Authors: black_goose and umberela
Pairing: Baekhyun/Chanyeol, Sehun/Luhan, Tao/Kris, Kai/D.O
Word count: 3,887
Summary: "The Oracle has seen the twelve united. War is coming to the Nations. We must prepare for battle."
A/N: a good summation of this chapter is THERE IS NO WAR IN BA SING SE. This chapter is what we're considering "short". the next chapter is 4900 words and counting. SO THERE'S THAT, I GUESS.
Suho closed his pack, buckling it with sharp, easy movements. It was a little too full, bulging in spots, but it would have to do. The distance they were travelling was far, their destination significantly warmer than his current location, so he needed to bring a variety of clothing. He slung the pack over his shoulder, leaving the Shifter’s quarters to bring it to the boat which would carry all the luggage, his fur lined boots making soft noises on the lustreless black stone beneath his feet. Around him, other Shifters were running back and forth collecting the last of their belongings, and it was obvious that not all of them had taken the “only bring what is necessary” rule to heart. He couldn’t blame them; most of them had never been on a long journey like this, and the urge to bring this and that because they might need it was always strong.
Outside of the sleeping quarters, the dining hall was relatively empty. As Suho strode through the rows of tables and benches, the sounds of his boots clicking off the floor was almost obnoxiously loud. A small figure was hunched over one of the tables near the far doorway, his pack acting as a pillow for his head. As Suho neared, the figure glanced up at him and upon recognizing him, immediately sat up at attention.
“Shouldn’t you be taking that to the ship?” Suho asked, nodding at Xiumin’s pack.
“Yes, sir, I was on my way,” Xiumin said, pulling it half off the table as though he was about to swing it onto his shoulders. “I was just...”
He trailed off, looking at the floor in front of Suho’s boots. While every other soldier Suho had passed had been excited at the prospect of a long journey and a chance to prove their mettle in a potential battle, Xiumin looked pale and withdrawn, worrying his bottom lip with his teeth. “What is it?” Suho asked. “Is something wrong?”
“I,” Xiumin started haltingly. He took a deep breath then let his words tumble out, “I am unsure bringing me along on this voyage is a smart tactical move. Sir.” He tacked on the ‘sir’ like he had momentarily forgotten who he was speaking with, and he shuffled his feet nervously.
Suho blinked. He had hand picked the Shifters to bring along himself, and while the generals attacked some of his choices, his fellow Shifters hadn't. Most of his warriors were begging for the chance to fight, not trying to get out of it. “Xiumin,” Suho said slowly, “I chose you all myself, and I don’t see a problem.”
“But,” said Xiumin, a hint of desperation creeping into his voice, “I’m not a strong Shifter. I can barely move minimal amounts of water.”
“You have abilities the others don’t have, and they will definitely come in handy.” Suho hoped the sureness of his tone would ease Xiumin’s anxiety, but it only seemed to worsen it.
“It’s not helpful right now,” Xiumin muttered, fidgeting with the silver snowflake shaped insignia pinned to his chest; it was the same one all the level one Shifters wore.
“Well,” Suho said, smiling slightly, “freezing things isn’t going to be exactly useful when you live on a glacier is it?” He lay a hand on Xiumin’s shoulder and squeezed reassuringly. “Trust me, it’ll be fine. With any luck we won't even have to fight. Now,” he pushed Xiumin towards the door gently, “take your pack to the ship.”
Xiumin picked up his pack and slung it over his shoulders. Then he held out a hand. “I’ll take yours too, sir.”
Suho shook his head, “I need to head that way anyway to talk to the captain.”
Their walk to the docks was silent; Xiumin was fiddling with his pack, letting the straps out or tightening them so that it kept falling down on his back and then coming up high on his shoulders. He seemed to be doing it unconsciously. They’d just stepped out of the castle, the sudden transition from dark stone walls to brilliant white snow momentarily blinding them, when a general called out Suho’s name.
Suho turned to the man, dressed in heavy grey furs over navy fabric, the unicorn badge of the healers pinned to his chest. “I need you to discuss something with you,” said the man, a little breathless from his run across the open court of the castle where they now stood. “We’ve got a slight issue with the roster you requested.” Suho gave a small nod, and the man clapped his hands together. “Good. Yes. You, soldier, take the Lord Suho’s bag to the ship like a good lad.”
Suho gave the man a sharp look — no matter his position with the healers, he had no place ordering Suho’s men around — but Xiumin was already tugging Suho’s pack out of his hands and swinging it onto his own back. Xiumin gave a stiff bow in turn to each man, awkward because of the packs, and then walked swiftly down the path towards the docks.
Suho sighed. “What’s the issue?” he asked, turning to the man, who hadn’t even given Xiumin a second glance.
“The healer you requested is unfit for travel currently,” said the man. Suho knew that was healer talk for “pregnant”, and so he just nodded. There was no way he was bringing a pregnant woman along on a battle mission. “I’ve brought a list of other healers who might fit your requirements.” He pulled a small roll of paper out of his mass of furs and handed it to Suho.
Suho gave it a cursory glance, brow creasing. The list was short, but then the number of competent healers they had was small. None of the names jumped out at him. “Who would you recommend?” he asked softly, attention focused mainly on the list as he read through it a second time.
“Our best student is Yixing,” the man said, leaning over and pointing out a name for Suho. “He’s ranked top of his class and has even surpassed his teachers in some of his lessons.”
Suho looked up, frowning. “He’s still a student?”
“He’s very good,” said the man reassuringly.
“But not battle trained?”
“Well, to be honest, sir, none of the people on that list are battle trained. You already have the ones that are.”
"I am reluctant to bring someone who has no practical experience into a potential warzone," Suho said with a sigh. "But on your recommendation, I will, as well as the other woman, Hyorin. I recall she is quite skilled at healing burns."
The man looked like the idea of letting two healers go at once didn’t sit well at him, but he inclined his head all the same. “I will tell them to begin packing.”
Suho watched the man walk away briskly, and pinched the top of his nose. He could feel a headache forming already, and they hadn’t even set sail yet. He made his way quickly to the docks where the fleet of ships were harboured, feeling the heat of his body after the brisk walk battling with the cold, crisp air around him. His breath came in short white puffs, his boots crunching in the snow on the ground as he shifted, watching the men as they boarded the ship that would take them to the land of the air nation, and into the heart of the war.
After closing the door to the practise room, Tao had immediately shucked his elaborate robes, which now lay on the chair next to Kris, so that he was clad only in the thin white undershirt and dark cotton pants which were worn under the robes. It wasn’t hot outside by any means, but he was glad to be out of the piles of fabric. The layers made him feel stifled, no matter how gauzy the fabric may be. Kris looked disapproving, but then Kris never had to wear the ridiculous things. He always looked slightly disapproving anyway, but Tao paid him no mind. It was impossible to practise Shifting in family dress robes, and Tao knew this well, so Kris could shove it.
This practise room was Tao’s favourite place to be. Large, round, and roofless, it gave the illusion of privacy while not making him feel cloistered. The winter had finally given way to spring sunshine, and it was the first time in a long while that Tao had been able to get in here.
He’d already stretched, and he began running his drills, body falling easily into place. He wasn’t Shifting, not yet, just getting reacquainted with his limbs, letting the sun warm his bare arms. After one 360 twist in the air, he said, “God, I have missed this.”
“You know, you could always practise outside,” Kris pointed out, and Tao wrinkled his nose.
“But then people might see,” he said. “And then they would know what I can do.”
Kris just shook his head, dropping his head to go back to reading his book. Tao knew that Kris didn’t understand why he was so secretive about his Shifting ability — everyone knew that Tao was the strongest of the air Shifters, so why make it such a big mystery — but Tao liked to have a couple of tricks up his sleeve. After all, everyone had known what the Phoenix could do, and look at what had happened to him.
A small butterfly had fluttered into the room, shadow dancing on the floor. Tao could feel it stirring the air, and he gently took hold of the air around it, creating soft swirls that held it in place in mid-air, barely quivering.
Kris turned a page of his book without looking up. “Stop showing off.”
Tao huffed, letting the butterfly go. “I was making a point. I can’t do that outside of this room, and you know it. They’d have me trying to do it to people.”
“You can do it to people.”
“Just because I can, doesn’t mean that I should,” Tao said, and he created a gentle swirl of air that plucked Kris’s book from his hands and shut it with a snap in mid-air so that it lost the page that Kris had read up to. Kris shot him a glare and accompanied it with a flat burst of air that made Tao take a step backwards, hair blowing out of place. The use of his powers made Tao grin.
Kris picked his book up from where it had dropped onto the floor with affronted grace. “Are you going to practise?” he asked. “Or are you going to be a brat?”
“Can’t I do both?” Tao asked impishly, answering the question, and Kris sighed.
“You realise that we’re technically at war right now?” he asked, flipping through his book trying to find his page. “The Fire Nation is gathering itself to take over, and they will soon march on us. This war has no cause, no reason, they just want to burn our people and take our land. We need to be ready. You can’t just keep messing around freezing butterflies and stuff.”
“If it’s that important, then you should be training too, instead of reading.”
Kris turned a page over, still apparently searching for his lost spot. “You know I will never be allowed to fight, not as a Shifter. And I am already skilled at hand-to-hand.”
“You could train anyway,” Tao suggested. “No one can see in here.”
“I think I am as good as I am going to get at Shifting, Taozi,” Kris said, and Tao squinted at the use of the nickname. “How much can I improve in a few weeks? The Oracle said the Water Nation’s army is almost here. I am not going to master anything by then.”
“We can’t march on the Fire Nation until the Earth Nation’s people get here as well, so you have time.”
Kris laughed, the sound deep and echoing off the walls. “If we wait for them, we’ll never march at all.”
Kyungsoo was feeling pretty pissed off.
“Dad,” he said. “You can’t just not go. You can’t just not even reply.”
The King of the Earth Nation, wearing his dressing gown and slippers, looked up at Kyungsoo mildly. “I don’t see why not,” he said. “They know we don’t concern ourselves with the wars of others, they had a lot of nerve even asking for our help.”
“This isn’t just some minor scuffle between the Water Nation and one of the outlying islands,” Kyungsoo said, exasperated and angry. “This is the Fire Nation trying to take over. They’re going for the Air Nation now, and what if they lose? What will we do when the Fire Nation is on our doorstep, and all our allies have fallen because we didn’t help?”
His father smiled at him. It was the kind of smile that he’d given Kyungsoo when he was five years old and didn’t understand why his father couldn’t just tell his advisors to go away when they disagreed with him. It was a look which said that he thought Kyungsoo was very cute, but clearly Kyungsoo didn’t actually know a thing about the world. Well, screw you, Kyungsoo thought. I understand this a lot more than you give me credit for.
“No one can get through the Black Mountain Range, Kyungsoo, not unless we give them passage. They’re too high, too steep, the tunnels through them too maze like. They’ll never reach us. We will be safe, we will be left alone. And my people will know peace.”
“You can’t pretend that it’s not going on! Just because we think we’re safe, doesn’t mean that we are. They could easily just lay siege to us, blocking off the entry points of our supplies would cause the end of—”
“Kyungsoo,” his father interrupted. “A few of our Shifters is not enough to tip the scales. I am not going to order my people, however few, to die for a war they have no business in. If you care so much about the Air Nation, why don’t you go see if you can help them yourself.”
That brought Kyungsoo up short. He nibbled his lower lip. He was the Earth Nation’s Head Shifter, and he would be some asset, yes, but he wasn’t the best Shifter they had. He was Head Shifter because he was the King’s son, not because he was the strongest. And he had duties here, as prince, which he couldn’t just leave behind.
But the way his father was looking at him, face placid with a slight smile, made him want to try. He could push his royal duties off on an advisor for a few months. He could, at least, go to the Air Nation as a representative of his nation, and tell them of his father’s decision, so they would not be left in the dark.
“Okay,” he said decisively. “I’ll go.”
His father seemed mildly surprised, but he nodded. “You are allowed to take two of your servants with you, and horses for riding. I don’t expect you to see this war through, you may come home when you realize how pointless this entire venture is.”
Kyungsoo tried not to bristle. “I will come back,” he said slowly, “when we’ve won.” He turned on his heels stiffly, and pushed through the ornate door, letting it slam shut behind him. He headed immediately to the servant’s quarters, stopping on the way only to send someone to the stables with a message to get his horse, along with two others, ready for riding. If he could manage it, he planned to leave within the hour.
Chanyeol leaned against the window ledge, letting the sunlight warm his face. It made a nice contrast to the coolness of the impractically elaborate armor the generals had insisted that he wear for all these meetings that they held to talk about the war. It was pointless, both the armour and the fact that he attended the meetings. He didn’t know anything about war, couldn’t lead a troop of men into a battle, and knew less than nothing about army formations. A large part of what was said at the meetings went over his head, leaving him with plenty of time to think about other things. Which, to be honest, was pretty much the last thing he wanted.
Chanyeol sat up straighter, shaking himself out of the stupor that the sunlight had sent him into, and tried to look attentive. “Yes?”
The general shuffled the papers in front of him, closing them into a folder before sliding a sheet across to Chanyeol. “The lesser territories have agreed to send their Head Shifters to us next week. This is a list of those who will be attending.”
Chanyeol took the list and looked blankly at the unfamiliar names. “They’ve agreed to help?”
“That’s what we’re hoping they’ll consent to do at the meeting.”
“I see,” Chanyeol said, putting the list down and pushing it away. “When will we march?”
The generals shared a look. “Soon, Phoenix. We need to make sure we have enough troops to ensure a victory before we go up against the other nations.”
Chanyeol bit his thumb nail idly, not really noticing that he was doing it. “You have me,” he said, “I can burn them all to the ground.”
“You probably could, Phoenix, but their numbers are many, and we prefer not to take such risks.”
Chanyeol brought his hand away from his face and gripped the arm of his chair to cover the way that it was shaking. “I just want to do something,” he said.
The general to his right spoke up, placing a large hand on his shoulder. “You’ll have revenge for the murders of your family soon. The Air Nation will pay for what they have done.” Murmurs of agreement went around the room, a few men nodding their heads.
“Yes,” Chanyeol whispered to himself, “they will.”
In the Bonelands, a vast expanse of dry, lifeless, cracked land on the Southwestern border of the Fire Nation, pockmarked with numerous volcanoes and sulfuric pools, one lone man climbed up the side of a steep mountain and disappeared into the mouth of a cave. The light became minimal, but he knew the way well, as his feet crunched over the bones of dead men and animals which gave the Bonelands its morbid name. He came into a large cavern, a familiar warm prickle starting on his scalp.
“Hey, girl,” he murmured, reaching out a hand. The entire wall in front of him seemed to shift as a giant dragon roused itself, unfurling its neck so it could touch his fingertips with its nose. “You’re not going to like this, but I think we have to go north.”
The dragon puffed out a breath, the air just this side of too hot, and smelling pungently of brimstone and smoke.
Kai took his index finger and quickly poked inside one of the dragon’s nostrils, which had her pulling away and shaking her head. He laughed. “I know, I don’t like it either. But something big is happening out there. I know you can feel it.”
The dragon flicked her tail around so that it brushed softly against the back of his calves. Kai leaned his head against her nose, dwarfed by her entire body. Three people could comfortably sit on her head alone. “Don’t worry,” he said. “We’ll come back here as soon as we can.”
He felt the prickle shift, felt the affirmative. She blinked at him with eyes that were too intelligent. Then there was worry there, pushing at the fringes of his mind, worry not his own. And a bit of pain, his own, being nudged back at him.
Kai fought not to grimace. “It will be okay,” he said, more to reassure himself than her. “I’m not the same person now. And it’s not like they exiled me, exactly. I won’t be welcome, but they won’t turn me away. They need us.”
A distorted image of himself riding on her back, her jaws open and spewing fire, was pushed into his mind, and he chuckled. “Yeah, if they upset me, you can just kick their asses, don’t worry about that.”
She made a small rumble, and Kai knew it to be her happy noise. She began to stand, stretching out, and Kai knew that was his cue to go outside and wait. “Meet me out front,” he said, feeling for the intangible rifts in the air in front of him and tearing through them. It only took a moment, a brief shifting of his being, and then he was outside, the air behind him showing slight cracks that distorted the view of the land. He watched them shrink and fade until all evidence of him tearing through had gone. Then he waited.
He heard the dragon coming before he saw her. They weren’t as loud as one may expect them to be, considering their size, but she never managed to sneak up on him. The prickling would have given her away even if she had been silent as the grave. As it was her talons clacked on the side of the mountain, sending small stones skittering down the slope past Kai’s feet. Despite her enormity she managed to settle herself down around him without him having to dodge any of her massive limbs. She was always graceful, only ever almost stepping on him once, when she was still pretty young. Back then, her stepping on him wouldn’t have killed him, though it still would have hurt.
The prickle flared, impatience, and he shook his head to clear it. “Alright,” he said. Another Shift, another tear, and then he was on her back, settling just above her wing joints, using a neck spike to brace himself. She flicked her wing in annoyance; she’d never liked him popping around. He just chuckled at her discomfort. “You’re the one who wanted to be off,” he said.
She didn’t deign him with a reply. Kai braced himself as she crouched. He always hated this part. She leapt into the air, huge wings pumping downward and carrying them hundreds of feet up in a matter of moments. Kai could swear he’d left his stomach behind every time. Sometimes he thought that she did it on purpose. He didn’t get a chance to really ponder about it before they were flying off into the distance, the Bonelands that had been his home for years now being left further and further behind.
He turned his face to the north and wondered if Luhan had Seen him coming.
Luhan raised his head from his contemplation of the clear crystal orb in front of him, a wide smile on his face. “What is it that you have Seen, Oracle?” asked one of the attendants seated around him.
“The shadow walker is returning,” Luhan said happily, ignoring the sudden murmurs from the people around him, “and he’s bringing a friend.”