"They're settling down."
Korra looked up from the shadows of her bag, brow pinched as Naga nuzzled the crook of her neck. Kai, one of Korra's scouts, was crouched on an outcrop of rock above the main path, staring down watchfully through his lizard-jay mask. She pushed Naga's cold, wet nose away from the crook of her neck and got to her feet, striding purposefully to his side and leaning over, taking a look for herself.
They had been following the spirits for a couple weeks, using the high paths carved centuries ago by previous hunters. Korra had grown ever more fascinated with them, observing their behaviours and taking note of each member of their small group. However, she'd been keeping a careful distance, wary of their strange machines and weapons. Tonight, that was going to change.
She'd sent two of her party ahead, instructing them to tell her father of the strangers, and her observations of them. It would not do for Atlantis to be unprepared. She had reasoned that by not attacking them on sight, she was exercising the famous patience and reservation Tenzin had been beating into her skull for her whole life. No doubt the seer would be proud.
Tonight, however, she and a select few were going to steal into the camp and collect information. She, personally, wanted to take a closer look at what the dark haired female had been reading. The thought of the text had been an almost endless torment to her – she'd dreamed about its thin, worn papers. When consulting Jinora about it, the young seer had been in two minds. On one hand, she'd said, while chewing on some jerky, the dreams could be the product of her current obsession. On the other, her ancestor's prophetic powers could be directing her to the book. Jinora had been rather vague about the whole thing.
"We move as soon as possible. Jinora, Kai – come with me. The rest of you, stay here, guard the camp and keep an eye out. Send signal at sign of trouble."
The other hunters murmured their agreement, some turning to their mounts and drawing off their packs, setting up sleeping sacs, others sharpening their spears, murmuring prayers to Vaatu for strength and luck. Korra watched them all for a moment, allowing her heart to swell with pride as her hunters readied themselves for the night ahead. Then she turned aside, seeking Jinora's gaze amongst the group. She nodded slightly, and made her way towards her, collecting her seer staff and mask.
Kai was still perched, birdlike, on the rock, the severe jut of his mask's beak completing the look. The dagger shoved into his belt glinted in the half-light, his thin, light fingers tracing idly over its hilt. He was in thought.
"What's wrong?" She asked softly.
He stirred slightly, and turned to her, his mouth splitting into a grin. He was of age with Jinora, yet seemed so much more at ease. "Nothing. Just want to get on the road. We mounting up?"
"Only as far as the road, then we take the rest of the way on foot."
Something cool and wet filled the palm of her hand, and she grimaced, turning to see Naga sniffing her fingers, tongue lapping at her fingertips.
"Someone's eager to be off." Jinora had appeared, mask in place, staff solid against the stone ground.
"She's probably looking forward to climbing down there. Aren't you, girl?" Korra ruffled Naga's head, grinning at the familiar thump thump of the bear-dog's tail. Naga nuzzled Korra's belly with her nose, snorting and huffing, plucking at her shirt affectionately. She laughed, taking hold of Naga's ears and tugging on them gently, then she pushed the bear-dog away. She had a job to do.
She retrieved her spear and mask, securing it over her head and hauling herself into Naga's saddle. The bear-dog rumbled, leaning down to nibble at her paw, giving Korra a moment to make sure her mask was on properly, and that the cloak wasn't caught in her clothes. Kai and Jinora mounted their own steeds – plucky, strong ox-goats, perfect for mountainous terrain. Their short, solid legs were strong and steady; Korra had seen an ox-goat climb an almost ninety-degree slope at a gallop, and that had been while mounted.
Naga wheeled around, allowing Korra to give her remaining hunters a final salute – they responded in kind, patting their right shoulders respectfully – before starting down the steep path. Kai and Jinora followed closely behind, the soft sound of their ox-goat's hooves almost loud in the hush. Naga's paws were a whisper on the stone as she slipped down off the path onto a harrowingly narrow ledge. Korra pressed her body close to the saddle, letting go of the reins and allowing the bear-dog as much room to move as possible. Behind her, she could hear the skittering of stones; the ox-goats following close behind.
The spirits' camp was quiet. Here and there, the embers of their fires burned low, casting shadows amongst the slumbering shelters. Korra's eyes trailed over the humped shapes of them – tents, erected quickly in the dusk hush. Their metal beasts slept also. She could hear the metal ticking as it cooled in the night, almost drowned out by the ruffling snores of the two creatures the spirits used to dig through the earth.
A stone shattered on the path below and Korra twisted her head to see Kai leaning over the saddle of his ox-goat, staring down into the abyss. A pair of baleful eyes peered back at her, and the beast huffed, nostrils flaring. Satisfied the seer and the scout were safe, Korra turned to stare between the shields of Naga's ears.
It took them nearly an hour to reach the road. The glow of their crystals remained an unwavering guiding light to the hunters above – every now and then a face would appear over the ledge, peering down to check on their progress. Korra slid off Naga's saddle, giving her a stick of jerky as a reward, and a rub of her head.
"That was sort of… terrifying." Jinora said, her voice trembling with exhilaration as she dismounted, patting the ox-goat's nose in thanks.
"We scouts do things like that all the time." Kai replied – Korra restrained a laugh as he subtly flexed his arms. Jinora chuckled softly.
"It was almost as scary as when we go flying." The seer rubbed her ox-goat's horn. "We dress ourselves like the lizard-jays and fall off the edge of the world. It's quite fun."
"O-oh." Kai cleared his throat. "That sounds… uh…"
"You should join us sometime." Jinora's voice was teasing through her mask. Korra could just see the shadow of her eyes, bright and filled with mirth. "I'm sure a brave scout like you would have no problem with it. My younger brother does it all the time."
"Sure." Kai croaked.
They led the ox-goats off the road, securing them in an alcove the spirits wouldn't be able to see. Korra hesitated as Naga peered at her expectantly. After a moment of deliberation, she nodded and led the bear-dog back out into the open.
"Naga comes with us." She said softly, crouching down. Kai and Jinora settled either side of her, listening carefully as she spoke. "We go into their camp and have a look – but if there's any sign of them waking up, any at all, we leave at once. Leave no trace of our presence. Quick, quiet, effective. Gather as much information about them as we can. All right?"
They nodded and rose smoothly to their feet. Their boots were quiet against the road – Korra took note of the deep ruts in the ground, dug up no doubt by the wheels of their metal beasts. They stole into the camp with all the subtly of thieves, the glow of their masks eerie in the half dark. Kai and Jinora split away, going in opposite directions while Korra led Naga through the alley of tents. Snores echoed around her, feet and shoes poking out the ends of some shelters.
Korra moved quickly, Naga on her heels, breath hot against her back. She knew where she was going, but her heart was high in her throat, throbbing with nerves. Her grip on her spear was tight, sweaty, snorts and jerks of the people around her keeping the low bumble of tension tight in her stomach.
Naga made a soft 'uff' in her throat. They had arrived at the dark female's tent. It was in pristine condition – erected with a precision Korra had come to expect from the spirit. It was said you could tell a lot about a person by the way they made their shelter. Some were slapdash, eager to be off, and so their tents reflected this. Others, like the female's, were precise but hardy.
Slowly, carefully, Korra knelt down and pealed open the flap of the tent, stomach bumbling with nerves, sweat lining her brow.
Her heart went cold.
It was empty. The sleeping sac was empty and shoved aside, as though its occupant had left it in a rush. All around it were piles and piles of parchment, but not the text she was looking for.
Kai's scout call came to her softly over the heads of the camp, and Korra pulled her head out into the open. He was stood on a small hill where a table was set; a figure slumped over its surface, lit by a dying candle. He waved his hand, and Korra hoisted up her spear, lancing through the camp as swiftly as the wind, Naga at her heels. For her size, the bear-dog was surprisingly agile.
Kai's lopsided grin was visible under his mask as Korra came up beside him. It was the female, snoring softly, strewn over her desk in slumber. Under her head was the text. Kai patted her shoulder and turned, scampering back into the camp and disappearing behind a tent. Korra turned back to the table, pulling up her mask as she considered her options.
The last thing she wanted was for the spirit (although she was starting to doubt the eligibility of this theory) to wake up. Not only would that put Korra and her hunter's lives in danger, but perhaps put even the whole of Atlantis in jeopardy. Jinora had been very insistent about keeping the knowledge of their existence a secret from the spirits, lest it incite the wrath of the gods.
She propped her spear against the desk, and Naga wandered aimlessly around, sniffing idly at one of the female's boots. She shoved her nose into it, huffing and grunting softly. Korra watched, on tenterhooks, as Naga struggled with the boot for a moment, before the bear-dog squatted and used her forepaws to pull it off. It thudded to the ground, and Korra hissed sharply. Naga crouched low to the ground; ears flat against her head, tail wagging slightly in apology.
Giving the bear-dog a final stern look, Korra turned back to her dilemma. The book, or text, or whatever it was, was so close she could almost smell its worn, stale parchment. She pulled her mask over her head, making sure it covered her face, before reaching forward, the up glow of her crystal illuminating the female and her desk. With exaggerated care she pushed the spirit's shoulder back, half surprised she could actually touch her, rather than her hand going straight through. The female didn't stir, her dark hair looking surprisingly ruffled as she slumped back into her chair, arms crossed idly over the book. Heart in mouth, Korra slowly moved the spirit's arms aside, finally grasping hold of the text and hugging it to her chest.
It was heavy.
She opened it, still panting lightly in suppressed panic, and gazed down into its pages. She understood nothing. It was runes, though, the same runes that covered the walls of her home – indeed, some of the pictures were identical to the mosaics she had been staring at for the entirety of her life.
There was no question now.
The spirits were here for Atlantis.
She was still comprehending the notion when Naga gave a low warning bark. Korra's head snapped up, and she stared into a pair of brilliant green eyes.
It was as though the world came screeching to a halt. Images flew through her mind – some she knew, others she didn't: her mother being taken away; a man leaning over a desk, sobbing uncontrollably; Atlantis in the light thrown off the stones; a tall, unfamiliar building made of stone and finally the eyes. The eyes that were staring at her now, widening with surprise.
The spirit started to speak, but suddenly Jinora was there, blowing lightly on her crystal before pressing it to the female's forehead. At once, she slumped back over her desk in dead faint.
Korra snapped out her daze, dropping the book on the desk like it was a poisonous spider. She then twisted around to see Kai dodging his way back towards them, his feathered cloak flying out behind him as he ran.
"We need to leave." Korra murmured urgently. Jinora nodded and followed Korra to Naga's side. They clambered up into the saddle – Kai joined them a moment later, hauling himself up onto the bear-dog's back, before Naga was away, bounding swiftly and quietly through the spirit's camp.
"What happened?" Jinora asked when they were at a safe distance from the camp, back at the alcove with the ox-goats.
"I don't know." Korra replied truthfully. "But I know one thing for sure. These spirits, they're looking for Atlantis."
"How do you know?" Kai asked, surprised.
"It's… a feeling. And the book – it has pictures like the mosaics back home."
Jinora went quiet behind her mask, her hand disappearing under it, no doubt to clutch at her crystal.
Korra did the same, murmuring a soft prayer to Raava, taking comfort in the familiar warmth of her own crystal.