10,202 A.A.-Summer Solstice
It's always the last step that does Soul in. He's always so focused on keeping his balance in the middle of the stairs that when he nearly reaches the bottom, his relief makes him unguarded. Couple today being the day it is and his mind is definitely on other things.
And that is why he lies on the floor in an inelegant heap, Wes doubling over in laughter instead of helping him up.
Soul lifts his head. "I could have died, you know."
"I always envisioned a more noble death for you." He finally sobers and holds out his hand. "Or less clumsy, at least. Happy fifteenth birthday, by the way."
"What I'm getting out of this conversation is that you've pictured my death," Soul replies, taking his hand. He picks up his pack and stands, edging around Wes. "And I've got to say, I don't think I trust you anymore."
"Would you say that if I told Mom and Dad I haven't seen you at all this morning?" Wes says slyly.
"And who said I wanted to go out?"
Wes grins, blue eyes bright. "I'm your brother, Soul. You read like an open book to me. And you never like to be around here on your birthday anymore."
The quiet melancholy hidden in Wes's voice pricks at him but he shoves his guilt away, the ache in his chest and tingling in his feet making him eager to be gone. "I'll be back for dinner," he promises. He pauses before he leaves. "Wes?"
Soul marches back and forth on the ice cliffs adjacent to the city, hands clenching and unclenching. He tries not to think about it by taking several deep breaths, reciting the history of the water tribes and burying his hands in the snow until he can't feel them but it's no use. He looks at the ocean, his heart thumping painfully. There is something burning in his chest, familiar and foreign all at once and it yanks on his being like a rope in an absurd game of tug and war.
If he told anyone, they'd say he was out of his mind and lock him away. Which may not be a bad thing he considers, feet subconsciously guiding him closer and closer to the edge of the cliff. The temptation to throw himself into the icy water below is almost too enticing.
He forces his legs to buckle and he falls kneefirst in the snow, feet still reflexively marching to the ocean. Soul runs his hands through his hair. This feeling isn't something he's even close to understanding. Two years ago, he had been fine, or at least, he hadn't been dangling off the cliff to madness like he was now. Then he had woken up on his thirteenth birthday to visions of pitch black blood running down his walls and a plaintive cry that had burrowed its way into his chest and never left.
The best way Soul could classify it as was a pull but it was much more than that. Most days, he managed. His visions of perfect worlds being carved away by laughing demons to reveal they were nothing but rivers of ebony blood stayed in the deep abyss of his dreams and the ever-present pull was usually weak enough to be ignored.
All of that had changed again with his last birthday. His dreams had began to leak into his waking world and he'd spent the whole day agonizing over what was real and what was fake, fighting desperately at the same time against the pull he felt. The visions and near overwhelming urge tugging at his feet had refused to fade until sunset fell. Then it had been back to barely keeping it together for the rest of the year.
This birthday, his fifteenth, he had planned ahead, deciding to isolate himself from everyone and everything so they wouldn't see him grappling with that invisible pull since keeping his tenuous hold on sanity was hard enough without an audience. He glances at the sun climbing in the sky. If he could just stay like this till the end of the day, he'd be safe for another year.
Though he wonders just how many birthdays he can stand this.
When the sun is at its peak, the tugging seems to die down, as if whatever is on the other hand has gotten tired. Soul takes advantage of it and sits on a rock a safe distance from the cliff's edge, pulling out the lunch he packed. He munches on his octopus-eel quietly, enjoying the wind's low tune as it sweeps through the cliffs and out to the sea. When he finishes, he stares out at the view.
The day is bright and clear, with a crisp kind of cold that bites at his exposed face. The ocean reflects off the sunlight with bright rays, making the water look like moving glass. Music and delighted laughter drift from the city below as the summer solstice festival gets into full swing.
His shoulders slump and he drops his hand in his hands. He's sure that his parents and Wes are at the festival right now, not enjoying themselves as much as they should be because he's not there. When he comes home in the evening, he's going to have to invent a reason as to why he didn't go. His father will shake his head, his mother will wear a disappointed smile and Wes will defend him and pretend like things are perfectly normal. And he will go to bed, wishing he could be a better son and brother.
He lifts his head and stares at the snow by his feet. But he can't think about that right now or his cracking mental stability might break into unsalvageable pieces. He watches the snow, drifting in circles around him.
At first, it moves slowly at first, guided by the wind, but steadily the snow spins around him faster and faster, like a whirlpool. In the back of his mind, Soul can hear a voice telling him this isn't good and he should go now but the swirling snowpool mesmerizes him. It's when it turns a shade of pure black and laps at his feet that he begins to panic.
"No." He yanks himself but the blood holds onto his feet firmly. Quickly, he moves down to untie his shoes but thin whips of blood wrap around his fingers. The blood is hot against his skin and it bubbles over his hands and feet greedily, trying to pull him down.
Letting out a cry, Soul fights wildly against the blood clinging to his body. However, the more he struggles, the faster he sinks into the ground. It's only a hallucination, he thinks, panicking as he is pulled down to his chest. You can break it. The blood forcing itself into his mouth, however, feels very real. He spits it out and stares up at the sky, trying in vain to keep his head above the surface.
He sucks in a breath as he is pulled under.
In the murky darkness, every other sound is silenced but the frantic beating of his heart. Soul clamps his mouth against the instinct to breathe, feeling the blood press eagerly against his lips and nostrils.
A faint vibration from something else flailing tells him he is not alone. He tries to move toward it but he can hardly twist his head in this sea of blood. The tremor reaches his fingertips and moves up to his palms, building into a second heartbeat.
It is the complement to the pull that yanks him down, a push of something, and Soul forces his hands to curl around it just as the pressure in his lungs causes him to inhale black blood. As he begins to drown, the heartbeat warms his hands like a spark.
It gets hotter and hotter until he can't stand it anymore and he unfurls his hands. A spurt of flame flies from Soul's palms and into the darkness, a bright orange that deepens to a burning red. The fire surrounds him in an orb of flame. Soul doesn't understand nor does he care. He pushes the flame upward, which amazingly bends to his will, and kicks upward and holds tight to the flame.
His head breaks the surface and Soul crawls forward, the fire soaring into the sky and extinguishing itself with a crackle. He lies on his back, gasping for air as reality returns to him. When the world stops spinning, he sits up and looks around.
He smiles grimly to himself. There are signs of him thrashing in the snow but none of the remnants of pool of blood he was drowning. Like he thought, just a hallucination. Soul clasps his hands together. Yet that flame had felt so real. Sighing, he flicks open his hands.
A tiny flame lays cradled in his hands, pulsing like a tiny heartbeat.
Soul stares at the bright fire dancing on his palms with wide eyes. He claps his hands together, smothering the fire. Then he opens them again and the fire waves up at him. He closes his hands and does it again. And again.
"Impossible," he tells the fire.
"And yet here you are."
Soul lets out a yelp and scrambles to his feet, turning around. Not ten feet from where he is stands a person he had only ever seen in the papers. His glasses flash, the scars from his exploits fifteen years ago vivid against his skin.
"Commander Stein," he whispers.
"That was a title I never agreed to," the grey-haired man replies in a monotone voice. "I much prefer doctor." A brief smile twists his face. "Science was my first love and I do enjoy experimenting on things." He adjusts his glasses. "Although I haven't been able to much of that for a while now."
"I'm sorry?" Soul says, tucking his hands behind his back. It's futile to hope that Stein didn't see the fire in his hands considering the knowing look on his face but perhaps if he wills it hard enough, Stein will say nothing.
"Don't be, much more interesting things have been happening lately." Stein moves forward and takes a seat on the snow. Sunlight glints off his glasses. "And you're one of them."
He gestures to the rock Soul was sitting on. "Have a seat, Soul."
Fresh shock keeps Soul from protesting and he sits, eyeing Stein. "How do you know my name?"
"I know many things, including your name," Stein replies. "Would you like to know a few of them?"
"I-sure," Soul says, nonplussed.
"Well, I suppose we should start before that," Stein says thoughtfully. "What do you know about me, Soul?"
"Um." Soul thinks for a moment. "You were the one who organized the four nations' troops against Asura."
"Exactly fifteen years ago, in fact," Stein says, nodding. "They're expecting me at festival down below, going to give me another plaque for the home I never visit." He sniffs. "I'd rather a lab and a promise to never make me give another speech again, to be honest. Go on."
"You, along with the person that they called Lord Death, were the ones that sealed away Avatar Asura," Soul answers awkwardly. He has not the slightest clue where Stein is leading with this. "And now you're in charge of hunting down the rest of Asura's followers." He pauses. "And uh, that's all I really know."
"Fairly accurate, although I'd call me sealing away Asura a stretch," Stein says, looking at Soul. "I was merely the one that got Asura in the place where he needed to be. Lord Death was the one who sacrificed himself to open the portal and summon the spirits that sealed Asura away. I almost got dragged in myself." He points to his face, to his scars. "That's how I got these."
They're both quiet, Soul struggling for something to say.
Stein speaks again. "When the portal opened that day, I saw many things. Some that already happened, some that are happening and some that have yet to occur. And there's one thing that I'm working on keeping from ever happening."
Soul finally decides on the truth. "I'm not sure if I understand why you're telling me this," he says.
"You're not supposed to," Stein replies, smirking briefly. "And if I can help it, this will have nothing to do with you but Asura is a tricky enemy with many cards up his sleeve."
"Asura?" Soul repeats blankly. "But he's gone."
"A lion-serpent will still thrash around for a few minutes after its head has been cut off," Stein answers. "Asura is the same way."
"And this connects to me, how?" Soul insists. He thinks to the nightmare his life has become, heart racing.
"Whatever you're experiencing doesn't connect you to anything yet," Stein says. "Think of it as a prelude for something yet to come. And that's all I will say on the matter."
Soul sighs. "I think I'm more confused than I was before."
"Good." A smile flashes across Stein's face before disappearing. "I'm telling you all this as a warning, Soul. Though it may end up backfiring on me." He looks at Soul. "I will say this. If you want to live a normal life, forget what you just discovered today, pay no mind to anything out of the ordinary you see and find happiness in your ignorance."
An icy dread runs up Soul's back. When he had held the small flame in his hands, he had felt a peace he hadn't felt for two years. He's not sure if he's willing to give that up. He swallows hard. "And if I can't?"
Stein looks out to the ocean. "Misery loves company. Find some friends."
"He's never been this late before," Marie murmurs, breaking the silence in the Northern Water tribe's temple. "Something went wrong. He's not coming."
"We have to be patient." Stein glances at the statue of the messenger spirit, its jeweled eye still unlit. "A few more minutes."
"You know I'm not complaining," she says with a sigh. "I just don't like having this eye exposed for too long."
"Medically speaking, you should let it breathe in the sun everyday," Stein replies. "Otherwise your vision will begin to suffer."
"I'd rather that over the chance of anyone seeing me," Marie says shortly.
"Your decision." Stein shrugs. "I personally don't see the problem."
"I suppose you wouldn't," Marie says after a moment. "But that's why I don't mind being like this with you." She changes the subject before he can answer. "So you talked to that boy today? Soul?"
"Is he one of them?"
"He certainly is." Despite his words, Stein begins to feel impatient. Marie was right-their messenger, for all their flaws, was not a tardy spirit. "I also checked in with his family. The way they described his behavior certainly fits the consequences of an unfulfilled chain."
Marie shifts on her feet, excitement creeping into her voice. "Then that's it, we've found all of them! Then her enthusiasm dies down. "Did you tell him?"
"Certainly not. The public announcement the World Council insisted on for the water and earth chains was not a smart move."
"You know as well as I do how monitored they are after everything that has happened, there's nothing they can keep hidden. We were lucky they only announced that the chains existed and nothing else," Marie points out. "But Soul's situation is different. You've seen what he goes through. You should at least tell him, spare him the confusion at least."
"Any information publicly given to the enemy is a mistake," Stein answers. "And trust me when I say what Soul endures is better than him knowing the truth."
Marie crosses her arms. "So what did you tell him?"
He doesn't have to look at Marie to know she is frowning. "I just don't understand why we can't be straightforward with them, keep them safe. Explain to me that."
Stein holds up a finger. "One, we don't even know if they figure into Asura's revival. The most we have right now is an educated guess based on timing and some old legends. Furthermore, with the chains being comprised of a son from a fugitive family, the daughter of a prominent Southern water tribe chief, the last of the Star clan and finally the Avatar himself, we can't simply scoop them out of their lives and into hiding. We would be practically begging the Order to come find us."
"Three," he continues. "Our resources are stretched to the limit. That's why we had to entrust the Star clan's child to Sid. Keeping an eye on the chains is the most we can manage. And finally, if they really turn out to be part of Asura's plan, having them together would be the last thing we want." He gives Marie a look. "Despite the reports we give to the World Council, you know that we're no closer to finding the rest of the Order of Asura than we were fifteen years ago."
"You've made your point," Marie grumbles. "I still don't like it."
It's quiet and then she speaks again. "What even makes you suspect the chains have something to do with Asura?"
"The three chains bonded two years ago, right before they left childhood just like spirit chains of old," Stein replies. "Thirteen years before that, Asura was sealed away. Maybe it just is a coincidence in timing and mere guesswork on my part but it wouldn't leave my mind."
"And there's this spirit," she says crossly, motioning to the statue in front of them. "Along with that seer spirit. I hope he has the information you want."
She begins to say something else but freezes mid-sentence. Her exposed eye, the one she calls cursed, glows golden like the jewel eyes of the statue in front of them.
"You're late again, you fool!" the voice issuing from Marie is deeper, more grating, more demanding.
Stein's teeth clicking together are the only outward sign of his annoyance. "You use that word but I don't think you know what it means, Excalibur."
"Fool!" Marie cries again, pacing around the temple agitatedly. "I am the oldest messenger spirit in existence, I know everything!"
Stein doesn't take the bait but instead gets down to business. "It's been a year. What news from Azusa?"
His fingers twitch. "And here I thought you knew everything."
"Fool, I was just sifting through my immense trove of knowledge." Marie gesticulates wildly, as if she was holding a long, thin object. "The sharp-eyed seer says Asura still wastes away in his cell."
"Good, what else?" Stein asks.
"Whispers of an insurrection from the Gorgon spirits. It appears you were correct in suspecting them and she fears that the efforts you and she took earlier will prove fruitless." Marie sniffs. "While she's partly to blame for this, she worries far too much and overuses her sight."
The relief he'd allowed himself to feel fades away. "How is she to blame?"
"Must I explain everything?" Marie wheels around. "When she saw three of the four chains come into being, she remembered something. As you should know, her duties as a seer spirit compel her to answer all questions in her power. A year after Asura was banished, the older Gorgon sister came to her and asked if she saw any children with uncommon spiritual potential. She answered."
He closes his eyes. "She gave their names."
"You do know a few things," Excalibur responds. "However, she became suspicious and didn't tell her where they were and paid quite dearly for it."
"That's the one silver lining out of all of this," Stein sighs. "Other than that, why does she think the Gorgon sisters are involved?"
"It appears they've been visiting the Fog of Lost Souls many times in the past few years," Excalibur boomed. "Seeing as there's better places to vacation in the spirit world-the wilds are one of my favorite places by the by-she found it suspicious. Furthermore, she saw the Gorgons' spirit allies here on earth and the remaining human followers of Asura cavorting with each other. I hope I don't have to connect the dots for you there," he finishes.
Stein frowns, fingers itching to cut into something. "You don't."
"She also says she's working on a back-up plan now."
His head snaps up. "What plan?"
"Rounding up some of the Gorgons' enemies and spirits with sound moral values. But it may take a while since some of them don't get along," Excalibur says. "I think it's far better to nip the problem early than having to leave it to humans."
"Who happened to rid the world of Asura in the first place," Stein states.
"Lord Death merely summoned the spirits, who then did all the work," Excalibur counters dismissively. "So it drained his life's energy, I've had that happen to me when I was no younger th-"
Excalibur cuts off abruptly, the golden glow in Marie's eyes disappearing.
Stein looks toward the statue, its eyes no longer lighting up the semi-darkness. "Looks like your time is up. "
Marie shudders as she comes back to herself. "I will never get used to that feeling." She pulls her eyepatch over her eye. "He wasn't too annoying, was he?" She looks at Stein, her face grows serious. "It wasn't good news."
"It's not the best," he answers.
"It wasn't a coincidence," he says. "Spirit chains reappearing after Asura. He's looking for them because he needs them for something." He takes of his glasses and rubs his eyes. "What exactly, I don't know. The only good thing is that the Order of Asura doesn't know where they are." He half-expects Marie demand they move to protect the chains now but instead she simply asks, "What do we do now?"
"The same as always. The brains of this operation are in the spirit world but their hands are in our world," Stein says. He looks at Marie. "Let's cut them off."