Goldeath again, and I'm back with another installment of The Shadowbender. Honestly, this chapter seems like a filler, something to move the story along. But then again, it's not what I think- it's what you think. So read, review and tell me what you think about the story. Now, without further ado, here's Serpentine Bones.
Chapter 9: Serpentine Bones
"So, where to now?" Aang asked.
We were all huddled around a map that Sokka had laid out on the ground. The desert was left behind a few hours ago, and we had just found a pristine oasis (ironically) to relax in. But, like always, break time was cut short by the need to move on.
"Well," Sokka started, his finger idly tracing circles on the slightly crinkled parchment. "Taking the long way around the river isn't an option, so the only other way to get to Ba Sing Se by land is this this sliver of land right here." He pointed to a brown line connecting the desert to the mainland, so narrow that it was barely discernable against the blue colorof the ocean. "It's called the Serpent's Pass."
"Gee, what a fantastic name for a bridge," I muttered.
"It;s better than nothing," Sokka replied. He rolled up the map, put it in its case, and stowed it in his bag. "Let's get going."
We had started to pack up our gear when suddenly my face went blank and I shivered slightly, my skin tingling. My eyes searched left and right, and, coming up without results, I sat down and slid into a meditative position. It was at that moment when my mind glowed with a sudden clarity that could only be described as ethereal. I smiled slightly. I was getting better at this.
"Something wrong, Bones?" Toph asked, her tone nonchalant with a hint of concern. "You seem a bit...dazed."
Opening my eyes, I stood up from my position and dusted myself off. "Refugees are approaching our camp," I replied simply.
A few seconds later, we heard the crunching of sandals on hard earth, and three people came into view. They were wearing worn, traditional Earth Kingdom garb, and the heavy bundles they were carrying on their backs seemed to be taking their toll.
"Hello fellow travelers!" the only man in the group said enthusiastically. Despite being a refugee, the guy seemed pretty happy.
Sokka seemed a tad suspiscious at that. "Hello. Where are you guys headed? This oasis is a bit off the beaten path, if you know what I mean."
If it was even possible, the man smiled even wider. "We are headed to Ba Sing Se. We're trying to get there before my wife Ying has her baby." He pointed to one of the women in the group, and she raised her hand in greeting. It was clear that she was pregnant.
"Great!" Katara said. "You can travel with us through the Serpent's Pass."
Ying gasped. "The Serpent's Pass? Only the really desperate tread that forsaken path."
"Ya hear that Sokka?" Toph punched him in his arm, and I needed to catch him before he faceplanted in the earth. "Great job picking the 'forsaken path'"
Sokka muttered his thanks to me and stood rubbing his arm. "Well, we are pretty desperate. Besides, what's so bad about it anyway?"
His question went unanswered. "You should come with us to the ferry docks of Fullmoon Bay," the man said. "It's just around that bend up ahead. The ferries take refugees to Ba Sing Se so they can start a new life."
I pretended to mull over the offer, stroking my chin thoughtfully. "Let's see... deadly pass or relatively safe ferry ride?" I turned to face the gang, smiling. "Anyone?"
Sokka frowned, but gave in. "Alright," he grumbled. "Lead the way."
We turned to go, but again I stopped as I felt another shiver crawl up my spine. But instead of being the tingling kind I had felt earlier, it was painful, like a thousand vulturewasps were tearing at my back. I knew what it was, but I didn't pay any mind to it. I didn't want to pay any mind to it. It would pass... hopefully.
If not, I'll most likely die.
What seemed to be the wall signaling a dead end cave parted to reveal a huge pier with three boats docked and one more coming in. It was filled to the brim with refugees, all wanting out of the Fire Nation-controlled portion of the Earth Kingdom and into the safety of Ba Sing Se.
I think the harsh reality of the situation finally hit us then, when we saw hundreds of them living out of tents, sighing ruefully when they didn't have anything to feed their children, or when they sat motionless waiting for a number that might never be called.
"Damn," I whispered as we walked up to the ticket lady. "Things aren't as they originally seem when you open your eyes, are they?"
Aang sighed. "No, unfortunately. And Loki," He pulled me to the side as Toph pulled rank on the ticket lady stating that she was of the Bei Fong family. That was more than enough incentive for the crone to hand over five tickets without complaint. "Are you okay?"
I smiled slightly. "I'm fine. Why?"
"I saw you in pain back there... is it coming?" Aang's face was one of complete worry, and I knew exactly what he was worried about.
I brushed of his question with practiced ease. "I said I'm fine. Now let's just concentrate on Ba Sing Se, alright?" After a brief hesitation, Aang relented, and we rejoined the group.
"Hey," Sokka said. "We're ready to roll! Now-aagh!"
A hand grabbed Sokka's collar, effectively stopping him in his tracks. He whirled around to face an (admittedly) pretty girl with tied-back red hair wearing a guard uniform. She was angry, by the looks of it, like someone just pissed her off, but there was also something off about her. I decided to keep quiet.
"Ticket and passport, please," she said, holding her hand out impatiently. Now I was almost positive that she was about to slap our friend, who at the moment had a bewildered expression on his face.
Sokka took out the items she asked for. "Um, is there a problem?"
"Yeah, there is. It's you," she said, poking her finger at Sokka, threatening to skewer him. "I've seen your type before," she continued. "You're sarcastic, probably think you're hilarious, and let me guess, you're traveling with the Avatar."
Damn, she was good.
"Do I know you?" Sokka asked warily.
Surprisingly, she got on tiptoe and kissed him on the cheek, effectively silencing everyone. Needless to say, my mouth dropped to the floor. Almost literally.
"I think you do," she said softly.
Suddenly, recognition dawned on Sokka's face, and it lit up with a huge grin. "Suki!" he nearly screamed, and everyone except for Toph and I exchanged hugs for what seemed like an eternity. It wasn't long before I started to get uncomfortable.
"Um, guys?" Toph said, waving her hands for emphasis. "Mind telling us what's going on here? 'Cause Loki's bound to explode with all the tension he has." I glared at her for that last comment.
"Oh, sorry!" Sokka facepalmed. "Loki, Toph, this is Suki."
There was definitely an awkward pause after that.
"Is she your girlfriend?" Toph asked.
"W-what?" Sokka seemed flustered for a moment. "No! Of course not!"
I looked at the both of them and snorted. "Liar."
We sat in a guard tower as Suki explained how she got here. Apparently, she's the leader of the Kiyoshi Warriors... a.k.a badasses. As she explained to Toph and I, they were a group of female warriors fully dedicated to protecting their island, no matter what the cost. She and the other Warriors had escorted some refugees to the Bay and they've been here ever since.
"So why are you taking the ferry, guys?" Suki asked us. "Wouldn't you just fly to Ba Sing Se on Appa?"
Everyone hung their head slightly. "Appa's gone," Katara said. "He was taken by Sandbenders while we were in the desert. That's why we're going to Ba SIng Se- to find him."
Suki gasped. "I'm really sorry to hear that." She turned to Aang, a worried expression on her face. "Are you alright?"
"I'm fine," Aang said firmly to all of us, so as to reinforce the fact. "What we need now is to focus on getting to Ba Sing Se, alright? So no more discussion about Appa."
"Hey, it's not like I'm gonna say anythi-ARGH!" My response was cut short by a quick elbow to the ribs, courtesy of Katara.
"Avatar Aang!" a voice shouted from below. We all peeked over the side of the tower to see the refugees we had just escorted here. "We need help! Somebody stole our bags! Our passports, our money- everything was in it, and now it's gone!"
"Hold on!" Aang yelled back. He leaped over the side of the tower and floated down to the refugees. "I'll see if I can help."
We watched as a he had a heated argument about the matter with the ticket lady a few moments later, with him waving his hands for emphasis and her standing her ground stubbornly. It would've been a funny sight if the stabbing pain I had felt earlier hadn't come back. I let out an involuntary gasp as the pain traveled to a new place- my arms. Now both my arms and my back felt like they were being torn apart. And, the scary thing is, I nearly saw my flesh and blood on the floor. And just as soon as it started, it stopped, and I staggered to one knee. Katara was by my side in a second.
"Are you alright?" she asked.
I swatted her hand away gently. "I'm fine, stop fussing." I got up and shook my head. "Just a little dizzy, that's all."
Toph snorted. "Bullshit," she muttered.
I glared at her and she stared back unflinchingly. We stayed like that for a full minute before I turned around, giving up. You could never win a staring contest with a blind girl. Never.
"Whatever," I muttered quietly. I wasn't in the mood to deal with her.
She looked surprised that I had given up so easily, but had discarded that instantly, not wanting to show concern. A moment later, Aang had climed back up the tower, facing us with a somber look.
Sokka sighed. "What's up now?"
"They can't get their tickets back, even though I tried my hardest." He exhaled deeply. "We're gonna have to take them through the Serpent's Pass if they ever want a chance to live in Ba Sing Se."
All of us, refugees included, approached the entrance to the Serpent's Pass, a massive, thin, winding trail that cut through the ocean and ended in Ba Sing Se's outskirts. Its very aura felt foreboding, and I saw the refugees surpress a shiver of fear as they saw it. I could tell that this trip wasn't gonna be easy.
Katara walked up the the gate signalling the start of the pass. Her fingers brushed over a message someone had etched into the rotting wood long ago. As she read it, her face turned somber.
"What does it say?" Toph asked.
Katara exhaled deeply. "It says 'Abandon all hope'"
The refugees gasped, and Ying clutched her husband's tunic desperately. "Abandon all hope?" she repeated. She started to tear up. "But that's all we have left! How are we supposed to go on without hope?"
Aang sighed. "The monks told us that hope was an illusion. Maybe it would be better if we just focused on what we were doing, which is getting across this pass."
"Aang's right." Everyone turned towards me as I spoke, probably because my voice had turned a bit gravelly, hellish even. I knew my disease was the cause, but I could deal with it later. Hopefully before it got too severe. "Hope is just something to fall back on for comfort, but now it's holding us back from achieving our goal. If we're to do this, it has to be with a clear head, a'ight?"
Katara still looked uncertain, but conceded. "Okay, if you say so."
Aang nodded towards me in thanks, and I waved a hand, silently telling him not to worry about it. It was the least I could do.
Moments later, we began our tedious trip to the other side. As I looked past everyone's heads (I had taken up the rear), all I could see was the winding trail, a spine of rock jutting out of the choppy ocean. It seemed never-ending.
I hadn't taken another step before I had the sickening crack I was dreading, accompanied by an intense rush of pain. Looking over myself, I found the limb that had broken- my left shoulder. It was twisted into a subtle, yet painful position that I couldn't push it out of. Needle-thin seams had opened on my ivory skin, leaking rivulets of blood and bleaching the skin around it to a stark, snow white. I was sure Toph had heard that crack, but at least she had the tact not to say anything. The others probably thought it was just falling rock or something.
Speaking of which, Ying's husband had stepped on a bad piece of cliff when I was tending to my wounds. Wrapping my left shoulder in the excess cloth of my sleeve, I was just about to step in when Toph beat me to it. She made a ledge of rock jut out of the cliff face, allowing him to step back up to stable ground. Unfortunately, we didn't have time to celebrate the close call.
My eye was quick to notice a Fire Nation tanker on our side of the pass. As soon as the crumbling rock made a splash in the water, a flaming boulder was hurled towards us like a comet.
"Shit," Sokka cursed, looking out over the ocean. "They've spotted us! Run!"
The group was happy to oblige, and they rushed to safety (what little safety there is on a five foot wide, jagged pass) while Aang catapulted in the direction of the incoming projectile using Airbending. I preferred to stay where I was, not being able to perform acrobatics at the moment. As Aang destroyed the boulder, I fired continuous spheres of black energy at the tanker, pummeling and breaching the hull. Aided with a crescent of air from my friend, the tanker crumpled into the sea as scrap metal. Around the wreckage, I saw ant-sized people swimming away towards safety. Again, I ask: what safety?
I inhaled sharply as another crack made itself known, this time resonating from my ankle. "Yo, Aang!" I yelled, leaning against the cliff. "We need to make camp for the night!"
Aang landed in front of me with a puzzled expression. "Why?"
"Loki?" Katara asked. "Are you comfortable?"
I smiled weakly, not moving from my prone position. "Yeah, I'm good." I made an opening in the dome of rock that would be my shelter (and my prison) tonight. "Now go, and no matter what you hear, do not come in, alright?" I exhaled deeply, trying to move myself into a more comfortable position but failing miserably. "Tell the others the same."
Katara looked reluctant to leave, but she did in the end. The dome sealed again and I was plunged into darkness. I blinked once, and I could see clearer than I would in the daytime. Not being able to do anything else, I braced myself and waited for the change.
I didn't have to wait long. In about a minute, a sickening crack echoed in the dome, and my jaw unhinged from its fixed position. I grunted in pain as blood flowed out of my mouth like a river. My teeth grew longer, to the point where they looked out of place in a human mouth and looked more like they belonged in an animal's maw.
A silent scream came from my mouth as my ribs started to open up in pairs, one after the other. After that, all I could hear were cracks, splashes, and the occasional rips as my body broke and put itself back together. The pain came in rapid succession now, the breaks now happening almost simultaneously. My face was contorted into a groteque mask as I slammed the ground repeatedly with my fist, which, admittedly, only made me hurt more.
And as fast as it came, it stopped. I couldn't move, not that I would try to. I felt that I would kill myself by moving just one centimeter. So I didn't, and I waited. I waited for what seemed like hours in a state of painful limbo. It started to affect my head, driving me damn near insane.
Then, finally (but not fortunately), everything came back together, snapping back into place. All... at... once. It was like a giant hand slammed down and clicked all my pieces back into place. Believe me, the feeling was far from pleasant.
"Aw, shit," I groaned, collapsing fully on the blood-drenched earth. "That was worse than I thought." I tried to move, and I gasped in pain, all of my strength having left me. The dome started to crumble and break around me, revealing my pitiful form. I was bleached snow white, in contrast to my former ivory skin, the seams that caused this nowhere to be seen. My teeth were sharper than ever, yet my black tounge glided over them without so much as a prick. I saw superthin lines, almost invisible, make my skin look like the scales of a serpent. I moved my head to see if anybody was awake.
No one was. Well, that's what I thought.
"Hey, Loki," came a shaky voice from behind me. I jumped, causing an earth-shattering jolt to travel up my body, effectively strangling any scream I would've voiced. This time, I turned my head slowly, and my mismatched eyes fell upon a shaken Toph, who was lying on her side staring right at me. Unconsciously, my eyes trailed over her body, taking in her perfect curves. True, it wasn't the time for that, but hey, this was probably the only time it would happen without me ending up with a broken jaw... again.
I asked the obious question. "Why aren't you asleep like everyone else?"
"I couldn't sleep." She paused, seemingly collecting her thoughts. "Not with you writhing in pain five feet away."
Motionless, I stared at her with a deadly seriousness. "Toph," I started. "What exactly did you hear?"
Then she did something I never thought possible. She teared up. "Everything."
I forced myself to my knees and shuffled over to her as best as I could, wrapping her in a hug before the tears truly started spilling. This was really not her, but I think if I put myself in her shoes, I would be cryin', too.
Toph grasped my bare back desperately, like I was going to leave. "...Don't you ever... ever... put me through that again. Do you hear me?"
"Obviously," I muttered. She pinched me, and I relented. "Alright, alright. I'll do my best, if that makes you any happier."
Toph took a sharp, short breath, finally calming down. "I thought I was gonna lose you," she said softly.
"I'm not that easy to lose, shorty." I squeezed her tight, feeling her drift off to sleep in my arms. "So i'm afraid you're stuck with me."
Was it good? In order to make up for the lack of action in this chapter and the long hiatus, there'll be two fights next chapter, which I promise won't be held off for three months. I hope y'all liked this, and please review, fave, and alert.