"Hey, Ashley, are you alright?" Tabitha asked, suddenly bringing Ashley's train of thought back to reality.
"What? No, I'm fine. I'm just tired." Ashley picked up her pencil and rolled it between her fingers before turning back to her friend. "What are we supposed to be doing right now?"
"I knew you'd been zoning out for a while. See the problems up on the board?" Tabitha gestured up to front of the room, where a couple of quadratic equations were projected up on a screen. "We're supposed to be figuring them out by ourselves or in groups. Which is why I called out to you. Wanna work together?"
"Of course!" Ashley started copying the original equations into her notebook, before stopping to look at Tabitha once more. "What's the quadratic formula again?
"Ashley, we've been working with the quadratic formula all week. We have a song for it to the tune of Pop goes the Weasel. You really need to memorize this before the next quiz."
"I know, I know, but can you give me just a teensy little hint?" Ashley begged. The friends worked through their math, checking each other's mistakes and comparing work. Somehow, they ended up finishing the problems before some of their classmates, leaving them with some free time to talk before the lesson continues.
"So, what have you been thinking about instead of paying attention?" Tabitha asked.
"Nothing, actually. I feel weird… I'm probably getting sick again."
"Maybe you caught something running around yesterday in shorts. It is getting cold outside."
"But it didn't feel cold when we were fighting. Actually, now that you mention it, do you think it's related to the fire thing? I wonder if Edwin was cold. We need to ask him about that at lunch."
"You better not get sick, with the fate of the world resting on your shoulders. I don't think Mateo would give you a day off."
"Where is Mateo? I haven't seen him since he ran off with Sarah yesterday. Doesn't he usually hang around with you?"
"He didn't show up today. Most mornings he'll appear when I'm walking to school, and he'll stick around in my bag for a little bit. I wonder what he's up to?"
"If he doesn't show up later, Edwin and I need to speak to you in private. Edwin's brother told us some stuff and you should probably know about it."
"Edwin has a brother?"
"Yeah, he's in high school."
"Why didn't he ever tell us about him?"
"When has Edwin ever told us anything about his life? I swear, he's a mystery. Did you know he likes to cook?"
"He mentioned it when we were fighting yesterday. I think that's the most I know about him."
"Okay, everyone just about finished with these problems?" Mr. Davis interrupted the pair, returning attention back to the front of the classroom. "We're going to start going over the answers. Are there any confident volunteers who want their work to be used as an example for this first problem?"
Edwin met up with Tabitha and Ashley at lunch, and the trio set off for the library. Hopefully, the school newspaper would be set out in a stack at the returns desk, and they could see what Sarah had published in the current week's edition. They reached the double-doors to the library, propped open by small chunks of wood. The librarian was missing from her seat behind the counter, but the newspapers were clearly visible. Each of them took a copy, and began skimming the pages.
The dangers of the newest rubber band bracelet fad…. New fundraiser starting for better equipment in the computer lab…. Why the new vending machines with only diet soda are worse than the original machines…. Ashley couldn't find anything about their heroic escapades. She sighed with relief as she finished the final page, looking up to see Tabitha and Edwin had already finished reading.
"Looks like whatever Mateo did really worked." Edwin said, placing his newspaper back on the pile.
"Or, Sarah's just compiling information so she can write a super long article next week! I don't trust her to drop this so quickly." Tabitha huffed, returning her poorly folded newspaper to the stack with a thwack.
"Well, it looks like we're safe for now." Ashley added. "Let's head back, I'm starving." She led the group back to the staircase, when she noticed movement in the shadows of the stairwell. "Guys, I think I just saw a mouse." Edwin and Tabitha stopped cold, and Ashley pointed to the corner. The three were silent, curious and a bit frightened to see if the animal was real.
"A mouse, really? I think I'd at least count as a rat in your book." Mateo spoke up from behind the trio, causing them all to jump. "Follow me, we need to talk." Mateo said as he walked back into the hallway.
"But what if someone sees you?" Edwin whispered.
"It's clear for now, so hurry up!" Mateo barked. The trio accepted his orders, and he led them to a nearby supply room.
"Hey! We're not supposed to go in here! And it's locked!" Ashley whispered. The door handle began glowing and clicked itself open. Mateo looked up at Ashley, smugly, and walked in. When they had all gotten inside, the door shut itself.
Mateo had led them into one of the school's books rooms, where extra textbooks were stored away in large piles on old bookcases. The furniture was pushed so close together that teachers could barely navigate the cluttered room. Mateo found himself a stool to jump up on, giving him a bit more vertical authority over the kids. "Yesterday, I spoke with your classmate, Sarah. Nice kid. She was quite determined to write a story about you two. I couldn't get her to change her mind, but she did agree to postpone the article she was working on. In exchange, you two will be interviewed by her this afternoon."
"You told her what?!" Ashley shouted.
"Quiet down. You wouldn't want one of your precious teachers to find you in here, would you?" Mateo scoffed. Ashley flushed red and looked to the floor. "She'll be meeting you behind the school at 2:45. Don't be late."
"Do we really have no say in this?" Edwin asked.
"That girl drove a hard bargain. I assure you, this is all in your best interest." Mateo looked over the three, and nodded to himself. "Well, I won't keep you any longer. Farewell!" He jumped up and burst into a flash of light, disappearing.
Ashley turned back to the door, grabbing the handle tightly to vent her anger with Mateo. She shoved the handle down, only to have it not move an inch. Wiggling it, she quickly realized the door was still locked.
"I can't believe you know how to pick locks and you never told me!" Ashley said, pulling her backpack over her shoulder.
Standing behind her, Tabitha giggled. "I have to have some secrets, don't I? Anyway, you never know when you'll need to break in somewhere to get a good shot!" During lunch, Tabitha had been an unexpected savior, pulling two bobby pins from her pocket and breaking the trio out of the storage room. Thanks to her, they had plenty of time to eat before classes restarted for the afternoon.
"Please, never make me bail you out of jail for breaking and entering." Ashley sighed.
"No promises!" Tabitha laughed. Ashley shut her locker, and the two walked down to the main lobby, where Edwin was waiting. Tabitha took a seat on one of the benches, and Ashley and Edwin left their belongings with her.
"I promise we'll be right back once this is over with." Edwin said.
"We really need to talk about Mateo." Ashley added.
"No problem, guys! I'll just do some of my English reading. I have your stuff hostage anyway." Tabitha smiled, hugging Ashley's bag closer. Ashley and Edwin waved to their friend before heading outside.
"Well, I think we need to find somewhere hidden to transform." Edwin said as they walked briskly to the side of the school.
Ashley pointed to the bushes along the building. "How 'bout here?" The pair checked to make sure no one was around, and ducked behind the landscaping. In an instant they transformed and began walking to the back of the school, staying along the wall.
The pair peeked around the corner of the building, spying Sarah 10 yards away. She stood by the entrance to the gym, looking down at her phone. Ashley and Edwin ducked back behind the wall to regroup.
"No sharing secrets this time, got it?" Ashley pointed at Edwin.
"What? I never told Sarah any secrets." Edwin said.
"No, Tabitha! Remember that, because I sure do."
"I said I'm sorry! It won't happen again."
"Just checking." Ashley rolled her eyes. She took a deep breath, exhaling slowly. "Here goes nothing."
Ashley turned around the corner, immediately coming face-to-face with Sarah. She almost ran into the amateur reporter, but quickly stepped back in surprise. It was weird being slightly taller than her for once. Edwin was right behind Ashley, and stumbled back as she walked into him. "So you two were hiding back here." Sarah said, tucking her phone into her skirt pocket. " It's a pleasure to meet you again. Follow me, I'll take you to our clubroom."
Sarah led the pair into the gym entrance and up the stairs, arriving at the journalism teacher's classroom. Afterschool, the room became a flurry of activity, as it was shared between the Yearbook and Newspaper clubs. Desks were arranged into groups, and students used some of the school's laptops to collaborate on documents and layouts. Notes were typed up, and photos were copied over to the school's server from phones and digital cameras. Ashley was shocked by the organized chaos taking place. Choir practices were never this frenzied, and always under the supervision of their director. Ashley looked to Edwin, wondering how a no-club student would react. He looked out over the clubroom, with a solemn expression, before catching Ashley's eye and shooting her a small smile.
Sarah ignored the action going on around her, instead leading Ashley and Edwin to an attached office in the back of the room. She offered the two a seat, and shut the door behind them, blocking out a considerable amount of noise. Sarah took her seat at what they assumed to be the teacher's desk, and picked up a clipboard that had been sitting on it.
"So, how did you two start this hero business?" Sarah asked, adjusting her scarf. Ashley and Edwin looked to one another, unsure how much they were willing to share with the student reporter.
Biting the bullet, Ashley began. "It's actually only been a week," she chuckled, realizing how inexperienced they were. "Mateo, the fox you've been talking to, approached us after we fell off a bridge. There was a monster attacking, and apparently we could defend the town. He told us what to do, and we've been fighting the monsters that have appeared since then."
"You fell off a bridge?" Sarah inquired.
"Yeah, the railing broke and…" Ashley pointed at Edwin, trying to figure out what to call him. "…Sapphire here fell off."
"And-" Edwin tried to respond, but his voice came out with an awkward croak, causing him to cut himself short. He started again, quieter, "And the bridge was on fire, so Ruby had to jump in to escape."
"Did the monster cause that?" Sarah asked.
Ashley and Edwin suddenly looked at each other, realizing how strange the events on the bridge had been. The fight with the first monster had largely overshadowed the experience in their memory.
"No, it actually happened before we met Mateo or the monster." Ashley replied.
"Interesting…" said Sarah. "What do you know about Mateo? Any idea why he chose you?"
"Mateo is the local god of Summers, so he protects the town." Edwin replied. "Monsters started appearing, which weakened his powers somehow and he couldn't fight them off. We have like, magic spirit blood? Or something? But whatever it is, it gives us power to protect the town."
"Does the magic also give you these outfits, or is this just what you normally wear?" Sarah asked.
"No way!" Ashley burst out, before catching herself and becoming embarrassed. "These are 100% magic clothes. I wouldn't be caught walking around like this otherwise."
"Aww, that's a shame. I think they're cute." Sarah replied. "Well, did Mateo mention any other people or monsters? Or are you two alone?"
"That's a question we'd like to ask you. Mateo never mentioned any other Soul Warriors, but we think there might be others." Ashley said.
"Hey! That isn't how this interview is supposed to work." Sarah laughed. "But I might have some info you'd want. Give me a day to collect my materials, and I'll answer your question. Can we meet up at the same place tomorrow?"
Ashley and Edwin looked at one another before nodding. "Just, please don't tell Mateo about this extra information." Edwin insisted.
"No problem! Okay, I'm almost done. Just one last question: Who are you two, really? Any hints for secret identities?" Ashley and Edwin's blood ran cold at the question. It was one thing to have the whole school know about Ruby Fire and Sapphire Sea. Having the entire school realize Ashley and Edwin were those heroes? It couldn't happen.
Sarah set her clipboard back down on the desk. "Just kidding! But it was worth a shot. Thank you for taking some time to talk with me, and thank you again for everything you've done for Summers." Sarah stood up, stretched, and opened the office door. As Ashley and Edwin walked out of the classroom, they noticed the club members watching them, much quieter than before.
Tabitha met back up with Ashley and Edwin, who had un-transformed once more in the bushes outside the school. The trio had started their walk home, happy to finally be free from the school.
"You were so precious when you tried to talk to Sarah for the first time." Ashley joked, brushing Edwin with her elbow. "You were so nervous, you sounded like a little frog!"
Edwin started blushing profusely, stammering to defend himself. "I'd never talked to her before! Ever!"
"Don't worry, Ashley wouldn't understand anything about love." Tabitha jeered, switching the target. "Though, I can't really say you know anything either. I mean, Sarah, of all people?"
Edwin and Tabitha looked behind them, realizing they had lost Ashley. They were crossing the bridge home, and Ashley had walked over to the railing. "It was right here, wasn't it?" She asked.
"What was here?" Tabitha asked.
"This is where we first transformed." Edwin explained.
"I don't understand," Ashley said, pushing on the railing. It doesn't look like they had to repair any of this, and the railing is still sturdy. Shouldn't there be some obvious lines where they attached the missing piece to the rest of the railing?"
The others walked closer, surveying the rail. The metal was still seamless, with no obvious points where a new piece would have been soldered on. The stone bridge was also in one piece, without chipping where the rail would have slammed against it. It seemed like nothing ever happened.
"And what exactly was on fire?" Ashley gestured around them. "It doesn't make any sense. There's so much we don't know." She pushed off the railing, retuning to the center of the bridge. The trio continued their walk home, but Ashley remained lost in thought.
Tabitha and Edwin sprawled over the large sofa in Ashley's basement, half-listening to the news Edwin had put on the TV. The winter was supposed to be another cold one, but lighter than last year's stormy mess. Tabitha looked back to the stairs, sighing. "How long does it take someone to find a snack in their own home?"
"Maybe Cecilia caught her," Edwin chuckled, imagining what pointless argument they'd get into this time.
"Think we can get a song done on Guitar Hero before she's back?" Tabitha grinned, flipping over to sit up on the sofa.
"Never know until we'll try." Edwin smiled back. "Where does she keep the guitars?" Tabitha quickly crossed the room in response, opening up one of the cabinets surrounding the television and retrieving two plastic guitars. Edwin hopped up to meet her, and the pair began setting up the game.
"Hey, guys, guess what I found!" Ashley announced, running down the carpeted stairs to the basement. "Fudge!" Seeing Ashley return, Edwin and Tabitha groaned, putting down their guitars. "Thanks guys." Ashley sarcastically responded.
"Guess its time for this serious discussion." Tabitha flopped down on the sofa, air quoting "serious." "What do you want to tell me about Mateo?"
"You can have some fudge first if you want…" Ashley said, sitting down as she popped a piece of chocolate in her mouth. Edwin sat on the floor in front of them, stealing a piece of fudge for himself.
"So…" Ashley wanted to have this conversation for a while, but now that it had come up, she wasn't sure where to begin. "When you weren't with us on Sunday, some stuff happened."
Edwin added on to the story. "My brother says there are some more Soul Warriors at his school, but Mateo hasn't told us about anyone else. And when Jake tried to ask Mateo about it, he glared at him and put some weird magic circle on his hand. It disappeared after he coughed up a black blob, which evaporated."
"Which is a really creepy thing for him to do on its own, but there's a lot of secrets Mateo is keeping. Like, we're fighting these monsters, but why? We never had an explanation."
"And why wouldn't he answer our question if he wasn't hiding something? Just say, 'yes, there are others!' I don't understand why he'd be angry, let alone try and hurt Jake."
Tabitha thought for a few moments before responding to her friends. "It doesn't seem like he's working against you guys. And he is a little mean, but I thought that was just his personality. Maybe there's a reason for him to be keeping secrets? I just can't imagine him doing something like that…"
Edwin and Ashley looked to each other, rethinking the past few days. Was there some good reason for Mateo's mysterious actions? It was possible, but Ashley couldn't shake the feeling that Mateo was guilty of something.
"We may have made some assumptions, but I'm still going to be wary of Mateo, " said Edwin. " He almost killed my brother. I think we all should be careful moving forward."
"We're also trying to find out about the other Soul Warriors." Ashley added. "Sarah is looking into them for us."
"What!? Her?!" Tabitha shouted. "Why Sarah, of all people?"
"She's good at researching, with all the articles she's writing for the newspaper. She also owes us for the interview we're giving her." Edwin calmly replied.
"Of course you'd defend her, lover boy." Tabitha rolled her eyes, and Edwin almost shot back at her. "But I can see where you're coming from. Keep me updated on the hot gossip." Tabitha smiled.
"Guess we're done here." Ashley said. "Wanna get back to your game?" she pointed to the guitars, still lying beside the TV. "I call the loser's guitar next song."
Ashley was uncomfortable. There wasn't any reason for it, but she still felt gross and it was terribly distracting. She had tried to start on her report for Mr. Lewis at least five times, but each time she ended up zoning out and wanting to lie in bed and do nothing. She rocked on the back legs of her chair, trying to force some motivation into herself. Maybe there was something else in her backpack, some other homework she could do…
She ended up fiddling with her keychain, watching the ruby catch the light and dance with the tassel's strands of red string. It was probably one of the nicest things she owned. Which made sense, it being a magical artifact and all. She braided some strands of the tassel, before running her fingers through it and returning the strands to their free state. Still no motivation. Maybe she could try transforming…
No. That was a bad thought. Ashley hated transforming. It was weird and unnecessary and she had started to associate it with getting hit by strange creatures. But there was no harm in trying… She got up from her desk, keychain in hand. Maybe this wouldn't be too bad. It wasn't like she had to keep it a secret from her family anymore. She closed her eyes and whispered the incantation to herself.
No! This wasn't right! She cut the magic short, throwing the keychain on to her bed. But the magic had already taken effect. Ashley realized she was in her halfway form. They could do that? She walked over to the floor-length mirror by her closet, taking inventory of the situation. She'd never actually seen what she looked in this form, having dodged her reflection during the weekend's ordeal. There was something final, and embarrassing about seeing herself like this. Maybe, if she never saw herself, she could still pass the past week off as a strange nightmare.
But it was too late. Ashley made eye contact with her reflection and her breath hitched. She hadn't seen this face clearly, only reflected in the river that first day. She brushed her hand through her hair, noticing how much shorter and, well, redder it had become. Her face hadn't changed much, and she could still recognize herself in it. A few inches had been added to her height, and her clothes became ill fitting. The main difference between this form and Ruby Fire was the lack of costume. She still had magic like this, as she had used it on Sunday. Wait… did she always have magic? She'd have to turn back to normal and check.
Except, she really didn't want to. What harm was there in staying in this form for a little longer? Ashley looked to Edwin's clothes in the bottom of her closet. It would be better to get comfortable, right? She pulled out a long-sleeve shirt and sweat pants, and turned away from the mirror. She'd changed her clothes like this before, but that didn't stop it from being embarrassing. There was always an inkling of wrongness in the back of her head, forcing her to close her eyes.
But it didn't feel wrong this time. She could have stopped at any time and turned back to normal. But for some strange reason, standing alone in her room wearing her friend's (was she calling Edwin a friend now?) clothes, she felt the most comfortable she had all day. Ashley folded her clothes, laying them on her bed for when she changed back. Moving about the room, she caught a glance of herself in the mirror. To a stranger, she would have looked like any normal boy.
Ashley sat down on her bed at the thought, her heart pounding and her face flushed with embarrassment. Something very wrong was happening to her, and she was absolutely terrified. She lay down, grabbed one of her pillows, and squeezed it. She felt betrayed by her own thoughts, and wanted to immediately wipe them from her memory. For Ashley Reading had just felt happiness from the idea that someone might see her as a boy. And that was not okay.
"Rise and shine, darling!" Ashley jumped from the sudden sound of Mateo's voice booming behind her. She shot up, turning to face the fox that now stood on her bed. "Good to see you're doing nothing important, because its time for more training. Now get up and get yourself ready."
Ashley was happy for any distraction from her current predicament. "Okay, let me just change back here," she said, grabbing her keychain from where it had been sitting underneath her.
"No time!" Mateo responded. "Besides, you're going to be transforming anyway for training. Just grab your things. We have to pick up Edwin."
Ashley grabbed a hoodie from her closet and the tennis shoes Edwin leant her, quickly tying them. She had to meet Edwin like this? Being alone in her room was mortifying enough. But she didn't want to argue with Mateo, as he could probably hurt her in a million ways with his advanced magic. And after all his lying, she couldn't trust him in the slightest.
Mateo jumped onto Ashley's shoulder, and the pair walked down to the first floor of Ashley's home. "Mom!" Ashley yelled as she reached the front door. "I'm heading out with Mateo." She didn't bother to wait for a response, not wanting to explain her current form. Ashley slipped out of the house unnoticed.
Mateo led Ashley along the route to Edwin's home, but she merely performed the movements he requested. Her thoughts were preoccupied, equally embarrassed and excited to be in public in her halfway form. She reassured herself that no one would recognize her, and found giddiness in the freedom. Chances were any passerby would assume she was a boy, and the idea made her stomach churn. She couldn't tell if it was excitement or disgust, and she didn't want to know. She tried to push all of these terrible thoughts from her head, but every time she caught her reflection in a window they resurged with a vengeance.
Before she knew it, Ashley had arrived at an apartment complex a few blocks from her home. The buildings were three stories tall, with an apartment on each floor. Six apartments shared the same stairwell, with its own doorway on the ground floor. Mateo led her to one of the doors and up to the second floor. Ashley rang the doorbell to the apartment on the left, wondering why Edwin had never mentioned he lived in an apartment. She hadn't asked, but it must have naturally come up at some point. She really knew nothing about the boy she now called a friend.
Edwin answered the door, but Ashley didn't recognize him for a moment. He too was in his halfway form, wearing one of the pink sweaters Ashley hated with a pair of jeans. His hair was also out of its usual ponytail, confusing Ashley the most. Before she could stop herself and Edwin could even say hello, she asked, "Why are you a girl?"
Edwin was taken a back by her rude greeting. "Why are you a boy?" he replied, harshly.
Ashley was overwhelmed with embarrassment, her face turning as red as her hair. She coughed twice before trying to restart the conversation. "Mateo wants us to go train, so…"
"Oh, that's fine. Let me grab my keys and a jacket, and we can head out. It's just me at home, so I'll have to lock up." Edwin went back inside, and Ashley let the door close in front of her. She made a fool of herself once again.
Edwin quickly reappeared, and the trio set off to the park. They walked in silence, as Ashley was afraid to say anything more and Edwin was seemingly mad at her. Mateo was oddly silent, but he jumped between Ashley and Edwin's shoulders, reminding them that he was there with the pressure of his paws.
They reached the front parking lot of the Oak Ridge Park when Edwin spoke up. "Did you tell Tabitha we were coming here?"
Ashley gasped, realizing that while she lad forgotten about her best friend while lost in her own thoughts. She pulled her cellphone from her pocket, answering Edwin's question. Quickly, she typed out a text to Tabitha.
"Oh no…" Mateo muttered to himself. "It looks like training is off for today. Instead, we'll be having battle practice." Ashley and Edwin quickly scanned the area, trying to find what Mateo was talking about.
Twenty feet away, the air had become hazy, like a mirage on a hot day. The shimmering light became increasingly brighter and larger, until a terrifying mass had taken shape. A flash blinded the pair, and they heard a trumpeting snarl come from the same direction. As their eyes regained focus, the hazy spot had been replaced with another beast. It seemed like an elephant, but it's trunk ended in a mass of feelers, like a star-nosed mole. The creature's feet each ended long claws, which it began using to dig into the parking lot, ripping up chunks of asphalt.
"Good luck!" Mateo cheerfully said before teleporting away.
Ashley and Edwin checked the surrounding area, happy to find there were no civilians for once. They quickly transformed, wasting no time as the monster began its rampage. Its nose tentacles gripped onto a piece of asphalt that had cracked free after the monster began digging. The duo waited for a moment, wanting to see what it would do. The monster swung its trunk back before throwing the chunk at Ashley and Edwin, who jumped in opposite direction out of harm's way.
"Why does it have to make a mess?" Edwin whined, summoning his guns. Ashley did likewise, and the pair ran behind the monster while it returned to digging. They looked to each other, nodding to confirm their plans were the same. From behind, they charged at the monster from out of sight. Before they made contact with the beast, it quickly moved underground, hitting Ashley and Edwin with a face full of dirt. They crashed into each other, falling into the hole created by the monster.
The pair fell twelve feet before smacking into even more dirt. Ashley pushed herself up and spat a mouthful of soil onto the ground. There had been an intense pain when she hit the ground, but now it was only a dull soreness. It was probably another effect of her magic, and she was grateful it had kept her alive. Her sword was missing, so she assumed it must have unsummoned itself during the fall. She looked around, noticing a long tunnel to her left, where the echoes of claws on dirt could be heard. The monster must had gone horizontal once below the surface. Ashley stood up and offered a hand to Edwin, who was kneeling alongside her.
"Think we can get back up?" Ashley asked.
"Worth a shot." Edwin replied. They realized from previous fights that they could launch themselves at targets, but they'd never tried a purely vertical leap. Ashley jumped first, making it more than halfway up the wall but still unable to reach the edge. Edwin tried likewise, and was also unable to make the edge or grab hold of the wall. They tried a few more times, but whenever they grabbed the dirt walls their handholds would fall apart. With the monster still on the loose, they had no more time to continue their attempts.
Ashley and Edwin looked to one another, not wanting to enter the monster's tunnel. The noise of digging continued to echo eerily, and they would be confined with the monster. Taking a deep breath, Ashley produced an orb of fire in her hand, lighting up the edge of the tunnel. The pair moved into the oversized burrow, and broke into a run when they realized how far ahead the monster could be located.
After a few twists and turns, the scraping had become much louder, and the duo slowed in response. Ashley threw a fireball out ahead of them to try and light the way, but it quickly faded because the soil wouldn't burn. She grumbled, wanting to carefully approach the darkness, but stealth was no longer an option. She sent out a stream of fire into the unknown, reaching out for ten feet. Just beyond the flamethrower, the digging stopped, and the darkness seemed to move. Then, the monster's tentacle'd trunk tip was illuminated in all of its pink glory, with little nostrils peering like eyes upon the pair. Ashley was caught off guard, letting the fire disappear and the tunnel to return to darkness.
"The light! Bring back the light!" Edwin yelled, panicking. Ashley complied, fumbling while recalling her how magic worked. When the fire orb returned, the monster was almost on top of them, and the pair scrambled back. Edwin threw out two strands of water that engulfed the creature's front legs, trying to hold it in place. Realizing it was caught, the monster trumpeted and began thrashing about.
"What do we do now?" Ashley was still overwhelmed by fear, not liking how confined the tunnel was.
"I don't know, do something!" Edwin strained to hold the monster at a distance. Ashley summoned her sword, trying to get closer to the creature. It whipped its trunk around the tunnel, not letting Ashley pass behind to its body. She tried to slice at the trunk, but its movements were chaotic, and Ashley was hindered by her fear.
"Do you think you can stop its trunk?" Ashley yelled back to Edwin, trying to be heard over the monster's cries.
"I only have two hands!" Edwin replied, losing the battle with the monster. His water restraints broke, and the monster quickly turned away from the pair. It returned to high-speed digging, but moved upwards, creating a slope up to the surface.
"I'm sorry I couldn't hit it." Ashley said.
"Its fine! Let's just get moving." Edwin started running towards the slope, but his boots became stuck in a section of mud. "Damn it, my water must have made the ground muddy here. Watch your step."
"That's it!" Ashley exclaimed, coming to Edwin's aid.
"Mud! We can trap the monster!"
Ashley pulled Edwin from the mud as he realized her plan. "Oh my god you're right."
The two clambered up the slope to the surface of the parking lot, where the monster had returned to destroying the asphalt. Edwin ran towards it and was met with a chunk of asphalt thrown his direction. He successfully dodged, making it close enough to the beast. It stood over a patch of dirt, having pulled up the asphalt coating. With both of his hands, he motioned towards the dirt, launching two jets towards the revealed patch.
Once more, the monster began trumpeting after realizing it had become trapped. The dirt had become sticky mud and the monster sank into the earth. Edwin smiled to Ashley, who ran behind the monster once more, avoiding the thrashing trunk. Edwin met with her, and the two charged the creature once more, attacking the back of the monster.
The combination of cuts, hot flames, and high-speed water quickly took the beast down, resulting in one final bellow. Ashley and Edwin jumped back to the ground as the monster deflated like a balloon, making the accompanying whining noise. The two sighed, relieved that they had made it above ground once more.
"Good work! Though I'd recommend not falling in a hole next time." Mateo ran up behind the Soul Warriors, reappearing as usual.
"Oh my god, the hole! What are we going to do about the parking lot?" Edwin grabbed the back of his neck, freaking out once he realized how much property damage had occurred.
"What if a kid falls into the hole?" Ashley added.
"Settle down, settle down. It will all be fixed in time. You two should just head home." Mateo smiled, his cute little face begging to be trusted.
"We can't leave a hazard like that unreported!" Edwin replied.
"I said. Go. Home." Mateo hissed, smiling with his teeth this time. Ashley and Edwin remembered who they were messing with, and decided to leave the area as quickly as possible. As they walked away, Mateo called sweetly, "That wasn't so hard was it?"
The pair hadn't remembered to untransform until they had already walked a block.
That night, Ashley, Edwin, and Tabitha sent a flurry of text messages back and forth, discussing the fight and Mateo's final comment. Tabitha remained hopeful, but worried about how rude Mateo was becoming. Hopefully, Sarah would have some life-changing information tomorrow that would clean up the whole issue.
Ashley yawned, closing her math textbook despite having a few problems left of the homework. I'll finish them in the morning, she told herself, even though she knew it wasn't the truth. Standing up at her desk, she stretched, deciding it was time for a shower and bed (or another hour on the internet). Walking by her bed, she noticed a pile of clothing sitting on the side, and suddenly realized she had never changed back from her halfway form.