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Otan is selected to be a part of an escort to deliver the Avatar to the Eastern Air Temple, however, the mission is threatened by General Ghef and his deadly Shadow Painters.
A single Fire Nation ship was anchored in the midst of Sulphurcrab Atoll, a small, remote corner of Fire Nation waters that was understandably avoided given its rather smelly inhabitants. It was a small vessel, hardly more than a frigate-with nothing to distinguish it from the hundreds of other ships Sozin's growing army had at its disposal. And yet it was this vessel that General Ghef and his experimental company of Shadow Painters called home.
The General himself stood on the main deck, although at first glance one might have mistaken him for a retired officer performing a nostalgic inspection on his old command. Completely bald, his face mottled with liver spots and creases, his hands trembling, he hardly looked like one of the most dangerous or powerful Firebenders since Avatar Roku or even Fire Lord Sozin and yet appearances had never been more deceiving.
"The lead shields seem to work the best sir," said his aide, an ambitious young man named Lahn.
Ghef didn't seem to hear him from his seat at the ship's prow but his face tightened into a visible scowl. Before him, several rows of men stood on both sides of the ship behind lead partitions with holes cut into the centers for their hands as they expelled waves of invisible heat at the eponymous Sulphurcrabs sunning themselves on rocks near the ship. Ghef watched with mild interest as some of the pathetic creatures tried to avoid the invisible fire as their hard outer shell began to disintegrate while some of them exploded in a burst of white light. "Lead is too heavy." He said with a cough, "Unless you'd like to ask Fire Lord himself for additional troops cart around the stuff, then we're going to have to do away with the shields if we want to keep the Shadow Painters mobile."
Lahn cleared his throat. He knew the General wouldn't like to hear what he had to say. "I'm afraid it isn't a question of mobility, sir," he said quietly, "I'm afraid that lead is the only thing that will keep the Fire Plague from our own men. I'm sure you remember nine years ago what happened to the first-"
"You weren't there, boy," said Ghef hoarsely, "I didn't take you on to hear you banter on like a schoolgirl."
Lahn bowed curtly. "Forgive me, sir."
The old man spat on the floor of the ship. "Get out of my sight," said Ghef as he rose, grasping for his walking cane. "That's enough practice for today!" he called out, "You may all return to your regular duties. Tomorrow I want to see you all on deck at oh -six-hundred hours as usual. "
Lahn held out an arm for support as Ghef began to make his way inside, but he pushed the young man out of the way.
"I'll bet they're going to banish you after what you did," said Fen. He had been trying to get under Otan's skin since the two had arrived before the Temple Sanctuary where the Council of Monks was deliberating their fate. As usual, he was having little success. By Otan's estimate, he had been waiting since six o'clock while Fen had arrived an hour ago. Above them hovered Seippa, still angry since Fen and his friends had kidnapped her and hidden her in a cave in the mountains surrounding the Northern Temple on the morning of Otan's examination.
"You used Firebending on me," said Fen, "Only the Avatar is allowed to use Firebending."
Otan rolled his eyes. "Only the Avatar can use Firebending," he corrected, "And what I did wasn't Firebending."
"Then what was it then, grounder?" said Fen. But before he could continue further, the doors to the Temple Sanctuary swung open to admit them. "Hello, boys," said a familiar, gravely voice, "Come on in."
Otan and Fen bowed in unison before the Council and Sister Meili who was seated off to the side, then straightened. Otan stole a glance behind him at Seippa who waited anxiously outside before one of the monks closed the massive door with a small breeze.
One of the other Monks spoke up. "Several days ago, both of gravely dishonored the customs and ethics of our people." He turned first to Otan, eyes narrowing, "You, Otan, not only threatened another Nomad with physical violence, but did so through use of Airbending, which is makes this a very grave matter indeed."
Otan bowed his head. "My actions were unforgivable. Please punish-"
The monk held up his finger. "We are not yet finished yet," he said, rounding on Fen and causing him to jump, "As we have come to understand it, You, Fen, have antagonized and provoked Otan on numerous occasions. In addition, you and several as-of-yet unidentified accomplices were seen by one of our sentries on the eve of examination day leaving the Temple grounds with Otan's Sky Bison companion to parts unknown and you returned several hours later-without her."
Otan noticed that Fen had begun to sweat beside him.
"By all accounts," said the monk, "We should banish the both of you from the Northern Air Temple immediately, but-" he paused, nodding at Meili, "Sister Meili here from the Eastern Temple seems to think otherwise."
Meili stood up from her chair, facing the two Airbenders then to the Council, "Where do you want me to start?" she said.
"Wherever you like," said the monk.
The old woman sucked in a breath. "Okay, you both know about the new Avatar, right, at the Southern Air Temple?"
Fen nodded vigorously, "Avatar Ann, right Sister?"
Meili sighed heavily, "Close enough," she said, "Anyway, about a week ago I got a message at the Eastern Temple saying that they're going to move the Avatar to the east to continue his training. Unfortunately, they're a bit short on Airbending Masters in both Temples, so that's where you two come in." she pointed at Otan and Fen, "See where I'm going with this?"
Fen shook his head. "I don't understand. What do you want us to do?"
"You want us to escort the Avatar?" said Otan, confused, "I thought that you wanted to banish us?"
"That can be arranged," said Meili, "If you decide not to go."
"I'll take it!" Fen exclaimed, dropping to his knees.
"What about you, Otan?" said Meili.
After a moment of thought, Otan nodded, "I'll go."
Otan sat rigid at the base of Seippa's neck. He had never flown over such a large body of water before, and so he was concentrating very hard on not looking down over the side of the great beast, although he noticed that Fen was faring little better as he fingered his staff.
Yemi glanced over the side, taking in a gulp of air. "So, we are past the Fire Nation by now, aren't we?"
Meili chuckled grimly. "We haven't even gotten within sight of Ember Island yet."
"Are there any islands that you know of nearby?" Otan asked, "Seippa's starting to get pretty tired."
Meili thought for a moment. "Well, I think by now we're getting pretty close to Sulphurcrab Atoll, but-"
Yemi cut her off, "good," he said, "I'm starved. Maybe there'll be some tropical fruit down there or something."
Meili looked away. "Well," she said.
"Look," Fen cried, pointing, "I think I see it! Down there!"
Otan pulled on the reins, guiding Seippa closer to the island, when he saw something. "There's a ship down there," he said.
Yemi glanced over the side and nearly jumped straight out of the saddle. "Fire Nation!" he cried, "We have to get out of here before they see us!"
Otan glanced over in time to see great balls of fire hurdling towards Seippa and immediately steered her away. "I think they already have," he said, "Hang on, I'm going to try and set us down!"
Meili an the others mounted their gliders and began feverishly blowing the flaming rocks out of the way, trying to cut a clear path for Otan. Meili cut through one of the rocks with a single thrust of her staff, sending out a razor-sharp swath of wind. Meanwhile Yemi and Fen tried to bat the rocks back down into the water as best they could, but the projectiles kept coming. Otan knew that sooner or later they would slip up. He had to get Seippa to a safe place on one of the islands before he could help the others- she was too big of a target.
Out of the corner of his eye, Otan watched as Meili glided up beside him. "Otan," she cried out, "use your lighting-aim for the ship! It's our only chance!" Otan shook his head. "No, we have to get out of here!" he cried.
"We're not getting out of here if we don't do something about that ship!" Meili called back. "You have to use your lightning! I don't know how much longer we can keep this up with the-"
A shrill cry went out high above them. Otan turned his head in time to see the outline of Fen tumbling out of the sky along with flaming fragments of his shattered gliding staff.
"Fen!" Otan cried, and reeled Seippa towards the falling Airbender just as a flaming projectile caught Seippa full on the flank with a resounding crack of muscle and bone. Otan lost his grip on the reins was thrown from the Sky Bison's back to the island below. It was only though a combination of Airbending a cushion of air beneath him and quickly unfolding his glider that he was able to break his fall and tumble into the tropical canopy below, blacking out almost instantly as he landed face-first onto a tree branch.
How much time had passed since he had blacked out, Otan couldn't tell. At first he was only aware of the sharp pain in his jaw and neck as he sat up. Nausea instantly swept over him and so he back lay down once more in the sandy soil, looking up at the late afternoon sky through the canopy above.
"So you're awake." Meili said as she stooped over him.
"What about Fen and Yemi?" Otan asked weakly, "Where's Seippa?"
Meili shook her head. "As far I can tell, the Fire Nation took Yemi and Seippa. If Fen survived that fall, they probably got him too. Lucky for us, we're on the other side of the Atoll but they've pulled anchor and started looking for us. Can you walk?"
As an answer, Otan got to his feet. He didn't feel as faint as he had a few minutes ago, but his head still smarted and he felt slightly nauseous when he tried to walk. He didn't say as much to Meili, though. "What are we going to do now?" he said instead.
"We're going to have to sneak aboard their ship if we want to free them."
Otan stopped. "Sneak aboard a Fire Nation ship? That's impossible."
"It's also impossible to fly over an entire ocean without a Sky Bison." The old woman retorted as they made their way out of the canopy to the shore, where the Fire Nation ship waited offshore in the distance. "We're going to have to improvise."
Otan bowed his head. "I should never have gone with you," he said, "If I hadn't tried to save Fen, Seippa wouldn't have gotten hit."
Meili scowled. "If you had used your Airbending on that Fire Nation ship, Fen wouldn't have gotten shot down in the first place!"
"That ship was made almost entirely of metal," said Otan, "If I had used my lightning, I could have fried everyone onboard!"
"They would have done same to us," said Meili. "They're Firebenders."
Otan rounded on her. "Which is exactly why we can't lower ourselves to their level! Everything I've learned as an Airbender has taught me to be better than that!"
Meili shook her head. "Sometimes I wonder if you've learned anything at all, boy." She said, "Before we do anything else, you need to get this through your head; this isn't the Northern Air Temple, these people trying to kill us aren't like Fen and his hooligans. This is the real world, and the price of failure is much worse than anything the Councils could think up." She turned to face Otan, "I we're going to free our friends, I need to know that you won't hesitate to do whatever is necessary."
Otan nodded, "I'll try," he said.
Meili glanced over at the Fire Nation vessel. "You're going to have to do more than that," she said, "Trust me. For now, let's get some rest. They'll still be searching for us in the morning."
For the collective works of the author, go here.