10, 200 A.A. (After the first Avatar)-Winter Solstice
Branches snap under Maka's feet as she treads through the forest, the chatter of animals above her. She pays it no mind-her eyes are fixed on the bright plains opening up in front of her. As she leaves the shadows of the forest, a strong wind whips through the plains, slicing a path of rippling grasses in its wake. She raises her hand and shades her face from the strong sunlight, enjoying the view.
A flash of purple flies past her, grabbing her attention. Leaping forward on an impulse, she follows it.
The grasses nearly reach her head as she cuts her way through the plains. She keeps her eyes trained on the purple blur, which is quickly outpacing her. "Wait!" she calls. Her words have the opposite effect on the blur and it hooks a hard left, speeding up until she can't see it at all. Still, Maka continues to run, using her arms to sweep the grasses out of the way. She is thrown for a loop when the plains drop off suddenly.
The harsh blue of the sky greets her and she feels herself lurch forward as her feet peddle uselessly in mid-air. She barely has time to belatedly register the cliff before gravity begins to yank her to the ground. A scream rips from her lips as she falls.
A hand grasps Maka's, pulling her onto something warm and leathery. A strange sensation of unreality sweeps through her as she travels through the sky, the plains below her shrinking rapidly as she climbs higher and higher.
A boy with hair as white as untouched snow and eyes red as the spiny scales of dragon she rides calls to Maka. He gives her a sharp-toothed grin, taking her hand. "I found you!"
Her breath catches at their touch, his name springing to the tip of her tongue.
The screech of the penguin-rooster that nests on Maka's window causes her eyes to fly open and her heart to nearly climb out of her chest. She pulls herself to a sitting position, breathing heavily. Giving the bird the strongest glare she can muster, she growls, "Get out of here before I cook you."
The bird replies by squawking impertinently again before dropping off the window sill.
Scowl fading, she rubs her eyes and thinks back to her dream. She has a nagging feeling that it was important but all she remembers is falling.
And a dragon.
Someone else was with me, she thinks, frowning. Who was it? She presses her palms to her eyes, straining her memory. All she comes up with is a hazy outline of a figure and a smile filled with razor-sharp teeth.
The curtain separating her room from the living quarters screeches as it slides back on its rod. "I thought I heard you up," her mother says as she walks swiftly into Maka's room. Vakirah presents a neatly wrapped gift and places it in Maka's hands. "Happy birthday. And winter solstice."
"Thanks." With a quick tug on the string holding the wrapping together, the package comes apart, revealing new light blue robes. She holds them up one by one. The skirt is a bit too long to wear when she goes out to practice her bending but she admires the feel of the fabric, like water woven into silk. "These are for the ceremony later tonight?" she asks.
Vakirah nods, brushing back a lock of her fair hair behind her ear. "Speaking of which, there was some-"
A horn sounds in the distance, startling them both.
"Your father can't be starting the Solstice Hunt already," Vakirah exclaims, striding towards the door. "Hurry and get dressed."
Maka scrambles off the bed, heart now hammering for an entirely different reason. "Can I go with Papa?" she spits out the question before she can lose her nerve. "I am thirteen now."
Her mother turns back, giving her a confused stare. "Maka, you know that rite of passage is only for the boys."
Maka crosses her arms stubbornly. "But you let me practice my bending."
Vakirah sighs. "There are certain rules that can't be broken, Maka. This is one of them."
Her mother's eyes cloud over briefly. "Your father is the chief now, Maka. There's different expectations."
The horn rings out again.
"There isn't time to discuss this further," Vakirah says distractedly. "It's just not going to happen, Maka."
Squeezing Maka to her briefly, she lets go of her, pedaling backwards to the door. "Come join me outside when you're done. Then we'll have breakfast and talk about today." As she exits the room, she mutters more to herself than to Maka, "I can't believe your father would leave without his own family seeing him off…"
Maka catches her own gaze in the mirror hanging across the room, reflecting the emptiness of the room.
"Okay," she says to no one.
It's as she is pulling her parka over her head that an important realization hits Maka like an avalanche. Heart leaping into her throat, she shoves her feet into her boots and rushes from the room, hurriedly pulling her hair into two simple pigtails. Her heart thumps rapidly as she hurries out into the living room and cautiously pokes her head out of the igloo, peering to the left and right.
Her mother and most of the women stand around the bonfire that lies in the center of their growing village. Some tend to the fire and keep an eye on the children while others wave at the men trekking off into the wilderness, armed with spears and clubs. At the sight of the men fading into the tundra, an anxious panic prickles up Maka's back.
She edges out of the igloo and breaks out into a run once she rounds the corner of the road that winds through her village, heading for the village's back entrance.
The open gates towering above her seem to look down at Maka disapprovingly as she passes through them. Setting her jaw stubbornly, she focuses on keeping her balance as the trail out of the village turns from packed snow to slippery ice. She dances on the ice, faint scratching noises of her boots breaking the silence solidified by the frigid air. Her hair swings back and forth in time with her steps.
She lets out a gasp when the skirts underneath her parka catch on her new shoes, only barely avoiding faceplanting onto the ice. Wishing for her old trousers or a shorter skirt, Maka pauses and hauls up the offending skirts with an irritated huff.
Minutes later, she grinds to a halt at the ice's edge. Maka crouches low, breaths coming out in foggy puffs. Brushing her hair back, she pulls out a handmade ice whistle and blows on it, a low and rough sound coming from the whistle.
She stows it away and chews on her lip with tense impatience. "Come on," she mutters. "Where are you?"
A minute that stretches out like an eternity passes by before she sees something other than her wide-eyed reflection staring back at her. Maka grins in relief at the pair of golden eyes that greet her. "There you are!"
Blair pokes her head out of the water, giving Maka a sharp but affectionate prod to the face with her nose.
Maka loses her balance and falls back on the ice. "Blair!" She hurls a mock glare at the saber toothed polar lion emerging from the ocean on paws she has yet to grow into, flicking off the ice on the bottom of her parka. "You're not as small as you used to be anymore. You can't do that."
Giving a low dismissive rumble, Blair proceeds to shake out her wet fur, spraying Maka in the process.
"No, Blair!" Maka yelps and scrambles to her feet. She puts her hands on her hips, scowling.
The lion rolls on her back and yawns, obviously unrepentant. Looking up, she gives her tail an expectant swing.
Maka crosses her arms, pointedly looking away from Blair. "No."
Blair lets out a whine. Maka fights back an amused smile, trying and failing to stay angry. Blair's whining grows more high-pitched the longer she refuses to give in. Her stubbornness caves when Blair reaches a level that makes her eardrums itch. She drops to her knees, meeting Blair's eyes. "Whoever said the saber toothed polar lion is the most ferocious animal of the South Pole clearly never met you," she sighs, rubbing Blair's soft underbelly.
Blair makes a contented sound and purrs hard enough for Maka to feel the reverberations in her bones. They sit like that, Maka admiring the purplish stripes that zig zag through Blair's white fur. They're a recent addition-she had thought at first that Blair had been on the receiving end of an octopus-eel attack.
The waves lap at her feet as the sun steadily rises higher into the sky.
As Maka strokes Blair, a memory jogs into place. "I had the strangest dream," Maka tells the polar lion. "There was a dragon. And a boy." She looks out at the ocean. "He was riding a dragon."
Maka repeats herself excitedly. "There was a boy and he had a dragon!"
She jumps to her feet and startles Blair, who gives Maka a surly look at her abrupt halt of her ministrations. She paces back and forth, treading a path in the snow. "But what was his name?"
Abruptly she stops, shoulders sagging. She drops to her knees, rubbing Blair's head. "But there are no more dragons," she tells Blair, who at least gives the appearance of listening intently. "They died out a long time ago." Maka sighs. "So there's no way that either of them can be real." Disappointment twists painfully in her chest, far more than is appropriate for a fictional boy and his dragon.
The hunting horn from before echoes in the distance, pulling Maka from her thoughts and reminding her why she came out here in the first place. She clambers to her feet and bounces on her toes as if she could see the hunting party from this far away. "Oh, good! They're coming back!"
Blair gets to her feet too but Maka raises a hand. "You know you have to stay here."
At Maka's stern tone, Blair ducks her head in a way that fills her with guilt. Dropping to her knees, Maka pets her head. "It's to keep you safe and you know that. It's the winter solstice and my birthday today, both which mean a celebration hunt. Men only, of course." She rolls her eyes. "Because having a waterbender who also happens to be a girl makes no sense."
Blair wrinkles her nose and blows cold air in Maka's face.
"My thoughts exactly." Maka tries to take the sting out of her disappointment. "I suppose it's for the best though," she says as she twists her hand in Blair's fur. "If I was out with them, then you might have ended up the prey."
The polar lion bares her teeth, fangs flashing in the bright sunlight of the South Pole.
"That definitely wouldn't have helped your case," Maka tells her. "And knowing you, that is exactly how you'd choose to act." She stands and gives Blair a final pat. "So I had to make sure you were okay."
With a defeated sigh, Blair settles herself back on the ice.
"Here." Maka sighs, pulling off her glove. The cold air nips at her hand as she scans the water for movement. Spotting her target, she raises her hand clenches her hand to freeze the water to an icy slush around the fish, slowing down its movements. Brow furrowed in heavy concentration, she traces a circle in the air and entraps the fish in a water bubble. With bated breath, Maka guides the bubble to Blair, careful to balance her movements with the wriggling fish.
But she miscalculates at the last moment and pulls the bubble too far to the right just as the fish swerves to the left. The bubble pops and the fish bursts free. "No!"
Blair jumps up on her hind legs and snatches the fish in mid-air, swallowing it whole.
Maka looks back to the water. Sometimes it felt like she had finally harnessed some kind of control over her bending while other times, she felt it slip through her fingers like water. She puffs up her cheeks and exhales. "Looks like I still have to work on that one."
Blair pads over and headbutts her hip, giving a reassuring mewl.
Scratching her head, Maka smiles. "Thanks."
The horn sounds again, closer than before. Maka scrambles backward, ice squeaking under her boots. "Stay hidden and don't do anything reckless, okay?" she tells a visibly wilting Blair. She turns and begins to run, calling over her shoulder, "I'll come back as soon as I can!"
Luck is on Maka's side when she returns to the village and enters without running into anyone.
Women and men are still grouped at the bonfire, finishing up the cleaning of the hunt's kill, a buffalo yak. Later tonight, they'll have a feast and use the bones as their annual offering to the moon and ocean spirits. If she cranes her head, she can see the red wolftail of her father peeking out of the hood of his parka as he stands at the far edge of the bonfire, resting his hand on a shoulder of a woman she assumes is her mother.
She bursts into a run. "Papa!"
At the sound of her voice, he turns as does the woman at his side. Who is clearly not her mother, she realizes with a sudden lurch of her stomach.
"There's the birthday girl!" Spirit sweeps her up in warm hug, like he used to when she barely reached his knees.
Instead of laughing, she wriggles out of his grasp and takes a few steps back. "I'm not a child anymore."
"I wouldn't have thought that since you're still wearing these," Spirit replies genially with a chuckle, tugging on one of her ponytails.
Maka gives him a faint glower as she leans away. "Mama's going to fix them up later," she mutters. She scans the people milling about. "Where is she, anyways?"
Spirit places his hands on his hips and flicks his eyes across the crowd as well but Maka can tell by the way he's coiled himself up that he knows her mother isn't here. She sends a brief glance to the woman, who is still standing at Spirit's side. In her boots, her toes squirm and she itches to be off and running.
Finally, Spirit gives up his charade, blue eyes clouding over almost imperceptibly as he gives his daughter another grin. "I guess she just had some things to do." He gestures over to the woman. "This is Karika. She's the daughter of the chief from the east."
"Your father was just telling me about you, Maka, as well as everything else that's been going on in the village," Karika says warmly as she steps forward, extending her hand. She glances around her. "Having been chief for less than a year, he's done some really marvelous things for the west."
"My mother did a lot of the work, actually." Maka doesn't take her hand but instead bobs down once in a shallow curtsy. She glances at Spirit and kicks the snow at her feet. "I'm going to look for her at the house."
"It's almost time for lunch anyways." Spirit nods. "Tell your mother we got back safely."
Maka tilts her head to the side. "Aren't you coming?"
"The other chiefs are coming early," Spirit answers. "Karika here was about to show me where we're going to meet." He gives Maka's shoulder a light pat before pulling her into a one-armed hug. "It's going to be a lot of talking so tell your mother not to worry about joining me and that I'll be home to pick you two up for the ceremony."
"Sure," Maka mumbles into his parka. Something tightens at the back of her throat and she feels the words asking him to stay dance on the tip of her tongue.
Her father steps away. "See you in a few hours."
Maka chews on her lip as she walks down the road from the bonfire to her home, trepidation slowing her steps. After the chief, Spirit's brother, and her aunt had died in an accident on their return trip from the North Pole and her father had taken his place almost a year ago, one of the things she had become aware of was her father's tendency to be sociable with the people from the surrounding villages.
All of it was done to build good relations and promote harmony, he claimed. In a voice mirroring the deadly calm before a blizzard, her mother would then quietly wonder aloud why it was only women he sought to build good relations with. For her part, Maka had tried her best to ignore the fights that broke out afterwards, preferring to escape outside during those times and immerse herself in bending practice. In the end, it had always turned out okay.
But now, she purses her lips pensively, mind flickering back to her father's hand lying on Karika's shoulder.
Giving her head a firm shake, she quickly arranges the facts in front of her. She didn't know why her mother wasn't over at the bonfire; it didn't mean she and Spirit were fighting. Plus, her papa loved her and her mother and it wasn't something he'd dare to ruin. She firmly pushes the subject out of her mind, snow crunching underneath her boots as she grinds to a halt in front of her igloo.
Licking her lips nervously, Maka pauses besides the entrance. If the cause behind her mother's absence isn't due to her father's overfriendliness, then her hours-long disappearance is definitely the reason why and it wouldn't be a stretch to assume her mother is not going to be pleased to see her. She eyes the igloo warily now and figures the best plan is to bolt for her room and go from there.
Pulling her gloves (which smell distinctly of Blair) from her hands, Maka tucks them away in her parka's pockets.
Still, she doesn't move till her stomach prompts her forward with an angry grumble. She peeks in the open doorway, searching for any sign of Vakirah.
The kitchen and living quarters are empty nor can she hear any movement from any of the other rooms.
For a moment, it crosses Maka's mind that her mother may have gone searching for her-something that sets her stomach churning because despite all her years away from the Earth Kingdom, Vakirah had never grown accustomed to the slippery unpredictableness of the icelands.
As if on cue, Vakirah bursts from a side room from the right side of the igloo. Maka lets out the breath she didn't know she was holding.
The robes she wears are different from the ones she had one this morning, old with rips and tears at the hems and sleeves.
Her mother's blonde hair is coming out of her braids and sticks to the sides of her face as she hauls a blackened pot full of something that sloshes back and forth to the stove. She watches as Vakirah nearly runs into the table set in the middle of the kitchen in the process and mumbles darkly underneath her breath in her native language.
She winces, feeling a pang of remorse mix with her nervousness.
Continuing to mutter insults at the table, Vakirah sets the pot onto the stove with a clang and disappears back into the room.
At this, Maka seizes her chance and slips inside. She treads across the living room, sneaking glances from behind her. However she barely makes it halfway across when Vakirah's voice calls to her.
"I can see you, young lady."
Maka freezes in place and spits out the first thing that comes to mind. "But aren't you supposed to be with Papa?"
Vakirah emerges from the room with a broom in hand. "There was something I was asked to do," she says, sounding slightly out of breath. "And I couldn't say no."
"That's what you always say."
Her mother opens her mouth and then closes it. She gives Maka a piercing look. "Nice attempt at distracting me. Do you realize you've been gone for nearly three hours?"
"Was it that long?" Maka tries to sound innocent as she traipses back into the kitchen and takes a seat at the table. She crosses her ankles together and gives her mother a bright grin. "I had no idea."
"That smile might work on everyone else but not your mother." Vakirah's eyes narrow before she disappears back into the room. Her voice comes out slightly muffled. "So, why didn't you come? Because you were mad?"
"No…well, yes." She adds quickly, "But that's not why I didn't go."
Hastily, she weaves a lie together. "I was out by the training grounds. I figured that if I couldn't participate in the hunt, then maybe I could put together a waterbending demonstration for tonight's celebration."
The curtain rustles as Vakirah appears with her hands on her hips, looking skeptical. "And that took all morning?"
"I wanted it to look good," Maka says defensively.
Her mother answers her with a hard look and an unintelligible grumble, going to the stove.
Clearing her throat, Maka decides to change the subject before Vakirah decides to lob any more questions at her. "I saw Papa when I was coming back here."
"Did he say when he was coming home?" Vakirah asks without turning, stirring whatever is in the blackened pot a few times. "I made something special for lunch."
"He said that he had some business to attend to," Maka says.
Almost imperceptibly, her mother stiffens. Vakirah turns. "And did he say when he'd be back?"
"Right before the ceremony begins." She braces herself for Vakirah's mouth to press into a tight, thin line but instead her expression goes lax and the emerald fires in her eyes die down.
She meets Maka's eyes again and shrugs. "I suppose that's just more food for us." She replaces the lid on the pot and goes to the drawers beside the stove, taking out a couple spoons and bowls. "About that demonstration you had mentioned, what did you have in mind?"
Maka's mind goes blank for a moment before she remembers. "Uh, just a few of the more complicated moves Nygus described to me in her last letter."
Vakirah grabs a ladle, dipping it into a smaller pot beside the blackened one. "What if I told you I have a better idea of what you can do for the ceremony?"
Maka sniffs the air and rubs her stomach, which is openly protesting now. "So long as that soup is what I think it is, I'll agree to anything."
"It is." Chuckling lightly, Vakirah slides a bowl in front of her and takes a seat across from her. "You remind me of your father. When he's hungry, he'll do anything for food."
"He's definitely missing out with this meal," Maka says as she gets a better whiff of the soup, rich and mouthwatering.
Her mother smiles again but it's a splinter of a smile that doesn't reach her eyes. "I'm glad you think so."
Maka picks up her spoon. "Now, what am I going to do for tonight?" She takes the first spoonful of soup.
Vakirah rests her chin on her hand and picks up her spoon with the other. "What would you think of being the one to help your father with the ceremony later tonight?"
Maka's eyes widen and she swallows the soup hastily, the hot liquid stinging her throat. "But I'm still a child," she protests. She sets down the spoon, waiting for the soup to cool. "Plus, Aunt Kanna was always the one to help when Uncle Kuruk was in charge of the leading the ceremony so you should be the one with Papa."
Vakirah shakes her head. "Thirteen marks the end of childhood," she says, shifting in her seat. Her eyes cloud over for a moment and her body goes unusually still, like it always does when something is weighing on her mind. "As for upholding tradition, I think your father and the rest wouldn't mind too much if we broke this one."
An uncomfortable feeling pinches Maka's chest, turning the aftertaste of the soup bitter. "I mind."
Vakirah stares at her with the same hazy look in her eyes before blinking rapidly, shaking her head. "And why would you?" She winks at Maka. "To be quite honest, it'll be a relief not to have all those eyes on me."
"And on me instead," Maka says. "Thanks."
"That's what mothers are for," Vakirah replies serenely, picking up her spoon. "Now, let's eat."
"All right," Maka assents. She returns to the soup, the metal of the spoon clinking against the bowl. Her appetite takes over and she savors the soup's spicy flavor, the result of a hybrid carrot-pepper from her mother's hometown. One of the traders from last season (who hailed from the same part of the Earth Kingdom as Vakirah) had brought a crateful of the vegetables as a gift to the new chief's wife.
In next to no time, the spoon falls into the empty bowl with a clatter. Maka sighs contentedly.
"I've never seen you this hungry after practice," Vakirah says, a wry gleam in her eyes. "It seems to me that someone was doing a lot more than practicing a new move."
"Bending takes a lot of energy," Maka answers. She stands up, carrying the bowl to the sink.
Her mother joins her by the sink and gives her a sideways glance. "Does it also leave fur on your clothes?"
Maka's fingers fumble and the bowl slips from her hands. "That's, um, from, uh-"
"A little adventure out in the icelands?" Vakirah asks shrewdly.
Maka opens her mouth and closes it, knowing she's been caught. She picks up the bowl again and mumbles, "Possibly." She feels her face tinge as she begins to scrub. "When did you figure it out?"
"Before you even came in." There's a hiss as her mother picks up the lid from the pot simmering away furiously on the stove. A vapor puffs up and envelops the kitchen. "Mothers have a sixth sense, you know," she says with cough. "But it does help when you have footprints to follow."
"I knew I was forgetting something," Maka says. She wrinkles her nose, partly from chagrin but mainly from the horrid smell now flowing freely from the pot. "Wait." She pauses in rinsing the bowl. "If you knew I was lying then why'd you play along?"
"Mostly because it was fun," Vakirah answers.
"Well, I'm not so amused," Maka grouches. "Next time, keep on pretending to believe me."
Vakirah snorts delicately. "And I suppose whatever you were doing was important enough to miss helping with cleaning of the buffalo yak your father and the rest of the men slew for tonight?"
Twisting her face into scowl, Maka replies, "If I had been allowed to join the hunt, I may have stayed." She finishes rinsing and gives a quick flick of her wrist, the excess water pulling away from the bowl.
"I already explained to you why you weren't allowed." Her mother closes the lid on the pot, taking the edge off the odor that is now rapidly permeating across the cramped space of the igloo.
Nimbly, Maka hauls herself onto the counter beside the sink, raising her eyebrows at her mother. "Then the rules should change." She opens the water pouch always around her waist, drawing out some of the water. "Don't you agree?" she asks as she closes and opens her hand, turning the water to ice and back again.
Vakirah edges to the right a few step and leans against the counter, next to Maka. She crosses her arms and faces her. "So you're saying you weren't interested in helping me mix the fat for the spirit shrine candles?"
"That is what is brewing in there?" Maka blows out through her nose and watches the floating sphere of ice in front of her evaporate into mist. Small waves of satisfaction roll through her body. "Definitely not." She drops her hands into her lap and looks bemusedly at her mother. "And I didn't think that you'd be too interested in making them, either."
"What?" Her mother puckers her lips quizzically. She takes Maka by surprise, pushing her hands in her face. "You mean you don't want your hands smelling like monkey seal?"
"Mom, no!" Maka pulls free and hops off the counter.
Vakirah's laugh clangs like a bell, hearty and genuine. "All right, enough games." She claps her hands together and steps forward. "Time to change out of these rags."
Maka sits on her bed and waits for her mother, fingernails tapping against the window as she twirls her hand idly.
Frost fans out from where her fingers touch the glass and carves out a design across the bottom half of the window pane. She wraps a lock of hair around her finger as her mind drifts, a feeling of vague apprehension settling in her stomach. It sets her teeth on edge.
Tugging gently on her hair, her mind drifts back to when she woke up, to the dream that hadn't felt like a dream at all. That is where this feeling had started and it had stowed itself away in the back of her consciousness. Easy enough to ignore when she had been preoccupied with other things but now that she had a chance to rest, the odd tension prods incessantly at her.
Half of it, she muses, had to do with the seeping iciness between her parents and the obvious toll it had on Vakirah. Because as much as her mother tried to hide it, the strain of trying to do everything was getting to her. In the early days of Spirit becoming chief, Vakirah had thrown all of her energy in taking up each of her aunt's duties and more, facing every challenge with bright eyes. But gradually her smiles had turned to frowns, worry lines permanently creased on her forehead. Now the only time her eyes lit up was when she was running around frantically because she had taken on too much.
Humming agitatedly, Maka lets her hand fall away from the glass. If there was something she could do to make things like the way they were before her uncle died, when her mother woke up wearing a smile and her father didn't disappear for hours to fix the village's problems, she would do it.
She sighs. But she didn't have the power to bring back the dead.
"A dragon?" Her mother's breath tickles the back of Maka's neck.
Maka starts, whipping her head around. "A what?" She follows Vakirah's gaze to the window and feels a slight jolt to her stomach.
"It looks alive." Vakirah reaches out and traces over the outspread wing of the dragon rearing its head, the spray of the flame emanating from its mouth dyed golden orange by the sun. "I didn't know you had gotten so good at this."
"Neither did I," Maka replies softly, eyes trained on the familiar outline of the dragon's rider.
"Makes me wish we had gotten that camera from the traders in the spring." There's a slight creak as her mother gets up. "I would have liked to keep a picture of that."
"It's just moving around some ice," Maka says, pulling her eyes away from the window. "Next spring, we can get a camera and I'll make a better one for you." She does a slight double take as she gets a good look at Vakirah and the elegant dark blue robes she wears. "I thought those were only meant to be worn if you were going to the shrine."
Vakirah flicks off some imaginary dust from her robes. "One of the elders invited me for their annual shrine cleansing at the same time I was asked to make the candles," she answers. She gives Maka a sly look. "I thought, with someone's help, I'd be able to finish quickly. Luckily, I asked the Nygus family if they would finish them and they agreed. "And that means that you'll be the one carrying over the fat over to them."
"Fair enough," she says, rising from the bed. "Are you leaving now?"
"In a minute." Vakirah pulls a small package from her sash. "But first, we need to fix up your hair." She wraps an arm around Maka's shoulder.
"What's in there?" Maka allows herself to be guided by Vakirah to her mirror.
"You'll see," she says, pulling out Maka's hair ties and handing the package to Maka. "Now close your eyes."
Maka complies with a slight grumble. Vakirah's fingers weave quickly through her hair, working from one side of her head to the other. After a few minutes, the pressure of her fingers eases. "Hang on." There's a rustle as she takes and opens the package. Maka feels something slide in her hair. "All done."
Maka opens her eyes and examines herself in the mirror. Two smaller braids, one on each side, gather into one large ponytail. But what catches her eye is the flash of green. Two golden feathers overlap each other in a small spiral, tiny emeralds sprinkled all over.
"Your grandmother gave it to me when I got married to your father," Vakirah says, reaching out to smooth down a stray hair. "But I thought I should give it to you now."
For a moment, all of her worries disappear. Maka throws her arms around Vakirah. "Thank you."
Her mother brushes her cheek against Maka's. "Nothing to thank me for."
"Knock knock!" A familiar voice resounds through the igloo.
Maka's eyes widen in shock as she pulls away. "That's not…"
Vakirah smiles. "One last surprise."
Incredulous, Maka makes her way to the living room. Looking highly discomfited in her parka stands Nygus, who barely has time to register Maka's presence before she barrels into her.
She lets out a small grunt. "I think you just bruised my kidneys."
"Sorry," Maka chimes. Releasing Nygus, Maka bounces on the balls of her feet. "But I thought in your last letter, you said you wouldn't be able to come."
"With Sid quitting his position at the guard, I didn't think we'd have enough money but business picked up at the shop," Nygus says. "I sent your mother a messenger hawk once I found out I'd be able to come." Looking past Maka, she greets Vakirah. "Hello again, neighbor."
"It's good to see you again, Nygus," Vakirah says warmly. "I hope your trip wasn't too rough."
Nygus shrugs. "A couple of storms but nothing I couldn't handle."
"And everyone else?" Maka peers around Nygus. "Where are they?"
"Sid had to stay home to tend to the shop and Shadow goes wild if Black*Star isn't around." Nygus shakes her head. "How that boy managed to tame a badgermole is still a mystery to me."
Maka pictures the underground tunnels Black*Star carved underneath the training grounds last time he visited, a true earthbender even in a land of ice and snow. "It makes perfect sense to me."
"Sorry to cut in," Vakirah's strained voice huffs. "But the elders are waiting for me."
Turning, Maka sees her mother coming from the kitchen, pot full of fat in her arms. She hurries forward and takes the pot. She lightens its heaviness by using her bending to pull up on the liquid, propping it against her hip.
"The elders?" Nygus repeats, looking bewildered. "I saw them passing through the gates on my way over here."
Vakirah blinks and a look of shocked hurt passes over her face. Then she smiles. "I must have misunderstood them. I'd better see if I can catch up with them." She gives Maka's shoulder a pat. "See you soon." With a final nod to Nygus, she exits the igloo.
"Things have certainly changed around here, haven't they?" Nygus comments, a hand going to her hip.
"They sure have," Maka agrees heavily.
Nygus keeps up a steady stream of conversation that Maka only half-listens to as they head to the outskirts of the village, where Nygus' family lives.
"…so after that I decided to join the circus and become an armadillo lion tamer."
"That's nice," Maka murmurs.
Nygus gives her a sharp poke. "Have you been listening to a word I've been saying?"
Maka opens her mouth. "I-" Her foot sinks into a hidden pothole in the road and she stumbles forward.
However, Nygus has one hand on Maka's shoulder and the other on the lid of the pot before Maka can do more than gasp. She steadies Maka before letting go. "That was close."
Tears of frustration prick at the corners of Maka's eyes. Tamping down on them, she nods and begins to walk again.
"Wait a minute." Nygus grabs her by the shoulder again. She waves her hand up, conjuring up a bench out of the snow. Taking the pot from Maka's hands, she takes a seat. "Come on."
Reluctantly, she takes a seat.
To her surprise, Nygus doesn't immediately start interrogating her, seemingly content with staring up at the sky. "Looks like a bit of a storm might be coming in the next few days," she says, gesturing to the iron gray clouds.
They sit quietly for a few more minutes. The tension that had been resting in Maka crawls up and down her bones until the words swirling in her mouth spill out. "I don't know when I started expecting to see her wake up with sad eyes rather than happy ones."
Nygus doesn't do anything but she tilts her head as an indication that she's listening.
"She works so hard." Maka pauses, attempting to gather her thoughts. "But it seems that the more she does, the unhappier she becomes."
Nodding pensively, Nygus glances at her. "Awfully quiet, isn't it?" she says, pulling something small and silver from her sleeve.
"Er, I suppose so," Maka replies awkwardly. What's that?"
She opens her hand, revealing a metal handle. "Special weapon for waterbenders. Sid got it from some traders in Ba Sing Se." She twists her hand once and water gathers at the base of the handle, solidifying into a sharp blade. "Quite useful when there's not much water around. But back to what I was saying."
"I never could stand the silence, that's why I left. In the swamps, you could barely hear yourself think over the racket the animals would make. And on the mainland, it's hardly less noisy, what with running the shop and Black*Star and that pet of his bringing the town on the verge of chaos every few days."
"I'm not sure if I'm following," Maka says.
"I'm not finished yet." She begins twirling the blade with practiced fingers. "The noise is harmonious in its own way. But here the ice swallows up all that, leaving nothing behind. That's what I imagine is happening to your mother."
"The ice is swallowing my mother?"
"Not the ice. The silence from the rest of the village, from your father. But most importantly, from herself."
"But they don't-"
"Hold on." Nygus raises a finger. It's easy to hear the words with this," she says, pointing to her ears. "Promises and politeness hit their mark easily there." She stops twirling the blade. "But hearing words with this," she says, finger moving to point to her heart. "That's a different story. And I don't think your mother's heard a word there in quite a while."
The dagger begins to move again. "I can't speak for what happens in your family but the root of it lies with the entire tribe. As adaptable as waterbending is, we haven't done nearly as well to apply that philosophy to our society and their averseness to outsiders."
"That's why?" She blinks in surprise. "But that's ridiculous. My mother has lived here for years and this is only a recent change."
Nygus stops twirling the dagger. "The reason your parents' marriage was accepted in the first place was because for one, Spirit had always been a bit of a wild child and to think his decision on who to marry would be any less scandalous was absurd. No one ever imagined he would become chief. Now that he is…"
"Everything changes," Maka finishes. She looks up towards the sky. The clouds are rolling in fast now. If it continues like this, the storm could start later tonight instead of the next few days.
"Well, I'll tell you one thing that's not going to change," she says as she rises, taking the pot back from Nygus. "I'm always going to be on her side."
By the time the ceremony begins, the clouds from the impending storm have temporarily receded enough to allow the light from the full moon to break through.
Low chanting from the procession of people fills the air, a steady drum beat keeping them in time. The shrine, carved into the base of what used to be a giant glacier, comes into view as the crowd rounds a bend in the path. The founders of this particular shrine tried to stay as simplistic as possible, adding only a small arch to denote the entrance.
None of it registers with Maka. She walks with her father at the head of the procession, feet feeling as heavy as lead. Her breath comes out in icy puffs as she mumbles the lines to her parts of the ceremony over and over. She spares a glance at her father. If he's feeling nervous about his first time as acting as master of the ceremonies, it doesn't show on his face. His voice is steady as he leads the chants and for the first time since he took on his new position, there is something chieflike in his expression and behavior.
The sudden absence of the people's voices and drums presses against Maka's ears. She looks up.
Four elders of their tribe stand in front of them, each of them wearing a mask representing one of the guardian spirits of their village. An otherwordly ring sounds from within the shrine tolls.
Maka swallows hard. From past ceremonies, she knows it's just a bell but her nerves have suddenly reared up, setting her close to snapping. She quashes the yearning to look back for her mother. Reflexively, she reaches out to the ice, the snow and to the ocean in the distance, feeling their push and pull in her fingertips. It pulses quietly in her blood. Its familiarity settles her nerves and she lets out the breath she'd unconsciously been holding. Push and pull, she tells herself as the elders pull apart in one fluid movement and line up in two even rows. She steps in time with Spirit. That's all it is.
She senses rather than hears her mother and Nygus behind her as the elders close rank once more. Normally, representatives from each village as well as the family of the host tribe's chief were also allowed in the shrine but with the solstice ceremony being the first major event since her aunt and uncle's deaths, it had been decided it was best to give the family privacy.
The entrance to the shrine gets smaller as the group shuffles forward, narrowing to the point where they have to march in single file. As a child, Maka used to feel as though the walls were about to close in on her. Today, she keeps her eyes on the person walking in front of her and nowhere else.
A blast of balmy air nips at Maka's face as the passageway opens up. According to their village's stories, this had been the place where the moon and ocean spirit had landed when they first crossed over from the spirit world. It had been said that they left behind an imprint of their energy when they moved on, imbuing the small crevice of a shrine with warmth and life.
Maka rolls back her shoulders and walks toward the center of the shrine, where the buffalo yak from today's hunt waits in front of a little pond. It's nothing but bones now, the meat having been the main course of the solstice celebration earlier. Now it was her and Spirit's responsibility to purify the bones. Then the elders would bless the bones and divide them up amongst the four villages of the Southern water tribe. Supposedly, the bones guarded the villages from harm until the next solstice.
The push and pull coming from the small pond in the center turns the thrumming in her veins to a throbbing heartbeat. It lulls her into a focused state and she relaxes into the rhythm of the purification process, mirroring her father's steps as they approach the bones. She is so engrossed in her work that when the comforting beat of the pond's push and pull becomes a thundering drum in her head, she merely assumes that the drummers outside have started playing again.
Maka stands and stretches as she and her father finish their part of the rituals. Now all that's left is to light a candle for her uncle and aunt, which will float in a stand in the pond until the solstice is over. The head elder steps forward and holds out the candle to her. As she moves to receive it, the thudding becomes a crash in her ears and the earth rumbles under Maka's feet.
Alarmed, Maka looks to her mother. Vakirah's expression remains unchanged as the ground continues to move.
She tries to take a step forward but a sudden wave of nausea waylays her, the booming thunder in her ears pushing her off balance. The world takes on a blueish tint as she staggers backwards. Maka wavers on her feet, strange blobs of light floating across her vision. Strangely, they don't scare her, instead filling her with a complete sense of calm she's never felt before.
Just before she falls, a hand reaches out and grabs hold of her. Spirit's anxious face comes into view, puffs of breath escaping his lips as he says words she can't understand.
Maka blinks. The blobs and her strange vision disappear along with the peace she felt. Her entire body sags under the weight of the push and pull drowning in her ears. Gritting her teeth, she forces herself to raise her head.
Instead of puffs of air, smoke now gushes from Spirit's mouth. Maka watches in horror as his burning red hair turns into actual flame. She opens her mouth to scream but smoke comes out of her as well. Wrenching her arm out of Spirit's grasp, she doubles over, gasping for air but choking on her own breaths.
When Maka looks up, the entire world is on fire and everything is dissolving into ashes. Except the moon-it has turned into a bloody red orb in what remains of the sky. It pushes and pulls at her boiling blood violently, like a wave during a storm.
Falling to her knees, the only thing Maka can hear over its reverberating crescendo is the crackle of the fire, which sounds like frenzied mirth. The fire chews on the world as if it was candy. Somehow, it refuses to subject her to the same merciful fate, preferring to let the cacophony of noise in Maka's soul slowly rip her apart. She curls up in a vain attempt to keep herself whole.
Someone please help me, she thinks as she feels herself crack from the inside. Anyone.
A roar breaks through the fire, the noise and everything else. It extinguishes the flames and sends the air rushing back into her lungs.
Maka is only able to hold her eyes open for a moment before descending darkness swoops down upon her but she recognizes the purple markings on the underbelly of her protector, who is standing staunchly over her.
"Blair," she whispers.
Her eyes slip shut.
Maka wakes up to a pounding headache, a babble of excited voices above her head and the sensation of being held in someone's arms. She lets out a small groan and the person holding her freezes while the buzzing conversation around Maka quiets to whispers.
Vakirah's voice murmurs in her ear, her hand brushing back Maka's hair. "Maka? Can you hear me?"
She tries to move her lips or open her eyes but her body refuses to listen. It feels strange, similar to when she's out bending by the ocean. Not weighted down but bigger than herself. Connected to something else.
Behind her, an animal yowls desperately.
At the sound, Maka's eyes snap open, memories of blood and fire dances forward from the edge of her mind to the forefront of her thoughts. She shoots up, twisting around. "Blair!"
Blair lies by the shrine's pond, tied down with rope and surrounded by Spirit's hunting companions. She answers Maka with an excited cry, struggling to break free of her bonds.
A hand encloses around Maka's wrist just as she tries to go to Blair.
"Maka!" Vakirah exclaims in a relieved tone. She holds her close before pushing her back to get a good look at her, eyes worriedly examining her face. "Are you all right? What happened?"
"I'm fine, Mom," Maka says as she cranes her head to look at Blair. She tries to pull away. "What are they doing to Blair?"
Her mother refuses to let go of her. "Blair?" Vakirah repeats. "You know this polar lion?"
Beyond them, Maka becomes aware that all eyes are now on her. "I befriended her a year ago," she says. She pulls herself free and sends a pleading look to her father, who stands midway between her and Blair. "Please don't hurt her."
Spirit opens his mouth but the head elder cuts him off. "This creature desecrated the sanctity of the shrine. It is an unforgivable offense." Behind him, the other elders mumble in agreement.
A million replies leap to the tip of Maka's tongue, each of them ruder than the last.
A new voice speaks up. "You mean you're willing to kill this sacred animal, Takku?"
Everyone's attention snaps to Nygus.
She parts the small crowd of people who entered the shrine during Maka's lapse of consciousness as easily as water. She comes to a stop in front of the people, twirling her knife casually in one hand while her other hand rests on her hip. "Go on, Takku. Are you really willing to do it yourself? Because I have just the blade for you."
"Explain yourself," the old man says warily.
Nygus laughs and in spite of the situation, Maka marvels her daring. "You mean you don't recognize a spirit chain when you see one?"
The phrase sounds foreign to Mala but Takku lets out a bark of laughter, pure disbelief in his eyes. "A spirit chain? You can't be serious, Nygus. Those haven't been in existence for centuries."
"If it's possible for Black*Star, I'd certainly believe it's possible for Maka," Nygus replies evenly.
"You're claiming that child was the one to make that spirit chain?" Takku exclaims.
"He was verified by the Air nomads and they are the experts on spiritual matters," Nygus says. The steadiness in her voice doesn't change but Maka sees the steel glint in her eyes. "We had hoped to keep it a secret but you can only give so many excuses why a wild badgermole would suddenly choose to follow such a reckless, noisy child."
Takku doesn't look convinced but he says, "Even if what you're saying is true, there were none of the usual signs."
Nygus says, "So what we just saw was-"
"Mere weather phenomena." He waves his hand. "And you saw it yourself, she knows the animal. Nothing out of the ordinary with that."
Maka is so wrapped up in the standoff between the two that she starts when Nygus wheels around and addresses her. "Maka, you didn't notice anything strange before you fainted?"
She bites down on her lip, toes curling and uncurling nervously. "I saw fire." Maka pauses. She'd thought what she felt when she entered the shrine was the push and pull of the water and moon but now she realizes it was something else entirely. "And a calling. Something was calling me."
"From what I've read, that certainly sounds like the makings of a spirit chain to me," Nygus comments. "But," she continues, "If you choose to not believe me, then perhaps you may want to check the markings on Maka's arms."
"Markings?" Maka looks down at her arms, which are covered by her parka. She gives a bewildered look to Nygus.
"Take it off," Nygus says with a nod.
Maka's stomach does flip flops as she hauls off her parka, letting it fall to the ground. She hears the crowd collectively gasp. Raising one arm in front of her, she intakes sharply. The faintly iridescent tattoo wrapping itself around her winks blue, gold and violet in the moonlight. It takes on the shape of a wave and as she moves her arm to look at it this way and that way, she swears it moves like one.
"You will find," Nygus says cheerfully to a stunned Takku, "that Blair has the same markings."
The crowd looks to Spirit and the elders but Spirit appears just as confused as everyone else and the elders wear the same expression of befuddled shock.
Maka looks up from scrutinizing her new markings. "Does this mean I can keep Blair?"
"Your father is going to have a lot of questions to answer tomorrow," Vakirah sighs, kissing the top of Maka's head.
Maka settles back on her pillow and fights off a smug smile. "I'm just glad Blair's here now."
After Nygus' intervention, Blair had been set free. According to Nygus, those in a spirit chain didn't do well without the other so an extremely unwilling Spirit had agreed to allow Maka to take Blair home.
"Yes." Vakirah casts a glance at the polar lion, who dozes complacently on the rug in Maka's room. "I'm glad you've found a companion. Although things are going to change."
"How?" Maka yawns. "I didn't even know what a spirit chain was before today."
"You heard Nygus. None have been any in existence for hundreds of years," Vakirah says, taking a seat on the edge of the bed. "When I lived in the Earth Kingdom, I read about them in passing once. They were used as a connection to the spirit world before the arrival of the...Avatar."
Maka fails to keep from rolling her eyes. "Avatar's not a bad word anymore," she reminds her mother.
"Says the person born after the last Avatar," Vakirah replies wryly. "Though I suppose you do have a point." She hesitates and then takes Maka's hand. "Maka, I want you to remember something."
"What is it?"
Vakirah's hands tighten around hers and she opens her mouth and closes it, shaking her head. "It's nothing. Just be sure to take care of Blair. She's not a pet."
"I know that, Mom," Maka replies patiently.
"I know, I just had to be sure." Her mother nods and pats her hand, rising from the bed. She steps carefully around Blair's twitching tail and heads for the door. Vakirah pauses in the doorway. "Maka?"
"Yes?" she answers sleepily.
The Fog of Lost Souls stretches before Medusa, a lone peak in the middle breaking up the monotonous gray. A section of the fog unfurls and clings to her, whispering melodies of madness in her ear. She smiles, brushing the mist away with a single wave of her hand. "I already know how mad I am, thank you."
She strides forth confidently and ignores both the fog and the ravings of the lesser souls trapped here. Her eyes are rooted on the peak, growing ever closer. When she reaches its base, she kicks once against a hidden door. She waits for a moment and then, upon receiving no answer, peers into the small barred window of the door. There's an incessant scratching as Asura carves with a dull handmade blade into the wall of his prison. Mouth twisting in a frown, she clears her throat.
The scratching pauses and then continues.
Thoroughly vexed now, Medusa calls out, "Av-"
He flies across the room much more quickly than she thought; his hands scrape against her throat as she pulls back. "Don't say it," he hisses. "You can't say it here."
Her lips curve upwards. "Are you that scared of a little word?"
"Not scared," Asura spits, backing away. "It makes me remember." He hurls the rock he was holding to the ground. "That day."
"The last day you were human, you mean?" Medusa says keenly. "Before you got sealed away here?"
"I told you not to say it!" he screeches, yanking the scarves tighter around his face.
Medusa sniffs. Ever since he was imprisoned thirteen years ago, Asura insisted on wrapping his face in scarves. However, he can't hide the madness in his voice as well as his face. There's something else about him that intrigues her as well, something she can't quite place.
She makes a note of it as she turns on her heel. "You only told me not to say your name."
"I thought that was obvious," he growls.
"Then, next time, answer me when I knock the first time," she says.
"Where is Arachne?" he demands. "She usually comes, not you."
"Arachne is taking care of much more important things, namely what will happen after your escape. I am merely the bearer of good news and gifts."
"What gifts?" he asks warily.
Medusa smiles. "Open your hand."
This time, Asura listens without having to be told twice. In his hand, Medusa drops the spider that had been resting in her pocket during her journey. "Courtesy of my dear sister, of course. It is the means of your escape so take good care of it. "
"And the good news?"
"The third one has made a chain."
She watches the spider crawl from Asura's hand and up his sleeve as he digests this information. It's made its way to his hair by the time he speaks. "It's winter."
"How very astute of you."
His voice turns sour. "The seer said all four would make the chain by the end of the year."
"Yes, you are right in that," Medusa steps closer, examining Asura's etchings on the wall. They are nothing more than muddled ravings. "But it seems we have hit a little snag with that."
"What kind of snag?"
"It seems one of the families was forewarned back when you were sealed away," Medusa says, overlooking Asura's enraged hiss. "Finding the child will be no easy matter but we have a plan in place. So for now, your job is to be patient." She watches as Asura swells up, hands twitching as if he itched to strangle something. She waits for him to throw another fit but instead he suddenly deflates and slinks back into the shadows.
He throws her a baleful look. "If that's all, you can leave now."
Medusa nods, somewhat disappointed. "As you wish." She waits until she is safely out of his reach before adding, "Avatar Asura." She smiles as his anguished screams follow her out into the fog, finally pinpointing what had thrown her off about him.
She hadn't been able to smell Asura's soul.