our link, I have no control. Filth, I give you access to my power. When our link is visible without focusing, we are connected, and as long as you are not starving, you can draw on my power.”
            I rose from the couch and made my way back to the fireplace, our link thickening with each step. This close, Barges’s power sank into me. It felt like having a warm coat down in the mines. A grin tugged at the corners of my mouth, and I picked up the glass container. I could work around this. Not sure what grace is, and creating and manipulating water is nice, but—”
            “Filth!” Barges’s voice rang inside my skull. “You think simple creation and manipulation is all a fragment of the One is capable of?”
            Huh?
            “Even without ingesting our link for a burst of power, with me at your side, no other filthy human will stand against us.”
            Footsteps echoed down the hallway. Aisa stepped into the living room and arched an eyebrow. The flowing robe clung to her body, but the golden belt gave me something to focus on that wouldn’t make my cheeks burn. “Awake already?” she asked.
            Barges buzzed.
            Enough from you for now. I forced a smile. “Aisa …” I let her name rest on my tongue, but hearing it brought back memories of pain. The ritual had gone wrong. There had been screaming and— “My friends!” I moved towards Aisa. “What happened?”
            She scratched her nose as if about to make up an excuse or lie; she had always done the gesture before dodging my proposals. “Something went wrong, and they, to some degree or another, managed to get off the ritual tables. After working all night to heal them, two are in stable condition.”
            Two?
            Aisa tugged on the collar of her robes. “But Igu’s still in bad shape.”
            My jaw dropped. I had to be mishearing her. Igu was in trouble, and I hadn’t done anything for her during the ritual. Worthless. My best friend— I sucked in a breath I didn’t know I needed then slipped past Aisa and rushed down the hall.
            The primary care room was only big enough for a cabinet that reached the ceiling, three beds and one of those new machines that beeped. Technology didn’t make sense and wasn’t worth my attention. The beeping machine next to the leftmost bed bound Igu’s right arm with some type of cable. Her pink hair was a sweat-soaked mess, and her chest rose at random intervals.
            Something caught in my throat. Swallowing over and over didn’t help. My knees became weak, and I dropped to the tiles beside Igu’s bed. “What’s going on?”
            Barges buzzed in his glass container.
            Three other buzzes joined in, and something about an eternal host reached my thoughts. A chatter of four voices cried out in what sounded like elation, repeating, “Eternal host,” over and over again. It didn’t make sense, and I didn’t have time to make sense of it. It wasn’t important right now.
            “Why is she like this?” I asked, mostly to myself. Maybe Barges would know, so I asked him, “Why?”
           “It’s hard to say,” Aisa said, answering the question not meant for her as she stepped into the room. “Usually, when someone breaks the ritual table’s containment, their soul crystal shatters, they’re unconscious for a few days or both.” She gestured to Ekanli and Modaj.
            A few days? Their plans to leave— No, that wasn’t important. Igu’s life was. She had to be alright. Please, say she would be alright. I promise, I’d pay more attention to her, give her the attention she deserves if she just woke up. If she was just okay.
            “Igu screamed then stopped breathing,” Aisa said, gesturing around the room, “as you and the other two started screaming.”
            For some reason, it felt like she was holding something back: no matter. I clutched Igu’s unbound hand. “Is there anything I can do?”
            “She needs a bit more rest before I can push anymore power into her, but …”
            “But what?”
            “Well, I have a meeting tonight in the heart of the Gyutrop Forest, and I must not appear weak for it.”
            I blinked. “A meeting? You’re joking, right?” How could Aisa even be considering this? What had happened to her over these past few days? She’d known Igu and me all of our lives: she wouldn’t just give up on us. “That has to be a joke.”
            “If I don’t go to that meeting, millions of lives will be lost. If I don’t deliver this message to Kude—”
            “I could deliver the message for you!”
            A smile tugged at the edges of her lips. “You’d do that for me?”
            I’d do a lot more for her. “Of course. Just tell me where, and I’ll head there.”
            “Travel south towards the forest and go off road when you see the split boulder on your left.” Something felt rehearsed and off about her words. “Travel across the fields until you reach a nature trail at the edge of the forest, marked with honey-vines of a bright purple. Follow that trail until you reach a meadow. By the time the moons are out tonight, Kude should be there.”
            “And what do I tell him?”
            “Rebirth has come. He’ll understand.”
            I didn’t like the sound of that. It sounded like some anti-regime code-phrase, but I didn’t say anything.
            Aisa pointed back towards the living room. “Your overly large hammer and a backpack with some high-calorie food and waterskins in it are waiting for you.” She sounded as if she had planned for me to go this whole time, which doubly made this situation feel weird. “And your horse is ready.”
            “Make sure Igu is good and healed by the time I get back.” When Aisa nodded, I hurried to the door, grabbing my things and heading out into the afternoon light.

###

            I was so full I wanted to lay down for a nap as I eased Puudra onto the nature trail marked by purple honey-vines. Now fused into my massive, azure-forged hammer, Barges made it lighter than a mining pick. The belt hook that held Barges was specifically designed for gladiators and had cost me two-month’s salary from the mine. But it was totally worth it: sturdy, easy release, a design Aisa liked.
            A good bit of food still remained in my backpack, and I was second-guessing how smart stuffing my face while riding had been. The constant bouncing was rougher on my stomach than falling down a mining shaft was on my head.
            Towering pines quickly replaced shrubberies as the main obstacle to moving deeper into the Gyutrop Forest; evening sunlight glinted off Barges, showing a range of blue in the folds of steel. The crisp, pine-scented air was refreshing after weeks of overtime in the mine and that new factory in my training spot.
            I trotted deeper into the underbrush; hopefully, it wouldn’t take me much longer to get to this meeting place. Shadows were extending across the trees, and the sun would be setting soon. Twenty minutes, maybe: knowing when the sun would set was something no one else did better than me.
            I pulled Barges free and dropped him onto the ground with a crunch. A smile came upon me. Positive thoughts: Igu would be fine. Focusing on our link, I summoned him back to my hand.
            “Filth, was that necessary?” Barges asked.
            I dropped him again. The summoning trick was pretty neat. Anyway, while we have time, let’s see what you can do with water.
            Barges groaned. “For the last time, filth, it is not me; it is you who do the work. You— No, you know what. Just do what I say. The One, humans are stupid.”
            What was that?
            “Focus on the image of water. Think of it like reaching out with your hand to scoop out a little from a river. But do not move your hands, and target the air in front of you.”
            I gritted my teeth and reached out to the air with a mental bucket rather than mental hands.
            Water flowed out of nothing—it was like that time someone, who was not me, for real, upended a bucket of ice water onto Igu’s head—and the water sloshed around until it formed a ring around my body. It wasn’t fire, but this was still awesome. In one pull, there was enough water to cover both me and Puudra like armor. That would be a good complement to my fighting style if it was light enough.
            Barges chirped something, but somehow, with the thought of be quiet, I muted him before he could break my concentration.
            I shaped the water into armor—weightless—then into a giant sword that floated in front of me. I slashed through the thick bushes and small trees that had encroached on the nature trail: it cut so easily, effortlessly. Two more swings, and my stomach groaned. The water slipped from my grasp and splashed to the ground. I jerked on Puudra’s reins, pulling her to a stop as I reached out to the water. It would be easier to manipulate water than just create it—
            My stomach roared; the forest spun around me.
            I tumbled to the side and landed flat on my back, breath fleeing my lungs.
            Puudra snorted then leaned over to lick my face. And again.
            I had a good coat of slobber before my arms answered the call and reached up to stop another one of her sloppy horse kisses. “Thank you, girl. I’m fine.” Pain stabbed through my middle, so I released the silence command to ask what’d happened.
            “Filth, I tried to warn you.” Barges’s voice was so condescending that if he weren’t a solid piece of azure-steel, a slap upside the head would be in order. “You are starving. You burned every last bit of food in your stomach and most of the fat from your body because you have not practiced creation or manipulation before. I told you to only create and control a little bit. But no, you had to prove you were a stupid human and rush it.”
            I didn’t need to hear this from a hammer. Forcing myself to stand, I stumbled to Puudra’s saddle and braced on it. Unslinging my backpack, I pulled out a granola bar. It felt like I hadn’t eaten in weeks. Two bars later and a third in my mouth, I grabbed a waterskin and sucked it dry.
            “Eat more.”
            Yes, mom. I stuffed another two bars in my mouth, choking down the chewy granola.
            Ahead, the pines cramped together, and low branches hung across the nature trail. It’d be faster to walk Puudra towards the meeting place with so little light left, but my back ached from the fall, which had made my legs stiff. And the call of the night—insects and birds—was not scary at all, for real. I was an adult.
            Still, I scrambled back into the saddle and moved forward as night finished overtaking the forest. I was off by a minute.
            Vines tangled around Puudra’s legs and made her fight her way into a clearing. All four moons reflected off the small pond in the center, giving enough light to see clearly.
            Wait, all four moons … Bad things always happened on nights like this.
            No. That was a child’s superstition. I was an adult now. The One couldn’t return, and even if he did, he couldn’t remain out at night. He always went away at sundown.
            I climbed down to lead Puudra over to the water and let her drink. I stretched, limbering up—
            A twig snapped in the distance.
            I muffled a squeal. I wasn’t scared. No matter how much my hands were trembling. Nope. The One wasn’t here. He couldn’t be: a God wouldn’t come back to take vengeance on the world. My breath caught, and I reached out to the air around me to draw water and shield myself.
            A short woman with hair that practically glowed crimson stepped into the clearing not ten feet from me with a bald man behind her. They both had metallic tattoos winding up their arms. Even though I hadn’t seen them up close in the village, these two were clearly the Regime Hunters I’d seen while sparring with Igu: Red and Green.
            I cocked my head to the side. Where were Yellow and Blue? And was one of them Kude? “Are you following me? Or were you coming here on your own?”
            “That’s suspicious,” Red said, voice shrill, words slurred. She rested a hand on the pommel of a short sword. “Very suspicious. What are you doing out here, this late?”
            “Camping?” I shrugged.
            Green grinned while a snarl contorted Red’s full lips.
            “So,” I asked, “what brings you two—Four?—out here?”
            “The lovers didn’t want to waste their time,” Green said in a hoarse whisper, “so they didn’t come.” He tugged on the collar of his fighter’s tunic. “But, children aren’t supposed to be out of the village at night, so I had no choice but to accompany the hothead.”
            I scoffed. “Do I look like a child?”
            “No.” Red bared her teeth. “You look suspicious.”
            Yelling at her would be so refreshing, but she was a Regime Hunter: I’d get into a cart load of trouble. “Can you leave me alone? I’m supposed to meet someone.”
            Green swallowed. “Kude?”
            I nodded. “It’s you then?”
            “No,” Green said, voice sounding resigned.
            Steel rasped across leather as Red drew her short sword. “Traitor!” Fire ignited around her free fist; she rushed towards me.
            Ready for it, I drew out a wall of water, and steam filled the clearing, obscuring my view.
            “Good instincts,” Barges said, sounding impressed. “Just enough water, and you hardened it. Not bad for filth.”
            “Puudra,” I said to my horse, voice trembling, “stay.”
            Deep breaths.
            Drawing Barges felt right, the weight perfect: for me alone, heavy enough to have a solid feel, light enough to stay exhaustion. I took a step away from the pond.
            A bolt of fire zipped by, singeing my hair. Soon, the ground beneath my feet began to shake.
            I sprinted towards where Red and Green had been, using Barges to slap a bolt of fire out of the air. How did she know exactly where I was—
            Green! He was using his power over earth to track me!
            If water were anything like fire, I could reach out to sources around me and control them with ease as long as there was no opposition. So, I grabbed onto the steam and compressed it, creating a small shield that floated ahead of me. The area cleared, and I swung, hitting nothing but empty dirt where Red should have been.
            Red stepped out from behind a tree a few feet ahead, her short sword glowing orange. She charged.
            Rather than stumbling from the missed swing, I danced forward in a twirl of fluid motion. Grace? I slammed my water shield into Red’s outstretched arm, opening her up. A quick strike to the gut wouldn’t kill her, and it should give me enough time to get away.
            But if I didn’t deliver the message to Kude or the Regime Hunters knew who I was, my family and friends would be in trouble.
            The ground pitched beneath my feet and threw me forward. Red’s fire leapt from her sword and destroyed my shield with a boom! The explosion threw both of us back, and a shock of pain jolted my mind with the loss of the shield, leaving a sour taste in my mouth. Spikes grew from the ground below me.
            “Water armor,” Barges said.
            Burning almost every bit of food in my stomach, I dried the air and created water armor like earlier, hardening it with all my focus. The spikes ripped into the armor as I landed on them, but they didn’t pierce it, and my weight shattered them. I kicked my feet under me then tumbled to the side and lifted Barges.
            Fists of stone slammed into my side, pulverizing my armor and sending me for a spin. Green stepped forward and held his hands out towards me.
            I twirled to regain my footing and prepared to charge Red, who’d just stood.
           “You traitor.” Red pumped more fire into her short sword. “Know that soon your family and that bitch, Aisa, will join you in the One’s prison.”
            They were going to kill Mother? Impossible, she was a gladiator. But Aisa—
            “Filth, they are trying to distract you,” Barges said.
            Red and Green strode forward, side by side, closing the distance.
            I’m going to ingest our link since you said it’d give me a burst of power. Which I needed with so little food left.
            “Filth, it could take a whole day to regenerate our link. During which time, I will return to my normal weight: you won’t be able to carry me without straining.”
            No choice.
            “Good …”
            As if my chest were a giant mouth and the blue link between us were a noodle, I slurped it into my body.
            Barges screamed, and a surge of power pulsed through my veins.
            Mental silence.
            Filth, now I was in control.
            And these humans needed to die! Every one of them. For the sake of the planet, together, Tima and I would kill them all, starting with these two. I hurled my hammer-body to the ground between Red and Green then shot a spear of water at each. They slammed their powers against the spears, shattering them easily since I had not resisted. My water sloshed across their exposed skin, harmless until I used it to establish a connection.
            They were mine.
            I churned the blood in their veins, stopping the flow, reversing it, speeding it up.
            Howls of agony erupted from both.
            A smirk crossed my face. No time to keep playing though; I ripped the blood from their filthy bodies, riddling them with holes. The sound of liquid pattering the underbrush preceded the metallic smell of a forge. Two fewer humans to destroy the planet.
            No … more time. If only the sun were still out—
            Everything felt heavy. My head. My eyelids. My thoughts. My body crumpled to the ground beside Barges and the empty Regime Hunters. Bastard. Barges, that bastard made me kill them. Horrible person. I. Never again.
            Someone approached me, wearing shorts and an open shirt that exposed bright yellow, rock-like skin.
           I’d come all this way for Igu. Failure. Talking big, but couldn’t save anyone. I just rushed in without thought. Just a worthless murderer. Aisa would never love me …
            “So,” the yellow man without Regime Hunter Tattoos said as he knelt down. Darkness erased everything but his voice. “Aisa sent you to find me in her place? This had better be good.”
            Silence.

###

            My back screamed out in pain as I awoke on a bed in the corner of a cold room … No, a cave. And my bed was just a lump of stone.
            So, I was alive?
            Glowing rocks illuminated this section of the cave, and there was a constant drip, drip, drip somewhere in the distance. That explained the stink of mildew. Across from me, a stone desk protruded from the wall. My hammer and backpack lay on the table, both looking clean compared to my dirt-covered clothing.
            I pushed myself up and waddled over to the desk.
            How had I gotten here?
            Where are we? I asked Barges.
            No answer.
            Barges? I wrapped my hands around his handle and gritted my teeth as I picked him up. So heavy. This isn’t funny.
            Still no answer.
            Then the image of killing two people twisted my stomach. Now, as then, it felt like watching someone else do it. I stared at the blue folds in Barges’s steel. The bastard had made me kill them. But it was my fault for trusting him, for rushing to the decision without thinking it through. But that’s all I was, a brute who struck first and never thought.
            “You recover quickly after using so much power,” a gruff voice said from the left. The yellow man strode to the bed, wearing wave-patterned shorts and an unbuttoned shirt that had branchless trees growing on a beach. “You’ve only been out for a few hours after going against two who should have killed you.” He sounded bitter as he sat on the bed.
            Had they been his friends? Or had he wanted to kill them himself?
            “Now,” he said, “tell me why Aisa sent you instead of coming herself.”
            “Because she’s busy healing my best friend. Igu is dying. Was, I hope.” My heart pounded against my chest. Was this guy on my side? That would make things so much easier, but after … killing two Regime Hunters, I had to be careful. “So, are you Kude?”
            Grinning, he looked at his yellow, stone-like hands then tapped himself on the chest: there was a clink. “Clearly.”
            “Any proof?” My arms were starting to ache, so I set Barges down by my feet, handle pointed towards the ceiling. My muscles must still be exhausted from the fight, from my first powered fight. “Like a passcode or something?”
            “Why did she send you?”
            “She has a message for Kude.”
            “The message, boy.”
            “I’m an adult.”
            He took a deep breath and closed his eyes for a long moment. “You’re powerful alright. Even some of the best water-wielders I know couldn’t manage blood control like that.” He looked me up and down. “But that wouldn’t work on me, so talk.”
            “Are you sure you’re Kude?” I couldn’t quite put my hammer on why I was questioning him like this, but if millions of lives were at stake as Aisa had said, even if I didn’t understand the message, I had to be sure. And the way he wrung his hands together made my skin crawl. “Like sure sure?”
            “Are you stupid?”
            My hands rested atop the bottom of Barges’s handle. “You want to say that again?”
            “You’re too young to match me, boy.”
            “Boy? I’m twice your size, rock-biter.” I bent over and took Barges in both hands, lifting the massive hammer into my forward fighting stance.
            “Willing to fight?” Kude asked.
            “Always,” I said, adding as much threat to my voice as I could manage. I needed to hurry back to the village and get ready to leave. Igu should be awake by now, and if I didn’t hurry, Mother and everyone else would find out we’re going to leave. They would stop us. I’d be trapped. And when they found out I’d killed those two Regime Hunters … “I don’t have time for your meanness.”
            “Meanness? You really are a— Look, both of us are on a tight schedule. Didn’t Aisa tell you that millions of lives depended on this meeting? And it’s timeliness?”
            She had …
            “Just tell me what you know.” he said.
            “Fine.” This seemed like the best and only proof I’d get. I rested Barges on my shoulder, holding it with one hand, and took a deep breath. What had been the exact words Aisa had told me? “Rebirth has come. You’ll understand. Well, she said, ‘he’ll understand,’ but I think you get it.”
            Kude frowned. “Oh?” His eyes bulged, and he rushed to the far side of the cave, opposite the door he’d come in. “The One, I have to get to the village now. No time. If you see Aisa before me, tell her to wait at her house.”
            “Fine by me.” I stood and grabbed my backpack off the table before hooking Barges onto my belt. I wanted to ask how this message was going to save so many lives, or what it meant, but there was no time for that. Igu and I needed to start our journey before Mother found out. “So, is my horse, Puudra, wherever we are, anywhere nearby?”
            “Yes. I tied the beast to a tree just outside.” Kude placed his trembling hands on the wall, and everything began to shake. Soon, the ceiling opened up, and the floor rose to meet the new opening like stairs, leading out into the morning. He raced out ahead of me.

###

            A bit past noon, I finished my last granola bar and hopped off Puudra outside Aisa’s house. I’d expected Kude to head to Aisa’s with me, despite what he’d said, but instead, he’d never slowed and rode off towards the center of the village.
            Like every other building in the village, the roof of Aisa’s two-story house was a sharp triangle to break up the hail that came off storms crashing into the northern mountains. The infirmary’s sign was still flipped to ‘in,’ but unlike when I’d left, the front porch was covered in some type of green slime.
            Just in case Mother came by, and to avoid whatever that slime was, I decided it would be best to bring Puudra around back and tie her up there next to Igu’s horse, hidden by the privacy fence.
            A spray of green liquid shot from the second floor as I stepped away from Puudra, and slime covered me from head to toe. My arms clung to my side, and a burning sensation raced across my skin.
            If I could summon some water—
            I dropped to the ground and rolled through the brown grass in Aisa’s backyard, but rather than removing the green slime, it only dried it; hardening around my body, the slime trapped me in a burning cocoon. Everything blurred.
            My power …
            It couldn’t end like this. Igu and I were so close to realizing our dream.
            An icy sensation engulfed me, and my body was lifted into the air. Nothing bound me anymore, yet I couldn’t move as I was taken somewhere and dropped onto a soft bed. I phased in and out, the images jumbling around me. Then, Aisa was there. So lovely. Modaj and Ekanli, my friends, stepped up behind Aisa. It was good to see them out of their infirmary beds.
            “What were you fools doing?” Aisa placed her hand on me. “I said slime anyone you don’t recognize.”
            Modaj and Ekanli stared at their feet and said, “Sorry,” at the same time. “We only saw someone coming around back,” Modaj said, his face pale, and Ekanli wrung her hands, finishing his sentence with, “We didn’t get a good look at Tima.”
            “Now, the four of you have to delay your escape. The One, this might mess everything up.” Fire energy swarmed around Aisa like a dust storm before lancing into my body.
            Unfiltered agony screamed from every inch of my body. Hot. Hotter than that slime. Something popped. My teeth ground. And I howled.
            As the pain vanished, Aisa slumped over me. It felt like days had passed, every muscle in my body begging for a nap. But Aisa was resting on me! Her soft breasts were pressed against my chest, and her warm breath brushed across my neck. I had to be strong: this was my big chance. My hand trembled as I reached out and patted Aisa on the head, but she didn’t stir.
            Well, that was deflating.
            Unlike the last time I’d been in this room, the plain white ceiling towered above me, and the beep, beep, beep of the machine had a steady rhythm. Something was attached to my right arm, opposite of Aisa: I couldn’t move it. The smell of rust and rubbing alcohol gagged me, and the sudden motion drew a sigh from Aisa.
            “How is Igu?” I asked, throat scratchy.
            Aisa smiled up at me. “Always worrying about others first. You know, you nearly died, right? That slime is our newest weapon.”
            “I’m fine. Though, a bit thirsty.”
            A low chuckle bubbled out of Aisa’s mouth and warmed my cheeks. With her deep crimson eyes and full lips, she was beyond beautiful. She stood then turned around to grab a glass of water from the cabinet, handing it to me.
            I gulped it down.
            “Better?” Aisa placed the cup back on a shelf.
            “Thanks.”
            “Anyway, Igu is fine. She woke up a little bit ago, but she’s still exhausted.”
            I moved to sit up, the good news giving me a bit of energy and removing the mining clamps that had been gripping my heart.
            “No, you don’t.” She rested a firm hand on my chest and held me down. Fire’s strength must be nice. “Conserve your energy for the journey ahead.”
            Did Aisa know Igu and I weren’t planning to just visit the nearby villages? That our plan was to go far away and fight in the Gladiatorium, to a place where we’d never have to come back if we didn’t want to? “Umm, what journey? The plan was to just do a circuit of the Range villages.”
            Aisa bit into her lower lip then scratched her nose. “Well, if Kude is a traitor as I suspect, the Regime will know about you four soon enough. And if not, which I doubt since Kude’s a lying bastard, you four still need to make your way to our base of operations. The future will depend on it.”
            “Four? Huh? The plan— Wait, the future?”
            “Yes.”
            “And Kude is a traitor?” I coughed into my fist. “But he said to wait for him here.”
            “The One, really?”
            The way her nose flared when she swore made me smile. “Yeah.”
            “Well, it looks like he failed.”
            “Failed?”
            Aisa nodded. “For the future, I had to give Kude one last test of loyalty. I gave him the information, preparing for everything. If he’d just stayed in the forest, he’d have caught any group leaving if he was a traitor. But without the right information, he wouldn’t come to the village. I knew he wouldn’t kill you because he’d be in too much of a rush when he got that information.”
            “What?” A lump formed in my throat. She’d said, ‘our new weapon,’ earlier, not the Regime’s. She talked as if she wanted the One to come back. This wasn’t good. “Loyalty … to the anti-Regime criminals, right?”
            “The rebellion to overthrow the Regime’s oppressive control and stop them from destroying our ecosystem.”
            Aisa was a criminal. Or a rebel as she called herself, fighting against the Regime. I guess I’d suspected, especially since the Regime was filled with One-forsaken bastards, but still, no good can come from destroying the Regime from the outside.
            “May the Four come together as One, returning God to once again rule our world,” Aisa said, eyes focused on mine as if I were the only thing that existed. “May the One find permanent residence within one of the chosen.”
            One of the chosen? A fragment of the One … What had Barges said? Eternal host? That had to be Igu: I wouldn’t let Igu get taken, so I had to play dumb.
            “What do prayers have to do with this?” I had to get answers out of her, no matter how much I wanted her to keep looking at me in this adoring manner. “I don’t understand.”
            “A long time ago, the Regime split the One’s essence, but they couldn’t destroy him. Now we have a chance to bring him back. You four can fix so many problems with your combined powers, but if Kude is on his way here, we have already wasted too much time.” Aisa leaned over and kissed me, her lips softer than I’d imagined against mine.
            An inferno, hotter than being healed, burned my cheeks. I was going to faint. “I—”
            Boom! The entire house shook, and cracks spiderwebbed across the roof.
            “Aisa! We know they’re in there!” The mayor’s sharp voice pierced the walls. “Don’t make this any worse than it has to be.”
            Aisa gritted her teeth. “So, this seals it. Kude is a traitor. Guess he has to die.”
            “Killing draws the One’s gaze.” And I knew how much that gaze weighed down one’s shoulders, how sick it still made me feel.
            “Some people are worth the risk of drawing the One’s gaze.”
            I shook my head. “That’s not true.”
            “It is.” Aisa unhooked the device from my left arm and helped me sit up when Ekanli and Modaj stepped into the room, each wearing a backpack.
            “We’ve got everything,” Modaj said.
            Ekanli nodded. “And the horses are ready.”
            “Good.” Aisa hoisted me over her shoulder and gave me a good look at her butt; she carried me to the back door as another blast shook the house. “Get Igu out back and onto a horse.” Once out back, Aisa’s house groaned under a third blast. She laid me over Puudra’s long saddle, face down, then stuck Barges into a saddle strap.
            When had she grabbed him?
            A faint blue line grew from my chest, linking me to Barges, but all I heard was a low groan, and that might have come from me.
            Ekanli hoisted Igu onto the second horse, Igu’s horse, as Modaj put on a second backpack—mine—before getting onto Puudra behind me. Craning my neck like this made my entire spine scream out.
            “Follow the road through the Gyutrop Forest to get to Serion-Town and meet my friends at the Fire-Spark Inn.” Aisa helped Ekanli onto the horse with Igu as Aisa’s house collapsed under another blast.
            There was a woomph, and three figures edged forward from the front yard.
            Aisa threw up a wall of fire. “Tell the innkeeper, ‘Fire brings us together,’ and he’ll take over from there.”
            “Alright,” Ekanli said.
            “Aisa,” I managed to say. “What about you?”
            “I’ll stall the Regime dogs while you four escape.” She smiled, and all I could think about was the kiss. “Don’t worry about me.”
            That wasn’t possible, but the words caught in my throat, choking me and causing Aisa’s gorgeous face to blur.
            “Let’s go.” Ekanli kicked her horse into a gallop.
            Modaj followed, Igu and I just along for the bumpy ride.
            Everything whirled, and my stomach turned, but I wasn’t sure if the unease was from the constant pounding or leaving the woman I loved behind. The crack of an explosion behind us was distant, and the buildings around the town faded beyond sight. We’d made it out onto the open road and passed the broken boulder, yet the horses skidded to a stop half way between the boulder and the Gyutrop Forest.
            I pushed myself into a sitting position in the saddle, trying not to burst into tears or turn Puudra around.
            Modaj grunted from behind me, and Ekanli, who was on the horse with Igu, glanced my way.
            Twenty feet away, Kude stood in front of a ten-foot wall that blocked the road. He was … a traitor; he’d forced me to leave Aisa behind.
            “Stay back,” I said to Modaj and Ekanli in a low voice. I hopped off Puudra and grabbed Barges, who was once again light, but I couldn’t feel the strength of his presence in my mind or the warm mining coat of his power. Time to teach Kude some respect. But I couldn’t let him attack my friends. Think! “But if you can figure out how to use your soul crystals,” I said then took a deep breath, “that might help.” It would stop me from worrying so much about them.
            Modaj handed me my backpack before unslinging his own and pulling out his green soul crystal, still in its glass case. “Should we get down and help you fight?”
            “You?” I stifled a laugh while keeping an eye on Kude. I had to discourage my friend to keep him safe. “The scholar? No, you two would only get in my way.” There was more food in my backpack. “If things get rough, I want you two to get Igu out of here.”
            Ekanli stared at her yellow soul crystal. “Sure.”
            Modaj shook his head. “I—”
            “What’s the holdup, boy?” Smiling, Kude looked like a child’s depiction of the One: scary and monstrous with rock-like teeth to match his yellow skin.
            Barges trembled in my grasp: this wasn’t my first powered fight, but there was something about Kude. No, for Aisa, I’d crush him. “I’m going to shatter every bone in your body!”
            “Oh?” Looking as if he were stalling, Kude started forward at a winter’s pace. “You know, I’m kind of surprised you’re one of the four. Should have snuffed you out when we first met. If only I hadn’t had to hurry to deal with Aisa.”
            “If I hold Barges over my head with one hand and point,” I said in a low voice to my friends, “make a break for it in that direction.” I bolted towards Kude, Barges held out to the side.
            “Come, boy.” Kude opened his arms wide.
            Think before you act! I screamed at myself.
            Kude was an earth-wielder, and a powerful one at that.
            Skidding to a stop a few feet from Kude, I spun and hit the ground, scooping up dirt and slinging it at him. The section of the road in front of him opened into a massive pit, and my breath caught as I danced back to safety.
            Kude turned away, but some of the dirt had made it into his eyes, and he howled.
            I rolled to the left, circling around him and the pit.
            Kude slashed his hands through the air, and his pit expanded, devouring the ground around it. He rubbed at his eyes then glanced to the left and right.
            My body, as if moving on its own, twirled forward on what was left of the ground around Kude to stand between him and my friends. I placed my lead leg between his and slammed Barges square into Kude’s midsection. The perfectly placed strike sang through my joints.
            His eyes bulged, and his body collapsed in around Barges’s head then flew backwards and crashed into the wall.
            I followed, knowing where to swing before Kude bounced off the wall. His earth-hardened body came forward, and Barges met his chest halfway.
            Crunch! Kude crumpled next to the wall as cracks spread along its surface, and soon, it joined him on the ground in a heap. The pits behind me vanished.
            We could leave—
            Kude shot to his feet and roared as the stones around him wrapped around his arms, creating massive talons. Warping his body with his power like this had made him a real monster when combined with the earth’s endurance. Raw earth energy hovered around his face: the dirt-slinging trick wouldn’t work again. And if Aisa couldn’t stall the Regime much longer …
            My chest heaved, and each inhalation burned. I threw up Barges, hoisting it above my head and pointing to the east, then charged Kude.
            Flying rocks and spinning blades of wind crashed into Kude, opening his stance and throwing him back a few steps.
            Igu let out a cry from behind, but Kude held my focus.
            “Filth, water armor,” Barges said, voice weak.
            The blue link between me and Barges pulsed, and his power warmed my skin. Despite still being upset with Barges, I drew water from the air and wrapped a thick layer around my body.
            Kude, despite his monstrous body, looked winded and sore as he glanced between me and my friends, who had edged off the road and towards the tree line. Still, he swung at me with lightning speed when I reached him. His claws tore into my armor, but Barges smashed into his side. He grunted, but appeared unharmed.
            I stepped back and reset my stance, the water armor thin. The ground rumbled beneath me, and I tumbled to the left as a new pit opened. The bastard was fond of that trick.
            Blades of wind and spears of water skewered the ground behind me.
            Had my friends lost control of their powers? Wait, water? Not earth? And from behind rather than the right …
            I scrambled to my feet and risked a glance around.
            My friends were trotting the horses farther to the right, Igu sitting up with Ekanli. Almost opposite them, from back towards the village, Yellow and Blue, the two remaining Regime Hunters, sprinted towards me and Kude, water spears forming around Blue and wind blades swirling in front of Yellow.
            Aisa … had been beaten.
            I swallowed.
            They had to have captured her, not killed her. Please, say that was the case.
            “It’s over, boy.” Kude stalked forward, moving to pin me between himself and the two Regime Hunters while cutting me off from my friends. He’d been stalling.
            The One, guess it was my turn to be the hero. “Go!” I shouted to my friends, hoping my voice could reach Igu one last time. Though, honestly, they should have already been on their way.
            Stone claws snapped up and bit into my leg, draining my water armor to nothing.
            I managed to slip out of the clamp without taking any damage, but Blue and Yellow had arrived, and I turned to keep an eye on all three at once.
            “Create more water!” Barges’s voice rang inside my head. “Combine the Fragments.”
            “As long as you don’t fight back,” Kude said, gesturing with his talons, “I’ll let your friends live. Three is not a threat.”
            If my friends would be safe, it would be worth giving up here. But Kude was a One-forsaken liar who’d betrayed Aisa.
            I created a ball of water. The ground beneath my feet undulated and a spike of earth shot up towards my head, but Kude’s gaping expression said it hadn’t been him. Modaj and my other friends …
            “Yes, yes, yes!” Barges sounded excited. “Finally!”
            I didn’t understand—
            A hiss of fire and a squeal of wind slammed into my ball of water as soon as the spike of earth did. My friends had brought their elements together with mine. No! This couldn’t be happening.
            I glanced back at my friends. “Get Igu out of here! Now!”
            Kude growled, dashing forward. The water spears around Blue shot forward at the same time as Yellow’s wind blades. From three different directions!
            Barges, what should I do? I reached out to the water my friends had hit with their elements; it rebuffed me then started glowing.
            Too late!
            Not good, not good, not good! Especially with the sun still up, even though it was just a spec on the horizon.
            I danced around Kude to use him as a shield, forcing Blue and Yellow to pull their attacks up short then reached out to craft more water, but nothing happened. I froze in place. What? Barges was still light, but his presence was gone.
            A stone fist slammed into my head and threw me onto my butt.
            Spots filled my vision.
            Kude, Blue and Yellow stood over me, and Kude’s arrogant smirk made me want to puke. He—
            “May all be sheltered in my light,” a resonant voice said from behind Kude. It sounded as if four people were speaking at once, and one of them had Barges’s baritone voice. “May all those who have wronged my planet suffer. By your powers combined, I have been reborn!”
            This was the worst; this made Aisa the worst. The One, God, should never be allowed to return. Aisa had wanted this to happen, and now my friends were in trouble because of her. Igu was in trouble. How much time was left?
            Kude’s jaw dropped as he peered over his shoulder.
            Flowing green hair, short in the front and long in the back, a shade lighter than his face. An orange glowing orb on his chest that looked like the sun. His arms were red. His legs yellow. And his body blue. A monster with sharp, pointed teeth … just like the prayers had said.
            Fire and wind wrapped around Blue and ripped his body to shreds. Yellow cried out to his lover until water and earth stabbed into him then tore him apart. Their blood and body parts splattered across me.
            Kude gritted his teeth. “We shattered you once. We’ll shatter you again.”
            “Shattered?” the figure, the One, asked as if looking for the memory. “Ah … No.” He shook his head. “No one will take me away from this world again. I will soon be eternal.”
            One minute till sundown, I guessed. Please say I was on point this time.
            The One extended a hand towards Kude, and all four elements blended together. Kude drew the ground to him, but it was too slow. The One blasted Kude, the shockwave throwing me across the ground along with a swath of dirt and debris. Boom! Another wave hit Kude. When everything settled down, he was nowhere to be seen, nothing left but scraps of his shirt.
            I pushed myself up to my feet. I had to run. I would be next.
            As if I were insignificant, the One looked past me and searched the area until his gaze fell on my friends, fell on Igu.
            My heart leaped into my throat. Igu … I should have loved her, not Aisa. Something deep down screamed for Aisa, but she was wrong for me. Igu had been right about that; Igu had always been there for me, and I was so stupid not to see it.
            The One circled around, putting himself closer to the tree line, blocking my friends’ escape. The four elements gathered around his outstretched hand as he pointed at them.
            Fifty seconds.
            I shot to my feet and hurled Barges at the One. “Get out of here!” Barges hit him in the chest, and his blast of raw energy ripped through the air above my friends. I summoned Barges back to my hands as I barreled past my friends.
            The One blinked as if he’d just seen me.
            Perfect footwork. Perfect positioning. I hit the One in the gut with everything I had and sent him tumbling backwards.
            My friends cantered over to me, the One between us and the Gyutrop Forest.
            Forty. Please say my guess was true.
            I gritted my teeth. “What are you doing?”
            “Get on,” Igu said, lips quivering.
            “We can’t outrun him. I’ll draw him away and hold his attention.”
            The One rose from the ground, floating above it.
            “Go west then hit the woods,” I said, “Trails should bring you back to the road.
            Thirty seconds.
            Igu shook her head. “Tima, you promised—”
            “I’ll catch up later.” After taking a deep breath, I rushed towards the One.
            Please, by the Four, leave and say my timing is true!
            The clack-clack-clack of horseshoes on stone and hard dirt heading west along the tree line and growing farther away from me was reassuring. The One floated towards me, his attention shifting between me and my friends.
            Before anything else, I had to draw his attention long enough to let my friends get away, so I hurled Barges at him again.
            He caught it.
            I slid forward and punched him in his steel-like jaw.
            Twenty.
            He didn’t budge. Instead, he grabbed me by the neck and hurled me towards the woods.
            I collided with a tree, and the granola bars in my backpack dug into my flesh. After flopping to the ground, I lay flat on my back, my body too heavy to move. A moment. Just a moment to catch my breath and reorient myself.
            The One floated over to me, Barges in hand. He seemed hesitant. “Fragment, you are not my intended host.”
            “Host?” I asked, drawing out the word.
            “But you will work as a temporary vessel till I find the girl.”
            I swallowed. “Are you sure?”
            Ten.
            The One extended his free hand towards me. “You will give me enough time in this world to find my true host.”
            I shook my head and forced tears. “Please, no.”
            Five.
            Placing his hand on my chest, the four elements wrapped around us. “Rejoice.”
            Four.
            “Igu!” I pointed behind the One. “Stay away!”
            Three.
            The One froze, glancing over his shoulder.
            Two.
            I laughed despite the pain of the One’s touch. “Even I wouldn’t fall for that trick. Ha!”
            One: the sun set, and the One screamed. “No!”
            “I’ll have you back in my hammer now.”
            “You—” Darkness swept across the land, and the One vanished in a puff of smoke, leaving a grinding hum in the air. Barges dropped to the ground beside me, crushing the underbrush, and groggy muttering came through our link.
            I stumbled to my feet and retrieved Barges before walking deeper into the woods, heading east and away from my friends. Sorry Igu, but I had to break my promise; I had to keep her safe. I couldn’t risk our powers being close enough to combine again during the day or the rebellion getting hold of all four fragments.
            Too bad I couldn’t gloat about this victory or tell Igu I might love her, but at least, I was getting out of the village and knew she would be safe, far away from me.

The end