Considering how tough the course had been, it felt extremely anti-climactic that getting off that horrible bridge didn’t really lead them to Crystal Palace. No, it had actually delivered them to another forest, which they’d been traversing for two complete days now, but Eddy was proud to say that the clearing indicating the exit was finally in sight – the amazingly uneventful trip was about to come to an end.
“Man, I can’t wait to sleep in a proper bed again,” he said aloud. “I’m sure Crystal Palace is just as cool as Cloud Palace, right?”
“It’s actually known to be the most extravagant of the five palaces,” said Xene. “Hudor, in general, is known as the continent of luxury. The towns here always find one thing or another to celebrate.”
Eddy chuckled. It sounded like a place he wouldn’t mind staying in even permanently. In the unlikely event that it came to down to them having to rule here or something, he’d definitely try talking Rebecca into swapping continents with him, he thought.
As they made their way out of the forest, Eddy hoped he’d find a towering, silver-glazed, jewel covered castle… with a water slide. Instead, they were met with another lake. A silent, still, never-ending lake – a white, marbled staircase leading down to it.
The only truly beautiful thing in sight, at least in Eddy’s opinion, was the tall, silver-haired woman standing at the very last step. She wore a long, white gown that was more or less indistinguishable from her locks, at least down to her waist, and she held a shimmering golden staff with a single blue orb sitting atop it.
“Who’s that?” Eddy said.
“She looks important,” Sam added, probably on account of the two armored guards at her side.
Xene hummed as he joined them at the edge of the cliff. He offered the awaiting party a polite nod before turning back to them. “That is Master Reisha,” he said, “the sea priestess.”
“The sea priestess?” Eddy repeated in disbelief. This was her? He’d expected, well… a female version of Master Naikos to put it simply, but this woman… she looked so ethereal and young – around Xene’s age at most.
“Oh, so she’s the one who’s going to be training us now,” said Rebecca.
“Yeah, I bet the boys are ecstatic about that,” Sam chuckled.
Well, Eddy couldn’t argue with that. She was the perfect example of that one pretty teacher that no one minded getting extra homework from and he knew the only reason why Dylan and Zac kept brushing off the notion was because their female comrades were still around, not to mention the associated ulterior motives.
“You guys are whipped.” He huffed. “Cowards.”
Master Reisha smiled as they approached her – one of the most radiant smiles Eddy had ever seen too.
“Welcome back, Your Majesty,” she said, bowing her head before Xene. “And, of course, the chosen children. It is such a joy to finally be able to meet you.”
Even her voice exuded something… unreal. If the sources that had spoken so highly of her been any less credible, Eddy might’ve thought she was a wizard or something… you know, in a world where they weren’t such a prominent species.
“You.” She suddenly reached for Rebecca and ran a hand through her hair, making Rebecca recoil uncertainly. “You look so much like her.” She chuckled. “Like Azu, when she was your age, of course.”
“A-Azu?” Rebecca questioned.
“The Empress of Water, that is,” Master Reisha explained.
Eddy thought Xene had said something about it being disrespectful to use the gifted ones’ real names, yet she had just uttered it so casually, almost as if… they’d been friends or something, which was very unlikely, wasn’t it? Considering the gifted ones were born like half a century ago.
“Well, shall we go then?” she continued.
“Ah, it’s across the lake?” said Dylan. “Did you guys bring a special boat or something?”
Master Reisha chuckled. “Don’t be silly. It is inside the lake.”
“Inside?” Eddy repeated.
Sparkling chips began to surround them, forcing Eddy off his feet and into a levitation of sorts. Before they knew it, they were floating in a large… bubble.
“What – what’s going on?” said Sam. “Is this… a force-field?”
“Indeed. One of a kind,” said Xene. “Master Reisha is an exceptional lunar wizard after all. She’s the reason Crystal Palace can thrive as it does.”
“You flatter me,” she said with a careful swing of her hand.
Eddy got goose-bumps, all over his body, as the bubble started descending into the lake.
“Whoa,” he exhaled.
This had to be one of, if not the most amazing scenery he’d ever seen. He didn’t know if it had to do with the fact that it was his first time underwater anywhere besides the gym’s pool or if this lake truly was extraordinary. A quick look at the others told him it was the latter. It had to be – he doubted the lakes back in their world had the kind of aquatic life that was on display here.
There were so many strange creatures; those with fins, those with feet and even those with wings – he wasn’t sure whose origins to question first. The coral reefs didn’t leave a single color out and bizarrely enough, random gems seemed to be dispersed all around.
What took the cake though, was the gleaming, sliver-glazed, jewel-studded palace – just as he’d imagined, minus the water slide. A transparent bead encased it, much like the one they were in, but a lot larger. It was like a reverse aquarium, he thought amusedly, but absolutely breathtaking.
“Don’t tell me,” said Sam with a gasp. “Did you… are you really the one keeping that huge force-field intact?”
“Very well,” Master Reisha replied with a smile, “I shall not tell you.”
“No way.” Sam chuckled with disbelief. “It must be really tiring. You’re… amazing.”
“How is it keeping all the water out? The force-fields we saw earlier seemed more like sensory barriers than physical ones,” said Rebecca.
“You already know it’s rare but possible to modify spells, if you’re skilled enough,” Xene spoke on Master Reisha’s behalf. “Master Reisha can use hers to interact with water, hence her title.”
“That’s so cool,” Eddy voiced. She was not only beautiful, but so powerful… it almost made Eddy wish he was a little older and maybe, not so… human.
Their bubble was getting closer to the underwater palace and Eddy could now see the crowded streets of the marine town. The people seemed to be waiting for something – he quickly realized it was them. They phased through the shield and the fragments began dissipating as they set foot on the bleached rocks lining the streets.
An instant array of cheers and claps welcomed them.
“Indeed, indeed,” Master Reisha responded loudly. “The chosen children have arrived.”
She then stepped back, allowing Xene to take charge and the townspeople quickly unified in a bow.
“Long live His Majesty!” a single cry sounded.
“Long live the king!” a chorus followed.
“My people,” Xene started in a way that Eddy knew was sure to make the ladies swoon. “Thank you for waiting for me so patiently. I assure you, the monthly hearing will be held soon. And the Water Lily Festival… will be held tomorrow, as scheduled.”
That earned an even greater applause, making Eddy wonder what the event was about. Xene hadn’t mentioned it to them before…
“Until then, I present to you… the chosen children.”
Oh, that was his cue. He bolted forward to keep up with his uncertainly marching friends. Enthusiastic greetings echoed from each corner and Eddy thought it felt nice… to be showered with so much praise and affection.
“You’re liking this a lot, aren’t you?” Dylan muttered to him.
“We’re in a beautiful town with a beautiful instructor and nice, welcoming people and there’s even going to be a festival tomorrow. What’s not to like?” He grinned.
At Cloud Palace, Xene’s power had been an undoubted solo act; the fact that he’d been so busy during their stay there alone was enough to prove Dylan’s point. At Crystal Palace though, Dylan thought things seemed a little different.
For one, Xene hadn’t been bombarded by a fleet of nobles this time. He hadn’t been rushed into council meetings or showered with reports. Instead, two hours past their arrival he still sat comfortably in his chamber, being massaged and offered many delicacies like the royalty he actually was.
Dylan knew Master Reisha was to thank for that. Even apart from the enormous force field she was continuously powering to keep the town dry, she seemed to have a lot under her control, dealing with officials and common men alike, giving poor Xene a little breather too. And, of course, they were enjoying the perks of being friends with him.
Eddy and Sam were stuffing their faces with all kinds of sweets and Zac and Rebecca were enjoying free temple rubs. Dylan, himself, was content with simply getting to stretch out on Xene’s bed – undeniably the biggest, neatest, fluffiest bed he’d ever seen. And speaking of fluffy…
He eyed the overtly excited tavi jumping next to the bed. He knew what Knight wanted. The bed probably looked just as comfortable to him, especially since the others had spoiled him with all the cuddling him to sleep, but unlike them, Dylan had yet to properly connect with the creature…
Still, he couldn’t help but give in slightly to the large, buoyant eyes.
“Okay, fine. “ He sighed, shifting to make room for him. “You can come up,” he said, getting a joyous yelp from Knight in response.
It took him another minute to realize that Knight was, in fact, too small to actually climb up himself. Carefully, he reached down and lifted him, using only the bare minimum number of fingers required.
“Stay on your side now.”
“So, what’s this festival thing you mentioned earlier, Xene?” Dylan heard Eddy mumble between chews.
“Ah, the Water Lily Festival?” said Xene. “It’s an annual event we host here at Crystal Palace. The doors are opened for the public and people from all over Hudor come to join in on the activities.”
“Yeah? What kind of activities?” said Sam.
“Well, there are a lot of indoor games and outside, we set up different rides and attractions. People from other areas are offered a tour of the town and sometimes even the palace. And of course, the big water flisk race along the artificial river. Finally, to wrap it all up, we swim up to the surface and decorate the lake with water lilies.”
“That sounds awesome!” Eddy exclaimed.
“Yeah, I can’t wait to see it,” Rebecca added.
And Dylan had to agree. Just hearing about the event’s agenda made him sit up and grin. He thought their trip to the night mart had been as far as fun would go here, but this sounded ten times as exciting. With so many options, it seemed impossible to have a bad time, unless…
The apologetic yet playful grin on Xene’s face spoke volumes.
“We… we can’t go, right?” Dylan grunted, starting a chain of outbursts in the large room.
“Now, now, that’s not what I’m saying,” Xene insisted. “In fact, you don’t have to worry about my training till the day after, given how busy I’ll be. But you, as of our arrival here, are under Master Reisha’s care. Unlike me, she can’t teach you on the go. The few days here are your only chance to learn what you can from her. And as far as I know her, she won’t let you waste them.”
“You’re making her sound a lot more intense than she came off earlier,” Sam muttered.
“Not intense,” Xene said. “She just… knows how to get work done.”
“So, you’re saying we need her permission to spend our day at the festival tomorrow, right?” said Dylan, hopping off the bed. “We’ll go ask her right now. Where will she be?”
“Probably the main roof,” said Xene as the others stood up in agreement to him. “That’s where they’re preparing things for the festival. Gein.” He addressed the man rubbing his shoulders before directing him towards them. “Take the children to the roof.”
“And what are you going to do in the meantime?” Zac questioned derisively as he slipped into his shoes.
“Take a much needed, well-deserved nap,” Xene replied bluntly, “before, of course, making my way to the council for the meeting this evening.” He almost pouted, almost, but settled for his usual, lazy smile.
Well, he did deserve it. He trained with each of them individually, so he was technically doing five times the labor they were, plus his regal duties. So, Dylan wouldn’t hold the fact that he was kind of slacking today against him.
The five of them stepped out of his chamber, Gein first behind, then in front of them.
The water was still well-lit, Dylan observed from the large windows they were walking by, which meant they still had some time before sunset. He noticed how the bright blues and greens of the palace’s interior made it look not much different from the scenery outside, but it was still striking in its own right. Dylan would’ve named it Peacock Palace if it were up to him, what with all the feathers and gems lining the walls.
Two staircases up and Gein stopped and turned to them. “Would Your Highnesses care for some refreshments before carrying on?”
Dylan chortled. Continent of luxury indeed.
Zac thought he’d gotten lucky that Master Reisha was on the roof of all places. The higher they got to go, the better he’d feel… even if they were actually underwater and the roof was sheltered because of the force-field – a fact that only settled in once they had climbed up the very last staircase.
He saw her, Master Reisha. She was holding a large banner of some sort and he mentally praised her for ordering the various attendants around her so meticulously even as she studied it. He could see why Eddy was so into her, or why anyone would be – she was the type, except she wasn’t really his type. Then again, he had such a specific one.
Category – Zac’s type, qualified – one.
She was the first one to run up to her, Sam, clearly looking forward to the festival. “Master Reisha,” she addressed happily as Zac took in their surroundings – heaps and heaps of metal and wood scattered around. It seemed like stall building was their main priority at the moment.
“Ah, here for your first lesson?” Master Reisha replied, eyes still on the banner.
“A-Actually,” Eddy interjected, laughing sheepishly, “we wanted to ask you about… the festival.”
“Like I said, here for your first lesson?” She smiled at them directly now.
There was something eerie about the way she said it. She was going to make them break a sweat.
“Sam, was it?” she continued. “Head over to those people working with the metal.”
“What?” said Sam, but her question was left unanswered as Master Reisha turned to Dylan.
“Go stand by the edge.” She pointed back towards the stairs. “The labor team is going to need your help.”
“Master Reisha,” Rebecca said as Sam and Dylan hesitantly started towards their posts, “why are you…”
“You want to take part in the festival tomorrow, right? Then it is only appropriate that you help prepare for it.”
“So, you’re giving us permission to go?” Rebecca confirmed as she was directed to the group filling balloons. “But the lesson you mentioned?”
Zac shook his head. They hadn’t realized it yet, had they? This was the lesson.
“Thunderstorm,” Master Reisha said to Eddy. “Go help out with the lights. But remember, you pay for each one you damage.”
After all, Zac was pretty sure it wasn’t a coincidence that she was assigning them tasks that could be markedly sped up with their powers. She was killing two birds with one stone and making it seem like she was letting them play around. It was as Xene had said; she knew how to get work done.
She smiled at him knowingly. “You just want to watch, am I right?”
“Too bad. You will go and fill balloons too.”
But he’d figured as much.
As he walked up to the relevant group, he realized that most of them were just children and teens. So, inevitably, some of them giggled and of course, the rest simply backed away nervously as he sat down amidst them.
Rebecca offered him a smile, a half-inflated balloon hanging out of her mouth.
“I don’t think that’s how she wants us to do it.”
“What then?” Rebecca said as she transferred the balloon’s mouth to her fingers.
“Fill yours with water.” She’d come out of nowhere and stood by them with her arms folded behind her back. “Leave the air-filling to him.”
“You want us to use our powers,” Zac stated.
“Well done, I did try to be transparent.” She neither smirked, nor smiled – something half-way. “Do nothing without your powers tonight. Earn the day off. Trakan does not care for you wanting to have some fun.”
Just as he’d thought.
He watched as she then strode towards Sam, making her jump a little as she placed a hand on her shoulder.
“You’re going to help them cut through the metal,” she said. “You can heat yourself up enough for that, right?”
Sam nodded. “I think so.”
“Just remember, if you end up melting it, you will have to wait for it to solidify again.”
“What?” said Sam. “But that could take forever.”
Master Reisha simply shrugged, the unreadable smile set on her face again. “I’ll let you use your hands for now.”
Zac and Rebecca divided the kids amongst themselves.
As he handed a balloon to each of his half, he thought back to their time with Master Naikos. He’d taught them how to build and harness their chi, and how that was what made their powers manifest. The natural next step would be learning how to channel and release that chi, which was something he’d only touched upon, on an as per required basis. Then… it would make sense that Master Reisha was going to pick up from there.
Hands, for now…
“Hold them open,” he said to the kids, then used a quick flick of his fingers to force a jet of air in each balloon, successfully inflating them in two seconds flat. Easy.
So, she was going to make them use other release points after this. He’d used his feet as an exit before, but other than that, he was pretty uncertain.
He turned to watch Rebecca as his kids tied and replaced the balloons in their hands with new ones. She was pulling a hose towards them.
She exhaled sharply as she dropped it by their feet before standing straight and dusting her hands off. With a beckoning motion of her hand, she made the water flow out. It rose higher and higher before stopping in front of her face. She lifted her other hand too and clenching both, she made the liquid split into five distinct portions.
Her fine control was so good, the dexterity of her fingers even better than his guitar accustomed ones.
A screeching sound turned his attention to what was behind him. Dylan was trying to pull an enormous block of mud across the stairs, his hands half-curled as if holding an invisible rope.
“If you hurt someone,” Master Reisha said, “you will have to pull all the other ones by yourself.”
“What?” Dylan practically screamed. “Are you – kidding me?” he panted. “It’s impossible… enough with them… pushing from the other side.”
It was obvious that he was struggling. Eddy wasn’t exactly enjoying himself either.
“Master Reisha, I don’t get it,” he said, frustrated. “How am I supposed to check the lights without blowing them up? If I zap them, obviously they’ll blow up.”
From the corner of his eye, Zac picked up on a man frantically waving his arm and a very apologetic Sam. Pfft – was she burning other men now?
As for their tasks, Zac figured he and Rebecca had gotten lucky with their first one. But there was nothing to ascertain that the tradition would continue.
This was going to be a long night, he was sure of it.
She was intense, Master Reisha, but in the strangest way. She was strict, yet not. She was keeping them on their toes, but then encouraging them with her smiles.
Sam had managed to cut out about five even panels of metal by the time she came to check on her again. And of course, Sam did her best to keep her attention away from the random pool of silver that had resulted from all the bits she’d messed up.
“Can you restrain yourself on your own from now on or should I help you a little by tying your hands?” said Master Reisha.
As strange as the suggestion seemed, “Please tie my hands,” Sam replied. If the purpose of this training really was to use their powers in other ways, she thought a forced handicap would be better than an optional one.
“You are a cute one,” Master Reisha chuckled. “Kaga was anything but cute, always so loud and rough.”
“My predecessor?” Sam guessed and Master Reisha nodded as she bound her hands behind her back with a piece of cloth.
“You have to melt the metal now, just enough for them to be able to mold it.”
“But their hands – they’ll burn at that temperature.”
“Don’t worry about us, miss,” one of her co-workers spoke up. “We’ve been doing this for years, the sea priestess has given us gloves for it.”
But of course. It was stupid of her to think that the whole thing hadn’t been thought out beforehand. But then again, it was probably better that she cleared all of her uncertainties before starting, right?
“So, what should I use if not my hands?”
A silent smile was all she received in response before Master Reisha started towards Zac and Rebecca.
Sam sighed, then jumped as her own breath gave her a little inspiration. She’d breathed fire a couple of times before, more so in the first few months after discovering her powers, but it’d always ended up with uncontrollable flares that damaged one thing or the other.
What were her alternatives? She hadn’t tried it herself but she’d seen Zac use his feet before, though he’d probably just chastise her for copying him, wouldn’t he?
“Mouth, you win,” she said before inhaling deeply. Her team held the metal up for her, her expression being enough to ready them.
‘Come on, Sam,’ she thought in attempt of an internal pep-talk. ‘You’re older and smarter now, you have more control over your chi too. You won’t burn anything down, you won’t.’
She inhaled again, taking a few steps back just in case. How did it go now?
She sucked in her cheeks, then puffed them out, as if to whistle. But instead of air, out poured brilliant, orange flames, lighting the now dark lake a little.
Thankfully, she achieved her objective too. The metal poured nicely into the long, plastic mold and she turned her head excitedly to check if Master Reisha had seen it. Unfortunately, the only person who seemed to be paying any attention to her was Zac. Literally. Just. Him.
“What?” she mouthed angrily as he stared at her.
Master Reisha, on the other hand was busy with Rebecca.
Sam gaped in awe as multiple streaks of paint flew out of tiny bottles and made patterns on the white sheets before her. How was she doing that? A closer look made her realize that the paints were mixed with water – of course, that’s how she was controlling them. But with what?
Her hands and feet were both neatly folded and her lips were sealed into a smile. Sam gasped. Her eyes, she was using her eyes. And another set of eyes demanded she look at them now.
‘Watch me’, Zac’s irritatingly blue eyes seemed to say. He was challenging her. But why?
She didn’t understand what he was up to as he accepted one of the finished banners from Rebecca and held it up. But then, her jaw dropped.
He mimicked her whistling technique, releasing controlled puffs of air to fix the paint.
“You copied me!” she yelled. “That was my idea!”
Why was he so smug? What was so great about helping paint dry anyway? She had half a mind to go and deliver her tantrum to him up close but Dylan’s voice snapped her out of it.
“Sam,” he said and she turned to find him holding a solid, text-book sized lump of mud. “A little help here? Melt this so I can make bullets for the shooting games.”
He placed it in a small, round tub and she decided to stand atop it. If Zac could copy her, she’d feel no remorse in using his techniques either.
She pushed her chi down her torso and into her legs, willing her feet to start heating up.
“How are you going to make the bullets? Can I watch? It must be really amazing to have a power that allows you to build stuff, all I can do is tear things down.” She chuckled, though she knew Dylan of all people would probably pick up on the hint of true envy there.
“I wish I could do what you’re doing right now,” he replied, knowing how to make her feel better as usual, and she offered him a grin. “I’ll let you watch once I’ve figured out how. Let me know when you’re done, I’ll go hammer those dang nails in till then.”
Sam chuckled again, but this time with complete sincerity as Dylan coerced the nails into the boards by blinking forcefully. It made him look funny and the softening mud tickling her soles wasn’t helping her case. Wait, it was soft – it was melting! She looked down and found her feet glowing with the warmth they were radiating.
It would take a while for them to ‘get there’, she knew, but she was glad to see that they were making progress, well… most of them.
“Master Reisha!” Eddy cried. “They keep blowing up!”