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Nine years have passed since Otan was brought to train at the Northern Air Temple. His heritage and somewhat aloof demeanor have made him a target for local bullies, although his natural talents mark him as one of the most promising Airbenders in the north.
"Did you hear what I said, grounder?" The smaller boy called from the top of the statue.
Otan did his best to ignore him. "Concentrate on the forms," he whispered to himself as he brought his staff over his shoulder. "Number thirty-six. Number thirty-six." He had been working for nearly a month to perfect this one and he had determined that not even Fen and his gang would stand in his way.
"What's a grounder like you doing up here anyway? Still practicing for examinations tomorrow?" Fen cried out again just as Otan was about to swing his staff. Instead, he tumbled to the ground, his gliding staff striking him flat on the shin.
"Look at that," Fen jeered as he leapt down from his perch, "The grounder can't even stand on his own to feet." A score of laughs echoed form the stony colonnade at the far end of the hall. Otan shrugged them off as he got to his feet. The short stub of an Airbender along with his cronies began to close in on Otan in a circle.
Otan said nothing as he got to his feet, dusting off his clothes.
"Let's see the grounder dance!" said one of Fen's gang.
"Dance grounder, dance!" the boys chanted as they brought out their staffs.
Otan knew what was coming. In unison, the boys began to swish and swirl about, sending short, quick blasts of air at Otan, trying to knock him off his feet with their Airbending. By this time, Otan was able to dodge most all of their attacks, but he also knew that if he didn't give them what they wanted, they wouldn't leave him alone either. The trick was not to make it seem too deliberate. And it worked. Otan let one of the boy's blasts smack him lightly in the shin, Otan let himself fall, hard, onto the stone floor of the temple. The impact was a little harder than he would have wished it, but all around him the chanting turned into a sea of wild whoops, with Fen yelling the loudest.
"What is the meaning of this!"
The cheering ceased immediately.
Meili looked like an angry vulture perched at the steps leading to the colonnade as she shouted at the circle of boys. "I come all the way from the Eastern Air Temple to get away from a bunch of chatty Nomad girls only to stumble into a den of little hooligans!" Meili's voice roared like a full force gale, sending the boys flying to the other side of the hall, where they promptly scattered out of sight at lightning speed, leaving only Otan sprawled on the floor. Meili approached him, her face bearing its usual scowl until she pulled him to his feet-then her face broke into her secret smile-the one she shared only with close friends. Otan bowed low, matching her smile.
"Wipe that grin off your face, boy," said Meili, "It doesn't suit you."
"It's good to see you to, Auntie Meili." He said.
Meili frowned. "It's 'Sister Meili' now, you know."
Otan bowed once more. "Forgive me, Sister, I-"
The old woman cut him off, "Just keep calling me 'Auntie'," she said, waving a hand dismissively.
They both shared a laugh, and after that Otan's aches and pains were forgotten shortly after.
"So, it's been what, nine years?" Yemi said between bites of his pie.
Otan nodded, not looking at the old man, instead staring out the window of his quarters to the east. "To the day." He said.
The monk chuckled. "I remember you running circles around those Fire Nation blowhards." He said.
Meili sniffed. "A shame you couldn't manage to do the same to Fen," she said as she emptied their tea cups into the wash basin. "We didn't save your life back there just so you get kicked around by that little pip-squeak, you know."
Otan ignored the comment, then turned towards the door, "I'm going to the Sanctuary." He said, grabbing his staff on the way out. "I need to practice for examinations tomorrow."
"You're not going to want the rest of your pie, I take it?" Yemi called out to him, but by then Otan had already slammed the door shut. Yemi took it as a "yes" and cut himself yet another piece before Meili snatched it away from him.
"It is his birthday, you know." She said irritably.
Yemi rested his head in his palm. "Exactly," he said, "I'm not the one bringing up old wounds! This should be a happy day for him!"
"There aren't going to be many more of your "happy days" so long as the Fire Nation continues burning and killing everything in sight." Meili said darkly.
"I've always said that you should have been born an Earthbender." Said Yemi, "You always want to hit everything head-on. Why can't you just enjoy the simple things in life?"
Meili stomped over to the table, her hook-nose making her look like a bird of prey as she came straight up to the frightened monk's face. "Someone in the Air Nomads has to keep their head out of the clouds," she said, "You think I got on the Council of Sisters because of my good looks?"
Yemi looked askance.
"Don't answer that," said Meili, " The point is that we need to be ready for whatever the Fire Nation can throw at us, or have you forgotten what they did to Otan's village?"
"So, you want us to mount an all-out assault? Go banging down the Fire Lord's door?" Yemi sighed. "You're talking to the wrong man, Meili. I'm not on the Council of Monks-I'm not even an Airbending Master. I'm just Yemi."
Meili's face softened and she took a seat across from her old friend. "I know that," she said, "But at least you listen, which is more than I can say of anyone else here. At least you've been here for Otan and others like him-it's our children's children who'll have to deal with Sozin's madness when we're gone. Us Nomads-we've become too complacent-too willing to let the world pass us by. Sooner or later we're going to have to pay for our overindulgence in our own ideals, just as the Fire Nation will for theirs."
The eight-legged Sky Bison was waiting for Otan when he reached the promontory in the heavy twilight, chasing the woolly hermit crabs back and forth across the wind-blasted stone. Though as soon as she caught sight of her little friend, she came barreling into Otan so hard that he thought he might be knocked off the cliff.
"Okay, okay! Cut it out, girl," he said as the Bison licked him with her massive tongue, all but enveloping his face as he fought to free himself. By the time he did, Otan was covered from head to toe in a thick film of saliva, but he didn't care. "You're still a regular mother hen, aren't you," he said, feeding her some oats he had brought with him from the stables on Fen's watch. As usual, the pudgy boy had been fast asleep, leaning heavily on his staff. He snored so loudly that even the enormous Seippa had had no problem slipping out through the front door of the stable.
Then again, Seippa had never liked being indoors. She was a wild Bison-one of the few left in the north, with a silver-grey coat much thicker than the tame Bison that the first Air Nomads had domesticated so long ago. She was quite a bit larger as well and her extra pair of legs were an additional asset when a little bit of extra traction was needed on the slick snow and ice that was so common in the mountains.
Otan supposed that they were both outcasts of sorts-which-being an Air Nomad and a Sky Bison-was saying something.
"So, I hear you're taking the examination tomorrow," Meili called out from behind.
Otan didn't turn around, but let his feet dangle over the edge of the cliff. "So is everyone else." He said.
The little old woman came up beside him. "By everyone else, you mean Fen, don't you?"
"I mean everyone else." Otan repeated.
"I suppose one-upping that little hooligan means nothing to you then?"
Otan closed his eyes. "An Airbender doesn't go looking for a fight." He said.
Meili smiled tightly when he opened them again. "And what if the fight finds you?" she said, "There's a difference between avoiding senseless conflict and running away from your problems."
Otan raised an eyebrow. "Does this have anything to do with the examination?" he said, annoyed.
Meili shrugged. "Not really," she admitted, glancing up at the Sky Bison "Just making conversation. How's Seippa, still got her spare legs, I hope."
The Sky Bison growled in response.
"Oh, come on girl," Otan chided, rubbing the underside of the creature's chin, "Auntie was just teasing."
"She's a live one alright," Meili said with a gravely laugh, "I'd say you chose the perfect companion."
Otan shook his head. "Seippa chose me," he said, "So it was more like the other way around. I was off in the mountains one time and I got caught in a storm and blown off course into the mountains and I blacked out. When I came to, there were these two Ravenbats circling over me, and my leg was pinned underneath some rocks and ice, so I couldn't bend my way out. Then out of nowhere one of the biggest Sky Bison I had ever seen just pummeled the Ravenbats head-on. After that I thought that she was going to eat me."
"Of course, Sky Bison are herbivores," said Meili."
"Well, how was I supposed to know? I was only ten years old!" said Otan, "Anyway, she didn't eat me after all and we've been friends ever since."
"I see," said Meili, staring out into the approaching night settling over the Temple. She put a gnarled hand on Otan's shoulder. "Come on, why don't we see if we can get a few pieces of your birthday pie before Yemi eats it all."
Otan smiled and followed after her, waving to Seippa as he headed back into the temple courtyard, not seeing the dark shapes peering down from the overhanging wall.
The day of the examination was wild and windy; a perfect day for Airbending. As far as Otan was concerned however, the day was far from perfect. "Have you seen Seippa?" he said to Yemi as the two made their way to the temple yard for Otan's examination.
The monk shook his head. "Nope. Doesn't she usually sleep in the stables now?"
Otan nodded. "Yeah, but I didn't see her there. I just searched everywhere around the temple before coming to you. She's not in any of her usual hiding spots."
Yemi chuckled. "Oh, I'm sure she'll turn up. Hard for something that big to stay hidden for long."
"No," said Otan, "There's something wrong. This isn't like Seippa."
"You know," said Yemi, "You don't have to take the examination today if you want to look for her. You can always wait until next autumn. I'm sure the Council wouldn't mind if I or Meili told them. Maybe perhaps we could send out a search party-cover more ground, that sort of thing."
"I can't do that," said Otan, "I've worked too hard to back down now. I'll have to keep looking after the examination. Besides, she's my responsibility. I'll handle it."
Yemi shrugged and bent open the doors to the training yard with a wave of his hand and a gust of wind.
At the far end Otan could see the monks of the Northern Council seated in a row, before them, several dozen hopefuls who might achieve the status of "Airbending Master".
Otan spotted Fen and his gang over by the side of the yard almost immediately. Fen gave him his best smirk. Otan tightened his hold on his staff.
"Good luck," said Yemi behind him, "Me and Meili will be watching."
Otan bowed low. "Thank you, Sifu Yemi."
Yemi returned the bow and moved to the back of the yard while Otan took his place with the other Airbenders when he noticed Fen and his gang approaching.
"I hear you've been looking for your bison, grounder." Said the shorter boy.
Otan ignored him.
"Poor grounder can't even keep track of his bison-and he's going out to be an Airbending Master." Fen continued while Otan said nothing.
"Young Nomads," came a cry from across the yard from the council, "Today is the day of examination."
Otan, Fen and the other Airbenders immediately snapped to attention as the monk spoke. "Today, each and every one of you has the chance to become an Airbending Master." He said, "A Master is one who of course has not only mastered the Thirty-six Forms, but has contributed a new Airbending technique that is unique to them and them alone. Only then will you be considered a Master. Now, Let us begin."
One by one, each of the Airbenders assembled in the yard demonstrated their abilities in front of the Council while Fen stood just behind Otan, smirking and giggling with his circle of friends. Otan stood rigid all the while, betraying no emotion and trying to concentrate on everything that he had learned. But, time and again, his mind kept returning to his missing bison and occasionally he would steal a glance behind at Fen when the older boy wasn't looking, his paranoia mounting as he tried to catch some clue-some slip of the tongue.
"Otan." Came the command from the Council. Otan straightened and relaxed his grip on his staff as he came forward and bowed before the council.
"You may begin when you are ready, Otan." Said one of the monks.
The Forms came and went in a flurry of gusts and gales that seemed to Otan to take no time at all, although he still couldn't take his eyes from the smirking Fen standing behind his little gang as he looked on.
"You may rest now, Otan," said one of the monks, "then you may show us your new technique."
Otan bowed once more before the council. "I'd like to demonstrate now," he said, "If it is acceptable."
"It is." Said the monk, "show us your technique."
Otan rose form his bow and turned around, his eyes locked directly on Fen as he spread his arms to his sides, steadying his breathing. He could feel the air pressure on both sides of his body changing, one side becoming lighter, the other heavier as he began to move each arm in different series of motions. As he did so, he could see the expression changing on Fen's face from smugness to fear as he realized what was coming. But he was too late to react. Otan brought his hands together with impossible speed, and from the tips of his fingers erupted a streak of guided lightning that flew towards Fen before he had time to react, exploding at his with an eruption of thunder that sent him flying backwards.
Everyone gasped as Otan surged forward, oblivious of everyone around him except for the terrified Fen who lay cowering on the ground.
"She's okay!" he cried out, "Seippa's okay. I didn't do anything to her, I promise! I just took her to a cave in one of the mountains. She should be back by now! I-I was just hoping you would go looking for her and miss the examination. I never hurt her!"
Otan glared at him, not seeing all of the frightened Airbenders that had begun backing away to the walls of the training yard while smoke began to rise at the blackened point of impact.
Just then a familiar growl sounded overhead as an eight-legged shape came into view, flooding Otan with relief. Seippa. Fen had been telling the truth after all. Fen was crying now, and trembling, so Otan let him be. Otan turned around to face the Council of Monks and bowed. "I apologize for my conduct," he said, "And for wasting the council's time." He then made immediately for the door leading out of the yard of astonished Airbenders.
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