The Dark and Wild
Chapter 4: Voyager
The reason we are so eager to follow the blue masked man's lead was not because I wanted to thank my "savior" for his... sudden, yet helpful, appearance outside Kyoshi Harbor; it's because I have seen drawings of the machine before - in many of the Air Temples, actually. On the page the old woman handed to us earlier that night, there was also a sketch of what the memory crystals look like. It's impossible for us to decipher the script on the pages (it's an ancient script neither Sokka, I, nor the old woman can read), but Sokka is very enthused because we actually have memory crystals and as soon as he pointed it out to me, I think I could have done a backflip (if I was more acrobatically inclined).
We never knew what they were before, so we just assumed they were simply prisms and found them beautiful so we decorated Teo's lab with them in Omashu. I think I even sent a few home to my grandmother, also. A few of them were shattered and just mere fragments we hadn't bothered to restore, some were broken in large pieces, but we definitely had one or two that were complete. Maybe these memory crystals can tell us the secret about the crystal stasis. The orb, was, for all intensive purposes lost to the Kyoshi Elite who would be all too pleased to arrest us for illegal trading if we ever show our faces again, but, maybe there was a different way to go.
But this means in order to ask about this kind of machine, technology, and anything, we have to find a spirit first. And that... was tricky.
"Are you sure?" Sokka asks me for what has to be the umpteenth time.
"Yes," I answer, not bothering to conceal the annoyance in my voice.
"But, are you really, really sure?" he repeats. "It just seems... like a bad idea."
I snap my eyes over to look at him. "For the bazillionth time, yes, Sokka! We need to find a spirit to talk to, and I think our best chance is here," I whip out the map I have of the Earth Kingdom territories and draw my finger in a circle around a swamp. "There's apparently some intense sort of spiritual-kinetic energy there, and I want to look into it."
"Yeah, but, it's also a..." his voice trails off, and I close my eyes as I turn my head to face the window.
"A dark zone, I know," I finish. "I'm not thrilled about it either."
We're taking a hover train because it's the fastest and safest means of travel - with respect to anonymity. Thankfully, Chin's Village has no intention of extraditing to it's hostile neighbor, but unfortunately, our belongings are all collectively stuck in Kyoshi Harbor. Unless we want to face the very angry Kyoshi Elite, the best choice is to just cut our losses. And though I say it's the fastest means of travel available, it will still be the late afternoon when we arrive because this train makes a stop at every destination between here and Omashu.
This is exceptionally unfortunate because we have very little with us due to the sequence of events that has led us here. All in all, we have exactly what we brought with us into the restaurant, plus the picture we received from the old woman of the device, and the canteen of water I bought from the train station since my bending is really the only tangible weapon we have aside from Sokka's modest hand-to-hand combat.
I must have sighed because I feel my brother's arm wrapping around my shoulder and pulling me into his chest.
"It's okay, we're going to figure this out," he promises. "We always do."
I'm glad Sokka has taken to being the reassuring one for tonight. I'm just so frustrated and tired by everything that happened tonight that I don't even have the energy to do it for myself. I decide that I'm going to try and occupy the remaining forty-five or so minutes by thinking about what we should do next.
Of course, there's no train that's going to willingly stop in a dark zone to let passengers out, so we have two options: get off at the nearest stop and travel from there, or make your own stop. Since jumping out of a high speed hover train is highly inadvisable (and damned difficult to stop if you want a slower means), we get out at a small town named Banqiao. From there, the swamp's possible to reach.
When we get off, it's after 4 in the evening, and we see that Banqiao is quite, well, deserted. Apparently, the proximity to the swamp makes it an uncomfortable place to be. I also spot something that catches my eye.
"Hey, check this out," I call to Sokka, walking over. "It's a bounty."
"What, you want to be like that biker chick June or something?"
"No," I make a face at him. "He's called the Blue Spirit."
Sokka rubs the stubble on his chin thoughtfully as he reads over the poster for the figure we saw between Chin's Village and Kyoshi. "Huh. Must've ticked a lot of people off for the Fire Nation to be willing to make deals with Earth Kingdom towns to extradite the guy. Wonder what he did."
His only listed crime was ambiguously 'wanted in connection for crimes against the crown.' It would be a lie for me to not admit I spent a lot of time on the train thinking about the man behind that terrifying mask, but since Sokka and I are now chasing the lead this man seems to hold a high stake in, something told me I would see this mysterious Blue Spirit again. It is all just a matter of when and where.
I shrug to my brother, then rotate my wrist a bit and he suggests, "Let's find somewhere to stay for tonight. We need a good rest if we're going to make it to the swamp in a day's trip."
I nod my head in agreement, then touch the broken pendant around my neck. I was very nervous about what was in store for us tomorrow.
We find a cheap, but hospitable inn to stay in last night and Sokka and I immediately fall asleep when we close and lock the door. We barely had the energy to brush our teeth and take off our heavy pants and boots, and none to eat dinner so we decide we'll make up for it with a heavy breakfast.
I wake up before Sokka does, who is completely content holding the pillow to his chest, and stretch my arms a bit. The clock says it's just after 6:40AM, which is well before I planned on being awake, but then again, I had fallen asleep around 5 the evening before.
I feel the grime and stickiness of trying to escape from Kyoshi Elite and rebels on top of two days without a proper bath or shower, so I stand up and pull my pants back on. Into a dark, dirty, and terrifying swamp my brother and I may go, but I refuse to go another day without some sort of display of personal hygiene.
I pull the beads holding the loops of my braid back and undo it in its entirety before grabbing a towel and going into the bathroom. After stripping down, I hang my clothes on the towel rack nearby the shower so some of the steam can refresh them just a bit. I step into the shower after doing so and am pleasantly surprised the hot water has decent pressure and isn't inundated with bursts of ice cold water. It's not that I can'tbear a cold water or I'm not used to them, but truthfully unless it's insufferably hot (like in the Fire Nation), no one likes a cold shower.
The glass is fogged when I come out and I wipe it with my hand so I can lean in and check the mark on my neck. It has, thankfully, grown a little less severe looking and I sigh a bit in relief. The makeup had worn off quite a bit between the unpleasant turn of events in Kyoshi Harbor and our arrival to Banqiao, and I believe some of the attendants on the train as well as the receptionist downstairs suspect that I'm the victim of domestic abuse. I tell myself a few more days, and I can stop worrying about applying makeup to conceal the markings.
There are some dark circles under my eyes, but they've also faded in comparison to last night. Since I've been traveling with my brother, I've lost a lot of weight and grown leaner; since we don't live in the South Pole anymore, we don't need nearly the amount of fat intake we had before to keep warm. My face was the first to thin, but the weight also dropped off other parts of my body, and now I'm a little less curvy than I was when I first left home around 16, but, I still tend to be more shapely than a lot of women - which occasionally gets me places. My favorite thing about myself though is definitely my eyes; Sokka and I both have blue eyes, but his are a icy, lighter blue and mine are a darker blue, almost like the color of the ocean when you're out far from the shoreline.
"Knock, knock," Sokka yawns as he knocks on the door. "Better not have used all the hot water up."
"I didn't," I reply quickly and step out, still wrapped in my towel with my clothes in one hand. After the door to the bathroom closes behind him, I finish towel drying and change into my clothes, then proceed to bend as much of the excess water as I can from my hair. I could have also done this for my skin when I came out of the shower, but I truthfully enjoy the sensation of a soft, fluffy towel on my skin, so I often omit this step unless circumstances don't allow it.
I rap on the door slightly with my knuckles and tell Sokka I'm going downstairs to ask if there's any sort of breakfast or tea available to eat. He must be brushing his teeth because his mouth sounds full when he replies, "Okay, sounds good!"
I trot downstairs and speak to the receptionist, who gives me a polite smile and motions with her hand to a small room to the side.
"We offer tea, juice, fresh fruit, eggs, pastries, and smoked ham for breakfast for an extra 10 copper pieces" she explains. I don't find the price unreasonable, so I fork over the money to cover myself and Sokka and she smiles and says after I pay, "Please help yourself."
And I fully intend to. I go to fill my small plate with some fruit, plenty of ham and eggs, and one pastry. I set the plate down, then look through the selection of tea available. There's rose, white dragon flower, green milk, and orange cinnamon, and none are on my list of top choices.
"Try the white dragon flower," a voice cuts through the silence.
I glance over and see a rather plump man reading some sort of book and sipping on his own cup of tea. He's wearing heavy boots, and his clothing looks distinctly military.
"White dragon flower is wonderful for giving you energy in the morning, although," his voice grows a bit concerned, "rose is also good for healing injuries." I notice his eyes have trailed from mine to my neck and I put my hand over it protectively.
"No, it's not like that-" I stammer quickly, slightly embarrassed. Though many have clearly observed my injury, no one has mentioned it before.
"Young couples like to try new things, it's perfectly alright, I don't judge," he smiles a bit and I grow even more embarrassed.
"I- no!" I cover my eyes with my other hand, feeling myself start to grow warm. "There was this... rebel attack, and I just, I'm fine and he didn't do anything dishonorable," I explain, hoping to avoid yet another misunderstanding, "but yeah, he made a few threats is all."
"You poor child," he frowns and closes his book. "I'm so sorry to hear that. Did you report it to the authorities?"
"It was in between territories, so I don't know if anything can be done," I say, avoiding eye contact as I pour the rose tea. "Besides, I've seen a lot worse."
He nods solemnly before saying, "Perhaps you would care to join a kind old man for breakfast? It would surely make this humble man's day."
"Oh, I don't know," I start to say. "My brother is-"
"-welcome to join us when he arrives. I promise, I mean no harm," he smiles warmly. "Please. My nephew did not want to join me this morning, so I'm alone."
"O-okay," I reluctantly agree, taking a seat across from him with my tea after I grab my plate of food.
"Such beautiful eyes you have, Miss-" he hesitates and leaves an opening for me to interject my name. I don't take it.
"Thank you. My mother gave them to me," I say lightly and take a sip of the tea.
He doesn't show any sort of annoyance that I don't offer my name and continues with the flow of the conversation as I eat. "Then she must be just as beautiful as you."
"Was," I correct, my voice trembling a bit. "The dark-"
"Say no more, child," he says gently. "I've yet to meet someone who has not lost someone."
"I'm sorry for your loss or losses, then," I say lamely. His point does ring true; even if he didn't specify who he lost, I'm sure he lost someone.
"As am I for yours."
His eyes look weary and sad, but he takes a sip of his tea and then the warm smile returns to his lips. "Tell me, child, have you ever read Love Amongst the Dragons?"
"Ah, what?" I ask, raising my eyebrows. "I've never heard of it."
"Oh, what a tragedy!" he exclaims dramatically. "It's such a wonderful story. Traditional Fire Nation one, actually."
"I didn't know that Fire Nation stories were so popular in the Earth Kingdom," I replied.
"Oh, usually, they're not, but Banqiao is a Fire Nation colony."
"Are you from the Fire Nation then?" I ask, trying to mask any concern in my voice.
The Fire Nation has suddenly become relevant again if I'm in a colony with respects to its interests in artifacts; it's possible they're also following the same lead I am when it comes to this Blue Spirit character, and it could mean a spot of trouble if my brother and I end up in the middle of the crossfire between the Blue Spirit and some opponent. It probably is also worth mentioning the Fire Nation and Water Tribes have never seen eye to eye. Ever.
"Yes," he answers after a moment and clears his voice. He seems harmless, but part of me is wondering if he's testing my response, "Have you ever been there?"
"Ah, no." I tell him quickly, then look to shift the topic, "But what's the story about?"
"Ah, it's a love story, and ah, it's just so beautiful. My nephew is probably the only person in the world who likes the story more than I do, though he might be quite cross if he heard me say that," he says.
"Hey there... sis," Sokka says from behind me, careful to not use my name. "How's it going?"
"Fine," I smile at him and motion at the chair, which he promptly takes. "This, um, gentleman was telling me about this story called Love Amongst the Dragons."
"Oh!" his eyes widen. "I know that one! I saw it in the library at the Southern Air-"
I kick him under the table abruptly. Not in front of a stranger from the Fire Nation!
He makes a face at me then regains composure. "I saw it in a library once. Is it any good?"
"Actually, I was just about to give it to your sister here as a gift. I've read it many times already," he smiles.
"Oh that's not necessary," I say politely, covering my mouth shyly as I've still got a bit of food in my mouth.
"Please, I insist. It's not often I get to meet such a kind young woman," he smiles. "Or one with eyes filled with water."
Part of me feels defensive, as if he's already caught onto the fact I'm from the Water Tribe. Some members of the Southern Earth Kingdom do have blue eyes though, so we can often get by with this excuse, but other times, our mannerisms are a dead give away.
When I look over, I see Sokka shoving an appalling forkful of eggs and ham in his mouth, and then he jerks his head towards the door. I give him a nod to convey that I understand he's ready to go, then I rise and give a polite bow of my head to the elderly man.
"I do apologize for this abrupt departure but, we really must get a move on," I explain. "Long day ahead for us. Thank you for the tea recommendation."
"My pleasure. I wish you the safest of travels," he hands the book to me. "Please, do take it and humor and old man."
"O-okay," I stutter, taking the book and giving him a polite nod of the head.
"Safe travels," he tells me, then adds, "but do avoid the swamp area to the north."
Sokka thanks him and puts an arm around me protectively, then thanks him for the suggestion before we make a hasty retreat.
Collecting the things we need to buy is relatively easy; we go and buy the essential camping goods like canned food, sleeping rolls, matches, and the sort, and we make a much needed stop to purchase a few changes of clothes with specific attention to underwear and socks since we're fresh out. My hiking boots are almost worn out, but I decide they can take some more wear and tear before we need to make that investment.
Being the shopping maniac that he is, Sokka insists that we also make a stop by a pawn shop to buy a few more protective items. I get a large hunting knife (which I do intend to use for hunting but would intimidate any thugs), an extra canteen of water, and new pair of leather gloves that have the fingers cut out. Sokka, still mourning the loss of his boomerang, buys a few knives also and a gun with extra bullets. While I know how to shoot a gun, and have kept one on me for many expeditions, I much honestly prefer the use of element.
After settling payments and loading our things into our bags and onto our backs, we finally set out just past mid-morning towards the swamp. We head due north, stopping every once in a while to check the map and make sure we're plotting our course correctly. Once or twice along the way we stop to take a break for water and an a breather (our bags aren't so light), and we definitely make a pit stop for a simple lunch of cold rice with a bit of a salty soy-based sauce. We'll have a more suitable, hot dinner later on but for now, the plan is to keep trecking.
"Katara?" Sokka says, his mouth a bit full.
"Hm?" I reply, running some water over my bruise to see if I can hasten up the healing process any. It's, as I suspect, a futile attempt.
"What do you think we'll see in the swamp? Like, what kind of spirits?" he asks.
"I don't know," I reply, looking down. "I'm not sure what to expect at all."
He doesn't say anything more, and I finally look at him.
"Sokka... I'm scared," I admit softly.
"Me, too, sis," he replies faintly before giving a reassuring smile. "But we're in this together. Always have been, always will be. No matter what."
I feel a little better when he says this and give him a smile in response. Sokka can really drive me nuts sometimes (especially his snoring), but he can also be the best big brother.
It's late afternoon when we arrive outside the swamp. As desperately as we want to go into the swamp now and find a friendly(-ish) spirit, Sokka thinks it's best we wait until tomorrow morning at first light. The spirits at night are much more hostile, typically, and it looks hard enough to see during the day as it is.
We backtrack a fair bit so we're not completely in a hot zone, and when we feel like we're far enough back to avoid any kind of definite spirit encounters; we'll wake up before the at and make it back to the swamp so we can have all day.
I have some dried meat in a pouch and decide to heat it up with a thin broth we bought earlier so we can have it for dinner. There are no travelers here; people don't come this way. I knew to expect that much, and since we're in a Fire Nation colony, it's a bit comforting since we know we won't run into patrols, but being alone is scary, too, because it also means we'll have to take turns watching and we can only keep the fire for a short amount of time. We're far enough back to avoid any immediate encounters, but we also don't want to invite them to our camp either.
Sokka insists I take the first watch since I was up first this morning, but I'm too anxious to sleep. I have to plead and argue with him a bit.
"Katara, you've got circles under your eyes," he fusses.
"I'm okay, really." I protest. "Please, I prefer to do the first watch."
"I just think-" he begins but I cut in.
"Sokka, you sleep first. I want to stay up."
"Agh, fine," he gives in. Sokka knows once I make up my mind, there's no changing it.
He unrolls his sleeping bag and settles in as I pour sand and dirt over the fire to extinguish it. No sense in wasting my bending water on a campfire. I blink my eyes several times to adjust to the darkness, looking up and noticing the faint glimmer of the moon behind the purplish sheen of the sky and the thick grey clouds.
Truth be told, I want to go into the swamp this exact moment. I want to find the spirit and get the answers, and move on. We don't know how many of these memory crystal reader things there are out there, and what if this Blue Spirit character finds it before we do? What if he finds out we have memory crystals and tries to take them? Part of me wants to dismiss all of this as mere coincidence, but something tells me something is different this time.
My grandmother has always told me stories of the spirits of fate and the golden threads they weave. The life of our world is spun on this unending, infinitely thick cord and each person's life is spun from the cord of the life of the earth, and for each life, more threads are connected to it, representing the connections in our lives to other people. Some are brief encounters, a mere connection before splitting away, but some are connected from one moment onwards and never drift apart until one's thread is cut, or that person dies. Regardless, this is the web of fate and life. This part of me wants to hold onto the hope that my string intersected with this mysterious Blue Spirit's thread because he was meant to lead me to this machine...
But Sokka and Dad have never really believed in fate or destiny, so I can hear their voices in my head telling me to stop being so ridiculous. Still. There's a sense of comfort that comes from thinking there are bigger forces out there, moving things along for us.
A noise catches my attention. I remain quiet and still, trying to listen for it closer. Perhaps... no, there it is again. Accompanied by a sweet smell of something that I can't place... I feel myself growing dizzy and confused and I reach over to try and stir Sokka but it's as if my arms are glued to my sides.
Someone is... whispering my name. My eyes grow heavy and I feel as if someone's given me a sleeping medicine. My head falls forwards a bit, but I snap it back up in a moment, only to find I'm not with Sokka anymore.
I'm at the edge of the swamp. Before I can even process the fact I seemed to have blacked out, or that someone (or something) has carried me or brought me all the way back to the swamp, my eyes catch something and my mind is overwhelmed with emotions and I feel them bubbling more and more inside me until they're about to burst.
"Mommy?" I ask, my eyes welling with tears as I recognize the figure at the edge of the swamp.
I see her turn her head sideways and smile at me, before turning around and retreating into the thick of the trees.
"Wait!" I call out, and I finally feel dam of emotions explode inside. This is enough to make my legs snap into action and I run into the swamp, not caring that I've left my brother behind, not caring about anything in the world - just that I've seen my mother. My legs carry me fast and quickly until I stumble over a raised tree root and fall flat on the ground.
I cry out and try to lift myself, but I can't. I'm pretty sure my ankle is sprained, and when I look around, I realize I'm completely lost. I have no idea where I came in, all I see is darkness and thick marshy greenery. I go to remove the water from my bending pouch to heal my ankle when I hear this piercing roar burst through the noise of frogs and crickets. It's so sharp and loud, I drop the water and cover my ears. Then all the sudden I see a terrifying dark spirit and I feel like this heavy weight is on me, crushing the oxygen from my lungs. My head feels dizzy and everything feels like it's spinning; I muster whatever energy I have and project as much water towards the spirit and it sends it reeling back.
It roars again and I cover my ears again, gasping for air.
"Katara!" I think I hear a far off voice call.
"Sokka," I try and gasp out.
My eyes grow heavy again as I continue gasping for air, before they close when something hot and warm grabs my face and snaps in my ear.
"Snap out of it!" the voice belonging to someone with gold eyes commands.
A/N: Cliffhanger! Thanks for sticking with this! Don't forget to read and review. My next update will probably be right around Christmas (maybe before or after), when I'm back Stateside! :D