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|More from BlackMonkey||Adventure||PG (Parental Guidance)||Good||Here|
Previously on The Avatar Rhythm
|"I vote that we get to the bridge into Omashu through a side road." |
"Agreed. And one more thing to think about, King Isamu has volunteered to pick us up himself and drive us to the city. So we're guaranteed the protection of a vehicle on the road, but we need to wait for him to arrive here to leave."
|— Takumi and Asaki in|
|"The cart pulled in, parked a few yards away from them, and they intently watched a shorter man in a dark blue jacket climb out. When he turned around, all six of them waiting on the street corner instantly recognized the face. It was Chieftain Akio of Glacier Cove. They stood up, walking over with grins on their faces as two other familiar figures climbed out of the cart; Sora from the Western Air Temple and Fire Lord Taro. "|
|""That's what I mean," Takumi said. "So if you do get back together again, I just want to tell you something in case I don't get another chance." He sighed. "Thanks for the journey. The ride on Artos, all of our stops, living in Argil Village and now here. It was fun. And you're a good friend." |
Asaki smiled. "It wouldn't have been the same without you."
|""When I created The Quadrination Bandits, I took ordinary skilled people and then substituted their minds for my own, turning them into mindless puppets. Imagine that, times five hundred. The army that you see before us - it's no longer your army. With my energybending, every one of them just lost their individuality and became representations of my power. This army has just become an army of Quadrination Bandits. I am far weaker now, but that's nothing to be concerned with. I've been needing an army like this, so thank you Markale, for supplying the necessary humans. If you're unhappy with it, maybe you should have thought about getting me what you owed."|
|— The Chancellor about The Procession in|
|The Death Toll|
December 8, 2012
This is Chapter 46 of the The Avatar Rhythm Series.
Shirou rubbed his eyes, walking down the stairs of Kotone's house after a long but restless sleep. In the kitchen, Shinji and Sora were sitting in silence, drinking cups of tea. He sat down next to Shinji, who gave him a friendly nod. It was a little awkward living with everyone, friends and mentors from his journey. They had been together for three days now, and the Summer Solstice was in less than a week. No matter how conversations started, they always ended up talking about the upcoming battle, and things were getting tense. On top of all this, people were beginning to fight, tired of living with eight others in the same house. Akio kept breaking into arguments with the former Polar Revolution members among them. Shinji's stress over the Summer Solstice was getting the best of him. Shirou hadn't talked to Asaki or Takumi since the night he saw them kiss. And the growing fear in the hearts of everybody there was how they'd all manage to cooperate when facing The Chancellor.
"How'd you sleep?" Shinji murmured, breaking the long silence.
"Alright," he replied. "Kept waking up in the middle of the night."
Shirou shrugged. "I've just been a little frustrated the past couple days."
Sora, who had kept quiet drinking her tea on the other side of the table, looked up. "I've been a little frustrated as well, but it will be over soon. Isamu should come any day now to pick us up and bring us to Omashu."
"That's all that we're waiting for now, isn't it?" Shirou asked.
"I believe so."
Shinji grumbled. "It's taken him long enough, that's all I'll say. This is the most important battle of our lives and he can't even keep on a schedule. They'll make anyone king these days."
"Isamu is a good man," Shirou said. "He's doing his best."
"Have you ever met him?"
"I have," Sora said. "Isamu is a very good king, and if he is late, he must be for a justified reason."
"Whatever," Shinji muttered.
It was then that Asaki walked into the room, looking tired. She looked up at them wearily.
"Good morning," Sora said. "Sleep well?"
"Pretty well." She looked at them timidly for a little bit, not sure what to say next.
"Here, take a seat," Shinji encouraged, pulling a chair up to the table. "Relax."
Asaki smiled thankfully and began to sit down when she made eye contact with Shirou in the corner of the table, who was glaring at her with fiery disapproval. She looked away, her face reddening slightly. She was too embarrassed and ashamed to casually be with Shirou anymore. "I, uh," she muttered, "Forgot something. Upstairs." She hurried out of the room without another word, awkwardly leaving them there with their tea.
Shinji and Sora watched, not exactly sure what was going on. Neither knew of how bad the two's relationship had gotten, but they both could tell that Asaki hadn't really left the room because she left something upstairs.
"What?" Shirou asked, responding to the stares he was getting. "She probably forgot her knives or something."
Shinji gave him a good old "Lets be serious" look.
"I don't know what you guys want from me," Shirou complained. No one said anything. "Fine, be that way," he spat, "I'm out of here."
As he stood up and left the table, Shinji shook his head, muttering quietly, "Overreaction."
Apparently he muttered it a little too loud, because Shirou turned around angrily, glared at his friend, then took the coat hanging on a nearby chair and his sword resting against the wall. "I'll be at the market," he grumbled, stomping out the door of the house and slamming it behind him.
The room was left in silence, Sora and Shinji twiddling their fingers awkwardly.
Outside, Shirou put on the coat while walking towards the city street, quickly putting the hood up to avoid the ongoing rain. Slinging his sword over his back, he kept walking, now on the main street of The Town of Ethos and down to the dreary market where they sold farm goods and artisan crafts once a week. Kotone had given each of them ten gold coins to amuse themselves with in town while they waited for Isamu to come and pick them up, and Shirou still had seven left. He planned on spending them now. Because of the pouring rain and dark morning clouds, the few vendors in the market today were selling their products for low prices due to the small amount of customers. Even better for him.
Shirou roamed through the thin clouds of shoppers, gazing at the piles of ornate gifts. There was a table of handmade musical instruments, and when he saw a koto hanging on a shelf it reminded him that he had left Kotone's musical pride and joy in his jail cell in Ba Sing Se. He would buy her a new one, but it was sixteen gold coins. All of the instruments here were overpriced, as far as he could tell. He couldn't even afford the set of little brass bells. The next vendor was his favorite so far. The weapons seller. Axes, swords, sais, darts, spikes, hooks and blades, all handmade from the local forge. He saw a glistening sword with a shimmering silver hilt engraved with an intricate dragon design, and a sleek gray blade. He dreamed of wielding a majestic weapon like that in battle someday, but it was far too expensive. There was a pretty blue knife with a container of shirshu venom in the handle that he was sure Asaki would have liked. It was exactly seven gold coins too, but he decided not to buy it even though he could.
"Can I help you?" the shopkeeper behind the stand asked.
Shirou looked up. "I'm just looking right now." He paused. "But thanks." He scanned through the rest of the weapons, until he came across a dark sheathed dagger. He pulled the blade out, and stared at the inscription, "Never give up without a fight." He went back to the shopkeeper and showed him the dagger. "What's this?"
The man shrugged. "Just an old knife. Some people call it vintage, I call it trash. Apparently it was used in the Hundred Year War. I'm not too sure."
"How much is it?"
"Do you want it?"
Shirou nodded. "Sure."
"How about three gold coins?"
He tossed over three coins and took the dagger, walking away. It would make a good weapon in case of emergency. He wanted to look at more stands, but the market was beginning to shut down due to heavy rain. It was dark, cold, and the harsh storm made it hard to see anything other than a blurry gray downpour. Vendor by vendor, the stands were being taking down until the market was almost bare.
A voice called out through the torrential rain. "Is that you?"
Shirou turned towards the sound, making out a silhouette through the pouring, getting bigger as the mysterious figure walked forward.
"I've been looking for you," the voice, definitely male, called again.
"Who is it?"
The man walked close enough that they could see each other clearly. "My good friend," he said, smiling.
Shirou stepped back, suddenly recognizing the figure and voice. It was Markale, with a crazed grin plastered on his face. He only needed to see the commissioner for a few seconds to know, between the tattered uniform, bloodshot eyes, badly shaven chin and messy hair out of its usual topknot, that there was something terribly wrong with him today.
And he was legitimately afraid.
In Kotone's house, everyone was gathering around the kitchen table for breakfast. Hot toast, fresh jam, a loaf of raisin bread and some turtle duck sausages were laid out around the table, and people were beginning to sit down and grab a plate.
"This is really good," Taro said, biting into his sausage. "You have to try this Akio."
The chieftain shrugged, took a sausage and a slice of bread. He chopped off a chunk with his fork and ate it. "Mmm, you're right."
Everyone quickly had a steaming plate full of food and was heartily eating.
"Where's Shirou?" Kotone asked. Everyone looked around.
"He said he was going to the market," Shinji said. "Got a little mad and stormed out."
He made a quick gesture towards Takumi and Asaki, who talking amongst themselves in the corner of the table, giggling.
"Oh." Kotone looked outside where rain was beating down on the village. "Not the nicest day for a run to the market."
"He's a smart kid," Hotaru commented. "If there's a downpour outside, he'll come back."
"Of course he'll come back," Shinji said. "The question is when."
Hotaru looked annoyed. "That's what I meant. He's smart enough that when its heavily raining, he'll get to shelter quickly."
"You barely even know Shirou, so you can stop talking."
"I've known him longer than you have!"
"Quiet down," Kotone said, shaking her head. "We're all a little frustrated, that's all."
"No, wait a second," Shinji interjected. "I'm not gonna let that girl sneak a comment like that in without any comeback."
"What, that I've known Shirou longer than you?" Hotaru asked. "Well I have!"
"But I've spent far, far more time with him than you, and even when you did meet him a few more months before I did, do you remember that in only took a couple weeks for you to become his sworn enemy?"
"Settle down," Kotone said again, putting a hand on Shinji's shoulder. "Settle down." An uncomfortable silence fell upon the breakfast table.
Hotaru stood up from her chair and took her plate. "May I be excused?" she asked, leaving the table without an answer.
"Seconded," Takumi said, grabbing his plate.
Shinji and Asaki followed, and it was only a matter of time before the adults left the table as well.
Times were getting too tense for comfort.
In the middle of the horrible storm, Shirou stood staring at this deranged version of the commissioner of The Procession he once knew. The two of them slowly started to walk in a circle, always facing each other in a fighting position.
"Why are you here?" he called out through the rain. "Don't you have enough people to bother?"
Markale laughed, and if anything, that laughter hadn't changed since the last time they encountered each other. "You know why I'm here," he snickered. "I need your money! Eleven hundred coins!" He laughed again, echoing through the heavy storm that muffled their voices. On second thought, Shirou was thinking, maybe his laughter had changed since the last time they met. His voice had a new hint of... insanity.
"Where's your tax collectors to push me around now?"
"Gone, gone," Markale said, shaking his head. "No matter, you can still give me coins."
"Yes today, I need coins," The commissioner spat. "Now!"
Shirou shook his head, drenched in the rain, even with his coat on. "Sorry, I kind of have lots to do this weekend. Wait a week or two and I'll get back to you."
Markale slung his arm around, shooting a huge chunk of rock towards the boy. He dodged it easily, but was now frightened. Apparently, mental state and self-control work hand-in-hand, because both were deteriorating in the commissioner. "There is no next week," he said slowly. "There is no need for me to have eleven hundred coins next week. If I don't have them soon, it will be over, for all of us." He flung another huge stone over Shirou's way, which he rolled away from.
"What do you mean, it will be over? You're the richest man in the world, with an army of tax collectors behind you. What do you have to fear?"
"Not anymore," Markale whispered. "Not anymore! The Procession is gone, the money is gone, soon I will be gone too if I can't pay off a debt in the next five days! I need your money now!" He ran forward, shooting up a wave of stone and dust from the ground. Shirou ran out of the way, barely even able to see his opponent in the pounding rain. He drew his sword, and just of luck he was able to smash an oncoming brick in the air it with the blade.
Shirou jumped forwards with a vertical slash, shooting Markale back a few feet and giving him a moment to take the offensive. He slashed this way and that, jabbing out every few times. From nowhere, the commissioner lifted his hands up, shooting a wall of stone up from the ground that smashed Shirou away at the last moment. Stumbling in the mud, he tried to get up while Markale kept shooting bullets of stone towards him.
"You know the rules," the crazed earthbender said through the downpour. "You don't give me the money, you get killed. You know very well how willing I am to go through with this plan."
"I'll never forget what happened at Jade Glen."
Markale smiled. "You'll never forget my power. You know I'm not joking. Give me the money now or you're dead!" He sprinted forward, huge stone spikes leaping up from the ground behind him and shooting forward. Rolling out of the way the first spike, Shirou lifted his sword up and slashed the second one apart. Once they were gone, he dived towards Markale at full force, holding his sword blade out in front of him. They clashed in a bloody collision of man and stone, both trying to defend at the last second from each other's attacks. Stepping away, they staggered over their injuries, Shirou bruised and beaten all over from rocks, Markale with a bad sword wound in the shoulder. Clutching the areas of harsh pain, they glared at each other, every pounding raindrop against their open wounds sending stings up their spine.
"You'll never win," Shirou stuttered. "Give up!"
"Never, never, definitely not now! Definitely not now! It's getting too late, you're my only chance, my only hope, I've been working towards this all my life, it can't be over in five days, I need another chance, give me money!" Markale reached towards him. "Please, give me your coins!"
Shirou stared in disgust at this sad excuse for a human, whose only purpose was to claw for riches. "I don't even have eleven hundred coins. And what does it matter to you? The incident at The Procession's Western Headquarters happened quite a while ago. That's over and done."
"No coins? No coins!" he yelled, his face contorting this way and that. "You know what happens to people without coins, don't you? You die!"
"You wouldn't," Shirou stated. "I'm your only chance at getting money."
"Oh I would. You'll never defeat me, you know, you know, I have the guts to kill. I am not afraid!"
"Maybe that's your disadvantage."
"I have no disadvantage, I am all powerful, wealthy, respected, feared. You are under my rule, do as I say!"
Suddenly, a new voice cut through the torrents of the storm. "Stop it!"
The two looked at another figure appear in the marketplace, the silhouette getting more clear in the white clouds of pouring rain as it came closer. The figure was short, and between the green hood he had on and the dark clouds above, his face was hard to make out. His voice was audible, however, deep and fluent. "Stop picking on the kid," he said to Markale boldly. "Who do you think you are?"
The commissioner looked at the mysterious man quizzically. Never before had someone like this spoken out against him with such guts.
"Well, what do you have to say for yourself?" the man asked him.
"I suggest you shut your mouth or I'll kill you as well," Markale shot back, hoping to scare him away.
"How about you stop giving death threats and start getting a hold of yourself."
"I don't think you know who you're talking to, fool," he sneered. "I am Markale, Commissioner of The Procession."
The man gave a quick smile, and pulled off his hood, revealing a round face with a thick beard and a warm face. "And I'm Isamu, King of Omashu."
Markale's eyes suddenly widened and Shirou's face lit up. "You're... who?" the commissioner stuttered, realizing all of the insults he had just thrown were aimed at one of the most powerful leaders in the world. "But The Procession is a nationwide organization, right, and you can only control the people of your city."
Isamu shook his head. "The Town of Ethos is in the lands surrounding Omashu, so you're technically still in my jurisdiction. Under my laws. My rules. Just because you're rich it doesn't make you any more important than someone else in my lands."
"You..." Markale mumbled. His power had never been overturned like this before, he was supposed to be in control. But what could he do? This was a king.
"And because you're following my laws right now," the King of Omashu confidently stated, "Death threats, attacking civilians, and cruelty and punishable crimes. And I know that you've already killed millions of the poor people in our country."
Tears began to flow down Markale's face. "No, you can't do this," he cried. "It can't end now - I have a life to live, a journey to travel, a goal to reach." One bad thing after another had came to him, first his army was taken down, now he was taken down himself. What could possibly get worse?
Isamu looked at Shirou. "You, kid, get the police here. They have a station on Copse Street."
Shirou ran away through the rain, still dazed from what was happening, so happy but still a little concerned at the same time. The good thing was that Isamu had made it, so they could leave for Omashu soon. He looked up and saw a wooden sign that had "Copse" engraved into it. He turned the street corner, drenched in the ongoing rainstorm, and easily spotted out the large police station a few buildings down. He knocked on the door and ran in.
"Can I help you?" a woman in a brown uniform behind a desk asked.
"Yes," Shirou stuttered. "King Isamu of Omashu is here, and he's made an arrest. He wants the police, and I was the only person there, and he asked me-"
"Where is he now?"
"The main square, where the markets usually are."
"We'll be there right away." She rang a set of bells and a two men and a woman in identical brown uniforms ran into the office. "Marketplace," the lady behind the desk said. "King of Omashu is here and made an arrest."
The three officers smiled. "Need a ride?" one of the men asked Shirou, pulling him out the door with them.
They went into a stable and quickly pulled out two ostrich horses, one man and the woman jumping on the first one, the other man and Shirou getting on the second. They sped off to the marketplace, where Isamu was trying to hold down Markale. The three police officers jumped off and grabbed the resisting commissioner who was writhing this way and that and flinging rocks with no control when possible. One man was on top of him, the women holding him down by his arms, the last man redirecting the earthbending attacks he tried to make. Isamu stepped back from the scene and looked at Shirou.
"Pretty crazy, right?"
"Who are you, anyway?" the king asked him.
"Believe it or not," Shirou chuckled. "I'm Shinji's best friend - and I'm living with Kotone right now so when the Summer Solstice comes along I can help protect him."
Isamu scratched his head. "Seriously?"
"Well that's where I'm headed. Want to bring me over?"
"Sure," Shirou said. "Follow me."
Half and hour later, Shirou and Isamu had arrived at Kotone's house, and another round of hugs and greetings went around the all of the now ten visitors. After a long fuss over their wet clothes from the storm and getting each of them new pants, shirts, jackets, hats and scarves each, they were sitting around the living room, some people on the couch, a few on armchairs, others sitting on the floor. There was a fire going on in the fireplace.
"And I'm just about to leave when I hear a voice," Shirou was explaining. "Guess who it is?"
"King Isamu?" Takumi guessed.
"Nope - Markale."
Their jaws dropped. "What? Is it tax day?"
"I don't know what's happened to that man," Shirou said. "But whatever happened, it was bad. He didn't have The Procession with him, his clothes were ripped, he was like a deranged version of the villain we once knew. A miserable psychopath who only wanted my money."
"What happened to him?"
"Why wasn't he with the tax collectors?"
"Did you escape?
"Something was up with him," Shirou said. "He kept talking about needing the eleven hundred coins in five days."
"Wait," Akio said. "Isn't the Summer Solstice in five days?"
"Yeah, that's why I think its weird. Markale said that if he didn't have the money in five days, it would be over for all of us. It was is if he wouldn't live unless he had money. He tried to attack me, but Isamu appeared, and held him off. I got the police and we captured him."
"So Markale was arrested?" Asaki asked.
"Yes," King Isamu said. "Soon he will get what he deserved for all the killing that he has lead."
"Well, that's one more good thing out of the way," Taro said. "The only thing to do now is head to Omashu."
Isamu nodded. "My cart is parked at the edge of town. If we leave at nightfall we could make it to Omashu by tomorrow afternoon."
"Sounds good to me," Shirou said.
Takumi leaned back in his chair. "So what's next?"
"Packing, planning, preparing," Isamu said. "Maybe?"
"What do you think we've been doing for the past week while we waited for you to arrive?"
The king looked at him with a blank face. "Pack, plan and prepare?"
There was a knock on the door just then, and Kotone stood up to go get it. There on the front step was a women in a brown uniform, the same police officer who helped them take down Markale.
Isamu walked over. "Is something wrong?" he asked her.
The police officer stepped into the house. "Nothing's wrong," she said. "We just completed our interrogation of the commissioner of The Procession."
"Well, that's what we wanted to talk to you about. He keeps asking to see a boy named Shirou."
Shirou looked up from the couch. "That's me."
"His mental state is obviously decreasing," the officer said. "But he's determined to see you. He keeps talking about it being too late unless he talks to you."
"Could you figure anything out from what he was saying?" Shirou asked, walking over.
"He said a few other things we didn't understand," she said. "Something about a Chancellor."
The room fell silent.
"A Chancellor?" Shirou asked. "We gotta go."
Everyone in the room went into the hall, got their coats and ran outside, headed to the police station. This was something they weren't expecting.
It didn't take long for all ten of the allies to make their way to the police station. They filed inside, and were led to a door marked "Interrogation Room."
"We can only allow one or two in there at once," the police officer accompanying them said. "He may not talk if there is a whole crowd watching him."
Shirou looked at them. "I'll go in," he said. "He wants to see me anyway."
They nodded encouragingly, and he put his hand on a doorknob. Then without another word, he walked inside the Interrogation Room, closing the door behind him.
Inside the square gray room, Markale was sitting on chair, his hands fastened by handcuffs to the desk in front of him. Another chair was on the other side of the desk, and Shirou sat down on it.
"I knew you would come," the commissioner said. "I knew you would come."
"Why do you want me?"
"I need you," Markale said in his unstable voice. "You are my only hope of getting money."
"Stop whining about money!" Shirou demanded. "It's not going to get you anywhere, especially in a police station. Get a hold of yourself!"
"No... money? But how will I survive? If I had only had enough money I wouldn't be in this mess!"
"You killed every single civilian in the country unless they payed you, and in other countries too, and now you complain about having enough money!"
"If I only had enough money," Markale said, "The Procession would still be in my control."
Shirou leaned forward. "What happened to your tax collectors?"
"Two words," he said. "The Chancellor."
"The energybender who wears a dark cloak?"
"Yes..." Markale quivered.
"How do you know that man?"
"No, don't ask me, please, I can't take it, it's too hard!"
Shirou stared at the babbling lunatic in front of him. "Alright, I don't care how you two know each other. Just tell me. What did he do?"
"He took my army. He came in the night and used his energybending to take control of The Procession."
"What?" Shirou asked in disbelief.
"That man... He came, he said he needed an army, I don't know what for, but he used his energybending and turned The Procession into a league of possessed bandits. He's weak but it doesn't matter. His new army of power will destroy everything. And the only way I can get my Procession back is with money. And money comes from you!"
Shirou stared in horror. "No... this can't be."
"Yes, it is be, you are my solution, you owe me money and I need money and I will kill you if you don't give me it!" Markale strained against the chains that held him down.
"First of all," Shirou said, "I'm broke." He paused, digging in his pockets. "Never mind," he said, taking four gold coins out and sliding them over to Markale.
"Money!" he cried.
"Now I'm broke." Shirou emptied his pockets. "That's all I've got. Not a coin more."
"What?" Markale asked. "You owe me eleven-"
"No I don't. I owed The Procession eleven hundred gold coins and now The Procession is over. It doesn't matter even if you payed The Chancellor eleven hundred thousand coins, he'd just take your money away from you and keep your tax collectors as his army. He's using you, Markale. If you want to beat him, you can't give in to his powers and get him what he wants."
"But what do I do now?"
"Don't do anything stupid and take the punishments that the law has out for you. Then you can let us handle The Chancellor."
"No, please, help me," the commissioner said. "Please."
"You've done too much wrong in your life to get a free pass now," Shirou said. "It's time for you to grow up and help yourself. You have no money. You have no army. You have no respect. Stop pretending that you still have the upper hand in society and learn to live like all the men and woman that you have killed in your conquests. There are no more hands out for you so you've gotta get up yourself, you hear me?" With that, he left the room and shut the door behind him.
The nine friends were still waiting the station. They stood staring at him, eager to hear what happened inside.
"How did it go?" Taro asked.
"Bad," Shirou said. "Very bad."
They all looked at him in worry. "What?"
"We're going to need to rethink our whole plan of action in Omashu. The Chancellor ambushed Markale a few days ago and used almost all of his energy to transform The Procession into and army for his own purposes. From what I could make out, the tax collectors now resemble The Quadrination Bandits.
"An army of Quadrination Bandits?" Shinji said in fear.
Shirou made a slow, grim nod. Everyone there was speechless.
"How could this happen..." Kotone whispered.
Shinji buried his face in his hands, panic taking over his brain. "Four of those were enough, a whole Quadrination Bandit military, I'm gonna die, I know I'm gonna die."
"No you're not," Takumi said. "You have us."
"You guys could barely get the bandits off of me when back then, imagine what it'll be like facing a hundred times more of them. They won't stop until I'm dead."
"But-" Asaki tried to interject.
"No, they will!" Shinji yelled. "They finally have the numbers to overcome us. They'll always want to take me down!" They stared in solemn silence.
"We might not be able to stop their power," Shirou said. "But if we redirect it, if we make them not intent on killing Shinji, were safe."
"Oh yeah, sure, that'll be easy. Remember that at the front of this army is The Chancellor himself!"
"Then we have to make The Chancellor not intent on killing Shinji."
"Umm, right. Sorry," Kotone said, "But I don't think we'll be able to do that. He won't give up until he's immortal."
"Exactly," Shirou said. "We have to make the chances of becoming immortal zero. We need to break Koh's curse on him so his bounty no longer even exists."
Shinji raised an eyebrow, partly out of fear, partly out of gratitude. "And how are you going to manage that?"
"When The Chancellor ambushed Hotaru and I in Ba Sing Se, he let out a way for a mortal to enter The Spirit World. It's only possible on a solstice."
"So technically," Isamu said, "While we battle in Omashu on the Summer Solstice, you could be up in The Spirit World with Koh and trying to get him to lift Shinji's bounty."
"I don't know if that's going to work," Shinji said hesitantly.
"Well what's your plan?"
"It's very much possible," Hotaru said. "But I remember from when The Chancellor attacked us, he said that you also need to be at a spiritual location, like an Avatar shrine, that's where he said he used."
"Do you know of a place like that around here?" Shirou asked.
Kotone scratched her head. "There is one place," she said. "In the northern forest. Its a spiritual totem of the forest spirit, Hei Bai. In legends, they say that this spirit could enter our world through the statue in the woods."
"Is this real?" Shirou asked.
"Only one way to find out, am I right?" Kotone chuckled. "I believe it exists. On the Solstice, or the day before, start your trek into the forest. Find the statue and use it to enter The Spirit World. Then travel to Koh's lair, and do whatever you can to end Shinji's curse, whatever you can."
"You better believe it," Shirou said.
Shinji looked at his friend. Inside, he wasn't sure if this would all work. But he was glad that someone gave him hope.
"So what happens to Markale?" Isamu asked.
The police officer in the room with them spoke up. "He has to go to court before we can make any more decisions."
"As much as I hate that man, I do feel for his pain against The Chancellor," Shirou said. He turned his attention to the police officer. "How fast can we get a court for him up and running?"
"Four or five days, if you're quick."
"Dangit," Shirou said. "We'll all be gone by then. I feel like one of us should oversee his trial, though."
"I'll stay back if you want me to," Takumi volunteered.
"Same here," said Asaki. "We'll make sure things don't get out of control, you know, keeping the command center at The Town of Ethos up and running."
"Will you do that?" Kotone asked.
They nodded in unison. Shirou wanted to speak up against those two working together, but he decided that love shouldn't get in the way right now. They were doing this for a noble cause.
Everyone looked at each other.
"Shirou will leave for The Spirit World, Asaki and Takumi will stay here to watch Markale, and the rest of us are heading to Omashu," Kotone summarized. "Well, we have bags to pack, folks. Lets head home."
After a widespread murmur of agreement, they followed her out the door of the police station, to face whatever awaited them next.
That night, Shirou was sitting on Kotone's roof, watching the team fill King Isamu's ostrich horse driven cart with the final supplies for the battle. They were leaving soon. He was afraid he wouldn't see them again. His bag was already packed. It had a water bottle, his knife, some rope, and a tent. He didn't need much, and just really didn't want to think about what was about to happen to them. He was already stressed enough.
"Hey," said a voice behind him.
It was Shinji. He closed the trapdoor to the roof behind him and sat beside Shirou, watching the horizon of The Town of Ethos and beyond at dusk.
"What's gonna happen to us?" Shinji whispered.
"Don't know. I'm scared."
"Lets say we make it back safely, The Chancellor is killed and I'm free of my curse. What happens after that?"
Shirou shrugged. "I don't know. We find a job, get a girlfriend."
"So this is the end."
"This is the end of the journey?" Shinji asked.
"The end of this journey. I left to avenge Kaito, you left to defeat The Quadrination Bandits. If we win this battle, both of our goals will be achieved."
"It was a good journey, you know."
"Yeah, I know."
Shinji laughed. "Remember that time when we were attacked by the fruit flies?"
"Heh heh. The weird thing is that was really only six or seven months ago."
Shinji laughed again. "You know, it's hard to think that my journey will be over, to even think my curse could be lifted. It's been so long."
"It'll be over soon," Shirou reassured him.
"It's strange. For ten years, I've lived with this curse. I've been haunted forever by it. Ever since The Quadrination Bandits broke into my home in the Fire Nation, killed my parents before my very eyes and tried to kill me, I've been scarred. And I always thought, that for as long as I live, I would always be tormented by that day, even if The Quadrination Bandits were taken down. It's not very hard to take a life. Once people know that if mine is taken they will be given the greatest power in the world, I'll always be hunted down."
Shirou put a hand on his friend's shoulder.
"The thing that scared me," Shinji said, tears which Shirou had never witnessed in his eyes, "Was to think that the only time I'd ever have relief from this evil would be once I'm dead. That no matter what I did in my life, it would always be there."
"We're going to help you," Shirou said. "I'm going to find Koh and make him lift your curse."
"It's not that easy. Koh is smarter and stronger than you or I will ever be."
"How did you do it?" he whispered. "You outsmarted him once upon a time - it's the reason you were given the curse."
Shinji sighed. "If you show any emotion in Koh's presence, a slight smile or gasp of fear, he will take your face away forever. This is his sacred power - but it's also his one weakness."
"What do you mean?"
"Koh doesn't know emotion, he has none. He can fake emotions, using the faces in which he's stolen throughout the years. The faces which have smiled or yelled, he's taken them that so he can smile and yell too. But inside, there's no real feeling. He doesn't understand emotion when he witnesses it so he attacks. You must use this to your advantage. He has no feeling, no heart, nothing within. He doesn't care for anything, and that's his downfall."
They stared at the sky turning from blue to purple to black in silence, lights beginning to appear in the horizon.
"You have to free me of this curse, you here me," Shinji said, his voice cracking. "I don't care how long it lasts, I just want to be able to live for some time without constant fear. I just want to know what its like to walk and talk without having a sense of paranoid horror that makes me look around and make sure no one's watching me. All I want is to live like a regular person, and you're my only chance. Please, do it for me."
"You've done more than I could have ever wanted, you know that," Shirou said. "I've double-crossed you and thrown you under the bus but you're still my friend, and that's what I like about you. I owe you a hundred times more than than what I do for you now. And I promise you that I'm gonna lift your curse. I promise you, on everything I love, when we meet again, you're going to have nothing to worry about."
"Hey, I have a present for you," Shirou said quietly. "I got it at the market today, and was going to keep it. You probably need it more, though." He handed him the black dagger.
Shinji held it, took the blade from its sheath, and read the inscription aloud. "Never give up without a fight." He looked over. "Thanks."
"It's not much, but, you deserve something."
After sitting there for a few tranquil minutes, they looked down from the roof at Kotone waving at them. "It's time to go, Shinji," she called out. "We're leaving for Omashu now."
Shirou looked at him, and they embraced. "Good luck!" he called out as Shinji hopped off the low roof and beside Kotone. They began to walk away when Shinji turned around again. "Defeat Koh for me!" he called out. "Just come back alive, okay!"
Shirou nodded from atop the roof, and watched his friend walk away into the darkness of the night.
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