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Two Airbenders, Sister Meili and Monk Yemi witness strange lights in the sky on their journey to the Northern Air Temple and decide to investigate.
A Flash in the Night
In a matter of moments, it seemed as though an entire day had gone by; the sun had risen, arched across the heavens and fallen back down again, but of course, that would have been ridiculous; it was the middle of the night.
"Never seen the sun do that before," said Monk Yemi from his perch atop assortment of crates and baskets. The massive Sky Bison Pakka beneath him instinctively reeled away from the burning light. For a moment it seemed that Yemi and the cargo he and the others were transporting to the Northern Temple would tumble into the misty mountaintops below but for the skillful bending of Meili's part as she gestured the cargo back into position.
"That wasn't the sun," she said, small eyes narrowing, "The air carries the scent of the Fire Nation on it." Meili was a small, serious woman, although like most Airbenders, she was quick enough to laugh-just not where the Fire Nation was concerned.
Yemi chuckled and slid down next to her, smelling as usual of the geckostool tea he flavored, causing Meili to shift slightly to the side. "Ah, well, maybe they decided to put on a little show." He said, "All of that marching must get so boring after a while. I say we just forget about it and move on. If we're lucky, we should be able to slip by without them noticing us."
Meili shook her head. "No," she said, "There's an Earth Kingdom village down there."
Yemi grimaced, though his expression was hidden beneath his long, grey-streaked beard. "Now look, Sister," he said, "You know I'd give a man a gold piece if-"
Meili cut him off with a snarl. "Not with that old story again," she said, "It's easy enough to get involved when your neck isn't on the line, but as soon as someone shouts "Fire Nation" you look for the nearest gust of wind to carry you away."
Yemi's head sank into his chest "That's not fair," he said, "You know that it isn't the Airbender way-and besides, you're forgetting Pakka here." He leaned over the saddle and patted the Sky Bison's flank. "What's your vote, buddy?"
Meili snuggled her face into the beast's hide. "I think that Pakka could use a rest, isn't that right, Paky-waky?" she said in a sing-song tone.
Pakka responded with an appreciative groan.
Monk Yemi rolled his eyes. "Alright, two to one," he said, "but if the lotus-berries spoil before we get to the Temple, no-one's pinning it on me."
Meili grunted. "Fair enough," she said, and with a crack of the reins she guided the Sky Bison down to a rocky outcropping leading up to the fast-approaching village.
It was early morning when they reached the village. Pakka had to be left on the ledge due to the difficulty of the terrain and because the sight of him could have given the two Air Nomads away to any Firebenders who might have been watching. Sister Meili coughed and parted a waved of stinging ash that blew towards her face as she clamored over some rocky debris. Monk Yemi brought up the rear. Even in the dim half-light, perspiration was visible across his plump-featured face, making him look all the more like a sweaty pear.
"I don't like this," he said as they reached the village proper. Everything was dark, not even the street-lanterns were lit, although it was impossible to see anything clearly in the morning light or in the haze of ash that covered everything. "You think everyone's asleep?"
Slowly, the smoke and ash began to clear. Meili's eyes widened. "No," she said, pointing to the center of town, where the earth had been burned away into a solid black crater, "It's all gone. The entire village is gone."
"This air is all wrong-it's too hot." said Yemi.
"We'll have to bend around it," Meili said as she advanced towards one of the few remaining stone huts at the edge of the village. "Be careful not to breathe it in."
Yemi gulped in a breath and gestured as he walked, bending the foul air away from his body as he followed after his friend, when something caught his eye. "Wait," he said, tapping Meili on the shoulder, "I see a shadow, someone's still inside!"
The two nomads rushed inside of the ruined hut and were greeted by a garden of frozen shadows. The walls were filled with them; crouching, talking, standing, playing. All shadows-none of them belonging to people.
Yemi scratched his head. "Interesting artwork," he said as he bent to examine one of the silhouettes, "What do you think they used for paint?" He turned around in time to see Meili stepping away, looking as though she were about to be violently ill.
"Yemi," Meili said, "Those aren't paintings. Those-those were people! Those were people before the Fire Nation killed them all-burned them alive so fast that there was nothing left."
Yemi glanced from Meili's stricken face to the unsettling silhouettes and quickly made for the door. Moments later, Meili could hear the sounds of quiet retching just outside as tears streamed her face.
They had searched for bodies, but had found none and so headed back to where they had left Pakka waiting near the ledge. Whatever sort of Firebending had been employed on the village, none had survived. It had come so quickly that none of the villagers had had time to react and were instantly incinerated when the attack came.
"I told you we shouldn't have come here," said Yemi, pointing to the village behind them, "Those people were just-just gone-like that! Now that we've seen what happened, you think the Firebenders will hesitate to do the same to us?"
Meili said nothing as she made her way down ahead of the monk. Though she was no longer the young woman she had once been, it still felt as though a lifetime had passed since she had last climbed up the rocks to the destroyed village. Even the normally jovial Yemi's beard seemed more grey than it had before.
Meili almost didn't notice when they had finally reached the ledge where they had left the Sky Bison and their cargo until Yemi spoke up. "Where's Pakka?" he said.
Meili glanced around, but the massive beat was nowhere to be seen.
Yemi threw up his hands. "How can something that big just disappear?" he exclaimed, "How are we supposed to get to he Temple now?"
"Hush," said Meili, glancing skywards to stony pinnacle just beyond the ledge, where a small cloud hung suspended before them, not moving with the wind. Yemi noticed it as well and was about to say something when Meili shushed him again as the clouds began to take vaguely human form.
"Is it a spirit?" Yemi whispered.
"No," said Meili, bringing up her staff, "I don't think so. But it's not human either."
The ethereal form held out its "hands" in a show of peace, hovering just out of their reach beyond the lip of the ledge, then brought one cloudy arm to what passed for its head and blew sharply.
A familiar groan echoed through the mountains as Pakka came hurtling towards the two Airbenders with its cargo. Yemi and Meili were so relieved to see their friend that they didn't notice the strange demi-spirit until after it faded away into nothing.
"All the cargo seems to be in place," Yemi said after a quick inspection from the saddle.
"I don't remember packing him, though," said Meili.
Yemi did a double take when he saw the boy sitting cross legged and staring at them from amid the wicker baskets. The two Airbenders exchanged a glance and Meili knelt down to face the boy, putting on her best smile. "Hello there," she said, "I'm Meili, what's your name?"
The boy didn't seem to see her, but spoke anyway. "Otan." He said, "My name is Otan."
The boy Otan said nothing as Pakka bore him and the Airbenders into the morning light. Meili had interviewed the boy, trying to find out as much as she could about him, but the boy was obviously in shock and wouldn't give out more than his own name, and so Meili decided to take him with them to the temple.
"You don't think he's from the village, do you?" said Yemi.
Meili sighed. "Look at his clothes-he's obviously Earth Kingdom."
"How could he have survived-I don't know-" Yemi glanced towards the smoking village behind him, "-that? It's just not possible."
"Obviously that spirit-thing had something to do with it." Said Meili, "It must have saved him before the attack came."
Yemi shook his head, glancing at where the boy was seated behind them, taking in the cloudy shock of white hair on his head to the vacant, piercing eyes that stared straight ahead until Meili roughly turned him around again. "You're going to scare the boy if you keep acting all squirrelly like that." She snapped.
Yemi put on his familiar grimace. "There's just something-" he paused, "-otherworldly about him. I can't help it."
Without warning, a swathe of fire arched up to meet the nomads. Pakka instinctively reeled away from the blasts, heading in the opposite direction.
"Firebenders!" Yemi yelped, ducking into a fetal position, "Get us out of here, Sister!"
"Hang on tight," Meili said, glancing behind her, but the boy was nowhere to be seen. Then she noticed that her glider staff was missing from the back of the saddle.
"Otan!" she cried out as more fireballs streaked towards Pakka's flank. On a wide ridge below she could see the small dark forms of Fire Nation soldiers in full military array as they synced up their movements and sent a rolling wave of fire screaming towards them, cutting through the morning mists. Meili and Yemi braced for impact, but it never came. All that came was a rush of frigid air. When the Sister opened her eyes, all she could see was Otan spiraling across the sky to their right, bending the hot air and fire around them as the Firebenders looked on in astonishment right before they were blown into oblivion by a secondary strike from Otan as he sped away to rejoin the others.
Yemi was white as a sheet when Otan touched down on Pakka's saddle. Graciously, he handed Meili's gliding staff back to her without once changing expression and then without a word he returned to his seat amid Pakka's cargo.
"An Airbender," Meili mused, "In an Earth Kingdom village."
For the collective works of the author, go here.