The Shadow of Kyoshi – F. C. Yee

“Boy!” Yun clawed at his own neck until he drew blood. The feeling of slime and teeth lingered on his skin. “Boy! Stop your sniveling!” He remembered Jianzhu lighting the incense. He remembered the sticky-sweet smell and the deadness it created in his limbs. Stingjelly venom, his training told him. He’d only just started his doses with Sifu Amak. Yun blinked and tried to make sense of his surroundings. His hands clawed into wet, porous moss when it should have been the dust of the mining town under his fingernails. He was in a mangrove forest. The sky was the color of acid. He crawled around, the juices of a swamp sucking at his knees. The trunks of the leafless trees twisted and gnarled as high as hills, barely lighter in color than silhouettes. Screened by the loose weave of branches, a great glowing eye stared at him. It was the eye that had spoken. The eye that told him he wasn’t the— A pain, terrible and familiar, wracked his stomach and folded him in two.

His forearms splashed into the swamp water. The landscape around him began to shake, not from earthbending but from something rawer and more uncontrollable. He wasn’t. End of sentence. He was nothing. The shallow water danced, raindrops on a drum, spiking into geysers. The shoreline swayed, rattling the trees, bucking and clashing them together like the antlers of beasts locked in combat. Yun dashed his head against the ground in a frenzied corruption of a student bowing to their master. Jianzhu. His entire mind was a screamed name, a single screeching tone on a broken flute.

His skull thudded against the brackish mud. Jianzhu. “Stop it, you miserable little brat!” the eye roared. Despite its anger it shrank back from him, afraid of his throes of agony. The ground squeezed and fluttered, the heartbeat of a man falling to his death, pounding louder and louder before the final impact. Yun wanted it to stop. He wanted the anguish to end. It hurt so much, to see everything he’d worked for shredded to sparks and dust. It was destroying him from the inside. So let it out.

The whisper came to him in his own voice. Not the eye’s. Not Jianzhu’s. Put the pain outside. Put it somewhere else. On someone else. The rip started at his feet, a pinprick in overstretched silk. The tear birthed itself in the water and raced into the banks of the earth like lightning cracking the sky. The ground split apart, releasing all its quaking tension in one swift cataclysmic burst. And then .

stillness. Yun could breathe again. He could see. The trembling had worn itself out, spent its energy in the creation of a long lesion in the ground, an unnatural wound upon the landscape. Swamp water poured into the injury, masking a depth he knew he shouldn’t explore. Things were so much clearer when there was relief. Yun used this moment of respite to look around. The musty grove resembled no forest he’d ever seen. The dim light in the sky came from no discernible sun. This place was a hazy reflection of a real landscape, painted with ink that had been thinned too much.

I’m in the Spirit World. He backed away from the ravine that lay before him, not wanting to be dragged in by the force of the water’s flow. Turning around, he pulled himself to drier footing using the exposed roots of a leathery tree. The air smelled like sulfur and rot. Master Kelsang had told him about the Spirit World. It was supposed to be a beautiful, wild place, full of creatures beyond imagining. The realm of the spirits was a mirror held up to its visitors, a reflection of your emotions, a reality that shaped around your own spirit’s intangible projection. Yun flexed his fingers, finding them as solid as they could be. He wondered if the gentle monk had ever explored a nightmarish bog like this one. They’d never talked about what happened if you entered the Spirit World while you were still in your body.

The rustle of branches gave him a start and reminded him he wasn’t alone. The eye. It watched carefully from the darkness of the forest, circling him on translucent appendages studded with what he knew to be human teeth. He’d felt its bite back in the mountains when it had sampled his blood. A pulsing panic rushed through the chambers of his heart. Yun knew he was on borrowed time. He tried to remember what Jianzhu had called the spirit. “Father . Glowworm?” The eye suddenly rushed closer, socketing itself in the gap between two nearby trees. Yun shrieked and fell backward on his elbows.

He’d made a mistake. A crucial, invisible barrier had been broken by saying the name aloud, and now he was more connected and vulnerable to it than ever. “I call myself that,” the spirit said. Father Glowworm’s pupil darted around unnervingly, the iris squeezing narrower. Its gaze had the heft of a probing tongue. “Now, child, I believe you owe me your name.” Like a fool, Yun had fallen into the role of the bumpkin from cautionary Earth Kingdom folktales, the poor field hand or woodcutter who fell under a curse or was simply eaten. He could only think of how he’d be consumed. Rasped into pulp, maybe, and absorbed into the slime. “My name is Yun.

” His palms were slick with fear. In some of those tales, the stupid boy survived through sheer pluck. Yun was already prey; his only chance was to become interesting prey. “I—I—” His poise was failing him. His slickness under pressure that had impressed the Fire Lord and the Earth King, the chieftains of the Water Tribes and Head Abbots of the Air Temples alike, was nowhere to be found. Maybe Avatar Yun had the confidence to talk his way out of this, but no such person existed anymore. Father Glowworm shifted in the trees, and Yun knew he was going to die if he didn’t say something quick. His mind leaped back to the moments in his past when his fate was cradled in someone else’s hands. “I wish to submit myself for consideration as your student!” he yelped. Was there a way for a single eye to look surprised? The forest was silent except for the rush of falling water.

“I . kneel before you as a humble spiritual traveler seeking answers,” Yun said. He shifted around so his posture matched his words. “Please teach me the ways of the Spirit World. I beseech you.” Father Glowworm burst into laughter. It had no lids to narrow, but its sphere tilted upward in the universal direction of amusement. “Boy, do you think this is a game?” Everything is a game, Yun thought, trying to still his shaking. I will draw this one out as far as I can. I will survive a turn longer.

There was no more Avatar Yun. He would have to be Yun the swindler again. “I can hardly be faulted for wanting to ask questions of a spirit wiser than the best of humanity.” When in doubt, flatter the mark. “The Earth Kingdom’s finest sages couldn’t identify the Avatar for sixteen years. And yet you did it in a matter of seconds.” “Hmph. You don’t fight the kind of battle Kuruk and I did and not be able to recognize your opponent’s spirit. I could already feel Jianzhu bringing his reincarnation closer to one of my tunnels. It had to be one of you children.

” Yun’s ears perked at the word tunnels. “You have routes to the human world? More than one?” Father Glowworm laughed again. “I know what you’re doing,” it sneered. “And it doesn’t impress me. Yes, I can create passages to the human realm. No, you will not trick or convince me into sending you back. You’re not the bridge between spirits and humans, boy. You’re the stone that needed to be pitched away by the sculptor. The impurity in the ore. I’ve tasted your blood, and you’re nothing.

You’re not even worth this conversation.” The eye crept closer. “I can tell how upset you are by the truth,” it said in a soothing sweet tone. “Don’t be. Who needs Avatarhood? You will find your own use, and your own immortality. Once I strengthen myself on your blood, part of your essence will exist within me, forever.” The problem with any game was that eventually, the opponent decided to stop playing. Father Glowworm suddenly rushed Yun, spiraling through the forest, tendrils of slime grasping and parting the trees like the beads of a curtain. “Now, be grateful!” the spirit roared. “For we are about to become one!” UNFINISHED BUSINESS Brother Po once told Kuji the nickname for the dao sword was “all men’s courage.

” Hold the sturdy chopping blade that let you hack away at a foe with abandon, and you’d feel braver immediately. Kuji did not feel braver as he gripped the haft of his dao with clammy palms and watched the door. And his blade did not feel very sturdy. It was a rusted, chipped specimen that seemed like it would shatter if he waved it in the air too vigorously. As the most junior member of the Triad of the Golden Wing, he’d had to wait at the back of the line as weapons were passed out in turn. This sword had come from the bottom of the crate. “Now you’re a real soldier, eh?” someone had joked at the time. “Not like the rest of us hatchet men.” Brother Po stood by the doorway holding his small axe, the favored weapon of most of the Triad’s seasoned fighters. He looked calm on the outside, but Kuji could see his throat bobbing up and down repeatedly as he swallowed, the same way it did when he was going for a big money play in Pai Sho.

If Kuji had confidence in anything for protection, it was in his gang’s turf—Loongkau City Block was practically a fortress. On the surface, Loongkau looked no different than its neighboring districts of Ba Sing Se’s Lower Ring. The visible portion on the block rose a haphazard couple of stories into the air like a budding mushroom, in defiance of gravity and sound architecture. But it was an open secret that the complex extended illegally into the ground layer by layer, far below the surface. Each level had been dug out below the previous one without a solid plan or understanding of safety, shored up by using only improvised supports of wood scrap, mud brick, bits of rusty scavenged metal. And yet Loongkau held solid without caving in, possibly with the aid of the spirits. The inside of the block was a knot of twists and turns, staircases and empty shafts. Hives of squalid apartments squeezed the available pathways into narrow choke points. Loongkau was littered with natural traps like the room where Kuji and Po waited, which was one of the reasons why lawmen never went inside the City Block. Until now.

The boss had gotten a tip that the Golden Wing’s stronghold was going to be hit this very day. Every brother was to take up positions until the threat was gone. Kuji didn’t know what kind of enemy could get his elders so riled up. By his guess it would have taken more lawmen than the Lower Ring possessed in order to lay siege to Loongkau. Regardless, the plan was sound. Anyone trying to make it to the lower floors would have to file through a narrow bottleneck that ran by this room. Kuji and Ning could get the drop on an intruder, two-on-one. And it was unlikely they’d see action, Kuji reminded himself. The level above was being prowled by Throatcutter Gong, the boss’s best assassin. Gong could stalk and kill a mongoose lizard in its own jungle lair.

The number of heads he’d taken could have filled a haybarn— A crash came from one floor up. There was no sound of a voice accompanying it. The little apartment began to feel less their turf to hold and more a box confining them like animals in a crate. Po gestured with his hatchet. “We’ll hear them coming down the stairs,” he whispered. “That’s when we strike.” Kuji tilted his ear in that direction. He was so desperate to hear any approaching signal that he lost his balance and stumbled. Po rolled his eyes. “Too loud,” he hissed.

As if to prove his point, someone flew through the doorway, snapping the hinges, and collided with Kuji. He shrieked and flailed with his dao but at best managed to smack the person in the head with his pommel. Po grabbed the attacker and raised his hatchet to strike, but checked his swing at the last second. It was Throatcutter Gong, unconscious and bleeding. His wrists bent the wrong way and his ankles were bound with his own garrote wire. “Brother Gong!” Po shouted, forgetting his own lesson in stealth. “What happened?” From the wall opposite the hallway they were supposed to be focusing on, a pair of gauntleted arms burst through the brick. They wrapped around Po’s neck from behind in a chokehold, cutting off his words. Kuji saw his elder’s eyes go white with terror before Po was pulled out of the room straight through the wall. Kuji stared at the emptiness in stupefied disbelief.

Po was a big man, and in a blink, he’d been taken like a raven eagle’s prey. The hole he disappeared through revealed only darkness. Outside, the floorboards creaked from the weight of a person walking, as if complete silence were a cloak the enemy could wear and discard at will. The treading of heavy boots came closer and closer. The doorway filled, blacking out the faint light from the hall, and a tall, incredibly tall, figure stepped inside. A thin line of blood trickled from its throat, as if it had been beheaded and glued back together. A dress of green silk billowed underneath the wound. Its face was a white mask, and its eyes were monstrous streaks of red. Trembling, Kuji raised his blade. He moved so slowly it felt like he was swimming through mud.

The creature watched him swing his sword, its eyes on the metal, and somehow, he knew it was fully capable of putting a stop to the action. If it cared to. The edge of the dao bit into his opponent’s shoulder. There was a snapping noise, and a sudden pain lashed his cheek. The sword had broken, the top half bouncing back in Kuji’s face. It was a spirit. It had to be. It was a spirit that could pass through walls, a ghost that could float over floors, a beast impervious to blades. Kuji dropped the handle of the useless sword. His mother had told him once that invoking the Avatar could safeguard him from evil.

He’d known as a child she was making up stories. But that didn’t mean he couldn’t decide to believe them right now. Right now, he believed harder than he believed anything in his life. “The Avatar protect me,” he whispered while he could still speak. He fell on his behind and scrambled to the corner of the room, blanketed completely by the spirit’s long shadow. “Yangchen protect me!” The spirit woman followed him and lowered her red-and-white face to his. A human would have passed some kind of judgment on Kuji as he cowered like this. The cold disregard in her eyes was worse than any pity or sadistic amusement. “Yangchen isn’t here right now,” she said in a rich, commanding voice that would have been beautiful had she not held such clear indifference for his life. “I am.

” Kuji sobbed as a large, powerful hand gripped him by the chin with thumb and forefinger. It was gentle but gave the assurance that she could rip his jaw clean off his head if she so desired. The woman tilted his face upward. “Now tell me where I can find your boss.” Kyoshi’s neck itched terribly. The garrote had been coated in ground glass, and though she’d managed to avoid getting cut too deeply, sharp little fragments still vexed her skin. It served her right for being so sloppy. The gang’s wire man had been stealthy, but not at the level of the company she used to keep in her daofei days. Speaking of which, she’d taken a risk by not incapacitating the boy like she’d done his elders. But he’d reminded her of Lek.

The way his stupid babyface tried to arrange itself in a mask of hardness, his obvious need for the approval of his sworn elder brothers. His sheer, idiotic bravery. He was too young to be running with a gang in the slums of Ba Sing Se. No more exceptions for today, she told herself as she stepped over rusting junk and debris. She was still in the habit of labeling anyone roughly her age as boys and girls, and the language made her inclined toward softness, which was dangerous. Certainly no one would show Kyoshi grace because she was only nearing eighteen. The Avatar did not have the luxury of being a child. She pushed through a hallway barely wider than she was. Only the slightest cracks of illumination came through the walls. Glowing crystals were expensive, and candles were a fire risk, making light a premium in Loongkau.

Networks of pipes dripped above her, pattering on the gilded headdress she wore despite the cramped environment. She’d learned to account for the height it added, and having to stoop had been a fact of her life since childhood.

.

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