Editor's note: This is the fourth year of the Rotary Club of Summit County/Summit Daily News short story contest for local high school students. This year's winners read their stories at the Rotary's Jan. 8 meeting and were awarded certificates and cash prizes for their achievement in creating an original work of short fiction. Today we feature the second-place winner, Julie Bentley, a ninth-grader at Summit High School.
Ryuu walked slowly, hands tucked in pockets, shoulders hunched against the cold. As he turned the corner he glanced around as usual, ever aware of his surroundings. He was a tall boy of seventeen with a slim, strong build, and black hair sticking out in random directions from where it was squished beneath his headphones. He had large, dark eyes, a small nose, and a mouth that turned up at the ends in what appeared to be a slight smirk, even when he felt far from it. Despite his music blaring, he never stopped looking, keeping track of every meaningless occurrence around him, he paused and watched as a small girl spun, looking for her mother, but she was not long lost as her mother scooped her up. He pulled up his collar and moved on to his destination, a little apartment on the fifth floor above an office building.
Within his home he shrugged off his jacket and started brewing his usual jasmine tea, before sitting down at his desk, removing his headphones, and setting his head down with a thump. He had something in his head, a thought he could not put away. They were calling him in. After two years. No action, no training ... nothing but odd jobs, high school, and tea drinking, and they were calling him in. If they felt sorry for him that was one thing, the Shinu was pretty much the only life he'd had. He scrolled through other possibilities; a crisis could always be the cause, one that required all hands on deck, even rusty hands. Of course, Akira, Tataku, or Keiko could have died, quit, or gotten seriously injured, but he found a world threatening crisis more likely. Whatever way he viewed it the prospects weren't clear, and probably weren't good.
Ten years ago, Ryuu had been recruited and trained to be a member of the Shinu by the current leader, Shitsukoi. Back then, he'd had nothing but some impressive fighting abilities and strong instincts, not even memories, which is why his age was really an estimation. He had been brought to the Third Hemisphere, a world separate from the one containing Tokyo, and trained and lived in the Shinu's headquarters hidden in the southern forests of Alcumsis. He had left for good reasons, but now they wanted him back, for what?
Ryuu dragged his head upward to stare at a red mark on his forehead, clearly portrayed in the mirror in front of his desk; a sigh of frustration escaped his lips as he finally reached a conclusion. He slid out the familiar small crystal panel from beneath his desk and, after staring at it for a few seconds, began a combination of seemingly random taps while it began to glow as if vibrant green ferns were unfurling within its thin volume. Eyes widening, Ryuu remembered another part of the old routine, always block light from reaching the window. He slammed the panel back into his desk and ran for the window to rip the shutter closed as the crystal's ambience faded from the room. He slumped and glared inwardly at himself, wondering who or what had spotted the otherworldly glow emanating from a fifth floor window. Quickly tapping in the combination and holding his palm to the panel, a familiarly unpleasant sensation took hold, that of having every pore in your body seem as if it just drank freshly opened soda and burped with a painful jolt going up the nose.
He breathed, thinking, "Here we go, in five, four, three, two, on-;" with that, blinding green and a sudden jolt rocked him as if he were being moved in all directions at once. His head spun until the sudden stop that sent him flying backwards, barely managing to catch himself like he used to. The light faded, leaving him in a small forest glen, dappled with sunlight, bent over backwards ... yep, just as it used to be, except ... a rank smell hung in the air. Ryuu dropped to the ground with a thump and hopped to his feet. This wasn't the same at all; the only part of the forest around him that was preserved was the glen, probably the power of the portal. The rest however, had been reduced to giant pointed sticks of charcoal sticking out of the ground with grey ash everywhere in a thick layer, stirred into small wisps in the breeze. A distant roar reached his ears. Climbing a burned tree, Ryuu could see fires still raging in the distance.
"What happened here?" he muttered.
"Ryuu! You came!"
A thin wiry girl with medium length black hair and twin swords strapped to her back came bounding into the glen.
"Keiko? What is all this?"
She gestured for him to move away from the glen until they were crouching in the ashes of the forest, then she spoke in a deep, steady voice, deep for a girl anyhow.
"It's a lot to explain. What you need to know is that we are extremely vulnerable, the whole team is. The headquarters just went up in flames and Shitsukoi, Akira, Tataku, and a new recruit Usagi are patrolling the forest for anything ready to take advantage of us. Look, our best guess for the cause of all this is outlandish, but it's all we got. Before all this Akira had been researching something, essentially he thinks the forest stone was never returned to the capitol vault, that Jigoku managed to leave with it, and something happened between the two hours it took to force transport him out of here, and the time he died. It may seem random, but to make this quick, I need you to drink something. Hopefully, it will bring your old memories back as if they just happened."
She removed from her belt a small vial of vibrant green liquid. Ryuu took it, looking between it, and Keiko.
"Okay ... just in case, what memory should I focus on?"
"Wherever you hid the stone."
Ryuu cocked his head questioningly, then uncorked the vial and drank. His head began to swim when it suddenly felt like memories from long ago, memories that had been put away intentionally, were resurfacing with force. He was transported to another time, to a fuzzy memory of a tall dark figure placing a green swirling stone is his young hands then turning and vanishing. Another memory of ... of his mother driving in front of him, then a crash, flames, and blood running down her face while the stone pulsed with dark energy in his hands. Next he was wandering, beating figures much larger than him in fistfights, releasing his hatred on the world. Then there stood Shitsukoi, he saw himself being brought into the Shinu. But the thing was still in his pocket, the thing that killed mom. He ran and ran with it in his hands. There was a small waterfall with a niche behind it. A small hand pulled away rubble to finally put away the stone, finally hide it forever. It couldn't hurt anyone anymore ... forget ... forget it all ... it never happened ... -Ryuu lurched forward as the painful sequence ended. He realized he was gasping and cold sweat was running down his face. He squinted up at Keiko who hovered over him anxiously.
"Aaah, I think it worked ..."
"Are you all right? Do you know where it is?"
"Yeah and yes, I think so. But why does it matter?"
"I'll tell you on the way, we've got to start moving."
"Alright ... give me a sec ..."
Ryuu began jogging in the rough direction of the hiding place, based on which direction he'd run from the headquarters all those years ago, head still spinning from all that was happening, and his beautiful forest reduced to ash and charcoal.
"Ok, so it applies because the forest stone had a secret. It brings disaster on anyone or anything that possesses it; that's why it was kept in the capitol vault all those years. Akira believes that for whatever reason, Jigoku used his ties with the time travelers to go back and give you the stone just before he died. All you had was your mother, and she died in a car crash six months later, wiping your memory. The stone takes time to wreak its havoc, depending on how much havoc it's wreaking, depending on the "size" of its possessor. In this case, it took five years to destroy the forest it was buried in. It drains energy from its surroundings then expels it in a sudden lurch of disaster; in this case it was fire. The vault was enchanted and created to withstand the stone. If we can get it back there, we can keep this from getting any worse."
"It can get worse?"
They arrived suddenly at the miniature waterfall, now choked up with ash and fallen trees. A loud crashing sound came from behind them. They turned, Keiko unsheathing her weapons.
"Did I mention that it could call minions?"
"That, you did not," growled Ryuu.
Three trolls stood before them at seven feet tall each. Creatures known for sheer evil, ripping travelers apart limb by limb and dining on everything from grizzly bears to the nymphs. These were not lovely fellows by any means, not with short, stubby, trunk-like legs, stained, chipped ivory tusks, and fish scale-like skin that seemed too tight in some places and far too loose in others. Ryuu automatically reached towards his belt and cursed as he remembered he had left his favored weapons, twin daggers, hanging over his mantle at home. A sudden whoop drew his attention as a small, pale girl dropped down by his side, short orange hair interlaced with twigs and debris.
"Gotcha covered," she chimed, throwing him almost identical copies of the daggers.
"Sweetness. Usagi I presume?"
"Yep, look out."
They all rolled away as the front troll swung his club at the ground where they'd been, making a plume of ash come up in his face. They grinned at each other, this was the kind of thing they were trained for.
"Let's finish this quickly," Keiko asserted.
Ryuu headed for the last troll. As soon as it swung at him he ducked and spun, getting close enough to smell the troll's rancid breath and jab its hooded eyes. He swung himself to stand on its head and deal a final blow as it fell, jumping away as a cloud of ash enveloped everything. As the ash settled, he saw the other two trolls get downed. Keiko dodged the first swing as he had, then dug her hook swords into its shoulder to swing atop and deal a final blow, meanwhile Usagi was simply standing next to hers, having already leaned it against a tree to avoid the ash cloud. Ryuu couldn't really tell what had killed it, but she turned her back on it confidently. Breathing hard, Ryuu headed for the stones hiding place. Digging through the mud of ash and water that dribbled down, he reached the rubble, then the rocks, then, pulsing just like it did all those years ago, there was the stone. He removed it gently, handing it to Keiko.
"Well at least now we've stopped it. It's in my possession and will be until it gets handed off to the griffins waiting at Eagle's Nest. From there it can be flown to the capitol and moved to the vault."
"That's it?" Ryuu voiced.
"Yep," chimed Usagi. "The impossible part was making sure you came and getting the potion to work, but I guess you can go back to Tokyo now."
"Nah, I've missed this place too much, and I have to see the rest of the crew don't I?"
Keiko grinned. "I would think so Ryuu, they'll want to see their sempai."
"I still wonder though, why did he give the stone to me?"
"Maybe he didn't really know, either way, perhaps time will tell."
Julie Bentley is a freshman at Summit High School.