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21th April 2013
Wai was the last to leave the Table of Stone, feeling only slightly exhausted from the days events. Not much had happened except that little outburst from King Lee, and that only provided three minutes of amusement out of a twelve-hour meeting. He strode through the large black doors at the back of the room and his assistant met him on the other side. He struggled to keep up the pace with Wai, his legs never really getting used to the constant walking that was required in the Crystal Catacombs.
The assistant was a twig of a man, a tad shorter than Wai, and even that was a feat in itself; Wai was six foot, two inches when he walked up-right. He had considerably long hair which reached to the back of his knees when it was not folded and tied up to look more presentable. Though he tried his best to keep his hair acceptable, his crooked nose and different coloured eyes kept him below anyone in the palace. Wai remembered the first time he met Wan, on the beheading block where he was to be executed for looking at a guard funny.
Wai spared the man's life in return that he would be under his services for as long as he saw fit. Of course the man did not know it would be for ten years to the day. "How did the meeting go, My Lord?"
Wai sighed and unbuckled the clip holding his heavy cloak to drag it over his right shoulder. "Get this dammed thing off me." He dropped it into Wan's arms which made him dip down a little. "I swear, if I keep wearing that thing my shoulder would be more crooked than your nose, Wan," he insulted. Maybe it was a joke.
That was a reason he like Wan. He was even below Wai, and that made him able to be persecuted. Wai took advantage of this constantly, throwing insult after insult at him, knowing that he could do nothing to stand against it, lest he had his head back down on the chopping-block. "No doubt, My Lord." Wan never seemed to carry any remark to his tone, or as far as Wai could tell. He was always a hard one to read.
"Asides from that blasted cloak, the meeting went as it usually did. They chirped and chirped. One squawked, I silenced him." Wai rolled the shoulder of his non-existent arm, still reeling from the numbing tingle the weighted black cloak had left behind. "So, rather uneventful."
"How unfortunate, My Lord."
"If it was my choice, the whole thing would be cast quicker into the fire than a poisonous plant."
Wan had heard his masters rambling before; this one sounded a little too convicted for his comfort. "Really?"
"Oh, certainly. The whole thing makes no progress. You would see more organisation in a pit full of hog-monkeys." He left it there, the meeting had set in a terrible head-pain and Wai would rather sleep than let that cursed nurse see him again. The witch kept reminding him he had one arm. Wai knew, he didn't need a woman dressed in pretty clothes to tell him that. The worst part of it all was that she was immune.
Immune to his words, the only thing he had beside his mediocre earthbending. There were those who were smart enough to know what Wai was doing, which was nobody, and the ones who were too stupid and one-minded to be manipulated in the first place. The nurse went under the latter category.
They passed through the main city in the High King's land, which was actually located below the ground, utilising the green crystals that naturally lighted the caverns. That was one of the only things that Wai admired about his people, their resourcefulness. They said the city was built in a week and the crystals gave the builders the strength to do it, but Wai never took stock in rumours nor legends and especially not the stories his mother had told him when he was an infant. Knowledge was power, but only if he could prove it was real.
The prince and the servant stopped outside of a rather large tavern all made out of old, grey stone; the stone of all the buildings in Dixshia. Each building had a story and ech brick had several more, all Wai cared about was that they stayed up-right when he was in them. "Wan, you stay here. I have a little business to deal with."
"Yes, My Lord." He bowed courteously and sat down in the stables, a sullen face making him seem like a homeless man looking for shelter.
Wai's entrance was not recognised by anyone except the barman who simply nodded and let the lord sit on his regular stool; his own 'personal' throne. Rowdy laughter and shouts were constant in the little run-down tavern. Men bet on arm wrestles whilst a bard in the corner tuned his pipa, a chaunty smile on his face. Wai took it all in, he like the atmosphere, even if it was a little savage. He liked the next part better, though.
"What'll it be?" The barman had a deep voice like rumbled like he had stones in his throat. Maybe he did, Wai was not sure.
"I'll have the running gold, my good man." The request was paired with a smirk.
The barman reached under the bar, where the glasses should have been, and pulled a sack from it. He slid it across the table, still locking his eyes on Wai. He looked at the bag and put it within his pocket, patting it and letting its contents jingle with the sound Wai loved so much more than the bard who had begun playing. "It's all there. Anything else?" The man sounded annoyed, and rightfully so.
Wai did not need his people skills to see the man was far less than displeased about their transaction. "Why, yes." He hummed to himself, pondering on what to drink. Wan could wait a little longer, he thought. "I'll have-"
"Hey, you!" A massive man built like a brick outhouse came bounding over to Wai.
He turned on his stool and smiled a courteous smile, the sort that could please kings. "Yes?" He dragged the word out mockingly.
The brute came closer, so close Wai could smell the stench of his breath. Commoners, they had no hygiene at all. "What's a cripple doing in here?" The engagement was largely ignored until the word 'cripple' was shouted. The word was always a sensitive matter no matter where one went in the Earth Kingdom. To be called one was an even greater event, many ending in fights to the death. People like Wai and Wan were never accepted wherever they went.
"Relax, he's just gettin' a drink." The barman sounded like he struggled to defend Wai, after all he had been extorting his business for years. The only thing that made him do it was that Wai was the one with the deed to the tavern. Without it, there would be no arm wrestles or bards.
"Yeah, well his kind 'aint welcome here!" The thug closed the distance between him and Wai.
Wai, however was not nervous, this tavern was full of the same people all of the time and it only took one simple thing to get them to take action. "A gold piece for any one who knocks this buffoon out," he announced. Not two seconds later, a fist slammed into the man's head and he fell to the ground, not even moving. Wai pleasured the look on his face as soon as the fist connected: the man's nose pressed and widened as his teeth flew everywhere. The man who knocked him out - another ruffian - smiled at Wai, holding out his hand. "There you go, my good man." He placed the coin in the patron's hand. "You have a fine punch, you should sign up with the Royal Guard, I'd feel safer with a gentleman like yourself protecting the palace." Not in a million years, he thought; a man like that would make him more restless during the night.
Regardless, he threw the man a compliment and hoped he would not act upon it. Sellswords were strong, but had little in the way of loyalty and that was the fundamental practice in the Royal Guard. "In fact, I think I might miss that drink." Wai arose and walked to the door, giving a slight bow before he left.
"Wan!" The servant sprang up from the stables and walked to his master. "We take our leave now, back to the palace. I wish to take one last look at the books before I settle for the night."
It did not take too long, the tavern only being twenty minutes away from the palace gates then another ten until he reached the actual entrance to the Palace. When he entered he was not greeted with the offers of transport and questions if he was well like his brother would. No, Wai was on his own, as he always had been.
Instead of heading to his quarters which was a small, cramped room that used to be storage for rotten fruit, he headed to the private library where the scrolls of past High Kings and several renowned scholars had been stored. Wai spent more time in this room that anywhere else in the Earth Kingdom, and he did not regret a single moment of it. Knowledge was power, and he had it all in this one room.
Wan had tagged along the whole time, still struggling to hold the heavy cloak that had been dumped on him forcefully. He stood at the back of the room whilst his master ran a finger across a shelf of scrolls, finally stopping at a black parchment. "There we go," he said, dragging the huge scroll out with his able arm, which was still weak. He cradled it until he reached the only table that lay in the centre of the library where he slammed the scroll down with a massive thud and a small cloud of dust. "My goodness, has it been that long," he murmured to himself.
It had been a while since he checked his own accounts, he had no reason to. Except now, Wai had acquired a new source of income besides the rent of property and the funds from his father. He unrolled the scroll and traced it with his eyes, smiling as all his previous records were all profits. The brush that was always inked was given to him by Wan, a practised gesture over the years, and Wai took it eagerly. He quickly sketched down his new profits and went through the awkward process of sealing a scroll with only one hand and placing it back on the shelves with minimal strength. Wai enjoyed his tomes, but spirits they were not made for someone like him to handle.
"Wan, you may leave now. I wish to sleep."
The servant looked relieved at the order and placed the cloak on the chair next to Wai for his master to take. That was met with a condescending look, the one that always sent shivers down Wan's spine. "What is this?" Wai picked up the cloak and shoved it into Wan's arms again, sending him back a couple of steps. He chuckled darkly. "Did I say to leave that there? DID I?"
"No - no, My Lord." Ha! He was scared, Wai's rehearsed voice actually worked.
"Well send it to be cleaned, immediately!" Wan nodded vigorously and ran off without the usual 'grace' he had. Oh my, it actually works. Wai rarely raised his voice. The last time he could remember doing it was when he was a child and his brother pushed him over. But recently, Wai had been experimenting: he had grown bored of his old, levelled tone and decided upon different approaches. Apparently, a heightened voice was intimidating. Good, maybe it was something he could use at another council meeting.
He rehearsed it until he reached his room which was in the far less desirable corner of the Palace. The opening of his door immediately released the scent of rotten apples and cabbages, the stain being created long ago before he was relocated into the room of brown clay walls. His bed was ragged and old as well, matching his furniture in every way. Even the mattress on which he slept had his indent slowly formed into it. Clay statues lay over whatever space was available; it was a hobby that only Wai could enjoy. Others sparred, some bended, Wai moulded his statues of animals and people alike.
It was a beautiful art that only Wai had any respect for. When he was a child it took him four weeks to make one. Now it took less than two hours. Picking up one of his carvings, he smiled and remembered why he enjoyed it so much. The way he could manipulate something that was so soft to become something solid and set gave him a sense of control and order. Something Wai never could have when he was a child.
He set the model of an old High King back down on its respective surface and lay on his bed. His eyes closed for a second until a knock at his door opened them. "Who is it?" he asked, fed up.
"It's me, My Lord. The cloak has been sent to the maids for cleaning. May I be relived now?"
Wai felt a pang of rage. "Spirits Wan! Yes. Go. Leave. Now!" He heard the light and clumsy footsteps of the man fade away and he closed his eyes again. Nothing opened them this time, but something stopped his sleep. The head-pains had set in.
The sun was rising quickly over the North Spire and the first place to get its heavenly rays was the Temple that hinged at the edge of the mountain. In the main courtyard of white-paved stone, Yuan was extinguishing the lanterns that stood tall to illuminate the light. Standing precariously on an old ladder he blew out the wick with his own shaky breath and not airbending. That was the code. He started to descend when the orange robes of a young female monk caught the corner of his eye. He almost fell in response and almost cursed the spirits and broke his own code. When he regained his balance he looked at the young girl. "Tria, you took the wind out of me."
"Sorry, master," she replied lightly with a small bow of her head. Yuan chuckled, something that only the child could do so often. He got off the ladder and scruffed her strangely blonde hair. No matter how many said it was a mistake of the spirits, no one questioned that it looked gracious and beautiful. Yuan dreaded the day the winds would drain out the colour from that angelic hair. "Oh, oh, I just wanted to ask you something." Yuan nodded in response, already knowing what she would ask. "Can I help you blow out the candles?"
"Tria, you ask this every morning. Of course you can." He couldn't question her enthusiasm. Guiding Tria to the next lantern, the code was yelling at him in the back of his mind. No, she can't. This is your honour to perform, not hers or anybody else's. It was the same every morning, she would ask and then the code would reject her. Yuan did not, though, and let her do the one thing she could to help around the Temple. She hopped up and down next to the next light, waiting for the usual lift to propel her into the air.
Tria giggled as an air spout conjured by Yuan propelled her up to the light where she opened it up and blew out the candle inside. She fell straight into Yuan's arms when she was done, giggling even more. Her laugh was another thing that could melt any heart, especially Yuan's since he heard it every day. He then remembered the probable reason why she liked it so much. She was a special case: the only child of the air that could not bend it to her will in existence. Yuan had never met anyone like this before. But because of this one fault, her parents were put under immense scrutiny. Some pitied them, others despised their defunct child and said that she should be cast to the void for mercy.
Yuan called it murder, but it was hard to live in an Air Spire without being able to harness the power around them. Indeed, life was cruel to her, as was her departure from her family to the Temple: the only place she was safe. Yuan could still remember that day more clearly than any other memory he had.
Tria's parents were crying, prompting and giving their unwilling child slight pushes to go to the Temple. She was scared, hugging her own arms since her parents could not give her one. She looked lost, more than anyone could ever be in their lives. Departures were usually a sad thing to observe, but most were more willing and wanted to join the Temple and this one brought a tear to Yuan's eyes. Never before had he seen one so difficult. He remembered kneeling down, giving the young girl a warm smile to show she had nothing to fear. He remembered looking at her light-grey eyes widening in curiosity as she looked at him, her pupils shimmering as water filled them.
In the end, Tria cried, but did not run to her parents. No, she ran to Yuan and wrapped him a strong embrace, crying into his newly washed robes. The mother then broke down and buried her face into her husband's chest. The man himself looked saddened, but nodded in acceptance. Yuan returned the gesture and the parents walked down the Five Hundred Steps, never to be seen again. Yuan picked up the Tria's weak, trembling body and carried her into the Temple where she cried, and cried, and cried.
Before Yuan knew it, the last of the candles were out and he was walking to the playing yard, Tria in close tow. That memory was five years ago. Now Tria was a joyful eleven-year-old grateful for what she had and she glued to Yuan like a vat of glue every day. When they reached the yard, young monks, and even old ones, were playing a variety of early-morning games, all involving airbending. Yuan always felt guilty bringing Tria there, it was a reminder that she could not do what others could.
She could not play Air Ball. She could not play chase the lemur. Nothing. She could merely watch with her radiant smile.
So Yuan and Tria sat next to each other on a small patch of grass, enjoying the humiliation most games brought upon its players. Tria turned her large eyes to her master. "Master Yuan, what is love?"
"What?" He could not hide his shock. Monks were not ones to speak of emotion, though they felt it.
She started to play with the grass, tracing invisible patterns into its ever-lasting canvas. "Sometimes I hear the songs coming from the Air Valley. They sing of love. What is it?"
Yuan had to curse a child's curiosity. "Well, it's something that is very hard to explain."
"Because it comes from within. We here at the temple try and distance ourselves from those sort of things." He heard a disappointed 'oh', something that he rarely heard from Tria. "If you want, you can search the library for a scroll on it. Surely they will have something."
"So I can go to the village?" She asked with misplaced enthusiasm.
"No, absolutely not. I'm sure what you are looking for can be found in our collection. I do not want you leaving the temple without my supervision."
"That's it!" He hated raising his voice to her, but the village was a dangerous place for people like her. If she was to fall or to be discovered, a cast into the void would not be voluntary. And if that happened, Yuan could never live with himself. "Sister Jidoa." An old woman walked up to the high Priest and bowed. "Take care of Tria for me, if you would. I have an important meeting to attend to."
Tria clung to his side when he mentioned departure, just as strongly as she did the day she was left with him. "Don't go, I'm sorry I asked." She sounded too desperate.
Yuan placed a comforting hand on her head. "I will only be gone for a few hours. We can talk after that." She pouted, but she released him. "Do not blame this on yourself Tria, this had to be done sooner or later. Take care."
He did not look back, fearing the pain it would bring his heart to see her face. Instead, he headed out of the heavy wooden gates of the Temple and down the Five Hundred Steps, into the bust Air Valley which housed most of the markets and houses in the Northern Air Spire. The school and town keep were there as well, both large buildings that stood out before the others. Yuan was headed for the his second most hated place in the world: the town keep.
There, meetings regarding the Northern Air Spire took place and were a frivolous place for parley. Although the streets were busy with families moving around and observing merchandise, they all moved aside in respect for their High Priest and carved him an unwanted path to the keep.
The building was a gloomy place on the inside. Dim candles lined the dark-stone hallways and made lines of flickering flames up to the middle where they all converged into one large chandelier. A circle table sat in the middle, big metal doors covering each corridor that led to it. Several people were already seated. Yuan remembered the head of the blacksmiths, Sigang with his leather shoulder guard and forge gloves. The man never changed, and that was mainly because the man had some level of sense compared to others who were sat at the table. The head of the merchants was also there, wearing the standard Air Kingdom civilian colours of yellow and orange that covered his gracious stomach that swelled more than any fruit pie Yuan had ever seen. His face was plump and always red and rings were on every one of his fingers. The very essence of a rich man.
The one that always had his eye, though, was Meeato. She wore her intelligence as a smug smile that dripped deviousness, and her grace was measured in the way she dressed and spoke. Yuan took his seat, gaining a nod from Sigang. They were friends outside of the keep, but for today they had to put it aside to sort out the affairs of the Northern Spire for the month. "Ah, Yuan, glad you could make it. I thought you had been playing air ball with those deviants," Meeato struck.
Yuan let that comment be lost in the wind. "There was a delay, many people have lined the market street, and my legs do not carry me like they used to."
"Well, then let's get under way. First on the agenda..."
Hours of voting had passed until something truly important arose. Something that managed to get the attention of the entire table. "And the King has taken note of our increasing population," Meeato stated.
"I told you the solution to that, Meeato. We need more land." The head of the merchants had finally woke up from his slumber that had settled over him since the vote on how long the markets would stay open for. "It is the only way."
Yuan shuffled forward on his seat. "Might I remind you we have a treaty with the Earth Kingdoms. If we were to encroach any more on their borders, they would surely retaliate. And the High King is not a forgiving person."
"The Air King is not either," Meeato said. Many called the Air King an old man stuck in the past, but he did have a drive once, or else how could he raise the Four Spires. The one thing that was wrong with that statement was that Meeato was an extreme royalist, loyal only to her king alone.
"That is not the point. Battle is not our way."
"It's not your way, Yuan," Sigang said, presenting the beliefs Yuan had to stay by to the meeting. "Your code forbids it, I know. But what we face here is possible starvation. We do not have the land nor the resources to maintain the people we have, and the other Spires will not take our overflow."
"We could always do another ejection." Meeato's suggestion silenced the whole table and rage bubbled inside Yuan almost making him do something that was against his years.
Looking at Sigang, he was feeling the same way as Yuan. "No. Absolutely not."
"Why? It's the easiest thing to do. Minimal tax on resources and the King gets his wishes settled in one fowl swoop. It is easy."
Yuan adopted a dark tone that truthfully showed his aged years. "You have not seen an ejection, Meeato. It is easy to look back on history and see how it changed the numbers on a scroll, but when you actually see it. You would not wish it again." The first ejection was another memory Yuan could not forget. Thousands of innocent people, mainly the old or even children, were taken to the edge of the mountain expecting a special address from the Air King. What they received was far worse.
Yuan was seven at the time and the Air Nomads had just fully settled into the Temple that had been built for them. He was walking underneath the temple, using the stairways built into the mountain when he heard a swallow squawk followed by a loud thud and a crunch. The bird probably dropped a fruit he thought. But then there were more squawks and they did not stop with a crunch. No, they flew past Yuan, a straight dive into the misty void beneath. Then he got a look at them. He saw faces, People's faces.
He then recognised some of them. They were not birds at all. They were people. Their screams faded the further down they fell but were replenished by more people falling and falling. Yuan remembered shouting at them. Fly! Fly! Use the wind!
But they didn't. They fell and fell until they could not be heard any more. That lasted five minutes, and Yuan watched the whole event; a permanent stain on his mind. A cackle from Meeato brought him back to the present. "Please, Yuan, you were not there. That was a long time ago, and your poor head is all but faded."
"I was seven! And I still remember it! The bodies dropping past the temple. One even landed in the courtyard!"
"Now, Yuan." The fat merchant's voice boomed from his throat. "We cannot deny that it made progress." A few nods and murmurs went around the table, none of them was Sigang's. "The North went through a great time of prosperity after that. And it made my family very wealthy indeed!" He roared a laugh but was not joined by anybody else, they were too focused on the matter at hand.
"Listen to me when I say, you do not want to do this. The ejection does not discriminate. They could take your children, your wives or husbands. They could even take you. If you even agree to this, you are putting them all in danger." Yuan had to press the point. When it happened he spent days in the library reading a scroll about the ejection law and now it was in his mind like someone had brushed it on.
"I have to agree with the priest," Sigang said. It felt good to Yuan that he had a backer for his case. "What we speak of is genocide, and my weapons will have no part in it. We are people of the Air Kingdom, not one of those savage beasts in the west. Now, all those in favour of an ejection raise your hand."
Yuan relaxed as he realised four quarters of the table comply to the motion. Another request was not needed. "It does not carry through. The matter is gone to the wind."
"But the benefits-"
"Are off the table, woman!" The merchant shouted. He may not have been against the proposal, but he heavily enforced the rules of the keep. Meeato dropped back in defeat, leaving Yuan to continue.
"Next issue of the realm..."
Toma had a cold sleep, shivering constantly as the cold drafted into his room through the open window that was only lightly covered with a cloth. His sleeping arrangements were not much better either, the floor being his bed and a large wolf skin as his cover. The sun did not bring him any warmth either as winter finally settled into the village, covering it with a large blanket of snow every night. Toma's prayers of an easy winter were ignored. It seemed the ocean spirit was not in a listening mood a few weeks ago.
He sat at the rectangular table made of ice, waiting for his lunch to be taken to him. His stomach rumbled as the scent of sea prunes found their way up his acute nose. The scent grew stronger as his mother approached from behind, placing a large pot of sea prune stew on the table. It was a wonder the table did not melt. She scooped up some and put it in his bowl with a smile before bowing to her little son and walking off. That saddened Toma to no end. He was hoping mother would join him this time.
Maybe father had told her not to any more. That was probably why. Apparently, Toma's mother was making him soft as of late, and had had enough of it. He saw less and less of her, but that smile always stayed with him all day. His father was off hunting, but he said he would be back as soon as he could and Toma would be in for a hard sparring session again.
He could not help but fear the training. The last time left him with a three-week bruise that had only just started to fade; it made breathing hard for half of that time, and during it all he had to spar five times a week. 'Pain is a good mentor' his father told him. Pain is stupid, Toma thought.
Pushing aside his finished bowl, he decided it was time for some fun. Maybe he could get Mafan and play. Yes, that seemed like a good idea. He picked up his thick coat and took out to the village. It was only a short way to his friend's house and Toma stood outside his window. "Mafan!" He shouted. The dope always slept in. "Mafan!" Still nothing.
Toma scooped together a snowball in his gloves and threw it through the window, making something unsettle from within. Mafan rose to the window rubbing his eyes whilst snow dropped from the large clump on his head. His chubby face was still held up by his youth and his warrior's wolf-tail stood alert at the back of his head. "Toma? What do you want..."
He did not listen to Mafan's silence and smirked. "Want to go and see the skinner?"
"Yes, I want to see the new pelts he has made. What do you say? Or are you too tired like a little penguin?"
Mafan shook his fist in the air. "I'll show you a little penguin!" He dashed away from the window and the clutter of pots could be heard following him through the house until he left his igloo. "See?"
Toma laughed. "I'll give you this one."
Mafan laughed as well until he realised Toma's extra layers. "Why do you wear so much, Toma? You will end up looking as big as me with all of your coats." Mafan never hid the fact he was larger than the average child, in fact, Toma was sure he wore it as a badge of pride. It must have been something to be proud of as Mafan bragged he was the warmest of all the people in the clan.
The two departed, walking and talking at first but then running and playing the rest of the way. They even stopped to play the hunter and the wolf, both spending a long time trying to hunt each other around people's houses and small wooden stalls. Toma was supposed to be the wolf and took the role very seriously, walking around on all fours and sniffing the air as passers-by looking at him strangely. For a second, Mafan thought he had won when he spotted Toma's familiar coat sticking out from behind a snow pile.
He grinned in victory and dived on the coat, confused when it just collapsed beneath his weight. Then he realised that he had been tricked and Toma pounced on him, snarling and imitating a wolf as his friend rolled down a hill of snow. "You are as cunning as the wolf! I call slander on your methods!"
Toma laughed. "Just because the mighty hunter was taken down by his prey!" He mocked. Moments like this were rare for Toma, and could only be done when his father was not around. If he saw what Toma was doing he would have struck him or his mother because of it, and Toma did not want his mother hurt because of him. So he played in secret, Mafan proving to be the only true friend who kept their secrets instead of telling the adults.
The skinnery was not too far from where Mafan was mauled by the 'wolf' and the duo grinned as they saw the old man was not there on the tanning rack. They both ran quickly, but silently, Mafan running out of breath quickly as his weight started to become a burden. Clouds of steam formed when they reached the skinnery as they breathed heavily and looked around for something fun to do. Toma's excuse for wanting to go there was quickly forgotten as they jumped on a stretched out bear fur that was in this process of being made into a travelling sack.
Its suspension was immense as the two found out when they bouncd up and down on it on their butts. They both shared another mischievous look between each other and shakily stood up as the pelt wobbled beneath them, getting used to the strain of added weight. Toma took a risky jump and when he landed, Mafan was propelled into the air. "Did you see that? You jump now."
And so Mafan jumped, sending Toma into the air and back down into the snow beneath. A silence was shared until they both laughed and Toma got back on. This was the most fun he had ever had, ever and nothing could ruin it at all. As the two bounced joyfully, a sharp and old voice went through the air, stopping them in fear. Toma's eyes widened in realisation. The skinner was back. "Hey, what are you two doing here! This is no place for you!" Mafan froze, his fat not helping him this time.
"I'm coming over." The footsteps of the skinner could now be heard crunching in the snow. They were dead, that was it. Nowhere to go. What could they do? Run? Stay?
Toma started to breath rapidly, hearing the footsteps coming closer. "What do we do?" Mafan whispered.
That pushed Toma into action. Like his father said, a man does what he needs to when the time comes. And now, Toma knew what to do. He grabbed Mafan's arm and ran, dragging his friend back home where he would be safe inside his room. The skinner could not reach him there. Half of the way back, Toma's friend fell over, not used to the strides Toma took instead of Mafan's waddle. Toma propped him back up, but set off immediately, certain that the skinner was still after them.
Mafan was out of breath by the time he was forced back home and collapsed without saying a farewell to Toma who did not even give him the chance to in the first place as he stormed back to his home and drew the curtain of his room to keep him safe. There he was away from that old man. The spirits protected that curtain with their lives, his mother said when the evil monsters of the night were out to get him. If the curtain could stop evil monsters, then a smelly old man would be no problem at all.
What entered next was far worse than any old man, though. Wolf Clan Chief Potaka threw back the curtain with his usual carelessness and leered at his son who was huddled up on his wolf fur. "Toma!" there it was again. The same shout that started every conversation with his father. "Get yourself out of that sorry state and get ready for sparring. It's spears today, so get ready!"
Though Toma hated sparring, he did enjoy spears; it was the only weapon he could effectively use besides a whale-bone blade. Toma's only victory over his father was with a spear as well and after that he actually got some praise and was free for a week. That week was the best one in his entire life, and Toma always tried to get another one, but to no avail. Perhaps this time could be different.
He left his coat behind, it weighed him down and overheated him during a fight, and that was a vital mistake when fighting a father who gave no quarter. When he reached the sparring arena he was reminded yet again of his father's presence as he stood in the middle of a fairly large snow-floored rectangular arena. This was the centre of Toma's house, the place he had to always pass whenever he went from one side to the other. And when he passed, memories of pain and suffering went through his mind.
That was different when he was in the arena itself. He was focused on one memory, one opponent. Potaka threw a spear at his son, hoping to catch his occupied mind off-guard. Toma was used to this, and even though his mind was elsewhere, he caught it in his gloves, ready for the next part of the training. His father charged with a battle cry and his spear levelled in front of him, not holding back a single muscle.
Toma strafed left and used the grip of his spear to block a swing made by Potaka, pushing off it for a small retreat. His father did not let up and came after him again, jabbing the spear tip rapidly at Toma. All he could do was keep stepping back as jabs were hard to block when they were thrusted in quick succession. Keeping his eyes focused on his father's face, instead of his spear, Toma noticed his eyes move down. Jumping up, he dodged a sweep made by Potaka and jabbed his own spear upon landing.
It was blocked, but now Toma had a chance to strike back. Using false-steps and wide swings he managed to gain back the ground he lost and quickly turn the tables. Toma began attacking with the other end of his spear now as well as the spearhead itself, experimenting with a new style. His father took advantage of Toma's clumsiness and made an uppercut swing to the middle of Toma's spear. Taken back by the attack, Toma broke off but found his legs being taken out from under him and he fell to the ground.
Potaka jabbed the handle of his spear down to finish the fight, but only hit the ground as Toma rolled far away and recovered, breathing heavily. "You're getting tired, Toma. A warrior never gets tired!"
He was not tired! He was just being a big, stupid- "Ah, yes, that's right, Toma! Get angry!" He did not realise the frown that grew on his face as the insults to his father grew. "Now focus that anger, and attack!"
Toma charged for Potaka, screaming in rage. His father spun around the attack and clipped his son in the leg, toppling him over. Toma barely had time to recover when his father came down with a full-powered strike to his head. He blocked it just in time, but his footing was off, barely on his knees. He put all his strength into trying to push away his father's spear which was being pressed with increasing strength, leaving his left open to his father's foot which dug into his stomach.
Toma doubled over in pain and dropped his spear to clutch his stomach. "You lost, again," his father stated to rub defeat into his beaten son. Potaka then threw down his own spear and walked away, muttering "disgraceful" as he left. Toma didn't try to get up after that; he lay there crying until his mother would come to heal him.
Saura's day had been uneventful since she woke from the trees. She spent two hours trying to get back the trail of the dragon which was partially faded and found that it changed course and headed North. With Saura being new to this part of the Fire Islands, she took her time and kept alert every time she stopped for a drink of water or to grab some fruit from a tree. Luckily, the fruits were not poisonous, or else the only way for her to see the Sun Tribe again would be from the clouds.
Though her vigilance kept her attention focused on survival, she could not help but feel a slight bit of enjoyment in her travels. This part of the forest carried a sweet smell, probably from the fruits that were in abundance in the area. Nature was always constant as well with birds and insects chirping and creaking, several types Saura had never seen before. All of it was what made Saura glad she was born of fire. The beauty of the island she lived on was only matched by the art she practised day after day. The breath of the dragon flowed through her; it gave her strength, spirit and peace. All were needed for a worthy life, or at least that's what the shaman said.
All the strength fire gave her was not enough to tackle her next challenge as a three-hundred-tree-tall rock face toward into the air. Maybe it was because she was small, but the rock looked taller than the sky itself, and then some. Suddenly losing her enjoyment in being lost she made sure her spear was secure on her back and gripped onto a crease in the rock.
Several minutes of scaling the wall did little to calm her nerves. She was nearing the top, but she glanced down after telling herself earlier not to. She had done this many times now, and regretted it every time, promising to herself not to look down again. As the unusually cold air blew on her ears, the sound of it was numbed out as well as the feeling in them. her arms ached and her feet were starting to cut and bleed, the breath of the dragon slowly seeping out of her. She was apparently hungry as well when her stomach rumbled as she reached for another crack in the rock.
Saura took a hopeless look around for food and was surprised to see a hawk's nest a few yards to the left of her. Giving in to the calls of hunger, she uneasily worked her way to the nest and peered inside, finding three black-spotted eggs lying side-by-side. She hesitantly took a hand off the rock face and reached for the eggs, licking her lips slightly as the taste overwhelmed her mind. Her hand halted. These have a mother. Am I to kill siblings in their own bed, like an eel hound, her conscience spoke. Absolutely, it was for survival. She grabbed the nearest egg and cracked it open on the side of the rock before drinking its contents.
Oh, yes she was to kill them to survive, they tasted wonderful as well. Feeling slightly ashamed, she ate the other two just as fast like a wild animal. Eggs had never tasted so good before. A loud, saddened squawk shattered the wind and a red blur quickly approached Saura, faintly catching her attention in time to prepare. But, one finds it difficult to prepare when they are holding onto a cliff for life and Saura was no exception. The bird flew directly at her, pecking furiously at the murderer who ate its unborn children.
New cuts opened on Saura's face and arms as she tried to guard herself as best she could. She tried swatting the hawk away with her free hand, but the momentum made her lose grip with the other hand and she fell off the rock face, the hawk flying down with her to see her demise. Saura's arms flailed as she fell, her head buzzing around desperately to find something to grab onto. Before she knew it, a brown blur passed her vision and she let her hand follow it to grab. The first one missed, but the second one brought her to an abrupt stop, causing immense relief and pain as her shoulder tried to pull away from its socket.
However, the relief was short-lived as the hawk came back again. Saura did not give it the chance to attack this time, and sent an arching flame towards it. Since the bird's course was locked, it had no time to avoid the flame and it burnt to a crisp, just falling short of its target. Saura would have felt sorry, but for now she wanted to get of this damned wall.
Saura was right from the very beginning, the wall only seemed tall. It only took her a painful twenty minutes to reach the top from the branch she hung from. As she clambered onto the familiar sight of green grass on the top of the cliff, the cuts started to sting all of a sudden. Why did they not hurt earlier? Why now? Either way, they had to be sealed, lest she ended up like her uncle, who died of the green after being injured in battle. Tree sap was usually a good sealant, if the tree was the right one.
Saura missed the gathering where the shaman explained the terrain and vegetation of the road ahead as given to him by the scouts. The only one she ever missed was that one, and the only one she ever needed. Wandering around, looking for a healthy-looking plant, she came across a boiling stream. The water looked milky with steam rising from it constantly. On its small embankments, green grass turned yellow as the heat killed it off. But time and time again, it looked as though the grass had tried to grow into it and thus, brought the yellow stain straight down to its roots.
Even though the grass was poking at her curiosity, the main focus was on the steaming water itself. The shaman always said heat seals wounds. Would this be any exception? Kneeling down, Saura cupped her hands to get a scoop of water that instantly scolded her fingertips as she tried to reach in. She quickly drew back and scowled at the longing burn. You are of the dragon, Saura. You can do this, she thought to herself and took a deep breath, letting heat flow through her veins. This time, the entrance to the water was slower and less painful somehow, but she still grimaced as she withdrew with a handful of steaming water.
She threw it on her feet, feeling the burn again. Her mouth opened to scream and her head wretched back. Only Saura's control stopped her and plunged her hands back into the water for another sting.
The pain died away time after time. Maybe she got used to it, or her hands went numb. Sitting back and looking at the red blotches that were once open wounds, she sighed as she finally got a chance to take in the nature around her again. The trees above shattered the sun's light which did halt her recovery somewhat, being disconnected from her element never did Saura any good at all. Yet again, her serenity was shattered when a loud scream bounced from tree to tree.
Saura arose, spear in hand, looking around for the noise. It may have been a bird, or a person. Another scream. It was definitely a person. Running towards the noise, dodging tree after tree, Saura finally came to an opening in the forest. Her eyes narrowed in shock as she observed the scene unfold not five metres in front of her. A woman was being consumed by a net carried by three men with strange looking clothes, their intent faces hidden from Saura's full view.
They seemed to carry weapons at the sides of their elaborate yellow clothing, but it was hard to tell as they were made from something Saura had never seen before, a shiny surface that made the sun's light even brighter. Maybe they were taking a criminal back to their tribe. Though, if they were, would they not just leave her out in the wilderness; that was always the case no matter what tribe she met in her travels.
They wore so much clothing as well. The Fire Islands were warm enough for one to walk around with nothing. Why were they so overly covered? The cries of the woman then came through the sounds of struggle and Saura's grip around her spear tightened. She sounded like a cross between a hawk and a chicken pig with her wails. Saura could not take it any more. Not caring about the consequences, she threw her spear into the chest of one of the men and he fell straight away.
It took the other two a second to realise what happened as they finished securing the net around their captive, but when they did they drew their strange weapons that hung at their sides. They were curved with a sharp golden edge, but an adversary's weapon was only as good as the one wielding it, and so Saura charged, unbuckling the jagged rock knife strapped to her thigh.
The fight had yet to get under way, but Saura was flung through the air and into one of the trees surrounding the clearing. She bounced off and lay on the floor for a few seconds, dazed, until she realised a faint trace of orange fly through the air like a cylinder, making her jump awkwardly from her lying position to dodge it. Orange? It was not fire, but it still looked like it. It was even like the trail the dragon leaves when it flies through the air. The air!
Another blast of orange came towards her, moving dirt and loose leaves on the ground as it travelled. Saura saw this one and ducked underneath it, feeling the wind skim her back. They could move the air! She resumed her charge, this time side-stepping or jumping over the rushes of orange as she moved. The air-movers must have realised the futility of their efforts and ran for her, not knowing the mistake they made.
Saura leapt and spun fire from a spin kick directed to the enemy on the right. The fire caught him off guard and he was cut-off as it sent fire to the ground in front of him. And just like in a hunt, the singled off prey was the first one to die. As the last air-mover met with Saura he swung for her head with his sharp weapon, slicing the ends of a few hairs off as she ducked too late, expecting the weapon to swing like a club. Before she knew it, the blade was on her again, cutting some skin off her right arm as she slid sideways to avoid it.
Like the cuts from the hawk, the wound did not sting now, but she was more lucky the blade did not damage the mark of blood from the eel hound. That would be the ultimate defeat. The man then lunged for her, knowing she was not skilled enough to take him on. Saura knew the weapon now; she may not have known the attacker, but she knew his weapons' dimensions from her cut. The man's attack was avoided as Saura span herself down his arm and around his back, planting her knife deep into the back of his thigh.
The air-mover screamed and got down on one knee, trying to turn to his attacker. His effort were in vain when she removed the knife and made a swift stab to his throat. He may have been a stranger, but all men die from a knife to the throat. The second man finally got out of his trap and went for her with unparalleled speed. Saura held her knife reverse-gripped and prepared for his strike.
The weapon came down with a whistle through the air, then another. His arm moved more fluidly and faster with each strike, making Saura's ducking and weaving more and more ineffective. Another slash whistled past her ear and she took that as a time to retreat. After the next blow, she jumped backwards to create some ground, but he was on her again in seconds, still keeping the fluidity of his arm and wrist going. His wrist...
That was the weak spot. Saura spawned a flame in her free hand and grabbed the man's wrist as he followed-through with an swipe. The sound of burning flesh hissed and was joined by the gruesome slosh of Saura's dagger plunging twice into the man's arm, then once in his stomach. He fell to the ground, a look of shock and despair as he gazed into Saura's eyes before they looked into the Spirit World for ever more.
Struggled gasps for breath then reached her ears and she looked to see the man she pierced with her spear was still alive, trying to breath with no success. No enemy deserved to suffer such a painful death, so she walked up to him and looked deep into his eyes, praying for forgiveness for the act she was about to do. Saura grabbed her wooden spear with both of her hands and saw the man's look of accepting as he saw his spirit of death gently place a foot on his neck. A simple twist and a soft crack was all it took to end his life, and his suffering.
Saura yanked out the spear and whipped the blood off it, directing her attention to the trapped woman. She must have had her battle face still on as she approached the net as the woman seemed to cower and shake even more. "Please, do not be frightened. I am not here to hurt you." Saura dropped the spear, but kept her knife in hand, making sure it was clearly on show as she slowly approached and knelt down beside the woman. "I'm here to help," Saura said comfortingly before cutting open a large gash in the netting, letting the woman roam free.
But she didn't. She still sat inside the net, shaking as if it would keep her safe. "Stay away," she snapped weakly.
"What tribe are you from?" Saura asked softly.
The woman seemed to ease slightly. "Mulat Tribe."
Strange, Saura had never heard of that one before, she must be local to the North. "And what is your name?" The woman was at least five suns older than Saura, but she acted and was spoken to like a child.
"Duama. Duama of the Mulat Tribe," she said hesitantly, as if her name was the key to her life.
"Well, Duama, will you come out of that and speak?" Surprisingly, she complied and shakily stood up as if she had been seated for days. "So, what can you tell me about those men? Why were they after you?"
"I do not know. I left my village to gather food, then they took me. We were travelling for days. One night they..."
Anger then swelled in Saura. Maybe that last one did not deserve the mercy she gave him. He could have been the one who did it. She placed a hand on Duama's shoulder as she cried into her hands, reliving her experience. After a few moments, Saura left her side and let her weep on the floor to take one of the air-mover's weapons. It was heavy, yet light, but the most exuberant feature, besides the material it was made from, was the coldness of it. All of the Sun Island's weapons were warm to hold so the user could fight properly, but this one was cold and lifeless.
It was not unique like most weapons everyone had in her tribe. Even her generic-looking spear had a colourful past full of battles and blood. She strapped the weapon using the scabbard the men used to her waist. She would show the shaman when she got back to the tribe. Then there was the issue of Duama. She still sat crying and a the Sun Tribe part of Saura was screaming at her to help. "Duama," she called.
The woman turned her head. "Where is your village?"
"Next to the sea, East of here." East, Spirits.
It was a long way off where she needed to be and she did not know how long it would take to get to Duama's tribe. "If you can guide me, I shall take you there. If it pleases you." Why? Why? Home is not too far away, and we could lose the trail...
The woman's embrace shut her mind as she was pressed against her, slightly constricted. "Thank you. We are a peaceful people. To try and get back alone would be like saying to the Spirits 'kill me'." She sounded almost hysteric, but Saura could not shake the pride she felt for the deed she had done. To her, it helped with achieving peace. To Duama, it meant life or death.
- Ah, well - this ended up being longer than it should be, sorry about that.
- After this is when the plot starts to thicken, but this will take longer to plan and write since time is now becoming very constricted.
- I spent half a day with my right arm tied behind my back to get a feel for Wai's character.
For the collective works of the author, go here.