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Forest, Light
Chapter information
Series

Republic City Renaissance

Book

0 (Void)

Chapter

10

Written by

Neo Bahamut

Release date

Wednesday, May 13, 2015

Word count

4,394

Chronology
Last chapter

Labors of Love

Next chapter

Moving On

Once their shift was over, Aroma shuffled over to the front desk, where Euryale told her that Thiera called, saying that she would be out late watching a play. Euryale added that a second shift officer on the witness protection staff had already stopped by to pick her up. Aroma only mumbled that she understood.

She spent the ride back to the apartment staring into her lap as Euryale talked about the conversations she had with witnesses. Nobody had much to say. The men were pleasant, but more interested in asking her questions. The women were colder, more aloof.

When she and Euryale got home, Aroma heard the click of the door shutting, softer than usual, but did not look up. Euryale put a hand on her shoulder as she was feeding her goldsilverfish—Legs kicking dirt in her general direction.

"Aroma, what's wrong? And don't say, 'Nothing' again, I don't need truthseeing to know that's a lie."

Aroma took her words in, staring at their reflection in the surface of the fish tank. A few tears dropped in, the ripples dispersing the image. Slamming the fish flakes down next to her purse, she squeezed her eyes shut until they started to ache and shook her head.

"I did talk to Thiera!" she blurted out, "I told her everything!"

Euryale spun her around and pressed her to her bosom, wrapping her arms around her. Aroma could feel one hand rubbing her back as another stroked her hair. It was a sweet gesture, but one which was more painful than soothing, as Aroma found her nose shoved up against a steel plate, cold enough that the muscles trying to force out her tears actually stopped.

"I'm so sorry," Euryale cooed. "How bad did it go? Er—if it would make you feel better to tell me, of course."

"She pushed me off of a bench!" Aroma protested, voice warping slightly off of the steel.

Euryale gripped her shoulders probably harder than she realized and moved to stare down into her face. Aroma opened her eyes in shock, and saw that Euryale was practically snarling.

"She did what?!"

"Well—I don't think that's what she meant to do, but—"

"Did she at least help you up?!"

"I don't remember if I really gave her a chance, I pretty much ran away and tripped on what was left of my dignity."

Euryale's expression softened and she stopped crushing Aroma's upper arms. "It's okay. You have nothing to be ashamed of."

"You weren't there, you can't know that."

"I do. You were honest about your feelings. You bared your insecurities and made yourself vulnerable. Because of that, you were hurt. It's no different than a sparring match, recovery will make you stronger. If Thiera can't see that, then she doesn't deserve to be your friend, much less your lover."

Aroma could no longer hold back the floodgates. Hot liquid streamed down her face as she gasped for breath. She felt a swift wave of warm relief rushing up from her chest, but a cold pit of fear, doubt, and sadness was still weighing down her abdomen. She fell onto Euryale's chest, heedless of the armor or her own blubbering. Euryale moved her hands up to rub Aroma's heaving shoulders as Aroma tightly gripped her waist.

"There, there," Euryale cooed, "What would make you feel better? Ice cream? Meditation?"

"M-maybe we could eat ice c-cream while you teach me how to medit-t-tate?"

"Sounds like a plan." Aroma felt what she assumed was Euryale's chin graze the crown of her head—she stuffed that stupid hat in her purse the first chance she got.

Moments later, she was sitting on Euryale's fire engine red bedspread, resting against the headboard with a bowl cradled within her crossed legs.

"I think this is the first time I've ever been in here," she remarked, looking around. Much of Euryale's stuff was still in boxes stacked in the corners, but she'd made sure to set up 3 things: An ugly wicker basket beside the bed that served as a hamper, an end table with a simple lamp and a conical incense burner—both cast iron with red shades—and a shelf on the far wall, full of figurines that were unidentifiable at this distance.

Euryale—who had time to change into a nightgown of her usual dress length that matched her bed—used a candle lighter to ignite the incense before sitting across from Aroma. A thin haze spread through the room and tickled Aroma's nose. She thought she could actually feel the swelling going down.

"What's in this incense?" she asked, before gulping down a big spoonful of vanilla sherbet.

"Since you came to live with me, I started using a blend of honeysuckle, violet, aloe, and bamboo. The mixture is supposed to promote protection from evil, luck, healing," She coughed the last few words into her fist, "And love."

Aroma forced a smile, in spite of the swift blow to her diaphragm. "Well...3 out of 4 isn't bad, right?"

Euryale returned an equally weak smile. When Aroma set the bowl between them, Euryale grabbed one of the spoons, scooping up some of the wildberry lavender.

"Well," she began after swallowing, "The thing about meditation is that you need to do it in a place that's very spiritual, unlike a lot of places in Republic City. But there are a couple of ways to make it easier for your spirit to leave your body. One is to meditate before going to sleep, in the hopes that your trance will continue."

"Are you just trying to get me into bed with you?" Aroma asked, taking another scoop.

Euryale's eyes widened and she shook her head frantically. "What? No, I swear!"

"I know," Aroma sighed, staring into her bowl, "Nobody wants me."

"That isn't what I meant!" Euryale protested.

"No, it's okay, really," Aroma assured without looking up, "Like I told Thiera, I understand."

"Understand what?" Euryale asked. "No offense, but I'm pretty sure you haven't let me state my opinion."

Aroma considered this while twirling her spoon to make little swirls in the melted ice cream. "Will I like it?"

"It's hard to say," Euryale admitted, "It might be too soon. Your wounds are still fresh, so to speak."

"That's really cryptic," Aroma mumbled. Clearing her throat, she looked up and added, "Maybe we should just focus on the meditation for now."

"Alright," Euryale sighed. Did she sound...disappointed? Aroma shook away her thoughts as Euryale pressed on, "Of course, our posture emulates the lotus, in the hopes of replicating some of its spiritual power. You need to be relaxed, but sit up with your spine straight—just let your pelvis roll forward naturally—that's it, you're doing great. Just limber up a bit, without breaking your posture."

"Ugh, what?" Aroma grunted.

"Here," Euryale said cheerily, reaching over and grasping Aroma's shoulders. As she posed the healer, she ran a hand down her back, Aroma feeling relaxation roll down her frame. "Just straighten out your spine—like—this!"

In spite of herself, Aroma smiled too.

"Now, close your eyes and focus on the sound of my voice," Euryale said, gradually lowering her tone to a whisper. "As it becomes fainter, if you've managed to clear your mind, you should feel yourself being pulled away—and into the void....."

Aroma experienced everything exactly as Euryale had said. She slipped backwards, falling into a jet black hole with no end in sight, but felt comforted by the sweet and tangy aroma swelling around her. When she opened her eyes, she found herself standing on a rolling grassy plane, violets dotting the landscape like the spots of a cheetah-leopard. She noticed a light shade covering her and looked up to see the underside of a gigantic lily, much larger than she was, at least a dozen of which were scattered throughout the plain. In front of her, this environment seemed to extend into infinity.

Turning around, she noticed a thick, dark forest of bamboo shoots, practically a fortified wall. She felt a chill and stepped back, at which point this world seemed to reward her for making the right decision by having a warm breeze roll over her shoulders and through her hair.

As it flipped forward, Aroma was shocked to see that her hair had grown much longer, now the length of Thiera's. She was also no longer wearing her uniform, instead wearing a flowing, silky green mermaid-style dress that seemed to melt into the grasslands beneath her, while a shawl of white down feathers was slung over her shoulders. She still had her trademark evening gloves, which matched the shawl, being white with whirls of feather stitching patterns wound around them.

She looked up again as the bamboo thicket shook. A cloud of wolfbats shot out, and she instinctively ducked, screamed, grabbed her temples, and slammed her eyes shut. Hesitantly, she opened her right eye. The creatures were gone and several of the chutes had bent away, forming a path into the forest. On the other hand, the breeze was kicking up strength, seemingly to blow her away from this forest.

She turned to watch the wind flicking through the grass, the violets waltzing, tossing confetti clouds of pollen into the air. Peering off into the distance, she noticed an armored figure with dark skin and red hair—Euryale! Of course, we must have made it into the Spirit World after all! Or maybe this is just a dream? How do you tell the difference?

She grabbed her skirt and took a few shuffling steps forward. She approached Euryale far more rapidly than she thought possible, and soon she could see the amber of the corner of her eye, but just as she reached out and was about to call Euryale's name, she heard a scream from behind her. She glanced over her shoulder to find out that she was once again right in front of the bamboo forest, a thick fog rolling over her, freezing her down to the bones.

"How—?" she asked herself, rubbing her arms vigorously. When she looked around, she was so far away from Euryale that the latter was just a gray speck on the horizon. Can't she hear the scream too? If she could, wouldn't she come running to the rescue? Or maybe this is some kind of Dark Spirit, luring me into a trap? Do I really have a choice, or am I just being pulled--?

The next time she heard the scream, her mind was made up. She snapped her head forward and was instantly speeding through the forest, somehow darting around columns of bamboo at the last possible second. Actually moving her legs caused her to accelerate even more, until her trip was just a black blur. Abruptly, the forest shrank away and was replaced with an explosion of sunlight as she stumbled onto a clearing similar to the one before, but much smaller, on the edge of a vast, rolling ocean.

She heard coughing to her right and tore her eyes away from the rhythmic sprays of white foam over sand almost as white. Underneath one of the giant lilies sat a little girl who seemed to have lost her voice from crying, now making only hoarse gasps and coughs. Aroma couldn't make out her facial features clearly, since she was rubbing her eyes with the little fists atop her pale, twig-like arms. Her attire was a rather simple blue cloth dress, with a white rope belt, the sleeves shorn off and the skirt cut just as sloppily at the knees. Her hair was brown, styled in a little bob, but combed sloppily.

Aroma quickly dashed up to her. "What's wrong? Are you okay?"

The girl jerked her head up and crawled backwards, grey eyes wide as saucers. As fear overwhelmed her circulatory system, the redness drained from her face, like blood boiling off of bleached bone.

"It's okay!" Aroma tried to assert as calmly as she could, "I'm a—a Healer?" She spread her arms as she looked herself over, noticing that her Healer's uniform was back. When she reached up to investigate her hair, she was dismayed to find out that even the stupid hat had returned.

Nonetheless, the girl had nodded and stood up. She was barefoot, and judging by the dirt-caked calluses, this was her normal state.

"Are you hurt?" Aroma asked. The girl shook her head.

"Okay, then are you lost?" Again, she shook her head.

"Can you please tell me what is wrong?"

The child stamped her feet, throwing her fists back behind her. The color returned to her face as she shouted, "I'm mad at my mommy!"

"What did your mommy do?" Aroma asked.

"She hit me!"

"What? Then why did you tell me you weren't hurt?" And "hit you" how? Like, a smack on the hand, or...?

"I'm used to it, it happens all of the time. Says I spend too much time playing with dolls. But I don't want to grow up to be like—like her. Like them."

"Them?"

"The old ladies in the village." She turned, pointing to a rocky mass deep out in the sea.

Aroma's jaw flew wide open. "Wow, how did you get all the way out here?!"

Instead of answering, the girl turned back to Aroma, wringing her hands. "I don't want to go back, please don't make me. Stay here and play with me instead."

Aroma looked back at the bamboo thicket. Still no sign of Euryale. What would happen if she stayed? Could she get trapped? Was this really some Dark Spirit in disguise, planning on devouring her soul or something?

Aroma's thoughts shattered into minuscule, incoherent pieces as she felt something tug on her wrist. She wrenched her arm back and let out a shriek—and the little girl fell to the ground and started sobbing anew.

Aroma bent over, reaching out to her. "Oh no, I'm sorry, please don't cry! You just startled me, that's all! I'd love to play with you!"

"O...okay," the girl said with a sniffle, standing up and wiping her nose. She brightened up as she touched Aroma's knee. "Tag, you're it! Come and find me!"

And then she ran right past Aroma and into the bamboo forest. Aroma tripped trying to follow her—she was once again in the dress that she was wearing when she appeared in this land, and once again, her long, crimson locks were spilling over her arms as she reached out towards the dark throat of the thicket.

"Wait! Are you sure it's safe in there?! What if there are predators, or you get lost?!"

She quickly pulled herself to her feet and pursued the girl. This time, she went around in circles, making no apparent progress. Several times she heard a soft "thwack" before it registered that she'd just banged her nose against a tree, unable to see it until it was too late. What happened to my super speed? Did I use it up? If that girl gets the same thing, I'll never be able to find her!

"Where are you, little girl?! I give up! I'm sorry, but I'm starting to get worried! ...Could you at least tell me your name?!"

***

Thwack! And the leaves rustled overhead, dropping what she hoped were twigs on her. Stupid tree! How long have I been at this for?

"Little girl? Little girl!"

She turned and found herself face-to-face with a white owl, which fluffed up its wings and screeched. As she fell backwards, a vine coiled around her arm and pulled it taut. When she tried to reach for it, she just found herself grabbed by another vine. Others snaked up her legs, around her waist, and arms. No matter how she writhed or yanked, she couldn't dislodge them.

"Little girl, if you can hear me, go get help!"

The vines began pulling on her again. She was briefly worried that they would rip her into pieces, but what actually happened was arguably worse—she felt the ground give way underneath her as the very grass she was laying on seemed to be swallowing her.

"Euryale! Thiera!"

Clumps of dirt were falling onto her. If she could see at all, she guessed that her view of the forest would be shrinking away.

She reached deep down into her lungs for what she hoped wouldn't be her final yell. "Somebody, anybody, PLEASE HELP ME!"

Just then, a hand shot out of the darkness and grabbed Aroma's wrist, pulling her to her feet. As it was cold and stiff to the touch, Aroma's heart sank as she envisioned what she would see as the light came rushing back, probably some mountainous hair monster with a mouth bigger than she was and teeth the size of bananas. Or maybe—

"Eur—Euryale?! Where is the little girl?! Is she okay?!"

Euryale stepped aside to reveal the little girl sitting underneath a giant lily, playing with a cloth doll dressed in the same blue cloth, with twine shaped in the same hairstyle. She waved the doll through the air while humming.

Pretending it's an airbender, perhaps? Aroma sighed and started pulling clumps of dirt out of her hair. She kept casting glances at Euryale, who just shrugged.

"I can't use my bending in the Spirit World, if that's what you want. Sorry I didn't tell you what to expect, but I honestly didn't think you'd manage to get here on your first try, not even following me."

"But it IS really you?"

"Yeah."

"And the girl?"

Euryale turned slightly. "She's so high in Spiritual Energy that she can't be a human soul. And she doesn't behave like a Native Spirit. That means she's probably a vision. But why did she appear to you?"

"I don't know, I have no idea who she is."

So Euryale kneeled down in front of the girl, hands on her knees and with her best motherly smile. "Sweetie, can you please tell us your name?"

"It's Hikari," she answered without stopping what she was doing, "Hayashi, Hikari."

"She says she doesn't want to go home because her mother hits her," Aroma explained.

"Maybe she represents something about you. Did you have an abusive upbringing?"

"Of course not!"

Euryale raised her hands. "Okay, okay, I'm sorry, I didn't mean to offend you."

Aroma sighed, "I know, you're just trying to help—maybe if you tell me what kinds of things you do in the Spirit World, it could help me figure this out? That is where we are, isn't it? The Spirit World?"

"Yeah. You can't tell because you don't yet know how to detect spiritual energy, but it's a telltale sign that you've moved from the dream world and into the Spirit World. I mostly just come here to commune with nature. But sometimes I get visions, usually about a case that I'm on."

Aroma looked around, a wide grin forming. "This is sooo incredible, Thiera will never believe—you know what, what does she know?" Aroma scowled, but instantly felt bad for saying that. Still, she pressed on, "But where are all of the Spirits?"

"Everything in here is a Spirit," Euryale explained. Pointing her thumb at the little girl, she added, "Except maybe visions like her."

"I mean like the talking animals and stuff."

"Well, it's not like they wait around for someone to cross over. They have lives of their own, and honestly most of them are indifferent towards humans, if not a little rude."

"And what about Dark Spirits?"

"As long as you steer clear of creepy places like that bamboo forest, you should be fine."

Aroma stroked her chin in thought. "Euryale...you said that the incense was supposed to protect from evil, right? What if that forest was meant to keep that little girl away from me?"

Euryale looked back at the child. "It's possible—I guess—but why? Her mother, maybe?"

All three girls looked to the forest as the bamboo started shaking. More fog continued to roll out of the forest, coiling up around them until it was so dark that it may have actually turned into night time. Hikari walked over and grabbed both of the adults' hands, transferring cold shivers up their arms, as if the icy air pressing in around them was not enough.

"And maybe we invited more things to come through," Euryale added with a snarl.

"Hikari! Hikaaariiiiii!" a familiar voice called from the forest. Hikari began to cry. As the woman stepped out, Euryale gasped and Aroma felt like crying too.

"There you are! Young lady, you are in BIG trouble this time!" She began stomping forward.

"No, stay away!" Aroma screeched. She couldn't believe this: The woman who looked almost exactly like the Purist Leader! As she turned to run, she found herself alone and cornered in an alley back at Republic City. She fell to her knees as she scratched against the brickwork. "Help, PLEASE!" A white hot blast of plasma shot through the night sky as she felt frozen daggers of rain pierce into her.

***

"No, stay away!" a woman screamed as she ran into an alley, chased by a pair of thugs wrapped in bandages.

"Purists?" the officer leaned over to ask his metalbending partner, a man who was becoming portly and bald in his old age, and seemed to have taken it upon himself to grow a bushy white beard to cover for this.

"Seems like it," he replied gruffly. "Start the car, see if you can't chase 'em off."

So his partner leaned forward and turned on the ignition. Sure enough, the thugs scattered from the alley like cockroaches when the light fell on them, running back the way they came. He turned the car back off.

"I'll go get 'em," he said. He was easily the more capable in an on foot chase, standing barely 5'5" but with a slender build and disproportionately long arms and legs. As he got out, he put his hat over his slick, shiny black hair. It was his figurative crown, his pride and joy, part gel, part Fire Nation genes. So what if the rest of the department kept asking which Triad had his head dunked into a toilet?

"Which leaves me on Damsel in Distress duty," the fat cop commented.

Once his partner stepped out of the truck, he slammed the door and shot out like a rocket to chase down the Purists, somewhat literally as he used bursts of flame to augment his speed.

The fat cop closed his own door more gently and gingerly started into the alley, raising his flashlight from his belt.

"Excuse me, Miss?" He was answered only by sobs from the woman, curled up in the corner and clawing at the brickwork. "Please remain calm, I'm a cop and I'm here to help. I'm just going to turn on my light so we can see a bit better, okay?"

As promised, he flicked on the switch, and a golden beam shot through sheets of rain that appeared just as suddenly. "Great," he muttered under his breath, before continuing more loudly, "Miss, the storm is picking up, we should really get you inside."

He was slowly closing in on her. 6 feet now. 4 feet. 3 feet. Close enough to observe more details.

"You're wearing a blanket," he observed, "If you don't have a home to go to, we could always—"

His light fell on a cylinder sticking out from her waist, small enough to comfortably fit into her hand. He squinted, trying to make out the object's identity. It seemed to have some sort of wrapping, perhaps to facilitate a grip?

"What's—"

The woman abruptly stopped sobbing and threw off the dingy, moth-eaten beige blanket. The officer watched it fall toward him stupidly. As he lazily reached out to grab it, platinum flashed through the night, tearing through both the fabric and his side, having struck a gap in his armor. In shock, he dropped the flashlight. It stayed lit, but now showed nothing but swelling puddles and potted brickwork.

Who? Where? He had no time to voice his thoughts, nor did he see the next blow. In the time it took for his knees to buckle and his hand to cover his side, a flash of lightning shot through the sky and something else shot at his face. He didn't feel it strike. He didn't feel himself hit the ground.

The Purist Leader stepped over the man's body and glanced down the road. A few bursts of flame briefly illuminated the twin rows of Satomobiles lining the streets. Her other Purists—as if she would ever have them travel in pairs—seemed to have vanished into the night, until a bola shot out over a shorter Cabbage Car, easily destroyed by a fire blast. The fool didn't realize it was a decoy until a second bola wrapped around his legs, pulled taut with a quick jerk, and dragged him under a Satomobile, where a pair of her comrades were waiting with knives. He was Chi Blocked before he could retaliate.

Soon, Lee wriggled out from under the car and walked up to her, spinning the officer's keys on his finger. "We've got the blasting jelly loaded in the back," he announced.

"Excellent," his Leader responded. Upon taking the keys, she strolled over to the vehicle and unlocked it, then turned on the ignition. She stomped on the gas pedal while turning the wheel and keeping her other leg anchored on the ground, steering the car until it stared down the council building.

While she was doing that, Lee went to go scrape the mortar off of a brick and pry it free from the wall. He eventually came back and handed it off to his Leader, who secured it to the gas pedal with some twine. When she stepped back and there was nothing left to hold the brick up, the vehicle lurched forwards.

Lee ran for cover, but the Purist Leader did not flinch, only smirked as a column of fire exploded from the wall of the Council building. It was quickly dwarfed by another lightning strike, a blue-orange blaze dancing in the woman's grey eyes.

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