Read Strength Online

Authors: Angela B. Macala-Guajardo

Strength (23 page)

BOOK: Strength
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Roxie came up with the idea that Aigis were supposed to be guardian angels or something, but visualizing Aerigo with a set of wings and a white toga while wielding his dagger and fighting dragons just—
nah.

“As I said before, I’m curious... from a Wangama’s perspective.” His golden eyes fixed themselves upon Aerigo. “I caught but a glimpse when I pushed you onto the bench earlier today. So many scars...”Aerigo tensed under Roxie’s back. “And in turn for the favor,” he continued without altering his gaze, “I’ll answer whatever questions you might have, Roxie, seeing how you know so little about Scondish people.” Shaku stretched a clawed hand toward Aerigo’s knee. “I’m so very curious to—”

“No!” Aerigo said, his eyes flashing red.

Shaku blinked, holding his clawed hand extended. “But... why not?”

“My life is my own.”

The sudden tension disturbed Roxie. She tried to lean against the table instead, but Aerigo squeezed her arm with unexpected gentleness. She relaxed and chanced looking up into his hard stare. He ignored the attempt at eye contact.

Shaku rose to his feet. “If that’s what you wish, but you’ll never heal with that attitude.” He turned to Roxie. “Ichi’hun Roxie, I’m afraid you’ll have to get your answers elsewhere.” Shaku gave them a Scondish bow and jogged off.

“I don’t get what just happened.”

“Shaku was behaving selfishly,” Aerigo said.

“How?”

“On one of my visits to Sconda a long time ago, I came here specifically to learn the healing arts Wangamas practice. I found out I didn’t like how the magic worked.”

“Is it dark magic or something?”

“No. Just very exposing. In order to heal an internal injury, a Wangama uses certain skills to peer into your body. Do you know what an aura is?”

“Bunch of colors surrounding our bodies that can tell things about the individual? Something like that. I’ve never seen or felt one.”

“Pretty much. Wangamas look at auras to locate injuries. Also, they can take this a step farther. Say you broke a bone and went to Shaku again. He’d look at your aura to see where exactly the break is, but then take it a step further by focusing on your injury. That way he could see into the past and watch how the injury happened, and how the bone broke. With such knowledge he’d use the healing branch of Ambura magic to reverse history—or rather reverse the break.”

“So why don’t you like it? It sounds like reliable precision work.”

“Not all injuries are physical,” Aerigo said quietly. “Shaku was probably in an altered state of awareness once the first people crossed the finish line, so he could react to injuries quickly. This means he could find injuries by touching a person, instead of focusing on an aura. However, the touch-search gives broader feedback, meaning they see more than just recent injuries. And since I wasn’t hurt when he touched my shoulder, he saw other things. In his defense, it was probably unintentional that time. But when he came back and tried to probe me again...” He shook his head.

“What did he see when he touched your shoulder?”

Aerigo studied her a moment, his jaw muscles tightening, and Roxie could feel uneasiness in the arm cradling her.

“Memories that don’t make me happy,” he said distantly.

We all have bad memories.
But, considering how badly Shaku wanted to see them, and how equally determined Aerigo was to hide them, it had to be something far more serious than stealing gum from a grocery store as a kid. “You have skeletons in your closet, or something?”

Aerigo turned away and nodded.

Roxie wanted to know what had happened, and she wanted to tell him she’d stick by him no matter what, but now didn’t feel like the right time to ask such questions, or to admit to such loyalty. Appropriate timing or not, Din reappeared in his giant form over center stage, his presence wordlessly commanding everyone to be quiet and pay attention.

“Alright, alright!” he began in his booming voice, “I hope everyone’s stomach is full after all that wonderful food and drink. Dessert will be served as usual during the concert, but now I wish to make a special announcement.

“As some of you have already discovered, we have two very special guests with us this year and I cannot pass up the opportunity to introduce them to you.”

Roxie felt all the color drain from her face as she realized that she and Aerigo were going to be presented to thousands of people. Her sockets warmed with a golden yellow glow.

“It’s a real privilege to meet such beings, and while the history of their kind is veiled in secrecy, except to those who partook in such parts of the past, it is a deeply honorable one. Let us welcome not one, but two Aigis!”

Roxie and Aerigo stood together. Her heart pounded in her ears and her legs stiffened as she listened to all the murmuring and excited exclamations washing over the arena. Aerigo’s hand slipped into hers, and she clutched it for dear life and got her eyes back under control. He led her towards the stage, apparently ready to take on people again.

“I present to you the very special Roxie,
and
the legendary Aerigo!”

The two hopped onstage to a collective gasp of excitement before the whole place exploded with cheers and applause. Din shrank back to his human size and stood beside them, his cheerful aura soothing Roxie’s nerves. A radiating sweep of energy flowed into her, leaving no room for fear. Her heart sank back to its rightful place as it slowed, and she eased her death-grip on Aerigo’s hand and smiled at the audience.

“I know most of you—if not all of you—have heard of Aerigo and what he’s done for Sconda in the past,” Din said. “This is the Aigis who helped control the dragon population, making it possible for you to live more peaceful lives.” The god addressed Aerigo directly. “After two thousand years I, along with my people, remain very thankful.”

“You’re welcome,” Aerigo said in his deep voice.

Din let people’s cheering subside before turning his attention to Roxie. “And you, child, have much of life before you,” he said, his tone bordering on seriousness, but light enough not to worry his audience. “Both of you have hard tasks to perform. May you find the power and courage you need.”

Din’s bright eyes looked worried, Roxie observed, yet she thanked him and the audience showered them with applause again.

Din told them in a normal voice that they could return to their seats. Once they had and the clapping faded, Din hopped into the air over the instruments and settled down, speaking in his sonorous, confiding voice. “In honor of their presence I shall tell you a little history about Aigis.

“When the universe was young, there was a war among the gods that we could not end ourselves. It was the Aigis who came to help us in our darkest hour.” He leaned toward them, as if letting them in on a secret. “I know that sounds cliché, but that’s what other gods told me. I didn’t exist until some time after that war.” His voice trailed off, then picked up again more seriously. “I was told a hundred Aigis came and put an end to dark times. Over the eons their numbers have dwindled, their numbers dropping the fastest in the last couple thousand years. There have been rumors as to why, some good and some bad—nothing established in fact—but never lose hope. For here in our very presence are two guardians, two protectors with the power to help anyone anywhere. That alone brings me great comfort, as it should you. To come across
one
in your lifetime is one of the rarest and most beautiful things.” The god turned to his guests. “I share Baku’s faith in your powers.”

Roxie and Aerigo both said a warm “thank you” in unison.

“Now,” said Din, raising his arms like a music conductor. “To lighten the mood, let’s have some music!” He snapped his fingers and vanished, only to reappear at the head of Clan Seneca’s table.

Musicians made their way to their instruments and began warming up. After a minute of cacophony, a man yelled something in Scondish and the musicians fell silent. He shouted another command and a solo drummer on a dampened bass drum began to play.

He tapped out a slow heartbeat rhythm for a couple of measures, was joined by another bass drum at a lower pitch, a third, then a fourth, until the heartbeat rang on a chord. Those drummers beat out their heartbeat while a fifth covered the second and fourth beat with a quarter-note.

The tempo picked up pace.

With each measure more instruments came and soon a complex and hypnotic beat was layered upon the first, simple one, sounding like either a Latin or Rock beat. The tempo doubled its speed, and then cut off to silence. The musicians shouted a short chant (Hoo! Hah! Mira dru Sconda!) and also fell silent, except for one drummer, who picked up a new rhythm on an instrument that looked like a set of quints. The audience cheered wildly at their clean cutoff.

The soloist played with channeled excitement, and the crowd watched in pregnant silence. (Tuhkuhtuh-
dah
! Tuhkuhtuh-
dah
! Tuhkuhtuh-tuhkuhtuh-
dah-dah-dah
!) He was joined by another quint player in the same rhythm after he repeated the line. They broke off together and were taken up by another section playing a variation of the rhythm. Each section of the band took their turn, and once they all had played, rejoined on the quint’s original rhythm, shouting a continuation of their chant. The energy of this all-percussion band pulsed in the air, in people’s minds and in their feet. Soon the whole arena was clapping in time with the music.

The drumming calmed to a lull and the clapping died with it. The solo heartbeat rhythm resounded and picked up its pace again, much faster than the first time. People began clapping with it, faster and faster, as the whole band joined with their countermelodies all at once. The audience’s clapping went so fast, they turned it into applause and cheers.

The lead musician stood up suddenly with his arms crossed like an ‘x,' still holding his drumsticks. He waited, then snapped his arms into a ‘y’ as the last beat sounded. There was a brief pause, then the lowest bass drum tapped out the heartbeat, just once. The director dropped his arms. Thunderous applause took over.

As the opening band hopped offstage, the main meal vanished, only to be replaced by a delectable variety of cakes, cookies, puddings, and pastries, along with wines, milk, teas, and water. Soon the stars crept out into their fullness, while the moon started its journey over the southern horizon. More music was played by smaller groups throughout the evening, and once Din’s people began to show signs of sleepiness, he concluded Eisisumet. He jumped into the air above the stage.

“My people,” he began solemnly, “the time has come for me to discuss the coming war.”

A wave of shock and a series of gasps filled the arena, and people began speaking in rapid Scondish. It didn’t take much imagination for Roxie to guess at some of their questions: “War? What war? Against whom?” She glanced around nervously. Din was telling them a secret that no one but she and Aerigo were supposed to know. She looked to Aerigo for comfort, hoping that he’d hold her in his secure arms, or something like that. Instead, he only glanced at her, then jutted his chin in Din’s direction. Roxie put an elbow on the table and plopped her cheek in her hand.

“I’m sorry to deliver such horrible news after a wonderful day, but to keep you in the dark goes against my better judgment. Another god has declared war in the form of prophecy, and now I’m one of many gods required to gather one thousand warriors, unless I want to lose you all to this brash god named Nexus. He can’t simply take or make what he wants. We suspect his prophecy will put him on a path to getting what he wants.

“All these warriors are going to fight in the war and deny Nexus what he doesn’t deserve. However, if all one thousand of my warriors are lost, then all of you will be at the mercy of an evil god. You will no longer be my people. In simplest terms, the goal is to win without losing too many lives. I do not wish for that. Still, our best hope against having to participate in this war at all is those two Aigis right there.” He pointed at Roxie and Aerigo.

People shifted on their benches to get a better look at them. She put her arm down and sat up straight to better accept their hope-filled gazes.

“Somewhere hidden deep in the cores of their beings lies the power to save us all,” Din said in a charged voice, and dropped his arm. “They are our best, if not only hope, yet we must prepare for the worst and hope for the best. We’ll be ready to fight this war if we must.
If
we must. I’m looking for five hundred of you to add to my growing roster, five hundred of you willing to defend yours and countless other worlds. I force no one to fight. Who will volunteer?”

A few dozen hands shot in the air from all around the arena. Slowly, more and more joined in. One of them was Yayu’s.

Aerigo shifted in his seat. “Put your hand down,” he said under his breath.

“No,” Yayu said, his arm held high, face full of determination. He looked like he’d already made up his mind.

“Leave the fighting to me, Yayu,” Aerigo said a little louder. “This isn’t your fight.”

“It is now, Aerigo,” Yayu said calmly. “Didn’t you hear Din?”

“There are plenty of other people who can fight in your stead.”

“This is my choice, Aerigo. Not yours.”

Aerigo’s eyes burned red and the people around them flinched. A few even gasped, but Yayu remained undaunted. Aerigo surged to his feet, knocking over the long bench and everyone sitting on it with his calves. Roxie fell onto her back and was given a view of the starlit sky. She twisted to her hands and knees, then helped put the bench back in place.
Everyone
was staring at them. If Aerigo and Yayu were embarrassed, neither of them showed it. Roxie felt embarrassed for them instead.

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