Act 01: This Summer Hurts
The end of the school year had come and gone. The students of Elysium Valley High School had written their last exam almost two weeks ago. Final report cards had gone home shortly after that. The early days of July were bustling with activity as the graduates from all three of the Valley’s high schools made their plans for the future. With two post-secondary schools and a technical college in town, many didn’t have to look far to continue their education. Despite that, quite a few still left to go elsewhere. Elysium Valley was a small town, all things considered, and couldn’t offer all the programs of a big city.
There was also the usual traffic of people heading west into British Columbia for camping and east towards Calgary, Jaspar, and Banff for other vacationing purposes.
When the school year ended and the Ssu-Ling still hadn’t made an appearance, all three sehashi teams had gotten together to discuss their summer plans. The Song sisters had made plans to visit some relatives in Stony Plain. Corentin was going with them part of the way as he had some family he was meeting up within Edmonton. Dumia elected to stay put so she could spend some time with her girlfriend.
Kousei’s parents weren’t planning on going anywhere as they both had to work. Teir had pre-purchased tickets to a couple of conventions in nearby towns. As much as he wanted to stick around, he made a point of explaining that not only were the tickets not cheap but all the arrangements were in place for the trips. Besides, a couple of his favourite authors and actors were going to be there, and it was a unique opportunity. Yan, who was going to a three-day dance camp in Calgary, had snorted and told him to stop being an idiot. He wasn’t the only one leaving town, and it wasn’t like he was going away for the entire summer. No one was.
The closest thing to that was Hana’s family, who would soon head for Calgary’s International Airport. It was time for their biannual trip back to the Dominican Republic to visit the grandparents. She would be gone for a week. It was usually a trip that Hana looked forward to, but this year, with the looming threat of the Ssu-Ling hanging over their heads, no one wanted to leave town.
Not that we can explain that to our families, Dionne sighed, flipping through her magazine. I’m glad we’re not going anywhere this year. Allan signed himself up for the summer semester to give himself an excuse to not go anywhere. Cory never goes anywhere because her parents work all the time. They haven’t coordinated their holidays since she was six. It’s sad, but she thinks it’s kind of funny. And then there’s Hatemi, who’ll get hauled off to Jasper again this year for the annual family camping weekend she loves so much.
Dionne sat up and fanned herself with the magazine. Why anyone would want to camp in this weather is beyond me. I can’t remember the last time we had a summer this hot.
The phone ringing interrupted her thoughts. She put her makeshift fan down and answered it as she was the only one home.
“Oh, hey Hatemi. How’s it going?”
“Hot,” Hatemi complained.
“Besides that. Everyone’s hot right now.”
“Betcha Hana isn’t with her swanky air-conditioned apartment. Cory, too.”
“Ah the life of the upper class,” Dionne sighed. “My basement isn’t too bad right now, but everything I need is upstairs so I have to leave sometime.”
“At least you have a basement.”
“You have one, too.”
“My brothers have pretty much taken it over, so if I want to go down there, I have to put up with them.”
“Oh, come on. Charlie and Shuji aren’t that bad.”
“You’re just saying that because you don’t have to live with them,” Hatemi grumped. “Summer is extra wacky with them. This heat isn’t helping.”
“I bet. So…what’s up?”
“I was wondering if you’d seen or heard anything about those mutual acquaintances of ours.”
Dionne shook her head even though Hatemi couldn’t see it. ‘Mutual acquaintance’ was the code word they’d all agreed to use when they needed to discuss the Ssu-Ling where other people might overhear them. “Not a peep.”
“I’m starting to get worried at this point. We know they’re out there, so why haven’t they done anything?”
“On the bright side, at least we got to write our exams without having to deal with them,” Dionne said, trying to be positive.
“That sounds like something Cory would say. Personally, I could have used the excuse not to study.”
“Didn’t do well?”
“My math mark could have been better, but I did ok in social and computers. My Japanese grade was excellent.”
“Dad would have killed me if that was low.”
“Oh please. You’re such a huge fan of all things Asian that there’s no way you could get a low mark in that class.”
“Have you heard from the others lately?”
“No, but I hear Yan got accepted to some swanky dance camp, and he’s leaving in a few days.”
“Good for him!”
“Kousei says he’s ridiculously pleased with himself about that. I bumped into him the other day.”
“He’s doing ok?”
“He seemed fine. Apparently, he has a girlfriend.”
“You don’t know her, but her name is Emmy Jackson, and she goes to Khun-Lun.”
“The name doesn’t ring any bells.”
“Me neither. I tried calling Dumia about it but she was busy.”
“Don’t tell me you suspect that this Emmy girl is one of the Ssu-Ling.”
“Didn’t occur to me until just now, thanks a lot.”
“I wanted to see if Dumia knew anything about her. Kousei’s our friend, after all. It…seems weird that he’s dating someone from a rival school.”
“In his defense, most of the girls at our school fawn all over him, so it’d be hard for him to find someone who genuinely likes him.”
“So, when’s your dad hauling you off for that annual trip to Jaspar?”
Hatemi made a disgusted noise. “Did you have to bring that up? He hasn’t shut up about it since school let out.”
“With our…mutual acquaintances around, I figure it’s best to know what everyone’s up to this summer so we’re not caught with our proverbial pants down.”
“Oh, yeah, that’s fair.” Hatemi sighed. “He somehow got time off work so we’re heading out next Friday and we’ll be back on Monday.”
“That’s a shorter trip than usual.”
“Dad says that it’s all the time he could get off with how weird the weather is. Hot weather means fire bans at all the parks but fires still happen.”
“How’s that going to affect your trip? I know how hardcore your dad is about camping.”
“That’s the funny thing, actually. It’s so hot that mom talked him into booking cabins this year.”
“Are you serious? That’s awesome! My parents did that back in junior high, and it was one of the best trips ever.”
“Yeah, it might not suck this year, although I have to admit I’ll miss dad’s campfire cooking. The man’s a genius with meat and an open flame.”
“There’s always a trade-off.”
“You’re sticking around the Valley?”
“Yup. As far as I know, Cory and I are holding down the fort while everyone else comes and goes.”
“At least the town is in good hands.”
There was a pause. “I’ve got to go. Mom’s calling me.”
“Ok. Take care.”
Dionne hung up the phone and went back to her magazine. She flipped through its glossy pages for a little while longer before giving up. This is crazy. I can’t concentrate on anything. This may as well be one of those scrolls we found in Vulturia’s lair for all the sense it’s making. She sighed and stood up. It’s hot, but I think I need a change of scenery.
Dionne made her way to Arcadia Station to wait for the train. There wasn’t a lot to do in the Arcadia Heights area, and she didn’t feel like hanging out at Paradise Park. The air-conditioned environment of the Elysium Valley Mall was much more appealing, as were the climate-controlled train cars she needed to take to get there.
She sat down on one of the many light grey benches that divided the platform, her eyes drawn to the map of the transit system even though she’d long since memorized it. There were several routes she could take to get to the downtown core, but the most efficient would be to take the Grey Line heading east towards the Industrial Sector and transfer to the Red Line at Xanadu Station, taking that line all the way west where it eventually connected with the Gold, White, and Grey Lines. The Mall wasn’t far from Pangu Station on the Red Line. All said and done, including Arcadia and her final destination, there were seven stations in total on her route.
The eastbound train arrived right on schedule and Dionne got on board, taking a seat near the middle of the car. It wouldn’t be a long trip, so she hadn’t brought a book to read. She slipped her headphones over her ears, turned her music on, and watched as the scenery flew by. Each station had such interesting artwork, and it rotated every so often. The city council was big on supporting and featuring local artists. It was a nice treat for commuters to not have to look at the same walls and have something besides ads to break up the otherwise solid-coloured walls.
Dionne felt a slight pang of disappointment upon seeing that the artwork in the Industrial Sector Station was the same as it had been the last seven months. The ad posters had changed several times during that time, yet the art remained the same. The same was true for the next two stations. The stations around the downtown core, hospital, schools, and the museum got their art swapped out more often.
It’s weird that Xanadu Station hasn’t had a change yet, given that it’s so close to Xanadu Tech. She shrugged.
She reached her destination and got off, walking through the station and out onto the busy downtown streets. No record-breaking heat was going to keep people from going about their business, it seemed. Dionne hurried into the air-conditioned confines of the mall and waited until she’d cooled down a little before wandering around. It was tempting to head into the Strawberry Palace for a sweet treat, but she decided against it. It wasn’t nearly as much fun going alone.
She winced as she passed the emergency first aid station in the center of the mall. Those started popping up not long after Phaeton started her attacks. It’s a little surprising that they’re still up given that there haven’t been any more lately but I think it’s good they’re still around given what I know. People seem to feel safer with them around even though dad complains about them being a drain on the city’s resources.
For a while she window shopped, looking at all the new displays. She spotted Achlys, Dumia’s girlfriend, heading into Light and Sound and thought about going to say hello. Probably not a good idea. I don’t really know her. If she hadn’t shown up to the park with Dumia that one day I wouldn’t know who she is at all. I’ll just go somewhere else. Shame, too. I think they might have finally restocked Aeon’s albums. I’m still missing her first one. Now that I know she’s a sehashi I feel a little obligated to support her career.
She turned a corner and stopped. Was that used bookstore here before? It doesn’t look new but I don’t remember seeing it before.
Dionne went in, looking around. Nothing about the store looked odd. There was dust on some shelves and the carpet looked a little worn in places.
“Can I help you?”
She jumped, turning towards the speaker. “Oh, no, sorry. I’m just browsing.”
The speaker was the shop clerk behind the counter, a young-looking Asian man with the tips of his hair dyed red. He seemed satisfied with her answer and went back to reading his book.
Dionne looked around for a little while longer and then left the store. I don’t know why I was so freaked out about a used bookstore. I think the tension of waiting for something to happen is finally getting to me. I’m jumping at shadows.
She grabbed some lunch from a sub shop and sat down to eat. Roughly halfway through her meal, she watched as a couple made their way to the aid station. It wasn’t unusual for people to use the stations for minor things, but the way the man was leaning on the woman’s shoulder seemed odd. A few steps away from the station, he collapsed to the ground and screamed. The woman jumped back as he began writhing. Dark fur sprouted from his skin and his face elongated into a long muzzle. His ears were now longer and at the top of his head and he had a long, whip-like tail. When he stood back up again, his legs bent in all the wrong places and he snapped at anyone around him, displaying wickedly sharp teeth.
With a sigh, Dionne got up to find a secluded spot to change in. Here we go again.
The strange creature had several people cornered by the time Archer arrived on the scene. She couldn’t blame them for being afraid. The creature itself was weird enough even without knowing that a person had turned into it.
Steady now, Laira’s voice advised.
Nodding, Archer lashed out at the creature. “Jade Bolt!”
Howling in pain and surprise, it turned around. It said nothing but looked at her for a moment before rushing at her, teeth bared. Archer yelped and hurried out of the way. The thing hit one of the wide, round columns the mall used for advertising. Colliding with the solid concrete stunned it for a moment.
“Golden Arrow Barrage!” Archer called out, taking advantage of the situation.
“Please stop!” a woman cried out.
Archer turned. It was the same woman who’d tried to help the man earlier, the one who became the creature. “Ma’am, I know this person is a friend of yours, but in his current state he’s hurting people.”
“I know, but can you please stop hurting him?”
Archer shook her head. “Either I keep fighting or I let him hurt and possibly kill everyone he comes across.”
“Can you fix him?” she pleaded.
“To be honest with you, I don’t know. I’ve never seen anything like this before.”
“But…aren’t you one of those people they’ve been talking about on the radio lately? You fight crazy freakish things.”
Archer dodged another one of the thing’s charges. “We’re called sehashi if you want to know, and yes, we fight weird stuff, but all those fights have been against weird people who were supposed to be that way. I’ve never seen anyone change into a monster before.”
Archer fired off a few more volleys of arrows at the creature, trying to hit the area around it to not upset the woman any more than necessary. “Do you think it’s possible to reverse this?” she asked under her breath.
Without knowing what caused the change in the first place, it’s hard to say with any certainty.
“May as well try,” Archer said as the creature charged at her again. “Jade Bolt!”
Bright green energy hit it square in the chest, singeing its dark fur. It cried out in pain and collapsed to the ground.
Your aim has improved, Laira commented as Archer walked towards it.
“Thanks, but now what?” she asked, looking down at the thing. It snarled defiantly up at her.
I suppose you should try concentrating on returning it to its original self. If it’s an ability you have access to, the words will come to you as they have every other time.
Archer studied the snarling creature. All my abilities so far have been offensive. Do I have what it takes to fix this? She looked at the woman. I don’t know these people, but I should help them if I can. I bet Shield could do it if she was here. Then again, my friends are always with me in spirit.
Something clicked to her. “Spirit Flash Revolution!”
A golden light washed over the creature. When it vanished, it had returned to its original human form. There were some minor burns from where Archer had hit him, but he was in otherwise good condition. Sobbing with relief, the woman raced towards him, completely ignoring Archer.
Shrugging, she left to go change.
“Wait,” the man called after her.
She turned. “Yes?”
“Thank you for what you did. I know I attacked you, but I couldn’t stop myself from doing it. It was like something else was controlling me.”
Archer frowned. “Well, I’m glad you’re alright. Take care.”
Her shopping forgotten, Dionne rushed out of the mall, heading for the nearest train station. She rode along until Khun-Lun Station came up. Even though she was nowhere near her home, she got up and exited the train, heading for a bus stop. It wasn’t long before she arrived at a stop near Cory’s apartment. Despite the heat, she raced towards the building and slammed the elevator button, the lobby’s air conditioner barely registering to her. It was a quick ride up the elevator to the floor Cory lived on with her parents—when they were home, that is.
She knocked frantically on Cory’s front door, hoping that she was even home.
The door opened mid bang. Dionne nearly hit Cory in the face. “Sorry.”
“Is everything ok?” Cory asked, stepping aside to let Dionne in. “You don’t usually come to visit.”
“Yeah, well, this is important.”
“Must be. Sit down. You look like you’re about to melt.” Dionne sank into one of the soft couches in Cory’s living room. “So, what’s the problem?”
Dionne filled her in on what had happened at the mall. “It was so weird,” she finished.
“The only logical conclusion is that the Ssu-Ling have begun to make their move.”
“I’m inclined to agree, but if that’s the case, then why didn’t I see any of the Ssu-Ling? It was just a monster.”
Cory rubbed her chin. “That’s a bit of a puzzle, but I can’t think of any other possibility. The odds of this being a completely different enemy are slim. I admit it’s a possibility, but not likely.”
“So, we wait for them to show their faces?” Dionne asked.
“I guess so. In the meantime, we need to let the others know that it’s starting.”