10,203 A.A.-The day before the Summer Solstice
The towns dotting the land beneath Beelzebub look no bigger than spider-ants. If he squints hard enough, Black Star can see the tiny wave of earth that is Shadow keeping time with them. Through their link, he can feel that she's almost entirely recovered from the poison, which is immensely relieving to him. Shadow is what his right hand was to him-he can't imagine living without her.
He yelps in surprise when a hand pulls him back from where he leans over the back of Beelzebub's saddle. Tsubaki releases Black Star and settles back in her spot. "You're going to tumble over the side one of these days and there's going to be nothing I can do."
"I think I'd still be fine," he says, looking toward Liz and Patti, who are still sleeping soundly even though the sun rose hours ago.
"Your sense of self-preservation is as sharp as ever." She rolls her eyes and holds out a bag of lychee nuts. "Hungry?"
She laughs. "That's a first."
He crosses his legs. Ever since they joined Kid, Liz and Patti, they'd had almost no time to talk or even be alone together. He fiddles with his hands, which was a problem since he has a question he's been dying to ask her for days.
"Why do you have that look on your face?" she asks.
"I do not."
"You look like you're about to sneeze."
"Nope." He shrugs. "Just thinking."
"And that's exactly how you look when you think about something that bothers you," she says shrewdly. "It's about me, doesn't it?"
Before he can catch himself, he blurts out, "How did you know?"
"It's not hard to figure out," she says as she finishes the last of the lychee nuts. "You've been quiet, for starters. And you've been looking at me like that for a while now."
"It's just that..." He trails off and meets her eyes. "Are you okay?" he asks. "Going there?"
She gazes at him for a few moments before blinking rapidly. "I-yes, I'm fine."
"You haven't seemed very fine in your dreams," he says in a low voice. "Not for a while now."
She steals a glance at the sleeping sisters and at Kid, who is at the reins, before answering back in a whisper. "They're just nightmares. Everyone gets them."
"The same one every night?" he asks.
"I'm fine," she says. "My entire family knew Masamune's fate the moment he declared himself as Asura's supporter. And that was almost sixteen years ago." She crumples the bag. "It's something I've had time to get used to."
"It doesn't mean you're over it."
"I'm fine," she repeats.
"I understand if you don't want to talk about it," he replies. He cuts off her immediate protest. "But don't deny it to yourself, okay? I can see it hurts you and when you're ready, I want to help."
She goes quiet and swallows hard. Her hands, always steady, shake in her lap. "Okay."
From where he sits, Kid clears his throat. "I'm sorry to interrupt but we have a problem." He gestures toward the ocean, which glints ahead of them like diamonds.
Black Star instinctively glances down, towards Shadow. "Didn't you say you had an idea for this before?"
"Correct," Kid says, angling Beelzebub to the ground. "Whether it will work or not remains to be seen."
They touch down on an isolated beach trip, which wakes Liz and Patti.
"What time is it?" Liz mumbles.
"Time to get up," Kid replies as he unfurls his map. "We're about here," he says, pointing to an area on the tip of the Earth Kingdom's most western peninsula. "And Ember Island is here." He moves his finger to a tiny speck in the ocean, not far from where they are now. "We could get there in a couple of hours."
"That's a nice plan," Black Star says. "But again what about Shadow?" At the sound of her name, the badgermole pokes her head up from underground.
"You're an earthbender, aren't you?" Kid says matter-of-factly. "Make her a raft and together, you and I will be able to push her along with the water."
Black Star glances at Shadow, who is sniffing the sea breeze suspiciously. Memories of how miserable the badgermole had been when they traveled with Maka resurface. "I'm not sure if she's going to like that."
"You'd prefer to leave her behind?"
"Obviously not," he says, scowling.
Kid rolls up the map. "Then I guess it's decided then."
He doesn't argue any further but Black Star vents his annoyance with Kid by making the raft as loudly as he possibly can. When it's finished, Shadow proves extremely unwilling to get onto the raft, refusing to budge from her spot in the sand. It's only after minutes of him encouraging her that she grudgingly plods onto the raft.
"She really hates the water, doesn't she?" Kid comments as he watches from the raft.
"What was it that made it so obvious?" Black Star says through his teeth as Shadow buries her face in the earth. "She doesn't like not being able to see."
"It won't be for long, I think." Kid waves to Liz, Patti and Tsubaki, who have gone ahead of them on Beelzebub. He and Black Star position themselves on either side of Shadow. Together, they move in rhythm and the raft moves at a fast clip, the view of the beach quickly disappearing behind them.
However, while Kid seems content with not striking up a conversation, the silence makes Black Star uncomfortable. He ponders for a moment. Even though, they've been traveling together for weeks now, it's only now that he realizes he doesn't know much about Kid at all. "So," he starts, "How is it being the Avatar?"
"It's no that different from being any other kind of bender." Kid shrugs, hands moving to side to side. "I just traveled air temple to air temple to learn the different elements."
"So that means that you've traveled a lot."
"Not in the true sense," he says, shaking his head. "Because of the previous Avatar's actions, I wasn't allowed to explore outside the temples as a child and I didn't feel the need to press my luck when I was older. During our travels, we were either in the air or at one of the safe houses along the way. It was a constant cycle of moving from one place to the next."
"That doesn't sounds fun," Black Star says, furrowing his brow. "Or fair."
"It was necessary," he replies. "Even though I didn't understand at first."
"What do you mean?"
"I was eight when it happened," he says after a pause. "This was before Liz and Patti came along so moving homes was rather lonely. I'd always been told it was for my own safety so I didn't complain. And they were right in a way, considering what's happening now. But that day, I realized that my guards were protecting the world from me as much as they were protecting me."
He continues. "I overheard a conversation between the guards one night. It was long after I had gone to bed but I couldn't sleep so I was wandering around the temple. As I was passing by the living quarters, I heard Asura's name and then my name so I stopped to listen. They were recounting the days when he rebelled, only talking about him with fear and curses." His movements don't break pace. "When they started talking about me, it wasn't any different than when they talked about Asura, as if it was only a matter of time that I became like him. And that's when I understood how the world saw me."
"That's..." Black Star thinks for a moment. "Ridiculous."
"It makes sense," Kid says reasonably. "If you were bit by a rat-viper once, you wouldn't make the same mistake of trusting them again, would you?"
"But this is different," he protests. "You make your own choices."
"That was the same conclusion I came to," Kid says. "It's why I dedicated myself to mastering the elements. I wanted to prove I'm not dangerous, that I can help the world." Melancholy enters his voice. "But with everything that's happening now, I don't know if I'm capable enough."
"But I've seen you bend," Black Star says, craning to look at him. "There's no denying that you're a master."
"That's true," he says. "But I'm not sure if that makes up for an Avatar who can't even go into the Avatar state."
"Really?" He has to keep himself from dropping his hands. "But I thought it would have came easy to you since Air nomads were supposed to be the most spiritual people."
"Yes, thank you for the reminder," Kid says.
"Sorry, sorry," he says hastily. "It's just surprising."
"It's fine," Kid sighs. "Sometimes I've wondered if I was meant to be the Avatar."
"You know," Black Star says after a minute. "You're actually not doing too bad for someone who's never dealt with the real world before. Another person might have run away but you decided to face the problem head-on."
"Thanks." There's a long pause and then, "It means a lot."
"Now if only we knew what this problem actually was," Kid muses out loud.
"Do you really think Ember Island has the information you're looking for?" he asks. "It doesn't even make much sense to me."
"It is the place where Asura was sealed away but other than that, I can't figure why else it'd be important to the Order," Kid replies. "Hopefully somewhere on the island, we can find the answers to our questions."
Black Star picks up his pace of his bending. "And Sid too."
The heat from the dragon's fire laps at the back of Soul's neck as he runs. Where he is running, he is not sure, all he wants is to be out of this nightmare.
Which is oddly different this time. Instead of the encroaching darkness the dragon usually entraps him in, he is in a tropical forest, the sound of a flowing river somewhere in the distance. The lush scenery and sweet-smelling flowers stands in sharp contrast with the dragon's violent roaring as it rips apart the forest, laying waste to everything around it in its search for him.
The sound of Maka's voice sends fresh panic running in Soul's veins and he sprints faster. He has no idea what she's doing here but he needs to find Maka before the dragon does.
Something sharp bites into his hand and his heart leaps in his throat, sure that the dragon has caught him. He struggles desperately to pull free but the dragon won't let go.
Water drenches his face, making him gasp as he is brought back to reality.
"Sorry about that." Maka's worried face looks down at him. "You were thrashing around and wouldn't wake up. Another nightmare?"
"Yeah," he says, rubbing his eyes. "I-" He suddenly becomes aware of his head resting on Maka's lap and he sits up in a rush, accidentally pushing up against her leg with his hand in his haste. The dank darkness of the hold they've made for themselves between the crates in the Phoenix's cargo hold has never been more welcome. to him "Sorry."
"No need to apologize, I'm the one that moved you. I thought you'd sleep better if you weren't resting on metal," she says sheepishly. "You seemed like you needed the rest."
"You weren't wrong." He leans his head against a crate, feeling as drained as he had been when he'd fallen asleep. "I'm okay right now though."
She begins to say something else but she pauses mid-sentence. "Is this-" She squints down at her parka. "Is this blood?"
"What?" He looks to where she's pointing, spotting the dark stains. He reaches out. "When did you hurt yourself?"
"It's not me," Maka says, shaking her head. "Look at your hand!"
Soul glances at his hand to find his palm dripping with blood. He scrutinizes it and presses his fingers against the wound. "I must have banged it against something when I was moving around in my sleep. It's not deep, I think, so it'll probably stop bleeding soon."
"Here," she says, holding out her hand. "Let me see."
"No," he says, ignoring as the cut begins to ache more sharply. "It's fine, I'll just wrap it up with something."
"Let me see it," she insists, bending out some water from the pouch strapped around her waist. "Or did you forget I was a healer?"
He blinks. "Oh, right." He stops resisting and allows her to grab his hand. "I kinda did."
She snorts as she bends her head over his hand. "Unbelievable."
"Well, you seem a lot fonder of using that scythe of yours," he mutters. "I figured you focused more on that in your training."
"You're right," she says. As soon as the water touches his hand, it glows blue, briefly illuminating the dim hold. She looks up, her breath tickling his nose. "But I decided that learning how to heal had its advantages too." She releases him. "There."
"Lucky for me," Soul says, examining his hand. It looks as good as new. "Guess I don't have to worry about getting hurt anymore."
"There are wounds I wouldn't be able to heal," she says, giving him a dark look. "So don't go off doing something reckless." She brushes back her hair. "So, about your dream," she says, clearing her throat. "Did you want to talk about it?"
"There's not much to talk about." He breaks their eye contact. "It's the same thing. Just getting worse as we get closer." He adds, "Sorry about ruining your clothes."
"This is an old parka anyways," she replies as she tugs it off and shoves it in her bag. She peers out from their hiding place. "I wonder where Blair wandered off to now." She stretches, flexing her arms in front of her. "I overheard one of the sailors talking while you were sleeping and we're almost there apparently."
"What are those?" Soul asks, spying shimmery wavelike markings spiraling up her arms. "Tattoos?"
She freezes, eyes going wide. "I forgot I wasn't wearing my long-sleeve under this."
"These are really cool," he says, taking her hand and brushing a finger over one of the markings on her forearm. "When did you get them?"
"I-" Maka falls silent momentarily. "Have you heard of spirit chains?"
"Yeah, I remember there was something in the news about it a few years ago." He strains his memory. "Something about a couple being found or something." His eyes fall back down on her arm. "Wait, are you saying that you're one of them?"
"Yes." She leans close to Soul. "I wasn't supposed to tell anyone but I don't want to lie to you either."
He meets her eyes. "You know your secret is safe with me." Swallowing nervously at her proximity, he lets go of her arm and settles back into his spot. "So that explains why Blair listens so well to you," he says. "You have any other cool powers?"
"Blair and I were friends before we were bonded," she says, laughing. "And nope, no cool powers."
"That's a shame, it would have been neat if you could shoot lava out of your eyes."
She raises an eyebrow. "Wouldn't that make more sense if I was a firebender?"
"Right." He fidgets, suddenly made keenly aware of the weight of his lie. But Maka had never asked directly if he was a firebender, his mind immediately reasons. It was more an omission of the truth.
Which amounted to the same thing in his eyes and most likely in Maka's too.
Blair interrupts his thoughts, announcing her arrival with the sound of her nails clicking against the ship's floor. She pokes her head in the hold, meowing softly.
"There you are," Maka says, petting her head. "I was getting worried." Somewhere above them, a horn sounds. "We're here," she says, sighing in relief. She removes herself from their hiding place with some difficulty and picks up their bags. She stands and offers Soul her hand. "I am so glad we're done having to stay in this place."
"I couldn't agree more." Grabbing her hand and hoisting himself to his feet, Soul takes his bag from her. "They're going to be unloading all this stuff soon so how are we going to get out without anyone seeing us this time?"
She purses her lips as she thinks and then her eyes light up. "I've got it."
"Are you sure this is going to work?" Soul whispers as they peek out of the cargo hold, the sound of rapid footsteps all around them.
Both Maka and Blair fix him with the same offended glare. "Are you really doubting me?" she asks.
"No, I'm-" He stops as the invisible pull roars back to life. Having dulled to something almost bearable throughout their journey, the force of pull hits him like lightning, knocking the wind out of him.
Maka touches his shoulder. "Are you okay?"
"No," he says. He screws his eyes shut and gives his head a quick shake, which does nothing to help him. "Let's just get out of here."
"Okay," she says, clearly struggling not to argue with him. She turns and gestures to Blair. "Go on." With a swish of her tail, the polar lion jumps up to the deck; it doesn't take long for the crew to notice her, the buzz of their banter turning into startled yells.
Maka tightens her grip on Soul's shoulder. "All right, let's go!" Hooking her arm with his, she practically drags him up the stairs, across the deck and down the gangplank. Out of the corner of his eye, he can see some of the crew members trying to catch Blair while others run from her.
"And Blair?" he asks as they walk briskly down the dock. "Shouldn't we wait for her?"
"She's fine. Our connection means she can find me anywhere," she answers. "She'll catch up with us soon." She leads him down the dock's steps and to an adjacent beach where a bustling seaside town bursts with activity. "Now, what we need to do is fi-"
"Do you hear that?" Soul perks his head up as they step onto the beach, a barely audible voice calling to him. Something shifts in his chest and the pull simmering in his bones turns into a scorching fire, overwhelming in its tenacity. But instead of putting him on his knees, it throws the entire world into focus. He wrenches away from Maka. "Can you see where it's coming from?"
"Hear what?" she says, alarmed. "Soul, what's wrong?"
He doesn't answer but lurches into a run, the pull guiding his steps. It takes him away from the beach and into a tropical forest he recognizes from his dream as he plunges into the brush. Distantly, he can hear Maka calling his name but he can't stop, bent on finding what has been calling to him all these years. He weaves between trees-he's so close he can taste it.
The pull disappears abruptly when he arrives at the foot of a temple resting on a bank of a river cutting the forest in half. With its departure leaves Soul's adrenaline-fueled energy and he doubles over, panting for breath.
He yelps as a hand yanks on the back of his collar.
Maka glares at him, Blair back at her side. Between shallow breaths, she says, "Mind giving me some warning before you go sprinting off?"
"Sorry," he says, scratching his head. He points to his chest. "It's this."
She grunts once but the bite in her voice is gone. She gestures with her head to the temple behind them. "But I thought you said you didn't know where you were going."
"I don't," he says, turning to study the temple. He realizes he had been wrong in thinking the pull had vanished; instead it has dimmed to a gentle tug, as if telling him he's almost there. "Or at least, I thought I didn't."
Together, they climb up the temple's steps. Soul's hand, poised to open the door, pauses as he takes in the elaborate battle scene etched on its surface. The sky is black and red in the picture, hordes of soldiers on either side-the clear losers are the ones outlined in red while the victors are edged in blue. He recognizes one of the blue figures in the center as Stein, distinguishable by his glasses and the scythe he holds, but he doesn't remember the name of the other figure beside him. His face is covered by mask carved like a skull, hands thrown wide as a giant hole in the sky drags him and one other person, lined in red, in.
"Asura." Maka's voice comes out in an awed whisper next to him. She looks at Soul excitedly. "I've read about this battle! This is where it took place."
"You're be right in that," a wheezy voice says from behind them.
They both jump, whirling around.
"Good afternoon." A Fire Mage wearing a nervous smile observes them. "I am Rekan. Interested in touring the temple?" He glances down at Blair as he moves to open the doors. "Quite an unusual pet you have there, young lady."
"Yes," Maka says. "I bought her from a traveling circus when she was a baby." Her words sound false even to Soul, who is trying to tamp down the urge to rush ahead.
Rekan, however, doesn't question it further. "So what brings you two all the way out here? We don't get many visitors."
She launches into an increasingly unbelievable ramble while Soul glances around the hall. The voice he heard before isn't a voice at all but a chain of notes, like an instrument. Its somber melody is worse than the pull-he doesn't even try to fight it this time, bolting past Rekan, Maka and Blair.
"Soul!" Maka calls.
"Sorry," he calls as he runs, straining his ears on catching the notes, which grow louder with every step. They lead him to a staircase that spirals downward into darkness and he takes the stairs two at a time, winding his way through the temple until the song comes to a stop when he reaches a plain-looking door, turning into hushed thrumming in his veins. His fingers tremble in nervous excitement as he twists the doorknob and steps into the room.
It's empty save for are a pedestal and an oval black stone with jagged scarlet stripes. He crosses the room in wide strides and takes the stone in his hands. For the first time in almost exactly three years, a complete sense of peace and quiet embraces him.
Was this it? he wondered, examining it. There's nothing special about this. He continues to turn the stone over in his hands. While it was true that the stone did feel strangely warm in his hands, he can find nothing else unique about it.
Soul frowns, putting the stone back. Maybe, he thinks as he turns to leave the room, this wasn't it.
A soft crunching sound makes him twist around.
There was a large crack in the stone.
"There are bugs everywhere," Liz complains as Kid leads their group through the forest. "I can feel them crawling above me, just waiting to fall in my hair," she says with a shudder.
Kid pushes aside a large branch, allowing everyone to go in front of him. "You could always go up with Beelzebub."
"And not be here if enemies start attacking?" She scoffs and ruffles his hair as she passes through. "I don't think so."
Tsubaki speaks up. "What makes you think this temple is the place, Kid?"
"It's only an educated guess, based on what you said Gopher told you," he answers. "It's also fairly isolated, which would be ideal for a trap as well as a hiding place for hostages," Kid replies, glancing at Black Star, who had grown increasingly more serious the closer they got to their destination. "Plus, it's the place where Asura was defeated. Otherwise, I have no idea where we're going."
"That's...reassuring," she says.
"Don't worry, Kiddo," Patti interjects brightly. "Your instincts are usually spot-on."
His reply is cut off by a cry from Black Star. "Look, there it is!"
Beelzebub joins the five in the clearing before the temple, Shadow emerging from underground. Black Star begins to make for the temple stairs but Kid puts a hand in front of him. "Wait."
"Why?" he asks, scowling. "There's nothing we need to wait for. Let's go!"
"If this is a trap like Gopher told you, then they're probably expecting us," Kid says, "We can't just go barging in there."
"But we're all excellent fighters," he counters, cracking his knuckles. "I think we'll be able to handle ourselves."
"And I'm sure the Order has just as capable people," Kid says with a bite of impatience. "Our best bet is to-"
However, Black Star isn't listening to a word he says because he promptly runs up the steps, yanks open the temple doors and disappears inside.
"Will he never learn?" Tsubaki withdraws her chain scythes with a loud sigh before running in after him.
"Well, now what?" Liz asks.
"There really isn't a choice," Kid says. He gives Beelzebub a pat and looks at the two animals. "You two stay here." Shadow snorts discontentedly while Beelzebub gives an affirming growl and lies his head down, closing his eyes.
"This place looks deserted." Liz comments warily as they enter the temple's hall.
"Maybe the spirits took over," Patti suggests.
She scowls at her. "You're not helping the situation, sis!"
Kid frowns, glancing at the plethora of hallways branching off from the hall. "Where did those two go?"
"Did you mean your blue-haired friend?"
Liz gasps at the sound of the new voice, gluing herself to Patti.
"So sorry to alarm you," the voice says contritely. An old man donned in Fire Mage attire comes from the shadows lining the hall and bows. "I am Rekan, the chief mage of this temple."
Kid bows as well and straightens. He hesitates to speak, unsure whether he should make up a story or declare outright why they're here.
Rekan, however, gapes at him. "You're the Avatar!"
Beside him, Patti and Liz tense. Kid tilts his head and narrows his eyes. "How did you know that?"
"I'm friends with some of the monks at the Air temples," Rekan says, wringing his hands. "They've told me about you." He adds, "I heard your friends come in but they ran off before I could call to them. But I'm sure they haven't gone too far. Why don't you wait in one of our rooms while I send the other mages to go find them?"
After exchanging a look with Liz and Patti, Kid nods.
Rekan takes them to a large windowless sitting room, lined with couches and several bookshelves. A large rug lies askew in the middle of the floor. They sit on the same couch while the mage pulls on a rope by the door, a bell sounding from somewhere. He fiddles anxiously with his hands. "Now then," he says, "To what do we owe this honor?"
In the bright light of the room, Kid notices thin scratches on his wrists. "What happened to your hands?"
Flinching, Rekan glances down. "Oh this? I was out pruning in the gardens. Rose-orchids' thorns are terribly unforgiving," he says with a feeble laugh, tucking his hands into his sleeves. There's a knock at the door. "Excuse me for a moment." He rises and opens the door halfway, speaking in a low whisper.
"Kinda strange, isn't he?" Liz mutters in Kid's ear. "I think he's with them."
"So do I," he says quietly. He looks at Rekan out of the corner of his eye. "But he seems afraid too. I want to see what he will tell us."
"And if this is a trap?" she asks.
He taps his foot against the floor. "I think he can be turned."
"You think Tsubaki and Black Star are okay?" Patti wonders.
"I think we'd be able to hear if they weren't."
Rekan returns to his seat. "Sorry about that. Now where were we?"
Kid hesitates, debating how much he should reveal. In the end, he only tells Rekan the bare bones of what they've gone through, noting how he involuntarily stiffens when he mentions Black Star being a spirit chain. "My main question is," he finishes, watching him carefully, "What does the Order would want with the two of us?"
"Oh, I wouldn't be able to answer that," the mage says uneasily.
"Or is it that you can't?" He keeps his face composed but Kid's heart thuds anxiously at laying his cards on the table. Both Liz and Patti are perched on the couch, ready to strike.
"There isn't much difference between the two, is there?" Rekan says in strained voice.
"With one you can help us and the other you can't," he replies, leaning forward.
Rekan leans back, running a hand over his face. "Hypothetically speaking," he says after a moment, "Let's say there was a group of Asura's remaining followers seeking a way to bring him back from the spirit world. That they were here."
Kid's hands grow clammy but he is unsurprised. "How would they manage doing that?"
"How else?" Rekan answers. "By creating a portal."
He shakes his head. "The only person who can open the spirit world is the Avatar." A hollow feeling settles at the bottom of his stomach. "And I cannot go into the Avatar state."
"Is Asura not the Avatar?"
Kid has to stop his hands from balling into fists. "He is no longer worthy of being called by that title."
Rekan shrugs. "Asura may be a fallen Avatar yet that does not take away who he is. But that's a point not worth debating. Since he has been in the spirit world for so long, he can't cross over in his state." He meets Kid's eyes. "But he could if he had a different body."
His heart thuds in his chest. "The only place I can open a portal world is in the center of the North Pole," Kid says slowly. He looks down at his hands. "But even there I'd need the Avatar state to do it."
"Combined with you, a spirit chain in your own right, and the chains from each of the other elements, together you have enough spiritual energy to create a temporary portal," Rekan says, standing. "Even without the Avatar state." The mage walks around the room, leaning against the wall opposite them. "Admittedly, it can only be done when this world and the spirit world are closest and even then only for the hour the sun is at its peak."
"When the worlds are closest," Kid repeats. His eyes widen. "Like tomorrow?"
"Precisely." Rekan nods. He presses a tile in the wall and a secret door slides open. Springing inside, he slams it shut and there is a metallic clink as a lock clicks. Patti attacks the wall with an air blast while Liz runs to the room's door, yanking on the handle to no avail. Rekan's muffled voice comes from the other side. "Sorry to do this, at least now you know what you're up against!"
Liz glares at Kid. "I told you this was a trap!"
Kid wants to kick himself-he should have known Rekan's sudden change of heart was too good to be true. He's about to say as much when he hears a faint cry from beneath them. He furrows his brow, listening harder. "Do you hear that?"
Maka wakes up with a groan and opens her eyes to a darkened and cramped space. The soft pillow she feels lying underneath her head turns out not to be a pillow at all but an extremely dazed Blair. She tries to shift off of her but there isn't any room to move anywhere else. She feels the polar lion twitch her head, meowing in concern.
"I'm all right," she says, words slightly slurred. She rubs her head and blinks away the grogginess of whatever sleeping draught had been given to her and Blair by Rekan.
When Soul had run off, she had been kept from going after him by Rekan-the mage had grabbed around the arm and she'd noticed him looking strangely at her arms for a second before letting her go. However, he hadn't commented about the markings, simply saying, "Friend of yours that eager to take a look around?"
She'd agreed, relieved she didn't have to make up a story for Soul's behavior, and offered to go search for him but he had rejected her offer, insisting he would send one of the other mages to find Soul, that she and her pet should wait for him in one of the rooms in the temple. His tone hadn't left much room for argument. He had taken she and Blair to a room on the second floor and left, bringing with him refreshments.
But she had known there was something wrong with her drink within minutes, becoming weak and dizzy. She had tried to fight but whatever had been in the drink also made her bending ineffective. The most she had been able to do was scratch Rekan's hands right before she lost consciousness.
Maka feels around her waist-her water pouch is still there but it's empty. Tentatively, she reaches upward and her hands run into something solid. It feels like a door but when she pushes against it, it refuses to budge. Stay calm, she tells herself. There has to be something that can help you.
She searches the space as thoroughly as she can possibly can. If they had more room, she and Blair might be able to force the door open but there is no extra space for them to maneuver.
She sighs, befuddled and frustrated in equal parts. Why had Rekan even attacked her in the first place? Her mind flickers back how he had stared at her markings. Was that it? But why would her being a chain interest him?
Her thoughts shift to Soul. Despite his insistence that he had whatever was plaguing him under control, it's been been very clear to her during their time together that he was not okay. And now he was alone and she was stuck in here.
She grits her teeth against the stinging in her eyes. Even though she knows it's in vain, she bangs against the door. "Let me out of here!"
Her fists beat against the air as her wish is answered. A girl with short, blonde hair peers down interestedly at Maka and Blair. "Look at the teeth on that kitten, sis," she chirps.
Maka squints, the light shining down on her making her eyes water.
"That's hardly a kitten, Patti," a long-haired blonde girl says, extending out her hand. "Give me a hand, Kid."
She opens her mouth to answer her but the boy next to the girl speaks. "I'm going, Liz." His hair is strange, black with three white stripes on one side. Together, they grab hold of Maka and pull her to her feet-her legs still feel weak as she steps out, Blair moving hastily to follow her. She glances around herself, surprised to find herself standing in a hidden crawlspace in the same room that Rekan had drugged her in.
Liz's grip tightens around Maka's wrist as she and Kid guide her to a couch. "Kid, look at her arms."
Kid glances down and then his face pales. "You're a chain too," he says, exchanging worried looks with his companions.
"How did you know that?" Maka asks suspiciously, pulling away from the two. She settles onto the couch, Blair positioning herself at her feet. "Who are you exactly?"
"This is just perfect," says Liz, throwing her hands into the air. "Add Black Star to the mix and we're one short of reviving the world's worst nightmare."
She gapes at the three, truly confused now. "Wait a minute, how do you know Black Star?"
Kid looks at her in bewilderment. "How do you know Black Star?"
"We're childhood friends," she answers shortly. "What's he doing here?"
It's a long story." Kid pauses. "But the main point of it is that he's looking here for his guardian."
"Sid?" she says, alarmed. "But why would he be here?"
"Because the Order of Asura took him," Kid answers.
"Order of Asura?" she repeats.
"Don't you know who they are?" Kid asks. "They did bring you here."
"I know of them but they didn't bring me here." Maka brushes her hair back, which has come loose. "I came here with a friend."
She decides to answer vaguely. "He was looking for something."
"Is he a chain too?" Patti asks.
She shakes her head and the tension in the air eases slightly. "But why are you so concerned about that? Do you know what's going on here?"
Kid hesitates before answering. "Yes."
Liz laughs humorlessly and flings herself onto the cushion next to Maka. "Why not tell her? It's not like we're going anywhere."
Maka stares into space, fingers wrapping against tufts of Blair's fur as she digests Kid's words. Since stepping into this temple less than an hour ago, her life had sunk to rock-bottom in one fell swoop. She looks up at Kid. "So we're here to make a portal for Asura so he can take your place?"
"Essentially. But it might not work since there is no fire chain," he says. "And you're sure your friend isn't a firebender?"
She shakes her head. "We both come from the water tribes."
"Well, that's a small miracle," Liz says. "But what do we do about our current problem?"
Kid's eyes sweep across the room. "I don't know. There's no way of opening the door without a key and there are no windows. And this room isn't made of earth either so I can't bend us out of here." His shoulders slump. "I don't think there is a way out."
"No." Maka stands, looking up. "There is a way."
He follows her gaze to the air vent high above them. "Of course!"
"But are we going to fit?" Liz asks skeptically.
"I'll check." Kid takes a few steps backwards and then moves his hands in circles, creating an air ball. Balancing on top of it, he scales the wall and pauses at the vent, knocking away the vent's metal covering with a sharp blast of air. "It'll be tight but we'll make it," he says as he lands on his feet. "Hopefully we'll be able to find the others once we make it out of here."
"Sis, you go up first," Patti says. "I'll toss Maka up to you."
Maka rises, feeling Blair's head psuh against her hip. She bends so she's looking the polar lion in the eyes. "You're not going to be able to come with us but I promise we'll come back for you."
Blair huffs and presses her forehead to Maka's, tail twitching uneasily.
"Ready?" Patti asks. On her knees rests her interlocked hands palm up. "Climb on."
Giving Blair a final pat, Maka stands and places her foot on Patti's hands gingerly, eyeing the thirty feet between her and Liz's outstretched arms. "This something you've done before?"
"Nope," she answers cheerfully. With a strength Maka wouldn't have expected from her, Patti launches her into the air.
Liz's hands lock around Maka's wrists. "Gotcha," she says with a grunt, yanking her into the air vent. "Watch your head."
Maka shakily laughs her jitters away as she crawls forward. "Your sister's pretty strong."
"That's putting it lightly." She snorts. "She's more restrained now actually. You should have seen her when we lived on the streets."
"But you're airbenders, right?" Maka says curiously. She looks back at Patti, who's joined them. "Wouldn't you have lived with the monks?"
"It's a long story," Liz replies. "And one I don't prefer to relive. But we're here so it ended happily." She pauses. "Well, if we weren't on the verge of a global apocalypse, it would be a happy ending."
"We met Kid when we tried to rob an air temple," Patti adds. "Do you remember that, Kid?" she calls from over her shoulder.
He chuckles as they slowly make their way forward. "How could I not? The looks on your faces when you found out who I was were priceless."
"As was yours when we cornered you," Liz retorts. She stops when they come to a fork in their path. "Right or straight?"
"What do you see?" Kid asks.
She twists her head and squints to the right. "It's a vent. I think it leads to another room."
"Let's try that one," Maka says. "We can't go too far since we still have to go back for Blair."
"Fine by me." Liz starts to crawl again. "My back is killing me." She kicks open the vent with a kick and drops down on the floor. "Come on."
Maka edges out and lets herself go, Liz catching her easily. She glances around the room. It looks exactly like the room they were in, save for the one inhabitant snoring loudly in the corner. Her eyes widen in surprise. "You!"
Kid and Patti land somewhere behind her. "What is it?"
She points at the stirring man on the couch. "I've seen him before, we ran into each other at the North Pole!"
The man's eyes open and she recoils. While one of them is perfectly normal, the other has strange symbols where his iris should be, the words "No Future" tattooed above the eye. "Oh, no," he says, frowning as he gets to his feet. He stands in front of the door and fidgets, a strangely guilty expression on his face. "As a former prisoner, I really hate to do this." At the top of his lungs, he yells, "They've escaped!"
Instantly, Patti lashes out and he flies sideways into the wall. However, the blow does absolutely nothing to the man. He gets up right away, looking barely pained.
"That should have broken his legs," Liz exclaims.
"Never mind that, move!" Kid says, throwing up a wall of fire around the man as they sprint to the door.
"Which way?" Maka asks, looking up and down the hallway. Beneath her feet, the ground trembles and from the far end of the hallway appears some of the strangest humanoid creatures she has ever seen. They have skulls for faces and appear to be seemingly made out of bricks.
"Not these golem things again!" Liz grabs her with one hand and Patti with the other, hauling them away from the approaching golems. "Hurry up," she calls to Kid, who is soldering the door shut with fire. "We've got company."
A net flies high above their heads and Patti pulls free from Liz, whipping a duststorm to blast the net away from the three. She sends it flying toward the golems and whirls around to catch up to others.
"Good thinking, Patti," Kid calls, taking the lead. "Come on, I can feel the exit up this way."
"But we can't leave Soul or Black Star behind," Maka protests fiercely. "And I still need to find Blair."
"If we stay here, then we'll be caught for sure," he replies. "I don't like it either but we can't get captured again."
"Sis and I could go look for them," Patti offers. "They don't want us."
"No," Kid says adamantly. "We stay together."
Maka yanks her arm from Liz as they enter the entrance hall. "Then I guess you're staying with me because I'm not leaving without Blair or my friends."
"No one's leaving," a voice says from above them. An old man sitting on top of a flying top hat descends from the ceiling. The hat hovers twenty feet in front of them. He gives a bow. "Welcome, I am Mosquito."
"Enough of the niceties," a voice growls from near the entrance. Maka doesn't recognize the blond man with piercings all over his face stepping from the shadows, a row of human-sized golems following him mechanically. Beside her, she feels Liz stiffen. "They know you're not here to invite them for tea, old man."
"My dear boy," Mosquito says stiffly. "If you knew anything about the subject at all, you'd know I am merely being civil."
"Why don't you say that closer to me?" the man says threateningly, shoes beginning to whir weirdly.
"Are you really going to fight like this in front of them?" a silver-haired woman says with a sigh, appearing beside Giriko. "It makes us look bad." In her hands, she juggles what to be appears to be tadpole-shaped explosives. She looks beyond the four fugitives. "About time you showed up, Free."
"Sorry, Eruka. I got delayed for a second there." The man from the North Pole emerges from behind the four, yawning widely.
"This just keeps on going from bad to worse, doesn't it?" Liz says as she and the others form a tight circle, closing ranks.
"There absolutely is no need for any bloodshed today," Mosquito says. "Unless you'd like to see your animals in pain."
On Maka's left, Kid stiffens. "You have Beelzebub?"
"A remarkable flier, that one," Mosquito says. "He could have gotten away but he didn't seem so eager to leave the badgermole behind. Rest assured that both are safe, however." He turns to Maka. "Your saber-toothed polar lion is fine as well."
Her hands curl into fists. "What do you want?"
"Simply for you to return to your room," he says smoothly. "Tomorrow is going to be a busy day."
A familiar voice cracks like thunder. "Tomorrow's not happening for you, old man!"
"That many, huh?" Stein pulls down the telescope from his face as the ships finish their circling of Ember Island. "They pulled out all the stops for our arrival. I'm touched."
"I'm a man who prefers flowers," Sid says, sharpening his knife. "And that's an understatement, I counted at least a hundred of those monsters."
"Well, it wouldn't be fun if we weren't the underdogs," Stein replies wryly. "They appear to have the ports and all the main beaches guarded. But I wonder how many they have guarding the interior of the island."
"What should we do, Commander?" Joe calls from the helm. "Our boats can't keep circling the island."
"I thought I told you not to call me that."
"I promised not to call you that during peacetime. This sure looks like a war to me."
"The matter remains," Marie interjects, coming on Stein's other side, "That we need to decide what to do. I'm surprised they haven't started ambushing us yet."
He thinks for a moment. "Make for the landing area closest to the temple."
"With all due respect, Commander, but that's the most heavily guarded area," Joe says. "And we aren't even large enough for a company."
Stein turns, locking eyes with the lieutenant. "The golems haven't taken the island hostage for nothing. We take our chances."
Joe stares back for a moment and then he nods. "Yes, sir."
He smirks. Being called sir was better than being called commander.
Sid blows out a breath. "I just hope Black Star hasn't gotten caught up in anything too bad." He taps his hands against the railing restlessly before pulling away from the group. "Think I'm going to go check on Kim and Jackie, let them know we're almost here."
Marie and Stein stand in silence while the ship changes course. "Think we'll make it in time?" she asks.
"Maybe." Stein studies the golems. They look almost docile, motionless as statues.
He's sure they won't be that way when they come closer.
"We've already been this way, Black Star."
He continues to open doors, ignoring Tsubaki's words.
"We're not leaving until we find him," he growls, step quickening to match his heartbeat. He groans in exasperation when he comes to the last room in the basement and finds nothing. He whirls around, mumbling to himself, "We'll just have to search again."
Tsubaki's hand wraps around his and she blocks his way with her body. "Black Star!"
"What?" He won't meet her eyes because he knows what he'll see.
"We've been through this entire temple," she says. "Sid is not here."
He squeezes his eyes shut before his anger abruptly deflates. "Then where is he, Tsubaki?"
"I don't know." She rubs his hand with her thumb. "But we're not going to stop until we find him."
The sound of a fast approaching voice makes the two freeze up.
Tsubaki recovers first. "In here," she whispers, pulling Black Star into one of the rooms. They close the door and lean against it, listening intently.
"That's two of the brats," someone says. "The other two shouldn't be so difficult to track down."
Shock runs through Black Star as he recognizes the lazy drawl of Giriko's voice. The palm of Tsubaki's hand presses against his mouth, muffling his gasp, while she puts a finger to her lips with the other, nodding to show she recognized him as well.
"The earth chain is here for certain. As well as a possible candidate for the fire chain," an unfamiliar voice says in response as the pair's footsteps echo down the hallway. "The problem will be keeping them quiet until noon tomorrow."
"We can manage them," Giriko says scornfully. "As well as that pathetic army Stein's coming with."
Black Star isn't sure if it's a blessing or a curse that Giriko decides to stop in front of the room they're hiding in. He trembles with barely suppressed rage, the urge to yank open the door and beat Sid's location out of him all but impossible to resist.
"Stein is a great warrior," the voice says nervously. "It'd be best not to underestimate him."
"He's gotten old," he sniffs. "Trust me, by the end of tomorrow, the chains will have made the portal, the rightful Avatar will be back in this world and the upstart will be gone." He begins to walk again, shoes clinking against the earthen floor. "Let's go."
Black Star and Tsubaki share stunned looks. Her hand falls to her side. "It's worse than I imagined."
He speaks. "We have to get to Kid."
She nods and then her face pales. "Maka is a chain. They probably have her as well."
Fresh anger boils in his blood and Black Star yanks the door open, unconcerned about whoever he hears him. "Come on." He runs down the hallway and back up the stairs. He is so single-minded on his task that he doesn't even notice when he's ran into someone until he's stumbles back into Tsubaki.
A white-haired boy around his age glares at him, cradling a bag. "Watch it!"
Black Star grabs him and shoves him against a wall. The boy struggles, managing to strike a forceful punch to his jaw before Black Star pins him to the wall. He stares him down, saying, "You're with the Order. Where's Kid and Maka?"
"Kid? Who ar-" The boy cuts off mid-sentence, eyes going round. "Wait, what's happened to Maka?"
He loosens his grip on the boy slightly. "You know Maka?"
"We met during her trip to the North Pole, we're traveling together," the boy answers. He squints at Black Star and then looks to Tsubaki. "Wait, you're her friends from the Earth Kingdom, aren't you? Black Star and Tsubaki?"
Black Star gives him a hard look before letting go of him. "So you're not lying."
"Of course not," the boy snaps, swinging the bag across his back. "Now what happened to Maka?"
Tsubaki steps forward. "We're not too sure of the details ourselves but we can fill you in on what we know while we search for Maka and Kid."
Black Star offers his hand by way of apology. "You pack a mean punch."
"Soul," the boy introduces himself, taking his hand. "You have a pretty good chokehold."
They've come just in the nick of time, he thinks as Black Star and Tsubaki vault themselves over the second floor railing to the hall below while Soul follows them from the stairs. He slams his hands into the ground as he lands and it explodes with a resounding crack. Water from burst pipes rain down while a shockwave allows the four cornered by the Order to strike.
Kid, Liz and Patti race forward, effortlessly forming into a trio against Giriko's golems while Tsubaki detaches from his side to engage with a silver-haired woman throwing smoke bombs left and right. Maka lashes out with an ice scythe against Giriko while Soul has joined her, brandishing a broken pipe against a burly, wolflike man.
Black Star makes a beeline for Mosquito, who remains in the same spot as he had been before the fighting broke out. He crosses his arms as he approaches. "Didn't I tell you that you would regret that day, my dear boy?"
"The only thing I regret is not killing you that day," he retorts. The entire temple quivers as he lifts his hands, pushing his bending to the limit. A piece of the staircase behind Mosquito lifts from the ground with a groan and with a push of his arms, he deposits it onto Mosquito, who has no time to move before it crushes him.
Black Star lets his hands fall to his sides, feeling almost disappointed. That had been easier than he thought it was going to be.
Mosquito's laugh comes from beneath the staircase. "My dear boy." The staircase rises from the ground, Mosquito holding it up with one hand while the other brushes the dirt from his suit. He is not the old man he was before but instead has the appearance of a gaunt young man with slicked back hair. He grins, revealing a small pair of fangs. "Did you really think something like this would hurt me?"
He hurls the staircase towards him as if it weighed no more than a feather.
"Duck!" Black Star yells.
Both friend and foe dive out of the staircase's way and it crashes through the front doors, crushing two golems.
Through the rubble, Black Star stumbles forward, trying and failing to sense Mosquito.
"Through here!" Kid's voice sounds far away. "Hurry!"
"You had to provoke him." Tsubaki appears from nowhere. She drags Black Star outside by his collar. "Could you try being concerned for your survival for once?"
"If it hadn't been for me, we wouldn't be escaping," he points out as they run.
They're the last ones out of the temple, the others far ahead. At the temple ground's boundary, stands Maka, who wears a stubborn look on her face as she argues with Kid. Soul is at her side while both Patti and Liz look impatient to be gone.
"I'm not leaving without Blair," she is saying as they come within earshot.
Kid tries to reason with her. "We have to leave behind our animals too-"
"What do you mean by we?" Black Star interrupts. He looks around. "Where's Shadow?"
"No." He can't even feel Shadow through their link, which means she's knocked out or worse. A cold rage dances in his bones as he turns around. "We're going back."
The ground shakes as a golem, as large as the one that attacked them outside Loew, appears. In the distance, the four members of the Order appear in the ruined entrance.
"Watch out!" Soul yells as a boulder from the golem comes flying their way.
"No, they can't be killed," Mosquito bellows as the four run to the seven.
"And they won't be, old man," Giriko yells as he activates the saws on his feet. "But roughing them up was never against the rules."
Black Star and Tsubaki move as one, rushing to meet the silver-haired woman and the burly man. While the woman is quick, the man is faster, managing to land him in a vicelike hold before Black Star kicks upward and sends a pillar of earth straight to his stomach.
The man is on his feet almost immediately. He grins. "Pain doesn't stop me, kid."
"Have some fun with this then," Black Star grunts, jabbing the air. Rocks bombard the man mercilessly. He makes a slicing motion as the man stumbles backwards, creating a ditch that he tumbles into. On the other side of the battle, Kid sends vicious air currents to Mosquito, who is bobbing above them; Tsubaki and Soul have teamed up against the woman. Liz and Patti run circles around the golem, trying to knock it off-balance while Maka has resumed her battle with Giriko.
The fight goes back and forth, one side temporarily gaining the advantage only to cede it to the other. Black Star huffs as he eyes his opponent, who has turned out to be a much more formidable foe than he appeared to be. They're both ready to drop at this point but neither refuses to give up. One fumble, he thinks, waiting for him to move. Just one.
A strangled cry breaks his concentration and he looks over his shoulder involuntarily.
Maka lies on the ground, her scythe out of reach and Giriko's saw foot resting just above her face. "No one move," he orders. "Or she'll be permanently scarred."
Soul comes at Giriko so quickly from behind that no one has time to warn him, lashing out with a fire blast. "Get off of her!"
Giriko lands on his back with a thud and Soul pulls Maka to her feet. "Are you okay?"
"You're a firebender," she says in a daze.
Mosquito speaks. "The fire chain!" His words shatter the trance that came over the two groups, fighting breaking out again.
As he joins Liz and Patti, Kid yells to Maka, "I thought you said he was from the water tribe!"
Black Star raises his foot and slams it against the ground, opening a trench in the golem's path. "Can we focus on not dying?"
"Good idea," a familiar voice says.
Black Star's jaw goes slack and he turns, not believing his ears.
Sid claps him on his shoulder, soldiers dressed in blue sprinting past him. "Nice to see you're alive, son."
The smell of meat roasting prompts Oni to stick his head out of Soul's bag, mewling pitifully at Soul.
"Not here, dummy," he hisses, shoving Oni's head back in the bag. He stands up and walks away from the fire with feigned nonchalance, looking left and right to make sure no one is looking his way. Luckily for him, Stein's soldiers are running around, setting up camp. Stein himself is nowhere to be seen, having disappeared in his tent with a blonde-haired woman wearing an eye patch and a man who carried a cup filled with a foul-smelling liquid.
Black Star and Tsubaki are somewhere with Sid while the last he saw of Kid, Liz and Patti, they had been dragged off by two firebending girls. The two had been the ones who burned down most of the temple with some of the most explosive fire bombs he'd ever seen, giving their side the chance to retreat. He makes a mental note to talk with them later- his bending is child's play compared to theirs.
He has no absolutely no idea where Maka could be; he had been too intent on listening to Kid's story as they made their escape and she'd disappeared from their group when they made camp. Ignoring his sinking heart, he wanders just outside of camp's boundaries and settles against a tree. He opens his bag to find a very disgruntled Oni attempting to breathe fire, puffing out nothing but air.
"Hey there." Soul scoops up the dragon, no bigger than his forearm. Oni does not take kindly to being held, the flaps around his face fanning out as he tries to bite Soul.
"You're a lot more crankier than earlier." He raises Oni to his face and gazes at his scales shining in the dying sunlight, all black save for the spiny red scales running down his spine. "I am the one who's going to be feeding you, just so you know." The dragon hacks a rebellious cough at Soul, bringing up a little hot air this time, but stops trying to bite him. His head droops down on Soul's arm and he whines again, a rumble from his stomach accompanying him.
"Oh no." The truth of his words hits him. "I have to feed you."
Oni yelps as Soul shoves him rudely back into the bag, tiny limbs thrashing. "Please stay quiet," he pleads.
"I'm here," he calls in a louder voice, blocking the bag with his body.
Maka appears, carrying a plate filled with food. "Who are you talking to?"
"Just myself," he says.
She frowns before shrugging. "Everyone's eating now so if you want to join us, you can."
"I'm fine, thanks," he says brightly as his stomach gives a loud growl.
Her frown deepens. "All right." She turns and begins to walk away. "If you don't want to talk about it with me, that's perfectly fine."
"Wait!" He tries to grab her elbow but ends up accidentally tugging on her water pouch. She stumbles and her plate falls to the ground, food flying everywhere. She twists around, fire burning in her eyes. "What is it, Soul?"
"I'm sorry," he says quickly.
She repeats herself. "What, Soul?"
He can't quite meet her eyes. "I didn't think not telling you I'm a firebender would bother you that much."
"It's not that," she says stiffly, kneeling down to pick up the spilled food. "At least not just that." She stops, still not looking at him. "How could you not tell me you were a chain too?"
"Chain?" He raises his heads, confused. "No, that Mosquito guy didn't know what he was talking about. I am a firebender but I'm not a chain."
"Don't lie," she snaps. She puts the plate to one side and sits on the ground, gesturing to his chest. "I can see the marks."
"What?" He glances down, eyes growing round at the sight of scale markings, exactly like Oni's, peeking out from underneath his shirt. He pulls his collar forward, tracing them down as they trail in diagonal path down to his hip. "Where did these come from?"
""Don't try that with me." Maka folds her arms, eyes narrowing. "How'd you cover them up while we were traveling? And where's your animal?"
"I didn't hide them. They just appeared today," he insists. "And I didn't find my animal till today. I honestly thought all of this was in my head," he says, thoughts flickering back to the dragon in his bag. He knows it's too good to be true that his problems in his mind started and ended with Oni. He has a lot to sort out before he can even think about what being a chain meant for him. "If a spirit chain is what I really am, then the universe has chosen terribly."
"Don't say that." She bites her lip, the hurt and anger in her eyes fading. "I knew you were suffering," she says, uncrossing her arms and tugging on a pigtail dejectedly. "If I had just seen more clearly, I could have helped you."
"You have helped me." He scratches his head. It makes him squirm internally to even refer to his problems but the look on Maka's face pains him more. "You and Blair kept me me from losing it these past few weeks."
She finally meets his eyes. "Really?"
He nods. "More than you know."
"All right." She begins to smile but stops suddenly and jabs a finger at his face. "But don't you even think about trying to hide something like what you've gone through from me ever again, okay?"
"Okay, okay." He raises his hands in surrender, rolling his eyes. "I promise."
"Smart of you to do," she says with a satisfied smile. "So." She casts a quizzical look around him. "Where is your animal?"
Soul brings the bag from behind him, saying, "Her-" He stops, looking into nothing but an empty pack. He jumps to his feet. "Oni?"
"You named your animal after a demon spirit?" she says, standing to join him in his search.
"It was his choice, not mine," he says as he sweeps leaves out of the way, looking for any sign for where the dragon could have wandered off. "He has strong opinions."
"I'm sure," she says "And what exactly does this..."
Soul looks up when she trails off into silence, following her wide-eyed gaze to where Oni is gorging himself with her spilled food. "You!" He scrambles and grabs Oni just as he snaps up the last of the meat. He fixes him with a glare to which the newborn dragon is happily indifferent, yawning contentedly. "I have no idea if any of that is good for you."
"He's a dragon," Maka says wonderingly, standing next to them. Oni chuffs grumpily when she strokes his head but he doesn't try to bite her like he did with Soul. "I thought they were extinct."
"So did I." Stein's voice comes from nowhere.
He steps from the shadows, gaze fixed on Oni. "I think it's time we talked."
The inside of Stein's tent is exactly what Soul expects of the eccentric commander. He picks up a jar of one of Stein's shelves and eyes the creature floating inside of the green liquid.
"Don't touch that."
He fumbles with the jar, almost dropping it. "Can't you make some noise or something before you speak?" He scowls at Stein, placing the it back on the shelf. "That's the second time you've nearly stopped my heart today."
"But where would be the fun in that?" he replies as he closes the tent flaps. He turns with a ghost of a smile on his face. "What you were holding there is a specimen of a rare species of elephant rat, by the way."
"If it's rare then doesn't that make it endangered?" Soul asks. "Meaning you should have left it alive?"
"And have it end up in the stomach of an eagle hawk?" Stein walks past him and takes a seat behind a severely overladen desk, smile widening. "Better to collect for posterity now than never having a record of them in the first place." He motions to the cushion in front of him. "Please, make yourself comfortable."
"I hope you don't feel the same way about dragons,' he says as he sits.
"Oh, I could never kill a dragon," he says, gaze moving to where Oni sleeps on Soul's shoulder. "What a fascinating creature. Look at those scales." He leans forward, a hint of longing in his voice. "Anyways," he says, taking off his glasses and wiping them clean. "I believe you said his name was Oni?"
"That's right." At the sound of his name, Oni stirs awake, lazily opening one eye. He yawns disdainfully, scrutinizing Stein.
"He's been looking for you for a long time, hasn't he?" he says, replacing the glasses on his face.
"You knew." Soul narrows his eyes, his suspicions confirmed. "When you visited me last year."
"I had only suspected before that. But even after I knew, I had to tread lightly," Stein says. "At first, I wasn't sure if it was you or your brother but as time went on and neither of you showed any sign of bending ability whatsoever, I thought I'd been mistaken entirely. And then when I saw you firebend last year and I knew it was you."
"But the chain could have been any firebender," he says. "How did you even know the chain was one of us in the first place?"
"Do you remember what I told you that day?" Stein asks.
"Not all of it," Soul hedges.
"On the day the spirit world opened, there were strange effects on some of the people who were near the portal." He places his elbows on the desk, sending piles of papers sliding off. "Marie, the lightning bender you saw earlier, was one of those people. On solstices, messenger spirits can temporarily possess her. It's become a mode of communication between our side and the spirit world. That's how we haven't been completely wiped out already." He pauses. "That's how we knew we had to hide your family away."
He goes still with shock. "My family?"
"By now, I hope it's obvious that you're not originally from the water tribe," Stein says. "Your parents were part of the Fire Nation's nobility. You were a few months old when I convinced them to go into hiding." He shakes his head. "I had to spin them quite the story. They're still convinced the Fire Lord is angry with them."
"Are they safe now?" he demands. Oni headbutts Soul's face in alarm of his sudden change in mood.
Stein doesn't answer right away. "They're not the ones who need protecting at the moment seeing as they're not who the Order is after and everything points to most, if not all, of the Order being on Ember Island."
Soul strokes Oni's head as he digests this information. "So what are we doing now?"
"You've been caught up on the present situation," he answers. "Our ships were destroyed when we came here and with them, our means of escaping."
"So we're done for," Soul states flatly.
"Not necessarily. Fortunately for us, the Order is not what it used to be," Stein says. "As long as we can make it through noon tomorrow, the biggest crisis will be averted." He stands. "I suggest getting some rest. We're going to be moving soon."
Soul settles by the fire pit, stoking the dying fire back to life with a small flame from his fingers. He glances down at Oni, fast asleep in his arms. While the dragon isn't shivering, he feels much cooler since he hatched. Unsure if his temperature is normal for a newborn dragon, he shifts closer to the fire-if they survive tomorrow, he's going to have to find someone who can teach him to properly care for a dragon.
"Here," Maka's voice startles him. She stops in front of him and holds out a lumpy and shapeless blanket, crudely stitched together.
He recognizes it as her old parka. Or rather what's left of it. Her face is pink in the firelight. "I made it for Oni. Well, Tsubaki helped when it started coming out weird. Black Star laughed when he saw it but it's a lot warmer than anything else here."
"And that's what counts." He takes the blanket, swathing it around Oni. The dragon burrows into the blanket without waking, tail curling up serenely. "Thanks," he says she takes a spot next to him. He looks back down at Oni. "Because I have no idea what I'm doing."
"We were all there once." She smiles. "You'll get the hang of it."
"I sure hope so."
The smile lingers on her face for another moment before fading away. She stares into the fire somberly, twisting her hair around her finger.
He can guess what's on her mind. "Nothing from Blair?"
"Not a thing," she sighs, hand dropping to her side. "We've never been apart from each other for more than a few hours since we chained. It feels wrong to feel nothing from her." Her eyes turn glassy. "I just want to know if she's okay."
The quaver in her voice alarms him. "They're not going to hurt her while they're trying to find us," he says, touching her hand. "Once tomorrow is over, we'll find a way to rescue her."
"If we get through tomorrow." She rests her head on her arms but flips her hand to hold his.
Soul frowns-Wes had been the sibling to be born with innate comforting skills but he has a sinking feeling that even if Wes were here, there was nothing he or anyone could say to help Maka feel better. But he also knows if he doesn't say something soon, she'll hide behind fake cheeriness and optimism. So he says the first thing to spring in his mind. "What does the South Pole look like?"
Her brow furrows in confusion but she answers. "There's four major vill-well, I guess they're more like small cities now. They were working on a road to connect them when I left, it might be done by now."
"And your home?"
"When I was little, it was tiny. Just a handful of igloos gathered together," she says. "But after just before my uncle died, the trading business really started to pick up." The respect in her tone is grudging. "Papa did a good job of managing the trade and had the whole city renovated before we left for the North Pole. It's not grand like the capital but you have everything you need." She adds, "Though the southern lights are incredible to watch at night. We have a festival for them in the winter."
"Sounds like something I need to see for myself." Soul shifts Oni to better support his head, the light snores issuing from his mouth fluttering momentarily. "Though I think I'll warm up on a beach somewhere in the Fire Nation before I go," he says. "Maybe go check out Ba Sing Se's fashion district, get myself a late birthday present."
"Birthday?" she asks. "Is it that soon?"
Soul shakes his head. "I wish I was."
"Wow," she says.
"Definitely not the best way to spend a birthday," he says. "Though the dragon kinda makes up for it."
"Imagine what it'll be like when he's able to fly." She leans toward Soul, reaching out to brush Oni's spine.
"You can find out when he's ready," he offers. Swiftly, he tacks on, "Not to say you have to stay with us till then. I could probably find you easily enough in the South Pole."
"I can't say I'm looking forward to talking with Papa again anytime soon," she says with a small smile. Her hand squeezes around his, the troubled look on her face disappearing completely for the moment. "Traveling for a while sounds good."
Mosquito catches sight of the parrot-frog first, a silver blur in the night. Eruka extends her arm when it reaches her and the parrot-frog disappears as it touches her fingers.
Giriko stirs restlessly. "How many soldiers?"
"One hundred," she answers. "Gopher is also there with them."
"That explains how we were found," Mosquito says, looking away from the glow of the fire coming from Stein's camp. "We will deal with him later."
"Or right now." Giriko rubs his hands together in anticipation. "My golems can take care of them."
"As we saw earlier when that lightning bender took down your golem with a single strike," he observes. "The only thing attacking now would do is scatter the chains and make our task even harder to complete."
"Then what do you suggest we do?" Giriko growls.
Mosquito pushes down on the flicker of irritation that sweeps through him, pushing back his hair. The urge to sink his teeth in Giriko's neck and leave him bloodless would be overwhelming save for the fact he'd die first before letting the blood of a human like Giriko touch his lips.
The spirit flinches from where he leaned against a tree, dropping the wood carving in his hands. "Yes?"
"How have your abilities held up over the years?"
"They're a little rusty," Free says cautiously. "But I can use them."
"Go to the Four Points by the river," Mosquito orders. He turns to address Eruka. "Go with him and deliver the animals there. Free will trap them and keep them hidden until we gather the chains." He faces the fire again. "Act only when Eruka gives the signal and not a moment sooner. If you're successful, then both of your jobs will be finished and we will never have to meet again."
Both Eruka and Free nod keenly before leaving the clearing.
"And me?" Giriko demands.
"Tonight is a night for stealth, which is not a skill you possess," Mosquito responds coldly. "But fear not, tomorrow your time will come."
Medusa lowers her hands, watching her snakes crawl out of the bog and into the grass. She ignores the high-pitched whine only she can hear coming from the nearby maze of caves she calls home.
Arachne's voice drips with feigned admiration. "I must say, you've truly outdone yourself this time, dear sister."
"I always go the distance for my experiments," she replies, sweeping her hair back. "And this one may prove to be the greatest one yet."
Asura drops down from a tree, landing on his feet noiselessly. "I am not an experiment."
"Oh, but you are. The most perfect one." She bends down and picks up one of her snakes with ease even though it's as long as her body. "Seeing you these past weeks confirmed something I suspected long ago."
"And that is?"
She doesn't bother hiding her smile. "You have no soul anymore. It's rotted, disintegrated, gone," she answers, examining the snake's fangs. She sets it back on the ground, wiping her hands on her dress. "If you try to cross over to earth now, your body would be unable to endure the stain of crossing the two worlds and you would most likely turn into dust."
Utter shock wipes Asura's face clean of his confidence. He charges at her suddenly, roaring, "Why wouldn't you tell me something like this?"
"I wasn't aware I had to report to you." Medusa laughs as a net of spider silk tangles his feet and he stumbles to the ground. "If it wasn't apparent by now, let me make it clear: I don't care about what happens to you, I care about how it happens."
"Calm, Asura," Arachne says, stepping between the two. Her gaze flicks to Medusa, violet eyes flashing with repressed rage. "I agree, however, why didn't you tell us sooner?"
"And cause my eldest sister and her favorite to worry?" she says. Her eyes widen. "That would be downright cruel of me."
A bite of impatience creeps into Arachne's voice. "Enough games."
"I'm hurt that you think I'm not taking this seriously," Medusa says, placing a hand on her chest. "Rest assured that when you hear when you hear the intriguing solution I have to Asura's little problem, you'll see I am taking this very seriously."
"And what is that?" Asura spits, wrenching himself free of Arachne's webs.
"It's quite simple, really. All you need to do is find a body to possess." She smiles. "An Avatar's body preferably."
The rage on his face drains away and Asura's smile returns. "I see."
"So glad to hear that," she says, turning away. "Now you prepare for tomorrow. And if you'll excuse me, I have to attend to something."
"Crona." Medusa rolls away the stone and looks down on the dragon spirit huddled in the middle of the underground cavern. "What did I say about making noise when company is over?"
Crona's tail swings back and forth repentantly, pink scales gleaming dully in the light. They cough, only smoke coming from their mouth.
She frowns at the color of Crona's scales. "I've told you this a thousand times. If you don't like the dark, you know what you have to do. It's very simple." She snaps her fingers and one of her snakes comes crawling forth, carrying a trembling rabbit spirit. "I am going to be generous and give you another chance to show that you're willing to prove yourself."
The dragon lets out a groan and burrows their head into his claws, pink scales beginning to bleed black.
It gives Medusa hope at first but when Crona continues to sulk while the petrified rabbit spirit hops in circles around the dragon, she frowns at them in disgust. "If that's how you're going to act, then I have no interest in staying here." She steps back from the entrance and starts to roll the rock back in place. There's a terrified scream as it slips closed and then the crack of bone.
She pauses and grins. "There now." She pushes back the rock and lets the light shine on Crona. They're a shadow in the darkness, save for the blood staining the dragon's teeth red. "That wasn't so hard, was it?"