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|The Fish Swimming in Samsara|
Something underneath the tangle of lotus plants hissed furiously, and as it rose out of the water, Sokka stumbled back to press himself against the wall. It was... big. Water dripped from bristling fur that had been stained with algae. Four eyes were clouded white with cataracts. Sagging wrinkles hung around jagged, yellow teeth. A long red tongue unfurled like a warning banner, and rivers of water coursed downwards as knotty lotus roots and pads clung to the massive creature.
The cave crawlers that the earthbenders rode had been large. This was much, much larger.
Sokka gave a heady gulp, starting to inch his way back up the stairs. "Aang? I think... we should just... try our luck with the earthbenders..."
"Sokka, don't step there!" He called out in a quick warning before jumping down beside him. "That's what's making her upset."
"Yeah. Her." Aang reached out to take Sokka by the arm, leading him away from one of the plants... and, it seemed, directly into the gaze of the massive cave-crawler. It continued hissing, hot breath billowing out onto them like some musty jungle wind, but at least at not quite the same rate. "This is where all of her children are... can't you see them?" Aang kept his voice quiet, pointing towards one of the large plants the animal had lifted up. Now Sokka could just barely make out hundreds of tiny pearls, translucent orange, each with a tiny speck within them. Some were larger, some smaller, but the larger ones did hold specks that seemed distinctly more cave-crawler-like than others.
He would have stopped to admire their strange beauty, but the hissing cave-crawler leaned in. Sokka winced, turning his head and trying not to breathe in too deeply – the creature's mouth reeked – as Aang flung an arm across him to prevent him from drawing his sword and attacking. It snuffled hard at Aang before finally closing its mouth, giving a murmuring grunt as it retreated back mostly into the water. Only its nose and milky white eyes continued to poke out from underneath the foliage.
"This is why it's so familiar," Aang murmured excitedly. "This is where Avatar Yangchen came centuries ago to help smooth things over..." He stepped out onto the water, balancing himself half on top of the waves before lightly stepping over to the wide lilly-pads. "Sokka, you watch the doorway."
"I just need to speak to her," Aang said cheerfully.
Sokka exasperatedly pointed to the entrance behind the waterfall. "Would you make it quick? We've only got maybe an hour...!"
"I know! I'll be done before then." He sat crosslegged on top of the animal's head, and it gave a resigned huff. "Just let me talk to her." He shook out his shoulders, a deliberate calm settling onto him. Sokka knew the sort of calm it was. He was stretching out into the Spirit World.
Well, nothing to do but wait. Sokka gave a long sigh, managing to settle down somewhat as he stared down into the clear pond. Blind carp flitted past, and Sokka's stomach rumbled. If one of them just came a little closer -
"Please don't start a fire. It'll scare her." Aang's eye opened just a tiny bit before he closed it again and slipped further into meditation.
Somewhat bitterly, he reached over to hack off a lotus root, starting to chew on it. Well, better than lichen, he supposed.
The cavern was enormous, and this time it was obviously not entirely natural. Perhaps the stairs in the cool water led down to something more – an algae-covered temple, from the glimpses Sokka could catch. Earthbenders had cut ornate designs into the walls that led up to the very top, like inverse steps, the complicated geometric fractals lending an air of sophisticated beauty to the natural setting. There was a small slit – something Sokka could just barely see. Maybe that was sunlight, or even moonlight. He had no idea what time of day it was, and besides, the slim shaft was drowned out by the bright glow of all the moonstone lotus floating in the lake.
Tiny waves rippled its surface as the mother cave-crawler settled down, her eyes closing to milky slits. Both she and Aang seemed to slip into the same dreaming sort of meditation. Sokka wasn't openly rueful, but it did leave him with an awkward space of time where he didn't quite know what to do. If the earthbenders burst through now, well, with Aang occupied, Sokka knew that realistically he didn't stand a chance against such an elite force...
Something near his knee chirped, and he blinked, pulling himself out of worried daydreams. A tiny cave-crawler, no bigger than his palm and still wet from the pearly egg it had just crawled out of. He could see its siblings still curled up tightly in the glowing orangey spheres stuck to the underside of one of the larger lotus plants. It chirped at him again, blinking its wide black eyes.
"You know, for something that grows up to be a monster, you're awfully cute."
"Chee!" it squeaked. After a moment's thought, he offered out some of the lotus root he had been doggedly trying to chew on. It eagerly took the root from him – despite the fact that the root was as bit as it was – and, manipulating it with its tiny claws, chewed on it in a satisfied manner.
"Don't think this means you can stay," Sokka warned. "I learned my lesson with Foo-foo Cuddlypoops. No, if your mom gets upset, it's entirely on your head. I'm warning you."
"And I'm not naming you. Definitely not. You name something, you get attached to it. I know that now." Sokka frowned seriously before his expression softened somewhat. "Though you are a really cute furball. ...heh. Furball. If I was going to name you, that'd be a good start. Furball... Furball Deathyfangs. Yeah. That sounds about right."
The tiny newborn cave-crawler looked up at Sokka sweetly and, holding its snack in its paws, waddled over on its other six feet to plop down right beside Sokka. With one eye on the cavern entrance, Sokka settled back with a sigh. "Might as well relax in the few minutes before certain doom, right?"
Some time later, the tiny cave-crawler had moved to sitting directly on Sokka's knee. "...but the thing is, Furball, is that apparently there are seating arrangements. Placecards and everything. I kinda thought everyone we invited would know how to sit at a table, but no. So now there's this big debate about where Pakku's going to sit, since he married Gran-Gran and all. But I don't even know if Gran-Gran's going to be able to come!" The cave-crawler gave an apparently sympathetic mewling noise. "You see the problem, right? Not that I don't want them there, it's just that there are only so many seats at the head table, and..."
"You might not want to get too close, Sokka." Aang's voice still had a somewhat dreamy quality to it as he rolled his shoulders in a shrug and seemed to shake the last remnants of the Spirit World from his shoulders. "They're most poisonous when they're little."
"Uh..." Sokka immediately blanched, wiggling his knee a little. "Uh... nice Furball... good Furball... uh... look! Go catch the lotus root! Please?" It gave a trilling chirp and hopped off after the morsel Sokka tossed, and he relaxed a little as he scrambled up to stand. "So, get anything?"
Aang nodded, smiling. "She's going to help us." In the lake, the cave-crawler mother gave a huffing sigh, making the lilypad on her head flutter. "There's a crack just at the very top here that leads out. Some of the larger cave-crawlers can carry us up there, easy, and if it isn't big enough I can bend it to make it so we both can get through."
"Great! What are we waiting for?"
"...She also wants our help." Sokka's face fell as Aang continued. "All the cave-crawlers those earthbenders are riding have been... entranced, she said. The cord for their halters is imbued with something connected to the Spirit World... it's complicated, but if we cut that, they won't have to obey orders anymore. With them on our side, it should be pretty easy to clean up those earthbenders," Aang said cheerfully. "We just have to cut off their halters."
Sokka gulped. "So we just have to cut off the harnesses that are right by their faces. And somehow do it without hurting them too badly. That's, uh..."
"Should be easy!"
"Easy... yeah. Easy." Sokka grimaced, drawing his sword. Something was definitely coming up through the tunnel towards them. Several somethings. The calm water of the lake started to ripple as the sound grew louder, the very earth around them shaking. Aang pulled himself into a fighting stance, and behind them, the enormous cave-crawler mother rose from the water enough to start hissing.
Sokka barely flinched as the tiny cave-crawler he had befriended earlier plopped down from a nearby ledge onto his shoulder, chittering conversationally and casually beginning to groom behind its ears despite the impending danger.
"...Yeah, yeah. Good luck to you too, Furball Deathyfangs."
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