10,203 A.A.-Seven weeks until the Summer Solstice
The small inn of the modestly prosperous town of Loew was by no means like the hotels of Ba Sing Se but it had its charms. Such as not being constantly being rocked by waves.
Black Star's stomach turns just thinking back to the two weeks he spent on the boat traveling up the Earth Kingdom's coast. Shadow hadn't liked it either, restless and constantly sniffing for the fresh smell of earth. But as Sid had explained to Black Star and Tsubaki (who had volunteered to help with this latest trading expedition of Sid's), traveling by sea was a lot faster than traveling over land. It had been a kindness for Spirit to offer them, as kin of Nygus, a place on his boat as he headed to the North Pole with Maka and his council.
And with the special arrangements offered that allowed Shadow to come along, the chance to finally leave town for a while had made the offer all but impossible to turn down.
He hoists himself from the bed and begins to pack his bags. Seeing Maka again for the first time in three years was something he had looked forward to but she had changed in the nearly three years since they last saw each other, closed off and not too interested in talking about them being spirit chains.
Which wasn't too surprising, Tsubaki had reminded him when he had mentioned it to her, seeing as the night she became a chain had also been the night her mother left.
He had made sure to avoid the subject after that and in the week they had spent together, she had seemed to cheer up. The animal she had bonded with, a saber toothed polar lion called Blair, had warmed up nicely with Shadow, preferring to spend her time below deck with the badgermole when she wasn't by Maka's side. It had helped with Shadow's nerves and stopped her from rampaging when the ocean got rough.
There's a rap on the door. "Get a move on, Black Star!" Sid calls. "I told Nygus in my last letter we'd be home in two weeks and I'm not the kind of man to go back on my word."
"Coming!" Hastily, Black Star shoves the rest of his things into his bag. When he leaves his room, Sid is no longer outside his door. He finds him waiting outside in front of the inn with Tsubaki, who is pulling her hair into a ponytail.
She greets him with a smile. "Seems like someone slept in."
"A mighty earthbender such as me needs all the rest I can get."
"Or you could go to bed instead of running around with Shadow the whole night." Sid looks up from the map he was studying. "The forest surrounding Loew is pretty thick but this path here is wide enough for Shadow to navigate." He gestures toward the trail a ways from the inn. "If we move fast enough, we should make it to the next town before lunch."
They've been walking in the forest for hours when Tsubaki is the one who finally speaks up. She examines the map, which she now holds. "Are you sure that map is accurate, Sid?"
"I just bought it yesterday," Sid replies. "Fresh from the mapmakers in Ba Sing Se."
Tsubaki frowns. "Either this map is wrong..." She looks up, staring at the path they walk on. "Or the trail is changing."
Her words prompt Black Star to scan the area around him with his bending. "There's no one else here but us."
"Why don't we take a break?" Sid suggests. He looks at Shadow, loaded with all the merchandise Sid had bought. "It's time for lunch anyways and Shadow needs a rest from carrying all that."
Black Star and Tsubaki unload Shadow while Sid takes out the leftover food Nygus packed for them. Before he sits down to eat, he takes out a canteen of water for Shadow, stroking her head as she drinks. She wasn't suited to traveling above ground for long periods of time yet she had carried all of their baggage without a single complaint.
He joins Tsubaki and Sid once Shadow has had her fill. They eat in silence before something dawns on him. He turns to Tsubaki. "This is the furthest you've been away from home."
She laughs. "You realize that now?" Her expression turns contemplative. "It took a lot of convincing on my parents' part. They were okay when I would go to the South Pole with you and Nygus because that's fairly close." The light in her expression dims. "But they were extremely reluctant to let me go so close to where they lost my brother." She hugs her knees to her chest. "I told them they had to stop being afraid and trust me not to repeat my brother's mistakes." Her eyes grow distant. "I'm not going to be a better fighter by staying close to home."
"You're the only person who has ever beaten me," Black Star offers helpfully. "That already makes you pretty great."
Tsubaki gives Black Star an amused smile. "You were twelve when I beat you, nowhere near where you are today."
"Not that far off though," he counters.
The ground behind them explodes as Tsubaki opens her mouth to answer.
Black Star moves reflexively, rolling with the shockwave of the blast to propel himself upright and bend a wall of earth over them. He plants his feet and tenses for the next attack but it doesn't come. Through the dust cloud the explosion kicked up, he sees the outline of Tsubaki pulling out her chain scythes while Sid draws his dagger from its sheath.
"You two all right?" Sid calls.
"Yes," Black Star and Tsubaki answer in unison.
Cautiously, Sid peeks out from behind the wall. "I can't see anything. What do you see, Black Star?"
He presses his hand against the ground and senses a massive being under the ground. Somehow it doesn't feel alive. In front of it walk two people. "Enemies both above and below." His eyebrows furrow. The vibrations given off by one of the people is strange, nothing like he's ever felt before. "A couple of them aren't human."
"Human is such an arbitrary definition," a rough voice calls from behind the wall. "So many ways you can label it."
A sulky voice joins in. "This was supposed to be my fight."
"Shut up, weasel," the other voice growls. "Can't you see I was just getting into it?"
"You're talking too loud. It's hurting my ears," the voice grumbles. "And my name is Gopher."
There's the sound of a fist hitting skin. "You don't know when to shut your hole, do you?"
Tsubaki and Black Star exchange a tense look. He touches the earth again, trying to get a better sense of what kind the gigantic being they're facing is but to his surprise, the vibrations it was giving off vanished.
"Who are you?" Sid calls out, tightening his grip on the dagger. "We have no quarrel with you."
"I don't know if I'd be too sure of that." The wild voice laughs. "But who we are makes no difference to you."
"But I thought we were supposed to tell them we were from the Order of Asura," Gopher says with a pained grunt.
Black Star's heart plummets to his stomach.
Sid moves rapidly, shoving his dagger back in its sheath and grabbing Black Star and Tsubaki. He pushes them toward Shadow. "You need to get out of here."
From underneath them, the ground rumbles again as it starts to split open.
"Shadow, dive!" Black Star jerks his hands to the side, throwing them out of the way before a fissure breaks open the earth they were standing on. He and Sid land hard on their sides but Tsubaki manages to land on her feet. He hears the clink of scythes as he struggles back to his feet. "What is that thing?" Tsubaki exclaims.
In front of the three stands the creature. It looks to be crafted from earthen bricks, at least twenty feet tall. Yet when Black Star tries to bend the bricks, nothing happens. Its skull-like face is blank, watching his fruitless attempts calmly.
"Golems," Sid says flatly. He throws a strained look around them. "He's here."
"Who's here?" Tsubaki asks tersely. "Have you seen these before?"
"There was a weapons welder named Giriko sixteen years ago," Sid says, staring at the golem. "He had a special affinity for the earth. Everything he made felt like it held a tiny spark of life and it's what made him the one of the best weapon makers." His voice hardened. "But when Asura attacked, he pledged himself to him and joined Stein's army under his orders. During the battle that sealed away Asura, he set loose a battalion of those golems on his regiment. It nearly turned the battle in Asura's favor."
"Just barely a week ago, someone else looked at me with that same face," Giriko says casually, appearing on the top of the head of his creation. "People just seem unable to get over that."
"You're supposed to be dead," Sid hisses.
"Sorry to disappoint you," Giriko grins. "But enough chat." He leaps from the golem as it lurches forward.
"No!" Sid drags back Black Star, who is preparing to send a chunk of earth the golem's way. "You're not fighting!"
"Are you really going to make this so easy for me, Sid?" Giriko drawls, still standing where he landed. He doesn't move as Sid drags a struggling Black Star out of sight, Tsubaki following. "I'm not having any fun at all!"
"There's no way we're getting out of here without a fight!" Black Star exclaims as they come to a halt.
"Yes, there is," Sid says grimly.
At that moment, Shadow pops her head out of the ground, growling anxiously. Tsubaki keeps her eyes on the slowly approaching golem but spares a glance at Shadow. "Sid, there's no way that Shadow can carry all three of us."
"I know that," Sid replies.
"No way!" A small crack appears in the earth from how forcefully Black Star shouts. "That's not happening."
"It is," Sid says. "Because if the Order of Asura gets their hands on you, that is the beginning of the end of this world."
A flashback to nearly two years ago plays in Black Star's mind. If he had acted differently on that day, told Sid and Nygus about it, this could have been avoided. His hands shake before clenching them into fists. "You can't make me leave."
Sid looks to Tsubaki. "Please."
Her eyes widen and she looks from Sid to Black Star, conflicting emotions warring on her face.
"You'd better not, Tsubaki," Black Star warns.
She bites her lip, continuing to wear a torn expression. Then, she looks at Sid. "I'm sorry." She lunges toward Black*Star, striking him powerfully on the head. He feels jabs elsewhere on his body, locking his limbs in place.
As he sinks into darkness, he hears Tsubaki speak. "I'm so sorry."
His body comes back to him in pieces. An eyelid flutters while a finger twitches, his head pounding with an unforgiving tenacity. His lips part and expel the breath from his lungs. The last thing that returns to Black Star is the weight of his existence, sitting squarely on his heart.
He pulls back from the darkness with a groan. He tries to speak but his words come out in a jumbled mess.
"Don't fight it." Tsubaki's voice sounds like it's traveled miles to reach his ears. "Just breathe."
He struggles for a minute before listening, feeling the quiet rise and fall of his chest. By degrees, he regains control of his limbs. He opens his eyes.
Tsubaki and Shadow look down on him anxiously. "How are you feeling?"
Bits and pieces of memories drop down on Black Star. "I..." he trails off as a particularly vivid image flashes across his mind. "You knocked me out." He sits up suddenly. "Sid!"
Tsubaki tries to calm him. "He knew what he was doing Black Star. If he hadn't done what he did, then we'd probably all be captured by now."
"And what do you think they'll do to Sid?" he snaps. "They have no use for him. They wanted me, not him." Mosquito's words echo in his mind. You've made your choice. And when you regret it, remember this day. He leaps to his feet. "I should have said something, I should have told them."
Tsubaki frowns. "What are you talking about?"
"Two year ago, one of them came." He strides around the small clearing like a caged animal. "He asked me to join them but I refused."
"And you told no one?"
"They never returned and I knew I could handle it if they did." He looks down at the tattoos encircling his wrists. "But once again, people chose for me."
"People that care about you," Tsubaki says angrily. "And what do you think you're going to do now? Throw away Sid's sacrifice?"
"Are you suggesting we just go back home like nothing happened?"
Tsubaki clenches her jaw, drawing herself to her full height. Then she slumps her shoulders. She repeats her question quietly, "What do you think you're going to do now?"
"I don't know." He wants to punch something; he has never felt helpless before. "I don't know."
Gopher chews on his lip as he treks through the tunnel the earth chain's badgermole escaped in. His jaw is still sore from where Giriko struck him. His palms tingle with anger-he'd longed to hit Giriko back but that would have given the chance for their objective to escape.
And that was not what Noah would have wanted. At the thought of his former master, his eyes fill with tears. Gopher wipes his eyes furiously. Crying wasn't going to be Noah back. Revenge was the only way to avenge his name.
He presses on, moving faster when he sees light coming from the end of the tunnel. He pauses when he reaches it. His supersensitive hearing (a gift from Noah) picks up on raised voices about a quarter mile away. He listens hard and then he grins, waiting until the voices fade away.
Plucking a badly burned book from his pocket, he flips through it. If there's one good thing about Noah's fate, it's that the spirit didn't see how destroyed his precious book of spirit magic had become. Most of the spells that had survived in the Book of Eibon from Asura's doomed battle were trivial. But there were a few that were exceedingly useful. He snaps the book shut after murmuring a few words and moves quickly, climbing onto a tree and jumping lithely. With his hearing, he positions himself in Black Star's path.
He waits until he and his companion are right above him before he calls out. "You."
The chain's head snaps up. "Who's there? Where are you?"
"I'm right here," Gopher says smugly, watching as Black Star's eyes pass over him.
"It's an undetection spell," the chain's companion says. "You won't be able to see or sense him until he lifts it."
"Very good," Gopher approves. "Tsubaki, right? Of the Nakatsukasa clan?" he asks.
"Yes," she answers, clearly surprised. "How did you know that?"
"The Order of Asura has spies planted everywhere," Gopher answers. "But the resemblance to your brother is too striking to miss."
"Masamune also had a sensitivity to the spirit world and other such things." He sniffs. "A shame he was too greedy." He watches the pain twist on the Tsubaki's face. Beside him, Black Star jabs a finger in his direction and his badgermole growls. "Don't talk about him to her, you scum!"
"Wouldn't that have made her brother scum as well?" Gopher laughs as he dodges the rock Black Star lobs at him.
Tsubaki grabs his wrist, staying him. "It's fine. You're only egging him on."
"You're right." Black*Star narrows his eyes. "Let's go."
"Don't you want to know where Sid is being taken?" Gopher calls.
The earth chain freezes in his tracks. "And why would you tell us that?"
"It's a trap," Gopher says honestly. "You and I both know you won't believe anything else I say. But this is your one and only chance to rescue Sid."
"I don't need help from a coward like you to find Sid," he snarls.
"Giriko can use spirit magic," Gopher says. "How else do you think he can make those golems of his? Asura changed him when he crossed over." He sniffs. "Of course, it's very limited what he can do, seeing as his spiritual abilities were chiefly nonexistent, but it's enough for him to use one of my undetection spells." He finishes, "If you don't take this opportunity, you will never find Sid. And what will you tell Nygus then?"
Black Star's hands ball into fists and he falls silent for minutes.
"Fine." He says the word with a deadly calm and turns around. "But the moment I find Sid, I'm coming for you and everyone else."
"Duly noted." Gopher raises the undetection spell from himself. "If you try to lay a finger on me before that, I will leave and the deal's off," he warns.
"That won't happen," Tsubaki promises.
The compressed anger on Black*Star's face slackens. "I-"
"If you go, I go," Tsubaki replies simply. "You won't change my mind."
Black*Star closes his mouth. He looks at Gopher. "Lead the way."