Looking up from the lake’s surface, Fauna stood quickly to run around the water’s edge. Her visage had matured along with her form, as if she'd aged. Arms stretched wide, the feral Element pulled Jaime and Flora into a maternal embrace. Both clung to the taller Element, hoping to find some desperately needed courage. Thunderquake watched from where he sat beside Leif at the edge of the lake. He too looked older somehow.
“They’re here,” the titan Element rumbled softly.
The youth glanced up from his folded arms, hugging his knees to his chest. Gust’s sudden disappearance had shaken him. It reminded him of when he’d nearly succumb to the Wunderlust. The cold expression in the wind Element’s olive orbs wounded him that day. Today, he’d seen the same look in Gust’s matured visage. It wasn’t aimed at Leif this time, but it still worried him. What had his faerie sensed to disturb him into leaving without a word?
Flare felt his older brother’s voice reverberate through the air, glancing up toward the lake. The flame Element sat with the others in the park shelter. Chelsea’s fair complexion didn’t hold up well against direct sunlight, and today was a clear, bright day. Jake sat on the other side of her from Flare, waiting for the rest of the group to arrive.
“Flora and Jay are here,” the fire Element relayed the arrival to the teenagers.
“I guess we should go down there,” Chelsea said softly, pulling her cover-up sweater about her waist before standing. Jake nodded as he stood to walk back toward the water.
There was silence for a while. Fauna finally walked the girls around the lake to join the others. Element and youth alike were stunned to see Flora as anxious as Jaime for once. The two wouldn’t let go of one another either. Jake was particularly concerned, as the teen hadn’t left home or spoken to the rest of them in over a week.
“So...” The dark-haired young man finally broke the silence, “Does anyone know what could’ve happened? Lei said Gust looked kinda pissed.”
“All I can fathom is that something happened on Buyan,” Fauna replied with a maternal tone. “Shortly before my brother vanished, I felt a void within me. I was left breathless with Freja in the kitchen. When we saw Gust disappear from the garden, we hurried to see if Leif was all right. Thunder joined us shortly after.”
“What do you mean you felt a void inside you?” Chelsea asked nervously. “I know that your physical forms aren’t bound to the same limits ours have, but when someone says they feel something wrong inside them, that’s not a good sign.”
“I think it means we’re vulnerable,” Thunderquake answer solemnly, staring at Flora’s paled face sadly.
“Vulnerable to what?” Jake frowned up at the giant. “You’re Elements of Nature. What could harm you?”
“Rain would know,” Flora spoke up in a weak voice. “He always watched over us, like there was something out there we didn’t know about.”
“Gust might know as well,” Leif continued after her. The group glanced down where he still sat. “Your mother told me a little bit about the day he lost his song. She said that they once had to fight to survive, but Gust’s sacrifice brought that to an end by giving his song to the Will O’Oak. The storm that once surrounded Buyan appeared after that.”
“But it died after you sang his song,” Flare muttered nervously. “That was when Gust evolved, too. Could something be wrong with Buyan?”
"No,” Flora blurted out as fresh tears welled up in her eyes. Squeezing her emerald orbs closed, the streams pushed past her long lashes. “Mother is gone! I felt her disappear! Her presence has vanished!”
“Flora...” Jaime pulled her closer as the meltdown commenced.
Before anyone else could react, a shutter rushed over them as a tear ripped in the air across the lake from them. Turning to see the rip in space, greyed fingers appeared from the other side, pulling it wider. Fauna’s irises narrowed to slits as her feral instincts reacted to the threat stepping through the void. The echo of animals evacuating the forest set a dreaded tone in the rest of them.
A black oxford shoe planted on the edge of the lake. The matching, silken pant leg came through the crackling fissure, leading up to a pale gray vest as a person exited. An unbuttoned, black, tuxedo coat emerged as a man of grey complexion stared back at the gathering with an empty, obsidian gaze. A matching stone was set in his forehead above the eyes.
Slim, silver dreadlocks were woven together behind him, falling almost like a dragon’s tail down from his head to his knees. His black shirt and dark grey cravat completed the elegant appearance. Bringing his second foot out, a shimmering, black baton wand came into view inside his left palm, held by his last two digits around a smooth black stone. He stepped aside to allow a flustered Bedlam to exit beside him.
“Oh...!” The Avatar growled as she pushed herself through the rift. Glaring at the Elements, she whipped her scepter before her, as if passing judgment. “How many more of you pests are there?!”
“Quiet, Bedlam,” the former arrival spoke up in a deep, low voice, holding a hand to her chest that startled her. His dark gaze took in the Elements and youths a moment before speaking, placidly. “Where are the other two Pillar vessels?”
“Pillar...?” Thunderquake whispered, perplexed by the word.
“Vessels...?” Flare's mind raced with what that could mean.
Flora’s breath caught in her throat, gaping back at the ominous figures. Something inside her screamed in alarm. She had never known fear to this degree in her life, and she had no means to cope with it. When she finally found her voice, a single cry escaped her lips.
Instantly, the sky darkened as a massive, arcus cloud shelf billowed from behind the trees. The Avatars glanced up curiously as the winds shifted dramatically beneath the line of cumulous clouds, pushing the treetops away from them. The Elements on the ground gawked at the stormfront before the teens ever noticed it. Within the dark gray cumulonimbus, racing flashes of light heralded the wrath headed their way. The combined forces were a testament to the coming storm, rivaling the terror across the lake.
“What is that, Spiral?” Bedlam asked with fascination, unable to tear her gaze away.
“Resistance,” he replied flatly. Narrowing his eyelids, Spiral lowered his hand, waiting to see what would happen next.
As the cloud shelf rolled above them, showers drenched the park. Winds whipped violently toward the Avatars, but they remained grounded. Thunderquake pulled everyone close to him to keep them from flying away. Fauna knelt to wrap her arms around the younger, bracing them against the titan Element.
Rain’s transparent form stalked out of the trees. The flickers of silent lightning reflected off his clear surface as rippling water flowed around him. He didn't appear hindered by the winds. Strolling past the fearful group, he continued across the lake’s surface as though it were no different from solid ground.
The howling winds sent anxiety coursing through the teenagers. Leif recalled Spring telling him Gust could only howl since losing his song. This noise sounded nothing short of writhing grief, a battle cry fueled by vengeance. Warm tears slipped from his sea blue orbs at what could move Gust to stir such a display of suffering.
“Bold of you to show your faces after your crimes on Buyan.”
“Perhaps you could understand my questions.” Spiral ignored Rain’s statement, blinking lazily against the wind and water. “Where are the other two Pillar vessels? Furthermore, what safeguards have you placed on them?”
“Which one of you was it?!” Gust whirled with a bloodcurdling screech. “Which one of you touched my mother?!”
“Mother...?” Fauna whispered as her spirit sank further. Looking up at Thunderquake, the feral Element trembled at the answer they had awaited. Based on the display of their kin, it was clear something terrible had befallen their parents. “Thunder... what of...?”
“Patience, my vixen,” the behemoth Element rumbled, trying to hold his emotions in check. “One fight at a time.”
“I sense Avatar energies,” Bedlam chimed up as a wicked grin spread across her gray lips. “Oh, I do hope you prove as entertaining as our elder brothers! Where are you hiding, phantom child?”
“Rain,” Gust cried at Bedlam’s jab, “lend me your aide!”
Rain remained in the middle of the lake, slipping his transparent hands inside unseen pockets. Suddenly, two funnels reached down from the cloud above, twisting about toward the lake. The younger witnesses gawked as the dense winds picked up water from the lake, forming waterspout tornadoes. Instead of staying on the water’s surface, the funnels turned toward the Avatars as a banshee’s howl preceded a corkscrew drive to skewer them.
Before making contact, Spiral whipped his baton in front of Bedlam and himself. The motion created a slice of air that cut the funnels in half, dissipating them. As Bedlam threw her head back to cackle, the other Avatar glared back at Rain.
“Do not underestimate them, Bedlam,” Spiral growled in annoyance. “These are not augmented Avatars. It would seem they are a fusion of Avatar and Crystal energies. This should not be possible.”
Flinching to the side, Spiral barely escaped a lightning strike as Flash touched down at his feet. Quickly, with his right hand, the Avatar grasped the Element’s soaked locks. Flash cried out in surprise, trying to pull the gray hand from his scalp.
“This abomination nearly scorched my shoe...” Spiral grunted with dramatic disgust.
“Hold him,” Bedlam called, reaching to grab Flash’s face. “It seems he is connected to my Pillar after all.”
“What the-?!” Flash screamed as the surge he’d worked so hard to suppress suddenly coursed through his veins. The black lines stemming from Bedlam’s fingers’ touch raced across his face, down his neck to his bare arms. “NO!”
“Lightning!” Fauna cried as she turned to look. Her sharp sight and feral instincts picked up the Avatar’s influence on the Element. Tearing away from Thunderquake, she shifted to her falcon form to glide on the winds toward Flash. “Let him go!”
“Thank you for saving us the trouble,” Spiral mused as he swept his wand upward, sweeping another slice of air toward the bird. The falcon's cry as Fauna was knocked skyward drew everyone’s attention. As she struck the ground, blood seeped from her chest as she shifted back, bleeding into the lake water.
“FAUNA!!!” Gust cried, finally materialized.
“I can’t do two at once, Spiral,” Bedlam groaned, looking up at the other with annoyance.
“You seem to require a great deal of assistance,” Spiral sneered before waving the wand in a circle.
Thunderquake gawked in horror as his twin and Fauna were lifted into the air. A vortex formed around them. Inside, the Elements writhed in muted agony. Bedlam released Flash, slipping her hand effortlessly past the boundary to turn about. Reaching through the other barrier to the pale ankle, the same black veins raced across Fauna's right leg and foot. Gust thrust his palms toward the orbs, trying to disperse them.
“Your power will have little effect on my vacuum,” Spiral called up at the frantic wind Element. “Those breezes merely brush the surface. Their Avatars will manifest, or they will smother, trying to resist.”
“AS IF I WOULD ALLOW THAT!” Rain bellowed as the shower turned to hail.
“Watch it!” Bedlam shrieked as icy chunks struck her head.
“Fauna! Flash! Hang on!” Gust tried to redirect the hail with his gales, but they only ricocheted off the surface. Seeing Fauna through the gray filter, twitching stiffly, the whites of her eyes started to fade to black. Glancing at Flash, his eyes started to change as well. “Rain! It’s the same as before! They’re trying to stir up their destructive natures!”
“Then we have to pierce the vortex,” Rain’s voice called back, hoping the others were listening.
“Pierce?” Thunderquake murmured, glancing toward the younger, shellshocked Elements and humans. “Flare, you have to take care of everyone.”
“Me?!” Flare cried with dismay, “What am I supposed to do?!”
Thunderquake didn’t give his brother room to argue, standing to look across the lake. Jumping skyward, he felt gusts envelop him in a swirl. As if to taunt them, Spiral motioned his hands apart, pushing the Elements further away from each other. The dark gaze stared back at him, waiting for their next move.
Tears drifted away from the titan Element’s candlelight eyes. He could only get to one at a time, but there wasn’t time to delay. Who should he save first though? As his eyes looked between them, he saw Flash pointing toward Fauna. Furrowing his rust-brown brow, Thunderquake knew what his brother wanted him to do, but that didn’t make him feel any less selfish.
Kicking out of Gust’s grip, the giant fist crashed down on Fauna’s prison. The shattered barrier burst, sending a thunderous wave of sound across the park. As the Avatars ducked, the other vacuum became unstable. Imploding, Flash’s scream echoed after the deafening thunder roll before he crashed in the muddied grass.
“LIGHTNING!” Thunderquake rumbled as he held Fauna close to him. Reaching out for his brother, he watched swirling hail lift him into the air.
“I’ve got him, Thunder,” Gust called over the winds, carrying Flash across the lake. “Take care of my sister!”
After a firm nod, Gust watched Thunderquake shoot up to the cloud wall. Pulling Flash into an embrace, he could feel from his tremors how much pain the lightning Element was in. Landing close to the huddled group, Gust tried to direct the worst gales away from them.
“Flare! We need to shield him,” the eldest Element called out.
“How bad is it?!” Flare didn’t waste time, lifting his left arm to allow Gust to ease the injured Element out of the wind and hail.
“I couldn’t tell out there! Can you see his emblem?”
“What’s his emblem have to do with anything?!” Chelsea grunted through clenched teeth. It wasn’t out of rage, but it was all she could manage, holding in her fright.
“Emblems are like souls, Chels,” Flare answered her as calmly as he could muster, looking over Flash’s wrists. “Humans keep their energy inside of them because they’re already physically sound, but our core being manifests from our emblem. It houses who we are, so we have to keep it close to us. Otherwise, our bodies slowly become empty...”
“What’s the matter, Flare?” Jake asked sternly over the winds, holding Jaime and Flora close to him. “What’s wrong?”
“They’re cracked...!” Gust and Flare looked up at one another anxiously. “His crystals are cracked...! This is bad! I don’t know anyone that can fix this but Lady Lané! Gust, whaddya we do?!"
Looking across the lake, Gust scowled at the two figures standing back to back. They were knocking the hailstones aside with their baton and scepter. If it were just the Elements involved, they might draw out the derecho to wear the Avatars down, but with the humans...
"Gust," Leif gripped the buckskin sleeve, drawing the fey Element's attention, "let me help."
As Rain focused on increasing precipitation, he noticed a change in the wind carrying the icy chunks. Turning about completely, he saw Flare and Chelsea holding Flash while Jake kept Jaime and Flora close. What surprised him was Gust hovering above them... with Leif singing beside him!
"Where the sky and sea, and the land that breathes, and the spark of our flame all do meet," Leif's voice carried across the park, calming the howls. "There a bond is formed, in a forge most keen, and its links bind us all, where we're free."
Spiral and Bedlam looked back at the two hovering in the air. The swell of their eyes conveyed their sense of concern. As the verse drifted over them, the winds strengthened into a focused current, shaking their footing. The Avatars trembled at the unknown circumstances bolstering the gales, ignoring the increased hail striking them.
"Though our wills may clash, and the sky lights flash, may we all ne'er forget unity." Leif gripped Gust's large hand in hopes of conveying courage to the worried Element. "For with each hand clasped, when all hope seems dashed, we are never alone. Here we're free."
Spiral grunted under the force of the winds and blows from the hail chunks. Something was reaching through the current, pushing them back. There was nothing else to perceive though, frustrating the formerly confidant invader. Glancing back at Bedlam, he strained his right hand to point back at the rift. As soon as she turned, her skirts shifted her balance, knocking her inside the tear with a shriek.
"This is not over, Elements," Spiral called over Leif's song. He stepped back into his rift before it seemingly zipped back into place.