It hadn't seemed like such a bad idea to Black Star at the time. In fact, he had thought it had been a pretty clever one. But as he watches the last boulder from the rockslide hit the broken train tracks with a metallic clang before plunging to the bottom of the canyon below, he has to admit that the execution was more than lacking.
Shadow's whiskers brush roughly against his skin as the badgermole pushes her snout into his hand. She gives a sorrowful snort and hangs her head low, as if to apologize.
He pats the top of her head. "It's not your fault, girl. It was all me." He cracks his knuckles. "Well, time to fix it."
"Black Star!" Tsubaki emerges from the forest that surrounds their town. "There you are," she says. "I've been looking for you all mor-"
The bright expression on her face freezes as she catches sight of the mountain behind Black*Star and the now useless train tracks that curve around it. She looks back at Black Star, who is covered in dust, and then to Shadow, who sports a shallow wound from where a rock grazed her shoulder as she carried him from the rockslide.
"You," she begins before trailing off. "No." She shakes her head in disbelief. "You didn't."
Black Star offers her a wide smile. "Maybe I did?"
There is nothing in this world that Black Star fears but if he was another person, the growing thunderstorm on Tsubaki's face would have him running.
She paces back and forth, throwing her hands up in the air. "You can't just do things like this, Black Star!" She stops pacing and stands right in front of him, hands on her hips. "What exactly were you thinking?"
"That I wanted to help?"
"I don't see how breaking our only form of transportation to the rest of the world is helping," Tsubaki says flatly.
"Well, I didn't see that coming," he retorts. "I was just thinking how much easier things would be if we could just cut through the mountain."
"Cut through the mountain?" she echoes, shock draining away the anger in her voice. "The largest mountain in the entire Earth Kingdom? That's sacred to the entire area?"
"Sacred or not, it's still in the way." He scratches his head. "Although when you put it that way, I guess it does sound kinda bad."
Tsubaki swells up indignantly, her eyes burning indigo. She grabs his arm. "Come on."
"I-what, but I still need to fix the tracks!" he protests as she drags him into the forest. The earth shakes as Shadow burrows underground and follows them.
Tsubaki's words tumble from her mouth and hit him like knives. "When people ask, you were out training with me and you don't mention your idea to anyone."
"But why?" he asks. "I broke it so I should be the one to take responsibility for it." He nearly crashes into Tsubaki as she comes to an abrupt stop. There isn't any of the anger in her eyes nor shock. What lies in them actually looks a lot like fear.
"Do you know who your family is?" she asks in a strange tone.
"Yeah, Nygus, Sid and Shadow."
"No," she says, drawing closer to him. Her face is paler than her robes. "Do you know who your real family is?"
Something in Black Star's chest tightens but he forces a laugh and walks ahead. "Tsubaki, please. What those demons did have nothing to do with the great me."
"You and I both know that's not true," Tsubaki replies as they wend through the forest. "Even though you didn't even know them, the world won't let you forget that you're related to them. If they find out it was you who caused that rockslide, they'd probably arrest you."
He fights the urge to look down at the star tattoo etched in his shoulder. "I messed up. But, Shadow and I are going to change to show that we can help."
"No, I don't think that's going to be possible," Tsubaki says. She comes to a stop right at the forest's edge.
"Why?" he asks, Shadow letting a low rumble in agreement.
She doesn't turn around. "I don't know how the townspeople learned about it but you being the first spirit chain since Avatar Asura rebelled is not seen as a good thing."
"Because of who my family was?" Anger bleeds into his voice. "Other than my connection with Shadow, nothing's different about me!"
"Even though they're not used for what they were in the past, a spirit chain means power. Not just with your chain animal but in other ways," she says, rubbing her head. "And the son of one of Asura's greatest followers with any kind of power makes people nervous." Her hands open and close like they do when she's nervous. "I just hope no one else finds out."
"Well, I don't." Black Star swallows hard. "They're just going to have to get used to it."
She finally turns around. Tsubaki looks at him pensively, the way she looks at her sparring partner before a match. "Sometimes I wish that you hadn't been chosen."
He snaps finally. "I know the world doesn't like me. I don't care!"
"No," she says, "But I care about you."
She leaves him standing there, speechless for the first time in his life.
Black Star stands in the middle of one of the forest's meadows and contemplates the flowers in his hands. Since he couldn't make up for the screw-up he made with the railroad, then at the very least he could do was apologize for the mess he made with Tsubaki. It would also be a thank you for what she said to him but he'd swallow his tongue first than say that yes, he did care what the rest of the world thought of him and what she said was the nicest thing anyone had told him since he first bonded with Shadow.
He thinks back to last year's vernal equinox-with the dirty looks and whispers that followed him whenever he went out in public, the festival for it had never been one of his favorite times. But this time, instead of staying inside or going out to the middle of nowhere to practice his earthbending, he'd decided to head to the mountain that towered over their village. When he had stumbled on an abandoned badgermole tunnel leading into the mountain, he hadn't thought twice about it, entering the mountain with a fearless cry and following the tunnel's twists and turns until he was so dizzy he had to sit down. It was then that he had realized he had no idea which way led back to the exit.
But not one to give up easily, he had walked for what felt like hours, figuring the tunnel had to lead out sometime. When he saw a faint glow ahead of him, he'd congratulated himself and ran towards it.
Although he had been disappointed to find it wasn't the exit, he had been instantly entranced by what lay in the room. Rows of blue-green crystals, somehow shining bright in the dark, lined the room's walls. In the center of the room, crystal stairs had led to what looked like an altar, the wall behind it etched in the likeness of a long haired man holding two swords, with a dozen others sticking out of the case across his back.
He had recognized him as the Warrior of a Thousand Swords, the spirit of this mountain. He'd touched the engraving before his memory suddenly became hazy. All he remembered was the feeling of being locked in battle with someone he couldn't see and the words: "Which path will you take?"
He'd woken up to a badgermole, much smaller than the ones he'd ever seen, licking his face and strange shadowlike tattoos on his chest and neck. Things had snowballed from there.
And yet one thing that stayed the same was the people's hatred of him. Except now there was a little fear whenever he spoke with someone who wasn't Tsubaki, Sid or Nygus. He hadn't understood what Tsubaki meant when she mentioned him not being like the previous spirit chains but he supposed that whatever they had been was the reason behind that fear.
The scent of flowers on the wind brings him out of his thoughts and back to the present. For now, he decides to put it out of his mind and talk to Sid and Nygus about it later. "What do you think?" he calls to Shadow. "Good enough?"
She lifts her head from the little dirt pile she's made for herself and sniffs the air. She makes a sound of approval, tail sweeping the ground lazily.
"Let's go home then." He turns around and heads for the trail that leads back to town. He's almost at the edge of the meadow before he realizes the familiar feeling of Shadow tunneling underneath him is absent.
"Shadow?" he says, turning back around. The badgermole has her back to him, hunched in an aggressive stance. Whatever has her on the defensive is hidden by her body. She lets loose a growl as Black Star drops the flowers and takes a few steps forward, a clear warning to stand back.
"Young man, could you call off your pet?" a voice asks.
"Pet?" Black Star grinds his foot into the ground. He takes an instant dislike to the stranger whose voice has a grating buzzing quality to it, despite the formal tone. "Shadow is not my pet."
"Regardless, could you tell her to stand down? I'm not going to hurt you."
"Shadow has a good sense of who to trust and who not to trust. And if she doesn't trust you, then I don't either," he answers, edging to the side to get a glimpse of the voice's owner. Shadow moves with him, however, continuing to block out the person.
"Now see here, young man-"
"Quit it with the young man business," he says, laughing humorlessly. "You're not my dad."
"No, but I knew him."
His eyes widen. "What?"
"That got your attention, didn't it?" the voice guffaws. "Yes, I knew White Star. One of the finest soldiers the Order of Asura ever had."
"If you're playing a joke, it's not funny," he says through gritted teeth.
"My dear boy, I never joke. And certainly not about the dead, may White Star's soul rest in peace."
Black Star sucks in a deep breath, muscles tensing. He feels Shadow do the same. "If what you're saying true, then that's just a reason for me to turn you into dust." He and Shadow move as one; he slams his foot down on the earth, sending a shockwave directly towards the voice, while Shadow does the same with her claw, sending earth and uprooted flowers kicking up into the air.
Shadow scrambles over to his side and they both wait for the air to clear, ready to strike.
"This dust won't come out my suit easily," a voice complains from above them. "But that's besides the point."
Black Star blinks twice, unsure if he can trust his eyes.
An old man sits perched on a top hat in mid-air with his legs crossed primly. The only thing bigger than the gray mustache he sports is his pointy nose, which resembles a stinger. He shakes a finger at Black*Star. "Now listen, my boy, you would not be wise to enter a fight with me. You will not win, that's a fact."
"What the hell are you?" Black Star growls.
The old man sniffs. "That's hardly the way to speak to Mosquito, the second-in-command of the Order of Asura."
"You keep mentioning that like it means something to me," Black Star gripes.
"I'm surprised by your lack of knowledge. Your family was our biggest supporter in the Earth Kingdom."
"What I mean is that they don't mean anything to me!" Black Star snaps. "You don't mean anything to me! And if you want revenge because they failed their job, then bring it!"
"Revenge?" Mosquito repeats, astonished. "I want nothing of the kind, young man! We're trying to re-build ourselves." His gaze trails down to Black Star's neck. "We figured it a divine sign from Asura himself when we got wind of your chain."
He yanks his scarf up to hide the corner of the tattoo that peeks out from under his shirt. "It's just coincidence."
"One the world considers an unfortunate one, considering what I heard when the news first came out," Mosquito says. His tone is sympathetic but his shockingly red eyes are shrewd. "Doesn't that make you angry?"
"The only thing that's pissing me off is hearing you talk," he spits. Next to him, Shadow twitches her tail in response to his irritation. "I'm not interested in whatever you have to say to me."
"You talk like your father." Mosquito's eyes narrow briefly. "I can see his ambition bleeding from you. It does make you angry that the world refuses to give you a chance to prove your greatness. It's all you want to do, isn't it? I can give you that. People would will remember you, not your family."
Black*Star is quiet. Then his raised hands drop by a fraction. "You'd give me a chance?"
"You will be the greatest warrior that ever lived," Mosquito says. "There won't be a person who won't think of you in awe."
"That does nice." His arms fall a little more and Mosquito's hat bobs down closer to him. Black Star smirks. "But I don't need anyone's help to become great!" He drives his arms upward and punches the air, sending a chunk of earth straight to Mosquito. "Eat dirt!"
Mosquito counters by slamming his face into the rock just as it reaches him. When the debris clears, he's rubbing his nose but otherwise looks unruffled. He meets Black Star's eyes, a brewing rage growing on his face. "Fine, you fool. You've made your choice. And when you regret it, remember this day."
"Shut up!" Black Star launches another piece of earth at Mosquito but the old man dodges it easily and flies off.
Black Star picks at his dinner morosely, turning his carrot-potatoes into mush.
After his encounter with Mosquito, he had picked new flowers for Tsubaki and headed back to town. Tsubaki had looked a little more than surprised when she showed up at her dojo, donned in her full martial attire, but she had taken the flowers with a smile. But any sense of having atoned somewhat for his mistakes had been dashed by his meeting with Mosquito. He'd retreated into the underground with Shadow until sunset, determinedly ignoring the thoughts in his head by carving out new tunnels for Shadow to lounge in.
Now that he was above ground, all the thoughts Black Star had banished to the back of his mind presented themselves front and center. He doesn't register when the conversation at the table falls quiet nor hear his name being called until he feels a sharp prod in his shoulder. He looks up. "What?"
"You haven't touched your food at all," Nygus comments, raising an eyebrow. She reaches over to touch his forehead. "Are you feeling sick?"
He shrugs. "Just not hungry."
"I don't think there's been a time that you've never not been hungry," Sid snorts. "What's bothering you, kid?"
Black Star puts down his spoon. "What's a spirit chain?"
"I told you that a year ago, didn't I?" Nygus says, her azure eyes meeting his steadily.
"All you said was that it bonded me with Shadow," he persists. "But Tsubaki says it means more than that and I want to know what it means."
Nygus exchanges a deep look with Sid. Then she sighs. "I suppose Tsubaki hadn't told you, someone else would have let something slip." She leans back in her chair, pulling out her dagger and twirling it idly like she always did when she become lost in her thoughts. "Seeing as spirit chains haven't existed since the arrival of the Avatar, most of the accounts about them has been lost. But over the years and with my travels, I've managed to cobble together their general history," she begins.
"Every generation, there were four people, one from each nation, who formed spirit chains with the animals that were the original benders of their element. For the water tribes, it seems the polar lion was the moon spirit's own personal creation. And so a means of keeping our world and the spirit world in balance while the two worlds were still merged together was born."
She looks at Black Star. "Among other things, they were able to commune with even the most difficult of spirits, granted visions of the future and harnessed their own spiritual energy far better than anyone else, using it to keep the peace between the worlds. It was a system that worked until an ancient spirit of chaos and darkness threatened to destroy the world and the Avatar was created to defeat it. With the Avatar's birth, our world and the spirit world were made separate and spirit chains slowly became obsolete, with the last one on record over seven hundred years ago."
Nygus rests her dagger on her palm. "Until you and Maka, that is."
Black Star's quiet, a million thoughts attempting to pull his mind in separate directions. Finally, he speaks. "While this is interesting and all, I still don't see what that's a bad thing. Why can't I-Shadow and I- learn to use our abilities in the same way and put our power to use?"
Her dagger slips from her hand and clatters onto the table; clearly his response isn't what Nygus expected. "That is a terrible idea and surely you can see why," she says.
"No, I don't!" he replies with a little too much force. "If I can show the world how our strength can help, then why wouldn't it be a good thing?"
She shakes her head. "No, Black Star, it's not. At the moment, it's not even sure that the Avatar is a good thing. Although less powerful, spirit chains are not welcome."
He tries and fails to keep the frustration out of his voice. "But why?"
Sid is the one to answer him. "Why, Black Star, why do you think that spirit chains would even exist with the Avatar still around?"
"I-" That stymies Black Star's exasperation temporarily. "I don't know. Why?"
"I have no clue." Sid shrugs. He tugs on one of his braids. "But I'll tell you what the world believes because, in this situation, that's what matters," he says. "People think that what Avatar Asura tried to do fourteen years ago catalyzed the spirit chains' re-emergence, that maybe he even calculated it as a fall back plan if he failed. They might even suspect that you're working with the Order now."
Black Star has to fight to keep his hands from balling into fists. "That's ridiculous. I was a baby when Asura was around."
Sid sighs, suddenly looking anywhere but at Black Star. "When it comes to Asura, the world is extremely paranoid of anything related to him. I've seen it firsthand. It's why I left the army." He studies his hands without interest. "And you have a possible double connection to him. It's not the kind of man I am to judge people based on their predecessors but that's the way things stand."
"Then why hasn't anything been done about Maka and me?" Black Star asks. "If they're that afraid of us."
Sid and Nygus exchange dark looks. "It's probably been considered but seeing as you're two young teenagers, it would be a stretch, even with the world's current attitude," Sid replies. "So as long as you don't prove yourself a threat, there's nothing to worry about." Nygus adds, "And more importantly, no one wants the wrong people paying too much attention to you, what with the Order of Asura still running on its last legs." Her lips press into a thin line and she stretches out to touch his hand. "We just want you to be safe."
Mosquito's bulbous nose flashes in Black Star's mind and his throat closes up.
Nygus rises from the table and into the kitchen. "Well, I think that's enough of that talk." Sid follows her lead, effectively closing the conversation.
Black Star looks down at his plate and back up again. "I'm going out for a while," he calls. "I'll be back soon." He lopes through the back door before Nygus or Sid can protest.
From where he balances on two hands on the mountain, the only thing above Black Star is the sky. The stars glitter against the velvet darkness of the night sky, winking at him as if they know secrets no one will ever find out. He stares at them for a couple moments before dropping out of his handstand and stretching out on the ground. His breaths come out in foggy puffs, the body heat from Shadow curling around him keeping him warm.
He gazes at the night sky, fighting against the temptation of reliving today and failing spectacularly. The offer Mosquito had made him didn't interest him in the slightest. Nor did it bother him what he said about his father. What did worry him was the threat he'd made before he escaped. But as long as he "didn't prove to be a threat" then he was fine, right?
Sid and Nygus meant well, he knew that, but at the same time, their words had left him feeling as boxed in as Mosquito's had. All of them had spoken like the marks he wore decided his fate. That the only way he could live was by following his father's footsteps or by keeping his dreams unfilled.
Exhaling loudly, he reaches out and lies his palm flat against the earth, feeling everything from the crawling movements of the scorpion-spiders fifty feet away to Shadow's kin deep within the mountain. The frustration that's been piling up is dulled by the crisp air and serene silence.
Out here, he feels free.
The vibrations of someone approaching makes his hand snap up. He's on his feet and in a defensive position in a matter of seconds. "Who's there?" he calls out.
A figure rounds the corner. "It's just me!"
Black Star lowers his hands. "Tsubaki?"
"That would be my name." She steps forward, illuminated by the moonlight.
"What are you doing here?"
"Despite her growth stunt, Shadow still is a fifteen foot badgermole," Tsubaki replies, sitting next to Shadow. She proffers a few apples to the badgermole. "I saw her and then you so I followed." She hesitates. "Did you want to be alone?"
"Nah, I think my head's clear enough now," he answers, taking a seat next to her. The crunch of Shadow chewing fills the silence that falls between them.
Tsubaki is the one to speak first. "Talked with Nygus and Sid, didn't you?"
"They were always open about my family," he blurts out. "Even if they thought it was dangerous information, they shouldn't have kept me in the dark. I have the right to know what a spirit chain actually means."
"With hard work, you can escape your past." Tsubaki strokes Shadow's tail. "It's impossible to outrun your present and future."
He frowns. "What do you mean by that?"
"Anyone who has known you for more than five minutes knows that you're too stubborn to make the same mistakes your family did." Tsubaki turns to faces him. "But they'd also know how eager you are to prove yourself and you might make new and bigger mistakes, especially if you found out what you're capable of."
"Oh." He lapses into silence.
"That doesn't mean you're not allowed to try." She touches his hand. "You just have to be more careful."
Something in his chest eases. "Thanks, Tsubaki."
"Don't mention it," she says easily. "It's hard to see the light when you're stuck in the darkness." She points to the sky. "But that's why you have the stars, right?"
He looks to the sky and then back to Tsubaki. "Right."
Eruka wrings her hands nervously. Standing at the base of the Warrior of a Thousand Swords' mountain strikes at the frog part of her nature and makes her want to ribbet in fear.
"For Arachne's sake, get some composure."
She jumps at Mosquito's voice, looking upward. He hovers over, a buzzing noise coming from his mouth that sounds like his namesake. "Don't scare me like that!"
He ignores her. "Comport yourself as a proper servant of Medusa."
"An unwilling servant," she mutters. She smoothes her skirt. "I take it you weren't successful."
"I hardly expected to be," Mosquito answers, unruffled. His top hat lands on the ground and he hops off. "The main objective was to find the earth chain and that's what I did." He says, "Now, it is your job to report back to Medusa. Tell her we know where all but the fire chain is and that we have a means of finding him once the Avatar masters all four elements." He turns and continues in his imperious tone. "Free will keep an eye on the girl, Gopher will stay with the boy and Giriko and I will keep an eye on the Avatar. Hopefully, when Asura is freed, all will be in place for his glorious return to this world."
"On it." Eruka mumbles under her breath, a spirit parrot-toad appearing in her hands. She waits until Mosquito has flown away to add, "Pompous old bug."