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Foggy Swamp Tribe
The Village Part 2
Chapter information
Series

Spirits of the Shadow

Chapter

3

Written by

The Air Nomad Critic, with assistance from Intelligence4

Editor(s)

Thedestinedone, Intelligence4, Emperor Qin, Earth Kingdom

Release date

October 19, 2013

Chronology
Last chapter

The Village Part One

Next chapter

The Wandering Warrior Part One

Previously on Avatar

Shaken by the intense experience of fighting the jiang shi, Yalun is nonetheless eager to get to the culprit responsible for sending these foul creatures to attack him and his tribe. To this end, he has gathered his old companions to aid him in his quest for vengeance. While the tomes of the old healer were somewhat useful, there is little information concerning the summoning of jiang shi, so Team Avatar heads to the last known place where the demons walked: the sleepy Fire Nation town of Darkhollow. While combing the town for reports of spirit monsters, Team Avatar has found that this town is not what it seems...

Earth


Fire


Air


Water

In a time long ago, the four nations lived in harmony. The Avatar, Yalun, had ascended to his role without beholding the fires of war. With his friends from each nation, he settled various disputes that sprang up from time to time, until the world seemed to be at rest. Now however, a new threat has risen, and Team Avatar must once again unite...

Pain and echoes bounced about in Nilak's skull. Strange colors and shapes lazily drifted past the inside of his eyelids, remnants of memories and dreams long forgotten. He couldn't even properly bring his thoughts into focus; every time his mind tried to grasp something, anything, it would slip away like a greased fire ferret. Time itself seemed inconsequential. To the young waterbender, seconds or hours could be passing by, yet he cared not.

Once the ringing in his head began to dull, the images before Nilak slowly began to come into focus, what little there was. The faint light of a torch flickered in the distance, illuminating black walls around the waterbender. With a groan, Nilak raised his head and tried to move his arms, only to be repaid with a metallic clang. He moved his hand around, feeling only smooth, slick steel.

The waterbender's mind slowly groaned with thought. He tried to recall the last thing he remembered, bringing his scattered focus to bear as best he could. His mind strained with the effort; the more he focused on a memory, the more it seemed to elude him. Distant thoughts and familiar sounds whizzed in his brain, distracting him and further fragmenting his thoughts.

Ages seemed to pass as Nilak tried to bring his own brain to heel. Revelation and realization were balanced firmly on the tip of his tongue, just beyond the reach of his conscious mind. Slowly, ever so slowly, his last images seeped into his mind. A shadowy marketplace flashed before him...

Strange villagers...

Glowing eyes...

Horrible noises...

Excruciating pain...

Suddenly the void of confusion seemed more appealing. Once more, Nilak began to slip into the shadows of his own mind.

"Snap out of it!"

A sharp, searing pain lanced up Nilak's arm, immediately bringing his attention back to the material world. His entire form felt stiff to him, and his mouth scratchy and dry. Instinctively, Nilak tried to move his arm to waterbend something into his parched mouth, but once more ran into a metallic hindrance, finding his arms held up at an angle.

Shackles, he thought to himself, his thoughts no longer encumbered, not the worst thing to wake up in, but not high on my list.

"Ah," said a rough, youthful voice to his right, "the little waterbender is finally awake. You owe me five silver pieces when we get out of this, Qin"

"Ifth," said a clearly impaired voice further to Nilak's right, sounding like there was something off about its owner's tongue, "Ifth we get outh of thith."

As Nilak slowly brought the world around him into focus, he saw where the initial sobering pain had come from - just below the shackles, still smoking from the impact, was a small burn, about the size of a small seaweed cookie. Slowly turning his head to the right, straining the muscles in his neck to the breaking point with the effort, he was able to deduce the source, hanging a few meters away in his own set of complex looking shackles, mouth still smoking from his attempt to wake Nilak. Qin was never any good at breathing fire, despite his overall amazing prowess with firebending.

Li Chen sat closer to the young waterbender, smirking despite a few bruises and scrapes across his shirtless torso. His limbs seemed to be almost completely encased in metal confines, seemingly not leaving much room for movement.

Great, thought Nilak, Something else to heal later. Provided there is a later.

The high pitched creaking of a rusty hinge seemed to answer Nilak's thoughts.

Far out, beyond the soft, flickering light of the lone torch, a thin ray of light meandered out from a barely opened door. Nilak's vision was still blurry, but he knew a door when he saw one. They had been slammed in his face several times, though he doubted a pretty girl was behind this one.

Out beyond the limits of Nilak's vision, dull lumps of shadow slid through the narrow crack in the doorway, their silhouettes scarcely outlined by the torch's illumination. As they passed under the torch, Nilak was able to make out some vague features of: both seemed to be clad in dark robes, one was taller and lithe, while the other was a more average height with a stocky build. As they neared the bars of the cell, Nilak still could not get a good read on the two, but one thing he could discern gave him a measure of ease: they were both human. "Oh good", Nilak said to himself, "the whole sucking our chi out seems to have been postponed. So what's the activity for today? pai sho? 20 questions?" His throat felt raspy and devoid of moisture, preventing his voice from sounding anything other than sandpaper on wood.

The shorter of the two figures stirred a bit under his robes, brought his right hand up from beneath the dark cloth, and with a flick of his hand produced a small fire square in his palm. Now that the two were well lit and close, Nilak got a good look at their faces, at least when the blurriness of his own vision seemed to pass momentarily.

The firebender looked fairly young, maybe in his mid-twenties by the young waterbender's judgment, with sun-darkened skin and a strong, square jaw. His off-black hair was pulled back in a practical ponytail as beady eyes stared at Nilak from behind the flame in his palm. Had he not been wearing insidious looking black robes, the waterbender would have guessed that he was a farmhand or stableboy.

The taller of the two men was considerably less homey looking. No hair to speak of, the man's ruddy, pale skin seemed stretched across his scalp, whereas everywhere else it seemed to hang loose in folds that resembled a swarm of white grubs clinging to his head and neck. Under a brow that was far too furry for an otherwise hairless head glared two cold, analyzing eyes, the same color as rotten scorpion-bee honey. The old-timer's robes seemed slightly more intricate, its borders hemmed with strange runes, the same color as fresh bruises.

With such a comically mismatched pair before him, Nilak almost forgot he was in a dungeon cell chained to the wall and scared for his life.

Barely moving his thin, cracked lips, the older of the two was the first to speak, his voice disturbingly low for one so frail looking, "Were you so useless as to be food for our sacred allies, young waterbender, you would not be talking. Much to my own dismay, I admit." Moving with grace that seemed out of place on an older body, the old man produced a small unlit torch and flicked it towards the young firebender, who immediately tipped his flame towards the torch, setting it alight. Once the torch blazed with a healthy flame, the old man brought it closer to the cell, slowly moving it across the full length of the cramped chamber. "It seems the rest of our guests are awake as well, excellent. Ah," the man stopped moving his torch as it pointed just to Nilak's left, "they gagged the airbender too, very good."

Nilak turned his aching neck to his left, somewhat easier than the last time he turned it, and beheld Assam, chained up as the rest of them and gagged with a yellow-white cloth. His storm-cloud eyes stared daggers at the two robed men beyond the bars

"His petty little air blasts were getting annoying," said the firebender, "Yorza still has bruises, and Rezak cracked two ribs when he tried to give the ungrateful ponce water."

"Enough chit-chat you scum lickers!", bellowed Li Chen as best as he could, "undo these blasted confines! I'll bury you so deep, not even the worms will reach you!"

The two men barely gave Li Chen a cursory glance. Not a word was said in reply. Clearly, they had heard this many times before. Nilak expected nothing less.

Nilak squinted a bit as he tried to look past Assam at the rest of the cell, but no one else was on his left. Then he turned his head as quickly as he was able to the right side. Qin and Li sat a few meters away, tattered and filthy.

A chill crept up Nilak's spine.

"Where's the Avatar?" he croaked, his throat still dry and sore like the rest of him. Any pretense of humor or sarcasm would have gone right out the window if there had been one available.

The two robed men turned away from the cell without a word and started down the dark hallway.

Rage beyond measure filled the young waterbender, bringing his voice up from sandpaper on wood to something close to his normal voice. "Where the hell is Yalun!" he screamed, straining against his chains as best he could. Nilak would not be ignored, not by these dress wearing pansies and not when his best friend's life was in question. "Answer me!" he screamed again, further pulling on his confines. He felt a small, warm trickle down his non-burned arm as the edges of the cuffs cut into his skin.

Nilak didn't care.

Just before the two robed men reached the door on the far side of the hallway, the old man's voice reverberated through the room. "Worry not, waterbender. You will be joining him shortly."

The two reached the door and slid through the crack, just as they had done before, closing it behind them. The room was once again filled with shadow save the dim light of the torch on the wall. Nilak slid back to the ground and leaned his back against the stone wall, letting out a small gasp of exhaustion as his protesting muscles gave him the clear signal that they should not be moving. Sharp needles of anxiety slowly worked their way to his stomach as his mind began racing, desperately trying to think of ways to escape and save the Avatar.

Yalun, thought Nilak, wherever you are, please don't be dead.




All too familiar pains spread through Yalun's head like a spider's web. Yalun had desperately held on to any bit of consciousness he could since the attack, but as it was before in Lilypad Cove, his senses seemed to fade in and out, as flotsam in the tides. Thoughts fled from him as soon as they coalesced in his skull. Faint echoes bounced about him, muffled by what Yalun assumed were very thick walls.

Many of them didn't sound human.

For what seemed like hours, Yalun floated in a thrashing sea of his own mind. When he was able to open his eyes, which was rare given that they felt like they were made of lead to the Avatar, he could barely make out a faint blue glow around him. Though his sight was blurry, Yalun could sometimes make out vague, strange symbols among the lights. At times, it seemed as if the symbols themselves were emitting the light. The rest of what Yalun assumed was a room was steeped in shadows. When he was able to maintain a thought that was made up of more than one word, Yalun would tell himself, Don't worry, Yalun. This has happened to you before. It will fade.

Hour after hour he kept telling himself that. While there was a mild decrease in the disorder of his senses, the pain and the mental chaos was unrelenting. As touch once more returned to full working order, he felt a strange tension around his head, neck, and all four of his limbs. His neck creaking with the pains of disuse, the Avatar turned his head as best he could, and through no small amount of effort found what contained him: a set of stocks. Made from a dark, slick metal, the stocks seemed to perfectly fit the Avatar's neck and wrists. There wasn't the least bit of wriggle room for Yalun's limbs. As he tried to move his legs, he found that they were similarly bound.

Exhausted by even this slight effort, Yalun slowly relaxed his body, letting the stocks and leg restraints support his weight. His head slunk as far as the stocks would allow, still swimming in a sea of blended thoughts. Yalun had given up trying to focus them. Instead, he just let his mind relax and wander into a fast field of entropy. The only thoughts that entered his mind were the faint echoes that bounced about the room.

A gruff, familiar voice broke the chain of whispers, "Wakey wakey, Avatar. Today, you become part of something glorious."

For an instant, his mind was clear again. He remembered the empty library, a distraction to draw his eye. The shadows across the village, hiding its secrets. The horrible creatures that barred his path...
Jiang Shi!

A sharp pain lanced through his head, and his thoughts were back to their original nebulous state.

"Almost came back to us there, didn't you?" said the voice, clearly amused. With the paltry amount of strength that remained in him, the exhausted Avatar pried open his eyes once more. Before him stood an oddly familiar figure; a squat, ragged looking man whose messy black hair and beard seemed to completely circumvent his head. Wild eyes stared at Yalun from beneath the matted mane, and yellow teeth gleamed in a sickening grin. Instead of the ragged and sullied clothes the man had worn the last time Yalun had seen him in, however, the man had royal purple robes, crafted from the finest silk the Avatar had ever seen. Around the edges of the robes, sky blue runes wound their way around the hems, bleeding into each other and bunching in seemingly random places of the cloth.

The beggar... from before... his thoughts seemed to groan, barely able to mentally belt out a sentence. He tried to verbalize his thoughts, but his mouth was sore and dry. All that he could push out was a raspy and quiet, "Why?"

The beggar seemed to lean back, as if shocked by Yalun's question. "Why?" he replied. "Because it must be."

The beggar began to lean towards Yalun, about to continue, when he suddenly twisted to the side, as if he had heard someone calling to him just on the range of his hearing. The beggar stood still as a statue, nodding very slightly once or twice, then returned his gaze to the weakened Avatar. "Pardon my manners, Avatar. There I times I forget that the most powerful men are not always the brightest." The beggar took a step towards Yalun, his smile stretched to the very edges of his face. "It seems only just that you know of our cause before you serve it... one way or another..."




A cold, hard lump sat in Nilak's chest. His mind had begun to recover, only to be filled with worry for his best friend. Possibility after horrible possibility wracked his mind as surely as the jiang shi had. The jiang shi had been able to subdue him before with ease and strangled him within an inch of his life, only interrupted by Nilak and the Coastal Water Tribe warriors. Twi and La only knew what these... people, if they could be called as such, were capable of doing when assured of their own safety. While Nilak was able to push the worst ideas out of his mind in order to keep from vomiting from worry, the fact remained that the Avatar was in the clutches of people who were willing to unleash creatures as horrific as jiang shi on the populace. Something had to be done.

There has to be a way out of here! he thought desperately. For the fourteenth time, he scoured the cell for any conceivable source of water. The room was too cold to utilize sweat, and as slick as the walls and floor were, they held no manipulatable moisture. The young waterbender figured that the robed men must have taken his water skin, as the familiar weight of his water skin was notably absent, along with its oh-so-useful supply of water. Once more, Nilak found himself without a means of bending.

"Hey, Qin," Li whispered from just to Nilak's left, "Can't you melt your chains with your firebending?"

Qin raised an inquisitory eyebrow and manipulated his mouth as best he could to avoid sounding like he had cotton in his cheeks. "You seem to have forgotten, Li Chen, some very basic principles of heat and metal. If I were to begin melting through the chains that presently bind me, the time and heat required, as well as the metallic nature of these blasted restraints, would cause the residual heat to travel through the metal links and fry my flesh. Not a very pleasant thought. Why don't you earthbend your bonds out of the wall?"

Li Chen snorted and turned away from Qin. "Its hard to focus my bending if I'm this confined," He wriggled slightly in the solid iron bonds that wrapped around most of his body for emphasis, "And it seems our friends here have seen to it that I can not move even enough to scratch my nose. I don't suppose you have any ideas, Nilak?"

The young waterbender shook his head. "I've been trying to think of some way to get water for the past two hours, So far, I've got nothing. Unless someone wrecks the plumbing near here and springs a leak, I'm about as useful as a legless octopus. Anything from you, Assam?"

A muffled sound wormed its way past the cloth covering Assam's mouth as he banged his head against the stone wall behind him.

Oh, right thought Nilak, the gag.

A sharp bang shot from the door on the other end of the prison, as well as a gruff, seemingly irritated voice. "Unless you louts want to be gagged like the airbender, you'll shut your yappers!"

Silence once again fell upon the four benders.

Well, it looks like I need to get us out of this without water, thought Nilak. He once more wiggled his wrists in his restraints, testing their hold on him. These weren't everyday shackles, either: from head to toe, the whole thing seemed to be a complex, inter-connected piece of machinery. The thick piece of iron that was now wrapped around Nilak's arms was connected to the one wrapped around his legs by way of a long tube that made a sharp rattling sound when Nilak moved around. The only keyhole Nilak saw was under his right wrist, presumably connected to the entire apparatus. The shackles themselves were tight, but just loose enough to give Nilak an idea.

Slowly, ever so slowly, the young waterbender gathered what saliva he could in his parched mouth. It took a good, long while, but eventually what seemed to Nilak like a good amount of spit was pooled in the back of his throat. Then he began to take aim, twisting his head as best he could to get a clear shot.

Steady... steady

With a quick ptoo, Nilak let loose a small goblet of spit, carefully aimed just above the cuffs on his wrists. If he aimed right, there was a slim chance it could lubricate his wrists enough for him to slip out.

Instead of landing above the cuffs, however, the spit landed squarely on the keyhole of the cuffs.

Monkey-feathers! Missed!, Nilak mentally swore.

The young waterbender tried his best to bring forth another blob of spit. Hacking, sucking, dry heaving, anything to bring forth more saliva, but he quickly realized he was fresh out of juice, so to speak. Once more, Nilak sank to the floor, once more defeated. For the briefest of moments, Nilak considered his cause lost: Yalun would be subjected to unspeakable horrors, and Nilak would rot in this stinking dungeon for the rest of his days, if not subjected to those same horrors after these cow-pigs in robes were done with Yalun. Each of them seemed to be doing the same as he was, all of them in vain. The world would go on as it always would. The world would get a new Avatar, but not a new Nilak.
...

No.

Not on my sodding life. Nilak internally swore, We're getting out of here if it kills me.. Once more, Nilak furiously considered every possible way he might escape his bonds. Each possibility seemed more ridiculous than the last, but he considered each of them carefully.

Suddenly, a tiny, cold, fluid sensation oozed down Nilak's arm, beginning just below his cuffs just below his cuffs. For a split second, Nilak thought Water!. When he looked up, however, he saw that it was only little tendrils of the saliva glob that landed on the cuff.

Not water... thought Nilak, as his hopes were dashed, just as they had been so many times before. Just as he was about to slip into another cycle of depression and planning, however, a small epiphany crossed his mind, It's not water. But its pretty dang close. I wonder.... Nilak had often heard of the healers referring to the various ways water existed within the human body. Most of the time, it was locked up in the body, but there were ways to draw it out, like sweat.

Maybe... just maybe...

Nilak took a deep breath, calmed his mind, and concentrated on the clear, fluid, specklet of goo resting squarely on the keyhole of the cuffs. He flexed his hands, loosening them for the task at hand, and slowly curled his hand into a fist, all the while concentrating on the spit. At first, nothing happened; the spit remained as fluid and gooey as ever. As the minutes ticked by, however, there a change began to overtake the saliva: it began to freeze.

Nilak's heart leapt in his stomach. For once, his plans were working. Returning focus to the keyhole, be began subtly directing the individual tiny shards of ice that were forming within the keyhole, listening very carefully to how they were pushing against the mechanism within. If the temperature had been more temperate, Nilak would be sweating from the pressure. Minutes passed like hours as Nilak quietly tried to pick his lock, desperately hoping to find the right combination of things to push. For a moment, Nilak began contemplating once more trying to get more spit onto the cuffs, maybe try to apply more pressure. Did he freeze something important? Did he inadvertently fuse something that would otherwise set him free? Thoughts once more whizzed through his head, almost making him loose focus on the cuff, each damning his actions more and more. I screwed it up Nilak thought grimly, I just know it.

Click

The metal cuffs snapped open, falling to the ground with a clang. Nilak could hardly believe it: he was free!

"Hey! What's going on in there?!" a voice shouted from beyond the door

Oh, crap.

______

The beggar cackled to himself as he lit bowls of incense about the chamber, filling the room with a heavy, sickly sweet scent what assailed Yalun's senses. Even with his ragged hair and yellowed teeth, he seemed to act more of a priest than a beggar, lighting the bowls with reverence, even as he gleefully laughed for no discernible reason. As he darted about the room, he muttered to himself as if there were someone else in the room. The Avatar did his best to scan around the room for another presence, but each time he found nothing. Even if it was a spirit, he would be able to sense it, even in the Spirit World.

So a mad priest, then, thought Yalun.


With one last gleeful laugh and a slight flourish of the long torch he was using to light the incense, the Mad Priest turned once more to the Avatar, a sickeningly joyful gleam in his eye. "Why so glum, Avatar?" he said, grinning from ear to ear, "You have the opportunity to be part of something beautiful."

Had Yalun possessed the strength of will, he would have spat at the Mad Priest. "I've seen many things... in this world, cretin..." he paused for a moment, organizing his thoughts as best he could with his strange restraints stirring his mind, "And... nothing associated with you or your pets can be called... beautiful."

The Mad Priest held his hand over his chest and dramatically staggered backwards, chucking all the while. "You wound me, Avatar. But not nearly as badly as you have wounded mankind." Once more, he turned his head to the side, and mumbled something to himself before returning his gaze to the immobilized Avatar. At least, Yalun hoped he was just talking to himself.

All the same, Yalun couldn't believe what he was hearing."What are you... talking about? I'm the Avatar! Everything I've done... has been to... help people!"

The smile slowly faded from the Mad Priest's face. "No, Avatar. I'm afraid you have been decieved." He slowly began to approach Yalun, his wild eyes never leaving the Avatar's face, practically vibrating in their sockets. "You believe that because there is no war, that there is peace?" The priest's face was now mere inches from Yalun's. The Avatar could smell the man's putrid breath, drowning out even the incense." I too have seen many things in my time, Avatar," the Mad Priest whispered, "and everywhere I look, there is suffering. Men and women, young and old, struggle under a horrendous lie." He cocked his head to the side. "Do you know the name of this lie, Avatar?"

Yalun said nothing, attempting to match the Mad Priest's gaze as best he could.

"Of course you don't." The Mad Priest covered his face with his hand and sighed. "All those who live in comfort seem to have forgotten its name. It is civilization, young Avatar. It is men thinking they are free when they are staked into the ground like... well, stakes. It is the people believing they need a ruler or an Avatar to live in peace, when such things are as necessary as a grain of rice in a full silo. People starving in the streets because some beurocrat wanted a bit more bread for his butter. The people cry out for help, not knowing what hurts them. I know."

Yalun wriggled in his stocks as the Mad Priest once more drew closer. He could not believe his ears: to think someone could look at something as wondrous and diverse as the four nations and believe them to be folly. Why, it was about as madd as...

Well, Yalun thought, about as mad as everything else that has happened today

Wait...

"Why are you telling... me this?" asked Yalun as his bonds once more spun his mind into chaos in response to his simple thought.

The Mad Priest cocked his head to the side and furrowed his brow, seemingly confused. "Why, because you are the key, of course! Here I thought you would be brighter, Avatar. Ah," he quickly strode to Yalun's side and gave whatever was encircling his head a light tap, "but then your mind is not in the best shape, is it? Very well, I shall enlighten you, as you should have been so very long ago."

The Mad Priest strode to the very edge of the room, his dark robes flapping about wildly from his movement, thrust out a hand, and slowly caressed the lower runes upon the walls of the chamber. "Chaos is the true nature of the world, Avatar. It is how the world began. It was how humanity began. Yet greedy, power hungry men have tried to reign it in, to enforce their idea of 'balance', and because of it, the people suffer. Help us bring down the false towers of civilization, Avatar, and the world can truly be balanced." His voice gained a giddiness The weak will fade from creation, and the strong shall rise from their corpses. I ask you this once, Avatar: help us bring true harmony to the world, and you shall be the most exalted of your kind to walk this Earth."

There was no hesitation. "You would ask me... to spread ruin across the... land. To end countless lives. To betray everything the... Avatar stands for." Yalun tried to do the best offended huff he could manage, though it came out more like a wheeze. "If you had a spear at my chest, I would not do as you ask."

The Mad Priest gave a low, sickening chuckle. "I need no spear, Avatar. I have other ways to make you a blessing to the world."

_____

Nilak could barely keep his hands steady as he furiously to pick Assam's lock. If he could just get one of his companions free, they might have a chance against the oncoming guards. If it came down to just him, he knew he wouldn't be able to stand against them for long.

"Pazor! Yikon! Go see what's going on in there!"

Nilak's nerves were going wild, blurring his vision and his thoughts as surely as the jiang shi had. He could barely keep track of what parts of the lock he had already triggered, and which combinations had yet to be tried.

A low, all too familiar voice echoed beyond the dungeon door in response to the first. "What in blazes are you going on about, novice?"

Not helping, thought Nilak as he wormed his salive-lockpick through the gagged airbender's shackles. If he was more hydrated, he would have been sweating profusely.

"I heard some clanking in there, maybe one of the locks is loose. You don't want the benders getting an arm free, do you?" said the first voice, gravelly and hoarse.

Crap crap crap crap crap. Thoughts raced through Nilak's head: what could he do if he couldn't get Assam free? Should he switch to Qin or Li? Could he at least give enough of a fight to bide more time? Could he be that quiet in a cramped space like the dungeon?

"And you cannot deal with this because?" said the second voice.

I mean, I'm no slouch as a fighter, but I'm unarmed, and they are decidedly not. thought the young waterbender, and I'm no sodding closer to opening this blasted lock! NIlak let out a small grunt of frustration, hopefully quiet enough to avoid being heard by the guards lest they grow more suspicious and just charge in.

"These guys are friends of the Avatar! If one of those guys is even partially loose, they need expert hands to get them unloose. Which mine aren't." said the first voice

Why does this stuff always happen to me?

The young waterbender once more started gouging the lock, practically hacking at it to try and get the gagged airbender free. There was too little time to try one of the other locks. It was now or never.

"Fine, I will once more inspect the dungeons, though I can assure you those prisoners are not going anywhere." said the second voice, " If I have time, I can check underneath your bed as well. Come, acolyte." said the second voice.


Click.

Assam's shackles sprang open, and with a relieved grunt, the airbender ripped the gag from his mouth and flung it to the other side of the room.

"Good, you're free" whispered Nilak as he dart, "now help me get Qin out before-"

The rusty squeak of the dungeon door interrupted the young waterbender. Two robed figures, the young firebender and the old man from before, stood in the open door, their eyes wide with shock.

"What in blazes?!?" the old man shouted, swiftly drawing a slim, black sword from beneath his shadowy robes and leveling the point at Assam. The young firebender kept his right hand in front of him, leveling his right fist the same way, and kept his left hand back and open palmed for a follow up attack.

"Whatever you do, don't stop picking that lock" Assam whispered, never taking his eyes off of the two robed men.

"One move, and I'll roast all your bones!" grunted the young firebender. "You, airbender, hands behind your head, or you'll burn last!"

Nilak half froze, still slowly working his spit-lockpick, but in a way that he hoped wouldn't be obvious in the dim light of the dungeon, still watching Assam in case one of the men pulled something.

Assam, old friend, Nilak thought, you better know what you're doing.

Very slowly, Assam complied, putting his hands just behind the back of his head, pressing the tips of his fingers against each other, forming a cup with his hands. "As you wish" the airbender said with a smirk, "though I should warn you, my friend here isn't known for his obedience."

Nilak stopped picking for a moment to process Assam's statement. "What are you doing?!" he hissed, just quiet enough for the guards not to hear. Is he trying to get me killed? he thought as he got back to letting loose one of the most powerful firebenders on Earth.

The firebender turned his fist on Nilak, edging closer to the bars of the group's cell. "Are you deaf, snow savage? Stop moving!" he snarled, swinging his fist and producing an arc of flame that quickly sputtered out.

Assam shook his head much in the same way a parent might when their child begs for an inordinate amount of sweets. "He's right next to one of the most powerful firebenders on Earth, you twit. The guy he's trying to free could toss aside any fire you fling by twitching his nose. You'll have to come in to stop him."

The old man's eyes flared in their sockets, almost as luminous as the lone torch in the dungeon hallway. "You lie."

Assam shrugged slightly. "Maybe so. Are you willing to waste time having your friend here lob fireballs at a master firebender?"

The old man said nothing; he nodded to his companion, and with a swish of his robes, produced a small silver key. As he began to approach the cell, Nilak noticed something odd as he discreetly glanced between Qin's lock and Assam: just in front of the airbender's nested fingers, he could see a slight disturbance in the pattern made by the dust floating in the dank dungeon air, barely visible from the light of the torch the non-bender carried. As if moving by their own accord, the tiny motes seemed to all be drifting towards the space between Assam's hands, slowly growing more and more dense as they drew closer to the middle.

Suddenly, it dawned on him. Oh, this is going to be good.

The old man shuffled over to the doors of the cell, his face twisted by what Nilak assumed was annoyance at having to waste more of his time than necessary to check on lowly prisoners. The old man slid the small key into the lock in the cell doors, and with a small click, the door swung open.

Here it comes

The old man didn't even have time to blink. With a fluid snap of his arms, Assam flung the bubble of compressed air straight into the old man's leg. Nilak could hear his femur snap with a wet crack, as a gush of blood and a scream rife with shock and pain tore through the prison. With a thud, the old man dropped to the ground, desperately trying to stauch his copiously bleeding leg wound.

Shocked himself, the firebender hesitated for the briefest of moments, then hurriedly launched a barrage of blazing fireballs at Assam with a flurry of quick punches. Without even breaking stride, Assam conjured a swirling bulwark of air as he brought up his arm in front of him as a warrior might with a shield, halting the fireballs in place, then sending them surging forward towards the firebender with a terrific whoosh. The firebender tried to swat away his own rebounded flames, but he was a hair too slow, and the flames found their mark on his face. He fell screaming to his knees, frantically grasping his face. With one final scything kick, Assam shot a thin blade of air that flew screaming from his black boots and, with a sickening crack, caved in the firebenders chest, silencing his screaming.

As Nilak stared on in amazement, he heard a voice from his side. "Aren't you forgetting something?"

Oh, right thought Nilak, the whole freeing my friends thing. Curse my hunger for violence.

As soon as Nilak turned his head back to Qin's lock, however, he heard a groan and a gasp from just beyond the cell. He looked back to Assam, who's legs were being held in a vice grip by the old man, who was quickly becoming surrounded by the blood that was pouring from his leg, the stark white of bone clearly visible amongst the deep crimson. His face was even more pale than before, full of fear and confusion. Assam stood over the old man, glaring down at him with a judgemental scowl.

"But... you're an... Air Nomad..." the old man wheezed, his voice quivering from the weakness brought on by his blood loss. "Your kind... are easy targets. You're not... supposed to kill."

A small smirk formed on Assam's lips as be bent down to the old man's level. "Then it's a very good thing" he whispered "I'm a heretic." With one final groan, the old man went limp, whatever passed for a spark of life in his eyes extinguished.

"Oh for the love of Spirits..." Qin murmured. "Nilak, focus! Someone will have heard all that!"

Assam kicked aside the old man's hand and strode back into the cell. "I'm not so sure about that, Qin." Assam held out his hand and slowly swirled his fingers around. Suddenly, substantially quieted sounds of battle from earlier rang in Nilak's ears. "Oh, right, soundbending."

"I was able to intercept most if not all the sounds from that little scuffle. We should be fine."

"Oi," a voice shouted from beyond the dungeon door, "What's taking so long?"

"Or not" Nilak muttered has he once more turned his attentions to Qin's lock.

Assam shook his head, still smirking. "Oh ye of little faith." He turned around to face the door and extended his hand, still swirling his fingers around and around. The old man's all-too-deep voice suddenly emanated from him: "Silence, you pathetic cretin. I shall take as long as I wish securing these prisoners! Disturb me again and I shall feed you to the jiang shi!"

"All right, all right." the voice conceded, as silence once more fell on the dungeon. "Now," Assam whispered, "about those chains. Nilak, hurry up with those. Yalun's in danger, I just know it.

The cold lump returned to Nilak's stomach as he once more began picking Qin's lock with his lone gob of spit. In the excitement, he had almost forgot about his best friend. That thought alone scared him a little.

With a little more finagling, Qin's lock popped open, allowing the former emperor to tend to his burned tongue as best he could as Assam kept an eye on the door. Li Chen's lock, similarly constructed to the other two, Nilak picked even faster. When his cuffs and leg restraints opened, Li Chen sprang to his feat with an emphatic grunt. "All right, enough of the sneaky airbending nonsense, time for an escape route!"

Before anyone else could conceivably object, Li Chen charged straight into the stone wall of the dungeon, pushing aside the earth as if it were made of freshly fallen snow. The echoes of his excavation slowly faded into silence.

Then the screaming started.

Like a fire ferret from a bamboo shoot full of bees, Li Chen bolted out of his tunnel, screaming his head off, the reason for which Nilak quickly spotted; the earthbender's largely unclothed body was covered in a writhing layer of slate grey grubs, each with a long black sting which seemed to be digging into his flesh.

Assam quickly blasted Li Chen with a gust of air, sending most of the grubs flying off of Li Chen and sending them into the wall, splattering them into a fine grey paste. Li Chen frantically pulled off the remaining few grubs, stomping them flat after yanking them from his flesh.

"I. HATE! BUGS!" Li Chen shouted while grinding the last of the grey worms into the floor.


Qin picked up one of the flattened remains of one of the creatures and turned it in his hand. "Obsidian worms. Not venomous, but they can cause severe lacerations when they swarm around underground travelers. Used to use them against earthbending mercenaries during the civil war. It would seem our adversaries have made their base in a nest of them to prevent anyone from tunneling in or out."

Nilak glanced at the door. "Then it seems our only option is to go out the front door. After we get Yalun."

Everyone nodded in agreement, but a grim shadow seemed to linger on their faces. Nilak knew the reason it was there, but he pushed it out of his mind. Yalun was okay. He was the Avatar, for goodness sake, and a fully realized one at that! He could get beat up, but it never got that bad.

A slight trickling sound interrupted Nilak's thoughts and immediately lifted his spirits. Out of the gaping tunnel Li Chen had just made, a stream of water slowly meandered out onto the dungeon floor.

"Huh" said Li Chen, "must have grazed the water table on my way out."

Nilak immediately rushed to the tunnels entrance and, with a flowing pull, drew a sizable stream of water from the tunnel, enough to form a thick layer around his arms and across his back.

"Excellent" Assam quipped, "and here I thought you'd try to fell the guards outside with your spitbending."

"Remind me to punch you later" Nilak retorted.

"Sure, and you'll miss like always. Care to take care of the guard?"

"Gladly."

Nilak strode out of the cell and up to the dungeon door, putting his ear to the cold metal. He heard quiet murmuring just beyond, maybe a few meters away, right in front of the door. He also heard the distinct grunts and mashing that accompanies one eating a particularly well earned lunch. Good he thought, he's off-guard. Hah, and off-guard guard! he added to himself.

The guard sat munching on his lunch, savoring the moment by himself before the others returned. The moment was not to last however, as he heard the sound of his partners returning from checking on the prisoner, and he jumped to attention. The door opened, and he was very surprised to see not his co-worker, but one of the prisoners.

"Hi!" Nilak said, and with a quick punching motion, he launched a tendril of water at the startled guard, freezing his face and limbs together, causing him to fall to the ground unconscious.

Now this is more like it!




The Mad Priest had ceased speaking to Yalun, once more relegating himself to muttering to himself as he covered the ground around him in strange symbols with a piece of chalk. Yalun's mind still swam due to the device strapped to his head. As the minutes ticked away, however, he found he could calm the swirling clouds of thought in his head. Not enough to access the Avatar State, but still enough to at least entertain a string of thoughts in his mind. Unfortunately, those thoughts gave him little comfort. Here he was, bound and mentally gagged in some hidden place, completely powerless, and at the complete mercy of a madman

Not a great situation to be in.

Suddenly, the Mad Priest stopped in his tracks, scanning his wild and errant designs on the floor, practically shaking with a joy that Yalun knew meant foul things were afoot.

"Finally! The time for this decadent world's reckoning is upon us Avatar!"

The Mad Priest began to cackle madly, and even seemed to dance to a tune Yalun couldn't hear. A sheer sick glee spread across his face, displaying his full array of misshapen, yellowed teeth. With a flourish, the Mad Priest pulled something from under his robes and held it aloft, gazing at it with an ecstasy Yalun found disturbing.

Of course, not as disturbing as the object itself. Yalun felt it before he was able to get a good look. In the depths of his soul, he could feel whatever the Mad Priest had just produced was... wrong. Just wrong.

Then Yalun saw it. A tiny black crystal, the size of a grape and jet black. Even from across the room, Yalun could see that it seemed to cause the very air around it to warp and shimmer, like the world around it found it unpalatable.

Then the Mad Priest looked at Yalun, eyes blazing with excitement. "It is time, Avatar. Look your last upon this world with mortal eyes." He began to walk towards Yalun with the black crystal pointed straight at Yalun's head. "For in a few moments, you shall become a god. You shall lead into a golden age, where the weak are culled and the strong are honed. Where chaos reigns above all."

As he drew closer, Yalun could feel a chill running down his spine. Whatever this madman has in store, he thought, it can't be good.

Yalun's clouded mind raced as best it could. He had to do something. I'll be damned if before I lie down to become a tool of anarchy. he mentally screamed, but to little avail. There was little he could do, and the Mad Priest was closing in on him, clearly savoring the moment.

What do I do?

What can I do?

He tried to struggle against his restraints, but found little strength in his own limbs. Still he pulled and battered against the stocks, hoping to find a weak spot.

"Do not struggle Avatar," the Mad Priest crooned, "you shall reach perfection soon."

As the Mad Priest came within arm's reach of Yalun, frantically scrambled to focus any sort of strength he had. A fire blast, freezing breath, just something.

"Your ascension begins here, Avatar. In Xio's name, I anoint you..."

I hope this works

With one final exertion of focus, Yalun gathered what minimal strength he could muster, and blew at the foul crystal.

A miniscule blast of air answered him.

The tiny gust sprang from Yalun's lips, slammed into the crystal, and propelled it right into the Mad Priest's forehead. Instead of bouncing off like any reasonable piece of earth would, it clung to the Mad Priest's head like a fleck of mud. A look of utter horror spread across the Mad Priest's face, a silent scream of yellowed teeth and matted hair. The crystal then, like salt in a puddle, dissolved on the man's forehead. Instantly, the Mad Priest's face melted into one of bizarre neutrality. His eyes glazed over and seemed to loose focus, and his previously ecstatic expression sank into an expressionless mask.


For a moment, Yalun was silent. He stared at the Mad Priest, waiting for him to move or cackle or start talking to his imaginary friend. Or what Yalun hoped was an imaginary friend. Yet the Mad Priest remained still, his disturbingly neutral expression held constant.

All right, thought Yalun after several minutes of silence, one barrier down. One to go.

Unfortunately, the stocks were as firm as ever. Yalun once more struggled against them, but no matter how hard he pushed, they remained closed. It didn't help that he used almost all of his remaining strength on the air blast that knocked the crystal away.

In a fit of frustration, Yalun half-yelled "Come on, open!"

The Mad Priest moved.

The Mad Priest walked over to the stocks.

And he opened them.

Yalun was stunned. It couldn't be that simple. He slowly rose to his feet. "Alright, take this thing," He pointed to the object around his head, "off my head."

In complete silence, the Mad Priest complied. He ran his thick, calloused hands over the surface of whatever was binding his thoughts, and with a click, it released Yalun's head and fell to the ground with a clang. Yalun finally got a good look at what had been sapping his strength and scrambling his thoughts; a headband of silver, inlaid with the same chaotic sigils the Mad Priest had been scribbling on the floor not a moment ago divided in two with a hinge and a strange. A flicker of violet light seemed to ooze from the sigils, but within a few minutes, it faded into nothingness.

Yalun kicked the metal circlet to the side, which slammed into the stone wall with a clang, hopefully warping it beyond repair, and was about to start his search for a door when he once more found his attention drawn to the Mad Priest. Whatever enchantment Yalun had inadvertently laid on him, it didn't seem like it was wearing off. The Mad Priest simply stood there, eyes staring off into space and a droplet of drool forming in the corner of his motionless mouth.

That could have been me, Yalun thought. I could have been a mindless slave. A weapon to be used against every man, woman, and child. A shiver ran down his spine. All the power of the Avatar at the hands of a madman.

Then another thought occurred to him.

He's helpless.

I can make sure he never gets the chance to use me or anyone else again.

He looked down at his hands. A blast of fire could do the trick. Or a piece of earth to the head. He pulled back his fist and squared his stance, taking aim to the best of his abilities. He took his aim at the helpless man, ragged and scarred save for his robes, his wild eyes fixed on nothing.

Wait...

He clearly wasn't in his right mind.

Maybe...

Maybe he just needs a second chance. Away from this place, where he could get some help.

Yes. That's what the Avatar should do. I will not let these people make me into a monster like them.

Yalun walked up to the Mad Priest, face to expressionless face. "All right," said Yalun, "one last command. Leave this place, and never return. Go to Royal Caldera City. There you will be safe. Hopefully someone can help you there."

With a shallow nod, the Mad Priest turned and strode to the edge of the circular room. He reached out his hand and struck the stone wall three times. With a groan, a pair of hidden doors parted, and the Mad Priest slowly strode out.

Its a longshot, thought Yalun, But maybe he can get better. So long as that crystal's effects last long enough for him to get far away from here.

Now, to find my friends!

With a slight airbending lift to soften his steps, Yalun strode to the exit and out into a long, dark, featureless hallway.

He was promptly bodyslammed by a shirtless earthbender covered in bug bites.

"Yalun!" Li Chen loudly whispered, helping the Avatar off the floor.

"Oh, thank the spirits you're okay!" said Nilak, who immediately embraced Yalun in the biggest hug he could manage.

Yalun was floored. "Guys! You're okay too! How'd you escape?"

"Nilak rediscovered the ancient and noble art of spitbending, picked our locks, and we broke any and all guards who gave us trouble", whispered Assam, twirling his outstretched fingers around and around "Now would you guys keep it down? I can only block and redirect so much sound over time. The more you shout, the more likely it is I might let something slip."

"Right, so what's the plan for getting out of here?" asked Yalun, making sure to keep his volume at a minimum.

"Uh, guys?" Li Chen whispered.

Qin shook his head. "Truthfully Yalun, we don't know right now. These tunnels all look the same, and without a map, there's no way to know where the exit is."

"Guys?" Li Chen whispered again.

Yalun scratched his head and searched his rapidly clearing head for answers. "Can't we just tunnel out?"

"Tried that, ended up with Li Chen getting attacked by burrowing maggots." said Assam.

"Guys!" Li Chen barked.

Yalun turned to his earthbending companion. "What is it?"

Li Chen pointed behind the group"Jiang shi!"

Yalun whipped around, only to behold three jiang shi at the far end of the hallway, their horrible orange eyes illuminated the rest of their wretched, deceptively emaciated forms. In unison, their mouth's began to open, ready to blast them all with their demonic chorus.

Yalun's spirit disappeared. He had nothing left in him to defy these creatures

No

Not again!

"Oh no you don't, meatbags!" shouted Assam, as he darted forward, his arms stretched out before him.

The jiang shi continued unimpeded, their jaws distending like a snakes. But their screams did not come. The creatures cocked their heads in confusion, then tried their chorus again, still to no avail.

"What are you waiting for?!" shouted Assam, "Blast them!"

"Right!" said Yalun. His mind was still too foggy for the Avatar State, but he felt strong enough to bend. "Qin! Double Dragon Special!"

Qin had already started moving his arms however, and the crackling of electricity filled the tunnel. "I got this. They're MINE!" Qin thrust one arm forward as he yelled, and a brilliant bolt shot forth, forking and frying the monsters. In an instant, the sickly-sweet smell of burnt flesh filled the hallway. As the rumble of thunder subsided, the charred jiang shi lay motionless in the hallway, their bodies smoldering from the force of Qin's attack.

"Aww, I wanted to fight the spirit monsters!" said Li Chen, crossing his muscular arms and pouting as manly as possible.

"Please tell me you caught the sound of that, Assam." said Qin

Assam lowered his arms and bent down, breathing heavily. "Unfortunately, no. It was all I could do to stop the jiang shi from pulling their old tricks again."

Before the thought even fully processed in his mind, Yalun blurted out "We need to move!", and started down the hallway. He heard his friends right behind him.

He also heard the sounds of cultists all around them. They didn't seem happy. As Yalun wove through the perfectly identical hallways, he could see hordes of cultists, all clad is black robes, rapidly surrounding the Avatar and those right behind him. Quickly, Yalun picked one of the surrounding hallways that seemed to have less cultists than the others and cleared it with a quick open palmed blow and a shower of stone shards from the walls. The bloodied cultists had barely hit the floor as Yalun leapt over their bodies, once more scanning for a weak point as more warriors and benders charged him from all directions to replace those just taken out of the fight.

"Alright", said Yalun as he launched an air blast to the right, sending the sword wielding cultists there reeling back, "getting a map is out of the question. What now?"

"We could- hold on" Li Chen replied as he buried a cultist up to his neck with a quick stomp, "we could just keep running till we find the exit."

"Too long, and we're heavily outnumbered" said Assam, as he spun around to launch a flurry of air blades at the cultists behind them. "We need a sign, an arrow, something!"

As Yalun turned a corner to avoid a firing squad of firebenders, nearly slipping on the smooth stone beneath him to square himself enough to raise a rock wall with an upwards block. His mind raced with possibilities, none of them remotely plausible. They couldn't tunnel out, they didn't have any sort of map, and there were no markings on the walls, ceiling, or floor to indicate where they were.

"Wait a minute!" Li Chen shouted excitedly. "Assam, do you have your bison whistle?"

"It's the one thing they didn't take." said Assam. "I don't think Amala can help us now, though. She's never been much of a digger."

"She doesn't have to come to us!" said Li Chen. "If there is an exit, all these tunnels will do will direct the sound of your whistle right to it. We're underground, believe me, there's nowhere else for that sound to go but out the exit!"

The group stopped; the sounds of the cultists were distant enough for a brief breather.

"Its a long shot," Assam admitted, "but its about the only shot we have right now." He pulled out his whistle, intricately carved in the shape of a sky bison. "Cover your ears, this is going to be loud."

Yalun complied. While most of the sound Assam's whistle made wasn't something humans could hear, what could be heard when Assam gave it an airbending boost could be deafening.

A moment of only cultist footsteps was followed by a painfully high screech, even through Yalun's hands. After Assam stopped, Yalun and the others uncovered their ears, and waited for a response. For a few minutes, they could only hear the shouts of cultists all around them. Everyone eased into their bending stances, ready to unleash their elements upon any cultists who happened to round a corner.

Suddenly, amongst the frenzied shouting, a long, deep roar echoed through the deeps, quickly followed by screams of panic and pain. "Atta girl Amala!" shouted Assam. "This way, to the left!" Immediately the airbender darted off, and Yalun followed as best as he was able.

As they turned corner after corner, the roaring became louder and louder, practically vibrating the stone around them. Cultist numbers also seemed to grow smaller and smaller, but the shouting also seemed to grow louder with Amala's roaring.

Well, we definitely know we're going the right way now. It'd take a full battalion to take Amala down, thought Yalun, and I don't think these cultists are up to the task.

As they reached the end of yet another featureless tunnel, Yalun beheld a sight that immediately lifted his spirits:

Light. At the end of the tunnel, which began to steeply incline.

Without another word, Yalun began running up the slope as fast as he could. He was almost out. Almost free of this horrible, oppressive place. He could hear the frenzied footsteps of his friends right behind him as he dashed upward. As he closed the distance to the exit, however, Yalun found that the light became no brighter as he got closer to it.

Within moments, he saw why. A great brown form loomed over much of the exit, rimmed by cultists pointing spears at the great beast. None of them dared attack her, which was understandable. Those cultists still stood between Yalun and freedom, however.

"Amala! Away from the entrance!" Yalun shouted.

With a reluctant growl, Amala retreated to the town square, which the tunnel led to, as the cultist guards turned towards the Avatar.

Yalun didn't give them the chance to turn their spears towards him or his friends; Yalun leapt into the air and aimed a spinning kick straight at the cultists. A gale shot out from his foot, slamming into the crowd and sending them scattering out the entrance like a flock of partridge-pigeons. Yalun bolted out as fast as he could, his weakness under the Mad Priest a distant memory, and was instantly met with a torrential downpour and the greenery of the rainforest. The cultists still surrounded Amala, and they began to advance on the Avatar and his friends.

Like hell, Yalun thought. He began a series of open-handed attacks, causing the rain to swirl into bolts of water and strike the cultists.

"Alright, get on!" screamed Assam over the roar of the rain as his bison alighted beside the group. Everyone scrambled past Amala's tail and on to her saddle, grabbing their weapons and always keeping one eye on the entrance, especially Yalun.

"Yip yip!" Assam commanded. With a swipe of her tail, Amala began to slowly rise into the tangled branches of the rainforest, with Nilak and Yalun blasting away the most troublesome attacks from below, using the rain to waterbend. They couldn't get all of them before they took off however, as several cultist running towards the group tossed lassoed ropes at the sky bison, snaring her many feet and holding her down.

Yalun spied three figures emerging from the cavernous entrance to the cultist's lair, each of them smoldering on every limb. Their orange eyes locked onto Yalun within seconds, flashing with an intense hunger, evident even from the canopy.

"Jiang shi incoming!" Li shouted, for he had seen them as well. "I think they're the same ones we roasted before!"

Before the Avatar could even bend over the side of the saddle to take pot shots at the creatures, they had leapt into the air, as if they weighed nothing, and landed on Amala's massive tail, digging their bony talons into the bison's flesh.

Then they opened their mouths.

Every bit of energy seemed to flow out of Yalun all at once. He couldn't even raise a hand. His breathing quickly became labored, his heart aching to continue beating. The foul creatures before him slowly began to regenerate their charred flesh, once more reforming into their original disgusting shape.

They're draining... our chi, thought Yalun. He knew what was happening, yet he could no nothing to stop it. He would become a vegetable, like the warriors of his village. He would lie on a bed useless as this cult would run rampant over an unsuspecting world.

This is the end...

...

"Get off my bison!" Yalun heard Assam bellow behind him. In a blur of motion, Assam bounded forward, monk's spade in hand, and swatted the air in front of him with the broad side of the blade, dropping over Amala's tail from the momentum. The jiang shi couldn't even raise a claw; they were torn from their perch, sent ricocheting off the ropes restraining the bison. The snapping ropes and bones could be heard even through the rain.

As the jiang shi's death throes faded into the distance, Yalun could only hear the pounding rain and the wind Amala was bending, as well as a pounding in his head from having his very chi sucked from his body. With one final push, Amala tore free, and soared towards the sky above the clearing that was Darkhollow, the gust clearing away the last of their attackers.

"Where's Assam?" asked Li Chen, clearly just as woozy from the jiang shi's attack.

Yalun's very lips seemed to be weighed down with lead. "He... fell. He's still down there. With those... things."

"Guess again!" a voice called from below. Assam appeared from under Amala, his spade extended into a full glider and carrying him toward his bison, pushing aside the rain as if it weren't there. With a flourish, Assam alighted on his bison's neck once more. "Its like you guys forget I can fly with this thing."

Where there may have been laughter, a heavy silence fell on Yalun and the others. The fatigue of combat and the stresses of the jiang shi had whithered any vigor Yalun possessed. His limbs felt like they were bound in lead, his eyelids closing on their own. As he gave in to the sweet darkness of sleep, a silent dread crept into Yalun's mind. A new danger had been flushed out this day. The cultists and their jiang shi would return.

As Amala flew through the storm, Yalun realized a single truth before he slipped into unconsciousness.

This was not the end. This battle against madness, against chaos itself, was just beginning.


Next on Avatar...

While trying to flee to the coast of the Fire Nation with a wounded Amala and a cultist army dogging their every step, the group comes across a highly skilled but abrasive, non-bending warrior named Raiden.

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