“And this,” said Beena with a slightly theatrical flourish, “is where we keep the best of the best.
“Up here we have fitness guru Clayton Pride, and next to him is dancing star Lulu Wasabi. That little one on to your left with the purple markings is Sureya Roy, the spiritualist. Which do you want?”
Jade looked around in awe. Certainly it was an impressive line-up, and Beena had predicted her needs to perfection. No less than the best catcher, her manager had stressed. Right before she had fired him. Of course, that didn’t mean she had to stop taking his advice, did it?
But if she were to choose just one…
Did she want the best body or the best technique? Or did she want the perfect dose of equilibrium to calm her nerves and restore her confidence?
Only two days left for the Competition, and all she wanted was to curl up in bed and go to sleep. But it wasn’t about what she wanted. It was about what would make her win.
It’s not whether you win or lose, it’s how you play the game…
What nonsense. Of course everyone competed to win. Jade couldn’t imagine why anybody would compete to come second, or third, or fourth. It was a little like saying, the frosting is the best part of the cake but let me throw it out and eat the rest because, well, I’d rather not eat the best. Didn’t make any sense, not when you had dedicated hours of your time frosting the cake to perfection.
And Jade had dedicated her whole life.
One of her first memories was of a bright pink frilly tutu that itched to high heaven and made her cry. Her mother had slapped her then, which made her cry harder. She had hated the tutu, hated wearing it and twirling around the stage, and halfway through the performance she had stumbled, amidst sympathetic murmurs from the audience. That had been her one and only mistake, and from that day onward she never lost her step.
Be it a death-defying aerial act, a flamboyant fire eating ritual or a simple rain dance for the gods, she had perfected her technique, timing and balance to the point where the very elements of the universe bent to her will, and the rules no longer applied. Thirteen years of practice, yet Jade knew that to reach the zenith, to be the best, she needed to be more. She had absorbed the dance into the entirety of her being, let it consume her mind, body and soul to the exclusion of everything else.
And she danced like one possessed. She did not even need the music, for it was in her head.
She couldn’t get rid of it even if she tried and so she had grown used to its rhythm, sometimes fast and catchy, sometimes slow, teasing, seductive, and sometimes a violent and furious clash of instruments that left her gasping for breath to stay in sync but nevertheless it was always there, like the constant, relentless beat of a drum, that pounded like blood in her ears and never once ceased.
It was a price she had willingly paid, for it was the only way she could win. Of course, there were always people who encouraged her not to, who told her that second or third was good enough. Winning isn’t everything, they said. People who didn’t understand what it felt like to win, to be truly free of the music at last! People who spent a lifetime celebrating mediocrity and failure. Her ex-manager being one of them. And he had had the audacity to claim it was because he loved her.
Because she reminded him of his dead daughter. Thank goodness she was dead, Jade decided. The girl had been special. Twinkletoes, they had called her. Lightning on her feet with the grace of a gazelle. But most importantly, a winner’s soul, that would have been unable to bear her father’s apathetic attitude to victory. She had gone too young, too soon, and the world had lost its best dancer.
No matter, thought Jade. She would be next. Impressive as it was, the Competition was just the stepping stone. Competition winners from different parts of the globe would converge in Barcelona, where they would participate in the Ultimatum. At nineteen, Aurora Twinkletoes had been the youngest winner ever in the history of the Ultimatum. Jade had less than a year in which to beat that record.
Beena observed the girl in silence. Fifteen years as a soul catcher, hundreds of customers, and the first time for each was always different. Almost everyone was hit instantaneously by the turbulent feelings swirling around the store, rearing to be let loose. The souls were mostly successful in drawing out and feeding off the most dominant feelings of each customer. Greed was the commonest, closely followed by fear, pride and jealousy. Higher feelings like trust and courage were rare. Beena liked to think, however, that as people evolved to a higher plane of existence, so too did their feelings.
Some customers went on to receive the mind connection, for a few the effect so strong it would carry them to a trancelike state. The souls, in their eagerness to satiate their hunger, were always seeking minds to cling to, and unless infected customers were annihilated at once, the effect was irreversible, spreading like a virus in mere seconds. Thankfully, Beena had yet to come across a soul powerful enough to play mind games with her, and so she had not had any customer fatalities, earning her the reputation of being not just the best, but also the safest catcher in their part of the world.
And then there were those precious gems, people who connected on the physical plane. To Beena, these were kindred spirits, because they made her recall her own first encounter. The burning on her skin as it peeled off her face, the feeling of being dragged underwater till she could no longer breathe, the acrid taste of permanently rotting souls…the sensory overload as the souls unleashed their fullest strength, was something she had never experienced before or since.
And yet it was a Gift, one she had learnt to control and cultivate through years of dedication to her calling. She had developed soul catching from its crude and shady origins to its highest form, a complex interplay of art, science and metaphysics. Hers was an exclusive store, patronized only by the wealthiest, most influential clientele. Beena peeled off their layers one by one with one hundred percent accuracy to reveal their basest needs, their darkest desires, the aching emptinesses of their souls, in turn providing them no less than the very best, the most powerful substitutes with which to fill these voids.
Strange, she thought, watching the girl chew her lip as she considered her choices. Beena had been almost sure the girl was special, such was the power that emanated as she entered the store. She had prepared herself for any number of physical reactions, perhaps stronger than even she herself had experienced all those years ago.
Not the slightest indication of a mind connection, much less any burning, drowning or hurtling across the room. Just the barest hint of a feeling, so rare and elusive that even she struggled to identify it.
How could she have been so wrong? Her Gift had never misled her before, and even now Beena felt the growing intensity of the power that pulsated like a life force, spreading a thick cover of darkness across the store with frightening rapidity, and for the first time in her life she was pushed to the limits of her endurance as she battled the souls, crazed as they were in perpetual hunger and thirst, as they grew restless, demanding release from their sterile glass jars. She could see in her mind’s eye the souls breaking free…
But she held on. The alternative terrified her.
Breathe. Breathe. BREATHE!
She closed her eyes and forced her energy inwards, ignoring the sweaty palms, the shivering limbs, the searing pain in her head that made her first encounter seem like child’s play. And slowly, gently, she felt the darkness recede, the souls growing calm and the pain subsiding to a mere throb in her temples.
“I’ll take Sureya Roy.”
Beena opened her eyes in time to hear the girl’s response. Good choice, she thought appreciatively. She could recognize them now, her fickle, cunning, long-lost friends, Vayo, Thejo, Apo and Patavi, swirling behind those brilliant green eyes, biding their time, patiently awaiting their release.
Ambition. In its truest, purest, most dominant form, the highest and rarest of the feelings. A soul that hungered to be the best of the best, a soul with the power to bind the very elements of the universe to its will.
Noticing for the first time how pretty the girl was, and how young, she felt a twinge of genuine pity.