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|The Right-Turned Conch|
"And then -" Sokka paused only to chew off another bit of jerky from the stick he was holding. "There's this whole wedding colors thing. I didn't even know weddings were supposed to have a theme, but Suki says they do. Why can't weddings just be... wedding-themed?"
Aang laughed, shaking his head. "There's a lot of questions I can answer as the Avatar, and that is definitely not one of them." Behind them, Appa snorted, settling down into what was one of the old stalls of the Eastern Air Temple. Earth Kingdom refugees, with Aang's permission, had settled into the old Air Temple, much like in the Northern Air Temple. Everyone was looking for a little peace after the long war, and Aang was happy to see the old halls clean and free of creeping vines.
Appa certainly looked as if he was looking forward to being doted over for a few days. One of the refugees had already brought him a bale of tender hay. Sokka looked at the air bison almost enviously, giving a sigh.
"Come on, we need to get going," Aang said cheerfully. "I know the passageway, now. There's a shortcut into the cavern chamber through the temple... This should be pretty quick." Sokka frowned, continuing to chew on the meat in his mouth. "You can definitely eat that and walk at the same time."
"Can't a guy finish his lunch before throwing himself into mortal danger? Again?"
"You should be really glad Toph didn't hear that, or she'd never shut up about you being a coward looking for excuses!"
"Faff a bunffah ffiefh!" Sokka spat around a mouthful of jerky before swinging his pack over his shoulder. The girl feeding Appa a few tender shoots of bamboo smiled as they started to walk through the largely empty corridors. A few minutes later, Sokka had finally cleared his mouth enough to speak. "So why is there a tunnel directly to this place, anyway?"
Aang excitedly held up one of the scrolls. "It's all written down! Apparently there are cave-crawlers all in the caverns here..." As they walked past a large statue of Avatar Yangchen, Sokka couldn't help but slouch a little underneath its stony gaze. "This air temple almost wasn't inhabited because of it. The cave-crawlers only really came out when everyone had settled in."
"I thought we were here looking for a... lotus?" Sokka frowned as the corridor they were in got narrower and narrower, and darker to the point where Aang had to hold up a hand and do a bit of firebending. Sokka casually dipped the end of his torch into the flame Aang provided, and they continued on.
"We are! But it's all connected with the cave-crawlers." Aang looked back to give Sokka a bright smile. "That's what the poison probably is – cave-crawler venom. It works directly on how chi flows through the body," he said cheerfully. "The moonstone lotus is able to refocus and unblock the pathways the venom effects."
Sokka frowned flatly. "So why didn't they just kill all of the cave-crawlers, again?" It was getting distinctly musty, and he was having to stoop. Now they were definitely underground, the air musty and thick. Lichen was clinging to the walls, though much to his relief, it seemed to pick up the light of the torch, glowing back at them in almost a friendly manner. "I mean, a group of chi-blocking cave monsters over an air temple seems like a bad idea..."
"Avatar Yangchen sorted it out, after many years of the temple housing only older nuns who could defend themselves. It's all about balance," Aang said, smiling. "The Air Nomads at this temple didn't understand how the two things worked together, both the cave-crawlers and the moonstone lotus. They each depend on each other and counteract each other..." Aang interwove his fingers, holding his hands out in front of him. "It's all about respecting harmony."
"...I still would have squished them all."
Now it was pitch-black except for the small pool of light of Sokka's torch. The spots of glowing lichen had thinned out, leaving them to stumble along the slick rock tunnels on their own. A forest of stalagmites and stalactites surrounded a narrow path which had obviously been cleared many years before, but over a hundred years of neglect left it rough and uneven. Sokka's footing slipped and he winced, his toe going over an edge that he couldn't see. The darkness was more than unnerving – it was dangerous.
"So, uh... how long until we get to this underground pond full of lotuses?"
"Less than a day."
Sokka stopped in his tracks to stare at Aang. "Less than a day?"
Aang shrugged. "I mean, that's a guess. There wasn't anything about needing to pack a lot of food, so we'll probably be there in a few hours!"
"A few hours of stumbling around in the dark... with chi-blocking critters lurking in the shadows... yeah, I'm starting to see why Appa always prefers staying above-ground."
Fortunately they fell into a rhythm easily enough. The path led them steadily downwards, but mercifully someone had cut shallow steps on the steep slopes. It had been a solid two years since their last long conversation – both of them had so many duties to attend to now. Paradoxically, it was both far less and far more stressful. Aang wandered from place to place, restlessly tiring of place after place, and Sokka was much the same way, going back and forth from the South Pole to Kyoshi Island.
Sokka had noticed how the past few years Aang seemed to purposefully avoid the South Pole, and Katara just as purposefully stuck to it, but he politely didn't ask.
"...and apparently we're even going to have to give little gifts to everyone who comes? That's going to be pretty much everyone in the entire South Pole, and everyone on Kyoshi Island, by the way. I don't even know where we're going to hold it. D'you think when Zuko wakes up I can talk him into hosting it?" Aang laughed, shaking his head as Sokka chattered on. "Seriously! I mean, there's always Ba Sing Se I guess..." Sokka trailed off, and for a moment the conversation lapsed, replaced by only the slick little noises of their boots on the wet stone. "You're going to laugh really hard at this, Aang, but I think this is going to be the scariest thing I've ever done." Sokka gulped. "Lead an offense directly into the Fire Nation capital? Sure. Help defeat all of Firelord Ozai's war balloons? Why not! Marry the woman I love? That's... a problem."
"Nah, I understand." Aang's voice was perhaps a little softer than Sokka expected. "Sometimes the more you care about somebody, the harder it gets. But you're going to do fine, Sokka." His tone went back to cheerful, and his face back to its usual wide smile. "And I'm going to be there. Promise!"
"You'd better, we're making sure there's a vegetarian option at the dinner just for yo-" In the darkness, something scuttled by Sokka's feet. "What was that?"
"Oh, that must be one of the cave-crawlers," Aang said excitedly. "I guess that means we're getting close."
"We're surrounded by venemous crawly things and you're excited about it! I don't think -" Sokka swung the torch around, his sword already in his other hand. This time the light of the fire caught the source of the scuttling noise, and it froze in its tracks. "...Oh."
It was tiny – it couldn't have been more than a foot across. Although it did have eight legs, two of them tucked up near its mouth and ending in delicate paws, it was covered in fine fur, and all four of its eyes were a glossy and liquid black. Its tiny, bushy tail and the way it blinked at Sokka made it – he hated to admit it – cute.
"See? They're more afraid of us than we are of them." Aang smiled brightly and crouched down, motioning to the cave-crawler. "We're friends. It's okay to go on!" The cave-crawler stared at them for a moment before reaching up with its paws and nervously grooming the fur behind its tiny rodent-like ears and then scurrying way. "There's really nothing to be too worried about, Sokka."
"I guess you're right," Sokka said, sheathing his sword and breathing a soft sigh of relief. Aang did not share that the description of the cave-crawlers he had found in the archives had not mentioned their possible size.
A very distant glow started to color the edge of the wall, murkily reflected off of many rocky corridors. It took both of them a few moments to recognize what it was, as pale as the first soft breath of dawn. But it grew steadily stronger, and the corridor widened as they quickly half-jogged down the last long and winding set of stairs. By then the glow was so strong that Sokka didn't even really need to carry the torch. The air was muggy with heat – Sokka didn't know how deep down they were, but it must have been fairly substantial – and simultaneously, they stepped through the last part of the walkway to the large open cavern.
There weren't any other words for it. Above them dripping rock hung in spikes like some ornate chandelier, some of them broken open to reveal sparkling geodes. That was nothing compared to the dazzling light show of the lake itself. The water was still but with a quiet rushing underneath that let Sokka know there was still a strong riptide below the calm surface. Snow-white carp with cloudy, blind eyes swam in lazy circles chasing translucent shrimp. But most impressively, the entire lake seemed to be covered in lotus plants. They drifted on top, a great mass of glowing flowers, so many that after walking in the dark it hurt to look at them all directly. The blossoms were relatively small but all of them shone with a milky, silver light, as if the petals were made of moonlight. There was something gentle and peaceful about it as the light shone up onto the ceiling, refracted by crystals and diffused by the water of the lake, as if they had just stepped into the moon's very realm.
Sokka couldn't help but think momentarily about how much Yue would have loved to see it.
"So..." He gulped, only now noticing how his voice had gone a little shaky. "That's what'll heal Zuko?"
"Yeah. I figure we'll take a small bunch with us," Aang said, slinging his pack off of his shoulder. "Just in case. Not that this was a huge ordeal, but better to not make repeat trips, right?" He smiled, easily dropping into a smooth stance and starting to use waterbending to bring the plants over to them directly.
"Something like that, sure." Sokka extinguished the torch in the calm water, sticking it back in his pack before quietly leaning out and plucking one of the small lotus blossoms. He tucked it behind his ear after staring at it a moment. No, as much as they reminded him of her, there was no way these lotus blossoms could bring a kiss from him to Yue. They would, however, make Suki's eyes sparkle... And the way she would smile when he brought out the bouquet of exotic flowers he had picked for her despite being away on some adventure...
Aang peered at Sokka for a few moments before shaking his head and poking Sokka in the shoulder with his staff. "Aren't you going to help me with these things? I figure we can at least stuff our packs with them. Maybe if we're lucky a few will even be okay to transplant into another pond..."
"Oh! Oh, yeah. Of course." Sokka shook his head as if clearing the cobwebs before starting to hack the tangled mat of lotus plants down to a reasonable chunk. "I'm pretty sure Zuko won't mind if we just started playing home decorator and stuck a few in the garden. Well, he might mind, but I don't think his daughter will. D'you know she really likes fireflies? I caught one the other night while telling her a story. She held it in her hand and named it and everything before it flew off. It was pretty much the most adorable thing I've ever se-" Sokka jerked his head up, glaring suspiciously behind him. "Did you hear that?"
"Hear what?" Aang called back. Of course, he was hip-deep in the lake, trying to pick just the lotus blossoms while Sokka stuffed the plants wholesale into his pack.
"...I just thought I heard something behind us. Something like -"
This time the rumble beneath them was far more obvious. It rose up through the lake and Aang had to struggle to regain his balance as he quickly scrambled out of the water. Sokka let the tendrils of lotus slide from his hand onto the floor, the glowing blossoms falling at his feet as he slowly turned to face the ink-black corridor they had just come through.
"Aang... I've got a bad feeling about this..."
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The right-handed conch is one of the Eight Auspicious Signs of Buddhism. It symbolises a call to action.