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September 22, 2014
Back on the road, Jaro and Kharum enjoy the warm, sunny day as they continue their journey to the Earth Temple. Birds chirp in the meadows along the road as the wet grass glistens in the sunlight. The previous night's storm has left its mark with broken tree branches scattered everywhere along the road, but that doesn't stop the brothers. The two walk with a purpose knowing that they would be arriving at the Temple that day.
Jaro, reaching into the small satchel at his side, pulls out a pastry. He removes the cloth wrappings and chows down.
"That was sure nice of that inn to give us some food," Kharum says with a smile.
Jaro tries to respond but his words are muffled by a mouthful of deliciousness. He tries again, "Yeah that was. They probably knew I was gonna eat it anyway so they decided to donate it to a good cause." He jams the rest of the pastry in his mouth and then grins a big smile as crumbs fall to the ground. Kharum shakes his head but is nonetheless amused.
"So how much further 'til we reach the Temple?" Jaro asks as he wipes his face with his sleeve now stained by the pastry's red jelly.
Kharum shrugs his shoulder. As he does so he notices something far off on the road. He leans forward a little and squints to try and make it out.
"Looks like there's another crossroads up ahead."
At the intersection, the brothers read the signs crammed together and pointing every which way. Ba Sing Se. South. North. West. Earth Temple. Kharum observes, "Looks like we're heading east then."
"Duh! But how much farther?"
Kharum scratches his head. "Ummmm...I'd say....one hour."
"How do you figure that?"
"What? Didn't you know that between dad and me we know everything."
"Right, okay then. How many scales cover a sea serpent's body?" Jaro smiles knowing he's got his brother beat.
"I don't know...that's something dad knows." The two brothers laugh. "I figure an hour 'cause I can see it from here. Look." Kharum points toward a small cluster of mountains, in the distance.
Jaro looks and shakes his head in disbelief. Near the top of one of the smaller peaks, Jaro can just make out a pagoda-style building behind a cluster of clouds. He whistles in amazement.
"Wow...how in the world did you see that?"
Playing it cool, Kharum crosses his arms and smiles. He then reaches down into his bag and pulls out the map the Captain gave him. "Now...those mountains are literally just a stone's throw outside the wall of Ba Sing Se. I wonder if we'll be able to see it from-"
Before he can finish the two brothers hear the clanging of pots and pans from behind them. Coming up the south road is a boy that looks roughly the same age as Jaro. He is wearing dirty, faded green clothes with frayed edges and a few holes in them, and carries a large back pack complete with dangling pots over his shoulders. As the boy approaches, Jaro lets out a loud greeting before Kharum can hit him in the shoulder to shut him up.
"Hey! Ow! What?" Kharum gives his brother a look of 'just-keep-your-mouth-shut', however Jaro chooses to ignore his brother. "Hey there! You headin' up to the Temple, too?"
The boy more than happily replies, "Yeah!" He then drops his stuff at his side. Up close, the boy is a whole head shorter than Jaro and his dirty clothes appear even filthier along with his matted hair and face. His cheeks and forehead are smudged with dirt making his green eyes pop out beneath the grime. "The name's Beifong, but everyone calls me Boff. Nice to meet you!"
"I'm Jaro and this is my brother Kharum...so where are you coming from?"
"Gaoling...took me a couple weeks to get here but I'm here. What about you guys?"
"We trekked out of the North." Jaro eyes the boy before pointing his finger at him. "But don't worry, we won't mug you or anything." Jaro laughs at his own joke. Kharum facepalms himself.
"Why would you mug me?" Boff has a quizzical look on his face but continues to smile anyway.
Jaro, in disbelief that Boff didn't get the joke, tries to recover. "Well...be...because we're from the North...you know...the land of outlaws...Nothing's ringing a bell, huh?"
Boff smiles. "I know about the North. I just don't think you would."
Jaro raises an eyebrow. "Oh really?" He then takes a step toward Boff at which point Kharum hits him on the back of the head in a disapproving manner. "Ow!"
"Let's go you two. Hopefully we can make it up to the Temple by midday." Kharum turns from the two boys and starts walking down the east road. Jaro and Boff follow close behind.
Jaro starts his questioning of this Beifong character. "So Boff...where in Gaoling are you from?"
Boff is all to happy to answer. "I'm from the city of Gaoling itself...well outside the city anyway."
"Is there a difference to being in or outside the city?"
"Well yeah, there is...for one you're outside the city. The poorer people tend to live outside the city walls. We're allowed in the city to work and everything, but to live within the protection of the walls requires some money."
Jaro furrows his eyebrow in disbelief. "Well that's stupid."
Boff shrugs his shoulders. "That's life. What? You think you got it better?"
"Well yeah." Jaro arrogantly smiles.
Boff crosses his arms. "Isn't the North known for danger? At least where I'm from I know it's safe."
Kharum turns his head slightly and chuckles. "He's got us there."
The three travelers reach the base of the mountain leading to the Temple. Two giant stone figures of earth benders, one on either side of the road, stand guard. Both figures stand arms crossed and eyes ever watchful over the Temple Road. The two are representations of past Avatars of the Earth Kingdom raised from the ground hundreds of years ago.
The road itself that leads to the Temple is a steep one. Many who believe in the power of the Avatars and the Spirits make pilgrimages to this Temple as well as the few others that can be found dotted throughout the world. Along the ascent, pilgrims can find stone carvings of the previous Avatars and their great feats.
Jaro, Kharum, and Boff are quiet along the way not because they have nothing to say but because they can feel the power of the place. It is eerie on how quiet it is. The chirping of a bird or even the sound of a breeze rustling the branches seems out of place. The higher they climb the more they can feel the spiritual aura of the Temple.
It dawns on Jaro that this is why his grandfather's acquaintances wanted to perform the tests here. Just being in the presence of such a spiritual place probably could reveal the true Avatar. However, neither Jaro nor Boff has felt an overwhelming surge of power to ignite them into the Avatar State.
As they near the final straight away leading up to the Temple, two man-sized statues of two former Avatars flank the road. Each statue is in a posture that resembles an earth bending fighting stance. Lying in front of either Avatar statue is a row of stone obelisks growing from short to tall leading up to the Temple complex gate. Each obelisk has the symbol of earth bending carved into its sides.
The entire complex is surrounded by a twenty foot tall wall that is finely decorated. A central courtyard occupies most of the space in the complex. The Temple, a pagoda-style building complete with bell tower, sits at the end of the courtyard and towers high above the rest of the complex. On either side of the courtyard are smaller buildings lined by a columned porch.
As the three travelers pass through the Temple complex gate, the heavy spiritual aura they felt up the climb lifts. The three feel as if their bodies are lighter and they can breathe normally again.
Inside the courtyard, there is a bustle of activity. Ten other Avatar hopefuls are out and about practicing their earth bending, straining to bend another element, talking with one another, or just keeping to themselves. They represent a diverse background with hopefuls from all corners of the Earth Kingdom present. There are rich and poor. Noble and peasant. Boys and girls. Some have come alone and others have brought their own parties of fans.
Jaro, Kharum, and Boff look around quizzically trying to figure out where they're supposed to go.
From the top of the Temple's tower a large gong is rung and everyone instantly turns toward the Temple in attention. The Earth Temple Sage, wearing dark green robes, stands at the door of the Temple. He claps his hands two times and announces in a familiar deep, grizzly voice, "The final two hopefuls have arrived!"
Everyone in the courtyard turns to face the three travelers. Kharum, feeling the gaze of everyone in the courtyard, slowly backs away and points at Jaro and Boff. Some of the other hopefuls have smiles on their faces in greetings while others could care less. Jaro stupidly waves at everyone. Boff half waves after seeing Jaro wave.
The Earth Sage continues. "I wish to welcome you all to the Earth Temple. As you all know, you are here so we may determine who the Avatar is. You are not the first batch of hopefuls that we have tested and you might not be the last. It is...strange for the Avatar to not reveal their self after sixteen years, though it has happened before. In such times, there are a number of tests that can be given to hopefuls that can only be completed by the true Avatar. And because we do not wish to waste any time, the first test-"
A horn blast echoes from beyond the Temple Complex Gates. A Ba Sing Se soldier, riding atop an ostrich-horse, gallops into the courtyard knocking aside Jaro, Kharum, and Boff. "Make way! The Emissary of Ba Sing Se enters!"
The Earth Sage turns red with anger by the unexpected and unwanted interruption but holds his tongue. Behind the rider enters a column of soldiers each bearing the Ba Sing Se standard of the golden earth bending symbol on a green and black background. Each soldier wears the green and gold studded leather armor of the Ba Sing Se Royal Guard. Behind them, the Emissary, wearing simple green and black robe and a Manchuria-style hat, rides on a white ostrich-horse with a green and gold saddle. The standard bearers fan out in the courtyard making a hole for the Emissary to dismount.
Jaro lets out at one of the soldiers, "Hey! What's the big idea?!"
Kharum grabs the back of the Jaro's collar and yanks him away from the soldiers. "Don't poke a sleeping wolf-bear with a stick."
Jaro looks at his brother with an expression of 'What?' on his face.
"Don't bite off more than you can chew."
"Oh, gotchya." Jaro thumbs up to his brother, but still has no idea what he said.
The Emissary walks the circle that his soldiers made for him, judging each of the hopefuls. When he comes up to Boff, he gives him a 'hmph!' and returns to the center of his circle.
Jaro can't help but think, who does this guy think he is?
The Emissary stands by his ostrich horse before turning back toward the Hopefuls. "All of you have been invited by the King of Ba Sing Se to a feast in your honor. If you would all follow me back to the greatest city in the world, the King can greet you all properly."
Boff is saddened. He drops his things on the ground and leans toward the brothers. "Are you serious? I was there this morning!"
A low bellowing roar sounds from beyond the gates. A column of giant badger-moles, blindfolded, laden with green and gold, and carrying giant, decorated wooden towers upon their backs crawl into the courtyard. The towers sway with the movement of the badger-moles waiting to be filled with passengers.
"Well at least we don't have to walk anymore." Jaro pats Boff on the back.
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