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|The Fourth Ashtamangala|
The world shook, trembled, and then finally – with a growing hiss like steam escaping for a valve – exploded.
Sokka already had his sword up at the ready, and before the first rider came through the veil of water, he charged. All of the captive cave-crawlers had their mouths gaping open, sharp teeth gleaming in the glow of all the lotuses. The glint from Sokka's sword was nearly blinding. For one terrible moment it seemed like the world stopped, legs scrambling in midair, the masked earthbenders raising their hands in readiness, gleaming droplets of the wave Aang was calling shimmering behind them like some exotic chandelier. But the moment was gone in a rush of furious action as the world lurched forward once more.
A rush of wet bursting from behind him. As Aang rose the wave up, showing the underside of one of the massive lotus plants, all of the amber eggs hit the air and burst. In the light it looked as if the small cave-crawlers were rushing forward from glowing fire. Sokka had no time to admire it. He didn't know if his first strike was luck, skill, or some combination of the two, but it struck just to the side of one cave-crawler's face, tugging away some of its long whiskers – and slicing through the bridle. It immediately came to a halt, making the ones behind it pause. A sharp rush of air to his left – he was pretty sure Aang cut off a bit of hair that had come free from his ponytail – but more importantly, the blades of air sliced through the bridles of three more riders. Each also ended up with gashes on their cheeks, but the ropes slid off of them, onto the floor. The chamber was echoing with cries of fury, Sokka's ears were ringing, but one of the earthbenders was sliding off and there was no time to think. He barely deflected another round of stone daggers, dodged to the left as a pillar rose from the ground, tumbled – blur of movement over his shoulder -
Not that he could tell one from the next, but he certainly thought that the charge was led by Furball Deathyfangs. Featherlight, delicate legs grazed on his shoulder, a near-constant stream of tiny cave-crawlers springing upwards. The first one leaped forward to grab at the earthbender, then another, and another – a thousand tiny teeth, a swarm. The masked earthbender flailed and then went stiff, falling backward, but they were not content to let the poison do its work alone.
Such a small sound, but so multiplied – it made Sokka stop in his tracks. The wet, slick noise. Tiny teeth pulling meat from bone. The earthbender kicked, reached a hand up, and struggled. As the freed adult cave-crawlers struggled away, they turned on their riders, spines cracking. The sound of bones cracking and flesh being pulled away was bad enough, but honestly what terrified Sokka the most was the absence of something.
None of the earthbenders screamed. None of them pleaded. None of them said a word as they went down to be consumed.
And just like that, the tide of the battle turned. The dull roar became a rumble as the others fled, and Sokka and Aang both hung back, panting from the exertion of the initial push. Behind them, the mother cave-crawler rose from the water, tossing the limp body of one of the earthbenders up in the air before catching it in her massive jaws and swallowing.
"Still want that steak?" Aang joked weakly as the tiny infant cave-crawlers settled down to their meals.
"Yeah... maybe I'll join you and just have a salad," Sokka admitted. They were grown, and he knew they were supposed to be used to this sort of thing by now. Time to put away childish squeamishness. But seeing the intestines of a caribou and of a man were two very different things, even if Sokka managed to casually wash off the blood on his sword in the lake.
The next few minutes were full of inconsequential chattering as they let the adrenaline seep through them. Two of the adult cave-crawlers waited patiently for them, settling down to groom their ears while Aang and Sokka waded into the water and chopped at the roots of the smaller lotus blossoms. Better to refresh their supplies before they hit the surface. It was also very tempting to make sure that there were fresh ones in their packs so that some gardener could cultivate them on the Firelord's doorstep, and they wouldn't have to go on such a sojourn again. Excitement gave way to relief and before long they were wrestling wet blossoms into their bags and laughing together.
"You know the best part of all this? That we get to sleep in a proper bed after all of this," Sokka said. "Probably after a good meal. How many days has it even been down here, anyway?"
Aang shrugged, grinning. "C'mon, I'm sure Zuko will throw us a feast or something when we're back."
"And I will definitely be ready for steak then." He stood beside one of the cave-crawlers, peering at it. "So, do we just... hold on, or...?"
"Holding on's a good idea, yeah." Aang vaulted onto the back of one of the creatures, who flinched but didn't seem to mind, accepting him as a rider. Hesitantly, Sokka did much the same, though his touch was much lighter.
"Uhh... good boy...? ...What's cave-crawler for 'yip yip', d'you thi-aaahhh!"
Abruptly both of the cave-crawlers jumped up in a sprint. Sokka hung onto the thing's neck for dear life, trying not to think about how close his arms were to the thing's mouth. The creatures nimbly bounced from rock to rock, claws digging into the niches of the elegant geometric carving. Upwards and upwards – the glow underneath them became far more distant, and Sokka tried hard not to think about how far down the lake was now.
But there was a split above them where he could feel fresh air pouring in, and something far less diffused than the light from the glowing moonstone lotus. It was only a small gap and the cave-crawlers scrambled to stay on, but Aang quickly spread his hands, earthbending it into a manageable exit. The cave-crawlers were reluctant to go further, but it was the boost they both needed to scramble out. Aang went first with a rush of air, ready to help pull Sokka up. The air smelled of trees and far-off night-blooming jasmine and it was an intoxicating brew that Sokka pantingly soaked up as they both stood, glad to finally be above-ground.
"Well, that was fun." Sokka stretched, grinning. "Not really the kind of bachelor party I wanted, but it'll do. Now all we need to do is get back to the air temple, and then..." Aang had gone uncharacteristically silent as he pulled himself on top of a nearby hill, looking up at the skyline. "Go force-feed some of these glowing flowers to Zuko, then everything's going to be just fine. Right, Aang?" Sokka frowned at the lack of reply. "Hey, Aang...?"
Sokka finally noticed the glow on the edge of the horizon.
It didn't surprise him that the Eastern Air Temple was so far away. His feet certainly told him that they had traveled miles. But the night sky wasn't giving way into dawn. That glow was very specific and focused.
The Eastern Air Temple was in flames.
Both of them started off at a sprint, winding through the woods and climbing up the sloping hills. It seemed that Aang quickly got anxiously impatient, and he reached out to firmly grab Sokka's arm, gesturing with the other. The earth rose up underneath them in a steady swell that bore them along on the crest of a wave of rock and soil. Soon they were whipping through the trees with a terrifying speed, Sokka wincing as the branches came close to grazing on his cheeks. He understood the hurry. Appa was there. It was an unspoken rule that you just didn't mess with an Avatar's animal companion. Then again, it seemed there were a lot of unspoken rules of proper warfare these masked earthbenders were ignoring.
Even though a journey of days was completed in hours, they still arrived too late.
The fires had mostly burned down to ashes, but blasts of air snuffed out the few Aang could still spot. Sokka's sword returned to his hand, though it was useless. This hadn't been a battle. It had been a massacre. Maybe a few had tried to fight back, but all of the refugees were overwhelmingly non-benders. The bodies in the halls had been cut down while fleeing, stone daggers between their shoulderblades. One woman – a mother, from the look of it – had been pinned to the wall. Her tactic had been to try and draw fire, but her children's bodies were only a little way down the hall.
They were both very quiet even as they hurried, heading for the stalls where they had left Appa. Sokka tried not to think too hard about how muddy the courtyard was. It hadn't rained in days, the dry patches were apparent, and the mud was all curiously reddish and centered around the bodies...
Fire was still burning in the hall leading to the stables. With something approaching anger, wind whipped around Aang's fingertips, blasting it from flame back into cold ash. Finally there were masked earthbenders among the dead in their drab, sickly green uniforms. As soon as there was a loud and familiar bellow, Aang visibly relaxed. Appa poked his head around the corridor. Perhaps a little of his fur had been singed – and there was blood on it that obviously wasn't his – but... "Appa! You're all right!" Aang rushed forward as if to give the sky bison a hug before he seemed to abruptly stop, sliding into a crouch.
Sokka saw her only seconds after as he rounded the corner. A small girl, barely a teenager. She looked familiar, somehow. Perhaps he would remember her later as one of the wide-eyed children he had seen once when Aang begged him to go along to one of the 'Avatar fan club' groups in Ba Sing Se, one of the ones so tiny that she clung to her brother's hand the entire time and seemed barely able to stand on her own two feet. But her brown eyes were full of that same admiration, and even though she was laying in a pool of her own blood, she was using her last strength to smile.
Aang whipped off his short cloak, trying to press it to her wound to stop the bleeding, but it was useless. For all his talents, healing with waterbending was not one of them. "Just hold on, the nearest town's not far, they'll have a healer -"
"I made sure he was safe, Avatar Aang," she whispered, voice broken and small even as she smiled.
"Save your strength, you'll need it -"
"C-can't... can't go anywhere without your s-sky bison..." That same damn grin was on her face.
It had been years since someone was so happy to die in service of the Avatar. Sokka knew from the look on Aang's face it did not get any easier to see. The girl's body went limp by inches, expression frozen on her face as something in her eyes became dull and distant. Aang guided her to the floor very gently, picking up the short cloak he had wrapped around her wound and unfurling it. He let it fall over her. A shroud was the least he could do. Appa gave a mournful call.
Sokka would have offered some words of comfort, but he was distracted by the other bodies around them. The irritating white masks had made him grit his teeth from day long. Now there was finally a chance to take one off. As Aang tried to pay whatever final respects he could, Sokka gently lifted the thick leather straps away from the head of one of the earthbenders, and his swordtip cut through it smoothly. The mask rolled to the side, opening like an unlocked door turning on its hinge.
And Sokka stared.
Aang stood with grim finality, patted Appa on the nose. Sokka didn't notice. Whatever Aang said came to him so distantly it was as if he was listening through water. It took great effort to convince his tongue to move.
"Aang... you should... you should see this."
And Aang walked over, and did.
There was not a face behind the mask. There was flesh, and eyes, and a mouth, but the face had been stripped away. Black eyes, beetle-like in their gleaming, were set in skin that had lost all identity. No long eyelashes, no eyebrows, no gently slanted eyelids – no eyelids at all, in fact. There was a mouth without lips or anything that would even vaguely identify a person. Opening, perhaps, instead of mouth – just a gaping hole with tendrils of broken flesh still sticking the two together. And it did not have a nose, but just two slits for air. No identity. No face. Nothing behind the mask.
Aang's jaw set even after they were silent for a very long few moments.
"Sokka," he finally said, tone quiet. "I think I know who might be partially behind this. And I think we're going to need more than just the two of us. Do you mind a stop by Kyoshi Island to see if Suki will come along?"
"Not at all."
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