Eight months ago.
Under the covers of his bed the small figure of eight years old Zax could be made as he lay, bitter. He was angry with his mom, angry with his dad, resentful toward Mr. Ogler, cursed half the kids in his school and hated himself. It was the outcome of a typical bad day for Zax, and he was currently grounded for fighting.
Waiting to Dane with Serah near the school’s gate at the end of the school day, to go back home together, four third graders passed them by with bored expressions. One of the four third graders noticed Zax and a grin spread across his face.
To not go into too many details as to why, the third grader called: “Earth’s Core Freak, how about you stop showing off at P.E. My little brother says that you annoy everyone. You are not your sister, so please just stay Earth’s Core freak, Earth’s Core Freak”.
Not much of an insult but enough to tick off eight years old Zax. He did not mind when his friend used the stupid nickname but was sick and tired of others using it to taunt him and more than anything hated to be compared to his big sister!
Hence, he beat up the third grader, and then he beat up the other three third graders when they intervened.
Not too far away from the scene of the brawl, it was Mr. Ogler’s turn to be on gate duty. Having to wait for the last kid to leave school before he or she could lock it and finish another day of work was a pain to every teacher. So when Mr. Ogler heard shouts and saw Zax leaning over some kid and punching him in the face while three other kids lying on the ground, one bleeding from his nose, two grabbing their groin in pain, it did not matter who started it, just who seemed to be the victim.
Mr. Ogler of course did not listen; he had zero tolerance for violence. He grabbed Zax by the collar of his shirt, yanked him off from the beaten kid and took him to the secretariat of the school to call his parents.
It ended with Zax’s mom coming from work to apologize for her child behavior and pick him up from school. Later, when his father got back home from work, he only scolded his son. As lenient as he was, he did not want some angry parent to sue his family because of hospital bills. He had to deal with this kind of troubles when his daughter was young and could not afford to repeat it. Obviously, today he can use her name once and others will have to give him face. But to exploit his daughter’s name because of a kids quarrel, how could he?
Knock! Knock! Knock!
Knock! Knock! Knock!
After six knocks the person behind the door lost patience and entered. “Will you ignore your sister, little Zi?” The voice that followed the young beautiful woman in said jokingly.
To answer, Zax held tight the covers above his head and from beneath them he yelled: “Go away!”
“Oh… So you are angry with me too?” Zetsa grabbed the other side of the blanket and pulled till Zax lost his grip and could not hide himself anymore. Zax face was red and his eyes were teary. “Mom told me that you were in a fight, again, this time hurting four boys. Is that true?” She asked in a serene voice. Her brown hair reached to the end of her neck and now fell on her face as she looked down on her brother.
Unlike him or his parents, his big sister inherited their grandmother’s, from their father side, clear blue eyes and olive skin tone. Since he was a baby Zax loved to stare at those eyes and in return those eyes always looked at him with love.
“Yes…” Zax slightly calmed down. Now he was a bit ashamed.
“Do you want to tell me why, or everything that happened is as your teacher told mom?”
“It’s not”. He allowed her to caress his face with the soft palm of her hand.
“Then tell me”.
So he did. And she listened until he finished, not saying anything to interrupt.
“Amm… Zax, what you always tell me that you want to be?” Using his first name was a sign that she asked seriously.
“A strong Mist User like you”. He replied without hesitation.
“And on your path to becoming a strong Mist User like me, are you also planning to repeat my mistakes?” She did not ask him “Why you want to be a strong Mist User” on purpose. Growing in today society, almost every child dreams of becoming a strong Mist User. And children with strong individuals close to them tend to see them as role models, especially children like Zax with a bit of talent.
“Big sis never made a mistake. Otherwise you would not be as powerful as you are”. Zax said decisively after thinking for a while.
“But I did, many in your age and even when I was older”. Zetsa refrained from signing. Her younger self was not someone she loved to reminisce about. “I constantly gave troubles for mom and dad and was even thrown out of school”.
“Everyone says that you were the most gifted person to ever been born in cave twenty five. I know how tough and great you were!”
“Tough, yes, great, not at all, and my talent”, the talent that made Zax admire and envy her. “Made me distant from others and bored to the point of looking for fights everyday“. She straightened her back and he got up to a sitting position while the both of them kept eye contact.
“Maybe if people noticed what was wrong with me, I would have been sent to a suitable environment for me and a lot of my wrongdoings were never to happen”. Zetsa rested for a moment. At the time Zax was already siting on her lap.
“I changed, Zax, because of two things. The first was someone that saw me and something in me worth polishing. The other came a bit later, when I was eleven”, She smiled gently and for the first time broke eye contact only to lean forward and kiss his forehead. “That was you, my precious little Zi”.
Zax blushed and lowered his head. For the first three years of his life he was determined to one day marry his beautiful big sister and it took him three more years to fully differentiate between love and admiration. Nonetheless, Zetsa was remarkably beautiful and Zax, an eight years old boy, who got her undivided attention whenever he needed could not be anything other than submissive when she showed him such an affection.
“Zax”, she turned to him with an offer on her mind. “For today and until Friday you will take the punishment mom and dad gave you and tomorrow you will apologize to the children you hurt-”
“But it wasn’t my-” Zax burst.
“You used violence to solve a verbal conflict”. She did not let him finish.
“So would you prefer that I’ll curse at them instead of showing that I’m tough?” Zax was upset. Fighters in the Earth’s Core’s showdowns never used verbal insults; they got their respect from the fans by fighting fist to kick. Why should he be any different?
“Cursing is not the way to solve a verbal conflict, either, Zax”. Zetsa’s serious tone returned. The words she wanted to say were better put in a manner that Zax could not associate with the soft side she had for him. “The best way to solve a conflict is by using as little effort as possible. Ignoring the other side if their words or action cannot affect the flow of yours or your loved ones lives. Telling adults that someone is bothering you and let them handle it. You can even befriend the ones you don’t get along with and influence them to be better to you and others”.
Zetsa said and Zax listened.
“If I’ll ignore they will pick on someone else. If I’ll tell an adult everyone will laugh at me. And I don’t want to be their friend!” In the end, an eight years old is an eight years old. Some lessons can only be learned through harsh experiences or if someone keeps drilling them to you.
Zetsa was prepared to Zax respond. She was his big sister and knew him well. And here was her idea; seeing as she did not want to expose him to the former solution, only one option remained.
“I have decided. I will teach and polish you, Zax”. She put him on the bed and stood up. “You’re always asking me to train you to be strong like me. I’m not a lot at home and cannot be there every step of the way, but if you’re willing to do as I say without complaining or slacking off… Fine, I’ll agree. So? It’s a deal?”
“Big sis will train me!” Zax was hooked the moment the word “Train” came up. His eyes sparkled and he became enthusiastic. He jumped from the bed calling. “It’s a deal, it’s a deal, it’s a deal, big sis!”
“Of course, we will have to make an excuse for mom and dad. Let’s tell them that we are working on a brother sister bonding project. Agree?”
“YES! YES! YES!”
Smiling, Zetsa said. “Good. So for now you are in punishment and tomorrow you’ll apologize to the other kids and on Friday I’ll come to get you to my place and we will start your training”.
“Ah?!” Zax was dumbfounded. What just happened?
“Remember that we have a deal”. Zetsa overwhelmed him with her gaze before he could protest and Zax calmed down. “Do your homework or read a book, little Zi”. She suggested before she left the room.
“Ere’ar, Ere’ar, Lianor, She’ega, Aje”.
Yellow patterns and diverse symbols shone brightly on the four walls, floor and ceiling of Zetsa one-room apartment, making it look as if everything is made out from gold.
The Inner Spirit formation was unique even among the B class formations, a high level illusionary formation. To any Mist User above the level of Mist Master this formation will not pose a threat, but to anyone else below that level… from losing one’s life to becoming brain-dead and even worse, getting caught in it could mean a fatal mistake.
The knowledge of what this formation could do to him, a nine years old boy that has not received an Earth’s Core yet, passed shivers through Zax’s spine. “Big sis truly is amazing”. He respected her more and more every time he sat on the mattress and imagined that this might be how it feels inside a Sun Stone. “I read that a Mist User needs to be a level above the formation’s to be able to alter it”. He lingered. The formation was suspended and to actually activate it, there are two additional words, two additional key words he must say. Two words that accompany a ridiculous amount of indescribable pain, and that is just the tip of an altered Inner Spirit formation!
“Biuua..” Zax’s lips moved to slow for the word to come out right. He grabbed his knees to balance his structure and tried again. “Biur, Nephesh”.
In this windowless room, in an instant the temperature dropped and out of nowhere a sudden cold breeze struck Zax in the face. His eyes opened wide from the shock, and the icy air felt as if it could pierce them. He closed his eyes and remained sited with his hands on the knees as things were about to get terribly agonizing.
“I can’t hold on anymore!” Zax yelped after two minutes. He held his breath as long as he could, terrify of the pain that will follow if he let this frosty air in. But as usual, he had a limit and the pain was unavoidable.
“Knifes, it’s like knifes and needles!” Even to an average mid-level Earth’s Core Holder it is not an easy feat to protect the soft and warm internals with the mist energy. The moment the cold air entered his body, Zax’s respiratory organs tingled, then in the span of two seconds they, the muscles, tendons, blood vessels, and nerves all completely froze. Next, the tips of his fingers become numb and started to lose its colors, one by one each finger turned pale, then blue, purple and finally black. An extreme case of frostbite that continued to spread from his hands throughout his arms. The same thing happened to his legs, stomach and eyes. Unable to move, Zax reluctantly remained aware to the slow process that was turning his body into a block of ice. He could no longer breathe. What sustained him was the sole belief in him and in his big sister.
She evaluated Zax’s limits and found that he reached his first threshold when she tested him last Saturday. Per her results, she chose to remove a miniscule portion of the altered Inner Spirit formation’s restrictions to help him attain a breakthrough.
“Big sister Zetsa, mommy, daddy…” Zax wept. He regretted ever asking his big sister to train him. He even wished he had not left his house and stayed to do his homework. But even a nine years old should think before he acts. Now, a throbbing headache was the only thing he could feel and each throb was an explosion of agony.
His left arm broke apart from the shoulder.
His spine collapsed like a blade of grass under a rock.
Crack! Crack! Crack!
Pieces of Zax’s ice cold body detached and fell on the mattress. “Hah… Hah…” His mind became blank under the severe pain. Unable to bare anymore, Zax’s determination to stay alive faded as the last “Crack!” separated his head from his neck.
As Zax ceased to resist the formidable formation he suddenly felt it, a warm touch on his crooked chest, like the tip of a slender finger. A surge of flames scattered across his broken body from that small spot, gradually melting the frost coating all over it and restoring its proper body temperature.
Although a few centimeters away from its appropriate place, when the thin layer of ice at the center of his forehead shed the first drop of water, Zax’s pupils began to move under the veil of his eyelids, as if he regained a second chance in life and now was trying to wake up from a bad dream.
“Eh?” The yellow patterns and symbols of the Inner Spirit formation disappeared before Zax’s open eyes and darkness returned to the one room apartment. Feeling the softness of the mattress with his bottom, the knees under the palms of his hands, the beating heart beneath his chin, his body whole and the air still, Zax was astonished, fearful, exited, sad and many other things.
“I failed”. After a minute of silence Zax found his center and admitted. “It’s like that first time eight months ago. No, it was far worse”. Zax’s was sure after he went through everything that happened when he activated the formation. “And big sis wasn’t here to guide me. How in the name of our lord and ruler did I survive?” While lost in thoughts, unintentionally, his right hand reached to his chest and touched the place where the wave of warmth originated. That which saved him was the only thing Zax could not remember. Even when he scratched through his shirt that small spot with his index finger until his skin began to redden the action did not arouse suspicion.
“I wonder what time it is”. Zax decided to go outside and check since his cheap wristwatch did not have a lighting command and his parents could not afford the monthly fee of a fourth Caller.
“No way!” Zax was flabbergasted. “How could it be?!”
Watching from the corridor’s window, up above, the cave’s Nightly Cover formation has already been activated. To Zax’s surprise, it was around ten o’clock. His mom should be on her way home!
Zax left the door to the apartment open and leapt from the first floor. BAM! He hit the ground and his bones were shaking. The Inner Spirit formation affected more than just his spirit, as its name suggested. The more he strained his body, the more it ached. The muscles in his legs tightened and made it impossible to run back home at even half his speed.
“Mom will kill me if she’ll discover that I was out all day. I truly wish for big sis to be here right now to explain me what went wrong. First, I couldn’t handle at all with the formation’s assault, in spite of how much I progressed this past eight months. And when it finally was over, instead of the usual few minutes, hours have passed!” Thoughts ran through his head.
When the apartment building was in his field of vision, Zax’s breath was shallow and he reeked of sweat. Light flickered from the living room’s window. He hoped it was his dad, Marco Zel, watching the Screen, and that his mom did not arrive yet.
As to what exactly was the “Screen”? Basically a device that was based on the ancient Television. Like any screen in this day and age, it worked with a combination of formations and technology, charged by a tiny Sun Stone and a tinier piece of Peral metal that formed the connection, packed inside a plastic housing.
Fortunately his dad was the only one at home. Zax found him sleeping on the sofa in his uniforms, a blue overall with the symbol of the Department of Water, twenty five drops circling the department’s name.
A cooking show played on the Screen and on the stove was a pot that delicious smell came out of it. Zax was too tired to fix himself whatever his dad made. Besides, it was past his bed time and he still had to take a shower. If his mother would come and see that he is awake, he will have to provide explanations.
After a quick shower Zax went to bed. He lay on the mattress sorry for not seeing his mom the all day or not talking to his dad, but the risk level to his free time was too high.