Shyu had no clue where he was. One second he was holding onto Mica’s back for dear life; the next he was floating in a suspension of somehow breathable purple water and thick, waxy orange ooze. He tried to step forward, only to watch the ooze melt into solid ground and the water form into a purple sky.
“Well, only two possibilities, I guess,” he muttered to himself, looking around at the orange wasteland. “Either we crashed through that freaky herbalist’s shop and I’m high as a kite right now. Or we crashed into the spirit portal.” He looked down at his feet and the ground let out a burping sound. This opened up a hole in the orange earth, out of which crawled some glowing green creatures that looked like miniature gator-sloths. One of them turned and looked up at Shyu, only to scrunch up its face in disgust.
“Ew,” it said in a hoarse, squeaky voice. “Human stinky.” It then went back to crawling away from Shyu as fast as it could. Which wasn’t very fast at all. Shyu felt bad for it and took a few steps away to give it some space.
“Okay,” he muttered. “Looks like it’s the spirit world, then.” He surveyed the “land,” if that was a good name for it. He’d heard plenty of stories about this place. Not the least of which involved tales about how near-impossible it was to orient yourself anywhere. The scenery was always changing, and if some mischievous spirits noticed how important it was for you to get out, they might very well entertain themselves for the day by trying to keep you in.
So, what exactly am I supposed to do, Shyu thought. There wasn’t a sun, but it felt a lot warmer here than it did in Republic City. Shyu pulled off his outer shirt and shoved it under his arm, leaving only his tank top on.
In a weird way, he wasn’t totally sorry about coming here. Kiki had always wanted to, even as a little kid. She’d said it sounded “fun and pretty.” Their dad, however, had said no. It had seemed strange to Shyu at the time, since Dad pretty much indulged Kiki’s every whim. He took it to mean that the place was actually dangerous. Which, of course, made it all the more interesting now that he was here.
He took a few more steps forward. The landscape seemed to be developing more personality up ahead. There were more bluish creatures alongside shrubs of every color imaginable. The closer Shyu got, the more he felt like he was exploring the innards of a kaleidoscope.
When the ground started to show some flowers sprouting up, Shyu knelt down to examine them further. He held out his finger to stoke the petals. They felt cold like metal. He lifted his hand and saw a flicker a movement. A glowing red butterfly had come to hover over the flower.
“Hey, there,” Shyu said to it. “Guess you aren’t nearly as confused here. This place is probably your home, right?”
The butterfly didn’t answer like the gator-sloth had. At least, not with words. But at the sound of Shyu’s voice, it beat it wings a little stronger. It was then Shyu noticed the wings weren’t just red. They were made of flames.
It was the type of thing that normally would have irritated Shyu, the idea that a little sprity bug could produce more fire than he could. But somehow, its presence made him feel calm, understood. He extended his finger, and the butterfly landed on it.
“I don’t know much about spirit powers,” he said. “Do your friends tease you for being a weakling, too?” He moped his brow. “Man, this place is sweltering. If I’m gonna be stuck here, I at least need to find some shade.”
The butterfly cocked its head. Then it fluttered up from his finger and flew behind him. It tickled a bit as it landed on his exposed shoulder. Then an orb of light formed around it. Shyu squinted to see that the butterfly seemed to be sinking into his skin.
“Whoa, now! What–” Shyu jumped up and readied a hand to slap the thing away. But then he felt a strange sensation flow across his skin. The temperature, somehow, didn’t feel so hot anymore. At least, he could walk around without leaving a trail of sweat behind. He took a closer look at his shoulder to see that the orb of light had faded and instead of the butterfly resting on him, there was a glowing red mark in the shape of a butterfly on his shoulder.
“Did you…do that to help me?” he asked, unsure if the spirit was there somehow or had simply left its mark on him and vanished. He didn’t hear or feel anything answer him.
“Well, if you did, thanks a lot,” he said with a smile. Then he picked up his shirt from where he’d dropped it and kept walking, hoping to find some kind of sign that he wasn’t going to be lost for the rest of eternity.
Mica woke upside down, her legs and feet tangled in leafy vines.
How the flames did I get up here? And for that matter, where the heck was she?
Memories came back slower than normal, like scattered puzzle pieces she had to assemble. It felt off somehow. Hazy.
Probably from all the blood rushing to my head, she decided. It was a bit hard to concentrate dangling there.
“Shyu? A little help, please?” No answer. Strange. She could swear she heard him follow her in. Had they gotten separated that easily?
Cold panic rose in her chest. What if he was trapped somewhere? Or hurt? Or–
Flames! What did I do? Images flashed in her mind like a bad skit. A cold cell, her in that awful black and white striped getup, a burly inmate tough as nails. “So, whadua in for?”
“Oh, I just kidnapped the Fire Prince and got him killed in the spirit world.”
Panicked sweat dripped down Mica’s face into her eyes as her breathing heightened. What do I do? What do I do? What do I do??
Her mom’s voice echoed in her mind, oddly comforting. “You can start by calming down. Focus, Mica. You’re no use to anyone if you panic. Now look around. Do you see anything in your surroundings that could help you?”
Mica did this. There was one branch that looked reachable. Maybe if she got some leverage, she could find a way to untangle her feet. She flexed and relaxed her abs, wriggling her body into a gradually widening swing. Eventually she reached enough momentum to grab the branch. The bark had a strange texture like reptilian scales. It was oddly warm, too.
Mica shuddered. Everything about this place gave her the willies. Best to find her bike, grab Shyu, and get the heck out of here. She tensed her arms, pulling against the vines as hard as she could. Some gave, freeing her legs enough to kick off her shoes and yank the remaining greenery off with her toes. Hands still gripping the branch, Mica braced herself as her body sung free, now right-side up. She wasn’t as far from the ground as she thought–only ten feet or so. There was no sign of Shyu, but she could see a distinct patch of metallic red and black among the green. Her bike.
Thank the stars. She swung again, flipped gymnast-style, and landed gracefully on the ground. The moss was warm under her toes, just like the tree. It even seemed to breathe. Mica hurried to her bike, which was still partially tangled in the vines that had dragged it here.
She tugged them off violently, cursing all the while. She barely noticed the breeze that had picked up until she heard the voice it carried. It sounded human.
She startled and looked up. “Shyu?” No answer. Her fingers twitched. She felt unnervingly helpless without her improvised incendiaries in arms reach. But she was nervous about trying to manipulate the earth in this place. For all she knew, a seemingly normal-looking rock could end up being some all-powerful spirit that just happened to be rock-shaped.
The voice echoed again, clearer this time.“Why is this happening?”
Mica jumped and whirled. “Who said that?” But she was alone. The voice wasn’t Shyu’s. It sounded younger.
Flames, I hate this place. Mica tugged off the last of the vines and found the keys in the ignition right were Dino said they’d be.
Now she knew she wasn’t hearing things. That was definitely a child’s voice.
It’s probably a trick, Mica tried to assure herself. Aunt Korra had told her all sorts of stories about the spirit world. There was fog that trapped peoples’ souls, for crying out loud. Why not random, creepy, kids voices? But then…what if it wasn’t a trick? What if there really was a kid trapped in here? She followed the sound, every nerve tingling. The cries were coming from a shrouded thicket hidden in a dense wall of trees. Mica squinted inside.
“Hello? Is anyone in there?” No answer. She shifted nervously. She didn’t want to go in there. She couldn’t even say why. She knew nothing of the spirit world and yet somehow this place felt dangerous.
Mica took a step back. If people called her a coward, then burn them. She’d tell Aunt Korra about the child she heard. It was probably a job for the Avatar anyway. Something flickered in the dark, making her freeze. A small, glowing orb wafted in the shadows making intricate patterns.
“Scared…” the voice echoed. Was the voice coming from the orb then? How strange. It didn’t look like any spirit she knew of. No face or eyes. Just a glowing sphere. And the voice… now that she heard it better, Mica could swear she knew it somehow.
Mica watched as the orb drew closer, fascinated. Soon it hovered so close that Mica could see her reflection in i’s shimmery, mirror-like surface. Then, miraculously, the reflection changed before her eyes.
Mica saw a moving image. A ring of children playing, in a circle with hands clasped. All but one. A small girl sat off to the side.
“Why is this happening? I’m said I was sorry,” the little voice echoed. Her thoughts projected like whispers. “Why is everyone still scared?”
Mica’s heart clenched when the little girl looked up at her with green and gold eyes that mirrored her own. Were her own. A stab of pain rose up as she remembered. The image on the orb–a memory she had spent eleven years trying to forget. The time right after her earthbending became stronger. When no one wanted to sit near her a lunchtime, play with her on the playground, or even talk to her. She closed her eyes, fighting back dizziness. The ground seemed to shift underfoot.
Things are different now. I’m different. I’m not weak and sad like that girl. And I’m not sorry. Not for anything!
She opened tear-blurred eyes. The glowing orb flitted away unnaturally fast–almost as if it was being pulled. Pulled? Mica blinked again and found herself surrounded in shadows. Dull light still shone behind her through a gap in the darkness. The feint outline of her bike was just barely visible beyond.
The thicket. When had she gone in? And how had she wandered so far? She started to sweat. The echoes. The glowing orb. What if they were just bait–for her?!
Something wet and warm grabbed her arm. Beyond, in the dark, an pair of glowing yellow eyes opened. Something massive moved exhaling dank, earthy breath in her face. Mica screamed.
“Let go!” Adrenalin shot through her like liquid fire. Mica lashed out instinctively, striking with her free hand just as the predator lunged. Her hand hit something scaly–its face? She wasn’t sure. The moment Mica made contact, warm energy left her fingers, the same way it did when she charged her explosives. There was a blinding flash and an unearthly roar. Mica was flung backwards out of the thicket. She hit the ground hard, skidding up spirit dirt and purple ferns. Her head spun.
What–How–How did I just do that?
She sat and stared at her hands, as baffled now as she had been in kindergarten the day she detonated her very first rock. Only this time there wasn’t any rock. There wasn’t any earth at all. And she wasn’t fatigued. An explosion like that should have drained her.
What is going on?
No time to find out. A roar erupted from the thicket, so loud it shook the ground. Other spirits fled from the trees like a flock of startled prey. Thousands of them. Even the trees seemed to take on new life. Vines and branches writhed like an angry animal.
What in the flames did I just piss off?
Mica scrambled onto her bike and turned the keys revving the engine to life. She wasn’t going to stick around and find out.