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-1 (Blood & Steel)
Wednesday, July 20, 2016
"Looks like it's going to be a while," Phorcys commented.
Every minute or so, they lurched forward a few car lengths, and once they rounded a corner, Euryale noticed gray-uniformed street sweepers mopping up what appeared to be a rainbow of confetti, gathering them into piles that other workers forced into garbage bags.
"There must've been a flash festival," Phorcys answered her unasked question, "If it were announced, I'm sure your mother would've wanted to go."
"A flash festival?" she asked, turning towards him. "But who would've thrown it? Over what?"
"Who knows?" he said with a shrug. "Some people are always looking for a reason to party. Back in my early days, I was called in on a riot complaint at Piandao Plaza, and it turned out to be a bachelor party that took to the streets and got a little rowdy."
"'In your early days?' You about to retire, Old Man Rakshashi?" Euryale teased.
"Laugh it up while you still can. Before you know it, you'll be older than I am now. And that's the best case scenario."
Finally, the traffic began to thin, and they could proceed somewhat consistently through the town. Phorcys parked behind a black Cabbage Car, glanced over his shoulder to make sure Euryale took his keys—which he had deliberately left behind—and led her up the stairs to a taller, 6-floored apartment pagoda.
"Why did we have to take the stairs?" Euryale complained once they ascended 3 floors.
Turning onto the next level, Phorcys answered, "I didn't see an elevator, but you could try seeing if you can sense one."
Wriggling her toes to slide away the sole of her shoe, Euryale stomped. The wooden staircase gave a nasty creaking noise that shuddered along the bannister and through the walls, but the vibrations that flowed back up her legs and spine and into her skull presented an irregular, spotty view of the building's architecture. She could sense misaligned pipes in the wall beside her, noticed elephant rats scurrying under a nearby floor, and could "see" a twisted labyrinth of halls and doors, but nothing on the other side of them. As she looked around, she realized the halls were simple and straight—her mind had twisted together several different floors.
"I'm still not very good at it," she admitted, "But the only metal I can sense is the pipes. Might they have a wooden elevator, though?"
"Do you really think this building's in good enough shape to keep it even if they did?"
"I guess not," Euryale conceded.
"Besides, we're already here. The phone book said Room 404, remember?"
As she nodded, her father rapped smartly on the door—only to find that it easily drifted open.
"The lock was partially melted," he observed, peering at the lumpy, gray deformity in the door frame. "Someone could still be here, so be careful."
They entered the apartment, hands poised like giant mantids searching for mosquitoflies to strike down. When Phorcys slunk down the hallway, Euryale turned into the living room. The furniture, a sofa and 2 chairs, were skeletons of wood and twisted springs lying haphazardly around, with the cushions and fabric stripped away. As she edged along the oaken floor, she noticed streak marks leading up to a fallen table. The pattern of dust on the table suggested a large box had been stolen. Upon seeing an outlet nearby, she looked closer at the clear spot's shape and concluded that the "box" was probably a radio. Behind it was a solitary window, faded pink blinds drawn.
"I found something!" her father called. Immediately, Euryale spun on her heels and rushed down the hall, sparing glances at the kitchen, the bathroom, and an empty closet, to make sure no hidden assailants were lying in wait. She reached the open door at the end of the hall, skidded inside, and covered her mouth in revulsion.
"Why didn't you warn me there were bodies?!" she cried in indignation.
"Because you have to be prepared for nasty surprises like this," Phorcys said simply, gesturing to the bed, upon which a pair of blackened skeletons lay embraced in a pit of ash and broken springs.
"Why is only that spot burnt?" Euryale asked, looking around, reluctantly lowering her hand. Once again, everything of any value that could be easily moved had been stolen, but the dressers, despite the drawers having been yanked out and emptied, were undamaged. Even most of the bed was still in-tact, albeit missing sheets and pillows.
"A controlled burn," her father answered, carefully peeling something off of a skeleton's hand—according to Euryale's studies, the square pelvis meant that it was male, and the rounded pelvis of his bedmate was female. The Agni Kai couple.
"This was the work of a master firebender," he continued, holding out to Euryale what was unmistakably a length of blackened, frayed rope. "An execution," he added.
"It doesn't make sense for Zolt to send us here if he's guilty of murder," she reasoned slowly as she scrutinized it, "And a random burglar seems far too coincidental. So that means it was an inside job...but why?"
Phorcys merely stared at her, prompting her to conjecture, "Our 'Other Fire Lord'? He came to punish them for spilling the beans? Uh, assuming he's a fella."
"They probably wanted to get rid of him anyway. Did the academy teach you why the Agni Kais abolished the position of Fire Lord?"
When Euryale shook her head, he explained, "It was always the richest of the gang who ended up calling the shots, but most of the Agni Kais are poor. Tension grew until eventually there was a revolt, and the Fire Lord at the time was assassinated, his mansion and everyone in it razed. Entire streets were burned in the power struggle. The gang has stayed democratic ever since because anyone who wasn't too afraid of the fallout to try to seize power was swiftly dealt with. Nobody wants their houses burned down in a Triad civil war, not even the most loyal gang members."
"But our perp clearly isn't afraid," Euryale observed, "What makes him so special?"
"He probably stays hidden very well. And judging from what we've seen so far, it'll take a lot to bring him down. But that just means he has a lot to offer anyone willing to follow him."
Euryale looked around the room once again, her gaze lingering especially on the rope and the broken, crumbling skeletons. She noticed now that their legs were splayed oddly, as if once bound to the posts.
"They were burned alive," Euryale muttered, looking to Phorcys with swimming vision, "How can you be so calm right now?"
Phorcys's mouth dropped open, and Euryale quickly looked away, muttering an apology.
"Euryale..." he began slowly, not sad or angry so much as stunned, "Whoever this is, his reach extends all over Agni Kai territory—from downtown Little Fire Nation all the way up to the Industrial Sector. You remember what I told you happened to the Agni Kai territory during their last civil war?"
"It burned down," Euryale said, furrowing her brow at the floor.
"Exactly. I'm terrified. We need to find this maniac, as soon as possible. Sooner, even."
After the disaster of a mission, they stopped at HQ to deliver their report to Chief Beifong. Euryale couldn't bring herself to even look at someone so famous. The Chief, on the other hand, didn't even notice her. They then returned to the beat, but nothing more noteworthy than a few traffic violations occurred. Around mid-afternoon, they were relieved of duty and took a trip to Central Park.
After parking, they followed the sound of giggling to a play area; colorful, twisted climbing equipment featuring slides, tunnels, and swings set in a giant sandbox. Of course, children were clamoring all over it like hog monkeys. As they did not spot Stheno when looking around, they crossed a small stone bridge, arching over the babbling brook and leading to a copse of trees, each in their fiery-golden fall coats.
Half-hidden within the trees was a pristine white gazebo with a steep-domed, blue tile roof, ending in a swirled golden spire. Steps matching the roof were set at each cardinal direction and led up to where Ceto Rakshashi was seated before a small portable table, praying to fantastically shaped candles. Over the railings and each of the stylistically bowed-out support beams, she had set banners of red and green, most featuring detailed star patterns, but a few bearing writing saying, "Ceto Rakshashi—Local Spiritualist—Inquire for hours of operation."
"Why isn't Stheno playing with the other children?" Phorcys asked.
In answer, his wife bowed more deeply, exposing Stheno sitting against the pillar behind her, knees drawn up to her chin.
"I don't want to talk about it!" the little girl cried shrilly.
But a single glance at the sandbox told Euryale all she needed to know. Children in blue siphoned water out of wooden bowls into sand that green-clad children raised by waving their hands, before redshirt children used small jets of flame from their tiny fists to dry the sand castles or, in some cases, even hardened them into a lumpy, vaguely tower-shaped glaze.
Phorcys backed up with his hands in the air, until his wife stood and turned to him. "How was your day, Dear?" she asked.
"I wish I could tell you it was good, but...well, let's just leave it at that for now," he answered, nodding towards Stheno. When she frowned, he added, "Let's focus on the good news: I brought Euryale for her spirit lessons."
She gave him a quick kiss as thanks, and with a nod and a word that he'd be on a nearby bench if Stheno decided she wanted to talk after all, he left the gazebo.
"You still don't think police work is a burden on your studies?" Ceto asked Euryale after he was out of earshot.
She sighed impatiently, but couldn't help but grin. "You know Dad asks the same thing about these lessons, right?" With a shrug, she added, "But if I listened to either of you, neither of you would be happy."
"But are you—?"
"I want to do both," she said shortly, crossing her arms, "Why can't I do both? You're not retiring any time soon, are you?"
"Well, no, but—"
"Then it shouldn't matter if I have a job in the meantime, we've been over this. Plus, what did you think I spent all that time in the Academy for?"
"Watch your tone, young lady! And don't interrupt me!" With a huff, she gestured to a candle shaped like a contorted tree that had many faces running around it.
"That's the Mother of Faces," Euryale answered her implied question, "She created faces, bringing individuality into the world." Ceto gestured next to a tall candle, black wax shaped like a cloak surrounding a decorative mask, prompting Euryale to answer, "The Kemurikage. They were thought to kidnap misbehaving children, until Avatar Aang and Fire Lord Zuko set the record straight. Now we know they were once grieving mothers, who ascended to punish the ancient Fire Warlords for their crimes."
On this went for several minutes, before Ceto finally pointed to a blue wolf, sitting beside the Mother of Faces, carved and painted as though butterflies were erupting from his mouth. "That's easy!" Euryale exclaimed, "That is the wolf spirit that serves as emissary to the Mother of Faces!"
"So you've been keeping up with your studies," Ceto commented with an approving nod, "But can you do more than just recite facts?"
Euryale took the lotus position as her mother crossed around to the other side of the candles and did the same. With a wave of her hand, Ceto ignited all of the wicks, and was soon shrouded by a fine curtain of smoke.
Euryale glanced back when she heard the creak of Stheno leaving the gazebo, prompting her mother to chide her, "Don't be so easily distracted. To meditate properly, you must learn to free your thoughts from anchor, and only let your consciousness drift back to the material world for matters of great importance."
"Sorry," Euryale muttered, resuming her posture and refocusing on the candle of the Painted Lady.
"Regret is an unnecessary anchor," Ceto replied simply, "Focus only on the spirit."
So Euryale slowly looked the candle over, from the chiseled pale blue wax rising from the golden base representing waves, to the marble-white feet of the spirit standing on it, up the folded earthen wax of her robes, and finally the painted face under the brim of her waxen hat. The artist had even managed to shape thin sheets of wax to resemble her veil, which now glowed from the flame. Moving her hands in a circle, Ceto caused the tiny trails of flame to join and follow her motions, creating a golden ring, the smoke flowing around it, shining like the sunset on the river.
"Mom, how will I know when I'm getting close?"
"You most likely won't, for this is not a spiritual site. Don't focus on the goal so much. You are more receptive to spiritual energy when you don't worry. Picture it flowing into you, even as the sun bathes your skin, its heat flowing through your veins, fed by the air filling your lungs. Feel it flowing up your chakras from the wooden floor and the soil below it. You must see through the illusion of your separation from nature, before you can see through the next illusion and into the spirit world."
Euryale's nose tickled with a soft, musty aroma—the candles had been scented with chrysanthemum. Her spine tingled up to her neck, the stiffness and frustration setting in. She glared hard into the flickering flame, trying to ignore the distraction of her body, indeed to imagine herself without one. All she was doing was making her eyes water, and now she had the worst itch in her nether regions from her underclothes bunching up, as well as goosebumps rising from under the increasingly chilly armor digging into her joints. Plus, who knew how long she could keep this up before she needed to use the bathroom.
Great, this always happens every time I try this. How am I supposed to turn off my thoughts when I always need to be remembering to turn off my thoughts?
She closed her eyes, just to rest, but she noticed the world didn't disappear with the light. She could see her father and sister on the bench, even though it was behind her. Beyond them, she could feel tiny footsteps running around—the children. They reverberated off of the playground, under the softly swaying grass, being joined by the rolling water before traveling up the gazebo. The pinpricks of flame did not vibrate, but they did set twinkling lights into the canvas of her eyelids, which joined with her mother's shape, creating a flaming silhouette of oscillating light.
The darkness seemed to form a tunnel, and though Euryale remained firmly planted on the ground, she also felt as if she were being pulled gently upward. Her vantage point seemed to move away from her body, "walking" or perhaps floating down the tunnel. As she reached out to the figure, it spread its arms in welcome. Its robes billowed out further, the tiara becoming broader, its flaming hair softer and wispier, as the body shortened and slimmed, increasingly resembling the shape of the Painted Lady.
Soon Euryale could see her smiling face, the pattern of her make up beginning to assert itself on her pale, translucent features. The young earthbender reached out, but her hand went right through, a buzzing warmth pouring from her arm into her whole body. Suddenly, her closed eyes exploded with color. It was fuzzy, but she could see a vibrant green landscape, filled with flowers of every color of the rainbow.
But isn't it fall?
And with that single thought, the landscape lifted, dispersing as if it were fog, leaving Euryale suddenly staring again into empty blackness. She tried to envision that same tunnel, but eventually a clenching of her abdomen demanded her attention.
"I almost did it," she said, opening her eyes, squinting at first at the influx of light, "I saw the Spirit World."
"Really?" Ceto asked.
"Well, it wasn't really clear," Euryale admitted, "Like I saw it through a thick fog. Or more like the land itself was the fog, I guess. It's hard to explain."
"How do you know it was really the Spirit World?" Ceto asked.
"I felt something," Euryale said, staring at her open palm as if she would find it stuck to her fingers, "But I didn't really feel it, exactly. It was like a completely new sense. Almost like absorbing heat or the vibrations of my seismic sense, but not really. Oh yeah, and my seismic sense disappeared. It's not like I was suddenly in the dark, it's just...like I didn't need vibrations, or even eyes to see anymore. Because I wasn't separate from the world."
"You were using the Seismic Sense?" Ceto asked, surprised. With a flick of her wrists, she dispersed the fire ring by extinguishing the candles. "While you were meditating?"
Euryale looked at her. "It just sort of happened. Suddenly it was clearer than it had ever been before, and just like that, I 'got it.' I knew exactly what it felt like to be a part of nature, not just an observer. It was like...like the meditation made the sense more powerful, and vice versa. Like they were feeding into each other. Strengthening my connection to the earth and its chi."
"Fascinating..." Ceto trailed off, before shaking her head and leaning forward. "But I take it something must have went wrong, or you'd still be in trance right now."
"Yeah..." Euryale trailed, scratching the back of her head and avoiding her mother's gaze, "I noticed the weather was different in the spirit world, and I guess it broke my connection. But even if that hadn't happened, I don't think I could have crossed over. Because...."
She twisted and looked around until she noticed the stream. Pointing to it, she finished, "It's like that stream. If I get close enough, I could probably see Dad's and Stheno's reflection in it. But if I dipped my hands in, I wouldn't actually touch them."
"That isn't a problem," Ceto said, waving away her concerns, "Once you become more skilled, your spirit can rapidly travel the earth. Even if the veil between worlds is too thick where you are, you can travel to a thin spot. You will be able to feel the shifting fabric between the worlds, so finding these holes won't be any problem."
"You really think I can do that?" Euryale asked.
"Until today, I would have said it would take you years, and you may never accomplish it. But not only do you seem to have inherited your family's spiritual tradition, but something they taught you in that academy is making it grow faster than I could have imagined." With a wide, pearly white grin, she added, "Isn't that exciting?"
"Yes," Euryale commented, gritting her teeth, "But mostly I just feel like I really need to use the bathroom."
"Oh yes," Ceto commented, stroking her chin and observing the dimming light, "I suppose we have been at this for a few hours. Well, by all means go—if you have an accident on the gazebo while I'm renting it, I'll have to clean it and pay for any damages."
So Euryale nodded and ran as fast as she could with her legs pressed together, hopping every few steps.
For the collective works of the author, go here.