It's happening again. I don't know why I thought that would help. It's the same awful memory in the same dry canyon. Nothing I ever do will change this. Nothing will ever change what I've done. This is my punishment. The heat, the pain, the misery, all of it is what I deserve. I'll never get used to this and that's how it should be. That's how it should...wait.
Wait, something's different. Someone's watching me, watching us. Look up. Look up! There! See? What is...why she here?
As usual, Walter woke with a start. Though today, it was for a different reason. He sat up, blinking the sleep out of his eyes as he tried to remember what. It faded before it would come to him. Shrugging it off, he held up the charm that Kriskin had given him the night before. He stared at it, watching it shimmer as he turned it around.
He placed it on top of his journal, where’d he’d put it on his nightstand. Up until he’d gone to bed, he had a hard time keeping himself entertained. He thought about going downstairs to join James. Then he shook his head. Instead, he just played with his phone. Due to the strong, though unprotected signal, he figured this house was somewhere secluded. As long as it was free and he didn’t have to use his own data, he didn’t mind.
Some while later, he decided to sneak downstairs and take a look around. James was gone; he’d either left or he was holed up in his own room. The first floor of this house was all hardwood. To the left from the front door was a living room, spacious and clean. A couch and a pair of armchairs faced an entertainment center. Mounted on the wall was a wide, flat screen television over a collection of disc players and gaming consoles. Everything was neat and well-organized; nothing like Walter expected.
On the other side of the wall was a hallway to the kitchen. To the right was a bar, complete with stools. The sink sat below the window of the far wall, giving a view to the outside. On the opposite side was a double-wide refrigerator with pull-out freezer. Walter opened it up and wondered if it was okay to eat something. After much consideration, he decided it wouldn’t hurt to make a sandwich or two.
While eating, he explored beyond the kitchen. He found a dining nook around the left where the floor plan brought him back around to the living room. He stood there for a while, studying the setup. As much as he'd have liked to watch something or play some game, he didn't. He wasn't prepared for the consequences should James return and catch him in the act, be it good or bad.
As such, Walter returned to his room to inspect his bathroom. It was just as nice as the rest of the house, with a toilet, a sink, and a cabinet in the usual places. Cut out of the corner was a large bathtub shower combo. He decided to take a bath, and almost fell asleep in the water. He hadn’t felt so relaxed in years. Then he’d returned to bed, to wake up with the sunrise a few hours later.
Yawning a little, Walter stood up and walked across his new room to the window, and pulled the vertical blinds. As he saw the world outside, he wondered if he was dreaming. Four mountainous peninsulas broke up the horizon, the legendary fingers of the island. Below them was a village that sprawled across the palm, its streets stretching out to the edges like veins. Trees and buildings spread across grassy hills, groves of trees, and outcroppings of stone. The stone walls were marbled with patterns of jet black and chalk white. Peeking up from between the first two fingers of the island, the sun painted the cloudy sky with pinks and violets. In the center stood the grand centerpiece, the tower from last night; a tall white pillar that seemed to support the sky. Stooping low, Walter still couldn't see the top, obscured as it was by the wispy clouds above.
Breath taken, Walter barely noticed when his phone buzzed against the wood of his desk. Picking it up, the alert had come from a contact labeled, “Kriskin! :P”:
Just seconds after he hit ‘send’, there came a knock at his bedroom door. Kriskin was on the other side, dressed in a tee and a long skirt. Her hair was down, some of it anchored by rings tied to her locks. Dark circles hid under disgruntled eyes. “Morning!” she cheered, with half a heart.
“Mm,” Walter replied as he threw his phone onto his bed. “Something wrong?”
“Hm? No, I’m just tired.” She opened a portal. “Did you get breakfast?”
“I’m not hungry.”
“Alright. Head on through.”
Walter hurdled through the ring, finding himself outdoors, in front of the main entrance to the tower. Awestruck again by its unfathomable size, he didn’t think to move until Kriskin bumped into him. She said nothing when he apologized, and headed straight for the building. Walter caught up to her as she began to climb up the grand staircase to the second floor.
The stairs led to a raised a pavilion holding a recreation center. Beyond the doors was an athletic courtyard. It included a running track, volleyball court, and a football field. Closest to them was an Olympic sized swimming pool.
Upon sighting the small group of people waiting by the pool, Kriskin turned to Walter. “Here,” she said, giving him a green sweat band. “Wear this around your mark.”
“Why?” Walter asked, giving her an incredulous look.
Kriskin sighed, “I promised Dust he would be the first to know that you’re here. We can’t let anyone else—“
“Kriskin!” shouted a gladsome voice from behind her. Swift as an arrow, she grabbed Walter by the hand and put the arm band on for him, sliding it around his mark.
“Hey, Diana!" She greeted, spinning around, "Wh-what are you doing here?”
Diana was a slender thing in a blue track suit, with long brown hair done up in a bun and green eyes like Kriskin. Must be her sister, Walter assumed.
“Reporting for orientation like you told me to,” she answered. “Today’s the day, right?”
“Yes,” Kriskin nodded, “Damian told me he got in yesterday, so it should be. Is he not here yet?”
Diana shook her head. “Nope.” Then she turned to Walter. “Oh, hi! Have we met?”
Walter put on a smile as she addressed him. “Uh, no. Hi, I’m—whoa.”
Diana’s appearance shifted before their eyes. Her hair turned bright orange while her eyes burned topaz yellow. Even her skin tone became a few shades lighter. “Oh, I’m sorry!” she giggled, “That’s my talent! I can, um, change color. I don't quite have it down, yet. My hair turned orange, didn't it?”
Walter smiled again. “Yeah.”
Impatient, Kriskin pushed through the doors and outside, prompting the others to follow. They neared the rest of the group by the pool; a strange looking bunch. Sitting on a bench was the largest among them, a tall, tall young man with dark hair and…horns, protruding from his temples. Next to him stood a much shorter guy in comparison, wearing gym clothes and running shoes. His feet didn’t touch the ground—he was floating in place. Behind them, standing alone was a girl in darker clothing and makeup. She was a bit hard to see, due to her uncanny translucency.
They heard a splash in the pool. Walter looked over, spotting a pair of eyes watching him from the water. Timid, the creature vanished under the water. Curious, Walter went to investigate.
“How long have you guys been waiting?” Kriskin asked the group.
“Not long,” said the floating guy. “About ten minutes, I guess?”
“Typical,” Kriskin sneered as she pulled out her phone again. “Let me call him, see where he’s at.”
Gazing into the water from the edge of the pool, Walter spied what at first he thought was a mermaid. It seemed to be a very fish-like creature, darting from one end of the pool to the other faster than any swimmer he’d ever seen. The person must have noticed him, because it stopped to stare.
She was a petite young woman, and Walter blushed when at first he thought she was naked. Thankfully, he realized, it was just that the shade of her one-piece swimsuit almost matched her bright blue skin. She had soft green hair at ear’s length and piercing pink eyes that just…stared at him.
Not sure what else to do, Walter simply waved hello at her. Unimpressed, the girl dashed, racing a full lap around the pool until suddenly, she lurched up at Walter, bringing with her a surge of cold water that doused the boy, knocking him backwards.
Everyone’s attention turned to him as he cried out in shock. Embarrassed, Walter got back on his feet, ignoring the smiles and stifled laughter.
“Jeeze, Walter, are you okay?” Kriskin asked, pulling her phone down from her ear.
“I’m fine,” he snarled as billows of steam rose from his clothes and body. “See? Already dry.” He scowled at the fish girl, who snickered silently at him from the other side of the pool.
“Hey.” The floating guy piped up. “What is that?” His eyes were skyward, prompting everyone to look in the same direction. High, high in the morning sky was a single dot, gradually getting bigger.
“Oh no,” Kriskin muttered as she put her phone down. “He’s actually going to do it.”
While everyone wondered what she meant, the water in the pool began to move on its own, churning and churning until it gradually became a twisting whirlpool—but in reverse. Instead of swirling down like a drain, it swirled up, rising into a point.
“Get out of there!” Kriskin shouted at the fish girl while she obliviously clung to the side of the swirling pool. Once she snapped out of it, she was sucked into the water. However, she quickly reemerged, leaping out and sliding across the concrete until she came to a stop at Walter’s feet.
Finally, the falling star reached ground level, a blur that hit the water like a missile. It was almost as though the water in the pool had risen up to catch who or whatever it was that dove into it. The resulting splash was vast, affecting everyone, to Walter’s satisfaction. Instead of smacking the bottom of the pool, the diver was caught in the current that had formed, scraping along the sides like a shoe in a washing machine.
“Woo!” The diver leapt out of the water as it settled. “Some cuts and bruises ain’t nothin’ because that has got to be a new record!” He was a tall man with dark, curly hair, wearing nothing but a black Speedo and a pair of goggles. He stood before them with no shame, showing off the star mark nestled just below his navel and above the waistband. “Good morning, everybody! How are you enjoying the island?”
“Are you out of your mind?!” Kriskin howled, trying not to smile at his asininity.
“Kriskin! When did you get back?”
As they spoke, Walter helped the slippery fish girl get on her feet. She seemed embarrassed by the kind gesture, and he noticed that her blush was purple.
“Listen, Damian,” Kriskin got right to the point, “I need to find Dust.”
“He wasn’t at home?”
“That’s the first place I looked. Is he up in his office?”
“Can’t be sure,” he admitted, approaching a duffel bag that had been waiting for him. From it he retrieved a towel, a shirt, and a clipboard. “Did you try calling him?”
“You know he never answers his phone.”
“True enough. Alright, everyone! Roll call!”
“Here,” called the floating guy, raising his hand.
“Present,” said the ghostly girl, quietly vanishing.
“Here!” she cheered. Her hair had turned black now.
Horns said nothing, simply raising his hand.
“Alright, alright! Perfect attendance, but let’s see…” Damian looked around at the group. “We’ve got two more people but we’re out of names. You two!” He directed his pen toward Walter and the fish girl. “When did you come in?”
“Uh, last night—“ Walter was interrupted as Kriskin stepped between them.
“He’s with me, Damian. We don’t have time for demonstrations.”
Damian smiled. “Who said anything about demonstrations?”
Kriskin touched her fingers to her forehead. “Oh no…”
He nearly pushed her aside as he approached Walter and shook his hand. “Welcome to Navei! What’s your name, kid?”
Kid? Walter wondered, this guy didn’t seem much older than him. “It’s Walter,” he answered promptly. “Walter Helrath.”
“Walter, huh? What’s your talent?”
“I don’t feel comfortable—”
“Leave him alone, Damian!” Kriskin interjected, her voice full of warning.
“Oh, don’t be such a spoil sport!” Damian turned to the others. “Don’t you guys wanna see what Walter can do?”
Jack spoke for the first time. “I wouldn’t mind.” The others seemed to agree, nodding their heads. The fish girl just looked up at him with curious eyes.
“Fine!” Kriskin huffed, her hands in the air. “Do what you want.” She put her arm through a portal and fetched a small punching bag. “Don’t come crying to me when you’re flying backwards, ten feet in the air.”
Damian’s smile got even wider, to the point that it made Walter want to ask if he was related to James. “Now I really wanna see this! C’mon Walt, let’s see what you got!”
Appalled, Walter glared at Kriskin for encouraging him.
“Go ahead,” she assured, “he deserves it.”
Reluctant, Walter stepped forward, giving the bag a quick jab. Nothing happened.
“Wow,” said Damian snidely, “I almost felt that one!”
Walter could hear laughter coming from the group. Ignoring it, he punched again, harder.
“A little better,” Damian commented, “for a toddler!”
“Shut up,” Walter growled, hitting the bag again with more effort.
“I’ll shut up when you shut me up!” Damian taunted, bracing himself for another hit. “Bring it on, grandma!”
This is humiliating, Walter thought to himself as he jabbed again and again at the bag. He never asked for any of this! He was supposed to show up, show his mark to this Dust guy, and take the next flight home. Why was he being punished this way? Frustration welled up inside him, making his face hot while he continued to throw his fists at the bag. Eventually, the farce came to a head.
A burst of light and fire erupted between them, sending Damian soaring backwards off the pavilion and into the trees. Walter flew in the opposite direction, falling into the cold water of the pool. He panicked, flailing around trying to reach something solid. The water around him boiled, turning into useless vapor. Unable to gain any traction, he slowly sank to the bottom.