Scarlet stained my vision. For a moment, I was sure I had gone blind from the blast, but after blinking a few times, I realized the red was in front of me. My throat closed when I took in the scene. Blood covered the walls and ceiling, pooling on the floor and dripping down the furniture. I took a shaky breath in and out, scanning the room.
“Mama?” I called. The darkness that had surrounded me just moments ago was gone, leaving me chilled to the bone. A silence seemed to fill the air, making it heavy like smoke. I crawled to my feet, my eyes tracing everything. Blood clung to my hands, making a weird suction noise when I moved my fingers. “Mama!”
There was no trace of anyone. Not the intruders or my mother. Just blood. I repeated her words in my mind, closing my eyes against the scarlet room.
You’re not evil, baby girl. You are not evil.
The three training robots looked like your average men, they were relatively tall and lean, but they were covered in thick metal plates nearly impossible to break. Their glowing red eyes locked on the men they were programmed to train. As one, the three robots spun their training staffs, stepping back and pointing them at the men.
At the order, the robots ran forward. Their heavy metal feet echoed on the spring filled training pads. The three men each chose a robot to face.
One was tall with dark skin and black curly hair. He had long limbs, which reminded me of a young animal, but sharp facial features contrasted the illusion. His fingers and halfway up, his hands were pitch black like he’d been playing in soot. As his robot approached, flames flickered to life around his hands. He brought his hands up. Flames exploded outward, surrounding the robot, but the fire died almost as soon as it started. The robot was a bit burnt but far from broken. It swung the staff, taking out the tall man’s legs and sending him to the ground with a painful thud.
The second man was also tall but not as tall as the first. He had icy white skin and long stark white hair that he’d tied back in a bun. Even at a distance, I could see that his eyes were a pale blue like he’d been washed in bleach. His veins seemed painted on his skin in thin blue lines. When his robot grew close, he stepped back. His skin shifted colours, taking on a deep blue colour. At the same time, water from the nearby fountain floated in the air. It swam through the air until it surrounded the pale man. Then it collapsed on the mat. The man looked down at the puddles in despair. The robot swung its staff. I flinched as the wood connected with the man’s face with a solid thwack. He hit the ground a moment later and didn’t move.
The final guy was the shortest, almost my height, with short black hair and a narrow face. All the visible joints I could see appeared swollen and made a painful grinding sound as they moved under his skin. He saw what happened to the other two and decided that he wasn’t going to follow suit. He spread his feet apart. His joints groaned in protest as he raised his arms above his head. The ground trembled under the mat. I jumped as sharp chunks of rocks cut through the training mat and embedded them in the robot’s abdomen. The robot wavered. For a moment, I thought it would fall. So did the man. He grinned, turning towards the house where Mendell and I watched. The robot raised the staff and swung.
Mandell sighed, rubbing his temples as the last man hit the ground. The robots gave a satisfied sounding beep and returned to their resting zone in the corner of the mat. I crossed my arms over my thin chest and glanced at the older man. His short white hair and deeply lined tan skin made him look older, but I knew he was only about fifty or so. He wore a white robe, making him look like some sort of mythical guide from one of my fantasy books and a pair of white shoes that were soundless as he walked.
“I thought you said they were heroes,” I stated. Mandell didn’t bother looking at me. He dropped his hands and folded them behind his back as he surveyed the men. They all wore the same white tunic as Mandell did, though their’s were rumpled from fighting. The trio picked themselves off the ground. The pale one looked at me in question. He rubbed the dark bruise that was forming under his left eye. I forced my eyes away.
“They have the potential to be great heroes,” Mandell stated. I raised my eyebrows. One of the robots clicked as it went into sleep mode. The shortest man looked at it and muttered something less than polite.
“Great,” I repeated, filling my voice with contempt. These were his heroes. Mendell’s chosen heroes. “Great morons is all I see.”
Mandell looked at me. Pity flashed across his ancient eyes, but he didn’t say anything. He looked at his three great heroes again. They noticed our staring and started walking across the field towards us.
“They need time,” Mandell stated. I leaned on the light wood banister that surrounded the porch and scanned the garden below me. Black and white flowers were blooming. “Like you did.”
My lips twitched downward. At the same time, my throat closed. I took a deep breath, forcing air through the lump in my throat. Suddenly the small white horns hidden under my blonde hair felt extraordinarily heavy.
There was a reason Mandell collected those three instead of me. Why he decided they would be his great heroes instead of me. My heart pounded in my ears, drowning out everything else. They would be his heroes. They would be his heroes, and I would be the demon he kept contained.
Mandell never called me a demon, but all his training, since he saved me from the bloodied room where my mother died, has been about controlling my dark powers. Keeping them in check. Unlike with the three guys in front of us. Mandell was teaching them how to use their abilities. Teaching them how to be heroes.
I tried to swallow my anger and looked away from the men. What did Mandell say their names were? I shrugged, not bothering to try to remember.
“Boys,” Mandell called the three. I took the time to look around the academy. Well, it wasn’t an actual academy. I think it was a building belonging to a wealthy family at one point but was converted to a training facility when Mandell took it over.
The white stone walls around the courtyard were tall and formidable. They provided privacy from prying eyes in the street and security since it was nearly impossible to scale the walls without a ladder. I tired. The large building behind us was made of the same light stone and a gleaming white roof that reflected the sun so much it burned my eyes to look at. A light wood porch surrounded the house where Mandell and I stood to watch the guys.
They stopped at the base of the stairs, their footsteps halting on the flat grey stones that made up the path. Each of them stared up at us in question.
“Rhys Brent,” Mandall nodded at the dark-skinned man with fire powers. “Adrian Cove.”
The one who looked like they were carved of ice and paper and could manipulate water. He gave a slow nod in greeting. His oddly pale eyes flickered to me.
“Axton Kwan.” Mandall turned to the short man who had power over the earth under our feet. “This is Zella Draven.”
I scanned the three as they looked me over. Mendell had warned me that they would be living at the mansion, but they only arrived this morning. This was the first time we were meeting face to face. I tried to judge their ages. They all had to be in their mid-twenties. None older than thirty that I was certain about.
“Why is the kid here?” Axton asked. I bristled at being called a kid, though he wasn’t entirely wrong. I was only sixteen. Compared to them, I was only a kid. Still, I narrowed my eyes at him. He was going to be the annoying one. I could tell.
“I live here,” I stated, forcing my voice to remain calm. I pulled on all of Mendell’s self-control teachings to keep myself from snapping at him.
“Zella will assist you if you need help. She also monitors the camera to alert us if any danger arises.” Mandell explained. Annoyance flickered through me, but I kept my expression calm. I wasn’t their secretary. I had powers, too... not that I was allowed to use them.
“You got cameras?” Rhys asked, his attention snapping into focus. He glanced at me and smiled. “Can I see?”
“I don’t care.” I shrugged.
“Lovely, our caretaker is a teenage emo mess,” Axton muttered. I considered throwing something at the troll-like man but managed to keep myself under control. Instead, I choose to give him a dark look. Axton met my gaze and glared back.
“I am not your caretaker,” I stated. My control wavered. Anger dripped from my lips. Mandell shot me a warning look, and I snapped my mouth shut. I took a deep breath, forcing myself to look at the fountain. It was a simple fountain with a shallow pool and a thin spire that shot water into the sky. I watched the water falling into the pool for a moment. The next time I spoke, my voice was even again. “If you want to see the cameras, follow me.”
I turned and headed inside without waiting to see if anyone followed. Unfortunately, everyone did. We were soon crammed into the security room, everyone gazing up at the dozens of screens that showed different parts of the city. On the next wall was a massive map of the continent. A few dots showed where the major cities were. There were seven in total. Not counting the small towns which ranged in the hundreds.
“The cameras tap into all security cameras of all the major cities and even a few of the small towns,” I explained without turning from them. I sensed eyes on me. “If Jemisha has a puppet wandering about, then an alarm will sound.”
“Jemisha?” Adrian asked. I glanced at him. His too pale complexion made my stomach twist. I jerked my eyes back to the screens. “Puppet?”
“Do they know anything?” I asked Mandell without turning.
“I told them they would protect this world,” Mandell stated. I turned to him, noting the calm expression on his face, before looking at the three men. I suspected he wanted me to tell them why they were really here. Though I wasn’t sure why? It wasn’t like I was especially good at talking to people. The only person I spoke to was Mendell and maybe the food delivery person.
“That’s all you told them? And they just fell in line?” I looked at each one. Adrian’s pale skin flushed red. “Good thing Jemisha didn’t get to them first, or else she’d have another three puppets.”
“Puppet?” Adrian asked. I sighed, pinching the bridge of my nose and took a deep breath to calm myself. Their ignorance was giving me a headache.
“Jemisha is one of the creators of this world,” I explained. Mandell took over. I rolled my eyes. Why did I even try?
“In the beginning, there was Darkness and Light.” He spoke as if he was telling a story. In a way, he was. “The King and Queen. Melekhor, the King of Light, created this land we stand on and thus created life. But the Queen of Darkness, Jemisha, grew jealous. She wanted all life ended and nearly succeeded, but Melekhor locked her up in an underground tomb to prevent her from destroying the world.”
“Isn’t she still locked up?” Adrian asked, his eyes wide.
“Technically, yes,” I answered for Mendell. “But she’s reaching out. She wants to escape and needs people on the outside to turn the key.”
“How?” Adrian asked. I noticed that Rhys was utterly enamoured with the cameras and probably wasn’t listening. Axton looked bored, but at least he appeared to be listening. I silently noted that Adrian was my current favourite of the three. At least he was asking the right questions and paying attention.
“Do you still have shadows?” I asked. Adrian glanced down at his feet and nodded. I expected some sort of smart-aleck response from Axton, but he kept quiet. “Exactly. You can’t completely stop her powers, which gives her cracks to reach out. Most people don’t feel her effect, but some…”
I glanced at Mandell. He bowed his head, pressing his lips together. I could tell that he was thinking of his younger brother. I turned back to the screens.
“Some people fall under her control.” I finished. “So actually, we’re looking for her puppet, Phobus Meyer and anyone else that bears her brand.”
The mark on the lower left side of my ribs burned as I thought about Jemisha’s control. Her anger. She wanted to be freed from her tomb and would do anything to succeed.
“What does the brand look like?” Rhys’ voice jerked me from my thoughts. I leaned over the keyboard on the desk and typed in a command. A swirling, flower-like design with five petals appeared on the largest screen.
“A pitch-black flower,” I stated. I played with a strand of hair as I thought and prayed my horns weren’t showing. “It’s said her tomb is covered in them, so she uses that to mark her puppets.”
“And the puppets, are they like slaves or are they mind controlled?” Axton asked. His gaze sharpened, losing the zoned outlook.
“We don’t know.” I shrugged. I scanned the screens, taking note of the many streets and thousands of people walking and driving through them. “My guess is both.”
“Meaning?” Axton asked.
“It depends on the Queen and what she wants them to do. If she has to, I’m sure she can make them into mindless slaves. Otherwise, she just tells them what to do.” I clarified. Axton frowned at me. Mendell shot me a warning look, and I realized I was talking like I knew exactly what it was like. Well... I did, but the heroes didn’t need to know that.
“How?” Adrian asked. “How does she control them?”
“The better question is, why only certain people?” I leaned on the desk and crossed my arms. I wasn’t sure how she controlled people, but I might know why she chose certain people. Everyone frowned at me in confusion, even Mendell. I hadn’t shared my theory with him yet. “It’s not genetics; it’s too random. Social class doesn’t seem to be a factor. So what is the common thing between the three puppets we know about?”
“We know three?” Adrian frowned.
“One is dead,” Mendell explained, his eyes flashing to me. “The two livings are Phobus and Das.”
“There is nothing that connects them.” I continued. “Physically and socially. So it must be something mental.”
“Which is?” Rhys asked, turning to face me.
“I think it’s people prone to mental illnesses. Neurodivergent people.” I shrugged.
“I expected you to say weak-willed people like in the movies.” Rhys grinned. I didn’t return his smile. His grin vanished, and he turned back to the cameras.
“All of you are at risk for Jemisha’s control,” I warned. Axton stiffened at the mention of files. “That comes with the power territory, though. It’s been proven that those born with powers are more likely to suffer from mental illnesses.”
“What makes you think we have mental illnesses?” Axton stiffened. If he kept going, he might snap in half.
“Let’s see.” I stared at Axton. His shadow darkened under his feet. “Not much in the way of a bad life. Born to a rich family, got everything you could ever want handed to you, but you were a disappointment. Both your parents had wind powers, but you got stone powers instead. Spent most of your life thinking you were born to the wrong family.”
He was. Powers could only be passed on through genetics, so Axton must either be born of an affair or adopted.
Axton’s face darkened. I pointed at Adrian. His shadow shifted nervously even though Adrian didn’t move. The words poured out faster than I could think them. It was like I saw parts of their lives flash before my eyes.
“Kicked out at sixteen for having powers. Lived on the streets until he got caught stealing. In jail for a few years, and then Mendell picked you up when you were released.”
Adrien’s face turned bright red as he ducked his head. I turned to Rhys. He met my gaze without flinching. His shadow grew longer behind him, and I saw bits of his life flash before my eyes.
“Orphaned, as a baby, ran away from a group home multiple times, always got caught and brought back except for the last time. You lived on the streets for the past five years.”
“Enough, Zella.” Mendell snapped. I jumped, glancing at him in question. What did I do? Pain formed behind my eyes. I closed my eyes, trying to force it away.
“I know you shouldn’t call kids names, but you are a complete bitch.” Axton glared. I blinked in confusion. What did I do? Mendell sighed and raised his arms, guiding the men out of the security room.
“Let’s get you three settled,” Mendell said. I stood against the desk and watched them leave. The door swung shut. I moved towards it to open it again before hearing Mendell. My hand froze on the doorknob. I pressed my ear to the door to listen. “Please be patient. Zella does not have many social skills. She will learn.”
“I don’t like having my life read out like a book.” Axton snapped. “How the hell does she know all that? Was it in your files?”
“No,” Mendell said honestly. “You can see them for yourselves. All the files contain your powers and what you can do with them and theories I have to what you can do with them in the future.”
“Then how does she know all that?” Axton hissed. I frowned. How did I know all that?
“She can read people,” Mendell said, but I sensed the uncertainty in his voice. He didn’t know either. I’ve never done anything like that before I met the heroes. “Each of you has flaws. So does Zella. Be patient with each other.”
There was a soft grumble, then footsteps fading away. The doorknob turned, and I jumped back, pretending to stare at the screens.
“How did you do that?” Mendell asked. I kept my eyes on the cameras and shrugged.
“I thought it was in the files,” I admitted. Mendell shook his head. I frowned and bowed my head. “I remember reading it.”
“I don’t know.” I looked at Mendell. He stared at me, his eyes scanning my face. The lines in his face seemed more profound than they did yesterday. Dark shadows surrounded his eyes. He looked tired. “It was like… I just looked at them and read a book about them.”
“I see.” Mendell frowned. “Well, try to keep that to yourself. Not many people appreciate it.”
“Okay.” I pressed my lips together and looked at the cameras. Mendell patted my shoulder before leaving again, this time leaving the door open. I sunk into an office chair and resigned myself to keeping watch.