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Ep.14: Cold Shoulder
Chapter information
Series

Book Seven: Order

Chapter

14

Written by

Gingalover

Editor(s)

Gingalover

Chronology
Last chapter

Ep.13: Hall of Tortured Souls

Next chapter

Ep.15: Dreams of Judgement

"Coming in for a landing."

The airship made its course as it tried to do since getting their main passenger from the Spirit Portal, and off to the Ba Sing Se Capital. It had been a lucky catch for those on board, especially for one particular passenger. With clear skies for the morning, and clear landing pad, the airship touched down onto solid ground. After the hatch went on to open up, Zikara stepped out from the airship, to be greeted by Vintana and Amon.

"Zikara. Good to see you return," Vintana said, Zikara hugging Vintana on seeing her.

"Great to see you again. I was so worried about you," Zikara said. Vintana hugged her back for a short bit until the two released.

"No need to worry anymore. Did Korra hurt you too much?"

"No, I'm fine. Hungry most."

Vintana giggled.

"Then come inside. The chefs are cooking up brunch right now for you," Vintana said. Zikara happily went on inside the palace, as Vintana turned to the attendants.

"Did Korra give you any trouble?"

"Korra wasn't even there, only this blue water boy. He just handed her over to us without a fight."

"OH. El Niño then? Yeah, that would be something that naive spirit would do. You can relax until further instructions."

The attendants agreed, and Vintana went on inside to join Zikara. The idea that she was just handed over though was a little bit interesting, if not just off. Why would they just give her up like that? This was something she had to look more into.

~~

Meanwhile, off in the Spirit World, the Red Lotus and Team Avatar continued off on their given path for these staffs. They got two so far, with Kuvira and Mako now having their regular abilities back. Pretty good thing that was figured out: now they have a better reason to get these sort of staffs while going through. Kuvira's gave her her Earthbending back, and Mako's got his Firebending, so who's to deny that whatever staff coming next will give back more bending? Their involvement with Tyson earlier, although helpful for the humans trapped in that arena of his, did leave them a bit bruised up, so it'll be some time for them to heal up, even if they had time while resting at the outcrops.

The area they ended up in shifted again, from the rocky outcrops of Tyson's arena, to more open plains and scrublands. Trees were hardly evident this time around, the location wide open for any breeze to blast at them. Speaking of wind, the gusts were fairly cold, and there was actually frost on the shrubs, indicating that wherever they were going, it was going to get colder from there. Unlike before, they had a fire to work with thanks to Mako, making a small fire to warm them up for a little. None of them can bend water yet, but Kuvira had it covered: just a drop of earth and their good. Most of the group stuck around by the fire to keep warm, except for a very selected few. Some were okay with the cold, like Korra, P'Li, or Ziyou, but others just weren't used to it by any means, getting chilly.

"We going any further north?" Ming-Hua asked. She had no arms to at least hug herself for warmth, but she tried to keep from showing it. Mako looked over at the map for a moment. Looking to the map, they were still pretty low south from the staff point.

"It'll be a while before we get there, Ming-Hua. We still gotta keep going north," Mako said. If it's this cold now, she could only wonder how cold it'll be when they go off to the north. Bolin saw that Ming-Hua was upset, and sat down next to her.

"Getting cold?"

"No, I'm fine," Ming-Hua quickly said. She didn't need any of that, though she honestly was getting chilly. Still, the armless girl just sat there. Even if she said no, she felt a hand rub against her back. Looking back, she saw it was Ghazan doing it. Ming-Hua just sighed roughly, and let him do it. Not like she could stop him anyway, plus it was warming her up, even by a little bit. Still, even with this catch, something else suddenly presented itself to the group ...

"Wait. Anyone seen Ziyou?" Jinora asked.

Ziyou had disappeared from the fire for the moment, and the others couldn't seem to see her anywhere. Korra though, knowing her twin, could probably take a guess on where she had ended up really. Korra looked around, and she saw plenty of large shrubs that Ziyou could easily take her outpost in, playing a little pouncing game like a cat would do.

"Ziyou, come out of those shrubs, we know you're there," Mako called. However, the girl didn't respond. In fact, no response was evident in any of the bushes anywhere.

"Ziyou, you there?" P'Li called.

Still nothing. Strange.

The group began to wonder if they actually left Ziyou behind at some point. They don't recall doing so, and she was just with them minutes prior. It was oddly quiet too amongst the frost-covered plants. They heard the wind blowing against the plants, but that was about it ...

"RAAAWWWRR!"

Suddenly, Ziyou stormed out on all fours, pouncing right at Ghazan! Ghazan though caught her early, and ducked out of the way. Ming-Hua however was tackled, both landing onto the ground, with Ziyou on top of her. It wasn't an attack, per se, but it was still fun on Ziyou's part.

"Gotcha!"

"What was that for?!" Ming-Hua snapped, as Ziyou got off of her.

"Just having a little fun," Ziyou chuckled. She tried to help Ming-Hua up, but she pushed her away, and just managed to get herself up on her own feet. It'd been WAY too long for Ziyou to do that.

"Yeah, nearly killing me. Real fun," Ming-Hua sarcastically groaned, rolling her eyes.

"You found it fun making chaos," pointed out Ziyou. Ming-Hua just got frustrated, and started going off ahead of the group.

"Alright, let's go. We rested long enough," Ming-Hua advised.

"Ming-Hua, don't be like that. You have to admit, Ziyou got you pretty good," Ghazan said, finding it funny himself. Ming-Hua didn't answer him, the armless girl embarrassed more than most. Korra though got up and went over to her, as Ming-Hua kept walking.

"Everything okay, Ming-Hua?"

"Yes, everything's fine, now quit bugging me and let's go. Those staffs aren't going to collect themselves," Ming-Hua insisted, continuing up ahead towards an upcoming hill. The others decided to just do so, and as they got ready to head off again, Ming-Hua got to the top of the hill. When she did, she continued on a little bit until something in the distance caught her eyes. It was rather far ahead, good fifty feet or so, though she still saw something moving and going about a little bit. The rest of the group caught up to see it coming their way (one of them was, anyway). The beast was quite large, and rather shaggy in the coat. In fact, the coat dangled down almost to the point of dragging along behind it. The structure of the animal actually looked like an elephant; large and stocky, but the fur was a thick brown mixed with white and orange, and the patterns mimicking that of a St. Bernard. The ears were smaller than a normal elephant, and the tail looked like that of a dog. It also had the paws of a large dog as well. Clearly, this animal is a hybrid of sorts, though that was nothing special as far as their world's fauna goes. However, the appearance of the animal alone wasn't what had it stand out, but instead it was that it was wearing a necklace of midnight blue stones, Lapis Lazuli stones most likely. The size was a bit off putting, about as large as an Eelhound, and five times as robust.

The animal steadily marched right over to them without fear, which alone was worrying for animals like this, and Mako and Kuvira stood in front. They were the only ones who had bending, and therefore, best at fighting if this beast wanted one. However ...

"Salutations."

So, the animal can talk. Okay then. The voice matched that of an older women, shaman maybe.

"So, you can talk?"

"Only me. Seeking the staffs?"

"How'd you know?" Questioned Kuvira. The animal just had to gently touched the stones on Kuvira's head to give her the answer.

"Oh. Right."

"I hope the last two didn't trouble you too much," the elephant hoped.

"It's fine. So you're the next guardian for the other staff, I'm guessing. So come on, what's the -"

"I'm not the guardian. If you are heading this way, there isn't a staff guardian to speak of," informed the animal. They all got a little puzzled, some suspicious towards Kuvira, who had guided them this way anyway.

"B-But the staff on the map here, it said its this way," retorted Kuvira.

"I never said there isn't a staff there. The trial itself is too dangerous to require one." That especially got to their nerves. What sort of trial was so dangerous that this staff didn't even need a guard? Tyson before was enough of a danger, so whatever this one was, it surely had to be a deadly one.

"... And, where is it?" Korra asked.

The elephant turned, and aimed her trunk over to the north, where the map was showing them anyway.

"Your world has the Si Wong desert, if I remember right. In the Spirit World, it's known as the Everstorm Desert. It's a merciless land: horrid cold, and freezing winds ... Many souls were lost amongst the dunes."

"So the staffs somewhere there. Wait, how do you know?" Ziyou wondered.

"My herd migrates through there. In fact, we're just about to go on through in a bit. Care to join? I sense we're heading the same way," she offered. It was a good break from the usual, more ruthless residents of the Spirit World. Now they come across a kind soul willing to help them through the desert for the third staff, which by the sound of it, could probably be Water related. For Ming-Hua, that was something she especially hoped it to be. If Kuvira and Mako got their bending back, she can get hers back too!

"It might be for the best," Korra decided. The animal nodded, and began to bring them off back to her herd. It surely was kind of the matriarch to allow them to join up with the herd for going through. It'll probably be better for them anyway after what they had been through so far.

"So, we're following elephants through a wasteland," Ming-Hua recapped.

"Compared to a one-night massacre, AND a duel with a slave driver, this'll be a walk in the park," Bolin said, feeling better about things. Well, they might as well try it.

The large animal brought them right over to her herd in a short time. The members, much like a regular Elephant herd, are made up of mainly female: sisters, aunts, mothers, and young calfs. An extended family, with the elder being the matriarch bringing them in. All of the members were bigger than they were, apart from the young yearlings of the group, though they can still be ridden on if they wanted to.

"Nice herd you have here," Korra said, as the Matriarch took some grass to eat.

"Thank you dear," the animal said, her trunk gently rubbing her head. The others might as well get used to the herd, mainly because they know where to go, and could be much safer than what they had been doing. Perhaps they got the wrong idea though, as Bolin and P'Li went over to one of the animals grazing.

"Alrighty, need help getting up?" P'Li asked.

"Think I got it," Bolin said. The animal though was a bit tall, and Bolin tried to get up onto her back. P'Li and Bolin though got a little surprise when the same animal knocked Bolin off with her trunk, the big boy landing on P'Li. She kept on her feet, catching Bolin, though squatting a bit.

"Hey, no fair! ... You're strong, P'Li."

"And you're heavy, Bolin," P'Li commented.

"I'm a growing boy," retorted Bolin. P'Li released him, Bolin landing on his rear though rather than his feet. The Matriarch walked over to them soon after that.

"I'd appreciate it if you don't do that. My family doesn't like having riders," she advised. Bolin was annoyed, but didn't argue with an elephant. Neither he, nor P'Li, had their bending anyway. Nearby, The others saw them try to do so, hearing what the Matriarch had told them.

"Looks like we're not taking a free ride," Ghazan noted.

"It's not too bad; we got protection thanks to these girls, and no wind blasting at us," Ziyou replied.

"Good point. Also, I can make a fire if it comes to that," Mako added in.

"Perfect," said Asami.

Soon, the Matriarch felt the wind go against her fur. It won't be longer now. The Matriarch lifted her trunk up in the air, giving off a loud trumpeting to signal her herd. It was probably best Team Avatar got to them now, because for the herd, it's time to head off. The whole herd, and by extension the others, started to go away, and off to the north.

So it begins.

~~

Back in the walls of Ba Sing Se's palace, Vintana and Zikara both were enjoying Zikara's return. They were over in the dining room, where Zikara was enjoying a large dinner. Being stuck with El Niño so long without food would leave anyone a little ravenous.

"It's grateful to see you've returned, Zikara. But I do have to ask: why did El Niño just ... Handed you over?" Vintana asked. Zikara finished a bite of her food before answering her.

"He just gave me back? Must've thought I was dead after a while," Zikara figured. Far as her memory serves her, she didn't exactly recall much until she woke up in the airship. Vintana took it into consideration, for she knew Zikara wouldn't lie to her about something like this. Pretty soon, one of the guards ventured on inside the room.

"Queen Vintana, you're wanted by Unalaq," the guard informed.

"Oh, just give him a few minutes. Can't you see I'm spending some quality time with my dear?" Vintana said, as Zikara continued enjoying her meal. However, the guard was more persistent with the message.

"But, it's a bit important."

"Messages usually are to some people, now -"

"It's about Hundun."

Everything stopped. Hundun? Was he correct about that? Zikara halted her eating mid bite on hearing that, and Vintana got up on hearing that news, turning to the informant with a stern serious look.

"... Hundun, you say? You sure now?" Vintana questioned.

"Every word."

Vintana looked over to Zikara for one moment, and gave a sigh.

"Sorry, dear, I'll be right back."

.......

"Vintana, is that you?"

Soon, Vintana was on the phone, and with Unalaq on the other end. She hadn't had a talk with Unalaq in a while since she took over the throne.

"Ah, Unalaq. And how is it back at the poles? Is Desna giving you any trouble at all? I can give you some extra guards if it's any help."

"Nice offer, but no. Desna is doing alright with everything, but that's not why I called you. The informant told you?" Unalaq asked. He sounded strangely strained in tone.

"Hundun. Yes. What's the issue with him?"

"It happened a few days ago: I went to check on the Spirit Portal, and here was this strange man coming out of the portal. He asked me about your whereabouts, but I gave him as little as possible."

"Smart move, Unalaq."

"Maybe, but he ... Well, best if you just come here and see for yourself."

"You can't come here, Unalaq?"

Strangely, the connection cut off from there. Well, Vintana might as well please him.

~~

Time ticked on for both sides in this scenario: Vintana heading off to the North Pole, and Korra along her path with her friends in the Spirit World. Speaking of, the Teams off in the Spirit World didn't take all too long until they start to see the savagery of the Everstorm Desert. As day moved on to night, the plains turned to less forgiving terrain of icy dunes, and snowfall. While looking very pretty, as for survival, it's surely something that is hardly bearable. And with no protection of the wind aside from anyone in front of you, bone-chilling is just scratching the surface. As for that surface, the ground underfoot was smooth much like actual sand in a sand dune, only hard as ice. This also made any ice patches hard to locate, and even more so by the snow itself (which by the by, was coming down hard). For the herd, it wasn't that much trouble, but for Team Avatar and the Red Lotus, it was a bit of trial and error the whole time keeping up with the herd.

Easy to see why a staff guardian wasn't necessary for this staff.

That night, it was time to sleep for the herd. The elephants actually dug out ditches for themselves as protection against the freezing wind and snow. For Team Avatar, their answer was similar, and dug out by the Matriarch for them all to fit, but Mako helped to make up a fire to keep them warm through the night. The fire itself was hard to make with what they had on hand (namely mammoth fur) but it'll have to do.

"Geesh, and here I thought the poles were freezing. I'm surprised other people made it this far," Bolin said, shivering a little bit.

"Just be glad we're still here. Who knows, maybe we'll find the next staff tomorrow morning," Korra said.

"I hope so."

"Relax will you? It's not that bad out here," P'Li said.

"You kidding me?" Ziyou commented.

"It can be worse, you know."

"Oh, how do you -" Ziyou suddenly stopped herself when P'Li looked her down, eyebrow raised. If anyone would know about coping with the cold, it would be the Red Lotus member who'd been shoved in an ice cell for years.

"... Oh. Right. Sorry."

"Don't worry about it, doesn't bother me anymore. That time in there made me stronger actually."

"Stronger? Stronger how?" Asami asked.

"I didn't get sore in there for one thing, and grew more durable. Just naming a few."

"How does that make sense?" Ziyou questioned.

"It could happen. I mean, Aang survived being frozen in an iceberg for a hundred years, after all," Korra said. Avatar Aang didn't tell her that herself, but Tenzin did say something about it if she remembered right.

"Point taken."

Suddenly, they all heard a decently loud sneeze, coming from Ming-Hua. Out of all of them, Ming-Hua was having the worst of it when it comes to dealing with this cold, but the armless women hadn't said a thing about it yet.

"Still having trouble, Ming-Hua?" Zaheer asked. Ming-Hua turned away.

"I'm fine, it's just a sneeze," Ming-Hua insisted. Ziyou took a closer look at Ming-Hua's face, which was annoying the waterbender.

"Look a little under the weather there."

"I said I'm fine," Ming-Hua groaned, but another sneezed went right out onto Ziyou, the girl jumping back and wiping off her face fast. Ming-Hua shook her head to keep herself focused (and remove any snow from her hair if there was any)

"Take it easy, Ming-Hua, she's just checking in," Ghazan insisted.

"I don't care what she's trying to do. Ziyou, mind your own business," retorted Ming-Hua.

"I'm just trying to help," Ziyou replied, though getting annoyed herself.

"I don't need your help! I'm a strong girl, I don't want help from some wild child."

Now things were starting to escalate.

"What's that supposed to mean?"

"Exactly what it sounds like, you idiot. Pouncing on people, running on all fours, what kind of life did you live in?"

"Hey, hey, HEY! I've been through a rough life before I found my twin: hunting my own food, trying to avoid being food, year in, and year out, since I was five! So yeah, unlike you, I'm a survivor!" Ziyou yelled. Ming-Hua jumped to her feet.

"Unlike me?! Do you even know who you're talking to?! Look at me; born without arms!! my whole life had been hard compared to all of you!"

"OH, haha, yeah, it's SO HARD to sit around in a box for years in your prison. A REAL struggle, that one. Bet being spoon fed's must've been torture too?" Ziyou mocked. Ming-Hua was getting really angry now, getting right to the girl's face, gritting her teeth. The others were getting a bit concern.

"Shut up! I'm a ton stronger than you'll ever be!" Ming-Hua snapped.

"Can I say something?" Mako asked.

"NO!!!" The two snapped back, silencing him.

"I can beat you, anyday!"

"Oh, really? I didn't need bending when I was gone for the longest time, pal, and I still can easily kick butt better than plenty of other people!"

"Guys, stop!" Mako insisted.

"I CAN STILL FIGHT!"

"Well come on, then! Prove it!"

"Oh no," Asami commented. Before anyone could stop them, Ming-Hua suddenly rammed Ziyou back away from the fire, into the wall of the ditch. Korra and P'Li suddenly got up and tried to stop them.

"Guys, stop it!" Mako yelled, but Ziyou and Ming-Hua didn't listen, and they continued their scuffle. Korra tried stopping her twin, but it was hard to hold her back. P'Li found hers a bit easier, but still not easy altogether. Mako was getting a bit angry himself, and Zaheer and Bolin were starting to sense it. They moved whoever wasn't fighting out of the way just before ...

"I SAID THAT'S ENOUGH!!!!"

Mako's scream followed by the fire suddenly exploding into an inferno tower, blasting the fire hundreds of feet skyward. Some of the mammoth hybrids were startled upon noticing the fire shooting upward, and it caught the Matriarch's attention. Ming-Hua and Ziyou stopped, scared outta their wits, and P'Li and Korra released them. Mako tried to calm down, panting out of anger.

"Now listen here, we're going through enough trouble as it is. May I remind you our world's under control by Vintana right now, and we nearly died getting this far! So maybe, just maybe, we can not try to kill each other beforehand, get some sleep tonight, and get through this tomorrow. Alright?" Mako said. The fight stopped itself dead cold (no pun intended), and the two stopped their squabbling.

"Let me make it clear to everyone: I'm not vulnerable. I'm NOT a weakling. I'm still strong, and I will not be treated like a child, got it?" Ming-Hua made clear.

"We understand, but there's nothing wrong with asking for help. However, we'll not bother you much if it helps," Asami said, though many of them knew that it might not be a good idea. Especially in a harsh place like this. There really wasn't anything wrong when asking for help, yet Ming-Hua apparently didn't see that. Unfortunately, Ming-Hua could see that as well, but she just sighed rather than pointing it out.

"That's better."

"Pardon me."

The matriarch got their attention after a bit, the elder creature hearing what happened. The rest of her herd calmed down, but she needed to check in anyway. Mako was a little embarrassed now.

"Sorry about that."

"Everything alright over here? You startled my whole herd, you know."

"We're better now," P'Li said. The Matriarch nodded.

"Ah. Yes. Well, sleep well, everyone," the matriarch said, walking away.

~~

It wasn't very long until the group went off to sleep. The Everstorm was starting to rage now, but with the fire, and block from the wind, the others were alright overall. The fire itself was slightly weaker, the fur burned a bit more than they wanted it to, but it still worked well. Some, depending on who, slept closer together for warmth...

However, one person didn't sleep. Not quite. Ming-Hua kept herself by herself from the others, even if it was a little colder for her. One advantage though was that it kept herself out of hearing range. The armless bender sat up from her spot, and took a look over to the others. Some were close to the fire, some were cuddled together for warmth. Ming-Hua made sure they were truly asleep by this point, checking in on the closest people: Asami and Korra. The two were close together, and they appeared deeply asleep, so it seemed alright.

Ming-Hua had enough.

Quietly as she could, the women staggered up into her two feet, and crept off as quietly and as steadily as she could. Each step was done with extra precision, and delicately executed to not make a sound. She stopped for one little moment over to the rest one more time, before she began to pull herself out of the ditch. Not too easy without arms, but she just managed to ...

"I'm not weak," she thought.

Just before soldiering on into the Everstorm!

.......

Ming-Hua herself kept going on northward, getting a head start from the others. The sort of snowstorm, as it was probably expected, hammered down on her with relentless abandon. So long as Ming-Hua just continued going on north, she should be just fine in one regard. Surviving the storm was a different matter though. Unlike before, she had no extra protection against the wind and biting frost, and without any arms to remotely block it off, the icy frost stings. Ming-Hua kept her head down the best she could, and kept moving north step by step. The wind itself was extraordinarily strong, and Ming-Hua's walking was a struggle itself. All these factors against her, but Ming-Hua was not going to let it win.

"I will not fall for you. I'll show them, I'll show everyone I can do this! They think I can't? See who's laughing when I get that staff first."

That was her mission. If she got that staff before they could even get there, then that would prove once and for all that she had what it takes. The Everstorm though wasn't making it easy. Each blast of wind threatened to knock her off her own feet, and the freezing ice and snow stung her skin like dozens of stinging moth wasps swarming her. Once more, the snow made it nearly impossible to even see where she was going, the only thing she could see was just five feet in front at best.

"Come on," Ming-Hua growled, getting more and more upset. She just wasn't built for this kind of Arctic winter climate, and the Everstorm lets her know it. One extremely strong gust of wind finally whacked Ming-Hua off her feet, and without any support, she took the full hit of the fall. The fall knocked up more snow, covering her face of the stuff. The situation was becoming more and more critical, but Ming-Hua wasn't going to give up.

"I ... I can ..." She stubbornly growled. On the surface, this would be a brave and noble move on her part, but given the situation, it was a risk on her life she didn't have to take. She barely managed to get to her feet, shaking the snow off her hair and face, before moving forward again. She turned around quickly to try and see her footprints, to make sure she was going the right way, but they went away so fast, she could barely see them at all! Now she was in dire trouble.

"Oh great. Just great!" Ming-Hua groaned. The tumble made her a little disorientated, and the fall wasn't straight backwards, so how was she to head in the right direction now?! There was nothing for it: she picked a direction, and moved on from there. If it was north or not was anyone's guess, but Ming-Hua wasn't stopping now - too late to. Besides, even if she wanted to go back, what direction would that be anyway? She kept going a couple more steps, but suddenly her foot pressed down on some unsteady ice, and she ended up slipping forward, landing right down face first into the snow. Now she was getting worse as it were ...

"You."

Ming-Hua couldn't believe she would hear someone so well from where she was. Shaking off the snow again, she tried to get to her feet to see what the voice was. Once again though, the Everstorm didn't help.

"Who's there?!" Ming-Hua demanded.

"You're pride will be the death of you."

"WHERE ARE YOU?!"

"Everywhere."

The voice sounded oddly familiar, but she still couldn't see anything or anyone. Was it one of those souls lost in the dunes like the matriarch mentioned, or was it the Everstorm itself? Suddenly, another strong wind gust struck her, but during it, something slammed into her, sending her flying off to her left. The hit was so hard, it sent her head over heels a good twenty feet before landing on her side.

"My mother and father. You know where they are," the voice stated.

"I don't know what you're talking about -" another wind gust hit her, and the same thing whacked her square in the back, again sending her tumbling head over heels. Now, blood was starting to show up where she had been hit, the stinging from her wounds just as bad as the frost.

"YOU COWARD, WHERE ARE YOU?!" Ming-Hua shrieked. She began to feel the wind again, but she was starting to get the pattern this time, and she turned to face the wind, jaws wide open as she took a bite into ... Well, into something. She opened her eyes, finding that she was boring hard into someone's arm. On the hand, bloody metal claws were shown, which would explain the cuts on her. Ming-Hua followed the arm up to the owner, and she soon was eye-to-eye with the assailant.

Kirra!

"Where are they?" Kirra asked. Ming-Hua released her grip, but Kirra was quick to grab her by the throat. Ming-Hua tried to kick Kirra, but it was like kicking a brick wall.

"Like I should know, do you see them anywhere - ACK!" Ming-Hua was cut off when Kirra's grip tightened around her throat.

"Korra. Zaheer. My mother and father. I know they're here somewhere. And you are going to tell me."

"I ... Don't know ... Where they are!" Ming-Hua choked. Kirra got Ming-Hua's neck wrapped in her metal chain, and Ming-Hua was suddenly launched off out into the blizzard! Now Ming-Hua found herself being turned in the dirt, forcefully push off a good forty feet. Ming-Hua struggled to move, but Kirra raced at her so quick, she was almost a blur! Kirra slammed down hard with a returning fist, bashing her chest like a cannonball. Ming-Hua got to her feet, but the hit were draining her of what energy she had left. As if the cold, wind, and ice wasn't making it hard enough, but now she had open wounds, and an insane spirit on top of that.

She stood no chance without her bending.

Ming-Hua started to back up slowly, struggling to keep her footing, and Kirra walked closer to her. Unlike Ming-Hua, the Everstorm didn't affect Kirra in the slightest. In fact, Ming-Hua swore she saw the snow go right through her. What is Ming-Hua to exactly do? She couldn't fight her, and she couldn't run ...

And the worst was yet to come.

One false step, and Ming-Hua was suddenly falling from some unstable ice and snow! The moment was as shocking to Kirra as it was to Ming-Hua, as the armless women fell straight down, hitting the sides of the wall on the way. Kirra went to the edge of the sudden cliff, and she found that Ming-Hua fell down a fifteen-foot crevice. The revenue was made of pure ice, concealed by snow, and light rather limited. Only a little snow even got into the revenue due to the narrow opening. Ming-Hua surely looked dead, blood scattered in small drops around her, mixing with the snow. Kirra waited a bit until she saw Ming-Hua move, and sit up. Ming-Hua looked right back up to Kirra, seeing the situation she was in ...

Kirra began to leave.

"No. NO! GET BACK HERE!! KIRRA!!!!"

No response. Ming-Hua couldn't believe what she done to herself. She was cold. Tired. Bleeding. And unable to escape. The reality of the situation was too much for Ming-Hua to bare. She first panted.

Then her panting turned to heavy breathing.

Then heavy breathing turned to screams of agony.

"DON'T LEAVE ME TO DIE ALONE!!!!!!"

What came after were screams and wails of a completely broken-hearted creature. Deeply wounded, lost, alone, and a failure: the worst kind of breakdown mixture one could suffer. The worst part of it all? ...

Her screams couldn't be heard in the Everstorm ...

~~

Back at the camp, no one was aware of what had become of their member yet. Everything was quiet, and light was slowly starting to creep in on the herd for the morning sun. The first to wake up was the Matriarch herself, opening her old eyes to see the sun up, and her herd alright through the night. She got up onto her feet, and gave the trumpeting call to the rest of her herd. The herd started to wake up, and just as well, Team Avatar and the Red Lotus woke up themselves.

"Looks like we're going again. Everybody up," Zaheer said. Some though weren't as ready to get up just yet. However, Jinora began to do some head count of everyone, and she began to notice something. She saw the Team Avatar at full strength, but for the Red Lotus ...

"Where's Ming-Hua?"

It took less than a minute for everyone to realize what happened. Ming-Hua was nowhere to be seen! Not a single clue laid anywhere apart of a few footprints in the snow leading out of the ditch.

"M-Maybe she went to the bathroom?" Ziyou wondered. P'Li though was more real.

"You know why she left: she went after that staff. She thought she can brace it herself because someone had to fight her last night," P'Li accused. Unlike last night, the others got in the way a lot faster.

"Don't start arguing all over again," Kuvira said, "we got bigger problems. Ming-Hua's missing, doesn't matter who did what, we have to -"

"We have to keep moving," Zaheer suddenly cut in, already out of the ditch.

"What? You're just leaving her out there?" Korra retorted.

"She left during the Everstorm. If she did go after the staff, it's clear what happened to her ..."

"But we can't leave her out there. Come on, we have to look for her," Jinora said.

"Her troubles are over. That, and the herd won't wait," Zaheer said. Korra climbed up and saw the herd going on their way, already leaving them behind a bit. Zaheer was right: the herd will not wait for them to come around. If they are going through, they had to go now or not at all.

"Hey, hold up! Wait for us!" Bolin yelled.

"Dang. They're still going on their migration. Come on, let's catch up," Ziyou said, running off after them. They had to go now.

"What about Ming-Hua?" Korra asked.

"Zaheer's right, the herd won't wait on us. We gotta keep up or go home, and I got through too much to go home," Ziyou said, running off to join the herd. Korra felt this as a wrong approach to things. They don't know if Ming-Hua was dead or not for sure, and the situation had become critical. And she wasn't the only one thinking this.

"Well you go on then, Ming-Hua and I will catch up with you," Korra decided, heading off in a different direction.

"Korra, wait, you can't go alone," Asami said.

"We don't have time to argue. The herd is your only true shot to reaching the staff safely, just reach the herd. I promise all of you I'll be back," Korra said. Zaheer and Kuvira especially we're seeing the determination edged in her on her promise, and they both agreed.

"Good luck, Korra," Kuvira said. Korra nodded, and she went off away from the group. She used the footprints left by Ming-Hua in the ditch as direction, and followed straight after them, as the rest went after the herd. Of course, Team Avatar stayed with her, Ziyou and Jinora included.

"What're you doing?" Korra asked.

"No way we're leaving you, Korra. We've come a long way, we're not leaving you now," Bolin said.

"But the herd will leave you behind at this rate," retorted Korra.

"Not a problem; we'll just shoot up north and catch up later like you said. The others should be fine with the herd," Ziyou said.

"We're all behind you, you know. If you think we should find Ming-Hua first, then we'll be with you til the end," Asami said. Korra felt touched by her friend's devotion. They had gone through so much over the years, and who was she to stop them to join her this time? Korra smiled to her friends.

"Thanks guys. You're all the best. Now let's go find Ming-Hua."

~~

Out on the open dunes, nothing else seemed to be lurking around the area above ground, nothing but the frost being blown in the wind. The snow stood still against the test of time, and remained untouched on the surface. Even with the lack of animals, or spirits for that matter, something else was actually starting to disturb the snow dunes. It at first appeared like some sort of giant mole digging under the snow until.

"ACK! So c-c-cold."

Poking his head out of the snow, freezing cold, the spirit was actually El Niño! Ever since leaving the airship, El Niño had been going up and down, looking for the others to tell them the news. The first few spots were fine, but one thing the water spirit didn't like was the cold. It made him slower, and less graceful than he'd normally be in a typical situation. Here though, El Niño was just hoping to find them soon before he turns to ice.

"Humans! Where are you? To think humans can live in these conditions," El Niño said, as he hunkered down into the snow, and kept going. At least underground he won't be in the cold wind, at the best in his situation. El Niño kept going through the snow dunes like a mole. As he kept going though, his digging ended up getting him into another little mishap. At one point, he ended up poking his head out of a bend in the path, finding himself right at a cliff. He ended up falling down though, landing right at the bottom of the revenue. The fall was a minor one, and he got right back on his feet in a pretty short time. El Niño was about to climb up when he felt something scrape his foot. It didn't feel like snow, or ice, like he'd been feeling. The spirit looked down and saw that a foot poked out from the snow.

"Huh?" El Niño, curious, used his tentacle to pull out whoever was under the snow, only to find Ming-Hua! She looked severely cold, skin pale, but still alive.

"Oh, hi Ming-Hua. Where're the others?" El Niño asked, suspecting nothing wrong. Ming-Hua slowly turned her head. Her face had tears that ended up frozen on her face, leaving ice streams down her face.

"... El Niño? You pathetic spirit." Ming-Hua said slowly.

"I just asked a question."

"Don't you see anything wrong with me?" She groaned. El Niño looked her over a bit more. The cuts had healed up at this point, her skin freezing, and she didn't try to get up.

"Aside from no arms? Well your clothes look torn a little."

"Really?! I'm dying down here!" Ming-Hua yelled, though strained in tone.

"How? Just climb out of here with your water arms."

"I can't."

"Why not? Get chi-blocked or what?"

"No. These areas. They won't allow us to bend here unless we have the staffs ... I can't bend."

El Niño looked pretty confused now. He can work his own out just fine, why can't she?

"Who told you that?"

"You stupid ice water. Does it matter who told us?"

"I ... Guess ... Not? You humans believe anything you hear, don't you?"

"Why are you even here? ... You're supposed to watch Zikara."

"She's dead," El Niño said bluntly. Ming-Hua was a little quiet on hearing that.

"... Oh ..."

"Right. Think you could get up?" El Niño asked. Ming-Hua didn't try to get up since collapsing in misery last night. Still, Ming-Hua tried her absolute best to get her stiff legs working properly. Each move was a constant struggle, and El Niño simply sat and watched her without a word. It took Ming-Hua a long time, using the wall as leverage, but she finally balanced herself up on her feet.

"Okay okay. So, you think you can get out?"

"I'm weak, I'm not helpless," Ming-Hua made clear.

"You know where the others are then? I should tell them that too."

"I don't know, nor would it matter ... I'm just going to die down here. Alone, with the dumbest spirit ever."

El Niño felt insulted.

"You know where they are or no?"

"Why don't you fly around out of here and be done with it!" Ming-Hua didn't want any of his company. Even if it might help, El Niño just didn't get it. El Niño sighed, but rather than fly, he swung his arm up the cliff, and pulled himself up that way. Slower, but he didn't had the energy for a helicopter flight. El Niño got himself right at the top, and peeked out onto the snowscape again, but he didn't had to go far to find the others. Just twenty feet off, the others were looking around not too far away, trying to find Ming-Hua.

"HEY!" El Niño called, waving a water tentacle good and high for them to see him.

"El Niño?" Korra wondered. It did not take too long until the others arrived to him.

"El Niño, what're you doing here?" Asami asked.

"Looking for you. Zikara's dead, so I thought I should tell you," El Niño replied.

"Oh ... Well, anyway, we're trying to find someone right now. Ming-Hua. Had you seen her by chance?" Ziyou asked.

"She's right down there," El Niño said casually, pointing down to her. The others peeked down the cliff, just to see a pale Ming-Hua looking up at them.

"Ming-Hua, you okay?!" Jinora called. Ming-Hua didn't answer right away.

"El Niño, didn't you try to get her out?"

"Why? She didn't want any help getting out when I got here," El Niño said, turning away in a huff. Not the best response at the best time, but least he was honest about it.

"That's common sense," Ziyou dryly said.

"It's true though, she said she's not helpless."

"Do you honestly think she can get out of there?" Asami questioned.

"... Yes?"

Everyone looked to him, as if waiting for him to do something. El Niño saw the point after a bit.

"Well. Okay then, if you say so."

Then, like a fisherman casting a line, El Niño threw his tentacle arm down into the revenue. Ming-Hua felt the tentacle wrap around her chest, and El Niño began to lift her up. Since he was cold, the process was a lot slower, but eventually Ming-Hua was up on the same level as the rest of the team was. Ming-Hua fell to her knees, weak but still alive.

"You okay?" Asami asked.

"... Why did you come back for me?" Ming-Hua questioned.

"Because we're not letting you die out here in the cold," Mako said.

"But I abandon you all ... I tried my best to get the staff myself, and I couldn't even do that ... I wanted to show you that I have what it takes. Boy was I wrong," Ming-Hua said, feeling embarrassed more than anything. She tried, got beat up, and left to die. What a record.

"Ming-Hua, trust me, you don't have to prove anything. We know you're strong," Korra said.

"When I had my bending maybe, but without it ..." Ming-Hua felt a swell of emotion come up again, a new year joining her frozen stream on her face. Korra knew the problem, and she nudged her sister.

"Okay okay," Ziyou sighed, going up to Ming-Hua.

"Hey, Ming-Hua, look. I think we all know I owe you an apology. You survived an entire night out in an Everstorm, torn up no less, so it's clear you're a very tough girl."

Ming-Hua heard her clearly, but she didn't really had anything much to say.

"Yes ... Well ... I forgive you."

"Good. Now, I'm not gonna jump at ya this time. What do you want to do?" Ziyou asked. She'd been jumping the gun when it came to helping Ming-Hua out, so this time Ming-Hua was given a choice. As for the armless girl, she might as well give them a break ...

"I don't think I can walk very far ..."

"I gotcha," Bolin offered, turning around for her. Bolin was willing to carry her off, and Ming-Hua decided to just take it.

"Hey, El Niño, mind holding Ming-Hua to Bolin for a while?" Jinora asked.

"If you insist," El Niño said. With a quick mold of his own body into a simpler shape, Ming-Hua was put up to Bolin's back, El Niño in a ring wrapped around them. Bolin lifted her up easily, hoisting her up. She just sighed, feeling more relaxed than she had been in a while. She deserved it after what she gone through.

"Good, now shall we go?"

~~

Farther away, the elephant herd continued its march on ahead to their destination. For those who stayed (Zaheer, Kuvira, P'Li, and Ghazan), the walk along through the snow was a lot better in terms of weather, but their minds stayed back with the others. It sure had been a lot more quiet as well in their walk too, and they felt safer with the herd of elephants. Kuvira wondered the most on where the others were, or if they were doing any better in their search for Ming-Hua.

"Hey, how much further until we get there?" Kuvira asked the Matriarch.

"Still have a way to go dear," the matriarch said. Kuvira couldn't get much conversation very well to the other three, who past conversations with each other rather than her. Kuvira sighed, and slowed down a little.

"Still having some walk time, huh?" Ghazan asked.

"Yeah we do. Not sure how far, but hang in there," Kuvira said.

Still, fate had different plans for the herd.

The area the herd was coming up was more rugged, and the plains and dunes gave way to hills and valleys. Amongst these snowy landscape, something was keeping their eye sharp on the group. There were two creatures this time around, and both were larger than the humans were. Two large, white snow leopards, each with a set of caribou antlers on their heads. Two predators, eyeing the herd for stragglers. They began to stalk the herd, each large paw spreading out to avoid sinking in the snow. For those in the herd, it was too dangerous to just charge in head on, risk of getting crushed by tons of Harry pachyderms. The herd didn't even notice the big cats just yet, and as such were moving on without concern. The cats hunkered down, but one of them turned away from the herd to catch sight of something else looming, and closing in on the herd. Looking closer, the Snow Leopard Caribou saw that it was the other humans!

They were in the open.

"Wait for us!" Korra called.

Kuvira turned back and saw Korra and others, successful in their mission, and having Ming-Hua with them. Turned out, and probably lucky for them, Ming-Hua didn't go too far out of the way, and catching up wasn't as bad as they thought. For the large cats, they were nothing but sitting ducks, especially for Bolin and Ming-Hua. Both cats focused in on the group, and close in with a fast trot. It wasn't until they began doing that, that the others begin to notice the cats closing in.

"Oh no," Kuvira thought, immediately rushing back for them. Ziyou skidded to a halt on seeing the large cats coming their way, or rather, to Ming-Hua.

"Get Bolin and Ming-Hua in here, now!" Ziyou yelled. Bolin picked up the pace, and got to them just in time. Most of them expected the cats to rush in at them, but the pair slowed down and then stopped. Both cats stayed put, eyes locked on them.

"Why aren't they doing anything?" Asami asked.

"They're predators: they don't strike with odds against them. They go for the weakest only for the easiest kill," Ziyou explained, knowing from experience. As Ziyou thought, the cats didn't strike, but they did start to circle them. Some were scared, some were firm, but none of them ran off. Problem: they were standing still, and the herd was slowly moving away. They can't stand still forever. They had to get going at some point.

"We can't stay here. El Niño, can you go out?" Korra asked.

"What?! Why?"

"Just do it," she insisted. El Niño is a spirit, so this might give them a distraction to do. El Niño placed Ming-Hua down, and jumped out of the group. However, the cats didn't bother with him. Ziyou didn't want that to happen, and knew what they had to do next.

"Okay, here it goes."

"Ziyou!" Korra gasped.

Too late. Ziyou jumped out, and ran off fast for a bit, giving the cats the chance to get her. While it did distracted them, it wasn't enough to make them leave. The Snow Leopard Caribou had their target already. And she was standing right at the center.

"What the? They should be moving!" El Niño yelled. Ming-Hua managed to her own feet, and got her mind straight on the situation at hand. Her group were getting left behind, and two large predators circling them in order to get to the easiest prey ... And Ming-Hua could guess who that would actually be.

She got an idea. It was a long shot, but it was all she had.

"Ming-Hua, stay back."

"Stay still."

She moved out to confront the two predators. The Snow Leopard caribou growled in anticipation, but Ming-Hua wasn't looking at them at first. But when she did, her expression would make death itself shiver! Her eyes looked evil, irises small, deadly cross, and striking fear right in the predator's hearts. With her hair tossed over her face in strands, she looked simply insane, and horrifying! It was so much so, the two predators began to back up. Ming-Hua pushed her luck and took a few steps forward.

It was just enough to drive them away.

Ming-Hua took a deep breath to relax afterwards, and her face returned to normal.

"Whoa ... What did you do?" Bolin asked.

"Yeah, what did you do?" repeated El Niño. Ming-Hua swung her head around so her hair wasn't in her face.

"Just a little scare tactic," Ming-Hua said.

"Dang. You gotta teach me that," Ziyou said.

"It's the least I can do since you saved me back there. So, let's get going."

.......

Catching up to the herd was easy enough for everyone, and as for their walk, it actually wasn't much farther from where they were. It really was just twenty minutes as a matter of fact, but eventually their walking finally paid off. Their destination looked FAR more inviting than the desert plains, as this place was covered in pine trees and other vegetation. This was the place they were going all this way for.

"Alright, we made it," Asami said.

"And there is the staff, OH YES!" Ziyou beamed.

Sure enough, not too far in, the staff was literally sitting out in the open on a stone. Talk about easy. This staff in particular had two ice blue diamonds, intertwined in a sort of spirit energy that resembled the appearance of spirit portals. If that wasn't the staff, what would it be? Ziyou raced down first right to the staff, going past the herd to get to it. The others joined up, and as expected, the staff glowed slightly. It wasn't from Ziyou though, and she couldn't even grab it.

"Well, who else wants a crack at it?" Ziyou asked. A few others tried to get the staff themselves, but they didn't had much luck in getting it, their hands going right through it even. Since the staff was apparently made of direct spiritual energy, they couldn't get a grip on it. As they were trying, the Matriarch wandered over to them.

"Hello there. Is there a trouble?"

"If you must know, we can't even pick up the staff," Ghazan said. The matriarch sighed.

"Perhaps, if I were to suggest, that the staff will only be touched by the owner alone."

"Makes sense I guess, but -"

All of a sudden, they all got the same conclusion. There was one person who seemed to fit in their group to do so, and she herself didn't had hands to take it. Everyone turned to her, and Ming-Hua got the idea right away.

"Okay ... I'll try it."

She moved over to the staff, and the staff started to slow a bit brighter, the others moving out of her way. It was happy to see, but Ming-Hua couldn't pick it up for her lack of any arms. So she tried one more approach: she took a step on it. That took it: One flash, and the staff immediately fused with Ming-Hua and disappeared from sight. The evidence for the staff in her was a single diamond on her stomach. However, oddly, this transfer wasn't exactly the same as it was with the other two. Before, the staffs simply vanished and that was that, but this one took some extra time, and the smaller diamond of the two hovered in the air for a minute. The smaller diamond hovered around the group, and suddenly it rushed at one of them ...

Jinora!

This flash was smaller, but it still was an extra fusion in the regard, the small gem seen in between Jinora's eyes. Everything was quiet for a second.

"So, two people are the keepers? No wonder no one made it this far like we did," Ghazan said.

"No kidding," agreed Ziyou.

"How are you two feeling?" Korra asked. Ming-Hua was a bit quiet at first, but for the first time in a long time, her body and soul felt a lot stronger. Ming-Hua stepped down into the light snow, and some of it was actually starting to melt, and lift up. Next thing they knew, when Ming-Hua looked, she found her own water arms back to her. She smiled in satisfaction, and relief, to see her old weapons back again. Her water arms looked brighter than regular water, but they returned all the same.

"Congratulations Ming-Hua, looks like you're back at full power," Ziyou said.

"Yeah ... Yes I am."

They knew that they had to head off for the next staff soon, but Ming-Hua had one thing in mind first. Suddenly a devious smile crept up on her face, a smug grin, as she looked to Ziyou.

"... I don't like that look ..."

Next thing she knew, Ziyou was knocked down hard by a single whack of Ming-Hua's water arm, face shoved down into the ground in one brutal swing. Ziyou was dazed, and caught completely off guard as Ming-Hua picked her up by her feet so her head was on level with hers, but upside down.

"That was for last night," Ming-Hua said.

"Alright, fair enough."

~~

Back in the real world, Vintana was just beginning to arrive at the North Pole. The fly over to there was rather uneventful, but Vintana had kept her mind on the level with the situation. The North Pole itself didn't look too worse as it were. In fact, it appeared unaffected by the return of their once dead leader. Vintana's ship landed down over at the Capitol building. Vintana was the first to step out of the airship, alongside a few guards. A pair of Water Tribe guards arrived out to see her.

"Afternoon, Queen Vintana," one of the Water Tribe guards said.

"Very pleasant. And where might Unalaq be at? He sounded just slightly worse of wear, you know."

Before either guard could answer, they began to hear an odd sort of sound coming from the entrance, like a thump of a wooden stick. After a bit, the answer came walking outside: Unalaq himself. However, much to even Vintana's surprise, Unalaq did not by any means looked the same. For one thing he was weaker, and hunched over while holding himself up on a walking stick. At first, Vintana figured it was just his age catching up to him, but she began to notice something seep out of him, looking like some sort of smoke, or fog. One of his feet even appeared missing!

"There you are Unalaq. See Hundun ended up making a curse for you after all."

"Is that what this is?" Unalaq asked weakly.

"In a sense. We'll go inside and handle it, just try not to fall while going," Vintana instructed. Unalaq had no choice but to agree. If she knew what to do, then he had to comply before he fades away. Vintana though, while knowing what to do, had a little slight concern with the situation.

Not only was Hundun back.

But back, and stronger.

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