Dark forest
Wisdom (Union)
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Release date

December 8th, 2013

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Dreams and Problems

Seth ladled a cup of punch, grinning in delight. The gym floor throbbed with his favorite heavy music. The bright orange streamers clinging to the walls gleamed and shone, woven with black ribbons in complicated patterns. Fake spider-webs coated the ceiling. Fog hovered, spectral, in the air. Almost the entire student body had arrived, mingling in a surging, half-dancing mass; teens chatted and laughed, costumes ranging from fairy princesses to heavy-metal rock stars.

Halloween was Seth's favorite holiday – after all, any day where the moon was celebrated was gold in his book. He had jumped at the chance to help prepare the school party. Most of the decorations and games, along with the music and the fog machine, were the products of his personal efforts. And of course, anyone who had ordered a costume through him was perfectly dressed. His own Mad Hatter costume was spot-on.

"You know," said a voice, interrupting his thoughts, "I can't stand all the vibrations in here." Seth turned. A pretty, blonde-haired girl clad in a sackcloth peasant costume was inspecting the cookies arranged next to the punch bowl. She stroked her chin, deliberating seriously.

"Hey, Emily," he greeted, sipping his punch. He looked out across the gym. "Don't you wish you could turn it off? I mean, just to enjoy the music?"

Emily shrugged. "Usually I like feeling the music with my feet, but with all these people. . . ." She shuddered and closed her eyes. "It's like a bad dream. Or like an octopus with a thousand arms walking around the gym."

Seth nearly spurted his drink with laughter and inhaled, sucking liquid into his air pipe. "I'll take your word for it," he choked. He wheezed and coughed, pounding his chest to clear the burning sensation in his throat.

"Just waterbend it out," Emily said unsympathetically, still meticulously studying the cookies. She did not look up.

Seth flinched as if he had been struck, and then stepped closer. "Don't mention that in public," he said weakly, voice raspy. "You know that we're supposed to keep it secret."

"Lighten up. We're in a huge room, full of people that are having a good time, and there's no one around us."

Seth shifted uncomfortably. "I just don't like it." He glanced askance at Emily and arched an eyebrow. "I'd take chocolate."

"Good idea." Emily snatched a dark cookie from a platter and popped it into her mouth. "Thith muthic ith terrible," she said as she chewed. "It maketh everything futhy, umf I even wore inthulated bootth!"

"How difficult to be an earthbender in the twenty-first century," Seth teased.

Emily threw a look that said, ' Watch it – I could send you through the ceiling. ' She gulped and eyed the remaining cookies. "That chocolate wasn't that great. Maybe . . . just one more." Another cookie vanished.

Seth laughed as a group of students entered the gym through the backdoor, letting a gust of cool air sweep the fog away in billowing waves. The door swung close with a bang, and Seth swirled his punch pensively.

"Why is it that every time there's a draft and a bang like that, something happens?" His watch suddenly beeped and began flashing a white light.

He sighed, set down his cup, and pressed a button on the side of the watch. Emily moved closer as a static-muffled voice shouted:

' Guys, we've got trouble! Get out here now! Its – ' A roar blocked out the next words. ' – thing you ever saw in your life! I need everyone out here, NOW! '

"Nice," Emily muttered. She grabbed another cookie from the table and nodded toward the corner of the gym, where a tall boy dressed in a black diving suit was standing. "There's Googly Eyes. I'll go find Laura."


They split up. Emily disappeared into the crowd and Seth dashed to the corner of the room. On closer inspection, the boy was not wearing a diving suit. Instead, it appeared to be a combat outfit. Metal strips protected the forearms and legs, and a jointed breastplate and shoulder pads covered the upper body. Four thin black tubes stuck out at the wrists, two for each hand.

The boy stood awkwardly, posed as if he were about to leap forward, expression frozen in a deranged smile. If he stood straight, his costume might have made him appear heroic. With his stance, however, he looked like a rookie gladiator with oversized armor.

"Wil, there's trouble," Seth said urgently.

"I know," Wil replied, keeping his eyes trained on the backs of a gaggle of girls. 'Why else would you run up to me like that? Good thing I wore my combat suit as a costume." He waved a hand dismissively. "Just go. I have to be here."

"For what, exactly?"

"When they turn around, I'll start walking toward them. When I pass, I'll wink."

"Uh-huh." Seth glanced at the girls and snorted. "At which one? The ogre?"

"No! The one in the middle. With the white dress."

"Mm-hmm. Well, good luck, Lover Boy. See you out there."


Seth darted through the crowd, surreptitiously tapping the girl with the white dress on the shoulder as he passed. In a moment he was outside, hanging on to his Mad Hatter's cap as he rounded the corner of the building and sprinted toward the edge of the manicured school grounds. Just beyond a chain link fence lay a massive forest, trees gnarled and bent, clustered thickly together. The night darkened their spiny shapes, making them appear like twisted giants wearing crowns of thorns.

Seth burst through the fence gate, and in an instant he felt like he was hundreds of miles away from civilization. The trees pressed together, spaced only by the occasional fallen trunk and small groves of dark bushes. Moonlight filtered through the leafless canopy, and bumps broke out across Seth's skin with a tingling rush. He glanced up.

Screened, but still visible, the lady of the night radiated frigid light across the sky; brilliant white and ethereally beautiful. The stars around her untamed disc hid themselves in shame, and even Venus was dimmed in reverence. It was a perfect night.

Something up ahead roared. Seth doggedly increased his pace, struggling to keep his footing – the ground was laced with roots and small vines that snagged and tore as if they were alive. He clambered over a massive trunk and arrived at a large clearing.

He froze.

A huge monster, fifteen feet tall, and burning with furious purple light, rampaged, ten, sickly yellow eyes bulging with exertion. The creature swiped a disproportionally large claw at a boy dressed like a medieval prince, who spun and ducked.

The monster shrieked in frustration; tentacles sprouted from its back and smashed the ground around the boy. He expertly dodged and weaved through the whirling appendages, slowly backing toward an almost impenetrable wall of trees. He back-flipped out of the way of another swipe, landed, and shouted:

"WELL?! Don't just stand there!"

The words snapped Seth out of a daze. The thing was just so . . . huge. It was disorienting. He gathered his thoughts and focused on the moon. His pulse quickened. Power suddenly roiled under his skin, surging, snapping, crackling. He had never felt more alive.

He raised his hands. A tree root the size of a telephone pole erupted from the ground, spraying moist clods of dirt in every direction. Following the motion of Seth's arms, it wrapped around the creature's waist and then drilled back into the soil, anchoring firmly. The beast wailed, and its tentacles tore the root apart.

A clump of soil smacked Seth in face and knocked him to the ground. White light flashed across his vision and a headache sparked in the back of his head, but he pulled himself to a sitting position and wiped the earth from his eyes.

"So," he sighed, "it's going to be one of those fights."

Freed for a moment from the monster's attention, the prince lowered into a wide stance and punched. A comet of fire leapt from his knuckles and crashed into the creature's head, sending it careening into a tree.

Seth shook his head and got to his feet. He ran to the prince's side, grinning. "Imagine meeting you here, Bruin," he said, pulling a dirt clod out of his hair. "Gone out for another midnight stroll with a spirit, have we?"

"Shut up," Bruin huffed. "If you hadn't noticed, we have a major problem." Warmth spread through Seth; he enjoyed annoying Bruin, perhaps too much.

"Oh, I had noticed," he replied airily as the spirit regained its balance and charged, mouth agape. "I just expected you to be able to control the situation, that's all." He inspected his fingernails, wiping away a smudge of dirt.

Bruin growled in frustration. "Cut the chatter already. Combination B?"


The pair raced to either side just as the spirit reached them. Bruin launched several bursts of fire at the beast's mouth, but a long forked tongue shot out and quenched the flames. Seth spun, avoiding several tentacles, but one struck him on the shoulder and he flew backward. His body immediately assumed control, muscles repeating the maneuver they had been trained to perform. His hands automatically reached back and his body followed, rolling into a ball, somersaulting end over end across the bumpy ground. Seth held his breath and kicked out with both feet at the perfect moment, launching himself skyward. He soared upward as if gravity could no longer weigh him down, and, with a smooth pirouette, he landed lightly on his feet facing the spirit.

"Don't tell me that I just saw what I saw!" Bruin shouted.

Seth ducked under another tentacle. "Bloodbending?" he shouted back innocently.

"You KNOW that's illegal!"

"There's nothing in the law that says you can't do it on yourself!" "You're going to get us all thrown in jail!"

Seth grunted as he dodged the spirit's claw and moved his arms in swift, striking motions. Roots shot upward in response, curling around the spirit's feet and legs.

"Keep it up, boys!" cried a new voice. Brilliant blue light flared at the edge of the clearing, accompanied by a thunderous boom. A bolt of lightning streaked outward and struck the spirit on the side of the head; it shrieked, stumbled into a tree, and vanished in a flash of purple light.

Silence reigned for a moment while Seth and Bruin absorbed what had just happened. Bruin's hair stood on end, the tips singed and curly.

"Nice one," he said breathlessly. Seth nodded in stunned agreement.

Emily, Wil, and a red-haired girl in a ninja suit hurried to them. The ninja girl gently blew on her still-smoking fingers.

"Woo!" she shouted, tossing her hair. "That was some HOT lightning! You were right, Bruin. Holding the energy apart longer does make the blast stronger!"

"Mm-hmm," Bruin said absently, folding his arms angrily. He glared at Seth, but his hair wavered comically, making it hard to take him seriously.

Seth nonchalantly turned away from Bruin. "That was something else, Laura," he said, lifting a hand. They high-fived and Laura giggled in pleasure. She enjoyed praise for her bending skills, especially her lightning generation.

Emily unloosed a sackcloth satchel from her waist and punched skyward. A thin metal cable shot out of the bag, looped around a lofty tree branch, and, with a whirring noise, Emily zipped upwards and perched on the side of the tree.

"You nailed him, Laura!" she called, peering into the forest. "I don't see anything else." Laura whooped and danced, waving her hands in the air and twirling.

Wil caught Seth's gaze, frowned, and then turned to Bruin. "Uh oh," he said forebodingly. "Your hands are on fire. Your hands are only on fire when you're angry. What's going on, guys?"

Bruin glanced down and furiously snuffed the flames. "Yes, I'm angry," he said harshly. "Seth was bloodbending!" Wil's eyes widened. Laura froze. Emily landed with a whoosh and put her hands on her hips.

"Bloodbending, huh?" she said brusquely. "I thought you said you weren't going to anymore."

Seth's heart jackhammered, but he spoke calmly. "I was only doing it on myself. Besides, without it I would have been spirit chow!"

"We could have gotten you out," Emily countered. "We've had to before. Remember that squid spirit when we went to the coast?"

Wil chuckled. "That one was funny." Emily nodded, grinning.

"You three are missing the point," Laura interjected. She gestured at Seth. "This isn't about doing something illegal. It's about his safety." She looked at him, concern shimmering in her eyes. "Seth, remember your cousin. He drove himself nuts with bloodbending. I know that it's powerful, and useful, but . . . none of us want to see that happen to you."

"The chimp is right," Emily agreed, using Laura's nickname, 'Chimpanzee'. "No offense, but I think you'd make a lame madman."

"Enough," Bruin snapped. He glared at Seth. "You know how dangerous it is – bloodbending is a gateway to insanity. Every bloodbender in history has completely lost it."

"Almost," Seth remarked indignantly.

"So what? It's not worth the risk. Your cousin almost killed all of us, and we only stopped him by working together. Imagine if you went crazy."

"Technically," Wil objected, lifting a finger, "Seth stopped him. I don't know about you guys, but I was busy being turned into a human pretzel. There was nothing I could have done. And I'm a waterbender."

Courage surged in Seth's chest. "And the only way I managed to beat him was with bloodbending."

The words rang true. He could taste their impact the moment they left his mouth. Bruin frowned, but looked away, a sure sign that he had been beaten. Laura chewed on her lower lip nervously.

"Let's head back to the party," Wil advised sagely. "We could all use some escape." Bruin righted his princely cap and marched off in the direction of the school. Wil and Laura followed him silently, side by side. Emily stepped to Seth. They waited to speak until the others were gone.

"Emily, I –" Emily held up a hand. "You don't have to say anything," she said curtly. "I know and you know that if it weren't for your creepy powers, most of us would probably be dead right now. Oh, I've noticed you doing special flips when you thought no one was looking, and it always helped when things were looking bad. You're on the right side of the arguement." Seth opened his mouth to thank her, but she cast him a dire look and he shut it.

She studied his face before continuing. "Bruin is right too. Bloodbending is illegal. It's like bonebending. Sure, it could be useful. But do you see me using it? It might be harder, but I find other ways to get the upper hand." She poked him in the chest. "Ways that won't get me thrown in the loony bin." Her expression softened and she clapped him on the shoulder. "Let's go."

Seth shook his head. "No," he said sadly. "I'll follow you in a little while."

Emily's brows furrowed, but she nodded and left. Seth walked farther into the woods, raised a root with waterbending, and plopped down on it. Tears threatened, but he pushed them back with a force of resolve. He sniffed.

So it was illegal. But did that make it wrong to bloodbend? It had saved all of their lives. More than once! Without it, he might have been squashed just a few minutes ago! And besides, it was not as if it was an addiction. Bloodbending felt awful, even when he used it on his own body. Every muscle squeezed, every tendon strained, the very fabric of his body compelled to move in the way he directed – it was terrible. Long ago he had sworn to never use his power on someone else, unless it meant saving a life. It had come to that, when he had faced his cousin. . . .

No. Seth shoved those thoughts away. Some memories were better left alone.

He stared at a nearby tree and wondered what he should do. He was not going to give it up. That was already decided. Training with bloodbending might be essential to his friend's survival. Dark spirits were attacking more frequently. If benders could not bring more power to bear against them, they would be overrun.

' Don't forget its healing properties, ' whispered a voice. Seth straightened and whirled in a circle, scanning the trees. The forest was empty.

"Who said that?"

' I. '

A beautiful, translucent woman appeared before him, clad in flowing blue robes. Her dark hair was plaited in complicated rows, and her blue eyes flickered with restrained power. Pale green light surrounded her form, giving her a ghostly presence.

Seth bowed in respect. "Are you the spirit of the forest?"

' Yes, young waterbender. You and yours have done me a great service this night. I thank you humbly. '

"Our pleasure," Seth replied. "You know, just doing our job as the bridge between our worlds."

The woman frowned. ' Hmm, yes. I could not help but overhear your argument with your friends, and I wished to impart wisdom to you, in return for your services. '

"What wisdom?"

The woman smiled mysteriously. ' Bloodbending is one of the most powerful bending arts, and among the most dangerous. It is inherently unstable, and its practitioners place themselves in jeopardy. But there was one who used its power and remained unscathed. Seek out Tellus Lee and learn of him.

' You and your friends are very special. The Great Light Spirit herself has told me of this man, and directed me to you. She spoke of great darkness rising. Young waterbender, you must use your power to save the world. '

"What? The Grea – she told you to talk to me? When did you see her? She's been missing for, I don't know, a couple hundred years! Where is she? Can you take me to her?"

The woman's smile widened. ' Good luck, young hero. We shall meet again. ' With those words, she vanished, and Seth was left alone in the darkness. Chills raced up his spine. The temperature of the night air seemed to plummet.

The Great Light Spirit.


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