A Never-Ending War
After Rain’s spiteful remark, Flora's attention drifted toward the large window facing them. She felt Jaime’s anxious gaze beyond the glass. Hunching her shoulders, the reality of why she’d called for the person embracing her now returned. Her mother was still missing, and her friends were hurt. Looking up, her eyes trembled as she tried to fathom words to express herself.
Skye smiled sadly down at the lost expression. Stroking the tips of his right fingers above her left brow, he understood the request she could not voice. Just as he had hoped, his gift had never known this level of fear and uncertainty. He could only hope to ease those anxieties now that he was by her side.
“We can talk later,” her father spoke softly. “For now, let’s join the others. There is much to discuss.”
“Of course... Father.” Speaking the word was a foreign experience to the plant Element, but it washed relief over her to say it. Taking his right hand in her left, Flora guided him toward the front door.
Frey couldn’t help gaping at the figure as he approached the house. The pigment of his skin had grown darker the longer he stood in the direct sunlight, but once the light shadowed, it began to pale again. His time with the Elements had felt like meeting other humans, but for the first time, he realized how different they were. Leif’s fascination with fey finally clicked with him.
“Welcome to our home,” the second son greeted them, waving within the home.
“Thank you...” Skye paused at the threshold, unsure of how to address the host.
“This is Frey, Father,” Flora reassured him. “My friend, Leif, is his younger brother.”
“Ah, thank you, Frey.”
Skye’s visible gratitude relaxed Frey’s formality, fueling Flora’s hopes. As they crossed the threshold, the plant Element took in the great room's low energy. Aunt Kris was still gauging Flash’s erratic pain level. Gust and Leif were just entering from the hallway, pausing at the newcomer’s appearance. Seeing Jaime in the corner by the stone fireplace broke her heart, moving Flora to leave her father’s side.
“Jaime...” Flora’s voice trembled as she reached to embrace her friend. The youth leaned into the Element’s embrace, but her arms remained latched about her. “Forgive me. You were brave enough to leave your home for me, and I put all of you in more danger. I was so caught up in myself that I neglected your fears.”
“You couldn’t have known those things would come to the lake, Flora,” Gust tried to sound comforting as he corrected her. “It has always been a safe place. I only wish we had returned sooner to prepare.” Leif gave Gust’s hand a reassuring squeeze, earning him a grateful smile.
“This could just be my Viking blood talking,” Frey piped up as he closed the front door, “but does anyone know what happened back there? Ever since Jake burst through the mudroom, Mom and I have been in fight-or-flight mode. Can’t very well plan without knowing how to defend, you know?”
“Your concern is understandable,” Rain replied wearily, a few paces inside the foyer. “The Elements were ill-prepared to explain anything, as they haven’t encountered this sort of threat. Skye and I are the only ones remaining that have crossed Avatars.”
“So this has happened in the past.” Leif frowned, recalling what Spring had shared with him. “Gust was too little to remember, but he survived the last Avatar attack from what his mother told me.”
“I did... the day I gave up my song.”
“Spring was deeply grieved by your loss,” Rain recounted with a lost expression in his crystal blue eyes. “Whatever you did kept us safe, Gust, until the wind barrier died...”
“I know what happened.”
All eyes flew toward Skye, standing by the front door still. The crystalline gaze had been absorbing the home and occupants. Still unsure how to engage, he had remained where Flora left him next to Frey. Hearing their uncertainty, he finally felt he had something worth adding to the dialogue.
“Well... you see...” Suddenly, nerves gathered in his throat, and the words trickled from his lips as his voice grew smaller. “Your song was taken by the tree and channeled through the roots... It had no vessel to attach to though, so it remained on the island... Then, the Vanishing tried to find a vessel...”
“Wait,” Rain held up a hand to stop the muttering, “are you saying you knew why the Vanishing was happening and didn’t think to tell Lané?!”
“I... I always forgot to mention it,” Skye confessed guiltily. “We only have so much time together, and...”
Rain turned away with a growl, silencing the speaker. Skye clearly had information, but knowing how much time he’d wasted just angered him after their loss on Buyan today. The Vanishing haunted Spring and Winter, desperate to protect Gust from his own longings, and Flora was concerned she’d hurt her new companions since learning about it. Despite wanting to ease Lané’s heartache, Skye's head in the clouds wasn't helping them.
“So it was my fault.” Gust’s spirits sank to a new low as the breezes that normally wafted from him died. Leif moved closer to embrace him, which the Element leaned into for comfort.
“No! That’s not what I meant at all!” Skye reached toward Gust, heartbroken by the misunderstanding. The fey Element glanced up with a new breeze. “You were the only one that could find the host for your wind, but the Vanishing had begun long before that!”
“So what is the Vanishing then, Mr. Skye?” Kristen spoke up. The opportunity to get some definitive answers gave her hope of finding a solution. Maybe even prevent Hawahkan's premonition... "I’m Kristen Aarons, and I’ve been looking into this for Flora. We call it the Wunderlust, a phenomenon where people lose their connection with the world and allow Nature to consume them. What causes this?”
“It might be easier to explain all at once, since there’s no telling when the Avatars will return,” the enigmatic replied, turning to face Kristen. He paused to collect himself, which allowed the rest of the house to join the great room for his explanation. Flora looked toward him, grounding him once again.
“The Avatars originally started to bombard our world when Lané finished solidifying as a planet. There's something about her evolutionary course that the Principle Cosmos wishes to correct. I have observed similar interventions from the Rift, where an Avatar forms to reflect the peak of the planet’s structure. Up till now, the Avatars have been various cosmic bodies carrying the elements necessary to strike at Lané hardest. Winter and Summer were an impact that wiped out most of the life on the sphere, but Lané creatively opened a means to incorporate their destructive natures into the planet, evolving further.
“When you gave your newborn song to the Will O’Oak,” Skye turned toward Gust, “the tree’s connection to the planet allowed it to evolve into something that shielded Buyan from the Principle’s sight. Each of the Elements - born of Avatar and Crystal energies - possesses the potential to defend against the constant threat of Avatar attacks, but something was missing. That’s why it took some of your elements into its roots to find vessels for them.”
“Took our elements?” Flare squeaked, concerned by the last detail, “When did it do that?”
“Could it have been when it presented the acorns to us?” Thunderquake spoke up from behind Freja and Hawahkan in the hallway, still holding the sleeping Fauna.
"What... are you... talking 'bout... Thunder...?" Flash strained his voice as he tried to sit up. Kristen helped him back down though.
“I crushed one, and Flare incinerated another. Is that what you're referring to, Lord Skye?”
“Yes, actually,” Skye confirmed, smiling sheepishly at the title. “In the Rift, I see energy flowing from the roots into the planet. They branch further into thinner streams. Humans are connected to these. The streams have grown fainter over the revolutions since they were first formed, so the Vanishing grew more intense whenever a human drew close to Nature. I believe the Will O’Oak has been trying to help the rest of the planet evolve with Lané. Since the Avatars look like us now, I think it succeeded, but I'm not sure how."
As the rest of the room began to fall into further discussions and theories, Hawahkan's focus faded from the conversation. His black pools were focused on Jaime and Flora in the corner across from him. His vision still concerned him, but with all the craziness going on, he hadn't had time to meet these young ladies yet. Perhaps if he got a better understanding of who they were, he might know of a way to help them and ease Kristen's worries. It wasn't easy crossing the room when the conversation started to get loud.
"Hello," the man spoke up softly as he knelt beside the girls, "your Jaime and Flora, right? Kris was telling me about you a bit before that terrible storm came in. Are you both doing all right?"
"That was Rain and the others coming back from our home," Flora answered, still draping her arms around Jaime. "I panicked and called out for him, so he must have come rushing to find us when those people appeared."
"So your elements influence the weather based on your emotional state? Is that about right?"
"I think so," the plant Element replied thoughtfully, "but I recall Winter said we were a collective of our element, grounded in our emblems. I'm not sure beyond that, as Winter was researching it still."
"I see then," he said, nodding in understanding. "It sounds like a part of the debate going on. How are you doing though, Jaime? I heard you and I both aren't fond of loud spaces."
Jaime stole a glance at the strange man that appeared at their door today. Her aunt had become someone she didn't recognize, or maybe it was just she rarely showed in front of her. The twist of her face as if she might cry and smile at the same time had surprised her. The youth didn't believe he was a bad person, but he meant a great deal to her aunt. His eyes reminded Jaime of Winter's somehow.
"Feeling stuck?" Hawahkan asked sadly. He extended his hands toward hers. "Kris taught me how to borrow strength from someone this way. If I may, I'd like to try helping you the way she helped me. Only if you want to though."
Jaime recognized the action from her aunt. As her eyes swelled with hope, her rigid hands tried to move toward his outstretched ones. Flora felt her attempt, moving to grasp what her friend was trying to do. Seeing her stiffness, the Element smiled, reaching to guide Hawahkan's left hand toward Jaime's. Once contact was made, Jaime felt a warmth that allowed her to finally wail her pent-up fright.
"Jaime?" Kristen gasped turning around "Kan, what's wrong?"
"I..." The man was only startled for a moment before wrapping his right arm around her for a strong embrace. Flora joined the hug from behind to envelop the youth. "I think she needed to release this for a while now. Something must be bothering her."
The whole room quieted immediately. Almost all of them knew of Jaime's withdrawn personality, but those closest to her knew the raised voices would only upset her more. Her friends were still unsure why she had shut herself away for a week. The storm might have shaken up the teens, but they hadn't thought of how Jaime might be handling it.
"You've helped me, Jaime," Flora spoke softly as she nestled the black crown against her fair cheek. "Let me help you again."
"Why...?" Jaime's small voice still managed to carry across the whole room of onlookers. "Why did they... look like that...?"
"Like what, sweetheart?" Kristen knelt beside her boyfriend to stroke Jaime's free hand.
"Mom... and Leon...?" Jaime cried bitterly. "Why did they... look like them...? Anyone but them...!"
"The Avatars look like your family?" Skye muttered in disbelief as a weight pulled at his chest.
"Have any of you met these humans before?!" Rain jerked his face about to see the other Elements, who shook their heads in denial. Even the teens were oblivious. "Did she make these Avatars, Skye?! Answer me!"
"Rain, stop it!" Flora stood upright. Glaring at the water man, her emerald orbs shown with the strength the teens had seen around school. She didn't look sixteen anymore. "If those Avatars look like her mom and stepfather, then I am equally to blame. I gave her my acorn cycles ago."
"I think I remember that..." Skye finally stepping further into the home, gaping in awe. "It was during the lightning and animal assault on the place you used to go with your companions. Then, that means your acorn must have been the last vessel needed."
"And when we went to Buyan over break," Leif gasped, "I became the vessel of the wind."
"So the reason the Ava-whatevers look human is..." Jake glanced toward Chelsea as cold sweat formed on his neck.
"... we're the next evolution," Chelsea finished with a shutter.
"I knew this was a terrible idea...!" Rain covered his face as he tried to contain his anxiety to prevent an indoor shower.