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|Spirit of a Dragon|
Pyres and Storms
April 2, 2013
The world is engulfed in war. Blood has spilled as the Nations contest a balance of power. Avatar Tala must guide the world in order to bring stability back, but must deal with resistance and ancient threats that risk to change the course of the world forever.
Chapter 11: Spirit of a Dragon
Nothing ever changed on the walls. Lieutenant Chin had been posted here, being promised that defending the city was a sure way to move up the ranks. Now he realized, it was a way to get rid of excess officers. The wall always needed men, but the high command didn't. Five years wasted. The only upside was the stability of work and the location. His family lived in the Middle Ring well and his son was getting a good upbringing.A whisper interrupted his bored musings. He looked above for whatever bird may have made the sound. It was a clear sky with not a speck blocking the sun, though that was darker than usual. He heard it again, faint. It was baying, like some hunting dog.
It must have been loud to have been heard all the way on the top of the wall. He looked about the buildings below to see the source of the commotion, there was nothing so early in the morning to make it.
He heard it again, it was coming from beyond the city. He looked out north to the labyrinth paths of the foothills, he could hear it more clearly now. He recognized its breed but that made him more confused. Eel Hounds were the mounts of the Royal Guards of the Earth King, but they were always in packs, never alone, and this one was alone.
He then saw it, the Eel Hound was running at full speed to the walls. There were two on its back, riding frantically. Wait, there was one riding, the other was strewn across like a dead man. He called to his men, "Open the gates!"
She saw it in the distance, unmistakable, the Great Wall of Ba Sing Se. It was so high. She kept pushing Ilan forward, even when tired, they needed to get there now. Rishu didn't have time. She whistled a serious command and her companion began baying at the top of his lungs, she hoped someone or something up there could hear it.
Running at full speed, she could feel unsteady steps from Ilan. The distance between the Storm Grave and Ba Sing Se was short for an Eel Hound, but she ran him faster than she ever had before. There, just leaps away from the gate, she saw it open, someone heard or saw her coming.
Speeding past the opening she continued on, she heard the neighing on Rishu's horse follow. She heard the screams of soldier commanding her to halt, but ignored them, she sped up to the next great wall, that which led to the Middle Ring. This wall did not open for her, the men stood at the ready to give her battle.
"Halt! State your purpose!"
"I am Avatar Tala! I have come for healers!"
"You look well enough to wait to me."
"Its not for me!" She yelled annoyed, she beckoned to the man laying across the saddle in front of her. Just thinking about it weighed on her. It made her feel nauseous, like fainting.
The soldiers must have noticed that, or recognized the man she pointed to, "Open the Gates, and tell them to clear the way to the Palace! Let the King know!"
"Thank you," she spoke barely above a whisper.
As the way cleared, she pressed on, commanding Ilan to do so. She then heard the soldiers relay the orders as she passed them. She heeded none in her haste of fear, worry, and weakness.
Perhaps it was a mistake, for eyes friendly and not watched with great interest as the Avatar came alone with a seemingly dead man.
Tala finally reached the Palace, a great fortress of stone, gold and emerald. The jewel of the Earth Kingdom. Waiting for her at the great steps were the Earth King and a cadre of men that must have been healers.
Stopping so suddenly almost tripped her exhausted and weathered Eel Hound, panting badly with the horse easily following behind.
"What happened, Avatar? Why are you so deep in Earth Kingdom territory?"
"The witch, we fought her in Dol Mordath," a few cringed at the name, King Iruei among them, the rest looked on in ignorance, "she did something to Rishu."
The healers moved forward, steadily taking the man off the saddle. Two healers then attended to Tala. "I can unsaddle myself!"
It seemed that she had overestimated her strength, her attempt to move left her unbalance and she hit the ground with no brake. The lead healer looked on her in worry, "You are not well Avatar, you look a breath away from death!"
"I am fine, Rishu was the one hit," she tried to get up to reassure them, but her strength fled her. All her fear had left, and the strength it gave her had bled away, leaving her tired, without power.
A Grave Malady
Tala was carried to a room, despite her protest that she was fine. Rishu was taken at a slower rate, she could feel the cloud of confusion in what ailed him among the healers. They had never encountered this before.
"We need the Elder Sage, he may know of this," the healers seemed mystified and called for the highest priest in the city to answer this riddle.
It was nearly an hour before he arrived in haste. It was not surprising it took him so long, he seemed not too far from death himself. An ancient and decrepit man, he had lived a long life, and the twilight of his life was coming to an end.
A doctor spoke to the old wise-man, "Elder Sage, we have two here who are sick, they are beyond our knowledge. What ails them?"
The old men stepped forward unsteadily, as he relied heavily on a staff with an attendant beside him should he fall. He looked them both over, "These wounds come not from this world. These spirits have cursed them. And this one more so," he pointed to Rishu.
"Please," Tala spoke up, it hurt, but she could hardly hear herself, "You have to help him."
"Avatar, what has hurt you both is beyond any man's skill. If you can recover, there is nothing we can do about it."
"There must be something!" Tala wouldn't give up at that.
"There may be one path, but it is far more dangerous than any men have walked."
Tala felt a little better after a day of rest, though the doctors and healers looked at her like a doll. She didn't realize why until she saw herself in a mirror. Her skin was pale, her eyes bloodshot while her veins pulsed visibly in her dead white skin. Tala had never seen such a condition before, let alone experience it.
She looked at her pale hand, it belonged more to a skeleton than her own flesh. She didn't recognize herself.
"Your sickness is a plague among many right now."
"I'm sorry?" She looked to see that the Elder Sage was approaching slowly in his weak gait.
"The Fire Nation and the Air Nation have been covered in this disease. Even the Fire Lord is deathly ill, though she is faring better than most. The priest call it an ill omen. A darkened sun has risen these last three days since your arrival."
"The sun! All those who are sick, are they firebenders?"
The man muttered for a moment, "I do not know, I was not informed if that was the case."
"Please find out. I think I may have an idea of what is going on."
Earth King Iruei and his most trusted advisors sat in the room that held both the Avatar and the Grand Marshal. He responded skeptically, "So you're saying all firebenders are like you right now, because of the injury Rishu sustained?"
"I didn't start feeling this way until he was wounded, it was so great that it forced me out of the Avatar State."
A few muttered, one spoke directly to Iruei, "My lord, if this is the case, the danger might have been greater. If this power affected all of the firebenders because it harmed one, imagined if the Avatar was harmed, she is a bender of all elements, we all would have been weakened."
A seriousness took the small council of nobles and a fearful thought took Tala. She had never thought about that. Her connection was deeper that even Rishu's to this world. She had no idea what her death in this manner would have wrought.
Iruei spoke, "Then what do we do?"
The Elder Sage stood up weakly, "The Avatar and I have spoken on this and agree. These scars belong to creatures beyond the power of men, they must be healed by the Spirits."
"I will go into the Spirit World and seek help," The Avatar spoke as confidently as she could. She couldn't let her own fear be relayed.
Protests immediately followed, "It is too dangerous!" "You are too weak right now!" "We don't know if they'll help!"
"Silence!" The strength of a hammer hit, shocking that it came from the old Sage, "There is no other way."
The men looked resigned, they had never heard such conviction from the ancient man in his life.
Realm of Pneuma
"So what do I do?"
"Entering the Spirit World has been a mystery for man. Many have tried, few have succeeded."
"But the Avatar has always had the most success."
"Again, what do I do?" Tala was annoyed.
"We should begin with meditation and use of the elements. Begin with your native element, Earth and continue down the path like you did in training."
Tala nodded as she waited for the priest to signal the ritual. He pale skin seemed wallow in the candlelight.
"Earth," she lifted small boulders and brought them center.
"Fire," lifted her palm up to ignite a small orb. She was disappointed with the result, a small spark fluttered momentarily before sputtering out.
She narrowed her eyes in concentration while pouring her thought into flame, a sputtering flame began and barely kept in place. It was taking too much out of her for such a small light.
"Air," this was much easier to command and summon. A sphere joined the two rotating elements.
"Water," a circle of water tightly compressed surrounded the trio of elements before her.
"In the elements is balance of the earth in one, the Avatar." The sage continued in a chant that made the Avatar sleepy. Her eyes felt heavy as her head began to limp forward in a tired fashion.
Unable to resist the call to sleep, her head fell forward and her nearly closed eyes glowed white.
Her eyes opened in alarm, she had fallen asleep. She didn't know how long, that worried her. It was soon dwarfed by her environment. She was in a swamp, brown and green, covered in strange life. It was just as the few scrolls that had described it, the Spirit World.
Tala stood up, a good sign she hoped. In the physical world, she could hardly crawl from the weakness that was plaguing all firebenders. She walked forward, she had never been to this world nor had any taught her what to expect.
She looked at her reflection in the water, she was indeed haggard in appearance. Her hair hung wildly over her face, which was itself the mask of a wraith. He eyes were more red from blood than emerald.
The reflection seemed to change to her mood, the skin turning to a less translucent tone and her hair becoming less disheveled. He eyes looked in wonder as the image kept changing, into someone that she wasn't.
The reflection smiled at her, "Hello, Tala, I have been waiting for you."
She felt a shadow over her. She turned around to see the reflection had taken form. She had never met this woman and yet she knew her intimately, like she knew herself. "Korra."
"I had hoped you would come to me sooner."
"There is so much I wished I had done."
Korra looked on with understanding, "I know."
"I need help, Rishu has been wounded by the witch Lenet. Ever since then, I and all the firebenders have felt weak and powerless."
Korra had a startled look, "I tried to warn you to stay away from them."
"I know but," Tala stopped in thought, "Wait, 'them'? You only mentioned Rishu to me before, who else did you mean to warn me of?"
Korra's eyes looked away, "I have said too much. For now, you must heal the Black Dragon, or all firebenders will follow him to death, including you."
"How do I do that?"
"When you find him, 'we' can help, but the search is your task alone."
"Where do I start, how will I know what to do? There is too much I don't know."
"You will be fine, Tala. After all, this isn't the first time you have been here."
Tala smiled at the reassurance, she had the Avatars of the past at her back.
"However," Korra took a more somber tone, "beware certain things here. Not everyone is friendly to the Avatar."
"Koh," Tala spoke with understanding. Of the one spirit that all Avatars were taught about since Koh was the Face-Stealer and his sinister powers and amoral attitude to life.
"He is the least of your troubles here, Tala, but yes, those like him mean you harm." Korra pointed west to a forest covered in a great canopy of trees. "That is where you must start, there will be those who know more to help you along the way."
"How will I know that I can trust them?"
"Trust no one here, this world is built on fear and distrust, you should do fine."
Tala walked forward for what seemed like hours, she was certain that she was lost. While she saw no sign of life, she could feel and hear it just beyond her reach. It was unsettling that no matter how slow or fast she moved, that it eluded her.
The futility seemed to come to an end when she heard a sad cry ahead. She ran forward to see a small child covered in black marks that seemed like suffocating vines. The boy looked on her in fear, with beautiful black eyes.
She approached him when a voice interrupted her.
"You can't help him," a voice from nowhere spoke, feminine but strong. Tala looked around for the source as the child cried. "He's been beyond help for some time."
A woman stood by the young boy as tears flooded from him. She was strong, a bearing of royalty. Her hair was as black as any she had seen and her dark eyes were just a shade in grey but nearly black. She resembled someone she knew, but her memory seemed foggy when she tried to recall who.
"I know why you are here, keep heading this way and you will find the Shadow Forest, the heart of these lands. Whom you seek will be there."
"What else will be there?" Tala crooked an eyebrow at the mysterious woman.
"Many things, but you must brave them in order to save the one you came for. Beware, for Koh will be there waiting for you."
Forest of ShadowThe dark realm before her was more frightening than anything she had seen before. Worse, the infamous spirit, Koh was supposed to be here. keeping a mask of emotionlessness was critical to surviving an encounter with the Face Stealer, of that she was certain.
For being the most fear inspiring creature she had ever heard of, Korra's warning of worse things unsettled her more. What could be worse than Koh? She began to understand the concept as she ventured into the Shadow Forest.
The trees were a pale white, like the fur of wolves, yet shadows seemed to be drawn to the leafless branches, hanging there like a shroud.
She inhaled deeply before pressing on into the void of shadow.
She heard slithering steps beyond her eyesight. It came closer in a rush. She felt her heart throb, it was clear the steps were meant to frighten their prey into action. She would deny them that pleasure.
"Well, well! The Avatar has honored me with her presence yet again!"
"Koh," the centipede body chittered around her while a sickening face of a theater character looked on her with glee while he spoke with a haunting tone.
"How can I help you?"
"I am looking for someone, their wounds are causing a sickness in all firebenders."
"Ah, whom you seek is servant to a powerful agent in this world." Koh circled her as he spoke, "Ancient and powerful and dangerous to anger."
"Who is that?"
"He is absolute, raw and blinding. All answer and circle him. He is a quiet presence though, when compared to Tui and La, brethren of his. They chose to have a very overt presence in the culture of their nation. But he has and always will use proxies to complete his goals. He seems to prefer this with only necessary intervention."
"What does this have to do with what I'm doing here?"
"He uses third party agents to do his will and gives them the power to enforce it. Whom you seek is such a one and his dire wounds have endangered the balance of these worlds. Finding him and being prepared are of most importance."
"Why are you helping me?"
"A favor to a spirit who was kind enough to spare me long ago. This will even the odds between us. I don't like being at the mercy of another. In the dark woods of whispers, you will find him."
"Wouldn't a servant of the Sun Spirit hide in the light?"
"Where the light fades, shadows consume. Farewell, young Avatar."
Koh slithered away, into the shroud he had emerged from. Tala thought on that last comment, Where the light fades, shadows consume.
The depth of misery that this forest could force on one was endless. Tala felt oppressed and broken, who would want to be in such a place? She couldn't even imagine Koh enjoying this place.
It got worse as she walked further in. Her most bitter memories surfaced, things she wished would stay in the past. From her relationship with Kulek to her betrayal from Urri. It was only the pain, the worse, the primal.
Worse, it made her regret her choices. But more than regret, it made her angry. She wished now that she had killed Urri, that she had ran off to train with other benders. That she hadn't been noticed as the Avatar in Omashu.
Her musings were halted by rustling of leaves. She looked about to find no disturbance. Such a haunted place, there was no evidence of the things her senses told her. She failed to find what she heard, failed to hear what she saw and her sense of smell was clouded by many things that flooded her.
The rustling was there again, closer and swift. She saw movement to her right. It was only the contrast of black scales to the white trees that gave her that glimpse. It was large enough to make her feel small but not so large that it stood out in this dark realm.
She followed the slithering, she heard a growl from it as she heard it crawl away. It must have realized it was being followed as it took a faster pace, leaving Tala behind in the forest. The rustling of the ground was still there, but it turned around and came from the opposite side she had heard it from.
Like a boulder striking the earth, a great weight struck her from the side. A fierce growl fused with a flicking tongue came at her and then passed overhead as she rolled from the hit. By the time she stood up, she only saw the tail of her assailant disappear into the Shroud of darkness.
She chased after her attacker. This dark expanse seemed to be endless. A whip of the tail appeared behind her and batted her aside as the beast emerged from shadows again. It was then that she saw it. It was a dragon, a black dragon. It snarled at her, baring its onyx black fangs at her while its black talon dug into the roots of a tree, cracking it.
She looked back at the monster, it had black eyes, no fathomless eyes.
"It can't be?" her wonder was cut as the beast leapt at her. She ducked under and saw the beast continue fleeing. Getting up quickly, she followed it into the void, believing she had found her quarry.
Her pursuit of the beast was dizzying and tiring. The dragon was desperate to lose her, and she soon realized why, black blood began oozing from the trees that the dragon crossed, it was wounded, and the trees were dying from it.
The bloody path led her right to the lair of this Black Dragon. Like a cave made of great bones from past victories, they curled in with menacing ends of ribs hanging over her.
At the end was a pitiful sight. The Dragon was curled in on itself like a snake poised to strike. Around it was the makeshift grave of a creature she had never seen before. It resembled a bird of some kind, though its skeleton implied a size she had never seen exist before. Its crest was larger than her and there were bones to further express the length of a plumage.
She didn't know if it was more disturbing that see saw evidence of such a large animal, or that the Black Dragon seemed to guard it. It's unflinching eye of pitiless shadow observed her with cruel intent, like the wounded animal it was.
As it coiled tighter, she saw it. A deep cut into its serpentine body, almost as wide as its body and just as deep. Black blood flowed tightly from it.
She took a step forward and the creature roared a deep and shaking sound. White fires emerged from its open maw. But they were small and did not reach Tala, which she was certain was the target.
She kept walking forward and realized that the beast was scared as it coiled tighter. Its eyes shook for just a moment, not long enough to confirm. Snarling teeth and cold breath met her as she got closer. She ducked under a swing of the tail.
The creature shifted in its cradle of bones beside the grave it had made for its long gone companion. She reached out a hand as she approached ever closer, "I'm not going to hurt you. I'm here to help."
The creature snapped at her threateningly as it receded on itself. She was within touching distance as she knelt in front of it.
She laid her hand across the cut, a murderous growl and stare escaped the dragon as her hand felt the blood run through it. It was cold, full of life. Her hands became black as if ink had stained them.
"Come on Korra, you said you'd help me."
Her doubt faded as her hand glowed, a soothing sensation took her. The growling of the Dragon eased, its eyes looked about in a daze. She saw a miracle taking place as the great wound began to heal as flesh grew and sinews stitched themselves back together.
The wound healed, though not completely. The glow ended, though her hand were still black from blood, feeling warmer than she ever had. It wasn't a warm that made her sweat, but a warm that filled her core, her soul.
Suddenly, her sight was filled with the face of the Black Dragon. It endless eyes looked into her emerald eyes. She could see herself in the reflection, her pallid face and her bloodshot eyes. But that was different too. Color returned to her face, the blood that veined through her eyes receded and the bright emerald light returned to life.
The Dragon charged her. Tala didn't have time to worry, she was caught in its arm as it sped past and left the Vale. She could see its bat-like wings unfurl and take to the sky.
Flying at a speed she had never experienced in either land, sea or air they soared. Higher and higher until the land beneath them was dolls and playthings. She never feared heights before, but she did now.
The Black Dragon then dove straight down. Like a spear plunging to the earth or an arrow sent far and returning. Faster and faster they went as the Dragon tightly tucked in his wings. Barreling down into the surface, the Black Dragon didn't slow down as the ground came closer and closer.
It was there dead ahead. Tala closed her eyes in what she expected to be their collision to death.
A frantic breathing took her body as shock spread from her mind to her limbs. Her eyes opened wide in panic. The swamps were gone, so was the forest of blackness. And the dragon was nowhere to be seen.
"Avatar, calm down, you are safe."
She stopped and breathed slowly, forcing herself to relax. The sage stepped forward and muttered in disbelief, "Remarkable!"
He pointed to a mirror at the end of the room. She stood up and turned on a light, amazed. For one, she was able to hold her own weight again, for another, her appearance had returned to normal. Her hair was still wild, but her eyes were clean, her skin was its usual pale and not the sick translucent of before.
A spark of thought came to her, "Rishu!"
She burst out of the room, not heeding the old man as he called out for her. She was still in the Palace and not far from the rooms that the Grand Marshal was held in. The door that guarded the way was occupied by awed soldiers, their surprise seemed to compound.
"How is he?"
She didn't even let him finish as she rushed past him and into the room.
Panting with lungs that searched for air, a weak voice greeted her, "Welcome, Avatar Tala. I would get up, but I am currently a little tender."
Rishu was sitting up and looking at her with those black eyes that belonged to another in the Spirit World. She sat down beside him, "We need to talk."
The Grand Marshal looked around to the others, "Leave us."
Despite answering to the Earth King, his authority and command compelled them nonetheless. He struggled to sit upright, "What do you wish to speak of?"
"Oh, I don't know, how about the fact that when I healed a Black Dragon, I wake up and find you are healed too."
"To the point, of course. Who said you healed me? I may have simply recovered from the wounds I received from saving you."
"You don't expect me to believe that, do you?"
"Not a word," Rishu chuckled lightly, "Have you ever heard the tale of Essence and Man?"
"In short, the tale is about how a spirit lends his strength and power to a man so that he could accomplish things in a more discreet manner. The caution of the tale is that when one was hurt, both were hurt, and when one died, both died."
"Is that the case with you and this Black Dragon?"
A knock on the door interrupted his answer. Happy to avoid giving her the truth, Rishu called them in. A messenger came in with two letters. "Avatar, Grand Marshal. You have messages waiting for you from Master Ustad and Fire Lord Ma-Tin, respectively."
Tala took her letter and read it, "My father is a day's ride from Ba Sing Se."
"The Fire Lord wishes to speak with me personally," he looked to Tala, "This will be a private conversation, you should contact your father and have him make certain preparations. The Dai Li's return to Ba Sing Se will not go unnoticed."
That realization made Tala tremble. Her ancestors fled this great city in haste, fearful of what wrath they would suffer at the hands of the people and the Earth King. Returning to the city that was their shame and downfall was not overlooked, not by Ustad, or the Earth King.
This made for what would be an interesting reunion; the Dai Li and Ba Sing Se.
- The origin of the Shadow Forest and its Vale of Shrouds will be revealed in a tale told in Fates and Vows.
- The Dai Li are returning to Ba Sing Se.
For the collective works of the author, go here.
Storms of the Future Cycle
|The Journey of Tala|
|Book 1 - Sand and Steel|
|- - - - - - - - - - - - - -|
|Book 2 - Blood and Swamps|
|- - - - - - - - - - - - - -|
|Book 3 - Pyres and Storms|
|- - - - - - - - - - - - - - -|
|Fates and Vows|
|- - - - - - Ilera - Solace Fade - Scions - Sovereign|
|The Rise of Lirin|
|- In the Morrow - The White Dragon - Faith in Blood - The Great Gates - Lord Avatar - A Red Sun - Faceless - Faction - Tempest - Rally of Crows - Rally of Eagles - Dragons and Serpents - Kings and Men - Storms of a Spirit - Princes - A Battered Land - Seas of Ichor - Arbiter - Return to a Grave - Declination - Disaffection - Epilogue|
|Myths of the Empire|
|Pacification - Assassins - Empire - Red Sun Under The Empire - White Snow - Heirs|
|The Reclamation of Arein|
|Book 1 - Chaos|
|Refugee - Rogue - Ghosts - Dark Roses - Doyen - Divulgence - The Plan - Abscond - Mists of Illusion - Madonna - Syndicate - Playing the Stakes - Purge - Brothers|
|Book 2 - War|
|Alliance - Temple - Tensions - The Fall - Hunters and Prey - Lussuria - Shades of Relevance - Broken Star - Defiler - Strikeforce - Secrets of the Lair - Eminence - Swarm - Wanderer|
|Dreams of Melasa|
|Book 1 - Servant|
| - - - - - - - - - - - - -
|Book 2 - Shadow World|
|Faint but Clear - Ghost in the Steel - Kurotama - Loyalties - Servants of Shadow - Game of Fate - Shadows and Reflections - Tomb of Blood - Broken Blades - Hill of Shadow - Souls and Swords - Home|