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|Return to the Cave of the Ancients: Part One|
Previously on Energy Saga
Aang finds out from the spirit Shihang Shi that he must save the world yet again – from something unknown this time. All he does know is that he must go back to the Cave of the Ancients. Fortunaely, he'll have his friends with him. Having both managed to escape from the Avatar Legion's grasp following the battle at Omashu, Azula and Gitsu now roam the nearby mountains. Romance-wise, Neinei tells Tenzin that she just wants to be friends. As for Migo and Toph, that's still up in the air. Migo's still trying to find the right time to propose. Meanwhile, Toph wonders what her exact thoughts on the prospect of marriage are.
Chapter Forty-Three: Return to the Cave of the Ancients: Part One
Omashu, 121 AG
"You idiot, this was all your fault!"
"Me?!" Long Feng shot back at Icarus. "All I wanted was Ba Sing Se. Don't blame me for your screw-ups elsewhere in the world."
"It would have worked out for all of us if you didn't let the Avatar slip through your fingers again when he was visiting your precious city," said Wan.
Long Feng, Air Lord Icarus and Colonel Wan shared a cell together once they were captured at Omashu. They had been making quite a racket with their bantering. There weren't many complaints yet, but when Aang, Sokka and Tenzin entered the cell they would not stand for it any longer.
"Quiet!" Sokka yelled as he banged his boomerang against the bars.
"We have some questions for you," said Aang.
"Let me get this straight," Sokka said, more calm. He was pointing all ten fingers into the packed cell. "You guys were all working together?"
"We made an alliance," Wan told him, eyes narrowed.
"We already know you made an alliance at the battle," Sokka stated, clarifying his question. "Did you have one all along?"
"No," Icarus told him.
"Well, sort of," said Wan, looking from side to side.
"We had a common partner," stated Long Feng, retaining his composure.
"It was the Sages Bane, wasn't it?" Aang interrogated them, wanting to uncover the full truth in a hurry.
"Who?" Wan asked, quizzical.
"They never told us their name," Long Feng told Aang, Sokka and Tenzin.
"What did they want from you?" asked Aang.
"They helped us rebuild ourselves," Wan answered. "In exchange, they wanted us to help them capture you."
"They organized the association between the Air Nation and the Phoenix Army," Icarus explained, turning his back to Aang and facing the stone-bricked wall of the cell. "The Phoenix Army shared their manpower, and the Air Nation gave some of their technological capital in return – and both of us agreed to assist in capturing the Avatar."
"We had pretty much the same deal," said Long Feng. "They wouldn't tell us what they wanted at first, but once they helped plan our coup in Ba Sing Se, they said that they had to capture the Avatar alive – and that they wanted us to help them do it."
"I already knew they were trying to capture me alive," said Aang. "What did they want me for, though?"
"Don't know," said the former Air Lord, shrugging his shoulders.
"They wouldn't say," Wan added. "They did insist on having you alive, though. Your death was our death."
"Okay," said Aang, nodding. He then turned back to Sokka and Tenzin. "I think we've figured out all we can from here."
"You should bring them with you when you travel around," Tenzin suggested to his father. "That way, you can use Shuten Shogai three times!"
"Oh, Tenzin," said Aang, throwing his head back in frustration. "I thought we already talked about this."
"Come on, Dad," said Tenzin. "You're really going to vouche for these three sorry fellows?"
"I hope you're joking, Tenzin..." Sokka interjected, wincing at his nephew's attitude.
"No matter what they've done, I won't do that to them," said Aang, shaking his head. Regardless of everything, the Avatar would keep his standards. "I've done things I shouldn't have and I've betrayed my very nature, but I'm staying true to respecting all life."
After preparations had been made for the journey, the gang all gathered in the town square outside the royal palace. The crowd they sported was larger than it had been during their first expedition to the Cave of the Ancients. Six of the previous nine: Aang, Sokka, Suki, Toph, Ty Lee and Migo, were returning there, though Katara and Zuko were not, for obvious reasons and Mai was staying behind in Omashu with her husband. But this time, they would also have Brawki, Tenzin, Kaddo, Vameira, Trinley and an entire platoon of Kyoshi Warriors accompanying them.
"Ready, everyone?" Aang called out.
"Ready," responded Migo, his flat facial expression not hiding his enthusiasm. He had grown up nearby the Cave of the Ancients and had been hearing tales of it all his life. "It looks like we're all going back to the Cave of the Ancients together."
"Why do we need mountain gear?" asked Sokka, annoyed, as he lifted a heavy, light-brown bag up. "I thought we were taking an airshp this time."
"We're only going by airship to the base of the mountain," Toph informed him, irritated. "We're climbing on foot the rest of the way."
"I know the cave won't allow us to jump down upon it from above," Aang added, swinging a satchel around his shoulder. "It has to be approached the old-fashioned way."
"Great," said Sokka, rolling his eyes. "You're talking like that now, just like the first time we went there."
"Oh Sokka, get a grip!" snapped Suki.
"Where's Rouyu – I mean, Neinei?" Kaddo asked aloud, to no one in particular.
"She's not coming," Suki answered.
"Fine by me," said Tenzin, sounding downcast.
Aang raised an eyebrow, not knowing the meaning behind his oldest son's words. "Zuko's expected to awake today, but he won't be ready to come to the Cave of the Ancients with us. Mai and Neinei are remaining behind, with him."
"That's understandable," Sokka said in affirmation. "I'm happy that their family is getting back to normal." There was a certain sadness in his tone. Aang could tell that he was still thinking a lot about Hinko.
"The airship will be ready shortly, everyone," Toph announced to the rest of the group. "Get ready to board."
"So, you want revenge, is what you're saying?" Gitsu sat on his knees, overlooking the steep, rocky way down the side of the mountain.
"That's not what I said," Azula snapped, standing up and pacing restlessly. There was not much room to pace on the narrow path, but she found it difficult to control herself under the circumstances. "You're oversimplifying it!"
"The Avatar pulled a cheap shot on you and took away what you worked hard for," Gitsu pointed out, not put off by Azula raising her voice. "How is that not revenge?"
"It's not not revenge, but it's deeper than you make it sound," Azula stated, clearer. "I define myself by my firebending, and I never proved myself against the Avatar, or my father. The Avatar stole that from me, and now I need my proper match-up, even if there's no stake attached to it."
"You Fire Nation elitists are all the same – always obsessed with honor," Gitsu said, notably peeved. "Whatever you do with the Avatar, don't kill him. I still need to capture him alive. The Dai Li and I made a promise when Long Feng was our leader and it still applies to us."
"You sound like you still harbor some admiration for that man," Azula noticed. "I never respected him much. I thought you would've thought the same after you betrayed him the first time."
"He was my idol."
"That's pathetic," Azula put by bluntly. Seeing Gitsu's eyes, she knelt beside him and softened her tone. "You're better than he was. You should try relying on yourself more than where you come from."
Azula and Gitsu had no idea that Aang and company had recently set off for the Cave of the Ancients, in the same area of the mountains near Omashu that they were. Meanwhile, Icarus, Long Feng and Wan remained in their cell. For hours, they had argued over whose fault it had been that they were where they were, reliving the great battle through each other. It was quieter for the time being, but that did not mean they would not return to it later. This was moreso because they had used up most of their energy for the present.
"We have to get out of here..." Icarus uttered, changing his tune.
"How?" asked Wan, his arms folded neatly over his knee-caps and his eyes peering straight over them.
"There's a window just over thirty feet above our heads," Icarus said to Wan and Long Feng, pointing up above. It was a tall cell. While the area outside the bars had a ceiling a mere ten feet in height, there was a shaft that led to an air vent in one of the corners of the cell. Near the top was a small window, just large enough for a person to squeeze themselves through. "I can reach it with an airbending jump, but I'll need to stand on one of your shoulders."
"What about us?" Long Feng asked aggressively.
"The window leads onto one of the balconies," the imprisoned Air Lord told both his fellow cellmates. "I'll find a ladder or something once I'm out and bring it back around."
"How do we know you'll keep that promise?" Long Feng asked Icarus, narrowing his eyes.
"What other option do you have?"
"You've got a point there, Air Lord," Wan conceded, rising to his feet and rubbing the dust off his knees with haste. "Fine. I'll hoist you onto Long Feng's shoulders, then you spring up to the window."
"Why my shoulders?!" Long Feng asked, alarmed.
"Because you're taller than I am," Wan said simply.
Long Feng glared at both of them as he marched over to the corner and allowed Wan and Icarus to proceed with the uncomfortable setup. Once Icarus was poised on Long Feng's shoulders, he bent his legs and puched off from the elderly former grand secretariat's figure. Long Feng cringed as the Air Lord's heavy soles dug into his upper body. When he reached his goal, Icarus grabbed the hinges and hoisted himself up. Luckily for him, no one had bothered to build bars into the window.
"Okay, you're through," Wan yelled up to him. "Now go fetch a ladder or some rope."
Icarus sneered down at the men he had no more need for. As far as Icarus was concerned, if they didn't expect to be double-crossed by him, then they deserved to be double-crossed by him. "Have a nice day, suckers!"
Luck was already on Icarus's side, as there were no guards positioned in the vicinity today. Most likely they had their attention devoted to reconstructing their city in the aftermath of the battle. He barely saw Wan scowling or Long Feng cursing and shaking his fist when he looked for and found a wall to escape over. Then, once out of Omashu, he would run on land fast to collect his revenge on the Avatar and the others who brought down his nation.
"I can't believe that all of them were connected to the Sages Bane," said Sokka, staring down the metal rim of Toph's gigantic flying craft.
"I can," said Aang. The Avatar wasn't showing it, but he was thoroughly relieved to be getting along with Sokka like before. "It's not too surprising, when you think of it. They were connected to Zhao Jr.'s Coup and the revolt in Ba Sing Se."
"And now we know they were connected to all of our opponents at the last battle, except the Anti-bender Militia," Sokka added. "It's strange. We've only encountered them here and there, but it's like they're wherever we go."
"They're crafty at taking advantage of factions and corruption and infrastructure for their own goals," Aang noted, looking like his mind was busy. "They have infiltrated both the Fire Nation and the Order of the White Lotus before."
"Who knows who else they've infiltrated," said Sokka. "I'm confused about what we'll have to do once we get to the cave."
"I'm not sure, either," said Aang, still as in-the-dark about his latest task as when Shihang Shi first mentioned it. "That's why I'm preparing myself for anything."
Chief Sokka stroked his chin and shifted his blue eyes around. "I'm just going over the possibilities in my head. Is there something we have to face in the cave? Do we go to the cave and it comes to us? Do we have to look for something in the cave?"
"Whatever it is, the cave is where we need to go," Aang said with a helpless-looking shrug. Last time they had been at the Cave was before the Fire Nation Civil War. The civil war and everything in between had change them all, almost unrecognizably. "Shihang Shi said that was where I was the strongest. I didn't like Shihang Shi personally, but I can't deny all his words. What he told me was probably correct – at least most of it. He said that the effects of energybending have become so widespread that they're beyond my control."
"You said the First Avatar was born in the cave," Sokka pointed out. "Was Doru Kun the First Avatar?"
"No," said Aang. "He would've been long before Doru Kun."
Sokka turned his head to the side and smirked in reminiscence. "Maybe you'll run into that Giant Wolf again. That could be something you have to face. And you're the Avatar. That might be why only you can see it."
"Shihang Shi mentioned him," Aang stated, nodding his head continuously. "He also told me about the beginning of the Avatar, The Masters and the war they fought for a thousand years."
"Yeah, but it's not like you're going to go back in time to fight them," scoffed Sokka. "Did they use that same black-eyed move Doru Kun told you about?"
"I don't know. I forgot to ask Shihang Shi about that," Aang said in regret. "For me, something worse than fighting them would be looking at them an seeing part of myself, like I'm looking in a mirror."
"Aang, you're starting to sound freaky now," said Sokka, raising both his trim, dark eyebrows. "You will eventually be able to fix my sister, though, right?"
Aang dropped his head into his left palm, like he dreaded thinking about that question. "At this point, I'm not sure I will."
Base of the Mountain
The strong, fast Omashu airship that Toph always boasted of landed right by the site where they had camped the last time. Aang had had a past life dream that night about Doru Kun battling The Mystic. He had not been able to make sense of the vision until he actually got to the cave and set his eyes upon the shrine to his past life. Those had been more lax times, though. Today, Aang emphasized the urgency of reaching the cave as soon as possible so many times that everyone else's ears were ringing with it. Within a couple minutes of landing, they had their supplies at the ready and they began climbing up the mountain. Aang led the charge, while Toph brought up the rear, promising the Avatar to make sure everyone behind him kept up.
Meanwhile, Tenzin and Migo walked up alongside one another, right in front of the tiny crowd of Kyoshi Warriors. "So, how did it go?" Tenzin inquired casually.
"I didn't ask her yet," Migo said with a shrug.
"At least I made an effort on my end," said Tenzin, still somewhat downtrodden.
"So you and Neinei broke up?" Migo asked as they both stepped onto one higher-up boulder after another.
"More like we were never really together," Tenzin clarified.
"Ouch," said Migo, almost out of breath. The Avatar was moving quick and eagerly up the mountain, while the others in the party struggled to keep up. Vameira had to stop and wipe sweat off her forehead, but as she did so, she had to run faster to catch up once again. Fortunately for everyone, the trail was still flat, even if it was a little thin for comfort. As they went on, however, it would only become steeper and narrower, making it more difficult to ascend.
Further along, Aang found himself locked in a conversation with Brawki, whom, despite his age, found the stamina in him to keep at the pace of the Avatar. "Brawki, I can't stop thinking about what you said before we set off for here last time," Aang said in nervous anticipation. "That no one who sets foot in the Cave of the Ancients is ever quite the same person as when they leave it."
"It's the truth," Brawki told him calmly. "Like you, this is my second time coming here. I first went around the time of the Siege of Ba Sing Se. Shortly after that, I had to retire from active service and accept a new kind of role as Migo's guardian."
"I'm worried, though," said Aang. He recalled the legend that the Cave of the Ancients was only reachable by those worthy to reach it, and that even if one did get there, they always left a piece of themselves behind, to remain forever in the cave. "I don't know what kind of 'change' I can expect – or whether it will be good or bad."
"Nothing growing or living ever stays the same for long," Brawki said matter-of-factly, almost reassuring Aang. Almost. "Everything morphs over time. It's important not to be afraid of it. As hard as it may be for us to admit, we can't always decide what we do – but we can decide who we are when we meet it."
"Someone's coming after us!" Toph called out from behind, startling them with her announcement.
"She's right," confirmed Migo, digging his foot between a pair of sharp rocks. "We're not alone up here."
The rugged Queen of Omashu stroked her bare, dirty foot across the rocky mountain surface and, with a firm, swift jerk of her leg into the ground, erected a twenty-foot pillar of stone on the steep, mountainous landscape. Hit by her shot of earth, it was none other than the Air Lord who flew up with the rock column, landing on his behind and spraining himself. Icarus rubbed the arrow mark on his forehead as he tried to recover himself.
"Icarus!" Aang exclaimed in furious disbelief.
"How did you get here?" asked Kaddo, already assuming his fighting position, which was difficult for him on the jagged mountainside. Fortunately, he could count on the high ground if need be.
"I escaped!" Icarus declared proudly against the foes he was clearly outnumbered by. His face was already starting to betray the confidence his mouth was trying to espouse.
"Well, you're not very good at escaping," Sokka scoffed abrasively, crossing his arms and wielding his sword. "You came right back to us."
"Can it, you non-bender peasant!" Icarus snapped in a rage. The Air Lord hated to admit it, but he did appear pretty cornered. Even if he could avoid and evade the others nough to deal some blows against Aang, the prospect was obscenely now that he had been exposed. His out-of-touchness with traditional Air Nomad wisdom showed when he had not been light on his feet enough to follow them undetected.
"What are we going to do with him?" Migo wondered aloud as he clenched his fists to begin earthbending. "We can't leave him here – and we can't send him back, either."
"You may not like to hear this, Aang," said Sokka, snagging a sideways glance in the direction of his oldest friend. "At this point, I think we need to end him He's been trouble for us through-and-through."
"I agree," said Migo.
"No," Aang said firmly. "I gave up my values once. I'm not going to do it again. The only course of action we have now is to take him with us."
"He'll slow us down," Sokka protested.
"We need to bind his hands together so that he can't bend," Aang announced, retaining his decisiveness as he spared his former student's life.
"We'll handle it, Aang," said Suki. In an instant, she and Ty Lee leapt forward, fell upon their target and cuffed his hands together with metal shackles from Ty Lee's belt. The veteran Kyoshi Warrior leaders were agile enough to keep up with an experienced airbender.
"Make sure you watch him closely," Aang said with caution. "Shihang Shi made a note of how I gave my enemies the bending power to oppose me. I'm not sure why he mentioned Icarus specifically, but we should definitely keep an eye on him."
"Understood," Suki acknowledged with a nod. Sokka's warrior wife continued to hold the struggling Air Lord in place as she and Ty Lee escorted him one step at a time.
Little did the Avatar and company know now that an ambush was currently waiting for them, not far off. Azula, Gitsu and his fellow Dai Li lurking behind a large set of rocks, just tall enough to stand behind. This fit their needs well, since it was unsafe to crouch down at this part of the mountain, where half the steps they took forward were like cliffs of their own. Gitsu's prose with the earth had informed them that the Avatar was coming to this very mountain. For whatever purpose he had come here, the Dai Li would be ready for him.
Soon, they caught sight of Sokka, Aang, Toph, Migo, Suki, Ty Lee, Tenzin, Kaddo, Vameira and Brawki. It had taken this group a little longer than the Dai Li expected to reach this point. Gitsu sensed they had dealt with some sort of violent threat. His suspicions were confirmed when he glimpsed Icarus between the two commanders of the Kyoshi Warriors.
As soon as the Avatar and all his companions were visible, Azula lunged forward.
"Stop!" Gitsu cried out in vain. "You'll ruin our ambush!" He had been hoping to retain stealth so that he could capture Aang as he planned.
"I don't need an ambush," Azula snapped back at the Dai Li's captain. "Hold it right there, Avatar!
"Oh great, not Azula again," said Sokka, having just thought he had seen it all or that day when they had encountered the fugitive Air Lord.
"We have unfinished business – you and I. And this time, we're finishing it fair and square!" Azula assumed her fighting stance, as did Tenzin, Kaddo, Vameira and the rest of Aang's friends. The Dai Li had revealed themselves as well, so it became apparent that, unlike with Icarus, they were not dealing with merely one opponent.
Aang, unlike everyone else in the setup, retained his composure. He motioned his right hand up in the air, as though to halt something. "I'm sorry, Azula, but it will have to wait," the Avatar said calmly.
Staying in her stance, the former Crown Princess of the Fire Nation batted her amber-colored eyes in disbelief. "What? What do you mean?! No, we're fighting our Agni Kai now. Cut the nonsense and prepare to fight!"
Aang did not reciprocate her outburst. "No, Azula," he said simply. "We're on our way to the Cave of the Ancients for something that requires our attention. We just don't have time for you right now."
"You don't have time for me?" Azula asked, confused and still flashing her eyelashes in anger.
"Believe it or not, dealing with you can't always be everyone's top priority," said Aang. Everyone else was gawking at them. Migo and Sokka glanced at each other, both shocked that Aang was reacting this way – and shocked even more that Azula wasn't just throwing fire at him on the spot.
"I don't think you're in a position to dictate terms here!" Gitsu yelled over at the Avatar, extending one of his rock-covered fists and preparing to strike.
Azula, however, relinquished her stance and rose to her full height, scowling at Aang. "Alright, Avatar. Let's play it your way."
"Azula?!" Gitsu shouted out, astonished. "What are you doing? He's just trying a trick – and not a very good one!"
"No, he's sincere," Azula countered with an air of certaintly. "I can tell. I'm good with people. And I can also tell that we should let him do whatever it is he needs to." Azula turned back to face Aang. "We'll let you go wherever it is you're going, but we'll be right behind you. Don't think you're getting off the hook."
"Fine," said Aang, almost indifferently.
"Are you sure this is a good idea?" Migo asked Aang, keeping one eye on Azula on the Dai Li as they all made to continue their climb.
"We don't have a choice," Aang said simply. "We have to get to the Cave of the Ancients as soon as we can. It could be time-sensitive. Just stay on alert."
"Man, this is the day for running into old revenge-seeking enemies, isn't it?" Sokka stated with mock-casualness.
"Maybe it's an omen," Toph suggested gloomily.
"If it is, it can't be a good one," Aang reciprocated. Even with a temporary ceasefire, being trailed by a horde of Dai Li agents who wanted to capture him and an unstable firebender ready to burn him was quite unsettling.
Tension ruled the air as the Avatar and company were followed by the calm, but deadly Azula and the disgruntled Gitsu with the rest of the Dai Li marching beside him, just behind Toph and the Kyoshi Warriors, symbolizing the borderline of the two groups. On top of that, Suki and Ty Lee were still hanging onto Icarus. Neither Azula nor Gitsu thought to make a step in the Air Lord's favor. With no advocates, it was now like the once-proud Icarus was gone to the world.
The Dai Li and the Kyoshi Warriors eyeballed each other threateningly, Suki and Gitsu with the strongest glares of all. Their two groups had fought hard against one another at the recent battle. Ty Lee boldly noted that things had been slightly different on their second trip, as they had run into real Azula and not an impostor. This did little to diffuse the situation – and Aang began getting the feeling that this tension seemed to indicate more trouble once they reached the cave itself.
Finally, they reached the ledge that they had stopped on during their former visit to the cave. Migo recognized it at once, having almost fallen from it over a decade prior. "Do we have to reach out using seismic sense like last time?" he asked.
"No, that won't be necessary," said Aang. He continued climbing without a pause, even though Migo, Toph and Suki had all stopped.
"It won't?" asked Toph.
"Are we just going to listen for the 'whispers of the ancients', then?" Sokka asked sarcastically. He had been thrilled to take a break while they found their way, but Aang would clearly have none of it.
"It looks like he's already heard them," said Brawki. "He's opened himself up substantially.
"I already know the way," Aang told them.
"How do you know the way?" Sokka called from behind him, eying the near-vertical terrain ahead.
"I just do." That was the best explanation he could think of. Aang felt his connection to the Cave of the Ancients through his past lives. It was in his veins and in his spirit. It seemed absurd that finding this place was ever difficult. He knew where to go – he had always known.
"He's so determined now," Migo stated, half-tired, half-admiringly, as he shifted from putting one foot in front of the other to putting one hand in front of the other.
"Yeah, I've hardly ever seen Twinkle Toes quite like this," Toph agreed.
As they got closer and closer to the Cave of the Ancients, the climbing got harder, the path steeper and more vertical. Aang continued to persevere and endure as the others grew tired. Trinley and Ty Lee had wanted to camp out for the night and reach the cave the following morning, but Aang insisted on getting there that same day. Plus, they could not well all go to sleep with the Dai Li still behind them.
"Okay, everyone," Aang finally announced to the several people panting behind him. "Just around here and we're there!"
Coming to the Cave of the Ancients with his foes at the Battle of Omashu right behind him was an odd sight, and a tense situation, for it added more to worry about besides the already-prevalent uncertainty. Once he reached the cave, he would do whatever needed to be done and not worry about them until later.
Aang was surprised, however, to find that there was already someone else standing in the entrance to the cave. "Nola?"
"Hello, Avatar Aang."
Zuko's sleek, white hair spread itself over his light-tan cushion. The whole picture was bright, save for his scorched-redish burn scar over his eye, which stood out the most. Mai and Neinei waited beside him, perched on wooden seats. Neinei's hair and scars matched that of her father. Both she and her mother opened their mouths with joy as their father and husband slowly blinked and opened his orbs to the world.
"Zuko..." said Mai, smiling broadly for perhaps the first time in her life.
"Mai..." Zuko half-whispered as he lifted his arm up to touch his wife's hand.
"Mom, he's come to!" Neinei shrieked excitedly. This was a rare sight for all three of them today, as Neinei had inherited some seriousness from both her parents.
"Zuko...how I missed you," said Mai, gazing down into his eyes.
"Mai," said Zuko. He did not return the smile right away, but blinked a few more times. "Neinei." Zuko was wide awake now. "Where's Aang?"
"He went back to the Cave of the Ancients to take care of something, Zuko," Mai said tenderly. "You needn't worry about that now, though. Just relax yourself and take some time to-"
She was cut off as Zuko ripped off his covers and stepped onto the floor. "We have to catch up to him. Aang needs us!" Zuko declared, now standing upright. "Aang's in trouble. Serious trouble."
"What makes you say that?" asked Mai, alarmed.
"While I was out – I learned some things," Zuko told her. "I saw the Moon Spirit. I had a lot of time to think about it."
"I was touched by the Moon Spirit, too," Neinei chimed in.
"So you were," said Zuko, seeing his daughter's new hair color.
"Is this really a good idea?" Mai asked him, biting her tongue. "You only just recovered."
"I'll be fine. I'm not one who needs worrying about right now," said Zuko. "Let's go – all of us."
"Me too?" asked Neinei, pointing to herself and raising one of her white eyebrows.
"Absolutely," Zuko said with a nod. "Aang will require more than one master firebender at his side for what he's up against." The Fire Lord surveyed the room up and down with his eyes. "Where can I find some new clothes around here?"
Nola was standing in center of the large archway, with its smooth, straight stony sides. This opening was the coveted mystical entranceway that led to the Cave of the Ancients. It was also where Aang was "eaten" by the Giant Wolf last time he was here. And today, it was Nola that he found, with her usual yellow-orange Air Nomad tunic, her legs spread apart, arms hanging loosely at her hips and the sharp bangs of her short, dark hair hanging over her eyes, covering her forehead entirely.
The Avatar stood in front of her, while Azula, the Dai Li, the Kyoshi Warriors, Tenzin, Kaddo, Vameira and the rest of his friends hung back, catching their breath and just s surprised as Aang was. None of them were expecting anyone else to be here.
"It's good to see you're alright, Nola," said Aang, grinning weakly. "How did you survive the destruction of the Southern Air Temple? I remember there were no more airships or sky bison by the courtyard. And all the old gliders were destroyed in the carnage."
"It was a long way down, but I was able to manage," Nola answered in her usual dry tone.
"That woman's voice sounds familiar," Gitsu whispered aside to Azula. Azula gave a simple grunt in acknowledgement.
"Hmm, guess she did survive," said Sokka, still short of breath.
"Guess so," Toph reciprocated.
"A lot has happened since we saw you last," Aang informed the woman before him. "We fought a six-sided battle at Omashu. I sent you a message, but I never got a response."
"I wanted to meet you now," said Nola, putting curtness into her answer.
"I see," said Aang, not sure what to make of her reply. "How did you know that the rest of us were coming to the Cave of the Ancients? Did you follow us?"
"No," Nola said simply and coolly. "I figured you would come here, though. I know you...better than you know yourself."
"That's a bold statement," Aang said with a faint trace of a laugh.
Nola did not smirk or return the Avatar's pleasantry in any way, shape or form. "I remember when I heard you were giving others bending abilities," she said, so that everyone present could hear her – not just Aang. "I was excited by the news, so naturally I came and sought you out, desiring to participate in your experiment."
"Come, let's walk and talk," said Aang, reaching out an arm invitingly and taking another step toward the cave entrance.
Nola gently shook her head. "We can speak fine here. Like I said, I was excited, but I was also confused, because that didn't sound like something the Avatar would do."
"Sorry, but can we talk about this later?" asked Aang, his smile fading. "We need to go into the cave. This has nothing to do with right now."
Nola shook her head again. "It has everything to do with right now." Nola kept on standing where she was, not moving a muscle below her neck. "As I was saying, giving out bending wasn't something I'd expect from the Avatar. In fact, it seemed like the antithesis of what the Avatar meant. It was all too good to be true. Nevertheless, I came to you; no explanation was needed as long as I got my bending abilities." Nola paused for a few seconds. "And then it all made sense. You were merely using energybending to rebuild your Air Nomads. I was quite disappointed at that."
Aang was now visibly impatient. "Look, we have to go into the cave now!" he snapped, annoyed. "If you aren't coming in with us, then step aside and let us through."
"Can't do that," Nola said calmly.
"I'm serious, Nola!" Aang reiterated.
"Can't do that," Nola repeated.
Aang did not understand Nola's behavior. He was reluctant to get violent with an old friend, but the way he saw it, he had no choice. Aang rotated his arms around in a sideways circle, manipulating the thin, high-altitude air currents, and built up momentum before releasing it all into the cave. But Nola did not move. It was like the air blast fizzled away when it reached the Cave of the Ancients entrance. Bewildered, Aang changed tactics and slammed the ground he stood on with both his fists. A sliced, chunky earth line formed and shot in the direction of Nola. The line of rock stopped right in front of her, though.
Aang gawked at the occurrence. "That's impossible..." Was the cave keeping itself unbendable like he kept his Avatar energy unbendable? Aang had sworn that he would never energybend again, but he did not see any other way. Reluctantly, he drew back and pushed forth an energy shove.
Nola appeared as unaffected by the energy shove as had been the case with the attempted airbending and earthbending. However, for the first time since they got to the cave, she altered her stance. Nola made a fist and rotated her forearm around, extended at a perpendicular angle in front of her chest, like she was tugging down on a long, invisible rope.
Aang felt unusually tired and light-headed. Initially confused, he then immediately realized that there was no usual bumping feeling when energy came back to him following the energy shove. The energy had not returned to his body!
"Nola, what...how?" said Aang, breathing heavily. "You're an energybender?"
"That's what I was getting to," Nola told him bitterly. "When I came before you all those years ago, I came wanting energybending, not stupid airbending!" Nola smirked at Aang's flabbergasted expression. "Don't act so surprised, Avatar Aang. I told you multiple times that I wanted energybending."
"I know you asked for it," said Aang. "I never gave it to you, though."
"You did," said Nola. "While you were imprisoned at the Southern Air Temple."
That was a night Aang wanted to forget: Azula betraying and torturing him, worrying about Vameira's safety every second of the way, all of it. Apart from that, he had seen a series of visions with Katara, his children, Azula, the New Air Nomads and Nola. Unlike the rest, the dream with Nola featured him back in his cell – and it seemed so real. Apparently it was real. Everything was blurred when he was under the syrum – and he was rendered dazed and compliant – compliant enough to be coerced into doing anything. Now he knew why he had been reminded of the day he gave Trinley airbending – Nola had made him give her energybending.
"I had been trying to get energybending from you for a long time before that," said Nola. "When you first offered me airbending, I took what I could get, all in the hopes that one day I could find a way to get you to give me energybending. So, I joined up with your quaint bunch of misfits and patiently bode my time until the opportune moment."
"How can you speak that way about your own people?" Aang asked her.
Nola frowned, her orbs remaining harsh and sharp. "The Air Nomads are not my people; they have never been. I merely stuck by your side and gained your confidence and trust, all for the end that you'd give me energybending one day. Either I would have to convince you or if I waited long enough you would drop your guard." Nola winced, as she had been greatly peeved at this point in her story. "Finally, when you came to rescue your daughter and wound up captured yourself, I seized the opportunity to have you pass it onto me. Then, once I had the gift myself, I was able to pass it on to the rest of my people."
"Your people?" asked Aang, stunned.
"Wait, I know where I remember you from!" Gitsu called out. "Sister Joo Dee?!"
"Yes," confirmed Nola. "That is a name I sometimes go by." Nola turned back to Aang. "A long time ago, your first incarnation defeated my people in a war that lasted for a millennium. We lost our bending and went into hiding. Isolated from world and stripped of our power, we kept the knowledge of how to perform the moves of energybending alive from generation to generation in an unbroken chain. For millennia, each generation taught the next how the moves work, longing in vain to be able to perform them for real. So we sought a way to get back what you and the spirits took from us – and destroy you once and for all." When they had fought the pirates in the Fire Nation, Nola faked an injury so that Aang would try the move with Trinley and not her. She knew what Shuten Shogai would do, so she wouldn't be part of it herself.
The Avatar said nothing. He couldn't believe this, after having known Nola and called her a friend for so long. Aang waited for her to say "just kidding", but she was perfectly serious. Nola had never really had a sense of humor.
"For many ages, we thought removing you from the world was the first step to undoing your work and restoring our own order," said Nola. "But then something happened that made us change our mind."
"And...what was that?" asked Aang.
"We heard that the Avatar himself was giving out bending abilities, something only energybenders were known to do," Nola explained. "This caused us to change our plans and shift gears. If you were giving out one form of bending, that meant it was possible for you to give any of the others as well. That made you our key to gaining energybending once again, as long as we could find a way for you to give one of us energybending, whether through covert persuasion or capturing you alive and coercing you to pass on the gift. I tried the former while in the New Air Nomads, but you were stubborn, so it began to look like the latter was the only option. Our people had been patient for a long time, and we would be patient a little longer in the peaceful years. In the end, you would only be open to trying new experiments with energybending when you were desperate. It was what made you start in the first place: with one element all but extinct, the Avatar energybends to restore the population. Gradually, delving into temptation should lead to more energybending, which furthers one's own corruption and descent into the art, making them more open to making a new energybender. But that wasn't enough for you."
"That's why you tried to capture me, then," Aang retorted. "So you people could force me to give out energybending."
"Exactly," said Nola, showing her teeth in triumph. "Being the Avatar, though, you were a tough one to capture, so we did what we could do while still powerless to prepare ourselves for when our time came. We advocated more energybending to further its power and imprint in the Physical World. We also gradually pit the factions of the elemental bending world against one another, so they would be unable to oppose us when the time came. Sending the world into disarray would make it easier for us when the time was right to accomplish our ultimate goal: to return the world to chaotic energy and become the rulers of the unbalance.
"The famine in the Fire Nation provided an opportunity to disrupt the peace there. We had our members stationed throughout the lands to organize the revolt by the dissidents and hungry peasants. People are easiest to manipulate when they're desperate. The same was true in Ba Sing Se. Those we aided, we asked to help us capture the Avatar, so we were still closing in on our ultimate goal."
"And your people attacked Toph and Zuko?" questioned Aang.
"Yes," Nola confirmed. "The Queen of Omashu, to deny you a decisive early victory in the Fire Nation Civil War. The Fire Lord, to send the nation into anarchy and prolong the conflict further." Nola smirked at the Avatar and his bewildered comrades as she went on. "And just like with the people of the Fire Nation and Ba Sing Se, it was when you were at your most desperate that you were most easy to manipulate. I continued to try to persuade you to give it to me on your own accord, but my efforts were in vain. You would never have done it willingly. Even as corrupted as you were after using Shuten Shogai, you were too stubborn to go just one more level of corruption. I eventually decided to make you even more desperate and open to corruption by handing your daughter over to the Dai Li. You weren't desperate enough to energybend in your initial infiltration, but you were captured by the Air Nation, and they used the syrum I gave them on you, which allowed me to coerce you to give me energybending – something that you never would have done willingly. At long last, my task was complete."
"Indeed it was, Sister Joo Dee." Another familiar voice sounded from around the corner of a large rock-face, obscured from the front of the Cave of the Ancients entranceway. Appearing from behind the boulder, in his black-bandaged outfit, was none other than Brother Memnon.
"And like I said," Nola added. "Once I finished playing the role, I left the temple and spread the gift around ."
Like Brother Memnon before them, several more members of the Sages Bane came out from behind the surrounding rocks, into view. Aang could see forty or fifty of them with a quick look, though there could easily have been more of them. His heart plunged as the truth sunk in. Every single one of them was now an energybender!
"And I played the part well. You never suspected me even for a second." Nola glowered pretentiously. "Actually, one person did suspect me: Shao. He took notice of my long absences and seemed to know I was up to something. Later, when you were captured, he saw me in the cell telling you to energybend me. He would've told you and allowed you to foil the plan before I had given the gift to anyone else, so I had to kill him." Aang could tell that Nola took pleasure in saying the last part. He remembered in the lower area under the Southern Air Temple Trinley informed him that Shao had to tell him something important. They had found Shao's dead body later on, after saving Vameira. A minute later, they had run into Nola – no wonder she hadn't airbent when they saw her. "I had wanted to kill you right then and there too, but I couldn't get away with it yet. Before confronting you directly, I had to escape and reach my people to grant them the gift. Killing Shao was a thrilling experience – my first act with energybending. Now that I had gotten the gift back and become the first of my line to energybend in eons, I could not expose myself and risk losing it again while it was fragile and in the hands of one person. I had to be patient for a bit more. That was no trouble. We know how to be patient...and secretive."
Aang looked back around at his companions. Sheer disbelief and shock showed on the faces of Tenzin, Kaddo, Vameira, Trinley, Toph and Migo.
"At the end of the day, everything went just as we planned." Nola grinned maliciously. "You understand now, don't you? We have at last reclaimed the gifts of our ancestors – thanks to you, you of all people. Now, we are ready to bring down the four nations and reassert our domination in the world. Thanks to you, we are unstoppable."
TO BE CONTINUED...
- Ironically, Nola is slate to play the part of Joo Dee in the film adaptation of The Last Airbender 2 in .
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