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Previously on The Avatar Rhythm
|""Thank you, but we have to leave now. If The Chancellor suspects we talked to you we'll all be dead. Leave, Shirou, take Shinji and leave. Be safe!" Asaki looked behind herself, and heard footsteps. She quickly looked back at Shirou. "Meet us again at Argil Village - I've been there before, it's in the Earth Kingdom, a fairly secluded place. Try to make it there, we will too."
|— Drowning Hope: Part 2|
|"Asaki stood there, grasping the knife on her belt. Her goals in life had always been shaped off hard luck and betrayal - never off hopes and dreams. Now, there was one light standing, a final mission to get to Shirou. She finally understood him, and knew where he was heading if he continued on the path which he was on - both literally and figuratively. |
Now she was going to set things straight.
|— Drowning Hope: Part 2|
|"This was the first grand escape they had made as criminals, as the villains. Their palace had fallen, The Polar Revolution had fallen, their friendship had fallen, and now Shirou and Shinji and all of their dignity had fallen as the sun fell before them in an ugly dim light. |
And they didn't look back.'"
|— From Drowning Hope: Part 2|
January 29, 2012
This is Chapter 37 in The Avatar Rhythm Series.
The sun rose over the side of dark, rugged, forest laden mountains of the northern Earth Kingdom slower than Shirou had even seen them. He loved watching the sunsets, but today he was just too close to the nearby cliffs to see the bright orange glow fill up the sky as quick as he expected it to.
"Did you get those leechi nuts?" asked a voice from behind him.
Shirou looked around at the silhouette of Shinji back at their camp around fifteen feet behind him through the dense woods. "No, not yet."
"I thought I saw a bush of those around there," Shinji mumbled to himself.
Shirou took his gaze away from the slow moving sunset above him. He turned his head to his side and looked over, sure enough, at an untouched bushel of plump red leechi nuts. He took out his handy whale skin satchel and picked one of the berries, squishing it a little to test its ripeness, and popped it in his mouth. The small amount of flesh and juice inside it tasted very good. The leechi nuts up here in their native forests were perfect. Shirou ate another, picked the rest off the bush and dropped them into his satchel, which he tied back on his belt, heading back to his camp afterwards.
"What took you so long?" asked Shinji when he came back through the thick line of trees. "I told you to get those things a half hour ago." Shinji was now dressed in a thick sweater made of the badly-sewn together furs and skins of the animals they had hunted in the mountains through the past couple months, his hair and skin dirty and scarred, unwashed for almost a dozen weeks on end. Shirou's apparel and hygiene wasn't much different.
They stared at each other for a second or two.
"So what are you making?" asked Shirou, handing his friend the bag of leechi nuts.
"Roast duck with leechi sauce."
Shirou raised an eyebrow. "Roast duck with leechi sauce."
"In the middle of the woods."
"Yup." Shirou shook his head. "Why do I always get this uneasy feeling when you say we're having something gourmet for dinner? We got lucky when we took out that big bird, don't waste its good meat trying to create some culinary masterpiece. We're camping."
"Okay then," said Shinji, smiling. "I'll cut the duck in two. You can get one half and hold it over the fire on a stick and I'll get the other half and make myself a delicious meal. How's that sound?"
Despite the fact that he had been beaten, Shirou chuckled. "Okay, whatever, make dinner your way. I'll go back out into the woods and try to find that pond we saw yesterday. We're out of water."
Shinji nodded approvingly. "I think it was down farther behind where our tents are." He opened up the satchel of berries and placed them in a small tin pan by his side.
"Thanks." Shirou grabbed his sword, slung it over his back, and once again left camp.
Meanwhile, almost exactly above the duo, hundreds of feet into the sky, was Artos, Takumi's sky bison, carrying him and Asaki across the gigantic Earth Kingdom horizons. They had been been flying for days at a time, only stopping to stack up on supplies when they ran out.
"Where are we?" asked Asaki from the top of saddle, shivering. She was still just dressed in her worn Polar Revolution uniform, but luckily had a blanket of sorts hung over her shoulders. "I can't see civilization anywhere to the east."
Takumi, who was sitting on Artos' head, looked around. "Don't you see that huge circle out there? That's Ba Sing Se!"
"That's also not to the east," Asaki muttered. "You said Argil Village is to the east."
"It is to the east! See the little thing of mountains there?"
"No," said Asaki, even though she did.
"Well, there's some mountains in front of us, definitely not as big as the ones we just passed, but they're there." He paused for a second, trying to remember the point he was originally aiming to make. "Well, past those mountains, towards the West Lake, there's a town in the cliffs. That's Argil Village."
"Okay," she said slowly, "So how long will it take big fluffy over here to get us there?"
"His name is Artos," said Takumi, patting Artos' head. "He likes being called by his rightful name that the nuns gave him."
Asaki stopped for a second, waiting. "So, how long will it take Artos to get to Argil Village?"
"Probably a week. Or two. It depends on how much food we eat and how tired we all get. We aren't getting there in one straight flight, I'll tell you that much."
"A week? Great." Asaki lay down on the saddle which she had used as a home for the past month, rolling her blanket over her body, propping her head up on their bag of supplies, which had been serving as her pillow for her time flying. "I'm exhausted. Wake me up when it's my watch shift again." As soon as Takumi gave her a nod, she slowly drifted to sleep.
Back below in the woods, Shirou and Shinji were around their campfire, finishing up the lunch they had been cooking since the early morning. They sat beside each other, holding makeshift bowls of carved and cleaned wood from the trees and chopsticks they had made from debarking their small branches. The duo had became substantially more thrifty during their time in the woods.
Shirou looked down in his bowl, staring at the fairly large chunk of dry brown meat sitting there at the bottom of the wood. He took his chopsticks and managed to string off a little strip of the meat from the large piece he had, and put it in his mouth. A bit dry, but it had okay flavor and wasn't burnt or undercooked.
"Want some sauce on that?" Shinji asked, as he managed to pull out the tin pan of sizzling leechi nuts from the bottom of the fire without getting burned.
Only as a part of his recent pledge to be kinder and fairer to Shinji, Shirou nodded. "I guess so. Not too much." He watched his friend tilt the pan, having the thick red liquid in it drizzle onto his meat. He stared at it for a while as Shinji prepared his own meal. I did it again, Shirou thought to himself. I let him make his gourmet meal. Why? And now I have to eat it.
"Take a bite of your duck, it's delicious!" his friend exclaimed.
Shirou took his chopsticks, picked out another strip of meat, this one covered in Shinji's fancy leechi sauce, and let it fall into his mouth, chewing. It tasted surprisingly good. Maybe a bit too much flavor for one piece of duck, but he wasn't going to complain. The sauce cancelled out the blandness of the meat. He took another bite. "You know, I think I actually might like this." Shirou looked up. "Where'd you get the recipe anyway?"
"What recipe?" Shinji asked. "Cook a wild turkey and pour some sauce made of broiled leechi nuts on it? That's not much of a recipe."
"Yeah, but you couldn't have thought of making this yourself, could you?"
Shinji took another bite of his duck. "Before I worked for the Fire Days Festival I hid in an Earth Kingdom village a lot farther south. Most of the time I was staying with this old lady, I lived longer there than all the other places I've hid from the Quadrination Bandits in. Anyway, the lady whose house I stayed in was the best cook, and we had roast duck with leechi sauce all the time. I mean, hers had a bit more spices and her sauce might have been a bit finer, but that's how I know all these gourmet recipes."
"Oh." Shirou had never really thought a lot about how Shinji's life was before they met. He always just imagined he was some sort of crazed refugee. Maybe, maybe he did have class and manners. Maybe he wasn't always the Fire Nomad. Another thought struck him. Shinji was 24 when he met him, but how old was he when he lived here? Where did he spend his teenage years? Shirou spent his teenage years as a royal and lonesome student, but he had a few half-friends and he still had many good memories. Did Shinji grow up like the orphans in stories, raised by the elderly? Who was he before he was an assassin?
"Shirou?" asked Shinji, breaking his line of thought. Somewhat embarrassed, Shirou came back to reality. "Oh, I was just, uh, you know..." he paused. "Thinking."
"Yeah, I get you."
They got back to their meals, doing their best to tear apart the tough duck with stubby chopsticks, shoveling the strips of meat into their mouth as soon as they could peel it off what they had. After about a half hour of eating, tending the fire, and sharing short mumbled conversation, they looked at each other awkwardly.
Shirou stood up. "I'm gonna check out one of the maps for a second. I think they're in your bag."
Shinji nodded. "Yeah. Don't mess anything up."
He walked away towards the light of the lantern within Shinji's tent, and stepped inside. On the floor was his pack, which Shirou opened. Inside was a worn leather folder which he took out of the bag, and set on the hard soil floor. He sat down on a tree stump which Shinji had built his tent around, and picked up the folder that he took out of the backpack. Within its weathered leather cover were several maps of the region. Shirou adjusted the lantern hanging from the top of the tent so its rays shone down straight onto the maps, making it able to accurately view.
The locations of their multiple camps in the large mountain area were dotted, and lines represented the journeys in between. It disappointed Shirou to see that they were only at their seventh camp, that they'd only gotten that far in their seemingly massive journey that had taken up the last three months. Surviving was harder than they expected.
Looking farther down the map, Shirou spotted another dot farther south, which was marked "Argil Village" in Shinji's messy handwriting. The dot lay in between a river and the southern portion of a small mountain range, and it looked as if the duo still had a bit of hiking in front of them if they wanted to ever get there. Shirou traced his finger down their path on the map a couple times before putting it back into the leather folder that it came in.
"What were you looking at?"
He looked up to see Shinji in the tent doorway.
"And what did you look at on the map?"
Shirou shrugged. "We still have quite a bit of travel to travel, if you know what I mean."
"Yeah," Shinji muttered. "We should really move sometime soon. We've been at this camp for weeks now."
"This journey is harder than I expected."
"Yeah, same here, but once we get to Argil it'll all be fine. We'll meet up with Takumi and Asaki."
Shirou nodded. "That'll be good. But what happens after we get there? I mean, do we just live there happily once we arrive?"
"What about The Procession?" Shirou asked. "What about The Quadrination Bandits? What about The Chancellor?"
Shinji looked up. "Hey, our goal now is to get out of the woods. They ain't gonna find us in this place. They ain't gonna look here. Lets take the journey one step at a time."
"Sure," said Shirou. "Whatever you say." He paused. "Hey, I'm going to get to bed now. It's getting late. I'll wake up early tomorrow and see if I can help pack some gear up."
"Okay. I'll be doing the same soon."
They gave each other a nod, and parted.
Far out to the east, behind the colossal brick walls of Ba Sing Se, in a small ornate sanctuary within the Earth King's palace, a certain evening ritual was taking place. The room had a ring of water around it, and there was a thin man dressed in elaborate garments, conducting the ceremony. In front of him kneeled a young woman with her head bowed.
"You have learned Firebending," the man boomed in a deep, cunning voice.
The young woman nodded.
"You have learned Airbending," he said again, allowing his voice to echo in the small chamber they were in.
The young woman nodded.
"You have learned Waterbending," he bellowed, smiling this time.
The young woman paused for a second, then nodded.
"And now, Avatar Hotaru," the thin man said, eyeing her with a touch of inspiration, "You will complete your physical and spiritual journey by learning Earthbending."
Hotaru stood up, letting her long black hair fall down her back. She opened her eyes, and looked at her new teacher.
"Are you ready to accept your duty as the Avatar and complete your training?"
After a moment of hesitation, Hotaru nodded. "I am honored."
The man stared at her, impressed. "Before we go any farther, I must warn you. The final quarter of your journey will be the hardest yet. That is definite. There is more to learn than manipulating the earth around us. No, it stretches out much farther than that, much farther from earthbending as a whole." He looked at Hotaru with solemn motivation. "By the end of this brutal experience you will be a fully realized Avatar. With that responsibility you could obtain more power and wisdom than any other woman or man in this world. I hope you understand that. The mission you are undertaking is a great one, and it's been repeated over and over again since the dawn of bending. Now is your turn to fully transform into the spirit of the planet incarnate in human form. Now is the time you truly become the next Avatar."
The words hit Hotaru like nothing she had ever experienced before in her life. She never wanted to be the Avatar, but now, her honor seen in this man's words were immense. How could she have looked down upon this duty once upon a time? A legend, a spirit, the limits of her abilities couldn't be imagined. She no longer had a choice in the matter. She no longer needed a choice. "I understand, master. I am ready."
The man smiled. "It is an honor to be teaching you. Call me Daiki." He began to turn around, and Hotaru looked up, managing to break her deep trance. "When do I begin?" she asked.
Daiki turned around. "I think you deserve a rest. Don't you have a home?"
"Well, yes, I was given a place in the Upper Ring of the city."
"Well that's that, then. Meet me at the dojo we visited this morning tomorrow. I'll be waiting there to begin your training."
Hotaru gave an understanding nod as he began to leave. This wasn't the same sort of teacher she had had before. Somehow, that was a good thing. He was quiet, but focused. She did have an enormous responsibility to live up to in Ba Sing Se. This was the right man to guide her. She stretched out her hands, her mind, her soul, she felt the air around her, the water by her side, the fire within her heart and the earth that she was kneeling on. She reached out with her spirit, and just for a second, knew she was going to leave this city victorious.
Above the clouds, Artos was still flying Takumi and Asaki underneath the moonlight. Takumi sat on top of his bison's head, looking out into the clouds. He saw every star in the sky clearly. Everything was so dark, but lighted, peaceful.
Suddenly, he shook his head, breaking out of his brains tired grip that was trying to pull him into sleep. Snap out of it, he told himself. It wasn't as if he was dozing off for no reason, it was late and he had been up for a while now, and it wasn't like-
I have been up for a while now!
It hit him. The moon was directly above them, it was midnight, his shift had ended, it was time to wake up Asaki to be on watch. She had been asleep for a while now.
Takumi turned around and climbed up Artos' back, peering over his saddle at Asaki sleeping there, leaning her head up against her bag. "Asaki..." he whispered.
No answer, she didn't even sturr.
He crept up closer, about to tell her to wake up again, when something stopped him. He looked down at her, her hair still hung around her neck, her blanket still covered half of her body, she still quietly and peacefully breathed, nothing was wrong. For some reason, Takumi didn't want to wake her up. Maybe, maybe it was-
No, he wouldn't go there. He slid back down Artos' neck and plopped down on the top of his head again. He'd stay on watch for a couple more hours, he'd let Asaki get some more rest. He had forgotten he was even tired.
Meanwhile, Shirou was deep in sleep within his tent in the forest, tormented by a faint, dark, dream.
He stood inside a strange chamber. A noise shattered his thoughts.
When he drew his sword, he felt ready and dazed at the same time.
Suddenly, a burst of energy wiped through his entire body, and he crumpled with grim triumph.
Everything went dark.
When Shirou awoke in the pitch-blackness of his tent, he could feel his heart beating loudly. What he saw felt more real than any dream he had ever had.
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