Rustling. Whispering. Pulsating. Vigor deep within its roots — the forest is alive and well.
The foliage glows emerald and dances to the breeze’s gentle tune. Chirps, buzzes, and hums harmonize with one another to form an orchestra traveling through the acoustics of mighty oaks that soar to the heavens, whose canopies serve as a protector that drapes a cool shade over all and doesn’t forget to let in the flickering sheen of the morning’s spring rays.
The sunlight is neither scalding nor harsh. Much the opposite: mellow, delicate, a silky film when it flushes on the raven-haired girl’s warm complexion. In a chestnut dress woven from flax and with two black bows pinning back her tousled locks, she lays on her stomach on the rich dirt, peeking underneath a mossy log with a tiny tortoise by her side.
“Joohyun said I would find one here,” mutters Jisoo, poking through the plants, mushrooms, and vines that adorn the wood and sprout between its splinters. She huffs. “But this is the eighth log. Where is it?”
Her tortoise regards her thoughtfully. Grunting, Jisoo pushes herself up into a sitting position and crosses her arms in frustration.
“Maybe the Waddle Worm lives in birch logs,” she ponders, a finger on her chin. Her other hand habitually brushes through the few dark-green strands of hair that barely contrasts against the sable blackness — a trait signature to the Earth tribe. “What do you think, Rabbit?”
Rabbit the tortoise simply tilts his head. He raises his front leg and, as tortoises do, slowly waddles toward her. Before he can take a second step, Jisoo scoops him up by the belly and props him on her shoulder.
“We don’t have all day.” She taps Rabbit’s head. Flashing a determined grin, she stands up and, with two hands on her hips, puffs her chest and squares her shoulders. Her dusky eyes twinkle with purpose, the hue matching the three moles sprinkled by them: one on each eyelid, and one by the inner corner of the right. “We must find it before the day ends!”
Her bare feet sink into the fertile earth as she strolls through the forest, bounces in each step of the way. A squirrel pauses on its way up a tree to stare at her, acknowledging the presence of the Earthen aura. She waves at it as she passes by, humming along with the birds, and twirls in a way that the skirt of her dress lifts ever so slightly for the breeze to kiss the skin.
Suddenly, the breeze strengthens — a gust that shakes the trees, catching the ends of Jisoo’s hair and whipping a flurry of leaves around her feet. She freezes in her trek, spinning on the spot with an unsteady breath. Something, or someone, is here — and they are not of the Earth tribe.
“Something is off,” Jisoo muses. Rabbit bobs his head in agreement.
Her heart pumps, her nerves sensitive and heightened as she sneaks, low and light on her toes. It comes in small puffs that draw a convenient trail toward towering, thick shrubbery; a wall that stands in her way and obscures any view of the other side. The wind seems to have come from here, but how can she get through?
She tries to hop, but the attempt is futile due to her small size. She sighs and succumbs to parting the leaves and branches. Gingerly, she works her way through the intricacy as silently as possible, ducking, dodging, and edging along. Occasionally will the protruding branches jab and scratch her, yet her intense focus doesn’t break. Eventually comes the opening to the other side — to a large, round clearing.
And someone floating in the center.
Jisoo’s breath hitches and she darts behind an oak. Back pressed flat, her hand instinctively checks on Rabbit who is still firmly on her shoulder, holding onto the crook of her neck. One sheep, two sheep — her breaths steady and she cautiously peeks over.
The stranger is faced away from Jisoo, but distinct is white silk of a snake-print top that drapes on straight, smooth shoulders. Closer scrutinizing identifies two-toned hair — the front strands blonde and the rest sable — tied up in a bun, the blonde left loose to waft in the wind. The trinkets on her nails and pearl earrings glimmer in the day’s glow. She sits criss-cross, hands on her knees, hovering a few feet off the ground. All is quiet, all is still. She must be meditating. From all the characteristics, it can’t be mistaken.
An Air member? Jisoo worries her lip. What are they doing here? Don’t they live in the mountains?
She retracts behind the trunk and contemplates. She should leave. She needs to leave, but her body tingles with the girl’s aura. Powerful. Ethereal. It can’t be explained; it’s foreign; it only intrigues and draws in Jisoo more. She has never felt this with anybody, but then again, she has only been around her people.
Perhaps the Air is friendly. She has never met one after all.
But Joohyun has told her to stay away from other tribes.
Before any consideration of Joohyun’s warnings wards her away, the mere possibility of making friends overcomes all rational reasoning. Sure, Sooyoung and Yeri are good friends — childhood friends to be exact — but Jisoo hasn’t met anyone new. Her heart pounds with a different kind of nervousness: excitement.
Excitement so blind, giddiness so ample — her focus breaks for a second and she steps on a twig.
One beat; Jisoo freezes. Two beats; she locks eyes with the Air who whips her head around so fast it must have had caused some sort of whiplash. Jisoo’s blood runs cold and a gasp escapes her lips from the girl’s frightening face. Elegant, round, fair — yet, the charm is diverted by the faded rose-red streaks that drag down from her glaring, black cat-like eyes to the ends of her fluffy cheeks. A girl who cries blood.
Jisoo can only gulp.
With a flick of talented hands, so swift it’d be missed with one blink, the Air barrels a crescent slice of air toward Jisoo that shears the grass in its wake. She yelps and dives to the side, the momentum hurling Rabbit off her shoulder. The attack whistles by her ear, ringing like steel, and may have cut a few centimeters off of her hair.
Rabbit will be fine, Jisoo reassures herself, heaving onto her knee and puffing away stray strands of her fringe. He has a tough shell.
She bolts away from the next slice, its edge grazing her calf. There’s no time to be fazed from the cut when the Air has already taken an offensive stance, palms extended and trained on her; a fierce gaze that anticipates Jisoo’s next move, yet mixed in with that fierceness is what seems like a hint of playfulness. The girl challenges Jisoo to more than a duel — she challenges her to a game.
And Jisoo loves nothing more than games.
A rush in her veins — the energy tremors from the soles of her feet up to her fingertips; the earth answers and its power surges through every inch of muscle and cumulates at the center of her palms with fervor. Joohyun has always warned Jisoo of fighting ever since the accident with that farmer’s son, but the feeling — this feeling — oh how she misses it. There is never an opportunity for Jisoo to release such power. Joohyun won’t have to worry; she’ll control it this time. She looks up from her trembling hands and smirks.
Oh, it’s on.
With a grunt, Jisoo stomps on the forest floor, the tide of her power ripping out a large chunk of earth. As the rock springs up in front of her, her arms come together in an intricate motion, and she palms the chunk at the girl in the air, the strength rippling upon contact.
The rock, almost the size of the tiny girl, is aimed perfectly at her. There’s no chance it misses. Jisoo smiles confidently, but the smile slackens to pure disbelief when the rock is cleaved right down the middle, the halves hurdling past the unfazed Air.
“Is that all you got, dirt girl?” she taunts.
So she’s intentionally picking a fight? Jisoo’s body shudders, absorbing more of the surrounding nature. Albeit the taunt, the corners of her lips can’t help but twitch into a grin from the sheer thrill. Then I’ll give her a fight.
Charging into the opening, her right arm reaches out toward the forest, summoning its plants and vines to slither on and coil around her forearm and create a whip of nature. Jisoo leaps and strikes the airborne girl who barely dodges the piercing tip. She spins in the air before regaining her composure, her smirk wiped off her rosy lips in place of a scowl.
The momentum only multiplies with each lash. The forest pumps more and more of its energy through Jisoo’s veins — a roar in her ears, intensifying the thunderous cracks in quick succession. The Air struggles to dodge the first few, but the final one latches onto her bicep. Jisoo yanks downward, slamming her on the ground with a thud and a swirling billow of dust.
“You’re forgetting you’re fighting a dirt girl on her home turf, wind —” Jisoo pauses, racking her brain, “— fool!”
A groan escapes Jisoo’s lips and she facepalms from the lame comeback; comebacks were never her forte. The Air chuckles in amusement from within the small crater, flushing Jisoo’s cheeks pink.
“You don’t fight often, do you? First lesson,” she says, “never leave your guard down.”
She seizes the whip with both hands and wrenches in, and Jisoo flings forward from the girl’s strength. Hastily, Jisoo wrings her wrist free of the vine to avoid being dragged further, catching herself in a kneeling position.
An updraft propels the girl into the air within a heartbeat as an arc of daggers protrude behind her; almost transparent, save for the faint shimmer backlit by the sun. It should’ve been imminent death, but Jisoo’s legs miraculously worked, and she dashes just as the volley of knives cut the grass where she was mere seconds ago. They whistle past, flying by just centimeters from her eyes, and one lightly grazes her cheek. In another universe, it would’ve impaled her head.
Bewildered by the barrage and plausibility of dying, Jisoo’s foot trips over the other and she face-plants into dirt. Groaning in pain, she clutches her nose that has absorbed most of the rough landing and tries to push herself back on her feet, but a swift kick to her side knocks her down again. Jisoo coughs and gasps from the hit, rolling onto her back to meet the Air standing over her triumphantly.
Wincing, Jisoo props herself up on her elbows, but the latter pushes her down by the shoulders. She swings a punch — a feeble attempt effortlessly stopped by the girl and allows her to grasp both of Jisoo’s wrists and pin them above her head.
“Already done?” she crows, tilting her head in a faux childish manner.
Jisoo huffs and wiggles to try to escape from her restraint, but there’s no room to move when the Air is straddling her hips. She leans in close — a tad too close for comfort — and Jisoo becomes rigid. Thump, thump, thump. Her heart races, and the other must hear it from how close she is.
“You still have some fighting spirit in you?” The Air her brow, eyes dancing with amusement. “Come on, show me what else you got. Aren’t I on your home turf?”
If the purpose of her jeers is to provoke Jisoo, it certainly worked. Her nostrils flare. She will not go down this easily.
“You’re cute when you pout,” the Air coos, face descending closer and the tips of her hair tickle Jisoo’s face. She smells of a gale if a gale has a smell — harsh and cold — yet there is a hint of zephyr — gentle and fresh. Then again, zephyrs are more familiar; Jisoo has never confronted a gale. “I didn’t know the Earth tribe makes girls like you.”
What is she trying to do? The change in attitude flusters Jisoo, burning her ears and flushing her cheeks pink. Something tugs in Jisoo’s gut and her eyes flit towards the tree behind the Air.
“Let me go,” Jisoo demands, although a squeak comes out instead. Her wrists squirm, and the Air only presses them down harder.
“Admit your defeat and I’ll let you go.”
Defeat? Jisoo will rather be Yeri’s servant than admit defeat. She purses her lips and concentrates on the tree, specifically the vine hovering over the Air’s shoulder. The tug unravels and before she can turn to see what Jisoo is looking at, the vine coils around her slim waist. Her lips part, her eyes widen, and she is flung off Jisoo and tied to the trunk.
“That’s what I got,” Jisoo grins, standing up and dusting off her hands. She places her hands on her hips pompously. “Show me what else you got, wind fool,” she returns the taunt with glee.
Having been so caught up in her own victory, Jisoo doesn’t notice the girl gradually turning purple in the face. She pokes at the vines slithered around her torso, strangled pants trying to catch the attention of the frolicking Earth too busy singing at the top of her lungs.
“You lose, I win; you lose, I win —”
“— you lose, I win —”
“can’t — breathe —”
“You — oh!” Jisoo exclaims and rushes toward her. When the vines unravel to her will, the Air collapses into Jisoo’s arms, sputtering and heaving. She stumbles from her weight and falls onto her knees.
“Are you okay?” Jisoo frets, cradling the girl’s shoulders.
Her head lolls around, but her complexion returns to its original fair color as the dark purple ebbs. Almost inaudible her breaths, faint with the delicacy of a butterfly’s wings as they tickle Jisoo’s face. She sighs in relief, ten years shaved off her lifespan from the fright.
“Hey, are you okay?” Jisoo repeats, shaking the girl lightly.
Her eyes flutter open, awakening from a deep slumber. How are they flecked so silver? Jisoo would have studied them longer, completely captivated by the color, if not for the fact that the girl is staring right back with equal infatuation.
Panic explodes, and Jisoo drops the Air like a sack of potatoes on the ground, giving no time for her to catch herself. Red in the face, Jisoo shakes her head violently.
“I’m sorry!” Jisoo utters, hands up in surrender. “I wasn’t going to kill you. I promise!” She pauses. “Well, to be fair, you were trying to kill me, so that means we’re even.”
The Air looks at Jisoo in disbelief before throwing her head back in sweet laughter that echoes on and on and on. She hops onto her feet, stretches her arms, flexes the toned muscles, and bobs her head.
“That was a good fight,” she beams, much to Jisoo’s surprise. A gummy smile, the way her top pink gums flash with her perfect teeth. It makes her look a lot younger and innocent, unlike the scowling duelist a moment ago; especially when her right eye squints smaller than the left. She must be around Jisoo’s age.
Jisoo extends her hand out, awkward and stiff in typical Jisoo fashion out of pure nervousness. “Friends?” she chirps eagerly, wiggling her fingers to coax the latter.
If you see anyone from any other tribe, run. Don’t associate with them. They’re dangerous. Do you understand me, Jisoo?
The Air eyes her outstretched hand dubiously, deep in thought.
But how bad can they be, Joohyun?
She clasps it and firmly shakes. “Friends.”
Like wildfire, the warmth of the spark from her tiny hand rushes up from Jisoo’s fingertips to her heart. It skips a beat and Jisoo smiles so wide her cheeks hurt.
“I’m Kim Jisoo. From the Earth tribe.”
“I’m Jennie Kim. From the Air tribe.”
They can’t be all bad.
“Jennie,” Jisoo echoes. The name is honey on her tongue. “You look like a Jennie.”
She tilts her head. “What does that mean?”
“Uhm,” Jisoo hums dumbly. What did she mean by that? Stupid brain, always speaking before thinking! She cups her cheeks, the hotness seeping. “Nothing!” She flashes an awkward smile. “I just think it’s a beautiful name.”
Jennie narrows her eyes — not in skepticism, but in an earnest interest. The ends of her lips curl up. “Same for you, Jisoo.”
Jisoo’s heart skips a few beats more.
Jennie looks Jisoo up and down before doing a small salute, two fingers to her brow. “I have to go. Until we meet again, friend,” she winks and, with a flick of her hands, summons the winds. The current swirls at their feet, nipping at the ends of Jisoo’s locks, as it takes Jennie up in the air. With one last glance at Jisoo, she flies up and away, disappearing among the trees.
The forest returns to its usual state: peaceful and gentle. No more winds to disturb the tranquility, unfortunately. That was the most exciting thing in a long while and Jisoo’s heart still pounds — not ebbing anytime soon — from the thrill.
Something lightly taps her foot, snapping her eyes away that linger at the direction Jennie has gone. She looks down and finds Rabbit looking up with his beady eyes.
“You survived!” Jisoo chimes, scooping the tortoise up with both of her hands. She holds him high, his green shell backed by the sunlight, and grins.
They can’t be all bad —
“Rabbit, instead of the Waddle Worm, I’ve found something much better.”
— because I met one, and she wasn’t bad at all. You teach me to see the good in people, and I see the good in her.
“I found a new friend.”
But will you?