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|The Endless Knot|
The lotus plants fell from Sokka's hand with a slow, wet thud, and he clutched more tightly at his sword. For an agonizing moment there was stillness and silence before, in the darkness, something opened its mouth wide to reveal rows of spiked fangs oozing venom and its wet tongue rolled out like a shining ribbon as it hissed. Their eyes had gotten used to the brilliant light of the pool of moonstone lotus, and so everything in the shadow of the corridor seemed to be impenetrable blackness.
But they both definitely saw as the earth rose up around them in jagged spikes aimed to kill.
Sokka rolled to the side, sword up to hack away a spike jutting towards his face. With a grunting cry, Aang whirled, bringing a massive wave from the lake to meet their attackers headon. The moonstone lotus floated along the crest of the wave before being dashed on the ground, and it was only then that they saw who they were truly fighting.
Cave-crawlers would have been bad enough. There was no mistaking that the one they had met earlier had to have been some tiny hatchling. These... these were eight-legged monstrosities, covered in bristles with beady black eyes and a hard series of scales protecting their back. More importantly they all had quite a lot of teeth that all looked very sharp, and each delicate paw ended in two vicious-looking sickle-like claws.
And on the back of each one was a rider in sickly green uniform and plain white mask.
"...I knew this wasn't going to be easy!" Sokka gritted his teeth as he squared his shoulders, charging at the nearest rider. The water seemed to only give them momentary pause, one of the cave-crawlers pausing to shake its head free of water. Each of the animals shrieked at one another, a howling hiss that reverberated throughout the cave.
The earth rose around them, cracking and splitting as the earthbenders rode on the cave-crawlers' backs. Aang gritted his teeth, moving smoothly from one stance to another, but the cave-crawlers easily scrambled along whatever earthen fortifications he could think to create and didn't seem to be phased by water. They momentarily froze at a blast of wind but all that Sokka could tell was that it just made them very angry.
Their riders said nothing in a way that was distinctly eerie.
More of them were pouring out of the mouth of the opening, claws raised and jaws open wide, the earthbenders on their backs settling into a modified stance in preparation. That didn't stop Sokka from rushing forward, swinging his sword with a grunting cry. The cave-crawler dodged at the last moment and the earthbender on its back nearly pinned Sokka's feet to the ground, but with another firm stroke he jutted the sword into the cave-crawler's hissing mouth. The tip came out between its eyes before he had to lift a foot to kick away the animal and dislodge his sword. There was no time to celebrate, as soon the earthbender rider had slid down off of his dispatched mount. After an intense bout of shared strokes, Sokka finally managed to land a lucky hit, staining the blade of his sword with blood once more.
Aang kicked out in a wide arc, a jet of flame seeming to extend out from his toes. This finally seemd to have an effect, hitting one cave-crawler squarely in its face. The animal shrieked and bucked, unable to shake its rider off even in its blind panic, but all of the hair along its body caught fire as quickly and easily as dry tinder. The flame scurried up along to the cave-crawler's back and jumped to its rider's uniform. And yet the rider said nothing. Even as the animal gave unholy shrieks and flipped on its back, its legs curling tightly above it as it burned, the rider did not cry out in pain or for help. That was even more frightening than the small army of masked riders swarming in around them.
Sokka brought his sword up in another powerful swing, cutting cleanly through the neck of one of the monsters. It thrashed in dying spasms, jaws gnashing, legs giving way and scraping deep furroughs in the dirt. Only seconds more and one of its bretheren was climbing on top of it with a scream that echoed throughout the cave - Sokka was forced to stumble back into the water of the lake.
"Aang, please tell me you've got a really clever plan!"
"You're the plans guy!" Aang shouted over the noise of another burst of flame.
"Not really helpful right now!" Sokka grunted, thrusting his sword out once more. The creature barely dodged in time and snapped at him, ichor and venom making its teeth glisten.
Aang spared one moment to look behind them before setting his jaw and reaching out for Sokka. "Come on! This way!" As they sloshed deeper into the lake, the water around their knees became more solid, finally forming a wave that bore them to the surface. Sokka flailed desperately to keep his balance, but Aang dragged him along. There was indeed a small cave at the northern side of the lake, and they rushed headlong into it, tumbling to a stop as some of the wave came in with them. It was dark, musty, and cramped, but at least their packs full of lotus blossoms gave them some light.
There was the sound of claws scrambling behind them. Sokka had barely pulled himself up to stand in the narrow corridor before it was clear one of the riders was nearly on them, the cave-crawler having run along the wall while they traveled by water. Its daggerlike claws were on the edge of the opening when Aang whirled, a strong blast of fire knocking it back before he sealed the opening with some quick earthbending.
It wouldn't hold for long, but at least it was a moment's respite. They both panted for a moment before Sokka gulped and looked to Aang.
"So... what now?"
"I guess we... find another way out." He looked up at the tons of dirt and rock that were above them and grimaced.
Sokka groaned, and they started limping along the tunnel. "You know, when I was reminiscing about old times, this wasn't really the part I was getting all misty-eyed about."
"Yeah, yeah, yeah..."
Three days later, Sokka groaned as he ran a hand along his forehead to wipe off another bit of sweat. The caves were sweltering, and even though there was plenty of water to be gleaned from the small streams that wormed among the rocks, it was still deeply unpleasant. His feet hurt. His head hurt. And he groaned as he let his head hit the rocky side of the tunnel. "Okay, Aang, I take it back."
"Take what back?" Aang was poking worriedly at some of the lichen he had scraped off of the wall – and was actually hungry enough to take a bite.
"The whole fear of commitment thing. I take it back. When I get out of here -" He pointed dramatically to emphasize his point. "I am so ready to marry Suki. Seriously. She is going to get married so hard she won't know what to do with herself. That hard."
"Seriously. Old Sokka? Gone. New Sokka is going to be a quiet-living, very married man. I am going to stay at home and get a job I kinda hate and go to it every single damn day and have fifty million kids. And while I feel my soul being sucked out of my body, I am going to know that it's worth it, because when you show up going 'hey Sokka, hey Sokka, let's go save the world again', I'll just decline because I have this job and all these babies to take care of..."
"Yeah, but you'll still come with me," Aang said, laughing.
Sokka pointed at him as if about to refute before letting his hand drop. "You're right," he said miserably. "I'm totally doomed to a life full of heroics." He groaned as he covered his eyes, looking exhausted.
"Want any of this?" Aang cheerfully offered some of the softly glowing lichen to him. "It's not too bad if you don't think about what you're eating."
Sokka was sadly hungry enough to actually take it after a moment of staring at Aang. As soon as it hit his tongue, he spluttered. "Ugh! It tastes like dirt." Grumbling a little, he stood. "All right, all right. Enough of a break. The sooner we get out of here, the sooner I can have a proper meal. With steak. Or at least some roast duck..."
Aang shook his head a little as they started to trudge down the long corridor. There was only one way to go. That at least made it easy without the deliberation, but there was also the constant knowledge that the earthbender riders were right behind them. Aang had definitely taken the time to put in enough roadblocks so that their enemies weren't breathing down their necks, but... they had to keep going.
"Are we anywhere near the exit?" Sokka half-whined. "I mean... anywhere?"
"I think so." He frowned a moment, putting his hand out to run against the wall. "It all feels familiar. This is the way Avatar Yangchen definitely went, and it's near the end..." Aang nodded, smiling. "I'm pretty sure that tomorrow night we'll be sleeping... well, not in our own beds, but at least above ground."
"I'll definitely settle for that. And a proper meal," Sokka sighed. "Something that's not lichen." Somewhere ahead of them, the steady trickle of water was starting to swell through the rock, as if a confluence of hairline cracks in the rock were merging into a stream. The next turn and Sokka's heart leaped – the steady glow of some bright light snuck around the rock. And the sound of water grew stronger until it became a steady rush that ended in a roar. As the corridor opened up into bright light, the waterfall forming a veil that covered the doorway to a large cavern. As soon as Sokka saw it, he burst out into relieved laughter. Surely with light that bright, it had to be an opening to the sky. They could get out – they could finally get out! - and this would all be over, and he could have a proper night's rest and a good meal -
"Sokka, wait!" He didn't stop to listen to Aang, instead jogging forward, not even minding being soaked by the waterfall as he stepped out onto the slick ledge.
A raised pathway flowed smoothly out of the corridor, worn stairs cut down into another lake. It looked... vaguely unnatural. It was too smooth at the edges, too precise, and Sokka could see the stairs continued down in the clear water. As he stepped nearer, the ghostly white carp startled and fled underneath the large lilypads that dotted the surface. More moonstone lotus grew on the lake, but this time much larger, blossoms all the way from buds barely larger than his thumb to ones Sokka could probably use as a chair. And something... something was moving the water. Something was lifting it up, and something lifted its dripping head out of the water and hissed so loudly it made Sokka's ears ache.
"Uh... Aang? I don't think this is the way out...!"
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