Julianne looked at the pair. “What happened?”
Jamie looked at the team. “I feel something.” She let Chet go and stood up, closing her eyes. “To the north. Julianne what king did you steal from?”
“The king of ember.”
Diana gasped and smiled. “Perfect! The king of ember may know where the Orb of Flames is!”
Josh stroked his chin. “We’ve got three missions. We need to save the six girls trapped by the king, get the scepter, and see if the king knows about the orb. That’s our goal. You guys know what to do?”
His team nodded. Julianne stepped forward. “I’m sorry to put you guys into all of this, and I know it will never change by just apologizing, but there has to be something I can do to help.”
Josh smiled. “There just may be one perfect thing.”
Squad Z followed Jamie’s heightened sense of direction. She followed the aura Diana put on the staff. Faint as it was, it was still enough to give her the tracking she needed. They went to the very volcano Rupert pointed out back in town. It was smoking, so it was still active. Everything seemed to be falling into place, but the guards. The guards were covered in magma armor and holding large axes.
“Not my cup of tea…” Diana muttered.
“We aren’t fighting them. Julianne, ready for the plan?” Josh looked at her, but she nervously shook her head.
“No puedo…I can’t do this. Don’t let them put me back in the dungeon.”
“Julie, chill.” Jamie grabbed some rope. “We’ve got you. Do you still have the scepter?”
Julianne pulled out a large golden rod with a red pearl on top. The shape was very similar to Diana’s staff. “Right here. I never lost it. What are you going to do?”
Josh looked at it, then at Chet. “Make us some shackles.”
Chet nodded and made cuffs out of earth, locking Julianne in them. She protested but Josh assured her it would be alright. Chet looked at Jamie and blushed. Jamie smiled and nodded.
“We got this.” Jamie looked onward. “But…why is there a palace in a volcano?”
“Irrelevant.” Josh shoved Julianne forward. “Stick to the plan.”
They brought Julianne up to the entryway. The guards looked down at them.
“What brings you here?”
“We bring a prisoner. Julianne, leader of the group who took the royal scepter.” Josh shoved her forward and she whimpered.
“We already have her and the scepter. What kind of trick are you trying to pull?”
Josh looked at Diana, who shrugged. “I guess you don’t want this back then.” He held up the scepter, much to the surprise of the group, as they intended to keep it concealed. The guards looked at each other, then back at the group.
Diana groaned as they carried them to jail. “What the heck, Josh? What was the point in that? You got us thrown in jail.”
Josh shrugged. “Didn’t see it coming.”
Diana groaned as they locked them up. “Hey, perk up. We got in, didn’t we?”
Jamie stood at the jail bars and called the guards. “Why are we here?”
“You will be held here until questioning about the scepter.”
“Where is Julianne?”
“She will be executed for high treason.”
Jamie gasped. Julianne deserved a lot of things. But death? Never. “Josh you told her she would be alright!”
“I thought she would be.” Josh shrugged.
“Why are you so nonchalant?” Diana asked. “They took our weapons and supplies, and so have nothing to defend ourselves with if they decide we deserve death too.”
“Relax, Princess. These bars are just stone. Cooled magma.” He looked at Chet, who blinked blankly, then raised a finger.
“Oh, I get it.” He started to move the bars when Josh stopped him.
“Wait, do you hear that?” Josh pressed his head to one of the jail walls. The cell was completely black. Skulls lied in the corners. It burned like a furnace inside. “Listen, there are voices.”
Jamie closed her eyes, testing her powers again. “Wait…wait wait yeah I feel six auras not far from here.”
“The dancers?” Diana asked.
“Good chance.” Josh spoke. He turned back and half his face was black. Diana tilted her head in wonder. “What?” he asked. Jamie walked up and rubbed it off his face. It sparked in her fingertips.
“This isn’t just stone…” she said.
“It’s coal!” Diana felt the bars again.
“I don’t understand. Why is the room lined with coal?” Jamie asked.
“All the cells are lined with coal. Look at all these bones. You don’t think…”
Josh looked back in panic. “The execution! They burn them alive!”
Chet looked outside the cell for guards. He placed his hands on the ground and felt for vibrations on the ground. “We’ve got…two…three…five guards. If we manage to get out of here, we will need to be ready to take them down.”
Diana looked down. “Should we be attracting attention to ourselves like that?”
Josh shook his head. “Won’t be a problem. Chet, bust us out.”
He placed his hands along the bars. Diana stroked her chin. “Wait, the girls each control an element. One of them moves earth. Why didn’t they just…”
Chet did a battle cry and pounded the bars, ready for them to shatter. Jamie and Josh waited behind him. When nothing happened, he shook his hands in pain. “That…that didn’t work…”
“I don’t understand.” Josh touched the bars. “Coal is still stone, isn’t it?”
Chet pounded the bars again, they heard a loud clang and he stepped back. “It may have been lined with coal, but this is metal. I doubt the girls realized it yet.”
“We’re running out of time. We need to bend those bars.” Diana looked at Jamie, who was a step ahead, trying to use her mind to bend them. The bars glowed with a faint purple aura, but didn’t budge.
“I can’t. We don’t have anyone who can move metal.”
Chet rolled up the sleeves of his sweatshirt. “No, you can’t. But last I checked, metal and earth were quite closely related.”
Chet cracked his knuckles, and then stood in a sturdy position. He put his arms out and closed his eyes. He envisioned the bars bending to his will. He pulled his hands apart slowly, tightening every muscle in his body. Josh shook his head.
“Bro, there are times when we can’t do something and we have to accept it. We just move on man.”
Chet ignored it and kept moving them apart. His body cramped and his teeth hurt from him clenching his jaw. Sweat dripped down his face as he began to let out a long, low war cry. The group heard a creaking noise and looked back. The coal started to fall off the bars as they shook, bending ever so slowly. Chet’s voice rose as he pulled farther, and the bars bent more and more. He released his muscles and cried out, the bars fell to the ground, but Jamie caught them with telekinesis. Josh stood dumbfounded.
“Y…you…Wha?” Chet fell to his knees, panting. His body locked up. Diana grabbed his arm and muttered “Nature’s Blessing” before her hands glowed the blue aura and he began soothing the pain. “Holy nuts bro! That was amazing!”
Chet smiled, his hair falling over his sweat-dripping face. He threw a thumbs-up and stood up slowly.
“Wait, Chet, I haven’t finished healing you.”
“It’s fine, we need to move. I’ve taken worse before.”
Jamie put a hand on Diana’s shoulder, signaling that it was fine, and then followed Josh outside the cell. Josh looked to the left, the direction from which they came, and then turned to Jamie.
“Where are they?”
Jamie closed her eyes and listened, then pointed to the right.
“I was afraid of that.” Josh ran that direction. “We stick together this time.”
The team agreed and followed him. Chet lifted up a large piece of igneous rock and carried himself on it, unable to keep up by running. Jamie stopped them at the end of the hall, where it split off in two directions. She told them to turn right, going ahead this time. Josh looked back.
“Well, so much for not attracting attention.”
Josh saw each of the five guards following them, and Chet threw the rock at the front man, who dodged it and let the guy behind him take the hit. Chet ran forward and Diana pushed ahead, knowing this was a place where she would be least useful. Josh let them get ahead and sucked in air. “Bubble Bombs!” He blew balls of air at the walls, causing the coal to come off and make a dust cloud. “Charge up!” he cried before rubbing his hands together. “Sparkblast!” He laid his hands out and they crackled with electricity that danced off his finger tips and into the dust cloud, which began to violently pop around the guards and force them back. “I think that’ll buy us some ti—” His sentence was cut off when three more guards came blocked by obsidian shields and pushed through the smoke cloud. Josh turned and ran back to the group, who arrived at the cell. Jamie snapped them out of Julianne’s trance and told them the bars were metal, and one of the girls with silver hair stepped up and thanked her, then pulled them apart effortlessly.
“Show off.” Chet muttered. When Josh caught them he told them he was being followed still, and Jamie led the group forward. The wall was solid, but Jamie and Chet had other plans. She focused psychic power into her feet, and Chet focused power into his fists. Jamie covered her feet with coal and Chet stood back. He ran forward as Jamie ignited her feet.
“Kinetikick!” she cried as her ignited foot collided with the wall, sending psychic pulses through it and weakening its structure. Chet bashed into the wall and gave it a good punch, tearing it down. The girls cheered and Chet pulled his sleeves down. Diana gasped as the guards approached them, and Jamie gasped as four stood in front of her. The girls cracked their knuckles and necks.
“You know, we’re more than just pretty.” One of them stated. “We can hold them off. You guys go on ahead. Find Julianne.”
Jamie and Josh smiled. “Thanks.” Josh said as he grabbed Diana and pushed ahead. Chet pulled up earth and pushed the guards out of the way. Jamie ran in afterward.
“The kinetic thing is really cool. I guess I did it a long time ago. I remember it clearly now.”
“Fantastic.” Josh said as they entered a large hallway. “It may be a useful asset after all.”
They looked around, then back at the gaping hole they made and the fighting girls. The wall led to the main hall in the palace, but it was empty.
“Where is everyone?” Diana asked as she stepped forward.
“They must be doing the execution.” Josh clenched his fists. “Come on, we need to find them.”
They moved to the door that entered the main hall, but stopped in surprise when it opened before them. A man surrounded by many guards stepped in. He wore red garments and was adorned and decorated with rubies from the crown on his head to the shoes on his feet. He held the scepter in his hand as he walked in, right past the group. Josh looked down, then to his sides. Jamie had the group floating above the doorway via telekinesis. She smiled and spoke through their minds.
“This is getting easier and easier the more I do it.” She smiled and Josh let out a silent sigh of relief. They listened to the man as he spoke.
“And as such, we mustn’t be so hasty with our decisions. The group that brought the girl brought the scepter, too. They can be spared.”
“The girl must be killed, however.”
His smile faded. Josh knew he had to do something to prevent a catastrophe from occurring. Just before he said a word they looked to the right and saw the hole. The man in front rushed over with some guards and saw the girls taking on the guards. Jamie let them down and Josh blasted wind at them, pushing them through the door. Diana protested.
“What? What about the girls?”
“There’s no time. We need to get our weapons. We could barely take on five, let alone an army.”
Diana nodded sadly and looked back. They ran out checking door after door. The hall was vast with many black pillars to the sides. The floor was lined with white and brown tiles done in a diagonal chess board fashion. The walls were like regular cave walls: black, rocky, and lined with large carvings of doors to either side. They arrived back at the entrance to the palace and despaired when they never found them. Jamie stopped them when they heard the large door creak and all four jumped behind pillars, Josh and Chet behind one, and Jamie and Diana behind another. Jamie looked beyond the pillar with her mental eye and saw the auras of six guards with the regal man, who they now realized was the king, quickly moving to one of the rooms on her left. She signaled the group to head that way. They moved stealthily toward that door and hid by it. Josh looked back and signaled the Jamie to screen the room. She placed her ear by the door and the team leaned in. She closed her eyes and felt for the auras of anyone inside, but just as it was when they checked it the first time, it was empty. She pulled away from the door and shook her head.
“Nothing?” Josh whispered.
“Nothing. It’s like they vanished or something.” Jamie turned around and gasped. Josh looked behind her and gritted his teeth at what he saw. The king smiled at them and snapped his fingers, having the guards grab them and haul them away.
Jason sighed as he looked at the time. He realized it had only been three days since he sent the rookie squad on their quest to collect the orbs, but his patience was wearing down. He made a walked towards Central City, wearing a disguise so as to not be too easily discovered, in case the team was still there. The less people knew about him, the better. He looked around and saw them rush out with a girl in tow. He smiled, realizing it was Julianne. What luck that the girl he persuaded to steal the scepter of ember would be traveling with the group? He knew the king would know something about the orb of flame, but there was no way he’d get his hands dirty with such unnecessary work. He decided to have the girl hold it for ransom, telling her the king would pay handsomely for its return. Little did he realize that as soon as threats went out to execute the thief, she would duck and cover, not to be seen again. He followed in hot pursuit, staying hidden in the shadows as they neared the volcano. He nodded slowly, approving of his accidental plan, and made a call to an old friend.
Diana growled furiously as she looked at the rest of the team tied up with Julianne. She stared at the six guards that covered the king as they blocked the entryway to the executioner’s chamber. The king threw their weapons to the floor before them, including the staff, and then laughed as they tried to reach for them.
“And what, pray tell, were you doing wandering the royal chamber?” he asked.
“We’re a group of Elemental Warriors,” Josh quickly began, hoping that explaining the story would help them understand. “We wanted our weapons back with little fuss. See, we-”
“Hush, hush, hush.” The king quickly waved them off. “I was going to let you go, giving you your weapons, since you’ve done nothing wrong. Seeing now that you’ve successfully destroyed my dungeon and released six prisoners, and then wandered around my castle, I see no further reason to hold you here.”
“How did you know…?” Diana asked.
“I didn’t. I was headed out and around the passageway to the chamber to pick these up for you, but upon my return, I saw you snooping around my doorway.”
She glared at Josh, who shook his head. “Then what, are you going to kill us now?”
“That wouldn’t be any fun now would it?” he looked behind him. The team took a look around the room. It was dark, and very hot. Lanterns lit like candles hung up on the walls gave the room a dim glow. The ground was like soot, which was odd, since soot came from ash. Diana began piecing things together as he clapped. The guards let down the walls to reveal that they were in fact on a large platform above a swirling pool of magma. “I’m a king who likes to give second chances, you see. I’ve returned these to you so you could fend for yourselves.”
Josh spat. “Against what?”
“The Basalt Dragon.” He waved his hands to reveal a crowd of people who appeared to be part of his kingdom. They cheered as a colossal dragon of stone and magma climbed up the shaft out of the magma pool. “Nobody has ever survived the beast, you see. This is my choice of execution. I don’t mind pushing people into the pit every now and then, but making them fight this beast is so much more entertaining to my kingdom.”
“That’s sick!” Diana cried.
“We just wanted the Orb of Flame!” Josh explained.
The king let up a hand to silence the crowd. “The what?”
“The Orb of Flame. We are collecting the orbs of the elements to spare the world from a ruler of tyranny and—”
“They get it, bro.” Chet sighed. “It won’t help. He probably doesn’t even have it.”
“You wouldn’t happen to be speaking of the ball atop the royal scepter, would you?”
The team went blank. The king pulled up the scepter, removing the ball to show the insignia of the element of fire. They looked at Julianne, who was almost asleep from the mental trance she put herself in.
“Julie, who told you to get the scepter?” Jamie asked, being the closest.
“Some guy in a cloak,” Julianne muttered. “He had white hair or something. He told me it was a good way for us to get money.”
“White hair?” Josh and Diana looked at each other. They looked back at her. “With a black streak?”
She nodded. Diana started to wriggle in the chains. She realized there could only be one person with the conniving brilliance that fell into the description Julie gave. “Jason…he set us up. All of us.”
Josh shook his head again. “I don’t understand.”
Diana growled. “Don’t be an idiot, Josh. It was a trick! He knew about the orb and tried to make Julianne get it for him. He’s trying to get the orbs himself.”
“But he said…”
Chet spoke. “He must have wanted us to do his work for him.”
Josh looked down, his eyes widened to a new resolve. The king chuckled. “Well then, this is a new turn of events. It looks like nobody will be getting this, now will they?”
A boy rose up, swirling in the magma as he spun in a flaming cyclone. His hair was a deep red and fashioned into spikes that fell over his eye and he carried a pair of staffs. He stood before the group in a black hoodie, despite the intense heat, and stared at the king. He didn’t say a word, but the king was couldn’t help but shudder.
“Don’t just stand there. Get him!” The guards shuffled about and attacked the boy, who put one of his staffs away and protracted a short curved blade out of the other. He spun the staff around and proceeded to pummel each guard with little real effort. The team watched him knock the scepter out of the king’s hand and grab the orb on top, then look at them.
“Hello. Are you…Squad Z?” he asked in a calm voice.
Josh spoke up through gritted teeth. “Yes…who are you?”
“My identity is of little relevance. Just know that if you do not fulfill your promise to turn the orbs into Jason, you will be destroyed.” He lifted the staff above his head and began twirling it. Wind collected under him and the heat lifted him towards the top of the volcano, carrying the orb with him. Jamie focused on the staff and used telekinesis to stop it from spinning. The boy widened his eyes and plummeted.
“Look, you need to let us go!” Josh nudged to the boy who fell towards them. The king looked at him, then Josh, then unlocked the chains that held them.
“Get the orb!” he instructed. Josh smiled and grabbed his sword after rubbing his wrists.
“You heard the man.” Josh wasted no time to burst wind beneath his feet and grab the orb from the boy. Jamie redirected her focus to Josh, using her thought to carry him safely back. The boy twirled the staff to land, and then faced off with Josh, who tossed the orb to Diana. As Josh and the boy prepared for combat, the dragon to their side huffed a blast of hot air, preparing to devour the group whole.
“There isn’t much time. You can let us go and we can save ourselves. Nobody will get hurt.” Josh paced around the platform in a small circle with the boy. Chet grabbed Julianne and carried her on his back. The guards took the king and carried him off via a platform carried by three men up top. The team was stuck with this mysterious boy and the Basalt Dragon ready to take them out, as well as the Orb of Flame and a half-conscious girl on a platform no bigger than a basketball court.
Josh mumbled. “I don’t know about you guys, but this isn’t what I had in mind.”
Jamie smiled and began bouncing lightly. “This is so much better. What’s the plan, captain?”
Josh fixed his jacket and hat. “You three handle the dragon. I’ll hold off mystery man here.”
“Some nerve, ‘captain’.” The boy switched staffs, putting the other away. A small hammer protruded from the end. “Are you certain you can handle me alone?”
“No sense in not tryin’.” Josh wiped a thumb across his nose and gripped his sword. The boy ran a couple steps forward and pounded the hammer to the ground. An explosion blasted the pair back in a dome of flames. The boy skidded back and burst towards Josh for a follow up. Josh tumbled back towards the edge and hung.
As the boy stood over him, he smiled. “By the way, my name is Zachary Bokuto. I’d like you to know the name of the one who will bring your demise.” He swapped the edges of the staff and retracted the hammer, protruding an axe on the other end. He ignited the blade, prepared to finish him early. Josh smiled.
“Now that would be a boring fight, wouldn’t it, Zack?” Josh called “Cyclone Breath!” and blew Zack back with a powerful gale force, climbing back up the platform. He heard a deep, guttural growl as hot air blew on his back. Zack smiled and swept his leg, preparing to pound him with the hammer end, when his hands began to glow a faint purple, stopping him cold.
“Stay out of this!” Zack called, blowing fire to Jamie, the culprit. Josh rolled up and stood in front of them, looking back.
“What?” Diana widened her eyes in surprise.
“I gave you orders to take the dragon on, not Zack. I’ll be fine.”
Jamie opened her mouth, ready to respond harshly, but was cut off by a blast of lava tipping the platform as the Basalt Dragon roared, spitting it towards the group. Diana took her staff and focused, having the sapphire shoot the water from the fountain out on the lava, allowing Chet to lift the stones and launch them to Jamie, who lit her feet up with psychic aura and skillfully kicked each one towards the dragon, forcing it to dodge and fly back into the crowd of people. Those who could escape moved out of the stadium-type room as quickly as they could by whatever means. The dragon crashed into the stands and bellowed as rocks continued to pummel it.
Josh blocked each of Zack’s blows from his staff. He charged his blade with electricity and began thrusting at each opening, forcing Zack back. Zack forced a spear end from the staff and clashed with Josh’s blade. The two fighters kept each other at bay for what seem to be eternity when the sparks from the blades caused from the heat and current created an explosion that cracked the platform near shattering. Zack looked down and growled.
“Fantastic…” he looked up and pulled his second staff out. “ Listen, Joshua. I’m afraid I’ll have to cut this short. This is not over, whatsoever.” He began to twirl the staffs and hover, when Jamie put her hands up.
“You’re not going anywhere!” She cried as she began to focus on him to pull him down. Diana shook her head and grabbed her shoulder.
“No, our priority has been covered. We have the orb. Now we have to save ourselves before the platform falls.”
“Listen,” Josh sheathed his sword and turned to the Basalt Dragon, which began to climb from its rocky prison. “We have no time. Chet, Jamie, hold this platform together. Diana, make an ice bridge.”
“Do not question the plan, just do it!” Diana nodded, stricken by his sudden commander attitude. She held up her staff and began to pour water out; watching most of is sizzle away. She groaned, seeing this coming, but trusted Josh’s plan, continuing to do so. Josh grabbed Diana’s staff from behind her and focused air energy into it, making it colder on exit. His hands gently laid upon hers as the water froze instantly, forming a long bridge to the exit of the room, formed by the dragon when he smashed into it. Diana looked down, her face entirely red as Josh’s battle-scarred touch warmed her cold fingers, his grip full of command and comfort.
“Air energy makes water turn to permafrost. Nothing can melt that.”
Diana could only stutter as she almost melted into him. Jamie broke them up and grabbed their hands. “Chet said he can’t hold on for much longer!”
Chet pushed them onto the bridge, which was more of a slide, and let Julianne, who was nearly unconscious, off to slide towards the dragon, which roared as it blew lava at the team Jamie put up a psychic bubble, protecting the four and forcing the lava onto the bridge, scorching and cracking it as the cold solidified it. They tumbled off the bridge and looked back. Chet struggled to hold the platform up any longer and let it go. The dragon looked to him as he screamed and plummeted to him, roaring as they vanished into the rubble, hidden from view.
“CHET!” Jamie cried from the top of her lungs as she watched him plummet. She jumped to follow him, but Diana and Josh held her back. “Let me go! Suertame!” her Hispanic dialect returned as she panicked, tears ready to flow from her face. Minutes passed with no sight of him. Josh held the girls and looked into the pit of magma.
“Come on, man. You’re the tough one. You can make it out.”
The room was quiet now. Large and empty, with walls glowing red as the light from the heated magma glowed vividly. The room resembled a large cylinder with the opening of the volcano at the top. The stands were turned to rubble and ash from the battle and black smoke rose from the pit as the rocks from the platform sunk in it. Jamie looked up with a sharp gasp.
“Guys, I feel him.” She leaned over the edge and watched in the smoke. They heard a low chink noise and looked over with her, seeing Chet climb up the side of the wall, shaking his hands every now and then from the heat. His face was charred and he coughed smoke.
“Hey, ya mind helpin’ a guy up?”
Josh smiled. “Do it yourself.”
“Shut up! I ain’t got the strength left.” He chuckled and cried out as he slipped. Jamie caught him with psychic power and lifted him into her arms, embracing him and kissing him.
“Idiota! Don’t you ever scare me like that again!”
“Whoa, whoa, whoa,” Josh waved his hands in separation. “When did this happen?”
Jamie looked at Chet and blushed, forgetting they were not aware. “Yesterday.”
“That’s all the info ya get, hear?” Chet smiled and picked Jamie up in a hug with the last of his strength. Diana looked in her bag to check for the orb, smiling when she saw it was there.
“Look, we need to find the king and have him give this to us. I’m not having us walk out with it.” Josh rested his fists on his hips in thought, shaking his head. Finally, peace came in the Palace of Flames. Now he had to find out who that Zack kid was and why Jason sent him, or Julianne, or…what his motives were. It seemed so odd that he pulled so many strings, roping in so many people for one orb. Zack himself told them if they didn’t return them, they would be destroyed.
Julianne groaned as she woke rose to her knees, her normally delicate features completely blackened with dirt, soot, and bruises from the past several hours of pain and discomfort. She looked at the team discussing things and looked around. The circular pit lay behind them, large and ever present. The Basalt Dragon’s roar could faintly be heard beneath the lava, but it seemed as though it had no intention to leave, the room now completely destroyed, no people would be in here to disturb his rest anymore. Julie looked forward, the ground warm with a faint orange glow, but dark, lit only by the light emitted from the lava behind them. A doorway lay before her with a figure entering the room.
“Splendid!” It was the king, no guards behind him. “You’ve gotten then orb of which you spoke.”
“King…err…” Josh rubbed the back of his head, not knowing his name.
“Allen. Just refer to me as King Allen.”
Josh almost frowned. For a king, his name was awfully mundane. “Sir, we have to take the orb. If you would just let—”
“Go ahead.” He crossed his arms and smiled.
“I’m sorry, what?”
Jamie giggled. “Really?”
Chet looked around. “You sure? You don’t want us to fix your-” Josh and Jamie covered his lips and Diana stepped forward to bow.
“Much respect, Lord Allen.”
“Eh, if you needed it so badly you’d fight a crazy kid and an angry dragon to get to it, then I guess we could do without it. Besides, I always liked obsidian more anyway.”
Diana looked down. “The whole room is obsidian…”
“Go on, get out of here. We need to keep this room under wraps. That dragon is p—”
“Very, very angry, I’m sure.” Diana bowed again and grabbed Josh. “We need to go, this heat is unbearable.”
Josh smiled. “Yeah you’re right. Thanks, sir.”
“Of course. I wish you luck on your journey.”
The four began to leave, when Julie stopped them.
“What about the girls?”
The king stroked his chin. “Your friends? I suppose I should release them, seeing as this situation was a misunderstanding.”
Julie thought about them. “Can we stay here? We’re nomads. We’ve nowhere to go.”
The king was startled by this request. “I’m not sure. You’re more than capable of steal…”
“And what would you have that we would want now? All we needed the money for was food and shelter. If you provide this for us, we will have no reason to steal.”
Jamie rolled her eyes. “You never cease to amaze me, sis. But since you’re on your own, hermana, it’s your choice.” She smiled and beckoned the team out, deciding not to see how her journey would end here. Her priority was a nice cold shower, which normally sent shivers down her spine just thinking about it. She gave her sister a hug and they left. Josh turned back and muttered: “And what kind of kingdom does he rule that’s inside a volcano?”
Diana hummed to herself as she bathed in the river. She looked around to make sure the rest had tended to their respective business and sank into the water, letting the gentle flow cool her burnt skin. She closed her eyes and thought to herself. She realized that the whole team had learned a second element. Chet has begun to bend metal, Jamie has had psychic powers untapped, and Josh got electricity shocked into him. She was still plain old watery Diana. She knew she didn’t agree with the idea at first, but now…seeing it happen right before her eyes…it’s really kicking in. She felt herself doze off when a rustling noise woke her up. She opened her eyes and saw Josh whittling something with a knife.
“Wh…what the heck?!” She turned a deep red and covered herself in a bush behind her. “What are you…?”
Josh chuckled. “What’s wrong?”
She stammered. She was both furious at his lack of respect for personal privacy and flattered her nudity didn’t in the least bit bother him. “I was taking a bath!”
“Nope. You looked pretty tired to me.”
“You were supposed to be out getting food!”
Josh tossed a bag of produce picked from the nearby trees. “Wind, go figure.”
“I…you…” She was truly speechless now. “Hand me my clothes.”
Josh smiled and blew her dry from the other side of the river, then walked over to hand her the clothes, forcing her heart to pound with each closer step. Something about his utter disregard for everything else infuriated her, intrigued her, and deeply enticed her. It was like he carried that rebellion she wished she had. In fact, maybe he could help her learn a new element.
“Josh,” she began while changing, becoming comfortable with his presence now. “Can I ask you something?”
“Ask away.” He turned his back and let her change.
“Could you…help me? I want to be like you guys and learn a new skill.”
Josh raised an eyebrow. “Ask again?”
“Help me tap into a new skill. Please?”
Josh looked down and stroked his chin. “Ironic that you are the one person to ask, since you were the only one who disagreed, but I don’t see why not. It would be fun.”
Diana hugged him. “Yay! Thank you thank you thank you!” She didn’t know why, but she truly had faith that Josh would help her better than anyone else. Josh chuckled again and shrugged.
“Don’t thank me unless we pull it off, ya know?” To this, Diana nodded.
Diana and Josh had been sitting for over an hour buried in the forest, trying to get her to try something, anything. Diana tried to keep her patience, but…
“Come on,” she said. “It took you guys no time at all to do it.” Her shoulders slumped. Josh shrugged.
“In my defense, we picked them up after extreme situations. I was almost shut down by electricity before I picked it up. Jamie had to avoid a mental breakdown. Chet had to tear bars off a cage; although admittedly, that wasn’t so extreme.”
Diana looked down in thought and nodded. “Right. Ok so maybe I can do it if something extreme happens to me. But…I’m not gonna look for anything too–”
At the uttering of the words she was swept out from under her feet. As she shrieked for her partner she was dragged into the bush through the river. Josh widened his eyes and leapt for her, tripping into the water, watching her get dragged away.
Diana opened her eyes to see herself tied to a tree. The rope that tied her stung her skin, which was odd sense most of the time ropes were thick. She looked down and struggled to free herself, feeling the thin string slice into her skin. She let out a whimper.
“H…hello?” she asked to nobody. Voice could be heard to her right. She could see a boy with black hair and white bangs speaking to another in a black cloak. She gasped as she recognized the cloaked boy. “Jason?”
Jason smiled and turned to her. “Well, you’re awake. Good.”
“What’s going on this time?” she kept her eyes on him. He paced toward her casually, almost friendly.
“Wouldn’t you like to know?” he scoffed. “Well done, Luke. And Joshua?”
“I didn’t feel direct confrontation was recommended. He didn’t feel like a target I could easily snare. Not like her.” The other boy wore a hooded jacket that was half black, half white. His pants were in the same monochromatic fashion, the right pant leg being white and the left black. He twirled a yo-yo casually as he spoke. It was when Diana noticed that when she realized the string was from a yo-yo. She growled.
“Too bad I was so easy to get. You know Josh is coming to take me back, right?”
“I’m counting on it.” Jason smiled.
“You’ve always been like this, Jason. Were you born a jerk?”
Jason huffed. “When I was born, I was given this streak of hair. This power, Shadow, they call it. This was for me the greatest gift I could ask for. Not good enough, though.”
“You know what Shadow does to a person. It corrupts them, twists them.”
“Don’t give me that spiel, Diana. It won’t work on me like it did my sister.”
Diana frowned. She does indeed know Jason on a deeper level. A dark secret she will never admit to herself. Jason has always been ruthless and conniving, and she never gave it second thought to try to turn him good, because he blocked all goodness out like a wall. It was as though he was the very embodiment of shadow. She smiled. “It doesn’t matter what you do, it’ll only upset Josh more when he gets here.”
“You don’t even know what I intend to do, do you?” Jason bent over Diana, dark aura dripping off his cloak. Diana shook her head, partially afraid of the aura emanating from him. “Let me start with a few questions. Where is the Orb of Flame?”
“The…what?” Diana’s heart began to beat as she realized she left the bag with Josh, and that he was bringing it to them as they spoke. “I…what are you talking about?”
“Don’t you play coy with me, girl. I’m in every position to make your life a living hell.”
“We don’t have your precious orb! It’s already been sent to the tower of heroes!”
Jason stood up, keeping composure. “If you knew my intentions, why did you let me suggest it to you in the first place?”
“Because I knew your intentions. If we collected them before you, you wouldn’t have them. Consider us competition, Jace, because we…”
Her breath became hesitant as the dark aura began to take form, rising from the ground in its long hideously black figure. Its bone like mask protruded from its face like a spike, and bone spikes jutted out what appeared to be its arms like blades. Diana felt a tear streak from her face as she began to hyperventilate.
“I see your phobia is still intact. The Kageken still infects your mind with its nightmare inducing presence. Good, this will become much easier.”
The presence of the Kageken gave the area a cooling chill, as if death was imminent and escape was futile. It began to inch its way closer to Diana, who let out a scream of pure terror when the lump finally came out of her throat.
Josh gasped at the scream. “I’m coming!” he had been searching in the wrong direction for his team mate. Now, with a better idea of where to go, he quickly turned to the direction of the scream, leaping through the trees. His resolved suddenly strengthened as he held her bag firmly in his hand and he sped up, not willing to let anything happen to her.
“Talk, Diana.” Jason commanded the Kageken to hold its bone-like blade to Diana’s throat. Diana closed her eyes and felt her hope slip away.
“We…we have the orb.”
“What? Kageken, release her.”
The creature did as was commanded and retracted itself to Jason. Luke, behind him, showed no emotion whatsoever. It wasn’t a choice, however. He has never had the ability to care for anything. He was antisocial and suffered from a psychopathic disorder, yet never lost his composure or control of what he did. He was neither pleased, nor disappointed. He just watched. He and Zack were part of the Marauders, the group Kyle and Janette were part of. They, as hired mercenaries, were paid largely by Jason as assassins and thieves to hunt and stop Squad Z in their quest, allowing the team to do the handy work while they took the orb. Zack failed his mission, and Luke was next up to work.
Jason smiled. “See? Wasn’t so hard to cooperate was it? Where is it?”
“I…y…h….” Not a word could escape her lips. The lump of fear that surrounded her had removed her strength. She had but a sliver of hope left that she would be rescued, but it was fading away. The Kageken had that ability. It produced nightmares and shattered all forms of goodness or grace. It was an elemental, a being made of nothing but shadow, thus tamable only to those who control said element. Jason grew impatient.
“Where IS IT?” his voice rang in the forest. Diana continued to mutter. “What?” he said, getting closer. Diana turned her head, tears pouring down her face.
“No…Josh won’t let me say.” She had given up everything, but she couldn’t she just couldn’t stop believing Josh was coming. Jason slapped her.
“Inexcusable! Josh hasn’t arrived and he won’t! Besides, if he did by now he would be in the same situation. Now this is the last time I’ll ask, so I suggest you cooperate with me. Where…is..the…orb?”
Diana sealed her lips, closed her eyes, and shook her head. Jason sighed and snapped his fingers for the Kageken to finish her. He turned his back and the creature hissed as it lunged to Diana, its bone aiming to her throat, aiming to seal her life, aiming to end her.
Diana opened her eyes at the sound of loud hissing and a clang. A white figure of dark skin stood before her, hands tightly gripping a sword and glowing a faint white aura.
“Look who made my hit list today.” Josh scowled at Jason, who suddenly felt a rush of terror.
“Wh…what? What is this?”
“Surprised to see me?”
“No,” Jason pulled out his black sword. “Something about you…it…Why is my Kageken terrified of you?”
“Your what?” Josh shook his head and growled. “Release Diana, or so help me I will make your life a living hell!”
Jason refused to accept this absurdity. Whatever was going on, he couldn’t understand it, and it infuriated him. He stepped back and nodded at Luke, who let the yo-yo wrapped around Diana go and retracted it to him.
“What’s this?” Josh chuckled. “A kid with toys? The guy with sticks wasn’t good enough?”
“Silence!” Jason’s body was shaking at the presence of Josh and he stepped back again. Josh was emanating some kind of aura that was strengthened the more he was by Diana, some pure aura that was giving him pain he couldn’t imagine just by standing there. His sense of justice disgusted him, and he found no purpose staying there, thus he fled.
“Get back here you snake!” Josh ran past Luke and toward Jason, but was wrapped at the legs by a yo-yo and pulled to his feet. Luke pulled it back to him and twirled it, turning it red and watching it blaze as it fell.
“Magic yo-yos…of course.” Josh stood up and gripped his sword. Luke looked past him and shook his head.
“I’m not here to fight you. My job was to capture the girl and make sure Jason stayed alive. I’m done here.”
Josh blinked. “Wait what? No no, see that’s not how it works. We confront you, we fight you, we win, you know?”
“No, I do not. We will fight, this I guarantee. But I have no interest in partaking in combat at this time.”
Josh was perplexed; he raised an eyebrow and shook his head. “You’ve got to be joking me.”
Luke took the yo-yo and spun it in a circle, turning it purple and creating a portal with which he stepped through. Josh sheathed his sword and used wind to blow the bag out of the tree Diana was tied to. He grabbed her and knelt.
“Wake up, Princess. Don’t sleep on me now.”
Diana murmured and winced, the pain in her arms from the string coming back to her. She looked at her savior with eyes half open and embraced him.
“I knew you’d come for me.” Diana let a tear of relief fall gently from her face and sniffled.
“Jeez, you must be shaken up. You look terrible.”
Diana let him go and scoffed. “It’s a long story.”
“The heck was the thing anyway? It looked like it was trying to kill you. Luckily it freaked out when I showed up.” He sniffed himself. “Do I stink? Is that why?”
Diana giggled and shook her head. “No, Josh. You smell fine.” There was no hiding it at this point. Everything Josh did pulled her closer to him. She was in love with him, and nothing she did was ever going to change that. Josh handed her the bag, the orb still intact. “You brought it all this way?”
“Pfft. Who do you think I am?”
Diana blushed. Chet and Jamie showed up, carrying clothes and a larger bag for the orbs.
“What happened?” Jamie asked. “We heard a scream.”
“Jason was here.” Josh’s face turned serious. “He’s going to new measures to get what he wants. He attacked Diana. Whatever is going on, it’s getting serious. I don’t think we know what we got into.”
Chet knelt at Diana’s feet. “We got medicinal herbs. Hope they help.”
Diana grabbed one and dropped it inadvertently. She felt the plant touch the ground and reach to grab it, watching it grow. “What?”
Chet waved Jamie and Josh to him. “Yo, check this out.”
The four watched Diana grab several more herbs from the one that grew, and dropped another, deliberately this time. She patted the ground and watched it grow quickly before their eyes.
“That’s incredible!” Jamie said. “Talk about a green thumb.”
“I don’t know what’s happening. I guess I had been working with plants, herbs, and gardens for so long they just…they became natural to me.”
Josh smiled. “Diana, that’s an element. You’ve learned to control nature. Your second element came after all.”
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