10,203 A.A.-Six weeks until the Summer Solstice
For the first time in the two weeks since they started meeting, Soul gets to the ice cliffs earlier than Maka. The sun creeps over the horizon as he pulls out the containers holding their breakfast-tentacle soup for him, seaweed soup for her and seal jerky for Blair. It's amusing to him that they've somehow fallen into the pattern of bringing breakfast for the other without even discussing it.
He checks that he's alone before heating the containers with his bending. He sets Maka's soup and Blair's jerky on the rock Maka claimed as her own, marveling once again at the fact that someone who has lived their entire life surrounded by the ocean absolutely despises seafood.
Taking up his own spot and waits for Blair to announce their presence by bounding up from behind and tackling him to the ground. Although he grumbled about snow ending up in places they shouldn't be each time, truthfully, he didn't mind. When he was around Maka and Blair, he temporarily forgot about the painful tug-of-war on his soul, a brief rest from the storm raging inside him.
His stomach rumbles impatiently as the time ticks away and there is still no sign of Maka or Blair. He doesn't begin to worry until the sun is high in the sky and he is still alone. Giving into his hunger, Soul eats his soup but tastes none of it, queasiness tying his stomach into knots. He replays yesterday in his mind, trying to see if he did anything that could have angered Maka. Admittedly, they couldn't make much further than an hour without bickering but it was always trivial and ended as quickly as it started.
He stares out at the sky, a cold dread replacing the anxious feeling in his stomach. Maybe it had been nothing at all. Maybe it was just Maka realizing there were better things to do with her time. Immediately, the rational side of his mind berates him for thinking such a thing; even if it was true, she wasn't the person to do something like that without an explanation. But the other part of him, the side that shuns logic, nags at him.
As a personal guest of Chief Hartok, Maka was only able to spend the few hours between breakfast and lunch with him before she had to join her father for various engagements around the city. Soul couldn't stay for much longer than that either, unless he wanted to arouse the suspicion of Wes or his parents for disappearing for too long.
And what exactly had they done during these two weeks that was worth her time? Soul ponders. They would occasionally descend into the city to pull harmless pranks but for the most part, they just talked while Maka practiced her bending. Outside of that, they hadn't ran into each other, except when his family had dined with Chief Hartok last week and the most they were able to do then were exchange waves.
He had thought there was a difference in the way she acted around him versus how she behaved with others but maybe he'd been wrong. He gives his head a shake. There was no use in running his mind in endless circles on things he couldn't change.
And yet he keeps ruminating on it until it's time for him to leave.
Soul tells himself he's not stalling for time as he packs up, wrapping the containers with slow and careful precision. He's looking behind himself one last time, making sure for the tenth time that he hasn't forgotten anything or that the flash of snow in the distance isn't actually Blair's tail, when the entire world plunges itself in darkness.
"No, not now," he says, dropping the containers. "No, no, no."
He nearly screams when the fire in his veins comes back to life. It stokes itself to unbearable heights in one fell swoop, as if an inferno ignited from within, while the pull on his being makes Soul feel like he's being raked across coals. He collapses to the ground and stuffs his hand in his mouth to keep himself from making a sound, willing himself to be silent and still. The more he moves, the sooner it will find him. And maybe if it doesn't then he might just be able to wait this vision out.
A distant roar quashes his hope. "It's not real," he whispers in vain, watching orange flame light in his path. Except it is. Maka's words the day they met had confirmed that.
The dragon charges at him with its mouth opened wide.
His nails dig in his skin. "It's not real."
The dragon swallows him whole.
It's the presence of the continued fire in his veins that wakes Soul up. It screams at him to run but thankfully he's too drained to move. He grits his teeth, feeling his body lying spread-eagle in the snow. The cold is almost as painful as the fire but it brings a sharp clarity to his mind. He sucks in deep breath in and out, keeping his eyes closed.
He had been able to see the dragon's face this time. Even as it had bared its fangs and readied to attack him, he had thought he'd seen a desperateness in its eyes, a plea for help.
Maka's words echo in his ears.
You were riding a dragon.
Was this the dragon she had been talking about? Did that mean everything he had gone through for nearly three years was not just a fabrication of his imagination? And if it was true, then what was her connection? The questions keep piling up and prod at his brain until he wants to explode. He presses his hands to his eyes until he sees stars. This is too much for one person to endure. This is too much for him to handle.
"Why are you lying on the ground?'
His eyes fly open to see Maka inches from his face. Her green eyes, vivid against the grey blue of the sky, look at him in concern. "Maka?"
"Clearly." She pulls herself back, brushing off the snow on his head. "Did you fall?"
"Yeah...I tripped over a rock." Soul pushes himself into a sitting position, the temporary respite her presence gives him shoving everything to the back of his mind. He looks at her. "What took you so long?" He cringes inwardly, aware his words are those of a sulky child.
"Sorry about that," she says apologetically. "Papa forced me go with him to the palace today." She makes a face. "I had to be Ox's companion all morning."
The relief from her words is heady. "Bet that was entertaining," he says. "I wish I could have seen that."
"I'm not sure me slowly losing my mind resisting the urge to freeze Ox in a block of ice counts as entertaining."
She smiles. "Well, you would have at least made tolerating Ox a lot easier so I wish you'd been there too."
"Glad to hear that." He glances at her. "You have to go soon?"
"Yeah." Her smile fades. "You?'
"Yeah." They lapse into silence, neither of them moving from their spots. Maka's so close to Soul that he can feel the warmth emanating from her. Behind them, he can hear Blair romping around in the snow. Out of the corner of his eye, he sees a glint of gold in Maka's hair.
He takes a closer look, seeing two gold feathers cross-linked together, tiny emeralds studded all over. "What's that in your hair?"
"Gift from my mother," Maka answers. "It got lost in my luggage and I barely found it today. I thought it was never going to turn up." She touches the pin, as if to make sure it's still there.
"Now that you bring it up, why haven't I seen your mother?" Soul asks. "I don't think I saw her at that dinner last week."
Maka deflates, shoulders hunching. "No, you wouldn't have," she says after a beat. "She left around three years ago."
"Oh." He grasps for something to say. "I'm sorry."
"It was for the best," Maka says simply. "She and my father weren't happy." She tugs on a ponytail. "She just wasn't happy with her life, in general."
The quiet resignation in her voice pains Soul. "Do you know where she went?"
She shakes her head. "From the letters she's sent, it looks like she's traveling around the world."
"Do you think she'll come back?"
"There's plenty of people she probably never wants to see again and my father is one of them. I know she loves me but I don't know if that's enough for her to come back." The last sentence escapes from her in a whisper. She straightens up, adding quickly, "That doesn't make her a bad person though. She just wanted to be free." She sighs. "I just miss her a lot."
Soul nods but says nothing, frowning. Freedom he could understand but leaving behind your child behind wasn't as easy to get. But he can feel her waiting for a response so he says the first thing that enters his mind. "Well, I'm here."
He trips over his words to correct himself. "I know I'm not your mother, I mean it's kinda physically impossible for me to be your mother but-"
Mercifully, Maka stops his rambling, touching his hand. "Thank you, Soul." She surprises him by laughing. "This is the most I've talked to anyone about this and it feels nice."
"I'm always here to listen," he says, meeting her eyes.
"I know." Maka begins to say something else but her gaze drops down to their hands, which still touching. She pulls her hand away, looking embarrassed. "I guess we'd better go," she says, turning around to look for Blair.
When they reach the city, they pause before parting.
"See you tomorrow?" Maka asks.
Soul looks up from petting Blair. The fire in his vein already begins to burn dully, as if in anticipation of her leaving. "I'll be waiting."
Gopher looks at the small box the parrot-frog spat at him. "But why?"
Eruka's voice testily answers him from the parrot-frog. "Because the Avatar is moving too quickly towards Ember Island and you're closest to him. Because someone needs to watch the hostages and everyone else is too busy getting everything into place. Anyways, out of all the chains, he's the perfect one to slow the Avatar down."
The parrot-frog's tongue flicks out, catching a fly as Eruka finishes. "Listen, if you've got a problem with how Mosquito's running things, take it up with Asura when he crosses back to this world. I'm sure he'll be more than willing to listen to you."
The parrot-frog from Eruka disappears from Gopher's sight with a small blip. Fuming, he kicks at a rock, yelping when he stubs his toe. Grumbling sulkily, he stalks back to Black*Star and Tsubaki's campsite. He had wanted to be the one to deliver Black*Star to Ember Island.
But not like this.
Shadow perks her head up as he passes by her, growling. He ignores her and snaps, "Change in plans, we're moving now."
Tsubaki sits up and stretches, yawning, while Black*Star nearly leaps out of his sleeping bag. "What do you mean change in plans?"
"Exactly what it sounds like," Gopher says petulantly. "Get going."
He doesn't leave room for protest and walks away without another word, pulling out the Book of Eibon. He rubs the spine reverently before holding it close to his chest, hoping that what he is about to do works out better than when Noah tried it.
Gopher leads the group at a breakneck pace. When he hears the roar of the Bei Fong River up ahead, he slows and takes out the Book of Eibon and a box of matches. His fingers tap the book's cover nervously.
"Why are we stopping?" Black*Star demands. "What's going on?"
Gopher takes a deep breath, hating himself for what he's about to do.
He sets the book on fire and the rest of the spirits trapped in it burst from the it like volcanic ash, little more than depraved wraiths from how long they've been caged.
Miraculously, they don't attack him like they did to Noah when he first burned the book nearly sixteen years ago. Thanking Noah for small miracles, Gopher casts an undetection spell on himself and watches the scene below from afar.
In the end, Kid had been forced to change course. The first problem, as Liz had pointed out, was that they had no idea where Ember Island was.
The next was that they had no supplies. So grudgingly he had made for the Earth Kingdom's coast. Beelzebub had reached the coast just as the sun crawled over the horizon.
That had been two weeks ago. Since then, they had been beset by one problem after another.
First, Patti had discovered that the money she'd won had spilled as they fled, leaving them with only a handful of coins. She and Liz had entered town while Kid had been forced to stay behind, the risk of him being recognized too great. They had come back with a map, new clothes, sleeping bags and enough food for a couple days.
Looking at the map, Kid had found the distance from their location to Ember Island was much too far for Beelzebub to travel in one shot. With their limited supplies, the best route was to travel down to the tip of the Kuei mountain range, which laid on a part of the coast relatively close to the Fire Nation, and travel from there to Ember Island.
His frustration over the realization had only been exacerbated by the fact that the only time they were only able to fly at night to avoid being seen. Reversing their sleep schedules was another one of their problems, albeit merely an annoying one, making everyone testier than usual. Therefore, when Patti wakes their entire camp up with a joyous cry just after dawn, no one is pleased.
"Patti," Liz groans. "Please. Go to sleep."
Ignoring her sister, Patti says, "Look, it's my bird friend again!"
Kid opens his eyes reluctantly. "There's nothing there, Patti."
"That's not a very nice thing to say." Patti becomes cross. "Just because you two can't see him doesn't mean he's not there." There's the rustle of leaves crackling as she rises. "I'm going to play with him."
"You go do that," Liz grouches, her words becoming muffled as she buries her head under her pillow. "See you around noon."
Kid, on the other hand, turns from laying on his side to rest on his back. He stares up at the lightening sky peeking through the trees overhead. It infuriates him. Everything does, from the musty smell of the forest floor to the sound of his own breathing.
Closing his eyes and attempting to meditate does nothing to help, if anything it aggravates him more. His toes curl and uncurl in agitation and he flings his pillow away, extracting himself from his sleeping bag. He leaves the campsite and wanders around aimlessly, not stopping until he reaches the banks of the Bei Fong river. He kneels, gazing at the water, flowing gently downstream in his area. His face, somber and pallid, stares back at him. In this light, the three white lines in his hair are almost glowing.
Kid's hands clench as he glares at the lines. They were wrong and he longed to erase them.
His head droops. No, they were exactly right. The lines made his appearance just out of order, which was exactly what he was. A broken Avatar.
What exactly did he hope to achieve by going to Ember Island? Discovering the truth behind Giriko's attack, finding the enemy, all of that was of no use if he didn't have the power to return the world as it should be.
His nails bite into his skin. He had been fooling himself when he had thought mastering the four elements was all there was to being the Avatar. There was no way he was ready for handling the world's problems.
"Kid!" Patti bursts out from the bushes. "We have a problem!"
Blinking back his surprise, he stands, scanning the area around them warily. "Did someone find us?"
"No, more important than that!"
He sighs. "Patti, if this about Mister Parrot..."
"No-" She pauses. "Well, kinda. He is the one that found them."
"Who is them?" Kid asks. "More friends like Mister Parrot?"
"No! They're people on the other side of the river." Her eyes flicker with a spark of anger. "Just because I see things you don't doesn't mean they don't exist."
The force of her words surprises Kid. He's quiet for a moment and then he says, "You're right, I'm sorry." He brushes back the hair from his eyes and starts to walk. "We should probably keep our distance, move if necessary," he says. "They won't become a problem if they don't know we're here."
"But that's not just it," she says, pulling at his sleeve. "They're being attacked by spirits, Kid."
Kid insists on getting Liz before following Patti. The forest is too thick for Beelzebub to fly properly so the three travel on foot, Patti leading the way. Every so often, she looks at the space above her shoulder like she's listening to someone.
Liz and Kid exchange looks as they follow but neither comment as Patti takes them on a path running parallel to the Bei Fong river, just visible through all the foliage. She stops them after they've been walking for nearly twenty minutes with a raised hand and signals them to be silent, pointing across the river. "There."
The mist kicking up from the river makes it hard to see anything but Kid can hear the sound of unearthly screams punctuate the air violently, sending a shudder down his spine.
Beside him, Liz is ashen. "Those sound nothing like the spirits the monks talked about."
"There's two people fighting them," Kid says, touching the ground. "And an animal."
"So are we going to help them or what?"Patti exclaims impatiently.
"Not," Liz interrupted. She ignores Kid and Patti's glares. "One, those are spirits. Two, we have no idea who they're attacking or if we can trust them. Three, you could get found out or hurt. And last but not least, those are spirits."
"This is my duty, Liz," Kid replies. "And if I can't fulfill it, what good am I?" He doesn't wait for an answer but instead takes a running leap, propelling himself over the river.
He lands right in the middle of the action, darting out of the way as a dark blur shoots toward him and sending it flying back with a well-aimed air blast. He takes a quick look around. Patti was right in calling the creatures spirits but there's something horribly wrong about them. The spirits' bodies are amorphous in some places yet well-defined in others, as if something had been in the process of absorbing them into nothing.
But it's their faces that horrify him most. They're completely ravaged and indiscernible for some spirits while the ones that do have faces are locked in an expression of fear-eyes wide and mouth open in a perpetual scream. He backflips out of the way as another comes racing his way and forced to jump high in the air as the earth beneath him quakes.
"Die!" He catches sight of a blue-haired boy, a determined look on his face as he jabs his hands forward and sends the rock flying to Kid.
"What are you thinking?" Patti materializes seemingly out of nowhere, pushing the rock out of Kid's path with her feet. She lands besides Kid and moves her arms swiftly. An air shield whips up around her, deflecting the spirits away from Kid and herself. "We're not with them!"
"That's exactly what a spirit would say!" the boy shouts back.
"Do you honestly think we look anything like these monsters?" Liz yells shrilly as she sends air slice after air slice to the spirits flocking to her, cutting a path to Patti and Kid.
"Spirits can be tricky!"
An older girl wielding chain scythes appears next to the boy. "Use your eyes, Black Star!" She says,"Do you really think we're in a position to be rejecting help right now?"
A roar, much different than the spirits' screams, breaks through the air.
"Shadow!" Black Star sprints in the opposite direction. He looks over his shoulder. "Do what you want but hurt Tsubaki and I'll kill you!"
"Sorry about that," the girl says apologetically as she hooks one of her scythes around a spirit's neck. "Black Star has a tendency to act first and think later, if at all." She pulls and there's a sickening crunch. "It has a way of getting him into trouble."
The spirit's head flops limply to the side for a moment before slowly righting itself.
Liz lets out a strangled scream. "How can it do that?"
"We've been fighting them for over an hour," Tsubaki replies, planting a scythe in two spirits and sending them crashing into each other. "We can't escape them." She spins the scythes in her hands as a fresh wave of spirits. "And what's worse is that they look like they're multiplying and they don't seem to very willing to die."
"Absolutely perfect," Liz grumbles as the four quickly form a circle and begin to fight in tandem. Black Star remains out of sight, either too preoccupied with dealing with the spirits there or worse.
The battle wears on with no end that Kid can see. It goes against every teaching the monks gave him to raise a hand against the spirits but they have no moral qualms about attempting to rip his head off. It amazes him that Tsubaki and Black Star were able to hold their own before they came along. He takes a deep breath and raises his hands, facing down a grinning spirit.
But when he starts to bring his hands down in an arc, the spirit freezes. Every single one of them does-some perk up their heads, as if they're listening to something. Abruptly, they scatter, some taking flight while others run into the forest.
The four look on in bewilderment as the spirits flee. "I don't get it," Liz says, breaking the silence. "What made them spook?"
"They left on your side too?"
"Black Star!" Tsubaki sighs in relief as he trudges out of the forest. "Where have you been?"
His face darkens. "Disgusting screechers hurt Shadow. She couldn't move and I wouldn't leave her." He looks over at Kid, Patti and Liz. "I'm glad you weren't alone though." He extends a hand. "Jumping you earlier may have been an overreaction," he says. "I'm Black Star."
"Yes, like they didn't hear me call you that earlier," Tsubaki murmurs.
Kid smiles, taking his hand. "I'm Kid and this is Liz and Patti." As he shakes his hand, he sees the shadow marking on his arms and his eyes widen in shock. "You're a spirit chain?"
Black Star rips his hand away and yells, "Tsubaki, get away from them!"
"What's this about?" Patti exclaims as Black Star raises a chunk of earth of their heads.
"Move and I drop it!" Black Star shouts. "He sent you, didn't he?"
"Who sent us?" Kid eyes the rock above them, wondering he could smash it in time if Black Star followed through with his word.
"What are you doing Black Star?" Tsubaki tugs on his arm. "They just saved us!"
"It could be a trap!" He glares at the three. "Tell Giriko his little ruse to capture me with Gopher failed and so did you."
"Giriko?" the three say in unison.
"How do you know him?" Kid demands.
Black Star laughs. "Don't play the fool. It won't work"
"Giriko attacked us as well." Kid takes a few steps, pausing as Black Star lowers the earth threateningly. He eases back, raising his hands. "He came after us two weeks ago with his golems."
For the first time, doubt crosses Black*Star's face. "Golems?"
He nods. "He tried to kidnap me."
"And why would he try to kidnap you?"
Kid exchanges a look with Liz and Patti. They nod at him. He looks back at Black Star. "Because I'm the Avatar."
Black Star's face slackens in surprise before he cracks a grin. "All right, you had me going there for a moment."
Behind him, Liz murmurs nervously, "It'd be a really good idea if you lived up to your title now, Kid."
He blinks. "Oh, right." He flicks his hand, bending a whip of water from the river. "Water." He sends a punch toward the rock above them and a piece breaks off. "Earth." He conjures a flame in his hand. "Fire." Kid looks at Black*Star and Tsubaki. "And you saw air already."
Both Black Star and Tsubaki stare at him, speechless. Then, he gives out a low whistle. "You weren't lying." He pulls his arms to the side and the chunk of earth falls to a crash beside the three.
"I think we have a lot to talk about," Kid says.
"Hold on." Black Star frowns. "So this Giriko came after you right before he went after us? Said he was gonna take you to Ember Island?""
"It would appear so." Kid looks up from Shadow's flank, pausing in his healing. He sighs. "I wish there was a way of finding out if Kim and Jackie are okay."
"They're tough cookies, Kid," Patti says, patting his hand. "Bad for golems' teeth."
He shakes the mental image Patti had inspired. "More like let slip but yes."
"And then you're led to us by her parrot spirit friend?" Black Star points to Patti.
"Right." He turns back to Shadow, feeling even more dejected for initially dismissing Patti's words. Whatever she had seen was probably the Order's way of tracking them. It was something he should have noticed and it had slipped right by him.
"This makes no sense." He can hear the confusion in Black Star's voice. "What connection do we have with each other?"
"It's not certain that we're linked together but the possibility is highly likely." Kid finishes healing Shadow's wound, giving the badgermole a final onceover. Even though the injuries were closed, there was some kind of spirit venom remaining, leaving Shadow weak. "You're looking for your guardian?"
"Yup." He strokes Shadow's fur. A cold look settles on his face. "No one hurts the people I care about like that and gets away with it."
From where she sits with Liz and Patti, Tsubaki says, "Revenge is something your fa-" She cuts herself off abruptly.
Kid looks from Tsubaki and then to Black Star, unsure what to say.
"Might as well get it out of the way now." Black Star points to a star tattoo on his shoulder. "I'm Star clan."
Kid feels Liz and Patti tense up but they don't move, watching him. He glances at the tattoo and then back to Black Star. "Do you have any idea where your guardian could be?"
The suddenly tense atmosphere drains away. A smile flashes briefly across his face smiles briefly before Black Star shakes his head. "No, Gopher said he was going to take me to him but then he betrayed us, the little rodent."
Kid thinks for a moment before speaking. "I know it's a stretch but given that the Order of Asura is after us both, it might be that they took him to Ember Island." He gestures to Shadow. "Your animal won't be able to carry you there in the shape that she's in. Why not travel with us?"
"So are we just throwing discretion out the window then?" Liz comments dryly. "Someone is bound to notice us now."
"The Order brought us together, Liz," he replies, shrugging. "Which means they can track us. It's better to make speed our first priority and it seems best if we're together."
"How will be able to move quickly if we're walking?" Tsubaki asks. "And how will we be able to cross the sea?"
Kid turns to Black Star. "Would it be possible for your badgermole to track us if we're in the air?"
"Yes," he answers. "Why do you ask?"
He grins. "Have you ever flown on a sky bison?"