The Book of Fire

  • (Part 3)

    Locked inside a box, Scry was cut off from the world. The cold metal walls dulled her ability to sense the earth underneath. Only her augmented hearing kept her appraised of what was happening outside, but even then she had to strain to understand the muffled voices.

    Snippets of conversation revealed Kain and Ral were taking her out of the city in a cart. That meant they intended to travel to Gaolin by land, through the Western Gate. A long journey through barren canyons and scorching desert sands.

    The cage bucked and heaved more frequently as the quality of the road deteriorated. The denizens of the upper ring did not tolerate signs of wear lest their fair skin be ruined by an unseemly bruise. The craftsmen in the middle ring couldn’t afford to spend all their time maintaining flawless roads, but they were skilled enough to not let them degrade into anything dangerous. The lower ring, however, lacked both the skilled engineers and the proper supplies to prevent their roads from devolving into a shoddy rutted mess.

    When the cart started to pick up in speed, Scry knew she was out of time. They would be approaching the outer gate any moment now. She slammed her hands and feet against the walls of the cage, struggling in vain to find some way to break free. She screamed and yelled until her voice ran hoarse. For a moment, she thought she felt something budge, but she remained trapped in her metal box.

    The cart came to an abrupt halt, smacking her head against the wall. When her ears stopped ringing, she could make out people talking outside.

    “What do you mean we can’t get through?” Kain’s voice demanded.

    “The city is on lockdown,” an unfamiliar man replied. “No one gets in or out until the Fire Nation army has assumed complete control.”

    “We have Princess Retsy’s personal assurance that we be allowed safe passage to Gaolin,” Ral said.

    “My orders come directly from the Princess herself,” the guard replied. “No one gets in or out of Ba Sing Se.”

    “I don’t care what your orders say!” Kain said. The cart dipped and rose as if something heavy had disembarked. “You will let us through!”

    “Walk away, now!” the guard demanded.

    Kain let out a howl and the walls rattled with the force of a nearby explosion. Scry was thrown roughly from side-to-side as the earth heaved and trembled around her. She tried to call out for help, but her chin slammed into the wall, causing her to bite down painfully on her tongue.

    More people shouted outside. Kain was yelling something unintelligible, his voice accompanied by the sound of more explosions; the cold metal beginning to heat up beneath her hands. Rocks were being torn from the ground, thrust into something with a sickening crunch. Then…a sudden silence.

    “Maybe a night in jail will be enough to cool your head,” the guard said.

    “Don’t count on it!” a second voice joked.

    There was a moment of quiet while the guards presumably shuffled the subdued Kain off to prison. Scry didn’t know they had returned until one of them addressed Ral.

    “Do you need a time out as well?”

    “No,” Ral said quickly. “Not at all.”

    “Move along then! Back the way you came!”

    The cart shook a bit and Scry was thrown to one side again as it wheeled around. Realizing this might be her only chance, she tried screaming for help and banging on the walls, hoping someone would notice. Someone did notice.

    The cart came to a halt and something thumped the outside of the cage.

    “You’re a noisy one, aren’t you?” Ral said. “Scream all you want, but nobody is going to hear you here. Once the gates open again in the morning, we’ll be long gone.”

    “What about your friend?” Scry asked.

    “Hmph. Just means I get his share of the gold.”

    Avatara stared out the window, the blue waves outside the ship a stark contrast to the black iron of the hull. Two boats had left before the lockdown, the other carrying the Ronin and the waterbender’s brother.

    The last glimpse he had of Ba Sing Se showed legions of Fire Nation troops swarming into the city. He wondered what the denizens thought about the takeover, if they had even seen a Fire Nation soldier up close before. No sense dwelling on it now; there was nothing he could do for the fallen Earth Kingdom.

    It was easier than he thought to put it out of his mind. All he had to do was think about the gloomy presence hovering over his shoulder.

    “I’m sorry about the wedding,” he said quietly.

    “It was really hard, you know,” Adriana said. “We have known each other since we were kids. And on the most important day of my life – a day that was supposed to be special and happy…I ended up standing embarrassed and alone in front of everyone.”

    “I didn’t have much of a choice. I was locked up in chains and thrown on the first boat out of the Fire Nation.”

    “Can’t you at least tell me why?” Her voice cracked. “What on earth did you do to get banished?”

    “I told my father to stop obsessing over the disappearance of my mother. Saria left for a reason. If she wanted to see him again, she would’ve said something by now.” A moment too late, Avatara realized what he had said. “I mean–“

    “No, it’s okay. I know exactly what you meant,” Adriana said dryly.

    “Sorry,” Avatara said, looking at her for the first time since they left the city. She had braided her long hair, looping it up into a bun and set in place with two hairpins. A smaller braided loop on each side of her head reminded him of Katerei and his former companions. “I bet Nili is bored out of her mind. It’s a long way back to the Northern Water Tribe.”

    “I think she just wanted to hang out with that warrior girl they captured.” Adriana bit her thumb in thought. “Or, now that our mission is done, she’s trying to get as far away from your sister as she can.”

    “Smart move.”

    “Have you seen Retsy lately?“ Adriana lowered her voice. “Ever she got her hands on that Avatar boy, she’s been acting real strange. It’s starting to creep me out.”

    “Isn’t she always creepy?”

    “Not like this–“

    Laughter in the hallway caught their attention. They turned and saw Selax plodding by on all-fours, Retsy riding on top of him, giggling uncontrollably. “Giddy up horsey! Faster!” she cried, guiding him back out of sight.

    “See what I mean?” Adriana asked.

    “That’s worse than I imagined,” Avatara admitted. Before he realized it, his hand had found hers. Her eyes widened, but she said nothing as their fingers entwined. They stood together in silence, staring at the empty door.

    “By the way,” Adriana said, clearing her throat. “What have you been up to all these years?”

    “Sage’s Comet.” He turned his gaze back to the window, the rolling waves under a deep blue sky. “It arrives this summer, and when it does…there won’t be any nations to fight over.”

    “Does your sister know?”

    “Hard to say.” Avatara shrugged. “We aren’t exactly on speaking terms.”

    “You should tell her,” Adriana said. Somehow her hand had found its way around his waist and she pressed close to him, leaning on his shoulder.

    “I will try,” he said, squeezing her back. “But we might want to consider that these next couple months may very well be our last.”

    The front of the warehouse was lit by a single yellow lamp, swinging gently in the wind. Confident the way was clear, Katerei crept forward and put her ear to the door. Hearing nothing, she uncorked her canteen and drew out a small trickle of water. The water slipped into the lock and froze, breaking it open as the ice expanded. Pausing a moment to ensure nobody heard, she waved for Wizard to approach and opened the door.

    The warehouse was empty save for a tall, metal box that she could barely make out in the dim light. Creeping cautiously forward, glancing around for any sign of movement, she made her way to the cage and repeated the same trick on the lock. She reached for the handle and pulled hard. With a loud creak, the door swung open and a pale, raven-haired girl tumbled into her arms.

    “Who’s there?” the girl asked, straightening to her feet.

    “Ssh. It’s me, Scry,” Katerei whispered.

    “Very funny Katerei, but I’m Scry,” Scry said, stretching her limbs. “What happened to Ral? And who is that?” She pointed directly at Wizard.

    “He’s a friend,” she replied, hugging Scry. “And Ral? Well…”

    “The man who held you here is now reflecting on his life’s choices,” Wizard said, cracking his knuckles. “He will not bother you again.”

    “What about the others?” Scry asked as she separated herself from Katerei. “What happened to Avatara?”

    Katerei averted her gaze, and then realized the blind earthbender wouldn’t have noticed anyway. “He was kidnapped by his sister. They’re probably halfway to the Fire Nation by now.”

    “We have to go after them!”

    “We will,” Katerei promised. Inwardly, she wondered how she felt at meeting Avatara again. His deception still stung.

    “What troubles you, little lady?” Wizard asked. It took a moment for Katerei to realize he was addressing Scry.

    “I hope he’s okay,” Scry said, wiping away tears. “He was the first person to believe in me. No one else thought I was capable of becoming anything.”

    “I’m sure you’ll see him again soon,” Wizard said patting her on the head. Scry sniffed a bit but relaxed and leaned into his touch.

    “Actually, she’s blind. She won’t be seeing anybody,” Katerei said, trying to spoil the moment.

    “What’s going on?” Avatara demanded, slamming the hatch open as he barged in.

    Retsy looked up from her seat on the bridge. “Nice to see you too, brother,” she yawned.

    “Why are we going west? It’s going to take months to get home if we have to sail all the way around the Earth Kingdom!” Avatara slammed a map down on the table.

    “Why wouldn’t we go west?” Retsy sat up and rested her chin on her hand.

    “The Firelord’s Palace is here,” Avatara said pointing to the left side of the map. He moved his hand to the northeastern corner. “Ba Sing Se is here. Why aren’t we simply sailing east?”

    “Because that’s the edge of the world, fool! Everyone knows that sailing east is a death sentence.”

    “I’ve done it before. We could be home in a matter of days!” He knew shouting would never win against her, but he couldn’t help himself.

    “Oh, like I’m going to trust the word of a traitor. What’s wrong little brother? Are you in some kind of hurry?”

    “Sage’s Comet will strike just after the summer solstice. If we don’t stop it, all life will be extinguished.”

    “That again?” Retsy laughed.

    “You don’t seem to care.” Avatara narrowed his eyes.

    “Of course I care! People are more passionate when they’re desperate.” She crossed her legs and leaned forward. “I have the perfect night planned out for that Avatar friend of yours,” she said, licking her lips. “When the comet comes, we are going to have a glorious time, and I’ll finally be able to claim what is rightfully mine!”

    “I…uh, didn’t realize you were so taken with Selax,” Avatara said, backing away slowly.

    “The throne, you idiot!” Retsy slammed her hand down on the armrest. “Father has ruled long enough. It’s time for doddering old fools to step aside. And if they won’t, with the power of the comet, I will make them stand aside!”

    “Hi there!”

    Iannah looked up from her mopping to see the energetic brown-haired girl hanging upside down from the pipes on the ceiling. “What do you want?” she asked Nili, resuming her cleaning of the engine room floor.

    “Oh, nothing much,” Nili said, pretending to look at her fingernails. “I just thought you might want a way to get off this ship.”

    “You can get us off this ship?” Iannah stopped mopping.

    “I can get you off this ship,” Nili corrected, swinging herself around so she could drop down. “That is, if you’re interested.”

    “What about Fendul?”

    “Impossible. He’s being watched too closely by the Ronin.”

    “Can’t you do your crippling death grip and take them all out?”

    “Not that big guy.” Nili scrunched up her face in disgust. “Have you tried to chi-block a brute before? I don’t think I could get my hands clean after a month of scrubbing!”

    “I’m not leaving without Fendul.” Iannah dipped her mop into the bucket and resumed cleaning the floor.

    “Fine, I thought you might be willing to leave now so you can be free to rescue him later, but if you’d rather sit around and mop all day…” Nili shrugged and started to leave.

    “Wait!” Iannah said, shoving her mop back in the bucket. “How would we escape?”

    “We’re about to pass by the northernmost province of the Earth Kingdom. The last before we cross the sea to the North Pole,” Nili said. She clasped her hands behind her back and twisted from side to side. “I was thinking…we’d just jump over the edge and swim to shore!”

    “We’d just jump off the boat and swim to shore?” Iannah asked doubtfully.

    “Sure! Nobody is paying any attention to us, and I hear the Tokoda Warriors are great swimmers. By the time they’ll figure it out, we’ll be long gone!” Nili grinned. “That Flynn is in such a rush to get home, he won’t bother to stop and search for you!”

    “Is that why you came along?” Iannah put her hands on her hips. “To steal me away from the Water Tribe?”

    “Maybe.” Nili blushed, batting her eyelashes.

    Iannah considered for a moment. Escaping would be more fun than scrubbing the decks. Besides, the skinny girl was kind of cute. “Okay,” she said.

    “Great!” Nili clapped her hands. “Meet me on the deck one hour after nightfall. We’re going to have ourselves a girl’s night out!”

    Selax sat on the velvet pillow and meditated. All around him, metal bars rose up in a spherical cage, just wide enough for him to fit his head between. The cage was mostly for show. The true prison was the one around his neck.

    Across the room, Retsy was sitting on the edge of her bed, swinging her legs in the air as she regarded Selax. In her lap rested a bowl of fresh fruit. The fire princess scooped up one and bit into it, only to spit it out and knock the bowl away.

    “Blech! Peaches!” she said in disgust.

    Berries and peaches rolled across the metal floor, some of them coming to a rest under the bed, forgotten. Selax did his best to ignore them.

    Retsy shifted so she was sitting cross-legged on the bed. “I’m bored, Avatar,” she said, faking a yawn. “Sing for me.”

    Selax didn’t move.

    The fire princess turned to glare at the airbender. “I said sing for me. Now!”

    She snapped her fingers and the necklace around Selax’s neck glowed. He shuddered as an electrical jolt raced through his body and returned her glare, but he started to sing. His voice came out cracked and dry, but he sang the lilting tune he remembered from another life:

    _The fluttering snowflakes are the stars’ shards;
    Reaching your hands into the sky.
    Can you feel our flowing wishes for each other?
    Everything has become shrouded in monochrome.
    “Good!” Retsy said, clapping her hands. “Now, tell me a story!”

    Selax let out a sigh. “Long ago, there was a legendary warrior named Grapper…”

    “No, not that one! Tell me a story about someone I would know. Someone like…me!”

    “There once was a princess named Retsy.”

    “Yes! Yes!” Retsy leaned forward, listening intently. “Go on!”

    Selax looked her in the eye and said flatly, “She ignored all the warnings about the comet and let everybody die. The end.”

    Retsy frowned, crossing her legs. “That wasn’t a very fun story. Start over! And make it good this time!”

    Selax rolled his eyes, but the seal around his neck was still glowing. “There once was a princess named Retsy. She was the awesomest princess ever. The end.”

    “That’s more like it!” Retsy said, hopping to her feet. She walked over to the cage and grabbed the bars. “Are you ready to accept me now? Pledge your undying love to me and I will let you go.”

    He shook his head. “That is not how love works.”

    “What do you mean? We spend lots of time together. We tell stories and sing songs. Why do you still deny that the two of us are simply meant to be?”

    “Love is…more than that,” Selax struggled to explain.

    He remembered his feline companion. She lived her own life ruling the temple grounds during the day. But when night fell, she would always come back to curl up at his feet, comfort him with her presence.

    “Love is a deep personal connection. Whatever your differences, at the end of the day you always find yourself returning to each other.”

    He thought about the other people he had crossed paths with in this life. Adriana, engaged to her childhood friend. Even after three years of forced separation, she travelled across the world to see her fiancée.

    “Love knows no bounds. No distance is too great to keep you apart.”

    His thoughts drifted to the earthbender they had picked up in Gaolin. The blind girl had given up everything in her life on a plea to accompany a man she hardly knew. He recalled their talk when Avatara had given her the red scarf, of how the firebender wanted her to become free.

    “Love is blind, trusting. Faith that if you support and encourage someone, they will reciprocate in kind.”

    He thought of Avatar Rapierian.

    That…was a waste of time. It was impossible to imagine Rapierian in any kind of relationship.

    Selax opened his eyes and regarded Retsy. “Love is…complicated. It cannot be seized by force. It needs to be freely given.”

    Retsy frowned. “That sounds like something my mother would say.”

    “Your mother is a very wise woman.”

    “Too bad it didn’t do her much good. After she left, my father burned her village in retaliation. And then burned a few more villages for good measure.” Her hands swooped into the air, imitating flames bursting from the ground. “No. Love is meant to be conquered, lest it slip out of your grasp and leave you both with nothing!” She clenched her hands into fists.

    “Your brother does not believe that,” Selax said quietly.

    “My brother is too sentimental for his own good,” she snapped back. “Why do you think I arranged for him to be banished?”

    Selax rose to his feet, eyes widening in realization. “You were jealous.”

    “What? No!” Retsy took a step backwards.

    “I remember now. When you were young, your brother would always follow you around, look up to you. As he grew up he became more interested in his girlfriend, so you banished him to split them apart.” He stepped forward, grabbing the bars where her hands had been. “You are jealous. That is what this is really all about.”

    “I don’t have to listen to this!” Retsy scowled, taking another step back.

    “Whatever you and I have, whatever you think this is–“ he pointed at the cage. “This is not love.”

    Retsy let out a cry and stormed out of the room, slamming the door shut behind her.

    Selax watched her leave. In a way, he could empathize with her loneliness. He too had sat on the sidelines in times past, watching others grow close and move away. He was sure that deep down inside her, underneath all that anger, all that pride, was a cute little girl that just wanted to play. But the spoiled princess was unaccustomed to not getting what she wanted.

    He reached up and traced the Seal of Thera around his neck. He had learned the hard way that pride can defeat even the best of intentions. He had failed once. Maybe it was not too late to prevent someone else from falling into the same trap.

    Iannah lay stretched out on the side of the hill, feeling the soft grass tickle her back. Beside her, Nili made grass angels while the two of them watched for shooting stars in the cloudless sky.

    “I used to do this all the time back home,” the Tokoda Warrior said, breaking the silence. “My whole squad would love coming out to the beach and spend the whole night staring up at the stars.”

    “This is my first time really seeing stars,” Nili said quietly. When the redhead glanced over at her, she explained, “The sky is rarely clear because of all the volcanic smoke. I’ve spent most of my life living in shadows.”

    “Really?” Iannah blinked in surprise. “Well, I’ll have to show you all of the constellations then.”

    “That would be great! When can we start?” Nili flung her hands out wide.

    The redhead jumped as Nili’s fingers brushed hers. She cleared her throat and pointed up at a cluster of five. “See the cross over there? That’s the sword of the tel-saidu.”

    “I don’t see anything.” Nili turned her head back and forth.

    “No, over there!” Iannah pointed again. Seeing the Fire Nation girl still struggling, she leaned closer so Nili could more easily follow her finger.

    “Oh! I see it now!” Nili turned her head to face Iannah. “But it looks a little crooked for a–.”

    Iannah saw the girl freeze. suddenly conscious that their faces were only inches apart. She blushed and scooted away, putting space between herself and the brown-haired girl. “Sorry,” she said. She feigned a cough to hide her face.

    “Don’t be.” Iannah felt fingers touch her forearm, hesitant at first, but then more forceful as Nili grabbed her arms and forced her onto her back. Nili swung herself around to straddle the redhead’s midsection. Her braid came loose, spilling brown hair over her shoulders, tickling Iannah’s face.

    Iannah stared wide-eyed up at the Fire Nation girl above her. Nili was averting her gaze, opening and closing her mouth as if working her way up to say something.

    “Is this why you wanted me off the ship?” Iannah asked.

    “Yes,” Nili admitted, turning her head. “Well, that and I didn’t want that creepy Water Tribe boy to have you.”

    “Fendul’s not–“

    “Oh! No no no no no!” Nili rose to her knees so she could bury her face in her hands. “I meant the other one. That Flynn fellow holding you captive.”

    “Oh, yeah, him.” Iannah closed her eyes. “I don’t want to think about what he had in store for me.”

    “I saw you fight back there,” Nili said, swallowing. “Back in Ba Sing Se. You took on all those Ronin practically by yourself and you weren’t afraid at all. I admire that kind of courage. It makes me wish I could be…more like you. That I could stand up and face my fears.”

    “You seem to be doing a pretty good job of it right now,” Iannah remarked.

    Nili shook her head. “This is nothing compared to…” Now it was Nili’s turn to close her eyes. “I don’t really want to go around hurting people, but if I don’t…Retsy will…” A tear fell from her eye. “She threatened my family. My sisters.”

    Iannah reached up to wipe the girl’s tears away. “We can stop Retsy. Make it so she won’t be able to harm you or your sisters.” Her hand lingered.

    Nili opened her eyes. “We can?” She sniffed.

    “Yes, we can.” Iannah ran her hand down the girl’s cheek. “Help me find my friends and we will help you put an end to Retsy’s reign of terror.”

    “I…I…” Nili stammered. Her tears stopped but she was still breathing heavily. “Thank you,” she finally said. And before Iannah could react, Nili grabbed her head in both hands and kissed her. Hard.

    When she was finally able to catch her breath a moment later, Iannah saw a newfound determination in the girl’s eyes. Still feeling the lingering taste of strawberries, Iannah cupped Nili’s face and brought her head lower again. Their eyes closed, their lips parted.

    “Oh, there you are!” Katerei’s voice made them both jump. “Scry thought she recognized your presence – wait! What’s she doing here?”

    Iannah pushed Nili off of her and rolled away, rising to her feet, wiping her mouth. The waterbender was standing above them on the top of the hill, Scry and an old man were just cresting the ridge behind her. “I…um…”

    “I helped her escape!” Nili said, quickly reverting back to her energetic self. She stood with her feet together, hands behind her back, twisting back and forth as if there was nothing to hide.

    “Yeah, we were uh…just plotting how to get your brother back,” Iannah said, trying not to look in Nili’s direction. “How we might use a distraction.”

    Katerei glanced back and forth between the two of them. “Can we trust her?” she asked, pointing to Nili. The Fire Nation girl batted her eyelashes in response.

    “Yeah…I think so,” Iannah said.

    “Oh, okay,” Katerei said. “I guess that’s good enough for me. What do you think, Scry?”

    “Sure thing!” Scry said.

    Iannah let out a huge sigh of relief. Perhaps they hadn’t been seen after all.

    “It’ll be great having her along!” Scry continued. “I hope I can pick up a few more pointers on kissing!”

    The front wall of ice forming his cell slid to one side, revealing two men. Flynn stood before him with a scowl, but Fendul ignored him, fixating instead on the waterbender behind. His eyes lit up as he recognized Behadul.

    “Boy, am I glad to see you!” Fendul said. He had spent weeks alone in that cell, his pleas for an audience unheeded.

    “Don’t be,” Behadul replied in a gruff voice. “Flynn has invoked the right of the Agni-Koi. You are to stand trial.” His grandfather gestured for him to come.

    Fendul rose slowly, glancing uncertainly at Flynn. “And you believe his false accusations?”

    “He is the chieftain’s son. He has the right to demand a hearing.” Behadul turned to look at the Ronin. “But it is the elders of the tribe who will determine if his claim has merit.” The waterbender gestured for them to follow.

    Before Fendul could take a step, Flynn grabbed his shoulder roughly. “Don’t even think about trying to escape. There is nothing out there but barren ice and a frozen death.”

    Fendul jerked himself free and followed after Behadul, leaving Flynn glaring at his back.

    Fendul got his first look at the devastation when they emerged out of the prison cave. The lower five rings were nothing more than crushed ice floating in the ocean. The sixth ring was partially intact, though a large scar had been carved through the middle of town, where the small river once flowed. The buildings that still stood showed more signs of damage from the flood than the invasion. Of the seventh ring, only the amphitheater remained. The shrine was totally buried in large chunks of crumbled ice.

    He paused for a moment, wiping his eyes as he remembered that night under the moon. His nostalgic moment was short-lived when Flynn pushed him forward, marching him towards the ragged crowd gathered in the amphitheater below.

    Fendul scanned the faces around him. Maybe a fourth of the tribe was present, surrounding him with haggard faces, torn clothes, unshaven hair. He wondered if only a fourth of the tribe could be present.

    “You are to stand here,” Behadul said, coming to a halt at a small X traced on the ground. A short distance away stood a raised bench with five seats, the leftmost and center both empty.

    “Where’s Chief Slayer?” Fendul asked, scanning the crowd.

    “He will have to judge from the spirit realm,” Behadul replied coldly, taking the seat on the left.

    “Fendul of the Southern Water Tribe,” Flynn addressed the audience, stepping onto a small circle. “You stand here accused of high crimes and treason for your role in the siege that has so devastated our people! You betrayed our trust by falsely claiming you were with the Avatar, when instead you brought the prince of the Fire Nation himself to oversee the invasion from within our walls.”

    “I didn’t know he wasn’t the Avatar!” Fendul complained.

    “Even so, your negligence led to the fall of our people!” Flynn turned his attention on the boy. “We considered the Southern Tribe our brethren, but you have shown that that faith was misplaced!”

    “But Avatara wasn’t the commander!” Fendul protested. “He wasn’t even here during the battle!”

    “Because once he scouted our defenses, he led the assault from their flagship! I saw him there with my own eyes!” Flynn snapped back.

    The southerner turned to address the elders seated at the bench. He took a deep breath to calm his voice. “Flynn is mistaken. Avatara couldn’t have led the assault because he was banished three years ago. No one from the Fire Nation follows him now. The true commander behind the assault…was Princess Retsy.” Fendul turned to glare at Flynn. “The same Retsy your fellow here consorted with to overthrow the Earth King in Ba Sing Se.”

    “That’s absurd–“

    “Silence!” Behadul’s voice boomed, echoing in the sudden stillness. When he was satisfied the two boys were listening, the old man addressed Fendul. “The dam was shattered by a waterbender. Was your sister not present at the shrine?”

    “Er, yes.”

    Behadul’s voice grew cold. “Then, was your sister not responsible for the avalanche that destroyed our city?”

    “Technically…yes, but–“

    “And did you not fail in the sacred charge entrusted to you by our chieftain?”

    Fendul blinked. “What?” he asked.

    “You promised to safeguard my wife!” Flynn snarled. “Instead, you betrayed her, just like you betrayed us!”

    “She wasn’t your wife!” Fendul could hear the murmurs in the audience and felt his cheeks heating. It was bad enough to be blamed for the devastation at the North Pole, but Moonshadow too? “Look, I don’t know why you can’t get this through your tiny little head, but I did not kill Moonshadow!”

    “I bet you stabbed her through the heart, then had your sister bury her in ice so no one would find her!”

    “I did not kill Moonshadow,” Fendul said again, grinding his teeth on every word.

    “Liar!” Flynn took a step forward, burning with rage.

    “I didn’t kill her!” Fendul shouted. “I loved her! And she loved me , not you!”

    For the second time, the audience fell silent.

    “We were going to name our seventh boy after you,” Fendul offered.

    Flynn stared at the southerner with his mouth open, eye twitching. He slowly lifted his hands, slid his scabbards off of his shoulder and drew his swords, one blade in each hand. The left cast an icy blue glow, the right a burning crimson. He tossed the empty scabbards to the side. “With the elders as my witness, I invoke my right to a trial by blood!”

    Fendul glanced around, suddenly aware that his hands were empty.

    Flynn stepped forward, raising the red blade to point at Fendul. “My name is Flynn O’Conner. You killed my fiancée. Prepare to die.”

    An obsidian tower rose up before them, visible above the gates at the end of the bay. Tall cliffs surrounded them on each side as if the volcano was reaching out to grasp them in its embrace. A practical man, the Firelord had long ago ordered watch towers built along the walls, so any invader would be exposed to archer fire long before they reached the docks.

    “Just as gloomy as I remember,” Avatara muttered, standing on the upper balcony as they sailed into the cove.

    “Hey, relax,” Adriana said, resting a hand on his shoulder. “I’m sure your father will change his mind once he sees you. He’s had years to get over it.”

    “You really think the Firelord will let go so easily?” Avatara raised an eyebrow.

    “Well, he might slaughter a helpless village or two when he finds out, but after that…there’s a chance.”

    “It’s good to see the optimist in you again,” he said, breaking out into a smile. Adriana closed her eyes and tilted her head. Avatara leaned forward and they kissed, sharing a brief respite before the storm ahead.

    “I just hope my idiot sister hasn’t used up all our free time,” he said once they separated. “The solstice is tomorrow and the comet arrives after nightfall.”

    “It’ll be fine. We’re the Fire Nation. We can survive a little inferno.”

    Avatara banished the expression on his face before she had a chance to notice.

    “Well, well, well. If it isn’t our pair of lovebirds back together again?” Retsy’s obnoxious voice came from the doorway. A glance back revealed the princess garbed in her formal gold, red, and black armor. She stepped out onto the balcony, leading a collared Selax by a metal chain she held in her fist.

    Avatara looked at Selax, trying to detect some sign from the Avatar, but Selax kept his eyes downcast and avoided everyone.

    Down below there was a commotion as the ship pulled into the docks. A grinding noise from below indicated the anchor was being lowered.

    “I sent word ahead of our arrival,” Retsy said, turning to Avatara. “I hope you’ll stay and watch my ascension. I’ve been waiting a long time for this day!” She pulled on the chain, forcing Selax closer.

    Adriana gripped Avatara’s arm, drawing his attention away. “It looks like your father is coming to see you,” she said, pointing down at the docks.

    Delthoras looked much the same as Avatara remembered. Tall, dark hair, eyes gleaming with a hint of madness that made him both cunning on the battlefield and infuriating at the dinner table. His unconventional tactics were behind his rapid ascension to the throne, tripling the Fire Nation’s holdings in the Earth Kingdom before his brother had even attained adulthood. The hit-and-run warfare he raged across the outlying barrens had earned him the fearsome nickname the Desert Fox. But to everyone at home, he was known as the Firelord.

    “Father,” Avatara said, bowing slightly after they disembarked.

    “Son,” Delthoras said, staring back at him. His face was calm and composed, betraying no hint of what he was feeling. “Why have you returned?”

    “I bring tides of darkness. Tomorrow night, Sage’s Comet will crash into the world, in a fiery inferno that will extinguish the Fire Nation herself. I beg you – please.” Avatara fell to one knee. “Pause your war in the East, which you’ve practically won anyway. Summon your firebenders and rally at the South Pole to stop this calamity before it is too late!”

    Delthoras was silent for a long moment. He raised his gaze, staring into the sky at something distant.

    “No, I will not recall my troops. Not when we are this close to victory!” he said. He returned his attention to his son, eyes full of disappointment. “Again you implore me to give up our heritage, our destiny. I can see the world has not changed you like I hoped it would.”

    Lightning began to crackle, sparking around Delthoras’ hand. “If banishment is not enough to mend your ways, then you leave me no choice!”

    “Before you do that,” Retsy said, stepping between them. “I have something I would like to say.”

    The lightning popped for a few seconds more, then dissipated. “Oh?” Delthoras asked, raising an eyebrow.

    “As you can see, I have recaptured the Avatar!” She jerked Selax forward, causing him to stumble to his knees. “That makes me the most powerful firebender here.” Retsy broke into a wide grin, baring her teeth. “That makes me most suitable to be Firelord.”

    Delthoras laughed, causing Retsy to flush in anger. “So, you want to be Firelord?”

    “Like you challenged your father to the mantle, so I challenge you!” she said.

    “Take it,” Delthoras said, lifting his shoulder pads and cape over his head, casting them onto the ground. “I was getting bored of ruling anyway.”

    “You’re abdicating, just like that?” Avatara asked.

    “Been thinking about leaving for a while,” Delthoras said. “I’ve sat on top of this sulfuric rock for long enough. Now I want to travel the world before I get too old. Might have to change my name though. Something ferocious!” He pinched his chin in thought. “How about Jorumgard?”

    “It’s pronounced Jormungand ,” Selax said quietly.

    “Yes! Henceforth I shall be known as Jorumgard, the Great Beast!”

    “And I shall be crowned Firelord!” Retsy said, rubbing her hands together in glee.

    Adriana pulled Avatara to the side. “You can’t let your sister become the Firelord. You know how much of a disaster that will be!”

    “I know,” Avatara sighed. He looked at the forlorn Selax, at the obsidian palace ahead, at the sun in the sky. He closed his eyes, taking in a deep breath.

    “Retsy, I invoke my right as the crown prince to an Agni-Kai!” he said, stepping forward.

    “I thought you might.” For some reason, his declaration had made Retsy even happier. “Well then, brother , you will have your Agni-Kai! We shall meet on the palace grounds tomorrow at noon to determine which one of us is truly worthy to rule.”

    Ice crunched under the footsteps of the group as they wove through alleys and streets. As much as Katerei wanted to hurry, their progress was impeded by broken pathways, piles of ice and debris, and the need to remain hidden for as long as possible.

    She wished they had been able to come sooner. The channel had been far too wide for them to cross without a boat, but the nearest port was all the way on the western coast of the Earth Kingdom. Four weeks it took them to cross the scarcely populated northern mountains by foot, and then another two waiting for a boat to dock. She spent long days sitting with the others, drawing maps of the city and discussing strategies. Long nights alone under falling cherry blossom petals, wondering how her brother was faring.

    Walking didn’t help matters. One night she accidentally stumbled across Iannah and Nili playing in the ocean. She was on friends with Iannah and Nili’s bubbly personality was easy to get along with, but that wasn’t the same as the connection she had felt with Avatara. Watching the two of them just made her jealous, so she avoided the water. Scry she just tried to avoid all-together.

    She wondered where the firebender was now. The sting of his betrayal still hurt inside, but over time it had faded to more of a dull thrum.

    Oftentimes she would find Wizard up late at the inn and he would tell her stories of his travels over a hot cup of tea. Those were the warmest moments of her summer and she hoped to visit the old man’s tea shop again once everything was over.

    “There he is!” Iannah said, snapping Katerei back to reality.

    They emerged onto a pillared walkway ringing an amphitheater. Down below, between two large fountains, she found Fendul frantically fending off fierce thrusts from Flynn. Blue and red light shone from the Ronin’s blades, coloring the ice in kind.

    Katerei gave the signal and Nili and Iannah branched off, seeking flanking positions. It was just the three of them. Wizard stayed behind to secure an escape route and Scry had complained she couldn’t see on the ice. She didn’t want to owe the earthbender any favors anyway.

    Fendul was faring poorly, using his bare arms to shield his face from the flames burning on the Ronin’s blades. He was also running out of room, having been backed almost completely into a corner.

    Katerei steeled her resolve. She had not come this far to let her brother die. With a howl, she leapt off the terrace and slid down the rings of the amphitheater, bending the ice into a ramp to accelerate her speed. She skidded onto the ground ring, spinning to slow her descent, bringing her arms up as she twirled, and came to a halt in front of her brother. Two massive waves of water from the fountains whirled around them and froze in an icy spiral, shielding them from Flynn’s overhead strike, blocking the blow he had intended to sate his vengeance.

    Fendul peeked out from beneath his closed eyelids. “Kat! Nice timing!”

    She swept him up in a deep hug. “I’ve missed you so much, Fen,” she said, fighting back tears.

    A roar from Flynn was accompanied by bits of ice spraying into the air as he attempted to chisel through the icy cocoon. His red blade hissed with each blow, turning ice into steam, cutting further on each stroke.

    “Time to go,” Katerei said, grabbing her brother’s hand and opening a hole in the back of her shield.

    They took three steps before a sharp four-pointed metal star landed in the ice just in front of them. Kwon Chen stood a dozen paces away, the shuriken in his hand gleaming in the afternoon sunlight. “You shall go no further,” he said, not making a sound as he strode forward.

    “I’ve got this one!” Iannah said, leaping down from above.

    Kwon Chen spun and her spear struck the ice where he was standing. He threw the shuriken, but she barely managed to deflect it with the shaft, sending it spinning into the stands. Iannah pulled her spear free and dropped into a fighting stance, the two of them circling around each other like tiger-starfish stalking their prey.

    “Iannah!” Fendul cried out, eyes shining with joy.

    “Calm down Fen. A lot has changed,” Katerei said, not sure how to let him down.

    A roar of pain from the right revealed Ulf rubbing his left shoulder. Nili was a half-dozen paces away from him shaking her wrist. “Eew, he’s all sweaty! I told you this would be gross!” she whined.

    “What’s she doing here?” Fendul asked. Nili saw him looking and waved.

    “She’s on our side now,” Katerei said, dragging him forward again. “Let’s go!”

    “Don’t let them escape!” Flynn’s voice called out from behind them. He struck a final time and the ice sphere collapsed into a thousand broken shards.

    “To the streets!” Katerei called out. She led Fendul up the steps, across the terrace, and down towards the buildings below. Out of the corner of her eye, she saw Nili keeping pace with them. Iannah was to hold the rear. She hoped the redhead islander was all right.

    She led her brother through the marketplace, passing deserted stands and empty blankets. Up ahead she could see the narrow alley that would lead them to Wizard down below. All they had to do was make it across this open stretch.

    The sound of ice crackling brought her up short as Behadul slid in front of them, blocking their exit. “Where do you think you’re going?” he asked, an icicle extending out of his right fist.

    “Grandpa, get out of the way!” Katerei said.

    “I’m afraid I can’t do that,” he said, his white mustaches drooping to match his frown. “The boy must pay for his crimes.”

    Behadul lifted the ice-spike, and then dropped it to the ground. He turned in surprise, but it was too late. Nili leapt out from behind him and swept him off his feet. He landed on his back, rolled in an attempt to get up, but his arms hung limply at his sides.

    “Quickly! This way!” Nili said, gesturing them towards the alleyway.

    “I knew I shouldn’t have trusted you!” Behadul called out from behind them. “Women are always more trouble than they’re worth!”

    “He’s just jealous,” Nili said, seeing Katerei’s troubled face.

    “I suppose so,” Katerei said. Still, she couldn’t help feel a little disappointment over the loss of her certificate. Now she’d never be able to get a replacement.

    Clanking metal from behind them heralded the arrival of Iannah. She took one look at the old man on the ground and dismissed him as unimportant. “I hope the others have found an exit because those guys behind us are pretty mad.”

    The four of them ran single-file down the slippery steps of the alleyway, heading towards the wall of the fifth ring. Before they reached the wall, the path curved away, leading them towards the tall cliffs that sheltered the city. At the cliff base, on the steps of a small building tucked away near the corner where the wall met the cliff, Wizard stood standing on the steps waving his arms at them.

    “You’ll never believe what I found!” he called out as they approached.

    “You found a boat?” Katerei asked.

    “Better!” Wizard grinned, leading them through the gate to the back. “I found an airship!”

    Behind the building, stashed next to a massive bundle of cloth, was a zeppelin like the one they had seen at the desert. Except this one was still intact.

    “Quickly! Get on board!” Wizard said, shooing them up the ladder.

    When Katerei landed on the deck, she saw Scry leaning against the bulkhead.

    “What took you guys so long?” Scry asked.

    “Nice to see you too, Scry,” Fendul said, jumping onto the deck beside his sister.

    “Welcome back, water boy!” Scry grinned, giving him a playful punch on the shoulder.

    “All right!” Iannah said landing next to Nili. “So, how do we fly this thing?”

    “Uhh, looks like it needs some kind of heat source.” Nili tapped a metal tube pointing up at the balloon above.

    “Great, where are we going to find a heat source at the North Pole?” Katerei muttered, moving up beside Nili.

    “There is something you should know,” Wizard said, joining them. He placed his hand on Katerei’s. “The man you wish to find is my nephew.”


    “I wanted to tell you earlier, but you were so consumed by anger that I feared you would not listen.” His tone was sad, filled with regret.

    “You’re – you’re Fire Nation?” Katerei asked, backing away.

    Wizard held out his palm and a red ball of flame burst forth, dancing in the air. “I am.”

    “You didn’t know?” Nili asked, looking at the others in confusion.

    “You knew? Why didn’t you tell me?” Iannah asked.

    “I thought everyone knew about General Wizard. He’s only the Firelord’s brother!”

    “More importantly, if he’s a firebender, that means he can get us out of here!” Scry said.

    “Indeed,” Wizard said, still focused on Katerei. “If that is all right with you.”

    “I…guess so.” Katerei looked down at her feet. The friendly old man that she shared tea with was a firebender? How many other people were hiding secrets from her too?

    Wizard put his hand on her shoulder again. “I hope our different birthrights do not get in the way of our friendship.” He reached up to brush a tear from her cheek. “What is most important is who were are on the inside.”

    “I know,” she said, meeting his gaze. She blinked away the tears and smiled. “Take us out of here.”

    “It will be my pleasure,” Wizard said, bowing. He turned back to the brazier and channeled his flame into the machine. A column of hot air burst upwards, filling the balloon housed above. Within moments, the icy fortress was falling away beneath them.

    “I hope I never have to see this place again,” Fendul said, looking at the ruined city below.

    “Me too,” Katerei said, joining him at the railing. She put her hand on his arm. “I missed you, Fen.”

    “I missed you too,” he said, patting her on the head.

    “All of you should get some sleep while you still can,” Wizard said, still manning the brazier. “We’ll be in Fire Nation territory by morning.”

    Avatara watched the sun’s reflection ripple across the waves in the bay. From high up in the palace, he could look out over most of the grounds and the city. Only the battlements on the palace walls blocked part of his view of the docks.

    Down below, a large terraced plaza marked the site where he would have to fight his sister in just a few more hours. The stakes were high, not just for his country. He needed the Avatar if there was to be any chance to save the world. He didn’t want to fight his sister, but she was too stubborn for there to be any other way.

    Chin resting on his hands, he let out a deep sigh.

    “Cold feet?”

    He turned to see Adriana glide into the room behind him. She was wearing the crimson robe he had given to her as a present years ago. A relic from a simpler time.

    “I wish there was some other way,” Avatara said, returning his attention to the ocean. “She used to mean well. She wasn’t always like this.”

    “People grow up,” Adriana said, joining him at the window. “Sometimes they don’t grow into the kind of person you want.”

    “She’s not the only one who has changed. Being out there has shown me just how foolish this whole war has been.”

    “It’s not foolish if we can improve their lives.”

    “By conquering and razing villages?”

    “So you break a few eggs while making an omelet.” Adriana smoothed the hair out of her face. “The people of the Earth Kingdom are like rabbits. Who is going to miss a few groups here and there?”

    “You seem to have a very dim view of the Earth Kingdom.”

    “Have you forgotten?” she snapped at him. “An earthbender took my father Menelaus from me! Of course I hate them!”

    Avatara thought of raven black hair. Eyes that could not see, but were still full of trust. “Not all earthbenders are like that,” he said softly.

    “I’m not sure I like this new mushy side of you,” she said.

    “Good.” Avatara turned away from the window. “Because we’re through.”

    He strode through the door without looking back.

    Beneath Katerei, small volcanic islands rose up out of the deep blue sea, marking the outskirts of the Fire Nation. Most of the volcanoes lay dormant, but now and then she could spot a plume of black smoke rising up. It was the first time she had visited the western kingdom. It was also the first time the clouds had dispersed enough to see anything below.

    Wizard tended the brazier, giving it a jolt of fire every few moments. She wasn’t sure he had slept, but the old man’s look of determination prevented her from telling him to rest. Instead, she brewed up a cup of his favorite tea and handed it to him.

    “You are most kind,” Wizard said. He took a sip with one hand, maintaining the blaze with his other. When he handed the cup back, he continued, “I know you are confused by the many changes you have faced lately, but I hope you have also learned from them too.”

    “All my life, I’ve lived in the South Pole, staring at frozen plains and floating chunks of ice. I never could have imagined some of the places I’ve seen or the people I’ve met.” She looked down into the empty cup. “I thought the Northern Water Tribe would welcome us, but they’ve treated us worse than the Fire Nation!” She looked up at Wizard, stared into his wizened eyes. “At least, some of the Fire Nation.”

    “My brother has good intentions in his heart. He just lacks a little self-restraint.”

    She put a hand on his arm. “Well, I’m glad I had someone to show me that fire can be warm and gentle.”

    “It was a pleasure sharing tea with you, Katerei,” he said with a smile. “Whatever happens today, believe in the ones you love, and everything will work out.”

    “Thanks Wizard,” she said before joining Iannah at the back of the ship.

    They were passing by one of the larger islands. A massive crater belched out a thick column of black smoke, temporarily blocking their view of the sun.

    “Just a few more minutes?” Iannah asked, staring down at the tiny homes on the side of the volcano below.

    “Yeah. Today’s the day,” Katerei said. She swallowed. There wasn’t any good way to bring this up. “So um…when are you going to tell Fendul?”

    Iannah reddened and turned away. “I don’t want to keep it from him. It’s just – this doesn’t feel like the right time, you know?”

    “Please don’t be too harsh on him, okay? He’s been through a lot.”

    “I know,” Iannah said. She wiped at her eyes. “This whole growing up thing is a lot harder than I realized.”

    “That’s why I intend to stay young forever,” Scry said, yawning. She stretched her limbs and joined them at the back of the airship, red blindfold fluttering in the wind. “This whole flying thing is pretty boring.”

    “You’re not missing much,” Katerei teased. “Just a bunch of tropical islands, pretty coral reefs, and tall thundering mountains of fire.”

    “–And another airship!” Iannah shouted.

    A zeppelin burst out of the black plume, banking as it swooped to line up behind them. On the deck of the other ship Katerei could barely make out four figures, one of them large enough to be instantly recognizable.

    “When will these guys learn to give up?” she complained. “Fen, Nili, wake up! The Ronin are back!”

    “And they are closing fast!” Iannah called out.

    They could see Ulf moving about on the deck, lifting up something heavy and round. Flynn held out his red blade and the object burst into flame.

    “Uh oh. We’ve got incoming!” Katerei said, ducking underneath the railing. A fiery boulder sailed overhead, barely missing the starboard rail. She glanced around the bare iron deck, looking for anything she could use. As she thought, they had no long-range weapons.

    “What’s the plan?” Fendul asked, joining them at the back.

    “Scry, I need your help!” Katerei said.

    “That’s a great idea! Ask the blind girl to fight against the flying airship!” Scry said.

    “Actually, I was hoping you could earthbend some of these rails into weapons we could use.”

    “This ship is made out of metal. How am I supposed to do that?”

    “Isn’t metal just a refined form of earth?” The ship rocked as a boulder crashed into the port hull, knocking everyone off balance. Katerei placed her hand on Scry’s shoulder, steadying the raven-haired girl. “All I am doing is asking you to try.”

    “I…guess I can give it a shot,” Scry said, doubtfully.

    “You’re the best earthbender I know. If anyone can figure this out, it’s you.”

    “I’m the only earthbender you know. But you’re right.” Scry placed her hands on the starboard rail and closed her eyes in concentration.

    “Wizard, can you spare some fire for that airship?” Katerei asked, remaining crouched while she moved forward.

    “I suppose we have enough heat to get us to the palace,” Wizard said, clasping his hands.

    “Good! Fendul, take the wheel! I’m going to try and give us some cover.”

    “Hurry up! We’ve got another incoming!” Iannah called out.

    Katerei looked back and saw the Ronin had more than halved the distance between them. Ulf stepped forward carrying another rock, but a few blasts of fire from Wizard forced him to drop it and take cover.

    “I see the palace!” Nili called out from the front. “Fendul, angle us slightly to the right.”

    Fendul spun the wheel, sending them all sliding into the starboard railing.

    “I said slightly!” Nili cried out, grabbing hold of Scry before the earthbender tumbled overboard.

    “Sorry, I must’ve fallen asleep in my airship flying class,” Fendul said.

    “Well, be more careful next time!”

    “Do you want to try steering?” At his question, Nili’s eyes flew wide. Fendul turned his attention back to the wheel. “I thought not.”

    A sudden darkening of the sky was Katerei’s only warning. The Ronin’s airship zoomed overhead. She saw Ulf’s face peek out from the railing above, followed shortly by the flaming boulder that he hurled down onto their deck. She dove towards the back as the rock slammed into the ship, punching a hole through the floor where she had been standing.

    “Well, at least now they’re ahead of us,” Fendul remarked.

    “Can you take us lower?” Katerei asked, regaining her feet. “We’re too far up for me to reach the water from here. Scry, how’s that metalbending coming?”

    “No pressure Scry. It’s not like everyone’s asking you to do the impossible,” Scry muttered.

    The other airship banked sharply, curving around to drop speed and pull back into range. It settled into a trajectory above them and Ulf threw down another object. A harpoon fastened to a metal cable embedded itself in the deck.

    “What was that supposed to accomplish?” Fendul asked. In response, two figures appeared above and began sliding down to the airship.

    Kwon Chen landed first with one arm outstretched for balance. He took only a second to gather his bearings before he spun, three silver stars flying out from his hand. Iannah leapt forward and spun her spear, deflecting two of them. The third embedded itself into Fendul’s left arm, causing him to collapse in pain, dragging the wheel with him. Everyone scrambled to maintain their footing as the ship tilted sharply to port. Metal squealed as the harpoon tore a small gash in the deck. The cable snapped taut and Sasha fell the remaining ten feet, landing on her side and nearly rolling over the edge.

    “Are you insane?” Sasha snapped at Kwon, but he was too busy parrying Iannah’s blows to notice.

    Wizard rushed forward to regain control of the ship and they leveled off. The maneuver had burned off some of their speed. The harpoon strained against the deck, forcing the Ronin’s ship to stay in range.

    Sasha drew her sword and unstrapped her tower shield, dropping into a defensive stance. Nili rushed forward, keeping her occupied with threatening jabs. Katerei used the opportunity to rush over to the railing. The ocean was still hundreds of feet below, but they were descending fast. Summoning all of her strength, she wove a column of water that spiraled up and slammed into the woman, staggering her back.

    “Hold on!” Wizard called out as he spun the wheel sharply back to the right. The airship banked again, metal squealing as the Ronin’s ship was dragged along on their dive towards the central island.

    Sasha, already off-balance from the assault, found herself flung into the railing and grunted as she tumbled over the side. She managed to spin around fast enough to grab onto the wet railing with a gauntlet as her armaments fell to the depths below. Katerei reached out and froze the water into ice. She watched the warrior’s eyes widen as Sasha lost her grip and fell off the airship. Her moment of victory was short lived when she spotted Flynn climbing down the rope towards them.

    Kwon Chen withdraw another set of shuriken from his sleeves, holding one between each pair of fingers in both hands. He threw the three from his left, only to have Iannah deflect them all harmlessly away.

    “Hah!” she said triumphantly. “What now?”

    He glanced up and threw the remaining three at the air chamber. The zeppelin shook as the fabric above them tore with a loud bang and air rushed free.

    “Are you insane?” Iannah snapped at him. She had to grab a railing to steady her balance.

    Kwon Chen rolled up his sleeves and dropped into a fighting pose, beckoning her forward with his bare hands. Iannah, feet still unsteady from the shaking deck, advanced slowly, but Nili rushed past her. Unperturbed by the uneven footing, the acrobat took on the short man, trading blows and parrying thrusts at a dizzying pace.

    The deck trembled again as the harpoon strained against the metal flooring, popping bolts loose. The Ronin’s airship was now dragging them along, but was being forced lower from the added weight.

    Katerei saw steep rock walls rise up to either side as they entered the bay. “Scry, how’s it coming?” she yelled.

    “I think I can feel it!” Scry said, voice rushing with excitement.

    Flynn landed on the deck and drew his twin blades. The glow from his swords reflected off of his skin, illuminating his fury. He spotted Fendul kneeling against the fuel chamber.

    “This ends now, traitor!” Flynn howled, advancing on the injured boy.

    A large section of deck planking bent up in front of him, smacking him in the face and knocking him backwards.

    “Yeah! You rock, Scry!” Scry said, clenching her fists. She grabbed hold of the rail and tore a chunk free, forming it into a spear.

    An explosion rang out above and burning shrapnel rained down on the airship, pelting the deck. Looking up, Katerei could see the Ronin’s ship was in flames. The harpoon tore up another few planks before breaking free, the sudden loss of tension sending the ship above careening into the rock wall where it exploded in a massive ball of flame.

    Katerei glanced behind her and spotted battlements on the cliffs, manned with archers. Archers that were now aiming at them.

    “Take cover!” Katerei yelled as arrows rained down upon them. She dove behind a wall of metal Scry had raised from the deck. Arrows plinked into the shield like hail in a storm, forming small dents with their impact.

    Nili and Kwon Chen continued their fierce dance, made more precarious now by the scarce footing that remained. It unnerved Katerei to be able to see all the way through the hull of the airship, down at the waves a few dozen feet below. But it also gave her an idea.

    A cloud of fog rose up around the ship, blocking vision of their surroundings. “I hope you can steer through this, old man!” Katerei called out to Wizard.

    “It doesn’t really matter at this point,” Wizard said. She was startled to find him standing behind her, broken wheel in his hands.

    “Wait, how are you going to land this thing?”

    “Land?” Wizard looked shocked. “No one said anything about needing to land!”

    She could feel the water calling out to her. “Everybody, hold on! We’re going down!” she shouted as the waves rose up through the fog and the airship slammed into the ocean.

    Avatara stood staring across the wide whitewashed plaza at Retsy in her gold-trimmed, black combat garb. His sister had just finished tying up her dark hair into a bun so it wouldn’t cover her face. Or maybe so she could defeat him in style.

    “What’s wrong brother? Are you having second thoughts?” she called out. “We both know I was always the stronger one.”

    “I was just reminiscing,” Avatara said. “Do you recall when we were young? How we used to sit together by the duck-turtle pond writing all kinds of crazy stories? Whatever happened to your passion from back then?”

    “Nobody liked those stories! It was a childish game!”

    “I liked your stories,” he said softly. “I liked how we would trade jokes under the cedar tree, how we would play Pai Sho with uncle’s prized pieces. You were…a different person.”

    “I was a fool!” she retorted. “Now that I know what true leadership is, I can see how our father has failed us! How you have failed us! Only I am capable of carrying the Fire Nation toward its rightful destiny!”

    “I don’t want to fight you.” He let out a long sigh and dropped into a combat stance. “But you leave me no choice.”

    Retsy lifted her arms up in the formal Fire Nation salute and the Agni-Kai officially began.

    She struck first with a thrust that sent a ball of blue flame towards him. Avatara sliced through the fireball with a stream of his own red fire and counter-attacked with a few blasts.

    Retsy dove to the side, blue sparks flaring behind her feet, and launched another stream. He unleashed a torrent of his own fire. The two streams mixed, forming a swirling maelstrom of blue and red flame before breaking free. Retsy’s blast shot wide. His barely clipped her hair, singing the ends before crashing into the palace gate behind, setting it ablaze.

    Her eyes widened in surprise before narrowing in anger. Biting her lip she intensified her assault, charging forward on a plume of blue flame. She angled her feet, turning her charge into a slide, leaving a burning circle behind her. Avatara dodged her bolts from the center and countered with blasts of his own. She was too fast to be struck, but his accuracy was rapidly improving.

    Frustrated, she spun into a flying kick, launching an overhead strike at him. He rolled out of the way, debris from her blast pelting him. Positioning his hands, waiting for her to approach, he launched a low strike, forcing her to leap away or have her feet burned. Before she landed, he followed up with a frontal attack, a blast of red fire that caught her off-guard. She raised her arms protectively, but the impact knocked her backwards. She bounced off the ground and slammed against one of the thick columns bordering the plaza with a grunt.

    “What’s wrong, Retsy? No lightning today?” He taunted, cautiously moving forward. Scattered fires burned on the nearby buildings and something was smoldering out over the bay.

    Retsy picked herself up and glared at him. Her hair had come loose, one of her bangs covered her face. “You want lightning?” She shouted, raising her hand to the sky. Blue sparks gathered around her fingertips. Electricity snapped around her hand, forming a sphere as she gathered her power. “I’ll show you lightning!”

    With a wail of anguish, she unleashed her full fury. Three blue-white bolts of lightning arced forward from her fingertips and raced towards Avatara.

    “Help! I can’t swim!” Scry shouted. She took in a mouthful of seawater and sputtered.

    “Relax, Scry,” Katerei said, wrapping her arms around the girl’s waist to calm her down. “It’s only a couple feet deep here. You can walk.” She helped drag the struggling girl to shore.

    Scry crawled up the beach, coughing up water. “Land!” she gasped, kissing the gray dirt. “Sweet, sweet land!”

    Katerei helped dry both of their clothes before turning to search for the others. The airship frame was a tangled mass of metal sticking up out of the bay, the deflated canvas hanging from the top like a flag. Off to one side, she could see Wizard and Iannah dragging a limp Fendul to shore. Nili was already stretched out on the beach, eyes closed as she lay on her back.

    “Is everyone all right?” Katerei asked, rushing over to help her brother. His arm was still bleeding from the shuriken wound. She called up some water and focused on healing the worst damage.

    “I lost track of the Ronin when we went down,” Iannah said. “But I’m sure they’ll turn up again soon.”

    “That short one was pretty creepy,” Nili said from her spot on the ground. “Not looking forward to facing him again.”

    “Guys,” Scry spoke up. “There are a lot of people headed our way.”

    “This is something that I can handle,” Wizard said, straightening. He put a warm hand on Katerei’s shoulder. “You should go find that firebender of yours before it is too late.”

    “I…wait. What do I say?” Katerei asked. The airship battle had distracted her from the coming reunion. The dread that he wouldn’t want to see her, not after the hateful things she had said to him. All the anxiety that had been building for the past six weeks came rushing back, chilling her limbs.

    “I would start with ‘hello,’” Wizard replied, before departing with a smile.

    The sound of explosions filled the air. Blue and red flames swirled up above the palace walls. Opposite from the direction Wizard had gone.

    “We need to hurry!” Katerei said.

    “I think that’s going to be harder than it sounds,” Scry said, pointing suddenly at a ragged figure standing a short distance down the beach.

    Flynn glared at them from under his disheveled hair, swords still in hand. One blade glowed red, the other was cracked and did not shine at all.

    “We can take him,” Iannah said, setting Fendul carefully on the ground. “You go find Avatara!”

    “Don’t worry,” Nili said. “Have you ever had a reason to doubt us?”

    “Fantastic,” Katerei muttered. “I feel so much better now knowing I’m leaving my brother in your hands.” But she heeded them and ran.

    Up the white granite steps.

    Towards her burning man.

    The loose sand dulled Scry’s senses, giving her only a fuzzy impression of where everyone was. She could tell Flynn and Iannah were locked in close combat, she knew when Kwon Chen rejoined the fray and Nili dove in for a rematch. But knowing their general location wasn’t enough to participate. She couldn’t start hurling rocks without risking friendly fire.

    Instead, she went in search of more solid ground.

    She could feel the sun at its zenith beating down upon her, heat reflecting off the coarse sand under her bare feet as she shuffled around, looking for more solid footing. In the distance, she could hear the sound of metal striking metal, of fire and lightning, and heavy footsteps. She reached out, feeling the vibrations through the earth. A murky presence was slowly approaching from the north. A man.

    “Wizard?” she asked. Maybe he had returned and could help out. She started in his direction…and froze.

    “Fancy meeting you here,” a deep voice boomed. “You’ve given me a lot of trouble, little girl.”

    “Kain.” She immediately dropped into a defensive crouch, silently cursing her impaired senses. She needed to find that solid ground quickly.

    “In fact,” Kain continued. “I’m not sure I care about the reward anymore.”

    “Good, then maybe you’ll let me go!” she replied. From the sound of his voice he was moving to her left, so she circled to her right, trying to maintain the distance between them.

    “No, I’ve found an even better use for you!”

    The rush of air near her left cheek was her only warning. She dove to the ground as a blast of fire roared past. The heat lingered behind, warming her face.

    “Look at you! A lost stray far away from home! Nothing but a blind, helpless little girl!”

    She pushed herself to her feet and slowly backed up, circling to her right. She was too far to sense the others through the sand now, but they would be too preoccupied to help her.

    Another blast of fire soared past her. This time she hadn’t felt it coming. He was toying with her, trying to break her.

    “Your father didn’t keep you in a cage because he thought it might protect you. He kept you locked up so you would be out of sight!”

    He unleashed another bolt of flame, this one brushing against the top of her foot. She yelped at the stinging pain and jumped back.

    “It must be a nuisance having to take care of someone incapable of fending for themselves.” Kain’s voice came closer.

    Another rush of heat and she flattened herself on pure instinct as fire sailed overhead. This was hopeless! How could she win when she was surrounded by all this loose sand?

    Scry reached up to wipe sand off her face. Her fingers brushed against the cloth scarf. Believe in yourself , Avatara had told her. From the beginning, he had regarded her a master of her craft.

    She took in a deep breath, calming herself, expelling her fears. Her whole life had been a lesson in patience. She would not let this arrogant man break her now! She planted her hands on the ground and hauled herself back onto her feet.

    “Back for more punishment?” Kain mocked her. “Good.”

    Scry didn’t wait for her senses. She leapt backwards and to one side, anticipating his strike. She heard fire rush by, but it felt distant. She dodged again, assuming he would use his other hand to cover for his miss. Another shot of fire flew wide. She thought back to her days at the arena, standing by while he bullied and threatened those who had failed to pay up.

    Next would be an attack on her feet. She took a half-step and paused, listening for his movement. There! She heard the sound of his boot sinking into sand and leapt back as far as she could. Fire blasted the location where she had been standing, sending dirt flying into the air. She stumbled back another couple of steps, trying to regain her balance. Her foot came in contact with something rough and unyielding, and she nearly tripped.

    Hope springing anew, Scry backed up onto solid ground. Her senses were back. She could feel the vibrations of people moving, people fighting all around – except for in front of her. Somehow she had to get Kain off the beach.

    “Wait! Please don’t hurt me!” she said, covering her face with her arms, pretending to slip on the stone and fall. She scooted backwards away from him.

    The soft trudging of his footsteps drew closer. Scry curled her toes to force herself to remain still. Waiting. Listening.

    She heard his boots clomp onto rock, felt the vibration tremble through the earth beneath her. He was hers.

    Now she could sense his every movement. She knew when he shifted his balance, leaning back as he prepared to strike. She knew when his weight shifted to his right foot as his arm swept forward. And she was ready.

    She drew on her power, summoning the stone forth. The ground trembled as a wall of rock rose up in front of Kain, intercepting his blast, spraying the fire back at him. He roared in pain, burned by his own hand. Wasting no time, Scry brought forth three more walls, boxing him in. His movements grew more frantic, but she did not relent. She clenched her fist, collapsing the walls in, trapping him inside a tight cage.

    “Now who’s the blind, helpless one?” she mocked him.

    “Let me out!” Kain screamed, but his voice was muffled by the thick wall of stone. Still too loud for her tastes though. She piled on more rocks, burying him in layer upon layer until she couldn’t hear his cries anymore.

    When she finished, an uneasy silence settled over the place, broken only by the sound of her heavy breathing. “That’s for all the lives you’ve ruined,” she said, resting her hand on his living tomb. Then, she turned and left.

    Fendul woke to the sound of metal clashing against metal. Rubbing his eyes, he found himself on a sandy beach. His left arm stung like crazy and he could see dried blood on his biceps. Looking around, he could see the twisted remains of their airship. Further down the gray beach, he saw Iannah and Nili fending off two Ronin.

    Groggily pushing himself to his feet, he took a few staggering steps in their direction. The girls were holding their own, but they were looking pretty exhausted. He tripped over something stiff and fell face-first into the volcanic sand. Scry’s makeshift spear. Grabbing hold of it, he used it to steady himself and hobbled along towards the fighting.

    Iannah overextended and Flynn’s fist left a bleeding gash across her cheek. Before she could recover, he kicked her and she fell backwards. Flynn held her down with his foot on her chest and raised his red blade high overhead.

    With a cry, Fendul charged forward, Scry’s spear held out in front of him. Flynn saw him coming, shifted to block the attack, but Iannah tripped him and he stumbled backwards, torso exposed. Fendul tried to slow his assault, but he tripped over Iannah’s other leg, and the spear sank into Flynn’s chest, slamming him back onto the ground.

    “Uh, sorry about that,” Fendul said, staring down at Flynn. The Ronin was looking up at the sky, blood pouring out of his wound, eyes open in shock.

    “At least…” Flynn gasped. “I can be with my betrothed.”

    “Wait!” No way did Fendul want the man anywhere near Moonshadow. “Stop! Don’t bleed out! Healer!” He searched around for his sister. “I need a healer!”

    It was too late. Flynn’s muscles went lax as the last breath of life left him.

    Kwon Chen, witnessing the death of his comrade, suddenly stopped his assault on Nili and bowed. “It seems you and I have no more quarrel–“

    Nili punched him in the face, dropping him unconscious. “Ouch!” she whined, rubbing her knuckles.

    “Are you all right?” Fendul asked Iannah, helping her up.

    “I want to say it’s finally over,” Iannah said, looking at Flynn. “But I wouldn’t be surprised if his spirit kept stalking you.”

    “Where are the others?”

    “Fighting their own battles.” Iannah pointed up at the palace.

    Katerei arrived just in time to see Avatara crumple to the ground, lightning sparking off his body. “Noooo!” she howled, gathering up water from the nearby pond and charging towards Retsy on a slide of ice.

    “Oh look, brother,” Retsy said, turning to face Katerei. “We’ve got some ice for that burn.” She launched a ball of blue fire that missed the waterbender but melted through her slide.

    Katerei brought the water up into a whip and lashed out at the princess. Retsy blocked the first two blows with her forearms and sidestepped the third. Seizing an opening, the firebender unleashed a furious assault, forcing Katerei to take cover behind a nearby pillar.

    “My brother has watched me fight his whole life and he still couldn’t beat me,” she taunted. Lightning sparked and Katerei had to dive behind another pillar as the column behind her exploded. “You are in my home, where I have all the advantage!” Retsy continued her approach, closing the distance between them. She halted a few feet away, sparks gathering around her hand. “What could you possibly do to surprise me?”

    Katerei spun around the pillar, seized Retsy in both hands, and gave her a deep kiss.

    “Blech!” Retsy said, pushing the waterbender away. She wiped frantically at her mouth. “Ew! Gross! What’d you do that for? I don’t want your cooties!” she spat on the ground.

    Katerei used the distraction to summon forth all of the water in the pond and directed it at Retsy. The princess looked up in the sudden dimness as a massive tube of water shielded the sun. She shrieked as it splashed down around her and hardened into ice.

    “Looks like I managed to stop you cold in your tracks!” Katerei said, wiping her hands.

    Free of immediate danger, she turned to tend to Avatara. He didn’t look as bad as she originally thought, but she patched him up anyway. He stirred and she helped him rise to a sitting position.

    “Hello,” she said, brushing the hair out of his face.

    “Now that’s a sight you don’t see every day,” he remarked, looking at Retsy trapped in a block of ice. His sister’s eyes darted back and forth between them and a trio of three frozen baby duck-turtles that had been swimming in the water.

    “Ah, maybe we should just tie her up,” Katerei said, blushing.

    “I’ll go find some chains,” he said, rising to his feet. But he didn’t leave. “Thank you, Katerei.”

    “Let’s talk about it later,” she said, facing away.

    Selax looked up from inside his metal cage. An old man had entered the room and was moving towards him.

    “I haven’t seen you in a long time,” Selax said.

    Wizard chuckled. “I hear you have quite the girlfriend now.” He swept his gaze around the room, taking in the velvet cushions, the bowl of red berries, and the heart-shaped two-person mattress all a short distance from the cage.

    “She is not my girlfriend.”

    “But you care for her.” Wizard’s voice became serious.

    “No.” Selax shook his head. Under the old man’s stare, he added, “But I understand her.”

    “You are the Avatar. Yet here you sit in an oversized cage while your friends are fighting for their lives. And yours.”

    “I am trapped,” Selax said, touching the amulet around his neck. “And you know why.”

    “Ah yes. The Fire Nation has a word for this situation.” Wizard came to a halt just outside the cage door.

    “Love?” Selax scoffed.


    At the airbender’s blank stare, Wizard burst out laughing. “Forgive me,” he said. “But I haven’t had a joke at your expense in a long time.”

    “I have no time for games,” Selax growled.

    “Seriously though,” Wizard said as he wiped the tears out of his eyes. “Why are you still here?”

    “Because I am locked up?”

    “These bars are not holding you prisoner.” Wizard reached through the opening and tapped Selax on the forehead. “The true cage is up here.”

    Selax just glared at him. Wizard waited patiently.

    The airbender sighed. “I did not want to become the Avatar. Why was I chosen?”

    “I think that is a question that every Avatar before you has struggled with. Perhaps you should ask them why they chose you.”

    Selax looked up at him. “I don’t know if I can do it. I have never had to fight a comet before.”

    “You are afraid.” Wizard nodded. “But have faith in yourself. You were chosen for a reason. The world needs you now. Accept who you are and embrace your destiny!”

    Selax looked distraught, leaning on the bars so he would remain standing. “All my life, I have been running away. How do you expect me to put all that aside and become a savior?”

    “When we hit our lowest point, we are open to the greatest change.” Wizard unlocked the cage.

    Selax cocked his head, hearing a whistle blow.

    Wizard stood to one side, holding the door open. “The world needs you now, Avatar. Go out there and face it!”

    The eight of them flew on the wings of a kinaru with as much haste as Selax could muster. They passed the tall peaks of the Southern Air Temple just as the last rays of sunlight vanished below the horizon. But night did not fall. The tops of the clouds in the sky glowed a fiery red.

    Sage’s Comet was arriving.

    They landed on the southernmost island of the Air Nation. Across a small channel, the icy cliffs of the South Pole rose up above the churning waves.

    “Wait here,” Avatara told the others, taking only Katerei, Scry, and Selax with him to the tip of the island. There they stopped to discuss strategy.

    “Between the four of us, we should be able to use our elements to redirect the comet,” Avatara began.

    “I thought The Scribe said deflecting the comet will just postpone this day for another hundred years,” Katerei said.

    “I don’t mean to deflect it away from the world. I mean, we should be able to alter its course so it lands out at sea. Where the water is deep enough to absorb the impact.”

    “And when it gets close enough, I’ll be able to smash it to pieces!” Scry mashed her fists together.

    “Selax, this is going to require my fire and your air to – Selax, are you listening?“ Avatara asked.

    “I am the Avatar,” Selax said calmly. “Master of all four elements.” He looked up at the glowing sky. “I will not need your assistance.”

    “Selax, wait!” Avatara called out, but the airbender launched himself upward and soared out of sight.

    Wizard was right. He was the Avatar. This was his responsibility. Up, far above the clouds he flew. The sky itself seemed to be on fire as Selax approached the comet; a massive ball of flaming rock and ice hurtling towards the unsuspecting water tribe village below.

    Selax gathered his strength, the power deep within him thrumming as he soared upwards to destroy this threat to the world, once and for all. Up close, the heat was intense, the roaring sound of the comet smashing through air was deafening. Ignoring the sweat on his forehead, the ringing in his ears, Selax focused all of his power into one decisive strike.

    “Time to end this,” he said.

    The comet smacked into him, knocking the airbender out of the sky. Singed clothes trailing smoke, an unconscious Selax began slowly plummeting back to the earth.

    “What does he think he’s doing?” Avatara paced around impatiently. “He’s the one that set all of this in motion! He’s the one that wanted me to gather you all here! And now that I did my part, he just abandons us all and flies off…to do what?”

    “Get himself hurt, apparently,” Katerei said. She pointed up at a tiny spark falling away from Sage’s Comet, heading far out over the ocean.

    “Unbelievable!” Avatara ground his teeth. “Scry, Kat, can you sense that thing? We can’t do this without Selax, so we’re going to have to stall for time.”

    “Whoa! That thing is massive,” Scry gaped.

    “What do you want us to do?” Katerei asked.

    “Comets often contain ice, so Katerei – you try to push it away, as hard as you can. Scry, you try to chip away at it. Strike it with rocks from those mountains over there.” Avatara pointed back at the tall peaks comprising the Southern Air Temple, only to realize she couldn’t see where he was pointing.

    “Hit it with a bunch of rocks,” Scry said. “Got it.”

    “I’ll be trying to redirect some of the flame. Maybe I can melt part of it off. The smaller we make it, the less damage it’ll do.”

    The three of them began their bending, pushing and pulling the elements around them, trying to halt the impending cataclysm.

    “I wonder what the others think about this,” Katerei said. “Seeing us here together, fighting to save the world. I bet it looks pretty awesome!”

    “What the heck are they doing?” Iannah asked. “Waving their arms about in some kind of apocalyptic dance?”

    “It does look pretty ridiculous,” Adriana agreed.

    “Hey Katerei!” Fendul shouted. “I think the comet is going to hit Isu’s house! You can just let it go!”

    “Don’t say that!” Nili punched him on the arm.

    “What? She’s my grandmother. I have every right!”

    “I think she means if the comet lands, we’re close enough to be caught up in the explosion,” Adriana explained.

    “Oh, that would be bad.” Fendul cupped his hands around his mouth. “Never mind! You should probably stop it!”

    “Aren’t you going to help?” Nili asked Wizard. “You’re a firebender too.”

    “Nah,” Wizard said, sitting around a boiling pot of water. “When you get to be my age, you leave all the difficult work to the younger generation.” He sprinkled in some tea leaves. “Besides, they’ll be fine. They have the Avatar.”

    “The Avatar doesn’t look fine,” Iannah pointed out.

    Wizard began stirring the pot. “He needs to figure out the balance inside himself before he can realize his true potential.”

    “Well, whatever he needs to do, he better do it soon,” she muttered.

    “Don’t worry, Iannah,” Fendul said, reaching out to take her hand. “Even if the world is about to end, at least in our final moments, we still have each other.”

    “Yeah. Um, about that…”

    Selax opened his eyes to find himself in another world. Deep green rocks stretched out across wide plains ringed by tall jagged peaks. A swirling blue-and-purple sky was evenly lit despite no visible source of light.

    “Welcome back to the Spirit World!” a sarcastic voice greeted him. “Avatar.”

    “Rapierian,” Selax grumbled, rising to his feet. He gave the white-haired man an abbreviated form of the Fire Nation greeting. The curled finger half.

    “The biggest downside to my position is I’m forced to have a front-row seat while you run around and muck everything up.” Rapierian’s voice was bitter. “Take that Fire Nation princess. She was practically offering you a role in ruling the world’s most powerful nation.”

    “You are mistaken. Retsy thinks only about herself.”

    “Oh, I’m not so sure about that,” Rapierian replied with a coy smile. “She seems to idolize me well enough. I can’t count the number of sappy romance stories I’ve starred in.”

    “I have no time for this.” Selax turned and began walking away. He wasn’t sure where he was headed, but as long as it was away from the old man it would do.

    “Oh, that’s right. You came here for advice on beating Sage’s Comet.”

    Selax stopped, belatedly remembering he was supposed to be ignoring Rapierian. With a sigh, he turned and addressed the former Avatar. “And what would you know about defeating the comet?”

    “Only that you’re doing it wrong.” Rapierian smiled.

    “I don’t know why I bothered.”

    “I’m flattered that you don’t like my answers, but I am obligated to remind you that of all the past Avatars you could have chosen to communicate with, you chose me.”

    “Wait.” Selax frowned. “I can talk to the other Avatars? From here?”

    “Um, duh,” Rapierian said. “The Avatar spirit is comprised of the memories and knowledge of every Avatar, all the way back to the very beginning.”

    At his words, other spirits shimmered into existence. Men and women, standing in a line, representing a hundred generations. Selax recognized Tokoda, who had freed her people from oppression by reshaping the land and sheltering them on a remote island. He recognized Talos of the water tribe, who had reigned over an era of unprecedented peace after his transformational discovery of liquor. All those lives – ten thousand years worth of experience – stretching back to the dawn of element bending. To the first Avatar. To Grapper.

    The world shifted and Selax found himself on a grassy hill under a blue sky, watching goat-sheep graze. Before him stood a man leaning on his sword, watching him with a look of amusement.

    “Avatar Grapper,” Selax said, bowing deeply. “It is an honor.”

    “I have been watching you,” Grapper said. “You struggle with the big falling rock?”

    “Yes. I tried to ram it, to destroy it. Just like I remembered from your stories.”

    Grapper shook his head. “You did not hit the rock. You let the rock hit you.”

    “I…don’t see the difference?”

    “Because you are not Grapper. Grapper would not be defeated by a rock. He would smash it into tiny pieces.”

    “This is still not helping.”

    Grapper walked over and put one thumb on Selax’s forehead, the other thumb pressing under his collarbone. Light glowed and Selax felt a calming power flow into himself.

    “Now, you are one with your true self,” Grapper said, standing back. He smiled as he began to fade. “Go out there and put the rock in its place!”

    Grapper and the goat-sheep disappeared, leaving Selax alone. He looked at his hands, feeling the power thrum inside of them, seeing the glowing lines running down his arms through his shirt. He was the Avatar, and it was time for the world to know.

    Selax opened his eyes. He was falling out of the sky, dark waters rushing towards him. Quickly, he channeled air, wrapped it around him like a cocoon and halted his descent. He spotted his allies watching him from the cliffs and flew over.

    “So, did you have a Plan B?” Avatara asked when he was within range.

    “I will strike it again,” Selax said.

    “You hit the big falling rock and it didn’t work, so…you’re going to do it again?” Scry asked.


    “Spoken like a true earthbender!” she said, giving him a thumbs-up.

    “But this time I need your help. All of you.” Selax looked at each of the three in turn. “Infuse me with your elements, so that I may strike with the full fury of the Avatar Spirit.” He faced Katerei. “Starting with water.”

    “All right, here goes!” Katerei said, starting to wave her hands around in a circle. A column of water rose up from the ocean and wrapped itself around Selax, forming a ring around his spinning ball of air. “I hope this isn’t the first time a girl has gotten you wet.”

    “Now earth,” Selax said, ignoring her.

    Scry broke off a chunk of rock from the mountain and hurled it at him. The rock hit Selax in the stomach, knocking him back a pace with a grunt.

    “Ooh, too much force?” Scry asked, wincing. “Sorry about that.” The rock broke into smaller chunks and formed another ring orbiting his ball of air.

    “Now fire,” Selax gasped out.

    “You know, as the Avatar, you could’ve summoned all of these elements yourself,” Avatara said, bringing a flame to life. The fire formed a ring around Selax as well.

    “I only trained in airbending,” Selax said, pushing himself a dozen paces out over the sea. “Besides, I was trying to be nice and let you participate,” he added.

    Selax closed his eyes, sought and found the power he had felt in the Spirit World. When he opened his eyes again, they were glowing.

    “It is past time we finish this,” Selax said. He flew upwards, towards the burning rock hurtling down. The comet was close now, close enough that the clouds in its path had melted away, leaving a circle of red and pink around the fiery meteor.

    Selax flew upward, into the fierce waves of heat pushing against him, through the roaring sound that deafened his ears. Sage’s Comet loomed large before him, an ancient creation older than the Avatars themselves. But that legacy was coming to an end today.

    With a roar of his own, Selax charged forward, buzzing with his own energy. He reached back with his fist and at the last moment thrust it forward, striking the rock. The power of all four elements were infused into his strike, along with the vast cosmic energy from the spiritual realm. The blow reverberated through the comet, fracturing the solid bonds that held it together, breaking it apart from the inside. In the blink of an eye, cracks formed, widened, and suddenly the comet burst in a tremendous explosion, hurtling tiny shards of rock and ice out across the sky to burn up on their own in a wide spray of falling stars.

    His ball of air still whirling around him, Selax lowered himself to the ground. All of his companions rushed forward, except for Wizard who was still finishing his tea. The air surrounding Selax slowed and dissipated, the cosmic power he held draining from his body, flowing back to the source where it would wait for the day it was needed again.

    “It is done,” Selax told them. The glow from the sky above faded with the last of the burning fragments, bringing back the dark shroud of night.

    Avatara lingered at the cliffside while the others rushed forward to congratulate Selax, belatedly noticing both Scry and Katerei had hung back with him.

    “Av, can we talk?”

    “Av, I need to tell you–“

    Both Scry and Katerei started talking at the same time. They paused, blushing in embarrassment.

    “Go on,” Katerei said. “You first.”

    Scry turned to Avatara. “Av, I’ve been thinking a lot about what you told me, how I should choose my own path, free from my parents. And I’ve decided you’re right.” She moved closer to take his hand in hers. “And, um, I’m hoping now that this is all over, you wouldn’t mind if I stayed with you.”

    “It would be my pleasure,” Avatara said. He ran his free hand over her cheek, cupped her chin, and pulled her into a deep kiss. “After I sort out the mess back home, how would you like to travel the world?”

    “I can’t really see–“

    “No,” he said, quieting her with his finger. “But you have your other senses. Standing at the top of the Great Divide is very different than trudging through lava tubes in a volcano, or the muddy waters of the swamplands.”

    “You want to take me to a giant swamp?” Scry asked. “That sounds like fun! I’m in!”

    Avatara hugged the blind girl close, then turned his attention to Katerei. The waterbender was standing there watching, mouth open in astonishment.

    “What were you going to say?” he asked her.

    “Oh, um, it was fun working with you,” Katerei said, snapping out of her trance. She quickly turned away and headed back to the others. No, not the others – to Wizard, sitting down next to him.

    “That’s odd. I could feel that she was lying,” Scry said.

    Avatara shrugged. “Some people I just will never understand.”

    “Are you all right, my dear?” Wizard asked, putting his hand on Katerei’s shoulder.

    “No,” Katerei said. She pulled her legs up to her chest and rocked back and forth, tears spilling out of her eyes.

    “I take it your reunion did not go as planned.” Wizard took out an empty cup and filled it with hot tea.

    “I got rejected.”

    “Oh, that’s too bad. But don’t worry, you are still quite young. Maybe if you wait several years, things will have changed for the better.” He offered her the cup.

    She wiped her eyes on her sleeve and accepted it, holding it in front of her, letting the steam warm her face. “I don’t think so,” she said. “I feel like I will always be the second choice.”

    “These things happen. Best to let go and move on.” Wizard sipped at his own cup. “I know! How would you like to help me out at my tea shop? I could use the extra pair of hands.”

    “Would I get to hear more of your crazy stories?” Katerei sniffed.

    “As many as you think you can handle,” Wizard said.

    Katerei finally took a drink from her cup. The tea was warm and soothing, just like the arm around her shoulder. She scooted closer to the old man, leaned against him.

    “That would be nice,” she said, closing her eyes.

    “Your sister seems to be enjoying herself,” Adriana remarked. She stood on the bluffs with Fendul, watching the others celebrate their victory.

    “Eh, she was always into older guys. I’m sure it’ll work out great,” Fendul said. He kicked a loose pebble off the cliff and watched it plunge out of sight below.

    “Yeah, but he’s like ten times her age.”

    “At least she’ll be happy. My girlfriend waited until the end of the world to break up with me.”

    “I saw that.” Adriana winced. “If it makes you feel better, my boyfriend didn’t even show up to his own wedding. I was forced to stand up there alone in front of everyone I knew.”

    “I thought you two got back together?” Fendul’s brow furrowed in confusion.

    “No, he broke up with me back at the palace. Said I needed to learn how to respect people from the other nations.” She looked down at the ground.

    Fendul stared at the cliff face in the awkward silence. Swallowing the lump in his throat, he said, “Well, we’re pretty close to my house. Would you like to come see the South Pole?”

    “I suppose that’s one way to learn about other cultures,” Adriana said smirking. “Though normally I don’t move quite so fast.”

    “Oh! Uh…” Fendul blushed deeply. “I didn’t mean… Well…”

    “Just shut up and kiss me.”

    And he did.

    The dungeon was illuminated by glowing green crystals. In the distance, Selax thought he heard water dripping. He didn’t like being underground, but he had come for a purpose.

    A solid iron door stood before him. He gathered his resolve and inserted a key into the lock. He twisted the key and with a loud metallic click, the door swung free.

    Stepping inside the room, Selax took in his surroundings. A small bed, a washstand, a few velvet cushions, and a collection of stuffed lion-turtle plushies sat inside a large spherical cage that took up most of the room. Selax made his way to the bench opposite the cage and sat down, quietly observing the occupant.

    Retsy looked up at him from her place on the floor. Her hair had long since become unbraided, hanging loose in a tangled mess. Dark circles had formed beneath her red-rimmed eyes. Recognizing Selax, tears formed and she quickly turned away.

    “Here to gloat, Avatar?” she asked, her voice cracking.

    “No,” Selax said simply. “I am here for you.”

    “I’m sure my brother sent you to torment me,” Retsy scoffed.

    Selax rose and strode over to her cage. He slipped the key into that lock and turned, snapping the door open. “I came of my own volition.” He knelt next to the broken girl, carefully lifting her head. She stared at him in confusion as he slipped a necklace around her.

    “You want me to be your pet?” she sneered, recognizing the Seal of Thera.

    “I am to be your ward,” Selax said. “You can either remain down here, in this–“ he waved at the cramped surroundings. “Or, you can come with me and live at the air temples.”

    “Then why the collar?”

    “For safety, until you learn to control yourself.”

    Retsy gripped the seal in her hands. He could see the inner turmoil playing out across her face.

    “I promise I will remove it once we are at my home,” Selax said. “Not even you should be forced to live in a cage.”

    Retsy traced the necklace, her fingers following it over her shoulders until she met his hands. Taking his larger hands in hers, she helped him snap the brace closed, binding her under the Seal’s power.

    “All I wanted was to be acknowledged,” she said sadly. “To be desired.”

    “I know,” Selax said.

    He lifted his hands to her hair, straightened the long strands, pulled out the largest tangles. Her head fell against his chest and he hugged her close. In time, he would smooth her edge, teach her to swallow her pride, snd she would teach him how to open up to others. It would not be easy, but he knew now that it was his destiny. Selax closed his eyes, concentrating on the present, banishing all worries about the future from his thoughts.

    For that moment, in the deep caverns under the volcano, there was just a girl and her Avatar.

    “So,” Saria said, dipping her feet into the water. “When should we tell them what happened to us?”

    “Eh,” Jorumgard said, sitting next to her. “Give it seven or eight years and we’ll see if anyone remembers.”

  • Yo, epub that business.

    This post has been edited by Pallas Athene : 06 December 2015 - 03:58 AM

  • @avatara_bot, on 06 December 2015 - 02:43 AM, said in The Book of Fire:

    Laughter in the hallway caught their attention. They turned and saw Selax plodding by on all-fours, Retsy riding on top of him, giggling uncontrollably. “Giddy up horsey! Faster!” she cried, guiding him back out of sight.

    I can't wrap my head around how old Retsy is. She's either young enough or old enough for at least half her actions to be disturbing.


    “Ssh. It’s me, Scry,” Katerei whispered.

    “Very funny Katerei, but I’m Scry,” Scry said

    This was so dumb yet I still laughed.


    Flynn has invoked the right of the Agni-Koi.

    I'm glad that made it in. :D


    “My name is Flynn O’Conner. You killed my fiancée. Prepare to die.”

    Got that reference.


    Adriana closed her eyes and tilted her head. Avatara leaned forward and they kissed, sharing a brief respite before the storm ahead.



    He wore his collar high, but not quite high enough to conceal the hickeys on his neck.

    Okay, you finally succeeded in making me cringe. You can stop trying now.


    “It’s pronounced Jormungand,” Selax said quietly.

    cough If we're going to get technical, it's Jörmungandr.


    Oftentimes she would find Wizard up late at the inn and he would tell her stories of his travels over a hot cup of tea. Those were the warmest moments of her summer and she hoped to visit the old man’s tea shop again once everything was over.

    This was where I guessed Kat's ending. Partly because you mentioned tea in the epilogue; partly because I knew you'd stick her with an old-old man to make fun of me.


    “Let me out!” Kain screamed, but his voice was muffled by the thick wall of stone. Still too loud for her tastes though. She piled on more rocks, burying him in layer upon layer until she couldn’t hear his cries anymore.

    When she finished, an uneasy silence settled over the place, broken only by the sound of her heavy breathing. “That’s for all the lives you’ve ruined,” she said, resting her hand on his living tomb. Then, she turned and left.

    That was surprisingly dark. I mean, knocking people off airships is one thing, but leaving them to die a slow death is a whole different ballgame.


    “Blech!” Retsy said, pushing the waterbender away. She wiped frantically at her mouth. “Ew! Gross! What’d you do that for? I don’t want your cooties!” she spat on the ground.

    Well, she probably should've seen that coming...

    Random favourite parts - Nili whining about Ulf, Scry's Tophisms (she's way more fun than OoR Scry), Nili decking Kwon Chen, Avatar Grapper.

    Thoughts on the endings:

    Av/Scry: Torn because I like this version of Scry and she's preferable to Adriana, but I have to stay true to Katara.
    Wizard/Kat: Actually okay with this, I mean, if Katara's not an option. They're cute friends and you stopped short of anything that would make me cringe. :p
    Adriana/Fendul: Didn't know how to feel about this at first. Decided I disapprove because Kat will have to deal with Adriana whenever she visits her brother.
    Nili/Iannah: I can support it, though I liked Fendul/Iannah and am sad to see it end.
    Selax/Retsy: Vaguely disconcerted.

  • This story is massive, the cast list is massive, and the plot is massive! I don't know how you kept track of everything, but this is a very huge impressive story ^_^/>


    “You should tell her,” Adriana said. Somehow her hand had found its way around his waist and she pressed close to him, leaning on his shoulder.

    “I will try,” he said, squeezing her back. “But we might want to consider that these next couple months may very well be our last.”

    Ominous feeling : __( Too touchy for how volatile their relationship is, combined with you saying you wouldn't do Avriana after I did it...


    “Actually, she’s blind. She won’t be seeing anybody,” Katerei said, trying to spoil the moment.

    : __D Nice one, Katerei.


    “Because that’s the edge of the world, fool! Everyone knows that sailing east is a death sentence.”

    Retsy is so sensible ^_ __^ Good thing she didn't sail them over the edge of the world!


    “Blech! Peaches!” she said in disgust.

    __:( It's bad enough you have her forcing herself on Selax, but to make her not like peaches?! That's just over the line!


    The fluttering snowflakes are the stars’ shards;
    Reaching your hands into the sky.
    Can you feel our flowing wishes for each other?
    Everything has become shrouded in monochrome.

    Am I supposed to recognize this? Did you make it up? It's so sweet.. I can't think Selax would recite it!


    Selax looked her in the eye and said flatly, “She ignored all the warnings about the comet and let everybody die. The end.”

    On the other hand, that is a very Selax-like story.


    “We were going to name our seventh boy after you,” Fendul offered.

    What a sweet sentiment, a bit unreasonable for Flynn to continue trying to kill him...


    “Take it,” Delthoras said, lifting his shoulder pads and cape over his head, casting them onto the ground. “I was getting bored of ruling anyway.”

    That was way easier than I expected. Retsy should have asked years ago!


    "Oftentimes she would find Wizard up late at the inn and he would tell her stories of his travels over a hot cup of tea. Those were the warmest moments of her summer and she hoped to visit the old man’s tea shop again once everything was over."

    So romantic!


    She swept him up in a deep hug. “I’ve missed you so much, Fen,” she said, fighting back tears.

    Awww! ;_; Even as siblings, Fendul and Katerei are so sweet together!


    the two of them circling around each other like tiger-starfish stalking their prey.

    I can't imagine this scene without grinning!


    “I…guess so.” Katerei looked down at her feet. The friendly old man that she shared tea with was a firebender? How many other people were hiding secrets from her too?



    Wizard put his hand on her shoulder again. “I hope our different birthrights do not get in the way of our friendship.” He reached up to brush a tear from her cheek. “What is most important is who were are on the inside.”

    See! Even Wizard endorses Kronos!


    He turned to see Adriana glide into the room behind him. She was wearing the crimson robe he had given to her as a present years ago.

    They even had the gift-giving thing going on </3 ;_;

  • Quote

    “I’m not sure I like this new mushy side of you,” she said.

    “Good.” Avatara turned away from the window. “Because we’re through.”

    The complete total jerk! You're trying to ruin Avriana for me :( That's the SECOND time he broke up with her without even an explanation!


    “That’s why I intend to stay young forever,” Scry said, yawning. She stretched her limbs and joined them at the back of the airship, red blindfold fluttering in the wind.

    Scry is so awesome ^_ __^ (Too bad the guy she ends up with doesn't have the same attitude!)


    “Yeah! You rock, Scry!” Scry said, clenching her fists.

    Cute, too : __D


    “Land?” Wizard looked shocked. “No one said anything about needing to land!”

    I like Wizard's planning-ahead skills ^_ __^


    “I liked how we would trade jokes under the cedar tree, how we would play Pai Sho with uncle’s prized pieces."

    ^_ __^ <3 I like the cedar tree, also I think the brother-sister relationships in this story are really well-done.


    When she finished, an uneasy silence settled over the place, broken only by the sound of her heavy breathing. “That’s for all the lives you’ve ruined,” she said, resting her hand on his living tomb. Then, she turned and left.

    Whoa, harsh, Scry!


    “Hello,” she said, brushing the hair out of his face.

    Katerei took Wizard's advice ^_^/> And you know how much she hates taking other characters' advice! Major foreshadowing.


    “I wonder what the others think about this,” Katerei said. “Seeing us here together, fighting to save the world. I bet it looks pretty awesome!”

    “What the heck are they doing?” Iannah asked. “Waving their arms about in some kind of apocalyptic dance?”

    Heehee, I loved this : __D


    “It does look pretty ridiculous,” Adriana agreed.

    What is she even doing there?


    “Nah,” Wizard said, sitting around a boiling pot of water. “When you get to be my age, you leave all the difficult work to the younger generation.”

    I appreciate the LoK joke ^_ __^


    He recognized Talos of the water tribe, who had reigned over an era of unprecedented peace after his transformational discovery of liquor.

    I don't remember Talos being a drinker, but what a great Avatar ^_ __^


    All those lives – ten thousand years worth of experience – stretching back to the dawn of element bending. To the first Avatar. To Grapper.

    Grapper! : __o Grapper! Oh my turtle, Grapper is actually in the story!


    “Because you are not Grapper. Grapper would not be defeated by a rock. He would smash it into tiny pieces.”

    Squee! ^_ __^ Grapper is so cool!


    “Besides, I was trying to be nice and let you participate,” he added.

    I like it when characters are honest like that ^_ __^


    “It would be my pleasure,” Avatara said. He ran his free hand over her cheek, cupped her chin, and pulled her into a deep kiss. “After I sort out the mess back home, how would you like to travel the world?”

    Scrytara turned out even better than I imagined <3 BUT, I think Avatara was a jerk to kiss her in front of Katerei, when the last time he had a chance to talk to Katerei, he was telling her he was in love with her...


    “Would I get to hear more of your crazy stories?” Katerei sniffed.

    “As many as you think you can handle,” Wizard said.

    This ship is awesome too : __D What could be better, seriously?


    For that moment, in the deep caverns under the volcano, there was just a girl and her Avatar.

    Ahhh, okay, you cracked my hard shell of Relax-dislike. But only cracked! I'm nervously excited to read BoH soon : __D

  • @breadworldmercy453_bot, on 07 December 2015 - 07:19 PM, said in The Book of Fire:


    Hahaha, I almost posted that exact comment, caps and all.


    BUT, I think Avatara was a jerk to kiss her in front of Katerei, when the last time he had a chance to talk to Katerei, he was telling her he was in love with her...

    I know, right! Major jerkface!

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