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The Twenty-Second Day of the Sixth Month
"Aang?" called Gyatso, knocking on the young Avatar's bedroom door. It swung open, and he peered inside. "I'm not going to let them take you away from me." He stepped into the empty room, and stopped. "Aang?"
Gyatso frowned, worried, at the scroll sitting on Aang's bed. He picked it up, and read with mounting horror the simple message: Aang had run away!
He turned to the storm raging outside the window. A flash of lightning threw his gentle, worried features into sharp relief.
The door creaked open again, and Gyatso stood to see Aang, water pouring from him. "I- I couldn't make it," said Aang. "The storm..." He sniffled. "I'm sorry."
Gyatso ran to Aang and pulled him into a hug. "I'm just glad you're all right, little one. Everything is going to be okay. I promise."
The Twenty-Third Day of the Sixth Month
In the great hall of the Fire Lord, Sozin's four top generals bowed before him. "The day is soon coming for which we have long prepared," he said. "With great discipline and not a little sacrifice, we have kept our preparations secret. The other nations have no idea that we shall soon show them the true extent of our glory. In only a short time, the Great Comet will return, and the power of the firebenders will be magnified a hundredfold! The entire world will be made to tremble before our might.
"Only one thing can possibly stand in our way: the Avatar."
"My Lord," said General Oto, "The Avatar is dead."
"Yes," said Sozin, "Avatar Roku is dead. But some Air Nomad child is the new Avatar. He is born to be the guardian of the world -- the old world. That makes him a threat to our new world. We must eliminate him."
"But how?" asked Oto. "He could be any Air Nomad child. Even he might not know who he is!"
Sozin smiled coldly. "Then we will just have to kill every Air Nomad child."
Oto swallowed and looked sideways at his companions. They looked as shocked as he felt, and he hoped that Sozin couldn't see their expressions through the wall of eternal flame before his throne. He waited for one of them to say something, but none of them did.
"Silence? Not one of my generals has an opinion?" Sozin laughed. "This is a first!"
"My Lord..." Oto began, and hesitated. The plan was monstrous -- but to openly question the Fire Lord's war aims would be tantamount to treason.
"Ah, there we are," Sozin said. "I knew I could at least count on you, Oto." He laughed again.
"My Lord... The Air Nomads are scattered across the entire world, ever-wandering. We could never find them all!"
The other generals murmured agreement. "It cannot be done," said General Haru.
"Ah," said Sozin, "but that is not true of their children. They raise their children in their temples, and we know precisely where those are."
"But the temples are inaccessible!" protested General Ozin. "They are all perched atop mountains or below cliffs. Our men would be easy prey while they tried to climb to the temples with airbenders swooping in from every side."
Sozin smiled. "On the day of the comet, the chronicles tell us, master firebenders could fly on jets of flame. That is when we will strike -- and the Avatar will be no more."
The Twenty-Ninth Day of the Sixth Month
Aang walked slowly across the courtyard to his waiting bison, the abbot by his side. "I know this is hard for you, but it's for the good of the whole world. I hope someday you understand why we had to do this."
"Yeah," Aang muttered. "Sure."
The abbot sighed. "Good journey to you, Avatar Aang."
"Thanks," said Aang. He mounted Appa and listlessly ordered him to rise. "Yip, yip." Appa gave his usual groaning, mournful roar and began the journey east. Aang turned and watched as the Southern Air Temple vanished into the distance.
"Nobody's following us," he said. "You can come out now."
Gyatso emerged from the bundle of supplies on Appa's back and grinned at Aang. Aang grinned back grabbed the reigns. "Come on, Appa! We're going west!"
The First Day of the Seventh Month
In a quiet corner of a dark and busy bar, a hooded man sat alone at a table, idly fiddling with a small wooden disc. In most bars, this would be worthy of comment; there are few things more noticeable and suspicious than a cloaked man in a dark corner, quiet where everyone else is noisy. But this bar had its fair share of cloaked and hooded men, and more than its fair share of people who preferred not to be noticed. Anyone who went around noticing and suspecting people would soon find himself in the alley behind the bar, not long before he found himself with rather more holes in his body than is normally considered healthy.
Two more cloaked and hooded men approached and sat at the table.
"Thank you for coming, gentlemen," said the first man. Barely visible beneath his hood was the scarred and grizzled face of General Oto.
"Of course," said one of the other men, General Haru. Older than Oto, he had half a magnificent white beard. Where the left half should have grown, there was only a nasty burn.
"I assume we are here for the reason I think?" asked the last man. Rather younger than the others, he was still unscarred, with the imperious attitude only one whose meteoric rise is the result of both noble birth and deft political maneuvering. Despite his well-earned reputation as one whose greatest victories were in the Fire Lord's court, not the field, General Ozin was neither heartless nor incompetent.
"Yes," said Oto. "The Fire Lord's plan is both foolish and monstrous."
Haru nodded. "The words are finally said. The Air Nomads are pacifists; they are no threat. We should use the power of the comet to strike our enemy's strongest point with all our force: Ba Sing Se."
"Words said can never be unsaid," said Ozin. "We must tread carefully; this conversation is nearly treason."
Oto shook his head. "My concern is for the good of the Fire Nation! How can that be treason?"
Ozin shrugged. "These are strange and troubled times we live in. Who knows what is or isn't right anymore?"
Haru snorted. "You sound like General Shuko. Speaking of which, why isn't she here?"
"Isn't it obvious?" asked Oto. "She said nothing in the meeting, had no objections. She cannot be trusted."
Ozin nodded. "Very wise. She is ruthless, that one. I'm not sure even slaughtering children would stop her."
"So," said Haru. "The question remains: What do we do?"
"We can try to persuade the Fire Lord," said Ozin. "Your plan to strike Ba Sing Se is sound. The Fire Lord must see the wisdom of it."
"And if he does not?" asked Haru.
Ozin shrugged. "Then I will do my duty and serve my lord. What choice do we have?"
Oto looked down at the Pai Sho tile in his hands. "There's always a choice," he said. "Though sometimes there's no good one."
The Fifth Day of the Seventh Month
A few days after their departure from the Southern Air Temple, shortly after sunrise, Gyatso shook Aang awake. "We're nearly there, Aang," he said. "Look!"
In the distance loomed a dark cliff, towers projecting from its underside like icicles from a roof. Aang watched as a small, fluffy white cloud emerged from the towers and drifted toward him. As it neared, it broke up into a swarm of smaller clouds, and Aang laughed as he recognized them as baby air bison. "Come on, Gyatso!" Without waiting for a response, he snapped his glider open and took off.
Gyatso smiled as he watched Aang laughing and zipping through the sky, playing a grand game of rules-free tag with the baby air bison. It was the happiest he'd seen Aang since the monks first told him he was the Avatar.
As Gyatso and Appa landed, a tall and regal-looking woman in the robes and tattoos of a senior nun approached. "I am Abbess Rinzen," she said. "What brings you to our temple, brother monk?"
Aang swooped down next to Gyatso, folding up his glider as he landed. The air bison swarmed over Appa, nuzzling and playfully nipping at his hair. He grumbled contentedly and flopped out on the floor of the courtyard, good-naturedly allowing the babies to explore the newcomer.
Gyatso bowed. "I am traveling with this boy, and seek a place to alight for a time."
"True so far as it goes, Monk Gyatso, but incomplete. Oh, do not stare. When you disappeared from the Southern Temple, they sent word to us all to be on the lookout for you, with or without the Avatar." She looked down at Aang, her stern features disapproving. "This, I assume, is he?"
Aang stared at the ground and shrugged.
"Hmph," she said. "You bear the tattoos of a master, but you are rude as any petulant child." She turned to Gyatso. "You must return to your temple, and the boy must go east."
Gyatso shook his head. "I won't leave Aang. And I am an Air Nomad. None may tell me where to go or when to stay, and none of our temples may be closed to me."
Rinzen bowed her head. "Such is our law. But the boy is a child. He may not travel without permission of his elders. You may go where you will, but he goes to the east."
"No!" cried Aang. "Gyatso promised we'd be together!" He opened his glider.
"Wait, Aang," said Gyatso. He turned to Rinzen. "Please. I only want what's best for Aang. He needs to study, of course, but he needs friends and fun, as well. Please, let us walk for a moment to discuss this."
Rinzen frowned. "Very well, we can discuss further. Come with me." She glared down at Aang again. "You stay here!"
"I'll be right back, Aang," said Gyatso. "It'll be okay."
The two masters strolled across the courtyard and up a staircase to a second courtyard, this one built around a large fountain. There, they stood side by side, looking into the fountain. "So," said Rinzen after a long silence. "What is it you didn't want the boy to hear?"
"I care only about Aang's well-being," Gyatso said. "I love him as if he were my own."
"The attachment of family is not our way," Rinzen chided. "You sound like an earthbender."
"I know," said Gyatso. "I cannot help it. But I have thought about it, and I believe the other monks of my temple are mistaken. Forcing Aang to train now is not best for the world."
"What do you mean?" asked Rinzen.
"He used to be full of energy, quick to laugh, able to bounce back from anything. But ever since he found out that he's the Avatar, he's grown quiet. He is alone and unhappy; I do what I can, but he needs friends his own age."
"I am sorry," said Rinzen, and meant it. "But as Abbot Nawang told you, what is best for Aang is second to what is best for the world."
"But that's just it! There's a reason the Avatar is not supposed to know his destiny before he is sixteen. The Avatar of all people must love the world and its people! When better than childhood for him to learn?"
"Hmm," said the Abbess. She turned and began walking back to the courtyard. Gyatso followed, studying her, but she showed no sign of whether she had accepted his plea. Then, at the bottom of the stairs, she stopped.
Gyatso craned around her to see, and burst out laughing. Across the courtyard, a dozen children struggled to form air scooters, laughing as Aang dashed around them. One girl succeeded, and she zipped after Aang, chasing him in a zig-zag course between pillars and around Appa.
"All right," said Rinzen. "You can stay. For a time, at least."
Gyatso bowed. "Thank you, Abbess Rinzen."
The Eighth Day of the Seventh Month
Scowling, General Oto placed his last Pai Sho tile on the board. His opponent, an elderly wine merchant, grinned triumphantly and placed down his tile. "I win!" he crowed, and gathered up the pot.
Oto inclined his head. "A good game," he said tonelessly.
Chuckling, the old man nodded back. "Want to try to win your money back?"
"No," said Oto. "I know when I'm beaten. I'll wait and hope an easier opponent appears."
Laughing, the old man walked off across the busy marketplace. Oto scowled at his board. He'd been here for hours, losing every game, but that wasn't the source of his frustration. No, that was easy to pinpoint: After a week of all three generals trying to convince Sozin to go after Ba Sing Se, this morning he had declared that the next person to recommend it would be banished. The old fool was obsessed with this Avatar business, and letting it cloud his judgment and moral sense both.
A middle-aged man sat across from Oto. His clothes -- well-made, well-worn, sensible, much patched, and dusty -- marked him as a traveller of some experience, and his bearing made clear that he was more than adequate with the bow slung across his back. He looked Fire Nation, but his green eyes indicated at least a little Earth Kingdom blood. "Shall we play?" he asked.
"Of course," said Oto. "I'm taking all challengers today." He placed his tile.
"Ah," said the other man. "The White Lotus Gambit. I've seen you play seven games today, and every one you've begun with this move." He made his move.
Oto's black mood lifted a little. Finally, someone who responded with the right move! "Few remain who honor the old ways," he answered as he played.
"Those who do can always find a friend." The traveler placed another tile according to the ancient rules.
Oto and the traveler traded moves until a lotus pattern filled the board. The traveler nodded approvingly and leaned back. "Tie game," he said.
Oto nodded. "Perhaps I can buy you a drink."
The traveler smiled. "Of course."
The Sixth Day of the Eighth Month
Aang swooped down past Nima on his glider then curved up to loop around her. She responded by nearly stopping, so that she dropped into a steep corkscrew dive, before pulling up hard to rocket past Aang. He yelped and banked left out of the way, and Nima pulled up next to him, laughing.
"Nice one, Nima!" Aang felt the hot summer sun beating down on him, and the cool flow of air wrapping around him, and grinned. In the last few weeks his life had finally gone back to normal. None of the kids here knew what he was or thought he was any different from them. They knew he was getting special training with the senior monks, but then, they could see his tattoos. They assumed it was a class for junior masters, and Aang didn't correct them.
His morning was filled with training, but the long glorious afternoons were free, full of flying up the cliff to pick berries, playing with the baby sky bison, or meaningless, exhausting, elaborate games with the other kids. And, of course, filled with Nima.
From the moment she picked up the air scooter faster than anybody else, Nima proved she was something special: clever, fun, a great bender and a great friend. Okay, so she wasn't full of crazy ideas like Bumi or a prankster like Kuzon; she was still the best friend Aang had made in a long time.
"Aang, check this out!" she shouted, and pulled a series of loop-de-loops.
"Hey, not bad!" he called back. "But look at this!" Aang snapped his glider shut and spun his staff, pulling himself up and back with airbending. Then, just before he began to fall, he opened his glider again and traced curves across the sky.
After hours of flying, the two grew tired. Near sunset, they returned to the temple to find a strange, female bison in the courtyard.
"Aang," called Gyatso. "I'd like you to meet a former student of mine." He gestured to the woman by his side. About twenty-five, she had the same arrow tattoos as Aang and Gyatso. "Pema, this is Aang. Aang, this is Pema."
Aang bowed. "Good to meet you, Master Pema."
She laughed and bowed back. "Good to meet you, too, Master Aang. You're what, twelve, and already you have the tattoo? You must be quite the prodigy?"
Aang looked down and shifted uncomfortably.
"Wait a minute," said Pema, turning to Gyatso. "Twelve? The timing works!"
Gyatso shook his head no, trying to get Pema to stop, but she didn't notice. "I'd heard the rumors he'd been told, but... You old goat, I can't believe it! My old sifu is training the Avatar!?"
Gyatso closed his eyes, groaning inwardly. Nima turned to Aang, but before she could ask the question, he was gone, sprinting across the courtyard as he pulled out his glider.
"Oh no," said Pema. "What did I say?"
Gyatso shook his head. "It's all right, Pema. You didn't know." He turned to Nima. "Find Aang," he said.
The two adults watched Nima run across the courtyard and take off on her own glider.
"So," said Gyatso. "Game of Pai Sho? And maybe you can tell me what's troubling you."
Pema nodded silently, and they walked into the temple. They did not speak until the board was set up and Pema made the first move: the White Lotus Gambit.
"I see," said Gyatso. "Let us skip the rituals; what is the matter?"
Pema told him.
"Well," said Gyatso. "That's not good news."
"No," said Pema. "We should tell the Abbess, of course, but my instructions were to bring the message to you."
Gyatso nodded. "We'll go at once." With surprising speed, given his age, he raced across the temple, upstairs and across bridges and down hallways, until he reached the Abbess' chamber.
"Come in," called Rinzen in response to his knock. "Ah, Gyatso. Come for another debate?"
"No," he said, as Pema stepped in behind him. "My student has brought me chilling news which you must hear."
"The Fire Nation is coming," said Pema. "In a matter of weeks the Great Comet will return. The Fire Nation's forces are already in position; on that day they will attack every temple at once."
"What?" sputtered Rinzen. "Why?"
"My source says the Fire Lord has gone mad," Gyatso explained. "The firebenders' orders are to kill all our children."
Rinzen went white. "The children?" she repeated. "You're certain?"
Gyatso nodded. "The chain of messengers is long, by necessity, but every step is entirely trustworthy, and the original source is both trustworthy and in a position to know."
Rinzen sat heavily on her pallet. "We must issue the Call," she said.
"What?" sputtered Pema. "No! We must send the children to hide somewhere. Abandon the temples completely the night before the comet, and go somewhere the Fire Nation cannot find us in a day!"
Gyatso nodded. "I agree with Pema."
"No!" snapped Rinzen. "The temples are our culture. Our books, our art, our histories -- everything that makes us a nation is here. We cannot simply abandon that to burn!"
"If we stay, people will die," said Gyatso. "Better for our nation to burn than our brothers and sisters."
"I must consult with the other senior monks," said Rinzen. "And the other temples. I will consider what you say, Gyatso, but you must understand, these are our homes. We cannot simply stand by while they are ransacked by madmen."
She stood and walked for the door. "And we must consider, too, the Avatar. The Fire Lord must know he is one of the children he plans to murder. What might he be planning, that the Avatar would oppose?"
The Ninth Day of the Eighth Month
Oto entered the Fire Lord's chamber to find the other generals and Fire Lord already there. "I'm sorry," he said. "Am I late? I must have gotten the time of the meeting wrong."
"No," said Sozin. "That was not your mistake."
Oto froze, staring at the others. Haru looked grim but determined, and Shuko looked bored. Ozin, however, would not meet his eyes. "You betrayed me," he said to Ozin. "You bastard, you betrayed me!"
"No," said Sozin. "The only traitor here is you, General Oto. We know you tried to send a message to the airbenders!"
"You're the traitor," Oto snarled. "You're insane, and you're going to destroy this nation! I'm the only person in this room willing to say it to your face!"
The flames in front of Sozin flared higher. "Guards," he ordered coldly. "Take the traitor away."
Oto did not struggle as the guards manacled him.
"I'm sorry it had to be this way," said Haru.
"It didn't," said Oto. "I did what needed to be done."
"I'm sorry, too," said Ozin, so Oto spat at his feet.
After the guards led Oto away, Sozin said, "Now then, to business. I want each of you to select your hundred most talented benders, and depart for your assigned temple by tomorrow morning. Ozin, take the north. Haru, the east. Shuko, the south."
"My Lord," asked Shuko, "without Oto, who will lead the assault on the Western Air Temple?"
Sozin stood and walked through the wall of flame. He stood before his generals wreathed in fire, currents of red and yellow flowing over his clothing, his hair, the skin of his face and clenched fists, sweeping over and around him but never touching. "I will."
The Twenty-Second Day of the Eighth Month
Aang and the other children played air-scooter-ball, which Nima invented after lunch, until the last light faded. They collapsed in a happy pile, all ten of them, every kid in the temple between eight and twelve. "That was awesome," enthused Tengen, one of the youngest.
"Yeah, great game, Nima," said Aang. "We're going to have to play again tomorrow!"
Gyatso's voice rang out from the stairs, quiet yet clear. "Aang, come with me please. We must talk."
"Aw," Aang shouted back. "Five more minutes!"
"Now, please, Aang."
Grumbling, Aang detached himself from the pile and walked across the courtyard. Lights peppered the temple's towers. A lot of people seemed to be visiting in the last couple of weeks, and weirdly, none had left. The adult population of the temple had at least tripled since the beginning of the month.
"What's going on?" asked Aang.
"Quiet, please," said Gyatso.
Aang flinched. Gyatso looked nervous, worried. No, he looked frightened. Gyatso never looked frightened. It was wrong, all wrong. "What's going on?" Aang asked again, angrily this time.
Gyatso stopped and looked up and down the hallway. "All right," he said. "Listen, Aang, you have to go down to the stables and saddle Appa. Do it quietly, and don't let anybody see you. Fly south until there isn't any more south, then look for a town made of ice. A friend of mine named Nauja lives there. She'll be your teacher from now on."
"You're coming with me, aren't you?"
"I can't, Aang. I'm sorry."
"No!" shouted Aang, and a gust of wind swept down the hall. "You promised!"
"Aang, please," said Gyatso. "You need to go where it's safe. I can't protect you if you stay here."
Aang struggled to hold back tears. "You promised," he said. "And I have friends here! Nima even found out I'm the Avatar, and she went to bring me back. She's never told anyone, either! I won't leave! Especially not if you're all going to be in danger!"
Voices and footsteps sounded at the end of the hall, and Gyatso sagged. "It seems the choice is made for us," he said. Several nuns approached, bearing torches, with Rinzen right behind them.
"I expected you might try something like this, Gyatso," she said. "There's a guard on the bison stables."
"Would somebody please explain what's going on?" asked Aang.
"Yes," said Gyatso.
"No!" Rinzen snapped. "He's only a child."
"Technically, he is a master," said one of the nuns.
Rinzen sighed. "Fine. Aang, tomorrow, all of our temples are going to be attacked. If we can hold out for one day, we will be safe again, but until then we are in terrible danger. We considered spending the day hiding, but then we would lose everything we have."
"We'd have everything that matters," muttered Gyatso, but Rinzen pretended not to hear him.
"We've sent out the Call," she continued. "One by one, each of our wandering brothers and sisters have assembled to protect our temples. It is the first time in living memory we've had to do this, but it is necessary. You and the other children will be safe. You'll stay hidden in the sanctuary, where only an airbender can reach you."
"I want to help," said Aang.
"Why don't you tell him the rest, Rinzen?" asked Gyatso.
"It is too much for a child," Rinzen answered.
"He deserves to know."
"I said no!" Rinzen shouted. "You've already disobeyed me once tonight, Gyatso. Do not risk a second time."
"Aang, they're coming for you," said Gyatso. "You and the other children are the target. That's why you need to stay hidden."
The Day of the Comet: Before Dawn
Sozin stood on the cliff, a hundred of the best and most loyal benders in the Fire Nation behind him. In the pre-dawn darkness, their spiked red armor looked like sharp-edged shadows given life. "It's coming," he said, and then the southern sky lit up as if on fire. Angry red flowed across the sky, and the Great Comet blazed on the horizon, a false dawn.
Sozin breathed deep, feeling power fill him beyond any he had ever known. "Today is the day of the Great Comet!" he shouted to his men, and they cheered. "Today we make history!" They cheered again. "This day, the Air Nation falls! My country, my men, my day -- my comet! Sozin's Comet!" He leaped off the cliff.
Sozin's Comet! roared his men, and leaped after him.
Sozin laughed as he fell, and gestured. A column of fire erupted beneath him, and in a moment he was able to steady himself on it, hovering in midair. He could feel the heat of his men hovering on jets of their own behind him, and ahead he could see gliders and armored air bison approaching. "Charge!" he called, and soared into battle on wings of flame.
The Day of the Comet: Late Afternoon
Aang paced back and forth across the floor of the sanctuary. The chamber shook, and the children inside heard a muffled explosion.
"Aang, sit down," said Nima. "You're making me nervous."
"I'm making you nervous? There's a war out there!"
"It'll be okay," she said. "We're safe in here." She gestured around the room, barely large enough for the thirty-eight children (everyone under the age of sixteen) in the room.
One of the babies began crying again. A couple of others tried half-heartedly to join in, but were too exhausted from a day of crying to keep it up. Nima picked up the crier and rocked it gently.
Another explosion shook the sanctuary. "We can't just do nothing!" Aang insisted.
"What can we do?" countered Nima. "We're kids."
The other kids watched them disinterestedly or not at all. The two had had some version of this argument at least a dozen times since they entered the sanctuary shortly before dawn.
"There has to be something," Aang insisted, for the twentieth time that day.
Then the door exploded. It blew inwards, sending kids scrambling out of its path. Three people in spiked red armor and facemasks stood in the doorway, and the hallway behind them burned. Children screamed and scrambled over each other trying to reach the back of the room, and now all six babies, and more than a few older kids, were crying.
"Ready!" called the leader, and all three firebenders drew back fists, the flames flaring around them. "Fi--"
A gale swept through the hall, snuffing out the flames. It caught the firebenders and threw them against the walls and ceiling. The leader's neck struck the doorframe with a sickening crack, and she dropped, limp, to the floor, head twisted the wrong way and limbs splayed. She was the first corpse Aang had ever seen.
A tall figure in yellow swept down the hall. Nearly faster than the eye could see, a fist struck one throat and then a leg struck the other, and the two men fell.
"All of you," said Gyatso. "Quickly now, follow me."
"We're supposed to stay here until the battle is over," said Nima, unable to tear her eyes from the corpses.
"It's over," said Gyatso.
"But I thought it wasn't over until the soldiers leave," said Aang, equally unable to look at them.
"No time," said Gyatso. "Follow me to the stables! Stay together, and move quick!"
The children had to run, the oldest carrying the youngest, and still they could barely keep up with Gyatso. Everywhere they saw airbenders and firebenders battling each other, but Gyatso swept ahead of them, clearing a path through fire, rubble, and battle. Everywhere there were corpses, too, until they seemed to outnumber the living. As Aang run, he saw flames bursting from the windows of one of the towers. A moment later, the tower simply fell apart, collapsing to rubble as it fell down the cliff face.
At the entrance to the stables they met a group of airbenders, all with master tattoos, led by Rinzen. "Everyone inside," she said. "If you have a bison, find it. If it's big enough to ride, ride it. If it's not, or you don't have one, ride someone else's. Hurry!"
"But where are we --"
"I'm taking you all somewhere safe," said Gyatso. "Now hurry!"
The roar of flame grew loader and closer, and the children rushed to their bison. Appa licked Aang as soon as he was near.
"I'm glad you're okay, too, buddy," said Aang, and climbed up onto Appa's back. "Come on, Gyatso!" he called.
Flame exploded into the stables, Rinzen and Gyatso just ahead of it. Of the others there was no sign. "Go now!" shouted Gyatso, as a single firebender stepped into the room, his armor trimmed in gold and his helmet more elaborate than the others. "Go to Nauja! You'll be safe there!"
A wall of flame erupted from the armored man. Terrified, all of the bison leaped into the air, twenty full-grown and nearly as many infants. Thirty-seven terrified children clung to their backs; but one bison and one child stayed on the ground.
"Aang!" shouted Gyatso again. "Run!"
"No! I'm not leaving you!"
Curtains of flame erupted through the room, but Gyatso deflected them. He dodged to the side, then struck, a dagger of air that dented the firebender's facemask, ruining his ability to see through it. With a roar of rage, Sozin tore off his helmet to reveal his age-lined face and streaming white hair.
"Appa!" shouted Gyatso, leaping onto his back. "Yip yip!"
Roaring, Appa jumped into the air and flew after the other children. Aang stared wildly behind him, clinging to Appa's back, as fire exploded through the stables right below them. He turned to see the other children on their bison, milling uncertainly in a sky wreathed in fire. Something was bubbling inside him, trying to get out, something he didn't understand.
"Follow Appa!" shouted Gyatso to the others. "Straight up, as far as we can go!"
The sun was low in the west, and the comet still burned in the southern sky. As Appa rose, Aang could see the temple below, blue-gray stone crumbling into the red and yellow blaze.
"We'll go west," Gyatso shouted, "and then north, to confuse them. Once we're far enough away -- well, just follow me!"
Aang looked for Nima; she and her bison were to the left and a little below him. She looked scared, but unhurt. A smaller kid, holding either a baby or a doll, sat behind her.
Far below, Aang saw something tiny and red detach from the temple. Flame erupted from it, and it began to rise rapidly.
Gyatso stood. "Thank you for saving me in the stables, Aang." He looked down at the rising red speck. "Nauja," he said quietly. "Don't forget. You'll have to be the leader now."
"No," said Aang. "You're here, you're coming with us."
Gyatso hugged Aang, so hard it almost hurt. "I'm sorry, Aang. I tried to give you a childhood. Please, remember that I tried." He released Aang, then jumped off Appa, Aang's staff in his hand.
As he fell, Gyatso found himself smiling through his tears. "It's been a long time since I showed you this trick, old friend." Snapping the glider open, Gyatso flipped over so that it was below him. Carefully he stood, balancing on top of the glider as it hurtled down, faster than a diving hawk straight toward Sozin rocketing up to meet him.
Aang watched as Gyatso shrank to a yellow speck. Yellow speck struck red, and the column of fire winked out. For a moment nothing happened, and then a ring of flame erupted sideways from the point where the specks had met, and Aang's robes flapped in a column of cold air that erupted upward from the same point.
There was no sign of either speck.
Aang's lips moved, but no voice came: "Gyatso."
He was suddenly aware of how very quiet it was. He was dimly aware that Nima was calling his name, that a half-dozen soldiers on columns of flame were rising around them, but it all seemed so distant. Gyatso was gone.
For the first time, Aang knew exactly who he was: Everyone. A hundred selves, a thousand, fizzed through his blood, the light of their souls erupting through his eyes and tattoos.
For the first time, Aang knew exactly what he was: Everything. He felt the air around him, and the fire. The water of the river far below, and the earth of the temple.
Aang jumped from Appa and hurtled downward, headfirst, his arms flat against his sides and legs straight. He passed through the point where Gyatso had met Sozin, but there was nothing there. Gyatso was gone.
Aang slammed into the cliff face like a torpedo, penetrating deep into it. A moment later the temple exploded, and Aang rose into the air, a spherical storm of wind raging around him, and floating chunks of the temple, entire towers, orbiting around that. He gestured, and entire towers shot through the air to strike the firebenders threatening his friends.
Next Aang turned his attention to the Fire Army encampment on top of the cliff, slamming huge stone chunks of the temple into it, again and again until they crumbled to dust. In minutes, the temple was destroyed completely, and the handful of Fire Army survivors were fleeing.
Appa's roar penetrated Aang's rage, and he turned to see Appa and another bison approaching from behind and above. Nima stood on top of the second bison, her arms outstretched. Behind her the smaller girl and the baby were both crying.
"Aang!" Nima called. "Aang, please. Come back to us. We need you!"
As quickly as it had come, the rage and the power, the memory and the knowledge dissolved. Aang went limp and the stones fell as the wind faded away. Grasping the reins, Nima swooped her bison after him before even Appa could react, and caught Aang before he could fall.
"Still breathing," she said to herself. "Good."
"Listen up, everybody!" she shouted. "We go west, and then north! After that -- we follow the Avatar!"
The First Day of the Ninth Month
General Shuko entered the chamber where the Fire Lord slept and knelt. "My Lord," she said.
Sozin sat up, and winced. Between the attack of that infernal airbender and the fall into the river afterwards, half the bones in his body had been broken, and whatever wasn't broken was bruised. Still, he was alive, which was more than he could say for the airbender.
"What news from the south?"
"Success, my Lord," said Shuko. "We left no survivors."
Sozin smiled. "Well done, Shuko. Haru and Ozin reported the same. All three of you are to be commended."
"Thank you, Lord," said Shuko.
Sozin closed his eyes. "I saw him, Shuko," he said. "As I fell, I saw the Avatar destroy his own temple. He was like a demon."
"Yes, my Lord."
"He has not escaped me."
"No, my Lord?"
Sozin smiled again. "I know where he's going. 'Go to Nauja,' the airbender said." Sozin opened his eyes, glinting with the fire that even falling hundreds of feet into a raging river could not quench. "Every cartogropher and scholar in the Fire Nation has his orders. Whether it be island, bustling city, or tiny village, they will find this Nauja place. And once they do... we will have our Avatar."
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