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Author Topic: A Man and His Spear; PG-13 [Complete]  (Read 16658 times)
Eman5805
Never Gonna Give Yue Up

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A Soulful Brother


« Reply #50 on: Aug 12, 2010 12:02 pm »

-continued-


I got none of the groans and tsking noises I got the last time. Probably because that might not actually be far from the truth. I got a look from Lyra, who I just realized was completely overlooked in the battle. She was staring at the stone intently.

I wonder what's with that? I mean, why should they all be staring like that? It really irritates me. It really, really irritates me. I wish they'd stop. I also wish they'd stop breathing. Forever. They should be dead. I could probably help with that.

Wait. Why would I kill them? They're my allies and maybe more.

Meh. Who cares? They won't stop breathing on their own. I should help with stopping them from living. I think I will help with that. Definitely. Who should be first? The girl. She's the greatest threat. I should slice her little head off with one swing and then I can-

Lyra slapped the stone from my hand.

"Ah! Hey!" I blurted, but it came out as a bit garbled mess. Things got fuzzy for a moment and then I realized, Lyra had snatched my spear away.

Lyra started shattering the stone with back end of my spear. It sent up tiny sparks of light and I actually saw a puff of green smoke, that made someone Siyo and Kensei cry out in surprise. Then we all watched in stunned quiet as Lyra ground the stone into dust. Then she picked up the scuffed and scratched coin and pitched it into the river. It was a good 40 yards away. Where in that little body did she get that kind of strength from?

Several moments passed before anyone spoke. In that moment Lyra casually handed me back my spear, which I accepted obligingly. Then Kensei said, "Um. Okay. I was just going along with the girl being just a person of interest like you said until whenever you two decided to fill me in, but now I have to know. Who in the world is she? Why'd she break that…stone thing and throw the coin away? Does she know something we don't?"

I shrugged, hoping to deflect attention back to me. "Why would she have to know anything? She's a child. Could have just acted impulsively. Maybe she didn't like that color and thought a coin of a stiletto stabbing through an eyeball was icky or something." I rubbed at my forehead where a small headache was brewing. And now my hand was tingling. It was the same hand I was holding that stone in.

Weird.

Kensei snorted. "Maybe if she were an ordinary girl I might believe that. But she's different."

Hyung grunted in agreement. "I've not seen a child like her in all my life. She hardly carries herself like a child at all. Well, how about it, child? What do you have to say for yourself?"

Lyra blinked at him. A nostalgic smile spread across my face.

"And that thing on her forehead," Kensei wondered. He bent down, hands on knees, and said to Lyra. "Is that one of those third eye meditation gems? C'mon, you can tell us."

More blinking. Kensei frowned.

"Look. I'm as curious as the rest of you as to what she may know, believe me, but we don't have the time to stand around and make the girl explain anything. Just trust me that she's someone we all can trust and should prove valuable in any upcoming battle," Siyo assured. "Besides, she wouldn't tell you anyway."

Kensei continued frowning. "She didn't do a thing during the last one. Those things ignored her completely."

"She's really good at going unnoticed," I said with a wry smile. "But take it from me, when she does fight, she doesn't do it by halves. If-when things go south, we'll be glad she's there."

Kensei shared a look with Hyung. "Alright, fine. Let's press on then before more of these things spring up. And their riders might still be nearby."

"Agreed," Siyo said.

As we left the battle scene behind, I had to admit I was awfully curious about why Lyra broke that stone. And why it made sparks and smoke like some second rate street magician's grand finale. I wanted to try and put it all together, but this headache I was getting was driving me nuts. My temples were throbbing now. And my hand felt numb. I was forced to holster my spear since one hand needed to be permanently attached to the bridge of my nose while the other was too numb to hold onto my spear properly. If I let the thing slip out my numb hand it could slice off a foot.

Siyo dropped back next to me. "Are you alright?" she asked with some concern on her face.

"Uh. Yeah, I guess. I just feel like I've just woken up from a few too many foamy wet ones," I muttered.

"So it's a headache? Is that why you were looking so weird a few minutes ago?"

"Weird? What are you talking about?"

Siyo nodded her head at Lyra. "Just before she knocked that gemstone thing out of your hand, your eyes had glazed over. You didn't look like yourself. But then when she knocked it out of your hand, you went back to normal."

I frowned. "That's…weird alright. I was thinking about…" I shook my head. "I don't know. I think I blanked out for a few seconds."

"While you were holding that stone and not immediately after? And you got it from the bug," Siyo murmured, her eyes searching in thought. Then her eyebrows lifted. "Van."

My eyebrows did the same. I rose my voice to carry to the others. "We have to go back!"

It took a little convincing to make Kensei and Hyung double back. Seeing as the haste we made to leave would then become completely pointless. But we did. We took cover in the trees, watching the area. No one appeared and Lyra hadn't disappeared on me, so I felt confident enough to step back into open. No one attacked me. I searched the dead beetle, skewered on Siyo and Kensei's spike. The thing did not smell good already, but having it's chunky orange guts spilled out didn't do it any favors. I sifted through the entrails with the blade of my spear. At one point I punctured one of the larger chunks and a hand plopped out. Just the hand. It was everything I could do to not retch and empty my stomach then and there. But in spite of convulsions rippling up my body, and what was now a pounding headache, I managed to dig out what I was looking for.

"Both of them had that thing on it?" Kensei's voice was nasally as he was holding his nose against the stench. Siyo was doing likewise. Hyung was just watching in silence, arms folded, his nose free. Figures. Grunting doesn't sound right with your nose held shut. (Go ahead. Try it. Hold your nose and grunt. Didn't work did it? Made you sound like a frog got caught in your esophagus.) Lyra never was one to get phased by much of anything, but not this time. I'd imagine to the others she was just standing there, but I could see the concern, the subtle flicks of her eyes from me to the stone and coin.
I got the message. I wasn't sure why or how it all fit together, but I just knew I shouldn't touch it again

"Yeah," I said. "I can't prove it, but I think all of the beetles that attacked you had these things under their bodies too."

"But for what purpose?" Kensei asked.

I shook my head and frowned. "I…I don't know. The answer's right in front of me, but I can't piece it all together for some reason." I grabbed the bridge of my nose again. "Damn headache." I got a big dose of beetle guts smell.

"Aw jeez! It's on my hands? C'mon! I didn't even touch it. Gah! Smells like  rotten onion and banana juice that was eaten by some old codger, then farted in my face." I glanced around. "I'll be at the riverbank."

"Do you think we have the time for you to wash your hands?" Kensei said, looking around anxiously.

"I'd rather not have this smell give away our position if we need to hide at some point," I said, starting for the riverbank. "Besides, I don't think we have anything to worry about for the time being. There's a pretty good chance these beetles were runaways. No. Maybe they were just abandoned or something."

Siyo followed. "What do you mean? The Luminous Ones just left those behind?"

"I think so. We would've definitely been attacked by now if they'd set a trap for us or their riders left their beetles here while they…took a leak or something. And they share that weird connection with their mounts, so I'd imagine they wouldn't want to be far from them."

Siyo glanced back at the two corpses. "Why would they leave them, then?"

I glanced too. "Look at them. They're smaller than the other beetles we've seen. Maybe they're defective somehow."

"So they just left them behind?"

I shrugged as I set down my spear and stooped down by the edge of the river. The water was a little murky here, with reeds and other plants poking up through the water here and there. I'd have to make this quick. Who knows what could be lurking to bite my hands off. "It's just a guess, could be something else completely. Maybe I'll think clearer when this headache passes. But first I need to get this raw stank off my hands."

"I see. Not the first time you've washed off some stank, is it?" Siyo said with an audible grin.

I shot her look, then grinned back. "Nope. Maybe you'd like to give me a hand."

Siyo looked at the water, a small frown on her face. "I'd rather not."

I shrugged again. "Suit yourself." I dipped my hands and immediately found them clasped around- "You're missing out on-GYAH!" I sprang away from the water.

A stone sprang out of the ground as Siyo broke into a stance. "Van! What? What is it?"

I was shaking all over. My skin was crawling. "I..." I swallowed. And tried to fight down the sudden, irrational fear that was rippling over me. "I found a hand."

"What?"

"There's someone in there."

"In the water?"

"Yeah," I stammered.

Lyra suddenly appeared in my vision. She walked slowly to the edge of the water. She rose an arm, her fingers were pointing down like she was taking a sheet of paper out of a folder. A body floated to the top. Or half of one. Then another body floated to the top underneath it. This one had legs, but was short one head and a hand.

Footsteps thudded as Hyung and Kensei ran up, vaguely making me aware that Lyra had beat them here. "What happened? What is this?" Hyung demanded of me.

I grimaced, feeling sick to my stomach. "We've found the riders."
Logged

Eman5805
Never Gonna Give Yue Up

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A Soulful Brother


« Reply #51 on: Aug 12, 2010 12:03 pm »

-continued-

Apparently Hyung had experience with dead bodies. He just slipped on some thin gloves and hauled the corpses out of the river with no problem. Which was fine because I sure as the pit wasn't going to do it. Then Hyung started inspecting their bodies, rattling off facts in a dull murmur. He confirmed that both had been killed by the beetles based on the wounds. Neither had anything identifiable on their persons, including the coins, which might've been washed away in the water. He could only guess at a time of death without taking an accurate liver temperature -whatever that means- but he put it as somewhere around 30 hours. Turns out Hyung works as a coroner during leave.

I know these things because Siyo told me after the fact, while I sat on a rock on the bank a good 50 yards upstream from the corpses.

"Are you okay? You look a little green," Siyo said with concern, feeling my forehead with the back of her hand.

I gently brushed aside her hand. "I'm…" I fought down a spurt of bile that tried to come retching its way up my throat. I kept staring at my hands. "I'm fine.
I'm just a little shook up. I don't really like dead bodies. And especially don't like touching them."

Siyo frowned. "You don't? But, you found the first coins off the two assassins after you killed them. Did you have a problem with it then?"
I thought about it, then shook my head. "No. But that's the difference, I think. They'd tried to kill me first. I knew they were no good. Guess that's why I didn't have problems with sifting through their pockets."

Siyo glanced over at the bank, then at the bodies of the dead beetles and frowned. "But they're Luminous Ones. They've tried to kill you too. And you've poked through the entrails of that beetle."

Another surge of bile had to be fought down. "Ugh. Don't remind me. Seriously. Unless you want jerky all over the place."

"Oh right. Sorry."

"But those are beetles, not really people. If they were about a hundredth that size, I'd step on 'em no problem." I said waving a dismissive hand. "And maybe you're right. The Loomies are the enemy. The Loomies have attacked me. But I don't know if they did. Those two were just part of an organization that has it out for me for whatever reason. I had no quarrel with those two specific people. And even if I did, if I had taken their life with my spear, I still wouldn't want to touch them longer than I needed to. Plus, I found them at the bottom of a river by grabbing one of their hands. It…caught me off guard."

"It's okay to be scared, Van," Siyo said soothingly.

I did my best impression of Hyung. "Maybe."

A few beats stretched before Siyo said, "I've racked my brain trying to figure out what happened back there."

Her tone. She didn't mean the fight. She meant at the stream in the peach blossom orchard that wasn't. Well. That certainly took my mind off death. And my headache was gone too. "And?"

"I think I know what happened," she said with uncertainty touching her features. "Or I have an idea."

"And?" I said feeling like a parrot-hawk that's only learned one word.

"Well, it has to do with the temple that was made into a base."

"Temple? That place used to be a temple? It wasn't always a base?"

Siyo's lips quirked up a corner. "Of course. You mean you thought we built an massive, elaborate underground base just for our relatively small operation?"

I pursed my lips, indignant. "The thought had crossed my mind." It hadn't. "So, what was the temple used for?"

"No one knows for sure. Hyung believes that some great spirit used to live in these mountains and the temple was built by its servants."

I flinched. "Hyung? You told him about…"

Siyo looked like I'd just insulted her. "No. Of course not. I only asked him about the history of the area since he's been here the longest."

I breathed a sigh of relief. "Oh, good. So what'd he say?"

"He said there's old legends about the area, about how wandering travelers have vanished for weeks at a time only to come out unscathed and…" She looked me in the eye. "Smelling of peach blossoms. People that met them after have said they notice changes in the person's actions and demeanor, like going in changed them somehow. Some would say they were enlightened. But the travelers always have no memory of where they've been. They thought it was the same day they went in when they came out. I think we both can figure out where they're believed to have gone."

I shook my head in disbelief. "You think we stumbled into the Spirit World?"

"It's all that makes sense. Between wandering in and what happened after, there is some kind of gap. Something happened, I'm sure of it. But I can't remember what. Something unnatural was at work on that day. I don't think it's any coincidence I led you there."

"Or that I left my spear behind." Another stretch of silence, then I huffed out a small laugh.

"What is it?"

"We were led into the woods by some…Spirit World forces into a disappearing orchard of peach blossoms and then one thing lead to another, when you were moments away from staving my head in with a rock covered fist? Meaning all of it could've been things happening under some unseen influence. None of it could've been real."

Siyo said nothing.

"So where does this leave things between you and me?"

More soundless moments lingered before Siyo took a deep breath and said, "I had the same thoughts when I found out. I pushed them away, trying to free my mind to concentrate on the task at hand. I thought I could just wait until we rescued my sister to reached a decision. But the more I tried to block it out, the more it pressed back against my thoughts.

"At first, I tried to convince myself that those emotions weren't genuine. That I hadn't known you long enough to develop any real feelings. Or how not long ago I wanted you dead, even though it was just me unfairly blaming everything on you. But then I realized that while I've only recently came to know you up close, how you really were, I've spent so much time in the past thinking about you. What type of man you were, what motivated you, what you looked like, and all sorts of things.

"I'd preface those thoughts about how I'd make you pay for what happened to my mother, but…" She trailed off, seemed to struggle over some thought. Then she let out a frustrated sound. "I don't know. I guess it's like… if you've seen someone for the first time, and then spent the next portion of your life constantly thinking about that person, searching for that person, talking to people who knew that person, wanting so badly to meet that person. To drift off in thought about just what you'd say if you met them by chance. What else does that sound like? Aside from the anger I felt, it was like I'd fallen for you already without knowing it. That sounds crazy I know."

Yeah. It did sound crazy I had to admit. But when I thought about it myself, maybe there isn't much difference between love and hate. Both make you irrational. Both can be fuel to keep a person going forward. The pit, maybe aside from the desire to kill the given object of the emotions, love and hate might be like twins separated at birth. Though given some couples I've seen, maybe being in love means you've contemplated murder once or twice or more too.

"And then the beetles attacked out of nowhere and I thought for a horrifying moment you were about to die. And I wouldn't know what I would have do if you had. The entire fight, even as I knew that keeping myself safe should've my first priority, I kept looking over, making sure you were okay. And being so relieved when we'd won and you weren't hurt."

I sat in silence, staring down at the water. The same was true of me. I remembered that cold fear when those scything jaws nearly took Siyo away. Away from me. I hated that feeling, hated that fear.

Soft, warm hands under my chin gently beckoned my head to turn, so I did. And I looked into those emerald eyes of hers.

"And that was all I took for me to know it was real. That 'things' between us were meant to happen one way or the other. Fate and destiny led those 'things' to be. And…I'm okay with the way 'things' are," Siyo whispered. And then she pressed in close and kissed me.

"And I'm okay with it too. Maybe I'm better than okay." And I returned the kiss to sender. We played catch with kisses, each return with a little more "oomph" than the last, until I suddenly stopped, drawing a look of surprise and disappointment from Siyo. "Wait. You think it's best to do this here out in the open? Hyung and the others might see."

Siyo blinked, then blushed. "Oh. Right."

"A little late for that, I think," Kensei said awkwardly.

Me and Siyo jumped up like the rock we were sitting on had turned into a giant briquette. Kensei, Hyung, and Lyra were standing behind us. Not directly though. It was like they were intentionally giving us space or some semblance of relative privacy. Relative as privacy can get when you're standing out in the open anyway.

"Kensei? Hyung!" Siyo sputtered. "I…we…how long where you…"

Hyung grunted, staring at me. "Long enough. If you two are done making out, I suggest we should bend up a ford. Kensei believes the Luminous Ones may have crossed the river somewhere nearby."

Siyo cleared her throat. "H-he does? Alright, well…uh…let's get moving then." Siyo said straightening out her clothes, even though they weren't ruffled. Kensei and Siyo then went to work.

Hyung was still staring at me, thick arms folded. I faced him flatly. "We were hiding it from you so you wouldn't get upset. So, if you've got something to say about us then-"

"If you do anything to hurt the commander, I will kill you. Otherwise, your relationship with her is none of my concern," he said simply. Then he added, "And you were not hiding anything from me. I've seen couples in love before. I knew from the beginning. Personally, she can do much better." Then he walked away.

"-say it now," I finished, blinking. "Right. Okay then. Just so we're clear."

Lyra was still standing there, head tilted to the side, interestedly.

"Why does it feel like I just got permission from a father to date his daughter?" I asked her.

Lyra's face became the seldom seen mask briefly. Then she rolled her little shoulders.

I chuckled. "Good answer."
Logged

t-town
Never Gonna Give Yue Up

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« Reply #52 on: Aug 15, 2010 05:24 am »

Another fine chapter, I always enjoy reading it on my e-reader!
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Eman5805
Never Gonna Give Yue Up

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Posts: 4339


A Soulful Brother


« Reply #53 on: Nov 15, 2010 12:16 am »

Author's Note: Hey, readers. It's been a while. Sorry for the long period of down time. This semester has been hectic and I haven't had a lot of time to myself. But I've finally locked down the rhythm, so we have this. Hope you enjoy reading it as I did writing it. This one is quite a doozy.

Chapter 16: The Mine

   After the exchange with Hyung and the sudden bout of déjà vu from Lyra, Siyo and Kensei finished the makeshift ford and we all crossed. From what I could gather from the lay of the land, we were actually in a low valley. The ground slopped upward as we pressed on to the top of the valley. The trees grew more and more sparse and the ground less and less fertile, transitioning into gravely shale, what could only be the original bank of a great river which has long since receded. It was nigh impossible to move without the sound of crunching gravel all beneath our feet.

I looked behind and ahead of us, then frowned.

"What is it?" Siyo asked.

"I just noticed. We're leaving footprints," I said.

There was an awkward pause, a very specific kind of awkward pause, mind you. You know the kind. It's the awkward pause that happens when someone says something really stupid but doesn't know it and everyone around them isn't sure how to break the bad news to them. Usually the response depends on the person responding, ranging from awkward correction to loud and boisterous derision. I tend to range towards the latter of the two choices. Lucky for me, Siyo is softer in tongue than I. "Um. You're just noticing that?"

I rolled my eyes. "No, that's not what I mean. We're supposed to be tracking down a bunch of people in all terrain trams and giant beetles, right? Then why haven't we seen any tracks yet?" Everyone started looking at the path around us.

Oh sure, now they want to look at the ground, I thought.

"Could they have covered their tracks?" Siyo asked.

I thought on it. "Maybe. But why? I doubt they're worrying about any of you guys or me coming after them. They have to know just about anyone that might come after them is a non-factor compared to a battalion of beetles."

"So what are you saying?" Kensei asked. "That they are worried about us?"

"It would be a boost to the old psyche, but," I shook my head. "I don't know. Like I said you don't watch your back unless you're afraid of something attacking it."

"Maybe they're just being overly cautious," Siyo suggested. "They're criminals, murders. That kind of behavior isn't very odd."

She did have a point. But it still didn't convince me for some reason. "Maybe. Maybe. I might be reading into it too much. Just, something about it doesn't mesh." I shrugged. "No matter. Let's press on. I'd like to get over the ridge before sundown."

After a short while, Kensei, who had also been looking around himself, asked us to stop while pulled out a tiny pair of binoculars and spotted a mountain in the distance. "There. Garish Peak. A mining village called Ha Xi in this area. A few miles east and to the south, I believe," Kensei said.

"There is?" I nodded. "And that's why you think the Loomies came this way?"

Kensei half smiled, like I took the wind out of his sails somehow. "Yes, that's right. The stream becomes a river and the village is situated near the confluence. They'd run the risk of being seen if they pressed on the way they were going."

"Alright. So what's in this direction?" I asked.

"Nothing but trees for miles and miles until the dry steppes which stretch for even more miles," Kensei replied. "And, of course, after the steppes…"

"The Outer Wall," Siyo said. Her eyebrows rose. "You don't think those things are headed to Ba Sing Se, do you?"

"It's the only thing east from here," Kensei murmured.

I snorted. "So they're going to Ba Sing Se, then? Just what that city needs. More bugs to throw in with the others."

Hyung actually spoke up. He must've gotten insulted by my snort, he answered with the snort's brother, the grunt. "That'd be foolish. Not even the Fire Nation could successfully assault Ba Sing Se in 100 years. No matter how many of those beetles they have. They'd be spotted from the watchmen before they came within 10 miles. The wall is the perfect defense for any frontal assault they could mount."

Kensei nodded agreement. "Add to that the sheer number disadvantage Van mentioned. If they're truly taking that route, they're sure to fail."

I shook my head. "No. Then that can't be right. The Loomies have been smart about this so far. It's too naïve to assume they'll screw it up at the end just to
make it easy for us. If there's anything life has taught me, it's that things hardly ever get easier for you. Not before it gets a lot harder, anyway."

"You wouldn't consider the destruction of our entire base and nearly everyone inside things getting harder?" Kensei said heatedly.

I winced a little. It's easy to forget my life hasn't been the only one getting hellish lately. "Okay. You've got a point there. So maybe we're due that upward turn at some point," I conceded. "But assuming that isn't now, what would they have to gain by attacking Ba Sing Se like that? It's a pretty direct way to be an anarchist, I suppose, but they couldn't possibly think it would work out well for them. All the whisperings and rumors that you guys were going on about. Taking a couple beetles into the largest city in the world doesn't sound like much. It sounds like a bad joke with no punch line. There's got to be something else. Another angle we haven't considered yet."

"Tunnels," Lyra said suddenly.

I gaped at her. We all did  such was the pattern. Lyra reminds us that she's here and we all stare at her like she just turned into a flesh eating monster for a few seconds then turned back. She pointed off to the side of the path. In the thick of a mass of shrubbery and vines was something wooden. We walked over and cleared the plants away. It was a square of timbers surrounding a mass of rocks and pebbles.

"What is this?" Siyo asked.

"It's an old mineshaft," Kensei replied, his eyes narrowing in thought. "And it's caved in." He ran his fingers over the rocks. "And intentionally. But that would mean…" His eyes lit up. "Damn it. I was wrong. They didn't go around it. We have to get to the town. Now."


It didn't take a timely, insightful comment from Lyra to see something was wrong with Ha Xi. At Kensei's advising, we waited until nightfall to pick our way up to the town. We found a good vantage point at the base of a hill. There was absolutely no sign of movement whatsoever. Kensei said it was a mining town, but I couldn't smell anything burning. No oil. No smoke. Nothing to imply any kind of industrial activity was taking place near here. It would be like that maybe fifty years ago when all this kind of work was done with earthbending, but times had changed since the war ended. The town felt empty.

But it wasn't empty. There were people here. There were definitely people here. We could see them walking about here and there. They just…

"They look like they're sleepwalking," Siyo murmured so that her voice wouldn't carry further than the five of us. "There's no life in their steps."

"And it's completely silent. No one is speaking to each other," Kensei said, pitching his voice like Siyo's.

I frowned as an unsettling feeling rippled through me. "It's more than that. Right there." I pointed towards what looked like a small warehouse. "A man carrying a satchel is going to walk by, turn left at the corner, then walk out of sight. Right…now." Immediately, the man came out carrying the satchel, shuffling along as everyone else had been. He came to the corner and turned left, shuffling out of sight. "He's been walking in a circle. Probably going in the back door and out the front again. Over and over again. All of them are doing the same thing. Just their…whatever they're doing's are a little longer."

"Are they on some kind of patrol?" Siyo asked.

"It's a mining town. Why would they be patrolling?"

"Perhaps because there's at least one bandit in the area," Hyung's voice came from behind me, pitching his voice low reducing his voice to an animalistic snarl.

"You can't know that for cer-" I began, but stopped. I shot the big ax wielder's back an indignant look. "Was that a joke, Hyung? You mean more than just grunts come out of you? I am impressed. Next thing I know, you'll be composing haiku."

"Haiku is simple.
A bandit would not know this.
Keeps eyes to the front,"

Hyung rumbled, not missing a beat.

I started to retort. But…five. Seven. Four…five. Damn. I've been outmaneuvered. But I refused to concede. I needed a way out. Like suddenly being attacked or
Lyra pulling another disappearing act or if Kensei turned into a giant worm creature.

"Where's the girl?" Kensei suddenly whispered. "She's gone."

And there you go. Great timing as always, I thought with a small smile. Though I was kind of hoping for the Kensei into worm creature thing.

"Be ready, we might be under attack," I whispered, starting to scan the area around me for movement, tightening my grip around my spear.

A tense moment stretched, with no confrontation. Then Siyo pointed towards the town and said, "Look, there. By the satchel man."

All eyes, save Hyung followed Siyo's finger. It was Lyra. She was standing right out in the open by the door, in plain view. The satchel man walked out of the building. He walked right by Lyra, as if she weren't there. Lyra stuck out her foot and tripped the man. He fell flat on his face without even trying to catch himself. Like a tipped over mannequin. Sluggishly and awkwardly, the man pushed himself up to his feet. And continued on his walk, as if nothing had happened.
It was like a comedy troop. I nearly laughed, but for the fact that it was clearly not a comedy troop routine. Lyra moved out of sight, blocked by another building.

We waited and no one said anything, no alarm raised, and most importantly, no on rush of killer beetles. Licking my lips, I stepped out from the brush.

"What are you doing?" Kensei's voice hissed.

"I'm going after the girl."

"Are you nuts? We still don't know if the Luminous Ones are here or not. We still don't know what's going on."

I arched an eyebrow. "So we leave the girl to fend for herself?"

Kensei frowned. "Well. No. But…"

"We won't learn anything from just watching. I'm going in. If you're not up to it, sit tight and watch my back." Not waiting for an answer, I went up to the building that last blocked Lyra from sight and pressed my back up to the corner. I heard a rustle as Siyo pressed next to me. Kensei and Hyung were close behind. I shot them a smirk before edging up to and peeking around the corner. And was staring a woman in the face a few inches away from my own.

I squealed. It wasn't very manly. I'm not proud of it. But I couldn't help it. And given what I've been through lately, I think I'm allowed to be honest about
it and not have my Man Card revoked. But more importantly, the woman didn't flinch. She didn't do anything at all, in fact.

"Oh, we're so sorry for sneaking up on you miss," Siyo apologized. "Miss?"

No one asked me if I were okay. So I said, "I'm fine. I'm fine," as I hoped back to my feet.

"She's just standing there," Siyo murmured. She waved her hand in front of the ladies face. The lady didn't even blink.

"Things have gone from dangerous to just weird," I said under my breath. "Not a good combination."

A lantern was hanging nearby. Kensei got Hyung to get it down for him and held the light up to the woman's face, moving it away and back.

"Her pupils are dilating too slowly," Hyung grunted. "Something has numbed her senses almost completely."

"Could it be some kind of drug?" Kensei asked. "Maybe a narcotic like cactus powder?"

Hyung grunted "No. She has none of the symptoms. Her eyes would be completely dilated. And no form of cactus renders you near comatose. This is something else entirely."

"I think we should search the area, check all the people," Siyo suggested. "Maybe someone can talk to us and figure out what's going on. We can't just leave because there's no sign of the Loomies around. This could somehow be related."

I nodded. "Agreed. Then let's split into two groups and check every building. We can look for the girl too. Then regroup by that smithy in 30. And keep your eyes out. We could still be ambushed."

Without speaking any words about it, we each broke up into the same groups we did against the beetles. Siyo and I went in and out of each building. As we checked, we found that the sonicus phone lines had been cut. We also found several men and women, all either staring off into space or tediously doing some task, completely unresponsive to all attempts to gain their attention. One man was steadfastly hammering a nail into a wall. Or trying to. The nail had long since been nailed down and he was physically too tired to actually move the hammer. It just hung limply in his hands, barely able to hold onto it. Sweat was pouring off his body and his hands looked raw. He'd worked past the point of exhaustion, but he didn't show it on his face at all. His expression was just as blank and empty as the first woman I saw. I took the hammer from him and Siyo and I tied the guy down to his bed. He kept trying to get back out to continue hammering in the nail. We found another woman in her kitchen scrubbing dishes clean that had long since been cleaned. Her hands were pruned from being in ice cold water for so long. We did the same to her, tying her to her bed and, upon Siyo's insistence, we put the couple dishes up for her.

There was a joke in there somewhere about women and cleaning dishes, but I couldn't think of one. This whole thing was too bizarre and even a little scary.
Whatever task, they weren't even actively accomplishing anything. They were just doing things with no thought, rhyme, or reason. And would continue to do so even if it was harming them or if someone tried to stop them. Did they stop to eat? And judging from how most of them smelled, I don't think they stopped to use the bathrooms either. And the worst part of it all was I had no clue what was going on. There was no one to talk to. No one to question.

And there was one other thing unnerving about the town.

We met back up with Hyung and Kensei at the smithy. They had turned up nothing of note in the buildings except more people mindlessly doing mindless tasks. But they did find a mine cart and the track. They didn't follow it into the mine, however. But they did find something.

"Did you find any children?" I asked Kensei. "And I don't mean Lyra. I mean other children.

Kensei's arched an eyebrow. "Actually, no. I hadn't even noticed until now. Why?"

"We didn't find any either. Something happened to them."

"How do you know there were children here at all to being with?" Siyo asked. "This could be a work town. No one could stay here long enough to need to bring their children, family here.

"I thought so at first too. But I found a room with two bedrolls a little too small for a full sized adult. Along with some of the plates in a kitchen were child sized with tiny spoons. At first I thought that maybe there could be a couple of horizontally challenged people around I didn't find. And then I found these." I showed everyone the multi colored glass orbs in my hand..

Siyo gave me a slightly surprised look, probably wondering when I pocketed them. Silly girl, I was a bandit, wasn't I? This isn't even all that I've borrowed.
"Bu Yi marbles? That could be for one of the adults."

I shook my head "Adults shoot dice. Kids shoot bu yi. An easy to play game that doesn't require running around outside and interfering with work. I doubt this place had many, but there were definitely children here."

"Could they have run away?"

"Or were taken away," I said with a grimace. "But first, what did you find?"

Hyung held up a folder. "We found ship records at a building down by the pier. A man was sitting as his desk scribbling gibberish. This was the first thing on the desk that wasn't a mess of scrawls."

"Can I see that?" I asked. Hyung handed the papers over with a grunt. I thumbed through them. "If we can use this as a timeline, a barge carrying away coal left roughly fourteen days ago. We were still in the pit, weren't we?"

"Give or take," Siyo replied.

"Well, then between then and now. This town went from business as usual to…" I frowned. "…a ghost story. And we haven't seen a single sign of any Loomies anywhere. Not even a hint of killer bugs or even a track to be found. I'm starting to wonder if they had as many of those trams as I saw before."

"It's entirely possible the tram car Kensei and Hyung ambushed was drawn by a beetle," Siyo offered. "And on the way out, they simply had no further use for it."

Now there's an angle I hadn't even thought of. "Could be," I said nodding.

Why hello…what have we here?

"And we still don't know where the girl is," Kensei added.

Siyo asked. "You said there was an entrance into a mine, right?"

Kensei nodded. "Yes. We didn't want to go in just the two of us." He cleared his throat. "Ah. It's a fairly large opening."

"Big enough for a beetle to fit through, you mean." I said with a wry smile.

"Well, then that's where we're going next," I said. "But first…" I rose my voice, keeping it calm, yet assertive, and said into the shadows, "Whoever that is, you can come on out. We're not going to hurt you."

Everyone snapped into guard, eyes suddenly alert. Another pang of déjà vu swept through me. Siyo stepped next to me, facing into the shadows. Hyung and Kensei both scanned our flanks. Siyo's eyes gave a flicking glance, a silent question.

I touched Siyo's shoulder and met her eyes for a moment. She looked hesitant, but she relaxed her guard, but ever so slightly. "It's okay," I said back to the shadows. Then I laid my spear down in front of me, and then walked over and away from it. I showed my spread palms. "You see? I'm not the enemy. And I know that you're not the enemy either. Not shuffling around like that. It's okay."

The shadows offered only silence.

I looked over my shoulder, and rolled my hand, beckoning Kensei and Hyung to do the same as Siyo. Kensei relaxed himself a bit as well. Hyung merely backed a few steps away from the group, still brandishing his ax, but decidedly away from the others.

"And you don't have to fear them either, see? We we're only here to help and figure out what's going on," I said to the shadows.

And the shadows answered. "I knew what to expect from you, Van. It was the others I wasn't sure about."

My jaw dropped open. "That voice…"

He stepped out from behind the barrels.

"Mal Kha," I gaped.

He waved. "Hey. It's been a while, Van."
« Last Edit: Nov 15, 2010 12:19 am by Eman5805 » Logged

Eman5805
Never Gonna Give Yue Up

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A Soulful Brother


« Reply #54 on: Nov 15, 2010 12:17 am »

-continued-

   I asked the others for some privacy in a nearby house. Mal Kha was a little antsy around the others who looked like what they are  the law. A lifelong bandit, even a young one, never gets comfortable around the law.

"I don't understand," I stammered. "I thought you were dead."

"I thought you were dead," Mal Kha said after a sip of tea we helped ourselves to from the cupboard from one of the houses. His voice turned somber. "I thought everyone was dead. After you ran out of Xin Mao's tent, and stole his eel hound, all hell broke loose. Mao became furious that you humiliated him and sent people after you, even me and my father. But before we could even make it out of the hideout, we were attacked."

I remember that Hyung said that when he and a party had gotten to The Pit, it had already been attacked. I was suddenly very aware that if I hadn't chased after Siyo at that exact moment, even if I had managed to talk down Xin Mao's anger, I would've still been there to be attacked. But… "By who?" I asked.

"By 'whom', you mean," Mal corrected me, suddenly reminding me of one of his little quirks that got on my nerves. The little smart guy, even when talking about some tragedy, he still found time to correct my grammar. "They were some anarchist group, I think. And I'm certain they're the ones that really robbed Xin Mao and they came back for the rest of the money. They struck in the middle of the confusion after you'd left. They were so effective no one even noticed they were there until it was too late. I ran and hid in the sand while everyone fought. I stayed underground until the screaming stopped. When I finally climbed out of my little hole. Everyone was dead. Even my father." He stared into the cup of tea.

Harai, his father, wasn't a man of distinction. He sold out to Xin Mao's promises of money and power. I never liked sharing his company much and wouldn't walk down a dark alley with him. And I never saw him treat his son like much more than an asset. But still, a father is a father. "I'm sorry for your loss."

Mal's expression hardened. "Don't be. I've had to grow up a lot in the last few days. And I won't let them get away with it."

"So that's why you're here? You tracked the Loomies all the way up here for revenge?"

Mal nodded, dead serious.

I had to stifle a laugh.

Mal stiffened. "What's so funny? You don't think I can do it?"

I shook my head. "No," I started. Then I had to nod. "I mean, well. Yeah. But it's just…you were the one more full of brains, not guts. I'm sorry, but I laugh
at the stones you've got all of a sudden. I mean, you really thought you could take them on all by yourself? That's almost suicidal, kid."

Mal looked deeper into his tea and didn't say anything.

I rubbed the back of my head. "Okay. Look. I know it's about avenging your father-"

Anger flashed through Mal's face. "Avenge my father?" Mal spat, his voice turning acid. "That insignificant, ambitionless fool? Good riddance, for all I care. I didn't come here to avenge him. I'm here for my own reasons, on my own laurels."

I blinked. I had a hunch that Mal and his dad weren't on the best of terms, but the way Mal sounded, he didn't just hate his father, he was glad that Harai was dead. It was a side of Mal I didn't know existed. It actually…scared me. A little. I think.

Mal seemed to notice that I was at a complete loss of words. He cleared his throat and said, "So, what about you? Why are you here?"

I paused and thought about it. "It's been…complicated," I said over a soft chuckle. "Short version is that I've had my own run ins with the Loomies and I'm here to settle things."

Mal raised an eyebrow, a look he learned from me. "With two cops? You?"

I shrugged. "Like I said, Mal, it's been complicated. Though they're not cops. They're more of…" I frowned. "To be honest. I still don't know exactly what they are. Or what their organization is called."

Mal finished his glass. And gave me a look like he was waiting for me to keep going and ask the obvious question. Then he made up his mind and asked it for me. "And why is Siyo here, alive and well? Last time I saw you and her, you were trying to eviscerate her. What happened?"

I hope the low lighting in the room hid the fact that my cheeks were reddening a little. I cleared my throat. "And that's even more complicated."

Mal used my trademark eyebrow quirk again. "Oh?" A beat later, his other eyebrow rose. "Oh. Oh! Van! You mean you and her…?"

I cleared my voice louder. "That's not important. What's important is that we're looking for the same group of people. And that you're here at the same time as us means we're on the right track."

Mal eyed me with sideways lips. "I thought you didn't want Mao's sloppy seconds?"

The hairs on the back of my neck stood up. I flicked a glance to the door. "Hey! I didn't, don't. But she didn't…she never had…we're not discussing this."

Mal followed my eyes. "Yeah. She's real pretty. I have to confess. A lot of the guys back there constantly talked about how they wanted to get her out of her-" Mal saw the look I was giving him. Mal held up his hands. "Okay. Okay. I'm sorry. I'll stop."

The apology didn't do much for me my. "Sure," I grumbled. But I kept staring at Mal, realizing something.

Mal really had changed. Mal used to be all naïve and squeamish when it came to the subject of women. Like he was still going through that "girls are icky" phase. Now he seems…older. More like me. He really meant it then. When he said he'd done a lot of growing up over the last couple of days. I didn't really notice it before, but Mal's not a great deal younger than me.

"Let's get back to important stuff," I said. "Like what any information on what's going on here. Or if you've seen anything out of the ordinary."
Mal continued staring into his tea. "I've seen a lot, Van. I haven't a clue what's wrong with the townspeople. It's downright bizarre, but I've seen what's inside the mines."

"Coal?"

Mal shook his head. "Not exactly."

"What's in there, then?" I asked.

"You wouldn't believe me if I told you, Van. It's something you have to see for yourself. Trust me."

I frowned for a moment, then nodded and said, "Okay. Fine. Then show me But I have to run this by the others first."

"There's no need for that," Siyo said. I turned and she was standing in the doorway, arms folded. Kensei and Hyung were there as well. Hyung was still guarding our rear. Saying that didn't get any less awkward to say the more I said it.

"You call this privacy?" I muttered.

"Sorry, Van, but now isn't the time to indulge his personal feelings. He'll just have to get over them," Siyo said bluntly. "Hyung just heard a rumbling sound from the mines. And all of the people in the town suddenly collapsed unconscious all at once. Something is happening."

Everyone just collapsed? All of them? How? No. That's not the question. The real question to ask is why now? Why only after we've gotten here? I started trying to piece things together and found myself unable to shake the feeling that what's happening with the people isn't just connected with the Loomies it's a crucial piece to a puzzle, but I don't know what that puzzle is quite yet.

Wait. Or maybe. I know more about the puzzle than I thought.

"Then it looks like we're heading back underground." I looked from Siyo to Mal. "All of us."


Kensei wasn’t kidding. The opening to the mine was fairly large, a perfect semicircle nearly 20 feet high at the top. The product of earthbending no doubt. Crates and discarded tools were strewn about near the opening. The ground here was hard and covered with black soot. None close together in front of the opening, conveniently spaced if something large needed to move in and out.

"And you say you saw something down in the mines, right?" Kensei asked Mal, his tone wary. "Something that you don't wish to inform us of."

"That's right," Mal answered. "It was…I'm not even sure the best way to describe it. You have to see it for yourself."

"Is that a fact?" Kensei murmured.

"It is," Mal said. He lifted his chin." Are you finished accusing me of something, sir?"

Kensei didn't answer. Hyung grunted.

"Simmer down," I said, suddenly feeling like a teacher or a parent. "Look. It doesn't matter. We were going to go down there anyway. So we wouldn't have taken your word for it anyway, Mal. No offense."

Mal rolled a shoulder. "None taken."

Kensei nodded. "Yes. We have to see for ourselves whatever is down there. Though it would be nice to have a little clue. Besides, we still don't know where the-"

"Children are," Siyo said before I did. "That's true. I hope we find them alive and well."

I hid a smile. Siyo really was a sharp one. "We won't get anywhere standing around and talking about it," I murmured. "Let's get moving." I stepped to the edge of the shadows then stopped. "Maybe two of us should stay behind and stand watch. Guard the entrance, while the rest go inside the creepy, who-knows-what's-in-there mine."

Hyung grunted after a moment. "Agreed. The rest of you go. I can stand watch. Alone."

Mal frowned. "Not to tell you guys how to do your jobs, but isn't the point of standing watch to be able to warn people inside of danger? We're going very, very deep into the mines and the sonicus lines are all cut. Like this if someone attacked, you'd simply be the first to die."
Hyung flat out growled at Mal. "Do not speak to me, thief."

Mal's eyes narrowed.

Siyo stepped in. "What Hyung's trying to say is, he's stood guard before. He knows what he's doing. So..." Siyo looked at me. "Shall we?"

"We shall," I said, trying to confidently stride into.

Mal grabbed my arm. "Wait. First we need a glow fly lantern and some masks to keep the coal dust out of our lungs. That stuff can cause problems if you inhale too much of it. There might be some in these crates. Search them."

Everyone seemed a little reluctant to take orders from Mal, myself included. But I knew next to nothing about mines, so if he said we needed those things, we needed them. I pried open a crate with my spear and started rummaging through it. It was very familiar to me. I've ransacked cargo vessels the same way in the past. There was a bundle of torchlights and two lanterns inside, along with a jar filled with glow flies, which were miraculously still alive. Following Mal's instructions, I handed the lantern to Siyo, had her hold it still while I got a glow fly out of the jar and into the lantern without killing it. One tap on the glass and the fly's bottom burst into green hued light. We were all set, but something in my head screamed at me to bring the torchlights. So I picked them up, cut the wick in half, and tied them a strap on my belt while everyone's back was turned.

"Van? What are you doing?" Siyo called.

"Oh, nothing. Nothing. Just…making sure I'm all…situated. Don't worry. I'll be right after you." I jogged after them, passing Hyung who was going to stand directly in the middle of the mine entrance, arms folded. As if you couldn't easily walk around him if he didn't move. Just before I passed him, he grabbed my arm.

"Is there a problem?" I asked him as if I were a waiter at an upper crust restaurant talking to a patron upset about the fly in his soup, not a 6'4" brute with an ax that has threatened my life a few times already.

"If it were not for the fact that I'm the only one qualified to guard this entrance," Hyung grunt-whispered, "I would nail your feet to the ground and leave you out here, thief. My earlier pledge still applies both to you and this Mal Kha person from that desert hovel whom I also do not know nor trust. Too many allowances have been made. And things continue to grow increasingly strange, but I will not forsake my duties. If learn of any harm that befalls the commander in this mine, neither of you will ever leave. You will not allow any harm to come to her."

I met Hyung's eyes. "Don't worry about a thing, big guy. Because, you see, I agree with you."

Hyung stared at me for a moment, and then his thick eyebrows climbed. He understood, or at least he got the gist of it. He nodded once, slowly, and released his grip on my arm.

And without a single uttered word between us, I turned and went back to being surrounded entirely by earth.
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Eman5805
Never Gonna Give Yue Up

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A Soulful Brother


« Reply #55 on: Nov 15, 2010 12:17 am »

-continued-

With Mal leading the way and me bringing up the rear, we walked with deliberate pace and communicated rarely, and if then, only in hushed voices. Every single sound seemed to carry through the mine. My foot and mine alone managed to find the loose rocks and pebbles on the ground, sending pattering echoes ahead of us. I got more than my fair share of angered looks. I shrugged helplessly. What else could I do? Guess it's my fault I was the only non-bender here now. The tunnel split off in multiple areas at several points. Mal Kha had left tiny bent in arrows to point the way along the floor.

I could imagine how easy it would be to get lost in here unless you knew your way precisely. That was the point. It was obvious that someone had gone through
the trouble to put out all of the lanterns, just so you could get lost in here. And there's a good chance that some pour soul had. I didn't say anything, but I was fairly certain one of the rocks I accidentally licked was really a skull. But I had no way to be sure. I was the furthest away from the light of the lantern.

The nervousness, the jumpiness, it was very familiar. I often felt like this before run ins with Fire Nation rebels. It was the false calm before the storm.
But that's all it is. You only think of it as calm only because it's not storming, it's the contrast that makes the "calm" stand out before it all begins.
Truth is, it can only be calm before a storm. If it's storming before a storm, then…it's just raining a lot. But still, a battle is a lot like a storm in some ways. Sometimes you know when it's coming and have forewarning, other times it catches you when you least expect it. The outcome is dependent on how prepared you are. How many of them you've been through before, your experience. Though that's where the differences kind of split off.

If you forget an umbrella at home, you just get wet, maybe catch a cold and spend some time hacking up snot. But if a battle sneaks up on you, your blood tends to end up on the wrong side of your skin. Plus there's the chance of profuse sweating from physical exertion and fear. Not to mention what some cowards have been known to do in their pantaloons when things get particularly hairy.

Well. Huh. I guess you can end up wet from a battle too. Go figure. And now I wish I had a nice hot bath and a towel.

After some more marching in the dark, Mal came to his final marking in the stone. Up ahead, a faint light was bouncing up the tunnel, a dark yellow glow.
There were distant murmurings. Someone coughed.

My eyes thinned. So, we're finally here, I thought, instinctively tightening my grip on my weapon and working out the tight knots nervousness had built up in my shoulders and back. I could feel subtle vibrations in the ground as no doubt Siyo and Kensei were both readying themselves for action at a moment's notice.

Mal gestured for us to keep low, close together, and to stay completely quiet. Then he reached inside of the lantern and killed the glow bug, plunging the tunnel into total darkness. Now that, I didn't expect. But placing my hand on the back of the person nearest to me, I managed to compensate. A common maneuver the army taught me when you couldn't see or to communicate without speaking. I could only hope Kensei and Siyo were familiar with it.

And with only the cold darkness to see, for the first time, I noticed something all wrong about the cavern. The darkness wasn't cold. It was getting warmer
the deeper we went. Was there a fire burning up ahead? Shouldn't I smell it burning, even through the masks? And I'm fairly certain lighting a fire in a coal mine isn't a good idea. But still, there was light up ahead. We'll soon find out, I guess.

As we crept closer and closer to the light, the voices grew louder and more distinct. Before I could even see it, I knew we were about to go into a large chamber. I felt Kensei press flat against the wall. Slowly, I did the same, careful not to bang my spear against the wall as I did so.

We inched closer and closer. I could make out words from the murmurings now. "…pain in the ass. Sitting in this forsaken mine," a man muttered, his voice slightly muffled. He must have been wearing a mask as well. "How much longer?"
"Shut up and be silent, Shang Min," snapped a female voice.

Another female voice giggled. "Aren't those the same things, Siku?"

Siku let out a frustrated sound.  "That goes for you as well, Tazu. Unless you want me to tell the Sovereign himself, you'll both be silent."

My body went rigid. Sovereign. I'd heard that word before, from those Loomie hitters that tried to ambush me. This was it. The Loomies were really up ahead.
When we clear this last bend. We'd be face to face with a group supposedly pent on overthrowing Ba Sing Se. The group that captured Siyo's sister, Captain
Lin. The group that assaulted a fortified underground base and routed it thoroughly. The group that had giant killer beetles on their side. I became acutely aware with how crazy we must be. We were really about to fight them, us handful of people? Such a thing would be completely insane.

It's a good thing we have an advantage or two they don't.

Slightly illuminated by the light coming from just 15 feet ahead, Mal poked his head around Siyo and Kensei and motioned for me to come up to where he is.
After sharing a quick look and shrug with Siyo and Kensei, I silently padded over next to him. From here, I could see a flight of stairs going up, no doubt bent into the ground. And I could glimpse the chamber ahead. It had a high ceiling filled with massive stalactites…or stalagmites. I forget which one was which. Someone in the chamber coughed again.

I could feel the uncomfortable warmth coming from the room. My sense of smell was shielded a bit, but it wasn't completely cut off. I could faintly smell something foul and rotten. And if I can smell it through the mask, it meant that the stench was awful. I can only think of a few things that could smell that bad.

Mal looked at me and motioned for us to continue up the steps. To the others, Mal gestured for them to stay back. Siyo quirked an eyebrow at him, then looked at me. I nodded once. She frowned, but returned the nod.

Staying as low as we could, we ascended the stairs. All the while, I was bracing myself for what I was about to see. I thought I was ready for anything. A massive army. Men pointing bows with flaming, poison tipped arrows at my eyeballs. A giant death machine that would grind me into mulch to fuel its evil engines. The tremendous maw of the biggest beetle of all. Or maybe just the inside of a giant worm creature, a massive circle of teeth that would digest me for a thousand years.

Anything.

I cleared the final step. Mirroring Mal, I dropped down prone. I think I understood where we were. This was the heart of the mine. Mining equipment was strewn around, including a motorized lift just ahead of us. The ground dropped off sharply to another level down below. Mal had me wait while he crawled up to the edge and peered down. Only then did he motion me forward. I crawled over getting to the edge and I closed my eyes briefly, steeling myself for what I was about to see. Ready for anything. I opened them. And…

I guess I wasn't quite ready for this.

Roughly 25 feet below There were four men and two men, six people total sitting around, fiddling with mining tools on wooden crates. Looking bored.

I blinked and looked around, searching for more people somewhere. Hiding or anything. Couldn't find them. I did see two young children kept inside of a crude wooden cage I believe animals are transported in. The kids looked hungry, but for the most part looked unharmed. Next to the cage was a woman with a bandaged leg was tied to a post, a black cloth over her head. Beyond the small group the empty ground continued until a wall sheered the chamber in half save for a small circular door. Whatever was causing the faint glow was coming from inside. There was another lift on the edge. I looked away, and then looked back.
Still just six people. I looked at Mal. He had an odd look on his face. It was somewhere between amusement and shame. Then he shrugged.

You have got to be kidding me.

I rolled my eyes, and then abruptly stood up. Mal's eyes widened.

"You disappointment me, Mal," I muttered.

"What are you doing?!" he hissed. "Get down or they'll see you."

I shook my head. I could see it in his eyes. Damn it, Mal, you bastard. "No. You mean they'll see me too soon. Here's a tip to pass along to your Sovereign: the next time you set a trap, try to do it less obviously," I told him. Then I reached out, snatched him by the collar, pulled him off the ground into my chest, and pressed the blade of my spear under his throat. At the same time shouts came from the people behind me.

"Wha-what are you doing?!" Mal Kha stammered his voice tight with "fear."

"You can drop the act, Mal," I said, my voice cold. "Move or talk again and I will slit your throat."

I didn't need to embellish the scorn for him in my voice. I was pretty pissed that I was proven right about him. I still didn't want to believe it, but the timing of everything fit. How could Mal have gotten all the way in here and back unless he knew the way? Little earthbent arrows in the ground? How could make those perfectly in the dark? And to figure your way out of that maze like tunnel work he would've had to come in and out of it with regularity. Plus, he came all the way up here alone? Mal did that? Not a chance. He was too smart to do something that stupid. He came all the way up here and didn't even look into the what was happening to the townsfolk? And he knew the way to the rest of the Loomies, managed to sneak all the way in without being detected, yet I was to see and hear him moving around in the town? It didn't fit. He couldn't be that lucky. The only explanation was Mal was supposed to lure me into some kind of trap.

But now I have one of their members, and if my hunch is right, he's one of their most important ones. One they can't afford to lose. Because I have a good idea who their Sovereign is. Damn, I didn't want to have to do this. Mal's still just a kid in all of this.

Keeping my grip tight, I brought Mal around and moved up to the edge, nearly dangling Mal over it. I saw the head of the bound woman lift at the sound of the movement. "Now, to the idiots down below," I called, using the same bored, drawling voice I used when I would talk to people I robbed as a bandit. "Let's talk business."

The six simply looked at me. All of them. It felt a little awkward.

I tried not to let the feeling show on my face, keeping it in the same bored, expression. "First, I want to speak to your Sovereign. I know he's hiding around here somewhere."

The six below shared looks. Then they all started smiling. "The Sovereign was right," one of the men said. "Exactly as planned."

Uh. Okay. That doesn't sound good. "Maybe you didn't hear me. Your Sovereign. Get him out here. I know he wants to negotiate."

"No," another man said simply, still grinning "That will not be necessary, Van."

I expected them to know who I was, but hearing them say my name…something about that bothered me. Again, I kept that feeling from my face. "It won't? So, he won't mind if I ear to ear your bait here, then?"

The woman giggled and without echoing through a tunnel it sounded very…unnatural. "It's so cute how you think you're the one in control, Van. But you're not.
The Sovereign is. The Sovereign always was in control. From the very beginning, control was the Sovereign's. All of your actions up until now were done under the illusion of self-control. And soon, the Sovereign shall control all."

Her voice turned more monotone as she spoke. And the echo in the cave added a very…unsettling quality to her words. I shook my head. I couldn't help it. I couldn't shake the feeling that something was seriously wrong. It felt like the room was swaying.

"And there is no negotiating to be done, Van. Throw down your weapon," yet another man said.

Somehow, I found my voice. "I think you don't know how this works," I said, losing whatever bored drawl I had. My voice was shaking. "No matter how delusional you are, I have the Sovereign's son. You think he'll be okay if I cut his throat? Now…" I shook my head again. I couldn't clear my head. What the pit was going on? "…now get Harai out here now."

The six laughed again. "Silly man," the other woman said. "Harai is not our Sovereign. Harai is not even alive." 

"You expect me…" I suddenly could hardly tell up from down. It was like being drunk, minus the delicious beer part. I couldn't shake loose this nauseating feeling. "…to believe that? If Harai is really dead…then…who is your Sovereign?"

My head started swimming and I felt my knees weaken. What the pit was happening? My fingers started shaking. My skin felt like it was literally crawling, like a thousand tiny worms were burrowing under my skin. My breath was shuddering in and out. And a cold film of sweat had broken out. It took me a moment to even realize that someone was laughing, a cold hard mocking laugh.

From right in front of me.

Cold realization cut through the wave of disorientating nausea like a knife.

"How disappointing. I didn't think it would take this long for you to figure it out," Mal Kha said smoothly. "But then, you always did assume too much and listen too little, Van."

"M-Mal?" I breathed. "You're the-"

Mal Kha took my brief moment of distraction to break my weakened grip on him and in a move I didn't quite follow the ground surged up into a sharp pillar that midsection hard enough to knock me off my feet. Next thing I knew, I was on the ground hacking and coughing. The wave of nausea was gone entirely. It was replaced by a ball of familiar pain. I tried to rise, but Mal kicked me in the chest, redoubling the agony, sending me back to the ground. He contemptuously kicked my spear from my hand.

Mal knelt and grabbed my head by the hair. "You see, Van, this is the result of careful planning. Something you have no idea about," he snarled. "You just like to piece things together after they've already been set in motion and figure out the best way to ruin it. Often completely by accident. It boggled my mind how you managed to be such an irritant, to continually to delay my ambition. To escape my control. But it's obvious now. How you in a rare moment of actual intelligence, you managed to conceal your allegiances from me. But no longer. You've been found you out." He released my hair, throwing my head down.

I don't know if it was the pain or not, but nothing he was saying made any sense to my ears. I kept trying to struggle to my feet but Mal kept kicking me in the ribs. I gritted my teeth and spat out, "Bastard."

"And Van, here's something else I bet you didn't see coming," Mal seethed. He turned towards the stairwell. "Bring them in."

"Very well," came a voice from the stairwell, followed by footsteps.

Damn it. Someone had been following us. But I didn't say anything. I thought it was Lyra. Stupid! Stupid! Stupid! I should've known it was here when the moment I'd detected the presence of someone following. Lyra always moved like a ghost. If she were following me, I would've never known about it.
I managed to get my head around to see Siyo and Kensei shoved stumbling to the ground out of the stairwell to the ground down next to me, arms cuffed behind their backs, and mouths gagged. Their faces both bore bruises and their clothing was scuffed. Behind them was a single figure wearing all black, including a black mask, and wielding a single pole arm that the figure used to wrangle Siyo and Kensei up the stairs.

A simple, ornate bo staff.

I'd seen that bo staff before.

Siyo, who had been glaring intently at the figure, unable to speak, had her eyes grow wide at the same instant my own eyes had.

She pulled off the mask with a deft flick of her regal hand, shook her long hair loose, and glared at me with intense hatred in her eyes. "You always did forget to mind your back, dear sister," Captain Lin murmured.
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Eman5805
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« Reply #56 on: Jan 11, 2011 08:11 pm »

Chapter 18: The Colony

My teeth were grinding together over the pain. I wanted to move, to say something, but I couldn't really think straight. Couldn't move. I could only writhe in pain helpless as my arms were bound behind my back.

Again.

They made all of us--except Kensei who was still unconscious--sit on our knees. I continued to wrestle with my lungs to breathe.

Again.

My head was pounding. And I kept losing track of where I was or what was happening.

Again.

What the cave happened to me?

I used to be someone you didn't want to mess with. I was a battle hardened veteran from the Earth Kingdom army's infantry. I was a hired spear for gangsters and desert barons. And a damn good one. I was the guy that survived ten on one odds. Or was it nine on one? Or did the one old guy not count? Was there an old guy? Gah. I used to know exactly how many and there was. But whatever. However many it was, how'd I go from that, to getting my ass handed to me by a snot nosed little brat and a traitorous Major Bei Fu wannabe?

And this is the second time in not too long that I've gotten myself into a situation like this. Third if you count the first time back in the desert. Gah.

Have I gotten soft? Plushy. Like a cuddly stuffed toy for widdle kids?

Screw that. Screw that.

"Lin?" Siyo said, finally shaking from her initial shock enough to speak. "What is this? What are you doing?"

Lin had a softer look to give Siyo, but it was still cold. "What am I doing, dear sister? Come now. That should be obvious."

"You're with them?"

A small smile spread across Lin's lips. "Apparently so, dear sister."

"No. You couldn't be. You couldn't be! That doesn't make any sense. You were with us the whole time during the attack. I saw you fighting them."

"Did I?" Lin's smile grew. "I'm sure that's what it looked like. But that's all. You saw what you were meant to see. A carefully orchestrated sequence of events. The frantic commander, leading her troops in the face of dwindling odds, fights off the foe, but gets herself captured in the process. Then I'd be
'forced' into making you surrender. It was supposed to be fairly simple. But…" Her smile faded. "You just had to disobey orders, didn't you, dear sister?
Guard my back. That was all you needed to do. But you had to be the insubordinate, glory seeking little sister you've always been."

"I wasn't seeking glory," Siyo cried. "I was trying to save your life!"

"You shoved me out of the way of an attack that was only to appear to harm me and in doing so disobeyed a direct order. And as a result, you got your own self hurt. You would've been held captive, safe and unharmed, until I could've found a better way to tell you the truth, in hopes you'd be more accepting in time. But no." Lin's eyes tracked down. "At the very least, the Sovereign's mount didn't hurt you nearly as much as it appeared, it seems."

"But, no, none of this makes any sense. Why? Why did you betrayed us?"

"Betrayal?" Lin snorted. "That implies I was ever actually a part of the Northern branch to begin with. From the beginning I was with the Luminous Ones, dear sister."

"No," Siyo shook her head, disbelieving. "That's not possible."

"Don't be dense. You mean never found it unusual that we never had any solid leads? Contacts would mysteriously vanish or break contact without reason?
There's no better way to counter your enemies if you're in a position to control their actions."

"Your own flesh and blood. So. Is this how you follow mother's teachings? All that she taught us? By becoming an anarchist? How could you?"

"How could I? You're always so melodramatic," Lin said, rolling her eyes. Her eyes settled on me again. "And you want to mention our mother? Okay then. I'll tell you why if you'll first answer this."

Lin walked over to me. She isn't limping. Not even a little, a bleary portion of my mind noted--though I hadn't the faintest clue why she should be.
"Van Tsu-Yan," Lin seethed, her voice icy. My name coming out like it was something foul on her lips. "Tell me, sister. Why on this green earth is this man still alive? And even more to the point, why was he traveling with you the entire time?"

Siyo just looked at her.

"Well?" Lin demanded. "Why? Why didn't you crush his skull the moment you had the chance? You haven't forgotten what he's responsible for. You haven't forgotten all that he's done. I know you haven't. We've already talked about this."

Siyo's expression deflated a bit, like she was shrinking in on herself.

I didn't know why, but I knew there was an explanation Siyo could offer that'd probably be enough. But I didn't know what it was thanks to this damn headache.
Nor did I know why she didn't say it.

"So, answer me, Siyo. What's your explanation? Did he talk you out of it? Lie about what he did? Are you really so naïve to believe anything that came out of this worthless scum's mouth to protect himself? What could've stopped you?"

Siyo remained silent. Her expression more pained by the second. I hated seeing that look on her face, but damn it all, I still couldn't talk or move yet. What
the cave did Mal do to my body?

And why was it starting to feel familiar?

Lin narrowed her eyes. "Why do you have that guilty look on your face?" Lin looked back and forth from Siyo to me. Her eyes widened. "You didn't. You…" Lin looked at Mal Kha, who was watching the display in front of him like it was all a show. He rolled a shoulder.

The color drained from her face. Then Lin practically shrieked. "You slept with him?!"

Lin's words hit Siyo like a physical blow. I don't know if it was embarrassed shame for what she had done, fear at the raging animal Lin had turned into, that
Lin didn't actually say "slept with", or all of the above, but Siyo looked away from her sister.

Lin suddenly whirled, snarling, and struck me across the lips, sending flash of pain through my face. I tasted blood. Then she grabbed me by the face, nails digging into my skin, forcing my face to look at hers. Her hair was suddenly wild, plastering to her face. Her white teeth bared and she was breathing heavily, like a rabid animal. "Lecherous bastard! First my mother and now her? Are no limits to the depth's you'll sink? No limits the way's you'll torment me?" Lin turned glared daggers at Siyo. "But you're not entirely blameless this time. I bet he didn't even force himself on you. You probably let him do it. And enjoyed it too. I'd expect no less from my wh*** of a sister."

Whatever foggy haze was keeping me from having a clear mind, started to clear at those words. Especially at Siyo's reaction.

"But still," Lin continued, her words becoming less coherent, like she was having trouble putting sentences together. "Won't rest until you've striped family name of all dignity. I won't let you. I refuse. I knew I should've slit your damn throat the moment I captured you by that stream. But blasted appearances. My cover. But not again. After I kill you, I'm going to chop it off and stuff down your mouth." A deadly smile spread. "Or maybe before."

If the pain hadn't already help clear my head, realizing what she meant by "it" certainly did. A brief spike of primal man fear shot through me, but was quickly fought down by my greatest internal weapon.

I looked Lin right in the eyes and, with the best leer I could muster, said, "If I didn't know any better, it almost sounds like you're looking for an excuse to get my pants off, captain. How kinky."

Ah, good ol' snark. Provoking my classmates/army comrades/enemies to the point of thoughtless violence for the last decade and a half.

I was expecting Lin to launch into a shrieking, mouth foaming, rage of punches and scratches, mixed in with a little eye gouging. On that much, she delivered.
Didn't quite expect her to whip out her staff so fast I hardly saw her draw it. I also didn't expect Mal Kha to step forward and grab her arm before she could swing it and bash my brains out. I had to gape a little. He stopped her swing cold and it wasn't like she was moving slowly.

"Enough, my second," Mal said, his voice calm and detached. "The time for this hasn't come yet. Everything is nearly ready to begin."

"Oh, my Sovereign, please," Lin begged. "Just let me kill him. He's hurt my family so much already. Just give me the final satisfaction of ending his miserable existence. Please!"

Mal just looked at her levelly.

Lin instantly regressed. "Forgive me, my Sovereign. I will not challenge your authority again."

Only then did Mal release his grip on her staff. "Trust me, Lin. When the time comes to end his life, I bestow those honors upon. And after you've done away with him, the colony will have its first fresh meal they've had in weeks."

Colony? I wondered. Is that what he thinks his group is?

"Besides," Mal continued. "You're not the only one here that has lost family thanks to Van. And quite more recently I might add."

My brow creased.

Mal noticed it. "Confused? Well, I'm certain you would be." His cold, detached face darkened a bit. "That you managed to defeat her is most troubling. I'd thought she was more competent than that. She'd previously mentioned that she'd had her eyes on you. She usually delivered on avowals like that. But you've proven more proficient in the past."

Again, Mal said things, but the result afterwards was like he spoke fluent Gibberish. So, I expressed my situation to him in as elegant a manner as possible.
"Huh?"

Mal seemed to be enjoying my confusion. "It's a shame for you too. If you had recognized her, you might have figured it all out much sooner than would've been convenient for me. Could've stopped me before I reached this stage. But you forgot about my cousin like you forgot about nearly everything else I'd said around you, hadn't you?"

"You're cousin," I murmured. My eyes went wide suddenly, my expression frantic. "You don't mean…!"

"Finally figured it out?"

My expression faded just as quickly as it popped up. "No. Sorry. Don't remember no cousin."

I saw the brief bit of anger that rolled through him, but he seemed to fight down the impulse to act. I smirked. He was putting up a strong façade for his subordinate's sake then. I might be able to use that somehow. But for now, I'll humor him.

"But no. Sorry, Mally, I don't remember her. Maybe it's because she didn't amount to much in the end," I prodded with a shrug. "I don't know. You'll have to refresh my memory. You say I met her once before? Obviously before I killed her, right? So where in the desert?"

Mal clenched his jaw. Then a second later he smiled. "You can't fool me, Van. You remember her. You're memory was never a problem for you. And I know the effects have worn off by now."

At least I know he definitely did something to me to screw with my body. "Yeah. I have an inkling, I guess."
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Eman5805
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« Reply #57 on: Jan 11, 2011 08:12 pm »

-continued-


Mal Kha threw open the tent flap, eyes wide and shining. "Van! They're here!"

I flinched and looked up from my spear, still holding onto the whetting stone. I briefly considered pitching it at him for interrupting me mid-stroke, which was a mighty good way to lose a finger or two. But I decided against throwing the heavy block at his head. It would be a waste of a good block. And who knows when's the next time I'd get to steal a good one? I hadn't been doing the whole bandit thing very long, but I felt pretty sure your average noble doesn't keep weapon sharpening tools in his pocket. Which was just typical of course. I've noticed lately that the pounding desert winds do annoying things to the edge of blades. I might need to consider keeping the blade wrapped when not in use.

With an irritated sigh, I put away the polishing cloth and the other things I use to clean my spear. "Seriously, Mal, I don't see what the big deal is. It's just some merchants."

Mal frowned, offended. "Not just some merchants. It's the beetle headed merchants. And they brought their elephant stag. You're telling me you don't want to
see one up close?"

I rolled a shoulder as I stepped out of the tent, shielding my eyes against the sun. "I don't see what the big deal is, Mal. It's just a big, dumb bug."

I could hear that the merchants were busy haggling with Mal's dad and Xin Mao about the loot we were trying to offload. Xin Mao was obviously trying to lowball the merchants and they weren't having any of it. But they wouldn't dare leave empty handed. Not after bringing the big thing here. And at the same token, Xin Mao couldn't lose face by letting them walk away without selling him something. They'd be at it a while.

As my eyes finally adjusted to the light I could see it. Yeah. It was big alright. It was resting, laying flat on its large stomach. It's shiny dark green shell easily larger than my modest tent. It had one dominant horn and a smaller one at that gave it a look vaguely like a komodo rhino. A large harness was wound about the shell along with the cargo sled. I shook my head. The sled was chook full of loot. It had to weigh a couple tons, but the big bug was obviously strong enough to pull it around with no help.

Standing near the sled were a couple of guards. They had the lazy nonchalance of a group that isn't particularly worried about a fight breaking out because they knew they could handle it. The merchants weren't dummies either. They knew better than to waltz into a den of bandits without proper protection, I thought with a smile. Probably bought them on retainer just for this trip.

"Isn't it beautiful?" Mal said, his eyes never leaving the beetle.

"Oh yeah," I drawled. "Just beautiful. Almost arousing, in fact. I might need a change of pants."

"Think of how much it must weigh and how much heavier all the cargo must be." Mal must not have heard me. The kid usually reacts to lines like that. Mal started drifting closer to the beetle.

I grabbed Mal's arm. "What are you doing, kid?"

Mal looked at me like I was dumb. "Getting closer, of course. I want a better look at it."

I snorted. "Oh please, kid. They're obviously not letting anyone get too close. They know where they are. You think they'll just let you up to all of that loot?"

"Of course, they will," Mal said stiffly, pulling his arm free. "I bet you a silver piece they will."

I snorted again. "You're on. And you'll still owe me, even if they draw on you and hack you to bits."

Mal didn't answer. He just strode right up to one of the guards, a female with two short swords at her hips who had been pacing back and forth. "Hey, how's it going? You mind if we take a look at the stag?"

The woman looked at Mal briefly, then said, "Sure. Just don't get too near the head. She gets jumpy near the strangers."

Mal smiled at her then shot me a smug look.

My mouth hung open for a dumb second. Then I pursed my lips and rolled my eyes. "Whatever."

Mal went right up to the beast and placed his hand on its shell. "Magnificent."

Up this close, I felt a little uneasy, but I didn't want to let it show, so I tried to look something like impatient and bored. "Sure."

Mal began running his hand over the ripples in the shell. "And these are the docile ones. They have other ones that are far more…" He paused, lingering over the next word like it was something savory. "…amazing. I can't wait to see those too."

I yawned, suddenly taking in a slight whiff of rotten vegetable matter that the bug was putting off whenever it exhaled. "Truly."

Then I saw that the female guard that let Mal Kha up to the beetle was giving me the once over. She had a small scar on her eyebrow, a healed over cut. I also noticed that she her hand was on the hilt of one of her blades, idly stroking it with her thumb. I cocked an eyebrow. I recognized the look, the eager curiosity mixed in with vulpine aggression. She was sizing me up in the event that it came down to arms.

I've gotten more than my share of that in the past, so I responded like I always do. I dug the end of my spear a little more into the ground and put some weight onto it as I leaned, tilting my head slightly. A languid acceptance of any future challenge. It wasn't with any particular malice to do her harm, just a sign that I know what she's thinking and that I'll give her a fight if she ever wanted one.

Her eyes glistened in the desert sun as tiny smile barely lifted the edge of her lips and then she turned, not taking her eyes off me until her back was completely turned, and she continued her pacing.

Huh. Well. I guess I've had my fun for today.


Mal fawned over the giant insect for a big longer, walking around it, making sure to swing wide of it's great head. Mal dared me to touch it too. I would've said no, but he double sheep-dog dared me, and you can't turn those down  it's in the rule book. Naturally, the moment I got even close, the large thing quivered. The sand was real shifty. Yeah. That's why I fell back on my ass. Not because I was scared or anything. No siree. Definitely loose shifty sand.

All the while, Mal continued to gush about it, but I didn't really pay any attention. We caught the attention from another guard on the other side of the beetle, but Mal assured him that he was told it was okay. The double short sword lady, somehow on the other side of the beetle with us vouched for Mal.

Eventually, some side of the negotiations broke and gave in. Given his capacity for it, I had little reason to believe it was Xin Mao.. Especially given how mad he looked and how he demanded I help load up the cargo. And so wrapped up the event for today until the next raid Xin Mao ordered us to go on. Which I bet would be soon.

Just before I went back to my tent, Mal stopped me. He had this very funny look on his face. Like a kid that just got a new toy or something.

"Uh, Van," he said smugly. "Aren't we forgetting something?"

I grumbled as I dug into my pocket, fished out a silver piece. I was gonna use it to get some beer next chance I got. Take it to the pit. I should've known better than to let Fate and Luck near my money. "How'd you do it? She let you through a little too easy." I flicked it at him.

"Of course she did," Mal Kha replied as he caught the coin. "She was my cousin."
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Eman5805
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« Reply #58 on: Jan 11, 2011 08:13 pm »

-continued-

His cousin.

That's who attacked me in that underground base. I recognized the eyebrow scar as her mask slipped off. But I didn't place where. I just knew I'd seen her face before. Mal was right. If I had connected the beetles to what he said back then the moment I saw his cousin, I might've been more ready for his little double cross. I already knew he was up to something the moment I saw him. But I might've been more ready for Mal himself being the real threat.

"It was there in front of me the whole time," I murmured. "But I had no reason to pay attention to it. But now, looking back and connecting the dots. A lot more makes sense."

Mal smirked smugly. "Oh?"

"Yeah. Like it was you that killed Fei Lu. You were the only one that could move in and out of Xin Mao's tent and go around The Pit with no problem, just say you were running another errand. Probably stabbed her in the back the moment you saw her alone and buried the body deep in the sand."

"Slit her throat, actually," Mal corrected. "I would've liked to have kept her alive, used her to disseminate false information. But the old wh*** was too wise for her own benefit. A liability I couldn't afford to leave unmitigated."

"And your cousin in the beetle merchants, you used her to kill the merchants and steal their elephant stag. A perfect way to haul all of Xin Mao's loot away quickly." I nodded towards Mal's lackeys. "And I bet you had them all there waiting at the cave for Xin Mao's people to check up on the stash and slaughter them. Make it look like one big ambush. And I'm almost certain you were the one who killed-"

Mal slashed his hand through the air. "Enough. I don't need to hear you deliver a recap of everything that's happened until. You're not impressing anyone by telling us you've figured anything out."

I shrugged. "Maybe I like to stretch my ego from time to time by putting sniveling little punks in their place?"

Mal grinned again. "Or maybe you're stalling for time."

I didn't let anything show on my face. "Stalling? For what?"

"It's pointless to feign ignorance at this point, Van. I already know all about her."

My heart lurched. No. He couldn't have. Impossible. "Her who? I don't know what you're talking about? Siyo? You know about Siyo?"

"And I thought you'd be a better liar," Mal said shaking his head, as if disappointed. Mal turned and called to his lackeys, "Bring her here."

A man bowed then ran off, obscured by crates and hastily made tents.

Bring her here. Meaning she's likely bound, at their mercy. That would never happen to her willingly. And not without the cave to pay.

I swear, if they've hurt one hair on her head…

"You see, Van, I finally uncovered your little secret you've been hiding all this time, that little unknown quantity that I never could account for. The very factor that's been hampering my ambitions since I first met you."

I blinked. "First met me?" I mumbled dumbly.

"Your carefully crafted ruse was nearly flawless," Mal said bitterly, as if he didn't wish to admit it. "No doubt because your own personality and actions were hardly false. And she's more than competent. I'd almost say I'm little envious of her skill and ability. She was captured through little fault of her own."

The anxiety returned with those words. I started to struggle against the binds on my wrists more. I flicked a glance to Siyo, her gaze was still crestfallen, but she spared a glance. I could see the deep concern in her eyes. Kensei's pathetic soft headed self was somehow still unconscious, not even so much as stirring.

Damn it. If she's been caught too, what hope do I have?

Lyra.

"But she failed, as you have failed," Mal said smiling again.

The lackey returned and shoved her forward. She stumbled blindly and fell to the floor in front of me.

Silence reigned. Mal was no doubt waiting for my reaction.

So. I laughed. Hard. It was every bit as hard as the time when I was tied up as Siyo and "Captain" Lin's prisoner. But without having my mouth gagged, I could be as loud and roiling as I wanted to be. Ah. It was a good laugh.

And Mal's stupefied expression? Priceless. Xin Mao would've loved to get his hands on something so valuable. Lin had already seen me like this, so she just stared daggers into me. Which seemed so silly to me just then.

Best part had to be when I glanced at Siyo and saw that even though her head was hung down, her lips, no doubt hidden from view of everyone but me, were curled in a little smile.

And then I knew. I remembered what Siyo didn't come out and tell Lin when she demanded why Siyo was…ahem…sided with me. To tell that tale, she'd have to explain how she was healed from near death. Which meant she'd risk revealing the presence of Lyra. After all, I could hardly be deemed a medical expert. I'm more about inflicting wounds than healing them. Without even communicating it to her, Siyo knows that Lyra is the one wildcard in play that we can't afford to tip them off to.

Attagirl.

But at the same time, what this meant was that both Siyo and me were counting on a little girl to save our butts. Which, of course, made me laugh even harder.

"What the bleeding hog-monkeys are you laughing at? Have you lost your damn mind?" Mal demanded.

"He hardly had one," Lin seethed.

Intense relief replaced the fear I'd just been feeling. The "her" the lackey dragged forth was not Lyra. Not unless she's grown nearly two feet in the last hour or so. It was the woman I'd seen earlier tied to the post. Her bloodied bandages on evidence of a nasty wound, and obvious status as a prisoner had made me think she was Lin. But then the real Lin came forward and gave me quite a shock. To the point where I completely forgot about this woman. Whoever she was.
In fact, I wonder how she even got that bad wound on her-

A stream of recently learned facts and past, sometimes obscure, events suddenly poured through my mind. And I began piecing things together. Lots of things. And reached a few strong guesses.

Well. There is some hope.

Or maybe the exact opposite if all of them were true.

Still, I smiled. "And you hardly have a clue."

Mal lifted his chin, indignant. "I told you, you can't feign ignorant. I've already uncovered your plan. And using her, I'm going to find out everything about your own private group that I need to know."

"Um. I don't know how to tell you this, Mally," I cleared my throat nervously. "But…I have no idea who she is."

Mal was studying my face. I think he was trying to figure out if I were lying or not. Or maybe, unbelievable if true for one so young, he learned how to do like Siyo and sense if I were lying via earthbending. No matter what method he was using, he'd know I was telling the truth. Or at least bluffing too good for him to detect.

For the briefest of seconds, Mal lost his composure. I saw the doubt, then anger, then fear roll through his expression. And more about Mal became clear to me. And the words he's said to me so far have begun to make more sense to me now.

Mal reached down and ripped the sack off the woman's head. Her hair was long and dark and disheveled. Her face was a mess of bruises and cuts. An eye was swollen nearly shut and purple. Her lips were cracked and dry and her mouth was gagged. If they were feeding her, it was barely enough to stay alive. They probably did the cruel practice of only watering her gag, so she'd have to suck on it for moisture.  Mal grabbed her hair roughly, forcing her face up to me.
The woman's one good eye opened and fixed on me. Upon seeing me, something in her expression changed.

She hardly moved or resisted. But one thing was clear now that I'd seen her face.

I had seen her before. Only once and for the briefest of moments.

"Ha! There. I saw it. You can't fool me, Van," Mal said with renewed satisfaction.

I snorted. "Sounds to me like you're starting to doubt yourself. I mean, if you knew I knew who she was, why would you have to get reactions out of me, o' mighty sovereign," I drawled.

Mal's jaw clenched again. "Try as you might to provoke me, Van, I'll always maintain the upper hand." He pulled out a small knife and held it under her throat. "And now you're going to tell me who it is that you work for, or I'll let you watch as she chokes to death on her own blood."

The woman's eyes never left me. There was no fear in her expression. "You're wasting your time, kid," I told him. "Whatever group she's with, isn't what I'm with--which is nothing."

Mal barked out a laugh. "Oh come now. You honestly expect me to believe that this entire time, you've been bungling around, wreaking havoc on not just mine, but Xin Mao's and Siyo's and even this woman's organization completely on accident? Completely ignorant? That you're not working in collusion with some faction as an agent of subterfuge and sabotage? That you're simply one of the most unlucky human beings to walk the planet that has misfortune following you around like a shadow?"

"Pretty much."

"No man that's ever lived could be so ill-fated and not be dead already," Mal replied.

"Next he'll say what he was responsible for in the Fire Nation wasn't his fault either," Lin spat.

"Well. Now that you mention it," I began.

"No. No more stalling. I've grown tired of this. You will tell me what you want, or she dies. And don't think I'll end with her, either," Mal said darkly.

I swallowed. I couldn't have imagined that I would react to seeing her. That gave Mal all the reason to believe I knew her. Nothing I said would convince him
I have nothing to do with the woman. Things weren't looking very good. And I couldn't just let her die like this. Not as she looks me right in the eye like that. And I certainly won't let him hurt Siyo. So…I'll just have to tell him what he wants.

Guess I'll find out how good a liar I really am.

I sighed. "Fine. You're right. We were working together the whole time. So don't hurt her."

I could feel Siyo's eyes on me without even looking her way. I didn't so much as glance her way.

Mal smiled, satisfied. He moved the knife away. "Go on. What else?"

"But it isn't the way you think it was. I'm not officially a part of the group, you see. It's…part of my initiation. My rites of passage."

Mal's eyes narrowed. "You're an initiate?"

I hung my head as if a little embarrassed. "Yes. This one last task would've gotten me inducted officially into the Order."

Mal's eyes lit up when I said that. "The Order? The Order of the White Lotus?"

I don't know what stopped me from blurting out, "The what of the what what?" But I just nodded.

Mal looked at his lackey's and Lin with a triumphant smile. "And there we have it. The last group in play is accounted for. Your fears of some other, unknown faction were without merit. It's just the two and we've already neutralized one of them completely."

Damn. That went so well, it went too fast. But they were worried about something, huh? I can use that. "You sound so cocky. You don't even know what our aim was," I said. Then I amended, "Is."

Mal mused over it a moment. "You sent her in disguised as Captain Lin. Your motives from there are transparent enough. You hoped to slip through our ranks amongst the confusion of battle to get closer to the Sovereign. A clever ploy being that it stood to reason that we couldn't risk direct contact with her, so we had to communicate sight unseen. However, I knew what the real Captain Lin looked like and ran into her before she wanted to. And, like you, she had no reason to suspect that I was actually him. Captain Lin would've known. That's what tripped her up."

Looking at the mystery woman, even I had mistaken her for Lin. The bruises and cuts on her face obscured her, but she could pass off as a third sister of her and Siyo with the right makeup and lighting. Especially in the overcast, low lighting during the attack on the base.

I grinned. There were gaps in Mal's guesses. "You think that a simple disguise ploy was all they had planned? And that the Order would send just one initiate and one woman to do it?" But I'd be damned if I pointed all of them out for him.

Mal's jaw clenched again. "The Order has always been overconfident and unorthodox. It's a likely ploy for them to use. They have you as a part of their order. Lots of people make the mistake of underestimating the Luminous Ones."

My smile widened. "So you're going about this hoping your enemies make mistakes? That's bad strategy, kid. Honestly. You're just twisting in the wind right now. You have no idea what you're up against."

Mal's eyes narrowed.

Got him. Time to twist the knife in. "Even right now, my colleagues are mobilizing. You think you're little ragtag group of cronies and a few bugs can beat the Order? Or even more than that, that you'll stand a chance against Ba Sing Se? I mean there's just six of you, even if you have one of your precious beetles each, you'll be slaughtered. And you think you're in so much control? I saw something you probably wish we hadn't."

Mal stood in silence.

"We saw your two left behind beetles. And we know they killed and ate their riders. Whatever control you had over them, I bet it's failing. You think I'm the one who has already lost? You're so naïve, kid, it borders on the idiotic. And those hitmen you sent after me and the ridiculous coin thing to mark yourselves? I knew it was something a dumb kid would come up with. And let's go back to the numbers game. You lost quite a bit of your numbers on your little attack on the base. And now you're down to just a handful. Just what did you hope to do with hardly a fraction of the numbers you'd need to even annoy, much less overthrow Ba Sing Se anyway?" I shook my head. "And You killed your own father for this. And for what? Probably called you out on your ignorance and you couldn't handle it.

"Mal Kha. You're quite honestly the most pathetic person I've ever met. And I knew Xin Mao!"

Mal looked down and started trembling where he stood.

"What's wrong? Cat-gator got your tongue?" I jeered.

Then…Mal Kha started laughing. He started low, but it built up and he went going.

Hard.

His followers behind him joined in.

Even Lin started to smile smugly.

Laughing hysterically when there was no earthly reason to…

They were doing their best impression of me.

Again.

Um. Okay. That cannot be good.

Just then, I hope randomly, another man who I hadn't seen until now jogged up. He had a big goofy grin on his face too. He bowed his head. "My Sovereign. It
is finished."

Mal nodded. "Good. Stay with the unconscious one." He gestured to the others. "The rest of you, bring Van and his wh***. I want them to see."

I glanced at Siyo as Mal's lackeys got us on our feet. Her expression mirrored my own. Confused and worried. They led us to the far side of the cavern.
Towards the oddly out of place wall. Which I noted as such when I first saw it. The cavern seemed like it should be much bigger than this just from the way the surrounding stone looked. This wall just seemed out of place. But I couldn't place the reason. Until I got much closer and I saw why.

The wall wasn't made of stone. It was made of something softer, almost translucent. It was wax, I realized. And as we got closer, I began to smell the stench of rotten meat. It was wafting up through the opening.

"You said what could I hope to accomplish with just six beetles," Mal said. "And you're right. Such a number is far too few. Even an idiot would know that.
And I am no idiot, Van."

We stepped through the opening in the wax.

My stomach nearly dropped out of my body at the same time as my blood froze in my veins. And then a dark realization crossed my mind.

The colony will have its first fresh meal they've had in week.

People aren't all that can have a colony…

"Spirits of the earth and heavens…" Siyo breathed.

The portion of the cavern we were in was just like a small mouse hole compared to this. The ground dropped off abruptly into the cavern which stretched out for hundreds of feet out in front and around me. The stalact…whatevers on the ground and ceiling were the size of multi story buildings, and they didn't take up a lot of room.

That honor belonged to something else.

Spread out all across the ground a hundred feet, below were hundreds of large, orange slime coated pulsating sacks, each of which were three times my size. About halfway to the other side of the tremendous cavern, the collection of sack things ended. And there were the beetles. There far more than six of them.

Their identical chitin shells blended together into a countless mass of activity. Milling about, moving with only distantly heard clicks and bleating. So many of them. They surrounded what my eyes didn't want to believe. A single massive…creature, that dwarfed the other beetles. It had a tiny head in relation to its body, but even that was larger than any of the beetles around it. It featured its own set of jaws, they were far, far longer and it had two large segmented eyes that dominated the bulk of its head. Its body was swollen and bloated to the point of immobility. As I watched, the creature let out a high pitched sound, like metal scraping on metal that carried all the way over here and another orange sludge covered sack spurted sickeningly from a sphincter at the creature's base. Another beetle delicately take in its jaws and carry to be the others bulbous sacks.

No. Not sacks. Eggs. All of the large sacks. They're eggs. One of the eggs below quivered then split open and two almost transparent forms, their guts visible
visible, wriggled out of the sludgy yoke and began bleating.

A beetle came over and began vomiting dark brown, chunky gore onto them.

I tore my eyes away from it before I began to wretch.

Two beetles per egg. Countless eggs. Slightly less already active beetles.

"So tell me Van, what do you think about the odds of Ba Sing Se or the Earth Kingdom versus sixteen thousand of them? And still growing."

For the first time in my life that I could recall…

I was speechless.
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« Reply #59 on: Apr 28, 2011 04:11 pm »

Chapter 18: The Halcyon Days

"You are not back at your stinking, filthy farm! You are not back at your pampered nobleman household! You are not at the old folk's home that is Omashu! This is where boys and girls come to die…" There was a pause for effect."…and soldiers are born. This is…" Insert second effect pause. "…Grindstone."

The drill sergeant was making his rounds. My brother warned my about this--that is to say he taunted me heavily about it. This was the part where the burly, middle aged guy, with a beard so heavy furry creatures take up residency, walks up and down the ranks to insult the recruits. "Stirring up the mud" as my brother so eloquently put it. He said there was two drill sergeants at Grindstone. One of them was the extra strict, but fair one that everyone hopes they get assigned to. The other was Takei. Takei just so happened to have a grudge against my father for allegedly dead ending his career through some nonsense, and as a result would ride my pasty ass every step of the way, taking every little action I make and turn it into some kind of punishment. That is to say if I were
so fortunate as to be assigned to him instead.

Guess which one I got?

A local thunderstorm went off a few inches from my face. "PRIVATE! WHAT DO YOU THINK IS SO FUNNY?"

I didn't move. I kept staring straight ahead. Maybe. Just maybe, if I ignore him, he'll leave me alone. Like momma would say about bullies in school.

"PRIVATE TSU-YAN! I ASKED YOU WHAT IS SO FUNNY?"

Poop, I thought merrily.

"Sir, nothing is funny, sir."

"THEN WHY ARE YOU SMILING, PRIVATE?"

"Sir, I'm not smiling, sir."

"ARE YOU CALLING ME A LIAR, PRIVATE?"

"Sir, not at all, sir! Just think that you were mistaken, sir! It's an understandable error for one old and…" My voice trailed off about ten words too late.
Licking my lips nervously, I added a stammered, "Sir!"

A few recruits nearby stifled laughs.

Takei said nothing. He just smiled. Ho boy. Didn't like the looks of that smile. He turned and started pacing back down the ranks. "Here at Grindstone everyone must pull his weight! We all have assigned tasks to keep this thing running as smooth as possible! Like a real grindstone, we polish you to a mirror sheen by pulverizing your flaws one bit at a time by hard work and discipline! Those with the most flaws will have the toughest time at Grindstone. And for your ever mistake, you'll find your time here will get that. Much. Tougher. Which is why the first task I shall give out is for Van to have the most respected job of all." He paused yet again for dramatic effect. "Latrine duty."

I can already tell. I'm going to love it here.


They say the first day is always the roughest on the body.

Yeah. Nuts to that little rule of thumb. The second day was pretty damn rough. So was the third. And the fourth. The fifth was okay. But then the sixth seemed to have gotten the soreness package delayed along with the already scheduled for the sixth day package right on time.

There were nights when I was literally too sore to move in my bedroll. No rolling over, no flipping the pillow to get to the cold side (what is the deal with that?). If I went to sleep on my arm, I woke up on my arm. And with that buzz of pinpricks when your limbs fall asleep. But little by little. I was adapting.
The early morning runs to get breakfasts, the drilling, the latrine duty. It was still awful, but my body was showing results and fast.

"Don't stare at yourself too much. The mirror might crack. And phew! For the love of the spirits, I hope you're the last one out the showers, Kuso," quipped one private while in the showers, adding on an insult particular to my job title. He soon found out why it isn't wise to insult someone that regularly is in the latrines. Granted, I developed a clever system that minimized how disgusting the job and thanks to some nose plugs I won at a game of cards, but I did still stink awfully at the end of every day. And so did his bedroll after I rolled in it while no one was around.

Which if how I found myself in the middle of a brawl during one of the required days off.

"Teach you to stink up my sheets, Kuso!" he snarled and came at me. The fight became a spectacle. I tried to talk my way out of it. Emphasis on "try."

Er. Have I mentioned that my mouth specializes in getting me into trouble, not out of it? Let's just say I didn't fair to well.

The fight didn't last very long. Of course, the good drill sergeant was there. He only caught the part where I floored Stinky Bedroll. Just like that, I was on double latrine duty. Which basically meant that instead of having the job rotated to someone else like I was supposed to, I was not. And as luck would have it, I was going to be rotated the next day.

I'm probably the only person that can win a fight, and still the loser.

I had plenty of time to reflect on that as Takei found some reason or other to give me triple latrine duty and took away my shovel so I'd have to do the bulk of the work with my bare hands. Thankfully, I made sure when I got one shovel, I could get a hold of a second. Didn't make the work much better since it was half the size and I had to stand in the pit. Also, during the night my nose plugs managed to disappear. Darndest thing, right?
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« Reply #60 on: Apr 28, 2011 04:13 pm »

-continued-

I was hard at work during the sweltering afternoon, when a shadow descended over me.

"And with all the promise and bright future of our brightest, we have them: the dregs of Grindstone," said Takei. I almost didn't recognize him without him shouting at the top of his lungs. "I wish I didn't even have let you see this. Or smell this. But let's go and leave them to their work."

I didn't give Takei the satisfaction of looking up at him from the latrine pit. I knew what he was doing, the slimy worm. It was the seasonal inspection by the Earth Kingdom Army. They'd send some high ranking officials to the camps and report on how the troops are looking. Normally you'd have the officials avoid coming to the latrines to see who was down there, but Takei wanted the officials to see that it was me specifically. It would be the perfect revenge, wouldn't it? I couldn't retaliate without helping him make me look bad.

So, with clenched teeth, I tried to look consumed in the work, which was an obvious lie, but he didn't call attention or announce the presence of an officer.
Neither did he acknowledge me by name, so by rule, I don't have to stand at attention.

"Actually, the rest of you go ahead. I'd like to have a word with the private," a female voice said that made my head snap up. The sun was at her back, shrouding her face in shadow. I could only tell that her hair was in a queue, she had a solid figure, and I could see the glint off her officer's insignia denoting her as a major.

"What?" Takei nearly tripped and fell into the latrine. Oh how sweet that would've been but one of the two other officers Takei was leading around caught him.
"Did you say you were-"

"Alone, if that's alright, drill sergeant," she said turning briefly to nod her head at the two others. "I'll be along shortly."

"Um. Very well. Commander Omonoi. Commander Itsugi. This way please," Takei said, leading the two others off, frequently looking back over his shoulder.

I suddenly remembered protocol and began trying to fall into attention without falling into something else. Not an easy task.

"At ease. You must be Private Van Tsu-Yan," she murmured.

She knows who I am? Crap. "Must I be? Uh." Damn it. Glib won't make this better, I scolded myself. "I mean, yes, I am, sir."

If she was at all bothered by my previous comment, the horrid smell, or all the flies swarms of flies she gave no indication. "I saw your little scuffle last night," she said

I cleared my throat. "Oh, you did? Yeah. About that…"

"No need to explain anything to me, private. I simply wished to know something."

I blinked up at her. "Sir?"

"I am told that you intend to enlist as spearman infantry, correct?"

I nodded. "That's right."

"Then I must wonder, because assignment to a particular basic training camp is voluntary, why have you taken the trouble to go through basic training at Grindstone, a place that is, to all intents and purposes, basic training designed to harden up Earthbenders? And not at Cutwood a more natural camp for a prospective infantryman?"

I shrugged. "No particular reason. There was no rule against it, so I figure 'Hey, bending isn't a requirement per se, so why not?'"

She waited a moment before answering. "Did you know, private, that there was once someone that did the same thing some years ago?"

I nodded. "I've heard something about that. Yes."

"By doing what that person did, that person became an accomplished spearman and a highly recognized one at that. Are you doing this for the glory?" she asked.

"Not for glory, no."

"Why then?"

I thought about the answer for a bit. "I just want to be the best I can be. To do the best that I can do."

She let out a thoughtful sound. "This place is brutal. The last non-bender that came through here had a tough go of it from what I've heard. But by surviving
it, that person came away with an edge over the guys at Cutwood. Shattered a few of the course records, to boot. That'll be hard to top. It'll be hard to do that from the bottom of a latrine, wouldn't you say?"

I shrugged. "From the bottom to the top, I guess. I mean, it doesn't get much lower than this, right?" I said gesturing to the filth around me. "I think it'll make it all the more impressive when I beat those records, wouldn't you say? Besides, this place was misnamed. You sharpen blades with a grindstone."

For a moment, she said nothing. Then, her face unreadable, she murmured. "I see. I wish you luck then. As you were, private."

After she left and I had gone back to my filthy work, a scrawny kid sloughed over named Wei Li Wu. He was also on latrine duty, but not for being a mouthy,
troublemaker. He just wasn't a very good Earthbender and Takei was simply tired of looking at him mess up all the forms. So he threw him knee deep in the
sludge with me. Probably just so he would have more time to spend brown nosing to the higher ups in the hopes of getting a better position.

Or to annoy me. Well, to be fair, he wasn't a bad person to be around. He just had one of those irritating voices.

"Van, do you have any idea who that was?"

He knew I didn't really want to talk while in this stuff. The stench is so thick you can taste it, and you don't want that. Keeping your mouth closed is the
best way, but then, I'd just had a lil' chit chat. So. I guess I'll let him off the hook. "It was Major Bei Fu. The Bei Fu."

Willy frowned. "How'd you know it was here? I'd seen her before. Did you?"

"Not in person," I said through clenched teeth. Not in anger. It minimized the foulness that could get in my mouth. "But it's pretty hard to mistake that
staff. And then there was what we talked about."

"So this was one of those secret meaning things, right?"

I nodded. The fewer words I had to say, the better.

"So when she was talking to you about coming to Grindstone and not Cutwood and all that stuff about course records, she was really...what?"

"Giving me something."

"What's that?"

Even shin deep in the foulest smelling stuff I thought I'd ever smell, I let Willy see my teeth. "A challenge."



   "You are no longer the weak little boys and girls you were when you first got here. As of today, you are soldiers of the Earth Kingdom Army. You
should look upon the uniforms you now bare as marks of your endurance, your grit, your determination, and most importantly of the strength that represents the
very heart of the Earth Kingdom," bellowed one of the Council of Five. Didn't care to remember his name. I was too busy rubbing my being at the official
commencement in the face of Takei. He had barely taken his dagger throwing eyes off me. I made a little game about how many faces I could make at him before
he'd react.

   Willy Wu, who through some small miracle made it through, leaned over and whispered in my ear, "You've got a lot of guts doing that, Tsu-Yan."

   "What can he do now? Latrine duty until infinity? Besides, I'm at the top of my class. He has to play nicey-nice," I said back, not bothering with the
whisper.

After all the council finished their little spiel, the Earth King came up to  we did the honorary chuck your hats in the air while shouting "For the Kingdom!"
You know, the usual habber-blabber. I got the usual insincere congratulations from a few people that I'm sure resented me. One of them was my brother. But
just before I went to celebrate at the nearest pub, a familiar voice called me.

"You beat my records, private. All of them," Bei Fu's voice came. "Well done."

I turned to see her arms folded, intelligent, regarding eyes pressing down on me. I bowed at the waist. "Technically, I didn't beat your Kwan stand record.
They stopped doing it after that one guy broke both his legs. Then it happened a few more times after that."

"I don't doubt you would've gotten that one too. You've got some potential, private."

"I don't know about all of that. Once I'm fully part of the army, I'll be just another man and his spear."

She shook her head. "Not true at all. You're destined for greater things than you realize, private," she said with an odd glint in her eyes.

I frowned slightly. "If you say so." I noticed the staff on her back. How it gold in color with a few jewels embedded in the haftwork. It looked more like
decorative piece you'd find in some fancy person's house. But a few notices, sublte dings and so forth denoted the staff as far more than decorative. "I'm
going to be getting a custom spear made just for me, you know?

Her eyebrows raised. "Oh really? One day, I'd like to see how well you handle it," she said, her voice dropping to a near purr. It made me feel…a little
uncomfortable.

I hid that discomfort with a smirk and purposefully turned the comment into another challenge, just in case it hadn't been already. "You may not want that. I
might just beat you."

She smiled now, it was a warm and pleasant thing. "I'm looking forward to it. But don't get cocky, Private Tsu-Yan." Then she nodded. "I won't keep any more of your time. Go enjoy yourself."

"I will," I said, bowing, then she turned and strode away.

I was flying high, I suppose. I was thinking of what this specialty made spear would look like. I was thinking of what would happen if the rumors of a
rebellion in the Fire Nation became fact. I thought of what would happen if I were deployed. And then I got frustrated because it never seemed to come to a
conclusion. I was just left with more questions and unknowns than answers. So much was uncertain I guess thinking that far ahead just isn't my strong suit.

It was funny. Up until I went to Grindstone, I never really had any ambition. I just had a natural affinity for swinging around sticks. I enrolled just
because that's what my family expected. But I didn't think I'd really enjoy it. But when I was presented with the challenge of besting the major's records,
and what not, I don't know. It was like some unknown fire grew inside me that drove me to push my body to the limit. It was hard to explain. It was almost
like things were meant to be. But I was never one to buy into all of that fate and destiny and luck stuff. Who knows if any of it were real?

But I knew one thing. I was looking forward to locking polearms with the major at some point. I had the feeling that our paths would definitely be crossing
again. Who knows, maybe I'd really enjoy things from here on out.
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« Reply #61 on: Apr 28, 2011 04:14 pm »

-continued-

   The lopping punch made for my face. Funny. I didn't recall Mr. Fist being allowed to play with Mr. Nose. That simply couldn't do. I leaned out of the
way, making my assailant lose balance. Stepping inside of his reach, I cupped my hand around the back of his head and slammed his face into stone table.
Spinning on my heels, I carried through the momentum, turned, and walked back to the bar.

"Drinks on him," I slurred, gesturing blithely at the now witless drunk on the ground behind me with one hand and holding up his change purse with the other.
It drew a string of cheers from the patrons who all began to group around the bar while I threw the purse at the barkeep who caught it with a blank look on
his face. What, was he drunk too? Tch. I must be the only undrunk one…dedrunk…undrunk, no, said that already. What was I trying saying? Forget it.

Standing back by their buddy was still whatshisname's goons. They looked torn between running away with their tails between their legs and running away with
their tails between their legs. Or is that the same thing? So they're torn between two of the same options? Idiots.

I grabbed my mug. I had to try a few times. I held it out to the flunkies. "C'mon guys," I beckoned. "Knock back a few until he wakes up. No one will-" I
hiccupped. "-tell him."

Or I think that's what I said. I could've said something like, "See this cup? I'm going to shove it down one of your throats then make the other guy pull it
out."

Hard to tell. Those are quite similar sentences, you see.

Either way, they dragged their buddy out of the bar as I washed the brew down. They wobbled side to side as they did so. Heh. Drunky filths.

I waved the barkeep to top me off.

He shook his head 'No'.

I blinked at him. And made the motion again. The guy must not have heard me. Heard me motioning him. With my hand. That makes sense, right? Yeah it did.

Again he shook his head. "No, kid. I'm cutting you off. Go home," he growled

"Can he do that?" I asked the empty bar stool next to me. I stared blearily as the stool didn't answer me. Arrogant bar stool. It must have eaten the guy who
was sitting there. Correction, then: Arrogant, man-eating bar stool.

The barkeep snorted then went back to cleaning mugs, ignoring me.

I glared at the back of his head. This ought to work. A moment passed and nothing happened. Damn. He's immune. Let's try the voice again.

"Hey!"

Nothing.

A guy came out of nowhere and said in my ear, "That guy you just beat up was his friend and a business partner, moron."

I hiccupped again. "And why's that matter?"

The guy shook his head and flicked a disgusted wave of his hand, "Whatever, get your own self in more trouble."

I tried again, but louder. "Hey!"

Still nothing. A part of me noticed that the door to the bar was opened by one of the patrons even though no one was leaving or entering. But a larger part of
me was getting slightly agitated. And I tried to think of the best way to tell him that. My body choose for me. I lunged across the bar at him, ready to give
him a fist full of mild agitation .

I guess this guy was used to that. The barkeep gestured and the stone bar rose up in front of me. I went face first into an improvised wall. Ow, I guess.
After that, I don't recall much until I was thrown out the pub onto the streets of Ba Sing Se. Good thing I was so steel minded, or I would've been in a heap
of pain. Or maybe it was just all the booze.

A heartbeat afterward, my spear came flying out and landed blade first into the ground. Inches from my crotch.

I looked down numbly and tried to connect the previous event to why I felt relieved. I gave up on that and waved at the guy standing in the doorway. It was
the barkeep.

"Thanks for givin' my spear back," I slurred.

He answered me by shutting the door in my face.



   The guy whose face I cracked must've been important. No bar in this section of the Middle Ring would let me in now. Something about he worked for some
big time crime lord and that no one wants to be around me when the crap storm comes to rain on my head. I could never follow those hokey crime dramas. All I
know is that word sure travels fast, don't it? Or maybe I travel pretty slow.

Ba Sing Se. Worst city ever.

Who once said that? Was it me? Maybe. Probably. Definitely. I said that. The only place where you can live all your life here, never set foot outside the
walls, spend every day here, and could still be kidnapped and dumped somewhere, and after you wake up, not know where the court in the city you are.

That's why it's the perfect place to hide from the government. Unless it's the Dai Li. They can find you. That's their specialty, finding people in Ba Sing
Se. Don't mess with them. Even I wouldn't do that, and I'm badass. But non-Dai Li entities? The cops? Absolutely. As a result, there's more criminals on the
streets at night than rats. I think I was pick pocketed twice. Which meant I actually was pick pocketed at least six times total.

Suckers. I'm dirt poor. Unless they accept pieces of lint and scraps of cloth that people use to blow their nose in. In that case, they're rich and I've been
ripped off. Oh well. They must need it more than-

My spear disappeared from my hand. A black pineapple was streaking up the street going the other way, behind me.

Wait. That's not good, is it? Nah. Not good. I think I should stop him. Definitely need to stop him. Oh. Would you look at that. I'm already going after him.
Good ol' body. Keeping up with things before my brain does.

So. I'm running after a pineapple. Then I nearly run into the ground. Huh.

What idiot put Ba Sing Se on a boat, I wondered, sprinting over the side to side rocking ground. Twice I nearly blundered into a pile of trash. Gah.
I'm not a fleet of foot kinda guy even if the largest city in the world was wobbling around. But this was ridiculous. This kid was fast. Very fast. Bastard
was going to get away with my spear.

To the courts with that.

The thief rounded a corner. Nearly colliding with somebody, I cut through a wall-less restaurant. You know, one of those places that are too indecisive to
have an open air place, or just couldn't afford the walls. But they splurged on furnishing and got a crap ton of chairs and tables instead. I knocked over
chairs and crashed into a counter top, but I split the distance and came within an arm's length.

"Gimme back my long 'n' pointy!" I shouted, reaching out for running pineapple. But on closer inspection, it was just a kid with a weird head of hair. And he
had these weird shiny black bands around his upper arms and ankles. Literally a kid, maybe no older than 8 or 9. But the kid was quick like a cat-gator. He
let out a squeak when he saw me and spun away from me like a wide eyed top. Damn wobbly city. I missed, stepped on a banana peel or something and tumbled into
a garbage pile. Now I was stinking. If I were drunk, I think there's a phrase for that. To be drunk and smell awful. What was it? Oh yeah. I'd be a politician.

But enough thinking of my future career as a lawyer. I need to find the guy that stole from me. Oh. Lucky, lucky me. The guy ran into a dead end. But now it's
all dark and I can't see nothin'. Oh well. I got to my feet -eventually- and made my way down the alley. My head started thundering in my head. Which didn't
make sense, but I was getting too pissed to care.

I was halfway down the alley before I stopped and looked blearily around me. Nothing but more garbage and closed up windows. There was also a medium sized
wall. Medium means it can be 50 feet high, right? Unless the kid was an Airbender, no way he could've jumped or climbed it. Not with that spear. Unless he was
an Airbender. Avatar Aang was dead wasn't he? He didn't come back from the dead to steal my spear, did he? Damn zombie avatar and his petty thievery. Zombies
had no business in Ba Sing Se. That's more Omashu's thing.

But enough of the undead. Where was my spear? Damn. It had to be around here right? Maybe I should whistle. My spear would answer me like a trained animal.

Wait. No. That's ridiculous. Spears aren't animals. But what about the spear bird? That's a animal and a spear…like thing. Oh, what the court, why not? I let
out a crisp whistle in 3 short bursts. And listened. Huh. Then I lunged behind another garbage can and grabbed the kid by the scruff of his neck.

Zombie Avatar Aang sure must've decayed since being dead. He was all brown skinned and his tattoos were gone. And he was a perfectly live and well boy that
wasn't Avatar Aang at all. Crafty zombie.

The kid started lashing out kicks at me. Hard ones. Good thing my steely mind had pained the numb. I mean, pained the numb. I mean…oh whatever.

"Stop that you…little…pineapple…thing," I eloquently said.

"Let me go!" he demanded. He? Was this a boy? His voice was very high pitched.

"The courts," I swore. "I hope I didn't sound like that pre-puberty."

"I said put me down, you stinking also-ran!" the he-she spat.

I shook him a little, knocking aside kicks that were pretty forceful. "Oi. You've got a lot of nerve saying I stink. You ever smell yourself, talking
pineapple, zombie Avatar he-she?"

The kid stopped struggling briefly to wrinkle up his she-nose. "Huh?"

"Bah. Forget it. What do you think you're doing stealing my spear?"

"Let me go!" s/he shrieked, his/her voice cracking.

"Aw. Don't tell me that widdle transvestite toddler is gonna-" I hiccupped. "-cry."

"I'm not a little transfer topper." The kid sniffed. "Let me go," he said weakly, and a hand went to his cheek to wipe a tear away. He sniffed again. He was
one small step from balling his eyes out. Oh goody.

I sighed. Then set him down, but didn't let go. "Stop crying," I snapped, jabbing my finger into his chest

The kid blinked up at me with cloudy yellow eyes.

I frowned. He reminded me of someone, but my brain was too slow to pick up on it right now. "Dry off those tears," I told him. He responded, trying to wipe
them, but too late. The waterworks were already leaking. Maybe he's a waterbender instead. With yellow eyes? I don't know why but that fact stuck out. "You're a man aren't you? Right?" I still wasn't sure. "Dry up those tears. Don't cry for something that's your own fault. You don't want to get in a situation like
this again, don't run and hide. I would've never caught you if you didn't stop. If you're going to run, keep running. Fast as you are, should learn to trust
your abilities, silly kid."

Vaguely wondering why I'm giving the little thief tips on how to get away after stealing something and still clutching his dark red tunic, I retrieved my
spear from behind the garbage. It stunk too now. Great. Then I led the kid back to the street. "Now. Why were you taking my spear, kid? And why are you even
out this late?"

Still trying to wipe the tears away, the kid started sucking on his bottom lip. And again I frowned.

"Well, whatever the reason," I pausing to hiccup again. "You don't do that. You don't take spears. This thing is dangerous. What if you fell with your speedy
little self? You could've died again, zombie boy."

The kid's head snapped up to me again, a puzzled look on his face. "Huh?"

"Bah. Nevermind. But are you going to answer me? What were you doing?"

The kid looked away. Then at the spear. Then away again.

I frowned. I tried to make a connection, but my mind was bogged down. "Okay then. Where's your parents at?"

The kid abruptly looked up at me. "No! Please! Don't tell him!"

"Don't tell me what?" rumbled a deep, basso voice ahead of me.

It was a man with a complexion matching the kid, a bald pate, a well trimmed black beard, an eye patch, a hardened expression on his face, and a body that
looked like he was smuggling bricks beneath his skin. He was staring with his one good eye at the boy.

The boy gasped. "Dad." Then he started trying to pull away from me.

I blinked at the man myself. I recognized him. But, the flow of knowledge was slowed by the brew flowing through my blood. Knowledge was trying to fight
upstream, I guess. Knowledge was not losing the winning. Winning. Blood. Something is there I know it.

His eye settled on me. "Has my son bothered you?"

"Uh," I said with a measure of genius lacing my voice. Or was that drunkenness?

The man's eye narrowed, then he grunted. He stepped forward. And I realized he was quite tall, 6'4" at least. Some part of my brain must've still been working
right, because I released the kid and took a step back. Though the kid had been trying to pull away from me, being within arm's reach of the man had frozen
the kid solid.

"Take him home," the man said, looking directly at me.

"Huh?" I said with all the intellectual prowess of a aeronautical engineer. "Where is home?"

"Yes, milord," murmured a wiry man his own complexion split between mine and big Eyepatchy here. I hadn't even glimpsed the guy before now. But I think I
recognized him too. He stepped forward and took up the scared stiff boy by the hand. The kid drug his feet a bit before lopping into a run. He was glad to be
leaving, but I knew the tone, remembrance piercing through the drunken haze.

That kid was gonna get it.

Yet, for some reason, I didn't get why the big man was staring at me right now. Shouldn't he be going home with his thief of a son?

"You're Van Tsu-Yan," he stated. Not a question. A statement of obvious fact.

That jolted me part way sober. Then it incensed me, dragging me back into the haze. Funny thing about when I drink too much. I tend to forget things like
common sense in favor of blind emotion.

Acting on nothing but impulse, the dumb kind, I lashed out at the big man. "Don't call me that!" I snarled. I tried to brain him over the head with the back
end of my spear.

Except it wasn't the back end, it was the sharp end. And the blade was about to stab remove a significant portion of his skull. And, I'm not much of a doctor,
but I don't think humans do so well in that circumstance.

I'm no expert. Wait. Actually I am. I think. But this probably wasn't going to be goo-
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Eman5805
Never Gonna Give Yue Up

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A Soulful Brother


« Reply #62 on: Apr 28, 2011 04:14 pm »

-continued-

   "He's waking up. Finally," someone said. A female's voice. A rather young one too.

"That's quite the lump you put on his head, milord," chuckled another voice, this time male.

A deep voice sighed. "Leave us. I'd rather you not confuse him further."

"Okay, daddy," the female said. There was the sound of shuffling footsteps then a closed door.

I opened my eyes and welcomed in a heaping headache as the world swirled into focus. I was on a bedroll, a very nice bedroll, in a room, a very nice room. As
consciousness got through my pounding head, I heard a scraping, grinding sound. I knew that sound well.

"Stop touching my spear," I garbled, my hand gingerly touching the bandage on my forehead. Damn. There was a large lump there.

There was no answer. Just more scraping.

I swung my feet off the bed, moving carefully. I had a head injury, and I was hung over. What did that make today? Wednesday?

Take me to court, already.

I looked around until saw the source of the scraping. The back of "Eyepatchy" and I could see the back end of my spear laid out in front of him. He was in
front of an open window. It must have been midday or so. Which meant I was out for at least twelve hours.

"What are you doing? Why are you doing?" I asked him without getting up. I'd be a minute before I felt coordinated enough to do that.

After a moment of silence, Eyepatchy said, "You let it become dull. So I'm sharpening it. You let it get dirty. So I'm cleaning it. That's what you do with
instruments. You take care of them."

"That’s what I'm supposed to do though," I replied. "That's my spear."

"That it is," he said simply.

"Then why are you cleaning it?"

Another moment of silence, as he turned the spear over and began sharpening the other side. "Hospitality. A guest in my household deserves proper respect."

"Proper respect? A guest? When did that happen?"

"After you tried to attack me." A beat later he added, "And I knocked you out."

I snorted. "You say it so casually. Like it was hardly any effort. If I had been sober, I could've killed you."

"I did. It wasn't. You weren't. You wouldn't. Here you are."

I frowned at the back of his head. Trying to think of a comeback, but my headache made that worth too much effort. I let my head hang down, rubbing the
stiffness in my neck. I hadn't slept on something with pillows in weeks. "You should've just left me in the gutter, Master Kumara."

"You remember my name," he murmured. He held up my spear, the blade catching in the light. "Good. Good." I don't know if that last part was to me or not.
Master Kumara could very easily be talking to the weapon.

Or should I say instrument?

"I'll manage," I muttered. "I've taken a few shots to the head before."

"It shows."

A long pause stretched. Visions of victorious assault went through my head. Then the correct vision of a painful assault went through my head. Eventually, I
decided to try moving, so I stood up and made for the door. Right foot was going in front of left foot well enough, I guess.

"You're forgetting something," he said when my hand was inches from the door handle.

At first I thought he meant my shirt and pants, which I just noticed I wasn't wearing, me down to just my underwear. But something about his tone made me
think that wasn't it. I grabbed the handle. "No, I'm not. Keep it. I don't need it anymore."

He let out a low grunt. "If you leave without it, then this is going into the furnace."

I blinked then looked back at him as he began rubbing the haft down. "What?"

"I don't repeat myself, Van."

You had to know him, I guess. But Master Kumara treasures his creations. All of them. Him saying he'd throw the spear into a fire is like a father saying
he'll scar his own son for life. Maybe it was a firebender thing. But either way, the Kumara I know isn't anything like Fire Lord Ozai. Well. He hasn't burned
his son. To the best of my knowledge.

"I don't understand? You don't want it?"

Another long pause. "I create and own instruments, not weapons. Once an instrument of my creation has been stained by the blood of another I no longer can
claim it. This is now a weapon and it was made for you, Van. I will not keep it under my household without its owner. Neither will I discard it to be taken by
another. If this does not serve any future use to you, then I shall destroy it."

"Even after cleaning and sharpening it?"

"I've cleaned and sharpened countless instruments before destroying them." He paused, as if he were acknowledging to himself how little sense that made. " It
is what I do. It is who I am."

I couldn't grasp a mind like that. To just accept a bizarre trait like that without a second thought. To just sweep it under the rug and move on. But then,
maybe that's why he was a master. His thoughts weren't like my thoughts. I guess men his age were just like that.

Say. Speaking of men his age…

My eyes widened and I spat out a curse. I ran to the window opposite the one before Kumara, and looked at the stable.

"I have not alerted your household," Kumara said. "They do not know you are here."

My mouth hung open. "What? Why not?"

"You are my guest. I will not do anything that would be undesirable to you. If you wish me to get them, then I can. And with ease."

I peered at him. Kumara was a family friend. Since the war ended, he and my…that man have been close, especially once they moved practically next door. He
knows they're looking for me right now. Why wouldn't he tell them?

Doing that thing masters do, he somehow sensed my thoughts without even looking at me, even if I were his guest. Which makes no sense to being with. "I won't
offer you my opinion of what transpired of the trial."

I felt my back stiffen at the memory and I must've still been a little drunk or something. Because I wanted to try to beat his head in again. But, I don't
want to get my ass handed to me three times in one day.

He continued, "Nor will I tell you what you should or should not do. What you do from here on is not my concern, Van."

I sniffed my armpits. And noticed that my shirt was neatly folded beside the bedroll. "Is that why you bathed me too? Not your concern?"

"I didn't bathe you. Genshiro did."

I shuddered. "Old man Genshi? Awww jeez!" I felt dirty all of a sudden. "That's disgusting!"

"Smelling like a septic pit is disgusting," Kumara countered. Then as if the previous exchange never happened, said "You are at a point in your life where
your actions are you own. Giving you clean clothes, maintaining your instrument, and a bath can't be construed as aid or hindering you."

After a moment, I snorted. "I feel bad for your kids. Having to put up with your Zen double talk crap."

"My children are not relevant." Though his voice was the same as it has been, smooth and disinterested, something about it told me he took offense with me. I
thought of what would happen if he attacked me with same gusto as I attacked him last night.

I cleared my throat to suppress the second shudder that went through me. "So, why'd the little spitfire take my spear?"

For the first time, Kumara emoted outwardly, letting out a low breath. "My son has found his rebellious streak early. He recognized your spear while running
about when he shouldn't have. My guess is he thought stealing it from you would affect me in some fashion. With each passing day he reminds me and more of…"
His voice trailed off. "Forgive him for troubling you."

I nodded. "That's the real reason you took me in as your guest. To make up for that." I let out a small smile. "And he's rebellious huh? That must be why he's
listening in on us when I bet he's supposed to be grounded."

A tiny voice somewhere nearby let out a squeak, then I heard scuttling footsteps over the grass. They disappeared quickly.

Now I remembered who the kid reminded me of. And a little smile crossed my face. But then, I wasn't that much of a crybaby back then, was I?

I quickly decided not to think too much on the answer.

Kumara looked over his shoulder briefly. Then, murmured something to himself. All I could make out was the word 'potential.'

Frowning, I went back to the bedroll and sat down. I reached for the rest of my clothes and slipped them on. No one said anything.

"I am finished," Kumara said after a while. Letting out a slight his of breath, he stood up, holding the spear before him. Then he whipped it left and right,
before twirling it about, continuing the left and right motion. The spear spinning under and over his arms, passing around his chest, flowing from one hand to
the next. It came to a sudden stop in precisely the same pose as when he started. And in the confined space, hemmed in by the wall, he didn't so much as
scratch it.

I smiled bitterly at the display. Just goes to show how far I had to go. Master Kumara rarely made spears, yet he handled it with far more skill than I did.

He stepped forward and whistled three times crisply. The spear let out an audible hum as the metal resonated with the whistles. He gently, delicately set the
spear down before me.

"Genshiro has prepared a meal and it will be here shortly."

I shook my head. "Tell him to keep it. I don't want it."

Kumara regarded me for a moment, then nodded. "If that is your wish, then I will tell him," he turned and strode from the room. But just before he shut the
door behind him, he paused. "It is none of my concern, Van…"

I snorted. "But?"

"…self-loathing is a horrible way to walk the path of life. No action you perform will have any meaning, will have any positive outcome. You are destined for
greater things than you realize, Van."

That made my eyebrows raise. Someone once said those exact words to me before. Someone that opened themselves up to me in a way not many have. That someone
said that it was what fascinated the person the most about me.

"Find peace within your own heart. Only then will you be set free and allowed to move on." He paused another beat, then said, "Or you will be dead before
you're 25."

Then he was gone.

Looking back, I should've listened to him. I should've thought intently on his words. But I was young. I mean, I still am young, but I was younger. And with
the spear laid out like that -the spear I have used to kill but one death didn't happen soon enough. It was the one remnant of what I once was. And while I
should only be thinking of what Master Kumara said, the sage advice, I couldn't think of anything but those repeated words. And those words echoed in my head,
from a voice far softer and sensual and feminine. Those words became screams. Those screams. Those bloodcurdling screams. Of agony. Of fear. And the life that
was lost thanks to me. Me. Destined for great things? Me?

Yeah right.

So…I took my spear and went to the boss of the man whose face I broke in the other night. And become the enforcer for Ba Sing Se's second biggest crime boss.

The first thing I ever did after I threw away my family name and everything else that came with it. The responsibilities, the life I led, all of it. I'd get
swallowed up in the other side of the system and maybe I'd find something fun to do. What I wound up doing was making him mad enough to try to kill me. So I
ran to a different part of Ba Sing Se and worked with the biggest crime boss. I was moving up in the world. But, I got the wrong person killed and he wanted
me dead too. After that, I spent the better part of my days doing odd jobs for pocket change. It wasn't long before I finally had to deal with the hits out on
me.

I was pursued all the way to the Shi Wong Desert where I thought for certain I was going to die. Until Xin Mao picked me up. The rest you already know.



That was me.

Van. A talented warrior, veteran of Fire Nation rebellions, and all around pain in the neck for any authority figure.

Yeah. A total fool, right?

Maybe if I had listened to those people before, wade wiser decisions, I wouldn't be facing down a hoard of vicious man-eating beetles and their near airship
sized queen thing along with a psychotic teenager bent on overthrowing the Earth Kingdom with said army of beetles. And meeting the most bizarre of people
along the way.

Now,  I had a heavy decision to make and little chance of succeeding, but this is what fate and luck have given me. Or rather, this is what I have given
myself. They said I was destined for greater things than I realized. I suppose this was what they meant.

It's funny almost. I thought they were all talking about just my spearmanship all this time.

Funny how life leads you to the least likely of places sometimes.

And then a little girl hands you a spear and tells you to "Fight".
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Eman5805
Never Gonna Give Yue Up

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Posts: 4339


A Soulful Brother


« Reply #63 on: May 15, 2011 08:12 pm »

Chapter 19: The Final Duel

"At a loss of words? Unsurprising," Mal Kha taunted. He waved his hand over the horde. "This is the result, Van. This is what I've strived for."

"How? How is this possible? How could you have done this and no one have found out?" Siyo asked, staring at the horde same as I was.

"It's as I said. I meticulously planned and organized everything. Though not as perfectly executed as I would like. I was found out at times  by unfortunate
miners or wayward travelers or simply nosy agents.." He looked at us with darkened eyes. "But I made it work to my benefit in one way or another. In fact,
your dear sister Lin was one who chanced upon me. Quite early on. But circumstances were in my favor. And hers as well."

"When? How?" Siyo demanded. "And why? Tell me why, sister. Why are you doing this?"

A tense silence stretched.

"My Sovereign?" Lin asked.

"It's okay. Tell her," Mal said with a nod.

"It was when I was on a field exercise for the rangers," Lin began immediately.

"That must have been…" Siyo said.

"That's right. It was a month or so after she died," Lin said, her venomous gaze flicking to me. "I'd just finished basic training before. And that point it
was either enter into active duty or stay hurt and broken for the rest of my life. I had to do something constructive. I hoped I could find normalcy. But the
exercise meant lots of silence and movement in the wilderness and mountains. I was left with even more time with my thoughts. And I couldn't even think
straight anymore." Eyes dripping with hatred settled on me. "I couldn't understand why he was allowed to walk away free. Why someone could be responsible for
so much pain wasn't punished. And even when my commanding officer had us doing tracking drills, I was distracted with those thoughts. I wasn't paying close
enough attention to my surroundings. I walked right into that mineshaft.

"When I awoke, I had multiple scrapes and bruises, a broken leg, and a concussion. And couldn’t see. I called for help. But there was never any answer. I did
everything I could to stay alive. I treated my broken leg as best I could in complete darkness. I licked the dew off the walls for water. Tired to look for
the exit, but in the silence, shambling about in constant agony, made even worse by the effects of the concussion, it seemed hopeless. I thought I was going
to die. Alone. I wanted nothing more than to see her face again. I didn’t want to leave you alone either,  dear sister. But no one knew where I was and I
could've been in the center of the earth for all I knew. Licking the foul walls and no means to cleanse my cuts and bruises, I caught fever. Eventually the
accumulation of injuries and pain grew to be too much and I passed out.

"When I came to, I was bathed in warmth and my crude bandages made of torn up strips of my uniform had been replaced by proper gauze and wrapped. It was Mal
Kha, my Sovereign. He asked me what I was doing there, how I'd gotten hurt. And about what I'd been saying in the midst of a fever dream. He confided in me
how the Earth Kingdom had been twisted and corrupted. And how he wanted to change it. And he showed he could change it."

I could see Siyo's expression soften as Lin described what happened to her. Most of what had happened bore similarities to what had happened between us. Both
ways in fact. The first time I'd been slipped a drug in my beer and chatted away with Siyo about…I still don't quite know what I told her, and then the other
way around when she tried to kill me after being wounded by one of Mal Kha's beetles and nearly dying.

"It was this," Lin waved out over the horde. "When I saw this I knew that he had found a way to overthrow the foolishly inept confederate monarchy, that
traipses along with nary due assiduousness for the truncated masses, denied rudimentary accoutrements."
Siyo's brow creased.

Lin continued. "But with my Sovereign, The Luminous Ones' followers, our horde, and his special-"

"My special ambition," Mal cut in. "I have all the tools I need at my disposal. And I've neutralized my greatest immediate threats and Ba Sing Se will never
see us coming."

Siyo glanced over to me. I didn't meet her eyes. I kept staring forward, at the massive egg spewing creature. And what lay beyond it.

Siyo snorted. "Get over yourself, you little brat. You're smart, I'll give you that, but you're still in over your head. I don't know how you can control
them, but it doesn't matter. Even if you can control all of them, what will you do? March them up the Ba Sing Se on foot? You'll be spotted long before you
reach the outer wall."

Mal smiled. "You should really leave those sort of deductions to Van. He's more keen than you. He must know the most logical way to invade a city like Ba Sing
Se. In fact, I'm sure that's what he's looking at right now. Isn't that right?"

I said nothing.

Mal's jaw clenched. "Fine. If you have nothing to say..." Then he stepped forward. And backhanded Siyo across the mouth. Her head twisted sharply with the
blow, it happened so suddenly and violently, she didn't even cry out.

Before I could even think twice, I surged at him, snarling. But the goon holding me pulled me back. Mal Kha casually wiped the flecks of blood from his hand.
"Well. You aren't completely catatonic? Good. Now. Why don't you share what you just saw then?"

Siyo, slowly worked her head back around, her jaw being rolled loosely as she did, checking to see if it was broken. She started staring knives into Mal. She
was okay. But seeing her hit like that... I had to calm down. I had to calm down. It's too soon. No matter how much I wanted to, no matter how many things I
saw made me want to act.

I had to wait.

But I for damn sure wouldn't let Mal hurt Siyo again. I let out a breath. "Tunnels."

"Tunnels?" Siyo asked.

"He's going to keep the horde underground and burrow right under the walls," I muttered the words feeling thick and heavy on my tongue.

"Old Ba Sing Se," Siyo breathed.

Mal smile smugly again. "Now you catch on. And the beautiful part is that there are tunnels of badgermoles throughout this area of the continent we can make
use of that leave less trouble for my diggers. This was truly meant to happen, wouldn't you agree, Van?"

I clenched my teeth over a remark. This was getting harder and harder, but I couldn't let him bait me. I just had to wait as long as I could. "Whatever," I
grated.

Lin cleared her throat unsubtly.

Mal glanced at her. "Growing impatient, my subordinate?"

"Not at all, my Sovereign. It's just…"

"By all means, speak your mind."

"Well. I can't help but…inquire why after drawing attention to their stalling tactics earlier that you're now letting such a great time elapse. The first leg
of tunnels are ready. And we await your marching orders. I feel this is…unnecessary. They have no reason to know any of this. Especially not…" She trailed off
in disgust, not even wishing to acknowledge me.

Mal patted her on the shoulder. "I'm aware of that, my subordinate. And believe me, I'm not at all stalling myself. It's just that immediately after I had
said that, I remembered there was a loose end that needed to be neutralized. A minor annoyance I couldn't allow to alter the equation if you will." Mal
suddenly looked up and to the side. "Ah. And it seems that one of our initiates finally succeeded. Please, come down and show them."

Our captors turned us around so we could see a man riding a beetle drop down from the shadow shrouded ceiling. No. It wasn't a beetle he was riding. It was
different from the others. It was smaller. Maybe half the size of the other beetles It didn't have the scything jaws. Its jaws were much smaller. Its legs
were longer and spindlier. It was sandy brown along it's segmented body and its head was a much darker brown. It had long prickly antennae on its head. And
what most set it apart was a tiny chitinous tube just beneath its head and jaws.

The rider, whose clothing looked vaguely familiar, reached behind him and threw something metal and sharp that thunked into the ground. It was badly mangled.
Holes had been eaten through it, eaten through metal. Blood, red and orange, stained the blade. The handle was mostly gone, eaten away. All that remained was
a nub of metal and a scrap of the material used for the handle grip.

Siyo sucked in a breath when she saw it. "No."

The rider gave the termite like creature a kick in the abdomen and the creature and the creature reared back with a high pitched trill and from the tube
beneath its head spewed out a green liquid in a mist. Everything the mist coated began to dissolve, metal and stone and all. In seconds, the axe was gone in a
acidic slop eaten into the ground.

Hyung's axe.

Hyung had been holding the entrance to the mine against any possible attack. I now noticed a few long slashes along the creature's body. One of its legs were
gone as well. The rider himself looked mussed, his clothes ruffled and even cut. Hyung didn't go down easy. I gritted my teeth and closed my eyes at the
thought and how senseless it felt.

I felt responsible, even though it was his own choice. No one made him do it. But no one certainly tried to stop him either. But it made sense to, Siyo
vouched for him and I would trust her judgment. But it doesn't matter now, does it? Hyung didn't like me for what I was, what I am, but he was able to put
that aside. And he was a capable warrior with that battleaxe. He deserved better than to die at the hands of a bunch of anarchists.

It also highlighted that Hyung wasn't the only person that died needlessly. A whole host of people that only sought to keep the Earth Kingdom were safe. It
was a bit selfish, I guess, but I couldn't help but hurt for Siyo. She'd lost so much as well. It all made not acting all the more difficult.

"And with that, the last little vestige of hope dies, Van. How does it feel?" Does it feel good to know an ally of your precious Siyo is gone?" Mal's voice
came into my thoughts. "Probably the same way I felt when my subordinates found your little trick with the book and the blasting jelly caps back in the
underground base. Which was very clever of you. Very devious. And what about subordinates doing recon work out in the field? Or my cousin you flung to her
death? I wasn't about to let you die before at least letting you experience that. But you aren't allied with them in any case. Though I'm sure you'd take
seeing her die more so, wouldn't you?"

My heart leapt in my chest. I couldn't keep that much from my face no matter how hard I tried. So I didn't even bother. I lunged at Mal again. "Touch her and
I swear I'll-"

Mal slugged me in the stomach. The air was driven from my lungs, but the bastard wasn't all the way through puberty yet. I barely coughed at all and didn't
stop glaring at him.

"You'll do what? I could have you and her both killed in an instant," Mal spat.

"My Sovereign," Lin said, her voice tight.

Mal shot her a look, and she seemed to relent a bit. "But fortunately for you, I won't kill the family of my subordinate. Not unless she forces me to. But,
the good fortune for you ends now, this is the end." He strode away from me, towards the edge of the rock face above his horde. To his lackies which had
remained perfectly silent, including the mounted rider who was hanging near the darkest part of the alcove he said, "Tazu, Siku, Shang Min, time to load up
the provisions. We've got a long trek ahead of us. Take Siyo with the other prisoners and make sure she's bound good. Ando, you're with me. We will bring the
digger-mites with the others. Dismissed."

"At once, my Sovereign," all of his lackies said in unison and they set about their duties. The one that had been riding the digger-mite got closer.

"Ando?" I blurted out.

As he rode the digger-mite past me, I hopped back as it snapped at my shins. He reached up and flicked off the head wrapping, and gave me a dismissive glance
once over. It was the same look. The same guy. The same jet black hair in a topknot. A former lackey to Xin Mao from back when the world had fewer giant
killer beetles and more fat, obnoxious bosses (or maybe nothing had changed). And didn't say anything to me. And it was a good thing he was focused on me,
because he didn't see Siyo on the other side. Siyo recognized him too. Oh yes. But she said nothing, not with her mouth.

I don't know how I knew, but I knew Siyo had just made a promise to herself. And I suddenly didn't want to be wearing Ando's topknot right about now.

"And I, my Sovereign?" Lin asked, brimming with delight and anticipation. "What of me?"

I took in a deep breath. I knew what was coming. I knew it cold. And I didn't like it one bit.

Mal looked back over his horde, and gestured to the ground. A stone platform bent out over the edge of the small cliff face and he stepped onto it. "I leave
Van's fate in your hands, Lin. Do with him what you like. I want us ready to leave as soon as possible." The platform started to lower him down. "Enjoy
yourself, this is the moment you've been waiting for."

"I will. My Sovereign," Lin said with a grin. "I will."
Logged

Eman5805
Never Gonna Give Yue Up

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A Soulful Brother


« Reply #64 on: May 15, 2011 08:12 pm »

-continued-

Lin waited until Siyo had been loaded up with the other prisoners, the two small children from the mining town (no, neither of them were Lyra, I didn't check,
but I just knew), the mystery woman with the wounded leg that had been captured pretending to be Lin during Mal's assault on the Siyo's not-so-secret
underground base, and the against all odds still unconscious Kensei. They took all of the provisions had been loaded onto carts and brought down to Mal Kha
and they brought them through the horde of still unhatched eggs and active beetles. I made a special note where all the items I'd carried in here were on the cart. Just before Siyo was taken away, our eyes met. I didn't avoid it. She knew what was coming too. I saw the silent plea in her eyes. I held steady and nodded, but with a lot of apprehension. I don't know how she took it though. She disappeared from sight down the earthbent lift.

We were alone. Me and Lin.

Lin began pacing in front of me, her expression blank. Her staff holstered in a harness not unlike my own, her steps measured and graceful. She'd laid my
spear between us. She didn't cut my restraints off. She didn't need to. I had been free of them since not long after I was tied up and I let the ropes fall to
the ground behind me. But from how she reacted, Lin already knew that, was expecting that. Which meant she knew where I'd learned that trick as well.

I looked down. My spear was laying right there for me. Behind me was the other level in the alcove. A 25 foot high wall, and the opening that lead to the
stairs that we were lead in here with. The wall was sheer and unclimbable except for the mechanical lift machine.

My spear was the exact distance from me I needed it to be. I could do my practiced roll and recover maneuver. An exit was right behind me. I could escape, run
away and get away from all of this, couldn't I? It was the perfect opportunity. And every muscle in my body was screaming at me to do it. To take that
opportunity and run with it. I could feel myself start to shake. My fingers twitching for the spear, for the security holding back in my hands would give me.
The one thing I'd had with me all this time. The one thing that's been a constant through all the trials and tribulations. I just needed that and I could be
out of here. Leave the land of nightmarish beetles and psychotic teenagers and eerily devoted followers behind.

I'm not much at plans. I'm not the best schemer. Not a great strategist. I hate to admit it, but Mal Kha was right. When I try to plan my days out, things
just fall apart and I wind up doing the exact opposite of what I set out for. So, I don’t really think before doing anything before I do it. I just do it. I
just act. And I'd then try to figure things out after they've happened. That kind of policy is why my mouth often got me in trouble. Thinking before speaking
is another skill I just didn't master, I guess.

So was this any different? I do have a plan now, but everything about the plan seemed…stupid. It was a ridiculous plan. And before even trying I knew a dozen
different ways it could mess everything up. It was based on things I only thought I knew. Sights I only thought I'd seen. Is that any way to make a plan? It
went against everything I stood for. And all of this was punctuated by the fact that I didn't need to do this. This wasn't my responsibility. I was
here, but only by a silly bit of misfortune after another. But I wasn't in the military anymore. I'd been dishonorably discharged, so my honor wasn't on the
line and I had no obligations whatsoever.

If I turned tail and ran, who could blame me? This situation was way over my head anyway. And there were things at work here, I wish I didn't know about. This
level of thing was more an Avatar's territory. And I'm no Avatar. The whole "save the world" kick, that's not my kick. That's some other guy. Maybe a taller,
stronger, more handsome guy with a cooler stick. Maybe with a kind of big flowing cloak coat thing he always wears. And he could have honest to goodness magic
as his weapons. Magic and his wits. That's how the heroes do it, right?

 I should just leave and let that guy show up and fix this. I'm just a man and his spear. What could I do? What good am I? Why shouldn't I just turn tail and
run? Why should I be expected to do something that'd be so unbelievable and improbable? Something so great…

You're destined for greater things than you realize.

Damn it. Major. Kumara. Why did you both say that? Why would you lie like that? I'm nothing. I'm not even good enough to carry on the family lineage. What
good am I? Greater things? Like what? Letting people down? Not stopping something that I know is wrong because I know it felt good anyway? Being one of the
most notorious bandits in the Shi Wong Desert? Working for smugglers, mobsters, and crooks? Is that what it means to be great? If so, then I'm one the
greatest man alive. Yeah right. I've lived such a wasteful, pathetic life haven't I? I can't even keep track of one little girl.

Speaking of which. Where was Lyra? I figured she would've done something spectacular by now. And just when I thought I had her style down. Had something
happened to her? What if there was something that even she didn't want to face?  I don't like that thought. What if she was following behind us and somehow
got lost in the mines? Wait. That's right. If I do turn and run, I'd be going back into the pitch black maze. I'd never figure my way out, just like Lin
herself when she fell into the mineshaft and broke her leg.

Lin. She'd been through a lot too hadn't she? All of it sparked off because of actions and inactions by me. I could understand why she'd blame me for
everything. And Siyo too. Her own flesh and blood betrayed her, most of her allies are dead, and now she's being held prisoner. In small parts that was my
fault too. If I hadn't chased her out of Xin Mao's tent, Mal Kha could've been stopped much sooner. Damn. I didn't realize that until now. By the spirts. So
much pain I've caused. And I'm not sure how much I could ever make up, even if I tried. But…I never tried did I? I never so much as said…

"I'm sorry," I said out loud.

Lin stopped pacing. "What did you say?"

"I said…I'm sorry."

She stared at me. Then her face twisted in disgust. "You think after all you've done you can get away with an apology?"

"Not even close, actually. But… still. I'm sorry for everything. Everything that happened to you because of me. You deserved better. She deserved better."

Lin barked out a laugh. "So now you'll offer me your pity? Don't make me laugh. I've had enough people doing that, telling me how great she was,
coddling me like an infant. The last thing I need is for you of all people to feel sorry for me. And don't you dare talk about what I deserve. Now, make your
move, you worthless scum."

I took a deep breath. The move I had wanted to make was runaway. I wanted to continue to avoid it. But, you know, I think maybe the greatness others expect
from you can be smaller things, things that aren't bigger than you. Things like…forgiving your own self, maybe. And taking charge of your life and not just
going through the motions. And maybe after a while a man has to look at his weaknesses seeking to overpower him and say… "No."

"No?"

"No. I'm not going to run anymore. I'm through with it. My legs are too tired. And I'm not going to dive for my spear either."

Her eyes narrowed. "So you'll just stand there and die?"

"No. I'm going to walk forward and pick it up. If you strike me down before I do, then that's how it'll be." I took a step forward. "But I doubt it."

Lin took an instinctual step back, hands gripped firmly on her staff. Her eyes watching me, expression puzzled.

Another step. She half retreated. "What are you doing?" she demanded.

"I just told you, Lin. I'm getting my spear."

She stepped forward, now standing directly over my spear and pointed the tip of her staff at me. "No. You snake, I won't let you."

I stared straight into her eyes, not daring to look away. My voice came out calm and even, almost surprising myself. "Yes, you will. You want me to."

"What?"

Another step. "That's what this is all about. It's not a coincidence you wield a near perfect replica of your mother's bo staff. You admired her, was trained
by her. And I beat her in a fair, honest duel." My chest came inches from the outreached tip of her staff.

Lin backed away another step before my chest made contact. "No. You didn't. You couldn't have!"

Another step. "But you don't know for sure do you? And that's what's been eating away at you. You idolized her strength and wanted surpass her. You tried to
follow in her footsteps directly." I paused to take another step. She withdrew again. Just the length of her staff wavered over my spear. I could reach it by
bending over, but I still didn't dare break eye contact. I made a guess. "You went to Grindstone too. And you beat her records. But there was always that
nagging fact, isn't it? That neither she nor you had topped mine."

Lin's eyes widened. The staff started to quiver. "St-stop it!"

Another step. "I beat her in a duel, I beat her marks, and in your mind, I killed her. It was like destroying her legacy. You can't let that stand, can you?
You know full well that you can't let me die before you prove yourself, prove your mother, better than me. That's why you want me to pick up that spear and
fight you. You need me to." I deliberately pressed against the tip. "Or you can kill me right now and never know for sure."

I saw the anger, confusion, and doubt flicker across her face. But she suddenly regained control, her expression growing into a relaxed smile. And for a
moment, I thought she was about to kill me. Then she said, "Very well. Your life is already forfeit. But proving once and for all you couldn't have beaten her
would be most befitting."

She took the staff away from my chest and backed away from my spear completely. I was standing directly over it. And I looked down at the spear.

I'd been through a lot, this spear and I. Lots of battles in the Fire Nation rebellions, working for various criminals and shady characters. And I dawned on
me that this could be the last time I ever wielded it. I hooked a foot under it and flipped it up into my outstretched hand. I caught it and it didn't wobble
or slip from my grip. That was the first time I'd ever done that move so perfectly. I'll be taken to the cave if I was going to make our what could be our
last fight a pathetic one.

"I must admit. I've been thinking about doing this for a very long time," she said, her voice nearly humming.

I looked at Lin.

She'd taken her top off.

Odd that even in a time like this, I could be both grateful and a little disappointed that her chest was wrapped in cloth underneath. I couldn't help but
notice that she was from head to toe covered with tight, hard muscle and without losing an ounce of femininity. She worked hard for a figure like that.

But I quickly put any unneeded thoughts out of mind. I knew what she was doing. So I did likewise. I didn't dare take my eyes off her (for combatant purposes
only), so I just cut my shirt off, carefully slicing the front of my tunic off right up the middle and letting it fall behind me.

Nostalgia began creeping back. It was all so similar. I began feeling those pre-preplanned battle jitters. My hands felt slightly clammy. My shoulders and
back never felt loose enough, no matter how much I rolled them. I stretched a bit, not looking away for a moment while she did likewise. And I didn't know if
I'd stretched enough. I wondered what'd happen if I pulled a muscle halfway through. Even though my hair wasn't long, I worried about it getting in my eyes,
and was envious of Lin's headband and the ponytail she tied her longer hair into. My breathing became something I had to consciously control so I didn't
hyperventilate and get lightheaded. I went over moves I'd practiced and thought about my footwork. All the things I'd trained and tried to learn about the
art.

 I eyed the surroundings, taking in rocks, or dips in the floor. Sources of light. Distances to boundaries. All sorts of facts that were vital in a battle.
Most people assume a battle is all about skill, power, and technique. Committing the terrain to memory was the first thing a warrior must do to succeed. That
was one of the first things I was taught by the major. I was certain Lin was doing the same.

We stepped forward and faced each within each of our weapon's ranges. Her staff was longer than my spear by a half foot, and thinner. The second thing I was
taught was know your opponents weapon. No two weapons are alike, even if they appear that way. While it was safe to assume she could swing that staff much
faster than my spear, I had a blade. She didn't. If I caught her staff flush, I could split it in half. But she'd know that as well and would defend
accordingly. We held our polearms held at our sides, ends on the ground. Then at an invisible count, we took up our spears in both hands and crossed them in
an X. And from there was no starting shout or a countdown.

The battle had begun the moment our weapons touched.

The only thing that waited was for the first move to be made.

The third and most important things a warrior must do is know your opponent. Unless you had prior knowledge of your opponent, that was decided usually by who
attacks first and how. This was the part where I struggled. I hate waiting. I hate being patient. I always forced the issue. Or I get bored. It was why I was
horrible at standing watch and had to learn how to sleep on my feet. But I also knew that I should to stick to my strengths in a battle as well. It wasn't the
wisest fighting style, but it worked. And at the same time, when it didn't work, I could lose. But that's the risk of a duel. You win, you lose, or call it a
draw. And it was often decided the moment someone attacked. Anything you knew about your opponent was an advantage.

I didn't know much about Lin personally, but I did fight her mother. I still knew how Major Bei Fu fought. Lin no doubt trained against her mother constantly,
picking up on tactics, and techniques. And I'd beaten her mother the last time I fought her. And I still remembered how. I replayed the fight a lot in my head
to keep my skills sharp. Lin could've spoken to her mother about the fight, talked to people watching it. But Lin had still never seen me fight. And that was
the difference. I had the advantage. I knew her mother's styles that she had to have learned from. And I knew that without a doubt, Lin hated me. And I was
good at making people hate me.

Maybe that was the difference. Maybe I could getaway do things a little different this time and following a plan.

I started to say something to taunt her-

And I barely parried the lightning fast blow Lin threw at my head on pure instinct. The force and speed of the blow on my spear sent a numbing shockwave up my
arm, knocking me off balance. I hardly saw her move.

Or maybe everything I just said was a load of bull-spider crap.

Lin didn't wait for me to recover. She pressed in, her staff lashing out with more lightning strikes. I deflected one of them. But I was back on my heels too
much and took a shot to the chest. Instead of falling, I purposefully threw myself backwards, landing hard on the ground and I rolled, I got a leg underneath
me and twisted, slashing the back end of my spear up at the attacking Lin. But the counter caught nothing but air. Lin hadn't actually been pressing at all.
She stood where she had thrown the first blow, staff held behind her body, her arms and limbs loose, and her eyes locked in a rigid stare.

That stance. I didn't recognize it. At all. It wasn't anything Major Bei Fu had used. Or anything anyone I'd seen with a polearm had used.

"That doubt," Lin said, smiling. "That fear. Simply delectable. Did you think you were fighting my mother?"

"Not even close," I replied. "When I first saw you, I thought what I saw coming off you was the same noble confidence she had. But it wasn't. It was the
barely constrained hate and anger that would drive a woman into betraying her own country. And family."

The smile faded. I thought I'd inexplicably reached her. But in answer, she lifted the staff in front of her, then whipped it back down and behind her. With a
sound of metal sliding on metal, the tip came off like a cork and a blade sprang from the tip. No. Not just a blade. Blades, plural. Three of them. Two of
them flattened out on the sides of the longer, prominent one in the middle. Forming a "T". The staff wasn't a staff. It was a yari. An uncommon weapon. Just
like mine. But with the near 14 inch center blade, the slightly smaller blades that formed the crossguards, her superior reach became superior deadly
reach. Add to that an unorthodox stance…

Oh, fecal matter…

Lin whirled the yari once, level it at me, and charged.
Logged

Eman5805
Never Gonna Give Yue Up

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A Soulful Brother


« Reply #65 on: May 15, 2011 08:13 pm »

-continued-

This was why I don't typically plan things ahead.

Because I'm not good at it.

Every single trait and tendency Bei Fu used to have, Lin didn't. When I think Bei Fu would've feinted, Lin attacked. And the three bladed yari was a tough
obstacle. I only twice got inside of her range. But the blades are double edged, and were very, very sharp. All she had to do was pull the yari back once I
was inside of the blades and I nearly lost my head. It was to the point where I think she had baited me into doing so. Worst of all was she was making it look
easy.

I gritted my teeth and reengaged. The longer this went on, the more it played to her favor. Avoiding her speed and wide range of her attacks was taxing. I'm
more thankful for my conditioning at Grindstone than ever before, however, Lin had that same conditioning and she was moving around a lot less than me, the 
length of the yari cutting distances she'd have to move on foot to carry a smaller weapon down. At this rate, she'd wear me down. She had already cut me. A
three inch long cut on my shoulder where one of her backslash counters when I'd managed to get inside her range. Blood trickled down steadily, but I didn't
dare chance getting any on my hands. I couldn't afford the blood to foul my grip.

After a series of attacks that got me nowhere, I spat a curse and leapt back from a slash that would've taken my head. Damn it, but she was good.

A small smile showed on Lin's lips. "Frustration. Doubt. Very nice. Realizing your position. Will you resort to cheating, I wonder?"

Then she darted in again. Her speed in that initial thrust was stunning. But I'd adjusted to it at least. I parried up and away, stepping left of the trust.
Lin pivoted with my parry and jabbed at me with the back end of her yari, aiming for left side. I reversed direction, dropping into a tucked legged batonball
slide. The counter stroke the jab to the belly was leading me into passed just over my head by a hairsbreadth. I swiped at her legs with my spear's back end,
hoping to trip her. She leapt over it. I leapt off the ground trying to time my own stroke with her path.

She then took a page out of my own book.

She jabbed the end of the yari into the ground and levered herself away from my swing. My spear hit the ground with a jarring crack. I pulled back before she
could press in again. Out of both our effective ranges.

Take it to the cave. I let out a slow breath, and felt my shoulders slump a bit. My muscles were burning from all the expended effort, my breathing still
heavy, sweat stinging at my eyes. "Take it to the cave. She's too good. I'm sorry," I murmured, relaxing my two handed guard.

Lin let out a satisfied chuckle. "Simply giving up would be a bit more dignified than trying to worm out of this with desperate pleas for forgiveness."

I rolled my shoulders and neck. "No. I'm apologizing because there's a promise I might not be able to keep," I said looking down at Lin's feet.

"Oh really? And that is?"

"I promised your sister, that I'd do what I could to defeat you without killing you. I tried planning around how my instincts, but I'm just really not the
plan type." I lifted my eyes to hers at the same time I walked my hands down my spear's length and at the same time lifting it above me until held it above me
in one hand, pointing it at her

Lin's eyes narrowed. "How are you-"

I ran in. Letting my spear arm swing behind me, the spear trailing back like flag caught in the wind.

Her guard came up, ready for my upward stroke when I got close enough. But I slammed my foot into the ground halting my charge just as she swung a parry. I
stopped moving, but my spear didn't. And the timing of her parry was thrown off completely. The full force of my entire spear's length hitting, her parry was
batted away with a metallic chin as my blade met hers for the first time in this duel. I stepped forward and was inside of her effective range for the third
time, but it wasn't on invitation. I loosened my grip so the spear could slide down my hand as I lunged in again. Lin tried to block with the haft of her
spear held across her own torso, but that's not much good when a man bigger than you slams into you bodily.

Letting out a cry of surprise she, stumbled back, twisting around and slashing at me with one seemingly wild swing. It was an escape tactic. The first she'd
used as she fell back away from me, getting distance to recover. Also for the first time. I walked forward slowly, tossing the spear between one hand and back
like it were a ball.

"Time to let you in on the truth, Lin," I told her. "I didn't cheat to beat your mother. Cheating means I broke the rules. I didn't break them. I…bent them.
She could account for most any attack I could throw with my spear thanks to the difference in experience and skill. But once I put my whole body into it, I
won with relative ease."

"Th-that's cheating, you bastard!" Lin spat. "You can't use anything but your weapon. You cheated!"

I sniffed. "The man who gave me this spear once told me that what we call 'weapons' were just instruments designed to extend your body. My spear is as much a
part of my body as my arms or legs. Like any sword or axe or even bending. And therefore, I should never act like they don't exist. 'That's why they call them
polearms.' I always liked that ol' dark skinned, eyepatched man's jokes."

Her eyes widened in realization. "Ku-"

I charged in again, gripping the spear with one hand just below the blade. I jabbed it forward, letting it slide back up my hand, extended my thrust into a
longer one as it slid forward. Lin rolled away, bringing the yari around to counter. I rolled with her. I let go of my spear completely. I missed the stroke
she aimed at my arm. Then I caught the spear in my other hand as I rose up again, twisting. I launched a roundhouse kick to her mid section that she only
barely managed to block by raising her knee and interposing her yari's haft. I jumped in again, but this time I circled around as she threw punch at my face.
I backed out of range on the other side. The first time I had changed positions on her instead of the other way around.

"Not a bad straight left," I informed her. "But you should've probably thrown a knee. And don't think that using my whole body just means throwing a punch or
kick in every now and then."

I tossed the spear to my other hand and went in again. She twirled the spear once and tried to slash me across my belly. But it caught air because I feinted
and arched my stomach away. I circled in the same direction of the swing. I spun the spear in my hand once and jabbed it for her feet. Continuing the motion,
I came back around and jabbed at her face. I switched weapon hands and jabbed again at her face. I stomped at the back of her feet. Then, acting only on pure
adrenaline, grabbing my spear with both hands, I thrust straight at her head. Crying out, she reeled away.

The headband she was wearing, caught the tip of my spear, striking sparks from it. The stone set in the middle of it burst into a show of sparkling shards
that I felt hitting my face and arm. Blood sprinkled on her forehead. Steadily falling back, Lin spat out a harsh curse word, she reversed her grip on the
yari and tried to jab me in the stomach with the blunt back in. But I just grabbed it with my bare hand before she could, bearing her back with my superior
strength and size, I pushed it aside. She let out a cry of anger and shock as stumbled back and fell to one knee, the end of her yari cut into the earth and
was stuck there. I flicked my wrist to change grips and held the spear above my shoulder. As if I was about to throw it like a javelin. With Lin being the
target right in front of me.

And an instant stretched into a lifetime. I had her. I had her cold. I just had to thrust it down on her and it was over. But in that exact moment, as she
looked up at me, she looked exactly like Bei Fu. That same expression of realization of mortality. That in an instant her life would be gone. Just like Bei Fu
had before a rebel firebender incinerated her while she sat straddled on top of me. Turning a moment of ecstasy into a living hell.

A realization dawned on me. Something that had never, not once in all the time since, occurred to me.

Since that day, I hadn't used this weapon to take a single human life. Not once.

Every fight I'd been in. Every conflict with goons of a rival crime boss. Every scrape to muscle a shop owner out of protection money. Every robbery with Xin
Mao, I never so much as cut anyone. I'd only used the heavy end of it to bludgeon and batter. I'd broken bones, I'd threatened with the blade, and I
needlessly killed an eel hound and some animals I needed for food. But not one human.

Had I been unconsciously avoiding it all this time? Bidding myself to never use this weapon as an instrument of death ever again? And the bigger question was
even more crushing: Could I now use it to kill Lin, Major Bu Fei's daughter, Siyo's sister?

And then the moment was over. I just hovered over her, and she stared up at me, face beaded with sweat, eyes wide with fear and disbelief. "I-i-incredib-" she
stammered and she let out a low cry. At the same time something glowing flashed in my eyes, distracting me. Then Lin's eyes hardened, turning savage. And her
hand flew to her yari.

I let go of the back end on pure instinct. That instinct saved my hand.

A second smaller set of blades sprang out of the back of the yari. I tried to pull away. Before I could, Lin kicked me in the stomach, the air again bursting
from me, driving me back a step, clutching at my gut. And she surged up and slashed at me with the back end of her yari. I didn't dodge fully in time and it
drew a painful line of fire across my chest. I scrambled back, unable to stop myself from clutching at the blood the slash drew.

Lin menaced me with a stance even more loose and limp than before, the two sided yari held in front of her like she was about to do curls with it, her thumbs
almost caressing it. Her breathing was ragged and she was bearing her teeth in a constant snarl. "Kill you…kill you…have to…kill you…mother…inept
Earth…truncated…I have kill you…for…my Sovereign…" she said in a constant rabble.

"Lin?" I said through gritted teeth. "What's happening to you?"

Letting out an animalistic roar, she rushed me as ferociously as a rabid animal, the yari spinning back and forth, side to side like a berserker. I could only
fall back. The crazy fury of the attacks didn't leave room for me to do anything but fall back. All the while she kept shouting nonsense at me, her words
becoming more clipped and impossible to understand. The blood from the cut I gave her was running into her eyes and she didn't even notice. She also didn't
notice that she nicked her own leg as she rushed in.

"Die! For the Sovereign! Heart of a lion-turtle! Die! The secret project! Perish! Kill! Die!"

I faked jumping in, but then fell back and she wildly slashed the ground I would've been standing in, carving a small furrow in the stone. She was wide open.

Now!

I went in. And the flash of light hit me again, like a needle into the eyes. I heard her snarl, but fireworks were going off in my eyes. I raised my spear as
best I could to defend-

My spear was torn from my hands. And my left eye exploded into a world of intense fire and pain. Raw agony. It shot through my head and made my knees wobble.
I could barely muster a scream over the way the pain clasped hold of my entire body. Pain. Sheer pain. Unbridled anguish, centered on my eye. My mind
frantically told me that Lin had slashed it and part of my cheek. But it was immaterial. All that mattered as the pain and nothing else. I dimly noticed in
some part that of my mind that something slammed into my chest, sending me sprawling me across the ground. My shoulders were suddenly suspended in air.
Spirits of the earth and sky. I'd been driven back to inside the wax wall, by the small cliff face above the beetle horde. I was too afraid to try to
open my eye, to take my hand away lest whatever was left of my eye fell out, blood running down my face. I could finally try to breathe, but it was ragged, as
the agony where my eye used to be gripped me and threatened to push me over the edge all on its own.

I heard laughing, cackling, coming from somewhere down past my feet. Shaking from the sheer pain, I chanced opening my other eye. I don't even know if it was
the pain, but I thought I saw Lin walking up to me carrying my own spear and not her yari. And I also could swear that tiny rock set into her headband was
glowing, pulsing even.

I heard a second set of laughter joining Lin's. It was my own. Chortling through the pain. My mind frantic, hysterical. Everything became hysterical to me.
Even as I looked with my one eye I noticed that a tiny fleck of the stone that had broken in her head was now lodged in the cut on my shoulder like a tiny
stone splinter. It was hilarious. That the way the ledge was made, there was an outcropping of rock strong enough to stand on that would put her perfectly
even with my head. It was positively whimsical. I knew I should try to move, try to get out of the way. But…pain plus eye equaled funny now.

"Yes. Your head," Lin said between belly laughs. "I'll take your head! With your own weapon! Give it to mother! My Sovereign!" She raised it above her like an
axe. "Yes! Now, Van! You sexy, mother and sister seducing bastard…"

That made me laugh twice as hard. And some odd, non-fanciful part of my mind tried to tell Lin something. "Wait…that's not a good thing to do…"

It felt like the ground suddenly started shaking and there was a tremendous sound and the ground rumbled. And something let out a warbling, metallic sound
somewhere up past my head.

Fate and Luck were laughing at me, perhaps? Finally got me where you want me, you sneaky sons of bitches? I hope your pleased that you finally took me out! At
least I made you work for it!

"DIE!" Lin shrieked.

And my own spear slashed down for my neck.





Author's Note: The next chapter will be the last chapter.
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Eman5805
Never Gonna Give Yue Up

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A Soulful Brother


« Reply #66 on: Jun 17, 2011 09:47 am »

Chapter 20: Life

   Life is fickle. It comes and goes. And can be so unpredictable.

Human beings are so strong, iron willed. But at the same time, we can be very fragile. A bump to the head is enough to kill some people, on one hand. On the
other, a man survived for 15 years after being impaled through the head with a pipe. Accidents. Violence. Sickness and disease. Waking up at all is often
called a miracle by some. And yet, you'd be surprised how many people take waking up for granted. Another thing about life we often take for granted is waking
up in a warm bed, stretching out tight muscles, but feeling renewed for the day ahead. But other times, you wake up and wish you had never woken up.

Like right now for instance.

Pain was my wake up call. And I had enough to spare. A constant, throbbing, burning pain was where my left eye had been. A low moan seeped from my lips and
foul tasting water poured into my mouth. Coughing and gagging I suddenly sat up.

I was laying in an ankle deep puddle of water. A foul smell began wafting into my nostrils. All around me were large bulbous sacks. The eggs. I was down in
the midst of the beetle eggs. An icy shiver rippled through me. The water was frigid. Clutching at my shivering body, I slowly stood out of the water, every
muscle in my body protesting, but feeling immaterial next to bigger pain in my eye. I tried to get my bearings, figure out why I was still alive.

And also why was there a strip of cloth wrapped around my head, covering up my left eye.

Last thing I knew, I was balancing on a ledge and the raving, completely mad Lin was about to separate my head from my shoulders. I remember some large sound
and the ground shaking,  she tried to cut my head off with my own spear, and then that was it. Nothing.

Stupidly, I felt my neck. Except for being sore like the rest of my body, it was there at least. Hooray.

I looked around. I was definitely in the horde of eggs. But being this close something was wrong with them. They weren't positioned right. The sacks were a
bit oblong by shape but I got the feeling being on their side and kind of bunched together wasn't how they should be. My pain addled brain must've lost all
fear, because before I thought about it I placed my hand right on one. It was cold. Lifeless, I realized.

"These eggs are all dead," someone murmured from nearby.

I spun around. Lin lay sitting up against the corpses of two newborn, translucent shelled beetles, surrounded by the dried up remnants of an egg. Everything
from her right ankle down was gone. Her right foot was completely gone. A tourniquet had been wrapped just above the ankle. Her pant legs was tied up over the
stump and completely soaked through with blood. But not as much as it should've been if it didn't get taken care of in time. But still, I could tell she'd
lost a lot of blood. My spear was laying nearby.

The blade was stained red with blood.

The pain was doing something odd with my thought processes, because I didn't blurt out anything to her. I was just watching her. Her expression was tight and
pained, her breathing slow and controlled. Her eyes were unfocused and glassy.  She was trying to keep conscious the obvious agony she must be feeling.

"For every living egg the queen gives birth to, she births five dead ones," Lin went on. "Mal Kha didn't want to tell you that. Would've ruined the little
brat's gloating, I suppose." She coughed. She looked just as cold as I was. "There was an explosion. From the tunnels. That way." She pointed weakly. It was
toward the far side. Where the queen was. "I don't know the cause. If you hurry, you might be able to stop him and secure the prisoners."

There was a plume of smoke rising. I also just noticed that there was no longer the steady chittering and clicking of insect-like activity down here. There
was just a steady rustling sound, like a bunch of leaves. I bit my lip, my mind treating me to a bunch of different scenarios.

I should've rushed over there, taking the advice of the woman who moments ago had sworn to kill me. But again, the shooting pain in my head must've been
screwing with my thoughts. Because I rushed over to Lin instead. Her headband was laying on the ground next to her. It wasn't glowing anymore. I knelt down to
inspect her wounds, checking to make sure she wasn't hiding an impalement or anything. Can never be too sure.

She hissed in pain and shoved against me. "What are you doing?"

"Sorry. This will be uncomfortable, but try to bear it and hang on." I started to pick her up.

Lin shoved harder. "What are you doing? Why are you wasting time with me? Leave me here. Leave me here! Just go."

There was not much in the way of strength behind her efforts. I gently brushed her arm off. "I'm going to pick you up, carry you on my back." I tried again.

Lin again gave me the stiff arm. "You fool. Go save Siyo, damn it. There's still time. Don't bother with me. I'm the enemy, remember?"

I grabbed her arm and slung it over my shoulder. "Maybe. Maybe not. But you are Siyo's sister. And the major's daughter. I'm not leaving you behind. Not in
this place. Not anywhere." I paused. Accepting the truth of the thought to myself as well as letting it sink into Lin. "I can't."

Lin didn't fight back again, but I did hear her stiffen in pain when I had to move her wounded leg. "Forgive me," I consoled. I worked her over arm over my
back and picked up my spear with my free hand.

"The headband. Bring it as well," she said gasping in pain. "I can at least hold it."

I grabbed it up and handed it to her and began picking through the mess of dead eggs. As I went here and there those centipede like things scuttled along,
seemingly ignorant of us. As I went other beetle corpses, some looking more old and shriveled as the one Lin had been fetched against. The path down the
middle of the horde wasn't hard to find. It also wasn't conspicuous, but I couldn't afford to be slowed down any more by weaving through a field of eggs just
so no one would see me coming. I just had to hope whatever caused the explosion was keeping everyone too busy to notice me.

I was once again thankful for the Grindstone including running with heavy equipment packs as part of training. You generally aren't supposed to talk about a
woman's weight Lin was roughly the same height as me and not a whole lot lighter. She had a lot of well toned muscle. But I've ran with heavier. I'd do well.
Though every beat of my heart sent another pulse of pain shooting through me. I could keep a decent jog like this, painful though it was. But it wasn't so bad
I couldn't talk. And now was as good a time as any to get information. "Okay," I said with gritted teeth. "I'm going to ask some questions. I'll start with
the obvious, easy stuff first. Alright?"

She waited a few paces before answering. "Ask."

"What happened to your foot?"

"You did. Or rather you spear did."

"What do you mean?"

"I…wasn't in the best frame of mind when I picked it up and attacked you-

Understatement.

"-and when I swung it, the spear slipped out of my hands. The balance was off. I lost control it. Next thing I knew, I'd sliced through my own foot and was on
the ground below."

Now I got it. My spear was an expert weapon made by an expert to be used expertly. The dense liquid filled tube at the core of the haft gave the spear odd,
unintuitive balance. You don't get used to it unless you were good, disciplined, and had lots of practice time with it. Lin had all the qualifications, but
not the practice. And that was the most important part.

"Sorry about that," I said. "Thank Master Kumara for that odd job on the balance."

"That is his style. He wouldn't make a weapon he wanted someone else to easily be able to use." Anticipating the next question, which I wasn't going to ask,
she added, "Yes. He made my yari. It's back in the antechamber now. Just as well, because I'll never fight again anyway. I'm not worthy anymore."

I grimaced at the last line for what it must mean for her. She'd trained at least as long as I had to get that good. Never again. "I see. You wrapped my eye."
Statement. Not question.

"Yes."

Again, the pain must have shorted out the quipping part of my brain. Because I became blunt. "Why? You were foaming at the mouth to kill me before. Why are
you helping me? You wrapped my eye after you all but cut it out? What's going on? I thought you hated me."

"I never hated you."

I didn't respond, letting her speak on her own, figure out her own feelings and thoughts.

Was I really doing that? I must be losing my mind to the pain, an old part of me thought.

"Not truly, no. At first, I only blamed you for putting my mother in a position to be taken by surprise, for abandoning your post, for shirking your duties
and for that being the reason the rebels got into the base. Even though there were rumors, I was willing to let you explain yourself, to hear it from your own
mouth. That was before the trial. But when I saw you sitting there, not defending yourself. It was like you didn't care. You weren't even sorry, didn't even
miss her. I kept thinking to myself why that was. It wasn't until I was on the training exercise that I began to think you were almost completely responsible
for everything. Mal Kha convinced me to join him based off of that hatred, using it to motivate me. Or so I thought..."

Strange. Earlier Lin said that before the exercise, she was beginning to blame me. Before she fell into the mineshaft and--I looked at the headband. I thought
of the fight with the two beetles on the side of the road earlier. And the stones we found imbedded in their underbellies, and more importantly, the way they
acted when we removed the stones. Another piece fell together. "The headband," I said quietly. "Mal gave it to you while you were unconscious. Changed you."

"Yes," Lin said shaking her head in disbelief. She held up the headband so I could see. "I don't know how exactly, but that's the secret behind everything,
Van. This gemstone. It has some kind of…mind controlling abilities. Even now I can feel its pull. It draws on emotions and bends another's will. Mal Kha's
been experimenting with it, seeing the different ways he can use it to control people. He said there's something more he can do with it, but hadn't figured
out how. A way to take his control of another being to the next level. I don't know what that means, however The one he has is even more potent. It was how he
made you release him earlier, make you weak. Through touch."

A nasty feeling spread through me as I thought of the potential of such a thing. It was a frightening notion. Most everyone now knew about the actions of the
Dai Li under direction of Long Feng back during the 100 Year War. It was the way the Dai Li atoned, by confessing to everything. The army of voice controlled
women collectively called Joo Dee. Brainwashing. Altering memories. That something perhaps worse existed? It was one thing to brainwash someone with some kind
of hypnosis, but Mal could somehow weaken a person through touch almost instantly. Turn an honorable woman into a raving maniac. And control a horde of blood
thirsty animals.

Who knew what other things these stones could do? Which was why he was experimenting. Mal was always a kid too smart for his own good. Imagine use these
stones if he got more creative-

I sucked in a breath, despite the foulness of the air. "The town. The coins," I spat. "That's how he kept getting so many followers and could keep it under
wraps, keep them all loyal. He'd give them coins and control them through constant contact. Making his followers keep the coins on you at all times would keep
you under his…spell."

Lin nodded.

I thought a moment about the town. I doubt he gave all of them a coin too. Their behavior was all wrong and unnatural. Then the method to control the town was
different. Perhaps even… "Contact doesn't just mean from the outside. If you ground the stone up and put it in everyone's drinking water, could you control
someone that way?"

"Your mind is chilling, Van. That is exactly how we controlled the town. He made me do it as if on an inspection from the Earth King. He made me…" Her voice
grew quieter. I felt something warm drip down my neck. Lin's voice softened. "Gaia below. I betrayed my country for him. My family. I had people that trusted
me killed. I'm a traitor. You should have left me behind to die."

Now my breathing was starting to get a bit heavier. Guess I was still out of practice with this kinda grueling work. "Not…gonna happen. Not your fault.
Where'd…he get…the stones?"

"I…" She shook her head. "I don't know. He never told me. All I can be certain of is he had them before he found the beetles."

Another thought occurred to me. "His father. Why did Mal kill his own father, Harai?"

"I don't know that either. You'll have to ask--Van! On your left!"

A beetle shouldered through the eggs, tossing them aside like they were beach balls, and let out a low threatening bleat. I should've seen it sooner, but I
had a slight problem seeing out of my left. It jumped into the path ahead of us, blocking it with gnashing razor sharp jaws.

 I squared around, backing away, debating immediately whether or not I should drop Lin to the ground to fight it. Or run away with Lin on my back. A dozen
thoughts flew through my head as I thought about the best way to fight this thing, or the quickest way around it. Not once did I even consider dropping Lin
and running away, I realized. In fact, thought didn't even occur to me until I realized it hadn't.

Lin raised the headband in front of her and myself, a faint glow coming from it. "Back! Your master commands it!" she shouted at the creature.

The beetle bleated again, and pawed the ground with one of its legs, like a bull-spider ready to charge. "I said, back!"

An eternity stretched as the creature just stood there. Then the beetle shook its head like a dog, then vanished amongst the eggs on the other side. I didn't
wait to see if it'd come back and redoubled my pace, despite my burning muscles.

"This isn't good," Lin said over another cough. "When you damaged the stone, its losing its effectiveness on me. But I still shouldn't have had to tell it
twice. There not much mind to control in these animals."

I normally would've said something like. 'I'll try to avoid that next time you try to kill me' but instead what came out was, "I didn't see one of those
stones on its underside. You can control them with your voices too?"

"Not to the level where we could ride them. But enough to where they'd respond to basic orders if we demand it of them. Same as making people drink it, Mal
Kha fed a large amount of the stones to the queen. Every egg it hatches comes out ready for him to control it. But there's flaws. The process isn't perfect."

"I should…say so," I said sucking in wind. "The townsfolk were…dead to the world. I don't think…eating those stones…works very well in the long term.
He's…probably running out. Has to stretch his resources."

"Again you've made a spot on guess." Lin's expression softened a bit. "Yes. I think I can understand what it is they both saw in you. Yes. I'm not ashamed of
it anymore. You are a better warrior me. And my mother. You are a most remarkable man, Van Tsu-Yan."

I didn't respond. And not just because it made breathing easier, and the pain in my eye was excruciating.

Her voice became more distant, and tired. "You are remarkably reckless. Remarkably stubborn. Remarkably uncultured. And remarkably annoying. More so than Mal
Kha. In addition to being a willing criminal." A beat later. "My sister could probably do better…" her voice trailing off.

I felt her slump against my back, her breath steadily tickling the nape of my neck. She passed out. The effort of shouting down that bug must have taken
everything out of her. But it was just as well.

We had just come out of the part of the horde with eggs, coming around one of the larger stalagmites.

All cave had broken loose.
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Eman5805
Never Gonna Give Yue Up

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« Reply #67 on: Jun 17, 2011 09:47 am »

-continued-

The beetles were going ballistic. On each other. All around me were the scything jaws, bashing of massive carapaces against one another. Scrambling left and
right. Shiny black body parts flew. Orange blood oozed. One on one. Two on one. Three on one. And every matching of numbers on numbers in between. Including
halves. The smaller, younger beetles would get sliced in half by the older ones, but didn't die right away. They'd crawl forward on what remaining legs they
had, orange guts trailing behind them and keep fighting, weakly gnawing on legs, until something bigger tramples them to death.

They were so preoccupied with tearing each other apart, they completely ignored me and the still unconscious Lin. But that didn't mean they wouldn't crush me
to death or take my head off if I weren't careful. I walked slower and slower got closer and closer, I had to slow my gait. All the scattered body part made
footing treacherous. And they were only getting more numerous. My limbs were screaming and it was increasingly more difficult to hold onto Lin. But I wouldn't
dare drop her. I didn't know if a sudden movement like that would  draw the attention of one of these beasts. I wasn't taking chances.

I had to go around heaping carcasses and more stalagmites, straying from the footpath. The ground torn up and sloppy, sharp pieces of chitin sticking out of
the ground, enough to gut my leg open if I tripped. Step by cautious step, I pressed forward, having difficulty looking left. My heart was pounding and with
each beat a spike of pain shot through my head. Sweat, both from fear and exhaustion began to pour off me. My legs were getting weak. My arms began to scream
and complain. My back felt tight, clenching. And my bumps, cuts, and bruises weren't feeling any better. But I gritted my teeth, letting determination drive
me. I had to get to the other side. I had to make sure Siyo, and the prisoners were okay.

And I had to know what the hell was going on, to know why all the beetles were attacking each other. I had an idea or two, but I wouldn't know anything for
sure until I got to the still looming form of the queen.

As I weaved slowly amongst the snuffling, stinking beasts, I saw it wasn't just the large black scythe jawed beetles that were going berserk. The digger mites
were joining in too. And they were easily doing more damage. They'd slither along the carapaces of their bigger, black shelled brethren, leaving greenish,
bubbling, hissing furrows in their wake. The beetles would thrash around, attempting to sling them off, but would crumple to the ground as the digger mites
acidic spit dissolved their legs.

One digger mite scrambled to the back of the a beetle, where the beetle's great head met the dome-like shell, spat some acid, then forced its way inside of
the beetle's head. The beetle's body shook in wild spasms before the entire thing seized up, rigid, stiff and unmoving. The mite then slithered out of the
beetle's maw, a torrent of orange and black gore slopping out behind it. The beetle remaining locked stiff. It wasn't fully dead either. Its massive jaws kept
twitching. Even as its eye sockets suck into themselves.

It was very clear. The digger mites were worse than the standard issue beetle. It was a very good thing that there weren't very many of them out here.

So, I continued forward. Towards the looming form of the beetle queen. And what lay beyond, which scared me more than all the battling beetles and acid
spitting digger mites combined.

I eventually found the clearest path to avoid the battling killer bugs around the outer rim of the entire chamber. It slowed me down a bit, but I didn't have
to worry about  my blind spot anymore. All the fighting was on my right side. And I didn't have to worry as much about blundering into Mal or any of his
followers. I'd see them coming now. The roundabout path also had another benefit. I got the clearest view of the beetle queen in profile.

Now I knew why the queen hadn't moved once.

The back of the queen's head was gone. Blown out. What could count as a small river of orange and black chunky gore had poured out of the gaping, smoldering
hole that was at least 10 feet wide. Many of the winged centipede like creatures were crawling in and out of the wound. They'd fly to the waxy wall of the
chamber and vomit more of the foul sludge and smoothing it out, completely indifferent of the fact that they were essentially eating the brains of their
queen.

I bit back a wave a nausea and tore my eyes away from the dead behemoth. The mass of eggs ended at the queen. There was a brief empty area behind the queen,
free of eggs or even battling beetles. This was where the smoke I saw earlier was coming from. Some of the crates Mal's followers had moved from the other
side of the tunnel were here. They were laying askew, irregularly. Like they were dumped out of the carts Mal's followers had loaded up. One of them was
smashed flat. A large tunnel, almost big enough for the queen to squeeze through if it laid flat on the ground and wriggled like a worm. The tunnel was warped
and irregular. Not the way it should've been had it been opened with earthbending. The edges were notched and distended in some areas and the stone itself was
distorted. The digger mites then. A small plume of smoke steadily billowed from inside the tunnel, an orange flickering of light within. I crept closer, my
arms screaming in protest with each step under the still unconscious Lin's weight. Sweat beaded from my face. Waves of agony continually rippling through my head. My grip on Lin was faltering. The knuckles on my spear turned white from gripping it so hard. I began leaning against the wall for support, my shoulder
scraping off bits and chunks of the waxy covering. But, damn it, I was not going to drop Lin.

I was going to make it to the prisoner cage, finally in site, and see if the two children were in it alright.

And I was going to find out who was lying face down by the tunnel.


After what seemed like an eternity, I made it behind the dead corpse of the beetle queen. I managed to gently set Lin down next to the tunnel entrance, behind
one of the crates. My body all but sighed with relief. But I didn't stop to enjoy it, or relax. I went back flat against the wall and shuffled up to the tunnel. I heard echoing shouts and the unmistakable roaring reports of fire blasts and stones smashing against stones. I also heard one solitary shrill cry.
Without leaning out and opening myself to any attack, I used the reflection off my spear blade to peek around the corner.

The tunnel went down a 150 yards or so before it opened into yet another chamber. This chamber giving off a hazy green light. There were more crates in the
tunnel. As well as the remains of at least two beetles. But nothing else appeared to be around. Just a supine body laying in the middle of the tunnel next to
the prisoner cage and the two children and a third form still inside. Out in the open.

I sighed. I didn't have time for this.

I stepped out of my cover and walked confidently over to the person. I recognized the person. I think her name was Taku or Mako or Tazu something or other. No
sooner had I gotten within five feet of her, she lashed out, sending a small stream of fire in my direction.

Funny thing about sneak attacks. They only work when you don't sonigraph them so obviously. But it's still an attack. One that must be defeated delicately and
with complete skill, intelligence, and precision.

So. I side stepped the fire stream and threw a rock off her head, I'd picked up second earlier.

The stream died out instantly as her hands flew to her forehead where the rock hit her. "Ow!"

I walked over and knelt down, placing my knee over her neck. She was fairly young. Younger than me at least. She was wearing a dress, of all things. "Don't
talk to me about 'ow,'" I muttered. "I'm missing an eye." I began scanning my surrounding, paying special attention to my left, waiting for any other attacks.
My spear held at the ready.

She gasped for air as I put a little more pressure than I meant too, her hands trying in vain to life my knee away. If she couldn't properly breath, she
couldn't firebend at me again.

"Sounds like a personal problem," I drawled, still searching for attackers. A few seconds passed and nothing rushed me. No sounds of the stone beneath me
shifting around. Save for the signs of the fight going on through the tunnel and the too close giant killer insect activity not 50 feet away, it was quiet.
The sounds of the girl I had pinned to the ground began to sound more pathetic and weak. I had to remind myself that there was always the chance the none of
Mal Kha's followers were totally by choice. Plus, it was still a young woman. I couldn’t in good conscious be too rough on her, though the thought of them
doing something bad to Siyo or the hostages made me anxious to rush in there. But I couldn't pass up the chance to gleam a last bit of information. But I'd
make it quick. I eased up the pressure on the girl's neck. "Someone broke your Sovereign's toy hideous giant worm thing, huh? That's too bad."

She coughed. "No…Sovereign said…you did it. You killed…his queen. You…ruined everything…"

"As much as I love to take credit for messing things up, I can't take the rap for this one. And I'm getting tired of waiting for your buddies to ambush me."

"Ambush?" She barked out a weak laugh. "There's no one left to ambush anyone except Ando and Lao Hei, but they're both with Sovereign, chasing after that
woman. The Sovereign's most loyal members. The rest tried to fight off the horde. But they couldn't. Too many. They were gobbled up."

I looked at her. "You're not kidding," I said. Then I reached down and lifted the hem of her dress. And winced. Her leg was broken. A piece of bone sticking
through her skin just above her knee.

"I'm no good to my Sovereign now. Fell off the wagon. Run over my leg. Left me behind. I…deserve it. Careless. Stupid. Maybe…if I could've killed you, he'd
take me back." A tear actually rolled down one of her cheeks

Great. Now I somehow felt like a jerk. A particularly loud fire blast echoed down the tunnel. I really don't have time for this, damn it.

I shuffled back, positioning myself to rip some strips of cloth from her dress. "Alright, you're my prisoner now. And you're coming with me. If you have a
problem with that-"

Out of nowhere the girl produced a small knife and slashed at my face. I caught her by the wrist and with a sharp twist to the near breaking point, wrung the
knife out of her grasp. And used the knife to make the first cut.

"-too bad."

Disarmed and still in obvious pain, she gave me an odd look for a moment, then started blubbering nonsense about being saved by her Sovereign. I finished and
did my best to wrap the wound, despite her brief cries of pain. I saved some to bind her arms together. Mindful of her leg, I picked her up when I was done.
She was lighter than Lin at least, but there was no way I could carry both Lin and another of Mal's followers. Yet another fire burst reported from down the
tunnel. I set her down near Lin.

Lin had awaken. "The queen," she said groggily.

I grunted. "Yeah. It's dead. Not my doing obviously."

"Mal Kha must be furious," Lin murmured.

"I'm sure. There's a lot of activity down the tunnel. What's back there?"

"An underground village. No different from the crystal catacombs of Old Ba Sing Se. Many don't even know it's down there anymore. We didn't even know until
the digger mites uncovered it. The tunnel continues through the other side."

"Lin?" the girl asked, voice shaky. "Why are you helping him? You betrayed our Sovereign?"

"I'm going to check on the kids. You two play nice," I said, then left before either could respond.

I ran to the locked cage with the two shivering children inside. It was a boy and a girl. The boy was clutching the girl to him, shielding her. They didn't
look at me, but seemed to inch away and huddle closer together when I approached. I held up my hands, moving slowly. "It's okay," I told them. "I'm not with
the bad bug men. I'm going to get you out of there. Just hang on."

I found the lock. Took up my spear in both hands, then slashed. The lock parted cleanly and fell away with a loud clank. And I swung it open. The little girl
took one look at me and started to cry, her eyes looked like she'd done a lot of that. And with my eye bandaged up like this, I must look more like a bad guy
than anything. The older boy, probably her brother, wouldn't let her go, shielding her.

Brave kid.

I looked at the person laying on the ground, arms bound behind him. "Kensei. Can you get them out?" The lump of a person didn't respond. I poked him with the
backend of my spear. "Off your rump. I need you."

Kensei shook his head. "I don't know whether to be amazed that you were the only one to see through my rouse or-"

I raised a hand. "If you compliment me too, I'm going to know I'm dreaming," I snorted. "Why you didn't bother trying to make a move before now is beyond me
anyway." I cut the bounds off his arms.

"Playing possum-chicken when things get hectic is a wise strategy, Van," he said, rubbing his wrists and eyeing my bandaged eye.

"More like a cowardly one. Where's Siyo and the other woman, with the hurt leg?"

Kensei jerked his head at the tunnel. "Down there. Mal Kha didn't put Captain Lin's imposter or Siyo in the cage for some reason. When the back of the queens'
head exploded, and all the beetles ballistic. Then and only then did made her move."

I frowned at the new information. "Alright. You stay here with the kids, Captain Lin and the other of Mal's followers. I put them on the other side of those
crates. I'm going in after Mal."

Kensei blinked. "Lin's still alive? And you're going in alone?"

"It’s a long story, but she's on the level now. She's missing a foot now and can't walk." I paused, suddenly realizing there's been quite a run of women injuring their legs hasn't there? First that stranger who got caught impersonating Captain Lin. Then Lin herself, losing a foot entirely. Now the other
follower of Mal. And had to chuckle at that, dark as it was. Drawing a raised eyebrow from Kensei. But, I needed something else to laugh about. I've had a
rough day. "Anyway. I have to go in alone. Who else but you can watch everyone? Anyone who isn't a frightened child can't even walk. Plus, I'm not a bender.
You can protect more people at once than I can."

Kensei glanced at the kids, then at the blown out head of the queen. Then he nodded.

I clapped him on the shoulder then climbed out the cell. "Good luck."

"You too, Van. You might need it."

I rolled my shoulders, fatigue had set in hard, but I couldn't stop now. "I'll manage. Mal's already lost. Just need to make sure everyone is alright."

"No, Van. I mean, that there's more in there than just Mal and a few of his followers. Not all of his horde didn't go crazy when the queen died."

"Yeah. I'm betting Mal Kha's personal mount is still with him. But I'll just have to deal with that when it comes."

"No. Not just that," Kensei said quietly.

I looked over my shoulder at him.

"When the queen died…something reacted. I didn't see it clearly, because it was moving so fast. But something else is in there. Be careful, Van."

The air seemed to grow chillier coming from inside the tunnel. A cold sweat broke out that had nothing to do with exhaustion. A high pitched cry came from
down there. The sound unmistakable for anyone familiar with battle. It was a warrior's cry. A woman's cry as she put her all into a fight. I'd heard that same
cry before. It was in a cave, much like this one. Except that immediately after the crier succumbed to a number of injuries and collapsed to the ground, at
the  total mercy of the one she wanted to fight.  To kill.

Mal Kha would definitely not spare Siyo the way I had.

I tightened my grip on my spear and ran down the tunnel.
Logged

Eman5805
Never Gonna Give Yue Up

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A Soulful Brother


« Reply #68 on: Jun 17, 2011 09:49 am »

-continued-

One of the crates that were strewn through the tunnel had all the gear I was relieved of when I was captured. I stopped to strap up, making especially sure
taking back my spear holster and the only two blasting jelly caps and throwing knives that I had before. A long with something else that could in handy
especially. Just in case.

I also took a few extra items that were too useful to leave behind, like a length of rope and grappling hook on account that I'm still technically a thieving
bandit, outlaw. I'm sure I was allowed to steal stuff. There was also a full canteen. It was a little heavier than it should've been if it was water. I opened
it and took a whiff. And could not believe my nose. Fighting down sudden guzzling urges, I pocketed that too. Let it serve as added incentive to live through
all this, why not?

I sure could use a drink.

The weight of the gear added a sense of security. I wasn't going into this with just a pair of torn and tattered leggings and a spear. I had more at my
disposal now. And yet I still had a lingering feeling. I'd had it since I woke up.

Maybe it was because my eye and the cuts on my cheek and eyebrow were still throbbing in agony, affecting my brain somehow. Maybe infection was setting in and
I was running a fever. It'd certainly explain why I was shaking slightly. Maybe I'd finally snapped and lost my mind, but hadn't noticed it. I mean, something
certainly was unusual about me. I hardly reacted to the girl trying to kill me. It barely registered as a legitimate threat. I was able to walk through a sea
of killer beetles calmly and smoothly, weaving around danger and finding the best route. It wasn't so much that I hadn't done amazing things. I've come out of
close scrapes before. I could tell a good couple tales about me doing things I probably shouldn't have. But why did this time feel so…different?

Was it fear? No. I wasn't more or less afraid now than I've ever been. Was I more motivated than ever? Perhaps. There were at least two extra females that
were ahead of me I wanted to save, with a probable third. But I wouldn't say it was giving me more determination. Before, I was just determined to live, to
continue to screw Fate and Luck out of their games of screwing with me or before that to become a great soldier, to support the cavalry and the special tasks
groups in the Earth Kingdom military. I've worked and acted with a purpose before.

This was something else. My motions were clearer. I could act and react more fluidly, even fighting exhaustion. I could even see clearer, the irony in that
not lost on me. And I can't be sure, without being able to hear myself, but I think my voice was stronger, more firm. More confident? Is that what's
different? Am I just more confident now? Why? I've been dealt more punishment in the last few weeks than I'd ever gotten in my life. I'd been hit with a
Stinger, had ridiculous brain farts because of said stinger, hit with a rock, slapped, kicked, cut, ambushed, double crossed, tricked, stalked, lusted after,
befriended, hugged, confided in, cared about, depended on, trusted, maybe loved, cried for…

Odd. I'm still pretty young, but I've experienced so much. It's been so difficult and stressful and confusing. But yet…I think this is the most I've ever
lived. Maybe that's what's so different now. I mean, I had a purpose before, but maybe now I have a purpose. A little something extra special to fight
for. Something more to take up arms in the name of. And it just felt…right. Like what I am and what I am about to do link up in a seamless and natural way.

It must be why the thought of what lied ahead didn't scare me like it should. In fact, I should say it instilled something in me. I wasn't free of fear. But
the fear I had wasn't mortal fear. I was afraid of, well, kind of sappy things. Like not letting people I care about get hurt. I afraid of letting them down.
Like I made them some kind of promise. And to make sure that doesn't happen, I'd use every skill I ever had, all my power.

What the cave kind of thinking was that? I mean, what kind of nutjob thinks like that?

"Oh well," I murmured with a wry smile, nearing greenish light at the end of the tunnel. "The nutjob population just went up, plus one."



I came to the end of the tunnel. There was a crudely made set of stairs leading down to the ground in front of me, and into the underground village.

I had never been to the crystal catacombs of Old Ba Sing Se, the ancient underground city upon which Ba Sing Se was built. But I'd heard the stories. I was
just a kid when the Avatar battled the Fire Nation princess and the rouge Dai Li agents. (The then still exiled future Fire Lord may or may not have been
there, fighting the Avatar alongside his psycho sister. Stories vary.) It was all that people would talk about. How the place was brilliantly lit by sparkling
green crystals bigger than a man. The beautiful architecture, from the well placed streams and fountains, to the aesthetic layout that perfectly captured
purity in the human mind. Uh. Yeah. Those stories were all full of crap, because if it looked anything like this, consider me underwhelmed.

The glowing crystals didn't wow me at all. Individually they weren't all that bright and there had to be a lot of them. And even then, the lighting was kind
of weak. The buildings were just thrown around, packed around the outer rims of this cave. The buildings themselves were pretty much square and unappealing,
they all had a kind of porch cut into the stone. The moats or rivers or whatever were slapdash, more likely natural features. The only defining feature was
that it looked as if the town had been cut and half and pulled apart for nearly 100 feet. The roof, the sides of the cave, the ground, all if it abruptly
ended in blackness. Like a giant crack. No. Not just a giant crack. It was a fault line. One section of stone remained untouched in the middle of the crevice.
It rose up from the pit and continued unseen for who knows how high. Like a stalactite or stalagmite but they'd merged together.

Another thing that caught my eye on the far side was a pool that was clearly not a natural feature of the room. It received a waterfall from somewhere above,
pouring in steadily. The water in the pool swirled about, a whirlpool. Someone probably thought it looked cool at some point. To me, it just looked like a 20
foot wide toilet. And while it didn't look natural. But the more I looked at it, the more I began to think also wasn't look manmade either.

Maybe I was being a little harsh. This place was old and dank. It had probably been generations since anyone had been here. This place could actually predate
Old Ba Sing Se. But I just didn't see any luster here. But then, I was just making mild observations, wasn't I? Maybe I was doing this because I was applying
a tactic of battle to this entire area, assessing the battlefield. And primarily, I didn't like what I saw.

Like the large stone sphere, crudely bent up in the middle of the nearest side of the village and the faint, ugly orange glow seeping out of the cracks.

I also didn't like the battle raging below.

A threatening burst of flame tore through the air, pummeling one of the bland, square buildings, scorching it black. Ando stood on the other end. One arm
extended, the other drew back, ready to throw another fire blast. Behind him stood Lao Hei, in a defensive stance. Ando walked from side to side, searching in
the buildings. His eyes weren't on me, as I crept down. The bottom of the stairs came between pair of two story buildings, keeping me being seen most of the
way down.

Again, peeking around the corner using the reflection off my spear blade, I slipped around, staying low, under the porches, and keeping their backs to me.
Ando suddenly struck, turning a roundhouse into a sweeping arc of flame that cut into one of the buildings. Almost in response, a furrow in the earth streaked
from a different spot all together. It headed straight towards the bubble looking sphere. Lao Hei stepped forward and thrust his arms at the furrow, fouling
the attack with his own, causing a burst of dust and rocks from the ground. A lot of it. Another attack from the cover of the buildings was launched, a jagged

stone arched high through the air heading for the sphere. The dust was just a distraction, a good one. But Lao Hei saw through it at the last second. He gestured and a slab of stone rose out of the ground diagonally over the bubble and the jagged rock shattered to pieces on it. Ando rushed in, sending fire
blast after fire blast into the building.

A pebble flew out and smacked Ando in the forehead between blasts hard enough to send him reeling and draw blood. "Enough of this! Lao Hei! Bring the whole
thing down on her damn head!" Ando snarled.

Lao Hei grunted then stomped forward, extended his palms, drew them back slowly, then thrust them back out again. The entire stone building before him shook
and began to crack. A shadow from behind it darted from the building to the next. Ando punched a thick stream after her. And I heard Siyo cry out.

Hot anger surged up in me again and I began to rush at Ando, hands reaching for a blasting jelly cap. A hand from the shadows clasped my arm, stopping me from
stepping out in the open. At the same time shock at being grabbed registered, something big, long, slimy, and yellow slashed through the air from above and
snapped back up to the ceiling. The thing was coiled around a stalactite directly above the stone bubble. It was hard to tell, but it had to have been
anywhere from 40 to 70 feet long and was thicker around than a person. It's head was a mass feelers and claws and long spindly jaws. It looked like a much
thinner version of the dead queen in the other room. And what was most chilling about the thing was that it was completely silent. Ando and Lao Hei didn't
even notice it moved. Still attacking Siyo on the other side.

If I hadn't been stopped just now. I would've been blindsided by the mini queen. I can stop worrying now. "Taking your sweet time coming out of hiding only to
save my ass. You have a bizarre sense of timing Ly…" I glanced the little girl, looked away at the thing up on the ceiling. Then snapped back to the girl.
"…the not so little girl."

It was Lin's imposter that Mal Kha captured during his invasion of Lin's underground base. Seeing her this close, not bound and gagged, I was struck by her
face. She wasn't ugly. Or particularly pretty. She was average. Average spacing of her eyes, average cant of her brown eyes, average nose, average lips. She
didn't have one particularly defining feature. And it made me realize that she didn't really look like a long lost sister of Lin and Siyo at all. She'd look
related to anybody just about. I started to say something. Her hand clamped over my mouth, and she pulled me further into the alley. The slithering thing
struck again, like a whip, again missing me by a hairbreadth. I took a swipe at it with my spear, but missed.

"Quick," Lin's imposter whispered. "Into the building." She slipped through a large, time eroded crack in the nearest stone building. I went in after, just in
time to be missed by yet another strike by the slimy thing from the ceiling. I was used to snarling beasts trying to kill me by now. But that this thing
could. And that somehow made it all the more frightening.

"What the cave is that thing? A mini-queen?" I panted,

"Dangerous," she said simply, her voice tight. I looked and her leg was still bandaged up. "I was supposed to sneak around while she distracted them, but…that
thing keeps me pinned down in here. And I can't move around too much"

"'She.' She meaning Siyo?" I asked, looking at Ando and Lao Hei still attacking buildings.

"Yes, the earthbender," the imposter said, her voice taking a dubious edge. "Who else were you expecting?"

"No one," I lied. I quickly tried to change the subject. "Where's Mal Kha?"

"Inside of that rock," she said.

I raised an eyebrow at her and looked back at the bubble. "Inside of it? Why?"

"I don't know," she said simply.

"You're not real helpful," I muttered.

"And you're not telling the truth. Who else is helping you down here? Ly-something. You almost called me that a minute ago."

"Where's Mal's beetle?"

"Inside of that rock," she said simply. Then she repeated. "Who else is down here with us? Is that who killed the queen?"

I blinked at the imposter. "Wait. Mal and the beetle are inside of that thing? Why the cave would he do that?"

"I don't know," she said simply. "That's why we're trying to crack it open. Who is down here-"

"There's a simpler way than cracking it I could suggest." I palmed a blasting cap.

She reached for my hand. "No. We need him alive."

I pulled my hand away. "And who is this we? Just why were you posing as Captain Lin in the first place to get captured? Working with Kensei?"

Her bland expression rumpled a bit for the first time as she frowned ever so slightly. "Who?"

A loud explosion of fire and stone answered me. I gritted my teeth. "Damn it. Why am I arguing with you, whoever you are? Siyo's going 2 on 1 out there, Mal
and his pet are having a powwow in the stone bubble, and there's a giant land eel, queen thing on the ceiling. I gotta make a move."

"The moment you step out there, it will take your head," she said. Somehow everything she said had very little emotional attachment to it, like she was
reading off a list of events rather than partaking in them.

I looked around the room we were in. It must've been someone's house or store front. There were stone beds and rises of stone that could've served as tables
and chairs. But there was one bit of what was probably once a tablecloth. I cut off a strip, wadded it up, then threw it out the window.

Before it hit the ground, the killer slug thing snatched up the cloth. I tried it again with a smaller piece. And it did it again. It was only until I did it
with a much smaller piece, maybe no bigger than a marble, that it didn't strike. Then I tried a bigger piece again. And that one got snatched up same as the
first two.

"Okay. So that thing attacks anything that moves, but not if its smaller than your fist," I murmured, my mind racing.

"Neither of us are that small."

Then I smiled. No. But I know what is. "Can you move quick on that leg?"

"Not very well."

"Alright, then just hang back while I take care of everything Miss, uh, you never gave your name."

"I know."

I regarded her briefly. Her expression wasn't so much unreadable as just not concerned about anything. "Right. Well, Ms. Imposter, will you be okay?"

"I'll make do. Proceed."

I started to question how easily she accepted everything. But I didn't have any more time to waste on the enigma of this strange woman. She was on the level
at least. Saved me when she didn't have to. Or at least she was on the level where my survival was deemed necessary. But she didn't trust me enough to tell me
her name. She also had no idea who Kensei was. And that bothered me. But again. No time to dwell.

I pulled the pin on the blasting jelly cap. Waited a second, then tossed it out the window. The slimy thing snatched it out of the air, a blur. I was already
in motion. I vaulted the window sill and hit the ground running. I palmed two knives as I went, cocked my arm back and shouted "Hey, Ando! Business just got
funny! What say we get violent?" Then let the knives fly. At the same time the blasting jelly cap exploded with a thuwump.

As I've said, I'm not Lady Mai. Throwing knives aren't my specialty, though I'm competent. And from the distance I threw it, I wouldn't be able to kill either
of them with the two I threw, or even pin them to a wall by their clothes. (I swear, I don't know how that woman does it. It wasn't normal.) But they didn't
know that. Instinct says you defend yourself when someone throws something sharp at you. That's why Lao Hei threw up a wall to block it or tried to. Them both
turning towards me and the explosion was all the distraction Siyo needed.

Before the wall could rise up, two small columns burst from the ground, slamming Ando and Lao Hei in the back. The blows were so powerful, it launched them up
into the air, coming straight towards me. As they came down, I struck twice. They both hit the ground in a boneless heap. One of their teeth clattered to the
ground a second later.

"Huh," I panted into the sudden silence. "That was surprisingly easy."
Logged

Eman5805
Never Gonna Give Yue Up

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Posts: 4339


A Soulful Brother


« Reply #69 on: Jun 17, 2011 09:50 am »

-continued-

"You call that easy?" came a breathless voice. Siyo sauntered up, covered in soot, orange beetle blood, and red smears. Her hand was clutching her shoulder
where Ando had burned her. She looked exhausted. Then her expression changed to worry and concern, despite her own share of scrapes and bruises and burns, she
rushed to my side. "Van! Spirits of the earth, what happened? Your eye."

"It's nothing. Just a shiner your sister gave me. Barely hurts." My eye throbbed, sending another spike of agony. "Much."

Siyo's expression deepened. "I see. Then my sister…"

 "No. Your sister's fine. Albeit, she's not going to walk the same ever again."

Siyo gave me a funny look, a slightly accusing one at that.

I waved my hand. "Not remotely what I meant."

The slug thing fell to the ground, next to the stone bubble with a heavy, wet thump.

Siyo jumped, spitting out an oath not fit for young ears. "What on earth is that thing?"

Its head was gone, in its place more blown out, slightly burnt flesh. I looked up and saw chunky, orange sludge splattered on the stalactite. "Oh that. It was
some freaky, giant slug mini-queen thing. Dead now. No big deal."

Siyo just looked at me. "No big deal."

I shrugged. "No big deal. Tell me, what the cave happened back there? The horde is going full cannibal."

Siyo shook her head. "I don't know for sure. One moment I was a prisoner, being carried through the horde. The bugs were just…watching us. Mal had a slightly
strained look on his face, like he was concentrating. We had almost made it to the tunnel. Then, the back of the queen's head exploded. And all hell broke
loose. The bugs killed the rest of his followers, Mal started shouting orders, even as they were dying. His bug was the only one not going crazy, pulling the
wagon cart. He spurred it forward. Crates and the like spilled out. It was so hectic. The prisoner's cage got left behind, I and my sister's imposter were
with Mal Kha. He was ranting about something. Getting more desperate and incoherent, he took us into this place. He went on about his last resort. Hoping his
theory was right. Taking direct control of the situation. Then said something crazy about eating us. But we broke away."

I blinked. "Eating you?"

"Yeah. And he sounded serious. I started fighting against his two cronies." Siyo paused to kick Ando in the face as he tried to rise to his feet. "Then he
grabbed a weird large gemstone the size of his head, got on the back of his beetle then sealed them both up in that bubble."

"If you two are finished, there's the matter of apprehending the boy," Ms. Imposter said. She was next to the stone bubble. The orangish glow was starting to
pulse.

We started walking over. "What's her story?" I asked Siyo quietly.

"I don't know. I can't figure her out. She wouldn't tell me her name or what she's doing here."

I said even quieter, "You haven't seen her yet have you?"

Siyo shook her head. "Could not be down here at all."

"No. She's down here. I can feel it in my gut."

We were too close to answer, but Siyo's silent question was one I was thinking of too.

If Lyra was down here, why was she still hiding? Or rather, who or what was she hiding from?

"Should we just literally crack it open?" Siyo asked.

"There's no telling what such a thing would do," Ms. Imposter said. "We need to approach this delicately. There is also the very dangerous insect within as
well to consider."

"There's a big room back that way with more very dangerous insects to consider. So in the interest of time, I vote for the direct approach," I said, walking
up to the stone bubble. I pointed at Ms. Imposter. "Also. Your vote doesn't count until we get a name. But still, I'm nothing if not a shrewd negotiator." I
tapped on the stone with my spear, palming my last blasting cap. "Hey, Mal. Just so you know, I'm about to blow up your little hiding place. You're welcome to
stay in there and get your ass blown off or you can come out so I can kick your ass old school. Your choice."

"How diplomatic," murmured Ms. Imposter.

"That's me. Give the ultimatum, wait for the reply, then--why are you backing up?"

I had only a split second's warning. A loud, bone rattling roar bellowed from within the stone bubble. It was loud. So close. I pressed my hands against my
ears so hard, but it wasn't enough. I couldn't hear my own scream of anguish. And then the whole thing burst open. A shower of rock and dust that I had to
shield my eyes from. The first thing to hit me was the smell. It was worse than the putrid field of eggs. It was worse than the guts of an impaled beetle. It
was worse than the latrines I'd had to stand in. I didn't next thing to hit me was flung me off my feet and sent me sprawling. It hit the ground so hard I
bounced, then kept going. I slammed against a wall and felt something in my chest pop, sending a sudden, crushing burst of fire rippling through my-



Oh man. In retrospect, standing directly next to something with a killer beetle inside of it? Yeah. Not the wisest decision.

I became dimly aware that I had just blacked out. But for how long, I had no idea. Gasping for breath, I tried to push myself to my feet and failed. My limbs
felt like noodles. There was an orangish greenish fog that had settled on the underground village. My ears were ringing, but I could still hear the sound a
lot of bleating, I only vaguely knew it was coming from the tunnels. I couldn't see Siyo or Ms. Impossible, I mean, Ms. Imposter anywhere and the putrid fog
was making me nauseous.

From within the thickest part of the fog, still somewhat billowing out of the cracked stone sphere, I saw something large. And it moved, heavy clicking sounds
of chitinous limbs moving over the stone floor. The fog rolled off to reveal...

Oh take me to the cave. I must've hit my head. Hard. There wasn't any way I was seeing what I was seeing. C'mon, vision. I only got one eye, but that's no
excuse to be seeing this.

What I thought I saw was Mal Kha riding a beetle. But it was nearly almost twice as big as the others. And it had a pair of large, all too human looking,
eyes. The creature had eight legs instead of the six it had before. Its jaws were larger, longer, sharper. On its head, next to its eyes were two horns, like
a steer hippo-cow. With a third one, lancing out from the center of its large head, the center of its eyes, which were a bright shade of orange that almost
looked red. In the center of its massive jaws was a very non-insect like mouth with sharp, and perfectly white, teeth. The things moved with a grace and ease
that the other beetles lacked entirely. And the pair of eyes seeking and searching made the thing look far, far more intelligent than it should have.

I kept blinking, rubbing at my eye with my shoulder, but the image didn't change. The beetle's eyes stayed. The weird mouth stayed. And as it walked further
out of the fog, I got a better look at Mal himself.

 Now I knew I was seeing things. Or just going crazy.

The dark green gemstone was in his chest. Not on his chest. In his chest. Lodged there. His bare flesh clinging to it. I had no way to tell how deep in his
chest it was, but for me to be seeing what I'm seeing, it had to be bypassing his heart and lungs. No one could possibly live through that.

This was all wrong.

There was something else all wrong. Unless Mal was a contortionist and never told anyone, he was sitting far too low on the back of the hideous freak beetle's
head. It looked almost like…

The beetle shook its head, side to side, spitting out some chunky orange gunk. And I continued to wait for my eye to stop lying to me.

There was just no way that Mal's entire lower body was gone, somehow merged into the creature. I couldn't be seeing thick black veins tracing up his torso
from the beetles hide, human skin melding into glossy black chitin. It was nonsense. Ridiculous. But it wouldn't go away, despite my splitting headache I
batted myself against the temple a few times, hoping to knock the image out of my mind.

But it wouldn't resolve into what I should be looking at. It wouldn't change.

Ando stumbled into view, clutching his head, just climbing up off the ground. He saw the beast and cried out in fear. He threw another fire blast at it. If
the beast felt it, he didn't show it. The gemstone in Mal's chest began to glow. At the same time, Ando suddenly froze up, body locked into the firebending
stance. I could see the fear in his eyes, but he couldn't move, no matter how hard he tried.

"My Sovereign? What are you doing? Wait! Stop!"

The creature lunged forward, its gaping maw stretching open wide and it closed on the frightened, helpless firebender, his scream cutting off just as it
began. It was fast and brutal. The beast's jaws working. My still recovering ears treated to the sounds of bones popping, flesh tearing, blood dribbling out
of its jaws. As if detecting something it didn't like the taste of, it flung Ando's uneaten legs away.

The creature's large, white on orange eyes fixed on me.

It smiled.

The huge white, toothed jaw, still dribbling with blood of the creature actually smiled, as well as Mal himself. Whose eyes had gone totally black.

And then it spoke.

From the creature's mouth. Not Mal's.

"There you are."

Somewhere deep inside the impossibly deep bestial growl that came from the creature's jaws, I could still hear Mal's voice. Mal looked at the dead body of the
slug thing. "Killed my junior queen? No matter. So, tell me, Van, I'm curious. What are the last thoughts that must be going through that head of yours right
now?"

I managed to climb to my feet, leaning against the wall behind me. But my pounding headache, the broken rib, and pure exhaustion made the thought of running
impossible. Damn it. And I don't know where my spear or the blasting cap I dropped. "You just ate your own follower. You just ate a human being." The words
didn’t even register right in my own head. I couldn't fully wrap my head around what was happening.

Mal shrugged. The beast's large shell shuddering as it somehow mimicked the motion in unison. "I was hungry."

"So eat a friggin' apple!" I screamed.

Mal's smile deepened. Both of them. "You look like an apple." Then the beast blurred forward, clicking limbs scuttling too fast. Couldn't get out of the way.
Legs still rubbery. The central horn ready to stab through my face. Suddenly a pillar of stone sprang up. Interposing between the on rushing monstrosity and
my squishy, fleshy self. The Mal-beast slammed into it. The horn hit it and snapped, breaking in half, and the beast bellowed.

A hand reached out of the fog and grabbed me by the shirt and pulled me away. The Mal-beast then swung its head and pulverized the pillar into dust.

"Van!" the Mal-beast thundered.

Somehow, my legs found themselves. And I stumbled into the putrid fog, after the hand pulling me forward. I couldn't see anything and banged my knee against
what was probably a bench. I stifled a cry. Still the hand pulled me. It wasn't very strong. And…the hand wasn't very big. Quite childlike actually.

"I don't like chasing my meals, Van!"

Somewhere behind me, I heard the heavy clicking of the Mal-beast giving chase. My unseen guider turned a hard right. Short of breath and not sure which
direction was up, I stumbled off balance and hit the ground. And I could feel rush of air as the large beast stormed through the area I was just standing. The
world kept spinning. I only vaguely knew that I was back between the buildings. And I could hear the frustrated sounds of the Mal-beast fuming that he missed
me. I also hear the sounds in the distance of bleating growing louder as well as the high pitched crying that could only come from a child along with shouting
and the sound of stones breaking. It all melded together and merged, combined with my headache, the constant agony in my eye, the broken rib. Damn it. Was I
still moving? Crawling forward like an infant? I didn't even know. It didn't feel like anything I did got a response.

"Stop hiding, Van!" brayed the freak of nature.

Through the fog in my mind and the literal fog, I saw a chunk of stone from the building I was next to implode, without anything having made contact with it.

Are you friggin' kidding me? He was crime to the natural order of things. A cannibal. And he could still earthbend? I've been those things, minus the
cannibal part, all my life and never could earthbend. This was just wrong. Completely wrong. I couldn't go…I just couldn't go anymore. My legs went out from
under me and I dropped to my knees. A wall was there. It was all that kept me from pitching over to the ground. I was in some kind of crevice, a crack in the
wall. Just big enough to fit into. I didn't remember coming into here, but it didn't matter. Now that I was here,  I wanted to just close my eyes, curl up in
a ball, and wait for this freakish nightmare to pass. There was something thing I needed to do, but I was beginning to forget what it was.

Soft fingers touched my forehead. "Van," a soft voice said to me. A very familiar voice. Pleading. Imploring. The voice was cracking. As if she'd been saying
my name over and over again, begging for a response. And I could feel some of the exhaustion, the confusion, and the pain numb.

I gazed up, slowly. Big and blue eyes met mine. And they were afraid. So afraid. Substances of various colors and sources spattered her face. But not under
her eyes. I saw the thin trails where tears had been falling. She was crying, the girl I came to know as Lyra, was crying. For the second time since I'd known
her, it was the same tears as before. And I felt a little more like a jerk, even if I didn't have real reason for it.

But there was something I couldn't ignore here. And a tremendous relief flooded over me. I hugged her.

And she hugged back.

"It's okay. It's okay. I'm okay," I told her. "You're alive. And that's all I needed to know. And thank you. I don't know if I'd told you that. But thank you.
For saving me. Maybe in more ways than one." I let myself smile. And cleared my throat.  "Uh. But if anyone asks, the full grown man is the one who saved the
little girl."

The girl gave me a sequence of blinks that I took to be a smile. Then she smiled for real. Ah. Dimples. Cute. I took a deep breath and tried to stand up. My
knee was still wobbling, but I felt okay. Then I banged my head on the top of the little crevice. I hissed, thought about a string of expletives, but wouldn't
dare say in the presence of the girl. Then started to head back towards the exit.

Lyra grabbed my hand. "No. Please. Stay." Her eyes were full of fear again. And I briefly considered obliging. I'd never seen her so scared before. "Not safe!
Bad men are here."

An impact shook the ground. Mal-beast roared in frustration and I heard another chunk of a building burst. I also heard a child scream. Very close. As well as
a battle cry. Male and female. Siyo and Kensei. Kensei was here. The prisoners were here. That mean the beetles in the horde chamber had stopped attacking
each other and were breaking through.

I took a deep breath, the broken rib still making that a bit of a labor. And I turned to Lyra again. "I'm sorry. But I have to. There's something I need to do
still. I'm not running and hiding from this. Not this time. I have to do this." She didn't respond, she just lowered her eyes. Another tear rolled down. I
rubbed it away with my thumb and turned for the exit again. She tugged on my hand again. "Hey! I thought I said-" I stopped.

"Van," Lyra said, holding my spear in front of her. How she got that in here, I'll never know. Oh right. One eye. Though she probably could've snuck it in
here even if I had two eyes. I placed my hand on the spear. And when she spoke, I said the word with her.

"Fight."
Logged

Eman5805
Never Gonna Give Yue Up

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Posts: 4339


A Soulful Brother


« Reply #70 on: Jun 17, 2011 09:51 am »

-continued-

I used the peek around the corner trick with the spear blade again. It was at this point I realized that the crevice Lyra had led me to was right on the edge

of the chasm bisecting the village. If I walked out and wasn't too careful, I'd slip right off the edge. And I could not see a bottom. From here I saw exactly
what bothered me before when scoping out the battle field. There was only one way across. An unnecessarily thin walkway made of stone. No hand rails. And
looked very unstable. The only part that had anything underneath it was a pillar that rose up out of the crevice all the way to the ceiling. Where the walkway
went around it and continued on the other side. There were two rope bridges, one on either side of it, but they had long since collapsed.

But, judging from the adjoining stairs on the other side, this was the only other way out.

Looking behind me, where the fun was, the other exit was closed off. Kensei and plugged up the tunnel with a wall, but something was on the other side,
pressing up against it. The fog from the stone bubble…cocoon thing (yeah, that's a good word for it) was beginning to dissipate. But this only worked to
Mal-beast's advantage. It could see better. Siyo and Kensei were engaging it on open ground, but it was more or less like Ando and Hao Lei's technique of
supporting one with the other. But I didn't need to see a giant, human eyed bug laughing-literally laughing- to see he was just playing with them. He could
earthbend all their defenses away and none of their attacks seemed to do him any damage. When knocked back after one of Mal-beast's earthbending attacks, Siyo
must have found a throwing knife, because she threw something metal at him. It bounced off harmlessly. It actually drew sparks.

Oddly, that drew a sudden cry of shock and the Mal-beast flinched noticeably. Snarling, the creature launched another attack.

From this angle, I couldn't see Ms. Imposter, the children, Lin, or the girl that Mal abandoned and ran over with a cart.

I could see Hao Lei. And the puddle of blood he was lying in. His chest oddly warped and deformed. During Mal-beast's clicking around, he must have stepped on
Hao Lei's still unconscious body.

I turned to Lyra. "I'm going ahead." I briefly considered what I should tell her to do. I should tell her to stay put and out of site. Or not to get involved.
Or things like that. But then I remembered who I was talking to so I said, "Do what you do best, kid." And threw in a wink for good measure, then I slipped
out.

It was tempting, but as I crept forward, I resisted the temptation to frequently look behind me to see if Lyra had followed. Somehow, the only way I knew
she'd leave is if I wasn't looking. Besides, I didn't want to take my eyes off Mal-beast.

I pushed all thoughts on the ridiculousness of what was happening aside and just accept it as a fact. Mal Kha had merged with a bug. The Mal-beast was far
stronger than me, faster than me, crazier than me, and while the best I could do to that hard chitin armor was tickle it. One swipe from those jaws could
pummel me, impale me, or just remove my top half from my bottom one. And then it'd eat me.

But, a spark of inspiration came to me. Mal was still in there wasn't he? And there's something else. People in the army would rave about how I beat a bunch
of firebenders single handedly. But while it nearly got me killed, I just went with a basic fundamental rule of battle. Get the high ground. And have a lot of
bamboo on hand. No bamboo here, but still. I need to get up high.

I made it to the nearest building. I needed to be on the roof and there wasn't any way up there from inside. And I was suddenly grateful that I took a
grappling hook and some rope. I holstered my spear and uncoiled the rope from my side, as another impact shook the ground and Mal-beast laughed that inhuman
laugh. I worked fast, tying a knot around the loop, thanking my days at Grindstone for doing that previously seen as useless drill. I finished the loop gave
the hook a spin and tossed it up. The hook caught. And I gave it a tug. It felt firm. But I had no time to test it. I scrambled up to the top, gritting my
teeth at the pain. And my limbs not taking well to even more strenuous activity. But I bore through it. I finally made it. Just in time to see Kensei's
protective earthwall get flattened, and see him get swatted away like a rag dog. Siyo was down and backing away. Clutching at her side, gasping for breath.

"Now this is familiar, isn't it?" Mal-beast taunted. "Except this time your sister won't interfere and let you escape."

I remembered Siyo, and how in a time when she had so determinedly stalked me down, on the brink of death, and how she was dead set on killing me. And how I
knew it was Mal and his beetle that had almost run her through before.

I was so far away. I couldn't do anything to Mal, but I'd be damned if I let the bastard hurt her again. The monster closed in. I started to rush forward,
ready to shout at the top of my lungs to draw his attention. In the same instant, Captain Lin's voice came, loud and commanding, "Dome guard!" just as
something small and round flew through the air. So, that's where the blasting cap I dropped went.

It exploded.

I've said it before. Blasting caps pack a wallop in their concussive force and the shrapnel. It was so much force that Mal-beast was knocked partially into
the nearest building again. The entire building of old stone collapsed on top of him. I almost got excited, but I saw the bastard start to dig himself out.
Bending rocks and simply flinging rubble away from him. Damn. The throw hadn't been far enough. If the cap had been right on top of him, it might've done some
serious damage. Maybe blown off a leg or to But at least I know blasting caps could do actual damage to him. Too bad I was fresh out.

But then another thought occurred to me and I realized that Siyo was dangerously close to the explosion herself. But the sudden bought of fear went away when
a circle of stone slide away and Siyo was underneath. She got to her feet and scuttled to stand next to Kensei, in obvious pain, but still alive and able to
move.

Dome guard. Now I got it. I should've realized. It sooner. Why would Lin be the only sister go through the Grindstone? Especially when the camp was intended
for earthbenders in the first place. Dome guard was a panic maneuver in the event of being surrounded by firebenders. Quick thinking from Lin.

And now it was my turn. But this I had to do alone. I caught greenish light off my spear and waved to get their attention. Kensei saw me first. He elbowed
Siyo and pointed up. I threw her the hand sign for fall back, held up 5 fingers, then pointed at the far side of the village, across the chasm. Take the 5
prisoners out of here to the exit. If Siyo remembered dome guard on reflex, she'd remember this. She understood, but she still shook her head. I made it
again. And again she refused. I didn't know if she refused to let me do it alone or if didn't understand, but I hoped for the former and mouthed "Trust me.
Please." Kensei was paying attention too. He said something to her and motioned to go take cover from where I assumed Lin had just been when she threw the
blasting cap.

Siyo was reluctant, but she nodded and hurried over with Kensei watching her flank. He shot me a dubious look and I got the distinct impression that he was
hoping I would at least give him time to catch his breath.

No matter for imagination doubters. I could hear Mal-beast slough off more rock, cursing the whole while. I took a running jump and leapt from one roof to the
next, then did it again. The building next to him had been leveled by Hao Lei and Ando. But this should be close enough. I dropped into a crouch, palmed
another throwing knife and waited. He finally came out of the rubble, the human part of him throwing his arms out like he was yawning. I sighted my target and
flung the knife.

Again. I'm no Lady Mai (who is?) but some targets are too big to miss. I aimed for the eye just like I did with the other beetle back on the surface by the
river. I wouldn't miss. My aim was true and-

The freaky human eyed bug blinked.

In a spurt of sparks, the knife glanced off. A chitin eyelid.

It's not like I expected to kill him with what amounted to a splinter, but c'mon, that's just not fair.

Still, I got his attention. I had rolled away from the edge after it hit. And I waited a split second to see how he'd react.

"Van?" he bellowed. "You sneaky bastard! Where are you hiding?"

Yes. He didn't know where I was. Now…I hope his ear drums weren't also chitin covered. A blasting cap did go off practically on his hip. Or the bug equivalent.

"I'm here and there," I said doing my best ventriloquism act, trying to throw my voice. I wasn't very good. At all. But maybe it didn't need to be. The
enormous fault line crevice created an odd echo. It could be difficult to lock down my exact location.

I could hear the clicking of its movement. As well as the sound of the tunnel seal starting to give. I even heard hissing. The digger-mites. They'd eat
through the seal. But, no, focus on Mal. "You're here somewhere."

Okay. Keep it going. I glanced towards the exit. Siyo was leading the party towards the other side, but to take the precarious bridge, she'd go out in the
open, and Mal would certainly see them. Had to keep him distracted. "Tell me, Mal, if you're still in there. I'm dying to know-"

More clicks, moving slightly further away. "Not yet you aren't."

"-where'd you get those stones?"

The clicking got a bit closer. "A gift. What does it matter to you? You're about to die."

"A gift? From who?"

"Someone that desires the same thing I do. Gave it to my father first though."

"They want to go crazy and merge with giant bugs?"

The beast snorted. A very disturbing sound coming from two tons of bug. "No. Means to an end. Just like army of beetles. All for the same end."

"And that is?"

The clicking got dangerously close. "Change."

I slowly, methodically rolled over, ready to move at any given moment. My spear held in both hands. "Change what? The world? Why?"

The clicking suddenly stopped. "That should be obvious, especially for you. I know all about your incident in the Fire Nation rebellions. Lin told me
everything. It was part of the reason I thought you'd see the light. That I could persuade you to join my cause without spreading out the power of the stones
too thin. Don't you hate how this world lets a conflict like that happen, tries to fix the problems in another nation, we're forced to help each other, yet
our own nations are in turmoil. Crime rises every day. Corruption. I've seen it. I've lived it. And it sickens me. That a weak man with money like Xin Mao can
seize control of my old sandbender tribe…it was so easy to turn away from that. Especially once the opportunity came. But that fool of a father of mine,
Harai, didn't see the potential. He was only motivated by money. Like a fool. It was easy to maneuver around in secret. Claiming to be going out on supply
runs or to perform my duties as next in line to contact other tribes. Leaving for weeks at a time while the bandits were out. Eventually he found out and
tried to seize control from under me. And I could not allow that."

"Sick bastard. Killing your own father," I spat.

"I was so very grateful for your arrival. The same man my secret subordinate mentioned. It was part of the reason I thought you'd see the light. That I could
persuade you to join my cause without spreading out the power of the stones too thin. But I misjudged you. I couldn't use you to further my cause. But I can
use you-"

The roof I was standing on split open, bent apart.

"-to satiate my new taste for human flesh!"

"Go! Go!" I shouted. And I was already in motion. I leap to the other roof. I landed in a roll. I snatched up the grappling hook rope and slid down to the
ground. With a flick of my wrist, I unhook the grapple and it fell down into my hand. Clicking bug feet scraped on stone as Mal rounded the corner, the
beast's mouth open in a big laugh. I swung the hook like a flail and flung it into the still human part's face. It banged off with a satisfying thunk,
drawing a more annoyed than pained cry from Mal-beast. I turned and ran behind the building, close to the wall where it couldn't follow, sprinting as fast as
my legs would take me.

He blew out a corner of the building with a human sized boulder. I glanced back, expecting him to follow me around the other way, but instead, his clicking
was coming from the wall.

Mal-beast could cling to walls, like a spider-fly. And was just as fast. I saw the human part strike out. A piece of wall sprang out in front of me, trying to
bash me in the head as I ran. but I ducked that. Then instinctively jumped immediately after. A pike narrowly missed my delicate parts. He was laughing the
whole time. Still playing with me. I made it to the next row of buildings and cut right, heading to the center. I heard a loud sound and threw myself into a
roll. Mal-beast plowed through the structure on my right like it was hardly there, showering me with rubble, rocks hitting and cutting me all over, but
nothing heavy landing on me, so I kept running. Breath getting short. Crap. The monster could've done that the whole time, but he hadn't. Just toying with me.

I'd made it back out to the clearing. There was still some of the putrid orange fog. I ran to the center of it all. I tried to pump more speed, but I was
bottoming out, gasping for breath. No. Just a little more. Give me a little more time.

Something hit my legs, sharp and painful. I fell in a hard tumble. Barely managing not to stab myself with my spear. I came up in a combat stance. Whirled it
once, and pointed the blade at the gemstone on his chest. Yeah. Wielding a tooth pick against a bug the size of a sky bison. The Mal-beast was positively
giddy when it slapped the spear out of my hands with one swipe of one of its front legs. I kept backing up, my bandaged eye positively excruciating,
all my limbs screaming, cracked rib still cracked. Gasping for air, I started throwing things at him as it stalked me, slowly and deliberately. I threw all my
knives, to no effect. I had no more blasting caps. I had three items left. I grabbed the canteen and hurled at his human torso. The contents splashed on his
body harmlessly. And he laughed even more, the big bug mouth did. And he human one.

"How pathetic, Van. Throwing toys at me like a frustrated little girl. And for what?" The bug's eyes shifted away from me, towards the other side of the
village. My heart sank. "To give them time? That stairwell comes out into another tunnel. It goes straight sure, but for miles and miles. They're slow and
weak. And most of them are wounded. They'll never outrun me. After I eat you. I'll eat them too. Then I'll go to Ba Sing Se and eat the Earth King." It
glanced at the horde still pressing through the tunnel seal. He paused. "And some of my horde yet lives. Even without the infant queen you killed, they'll
still be crude, but still effective. Plus, I'll really enjoy it." It smiled. "So, Van, will you throw those last two trinkets at me too?"

"Actually…" It was my turn to smile. I pulled the two torches out, fanning my arms to catch the arching rises of stone on either side of me, scrapping them
against the only stone that wasn't too damp or moldy to ignite them. The same fragments of stone Mal made into his cocoon when he bent it up from the ground.
The torches lit up instantly. Mal seemed puzzled at first. Then his human nose sniffed. He sniffed his body and the liquid I just threw all over him.

Beer. Gift from the spirits of earth themselves. Also, pretty flammable.

"…yeah, I will."

   Mal-beast moved fast. But the torch I threw moved faster. It hit him square on the gemstone in his chest. And the flammable, delicious liquid he was
coated with caught flame instantly. The beast bellowed and began to thrash around widely. The inhuman, human set of eyes on the beast half, fixing on me. And
for the love of all that was good in this world, those eyes were angry. The orange hue and shifted totally to red, with green coming around the edges. One of
the limbs reached out for me. I turned tail and ran. I made a calculated guess about the fog just before I ran out of the thick of the sphere, filled with
more putrid fog spewing gunk. And dropped the second torch.

It was based on a nasty game me and my brother used to play when we were kids. The really disgusting ones where you fart into a small trash can, then drop a
candle inside. I actually learned something during those games. Things that smell bad smell worse when on fire. They also burn real good. And I made a guess
that killing Ando wasn't just about being hungry.

I was right.

Another explosion shook that underground village. This one was more combustion than concussive. But I didn't look back, even as I felt the air briefly suck me
back and I felt tremendous heat. I just scooped up my spear and kept running from the even louder, raging screams of the Mal-beast. I just knew it was totally
on fire now.

Siyo and the rest had made it across the bridge. Kensei, Ms. Imposter, and Siyo working together to help the lamed and the young across. Well, If they could
make it, so could I, right? I mean, no pressure. I didn't waste any time going across. The walkway was 3 feet wide, but Mal-beast was blindly throwing
boulders and rocks around, made footing tricky and most of the walkway was suspended of the open crevice with nothing underneath. I felt like at any second,
the whole thing would collapse.

"All the more reason to go faster," I told myself.

A chunk of the walkway broke away under my feet. My heart leapt as my foot stepped on air and I lost my balance. Windmilling my arms, I tiptoed the edge and
stopped the half running crouch, facing straight out at the crevice. I was so close, but too far to jump to the middle pillar. No. Looking left threw me off
more.

Foot slipped.

I was going over.

I was gonna fall.

Great Gaia, I was-
Logged

Eman5805
Never Gonna Give Yue Up

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Posts: 4339


A Soulful Brother


« Reply #71 on: Jun 17, 2011 09:51 am »

-continued-

Schurrk!

"Van! Jump left!" I heard someone shout.

I didn't think about it. I just did it. Fully aware I was sealing my fate. There was nothing but open air there before…

Except now there wasn't. I landed on a rectangle of rock coming from the pillar, just as thick as the walkway had been. I scrambled down the freshly bent out
stone platform to the pillar. I clutched the pillar, panting and finding myself laughing like a madman in relief. I had to chance a look back.

The horde had broken through the tunnel blockage. A host of bugs poured through and down to Mal-beast, still thrashing about trying to put out the fires. The
bugs that reached him swarmed over him. They weren't trying to put out the flames. The creature began slinging beetles and digger-mites off of him. But for every one he threw off, two jumped back on to him. Jaws snapping. Acid spitting. All in odd and near total silence.

Defiantly time to leave.

Screw delicately moving forward, I sprinted across the rest of the gap. Siyo was there. Staring back at the swarm, transfixed. I almost lost my balance again,
but the other side was shorter and I jumped the last bit of distance, and shouted.

"Siyo! Bring down the bridge!"

Siyo snapped out of it and nodded. She held her hands out before her. I could feel the vibrations in the earth and she gathered her chi, then she dropped,
brought her hands in, then struck out. The stone bridge started a chain reaction, collapsing into the crevice. Breaking all connections to the other side.
None of the bugs that came through could fly. The bugs that didn't pile on with the mound on top of Mal, ran at the edge. They either didn't care that there
wasn't any ground to run on or were too berserk to notice. Some tried to jump the gap. But they weren't nearly strong enough to make the jump. Most just
completely ran off the edge.

Silence reigned.

"Great Gaia," Siyo breathed. "Is it? Is it over?"

"It damn well better." Strength suddenly vanished from my limbs. And I almost sagged to the ground. "Because I'm all out of clever things to say."

Siyo was suddenly at my side, bracing me to keep from falling over. An exhausted smile on her face. "Of all the things to happen today, I find you being
clever the least likely."

I snorted. "You and your sister are regular comedians. Ha ha. Hilarious."

Movement on the other side caught my eye. It was section of quivering stone on the adjacent cliff face.

"Siyo wait. What is…"

The circle of stone erupted.

And a half naked, disfigured person shot out of the ground like a cannon, screaming at the top of his lungs. His skin was red and blistering with horrible
burns. And his legs were misshapen. And not just because they were broken and burned like the rest of him.

Mal Kha, free of the giant beetle taking up his lower half, still with the gemstone embedded in his chest, flew through the air.

I stared in dull disbelief as he arced down towards me. I couldn't even move.

"There's just no friggin'…" I began.

Mal smacked into the ground like a sack of meat and rolled to a stop at my feet.

"…way that's happening," I finished. "Huh."

Siyo blinked. But couldn't seem to find anything to say either

"Van," Mal's voice came out in a thin rasp. "Y-you b-bastard…"

Then he fell silent and still. His still breath coming in rasps.

I started at boy for a moment. "Did you see anything, Siyo?"

"I don't believe my eyes hardly any more these days, Van. Could be a hallucination brought on by trauma."

"Or just you've been around me too much and we're both going crazy."

"We should not allow this opportunity to apprehend the anarchist alive pass," Ms. Imposter said abruptly, coming straight out of nowhere. She'd clearly jogged
up from the stairs behind us. "He should stand trial for his crimes."

I sniffed. "Fine."

Ms. Imposter stepped forward and knelt by Mal's burned body. She paused for a moment. I waited for her hands to get where I could see them before I raised my
spear and leveled it above her shoulder, blade pointing at her neck.

"…is what I would say, Lin's doppelganger to be."

Ms. Imposter looked over her shoulder. She had a great card game face. "This is hardly the time for foolishness. Due process dictates that-"

"I'm too tired to make this real eloquent," I drawled. "So this is how it works. You're not getting the stone. Or Mal Kha. What's going to happen is you're
going to tell me exactly who you are and what you're doing here. Or things could get messy."

"And why you were trying to disguise yourself as my sister," Siyo added. "What was your mission?"

"I see," she said softly. Slowly, Ms. Imposter straightened up. Her hands where I could see them. Then turned to me and Siyo. "You're quite clever, Mr. Van.
Very much so indeed."

"Why do I feel a 'but' about to come out of your too cool lips?"

"However, of the two tasks given to me, I was not to take the stone." For the first time Ms. Imposter's empty expression faded. "I was to assess it."

She back kicked Mal's unconscious body off the edge, sending him plummeting to his death.

"My assessment is complete."

I clenched my jaw at the sight. Mal Kha was a rotten kid. He'd killed his own father and countless other people. But seeing how coldly this woman executed
him, didn't feel right. It was too coldly done.

Then, without really moving fast. She simply walked forward. Stepping under my spear and between Siyo and I. Siyo had the same kind of disbelieving, uncertain
look that I had. I shook my head, then placed both hands on my spear.

We began to follow after her, cautiously. I measured my steps from her carefully. The woman walked, the motion almost seeming to be floating, towards the
waterfall toilet. I couldn't see any of the other children, the former follower of Mal, or Kensei anywhere. They couldn't have gone ahead. They wouldn't have.
So where were they?

"Okay," I called, doing everything in my remaining power to keep standing. I didn't know what was about to happen. "And what was that second objective?" I
gave Siyo the look to be ready to fight.

"The same task of who follow The Path and believe in The Project. To recover something valuable when it is lost. And to make sure that no one…" She stopped by
the swirling pool of water and reached up to her eyes. Then turned back. "…keeps it from us."

I frowned. And a series of questions flashed through my head. What is The Path? What is The Project? And were her eyes always blue?

Then my heart sank in my chest.

"Van! No! Run away!" someone shouted.

Then Ms. Imposter struck. Water from the fountain lashed out. So fast. Too fast. And I was too fatigued. I swung my arm up to block it, but the water curled
and splashed onto my wrists and my feet. The water instantly froze. My hands were frozen to my spear and my feet to the ground. I shot a look over to Siyo to
see that her own attack had been defeated. Effortlessly. Siyo's was down to her hands and knees. Her hands and feet were frozen to the ground. I didn't even
see the attack that did it. Of course I didn't. Siyo was on my left side.

This woman was without question a master waterbender.

And I let her walk right up to the only source of water in the area.

Stupid. Stupid. Stupid. Stupid.

The powerful waterbender gestured, brought a globule of water before her. "And you are no longer useful," Ms. Imposter said simply and with a lightning quick
motion the water shot forward into spears of ice, lancing to skewer us to death.

No time to even scream or think.

I watched the ice spears…

Float there.

Quivering before my face. Before Siyo's. The ice on my hands and feet abruptly melted. Siyo's too.

The hovering ice spears dropped into puddles on the ground.

Ms. Imposter's expression, for the first time looked different. She also wasn't looking at either of us.

I spared a glance behind me.

Lyra.

Her hands up in a defensive waterbending form. She walked forward.

And her eyes. I gulped.

I'd seen Lyra cry. I'd seen her look like she had no human emotion at all. I'd seen her smile.

But I'd never seen her eyes glowing white. Or the tiny stone on her forehead shining.

"Great Gaia," Siyo breathed.

"Yeah," I agreed.

A thought returned to me. When Mal Kha's followers attacked me in the woods, the last one looked at Lyra like he'd seen a ghost. I didn't know why at the
time. Now I think I do. If I'd seen a child with glowing white eyes, I'd probably lose my head too.

Not every day you stare down the Avatar.

Lyra stood in front of us, putting herself between the powerful waterbender I just couldn't hope to fight right now.

But, a powerful waterbender wasn't a match for this.

It was crazy. But I'd called it, hadn't I? Way back when a pirate ship was sunk.

I walked up to Lyra's side. "I wouldn't want to be in your shoes right now, mystery lady," I said, not helping the smirk that came to my lips.

Strange. Ms. Imposter didn't seem all that worried. She just looked…bothered. Like something was happening that she didn't expect, but not something
distressing. She almost looked disappointed. Didn't she know who this girl was? What this girl was?

"The Project Indra must succeed," Ms. Imposter murmured, almost like a chant.

Why was she so…calm? If she wasn't shocked by Lyra being here, looking like this then…

Lyra suddenly stiffened, lowering her guard. "Van…" Lyra said, her voice pained. She was crying again. Pain racking her face. And the glowing eyes had stopped
completely.

"Now," Ms. Imposter said. And she lifted up her hand. A small ring on her finger. With a gemstone. Perfectly identical to the one that was on Lyra's forehead.

Oh no.

Siyo didn't recognize it. "What is Project Indra?"

Lyra sobbed. "I'm sorry."

"Execute your purpose!" shouted

Lyra moved.

"Siyo! Lookout-"

And then I couldn't find my voice. Or my breath.

All I found was coldness. Ice cold. It ran through my belly and through my entire being. I thought I was weak before. No. This was weak.

I blearily looked down. Down at the young girl I met on a cargo hold. Down at the girl who would only answer my questions with a blink. Who followed me
incessantly, even when I tried to leave her in an orphanage. Who had saved my life multiple times. And I looked at the razor sharp ice encased arm she had
impaled me with. I saw the horror in her eyes, though her body was rigid. She kept mouthing the words. I took a step. Then another.

I'm sorry. I'm sorry. I'm sorry.

I felt my spear drop from my fingers. Clattering to the ground.

And then I couldn't see anymore. Not out of my non-torn eye. Not through the bandage. Nothing. All sound became distant and unimportant.

I heard running water. I heard the sound of water moving. I heard a scream of effort. Siyo's scream. And then I felt something hit me. And then I didn't hear
Siyo's scream anymore more.

I only felt more cold. Freezing. More ice, water.

Within me and without. And I felt motion. Moving. And growing faster. And so very cold.

Sensation left me as being important as well.

I was floating, suspended on nothing and something at the same time.

Funny thoughts lingered.

Things called regrets. Or rather, things I should regret.

I should regret not doing right by my family. I should regretted being a bandit for only the reason that it was close to being a soldier, but from the other
end of the spectrum. I should regret that I don't think I'd ever get my spear back. I should have regretted a lot of things.

But I didn't.

Because, suspended in darkness, I knew that being here. Being on the edge of oblivion…

It didn't matter.

If I knew where in that floating form my lungs, throat, and mouth was, I'd be laughing.

Because I finally did something worthwhile. I went beyond my own limitations more than once. Dredged myself up from the gutter to keep on going. I wish I
could do it again sometime. But that was okay.

Death didn't scare me now. Because I knew what it meant to live.

Besides, if dying meant spiraling down into darkness, with a beautiful woman clinging to you tightly. After averting a bug invasion that could've killed
thousands? Then that's not too bad, right?

If the army folks knew about this, they'd talk about this over drinks and songs. And someone would be on the flute.

Unlucky bastard.

Van Tsu-Yan.

Maybe that's a name someone'll drink a beer in honor of.

Or two.

Or three…
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Eman5805
Never Gonna Give Yue Up

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A Soulful Brother


« Reply #72 on: Jun 17, 2011 09:55 am »

Epilogue

   Kensei remained in his prostrated position. He was not allowed to lay eyes upon the Earth King, even as he read a mission report done by his own hand from the other side of a veil. And a sliding fusama door.
Redundant protocol is a staple of life. And one Kensei rather liked. It keeps order.

Kensei liked order. Order was predictable. Order was constant.

Order was the opposite of what his life had been over the last few months.
Being back in the security of the Grand Palace, it soothed him greatly.

Capable an earthbender though he was, Kensei always felt he was meant to work
in confines such as this. His place was here, writing intelligence reports and
delivering missives. Not playing at being a secret agent, battling giant
insects, and being so fundamentally in over his head.

Kensei heard the rustlings of papers, which was a harbinger to being dismissed.

"Am I allowed to take my leave of His Majesty's presence?"

"I should say not," the Earth King said after a moment, his voice taken aback.

Kensei was afraid of this. He slowly drew a deep breath. "What troubles His
Majesty?"

"Quite frankly, the entirety of this. This reads of more spectacular fare than
I would expect in an Avatar Hoshiro tome. I'd believe this to be a total
fabrication, if this report were delivered in the hand of anyone but you."

"This humble servant recounted the events to the best of my ability, Your
Majesty."

"Indeed. But there is something else that troubles me. You absolutely do not
recall how you came to be taken out of this underground village back to the
mining town?"

"That is correct, Your Majesty. This humble servant included a list of possible
candidates, ranked in order of capability and probability. But, as this humble
servant's duty deals in uncovering facts, there can be no certainty in that
which cannot be proven."

Footsteps approached from the other side of the Earth King's chamber. "Pardon,
Your Majesty, an urgent report has just arrived regarding follow up
investigation at the scene of the incident."

What fortunate timing, Kensei thought. He'd hoped he'd be around when the
report came. This would fully confirm the events and allow the Earth King to
take the necessary steps to fully combat the anarchist threat.

More papers rustled as the Earth King read the report. Out loud. Kensei
swallowed through a dry throat. He only read out loud when the report was
short. And there was no way a report of what he found could be short. His own
report was nearly 30 pages in length.

It would've been more so had he included absolutely everything that occurred.

The Earth King read, "On the advisement of Earth Kingdom Intelligence Officer
Kensei, a platoon of 50 Earth Kingdom army soldiers and 20 Dai Li agents
entered the mine, following etched markings to the chamber. Investigations
reported no unusual findings. Except for a single, significantly large cave
with an abnormally level floor. No evidence of any human or animal activity to
be reported. Signed, General Shen Tsu-Yan."

There was a long silence. The Earth King's voice came tight and hard. "How do
you account for this, Officer Kensei?"

What could Kensei say? What was there to say? He couldn't accuse the General
Shen Tsu-Yan of being wrong. That man would assuredly be thorough. If a message
from him said there was nothing there, that meant there was nothing there. "In
light of new evidence, this humble servant hereby wishes for all mentions of an
army of insects and an anarchist a plot to tunnel under Ba Sing Se and overrun
the city with said beetles to be disregarded. It is entirely possible that
delirium caused by prolonged exposure to coal dust caused hallucinations.
Indeed, now, this humble one realizes his errors in recollection. Any
punishment for misappropriating Earth Kingdom resources will be gladly accepted
by this humble servant."

The Earth King was silent again. Then he started to laugh. "No. You're too
reliable to be so disciplined for your one and only, albeit serious, mistake.
Perhaps this is just more evidence that you aren't suited to field work. After
all, imaging you battling a giant beetle yourself? It was too farfetched." He
sighed. "It's fortunate too. I would have had to learned everything imaginable
about these mysterious insects, how such an undertaking could've gone
unnoticed, among a dozen other questions had this been true. Very well. Take
several days to recompose yourself, reassess the events, and have a more
believable report in my hands by next week, officer. Dismissed."

"So it shall be, Your Majesty."

Kensei rose and left the chamber, walking briskly. Troubling thoughts flashing
through his mind. He had thought leaving out the existence of the second little
girl named Lyra, combing Lin and Siyo into a single person, the part where Mal
Kha merged with his beetle, and making Kensei himself into the actual hero of
events was the most stressful part. He'd been ready to lie about all of that.
But this was different entirely.

Just what kind of people could possibly cover up all those dead animals, that
dead queen. Cover up the tunnel. Remove the smell. The dead beetles All in less
than one week?

Just what sort of things were really in play all at once? One thing Kensei knew
for certain was that the reverberations of the events down there will not go
away.

And even more so, how could it be possible that one man could derail them
without intending to do so?

It was why he made sure to leave out all mention of him. No one would've
believed the heroics of that man. Kensei would dare say that scariest thing he
came across during this mission wasn't giant insects, psychotic teenagers, or
mysterious little girls.

It was a man and his spear.

***

She looked down at the girl, completing through her test trials. It had been a
number of weeks, but the girl had not regressed. In fact, the girl had gotten

more precise. She was preemptive now. No longer waiting. No longer making the
same errors of hesitation that had earned her many scars and wounds.

It was enough to make the deviation somewhat worthwhile.

Everyone played their part in rendering the scene of the incident non-existent
very well. They had utilized their training well. And full capabilities of the
stones were understood and deemed inadequate.

Total indoctrination was impossible in living organisms. The wills of living
organisms were constantly in flux. It required a strength of will to be
unbendable itself. And such a will was too rare to make use of. In addition,
the unforeseen application, merging of human and beast, was also inadequate.
The subjects experience changes in behavior, lack of rational thought. These
things would not be used in the future, thus the stones capable of this were
disposed of.

Indeed, it was very wise to choose the sandbender tribe and its ambitious
leader for the experiment. But to think that the son would usurp the power for
himself and be the one to fully explore the power she had gifted them. Though
it was not without complications.

It was thanks to that boy that her plans on sneaking into the Homeland Security
Northern Branch for the missing final piece was thwarted by the unexpected
invasion from an outside party and that the very person whose identity she
would take being a mole.

Indeed. Youths can be so unpredictable.

This should be considered unintentional progress. Despite the brief hindrance,
The Path was still attainable. Even without the final piece that had eluded
her, The Project would finish on schedule as well. But the unintentional aspect
caused concern.

It was nearing the twelfth year. And it was easily ahead of schedule. Indeed,
the manner in which the girl blocked her attack that time was superb.
Waterbending was not meant for brute force, rather redirection of force. And
yet, the girl stymied her attacks in midair. It would've been astounding had
circumstances been different.

In four years, they must all be ready to walk The Path. To initiate The
Project. The world is eagerly awaiting The Return. Yes. They would be ready.
She would ensure it. She would not let variations in the plan delay them. The
unaccounted for must also be compensated as well. But that continued to cause
caution.

Indeed. For the second time she ever feared The Path would be blocked by an
obstacle that could not be eroded away. It came in the form of that man. He was
dead. She was sure of it. Even as that foolish woman carried both into the
whirlpool that was so swift and powerful, not even she could stem the flow to
recover the dead body. She knew nothing could survive such a thing.
She couldn't afford to allow memories of him to linger, so the girls memories
of him were erased entirely. It was as he never existed. It was the only way to
get her to stop shedding tears.

Shedding tears. She shed tears for him. Cried out his name. In all the wounds
she gained from her own mistakes she had never cried. As was intended. How did
that man affect her so to the point where she shed tears for him? In less than
two weeks time he all but undid the efforts of nearly twelve years. His removal
from The Path was indeed necessary. Perhaps more so than any that will come in
the future.

A disquieting fact.

The Path could be blocked by a practical obstacle that requires a change in
tactics. Like the loss of a vital piece. She sought that piece constantly, but
it had eluded her. But this was a practical problem. The overcoming of this
obstacle would make The Path much, much smoother. The Path would continue
without it nonetheless with proper adjustments, despite the fact that it was no
certainty.

However, a fundamental obstacle at this juncture could destroy The Path
entirely.

So this will bear further investigation. To see how much of a threat this could
be of happening again.

Unpredictability and youth. It came again and again. She knew those were the
risks. This was never going to be a simple task. But she would endure it and
adapt.

In any rate, she was assuredly glad to be rid such a threat.

She turned from the observation window and looked at the only evidence the man
existed hanging on the wall.

An ornate spear.

***

   Plum blossoms.

   Siyo smelled plum blossoms.

   She liked that smell.

   She felt something soft tickle her face. Then she felt another. And
there was a gentle coolness about her back, as something tickled past her. As
well as a strong warmth at her side.

   Her eyelids slid open. And she saw a rain of plum blossom petals. It
was a wondrous sight to awaken too. Like a dream.

Siyo tried to tilt her head to the source of warmth to her right

More petals about his face, she saw a man. A man whom she found that she cared
for dearly even thought she didn't remember his name at this exact moment. Her
eyes traced down from the bandaged eye, to his strong cheek bones, to the slope
of his jaw, to his sinuously muscled torso, to his lower abdomen. She glanced
past their feet and saw water seemingly trickling out of the ground. Her eyes
tracked back up his body and she saw that a great deal of petals had covered up
a single spot. With more falling there and only there. She could see that some
of the petals were stained red. And her heart leapt.

Siyo knew he had a grievous wound underneath it.

She wanted to help him somehow. Needed to help.

 She knew that she already had. She could remember throwing herself to him,
taking him into a spiral pool of water and disappearing into darkness. She knew
that he would've died already hadn't she acted. But it wouldn't be enough on
its own. She had to help him again. But…she couldn't find any strength.

She could do nothing but lay in the cascade of plum blossoms. Even as she felt
his breath coming out steadily, she knew that if something didn't happen soon,
he would die. She closed her eyes, and felt tears stream down her cheeks.

And she didn't want that. More than anything she didn't want that.

She loved this man.

Siyo loved Van.

That was his name.

"Van," her voice came out, a frail whisper.

"Whoa! They're alive, Uncle!" came a jovial, excited voice. Siyo blinked open
her eyes. "Here! Over here!

A curly brown haired, gray eyed girl, perhaps twelve years of age was waving at
someone, peering down at Siyo.

"Well, I'll be a hog-monkey's uncle," breathed a strong male voice. On the
other side of her vision came a tall man with a sword strapped to his back with
calm discerning blue eyes. His brown hair tied in a ponytail with and prominent
beard. His body wrapped in animal skins and an sharply bent piece of metal
dangling at his side. He knelt down. And gently blew the petals off. He frowned
slightly.

"Please…s-save…"

The man shushed her and placed a hand on her forehead. "Calm, now. It's okay.
I've got you both, I can treat your wounds. Don't worry. You'll be fine.
Conserve your strength."

Siyo couldn't stop the tears from flowing as she felt herself drifting back
into a slumber. She thanked the mysterious man over and over again. And
somehow, she knew this man was going to help them.

"Aria," she heard the man say. "Go fetch the pack off Foo-Foo. And hurry."

The last thing Siyo heard was the girl's voice faded away as ran to obey. "Yes,
Uncle Sokka…"





Author's Note: I hope you enjoyed reading as much as I enjoyed writing.
Please, feel free to review. Tell me what I did well and what I didn't. All of
it will help make me into a better writer.  And be on the lookout for the next
story in this universe, coming sometime in the next three months.

It’s an old story you might be familiar with already. And it's getting picked
back up again.   

Again, thanks for reading.  Smiley
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familyyguy
Banned Member
Never Gonna Give Yue Up

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Posts: 856



« Reply #73 on: Jul 24, 2011 11:50 pm »

Holy...

You got some serious talent.
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NeeNee
Never Gonna Give Yue Up

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Posts: 12412


We will not be quiet.


« Reply #74 on: Aug 12, 2011 03:19 pm »

Oh, man. I just read up from chapter 13 (first fanfic I read in a long time, too). It took me hours, but I couldn't stop.

Awesome story. Really. So much surprises... did you think that all out from the beginning, or where you just improvising as you went along?

And great characters, too. Not your conventional hero, but that only makes it better. It's amazing how you made Lyra someone we can care about when she hardly ever does anything.

Only the Grimstone flashback thing in the middle of action bored me a bit. Did you do that to annoy us? Tongue

I'm glad you wrote an ending, too. You have no idea how rare it is for fanfics to end, leave only alone to end properly. Though I can't say I really liked the ending itself. I'm never really comfortable with things ending on a dark note... though it's not nearly as dark as it could have been.

But say, are you going to continue this? Because I'm a little confused right now whether this is the end of the story or just the first part of a trilogy, so to speak. There's definately room for more there...
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