It echoed around in my head like a melody I couldn't chase out.

I sat numbly in the waiting room, holding my head in my arms. Shielding, shielding, shielding.

"That means that you have a defense talent," Ms. Aveer had mused. "That's extremely rare, you know. Almost as rare as a fire talent or a life talent."

"What are fire and life talents?" I had almost been scared to ask.

"A fire talent is an ability to work with fire that you bring out from inside you. It's very complex and very dangerous, which is why it's so rare. And a life talent is even more rare: it means that you can control the length of your own life. You can snip your life short, or you can command that you live forever."

In the present, I stared at my shaking knees. I had finally found my talent, so why was I so scared?

"Natalia? Natalia Elydee?" My head launched out of my hands and I almost tripped over myself standing up. Ms. Hewitt, the principal, beckoned for me to enter the room behind her. "Natalia, please come in."

I followed her into the room, and she closed the door behind me. Ms. Hewitt flicked the lights on and a group of people sitting in chairs flashed into view.

There was Cat and Jen, sitting together, relaxed in lazy positions. Matt was talking animatedly with Caleb. Three girls were huddled together, whispering. There were two boys punching and shoving each other. Xena sat off to the side, seemingly examining the floor. Lila sat by herself also, looking bored.

The pieces clicked in my mind and I drew a breath in. "This is-"

"This is the junior triple M," Ms. Hewitt announced. "And Natalia, I would like for you to join."

There was a tense silence before one of the girls jumped up. "This is outrageous! She just found out what her talent was today." Her fists were balled up: she had dark red hair and pinched up eyes. I flushed in embarrassment and looked at my feet.

Matt laid a hand on her shoulder. "Calm down, Liza. I'm sure there's a good reason for this." He sent me a comforting smile, but I could see confusion in his eyes.

"Good reason, my foot-" Matt sent her a disapproving look, and Liza cut herself off. She sent me a hateful glare before sitting back down with crossed arms, her two friends whispering in her ears.

Ms. Hewitt pushed me forward. "Natalie has a shielding talent, which is very rare. I believe that she would be a good addition to the junior triple M, providing that she works hard and improves her abilities regarding her talent."

Liza and her friends opened their mouths to object, but Ms. Hewitt gave them a firm look. It wasn't just them. The two boys stared at me like I was an alien, and Caleb and Matt had their eyebrows furrowed. Lila peered at me with distaste and Xena simply looked at me with an unreadable expression. Even Jen and Cat were biting their lips.

My heart dropped like a dead weight into the pit of my stomach. I wasn't welcome.

"Natalia, why don't you join them in training?" Ms. Hewitt gestured to the eleven teens in the room. "They can give you a taste of what triple M training is like."

"O-Okay." I mentally slapped myself when I heard my voice shake. The other teens silently filed out of the room, walking through a door across from the one I had entered. I hurried after them, trying not to trip.

The room was similar to the one we went to for talent classes, but with more equipment. Gazing at the incredibly high, dome-like ceiling, Ididn't notice Cat was standing next to me until I heard her speak. "Do you feel auras yet?" She sounded serious. "Magical auras, coming from each of us?"

I chewed my bottom lip. "There's a jumble of...auras surrounding me," I confessed. "I feel a lot of different things, but I can't sort them out."

"Try me. What do you think my aura is like? Tell me what you feel."

I concentrated on Cat, staring at her intensely. I couldn't sense anything but a faint smell of violets around her. "Violets?" I guessed. "It feels like a windy spring day."

She shook her head. "My aura feels like a waterfall. There's the cold air and the water rushing down and the pounding noise. It's okay, you'll be more sensitive to auras as you get better with your talent." I bobbed my head up and down, my resolve faltering.

"Try to shield," Cat encouraged. "Just concentrate on making a shield, and you'll do it."

I closed my eyes and breathed deeply, searching for something inside of me. Something stirred, and when I opened my eyes, there was a shivering blue-ish white thing coating my hands.

"It's very weak," Cat said disapprovingly. "Try again. Concentrate harder."

I sent all my focus toward the jello-like shield; it trembled but wasn't affected at all. I let my breath out, relaxing for just for a second. Suddenly, the shield vaporized; my knees suddenly gave way and I collapsed.

It was like I had just finished a marathon. I wiped sweat off my forehead, gasping for breath, the fire in my legs spreading to my chest and arms. ""

"Your talent weakens you when you use it. As you become accustomed to using it, you get less tired afterwards." Cat gave me a pointed look. "How about this: I'll punch and you have to shield. You shielded pretty well when that bowling ball was hurtling toward you." Before I could protest, I had been knocked backwards. "Oops," Cat murmured.

It was extremely difficult to shield her punches in time. Her talent was agility and speed, so she was naturally very quick. I knew that she was holding back on me, but after half an hour, I had only been able to shield four of her maddeningly fast punches and was gasping and trembling, my limbs melted into goo.

"That's all you can do? You're not improving very much." One of Liza's friends, a petite golden-brown haired girl with bubblegum in her mouth, smirked at me.

"Mind your own business," Cat snapped at her. "It's Natalie's first day. Give her a break. Besides, she's already making great progress." I might have believed her if I hadn't seen the twitch in her lips and the averted look in her eyes. Seeing the girl's smug grin, it was clear that she had detected the lies as well.

"Hey...Natalie, isn't it? Why don't you look at what the rest of us can do." She faced away from me and blinked.

On cue, a large metal pillar exploded into dust and I had to stifle a scream. When the dust cleared, I was coughing whereas the girl was standing confidently as ever, showing no signs of weariness. "And that's the least of my abilities."

I turned around and saw Lila appearing and disappearing, Matt creating boulders and launching them into a large hole in the wall, one of the boys shrinking until he was smaller than an ant. "They're good. They're really good," I breathed. I spotted Xena standing to the side, simply watching. "What about Xena?"

The girl's face twisted and her smug grin disappeared. "She thinks she's so amazing and so awesome. Just because she's the strongest out of all of us. Ugh. So annoying. Look, she's talking to Ms. Hewitt right now. Show-off," she spat.

"Shut up, Gwen," Cat said evenly. "Oh look, Xena's doing something."

From a distance away, Xena was talking to Ms. Hewitt, who was nodding. The principal crossed over to Matt, who nodded a couple times. Matt and Xena faced each other, standing no more than four feet away from each other. Matt closed his eyes, and suddenly the largest boulder I had ever seen materialized and hurtled toward Xena.

I had only glimpsed the boulder for a second; I knew that in the next second, if nothing happened, it would hit Xena and she could possibly die. But the next thing I knew, the boulder was consumed in red-hot flames, disintegrating less than a foot away from Xena.

The flames glittered in beautiful reds and oranges, licking the ceiling. The ashes of what used to be the boulder wafted toward me, and I caught one in my hand. The fire flickered and reflected off Xena's ever-present dark sunglasses.

"Xena has a fire talent," I said numbly. "Fire talents are very, very rare."

Gwen's eyes flashed with anger. "I can't deal with her." She stomped off toward Liza and their other friend.

I stared after Xena. "She is-she can-"

"Xena's too powerful to use her powers, normally. She gets scared that she's going to set the whole school on fire," Cat answered.

I shook my head. "I didn't know."

"Of course you wouldn't. Xena doesn't bring it up, and she'll only exhibit her talent in triple M training sessions." Cat glanced admiringly in the black-haired girl's direction. "Where do you think she trained? I mean, most people with a fire talent die before they realize their talent and start using it."

I paused. "What do you mean?"

She frowned. "Fire's extremely dangerous. It usually consumes the person before he or she can let it out. The only fire talents who live are the ones that can outlast the fire burning them up, outlast it until they're...well, nobody except the surviving fire talents knows what happens after 's a rumor that they're whisked off to some magical place. Xena won't answer any questions." She sighed. "What a shame."

Before I could say something, Ms. Hewitt announced, "Everyone, gather 'round."

"Mission number two. Somebody's been kidnapping children all over Arehale. This person needs to be stopped," Ms. Hewitt announced, her voice high and clear. "Natalia, you will watch with me as the mission is carried out tomorrow night. It will be your first taste of what being a triple M is truly like." Her eyes bored into mine. "Are you ready?"

No. No, no, no. Everything's happening too fast. But facing Ms. Hewitt and the junior triple M, all I could say was, "Yes. I'm ready."

Sorry for the long wait! I actually had this all written up a while ago, hehehe...but I decided to edit this and that's why it took so long. I'll get the next chapter out sooner: promise!