ToKyotchi Chapter 56
Flames of Renewal
By now, it would become apparent to the commentators that Nikki was undoubtedly going to lose the match. Avis had come to the battle thoroughly prepared, masterfully twisting reality on a whim.
Nikki groaned as the strain on her body increased. Even though she’d accepted she’d be defeated by Avis and soon discarded by Eminal, she couldn’t help but feel a pang of disappointment. She’d been so certain she would stand a chance, at least until finals were over.
Now, the only thing she was certain of was the futility of it all.
“Oh, no, my dear experiment,” Avis mocked, obviously aware of Nikki’s state of despair. “You don’t get off that easily. The effects of your failure didn’t just stop on that day, did they?”
Nikki’s eyes, which had been drooping for quite some time, shot open in fear. She knew what Avis was referring to; she’d been doing everything in her power to forget since that awful day.
She wiped the cold sweat from her forehead, feeling as though hundreds, maybe thousands and billions of eyes were burrowing into her. She hugged herself, struggling to keep calm and maintain her composure.
Without uttering another word, Avis lifted her hand, and the room began to melt and collapse into itself once more. Nikki fell to her knees and buried her head in her hands, fighting back tears. Why did they have to go back to that day?
“I just wanted to save them,” Nikki whispered, her voice barely audible over the roar of the collapsing illusion. “I just wanted to get away…”
“Because your weakness and cowardice prevented you from carrying out your plan, someone’s life was needlessly taken.”
Nikki’s head shot up, and she gasped at her surroundings. She was back in Professor Eminal’s dining room with Bella and Kim, each of them wearing their birthday hats and silver charm bracelets. They both stood around the table like she remembered, each wearing mournful expressions despite it being Bella’s birthday.
Nikki rushed to the table, frantically trying to get their attention, but it was of no use. She sighed before shaking her head, surprised she could still make sense of what she was seeing. They weren’t really Bella and Kim, after all; they were more illusions, products of Professor Avis’ powers.
Nikki felt her face flush as she leaned against the table, the tears she’d been trying to hold in all this time now streaming down her face. She didn’t want to relive this day. She had been trying so hard to forget it.
“Aren’t you going to put your birthday hat on, Nikki?”
Nikki turned to see Eminal seemingly step out of a shadow in the corner of the room, his expression unreadable. He towered over them just like he towered over everyone else, his lanky frame hidden under a white lab coat that was stained from numerous chemical reactions of the past.
His sharp features were accentuated by a pair of round-rimmed glasses perched precariously on his nose, their lenses glinting ominously under the room’s harsh light. They were the windows to his brilliant, albeit slightly deranged, mind.
His gaze, intense and probing, could unsettle anyone under its scrutiny, even without the use of his Mental type abilities. Perhaps that was why it had taken so long for Nikki to figure out what he was truly capable of. She’d simply been too terrified to look deeper.
Yet now, her entire body tensed up in anticipation. This was it. He had finally chosen to appear before her in his true form. No more games. No more wondering if he was still alive.
“You continued to plot and scheme,” Eminal spoke, but it was still Avis’ voice. “And yet, when the time came to execute your machinations, you still failed. All you seem to do is fail.”
Nikki tried to straighten her posture, and that was when the fake Bella and Kim each raised an arm, their silver charm bracelets glittering in the candlelight. Nikki felt a chill run down her spine as she realized what was about to happen.
“No…” Nikki whispered as she hugged herself, backing away from them all. “No, please…please don’t do this…”
Eminal regarded her for a moment before smiling just as the sirens began blaring all around them. Nikki groaned in pain as she once more tried to use her Clairvoyance to break from the illusion, but it was no use.
She rushed back toward the table just as the first explosion hit, an earsplitting boom followed by the walls and ceiling collapsing around her. A boulder crashed onto the table just inches from Bella’s outstretched hand before another object struck Nikki in the back of the head, sending her into complete darkness.
Several moments passed before Nikki was able to open her eyes again. She hissed and winced in pain, her head pounding as she looked around at all the destruction.
By some miracle, she was able to get to her feet, glancing over at Bella and Kim’s unconscious forms. Eminal’s entire facility had been completely leveled, and they were now surrounded by an entire squadron Legaros soldiers.
Nikki looked up, remembering how disorienting it was to see the sky for the first time in what felt like forever. She would never forget that sunset, how it was tinged shades of red and orange, almost as if it was trying to warn her.
She closed her eyes, trying to create a dam for her tears and sorrow. Too much had been lost; too many lives taken away because she was too weak and foolish to put an end to it all.
“On your knees, experiment!” one of the soldiers, presumably the commanding officer, shouted, his voice echoing in the shattered remains of the laboratory.
Nikki didn’t move, her gaze unwavering as she stared back at him. There was no way she could fight them all off, not when she could barely stand on her own. She could only hope that her friends would be able to wake up soon and make an escape while still alive.
“No! Wait!” Nikki watched as a younger soldier stepped forward. Unlike the others, he wasn’t wearing a helmet.
She’d seen his face so many times in her dreams: dark skin, light brown eyes, and short, black curly hair. She was certain they were the same age; perhaps that was why he seemed to be so moved by the sight of her.
“Let’s just take them in,” his voice surprisingly gentle as he spoke to the faceless soldiers. “We don’t have to hurt anyone.”
The commanding officer hesitated for a moment before finally nodding and motioning for the other soldiers to back away. Nikki sighed in relief, thankful for this turn of events. If she could just reason with him, maybe she could find a way to make things right.
The younger soldier stepped closer and slowly raised his hands to indicate he meant no harm. “Are you alright? Take my hand. We’ll get you out of here.”
Nikki hesitated for a moment, considering his offer, before shaking her head. “Not without them.”
She glanced down at Kim and Bella, knowing she wanted to save them but too exhausted to move. She had never felt so useless.
The young soldier seemed to understand what she was thinking, and he nodded before going over to Bella and Kim. He was just about to lift Bella when a loud pop echoed throughout their surroundings before Rowan slumped to the ground, howling and convulsing in pain.
It all happened so quickly. Within seconds, the young soldier’s body went completely cold as blood seeped from the bullet wound in his chest. Nikki could only watch, horrified, as everything spiraled out of control once again.
“No!” she screamed, trying to run towards him as several more gunshots sent the dirt in front of her feet spouting into the air, forcing her to stop. She turned to see the commanding officer, his weapon now trained on her and ready to fire.
“There’s still time, Nikki…” the commanding officer spoke, but Nikki knew better. He probably wasn’t even awake, instead lulled to sleep by Eminal, who was buried yet somehow alive underneath the rubble. “There’s still time to celebrate.”
Nikki knew she was going to die, but for the first time in a long time, she welcomed it. She had made a grave mistake and now everyone around her was paying the price. It was time for her to finally face the consequences of her actions.
Yet, just as the commanding officer pulled the trigger, another figure suddenly appeared out of nowhere and knocked him unconscious with a swift blow to the back of his neck. The figure rose to his full height, and Nikki’s head began swimming as she tried to make out who he was.
She slumped back down to the ground, her vision starting to fade as she heard the figure calling out to her. She shook her head, too exhausted to make out what he was saying, as everything began to go dark. Pretty soon, she’d be far away from this nightmare and into the waiting arms of death.
“Don’t you dare give up!”
Nikki’s eyes shot open, only to find everything frozen in place. The soldiers, Bella, and Kim were all as still as statues except for the man who now stood before her. As he finally came into view, Nikki at first thought it was the young soldier who’d tried to save her.
Instead, it was Chetachi.
Nikki’s entire body trembled as she looked up at him, her mind struggling to make sense of everything. How was he here? Was he even real or just another illusion created by Eminal?
“I was worried I wouldn’t be able to find you in here,” Chetachi sighed, his shoulders slumping from exhaustion, “but it looks like I knew exactly where to go.”
“Chetachi…” Nikki gasped, her eyes growing wide in surprise. “Are you…real?”
Chetachi lifted his arms, examining himself before nodding, his expression becoming determined. “Yes, and I’m here to help you whether you want me to or not. And…hey! Lorenzo, why are you hugging me?”
He frantically wriggled himself free of some invisible force, and the air around him began to shimmer as another figure came into view. Lorenzo materialized before them, his arms wrapped around Chetachi’s chest and head buried in his shoulder.
“I just wanna make sure you don’t get lost,” Lorenzo’s voice was muffled. “You’re not the best when it comes to illusions, you know.”
“And how is you being glued to me going to help?”
“Fine! I’ll let go!”
Lorenzo backed off, but not before giving Chetachi a playful shove. Nikki could only stare in amazement as the two of them bickered and laughed like brothers. How could they be so carefree at a time like this?
Chetachi dusted himself off before turning to Nikki, his expression serious once again. “You were going to give up.”
Nikki looked away guiltily, unable to deny his words. She was still about to give up. What was the point of fighting when she had no chance of winning? What could she possibly do that could fix everything she had destroyed?
Chetachi slowly crossed the distance between him, and Nikki thought he was going to scold her. She closed her eyes, her body tensing up as she prepared for the worst. Instead, she felt Chetachi wrap his arms around her in a warm embrace.
“It’s not your fault,” he whispered into her ear. “You were just trying to protect everyone; it’s what you always do.”
Nikki shook her head as more tears streamed down her face. “I couldn’t save anyone. The other experiments, Bella, Kim, that young soldier, they’re all gone because of me.”
Chetachi pulled back and cupped her face in his hands, forcing her to look at him. “They are not gone because of you. You did everything you could.”
Nikki sniffled before lowering her head so that Chetachi couldn’t see her face. “But I failed…”
Chetachi heaved a heavy sigh, not letting go of her. “I know a little something about failure. I’m actually pretty good at it.”
Nikki wiped her eyes, scoffing at Chetachi’s response but not looking up at him. “Probably because you don’t take anything seriously.”
Chetachi chuckled. “You already know me so well. Hey, have you ever heard the story of the phoenix?”
Nikki finally met his gaze and shook her head, confused by the sudden change in topic. “No…why?”
Chetachi pulled back to look at Nikki, determination shining in his eyes. “It’s a mythical bird made of fire. Instead of dying, it simply burns up and resurrects itself.”
Nikki tilted her head to the side, her expression softening. “What’s your point?”
Chetachi smiled as he stood up and faced away from her. “We don’t ever truly fail if we allow it, if we accept it. We simply transform into something new. So what if you failed? Failure isn’t the end, Nikki. Not if you don’t want it to be.”
Nikki looked over to see Lorenzo smiling at Chetachi, as if the two had shared some secret only they could understand. She took a deep breath and stood up, determination filling her as she faced her comrades once again.
Maybe this didn’t have to be the end of her story. With Chetachi and Lorenzo by her side, she could rise from the ashes and become something stronger than before.
“I’m not ready to give up yet,” Chetachi’s voice firm and resolute. “Not on myself and not on you, Nikki. You’re not alone. We’re going to face this together. All of it.”
Nikki felt her heart swell with hope as Chetachi’s words sunk in. She wasn’t alone after all; she had Chetachi and Lorenzo, and she would use their strength to push forward and make things right.
She felt the gentle hum inside of her as the flames coursed through her body, a sign that she was still alive and had the power to overcome this. With her newfound determination, she looked back at Chetachi and Lorenzo with a smile.
There was still a chance if only she would take it.