As the youngest Twilight Guardian in fifty years, Ellis Lathmore is the only Earth Elemental present at the Twilight Training Academy. Lately, his powers have been growing out of control and Ellis knows something is wrong. But when a friend turns up injured, without his partner, Ellis heads into the Amerinth jungle to bring her back. Will he survive this tricky rescue mission?
Trial by Earth : Twilight Trials #4
“The Lord is my strength and my shield; my heart trusts in Him, and he helps me. My heart leaps for joy, and with my song I praise him.” Psalm 28:7 (NIV)
“Guardian, Guardian come quick!”
I turned at the sound of a frantic voice, matching it to the young boy who came careening down the hallway towards me. The uniform he wore marked him as a general applicant student of the Twilight Academy with the broad cream-colored ribbons and burgundy piping along the edge of the standard black. The delicate scrolls shaved on the sides of his head denoted him as Urukou, one of the six fighting races of the Juhl galaxy.
“Please!” He came to a stop, hunching forward to brace his hands on his knees. Thin shoulders quivered as he ducked his head, drawing in a fresh breath. His gaze skittered over my uniform, relaxing somewhat when he saw my name badge above the stitched ranks of Guardian. “You have to help!” he gasped out.
“Easy now,” I reached out to rest a hand on his shoulder, pulling on my earthen element to calm his panic. “Take deep breaths.” I looked to the name stitched in silver on the patch over his left shoulder. “What’s the matter, Liam?”
He pressed his lips together, shaking his head as if he’d like to speak, but the words had not settled in his head as yet.
I poured a little more of my element into him, urging the soft glow of steady energy to ground him in the moment. It was one of the perks of being an earth elemental, the ability to transmute the same quiet, steady calmness that the solid ground beneath our feet reacted to. It was also one of the more subtle things to do with my gift. Most other uses of it tended to be rather large-scale and destructive, rather than complimentary.
In spite of his current state, I reached out with my gift in the mental network that always surrounded me, attempting to sense whether there was any immediate danger following him. There wasn’t a clear result, which was good and bad, but didn’t really help. Good, because it meant that it wasn’t too serious, bad, because it meant it wasn’t serious—yet.
“They’re fighting,” Liam gasped out, at last. “You’ve got to stop them,” his hands curled around the hem of his overtunic. “They’ll kill him or he’ll hurt them. Please, you have to hurry!”
“Fighting? Who?” I started forward as he began to pull my sleeve, guiding me back down where he’d come. “Where? Kill who?”
“Terrance!” Liam tugged on my arm, his face scrunched up and red, just like his eyes. “Please, Guardian!”
“Ellis.” I corrected, breaking into a trot. It would be helpful to know the whole situation before charging to the scene, especially since our beloved Twilight Training Academy was built to handle the elementally gifted students it housed and fighting unsupervised in the halls led to hefty reprimands. From the panic in Liam’s voice, it sounded like more than a mere tussle between disgruntled students, and I was not looking forward to breaking it up.
Perhaps if I was a few seconds late, someone else could shoulder the headache, but the odd feeling of dread made itself known in the pit of my stomach. I only knew of one particular Terrance on this Academy and he knew better than to get into fights when I was off-duty. “Terrance who?” I asked.
“Terrance McGowen,” Liam shivered. “You know, the metal kid?”
My steps quickened a fraction more. “Yes. I do. He should know better,” I muttered. An Urukou like Liam, Terrance’s Twilight rank was significantly higher in their tribal hierarchy and the shortest explanation was the difference in skill level. From the three slashed lines along Liam’s scalp, he was capable of basic defense and little more. Terrance was trained in three styles of martial arts, two of them lethal and one of the not. He’d promised me that he wouldn’t fight without reason.
I had sponsored and mentored the hotheaded teen until he’d taken his official test as a Twilight Knight. I’d also gone with him when he’d returned to his family clan to have the myriad of swirling scrolls carved into his pale, white-blond hair, proof of his lethal combat style.
The Oaths we swore as Twilight forbid killing, except in self-defense, unless there were extenuating circumstances and even so, those usually came back to the point of self-defense. Terrance’s deadly skill would be a great field asset, as long as he knew to temper it.
I’d warned him to stay out of trouble until he’d completed the eight knight standards required for his advancement to the Titan ranks. He had. Now he was currently working his way through the pretests that would qualify him to take the five standards required for the Shirron ranking.
The Twilight were known as a respected paramilitary force, dedicated and independent from all ties to governments, churches and various monarchies. As a neutral powerhouse, we provided an objective third-party in various situations when requested and usually the first on the scene to help after natural disasters.
“Who is he fighting?”
“I-it was an accident, really—he didn’t mean it. They just jumped on him and he didn’t have a chance—they’ll hurt him!” Liam gave an excited quiver as if he were itching to break into a run—again. “They’re right around the corner, they’re knights, please-!”
Knights against Terrance? More like he’ll hurt them. I thought, darkly. I was no stranger to the practice of feeling like my element was a sleeping giant inside of me, just waiting to be unleashed in its true, monstrous form. Terrance’s element had nearly overwhelmed him when it first appeared. I knew just how dangerous he could be if he was thinking with his temper instead of his head.
A flash of worry stabbed through me and I caught Liam by the shoulders, pulling him to a stop as two approaching Guardians rounded the corner.
“Whoa—hey!” Gavin Nullith, Rock-elemental extraordinaire stumbled and bellowed to a stop, his flinty grey eyes narrowing into uneven points. “Oi, watch where you’re going runt.” He scowled at Liam, before he registered that Liam was currently held out of reach—by me.
“Gavin!” His ever-present best friend and not-quite-his-conscience, Nathan Holwell, threw him a disapproving look in reprimand. “You can’t keep calling the general students, runts and-”
“Fight between a Titan and two Knights,” I snapped out. “Follow me!” I released Liam and gave him a push forward.
He stumbled forward and grabbed my sleeve. “Just hurry. You have to help him. They’re using their powers, I can’t stop them.”
“Powers?” Gavin exchanged a look with Nathan. “A fight?”
Nathan’s scowl deepened. “Who and where?” he demanded.
Gavin cocked his head to the side, using his elemental gift to zero in on vibrations to determine the location of the fight. “Four corridors down,” he scowled. “Close to general student zones. Move it!”
“I’ll go ahead,” Nathan said. “I’ll use a Light Cast, hurry!” He went from dull grimness to a shimmering white glow, his light element blazing to life before he blinked out existence.
I envied him the ease of teleportation, because the rest of us would be running on our own steam, Gavin’s element being rock and mine being the rather irritating master element of Earth. I fell into a job beside Liam once more.
“He won’t be able to stop them,” Liam huffed. “Hurry!”
“We’re hurrying,” Gavin muttered. “And I can find it now, go find a Training master, kid. If it’s bad enough you thought they’d kill him, we’ll need someone to pull Nathan off of them. Grab whoever you can, tell them Gavin Nullith sent you.” He caught Liam by the shoulder, stopping him and directing him in the opposite hallway.
I watched him scamper off, waiting until I knew he was safely around the corner, before I bolted after Gavin. It was a good tactic to keep Liam out of harm’s way, so we could utilize our elements without worrying about a general student on the scene. Compared to Gavin’s efficient handling, I felt like a gangly, clumsy beast tramping along to keep up, even when his rock element should have put him on equal footing with me.
The feeling was not a good one and I tried to focus on something else to keep my temper on an even keel. Lately, it seemed like everything was too loud, too frustrating and too irritating. I had the very worst thought that perhaps, if I was not careful, the tremendous amount of elemental energy inside of me, would erupt in a display both destructive and terrifying—without any warning at all—and destroy everything and everyone around me. It was because of that particular train of thought, that I had been on my way to the meditation halls, before lunch, a routine I’d formed for nearly five months now.
Now that I thought of it, I’d been too wrapped up in myself to pay much attention to him lately. Even though I was no longer formally his sponsor, I couldn’t help looking out for him—just like everyone else in the Academy. Shoving my own concerns aside, I made myself focus. I could meditate the confusion away—later.
We rounded the corner to the sounds of angry shouts and yells, in addition to a searing bolt of fire that flew directly over my head, a little too close for comfort. For a moment, it felt as the floor had fallen out from under me. My left leg buckled and I slid down and to the corner, slapping the wall to catch myself from the sudden movement.
“Left and right!” Gavin shouted, rolling to the right and ducking just before another bolt of fire seared the wall overhead. “Get your head in gear, Lathmore!”
I didn’t have a chance to glare at him, because a bolt of water flew straight at my face. I threw up my hands, acting on instinct instead of conscious use of my gift. The arc of water froze inches away from my palms before it quivered and splashed harmlessly to the ground. I scrambled to my feet and tried to make sense of the tangle of arms and legs rolling about a few feet away. Liam hadn’t been joking.
It was a tangled mass of Twilight students—all Knights, from the uniform colors that I could see—and the lone Titan that had to be Terrance. A frustrated Nathan was caught up in the mix as he tried to separate them to no avail. His element, for all of its beauty, was little use against two very determined Knights and one very experienced Titan, fueling master elements by pure emotion.
Gavin’s booming orders to break it up only seemed to make the fight worse. When he reached out to grab one arm, he dropped it with a hiss, as the arm became covered in flame. His arm phased into a solid limb of rough grey rock, the fire petering out to nothing, before the rock phased back into freckled skin.
I scoffed inwardly at the slip-up. Gavin tended to operate with a ‘hit first and apologize later’ mentality that would one day result in more trouble than he’d know what to do with. I’d stopped enough fights in my own time to know that charging into something like this wasn’t very smart.
From the sounds of things, they weren’t quite killing each other, just reinforcing their point of view in a very physical way. At a glance, I could make out the water type and Terrance, a metal type, with the third being the fire type that had seared Gavin’s hand.
I squinted at the bundle of arms and legs until I caught the glint of silver that I’d been looking for. My former sponsored student was indeed tangled up with the other two Twilights in his full shimmering glory and I knew how to stop Terrance, at least, Gavin and Nathan could handle the other two—I hoped.
“Grab their arms and keep away from their heads,” I warned my fellow Guardians. I steeled myself for potential backlash, before diving into the fray. It took almost an entire minute to wrestle Terrance up and away from the other two and by then, Nathan and Gavin were able to step in and pull the duo apart.
Burns on my arms and neck started a chain reaction of itchy, squirmy feelings that were only aggravated by the occasional splotch of wetness from the water element knight. My element stirred sleepily and I stubbornly pushed it down. It would be too easy to let it out and I didn’t want to imagine the havoc it could cause.
I tightened my grip on a rage-quivering Terrance as he fought viciously against the hold. It wasn’t the first time I’d dragged him out of a fistfight and I didn’t bother to hope that it would be the last. He spouted off a savage stream of words in his native tongue, a less than flattering monologue.
If I wasn’t holding him back, I would have clocked him one for the language alone. “Terrance, settle down!” I hissed in his ear. “Now or else!”
His entire figure had turned to something of not-quite-liquid metal, a fluid, flexible silver-white state that gave a nod to his element, while adding some semblance of beauty to it. It simply looked as if the gifted individual had been dunked in shimmering silver and left as is. The result of that was that their expressions were just as clear as if their element was off. A look of pure outrage was clearly broadcast on his face.
His light, slippery metal body grew heavy enough to throw me off-balance as he gave a final jerked and twist, in an effort to gain enough leverage to break free. I reluctantly pulled on my own element to counter his trick and pin him back. It worked. Terrance stopped fighting He turned suspiciously to see who had caught him.
I offered my gravest smile. The one that usually had him running for the nearest exit—when I wasn’t forcefully restraining him, that is—and the effect was rather nice. His face cycled from shock, to worry, to horror before he settled on guilt-tinged embarrassment.
“Enough!” Gavin’s angry roar startled everyone into silence. The water knight in Gavin’s grasp twisted once more, before he settled into an angry sulk, dark blue eyes glittering madly at Terrance.
“That goes for you too,” Nathan scolded his own captive. He eased the chokehold he’d used and the fiery knight lurched forward, seeking freedom that was not yet granted.
“Terrance.” I spoke, when he seemed to have forgotten what had been going on just moments before. “Anything you’d care to share?”
He blinked at me, silver-white eyes darting around, looking anywhere but at my face. His metal form turned a bit more white than silver as he held his silence.
“Terrance,” I prompted. “Nothing at all?” He was a Titan of few words and when he spoke, I’d learned to listen for what he didn’t say as well as what he did. There was something else that had happened here and I could almost feel it.
He muttered something in Urukou and I strained to hear it. The words that I could make out, didn’t make any sense at all. I looked to the other two participants and tried to remember something about them.
Nothing came to mind.
I looked back to Terrance. “You’re sure?” I had to verify.
The look of earnestness on his face vanished at once as all emotion erased itself from his expression, becoming to a blank mask. He twisted in my grip once more, a scowl beginning to form at the edges. He mumbled something that I didn’t catch and finally stilled. I usually took him at his word—I’d never settled for anything but the truth from him, but something in my face must have given me away.
“Sorry, I just wanted to be sure,” I muttered, but the damage had been done.
He refused to look me in the eye, pride wounded, head turned to the side.
I bit back a sigh and looked to my fellow Guardians, waiting for one to them say something. Speaking up in Terrance’s defense right now was likely to turn this into a mess, if I wasn’t careful. Gavin and Nathan didn’t particularly dislike me, but they weren’t exactly friendly either.
I didn’t have much of a reputation to worry about, mostly because I kept it very simple and absolutely spotless. Terrance was a different story, a fight would not look good on his record when he was preparing to shift ranks from Titan to Shirron.
Nathan frowned in disapproval. “What do you two have to say?” he gave his captive a little shake. “Alven? Cameron?”
“He started it!” Alven burst out, squirming again. “Lemme go, Nate! He deserved it, the little city gutter rat—he tried to!”
“Hey!” I threw one of my best glares at him. “No name-calling.”
Terrance was most definitely not a city kid, much less a gutter-rat of any kind. He’d been one of the thousands of Urukou refugees during their realm-wide exodus due to environmental warfare. Amerinth housed a significant number of them while their planet regenerated over time, but their harsh lifestyle was not something easily understood.
Gavin snorted. “You baby that kid too much, Lathmore. I’m sure his ears aren’t as innocent as you think they are.”
“They’re knights who ought to know enough to speak plainly without resorting to childish insults. Set a good example,” I snapped. I eased my grip on Terrance so he could stand on his own. From the look of things, neither of them spoke Urukou and I would have to prompt Terrance to repeat his story in Plain Basic. I was not looking forward to it. “Terrance, would you please tell us what happened?”
He trembled in my grasp and the uncertainty in his eyes flickered to a genuine expression of guilt, then shame, before embarrassment colored his cheeks with a healthy red as his silvery form melted away to show his natural features. “Your sponsored student started it!” He glared at Gavin. “If you knew what he said, you wouldn’t be standing there as if-“
“What I said hardly counts,” Cameron smirked. “How about what you did? You started it first and it wasn’t enough to just pound him into the ground, was it? You had to start with your freaky skull-crushing-”
Terrance twisted violently, struggling to lunge forward. His eyes flared from silver to pitch black. One elbow clipped me in the chin as pulled back against his weight. He was taller, but I had more experience. I flipped him around to face the wall and drew on my element to effectively freeze him in place, pressing him to the wall. He could alter his weight with his metal gift, but my earth element would root him to the ground until I decided otherwise. “Terrance,” I warned. “Stop that. He’s baiting you. Control yourself.”
He fought the elemental pull, his black eyes fathomless. “People like him shouldn’t be in the Twilight,” he said, hoarsely. “You didn’t hear what he said.”
“No, but I am willing to listen and hear everyone’s side of the story.”
“They’re liars!” he growled. “Nothing but liars—they won’t tell you what happened, not now. It’ll just be pinned on me because I’m the most convenient scapegoat.”
“Do you have proof of that?” I leaned to the side and met his gaze squarely. “There are three sides to every story,” I reminded him. “I’d like to hear all three of them.”
Terrance scowled and looked away. “You’d be wasting your time then.”
“You don’t know that.” I eased the gravitational pull on him when he began to slump towards the ground. “Besides, what are you doing out here anyway? Shouldn’t you be in class? I thought you still had three pretests to complete.”
Terrance jerked around to stare at me, his tinted eyebrows narrowed into neat points. “Since when did I tell you that?”
I stared at him for a moment, not quite understanding the connection between that and his current situation. It was common knowledge on the public message board as to how far the local students had progressed in their requirements. “You didn’t, but it was posted on the message boards in the main-“
“I was on my way there when these two lugs decided it’d be fun to try and beat the tar out of me.” His lip curled back in a half-snarl. “They started it. I swear they did. You know I wouldn’t just—the worthless pieces of-!” The rest of the sentence trailed off in an angry mouthful in his native tongue.
I rearranged my grip to catch a hold of his neck. He stilled at once. I pretended not to notice. It was the closest thing I could give him to an official warning, considering that I was no longer his sponsor and unlike the others, I knew exactly what he’d just called them and what he’d said before.
“Easy there,” Nathan said, uncomfortably. “Stick to Plain Basic, would you?”
Terrance ignored him.
“Can any of you tell us what really happened?” Nathan looked down at Alven. “Start from the beginning. Because of the three of you, a general student came to find us, panicking that you were going to kill each other. He was absolutely terrified when you started using your gifts—you could have hurt him if you didn’t realize you had a spectator.”
“I wasn’t trying to kill him,” Cameron snorted. “He’s metal anyway. A little water doesn’t matter, it’s not like he can rust.”
“Or catch on fire,” Alven muttered.
“They wouldn’t have cared if I was dead.” Terrance muttered. He snuck a glance at me. “I only shifted because he flamed first.” He shifted uncomfortably, remembering the sensation of flame on skin before his metal gift could stop it. “I was on my way to class, alright? I really was. I have a perfect record, no tardies.” He nodded towards the other two Knights. “You can check the timetables. I didn’t come here looking for a fight.”
“We will.” Gavin said. He turned his glower on the other two. “What about you too? Were you off to classes as well?”
Alven and Cameron shook their heads in tandem. “We just out of sparring practice,” Cameron explained. “We were headed to the food court. Our logs will show our most recent activity and we checked in when we crossed from the lower floors to this one.”
Nathan and Gavin looked to Terrance. They had a silent conversation between them, that ended with Gavin looking away and Nathan speaking for both of them. “Which class were you headed to?”
“Master Dugene’s defense training.” Terrance said, quickly. He held his breath, his expression smoothing out into a mask again.
I relaxed my grip on him even further. Master Dugene held his classes on the upper floors and that was proof enough for me that Terrance had indeed been on his way, just as he’d said. Cutting across the less busy floors to find a quicker lift ride to the appropriate floor was a trick that most Sponsors taught their sponsored students within the first academic year—and one I’d shown him in the first week.
“Yeah right. His classes are on the upper floor,” Alven snorted. “How’d you end up down here?”
“It’s a shortcut,” I heard myself say, before I could stop. “You take the first lift down to here, two floors down and then the short lift that goes directly up to floor number eight, with no stops. Everyone knows that.”
Nathan stared at me. “Not everyone,” he said, at last. His frown now included Terrance. “So all three of you accidentally walked into the same door or fell down the same flight of stairs?”
All three teens looked away.
I began to count to ten inside of my head. Those were two of the oldest excuses in the book to hide the fact that an unsanctioned brawl took place in the open halls. If you had philosophical differences with a fellow student, then you applied to the training master of the shared sparring classes and requested a supervised match.
It was a legal way of beating the tar out of each other and not getting cited for it and thus providing an acceptable solution that worked well most of the time. Except that this wasn’t something quite so simple.
Terrance had been angry enough to hurt them, but he’d held himself back. I could tell in the way that they sported less-than-life-threatening injuries. If he’d wanted to hurt them, he could have. From the sound of things, he wouldn’t spell out exactly what happened, unless the two Knights did. Alven and Cameron were both avoiding the actual subject of what had really happened and neither of them seemed inclined to explain themselves.
Looking to Gavin and Nathan, I wondered if I ought to say something now. Speaking up would probably still look like favoritism, even though I’d given them all a chance to speak first. I knew Terrance was right. I felt it in the way that my element churned through my veins.
It was impossible to lie to an earth elemental, but that wasn’t common knowledge. I was the only earth elemental present on this quadrant and scarcely anyone knew what my gift actually did—myself included. Alven and Cameron were hiding something, but I couldn’t quite decide if they were lying outright or trying to cover for each other.
“Don’t all of you explain yourselves at once,” Gavin rumbled, allowing them a moment. It only grew awkward though and finally, he rolled his eyes. “Fine. We’ll just write you all up for fighting in the corridors for personal differences that couldn’t be resolved through a simple conversation and you can all take a mark on your records for it until the disciplinary committee conducts a full investigation.”
Terrance’s jaw dropped. He stared at the two knights in complete disbelief. Usually, most small scuffles like this, even if against the rules, could be resolved before it was ever taken to the disciplinary committee, who would conduct a thorough investigation to see who was right or wrong. It also meant that there would definitely be a mark recorded on each Twilight’s transcript and they would be assigned punishments according to the depth of their involvement. It was official procedure if neither party could come to an agreement of sorts.
“This wasn’t my fault, I didn’t start this.” Terrance turned his grey eyes to me. An official mark on his record would set his pretests back six-months if they went uncontested. Hearings could take up to three months after that and could last up to three weeks. “Ellis, please, I was just passing through and he said that-” he broke off in a muttered string of Urukou. “Look, I didn’t pick a fight with them, alright? It was an accident and we couldn’t resolve our differences right away and thought our fists would do a better job.” He smoothed one hand over his hair and his fingers lingered over the carved swirls.
“No one is saying it’s your fault,” I said, quietly. “They’ve just agreed that you’re all to blame, regardless of which one of you actually did start it. I don’t agree with what they’ve said, but I’ll contest the claim if-”
“You’ll contest the claim?” Terrance snapped. His black eyes glittered. “Do you even care anymore? The claim will cancel my pretests and it’ll be at least three weeks before I can—you know what, if that’s how this is going to be, just write me up and let me go. If I’m late, Master Dugene will take it out on my hide.”
I frowned at him. “You were in a fight, Terrance and even if you didn’t start it, you certainly didn’t stop it. Why didn’t you walk away? I know an official mark means retaking all of your pretests, but you should have kept that in mind before getting involved. I can’t overlook something that’s-“
“Sure you can. You always do,” Terrance said. “It doesn’t matter what I do or what happens to me. You don’t really care, as long as your perfect record isn’t marred by my imperfect one.” He wrenched free of my slack grip with a sudden burst of strength. “It’s always my fault, isn’t it? I’m not some newbie, you know. I can take care of myself! You always treat me like I’m some clueless kid, fresh off of a refugee transport. Well, guess what? I’m not! I’ve had eight years to acquaint myself with Amerinth and all of its so-called wonderfulness. I’m not half as dense as you all think I am when you’re busy laughing behind your hands at Terrance, the poor little Urukou boy.” Terrance trembled for a moment. His eyes went from pitch black to the lightest grey I’d ever seen. He whirled around and streaked down the corridor without waiting for a response.
I stared after him, frozen in place, still trying to formulate a response even as I processed the fact that he was already gone. A reply would be useless now. Fifty lines of ranking etiquette-! I almost called after him, but the words stuck in my throat. Was that how he’d always felt? I’d never known. I always tried to be fair to him and I thought I’d done a good job at helping him to feel at home on a planet that was nearly the opposite of his homeland. He was more than a sponsored student, almost like a younger brother. After all the time we’d spent together, but I’d never treated him as anything less than just Terrance.
“What the—hey!” Gavin burst out. “Lathmore!” he growled at me. “You let him get away! How are we supposed to-”
I jerked at the sound of his voice and turned to stare at him, even as my mind tried to catch up to the situation, my heart making a muddle of what my head said was true. I had prepared myself for anything but that.
Nathan sighed and looked down at Alven. “If I let you go, will you sit?”
The fire knight wrinkled his nose. “I’m not the one you have to worry about it.” He said, haughtily.
“Thanks.” Nathan said, dryly. The soft halo of light around him, flared out as he released the younger man and then frowned over at me. His expression of disapproval matched Gavin’s. “You shouldn’t have let him go, Ellis. He’s just as guilty as these three. Just because you’re his sponsor doesn’t mean you can let him out of taking responsibility for his actions. Constantly shielding your sponsored student does not allow them to grow. Whatever just happened here was the product of all three of them.” He gestured to the nearly destroyed hallway, with debris cluttering the floor, and the gouges in the ceiling, complete with burn marks and soggy patches sprinkled throughout. The self-repairing surroundings had frozen when Nathan had arrived on the scene. “He’s just as guilty as-“
I made myself smile, even though it hurt. Nathan didn’t have a clue why I stood there, shocked. Mentally pulling myself together, I refocused on Alven and Cameron, whatever they were hiding, I would make sure it came out in the open. “Contrary to your belief, I have never excused him from the consequences of his actions.” I frowned at the newly docile Knights.
Now I could see why Terrance had been somewhat uneasy. While Terrance was my former sponsored student, the same was true for both Gavin and Nathan with their respective knights—now that I watched them together, I could see it. I moved in similar training Circles with Gavin and Nathan, as we were all of Guardian rank, but I’d scarcely paid any attention to them unless it was officially required.
I’d devoted all of my time and effort to Terrance. He’d turned out to be a brilliant knight—without having to use my name or rank to make his own mark. I’d held him accountable for everything during the time of our sponsorship and if it seemed like I favored him in public, he’d certainly paid for his mischief during our private training sessions. The specifics of what had set him off and my unofficial acknowledgement of it seemed to have hit a nerve I hadn’t realized was there.
“I’d like that in writing,” Cameron muttered.
“Quiet.” Gavin nudged him. “You’re in a nice bundle of trouble yourself, even if you didn’t start this. Brawling in the halls like common street thugs? That’s not something we overlook either.”
“I’m more concerned as to what they said to start him off,” I said, looking to gauge their reactions.
“What?” Gavin sputtered. His look of incredulity was mirrored perfectly by Cameron. “I don’t believe it. You know, if I hadn’t heard it, I wouldn’t believe it. He probably started the whole thing. His kind tends to have short tempers and sharp ears. Everything’s downhill once they’re started.”
“Short tempers have always been in abundance when it comes to the lower ranks,” I said. “It’s unfair of you judge him on that, just as it would be for me to do the same to your sponsored knights. I’ll pretend you’re not stereotyping him and you can feel free to apologize.”
Nathan’s ears turned pink and he looked away for a moment. “This is off-topic,” he began. “What we’re saying is that-”
“Is that we can talk about his short temper, but not yours,” I shot back. “I haven’t favored him any more than you’re favoring yours right now. I’m simply not pointing fingers yet, because I don’t know who to point at and I prefer to think in terms of innocent until proven guilty.”
“But he’s right.” Cameron now sat on the floor, half-braced against Gavin for support, nursing a bruised arm a split-lip and a torn gash on one leg. “Your knight started it. He wouldn’t listen to reason when I tried to break them up.”
“He’s not my knight.” I drew in a breath, held it for three counts and slowly released it. I did not want to be a living example of short temper before this matter was sorted out. “He is an independent Titan working towards his Shirron rank. Our sponsorship has been over for some time.” I looked to Cameron. “Answer me this, how exactly did you try to break them up?”
“I threw water over them both.” Cameron shrugged. “It usually works, but he just turned all silvery and caught me in the face.” He winced, feeling along his jaw. “Thought he’d knocked a tooth out.”
“He’s metal, you’re lucky that’s all he did.” I scowled at him. If Terrance had wanted to knock teeth out, then he would have—he hadn’t, so Cameron would be able to escape the painful process of having the Healers repair them. I didn’t bother to enlighten him with that fact. “Don’t you know how to duck?”
Cameron didn’t answer. He did something with his hand that made it turn bright blue, before gingerly pressing it to his aching jaw.
I shook my head. Even if he had ducked, Terrance would have still hit him anyway. Living metal, as his gift was, couldn’t rust in certain forms, but that didn’t mean that Terrance had to stay still and drown—he was still human in that way. I frowned at Alven now, wondering why the fire knight was studiously avoiding my gaze. Perhaps now I ought to question him. “Knight Alven, do you have anything to add in your own defense? Or an explanation, perhaps, such as what were you fighting over?”
His hair burst into bright orange flames and he lifted his chin, staring at me defiantly before his former sponsor nudged him with one foot. Alven scowled. “I’m not saying a word until there’s a Training master in witness.”
It didn’t take long to find a training master, because Liam had seen to that. Unfortunately, the one who responded to the report happened to be mine.
Master Kalen’s foul mood hadn’t improved from the slight glimpse I’d had of him this morning. He woke to bad news that he refused to discuss, pausing only to mention that his new set of orders had him slated to be off-world by the end of the week. He would be working in tandem with Master Soleen, a fellow Twilight that he absolutely loathed because of their slapdash work methods and closed ranks.
His expression darkened by several degrees as he caught sight of the damage to the corridor and then the two knights sitting on the floor who scrambled to their feet at his glare. The damage would not repair itself until Nathan’s touch was released and it proudly displayed the evidence of what had taken place several minutes ago.
Master Kalen didn’t offer any polite greetings, but simply demanded to know why his presence had been required, having been accosted by a frantic general student. Nathan took over the job of explaining, keeping Gavin quiet with a very well-timed look.
I’d already weathered Master Kalen’s temper during breakfast and had no desire to do so again in such a short time. I listened with half an ear to Nathan’s explanation. It was fairly accurate and so I let him speak. As he droned on, I studied the fighting marks along the wall and floor. I could see several places where the fire had scorched the clean, carpeted floor and burned jagged strips into the walls and ceiling. The walls were usually crafted from a partially organic material that repaired itself gradually over time and hardened into the clean, smooth surfaces that kept the Academy’s neat appearance. During fights, a Twilight with a high rank could freeze the regeneration process for evidence purposes and until the freeze was lifted, proof of any altercation would remain.
It would be a mess to clean up, that was certain, for Cameron’s gift had stopped the fire from getting out of hand and Terrance’s gift was evident in the few body-shaped impressions along the bottom of the wall. I almost winced just thinking about the sheer force that would have been behind such a blow. Terrance was lucky to be metal.
I wondered what had started him off and how he’d managed to hold back. His self-control had grown significantly since the last time I’d caught him in a fight. I’d taught Terrance to fight Twilight-style, but he’d been a military brat from Urukou, one that knew how to fight before he’d joined us, even as a young boy. I’d spent more time teaching him how to hold back and not kill his opponent, than anything else.
He was partially right about my rather pristine record, but he was wrong in thinking that it was mine alone that I worried of. He was the first Urukou in our quadrant to have risen so quickly within the ranks. I had taken him under my wing in hopes that my mentorship and reputation would be of some help to him as he climbed the Twilight ranks—it had.
I’d watched him grow into the respectable Titan he was now, with enough skill and raw talent to stand on his own. He was handy to have in a fight and he’d done so well with it that even Gold Clearance Knight Marcus Gillen, had taken a personal interest in his training, impressed enough to allow him to tag along for experience hours.
Something had set him off, but there wasn’t a single clue to be found in the marks that adorned the wrecked corridor. If I took him at his word, then it meant that either Alven or Cameron was lying and as I couldn’t tell why they would need to lie in the first place, I was reluctant to pass any sort of judgement. There was no need for them to lie and I resolved to speak to Terrance again—preferably before anyone else.
“…and then he ran off. I don’t like to say that he was guilty Master Kalen, but that’s how it appeared,” Nathan said. “He said he was off to Master Dugene’s defence training. If he’s actually there, then it shouldn’t take long to retrieve him and then we can clear up this entire matter with the help of the disciplinary committee and-”
“Hold it right there, Holwell.” I turned away from the scorch marks I’d been examining, wiping away some of the sooty streaks on the edge of my dark uniform. Terrance had been burned enough for his metal to collect soot, which had in turn rubbed off on me when I’d grabbed him. This entire mess was looking more worrisome by the minute. “You can’t just walk into a class and disrupt everything. It’s spring midterms, everyone is stressed enough as it is. Of course Terrance will be in class, he wouldn’t have lied about something like that.”
“And you know this because?” Nathan perked a brow. “Do you know how many fights your knight has been in these past three weeks?”
“Three weeks?” I looked from Nathan to Master Kalen, both who looked rather grim. I hadn’t spoken to Terrance for quite some time, but he’d always looked fine when we passed in the atrium. I knew if he needed something, he would ask. He hadn’t asked. “What are you talking about? I haven’t heard anything-”
“Ask him when you see him,” Nathan said, simply. “This isn’t the first altercation that I’ve refereed that’s connected to him.” He reached up to ruffle his hair, tugging on the ends in frustration. “I know you’d rather not think the worst of him and all of sponsors usually feel the same, but you should keep better tabs on-”
“Master Kalen?” I looked to my training master. Notices of fights and other important citations and news were always directed to the sponsor or training master, along with the official report of the matter. I’d never received any news of Terrance in recent fights.
The restless feeling twisting in my stomach multiplied into more of a headache than I expected. I hoped this wouldn’t take much longer. I could feel my element twisting through my veins and I knew I needed to visit the meditation halls before something bad happened.
Something like the miniature quakes I’d been trying to pretend weren’t my fault at all.
“You’ve been quite busy these past few weeks,” Master Kalen said. His forehead puckered, brows drawing together in irritation. “Perhaps you should see about taking a break, if you cannot recall keeping track of your personal affairs.”
“I don’t need a break,” I frowned at him. “What I need is to know what really happened here. Guardian Holwell is wrong. Terrance would never cause trouble just because he could. I know him. He’s not like this. I don’t think he started this fight, but I don’t deny that he was in it, because I pulled him out of it. I believe you’re all wrong in assigning him all the blame.” I took a deep breath. “I also hope that the fact that he is Urukou isn’t influencing this private inquisition in any way. We’ve already agreed, it seems, that the disciplinary committee will handle the matter so the truth can be found, yes?”
Master Kalen took a deep breath. He pinched the bridge of his nose as he usually did when deciding whether he ought to snap at someone or not. “Ellis. Please.” He stressed the last word. “Could you try to be objective for a minute? I know it might strain you, but this is important.”
“I am trying.” I swallowed and lifted my head to meet his gaze.
“Indeed,” Master Kalen murmured. “I watched you train him and I helped you both several times. Terrance is very well-trained in a way that is extremely dangerous. Whether he instigated these incidents himself or participated is not the matter up for debate. His actions could prove to be quite harmful, not just in the number of bruises those knights may wear or the possible tarnish to your spotless record, but-”
“I’m only saying that Terrance wouldn’t do something like this without a good reason, Master. It’s against his personal code and he’s not even here to defend himself right now.” I curled my toes in my boots, wishing that I was standing outside in open air and fresh dirt. The need to be away from everything manmade was almost overwhelming. “There are two knights here who were involved, but no one seems to care about what they have to contribute to things.”
“I highly doubt that he’d need your help to defend himself if he were here,” Master Kalen frowned. “I was just getting to these two. Please do not interrupt me again.” He gave me a look when I made to protest. “Now, he punched you when-?” he looked to Alven.
“He didn’t just punch,” Alven scowled. “He metal-fisted his hand and slugged me in the stomach. I didn’t have any warning. He could have ripped my spine out with a move like that. It hurt like a-“
“Yes,” Master Kalen interrupted. “Yes, I heard you the first time. He was metal-fisted, you say? He drew his element first?”
Alven blinked. “Well, yeah. Isn’t that what I just said? Just because I’m a fire type doesn’t mean that I’m flying off the handle every time that I’m in the-“
“I only meant that he wasn’t using his element until he encountered you or that he actively engaged it after coming across you,” Master Kalen said, evenly. “Correct?”
Alven quieted at that, brow furrowed in thought. “I guess,” he said, at last. “He came towards me and,” his shoulders slumped. “That was it. I don’t remember seeing any metal on him, but it’s hard to tell.” He gestured towards his standard Knight wear. The uniform made it hard to tell if Terrance had been metal-bodied the entire time, only keeping his face and arms in their natural form.
Master Kalen nodded. “That was when you joined, yes?” He looked to the water knight. “Then what happened? Did you notice anything else?”
“There’s hardly anything to add to it.” Cameron grunted. “I don’t know what they had a spat over, but Terrance slammed him into the wall, I couldn’t just stand there. Fire can’t hurt metal. Not the way it would hurt another element, not even the way my water can douse flames. Alven could’ve been seriously hurt. I-I saw he was in trouble and I figured he could use a hand—I tried to break them up. I didn’t come to join them.”
“But that’s not what Liam said.” I stepped forward. “He came looking for me, before we ran into you two.” I gestured towards Gavin and Nathan. “The general student that was here—you two should remember him. He was talking about Terrance and only Terrance. He didn’t say anything about the other two, except that he was afraid that they would kill him. Why would he say something like that unless he had a legitimate reason to believe it was true? He had no reason to lie.”
Alven’s frayed patience snapped and his shoulders hunched forward just as his orange fire shifted to a bright, angry red. “With all due respect, Guardian, are you calling me a liar?”
I felt my face warm and tried not to let the irritation show on my face. “I’m only saying your stories contradict each other. Terrance doesn’t start a fight without significant provocation. He’s not that sort. We can stand here and debate this all day, but unless we have some solid facts, we’ll argue in circles and accomplish nothing.”
“Ellis,” Master Kalen said, warningly.
“Excuse me, Master, but I am serious. I sponsored Terrance for three years and I knew him well before that. He would not do something like this. Someone must have said or done something other than what has already been revealed.” A slight prickle of irritation washed over me. I resisted the urge to scratch at my arms, wondering if the burns had been more than superficial, because I really didn’t want to visit the Healers before I made it to the meditation halls.
“Of course, that must be it,” Cameron snorted. “That must makes Alven the unfortunate punching bag that your innocent Terrance happened upon, because there’s absolutely no way we could be innocent, right? I’ve known Alven since I enrolled at this Academy and I stand by him and his account of events.”
Raw energy coiled and roiled inside of me and I hid my trembling hands behind my back from their accusing stares in the practiced stance of parade rest. The wave of irritation moved up to settle in my head as a pounding headache, growing in size and zest. “I’m only saying if Terrance thought there was enough justification to draw on his gift, then I stand by his choice. You obviously thought your friend was in danger or else you wouldn’t have drawn on your gift either, would you?”
“That’s enough!” Master Kalen barked. “No one should be accusing anyone of something that still hasn’t been properly explained. Control yourself, apprentice. Terrance does not need you to fight his battles for him. I already warned you not to interrupt. You have a vested personal interest in this matter and I am attempting to overlook potential bias, in spite of your actions to the opposite. You shouldn’t have let him run off to class, no matter what excuse he gave you and Guardian Holwell is correct in his surmising that we will need to withdraw him from classes for an official statement-“
“But-!” I started to say, because I really hadn’t tried to do anything other than state my mind. I hadn’t meant to let him run off like that, but what he’d said, caught me off guard.
Master Kalen gave me a look. “I warned you that it would come back to you. It looks as though you’ve always favored him.” He frowned. “If you wish to stay as an impartial Guardian in this inquiry, mind your mouth and keep your personal assumptions to yourself. If Terrance is innocent, then his innocence will prove itself. He does not need your help or mine to speak the truth.” He waved a hand at the other two Guardians. “Have you any relation to these two?”
Nathan and Gavin nodded in tandem.
“I sponsored this one,” Gavin said, tapping Cameron on the shoulder. “But nowhere near as long as Ellis did. Cameron and I worked together for about five months or so? It was a six month contract, only according to necessity. He finished his standards earlier, so I didn’t keep him on and he didn’t need me to.”
“Same here,” Nathan added. “Alven took the full six months, but he was strong on his own. Didn’t need me to hang over his shoulder all the time.”
I bit back the words that tangled up in my throat. There was no way I dared to speak now, because what would come out of my mouth would be an animalistic growl that shouldn’t be heard in the present company.
Terrance was strong enough to stand on his own. I kept his contract as long as he had asked and not a moment more. He chose to stay by my side as he continued training and so we’d maintained the sponsorship for three years.
Master Kalen rubbed his chin. “Will you vouch for their testimonies?” He nodded at the two knights, his piercing gaze locked on the two Guardians. “Will you be satisfied with an inquiry from the disciplinary committee?”
Gavin looked to Cameron. He shrugged. “If that’s what he said, then I trust him. There’s little else to add and he has no reason to lie. Whatever is authorized is more than enough. This doesn’t need to be blown out of proportion.”
“Same for me,” Nathan said, stoutly. He rested a hand on Alven’s shoulder, careful of the actual flames. “Alven might be more inclined to jump in head first, but he’s always been a good Knight. Solid through and through, I trust his fire, it burns a clean flame.”
“I see. Thank you.” Master Kalen inclined his head to the two knights. “Check your communicators for the inquiry’s final results and what your punishment detail will involve. Regardless of who threw the first punch, the fact remains that there was an unsupervised open brawl in a public place where a general applicant student might have wandered in to an early death. You manually repair this site, without your elements and any further consequences will be handed down from the disciplinary office after the report has been processed. You are dismissed.”
I stared at them in disbelief and then at Master Kalen. My hands stopped trembling.
Alven and Cameron both bowed quickly, turning in perfect unison before hurrying off down the hallway. They disappeared around the corner and I strained to hear their footsteps quicken as soon as they were out of sight.
This was too bizarre to be real. “You’re letting them go?” I almost reached out to him, but somehow stopped myself when he turned his ferocious scowl back to me. “Master, you can’t just-!” My voice cracked. I stumbled one step backward.
A tremor rippled through the Academy. The ground shifted ever so slightly for the very briefest of moments.
Distant rumbling filtered through the air. A fine smattering of dust spilled out of the jagged cracks in the wall and the Terrance-shaped impressions left behind. I reached out to touch the wall, half to reassure myself and half for strength. My legs felt as if they would give out from under me and static crackled under my hand. I yanked it back from the wall, feeling every single emotion doubling, tripling and multiplying at an alarming rate.
Master Kalen’s impenetrable stare drilled into me.
I didn’t dare look at him. I couldn’t. If I did, his expression would break me. This was the closest I’d come to losing it in these past two weeks. The only thing missing was a good trigger. His approval mattered and seeing anything but complete understanding would break me now.
The elemental gift buried inside of me was a sleeping monster caged for too long. It would break free soon and if I was not careful, I would hurt someone when it did. The changes had been so gradual, I’d never seen it coming. My gift had grown exponentially over the past few months and even my increased meditations did little to grant me the perfect control that I craved. I had never been able to hold onto it tight enough. It didn’t help that I was the only earth element present in our quadrant on Amerinth.
Master Kalen’s talent was mirrors and reflections. His face almost always showed exactly what he was thinking. His aura tended to reflect it as well and I could feel the disapproval radiating out from his rigid form. For one moment, I wondered if any other earth elementals struggled with their gifts on such a large scale and if they did, how they managed to keep it from killing them outright.
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