Strolling in the approximate direction of Meg’s flat, Emilia investigated something. “You said before you like exploring?”
Meg had been briefly lost in thought, but returned to reality for long enough to respond. “Mm? Oh… yeah. Have you heard of something called urbex?”
“No. It sounds dangerous.”
“I suppose it can be,” Meg conceded. “It’s short for urban exploration. Basically… looking around old abandoned buildings and things. I used to go exploring all over when I was a kid. The town I grew up in had loads of old places like that.”
“What’s so fun about looking around old buildings?”
Meg walked silently for a few minutes, deep in thought. “I guess… mostly it’s an atmosphere? I like imagining what places must have been like when they were still busy and bustling.”
Emilia frowned. “I’m not so sure I’d like that. I’ve seen too many dead places. I like the city, it’s full of life.”
“It’s not for everyone, and you’re right that it can be dangerous. I got into trouble a couple of times for exploring where I shouldn’t have been, though not intentionally!” Meg chuckled. “You have to be really careful, it can be trespassing, buildings can be unstable and dangerous, all sorts can go wrong.”
“Do you go looking for danger or something? Life not exciting enough?”
Meg coloured. “No, I don’t think so. I like history, so old abandoned buildings are like treasure troves to me. I don’t think there’s anything more than that.”
“But you went out of your way to find me despite how dangerous it was…” Emilia pointed out in a quiet tone that tripped her friend up.
Stopping for a moment, Meg’s brows furrowed. “I wasn’t looking for danger, Emilia, I was looking for you. I don’t think it’s fair to compare.”
Emilia turned back to her new friend to issue a riposte. Her eyes widened, pupils dilating. “Meg? Walk towards me very quickly, please?” Her tone was calm and measured, but Meg knew, without needing to turn, that something lurked behind her.
“It’s one of those, isn’t it…”
Emilia nodded almost imperceptibly. “Keep moving.”
A few steps forward and… Meg broke into a trot just as the pavement she had recently vacated exploded into flame. She reached Emilia and they backed away together.
“Run!” Emilia yelled, pointing down a side street. She transformed, her black and purple outfit materialising and her hair fading to the deep glowing purple-black colour Meg now associated with gravity.
As Emilia squared off against the monster, Meg accelerated away along the side street, legs working harder than they had since leaving school some five years previously, when physical education had still been a mandatory thing.
Rounding a corner, she sped down the street and froze, skidding to an impromptu halt. Before her stood another of the creatures, similar to the previous one. This one steamed like the last, but with ice rather than fire, and had more of a translucent green-purple colour to it. Again, no eyes. And again, biomechanical, with ribbed tubes wrapped up, down, and around its appendages, plugging into icy, steaming sockets on its back.
“Oh crap,” Meg said, backing away.
“Hmm, so you’re with the other girl?” came a voice from above.
Looking up and shielding her eyes from an inconveniently-placed streetlight, Meg squinted, attempting to work out who had spoken. On a nearby rooftop stood a young man, heavyset and well-muscled, his shaggy white hair dancing in the breeze.
“Who are you?” Meg asked. “Are you the one controlling these monsters?” She shook with rage and fear, staring unflinchingly and hoping to appear more confident than she felt.
The man dropped lightly to the ground and walked forward, raising a hand to stay the ice creature. “Pleasant evening, no?” His voice had a soft timbre, a certain hint that here was someone Meg probably shouldn’t trifle with. He stopped before her, his cold amber eyes appraising, sizing up… and quickly dismissing. “And what if I am, little girl, what would you do about it? What can you do, hmm?”
Meg’s legs refused to budge, her stomach was performing cartwheels of terror, and yet she couldn’t seem to tear her gaze away from this enigmatic man’s eyes. She did her best to remain defiant. “I… I’ll call for help!”
The man snorted. “Your little friend is quite busy, no? Oh, where are my manners? My name is Tear. And my friend has all the time in the world to make your acquaintance.” Lowering the hand he had originally used to stay the creature’s advance, he graced Meg with an entirely humourless smile.
“So you really are controlling these monsters?” Meg said, heckles rising. She clenched her hands, gritting her teeth, her heart rate spiking as adrenaline and anger rushed through her body. A salty sea scent from the creature filled her nostrils, making her choke and gag.
“Monsters? Please. They have a name, little girl, and that name is certainly not monster.” Tear’s initially smug and condescending tone made way for a brief glimmer of annoyance. “Though I suppose you would see them that way, wouldn’t you? Immediately clinging to the idea that I’m the bad guy, that my friend here is evil, an abomination of nature? Little girl, my friend here is nature.”
“L-Little girl?” Meg recoiled. “I’m twenty!”
“See? Being labelled isn’t fun, is it?”
And now Meg blushed, losing her voice entirely. Tear had a point, after all, she had jumped to conclusions and labelled these elemental creatures as monsters while knowing precisely nothing about them. On the other hand, his annoyingly smug voice kind of pissed her off as well, making the embarrassment even worse. It was an uncomfortably dichotomous feeling.
Finding her voice, Meg rearranged her expression into one of – she hoped – confident indignation. “I… apologise for jumping to conclusions. But you should be apologising for causing so much trouble with whatever you’re using these mo… creatures for!”
“Ah yes, I’ve seen something of your world’s television. This is the point where you expect to goad me into revealing all my plans, no? Sorry, not happening. Now, if you’ll excuse me…”
“Don’t you dare run away! I’ll call Emilia!” Meg yelled. The indignation had faded, replaced with annoyance and confusion at how the hell she had managed to let this clearly horrible man get the better of her.
Tear paused to give another of his smug smiles. “Emilia? Oh, the other girl? Is that her name?” He waggled a finger. “Revealing information that easily will be your downfall. And besides, what possible reason could she have for protecting you? Hmm? More to the point, what do you gain from putting yourself in danger for her?”
Meg’s heckles rose again. “At least I’ve tried talking. I’m not just unleashing monsters and destroying the city and inconveniencing people!”
“No different to her using those powers she possesses, no?” Tear said, ignoring the repeated m-word.
“Of course it is!”
“Oh? I’m listening.”
“Well, it… it… she… she’s just defending herself from you!”
A humourless smile appeared on Tear’s lips. “Stuttering, are we? Your lack of conviction shows as plain as day, little girl. Why are you here? What do you want? Can you find even one reason to risk your life for a girl you’ve only just met?”
Meg took a deep breath and yelled, “You don’t need a reason to help people!”
Before Tear could issue a pithy riposte, Meg exploded into flame, tongues of scorching fire leaping from her limbs and hair, glowing embers spiralling high into the sky, and inside her jacket a brilliant red light radiating out and bathing the nearby buildings in crimson.
Tear backed away as the ice elemental screamed in agony at the searing heat melting its form. It staggered back, leaving pools of melted ice in its wake.
Meg was lifted from the ground by an unseen force, her face beatific, transcendent. Backing further away, Tear shook his head and sighed. He jumped up to the rooftops and retreated, leaving the elemental to its fate.
Having defeated the fire elemental, Emelia arrived, rushing over and coming to a dead stop. She stared at the girl floating several feet above the pavement. “Meg…?”
Meg’s clothes vanished into the ether, replaced by a glowing mantle of burning orange energy covering her body and flowing out behind her. The ribbon holding her hair in place ignited as her hair re-formed into a new style; a long braided ponytail reminiscent of a scorpion’s tail reaching to her thighs, hazy and glowing a dark, fiery orange.
And deep in each eye, a whirlpool of burning magma seethed until she blinked, the fires settling down to more of a gentle flicker as she adjusted to the sudden surge of power coursing through her body.
Coalescing around her, a crimson outfit appeared, similar to the one Emilia wore, trimmed in light orange rather than purple, and a pair of glowing orange wings popping into existence at her waist. She touched back down and seemingly returned to reality, turning her body this way and that, attempting to figure out what in the world was going on.
Emilia ran forward and hugged her, grinning like an idiot. “I thought you said you weren’t hiding anything! This is the biggest secret ever!”
“I wasn’t hiding it! I have no idea what just happened! I just got angry with that guy and… wait, where did he go?” Meg looked around the general vicinity. Tear had vanished. The elemental, however, was still very much alive and present.
“An ice type?” Emilia said, releasing her friend. “Looks like this is your territory!”
“I can’t fight that!”
“Sure you can. Just think angry thoughts and hope for the best.”
“That’s not helpful!” Meg yelled, and ducked as an icy fist whirled through the air above her head. She dodged… and ended up on the opposite side of the street. “What the hell—!” came her rapidly diminishing voice.
“Careful, you have more power in this form,” Emilia called over.
Meg steadied herself. It seemed her body was being sustained by a power well in excess of her regular levels; she felt as light as a feather and as tense as a coiled spring. As a test, she jumped and ended up on a nearby roof with precisely zero effort.
“This is insane,” she muttered. A blast of ice froze the roof below her, so she jumped up into the air and dropped, landing before the elemental. “Okay, let’s try… a fireball? Fireball! Fireball… fireball? Fireball! Why isn’t this working?”
“You’re not playing a game! Visualise the attack, don’t just yell random names,” Emelia shouted. She understood Meg’s struggles better than anyone, she’d had them herself upon her first ever transformation.
“I-I’ll try!” Meg said. She did her best to visualise a ball of fire in her palm. This worked better than expected. “Wow… okay, now I want to throw it…” Again, she imagined the fire leaving her hand as she wound her arm up. The ball of spitting heat and flame launched itself at the ice elemental, impacting it in the chest.
A scream like a finger being rubbed around the rim of a wineglass filled the air, the elemental thawing like winter snow until it was nothing more than a pool of lukewarm water. Meg immediately collapsed to her knees, the sheer adrenaline fuelling her until this moment vanishing as quickly as it had arrived.
Running forward, Emilia arrived just in time to wrap her arms around Meg’s waist and hoist her upright. She beamed. “That was amazing, Meg!”
“Haha… I feel drained,” Meg muttered.
“That’s normal at the start, don’t worry. It’ll just take your body a while to adjust. And you’ll have me teaching you, anyway!”
“So… does this mean we’re friends now?” Meg murmured, her eyelids drooping.
“Weren’t we already?”
Meg smiled and gave a single mute nod. “I like to think so…”
Since her new friend was more or less asleep, and the area had reverted to normal now the elementals had been dealt with, Emilia remained transformed and flew as stealthily as possible to the mansion carrying her friend; fortunately the sun had dipped well below the horizon by now, making a sneaky night flight less difficult to cover up. Touching down at the mansion, she headed inside and carefully placed Meg on one of the sofas.
Lifa floated across. “Oh my! Whatever happened, Emilia?”
“We were attacked. Two elementals at once. I think we can pretty much rule out coincidence now. And Meg mentioned seeing a man, need to ask her about that when she wakes up.”
“Oh dear, this doesn’t sound good, not good at all, yes. I shall look after the poor lass, worry not. So you fought two at once, Emilia?” Lifa hovered over Meg, covering her in a green field of gently flickering energy.
“Nope. Meg’s like me! She beat the ice one up herself!” If Emilia’s face had lit up any more the mansion would have been clearly visible from orbit.
“Blue generally knows what he’s doing, at least during his clearer moments. I wondered if she might perchance be a new ally when he gave her the gem,” Lifa said in a thoughtful tone.
Meg groaned and opened her eyes. “Where…? Oh, the mansion? Did you bring me back, Emilia?”
“Thanks.” Meg sat up. “I feel like I’ve got three hangovers at once.” She clasped her pounding head.
“It will pass soon. I have regenerated your depleted magic reserves, Meg,” Lifa said in a tone as soft as a lover’s touch.
Magic reserves? This was too much for Meg’s addled brain, so she ignored it for the time being. “Thanks, Lifa.”
“She can stay here tonight, right?” Emilia asked her fairy partner.
Lifa agreed, so they prepared one of the many spare rooms for their guest.
Given how tired Meg felt, she figured it would be best to simply crash out for the night despite only being early evening. She wanted more than anything to grill these three on everything she possibly could; her confusion had reached critical levels. But with her brain threatening to go on strike, she probably wouldn’t be able to process anything they said in any case.
Instead, she allowed Emilia to carefully manoeuvre her upstairs to the bed they had prepared, and would leave the rest till morning.