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|The First Steps|
07 --, 2010
The fourth chapter in the Village of Anquan series.
Cao begins his Waterbending training, and Zhengqi finally begins his own journey. Also, new challenges begin to form.
"Here." The woman said as she held up her hand, and Cao stopped in his tracks. "This place is perfect." Cao walked up from behind her to see what she was looking at. She used the same hand to gesture to a large, rectangular, and flooded area in the mostly flat field. All of the crops had already been harvested at the end of the summer, leaving a vast expanse of land covered in mud from the previous days storm. The same storm that had flooded the drainage pool.
Her name was Yu. She was the woman who had saved Cao and Zhan from the bandits, and claimed to have known Cao's mother. After she'd helped them, she'd insisted that Cao and Zhan get some rest before she tell them anything more than what she'd said. Cao had tried to protest, but had promptly passed out. The following morning, however, Yu had woken him up early, and had refused to divulge any information on what they were doing. He didn't have the energy to object.
"This is where we're going to start your Waterbending training." She said. She waded into the shallow pool, soaking some of the bottom edge of her robe. She waved for Cao to follow. The boy looked down at the water. It looked murky, and he couldn't see his reflection. He slowly put one foot in, and felt it sink at least an inch or two. The water was more than ankle deep for him. He stuck his other foot in before looking up at Yu. She began to walk deeper into the pool, and Cao struggled to follow. It was the same level of depth for the most part.
She stopped in the center of the pool, and Cao did as well. She turned to the boy. "Now, the biggest problem that I noticed when you were fighting, was that you didn't really know what you were doing. You didn't so much feel, and control the water. You looked like you were just flailing your arms around, and hoping it had an effect."
"Wait," Cao interrupted. "You were there the whole time? And you didn't do anything?!" There was a sort of angry despair on his face, one that came with confusion and rage. Yu laughed.
"I wasn't there the whole time. I got in just near the end of the fight. I saw enough of you and your friend to see that you were very new to this. Your friend, on the other hand, seems to have had some practice in the past." She kept a cool demeanor.
"But still, why did you wait until he was about to kill the both of us?" Cao's face remained the same.
"Because I was waiting for the most opportune time. There was a lot of rainwater out there, but it wouldn't have done any of us much good for the rest of that man's friends to come down and join the fight. I actually would have waited for an even better time, but that Earthbender didn't leave me much choice."
Cao stared at her for a second, but the look left his face soon, and he nodded. "Well then, now that that's cleared up," Yu re-began. "It's time we start your lesson. We'll start with just moving the water..."
His preparations were nearly complete. The last few provisions were being loaded into the boat Zhengqi would be using to sail to the Earth Kingdom. A small ex-military crew would take him there and drop him off. After that, he would be on his own. He watched as the men brought the boxes of food and barrels of water onto the ship. It was enough for two days. It was a quick little skiff, quick enough for him to travel there in a little over one day's time.
He was already at the closest island, and all the chaos that was trying to organize the captured Earth Kingdom territory would only make it easier for him to slip in and begin his search. "Sir," he heard a voice from behind. He turned to see one of the men from the crew. "We have a package for you. It's from your guardian, Zhidao." He handed him a package, before walking off. There was a note attached. Zheng pulled it from the string tying to the box, and read it.
I know you don't want my help, but I also know that it will be unwise for you to Firebend on this journey unless absolutely necessary. I've taken the liberty of sending you this to ensure that you can hold out as long as you can without having to bend. I think you'll find it familiar enough.
Your custodian, teacher, and friend, Zhidao.
Zheng opened it to see a double edged longsword sitting atop a bed of straw. He brushed some dust off, and saw that there was an inscription on the blade:
"Let knowledge be your weapon, and this your tool"
He recognized the sword as one his mentor Zhidao had helped him make and train with when he was younger. Zheng had asked him why he would need one, being a Firebender, and Zhidao had said: "Because a man of many disciplines can be more dangerous than even the most formidable of only one." And that had been that.
He dug a little deeper into the box to find the scabbard. It was a simple black leather one with a silver tip. Emboldened, and also in silver, was another set of symbols:
Zheng stared at it for a moment. The word was "Solar Eclipse". It was meant to be the name of the sword, but he didn't remember it being named in the first place. Why would Zhidao choose to name my sword after the darkest day in our nation's history? He pondered it for a moment, before shrugging. He would probably find the meaning sooner or later. He brought the sword over to a wash room, and began to clean it along with the scabbard.
Much like in his scrolls, Cao moved his arms and legs in one continuous motion, but he now had guidance. Yu had taught him how to make full use of his fingers when Waterbending, and to feel the water, rather than just move it around. He closed his eyes, seeing the water move mentally, not physically, before him. He opened his eyes, when told, and he saw the patch of water in front of him shifting forward and back with the motion of his body. It was like what he'd done to the pond earlier, but much more controlled, and fluid.
"You're doing good Cao." Came Yu's voice from behind him. "I think you're ready for the next step in your training." She slowly began to raise her arms at her sides, keeping her fingers facing down. Two streams of water rose with each arm, and slowly combined into a single large sphere above her head. She brought up her fingers, and the streams stopped. She began to move her arms towards Cao, and the orb of water followed. At about the halfway distance, she told him: "Now, I want you to use your bending to hold this ball of water above your head. Do you think you can do that?"
He nodded, and moved his arms ahead of him, closing his eyes so he could better feel the water before him. He "grabbed" the orb, and slowly brought it above his own head. After a few seconds of balancing, he kept it there. Cao smiled, brimming with pride. "Good," said Yu. "Now, hold it there."
His smile vanished.
"For how long?" He asked, the orb trembling above him somewhat. It was Yu's turn to smile.
"Not too long. Just as long as you can."
There was still dew on the grass when Xinxin reached the spot. It was a secluded place, far from the village or the crop fields that lay in the flatter portions of the land. There was a small hill, and at the top of this hill, sat a tree. The tree had several scars, places where something had clearly struck it. It also had many low-hanging branches, some of which were broken.
Xinxin dragged a weapon behind him. It was a long, wooden kanabo-like weapon, but with a longer shaft, and shorter studded bludgeon. It also had a metal stud at the bottom. It seemed slightly heavy for him, but he didn't mind the weight. He usually kept this weapon under his bed, in a sheath that it had once been stored as his father rode to battle.
His father. He was one of the men "recruited" into the Earth Kingdom army that was not a bender. And most certainly was not coming back. Xinxin would never forget the day he learned that.
With a small struggle, he hefted the weapon into an upright position to his right side. He'd practiced with it before, but it had been a long time. At least a year. He tipped the kanabo forward, and grasped it in his other hand as well. He reeled it back, and swung it downward, towards the tree. It missed, and he walked forward several steps by reflex, to keep from falling over. He didn't fall, but unfortunately, that was only because he stumbled face first into the tree.
"Ow!" He yelled as he dropped his weapon. He fell back and landed on the ground, still sitting up. He got back up to his feet, grabbed the weapon from the ground, and swung it at the tree again. He hit it too hard, however, and the recoil from the weapon bouncing off the tree combined with the weight landed him right back down to where he was. "Gah!" He screamed as he slammed his fist into the ground. "Why can't I fight?!" He shouted.
He was quiet. A tear rolled down the fresh red mark down his face, stinging it. The tear had nothing to do with the pain. "Why can't I fight?" He said it more quietly this time. He sat in silence, staring at the weapon. Cao can fight. The thought crept its way into his head. Cao fought without even having to learn how. He just picked it up, pulled it out of thin air right on the spot. Cao can fight. Why can't you?
The expression on his face shifted from despair to determination. No. No I'll be better. I can be better than Cao. I can beat Cao! He picked the weapon back up, but this time leaving the tip on the ground behind him. He picked it up as he swung it at the tree, sending the momentum into the trunk, and chipping the bark deeply.
The boy grinned. He still had his work cut out for him, but at least now he knew it was possible.
It was still somewhat cold, but the early morning sun on the horizon signaled that that would soon change. Still, while the fire didn't keep the men warm, it did well enough to cook the stew that was sitting in the pot above it. The men were hungry, and so were their ostrich horses. They were still upset about their embarrassing defeat the night before, but breakfast would make that go away. At least for a few hours.
Their leader, the Earthbender who'd been immobilized and used as a weapon against them, was still asleep. He'd done most of the beating during the fight, but had lost in the end. And then, the bandits retreated, running off into the rain like a bunch of cowards. It wasn't something to be thought of over breakfast. A mealtime for them, after all, was the closest thing to sacred they had. It could be scarce enough during a bad week, and was a good time to talk in the morning.
"What do you think we'll do now?" One of them asked, proposing an open question to the group.
"Who knows." Another replied. "We might pack up and leave. I don't think he wants any more trouble."
Rustling was heard, and the group looked to see their leader, Wuqing, exiting his tent. His wrists and face were bruised, but strangely enough, his pride was not. He walked over the group, and leaned over the pot to inspect the inside. "Hmm," he said, inhaling the aroma. It was little more than rice, water, and bits of rabbit floating around, just coming to a boil. "Not ready yet?" He turned his gaze to the one apparently cooking it. His eyes were baggy, and bloodshot, but there was no anger in them.
"No sir, not yet. I just got it started a few minutes ago." The man tried not to show it, but he was terrified. It didn't seem like Wuqing to be this calm after such a humiliating loss. He had no idea what was up, so he was just going to play along, and hope it went favorably for him.
"Very well then." Wuqing replied as he sat on the ground between two men, who had promptly made the space upon his arrival. He looked around at the faces of his men. They tried to avoid looking him in the eyes. "I know what happened last night in that village was...unfavorable for us." He began. "But I am not angry at you for running." Surprise flashed across their faces, and several looked up to see his face. He simply nodded. "You made a tactical decision. That new Waterbender was completely unexpected, and unusually powerful. All of us combined may not have been able to beat her in the rain."
He waited a moment before going on. "What we did was foolhardy, and stupid. We shouldn't have just rushed into that village like that."
The men nodded, looking around at each other to ensure approval.
"Which is why this time, we're going to have a plan." The nodding halted, and all eyes turned towards Wuqing. "I spent all night thinking up a plan. We made several mistakes last time that we could have never foreseen, that we will not make again. Firstly, there will be no rain during our next attack. That approach worked last time because it provided reduced visibility, but it won't do us any good with those Waterbenders, especially the woman. Speaking of the woman," There was a tinge of rage in his voice, but it quickly passed.
"The woman will have to be our first target. We'll have to take her out when she is alone, and far from a water source. This won't be easy, but I think that if only one man is used, it can be done. We can't do anything else before she's out of the way. We're going to deal with her soon. Very soon."
He took the ladle sitting in the soup pot, picked it out, and sipped at the steaming concoction it held. He grinned. "Like this stew, a plan is always best when well prepared, well aged, and well executed." He looked to the man who had prepared it. "Hopefully our plan can be as good as this stew."
- Wúqíng (無情) means "Unrelenting" and "Unforgiving" in Traditional Chinese.
For the collective works of the author, go here.