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Ken tries to deal with an elusive stalker who has been tailing him by night while staving off Je's investigative efforts by day, all the while trying to locate the mysterious puzzle box.
Someone was following the Blue Spirit again that night. A few days had passed since Boss Ibaru and his gang had been taken into custody by the city guard and by Ken's estimate, they weren't getting out any time soon, which meant that he had plenty of time to figure retrieve the mysterious box from the badgermole fountain he had stashed it in during the original teashop heist. Unfortunately, the city guard had more than doubled since the heist and he was almost certain he had seen a Dai Li agent or two snooping around-in addition to his mysterious tail.
At first, he had immediately suspected the "Bonebender" as he had begun calling him-the assailant who had tried to take the box first during the heist and then at Boss Ibaru's. However, Kensei assumed that the Bonebender was probably a professional-and whoever had been following the Blue Spirit had considerably less skill-seeing as Kensei had been able to successfully lose him each night-but only after an extended period of ducking into alleys and clamoring over rooftops to get away. Ken knew that sooner or later he would have to find out who was following him before his identity was compromised and so he decided to turn the tables on the tail and try to out-tail whoever was tailing him before worrying about the box.
Kensei tip-toed across a narrow, peaked roof, his shoes only making the softest of footfalls. If nothing else, his life as a thief and amateur swordsman had given him ample training to take on the role of his childhood hero. Although in his mind's eye he couldn't help but remember the faces of Ron and Face-two complete strangers who had been willing to risk their lives for him when he had escaped from the catacombs. Worse still had been the face of his sister all of those countless times when he had left her at home for one of Boss Ibaru's "jobs". He had always told himself that he had been doing it for her sake, but now he couldn't help but wonder if he had only been doing it because of his own lack of self-worth and failure to invest in his own future.
"Now," he had said to himself as he leapt down onto a terrace, "All of that is going to change. Starting with me finding out who's been following me."
He could just barely see the figure out of the corner of his eye, watching him from the shadows. It was too dark to make out any sort of detail and so he carefully crept around throughout the small cobblestone plaza separating the two.
"I've got you this time," he whispered.
Then without warning, an elderly woman and two bandana-wearing ruffians broke into the open plaza. "Give us the purse, lady," said one of the thieves, "Then we can all go home and get some sleep."
That was when his friend saw Kensei moving towards them from the shadows. "I-it's the Blue Spirit!" he cried out, "Run!"
Kensei leapt forward to intercept them, but by the time he got across the plaza, the two had already ducked down a side street.
The Blue Spirit sheathed his swords and went to check on the breathless old woman. "Are you alright, ma'am?" he asked, still unsure of himself. This whole masked hero thing was new to him.
The old woman smiled, showing a mouthful of missing teeth. "It's a shame we don't have more upstanding young men like yourself in this city," she said, straining her eyes, "Although the blue face-paint is rather-unusual. I guess I'll never quite understand the younger generations."
Kensei scratched his neck. "Ah, thanks, I guess," he said, "Do you need any help getting home?"
"Oh no, dear," said the old woman, "I'll be all right, but you shouldn't be out this late-it's past your curfew, you know."
"Yeah," said Kensei, "I guess I'd better go." He looked towards the alleyway where the figure had been, but the alleyway was gone-replaced with a slab of stone as though it had never been.
"An Earthbender," Kensei muttered, "In a city of Earthbenders-great."
Kensei could barely keep his eyes open as he led the way to Jon's while Kageshiko skipped a few steps ahead of him through the dusty morning streets, all limbs and energy.
"So," she said at one point, "How'd the job hunting go yesterday?" It was several moments before Kensei answered, "Huh? Oh, job hunting! Yeah, not so good, but then again it's tough to find a job around here with my particular skillset in mind."
Kage rolled her eyes. "Really," she said, "You'd think that they'd be busting down our front door to hire a swordsman and ex-thief. Are you sure you were looking for jobs last night and not another 'job'?"
Kensei shook his head. "I told you," he said, "I'm done with all that, besides, now that Ibaru and his gang are behind bars, I'm going to have to find a new employer anyway."
The two of them remained mostly silent until they came within sight of Jon's stall. Oddly enough, the delicatessen was not hard at work preparing for the day's customers.
"I didn't know Jon played Pai-sho," said Kage, "and who's that old guy?" She turned to her brother, but Kensei had ducked behind a nearby barrel. "This is no time to play hide-and-seek," she said, "What's gotten into you lately? First I could barely get you out of bed and now you're running around like a scared rabbit-dog."
Ken pointed to the old man sitting across from Jon. "It's him," he said, "He's from the teashop in the Upper Ring-the one that we did the job on-he's found me!"
Kage put her hands on her hips. "Don't be stupid," she said, "How could he possibly know where you live? You didn't actually let him see you, right?"
Ken was about to answer when a shadow passed over him and his sister from behind.
"Well, well, well," said Je, "The prodigal brother returns." The guard glanced over towards Jon's shop, "Planning another heist are we, Ken?"
Kensei rose to his feet. "As a matter of fact," he said, looking at his sister, "We were in the middle of a game of hide-and-seek, isn't that right, Kage?"
Kageshiko gave Je her biggest, most innocent smile.
"I was just concerned about Kage," he said, "After all, when her brother mysteriously disappears for three days and lets her get captured by thieves-" he let the insinuation hang in midair.
Kensei was about to speak up when Kage beat him to the punch. "So what do you want, a medal?" she said, "If I remember correctly, it was the Blue Spirit who saved me back there, you guys just showed up to pick up the pieces."
Je narrowed his eyes. "As far as I'm concerned, the Blue Spirit, if that's what you want to call him, is nothing more than a man in a mask trying to play at crime-fighting. If he keeps doing what he's doing he's going to end up hurt himself or someone else with his amateurish Earthbending."
Ken's heart skipped a beat. "Earthbending?"
Je nodded with a tight smile. "The Head of the Dai Li has put the Upper Ring on full alert," he said, "Some of my men who were on duty up there saw him using Earthbending to get around town-not very spirit-like if you ask me."
Kage crossed her arms. "You're just jealous." she said.
Je was about to reply when Kensei spoke first. "That's enough, sis," said Kensei, putting a hand on her shoulder.
"He's just trying to do his job," said Kensei, putting his arm around his sister's shoulder, "But, as you can see, both my sister and I are just fine." "Yeah." said Kage.
Je narrowed his eyes. "Of course," he said quietly, "If you happen to come across any information about the Blue Spirit, then you know who to come to."
Ken nodded. "Yeah," he said, "I guess so."
Shadow Knows Best
The Blue Spirit sat poised on the edge of a green-tiled gable of a manor of the Upper Ring. It was closing on midnight and the sky was blackened by countless storm clouds. So far, Ken had seen no sign of his usual tail, which meant that either the Earthbender had finally evaded him or that the stalker was getting much better at concealing himself.
Thunder crashed overhead and Ken felt the first dribbles of rain on his skin and clothes. Or the third option; the tail had decided to take a rain check. With any luck he would be able to get to the mansion with the badgermole fountain an back again before the rain made the rooftops too slick to traverse. He didn't want to think about trying to get back home to the Lower Ring with the increased patrols out on the street.
Clamoring over the darkened rooftops, Ken at last came to the extensive estate with the familiar four-sided courtyard and made his way up to the rooftop using loose stones and windowsills as foot- and handholds until he reached the top.
Down below, the badgermole fountain gurgled in the darkness, the stone slick and wet from the oncoming rain. Ken took a step back, then sprung off of the roof and caught the statue by the mouth as he landed. Pulling himself up onto the thing's head, he allowed himself a brief few seconds to catch his breath. Then, he plunged his hand into the mouth, feeling around for the object that had started the whole mess in the first place. At first, he felt nothing and so he figured that he must have stuck the box down further in the throat than he had imagined, although he distinctly remembered it catching on the circular sides of the spout fairly close to the statue's mouth.
Perhaps someone from the estate had noticed it and removed it, although he couldn't see how unless they had seen him when he had put it there.
"Looking for this?" came a voice directly overhead.
In his surprise, Ken let go of the badgermole's mouth and did a belly-flop into the fountain pool.
The little figure wrapped in dark cloth raised a series of small earth platforms to jump down to the ground. "No," she said ominously, "I am the Shadow-uh, the Shadow-Shadow Fox! Yeah, Shadow Fox, how does that sound?"
Dripping, Ken exited the pool. "Kage, what are you doing here?" he said.
"It's not 'Kage'," said his sister, "It's your sidekick, Shadow Ninja! Does that sound better?"
Ken was furious. He dragged his sister over to one of the support pillars beneath the second-floor terrace. "I don't care what you call yourself," he said, "You can't be here, it's way too dangerous for you to be following me around like you've been doing for the last couple of nights-you could have gotten hurt or caught by the guards."
"And it's not dangerous for you?"
Ken rolled his eyes. "That's different," he said, "besides, the Blue Spirit never had a sidekick."
"The Blue Spirit probably never had a kid sister." Said Kage, "Besides, I got the box or whatever this thing is, so we can go now, right?"
"I saw him!" came a cry from outside of the walls, "I saw him go in here." Just then a light flickered to life on the second floor.
"Let's go," said Kensei, grabbing hold of his sister's shirt. Together they were able to climb to the roof surrounding the courtyard just as several people rushed out of the first floor entryway.
"I saw him come through to here,"
Kensei recognized the speaker as Je. There were two Dai Li agents and several guards flanking him along with a girl a year or two younger than Kensei in a bright emerald bed-robe. She glanced up in the direction of where Ken and his sister were hiding, but only for a moment. That was when Ken realized that he was no longer wearing his mask. He must have lost it when he had fallen into the pool.
"Je, there hasn't been anybody in my house since last week," said the girl, "Do you really think that they'd be stupid enough to come here again?"
"One of my own men saw him sneak in through one of the windows using Earthbending." Said Je.
The girl was not convinced. "Look, it's very sweet of you to be worrying about me like this, Je, but I'm telling you, there's no one here. I'm perfectly safe."
"But," Je insisted, "The Blue Spirit might still be hiding in one of your rooms. Perhaps we should search the place just to make sure."
"The last time I needed someone to search for monsters in my room was when I was five years old, Je," said the girl. With a smile, she then gently took hold of his arm and steered him towards the door. "Why don't we talk tomorrow, Je," she said, "about us?"
Je stuttered and tried to get in another word, but two private sentries who had come down with the girl shoved him and his men out of the courtyard and replaced the bar on the door.
Just then, something bubbling up from the fountain pool caught the girl's attention. The Mask. Sweating, Ken watched as the girl leaned over and fished the mask out of the path of the fountain's arc and looked it over, a smile crossing over her features-which were not at all unpleasing to look at, by Ken's standards.
The girl shot a glance up towards the roof just as Ken ducked out of sight and then laid the mask on the edge of the pool before going back inside.
"The Blue Spirit's got a girlfriend, the Blue Spirit's got a girlfriend!" Kage chanted behind him.
"Shut up." Said Ken, "Go get my mask before someone else sees me."
"I can't," said his sister, "It's not like I'm your sidekick or anything-I'm just your kid sister, remember?"
Ken gnashed his teeth. "Okay, fine," he said, "You can be my sidekick, just get me the mask and lets get out of here already."
"Shadow Spider strikes again!" Kage laughed. Deftly, the girl clamored down to the ground floor and back up with the mask in matter of minutes. Ken had to admit he was pretty impressed.
The cerulean phantom allowed himself a small grin. "Maybe a sidekick isn't such a bad idea," he said as he and his sister padded away across the rooftops, "but you have to get better at your Earthbending."
"And you have to get a day job!" Kage laughed.
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