|By Neo Bahamut||Genre||Rating||Reviews||Updates|
|More from Neo Bahamut||Adventure, romance||PG-13||See main page||See main page|
|Not What They Seem|
-1 (Blood & Steel)
Wednesday, October 5, 2016
Euryale tossed and turned under her bedspread. Feeling beads of moisture bunch up against her brow, she finally threw the covers off and made her way to the window, straightening her nightgown as she went. She slid the glass up and bent down, closing her eyes and basking in the cool autumn breeze, doing her best to ignore the agitated honking of the traffic. After a few minutes, she shivered and returned to bed, only to spend the next several moments alternating between covers on and off, chrysanthemum tingling in her nose from the bedside incense pan she lit hours prior.
She sat up, forcefully fluffing her pillow in frustration. Her eyes lingered across the far wall, where the indistinct form of a shelf full of candles could be seen in the gloom. As she stared at it, a sudden thought struck her, so she folded her legs and put her fists together.
A bedside clock ticked away as nothing continued to happen.
"Please help me," she whispered into the darkness, "I'll be going into the heart of Agni Kai territory tomorrow, I can't sleep, and I don't know what to do." When still nothing happened, she asked, "Is that too trivial? Or is there just nobody here?"
Sighing in frustration, she leaned back against her headboard. I need to find a way to go where the Spirits are.
As she felt the pulse of her house flow up her back, she began to breath slowly in and out. She tried to hear past the whooshing Satomobiles to the sound of the wind itself. Before she knew it, she began to feel drowsy. It seemed that no sooner had she allowed her shoulders to relax than she fell through her own bed, sinking deep into the ground as if nothing had any substance. For a time, all was dark, until she felt guided towards a light below her. She shielded her eyes from the brightness, and suddenly found herself in a tundra, frosty winds whipping all around her, thick gray clouds obscuring the craggy mountains looming in the distance.
Despite her bare feet sinking deep into the snow, she felt no cold. In fact, a kind of warm hum vibrated throughout her body.
"Am I in the Spirit World?" she asked to nobody, her voice echoing for miles. With a shrug, she added, "I sure wish I had somebody to talk to."
She jumped as she saw something shimmering nearby, and before she knew it, she was staring into the fierce cobalt eyes of a gray wolf as it opened its razor sharp jaws wide. Euryale raised a fist to her ear and began backing away with her other arm held in front of her, but when the beast closed its jaws, it was on her in a flash.
Next thing Euryale knew, she had fallen back and sunk deep into the snow. She let her fist fly, but it only connected with empty air.
"How dare you try to bend at me?!" a proud, feminine voice erupted. Euryale was again buffeted into the snow, which burst up into clouds as she was thrown this way and that in seemingly random directions, with stinging sensations her only clue as to what was happening. As she was beaten about, she was unable to regain her footing or even clear the snow from her vision. All she could do was raise her arms over her head, wincing as they were whipped by her unseen assailant.
"Please," she cried, "I meant no harm! I thought I was being attacked by a wolf, I only wanted to scare it away!"
"A likely story!" the voice snorted, but it did relent its attack. Cautiously, Euryale lowered her arms, wiping the powdery snow from her brow before peering through her fingers.
What she had first thought was a wolf, and then a woman in a wolf costume, turned out to be something stranger still. It had the head of a wolf, but the rest of its body was covered by enormous white wings folded over itself like a cloak. Whatever it was, it was hunched over, so she could not make out whether the body underneath the feathery coat was that of a humanoid form kneeling or a quadruped sitting, or for that matter something she couldn't even guess at.
"Are—are you a Spirit?" Euryale asked tentatively.
"What else did you expect to find in the Spirit World?" the strange creature asked irritably, fluffing its feathers.
"Point taken. Sorry, this is the first time I've ever been to the Spirit World. I guess I'm a little disoriented. But...wow, I'm really here...." She looked around, gaping in awe.
"Yes, here to attack anyone foolish enough to answer your call. Oh, happy day."
Placing her hands flat, Euryale slowly shifted to rest on her knees. She bowed, lowering her head to the ground. "I truly am sorry."
"Oh—I suppose there was no harm done."
Euryale reflexively glanced at the bloody scratches crisscrossing her arms, prompting another huff from the spirit.
"Really now, those hardly count! They'll go away just as soon as you tell them to!"
"What do you mean?"
"What do you mean what do I mean?" The spirit's vicious brows closed together before ascending as comprehension dawned on her. "Do you honestly mean to tell me that the people of your world can't heal themselves?!"
"Well, some waterbenders can," Euryale said, "But I am an earthbender, and also I can't bend in the Spirit World."
"Never mind that!" the Spirit said impatiently, waving the tip of her wing at the human. "I mean exactly what I said! If you will the wounds away, they will disappear. You see, in the Spirit World, our thoughts and feelings become our reality. They are all that can give form to the free-flowing chi around us, since there is nothing solid to cage it, as there is in your world."
Euryale pulled her arm in front of her, scrunching her brow in concentration. Her jaw dropped as, to her amazement, the raw insides of her wounds were replaced by a kind of shimmering blue light. The cuts themselves slowly closed, leaving no evidence of their existence.
"Now," the spirit said, "Do you plan to wear that this whole time? From what I understand of human attire, it hardly seems respectable."
Euryale looked down at her night gown and frowned. Soon the garment glowed bright blue, growing and shifting into a kind of jade robe, a hanfu with golden hems and sash.
"I don't understand how I got here," she said, "I didn't think I was nearly skilled enough yet."
The Spirit sucked air through her snout. "Typical human arrogance. Did you ever stop to think that perhaps you were brought here because we wanted to show you something?"
"I guess that is what I was hoping for," she answered, looking up at the strange creature. "So what is it?"
The Spirit fluffed her feathers again. "I do not know. You were brought here by older forces than I. Voiceless chi that radiates throughout this world and your own. This is nothing more than a crossroads that I oversee."
She spread her left wing wide overhead, allowing Euryale to see for the first time that the wings sprouted from the body of a white-bellied wolf, albeit a wolf with no front legs that was perched like a bird. But it was the light show overhead that drew her attention, as the air was suddenly flashing with the glowing of dozens of frilly, elongated shapes wending their way through the clouds. There were stringy beads of light that undulated like eels, membranous bulbs trailing luminous ribbons, birds made entirely of fire and lightning, glittering rainbow clouds that zig-zagged with purpose...every miraculous thing she could have imagined, and then some.
"Amazing," she muttered, rising to her feet and turning slowly as she took it all in.
"I believe," her guide spirit began, "That in recent times my mountains overlook a large human settlement in your world." When she saw Euryale scrunch her eyes in confusion, the spirit elaborated, "A seaside village with tall towers of stone and iron, where strange horseless carriages roam the streets, belching noxious black clouds."
"You mean Republic City?" she asked, looking over her shoulder.
"Sure," the spirit said flippantly, waving its pure white wing at her again. "Why not? Now, human, if that is what you call your village, then what is it that you call yourself?"
"Oh, I'm sorry, I didn't even think to ask you your name!" she turned and bowed in apology. "Mine is Euryale Rakshashi."
"Very few spirits bother to name themselves," she answered, "But your kind once called me Shānshén."
"Mountain Spirit?" Euryale asked, raising an eyebrow.
"I never claimed that you humans were creative," she said, spreading her wings to an impressive span of at least 10 feet.
Euryale now saw that her host actually had a pair of wings on each side, the lower pair slightly thinner, and as they caught the light of the sun and spirits above, they cast dancing rainbow blotches along the snow. Shānshén's tail was wispy as it moved to and fro, and seemed to be made more of clouds than either fur or feathers.
"Now," she said, drawing Euryale's attention to her flashing jaws, "Seeing as it is my duty to guide the spirits who find themselves on this path, and seeing as you are here and you are technically a spirit at the moment, please tell me why you wanted to come here."
As Shānshén folded her wings again, Euryale told her all about how she was unable to sleep due to her nervousness about having to make sure a group of bad humans called the Agni Kais weren't hurting anyone, how she may have to fight them to put them in prison, and how she reached out to the Spirit World for guidance.
"Does dying hurt?" Shānshén interrupted.
"Wh—what?" Euryale asked, looking horrorstruck.
"In my experience, humans speak with such fear when they think they might die. Why? Does it hurt you? I would not know. We spirits have never died, and we have little concept of pain either."
Euryale put a finger to her chin. "Well...I don't really know either. I've never done it, and I prefer to keep it that way. But I guess it would probably hurt those around me more. My mother, my father, my little sister—they would know that they would never see me again. Maybe in another life, but we probably wouldn't recognize each other."
"I see," the wolf-dove nodded in understanding. "Thank you for explaining that to me. In return, I will tell you that there is only 1 reason why you would find yourself on this path: You are going the wrong way."
"What do you mean 'the wrong way'?"
"These 'Agni Kais' of yours. Stopping them is not your destiny."
Euryale shook her head. "No, that can't be, they'll burn down half of Republic City if they're not stopped. Thousands of people will die if they do that. What could possibly be more important than stopping that?"
"I do not know, but the signs are clear."
"You don't mean—surely you can't be saying that Republic City is meant to be destroyed, can you?!" She stepped forward, reaching out for the spirit in desperation, but backed down when the hair on the back of that canine head stood jaggedly on end and her claws shot out like bird talons.
Shānshén relaxed her hair and nails, looking into the sky. Her polar opposite, Euryale stared at her feet, shivering as the cold of this world finally pierced her from all sides.
"...I know you want me to reassure you," the spirit said after a long time, "But I still do not know any more than what I have told you. Perhaps the village below my mountain has fallen out of balance ever since the Avatar last reincarnated. Perhaps it is best for the world if it is destroyed, painful though it may be to its inhabitants. All I can offer you is my hope that it will not come to that."
Eventually, Euryale looked up, her eyes watering and her smile weak. "Thanks."
Then, cresting over the mountains, came a weak and far-off cry. "...ryale...."
"What is that?" Euryale asked, looking around. She started after Shānshén, who had whirled around on her paws and waded several feet through the snow.
The spirit's fierce eye looked back at the human over the mound of downy white feathers. "Someone from your world is calling for you to return. Perhaps we will meet again, in this life or the next. But for the time being, please stand back."
"...ke up...it's time..." the wind whispered as the spirit spread her wings, feathers ruffled by the breeze. After a few flaps, she leaped into the air, soaring off over the mountains.
Euryale did not know when she closed her eyes, but they suddenly snapped open. As her vision came into focus, she saw her father's emerald irises staring down at her.
"It's time to get ready," he said with a frown. "You're usually not this heavy of a sleeper." His expression gave way to a chuckle as he asked, "Were you having an interesting dream?"
Euryale slowly sat up, staring at him with an awestruck expression. He frowned again, casting his eyes awkwardly around the room.
"Yeesh, Euryale, whatever you saw, it was just a dream."
"No it wasn't," she said quietly. "Dad...this is much more complicated than we thought."
"See anything?" Senthose asked, approaching an island of light in a sea of shadow, within which stood a man obscured by a gray trench coat and fedora. He caught the glint of azure eyes twinkling beneath the brim of the hat.
"Nothin'," the man answered gruffly.
Senthose looked around at the vague shapes of storage sheds, just the place someone who wanted to steal merchandise would strike.
"Maybe Netzach or Miss Selene are having better luck," the man suggested nonchalantly.
"Yeah, maybe. Make another round. Remember, if you spot anything, only fight as a last resort. Try to get back-up, or if the boars are nearby, let 'em do your dirty work for you."
The older man nodded, tipping his hat at his younger superior as the latter headed to the next far-off island of brightness that was the guard booth. Once inside, he removed the same trilby and duster he wore earlier in the day, setting them down on the table next to an imposing-looking woman whose pale, rigid face and steely gray eyes seemed to be carved out of a glacier. She nodded at him, playing absent mindedly with the wolftail poking out from under her navy uniform's hat. He smiled at her, and some of that frostiness in her eyes and around her mouth seemed to melt.
Picking up the desk phone, he dialed, listening into the earpiece for an answer.
"Yeah?" Netzach's irreverent, disinterested tone replied.
"We haven't seen anything," Senthose answered, "Have your troops spotted any trouble?"
"Nothin'. Not above ground or even in the sewers. Selene's patrols haven't found anyone either. Kid, I don't think they're gonna attack tonight. We beat 'em pretty bad last night, they'd be even stupider than usual to try again so soon."
"I guess that's what Voland thinks they are."
"True. Nothin' we can do but follow the boss's orders. You're not questionin' them, are ya?"
"You're the one who protested to me."
"Ha! True, ya got me there. Not gonna tattle on me, are ya?"
"Why? Doesn't seem to me like you said anything mutinous."
"Hm...that everything ya wanted, then?"
As he opened his mouth to speak, a low but loud rumble sounded from outside, prompting him to poke his head out of the booth. The off-white disc of the moon was partially blocked by clouds, but they seemed unlikely to produce thunder, and in any case lightning was completely absent.
"Sir, look!" the woman's thick voice sounded.
Senthose's gaze followed to where she was pointing, ignoring Netzach's repeated "hellohellohello?" and a soft, orange-red glow was reflected in both of their eyes. Just visible against the burning backdrop was the smoking silhouette of a skyscraper, about where the Club Voland building would be.
"Looks like it's not anymore!" Senthose finally barked sharply into the phone, "Get somewhere you can see the Club Voland building and call me back!"
"Y'know, you're pretty new here to be actin' like such a slave driver," Netzach complained.
"Do you want to explain to Voland why we didn't investigate a fire in Little Water Tribe?!"
A sigh escaped the earpiece. "I'm on it, I'm on it...." Senthose heard the thunk of the phone being set down, as well as the whoosh of Netzach's duster as he swept away. For some time, all he heard after that was the muffled noises of movement in the background. "You're right," Netzach finally answered, "That looks like it's comin' from the club. If ya have anyone to spare, bring 'em and come down as quickly as ya can!"
Once he heard the click, Senthose hung up, turning sharply to the guard woman as he replaced the phone on the desk.
"Did you hear that?" he asked. When she nodded, he added, "Call around to the other guard stations until you find someone who's free. Send them down, or better yet get someone to fill in for you here."
By the time she nodded again, Senthose had already put his coat back on and sped out the door. He gestured to the water skin at his waist, forming a whip to grab the top of the barbed fence and vault him over, then ran to the nearest bridge, ducking behind a support beam to hide himself from the warm ray of headlights piercing the darkness. Once the car passed, he grasped the guard rail and jumped right over.
Using his water skin again, he fashioned an ice ramp that his heels slid down, melting as he passed, flowing underfoot to reform in front of him. Down and down he went, maintaining a slight tilt that slowly shaved off his speed. Once his ramp connected with the river, the water crystallization continued to spread. When he finally slowed to a stop, he leaned down and pushed back with his hand, forming a wave to propel the frozen platform down the river. As he continued like this, he drew an arc of liquid up to refill his water skin.
Eventually, he turned a dark street corner into the dim blue glow of Little Water Tribe, confirming that the side of the club building was burning. More men in trench coats were sweeping water up from the river, using it to lash at the blaze, when a trio of fireballs soared out, catching them each in the chest and sending them sprawling.
Spinning, Senthose melted the ice and launched himself in the air on a whirling column of water. With his left hand stretched out for balance, he thrust his right palm forward, sending a wall of river crashing down on the building. The fire faltered as it drowned, but soon roared back to its full height, fed by something deep inside of the tower.
Assailants swathed in gray fatigues emerged from the building, waving their hands to ward off the blaze. With a series of jabs and arched kicks, they chipped away at Senthose's water spout with blasts enhanced by pulling fire from the burning building. Just as he was losing balance, they had to scurry away from a series of ice spikes shot from the street. The young Monsoon looked over to see that the men the firebenders attacked had repositioned themselves under the cover of the deluge, and were pulling attacks from the holsters of their water skins.
Senthose dropped down into the water, triggering a wave that burst into snow at its apex, bathing the battlefield. On cue, the waterbenders thrust their palms out, gathering the Agni Kais in snow drifts.
"Put out the fire!" Netzach called as he and Selene sprang forth with back up in coats of various purples, blues, and blacks. The reinforcements obliged, frantically drawing waves up from the river to crash against the building.
Senthose himself used his own wave to alight on the road and called to them, "That won't work, there's something inside that keeps feeding the fire faster than it can be extinguished!"
Selene drew water from the air to her finger tips and smelled it before shouting, "They blew a gas line!"
She and Netzach swept up with their arms, holding a torrent against the skyscraper. Several of their subordinates also raised their arms to assist them.
"The tower can go at any time!" Selene called. "Anyone not supporting its weight needs to keep that fire under control! The second you see the pipe, freeze it shut!"
The rest nodded, frantically working their hands to spray the inferno with a hose technique. Inside the lobby was a mess, half of the desk having fallen into a huge hole in the floor. When they spotted a splintered pipe in the basement, they frantically punched water shots down into the chasm before the blaze could build back up again. Eventually, a splash managed to hit home, freezing solid into a thick frost cap. Netzach lowered a hand to let some of the spray flood into the building, extinguishing the last stubborn flame tongues.
Spotting a red glow, Senthose looked over to see the snow around the Agni Kais' hands melting. He clenched his fist, freezing the snow balls around them into a denser, more rigid shape. He then grit his teeth and pulled back, bending their arms unnaturally until they snapped. The attackers screamed, but were barely audible over the roar of the tides.
"Good thinking," Netzach commended, "Now they can't attack while we question 'em."
Meanwhile, Selene stared pleadingly at the top floors. "Please make it out safely, Daddy...."
Senthose strode forward, ripping the cloth mask off of a young, pointy-faced Agni Kai woman with smoldering eyes and short, dark hair. When she opened her mouth, fire glinting within, he backhanded her, grabbed her distorted arm, and twisted, heedless of her blubbering. Netzach gestured to turn the rest of the Agni Kais away from him so they could not replicate her attempt at fire breath.
"So you got here from a tunnel," Senthose said, "That much is obvious. But from where were you sent? Who is the Other Fire Lord?"
"A ghost," she sneered, "Don't you know he's been dead for—" she screeched as he twisted her arm again.
"There's enough of you here that there's no trouble if I break a few of you, you know!"
"You don't know the half of it," she chuckled as the ground beneath them began to rumble. Netzach and Selene dropped the wave, allowing it to sweep the Monsoons into the river just before the road cracked, an angry scarlet glow peeking through. Then, with a deafening blast, the street collapsed into a river of flame. As the water overflowed into the hole where road used to be, steam shot high into the sky until, slowly, the blaze waned off.
The Monsoons pulled themselves up on a pier a few blocks down, gesturing at the river to freeze it against the side of the building, holding it steady with a huge ice berg. The water surged over the streets and piers around them as it fought its way around the mass of frost.
Once the commotion had died out, there was an almost comical ding from the building's elevator. The triad members made their way up the pier and down the alley on the undamaged side of the building in order to investigate. After some time, Nix Voland walked around the tower, leaning heavily on a straight, black cane. He was hacking, red in the face, but was otherwise completely unscathed and adjusting his tie.
"Daddy!" Selene yelled happily, bare feet sloshing through the bubbling black mud, her heels lost to the tides. She threw her arms around the mob boss, who gently hugged her back as his breathing finally steadied.
Upon surveying the rest of Monsoons, however, his smile faded away.
"Put the word out," he hissed, "We're takin' down this Wannabe Fire Lord after all. 50,000 Yuans to whoever brings me his head. Double that to anyone who keeps him intact, so I can take my time with him."
Spotlights converged on the gangsters, who looked up to see police airships gathering in the sky.
"Typical," Voland snorted, "Cops never show up 'til it's too late. Well, at least the filth movers can make themselves useful for a change, by fixin' my club for me." With a snicker, he added, "Those of you with hats, take 'em off as a sign of respect for the fallen Agni Kais, who were polite enough to burn up any evidence that we were anything but innocent, law-abiding victims."
As commanded, those with hats placed them over their hearts as they watched the police repel towards them.
For the collective works of the author, go here.