NOTE: This story contains background information on Book -1: Blood & Steel. It can be read at any time, but contains spoilers, & so it is recommended to be read after either Chapter 11 or Chapter 14 of the aforementioned Book.
|By Neo Bahamut||Genre||Rating||Reviews||Updates|
|More from Neo Bahamut||Adventure, romance||PG-13||See main page||See main page|
|Out of Ashes|
Tuesday, February 7, 2017
"I challenge you to an Agni Kai!" shouted a boy with golden eyes and an auburn topknot. Though he couldn't be more than 12 or 13, his unencumbered torso already showed signs of developing an athletic physique.
His fist was outstretched, not to a person, but to an armchair sitting atop a pile of ashes, so much of its cushions eaten away that the springs were visible. He jabbed, showering it with a series of sparks.
"Honey, be careful!" a woman called, peeking out from behind a nearby cluster of furniture in a similar state. "You don't want to start a fire!"
The boy looked around at the barren field, the only structures that looked like they even could burn being the tents stretched between the piles of ash and char, under which ungroomed men and women in soot-soaked clothes warmed themselves by their garbage fires.
The boy focused on the woman specifically. Unlike the others, her hair was cut close to her head so she didn't have to worry about grooming, and her clothes were a little nicer, an old maid uniform with only a few holes in it. The boy felt guilt sink into his stomach as he saw the creases around her faded gold eyes deepen in worry.
Folding his arms behind his back, he stared past his ripped slacks to the ground and kicked some dust with his unclad feet. "Aw, shucks, ma, I didn't mean nothin' by it. I just wanted to have some fun."
"I know, Sweetie. Sadly, playtime's gonna have to end. I need you to bring what you can into the home."
He nodded and began ripping what remained of the cushions from their skeleton, ignoring the trumpeting screeches of the scattering elephant rats. Once he had enough, he followed his mother, her own arms full of mostly unburned wood. The trip was difficult as the piles of debris became more numerous, and they frequently had to weave around old burned out posts and smashed pottery, but eventually they arrived: Hidden between enormous pillars of trash like the entrance to a castle was a steel cellar door.
His mother fished a key out of her pocket and opened the dwelling, at which point they descended into the shadows with a small flame on the boy's palm as a guide. They tossed their items rather unceremoniously into a pile on the floor and he creased his brow in concentration, shooting a jet from his fist that eventually caught the material ablaze.
His mother headed back to the stairs, beginning to cough. Her retching became deeper and more guttural, but the boy was no stranger to this. He occupied himself by holding his hand over the flames, trying to get them to dance along with his humming. Unbeknownst to him, his mother was clutching the hand rail, holding her head and swaying. Her face turned red, then purple, until she finally toppled backwards with a resounding thud.
The boy turned from the fire and rushed to her side, calling for her. When she remained unresponsive, he began to cry.
"It's okay," she assured when she could breathe well enough, "I'm okay, Gevurah!"
"She's not okay, is she, Doc?" Gevurah asked over the squawking of the lizard crows that fluttered through the shantytown. Only slightly taller now, his hair starting to fall out of place, he wore a thick, brown coat several sizes too big for him.
He was addressing a man walking out of the bunker, tan with a dark goatee and blue eyes under his spectacles, offset by a white Manchurian jacket.
"Your mother made me promise you wouldn't find out how bad she is...but maybe you already know."
"So make her better!" he shouted, balling his hands into fists and startling a flock of indignant reptile-birds into flight.
The healer frowned at him. "I'm sorry, sonny, but only the Healers at the big hospitals would know how to treat your mother. And in a case this bad, it could cost up to 1000 yuans."
"You can have that many yuans?!"
The Healer put his hand on Gevurah's shoulder and smiled weakly. "Just...try to be there for her while you can."
With that, he walked out of their lives. Gevurah stayed rooted to the spot for what may have been an hour, staring down into the catacomb entrance. Eventually, in a daze, he stumbled out to the squatters' village. Here he saw the city pagodas in the distance, looming over the barren wasteland, and kept walking.
"I'm home, Ma!" Gevurah shouted much more deeply, now sporting a patchy beard and almost as tall as his mother would be if she weren't forced to stay in her sleeping bag for most of the day. She pulled herself shakily to a sitting position with her rapidly dwindling arms, but her smile was as strong as ever as Gevurah deposited a single yuan into a filthy jar on the shelf nearest the entrance.
Gevurah's smile, however, crashed. "You've been taking from the jar again," he accused.
"Gevurah, honey," she started.
"Mom, don't you see!?" he called to her, spreading his arms desperately as he pled, "I make a yuan a day at the store, if you stopped spending the money you could be better by now!"
She shook her head sadly. "It's not that simple. I can't work anymore, and I still need money to pay for the medicine so you don't get sick from the ash too, our food, the extra fuel, your books—"
"Why would you value books over your life?!" he shouted, tearing at his growing locks.
"Honey, it's not about the books," she rasped. These long conversations always made her wheezy. "You have to have a better life than this."
"And I can't do that without you in it! You can't leave me like Dad left us!" He tried to avoid tearing up, but it got harder every day. She started to say something, but Gevurah had already swept away. "I'm gonna go see if I can get some overtime!" he called over his shoulder.
It was only about a 15-minute walk to downtown Little Fire Nation, with its vibrant scarlet banners, streams of golden Satomobiles, and chatter of dozens, if not hundreds of partygoers. Amazing how much the whole world could change in such a short time.
He came to a squat, charcoal gray building that was 60% window, shelves upon shelves of food visible within. He grasped the dragon-shaped door handle, and a bell rang as he entered.
"Back already?" the young man behind the counter called incredulously. A few years older than Gevurah, he was a skinnier fellow with a black pompadour and a bright red duster, slight shadow on his rounded jowls.
"I'm sorry," Gevurah said, looking away, "It's just...do you have any more work I could do?"
"Nope. No special merchandise we need to get rid of. But if you've got some of those pills, I'm sure they could fetch a small bit of cash."
"I already sold you the last of them...are you sure there isn't anything?!" He looked up, pleadingly. "I'm desperate!"
"Desperate enough to shake down some stiffs who owe us money? Or you still too queasy to try that yet?"
Gevurah raised his fist to eye level, feeling his blood practically boil under his skin. His knuckles clenched in anticipation, tiny flame tongues dancing over them. "...Can I have some time to think about it?"
"You've had years to think about it, do it or take nothing and get out!"
Gevurah wiped his eyes and looked to the floor, slowly sucking in a deep breath before answering, "Okay—I get it—lead the way...."
Nodding with smug satisfaction, the clerk took him into a back room that almost resembled Gevurah's family bunker, but instead of his mother he saw a raven-haired man gagged, blindfolded, and secured to a chair with his hands tied behind his back. He let out a muffled scream, wobbling the chair in a vain attempt to get away. Gevurah looked away, raised a trembling-but-flaming fist, and swung right for his head.
"Ma! MA! M—oh!" Gevurah croaked, eyes bloodshot and face bright red. His mother looked at him weakly through foggy, half-closed eyes as he continued, "Thank the Spirits you're awake! I've been calling you for almost an hour!"
She noticed he suddenly stopped moving. No, that wasn't right. He'd stopped shaking her to try to rouse her.
"Maybe I should call off work and fetch a healer," he wondered aloud, biting his thumb nervously, "But your treatment...."
"Skip it," she said in a wet, throaty tone, "I have something important to tell you. But...it won't be easy for me to say...."
"You don't have to say it if you don't want to," he assured, brushing a lock of her now-gray hair out of her eyes.
"I do if I am to be at peace in the next life." As he opened his mouth, she cut across him, "No, don't argue!" She took a moment to catch her breath before continuing, "We both know we can't be sure if I'll wake up again. And I—I need to ask your forgiveness...."
"Whatever for?" Gevurah chuckled in spite of himself, "Look, I know I get mad over the money sometimes, but—"
"Shh...not that. For lying to you for all these years."
Gevurah just chuckled nervously again, looking around as if expecting someone to explain the joke. By contrast, his mother seemed to be staring at a point beyond the ceiling of the tiny bunker.
"Every time I told you this was the only life I ever had—that I never met your father—it wasn't true. We were together for almost 30 years."
"But—but then why did he leave?" Gevurah wasn't sure why that was his first question. He didn't really know what to think.
"He didn't. He was murdered. Could you...tell me what you know about the Other Fire Lord?"
Still in shock, Gevurah nodded. "He was the leader of the Agni Kais long ago, arrogant enough to compare himself to Lord Zuko. But he was a cruel, selfish man who lost many followers to Yakone, so his gang revolted and instilled democracy among themselves. Wait—wait, did he murder my dad?!"
"He was your dad, Sweetheart."
Gevurah's face instantly scrunched in revulsion.
"Don't believe a word they tell you!" she demanded with surprising sharpness, "Your father was a strong, proud leader and a loving husband, who was betrayed by his own people when things got tough!"
She tensed, on the verge of a coughing fit, but managed to choke it down. Gevurah shook his head. "But...then why wouldn't you tell me?"
"Look what happened to him. To us. And if people knew who we really were, they'd kill us too. I couldn't live without keeping you away from all that...but now I can't die without telling you the truth."
She grasped his hand weakly, and he noticed that she was cold to the touch.
"I want you to promise me," she began, "I need you to swear that you'll put this all behind you—find another way to live—maybe someone to spend it with. Just don't ever join the Triads—or tell anyone what I just told you."
Gevurah locked eyes with the woman he'd known all his life, yet strangely hadn't known at all. They were more faded than ever, even cloudy, yet bored into him with the sense that they could see his future. Though deathly white, her lips were resolutely pursed, and her sallow skin radiated with newfound intensity. "I—I promise," he stammered.
"Like you mean it, Young Man."
Clearing his throat, he practically bellowed, "I promise!"
She waited for the lingering echoes to die away before smiling. "That's good," she assured as she drifted off to sleep.
"'That's good,'" Gevurah echoed bitterly as he dragged an armful of firewood down into the bunker, "What kind of last words is that?!"
He tossed the load roughly over his mother, his angry gaze softening before shifting to a look of horror at what he'd done. He finally fell to his knees, stroking her hair, which had since grown long and ratted just like the rest of the squatters.
"I'm sorry!" he sobbed, "I'm so sorry! I know it's not your fault! No matter how much I stoked the fire, you just kept getting colder!"
Through misty eyes, he saw a scroll he'd thrown over her chest earlier, sitting among books, old clothes, and any other flammables he could find. It had fallen open, revealing depictions of human figures in various poses shooting flames from their limbs. He grasped it with a trembling hand, carefully rolled it up, and placed it in his pocket.
"I should have practiced more...but I won't make that mistake again. It should be easy to find more of these at City Hall. They don't even make you pay for the books there, y'know?" With a nod, he stood up. "This still isn't enough wood for a proper Fire Nation funeral. I promise I'll be more gentle with the next batch, okay? See you soon."
He left and returned, many more times, with any wood that wasn't completely blackened yet. When he had carefully positioned the very last beam, he stepped back and raised a hand. "Well...I guess there's no more stalling. Goodbye, Ma."
He lost track of himself, emptying his thoughts as he watched the flames leap from his palm and consume the only person he ever loved, the only life he ever had. The numbness was a welcome relief, but physically it was harder than he expected. He had to add more several times, and was sweaty and out of breath by the time he finished, but eventually he smothered the last smolders with a white shroud. He returned to the parched earth to see more piles of ash stretched out before him, not that much different from the one he'd just left.
"I guess everything turns out the same in the end," he mused, slamming the door and blasting it with more flames until the metal glowed red and twisted together. He then thrust his fist out, a burning orb impacting a tower of wreckage. It teetered precariously before cascading over the tomb. He turned to repeat the process with another, and then more, until all that could be seen was a mound of nearly incinerated debris.
"That should be enough to make sure nobody ever disturbs you," he said, untying his topknot. "Unlike you, I couldn't tell the truth before the end. I knew hearing this would destroy you. But I will confess, now that your spirit has surely escaped your body, that I cannot keep my promise. I'm sorry, but what you asked was impossible. How could I live quietly, knowing the scum who murdered you and Father went unpunished? I can only hope we find the peace and happiness you wanted in the next life."
With that, he tossed the tie away and smoothed back his hair, already starting to lose its color, as if the rest of his body's growth was starving it. He turned into the sunset and began the 15-minute walk to Little Fire Nation.
"Hey, Gev!" the clerk raged over the bell as he entered the store. "What's the big idea, not showing up all day without even a word of explanation!"
"Ma died," he answered simply.
"Aw, geeze, sorry to hear that," he said, scratching the back of his head, "But you still got us, right? The Agni Kais can be your family now."
"Sounds good," he answered, smiling at the man. "Do you mind if I go check the stock now?"
"Sure, knock yourself out!"
"Someone got lucky," Gevurah said as he closed the door on the back room, noting the empty chair. "Or maybe they've already met their fate. Doesn't really matter." Despite what he told the clerk, he ignored the shelves full of illicit goods, heading straight for the gas furnace.
"This is for my father," he said, raising his left fist. Lifting his right as well, he added, "And this is for my mother."
His arms burst into flame as he swung both fists into the kiln, which swelled with a bright vermillion glow. In just the right split second, he knew to thrust his palms to his sides, curving the fire around him. When the blinding flash subsided, he waved away the spiraling blaze of his shield, looking up from the bottom of a newly-wrought square crater, the burning wreckage of the store continuing to cave into the street.
A crumbling noise caught his attention as the wall behind the twisted remains of the forge fell away, revealing the maintenance tunnel for the still-burning pipes. He put his finger idly on the nearest copper tube and began walking. Time was a haze at this point, but when he next surfaced, his lengthening shadow told him the sun was rising behind him.
When he looked up, he saw a simple dress shop, still not open. A single blast was all it took to shatter the window, then mere moments to rip the contents from the registers. He snatched a fierce crimson duster from the men's section to cram more cash into, throwing it over his shoulders and jamming his feet into a pair of boots before he fled back to the underground.
Glancing at the yuans crumpled in his fist, he chuckled, "Hey, we all gotta start somewhere, right?"
This time, he grabbed a new pipe and took a different turn, seeking fortune wherever it would lead him.
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