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-1 (Blood & Steel)
Tuesday, April 12, 2016
(prequel side story)
Between the torrent of particles whirling through the air, the thick carpet of snow, and the solid ceiling of clouds, the world was a featureless white as far as could be seen. Through it trudged a column of figures concealed by thick cobalt parkas. The white fur lining, drawn tight around their faces, billowed in the wind, frost crystals clinking together and breaking off. An elderly arctic camel trudged through the snow at the head of the group.
Shriveled and with bunches of its hair falling out, it wheezed in its old age, barely able to force its rickety, knobby knees through the thick powder, let alone support a rider. Instead, the 20 figures simply tied a pair of ropes around its abdomen. 10 each took a rope, partly to help steer the animal, partly to avoid getting lost in the storm. Other than that, the figures carried spears tied to their backs, and belts with many pouches carrying unknown supplies. Even the camel carried sacks slung over its body.
The assault came with no warning. Ice spikes flew at the group's right flank, snapping against those unlucky enough to get hit. The tall, broad-shouldered lead figure yelled to not scatter, barely audible above the howling wind. When more ice spikes came jutting out of the ground at odd angles, the warriors frantically rocked left and right, smashing them with their fists before they could grow too large.
A rather unremarkable figure stepped back from the group. He wasn't short by any means, but noticeably not the tallest. However, he was the thinnest. Under the hood, icy blue eyes squinted, peering at the shapes of the attackers projected on the wintry haze. Things were not going well for his fellows. The arctic camel had given a great yelp and several of the group had to stop and pull it to the ground to keep it from fleeing. It bucked in protest, spilling the contents of its side pouches, which were buried in fresh snow within seconds.
As the spikes added up, the rest of the group tried to step back, but just bumped into the camel-wranglers. They had no choice but to surge forward, pushing a great heap of snow towards their attackers. However, that heap soon melted before their eyes, curled up, and flew back towards them as a wave.
The young man looked at his leader's back. Without hesitation, he stomped his left foot, sending a snow drift hurtling into his chest and chin from below. His neck snapped back and he toppled backward, at which point the young man shifted his foot, causing the snow to send him careening headfirst into a nearby pillar of ice.
Of course, there was still the matter of the wave heading towards them. The others had ducked, doing their best to raise a wall of snow with their arms, but the young man had other ideas.
"Steam it!" he yelled as he ran, ducking behind their wall and raising his hands. The others followed suit just a split second before the wave would have made contact, causing it to explode into a torrent of gray-white vapor. For a brief moment, all was quiet, as both sides were unsure of what to do about the thick veil now before them.
"Follow my lead!" the young man shouted again. Raising up, he bade a pair of ice spikes to rise out of the snow parallel with his arms. With a quick series of 2 punches, followed by a spinning kick from each leg, he sent the ice spikes out, as well as a pair of curving snowballs. Tiny puffs in the clouds could be seen as they struck their marks. A second later, a torrent of ice and snow descended upon those targets from all of his fellows.
He could see that the enemy group was trying to raise a wall as his had done, but this would be easy enough to thwart. Ducking down, he caused a trickle of water under the snow, which collapsed it from below.
"Now freeze them!" he called. His companions obeyed. With a wave of their arms, the water vitrified over the snow. The other group could be seen trying to wrench their feet from the ground, those who had fallen flailing to free a limb to work with.
He turned back to yell at those struggling with their beast of burden and shouted, "Finishing blows! Ice catapults! Now!" When they tried to protest, he roared, "DO IT!"
Looking reproachful, they let go of their lines. Predictably, the animal began to run. It did not get far before the young man waved, causing a snow drift to arch over it and freeze solid, forming an enclosed dome. Though it bucked and kicked and ran in circles, there was no way out.
Meanwhile, its former handlers leaped into the air, assisted by ice ramps that formed under their feet. Once airborne, they flipped, bringing their heels down. From behind them, bunches of snow gathered together in the air, clumping together and then congealing into thick chunks of ice.
When they brought these boulders down on their foes, the ice they were trapped in disintegrated with a loud, carrying crack.
"Now assail them with water blades!" the young man shouted as he began windmilling his arms, propelling the snow beneath him, "Don't let them regain ground!"
"I think that's been quite enough!" an older, deeper voice dissented. Though much louder, he was also much calmer. "And enough with the storm, if you don't mind!"
All parties immediately stopped and stood at attention, legs locked and fists at their sides. The storm fell away at once. The warriors turned to face a nearby hill, atop which 3rd group of hooded waterbenders shifted to stand at attention behind Tonraq. The warrior-chief himself walked down towards the victorious party. As the young men buried in the snow groaned, a trio of warriors with Healer's Crosses on their armbands rushed forward.
Tonraq stood before the young man, folding his hands behind his back. "You attacked your own leader," he stated matter-of-factly.
The young man hesitated for less than a second before replying evenly, "He was performing poorly. I told you that I could do the job better, and I did just that. But first, I needed him out of the way."
"You expect me to appoint you as a leader, but how can your soldiers trust you?" Tonraq asked.
"They would have known nothing if you hadn't told them. I chose the perfect opportunity to conceal my move as an enemy attack. Even the one I disabled will be fine, after a quick healing. This was easily the most beneficial course of action for all parties involved. Were this a real battle, I would have saved over a dozen lives."
Out of the corners of his eyes, he could see all of his comrades glaring at him from behind Tonraq, but he ignored them.
Tonraq sighed and, sounding almost bored, said, "I want you to take that arctic camel and go on a hunting trip."
"I'm not sure it will survive the trip," the young man said with just the slightest twitch of his thin, dark eyebrow, "Perhaps I should take--"
"No. You will take that one, and learn to appreciate what you have. You need to learn that your allies, even your pack animals, are meant to be nurtured into an effective fighting force, not just thrown away whenever they're inconvenient, or to be used as stepping stones on a path to glory."
Even under the parka, the boy's eyes could be seen narrowing dangerously. Reluctantly, he gave Tonraq a complete right angle bow. The only other thing he said, before turning on his heel and storming off, was "Yes."
But he had no intention of leaving the village. Instead, as he had done for years now, once he and the camel disappeared behind a snow drift, they circled right back to a secluded part of the docks, with buildings so low that they were almost invisible under all of the snow.
The young man strode through a neighborhood full of shacks that somehow managed to be nearly identical in their advanced states of rundown, ignoring all of the eyes leering at him from boarded up windows. He stopped at a seemingly random door and rapped on it thrice. When a suspicious set of blue eyes appeared in the peep slot, the boy pulled down his hood, revealing himself to have a sour, sunken face with high cheek bones, slightly pointed chin, and a sheet of dark hair extending just above his shoulders.
The other man nodded and opened the door, allowing the dark haired boy entry into a room dominated by dirty animal pelts—platypus bear on the floor, wolves along the walls. While the thick-bodied bouncer behind him took the leash from his hands, his eyes settled on a grungy looking man sitting on a violet cushion in the center of the room. Plagued by 5 o'clock shadow, the man sported a faded parka with only a few strands of fur still poking out of the sleeves, his hood down to reveal a greasy black ponytail.
The man broke into a wide grin, exposing yellowing, misaligned teeth. "Hey," he drawled, "It's Senthose! Musta been misbehavin' again. Aw, well. What's Tonraq want this time?"
"Hunting, probably small animals. He'll be pretty sour that I'm not bringing the mangy beast back with me, so I'll need something really worth the while."
"How 'bout 3 whole rabbits and a quarter elephant seal?"
"For this thing, it's the best I can hope for." Senthose heard the arctic camel settling down behind him, evidently much too tired to care that it was being traded away. "And about our other plan? I think it's time."
"You musta learned how to bend minds somehow," the man said, grinning ever wider, "'Cause I was thinkin' the exact same thing."
It didn't take long for dusk to fall, at which point the trio crept back up the snow drift towards the village, all unidentifiable in their parkas and the cloth masks spread over the lower halves of their faces. None of the other Red Monsoon families had responded to their call. They said they were busy trying to scam Unalaq's entourage, as it was rare to see wealthy northerners in the south, but Senthose suspected they were afraid to go after an Avatar, and didn't want to admit that some young nobody could succeed where generations of criminals had failed.
"We'll have to grab her before the monk and the Chief arrive," drawled the boss, scanning the crowd below until he spotted where a series of carnival stands and string lights were being set up.
"You see any kids down there?" he asked his bodyguard who, on cue, peered into a pair of whale bone binoculars hanging from his neck.
"Yeah," he replied in a gruff voice, watching the little girl twirl around, arms outstretched, creating wobbly little snow clones around herself. "She's there. You sure that's the Avatar? She seems a little...pudgy."
"Trust me," Senthose assured him, "That idiot Tonraq boasts about it to anyone who will listen. I've even seen her bend, after he was fool enough to let her show off to his trainees. This time, that square-headed ape-man will learn a lesson about the consequences of his own arrogance."
"But her parents are right there," the guard said, "What if Tonraq notices? We can't take him."
"They're not paying attention. And if they notice, we simply strike at the weakest link." He pointed to Senna, trying on necklaces, to make sure everyone understood.
"Alright," the boss said with a nod, "Let's go."
The trio leaped into the air. When they came down, they formed shoes of ice with which to skate down the embankment towards the village. Senthose, being the most junior member, was forced to take the least pleasant task and dive straight into the bay, giving a little twist just before he went under, to push most of the cold water away from himself, replacing it with a bubble of air. Nonetheless, the cold still stabbed into him from all angles. But he ignored it, focusing instead on waving a hand to create a whirlpool, out of which a cloak of vapor issued forth.
This would help obscure the other gang members as they wound through the crowd, moving ever closer to the child, her back turned, completely unawares when--
Without warning, Senthose's fog was completely stripped away and something, some kind of tentacle, ripped him clear out of the water and threw him towards the embankment. Unwilling to give up that easily, he caught himself and charged forward, noticing his allies being toppled by boulders just as large as they were.
Senthose himself stopped as a giant of a woman, at least a head taller than he was, walked out from behind the snow drift in front of him, looked him dead on, screwed up her face in concentration--he was unsure of what happened after that. He heard a series of loud popping noises, vaguely recalled raising a wall of water, a huge burst of light and smoke, and then a pounding in his head as he went down.
Senthose opened his eyes weakly, and was greeted by a plain white ceiling. Moving his head slightly to the right, he saw sterile steel gurneys, and concluded that he was in a hospital. When he tried to sit up, 2 things stopped him: Firstly, the burning, throbbing ache in his back, and secondly, resistance from a tinkling object on his left wrist. He looked down to see that he was handcuffed to the bed's railing.
"And here I thought you didn't trust me, Tonraq," he muttered to himself.
He spoke considerably more loudly than someone talking to himself needed to, mostly to see if anyone was listening. When no one answered, he looked around, unsurprised to see no family waiting for him. But Tonraq's display of mistrust was superficial at best. Senthose had been placed in a room with an unguarded window, and it was always so humid in these heated buildings that it was easy to draw water from the air.
Forming a whirling blade at his fingers, he sawed at the chain, and it was barely half a minute before it snapped. Gritting his teeth, he ignored the stinging running up his back and ribs as he shot towards the window. Figuring most of his clothes had been removed by the healers, he wrapped the blanket around himself like a cloak, making sure to cover his face, and easily sliced away the windowpane. Catching it, he made sure to toss it in the snow so it wouldn't make a sound. Finally, he climbed out of the hole, heading for the docks.
On the way, he snatched a newspaper out of a garbage can. According to the date, he had clearly only been out for about a night. The cover story told him exactly what he wanted to know: Unassuming, not particularly important members of the White Lotus had attempted to kidnap Tonraq's daughter for unknown reasons, presumably connected to the now common knowledge that she is the Avatar.
He recognized P'Li, the combustionbender, from the picture. From the description of how Ming-Hua used water tendrils to substitute for arms, he guessed that she was the one who pulled him from the sea. Obviously, they must have attacked because they didn't want the Monsoons to interfere with their own plans. But Senthose was not particularly attached to the gang, and wondered if he wouldn't have joined this group if they had asked.
In any case, because of their unique abilities, they were placed in separate high security prisons. To disable them a bit more permanently, Unalaq was constructing a special prison in a remote location for P'Li, and the White Lotus was negotiating with the leaders of other nations to try to work out similar arrangements for the others.
But what mattered to him was the announcement that the White Lotus would be constructing a special, fortified compound to house and train Tonraq's daughter. The 4 small time thugs had completely ruined his chances of getting to her. If he hadn't been able to convince the Red Monsoons before, they certainly wouldn't agree to help now, and the plan would no longer work unless he could amass a large force quickly.
Only the boss himself could order a proper raid, and even if he agreed, Senthose could never get a request to Republic City in time. To make matters worse, he was now wanted in the south and needed to disappear.
He didn't bother stopping at the hideout of his "friends," as they had surely been captured. Maybe they had even sold him out by now, he wouldn't know. But he went door-to-door to each of the other shacks in the neighborhood. He just had to find someone who was shipping to Republic City. If they were already trafficking stolen goods, why not a fugitive?
Eventually, he was instructed to go to the docks and board an old freighter purchased from the Fire Nation, with the promising name of "SINKABLE"—the "UN" part had been chipped away by time.
The ship had the typical design of a Fire Nation boat—roughly shaped like a diamond laid down on its face, with upturned spikes on both ends, a tower, and a steam stack. Of course, it was half the size of a normal ship, made out of a dingier, rustier, cheaper metal, and had several dents, bent spikes, bolts missing from several of its panels, even a chunk had been taken out of the top of the smoke stack.
A man was standing guard, 2 heads taller than Senthose, solidly built, of course with the usual parka, but his hood down. Not that it mattered, as he had lots of scraggly black hair obscuring most of his face. Senthose handed him the note he had been given, and the man nodded stiffly, calling up to the boat workers to lower the ramp.
Once the ship's bow had fallen, in groaning fits and starts, to reveal the loading ramp, Senthose headed inside and simply curled up in the corner with the blanket over himself—he hadn't brought anything else with him, and couldn't expect to be given anything else until he earned it through tedious deck work. But for now, he settled down for a nap.
Senthose was awakened by a sharp pain in his side. Through hazy vision, he saw the large man who let him onto the boat looming above him, foot hovering near his ribs. "Follow," he grunted. Senthose acquiesced without reply, finding upon going above deck that the dark, grimy steel of the boat could barely be distinguished from the placid surface in the pre-dawn lack of light.
The brute seemed to rematerialize from behind the smoke stack, setting a bucket down before returning to the ship's depths. Senthose stood well away from the bucket and raised an arm, dragging with it a frothy globule of soapy water. With a thrust, he lashed it against the deck, taking a few more steps back to avoid the flying droplets. He then made a scrubbing motion, causing a whirl of water to swirl around, grinding away at the days' worth of grime, only to leave behind untold years' worth of buildup.
This ship would be better off as a trash barge, then it could join its own kind and serve its true destiny, before drowning to join its long-lost dignity, Senthose thought bitterly as the frozen wind ruffled his sheer hospital gown and blanket, forcing its way under the folds and lashing at his flesh.
He moved in concentric circles, dragging the tiny tornado of water across the deck, drilling at the dirt. Up and down walls, across railings...the sea was shimmering a pale gold by the time he was done. Dumping the filthy water overboard, he returned below deck, finding the brute huddled in the corner with a woman who looked more like his twin brother and a pale, rail-thin man with a few missing teeth and tufts of frizzled, mousey hair. They were playing on a faded, chipped Pai Sho board with poorly carved pieces. The man tossed an old, worn-out coat to Senthose, grunting, "Payment."
Senthose tossed it back, waiting for him to disentangle it from his head and show his doe-eyed surprise before saying, "I'll raise that and my rations for your coat."
He let out a bark of laughter, his companions joining in. The little one's was high-pitched and wheezy, and the woman's somehow even deeper and dumber sounding than her brother's.
"Not so sure it's worth it!" he howled at last.
"Or perhaps you're afraid," Senthose said quietly. Predictably, the giant shot to his feet, shoving his dirty beard right into Senthose's face.
"What were you muttering, little man?"
"Perhaps. You are afraid. That I'll beat you." And force you brush your teeth. Your mouth smells like low tide.
"Are you saying you're smarter than me, little man?" he asked, tossing his head back smugly, scraggly hair flopping around like dead sea snakes in a storm.
"Yes," Senthose answered automatically, ignoring the "oohs" of the spectating pair.
They glared into each other's eyes for probably about a minute and a half before the large man finally sat back down, waving at the others to make space.
"Alright, then. Let's play."
Senthose sat down and moved a tile right in front of the piece his opponent used to capture it.
"This will be even easier than I expected!" he laughed. His laughter intensified after, his 3rd piece captured, Senthose began moving his pieces backwards, in retreat.
Things took a turn when his enemy pursued them. He'd take a piece in front of him, only for Senthose to move half a dozen pieces through the gaps. Soon enough, the ex-warrior had nearly all of the territory, save for a space along the edge where he'd backed his opponent into a stalemate.
The trio stared vacuously, only closing their mouths when Senthose thrust his hand out, palm outstretched. The man stared at it stupidly.
"My winnings. Unless you want a reputation as a coward and a cheat? Or perhaps you want to win it back," Senthose suggested, "I wouldn't mind the yuans I heard rustling in your pockets."
"No one would believe you," he answered, "And it was just beginner's luck."
"True," Senthose admitted, "But word will get around if you avoid competing with me or try to threaten me. The Red Monsoons do not tolerate disharmony within their ranks. Besides," he finished with a shrug, "If this was all just a matter of luck, then you're sure to win big eventually--right?"
The Sinkable pulled into a dock at the far end of Republic City, mostly obscured by large stacks of crates. A series of blue-clad deck workers anchored the ropes to the dock as the ramp lowered.
"To new beginnings," Senthose remarked as he walked out. He was wearing a new parka that was a bit too large for him, inside of which metal objects could be heard jingling, a fur cloak draped over his shoulders, and a silver necklace with a matching bracelet. He drank to his toast by tipping a fresh bottle of red wine to his lips.
Behind him, the large man from before began unloading crates, looking surlier than usual, swathed in an old hospital blanket, as he was berated by his sister, stamping her foot and waving her arms wildly as she screamed at him.
The scrawny man emerged from the ship last, bringing with him a man Senthose had never seen before, but nonetheless easily recognized. The captain was somewhat more sharply dressed in an obsidian suit with a gray-furred cape, and had a thick, dark, and well-trimmed Fu Manchu. He tipped his flat sailor's cap, at which point he exposed a small bald spot on the crown of his head.
"Your name is Senthose, right boy?" Senthose nodded in response.
"I'm told you are quite the Pai Sho player," he continued in a measured, jovial voice. "How'd you like to see the casino after you're done with this grunt work?"
"Sounds good," he answered, taking another swig. "Would you like some?" he added, extending the bottle to his superior.
The captain waved dismissively at it. "Mighty daring of you, betting what little you owned like that."
"I never had much to begin with. Unless you count weapons and a veritable sea of broken bottles for carpeting."
"Oh, so you're a warrior?" he asked, trying to appear nonchalant, but unable to hide the widening of his eyes, twitch of his smile, or quaver of his voice. Doubtless he suspects he's being raided.
"I was," Senthose answered, "I have my sights set a little higher these days."
"How much higher?" the Captain asked silkily, narrowing his eyes.
"Oh, let's just start with the gambling ring, then see what other jobs you have for me," he answered before taking another sip.
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