Book 7: Spirit
It has begun. It'll start slow but expect this book to be far bloodier than the last. By the end of this book, it will be Hell on Earth. You have been warned.
(hows that for advertising?)
Simple stone structures filled the empty spaces like plain, drab bandages covering the wounds that had been inflicted on their beautiful city. Filling the largest of these was row after row, street after street of large, oblong boxes yet already the citizens were replanting their gardens, some making the best of their temporary homes by hanging colourful banners or those who could afford it were already adding to their homes, painting and decorating the outsides in traditional Firenation styles while some of the poorer families simply counted their blessings.
The Firelord had relented in the end and allowed his friend to use some of his ideas although Sokka had surprised everyone with what he had done. A meandering shallow trench, an artful creek created with Earthbending now ran through much of the city with many low bridges giving access to either side, wider ornamental ponds here and there, tinkling waterfalls and fountains. Waterbenders working with the Earthbenders tapped into the city's underground supplies, ensuring a constant but gentle flow of water and it was fast becoming a favourite attraction to the citizens of Hinomoto. To some, a symbol of pride to show they would not be kept down.
Not quite a week after the attack the Firelord gathered his people along the wide thoroughfare that ran through the centre of Hinomoto, several miles long it was still crowded to the point of overflowing with all those who came and with so many having come from beyond the city. With Toph Bending a comfortable chair for Mai to ride on, they followed Zuko with pride as he walked that road's length, nervous guards following as their Firelord walked amongst the cheering crowds, merely talking to some, thanking others personally for their efforts and to all he offered praise for their strength and resilience. Reaching the end of that road, the Firelord climbed a stage set up near the docks and there he awaited the Firelady and their beautiful young consort to join him.
It took some time for the noise of the crowd to quiet down enough for Zuko to make himself heard but the instant he announced a royal wedding set for one month's time, silence spread from him in a wave as the news passed through the crowds. Earthbending Master, Sifu to the Avatar, Unbeaten champion of Earth Rumble and now 'Princess' Toph Bei Fong felt a moment of doubt in the sudden quiet but just as the silence had spread from them, now the noise came rushing back in a tsunami of sound. Instantly the city began celebrating with flags and banners lining the streets, the market and restaurants brought out food for all while musicians played and danced and as night fell and the celebrations continued with fireworks in the sky, the tavern owners and brewers rolled out enormous barrels, tapping them right there on the street.
The Firelady had retired from the celebrations early as did the Avatar's wife, both young women heavily pregnant and not up to the all-night party their friends and loved ones seemed determined to enjoy. And though they reclined together chatting idly in the royal chambers on the emperor sized bed there was little room left with two extra adults and eight children sharing the bed and room with them. Starting on one side, Ty Lee lay back on the pillows trying to put forth wedding ideas but finding little enthusiasm from her fellow wedding planner beside her. Katara was more interested in her two year old son on her other side, Gyatso giggling happily as she poked and tickled his belly. Beside the boy, little Reena was snuggled almost asleep into Mai's side while the Firelady reclined beside her brother, Tom Tom who sat on the edge of the bed watching Zhu Lee dance across the room. Sitting close together before the bed, soft music arose from Oma and Hakoda playing guitars while Maki tapped out a gentle beat on several small drums. Every now and then the tune skipped or a missed note grated on the ears but Oma smiled patiently as she corrected one or both of the boys and the beautiful music soon resumed. Sitting at Zuko's huge writing desk across the other side of the room, Gar was helping young Ana pore over the many scrolls and books she had found at the eastern air temple, Kyoshi's only male member seemingly as lost in the old texts as Katara's daughter.
This idyllic family moment was shattered however as the doors leading out to the balcony crashed open and Aang rushed inside, slamming the doors closed behind him and putting his back to them. His face was painted in a parody of the traditional Kyoshi red and white and his shirt torn, something unidentifiable staining his trousers down one side.
"Aang. You woke Reena." Mai admonished him softly as the little girl sat up beside her to stare at her uncle as everyone else was.
"And do we even want to ask?" Katara added, her eyes trailing over her husband's dishevelled appearance and whitely painted face.
"Probably not." Aang replied with a grin, reaching out to snatch a towel from the air as Gar tossed one across the room and wiped at the paint covering his face, "Toph and Zuko are…um, having fun but Suki's there keeping an eye on them…and Sokka. Although the last I saw…Iroh was, uh swimming naked in one of the fountains…with Tiki, Sanna and Manny."
""Oh Good Lord." Mai said aloud with a sigh, rolling her eyes, "At least it wasn't you and Zuko this time."
"Oh no, he and Toph were up to something much worse. You see, Sokka talked them into painting each other with grease and honey then wrestling in the," Aang started cheerfully but fell silent under his wife's dry glare, finishing quickly as the children began giggling, "UH, but everyone was being very well behaved although I felt very tired and that's why I decided to call it an early night and get some sleep."
One of them didn't join in the laughter however and Ana put down the scroll she had been holding with a sigh.
"I wish Danny was here." the young girl said softly although her voice carried through the room, "He would have liked the party. And poor Zula must be so sad. She didn't even come."
"Azula's very busy taking care of…a friend of Danny's right now." Aang said as Katara added a reassuring smile from the bed, then moving quickly across the room to his daughter, Aang added warmly, "And I wasn't certain myself at first but I'm sure now that what Azula felt is right and wherever Danny is…if he's just lost or even hurt and can't get back, we will find him."
The other's there could see Ana's smile was a little forced as she tried to accept her father's reassurance and her concerns were reflected on the faces of those others as Aang looked around.
"In fact, we all have a big day coming tomorrow since we will be splitting up to do just that and other work besides before we come back for the wedding so we could all use some sleep." Using his best, authoritive father's voice, Aang fought back a grin as the children groaned, "Although if everyone sits down quietly I'm sure I could be convinced to tell you all a story."
Like an arrow fired from a bow, Ana shot across the room, the three musicians on the floor leaping for the bed at the same moment while Zhu Lee moved more sedately to sit beside Tom Tom. They were beaten one and all by Ty Lee who leapt to the end of the bed, almost dislodging Mai and Katara as the bubbly young woman threw herself down on her front, staring avidly at Aang with her chin cupped in her hands while the children piled onto the bed around her. Unable to help themselves, Mai and Katara grinned at each other and turned to look over the pile of bodies at Aang who came to stand before the bed, his eyes wide and mysterious as he raised his hands.
"Hey, uncle Aang. Tell us how you and Zula fought Phoenix." Maki asked excitedly from where he sat between Oma and his cousin.
"Or tell us again how Danny fought him down at our place." Hakoda added from Oma's other side but both boys paused as her hands performed a complicated dance in the air before her.
"Or Oma says tell the one…about the cabbage merchant?" Maki said with a confused expression.
"Dude, she said…show me the flying hog-monkey…err, I think." Hakoda chided his brother while the girl between them rolled her eyes with a grin.
"Boneheads." Ana said with a frown and a roll of her own eyes, looking then to her father, "Oma wants to know if you'll tell how you helped save her family from the demon who possessed the Boulder."
"She does?" the twins said in unison then added, "Cool. Yeah, tell us that one."
"Alright then." Aang answered, slipping one hand behind his back.
Then with a flex of his fingers, Aang caused the flames burning in their lanterns on the walls to shrink down, the room growing dark as he cupped his other hand before himself, generating a tiny flame there that lit up his face from beneath. Trembling a little in the sudden darkness, Ty Lee sat up and pulled Gyatso and Reena close as Aang began to tell his tale.
"This is a story from when we first met Daniel but it's also about the very first demon we ever encountered…and how lucky we were to survive. Zuko faced the Boulder first and managed to get Oma and her family out of his reach…which is when Toph charged in on Wolf, pounding him with her Earthbending all the way across the plains."
Within she knew it was right to follow her companion, her instincts telling her it was so yet had she had been capable of it, she might have asked her instincts for a second opinion. That first night he had led them toward the mountains in the south but paused to scent the air regularly, his direction changing a little each time. By dawn they had been headed east instead but as the sun rose higher, he had begun leading them deeper into the desert to the north.
Through the long day she had followed, the terrible heat beating down from above as well as rising from the sands beneath. Even her pups had ceased their endless games, clinging weakly to her back as she trotted along as best she could. He moved unceasingly, not even pausing as he sniffed the air and adjusted the direction they travelled and still they moved as the sun set, the terrible heat replaced by bitter cold as the moon and stars came out above them. On through the night she followed, barely aware of the sun as it rose in a new day, only knowing she must remain with him.
She almost missed the soft thud but turning her head she stopped, turning back to one of her pups who had fallen from her back. The little male's chest rose and fell though he did not react at first as she nudged him with her nose. She turned her head about to look at her other pup on her shoulder, a little female in much the same condition and she bent her head down to gently lift her son in her jaws, depositing him on her back beside his sister. There was relief as she felt his claws gripping the coarse fur across her shoulders but as she turned to seek her companion, at first he was nowhere to be found.
Hunter? She whined softly.
She scented the air but her nose had become so dry as to all but rob her of that sense and while her species eyesight was naturally poor, her vision was reduced to a yellow blur below with a blue blur above this.
Hunter? She whined again, turning slowly about on the spot.
As fear began to creep in, she finally spied a dark shape ahead of her climbing the dunes and she tried to hurry to catch him but in her weakened state the sudden movement made her head throb and whirl and with another thud, she collapsed to her front on the sand. Trembling with the effort, she tried to push herself back to her feet but could only drop back down, panting in shallow gasps from the effort.
Hunter? She whined again, turning her head with difficulty to his dark shape growing smaller as he moved away.
She tried to call again but now even her voice failed, her vision starting to fade even as she saw the dark shape of the hunter slip over the top of the dune he had been climbing and disappear from view. She felt no animosity toward him, she was not angry or saddened by his leaving but as her vision darkened and consciousness faded, the huntress thought of her children and knew despair.
"Tommy…You…you argued with my Dad." Zhu Lee breathed in awe from beside her friend.
"I know, Zhu and…I'm sorry." The boy replied with a sigh though his face creased in anger a moment later, "But he just won't listen. He won't even let me explain how important this is to you or…how happy it would make you."
"Aw, Tommy." She breathed, leaning into him with a smile, "But you know what my Daddy is like. He's just afraid that something bad like what happened to you and Ty might happen to me." Her smile faded as she added, "To be honest, I still think it's scary."
"But that's why you need to learn to protect yourself." He insisted then turned to her with a smile of his own, "Anyway, you're not scared now are you?"
"Not here." she replied, returning his smile, "Not with you."
They stayed that way a moment, their smiles remaining the same as they then turned to look out over the city. They stood in one of their favourite place in the city, the rooftops of Hinomoto laid out before them though for now the two friends were content to remain where they were.
"You know, I'm not scared of…bad guys at the moment." Zhu Lee said after a few minutes silence, "But we better be careful Daddy or someone else doesn't see us. We'll get in such trouble."
"It's alright. No one can see us here." Tom Tom replied distractedly, pointing off to one side, "Anyway, Firelord Zuko and my sister are over there a few blocks away I think."
"But…they'll tell Daddy." Zhu Lee gasped, crouching down and peering out over the roofs the way he pointed, "Did you see them? Where are they?"
"What? Oh, no I didn't see them." He replied in the same distracted way, "But my sister is wearing that perfume I bought her and I could…I could,"
He fell silent, his face creasing in confusion before he closed his eyes, tipping his head back as he took a deep breath through his nose.
"Tommy?" Zhu Lee asked after a moment.
"Have I ever told you how amazing you smell, Zhu?" he said then, opening his eyes to smile at his friend, "Like…like the orchards after a summer rain. Like…flowers and peaches."
"I do?" she asked in wonder, then added with a touch of worry, "Err…you're not going to try and smell me…there again, are you?"
"Oh, no…I just wanted you to know that I think you're amazing in every way." He replied with the same soft smile, earning a dreamy smile from Zhu Lee as he continued, "I just wish there were words big enough to describe how…incredible I think you are. Not just because you've been my best friend for as long as I can remember but lately…when we're together you make me feel so CAT!"
"Wha?" she began but Tom Tom was already gone.
She turned to stare as he sprinted away over the rooftop, a orange grey blur streaking away ahead of him. He ran with his hands extended before himself, joyful glee on his face as he drew closer to his adversary, filled with a burning need to capture this thing or drive it way. It zigged and zagged but he was close on it's heels and as the streak ahead of him neared the end of the roof, Tom Tom leapt with a shout, skidding over the roof tiles on his front. At the last moment his prey leapt, dropping down from the roof to an alley below and hissing once back at Tom Tom before it streaked away.
"I'll get you next time. DO YOU HEAR ME!" the boy yelled down into the alley below, "THIS IS MY ROOF! MINE! MY ROOF!"
"Err, Tommy?" came a voice from behind.
Rolling over, he looked up and the maniacal glee faded from his eyes to be replaced by confusion as he looked up at Zhu Lee then back down to the alley below.
"Um, it…might have told on us?" he offered with a weak smile.
She awoke to find herself in shade, a heavy and delicious smell in the air. She appeared to be lying under a shelf of glossy black stone, the sand at its edge dug away in a shallow pit. There was confusion at first but she heard the soft sound of shifting sand and next moment the dark shape of the Hunter walked into her view and she was surprised to see her pups clinging to his shaggy fur. They jumped down at the sight of their mother, yipping joyfully to see her awake and as they climbed around and over her, again she caught that mouth-watering scent coming from them.
Before her came a quiet growl and she looked up as the Hunter moved a short distance away, turning then to look back at her. Still weak, her legs trembled with the effort of rising but she got to her feet, her pups clinging on as she moved out from under the rock shelf. Only a few yards from her little cave was an enormous black shape, an impressive example of it's kind it was a Trumpet-beetle, it's smooth black carapace designed for burrowing through the dunes and the long horns extending from it's head designed to defend it from similar sized foes. This one however was missing several of it's six legs, it's horn broken and hanging by a strip of flesh while the belly of the beetle had been torn apart, yellow, orange and red ichor spilled out onto the sand.
Her stomach growled at the sight but she waited as the hunter moved forward first, his head disappearing into the belly of the beetle before he re-emerged with something red and dripping in his jaws. He came back, dropping the bloodied organ to the sand before her and nudging it toward her with his nose, sitting then to look at her expectantly. She did not have to be asked twice and quickly bent her head down, tearing at his offering with her teeth and in several large mouthfuls it was gone. Her hunger only awoken by this snack, she brushed past the hunter to make her own selections from the carcass.
Sated at last, her belly bulging from her meal, the huntress climbed onto the rock shelf and there she found him, her pups once more climbing and playing around him. He turned to her as she lay at his side and though she did not understand, it seemed significant to her that his eyes were different to her pups or any others she had seen. They were milky, pale green and though he often seemed to look to her, she felt he saw with more than those eyes.
Hunter? She whined gently and leaned forward to lick at the spots of blood clinging to the underside of his jaw.
Home. he seemed to say as she drew back, his ears swivelling to and fro as he raised his nose to the gentle breeze.
Hunter? Home? she struggled with a concept that was difficult for her but managed to ask, Where home?
While posing the question had been difficult for her, she sensed no comprehension from her companion as he turned briefly back to her, then turn away to sniff at the breeze once more. But while he gave no reply, she did however sense his despair and frustrations as he dropped his head to his paws and whined softly.
"Hey Aang." She called from behind him, "What do you think of this one?"
"Hmm?" he replied distractedly, his eyes scanning the ground far below, "What?"
"Aang." She demanded with a little more force.
Turning about from where he sat on Appa's head, Aang looked back into the saddle where his wife sat with their children, Gyatso asleep beside her while Ana was again reading her scrolls and books.
"Sorry, Babe." Aang said to his frowning wife, "What was that?"
"I just wondered what you thought of this." Katara told him, holding up a wide piece of white silk against herself, "For Toph's wedding dress."
"Uh…remember, Babe? In the Firenation, white is for funerals." Aang said hesitantly as his wife frowned again.
"Oh, I forgot about that." She said with a sigh, shoving the piece of cloth into a bag attached to the side of the boat sized saddle.
"Besides…white is a Watertribe tradition." Aang continued with a small grin, "And we both know Toph can't wear that."
"So?" Katara shot back to him with a grin of her own, "I did and no one knew I was two months pregnant with Ana."
He chuckled softly as she climbed over the saddle onto the bison's head, snuggling into her husband's back as she wrapped her arms about his chest.
"Still nothing?" she asked quietly, her own eyes going to the green and brown landscape far below.
"I can't sense anything of him anymore." Aang answered, his smile fading quickly, "It's not like when he used to block himself from me. I couldn't tell where he was but I could still sense him out there. But now there's just…nothing."
"Do you really think…Azula's right?" she asked then in a whisper, "Did he come back?"
Aang half twisted his head about, looking behind his wife again but their son remained asleep and beside him, Ana was absorbed in the histories of the air nomads.
"I…I just don't know. I know she believes what she felt but if he did return coupled with the fact we haven't seen him has me worried." Aang replied in a whisper of his own, "I know what I felt at the end. Wolf was…gone and that pain alone was beyond anything he'd endured but Wolf was the only thing keeping Daniel sane. Without him,"
Aang trailed into silence, sighing heavily as Katara squeezed him warmly from behind.
"Can he survive without Wolf?" she asked, not certain she wanted the answer.
"I don't know but I do know his mind won't." Aang replied sadly, "And if he has lost his mind, if he's wandering the world alone and…insane it…it will be everything he always feared and I…I can't do it, Babe. I know he said I would have to but…but…I can't kill him."
"It won't come to that Aang." His wife tried to say reassuringly, "We'll find him and we will help him."
"I hope we can, Babe. I really do." Aang breathed sadly in response, "Because if Danny is wandering the world somewhere right now…I'm not sure if there will be enough of him left to help."
Two large sleds were parked near another on the sands, made from imported wood and polished smooth from long use, they were designed along the lines of a catamaran with two main hulls joined by a platform and a large triangular sail affixed the central mast. The peoples who lived in this desert employed a special form of Earthbending to draw up the sand in a tight, compact tornado that filled their sails with wind no matter the weather and allowed them to travel anywhere in their desert quickly. The few Sandbenders gathered about two of the boats had not come out this day for the joy of travelling the dunes but to investigate the third boat they had first spied from a distance. It lay on it's side, the mast shattered and a split running the length of one of the hulls and while they had once or twice seen or even been involved in similar crashes, it was the bodies scattered about that caused these Sandbenders to remain close to their own boats.
Only one moved forward amongst the carnage, stripping the wrappings from his head and removing his specialised goggles to stare about with a deep frown. The bodies had been simply torn apart, blood splattering the sand in a wide area along with dozens of prints, scraps and drag marks. Walking carefully, the man dropped to a crouch beside a torso with only one arm and it's head intact, reaching down to remove the wrappings from the dead Sandbenders face.
"What do you think it was, Chief?" one of the men remaining by the boats called.
He didn't answer at first, moving out beyond the area to inspect the sands around before he moved back toward his men.
"They've been dead at least a day. Hami tribe by the looks although that boat's one of ours. Probably one they stole in the last raid." Their chief informed the Sandbenders, "There's a few beetle headed merchants too. Looks like they were in the middle of a deal when something attacked."
"Yeah but…what was it?" one of his men asked as the others drew together, "What could do this?"
"I don't know." The chief said ominously, then waved a hand toward his men, "Come and check this out."
He moved off, back through the bodies and wreckage and beyond but when he turned back, only one of his men had followed, the rest still clustered about their boats. With a sigh and a roll of his eyes, the chief hunkered down as the only one to follow did the same.
"Look at these tracks." He said to his fellow Sandbender, "It came out of the desert from that way. You can see they tried to fight it but whatever it was took them down fast."
"Yeah but," his companion replied, pointing to a set of tracks leading off into the distance and beside those, a shallow trench made by something huge being dragged across the sands, "It killed the merchants beetle? Those things are bred to fight."
"Not just killed it but dragged it away." The chief said, dropping his hand down to one of the prints before them, his open hand just covering the wide outline of a paw, "Whatever this thing was, I'm guessing it wouldn't come up to my shoulders yet it took out four of Hami's Sandbenders, three armed merchants and their beetle."
"And Chief," the Sandbender said, raising a trembling hand to point, "It came from the cursed lands."
"Tarro, they're not cursed lands." The chief returned with a sigh.
"But everyone in the desert saw that firestorm out there a couple weeks back." The man returned nervously, "And everyone went to see that black glass at least once. I tell you it's cursed and now something came from there and killed these guys. We gotta get out of here."
"No." the chief breathed as he stood up, frowning thoughtfully, "We need to tell the Hami tribe about this."
"The Hami?" the Sandbender before him said incredulously, "But they're our enemies."
"It's the right thing to do, Tarro." The chief returned as he began moving back to their boats.
"Oh, come on, Ghashiun." Tarro said with familiarity, "The Hami and the other tribes raid us all the time and we haven't been out on a raid in years."
"Because I swore to my father I would be a better man and lead this tribe honorably." The chief hissed quietly, stopping and turning to Tarro with a frown, "We made enough mistakes in our youth, Tarro or have you forgotten what stealing the Avatar's bison almost cost us?"
"Yeah, yeah." Tarro replied sourly though his expression changed as he looked back toward the tracks leading away over the dunes, "Although…if things are coming out of the cursed lands to kill Sandbenders and merchants alike, maybe it is time the tribes got together."
"That's what my father always wanted although…not like this." Ghashiun said softly, looking around the bodies and blood scattered everywhere, "Get the men and the boats ready, Tarro. We'll head straight to Hami first but I just need to do something before we go."
With a nod to his chief, Tarro moved away shouting instructions to those Sandbenders still waiting by the boats and Ghashiun looked over, making sure they were busy and not looking his way as he reached into his thick robes. From amongst his wrappings he drew forth a small package of soft leather and carefully unwrapped it. He took out a tiny chip of blue crystal and doing as he'd been instructed he pressed it to the side of his neck just below his ear.
"This is Chiefton Ghashiun of the Marrow Tribe in the Si Wong. Err…hello?" He spoke aloud though his voice remained a whisper, his eyes widening a moment later before he spoke again, "Chief Hakoda? Greetings sir. Your son asked me to make contact if I saw anything unusual in the desert and," he paused, his eyes again going to the carnage surrounding him, "I have something very unusual to report."
Hunter? She whined to the blurred shape she followed.
Again he had driven them at a fast pace across the desert. After half a night's rest they had made their way from the platform of shiny, black stone and again for a day and on through the next night she had followed. Her strength had improved thanks to the meal the day before but now as the sun beat down once more she staggered as she tried to keep pace with him, her pups whining softly where they clung to her shoulders.
Her fatigue was pushed aside in surprise however when she felt her paws suddenly dropping onto coarse, hard packed dirt instead of sand. Looking up she blinked her tired eyes to clear them and saw sparse grasses and bushes growing out around them and in the distance were hills of an achingly beautiful green. Relief flooded her at the sight though her legs still trembled with the effort of following her companion.
Hunter? She whined again.
For the first time he stopped, turning back to her and moving over to sniff at her and her pups, his tongue flicking out briefly across the fine hairs of her brow. Then with a tenderness that still surprised her, he lifted each of her pups and they squeaked excitedly as he deposited them onto his own back. He moved up alongside her and together they moved on again, the Hunter slowing his pace to stay by her side.
Still it was almost dark by the time they halted but long before they did she could smell the sweet scent of fresh flowing water. Soon they found a line of scrubby trees that ran alongside a shallow creek running down from the hills and after slaking her thirst she settled under one of these trees with her pups to rest, the Hunter sitting nearby to keep watch.
It was shortly after, the sun just touching the horizon when the Hunter jumped up with a yelp and she was her feet in an instant, her senses on high alert. But the Hunter stood stiff, the dark fur across his neck and shoulders lifting as he growled oddly up at the sky. She tried to follow his gaze but her eyes could only detect a tiny shape moving in an unerringly straight line through the sparse clouds high above.
HOME! The hunter growled and yipped, leaping up into the air, HOME! HOME!
His excitement was infections, her pups joining in with his leaping and yapping but she sensed his agitation growing, the hunter running a short distance away following the thing in the sky as it sped toward the horizon. Between his yapping and growling, choking sounds escaped the hunter, his chest expanding yet as he opened his jaws only a strangled gasp came forth. Again and again he wheezed with effort yet he bared his teeth in frustration as he failed over and over at what he tried to do.
Suddenly understanding his intent, the Huntress tipped her head back and howled. It started low, rising from deep in her chest and with it came the deep sorrow from her most recent life, her fears for her children and her care for her new found friend.
As it petered out and she dropped her head, she found the Hunter staring back at her, trembling all over as he turned back to the thing that was now beyond their sight then back to her.
Home. He said and simply dropped to his belly, whining softly.
She sensed such deep confusion and despair from him and the Huntress quickly moved over to his side, dropping down and extending one leg. She winced as the scars from her captivity stretched painfully but she spread her wing anyway, the lightly furred skin running from her foreleg to her hind one half covering her companion as she drew herself close to him. Even her pups sensed it and stopped their play, coming over to lay either side of the two adults and whining softly back to the hunter.
Darkness was falling properly as two young women appeared near the shattered boat, the various bodies that had been laying around gone now but for the dark brown and black stains they had left behind. Only two others were here to greet the arrivals, another two young women dressed in their green kimonos and leather armour that marked them out as Warriors of Kyoshi Island.
"Oh, hey Azula and…err, you." Tiki said a little uncomfortably, "We didn't know you guys were coming. I called Aang ages ago."
Beside Tiki her best friend, Linka stared over to the pair by the upturned boat with open hatred, though the one she directed it toward only returned a bored, almost contemptuous stare.
"And Aang called us. There is some meeting of the earth kings he has to attend and he's keeping the family close. That's why they're taking Appa." Azula said as she approached the pair although she scowled as she looked around, "And you called him for this? Some tribal feuding amongst the Sandbenders?"
As Azula spoke, Linka pulled her gaze from the other young woman who remained by the tipped up boat and her expression softened considerably.
"No. One of the local chiefs checked the place out first. Aang said he knows the guy and trusts him." Linka informed her, "The chief said something came out of the desert from that spot where Danny fought Agni and killed a bunch of Sandbenders and merchants but…he said it…tore them to pieces. Oh and it apparently ate their beetle."
"Yeah, they seemed a bit put out by that." Tiki commented and shrugged as Azula raised an eyebrow, "Maybe it was some kind of sacred beetle."
"A trumpet beetle?" Azula asked softly and as both young women nodded she added, "They're thirty feet long with a horn that can punch through steel. The merchants and Sandtribes here use them for both transport and defence and it's why the Firenation never gained a foothold in this desert even after a hundred years of war."
"Oh." The two facing her replied with wide eyes.
Blurring for a moment, Azula dropped down even as she grew slightly larger and as the large, orange and black striped tigress she padded about over the sand, her nose close to the ground.
There's been at least a hundred people through here. Azula's voice was an angry growl in the heads of those watching as the tigress padded away over the trampled sand, All I can smell is nervous people who really should bathe more often…and learn how to use a bathroom.
Tiki giggled at the tigress but Linka only raised a hand to point out over the dunes, into the deeper darkness of the night time desert.
"They were already here when me and Tiki arrived. Some of them even got together in a search party and followed the tracks back that way." Linka said and then added with a sour look, "So of course they walked all over the tracks and wiped them out but they followed them all the way to that black glass where Danny has his Agni Kai thing. They said they found the remains of the beetle but nothing else."
I suppose they'll have obliterated anything left there to be found but I will go and look anyway. Azula said, her tone still slightly annoyed as she turned to the figure still standing by the overturned sand boat, Remain with them. I won't be long.
"Hey. Hold on a," the young woman there shot back heatedly but by then the tigress had simply vanished, "Great."
Looking over at Reena, Linka again narrowed her eyes with obvious dislike on her face and Tiki suddenly stepped before her friend with a worried expression, leaning close to whisper in her ear. Reena however only stepped back again, leaning back against the broken boat's flat undersides and folding her arms over her chest while staring back into Linka's furious glare with bored eyes.
"I don't care…she deserves," Linka hissed angrily to whatever Tiki had been whispering.
"If you have something to say…Link." Reena said loudly without moving, "Then just come out and say it."
"We know about you. You were one of us." Linka said angrily, "And then you…murdered one of us."
"Linka, no." Tiki said louder as her friend none too gently pushed her aside.
Reena gave no reply although while her expression remained the same, she dropped her eyes to the sand at her feet.
"You're no Kyoshi Warrior. You are Uragirimono. Traitor!" Linka spat the words, "Kyoshi has no place for warriors who turn on their own."
"Link." Tiki said a little more forcefully, moving to stand before her friend again.
"It doesn't matter Tiki." Reena said softly without raising her eyes, "Her little threats don't mean anything."
"Threats?" Linka snapped angrily, pushing Tiki aside again and pointing a finger at Reena, "You don't belong here and you certainly deserve what he's done for you."
"Done to me, you mean." Reena answered in the same dull tone, "I didn't ask for any of this."
"Then go back where he found you." Linka spat back, the fury on her face only growing.
"Make me." Reena said as she raised her eyes, pushing away from the boat her stance loosened and she glared across at the pair nearby.
"No." Tiki moaned as Linka flexed her wrists, suddenly clutching two fistfuls of razor sharp shuriken.
Turning fretfully from her best friend to the other woman nearby, Tiki remained uncertain of what to do at first but the decision was made for her as another figure appeared between the two would-be combatants. Reena and Linka straightened, relaxing a little as Azula levelled a cool stare at first one then the other and finished adjusting the fine chain around her neck so the sapphire she wore was in view.
"I'm glad to see everyone is getting along." She quipped softly and turned to face the two Kyoshi Warriors, "There's nothing out there. Too many human feet and the shifting sands have wiped away any trace of whatever did this. You may as well get back to Gaoling and keep looking for potential recruits."
"Yeah, it's getting late. Let's head back, ok?" Tiki asked her friend soothingly and Linka shot her an apologetic look.
"And ladies." Azula added, waiting until they turned to face her before finishing, "Keep your eyes open. When Danny does surface…we may find we are not the only ones looking for him."
The pair swallowed and nodded to Azula although Linka turned one last glare toward Reena before the two warriors vanished with soft pops.
No sooner were they gone when Reena found herself slammed into the upturned boat at her back and a pair of faintly glowing golden eyes glaring into her own from a few inches away.
"If you ever raise a hand to one of my friends again," Azula hissed coldly.
"You'll send me back to Daddy. Yeah, I know." Reena shot back with a sneer, "But I will not stand meekly by while your friends cut my throat."
"Then perhaps you should have thought of that before you sent the things that murdered Linka's sister." Azula snapped, turning away as Reena flinched, dropping her face to glare at the sand by her feet.
Walking away, Azula moved a short distance from Reena, again searching the area with her eyes and scenting the cool night air.
"What choice did I have?" Azula heard the barely audible whisper rise from behind her, "Fate was the only option he left me."
"That's the problem with the choices we make." Azula said loudly without turning to Reena, "Even when there are no other options, we still have to face the consequences of those choices."
There came no reply from behind and after scanning the area one last time, Azula turned back with a tired sigh.
"There's nothing here. We may as well move on." She said.
"Do you really think he's on the mortal plane?" Reena asked softly, her own glare fading, "It's been over a week."
"I know what I felt." Azula answered tersely although her own expression softened quickly as she dropped her glare, "Unfortunately…I think Aang was right. What I felt of his mind was torn and fading fast but…he was still thinking of us and," pausing she looked about and sighed again, adding in a whisper, "He will be lost, alone and…completely without conscious control of himself. When Danny does surface and show himself, we can expect something far worse than a few dead Sandbenders. If Daniel had done this…he would have wiped out every tribe in this desert."
Reena could only nod to this assessment and for a moment the two young women shared the same sad and concerned expressions. Then squaring her shoulders, Azula strode forward and reached out to grasp Reena's arm in one hand.
"What say we move on somewhere new? We've searched enough of the northern mountains." Azula said, her lips twitching briefly up into a smirk, "And I was thinking that if Daniel truly wanted to hide himself away where no one would find him, there's only one place on this world where he could do that."
"Where exactly?" Reena asked warily, already having learned caution when her companion smiled just so.
"Someplace I know you…and your father are not very fond of." Azula answered, her smirk growing, "But Danny said he loved going there as a child. Especially the local sport."
"Oh, no. We are so not going skiing." Reena moaned, her shoulders slumping as Azula carried them both away into the chi pathways.
"I'm sorry, Zhu but Aang had to go." Mai said patiently, "He's trying to unite the various earthen kingdoms which won't be easy but he should be back in a few days to a week. Don't worry, I know you and Ana have become good friends. She'll be back soon."
In her large, brightly lit personal lounge, Mai sat comfortably on an overstuffed chair, the young Firelady's feet resting on a pile of cushions. But while Mai reclined in comfort, the young girl pacing before her did not, the long braids either side of Zhu Lee's head flicking wildly about as the girl turned sharply with an uncharacteristic frown on her face.
"No. No, it's not about Ana." Zhu Lee said, stopping her pacing to turn to Mai, "I'm worried about Tommy."
"Tom Tom?" Mai asked, sitting up straighter with a worried frown of her own, "But…Aang's examined Tommy and Ty Lee twice now. He did say Tommy's spirit may need a little more time to heal fully after what happen but they should both be fine."
"My sister is but Tommy's not. At least…not really." Zhu Lee exclaimed animatedly, "He's always tired and upset and he's restless and…and if I wasn't watching out for his nightmares I don't think he would get any sleep and just lately,"
"Whoa. Back up." Mai interrupted with a frown, "Watching over his nightmares? Zhu Lee, having you been sneaking out to my parent's house at night to be with Tom Tom?"
"I have to." The girl exclaimed with a matching frown, "He only just closes his eyes and he's tossing and turning but…the funny thing is…I think he likes them."
"Oh, alright." Mai replied, her frown softening as she reached out to grasp Zhu Lee's hands in her own, "So what else has you worried about Tommy?"
"Sometimes…he gets really, really angry." Zhu Lee answered uncomfortably, adding hastily as Mai's frown deepened, "Not to me. He's been…really extra sweet to me lately but today…Tommy yelled at my Daddy."
"My brother…raised his voice to Jeong Jeong?" Mai asked, only disbelief on her face.
"He…Tommy's determined to convince Daddy to train me to be a warrior." Zhu Lee explained, again adding hastily as Mai's expression remained unchanged, "I want to be just like Daddy and Ty Lee but…I don't want to disappoint Daddy. I want him to train me but…he says it's too dangerous but Tommy keeps trying to convince him and then Daddy gets angry and then Tommy gets angry and…and…then Tommy got mad and called Daddy a…a pompous dinosaur with his head stuck up his…uh…his um."
"I think I can guess." Mai replied as Zhu Lee fell silent, "What happened then?"
"Daddy made Tommy do a hundred hot-squats then run around the training yards a hundred times but," the girl began, unable to keep a small grin off her face as she finished, "Tommy did it…and then he asked Daddy again to train me."
"Oh, lord." Mai said, flinching at the thought, "What did your father do…or do I even want to know?"
"He made Tommy train even harder but…I think he was kind of impressed." Zhu Lee replied with a bemused smile.
"Hmm." Mai's brow creased as she thought of what she had heard and how to respond, "Zhu? Have you considered that Tom Tom…well, you and Tommy both are getting to that age when…err, changes are taking place and he will be starting to see you a little differently now and with that comes, uh,"
"Oh, you mean about boobs and hair in funny places and sex and babies and stuff?" the girl interrupted brightly and shrugged as Mai's jaw dropped open, "My older sisters already told me about that although Ty was a lot more…err, descriptive."
"I bet she was." Mai mumbled and then frowned again, "And I don't suppose my parents have given Tommy that talk yet. Our mother waited until my wedding day to try and tell me where babies come from."
"And look," Zhu Lee said, grinning hugely as she pointed at Mai's bulging stomach, "It worked."
Gaping at the girl for a moment, Mai clutched at her belly as she erupted into a storm of giggling.
"Oh, Zhu. You reminded me so much of Ty just then." Mai told her as her laughter settled, "Ok then, tell me. Are you very worried about Tommy?"
"I am…A bit." Zhu Lee replied, her own smile fading, "I don't think anything is…wrong with him. He's just…different and…and…I just want Tommy to be ok."
"So do I." Mai replied warmly, reaching out to take the girl's hands again, "I admit I haven't spent a lot of time with my baby brother since we got home. So how about this, when Toph gets home, why don't you and Tommy join her, Zuko and I for dinner tonight? That way I can spend some time with my brother and afterwards," pausing a moment, Mai grinned evilly, "I'll take Tommy aside for THAT talk."
Mai couldn't help smiling at the intense relief and open joy on the young girl's face but her eyes went wide as Zhu Lee suddenly lunged forward, wrapping her arms about the Firelady's neck in a tight hug.
"Oh, thank you, Lady Mai." She gushed happily, "Thank you."
"Zhu Lee." Mai added sternly as the young girl drew back, "What did we talk about?"
"Oh, err…sorry La…I mean…err, Mai." Zhu Lee replied uncomfortably.
"When it's just us, drop the formalities, sweetie." Mai said warmly, "After all, I'm hoping you and I will be sisters one day."
"Me too." Zhu Lee replied, blushing as she suddenly blurted in a giggling rush, "I kissed Tommy and it…he was really nice."
"You're first kiss? That's wonderful." Mai replied although her smile faded a moment later, "Err, just keep in mind that you're both still very young and…just don't go trying any of the other things your sisters told you about just yet."
"Eww." Zhu Lee shot back with a disgusted expression, much to Mai's relief. Then pausing thoughtfully, Zhu Lee added, "Besides, if I tried the things Ty talked about, I think I might break Tommy."
Her mouth dropped open but once more Mai burst into a fit of uncontrollable giggling, Zhu Lee joining in a moment later.
There were many villages and towns dotting the countryside of the earthen kingdoms, some of those communities devoted exclusively to farming, fishing, mining or sometimes, hunting. Within the old growth forests to the south of Full Moon Bay, three figures made their way silently through the clear ground surrounded by enormous pines. They moved with exaggerated care over a thick carpet of pine needles, two men with bows notched and ready while a few steps behind them followed a teenage boy loaded down with an enormous backpack.
"Dad?" the boy asked, panting heavily, "Can we…take a break."
Lowering their bows, one of the men in front scowled angrily but the other turned to the boy with a tolerant smile.
"Nesso, if you're going to learn the trade," the man said with a smile, "You need to learn to be silent."
"At least that way we might actually find something to hunt." The other man growled, turning his scowl on the boy briefly before he turned and marched away.
"Sorry Dad." The boy said, chastised.
"It's fine, son. I made my share of mistakes when my Dad taught me." His father replied with another smile, "And don't worry about Jenko. He's just worried we won't get anything worth trading but go on…drop the gear and we'll have a rest."
"Another break?" the scowling man, Jenko snapped as he continued walking slowly through the trees, "We'll be lucky to get something to eat at this,"
The man fell silent, father and son watching as his bow suddenly came up trained on something deeper into the trees. Almost instantly his arrow streaked away but at the same moment something huge and dark brown slammed into him, the man screaming briefly as he was driven to the ground. As the boy and his father stood frozen, the creature crouched atop Jenko, it's jaws already about his throat and with a simple flex of it's neck, the creature tore the man's head cleanly off and sent it rolling away over the ground.
"D…dad?" Nesso whimpered but froze again as the animal's head snapped up, milky green eyes glaring at the pair as it snarled savagely.
At over four feet at the shoulders, the animal easily outweighed the man it had just killed and it's snarling continued as it stepped away from his corpse, stalking slowly toward the two nearby as Jenko's blood dripped from it's jaws.
"Stay still." The father breathed, not daring to take his eyes from the creature, "Just…don't…move."
But a fresh surprise arrived then, another animal bounding from deeper into the forest and they stared as the Huntress hurried over to put herself between them and the snarling animal.
Hunter. No. she insisted, his snarling easing though she was forced to move again as he tried to step around her, No, Hunter. Two legs death. Kill two legs. Bring more two legs.
As always she sensed little comprehension from her companion but she remained firm, standing before him even as he snarled at her, baring blood stained teeth that opened and snapped together next to her face. He seemed uncertain what to do when she stood her ground, the fur across his shoulders lowering slightly even as he growled all the louder at the two humans nearby.
"D…d…dad?" Nesso whimpered again as the strange standoff continued.
"Don't make any movements." His father whispered quickly, the man only then turning his eyes to his son, "Listen…I'll draw them away…then you,"
But he fell silent as yet two more arrivals appeared, the Huntress's pups swooping low over the ground through the trees as they flew quickly over to their mother. The brown animal she stood before however did not seem to notice them, only turning his face between the two humans as the endless growl rose from him.
Hunter. We go. The Huntress insisted, pushing her face close to his, We go…home.
The animal's growling lessened, his attention turning from the father and son to the Huntress before his growl ceased all together as he looked down at the pups who had begun sniffing at the blood that had coated the thick fur on his chest.
Concerned mainly for his inexperienced son, the man stood a few yards from him and with trepidation stared at the animals between them and the remains of his hunting partner. He'd seen other hunters taken by predators before, it was a well-known risk taken by all hunters who sought game in the wild but the man knew he'd never seen anything move that fast. In the instant after Jenko had fired his bow, the experienced hunter knew he'd seen the brown streak that came flying in curve around the arrow before smashing Jenko to the ground. Before taking the man's head off in a single bite.
Hunter. Come. We go. Her tone and posture were soft, the female changing tactics as she brushed past the Hunter, her short tail playfully flicking his nose as she walked a short distance then turned her head to look back, Hunter. Huntress. Go. Pack safe. Go home.
The pups yapped excitedly, rushing over to their mother and sniffing in the direction of the corpse laying amogst the trees a short distance away but the larger brown animal however turned back to the humans who tensed in fresh fear, that fear escalating rapidly as he began to stalk toward the father, growling softly in the back of his throat.
The man pulled his eyes away with effort and looked to his son, shaking his head imperceptibly as the boy locked eyes with him.
"When it takes me." The father hissed in a trembling whisper, "Run."
The boy turned his face away and his father closed his eyes yet through his terror the man felt a sudden twinge of confusion as something jabbed him roughly in a tender place. His eyes shot open and he stared down at the brown creature that had it's nose buried in his crotch, snuffling away loudly for a moment before it drew back, turning then to sniff in the direction of the man's son. When it turned back it drew close again and the man tensed but again he was confused as the animal only latched onto his bow with it's teeth, yanking it from his unresisting hand. Walking back a few paces, the animal looked up at the man with pale green eyes that seemed to see right through him, then with a loud snap, bit the bow in two.
Understanding the message clearly, the man nodded once.
Satisfied there was no longer a threat to his pack, the Hunter turned away from the humans and walked back toward the Huntress but veered away before he got there. He paused once beside the headless corpse, dropping his head to sniff at it.
Two legs bad meat. The Huntress informed him, Make sick.
Raising his head to look at her, the Hunter only cocked one leg and sent a dark yellow stream splashing down onto Jenko's bloodstained chest. Then turning about he kicked at the ground with his hind legs, scratching up the leaf litter there and sending a spray of it flying out over the corpse. With a last snort in the human's direction, the Hunter trotted over to his companion and together they moved off, the two pups chasing after them through the trees by running and jumping up to snap open their wide wings and gliding after the adults.
He watched until long after they'd gone, barely aware of it when his son rushed to his side and hugged him tightly, the young teen quietly sobbing as the terror drained from them both.
"Dad?" the boy asked after several minutes, "What were those?"
Opening his mouth, the father squeaked loudly when he first tried to speak and cleared his throat loudly before he could answer his son.
"The smaller, lighter one and the pups were Wolf-bats…and I have a feeling that little female just saved our skins." The man said, surprising himself as his voice came out steady and clear, "But in all my years…I've never seen anything like that other one."
"It was definitely hairier than the other one." The boy commented, his eyes shying away from their dead companion as he rambled on, "And no wings. And a longer tail. Bigger ears and big…big teeth."
"Easy there son." The man said warmly, holding the boy to his side, "Let's just take a moment and then we'll make for home."
"But Dad." The boy asked, looking up at his father, "What about,"
Still without looking directly at it, the boy jerked his head toward the headless corpse several yards away.
"Every hunter knows the risks. Some men from the village will come and get him and if they want to hunt down the thing that killed him…they're welcome to it." The father said, giving his son a determined look, "Then tomorrow, you and I are going to the markets at Half Moon Bay to buy some seeds."
"Seeds?" the bow asked his father in confusion.
"And a plough. I think it's time for a career change. How do you feel about growing cabbages?"
It was almost routine to her now, her slippered feet gliding silently over the roof tiles of the imperial city until she dropped down over the wall of his family's estate. Running through the shadowy gardens she scaled the wall of his home with ease, lifting herself onto the small balcony outside his room and pushing the doors open silently. She was surprised and a little concerned to see him awake, sitting up on his bed and hugging his knees to his chest as he stared at the far wall.
"Tommy?" Zhu Lee asked and then jumped herself as he jerked with a shout of surprise.
"Zhu?" he breathed, wrapping his arms about his legs again, "I didn't hear you."
"Are you ok, Tommy?" she asked, moving to the bed and reaching out to rest a hand on his forehead.
"Yeah, I'm ok." Tommy said in a dull monotone, his eyes still glued to the far wall, "It's just…after you and your Dad left, my sister took me to her rooms and told me…err, something."
She looked at him appraisingly but again his reaction worried her as Tom Tom brought his hands up to cover his head as his eyes took on a haunted glaze.
"And then," Tom Tom continued in horrified tones, "Lady Toph came in and told me…more."
"Err…alright." Was all Zhu Lee could reply.
She thought back to those conversations she'd had with her older sisters, remembering she'd found some of it mildly disgusting and the rest enormously amusing but Tom Tom's reaction to it worried the girl.
"What exactly did your sister and Lady Toph say?" she asked but Tom Tom blanched, burying his face between his knees.
"Zhu?" his frightened and slightly muffled voice rose a minute later.
"Yes Tommy?" she replied.
"You know…how you want to…get married and have babies?" his voice came in a rush.
"Err…yes." She replied, her worries deepening by the second.
"Exactly…when did you want to do that?" he asked, his tone as worried as hers.
"I…ah, was hoping when we're a lot older." Zhu Lee replied in a rush, leaning slightly away from him, "After all our adventures. Like…when we're our sisters ages maybe."
Tom Tom's face finally rose from between his knees and while it did little to ease Zhu Lee's confusion, her worries were greatly reduced at the intense look of relief he gave her.
"Oh, Thank Agni." Tom Tom breathed.
I've probably made Tommy's...um, condition a bit obvious? Oh well, hopefully you won't have worked it out yet. The identity of the Hunter however should not be too difficult to guess but I hope to put plenty of surprises into this book.
Review. Oh, please please review. I can't live without them. Well, I can and probably will go on living without them but still...REVIEW...FOR THE LOVE OF DOG! REVIEW!