The next morning, Kuo decided to work with me, on the basis that Naomi wasn't exactly a good teacher and was really just kicking my ass over and over again. I didn't realize this was a fair assumption until she walked me through some basic moves, practicing them over and over again, where as Naomi had just attacked me until I got a lucky shot in. It was far from feeling natural, but it was an improvement.
"Hey Kuo?" I asked. "What's that thing Cole uses?"
"Oh, his amp?" She rubbed the back of her neck. "An old friend made it for him to amplify his powers, and he uses it in close quarters. As you can imagine, his power is long range, so it's not very practical if someone comes at him with their fists."
"Should I get something like that?"
Kuo folded her arms across her chest as she thought. "I'm not sure. From what I saw yesterday, which was only a bit, you're good at stopping things when they come towards you, but as far as dealing with people close up, I'm not sure strangling them with vines would be very effective, especially if we start coming across more of the Corrupted. Not that we should be."
"But his is made of metal, and I mean...that makes sense," I said, rubbing the sweat off my hands onto my jeans. "He uses electricity after all. But what would I use? A giant stick?"
"We could cut off some of those thorns and make something," Kuo said. "It's just an idea. We don't know the full extent of your powers yet, but I'm sure you could bind the thorns in someway so that they wouldn't break, maybe sharpen them. We'll figure something out later."
I learned later that day that not having someone around to test my food for poison made things a lot harder. When we broke for lunch, I remember blinking, and then opening my eyes to see Cole looking down on me, the last shocks of his purifying electricity purging my system. He didn't say anything, but I could tell he was growing impatient. He wanted me to take care of my enemies, wanted me to prove that I could handle things on my own.
I was not going to disappoint.
Davin was able to use his power again, so that night when we broke for practice, I purposefully broke off to stand near the outer edges of the group. It was payback time. Kuo and Cole were off discussing battle tactics or...something, leaving the older ones in charge. There were so many of us that the eldest couldn't keep their eyes on everyone, which meant that once I provided Davin with an opening, he took it.
I could've fought back when he grabbed my arm and the back of my neck to force me further away, made a scene so that he would back off. That's what the old, weak Kovi would do. But no. Not me. Cole wouldn't like me exhibiting such cowardly behavior, and I was determined not to give him a reason to be disappointed in me again.
"Alright, Davin. You've got me alone," I said when he shoved me forward. I faked a stumble but when I turned to face him, I refused to appear daunted. "So, you gonna try and kill me again?"
We were close, and his dark blue eyes practically glowed in the setting sun as he stared me down. The tips of his hands glowed with a deep blue light, but when nothing happened I began to relax again.
"Getting cocky now that Cole let you fight, aren't you?" he asked. "I don't care how good you think you are, I've been a Conduit longer; I will destroy you, and then I'll be the one on the front lines."
"Am I detecting jealousy? How pathetic," I said, enjoying the anger that leapt to his eyes. "Or is it that you're scared to take me on by yourself? That has to be why you decided I needed to be tied up and left alone with a monster. You knew you couldn't take me down on your own, isn't that right?"
"Don't mess with me, Kovi. You're already a dead man, don't make it worse," Davin hissed. His normally pale cheeks were flush and I could see the doubt creeping into his gaze.
"Just admit to it," I said. After all, I was only guessing that he was the one who did it, but if he admitted to it, then I could know for sure. I wouldn't have to worry about any of his friends coming back to stab me in the back once he was gone.
"I did it only because it was easier that way," Davin growled, bringing his glowing hands up in front of him as if to ward me off. "Now I have to deal with questions when I bring back your dead body."
"Tell me," I said, my need for knowledge, and my desire to push him further, getting the better of me. I turned my gaze up to the sky so he would think I wasn't really interested. "Why do you want me dead? Is it really just jealousy?"
"I don't need to explain myself to you!"
I straightened, turning my gaze back to him. "In that case...let's settle this shall we?"
"You're just a nobody! You can't bring me down!"
Davin's hand whipped out, and with it a wave of power that rippled through the air. I could see the distortion but couldn't avoid it, and my ears rang when it hit, forcing me to stumble and gasp for the breath it had stolen from me. I retaliated instantly, pressing one hand to the ground, drawing the roots of the trees to me and forcing it up to grab at Davin's leg. His blue eyes narrowed and he sprung away just as the root pierced the ground, twisting in the air before shooting towards him.
His hands flashed and the root fell limp to the ground. The tree I had dragged the root from groaned and creaked, the bark falling away in large chunks, and the wood beneath it turned an ashen gray. My earlier confidence slipped away as I looked back to him, trying to think of when he would've gotten this much stronger. Cole had said he wasn't allowed to use his powers, and I hadn't seen him training.
My curiosity must have read on my face, because instead of attacking again, Davin grinned.
"Surprised? What I showed you before was only a fraction of my power. Now you understand though. I am stronger than you," Davin said.
I went to retort but his hand lashed out against and then slammed down to the ground. My breath left my lungs once more as I was forced to the ground, an unbearable pressure pressing down on me, a faint blue light tingling at the edges of my vision. I urged my eyes to look at Davin, hating the confident smirk I saw there. The pressure didn't cease, and breathing wasn't an option anymore. I dug my fingers into the ground, focusing the last of my concentration into feeling the roots' and the trees' energy, bending it to my will.
A muffled yelp and the pressure was gone. My vision spun for a moment, but when it refocused I saw that Davin was caught up in a mess of roots and vines, twisting in their deadly grasp. Knowing I only had a moment to act, I pressed my hand to the ground, feeling for the roots and then following their path to Davin. He pulsed with energy and I zeroed in on it, draining it through the roots as I had with the soldier's. Unlike before though, my efforts were blocked, and all the sudden, it was me being drained instead.
My vision flared. It felt as if my soul was being sapped away, and I could feel my strength flagging until I toppled over, holding myself up on trembling arms. My mind screamed at me to fight back, to not allow my soul to be taken away, but I couldn't find the will; that was being taken away too. I could hear Davin's laughter, feel my roots lose their grip, feel my mind lose its grip on reality, feel my vision spin, but it only ended when my roots finally lost all strength and fell to the ground, breaking our connection.
Groaning, I rolled onto my back, unable to much more than that. I could hear Davin approach me, but couldn't do anything about it, instead only staring up at him from the ground as he came to stand above me.
"Don't underestimate your enemies, Kovi," he said, crouching down. "I manipulate energy, and I've been doing it for longer than you have. You think I didn't notice that little trick of yours when you took those soldiers down? So tell me. How does it feel to be so weak?"
I grit my teeth at the word. I was not weak. Old Kovi was. Old Kovi didn't have a purpose, didn't know how to stand up for himself, but I did, and I wasn't going to let this little shit head take me down. Fighting my body's protests, I lashed out with my hand, seizing the front of Davin's shirt and tugging him down close before shoving him to the side, using the added momentum to roll back onto my front so I was above him.
"I'm still stronger than you," I hissed, pressing my thumbs into his neck, feeling for the way to cut off his breathing.
He kicked his legs out and reached to grab my hands, but I forced the vines in my arms to break free and pin him down completely. I pressed down harder, watching his eyes dilate, watching his body spasm as he tried to break free of my grip, delighting in the way I had total control. The blue light in his hands began to die away and I watched as the light began to leave his eyes, watched as they faded into a misty gray until finally he lay still beneath me.
On some level, I knew I should be horrified. I was only 17, I shouldn't be able to kill, let alone watch it happen and feel happy about it, and yet I did. I had almost been destroyed, but in the end I had come out on top. It sent a thrill through me like I hadn't felt since I had kissed Cole. It was that type of power I could feel, practically taste as I pushed myself back up into a standing position, legs still a little wobbly from the energy drain. Part of me wondered at how I wasn't disgusted with myself, but the rest of me beat it back; I had no reason to be disgusted.
Only those who were jealous would be disgusted. I had taken out a friend, why would I be horrified at taking out an enemy?
I turned to see Cole standing on a tree branch, one hand on his hip, the other bracing himself against the trunk. "I guess I don't have to explain why there's a dead body in the woods."
He gave a rough chuckle and leapt down, lightning sparking out of the area he landed from. "I have to say, this kind've enthusiasm was not expected. Was he the one who was poisoning you?"
"Nah, I just like killing people," I said, giving a nervous laugh after I said it.
His expression showed he understood my twisted humor. "Well then, I suppose all the disturbances will go away now, won't they?"
"If any more come up, I'll deal with it," I said.
Cole moved past me, arm brushing mine for a moment, electricity, literally jumping between us before he knelt by Davin's body. I sucked in a breath and stepped away, feeling more dazed from that one movement then from what I had just endured. "I'm not going to bother taking care of this. He's scum, trying to kill another Conduit without a real reason." He stood back up, rolling his shoulders as he did so. "Get back to camp and lay down before you pass out. I know how difficult battles go; you need the rest."
I nodded, unable to really speak as he brushed past me again, looking at me out of the corner of his eye.
"Good job, Kovi."
It was a week before we ran into another big city. Towns, small cities, yeah, we ran into those, but there was never much resistance and only twice did we get a Conduit out of it. Each day, I practiced with Kuo, learning new tricks in case I ever ended up in close combat with an enemy. My ability to pin Davin was only sheer luck; I knew that. Making sure I actually had the skill next time I ran into a situation like that was essential if I wanted to survive.
As we began to move once more, Kuo stayed by me instead of breaking off ahead with Cole, a curious expression on her face.
"Cole told me what you did," she said after a moment. "I'm glad you did it; we can't have people like Davin around killing off Conduits for petty reasons. However, perhaps you should take your enemies down in a different way."
"What other way is there?" I asked.
She ran a hand through her blue hair, tilting her head to the side. "You manipulate them into working for you. God knows Cole and I had to do it often enough. You should ask Cole about how he got the rebels to fight with us back in New Marais."
"You think he'd actually answer?"
"You'd be surprised. Anyways, I just wanted you to know you did the right thing, if maybe in the wrong way," Kuo said.
"Thanks I guess." I shrugged. "It was kill or be killed, and I have too much survival instinct now to just roll over."
Kuo gave a sighing laugh and shook her head. "I know what that feels like. So tell me, did Cole ever actually tell you what we're doing?"
"You're just going around saving the Conduits from the plague, aren't you? Advancing humanity's evolution so we have a better chance of survival."
"That's the long term goal," Kuo said. "We need to get to the West Coast to set up a city of Conduits. From there, we'll branch out as fast as possible. It's hard, trying to travel faster than the plague."
"It's worth it," I said firmly.
"You don't have to convince me of that," she said. "If I was unsure of the cause, I never would've started."
We were silent for a moment, but another question eventually rose to my mind and popped out of my mouth before I could stop it. "What kind've powers do other Conduits have?"
Kuo glanced at me. "Well, to be honest, we don't really know. Their existence only became widely known after the blast in Empire City. No effort had been made to document new Conduit powers until after New Marais."
My interested was piqued now, and it must've shown in my eyes because Kuo smiled. "So? What do we know?"
"We have so far seen flying, super strength, and the ability to breath underwater. Ice, obviously. Then there's pyrokinesis and telekinesis. Davin was a telekinetic and was able to manipulate energy as well. You seem to have some control over energy, which makes sense given what you can do," she said. "There was one incident where we had a shapeshifter, but he went insane before getting full control of his powers."
"Has there been anyone else like that?" I asked. The possibilities of that power were endless. Spying would be easier than before, not that it was really needed given that we had already taken down the armed forces in several cities with no problem.
"No," Kuo said. "It's a shame. We could someone with his powers better now that we've seen the toll it takes on someone's mind."
I nodded my agreement. "So once we reach the coast, what do we do?"
"Take out any opposition," Kuo said. "There isn't much left of the US army; we took most of it out a little after New Marais. I'm guessing the global community will try to take us out next."
"That doesn't concern you at all?" I asked, taking in the nonchalance of her statements.
"Back before Cole became the Beast-"
Kuo rolled her eyes and let out another sigh, this one impatient. "I'm going to freeze your mouth shut in a few seconds if you don't stop talking. Now, as I was saying, before Cole was the beast, we attacked the Beast with a nuke. It didn't do anything. Cole is strong to begin with, so when the Beast added his powers to Cole's he basically became stronger than the original. I wouldn't be surprised if Cole could take more than a nuke without flinching."
I was silent as I tried to process the information Kuo had given me, realizing for the first time how truly ignorant I had been. To know Cole had that sort've power was practically mind numbing and the urge to become strong enough that he would respect me began to grow.
"How does he do it?"
"Hm?" Kuo turned as if she had forgotten I was there. "Do what?"
"Turn people into Conduits. I mean, there's that explosion of energy, but what is it?"
"You are a curious one, aren't you?" She stretched her arms above her head as she thought of a way to answer. "Before the Beast, people were turned to Conduits by exposure to a Ray Field Blast. The energy of the blast would activate the Conduit gene, but kill anyone without it. It was a very primitive technology, and compared to what we can do now, insignificant in its power.
"When Cole releases his power, he's releasing pure Ray Field energy, much more focused than that of the Ray Sphere, and capable of spreading out much farther."
Kuo smirked when I grew silent again, but I didn't care. If I wanted to gain as much power as possible, I would have to sift through the new information carefully. "So can a Conduit become more powerful after the Blast?"
"Why do you think we bother training?" she scoffed. "If we stress the body, we can awaken more powers."
"That takes forever though! Isn't there anyway to do it faster?"
A slim blue eyebrow crooked up. "Impatient I see. Well, usually when under intense pressure, a life or death situation if you will, certain abilities will come to us that we didn't have before. The adrenaline rush can kick start our powers. You should know more than anyone what I'm talking about."
"So if I want more powers I just have to be in a dangerous situation? That's easy enough."
Kuo gave an exasperated sigh to cut me off from talking again. "An adrenaline rush alone won't do it. It's the fear that you're about to die, and can't do anything to stop it. The only way to put yourself in that state of mind is to actually experience it. As you can imagine, the risks outweigh the benefits. You can't guarantee a power will come to you; sometimes your body is already at its full potential. Instead of gaining a power, you just die."
Despite her words, I thought differently. To me the potential benefits far outweighed the risks. It was just a matter of putting myself in that situation.
That night, I decided to train with Naomi away from everyone else. As she stretched, I debated how to best breach the topic, deciding in the end it was best to be blunt. As she swept her blond locks into a ponytail, I asked, "Can you try to kill me?"
She paused with her hair halfway pulled through the tie, colorless eyes flicking over my expression for some sort of joke to be exposed. Finding I was serious, she finished tugging her hair through the tie and straightened. "Why?"
"You know how I got really strong really fast?"
She nodded and shrugged out of her jacket. "It was surprising."
"Well, I was talking with Kuo, and she said when we're in situations we think we're going to die, the fear of death sometimes kick starts a new power," I said.
Naomi laughed, a harsh brittle sound, different from Kellen. While they looked similar at first glance, Kellen always had a nice laugh, untainted by any dark feelings, perfect. One look in Naomi's dead eyes shattered any illusions of their similarities. "I didn't think you'd be so ambitious. I like it."
It was weird, seeing Naomi smile as her eyes remained dead, but at the same time, I knew she was pleased. Probably because I had just given her the excuse to beat the shit out of me and not stop until I either died or won. I really hoped I would win. She didn't wait for me to say I was ready, instead sprinting right towards me with her fist cranked back. Naomi wasn't one for fancy moves when they weren't needed; she was strong enough to take out most people with one hit after all.
Thankfully I wasn't most people. I was a Conduit, so while the first punch she nailed with me sent me sprawling, nothing broke or shattered.
Hurt like hell though.
But Naomi was relentless, leaping on top of me as she moved in for another blow. My vines shot out with my asking, straining to hold her arm back and away from my face. Her arms shook as she bore down on me, but eventually she scrambled back so I could move. I couldn't retract the vines fast enough though, and she had them wrapped tight in her fist in moments. I had a brief flash of her deadly smile before she launched me into the air, vines so tangled I couldn't control them.
Her foot found my stomach and I was sent crashing back to the ground, toppling two trees on my way down. That time, something definitely broke, but my mind was too clouded with pain to actually determine where the pain was coming from. I heard her land again, could feel her approach as my blood roared in my ears. Using my vines was out of the question, and it wasn't like I was able to dodge any attack she threw at me. I had seen her expression. I knew she wouldn't hesitate to kill me.
The thought that pissed me off the most was the fact that I had reached my full potential. There was absolutely nothing I could do. I was going to die.
Well shit. Something had to give, I knew that. It was either my life, or my powers saved me, and at this point it looked like it would be the former.
I heard Naomi shout and closed my eyes, willing for something, anything, to happen. Had I really reached my full potential? Was this all I could do? I waited for the blow but didn't feel anything. Was dying painless?
"Kovi. Open your eyes."
I did as ordered, at first seeing nothing, and then realized I was staring at a tangled mass of vines. They dropped away, retracting into my arms to reveal Naomi standing with her arms at her sides, blood dripping down from her knuckles to splatter on the ground.
"I just hit you with everything I had. And your...your vines were suddenly just there and thorns shot out of them, and I...whoa."
"Naomi? What did you do?"
Kuo's voice made me realize how much pain I was in, my vision spinning as I breathed, each breath sending a shooting pain through my chest.
"He asked me to do it," Naomi said.
"What Kovi-Oh. Oh my God. Naomi, go get Cole, now!"
Kuo leaned over me, and I swore she had three heads. "Am I dying?"
"Possibly, if Cole doesn't move his ass," Kuo said.
I couldn't speak anymore because my breath had grown too choppy, so instead I closed my eyes, my ears roaring as I slipped into a thoughtless void. What felt like moments later, a shock rushed through my body, and for a second I was in even more pain than before, which shouldn't have been physically possible. When I opened my eyes, the pain was gone and both Kuo and Cole were hovering above me.
"Are-are you insane?" Kuo demanded, jabbing a finger at me. "What were you thinking?"
"You said to get stronger, faster, I have to kick start my powers with fear and stress to my body. So that's what I did." I pushed myself into a sitting position, noticing that the vines beneath my skin were writhing faster than they had before. Disturbing, yes, but since it meant I was growing stronger I didn't care much. "What happened?"
"Broken rib, dislocated shoulder, nothing too bad," Cole said with a shrug. "Little cut up."
Kuo rolled his eyes. "Cole, he almost killed himself trying to get stronger, aren't you going to say anything?"
"No. He can do what he wants, and if he ends up dead then that's his own fault," Cole said, extending a hand to help me stand.
I was pleased by his words, though he had basically said he didn't care if I died. I didn't think of it like that though. He knew I would do whatever I had to, to become powerful, and I'd like to think that means he respects me a little more than he does some of the other Conduits. "I won't get myself killed."
His crooked smirk came to his lips. "Good. It'd be a bit of a waste to be honest."
He began to walk away and Kuo pinched the bridge of her nose as if she couldn't quite believe what she was hearing. "Cole, honestly. You can't let this sort' of behavior just...ugh, he's not even listening anymore."
She jumped into the air and vanished in a puff of icy wind. Moments later, Naomi landed beside me, hand on her hip.
"That was definitely interesting. I'll have to try it out for myself sometime," she said.
I snorted. "I'm too tired to start attacking you, so don't even ask."
"Like you could beat me anyways," she said.
"Hey, I survived."
"Barely. I could've killed you but I figured at that point you had gotten what you wanted so there was no sense in actually killing you. You're too useful alive," she said. "Well? Don't you have something to say?"
"Uh, thanks for beating the shit out of me," I said.
She took off into the air again. I shook my head and walked back to camp.
In the next few weeks, I continued to train with Kuo, deciding it would be better if I didn't get into another fight with Naomi. I was able to actually figure out what I had done to block Naomi's attack as well, and while it wasn't exactly what I wanted, it was something. The vines, once out into the air, would form a shield so tight that nothing could get through, though Kuo found out that after enough time of blasting it with ice, the vines would stiffen and break.
Far from perfect, but handy.
It wasn't long before Naomi's push to grow stronger became apparent. She didn't view me as a threat, which was a bit of an insult, and so there was no way with me, she pushed herself in battle. When we came to a new city, it was easy to see that she was purposely throwing herself into dangerous situations, waiting for multiple jets to attack before trying to do anything about it.
In two weeks, we passed through five cities, moving faster then before, running on fewer hours sleep. Cole refused to cut into our training time though. Those who used to protest became too tired to do much more than grumbling. Kuo grew relentless in our training, pushing me farther, pushing me so I knew how best to use my powers.
"It's more than just having power," Cole said, watching as Kuo flipped me to the ground and froze my arms to the ground.
He hopped down from his usual perch on a tree, arms sparking with red light. He lashed forward and I flinched, only to have the ice melt away. "I have the ability to destroy you with one bolt. But I can also free you from your bonds, restart your heart, and heal your wounds, if I use less power."
He extended a scarred hand and helped me to my feet. "You use too much power when you don't need to. It's wasteful, and that's why after 20 minutes Kuo can kick your ass and you can barely stand."
With a light shove, I began to topple over but Kuo propped me up until I caught my balance again. "I'll get better."
Cole scoffed, red eyes angry as he folded his arms. "If you were going to get better, you'd be able to survive longer by now. Instead, you've stayed the same."
"Wait, Cole. That's not entir-" Kuo began.
"Kuo, shut up," Cole said. "Kovi's next to useless if he doesn't learn to control himself!"
"And think about how long it took you!"
Silence as Cole's gaze zeroed in on Kuo, and the next moment I was shoved to the ground and they were standing toe to toe. I wasn't sure what was scarier; Kuo's harsh, ice like gaze, or the torrent of fury that was radiating from Cole's entire being, hands clenched, posture tight. I had never seen them fight. They always worked together, always appeared on a united front, and yet here they were.
"We do not have the time to let any of them grow this slow," Cole said. "I'm angry enough with the progress as it is. We will be facing the armies of several hundred nations when the world finally gets its act together and we need to be ready."
"And yelling isn't going to fix that," Kuo said, the anger gone from her voice.
"I'm taking over his training, and Naomi's. They've grown complacent."
"Right now?" I asked.
"No. Kuo, I want you working with Ethan. Push him a little bit more, see if you can get something out of him, something useful."
"Hush, the grown ups are talking," Kuo said, waving a hand in my direction. "I'll go now. You can help him back. Try not to kill him."
I paled as Kuo vanished, ducking my head when Cole turned his gaze on me. His hand wrapped around my wrist and he hauled me up, not bothering to help when I stumbled, instead walking away.
His shoulders stiffened. "Get stronger."
He didn't help me back.
I had failed.