"In the era before the Avatar, we bent not the elements, but the energy within ourselves."
His shadow danced around in a dark room. Whizzing by a late lantern with certainty, but a lack of poise. In the past few months he grew to like this room; it's modest size and set up: a bed, a desk and a closet against the wall. But now, as he was getting ready to leave it, he didn't feel the remorse growing as he thought it would. Every time he passed the desk he glanced at the letters laid open upon it and felt confidence grow instead. Not a feeling he knew well, but one he now truly enjoyed.
Tomorrow, after lunch, he'll say a tear-jerking goodbye to his dear mother and master Hai-Fu and stroll of into the world with pen in one hand and coin in the other; in search for good people, great stories and songs. One of which, he hoped, would be about a medic saving a life in combat. The letters on the desk expressed gratitude for the act, but never spoke of it. He wanted to know. He needed to know. The back address on those letters was his first destination.
He walked to the table, picked one of those letters up and folded it, so the painted family insignia was fully visible. A Dragonbird stood proudly in the middle of the picture; it's open wings extended just a touch over the circle bordering the flaming beast. He smiled at it and gently pushed it into his pocket.
A thud snapped his sight to the door. He walked over, opened it to a limply standing figure. It swung in its pace, back and forth. It breathing with eery difficulty and strangest of voices. Soft, but powerful in volume. Immense to the ear.
Strangely, the figure's head lifted and he saw it's eyes were glowing stark blue. Cold and empty. It froze him - the stare. Held him transfixed. It was a hold he couldn't see. He tried to run and the muscles clenched, but he didn't move! He couldn't move! Something prevented him from moving. He sensed it, crawling under his skin, pumping with his blood, keeping him fixed.
Suddenly, the figure pounced and he was pushed back whole, hauled like a unit to the back wall. It pressed him into it and not even his head could move. It held him like it wanted, moved him like a puppet. Only his eyes were free and his lips were allowed to quiver as much as they wanted to.
It's hands reached: one pressed against his frantic heart and the other -- against his head, thumb on forehead. He felt a slow stream, run down from the second and nest near a tear-duct. He tried to blink it away, but it only muddied his sight with a shade of rose. The intruder breathed in and the hands pushed.
For a second, he felt empty. His mind was as clear as a river in spring. For half a year - nothing, but mud.
"... and then..." Kai continued, spilling out words between short, shallow breaths.
"Yeah?" Katar said, failing to keep a grin off his face. Burnt handles of his double swords swung loosely from shoulder to shoulder.
"Then, this Ray flies over me." Kai took few more gulps of air. It was amazing, how he could he could just split himself in half like he did. His upper half was full of energy, it told his story with his hands; but his beat shoes were scrapping the road, rising dust from the rocky road. He was tired. They both were. But they kept moving and a small village before them wasn't that far away now. "Well...,“ he continued, "not giant..." and his mind wandered off for a second, "but it was really big," Katar imagined Kai practicing this, throwing his arms in front of him to emphasize its size like he now did. All that just made Katar's decision all the more crueler, when it was clear that none of it was true, "and as black as a murder."
"A murder? What's a murder?"
"Nevermind! The point is -- it's pitch black."
The village drew closer. Two vendors one after the other were preparing to open for business this pleasant, if a bit hot, morning.
"So it flies over me--"
"I'm not buying this, Kai."
"Let me finish."
"That is just what I'm thinking." He was still thinking it over to be truthful. Kai's gotten better at this maturity exercise over time, but his next words damned him.
"It picks me up--", Kai says and he just bursts laughing. "What?!"
"Do you seriously expect me to believe that?!"
"Well..." he tried again, "if you let me finish-"
"No. Let's settle it here." He talked around his laughter, like it was food in his mouth.
"You're small and all, but not that small."
"I was five!" he said, but that made the laughter louder.
"And you survived?!"
"Well... if you let-"
"Nope. Never happened," he said.
"You can't be serious," Kai protested.
"Start thinking what's for dinner," he said as they approached clerks' stands.
"Morning kids," said a shopkeeper. He didn't seem fazed by a strange time to prepare dinner. "See anything you like?" A small, neatly divided assortment of vegetables, raw and dried meat laid presented before them.
"Don't ask me," he said, pushing Kai towards a stand.
"This isn't even fair," he mumbled, throwing his empty bag on an overturned bucket before a counter.
Another clerk joined them on a nearby stand. An aging man with a balding head and a beaten brown shirt which was already wet below the armpits. He picked up a cup of his morning drink. "Just passing by?" he inquired.
"Where are you heading to?"
"Towards the wall." He didn't find any reason to lie. It actually helped them.
"Towards the wall?!" He took a second to size them up. "Already!?"
"Now, we don't judge people that easily, Udai," said the first clerk.
"Keaf, you know I don't," Udai said and after a moment added: "It’s just strange is all." He crouched, began placing pelts on his counter, partially covering a collection of knives on it with fur. "Have you heard what they've been doing there?" he started again, with a certain lack of enthusiasm that was indicative of incoming rant. The first clerk rolled his eyes, then give a wink to Kai. "War is bad enough," Udai took a sip of his drink, "but now people talk of terraforming and not that usual stuff too. The things people say about it..." With a drift of a finger across the air, a crack appeared in a wall of a cup, top to bottom. Keaf shined his most mischievous grin. "Makes me think, you know? And I wouldn't put it past Little-finger to--" Swiftly, Keaf clenched his fist and a wall across Udai's cup shattered, flooding hair on his arm. "Damn it, Keaf," he almost shouted. "He always does this," he told them, flinging his hand from side to side.
"Cheer up, Udai," Keaf laughed, then bent down to pick up the shards and bent them back to a quality cup. "It's too early in the day for one of your conspiracy theories."
"Where is my metal cup?“ Udai looked around
"Now," Keaf turned on his heals, "have you chosen anything yet?"
As Kai bartered for goods, the other one of two drifters took a look around. Six structures populated this little stop: two up front and four on the other side of the road. The two before them, he guessed, were owned by shopkeepers and they had plenty of space between them, while other four stood in a tight lineup and had nothing to be identified with, save for a title "Tavern" on the very last one. An inviting place, if a little short.
"A tavern? Here?" he acted surprised.
"Oh, yes," Udai answered, wiping his hand with a towel. "Many pass this place after passing the wall. From the other side, that is.
"And you take them in?"
"Coin's a coin is a coin," he laughed alone. "Koarsa could fix up a room for you, if you'd like. Get you some food."
"That would be great. Thank you."
"I'll need a name for your room."
"Katar." He turned to Kai. "Lucky day for you," he said, but the bag was already full of bought goods and the closest thing to an answer he received was a pack of frustrated grunts from the kid.
They started crossing the road, thinking of beds and their soft sheets when two figures, heading towards them, caught Katar's attention. Both mounted on ostrich-horses, their army uniforms brought tension to his chest.
He reached down to his right hand, pulled up a sleeve and groped his bandaged hand. The white cloth was enveloped around it. Still tight. Good, he thought and looked up. They were already close. His heart picked up its pace. Burning, pushing sweat. His guilty face betrayed him, he knew, but he had to look at them, had to see what they'll do.
The first soldier didn't even drop them a glace and when the other passed, he just turned away disinterested. Mild relief.
They stopped in the middle of the street. One of them dropped down from his mount, looked around like he owned the town. Then, seemingly guess-picking, he went for Udai's counter, leaned on it and waited. Tension in Udai's and Keaf's faces began to grow as they regarded each other and the soldier before them. Already minimal morning chatter died down, even the tavern stood silent, as it often does in the mornings. Everybody who was not involved in the situation found themselves very busy or not in the area at all.
"Well?" the soldier asked eventually.
"Well what?" Udai asked back nervously.
"Why aren't you bringing me anything?"
Katar's heart began racing again, his right fist slowly clenched.
"Gato, I ... uh ... have nothing to bring."
Gato stood straight, walked around the counter and grabbed Udai by the collar.
Now Katar's hand shook; it was almost as if it was calling. He knew better than to listen.
"Please, I don't why are you doing this to me. I have done nothing wrong."
I have done nothing wrong, Udai's triggering words made Katar pull his attention away, there were three people to watch now. Udai fumbled on his table with one hand, probably looking for a knife under all the fur. Gato slammed his hand on it, pinning it down.
"You run this table and that poor excuse for a cathouse. One would think that that would be enough for a-" something hit the man, and the back of his head exploded, splashing viscous red all over them both. Katar couldn't stop it. It was Kai, who lashed out. Their bag now laid open below him. His right hand - red, overflowing with what now was tomato juice.
At least he didn't shout his ideals like he used to.
The mounted soldier moved towards him, unsheathing his sword. "You little-" Quickly, Kai moved the ground below him. Losing balance, he fell to the ground with a thud and a moan. His ostrich-horse fell on top of him, sprang up and fled the scene. Kai turned to Gato, but his impressively effective assault was cut short when a boulder, grass and all, hit his chest and blew him off his feet.
The view snapped Katar out of his light shock. He turned to Gato, saw another rock formation flying at him. He swam under it. The man was not being discriminate here, nor did he wait. Another boulder was quick to meet him. Swiftly, Katar dodged the flurry while reaching over his shoulder and pulling his swords out, splitting them in two and charging ahead.
He attacked with precision that had Gato taken aback, stumble backwards for a few steps while surprise dwindled. Katar stroke to neutralize, aiming more for the joints then the whole of him, but that quickly became futile. His aim was as true as it could be, but was not quick enough. It came easy for Gato to dodge and Katar’s attack quickly became no more than dance. A new plan was needed. Fast. But Gato didn't let up. He found a moment and jumped back, started throwing boulders at him. Katar narrowly dodged the first one, barely keeping balance as it rushed passed his back. Second one he tried to counter, deflect with swords, but the force was too and it blew him away.
He crashed into Keaf's stand. A bucket flipped over and water poured towards Gato. The soldier was advancing confidently. Panicking, Katar tried to get up, run, but was too weak to do so. Now smirk dawned Gato's face, he knew he got him cornered. Katar's eyes grew wide, frantic, searching for a solution. Gato came closer, looking down on him, arrogant. He stepped into a puddle.
Water! Katar thought and instantly started bending it. It didn't budge. He tried again and failed. He knew how it was done, saw it done, but it just didn't listen. Bending was not something he was born into and it eluded him. He couldn't just do it on a snap of a finger.
Gato stood above him now, raised his hand and--
"Wait!" he screamed throwing his hands up and waited himself. Waited for pain that just didn't come.
"What?! What is this? Ice!?" Katar peeked through his fingers at Gato, suspended. Ice covering most of his torso, leaving him stagnant. "You Water tribe, boy?" Katar slowly got up, looking as surprised as Gato. Most of him was constricted, even his head, which stared down. Only his feet could move -- tip toe. "Answer!" Katar didn't, instead he clenched his fist like his father taught him and aimed. "You waterbenders are a lost cause," Gato continued. "Things must be real bad for you to come down he-" One quick jab at his jaw and Gato was cut silent. The ice broke and a slowly spinning soldier fell to the ground. Puking his breakfast out will be the least of his problems when he gets up.
Koarsa dropped a plate on a table from a small distance and a sleepy client busted awake. She straightened her apron. He oozed that smell. Sweat mixed with liquor. It drifted slowly away from him and she knew she would regret it, but still, "Hard night?" she asked, only to pull him further from sleep.
"You could say that," he fumbled back with a slight lisp. The smell doubled, got caught in her throat.
"Ugh! Just go to bed, you bastard," she put up a mocking smile.
"And what will you do without me?" he laughed.
"Breathe," she straightened her apron, brushed a flock of curly hair behind her ear, "for starters," and walked away, embracing free breath.
"But then I wouldn't be able to--"
The door slammed open. It was Udai and two strange characters. One: maybe seventeen, dark, overlong hair, dirty, long-sleeved shirt, right hand wrapped up in a loose bandage, held the other one over his shoulder. The kid was no more then twelve, bloody clothes and barely conscious.
"Koarsa," Udai called.
"In the back." She pointed towards a kitchen door. The older boy dragged him forward, but his heavy movement was slow. "Quickly," Koarsa said before she ran up to them for support. They moved through kitchen into a cool, dimly light storage room. Vegetables and fruit were filling its shelves. Smell of dried meat hung in the air.
They laid him on the floor. Quickly, she ripped his shirt, giving herself better access. Then, she pulled some water from a nearby canister, cleaned the area as best as her limited time frame allowed, bent more water and engulfed her hands with it. Gently placing her hands on Kai's chest as the water began to glow a soft blue. Slowly, the light faded in and out, filled the room and detracted again as they waited and eventually Kai coughed, broke up the silence.
"What happened?" she cut into a brief moment of relief.
"Wei state soldiers came," Udai said, "they intervened."
The older one stood, leaned against a wall for support. He seemed spent, breathing long, hard breaths, sagging from the wall by the window where stripes of soft-edged sunlight fell from the blinders to the floor and to her glowing hands.
"And you?" She glared at the stranger, but he was holding his intense stare on a kid by her knees. "Are you all right?"
He glanced at her; his eyes reflected light green. "I've had worse." A clean shave would have helped his look, maybe pull attention away from his unkempt hair. Some of it fell down to his eyes, hid part of his face. "Yeah, right.... you're next in line."
"No really," he said as Udai made himself scarce. "I'm no more than exhausted."
Moments passed. The situation with the kid was getting better and she felt Katar's stare diminish. He spied through the blinders now, looking, searching for something. While he kept that long take outside, he pulled up his sleeve. Long in the nail, his fingers caught a loose thread on his bandaged arm, redressed it so tightly it made his arm shake. It looked fairly well done to her, if not for all the harsh pulling.
"What's your plan?" she probed.
"Huh?" The boy looked at her dumbfounded.
"Whatever you've done, they're coming back for you. So, what's your plan?"
"We just leave, like always."
"Not with a military base a day away you're not. You can't just stroll out."
"Well... I-" he fumbled and she sighed, interrupting.
"There is a man here. I saw him helping people get away a few times. He could help you."
A thank you would have been nice, but instead he just smiled cautiously with the edges of his lips and darted his eyes away. A gesture so familiar she felt her throat clog. The feeling laid there for a minute, held by a choker and a bridal pendant that hug from it. She pushed the memory away. She had work to care of before her. It didn't take long for Kai to fully wake up after she finished. Surprised to find himself in a strange place he looked around.
"How are you feeling?" they both asked him in unison. She barely had time to look the older one over, but as he said, there was nothing to mend.
"Better," he said after considering it, "hard to breathe though."
"That will pass, eventually." She kneeled beside Kai again, checked her work, while he tried to act away the pain of her touch. "I'm Koarsa."
"Kai. That's Katar."
She smiled. "Does everything else feel fine?" She asked him, groping him up and down in quick clasps. He nodded his round head. "What were you thinking, anyway?" Attacking people so blindly? she wanted to add. "There isn't that many times that you can run into someone nice who would help you after that," she smiled.
"Oh, that's fine. Katar can patch me up instead."
She snapped to Katar, dropped another accusing glare.
"My father was a doctor?" he said, lifting his open palms up. Like that was were the issue lied.
"Thank you," Kai said awkwardly, made her give away another smile before her face turned sour.
"I shouldn't push you out this fast, but you two need to leave. Can you get up?"
They slowly pulled him up, though he seemed strong enough to stand himself, and she led them back through kitchen and into tavern's lobby. Udai was working the counter now. He brought back their bag from the street, which Katar grabbed by the ears, dragged it with him. A man from before was still siting by his table, drinking after breakfast. What a surprise... She led then to him.
"Oh luk, the caravn has stopped," he said to no one in particular. The room was empty, save for them five.
"Han," she started as all three sat before him.
Already drunk? That seemed like a talent by this point. She was even instructed by Udai to water down some of the drinks, but there he was, as macerated as a dishrag.
"They are in need of your... uh... services."
"We need to get over the wall," Katar awkwardly rushed into the conversation.
That's too far. They only need to get out. Why make it harder on yourself?
"Doo you now?" he said, arms flailing. His daringly red shirt rustled from their careless movement. "O'ly idiots an' criminars want to get oveh teh wall."
"We will pay you, of course." He dropped his purse on the table. What is he doing?!
Han put his hand in his pocket, ruffled a paper. "And why'd i take hugh-" He paused.
"We can pay-"
In a flashiest way he could manage, he pulled a paper out of his pocket, tearing a piece of it away in the process and slammed it on the table, "-then you have a boun'y on yor head?" he slurred.
His hand pulled up from the poster and Koarsa read it say: "Wanted. For the murder of Avatar Rohan" and above the words there was a rendering of Katar's face. A third of it torn off in drunken clumsiness.
A brief silence fell.
She knew Avatar Rohan. Well, knew of him. He was trying to quell an uprising in the Water tribe, while she could still live there, but after a brief moment of peace, he disappeared, and the tribe split not half a year ago. He did that! she glared at him.
He and Kai sat as they did before, like they've heard this accusation too many times to be bothered. They just exchanged glances, nodded to each other. "I thought he was a professional," Katar told Koarsa, while pretending to be discreet.
"I heard that!" Han exclaimed "And normally... there would e no probl'm. But seal," he leaned in, looking at Koarsa, "your lil' friends 'ere hava knack for ge'ing in trouble. And that!" He dabbed Katar's purse. "Jus' might cost you mole," he said and their silent eyes fell away, but Han's fell on her. "Wha' do you sey, Koarsa?" Han said and grinned.
"What?!" her initial reaction burst out. It was a joke between them -- her getting passed the wall. She wanted to, she did, but the idea was a joke!
"Two thilds now, the lest - la'er." He leaned back, confident.
He must be joking again, she thought. The idea never seemed plausible, but the way he looked at her now, even through that drunken glaze, made it seemed possible. Maybe it was that, or maybe just because this place was growing stale she wanted to believe that. There were already rumors spreading of the rest of water tribe settling near the south pole, the same people she got separated from when Koarsa's boat was wrecked in crossfire. Over there trade routes are wider and ships are stronger. Reliable transport was one of few things the fire nation had going for them.
Koarsa arched her back on the chair. "Udai," she called.
Out of her breast pocket she pulled a bag of coins, threw them on the table. "I quit."
"You cannot go with us," Katar started.
"No, you can't," Udai agreed.
"Why?" She stepped into sunlight through the backdoor, bag over her shoulder, Katar and Udai followed behind.
"Well... you work here for one thing," Katar said.
He watched her pass sobered up Han, who was working on his pair of ostrich-horses, strapping them in with respect for the animals to a cart intended for carrying hay and other menial things. It carried cabbages now, which were huddled at the back. Not a meaty cover, but it will suffice.
"The place did just fine before I got here." She threw her bag near Kai who was sitting in the cart.
"That's not what i meant," Katar said.
"And he is a criminal. He's not safe to be around," Udai chimed in and she burst out laughing at them. "How will I tend the shop and this tavern?"
"There is enough space to combine the two." The offer consumed Udai for a minute.
Katar looked up at Kai for conformation on his position, but he nodded in agreement instead. He wanted her to come. Still, Katar protested, "You can't go."
"I'm paying half the price here. So, put your big girl pants on and get in the car."
Argument-less, he complied, unwillingly followed her up, but was stopped by Han's outstretched hand. "Whoa! We can't hale ya in the front seat, you two"--his finger flicked between him and Kai--"have to go undel. Come," he waved his hand and began walking.
Kai jumped down after him and immediately regretted that decision. Bent down and took a solid breather. Noon's sun was hitting the ground hard and he rose some dust from the ground, caught a few particles with his pained breaths, coughed a few times before standing straight. Tears in his eyes, he soldiered on.
Han led them to the side of a cart and punched on its wooden wall. A plank of wood spun, revealing a dark gap between two levels of the floor of the car.
A plank closed shut behind them and they were left in near darkness. Light seeped inside, falling through cracks in wood and spaces between the planks of the floor, which offered very limited field of view.
"You two a-right in there?" Han asked, his drunken lisp almost gone or almost controlled. "Don't answer that. Soldiers on't take kindly to talking carriages," he explained and whipped the rains.
A small tug marked a start of their journey, it pulled on them, their backs slid against a rough surface. After a few turns in their slow voyage, they landed back on the main road. Unlike before, it rumbled with people, their voices and footsteps were falling on it and spreading outside, into houses and small pathways. They heard a cheer coming from the tavern as they passed it, but the voices from the crowd didn't seem to die out. There was a lot of life for a place which Katar mistook for being secluded.
Wheels spun slow, keeping it calm. But the constant rustle of feet and wheels pulled dust from the ground, which, much like light, found a way inside. It filled their small chamber, crawled all around it. It rose Katar's nose with a funny feeling and his lungs with heavy soil. He squeezed his nose, brushed the walls of it against one another. A trick, he learned from his father, that used to stop him from sneezing, and it worked wonders here, but only for him.
Kai exploded beside him. Then he slapped a hand to his mouth, as if to stop a fleeing sound.
"Mommy! Mommy! That carriage just sneezed!" a young voice came from outside.
"Of course it did, dear."
Air. Water. Earth ...
Peace didn't last long. Only eight years after the death of Avatar Rinzen, Wei state and it's capital Taku has split from the earth kingdom.
The next Avatar was to be an waterbender, but, for whatever reason, Avatar Rohan, an earthbender, took his place in the succession without a chance for a Water tribe avatar.
The world is never easy on the avatar and it wasn't this time. Though his efforts were true, his early death caused the splitting of the Water tribe.
Now, Wei state rages war against the Firenation and it's bordering colony. Fighting has been going on for months, but the front, dubbed "the wall", hasn't moved since and naval warfare's only successful attacks seem to be on Water tribe's refugee ships looking to settle.
Without an Avatar in sight for at least fourteen years, the world easily pushes itself into greater and greater chaos.
Katar took a deep breath and that was his first mistake. With sound dissipating and eyes closed, he couldn't help but take control of it. Pushing air in and out; playing with it, trying to catch its inner rhythm, a thing, he was thought, everything has. But even if he did find it, he knew, he couldn't consciously let go. Something from within made him clasp on it, lock it in control.
He refocused his attention, pressed the tips of his thumbs into the palm side of the index fingers, released the pressure. He felt his hands resting on his lap, though he was thought not to. A breeze moved into the room and he heard it, felt it, smelled its chilling freshness. Wasn't supposed to, though. But how? he thought, these things are impossible to ignore! But he wasn't supposed to think now, either, so he sneered at himself.
"Don't beat yourself over it," came Hai-Fu's voice from the left, "That's a thought."
"That's a thought, too." He let Katar calm himself. Focus. "Whenever you're ready," he calmly said.
He sat there for a while, just breathing and focusing on nothing else but that. He watched it, guided it as it slowly settled. The thought arose that he's been sitting here too long, but he shut the door to that thought and finally opened his eyes.
Before him sat a bath filled with water with bottom made of glass. Water, clearer even then the glass that contained it, was moving. It rippled. Rapidly, clusters of it would form, rise above the rest, shimmer in his eye and collapse, disappear as quickly as they rose. Revealing parts of a painting bellow that they had covered.
The effect was hypnotic. The way it moved, the way it bent and distorted the picture of two Koi fish, one white with a black spot and one black with a white spot, chasing each other’s tail. The image was still, common sense told him that much, but beneath the water, beneath its ripples, he saw otherwise. A fin would disappear and swim back out from under its belly; a whisker would bend as if affected by a current. And the more he looked at it the more of that he saw. A tail would swivel, a mouth would move open and close back until, the fishes themselves broke from the static picture and swam! They actually began to chase each other, moving in circles, ovals, patterns of eight and so on. There seemed to be no end to those, to that dynamic and it held him mesmerized.
He stood, following them when they began to drift away. His walk turned brisk, then even quicker and soon he was sprinting, chasing them to the line, where he stopped and they got away.
Before him the sea laid separated and restless. Split in two conflicting sides: a side of light, where waters that splashed were clear, with sure transparency almost to the bottom, and a side that has gone significantly darker over time, where you could not see more than a few feet down anymore.
He was not in those waters. But even on the beach he was wary of crossing the line where the seas collided. Nothing good ever came from that, he thought as a platform began lifting him up, gave him a better overview of the seas. As far as he could see, the split was definite. It pierced the eye, how distinct these sides were, how they did not mix but raged against each other.
Looking from high above he felt unease rise, stomach twirl, fingers shake. In his palm heat began to rise, sting, like it did then that scar was fresh.
"Jump," a voice from behind soothed.
Katar turned to meet the voice and saw that figure from before, standing still. The eyes beaming hate at him. His body froze again; as if blood has clotted in his veins. The figure raised its hand and Katar whole rose with it. Feet loosely dangled above the ground, not controlled by that entity, the whole of its tight control concentrated above -- his stomach, chest, arms; his contorted back.
He could still move his head though, so he could notice that his hand, that the back of Katar's hand was glimmering. Shinning a dozen different colors a second, shifting from one hue to the next rapidly. Oh, he realized, so that’s what this is. But the realization brought him no control. With quick ease, the figure pushed and Katar was sent over the edge and into the waters below.
"Look who's up..." Koarsa said.
Katar found himself kneeling in a middle of cart with a thread of a bandage in his grip. The cloth was damp from sweat.
"You okay?" she asked, but he felt disdain in her voice. Like she was obliged to ask.
He sat down, took a moment to gather. The cart was cautiously pulling through the street, passing surprisingly large number of pedestrians on it, who all seemed to enjoy the coming of a calm evening. He thrashed his head and let hair loose from behind his ears, hid his face away from peering pedestrians.
Then, he looked at his arm, at the loose cloth covering the palm and at the darkened skin hiding between the folds. "I am aware," he mumbled and fell at ease a second later.
His dreams were getting weirder day by day, he noticed that earlier, but this one he found scary. Skin crawlingly so. This one wasn't just some jumbled mess that dreams often were, this one darkened his memory. It took the truth and threatened to ruin it, change its meaning.
He remembered now, sitting there for hours, staring at that bowl of water and that painting of fish below and nothing happened! Yet, just now those fish broke from the painting and swam away. This. This threatened to be something else. A clash of memory and fantasy in his already conjoined mind. And this wasn't the first time something like this had happened, not the first time his mind found a way to fight itself.
He caught Koarsa staring at him, guess she really needed an answer. "Yeah," he said, "I‘m fine," then pulled attention away from himself: "Where are we?"
"Near our first stop," she said. "We decided to set up a camp."
Kai was mumbling beside him. Head overboard, he was talking to someone on the street. Further up the cart, Han was sliding from side to side, having trouble relaxing his butt down on hard wood of his seat. All around the amount of people seemed to grow in strides and that had him curious but wary. "What's up with all the commotion?" He looked at Koarsa, who was sitting in opposition to him. Falling sun blinked in and out between strands of her loose, curly hair.
She dashed her lip to the side, seemed pained to bother answering. "People talk of a festival coming to town."
"For lady Vimala. It lasts-"
"Three days?!" Kai exploded beside him, head still overboard. "That's way too much!" Subject of both conversations seemed to be the same. "What do you even do for three days straight?" he asked before his excitement died down. Katar listened in to them for a while, but the girl Kai was talking to was reserved in her manner. He could barely make out much of anything except for a mention of some water custom.
"Why the wall?" Koarsa pulled his attention away.
"Huh?" He pretended. He drew his hand over the shoulder, clasped the charred sword handle and it neatly folded into his hand and into what was underneath those bandages. Safe. He let his hand fall loosely.
"Why do you need to go over the wall?" she asked again.
It seemed too late to ask the question, his answer couldn't be more than just trivial now. "You know i'm a criminal, right?" He asked her while trying to keep his voice down. She pulled her lip sideways again, annoyed. "You saw the poster. Why do even feel the need to ask?" he thought he finished, but she kept looking at him as if waiting for him to continue. "Look," he caved in,"with reputation like that, I can barely breathe within Wei state, nor could I in the rest of the earth nation. But in a fire nation, there is at least a chance for something calm and normal."
"Reputation..." She looked at him like she was about to spit in his face. "You have a way with words..." Instead of spitting she looked away, but only for a moment. "And you think you should be awarded such luxury? Reputation... Don't they put criminals away where you're from? Especially, if they cause a collapse of a whole nation."
"Then why did you choose to come with us?" He jumped a few lines, went to the point.
She sat silenced for a while, conjuring up an answer or maybe holding it back. He did not yet know. "I want to know," Koarsa said.
"The type of person you are. The type that would kill the avatar."
He held onto that blow, decided to take it. Wouldn't do him any good to get into an argument that already felt tiresome. And he wasn't going to have it with some stranger. She made her position clear and that would have to do.
They stopped in a forest outside the town. The dimness of dusk was beginning to set in by then so they took the time to build a fire. A fire by a river, where waters were performing a tedious task of stripping away the earth from roots of trees. Exposing their long fingers, wave by wave and rush after rush for what what they were. Hooks to keep itself grounded, so the tree itself wasn't pulled away by that water or a strong rush of air anything else that threatened.
"Where's Han?" Kai asked and pulled Katar's attention from the river.
"He probably ran into town to get his fill," Koarsa explained, not hiding her disgust.
"I'm going to look for him," Kai said, looking at Katar. More of a plea than a statement.
"You can go to town if you want," Katar said, seeing through his fake excitement to look for a grown up person. He didn't need another word and left but a dust cloud by the fire.
Koarsa looked at Katar stumped. "And you're just going to let him go?"
Calmly, he rolled up the right hand sleeve, began unwrapping its bandage. "I can not limit his choices and I can't just go out into a public venue like that." A cloth dropped from his hand, dark edges of a scar on his palm gathered light from a fire. It was healed as well as it could be, but a glance at that contorted palm and he could recall the pain as if it just happened. He redressed it with a washed bandage, adding a tight knot at the end. Looked up from it. Koarsa seemed just about done looking for words of protest. "That is why there will be a spirit looking out for him." He pulled out a mask, brushed its face with his clothed hand.
He found he could trust Kai's judgment on people. He seemed to have an instinct about them. It was the time to know how right he was this time. "You coming?" he asked Koarsa.
« Last Edit: Mar 13, 2017 08:07 am by Icy_Ashford »
Koarsa passed a group of onlookers gathered around a match of coconut corumba and shuddered at the thought. No more than one gamble at the time, she reminded herself. Peachy paper lanterns hanging above lit up the cheerful smiles on a busy street as they--her, Kai and masked Katar--strolled through the street, looking for something that would catch either one's eye. But the only thing that caught any eye was lilies. Red-white lilies, which dominated this town like it was weed. By every shop, every house, every corner there was at least a bunch of them. All of which radiated under rosy light.
"Hello, mysterious spirit," a voice came from aside and stopped their stride. The woman comfortably swam in a long blue robe, hands by her waist, tucked into the sleeve cuffs. She leaned gently forwards, pulled out her open palm and glided it over the rack on wheels before her and said: "Care for a reading?" As she calmly stood straight she caught a silvery strand of hair that managed to fall of her bun hair-do and tucked it neatly behind her ear.
The rack's levels were neatly divided by their contents, raging from from minuscule pins and unrefined crystals below to an array of flowers above.
"I don't believe in fate," Katar's suppressed voice came from behind the mask.
"Strange for a spirit, to not put trust in fate. I do not read one's future, however." The woman kept a stoic look on her face. Whether it was just an act or not, it was too hard to tell. "I read one's past."
"And what use does that give?" Koarsa burst the words out, barely holding her laughter.
She glared at Koarsa, looked her over and away. "You cannot firmly step into the future without a deep understanding of your past." The woman almost choked on disdain for Koarsa. "Offering a fresh perspective on one's choices could be enlightening." She dropped another glance at Koarsa and rolled her eyes away. "If it's not too late to change, of course..."
Ugh! What a harpy!
"I'll bite," Kai said. "What's the catch?"
"Just the price of admission."
"Kai!" Katar pulled him back a step. "What are you doing?"
"Spending MY money," he stated simply while the woman watched intently, scrutinizing them both.
"And what if she's a fraud?"
"Then you'll know after. Besides, it's only ten coins."
"I'll give you a discount for your attitude, young man," the lady said from afar.
"See? Now we'd be fools not to do it!"
She couldn't see Katar's face through the mask as it followed Kai strolling forward, but she knew the look he wore underneath. It was the same dumbfounded look she wore that moment herself.
"Now. How do we do this?"
"First, you pay, young man."
"Oh. Right." He threw an edge of his shirt up and sunk his hand in a pocket before pulling it out with a small bag. Koarsa couldn't help but notice a mark above his scrawny hip before the cloth fell down. She looked at an angle and couldn't see all of it, but she knew that sign. A circle, split into a black side with a white point and a light side with a black point.
A winner's look lit up the woman's face, but she quickly suppressed it. "Now you pick an item from the cart. Only one, so choose carefully."
Kai bent down, rummaged through a third level down of the cart and pulled out a blocky-looking, yet scaly object and handed it to the lady. She examined it for a moment, spinning it slowly with her fingers before dropping a look at Kai.
"Do you have any brothers or sisters, child? A twin, maybe?"
The question stunned Kai. Made him amiss for a second. "No, not really," he said, but he wasn't a good liar.
"The reason I ask is that, this object - is a part of two." She lowered her other hand and pulled up a similar piece next to Kai's chosen one. "Out of this whole stand, these are the only ones that connect." She pushed the pieces together and they fit neatly into each other. "Because they are not different, they are a part of two. One cannot be whole by itself..."
The woman went on for quite a while, spouting supposedly mind altering teachings while saying nothing of actual substance. But Koarsa's mind kept on that mark. It seemed significant, she saw it before,. Three times to be exact: once, when she was still a child she saw it split between two koi fish circling each other in warm pond waters of a spiritual oasis; and the other two were worn by her friends: Nanuq and Cikuq. Twins, who both had that same mark on their collarbones. A mark of a brother they called it. Thought to be only worn by twins.
Could she know all this? Koarsa wondered.
"...to find someone," teller's voice came back into her awareness. It seemed to have captivated Kai completely, "who would hold you back or propel you further then it's needed. Someone to push when you pull and pull then you push..."
Push and pull... The words were a revelation! Those were the names of the koi fish in the pond! The lady couldn't even bother to cover her scam properly. She dropped a heated glance at Katar and his posture seemed to agree with her.
"...to find balance with that person, should be--" Simultaneously, they grabbed Kai by the shoulders and dragged him away before the woman could finish.
"Hey!" Kai protested. "I was listening to that!"
"Yeah, well now you're not," Koarsa said.
"Guys, come on... I paid for that!"
"She's scamming you, Kai."
"What?!" They jumped at him.
"I know she's lying. I mean, look at her... I don't care, it's my money."
Koarsa's mind was thrown into stasis from that. Held there by only one word: Why?
Not waiting long after that, the white mask clamped back on Kai's shoulder, began dragging again. "Then pay me and I'll soothe you with that kind of blubber every night."
Tightly gripping his wallet, Han pushed through the horde. The crowd, as dense as his uncombed hair, made it nearly impossible to get through, but he brushed forth, eyeing for a sign, any indication of an inn he gathered was nearby. A pack of firecrackers went off on the ground near him, scared the spirits out of one man in the crowd. The man screamed so loudly you'd think he was a countess seeing a spider-scorpion for the first time. Han covered his ear from the sound, but it was too late. It already rang in his head like a wide bell. Disappearing slowly and leaving a faint shrill.
His eye caught it though. Through that distraction and the movement of people's heads he saw it. A bar, right up front. Two storeys and a balcony. Up there the costumers laughed. They were smoking and midway through the bottle.
He passed an annoying announcer, a band and some dancers all waiting to perform. He couldn't care less. His destination was set.
In the inn he found every seat to be taken. Decided to stand by the counter, where smoke hung loosely in the air. Not that he'd want to sit now, resting on his elbows was more than enough. The road was on the long-side and wasn't really close to the endpoint. A little movement below the waist would revive him a bit, before his drink of choice began its destructive work. Speaking of which...
"And fill this as well," he said, holding his flask out to the bartender after he tasted a reasonably numbing brew. With a distinctly smug look, which made him doubt her professional sensibilities, the bartender did the task.
Air of celebration was widespread over the town and this place was no exception. Small circles of heads in the bar enjoyed themselves and both floors of this bar did so loudly. Food and drinks were passed between the floors, sometimes even through the railing, if possible. Most were having a good time and spirits were kept high, but even that couldn't hold for long. Eventually, thoughts on Queen Guifei were shared and the rumors coming from the wall, tarnishing their joy. But an explosion of laughter form the other side of the room cleared their thoughts and the mood rose up again.
He couldn't help but feel out of place. Thoughts of celebration were in direct conflict with Han's natural state of mind. Kept his mind active and his eyes wondering, until they landed on one subject. A young man, heavily built and bald. Everything about him, from his wide posture to his sleeveless shirt, made a stand. He saw a scar running from below his left cheekbone all the way to the middle of his neck and his verdant eyes stared with intensity he could not pin down just yet. The image had force to it, that was easy to admit. But it felt off to him. Something was amiss with that image and now he had to figure it out.
The young man was tapping with his prosthetic, earthbent fingers--right hand: pointing, middle and thumb--on a poster before him. Poured the last drops of his drink down his throat. Probably scotch. Acts like this one always went for scotch. An easy choice. Easy one to bluff through too, but not when you take it in such big gulps.
Still, Han didn't feel comfortable looking at the guy. Something else. Han's phoniness came through his tongue. After all, the kids were paying for his drinks tonight. But him? He seemed like a snake. Pretending to be venomous with its aggressive coloring, loud hissing and a ready stance, yet, one would be hard pressed to play around with it.
Suddenly, the man lifted his gaze and their eyes met. Han quickly darted his own away, hoping he would think nothing of it. Uneasy minute passed as Han tried to look anywhere but at the man. Catching a few repulsed looks towards him. When he finally returned his gaze, the man was gone. And the poster he was looking at was gone too. Han had a peak at it before he was forced to look away. The artist wasn't worth much of anything, a poor man's Zhong Yu. But the face that was drawn on it was more important and that he identified fast. Didn't even had to guess.
Han planned to drink and he was still going to. Now he'll just do so faster.
Still lit by those same peachy lights, the street didn't seem to change. Only its people shuffled from one attraction to the next. Two rows of glamor and enchantment lined along each side of the road that was this whole town, yet it failed to hold the Koarsa's or the others's attentions. So it wasn't that surprising that they quickly made their way to the biggest attraction of the night.
On a small, make-shift stage, a loud, but not shouty, speaker entertained his audience. He threw his wit and sharp commentary on various topics at a mass in front of him, not shying from opportunities to take a few swings at the people and then pulling away before his words caused harm to their egos. A band behind him looked on, enjoying his performance with certain intensity. Conscious of being watched, waiting with silent mutters for their queue.
"I think I'm done for the night," Katar said.
"Sure," Kai agreed. He agreed to almost any idea this night or maybe that was always the case.
"But it's still early." Koarsa eyeballed him, but failed to read anything from behind the mask.
"I'm just a bit tired... Besides, nobody's watching our stuff, as hidden as it is," he said and began to shuffle slowly away without any proper permission.
"Wait." Koarsa pulled him to the side. "What are you doing?" She kept her voice low.
He meandered for a minute, then: "Look. I can't just hang around dozens of people, mask or not. That's one of the reasons we travel at night. It's not safe for me here."
"And what of him?" She pointed at oblivious Kai.
"He can handle himself, he can do what he wants."
"Like yesterday?" He can't be serious, she thought, but his tone said otherwise.
"That... that was different."
"Somebody has to watch him."
"I told you, I can't limit his choices." Again, that spineless phrase. How easy it was for something like this to grow from an annoyance to an issue.
"But somebody has to. That's a mighty thing to ask someone who's almost a stranger to you."
"I'm not asking anything. He knows how to take care of himself."
She felt like repeating the obvious a third time, but it seemed that Katar was as deaf today as he was blind yesterday. "Fine." She watched him leave.
A pack of firecrackers went off somewhere to the right. Hellishly high-pitched scream came from the same direction, causing more laughter than ruckus.
"Don't mind that," the announcer swiftly chimed in. "It's just elite fire nation soldiers practicing their new techniques." Crowd had a laugh as an empty circle filled with people again. "Tonight," he continued. The musicians beside tensed up as they waited for eventual end of his speech, "and tomorrow, and tomorrow, we celebrate Lady Vimala." He looked at a red-white lillie in his hand. A beautifully simple looking thing. "Maybe she'll show her legendary beautiful self to us on the winter solstice, maybe not. That is two days away and it all depends on us." Even though she was steps away from the audience, she felt it's warmth and easy unrest that just gave rise in some areas. "But before we can wash away our misdeeds in our lady's beloved river, but first we must. Make. Them surface!"
The band behind him hit the improvised stage floor running with a fast and upbeat tune. The dancers beside them began their performances, If you could call those that. There was no real choreography, just people trying their hardest not to hit each other, which was an open invitation to the crowd, which quickly caught on.
"You wanna dance?" Kai asked.
The question stumped her and she couldn't offer anything more than an awkward, "Um... sure?" Not a moment after, he grabbed her by the hand and began pulling her through the audience and into the chaos inside. To late to say no, it seemed.
The music grew louder and so did her fears of looking completely ridiculous dancing with this kid, who still though of himself as so damn cute. For a second he seemed boneless. Flailing his limbs around like he was kelp in a current and no boundary. He lashed his way back and forth, to the side and back again, frequently crashing into those around him with no remorse. Naturally, it didn't take long for him to draw attention. With murmur and caged laughter, mob malevolently cheered him on, but it only fuelled his enthusiasm. Made him "dance" even harder. An arctic quadopus thrown on ice didn't look so absurd as he did, rag-dolling his way above the waist.
Koarsa didn't know where to hide herself, were to run. He would obviously follow. She had to suffer this one through. But as he continued, a strange thing happened. A mocking tone of the crowd around them began to shift. Bullies were only the first ones to respond. Something made him win the rest of the audience. And it surely wasn't his horrible, horrible dance. Something made her do the same, let that thought go and follow Kai's lead.
When she did so, she relaxed. And when the music stopped, it stopped too early. And when he bowed and ran, she was slow to notice.
Kai's short, damp hair slipped through a torn collar of his shirt. He handed it to Koarsa briefly, while he looked for a way into the new one he bought. The moon was high above them. Cool air breezed by as the two of them walked.
"Did you really need to buy two more?" Koarsa asked.
He gave a sheepish smile, said, "No, not really." His hands slipped inside the cloth, but he found he had to wrestle to put it on. He bought it for looks, not necessarily for size. "I liked them," he put it too simply.
She glanced at him. Even in the low light, she still found it. The mark of the brother, of which that fraud of a teller played off of tonight. Kai quickly covered it again, straightening his new clothing. A sleeveless light-green tunic, which ran deep below his waist and met in a triangle with a white outline strip.
"Why did you lie to the teller?" she asked him.
"Huh?" he delayed.
"About having no sisters or brothers. You lied."
"I didn't," he said looking down. His seemingly constant enthusiasm was gone.
"Why? You have the mark to prove it. It's a dead giveaway to some people."
"Oh..." He scratched his arm distractedly. "You know of that."
"M-hm," she nodded. "So, a brother, a sister?"
She waited for him to say more, he didn't. He just silently drew distance between them. "A sister..." she said and he was spooked by that. "What? Is something wrong?"
"No. Nothing," he muttered, fell silent again. Their camp drew closer, dim light from the fire showed the way and they walked the path silently for a while, until he said: "Didn't get a chance to know her..." She noted how carefully he spoke now, felt like he had his fingers under a blade waiting to drop. "I survived... she didn't." That explained most of it to her: the sudden distancing, nervousness... but before she could properly apologize for intruding so carelessly he burst out laughing. High-pitched and cracking.
"What? What is it?" she asked as the distance between them lessened.
"Nothing." he smiled at her, relaxed. "You don't know."
"Don't know what?"
"Doesn't matter. You don't know."
"No," she said. "Now I have to know." She kept being cheeky. He silently declined to answer and she decided not to push. Something stranger caught her eye. "I didn't know you're a water bender," she said to Katar.
She caught him of guard and he almost jumped, a ball of water he tried to raise like an amateur fell back inside. His swords laid beside almost fizzled out fire, leaving his contrasted figure by the river. "There isn't that much to say about it," he said, but seemed guilty, seemed caught in something wrong," when you're not that good. Master Hai-fu," he was forced to continue. He tried to pull more water out the river, his form was terrible, "used to tell me that, everything has its inner rhythm. I just don't seem to find it." The ball burst like the one before.
"Inner rhythm, you say..." She took a few steps towards him. "Well, you rush yours then. You start from zero." She bent some water towards her, keeping inmotion with the fluid. "And you build up speed, action."
"Guys?" Kai tried to intrude.
She was showing off now, forming the ball into a "U" shape over her shoulders. Waves rippled throughout with glisten from the moonlight.
"You cannot force it, like you do and you can't stop its flow either."
"Guys?" Kai called again. "You hear that?" but she kept her attention on Katar.
"Because when you do," she froze and the water splashed to the ground, "it stops as well." These were basic teachings. Every child, even nonbenders, were thought this. "You're not from the water tribe. I'd know you if you were. How can you do ANY of this?" Koarsa stepped closer, so she could see his reaction better in the low light.
"And guys?!" Kai pulled their attention away before Katar would have to answer. "Why are you sinking?"
They looked down. Cones of air, circled around their feet, pushed down with a silent rustle of sand. Suddenly, the cones plunged further and shut, trapping them. Everything from waist down, including their hands, was stuck in the ground. She looked at Kai, he was in the same position, struggling to break free.
But he is an earthbender, she thought, he should be able to easily escape. Somebody else was here.
The bushes rustled and a figure emerged. It brushed against the leaves with his masculine frame, took it's time walking to the faint fireplace, picking up a still burning piece of wood and walking up to the first in the lineup.
Wrestling with the ground, Kai seemed furious and when the figure lit up his face, she found it to be true. Calmly, the figure looked at him, then shifted slightly to a piece of paper in it's hand, then back at him again and just moved on to the other two.
"Let me go! Hey! Where are you going? Hey--" The figure pushed its hand and Kai drove to the edge of the camp like he was on rails.
The man walked right passed Koarsa and to Katar, lit up his face, checked the paper. Moments later he crouched down to him, real close, checked the paper again and grinned. Only that grin and his green eyes showed from the flicker of the flame. The rest of his imposing figure remained mostly hidden, only its edges were lit up by the flame and the moon.
The man stood, paced slowly and Katar was forced to follow at a small distance. Sliding, like Kai, with a faint graveling of earth. But then, it stopped, and a blue-edged silhouette of a man looked back at her.
"Lady," the voice came low, "is everything okay? Are you hurt in any way?"
"Um... No." The manner in which he spoke stunned her almost as much as being called a lady did.
"I'm gravely sorry for having to do all this, for being forced to involve you in all this... But why would you pertain with such people... such... scum? Who can't even pass a peaceful town without causing a ruckus." He imitated spitting on the ground in disgust.
"Hey!" Kai felt offended.
"There's still a life for you. You don't have to lower yourself--"He accented the word by dipping his hand and Katar sank to his chest accordingly,"--to the likes of him. There is a way out of this for you. We could--"
"Is this guy serious?" Kai asked.
"If you don't shut your air hole in the next three seconds," he exploded on Kai, pointing the finger, "your next meal will be your teeth!" He kept pointing for quite a while, his heavy frame bobbed up and down as he breathed heavily.
Suddenly, a fireball came from behind a tree, heading straight for the man. He blocked it easily. Looked where it came from and found nobody there. Fast footsteps passed Koarsa. With a gust of wind, a shadow beside her leapt towards the young man. A heavy thud, then another one with two simultaneously moans. Both shadows fell to the ground.
"Go!" Han ordered, rolling dizzily from side to side.
Quickly, Kai broke from the ground, rescued the others. Katar and Koarsa rapidly threw everyone's belongings to the cart. Han crawled over to the man to buy some more time, deliver some well needed punches, but Kai soon intruded. He began pulling Han back to the cart, but not before adding some kicks himself.
The rains were whipped and the cart hit the road along a river. The man, however, gave chase. He was fast even before he started catapulting himself with earthbending. Pushing himself closer and closer with every jump. On the third dash he caught up and landed at the back of the cart, but his feet fell in a pile of cabbages. He lost balance, rolled out with a spin which quickened once he hit the ground.
The moment of relief didn't last long. As soon as he stood he came at them with a different strategy. Suddenly, a column rumbled up before them, forcing Han to turn left. After the turn, another column popped and the cart jolted right. Then back to the left and to the right. All a distraction. A distraction from a wall, a monument that grew two storeys tall and blocked the path.
"Charge!" Kai shouted.
"What?!" others asked in unison.
"Just go for it!" he said and put his counter in action -- turning a wall into a ramp.
The cart hit the incline and soon the wheels left the edge. As the cart slowly hinged the air, strange feeling in her chest rose - whatever was inside didn't fall at the same speed as she did. And then the cart decided it was first to fall, discomfort only intensified.
Koarsa saw a sleeping bag elevate, before she felt herself loose footing. A small gap edged its way between her and the cart and grew. Katar gripped a wooden barrier beside him tighter, running his overgrown nails into it. Eyes as wide as tarsier-frog's. Kai seemed to be the only one to actually enjoyed this stunt. But that loose moment passed, the cart hit the road and everyone fell inside. One of its wheels began squeaking immediately. Every round it made came with a sound.
Minute passed and Koarsa felt her gravity finally center. Felt she could sit upright. Looked back at their pursuer who seemed to have stopped chasing and instead stood on a ramp in a peculiar stance. "Is it over?" she wondered aloud.
"Damn it, Kai!" Han barked. "If your meat-headed ideas break my cart, I will drown you in that river! You got that, K-star!? If--"
A branch snapped loudly somewhere before them. They turned ahead. Another crack. And another. Again and again, the sounds piled on top each other into a longstanding crash.
"He's going to cut us off!" Katar shouted. He pointed towards a towering beam. Its moonlit outline slowly fell for the road.
"He's dropping trees on us now?!" Kai blurted out.
"And this," Han, talking about the cart, "doesn't have another jump like that in it!"
Still, they charged ahead. Hoping to make their way through before the timer, literally, runs down. But at this speed, the furthest way can hope to go is underneath the tree as it hits the ground. She looked around at others for ideas, but everyone was as tight and lost as she was.
Suddenly, Katar lit up. "Kai!" He called. "Columns! Under the tree!"
Kai considered it for a precious half a second, "I can't hold them both."
"One will be enough!" Katar assured.
Kai quickly shuffled to the side of the cart. The night was as clear as it could be, but the only thing he could judge the tree's position by was its constantly moving shadow. He waited and waited, as it slowly ran down until it was unmistakably and unavoidably before them. Only then he could surface his column.
The tree hit it hard and immediately started pivoting on it. Kai was straining, he was keeping the column strong enough to hold, but it the tree trunk just kept on moving. It turned on Kai's column and the bottom of the tree ripped from the ground with a deafening crackle. The roots broke free and the tree just kept on going. Koarsa glanced upward. The tree hauled down to her, threatened to crush. Katar was wrong! One wasn't going to be enough. The tree was going to crush them and Kai can't make another column.
Franticly, she looked around for a solution. A river ran beside the road, but there was no time to pull and form that much water. She was out of options, but then, amidst all the crashing and the hauling and the turning she heard the ground rumble. The beam hit something and bounced back up. She turned; saw an earthbent column falling apart and Katar beside her and in very much the same position that Kai was in. The tree trunk ran up, there was enough time to just pass under it, but now it started giving chase with a heavy roll. It slipped of Kai's column, back end of it crashed to the ground.
"What now?" Kai asked.
The top end of the tree stopped moving up and with no wait began speeding down.
"We hope for the best..." Katar said.
"Like hell we do." Koarsa started pulling barrels of water from the nearby river. Forming it into a pillar underneath the tree. Froze it to ice in the hopes that that would stop it. Multiple cracks appeared instantly and it shattered not a second after. It shattered and the beam started moving again, but they were already too far away for it to matter.
They took a breather. Let the pressure off and then looked back again. Searched for their new enemy. He was standing on a tree he tore down. Pacing angrily atop it. He walked over to Kai's column and smashed it to pieces.
"Finally! That bald bastard gave up," Kai said and let himself fall backwards into a cart.
"Bald bastard?!" Katar tried to withhold his smirk.
"I don't care... I'm too tired to think of anything better."
"I have a feeling, you'll get your chance."
To the calm of the forest chaos rode in. A ruckus of beating wheels from far away, of grunts by some tired animals and of that noise, that squeak coming from that one wheel up front. Every turn, every rotation that wheel made came with a grilling creak or a biting shrill, a cut to the ear.It was a constant assault the passengers have grown to expect by now and if, for some unexplained reason, that sound would grow silent or skip a beat, or even stop, they could remain sure, that that was only temporary. The wheel will sing it's tune and the shrills will play to the monotone green of the forest around.
That came to be the underlining tone of the day, an eerie irritance in the land of dull and endless. Since they've left this morning all they saw was this forest, which went on and on through seemingly endless supply of crooked roads, intersections and smaller, slower paths, where even attempting to run those carelessly would land you in a tied bag of trouble. These roads where thin, which was what they wanted, but everything else didn't help. It only worked to build tension within oneself, make one agitated, desperate for something to break up this irritated monotony and that soon came.
The cart stopped and so did those drilling strings. The passengers took a moment to recover, enjoyed the little silence while it could last.
"Why are we stopping?" Katar eventually asked.
"The road is cut off," Han answered. A long way away a tree laid across the road.
"Strange," Koarsa said, "there was no storm yesterday, for it to be torn down like that."
"It doesn't have to be from yesterday. I'm keeping of the main roads, these aren't traveled as much. Most people wouldn't bother moving it away."
"And I don't think we will either," Katar said, pointing at another path leading down a similar direction. "What about that road? It seems like it would be a detour around this block."
"I guess that could work."
Han whipped his rains and their short break was done. Everyone went back into their spots, doing the same nothings as before. Only Kai seemed busy, working on something that brought him efficient calmness. He smashed his hand down and then slowly pulled it up, carefully hiding whatever he did with his other hand. Koarsa heard sand rustle, saw dust gather from the floor, but she couldn't tell what he was doing. Only saw him smile a little more with each attempt, until eventually...
"Hey, guys!" he called. "Look what I can do." He smashed his open palm down and slowly pulled it up. Sand began to gather under his fingers; slowly it took form of a small statue. It wasn't very detailed, but she could make out it having its arms folded and a protrusion over its left shoulder--a sword, she guessed.
"Is that... me?" Katar asked.
"Well," Katar continued, "that's actually pretty--"
"Terrifying." Koarsa took a closer look. "What's wrong with that face?" It looked like it was mushed together out of three or more and none of them would look good on their own.
"Ugh! Leave it to you, to bring the mood down..." he squashed it, his mood uncontested.
She looked at them both, sitting there comfortably by each other and found that hard to believe. A killer and a kid, one beside the other. Something was off, she wasn't getting the whole picture and the thought kept grinding at her as much as that wheel that played in the background. Building, coming stronger each round, until she had to know.
"So... Kai," she started.
"Yeah?" He was still sitting there, fiddling with sand.
"How long you and Katar are travelling together?"
"I don't know... maybe four months now."
"And the idea doesn't scare you?" That got Katar's attention, but he didn't say anything like she guessed he wouldn't and that made her smirk.
"Why would it?"
"Well, the bounty." Still Katar remained silent.
"What of it?" Kai didn't seem to mind.
"The bounty is for murder."
"Where are you going with this?" Katar finally asked and she left his question unanswered.
Kai looked at her strangely. "Do you think I can cash him in, break him out? We could use the money," he laughed, looking away.
"What are you getting at?" Katar spoke more harshly now. She noticed his bandaged arm, it shook tightly.
"What I'm getting at, is that there's things that are happening around me that I don't--"
"Hello there," a voice came, from somewhere. Not adult, but not puerile either. What it was? Though. It was confident, cut through their riling up exchange just as Koarsa struck a chord with Katar. They tried looking around as the cart slowed, but couldn't find its owner. "Up here," the voice came again and now they could add a face to it.
He was a slim boy, late teens, tarnished hair, pointed chin and a handsome smile. Well, as far as she could tell. The boy happened to be hanging upside down from a tree. A rope was tied round an ankle; his other leg leaned loosely to the side. "Hey," he said and waved in his inverted way.
"Hi," Kai answered back.
"So," the boy nervously scratched his face, flicked something to the ground, "I'm in a bit of a pickle, as they say. Could you help me down?"
Kai slid down from the cart, Katar and Koarsa soon slowly followed, and Han held ahead of the track.
"How did you end up... up there?" Koarsa asked.
"Well... that's a funny story."
"Oh, I'm sure it is..." Katar said, still agitated. He handed Kai his swords so he can cut the rope. He slung them over his shoulder. Too big, the bottom of the case pressed against the back of his knee.
"I was going to hunt in the woods this morning; that's my bow, by the way." He pointed to the ground. "I just walked my usual path, then, suddenly, this rope drags me up and leaves my hanging."
"That wasn't that funny," Katar said.
"Yeah? Well... it is what it is," he answered as Kai rose bending a column beneath himself. "I'm Wan, by the way," he said simply.
"Kai," Kai said when he rose to Wan's level. He swung the blades to his front, began pulling them out the case, but then, his legs began to quiver. His legs began to quiver and he didn't know why. They shook and then the column began to shake, and then the ground. It trembled terribly. A humongous earthquake rose up from nowhere and even the trees barely withstood it. Leaves popped off of them like scared away hair, branches broke off from the immense vibrations, fell to the dust.
Katar and Koarsa held on to the ground and they were relatively safe there. Kai, however, fell on his back, almost rolled of the pole. He clung to it and it seemed stable, but then the ground itself began to fail them, to crack. It ruptured rapidly, like it was barely an egg shell. Dust burst out of newly opened gaps and run up the pole which collapsed in heavy chunks. Kai jumped off of it when it came close to the ground, but it stove that ground in and he was sucked into the abyss. And the hole expanded quickly. Quickly, the opened cave below enveloped Katar and Koarsa into its depths as well.