“What happened” Ema groaned in the darkness. Her ribs cage aches from the fall, her left hand going numb with the teeth of pain and her vision all blur. For some passing moments she found her lungs struggling for air, no matter how turgid and dry. Her head was heavy as though she bore the burden of the world. She could taste mud somewhere in her mouth, but her nostril still held the dusty air. The revolving little stars made the ringing in her ear chimed like the morning bell, but the fleeting moment was gone as it had come, when she gathered herself. The floor beneath was soft like a mud, she could have been complaining of a broken rib had the soft earth not cushioned her fall.
Wait a minute. What kind of floor has…are these twigs –?
Ema steered and noticed just then, as her vision came back to her, that what she had mistaken for a soft earth was actually her friend, Jeff. His hands were about her, and she could feel his firm muscles. His hot breathe on her face were harsh and rough, it was more like a stressful one. She stalled her whole body despite herself, afraid that a little shift would break the pleasant warmness. Her world was melting away, his arms felt safe, as if staying there would protect her from any danger. But she needed to let him have a taste of the dusty air, to save her the stress of dragging a hypoxic body in this stinking God knows where place.
“Get the hell off me” She said reluctantly, hoping he had not read the desire in her voice. Her feelings for him were getting stronger than the first time they met. Try as hard as she can, he wasn’t looking at her direction. Whenever she thought she had caught him in her web, he always finds a way out. She didn’t know how to approach him on the matter without embarrassing herself. To her, that was the most difficult task in the world, she would have preferred he said it to her first; it was more natural that way.
“You are the one who should get off.” Jeff whined with the little air he found.
“Oh, sorry” Ema replied sheepishly and stood up, dusting her body. She was glad for the darkness which hid the redness of her cheeks, glad that he wouldn’t see it to make fun of her. The pain and the ache in her muscles were all gone, and her numbing hand seemed to have received some flow, she was fine now. She picked up the touch light from the shallow dirty water where it had fallen, pointing endlessly to the moist air of the cold night or evening, the darkness made it hard to tell. Jeff was on his feet too, trying to stretch his muscles, checking himself to know if anything was broken. Save for the few scratches on his rib cage, he was totally fine, unless he had bruises underneath as a result of the fall.
“Are you okay” Jeff asked.
“I am not the one who cushioned a weight twice his size.” Ema replied. She was flashing the touch light about the place, trying to make out their location. The once dusty air seemed to have rammed one with the stench of the compost air, which was already coming up to her taste bud, trying to replace the faint taste of the mud.
Jeff chuckled as if he wanted to say something but remained silence. Whatever facial expression he might be wearing was clothed well by the darkness.
“This place stinks” Ema muttered irritably as she looked around. The door of the tunnel was still smoking dust. It had collapsed inwardly and the hind of the ladder was holding what was left from collapsing on them. Just ahead, the dark colloid water, stood on the muddy floor at intervals, like numerous patch on an asphalt road, reflecting poorly on the stone wall, what seemed like a jelly-like liquid. Curtains of root forest hung over the roof and oscillating. They were too numerous that it was impossible to see the earthy ceiling above.
“Raz never told us to expect a violent shake as that” Jeff complains.
“I doubt he expected anything like this to happen.” Ema rubbed her little nose with her gloved hand, but she pulled it away when she picked the dust from them. She was staring at them now, contemplating how well to beat the stench from her. Using one of her cloth or cupping her nose with her elbow.
“Now I wonder how we are going to get back” Ema heard Jeff said. She noted the humor in his words and wondered if the smiles which probably were on his face had brought dimples or was it just plastered on his eyes. He had dropped that comment on purpose.
“Seriously, for one who can handle matters himself, I would pretend I didn’t hear that.” Ema said sarcastically when she remembered the way Jeff had tried to entice her into staying at the academy, where it is safe. Not that she blamed him though; men always mistake feminine nature as weakness, and later they end up saying that they did what they did to protect the people they love. I don’t need protecting and Jeff would be a fool to think so. Many a time she had broke people’s nose because they underestimated her ability.
She picked her bag from one of the roots, sticking out its head from the wall. It was a good thing that her bag was not saturated by one of this breathe taken odor.
“We should get going before I throw up” Ema finally said. She hung her bag over her shoulder bone and took the lead.
The temperature of the tunnel was oddly frigid, from the roof to the wall, down to the cold water on their boots. Jeff thought the cold was as a result of the fall in temperature, but he soon realized that it was not. It was the surge of power, coursing through his vein. His sense of smell has become too sensitive that he was finding it difficult to breathe at that precise moment, and it made his stomach churned angrily. The coldness of the tunnel made the hair on his skin to rise, coupled with the endless dropping of water from the weeping wall, which nearly broke his ear drum. He could also hear Ema’s cold breath, her heart, beating nonstop on her chest and somehow, he could have sworn that he also heard her thoughts. But he wasn’t sure this time, even though the feeling was somehow familiar.
“Do you know what must have caused the earthquake?” Ema asked. The reverberation in her voice echoed through the tunnel, drumming in Jeff’s ear like a steam engine. Jeff fought the urge to scream as he shed his ears with his hands, yet it did little to keep the ringing in his acoustic meatus.
“Jeff?” Ema called. “What’s wrong, are you okay?” She asked, stooping over his bent figure.
“Just stop talking.” Jeff said forcefully. He felt his whole being exposed. It was as though he had been striped to the skin and left to die on winter’s night. He let his gloved fingers clutch the muddy earth, hoping to find solace in their abode. He could feel some pebbles on the mud, piercing his palms; even the glove couldn’t prevent the high senses. Jeff clutched them none the less, like a life line, even as the pain continued. He could feel the lump, pulsing somewhere on his cranium, and when he thought the pain would probably explode him, everything returned to normal. He found his racing breathe returning to its normal beat and the heightened senses gone like a puff of smoke. Slowly he stood, not willing to meet Ema’s eye, who was flashing the touch light about him.
“Am fine” he said “let’s keep moving.”
“Fine? You look terrible, what’s the problem?”
“I said am fine, perhaps a little headache, but am okay” Jeff said trying to keep his voice as calm as he could ever imagine. He was not going to show any sign of weakness, not in her presence.
“You don’t look fine to me, but if you say so… well” Ema shrugged. She turned reluctantly and they continued on in silence. The stench on the air was gone now, or maybe their olfactory lobe had adjusted their senses and registered it as normal, either way, it was better than the first time.
“Do you miss them?” Ema’s voice echoed. The curiosity in her voice, all too exposed to be mistaken as a chit-chat to keep the journey lively.
“You don’t give up, do you?” Jeff asked still not certain what she was curious about. He was sure she was watching him from the corner of her eyes, maybe hoping he wouldn’t drop by the mud again without her notice. “Matt has been my best friend since I was barely walking; Ham and Pinna are great, they are fun to be with, it’s impossible not to miss them for a minute. So yes, I do miss them. Don’t you?”
“Ha, of course I do, but I didn’t mean those stone heads. I was actually asking after your family, your parents, don’t you miss them?” Her question startled Jeff greatly. He wasn’t expecting such from Ema, who always keep to herself. She often avoids asking people about their background, or so Jeff had observed, maybe so that the question won’t point back a finger.
But why now
“Well” Jeff sighs, trying to find words. “Missing them is an exaggeration. I remember when I was still a little boy; my father always carries me on his shoulders and soars on his H-board, usually before every race. I always tell him reach for the skies, but every time he does, I get scared half the way up, and will scream out my lungs with fright. ‘It’s okay to be afraid, he always say, but don’t let fright deprive you or hinder you from your goal. Every day we soared and every time I get scared. Then one day, he told me he was too busy with work to soar. Our flight leisure became once every week, and once became never. At first, I thought I had angered him with my aerophobia, so I wanted to plead with him, but I never saw him. My father started keeping late night, sometimes he won’t return. Anytime he does return, I will be in bed by then, even though I try to prevent the sleep from coming, nature always win. I woke up early one morning and found some five men in our house talking in a very low tone with mom. They all were in black jumpsuit, with golden ring holding a sun color cape hanging over their shoulders. They left mom crying afterward, and when I inquired, she told me my father has abandoned us and was never coming back again. I was sad, and furious with him for leaving.” Jeff adjusted his weight, not realizing that they had paused and Ema was staring at him intently. “But on my tenth birthday” He continued as the memory flashed back, almost forming tears in his eyes “Mother gave me my father’s H-board. That was the time I learnt that my father had been dead all along”
Silence followed Jeff’s last words
“Am sorry, it really must have been hard for you, finding out that way” Ema finally said
“It was, it ruined everything that day. I never could think of any gloomy birthday.” Jeff chuckle “Well here am I, still pushing forward; I won’t rest until I bring his murderers to justice”
“Is that the reason you came to the academy, to join the keeper of order and sanity?”
“Part of it, I also want to keep other children from the same fate, every murderer must be brought to justice”
“It won’t be easy”
“I know, but it’s not impossible.” They made a left turn and were surprise to see that the roots of trees from the ceiling, was blocking their path. Ema handed her bag to Jeff, unbuckle her light sword from her black belt and went to work. She cut through the forest of tree roots with a magnifying grace.
Jeff held the touch light but was surprise at the weight of her bag. It was as though the girl came with all her belongings. He didn’t want to comment on that, or the way Ema moved with the blue light sword as though they were one and the same person. Her leather jumpsuit brought out her body curves, smoothing her shoulder blade, in a torso almost like the number eight.
“I never knew my real parents; It has always been from one foster home to another” Ema said without pausing “I couldn’t live in any of those homes because I always ruin valuable stuff and get into fights. All the people I have lived with, none of them cared about my well being. I couldn’t bear the brunt of fury from my foster parents anymore, so when I was shipped like a goods to the fifteenth foster home, I ran away and have been living in the street ever since.” Ema sliced through the brown forest, pouring her anger on the roots.
“Sorry about that, children living in foster homes should be treated with much care and respect.”
Ema didn’t spare him a glace. “I wish it were so, If given any opportunity to choose” she continued “I prefer my life in the street to staying in one of those homes where pets were of high regards to us humans.”
“So why did you come to the academy” Jeff asked. Ema didn’t answer the question immediately. If for anything, her shoulder seemed to drop with sadness.
“I wanted somewhere to keep the memories away, anything to occupy my mind. To keep those lustful eyes and salivating drunk-jawbones away from my memory. I can still see all their faces –”
Her voice was suddenly deep and her whole body was now glowing red. Jeff took a step back and watched her clear the road with inhuman speed. The whole place glowed with red from Ema’s body and blue from the light sword. The dark cold tunnel; was filled with the noise from the light sword against tree roots, and echoes of the tree roots landing on the dark muddy water. It only took minute; Ema cleared the barrier blocking their path and was panting softly without breaking a sweat.
“I’m sorry if I unwind a healing wound.” Jeff said guiltily. He was watching Ema now, off the trouble a teenage girl could face, sexual harassment was the worst of them all.
“So how come you were granted entry into the competition, who signed your undertaken?” Jeff asked, hoping that would keep the past pain at bay. He remembered how Matt’s mother had refused to sign the undertaken for him. Matt, as ambitious as he was, had forged his mother’s signature and had partaken in the racing exam without her consent. His mother was less furious when she learnt that he came third and had won the family a new house, but she was delighted when Matt told her that he would be leaving for the academy. It’s one less stomach to feed, she had said.
“In Zapper city” Ema said “We don’t pick random people; in fact we compete for it. It’s called preamble, where about three to five people forms a racing crew and compete with other crew. The best among them are granted automatic entry to compete for the Heroes academy exam. Pinna happened to be our leader then, she was quiet amazing.”
Ema extinguish her light sword and collected her bag from Jeff. Her reddish glow had long ebbed away and the darkness of the night had returned. She flashed her touch ahead and took the lead again without pausing to look at Jeff who stared at her with wild mouth.
“So that’s the reason the red’s has been on racing history for centuries?” Jeff asked raising his left eye brow with admiration.
“Maybe” He heard Ema said.
They walked dipper into the night and somewhere ahead, they saw tongue of tiny lights, pouring into the tunnel. The route of the tunnel ended here and unlike the inner parts, this place was dry and had green grasses of different height, forming a circular growth just where the circular rays of light filtered in. The air was refreshing too, with no hint of humus or decayed grasses on it.
“I will go first” Jeff said and climbed the slippery moss ladder not minding the angry glare Ema was shooting his direction.
Rich gold light were pouring in from the bars of the metal door. Jeff pushed it with all his might, and the door cried with loud cracking sounds that echoed through the tunnel. He climbed out and scrutinized the place and Ema followed suit. They were in a forest, covered with rich green leaf and vegetations. The rising sun was just over the edge of the earth and the lovely whispers of birds filled the morning.
“Hmm” Ema inhaled “A breath of fresh air”