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Previously on The Avatar Rhythm
|"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."|
|— From Survivors|
|"They paused for a second, and Takumi looked at Asaki. "It's getting late. How about we just rent a room? We'll keep looking tomorrow." |
|— From The Peak of Power|
|"Shirou had a second of time to react. Anil was far faster than Shinji, and in less than a minute he would have caught up to him. He had to do this for his friend. Saving Shinji lots of precious time to escape, Shirou flung himself from his perch, body slamming straight into Anil, who was running at full speed, and their powerful collision caused them both to fall over and roll straight off the side of the deep mountain ravine, both of them plummeting into the darkness below."|
|— From The Peak of Power|
|The Lady and the Koto|
July 7, 2012
This is Chapter 41 of The Avatar Rhythm Series.
Darkness, fading, shimmering, letting its way into the cave.
There, the beast moved, twisting around, staring him through, chilling his soul.
Suddenly, he lifted the sword, and let out a cry, as the beast's claws latched onto his face, preparing to suck everything out of it.
Light and darkness exploded, crashing between the force of face against face, blade against claw.
Then, everything went black.
Shirou's eyes opened to the screeching call of a bird flying around overhead. It took him a second to remember where he was and how he got there. All he saw were huge craggy walls on either side of him and a damp stone path that he sat upon. A musty gray haze filled the air. It was coming back now - him and Anil hurtling down the ravine from the top of the nearby mountain, his last attempt to save Shinji. He only hoped that it worked and Shinji was long on his way to Argil Village.
Alert now, Shirou looked around. Unless he had already got up and left, Anil would have to be around here somewhere. But there was no body in sight. "That's strange."
He decided it would be best if he kept going. Judging from the light of the sun from above, he determined which path in the ravine led southwards and went that way. As he walked, listening to the small splashes his worn out shoes made stepping in the puddles in the ground, he decided to count the scars he had just gotten in the fall down the cliffs. There was one still gushing blood near his wrist, which he assumed was broken, and wrapped a shred of canvas from his undershirt around. His leg was a collage of bruises, colors spanning from black to blue to yellow to brown. His right leg, giving out a crack and spasm of pain every time he stepped with it, was probably fractured. His face felt rough and scratched, he only could imagine what he would see once he got a mirror. Besides a bunch of minor scratches and scrapes all over his body, the only other thing was a large gash on his arm.
He kept walking across the path for about an hour, until finally breaking out from the huge dark crack in the mountains and entering a jagged canyon of sorts, filled with sunshine. Shirou rubbed his eyes, not being able to take the light instantly. Finally after his eyes adjusted, he looked around and scanned the sides of the crag. Not very far away there was a slanted ridge coming up to the top, slanted enough for him to walk up. He did so, half hiking, half climbing on rocks, and finally, sweating and in enormous pain, made it up to the flat highlands around the canyon. The view was amazing.
He walked a bit too the nearest patch of woods, sitting against a dry tree, enjoying the shade of its dying leaves. It was time to decide what to do with himself at this point. He still had his sword and water bottle, which was a big plus. From the looks of the sun, the ravine had let him a bit more to the east than he expected, and his course towards Argil Village was completely off track. It would take a couple dozen more miles to get back to the trail they were on that went there, and he didn't have that sort of energy to lose. And anyway, he had done his duty to get Shinji safe. He's probably already at Argil Village, Shirou thought to himself hopefully. Shinji was safe, The Quadrination Bandits wouldn't be back already, and there were no villages big enough nearby for The Procession to be around. What was left? Shirou thought for a second.
He chuckled, for a bit. The reason he left his home in the first place. He had been caught up in obstacles along the way, but now he had taken care of them, and was on back to his main quest. He'd get back to Shinji, Asaki, and Takumi later, but if there was any opportune moment to get back on track heading to his original goal, it was now. It was time to kill the Avatar.
At Argil Village, miles away, Asaki and Takumi were sitting in their hotel room, discussing what to do next.
"I don't think that they're here yet, Asaki, I'm sorry."
"I know. We've looked everywhere."
Takumi tried to look hopeful. "Hey, they got over here on foot and we came on Artos. It's only natural that we arrive before they do."
"They left a month before we did," Asaki said. "They have to be close. I know it."
They sat there for a second in silence. Asaki just thought about their journey, while Takumi was thinking over more. He had tried to hint at his feelings for a while now. If he was going to tell Asaki - no, that was insane. But it was best moment to do so. He might not get another chance. Go for it, Takumi, his instincts told himself.
"Asaki," he muttered, afraid now. But it was too late. "Do you like me?"
She raised an eyebrow. "Yes, we've been traveling with each other for quite a while now, so it only seems natural that we would become friends."
"Okay," he said, now grateful that he didn't have to say anything else.
"Why do you ask?" Asaki questioned.
Come on! Takumi shouted within his mind. Now what do I do? He decided to go for it. "Do you like me as... more than a friend?"
"Wait - what?" Asaki looked disgusted. "No, that's - why, do you?"
Takumi suddenly felt horrible for asking, his face beet red.
"That's in - no, I do not! How could you? I thought we were-" Before she could even say anything more, she stormed off, flustered, into her own room and locked the door behind her.
Annoyed, Takumi looked down at the ground, alone in the main part of the hotel room. "Damnit."
In Ba Sing Se, Hotaru was back in her earthbending dojo, training with Daiki. Now several weeks into training, she had learned the basics of the art and was very skilled in them.
Hotaru currently stood with two bricks floating over each of her hands, breathing deeply and beginning to sweat.
"Do you think you've got a good handle on those?" her teacher asked.
Dropping the bricks, she nodded.
"That's good," Daiki said. "Now, we are going to do that to the next level. I call it my "Strength Test"."
A worried look quickly covered Hotaru's face.
"All you have to do is lift this stone up for as long as you can with earthbending." Daiki stomped the ground and a huge slate of rock burst from the floor; at least six feet long and a good couple inches thick. "Try it."
"I'll do my best." She bent her knees, thrust up her wrists, making the slate shake, and then slowly raised her fists, sweating. The rock rose into the air about a foot, but after a few seconds Hotaru let go of her focus in pain and let it fall back to the floor.
"You did alright. Want to try again, or no?"
"I'll try again." She had a secret and was going to use it this time, some of the final words that Mikio had told her in their recent meeting. "I'm always here and so is your true Avatar power. The thing that has always troubled us is how to find power inside. Search yourself, locate that energy, and then use it whenever you need."'. Hotaru smiled, her veins bulging, her muscles tensing, and suddenly her eyes flashed white. With a flick of her wrists, the huge stone slate Daiki had out for her flew up into air twenty or so feet, barely smashing into the ceiling, floated there for a few seconds, and slowly lowered back down.
Daiki and the other earthbenders training by themselves in other parts of the dojo clapped at Hotaru's stunning move.
"You are really getting a hang of this," her teacher said. "I couldn't do that and I've been earthbending for half a century."
Hotaru chuckled, but her face quickly changed into a frown. "Daiki, this only because of the Avatar State. I can't do anything without it. I'm worthless without it."
"Nah, come on, don't say that," Daiki said. "This is your gift as the Avatar, so use it."
"I guess so," Hotaru said. "I guess so." She smiled, and closed her eyes, searching for that internal spot of flowing chi that she shared with all of her past lives. Using that energy, she thrust herself into a meditative trance, and opened her eyes in the Avatar State. Using the power of all of the Avatars, she opened her hands, bringing them up, lifting a column of stone from the ground that was a little less than five feet thick all the way up to the ceiling, then with a flurry of punches, made the huge stone explode into a cloud of sand, which she condensed into a sphere of small rocks, which she sent in every direction so quickly, most of the crowd of earthbenders around her couldn't even see them. Then, she brought her hands back together, swung them up and brought her fists back to the ground, shooting every little pebble in the air around the dojo back into the column they started as, and sent that huge rock back into the ground. As Hotaru's eyes went back to normal, the crowds went wild.
"That Avatar State will make you invincible," Daiki said. "No one will be able to beat you."
Shirou, after walking through dry woodlands for hours and covering a couple miles of land, finally found a village to rest at. He walked up to its front wooden gateway, and looked at the sign.
"Town of Ethos".
For some reason the name seemed familiar. He looked around, a large wooden wall surrounded the small complex of houses and farms and separated them from the surrounding forest. Shirou trotted over to the large house in the center of the village, tired and hot. After knocking on the front door, an elderly woman soon opened it up, and almost instantaneously raised an eyebrow at Shirou, a dirty, scarred, sweaty teenager. "And you are?"
"A visitor. I fell off a cliff and need assistance. How about you?"
"My name is Kotone, but, you fell off a cliff?" She was surprised and worried at the same time. "The only nearby cliffs are miles away."
"I had to walk from there." Shirou looked up. "Please, I need a place to rest."
The lady nodded. "Alright, alright. Come in, I'll get you fixed up."
Shinji looked at the sign above him. "The Clay Ridge Inn". He had finally made it to Argil Village, and judging by the sky bison that was in the barn beside the place, Takumi and Asaki were probably inside. He opened the doors and walked in.
There was a tired-looking man behind the front desk, who looked up when Shinji walked in. "You need a room?"
Shinji shook his head. "I'm here to meet someone. Is there a Takumi or Asaki staying here at the momemnt?"
The man looked down, rubbed his forehead, and took a file out of a drawer of his. Sighing, he opened it up, flipped through the pages, and put his finger down on one. "They checked in yesterday. One's Water Tribe and the other's an airbender. Said they were lookin' for a someone named Shirou or Shinji. Heard of them?"
Shinji nodded. "What room are they in?"
Without another word, Shinji walked away down the left hall, and kept looking for the right door. When he found the one labeled twenty three, he knocked on it three times, and then heard Takumi's familiar voice through the wood.
"Who is it?"
He almost smiled for the first time in weeks. "It's Shinji."
Almost immediately, the door opened, and they stared at each other for a second. "You made it!" Takumi exclaimed, patting Shinji on the back. They stayed there for a second, great to finally be reunited with each other. "Where's Shirou?"
He nodded. "Well, make yourself at home here, I'll listen." They walked into the room, and Shinji seated himself on the old armchair in the corner. Takumi went to the shelves that had their belongings in it and pulled out a bag of leechi nuts. "Want some?"
Takumi poured himself a handful and tossed the bag with the rest to Shinji. "You must be hungry."
He shrugged. "I had a coin or two when I got in here yesterday. Bought a little chicken thing from some vendor in the streets."
"A chicken thing?"
"Yeah. It was pretty good." Shinji looked around. "So where's Asaki anyway?"
"We had a... disagreement."
Takumi rubbed his forehead. "It was personal."
"Oh." Shinji raised his eyebrows curiously. "Well, mind as well bring her in if you want to hear my story. Don't feel like telling it twice."
Takumi hesitantly stood up and slowly walked towards the door to Asaki's room, knocking once. "Hey, uh, Shinji's arrived here. Just in case you wanted to come-"
Asaki opened the door and walked into the main room, glared at Takumi, gave Shinji a welcome nod, and leaned against the wall. "So where's Shirou gone off too?"
"When we were hiking the mountains to the north next to Argil," Shinji said, looking down, "We were ambushed. By the Quadrination Bandits."
"You see, they wanted to get me. We had taken out all but one of 'em, and the last, the sneaky airbender boy, he was about to chase after me - and he was faster than the both of us. I guess Shirou figured that if he didn't intervene I'd be toast, and he attacked Anil. He did more than that, though. He threw himself and the bandit off the side of the mountain cliff, to give me time. He told me to run, so I did just that."
"Did he survive?" asked Asaki in fright. "Is he okay?"
"I don't know. But that ravine that he jumped down with Anil was deep. I have no way of knowing."
"You didn't try to rescue him?"
Shinji shrugged. "He did all of that so I could get to Argil as quickly and safely as possible. I decided that if he was going to do that much for me, I mind as well let his plan go the way he wished it to. You have to understand."
"I do understand," Asaki said. "But it's sad."
Takumi looked at her. He knew where her feelings were truly directed towards.
"Shirou is a bright man," she continued. "And strong. He'll make it out of there alive, I know it. Lets just stay here for a few more days, see if he comes by. Shinji, you can stay here. Sleep on that chair if you want. Make yourself at home."
A couple hours after arriving, Shirou had just came out of the first hot bath he had since living in Jade Glen and was now clothed in a new green tunic and black pants. The old woman who had volunteered to care for him, Kotone, was now dressing all of his wounds.
"So you have a broken wrist, three fractures in your right leg, one fracture in your left leg, a fractured ankle, and a series of broken bones in your left foot." She shook her head. "You also have a cluster of deep wounds in your arm that have gotten all the way down to the tissue around your bones. Plus, you could have light concussion."
Shirou smiled. "Not too bad, Kotone, eh?"
The old woman almost let out a grin. "How'd you end up jumping off a cliff in the first place?"
"Well, me and my friend Shinji were just hiking up this craggy place to the northwest, and at the peak we had an accident."
Kotone looked up, interested. "Shinji, did you say, was with you? A firebender?"
Shirou was surprised that she knew about his friend, but assuming that she wasn't a bad person, told the truth. "Yes, the cursed firebender. I help protect him, and he helps me in my travels. How do you know Shinji? He's not the friendliest type."
"I used to care for him, too," she said. "I used to protect him from those bandits. We lived together for three years. He was like a son to me."
It all clicked. "Hey, you must be the same person Shinji always talks about, who used to take care of him. You taught him how to make roast duck with leechi sauce."
She cracked a slight smile. "That was his favorite meal. I'm glad to know he is still safe." She looked at Shirou. "But as we were saying, you'll need at least a month to recover here."
"What?" Shirou's eyes widened. "A month? I was thinking more like, you know, a couple days."
"Why, where do you need to be?"
"I think Ba Sing Se."
"Ba Sing Se?" Kotone asked. "What does a Water Tribe refugee need to there?"
Shirou shrugged. "The Avatar is supposed to be training there, and I have unfinished business with her to take care of."
"What sort of business?"
"Oh, it's nothing." He gave fake but convincing chuckle. "I've known her for a while. Just need to talk with her."
"I see. Well, you won't be able to walk there any time soon."
"However, if you could get someone with a steed or cart, I'm sure in less than a week you'd be able to able to travel there." Kotone smiled. "I, in fact, as the leader of the Town of Ethos, have access to our community's ostrich horse carriage."
"Would you let me go to Ba Sing Se on it in a week?"
"Well, I would escort you there, as I don't trust you to be on your own while still injured, but yes."
"Thank you, Kotone," Shirou said.
She nodded. "Any protector of Shinji is a friend of mine. Those bandits that chase him down are horrible people. But for now, we should focus on resting." As Shirou closed his eyes, she pulled out a large wooden bar covered in strings, and began to pluck them, creating a low, harmonious tune that drifted through the room.
"What's that called?" he asked, his eyes still closed.
"This is my instrument, the koto. I've had it since I was just a girl."
Shirou listened to the sweet music, drifting off. His voice was tired. "What's the song you're playing?"
Kotone looked at him. "It's a piece that was taught to me many years ago, and has a powerful inner meaning. It's called The Avatar Rhythm. Would you like to learn about it?"
But Shirou was already asleep.
"Well, maybe some other time."
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