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Book 1: Earth
Previously on The Kyoshi Chronicles
On her way to Ba Sing Se when she first left Gao Lin with Nero, Kyoshi stopped by Monshiton Province and was almost robbed by the criminal, Gisgo.
Kyoshi met up with her father, Garuku, but he was captured by Astrid and the Earth State Army.
After receiving news that Garuku was in Omashu and getting some advice from Nongye, Patron Spirit of the Gaan Mountains, Kyoshi and the battalion started heading to the city via Monshiton Province.
Kyoshi has been having strange, frightening dreams.
Chapter 14: Sleepless Nights
|"The moon shines on the sleeping girl, but a slither on the sky. And in the air a song doth play, the No Moon Night is nigh"|
|— A voice in the night|
Jin Jin stands beside me, bearing her sharp fangs at the enemy. I lock eyes with Astrid whose face is contorted with an unnerving mixture of fury and joy. She flicks her left arm and a bolt of lightning crackles next to her. It loops in a circle then extends towards me.
Again Kyoshi woke up sweaty and shaking. She had been having nightmares every night now, each one seeming so life like. She took some deep breaths and the sweet odour of morning dew and loamy dirt calmed her down. Sleepy rays of sun trickled in through the canopy and a person stood at the other end of the campsite clearing – a sound that mimicked that of a stream coming from him.
"Momzen?" Kyoshi said, rubbing her eyes. The boy stiffened, his black hair standing up like a cat's does when it is intimidated. There was a silence and then the boy, tears of embarrassment falling out from his frightened eyes, tried to keep his balance as he teetered before the puddle of piss.
"I'm sorry I thought everyone was asleep!" he said in a blur before falling backwards into the dirt. Kyoshi laughed meekly and crawled out from her tent, helping the woefully mortified boy to his feet.
Momzen looked Kyoshi up and down. Her face was shimmering with sweat and her eyes seemed uneasy. He smiled at the girl and playfully shoved her with his shoulder.
"Just another bad dream," responded Kyoshi, feeling stupid for such childishness, scratching the back of her neck.
"Yeah," Momzen said, extending the word as his eyes dropped with a thoughtful, unimpressed look. "I remember I had nightmares all the time – back when I was looking for my parents. You get used to them. They sort of get funny after a while." Kyoshi laughed at Momzen's attempted joke and then sat down on a log, poking the dead coals with a stick.
"In mine I'm either in the Avatar State or fighting Astrid," Kyoshi explained, the heat from the pit almost lulling her into a semi-sleep. "And none of you guys are there." As ominous as it sounded Momzen had to keep things light – it was just in his nature.
"Maybe we were just behind you? You know, following our great leader or something?"
"Maybe it's a sign?" Kyoshi muttered, Momzen not hearing her sleep-deprived utterances – maybe he did but his attention was turned to a butterfly now and he had scrambled up to chase it.
"Momzen. Be serious!" the Avatar snapped. Momzen stopped clapping the air and turned to Kyoshi. It was odd. She had never disciplined him before, but he seemed to respond to it like a loyal dog.
"Sorry," he coughed, before ambling back towards her in his usual laidback self. "You know, it could all be because of the 'Night of No Moon.' Just a thought."
"What's the Night of No Moon?" Kyoshi asked immediately, waking up almost instantly.
"It's not anything like an eclipse. The moon is just so at the end of its cycle that it's waning so much it looks like there's no moon in the sky – or like a little slither of moon," the firebender explained. "I've heard strange things happen as the night nears. I'm pretty sure the 'Night of No Moon' is in a few days. It's just an Earth State superstition I've heard about, probably nothing."
"It could be..." Kyoshi mumbled, lips barely leaving each other. "I just don't like it when you're not with me." Momzen suddenly stiffened straight, his eyes widening above blushing cheeks. He knew she meant all of them, but in a fleeting heartbeat Momzen thought – more so wanted it to be that – Kyoshi was speaking of him only. Maybe she was. Maybe it was her way of telling him. He shuffled over to the log and sat down next to the beautiful girl. Putting his arm around her Momzen gave her a gentle hug as Kyoshi continued to look worriedly at the dewy ground.
"Hey. Hey," the boy spoke, softly smiling. "We're never gonna leave you. As hard as you try, we'll never go. You signed up for this parasite, you can't flush me out too easily!" Again Momzen made a joke. And hidden under his large, goofy smile he was biting his tongue – he always acted so dorky around her! Why couldn't he be more suave?
"I can't do it alone, Momzen. I'm just not strong enough by myself." Kyoshi looked up at her good friend and stared into his orange eyes. The colour soothed her and his gaping, smiling mouth made her smile too. She always felt like she could be herself around Momzen. The firebender looked up at a cawing bird and licked his chapped lips.
"Well," he said, thinking of possible solutions. "We could always do a round-up before we get to Omashu. Having a few more men – or women," he added quickly, "on our side wouldn't hurt. Could give you some peace of mind." Kyoshi nodded.
"I think it would." She was still shaken by her father's kidnapping. The world, its pressure, felt heavier on her now that he was gone and she still did not feel herself. Ever since she left Ba Sing Se she knew the Earth State was a threat, a big one, but when they took Garuku things just seemed to become so much more real for her. Like reality came and slapped her across the face. Kyoshi knew she needed to piece back her mind; if she wanted to rescue her father properly and then continue north to learn firebending she'd need her full concentration. Yet that would come only after she was certain her father was safe. The world was truly testing her.
"Just don't know how many Earth State citizens would be willing to help the Avatar out," Momzen added while twiddling his thumbs – he hated giving Kyoshi bad news. "You've got quite a bounty on you. You could buy this entire mountain."
"We can still try?" Kyoshi shrugged, assurance, or hope, getting further from grasp as they discussed the logistics of their futile situation. Momzen leapt from the log in a bid to raise Kyoshi's spirits. If they were to succeed next week, nay, at any point down their journey, the Avatar needed to be optimistic. Momzen took it upon himself to make that his highest priority.
"Of course we can!" he shouted, waking up the battalion. "Nothing we can't handle! We've escaped from Lake Laogai, battled a giant serpent, crossed the world's largest desert and heck you even found time to learn earthbending! So breaking into Omashu with only twelve men against the Earth State army and the Dai Li will, well, it'll be a piece of cake!" Momzen beamed at the young Avatar and Kyoshi nodded assertively back.
Another night came by after another day of climbing the Gaan Mountains to Monshiton. Hot Spring sunlight slashed through dense canopies and the periodic crunches of hefty footsteps was lulling in the heavy heat. Cicada and cricket sounds bounced off the bird sirens that chirruped along meek breezes. The evening sky was now pitch black and triumphant stars blazed the night untold; whispering lullabies to the last strokes of pink sun. Momzen shot his hand to a tepee of branches and the wood caught alight. The ominous light flickered into the shadows that stretched with ghostly fingers behind them. Kyoshi was sure she saw them tempt her to leave the camp – surely it was the Night of No Moon's approaches playing such tricks on her eyes.
Bako and some men came from the other end of their site with skinned strips of deer meat, placing it delicately over the campfire. Sounds of crackling fat and snapping wood brought the men to a ravenous hunger and soon everyone dug into their portion without an utterance of conversation until they were done.
The men of the Gao Lin Battalion were good men and quite good company too. They knew how to distract themselves. They kept conversation up during the night – often talking about Gao Lin; fond memories surfacing in Kyoshi's mind when she listened. At other times they exercised their earthbending, kindly helping Kyoshi with her form and technique, or even shared funny anecdotes of their times travelling together.
Tori and Jin Jin fought over discarded scraps and once the conversation was exhausted for the night the men started heading to bed.
"You kids should get some good sleep," one man with a scruffy beard said. "Tomorrow we'll be arriving at Monshiton but the last leg is quite a climb. You'll need all the energy you can get."
"We'll make sure to do so soon," Bako nodded politely, and with that the man nodded and disappeared into his tent. There was a moments silence as the three friends, Kyoshi, Momzen and Bako, stared as if hypnotised into the peaks of fire. Their bodies were comfortably warm, the sting from their proximity to the heat numbingly lulling.
"So this 'Night of No Moon.' That's tomorrow right?" Bako asked finally, the two others looking at him. Momzen nodded and looked up to try and get a view of the moon.
"You can sort of see it through there," he pointed to a gap in the trees that, from their angle, the others wouldn't understand what he was pointing at. "It's pretty thin tonight. So it should be pretty soon."
"Anything weird been happening to you guys?" Kyoshi asked as she too tried to have a look at the sky. Bako shrugged.
"Not really. I've had a song in my head all day," he revealed, voice raspy and intense eyes staring deep into the hot white coals as if they were whispering dark secrets to him. "I've never heard it before. But it was stuck there like I'd known it all my life."
"How'd it go?" Bako looked at Momzen and then tried humming the soft song. The melody, or whatever it was, was terribly off key and the two others broke out in laughter.
"Hey!" Bako groaned, grinning embarrassedly. "My voice isn't the best for singing, okay?"
Kyoshi held her gut tight and said through cackles, "That's for sure!"
Playfully Bako punched Kyoshi on her shoulder and she continued to laugh louder. So loud so that none of them noticed that a Fox-hare had come out from the scrub. Its tail, the tip dipped in silver moonlight, twitched almost on its own will as it watched the humans inquisitively. Abruptly the group turned silent once they noticed its presence and an eerie tune seem to resonate in their heads – the pitch no different between them. The Fox-hare stared at the fire, pupils dilating ever so slightly at the rise and fall of the peaks of fiery light. And though each child knew that, they were all certain the Fox-hare was staring solely at them. Its earthy green eyes, murky like a swamp after a storm, grappled each child and shook them to their core – sending them into an intimate trance. For each of them, it was them and the Fox-hare, connecting on some emotional, spiritual level impossible to describe using human words.
The Fox-hare's eyes suddenly shifted to Kyoshi, a quick click like a snap of lightning. The small hairs on Kyoshi's neck were chillingly raised and a ghostly breeze rolled by. Waning moonlight craned in over a canopy. Eyes remained locked. Tail twitched. Slowly the Fox-hare lowered its head, droopy ears flopping to the ground with an aquatic thud, and raised it moments later to return to eye contact. Was it bowing? Or praying? Kyoshi took no wayward glance from the animal, all the while thinking, as if it were dire, the response she was to give in reply. It was nodding, that was it. Gesturing for her to follow. Kyoshi lifted her sand-filled body from the log, Bako and Momzen doing the same in synchronicity to her, and the three of them began to follow the Fox-hare as it trailed into the woods.
The soft song, identical, maybe, to the one Bako tried to recite, continued in Kyoshi's ears and warmth seemed to encase her body. Though it was nearing summer, the warmth she felt was something unlike temperature in the air. It swam amongst her muscles, as if it were to make her its puppet, and gloved her bones snuggly. Her ears were hot and heavy with the tune and her eyes, still transfixed on the guide in front of her, seemed to fade and blur; her peripherals rushing past as if she was going at light-speed. She could hear, just barely, her friends behind her – cracks of twigs beneath feet, steady breaths rhythmic to the ebb and flow of the hypnosis that encapsulated their bodies.
The Fox-hare, large hind legs thumping over a final log, arrived at a clearing. A craggy cliff face presented the wood's canopy; fat, green leaves dappled in moonlit figures, nightmarish shadows dancing from treetop to treetop invigorated so much so towards lunacy. The song now was being sung by a voice on the wind. It whistled past. It was a female's voice, delicate yet confident with each note, holding the pitch with quavering, beautiful tremors. The Fox-hare turned around to face its accomplices and suddenly Kyoshi's stomach turned upside down. Her eyes flashed and filled with blood and her lungs were strangled of their breaths. Bako and Momzen gaped beside her helpless to the force that overcame them. They lost all control. And all consciousness was torn open from their tender chests.
I collapse onto a coastal cliff. Wind batters against my cold, numb body while warm blood trickles down my head. My arms and legs ache. I stay down on the rock. Eventually I'll have to climb the face of the cliff to secure ground, but nobody will find me here. I clutch onto short, frozen breaths as scared faces of my men throb against my temples.
But I must persevere. It is my duty. My destiny. I followed the path given to me, the path Kuruk showed me. With this foresight I must make my way to Omashu and do what must be done.
For now, though, I continue to rest – face down on the rock, salty wind stinging my wounds. I will get there soon. And when I do, and when we meet and start our journey, maybe I will find my lost men, my lost friends. I wipe water and blood from my eyes and curl stiffly into a ball, hoping my stressed body will work some warmth into me.
A whistling overpowered the air, and a blinding whiteness filled Kyoshi's eyes. Just as she had then lost her breath, a huge heave of air returned forcefully back to her. Like a punch in the stomach or an electric shock she jolted in her position – which was apparently on the log by the fire. Next to her Momzen and Bako did the same, awakening, it seemed, from some overwhelming experience. The three looked at each other in disbelief and confusion. What had just happened? They knew, or felt, that they had just followed a Fox-hare into the woods entranced by the song Bako had sung. And as if by déjà vu, they all felt as if they had been collapsed at a seaside cliff, escaping some previous quarrel. They had done that. Certainly. But every sane and sure fibre in their body was also convinced that none of it had happened; that they had all dozed off in front of the camp fire. Neither of them wanted to admit what had just happened. It was all too farfetched.
Kyoshi, thoughtful eyes staring into the fire for a recollection and playing on the inkling whereby she knew they had all experienced the same sortilege, finally said, "Either that was the Night of No Moon, or it meant something."
"Hmm," Bako blinked, still in doubt, while Momzen rubbed his nonplussed eyes. One by one the kids went to bed, Kyoshi the last to leave the fire. As she got up Jin Jin was sitting before her. The shirshu, sitting in an uncomfortable, twisted position, appeared spooked by something. The darkness, the wind, the night and all its terrors. Or maybe Jin Jin had watched and witnessed what had happened. With her eyes locked onto Jin Jin's slit-like, seemingly wise, ones Kyoshi nodded solemnly. Jin Jin returned the nod, just like the Fox-hare had done, then went at ease – her stiff body dropping into a sleeping bundle on the grass. Kyoshi sighed, exasperated and eyelids heavy, and put out the fire with a pale of water. Going to bed a dream recurred throughout the night. She would find herself collapsed on a slab of rock jutting out from cliff by the sea – apparently worried for what had happened to her men and how she was going to fulfil her destiny.
A Fox-hare stood in the darkness of the scrub, examining the camp with a simple, animalistic curiosity. Its tail flickered like the dying fire, like the granite smoke that rose upwards.
"The moon shines on the sleeping girl, but a slither on the sky. And in the air a song doth play, the No Moon Night is nigh." The Fox-hare turned around and continued into the depths of the Gaan Mountains; going about its usual nocturnal business, unaware of the role it had played.
Cold yet bright morning light filtered in through the thin tent material. It was impossible to sleep in, which perhaps was a good thing since they had a while yet until they arrived in Monshiton. Especially since the Avatar was with them the battalion could take no real path, having only the incline to guide them. Kyoshi got up, fed a devilishly hungry Jin Jin a small fish – poor thing was probably starving, they needed to restock their supplies – then saddled the shirshu of their things.
"Kyoshi," coughed Bako from behind, joining in to tie Jin Jin's reigns. "Last night-"
"-It was the Night of No Moon," Kyoshi replied, cutting in to appear more assured.
"I know," Bako frowned. "It was the coming of the Night of No Moon... What's going to happen tonight when it actually happens, though?" Kyoshi tucked in the last of the loose straps and hoisted her sleeping bag up before pausing to think.
She had no idea what to expect. It would either be something entirely nonsensical or something meaningful – like a riddle given to them from the universe. She shrugged.
"I don't know." The corners of her mouth curved up a bit, gently giving the boy some skerrick of solace – if not knowing was somehow better, and Bako returned a faint smile. The battalion, apparently up hours before, gave the kids their breakfast and soon enough led the Avatar up the mountain. As dawn turned to day the sun blistered more. The air grew hot and the sweet fragrance of blooming wild bushes mixed with gleaming sunlight in their faces sent Kyoshi and Momzen into a daze, relaxing at the stern of the fat saddle against tents and bags. Momzen, being a firebender naturally enjoying the sun on his skin, whistled a song to himself as he chewed on a reed he plucked from a passing shrub. Kyoshi on the other hand, while mostly liking the heat, placed an arm over her boiling eyes and laid sprawled out – stripped down now to her white under-dress to cool down. Tori had disappeared into a nest of shade among the luggage, small purrs coming from some indistinguishable spot.
Bako remained determinedly alert, the reigns digging into his tight grip, beads of sweat dripping into his eyes; he remained unfazed. Any territory belonging to the Earth State, even if the villagers were uninformed or uncooperative with the State's laws – it was enemy territory. He licked his chapped lips, giving Jin Jin a swig from his bottle before taking a meagre sip. The shirshu needed the water more than he; she was doing all the work. And most of the time Jin Jin was just given the leftovers, scraps – but she deserved more.
"Once we arrive at Monshiton I'll buy you a giant deer, don't you worry Jin Jin," Bako said, patting the shirshu on its hefty shoulder. Jin Jin gave a thankful huff before clambering up a rocky face behind the battalion.
As the day continued Kyoshi, lulled by the rocking of Jin Jin's body, thought more and more of the days to come. The Night of No Moon, of course, was on her mind, but more so was her father and Omashu. Waiting there would be Nero and Astrid, the Earth State army, the Dai Li and perhaps even the Earth King. And against those enemies would be her friends and the battalion; a group of twenty or so soldiers who were tired and hungry. As Kyoshi mulled these thoughts over under the passing canopies her confidence diminished into an overwhelming apprehension. Her plan seemed incongruously futile, and for that being so embarrassingly foolish.
It wasn't until noon, when the sun, brilliant in its shimmer, was at its peak, that the battalion halted and Kyoshi could distract her musings with some action. The Rusty Tapshrew, the worse-for-wear sign read. Just off of Monshiton sat this shabby pub; fine cedar beams waterlogged and crawling with wood-eating critters, a once magnificent, green-paned window now shattered and bordered with plywood. Many steeds were tied close together disgruntled at the invasions of personal space created by the other disgruntled creatures. From inside hearty laughter and guttural shouts could be heard, practically shaking the water out from the sodden foundations.
"We'll see if we can buy supplies here," the bearded soldier said – Kyoshi was sure he once introduced himself as Chang. "Maybe we can re-fill the keg with ale." A few cheers came from the weary soldiers. Chang led the way, Momzen leaping from the saddle to follow the man and Bako. Kyoshi hopped off Jin Jin and Tori flapped out from her nest and onto her shoulder. The small talons clutched into her skin – if she had her green dress on there'd be more cover, but the pain was somehow reassuring.
"Shouldn't you maybe stay out here?" one soldier suggested, emptying a boot of its dirt. "The Tapshrew is no place for a young girl."
"What about for the Avatar?" Kyoshi replied confidently.
"Especially not," rebutted the soldier. "What if they're not friendly?" Kyoshi shrugged and continued into the pub. She knew now was no time to be flaunting her status, but surely amid these hardy drunkards there would be one willing to put up his fighting spirit. Entering the pub the smell of strong ale filled one's nose. It was like a mixture of honey, only faint, and then something terribly alcoholic. It made Kyoshi's eyes water. She breathed in a large gulp of moist, stagnant air and scoured the building for some impressive-looking men. They were all brutes that was certain; arms sleeved with ink, mattered beards, angry faces. But what impressed, if that was the right word, Kyoshi the most was the sheer amount of people at the pub – and at noon!
"Excuse me," Chang spoke from the doorway to the bartender. He didn't want to go in too deep in case a fight broke out – these men seemed like short fuses. "Do you sell meat here at all?" Every man stared at the soldier and the three kids at his side – some sight to behold, particularly to inebriated eyes.
"Nup, sorry," the bartender replied, voice croaky from smoking all his life. "Don't sell no meat here."
"No worry. But would we be able to fill our keg with your ale? My men are thirsty from the hike."
Again the bartender shook his head gruffly and replied, "Nup. Don't fill kegs. We don't take too kindly to soldiers." Kyoshi slammed a fist to a wooden beam. A flier of her face with a reward printed below was nailed on to it. She tore it off, scrunched it in her hand and smiled at the unamused men.
"Listen. We've come a long way. And heading into a fight. So if you ladies are up to get your fingernails dirty, who wants to come with us?" Bako, Momzen and Chang all stared at Kyoshi – mouths gaping, eyes shocked wide and twitching. Kyoshi remained unperturbed and gleamed at them.
Reaching into her pocket she pulled out a sack of gold pieces and shook it in front of them patronisingly, and muttered confidently, "There'll be payment."
At this point the boys beside her had melted into a defeated puddle while Chang stood petrified on the spot. Kyoshi grinned. She was going to get a wave of replies soon. No doubt. Any second.
"Hey," came a voice from within the drunken crowd – this was it, the first bidder. "Aren't you the girl in the picture?" Kyoshi blinked.
"Wh – what? What picture?"
"This one here," the flier was raised up for all to see. "You're the Avatar. One million gold pieces for her capture." Slowly all the brutes' faces turned to the group at the doorway, eyes twinkling now with some interest. Kyoshi's stomach hardened as the realisation that a brawl was upon her came to. As she coughed out a smile all the dodgy, brawny men leapt forward from their chairs as Bako pulled Kyoshi to the left.
"Get in here!" Chang shouted out the door before tearing a chunk of earth through the floorboards. Momzen charged forward cheering playfully and skidded under a large man's legs. He kicked the man on the back of his shins then jumped to his feet and punched out plumes of crackling fire, knocking other grumbling thugs to the ground. Battalion soldiers poured in through the door as chaos ensued. Kyoshi clenched her fists to fire out slabs of rock as ravenous men swang punches drunkenly in the air and at each other. Crashes and yells created a din, and as the young Avatar bobbed and weaved through her opponents, tripping them up, knocking stones into their faces, she could feel her muscles flare up with each attack.
A workout was just what she needed. Bako had both swords in hand. He slashed others' weapon to the floor and kicked the men down, avoiding swings himself.
"Woah!" Momzen crashed into a table and rolled through the timber debris. At this point every man in the pub was blindly fighting. They were thirsty to get the reward for themselves, and for that they had not thought of working together. As skulls bashed together and more and more men tumbled across table tops the threat Chang had previously envisioned they would face dwindled. Soon enough all the drunkards had worn themselves out and had passed out on the beer-stained floor.
All except for the one who had Kyoshi cornered at the back by the bar. The man had come round from the corner from the bathroom and had a piece of the sink at the ready. The sharp point stared down at Kyoshi. Bako edged forward.
"Don't move!" he screamed, words slurred from intoxication. His eyes bulged and then he continued. "You move and I'll fire this right into her neck!" Bako tightened his grip on his swords. He'd have to wait for the right chance to attack – if the opportunity were ever to come.
"Drop your weapons!" A pause as Bako stared furiously into the man's eyes. It was clear he was serious. Bako threw his swords down and suddenly the man took Kyoshi by the shoulder and lugged her around the corner to make an escape. A whoosh hissed through the air and suddenly the man was pinned to the wall by an arrow. Another man, face hidden by a straw hat, walked to the thug nonchalantly then punched him across the face. Blood seeped out from his nose as the archer took back his arrow and let the thug drop to the floor unconscious. Kyoshi stood frozen in the hallway, her friends, too, locked in a state of confusion and admiration.
The man in the hat held out a hand and bluntly said, "The payment, please."
One could sense he was smiling under the shade the rim of his hat cast. Kyoshi took the bag of gold pieces from her under-dress pocket and squeezed it in her palm. This man was shady.
"I said I'd pay you if you joined our caus-"
"-I am," interjected the man, still blunt as ever. "I'm always up for a tumble." The hatted man turned to face Kyoshi, and lifted his chin to expose his face. His prickly chin bore a smarmy grin, and his little, hazel eyes twinkled deviously. The memory came to Kyoshi; back when she was travelling with Nero to Ba Sing Se, this man tried to rob them – it felt like eons ago, yet somehow she remembered it perfectly. It was a moment in time where Kyoshi felt safe with the Grand Secretariat; where she admired him, respected him and believed his words. She could hardly picture that past self, so naïve.
"So you recognise me?" the bandit chuckled, tilting his hat like a gentleman. Kyoshi frowned. Was he to be trusted? He was the most wanted criminal in Monshiton.
"Of course. You haven't changed much – you still look the same," Kyoshi replied, mimicking his bluntness in a bid to appear self-possessed. The man chuckled once more, then slipped past her over to a table, waving his eyes over the battalion.
"Yet you seemed to have changed quite a bit," he then looked over his shoulder. "Where's your friend the Grand Secretariat?" Kyoshi walked over beside Momzen and Bako, who were both still tense. A little quiver of weakness – weakness being she once sided with the Secretariat – shuddered like a broken butterfly in her gut. Nevertheless, she was here now, and had taken on her duties, and learnt earthbending. She was stronger. She gave the man a small smile as she stood proud with her allies behind her.
"He's in Omashu," she replied. "That's where we're headed."
"And there'll be a fight in Omashu?" Kyoshi nodded instantly in reply. The man scratched his chin, thinking things through as he studied the intricate ceiling carvings.
"How can I say no, then? Gisgo, at your service." Gisgo, smiling, held out his hand, waiting for it to be shaken.
Kyoshi leant in, keeping her hands by her side, and, with her emerald eyes squinting to suss him out, she muttered, "And we can trust you? You're not going to hand the Avatar over to the Earth State?"
The two locked eyes. For the battalion men and the two boys it seemed like forever, as if they were both reading into each other's' souls. The usual cheeky grin grew across Gisgo's face and he winked at the girl.
"With your life." Kyoshi shook his hand and happily tossed him the sac of gold, turning to the battalion victorious. Momzen seemed content while Bako, mouth open ajar, stared flabbergasted at the satisfied Avatar.
"You're going to trust him?" he spluttered. "Just like that?"
"I give you my word," Gisgo added.
"He gives his word," shrugged Kyoshi, smiling. It always was entertaining to see Bako blow up over such things. Bako, arms now extended as if that would somehow prove his point, turned to Momzen and flailed his arms. Momzen raised his eyebrows. It was his turn to speak, he whizzed possible jokes around, tossed up pros and cons, coughed and then opened his mouth. Everyone was looking at him, awaiting his response as if it were some gospel prophecy.
"Well," he started, choosing his words carefully, before continuing quickly. "He did give his word." Bako smacked a palm to his face as Kyoshi turned back to Gisgo and beamed at him. The bandit, judging the weight of the sac in his hand, nodded back and chuckled.
The scent of honeyfruit was thick in the air, as if it was it that made up the humidity. Now that they had finally arrived in the heart of Monshiton Province the afternoon air had become hot and thick with moisture. The villagers gaped and gawked as the battalion all together marched down the market boulevard. Thankfully not many fliers of the Avatar's reward were around, and any stray ones seen were torn off and pocketed quickly. Chang split the men into groups, giving them each a portion of their leftover money, and sent them on supply errands; meat, grain, new shoes, he even went so far as to purchase well-deserved grooming sessions for the battalion's herd of Ostrich-horses and Jin Jin.
Kyoshi liked Monshiton. When she passed through it with Nero she never really got the chance to see it all. The market street, the main strip of the province, started right at the gates and continued a few odd hundred metres, meeting to a square at the end. The streets were cobbled with smoothened stones and dappled in shade by broad, leafy branches. The five of them, Kyoshi, Bako, Momzen, Gisgo and Tori, on foot now that Jin Jin was getting groomed, ambled down the main strip. The kids shared a honeyfruit together, suckling at the sweet flesh. The fruit's season had almost ended so it was slightly bitter and hard, but otherwise very satiating. Gisgo kept his straw hat over his face and his head angled downwards to keep a low profile. He left his bow and arrows behind too; it was the criminal's signature weapon so having them with him would be a dead giveaway.
"Do you know anything about the Night of No Moon," Momzen piped up, addressing Gisgo curiously. Gisgo stopped and looked at a dream-catcher that hung from a villager's stall. A web of grass was netted with dyed feathers and a shell, and if one got close enough the recognisable odour of animal fur could be smelt on the entwined fabric. Kyoshi examined the varieties, listening in on what Gisgo had to say.
"It's a thing Monshiton takes pretty seriously. I mean, we have markets every third day but this one's special. Every household makes a bunch of these, well, we call them mangers. Trading them among families and other villagers is part of the tradition – the mangers are supposed to protect us." Gisgo studied the other knickknacks on the counter – crystals carved into animals, shiny rocks, skins and furs. "Then when the Night of No Moon comes you make an offering to appease the angry spirits and the next morning you wash yourself in the river. It's meant to purify you of your own angry spirits. But I dunno, a load of nonsense if you ask me." The kids laughed, only as the polite thing to do. But with what they experienced last night, it seemed having a manger wouldn't hurt.
As the group continued to the main square babbles of gibberish grew louder and louder. There was quite a crowd, too. Tori squirmed in through peoples' legs and Kyoshi curiously followed, apologising if she stepped on strangers' feet. At the centre of the square, and what everyone was watching, was somewhat of a woman. She was human, of course, but her mattered hair knotted with twigs, her saggy, old skin, and twitching, grey eyes made her seem more animal than woman. She wore a dusty singlet and a long, deep green and purple dress. She could barely stand without tripping up on it. She held an herbal cigarette between two fingers and took long, delicate puffs from it; the spicy smoke snaking from the corners of her mouth when she spoke.
"The moon shines on the sleeping girl, but a slither on the sky. And in the air a song doth play, the No Moon Night is nigh. The tree shades dance and Fox-hare play. Black smoke toil and pine men pray." She babbled more verses to the crowds, which soon tired from it and moseyed away disappointedly. Kyoshi smiled. The poem was beautiful. Though the old hag's voice was like washing yourself with sandpaper, the words resonated profoundly with Kyoshi; it was almost as if she had once said them herself. Bako was obviously nonplussed, still keeping a high alert for any more reward fliers about. Momzen would have liked it, but he and Tori had seen gaunt-faced cat and chased it off down a side-street.
"You there!" Kyoshi's stomach hardened as the old witch's crooked finger pointed directly her way. She knew. The lady knew Kyoshi was the Avatar. Kyoshi felt the earth underneath, just to make sure there was something she could use if the situation became sour, the fact that earth was always underneath was flicked out of her brain from shock. How odd that she was caught off guard. In her peripherals she could see Gisgo straightening up against the pole he was leaning on, face still shrouded by shadows.
"Girl. Girl," the gypsy took a firm hold of Kyoshi's hand and pulled her in close. "The No Moon has spoken to you, has it not? It's got a message."
"A message?" Kyoshi's sinking feeling was turned upside down and now she peered into the old lady's eyes with flustering inquisitiveness.
"Yes, yes. You are important, a strong heart, and they've been trying to contact you."
"A message from the spirits?"
"They have something for you," the gypsy nodded, eyes bulging then squinting then bulging again. "We can talk to them tonight." By now Kyoshi's heart was pounding. The spirits had something important to tell her, something that could possibly change the course of the war. How could she refuse?
"O-of course. Yes. I'll meet you tonight?" Kyoshi enunciated, as if the lady could not comprehend her words.
"At twilight follow the path across the crest of the hill," the gypsy explained, pointing to a small opening in the scrub at the end of the square. "I'll be there. The spirits will be there." She picked up her things in a quick, scrambling hug then shuffled backwards into the woods keeping her eyes locked onto Kyoshi. The gypsy was definitely odd, but there was something about her that made her seem wise, and honest. Bako came up beside Kyoshi and put a hand on her shoulder.
"I know what you're going to say," mumbled Kyoshi.
"I just don't think it's the best idea to get your fortune told by some crazy lady," Bako argued, taking care to use a polite tone.
"The spirits have a message for me, we have to stay the night."
"We've got our supplies so we may as well leave now and starting making our way to Omashu." Kyoshi huffed a strand of hair from in front of her face and shook her head. She had to do this, she knew it. The Night of No Moon, as strange as it was, was not something to fear or avoid. She had to accept the paranormal forthcomings that was the Night, move past them and take away from it some possibly vital bits of information.
She crossed her arms and told Bako, "This isn't your decision. I'm seeing her tonight and you're not going to stop me."
"-No! Bako! Just trust me!" Kyoshi interjected, unaware of the scene she was making. "As the Avat-"
Bako snatched Kyoshi's wrist and yanked her in close to hiss, "You mind saying that any louder? You've got to remember that you're the State's most wanted criminal. You made the decision to go to Omashu, you're putting everyone in jeopardy, so stop parading around pretending like this isn't serious." Kyoshi tugged her arm out of Bako's grip and stared daggers at him. Why did he always have to do this? Did he think that his interfering all the time actually helped? It only made her feel worse. She sucked up an angry breath and stormed off down a street. Bako sat on the fountain rim and sighed. She was always so difficult – as soon as Kyoshi showed signs of maturity he'd always say something that flushed it away immediately. What was he doing wrong?
Kyoshi remained hidden in the streets of Monshiton until the sky's morning light faded into a yawning dimmer. Fuzzy pink sheets, a nightly lullaby, stretched out over the darkening trees as villagers started to give their offerings of rice and incense before sulking into the safety of their homes. As the last inklings of yellow light disappeared over the hill at the end of the square Kyoshi made for it, as if it was heralding her to some enlightening experience. She pushed a thorny branch aside and continued down the dense path, as behind shadows started dancing skewed against the walls.
The path winded around the face of the hill to a clearing. Here Kyoshi found the gypsy's home. Pots and dirty clothes were strewn across the grass, incense sticks crackled lightly as fragrant smoke trickled upwards, and a small hut, red paint peeling, stood feebly against the backdrop of the woods. The gypsy was muttering something to herself, decorating a circle of salt with stones and bouquets of weeds and flowers until she noticed the young girl arrive.
"Girl," she smiled, practically toothless. "You came!" Kyoshi smiled shyly and nodded.
"Shall we begin?"
"Yes," Kyoshi replied, taking hold of the hand the lady gave her. The gypsy took her into the centre of the circle and weaved small flowers in her hair. She rummaged around her hut, procuring a pot, and wiped the red liquid from inside on Kyoshi's arms. It smelt heavily earthy, and cracked on her skin like old blood.
"They're here, girl." Kyoshi looked up at the blackening sky, thinking maybe she'd get a glance. The gypsy started chanting an ancient mantra, encircling Kyoshi like a scavenging vulture when suddenly the sky flashed into darkness and the gypsy's eyes widened manically. A foul smile spread over her wrinkled chin and suddenly shadowy figures dropped from the clouds. The humid air turned icy and their eerie screams whistled past Kyoshi's ears like harrowing draughts. Kyoshi waited for her panic to subside, this was all a part of the ritual. But as the spectral ghouls continued to pour from the sky and swarm around her, a growing sense of dread filled her up head to toe.
The shadowy figures suddenly jumped to her and, though Kyoshi could see they weren't making any physical contact, clung to her flesh. At this moment a choking feeling came upon her, like a heavy wave crashing down on her in slow motion. She collapsed to the grass as more and more figures came to take bites from her. It was as if her energy was being sucked right out from her lungs. Struggling to move in the encasing vortex Kyoshi lifted her head up. Through the swarm of demons the Avatar could see the gypsy. Her face was, in some incongruous way, becoming younger. Her hunched back was straightening up and her grey hair was slowly becoming washed back into a chestnut brown. What is she doing to me? Kyoshi thought. Kyoshi held onto the grass for dear life, it was an anchor to her youth; something she could feel was being taken from her.
"Stop, please," Kyoshi croaked, her mouth dry and voice riddled with fright. The gypsy cackled as she watched the lively girl slowly wither away, she was truly horrid. Suddenly the world went ablaze, the night a searing ember to burn away the demons. Scorching roars echoed among the howls of the shadowy figures, and they cascaded away from the light in jet black streams. Kyoshi looked up again, her world spinning. She could see Momzen fighting away the angry spirits, she could see the battalion and Tori, and Jin Jin hissing worriedly. And in her peripherals Bako held his swords at the cowering gypsy. Chang walked over to him and as he carried out some slashing motion, Kyoshi couldn't really see what he was doing, the Avatar choked on her last ounce of energy and collapsed into the night, a soft tune playing her out.
Kyoshi could feel the sting of a camp fire. Her hair was hot and eyes heavy. The air in the tent was warm and she was wrapped snuggly in layers of animal fur. Tori noticed her awaking and nuzzled her cheek gently. Kyoshi blinked and breathed in slowly. Her lungs were sore and her temples were throbbing. She could hear Bako and Momzen talking by the fire mid-conversation.
"What was she doing by herself anyway?" Momzen asked.
"I told her not to," Bako sighed. "So of course she went and did it."
"You've got to have more faith in her. I know you didn't want to go to Omashu, but it was her decision, and we have to respect it." Kyoshi smiled and continued listening.
"I do have faith in her. I just want her to be safe. If anything were to happen to her..." Bako stared into the fire; he didn't even want to think what life without Kyoshi would be like.
"She's been having dreams where we're not there with her. She's not even sure her father is alive. She's been through a lot, Bako, so even if the gypsy had bad intentions, we have to let Kyoshi relax every now and then. You know, have some fun." Bako nodded. For once he and Momzen were agreeing.
"Yeah. I know," he said. "It's quite remarkable how strong she is." Kyoshi stopped everything. Her heart fluttered in her rib cage and salty tears formed at the brim of her shimmering eyes. Somehow everything she had been trying to push away, all her worries; if her father was safe, if she was making the right decisions, if they were going to be successful in Omashu, if she was a good enough Avatar – somehow what Bako had said made everything all better. The boys noticed her stir and turned to face the tent.
"Kyoshi?" Bako muttered. Kyoshi laid still, face looking up at the stars. It was a clear night, and beautiful. Soft clouds drifted over the twinkling blanket like slow dancers, trapped in a timeless romance.
"Yes?" she croaked back.
"I'm sorry." Bako put his head in his hands, Momzen looking at him uncomfortably. Kyoshi sat up and looked at the boy too. He was crying. And not even trying to hide it.
"Bako?" Kyoshi said softly, smiling meekly. The boy sniffed up tears, but to no avail as more tears surfaced and he continued to cry.
"Yeah?" he managed, voice shaky, Momzen still sitting in shock at the display before him. Kyoshi cradled Tori in her arms and stroked her feathers, feeling as if she was stroking Bako's short, brown hair. Maybe he'd feel it somehow.
"What's wrong?" she asked. Bako wiped his eyes and looked up at Kyoshi, his intense eyes hitting hers magnificently in the delicate moonlight. Bako had never really noticed, but Kyoshi's eyes were beautiful. Green and glistening like emeralds, powerfully striking yet also kind and feminine. The Avatar was radiant with the firelight against her skin.
"I'm just," started Bako. "I'm just scared. Really scared." Kyoshi slipped out of her sheet and walked over to him. The dirt and leaves felt fresh on her bare feet and she embraced him.
"Me too." When she said that Bako hugged her back and Momzen joined the embrace too.
"I guess that makes three of us," he laughed. The three of them stayed like that for a few minutes, content in each other's arms. And though they had just admitted their worries, somehow everything seemed perfect. Tori was fast asleep in the tent, Jin Jin was curled up by the fire, and glittering, angelic stars twinkled above. Kyoshi's lips curved upwards, a smile it could be called, but in a way they had never done before; a reaction to some new emotion. Closure? Security? Love? It was something, maybe it wasn't new, but it was definitely a feeling Kyoshi would hold onto. She had seen Bako, usually always cold and tactical, break down into tears. She thought she'd enjoy it, most of the time his attitude and bossiness was annoying, but seeing him open up, allow his cracks to finally shatter was profound. It had made them closer in some way.
The Night of No Moon truly brought around some strange occurrences, and perhaps Kyoshi was ready to face Omashu.
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