the golden bitch (umberela) wrote in pencil_tips,
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EXO {kaisoo ; Summer Children (1/2)}

Title: Summer Children (part 1/2)
Genre: Fantasy. MAMA!AU
Pairing: Kai/D.O
Rating: NC-17
WARNINGS: Rimming, (mild) snowballing
Summary: Kyungsoo leaves the Earth Nation to fight in a war. He meets a really stupid boy along the way (aka the kaisoo sidestory that goes alongside Zodiac).
A/N: THIS. THING. IT'S A MONSTER. It's the first half. The second half will be posted once Zodiac is done. It's almost 40k words, so I have so split it up into multiple posts because of LJ's wordlimit. Also there's a few scenes in this that were also in Zodiac, but I encourage you to not skip them as I did add onto them since I had the time and word space to do so.

39,800 words



It was late summer when the first whispers telling of discord in the Fire Nation reached Kyungsoo's ears. He was mildly concerned, seeing as the Earth Nation shared a border with the Fire Nation, not to mention the fact that they were nearly three times the Earth Nation's size. As Crown Prince it was his duty to ensure the safety and wellbeing of his people.

As more news trickled in, Kyungsoo couldn't shake the feeling that something big was happening beyond their walls. The earth was stirring, energy shifting, in ways he'd never felt before.

And yet his father wouldn't budge.

"Dad," he said through gritted teeth. "You can’t just not go. You can’t just not even reply." The Air Nation had sent a raven with a tiny scroll of parchment, requesting assistance in preparation for a possible attack. Surely his father couldn't truly mean to pretend he'd never received it, couldn’t mean to ignore their centuries-old alliance.

But the look his father gave him in reply told Kyungsoo that was exactly what his father was planning to do.

After a bit more arguing, his father said simply, "If you care so much about the Air Nation, why don’t you go see if you can help them yourself."

And on impulse, Kyungsoo decided he would. He left his father's chambers in high dudgeon, knowing he was being more than slightly childish, but he didn’t care. This was the right thing to do.

Midway through packing his mother walked in, and the look she speared him with deflated him like nothing else could have. But he couldn't back out now. He'd decided, and he would stick by his decision.

"You're both so stubborn," his mother said with a sigh.

"I can't just sit here and pretend I don't feel this, this thing looming over us." His mother sighed again, and the sound was sad. He strode to her side and hugged her. "I'll be back soon. I'm just going to act as an envoy, go to boring meetings, just like I do here." He pulled back to give her a weak smile. "I promise I'll stay safe."

She shook her head. "I can feel the shadow over us too, you know. There's going to be a war, you'll only be sitting around talking for so long. Then you'll have to make the decision whether to stand and fight in a war that isn’t yours, or swallow your pride and come home." She paused, then added, "Or you could not go at all."

Kyungsoo fought not to flinch, weighing her words. After a few moments he sighed, and slung his pack over his shoulder. He was leaving, and he wasn't going to argue with her about this. Yes, he had pride, but it was more than that. It was his war, their war, even if they weren't fighting in it.

"I just feel like it's something I have to do," he muttered, unable to explain this feeling inside him, this nagging pull.

"Maybe you do." She pecked him on the cheek. "I love you, please stay safe. And remember, your pride isn’t worth your life, and neither is glory. Keep your head down."

He left after hugging her once more. She watched him walk out of the room, silent and still. His horse was ready when he walked into the stables, and he only had to wait a few moments before his two chosen servants joined him, each bearing packs of their own. After strapping their packs to their saddles, they led the horses through the great gate of the Earth Nation's capitol city.

Kyungsoo only looked back once. He prayed it wouldn’t be the last time he saw his city. Then he set his eyes forward, and refused to turn around again.

——

"My butt hurts," Kyungsoo griped, shifting in his saddle. His two servants ignored him, and Kyungsoo sighed. He eyed the sun. It sat low in the sky, but not low enough to justify settling down for the night just yet.

They had been riding for over two weeks and making good time, according to his companions. They'd climbed down out of the high, craggy mountains of his homeland and into sloping foothills. Two days ago they'd crossed the border; how his companions had known, Kyungsoo couldn’t say, as there had been nothing to indicate the change. He was grateful, though, because it meant their journey was almost over. The Air Nation capitol was fairly close to the border it shared with the Earth Nation, and the land here wasn't as hard to traverse over.

The weather was blessedly mild, but to Kyungsoo, who was used to high altitudes and cool caves, it felt hot. All his travel clothing was long-sleeved and made out of thicker, roughhewn fabric. He rolled up his sleeves and dealt with it as best he could.

When they finally dismounted for the night he was chipper, partly because they were stopping, and partly because, despite all this complaining, he was actually happy to be here, travelling. It was kind of like an adventure, and Kyungsoo had never been this far from home before. He'd traveled throughout his own nation, but he'd never set foot outside of it, not until now. He was trying to keep a positive attitude, despite the threat of war looming over their heads.

Kyungsoo paused in the middle of unbuckling his pack from his saddle, momentarily thinking of battles and blood and horror. Then the larger of his companions tapped him sharply on the side of the head. "Watch it, you may catch flies with your mouth hanging open like that." He grinned and Kyungsoo turned red. He shook his head to clear it, then finished removing his pack from the saddle.

He spread his thin pallet over the bumpy ground and laid down. He was going to the Air Nation as a representative, not a warrior, and with any luck he wouldn’t see any battles anyway. He shut his eyes, listening as crickets began to chirp, and let the steady comfort of the earth beneath him lull him to sleep.

——

The Air Nation capitol sucked.

Kyungsoo stared around at the room he'd been given. It was large and splendid, fit for someone of his station, the attendant had said, and that had grated on Kyungsoo. To be fair, everything was grating on Kyungsoo. He'd known ahead of time that the Air Nation's capitol city was set on floating chunks of land, but he hadn't anticipated how completely awful and disconcerting it would be to not feel the earth under his feet.

He was suddenly awash with homesickness, and it was stupid. He'd been travelling for three weeks and was finally here, finally in a room with a soft bed. And all he could think about was how he wanted to be home. He didn’t like it here. He didn't like the glaringly white marble walls, or the gauzy curtains. He didn't like the baubles the people wore, or the flowing silks. He especially didn't like how the Elders and nobles of the court had looked down their long noses at him at first, and then tripped over themselves, gushing courtesy, once they found out who he was. That grated on him the most. In the Earth Nation if you had something important to say, they would want to hear it, regardless of whether you were king or kitchen boy.

He rolled around on the bed, unable to find a comfortable position. With a frustrated groan he sat up. "I don't like it," he said to the empty room. His voice echoed back to him slightly. There was no way he was going to be able to get to sleep, not here. He strode across the room, picking up his pack. "I would rather sleep on bumpy ground than no ground," he muttered to himself, slinging his pack over his shoulder. He knew he was being silly but he was too tired to care. He couldn't go home, but he could get back on the ground, and that was the next best thing. He just wanted the comfort of the earth under him.

Kyungsoo added the gondolas to the list of Things I Hate in the Air Nation. He clutched at the side of the little wooden boat as it rocked slightly on the air currents. He sent his senses down, trying to feel the ground, but he was still too far up and couldn't get any reading of it. Trying had made him feel nauseous, so he just put his head between his knees and closed his eyes.

The gondola gave a mighty shudder as it landed in its cradle, and Kyungsoo scrambled off gratefully. He threw his senses down again, and this time just felt solidity. It settled his stomach, and he sighed in relief. Plopping on the ground and rolling was probably inappropriate to do in front of others, so Kyungsoo took a small path away from the canal into the forest to do just that.

He hadn’t been walking long when he came out of the other side of the forest into a large grassy area with a tall, craggy rock formation at the far side. He tossed his pack to the ground and sighed, plopping happily down beside it on the grass. He began to undo the buckles of his pack, intent on laying out his sleeping pallet, but stilled when he heard a voice. It sounded like it was coming from the other side of the rocks. Leaving his pack where it was, he crawled through the tall grass in an attempt to sneak closer.

"What do you mean, you didn’t see?" The voice sounded amused. "His face was all over the place. Every time they said ‘slave’ his mouth did this thing, like someone had hooked his upper lip and yanked it. I don’t even know how it could move like that, honestly."

Kyungsoo had reached the rocks and peeked around them. The speaker was a boy who looked like he was around Kyungsoo’s age. He had dark hair, golden tanned skin, and was completely clothed in black. He also appeared to be talking to the rock formation, complete with gestures.

Okay, Kyungsoo thought. I think I will find a meadow without a crazy man in it.

He felt a tickling on his calf, and he looked down to see something thin and black running over it. "SNAKE," Kyungsoo screamed, standing and flailing. He began to brush himself off frantically, and the snake continued to come towards him. He gave it a hard look and saw it was shaped weirdly, it didn’t end, it kind of kept going and getting thicker and his first thought was oh god giant snake but then he saw it was connected to the rock formation.

"Uh," said the tanned boy, and Kyungsoo looked up and realized that he had, in his panic over the Snake Situation, stumbled out from behind the rocks and was now completely out in the open.

"Snake," Kyungsoo said lamely, pointing at it.

"Dragon," said the tanned boy, with a grin. He reached out and patted the rock formation, which then moved. Kyungsoo screamed again, and turned to run back to the forest where rock formations didn’t suddenly start moving, only for the weird never-ending snake to end up wrapped around his feet so that he fell forward onto the ground, saving himself from a broken face by throwing his hands out just in time.

Kyungsoo continued trying to wriggle away, but then suddenly he was cast into shadow. He rolled over slowly, staring up. There was a very large face staring down at him. Kyungsoo made a weak noise, and the dragon above him snorted hot breath over him.

I am going to be barbequed oh my god, Kyungsoo thought, shutting his eyes tight and bracing for it. Then the shade was gone, his eyelids turning red, and for a moment Kyungsoo thought it was because he’d been blasted with flame but then he cracked an eye open and realized the dragon had just moved off him to settle down back where it had been, taking the shade with it.

"You’re the Earth Shifter," said the tanned boy, as Kyungsoo struggled back to his feet, face hot with embarrassment. "I saw you at the meeting."

Kyungsoo frowned. "You weren’t at the meeting," he said. "How did you see me?"

"Just because I wasn’t there didn’t mean that I didn’t see you," said the boy. Kyungsoo thought that was mildly cryptic and he squinted, trying to figure out what was meant by that. The boy tilted his head slightly as he contemplated Kyungsoo. He had wide, intense dark eyes. "I expected the Earth Shifters to be tall and broad."

"Sorry to disappoint," Kyungsoo retorted. Everyone expected the Earth Shifters to be tall and broad. But Kyungsoo wasn't, was average height at best, and he had very little muscle definition. His knees were still feeling a bit shaky and the dragon was staring at him, unblinking. "Why is there a dragon? Why were you talking to a dragon?"

The boy continued to stare at him musingly. "This dragon is better company than most of the people in that floating city," he finally said. "Smarter than most of them too." The dragon made a rumbling noise, and the boy’s head whipped around to look at it, a small frown on his face. After staring for a moment he turned to look down at the grass, clearly disgruntled. "Sometimes, though, it can be pretty dumb," he muttered. The dragon made another rumbly noise and flicked its tail around, hitting the boy on the head lightly, then stood and tromped to the other side of the meadow.

Kyungsoo gaped a little. "Who are you?"

The boy looked at him with something akin to pity. "Kai." Kyungsoo blinked, not recognizing that name. "The Shadow Walker," he elaborated.

"Ah," Kyungsoo said. "Ah," he added, taking an automatic step backwards. It was just his luck, of course. His first day in the Air Nation and he’d somehow managed to stumble onto the person who was supposedly the embodiment of all that was bad and evil in the world. Though he hadn’t known that the Shadow Walker was so young; whenever he’d heard stories about him he’d pictured him as a twisted older man. This lithe youth was not at all what he'd expected.

Something was poking Kyungsoo on the head and when he turned he could see it was the dragon’s tail again. The dragon itself was turned away from him but the tail was stretched all the way across the field to get at him.

Kai said something as Kyungsoo was batting the tail away. "What?" Kyungsoo asked, "I didn’t hear that, I was getting assaulted by a dragon tail." He paused. "Oh my god." He sat down heavily in the grass, and made a really pitiful noise that he was probably going to be ashamed of later. This was all just too much.

"I said," Kai called, "that the dragon wants me to tell you I am not evil."

Kyungsoo laughed nervously. "Of course it does," he said shakily. He put his head in his hands. "I’d think this was a terrifying, embarrassing dream except my head feels like it is being split in two." Which it did. He’d had a small headache earlier from tiredness and stress but this had turned into something truly horrific. It felt like something far too large was trying to fit inside his head, something prickly.

When he finally looked up again Kai’s face had gone pale, expression a stoic mask. Kyungsoo wondered if he had said something wrong and the Shadow Walker was going to unleash his supposed horrific wrath upon him, but nothing happened.

His head gave a particularly vicious stab and he involuntarily cried out. "You need to leave," Kai said sharply. He sent a glare at the dragon. "Now."

Kyungsoo thought that was a good idea. He was no longer keen on sleeping down here if Kai and his dragon were hanging around. His legs were shaky, but he could walk. He looked around for his pack and didn’t see it.

"Give it to him," Kai said, and Kyungsoo turned to look at him. He was still staring at the dragon, who, well, it sighed, the sound eerily human, and moved a clawed foot to show it had been covering it.

Kyungsoo shot Kai a nervous glance and retrieved his pack from beside the dragon's giant clawed foot. It sighed again as he scampered out of the clearing, wafting hot air over him. Kyungsoo nearly shrieked. As he got further from the grass clearing he noticed the headache slipping away, like it was physically leaving.

The sun was setting as he got back into the gondola. The driver of the boat gave him a sideways glance, but Kyungsoo didn't say anything other than, "Take me back up, please." The boat began to rock, slowly rising upwards, and the pain in Kyungsoo's head grew fainter and fainter.

Maybe that’s his power, Kyungsoo thought. Maybe he can send out pain. Kyungsoo didn't know too much about Shadow Walkers, just some of the general lore, the tales told to children at bedtime, and what the Air Nation said about them. They railed about their Shadow Walker, called him evil and destructive, but Kyungsoo was inclined to think they were just a bad tempered lot, so how much of what they said was truth, he could not say. He settled back against the bench he was sitting on, thankful for the lessening pain. Regardless of what was true and what wasn't, the Shadow Walker had unnerved him with his large, intense eyes, and that headache hadn't been natural. Kyungsoo hoped that he wouldn’t meet the Shadow Walker again.

——

The gods have a strange sense of humor though, so of course Kyungsoo caught sight of the Shadow Walker the next day. Or rather, caught sight of the dragon.

It was early morning. The sky was that dismal grey color it turns before the sun peeks up over the horizon to set it ablaze in red and pink and gold. Kyungsoo was sitting cross-legged on the floor, blanket wrapped around his shoulders as he stared out the high window of his room. His eyelids still felt heavy. He'd been woken with a start by the feeling that he'd been falling. Afterwards he couldn't fall back asleep, so he'd shuffled out of bed, and here he sat.

Ha gave a wide yawn. His sleep hadn’t been too restful even before his sudden awakening. He'd had anxious dreams, of battles and swords and dragons. And fire, so much fire. He pressed his face against the cool glass of the window, sighing. All he could see were the rooftops of smaller buildings and the icy grey sky. There were no mountains, and Kyungsoo couldn't catch sight of the ground proper, not from here.

Movement caught his eye and he squinted. There was a black shape in the sky, and at first Kyungsoo thought it was a bird, but with a jolt that twisted his stomach, he realized it was a dragon. The dragon, the Shadow Walker's dragon. It was far off, and flying even farther away. Kyungsoo wondered if the Shadow Walker was on its back, wondered what it felt like to ride a creature like that. How the Shadow Walker had tamed it, Kyungsoo could only imagine. There were no tales of domesticated dragons. All Kyungsoo knew about them was that they were huge, fierce, and breathed fire that burned white hot. It was said dragonfire could melt anything, even stone.

Soon the dragon was just a speck in the distance, and then it faded from his sight completely. He stayed sitting in the same spot as the sun came up and watched as the city slowly came to life. After a time, he stood, stretching, letting the blanket pool on the floor. He washed up, putting on clean clothes.

No attendant had come to give him food, or tell him of a potential meeting. Kyungsoo wasn't surprised; it was still very early and he doubted anyone thought he was up. He rang for a servant, and while he waited for one to arrive he pulled his boots on deftly.

There was a sharp rap on his door, and Kyungsoo pulled it open. The servant standing in front of him was bright eyed and dressed in simple, white silks. He bowed quickly, murmuring, "Prince Kyungsoo."

"Hi," Kyungsoo said awkwardly. He wasn't used to his title being tacked on in front of his name. Rank was important here, but in his country it wasn't. At most he would be called "sir," but more often it was just "Kyungsoo" or "hey you." Kyungsoo cleared his throat. "Is there a library in this city?"

The servant blinked at him, before saying, "Of course, milord. Our library is the largest in all the four nations, if I am not mistaken."

"Take me there," Kyungsoo said. The servant bowed, expression slightly baffled, but he led Kyungsoo through the halls without a word of protest or query. The light coming in through the windows was still slightly pink, and it tinted the white walls.

The library was in a huge round tower. Kyungsoo stood in the center, where a giant tome sat on a plinth, and looked up. Hundreds of feet above him there was an intricate stained glass ceiling, and between that and the ground where he stood were numerous floors. Kyungsoo could see bookshelf after bookshelf packed on each floor.

"Wow," he said, slowly turning in a circle so he could fully take in his surroundings. "Is there someone stationed here, who can help me find what I seek?" Kyungsoo would need a great deal of help, as there was no way he could go through every shelf on every floor.

"The librarian is currently asleep, no doubt. If milord wishes, I can go wake him." He motioned to the tome in front of them. "But if you would rather wait, you can use this to find what you seek."

Kyungsoo strode to stand in front of the plinth. The book's cover was leather, smooth and shiny from countless years of people touching it. The corners were slightly peeling and the title had worn off. He opened the book carefully to reveal yellowed pages. It was a record of all the books in the library, the attendant explained, and where to find them.

"We keep everything well organized," the attendant said proudly. "Each floor is a different subject, and each shelf is numbered. Are you looking for a specific book, milord?"

"No," Kyungsoo muttered, flipping through the pages of the index. Floor three was dedicated to Shifters; he'd start there. He glanced up at the attendant and said, "Thank you, you may go now." The attendant gave another swift bow and then left, shutting the great doors behind him. The sound echoed through the tower, and Kyungsoo huffed out a sigh. "Alright, let's do this," he said to himself, and began ascending the stairs.

The third floor wasn't much different than the other floors. Numbers were carved into the shelves, and slips of paper were pinned below them, detailing the specific subject each shelf held. Kyungsoo walked around slowly. Over half the shelves were dedicated to air Shifters and Shifting. When Kyungsoo reached the shelves on earth Shifting he had to stop himself from exploring; that wasn't why he was here.

Finally he found what he'd come here for: a single aisle, two shelves, dedicated to mutated Shifters. Kyungsoo didn't have anything specific in mind, so he just began pulling down books that caught his eye. "A Comprehensive List of Shadow Walkers and All Their Notable Deeds," he mumbled as he read the spine of a black book. He pulled the book down and flipped it open. It wasn't very large, and half the pages were still blank.

He skimmed through. There were only twenty-three Shadow Walkers recorded, which was five more than Kyungsoo had known existed. "Gods, this goes back over a thousand years," he muttered as he flipped to the first one. There wasn't much recorded on that one, and even his date of birth and death were approximated to the nearest hundred. The next one, a girl, had specific dates, though she hadn't done much of note either. He kept flipping until he got to the thirteenth one, and saw a name he recognized.

"'Necio, The Death Bringer,'" Kyungsoo read aloud. He was the most well-known Shadow Walker, the one at the forefront of every nightmarish tale Kyungsoo had heard as a child. But much of what Kyungsoo had heard in the stories must have been exaggeration, as there was no mention in this book of Necio eating the hearts of children, as Kyungsoo's older cousin had once told him.

"'Born in the Fire Nation under a red moon' blah blah blah." Kyungsoo turned the page impatiently. Kyungsoo's eyes flicked over the pages. "'Powers never before known… strongest Shadow Walker to date, arguably the strongest Shifter ever seen…'" Kyungsoo made an annoyed noise. "But what could he do?" Kyungsoo bit his bottom lip, and his eyes caught on another paragraph. "'In his twenty-eighth year, Necio retaliated against the actions of the Fire Nation's royal family… attacked a large eastern merchant city… Fire Nation forces arrived to aid and found the city already gone… no building shells were left, no charred ground, no bodies… it was as if the city had never been… Necio was found dead not long after.'" Kyungsoo frowned. "Well that is just cryptic and maddeningly unhelpful."

He resumed flipping through the pages, trying to find more details on a Shadow Walker's other powers. Every Shadow Walker could teleport, this was known. It was where the name 'Shadow Walker' had come from. Some Shadow Walkers, like Necio, had other powers, but most Shadow Walkers were not strong enough to wield them, apparently.

Kyungsoo skipped page after page of Shadow Walkers who could teleport, and only teleport. He stopped once to read about the nineteenth Shadow Walker, a woman called Muera. "'Years after her exile from the Air Nation, she returned for retribution… one by one the Elders vanished… they fell into darkness and never returned.’ Great, just what I wanted, more cryptic nonsense lacking any kind of specificity." He shut the book, frustrated. It sent a cloud of dust wafting up at his face.

"Milord?" a wheezy voice asked over his shoulder.

Kyungsoo shrieked and raised the book on instinct to use it as a weapon. An elderly man stood behind him, dressed in plain white flowing robes. He had a silver chain around his neck, indicating he was a scholar. Kyungsoo's ears turned red and he lowered the book. "You're the librarian?" Kyungsoo asked stiffly, and the old man nodded. "I apologize, I didn't hear you come in."

"You did seem quite engrossed in your reading, milord." The librarian moved so he could read the title of the book. "Ah, reading up on Shadow Walkers. I am afraid that copy isn't up to date yet." He plucked the book from Kyungsoo's hands, turning the pages until he found the one that he sought, then he tilted it so Kyungsoo could see.

"'Kai,'" Kyungsoo murmured. The ink in this entry was fresher, though still obviously several years old. "'Born in the Air Nation… at age fourteen showed the ability to teleport… was Marked and Named, but disappeared before he could be Exiled.'" That was the end of the entry. "There's no mention of the dragon," Kyungsoo said.

"Well, like I said, not up to date." The librarian handed the book back to him.

"What does that mean, he was Marked and Named?" Kyungsoo asked.

"An old tradition we still cling to, milord. I believe your own nation stopped doing it several centuries ago. There's a book on it in the Customs and Traditions section on the first floor, if you'd like to see it."

Kyungsoo nodded. "Yes, I would, please." The librarian gave a creaky bow and began to turn, but Kyungsoo added, "Wait, before you go, are there any books that go more into detail about a Shadow Walker's other abilities?" He held up the book in his hands. "This one wasn't very specific; I still don't understand exactly what their other powers are or how they work."

"I am afraid not, milord. So few Shadow Walkers have shown other abilities, and the records kept are not as good as they should be. The Fire Nation destroyed all their books and scrolls on Necio, so the finer points have been lost to time. And no one saw Muera's ability at work. If any of the other Walkers had other powers, they kept the knowledge to themselves, I'm afraid."

Kyungsoo mentally cursed. "Thank you anyway," he said to the librarian.

"I shall fetch you the book on Air Nation ceremonies now, milord." The librarian shuffled off.

Kyungsoo frowned at where he'd been standing. "He was a different one," he muttered to himself. Then he turned to the shelf beside him and sighed. So, none of these books would have the answers he sought, not really. After a moment he began pulling more down anyway, piling them on the ground beside him. Maybe he'd be able to piece more information together if he read about the subject from several different sources.

The section on Shadow Walkers wasn't very large, and soon Kyungsoo found himself in the Oracle section instead. He gave the books a brief scan, just in case anything popped out at him. A thick tome did, for it was the least dusty of the lot, not to mention one of the largest. He pulled it off the shelf, grunting under its weight. Visions and Prophecies, the front cover read in silver script. Many of the back pages were blank still, but the others were full of tightly spaced, tiny handwriting. It appeared to be a record of every vision every Oracle had had in the last two thousand years. "Jeez," Kyungsoo muttered, flipping through. The pages were crackly, so he had to move them with care. Unlike the book on Shadow Walkers, this one had been updated recently. It had entries about the current Oracle's vision of the war as well as his Seeing of the Twelve. Kyungsoo didn’t think it would be of much use, but he added it to his pile anyway, just in case.

Then the librarian came shuffling back around the corner. "Here's the book you request— oh Gods." He looked at the mountain of books on the floor, and then back up to the shelf on Shadow Walkers, which Kyungsoo just realized he left very nearly empty.

"Uhm," Kyungsoo said. "Thank you?" He took the book from the librarian's hands, giving the cover a quick glance before saying, "I'm taking all these back to my room. I'll bring them back soon."

The librarian gaped. "Milord, are you sure—"

"Yes," Kyungsoo said decisively, picking up several of the books he'd laid out. "I am. Please call a couple of servants to help me carry these back to my chambers. And send another to bring me some blank scrolls as well as ink and quills, for note taking."

"Yes, milord," the librarian said weakly. "Is there anything else you need?"

Kyungsoo paused. "Now that you mention it. Have you got any books on dragons?"

——

Kyungsoo had two scrolls full of notes, his scrawl probably only legible to himself. Beside his door a growing tower of books sat, the ones he'd gone through and gotten all he'd wanted from, and a few he'd just gotten fed up with. There was one particular volume written by a crotchety Elder about a hundred years ago that was very hate-filled. Kyungsoo didn't want to read about how Shadow Walkers were abominations, he just wanted hard facts.

The rest of the books were spread out over the floor, around where Kyungsoo sat cross-legged on the plush carpet. He was using the giant book of visions as a table.

"Dragons," he muttered as he wrote it in large script at the top of the third scroll. As it turned out, there had been several books on dragons in the wildlife section of the library, and Kyungsoo had taken them all too. He was just about to dive in on the largest book when a knock resounded on his door.

"It's open," Kyungsoo called, not wanting to wade through all the books on the floor to answer the door.

Suho stepped in, and he paused a moment to take in the scene in front of him. Then he shut the door behind himself. "I was wondering where you'd gotten off to," Suho said. "You missed a meeting this morning. I was afraid you'd fallen ill."

"I was in the library," Kyungsoo explained. He hadn't even know there was going to be a meeting, but he should have suspected it.

"I wouldn’t have known," Suho retorted sarcastically. He bent to examine the books nearest him. "Shadow Walkers?"

"I uh, ran into him yesterday." Suho blinked at him. "The Shadow Walker. I went down to the ground and he was there, talking with his dragon. The encounter piqued my curiosity."

"I think I like him, kinda," Suho said with a shrug. "He seemed a bit cheeky, and he very nearly sent the Elders into fits. Also, he could be a big asset in this war, provided the Elders don’t alienate him totally. I may go down to chat with him one day." Suho shuffled through the books. "I don't suppose any of these books tell us his name?"

"Kai," Kyungsoo murmured. "His name is Kai. A few of the books have mentioned him. You know they were going to exile him? And he didn't even do anything." At least, none of the books so far had indicated Kai had done anything destructive.

Suho stood with a sigh. "They're superstitious here. I think they did it as a preemptive measure. Too much bad lore, too much unknown."

"I know, I read up on Necio," Kyungsoo said sourly. And he still had a large book to read filled with nothing but mutated Shifter lore, as well as theories of how their powers worked and came to be.

"Yes, well, we'll tread carefully where the Shadow Walker is concerned, and hope he doesn't turn on us. But right now you look awful, so I think you need a break, and we still have to catch up." Suho smiled down at Kyungsoo gently. "Have you eaten yet today? Dinner's being served in the mess hall, we can walk down together."

"Dinner?" Kyungsoo squawked. He hadn't realized how late it had gotten. He set his quill down and put the lid back on the inkwell. The open book on dragons he left where it was. He stood and Suho helped him over the pile around himself. "It really is great to see you, Suho," Kyungsoo said sincerely.

"Likewise," Suho said with a smile. "I'm glad you're here."

Kyungsoo couldn’t exactly say he was glad he'd come, but he didn't regret it either. Instead of saying anything he just smiled, and let Suho lead him out of the room.

——

Kyungsoo decided the food here was excellent, especially the desserts, but that the Head Air Shifter officially scared him, and that even in the mess hall surrounded by soldiers, he still felt out of place. It was strange, being the only earth Shifter around for miles and miles. It made him feel very alone.

He retired early, finding that after all that food he was very tired. Suho offered to accompany him back, but Kyungsoo declined. Suho was a social creature and was in his element, so Kyungsoo would let him be.

Once Kyungsoo was back in his room he lit several candles, then stilled. The room was not as he'd left it. The quill and ink had been moved from the floor to his nightstand, which Kyungsoo could have taken to be the work of a strange busybody servant who neglected the rest of the room, but there was an open book on his bed that Kyungsoo knew hadn't been there before, and why would a servant do that.

He held a candle over the pages, feeling a prickle start on the back of his neck. The book was the Comprehensive List of Shadow Walkers, which Kyungsoo had finished with earlier and placed in the pile by his door. It was open to the last entry, the one on Kai.

Next to the neat text the librarian had left, there were new words, the ink still black as pitch, just laid down. The new text was in an untidy scrawl, and Kyungsoo squinted, trying to read it.

"'After leaving the Air Nation, he went south, to look for dragons,'" Kyungsoo whispered as he read. "'Five years later, the Oracle of the Air Nation prophesied a coming war, and so he returned to his homeland, with a dragon in tow. Kai—'" Kyungsoo stopped reading with a gasp, as he'd heard a clatter come from the bathroom. He strode across the room to peer inside the bathroom. It was empty, the candlelight flickering against tiled walls.

One of the small decorative statues had fallen off its stand, which had caused the noise. Kyungsoo stared at the pieces, feeling his heart race. After one last sweep of the room and still finding it empty, he slowly walked back to the side of his bed, willing his pulse to settle.

Once he was in front of the book again, he read softly, "'Kai is the first Walker since Muera known to have abilities besides teleportation.'" Kyungsoo swallowed thickly. He hadn't known that. In fact, he was pretty sure no one knew that.

Kyungsoo had goosebumps all over his arms. On an impulse, he scrawled But what kind of abilities does he have? below the text on Kai's page. Immediately afterwards he contemplated scribbling it out, but decided to leave it for now. He placed the book, still open, on his nightstand, and then set the quill and inkwell on the open pages. Later, before he returned it, he'd cross it out.

After that he washed up quickly, eyeing the fallen statue warily as he did so. He almost didn't want to put out the candles, he was so unsettled. "Oh, come on Kyungsoo, you're not five," he said to himself, and blew out the last one.

In the morning he was woken by a chipper attendant bearing a tray with several pastries as well as orange juice and hot chocolate, which Kyungsoo hadn’t been given since he was a child. The attendant had been sent by Suho apparently, and was meant to inform Kyungsoo that a meeting was being held in one hour, and could he please not miss this one.

Kyungsoo stared blearily at him. "Duly noted," he said slowly, and the attendant flounced out, his work done. Kyungsoo nibbled on a pastry while his brain woke up. After he finished his food he stretched, sighing at the thought of a meeting. That was why he was here though, he reminded himself. He was a responsible Head Shifter, and all that crap.

"Why can’t they hold meetings in the evenings," he wailed at the empty room, flopping back down onto the bed. As he was lying there, he caught sight of the book on his nightstand, and remembered the previous night. He pulled it to him, and his stomach jolted unpleasantly when he looked down at the pages.

Underneath his query of But what kind of abilities does he have? there were new words, and it made the hair at the nape of Kyungsoo's neck stand on end.

The untidy scrawl simply read You'll find out.

——

Kyungsoo returned the creepy haunted book to the library that day, and afterwards pretended he'd never come across it. None of the other books had magically appearing text, so pretending he'd never found it got easier and easier with each passing day. He was kept busy, between all the research (which he was beginning to think was fruitless as he'd learned very little he hadn't already known), the meetings (that the Elders held every day), and Suho (who seemed to sense how alone Kyungsoo felt and was making a determined effort to find him some friends).

The result was that he'd been stuck on the floating city for a solid week before he got a chance to take a gondola back down again. It had also taken him that long to get the courage to do so. But, aside from that first encounter on the day of his arrival, he hadn't run into the Shadow Walker again, so he felt relatively safe as his gondola quivered its way down to the ground.

He hopped out quickly once they landed, excitedly sending feelers into the ground. He wanted to practice his Shifting, so he'd need to go a bit away from the canal to do so. After glancing at the forest he'd gone into the last time, he turned and strode decisively in the opposite direction. He headed towards a small, grass covered hill. He was sure it was a hill and not a dragon because aside from grass, there were also a few smaller trees on it, and he was certain that it wasn’t possible to camouflage a dragon quite that well. Fairly certain. He sincerely hoped so as he had made a very concentrated effort to not run into the Shadow Walker again. It wasn't a hard thing to do, since the Shadow Walker wasn't just striding around the halls of the capitol, but still. Kyungsoo knew he'd been popping around, sometimes with the dragon in tow. He glanced at the hill suspiciously before sending his senses ahead of himself, just to check. The hill was just dirt, and Kyungsoo sighed in relief.

He paused at the base of the hill, then, with a small thrust of power, changed the side of it into steps that he could easily climb to the top. As he walked, the steps behind him faded back into the hillside, slight ripples in the grass the only signs that he’d been there. He made his way halfway up the hill before he stopped and turned, surveying the landscape around him.

He’d known that the Air Nation was grassy and not as mountainous as his own Nation ‐ he’d been able to see that during his trip to the capitol and on the gondola rides‐ but like this, he was a little awed by it. The hills seemed like mere blips in a flat landscape, totally unlike what he was used to. Walking out of the main entrance of his capitol meant being greeted by the side of yet another mountain. Here he could see over the canal that led to the ocean, pretty far into the distance.

He’d never had a chance to work out just how far his power could run; living in mountains meant that it was hard to Shift in a straight line without having to bend around some obstacle. Even Earth Shifters couldn’t force their way through a whole mountain. Also, trying to move his power through a mountain ran the risk of rockslides. Earth Shifting was the least precise of the Shifting abilities, and you couldn’t always control the consequences of it.

Kyungsoo fixed his eyes on a collection of rocks in the distance, before he focused his Shifting sense and sent it down into the earth, feeling through the ground between him and the rocks, like nerve signals passing along synapses. It took a couple of moments before he hit the rocks, and he smiled without really being aware of it as he realized that if his senses could reach that far, then there would be no doubt of his Shifting power being able to reach.

He took a moment to breathe in deeply, before he lifted his foot and slammed it down onto the ground, sending out a focused blast of his power travelling towards the rocks. The ground trembled, the trees in the path of his power quivering slightly as it blew past the ground under their roots. A second later, the rocks blasted apart in an explosion of dust and fragments of stone. Kyungsoo grinned as he watched the dust settle.

"Impressive," said a voice behind him.

Kyungsoo gave a small shriek and whirled around. Kai was standing behind him, arms folded across his chest and a slight smile on his face. His eyes were fixed on the obliterated rocks in the distance. "How long have you been standing there?" Kyungsoo gasped.

"Not long," Kai said with a shrug. "Since just before you destroyed the rocks. Do you know how long your power can travel? Most Shifting abilities get weaker over a distance like that."

"I haven’t had a lot of opportunities to try throwing it very far," Kyungsoo replied weakly.

"You should practice it," Kai suggested.

That’s what I was trying to do before you interrupted, Kyungsoo thought. His heart was still racing, but he found that after all the reading he'd done, he wasn't as afraid of Kai as he'd been the last time. His reading hadn't been too educational per se, but he had learned that Shadow Walkers were, in the end, just Shifters, and Kyungsoo figured that if normal Shifters could vary in personality, then so could Shadow Walkers. There was nothing to indicate Kai was malicious, and Suho had even said Kai seemed to be good-natured. Still, that headache gave Kyungsoo pause, so he would tread carefully.

Kyungsoo squinted a suspicious glare at Kai before turning to look for another large boulder he could focus on. He saw one, a bit further out than his original target, but when he tried to send his powers down he found he was too distracted by the presence of an audience to manage it. He shot a nervous glance over his shoulder to check, and Kai was indeed still there, hip cocked and arms crossed, waiting. Kyungsoo muttered under his breath about nosy people and brought his foot down onto the ground again, sending a jolt of power towards the boulder. It didn’t get very far, fizzling out just over halfway to its intended target. Kyungsoo hadn’t really expected to make it.

"Do I make you nervous?" Kai asked, a little too close. Kyungsoo took a step back and Kai’s slight smile flickered for a second. "I can leave if you need to train."

Kyungsoo wasn’t sure if telling the Shadow Walker to leave was a sensible thing to do. He still didn’t know if Kai was capable of causing pain, and if he offended him, maybe Kai would take revenge. Kyungsoo opened his mouth to reply, not quite knowing what he wanted to say, and a strange gurgling came out.

"That wasn’t really an answer," Kai said, with a grin. "You make the strangest noises."

Kyungsoo blushed. He really did seem to have a habit of making ridiculous sounds around the Shadow Walker. All that screaming. It wasn’t really helping to establish a reputation as a fearsome Earth Shifter. It was even more embarrassing considering he was supposed to be the representative of the Earth Nation itself. "You," Kyungsoo began, "make me nervous."

"I should, I am the Shadow Walker," said Kai, "and I’d be a pretty poor one if I didn’t intimidate people, I guess."

"Is that why you gave me a headache last time?" Kyungsoo asked, then wanted to bite his own tongue off. He really didn’t want a repeat.

Kai winced. "No," he said. "That was... the dragon. I’m sorry."

Kyungsoo squinted disbelievingly. "Your dragon can send out headaches?" He hadn't read anything about that in the dragon books.

"Not exactly. She won’t do it again, I promise." His tone was intense, and Kyungsoo blinked. "I came by myself today, just in case though."

Kyungsoo wondered if Kai was lying to him, but his eyes were wide and guileless, and he seemed sincere. Kyungsoo hadn't read anything about a dragon having any kind of special ability besides the obvious fire breathing. Then again, he hadn't read anything saying they didn't have any other abilities. In fact several of the books had hinted they may possess powers humans did not know of.

In the end Kyungsoo just nodded uncertainly.

Kai sat down on the grass, crossing his legs. "Does anyone know you’re down here?" he asked. "Or do you just keep running away?"

"I came down here to train," Kyungsoo pointed out. "I wasn’t running away."

"It’s okay," Kai said. "I’m not technically part of the Air Nation, so you can complain about it if you want. I know what they’re like." He looked up at Kyungsoo expectantly, and Kyungsoo could see he was telling the truth. Kyungsoo wondered if the fact that he didn't like it here was that obvious. Suho hadn’t said anything, but then Suho, Kyungsoo thought, rather liked it here well enough, so maybe he just assumed Kyungsoo did as well.

Kyungsoo hesitated for a moment before he said, "They’re just so stuffy. The way they all speak is so stilted. I’m not used to speaking like that, and I’m a prince. I think I offended three of them today because I didn’t use the right greeting phrase."

"You’ll get used to it," Kai said. "We— the Air Nation children are given special training in formality and etiquette, you just need to pick it up."

"It’s not just that," said Kyungsoo, feeling all his pent up frustration boiling over. "You know that they call Baekhyun ‘the slave’? Baekhyun, the lover of the Phoenix! It’s a disgrace." That was something that continued to grate on Kyungsoo. He'd brought it up with Suho, and Suho had said he'd discuss it with Tao, to see if they could stop. It just wasn't right. Baekhyun was a person.

"Yeah," said Kai, voice suddenly gentle. "That’s what they’re like. Everything with the appropriate title." He sighed, rubbing the back of his neck. "Everything in its appropriate place."

Kyungsoo looked out over the hilly landscape. "I don’t belong here." He really didn’t; he felt so out of place and he wanted to go home. The only thing stopping him was the fact that it would be admitting his father was right. He was no great warrior or strategist; there was nothing he could offer these people they didn’t already have.

Kai laughed, a horrible self-deprecating sound. "Have you looked at who you’re talking to?"

Kyungsoo sucked in a breath because in his frustration he had actually momentarily forgotten who he was talking to. Suddenly he was worried he’d said something he shouldn’t have. Kai seemed fairly harmless, but who knew what his intentions truly were.

"I should go," Kyungsoo said hurriedly. He looked down at the ground.

Kai stood. "No. You need to train, feel the earth. Maybe it will help you sleep. I’ll go."

Kyungsoo choked a little. "How do you know I haven’t been sleeping well?"

Kai rolled his eyes. "It doesn’t take a genius to figure it out. Earth Shifter in a floating city. Also you look like crap, so there’s that." Kyungsoo was making stupid gurgling noises again. "Besides, I just came over here to—" he stopped himself, frowning.

"What." Kyungsoo snapped. "To what."

"I don’t know." Kai brushed his backside off, stray pieces of grass falling. "Let you know I wasn’t going to unleash some kind of evil wrath on you." Kai met his eye. "I am not evil."

"You’re a Shadow Walker," Kyungsoo mumbled, and Kai’s lashes lowered. A pang of guilt washed over Kyungsoo.

"I am," Kai said softly, the tone almost sad. He turned and Kyungsoo couldn’t describe what he did, a strange shift, and then he was gone, the air where he had been cracked.

"But no," Kyungsoo said to the cracks as they slowly receded. "Not evil." And as he said it, he knew it to be true.


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