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|Return to the Cave of the Ancients: Part Three|
Previously on Energy Saga
Aang, the Avatar Legion, the Dai Li and Azula team up to vanquish the new energybender threat from the Sages Bane. With some close calls and a drawn-out energy-blade duel between Chao Feng and Sokka, the heroes finally catch their breath just as Aang is ambushed by Nola. With the help of his friends, the Avatar survives the encounter – but not before Nola took his bending away.
Chapter Forty-Five: Return to the Cave of the Ancients: Part Three
Cave of the Ancients, 121 AG
"What do you mean your bending's gone?" asked Sokka, baffled.
"Nola took my bending away." Aang's voice shook with pulsed agitation. "Just like I took Ozai's bending away." The mouths belonging to Zuko, Migo, Tenzin, Kaddo and Vameira all fell open simultaneously with shock.
"This is not good," said Trinley, filled with tense worry. He was clearly not done processing the consequences this change had for all of them.
"Is there any way you can restore it?" Zuko asked with as much futility as when he told his royal physicians to fix Katara with regular healing after the Battle of the Fire Nation Capital.
"Not without energybending, no...." Aang trailed off, gradually losing his voice as his new reality finished sinking in.
Azula narrowed her eyes. She abhorred to look upon such feeble spirits. "We need to move!" she prescribed, raising her voice above all others. "There may be more of them on their way as we speak. We must mobilize at the city in the center of the cave where we have the advantage."
Sokka irately whirled his body around to face the woman who so arrogantly addressed him. "I wouldn't try to be the one giving orders here," he glared in contempt. "Everyone here knows your history."
"Then you know how good I am at winning fights. You should all listen to me if you want to win this one."
"Not all fights..." Zuko whispered, crossing both arms in resentment.
"If we're going to listen to anyone, it should be Aang," Trinley argued loudly.
"Whatever we do, we should stick together," said Aang.
Azula turned her body to grimace at the annoying Air Nomad before her. "With all due respect Avatar, without your bending what good are you?"
"The Avatar is more than just bending," Aang told her, struffling to keep his voice calm and poised. "There's still the part about the bridge to Spirit World, and the protector of the balance. It's who I am. Nothing and no one can make it otherwise."
"Aww, that's nice," Azula said sarcastically. "Thanks for that. We can all feel so much better now."
"You must be careful, Twinkle Toes," Toph cautioned the Avatar with genuine concern in her voice. "Even with your bending, Nola was able to overpower you easily."
"That's because I was looking at her the wrong way," Aang said simply.
"What do you mean?" asked Sokka.
"I looked at her the same way I looked at her as a girl asking me to let her become an airbender. I thought she would fight more like the person she pretended to be when I trained her. But basically, she was just the opposite – blind aggression. I've known and dealt with that before. It's just that I wasn't expecting it. If I could get another chance to fight her like before, I'd handle her better."
Sokka stared in acknowledgement of his brother-in-law's reflection. "Not to worry, Aang. We'll figure something out," said Sokka, patting his now non-bender friend on the shoulder. "Somehow..."
Fuming, Azula clenched both fists together as though she were about to unleash her deadly fire on everyone around her. "Oh, please! Avatar, the best thing you can do to help us right now is die!" she snapped. "Then you'll be reincarnated as someone who can bend – and might actually be useful."
"What's your problem?" Migo questioned her aggressively.
"Apparently, all of you," Azula shot back, eyeing the rest of the Avatar's companions. "I'm going off on my own. Anyone who wants to go about things more sensibly – try to keep up!"
Gitsu, who had been silent before, stared around just like Azula had. "Sounds like a plan to me." After Gitsu gave a swift hand gesture, the Dai Li obeyed their captain's wordless order and marched after him and Azula.
One of the Kyoshi Warriors grabbed her katana, and emerged from behind Suki. "Wait!" Ty Lee yelled frantically as she tightened her belt and hustled forward.
"What?" Azula twisted her upper body irritably to glance back at her childhood companion.
Ty Lee nervously halted in her tracks, but soon regained her speech. "I just thought I'd like to go...with your group." She flashed Azula a cheesy smile.
"Fine." Turning back around, Azula briefly wore a half-smile no one else could see. She was pleased with herself. After all that had gone wrong for her lately, it seemed like she had finally done things right. If Ty Lee was acting friendly toward her after barely speaking for twenty years, that was surely a good sign. Ty Lee, however, was not paying any attention to Azula, and was looking instead at Gitsu.
"Splitting up now is not the wisest of ideas," Aang said as they left. "We're dividing ourselves."
"Forget it, Aang. We're better off without her, anyway." Sokka tried to sound confident, though underneath his distinguishing exterior lay a pool of worries. Whatever he said, he could not deny that Azula had been good in a fight since they arrived at the Cave of the Ancients. "I guess we should scale the nearby passages and make way toward the city at the center."
"Okay," said Aang, nodding. "You guys go on ahead. I want to wait here a little longer."
"But, Aang-" Sokka began.
"I'll be right behind you," Aang interrupted firmly. He shot Sokka a look to show he needed some time to himself.
Taken aback by Aang's attitude, Sokka nodded and walked down the cavern across from the one where Azula and the Dai Li had gone. He hoisted his arm around his wife's upper body, escorting her with him. Kaddo followed moments later with the Kyoshi Warriors. Vameira sadly looked back and joined them as Migo beckoned the children onward. Soon, Avatar Aang was all alone – well, not entirely alone. Trinley had remained behind, and was standing a little more than five feet off to Aang's side.
"So much has changed," Trinley voiced aloud after twisting his mind for many seconds to find the right words. "Hasn't it?"
"Yes, it has," replied Aang, curt and facing away from his ex-pupil.
"I feel like I'm a curse on everyone," Trinley blurted out, his purplish eyes swelling and nearing the point of tears. "I was the first new airbender that you energybent. Now, I've lost you your bending."
"What do you mean?" Aang asked quizzically, facing his friend once again. "It was Nola, not you."
"She was able to use me to lead you to her, though," Trinley countered, the sloth of his broken spirits showing through his solemn face and his slowed breath. "If you hadn't come back to save me in the passage before, everyone would've been better off."
Aang looked Trinley directly in the eye, no longer focusing primarily on his own trouble. "If anyone's a curse, it's me," the Avatar said solemnly. "If it weren't for me, the Sages Bane would've never gotten energybending to begin with."
"You couldn't have possibly known when you made me an airbender," said Trinley.
"True," Aang admitted. "But I should've followed Avatar Roku's advice and stopped after you."
"They would have gotten energybending eventually, once they knew the Avatar was using it," Trinley told him, his violet eyes still wet but no longer tearful. "If you had not fallen into temptation, another Avatar would have later. It's actually really lucky you were the one who did. Your enlightened and gentle spirit prevented you from going too far too soon, and allowed you to keep a clear head."
Aang dropped his gaze, feeling Trinley's shame and his own merging into one. "Well, neither of us can know what might have happened if things played differently. But this mess I unwittingly created has lost me the favor of my past lives. I even bent my own energy." He spoke of when he cheated the natural state of firebending by enabling himself to make purple his color, thereby forsaking his proper state of green. "All this time I've been pondering about where made a mistake with Icarus – I should've paid more attention to Nola."
"What are you going to do about her now?" Trinley asked, blinking.
"I don't know." Each encounter with the Sages Bane was like facing another Avatar or another Azula. They had barely been able to deal with the group of a mere seven they had fought before, with their full strength, including all the Kyoshi Warriors, the Dai Li and Aang with his bending ability. Even with all of them, they still required catching a lucky break with Sokka and his sword forged from space rock to live to fight the Sages Bane at another time. How would they ever be able to deal with the rest of them now? Aang, now a normal human, played out all the wildest scenarios in his head. Every single one of them was a dead end. On top of it all, Aang could not begin to shake Azula's claim that they were better off with him dead from his mind. The words were stinging him worse than when she struck him full of lightning at the Southern Air Temple.
Several lengths away from Aang and Trinley, the remainder of the Avatar's companions explored the passage they were venturing down, so far finding nothing to give them trouble, aid or company. It was thoroughly uneventful.
"I can't believe you guys teamed up with Azula," Mai stated, upping her tone of voice to give the impression of speaking down to those around her. "You have to be careful with her," the Fire Lady cautioned after receiving no response from her first words. "She's not to be trusted."
The way was deserted, save for a host of smaller, dark-furred companions who made their home on the cave ceiling. They alerted the on-comers of their presence by flapping their wings and drifting between the multitude of stalactites. The looming wolf-bats peered down at the Avatar Legion from above.
"I don't know," Vameira spoke with timidness, not meeting Mai's far older and presumably wiser eyes with her own. "She did help my father rescue me from the Air Nation."
"Don't be fooled, Vameira." Tenzin gave her a rare serious, stern expression. "She had her own motives. Dad freed her from Ember Island and she traveled with him for a while."
"I'm just saying, maybe she's not all bad," Vameira argued calmly. "She seems lonely..." Mai crossed her arms and put her nose in the air, as though what the little airbender girl said was a personal affront to her.
"Halt!" Toph shouted suddenly. All the heads around the Queen of Omashu spun in her direction. "I hear something."
Quietness reigned as thy all paused to listen. At first it was like listening to nothing, but then the Fire Lord caught onto what Toph had detected before him. "I hear it, too," said Zuko. The sound was like the soft crackling of a burning source for warmth on a cold night.
"It sounds like...fire?" said Mai, uncertain. She looked all around to see where exactly the sound was coming from.
Then, the peaceful tranquility was shattered as flame burst in front of the band of travelers. Zuko and Neinei deflected blasts of fire from an unexplained source, shrinking and pushing back the destructive and expanding flame. Kaddo bent water out from his pouch and cloaked both his arms with tentacles, which he used to swing away at the burning flames that had appeared from nowhere. No matter how hard he, Zuko and Neinei tried, though, they could not hold back all the fire. Soon, the cave passage, which had been dark, cool and silent a minute before was burning up and filled with the deafening noise of footsteps, as the Avatar's friends and family hurried to escape the rapidly-consuming fires.
The wolf-bats on the cavern roof all swooped down at once and flew around the humans and in their faces. Migo and Mai mirrored the panic and flapped their own arms in a desperate try to shove away the flying pests. It was hard to decide which was worse – the panicking bats or what was becoming a blazing inferno. Combined, they made up a nightmare – a nightmare that either had to be escaped or would consume them all.
"I know where it's coming from!" Suki yelled out in between strides. "It's the bats."
"You did what?!" Chan asked in alarm.
"I gave firebending to a bunch of wolf-bats," Brother Memnon told him in an almost-cruel state of calm.
"You gave firebending to a bunch of wolf-bats?" said Nola, raising an eyebrow at her older, bearded comrade.
"Yes, I gave firebending to a bunch of wolf-bats," Brother Memnon repeated to both his somewhat stunned allies. "Animals can be benders: badgermoles, dragons, bison..."
"Why firebending?" asked Chan, narrowing his eyes.
"Well, I obviously wasn't going to give them energybending," Brother Memnon said as he would have if Chan had really been stupid enough to suggest such a thing. "It will be hazardous to the Avatar and the rest of our enemies – and a nice and efficient way to lure them out and hunt them down," Brother Memnon added, bursting with confidence.
"If you say so, then," said Nola, crossing her arms with continued uncertainty.
Deep Inner Cave
By the time that Aang caught up with his comrades, they were backed into a dead end, trapped between a rock wall and the flaming cave passage. They had managed to make a run for it for a long while, but now it was over. They were done for. Tenzin's protective air sphere was about to give way. Vameira, close by, was looking up frightfully at the hostile fires not so unlike the ones that had wiped out the Old Air Nomads.
"What's going on?" Aang called in urgency.
"It's the bats!" Sokka shouted, ducking behind a nearby boulder in vain. "They became firebenders!"
"Oh, great!" Kaddo echoed, stubbornly trying to keep the fear out of his voice. "We're doomed."
Trinley stood beside the Avatar in shock, not moving a muscle as he helplessly tried to figure out a solution to the new plight. Aang, on the other hand, could see that trying to escape or fight the fire back were like answers to the wrong question. The Avatar forced himself to do what the others were too distracted by the flames to do; he looked at the bats faces, and he understood them.
The wolf-bats were not attacking anybody. Rather, they were frightened, just as his friends were. The bending abilities they were given did not belong in their bodies. Aang dropped his glider staff to the barren cave floor and marched forward as others cringed behind him, under rocks of stone, spheres of air and lumps of water.
"Aang, what are you doing?!" Zuko called out in alarm. "Get back here!"
Just like him, the bats were fellow victims of the effects of energybending. Aang no longer had his bending at his disposal, but he still carried his divine spiritual connection to all living things. He remembered Guru Pathik, a learned and spiritual man – also really good with animals. If only he could reach out to the wolf-bats like Pathik had always done with the creatures at the Eastern Air Temple. Trinley and his other friends looked on, mesmerized, as the Avatar positioned himself at the center of the clearing, sat down and crossed his legs, with flames still blazing around him. Through some unseen luck, the Avatar did not catch on fire. The many jets and blasts all seemed to miss his body by inches. Then, Aang did the last thing anyone else would've thought to do, and meditated, like the guru would have. The bats stopped flapping their wings so quickly, with their flames beginning to lessen. Then, they flew away from the cave walls, encircled the Avatar, and came to his side.
"Hear that?" Brother Memnon indicated at the rumbling fire in the distance, his lips curling.
"Well done, Brother Memnon," said Nola, eyeing him with a smirk. "Your plan worked."
"Of course it did, Sister Joo Dee," Brother Memnon told her.
Chan, though, was not sharing in their sentiment. "Look!" He was pointing down the way that led deeper into the cave, towards the inner crystal area and the city of the First Avatar.
Standing in front of them was a bald monk in an Air Nomad tunic with a blue arrow-shaped tattoo. Though ordinarily a peaceful man, his gray eyes slanted themselves, telling a different story. "Sages Bane, your meddling in the world is at an end." They did not know how this had came about, but the Avatar was indeed right before them.
"Avatar Aang," said Brother Memnon, surveying the new arrival like a hunter would survey a prey. "So, you've come to face us yourself?"
Aang cocked his head, continuing to face his three adversaries straight-on. "I guess you could say something like that."
"Oh, really?" Nola asked with a sarcastic humor in her tone. "What is it that a bendingless Avatar can do to us?"
"Sorry, I should've clarified," Aang told the trio of powerful energybenders, undaunted by his supposed disadvantage. "I'm not by myself. I brought some friends."
"What friends are these?" Chan laughed jeeringly. "Imaginary friends? Past lives? Spirits? None of these will help you now, Avatar Aang."
"Enough," said Brother Memnon, putting his hand up. Unlike the other two, Memnon was not joking around. "Let's kill him." He and Nola took their fighting stances to finish off their lone opponent.
But they were not ready to face what else was there. The cave was so dark that they did not see the wolf-bats gathered behind the young Avatar. Aang raised his staff and pointed the tip of his glider forward, egging his animal companions onward. Then, with an onset of flapping wings, the cave caught fire.
"Huh?" said Chan, being the slowest one to pick up on what was going on.
Brother Memnon widened his eyes and rotated his feet. "Run!"
Brother Zhang Sang and Sister Joo Dee followed Brother Memnon as they ran away from the firebending bats and away from the Avatar. The three Sages Bane moved their legs back and forth one after another in an urgent hurry to flee the chasing army of bats that Brother Memnon had unwittingly armed to oppose him. They changed direction to a more narrow part of the cavern, bringing the pursuing bats and fire with them. With the twists and turns up ahead, they tried to lead the chasing wolf-bats astray, but to no avail. The creatures had chosen their targets. Surely enough, though, they felt moisture in the air and heard water down a passage in the distance. The back of Chan's bandaged outfit caught fire just as they glanced the top of a waterfall and an underground lake beneath the crossway. All three of them leapt off a miniature indoor cliff and plunged into the cool waters below.
The bats hovered above the lake, continuing to send fire all around the area. Being still and motionless at first, the underground water gradually grew brighter and brighter, until the surface of the lake was fully-illuminating and ripples drifted out from three centers. Then, Nola, Chan and Brother Memon poked their heads above the water. All three had emerged at the same time. Nola pressed her pointer and middle fingers together and rose up her right arm, as did Chan and Brother Memnon. They pointed up and shot forth brilliantly-lit streams, as bright as the sunlight. The wolf-bats scattered at the three violent strikes of energy – which had cracked the cave ceiling – and flew back down the passage, taking their fires with them.
"Alright, that settles it!" Nola screeched in fury, shaking her heavy, drenched clothing free of its wet weight. "No more giving anyone, or any thing any kind of elemental bending."
"Watch your tongue, Sister Joo Dee," Brother Memnon said in an icy, threatening tone.
"Let's finish the Avatar, once and for all," said Nola, stepping onto hard ground again as little droplets of water continued to fall from her dark strands.
"I'm going down the path to the west," Brother Memnon stated to her. "You and Brother Zhang Sang take the eastern route."
With Nola, Memnon and Chan on the run, Aang hustled to get back and rejoin the others. He had done what he could. Even if the wolf-bats did not vanquish his opposition for him, they would at least turn the tables for a bit and buy them some time. The Avatar turned a corner and then he saw it – the Giant Wolf.
Stating at him, the wolf was as tall as the cave ceiling, head enormous enough to cover Aang's entire body. This was the same creature that had nearly swallowed the Avatar on his previous visit. He remembered thinking that this Giant Wolf was the protector of the Cave of the Ancients. Sokka had suggested that the creature had been giving Aang a warning when he gave off a vision of "eating" him. Was this Giant Wolf trying to protect him from corruption? It seemed like it was yet another warning about energybending on the long list of such warnings that Aang had ignored.
Then, the Giant Wolf turned around and flopped his tail by where Aang stood. It proceeded to walk down the passage that had been behind it. Aang knew that this had to be an intelligent being or spirit for sure. It was no ordinary giant wolf. Then again, no such thing as an ordinary giant wolf.
"Am I supposed to follow you?" Aang asked timidly.
The Giant Wolf did not answer, but simply continued walking uninterrupted. Aang decided to follow. If what he assumed was true, then the wolf had been right about energybending before, so going with him now would be the right thing to do.
Aang sweat hard as he ran to keep up with the Giant Wolf and its towering legs. With enhanced running it would have been a cinch, but he was no longer an airbender. As they rounded several corners, he glimpsed the Giant Wolf going in different directions. The Avatar began to feel like he was losing it, having reached the last couple of clearings just long enough to know where to go next. No matter what, though, he had to keep up. He would be lost without something wiser than himself like the wolf. Even if he was the Avatar, he was still only human – not above destiny, and not above fate. He had been in the Cave of the Ancients for the wrong reasons before. Maybe now that he was here for the right reasons, the Giant Wolf would treat him better and help him do what he needed to do.
Almost out of breath, Aang was relieved to finally see that the Giant Wolf had stopped walking on its gargantuan four legs. They had come to a dead-end passage with two stone columns symmetrically positioned across from one another. This was the place the cave guide had led the Avatar to.
"Am I supposed to meditate?" Aang asked, looking up into the Giant Wolf's eyes. Those spheres were about as big as a human head.
Like the Hei Bai of the Cave of the Ancients, the Giant Wolf did not talk, but merely continued staring persistently. Aang decided to take the silence for affirmation and sat down to enter his meditative state.
As Aang closed his eyes, everything went black around him. His latest past life appeared before him. "You've gotten into some serious trouble, Aang," said Roku, the once-familiar Fire Nation man with a long, sage-like beard with whom he shared a past.
"Avatar Roku!" Aang said in astonished excitement, before breaking his eye contact in shame. "I know. I should've listened to you years ago about energybending. I'm sorry for ignoring your wisdom." In the end, it might not have made a difference, but Aang could not bring himself to let go of the accountability he bore.
"Don't apologize to me, Aang," Roku told him sternly. "It's the world that's in danger! Every time energybending is used, its imprint in the world grows larger. As you may have noticed, it's growing quite rapidly now."
"I know," Aang conceded, ready to listen to all he was told, whatever it might be. He was going to let go of all sense of pride. All he was interested in now was how to do what was right.
"As the Avatar, you have a strong connection to this cave," Roku lectured on. Avatar Roku's spirit appeared just as it had when last Aang looked upon it. Having move on from the Physical World, the old Avatar was the same regardless of the amount of years that passed – just like Yue. "It was what brought you to me."
Aang was about to say he thought it was the Giant Wolf that brought him there, but thought better of it. "Do you have any wisdom to offer me now?"
Roku narrowed his eyes and twisted his mouth. "I do have one small thing that I can teach you," he informed his living incarnation. "It's in case you have to save Avatar Spirit when you are moments from death. If you are fatally hindered in the Avatar State, you can sever the effect and cut off from your past lives before passing."
"What use would I have of the Avatar State now?" Aang inquired with skepticism. "I can't bend anymore."
"Never you worry for now," Roku told him. "It works for other instances besides the Avatar State. When energies from separate entities flow as one, their fates are tied to one another. By being in tune with the Avatar Spirit, you can separate these fates when necessary."
Deep Inner Cave
Now liberated from the cave inferno that Brother Memnon had coerced the wolf-bats into bringing about, Migo, Toph, Brawki, Zuko, Mai, Neinei, Sokka, Tenzin, Kaddo, Vameira, Trinley and Suki, along with the rest of the Kyoshi Warriors present, made their way on foot back toward the city of the First Avatar at the center of the Cave of the Ancients. Although they had not spent much time in the cave overall, it had begun to seem like a natural home base to them. Not only was it nice to look at, but it was a contained, yet open and flexible territory.
"We're nearly there," Trinley said aloud, looking at the familiar sides of the passage leading up to the buildings.
"Guys, wait!" Migo called out from behind.
Footsteps were sounding in back of them. No one had to say it for everyone to know that they belonged to the Sages Bane. The members of the Avatar Legion darted around a corner and looked back, watching – and hoping not to be detected. They spotted Brother Memnon and four of his underlings coming through a passageway that led above them, to top of the city.
"We've got to stop them," Sokka whispered to his fellow companions as Brother Memnon's group passed by.
"Indeed," Brawki concurred with the Southern chief. "If they enter through that way, they'll have the high ground."
"And they'll be able to see clearly anywhere in the city," added Zuko.
Suddenly, Toph felt another group of footsteps in another direction. "There's more of them coming from elsewhere," she announced quietly. "A lot more."
"We can't let any of them get there before us," Suki said urgently.
"Then we'll have to split up again," said Sokka, grasping the hilt of his sword hanging on his belt. "I'm going to confront the group we just spotted."
"Be careful, Sokka." Suki embraced him and exchanged a rushed kiss with her husband.
"I'll go as well," Migo stated as he stood up straight, looking ready for battle.
"Me, too," Toph reciprocatd from Migo's side.
"Me too," Zuko said after them.
And so the group split up once again. Sokka, Toph, Migo, Brawki, Zuko Mai and Neinei went after Brother Memnon. The seven of them included three earthbenders, two firebenders and two non-benders. With Sokka leading the way, they ascended the path that Memnon and the other four energybenders had gone up less than a minute ago.
"Try to tread lightly," Sokka told the rest as they entered a long clearing leading up to the opening of the wall of the great chamber. "Let's see if we can surprise them." The chief looked about in search of where their foes might have wandered. "Where'd they go?"
In answer to his question, two Sages Bane members sprung out from the sides of the clearing, and two more from the rear. "It appears you all have a death wish," Brother Memnon's malicious mouth uttered from beside the nearest of the Sages Bane members. "Now..." said Memnon, stetching his arms out in front of him and planting his feet to the ground. "Feel the wrath of my power!"
A little farther off from the center of the cave, Azula, Ty Lee, Gitsu and the Dai Li agents were about to have a confrontation of their own. They were trotting single-file through a slightly-illuminated passage when they saw Nola coming down the other way. With her short dark hair curving straight around her head, the sharp former airbender was flanked by the former War Minister Chan and two long columns of Sages Bane disciples in tow.
When they were mere feet from one another, Nola addressed Azula, who had paused, ready to halt the passing. "Step aside, you pathetic woman," Nola said to her.
"Excuse me?" said Azula, raising an eyebrow in disbelief. "No one talks to me like that!"
"And what are you going to do about it? Your lot are finished," Nola told her, smirking profusely. "Today, we are going to end the Avatar forever."
Azula broke into a roaring laugh that rang throughout the cavern. "Hahaha! End the Avatar forever? Bitch, please! I came way closer to doing that than you ever will. The Avatar's a tough one; he can find some way to take you all." Azula proceeded to raise both eyebrows at her adversary. "Frankly, you're an amateur at acting conniving and manipulative. All you have is some misguided nostalgia for 'the way things were' long before you were even born and a lot of determination." Azula laughed once again. "You think you can shape the destiny of the world? You don't even shape your own."
"Foolish firebender!" Nola retaliated, losing her patience. "You have no idea what you're dealing with! I shall start shaping the world's destiny by ending yours."
Azula casually shook her head as though she had just listened to an exceptionally poor joke. "Sorry, but I plan to end yours first." She positioned her hands and arms for her most cold-blooded form of firebending and generated a stream of lightning, which she launched toward Nola a few paces away.
The bolted stream collided with Nola, but she did not fall flat. Rather, she absorbed that which hit her, taking it in. "Did you forget that generating lightning requires energy!" Nola pointed her own right arm forward and, after a few seconds, shot the lightning back to its source.
When the lightning bolt returned to Azula's body, she redirected it back to Nola, who redirected it right back at her. Ty Lee, Gitsu, the Dai Li, Gitsu and the Sages Bane all watched in amazement as Nola and Azula continued to send the lightning back and forth. With each new redirection, the lighting seemed to get even faster and more lethal than it already was. Nola's method of redirection was slightly safer, but took longer to follow through, which gave Azula more time to prepare for her own strike.
Finally, after the lightning had changed direction close to twenty times, Azula failed to redirect all the lightning at once and half of it remained inside her body, shaking her very innards. Nola briefly wore a triumphant face before the half of the lightning that Azula had redirected struck her in the chest and knocked her back. Both women lay on the cave floor. Nola, however, put an arm over her chest and gave recquiesence to herself, leaping back to her feet. "Well, that was...recreational," said Nola. "But enough playing around." A fight broke out between the Dai Li and the Sages Bane as the two groups exchanged flying fist-shaped rocks and blasts of energy.
Gitsu turned about to face the Kyoshi Warrior that had accompanied them. "Ty Lee, take Azula and get out of here!"
"But..." Ty Lee began to object.
"Now!" Gitsu yelled. "We'll hold them off."
Ty Lee gritted her teeth and nodded. "Okay." It was the warrior in her who spoke, bound by the honor and duty she accepted as part of her lifestyle when she joined the ranks of Kyoshi. Ty Lee bent to pick up her old Royal Fire Academy for Girls playmate and hoisted her onto her back, wrapped around her shoulders. Azula curled, cringing, as she still felt the shock of the lightning. Supporting both their weights, the seasoned chi-blocking warrior retreated back into the deepest part of the cave, away from the Dai Li. She now had to begin looking for the others she had initially come there with – the Avatar's waterbending son in particular.
From the area of the room he had designated as his own, Brother Memnon sent vast walls of energy left and right to thwart his opponents. These gargantuan blasts used far more energy than a regular energy shove. With speed more befit to a bolt of lightning than a human being, this had become his fight. The other Sages Bane members there were just a minor addition to his greater battle style. Migo, Brawki and Toph found it impossible to maintain pace as they hurled shards of rock at the Sages Bane around them. Meanwhile, Princess Neinei augmented the fire in front of her for higher attack intensity, Sokka warded off one of the energybenders with some clever dodging and aim of his boomerang, Zuko jabbed fireballs at the moving targets and Mai tossed sais about.
Eyeing the Fire Lady, Brother Memnon pulled out his purple-red-blue nunchuku and grabbed a handful of sharp, metallic sais, which he rubbed his fingers along the rims of. The sais began conducting sparks not unlike Chao Feng's sword had earlier on. He then hurled these energy-charged sais one at a time and they exploded around his opponents' skimmering pairs of feet.
"How are we supposed to attack at him if he's hitting all of us every second?!" Sokka frantically shouted at the top of his lungs a second after he had narrowly evaded his third explosive sai.
"I wish I had a good answer," Brawki replied from nearby. "In all my years, I've never fought an opponent even remotely like him."
Brother Memnon took notice of Migo standing nearby and darted forward, pushing the youthful earthbender to the ground. Then, the agile energybender stretched his right arm down to Migo and aimed the left out into the clearing, like he was redirecting something from the fallen earthbender. He proceeded to send more chaotic blasts than before from his extended left arm. Meanwile, Migo cringed on the cave floor, unable to list his limbs mote than a few inches.
Although unable to see it, Toph knew that this move must be the dreaded energy feed. She had heard Aang talk of this technique extensively and did not require his confirmation to know what it was. The prospect of striking down Brother Memnon was impossible enough; now she knew that she could not aim to kill, since that would kill Migo as well. He was in just the same position as the Avatar's past lives were when he entered the Avatar State.
But Toph knew that she had to intervene somehow. Instead of aiming for Brother Memnon, she aimed at Migo. Erecting an earth column where he lay, she raised Migo up high and beyond Brother Memnon's grasp.
"Oww!" Migo rubbed his head after knocking against the cave ceiling and plummeting back to the ground. "Watch it. I nearly hit my head against something sharp," he said, gesturing up at the stalactites.
"Quit your whining," Toph told him with a punch to his bent arm. "Would you rather I left you there?"
Migo shook his head slowly. "Thanks."
"Anytime," Toph replied, smirking.
"I just remembered," said Migo. "You did that to me when we first met."
Toph nodded. "I did indeed."
In a furious outburst, Brother Memnon enhanced the strength of his chi and punched forth a charged energy blast at his next-closest target. His energy move hit the Fire Lady square in the chest, and Mai's form crashed against the cave wall and fell to the ground like a broken stick.
"Mom!" Neinei screamed, her fearful adolescent eyes widening in shock.
"Mai!" Zuko yelled similarly, extending his arm to reach over to his wife in vain.
"Zuko...Neinei..." Mai said softly, as she slowly lost control over her breath.
"Neinei, you have to get her to safety," Zuko shouted over to his daughter. He knew that unless she was healed within minutes, she would die.
Neinei nodded to wordlessly accept her father's instruction. With all the muscle she could muster, she picked up her mother and carried her away as Migo and Zuko gave her cover. And so just like that, they were down to five fighters facing five energybenders.
Neinei had a difficult time reaching a safe place and fetching Kaddo, for more than one reason. Firstly, a massive fight had already broken out in the underground city. Pretty much all the remaining Sages Bane and Avatar Legion had engaged one another there. Secondly, Kaddo already had another customer. Ty Lee had arrived with Azula not long before, and Kaddo was presently tracing his healing hands over her lightning-struck body.
"I wonder what my mother would think if she saw me healing you now," Kaddo almost matter-of-factly said aloud. "You nearly killed her years ago."
Ironically, it was thanks to his mother's healing lessons that Kaddo was able to get Azula healed up so quickly. Without bothering to thank the young waterbender, she got to her feet and joined Tenzin, Vameira and Trinley in fighting Chan. Despite having no one by his side, he kept them all quite busy.
"Chan, I never knew you had this in you," Azula said as she almost flirtatiously kicked a bright blue arc of flame at him. "Was your father in the Sages Bane, too?"
Neither the fire arc, nor any of the simultaneous three air blasts hindered Chan. "Nope," he answered simply as he prepared to punch an energy shove to her abdomen. "My mother was. She didn't tell me until I was older."
"Ah, figures," Azula teased mockingly as she leapt out of the way of Chan's latest strike.
After attending to Mai, Kaddo rejoined the fight and used his waterbending to ward off the Sages Bane around him while his father, unable to bend and unskilled in wielding weapons, poised himself in the farthest corner of the giant cavern and surveyed the area before him. Likewise, the Kyoshi Warriors fought dozens of Sages Bane members, raising their fans like shields and attempting to get close enough to strike, which was no easy task. Nola was currently fending against over a half dozen of them at once. The energybending ex-Air Nomad grabbed a hold of one of the warriors who had fallen off-balance and brought her to the center of the giant chamber. Nola then began feding off the helpless warrior's bodily energy and intensified her own attacks with the new hostage.
Unable to sit back and watch the Kyoshi Warrior suffer, Aang marched out to where Nola had positioned herself like the energetic nucleus of the chaotic room. Smirking, Nola saw that she had the powerless Avatar right where she wanted him. With an almighty thrust, Nola sent some energy from herself and the Kyoshi Warrior forth and knocked Aang of his feet. The Avatar flew several pace through the air and landed in a gaping dark hole lining the side of the chamber.
It was the Abyss of the Ancients.
"Aang!" Trinley called out as his former teacher fell to his inevitable doom.
"Dad!" screamed Tenzin. Without his airbending, his father had nothing to stop his descent and save himself.
"Noooo!" Vameira yelled out. She and Kaddo stared in bewilderment, trying in helpless hope to deny what they had just seen. The fighting all around the city suddenly stopped. Trinley, Azula, the Kyoshi Warriors and the Sages Bane paused for a moment to take in the reality of the Avatar's destruction.
"At last, we have won." Nola grinned malevolently in triumph, gazing down at the deep hole she had made Aang fall into.
Vameira was about to cry. "No..."
Deep Inner Cave
Brother Memnon continued his onslaught against his enemies from the four elemental bending nations. Having decisively gained the upper hand, he barely had to defend himself anymore since he had them on the run trying to dodge him so much that they no longer had chances to attack on their own. As he carried on, the other four Sages Bane isolated and closed them out. This was the scene Neinei returned to.
"Neinei, what are you doing here?!" Zuko shouted, outraged, as he spotted his oldest daughter out of the corner of his eye. "I told you to get your mother to safety."
"I did," Neinei said simply as she took her firebending stance once more. "Now I'm back."
Unwilling to completely divert his attention from Brother Memnon, Zuko still managed a smile. "You'll make a good Fire Lord someday."
"Not to be a downer," Sokka chimed in. "But unless we win this battle, the title of Fire Lord won't exist."
The unstoppable energybender shouted something indecipherable at one of his allies, who acknowledged his commands and aimed an energy shove diagonal across the room, cutting the elemental benders off from one another. In Brother Memnon's moment of distraction, Brawki smashed his fist against the cave wall and snapped a large spike off the ground. He proceeded to charge forth and begin launching it at Brother Memnon a few paces away, but Memnon spotted the move and rushed over to seize Brawki's wrists in mid-swing.
"Were you planning on impaling me with that?" Brother Memnon asked, looking straight into the orbs of the grizzled earthbender with his own. Employing chi-powered strength, Brother Memnon lifter up Brawki's body with the force of his arms and slammed him down on top of the spike, which went straight through his heart. "You stupid old man."
"Brawki!" Migo desperately called out as he saw the body of the man who raised him seeping blood. Moment's later, Brawki's head swerved down, his face as pale as a statue.
Migo did not have long to dwell on his mentor's death. He and Neinei met each other's eyes to wordlessly communicate to each other what their next move would be. One of the cousins had lost a parental figure and the other had almost lost one. They would not allow what Mai and Brawki had been fighting for to be in vain.
Determined, Neinei sidestepped away from oncoming bursts of energy and swung both arms in a circle, sending fire disks in a bid to scar Brother Memnon and his fellow energybenders. Having distracted the Sages Bane, Neinei lifted both her arms in tremendous force to raise a wall of flames from the cave floor. Memnon peered through the fire to find where the brat who attacked him had gone to.
Suddenly, a spike soared through the curtain and skewered one of Memnon's underlings through the chest. Without seismic sense at their disposal, the Sages Bane had been unable to detect the projectile. Another pike shot toward another one of the energybender disciples. More prepared than before, the energybender raised his arm to deflect, but found there was no need, for the pointed rock was not aimed for him. Curving the mid-air, the spike collided with Brother Memnon's body and penetrated his chest. Awestruck, the trio of Sages Ban beside him stared on as Neinei sank her wall of fire back to the ground.
"Well done, Migo," said Toph, grinning. "You're well on your way to becoming the world's second greatest earthbender."
A coughed-up sap of blood emerged from Brother Memnon's mouth as his hands vainly and desperately came down to his chest, as though they might mend his pierced heart through some impossible means. He emitted his final breaths with a fiery glare of hatred in his eyes – cursing the benders who struck him down in his last moments. This fire in his eyes, along with the rest of the life remaining in his body, began withering away as his consciousness ceased, until finally his corpse collapsed on the hard, rocky cave ground.
Brother Memnon was no more.
With the greatest among them dead, the other three energybenders that Memnon had with him lost a good portion of their fighting morale, and Sokka, Migo, Toph, Zuko and Neinei dealt with them swiftly. Now that their job up above was done, the five heroes climbed down to the main city section where their comrades were holding out a far greater number of Sages Bane.
"Oh, good, you're all here now," said Nola, having taken notice of their arrival. "We can end this quickly." She proceeded to snap the neck of the Kyoshi Warrior next to her, deciding she had grown bored of energy feeding off her life essence.
"Don't be so sure of yourself," Sokka told her defiantly as he reached for his sword. "We have slain Brother Memnon."
"That can't be," Chan said in alarm, briefly letting his guard down and barely managing to evade Trinley's blown gust of wind.
"Unexpected, I'll admit, but in the end it doesn't matter." Nola smirked nastily. "I've slain the Avatar."
Sokka's, Zuko's, Neinei's, Migo's and even Toph's blind eyes all widened in shock at once.
"That can't be..." Sokka said in denial.
Toph's blind orbs watered. "Twinkle Toes..."
If what Nola said was really true, then there was truly no hope for them left. Nevertheless, they were ready to fight to the death if it came to that. Suki, Ty Lee and the rest of the Kyoshi Warriors were poised across from the farther flank of Sages Bane members. Sokka, Migo and Toph soon joined them, but they were soon driven down the slanted slope toward the entranceway by man simultaneous blows of energy. They were cornered and surrounded by the whole small army of energybenders. Tenzin, Kaddo, Vameire and Azula were there as well. Nola, Chan and the rest of thee Sages Bane present faced them, with their backs to the Abyss of the Ancients.
"Friends of the Avatar – prepare to die!" Nola raised her voice proudly, ready to bring the fallen Avatar's companions to their fate. But before she could strike, Nola was distracted by some wind emitting from the Abyss of the Ancients. The wind currents gradually grew faster and more powerful. This could not be true, since nothing ever came out from that eternal hole. But it was. Still in attack position, Nola stared over her shoulder at where the air was coming from. It soon became apparent that the air was not moving naturally. It was being bent! Rising up from the hole in a spiraling, floating air sphere was none other than Avatar Aang in the Avatar State.
"What the-" said Nola, bewildered.
"It's Aang!" Sokka exclaimed with joy. "He's back!" Standing on either side of the Southern Chieftain, Toph and Suki beamed.
Looking down at the scene below, with his eyes glowing the same way as his tattoos, Aang swept his right arm, and a long, diagonal trench of earth knocked half the column of Sages Bane off their feet. He then swung his left arm and sent a hasty, curving stream of fire to scatter the rest of the stunned energybenders.
"Yeah!" yelled Tenzin, throwing both fists in the air.
"Go Dad!" Kaddo cheered, covering his hands around his mouth.
The Sages Bane were all driven back. Several were trapped in shackles of earth around their feet and hands. A few were killed or wounded by the rising tide of jagged earth and scorching flames. Then, at long last, Avatar Aang exited the Avatar State and touched his feet back down to the ground, next to his comrades.
"Impossible!" Nola said with her hair out of place.
"Well done, Aang." Sokka happily put his hand on his friends shoulder.
"How did you get your bending back?" Migo asked eagerly.
"I sort of did and I sort of didn't," Aang clarified, scratching the back of his neck.
Trinley raised an eyebrow. "What do you mean?"
"Well, bending has both a physical side and a spiritual side," Aang explained to them. "When I stood up to the leaders of the Sages Bane without the help of my own bending, I regained the respect of my past lives. I talked to Roku shortly afterward and he told me that in place of my own bending, my past lives could lone me theirs while I'm in the Avatar State. Their spiritual energy could act in place of my own bodily energy."
"I see," said Trinley, nodding.
"After that, you pretended you still didn't have your bending back until you had the right moment to make it known," said Toph.
"Dad, how could you fool us, too?" Vameira asked him, trembling. "We were all really scared and worried."
"I'm sorry you were worried, Vameira, but everything is going to be fine now. I promise," Aang told his daughter serenely. "I had to do it this way in the interest of keeping the balance." Aang turned back to face Nola. "That's what I do – I keep the balance...always."
"So, are you ready to stand down now?" Sokka called over to Nola and Chan, who were both backed into a corner.
Nola let out a deep sigh and turned to her comrade. "I'm sorry things had to end this way for us, Chan," she told him regretfully, reaching her arm over to him. "You've been a good companion."
Looking defeated, Chan nodded at her. He reciprocated her gesture, reaching over his own arm – and the two of them held hands. Soon, however, Chan's face grew confused, because Nola did not stop moving her forearm. She rotated her hand relative to his, so that the centers of chi in their palms were in alignment with one another.
Chan's look of confusion instantly shifted to one of horror. "No – No!" He desperately struggled to let go, but Nola squeezed his hand tightly and locked it in place.
Like Chan, Aang knew what was coming. "Get out of the way!" the Avatar shouted out for all around him to hear.
Sure enough, as Aang, Tenzin, Kaddo, Vameira and the rest of their friends fled aside, Nola blasted forth her Shuten Shogai, which grew into a giant bubble and took with it a third of the city – and shattered the foundations of what it did not touch directly. Most of those present managed to jump out of the way, but three Kyoshi Warriors and one member of the Sages Bane were consumed by the blast. Now that she had no more purpose for it, Nola tossed Chan's limp, energyless body aside. Hard stone columns fell apart, rocks fell from the ceiling and the entire ground quake. The Cave of the Anceients was caving in.
Nola had lost it, Aang told himself. She had used Shuten Shogai in the middle of a deep cave. Now, it was hopeless. They were trapped inside a mountain. Everything was caved in all around. This would be their grave. This was it. This was the end for him, for Tenzin, for Kaddo, for Vameira, for Sokka, for Toph, for Zuko, for Trinley and the rest of their friends. As good as he, Toph and Migo were at earthbending, Aang could not see how they could possibly ever dig their way out.
But he had to keep trying.
TO BE CONTINUED...
- "Hahaha! End the Avatar forever? Bitch, please! I came way closer to doing that than you ever will." I haven't sworn in a fanon yet, so why did I pick now to start? Well, the line just seemed so perfect.
- Brother Memnon split the energy particles in his own bodily energy apart, starting off a reaction, before attaching it to the sais, which served as metal conductors. As soon as they hit something, it broke apart completely, effectively creating small explosives.
- When Migo and Toph first met in Chapter 13: Migo, she erected an earth column below him in much the same way she did here.
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