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Gone Questing

Chapter Text

Bubble, bubble, toil and trouble. Wait for the color to change.

Antidotes were always the worst to make. Precise measurements, rare ingredients, finicky brew times. You couldn't even make them in large batches, lest the consistency in one part of the potion be different from another. Any one of a hundred factors could turn a life-saving elixir into an even more potent poison than the one it was meant to save you from.

Of course, that was just for your average anti-toxins. Basic stuff you might find around any town and village: snake bites, toadstools, nightshade, and rooksbane.

Then there was Chimera venom.

Crafting this one order had taken Asami most of the morning. Carefully dicing the wild garlic into equally sized cubes. Holding her breath as she powdered the dried nirnroot, praying that she not inhale too much of the dust the process created. Last thing she needed was to pass out and have to start all over again from scratch. The dent this had made in her supplies was bad enough, already.

Three dreadflies, two salamander legs, seven leaves of Everoak. A full half-unit of dragon bile! One mistake and she'd be set back a week's good business, just to break even.

Not that business wasn't good. Rather, it had been clipping along wonderfully all year. The end of the war in the east meant trade had started flowing, again. With trade came caravans. With caravans came exotic ingredients from lands beyond the mountains, travelers in need of her wares and services, and a few familiar faces.

Coin flowed, and so did stories. Men bragged of fights won and lost, women told of fierce beasts and cunning bandits. The merchants relayed memories of deserts and seas more vast than the brain could imagine. Adventurers spoke of dark dungeons, vile Lich's, and treasures immense enough that a bare fraction being hauled out to the light of day was enough to propel mere peasants to the rank of Lord.

And here she was, chin resting on her workbench, waiting for the liquid in her glass boiler to turn from yellow to amber. Too long and it would go completely gold, making it the world's most expensive laxative. Too soon and the acidity of the bile would melt right through the drinker's jaw. And the floor beneath them.

“Hah,” she sighed, brushing a strand of ebony hair out of her eyes. When it had worked its way out of her tie, she couldn't hope to imagine. Long ago her mind had went numb from boredom or the fumes. “I want tea.”

But tea would mean leaving her post, risking both her livelihood and her contract. Such a hefty contract. With just ten vials Asami would make enough silver to hire an apprentice. Someone to do these menial tasks for her while she experimented with new, fantastic ideas. Or, at the very least, watch the door.

Dingaling! The bell on the entryway chimed it's happy tune.

Customer? No, customers. The wood rattles on a second patron's arm as they hold it open when it swings back to its frame.

With practiced care, the alchemist turns her head so the breath of her speech wouldn't blow out the faint, even flame she had stoked, whilst keeping her eyes well fixed on the simmering liquid within. “Welcome to Alchemia Draconis, I'll be right with you!”

Brew faster, you stupid potion!

“No rush,” a familiar voice called back, bringing an instant smile to her lips. When she blinked she saw amber eyes, slicked back dark hair, and a little scowl that drove the other girls of Salney wild. The brothers were back!

“Yeah, we've got aaaalll day!” the younger told her, cheerfully. On his face, he likely wore that boyish grin of his. Every time they'd ever dropped by her door, he'd been smiling about something, all the way back to when they were kids.

“Just come on back,” the brewer instructed, noting how the bubbles had started their third ebb in the cycle. It wouldn't be long, now. “I've got something going that I can't leave on the burner.”

“Sure, be right there,” Mako answered for both of them, before talking in a more hushed tone to his sibling.

From the storefront, Asami heard the sounds of clinking bottles as her displays were shuffled to allow passage behind the counter. Still hadn't found the right place to put them now that they were filled with product. Didn't really help matters that she left out the back door most days. The little back-alley behind her was so much quicker to get in and out of than the crowded square out front.

It did make having guests just the tiniest bit awkward, however.

A thud, a clatter, and a thunderous crash followed each other in short order. Bo had just knocked something over. Again.

“Sorry,” the youthful adventurer apologized, sticking his head 'round the corner with a light tinge in his cheeks. “I tripped over the-” he flicked his gaze back over his shoulder for a second “I actually don't know what was in those. It's either the clotting herbs or the numbing tea.”

Asami sighed, unsurprised. If she had known the boys would be dropping by, she would have tucked everything away in a more organized manner. Just because she found it easy to get around, didn't mean anyone else did. “I'll just add it to your tab,” the businesswoman hummed, calculating what the cost of replacing both sets of medicines and the jars that held them. Neither would really change the total much. If she ever felt so cruel as to call in her friend's debt to her, she could comfortably retire on a decent sized farm in the country.

“You want me to clean it up?” he asked as his brother squeezed passed, flattening himself against the door-frame to avoid her pile of outgoing packages.

A coin flip in her mind. Risk further damage to her wares, or take the chance and avoid spending time she could better put to other, more lucrative, purposes. “You know where the broom is,” she decided, ever so gently stirring her mixture to remove the excess bubbles obscuring her view.

“On it!”

Crash.

Clatter.

Smash.

Wince. That persistent twitch in her brow returned. So long as it wasn't the potions. Anything but the potions.

“Sorry!”

“It's okay,” Asami groaned, pinching her brow. It wasn't like she didn't have enough to do today.

While Bo began to carefully pick shards of glass out of the smashed remains of her bestselling products, the Alchemist returned most of her attention to the antidote on her workstation. “So, what brings you two to my shop, this time?” she quizzed Mako, tension building as the shade of her payday began to subtly shift. With a gentle flip of her wrist, the Alchemist turned her minute glass over, letting the sand fall. When the last grain fell, it would be done. “Just a social call or do you want me to whip you something up?”

“Actually,” the swordsman replied, really sinking his teeth into the 'c' like he did every time he was afraid to pass something by her, “I was wondering if you might want to help us with a little job?”

Hmm, how long had it been since he had asked that? Ah, yes. Six months. The Merling incident. A river town infested by a hoard of terrifying fish monsters, so busy eating people's pets and livestock (and attempting to eat the villagers once those ran out) that they didn't notice a party of adventurers sneaking into their lair to destroy their eggs. Until they tried coming out, again.

The boys had come home more stitches than flesh, with barely enough coin in their pockets to cover that week's expenses.

Yeah, none of that, please. “I'ma go with no,” Asami hummed, slipping on her padded glove. “No offense, but getting eaten by goblins is really going to mess with my plans for the weekend.”

“What plans?” her old friend asked, a playfully accusing tone in his voice.

“Not getting eaten,” she revealed, lifting the rapidly cooling vessel and readying the little receptacles in a row. “Do me a favor and cork these,” Asami requested, starting the first, gentle, pour. It was a thick liquid, like sap or honey once taken from the heat. That in mind, it took exactly four seconds for each bottle, at the same rate, for the perfect dose.

Rough, maddeningly grubby, hands followed behind, sealing her payday from the air that would spoil it. “What is this stuff?” Mako inquired, once he'd completed the line.

“Chimera antidote,” the alchemist said, pouring the excess doses into a pair of less gaudy containers. Her client had been very specific: ten doses, no more, no less. Unfortunately, that meant she ended up with spares. Expensive spares. Spares she wouldn't be getting rid of until the next caravan came through. Only a select few locals had enough coin to buy for themselves such luxury, and she could count on one hand the number that would have need for it.

A hum of concern from over her shoulder. “Sir Bosworth giving it another go?”

Spin on her chair and nod. “He seems to be,” the potion-crafter sighed, sliding off her glove and tossing it to the side. “Can't imagine why, though. How many men has he lost at this point? A dozen?”

“Thought it was a score,” Mako hummed, lowering his head in respect for his fellow adventurers. Not all of them had died, but the wounds from such a monster rarely healed well, condemning the unfortunate soul to a half life of dependency and begging. “Did you try and talk him out of it?”

“Of course, but you know how he gets,” the green-eyed shopkeeper mused, letting her hair down.

“Yeah.”

“Yeah.”

Carefully, Asami gathered the bottles and packed them in a little box, padded by straw to keep them from shifting. Someone would be by later for the exchange. A box of silver for a box of medicine. Money for food, for help, and new books to line her shelves. Books that may contain that which she didn't already know. Odd brews from the Elven lands, or from times long forgotten. Beyond the Great Sea, if needs be.

Nowhere was far enough away, no language too hard to decipher. Any lengths to further her studies. So long as there was hope of a cure.

That task dealt with, she took a casual glance at her traveler friend. Taller and thinner than his brother, features sharper. Bright amber eyes, cunning and observant. Scuffs and smudges on his garments betrayed his profession, showing the hard life he often led, and the recentness of his return. Dried mud on his boots, poorly mended tear in his sleeve. On much of his exposed skin there were cuts at varying levels of healing. Some of the balm she'd given them for that very purpose could be seen on the more recent of his scrapes.

He looked… good. Better than she had expected. Apparently, the last job the brothers had taken up had ended rather poorly, with a rushed retreat from a crumbling tomb, which, ironically, saved them from the pursuing undead horde.

“Look,” he said, leaning on her workbench. His face looked determined, unwilling to let go.

Well, at the very least, I can humor him. “Looking.”

“We need an alchemist with us on this,” the swordsman insisted, hand gesturing with every word to express how emphatic his request was. “It's a simple thing, just a fetch quest for some rare herb. All we'd need you to do is identify it and keep it safe on the way back.”

Brushing a stray hair out of her face, Asami sighed. “Mako...”

“I know, I know,” her oldest friend apologized, bringing his hands up to hold her off. A common tactic of his. Trained into him during their younger years, when she would often force her refusals onto the brothers with fists. “You can't leave your mom. But, just think about it, okay? The reward for this is the biggest I've ever been offered, and the deposit is probably enough to buy that entire box you've got there.”

“I highly doubt that,” she hummed, pushing the order a little farther from the edge of the table when she heard the sound of glass scraping along the floor outside. It seemed Bolin had finally grown tired of eavesdropping.

Jingle, jangle of coins. Bag hefted from his larger pouch. More swollen than his usual purse, that was to be sure. But, by her standards, it looked to only be enough to pay for a modest bulk shipment, with a little extra for rush service. That assumption was turned on its head, however, when he drew the string and emptied the contents on her cluttered desk.

Gold glinted in the smudged light from the window.

Gold.

Asami had seen gold coins, of course. Even been paid in them, from time to time. But never had she seen so many in one place. Twenty, thirty, she counted in awe. Forty, forty-five.

Fifty-two. Fifty-two Gold Crowns. As much as she made in a fortnight-and-a-half, if she was extraordinarily lucky. More than that precious morning’s work was likely to earn her, considering the old Knight’s habit of short changing her on the slimmest of grounds.

She did the math in her head. Actually, it was double her price. Over a thousand silver. Ten-thousand copper. Enough to buy a five-acre farm. Actually buy it. Not rent it off some stingy Lord or Baron for the rest of your life, only for your children to have to buy it again upon your death. And this was the advance. How much were they being offered for their work? Standard rate ‘round these parts for a big job was ten-percent.

“That,” he pointed, just as enamored with the coin as she, “is for ‘travel expenses’.”

Holy Mother. The thought of what she could buy with that amount of coin is exciting. Forget books, she could afford to purchase ingredients she’d only ever dreamed of. Do her own research, for once. Might finally make the breakthrough she needed.

No. No, she was needed here. “It’s a really tempting offer.” Eyes track back to the mound of coins against her will. “But, I’m gonna have to say no.”

“Oh, come on!” the younger brother calls from the front room, sound of the broom clattering on the floor. His head pokes around the corner, again. His face is almost comically screwed up into a frown. He’d always had the most entertaining and animated facial expressions. “You’ve gotta come. What are we gonna do? Bring old Jan along? Geezer’s got two bad hips and one good eye.”

“And he hates travelling even more than you,” Mako added, backing up his brother while gathering up their coin. Jingle, jangle, back into the bag that had spawned them.

The argument didn’t impress her. Rather, she only just managed to not groan at its weakness. “That’s because the last time he left town he lost an eye, and got thrown off a cliff by a rockslide,” the brewer deadpanned, grabbing her sealing candle and stamp. One quick strike of her flint later and the wax began to melt. “That’s how he broke his hips, or don’t you remember?”

By the look on their faces, they did. Once she had reminded them.

“Yeah, that’s something I’d really like to avoid, thank you very much,” Asami concluded, dripping some of the molten substance onto the seal of the box and pressing her makers mark into it.

An ouroboros, winged serpent eating its own tail. Unique, so far as she knew, in her craft. Dominating it were sphinxes, griffons, and all manner of chimeric beasts. You’d find the occasional oddball: a pisces here, a lion there, even the rare newt. But the Drake fit the name of the store her mother founded. The one she kept until the founder was able to take it over, again.

That, and it looked great on the banner outside.

“Sure you won’t change your mind?” Bolin asked, giving her his best pleading, puppy-dog eyes. It almost hurt to tell him.

Almost.

“Yes,” she said, flashing the pair of adventurers an apologetic smile.

The brothers turn to silently converse with each other, like only family could. Little gestures and facial expressions fly back and forth. A couple hand signs she recognizes from her talks with wanderers, a few she doesn’t.

Shrugs all around and they return their gaze to her. “Well, if you change your mind, we’ll be down at the Broken Axe, spending a bit of this,” Mako offered, shaking his bag of gold.

Jingle, jangle. Each coin enough to buy everyone in the place a pair of drinks, or get a small party completely hammered for the next few days. She wouldn’t mind being a part of that for a while. Specially if the beer was free. Maybe even get herself some elderberry wine once the liquid bread started to turn her off.

“Yeah, see you around, Asami,” Bo chimed in, waving as he turned to leave. Hopefully more elegantly than he had entered. “Sorry ‘bout the herbs!”

Oh, thank the Mother.

“Don’t worry about it!” she called after him, not able to help the smile on her face. How could she stay mad with him? He was the closest thing to a younger sibling as she’d ever had. “I’ll just add it to everything else you owe me!”

Sound of boots rushing to the door, fleeing from the idea of losing his recent payday to her outstanding debt. “Sorry, can’t hear you!”

With the slamming of the door, he’s gone, leaving just the two of them. The elder brother shrugged, tucking the coinpurse away in his satchel. “You want me to pay for it?” he asked, tipping his head in the direction of the mess. “It’s the least I could do for taking up your time.”

Asami laughed at the idea. “You know I’m never, actually, gonna make you pay me back, right?”

“Just tell your dad you are?”

“Yep.”

She smiled, he smiled back, awkward silence stretching out between them. The alchemist could tell he wanted to ask something else, or say something, at the very least. Then, his better judgement seemed to restrain him from forming the words.

Instead, he waved his hand in silent goodbye, making way to follow his junior out the front.

As he went, curiosity pulled at Asami’s brain. Her greatest failing when it came to these kinds of things. Never liked to say no unless she knew exactly what she was refusing. “Say, what herb are you two going after, anyways?” she questioned in as disinterested a voice as she could pull off. “Can’t think of many plants worth how much you’ve got there, let alone more than that.”

The swordsman shrugged as he passed through the portal to the shop proper, not even bothering to turn around. “Something called a ‘White Lotus’,” he answered, not seeming to grasp the severity of the words he spoke. “Apparently it’s tucked up in some old ruins somewhere here in Dirwen. Guy who hired me said it was worth any price.”

Yeah, and he wasn’t wrong, either. Alchemists have killed for far, far less.

The holy grail of alchemical ingredients. An actual, true panacea. Not the snake-oil peddled out by unscrupulous traveling salesmen, but a miracle made petal. More myth than fact surrounded the plant. Its size, characteristics, and genus were all in debate by most scholars. The only thing they could agree on was the flower itself.

White, purer than fresh fallen snow, with the faintest of sweet scents. A nondescript thing, the kind you wouldn’t think twice about passing on the roadside.

And, most importantly, rare.

Purged by overharvesting a dozen generations ago. Each plant blooming only once every century. Extinct, if any of her research was worth the hours, days, spent diving down the rabbit hole in desperation. Hope crushed by each dead end the investigations brought her. The most recent one she had heard of was found somewhere in Mondo just over two hundred years prior.

“Did you say a White Lotus?”

“Yeah,” the man replied, voice fading as he neared the street. “See you at the Axe?”

Blink dumbly, fall back in her chair, eyes staring blankly at the ceiling. Mind filled with possibilities previously less than a fever dream. More madness than fantasy. “Yeah, sure,” she agreed, now truly feeling an urge to drink.

Before she can question him, the door swung wide with his exit, bell singing its merry tune. He was gone and she was left with nothing but her thoughts. The prospect of adventure, a world beyond the walls of home. Tall mountains, raging rivers, trees as tall as the sky. Fantastic beasts and elaborate magecraft, ancient castles and forgotten crypts. Excitement, treasure, glory, and who knew what else, waiting for her outside the Gates of Iron and down the Western Road.

And then, the bell chimed, again. Silly thoughts were brushed aside as a customer announced her presence.

“Are you in, Miss?” the little voice asked, that of Tina, the baker’s girl.

“Be right there!” the Alchemist promised, swiftly clearing off her desk. In her hands she gathered the likely cause of her presence. Bottles of herbs her father baked in his more special loaves and a digestive for his weak stomach.

Who needed adventure?

Who needed cure-alls that might not even exist outside the ramblings of the senile?

She was needed here, and plenty busy to boot.

That, and her studies could not, for a moment, be allowed to slip in intensity. Not if her mother was ever to be well.

Maybe after she’d found her cure?

Yes, maybe then…

But, for now, a trip to the Axe would have to do. Catching up and catching stories floating in the air from loosened lips. That would be enough adventure, for now.

Chapter Text

The soup was steaming in the bowl, lights flickered atop the candles. Logs crackled in the hearth and the room was full of warmth. She sat on her stool by the bedside, as she had done for years and would for more, speaking softly to the smiling face that warmed her heart more than any hearth and home.

To Mother dearest the day’s events had been relayed. Her sales at the shop, some gossip heard about the return of local soldiers, idle chat about prices at the market.

Asami lingered on that for a while, talking at length of every stall and its owner. Her mother loved to hear of old friends between their visitations. What they got up to, how the children fared, if life in general treated them well. These things were important to her. The knowledge that the world kept turning without her being there.

It gave her comfort, sadly. That life would go on, if she were gone.

She wouldn’t be.

No, of course not. In a few month’s time all this would be forgotten. A foul memory that only lingered in bad dreams.

“Mako dropped by, today, by the way,” the potion-crafter mentioned after her parent had shifted to a more comfortable position. “And Bolin.”

A little smile, full of fondness, lifted her lips. “I take it they’ve stopped fighting over you?” she teased, giggling mirthfully around the rim of her cup as she sipped at soothing tea. “It was so adorable, the way they used to chase you around. Spent half their time trying to woo you and the other half bragging about how well they did.”

“Mother, you know they haven’t done that in years,” Asami sighed, going a little pink at the memory. Little in her life was more embarrassing, looking back. Childish as the whole affair might have been, it had still been the talk of the town which of them she would marry.

Neither, as it turned out. Disappointing those who had placed bets to no end.

“I know, I know,” Mother chorused, waving her protest off dismissively. The same eyes as hers looked back, nostalgically. Perhaps seeing her in those younger days, hair flowing down her back, mud staining pretty red dresses, holes worn straight through the soles of shoes after running every street and alley until legs just collapsed right under her. “I have to have my fun, somehow, dear. Besides, it’s not like either of them would make for a bad husband, when the time comes.”

Redden further, look away, and be treated to her hearty laughter. Join in once the the bug bit her. Let the happiness flow into the dark places of her heart, brushing stress away as a broom to dust.

After the volume died and breath had returned to them, the older woman asked her cheerfully, “Well, if they weren’t busy asking for your hand, what were the boys up to? They haven’t been back in town long, if I remember right. Something about Merlings?”

“Actually,” the herb crafter said, still struggling to stow her laughter, “they wanted me to go with them on some fetch quest, or something. I turned them down, but I’m probably going to meet them, later tonight.”

“Why?”

“Hmm?”

“Why did you turn them down?” the sickly pale woman elaborated, coughing roughly as she struggled to deepen her inhails. “I thought you always wanted to go on an adventure?”

“Again, that was years ago,” the daughter replied, shifting in her seat as her legs threatened to go to sleep. That pang of longing for the outside world struck her, again. Hard as a kick from a mule. Every blink conjured images of things only seen in books. Fantasies of a dreaming child. “Even if I wanted to, I’m way too busy to leave town for a week, or a month, or however long they’ll drag me out for. I have contracts to keep up with, shipments to receive, ingredients that will spoil-”

This argument was concluded in a mildly stern tone, directly from Mrs. Sato’s own lips, “And me to take care of. Is that right?”

Matriarcal eyes stared the Alchemist down, burrowing into her very soul and battering the truth out of her. Whether she wanted to give it, or not. “Y-yeah…” Voice but a whisper, she let the least well kept secret in her family spill forth.

With a great sigh, the Yasuko forced herself into a seated position so that she may be on an even level with her child. Smile returned, fond, kind, but sad. “Just like your father.”

“Mother…”

“Asami, you can’t stay here forever,” the wise woman who had taught her almost all she knew counselled. “I know plenty of other people have, but you could do so much more with your life. Every time I look at you, I see the brightest young woman I have ever met. All the things you can accomplish, all the people you could help, and places you could see. It’s a big world out there. Much bigger than this little town.”

With a nod, Asami accepted what was said as true. “I know,” she said, returning the smile, taking the empty bowl and cup and stacking them in hers. “And I’ll make sure to see it, just as soon as you’re better.”

“Haha, you do that, dear,” Mother laughed, hope in every word. “I’m sure you will.”

After that she was quick to doze. Was like that most of the time, these days. Tired easily, even with the few chores around the house she was strong enough to manage on her own. Going up and down the stairs drained her like a day of hard labor. Trying to lift the pot to cook was a task that seemed beyond her, and, more than once, Asami had come in to find her fainted under her knitting.

Once she was tucked in and the fire tended and restrained, the alchemist snuck from the room. On the way down she left instructions with the servant, Jen, just as she finished tucking away the uneaten food and scrubbing her dishes clean.

About fourteen, the girl had earned the task of nursemaid and housekeeper whenever Asami’s father was away. Being that was much of the time, she had become a practical live-in, rooming in a space next to the kitchen. Quiet, timid, and fleet of foot, one would be forgiven if they frequented the Sato residence and never caught more than a glimpse of her skirt ducking around a corner. Such was the skill of a farmer’s daughter in the city. There when she had to be, scarce when she wasn’t.

Out into the dusk. Cool spring in the air. Scent of the last batches of foodstuffs coming out of the ovens. Pies, breads, roast vegetables, smoked meat, and saltfish. Mingling it, the odor of livestock and feed, dinner of every home.

You got used the the smells. Those tastes on the air, good and bad.

Just as you grew accustomed to the sounds. Whinnies, baas, moos and caws. Barks, meows and raised voices. Crashing glass and jubilation. Laughing, crying, and eerie silences that start so sudden and seem to drag on forever. The sound of the town that had been her life.

Another fixture, the nightly reverie.

It announced the tavern well before she reached it, bounding off home and storefront, alike. Music, laughter, drunken shouts. Next, the smell of ale, and mead, and blackberry wine. Staler stenches, as well. Foul and near nauseating, even with years of the same tickling her nostrils. That of the result of overly exuberant celebrations. A habit many of the townsfolk were want to do on the end of a week.

The doors of the Broken Axe were near as familiar to Asami as her own, these last few years. Ever since she had graduated from the more family friendly atmosphere of The Prancing Stallion, and after an almost traumatic night in Harvester’s Green, the Axe had been the haunt of choice for her to drink and shmooze. It was warm and pleasant, enough. Full of pipe smoke and oak ash from the roaring fireplaces. The titular splitter was imbedded in the wall above the bar, plain for all to see.

No sooner had she entered was a full tankard pressed into her hand. Full of frothing beer that sloshed immediately onto her arm and sleeve.

Drink deep, drink heartily. Heavy fruit of tireless labor.

Cool on her tongue, fire in her belly. Perfect way to end the day. Only the swift addition of buttered bread to her free hand made the taste better. Hot and cold, rich and creamy, a second supper to put the first to rest.

The crowd was thick. Thicker than usual, with many a familiar face. A bulk of the day watchmen, two blacksmiths, and two bakers. Some vegetable vendors, a fishmonger, a butcher, and a teacher swarmed one table, cards in every hand not occupied with drink. Ladies too, housewives and working women of many trades. Seamstress and cobbler, cleaner and wet nurse mingled with friends and strangers.

Others, well, they were working now. Searching for someone drunk or flashing enough coin to be an open target for the product on offer.

“Hey, Asami,” the nearest of the ladies of the evening welcomed her, big smile on her lips, tray of drinks in her hand. Name of Penny, while she was in business. Quite what it was outside was forgotten by the Alchemist, as all her orders had been placed under the same. “Thanks, again, for that salve you got me. Cleaned my cuts right up, it did.”

With a dismissive wave, the drinker brushed off the appreciation. Their lines of work overlapped more than one would think, the proper physicians of the town (all two of them) being rather reluctant to sully their practices with purveyors of the world’s oldest profession. In need of aid and healing, it was the herbalists who picked up the task of keeping the working girls well and healthy. For the sake of both them and their clients.

“Don’t mention it,” she said, tossing a few coppers on her platter for the drink she was gulping and the other’s she’d order, in good time. “Just be sure to wash it out with clean water, every day.”

Nods follow the instructions as she wandered a little closer, fluttering her eyes, seductively. “Say, if there’s anything I could, uh, do to say ‘thanks’?” the shorter woman offered, making a quick pass, lashes fluttering and lids hooded. That oh-so-phoney way Penny and her ‘colleagues’ give an illusion of actual interest in a potential client. Sources of coin, not comfort and compassion, as true lovers should be. “We could go upstairs and-”

“No, no thanks,” Asami headed off before things could go any further. Think what Mother would say if word got out I was ‘soliciting’. Scandalous. “I appreciate the offer, but I’m not like that.”

Penny blinked, as if actually stunned by the rebuttal of her advances. “Oh,” she muttered, rather quietly, leaning in a little closer. “I, I mean, it’s just, you hang out with those two all the time and you’ve never...” Words got more and more confused in tone the longer she carried on. Look in her eye of a mild disbelief at the way things had gone. “Well, we all just assumed you liked… Since, you never…”

Head shook back and forth in equally stunned denial of the accusation.

What, just because I have male friends and aren’t married to them, I have to be a lily-lover? What kind of shit excuse for logic is that?!

“I am sooo sorry,” the woman apologized, bowing her head and raising her hand in a mimicry of prayer. “Please, forgive me, Miss. It’s been a slow night, so, I figured I might just have some fun.”

“Not with me, you won’t.”

Well, that’s what she wanted to say, at least. What actually came out was more of a nervous chitter into her ale as she inhaled the drink in great gulps. An interesting start to the evening, to say the least.

Someone really ought to do something about that rumor-mill. It was getting out of hand.

Amid her downing of beverage, the crowd she scanned with keenest interest. Searching for the faces of friends or interesting wanderers with stories they’d be willing to tell. Sure enough, she found both in the same pair. The brothers had a table all to themselves, piled high with all the luxuries they would ever want. At least, all those they could get at this fine establishment, sans a particular kind of company.

“Hey, over here!” Bolin shouted, waving her down with joyous energy. Despite the early hour, his cheeks shone red with alcohol and lipstick.

The flirter had become the object of affection. He must be in his own kind of paradise.

They’d left a seat open for her. Plate and fresh tankard, too. Bottle nearest the spot was top shelf stuff. The kind bought from and passed onto caravans for a profit, not sold to local kids. With a whiff of the open top she shivered at the exotic smell, unlike any other she had ever had the pleasure of experiencing.

“Saw you talking with Penny,” Mako noted, picking at the roasted bird in front of him with little interest or hunger. Rather, his eyes and those of his brother were alive with childish mischief. “You gonna see her later.”

“No,” Asami bluntly replied, stealing an apple from the far side and taking a great chunk out of it. Crisp and sour. Around it she spoke with what tact could be kept over the sound of chewing, “She was just thanking me for something.”

The brothers hummed in unison, sharing between them a mock knowing look. “They sure thank you a lot,” Mako noted, no particular inclination in his words.

“Hey, hey, Asami’s a respectable member of the community,” his sibling jumped in, heading off any further innuendo with some of his own. Always one to pile on, the little punk. “I’m sure there’s a perfectly reasonable explanation why so many shady people visit her place, when everyone else would bar the door and call the Watch.”

“Like what?”

“Easy, she’s a secret gangster.”

With a rude gesture, she showed her displeasure. That and by stealing more of the banquet before her. Midday meals had passed her by, of late, and the light soup at her mother’s bedside wasn’t sitting as heavily in her stomach as she’d like. “Both of you can go jump in a lake.”

“I’m gonna build a house on the lake when this job is over,” the less angularly faced brother proclaimed, taking a big slice of meat-pie and stuffing it in his mouth. Sounds of savoring reached her ears. The next thing for her to try once this morsel was done. “It’s gonna be massive. There’s gonna be turrets and a stables and a big old orchard in the back so I can have as much cider as I can drink.”

The other two laughed at his premature plans. Over the years this dream house of his had jumped all over the place. Mountain, prairie, on a cliff over the coast. Who he shared it with changed, too. Generally some variation of the last pretty thing to give him any attention.

There had been a few of those.

Poor, lovestruck fool that he was, Asami couldn’t help but love the idiot and his enthusiasm. The quirky little brother she never had.

“Of course, the two of you will have to finish the thing, first,” she pointed out, digging into the feast in a more restrained way than either of the menfolk.

“You mean the three of us,” Mako argued, washing down his bird with beer.

Narrowed eyes flit his way, accusing and mildly incensed. Still insisting, still pestering, pulling on the hem of her dress and begging for her to come and play. Just like when they were little. “I thought I told you to stop going on about that,” she scolded, acting, as she all too often did, as the disappointed sister. “I’m not going with you guys, so drop it.”

“I have,” said he, as his sibling gorged himself on the biggest meal they had been treated to since the winter festival season. “Never said you were number three, did I?”

Hmm? That was interesting...

They’d managed to find a third, already? Or, maybe they already had one when they came to see her? While not the biggest hub, Salney was still decent starting point for the regional adventurers, and some that ranged well beyond the county borders. Plenty of folks came through looking for work in a given week. Residents, like the brothers; frequent visitors, like those at the table next to them; and utter strangers to these lands and their people.

Trouble being, from which pool had they drawn from?

Most of the locals had their hands full guarding the shipments between the farmsteads and town, at the moment. The first of the over winter crops had been reaped, and it was proving to be a particularly bountiful year.

And far-walkers lacked trust, and lended themselves to dirtier work than most. More mercenaries and assassins than adventurers.

That left the regulars.

Wandering journeymen and women, doing the seasonal routes around the kingdom. Lists of names popped into mind: withered veterans, barely broken in greenhorns, hedge knights, and range wardens out of work. An odd and motley bunch. Rag-tag bands of interesting characters, each with tales enough to fill a volume.

But they had groups of their own, for the most part. Companies and banners and the like. Akin to the sell-swords, in a way. But less likely to hunt for war and bloodshed.

“Here she is, now,” Bolin said, nodding towards the same door that had granted her entry.

Wait, she?

Spinning in her seat the herbalist followed the line of sight to an almost familiar figure. Well, the outline of one. Green-grey hooded cloak and near black face scarf were, rather, what she recognized. That and the eyes that peaked out between them, sharp and blue as the summer sky.

Bow and quiver over her shoulder, though arrows had been surrendered to the Watch. Dust billowed from her veil as she shook it, smoke-like.

Oh my gods, oh my gods, ohmygods!

Whirling back around, she grabbed each brother by the collar and pulled them low to the table. “Why didn’t you tell me she was coming here?!” Asami hissed in hushed tone, looking frantically for answers between them. Heart hammered against her ribs with nervous excitement.

The stories.

All the stories.

About her. The girl across the room. A living legend if even half of what she’d heard was true. It wasn’t, obviously. Couldn’t be. No one could do that much in such a short time. Cross the Great Sea to the lands beyond horizon. Crested the Spire on her own, highest mountain in the world, above bird and cloud and even Dragon.

But, if even a tiny sliver were close to reality…

“Do you have any idea who that is?!” the suddenly frantic alchemist demanded of her oldest friends when words stayed mum within their lips.

They turn to each other, back to her. “Of course we do,” the elder told her, brow raised in confused amusement. “You think we just randomly invite people we meet on the street to do things with us? We’re not animals, you know.”

“Yes, you do,” she shot back, head swimming with memories of just that. “And, yes, you are. Or are you forgetting what happened to your first place? You know, before I hired the cleaner.”

“That’s not fair,” both brothers chorus, fingers pointing at her in warning.

The younger added, “How were we supposed to know that’s what happened when you didn’t scrub the pot out? We never cooked before then.”

“We were young.”

“And stupid,” she finished for them, capping off the excuse they gave for most of their youthful misadventures. Especially any that involved girls or money, and invariably any that held some combination of the two. Being that the girl involved tended to be her, and, well. “So is not telling me that She is here!”

Another exchange of confused looks. “Did she, like, rip you off or something?”

“No,” Asami denied, swiftly checking how much time the shrinking distance between the might grant for chastisement. Not much, was the answer to that. The woman was fast and agile, dancing through legs and chairs and tables like a Lady would dancers in a ballroom. Not even a touch of hesitation in her stride, only forward momentum. Like water in a stream. “Have you two got any idea how long I’ve wanted to talk to her?”

A crash sounded. Entire platter of drink and food came down in the wanderer’s path.

Did she stop?

No, she leaped over the fallen items with the ease that Asami rolled out of bed. Landed on her toes and kept pace as though nothing had happened in the first place.

She’s so cool!

“Oh, I get it now,” Bolin chuckled, now looking between the archer and his friend. He had that little sparkle in them that betrayed mischief. That or concussion, definitely one of the two. “You’re, like, the head of her fan club, or something, aren’t you?”

A growl escaped her lips. Low and full of sisterly distaste. “Shut it! You will not embarrass me, today!”

“Alright, Mom,” they both agreed, the younger with a big smile plastered across his face, the elder restraining himself to a sly smirk, also keeping the level of his voice low and even.

Good thing, too, as the dust and dirt covered woman dodged the last obstacle between herself and them. Without even looking, head dipped under a passing tray so it only just brushed the tip of her hood. It fell like water at the soft touch, slightly ruffled hair underneath exposed. A deep brown, like hickory, that Asami had only ever caught glimpse of a few times. The face revealed as she tugged the wrapping on her face down was even rarer a sight.

Skin of a summer beer, marked with streaks of darker mud, and a dash of what might have been blood. Most remarkable in it was the muted youth. Though the features were set in that impassive mask that all those who suffered long enough upon the winding roads, a bit of childhood still clung to it in places.

Pretty.

Asami silently started at herself for the errant thought. Blinked fast as she tried to source its origin, with none offering themselves in a timely fashion.

“Hey,” the wanderer said in simple greeting, slipping between Asami and the man seated behind her like it was the easiest thing in the world, despite the narrow gap. Her cloak just brushed on the alchemist’s shoulder, surprisingly soft and smelling of fresh pine. “Sorry I’m late. The guys at the gate gave me a hard time, again.”

Tossing an apple her way, Mako brushed off the apparent inconvenience. “Don’t mention it. How was getting here?”

“Better than you’d think for this time of year,” answered the traveller, sinking in her teeth and relishing in the taste. Her jaw moved slowly, savoring texture as the other woman had done, before elaborating. “Got word the Black Teeth had moved down from the foothills a little early from some scouts near the border. Had to take the long way ‘round, out by the Crypt Vale. Pretty smooth sailing from there, though.”

Wait, the Crypt Vale? Out by Aland? That place was a war zone a few months ago. How was that the easy way?

As though reading her mind, Bolin voiced the same level of surprise with a low whistle. “I guess they don’t call you the best for nothing, Korra,” he complimented with raised tankard, hopping his chair a few inches closer to the archer. “You couldn’t pay me enough to go there on my own.”

“That’s because you’re a coward,” his brother shot, keeping his tone light and voice measured.

“No,” the younger returned, pointing dead back, with just the tiniest flick of a smile on the corner of his lips, “It’s because the place is more haunted than your love life.”

Both siblings laughed raucously, descending into the cyclical teasing that marked most of their interactions. The surrogate can’t help but giggle along with their antics, so happy was she to see them both enjoying themselves. Neither had much of that growing up. Aside from playing with the other children, and flirting in that silly childish way that boys did, it had been rough times for both boys. It made watching them be happy all that more enjoyable for her.

Beside her, Korra did much the same. That name had been vague and hazy in her her head, but lept to the fore at its mention. It suited her, in a way. Simple, but exotic. Mysterious in origin as the expression on her face.

Not quite a smile, but a little far from a grimace. At some careful balancing point in between.

When it became clear that neither brother was soon to abandon their childish behavior, likely due to the copious drinking that had taken place before the women’s arrival, attention turned to her.

“I guess you’re our fourth, then,” the newcomer said, turing to look at the, now greatly intimidated, Asami. Trained eyes judged her for whatever qualities they sought. Bravery or a certain adventurous aggression, perhaps. Not that the local had either of those qualities in spades to observe. “I take it you know how to fight?”

Caught up in being asked a question, Asami answered without thinking. “I-I mean, I know how to throw a punch.”

Unimpressed, the quiz continued, “Magic?”

“Not really. L-”

“Healing?”

“I make potions and stuff,” the shop-owner replied, reaching into her pocket to pull out the little sample vial she kept on hand to lure caravan workers to her door. “But, I think you’ve got the wrong idea here. I’m not sure who told you what, but I’m not going anywhere. I’ve never left town, before, let alone do something crazy like go after a White Lotus.”

A hum from parched lips. The very edge of an eyebrow raised. “A White Lotus?” the archer asked, low and quiet, leaning in a little closer. “You mean, there’s one that’s still alive? And it’s going to bloom?”

Nodding swiftly, the alchemist prayed to whatever gods might be watching that this moment would end.

I am 100% positive she could break me with her eyes if she wanted to. The panicked thought sent her the opposite direction of the bow-woman, scraping the legs of her chair on the much abused boards underfoot. Distance is what she needed, if only to calm the way her chest was pounding. And to get that oddly sweet breath out of her face.

Luck and fortune favor her, as the intense gaze bearing down on her was redirected to the two menfolk, only just finding themselves. “Hey, how come you didn’t tell me we were going after something like this? Are you insane, or what?”

“What, you mean the flower?” Bolin laughed, still not seeming to grasp the importance of the bloom.

“Of course I mean the damn flower!” Korra hissed with hushed urgency. Her head jerked to both sides, suspiciously gazing at anyone with even the slightest appearance of interest in their conversation. A few popped out, merchants, mainly. But merchants meant money, money meant mercenaries and adventurers. Sell-swords, spears and bows ready to do anything for a bit of coin. “Do you have any idea how valuable a single petal of that flower is worth on the open market? What people have done to get half that? How many people have you told?!”

Suddenly sobering up, Mako leaned in and whispered. “Just Asami, no one else. We just got the details earlier today.”

“From the client?”

“Through the Guild,” he said, lifting a mug so it would block line-of-sight between his lips and Old Deaf Jo. The man could read them from as far away as Asami could recognize faces. “We’re supposed to make for the capital, get there in ten days or less, or they’ll collect on us.”

Such was the danger of Guild work. While a stable source of well-paying work, and providing a layer of anonymity for clients and adventurers alike, they had their own rules to get caught up in. Eyes and fingers everywhere. Brokers of information, black market dealers to shift and sell loot gathered by less than legal means, and assassins plenty to gather up any grifters or loose ends and dispose of them.

They were the gold standard for a reason. Equal parts feared as respected.

The Blue-Eyed Raven saw all that concerned them. Nothing escaped its talons once they had sunk in. No one double-crossed the Guild.

“That doesn’t give us much time,” muttered the archer, more to herself than anyone else. Fingers tapped the table in what the potion-crafter suspected was a nervous tick.

Getting the better part of himself, now, Bolin joined in the strategizing. “Plan is, we get the horses together tonight, leave an hour or so before dawn. Earlier if we can manage it,” he provided, covering his mouth under the pretense of scratching his nose. “But we still need someone who knows how to handle the thing. Guy at the hall said the goods are worthless unless they’re treated right before being cut. One mistake and we’re all up a creek.”

All three adventurer’s eyes focused on the shut in. Expecting, hopeful, and sympathetic in order from right to left.

“Why are all of you looking at me?!” Asami demanded, looking at each in turn, but swiftly directing herself at Mako when he suddenly seemed the least threatening option to address herself to. “I already told you; I’m not going!”

“Can you teach one of us how to do it?” he inquired, voice not changed from before.

Trying to give her an out. A way to save face while bowing out of venturing too far from her comfort zone. It was good of him. Too bad it was all for naught. “I could, but not in one night,” she told them, feeling increasingly uncomfortable with the passing of seconds. Letting people down had never sat well with her conscience. “Is there any way you could ask the Ravens to give you some extra time?”

A chorus of “No”s met her ears in a melody of varying levels of disappointment. Korra looked most crestfallen, somehow, even though her face shifted the least of all.

It was her eyes.

The sparkle in them at the mention of the panacea had gone up in smoke.

Suddenly, the words of Asami’s mother echoed in her mind. I thought you always wanted to go on an adventure? And the truth was, she had. Always had. The Wanderlust, as the oldtimers called it, had struck her early. But, there was always something here. Someone who needed her, something to be done that kept her interest, desire for the outside world satisfied by stories and books. Living vicariously through the brothers, losing herself in daydreams.

It’s a big world out there.

And I’ll make sure to see it, just as soon as you’re better.

The flower could make Mother better. Everything she had ever read had told her that. Depending on the source, a single petal could cure anything from plague to blindness. Surely, it would at least aid in mending whatever troubled the once great alchemist, Yasuko.

“Fine,” the alchemist whispered, voice, whole body shaking.

It was a terrible idea. Not thought out in the slightest. Just caving to pressure and desperation. All out of other options, and wanting, at least, a wonderful story to tell the most important woman in her life. Before the end, the Mother’s siren song.

“What?” one of them asked, though the trembling woman wasn’t sure which. It was all she could do to keep from shrinking into a ball in her chair and just rocking there.

“I said, FINE!” she shouted, grabbing the nearest bottle so tight in her grip that it was a miracle it didn’t shatter in her palm. Bringing it to her lips, her mouth was filled with the sour-sweet taste of blackberry wine. Came away sputtering, gasping for air, eyes watering and lungs burning. “I’ll go on your bloody quest!”

Chapter Text

Packing. Not an art that Asami had mastered.

Nor was waking so early in the morning. While she tended to be up and about shortly after the sun crested the wall, being awake any earlier than that melted her mind. But today, she would persevere.

As feet bounded up her stairs, she checked the groaning pack a final time. It was full of all the things an adventurer could possibly need, she thought. Herbs, potions, basic ingredients, a vastly simplified version of her mixing and sampling kit. Food, plenty of that in its own pouch. Salt beef, pork, and fish for variety. Bread, both fresh and slightly stale. Tack, the caravan staple. Some dried goods, beans and barley, enough for a couple meals.

Several changes of clothes, extra undergarments and footwraps. Some bandages alongside them, for all the minor cuts along the way.

Strapped on top was her mother’s old woollen blanket and a new sleeping cot from the general store. Brought into her possession by banging on the door for ten minutes to wake the disgruntled owner on the way home last night. Paying through the ear on top of that.

On her belt were more escentials. A large knife for cutting whatever needed cutting. Vines, maybe. There were surely some vines between where they were and the capital. Beside that, her trusty compass. Well, she called it trusty, but she’d never had to navigate with it before. Never had to navigate anywhere. These streets were all she knew, and walking through them blindfolded would be the easiest thing in the world.

The idea of leaving them both terrified and thrilled the shopkeep.

Last to load was a sword. An old one that had sat above her mantlepiece from the day Asami moved to her current home. Blade glinted in the candle light as she drew it a sliver.

A gift from her parents. An heirloom of some description, she’d been told. Older than everyone she knew, had ever known. An edge that still split a hair down the grain, despite doing nothing for the past twenty-something summers but hang in elaborate displays and collect copious amounts of dust. Be a talking point for first-time guests.

In all her days, the young woman had never wielded a blade in anger. Closest to ever come were mock battles with the other children that occasionally got out of hand. But those had been sticks. Blunt, light, basically harmless.

This wasn’t though.

Heavy on her mind, but still light in her hand, with a surprisingly comfortable grip for a single hand. If she really squeezed, there might have been enough room to place a second on the... pummel ? Was that it? Some weeks ago she’d heard one of the boys mention a pummel when talking about swords, and this seemed the most likely owner of that name.

Useless facts aside, Asami’s greatest hope was that she needn’t use it on her journey. Going on an adventure, seeing the glorious and mystical sights, meeting the strange and interesting people, was one thing.

Having to fight any of those people in any of those places was another matter, entirely. Not what she signed up for.

Agreed to.

Whatever.

Mako’s face appeared in the door. “It’s time.”

Two simple words. That was the grand, coxing speech that signaled her send off. More than a little bit of a letdown, if she was completely honest with herself. All the books had the hero being pulled out the door, words of wise counsel in their ear. Of temptations of hearth and home, they longed for with earnestness, but the pull of the road, adventure, the great deeds waiting o’er yon horizon, always won out, in the end.

Not so with her.

Hearth and home were all she knew. Dreams of a world and life beyond the safety of sturdy wall were the fantasies of a little girl. One who knew only happiness and love from all she met. Privileged with youthful energy and innocence.

The bed looked so inviting, the glowing coals were warm.

Outside, it’s cold and scary. Boogeymen and monsters lurk, hidden around every corner. Here is safe and familiar. Locks and lights and guards to keep her safe.

With a breath the candle is snuffed out. Bucket of water douses the coals, last trace of light eliminated, save the faint glow from the hall. It’s down the stairs, blowing out candles as she went, to the little kitchen at the base. Her dining table is there, several letters stacked upon it for those she left behind. Two for mother and father, each. One telling why she had left, the other a more personal goodbye. Long things, with a great many words she knew not from where she brought. Pages and pages of things she had wanted to say, regretted saying, and all the permutations in between.

Off to the side, another for Jen, the poor girl. Offering this home as hers, until such time Asami returned, with an apology of some length. Medications that needed to be sourced, bills that must be paid. Where the secret stashes of honey sweets were.

At the back, a sign is posted: “No Deliveries, Owner Away. Leave all packages in the care of Mrs. Yasuko Sato.”

Out the front after checking the safes and lockboxes were all secured for the tenth time. All her valuables tucked away in iron and heavy lumber. Those few fineries she had come across in her infrequent splurges, some heirlooms she had been granted, and all of her most prized ingredients and equipment, safely under lock and key. Mount the second sign, this one freshly made, paint still sticky on her fingers as it’s hung.

“Gone Questing, Shop Closed”

Her key, small and of glinting bronze gild, rattled into the lock. A twist and a click later and the deed was done. She had taken her first step on her adventure. Not a big one, but the weight of it still bore greatly on her mind.

A hand beckoned her down the road. Concern was plain on Mako’s face. Tenseness rarely seen plagued his handsome, angular features. Sure, he sulked and brooded more than most, but this level of anxiety was unlike him. The pace he set was more run than jog, and seemed to Asami more likely to raise suspicion than anything else.

But, with no other options, she followed just behind, feet smacking into the cobble with enough force to bounce sound of the store and homes around.

Fast, so fast.

Memories of games of tag filled her head, bringing a smile to her lips. Even when her footing slid on some patch of wetness in the darkness of the early hours, it filled her with nothing other than fond nostalgia. And a fear that she might break her leg before even reaching the gates, but, that was besides the point.

Gatehouse loomes out of the darkness, lit by the warming fire inside each small battlement for the guards to huddle round and warm their midnight meals.

Horses and cows whinny and moo from nearby stables. Berthing place of whatever livestock either owned by the town or belonging to travellers in place for more than a couple nights. A loud and smelly place, at the best of times, but always foulest just before the sun rose, as whatever leavings overnight were left until morning tenders wheeled it away.

Luckily, they needn’t brave the putrid air, for their other parties had drafted mounts and pack-animals, already.

Four tall sprinters, saddled up and kitted out with extra bags and spare blankets. Behind this cluster was a pair of smaller cart horse. Ladened down, were they, with great towers of provisions and camping supplies piled atop their backs, tied down with ropes and straps in an almost haphazard manner.

Archer and mage wait in silent watchfulness, eyes turning in constant vigil.

Joining them was a great dog with stunning white fur, like the rare drifts of snow that fell in the darkest days of winter. No, to call the beast a dog would do it a disservice. Even hound made it seem paltry. Easily the largest dog Asami had ever seen, by an order of magnitude. With a back that came up to Korra’s waist and huge, floppy ears, it was hard to decide whether to be terrified of the massive canine, or offer it a treat.

It was the wagging of a massive, brushy tail that did her in. That, and the massive smile the pup gave the two newcomers as they jogged the final steps to the meeting point.

“Did anyone follow you?” the blue-eyed ranger asked in hushed tone, casting a glance over them to check for herself.

The veteran at the alchemist’s side shook his head. It was a subtle motion, subdued as everything this morning had been. A hand had not left the hilt of his blade since they first laid eyes on each other this morn. Not in her home, not on the way, not even now. He twitched a finger, every couple of seconds, a small spark appearing at his fingertip. It arcs and falls away, only just illuminating the hand that cast it, the pant leg and worn boots.

“We’d better move,” he advised, guiding Asami to what must’ve been her mount. “The farther away from here we are when the sun comes up, the better I’ll feel.”

“Why?” the rank amateur asked, confused by the idea.

Surely, the closer you were to civilisation, the better off you would be in case of trouble? Shelter from storms, bandits, and beasts. Food for the weak, healers for the ill and feeble. Warm beds like hers. Cool beer to fill the belly.

All three turned to her, looks of exasperation on their faces. Not the most comfortable situation to be in,. They were like a different species, clad in velvet-skinned plate and flowing mail, weapons hanging off them like last night’s clothes. It all shimmered in the moonlight, as scales on a lizard. Truly, not a trio to be on the wrong end of.

“Never mind!” the first-timer squeaked, cowering under the gazes heaped upon her.

She was not one to question the skills and preferences of her betters, for that was what the certainly were. To be peers required some amount of knowledge on her part, and she’d needed fifteen minutes help to clad herself in a single gambison.

However, friends that they were, the brothers provided the answer she had sought in ignorance. “Bandits in these parts tend to base themselves near crossroads. Gives them more places to run down and boosts traffic, ya see? There’s two of them nearby that have given us trouble in the past,” the younger sibling told her, smiling in his disarming way. “And, if anyone is going to come after us, it’ll probably be from here. Farther away we get before sunrise, the colder the trail to follow.”

“So, unless we want to get caught up in all that, we need to go,” Mako continued, singling out a horse and walking it over to Asami.

It was a majestic beast, half again as tall as the ponies that the Alchemist had trotted around the city streets on, occasionally. Glossy hair of acorn brown and a mane a few shades darker. Eyes, deep and full of emotion, looked at her with trepidation. Nervous as she was, but many times more worldly. He chattered, nervously, as a wonderstruck hand was lain upon its neck, gently stroking the fine surface. Soft, but firm. Rippling with muscular power, ready to burst forth into a gallop at a moment’s notice.

“What’s its name?” Asami asked, all other thoughts falling from her mind as the horse grew more accustomed to her smell.

Her old friend and former suitor smiled, patting the beast in much the same way as she. “Bucephalus,” he grinned, handing her a carrot to let the animal snack upon. Big lips snatched the treat from an open palm, making the shut-in giggle. “The Stable-master fancies himself smarter than the rest of us. Pretty much all the horses have names like that. Just call him Bucky.”

I have a horse, the woman marvelled, inwardly, happier than she could remember being in years. Sure, it wasn’t really hers. Just a loaner with a hefty deposit on his head. But, still. It felt important. Momentous, even.

Like she was really on the way.

“Here, let’s get your stuff packed away,” a voice told her, so close behind.

Korra was there as she spun, around arms distance away. Either the potion-maker had gone deaf, or the archer was next to silent in her footsteps. Hefting her pack, the other woman took it in a hand, where Asami struggled to lift it with both. Almost effortlessly it was hefted onto her mount and secured with a swiftness that was astonishing to behold.

How many times must she have done the same to have perfected the practice?

Dozens?

Hundreds?

And, this the Alchemist’s first. No idea what she was doing. Just dead weight weighing the others down. She knew it, too, making the swing back worse. To the shivering fear that had her bent over the chamberpot most of the night. Riling up her belly worse than sour milk or any fever.

It stirred, even now. With elation and tension balancing on a fraying thread pulled so tight it would sing should a bow be drawn across it, snap if tugged, Asami fretted anew.

Home was here. Life, as well.

An entire existence to be abandoned for the sake of a desperate hope and some self-gratifying fun. Patrons and patients left without a door to let them in. Medical men to struggle in science beyond them to keep practices afloat. Caravans, the wandering baggage trains that tied the kingdom together, without a proper place to restock and barter. Friends that depended on her, neighbors that needed her, families who turned to no one else out of trust.

Mother, alone in her bed, only a shy servant girl to care for her.

The shop and all her wares, left vulnerable to the unscrupulous and sticky-fingered. Books to be devoured by moths and mice. Flo and fireplace the be taken over by bats and owls. Sparrows in the ceiling, cats under the floor.

A menagerie of problems to deal with, only just manage with her presence. Without, it would take hours, not days, for them to spiral out of hand.

“I don’t want to go,” she breathed, longing for these dark, smelly streets and all the smiling faces that filled them, day in and day out. Hope could be found in volumes, not tombs. What was she thinking, caving so easy to pressure? “I shouldn’t go.”

Words worked into her ear, softly. “Probably not.”

It was the archer, her eyes narrowed over her shoulder, face hidden from the brothers by the horse. Something in her eyes, her voice. Not anger or disappointment, but a light sprinkling of concern. Or, that’s what it looked like in the shadow. Hard to tell these things with her in the brightness of a tavern’s fires, let alone when she could hide the slightest twitch under night’s opaque veil.

“Sorry,” Korra apologized, turning back to the mass of ropes and straps she affixed the novice’s assortment with. “It just came out. Ignore me. You’ll do fine.”

Patronizing, or how she truly felt. No telling through the return of her solemn mask.

Hands moved swifter than the flitting of flycatchers, checking and double-checking. Her sword was next, strapped to the saddle so as it wouldn’t bounce on her side, endlessly. It was supposed to be one of the more irksome part of long journeys under arms. The trick, as she was told, was keeping the blade in such a place to be convenient to both ride and fight. Out of the way, but easily drawn. Such a careful balancing act that Asami could only blink at.

The ranger whispered constantly to Bucephalus. Words of a musical foreign tongue. Dancing and light. They calmed him, made him breathe easy and clear. Like a spell, almost. A soothing draught of the spoken word.

Tales were told of people who could do such. Make beasts stay anxiety and rage with but a sentence. Elves, for the most part, folk heroes after that.

“Do you need help up?”

A considerate question to ask the swirling mind as it fought with indecision. Should she clamber on, or turn her back? Scamper home to soft bed and warm sheets, throw them over her and sleep til midday. If she could sleep, at all.

“I can manage,” the brewer said, not wishing to be any further burden than she must. Might as well start small in carrying her own weight.

Once, twice, thrice she attempted to clamber into the saddle. Each time her leg caught, foot slipped, handhold gave way. Frustration ate at the last of determination, eroding confidence and reinforcing the distinct feeling of inadequacy. Like she didn’t belong in the same city as the other three, let alone party.

What am I doing? Why am I doing this?

I can't fight. I can barely ride. The last time I slept on something that wasn't a straw mattress was when I was a child.

Salt pork and tack?

I gag if the soup has too much garlic in it.

Her foot fell upon the ground, a last time. No effort was made to lift it again. It just, stayed. Eyes grew unfocused as lips struggled to form words. An apology died on her lips a dozen times over as a need to curl into a little ball took hold.

Something cold brushed Asami's right hand. Wet, as well.

Nose of the massive dog from earlier, big smile on its face. Panting mouth and flopping tongue, eyes looking up happily. It made a little whine when its floppy ears weren’t immediately pet or chin scratched, nuzzling further into the limp digits to gain the affection so desired. Blue eyes held a certain primal wisdom in them as they stared up, expectantly.

“Hey, puppy,” the shopkeep cooed, unable to resist the advances made. “What’s your name?”

“Naga.”

Korra’s voice, again. Less hushed than it had been in her slip. When their eyes met, the first smile she had ever seen on that face appeared. Small, barely there, but all the more happy for it.

Continuing to pet the oversized dog, Asami inquired, “How old is he?”

“She,” the archer corrected, not a hint of irritation, or anything, really. “And, about six, I think? Don’t really remember. About half a year old when I found her, we’ve been together ever since.” There was affection in the words. Attachment. Especially in the last few. Piercing blue eyes went from Naga, to Asami, and back again. Finally, she spoke her mind, again. “She doesn’t usually like people this much, just meeting them. Tends to be more shy.”

The statement caught the crafter off guard. Never had she met a more affectionate hound. Poking with cold wet nose whenever petting lapsed for even a second. Soothing presence and bright, almost human-like smile.

Naga sat at her master’s feet and craned her neck to whine in complaint. Raised eyebrow was returned as the pair shared a silent conversation of little gestures. Nods of the head, slight changes in their faces. More complex than any chat between man and pet ever witnessed by the onlooking Asami. Longer, too. Like actually meaning was being exchanged by the woman and her loyal pup.

With a sigh, Korra looked up with a little smirk. “Let me help you up,” she offered, gifting a hand to help stabilize the ascent of the amateur. “Now, put your foot in the stirrup.”

Diligently follow instruction, the nervous shopkeep did as told. Other hand gripped the slick leather horn and pulled until told otherwise. To step up, not drag herself into place as she had done on the little ponies. Swing her leg over the hindquarters of Bucky and onto his other flank, into the opposing footrest.

A bark full of cheer from the big white dog, starting the other horses. But, not the one under her.

He putted in a satisfied manner. Likely just pleased to be done with the halting affair of mounting. Clopping hooves on cobble. Sound of steel shoes on stone as he guided himself back to the group, no input from the reins in Asami’s hands.

Smart and solid under her weight. Rippling with speed and power, restrained for her benefit as the others mounted up in half a minute, each. The stallion joined his fellow world-wanderers with an experienced saunter. Comfort provided to his rider by the group of smiling faces waiting for her at the approach to the gate. High house of parapets and arrow slits. A portal into a world unknown. Cold and unfeeling to her nervous stomach, despite the warm fires within, making windows look like glaring eyes.

A glove clad hand reached out to pat her on the shoulder. Mako’s steady voice spoke to her words of wisdom, “Hey, you don’t have to worry. We’ll be back before you know it.”

“Yeah,” Bolin agreed, flashing a happy smile the brightness of the sun. Excitement radiated off him in warm bands that flushed fear and uncertainty from her system, replacing it with a taste of that childish fantasy. “This is gonna be great, I’m sure of it! Family roadtrip!”

Laughter tickled her lips. Quiet and scared, but enough mirth to carry her forward.

Spur Bucephalus into action, staggered fourth in their column, behind those who might as well have been living legends, compared to her. Soldiers, spies, and spellcasters with weight to the names they bore. Her, a simple smalltown merchant, borrowed sword and bartered armor. No spells in her mind beyond memories of what others had crafted.

But, then again, every legend had to start somewhere.

Maybe hers started with the creaking open of gates and the bidding farewell of guards. Soft wave and softer smile as her journey began, old friends and new companion at the fore. A whole new world unveiling itself to her eyes, shrouded in inky shadow.

Quite why her heart hammered so, Asami wasn’t sure. But, she took that first step, all the same.

Hello, World…

It’s nice to meet you.

Chapter Text

Dawn peaked over an unfamiliar horizon. Rays of light spied upon the party through the bows of fir and pine, taking rest on leaf of oak and beech. Smell of mud and rotting wood drifted on the breeze to join the songbirds first tunes of the day.

Beneath her, Bucky lifted his head to shake a pestering fly, swiftly dispatched by a wave of Asami’s hand. It was quiet. Almost deafeningly so. No sound of living souls besides the four of them and the beasts who bore their burdens. Utterly unlike every morning the potion-maker had ever had. Bereft of the early morning hustle of humanity even the worst days held back home. Rain and snow could not stay the baker’s baking or blacksmith’s hammering, there. But, in this place, she found herself able to hear a single drop of dew dripping onto her forehead.

Cold.

Fresh.

Shaking her from a sleepless daze. Bones and brain were shaken and tired from staying upright of the saddle, thighs aching from the constant impact with hard leather.

“Stand up for a second,” the ranger told her, turning from the road.

Knowing not the intention, but more than willing to restore blood flow to her lower extremities, she did so. The numbness of her feet made it hard to balance in her swaying stirrups, all her focus needed just to manage not toppling to the ground.

Leaning over much farther than Asami thought possible, Korra placed a folded blanket under her. Sitting back was an entirely new world. Almost as comfortable as her cozy armchair by the fireplace.

Save, this seat lacked a back to snuggle into with a cup of hot tea, rests for her weary arms, radiant warmth from the licking flames. And it slid to either side with startling ease. Slightest shift of weight or spine sending her inches in all directions. Like the surface of the little fishpond in dead of winter. Frozen over enough to dance upon in numbers.

“Better?”

“Yes, very,” the newcomer relayed, smiling shyly at the wandering bowwoman. “Thank you.”

Returned was a little grin, cracking the edifice of stony silence. Something that she suspected to be rare with strangers like her. “Don’t mention it,” Korra brushed off, turning back to the path and the backs of their comrades, some lengths ahead. “You get used to riding, after a while. The seat gets more comfortable after it’s broken in, too.”

“Good to know,” Asami said back, hitting a brick wall with what to do next.

A total stranger, local legend, rode alongside on her first ever quest. Bedecked in blades and bangles, dripping with confidence and a warrior’s splendor. The boys were family, near enough. Talking to them was easier than breathing. Much the same with all the other adventurers that frequented her store.

This one, though. She felt different. More intense and earnest in everything she did. Always looking over her shoulder. Watching every corner of every room. Each shadow, even.

I have to say something if we’re working together, right? Get to know her.

“So, are those stories people tell about you true?” a nervous voice asked, hopeful for an answer. The trepidation from last night was back, making her hasty breakfast of dry meat and cold bread slosh and jump. Getting worse as eyes return to her, puzzled and mildly confused. They brought babbling words from the shut-in’s lips, cascading with the little droplets. “They talk about you, at the tavern. Sometimes. Not, like, um, gossip or anything. Just that you’ve been all over the place. Across the Great Sea, and to the Cities of the Elves, stuff like that.”

Smile returned to the tanned woman’s lips. “I don’t know about the first one, but I have been to Challeia,” she revealed with what sounded like laughter. “Even lived there for a little bit.”

She is so cool!

“What are they like? The Elves?”

So many stories had reached her ears of the Golden Kingdom. Palaces carved into the living hearts of trees older than the world itself. Bathed in eternal sunshine, moon kept at bay by the magics there, rain to be called on command. Armies of the invisible. Never seen, but ever felt. Ready to shower death upon any invader, great or small. Citizens without want, fear, or disease. Songs and poetry recited from every street corner, roads paved with gems of starlight.

Even a taste of the truth from someone who had met them, lived with them. It made her green eyes go wide with wonder, begging for the tiniest tidbit.

With a hum, the Ranger considered that, breaking the meeting of their gaze to stare up into the treetops. “I guess they’re just like everyone else, really,” she pondered, as much to herself as anyone. Like she had never taken the time to think on the matter, until now. “Live in houses, grow crops, raise animals. Guess they’re a little more about the rules than most.”

And, with a shrug, she cast herself back to watching the roadside for whatever her eyes searched.

To call it a letdown would, in itself, be a letdown. Deflating was more apt. Boiling away all the starry delusions about a far-off folk. Not myth, just people. Ordinary in the mind of one who must have seen the extraordinary. Things that made the fair ones seem paltry to the point of being forgettable.

As though sensing this drop in the mood, Korra’s voice rose, again, “But, it’s beautiful there. Peaceful. The way the wind blows through the trees sounds like singing. I’d like to go back, some day.”

It wasn’t much, but more than enough to renew the smile on Asami’s face. Set her mind to wandering, as is was want to do in such a quiet place. Soft whispering of doves and squirrels in the branches, songs of jay and robin. A deer, the first living one ever seen by the Alchemist’s eyes, looked up from its browse to peer nervously at the party. Behind a nearby bush, the almost invisible outline of a yearling fawn. Shaking like the leaves it hid behind.

A city in a forest like this…

Must be magnificent to behold. To live at peace with such pristine nature. Beyond her, entirely. Her walls were stone and timber, roofs of thatch and tile. An image of a sculpted home of living wood, intricate passages and rooms filled the mind.

Thrilling as any story. If it were true.

Maybe she could find it in her to tag along, once this simple task was done. A flower of myth would heal whatever ailed Mother, in a heartbeat. Free her from the bonds that held her at home.

To wander as the small herd of deer did, shadowing the group. Bucks had appeared first. Proud and strong. Head adorned by great crowns of spikes. They nodded nervously to each other. Following closest, but with the most tension in their gaze, as well. Behind them pranced a crowd of does. Sleek and fast. Darting between trees and over rocks as Korra had people and platters.

Life swirled in the early sunlight as butterflies took flight. Shades of blue and orange that dazzled the mind of the unfamiliar alchemist. When she came across them, preserved and dried, the colors were dull and lifeless. Only little yellow and black fliers ventured into the walls, sipping from the gardens in the square, the window box dressings. To them, these were head and shoulders more gorgeous. An entirely different league, as all the things she had seen thus far were.

“Is it all like this?” she asked aloud of her companions. “So… colorful?”

Turning his head back, Mako replied with his own question, “Dirwen, you mean?” Swiftly nodding, Asami hung to his every word with a passion only the most riveting tales had drawn from her, previously. “Some of it is. We’ll be in farmland again by sunset, if we keep this pace up.”

“After that, some marshes,” Bolin added, not venturing to far from the path in his gaze. “Lots of little towns, like home. Then, we catch the ferry to Dorough.”

The Capital…

Mako had told her about it, others too. A city Selney could get lost in. Ringed by walls twice as high as the towers of the Iron Gate. Clad in white marble, built of limestone rubble from the old Imperial City. More people lived in that one city than her entire county. In tenant blocks many stories high and homes much like the Sato’s own.

A place of wealth, culture, power, royalty, history. Great men and women walked its streets. Knights of valor and renown guarded them.

And she would get to visit.

Light blinded the daydreamer as the quartet ventured into a clearing. Blinking sudden tears from her lashes, the skeletal remains on an enormous tree appeared. Cast across the straightest path, felled by wind or rot, the once mighty living thing was now alive with insects and spiders. Creepy crawlies scuttling about in swarms, harrassed by flocks of sparrows and swifts.

One by one, Asami counted the bounty with strained gaze. Blue-beetle, Spinner Moth caterpillars, a Golden Orb-Weaver. Then, a prize so enticing to have her lift the reins for the first time since mounting her steed.

“Hold up!” she called, keeping the little treasure in sight. Rare as any insect in the kingdom. Translucent wings beat a unique pattern, sending glancing sunbeams aloft in the like of polished gemstones. “I need to grab something, real quick!”

A rush of adrenaline as she staggered her way off the saddle, quickly fumbling with straps and packs for an empty container, of some sort. Glass and cork to preserve the little treasure for future potions. Dreadfly, the harbinger of pestilence, only attracted to fresh blood and most putrid living rot. Near impossible to find away from encroaching death, and much feared by the uninformed as bringers of disease, themselves.

Soft whine from Naga as she snuck by, giving a floppy ear a scratch. For once, the wagging tail stopped, smile replaced by a small frown.

Heavy footfalls as Bolin joined her on the ground, eyes scanning the treeline beyond the fallen trunk for something. One hand clutched the handle of his blade, the other sliding his trusty warhammer from the loop on his belt. An overly cautious move, especially for him. The elder brother tended to be the more careful, even jumpy, member of the duo.

“Get back on the horse, Asami,” the amber-eyed man said, drawing his own blade and letting it hang by his side, loosely. Sparks jumped from his thumb as it twitched. Falling, only to die before hitting the ground. “Now.”

Rolling her eyes at what she felt an attempt to spook her, Asami continued to edge closer to her quarry. This one little bug would be worth the saddle-sores and scant breakfast. Enough to trade for a cozy room in whichever town they spent the night in. A full meal, on top of that. So long as they had a potion-crafter worth their saltpeter, that is. With the spare coin she might even buy a treat for the horses. Some honeycomb or carrots, maybe?

Then, the smell.

It hit her square in the face when she came to three paces from the swirling Dreadfly. Like a butcher shop on a bad day, mixed with the funk of sweat.

Standing straight, the woman peered over the broken branches and browning leaves. More rarities appeared, along with black flies and bluebottles, dancing with delight. They circled a man, laying on his side, almost peaceful in his pose. Like he had fallen asleep in the cool shade and damp earth.

Except for all the blood…

“Down!” the archer barked above the howling of her hound. A puff of breeze sent Asami’s hair whizzing, a few strands drifting free as they were cut. The source, and arrow in flight, flitting into a bush just a matter of meters ahead.

From it, a bloodcurdling scream. Hooded and cloaked, a man fell from it, shaft sticking from his shoulder. His fate was lost to her as something gripped her by the collar, dragging her away. Naga grunted and growled around the mouthful of shirt and cloak. A fully grown woman was dragged like a toddler during a tantrum, with just as much control on her direction.

All hell broke loose. Whizzing arrows fly from the treeline, missing her due only to the speed of the racing hound. They slammed into the earth, wicked points making her heart seize.

Heat singed the air as curtain of flame came to life between danger and the endangered, incinerating grass, ferns, and flies, alike. Mako had leapt from his horse, sword in hand, to lay down cover for her. A wall of smoke and fire. Through it, outlines. Fearsome men with long blades, hands batting down a magical inferno.

Line of sight is broken as she’s thrown against her horse. Bucky rears, almost tossing her onto the saddle by himself.

What is going on!?!?

No time to think. Only cower from the sudden violence. Spells flying in the once still morning, ring of steel and crack of stone. Growling of an enraged guard dog, horrified noises of utter terror. Cut off at the snap of a finger and a splash of blood.

I shouldn’t be here!

I should be in my shop. Just opening the door for the first batch of customers. Not hiding from bloody bandits!

More arrows. These glowing with light. White streaks that disappear in a flash, right in the direction of further screams. Loud cracks as whatever enchantment that permeated them discharged. Loud as thunder, with a wet note that made a breakfast of dried meat and fruit threaten to spill from her lips as easy as it had gone down

Korra appeared, just out of the corner of the Alchemist’s eye. Crouched and silent, with her bow drawn. The instant Asami turned her full gaze, she lets fly. Projectile swims through the sky in a gentle arch, heading towards the heaviest engagement of all. Bolin swarmed by half-a-dozen men, blades parried by rune carved gauntlets and protective charms. Blows slide off anything not skin, his hammer taking knees, ribs, and chins at leisure.

A whisper filled her ear. Haunting and beautiful. Almost musical in its melody. But… what did it say?

One arrow became many. An instant hail of piercing points. Ten, and then ten again. Splitting from the central shaft to catch four foes in a deadly rain.

They fall.

So did she. Curled into a ball, begging the gods to let it end.

Not even friendly voices, raised by the conflict, could make her climb from this safe space. “Hey, could you be a little more careful?!” the younger brother demanded, punching one of his remaining opponents right in the nose, sending bone into a snapped angle. “Those things are dangerous!”

“Sorry!” the Ranger replied from beyond her cone of knowledge.

The fate of her oldest friend was beyond her, save that his flame still burned. More peeked out from beyond, signaling that he still fought, but not if he was the approaching victor.

Mania was her only companion, the others dueling to the death with surprisingly resilient opposition. It drove her out from relative safety. To her feet. To her mother’s sword. Gripped the handle and drew it out, feather light, but unbearably heavy. Light bounced from it. Sun and magical, alike, made the silvery metal dance with stunning color.

It was a poor choice.

But, the inaction had made her mind race mad. This was better than that, right?

Listening, as much as watching Bucephalus coil under her, muscle tensing as weight shifted forward. With a great whinny, the stallion kicked, blow landing mid-chest on a man with a slash across his face.

“Asami!”

“I-I’m here!” she answered, elated to hear Mako’s cry.

“Run!” An order, and nothing less. Commanding note she had never heard from him. Even with a wall of his own making between them, the shut in could see his face. Grim and stern, chiseled features contorted by exertion, sweat dripping from his brow. “Get on your horse and run!”

Between his own trading of fists, weapons lost amid the leaflitter, his sibling agreed. “We’ll catch up, just go!”

Run…

Just go…

Run!

RUN!

So, Asami did just that. Put feet hard into the path, pushing her body to the fastest acceleration underutilized muscles had ever made into motion. Arms swing at her side, right hand still clutched a sword she had no use for, or knowledge of how to use in the first place. Instinct was the only thing keeping it there. The primal fear she might need it to get away.

Alongside her came Naga, jaw agape for a panting tongue, white fur stained red around her lips. But, her eyes were still kind. Concerned, even.

Her bark was whining and yapping. Head whipped to one side. Pointing. Along the line of the trail, but hidden by several layers of dense foliage, was the new path. It wasn’t enough to shield her from the sounds of skirmishing. Shouted orders from whomever was in charge of their attackers. To flee, or regroup, or something along those lines.

Running was rough. The ground uneven. Almost as loud as her heart, the sound of a powerful hound’s legs scything through tangles of thorny brambles with ease. Around her, arrows and the occasional blast of magic flew through the air, one nearly catching the Alchemist in the thigh. Around her, the sounds of combat could be heard. Muffled shouts following the meaty smack of Bolins fists. A flash of light and wave of heat nearly caused Asami to stumble in her flight, shortly after, screams and the smell of burning hair assaulted Asami's nose, causing her to gag as she ran through the undergrowth.

Fast!

Faster than she’d ever run. Lungs burning, eyes weeping, skin stinging. But still not fast enough to make the cries of pain fade as her friends dueled desperately. So loud, even here. What she felt was far away from danger, still proved to be only a stone’s throw away.

Light, ahead.

Instinct drew her towards it. Like she was drowning and the sun hovered above, promising breath and safety.

Reaching the edge of the treeline, Asami found herself looking out at a small clearing with an enormous oak in the center. Tall and ancient. Limbs as broad as any of the other trees around the edges. Acorns hung from every cluster of leaves, despite it being the wrong season for them to be there the first place.

All was quiet.

Not a sound of squirrel or sword. Even the alchemist’s heart paused its hammering in her ear in the presence of gently swaying leaves.

Stepping out, she felt a tingle run up her right leg, then the left. Each footfall felt the same as her mind pulled once exhausted legs in the direction of the massive arbor. Peace flooded her thoughts, energy her body. This place was safe, everything seemed to whisper. A world away from everything. Somehow  separate from the raging battle just some yards away, and those horrifying screams.

The bodies.

And the blood.

It was Naga that dispelled this. Her hushed whimper from behind.

Pacing steps carried the fearless dog around the edge of the glen and back. Never once did she venture out into the sunshine, let alone the cooling shade that was her destination. In her eyes, something wild and primitive. The blue darker than ever. Wary and fearful.

“What is it, girl?” Asami asked, kneeling to offer her hand to the pooch, only to hear a twig snap behind her.

With a chuckling laugh, an unknown voice replied, “She probably smells me.”

Spinning, the woman watched a figure drop from the tree, swiftly followed by a handful of others. As they did, the cloak of the speaker fell, hood revealing a surprisingly young man.

“I’m really sorry ‘bout all this drama,” the boy said as he unsheathed his own blades. Odd things with wicked looking hooks on the end of each, pointing the tips back at himself. “Wasn’t supposed to go down like this, you see? Most people just drop their coins and run off. But, your friends over there have caused us quite a lot more trouble than I was betting on. Probably for not that much gain, either.”

Gods, he was young. A child, almost. There was no way he was a year passed manhood, if a day. Yet, he still had a cold fire in his eyes. Sharp malice for her and the others of the party, and no small amount of bloodlust behind that.

“I’m getting ahead of myself. We still haven’t been introduced, have we? My name’s Jet, and these-” Gesturing with his swords to the group of ruffians behind him. “-are my merry band of men.”

“And women!” one added, seemingly put off by the snub.

Merry was not the word that sprung to Asami’s mind upon looking over the motley collection of brutes. Terrifying, perhaps. Or, the stuff of living nightmares.

Big.

Mean.

Likely dumb.

But this only made them all the more intimidating. Enough to have the potion-maker looking over her shoulder in swift glances. Praying desperately for someone, anyone, to come bursting through the trees.

“Lane? How many have we lost?”

“Michael, Rodney, Darren, and Brandon are dead, at least. We probably have another five or six that’ll end up that way,” a hulking man with a balding, half-shaved head and a  jagged scar down the right side of his face answered. “Been a bit of a mess, really.”

“See what I mean? And we thought that this would be an easy job,” Jet sighed as he ran a hand through his messy black hair, thick with sweat, dust, and other debris of the wild life.

His smile was nearly as terrifying to Asami as all the other bandits, combined. So casual about the whole thing. Even flippant. It was as though the deaths of his comrades didn’t affect him, or his plans, in the slightest. There was a darkness in his eyes, his very soul. A sense of loss that had turned black and hateful.

Twirling his wrists, the curved blades swung like blades of grass. Air hummed over them as it was cut. Whizzing, whirring, stirring until the steel sang a deadly tune. Light danced upon them through the light clouds and leaf cover. Glinting flashes of her own terrified reflection appear in it, sent back at unblinking eyes set in a head empty of anything but the desire to be safe at home in her bed. Not watching a boy several years her junior stepping closer by the second, something akin to murder in his expression.

Give ground. Just by instinct. Give her time enough to speak. “L-look, I’ll give you everything I have,” Asami offered, more like begged, with a voice just the right side of quivering. “Just, let me go.”

Chuckles.

That was a bad sign, surely.

One didn’t tend to laugh at an offer they were going to accept, unless it was woefully in their favor. And hers barely qualified as one worth hearing. The contents of her pockets, sword in her hand, pennies in her pouch, and clothes off her back were hardly worth a life.

Not to her.

Not to them, either.

“I’m afraid it’s not that simple anymore,” the boy named Jet sighed, smirking an almost remorseful grin. In his eyes was just a moment of restraint, before it vanished in less than a blink. “Your friends killed my men. Bread for bread, blood for blood. No exceptions.”

Speed.

He was fast.

Faster than her. Faster than she could even react to. Blinding quick with how he swung his blades, knocking her feeble defense aside with ease. Coming back to claim her head. Spill her hot life upon the floor of a glade not a day’s travel from every day and night before this foolish excursions beginning. End what had been a dutiful, enjoyable, if dull and all too brief life.

But, the blow never fell. It hung on the edge of eternity, devouring entropy, and light, and hope. All the good things of the world. Frozen in place as the muscles of Asami’s legs gave out, letting her fall to shivering knees, sure she was already dead.

Still, it stayed.

And still longer. No motion or momentum towards her or anything.

At last, she saw why. Frozen crystal clung to the blade and the hand that held it. Blue ice reaching up from a fading puddle, itself turning to a solid mass.

The air went cold.

Breath became fog as a sudden chill took the clearing. Each bandit took pause, even the one whose hand was stuck solid in a prison eating away at his skin by the second. Blades fly from sheaths as the first arrow does the same, sending a fully grown man flying as a second thunderous clap marks its bursting impact. A second is speared in the eye by a shot that seemed to curve directly into place, finding a home in the narrow slit of her helm.

With panic taking hold, a figure darts from the forest edge, glinting steel in either hand. Length of a forearm, guided with an inhuman skill, they cleave the flesh of the most isolated of the group before he can scream.

Then, the next falls, and one after that. It takes three more silent deaths until a resistance is mounted, by the cross woman from the introduction. Her sword clangs into one of the daggers, catching and binding it in place. All as an opportunity. Just so her fellow could swing his hefty axe in what would have been a death blow to any less nimble than the Ranger.

For who else moved so fluid? Like the water that rushed from the sleeve of her cloak, freezing into place over the large man’s face and arms.

Arms contort. Remarkable strength and dexterity as Korra parried the woman, whilst also planting her heel in the man’s sternum. The momentum carried her far from the deflected blows of each as she spikes both’s feet to the ground with blue-white shards of frozen water.

Scream.

Each spill their lungs out as a last act of life, eyes unblinking to the single cuts that send them to the afterlife. Dispatched in a lazy spin, almost effortless in it’s grace and effect. Free from that pain, and all other suffering. Unlike the panicked few they left behind, either scurrying away from the dance of blades, or rushing to fall next.

Futilely.

Jet swore, forgetting Asami entirely as he smashed his hand free, just in time to dodge the flurry of frozen projectiles that came his way. They whizzed passed, melting to nothing an instant later. Sparkles that caught the air and light alike.

“Just my luck,” he spat, watching another of his underlings fall victim to magical water. Thrust into the sky by the forceful torrent from nowhere, only to fall with a heavy, lifeless thud.

His shouted orders meant nothing. Nor does anyone stand a chance of following them, should they wish.

Few were Korra’s opponent’s now. The toughest, cleverest, most cautious cutthroats of the bunch. Scarred and mean, but equally likely to flee as fight, by the look of them. Also possessing a certain pride and desire for revenge that pushed the self-preservation instinct down the rankings of drives in their minds. Bloodlust and camaraderie. Hunger for the spoils.

Greed that meant their doom.

Not a full moment after the first batch came to an end, the second did as well. Falling under the blade and brutal efficiency of someone leagues ahead of them, years ahead of her. Whips of water break bone and the stiffest guard, alike. Kicks and cuts make clean work of any who make it close enough to face them.

Last to die was the bald man, with the scar upon his hateful mug. His eyes wide as a long knives enter the chests of his last two allies at what should be impossible angles, finding the tiniest gaps in mismatched plate armor. A roar echoed from his chest, hateful and primal, signaling the futile charge that would be his last mistake in this world.

Palms collide with a broad belly, just below the ribs. Air leaves him, his stab was wide. One hand gripped his chin, the other his neck.

Barely enough time for the Alchemist to look away before the snap. A sickening sound. Louder than the world moving. Echoing, lingering. Making what should be a peaceful place into a location that would never fade from memory. Haunting every nightmare Asami could imagine. To the very end of time, that one motion would be with her, she predicted. Etched in her soul as much as the terror that made her afraid she might relieve herself on the spot.

“What the fuck are you?” Jet shuddered, suddenly the scared little boy he really was on the inside. His resolve was lesser than hers, it seemed, as a wet splotch appeared at his groin. Twin blades tremble in his grip. Toys attached to a toddler, against the fluidly mobile daggers of Korra.

A threat that ignored him. Didn’t even toss a glance his way. Eyes turning to her startled, collapsed comrade, instead. In a quiet, cautious, almost comforting voice, she asked, “Are you alright?”

Nods.

No words.

Had none to give. None to express the whirlwind of emotions in her heart and head. Fear of the attack, joy at a timely rescue, horror at the casual display of death-dealing, concern for her friends, a strange mourning for the bandits, and dazed confusion all swirl inside. It upset the stomach enough that standing was an awkward process to achieve with her dominant hand still clinging to a stain-free sword in a white-knuckle grip.

“Good,” the near stranger said with a small smile. Knives vanish into sheaths to hide the deadly weapons from the eyes that couldn’t tear themselves away. “Bolin and Mako should be along any moment. Had to finish up the stragglers.”

Safe!

They were safe, as was she. Free of wounds that weren’t treatable by a minor smearing of salve, in her case.

Only one still stood, bitter and fuming. Radiating hate like a festival bonfire. His heavy, shaking breaths drowned out the light moans of those sprawled on the ground, a surprising number of which still drew breath. Curved steel at his fingertips rose with each, shoulders taut as he struggled with himself.

From Korra, a simple warning: “Back away. Leave now, or end up like them.”

Not a motion is made. Just the sound of a light breeze cutting through the clearing, crimson life seeping out from vicious wounds.

Drip.

Drip.

Drip.

Light waft of ammonia issuing from the soiling of shorts.

Words issue from his lips. Soft and spiteful. More blood oozes forth. This from a spot on his lip teeth had chewed right through in a growing frenzy. “Not again…”

Step, step.

“Sorry, Miss.”

His arms coil for a strike.

“But that’s not how this is going to go down!”

Feet propel him, again. Just as fast. Not at Korra, but the potion-maker. Steel sings in the air as a slash comes for her open belly, just glancing off the blade in her grasp.

And the world stood still.

Her hands move, catching a second slice, then a third. It’s beyond belief, but the panicked flailing of her limbs has kept death at bay, somehow. With the sword of her mother, Asami gains a focus that excludes the world. Not but the sound of her heart, the vibrations shaking her bones from each block, each minor motion of her opponent.

Eyes.

The look in his eyes.

Desperate for someone, anyone, to die for those reaped by Death’s scythe.

A boy, a bandit, a man desperate to keep something between him and the Ranger. Something she dare not go through to get to him.

In her mind, the healer knew this, tried to thwart him in whatever way that came to mind. Yet, nothing worked. She couldn’t even create a moment’s separation between binding blades. Only just able to step and squirm out of her way of each maiming hook as it came in, grappling her only defense and nearly twisting in from her grasp.

She could see it, only just. How his blows would come before they did. A terrified, ecstatic euphoria of guessing correctly. Reading his motion and meeting steel with steel.

Being guided away from that which would harm him. Feet falling where the boy wished them to.

Terror returned. Faster than a bolt of lightning.

Her guard had slipped as the rhythm shifted against her. With a boot laying heavy into her gut, Asami fell. All the air in her body fled in a ragged cough before she hit the ground. So hard her head whipped back and cracked against a root, putting stars into the corner of tearstained vision.

Down came the headsman's axe to split her head in twain.

Oh, no…

Shutting her eyes, she waits again. Not for him, but for Korra. Some third miraculous intervention to save the day. Her life hung in the balance, a moment.

But then, a shiver.

A shiver in words. The same language as before. Musical and eerie in how it rose and fell.

The temperature doesn’t drop, it plummets. Each shallow breath stung already tried lungs, sweat freezing solid on her brow. A hand that had clung so close to the unfamiliar blade just a moment before, now flung it free as it became a scalding rod, sucking every ounce of heat from Asami’s entire body. Beyond the nightly cool, harsher than winter’s chill, more menacing than the horrid blizzard that had nearly turned to ruin the village of her birth, a spell was unleashed on this world.

Something in it felt old.

Older than the great tree whose shadow cast a dull gloom over the first flash of light as it returned to her.

Angrier than the bandit child who stood some small distance away, now.

Sharper than the forest of icy spears lept from the dewy grass. These pointed tips arrayed in a schiltron around a central point, with the Alchemist’s prone form as the focal point. Like an army of crystalline protectors. Deadly diamond shards which gleam in even the mildest sun.

“I told you to leave,” boomed a voice like thunder, echoing and resonant as the priests in the temple. Only, louder, and somehow seeming to issue from a single tongue.

Jet laughed a hopeless laugh, smiling just as he had as he’d fallen from his branch to startle the amateur. Settling into another stance, this one more reserved and defensive, he waited. “Wasn’t really paying attention to what you were saying as you were carving up my men,” ruefully chuckled the lad in a mishmash of clothes and pieces of light armor. “But, if it makes you feel any better, my mother always told me I was a bad listener.”

“That’s funny,” said the Ranger, water and ice swirling around her in a gale, “So did mine.”

Chapter Text

With blade leveled, Jet slid into a more reserved stance than his aggressive footing against the amateur, hissing slightly as the frozen metal ate into the skin of his palm. Eyes focused on the swirling tempest around the Ranger. How the air rippled with shredding ice and speeding droplets in the woman’s immediate surroundings.

Korra, on the other hand, remained standing with her head cocked slightly to the side, seemingly studying the boy before her. Whether he would be foolish enough to advance into death like the others.

But, no. He was too smart for that.

Too cautious.

Instead choosing to circle. Maintain a level of separation to allow for dodging and countering of projectiles, but close enough for an effective counter.

This battle would be different than the others, Asami could tell. A thing of strategy and patience. Holding back, making a plan, sussing out even the tiniest weakness in form from afar. Looking for a crack, an opening. The slimmest margin between victory and defeat.

With a swift wave of her hand, quick as any slice of dagger or sword, Korra took the initiative.

Bolts of water shot from the minor whirlwind. Almost impossible to track with the naked eye of the untrained alchemist. Still, they hadn’t managed to catch the bandit unaware, or even vulnerable. Glancing from his hooks in sudden, fluid motion. Turned to spray with a series of shrill, drumming impacts. Same as those directly after, even if these managed to stay in larger droplets than the first set.

Nothing got through, seemingly. But the bowwoman seemed completely unfazed by the lack of progress and damage. Only a single knife was summoned for defense, all effort focused on the magical onslaught.

It was a ploy.

Something to catch the eye and attention of an opponent on the brink of so many things. Panic, attack, flight, collapse.

Nerves riled, frustration building, he was bound to make a mistake before the thrice savior did. Youth had saved him, thus far. Sharp senses and fresh reflexes. All that stood between the boy, Jet, and the corpse of the same name.

What a sad thing to come to pass.

A thing Asami wished not to see, whatever the cost. Be it missing out on the sheer spectacle of sword and ice clashing in a duel worthy of epic poem status, or the haunting beauty of true magic at work. In her ears was naught but the echoing of that snap. An image of lifeless eyes falling in her own with every blink. Blood gushing from a slit throat, one last gurgling exhaled breath.

With a bark of determination, or maybe frustration, Jet rushed forward, feinting to the right and bringing his sword around in a backhand motion to the left towards Korra’s torso. It got through what the Alchemist had assumed to be an impenetrable shield, instantly. Weaving between strands of ever-shifting liquid and crystal in a display of superb timing and skill. One that her heart skipped a beat at escaping. That he, maybe in an act of mercy, or simply out of self-preservation, had spared her the receiving end of.

Korra stood perfectly still until the last moment. A rare moment of utter stillness, absent of that fluid motion which had ended so many lives. In the air was a palpable expectation of its return.

One perfect step backwards out of the reach of the blade. That was the first move of Korra’s in her own defense. Back in to catch his elbow before the backswing, bringing her own swift stab in for eye or jugular, only to find open air of her own..

By a hair’s breadth Jet dodged.

With even less breadth between them, the Ranger was forced back by the bandit’s offhand swing. The next was barely deflected as the range and reach began to work against the woman. In size they were roughly the same, with Korra having, perhaps, a slight advantage in build. But their weapons made all the difference in the world. Skilled as she was, the spellcaster was simultaneously too close and too far away to be effective.

Spells whiff over a shoulder, ice causing both to slide over frosted grass and fallen leaves. Steel clashes and the savior is pushed onto the back foot. By sheer ferocity, the rabid child was countering skill and spells beyond him. Grim determination on his face. To live a few more seconds. To think of an out for this hopeless situation. Kill in vengeance, if possible.

It only got him so far, though

Mirroring the opening of their brief sword exchange, the Ranger retreated a carefully measured step. Before Jet could react to the fact that his blade was passing through nothing, a fist swung up, catching him right in the throat.

As the bandit stumbled away from the Ranger, Asami saw an opportunity to get away from this madness.

A mad dash for the safety of the treeline, where she hoped Mako and Bolin would be. Just a few short meters away from the edge of the glade, as her heart hammered like battle drums deep in her skull, something heavy crashed into her side. It sent her flying, knocked the wind from her lungs as the alchemist hit the ground like a sack of bricks, head hardest of all.

Everything went fuzzy, for an instant. Pain rippled as instinct threw elbows, forearms and fists into the blurry void, more than half connecting with someone.

Hands pulled her up.

Rough in texture and force. Hot breath, rank with lack of cleansing, permeated her own startled inhale. They both have the same panicked pitch to them: the captor and the captured. Still, she fought, landing a good knee into soft flesh, either gut or groin. Whichever it was, the bandit cursed bluely. Gripped a little tighter. Brought up a glinting bar to still the soul and resistance of the struggling captive. Cold steel of the knife on the amateur’s neck shivered with the hand that held it.

“You take one step closer and I’ll slit her throat!” Jet shouted, pressing the edge of the blade a little deeper. The slightest twitch made a cut, and Asami’s recoil made it deeper. Enough to let forth a single trickle of blood.

Her blood.

Such a queer feeling. No more painful than a papercut, but infinitely more focused upon.

Snapping back to the rest of existence felt like whiplash. Jarring and startling a brain that desperately tried to keep up with a rolling cascade of developments. Fought terror with increasingly foolish reason and ever dwindling hope of salvation. Heart chilled by creeping dread, flesh by the frosted chill of ice clinging to the clothing of her murderous assailant.

With a shuddering, shivering sigh, the boy caught his breath. “Look, the way I see it, we can still part ways amicably,” he reasoned, letting up on his pressure once he was sure of his control. “Just drop your weapons, and leave any gold, gems, and other valuables behind. Then, maybe I’ll let this one go.”

Asami sent a panicked look over to Korra, whose cerulean eyes were impossible to read. If the Ranger saw it, she didn’t let on. Only nodded her head slightly in submission and loosed the hold she had on the circling ring of magic. The sound of the water slapping the ground was followed by the thud of belt and buckle hitting the newly formed permafrost. Knives clink into a small pile a few paces in front of her, last of them landing with its hilt facing towards the sky.

“There,” the woman conceded, “Happy?”

“Hardly.”

One step back, then another. Closer to the line of trees, farther from the one companion Asami could see. The only one she could trust to set her free.

Sure, the boys were on their way, but they were loud and unsubtle creatures. Likely to startle jet into something very bad for her. And Naga likely stalked the wood, having surely been the one to fetch Korra in the first place, and her crushing jaws would be sure to tear the frightened, frightening boy off, and then apart. Problem being, the craftwoman’s throat would surely be slit before the end.

Why is she just standing there?

Why isn’t she HELPING ME!?

What is she doing with her head?

Again, it twitched to one side. Her right. Just subtle enough to be a tick, but doubtlessly deliborate. Blue well bored into her just sub-panic green, calm but insistent. Silently trying to tell her something.

Something important.

“That’s more like it! See, I knew we could all get along,” Jet laughed, loosening his grip as things started to go his way for the first time on this blood-soaked day. “Now, you just stay right there for me and everyone will be just fine. Just remember, no funny stuff, or this one gets-”

It hit her, suddenly. Revelation knocked her head sideways like the blow of a mighty hammer.

Quick as a blink, and much faster than anybody could react, Korra dove forward. One hand snatched the last knife discarded from the ground, the other pushed her form fast through a roll, arresting momentum for a mighty throw with every fiber of muscle in her body behind it. Yet, no sooner had the projectile been set to flight, did Asami knew something was wrong with the release. Closer and closer came what might be salvation and release in a single sliver of hammered steel, time distorted by the approach of the thing.

Periods less than seconds seemed as hours.

Longer still as the adrenaline focused eye of a woman well trained in observation saw that the aim was, indeed, true. For her. Dead between the eyes, she was more than sure.

All Asami could see was the silver knife, spinning end over end, aimed straight for her.

Then, a word.

Same language as before, and even more beautiful as she saw lips move in its forming. The same sound as wind going through the branches of a great tree, making autumn leaves rustle in all their many colors. And, to make what happened next even more surreal, it almost seemed as though Korra’s eyes glowed a pure blinding white for a brief heartbeat.

Air swirled, becoming visible as it was influenced by the will of an earnest spellcaster. Forcing the tumbling blade to one side at the very last moment.

Next thing Asami knew, a burning lance of fire was felt along the length of her cheek and someone screamed with deafening volume in her ear. A cry of horror, and of pain. Feeling the knife drop away from her neck, she sent a quick jab with her elbow into the ribs of the man behind her.

Jet’s hands fell away as his legs folded. He dropped to the ground, clutching at the knife that was buried in his eye, while his former captive scrambled away from his prone body and writhing limbs.

Blinking, dazed, and bringing a hand up to press fingers deep into her temple, Korra stumbled. Only now could the thin trickle of red down her left arm be seen. The slash in her sleeve. But her eyes were focused on the shivering, stunned companion she had rendered artful death to free. “I-I’m sorry,” she said, swiftly bridging the distance between them, more than matching the alchemist’s stumbling flight, “Your face…”

Stings , realized the woman as she lifted a hand to peel back cloth from the from lucky slice in the Ranger’s arm.

“Don’t worry about it. It was just an accident, right?” the healer brushed off with a smile that tugged the cut quite uncomfortably. Enough that the gesture faltered with the gradual withdrawal of adrenaline. “I’m probably supposed to be the one apologizing. You went and saved me after I caused this mess.”

Clean cut, shallow. Well clear of vessels and bone. In need of ether and sutures, but little more. Perhaps a mild antiseptic blend, for the sake of safety.

Where’s my pack? Is it still with Bucky?

Above the curses and moans it was hard to think of such things. Some of the bandits still drew breath, though most wouldn’t for long. Loudest was the last to fall. Arms and legs thrashed upon the grass. Damnations of the living, the dead, and the Gods issued from the newly-made cripple. Intermingled with heart-wrenching sobs and cries of pain.

“Monster!” he called the one who felled him, “You’re a freak!”

“Shut your damn mouth!”

She cracked like thunder, did the Ranger. Anger rose from the depths, more lingering than the roared orders of earlier. Not magical, but still resonant and frightening. Murderous intent burned in those calm blue eyes. Far beyond that in the frantic bandit’s gaze.

Pure.

Distilled.

Trembling with a rage that had sprung from nowhere, that prompted a lunge only halted by the restraining hands of her healer.

“Look at you, huh! I know your type. Hiding out in the woods, slashing up anyone who comes by for fun, and passing it off as robbery. Remind me how I'm the monster here?!” the slayer of men brewed, hands scrambling for something sharp to cut, tear, or bash the bandit the rest of the way to the grave. “You're a sick, twisted maniac, and you fucking know it!”

“I do what I have to!”

“So do I! You have no right-”

Roared in a mixture of grief and agony, the emotional arguments of a fallen foe. “You killed my friends, you witch!”

“What did you call me!?”

While the bowwoman sent abuse, Asami held her tongue, but placed a hand on Korra’s trembling shoulder for safe keeping. Just to keep her steady enough to look over, though even this proved difficult. Lunges had turn to violent gesticulation, joining words of an equally threatening tone.

In the midst of an inward sigh, the Alchemist fretted her lack of physical aptitude and sedatives. It was bad enough trying to seal a slash in the middle of a filthy forest. But doing so whilst covered in sweat, muck, and Gods knew how many saps and resins from the undergrowth was nearly impossible. Should a patient have squirmed at home, it would have been annoying. Pestersome, even. But there were half a dozen dead and an equal number dying to avoid treading on, here.

“Stop moving around, please,” she asked, putting all her might into stilling a single wrist.

Once it stopped, and the blue-eyed traveler stilled in general, hands set to patting down every pouch and pocket on her person.

Her prizes were slim. Some crumpled bandage, a sprig of dried mint. It would serve as something to quiet this party’s booming voice, at least, as the other dragged himself towards the treeline, spitting venom all the way.

In one ear, out the other.

Toss in the mint to cut off whatever response the Ranger had to his promises for vengeance. “Korra, enough,” Asami insisted, struggling to keep her eyes focused in the foreground and not the shimmering glade of green and red. Everything about this place had changed. Instead of drawing her in with comfort, it pushed. Like the tree itself was angry. “Let me stop the bleeding so we can go.”

“Okay.”

Like a snap of fingers, her temper was gone. Korra’s face fell back to its normal state of near unemotional observation. Ering more on the side of timid and nervous than her usual tense watchfulness, to be sure. Brief glances and silently working lips, eventually culminating in a soft question. “Are you sure you’re okay?”

“I’m fine, thanks to you,” swore the saved to the savior, struggling with her myriad of questions. “Although, I have no idea how you did it.”

Vile as his words were, Jet's descriptors had rung mostly true to her ears.

Never had the avid consumer of exotic tales stumbled upon a caster who claimed to command two of the four elements. Those she had heard of were Tyrants and Demagogues of the long past in far off kingdoms. Manifested in tales that cruel grandmothers told to unruly children so they ate well and stayed in after dark.

Outsiders.

Aberrants.

Bogeymen and monsters, all. To a soul the kind of person to smite down dozens for no reason. And the Ranger had done it to get to her.

Seemed uncomfortable about it.

Eyes like crystal ponds refused to look at the damage she'd wrought by spell and blade. Fixed on some obscure spot over Asami shoulder, now that Jet had stilled from exhaustion and loss of blood. Perhaps just the pain had rendered him comatose, who knew, but the lack of outlet seemed to turn the woman's thoughts inward.

“I'm sorry you had to see all this,” she breathed in a slightly detached voice. Floaty and absent as the occasional glance risked a take of her restrainer's expression. “I should have caught up sooner. Got hung up on-”

When the Alchemist raised a brow in confusion, still wondering why she was being apologized to.

“Doesn't really matter, huh?”

“Not really.”

And, despite the shiver setting in at her knees, the amateur smiled. Only now had it sunk in: she was safe. The fighting was over, thank the Gods. No more dodging and parrying at the last fraction of a second. Her heart could slow its incessant hammering in her skull.

She could rest, at last.

Down her legs went, giving up the ghost the very instant of her triage’s completion. Caught under the arms by lightning fast hands, supported like that as little more than dead weight.

Wow…

She's really… strong.

Yes, that's what she meant to think in the first place. Her brain was just fuzzy from the exertion.

Rustling in the distance. Something crashed through bushes and vines with enough noise and force to send songbirds flitting around the women in flight. Two somethings, each calling loudly, frantically. Surrogate siblings sought her with a reckless desperation that warmed the heart even further. The slightest thing to put her at ease, in this moment, was welcome.

“Asami!?”

“Korra! Asami! Where are you!?

Taking a break she could only assume was for a deep inhale, Bolin broke his own personal record for volume. “ASAMI!!!”

With a hum, the Ranger looped an elbow over her neck, promptly carrying the pair of them towards the sound of their comrades. “Are they always this loud when you're around?” asked she, in what could easily pass as a legitimate question, or a well disguised jest.

“Only when they're awake,” muttered the first-time combatant through a thin smile, heart swelling at the sound of their voices. All of their party, save herself by mental fatigue, were well enough to run about like lost chicks without their mother. Her head turned to Jet as she passed him, the urge to address his wounds rising in her. “You'll need to cauterize the wound when you take the knife out. I'm afraid it will be extremely painful.”

Fingers framing either side of the steel dart, slightly amused grimace on his face, Jet chuckled weakly. “Excruciating, I’m sure.” His one eye still had that fire in it. That hatred of the world as it drifted closed.

Like a shift in the seasons, they broke the treeline. A shiver ran up Asami’s spine with the blast of warm, humid air that met her exposed skin.

It was like her body had forgotten how to feel warmth. Lost memory of moisture that didn’t sting her flesh like a thousand tiny knives. Teeth chattered a swift staccato, fingers sore with fresh blood that rushed to fight the numbness in every extremity. Ears and face flushed like the first step into the Broken Axe on blustery winter evenings of yore.

Frostbitten brain throbbed to an alarming extent, slowly realizing all the things left behind at some point in her flight and fight. And those she had kept.

Light jangling of coins in her purse, spare coppers in her pockets. Cool slosh of the waterskin against her right side, length of hemp twine to the left. Weight of old boots, soft cling of fresh footwraps.

Empty hands with the reflex to cling tight to the blade discarded.

“Hold on, I lost my sword.”

“I’ll get it.”

“But-”

Hefted a little higher, the fervent, long-winded explanation at her lips was jarred away. “Trust me, you don’t want to go back there, right now,” cautioned the Ranger, serious as she’d ever been. “Last thing you want to do is piss off the forest any more than it is.”

Laughter tickled a throat desperate for a drink, but didn’t quite reach her parched lips. “I made the trees angry? Wow…”

“It’s… easier to do than you’d think,” hummed the traveler into the sudden gust of wind buffeting their shared back. Leaves and twigs hit with enough force to make them stumble and stagger. Dozens, hundreds, of diminutive spears and sickles slice and stab in emphasis of the statement. “And they’re mad with me, not you.”

Out of the wall of green came the bounding white form of Naga, lips stained a deep crimson, tongue lolling between cheerful yips and great wags of a fluffy tail.

Just behind came Bolin’s boyish face, nose crooked and oozing a distasteful mixture of blood and mucus. His smile went from ear to ear as big arms pulled her into a hug tight enough to make breath a painful concept.

A familiar scent wafted Asami’s way. Charred cloth and leather. Like the ever present shadow he was, dear elder brother was only steps behind his junior.

A party united, once again. One she’d have to piece together before moving on, of course, and time ticked by quickly on that task. Whether they trudged on down this road or sought some other route to the river ferry had to be decided quickly. Storm-clouds gathered overhead, sending a cascade of dew and pine needles falling onto the Alchemist’s upturned face as harbingers of what was to come.

“You don’t have to apologize, by the way,” Korra stated, smoothly vanishing into the forest like a shade to retrace her steps. “You did good, Sato.”

And she left her, pink-cheeked and exhausted. Blooded and mildly bloodied.

If all adventures started like this, the Asami thought her heart not strong enough to stand it. Violence and exertion did not become her. Nor did they suit her particular fancy. So far as the potion-maker was concerned, this was among the most stressful days of her entire, admittedly short and uneventful, life.

Although…

It was far more exciting than her comfy chair and crackling fire.

Something to think about.

Chapter Text

Drip.

Drip.

Drip.

Rain cascades through the forest canopy.

In her daze, Asami tried to count how many of the impossible number of droplets struck her upturned face. A hundred? A thousand? Ten-thousand? She’d lost count minutes ago. Or maybe it had been hours. The great difficulty in telling time at his moment was that it required free space in one’s mind to do so. Space which was in awfully short supply.

Faces still swarmed every thought. Twisted in hatred or terror, placid in the grip of death as the gentle shores of an afterlife slowly washed over escaping souls.

Blood stained her fingers. Not that which she spilled, for that quantity was none, or next to it, but of the youngest member of her party. It had run over them with the same ease it had leaked out his broken nose, across his broad smile. Seeped into her pores, under her nails, into the hems of her sleeves.

Nothing had been able to fully wash it from her skin.

From her mind.

Only the rain made things clear.

Cool, fresh, soothing. Numbing, even, as it ran along the rises and valleys of her face. Dancing on lashes and flowing through her hair in a comforting shower.

Until a hand reached over to pull up her hood, breaking her trance of un-thought. Made her blink back to reality as each droplet thudded damply on tightly weaved wool in a steady, if uneven, drumbeat. “How many times have I told you not to touch my things?” she scolded Mako, without even having to look. Only he was familiar enough to dare such an intrusion.

“Not sure,” the pyromancer said, his one-sided smile just caught out of the corner of an eye, “But, I’m pretty sure it’s fewer than telling me to put something warm on. ‘You’ll catch cold,’ after all.”

Curses!

My own words used against me!

What dire and treacherous days are these, when a woman can’t trust the warnings that have come from her own mouth? Like, five years ago.

“I never catch cold.” A sound argument, if also weak and pedantic. Not the best of bulwarks to hide behind if one wanted to avoid the onslaught of brotherly concern he was like to unleash at any moment, but even a deeply rutted road was always preferable to a slick slope.

With a sigh, it begins. “Are you sure you’re okay?”

How original an opener.

“I’m fine.”

“I’m here if you want to talk.”

“I know.”

“Asami...”

“Mako.”

“There is no way you can’t want to talk about this,” reasoned the man, such surety in his statement. Irritating, self-assured, nearly patronizing, infuriatingly correct surety. “You always want to talk. You spend an hour a day talking our ears off about flowers and roots . If anything remotely like this happened to us, and you weren’t here, you’d lock us in your store until we spilled every detail. Spit it out, already, and get it off your chest.”

Great forks of lightning streaked across the sky, followed by great claps of resonant thunder, which made all but her own mount snort and canter wildly. The tempest suited her own mood of the moment, perfectly.

Wild.

Unbound.

A roiling chaotic mass of pent up energy, ready to release itself upon the world at the soonest opportunity. Just as her own emotions still swirled within. Waiting for the first word of explanation to burst forth. To be emptied as a confused mixture of awe and horror on the unsuspecting ears of her closest and oldest friends.

Yet, the Alchemist held her wayward tongue.

That which reveled in the telling and retelling of tales, was not to be trusted here. Oh, no. Discretion must be her stratagem until her own questions were answered.

Asami’s mind had not played a trick upon her. She knew this to be irrefutable true. For if her own ears and eyes proved as untrustworthy as the tongue, then this quest had been a greater folly than first envisioned. And what a horrifying thought that was.

First among facts that troubled her: the Ranger had used magecraft. Many different schools and forms and manners of casting. Some of them magics she, the lover of stories, had never seen or heard of, before. Arrows imbued with sorcerous enchantments; water and ice that followed the motions of limb and digit like puppets dancing on strings; winds that bent the knee at a single spoken word, with force enough to alter a lethal projectile’s course in mid flight.

One, she could understand. Two, she could accept. All three, well that was impossible.

Perhaps by some other exotic, or otherwise unnatural ability, Korra’s head turned enough for their eyes to meet a second through the downpour. “I do want to talk, I'm just not sure what I want to say. Can you let me get my head on straight before the interrogation, okay?” asked the shopkeeper, silently deciding that the archer's secret was best kept to herself. For now, at least. “And no lip from you, either!”

The head which had turned to interject in the discussion, snapped back to the path ahead like a spring relieved of tension.

“I have no idea what you're talking about,” Bolin quickly covered up, voice raised over the droning downpour. Cloaks of dull green looked black as pitch, worn saddles glossy and swollen. “I was just going to ask if either of you were hungry, yet?”

Heh.

Fresh memories of home. Her whole family 'round a dinner-table, blazing fire in the hearth. Five mouths, wide with smiles and joyous laughter, shoveling stew until the sun was hours gone. Bread so fresh, it still smelled of the well-worked millstone, and vegetables of late-spring sunshine, plumped by black soil and rain.

Not at all like the pickings at hand. Meager rations meant to be bulked by foraging and game. Her own stores made the best of the lot, for they contained all the meat and dairy. Dried legumes, stone-fruits, and nightshades were hardly the ingredients of fine dining.

Quite how supper would be made palatable was a mystery to the well-fed townswoman. As was if her desire for food would be returned by then, in the first place.

“I'm good, thanks.”

“Me, too.”

So did he lean, bridging the gap between he and the wanderer at a most precarious of angles. “How about you, Korra? I bet you worked up an appetite with all those acrobatics you did, earlier,” the ladies-man schmoozed, laying it on even thicker than usual. “I've got some candied apricots, if you've got a sweet-tooth?”

Something in Asami growled, shocking her by not being in the general region of 'stomach'.

“I hate apricots,” Korra said, rebuffing the advance by pressing fingers into the tenderest part of the young man's forehead, and driving him away with the lightest push.

For whatever reason, this rebuffing improved the mood. Brought a little smile to bear on the potion-maker's face, as raindrops fell, galore. “I thought I'd taught you better than to get in people's face like that,” she teased, piling on, “In fact, I know I did.”

And the brother's laugh, full and hearty. A noise that sounded like home.

While wind whipped and lashed, and thunder clashed, an amateur found her joy. In this little thing, like when robins sing, the world felt good and right. Safe and sound, familiar ground, far from the troubling thoughts that might plague her. Questions of 'why' and 'how' events and actions had come to pass in this mad, mad world she'd found.

“You taught me by getting in my face about it,” the youngest accused, remembering one of their sillier feuds. “Punched me in the nose.”

“You shoved me!”

“No, Mako shoved me into you. That's a big difference, Sato.”

“Why you dirty liar!” his elder brother playfully snapped, sending a mystic spark flying the younger's way. Just the equivalent of a fervent poke for them. “Your head must have been scrambled when that knuckle-dragger straightened out your ugly mug!”

Wards crackle against the near extinguished ember, just a faint glimmer after being buffeted down to nothing. Spells woven into the very clothes worn on his back, turning fabric into steel.

Never one to lower his defenses, even against his own kin.

This little victory only made Bolin chuckle all the more. “My face might be messed up, right now, but you're always useless when it's a little damp. There's nothing Asami can cook up to fix that, now is there?”

Snickers cut through the scattering drops as the worker of flame slumped in his saddle, beside himself with muttering frustrations. Once again, he'd been drawn into the oldest and most delightful of taunts. Leveled at the very beginning, by a girl utterly ignorant of spellcraft. Many times disproven, and just as many repeated. Always worth a rise.

“I'm going to singe off your eyebrows,” Mako swore under his steaming breath. Steaming everything, as moisture boiled away under his influence.

Acting before he managed to ignite a shirt she'd so carefully mended for him (again), the Alchemist brought out her most unimpressed scowl and hefted her waterskin into his open lap. It drew the eye, which broke his bubbling idiocy like a hammerblow.

Down and back, like a chicken with new scratch. “What's this for?”

“If you're going to act like a child and throw a tantrum, you might as well make some tea while you do it,” she told him, fishing her favorite blend from the appropriate pack.

And lo, did fresh laughter sing. Wild as the woods and rolling hills that surrounded the company, far louder than the clamor of the storm. It echoed off trees and shrubs like a temple's halls, resonating with the forest green like nothing heard in an age. Or maybe they were just joining in, as well.

Something in it felt old.

No…

No, that wasn't the right word for what Asami felt in the pure mirth contained in the Ranger's joyous guffaw.

Then she realized exactly where she'd heard this before. In the smile of the town's children. Those who still knew no hardship or pain. Korra's laugh came from that innocent place. Somewhere the mythic monsters would never dare tread.

“I'll take some of that, if you don't mind?” the wanderer from beyond the horizon requested as Naga danced around her mount's ankles. She smiled wide, but her eyes were still etched in fear. Fear of her and what she knew. Of herself and what she'd done. The boy and his wicked damnations. “Jasmine. And some of those little cakes, with elderberry jam.”

“Hey, I thought you said you didn't have a sweet-tooth?” Bolin accused, pointedly. Quite literally pointing, a little scowl on his boyish features.

Mako joined in, more puzzled than incensed. “And, are you laughing?”

“Is that a problem?”

“Other than the fact you never laugh, no. Not really.”

“Yeah, it's actually kind of weird hearing you do something that isn't telling us how we're utterly incompetent,” agreed the flame-caster, raising his volume over the buffeting squall. “Usually it's all ' how you two idiots aren't dead is beyond me ', and such.”

Bolin leaned in, again, risking further abuse in an effort to more closely examine the face of the archer. “Come to think of it, you've been acting weird since you got back with Asami's stuff,” pondered the stone-crafter, cogs whirring inside his head. “Have you got a fever or something? Maybe you picked something up from one of those guys you cut up- OW!”

This time, his nose was the target of a firm poke, sending the man careening away in haste. “Have you ever thought that it’s not me who doesn’t laugh, but you two who aren’t funny.”

“Yeah, she’s totally fine,” the swordsman said, scowl shifting to the other side of his mouth, with a slight upward curl appearing.

Though, while he took the blow to his ego on the chin, shaking it off just as well, the same could not be said of his more youthful sibling. Cartoonish shock and horror animated the black and blue features of his ever expressive face. “You can’t be serious?” he gasped, the picture of offense, “I mean, I get you calling out Broody McChiseled-Chin, back there, but me? Your old pal, Bolin? I’m the handsome, witty, charismatic one, remember?”

With a slow wave of her hand, and a single muttered spellword, Korra sent a deluge into the earth-mage’s face, soaking every inch not previously so. She smirked, content with his shift from sounding off to coughing liquid from his nose. “I remember you being the annoying one.”

Now, it was Asami's turn to chuckle away, turning back to the sky. “Give it up, you two. It's embarrassing.”

“Fine.”

“But-”

“Shush! If you keep pestering her, I’m fairly certain I’ll have to reset your nose, again,” the healer said in warning to the man whose blood still soaked her palms. Far more than enough of that had been spilled, this day, in her opinion, from far too many sources. “And, could one of you dry him off, please? Preferably, before he starts shivering. I doubt it will be easy to keep a fire going in all this.”

This type of storm, she’d seen before. Rolling up from the southern coast as the planting season wore one. Hours of dark clouds in lashing bands, carried by winds which stripped the thatch from many roofs.

Much as she enjoyed the joke, only Mako’s flame might withstand the downpour.

At home, she would stand in the street for a while, on days such as this. Look up as her face and mind were washed clean. Close to her roaring hearth, and comfy chair. Hot soup ladled into her bowl, thick blankets and goose down pillows piled high.

“What time do you think it is?” the Alchemist asked, mourning the lack of any timepiece on her person. “Midday, or earlier?”

“Earlier,” said the pyromancer, having withdrawn from the other’s conversation, already. Instead, he scrutinized the back of the Ranger’s head, intently, an odd shading to his amber eyes. Seeds of suspicion could be found there, even as he shifts back to her, smiling like he did. “Hard to tell without the sun, but, I think the first loafs of bread should be coming out of the ovens, right about now.”

Humming thoughtfully, Asami fell back to melancholy.

Kind words from all sides, aside, she couldn’t help but feel a lingering responsibility for the morning’s upset. An ambush she had walked right into. Totally oblivious to the danger she’d put her adoptive brothers in, until it was, quite literally, staring her in the face.

To say nothing of Korra.

As an utter novice to the world-wandering adventurer lifestyle, Asami wasn’t entirely sure of her assumptions. However, if one must be saved from certain death multiple times on a given day, that person was, surely, little more than a burden on their comrades. More than a few of her customers had complained of such dead weights, over the years. The layabouts and Jonah’s of a clique, shunned as failures, and often abandoned at the next settlement along.

Not that her friends would ever do such a thing. Especially after press-ganging the purveyor of wares into this expedition.

“Homesick?”

With a laugh, the amateur admitted, “More than a little.”

“I’m sorry I dragged you into this mess,” Mako said, reaching over to pat the wallowing woman on the shoulder. She could feel his smile, full of empathy with her plight. At being forced into the unknown, to care for one they loved. “You can take what we owe you out of my share, to make up for it.”

Quick mental arithmetic occupied the impromptu debt-collector, for the briefest of moments, until another form of payment sprung to mind.

“What do you know about her?”

A soft question, hid under a cracking branch and turn in the trail.

The response took a moment, while the swordsman mulled it amid glances toward the head of the procession. “Korra? Can’t say I know much of anything,” he admitted, shrugging at this uncharacteristic lack of knowledge. “Not a local, obviously. Not from Dirwen, at all, far as I know. Does her work, keeps to herself, moves on before making any friends.”

Explains why she travels alone. And why she never has anyone with her when she comes to town. Could be from the borderlands with the Twin Kingdoms, I guess? That would explain her going to Challeia.

“More stubborn than you, and that’s saying something,” the handsome man teased, interrupting Asami’s theorizing, and earning himself a fresh scowl. “Freakishly quiet, a lot of the time. Moves like she’s not human when she fights. Water-mage, with a bit of healing, and those novelty arrows.” And, with that, he sighed, shrugging for a second time. “That’s all I’ve got for you, honestly. The only reason I brought her in on this quest is because she’s the best sharpshooter and probably the best Ranger around.”

As the Alchemist had thought, secrets were this woman’s cloak. The shroud that fell upon her wake. No wonder she sprouted myths from her every footstep, sent rumors floating on the breeze. Enigmas often did so, even the most mundane.

What havoc might her own tale wreak, should it leak from her in a drunken stupor, embellished for a set of eager ears like hers? And how would it morph on the second-hand telling?

“Why? Did she do something when she came after you?”

Oh, you have no idea...

Before she can make excuses, something prodded at the foot laying limply by Asami’s left stirrup, followed by a yipping bark. Naga, with a grand smile of her own, demands the attention of her charge.

Ever since the trek had been resumed, the hound had hardly strayed an arm’s length away from the legs of unyielding Bucephalus. Save for the occasional trip up the her master’s side in search of treats, or off after a particularly dense and unfortunate squirrel.

“Hey, girl. What is it?”

Round and round, a dizzying circle, with many an energetic bound and bark. The pup wanted attention. To be followed as she bounded forward, spooking Bolin’s timid mare into a hasty gallop, barely controlled on the many puddles and muddy quagmires. Right to the side of the archer, blue eyes ranging over her shoulder.

For a moment, her lips were parted a fraction, hanging on the edge of words. Then, in a tone not unlike that which first passed between them, she inquired, “Your sword, where did you get it?”

“The wall above my fireplace,” answered the Alchemist, a little more snappish than she’d intended to be. Instinctive prickles rose on her neck as they spoke, the ghost of laughter quickly fading in the fog of breath. “My mother gave it to me when I came of age.”

“Before that?”

“I-I don’t know. It’s a family heirloom. Been collecting dust for as long as anyone can remember.”

Stepping in, Mako headed off whatever follow-up the archer was readying. “Why do you care where the thing came from?” The fingers of his sword hand flexed when Korra’s gaze switched to him. A reflex Asami had only seen this morn, and when a pub brawl loomed imminent. Sure, he relaxed just as quickly, but it struck her all the same, that his first reaction had been for combat. “It’s just another old sword in a town full of them. Most of the Salney arsenal is older than all of us put together.”

“Um?” the savior said, seemingly confused by the curtness sent her way. “I was just curious, is all. Thought it felt nice in the hand when I had the chance to hold it.”

No.

That wasn’t right at all. When the tracker had returned, fresh from salvaging and looting the bodies of the fallen, Asami’s sword had been the furthest thing from her laden self. Held at a literal arm’s length, gingerly gripped like one would wield a soured vegetable. It had been forced back on its owner, then recoiled from as a leper.

Still, the amateur thanked the veteran for the compliment of her steel.

Not that it had been any more lethal in her hands than the sticks of youthful play. Luck had made her flails deflect lethal blows, yes. It was the skill of this stranger that had saved her. Whatever strange power she wielded, be it blessing or unnatural.

One of her many secrets.

“We’ll have a few hours of light left when we get to our stop for the night,” said the Ranger, turning back to the road. “Once we settle in, we should start working on your form.”

“Pardon?”

As Naga yipped, cheerfully, Korra said, “I’ll teach you how to fight, if you want.”

The answer which blurted itself from Asami’s lips was naught but reflex, in its own right. Like the recoiling of her friends on hearing it, both in the middle of explaining how she was far better at the ‘putting people back together’ aspect of the spectrum, than their unmaking of such work. Poor Bolin, who had just regained the better of his mount, nearly toppled from his saddle in surprise. No better was the elder, steam starting to rise from him, once more.

“Yes, please!”

Only the Ranger seemed unsurprised, or maybe she was just better at hiding it than the others. Heels digging into her horse’s flank, the woman urged herself into a trot, then a full canter. In moments, all her being vanished behind a curtain of gray.

Yet, still, her voice carried like in an empty street. “Good,” muttered she, cool and with a perfect calm. “I’ll scout ahead. We can talk then.”

Talk…

Yes.

They had so much to talk about.

But, until that, she could enjoy the rain on her face, some more.

Drip.

Drip.

Drip.

Chapter Text

Blessed are those with stone walls and sturdy gates. Stray not far from your vaulted ceilings and winter stores, for wars have been fought over less, and many will be jealous of them. Drink deep, laugh hearty, and thank the Gods you are at home.

These words struck Asami as she crossed the threshold from savagery to civilization.

Someone had recited them to her, once. Or maybe she had read them in a dusty old book that crossed her path. Whatever the source, the sensation of relief which filled the battered, exhausted body of the Alchemist was all the same. It was one that had a drooping head lift itself skyward to thank whomever was watching for the sound of creaking hinges and clucking birds.

Never had the rain ceased. A constant patter on the trail, her saddle, bags, horse, everything. Long ago, no longer pleasant. Growing worse after the trees had been left behind for pasture and green barley.

Without cover, the trail had become a quagmire. A sucking slop that slowed progress to an aching crawl. It spattered the amateur’s legs, adding weight, along with a slimy dampness that wouldn’t go away. Deeper pools and old wagon ruts caught the hooves of every horse but her Bucephallus, meaning as much as ten minutes of heaving labor the free the affected beast, and then calm it enough to resume the trek.

But Naga, poor Naga, was worst off of them all.

Too her nose, the rank must have been nigh unbearable. A mingled miasma of ever foulness that had ever fallen from hand, or cart, or pack animal. Black earth and bushels of barley, small creatures of the woodlands and the remnants of traveler’s meals.

Until this day, Asami had no opinion on mud, unless it was tracked into her store or home. After the ride, she hated it. So much she nearly kissed the firm soil strewn with hay, once dismounted.

“Whew!” Bolin declared for all, kicking clods from his riding wear. “Anyone else for a hot bath?”

His brother cried, “Aye!”

“No! Me, first,” snapped the miserable mixer of draughts. It would only be fair, after all she’d been through, for her to get the freshest tub to cleanse in. While her clothe might be the second cleanest among the troupe, the Ranger hardly counted. Never once sinking past the ankle, somehow.

Of course, that was assuming a bath might be had in the settlement they had found themselves. Barely larger than a few blocks in Salney, much of the space being taken up by a trio of large barns.

Not so much a town, as a set of fortified farmhouses. It was the way most people in the kingdom lived. Tiny collectives of yeoman and tenant farmers, banded together in little clumps by family relations and a desire for safety. Southern provinces left it as such, simple occupying the same lazy lanes as one another, their collective closeness to one another and the mighty standing garrisons at the coastal forts and cities enough to dissuade bandits and greenskin raiders.

But, in the Middlelands, the mountains’ dangers were closer, the wolves larger and bolder, so folks just went the next step further. Packed themselves in tight, building stockades of earth and wood, just large enough to have people (and therefore crossbows) enough to aim every way.

Bailey became stone, with time. Hamlets, towns. And then, the cycle continued. New towns needed food, more than its own fields could supply. Thus, new settlements were born.

A man approached, dry as tinder, with a splitting axe over his shoulder. “Begin yer pardons, milords and miladies,” greeted he, nodding his head in a curt bow, just a hint of suspicion in his tone, “But what purpose brings ye to our door, this day?”

“We’re on the road to Meleyeoke,” Mako replied, offering a hand swiftly taken by the man. “Looking for board and hay for our horses.”

“Hot food, if you can spare any,” the youngest chimed, smile wide as the horizon.

Looking past the menfolk, he looked at she and Korra with a wary eye. Or, more properly, the weapons the Ranger wore like clothing, or a second skin. Silver embossed buckles on dark brown leather, with as many scabbards clinging to them as Asami had brewing beakers, against a backdrop of muted green. Her bow, light as ash or yew, intricately carved with runes that glowed faintly without the sun’s rays. Quiver full of deadly points, some shafts hastily scrubbed clean of crimson essence.

With a considerate hum, the farmer slowly spoke. “Afraid I haven’t got room enough for ye in the house, unless ye all want to share a room. But, the hay lofts are comfortable, enough. Plenty dry, too.” Jerking a thumb over his shoulder, he points at the middle home on the row. “Kenji’s wife, Laura, is making pottage, if it’s hot food yer after. You’ll ‘ave te pay her separate, ‘course.”

“Thank you, Sir.”

“Much obliged, Gramps!

Normally, she’d smack the younger brother for his affront to the basic courtesies of introduction, but such a desire failed to emerge. Too tired, and cold, and damp to care for such trivialities.

Other, more pressing matters required the little energy left in Asami’s being.

Answers must be found, before anything else. Every moment not spent wallowing in her own misery, had been devoted to the contemplation of theories, verging on wild speculation. Only one source might prove or disprove any of them. Knowledge and information that only dwelt in the mind of the shade in their midst.

This far, and no further, until an explanation for the infamous and legendary. From the lips of the caster, herself. This Ranger, this wanderer, this stranger, this… impossible woman must have a solution, just as anything else did. Whether remedy or arithmetic, there was always a solution.

Speak of a demon, and it shall speak, Korra’s voice cuts through the chatter like one of her blades. “You two settle up, we can take care of the horses.”

“Um,” the pyromancer paused, midway through digging copper pieces from the deepest confines of his pockets. Amber spheres dart between the pair, searching for something. They linger not, nor gaze deep, but gather much into his ever murky mind. He suspected, something. But what? “Sure thing. If you need help getting things put away, just call me.”

Geeze, how pointed can you get?

“We’ll be fine,” the brewer said, in an attempt to calm and assuage, “Even I can handle walking with a horse, Mako.”

Or, so she’d like to think.

Dear Bucky followed along with not a neigh of protest, his hooves clopping in an even pace of his rider’s wobbling gate. A caring gesture, Asami truly believed, trusting the empathy of an innocent beast in her desire to find a kindred soul in all that had occurred.

But the other, a stubborn mare with a chip on her shoulder, and an unnerving habit of clicking her teeth whenever eyes dared sully an inch of hickory brown hair. It struggled, pulled, whinnied, and spat in defiance. Each inch was a tug-of-war, reins straining to keep something resembling a straight line to the storefront sized opening of the stables. Fire burned in the animal, roaring and rebellious as her master had been in youthful days.

Just not fierce enough to overwhelm the healer’s indignant rage. That, when the end was finally in sight, an ungrateful creature she had saved, by her own hand, would dare delay satisfaction and rest.

Leaning close to a flicking ear, she whispered hoarse, “So help me, Hippaeon, my mother broke him and made him a half-decent gentleman, and I will do the same to you if you test me.” A snort, a shiver, and a putter of seeming understanding passed between them. “That’s what I thought.”

Victory!

Let it be so easy with her.

And, so it might. With her light steps and more obliging equines, Korra had nearly finished her portion of the corralling by the point Asami made it inside the structure. “Do you need any help?” she asked, voice steady as ever, but a tremor in her eyes. Like a rock had just been thrown into a placid lake, ripples of emotion radiate from nearly undilated pupils. “Or, do you want to skip right to the part you tell me who you really are?”

“Funny, I thought that was my line,” the shopkeeper said, fiddling with packs and bridles.

Who am I?

Who am I ?

That’s rather rich coming from you, Stranger.

Shoulders lift in a shrug, an act of being unfazed. A remarkable one, at that. “We have plenty of time for that, too,” remarked the archer, not so much looking at Asami, as what hung behind her. “I was just curious, why do you have a sword like that laying around the house?”

“I already told you, it’s an heirloom,” she replied, through gritted teeth and amazed frustration. “Why do you even care?”

“Are your family nobles?”

“My father’s a merchant and I run my mother’s shop.”

“Thieves, then?”

NO!

Rage erupts in a flash, blinding red and frothing. Teeth scrape and squeak against the opposite, and a foot comes down on the ground so hard her knee popped.

New questions, driven by this madness, bleed into every thought and inner monologue. Who was she to make such accusations, given the circumstances? What right was hers to turn the proper order of things on its head? Those carefully crafted queries, spawned in the miserable mind of one freshly torn from her home and subjected to fright and filth beyond imagination, died.

Enough! I know what you’re trying to do, and it won’t work,” Asami hissed, still preferring that they not be overheard until she could vent, at the barest minimum. “You don’t want to answer my questions. Well, too fucking bad! I’m not insane, I’m not blind, I know what I saw, Korra! You’re-”

What? What even is she?

The words of the bandit boy, torn by an anger far deeper than this paltry outburst: Freak. Monster.

And, despite the frustration, the stonewalling, the bone-crushing exhaustion, the grief and trauma of what felt a thousand compressed lifetimes, her words died, again.

“Aberrant? That’s the word around here, isn’t it? The one you’re looking for, right?” the Ranger asked, sighing deeply as her face drains of any semblance of happiness or light. Within a few blinks, she looked a shell of a human. No spark, no soul, no drive. Just dark eyes and slumped shoulders where a person once stood. “It varies from place to place, so it’s hard to keep track, sometimes.”

No.

No, it wasn’t.

For all she didn’t know, the Alchemist did know that.

Deep breaths. In and out, again. Dispatching the foulness with every exhale, returning reason on the in draft. A little less than a minute to settle enough for a question, “Who are you?”

“The truth?”

Nod.

“Korra. Just Korra, now.”

“Before that?”

“Someone else, but still the same, if you catch my meaning. It doesn’t really matter, anyways,” shrugged she, a joy-free grin creasing her sullen features. Naga bounded passed, silent as a ghost, to nuzzle close to her master’s side. “Nor does where I grew up, who my parents were, or any of the rest of it, I’m sure you’ll agree.”

Laughing, dryly, Asami admitted, “That’s actually what I was going to ask next.”

It brought a little life back into the bowwoman, hearing that, apparently. She perked up, just slightly, smile actually curving her lips upward. “Color me surprised, then,” Korra said, giving an ear a scratch, “Although, you do seem the sentimental type. No offense.”

Some taken, I suppose.

“Alright, how long have you been able to-” Words lagged behind meaning, treading water for a way to be said in the barest form of tact. Think. Think! “Cast more than one element?”

“As long as I can remember.”

There was no nostalgia for the past. Not a hint of pride or longing to relive the moment.

Nothing.

Blank of any manner of emotion in the statement, whatsoever. Perhaps even entirely detached and scrubbed clean of such for personal reasons.

“Why did you take this quest?” the seeker of tales questioned, next, seeking a glimpse of the motivations of one who’d crossed half a kingdom. For the sake of a parent and mentor, she had come. A panacea cure, at best, some arcane tome to advance her knowledge, at worst. “It’s not because it was close, if you had to pass through the Vale. That’s hundreds of miles from here. And you seem to hate Mako and Bolin, so it’s not a favor for a friend. Why come all the way for a simple fetch and go?”

Korra blinked, yet more emotion returning to her, color returning to almond skin. “Um, well, it was for the coin, honestly,” she again admitted, seemingly a little ashamed.

“You don’t want the herb?”

“No.”

Curious. Very curious. Myths must be worth fortunes, in their own right, surely? Enough to hire the services of an Adventuring Guild, at least. The Ravens, no less. Masters of the craft, should they choose to be. Worth every piece in Salney. “Just the gold, and not the flower? I find that hard to believe.”

“Because you don’t know me, or because of what you do know?” asked the Ranger, closer to even than ever. Her body was tense, still. Wound tight with anxiety and frequent flicks to the door. As though she might bolt for the exit the very instant things started going against her. “I don’t blame you, either way. You and me probably heard the same stories growing up. Boogeymen and boggarts. Beware strangers bearing gifts. All the lovely fables you tell children.”

The fuck is a boggart?

Flicking an over-affectionate Naga lightly on the snout so she’d stop begging for attention, the shaper of wind and water confided, “I won’t pretend to be a saint, but, I have never violated a contract. And, I have no intention of starting with any of you. Can you believe that?”

Something about the earnestness of the honesty was compelling. For the second time, in one day, no less, Asami felt words leave her lips unprompted.

“Okay.”

It felt like pressing further would lead to nothing. Only more half-truths and omissions of the important. Some secrets were like to slip out, but those had as high an opportunity to be a smokescreen as honest revelation, with the only leverage available being too blunt for nuanced negotiations.

Caution would have to be preserved, for now, trust solidified over time. But, in this moment, the woman felt no threat from the other. Rather, after all the silent hours, fleeting smiles, and a moment of laughter that still rang somewhere deep in Asami’s mind, a picture had started to form. Of someone with nothing but the boots on her feet, the hound at her waist, and the road to the horizon.

Lonely…

Almost resigned to being so.

Finding solace in the silence of the forest. Growing irritated at its passing.

Unlike herself, as Korra had looked at the rain, she seemed to be on the verge of a fit. The shock on her face when the spell had been cast seemed more like horror, in hindsight. Belief escaped even the Ranger when it came to her actions. And the rage towards Jet’s insults felt old, but somehow still raw.

An old wound that refused to heal.

I know a little something about that. And keeping secrets.

“Let’s make a deal, then,” the business woman proposed, unhooking her scabbard from its sling, “I swear, on my family’s honor, not to tell anyone what I saw, providing you teach me how to use this.”

Blue eyes dart to the blade, and back again. For an instant, she froze, solid as a pillar. Only her nostrils moved, drawing breaths so still and shallow that her chest failed to rise. Again, the temperature dipped, though not near as harshly as in the glade. Muggy, putrid air went crisp as the last day of autumn. Each whiff on the breeze was clean and clear.

“You won’t tell?”

“Yes. If you take me up on my offer, that is.”

And she sighed, like the weight of the world was removed. The distant sound of thunder might have helped with that aesthetic. A rumbling like boulders being toppled off mountaintops by angry giants. “Pardon me if I sound ungrateful, but that deal seems rather lopsided in my favor. I can’t help but wonder why you’d help a stranger like that?”

Perhaps the easiest question ever answered simply fell into Asami’s lap, reply already primed, “You saved my life, didn’t you? I’d say that was worth one fewer stories for the pub.”

They smiled.

Not exactly in a happy way, but a fine gesture in its own right. Signing the deal as well as any signature or handshake. Much the same way most of the Alchemist’s transactions were concluded, as a matter of fact. A smile and a nod.

“Alright then,” hummed the archer, suddenly turning to scan the stables for something, “If that’s the way it’s gonna be, we’ll need something to spar with.”

Um, sword?

The amateur lifted the black casing higher, rattling the blade within via a short shake.

“No,” the sharp rebuff.

“Why?” her surprised reply.

From her pocket, the wanderer drew a small, clear stone. Not glass or diamond, for the interior was murky and impure, surface etched with many glyphs that looked to glow with pale moonlight. “I know you probably can’t tell, but that sword you’re holding is the most potently magical thing I’ve ever handled, that wasn’t actively trying to dismember my by raising the dead.”

“Oh, come on,” Asami said, rolling her eyes at just how ridiculous that sounded. It was just an old bit of decoration. “You expect me to believe that because you have a pebble?”

Seems she’s still trying to distract me.

Korra scoffed, holding the small ovaloid at the very tips of her fingers. From it came a growing glow, first a candle’s flame, then a torch. At last, it was a fireplace’s warm light, without the warm part of the duet. “This is an Arcane Fetish.”

“A what, now?”

“Hah,” the mage groaned, almost as though she’d been expecting it. Lingering stress and frustration marked her face, despite her efforts at civility. In a blink, the stone’s cold flame had died, returning from whence it came in the unfamiliar runes. “It’s an artifact that makes light if magic runs through it. The more energy, the brighter the light gets. Catch!”

With a defter than usual grab, Asami did so, feeling the weight in her palm. Smooth, other than the etching, and cool as water fresh from the well.

In her hand, the glow seemed brighter than it had in the owners, making the maroon of her hastily acquired knitted-wool gambeson chest stand out starkly against her crimson shirt and dull, mud-stained trousers. Flickering and surging as it was turned and inspected.

There’s no way…

Is there?

Oh, the curiosity overwhelmed the exhausted Asami in a heartbeat. With the way things had gone that day, another surprise would only add to the long and growing list, starting with her decision to leave home in the first place. What harm could one more bring?

Such was the thought in her mind as sword and stone met with a light clink. A moment later, all thoughts had been burned away by the blinding flash of a thousand bonfires. There was a clattering clang as the blade flew from the Alchemist’s grip, blindly thrown free to break the connection between source and beacon, in what her parents would deem a disgraceful display of disrespect for family history.

That’s why I don’t want to use it,” Korra said, flatly, just a blur through a curtain of spots and tears. “There’s no telling what might happen if you go swinging it around.”

“I can see your point.” And not much else damnit!

Blinking furiously, the world came back to itself. Slowly, painfully slowly, blurs became shapes and figures. Nearest of the lot was a fuzzy form of snow white, which whined in seeming empathy. Her eyes were sorrowful and full of simple apology, while the master muttered to herself.

Said master was next to come into focus, helped by outfit of browns and greens, accented by golden thread that caught the mystic light with ease. A light which continued to emanate from the Fetish in a steady, unbroken glow, just brighter than the faithful potion burner of Alchemia Draconis. “Wow, it’s still going. Must have been quite the jolt,” Asami laughed, fascinated by the intricate designs so clearly on display now they were lit.

“What?” the archer asked, slowly standing upright, sword in hand, with her head cocked to one side at the exact same angle as her faithful canine companion, “It shouldn’t be…”

Twin pairs of blue eyes focus on the stone with unparalleled interest.

Their intensity was disconcerting. Piercing the fingers which wrapped around the slowly flickering jewel like so many daggers. Only as it died did the caster’s gaze move upward, meeting Asami’s in a freshly tense exchange.

“Do that again.”

“Do what?”

“Whatever you were just doing!”

“I wasn’t doing anything!”

These were hushed whispers, both women in a triangular staring match with an inanimate object. Breath quickened, anxiety rising, the Alchemist took a step back from Korra’s radiant excitement.

Palms outstretched, vision focused on the stone, the archer spoke instructions in a tone that made the stone feel almost dangerous. “Okay, I want you to close your eyes.” She waited, nodding slowly to emphasize the task. “Now, focus on the Fetish in your mind. Picture it, as clear as you can, in as much detail as possible.”

Asami did, pulling the fresh images from her mind and brought them to the fore, despite her growing disbelief in the whole affair.

“Now, picture it glowing.”

Something inside tugged. Almost like the sensation of one’s stomach rising as they fell, but without the unpleasant near nausea of the experience. Her body suddenly felt light, full of energy that was almost alien to the utter decrepitude of the physical frame supporting it.

“Open.”

With a snap, Asami’s emerald-green irises took in an utterly bewildering scene. A hand, for it couldn’t be hers, clutched the same stone as before. Only, it now glowed with a surging, intermittent light.

This, this can’t be real… can it?

Someone else must be feeding the artifact, or the familial blade must be close enough to interfere with the validity of the test. Korra, or Naga, or the alignment of the various celestial bodies which governed the universe. Even a prank of the Gods was more likely than her, simple, quiet, hard-working Asami being able to bring light from inactive mineral.

“A-sa-mi!” a fresh voice called, in a jovial, and suspiciously full sounding tone. Bolin poked his head around the corner, pale tuber in his teeth. “Are you guys done, yet? Miss Laura’s got supper… um? What, uh, what’s going on, here?”

Korra’s head turned so stiffly it almost creaked through the strain of muscle and disk tugging from the wildly strobing oval.

“You.”

“Eep!”

“Did you know that she was a mage?” the ranger demanded of him, eyes likely as fierce as those which had cut down bandits like saplings, “Or, are the two of you so hopelessly incompetent, that you didn’t bother to notice that your ‘close friend’ is able to do this without any training?”

Befuddled confusion overcame the boyish handsomeness of Bolin’s face. He didn’t understand the words, nor the scene, anymore than the simple businesswoman from a small town at the borders of importance. Not til a peak was stolen by the same woman, looking down at the absolutely impossible. One of so many impossible things to pass that day.

Magic?

No, that can’t be right, I mean…

The boys, Mako nearly burned the house down when we were twelve. Bolin threw a tantrum and the chimney collapsed. I-I’ve never done anything like that.

Concentration was broken as he came to the same realization before she could. “MAKO!!! Mako, come quick!”

And he was off, sprinting like the stead of some demon, hollering at the top of his young lungs, hooting and cheering at the start of every breath. Every man, woman, and child in these wall, each hand on the farms beyond would hear him, soon. His ecstatic exclamations reached the very heavens, themselves.

“Well,” Korra said, turning back with a sly hint of a smirk, “it looks like I’m not the only one who had a secret.”

“I…”

“Congratulations are in order, I suppose. You’re a mage, Asami.”

“Y-yeah…”

With a small smile of her own growing, frustrations with her would-be tutor fading to naught under the burning glow, the Alchemist lifted the stone so it was level with her eye. Almost equally between the pair, it stopped. Flickering and beautiful.

What else can go wrong?” Ha! I guess that teaches me to keep my big mouth shut, huh? Still, it could be worse. It could be-

Fresh thunder clapped, and a shudder trembled in the gale.

Oh, right.

Chapter Text

The light flickered, weakening by the moment.

Concentrate!

Asami's mind felt weak, stretched. No matter how hard she tried, she couldn't focus on the stone, or anything else. Just staying upright in the saddle made her nauseous and lightheaded, with a heavy throbbing behind the ears.

Should she have not known any better, the Alchemist would have diagnosed herself as having been struck on the head. Gods knew the pain was great enough. Like her brain was leaking out her ears with every beat of a racing heart. Holding all four limbs steady at the same time, free of the exhausted trembling they seemed set on, was agony of the highest order.

“I-I'm done,” the woman relented to no one in particular, eyes falling closed with a contented sigh. “How long was it this time?”

“A little over an hour,” Korra said, no hint of emotion in the statement.

Still, when green eyes opened a crack, venturing right across the gap, the little smile she saw on the archer's lips seemed almost proud. Finally, those hours of tutoring around the fireside had sprouted flowers and fruit.

Plain flowers and bland fruit they might have been, but, it was something to show for the frustrated conversations the two had shared. Rehashing the same concepts, in ever more simplified formats, until even a child could understand them. Which, Asami would then fail to implement, leading to rolled eyes and conciliation by the brothers.

Followed, inevitably, by her tutor's call to, “Try again.”

Hah, she bemoaned in her mind, wishing she could do more than act as a glorified lantern, it's something, I guess.

With a cough, elder brother called the attention of the women to him, face creased with a pleasant smile that failed to reach his amber eyes. “I think that's enough, for now,” the man suggested, sending a harder look toward the outsider. “How about you wait til we're in town and have a bite to eat, first?”

“Have you ever been to Meleyeoke?” Korra scoffed, returning his gaze with venom.

“Once or twice.”

Liar, it had to be dozens, by now.

“Then, you know the local Magistrate has a distaste for anything 'unnatural' going on in his dunghole of a town. Something the Sheriff and the Hangsman agree with him on, if I'm remembering it right.”

It was a snarling reprimand, in spirit, if not inflection. The same kind of jab the two had shared from that first moment, almost three days ago. When Mako had set eyes on the glimmering Fetish, something in him had cast suspicion onto the Ranger who owned it. More than that he'd already been quietly harboring in long glares at her cloaked back, that is. And the foreigner had returned it with a renewed distrust of his skills and perception.

A feud.

Petty and childish, in the middlewoman's opinion, concealed with only the barest vainer of civility.

Straightening herself up, the potion-maker cleared her own throat to break the staring match before the pair could whip up a miniature weather front between them. “Korra, I think I should take a break,” she said, tucking the bobble back in her pocket. “I’m getting a little lightheaded.”

“Fine,” the Ranger grumbled, breaking the stalemate while the swordsman smirked in his triumph. “We can try purification, later, then.”

The Alchemist's groan was involuntary, full of dread for the sensation of spiders crawling all over her body. Whether from the minor hex laid on her study aid, a small locket with a golden snake etched in its surface, or the casting itself, curse-breaking was the most uncomfortable brand of spellcraft she had been introduced to.

It just feels wrong. Blasphemous.

“Speaking of magic, have you decided what you're going to do?” Bolin asked, with a degree of light-heartedness that made Asami think he had either not heard the bickering of his traveling companions, or was deliberately ignoring it. “I'm all ready to sing the praises of Stone Craft.”

Mako shoved the younger man, nearly out of his saddle, calling on his leftover frustrations, “You just want an excuse to spend more time with her.”

“And you don't?” his brother snorted, descending into a fit of laughter as an empty cart rumbled by in the opposite direction. First one swing, then another was dodged, before the horses pulled them apart. “Please, bro, everyone in town knows you're still pining for the girl that's turned everyone down. Why do you keep lying to yourself?”

“For the same reason no one tells Big Sal you met up with his daughter after the war. A lot of people know that, by the way. Kinda surprised it hasn't slipped out.”

In an instant, the biggest grin you'd ever seen vanished. “You wouldn't.”

“I would.”

As they bickered, the amateur pondered the pinwheel of magics she’d suddenly been confronted with. The base elements which she, and any other lay person, for that matter, recognized at a glance: Earth, Water, Air, and Fire. Each had their own myriad of sub-disciplines and schools, of course, with abilities ranging from mundane and practical, to the absolutely ridiculous.

Besides these, the Dichotomy: Light and Dark, Arcane and Demonic. Broader and more fluid arts, with no truly clear barriers with the other four, or each other, and the apparent benefit of not imprinting on the soul so harshly, allowing the pursuit of other knowledge.

“Um, I haven't really decided, yet,” Asami finally answered, rightfully overwhelmed by the choice, in her own mind. She shrugged to the first idea in her mind, “I mean, all the heroes in my books growing up used Fire, but I'm no hero.”

With a single 'Ha', the bender of lines cast her hat into the ring. “That's because all of those authors were morons who wouldn't know and Incineration spell from an Immolation one.”

I mean, is there a difference?

Just as she was ready to chalk this up to the idiotic posturing between the two most experienced of the adventurers, an unexpected voice agreed with it. “Yeah, as far as heroic deeds go, I'm pretty good at a slaying the monster, and pretty bad at everything else,” the pyromancer said, conjuring a handful of red fire to demonstrate, “I can't even light up a cave with this stuff because it uses up the good air. Besides, I have to spend a fortune on new gloves.”

“And mail, and shirts,” Bolin chuckled, steering wide of a rut which could swallow small children like a troll, “But, to be honest, if it wasn't for my wards, I'd be useless up close with people. Hard to throw boulders at someone an arm’s length away from you, and I’ve never been the best with a sword.”

With a muttering of agreement, the company fell silent as the city walls loomed ahead. Half again as tall as Salney's defenses, with a patchwork mixture of stone and timber battlements and towers. Some of those later were visible well inside the outer ring of town, but seemingly closer than the slowly meandering brown-water river.

Water…

She'd never seen so much of it in one place.

Apart from the fish ponds and well bottoms, water was reserved for potions, puddles, and clay cups.

“It's amazing...”

Everyone snorted, aside from the stunned, with the youngest providing the tease to go along with their humor. “Wait until you smell it,” he cautioned, “before you start calling it anything.”

Oh, shut it! she wanted to tell him. Why would he try to take this away from her? Could she not have one moment of wonder on this adventure which wasn't immediately undercut by pure terror or a sparring stick to the ribs?

Speaking of which, it was time for another dose of her inflammation herbs.

Bitter, they were.

And a little coarse as she chewed them, slowly. Gritty like sand as the Bryrwood bark and Gem Clover were gnashed on her grinding molars. “Why does the Magistrate hate magic?” the novice asked around her brew, with a wish for a strong beer to wash the flavor from her tongue. “Did someone curse his cat, or something?”

Back home, magecraft was something of a novelty. Apart from the orphaned brothers, the only ones able to use it were in the service of Sir Bosworth, and they were want to spend time and energy entertaining or obliging the small folk.

That suited some fine. Mainly older types who'd served in the wars of their generation, when, if the stories were true, the professional sorcerers of Henbachia had reaped a gruesome toll.

Perhaps it was the same for him.

“It's a river city,” Mako said, as if that alone was answer enough. But, when he felt the eyes burning into the back of his head, an urge to elaborate suddenly struck him. “You know how we only get about one caravan a season?” Asami nodded. “Well, getting all that stuff around on the river is a lot easier than over land on bad roads like this, and the same goes for people. Fifty wagons makes a handful of boats, after all. Captains make up the difference in passengers.”

“Royal troops, mercenary companies, adventurers,” Bolin chimed in, listing all the possibilities on his fingers, waggling his eyebrows at the last. “Merchants, landless Lordlings, and wandering Order of Restoration priests.”

There was a sudden sharpness to the air at the mention of the holy men.

A shiver ran up the Alchemist's spine as the Ranger spoke in a voice that sounded like cracking ice and rolling thunder, “Fanatics, you mean.”

Immediately, she spat, as if it were a reflex, the liquid freezing solid almost the moment it parted from her lips. Cold hatred bore down on all in an almost physical weight. Asami’s already weary mind found itself drowning in the archer's suddenly overwhelming presence and near murderous aura, unable to think clear enough to do anything but guide Bucephalus down the path. Or let him guide himself, as the case may be.

It ebbed, almost as soon as the coming, but the subject swiftly shifted, regardless, none wishing to further entice the Ranger’s sudden wrath.

“Um, I guess you could just stick with the Arcane stuff, if you don't want to spend ages on theory,” Bolin said, making an effort to act normally. “Pretty useful stuff. Lots of common spells for around the house. Almost no chance of a backfire, too.”

That would be useful.

With how her luck had been going, should Asami attempt to learn an elemental art from either of the brothers, she'd either end up a cinder, or with enough fractures she'd be a liquid.

“What do you think, Korra?”

She'd asked the question in an attempt to gauge the woman's mood, rather than actually garner a proper opinion, but it had a holey different result. The dark-skinned wanderer started, slightly, rousing from the hunched retreat she had made after her outburst. Blue eyes, which blended well with her shifted attire of the day, were narrowed and nervous as they'd ever been when they met Asami's innocent gaze.

Lips moved wordlessly for a moment as composure was regained. Lids closed and spine straightened to buy a few moment's time. “It depends,” she finally said, with a return to near emotionless inflection that had both men flicking eyes over their shoulders.

“On?”

“On what you want to do with it. What comes naturally to you. Most people have a pull towards one or the other element, when they start manifesting. I did, and so did they, I’d imagine.”

A pull…

Hmm?

Something to think about while the horses dragged the filthy, exhausted, starving party of four down the last hillside to the waiting gates. High, thick, weathered oak, banded with enough iron to clad two score men-at-arms, and their mounts. On either side, halberdiers in gaudy uniforms, more style than substance to them. Even Asami thought she might be able to take them, what with the way they swayed under the influence of the breeze.

“Halt,” one lazily commanded, with so little enthusiasm that it seemed likely, were they not to heed him, he would just let them pass. “What business have you here, strangers? And so heavily armed?”

Well, at least he didn't call us lords.

His business was rather obvious.

Toll collecting.

An all too common practice of the more cash-strapped members of the ruling classes. Or, simply the greedy. Salney had only suffered from such under the lordship of the late, and last, Baron of the same name, near the beginning of her lifetime. Since his timely passing, not even the war had brought the town's finances so low.

Here, however, it was one silver for every armed hand, ten copper for each horse. Plus five copper for Naga, who was promised a whole cow bone by Asami to stop growling at the guards.

This greatly improved Korra's demeanor, as well, sight of her hound prancing and yipping between the pair with an expression of pure joy bringing some small sliver of that mirth to the woman's own features. “I should warn you, she'll hold it against you if you don't follow through,” the archer smiled, abandoning her steed with ease and guiding both hers and Bucky inside.

“Oh?”

“She ate my bedroll, last time. And my blanket.”

Naga barked, once, tongue lolling out one side of her smile.

“That, too,” the master chuckled, flicking a treat for the pup to snatch out of the air.

An eyebrow peaked at this seeming… conversation between woman and beast. Perhaps that particular story wasn't as far-fetched as one would have believed. Or vehemently denied.

Clambering down from the saddle, it was a miracle which saved the Alchemist from simply becoming one with the ground. The cobble here was broken and uneven, which hardly helped matters. Years or generations old, by the look of it. Pocked with a myriad of potholes, and strewn with and astonishing amount broken glass and the droppings of a thousand animals.

Korra caught her. One hand steadied that which a pair of legs could only just keep upright after days of sleeping on straw and riding dawn to dusk in miserable conditions. At least until the blood flow to her toes was restored.

“Thanks.”

A tiny smile and a light shrug, with the words, “You'll get used to it, eventually,” muttered by her ear.

I hope I'm not doing this long enough to get used to it.

All around was the clamor of the city. Not the comparably tame goings on of the familiar country town, but a proper, bustling hive of humanity.

The thoroughfare before them was twice the size of Salney's main street, in width alone, and a count of trice the numbers of carts, wagons, and foot traffic filled it. It was cacophonous, the sheer volume of it all, when measured against the relative silence of the road and gentle mutterings of the farms.

In an instant, Asami knew, that she would not be able to fight against the tide of shoppers that drifted from one stand, stall, or storefront to the next at the calls of charismatic salespeople. They were a human tide, compelled by the forces of nature and not the meager whims of self. Keeping a firm grip on a stirrup in one hand felt the only thing keeping the almost immediately overtaken woman from being dragged in and swallowed up.

Breaking into line of sight, Bolin's face, chipper and cheerful as ever, poked around Bucephalus's snout. “You okay, sis? Lookin' a little pale, there.”

“I-I'm fine,” she smiled back, “Just tired.”

“You’re in luck, then,” the young man proclaimed. “Just down the road, there's this inn with pillows so soft they feel like little clouds when you go to sleep. And, they make this leek and potato soup that's almost as good as anything I've ever eaten.”

With some great shock, the Alchemist realized the grip which had held had loosened a deal in the last moments. However, the look upon Korra's face nearly matched it, in its own, more subdued way.

Shaking her head, slowly, voice in the purest deadpan, the archer spoke, “We're not stopping here.”

“Um, yes we are. I-”

“No, we are not,” she insisted, blue eyes lit by a cold fire. It was a gaze with such intensity that the shopkeep would have crumbled under it in a heartbeat. But her loveable friend bore the brunt with barely a blink. “We're already behind schedule, because of your brother. Gather supplies and be at the docks by sundown.”

Hands were raised in casual surrender, almost immediately. An acknowledgment that this was not a battle sought, or a fight worth having. “Calm down, geez,” he laughed, with a distinct lack of humor, “Why are you always so serious about stuff?”

“It keeps me alive. You should try it, sometime.”

Asami watched, bizarrely fascinated, as something she had never seen before occurred. The face of Bolin, perhaps the most expressive in all the Kingdoms and Free-Cities, stayed perfectly the same. Normally, arguments and insults would have her surrogate loudmouth fuming from the ears and frothing at the mouth, by now. But with the Ranger, he remained as casual as a man just asked the time of day.

Simultaneously disarming and disturbing, this silent exchange. One party with all the fury of a coming storm, the other a glen of serenity.

“Okay, then. We'll do it your way,” the brown-haired earth mage conceded, at last, wiping a bit of grime from his luster lost mail with his thin riding gloves. “Mako's not going to be happy about it, though. He wanted to check in at the Guild office before we roved on.”

With a now slightly trained eye, the Alchemist gandered at the sun's position in the sky.

A few hours, maybe…

Certainly enough time to muddle through whatever trials the Ravens might have in place. And for her to deposit some of her collected specimens with the local apothecary, getting extra coin in the exchange. The merchants and vendors would surely appreciate the easier task of breaking silver to gold, given the choice. She knew she did. Waiting for the last farmhand they’d dealt with to dig out the entirety of his liquid worth for change had been beyond embarrassing for all involved.

Her proposition was made easier by the return of all eyes to her- one set fleeting, the other pleading -and strength to the extremities of weakened limbs. “Why don't you,” the potion-maker nodded at Korra, “make arrangements for a ferry. We can smooth things over and meet you there.”

Nostrils flared, deep breaths by the simmering savior. Slowly, very slowly, her face softened. “Fine.”

And, in a blink, without allowing discussion or collusion, she was off at a smooth, even clip. Left behind was her student in sword and sorcery, pack, animal, and all other baggage which might slow her down, along with some faint grumbling about a 'post'.

Sweet Naga whined, head swinging between master and source of table scraps. A bark, almost sorrowful, was sent Asami's way, before she too vanished into the crowd at a trot.

They were watched as long as possible. Around ten seconds a piece. Even in a sea of humans, instead of leaves, the Ranger vanished like a wisp of smoke in a few blinks. “Where is Mako, by the way?” the remaining woman asked, not letting thoughts long linger on her confusingly earnest companion, “I thought he was right behind us?”

“Sent him to get fodder from the stables,” Bolin sighed, letting his smile sag a tad, “Wanted to avoid another shouting match, if I could help it. You know how he gets when his head set on something.”

Yes.

Yes, she did. A stubborn man of stubborn ways, who still laced his shoes the same way as in childhood, despite how it made them slip.

“Do you think she'll leave without us?”

For a moment Bolin just looked at her with a remarkably unreadable expression for him, before shrugging and picking up his smirk from where he'd left it. “Nah, I doubt it. It was like this last time, too,” he said casually, “They fight worse than you two ever did, but they can get along when it really counts.”

Oh, well that's good. They won't slit each other's throats in their sleep, at least.

“Still, she scares the pants off me, sometimes,” the ward-crafter muttered, with a flick of his focus to the crowd. It was only now that his friend noticed the slight tremor in his hands, which clenched and unclenched at his side. “A lot more than you, truth be told. I never knew not eating all your vegetables was a capital offense, until you told me.”

Asami giggled a little at the joke, although she wasn't sure if her friend noticed the tone behind it. A serious, near-monotone whisper that almost sounded… fearful.

She might whip him into dropping a bad habit, or two, but Korra…

Perish the thought!

Deep down, the Alchemist was sure that the archer had her reasons to be as she was to the boys. Certainly, it kept them on their toes, and at their best to show her up. It was a gruff, aggressive, and blunt exterior that had cracked on a few occasions, by now, during the quietest moments of the journey. Every once in a while, a joke or anecdote would land. She'd laugh and banter a number of minutes, catch herself, and return to the stoic archetype of her profession.

And twice now, late at night, when the urge to roll or relieve herself had woken the amateur, she'd found the dark-skinned woman sitting at the edge of a loft, staring off into the night sky with a piece of paper and charcoal in her hand.

Sad, but also beautiful, in a way.

With that little nugget tucked away in the queue of thoughts to muddle through tonight on the way to sleep, the green-eyed adventurer gave her old friend's shins a light kick. "Come on,” she said, smiling broadly at him and warily turning to the teeming mass of bodies, “If we're going to get everything done, we have to start now. I have no desire to be fed to Naga, you?”

“Nope, just give me a second to-”

“Hey, I got the oats,” his brother announced, coming into view and studying the scene with suspicion. “Where's Korra?”

With a spin, the swordsman checked all around, as if suspecting a dagger wielding assassin to be hovering for him in the shadows. It brought a smile to his fellows to see his nerves so on edge for so little reason.

Together, Asami and Bolin each draped an arm over his shoulder, as they had done a thousand times on drunken parades about town during festivals and the harvest. “Mako, I've got good news, and I've bad news,” the younger sibling told him, dragging the trio towards the bustling market district with a nod to a bustling stable hand. “The good news is we're going to be early for the rendezvous.”

“What's the bad news?”

“Um,” Asami stumbled, mind lost in other thoughts, eyes drawn to a distant fountain, “We'll tell you later. After you've carried the shopping.”

Chapter Text

 

Rivikia: the Kingdom of the Mountains

Situated on a great peninsula, Rivikia is a harsh, rugged place. Dominated by great peaks of ancient stone, the people here are as dire and bleak as the landscape. They carve their cities and towns into the living bedrock, making each a fortress in its own right. But this is no choice of theirs. Great Drakes dwell in the land that scrapes the sky, swooping down to wreak havoc upon the lush, fertile river valleys. Bands of orcs are also known to roam the crags, hunting down unwary travelers and plunching entire caravans off cliffs to sort through the loot.

They are on cordial, if not warm terms with their neighbors to the south, the Sea Masters of Sesosia. However, some clans of mountain men hold ancestral blood feuds with the fishermen on their border. Grudges so old, even memory has forgotten their reason.

 

Sesosia: Sea Masters of the Bay of Breida

Legend has it, the first man washed ashore from the sea. But the man was lonely, so the gods gave him a companion, whom he called woman. Together, they sired the world, giving birth to all that followed. A ridiculous legend, to be sure, but if it were to have some grain of truth, the Sesosians would have rightful claim to it. They are born of the sea and bred in its ways. Man and woman alike have taken up the sail to forge their fortunes as merchants and fishers. Some have gone on to become some of the greatest naval legends in history, while others have become bloodthirsty pirates, feared by any who live near the coast. All whom are able, sail. A free spirited people, want to write songs and poetry about their noble deeds (with only slight embellishment). They are free with their love, and wild with emotion, giving them a reputation as both maddeningly friendly and startlingly quick to anger.

To the north, the Great Carst, a wall of prehistoric coral, driven from the depths by volcanic eruptions. Eastwards you find Clia, long time friends and allies across the Lake Acre. Further south, the lands of the Twin Kingdoms, who are treated with suspicion for their ready use of sorcery. But, no matter who you are, if you wish to sail safely, climb aboard one of their merry ships and dance the night away. Just be careful the one with whom you share a hammock is not the Captain's daughter.

Clothing and Culture: Dresses, what are those? Something fancy ladies wear for their Lords? Sesosians have no need for such restrictive wear. Trousers and tights are the name of the game, often brightly colored and adorned with bells and buttons of bone, brass and gold. Heavy woollen sea coats are common, too. Anything that’s near as easy to get off as on.

When it comes to love, you’ll find it everywhere. Let it be known, you’ll never find a whore in Sostad, as you can get it for free just down the road. Elsewhere, sure, these people will sell themselves as trinkets to fondle for a night, but mostly just for fun. Marriage exists more as a contract of exclusive romantic association, not sexual. 


Clia: Lords of Grain

Not a high title to hold, but one that has made the people proud, regardless. None tend the soil quite so well as a Clian farm hand. Seasonal rainfall swells the many rivers and streams of this Principality the same time, every year, just as they have for millennia. The floods fill the fields with fresh nutrients, readying them for next year's harvest. The surplus that this grants them give the people the ability to give up the plow in pursuit if other vocations. Cities here flock with musician and artists, granting heights of culture not seen since the old Empire fell.

Clia has had an unfortunate past with its neighbors. Both the Twin Kingdoms and the nomads of  Sezia have history of raiding the borders for resources in times of hardship. Only Sesosia has risen to their defense on every occasion, making the nations fast friends and reliable trading partners. If you do happen to visit, don't forget the oldest of Clian traditions: Eat well, drink well, play well, work well, fight well, and do it all with good friends.

 

Artia and Henbachia: The Twins, Sister Kingdoms

The story of the twin kingdoms of Artia and Henbachia is not as interesting as one would think. Since the collapse of the Empire, the two kingdoms have been fast allies. Over long millenia, treaties and marriages between the two royal families have slowly caused the two kingdoms to meld into one. Whilst technically being independent of each other, they share a royal family and monarch. Every couple hundred years or so an upstart noble or spurned royal from one side or another will stir up trouble. The Sister Kingdoms have periodic civil wars as a result of this, but somehow the Royalists always win. They seem to be due for one soon though…

 

Challeia: Land of the Elves

Challeia is a land that few ever venture to, and fewer still return at all. The Elves almost exclusively inhabit this kingdom. They keep to themselves, but will do some trading with the neighboring kingdom of Dirwen. The Elven mages are figures of legend for most of the population of the Kingdoms. As the legendary hosts of Elven Warrior Mages were once feared all over the continent, but nobody has seen a Warrior Mage in millenia. Even the ancient Empire was not able to conquer Challeia, instead leaving them alone for the most part.
Challeia is a kingdom covered in forests. Some of it being so dense that one is not able to see the sky from the forest floor. It is here that mysterious creatures are said to roam the depths of the forest, eating those who stray into it uninvited. However, modern theories have instead concluded that there are no monsters lurking in the undergrowth. But instead, highly trained Elven archers.



Dirwen: The Last Bastion

When the Empire fell, the continent was shattered into the Kingdoms of today. However, the Kingdom of Dirwen likes to think that they never shattered. And that it was instead the other Kingdoms who split from it. They base this theory in the fact that the ancient capital of the Empire is in Dirwen. Or, rather it was. For the true location of the ancient city has been lost to history. It is said to be somewhere among the mountains in the north of the country.

The armies of Dirwen are feared by their neighbors. Despite not being the largest Kingdom, they have the greatest population. Coupled with a military doctrine unmatched in the Kingdoms, and the Legions of The King are virtually unstoppable in the field of battle. Recently coming off of a war with neighboring Aland, in which they were allied with the Dwarven hosts of Bolia. The men of the nation and the Dwarves of Bolia were able to seize good amounts of territory from Aland, again.

These days, Dirwen is an agricultural society. With thousands of small hamlets working the fertile farmland. They are not the Lords of Grain, but they produce enough to keep themselves fed. In the capital city of Dorough, there exists the only College of Magic in all the Kingdoms. Many aspiring mages and magic users travel across the Kingdoms to attend.

It is in a small hamlet in Dirwen that our story begins…

Dress and Culture: the wearing of shirts and trousers by women is widely accepted, except at the highest rungs of society. A practical people, influenced by the dwarves to the north and elves to the west, they believe a person working should wear clothes befitting the job. Dresses of the medieval fashion are widespread, but women conducting physical labor often ditch them for a proper pair of pants. Linen is most common for summer wear, wool for colder months, and every person worth their salt wears a cloak of wool, perhaps adorned with a family crest, if such a thing exists.

Love, lovemaking, and who ones does this with, is generally considered a private affair. Relations between those with the same sex aren’t, exactly, openly condoned by the powers that be, but they don’t oppose it, either. So long as no one raises too much of a fuss, is a productive member of the community, and has the decency to marry at a decent age, fair game.

 

Sezia: The Great Plains

Sezia is a not really a kingdom per se. It is more of a collection of nomadic tribes that sorta form a “Kingdom”. Whenever the reigning monarch dies, one young man or women from each of the tribes in the Kingdom will fight each other to the death in order to claim the throne. The last one standing will be crowned the monarch. This is a rather barbaric rite, but all the tribes seem to be pretty happy with it. And in the combat, there are no rules. Everything goes, betraying, literal backstabbing, biting, hair pulling and dirt throwing are all acceptable. Because in the eyes of the nomadic tribes, these things show a smart ruler.

The geography of is rather uniform. Just flat prairie ground and the occasional lake or river. The only major geographical feature is a single mountain in the center of the prairie. Nobody knows how it came to be, and local legend states that it is cursed. Those that dare venture close to the mountain can see structures built into the side of it, and those that go into the structures are never seen again. Not even legends remain of the people who built the structures, it was that long ago. Whoever they were, they have passed into legend. However, there must still be some secrets inside that mountain.

 

Bolia: Kingdom of the Dwarfs

The Dwarves of Bolia reside in underground cities that they have carved into of the mountains. Inside these mountain cities, the Dwarven people have forged one of the most powerful kingdoms since the collapse of the Empire. During the time of the Empire, the Dwarves sided with the Humans. Forging their weapons and armor in exchange for a large degree of autonomy. Since the Collapse, they have withdrawn to their mountain homes. Coming out only when threatened. Recently, they were invaded by the Men of Aland. Aided by their allies, the men of Dirwen, the Dwarves defeated the invading Armies at the Battle of Volun.

The Dwarves are the most technologically advanced Kingdom. As the Dwarves themselves are unable to use Magic, they instead turn to technology to even the odds in their favor. The secret of Black Powder was used for the first time at the Battle of Volun to devastating effect.

The Bolian Mountains stretch from northern Dirwin all the way to eastern Ninin. In the heights of these mountains, the Dragons have their lairs. Making traveling through these heights extremely dangerous. But legends of lost Dwarven treasure ripe for the taking always draw adventurers.

 

Allia: Kingdom of Merchants

The Kingdom of Allia is mostly composed of merchant guilds. The men of Allia have formed the basis of the entire economic system on the continent, with the only exception being the isolated elves. Here in Allia, the rich rule, and the King and the royal family are just merely a figurehead for the powerful Merchant Collective. Money can buy you almost anything in the port cities of Allia. Drugs, men, women, exotic animals, whatever your heart desires, it can be found for sale in Allia.

Merchants from Allia can be found in almost every corner of every Kingdom. They travel in large caravans that are heavily guarded by mercenaries, as they carry untold valuables from every corner of the continent. To most small hamlets scattered throughout the land, the arrival of an Allian merchant is the event of the year. As it is their only way of getting foreign goods. Like tobacco from Clia, oranges from Sesosia, metal ingots from the Dwarven forges of Bolia. But they also carry with them something far more important. News. How distant kingdoms are faring. The chance to deliver letters to far away friends and family. The Merchants of Allia are indeed the lifeblood that flows along the roads of the Kingdoms.

 

Aland: Kingdom of War

Ever since the collapse of the Empire. Aland has been in either a state of war, or preparation for war. Multiple times, they have expanded beyond their own borders, and each time, they have been beaten back, often by a coalition of nations. The last time the Warrior Mages of Challeia were seen was when the armies of Aland were threatening their borders.

Alands oldest enemy is the kingdom of Dirwin. Both Kingdoms think that the ancient capital of the Empire is located within their borders, thus making them the last bastion of the Empire. But since the true location has been lost, and it has never been found, makes it so that these nations are often at war with one another. Most recently, Aland decided to invade the Dwarves of Bolia. Dirwin, not wanting to waste an opportunity to weaken their enemies, struck the southern flank of the Alandian army, routing them as the Dwarves surged out of their mountain strongholds. The Alandian army retreated back to their borders, where they remain, licking their wounds and waiting to strike once again.

 

Den Guo: Theocracy

Half a century ago, Den Guo was overrun by a cult known as the Creed of the Empire. The royal family was executed and the Creed took over the government. Fast forward to the present day, and the common people live in terror. As the Creed believes that all magic should never be used, and they consider all who use it to be heretics. The Creed worships the old Emperors and Empresses, people who were unmatched in their magical abilities. They believe that magic is only for their gods, and that therefore, they should have been the only ones to use it. They have found Imperial artifacts imbued with magic that they fervently worship. Any who are found to be able to wield a significant amount of magic are taken to an unknown location. Few return, and those that do, seem to have a fanatical devotion to the Creed.

Den Guo has been trying to expand their influence across the Kingdoms. In part by proudly parading their military at every opportunity, and trying to entice immigrants from other Kingdoms to come to theirs. But their most common strategy is to send out “missionaries”. These men and women can be found in almost every major city and town in the nearby nations of Dirwin, Bolia, Aland and Ninin. They tried to send missionaries into Allia, but they all returned sans body. Den Gou has been fighting a cold war with the Republic of Ninin. With both sides building up forces on their shared border. But neither side wants to be the first to strike.


The Republic of Ninin:

Ninin is the first Republic amongst the Kingdoms. About a century ago, there was a popular revolution against their King. The peasantry could only take so many taxes to finance the Royal families indulgences before they begin to revolt. The King sent his army to crush the Rebellion, but was shocked when his generals raised their banners against him, joining the Rebellion. After a lengthy revolution, the people managed to overthrow the King. And they then went on the form the Republic of Ninin in the aftermath.

Ninin feels threatened by their theocratic neighbors to the South. As many refugees are fleeing from the Creed of the Empire into the Republic of Ninin for safety. They bring with them stories of authoritarian rule, of the Creed massacring entire towns because one person in the town cast a spell and was reported by their neighbor. What is even more disturbing is the rumors that surround the Missionaries of the Creed. Defectors from the Creed’s government claim that they are actually sleeper agents, ready to sabotage important bridges and buildings, and assassinate leaders and generals at the drop of a hat.

 

Kingdom of Mondo: On the brink

The last King of Mondo died a year ago. Leaving the throne to be shared between his twin children, daughter and son. Each child believes they are the legitimate ruler of the Kingdom. The daughter because she is the eldest by two minutes, and the son because he is male. They have both been gathering the support of nobles and generals, preparing to overthrow their sibling. The feeling in the capital city of Robrate is one of tension. As now even the people are beginning to take sides. Lines are being drawn across the Kingdom. With some towns ready to call their militias to arms to defend what who they believe is the rightful sovereign of Mondo. The entire place is a powder keg waiting for just the slightest spart to set it off.

 

 

Chapter Text

 

The deck is awash with river water. Scummy, smelly brown stuff that soaked Asami to the bone, giving every little gust a deathly chill. Her footfalls slip on algae and sodden cloth, or catch on netting and coiled dock lines. Each drifting current, eddy, and steering correction from the wheel pitches by degrees the very floor itself.

But, more pressing is the sudden lunge from the Ranger.

For a second, the Alchemist had let her eyes wander, plotting out the safest path around piles of precarious cargo. A mistake for which she now paid. Right knee suffers a swift strike, sure to leave a bruise, followed by a glancing blow to her side.

“Seven,” Korra counted, face a deathly mask. Dead seven times over, already. Worse than any time before. “Don't take your eyes off your opponent. No matter what.”

I remember!

Parry her next thrust on the flat of the sparring stick, step inside the swing that followed. Reach out to make a grab at a toned forearm or wrist. Anything that might keep the more agile fighter from dancing out of reach, again. Close on open air, recover. Give ground. Watch for openings or hesitation. The slightest wavering in those stunning blue eyes.

She could get lost in them, those bottomless pools of crystal blue.

“Agh!”

“Focus.” A whack to the wrist snaps the amateur back to their duel. Whatever rabbit hole she'd been diving down, it was pushed aside by the need to duck a blow that looked strong enough to knock half Asami's teeth out and over the side.

Blow for blow, the women spar, but control of the engagement never shifts. It was the shopkeep on the defensive, the shopkeep backing away. Hers are the arms that throbbed from countless blows, the sides that ached, and brow which sweated down into narrowed emerald slits. Best effort doesn't come close to good enough. Only tenacity bears any fruit against overwhelming experience and training.

One, two, three…

A pattern to the strikes. Forehand flick, easily caught, with the momentum of the parry coming round in a tight circle for an opposing strike. Light flourish, low stab, aimed for her forward knee. Back, another thrust. Swift and right for the heart, pushed up into a heavy overhead blow that had many times struck home on collar and chest.

But, the last was slow. Easy to read. Projected.

Even I can see it coming.

Even I can counter it!

That was the theory, at least. Now, the action to back it up. All she needed was a single moment. One little slip.

Stumbling back, Asami dodged the mage's lazy whip of water by barely an inch. Perhaps the first lesson learned in their sessions was the danger of spending more energy than needed to avoid an attack. Why block, when you can deflect? Why deflect, when you can avoid?

Why separate, when you can close in for the kill?

Toes and footwraps catch on the slimy boards, launching the Alchemist into the sequence. Only, this time, she presses every slack movement to the fullest. Blades barely maintain a finger's separation between them. Offhand coursing with magic to ward off any surprises, the student forced the master's 'sword' high into the final blow-

NOW!!!

She didn't catch the blade this time. One half-step to the right sent it sailing passed, albeit missing the rise of her chest by the slimmest acceptable margin.

Caught, before Korra can react, the slightest quirking of an eyebrow being the only tell this hadn't gone exactly as planned. It grew, though, as the potion-maker pulled hard, every once of strength put into the task of yanking the archer's perfect stance off balance.

Only, things didn't go exactly to Asami's plan, either.

Her tug succeeded in dragging the Ranger off balance, yes, but it failed to stop at that. The woman gave way easier than expected, letting momentum from the trap pull her in too close for a blow to come against her. It pushed the shut-in back, to keep just enough room to lay her 'blade' across the superior warrior's belly. And, in doing so, sent the last hope both had at staying upright when a thick hemp rope got underfoot.

An ankle rolled, the other foot lost traction, and balance was immediately gone. Down she went, dragging her opponent along, hitting the deck with a stunned, “Oof!”

Over her, fell the archer, her savior, hands splaying out at the very last. What weight bore down was light and brief, though what remained was enough to keep her pinned in place. In a prison of arms and legs, she lay. Effectively straddled by the near stranger. But, she was too thrilled to care, at the moment, as sweet satisfaction ran across her tongue.

“One!” the victor declared, smiling wide in glee.

To her thrill, Korra chuckled, flashing that all too rare prideful grin. “Sure, we'll say this one counts, then,” teacher conceded, seemingly in no hurry to extricate herself. Or, perhaps, unable. The lines had made quite the tangle on the way down. “Seven to one. Not bad.”

It was a good laugh they shared, both women's lungs heaving in the muggy pre-storm heat. Sweat dripped from the dark woman's brow to Asami's pale, green eyes only inches from those sorrowful blue. Breath, hot and scented of mint tea, filled every inhale of the Alchemist, whilst chestnut hair, shorn short and roughly even, fell to tickle and graze that not plastered with her own longer, darker strands.

Hand trapped to her chest, she felt how the heart within hammered from exertion, and nothing else. How her cheeks flushed with the heat of effort.

If I lean my head a little I could-

“Sorry,” Korra stammered, pushing off and rolling just the moment that the pinned woman's head went blank. Pink cheeks between them, eyes unable to meet. “A-are, are you okay? Your, um, head and stuff?”

“Fine! I'm fine. Thanks. For asking, I mean. Not falling on me...” Shut up!

Into the awkward confusion, a gruff voice interjected itself. “Ladies, I'd appreciate it if you didn't flood my bilges with your sparing.”

Sudden as ever, the Ferryman had appeared from the cargo hold below. His beard was gray and hardly trimmed, merged at the sideburns with a thick salt-and-pepper head. In his eyes, an eternal twinkle to go with his grandfatherly smile. Soot coated his arms and hands, strong from years of hefting crates and cargo, and a fresh burn marred the man's skin. “Don't stop on my account, of course. 'S nice to have someone with a bit of life on board.”

Indeed, the few crewmen Asami had seen, were never up to much. Mostly lounging on the deck, or swinging from hammocks in the rigging. They bothered no one, so long as they were never bothered, and only ever gathered for meals in the hold.

“Apologies, Captain,” the tradeswoman said, giving their Captain a little bow.

Beside her, Korra willed the water over the side in a thin, twisting column. From the whirl, a pull in the amateur’s gut. Swift tug on the little part of her which had been devoted to the mystic arts. Motions her limbs wished to imitate, muttered words too soft to hear.

Ranger and Ferryman inspect the wooden boards with a glance. The older grunts approval, smiling under a wizened beard, while the younger soon sets her eyes to the horizon, as she often did. Her face still had a heated glow to it. Mirrored in the Alchemist, if truth be told. But, the adventurer's face also held onto something else. A tension, for lack of a better word. Impatient and stir-crazed by the confines she could escape all too easily, Asami assumed.

“How long until we reach Dorough?”

“Morning next. Well before midday, if the Gods be kind to us,” he told the pair, no particular focus on either, but an amused look on his face. “Should they not be, we might take until lunch. The rivers are fickle things. Easy to placate, and easier to offend.”

Flicking a thumb, Korra cast a lightly tarnished copper into the mighty waterway. “Haven't had a God be kind to me, yet. I doubt they'll start now.”

Ferryman shrugged, smile growing a tad and hands going to pockets. “Oh, I wouldn't know about all that, my young friend. I wouldn't call myself an expert on the divine, but I've lived long enough to know the Gods never abandon a soul for long,” he reasoned, turning about and walking calmly towards the raised quarterdeck. “Will the ladies be joining the crew for dinner? Or shall it be in your cabin, again?”

“We would be glad to join you, Sir,” the Alchemist bid him, almost sure she spoke only for herself.

Her teacher had been even less talkative than usual, these last days. For hours at a time the archer would seemingly vanish, only to be found in amid the crates and barrels in the hold, or high in the rigging, laid out on spar or sail with a blank expression on her face.

It was to there the woman likely retired as Asami dined on blackened fish and various tubers of the fertile river plain. On either side, her brothers chowed and chatted freely with the rivermen, drawing her inevitably into the conversation. To hear tales of sirens, kraken, and odd folk from the far side of the world. Pirate kings appeared to be a plentiful resource in the southern ocean, if the sheer numbers of their names were to be believed. Of course, for every man who told a tale, there was a second to wink his eye with a little wag of his chin.

A pleasant evening, all told. Even if there was a notable absence in the company.

One the potion-peddler’s mind was unable to shake the influence of. Perhaps it was a lingering effect of whatever madness had overtaken her in that moment of awkward victory. Euphoria of the brain, inflated by hours, nay days, of having the wrong end of a stout stick batter her body and spirit at the end of long rides and meager meals.

Maybe…

No, it had to be.

Air was what she needed. Fresh, windswept river air. Scented with reeds and cypress and the outwash of every little fishing village and river port for a hundred miles. Anything but mint tea, hot sweat, and something foreignly sweet.

Why did that smell still swim in the back of her head? When would her face stop tingling where those brunette strands had fallen? Would her heart not stop stammering, eye rid themselves of a the sight of hint of vulnerability in those ever watchful pools of deepest blue? What was happening in this strange place so far from hearth and home?

Get out of my head! Let me THINK !!!

Gripped by a sudden burst of anger, Asami grabbed the nearest thing to hand and hurled it far over the water, landing with a distant ‘splosh’.

Sunfall had been around an hour before, gone unnoticed in the lantern lit confines of the cargo hold/sleeping quarters/impromptu dining room. But now, the amateur watched transfixed as moonlight danced on the ripples left in her outbursts wake. Far more than she’d expect from something she could heft almost a third of the way from mid-channel to the shoreline. With a single hand, weakened by a day of sparing with each of her comrades, in turn, no less.

No, they weren’t ripples. The river was frothing like a pot brought to boil around the spot her projectile had landed. In amongst the turmoil, large black shapes, sleek and muscular, with long heads and mouths of dagger teeth.

“What the-”

One of the creatures turned. Yellow eyes focus on her shape, followed by an odd, haunting, grumbling chirp. Frills like the mane of her stallion bristle and all the monsters vanish, leaving nothing in their wake.

Someone.

She had to tell someone what she saw. Whatever they were, the hairs on Asami’s neck stood in salute of fear and danger. A reflex she had started to trust again after the ambush in the woods, after years of hating it for sending her dashing down empty corridors in her own home. But, this was different, she felt. A primal fear like staring down a snarling dog.

Feet push her off, halfway into a spin, mouth open to shout some manner of warning.

Only for a hand to catch her shoulder. Softly, but with an unyielding strength behind it, the palm held her turn in a frozen moment. A sharp, “Eep!” escaped her lips, expecting to see a long, gaping maw of teeth about to sink itself in her neck.

“Sorry, I didn’t mean to scare you.”

Korra?

Thank the Gods!

“W-water! There’s something in the water!” The Alchemist’s finger shot out to the spot the beasts hand lurked, now just a slowly fading spot on the surface.

On the Ranger’s lips, a little smile. Amused, maybe, at the terror on her student’s face. “I saw them,” she said, drawing a small flat stone from a pocket and skipping it over the river with a flick of the wrist. Some moments after every ricochet, one or two black shapes broke the surface in a mad dash to the spot. “Kelpies. Water Horses, I think your people call them.”

Odd. She’d never heard of such a creature, before.

“Are they dangerous?”

“Very.”

Not feeling any better, green eyes swing back to her one-time savior, praying to find some tell of joke or jest. But, there was nothing. Only the same smile.

One finger touching her lips, Korra whispered soft to the universe: “ Ignis. ” A small ball of flickering flame appeared in the same hand that had cast the stone, bringing flickering light and faint warmth to the surrounding air. With the same motion, the flame is sent over the river, sending the Kelpies to rapid flight with a sound like a hundred fish thrashing in a barrel.

“They hate fire, and for good reason. Their fur is covered in oil to help them swim. One spark and they burn like a torch,” the seasoned adventurer related, grimly, smile turning into something pitying. “It’s why there are lanterns in every window around here. Fairy tales would have you think they crawl into fisherman’s houses and snatch kids in the middle of the night. Of course, people forget what those lanterns are burning, sometimes, too.”

So sad, her eyes.

Such beautiful eyes, the way they caught the moonlight.

But, in a blink, they’re back to neutral. Back to taking the shortest of glances in Asami’s direction, between long gazes off into the distance.

I should say something… “I didn’t see you at supper. Again,” Asami noted, with as little inflection as she could manage. “If you’re hungry, I’m pretty sure there’s still a bunch of bread and butter out on the table.”

“Thanks, but I ate.”

“Oh? Okay, then,” she said, leaning against the rail and looking across the cluttered deck that had been their battlefield some short hours before.

When they were in the moment, it was easy. To banter, talk, trade jabs like she would with any other friend. If she could call the woman that, even. Here, with her back to thrashing Kelpie, no other voices to draw attention and focus, she found herself scrambling for anything to say. Longing for Bolin to come interrupt the silence, or an argument with Mako to defuse.

Anything but silence.

Thinking.

Cloth rustled. A little bag drawn from one of the Ranger’s pockets. In a few seconds the drawstring is untangled and a few petty morsels poured into a open hand. Sweet, honey-coated tree nuts, the only extravagance Korra seemed to allow herself.

“Want some?”

“Yes, thank you.”

And they ate, silence a third companion between them. With the moon’s rise, the bats had taken flight over the water. Skittering chirping things Asami followed in their nightly hunts. Frantic in how they beat thin leather wings, perpetually on the verge of falling into the perilous river below, and being swallowed up by what lurked under the surface. If she equated herself to them, both in worlds they seemed not built for, as they were, Korra would be the graceful, swooping owl.

One of them glided silently among the insect eaters, prowling for prey among them. Silent in everything it did, from the flap of its wing, to the flash of talons.

“I never thanked you, did I?” the archer asked, softly, seemingly looking more at the moon than anything before it. She stooped, pulling a green glass bottle from a coil of line, corked yanked free in her teeth and spat over the side. “For, you know…”

Amber liquid cut off the last words, which Asami provided as the bottle was passed her way, “Not telling?”

“Something like that.”

Fresh smiles are exchanged, a little shier than usual. “Why would I?” she asked, breathing whiskey like air. Alcohol had always made her life roll along smoothly. Except for those time it hadn’t. Odds were weighted, though. “You’ve kept up your end of the bargain, haven’t killed either of my friends, and you brought drinks. And, must I mention the whole ‘saved my life’ thing, again? One secret is a small price to pay for all that, I’d say.”

“I guess, it’s just-” For a split-second, Korra broke off from her distant focus to scan Asami’s features. One corner of her lip was chewed, a healthy draught taken. “Past experience has taught me not to trust people I don’t know.”

“What about people you do know?”

Her gaze hardened, then made for the point furthest from the amateur like a scolded puppy. “Don’t have many of those. Fewer I’d care to mention.”

And even fewer still around , the implication seemed to be. Dead? Or just lost along her endless trail? Maybe she even preferred it that way. Certainly hadn’t tried to make friends with anyone in her current party, despite the efforts of a good two-thirds of said company. But, liquor did odd things to the mind, the marathon tavern goer knew. A few more swigs and she might just loosen up a bit.

I bet she’s cute when she’s-

“Okay,” the Alchemist shrugged, neck still tingling in the Water Horse’s presence, “What do you want to know about me?”

“Pardon?”

“It’s bound to be a long trip to wherever the Lotus is, I reckon. We might as well get to know a little about each other along the way,” she said, trying to come off as innocent as possible. Not desperate as to why she’d stopped looking out at scenery, and for she who’d drug her out the gates and into madness. “Unless you don’t want to, of course. That’s fine, too.”

Back to a smile, thin, and mostly for her benefit. “Den Guo.”

Somehow, it already felt like Asami’s turn to ask ‘Pardon?’, but stunned surprise managed to keep her from saying anything at all. This must be some strong stuff, the woman thought, looking down at the bottle in her hands and doubling her previous portion in hopes of equally effective results.

“You asked that, already, I think. Seemed like a good place to start,” Korra said, scratching her nose, absently.

Fair enough, Asami supposed, although she suddenly realized that there was nothing lined up in her head to match this revelation. I was kinda expecting to be asked the questions, honestly. Fuck it, let’s wing this thing! “Well, I was born in a log cabin in the middle of the woods,” she began, letting the whiskey guide the reins in her hands, “After that, I was raised by bears, or maybe it was wolves? Shadow cats? I can’t remember the story.”

“It was deer, when I heard it,” the Ranger laughed, smile spreading by the moment. That tenseness in her shoulders relaxed. Something softened in her eyes, as well, though they failed to look the shopkeep’s way. As though whatever she saw there was more pleasant than it had been. “No offense, but you don’t seem like a Wood’s Witch. More like the person she’d sneak into town to buy from.”

Snorting, the Alchemist nodded, “You hit the nail on the head, there. My dad’s a representative for Sir Bosworth, Mom ran the shop until she got sick. Now I do. Did.”

“A politician and a potion-maker’s daughter. Huh?”

“What?”

Shoulders shrug, the experienced traveler letting her head fall back to meet them. “You don’t seem like it.” Bottle met lips on the way back to level, a good portion of the remaining liquid getting drained. “People that grow up inside big towns with high walls tend to act like they know everything, right out the gate. Read a few treatises, buy some shiny new armor from the local blacksmith, suddenly they get in their head that they’ll be the next Dragon King.”

“I don’t know,” Asami smiled, quirking an eyebrow, “I think I’d look pretty good in royal purple.”

At last, blue eyes tear themselves from the night sky to stare her down. Albeit, with one of the more amused looks yet noted on the archer’s face, with her voice carrying the same, “Is that so?”  

“No,” her head shook, hair falling as a curtain around wet green eyes. Thoughts went from cheer and troubled feelings, to home and responsibility. “No, I probably never would have left Salney if it wasn’t for this quest, honestly. Just stayed with my books and my herbs. A nice quiet life.”

Those words settled hard on the mood. Gone was the mirth and amusement, replaced by a renewed silence. So quiet were they that the gentle lapping was deafening. Faintly, Asami thought she could hear the snores of the sleeping crew. It made her yearn all the more for the late night noise of her home’s streets. Drunken singing, guard patrols, and footpads nightly rounds.

Neither woman said a word for a good while. One without an idea of what she would, the other aborting a few attempts. Coughing, slightly, the break in the ice finally fell. “Bolin told me about your mother.” Because, of course he had. “That you’ve been… treating her.”

“You could say that.” Although, at this point it was just treating symptoms as they progressed and evolved. ‘Treatment’ was a pipe dream in the form of a white flower.

“What’s she like?”

A question-and-a-half, that one. How to boil down her mentor and caregiver into a simple string of words? Where was Mako when he was needed? “The kindest person I’ve ever met,” she finally said, after more than a few rejected versions, “She taught me everything I know about alchemy. In between raising three children, getting two of us apprenticeships with Mages, and running the household and family business.”

Confusion momentarily reigned on the Ranger’s face. Then, slowly, a finger points down. Much to Asami’s surprise, her nod only seemed to increase this. “I thought that you and-” A sudden flush brushed aside the befuddled look. “Never mind.”

A familiar smirk played at her lips. As well as the obligatory eye-roll. “Let me guess,” the amateur sighed, inwardly thrilled that she’d managed a second surprise in a single day, “Me and Mako?”

Once, twice, thrice, Korra blinked, a cornucopia of emotions occupying her sapphires.

Hah, so predictable. “You’re not the first person to think that, you know?” Asami told her companion, finishing the last dregs of the bottle in a single, burning gulp. It was too dark to see her reflection in the colored glass, but she could feel the little tingle of a blush in her cheeks. Only a light one, thankfully. “Small town, and all that. Rumors get around pretty quickly. Everyone who isn’t married ends up going through the mill at least once. I guess people just saw us together and assumed.”

Like you.

“And… you’re not?”

“Oh, Gods no!” the potion-crafter laughed, a tear threatening the corner of her eye. “We grew up under the same roof for years. It would be like courting my brother.” Ugh. A shiver ran up her spine at the very thought. He was handsome enough, but… “We’re just friends.”

Something like relief took hold in Korra’s expression. Or, that’s what it looked like in the inky darkness, fingers of which spread further as the moon dodge growing clouds. “Good. For you, I mean.”

At once, Asami felt an urge to leap on the woman’s seeming slip. The way she looked at anything but the person sat beside her, but not off at the horizon as she had done when casual awkwardness had held sway. Alcohol provided the clear thought a sober mind had denied, and it wanted to see a deeper pink in those cheeks, more stammering in her voice.

“Don’t tell me you’re actually pretending to hate him, Korra?”

“Oh, I do,” the Ranger scoffed, focus settling on the main spar. Hands fidgeted for something to occupy them, the left repeatedly drawing and sheathing one of her many knives, while the right dug out the still crisp envelope she had perused a dozen times, already. “Suffice to say, he doesn’t like my methods.”

“In what way?”

Korra mulled an answer, opening the letter in her hand and reading the first line over and over again. “I’ve been in this line of work for almost a decade. Hundreds of quests, for dozens of clients, and not all of them have been honest work,” the veteran adventurer said, sparing a moment to gauge her charge’s reaction to that. “I’m not proud of a good deal of what I’ve done. What I’ve had to do, to get by. But, it’s kept me alive, and that’s what matters in the end.”

“Ah,” the amateur said, immediately catching on. Mako was many things, annoyingly stubborn in his ways and habits happened to be one of them. That and honorable to a fault. “He’s been hitting you with his stick.”

“His what?”

Smirking at fond memories of childhood, Asami related, “We call it his ‘morality stick’. Anyone that doesn’t walk his version of the straight and narrow ends up getting hit by it.”

“Oh, good. So it’s not just me he judges?” the Ranger grumbled, flinging one of Naga’s treats to the Kelpie. “ Wonderful .”

“Nope. Pretty much everyone. His parents didn’t much oblige the Temple, but my father took all three of us there every weekend after they passed,” she remembered, brushing wrinkles in her trousers absently like they were her best. “Most of us would sneak out and play in the gardens after the first sermon, but he always stayed. Never learned any of the prayers, mind you, but he sure remembered all the allegory. And I do mean all.”

Snorting, lips descending from their automatic grimace, Korra sent a final insult the swordman’s way. “At least if he’d become a priest, I wouldn’t have to deal with him.”

Nodding, the Alchemist asked, “Who’s that letter from, anyways? You’ve read in a dozen times today.”

“My parents.”

“What are they like? You’ve never talked about them, before.”

With all the care one would afford a priceless heirloom or newborn babe, the letter was folded up and returned to its place. “I don’t remember,” the woman said, shrugging, sending her gaze skyward. “We should get below. Storm’s coming.”

No sooner had she said this did the first drops fall. Cool and clean on her skin. Wind whipped her with lashes of frigid water. By all rights she should be a shivering mess in moments. Instead only comfort came to her. Eyes closed and saw home, wreathed in the storms of late spring and early summer. Always her favorite time of year, as every sound became muted by the pitter-patter of rain, and the streets were washed clean of refuse and dung.

“Hey?” Asami hummed, opening her eyes and finding Korra right where she’d left her, “What can you tell me about Water Magic?”

Chapter Text

Dorough, City of Kings.

The mighty seat of the House of Dirwen, largest trading port outside the Sea Realms of Sesosia, rallying point for the Kings Legions. Supposedly, the greatest city to survive the collapse of the Old Empire, guarded by walls and blockhouses older than most legends.

If any of that were true, Asami couldn’t see it through the choking smoke of a hundred-thousand chimneys.

High on either side were rickety looking apartments. Thrice or more times as high as her own home, walled with crumbling plaster or washed out wattle. No two looked alike. Some showed the effort of caring landlords or inhabitants. Little flower pots in the window, fresh paint on the walls. The like of which any resident of Salney would smile at in passing. Right next to it, however, would loom the rotting form of a neglected firetrap. Something her instincts were to put a torch to, and sort the mess out later.

These were thin streets, here. Narrow by even her standards. Not that this kept the seemingly endless throngs of urban poor from crowding by like a living river.

She had waded along in this for much of an hour, linked by the hand with Mako, who only just kept them moving the right direction. Her pockets had been almost picked, twice, body groped at a few times more. Around two dozen men had solicited her (more than doubling Meyeleokes record), one of whom had vanished when his advances got too insistent.

Hopefully the Ranger only roughed him up, a tad. No telling how long a body would take to find in all this.

Or if it ever would be.

Perhaps the most unsettling thing she had experienced in this supposedly worldly and cultured city, was the abundance of prostitutes on every corner. They weren’t the mostly cheerful, but down on their luck, working girls of the Broken Axe. No light of mirth shone in their eyes, despite the hardships. Each was hollow-eyed and gaunt faced. Some, disturbingly young. Hungry looking creatures, all of them. Pale, as well, like the ghouls of her picturebooks.

“Is it all like this?” she asked her friend, passing a beggar of around five, who she carefully slipped a silver piece. Enough for bread and broth for a few days, at home, hopefully the same here. “Is the whole city this horrible?”

The pyromancer’s head shook. “Technically, we aren’t in the city, yet. Everything within the main walls is the King’s domain. Lots of guards, strict laws, planning committees.”

“All the people that make the Capital run live outside it, ironically,” Bolin called over the clamor of sudden street brawl. Thrown rocks and wild fists pushed the trio to the opposite street side, having to leap over the camps of those so strapped for coin that even these rooms were too expensive. “Most of the garrison’s families are shacked up just north of the Coast Road. Same with the court servants.”

“Then, why is it so-” Her head was drawn to a line of open-air forges, placed within a breath of very dry, flammable buildings. “Surely the King has to know about all this.”

How could a good ruler allow such abject poverty exist right under their nose?

Yanking hard on Asami’s arm, drawing her off the crowded path, and into the respite of a narrow alleyway. “I imagine he does,” the man said, sympathy on his face, his pack a good deal deflated since their farewell with the Ferryman. She had noticed him taking a rather large amount of tack and saltfish with him as they left. Now she thought she knew why. “But, if he spent the treasury on these people, the nobles would start grumbling. Still, the closer you get to the gates, the better things get, somehow. A lot of the small folk inside the Harbor Quarter have family out here, too. Ships lose some barrels every now and then, you know, and they pay a premium to get them back.”

“People get by here, just like they do everywhere,” Bolin noted, forcing his way to them with some effort. Somewhere along the line, he’d managed to snag a very flamboyant hat. Broad-brimmed felt, and pinned up one side like a Sergeant’s, but with a battery of multicolor feathers in its hem. “Should be just up on the right, I think.”

“Left.”

The Stone Mage almost leaped out of his skin when Korra glided smoothly out of the crowd behind him. Her face was set with a narrow frown as she had to push him roughly out of the way, dodging his flailing arms with ease. “You were right. We’re being followed.”

“Who by?” Mako asked, lip curling in displeasure at the treatment of his sibling.

Reaching around her back, the Ranger produced a tightly rolled scroll sealed with black-blue wax. Clearly stamped in the center was the shape of a blackbird, wings spread wide, talons perched on a human leg bone. “Messenger,” she said, tossing the parchment like a spear, “Said those were instructions for your eyes, only. And that the other party arrived yesterday.”

“Great news!” Bolin cheered, clapping his hands and rubbing them together fiercely, “We can make up a plan over lunch!”

Lunch?

Was it that late in the day, already?

Time had gone weird in her head, in the course of this week. Reduced to set blocks of when she rode, trained, kept watch, and slept. A rigid routine that almost eliminated the abundance of free time her shop had permitted. Recreation was tossing a stick for Naga along the trail, speaking softly across the fire to a fellow when the others had retired.

Still, it was with a good deal of gratitude for this knowledge that she fought the final block to a rather well-kept inn on the next corner. No sign swung out front, so its name was lost to her, but the smell of roasting birds and bubbling soup might earn it Paradise to the weary.

In contrast to many she’d passed in the streets and squares, those who were within looked plump and well fed. Food was bountiful. Liquor even more so. Beer, wine, spirits, and every concoction in between. Men swilled the stuff like wash water, near as much ending up on the floor as in any belly. And wasn’t that a terrible shame? That so much numbing alcohol should be wasted on those that clearly didn’t appreciate it. Unlike Asami, who though a few stiff drink might go a long way in healing her many bruises.

“You look tired,” Korra muttered, lowering her hood and bringing up her cowl.

With a shake of her head, and a slightly raised eyebrow, the amateur sighed, “Just thinking about how drunk I can get away with being before one of you stop me.”

“Be my guest,” the archer chuckles, swiping a passing bottle and passing it on, “I just might join you.”

She smiles, and tears the cork free with her teeth. Whatever was inside burned like nothing she’d ever drunk. Not just the warmth of whiskey, but a spicy heat of peppercorn and northern exotics. Unpleasant, but palatable enough for a couple gulps, just to come away with eyes weeping and a desperate need for something else to drink.

“W-w-what is this stuff?!”

Korra knew, if her quiet laugh was to be believed. That and the mirthful twinkle in her eye. One part joy, the other mischief. Less reserved than ever, with a slack allowed in her shoulders, a limpness in her limbs. Stress bled from her as they boys fanned out in search.

Not that there was much to search in the first place. About a score of tables, benches along the bar, stairs leading up to a few floors of rooms, and an open doorway to the kitchens.

Asami found herself looking for outliers. Someone that didn’t fit the mold of laborer, sailor, smith, or ruffian. Small pickings, that. The innkeep, his wife and son behind the counter. A rough bunch, with five eyes, four-and-a-half ears, and two noses between them. Some few more working ladies, likely employed the same as Penny and her friends. Some small cut of their earnings taken to pay for room, board, and protection from unruly clients.

One party of mercenaries by the nearest fire, each in a slick red and cream uniform. Probably officers with how much gold glittered on their doublets. And numbering six.

Not them then, thank the gods, the Alchemist sighed. Father might stomach an adventure, after coaxing, but Mother would flay her hide should she fall in with the blood-letters. Ill as she was, the woman could still whip any man in the Guard with but a switch and a ladle.

Another pair, whom Korra nodded to after a quick elbow, might have fit the bill. One was dressed in head-to-toe black plate, helmet on and visor down, a sword the length of Asami’s body propped on the wall beside what she would tenuously call a ‘him’. His companion, on the other hand, was dressed much as she herself was. In fact, she wore no armor at all, just a neatly laundered shirt and trousers, a more reasonable blade across her lap.

“Whatever you do,” Korra whispered in her ear, “Stay away from them.”

“Understood.”

That left one person. A brown-haired, round-faced, athletic girl in the most conspicuous outfit seen since the Winter Festival. Pure-white sleeves of what looked like silk, garment loosely flowing down her body almost to the knee. She could have passed for a training priestess, were it not for the for the tightly fitted brigandine and ornate bladed spear.

Her hands balanced a platter piled with a roast duck, two pheasants, three bottles of wine, bread, potatoes, gravy, and a steaming pie.

Blinking, Asami watched her inch towards an open table, tower of food wobbling with every step. Every one made her flinch, expectantly. It has to fall on this step. This one. This one. But, the woman defied nature and fate. Slowly, she was making it. Until…

A sliding foot caught on a chair leg. Normally, not even a hiccup. But it was just enough for the finely dressed girl to stumble, which jolted her carefully balanced pile out of alignment.

“No, no, no!” she cried, green eyes wide with disbelief.

Just as the platter neared the tipping point, Bolin, champion of foodstuffs everywhere, swooped in and stuck a hand under the drooping edge. “I got it! I got it!” he laughed, like he had when they’d played ball years ago. However, when his gaze moved up and caught a full look of a pretty thing’s face, the smile on his lips fell into an all too familiar dumbstruck gape. “I got you…”

His predictability struck Asami nearly as hard as Mako’s slap to the back of his head. It hurt her, physically, to see how the blush crept into his face. Some things would never change.

“Opal?” the elder brother asked as his younger helped guide the last few steps.

“No, it’s Op‘a’l. Long A, not a short one,” she corrected in a formal accent that matched her outfit, perfectly. Eyes rolled in a way that made the amateur think that the mistake happened constantly. And that it still bothered her. “I take it, since you’re asking, you must be Mako.”

The pyromancer nodded. “That’s me. Over there’s Asami-” She waved a little when her name was mentioned, receiving a friendly smile in return. “And Korra.” Who tightened right back up like a dwarven clock spring. Deep breaths tickled Asami’s neck, bringing a sudden heat to her cheeks, and prompted a sudden step forwards. “You’ve already met Bolin.”

“Hi-hi! I’m Bolin!” the younger man chirped, taking Opal’s offered hand and shaking it so hard that their wrists should have popped off. “Nice to meet you!”

“And you,” the new stranger greeted, a little pink in her face at his embarrassing display.

Only a pair of smacks, one from each sibling, put his head back on straight. As he rubbed the spots, his party took turns to shake hands with a recovering Opal. Professional Mako, apologetic Asami, and a suddenly curt and prickly Korra.

That done with, the young woman gestured to the cascade of food before them. “I’m glad that you all arrived on time. Otherwise, I’d be pretty hard pressed to finish all this.”

The smell alone was enough to have her drooling. No offense to the river boat's galley, but fresh fish and black bread was only delicious for a while. Never in her life would she grow tired of roasted birds and young wine. There was something about it, that simple mix, which made her claim the nearest chair and wooden plate for herself.

“We were told to meet a party of two,” Mako noticed, while Asami busied herself with carving, “Where’s the other one?”

Opal shrugged, sniffing each bottle of fermented grape juice in turn, pouring herself a mug of the one that curled her girlish nose the least. “I’m not really sure, to be honest,” she said, sipping her drink and gathering a modest portion of each fare. “We got in rather late last night. For us, that is. She’d had to walk for the last few days after her horse took a fall in the marshes. Lamed its leg, the poor thing. Anyways, she was down the instant we got a room. Was gone when I woke up this morning.”

The Alchemist learned a few things from this brief exchange. First, that needed to get Bucky an exceptionally large apple for his services. Second, the this new companion was just the kind of prattler Asami had dreamed of when she’d sought stories in the evenings, instead of fitful sleep. And, lastly…

Oh my Gods, this is delicious!

She ate and drank with the fervor of a man who’d just drug himself from the desert. Far more quickly than any other at the table.

In fact, is wasn’t until she’d started doing so that Asami realized just how hungry she really was. Just a week had gone by, and she had already started cinching her belt another hole. Shirts felt loose around the waist. Once tightly fitted gambeson chafed roughly on her tender shoulders. About the only thing that wasn’t ill-fitting, anymore, were her boots, and even these had worn the souls thin.

“Slow down, sis,” Bolin joked, rather obviously matching his new fancy manner for manner, “It’s not going anywhere. How many times have you told one of us not to eat ourselves sick, huh?”

Swallow, for Mother’s sake. “Same number as the times I’ve had you clean sick off my floor.”

One low laugh from Korra, and a giggle from the fair-faced stranger that brought a blush back to her moron’s face fast as anything. “I take it the two of you have known each other for a while, then?” Opal inquired, innocently, smiling across the table at her.

“Since he was born.”

“But this is your first time on the road?” It wasn’t really a question. More a statement with the kindness of phrasing. Along with an explanation. “Sunburns on your face give it away.”

Asami nodded, taking note of the knowledge. I should whip up a balm before turning in.

Clearing his throat, Mako cut in with all the grace he had with dancing. That being none. “Speaking of, we’ve come a long way to get here, same as you. I think it would be in everyone’s interest to get down to the business at hand.”

“Oh, come now, Mister Mako,” she tutted, raising her glass in the swordsman’s direction and giving him the same look Asami did when he said something particularly foolish. “If you’ve come as far as you say, why not take the time eat a good meal with your new acquaintance? Let’s get to know each other, first. What do you say?”

Nothing, apparently.

His amber eyes hardened a fraction, but if the white clad spear wielder saw it, she made no remark.

Beside her, Asami felt the Ranger grip one of the largest knives on her belt. Half of the pair that had cut through bandits like wet parchment. Skin prickled on the hand that stayed her wrist. Cold, like an iron handle in the dark heart of winter, and crackling with energy.

A summer gust struck the Alchemist, sucking moisture from her nose and eyes. One of Opal’s loose-fitting sleeves had risen up her arm enough that a hidden blade could be seen. Small, with a handle of carved bone or ivory, and no doubt wickedly sharp. Her kind eyes now had a sharp edge that grated against her youthful features. They stared Korra down without a trace of fear. “You have my word, you will see the map as soon as lunch is over. No sooner, no later. Is that acceptable?”

“Yes! Yes it is!” Bolin answered for everyone, sending his most pathetic, pleading look Korra’s way. “I’m sorry about them. We ran into some bandits on the road, and everybody’s still a bit on edge.”

Blinking, the map-keeper turned to him without a second glance, thoroughly engaged with this new topic. “They wouldn’t happen to have been the pack on the north fork of the Meleyeoke Road, would they?” Opal whispered to frantic nods from the Stone Mage. “I’d heard someone had dealt with them, finally. A bounty like that doesn’t get claimed often.”

Bounty?

The Ranger shifted uncomfortably as she relaxed. Had she claimed it and not mentioned?

No. Her coinpurse had left the river city with less weight to it, not more. So had all of theirs, if she remembered right. Not that Asami would have thought to claim it if she had known. Deep shit enough was hers to wade through, already, just by sneaking off on this mad adventure in the first place.

“Actually, the two of us got bogged down hunting a couple archers,” Bolin said humbly. “Korra tracked most of them down. Isn’t that right, bro?”

Not the most subtle of his hype jobs, what with the elbow to his sibling nearly doubling the elder over in pain, and not nearly the most extravagant. Still, it got the point across, as Mako reluctantly nodded his head, “That she did.”

“She saved my life,” Asami quickly added, pouring a large serving of wine for her tutor, and praying the Gods she drink it swiftly.

Korra, for her part, blushed a rather nice shade of pink. Swiftly, she worked her mask down and hid it with her cup, draining the thing in a couple gulps. “I wouldn’t put it that way,” the woman mumbled, picking at a small loaf of bread, “Just shot a couple arrows, is all. Anyone could have done it. Bit of magic, too, I guess. Nearly lost my head while I was at it.”

Liar.

And not a very good one, either.

However, her fire was stamped out, and disaster averted. All good things, in everyone’s book.

With an abundance of food at hand, conversation didn’t take long to shift. Opal had more than a few stories to tell about her own journey and Bolin made for an avid listener. More than one of them had to do with trolls, oddly enough. Each bigger and fouler than the last. It only took until around the third before even Asami guessed that they were figments. Though, some present didn’t seem to mind.

Mako, being Mako, brooded at being left out of the fun. And at being rebuffed by the young woman. And at being upstaged by his ‘rival’. Or, maybe just because he enjoyed brooding. Who knew?

Asami jumped around between the lot, occasionally dragging Korra in for a few quiet words. Little nuggets, here and there, to keep her engaged and her mood monitored. Improved by every small mouthful, it seemed, with each carefully picked and mulled over before eating.

A bit like a bird , the Alchemist noted, amusing herself with mental images of Korra in increasingly feathered hats.

Ridiculous.

Despite this distraction, she still finished before anyone else. And regretted it. Her belly was stuffed full, no room for even the wine in her cup. It hurt. But it felt so good to be full. She’d missed that feeling. The good cooking that tended to come with it. And the cook.

Brimming with bird and bread, she threw her head back and sighed. Eyes slid closed and an early nap threatened. There had been better meals. More memorable, more elaborate and satisfying. But none was more appreciated than this one. It made all the pottage, dry meat, and stale bread worth it. The only thing that could have made it sit better was a hot mug of mint tea. Maybe with some honey or cream. And a big slice of Mrs. Woodley’s apple pie.

“You are tired,” Korra said, softly.

Blue eyes, deep and warm, meet hers as they crack a sliver. “I guess I am,” she admitted, with a smile.

Her head shook under the green hood. “That’s not what I mean.” That face of hers is back to its impassive mask. Not a shred of anything on it. At first meeting the woman, Asami thought it all the far-walker had for expressions, but now she knew better. Seeing the Ranger without a hint of that little smile she’d grown used to pulled at something in her chest. “You’re homesick.”

“I’m sure we all are.”

It took a moment, but the small grin came back, along with a nod.

Laughter from across the table overwhelmed their little conversation. Distantly, she had eavesdropped on a rather well embellished telling of one of their many childhood misdeeds as a trio. To her memory, no goats had been involved in the business. Only a very confused and grumpy old pig.

“Really!? In his bedroom!?” Opal laughed, clutching at her sides, tears streaming down her face. Every breath had her leaned back so far she almost fell. “How did you get them out, again?”

Bolin tapped his nose, and ever the capable storyteller, spun his reply, “That’s the beauty of it. We didn’t!”

Even Mako had cracked from his dour mood. He wasn’t nearly as animated as the other two, not by leaps and bounds. But he had fallen from his high horse enough to have snuck little details of his own creation into the mix. Mostly innocuous, some undercuts to his brother, a dig at the unfortunate victim, and a bit of slander that earned him one future blow to the head.

Like I’d seen a mouse, indeed.

“Oh, Gods,” the new addition wheezed, coughing around her attempt at a drink. “Oh, Gods, that’s the funniest story I’ve heard in years. You have to tell Kuvira! I mean, right now. She loves that kind of thing.” Ah, a name, at last. “There was this one time she filled… No, it’s better when she tells it.”

“Where is she?” The golden question, and already answered. Clearly, Bolin had been in full damage-control mode during that part of the conversation.

Or maybe he was still lost in her eyes.

Again, who knew?

“I haven’t seen her go past, so I assume she’s still off running her errands,” Opal shrugged, apparently unconcerned by her partner’s absence. Her smile then turned to Korra, no trace of the firm resistance she’d borne earlier. “I was hoping she’d be back, but, I believe I made you all a promise.”

The Ranger nodded. “You did.”

“Do you have it on you?” Mako asked, his seriousness returned in the blink of an eye. “We’ll need to make arrangements as soon as possible. If you haven’t already, that is.”

Once again, the provider of their meal raised an eyebrow at the pyromancer. The contrast between them in urgency was striking, to say the least. Perhaps she had not been told the reward, as well as the prize? “I do not, and I have not. You're free to tell me why I should, if one of you wants to retrieve it from our room.”

They huddled, swiftly, with Asami volunteering for the run. She was finished with her meal, after all, and could use the exercise to get the digestion going. And, it should be safe enough. Safer than almost everything else she'd done since leaving home behind, at least. Only one staircase up, from which Korra's keen eye had spotted no one either entering or exiting. Small windows in the room itself, and no balcony to sneak in via.

Seventh door, on the right.

Seventh door, on the right.

Seventh door…

Not even a minute to find once up the narrow flight. Lucky her, nothing seemed to be amiss. Just a plain inn-room door, complete with latch, lock, and… an apron hanging from the door?

Infant instincts prickled the amateur’s neck, hand sliding to the sword at her hip. For a moment, she debated whether to run down and grab the others. But, a thought of reason struck her, soon after. Should this be some false alarm, be it from some housekeeper or the like, the raising of a fuss would only make her look bad.

And, by extension, her teachers of adventuring.

Namely, Korra.

The same part of her that mourned the loss of the woman's smile, practically rebelled at the thought of being a disappointment to the same person.

So, like any good messenger, she stuck an ear to the door, instead.

At first, all she heard was a slight, almost rhythmic creaking from within. Like a rocking chair, but muffled. Not enough to make any conclusions with, but something that peaked her interest, and had her press a little closer.

Then, voices.

Two of them.

One deeper than the other, but not by much. Words were impossible to make out, between the door, the creaking, and how softly those inside spoke.

It was decided, then. They had intruders. The mind of a story-addict ran wild with possibilities. Perhaps a man that had grabbed this 'Kuvira', and was forcing her to give him the map. Maybe even torturing the information from her, as the few intelligible thing to reach Asami's ear sounded terrifyingly like gasps of pain.

What to do?

Down the stairs?

No, he might finish the job by the time help returned. Or follow the shopkeep down the hall and catch her.

Call for help?

Same problems, and surprise would be lost, Kuvira a hostage.

Break in?

Same, again.

Knock?

Knock, knock, knock…

Her knuckles rapped three times on the door. All noise inside the room stilled, and Asami drew her blade a sliver. In her training, she'd begun to feel the currents and lingerings of magic in things, and none 'shone' quite as bright as the family heirloom in her grip. Should the threat be real and present, this might be the day she learned what the thing did when let loose.

Muttering, hushed and fast.

More creaking.

“Hah, come in, I guess,” a deeper, but definitely feminine voice called, expectantly. “Just, promise you won't be mad, okay?”

A trick?

Fingers closed on the latch, and it clicked softly, door swinging free without any effort. Beyond, a modestly sized room, with a surprisingly large bed. On it, two figures, one covered except for the very top of her head, and the other most certainly not.

A woman.

A very naked woman.

A couple shades lighter than Korra, and one darker than Opal. Her face was angled and rugged looking, and would be handsome, instead of pretty, were it not for a softness to all the edges. One cheek bore a painful looking scar, the other a little mole under the respective eye. The rest of her, as well, was a mixture of these contradictions.

Full breasts and toned, strong arms. Abdominals of chiseled muscle over full, womanly hips.

“Before you say anything, I'm sorry, alright. It just, sort of, happened . She was passing by, gathering the laundry, and-” the voice, who a stunned mind decided must be Kuvira, said. It died as soon as falsely shameful eyes looked up enough to see that the one in the doorway was not Opal. “Hello?”

“HELLO!” Asami shouted, brain too far gone for anything else.

“Are you lost, or something?”

“No!”

“Okay. Then, why are you in my room? And why are you looking at my tits like you don't have a, frankly, very nice pair of your own to gawk at?”

I'm looking at her? OH GODS! “I'm-sorry-really sorry. Opal sent me up. She didn't know you were here, and I heard a noise. Noises, I mean,” the potion-maker stammered in a train of thought dump, first trying to look only at the naked woman's face, then failing, then looking anywhere else. “Do you, do you have a map laying around? I'm looking for a map.”

“A map?” Kuvira asked, only slightly confused. Then, with the sound of clapping hands, she exclaimed. “Oh! You must be from that group the Raven’s wanted us to meet up with. Sorry. If I had known you guys were here, I’d have cut things short.”

That’s okay! You didn’t know! Perfectly fine for you to be… With a woman ! “Map, please!?”

“Uh, sure thing.”

Now, Asami had made a few mistakes, already, in this exchange. But it didn’t make the one of looking over at the sound of bedsprings and bare feet on floorboards any better. Those few things that had been covered by the blanket now sent the Alchemist’s head snapping the other direction so fast she felt her brain rattle inside her skull.

“Could you put some clothes on, please?” the tomato-faced ‘adventurer’ requested. Suddenly, the edge of the door-frame became very interesting to her. Is that spruce? I like spruce. I like spruce that isn't here.

I wish I wasn't here!

A low, teasing, spine-tinglingly flirtatious chuckle sent a shiver up Asami's spine, and her body one step closer to the door, which had swung most of the way shut behind her.

“Aw, if you insist. Here I was hoping you'd join in.”

Reflex demanded some kind of retort, but none cutting enough came to mind. Too much space in her head had been taken over by swirling thoughts. Preposterous, ludicrous, and increasingly inappropriate images tempted at the edges. A confused mess that made little sense, with a great white void of nothing in the middle.

That's what it was.

Nothing,

No one.

Something out of the nothing said, I bet Korra’s look better, though.

AAAAAAAAAAAAAAAHHHHH!

A sudden impact hit her skull. Just a tap, really, but thankfully enough to banish that runaway wagon of a thought process. Parchment, tightly rolled and bound with the same black-blue wax as the message. “Here you go. One map of the Great Spine, for your reading pleasure.”

“Thank you.”

And thank the Gods, she's wearing pants.

“Um, if you don't mind,” Kuvira said, one hand stopping the Alchemist's hasty retreat in its tracks. “I would really appreciate it if you didn't tell Opal about all this.”

She just nodded.

Nodded and ran out the fucking door like there were rabid dogs nipping at her heels. Fast as she had run from the bandits, Prior Josephine, and her Mother's harshest wrath. Down the hall, down the stairs, though the thickening crowd, and to the chair tucked too close to Korra. To the waiting mug of young wine, weak and sweet.

Too weak.

Hands grabbed a bottle from a passing tray, and upended the thing against her lips. Stronger. Harsher. Burning, numbing alcohol fills her belly, trickling out into her veins. Gulp after gulp of it. Until the container was physically torn from her.

“Are you okay?” Mako, his face concerned.

“Fine. Got the map.”

Throw the dogs a bone. Watch the three opposite tear the thing open in a frenzy, Opal joining the brothers with equal vigor after having learned the objective of the quest.

They mutter to themselves and each other. Soft, careful words that betray as little as possible. Lines are drawn on the surface, along rivers, streams, and roads. Ever up, ever north. To the lands of Old Empire. Once the homeland of rulers that put their own to shame, who vassalized and conquered all before them. Now the home of myths and legends. Vampires, werewolves, giants, trolls, and dragons.

Asami tried to think of these, if only to quell the heat in her cheek, and failed every time. Instead, she saw…

“You don't look tired, anymore,” the Ranger joked, smile having spread in her absence, or returning with her. “I assume someone was up there, with how long you took to get back. Did something happen?”

“Um.” Blink. A bad idea, with that face so close, those sad blue eyes. Flash frame of her in the bed, bare-chested and sweating, hair down and tousled. Mouth went dry, mind went blank, and Asami was left nearly as stunned with herself as she had been with her introduction to- “Kuvira was there.”

“And?”

“Well, she was, you know...”

Korra's grin ticked up on one side, and was swiftly hidden by a sip of whatever filled her cup. “There's not much people would spend the whole day doing after making the trip all the way from Bolia. It was either a man or a better deal than this one.”

For once, your knowledge fails you, my friend. “It was a woman.”

The archer spluttered, brown liquid sent everywhere as fine mist and slosh. Only noticed by Mako in his salvaging the map from damage by the spill, although Opal looked across with concern, and Bolin tossed a rag to stem the tide. Heavy coughs followed, some of the liquid having gone the wrong way in her gasp and gags.

When finally unobscured, the Water Mage's face looked like her student's felt. “Oh. I mean, um...”

Silently, an agreement passed between them, Asami thought. To never speak of that information. Ever. Or, at the very least, to not betray either's reaction to it. Likely to be helped along with extra servings of the free wine at their disposal.

Speaking of, they toasted wordlessly, and downed the first round of many.

“You two,” Kuvira said, so close the potion-maker she could feel every syllable on her skin. Yet, when she spun, the now clothed and companionless woman stood some few feet behind them. Hair done up in a tight bun, shining plates on her chest and shoulders, greaves and gauntlets on her extremities. “You two are going to be fun.”

Why did that word unsettle Asami's soul, so?

And how had she put on all of that heavy looking armor so quickly? Bolin's chest plate took two people close to ten minutes to get right, at times, and it wasn't a fourth as complicated as the array over green quilt.

Providing easy answer, the second stranger of the day produced a spoon from her sleeve. Palm held flat, a finger from her other hand stirred the air. “ Flos .”

The metal shimmered, then it stretched and warped, melting like mercury. For every stir of Kuvira's finger, an arch of liquid steel. Fluid as water under her influence, catching light like polished bronze, she shaped and molded it as a potter did clay. Petals and stamen, leaf and stem, a small flower was pulled from the commonplace item in around a minute.

A dainty, delicate lily.

Passed Asami's way with a little bow, along with a wink that felt all too suggestive. “For the lady.”

Only, it was intercepted by Korra's hand, darting out like a viper to snag the thing midway between them. Her breath was fog, eyes ice. They focused on the one who'd crafted it, who's smile only grew as the Ranger's faded.

With a little flex, the spoon was crushed back into a ball, the dumped back into the hand that had offered it. “A pleasure to meet you.”

“And you, elf-kin,” Kuvira said, giving a little wave to her partner across the table. Then she muttered, maybe without meaning to, an almost knowing gaze being passed between them, “Oh, very fun, indeed.”

Not that Asami heard.

She was too busy thinking, I really think hers are better. And immediately wondered why.

Chapter Text

They had set sail before dawn. A quiet shoving off, with only hushed whispers passing between the ferryman and his bewildered crew. Lines were unfurled, sails drawn, and oars lowered into the silty river to send the craft and cargo north will all speed.

Asami helped where she could. Hefting barrels of cargo not meant to be loaded until after first light until her back ached, namely. With a pace half that of her companions, a third of the sailor’s, but all the urgency of both put together. And a great deal of caution and care. The landing planks and dock were slick. Rain fell the entire time they worked. It was a cold, miserable, uncomfortable task to do with a belly stuffed with boiled eggs, fried ham, and day old bread. She did it, anyways, not a word of complaint.

In the creeping dawn, new shapes swam behind the ferry. Not sleek bodied kelpies, but fast, finned things that leaped as the first fishermen and guards of the day tossed small fish into beaked mouths.

“Have you never seen dolphins before?” Opal asked, deftly scrubbing clean her white silk.

With a shake of her head, Asami said, “Nope. Don’t have them at home.” She took a sip of the tea Korra’d quietly handed her before scrambling up the lines to the highest point on the ship. “Just like we don’t have monsters, or bandits, or rivers, or oceans. Except in books.”

The spearwoman hummed, cheerfully, flashing a friendly smile that wouldn’t have been out of place on Bolin. “Sounds like the kind of place I’d like to visit,” smiled the round-faced girl.

“I imagine you’ve seen a hundred just like it before.”

“Probably,” Opal shrugged, rocking back and forth on the balls of her feet. Her entire body seemed vibrating with energy, of both the physical and magical varieties. Little glyphs glowed on her leather gloves, pulsing every time a leaf or insect brushed too close. A bit like Bolin’s wards, but more numerous and complex in design. “But, I’ve only been roving since about a year before the war. Still plenty of things I want to see. Even twice.”

Mental math was crunched in the alchemist's head. Estimates, mostly, without any hard timeline of worldly events to reference. Two and a half years, or so. Give or take a couple months. “You must have been pretty young when you left.”

“Younger than most, older than some,” she shrugged again. “Kuvira started before me by a few years. Helps to have someone that knows what they’re doing along.”

Which Asami, most certainly, did not.

All night, she had been pestered by dreams. Vivid dreams that made her toss and turn on the mattress under her until all the straw had been pushed out to the edges. Then she’d paced. For hours, into the wee hours of the morning, when even the working girls had retired for the final time. Up and down the hall. Quiet as a mouse, and just as swift to duck from sight.

An image haunted her, even in wakefulness. Of dark skin and blue eyes. Transposed on the flirtatious stranger, in bed with assets flaunted for the naked eye to see. But an empty spot beside, one that needed fill. Fingers ever so slowly lifting the corner of her shirt-

It always ended there.

Just as her ridiculous fantasy tipped from the mostly innocent to the scandalous. Before she could poke holes in it to laugh at, even.

“I apologize in advance, by the way,” the amateur said, finishing the last of her tea in a gulp.

“For what? Being new to this sort of thing?” Opal asked, apparently amused at the idea. Looking over her shoulder, the well-dressed young woman leans in and whispered, “To be perfectly honest with you, I’m more likely to make a mistake than you are. Almost three years under my belt, and I still can’t saddle a horse to save my life. Literally. Can’t cook without a stove, can’t figure out which mushrooms make soup and which send you to the moon.”

Another voice added, “Can’t help spending all our money on useless junk whenever we finish a job?”

The shadow had cometh, and right about on time. Her grin was set at its usual slant, almost meeting her scar where they both ended. Bright armor plates caught the dawning sun like a mirror. From this angle, Kuvira could have passed for one of the shining knights of fable, were it not for the conspicuous lack of a sword at her side. In its place, a simple rod of metal, around the right length to be one, lashed by black cord to her waist.

“It’s not useless!”

“An hourglass that falls the wrong way and a broken looking glass aren’t useless?” mocked the older of the two women, eyebrow raised, but with no weight behind the words.

Opal gave a great humph to that, flicking a fan from her belt and working it over her face to combat the humid stillness in the air. Only, instead of only soothing her own face, and entire breeze issued from the lazy flaps. Strands of wispy energy run through it, guiding a steady stream of air over all of those present, before billowing up into the mainsail.

Wow

Something she found herself thinking and saying a lot. Particularly when magic was involved.

In her pocket, the fetish still sat. Keeping it lit for an hour now made the novice magic user only slightly winded. Beyond that, however, she’d struggled to make any kind of meaningful progress. In fact, in some ways, Asami felt she’d regressed.

Touching her sword felt wrong, as the object pulled at her like a current, siphoning her strength whilst doing nothing noticeable in exchange. Still feather light in the hand, but with a new weight on her side as she rode, stood, sat, and anything else. Letting it fall next to her bedroll or mattress at the end of the day was almost as relieving as yanking her disintegrating boots from the swollen shortly after. Only, her feet got better overnight. The sword didn’t.

When there was a pause in the back and forth between the other women, prompted by what one hopefully assumed a playful attempt at a kiss ending on the broad edge of Opal’s fan, Asami stepped in with a timid question, “Where did you two learn magic?”

“The Academy,” both replied, only one of them with a muffled voice as they were pushed away.

“Well, sort of,” Opal said, closing the fan and using it to whack her companion on the forehead, “My parents could afford to send me and my brothers there to learn the basics. But, it’s rather expensive to complete the entire course on campus, and my mother didn’t like us being away from home for so long.” A little grin sparked there. “After that, we apprenticed. Why do you ask?”

Asami sighed and looked back out over the river, watching the dolphins frolic as children did. “Just wondering why it looks so… easy, sometimes.”

Kuvira barked a laugh. It felt a little cutting to her tired mind in just how mirthful it sounded. Still, she spoke in the same casual voice as always, complete with an apparently permanent smirk. “Situps, pushups, and plenty of juice, that’s why it looks easy.”

Slapping her friend on the back of the head, the Wind Mage sighed, “Ignore her. She means we practiced.”

“Speaking of,” the metalcrafter said, turning her head to the sky and booming out so loud the ship seemed to shake, “Elf-kin! Mind coming down from there for a minute?! I’d like a word!”

Looking up, the Alchemist saw her savior high up in the rigging, lain out on a spar with one leg hung over the side. How she felt safe, let alone comfortable, in such a precarious position was baffling. And yet, the Ranger was able to scowl down at them with only a slight shift of weight.Blue eyes burned down at the lover of women with the same intensity they had through the last evening and all the morning after.

Not that Kuvira seemed to mind.

Korra rolled, much to Asami’s horror, and hung in midair for a moment. Then, her hand caught one of the lines, stopping what would have been a gruesome fall to the deck below. Some impressive swinging, scaling, and belaying later, and the archer landed with all the grace of a cat.

“What do you want? And stop calling me that.”

If words could cut, these would do deep. Sharp as any blade, were they. A tone that was near as curt as that reserved for Mako, on occasion. And for little apparent reason.

After the shocking circumstances of their first meeting, the potion-maker had found the last of their party to be enjoyable enough company. Certainly rough around the edges. Gruf, blunt, crude, and boisterous as anyone to ever share a table with her. Fond of strong ale and broth with buttered bread, which was fair enough. Also, an insatiable flirt, which ranged from the benign with strangers, to the hilarious with Opal, to mortification when it turned even remotely close to home.

Only, Korra hadn’t been the recipient of even a single passing remark.

Curious. Very curious.

Still smirking like she did, the Mage of Metal, said, “I just wanted to get your opinion on this fine plan of ours. You were rather mum on the subject, yesterday, once the wine started flowing. Figured a Challeian Ranger might have a better idea of the land we’re crossing than some dusty old map.”

For a moment, Asami thought the far-walker would protest, again. But, instead, she took a deep breath and spoke in an even tone. “It’s not the route I would take.”

“Which would you, if you don’t mind me asking?”

“Kuvira…” Opal warned, brandishing her fan like a switch. With a flick of the wrist, she made to smack the same spot she had many times, blocked by a swift palm from the would-be victim. “You had your chance to contribute. Stop worrying or your hair will go gray.”

The smirk faltered, something stern poking out from under the surface. Grim and frustrated, but with comment held back behind a chewed lip. Something like concern, as well, vague and ill defined in a flick of focus to her younger partner. A most frustrated expression after that when she just rolled her eyes. “Oh, come on. You know we need a better plan than ‘ride through the Marches to creepy ruin, grab flower, profit’. It’s the Southern Campaign, all over again.”

“Perhaps,” the younger woman conceded, flicking out her fan again to hide her face.

Three sets of green eyes gradually shift to the worldly Ranger, with gradual degrees of haste or hesitance. She stiffened under them, shifting back against the mast as a backstop.

“Fine,” the woman grumbled, choosing to let her gaze linger on Asami once she’d cycled through the lot. Tired circles ring them, those sad blue orbs tinged with red. Dulled by shadow and deprived of rest. She swallowed, in what looked like a nervous moment, then flung her face to the sky and shook her head to clear whatever thoughts troubled her. “Let me think about it. There are some old paths I learned about. One of them might be useful. Maybe.”

Beside the Alchemist, Kuvira nodded and said, “That’s all I ask.” Then her smirk comes back in an instant, arm wrapped tight around Opal before the other could duck out of the way in typical fashion. “It’d be a shame if I kept this one’s head on all through the war,  just to lose it to some barbarian tribe, eh?”

“Off. Off! OFF!” Opal insisted, hand leveraging against her captor’s side, then face to break free of her iron grip. “You still smell like that girl from the inn! Get off!”

The woman barked a laugh, releasing her hold to let the Wind Mage stumble off balance, only to catch her by either wrist and pull her to a waltzer’s stance. “Don’t be like that,” the taller woman chuckled, “They’ll think you’re protesting too much. Think I’m some kind of weirdo.” She dragged the other in a dance to music only in her own mind for a moment. That is, until Opal brought her head back and sent forehead smashing into the bridge if Kuvira’s nose.

“You are weird, Kuv,” the well-dressed traveller sighed, rubbing a growing lump, “Now, go take a bath before someone tosses you in the river.”

Groaning, the flirt peaked over the fingers that clutched her dripping nose. “You?”

“Me, yes.”

“I’ll go,” she submitted, wobbling off in a daze, “Do you think we could get the grouchy one to heat the water, first? I doubt they have plumbing on this wreck.”

“No. No, I don’t.”

They descended into the ship, talking ever softer as they did so. Vaguely, an apology can be heard over the flapping sails, splashing oars, and lapping waves. Asami can’t hear which voice issued it, but she has a suspect in her mind. Along with other suspicions.

Setting those aside, she turned to the stoic Ranger, whose gaze she still failed to recapture. “They’re… interesting, aren’t they?”

Korra nodded.

Feet kicked at a coil of rope. Asami’s hands want for something to do. Standing alone on the gently rolling deck with just the two of them felt strangely tense. Quieter than the usual quiet, as though the archer was actively avoiding speaking. Something that the amateur could sympathize with. Because her heart was slowly ramping itself up, mind clouding with the same thoughts that had kept sleep at bay. Sweat trickled down her brow, and she had a sudden urge to flick it away, tame her hair, and fix that pesky button.

I have to say something. Anything. “Are we still on to practice after lunch?”

“Wha- huh? Oh! Yes,” the tutor stammered, eyes snapping back from the distant spot they’d wandered off to over the Alchemist’s shoulder. “Yeah, I’ll, um, I’ll need to get a few things ready. You should get some rest, if you can. It’ll be a lot more strenuous than using the fetish. And, eat. You should eat something. It’s going to take a while.”

Flustered?

What for? Before, she’d just been irritated by the antics of Kuvira. Grumbled complaints and minor insults that had been lost in beer and under breath.

What had changed?

“Um, okay. I’m sure I can find something to do.”

Both nodded awkwardly to the other. Each turned on the other with some haste to them, lingering not for idle talk. One hustled back up the lines to reside in her lofty perch, while the other watched on with mild fascination on the apparent ease at which the climb was made. How smooth the motions, practiced the hand and footholds, swift the recoveries.

The way her hair seemed to catch this coastal wind and grow twice as long. Brief glimpses of exerted faces, stern and handsome. But soft and beautiful as well.

Gods, she’s so strong…

Wait, what?

Run.

Down, down, down the steps.

Down to the little workbench she’d appropriated for her work. Far from Rangers, and woman lovers, and the lovestruck fool that made up half her childish charges. Bloody fools that they were, the both of them, letting her samples get soaked in the rain and baked by the sun.

Many hours would be needed to assess the damage. Many coins would be needed to replace that which couldn’t be salvaged. Luckily, both time and coin would be plentiful resources in the coming days. And, while diminished, her stock still held all the treasures needed for anything conceivable. Burns, cuts, sepsis, frostbite, mudfoot, and the dreaded Alandi Disease.

And insomnia.

Drawing flint and steel from their little pouch, Asami ran sparks over her heating candle. It lit, instantly, producing a flickering flame to work by. Hotter than the normal, a special brew of her own making. Beeswax and rendered pig fat mixed with Dwarven machine oil. Stained black so the boys knew not to smuggle them off, and notched even for time. Fifteen minutes a notch, two hours a candle, sixteen single potions. One of which she needed.

Pinch of powdered rose fruit, two of silver maple bark. One portion, perfectly level, of cat’s eye extract. Flower of poppy, eleven and one-half petals (unfortunately slightly wilted). Honey and cinnamon to taste, two parts to one. Diluted in an even mixture of Alchemist’s Wine and rye spirits. Heated until the flower dissolved in its entirety. Stirred by counterclockwise turns. One every second, no more, no less.

It was a dull task to do by the dose. One of her least favorite. But, valuable for the trade in large enough quantities. Everyone needed sleep, after all. The fewer dreams, the better, in many cases.

No one bothered her as she worked. They either knew better, or were too busy to chat.

In the cabin next to hers, Mako mulled the route aloud to himself, obsessively. She could see him in her mind’s eye. Bent over with his amber eyes an inch from the faded parchment, finger tracing every possible line like a madman. Lips moving, not even aware his internal monologue was leaking out.

The candle fizzed and crackled at the mark. Another invention of hers. Some fine granules of Dwarven fire-powder bonded to the wick by resin. Perfect timer on late nights.

And alarm.

Planting her finger over the top of the vial, Asami stared at the contents, a light shade of reddish-brown. All things having gone well, when she tapped it ever so gently on the table, it would turn a vibrant blue. About the shade of those odd flowers in the garden, back home.

*Tink*

Perfect.

Moments later, she sat on one of the two little cots in the cabin, poised to fall back on the lonely pillow. The potion had cooled just as fast as any, almost chilly in her fingertips. It met the Alchemist’s  lips and she shivered the astringent taste which washed over her tongue. Bitter, and a little off going down, like a thousand tiny spiders crawling down her throat with padded feet. Warmth spread from her belly the instant the swallow made its way that far. Better than warm milk or alcohol.

Before the warmth can hit her head, she’d already fallen into sleep’s gentle embrace. Deep and dreamless. Blacker than the night.

Until she woke in another embrace. Warm and soft and slightly scratchy.

Someone had drawn a blanket over her as she’d slept. Stuck another pillow under her head, too. Much more comfortable than she’d expected to be, by far. Asami stirred and caught a familiar scent on the cushion. Sweet cinnamon and jasmine tea.

If the shopkeep had ever sat up as fast as she did in that moment, she couldn’t remember it. Came up so fast her head spun. Spots danced, blood drained, hair stuck in her nose and mouth.

Dizzied, she turned to the bunk opposite, momentarily blinded by her own hasty movements. There sat Korra, eyes closed and legs crossed, fingers interlaced like she was praying. But her lips were still, chest still. Mist swirled around her like smoke from a pipe. Wispy coils of water vapor swayed with each silent breath and turned to ice where they met the wall.

However, it wasn’t cold, per say. Not under her thin covering. More like a pleasant chill. A fresh, peaceful crispness to the air. The kind you took the time to linger in as you walked to market. Bundled tight in winter furs, hot soup on over the fire waiting to be eaten.

Asami’s stomach grumbled, and an eye opened a sliver.

“Did I wake you?” the Ranger asked with a hint of concern, letting her hands fall as the mist dispersed. The woman lifted a platter from the vacated head of her mattress and offered it across the gap. “Got you some lunch. Might be cold by now. Sorry.”

“That’s alright. Pretty sure I could stomach just about anything, right now.”

A hint of a smile could be seen when they made the exchange. Gone was much of the tenseness in Korra’s shoulder and firm set of her jaw. The slight pink color to her cheeks had faded, blue orbs easily met and kept. Restless hands did draw one of the smaller blades and a little whetstone to keep busy as the Alchemist cramed beans into her mouth.

Cold, but still pleasant to a palate that had overstuffed itself the day before. Over the grating sound of sharpening steel, she asked, “Was I out long?”

“About five hours, I think.”

“Five?” Note to self: take half dose next time.

Her teacher shrugged. “Might have been less. Dozed off myself when I was up in the rigging. And,” an odd, vaguely distant look passed over the archer’s face for a few seconds, “time gets a little weird when you meditate, you know?”

With a shake of her head, Asami silently answered. Clearing her head of stress had always been an active pursuit in Salney. Drinking, dancing, singing the night away with friends. Listening to stories so intently that the rest of the world fell away. To become lost in a different life, a grimmer or more fantastic one, had alway been a few pennies and a page turn away.

Food done, plate set aside, the potion-maker pondered what lesson would be today’s.

Magic or sparring?

Mental or physical exhaustion?

Blade, spell, or… bowl?

Specifically, a little clay bowl she’d never seen before. Around the size for a ration of soup during hard times. Etched with the same manner of indecipherable runes as the fetish, but patterned more like sentences. Long strings that might be words, with gaps in between and little pictures in the margins.

“Here,” the Ranger said, passing the object like it was the finest eastern pottery. Once it was firmly in Asami’s grip, the woman drew her waterskin and poured a generous portion. “Now, focus.”

“On?”

“The water.”

“Why?”

Her eyes rolled in the same way they always did when too many questions were asked. “Because, not all water magic is the same. Lots of branches to wander down. Projection, illusion, transformation, animation, and healing, to name a few. Focus on the water. If it does something interesting, you might have an easier time doing something similar, in the future.”

Something interesting, eh? “Like what? Will I be able to make giant ice dragons?”

“Maybe,” the Ranger snorted, smiling almost ear to ear. “But, you’ll be lucky to lift a raindrop if you don’t-” Her wrist flicked, finger flicking a pebble of ice that bounced harmlessly off Asami’s brow. “-focus.”

“Okay, fine,” the student said, drawing her legs close, “We’ll do it your way.”

Magic pulsed within the amateur, somewhere deep in her chest. Energy that coursed forth at the slightest urging on her part. It was a primal sensation that tingled every nerve it passed. Both a part of her, and not. Almost an emotion, but detached from the others by a kind of veil.

Into her shoulders, down her arms, who’s aches evaporated immediately. To her fingers and beyond, probing passed them and into the vessel.

Light shone from it. Every symbol, rune, and pictogram became a beacon of blue-white light. Not the strobing of the fetish or flickering of a candle, but a steady sun-like intensity that stung her green eyes through lids and lashes. Brighter than it should be, some part of her recognized. Amplified, somehow. Or focused like a lense.

If she pulled back, to the clay and not the liquid inside, she could feel something. A brand, of sorts. A presence infused into the structure, minging with her own, providing structure to the chaos. Comforting and familiar, at peace with Asami’s sorcery, but also utterly alien.

No.

It wasn’t one presence. Faint, buried in the first, a brand within a brand.

But, Asami couldn’t dwell on the oddity for long. Her magic was half-pulled, half-pushed back to the water. They mingled, danced about each other. But nothing happened.

It felt… strange.

Something was supposed to happen. That much she could sense. It wanted to. Needed to, even. Water sung to her soul, begging for a command, a prompt of what to do. Even the slightest tremble of her hand sent ripples through the surface like a stone.

Then, a single word floated to the front of her mind, “ Glacio.

Slowly, a thin layer of ice started to form on the water. Thicker and thicker the longer she held, the more magic she used.

“Well done,” Korra said, peering into the bowl with a smile, “But, you didn’t need the spell.”

With a shiver of exhaustion, Asami withdrew her energy. Blood thundered in her ears louder than any marching drum. Inside her chest, her heart raced so hard it felt ready to tear itself out and hop about the floor. The worst headache, too. A skull-splitting thing that pulsed with the tempo. Pain that radiated down her veins and arteries until the very tips of her toes throbbed.

Something wet trickled over her lips, salty and coppery on her tongue. Oh, no. I-I need- “In my bag. Red bottle, white cap. Please.”

In a blink, the Ranger became a blur. Feet still soft on the creaky floor, but swifter than the wind, she ran to the little desk. Her hands dug deep into the pouches. Packets and parcels fly out in a careless manner that made the Alchemist grit her already grinding teeth.

However, with fingers dug deep in her temples, the amateur was willing to overlook a few minute’s cleanup. Just like she could overlook an errant eye drifting down the woman’s back.

“Sorry. I should have told you that could happen,” the woman muttered, at last delving into the correct corner and getting the right bottle. Which she bobbled, dropped, picked up... then dropped, again. The fluidity that had pervaded her every movement morphed into jagged, abrupt movements, punctuated by quiet curses. “Any- shit! Anything else?”

“Just that.”

Honestly, the worst was over before the extract even reached Asami. Let alone her tongue. Only ripples left from the wave. Sour drops chased by water melted by the more experienced mage. Citrus and willow worked wonders on raging blood pressure. The rag stemmed the flow.

She swallowed. Only partly to clear her throat.

Cerulean orbs had fallen on her with a frantic mania in them. Deep and watery. So easy to get lost in.

“Why?”

“Why, what?”

“Why did I start bleeding?”

“Oh,” Korra said, taking her own deep breaths. Slowly, she returned to calm, only with an excess of glances at every part of Asami's face. A thing that made her neither blush, nor attempt to hide it with her hair. “Um, y-your body isn't used to magic, yet. That bowl is an... amplifier?” The woman's gaze drifted up to the corner of her eye, thinking. “Yeah, that's it. An amplifier. So are spell words. When you used both, it must have caused a backfire. That's-”

Holding up her hand, the Alchemist cut off the explanation. “I know what that is. Had to set Bolin's limbs about a dozen times, and that's after we were cleaned out of Burn Balm for a good couple of years. Just, never seen Water-magic do it before.”

“I'm sorry...”

“You need to stop doing that,” Asami laughed, beat finally settling into a normal rhythm. “Keep apologizing, and I'm gonna punch you.”

She laughed that barking laugh of hers, and smiled. Flicked a strand of hair from her sapphire eyes and softened more than the shopkeep had ever seen. Utterly relaxed in her presence. Perhaps the farthest thing from the swirl of snow and blades that had carved bandits like a ham hock. Also, not like the one who'd spirited her away from that horror.

If that person could be said to be the Ranger, then this one must be Korra.

“Don't think you can bully me around like those two,” the archer smirked, pouring another serving of water into the bowl. Apparently, one nosebleed didn't get her out of practice. “Unlike them, I'll hit a girl.”

So snorted the Alchemist, who taunted back, “Oh, they fought back. I just hit harder.”

“Explains Sparky's broken nose.”

No, that was a shovel. But… she doesn't have to know that. “Any advice on what to do so I don't, you know, bleed somewhere a little more important? Or, whatever happens when something really goes wrong.”

“Close your eyes,” her teacher nodded, flinching slightly, for some reason.

Doing so, Asami complained, “Why do I have to keep closing my eyes to do these things? Surely, magic is more effective when your eyes are open?”

“Shut up,” Korra said, although a smile could still be heard. “You need to concentrate.”

Concentrate…

Concentrate!

Concentrate!!!

Why is it always CONCENTRATE!?!?

Deep breath. “Fine.”

She focused. On the water, on the bowl, on her magic, her breathing. All the things she’d been told to concentrate on at various points in her training. Disparate parts of an apparent greater whole her mind struggled to mash together. Like a big riddle with a dozen missing clues.

Breaths felt cold in her throat and lungs, but also not. So did fingers, face, and every other patch of exposed skin. Chilled by the temperature of something, yet not reacting.

In her mind’s eye, Asami saw how her exhales tickled the water, making little ripples in the surface. The same shivered through her magic. Tiny waves of sensation. Odd ghosts of touches. Half forgotten memories of the present. Detached, in a way, but very much as real as that of sitting on the mattress. Just… off. Unfocused unless she pushed all other thoughts and discomforts aside.

“Okay,” Korra said, her voice echoey and distant, “Now, put your right hand over the bowl.”

After a moment, the student did so. Every shake and slosh made it way through the left, around to the right, which she shifted along in matching motion. Then, against the impulse, strumming the strands as a musician did a lute.

Even blind to what was happening, she could feel the effect.

The surface stilled, flatter than the duck ponds of home. Up the far edge of the clay, out of its confines, and into open air.

Someone laughed. The Ranger, she thought, though it easily could have been her. For the peculiar sensation of dangling a couple mouthfuls of liquid by invisible strings was among the most fascinating Asami had ever experienced. A bit like falling, but entirely pleasant. Butterflies in her belly and tingles of electricity along her puppeteering fingers.

It was so wonderful, she ignored the growing pressure behind her temples. Headaches and nosebleeds be damned. If it meant a couple more seconds of twisting her fingers over the misshapen orb, feeling it swirl and dance, knowing every movement without having to look, she would suffer.

Hands clapped, startling her eyes open. Face to face with the most stunningly brilliant gems she’d ever seen. Wide with amazement, blinking fiercely, lips working silently.

With a beckoning motion, the link between Alchemist and water is severed. It snaked up the Aberrant’s arm, around her neck, and back down to the other palm. There it formed a tight, spinning hoop, held captive by thumb and forefinger. “How? How did you do that?” Korra asked, her smile growing as her head slowly shook.

“I don’t know,” Asami said, suddenly feeling the pain in earnest, “I just… did.”

“No, no. You don’t understand,” the archer said, insistent. “It took me a month to do what you just did. In ten minutes! That was the single hardest part of learning elemental magic, and you did it like it was nothing. How have you not been pulling down buildings and setting your house on fire, by accident?”

“Picking water up is the hardest part? Really?” That’s a bloody relief. I feel like there’s an army marching through my veins. No more of that, thank you.

Her head shook, “No, doing it when you want to, is.”

“Oh.”

“Try to do it, again,” Korra urged, replacing the water and bending across the gap to watch.

With a smile, Asami did, but the liquid stubbornly refused her. Water had turned to lead. Her arms, too.  Everything was heavy and sluggish, from breathing to blinking. She pulled and pulled, pouring more and more magic into the struggle, knowing the tug-of-war would eventually end in her favor. If she only gave it-

One.

More.

Pull!

Her target leaped up to around face height, before violently exploding into icy mist.

Frost coated the entire room, both occupants included. Not that Asami could see that. What with her lashes being frozen shut, and all.

Heavy footsteps pounded on the deck outside, and the door to the cabin was roughly shoved open, knocking the precariously stacked mound of weapons and packs over in a clamor. “Asami, are you okay?!” Mako shouted very loudly, battering against the partially deafened eardrums of the Alchemist. Then, after a pause, more softly, “Um, what happened in here?”

She was freed and thawed the instant later by Korra, every wick of moisture drawn from her skin and clothing. “Nothing,” the woman sighed, “Just messed up a spell. Go back to your map.”

“Um, okay,” he said, casting a suspicious eye in the Ranger’s direction, “If you’re sure?”

“I’m fine, too, by the way. Thanks for asking,” her teacher snapped, brilliant cerulean dulling to a darker shade as she sent his animosity straight back, with interest. “Go on. Go pretend you know what you’re doing. Just promise not to mess it up too bad, okay?”

“If you have a better idea, you’re free to share it.”

The archer just smiled smugly at him, prompting the shopkeep to rise and shove the man out the door. “Behave yourself, you’re not five,” she hissed at him, leveraging the larger man into the hold.

“She started it.”

“Well, I’m ending it. Get!”

He did, and soon enough, Asami sat back on the bed, bowl in hand.

“Alright, let’s try this again, shall we?” the adventurer suggested, noticeably backing away from her and keeping a hand ready to protect herself. “Only, this time I want you to-”

“I know, I know,” the amateur interrupted, “Concentrate…”

Chapter Text

Asami couldn’t voice how wonderful it felt to make landfall.

Literally.

In the rush to offload the six horses and two mules, saddle them, load them, and fit out her own gear and supplies, a speech felt a little unnecessary. Although, she did take the time to sneak Bucephalus a couple carrots and an apple for leaving him cooped up so long. And gift Naga her scraps of burnt ham and bread, for pairities sake. Both animals had suffered somewhat in the hold, only allowed short walks about on deck just after breakfast.

Basking in the northern sun, she mounted her ride with surprising ease. All those sparring sessions on the ferry had done her body good, it seemed. Or maybe it had been the constant rocking of the boat in the current, making every footfall a couple inches higher of lower than the last.

Hooves clomping on muddy pavestones, Bucky snorted his satisfaction. His mane bristled as she patted his neck, wise eyes looking sideways at her as he turned his head.

“You think you’re glad to get going, again? Imagine how I feel?” the amateur asked of him. Her back ached from the mattress which had been both too soft and too hard. Everything else ached from the sun up to sunset training she’d been roped into by every member of the party. Almost like they’d planned it, as soon as one torturer had left, the next had come, and on an on it had gone. “You just stood around all day and ate hay. I had to work.”

Unimpressed, the stallion shook his head and fell into step in the convoy.

Around them, a town. Low and flat like most of those along the shoreline for the last several days. Squat, sturdy buildings built of rough logs notched and stacked, sealed with mud and straw. Apart from the simple wood and earth stockade, the tallest structure in sight were a long set of gallows.

Very worn looking gallows.

Passed a battered looking gate, also of wood, and off into the world beyond. Small plots of land, fenced for sheep, goats, or grain. Fertile enough looking soil. Not the black earth of home, but a clayish brown, chock full of tiny stones and river pebbles. Same crops, too, only with an apparent abundance of rye instead of wheat. Also, a distinct lack of cows. And horses. Plenty of donkeys, though.

“Looks like the Legions have been through,” Bolin said, riding up from unsticking one of the mules. “Good thing we got all our provisions, huh?”

Looking up from the smaller sketching of the area he had made, Mako surveyed the first fork and gave a, “Yep,” that meant he likely hadn’t heard the question. With a glance to the hooded Korra riding to his side, her friend tugged the reins left, taking them on the northern route.

“I do hope they behaved themselves better than during the war,” Opal hummed, fanning herself despite the balmy chill in the air. Habit, likely. Almost every time the two of them had spoken, the Wind mage had ended up flicking out one of her collection and putting it to use. “I don’t think I’ve ever seen such blatant thievery in my life. Everything that wasn’t nailed down or able to run away stuffed into someone’s sack. Disgraceful.”

Bolin shied away from her a little at that, horse in all. Upon his valiant (and very vocal) return, the young man had made quite the fuss about all the trinkets he’d ‘acquired’. “Yeah… Real scumbags.”

“Says the woman whose horse came from a knight’s stables, clothes from a Lady’s bedsheets, spear from your teacher’s armory, and boots from me,” the Metalshaper teased, poking holes in logic as she actually poked her partner, fighting off her swipes in the process. “Now, before you start throwing stones, my dear, remind me how much gold you owe me? Is it five-hundred Crowns, or six? I don’t remember.”

“Shut up, shut up, shut up!” the younger woman demanded, next trying to gag her friend with an over-embroidered kerchief. When that didn’t work, a stiff jab aimed at her jaw, nearly toppling her from the saddle in the attempt, only to be caught by her intended target. “That’s different!”

The older woman laughed and asked, “Is it?”

Desperately, Opal looked to Asami and her sibling in turn for support. Finding nothing but shy looks and shrugs, she turned back to Kuvira, fuming from the ears. “Yes.”

Off she rode, to the front of the pack, but not before broadly sweeping her arm through the space between herself and the flirt. Fan and sleeve filled with captured wind, summoning a cone of tempest strong enough to distort the air into a shimmering mirage. With a rushing roar that drowned out everyone’s exclamations, her magic struck, blasting woman and pack clear of the saddle that carried them.

As well as levelling a good five rows of young rye.

Stunned and blinking, the Alchemist turned to see a distinctly amused looking Kuvira blow a kiss at the back of her assaulter. “You’re just mad because I’m right!” she called, dusting off her legs and swinging herself back up without losing her smile.

Quite a persistent smile, it was. Ever shifting and changing. Little smirks, broad grins, seductive things across the dinner table. Always smiling. But rarely in her eyes. There, something else ever lurked.

“Laughing boy, talk to me,” she barked, having dragged the three of them well back from the rest as her mount winnied and panicked for a while, refusing to close the distance with Opal. “You said you were an Earth Mage, right? Haven’t seen you do your work, yet, so I’m trusting you’re some kind of competent. Who’d you learn from?”

Cheerful thing that he was, Bolin ignored the not so subtle insult and cut right to the quick, “Nobody. Not really. Picked things up wherever and whenever I could. I’m a ‘learn as you go’ kinda guy. Ended up as a bit of a hodgepodge, but I can hold my own.”

“Good to hear,” Kuvira said, her smile taking on an aggressive quality, “Hey, we should have a go when we bed down.”

“A… fight?”

“Yeah,” the woman nodded, lips almost a snarl with how wild her grin had gotten, “What do you say? We can see which is better: my fancy book learning, or your hands on experience.” She reached over, slapping the younger adventurer on the back. Just, a little too hard to be friendly. “Come on, it’ll be fun! We can even place bets on who wins.”

When he looked back, Bolin’s face was paler than a ghost. His lips mouthed, “Help me.”

“Don’t worry,” Asami said back, flashing him a sisterly smile, “I’m betting everything on you. Don’t let me down, or I might have to mortgage your house.”

It was one of the hardest things in Asami’s life to not die of laughter as he’d spurred himself into a gallop, shouting at the top of his lungs for his brother. “Mako! Mako!!!” Gods, she wanted to cry. Holding herself to a snicker through gritted teeth, thumbing moisture from her eyes, she prayed that he would never change.

Trees loomed ahead. Half again as tall as those further south, twice that of the coast. Denser, too. Leaves darker and thinner. A huge wall of near black foliage stretched out as far as the eye could see along the horizon, only broken by the lonely road the found themselves on.

“Freaky,” Kuvira said, grin lowered to an even smirk, “Just freaky. Look at ‘em all.”

Scanning, and finding nothing, Asami asked, “The trees?”

“Yeah, the damn trees,” the woman confirmed as they fell under their shadow. Her hand fell to the metal bar at her waist, knuckles going white around it. “The dwarves have a name for this forest: Ba’al mun Grund. It means something like ‘Heart of Fertility’. And they fear it, which is saying something, let me tell you. Bastards don’t spook easy, let alone at a bunch of kindling.”

“But... it’s a forest.”

“Yes. A magical forest.”

The potion-maker snorted. Ridiculous! “Nice try! I might be new to this line of work, but even I know there’s no such thing as a ‘magical forest’. What’s next? A snipe hu-”

Running up her spine, a prickling sensation. Like she’s being watched, but on a grander scale. The trees had eyes. Invisible, glaring, unblinking eyes that looked out in all directions. Narrowed in suspicion at their intrusion. Even angry. Furious.

Kuvira’s smile perked, teasing and superior. “Told you so. If it weren’t for this payday, I’d never be caught dead here.”

“I can see why.”

However, unnerving as the place felt for her, the animals seemed unaffected. In fact, Naga took great delight in their surroundings, running off after a family of squirrels after a dismissive wave from Korra. The great white dog bounded off into the undergrowth, tail wagging wildly. Happier looking even than when she’d gotten to munch that butcher’s bone to nothing.

It felt odd. Everything did.

But also strangely familiar. The bows were different, and the leaves, but the feeling of oppression tickled something in recent memory.

A boy…

A bandit…

The tree…

“I read in a book once, that if a tree grows old enough, it begins to think,” the Alchemist said, searching among the thousands for a grander trunk than the others. “The older it gets, the wiser it gets, until it becomes and elder of the forest. But sometimes their hearts rot. They become bitter and cruel, lashing out at anything they see as a threat. I thought it was a story, but-”

Someone yawned. Not an actual one, but a cartoonish exaggeration. “Has anyone ever told you that you’re, like, really fucking wordy?” the lover of women asked, quirking up an eyebrow, “Also, talking about the ancient murder trees while we’re probably surrounded by them? Poor form.”

The blush on her cheeks was instant, as was the instinct to look away. “Sorry. I, uh, I tend to ramble when I’m…” Always.

“Ah, don’t worry about it,” Kuvira dismissed with a wave, “Of all the personality flaws I’ve come across while roving, it’s in about the bottom five, in terms of annoying me. Besides, you should have seen that one when she was younger.” Her finger pointed squarely at Opal’s back as she chatted away with an animate Bolin. “Oh, she’d talk your ear off about the dumbest shite, then pick it up off the ground and keep talking after you left. It was the cutest damn thing. That, and the curly pigtails.”

Wait, so it's wrong for me to prattle, but fine for you? Okay.

Asami hummed, doing her damnedest to keep the image of Korra with her hair done up like some Ladyling brat out of her mind. Or, at least at the very edge of it. Fighting her imagination had become a losing battle, of late. Letting it wander in the background just made life easier, in the long run, as well as keeping the more lurid thoughts at bay entirely.

Again, for the most part.

She sighed, watching the birds and bunnies frolic for a while. Rabbits munched on wild mustard and ferns, as finches and sparrows warred over seeds. But, as ever, she found her gaze searching the road for a dark-green cloak and leather quiver.

Of course, when she found her, the Ranger was bickering with the Pyromancer, physically tugging the map from his hand and shouting, “No, you're wrong!”

Deep breaths.

It's not my job to stop them. She promised not to kill him.

They each took a swipe and both missed by less than a hair, before the road itself pulled them apart. Or, well, Bolin pulled them apart by moving the road. He sent a ten-foot spire of stone and earth roaring up from the shivering earth with a rumble, almost snapping his brother's arm like a twig. “Enough!” he snapped, very unlike him, fist unclenching so the blemish crumbled to a loose mound of soil, “Can we, please, just enjoy the nature? Please!?”

“Fine,” Mako muttered, now close enough to hear, while the archer narrowed her fiery blue eyes and spurred away.

Over the sound of hammering hooves, her voice carried, crisp and cold as a winter storm. “I'll go scout ahead, if there are no objections from our glorious leader,” Korra growled into what was most likely an equally venomous face. “ Don't leave the road. Period.”

Again, Asami sighed, briefly wondering what to do about the two of them. Of course, just a moment later she was reminded it was pointless endeavor. The two of them seemed destined to fight about everything. Always. Very loudly. Each time they'd spoken more than a few words between them, some manner of disagreement ensued.

In all honesty to herself, the Alchemist thought they only did so for the show of not backing down. Who would really get that angry over a couple turns?

“Damn, that's one feisty woman,” Kuvira whistled quietly, “Remind me not to piss her off.”

“Yeah.”

Except, she really wasn't. Just stubborn. Very, very set in her ways. This elaborate routine of a life Asami slowly found herself unraveling. How she sharpened her blades every morning. All of them. The way she pushed her food around a plate, picking out everything remotely offensive to her palate. When she spoke in her sleep, fingers tight in her blanket, mouthing silent words to no one. Her letter. The one she read every still moment and spent hours scribbling a reply to, one word at a time, only to throw it out and start again.

“Still, under that prickly personality of hers, lady's got a smoking bod,” the woman carried on softly, only half listened to by the amateur. “I mean, just look at her. Way she moves, I bet there's not an ounce of fat on her where it isn't meant to be, eh?”

“Yeah.”

Leaned closer, now, hand gripped to the horn to keep from toppling over. But Asami's eyes were a thousand miles away, seeing that which kept her up at night, restless and fidgeting. “And those eyes, am I right? You ever seen something that blue before?” Kuvira asked in a husky tone that made even a distracted shopkeep go pink. “Way they look right through you. It could drive a girl wild. Make her want to...”

Asami swallowed, “Yeah...”

Then, something snapped. Two and two added together in her head and made four. She spun, their green eyes met at only inches. Hers wide with shock at what she'd been tricked to say, the other's smug with self-satisfaction.

“I knew it.”

“Knew what!?”

“Shhh,” the Metalshaper hushed, pressing a finger over her devilish smile, “Careful, hot stuff, people are listening. They might get the wrong idea.”

Wrong idea?

What idea? I have no idea!

Under her gaze, the potion-maker sunk in upon herself. As close to a little ball as she could manage on Bucephalus's swaying back, much to the horse's displeasure. But, snort as he had, Asami weathered it so her hair might fall as a curtain to hide her flame red cheeks. “You chased them off on purpose?” she guessed at just a breath.

“Mmhm,” Kuvira hummed, face returned to the road to blow a kiss at a peaking Opal. For her troubles, she received rather rude gesture and an eyeroll, which her smile swallowed whole. “Figured you might want to talk with a non-judgmental stranger about stuff.”

“Not really...”

“Oh?”

“Sorry, but I think this is more of a 'me' thing to figure out. Not that I don't trust your expertise on the subject.” The amateur risked herself a small victory with the jab. And a smile.

“Jokes! The rookie has jokes, does she? Here I go and spend all my Opal points for the day, making myself available for a deep, emotional conversation about feelings and shit, and you just shoot a wisecrack,” the flirt said with feigned offense. There's a sound like spilled mercury, and something poked Asami on the arm. “But, I do mean it. If you ever need to talk, or advice… someone to practice with.”

Narrowed, pestered eyes snapped over to the object poking her in the side. A long, thin rod of steel, tipped by a tiny hand and fingers. “Has anyone ever told you that you're an asshole?” Asami growled, not quite angry, but getting there.

“Only everyone I've ever met,” the woman declared with pride, “Except the ones I've fucked.”

Of course.

The path branched, again. One side drowned by drifts of autumn leaves, despite the first whiff of summer on the horizon. The other was flanked by a skeletal ribcage of tangled dead branches. Neither looked particularly welcoming to the amateur, let alone with Naga growling away as she was.

Back from the forest, paws dark with soil, snout plastered with leaves, hackles pulled back into a vicious snarl. Up to now, Asami had never been on the receiving end of the massive hound's wrath, and even being on the periphery of it made her legs tremor.

Even unshakeable Bucky shied away, while Kuvira's mare and the donkeys bleated in fear. They fought to break ranks with the first frothing bark. Ropes strained, knots started to slip, heads turned over shoulders to see the source of the commotion. And in those friendly puppydog eyes, an almost human anger could be seen.

The woman groaned, “Familiars. You're all the same, aren't you?”

Another growl, this one even deeper and more savage than those before. Followed by a bark that made the Alchemist's skin crawl.

“I get the point, friend,” she said, putting up her hands in surrender. Naga softened an inch, then more under the weight of that endless smile. “Tell you what, you refrain from tearing my arm off, and I'll make sure you get that ham bone when we're done with it.”

Now that got the dog excited.

From one second to the next, she was an entirely different animal. Big floppy tongue lolled out of her mouth, her face having lit up like the Carnival of Lights. Her barks went from menacing to begging as she bounded alongside them with the same energy she'd given to chasing the local woodland creatures.

Her joy was a comfort to the disrupted thoughts of Asami. Something to focus on to avoid the spiral of inner monologues and arguments.

“How long do you think we'll go today?”

“Until dark, probably,” Kuvira said with a shrug. “Depends on what dot on the map your buddy ends up wanting us to hold up at, and whether everything goes well. Which it never fucking does, to be honest.”

“Okay.”

That would mean missing a hot lunch for the first day in a while. Her stomach rebelled at the thought, while the rest of her rebelled at other things. Things she wanted to put off, to evening or later. Preferably until she returned to her little shop, her boring town, and her quiet Ranger-free life. When she could happily debate such things with Mother over tea and finger sandwiches.

And have a room for herself to scream in.

They took soon took up a rotation or who was where in the group. Members drifted forwards and back depending on who wished to speak to whom. Or didn't want to.

Asami drifted about, sharing words with old friends and new, enjoying the freshness of the air. Opal and Bolin rambled on to each other with increasingly fantastical stories, only to be undercut in the last moments by one that new better. Meanwhile, Kuvira debated with Mako the finer points of slaying all manner of nightmarish beasts. Primarily through the rather vivid description of stabbing very sharp into a particular weak point, or the clever use of ingenious spells.

She'd never known there were so many ways to kill a Lesser Kobold, or that it was so common an Adventurer's pastime. Burning, bludgeoning, crushing, cutting, stabbing, trapping, tricking, and poisoning, to name a few. Plenty of fuel for that night's nightmares.

Close to midday, they stopped by a cool stream to rest and water the horses. Ate a meal of tack, dried apples, and jerky. Filling, if not very satisfying to the tastebuds. Waterskins were filled, emptied, and filled again. Salt was also dolled out to all, at her insistence. Then back on the move before the blood could get back to her toes.

Each turn they took, the forest felt more alien and unfriendly. Wind rustled the canopy many feet above, but none broke through to break the stagnant stillness of the air.

Some trees here had faces. Not hallucinations, but actual, human faces. Also dwarven, and even what must be elvish. A few she couldn't recognize, square jawed and brutal looking, others long-nosed and feral. Orcs and Goblins, according to her brothers.

“This place is giving me the creeps, bro,” Bolin quivered, hand playing with his warhammer.

His elder nodded, summoning mystic fire to his fingertips. A shriek ripped through the world. A disembodied howl that made Asami's blood run cold and the sky go dark. “Damnit. She was right,” the man said, dousing the flame, “Looks like it's going to be a cold night. Hope you all brought yourselves an extra blanket.”

“Always,” Opal hummed, fanning them all, “And I have extras, if anyone needs one.”

“Fucking hoarder,” her friend laughed.

“Insufferable, sapphic lout.”

“Hey, I'm not a lout,” the Metalshaper protested, grin pulled close to nothing as her hand hovered on her weapon. “Don't you go smearing my stellar public reputation, Op. I happen to be an outstanding member of the community.”

The wind mage smirked, “One with bounties in three counties.”

“That's your fault.”

“No, it's-”

“Hold up,” the Pyromancer said over them, holding up a hand. In his other, he held his precious parchment, flicking amber eyes to it and back to the latest crossroads. “Get the horses turned around. We went the wrong way.”

“Where?” his brother asked, leaning over to see for himself.

“I don't know.”

Asami blinked, seeing through her oldest and closest friend a fraction of a second faster than the others. “Wait… we're lost! How are we lost!?”

“You have a fucking map!” Kuvira piled on, losing her smile for the first time that day.

A hand shot out to stop her, clad in white silk and sparking patterns. With a look Opal disarmed her companion and said to her, “I'm sure Mr. Mako will have us on the right path, shortly. Getting excited for no reason isn't going to help anyone. Let's all just take a deep breath and think for a moment. Where could we have gotten turned around?”

“Can't have been far back, right?” Bolin agreed, likely splitting his loyalties halfway between protecting Mako and appeasing his new desires flame. “Just a turn or two.”

Then Asami saw it. The way her friend's shoulders tense, a slight twitch of his eye. Unmistakable signs of pressure, and worse. Lies. He has no idea where we are. He didn't know and didn't tell anyone. You stupid, pig-headed moron!

We're going to die here!

Oh, Gods, she wished Korra were there. For the Ranger would have known the way. Secret paths, she had said. Elven routes through this hateful maze. But she'd been ignored, because of course she had been. The man was too stubborn to listen, too spiteful for his own good, and for no good reason.

Looking down the paths, the potion-maker hoped beyond hope to see that green cloak appear around a bend. Blue gems glistening with confidence and smugness, she would lead them from this place. And Asami would…

Bark!

Naga sounded at her heel.

“Shush, girl,” she quieted, heart racing a thousand beats a minute, “I'll feed you in a bit.”

Two more barks, sharp and urgent. When she was ignored, teeth nipped at the amateur’s ankle, then pulled roughly on the toe of her boot.

Unable to shake the insistent pup, she sharply asked, “What is it?”

With her nose, the dog pointed down the right path. Up she looked, whining, then pointed again and walked a few steps. Another bark later and the hound sprinted full speed down the road, prompting Asami to steer Bucephalus after her at a trot.

“Where are you going?!”

“After the only person that has any idea where they're going!” she shouted at their leader, picking up speed to keep pace with Naga. Wind whipped through her hair, wicking sweat into the cool air of the forest. Only at the curves and turns did the great white dog slow to check if she still followed, with the Alchemist doing much the same for the rest of her party.“Gods, I hope you know where you're going.”

At the very least, she seemed to. Not once did her confidence falter, even as the road became a track, and then a footpath.

Branches struck and scratched Asami as she rode, sometimes nearly toppling her from the saddle. As the hooves carrying her beat into a gallop the fanciful part of her brain couldn't help but imagine herself a gallant knight charging into battle, or a messenger ferrying the King's seal on some secret mission. Both of which were more appealing than the truth.

She had trusted a hyperactive dog to lead her to safety and not run after a ferret.

Fantasy faded at a glimmer of sunlight. So did that dreaded stillness. The hound slowed, then spun and doubled back with a great smile and a tail that wagged fiercely as she barked. Above the snow-white form, the first break in miles of trees. Something that made the amateur's instincts tickle.

Her hand slid to grip the blade at her waist as the other pulled the cork from her waterskin. Magic smoldered in the pit of her stomach, coiled and ready to strike.

“About time,” a most welcome voice said, with a healthy dose of snark. “Good girl, Naga.”

About time? Is she really- I don't even care. Thank the Gods! “Korra!” Asami shouted, even happier to see the Ranger than she thought she would be. “The map. We were following the map and got lost. Then Naga started barking, and she ran off, and I followed her, and now I'm here, with you, and-”

“Yes, that is exactly everything that happened in the last fifteen minutes,” Kuvira voiced from behind her, over the sound of winded horses and adventurers. “Excellent report, love. We'll make a scout of you, yet.”

A lip curled on the archer's face, giving her the look of a child face with their least favorite vegetable. “Oh, you're here.”

“Don't sound so disappointed.”

“Maybe I am.”

“Yes, yes. We all hate each other equally,” Opal interrupted, nimbly guiding herself through all of them to take center stage in the small opening. At once she summoned up a pair of her largest fans and began working them in unison. “More importantly, however, is the fact our very important quest map appears to be wrong.”

Next, Mako, “It's not wrong. The damn paths have moved. We've been going east for over and hour when the main road should go due north.”

“You're right,” Korra said, but not without making a face that made it perfectly clear she wished he wasn't. “Most of the offshoots are new. Short, too. Fresh timber piles at the ends of them. Not more than a few weeks old, and there are fresh tracks everywhere. Lots of them.”

Tracks.

Every back went straight, and Asami saw more than a few hands join hers on weapons.

“What kind of tracks?” Mako asked, gaze burning into the Ranger.

The woman's hand snuck into a pouch, drawing out a crudely made thing halfway between a knife and an axehead. She tossed it to the Pyromancer, face draining of passions in a moment. “Goblins. Raiding party, by the look of things, probably led by an Orc band. I counted forty sets, maybe a few more. And they're bold. Not bothering to cover up their camps once they've moved on, cutting away at the old growth.”

“In other words, a bad time,” the Metalshaper said, turning her eye to Opal a few horse lengths away. When she turned back, her smile was gone. “We should go back.”

“We can't,” Bolin said, simply.

“Why? Because his map says we can't?” the woman demanded of him, almost immediately softening her tone. “Look, I'm all for bashing a few green-skin heads, believe me. But we're in the middle of nowhere, we've got barely any idea where we are, and most of our supplies is on the back of those mules, so we can't run much more before they give out.”

Reacting just as fast as always, the younger sibling provided a quick answer. “If the map is wrong, we'll have the same problems going out as coming in. That means spending a night in the open with a raiding party marching about. Our best bet is to move forwards until we reach the logging camp.”

“The nearest camp would be three hours away, if we'd gone the right way,” Korra deadpanned, hardened expression pointed right at Mako's face. “We didn't.”

“I agree with Bolin,” Opal said, drawing her line in the sand, “We keep going.”

“Then I say back,” Kuvira growled, making moves to put herself between the Wind-mage and the path ahead. “Make for at least the main road, try to get our bearings. We can dig in for the night with double watches. Come first light, we make another go.”

She liked none of it. Go forward, fall back, it all sounded the same to Asami's ears. Perhaps she just lacked some tidbit of information the others possessed, but both paths seemed equally poor options. Forge ahead into the shadowy unknown and hope for the best? Stumble back into the maze they'd only just escaped?

Those were both death sentences, right?

Green eyes turned to her tutor, begging for a sign. Then to her brother for the same. Anything. From them she wanted anything. Argument, agreement, discussion. Not silence. Not his brooding or her stoicism.

“Say something!?”

A hand shot over her lips, shocked the words had tumbled forth so easily.

To her luck, no one laughed or sneered. In fact, the two youngest members of the party joined her gaze, albeit with less open desperation in their expressions.

They had enough pride to hide their anxiety behind other emotions, interest in one, hope in the other. It was freeing not to have that, in a way. The need to mask the fact she had no fucking clue what to do. “Come on, one of you has to have an idea, right?” Asami asked, taking back some of her composure. “We can't go back, we can't follow the map, what else is there?”

It took a second, but then the man said, “Trees.”

“Trees?” all but one of the others asked.

“You want to have the forest chase us out?” the Ranger chuckled in amusement. “I heard you cast that spell, back there. Pretty sure everyone in twenty miles did. If we start angering the Old Growth, it will send stuff after us. Stuff a lot more dangerous than a pack of Goblins.”

He nodded, “I know that, but I'm out of other ideas, right now. The Orcs have hacked all these dead ends for just this reason, though. If we stay, they'll find us.”

“So let's find them.”

Find them? Had she heard that right? “Um, sorry. I thought we didn't want them to find us?”

“We don't.”

Again, everyone but Korra agreed with this. But she had finally started to show a little of that spark she saved only for rubbing Mako's nose in things. “Actually, we do,” the archer said, sliding her bow into her hand, “If we catch one, we can have them lead us out. Besides, I doubt there's still forty left by now.”

“And why's that?” the Pyromancer asked, resigned to take his licks.

“I haven't seen a sign from any predators larger than a badger since we've been here. Which means they're all off doing something else.” Gods, her smile was both terrifying and beautiful. A kind of predatory thing of the hunter primed for the kill.

“Like hunting green-skins,” Kuvira hummed.

Her companion leaned in and asked the question on the tip of Asami's tongue. “And what does that mean, exactly?”

“It means the biggest, meanest, nastiest beasts in the forest will be following them around,” a rather distressed looking Bolin replied, flicking looks into every shadow. “Either hunting them, or being-”

A fresh screech cut him off, only this one had a body to match. Bounding through the trees, feathers and fur of scarlet and gold. Wings flapped and an animal larger than any steer or stallion took flight. Talons the size of meat hooks, a beak large enough for the Alchemist's entire head to fit inside, as well as likely her neck and one shoulder. Hind legs of a powerful feline,, rippling with layers and layers of muscle.

“Gryphon!” Mako bellowed, summoning blade and flame to his fingers and spurring forwards without hesitation.

Just as the rest of them did the same, arming themselves quick as possible, fresh figures appeared from the exact opposite side of their speck of sunshine. A deep voice roared from the largest among them, perhaps a head taller than any human present, “MAN-SWINE!!!”

Well, her mind had just enough time to think as she wheeled that direction, sword in hand and water spilling into her palm, This is now the worst day of my life.

Chapter Text

It was crowded, which suited the man just fine. When a few dozen people came and went every hour, nobody would take the time to notice one person sat at a lonely table in the darkest corner.

Before him, his sixth bottle of the day.

Or was it fifth?

Seventh?

What did it matter? The days all blurred together, anyways. One drunken binge of self-pity just ran into the next. Glass after glass, bottle after bottle, day after day, until he could no longer feel the ache in his empty orbit, nor notice the empty chairs on either side.

“To John,” he toasted himself, not entirely sure if there had been a John.

There must have been. There were a thousand Johns.

Whether he existed or not, the man had a toast of his very own. After that a second, a third. Fuck it, an entire bottle. Drink to John and all the rest. The ones he'd called friends and those whose names he hadn't bothered to learn. Bandits and cutthroats and scum, the lot of them. Men and women that took what they wanted, letting the blood of any who'd gotten in their way.

Good people. His kind of people.

“To… Jeong.” Jet knew there'd been one of those. A spindly man with a leathery hide and fondness for knives and juggling anything that laid about for too long.

Whiskey burned the young man's throat, raw and swollen from hundreds of similar drinks that last fortnight. It bubbled in his empty stomach, but the meager meal of the morning still laid out was even more revolting to his senses.

Damn her.

In his missing eye, he saw her. That witch. That monster. She carved men like most did a roast, smote them with her unholy gifts. It hadn't been a fight, it had been a slaughter. Some of the most violent people in the Kingdom had died without putting up so much as meager resistance against those flashing silver daggers.

A hand slid over the blackened bandage bound taut over half his face.

If he closed the one he had left, the other opened to the moment it had been lost. The pain, the blood, the blackness of eternal night. The pity on the lamb's face.

Gods, that had been worse than all the rest.

“It will hurt quite a bit, I'm afraid,” she had said. At the time he'd thought it a desire. But by the time he'd roused himself enough to make the long crawl to camp, his mind had picked away the thin glaze of harness on that pretty face.

Weak.

She wouldn't live long in this world, given half the chance. Her empathy would be the death of her. So would the carelessness of the Freak.

Over and over, countless times, Jet had plotted his revenge by the second. Gathering up as many of the hardest men he could find, paid for with every coin his gang had ever looted, and picking up the hunt. Every favor ever earned would be called in. To harry the party, thwart them at their goal. Drag out their suffering for weeks. They'd starve in the wastes, so far away from help no one would ever find their bodies.

What the bandit wasn't sure of was what to do with them, afterward.

Kill them there?

Too fast. Too painless. His life had died of a thousand cuts, and so should theirs.

Torture them?

Not his style. Death was an inevitable part of his business, but a business it was. Thieving had its rules, so far as Jet was concerned, but his opinions on the matter waxed and waned with the level of his pain and sobriety. Papa had always been a cruel drunk. Perhaps the only thing he'd passed on to all his spawn.

Aland?

There was always more room in the mines for fresh bodies to fill. Foreign slaves worked as well as domestic criminals in that regard. But the trip would be long, the payoff minimal, and even his unending anger couldn't blind him of what would happen to the women folk.

He spat, wiped his dry lips on the ragged edge of a cuff. “Why the fuck should I care?” the young man grumbled to himself. “I'll just gut the lot of them and be done with it.”

After he’d taken an eye for an eye from each of them

Bam!

A fresh bottle slammed down across from him, sending a foot into the air with shock. When he looked up, for a tiny moment, his blood ran cold as ice. Blue eyes, that same shade, just as empty of emotion as the Freak's.

The rest of the face, however, was not nearly so familiar.

Paler than the monster's skin, dotted with clusters of freckles under either eye. Fair-faced and rounded cheeks, but with a slight angle to the jaw that wasn't entirely human.

An elf? The fuck's an elf doing all the way out here?

Her tawny hair was cut short and rough, clumped in thick bands by sweat and muck. Just behind her bangs where the pointed tips of her knife-like ears. In them she wore an odd collection of little rings, no two alike, save for all being roughly the same size. And yet, these too were wrong. The tip a joint length short and less pointed than the norm.

A mule.

“What do you want?”

“You looked like you could use a drink,” she said in a high, almost childish, voice.

Jet smiled and lifted a fresh rum from the chair beside him, then slammed it on the table with equal force as she had. “I've got plenty of drinks, friend. What I don't have is time for Half-Elf imps to interrupt my personal thoughts. Now, either tell me what you want, or fuck off.”

The little woman's jaw set and her eyes blazed with anger his drunken self could only be amused by. It breathed deep and slow a moment, then said, “You ambushed a party on the Meleyeoke Road.”

“Maybe I did, maybe I didn't,” he smirked, reviling in even this slight power over the mutt, “What's it to you?”

One hand ducked away into her dark-green cloak, while the other remained firmly gripped around the neck of her bottle. “There's someone I'm looking for,” the elf stated in the most aloof and detached tone ever paired with a face so obviously desiring murder. “A woman. A few inches taller than me, brown hair, dark-skinned-”

Before she cold finish, Jet had both his hooks in hand. Drunk as he was, some things couldn't be ruined by misery and whiskey, his reflexes being one of them. The blades arced across the table between them, perfectly poised to slash the throat under that pretty face and vent her belly for good measure. His only thought was that it was a shame the one he would kill wasn't a pitying greenhorn or an abominable Aberrant.

What the-

Metal clanged in a flash of sparks.

She'd moved fast. Impossibly fast. Literally no one could be that quick, and yet.

The blade had come from under her cloak. Long, single-edged, and slightly curved in the elven style. Wicked sharp. The thing had cut so deep into his mild steel weapons that it had bound to them. And so skilled was the wielder that she had caught both swords with one.

“So, you have met her?” the half-breed guessed, acting as though nothing had happened. In fact, even her murderous glare had faded a sliver, though her eyes still glowed with fury.

He laughed.

He laughed because there was nothing else he could do, given how his outburst had failed to yield fruit. “If by met, you mean watched her kill everyone between her and that other lady she was traveling with, then yes,” the bandit told her. With some effort, and under the eye of every thug and off-duty guardsman in the place, he prized his blades from hers. “I take it the two of you have similarly unresolved business?”

“Something like that,” the she-elf said, showing a brief flash of emotion in her voice.

Bitterness?

Or maybe… scorn?

“Take a seat, then. We should talk.”

Slowly, as Jet threw his only weapons on the table and replaced them with a bottle, she joined him, although not in drink. Only when she sat did he realize how weathered and beaten up she looked. Slightly hollowed in the cheek, dark circles under her eyes.

“Where is she?”

“Right to business, I see,” he chuckled, taking a gulp of his swill. “Don't I get to ask why you're looking for her before I tell you that?”

“My reasons are my own. If you don't know, I'll find someone else that does.”

“Never said I didn't know.” Only that I didn't want to tell you. “Last I heard, they met with another party in the Capital, then went north via the river. Passed through four or five days back. Would have dealt with them myself, but I paid for the week. You know how it is. Probably gotten to wherever their going, by now.”

Light sprung to life in those cold, ruthless looking eyes across the table from him. Along with a hint of hesitation. Even hope, but that was likely the liquor talking. “You're sure?”

“Positive.”

Oh, if a look could tell a story, this woman's would fill a volume. At some point he'd heard elves felt emotion in a different way than humans. More intensely and deeply, but in a thousand more shades. Such that they could cycle through them in a heartbeat without knowing.

Apparently half-breeds work the same.

For a test, he asked, “You want to kill her, don't you?”

Angst, grief, pain, indecision, sadness, depression, determination, anger, and fury all flitted by like the colors of a pinwheel.

“Sorry, but that's not going to happen.” How he smiled at her impotent rage when it sent her nails white into the table. “Your friend, or whatever the fuck she is, killed almost everyone I cared about that weren't dead already. I don't know what she did to you , and I don't care. The bitch is mine until I carve her eye out like she did mine, whatever your name is. Now, fuck off back to your land of trees and daffodils and let me finish my drink in peace.”

The room went quiet, despite the renewed clamor of the other patrons. That pretty face had fallen to touch chin to chest, breaths deep and ragged. Just over those breaths, an unintelligible whisper.

“What was that?”

“There are no daffodils in Challeia,” It whispered in what seemed a trance, “Only east of the river and south of the mountains. It blooms earliest at the coast, and twice in the Marches.”

Jet smirked, impressed. Much as he'd wandered and raided, he hadn't known that. “Really?”

“Serra.”

“What?”

What the fuck is a Serra?

“That's my name,” she said, face rising to meet his. Gods, how had he ever seen it a pretty? Twisted and deformed by some emotion, or a mix of emotions, that his human mind couldn't hope to fathom it. “I thought I'd tell you before you die.”

Damn, I need- “Fucking, Half-Elf bitch!” He lunged for his blades, hoping to get them up for a parry. And he did manage it, by a hair, but it didn't even matter. No matter how fast his reflexes, her were more so, and her sword sharper. It cut through his just as easy as the Aberrant had his underlings, and slit his neck like he'd tried to do to hers.

As Jet grasped as his pulsing life, trying futilely to hold in the blood pouring out, he heard her say. “I was worried someone would find out you'd gotten away after I collected your bounty. Thank you for not wandering far, and for the information. I'll pay your tab on the way out.”

With a final gurgle for help, the bandit slumped to the floor and died.

Almost no one batted an eye.

Chapter Text

Over the sound of flapping wings and charging raiders, the thundering of horses hooves and scraping of steel from sheaths, one noise was louder in Asami’s ears than all the others. It was the pounding of her own heart. Beating fast and strong with fear and excitement as she charges headlong into battle. Hair whipped out behind her, held to the saddle by tightly clamped knees.

Ahead, a horde of unknown size. Darting through the trees, howling savage calls of battle and invocations of dark tribal gods, this small army of black, grey, and green. Spears with crude tips of blackened wood, axes battered out of any metal they could find. Some, mainly the largest or ugliest among them, wielded swords of one kind or another. Made by enslaved blacksmiths or Orcish warcrafters, or looted off the corpse of a slain foe.

“Ge’ away from my Griffun!” the largest and ugliest of them bellowed in his broken Imperial, black hair and ash-colored slicked with red warpaint. “Tha’s my trophy!”

Around him, smaller warriors hoot and holler their ascent.

Goblins.

Ever trampled underlings of their race. Hooked noses and bent spines from years of cowering in the foulest hovels of what the species as a whole called civilization. Wide, yellowed, bloodshot eyes attuned to the low lights of mineshafts and abandoned ruins. Skeletal from constant starvation.

When their warlord cracks a whip, these smaller fodder came surging forth as a writhing mass of gnashing teeth, pointed nails, and equally crude weapons and armor. Some fell and were trampled by their fellows in the rush to be first into combat, others shoving the more eager in front of themselves as living shields. Screeching and sobbing and howling, the Goblins charged.

An arrow lands among them, piercing a goblin wielding an ornate halberd’s eye and cracking into an explosion a moment later. Slicing feathers of magic and jagged shards of helmet cut those on each side to ribbons.

“Nice shot!” Kuvira cackled, throwing herself from her mount and slamming the ground with a swirling mass of metal.

A roar like the ending of the world erupted from the spot as cracks sped ahead faster than even Bucephalus could gallop. With feet planted firm in the forest soil, the woman rose herself from her landing crouch, bringing the earth with her. Sharpened spires slithering with molten mercury impale half a dozen goblins, falling to crush another few beneath the stone and bodies. And as they wail and scream in terror, the Metalshaper crafts a pair of blades to meet those she had missed with magic.

The Alchemist’s first blow isn’t nearly as spectacular as either of those. Mainly because it isn’t she who delivers it. Rather, Bucky rode over a pair of ax-wielding orclings of his own volition. They bounced of his chest and fell to the ground to breathlessly cower from his crushing feet.

But, she’s ready for the next to challenge her. With a swipe, she parried a sloppy spear jab, slapping it aside with ease. As she rode passed, her sword glanced off the tribesman’s shoulder.

It cut deep.

For the couple seconds her eyes are fixed on the goblin, spinning away and clutching the fresh wound spurting near-black blood, she’s horrified. Even at a glance, Asami knew that he would die without the care of an expert healer. Which was effectively a death sentence.

Blinking, she’d brought herself back to the action at hand. Around her was clamor and violence. Great scythes and currents of air brought down greenskins and trees alike from where Opal stood, high above the ground on a shimmering violet platform. A perfect circle dancing with arcane symbols and spells in archaic language. The girl upon it swung her spear like a farmer harvesting her crop, casually culling any her more hands-on companion missed, occasionally summoning smaller copies of the first to deflect arrows sent in her direction.

Gouts of flame and the sound of buckling earth added a new level of distraction to focusing on the magic in her palm. Heat prickled the back of it, even through the swirl of liquid, making the scooping motion of her spell all the more welcome to escape.

Wave.

Asami threw the contents of her waterskin. It warped and extended under her influence, just as the river water had done, calling to it all the moisture from the air above and leaf litter below.

One goblin of the half score in the path of her wall of water had the foresight to leap out of the way, instead of attempting to barrel through it. He is fortunate. The others are not. Tossed like leaves in the breeze to be battered against stones and trees. Half don’t stir as they hit the ground, limbs broken or skulls cracked from some heavy impact. Perhaps the unluckiest slipped as he clambered up, only to catch an arrow in the throat.

Freeze! ” the amateur commanded, feeling her heart seize at the exertion.

Still, even with the effort being at the very edge of possible, her will won out. That thin sheen left in the wake of her attack started to condense into a plain of white crystal. It swallowed the dead and wounded, before reaching up to take hold of the survivors.

“Cold! Cold!” one yelled, scratching at the near inch of ice walking up his calf. In anger, helpless to stop the process before it reached his waist, it threw its axe directly for the caster.

Parry!

From nearly ten paces away, the momentum would almost be nothing by the time it reached her. All it would take was decent timing to bat the thing aside with her sword. So, she judged with the franticness of someone still bruised from several very enthusiastic teachers. With a swipe and a clang, the cleaver deflected to the dirt, landing silently in a bush.

“Well done,” praised Opal from on high, “Excellent form.”

Beating through her latest opponent, Kuvira added a hearty, “Don’t go hogging all of them, gorgeous! And that goes for both of you!”

An arrow whizzed less than an inch under her skin just a moment later, trailing a line of light as it pierced through two Goblins before landing in the chest of an Orc whose breastplate had been hammered from a frying pan. Soft as they sounded in her ear, Asami still heard Korra’s words, “You missed some.”

“On your left!” Bolin warned, just as a bloodied, burnt chimera came charging into view.

It cried a shrill screech, descending on a pair of Orcs with claws and beak. They came apart in moments, limb and guts sent flying as talons stronger than steel rip through armor like paper.

The Ranger spun, notching an arrow as Asami slashed down two more wretched, gaunt green-skins with a single stroke. One woman loosed as the other hurled a shard of ice towards a clump of archers, putting them to flight. While the enormous beast shrieked in pain, Bucephalus dodged through the trees like a bird in flight.

A bellow louder than any trumpet echoed in the forest, setting the hair on the Alchemist’s neck on end. “Wha’s wrong wi’ you knobs!?” demanded the ashy Orc, practically throwing a charcoal colored kinsman forward to do battle with a rapidly lecher , “You boys better gut ‘em, or I’ll gut you!”

“Roight, Boss!” another brute said, hefting a poleaxe with one hand and a morningstar with the other.

Something hit Asami like a sledgehammer.

Suddenly, she was in the air, thrown from the saddle by a solid strike from a heavy club. A tree branch ripped right from the trunk. The first crack she had felt, the second she heard. Just as her shoulder hit the ground. A pop followed by instant pain that had her eyes watering.

It didn’t stop her.

Barely slowed her, in fact.

Instinct had her rolling, using her mount’s momentum to bring feet under her. Korra would have accepted no less and she was far scarier than some nameless greenskin raider. Except the smile. His was crooked, full of broken teeth and piercings. Gruesome and brutal, just like the rest of him. A gnarled veteran of dozens of skirmishes. Pale scars stretch across a bare chest broad as a beer keg.

To her own surprise, and especially that of her foe, his appearance didn’t scare her. Rather, Asami lunged, sword-point first. Faster than she thought her body capable

Magic in her fingers called water to themselves. A swirling torrent manifested before the amateur’s off hand. Just in time to shred a makeshift club to splinters, liquid condensed into whizzing blades by willpower and the slightest movement. Then, she stabbed.

Sword met flesh between was she judged the third and fourth ribs. Black blood spurted from the wound as it sank effortlessly through muscle and sinew and into the heart buried inside.

One fell, another took its place.

The one she’d seen earlier, dual wielding his awkward duo of weapons. His right arm swung in the most telegraphed attack in the history of the world. Oversized poleaxe aimed to cleave Asami in half at the chest. Easily dodged by letting her knees bend and her spine arch back, just as his downward stroke was avoided with a single sidestep.

Sloppy, she criticized, as though she was any kind of expert.

But, the student couldn’t help feeling the master when shown so many openings at once. From stance to footwork, it was the work of a mindless barbarian, so used to hacking away until the enemy died it could do nothing else.

It might have worked. If it had been dark. If she had been more wounded than she was. If she had been a tree . A very slow tree, at that.

Asami was none of those things.

With one foot, she planted herself, lifting the other up and slamming it into the Orc’s knee. There was a sickening crack as bone shattered from the carefully aimed attack. Unable to bend to the side, ligaments tore, cartilage burst, and the kneecap exploded. If ever her knowledge of anatomy were to make her vomit, this might be the moment. That or when she slid her family heirloom between the base of his skull and the top of the spine.

Painless death, or so Mother and all the books had said.

Not that she had time to dwell or debate that. “Asami, down!” called the Pyromancer, efficiently downing a pair of Goblins as Naga tackled a third. Heat singed the Alchemist’s back the moment before she threw herself to the ground.

Flames.

A howling stream of fire. Barely inches over where the woman sheltered in the shadow of a well-placed root, and right where she'd been standing.

It felt like her skin was boiling, tendrils of red licking down from the main column in an attempt to claim a victim. Mako shouted something she couldn't hear over the roar. So did the others, perhaps as unable to see her as she was them.

Panic had set in.

Logic and planning were replaced by desperation. Magic flowed outward from herself and demanded, no pled for any moisture in the air and soil get between Asami and immolation. Droplets rose and threw themselves against the wavering wall of death. Sizzling steam sprayed back in the frightened caster’s face, only to be solidified and hurled right back into that scarlet maw. It worked, barely, but the healer felt blisters spread across her skin.

The Alchemist tasted copper. More of it every second, the sight in her right eye slowly going pink as vessels burst within. In moments, she would either kill herself, or be burnt alive.

Help me…

Save me…

Someone!

A voice boomed. Like thunder against a mountainside, it made the world shake. “ Nihil! ” Reverberations shook Asami's very bones. Before her one good eye, ripples formed in the flames, the air, and the water that was her shield. Everything swayed to a will an order of magnitude stronger than her own.

It was not unlike being a child and having toys ripped from her hand by an elder. Unstoppable, irresistible, and inevitable.

Only, this was a sensation she had felt once before. In another forest, in another clearing, surrounded by a different enemy. Back when she'd have been content with lying in this fortuitous shelter until the battle was one for her.

Now, however, Asami felt compelled to rise and ready her blade. Even if she did so as slow as she'd once crawled from bed every morning. Her hands scrambled over charred, blackened leaf litter, using the tip of her blade as a crutch to heft a battered body upright. When she flicked it up to defend, her legs wobbled.

None challenged the exhausted amateur.

Orcs and Goblins alike fled before an all-consuming inferno. Whips of fire lashed out from wall of the same that waxed and waned from embers to taller than a building.

Right in the midst of this conflagration was a single greenskin that had stood firm. It had the hunched form and crooked nose of a lesser-Orcling, but wore elaborate warpaint on his face. Upon its head was the skull of a bull. Bleached bone and feathers of a hundred colors sewn into a leather cap. Clothing knitted like quilt, just as colorful as the headdress. And in one hand, a gnarled staff, topped with a burning human skull.

The Shaman chanted spells in his savage tongue. Hands waved and clawed at the fire, staff slammed to the forest in great showers of sparks.

Et potestatem habeo hic Maleficus !” rumbled the voice of the Ranger. Only, it wasn't. Beneath the familiar was an echo. A legion of speakers channeled through the one. While the Goblin frantically fought to regain control, Korra merely held her hands out before her. “ Abeamus hinc! Tu et omnia extrema tuorum !”

She spoke in words of magic. Commanded obedience in a language that Asami could barely utter a few words of, knowing seldom fewer than those. Each of her steps sent her foe back three, her presence enough to nearly compel the Alchemist to her knees.

Gods!

Can they all do this, or just her?

Suddenly, the fear-mongering stories made much more sense to the reluctant adventurer. For who in their right mind could see such power and not be scared by it?

Et potestatem habeo hic Maleficus !” repeated the echoed collection of voices. Smoothly, the archer raised her hands as though toying with marionettes. The fires rose with them, igniting trees and turning their trunks to ash in moments. As they fell, crushing numerous fleeing greenskins beneath them, so did her hands. From the inferno tore a wall of cremation, swallowing everything. “ ROGO FIDELIUM SANCTORUM !”

One blink saw the Shaman's staff shatter.

In the next, his bones had turned to dust on the breeze, along with everything else in fifty paces along the entire sunward horizon.

Not a moment later, Korra fell to her knees, hands blackened by the same flame she had wielded. Her face was blank, eyes glazed over. If Asami didn't know any better, she would have thought the woman was having a fit.

Instinct, along with other feelings, urged the healer to ply her craft. But the battle wasn't over yet. Though Mako stood triumphant atop the body of a charred and broken chimera, and the eccentric duo tossed taunts and insults between themselves as though victory was already in the past, Bolin still dueled viciously with a pair of surviving raiders.

His hand rose to catch the broadsword of a horribly burned warrior. Wards sparked as the young man grunted, swords readied to lay a slash across an unarmored belly. But this weapon was required for deflecting a blow from the more heavily armored of his enemies.

Black iron scale plates covered every inch of this beast's skin. Near as tall as the Chieftain, but with arms the size of Asami's thighs. Brutal, in how his fist crunched the joker's nose. His blade was of high make, crossguard etched with gold and gems, edge thin as a razor. Cunning, talented, finessed. Perhaps the exact opposite of the bare-chested, low-browed, berserker that shoved through to finish the job.

With a dose of effort that tore blistered skin, the greenhorn dove in to parry.

“Thanks, Sis!” her surrogate sibling smiled, summoning a spire that sent both Orcs tumbling away. The armored rolled back to a stance, the berserker howled and beat the ground with heavy fists. “Did you see that?!”

Asami dodged a savage lunge, “What?”

“Oh, come on! Don't even pretend you didn't see,” he tutted, very much imitating her cadence. “I bet this is why you two were acting weird, right?”

“Now is not the time!” And I haven't been acting weird. You have!

Both greenskins struck at the exact same moment, though likely not out of any manner coordination. These were brutish, violent, warlike creatures. Every text labeled them so. Even those that deemed Lesser Drakes and Shades worthy of some consideration. Fighting was a personal affair for them, and every slight demanded retribution.

The savage swung at Asami with the same frantic energy as all the others had done. Only he was faster, stronger, and more determined than all the others combined. “Man-swine! Stand still!” it demanded of her.

A request she had no inkling of complying with.

Doing her best to imitate the movements of her teacher, the amateur danced out of the way with a spin, using the motion to propel her own attack. It was met head on and batted aside with the ease one would swat a fly. As was the one that followed. Flicks, slashes, and short stabs all prove equally ineffectual. Each was absorbed by a flailing blade and roaring marauder. The one strike that got through was barely enough to scratch the creature's thick hide.

“Jump!”

She did, watching Bolin stomp the ground.

Desierunt !”

Ripples coursed through the surface and what was solid took on the consistency of porridge. Heavy feet sank into the surface which solidified the moment before her feet struck the ground.

It wasn't much of an opening. Both were sank to just over the ankle. Under a quarter minute for each to free themselves, feet ripped from under the soil and roots. Still, it was enough time to dart forward and lock blades, burying both points in the ground.

A great hand, big as her face reached over and gripped the Alchemist by the shoulder.

“Got you!”

What a horrid, lecherous grin. In it, every foul thought and disgusting urge was plain. So vile that it made every hair stand and every inch of skin crawl.

But as Asami's dwindling magic rushed into her palm, then beyond to the wrist of the greenskin as fingers gripped firm to it, the face turned to pained horror. What passed as a trap had been sprung. Without need for spells, the freshman Mage's nature flowed into foreign flesh and bone. Frost spread. Even after the connection between them was severed.

He howled in pain. Fought to scratch and beat the ice out of his limb.

“Witch! Witch!”

That's right.

Lechery turned to a begging simper as rosettes of ice began to spring from disparate part of that massive body. Every movement of the raider cracked and shattered with the same noise as fallen dishware. Blood leaked from cracks in frostbitten skin, freezing only moments later as the energy leeched life away in the most horrific way Asami had ever seen. As light faded from black-irised Orcish eyes, her own went wide at what she'd done, bile building in her throat.

So distracted was she that the sound of Bolin trading final, jaw cracking punches with his opponent was only a faint noise on the periphery of her senses. Only when he fell. Only as he shouted out a warning, sword slipping from his hand as he did so, did she move.

Her arm lashed out with everything, startled. Not even aimed. Just movement and magic.

And something curious happened.

It wasn't water, or ice, or even steam that gathered along the edge of her blade as it glowed with a light stronger than the fetish. Rather, it was a crackling, chirping energy. Little fingers of light that grew and arced back on themselves. Some flickered and died. Others made it as far Asami's forearm or the Orc's breastplate.

Lightning?

With the same resistance given by firm butter, her family blade passed right through the greenskin's trophy. Not to mention the finely protected arm holding it.

Another roar, this of pure fury.

“Die, human!”

Big fist, big punch. Both knocked her head silly.

Stars flashed before her eyes as the backhand blow of the first sent her spinning. It almost lifted the Alchemist off her feet. At least one tooth cracked under the force of the attack, with another two questionable. Just standing afterwards was a fresh trial of endurance.

There was a flash of steel. Twisting from his fallen position with dexterity that surprised his friend, Bolin buried a dagger deep into a tiny gap on the black hulk's flank.

“RAAAAAAGH!”

Steadied in this moment of relief, Asami launched herself off her back foot. The chirping of the sword reached a crescendo as it passed through iron, bone, and flesh. As his glowing eyes, lit by flames of hate, bored into the dazed look that stared back up at them, the champion's body charred inside its shell and turned to ash.

Moments later, an empty suit of armor fell to the ground. Along with an utterly exhausted Asami and a now inertly silent blade.

Silence.

No breeze.

No fire.

No sounds of battle.

Just blessed silence that let her hear just how loudly a heartbeat could thunder against an eardrum. And in that moment, everything in her belly relieved itself on the ground between her hands. Vomit and bile brought up by exertion and shock.

She had killed. Against all the promises and oaths of her craft, the Alchemist had taken life freely, although in self defense.

“You okay, sis?” her younger sibling asked in a slur.

Looking over, she saw a rather deep cut on his arm, along with heavy bruises about the face. His jaw was crooked, eyes bloodshot and watery. Dislocated, not broken. That won't be pleasant for either of us. “Better off than you, by the looks of it,” she said, attempting a smile and getting half. “Mako? Korra? Can you-”

A hand rested on her shoulder, about scaring the woman out of her skin. For an instant she expected a knife to run along her throat, only to hear the Pyromancer's voice, “I'm here. She's fine, but hasn't moved or said a word.”

He seemed… tense.

But surprisingly less than was to be expected. His expression was tempered by the same relief Asami herself felt. That everyone was, miraculously, alive.

I'm alive?

Fingers lifted to touch her face. Blistered skin and raw patches that stung when grazed by the lightest pressure. Or even breeze. One that brought the to-be-expected smell of charred hair to her blood-dripping nostrils.

They then test along the side of her face most recently struck. Tender and already swollen. Hard from inflammation, instead of the softer give of a bruise. Perhaps a broken cheekbone. Not an orbit as her eyes could see, move, and blink just fine. But God's damn the pain whenever she tried to speak a word.

Pain meant life.

She had survived and could not believe it.

Likely the concussion talking. Blood sloshed inside a tender brain, going from that side to this as its bearer stood, stumbling along with the sways of balance.

“Thank you, God of Light,” the not at all devotee woman prayed, surveying the carnage from another vantage. Just as mangled as from the first. Bodies lay in countless twisted, unnatural positions all around. Some twitched with fading life. Others lay right where they fell, blank eyes fixed on their version of the Distant Shore.

It gave the Alchemist a slight appreciation for the scent of her own scarlet essence, that she might be spared the odor of copiously splattered black ichor. Smeared on root and trunks and clothing. Some slicked Asami's hand from one enemy or another, frantically wiped on a pant leg to hide the stain. As though any set of hands between them were clean of the stuff. Like one of them could judge her for slaying but a handful, with counts in the multiples of her own.

Not right , the healer told herself, stumbling to where the Ranger still rested on her knees, None of this is right.

Blade met flesh with a gurgling squelch.

Kuvira stood over a still goblin, holding the shaft of on of their crude spears. That smiling face was contorted to something else. Horrid and horrifying as she moved to the next. Buried the same point in it's frail, starved body and twisted until movement stopped.

“How did this happen?” she asked of no one, tripping over a corpse of the slain. With a deep gash in his shoulder, nobbled fingers clasped tight to the wound.

So fast.

Everything had happened so fast.

Asami'd acted purely on training, instinct, and intuition. Felt no real thrill in doing so. Only motion and survival. Without time for thought and reason, the blade had decided her fate. And it turned her now empty stomach.

The distance closed between the women. One uneven, shaky step at a time. A journey made in solitude. Her companions all set themselves to busy work. Bodies had to be stripped of supplies and valuables, after all. The horses and donkeys gathered and reloaded with anything cast off in the commotion of their flight or, in Bucephalus’s case, combat.

None offered help to the one that had saved her. Korra appeared to have spawned an invisible circle around herself. One that only the amateur could cross.

Or dared to.

When she was only steps away, her now two-time savior looked up with a gaze of hardened steel that stopped Asami in her tracks. Then, after a few flicks of the eye over what must have looked an awful sight, she softened. Vulnerable as she had been in those secluded hour in the ferry’s bowels.

“Are you-”

“I’m fine,” the Alchemist said, not granting time for her doting, “Show me your hands.”

Offered up without a fight. A fresh change from having to hold down her two most frequent patients, just to affix a modest splint. Or even swab a cut.

Bad.

Very bad.

But they would heal with balm and clean bandages. Without scars, if the God’s willed it. “Someone bring me my bag!” she ordered, not bothering to look up as she turned wrists over to examine the surprisingly soft palms underneath. A bit of information that made her frown all the more at how the skin had blackened and flaked away. “That means now! Unless you want me to suture you up with a rusty fork instead of a needle!”

“They’re afraid of me,” the Ranger reminded her, without need. “I’ll be fine.”

“If that is the case, they are morons. While mine might fit that description in general, I don’t think they will in this instance,” hummed the healer, calling water to her palm to cleanse the worst of the befouling, “As I’ve told you a dozen times, by now, not betraying us by now rather precludes your doing so now.”

A single half-chuckle, “I like it when you use big words.”

You will not blush.

You will not blush!

You will NOT blush!

Heat crept into the still fleshed parts of Asami’s face. This despite her firmest protestations to herself not to do so in front of the others. Rather saving such for when the two of them were alone, be it in cabin or tent.

Damn , she simply thought, passing the flow over broken skin and exposed muscle. Relief passed over that face she now allowed herself to think of as beautiful. Impressive, skilled, and stoic as her new friend was and thought herself, she was still just as human as the rest of them. Even if she was better at gritting her teeth through pain than some.

“I’ll make sure to expand my vocabulary in your presence,” the Alchemist proposed as feet approached.

Kuvira’s, she thought.

Definitely a woman, but the steps were far heavier than even her own. The exact opposite of trying to hide their approach, boldly proclaiming it with a confident swagger. Only one person could fit that description among their small company.

And only one would have the gall to drop her precious supplies so roughly to the ground. “Here you go.”

She grumbled, but let it pass.

At least she kept her solicitations to herself, for once.

“Now, farbeit from me to be so forward, but I’m going to go ahead and ask the questions that are on everyone’s mind, friend,” the flirt said in a menacing tone that gave the impression of daggers being stared directly over one’s head. “What in the name of Durin’s decrepit old sack was that rather impressive display? How long did you know about it?” Gods, Asami felt those words hit her like a brick to the skull. “And why the fuck weren’t we told about it, specifically ME ?”

Korra looked at the Alchemist with an apology printed in her stunning sapphire eyes. They exchanged little nods as Burn Balm was liberally applied to roasted flesh, the Ranger looking up to say, “Because it is a very long, very complicated story.”

“Well,” Kuvira hummed, plopping down beside them, “It’s a good thing I brought drink. I have a feeling I’m going to need it.”

Chapter Text

It didn’t take long for the Ranger to retreat in on herself under questioning. Before her eyes, Asami watched as she went from friendly, to verging on panicked, to utterly blank.

While the lecher watched through narrowed eyes, Korra kept her answers brief. Even skipped some questions entirely. All with that cold, unflinching, emotionless mask of hers. Perfect nothingness of an expression as bandages are wrapped tight around mangled fingers. Not a crack in it. For pain, fear, trepidation. Barely blinking as the small bottle drawn from the third woman’s waist was offered.

“Brandy?”

“No.”

“You?” the Metalshaper asked Asami, face still hard as stone.

“I make it a habit not to drink while I’m working,” the Alchemist growled, almost in scolding, tearing off the excess fabric of her second knot with her teeth, “Besides, we don’t know if the rest of them will come back and try to finish us off.”

Rather surely, Kuvira said, “Don’t count on it. Goblins are stupid, not suicidal.” Again, the fortified wine is offered, only to be rejected by a woman desperate to do her work in peace. “Suit yourself.”

Crude and vulgar as her words often were, few people alive sipped brandy with as much care as the interloper. Sniffed it, swirled it, held it up against the light, tasted a drop against her tongue. All that before putting her lips to the rim and took a mouthful. Only to savor it like Asami’s least favorite kind of drunkard. Or someone attempting to prolong their welcome when not wanted.

“You’re from Den Guo?”

“Yes.”

“Huh. Can’t say I’ve seen many wanderers from your land about,” the hawk-eyed woman hummed. Her eyes betrayed the disappointment she felt at not gaining a reaction from her guess. “One travelling around Bolia, passing himself off as a fortune teller. And an innkeeper that made the best soup I’ve ever had.”

Korra’s head cocked an inch to one side, as it did whenever information interested her. “Never heard of them.”

“Can’t imagine you would. Good soup is still soup, after all,” Kuvira shrugged, adding another gulp to the first. This one she swallowed swiftly, setting the bottle down between the two. Her finger pointed at it as she rose, “You look like you need that more than I do, Elfkin. It’s pretty good stuff. Made in this little mountain village called Vinsbur, most beautiful place I’ve ever seen. Got a waterfall right through the middle of town and everything.”

Fed up with the mosquito buzzing over her delicate work, Asami finally snapped, “Get some clean water and wash out that cut on your arm. Use soap if you have it, salt if you don’t.” Lots and lots of salt. “I’ll deal with you when I’m done here.”

“As you wish,” she consented without her usual annoying nicknames. “And, Korra?” The Ranger shifted to meet the Metalshaper’s eye. “Good shot, and… thank you.”

Good shot?

More importantly, had Kuvira just thanked someone that hadn’t just handed her a fresh tankard of ale?

It must have been a trick of the ear. A burst blood-vessel or some such. Along with another in either eye as she flashed a smile and stumbled off to harass someone else for a while. Someone who swiftly fled behind a tree at her approach, darting between them as his brother split an intense amber gaze in two directions.

One that Asami returned in equal measure.

Her mind simply could not understand. Moral as the man might be, pious he was not. Scripture was allegory, stories just that, and the only monsters those that roamed the wild places of the world.

And yet, there he stood, looking down at the woman who had nearly ended the entire life-and-death struggle in a single stroke, with the same distaste the priests had held for all their youthful indiscretions. Hook-nosed snobbery, upturned in the way one would if they had stepped in something foul. Teeth gritted in both jaws as they held the exchange. Emerald and amber fires blazed. A test of wills the woman won, as she always did. For she was nearly always right.

“Is that too tight?” she asked her silent patient, turning back to the task at hand.

Knuckles flexed within their binding, already showing spots of red in places. The first sign of pain showed in her face. “It’s fine,” Korra muttered, drawing in her knees as she withdrew from the darting glances sent her way, “Thank you, Asami.”

“And thank you for saving me, again,” the Alchemist said. Hands lifted the brandy bottle and brought it to her lips. Sweet and strong. “You know, one of these days, I want to be the one to save you.”

There’s a chortle. Even a little smile hidden behind her knees from the others. “No offense, but you’re about five years too early to be thinking about saving me. Let’s work on you saving yourself, first.” Eyes kindled something in them as they meet her student’s. A little sadness, along with a touch of fondness that felt like friendship. “I guess I should let you know I heal a little faster than normal, too.”

“I guess that means you’re staying around long enough to heal?”

Gleaming gems of ocean blue sparkle in the forest sun, unable to fully meet Asami’s questioning look for more than a few moments. “A contract is a contract.”

But will you stay after?

It wasn’t a good time to ask such a question. Maybe it never would be. There were always going to be eyes on them, now. Always ears peering into private conversations. She can feel them even now. As set of amber eyes on her spine. Gritting her teeth, she forced a smile, “I’ll hold you to that. Technically, I wasn’t the one to break our bargain. Which means your still on the hook as my tutor.”

“And what would you do if I did run off?” the Ranger asked with soft mischief in her words that made a shudder run up Asami’s spine. “Hunt me down with a Bill of Trade?”

No.

No, I’d probably just punch you.

“Maybe I would,” she said, instead, giving her work one last inspection, “My father is an Agent of the Crown.”

“Scary.”

Standing, Asami dusted off her pants to enjoy a few more seconds of that little smirk she had restored. “I’m going to go deal with the others, real quick. Give the balm some time to do its work. Then we can see if your bandages need changing.”

Korra nodded, drawing knees back to her chest. “Okay. I’ll be here.”

With that assurance, the Alchemist spun on her heel, nearly tripping over Naga where she lay. Abnormally subdued in both mood and posture, with her normally energetic tail still, and pert ears hanging limp to the side of sad eyes. Though she did perk up a tad when a hand fell to scratch her head in passing. Even rising to follow before that same hand held out a flat palm to stay the move.

She wanted no spies to overhear her, and the guard dog certainly applied. The way her eyes lit up in a very human way at the sound of speech brought with it fair suspicion. As did Korra's knowledge of things which happened in her absence.

Determined footsteps carry her exhausted body to where Mako stood, boot planted firmly on his kill's neck. His eyes followed her all the way, right to when her hand closed on his shoulder.

“Follow me,” Asami instructed, making sure her face displayed it was no request.

They wandered some small distance through the char of his duel. Burnt vegetation gave little concealment until a few solid trees could be put between themselves and the clearing. She brought them behind what looked the sturdiest of the lot, an oddly shaped pine with bows broken a good twenty feet in the air. Only when its trunk line of sight with Opal's curious eyes does she spin on her heel and demand in a hiss, “What is wrong with you?!”

To her mild shock, he looked surprised by her tone. Had he really not expected her to defend the Ranger? Or was it for another reason?

“Might have something to do with a Water-mage burning down half a forest.”

“Oh, fuck off!”

From surprise to defense in the blink of an eye, his handsome jaw took on a sharpness that could cut diamonds. Heat radiated off him like a kiln, fingers popping as his thumb worked down them to relieve a building stress.

“You knew!” he said, as if it was some horrid accusation of betrayal, “You knew what she was, and you didn't say anything!”

“No, I didn't.”

“Why not?!”

“Because I promised not to,” Asami told him, failing to wither before him as always. Hot as his fire might burn, hers had always been that little bit hotter. “Because it was told to me in confidence. And because you've been waiting for a reason to hate her ever since we set out.”

“I-”

A finger is held up in warning. Mother's motions were well trained into all three of them, and each prompted immediate reaction. This being the one signaling the coming of a switch, Mako bit his tongue for her to finish. “No! Whatever you are going to say, I am tired of it. The constant looks, the pointless bickering, and the endless dick-measuring contest with someone who has only helped us complete this fucking quest. Enough is enough.”

She let one hand fall to her side as the other brushed back sweat-matted hair. “I don't know why you hate her, and I don't care. Just stop.”

“You want to know why I don't trust her?” asked the man, stepping back and crossing his arms. “Alright. I'll tell you. It's because there is nothing to trust. No one knows anything about her, other than the fact she's apparently been everywhere and done everything. No story, no family, no friends, just her and the dog. She's not a person, Asami, she's a Gods damned ghost!”

“I am her friend.”

Her voice cracked like ice on a pond. Sharp and chilling to listen to.

But her friend, her brother, barely blinked. “You're everyone's friend, Asami,” he said to her in the most dismissive way. “Half of Salney is on a first-name basis with you. But none of them are freaks of nature.”

“She is not a freak!”

“YES, SHE IS!” the Pyromancer blared, voice undoubtedly loud enough to reach the clearing. “How are you her friend, even? Has she told you anything to make you trust her?”

The Alchemist nodded, mind's-eye filled with the sight of a half-drunk/half-exhausted Korra relating a tale of her shattered youth. One she'd kept close to the chest. Including when her teacher awoke the next morning, unable to remember the night before. “She hasn't seen her parents in almost twenty years. When we were busy finding beetles in Mrs. Yono's herb-garden, Korra was running for her life as her house was burned to the ground by the Restoration Priests. That's why she doesn't have a family.”

In the silence that followed, Asami saw him harden. Both his face and his heart. He believed her, the words coming out of her mouth, but not the original source. The fantastic display of devastation had shattered any pretense on his part.

“That's what she told you?”

“It is.”

“And you believed her?”

“As much as I'd believe anything you told me,” Asami said, honestly, “She doesn't have anyone, Mako. Just her and Naga. That's why she does all the jobs you turn your nose up at. And I'm guessing she doesn't have friends because of it. Just look at you.”

Though it faded by the moment, his face still bore the dregs of anger. Turned on her as it rarely was. Perhaps that is why he slumped against the trunk, forehead falling to his palm. “I'm sorry,” he muttered after a while. Regret was plain in his amber eyes as lingering heat smoldered against a thick covering of moss. “You're right, I shouldn't have said that. I just... whenever I look at her, I get this feeling. Like something isn't right.”

“So? Every time I see that pig Stannis, I want to knock out two more of his teeth.”

Nostrils flared, again.

Crusted blood was smeared into fresh streaks as he dug fingers into his sweaty brow, trying to work thought from his head. “It's not natural...”

Oh, you have got to be- “Pfft! Says the man that can happily walk through a burning building like it's a field full of sunflowers.” The roll of her eyes was immediate and well rehearsed. “Have you ever even talked to her?”

“Of course I have.”

“No, not an argument. An actual conversation, about anything other than a quest, or directions, or who's killed the more impressive thing?” Asami inquired. The answer was plain to her, as they hadn't broached such topics as a group without one or the other being roped in by the shopkeep. “You should try it. I think you two have a lot in common.”

Like making me want to throw myself off the nearest cliff.

Mako huffed, spitting couple orange embers from his lips. “Somehow, I doubt that.”

“Tonight.”

They traded another tense gaze, although the most his temper could do was simmer in the chilled breeze now sweeping down from the south.

Lips parted, doubtless to object or make and excuse for himself. One she would not hear. To the point she used a sliver of her returning energy to deaden the effect of his ongoing tantrum. “If you have a problem with her, you will bring it up with her tonight. Otherwise, I don't want to hear a word about it,” Asami said, firmly putting her foot down, “Talk it out or go home, that is your option. One or the other.”

Mako's boot tapped on the pebble-strewn forest floor, his jaw sharpening even further. It made the few days scruff there all the more visual and aged him what looked to be twenty-years. At last, after his thick skull cracked enough for his mind to get out, he said, “I'll try if she does. No promises.”

From where Asami stood, it wasn't Korra that needed to do the trying.

Well, she thought, turning her back to him with this small concession tucked in her belt beside her sword, he'll have plenty of time to prepare himself.

The clearing was something of a better sight when she returned. Opal stood over a fresh spot of turned earth clutching prayer beads in her hands and whispering words that failed to reach the Alchemist's ear. From the diminished count of corpses, she surmised it to be the grave of those raiders who had fallen and not been cremated by the Ranger's flames.

Weapons and armor were piled off to one side of the burial. Through them, Kuvira picked, having already salvaged the armor and blade of the last orc to have tasted Asami's enchanted steel. Also coins, jewelry, packs, pouches, and waterskins.

A tidy little profit from the panicked skirmish.

Gritting her teeth, the woman resolved to take no portion of it as her own. Even the thought felt ghoulish. Nothing good should come of this. Not even a little jingle in her pockets.

Quite apart from all this, Bolin lay with a pillow of leaves under his head. A bit of straw stood from his mouth as he chewed it. His spot was only a few feet from where Korra sat, unmoved, perhaps even further retreated than when she'd been left. Knees and hair obscured everything of her face. The soft curves and sharper lines alike, along with those eyes of pure cerulean. Yet the young man spoke to her as though nothing was amiss.

To ears that likely weren't listening, he chattered.

As Asami nudged him with her foot, he continued, in a wholly unbroken stream. The young man lifted himself up and tugged free his armor, spewing the same manner of small-talk exchanged over tea and bread.

Pleasant.

Polite.

Perfectly composed.

“Hey, sis, do you think we're going to be back before the Ember Festival?” he asked as the needle knit his flesh.

“I think you'd know better than me.”

A fond smile tugged at his lips. Youthful nostalgia, the healer thought. “Maybe. Depends on if the weather holds,” Bolin mused, wincing with every stitch, but not crying out as he once had done. “Cider should be done by then. And we won't have trouble buying a lantern this time.”

Asami smiled.

It would be nice to return so soon. Every night as she tossed and turned, the shut-in missed her feather bed a little more. She passed what she thought possible on that front more than a fortnight ago, now. That and the sour taste of blackberry pie, fresh from the baker's oven. Milk with a thin layer of rich cream on top.

Mother.

Father.

The thought of them brought her back to the Ranger. Her friend who had nothing.

“If we are back by then, you should stay a while,” Asami said to the woman, letting her eyes drift from the monotonous work of dabbing ointment on wounds. She saw her limbs tense to almost the breaking point before a sliver of blue appeared. “I have a spare room you could stay in.”

A breath was taken, as if to give reply, but it was drowned by a shout of excitement. “I knew it!” Kuvira's voice barked, “Opal, have a swig of this!”

“No.”

“Oh, come on.”

“I'm not going to drink something that has had the lips of a goblin on it,” the, somehow still, immaculately dressed young lady protested, “Let alone yours. Whatever it is, you may enjoy it on your own.”

There was a brief pause, a slight scuffle, then the sound of a nose being punched. “Fine, what is it?”

“Sesosian white.”

Wine!

Suddenly, the weariness in her limbs didn't bother her near as much. Asami pushed off and sprinted for the outstretched container, having to fight Bolin the entire way, wounds and all. His hands pushed off her blistered face, her foot looped in front of his. While he stumbled, she snatched the unassuming leather pouch.

It was cool, fresh, and slightly sweet on her tongue.

“Give it here!”

She did, handing it off and letting the flavor coat every part of her parched mouth. Heaven was there for someone starved of alcohol that wasn't stale beer from the hold of a river trader. It was more delicious than that entire meal what felt like years ago in the overcrowded tavern amid bustling streets of squalor.

Lifting more identical pouches, the Metalshaper smiled triumphantly, “Greenskins must have knocked over a caravan before they wandered into this hell. Pretty much all of them had a stash of hooch. The good stuff, too. Try this one.”

Asami pressed the rim to her lip and tasted the same fiery liquid from the inn. Same as before, the rotgut made the Alchemist's eyes water and throat burn.

So good.

Taking a few more sips from the wine to cleanse her palate, she brought the liquid fire over to Korra, positively giddy.

There was a tentative interest in the Ranger's eyes. Even more as the skin was forced upon her while the shopkeeper loitered at her feet. Loosening the grip on her shins, she took hold of the container and brought it to her lips. But to Asami's disappointment, she did not recoil in splutter so she could return the little chuckle she had borne. Instead, it was the same relish that had come from the fine western wine.

Korra relaxed as she took a deeper swig, “This I good.”

“Of course you'd like that swill,” Asami snorted, turning to catch another leather pouch of wine underhanded to her by a now thoroughly undignified Opal, arms loaded with what was likely the finest of the batch. “Come on, get up and grab what you want.”

The Ranger held up her bandaged hands and quirked an eyebrow.

“Fine, I'll grab, you point.”

As it turned out, Rangers were very good at pointing. Must have something to do with being the eyes and ears of every group they're ever a part of. Or the frequency of their arguing.

If nothing else, it brought them all together, smiling and cheerful. Even Mako’s scowl lessened slightly when he finally decided to slick back to the battlefield with his tail between his legs. He took to picking through the pile of loot with refreshing ale in his off-hand. The Alchemist watched him inspect a few fine looking daggers, before casually staking them in the ground.

They drank for a good while in the clearing, leveling toasts to the God’s and their adversaries.

Perhaps longer than they should have.

Perhaps more than they should have.

Asami really didn’t care. It was too fine an opportunity to waste on gathering everyone up and moving on. For with every gulp of fermented grain and fruit, a pound of stress was lifted from their shoulders. Just a little tension released from the screws.

Lips got looser, tongues more liberal, and each eventually reached a threshold where they could freely vent. About the filth, the ship, the food, the exhaustion, and especially about each other.

Opal thought Mako was too serious, Kuvira thought Bolin wasn’t serious enough. Bolin, for his part, was simply tired of people jumping on him for every little mistake, while Asami seemed to get a free pass. Fair enough on each account, so far as the Alchemist was concerned. Though she did take more time than the others had, to berate them on their superstitions and mistrust in the same way she had the Pyromancer. And while everyone seemed to take the criticism in stride, all had ready excuses. 

So the lines were drawn and everyone took sides.

Lively debate ensued, in surprisingly friendly exchanges. Drink took the edge off of every thrust and tempered every parry. Even as the group resaddled and rode on, consumption and discussion continued. Although it quickly descended into more mild teasing and joking.

Two voices were conspicuously absent from the merriment: Mako and Korra. One rode some lengths ahead of the pack, nose buried in a map. The other lagged behind the rest, white dog bothering the pack animals to maintain pace now their ties were freed. Neither would hold Asami’s eye for long when their darting glances me. But only one was drifting further away with every turn.

The Ranger held her reins high and only broke snail’s pace when forced to by the baggage. With how her form faded into the mottled greens and browns of the forest, each second out of sight was nerve-racking.

Only for it to fade when she returned a moment later.

More wine.

That’s what she needed.

And to take some deep breaths. Brush thoughts of a sudden flight away, along with how her heart seized at those same thoughts.

She won’t leave, the woman told herself, doing her damnedest to drown anxiety in wine. It didn’t work very well. Every gulp only made her feel the emotions suppressed within her more rawly. That little tremor she hadn’t felt in years. An innocent pull of her heartstrings. A contract is a contract. 

Right?

There was a rumble in the distance.

Black clouds littered the horizon as far as the eye could see. Lines of lightning arched between them, perfectly mirroring the tempest brewing within her chest. As wind howled down the winding path, filling the air with sounds of twisting birch and pine, the only smell that fills her nose is that of hot jasmine tea. A faint whiff of it everywhere, joined by a musical laugh she longed to hear.

Bucephalus snorted at the storm. Maybe both of them. Life and choices were likely easier when you greatest decision on a given day was what patch of clover to nibble.

I wish it was that easy…

Gods, she wished it was. That she was bold enough, sure enough, or drunk enough to…

Her eyes looked down at the fresh waterskins slung from the saddlehorn. Each carried about three large cups worth of whatever ration had been handed her. Much as they would likely make the long hard days of travel ahead easier, it would do to simply improve this one.

So she drank.

And drank.

And drank some more.

More than she’d do on a regular stint in the Broken Axe, save for festivals and caravans. But it sure did the trick. Soon, she had no care in the world, singing and giggling in a drunken stupor.

It took another’s hand to haul the hood of her cloak up over her head as heavy, frigid drops started falling from the sky. Asami pulled it down again, smiling at the bemused woman that had tried to cover her up. It felt good on her broken, blistered skin. So did seeing Korra roll her eyes as the call to stop was sent down the line.

Thunder clapped once more as she slid clumsily from her mount.

Were she somewhat closer to sober, the Alchemist might have been concerned with how the swirl of rain would be cut by the sound of branches splitting. Instead, she bumbled with lines and packs, struggling to free the cramped two-person tent from its confines.

“Don’t bother with all that,” Opal said over the frightful din, shielding herself with her two largest fans. “Kuvira, if you could be a dear.”

“Aye, Milady!”

Did she just call her-

Nevermind that, for the earth was moving again. With her footing wobbly at the best, Asami was forced to lean one hand on an empty stirrup, the other on a handy shoulder. And as she did so, she saw a low plateau arise from what had been a relatively steady slope.

It flattened into a space some twenty long paces across. Almost a perfect circle. From this place, something like small huts sprouted, numbering three.

“Hahaha! You have got to show me how to do that!” Bolin demanded, eyes bright with childish wonder.

With a bow, the creator of this remarkable shelter bid them all to enter. She swiftly ushered her younger companion to the largest of the triangular buildings, bedstuffs and cooking supplies shielded by a dome of sparking, purple magic. They could only hope she was a better cook that she was a diner. If her preparation was so boisterous then it might set those butterflies to flight.

Yet, she was not allowed to stumble after.

An arm hooked into hers, dragging Asami towards one of the smaller shelters at a pace she could barely keep. “Come on. Let’s get you sacked up.”

“Mmn, food’s that way though,” she pointed out, foot catching on a root and nearly bringing both of them to the earth. Only through the sheer strength of the Ranger did both of them stay upright. It brought a little giggle to her throat, prompted by her fuzzy mind, “Hehehe. Strong arms. I knew you had strong arms.”

“That’s right,” Korra said in a perfect calm, though her cheeks did redden a shade.

Buoyed by this, Asami whispered in a hush that barely carried over the thunder, “I have a secret.” It was kept a moment longer as she had to duck the entrance. “I like you.”

Few times in her life had the Alchemist seen someone stiffen so straight and quick. It was a sharp thunk when her head hit the ceiling, too, though you wouldn’t know she felt it. Rather than a curse or yelp, it was a startled squeak from which she swiftly recovered.

“I like you, too,” the archer said, settling the boldly drunken potion-maker on a convenient shelf.

When she tried to rise, and hand held her back.

“Rest.”

Asami’s head shook. Her body would not wither until she said what she must, be damned the consequences. Hands clung to the wrist that had pushed her down, refusing to let go, despite how she tugged and wriggled. “I mean it, Korra. I really like you.” She could feel the heat rising in her cheeks, and see it plainly on the Ranger’s. “You’re really pretty when you blush.”

“Alright, time for you to lay down for a while,” Korra told her, at last prizing the fingers from her wrists, “”I’ll get you some food and we can talk-”

Quite why Asami leapt from her stoney bunk to press her lips firmly to that of her friend, she wasn’t sure. Well she was, but the moment of choosing did escape her in that instant. Although abundance of wine and drought of words to express herself were like to be part of it.

It was a good kiss, she thought.

One neither of them shied from, which gave some credit to her boldness.

Unlike the firm muscles of the rest of her body, Korra’s lips were impossibly soft against her own. They tasted of fire-water and jasmine. As did the tongue that timidly traces her lower lip.

The Ranger relaxed into the surprise assault after what was either a single second or the reign of a dynasty. Tension emptied from a body nearly always primed like a bowstring, until she was returning the exchange with equal enthusiasm, if not more.

As a hand slides along her side to hold firm around mid-spine, the Alchemist sighs. It was everything and more. Better than she’d dreamed, than she’d hoped. Tender and lingering, stirring something in her only felt a few times in what had been a sheltered life. Passion that made certain things make sense that never did at other times. The haze that concealed the world was lifted a few moments, until it was broken when the kiss ended.

Just as all good things must.

“I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have done that,” she said, the shock of her own actions suddenly making her feel very sober.

“Probably not.”

For a split second, fear was allowed to root and grow. Before the sound of nervous, musical laughter dispelled it. But it wasn’t enough to save Asami’s knees from giving out under her.

“We should probably talk.” There was some strange look on the Ranger’s face. One that could not be placed among the many emotions that had shown on that lovely face. “I’ll, um, get you some food. Give me a minute to do that, and we can talk.”

She nodded, for nothing to say sprung to mind.

Left alone some moment later, the shopkeeper knew not what to think or do, so she shed her boots so swollen feet could freely throb. Then her belt, as it chafed something awful against the hole worn straight through the padding of gambeson armor. Cloak after, tightly rolled and tucked up by the wall farthest from the door as a pillow.

I’ll just rest my head until she gets back.

The surface was cool and wet, wool sodden with fresh rain. Soothing on skin that felt ready to slough and peel.

Just rest my eyes.

For they were so heavy. And what would be the harm?

It had been such a long day.

Such a hard day.

She could stay awake long enough to be stirred. Even if she did drift off, the sleep would be a shallow one, so easy to be risen from. Five minutes. Ten, at most. Then she could have her work things out with Mako. If the Gods be willing.

Chapter Text

The first breath Asami breathed at the return of consciousness had a certain bite to it. Chilled by a soft breeze that equally wafted up one leg that was a good deal cooler than the other. Not cold, but close enough to make her shiver under her covers.

One eye cracked enough to see the only light that was emanating from a faint fire smoldering between the two stony bunks. Orange streaks and dancing shadows flickered on the opposite wall, playing tricks on a weary mind. It made the roots and pebbles embedded in the surface appear to move like tiny animals and insects scuttling around in the corner of her vision.

All the aches of road life strike her in a moment, both the recent and the lingering. Worst of all, her face stings against the morning cold, raw skin and blisters throbbing with her heart.

Swinging the number leg over the edge, shortly followed by the other, the Alchemist pulled herself upright. More shivers run through her body as the twinned layers of woolen blanket fell without the Gods' hold on them, pooling around her wrists that bring them up to cover as much as possible.

I must have fallen asleep...

What a time to have done so, as well. Right after she'd-

Fingers brush softly against the chapped, broken surface of her lips. If she thought hard enough, the memory of Korra's pressing against them became fresh and lovely, stirring up the desire for a second kiss. One she was sober enough to savor.

“We should probably talk.” That's what she had said. But what would either of them say? What would Asami say?

“I want...” she whispers under her breath, “I don't know what I want.”

The Ranger rested in the corner furthest away, propped neatly there, facing the open door. Calm in her restful lumber, mouthing silent words to her dreams. And she was beautiful. So very beautiful. So very close . But so very far away, as well.

As often and much as they spoke, Asami knew next to nothing about the woman who had stirred feelings in her chest. That is, apart from little tidbits, and that she'd pieced together.

Some part of her wondered if feelings could truly spark for one so utterly mysterious to the other party. Memory recalled that Mother had traveled a great circuit playing her craft before settling down in Salney. But she had spent some years there, afterwards, courting and being courted. Surely her parents had known a good deal about each other before going a step further?

Yet, her heart thumps longingly at the sight of the archer, steam rising from her breath.

When she stirs, the shopkeeper starts, suddenly feeling like a voyeur. But the Denean only slips a few inches, drawing in a knee. A cute little grumble escapes, despite her softened face, lips pulling into a pout.

Asami sighed.

Then she smiled.

Sober or not, her heart was true and seth on what fluttered in her chest. Whatever that was, whatever that meant to anyone, come whatever may.

The rest of her was rather set on relieving herself of the drink she had enjoyed in yonder hours.

Quiet, so very quiet, Asami slipped from her bunk and out the threshold. Moonlight shone from a break in the clouds revealing a world transformed. White powder coated every surface. Mid-summer snow, and not a small amount of it. Enough to have formed drifts at every angle and rise, layers on every branch.

One white shape moved amid the rest, bounding up with a broad grin from where she'd run a rut on nightly patrol. Jowls quiver on the edge of a bark, to be stopped by a warning finger and a stern look. One sound so loud might rouse the camp. The last thing that she needed.

“Hush, girl,” Asami whispered, stepping in the direction of the nearest tree. “And don't follow me. Stay!”

The loyal shadow sat in the frozen powder, pouting in her almost human way, before turning and leaping directly into a mound of the stuff to instantly disappear, apart from the glint of her eyes against the moon. Easy for her to do with that thick layer of fur and puppy fat.

She was already regretting the lack of boots over her footwraps. Numbness grew with every step. Seeped into her bones in those few moments of stillness. By the time she made to rush back to the warmth of the little fire, all sensation had faded from both her toes and fingers, with the former paining the Alchemist to no small degree.

Naga trotted out of the snow bank with a mouth full of pine twiglets, green needles and young cones tufted at the ends. Perfectly kindling to get the flames roaring.

Entering in the wake of the massive, white frame, a few things were noticed to have changed. Firstly, Korra's eyes were wide awake, cerulean interacting with the flickering oranges and yellows in a dazzling array of color. Around her body was tightly wrapped her dark green riding cloak, while the thicker bedroll was draped more loosely over her knees. “I had a dream last night that is was going to snow. Looks like I was right.”

“Do your dreams often predict the weather?”

“Sometimes they do,” the Ranger said with the barest hint of a morning smile, “Why? Don't yours?”

Asami shook her head. “I am afraid not,” she mourned, easily slipping into the banter, “Although it does seem to be a useful ability. The only thing I was ever able to predict was Pauper Tanaka's wedding to the Lady Bedford, and that's only because I had been dropping eaves upon them.”

“Funny. You don't strike me as the type to loiter under windows.”

“That's because I'm not,” she agreed, sitting square upon her bunk, “Although, until recently, the most interesting thing I did was gossip. People don't tend to tell stories unless you have your own to parley.”

A single dry laugh. “I'll keep that in mind.”

Second of the changes was the smell of roasting meat. Likely having something to do with the small animal cooking on a spit over the fire. A squirrel, or something similar. The Alchemist's stomach growled, despite her pang of sympathy for the fluffy woodland creature, and she was reminded of her lack of meal the afternoon before.

“I had another dream, yesterday,” Korra whispered, eyes drifting to the flame as a moth did. “One where you kissed me.”

There are a few moments of silence as the pup laid the kindling at her master's feet. Moments that drag on in the early hours, with heartbeats the loudest sound in Asami's ear, flesh throbbing against the fierce cold.

“I'm afraid it wasn't a dream,” the Alchemist said, at last.

I was afraid that that was the case”

Her smile was a shy one. Girlish and youthful. Just the slightest hint of a blush in her features when she dared to meet the gaze intently watching her reaction. “Not like that, I mean,” she tried to recover, knees curling to her chest, “It's just, we're out here, and… I wanted time to think. About, you know?”

“Me?”

The Ranger's chin and lips vanished behind her knees, words muffled by the same, “Yeah. Yeah, I guess so.”

With a shiver, the shut-in analyzed. What to say. What to think. How to say what she wanted, felt, as her brain went as numb as her toes. The words hovered on the tip of her tongue, then failed as hunger and a wave of disappointment struck. “If it makes it any easier for you, you're not the only one who's been struggling with this,” Asami admitted, smiling as best she could, “Been a tough nut to crack, if I'm honest.”

“Heh, that sounds about right,” her crush muttered, humorlessly.

Another pause. Shorter than the first, as the potion-maker hit her stride in thought and action. “I meant what I said last night. I like you, Korra.”

“I like you, too.”

It was a fast, almost knee-jerk response, but nonetheless carrying a weight of genuine longing. Sad eyes kindled with a weak fire beyond that reflected on the surface. Fingers fidgeted for something to do, making do with the threads of and already weather-worn cloak.

“Well, that's a start, I guess.” Tha-thump, tha-thump.

Nod.

Just a nod.

Better than nothing, far more than something. A validation to the pain inside her chest. Recognition of a drunken kiss that still made fire run through her veins.

“Have you… liked anyone else, before? I-I don't mean to pry, it's just, I don't know what's supposed to come after this part,” Asami chuckled, scratching at her head. “What happens after the soul-searching and banging your head against a wall?”

Korra lifted her chin just enough so it could rest on a knee. “Well, apparently, drinking two pints of sweet-wine and kissing the object of your affection,” she said in a perfect calm, emotion lost behind that impassive mask. Only a nip from Naga broke the facade. The shy smile and awkward blush returned, along with a musical giggle. “In other words, we're right on track. Or rather, you jumped ahead a step or two.”

“Fuck off!”

“Oh, is that what comes next?”

“I'm trying to be serious. How am I the serious one between us?”

One lip is chewed in a set of pearly teeth as the Ranger mulled her words. “You're different, you know? Not just from this lot. I mean in general,” said the woman, in a total change of subjects. “You're… I don't know how to say it. Kind, I suppose?”

Kind is good.

“You were the first person in the longest time that wanted to get to know me. I didn't know how to deal with that. Still don't, really.” She stooped to add wood to the fire, hand making the flames rise to meet them at the feet of what Asami hoped could be her breakfast. “Your friend, I mean Mako, he told you we've worked together before?”

The blistered greenhorn shrugged, “Might have.” Might have begged him for every detail. “Undead, was it?”

“It was,” the archer confirmed, smile becoming the tiniest bit knowing, “We just happened to have picked up the same contract. It happens, sometimes. Anyways, the two of us only ever spoke about the task at hand. When to stop, when to eat, how to fight. That kind of thing”

“Rather sounds like a great many of our conversations,” Asami reckoned, hours of blunt exchanges coming to mind. “Mine and his, that is.”

Korra shrugged, then carried on without making mention of the admission, “He never asked me my favorite color, or where I'd been, where I'd met Naga. It's been the same with nearly everyone: adventurers, armorers, soldiers, guildsmen, employers. They always wanted something. Never tried to be my, my friend.”

“And I did.”

Another nod, along with an even fonder smile.

The drifted, momentarily, from this somewhat pressing conversation to divide the meat between them. Only slightly hampered by the refusal of each of them to use their personal blades for the task. Elvish steel and enchanted heirlooms seemed wasted on cookery.

Once they'd settled this dispute, however, it was back to the task at hand. Chewing on the stringy flesh, the Alchemist noted, “You didn't answer my question.”

“Which one?”

“Have you ever...” Been in love , “before?”

A puzzling and slightly puzzled look crossed over Korra's face. It was an easy enough, if intimate, question to be asked, yet the woman appeared unsure how to answer. “I don't think so,” she murmured after a while, before catching herself, “There was this one girl I use to travel with, some years back. Her family fostered me after… well, after I left home. We were close. Very close. I'd say she was my last friend before I met you.”

“How close were you? Drunken kiss level, or just enough to tell stories over the fire?”

“The latter,” the Ranger chuckled fondly, “Definitely the latter. Like I think sisters would be. That's what I thought, anyways. Although, looking back, I think she might have seen it differently.”

Asami smiled her own smile, lost in her own memories. “Sounds rather familiar.”

“I guess it might.”

A good few moments passed. They ate their game and the Alchemist recovered some tack and preserves from her pack. Meager pickings, those scant rations, but enough to fill one's stomach for the time being. Amid this distraction, Naga left, and Korra found her way across the narrow aisle to sit beside her sparring dummy.

Their hands touched and recoiled, as a shudder ran up the arm so affected. An electric tingling, a sudden surge of self-consciousness, the flutter of a nervous heart driving heat into frost-numbed cheeks. Each laughed a nervous laugh.

So, this is love.

I can't look at her, and yet I can't look away.

“This just might be the worst place for this to happen,” the Ranger said, inching slightly closer. To ward off the cold, of course. It was oh so very cold. The best way to warm an ear was to lean one's head against a friendly shoulder, then let that person's do the same against your scalp. “We're a days hard ride from anything. Three days from a proper town. No taverns, no hostels, no inns-”

Asami smiled a devilish smile, “Why would we need those things, eh? It's been maybe five minutes and you're already looking to share a bed?”

“Stop...”

“Now you want me to stop . Which is it, then?” the emboldened town-dweller teased. Shoe being on the other foot, she found she much preferred being the one making light to being the straight-man. “How fast shall we ride this cart to Oblivion?”

Korra hummed, “Slowly, very slowly.”

Slowly sounded wonderful. Life had been nothing but fast since riding through the Iron Gate. Ambushes, bandits, orcs, and river traders abounded, along with hours of training and riding. Very few hours of still and quiet. Time to admire an object of interest was slim. Moments alone, slimmer still.

But she had waited so long.

Fretted so long.

Anticipated.

Debated.

Dreaded.

Her heart pounded with adrenaline. That gentle life in Salney felt a world away and a lifetime ago. Right now, she wanted more of that excitement. Another jolt to make the time go by faster. The frightening thoughts that plagued the still moments would not last if she kept running towards the next landmark. And the nearest one to hand was that sweet temptation of a second taste of Korra's lips.

It took some doing, to be sure. Feet encroached dangerously close to the crackling flames, so close it was hard to crane her head over, let alone hook the Ranger's chin.

“We shouldn't,” the archer whispered at a breath, “Not until we've-”

“I think we've waited long enough. You?”

She paused briefly, leaning her head to one side, but staying just a hair out of reach. At last, Asami could read that emotion in those eyes of emotive blue. Or, one of the many. Longing. “I guess so.”

Their kiss drowned out everything. From forest life to grumbling innards, fire's soft whisper and crunching sound of snow underfoot, all became the tender meeting of sweet lips and timid tongues. An order of magnitude more sensational while sober and fully engaged in the act. Able to meet every motion and pass with one of her own. Retreat when pressured, advance when able, explore at leisure.

I love kissing her.

So much better than-

Knuckles rapped on the stone entryway, shocking both so entwined to opposite ends of the bunk in less than a blink. Following on a shivering Opal asked, “Are the two of decent?” Crunch, crunch, crunch went the snow. “Oh, who am I kidding? Of course you are.”

Enter, stage left, the unintentional interloper, her hair whipped by gust and flake. Skin paled by the northern chill, she ducked low under the low entry. Immediately, the girl took shelter close to the fire. Thin silks were light and cool. They did little to shield her slender frame from the freakish cold without the aid of a woolen cloak.

“Mako's readying the horses, the poor man. Lit a rather large fire in his quarters, if you're interested,” she reported, shaking head to toe. “Rotten weather, but it looks likely to get worse before it's any better. He wants to send scouts ahead of the main party.”

Asami bit her lip to resist an outburst of instinct, instead asking, “Who?”

Chattering teeth said, “Already said he was going. Asking for volunteers to be the second. Wants to make sure the path is clear to the logging camp and beyond.”

“I'll go.”

Korra's acceptance was instant, with no apparent thought in it.

“Shouldn't we talk about it a little?” the Alchemist asked, looking sideways at the woman she'd just kissed so passionately, “If you go, who'll lead the rest of us there?

The archer looked out the door and whistled softly. Not a moment later, the great white hound bounded in with tongue lolling out, forming a formidable barrier against the suddenly shifting gusts. “Naga can follow my scent from miles off. If you lose the trail, she'll put you back on,” Korra said, rising up and swiftly donning her kit. “As for a leader, Kuvira can probably handle anything that comes up, so far as beasts go.”

“Dense as her skull is, her fists are even more so,” Opal laughed to herself. “We'll be in fine hands.”

But, but, but…

She'd just got her, and now her… partner? Girlfriend? Paramour? Whatever she was, she couldn't be allowed to slip from her feelings so soon. Let alone with the one person most likely to kill, or be killed by her. “If you're going, then I'm going too,” she insisted in her firmest voice.

“Asami...”

“No! After everything that's happened, splitting up it the worst possible idea. Who knows what's out there? What the forest might send next?”

Opal hummed, pulling out a small bottle and fumbling with the cork, “If it is worse than this , I want no part of it.” It earned her a narrowed look, for just a moment, but it softened just as fast. She couldn't know Asami's plight, let alone her concern. “My greater worry is for the animals. They've all weathered first the rain, and now this blizzard. I doubt riding them hard will improve their well-being.”

Bucky won't wither under a little storm like this.

Her hard-running steed had indeed suffered from the road, but had pushed ever on, with determination greater than his rider. And they would soon be entering the same conditions, without the hardiness the God's afforded beasts.

“We talked last night,” Korra said, “After you went to sleep.” A kind way to put it. “I think we have an understanding.”

What manner of understanding? her rabid glare asked.

“I'm the best tracker out of us, and I would reckon him the second. No offense, but the rest of you would slow us down. And Opal is right,” the Ranger stated, professional and focused on the task at hand. Gears whirred in her lovely brain, route and plan forming in her mind, concerns ready to lay bare. “The mules were worn ragged, yesterday. They'll need tending to keep moving. Same with the horses, other than yours.”

Internally, she grumbled, wishing that there was less a point.

Asami didn't want to wait, she wanted to plan . To talk, to learn. To figure out how love was supposed to work. To keep feeling this fluttering feeling in her chest, and sneak more kisses at the edge of the group.

“I want to talk to him before you go.”

“We won't leave until first light, I imagine, so there'll be plenty of time for that,” Korra said, testing a dagger against her bandaged fingers.

Plenty of time? Ha! It was just the opposite of that. Too little time. Far too little for everyone involved. “I'll go now, then,” the Alchemist informed, fumbling with boots and buckles. Fingers went numb whenever they strayed too far from the fire, burned when brought too close. It made the whole ordeal that little more distressing. So bothered was she, every breath carried a gentle curse. “God's damn the cold, and all who long for it.”

Naga growled, lowly. Fresh snow peppered her equally white muzzle.

“She doesn't mean you,” her master said, kicking the bones and sinew of their meal to lay at the hound's feet. Next, swords and armor were passed across, along with another set. Black iron ringlets, venturing out from a solid, ornate cuirass.

Taking it, Asami asked a quiet, “What's this,” while admiring the way the mail flowed like water over her fingertips.

“A gift from my most faithful annoyance,” answered the youngest woman. From the fold of her silks she drew a metal cup and waterskin, filling the first before letting it by the fire to warm. “She thought you might enjoy a minor upgrade to your apparel. Was up most of the night clanging away at it, the brute.”

Brute?

More like brilliant.

Under certain light, at certain angles, the black glittered with hairs of gold. Patterns so fine the eye struggled to catch them. Gods and Monsters in ferocious clashes, around a central figure. A woman wielding a sword of storms, cleaving through the sky.

“It's beautiful...”

“Don't let her hear you say that, if you don't mind. Her head is big enough as it is.”

Putting the armor on was a relative ease. Over her head as easy as any shirt, arms easily passing the sleeves, then tightened down on thin leather traps on both flanks.

A perfect fit. But, of course it was, after all those hours of leering.

It gave the amateur a boost of confidence unlike any she'd ever felt. An evolution, of sorts. Or maybe it was the way Korra's eyes lingered up and down, lips slightly agape. How her usually fluid movements became jagged and stumbling, foot landing in the furthest embers a short moment, brought back with much stamping and cursing.

“Hmm, I'd say it's one of her better works,” Opal stated, rising with Asami's sword-belt in her hand, “The metal matches your hair something wonderful. Although. I think it would look better with something red under it.”

The shopkeeper laughed, “Father always said red was my color.”

“Wise man.”

“Sometimes.” But only sometimes.

She turned to face the Ranger, directly, who was only then coming back to herself. Her throat was cleared, composure regained, and she said a soft, “Good. You-you look good, Asami..”

There was no time to respond. Korra slipped from the stone hut and vanished as she often did when not directly under someone's eyes. An odd thing, that. It was like she was some ghost flitting through Asami's life, one moment, and all too real the next. A presence on the breeze.

A very beautiful presence.

Barely a full second passed before Opal whispered, best she could, over the sound of her teeth chattering, “Pardon me for asking, but has something happened between you?”

“Huh?”

“It's just… I feel as though I've been left out of the loop.”

Heat rose along the woman's neck. One that had nothing to do with the fire or the rapidly dropping temperature. It made steady progress to her ears, along the curve of her cheeks, until she was very sure it covered every inch. Asami spluttered and blustered a few moments more, effectively undermining herself when she said, “Don't know what you're talking about.”

Haste was made to separate herself from the inquisitive Wind-mage. Pack gathered and loaded roughly, with a vial of peppermint extract left in Opal's care to fight off the unseasonable chill. Then it was out into the fresh gale in Naga's wake.

First to strike was how the air felt… wrong.

Charged.

Magic carried on the breeze like Asami had never encountered. Sure, her experience was limited, but something like this was as threatening as a rabid wolf staring you down from down an alley.

“Mako!?” she called into the wind, unsure how far it would carry. “Korra!?”

Outside their little world, all hell had broken loose. Trees whipped under a harsh northerly wind, bows cracking under snow and sleet. The ground was frozen solid. Fresh powder had swallowed those footsteps left in her first venture. Beyond a pair of steps, there was naught but a wall of white. She could see nothing, hear little, and felt only cold and dagger flakes of ice.

“Mako!?”

“Over here!”

Fire roared to life towards where she'd seen the horses tied, under the arms of a towering pine that scraped the sky.

Snow crackled against the gout, rising as so much steam. Such was the heat that it made Asami's eyes tingle. And made her fear he might set the tree ablaze in his effort. Thusly, it was hers to press out from herself to war against the wind, to fight for control of every flake and droplet.

One by one, she harnessed them, holding all at bay. A bubble of clear air around her person, only occasionally breached by those hailstones more stubborn than the rest.

From the horrid squall, the man himself emerged. Licks of fire on his fingertips, a hint of humor in his eye. “I guess this is what I get for saying the weather couldn't get any worse, eh?” her old friend joked, seeming to marvel at her impromptu shelter, until he found her less-than-amiable expression. “I don't like that look.”

“You shouldn't.”

“What'd I do this time?”

“You know damned well, and don't pretend otherwise.”

His handsome face was rough with stubble, eyelids heavy from lack of sleep. He looked one good gust from toppling over. Not the desired look of a man about to head out as a forward scout in a wailing blizzard. “I did as you told me to, Mother. I promise it.”

“Do not toy with me,” Asami hissed as cold as any ice around, “You knew she would volunteer, and that is why you asked.”

“I did.”

“Why!?”

“Because she's the best we have,” Mako answered plainly. Under the maintained joviality, there was a harder edge formed. It was time for his lecture to begin. Whether she likes it or not. “Her skill has never been in question. Only her methods and motivations.”

“In other words, her.”

Lip chewed between his teeth, he deflected her summation. “We talked. Just as you told me to. Talked for a good long while.”

This came as no great surprise. An understanding, Korra had called it. Asami had expected to be made to force the two into a mediation. That stoic, stubborn, foolish Mako should agree to this without being beaten roughly about the head was most peculiar, indeed. “She said you had come to an 'agreement'. What kind of agreement?”

“It's private.”

“Not to me , it isn't. To what did you agree?”

“I'm not the one that wanted it to be kept a secret,” the Pyromancer said, firm in both boys and expression. He leaned in, as though afraid of prying ears, and whispered, “Look, I won't lie and say we're friends. But, she made me a promise I intend to hold her to. You'll be the first to know if she doesn't.”

First to know?

“Take care of yourself, Asami,” Mako requested, leaning back and offering a hand, “And Bolin, if you can spare an eye for him. You know how clueless he can be.”

After a pause, she took it, making sure her grip was firm enough he could not easily escape. “I want both of you back in one piece, you hear me? No bickering, no fighting. And no more secret deals. You can trust her.”

She watched him nod along, rolling his eyes at the last. “No, you can trust her,” he said with no particular inclination, twisting himself free, “I guess that'll have to do for now.” And for the second time, someone she cared for vanished into the mid-summer winter. This one tipped his hat as he did so, although it left her just as flustered as the last. Why was everyone leaving before she could give them a good piece of her mind?

And who on this God's forsaken day had the boldness to tug so anxiously at her cloak?

None other than the lady's man himself, paler than his latest fixture, a tremble to his hands. “H-h-hey, S-s-sis? C-could you help me, p-please? My t-toes are turning b-blue.”

“Didn't you dry your footwraps over the fire?”

“Y-yeah. They burnt up in the night. I haven't got a spare.” Green eyes begged for attention, even as the sounds of shouts and hooves grew harder to make out, shapes only vaguely visible in the distance. “Please?”

There was nothing for it. No one to argue with. Only cold, wind, and people that would need her help here. So, to the wind she whispered a prayer, “Come back safe. Both of you.”

“Huh?”

“Nothing,” Asami said, hooking him by the arm, “Let's get you warmed up.”

Chapter Text

Snow.

Endless snow, as far as the eye could see.

It had been hours since Asami had given up the task of clearing a bubble around the slowly trudging party, yielding to Opal's infrequent bout with the howling winds to pick up the trail left for them to follow. Yet still, she found her body sapped of energy by the cold. Each gust threatened to spill her from the saddle as her cloak caught it as a sail. Food sat as a rock in her belly, gulps of water half slush from the freezing weather.

“I hate this!” Bolin shouted over the angry gale. His short-haired pony struggled to keep up with the larger horses at the best of times, but it was suffering even more greatly in the deep snow drifts. Twice, already, it had refused to advance without being tugged along by the reins after stumbling through questionable footing. “My toes are numb, again!”

“Flex them! Keep your blood going!”

Frostbite was going to be a problem before long. And exhaustion. The human body could only push itself so far against such hostile conditions. Not to mention the animals, whose fodder was now frozen under a foot of fresh powder and hadn't been watered in a day.

Naga was doing fine, because, of course she was. Darting from tree to tree and blending with the background almost perfectly. Her prey, a rather perturbed looking chipmunk, was not nearly as amused as she.

Just after setting out, the hound had set them on the trail, then roved well out into the forest. All would be peace and silence until a single howl would cut through the wind like a knife did fresh butter. Minutes, or sometimes moments later, she would return with a fresh kill in her jaws, muzzle stained slightly red with blood and viscera. Two rabbits, a squirrel, a quail, a dove, and particularly fat looking badger now hung from the mules to augment the dried goods.

Something for which the Alchemist was truly grateful.

Hot meat would do a good job kicking the vile blizzard from her veins. Not to mention greatly improve both her mood and level of comfort.

Perhaps the only part of her body not wracked with bone-rattling shivers were her lips. They still burned like fire where Korra had kissed her. Just the memory of that euphoric meeting was enough to blast a surge of heat from heat to toe, lingering in some places more than others. But then a gust would hit her, along with the remembrance that her new paramour was hours away, at least.

Tugging the thick woolen cloak just a little tight around herself to hide the flush in her cheeks, Asami prompted Bucky to cantor ahead. The sound of hushed whispers on the breeze stirred a now familiar combination of curiosity and concern in her belly.

Gods, don't let us be lost again.

“I know what I saw!” the younger of the two hissed, her hand pointing vigorously out into the woods, “Why don't you believe me?!”

There's a flash of white that stands out even against the snow as Kuvira's smile turns to face her comrade. “Oh, I believe you saw something . I just don't believe you saw what you say you did,” the older woman replied with a remarkably pacifying tone. At least for her. The words still bore enough smugness to make the Alchemist's teeth grind. “You're tired, cold, and nervous, darling. Your imagination is running wild. We're not being followed.”

“We're be followed?” Again.

“Yes!”

“No. No, we are not,” the Metalshaper insisted, breath steaming in the unseasonable chill. “There are no goblins, the are no bandits, and there is no giant monster coming after us.”

The wind surged outwards from Opal, briefly, before she turned to one side and huffed. “I did not say monster , you block-headed nymphomaniac. I saw a person !” Once more, she fingered the same section of trees, now drifting back behind the mules. “There might be a village we can shelter in until the storm blows over. Or maybe it's a scout for a caravan?”

Asami shook her head, every contour of Mako's map burned forever in her brain. “No villages. Just the woodsman's camp we're going to,” she said, confidently, “And I thought there weren't any trade roads through the forest?”

“There aren't” Kuvira confirmed, “All the trade missions either cross the Spine in Bolia or on the other side of the river. Merchants can't make money losing all their goods after pissing off a few trees.”

“A hunter, then.”

“Op, just give it a rest, alright. Stop trying to drum up trouble where there is none.”

No trouble?

How could she say such a thing? It had been almost half an hour since the last sign of the others. An arrow drawn neatly on a birch trunk with charcoal. Nothing since. Not even the tracks of horses in the snow. They had been swallowed by the storm, with only Naga able to trace them by scent. A thing that struck Asami as rather odd.

She was not an expert on the subject, by any means, but the utter lack of evidence felt off. Unnaturally so. Maybe it was the stress of the road, but she too could swear to have seen someone darting from tree to tree in the corner of her eye.

Suddenly, a hand shot up, ordering a halt. The flirt lifted her leg and dropped out of her saddle without a word and marched from the trail into the drifts.

Catching the same nervous energy as Opal, the freshman eagerly followed her with a question trembling on her lips. At last, when the swirling flakes started to blur the irritant's outline, it burst forth. “What is it? Did you see something?” Silence, besides the white noise of the storm. “Kuvira?”

“No. I'm looking for a place to take a piss.”

“Tch,” the Wind-mage spat, spinning in her saddle to face the exact opposite direction. “I'd apologize for her, but then she'd never learn.”

Asami shrugged. “I've seen worse.” She knew all too well the trials of having a boar as an associate. Only her solid reputation and even more solid finances had saved the brothers from ruination on more than one occasion. “How are you holding up? You must be freezing in those.”

“Oh! Honestly, I'm probably a little warmer than you are.” With a shake, Opal raised the glossy fabric up her arm to reveal a fitted shirt of rough, knitted fabric, not unlike the Alchemist's own gambeson in construction. Only of a higher quality of stitching, obviously, like all of her clothes and accessories. “Lucky thing I still had it packed it, really.”

“I guess so.”

Bolin finally caught up, both he and his mount nearly spent. “This weather reminds me of when we were little and would go sledding down Dong Yu's Alley,” he said with a little smile, always making the best, “Or skate on the fish ponds.”

The freshman chuckled warmly at his wishful memory. “ I would skate, you two just kept falling.”

His eyes rolled at her enjoyment, sidling up beside his crush with what he most likely thought was a smooth maneuver and charismatic smile. From her end, however, he looked hopelessly smitten. A state that Opal apparently noticed, and seemed rather pleased with, to boot.

“What's the hold up?”

“A fool being foolish, of course,” the young aristocrat told him, beckoning all his attention to herself with an affectionate smile, “We should be moving along, shortly.”

Gods, she hoped so. The weather was bad enough on its own, but watching the self-proclaimed lady's-man slowly get wrapped further around Opal's finger might actually kill her. It was beyond embarrassing to watch his smile become dopey and his face flushed. Asami could only pray her own affections hadn't been, and weren't, so blatantly obvious.

What's taking her so long?

After a moment's pause, the younger woman declared, “You know, I've never been sledding before. What's it like?”

“It's the best!” Bolin shouted so loud even noble Bucephalus let loose a startled snort.At once, his face was filled with childish wonder as he gestured and gesticulated wildly over the finer points of technique. “You have to find a deep slope. One you could roll a stone down, right, but not so steep that you can't control it. Then, you wait for it to snow, obviously. Not like this. Maybe an inch. Anyways, then you-”

Ugh...

With only the lightest suggestion to the reins, her loyal mount peeled her off from the chattering man and his bewildered audience of one. Off down the trail until his blathering was muffled by wind and snow. To where she could think. Reminisce.

Taste the ghost of Korra's lips on her own.

Why would the Fates torture her like this? First torment her with 'feelings' she neither expected nor fully understood, to this very moment. Then snatching the source of her stirrings away to wade through a white hell-scape. If there was to be snow, why could it not be that Korra could summon at a whim, as opposed to this uncaring tempest?

She scanned it, this oddly blank landscape, devoid of tracks of any kind. No person, nor horse, nor prancing foal appeared to have passed, at a glance.

But then, she saw something. An odd blemish on the pristine canvas. Only visible at a certain angle, and only then when the wind whipped around more to the east, but nonetheless there. A single, oblong divot. Perhaps a footprint? Perhaps a mild dip in the terrain? But if it were, it was a freak along a remarkably flat, albeit winding trail. It was impossible to tell from the saddle, and, with nothing better to occupy her mind, Asami decided to investigate.

Getting out of the saddle proved tricky, however. Her spectacular new breastplate was anything but flexible, and though the mail flowed like water, it was a tough task to grip the horn and haul her frozen body onto a single stirrup.

The snow crunched under her sudden weight, as did the grass and twigs beneath. Up over her ankles in a moment. Well deeper than the slight depression just feet away.

With a sigh, the Alchemist resigned herself to this being just a trick of the light. Each step forward seemed to support this. A slog through snow so deep it was easier to simply kick a path, rather than lift her feet over it. But, the closer she got to the middle of the road, the shallower the snow became. Impossibly so, from her perspective. To the point all but the heel of her boot was uncovered.

She turned around and gauged the path. Flat as a board.

Around again, to the north. Just the same. No dips, no rises, no drifts. Only a white sheet as far as the eye could see.

Down, and she could see it. A single footprint amid the pristine layer. That it was human, or at the very least humanoid, was beyond dispute. Small, with the toe far deeper than the ball. Dug in, with a small spray of flakes ahead and behind, as though the person who left it had been at a dead sprint.

Her neck tingled and it had nothing to do with the cold. Suddenly, Asami had the strongest sensation in her life that she was being watched.

The sword flew from her scabbard as an instinct. She spun a final time to where the person would have passed if they had headed straight. Fresh white powder clung to all the shrubs and saplings, bending them down to where you would have to push them aside. Sure enough, right where it should have been, there was an outline of verdant green.

“Son of a bitch!” a voice bellowed, snapping the Alchemist's prey-like gaze.

A split-second later and there was a creaking of greenwood, every beast and bird in the forest scattering at the calamity. The horse whinnied and made to bolt away, but Bucky was among them in seconds, blocking their flight with his flank.

Less fortunate was one of the pack-mules, who skirted round the barricade and came at her full gallop. Pots and bags and fresh kills were flung away as Asami dove to not be trampled under frenzied hooves. It was a narrow thing, with vibrations shaking up her shins and ankles as the startled animal fled at astonishing speed for such stocky legs. By chance or miracle, no blow struck home upon her, and the animal continued up the trail, unabated.

Bolin shouted her name, while Opal pressed two fingers to her lips and whistled so loudly that the Alchemist had to clutch her ears. There was a sound of spluttering and skidding, followed by an almighty bleat of pain.

Pushing herself up, she saw the hind leg nearest her disappear as the ground gave way. Twigs and straw are flung up as blood spattered red streaks across the stark white. Panic was plain on the nameless mule's face, muscles tugging and tearing against the trap, which only succeeded in wounding the animal further and prompting a repetition of the cycle.

“Asami!”

“What happened?!” she shouted back to her friend, fighting her nerves to rush to her almost-undoer's aid.

Kuvira came bursting from the treeline with a flustered look to her hair and fearsome scowl on her face. “Snare trap! Would have take my fucking leg off if it wasn't made of wire,” she barked with uncharacteristic fury. “Everyone mount up. We're leaving!”

“We can't!”

The mule finally managed to pull harder than its captor’s device could handle. It came up with a glob of soil attached to the base, the rest revealed to be a sharpened stake imbedded deeply in the animal's leg. Said leg was weak and wobbly when it struck the frozen earth, almost instantly giving way when any weight was put upon it, while foam boiled from a panting mouth.

Bugged eyes stared blankly and obliviously at the beast’s surroundings. Panicked whinnies faded into choked gurgles. Then, the mule collapsed.

“Bolin, get my bag!” Asami ordered, dropping to her knees to slide the last foot to the open wound leaking red around a spike of oak. No instinctive kick or twitch issued from the wounded leg or any other. Clouds of breath rose from fluttering nostrils, accentuating how weak and ragged each rising of the chest was, and how the muscles of the gut trembled and spasmed. All despite the relatively small amount of both external trauma and blood loss. It made one thought leap forth in her mind: “Poison...”

Many footfalls signal the approach of her fellows, until her friend spied what she had seen. “Hold up!” he warned, coming to a full stop by the sound of it. “Watch where you step. Follow the footprints.”

They crunch towards her, slowly. Too slowly. The tremors had turned swiftly to heaving, vomit and stool coming out of both ends as the fast-acting toxin coursed through the blood to the victim's guts. She had seen the like, before. But never so fast in an animal so large.

First, she must determine the poison, her training said. To do that, she must staunch the bleeding.

As Bolin slid in beside her, Asami set to work gently working the sharpened shaft out of the mule's flesh, keeping her offhand fingers firmly pressed against the thundering pulse. It thankfully comes free easily. No barbs or further surprises. Only a waxy residue that stuck fast to her palm as it set the trap aside. Brought to her nose she sniffed, then darted a tongue to taste.

“Assassin's Tear,” she decided, quickly spitting the toxin out as her mouth went quickly numb. Favorite of cutthroats and the trade of its name. Simple to make, easy to apply, and incredibly deadly.

“What do you need?”

She thought a moment. “Charcoal, Mermaid's Gift, and wild garlic,” she requested, taking the mortar and pestle carefully in her right hand. “Opal, are you here?”

“Y-yes! I'm here,” the young woman shivered, appearing on the opposite side of her assistant.

“Put pressure right above where I have my hand,” Asami ordered, watching closely as her instructions were followed. “Harder. You have to press hard .” The healer's trained hand applied the proper force to the back of Opal's surprisingly dainty ones. “Kuvira, I need you to get me something to make a tourniquet.”

But the lecherous flirt didn't respond.

Her boots did. They were thrown with some force to the ground beneath the mule's heaving belly. Asami watched out of the corner of her eye while she furiously mixed and pulped ingredients as the impromptu leader of the party splayed her bare feet on the frozen earth.

Steam poured from her nose, words whispered so softly that they were swallowed by the wind. When her energetic green eyes opened, they were glazed as a woman in a trance, or else drifting under the influence of narcotics. “Op was right. There's someone out there,” she said, definitively, arm snapping roughly in line to the lonely footprint with accusing finger extended, “Either they're pacing, or they're in a tree. I can't tell.”

“They probably set the trap for one of us,” the Alchemist reasoned, testing the mixture against her lips, then poured the remainder into the wound and worked it in with the pad of her thumb.

Lethal as Assassin's Tear tended to be, it was only sure to be so for humans and dwarves, not pack animals. You would go through cycles of agony, numbness, seizures, hallucinations, and blackouts. The body vents waste to purge itself, leaving the victim at risk of total dehydration, in addition to the threat of angina and pneumonia.

“For us?” Bolin asked, taking over for his sweetheart and scanning the forest.

“How could they be sure we would be walking? I mean, why set a snare here, let alone a pit trap?” the Wind-mage asked. She wiped her hands furiously against her lap, then relented and stripped herself of the well-fitting gloves. “We're in the middle of nowhere, there's nothing here.”

Except a footprint.

It was a subtle lure to leave, to be sure. But when all eyes were vigilant for any message from the scouts, such a thing might have been enough to tempt them, as it had her.

Snapping from her trance, Kuvira answered, “Doesn't matter, now. We're leaving.”

“Half our supplies are on this mule. We can't leave it,” argued Bolin. He stood, hustling off beyond the potion-maker's sight to presumably gather up said discarded supplies. “You said one person, right? My guess is, if they're the same person Opal saw following us, and they've set up all these traps, they don't fancy their chances taking us in a fair fight. So long as we stick together, we'll be fine.”

“They don't need to fight us. They just need to slow us down until we freeze to death or lose the trail,” the Metalshaper said with earnestness plain in both her speech and features. “Fuck the animal. Fuck the food. Fuck the rest of it. We go!”

With a start, Asami's patient inhales the deepest breath she has seen as her generic antidote starts to do its work. She grabbed her bag and dug within until her hand withdrew a vial with glittering blue-purple powder. The ground remains of Madgrigan Beetles, heartier creatures than any other to ever scuttle through the undergrowth of Henbachia.

A pinch would be enough, and a lucky thing at that, as the others had come to her conclusion in their continued duel over their course of action.

Interjecting herself between the other parties, Opal told her partner, “You might be right, but so is he, Kuvira. Calm yourself. There are bound to be other snares, spike, and Gods know what else. We need to be careful. Let Asami do her work for, let us say, five more minutes?” She turned to the healer and earned a nod of approval. “If the beast can move, we take it with us. If not, we gather what we can and keep moving, as you said.”

“I don't need five,” Asami said, carefully timing her release of the powder with the mule's inhale.

The animal settled.

Calmed.

After a few more breaths, lucidity seemed to return enough for an attempt to right itself, despite the blood still lightly dripping from the frozen wound. A combination of quick clotting and cold weather had stayed what the Alchemist feared at least a nick to an artery of the leg. Likely more, and the motion of the revived animal might yet have proved enough to slay her patient.

Her hand dove into her medicine bag and gripped the first roll of bandage it could find. Clutching it tightly in fingertips, themselves numbed and drained of blood by the frozen air, Asami dove to catch and restrain the injured limb, thus immobilizing both it and the greater equine.

She worked fast, ignoring the sounds of her fellow party members protests. Holding one end of the binding in her teeth, the other was spun round and round the leg with the clump of medicated moss being aligned with the wound. Blood did, indeed, spurt from the savaged flesh as Asami found herself thrashed about on one end, dodging frightened  kicks on the other.

Why didn't I give you an anesthetic!? the woman asked herself, being flung free into the snow.

“Are you insane?!” Kuvira barked, suddenly turning all that frustration upon her junior. Earth rumbled and buckled, casting to woman down a rapidly growing slope, as well as choking her mouth with debris and snow. “Why in the name of – would you do that?”

Roll.

Asami used her momentum, spinning until her legs found themselves under her. Up she went, nearly sprawling backwards once again, flailing her arms and sliding back a foot to prevent such a thing.

Never in a thousand lifetimes could she have managed that stunt before this expedition. It gave her a kind of pride to straighten herself up, fling the snow and melted slush from her body with a flourish of magic, and watch as the pack animal gingerly rose back onto it's legs. “There,” she said, breathlessly, rather satisfied with her quick work, “Now we can go.”

“Sis?” Bolin stared at her, eyes wide, face pale from shock. “Are you feeling alright?”

“I feel fine, friend,” she replied, clapping the young man on the shoulder. Although, if she was honest, her heart felt like it was caught in the midst of battle. “What now?”

Throwing the nearest bundle over her shoulder, Kuvira ordered them both, “Grab what you can and find some way to carry it, that's what. I'm guessing we're gonna have to unload that bastard for it to keep up, too.” She turned and gripped Opal by the arm to pull her along, as well. “Get up high and see if you can see anything.”

“This is why you should listen to me. I warned you-”

“Either jump, or I'll kick you,” the older woman warned, with only some of her usual jovial lilt returning in the verges.

The Wind-mage chose the former. Not that she didn't huff and spin from her companion before any more could be asked of her. With the next gust of wintery mix, she leapt into the sky, using as footholds little disks the size of dinner plates spawned of her flicking fingers.

But, there was no time to marvel at her skill or speed. Horses needed gathering, the supplies to be policed, her sword retrieved from the spot just off the trail it had been cast in her moment of panic. Its hilt was warm and familiar in her palm. Magic coursed from the arcane enchantments within to spread that warmth to every frosted inch of the wielder's body.

It let her trudge along. Gather herself and her frayed nerves.

What it didn't do was shake her of a returned sensation of eyes boring into her from beyond her line of sight. And something else. A craven bloodlust in the air that had Asami turn to find every cracked twig and rustling branch.

“Do you think we'll make it before nightfall?” Bolin muttered as they each wrapped reins around their hands.

“I don't know.”

Lines of thin rope dangled from limply from the young man's belt, primed to lash all the animals together as soon as the lamed member could be coaxed, or rather wrestled into formation by the flirt. He too wore an expression of primed anxiety. Maybe, she thought, his youthful fear of bumps in the night hadn't fully left him, after all. More likely he both remembered and knew the dangers of the cold as well or better than herself.

Coming close, her normally carefree friend confessed, “If we end up fighting in all this, we aren't going to last long. Our clothes aren't thick enough to keep us warm, we're blind, burning daylight, and going to be better off walking than riding.”

Gods, he wasn't helping. “Got any good news for me?”

“Well, I do have three bottles of brandy to keep us in spirits,” he shrugged, drawing one said container from his saddle bags and handing it off, “And, I've been hoarding some dried fruit.”

A hefty bag of it, at that. Heavy with a cornucopia of multicolored stone-fruits, berries, and apples she could just catch a glimpse of as he loosened the drawstring to take a handful. Some for her, some for himself, the rest handed off to Kuvira as she knotted both mule's bridles to her aged gray stallion.

Brows raised, she asked, “Planning on having a party?”

“No, just keeping our energy up. Much as I'd like to thaw out a partridge for lunch, I figured a drink and a snack will have to do,” Bolin said. There was his half-faked smile, prim and net upon his boyish face.

Returning to his saddle for the third time in as many minutes, the hopeful dreamer retrieved fresh gloves and rolls of furs he tossed to his companions with impressive efficiency. The best he gave to his crush as she made landfall. An act each woman noted in her own way, generally favorably. Not one complained about the relief his preparedness provided, taking turns to better equip themselves in one pair, as the other watched nervously for signs of life.

There was one to present itself. A very pleased, tail-wagging, kill-carrying Naga. This time with the unfortunate trophy being some manner of forest goat.

“Where have you been!?” Asami demanded of her, earning a confused look.

The hound dropped her prey and pawed it. A rather simple, if clear explanation. When not showered with the expected praise and copious affection she was expecting, however, she wasted no time in expanding out and inspecting the results of the scene.

Soon, her lips had pulled back in a faint snarl after sniffing the poisoned stake and snare.

“I wonder if she can catch the scent?” Opal wondered, being helped onto her awkwardly placed mount in the very midst of the tangle.

Naga sneezed and shook her head.

“That's a no, then,” Asami said, clambering up Bucephalus and into her second home. The tight fit was only worsened as a new, hastily gutted carcass was stacked atop the already teetering pile transferred to the uninjured mule pressed right against her leg. “Kuvira, what's the plan?”

With a new smile, of a kin to that worn while cleaving goblins left and right, the Metalshaper decided, “If we're being hunted, we act like frightened animals and scurry to our den.”

“And if we are cornered?” Opal inquired.

“We get to see gorgeous' fancy sword in action again.” All eyes turned to Asami. Not the most comfortable sight, under the circumstances. Being effectively called the collective rat in a game of cat-and-mouse was not helping the Alchemist dispel the creeping dread in her bones. “Head on a swivel, everyone. Let’s see if we can turn our hunter into prey.”

Chapter Text

How far?

How far could it possibly be to safe-harbor, now?

Trackless wilderness could only stretch so far. Forests were only so big. The trees should give way to grassland or planter's fields, at some point. Right?

Ice cracks and shatters as she turns her head to one side, then the other. Snow had given way to sleet some time ago. Sheets of clear crystal now clung to everything that wasn't constantly moving. People, animals, goods, and the very ground they walked on became a single block that caught the dim light like a lens. It played tricks on your mind. Made you see things. Reflections that weren't really there lurking just out of eyeshot.

“Wake up,” Opal prompted a dosing Bolin, growing feebler in his saddle by the moment. “You have to keep your eyes open.”

He starts, confused, brain so numbed by the ceaseless cold that he mightn't have realized he was drifting off. “Sorry,” he said, slapping himself roughly a few times on the face, “It's just so cold, you know. We've been going for hours.”

“I know. But you must stay awake. Just… look at me.”

“That I can do,” the smitten man agreed. His smile grew, visible even through the furs wrapped around his face. “I could do that for ages.”

“Flatterer.”

Gods, if you're listening, take me now.

Asami's heart thudded jealously in her chest. While blood had drained steadily from her fingers, toes, ears, and face, her lips still burned with a ghostly fire. The only thing that kept her going was the prospect of another kiss against them. It was the only thing she saw, she wanted, she needed. It was why she'd come out here in the first place, wasn't it? Or was there another reason? A… quest? A flower?

“Up ahead! I can see a building!” Kuvira shouted, rising fully from her saddle to stand in the stirrups. Wind buffeted her, iron black cloak and green velvet framed in white like a painting, as a voice raised in triumph, “Thank fuck, we made it! I can't believe it!”

Lo and behold, the flirt was right. For once the Alchemist felt she could match her smile for smile. No kinder sight had she ever seen in life than those stark, wooden palisades.

But something was wrong. “There aren't any fires,” she noted aloud, instantly chilling the mood.

Buildings there were. A great many of them, in fact. Tall structures with high peaks of wooden slate and thatch. Chimneys of stone and mortar towered even higher still on each, symbols of hearth and home. And yet all of them were cold and dark.

No smoke.

No fires.

“Do you think we beat the others here?” Opal asked, straining to see through her long lashes.

The others all shook their heads. No that Asami did so out of any sort of knowledge beyond conviction. One, the other, or both of the tempestuous duo could easily make better time than the rest of this sorry lot. No baggage or bantering to slow them down, petty competition driving them hard. Honestly, it would not surprise her in the least if they drove each other over the mountains and into the Northern Waste.

Unless their accord had promptly disintegrated into a running battle of one attempting to kill the other, that is. Not impossible, and also something she didn't want to think about.

“That's about as likely as you giving me that kiss I'm owed. You know the one,” teased the lecher, contorting her body to look back at the awkward angle required to get all of them in view. “Might have hunkered down in the larder. Hard as the storm hit us, it looks worse here.”

She couldn't see it. Sure, the drifts were deeper, but the trees were stout as any ever grown.

“On the other hand, whoever was following us drifted off a few hours ago. Chances are they swung ahead of us and came to the only bit of good shelter for miles.” Kuvira lifted her reins, bringing all the animals to a halt. Bright steel fell easily into a waiting hand. The surface shimmered, melting like mercury into the shape of a sword, then hardening with an audible hiss. “Considering they have no problem maiming anyone that happens by, I wouldn't put it past them to do some harm to a handful of isolated woodsmen. Be ready.”

Ropes are untied and gathered up, the mules left to their own devices. A risk. One well worth taking. Should they bolt again, the deep powder, injuries, and overloading would keep them from getting far. Taking the greater risk might get them killed, crippling the expedition.

Danger acted as an ice-axe. Mind and body defrost with the sound of steel against a scabbard. Fingers twitch, testing the willingness of the weather. It yielded.

Ice and snow are now her kingdom.

The gate, such that it was, stands ajar enough to pass in pairs. Arteries thundering with pulsing excitement, Asami silently volunteered herself for the vanguard by lightly nudging Bucephalus' flank. Mother's sword hums for battle. Magic yearns to leap from her fingertips. There's this restless energy bubbling up she's only ever felt before in the midst of a promising project, when the next drop or dash might lead to a great discovery.

“I've got your back,” Bolin promised, suddenly alert and ready, warhammer swinging.

Swallowing, the Alchemist nodded. Eyes scanned the streams of icy pellets, each wave a few paces apart. Just enough that fine details, and even entire structures, could suddenly be upon them. Like the finely constructed well smack dab in the middle of the path. Or the lines of little cottages on either side. Smooth timbers framing stout logs. The finest carpentry Asami's ever seen.

It was a quaint little hamlet. At least, from what she could see. Everything was neatly in order. Rows of axes, saws, mauls, and picks all lined up for the next days harvest of timber. Fresh cut boards curing in stacks and sturdy shelters.

But not a soul to tend them.

Not an animal, either.

The camp looked utterly pristine, and yet there is now sign of life. Nary a light nor a sound eschewed from any building, man, or beast.

“Hello!” the freshman called, disturbed by the total silence, “Is anyone there?!”

A set of stunned green eyes turn upon her, bulging out of their sockets. “Your parents did tell you about the element of surprise, right? It isn't some arcane secret passed down by mystics, you know,” she was gently chided, just enough good nature returned to the woman's voice to earn a tut, instead of a full-blown rebuke, “Oh, well. If anyone is here, they know we are, too.”

“What now?” the two youngest ask in unison.

“Split up and search for clues!” said the de-facto leader of the group, turning on a Crown. Asami didn't like the glee in that wild grin taking hold. If she was ready for a fight, Kuvira looked to be rearing for one. Traps had startled that out of her, a moment, but the returning energy was enough to the ground to shake as the threw herself from the saddle. “Look for people. If you don't find any, try and find out where they went and when. Plus food, water, and a decent place to sleep.”

Opal swiftly added, “And a bath! Nothing gets the cold out of your bones like a hot soak and a bowl of soup.

“An excellent idea, love. Bath first, then all that other stuff.”

“Here, here!”

Thunder clapped to swallow the shopkeep's more timid answer. Someone, she felt, still lurked out in the darkness. A menacing, murderous presence that hovered over her shoulder like a shade. Opal and Bolin could likely feel it as well. Their words were bold, but their motions reserved. No one released the grip on their blade as the Metal-shaper did.

Of course, hers simply melted down and joined the steel of her heavy greaves. Not so much put away as kept more literally 'on hand'. “Opal with me, we'll take this side.”

“I guess that means we'll take this one,” Bolin reasoned, smiling with a decent facsimile of enthusiasm. Ice and snow crackle under his weight, boots digging into the frozen surface while an arm beckoned her to follow. “Whatd'ya think? Front door or cellar?”

A tough choice from where she was standing. Were it Asami's own abode, she would be snuggled up in an armchair, within tending distance of a roaring fire. Hot tea in one hand, The Finer Points of Mandrakes in the other. Surprisingly good books and delicious drinks aside, however, she could see the reasoning behind waiting out a storm in the safety of an underground shelter.

Decisions, decisions. “Let's try upstairs. Better manners, isn't it?”

Her friend agreed, and they began the dangerous task of making it up the trio of steps without falling on their swords. A task only made harder as the wind picked up into a right tempest, tugging at every bit of loose cloth, before burrowing into her soul. With a wave, Asami cleared the way and the latch of ice.

God's, deliver me from this frozen hell.

Bolin only had to touch the door for it to swing wide before them. It was cold inside. Not as cold as the storm, but that was likely just due to the lack of wind.

“Hello?”

“Anyone home?” Bolin asked, sweeping the main room with his eyes and weapon. Stone fireplace, sans stokers and all the pots and pans one would expect in a home so modest. Plates and bowels a plenty, but only the woodware and roughest pottery. “It looks like they… packed?”

“Yeah, and not in a hurry, either. Bandits? Drove off the people and stripped the place?”

“No blood, no bodies, no sign of a struggle. If it were bandits, they would have torn this place apart for hidden loot.” His foot nudged a pile of moth-eaten wools. An angry spider came squirming out, front legs raise to show of size and bare its fangs. “Look at that, Sis, its a friend of yours. Why don't the two of you get reacquainted while I check the bedroom?”

Common brown-back. About as useful to her as a wet rag in a rainstorm. Not that he knew that, or even care. Creepy-crawly things were her line of work, period. “Be careful. She bites!”

Unfortunately for her amusement, the same joke only worked so many times. Much to her amusement, the aggression of the common brown-back did not fail to disappoint. It ran up his boot and leg with reckless abandon, prompting him to jump and curse, batting it away into the darkness.

Smiling and chuckling to herself as he squirmed, Asami checked the nearest room.

A pantry, as it turned out. Fully stocked with drying herbs and wilting or fully wilted vegetables. Some corners brought the unmistakable scent of moldy bread and soured milk, others the promising whiff of aging cheese. No signs of life, though. Not even a hungry rat taking advantage of the bounty. Only the gentle swing of a bundle of Mountain Sage in a minor draft. It would do well with crushed Ginger-root and mulled wine as a Dysentery tonic.

Hesitantly, she took it. Should they be confronted by the residents, it would be simple enough to return, with a penny or two of apology. “Find anything?”

“Beds are stripped down. Looks like there were some chests.”

“Were?”

“Gone. Same as everything else,” he said with mild disappointment. A boyish face, freshly rosy, peaked around the door, “How 'bout you? Any sign of what happened?” Left off was the implied, Or, barring that, anything worth stealing?

She lifted her meager prize so he could see. “I found this, but almost everything has gone off. The cheese might be salvageable.”

A broad chin nodded, taking note. Could she see a little bit of drool? Gods, she might be doing just the same. Fruit and liquor sat lightly in her stomach. What she craved was rich brown bread and fresh butter, a thick cut of meat doused in thick gravy. Roasted vegetables, bone-broth stew, and a heavy malt beer to wash it down with. Then, to finish the meal, fruit pie with cream.

Not finding the makings for any of that, they swiftly agreed to move on, taking a wheel each for safe-keeping. You had no idea who might come poking around, after all. They might just steal them.

Much the same could be made of the cellar beneath. Fully stocked of the more perishable goods, but stripped down of salted meat, flour, and corn. Two bags of oats, the same of beer barrels, and a hefty container of rendered lard remained usable among the contents. Slim rations if anyone expected to return. Yet, a safe enough place to weather out a storm like this one. Well-fitted stone walls that any mason might admire. Heavy beams to frame the roof.

“Whatever happened, it happened at least a week ago. Maybe more,” the young man said, running his finger over the thick layer of dust on the neglected butter churn. “Maybe they left when that tribe of Orcs came through?”

Asami shrugged, not knowing what to think as the door is ripped from her by the wind. “Why leave their tools, then?”

“How should I know? Let's check the next house.”

They did.

They found nothing. More oats, a salted ham-hock, pickled onions, apple preserves, and a modest assortment of wine and spirits. But no people. No sign of people. No sign people had been there in weeks, or more. Flies danced in that house. A large and varied collection. Fruit flies, house flies, Green Darters, Red Corrupters, and a lone Imperial Gold. Only the last gorged itself on flesh, exclusively, and it had made its home in a flank of bacon.

“This is weird,” Bolin says, leaning against the third cabin's door, but not yet working the latch. “I mean, I've seen villages were people have been run out, raided, robbed, and butchered, and this is freaking me out. They just left their homes and took everything in them. Who does that?”

A book leapt to the fore of her memory, “Sezian tribes move their settlements with the herds. Whole towns packed up and loaded onto horses in a few hours.”

“Houses made of hide and tent polls, not stone and thatch.”

“What's the difference? People move.”

Shoulder barging against the door, the weaver of wards looked at her skeptically. “I don't know. Maybe you're right. Something just feels… off, you know?” he relayed, taking one step in. Then, his broad shoulders stopped dead. “Sweet Mother...”

Blood.

An unmistakable scent. Pungent, coppery notes that cling tightly to the frozen air as a puff of steam gushes out of the gap. She can see it, the red stain seeped into the floorboards. Not a puddle, but a ragged smear marked with lines of scratches. Like someone had fought and clawed against being dragged inside.

There ran a shiver up her find. Fear of the purest distillation. Images of torn flesh and dead friends. Blue eyes forever pale and lifeless.

“W-what is it?” Who is it? Tell me!

Swiftly, the more level-headed adventurer stepped fully into the room, out of Asami's sight and nervous aura. There was a rush of air as his hammer was whipped around at something. Feet scrapped and slipped on a slick surface, wards crackling to life, magic prickling the Alchemist's sixth-sense like the ozone before a thunderstorm.

In a blink, shoe came back to herself. Death to fear. Come to action.

Fight!

Lightning arcs down the length of her blade with barely an effort. Blue-white lines chirp and peel off to trace lines up her arm, hopping to the hinge. She followed at a brisk sprint, ready to drive the tip into anything that moved, only to nearly impale Bolin in the spine.

At the last moment, she turns the blade, skipping the crossguard off his shoulder. Wards and electricity meet in a technicolor circus. Flashes of neon leave stars dancing in startled eyes, breath stolen from her lungs.

“Fuck!” shouted the dreamer. A hand flew to cover the point of impact, spells failing in a cascade. “Watch were you point that thing!”

“I'm sorry, I'm sorry!”

But her vision had already wandered elsewhere. There was blood everywhere. Every surface was painted with the stuff. Floor to ceiling, long lines of fading scarlet trace the aftermath of a massacre. Three bodies are strewn lifelessly on the floor. Broken and discarded like the toys of some vicious ogre, are they, each stabbed innumerous times. One head, eyes wide with the last moment's horror, hangs limply by a flap of skin and spine.

“You know what I said about bandits? Scrap that.”

It was certainly violent enough an attack. But the timing gave the freshman fresh reason for concern. This room still held the remnants of a fire's warmth, though the embers only smouldered. And yet, the blood was dried enough in places to be crumbling into flakes.

She swallowed, cutting her thumb as sword returned to sheath. “Korra didn't do this. Couldn't have. Mako, either.”   

“Someone did. Someone crazy enough to pick a fight with mercenaries,” Bolin muttered for mostly his own benefit. Knees bending, he stooped over the man who most likely left the scratches, tearing an emblem from his collar. “I remember these guys from the war. Odagawa's Borderers Regiment. Not the kind of people you'd want to fuck with.”

A lack of knowledge, and a degree of shock, tempted out a question, “Which side did they fight on?”

“Both.”

Sellswords in a place like this, beyond the edge of most maps? Slain in brutal fashion in the time between the scouts passing and the main party's arrival. It felt impossible for that to be a coincidence. “Do you think they were the ones following us?” she asked, stepping closer to examine the man's wounds. So many wounds. At least a dozen stabs to his back, neck, and face. Violence for the sake of violence. “Or were the traps for them?”

“Fingers crossed for the first one. If they left the traps, that would mean there's someone out here hunting them,” he said with a half-smile/half-grimace on his youthful face. “Which is to say, not us.”

Raised voices reach them over the howling sleet and thunder. Not a call to arms, but no less urgent to her ears. Out the door, down the steps, the sound of the very wind changed. It rushed at them like a gale as the two tripped over themselves to rush from their gruesome discovery.

“Asami! Asami, we need you! Someone's hurt!” Opal babbled in a string of words that barely separate themselves, “We found someone in the stables. Come quick!”

“We just-”

“No time, hurry!”

Her feet did not touch the ground as she spun on the spot and shot off like an arrow, instead hovering a good few inches above, sleeves acting like wings to carry her. Remarkable as this ability was, the Alchemist wished that it would end. That there would be time to process. To not rush from this, which must be some sort of tragedy, just to be dragged on to the next excitement.

How do they do it? she asked herself, struggling with an extra hazard, violent lashes of wind buffeting her face. Squinting and stumbling, lips too dry to properly whistle, fingers too numb to work equipment from her belt, the woman wondered, How can they live like this?

Ragged clothes and fine armor, hardly a morsel fill her belly. Beyond tired, beyond stressed, beyond cold. This adventure was wearing her down to a nub, and now it dared ask more of her?

“Bucky! Naga!”

Did he hear?

Did she hear?

Why am I here?

A blur of white suddenly appeared alongside. Paws dug an easy trough to follow, hooves thundering as the structure loomed out of the wall of white.

“We found three others in the cabin. Dead,” said the trooper in Asami's shadow. A hush fell on the world, his magic flowing so freely into the surrounding space it made hairs stand on end. Stepping stones free of ice rose up, easing the ache in her feet just a little. “More mercenaries.”

“Mercenaries? No, she's an elf.”

An elf?

Did she kill them?

The entrance loomed suddenly from the ice, consumed by a downdraft of some kind. A curtain of darkness beyond. Enough to blind her so thoroughly she doesn’t see the hound come screeching to a halt until legs made contact with fur. Asami went bowling over, face smacking into the first piece of dry ground she’d felt in a day. She was stunned, if only for a moment, before a sound brought her hurtling back to clear-headedness.

The most terrifying snarl rumbled from deep in Naga's chest. A sound that could curdle milk and make grown men wet themselves in terror. Worse was the sight of an equally ferocious snarl, dripping with froth and lather. Then, came the lunge.

Laying in a pile of hay, eyes barely open, was a girl with freckled cheeks and pallad skin. Slight of frame and build. Cut up and bloodied, one side of her shirt lacerated and crimson. Almost gaunt with either disease or malnutrition. Too weak to give any reaction to the bear-dog or anything else, only whimpering as the pressure on her wound lessened when Kuvira jumped out of the way to avoid snapping jaws.

“Naga, no!”

To Asami's, and maybe everyone's surprise, she did.

Maybe a foot short, jaws primed to snap closed on a vulnerable throat, the massive hound loitered. A frantic, complaining whine reached the Alchemist's ears. Fear and anger in those all too human eyes as they sought to catch her own.

“What's got into her?” Bolin asked, fetching the overstuffed bag of medicines for the second time in a day.

As the healer tore open the elf's shredded garment to more easily get at the pair of deep slashes, Kuvira resumed the previous task of applying pressure to the deepest gash. Blood oozed from it, as Asami took stock of the many. The great many. More than a dozen faded lines against skin drained white by cold and blood loss. Many old and knitted well, others jagged and painfully scarred. The offending bleeder looked minor compared to many of them, but bore a distinct odor of toxic sepsis.

“Maybe she recognizes her. Dogs never forget a face, let alone familiars,” the Metalshaper said, yielding her position so blood could be washed away with ether spirits, then retaking it, “She said her name before she went under. Senna? Sora? Something like that.”

Opal padded by, stroking fluffy ears in an effort to export calm, “Sara! It was Sara!”

Another growl.

Deep enough to make Asami's heart leap into her throat. Naga doesn't like her… But Naga likes everyone. I don't like this. This wound is- It’s- “Naga, listen to me.”

Slowly, a chin nodded, blue eyes darting nervously between patient and potion-maker.

“I need you to go find the others, okay? Find them as fast as you can and bring them here,” she said between cleaning cuts and preparing thread for suturing. A thin layer of rust tainted her needle's point, hastily buffed against the roughest cloth at hand. “Tell her- oh, what am I saying? Can someone write a letter?”

Bolin presented the swatch of fabric he had torn away, “I don't have a pen, this'll have to do. They'll know something's up when she comes, anyway.”

The great figure hesitated, head shaking in an obvious 'no'. But her barks and whines meant little beyond reinforcing the anxiety behind them. She did not want to go. Asami did not understand. Huffing with frustration, the hound resorted to putting paws to work against the ground, claws digging through straw and rocky soil like they were river mud. Teeth gripped a nearby stick and jammed it into the hole. With her nose, she pointed first to her creation, then the girl against the wall.

“She made them. She made them!”

“Seriously! You're joking?!” the flirt declared, staring delightedly at the ball of fur, “Well, I'll be damned to marriage and motherhood. Here I was hoping for a decent fight after all that sneaking around.”

As it was, Naga still appeared bristling for a brawl. Hackles drawn, teeth bared, ears pulled back, she looked every bit the fearsome wolf. Canines glistened as a fresh rumble peeled forth like thunder from the heavens. Anger, fraying restraint, and recognition all laid bare upon her muttly features. One twitch and there would be nothing anyone could do to stop her.

Opal was first to voice the question that likely plagued all of their minds, “If I am understanding this right, she is the one who set the traps, yes?” Four heads nodded in unison as a reply. “What are we going to do with her, then? She could have killed us, and was likely trying to do so.”

“First, I stop the bleeding.” Asami's choice, driven by training and a perhaps ill-placed compassion. “Everything else can wait.”

Steel dripped from the lecher's limbs to crawl up those of the elf, forming into manacles and thick links of chain around wrists that jumped to life and quickly made to struggle against them. “Oh, so you're not so weak and feeble when it comes down to it, are you?” Kuvira chuckled, falling back into a sprawled sitting position from which she could closely observe the now captive. “Don't bother fighting them, you'll only hurt yourself. And wouldn't that be a shame?”

“Let me go...”

“Once you tell us why you were tracking us,” the only man among them said. “You're not dressed like the men we found, and you don't look like any corsair or poacher I've ever met.” Which is exactly how many? “Bounty-hunter? Or Adventurer?”

A lip twitched at that last word, a little extra life coming through. Along with something not unlike anger. “I wasn't tracking you.”

“Sure seems like you were, from where I'm standing.”

“Well, I wasn't.”

He sighed, rather dramatically, even for him. Asami could hear the sound of him scratching at the light peach-fuzz he called a beard. “Look,” Bolin said, as if resigning himself to her stubbornness, “If you have some business with one of us, we're going to find out about it. You might as well tell us and save everyone the trouble. Who's head has the price on it?”

Tawny hair bristled like porcupine quills, cheeks flushed with fresh rouge, but lips stayed mum from answering. Even as the needle pierced her side, the stranger uttered no more sounds, of agony or otherwise.

“Who attacked you?” Asami asked, the real answer already in her mind. “Was it Korra?”

“No.”

Kuvira snickered, having caught the slip, as well.

So, you’re after her. Lucky for me, you must have just missed her. “Naga, go get the others. We need to know why she's here, and you can't tell us,” the healer instructed, tying off the knot on her first set of stitches, “If you're an assassin, you're not a very good one. You should have known better than to cut yourself with the same knife you made Assassin's Tear with.”

The elf smiled a little grin, “Happens to the best of us. It was a bit of a rushed job. I wasn't expecting there to be people waiting for me here.” Cold chills, nothing to do with the weather, broke out all over her body as green eyes me those elven blues. “And my name is Serra, not Sah-ra.”

“Pretty name for a pretty woman. And a dangerous one,” the Metalshaper said, leaning forward to slip the poisoner's knife from its sheath, “I like dangerous.”

“Really, now?!” Opal demands as Asami's eyes are trapped by a lethal stare, “She tried to kill us!”

She shrugged, rising from her spot as the blade melted to nothing in her fingers. “Give me a break, Op. Even you can't fault me for trying to be friendly. Besides, I have to take what I can get in this God's forsaken forest.” The woman stretched her legs and arms, popping joints and straining muscles. Never once did her eyes waver from the Challeian's face. Not for a moment did her battle-hungry smile fade. “You're not going to switch sides, that's for sure. Our jester and his brother have too many dangly bits for my taste. Gorgeous is already spoken for.”

Pardon?

“Huh?”

“She's what, now?”

“Doesn't matter. What I'm trying to say is… Fuck it!” She spun on a dime, abandoning her floundering explanation and thoroughly aggravating revelation, “I'm gonna go start a fire. Laughing boy, you're in charge. If she tries to get out of those bracelets I made, brain her. And if that doesn't work, pray she's a lover, not a fighter.”

Naga still hovered over Asami's shoulder, whining as she took responsibility for holding that icy gaze. She growled as the elf whispered something under her breath in a tongue the Alchemist couldn't understand.

After gesturing rudely at the retreating back and stealing herself, the healer turned upon her patient with freshly forged iron in her resolve, “What did you say?”

“Nothing.”

The expression she received upon digging her fingers deep into a pressure point could have been a thousand different things, and all of them at once. Vitriol and agony, surprise and bitter hate. That and that again in a swirl between the impassive and the settling scowl. So shocking a display it took a moment for her to follow up. “Cast a spell and you'll end up with something a whole lot worse than what you have.”

“I doubt that.”

With a snort, the dog turned on her heels and bolted. Faster than Asami had ever seen an animal run. A white blur against a wall of somehow duller white sleet, gone in the blink of an eye.

Something hummed deep in the Alchemist's chest at her leaving. Like safety and security had suddenly been ripped away. Korra was gone, Mako was gone, and the readied blades of her two young companions felt as reassuring as sticks in the hands of toddlers. And insanely, she was continuing to work on the wounds crippling their foil.

Well, I don't have to give her the antidote…

One look at the animalistic levels of rage burning deep inside the Challeian’s eyes made that possibility firm reality. She could suffer the last minutes of her toxin, as she’d done the rest without a peep. Last stitch looped, balm and herbs applied, Asami stepped back from her work and as far away as she felt safe.

Now, with a third blade to join the two, her security should feel secure, and yet. There is something in those eyes. A deep and devious cunning, coupled with an anxious flit and coils of nervous energy.

As the elf leaned forward, looking noticeably towards the door, the Alchemist thought to herself, I really wish Korra was here.