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|People of The Desert|
Book 1: Earth
|"The Si Wong is harsh, but if your perseverance is greater, then you can live comfortably"|
|— Shamo Tribe sandbender Thray to Kyoshi|
Kyoshi's hair was crisp from the dry desert air that blew continuously in her face. She held her sleeve against her forehead to block the oncoming sand that constantly flew into her squinting eyes and spitting mouth. The clothed men were moving their arms elegantly in a swirling motion, maintaining a fast speed across the dunes. Behind her, Kyoshi could make out Momzen unconscious on the deck, twitching every so often and covered in sand.
"He needs help!" Kyoshi screamed, tugging on the man's leg. He looked down at her with his beady eyes, his tanned skin and worn clothing was intimidating to look at. But she had to be strong. The Si Wong Desert was unrelenting and was no place for someone weak-spirited – these men were definitely not weak-spirited. They were ravaged by the sands and the sun, and the colours that scorched their eyes revealed signs of hardship and endurance.
"My friend needs help!" she repeated, this time with more defiance. As hard as it was, she stared at the man with as much confidence as she could muster without breaking eye contact. The rag over the man's mouth moved.
"We're taking you to our tribe," he replied. "He's been badly poisoned." Kyoshi looked back at her friend. Jin Jin was at his side, clinging to the surface of the boat with her large claws, and Tori was nestled in a corner to prevent herself from falling.
"Here. Wrap it around your face," the man said, handing her a tethered cloth stained with sweat and, from what she could see, dried blood. "It'll help." Kyoshi wrapped the bandage around her face and tucked the ends into the back of her dress. Suddenly her eyes relaxed, eased from the shade and shelter produced by the bandage. Her face was cooled and no more sand, like a thousand tiny daggers, sliced at her cheeks. She could, however, taste the sand in her mouth and spat it out into the rag, the muddy drool running down her chin.
"It takes some getting used to," the man replied, his brown eyes twinkling – he was probably smiling underneath the fabric, perhaps from the pool of wetness spreading across Kyoshi's rag.
"Do you know who I am?" Kyoshi asked softly, riddled with caution. These strange men who picked her up, who saved her, were savage in appearance – she couldn't think of one reason to trust them.
"You're Avatar Kyoshi," the man replied. "I'm Thray." He held out his hand and Kyoshi, still clinging to a railing for her life with one hand, shook it with her other. The man had a firm grip and his sandpaper skin, covered in calices, showed indications of wear and hard work. Thray lifted Kyoshi from the floor and directed her to a wooden railing on which to hold on to.
"Have a look at it," he said with tones of affection and awe. Standing up the wind was much more powerful and Kyoshi's hair flew and slithered behind her like brown snakes in a summer heat. The view was breathtaking. All that could be seen, in every direction, was orange and yellow. The sun poured down onto the glistening sands, crashing onto the burning colours like a powerful wave. The desert was astoundingly vast and not a sound, besides the whooshing of the boat, could be heard – no birdsounds or noises of civilisation. The sight and the large gulps of warm air was uplifting, invigorating and, above all else, provided some deep-rooted feeling of necessity and belonging in Kyoshi.
"It's amazing, isn't it?" Thray shouted, pulling down his mouth cover to be heard, uncovering a pointed chin shadowed in dark brown stubble. His lips were thin and dried pink, but he smiled nonetheless like any other person.
"It is!" Kyoshi replied from under her cloth mask.
"Have you tried sandbending before?" the man asked, his little eyes glowing juvenile.
"No. Never," she said frowning. "I can't even earthbend."
"We'll I'll teach you then. It shouldn't be too hard, it's only sand," Thray exclaimed, turning to face forwards to direct his crew. Kyoshi, her huge smile hidden behind the tattered cloth, wooed aloud over the howling wind for everyone to hear, happy things were finally getting on track. Happy that she finally had a teacher that wasn't evil or treacherous, like Nero and Pau, respectively. The sandbenders continued across the searing day and Kyoshi soon became accustomed to the continuous splashes of cutting sand. The temperature, which she would've normally been uncomfortable in, was relaxing as it mixed with the hissing roars of the speeding boat. She relaxed alongside the pale Momzen who was almost buried in sand, not needing to hold on to railing for support.
By nightfall the crew, consisting of about ten men plus Thray, had stopped, exhausted and sweating. They unloaded their things and set up a campsite, unwinding the bandages from their faces and sitting by a fire. Unlike the day, the night was cold and pitch black. No village torches could be seen lighting the darkness from a distance; it was just the eleven men, Kyoshi, Momzen and their animals alone in the never-ending expanse of the cooling Si Wong. Old, tough meat was cooked, or rather, blackened, and the men were laughing raucously from the ale they were drinking – their rowdy chuckles surging across the empty plain heard, probably, by lost travellers miles away. Throughout the entire night, though, Kyoshi deemed it most important to tend to Momzen. His eyes were clenched shut with agitation and a fever had consumed him like a raging fire to a tree. Thray walked over to the boat and climbed up to the deck and sat down beside Kyoshi.
"Do you think he'll be alright?" Kyoshi muttered, not bothered to sound rough. Thray sighed and ran his fingers through his windswept brown hair.
"If we get to my tribe by tomorrow then he should survive," he explained, tossing the matter around in his mind.
"And if we don't?" she asked, turning to him with horrified eyes. Thray shrugged sorrily.
"Then he belongs to the desert," he said, trying to put the boy's grave circumstances into less hard-hitting words. Kyoshi gasped. She thought she was going to be sick. The thought of her friend perishing so young, and so soon in their expedition, was sickening and depressing. She could barely hold back tears.
"Can't we go now, then?" she said over an oncoming sob. "Go before it's too late?"
"I'm sorry, Kyoshi, but my men are tired," Thray replied. "We've done everything we can to ease his pain and slow down the poison." Kyoshi nodded solemnly, jumping off the boat and onto the crunching ground.
"If it would make you feel better," Thray began. "We could start our sandbending training?" Kyoshi looked up at him. It was exactly what she needed. She nodded, pulling her hair back. They moved away from the campsite and boisterous men, Thray thrusting a torch into the sand for light.
"Okay," he started. "Take a seat." Kyoshi obeyed, immediately sitting down cross-legged in the sand.
"Loosen up, okay?" Thray smiled, his chiselled face shadowed by the angle of the torchlight. "Sand is the most basic form of earthbending. You need to think of each grain of sand as a rock or a boulder." Kyoshi listened intently, feeling the sand beneath her and crushing it in her hands with excitement.
"Just as an earthbender can move one rock at a time, a sandbender moves one grain at a time. The more experienced, the more rocks – the more sand," the man continued, taking the cool sand in his palm and looking at it as if it were a friend. As he spoke he lifted a single grain from his pile, and then the entire pile with ease. Kyoshi understood what he was saying. If Kyoshi could lift just one grain of sand, then she would be able to life one rock – taking it as just a large grain. She smiled and nodded.
"I think I get it."
"Then give it a go," he replied, gesturing to the ground. "Bend one grain for me." Kyoshi sat up straight. The man was blunt. She held out her hand, her fingers twitching, waiting, for some feeling to occur.
"I understand what you're saying," she said, her brow slowly turning down with frustration. "I just don't how to feel it. When do I know to lift my hand up?"
"I suppose it's," Thray stumbled, looking for the right words. "It's like a magnetism. You can feel your chi connecting with the energy of the earth. Focus your chi into your hand."
"Okay, let me just get my chi. Because I know what chi is," Kyoshi replied sarcastically. Thray smiled.
"Alright, I get it," he replied. "Chi is the energy benders apply to bending. Everyone has chi in fact. As an earthbender your chi is grounded and heavy. Once you feel that in your own body you can manifest it upon the earth." Kyoshi, with a puzzled expression, took a deep breath of the cold night air into her lungs. She held out her palm to the sand in front of her. She took another breath. She concentrated on her weight, the weight of her shoulders and the weight of her head; and the pressures of being the Avatar amounted on top of her too. She could feel the weight clog up at her feet; build up great force, a dam of mass. This heaviness then moved from her numbing feet and up her torso, now wafting lightly like a feather in her veins, and down her outstretched arm. Kyoshi could feel the pressure gathering in her palm. As she concentrated on a single grain of sand, her eyes growing sore from such acuity, the chi in her palm felt as if it burst from her hand and onto the grain, clutching it tightly with its heavy fingers. Thray obviously knew something was happening as he was grinning every time Kyoshi gasped at the sensations. Kyoshi slowly, carefully, raised her palm, maintaining the heaviness in her body. Just as she had guided so delicately, the single grain she had focused on moved up from the desert floor. Kyoshi inhaled with incredulity, her cheeks tingling with joy.
"That's the way," Thray supportively added, Kyoshi almost not hearing the man as she was in a bubble of her own wonderment. She was so proud of herself. Momzen would be so proud as well. She flung her arm sideways and the sand flew off into the night at high speed. Kyoshi's jaw dropped. She had not only earthbended successfully, but she had also fired her first projectile, albeit a single, harmless grain of sand.
"I better check on your friend again," Thray said, getting up. "Congratulations, though. If that was your first time properly bending then you're a natural."
"Will you teach me more?" Kyoshi asked suddenly, eager to learn greater techniques. Thray chuckled.
"We've got to get back to my tribe," he replied. "But there you can train with our master. She'll teach you everything you need to know. Right now, it'd be best for you to get some sleep." Kyoshi nodded at him, realising how tired she was from travelling, before he went to check Momzen's temperature. Kyoshi returned to the boat, too, climbing onto the deck and lying down next to Jin Jin. The poor thing was concerned and stressed and had been beside the unconscious boy day and night waiting for him to open his eyes. Kyoshi stroked the animal's fur to comfort her.
"It's alright Jin Jin," she whispered to the shirshu. "These people are our friends. Momzen's in capable hands." Jin Jin's nose snuggled onto Kyoshi's leg as the beast purred agitatedly. Kyoshi hugged it back, feeling the weight of the creature's head on her lap, reminding her of her recent lesson in earthbending. Filled with pride and satisfaction, Kyoshi was lulled into a pleasant sleep as Jin Jin stayed wide awake – hoping that Momzen would wake from his painful slumber.
The morning was burning. Bright pillars of scorching light sliced at the ground and any skin in its path as the boat was packed of its things – great barrels of meat and spice and bundles of sharp weapons and stolen goods. Kyoshi wrung a wetted towel of its water and placed it on Momzen's forehead. The delirious boy, eyes still clamped shut, groaned at the cool sensation that stung his temples. The men took their positions across the deck, which was almost double the size of Jin Jin, and began moving the sand from underneath. Kyoshi masked herself with the cloth as sand started to billow around the hull, flying up in scratchy plumes. She stood up and watched as the desert, all of which looked exactly alike, passed by. The blue sky cascaded above and light clouds tumbled along, hoping to drop their limited supply of rain on someplace more deserving. Kyoshi staggered forward as the terrain became more sloped, the boat bumping up and down over each dune, and stood next to Thray. The man was peering across the Si Wong, concealed in his worn out cloth.
"Excuse me, Thray" Kyoshi said above the increasingly powerful wind.
"Yes, Kyoshi?" he replied, peering down at the squinting girl. Kyoshi was not quite used to the glare that reflected off the glowing sands. White rings and circles were imprinted on her eyelids and whenever she blinked it was still bright.
"Your tribe," she began. "Is your tribe okay with me? You know, seeing as I'm the Avatar?" Kyoshi did not want to receive bad reception. In fact, she had no idea what her situation was like – whether or not she was convicted as a wanted criminal in other cities besides Ba Sing Se.
"Of course," Thray responded almost immediately. "Our tribe has no dealings with the Earth State. The tribes of the Si Wong are nomadic, Kyoshi. It's not about where you live or how much you have, it's how you live off it."
"And how do you live off it? There isn't much to live off."
"The Shamo Tribe have been nomadic for over fifty generations. Anything we find we can use to our advantage," Thray explained. "If we find a skull of some poor animal we can boil it down into a soup. Grasses can be dried and made into fans. We even use the sand to travel, Kyoshi. The desert is harsh, but if your perseverance is greater, then you can live comfortably." Kyoshi smiled. The desert, with its sweltering glare and enormity – a stretch of tiny burning oranges and yellows devouring every form of life in its path, seemed less daunting. The heated winds and crunches of sand beneath one's feet stirred some form of emotion, some form of homeliness. The constant struggle for survival buzzed into the only, and the most basic, and therefore greatest, display of life. Everyone's need for living was what made this place, what Kyoshi had viewed as dangerous and forsaken, a misunderstood, almost modest, land. Kyoshi's body was slowly getting accustomed to the unyielding conditions.
She began to enjoy each plume of sand that bellowed up, that entered her dress, scathed her body and got amassed in her hair. She was becoming one of them; one of the Shamo Tribe. As the boat – which Thray told her was identified as a 'sand sailer' – continued its path across the desert, the long hours allowed Kyoshi to practice her earthbending. She focused on individual sand grains which always flew off before she dared to raise her hand. The magnetism that was felt the previous night was occurring each time she did so, and she could feel the spread of heaviness move to her palms. Countless times Kyoshi lifted single grains from the deck, revelling to herself and an impressed Tori after each successful lift. A few times she thought two or three grains were lifted, but it was probably just an illusion brought about by the surrounding heat waves, the bumpy ride and her increasing boredom. It wasn't until the sand sailer came to more exciting terrain that Kyoshi perked up. Looking out across the Si Wong, one could see waves of crimson, seemingly frozen before the crash.
"Hold on!" Thray shouted to his men as the boat teetered atop the crest of a large dune. Kyoshi clung to the mast as the boat turned almost vertical and slid down the face of the dune. Wind roared across her ears like a passing lion as the men screamed with exhilaration. Jin Jin held her body close to the deck to stop Momzen from rolling around, her face covered in confusion and astonishment. Kyoshi screamed out over the booming crunches of the sand as the boat raced downwards. The men secured their positions and moved the sand around the boat to stabilise the return to flat ground, continuing the fast trek. The girl watched intently now as more dunes were scaled and surfed across. Tumbling dunes were everywhere casting cooling shadows along the ground.
"It's incredible!" she howled to Thray.
"Isn't it?" he screamed, almost silent from the desert winds. "Welcome, Kyoshi, to the Shamo Tribe." Thray stretched out an arm, as if to introduce Kyoshi to the tribe, of which consisted of about ten dusty tents. Skulls of perished animals and old knickknacks lay strewn across the ground and shaggy kids, tanned and glistening with sweat, chased each other across the dunes. The Shamo Tribe was protected by dunes from the north and west while laying open to the south and east. Mothers and children came to greet the returning boat, and the crew jumped off after halting to embrace their loved ones. The supplies, dried meats, water, spices and weapons were hauled away and stowed in the storage tent. Kyoshi got off and was greeted by smiles. Hot, clammy but energised smiles; simple smiles. Jin Jin delicately got off the sand sailer, with a sickened Momzen on her saddle, and coughed at Kyoshi.
"Thray," Kyoshi said quickly, trying to stop herself from examining the tribe further. "Momzen." Thray nodded and directed Kyoshi and Jin Jin down the village to the largest tent. It was of orange cloth woven with green markings, possessing an air of wisdom and mystery. He opened the flap and gestured for them to enter without him.
"You'll have to take him in by yourself," Thray said solemnly. Kyoshi took Jin Jin's reins and led her in; into a dark, stuffy room. The tent was composed of two rooms filled with ornate, dust-filled rugs and skulls, bones and stained pots. Vials of thick, earthy coloured liquids were lined on the left wall. Jin Jin lay down in the centre, as if knowing that was what had to be done, and presented Momzen on her backside. Kyoshi sat down too and, taking a damp cloth she found next to her, patted Momzen's head slightly, the boy grunting at the contact. A figure suddenly appeared from the other room. It was wearing a large cloth dress and a beaked mask carved from ancient wood. It stared at Kyoshi, holding strong incense in one hand and a maraca in the other.
"Avatar Kyoshi," it said in a gravelly tone as it swung the incense around, its pink smoke cascading through the tent, and shook the maraca erratically. "Your friend is poisoned?" Kyoshi, though confused and astonished by the person's weird rituals, nodded.
"By a Dai Li dart," she blurted out quickly and, to a lesser extent, fearfully. The figure plonked itself down and felt the boy's head with its leathery hands; hands that were, like the boulders of the desert, smoothened and eroded by the sands. It took off its mask and revealed the face of a lady – old and wrinkled, the great wisdom and experience that emanated from her seemed to do so because of her age. Her eyes, sagged from the age-old laws of gravity and elderliness, sparkled remains of youthful yellow and her lips were dry and crusty. Short, grey hair, knotted, seemed to only be attached to her scalp through the thick layer of sand. She seemed positively insane, too.
"I see," the woman replied, smiling at the symptoms Momzen was displaying. She took the towel from Kyoshi's hand and dipped it into an empty pot, perhaps she thought there was water in it, and laid it across the entirety of Momzen's face, bar his mouth. She took a hairy root she found from the floor and placed it into a mortar along with a red spice and, from what Kyoshi could make out was, animal fat.
"Here, moosh this up, will you?" the woman said as she handed Kyoshi the mortar and pestle. Speechless, Kyoshi took the apparatus in silence and began grinding. It seemed the woman was picking anything she found from the ground, Kyoshi questioned the effectiveness of the woman Thray suggested.
"Will this work?" she muttered, looking down at the sorry mixture.
"Of course," the woman smiled toothlessly. "It's an age old antidote for Dai Li poison." Kyoshi smiled, covering up her growing doubt. The woman continued with another concoction and, after a few moments, handed Kyoshi a glass. In it was a dark green sludge topped with sand and grime. It smelt of dried vomit and rotting bark, and Kyoshi did not want to know the taste.
"Go on, drink it. It will help your friend." The woman shoved the glass into Kyoshi's hand and downed a cup of her own. Kyoshi ogled at the glass. The smell was sickening and she could feel her stomach turn at the sight of it. Surely it was poison.
"You shouldn't doubt me," the woman said abruptly. Kyoshi looked up, shocked by the woman's knowhow.
"How? I," Kyoshi stumbled, her cheeks flushing a hot red from embarrassment. "I don't doubt you."
"Then drink. As the Avatar you must do things for others that you have doubts in doing," the woman replied. Kyoshi smiled. It seemed to make sense somehow, but still – in the reaches of her mind – Kyoshi was telling herself not to drink the foul potion.
"When I became the witch doctor for this tribe I had to do many things I didn't want to do to better the people," the woman added. "And now the Shamo Tribe is only beginning to thrive. Little acts of selflessness go a long way, Avatar." Kyoshi examined Momzen, his eyes were clenched shut in pain and his brow was sweating from the fever.
"If you don't drink it, the poison will consume him and he will die." Kyoshi gasped. Death. It was the one thing she didn't want to way down on her shoulders. Jin Jin snorted loudly, a response to such dark words, as if to provoke Kyoshi to drink. The girl peered into the clay cup and at the stagnant, thick liquid; of putrid smell and horrible appearance. The taste was almost unbearable as it slid down her throat and it had the texture of chalk and snot. Kyoshi coughed and spluttered, tensing her stomach to force the revolting drink down, and then gasped for air, remnants of the tastes on her tongue and in between her teeth. The lady laughed.
"Good! Excellent! Let's cure him now shall we?" she said. Kyoshi, from shock and partially from the continuing disgust, spattered noisily.
"What!" Kyoshi's eyebrows turned downwards in anger. She was wasting her time.
"Who do you think you are?" she shouted, causing Jin Jin to stir on the ground.
"I am Iza," the woman replied childishly. "I am the witch doctor of the Shamo Tribe."
"Well I don't care!" Kyoshi shouted defiantly, getting up. "My friend needs serious help and I'm just wasting my time with you!" Kyoshi went to leave but Iza blocked the exit with a stone wall she produced with her earthbending and cackled softly.
"Very good, Avatar. You're putting your people first," she mumbled as Kyoshi banged against the wall.
"Let me out!" Kyoshi ordered, ramming her shoulders into the stone for it to budge.
"Kyoshi!" the woman snapped. Kyoshi turned around almost immediately, the confidence that stemmed from her anger gone.
"Sit down," Iza continued quickly. "We don't have much time." Kyoshi was incredibly puzzled; first the woman seemed like she could be of assistance, then like a waste of time and now she offered to help again, this time a lot more austerely. Without hesitation, though, Kyoshi obeyed and sat down behind Jin Jin.
"How's the Qinghao root going?" Iza asked. Kyoshi handed over the mortar and pestle and the old lady whisked the ingredients quickly before scampering into the other room. Kyoshi was dumbstruck. She had no idea what was going on, or if she was doing the right thing. But Momzen was dying – she had to remind herself. And Iza was the only available help that Kyoshi knew of in the Si Wong, she had to trust the elderly lady's judgement. Iza came back in, hunched over a steaming jug. With an air of haste she poured the hot broth into the mortar and blew the steam away softly. She lit two more sticks of incense and stuck them into the ground. As the tent filled with aromatic smoke Kyoshi watched Momzen sip on the brew being fed to him.
"This will flush out the poison," Iza said as she sat back down, huffing for rest, rubbing her aching eyes.
"Thank you, Iza," Kyoshi said meekly. She was holding back the oncoming of tears. The distractions that presented themselves – the escape from the Dai Li, traversing the Si Wong Desert and her earthbending – side-tracked her from Momzen's condition, which was fatal. She felt so selfish for ignoring him and, too, felt, twinging in the lowest regions of her heart, an inadequacy. She was the Avatar – how could she be distracted by such a devastating event. Kyoshi turned over the dampened cloth on her friend's forehead, biting down on her lip, trying hard not to start crying.
"It's alright to feel scared." Kyoshi looked up, a single, glistening tear running down her cheek.
"I should've taken better care of him," Kyoshi whispered with sadness. "I shouldn't have let myself get distracted." Iza got up smiling comfortingly, pulling her meshy shawl over her shoulders.
"Kyoshi. There are many things you have to learn as the Avatar," she started. "You've got to put your people first and you've got to keep the balance – which means you also need time for yourself. Distractions can be healthy if you know how to deal with them." Kyoshi wiped her eyes. The witch was so full of wisdom, and her words so poetic, which was strange for someone who lived so far away and in such a desolate area.
"And since the Avatar needs to learn all four of the elements," Iza continued, moving past the sleeping Jin Jin and to Kyoshi. "Learning these elements proves a helpful distraction when your mind is clouded with thought." The corners of Kyoshi's thin lips turned upwards. The lady was offering to teach her.
"You'll teach me sandbending?" she asked feebly for assurance.
"I believe it is my destiny."
"What about Momzen?" Kyoshi said after she got up.
"The poison will be washed out naturally. There is nothing else we can do," Iza explained. "Besides, he's got good company." Jin Jin opened an eye then went back to sleep, the increasing amount of smoke was soothing to the fretting beast. Kyoshi nodded and then followed Iza out into the village where Tori greeted Kyoshi with a chirpy hug.
"Is he going to be alright?" Thray asked, immediately appearing from around the tent.
"Yes, my son. He'll be fine."
"Son!" Kyoshi blurted instantly. She gawked at Thray, to Iza, and then back at Thray, who laughed heartedly.
"Yes. Iza is my mother," he confessed jokingly. "And, I know, she is really old."
"Hey!" Iza replied, hitting Thray's chest with her hand. "Sixty eight and still young!" The two family members laughed before Iza told Thray about how she was going to train Kyoshi. She led Kyoshi up a dune that overlooked the Shamo Tribe.
The searing sun blazed down onto the sandy wave and Kyoshi could feel her skin parching from exposure. Iza's cloth dress billowed in the final winds of the day and she asked Kyoshi what her earthbending was presently like.
"Well. I can bend a bit of sand," Kyoshi explained embarrassedly. "But it's not much of a weapon."
"And that's exactly it," Iza chuckled. "Don't think of bending as a weapon. It is a gift." Iza bent her knees to lower herself into the ground and swivelled on her hips and in one fluid motion, as if caressing the air, a stream of sand moved by like an elegant river. She moved the graceful trail around her body as Kyoshi watched, amazed at the ease the old lady took in her earthbending.
"Think of bending as an extension of your body," she said as she continued to flow the sand around. The words were inspirational, and instilled a sort of inner understanding that came perhaps from a rich, though only assumed, ancestry. Kyoshi copied Iza's stance, bringing her body down by squatting. The muscles in her thighs tensed from underuse and she wiped little droplets of sweat from her fringe. She swivelled her hips and a mass of hot, dry air filled her lungs on anticipation of the oncoming bending. The heaviness she learnt from Thray pulsed through her body quickly as she clutched her fingers, softly but still with force, and turned forward along her pelvis. Just as she had instructed, Kyoshi pulled a lash of sand from the dune.
"Hold it," Iza instructed softly before Kyoshi would get too excited and lose focus. "Continue to breathe." Kyoshi opened her shut mouth to let in some air, allowing her to gawp at the stream of tiny stones that awaited orders from her.
"Now, pull it back and then whip it out, like this," Iza demonstrated the movement by straightening her back, maintaining the squat, and then jolting her arms forward – her body of sand flicking forward like a whip. "The sand whip – simple yet effective." Kyoshi nodded and with painful concentration and quivering muscles she straightened and flogged her arms out quickly. The stream shot past her shoulders at great speed; the magnetism Kyoshi was feeling throughout her body was wild and almost uncontrollable. As the sand cracked upwards Kyoshi's arms twinged with mighty power and the attack hit Iza's chest. The old lady lost her footing and tumbled across the dune. Kyoshi gasped and dropped the stream into the ground, running over to the recoiled elder.
"Iza! Are you okay?" the girl asked, bending over and gripping the lady's shoulder. The woman looked up, smiling, as if she had made a great accomplishment.
"It seems you're ready for something more challenging?" Iza said as her cramped body stiffly got up.
"You're the earthbending Avatar, I had no doubt you'd excel fast. How about you go up against me?" Kyoshi stepped back from surprise.
"You mean," she huffed. "A duel?"
"What better way to train then against an opponent?" Iza nodded mischievously. Kyoshi was happy she had exceled. But was she ready to go up against such a skilled adversary, she thought? A feeling of power, or of skill, seemed to bubble inside Kyoshi at this point, and it inspired a form of confidence and capability she never before felt.
"Alright," she said, stepping back to give Iza her space. The old woman bent down, ready to attack, and smiled impishly. Kyoshi smiled back too, with an air of friskiness that displayed she was ready for a tumble.
"You can have the first move," Kyoshi heard Iza say. And with that Kyoshi clenched her fingers and, through earthbending, she pulled a lashing of sand from the ground and whipped it at Iza's direction. The woman arched her back and lifted a leg, skidding right and avoiding the blow.
"You'll have to be more creative than that," she laughed. Kyoshi grinned, reacting to the woman's taunt by taking the stream and charging forward with it. She moved her arms downwards, the sand following, and flicked it forward. The sand swept towards Iza's legs and knocked her over. Kyoshi pulled another plume of sand from beside her, ready to push the woman further away, but Iza stretched her arms out, palms wide open. As she had instructed the sand beneath Kyoshi slid backwards, causing Kyoshi to trip and be carried across the conveyor belt-like ground. The Avatar laughed at the dynamic duel that was happening at present – she had never bended so much before and she never felt so alive. The scorching sunlight enriched her spirits as she spun on one foot, her golden boots glistening in the harsh desert light. Using both arms, and still spinning, Kyoshi produced a blanket of sand around her body. As Iza charged forward with a sand whip, Kyoshi surged the sand away, blowing Iza across the dune with force. The woman bowled across the sand, laughing hysterically at such fun she was having.
"Very good!" she shouted, applauding Kyoshi on her quick learning. Kyoshi circled her left arm fluidly, building up a swivelling ball of sand and, as Iza got up, Kyoshi fired it at her. It landed in her gut and knocked the air from her lungs, pushing her back to the ground.
"Alright! I get it!" Iza laughed. "You're good!" Kyoshi ran to the woman and helped her up.
"Did you see me! That was incredible!" Kyoshi was buzzing with joy. She had never felt so adept. Surges of pride coursed powerfully through her body, and she was only just beginning to think she was suited to being the Avatar, only after witnessing her sandbending.
"You've picked it up quite well," Iza replied. "You're a natural." Kyoshi blushed, grinning zealously. If only she learnt to earthbend earlier, she would've been a happier person because of it.
"And your creativity is truly a gift. It is that type of creativity that sets tribes apart and keeps you alive out here," Iza added, shoving Kyoshi's shoulder as a form of praise. Flustered and sweating, Kyoshi followed Iza back down to the village. Tori, her feathers puffed up from the heat greeted her and the girl was directed to her tent.
"We'll let you rest," Thray said, placing a bowl of cooked meat in the tent as Kyoshi sat down on the thin fabric, feeling rocks and the sweeps of the sand beneath her.
"Thank you," Kyoshi replied. Thray nodded politely before exiting, leaving Kyoshi alone with Tori. Alone to revel in her recent accomplishments and fast-approaching earthbending skill. She was ecstatic that it was coming so easy to her but the idea of bending larger amounts of earth worried her, only a bit – like a grain of concern, minute, inconsequential, in a desert of thought. Tori pecked and nibbled at Kyoshi as the girl told the bird what had happened, and what was going to come of it. Together they shared the warm night, and the dinner, and soon, in a warm state of merriment and delight, they went to sleep as part of the Shamo Tribe.
The orange fabric of the dusty tent didn't do much to keep the piercing morning sunlight out. Kyoshi's eyelids throbbed from the intensity. The smell of dry air and chalk filled the entirety of the tent and the girl's lips were chapped with thirst.
"Come on Tori," Kyoshi said, shaking the waking bird. "Let's get some water." The bird, with its left side flattened from sleeping on one side, glared at Kyoshi for waking her up at such an early hour – however, in Kyoshi's eyes it was the typical time, Tori seemed to highly value a sleep in. Nonetheless, the bird followed Kyoshi out into the hot morning. Kyoshi walked drudgingly to the large bucket at the centre of the tribal campsite. Mothers were fetching pales of water in these early hours to begin cooking, cleaning or to quench their children's' thirst. The water was lukewarm as it washed away the dryness in Kyoshi's mouth but it was refreshing to an extent.
"It does its job, doesn't it?" came Iza's voice from behind. Surely enough, upon turning around, Kyoshi found Iza, hunched and leathery from the sun, smiling at her motherly. Kyoshi never knew her mother and was appreciative that this woman, though definitely too old to be her biological mother, took Kyoshi under her wing.
"How's Momzen?" Kyoshi asked, remembering Iza's advice from yesterday about caring for others.
"He's doing well," the old lady nodded, her saggy skin wobbling from the movement. "Thray is looking after him, so he should be better later today. I let your shirshu out, she's very faithful." Kyoshi was thankful. She was beginning to miss having Momzen around to talk to; someone her age.
"Shall we continue training? I've got a technique I want to teach you that is held deeply within Shamo Tribe tradition." Intrigue began to swell now in Kyoshi's body, like a ripple upon a still lake it grew until she smiled. Iza took this as an 'ok' and led the girl to the outskirts of the tribe until the tents seemed small and sat her down.
"Look out at the desert," Iza said softly, taking a seat next to Kyoshi. "Concentrate on the warmth you can feel around you." Heat waves, blaring powerfully like silent and burning drums, pounded Kyoshi's body. Eager to learn, perhaps induced by the heat Iza was talking about, Kyoshi concentrated her magnetism to her palms, ready to earthbend.
"Tell me what you see in front of you." Kyoshi peered across the Si Wong expanse; flat pans of sand, shimmering – the barren skin of the earth. It seemed to go on limitlessly. As she stared, her mind almost wandering from relaxation, Kyoshi could see these waves. And that's when she had to double take. Perhaps at the other end of the desert was water, and perhaps the waves she was seeing was the water evaporating, running out. It would soon dissipate into the sky and form a thin cloud that would, teasingly, never rain down upon the desert and waft away to someplace it preferred.
"I think I see water," Kyoshi told Iza, licking her parched lips. A low cackle came from Iza.
"That is a mirage. There is no water there." Kyoshi snapped from her growing trance and looked over at the woman.
"A mirage is the bending of light to form an image. And an image is the refraction of light on particles," Iza explained, Kyoshi listening attentively. "If we can move the particles in such a way that the refraction of light is different, we can make our own image. A mirage." Iza, with a gentle lift of her hand, levitated a handful of sand in front of her. Swivelling her wrists, the sand contorted gracefully in circles in the heat and soon Kyoshi, who was fixed on the bending, perceived a small, white butterfly fluttering where the sand was. It seemed undeniably real. However, as Kyoshi went to touch it the visual shrivelled and sand poured past her fingers.
"Wow," Kyoshi whispered.
"Try it." Kyoshi obeyed, raising a cloud of sand from the ground and moving it slowly in ways that she felt would make an image. She planned on creating a shoe and so moved the inner grains of sand to outline its shape. Although blurry, Kyoshi could see a simple, brown leather shoe appear before her. It was almost like magic.
"If you get the hang of it, it gets easier," Iza said, looking out at the flat desert. She looked down at Kyoshi and then, stiffly and with an air of ferventness, turned back up to look out to the sands again.
"What is it?" Kyoshi asked curiously.
"Something's coming," Iza replied monotone, a sign that something dreadful was upon them. Kyoshi looked out at the desert too and, squinting to focus on the distant, oncoming thing, could make out a mass of people. Instantly she knew it was Astrid and her Dai Li agents. She should've known she was not entirely free from the bounty hunter's eyes.
"We're in trouble," Kyoshi said to Iza, tugging on the lady's old shawl.
"Go get Momzen," Iza ordered, her voice building with resonance like a growing storm. "I'll make a distraction." Kyoshi nodded, frightened, and then ran back to the Shamo Tribe. Her footsteps crunched atop the sand; each sound sending flashes of fearful exhilaration to her head, her heart pounding.
"The Dai Li are coming!" she shouted powerfully to Thray as she returned to the main campsite of the tribe, ducking down to enter Iza's tent. "You might have to prepare your men." From what Kyoshi could see before she entered the tent, Thray seemed very sombre. It was as if the Shamo Tribe had never faced such a big enemy. Kyoshi yearned dearly that they were capable, for if they weren't there would be no hope for victory.
Iza could feel the winds pick up. Tiny flecks of burning sand brushed against her feet, urging her to use them to her advantage. She stepped forward, away from the tribe she so cherished – the people she cared for and who relied on her, and relaxed her body. Sandbending is about fluidness, she told herself, not rigidity – ease up. She raised her arms in a straight line, pulling a wall of sand in front of her. The mass of it was thick enough that she could barely see the land on the other side. She kept the wall up, tensing her hands, and then spread her legs apart, moving her arms about lithely to create a mirage. Refracting the light, Iza was able to make it seem as if there were no dunes behind her, and not even a tribe. Astrid stepped out from her cart and walked forward, Mitinari following close behind. She swore she had seen dunes up ahead before, but knew it could've been the heat playing tricks on her.
"What is it?" an agent asked. Astrid's brow was raised with thought. She longed to capture the Avatar. She walked forward, her nose almost touching Iza's wall of sand. Beads of terrified sweat trickled down the old woman's forehead, and it was as if time had slowed down. The moment was crucial. Iza dared not to breathe, and dared even not to blink as Astrid's menacing orange eyes were staring directly into hers.
"Nothing," Astrid replied. "Just enjoying the view." She looked up to the sky, seeing heat waves dissipating at a close distance above. Frowning with suspicion Astrid held out her palm. Iza inhaled from shock, she knew what was going to happen. As Astrid's palm moved forward, a multitude of sand collected in it. Through gritted teeth she groaned with fury and blasted a mass of fire from her hand. It burst a hole through the sand wall and Iza stopped her bending, the cover falling down just like her confidence. Astrid darted towards the tribe, not caring for the elderly lady.
"Mitinari, you deal with her. Men, follow me!" she ordered, kicking sand up with each sprightly step. Iza watched the army follow and then turned around to see Mitinari, pale and sweaty, laughing airily to himself. He was looking forward to inflicting pain on the old woman. She was looking forward to defeating him.
"Momzen, are you alright?" Kyoshi said frantically as she entered the tent, hearing Thray shouting orders from outside. The tent was hazy with incense smoke. The tent was empty. Where could he be? Suddenly the firebender appeared from the other room, chirpy, the sides of his mouth stained with blood.
"Feeling much better!" he beamed. "This place is crazy!" Momzen said, as he picked up one of Iza's potions, sniffing its foul contents.
"Momzen," Kyoshi interrupted. "Astrid's here." The sound of him dropping the container echoed momentarily in the tent.
"Here?" the boy asked worriedly. Kyoshi nodded. A lump of absolute fear throbbed in Momzen's throat; a pang of defeat. Kyoshi could see how her friend was feeling – how he was genuinely scared. And it was alright for him to be, seeing as he was poisoned no less than two nights ago. These enemies were ruthless.
"We can't let her get to us," Kyoshi said, trying hopefully to inspire some confidence in Momzen. "I've learnt sandbending, we've got a good chance."
"What if something happens again, Kyoshi," Momzen debated, shaking his head nervously with disagree. The dry heat of the day made such high stakes uncomfortable, and because of it Kyoshi was in no mood to argue.
"We should just run," Momzen said, taking a satchel from the floor and grabbing bottles and roots and stuffing them into the bag quickly.
"No!" Kyoshi replied loudly, clenching Momzen's arms. "We can't! These people helped us when we needed it, and they still are! We owe it to them." Momzen's flitting eyes contacted with hers. They were curved upwards and the pupils were largely dilated from fear.
"I won't let anything happen to us." Kyoshi nodded at Momzen, gesturing that it was time to go out and help fight, and the boy nodded back. From behind Kyoshi the curtain lapped back, revealing the snickering face of Astrid. Her red suit embroidered with gold and black seemed to shine against the sun and her fire-shaped hair piece loomed from the top of her figure as if leering for a battle.
"Let's not make this difficult, okay?" she said with her usual snide tone.
"Go!" Kyoshi shouted at Momzen, pushing him suddenly into the second room. The two scrambled further into Iza's tent, narrowly avoiding Astrid's fiery attack. The material around them caught alight almost instantly, smoky strokes of brilliant orange trailing behind them like a predator to its prey.
"Go!" Kyoshi repeated as Momzen continued to crawl across the floor. Terracotta bowls and cups flew about, shattering into pieces against one another with each frightened kick. Momzen thrust the curtained door open and poured out onto the sand. The light was intense and burned his eyes. He writhed on the ground, his legs still a bit numb from the lack of use. Kyoshi soon toppled onto him, coughing with smoke-filled lungs. She got to her feet immediately as Astrid charged around the tent to continue attacking.
Kyoshi locked her fingers into a fist and pulled a stream of sand from aside. Astrid heaved her arm back then punched forwards, releasing a powerful plume of fire. The avatar, thinking quickly yet thoroughly, swivelled on her hips – just as Iza had taught her – moving the sand so that it collided with the flames, dousing it into a dissipating dust cloud. Astrid punched again, but this time Momzen, too, was at his feet, and also punched out a surge of fire from his knuckles as Kyoshi forced a mound of sand at the foe. Through burning pinnacles of red and orange that seemed to spiral into the sky, Kyoshi and Momzen could see that together their attacks of fire and sand had turned into glass, lodging Astrid's hand in a crystal tomb. She screamed excruciatingly at the pain the red-hot glass inflicted on her skin and kicked out in front. Her jet black boots splintered through the glass, shattering the snare. The friends stepped back, shielding their eyes from the flying shards, as Astrid gripped her reddened wrist, crying violently through clenched teeth. The skin around her wrist was blistered badly, the throbbing tissue glistening in the sun. The girl scowled at the two maniacally, as if they had offended her greatly.
"You'll pay for that."
Iza's chest heaved with each breath. Both hands were held above her head ready to pull waves of sand from the desert floor. Mitinari, the smiling boy, was swirling a stream of water around his plump body, huffing at the old lady's tired state. He whipped the water at her quickly, squawking with a laugh. Iza constricted sand around her own ankle and lashed herself backwards, avoiding the swipe of the water. Granules of sand flew up from the force of the powerful attack, like an echo of a fight. Thank god she didn't get hit.
"You're a cruel, little thing aren't you?" she spat, feverish with detest. The pale boy, eerily, did not utter a reply but instead lunged forward, contorting the plume of water in ways to grab the old lady and pin her down. With each swift attack from the boy, Iza used the sand-whip technique to deflect it, pushing her arms outwards, too, so that Mitinari would fall over and be drawn way along the ground. Iza only hoped that Kyoshi was alright.
A thunderous drum pounded in their chests. Peering behind her back, her legs chugging fast beneath her, Kyoshi could see Astrid's furious eyes slashing at hers. Momzen was beside Kyoshi, breathing loudly from the running. A flash of fire, intense in its heat, suddenly rocketed towards Kyoshi, pulsating onto her back and knocking her down. She tumbled across the sand, her eyes clenched shut – perhaps she hoping it was all a terrible nightmare and that she'd wake up.
"Leave us alone!" Kyoshi heard Momzen shout defiantly. A crackle also sounded and could be heard fizzling off somewhere, probably towards Astrid. Kyoshi opened her eyes to see that Astrid nimbly jumped over Momzen's attack, landing on the ground with poise.
"I'm sorry," the girl replied teasingly. "I can't do that." She locked her left knee and span on the spot. In her revolution Astrid produced a large lashing of fire, quickly building up its power with a second spin. Kyoshi looked to Momzen, who was frozen still with fear; the fire reflecting onto his frightened pupils as if it were taking over his body and plaguing it with terror. She knew that if she didn't act fast her friend would be hit by the almighty flames. She put her hands onto the ground and, flexing her abdominals, Kyoshi was able to lift her body and swing her legs in front of her torso. In another swift motion she tensed her calf muscles and raised herself upright. She stretched an arm outwards to procure sand from the ground and, by twisting her wrist, the sand engulfed Astrid's body. Before Astrid could react and unleash her attack Kyoshi threw the cacoon-like structure of sand across the desert, resulting in a cloud of dispersing fire and sprawling sand with Astrid in the middle of it. All in a matter of seconds.
Fortunately this snapped Momzen from his stillness and he stepped forward rigidly, firing a blaze from his fist to Astrid. The bounty hunter, who was now on the ground, repeated Kyoshi's movements, spinning her raised body – of which was parallel to the ground – to kick an attack. The fires met and scattered into the hot sky with a booming roar. Astrid got up from the ground and ran towards Kyoshi. She punched forward, dispelling flames from her knuckles, but Kyoshi blocked the attack; using her forearm to knock Astrid's arm off course, allowing the fire to surge past her cheek and away from her body. Kyoshi noticed that Astrid was about to kick up, probably to release a powerful fiery attack. Quickly thinking, the Avatar pulled sand from beside with her left hand, and whipped Astrid's body with it, forcing her back a little to a safer distance.
Kyoshi could feel her teeth grinding on each other. Her brow was downturned with anger and focus. And her heart, which was usually quelled with fright and defeat when up against Astrid, burned with an empowering pride. Nobody, not even herself, could entirely describe how humbling it was for her to be able to protect herself and hold her own like how she was doing now. But she was fed up. The constant struggle that came about because of Astrid and her chubby accomplice was annoying, infuriating to an extent. Kyoshi very much wanted for these fights to stop, for Astrid to give up. As she watched Momzen punch out two spires of orange Kyoshi felt a tingle wash over her body. Soon it became almost numbing, and she fumbled her step when dodging an attack from Astrid. Was she experiencing some great magnetism? Even though Kyoshi knew she could not get worried in such a drastic time, her blurring vision and tightening lungs told her otherwise. Suddenly Kyoshi lost control of all her body and her eyes began to glow. A force that seemed to emanate from her blew sand in every direction, and both Momzen and Astrid looked on in awe. Though she did not know it, Kyoshi had entered the Avatar State. She rose heroically from the ground in a plume of sand and stared out at the Dai Li and the Shamo Tribe fighting against each other. She pitied them.
Astrid smiled from below. Now was her chance to stop the Avatar once and for all. The surroundings seemed to lose its colour as Astrid produced jagged bolts of lightning from her fingers. Momzen could see that Kyoshi was in danger but he could barely move, the wind coming from Kyoshi was so powerful he couldn't even lift an arm.
"Kyoshi!" he screamed, a single dewy tear forming in the corner of his worried eyes. He felt sick. Sicker than he had ever felt in his life. He felt guilty too, and riddled with despair. He had let her down; he had let the world down. He screamed out desperately for Kyoshi to hear him and notice Astrid's oncoming attack. The lightning raced towards Kyoshi with extreme speed, its crystal crackle igniting incredible fear in the hearts of the desert people.
"No!" Momzen screeched. His voice breaking and squeaking with sadness as he collapsed to the floor. Somewhere in Kyoshi's state she could tell something bad was happening. Her vision flashed violently with a bright green, symbolic, perhaps, that the Earth State had defeated her. A gentle hand brushed against hers and then suddenly clenched between her fingers. Quickly it dragged her down and the bright green that formed her vision disappeared in a lurching manner. For Kyoshi her mind was swirling painfully. All she wanted to do was open her mouth and breathe again. But at that moment it seemed breathing was near to impossible.
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