Previously on Avatar
Some days I really wonder how society doesn't collapse into itself
As Raiden began shouting for the dense market crowd to part as he ran after the kidnappers, I noticed something. The village guard, resplendant in head to toe, moss green plate armor (complete with one of those red feathers on their helmets that were all the rage back then), was doing precisely nothing while looking directly at the three children and their kidnappers. Whether they were paid to look the other way or were in on the act, it didn’t matter: dragging kids off is real high on my “earning a beatdown” list.
This was where I began mentally kicking myself for leaving my monk’s spade back with Amala. I can bend just fine without it, but my attacks tend to have less focus and force behind them. With so many people cramped into one space, my normal moves just weren't going to cut it.
Luckily, our party's little stay in Darkhollow encouraged me to always carry around a few special implements I usually keep with Amala for special circumstances. Good to have a plan B, I've always found.
With a blast of air, I lept up onto the roof of the nearest building, a pottery shop, and quickly darted from stall roof to stall roof to catch up with Raiden. Much easier to move on roofs, very little foot traffic and you get a good view of where your quarry is going.
"Hey, get down from there!" about ten voices shouted behind me, soon followed by several whooshes that sounded suspiciously like thrown spears.
Unfortunately, rooftop travel also pisses off the guards something awful, as I've previously said. Kids being dragged off they're fine with, but a guy tries to get a better view and suddenly he's target practice.
There's no justice in the world.
As soon as I caught up to Raiden, I shouted "You take the one on the right, I'll take the other two!" I was the quicker one, so I hoped to spare the encumbered warrior the trouble of chasing after two opponents. If he heard me, he didn't show it, and continued charging through the crowd to the rightmost kidnapper. Not being the most quiet person, the kidnappers soon became aware of the walking armory lumbering towards then, and all three broke into a dead sprint. None had the decency to drop the kids.
Two kidnappers broke off to the right, barreling down a narrow side street with Raiden in hot pursuit. The remaining kidnapper fled down the main market road, shoving aside people in his way. No one attempted to bar his way, likely taking their cues from the still inactive guards. Well, inactive aside from the ones chucking spears in my general direction.
I did my best to keep up with the straggler. For a guy barging through a crowd and hauling a kid behind him, he could book. Unfortunately, he did not have a gust of wind usually not found outside hurricanes propelling him forward, and before long I was well ahead.
Now I could properly set up my ambush.
I pulled out a slim, black blowgun from a small pack on my side (I call it my Bag of Dirty Tricks), along with a little black dart. As the kidnapper ran in my direction, still unaware of my presence, I placed the dart in the blowgun and took careful aim (not that careful, as the man had no armor to speak of). With a quick exhale, I directed an air blast into the blowgun, sending the dart within flying towards the kidnapper. Before the man had the time to blink, the dart slammed into his shoulder. Within seconds, his entire body locked up, and he collapsed into the street mid-stride. Highly concentrated shirshu venom does good work.
The kid, whose shirt was still in the paralyzed grasp of his kidnapper, quickly got to his feet, tore off his shirt, and ran like a platypus bear was after him. Hopefully he would come across some non-paid off guards, but I wasn't too hopeful.
With one kidnapper down and the guard well behind me, I leapt across the street to the next row of buildings, trying to catch up with Raiden and the other two men asking for an airbending-propelled dart in the chest.
Three street spanning jumps later, I found the side street Raiden and the kidnappers ran down. I followed the streets, still keeping to the rooftops, and before long I saw one of the kidnappers chained to a wooden column, his hands bound behind him. On closer inspection, the chain seemed to have a kama on one end, its blade buried deep into the column, and a heavy spherical weight on the other dangling from the man's arms.
Raiden's kusarigama I thought. Well, that's two down at least, and two kids freed. Now where's the third?
I followed the street as it wound and twisted upon itself, like a prickle-snake caught in a particularly nasty bramble bush. I tried to single out anything that sounded like Raiden or swordplay, but a busy town is not the easiest place to soundbend something that specific. Soundbending is something of a subtle art, the delicate scalpel to, say, lightning's cudgel. It requires some subtle movements, like all bending does, but like other forms of airbending it also comes from the mind and from the will. Many different factors go into directing minute vibrations through the air, whether amplifying them, redirecting them, or muffling them. You have to keep in mind where sound might travel through the air, where it might bounce off of, where it might get stopped dead.
In other words, it's really blasted difficult while running someone down with hundreds of people talking around you.
So it wasn't till I got to the other end of the street that I actually found who I was looking for, and it wasn't a situation I wanted to see. The kidnapper, a stout guy with a veritable dome of black hair and a broad, lumpy face. If he weren't holding a scimitar to an eight-year-old's throat, he'd look downright comical.
Raiden had his sword out, its point square at the kidnapper. He slowly paced from side so side, looking for weaknesses, but otherwise he made no move against his opponent.
I tried to sneak past the kidnapper as I had his friend, but unfortunately this one was more alert. "Hey!" he shouted, "No funny business! Get down from there, or the kid gets it!" To emphasize his point, he brought the edge of his sword up against the kid's throat, a scrawny looking thing with enormous brown eyes and messy, sandy brown hair. The kid was frozen with fear as streams of tears ran down his face.
I slowly dropped down from the rooftops with a gentle gust to break my fall. In these situations, sudden moves can get people killed. I've been in enough of them to know.
"Drop the pipe!" the kidnapper shouted. I had forgotten I still had my blowgun in my hands. I let it drop to the ground.
"Kick it away!" said the kidnapper.
I was about to; I didn't want to escalate things further. Usually I'm happy to prod people on, as it tends to make them not think clearly, but once innocent lives are on the line, I'm done.
Raiden seemed to have other plans. "Enough of this, Lee! Let the kid go! I won't ask again!"
"I can't do that, Raiden!" Lee shouted back. "I have too much riding on this kid here!"
"Raiden, do you know this guy?" I asked.
Raiden shot me a sideways glance. "He used to be in the army back during the Sandbender Rebellion. He was dishonorably discharged when he was found to be taking bribes from his soldiers for favors."
Lee didn't seem to appreciate that. "I was looking out for my men! And cause of you and your toadies' meddling, I had to take work where I could! I had to call in favors, and now those favors are calling in their tabs!"
"You betrayed the principles of His Majesty's service!" Raiden shouted back. "You undermined the trust of..."
Great. More shouting I thought as Raiden continued ranting, that'll free the kid...
I looked to see if Lee was paying attention to me. Thankfully, he seemed completely focused on Raiden. I slowly raised a cupped hand, my palm facing to the right, towards Raiden. I whispered "Keep him talking, I have a plan" into my hand, willing a small amount of power to the sound bouncing off my hand towards Raiden's ears. Not an easy feat, mind you; you almost have to feel the sound as it flies through the air. Its hard to explain, and I get the feeling that if I weren't so dependent on sight I'd be able to outline it better, but here we are.
Going by the confused look on Raiden's face, I think he got the message loud and clear. Going by the unchanged look on Lee's face, I think he didn't. Raiden continued his tyrade, and Lee seemed happy enough to seethe in the warrior's general direction.
Now for the kid.
I lowered my hand, and making sure not to move my lips too much, sent a message to the kid.
"Hey" I whispered, projecting my words right to the kid's ears, "if you can hear me, blink twice."
Though still clearly distressed, the kid blinked twice. Lee still didn't seem like he heard anything. Perfect.
"Alright. My name is Assam, and I'm communicating with you through soundbending, so the big guy with the sword can't hear me. Just you. I'm gonna get you out of this, but you need to do as I say, alright? Blink twice if you understand."
The kid blinked twice.
"Good, good," I continued. "Now listen closely. In a few seconds there's going to be a sound of a dozen swords being drawn from their sheaths to your left. When that happens, I'm going to need you to close your eyes as tight as you can. The second that creep lets go, open your eyes and run as fast as you can. Do you understand?"
The kid blinked twice.
Alright, I thought, showtime.
While making sure Lee was still preoccupied with his fellow ex-soldier, I once more reached into my Bag of Dirty Tricks and grasped a small leather bag bound up in string. I undid the simple knot on the top of the bag and, with a gentle swirling of my fingers, swept up a small amount of the fine white powder within into a spinning ball of air.
I then got a different sort of soundbending ready. Not only can I project sounds where I want, I can also warp them quite a bit. Takes a while, though: I can usually only change sounds, say two men shouting at each other (plenty of sound to go around without either of them noticing), to something I'm very used to hearing. It just so happens, hanging out with the Avatar, I've heard a lot of sounds that might get the attention of a desperate child-napper, one of them being about a dozen swords drawn at once. Alarming enough to get his attention, but not quite alarming enough for him to hurt the kid.
I let out a growl from my throat. Any sound would do, but I didn't want Lee catching on to anything by moving my lips more than absolutely necessary. I held the sound before me, an invisible, infinitesimal disturbance of air bound and fed by my will and a few subtle movements of my fingers. I immediately began molding the sound, stretching and contorting the tiny waves of pressure until they resembled the result I desired. It didn't take too long; this was an old ruse, the kind I used to use to scare the daylights out of the elder monks. I don't even quite remember where I first heard these swords being drawn. I did know at that point that I had been pulling this trick long enough that it was a convincing trick.
Once the sound was perfectly crafted, I willed it far to the right, into an adjacent alley. Then, I let it loose. And let me tell you, the look on someone's face when they hear a dozen swords being drawn at once when they're doing something they shouldn't:
Immediately, two things happened. One, the kid closed his eyes as tight as he could, just like I asked. Two, Lee whipped his head to his left. Which gave me just enough time to lob an air blast engorged with blinding powder at his big dumb face.
As soon as Lee brought his head back around, my little air bubble full of powder hit him square in the eyes. Instantly, a scream erupted from a horrified face, as his eyes smoked in their sockets. Funny thing about my blinding powder: it turns highly acidic when it comes into contact with a wet surface like, say, the eyes. The chemists in Ba Sing Se cook it up for metalworking, but the apothecaries are more than happy to sell it for more... practical uses.
Extreme? Probably. Effective? It’s acid to the eyes, what do you think?
As I’d hoped, Lee immediately dropped his sword and furiously began rubbing at his eyes. As soon as his scimitar landed on the ground with a loud clang, the kid opened his eyes, took one look at the man behind him screaming like a newborn babe, and bolted down the side alley where I had projected my sonic illusion.
“What in the blazes did you do?!”
Oh, right. The guy who I was supposed to let think I was a monk. Monk’s don’t throw acidic powder into people’s eyes, do they?
Raiden walked over to me, and he did not seem terribly happy that I had saved the kid. The guy already had hard features, but they looked downright savage when his anger showed through.
“Answer me, damn you!” he shouted, “What did you do?!”
From where I was standing, there was no good way to answer that. What sort of “ancient Air Nomad trick” could I pull out of my arse to explain why the guy in front of us was currently feeling his eyeballs dissolve?
Not much else to do except come clean. “That, Raiden,” I said, “is Ba Sing Se University certified salicylic acid powder. Or blinding powder, if you ask the apothecaries down the street from the university.”
"Blinding powder?!" Raiden shouted. Those jade eyes of his began to study me, as if I had suddenly poofed out of nowhere. In a slightly calmer voice, he asked "What sort of a monk uses such dishonorable tactics?"
"Well that's just it," I admitted, "I'm not a monk." Felt good to get that off my chest. I hate being deceptive to people who don't deserve it, even if it's just a lie of omission.
Raiden cocked his head to the side, the hard lines on his face twisted in confusion. "Not a monk? How? I thought all Air Nomads were monks by definition? You even have the robes, tattered as they are."
I really need to get a new outfit. Something with sleeves I can hide fun stuff in...
"Most are," I corrected, "but not all. I'm what's known as a heretic. I don't follow all the rules my... former countrymen do." The words former countrymen left a bitter taste in my mouth. Being forced out of your home, away from any friends or family you may have known will do that.
"Well... still..." said Raiden. He slowly backed off and turned his head towards Lee, who was still clutching at his now disfigured face. "Why not say something, or correct me?
"Yalun didn't want me to."
Crap, I shouldn't have said that. Curse my policy of honesty!
"Why did the Avatar insist you lie to me?!" he demanded.
I probably could have lied then, but why stop the honesty caravan? "He believed you would listen to a monk, not a heretical pauper."
"I'll have words with him about that." Raiden grimaced as he kept his gaze at Lee. "By the spirits, who uses acid?"
"The kind of guy who has no other option." I rebutted. "Any of my other options would have either taken too much time, which could have risked the kids life if Lee there caught on too quickly, or they wouldn't have been effective enough to get him to let go of the kid. We do what we have to in order to keep people safe down the line, right Mr. I-wanna-slice-up-a-guy-begging-for-mercy-at-my-feet."
Raiden whipped his head back around towards me. "That was completely-"
"Different, of course." I interrupted. I'd been fighting the way I do since I was 13 years old. If I had done so honorably, a great many people, including myself, would be missing about eight pounds from their shoulders, yet people always say the same thing when they see me fight firsthand. I'd heard it all by this point. "You wanted to kill someone because, in your experience, he would simply pick up his bloody trade as soon as he was out of sight. Would that be accurate"
Raiden nodded slightly. "Aye, that's fair."
I took a step towards Raiden. May as well keep up the offense. "Have you ever known a man who has resorted to kidnapping children to do any good down the line?"
Raiden lowered his head, and looked once more at his former comrade. "Not once" he said harshly. "Nor have I known a man to continue criminal acts without functioning eyes."
Acutal sense. All the more reason to get him in the group. "There we are."
Raiden seemed no happier at his little revelation. He turned towards the wimpering man before us, and gripped the hilt of his sword so tightly I could practically hear his knuckles getting white.
For a minute, neither of us spoke. We simply watched Lee grope about his surroundings, trying desperately to get a sense of his surroundings. His eyes, only partially covered by one hand, had been reduced to useless white lumps, surrounded by harshly burned skin, where the acid had been rubbed when he tried to expel my little trick from his face.
I broke the silence first. "What should we do with him?" The man was completely blind. Being thrown in a jail cell seemed like overkill.
Raiden straightened himself up, once more the lawman. "We take him before the magistrate and pray he hasn't been paid off like the guards, along with his accomplices. Where is the one you were chasing, anyway?"
"Laying in the middle of the street a few blocks over."
Raiden frowned a bit. "Did you secure him at all?"
"Other than the highly concentrated shirshu spit that will leave him rigid as a boulder for the next two weeks, no. I think he'll be fine."
Raiden covered his face with his palm. "Any more dishonorable tactics I should know about?"
"Depends, are you free through the next four days?" I replied.
Raiden pressed his palm in harder. "Never mind, lets just get this man into custody be on our way." He walked over to Lee, who seemed to be working his way up a fruit stand. "Come on, Lee, its over. We're taking you to the magistrate."
"No!" he shouted, his entire face twisted and contorted in fear. "They'll do things to me if I don't return!" Lee tried to stand, but ended up tripping over himself and landed heavily on his shoulder.
"Enough, Lee." said Raiden, clearly annoyed.
"No!" Lee said again. "I can't go back without an offering! I can't!"
Raiden seemed done talking. With his blade in one hand, he reached down with the other and grabbed at the collar of Lee's shirt.
Before Raiden could even lift the man, I saw Lee's hand dart behind him, and he thrust something at Raiden. I couldn't see quite what it was, but if this scumbag was pointing it at someone trying to do justice, it couldn't have been good.
My hands were moving before the thought to strike reached my brain. I struck at the air in front of me with an open palmed blow, sending another blast of air, this time without powder, rocketing at Lee. Instead of his face, the blast of air hit the object in Lee's hand, ripping it out and bouncing it off the wall behind him, ricocheting into the alley his former hostage ran down. Raiden instinctively lashed out with his sword, cutting upwards through the chest. I'm not sure if he hit the heart, but by the amount of blood that came out of the man, I didn't think it mattered.
As the last of his lifeblood poured into the streets, Lee croaked out his last words, his eyes fixed on Raiden: "They.. will come... for you..." With that, the light was gone from his eyes.
For a moment, all was quiet. I lowered my arm and strode towards the corpse that was Lee. Raiden let his sword hang by his side for a moment, staring at the deep cut he'd made in the man's side. He then pulled out a clean, white cloth and began cleaning the blade, confident that Lee wasn't getting up anytime soon, I suppose.
"I suppose dragging him to the magistrate's office is out of the question, then?" I asked. Hey, its a legitimate question here.
Raiden solemnly shook his head. "I am no coroner. I'll notify the undertaker, he and his underlings can come get the body. Considering what he did, I'm of half a mind to let him rot here in the alley."
I found it hard to disagree with that sentiment. "Did you see what he pulled on you?"
Raiden shook his head again, sheathing his now clean sword and stuffing the soiled cloth into a bag on his belt. "It all happened too quickly, I didn't get a chance to see. See if you can find whatever it was, it may be a clue as to who hired these thugs. Crime lords often outfit the men they hire with new weapons and armor." He picked up Lee's scimitar and inspected it closely.
While he did that, I walked over to the alley to try and find whatever it was I knocked away. If the blasted cult was behind this, I wanted to have a direct line. If it was just a crime lord who wanted to send a message, I'd like to know that too. I have worse poisons than shirshu spit, after all...
It wasn't exactly the cleanest alley. Layers of filth coated the walls and the streets, the decrepit remains of stalls strewn about as if a windstorm had come through. This is why I stick to the roofs, I thought to myself, all I have to worry about there is bird droppings. I walked down the alley, careful to avoid the more substantial piles of muck and junk. After about a minute of searching, a glint of metal caught my eye from a pile of what I hoped was rotten fruit. I strode over to the fetid pile, crouched down, and wiped the muck away from the freshly embedded object.
Then I realized it wasn't a shiny surface that caught my eye.
"Blast it!" Raiden shouted far behind be, right before a loud clang rang through the alley.
I quickly shook off the remaining filth from the object, slipped it into my Bag of Dirty Tricks, and made my way back to where Raiden was. The warrior had his armored arms crossed as he paced back and forth along the length of the now earthbound scimitar. "It's Earth Kingdom army standard issue. These kinds of weapons are produced in bulk, and higher ups want uniformity, so they don't use smith marks." He rubbed the side of his face with a gauntleted hand. "There's nothing on his blade that could be a clue, and there's nothing else on him. I'll bet whatever you knocked away didn't show anything either..."
"Well, that's not quite..." I started. Raiden turned his back and started down another alley like he didn't hear me. Reminded me of Yalun when he got all melancholic: way to focused on negativity to listen to all that much positivity.
As he rounded a corner, I ran after him, with a little airbending boost to put a spring in my step. "Where are you going?" I asked as I fell into stride beside him.
"I need a drink." Raiden said flatly.
I very nearly whipped out the object I found when I realized the opportunity before me. Warm sake is very good at loosening tongues and opening minds. Perhaps this was the chance I needed to earn Raiden's trust. Or at least repair it after my little reveal of being an airbending scoundrel.
As we walked, Raiden said nothing. He simply kept his eyes on the road and his hand on his sword. Down near the end of the market, Raiden found the local undertaker, a pale man with far too much black clothing to be sensible.
After the man sent some scrawny servants to pick up Lee's corpse, Raiden and I rounded a corner and found ourselves at what seemed like the local watering hole, The Gravel Pit. It was a squat, unassuming building, built of earthbending-raised rock with a few bits of wood holding it all together. It's only adornment seemed to be a sign hung above the door bearing the name of the establishment and an image of two crossed pickaxes laid over a crudely drawn mountain.Where there had once been a door, only a few hinges with bits of wood clinging to them remained. With a grunt, Raiden walked in, handing his sword and other weapons to someone just inside.
If only you could do that with benders, I thought as I followed him inside. Just before I slipped in the entrance after him, however, I caught a glimpse of a wonderful sight: a regiment of guards leading another regiment of guards, bound in chains. Some of the faces of those in chains I recognized as those I saw simply standing around while Lee and his cronies were dragging off children. I guess there is justice in the world.
The tavern was dimly lit, with only a few glowstone torches and the sunlight streaming in from the entrance to illuminate the place. The air was heavy with the smell of sheepig stew, sweaty workmen, and a faint whiff of vomit. Animal skins and other trophies hung on the walls, as well as worn mining equipment. The place was suprisingly packed, its many circular tables and booths crowded with miners, merchants, farmers, and guardsmen drinking away the stresses of the day.
Raiden had already taken up a seat at the far right end of the main bar, which seemed to stretch across the entire width of the building. I wove through the sea of sweaty, drunken workmen, slowly working my way towards Raiden. I think a few of them thought I was a bar maid, because I got a lot of shouts for ale or stew thrown in my direction.
One of the many drawbacks of not being terribly muscular and having long hair, I suppose.
The seats next to Raiden were occupied, but the man to his right, a corpulent man that had drunk himself into unconsciousness, was easily dislodged with a slight push. I think all the cups in the tavern jumped a little when he hit the ground.
Raiden gave me a sideways glance. "Won't take no for an answer, will you?"
I shrugged has I searched my pockets for a few copper pieces. "Technically you never said no."
Raiden grunted and gulped down the rest of his drink. The woman working the bar, a well muscled lady with black hair that more or less resembled a baby boar-q-pine, quickly grabbed a kettle from behind the bar and poured some of its contents into his cup. He didn't produce any coin, so I assumed he had paid in advance.Good. He'll need more than one drink at this point. Heck, I may need more than one drink.
I finally fished out few copper pieces and put them on the bar. Heresy doesn't pay well, as Nilak loves to remind me. "A cup of the house sake, please."
The bartender grunted and pulled out a clay cup from beneath the bar, quickly filling it with steaming hot sake before darting over to another customer.
"I didn't know Air Nomads drank alcohol." mumbled Raiden, swirling his own drink. "Or is it because you're a... whatever you said before."
"A heretic." I corrected. I took a quick swig of sake. The warm, fruity taste filled my mouth, though I was careful not to drink too much. I needed my facilities relatively intact, after all. "And the Air Nomads do drink, as it happens. Some of the old masters obstain, but a lot of the younger monks like the fermented sky bison milk the cooks make. Usually just on special occasions, though."
Raiden nodded slightly. "You live in the temples, then?" He turned to face me, his cheeks already turning a darling shade of red. "Or is it lived? I've met a few monks here and there, and it doesn't seem like you'd get along well with them."
I looked down at my own drink as a knot formed in my stomach. Didn't have to wonder why. "Lived. The Elder Council didn't like some of the changes to their precious traditions I was proposing, so they gave me a choice: abandon my views, or never set foot in the temples again. Stubborn as I am, I went with the latter. Imagine their surprise when I came back with the Avatar."
Raiden let out a breathy laugh. "Is it true that they're all benders up there? In the temples, I mean."
Much easier subject to talk about. My stomach began to relax a little, though maybe that was due to the sake. "Yep, it's true. All airbenders, every man, woman, and child."
A faint smile cracked across Raiden's lips. "About the only benders I can stomach at this point."
Now this should be interesting. I thought. "What makes you say that?"
There went the smile. "The power that benders possess... everywhere I go, north to south, east to west, there seems to be no end to benders who abuse their gifts for their own personal gain."
Sadly, not an uncommon viewpoint, I've found. It's nearly impossible for non-benders to stand up to benders of any sort unless they have serious numbers on their side or the element of suprise. This disparity tends to make it easier for self-centered people graced with bending to take advantage of people. Years ago, Yalun and the rest of us had to deal with one such earthbender, the self-styled Bandit King. If only he were the only one of his kind...
"Just last week," Raiden continued, "I had to deal with this piece of filth firebender who made his living targeting farms that didn't have benders. Don't know how he got so far from home, wasn't important. One arrow, one dead bender. Didn't even see me coming."
"With all that armor?"
Raiden looked over his armor, dinged and scratched from his fight but still impressive looking. "Oh, this? I only use this when I'm going after big groups, benders or otherwise."
"Fair enough," I replied taking another sip. "But you must have met some decent benders in your life."
Raiden nodded and finished his sake. The bartender seemed to appear from nowhere to refill his cup before leaving just as quickly. "I've met a few. I guess when you're in the army, you're bound to meet some decent benders just by the sheer numbers." He took another swig of sake. "Thing is though, they still benefit from being a bender, even if it's not intentional. Benders get picked over non-benders so much it's a wonder there haven't been more mutinies."
He began to raise his voice, and suddenly I was very glad he checked his sword at the door. The other patrons seemed to get the message as well, as suddenly the bar looked a lot emptier "Its the reason I learned how to fight benders, so I could prove we can be just as good, to prove that there's talent wasted among the common soldier that gets passed over for promotion!" His face quickly became beet red, and he gripped his cup like it was his last tether to the world.
He was angry, but as I looked him over, I realized there was something else there. It was his eyes do did him in: those doe eyes of his didn't look like they were filled with rage, but rather like they were fighting back tears.
I tried to be as delicate as possible. The last thing I wanted was for him to take a swing at me or have a breakdown.
I waited until he looked me in the eye. The look he gave me was all the proof I needed. "That's not all, is it?"
Raiden lowered his eyes to the bar in front of him and breathed deeply for a few seconds. I hit something deep. Maybe too deep.
"Perceptive, aren't you?" he muttered.
I took another sip of sake. For a minute, neither of us spoke. I didn't exactly want to rush the guy. He might have made for the hills if I came off as too interested in his personal life. Information can be more valuable than gold to the right people (namely the bandits and barbarians this guy fights on a daily basis), and I didn't want to give the impression this talk was going to bite him where the sun doesn't shine down the road. When Raiden finally spoke up, there was a very slight wavering in his voice. "I like you, Assam. Monk or not, I got a good feeling about you when we met. Got a good eye, and a good head."
That might be be the first real, straightforward compliment I've gotten in months. If only I had the grace to blush without alcohol in my system.
Of course, there was a but coming.
Raiden looked at me with narrowed eyes. "But if you breathe a word of this to anyone, even your Avatar friend, I will plant an arrow so deep in your skull you're friends'll have to bury you with it"
I hate buts, I really truly do.
Now, granted, arrows haven't been a genuine threat to me in years, not when you can literally hear them coming a mile away, but the last thing I need is a warrior who specializes in killing benders on my tail due to a loose tongue.
I met Raidens increasingly glazed gaze. I wanted to say I'm a soundbender, keeping quiet is one of my specialties, but I felt the snark wasn't terribly appropriate at that moment. Instead I went with the standard "My lips are sealed."
Probably not the most trust-inspiring statement coming from a guy who uses poisons and deception in the thick of combat, but hey, I'd been honest with the guy so far. He'd deserved that much in my book. Lets just hope he believed I was being honest.
Raiden slowly studied my face. He didn't say anything, but he did nod his head slowly and turned back to his drink.
"My... my parents," he said under his breath, his voice noticeably tighter in spite of the alcohol.
That was never a good way to start.
"I was just out... getting groceries. I was barely gone an hour, but when I returned..."
He took another deep breath and finished his drink. This was hard for him to bring up, harder than I'd thought.
"They were gone. Everything... was gone. My home, my parents... buried by earthbenders."
There really wasn't anything I could say to that. All I could think to do was nod and toy with my cup and what sake remained in it. Some stories you just don't want to interrupt with a witty or non-witty retort. This was one of them.
"It opened my eyes." he continued, the wavering in his voice starting to fade. "It was a hard, cruel lesson, but it stuck. No non-bender would have dreamed of wreaking such destruction."
I braced myself for another ethics lesson. "What is it?"
Raiden sighed. "I come through this village about twice a month. Every time I'm here, I look at every bounty board, fish for every rumor, slink through every filthy back alley in order to track down those like him" he said as he emphasized his point with a kick to the man's ribs. "I do the same thing in 20 other villages across the countryside, more if I can help it. But today, three men dragged off three innocent children as the guards simply stood by and watched, and I have no idea why."
I had a hunch why, but it didn't seem like a good time to interrupt.
"I bleed, and I scrape, and I throw myself into danger every single day to help people around me." Raiden closed his eyes and took a deep breath. "But its never enough. There's always something else, someone getting away with murder just under my nose, someone reminding me I'm not good enough to save another life."
A mental flash of crimson blood and a woman's screams reminded me that I knew how he felt. An old friend that I was too late and too weak to save.
"Believe it or not" I replied, lacking my usual snark, "I know how that feels. I've lost... friends along the line, because I wasn't fast enough, or strong enough."
Raiden looked at me for a moment. I could see his jade green eyes studying my face. "Yes... you have."