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July 8, 2012
Lien was late. It was almost dinner time, and she was just returning from the village market with the goods she had bought with her family's crop.
"Now make sure you tell Gòuwù to give us the good lychees, the last ones he gave us were the worst this season" her mother had told her.
Lien's family was one of the families surfs living on Lord Wáng's land and due to its geographical location close to the ruins of Ba Sing Se, it wasn't exactly ideal for growing lychees and so it had to be imported from another village and what arrived wasn't always great. Lien though, had indeed succeeded in getting the good lychees from Gòuwù, although it did take quite a bit of her crop and haggling to get them which explained her tardiness.
The sun had started to set an Lien began to pick up her pace at first walking quickly until eventually she broke into a run.
She was within sight of her farm when she heard a strange noise as if someone was smashing two boulders together. This caused her to stop and look around. She searched the bamboo forests that surrounded her path for the source of the noise but couldn't find it. Once she had determined that it wasn't coming closer and most likely not a threat because of that, she decided to move on and hurry back home.
Then, out of the corner of her eye, she glimpsed it. Quickly she turned around and noticed two rocks pounding into each other repeatedly. As you can imagine, this perplexed her, she had no idea how or why two rather large rocks would be floating in the air and ramming into each other.
Out of curiosity, Lien moved closer to investigate. As she came closer, she began to better see the rocks, and what was controlling them. Just to the right of the rocks, she saw a boy, no older than 16, bewitching them, as they called it in her village. Witchcraft was illegal and the penalty for being a witch was being drowned in the bottom of Lake Laogai.
The boy didn't see her even as she watched from behind a group of bamboo shoots, and Lien's first impulse was to turn him in. But then she thought, the last witch had been executed over 40 years ago when her father was a boy, she had never seen one and wanted to learn more about them, besides, it couldn't hurt to find our more about him, after all, how could she turn him in if she didn't know who he was.
The first thing she wondered was why, if this is where he practiced witchcraft, had she never heard him before. She had used this path through the forest over a thousand times and never once heard him smashing rocks like he was now.
Lien's thoughts were interrupted by the setting sun, it was almost sundown and it was at night that the bad people came out. Her father had told her about these bad people, they were marauders, at night they would come out and attack passersby and steal all of their belongings, hold them for ransom, and if the ransom wasn't paid, they would kill the person.
Lord Wáng would, on a weekly basis, announce to the entire fief on which the village sat that he had caught another group of these marauders and that the fief was the safest one in the entire world. That was obviously a lie although few knew it and those who did, didn't let on. They knew that Wáng just captured the marauders, and released them back so that they could continue to extort the people in the fief, it was just another source of income for Wáng, and the marauders had to go along or else risk actual execution.
Following this new train of thought, Lien began once again to hurry home. It was well past sundown by the time that Lien actually entered her door. There was her mother to scold her.
"Why are you so late, it's after dark, don't you know what could have happened to you!" "Yes mother, but it's not my fault, Gòuwù wouldn't give me the lychees unless I haggled and he wanted to haggle for a very long time this time," Lien pleaded. "Oh! That ridiculous man! Since your father died he's only continued to harass us! Well wash up, it's time to eat."
Thankful that her mother's mood had improved, Lien went and washed in the old wooden tub that was where they bathed and washed their hands. They refilled it every week because water was extremely scarce especially since most of it was owned by Wáng.
Tonight's meal was bamboo and cabbage slug paste. This was what her family usually ate. As she ate, she couldn't help but notice that her younger brother Li was absent.
"Where's Li?" Lien asked around a mouthful of paste. "Don't talk with your mouth full," her mother scolded, "Li is in the barn feeding the animals, he already ate," she later added.
After several minutes of awkward silence, Lien asked, "Mother, can you tell me about witches?"
"Witches? Well I guess could, you see Lien, witches once ruled this world, they began as just our equals, but then when the war began, things changed, it was the witches of the Earth who had started the war. They began by killing all those of the element of fire. Naturally, the witches of fire fought back while the witches of air fled back to their secluded fortresses and the witches of water abused their power and controlled people from within.
"The witches of the Earth have the capability to control parts of the Earth, if you ever come across one and it sees you, then it will trap you in a stone cage and you will die a slow death there. The witches of fire will burn you either scarring you for life, or killing you. The witches of air will just knock you off your feet and fly away. The witches of water though, are the ones to fear the most, they can control you, make you do things you don't want to do, they can even kill you from the inside without leaving a trace on the outside.
"Lien, if you ever see a witch, you should report it immediately for it could mean the end of you and of your loved ones."
At this Lien lost her appetite, she would have pushed away her bowl of paste, but it was household policy to eat everything that was on your plate. This was reasonable considering that there wasn't much to be eaten any time, especially during the winter.
As soon as Lien had finished dinner, she went up to her bed in the scaffolding above the family room. Just before she fell asleep it finally hit her why she hadn't heard the witch in the woods before. The witch wanted to remain secret and so went at night, when most people were already in their homes. Knowing this, Lien decided to spy on the boy again, and she knew just when to do it.
The next morning Lien went out and saw her brother Li on the way to town.
"Where are you going?" he asked grudgingly.
"I'm going to town, I made a friend there yesterday and he invited me to go to his house today, would you please tell mom, I'm probably going to stay after dark at his house." Lien lied.
Lien had become very good at lying, she never liked telling her brother the truth about anything, for some reason, he didn't seem trustworthy. Li believed her and responded "Alright."
Lien went into town and figured that she had time to kill so she decided to explore the area of forest where she had seen the boy the night before. She went to the spot where she had seen him last night and followed the tracks for almost the whole day back to a rock where the tracks ended. It was starting to get dark again and she knew that the boy would be out soon so she waited behind the rock. In a few minutes, the rock slid to the left and the boy came out. He slid the rock back over the hole and proceeded to walk to where he was practicing the night before. He walked incredibly quickly for a boy of 16 but lien thought that that would make sense because he was indeed a witch. So she too followed him back to the place where he practiced.
She sat there mesmerized watching him as he controlled the Earth, raising pillars of rock, smashing boulders, and digging trenches. She must have been there for a few hours when she felt as if someone was creeping up on her. She turned around to see a dirty hairy face grinning back at her.
Lien released a shrill cry as the man in front of her grabbed her and proceeded to search her clothing. The boy heard turned and saw. Over 20 marauders had crept up on him and Lien and were closing in on them.
"That one's a witch, we can get extra money for him if we turn him in to Wáng!"
Then in a split second, Lien noticed that she had been released and that the man who had grabbed her was quivering behind her and groaning in agony.
One marauder cried, "but he's an witch of the Earth, not water."
Then, one by one the marauders fell to their knees as they were sucked below the Earth.
"Stay away from me!" Lien screamed as the boy lowered his hands and walked towards her.
"Wait, come back, I won't hurt you." the boy called after Lien. "I was only trying to help! I'm not a witch!"
Lien turned and began to march towards him, "Don't you tell me that you are not a witch, I saw how you killed those marauders!" she yelled.
"They're not dead, they are just imprisoned, I assure you that they have plenty of air to breath, water to drink, and food to eat. And I'm not a witch, I'm a bender, witches don't exist."
"Bender, witch, it doesn't matter what you call yourself you're still evil!"
"If I was evil, then why did I just rid this fief of 20 marauders who have obviously been working with the obviously the corrupt Lord Wáng," the boy replied rather calmly.
Lien stopped walking, she couldn't argue, this boy had not only saved his life, but hers as well as the lives of many who would have come across these marauders in the future had he not imprisoned them.
"Come, I'll walk you home, you shouldn't be out this late."
They walked for several minutes in silence following the dirt path from the village to Lien's farm which was visible from the place where they had been attacked. Eventually Lien asked, "So what is the difference between a bender and a witch?"
The boy replied, "I told you, witches don't exist, but the other thing is that benders have limitations, we can only control the four elements of water, earth, fire, and air. There are some though who can, or rather could seeing as just about all the benders are dead, bend energy or what is in our souls."
"Can you do that?" Lien asked.
"No, but I can bend the four elements."
"Wait, my mother told me that you can only bewitch, I'm sorry, bend one element." Lien said.
"Well that's true of most, but for some reason I can bend all of them."
They spent the next several minutes in an awkward silence until they were almost on the doorstep of Lien's home. "If you want to learn more about bending, why don't you meet me in the same spot tomorrow afternoon?" the boy asked.
Now Lien was really curious. So far everything that she had learned about these people who could control nature had been wrong, what if more of it was wrong, maybe she could find out by talking to this boy. "Sure," Lien replied and just as she was about to knock on her door, she turned and asked, "What's your name?"
To which the boy replied, "Bo, my name's Bo."
And with that, Lien knocked as Bo turned and walked back down the path.
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