Shaken by the intense experience of fighting the jiang shi, Yalun is nonetheless eager to get to the culprit responsible for sending these foul creatures to attack him and his tribe. To this end, he has gathered his old companions to aid him in his quest for vengeance. While the tomes of the old healer were somewhat useful, there is little information concerning the summoning of jiang shi, so Team Avatar heads to the last known place where the demons walked: the sleepy Fire Nation town of Darkhollow. While combing the town for reports of spirit monsters, Team Avatar may find that this town is not what it seems...
In a time long ago, the four nations lived in harmony. The Avatar, Yalun, had ascended to his role without beholding the fires of war. With his friends from each nation, he settled various disputes that sprang up from time to time, until the world seemed to be at rest. Now however, a new threat has risen, and Team Avatar must once again unite...
Yalun had barely slept. For the past three days and three nights, the horrors of his encounter with the jiang shi had haunted his mind. Every time the Avatar closed his eyes, the terrible gaze of the foul creature stared back at him. Every time he lied down to rest, he felt the helplessness of being held in the jiang shi’s grip. The images were burned into his very conciousness, such that his only comforts came from furiously trying to analyze this new foe. From pouring over the tomes of the old healer to speaking with the chief and the surviving warriors, knowing more about the jiang shi seemed to be the only thing that brought him peace. The enemy you know, he thought, is always easier on the mind than the one you don’t.
The problem was, there wasn’t much to go on. Beyond what the healer had revealed days before, there was precious little information on these creatures, which only made the Avatar’s anxiety worse. Even the Avatar’s past lives had little to offer; Yalun had gone through two reincarnation cycles without getting anything new. The lack of information weighed heavily on the Avatar, even as he got word that his summons had been received.
On the dawn of the third day, Yalun seemed to have abandoned his efforts to try to learn more about the jiang shi, and resigned himself to waiting on the outermost docks of Lilypad Cove. The warm rays of the sun had just begun to creep over the tops of the mangroves, as the ocean waves calmly lapped below in their own hypnotic way. Sitting on the end of a long, winding pier, the Avatar struggled to keep his eyes open as he scanned the horizon for a sign of his comrades. As the hours passed and the sun crept higher into the sky, Yalun heard footsteps behind him. He quickly turned around, only to behold Nilak approaching, nibbling on a breakfast of brackish quail. The paranoia’s getting to me, thought Yalun, as he moved to the side to make room for the waterbender. Nilak gladly plopped down on the end of the pier, took one last mouthful of quail, and threw the scraps into the ocean, where hundreds of tiny fish gladly devoured the remains. After a brief silence between the two, Nilak asked, “Still no sleep?” Yalun slowly shook his head, “Still nothing. I even tried some of the healer’s calming tea, and that stuff will knock a dragon unconcious.” Nilak sighed deeply, shaking his own head, and responded, “I don’t understand how you can't sleep after a fight like that, let alone three days after a fight like that. I slept through half a day after that bout.”
Yalun turned to his companion, his eyes groaning under the weight of the bags under them, and chuckled a bit to himself, saying, “I gathered that. Your snoring shook half the village. Chief Arroq thought there was a tidal wave coming.” The Avatar slowly turned back to the horizon, all shreds of happiness draining from his face, “It’s the helplessness, Nilak. That… thing was able to disrupt my most powerful ability with one fell swoop, and most of my bending abilities to boot. Even when I could get to the Avatar state, I could only break even.” Yalun sank a little bit, remembering how little he, the Avatar, the most powerful bender on earth, could do against just one of these creatures.
Nilak leaned in slightly, head cocked in sudden concern. “Did your past lives at least help? I mean, these things had to have showed up at least once during your past.”
Yalun stirred the water below with the tip of his moccasins, as he replied, “I’m afraid not. I went back two whole reincarnation cycles, and still got nothing. I got everything from ‘drive your enemies before you’ to ‘eat mung beans and meditate’. Not one useful bit of information.” Yalun’s head sank to his chest, as his heart sank from his chest to his stomach.
For a long while, nothing more was said between the two. All the sound that floated in the air were the sounds of shorebirds flitting about the docks and the waves lapping against the docks. As the sun finally rose above the branches of the mangroves, Nilak put his arm around the Avatar’s shoulders, and half whispered “Whatever this thing is, whoever sent it… we’ll beat it. You’re more than just a powerful bender; you’re Yalun.” The Avatar looked up to his reassuring friend, as Nilak continued “Whenever something has come up, we’ve faced it head on, Avatar state or no. ”The slightest of smiles returned to Yalun’s face, as his spirits slowly raised. Nilak always knew how to bring the Avatar around.
Before Nilak could continue, however, the two were taken aback by a resounding roar, deep and full, shaking the trees as would an earthquake. Immediately, the two young men sprang to their feet, along with every fisherman, sailor, and passerby on the docks. Above the highest branches floated a remarkable beast: a great shaggy beast, long and powerful. Below the creature swayed six legs, each one as thick as a tree trunk. Upon a massive head sat two impressive horns, each tapered to a fine point, as well as a strange arrow pattern among the thick fur of the gargantuan animal. Waving behind the creature was a broad tail, bobbing up and down, seeming to hold the otherwise terribly non-aerodynamic animal aloft. To the Avatar and Nilak, this creature was known as a sky bison, the original airbenders and the mount of choice of the elusive Air Nomads. Of course, this particular sky bison seemed to bear a slightly different appearance to other such creatures soaring through the skies; instead of a salient white coat with a brown stripe along the back, ending in an arrow on the head, this airborne bovine sported a cinnamon brown coat with a charcoal black arrow. This coloring was one in one million among the sky bison, marking the creature as a bison only one Air Nomad had been known to ride.
As the creature slowly descended to the two benders, settling right above the Avatar, a powerfully built, shirtless young man clad in bracers and short pants leapt off the back of the bison, screaming at the top of his lungs “YALUN!” The Avatar had only a brief moment to brace himself before the muscular figure crashed into him, landing with enough force to shake the entire pier complex. Yalun was instantly slammed against the wood planks below him, though considering Li Chen’s history of enthusiastic greetings, this was one of his more gentle. Some things never change, thought Yalun, smiling.
Seemingly as soon as his body hit the docks, Yalun felt his body get drawn back up by his earthbending comrade, as a brilliant smile shone on his rugged face. After a brief moment of adjusting his topknot of dark brown hair, Li Chen patted Yalun’s now splinter covered back and said with a powerful bravado “Sorry for the delay and the possible deep tissue damage, Yalun. We’d have been here sooner if Assam didn’t take a detour to look at a bunch of blasted birds.”
“The rose-feathered rail migrates for only a few weeks a year, and I’d be a hog-monkey’s uncle if I was going to miss it this year” exclaimed the bison’s rider, the Air Nomad known as Assam, still steering his bison Amala next to the now barely standing dock. With a graceful leap the wiry airbender, clad in rather form fitting and brilliant yellow and orange Air Nomad robes, as well as black leather bracers and boots, bounded from his enourmous mount and onto the docks, an impish smile gracing a smooth, slightly bony face topped with medium-length black hair. Less showy than his earthbender companion, Assam strode up to Yalun and locked their forearms in friendly greeting. “It has been too long, my friend.” With an uproarious shout, Li Chen grasped all the Avatar’s former traveling companions, exclaiming “We’re back in business!” Behind them, still hovering beside the dock, Amala gave a low, growling response, once more shaking the already battered docks.
After a moment of embrace, Nilak pulled away, saying, “Not that I don’t enjoy getting hugged by a buff shirtless guy, but we seem to be one member short. Where’s Qin?”
Assam was quick to respond, “Considering the last time we ran off with Qin involved half the royal guard launching fireballs at us, Caldera City is a bit wary of Amala approaching the royal palace.”
“Besides” said Yalun “We’re heading towards the Fire Nation anyways. We’ll meet up with Qin there.” With Amala’s massive saddle now level with the dock, the Avatar stepped onto the back of the great beast, feeling the slight give of her underlying fur. As he sat down and the others piled on to Amala, a warm feeling of familiarity pervaded him. He felt right, simply picking up where he had left off seemingly so long ago; travelling with his friends, righting wrongs, and making sure the nations kept balance. Just like old times, he thought to himself with a smile.
Once everyone was sitting comfortably, Assam bounded back onto Amala’s neck, grasped the reins attached to her horns, and shouted “Yip yip!” With a low grumble, the great brown beast thrust its massive tail downward, launching her into the air with tremendous force. Faster than one would expect from such a large beast, Amala soared into the sky with a grace unseen in other mounts.
Once Amala had reached a considerable height, Assam joined the rest of the Avatar’s comrades, as Yalun laid out the events from only a few days ago. It was no trifle matter for Yalun; in truth, he wished he could combat this foe without the aid of his companions. After the fight in the market, he didn’t want to expose anyone, even these, some of the strongest and most inventive benders on Earth, to what he fought that day. Of course, he still had to.
As he told his companions all the grisly details, Yalun could see the enthusiasm drain from everyone’s faces, as all donned a grave expression as the Avatar listed all the things he saw and learned in the past few days.
After Yalun had gotten through every bit of information he had gleaned from the old healer’s tomes, he let his companions stew for a moment and consider this new information. For a long while, the only sound came from the winds whirling around the benders.
Finally, Assam broke the silence, “Spirit monsters that can mess with the Avatar State. Sounds dangerous, fatal even, with a good chance for bodily harm.” He leaned in with a faint smile. “I’m in.”
“Aye, me too,” agreed Li Chen, cracking his knuckles, “All I’ve had to fight are pushovers from Omashu. I’m spoiling for a good fight!”
“Your friends are with you, Avatar,” said Nilak as he placed his hand on Yalun’s shoulder “Most likely against all better judgement.”
Yalun laughed a bit to himself as he felt the pressures of the day lift from his shoulders, if only slightly. The shadow of doubt still loomed large in his mind, however, as he wondered what would become of his friends on this adventure.
“So Yalun, where will I be steering Amala?” asked Assam.
The Avatar quickly reached into his pack and withdrew an old tattered tome. Strange symbols seemed to be carved on its cover, with no visible title to speak of. “I got this from one of the healers from my village. It’s got some information on the jiang shi, though not that much.” Yalun flipped through the pages of the aging tome, finally coming upon a page with a list of dates and locations and indicating one in particular, right at the end of the list. “The village of Darkhollow, Fire Nation.” Yalun looked back up to his friends, “The last place jiang shi were encountered. I figure if there is more information on these things, it will be there.”
“Lovely name,” quipped Nilak.
“Are we there yet?” whined Li, jostling about in an attempt to keep his lower extremities from falling asleep. The whole group seemed a bit at edge, as the long days of flying and the equitorial sun seemed to be wearing those not used to such temperatures down.
“If you would like to try to locate a tree that looks like a badger-frog dancing a jig, be my guest.” snapped Assam. Though the Avatar kept silent, he knew the airbender had his work cut out for him; Qin’s instructions for where to meet him were rather vague, especially given the dense Fire Nation jungles below. For miles around, a sea of deep green pervaded the landscape, twisting and rising as the trees seemed to compete for the best spot before the sun.
For hours, the group circled this wide expanse, scanning every treetop for the shape that Assam described. The glare from the noon sun didn’t help much, and neither did the occasional herd of komodo rhinos moving through the undergrowth, pushing aside the high trees and changing their shape from all the shaking.
As the sun began to sink towards the western sky, Yalun had begun to lose hope that he would find his old firebending teacher. After hours of searching, all the trees seemed to look alike, slowly swaying in the warm summer breeze. Even the most abstract visualizing seemed to yield little more than weak assumptions.
Suddenly, a massive bolt of lightning erupted from the middle of the jungle, splitting the air with a deafening crack. “Well now,” said Assam, once the ringing in everyone’s ears died down, “That’s something I can bloody see!” With a grumble, Amala swerved towards the source of the electrical discharge and slowly descended into the canopy. All around, birds of every shape and size bolted from the treetops, as one would from a massive shaggy beast.
Ever so slowly, Amala descended from the highest gnarled branches of the jungle, snapping many of them in the process. Below them, at the base of a particularly large tree, stood a rather regal looking figure. Deep red robes and obsidian black pauldrons stood as a stark contrast to the surrounding green, as did a golden, flame shaped ornament sitting upon a topknot of black hair.
“Have you ever heard the saying ‘to hide a tree, use a forest’ Qin?” shouted Assam, bringing the great brown bison to rest on the forest floor.
Qin drew closer to Amala. “Forgive me, my friend. The trees of my homeland are old friends; it sometimes escapes me that others may not be as familiar with them as I.”
Nilak lept from the sky bison’s saddle, deftly slid down her tail, and once more turned to Qin “Oh no, we saw the tree fine. We just felt like flying in circles for three and a half hours.”
Qin smiled brightly under a well-trimmed beard. “Ah, good!” It is a nice day for that sort of thing.” He swiftly strode towards Amala, his robes just barely touching the forest floor.
Yalun leapt from Amala's back, breaking his fall with a small airbending gust, and ran up to his old firebending master. Stopping just a few feet from him, Yalun gave a respectful bow, gladly returned by the older firebender, then closed the distance to hug Qin.
"It warms my heart to see you again, Yalun." whispered Qin.
With a powerful bound, Li Chen leapt from the bison’s saddle with Nilak shortly behind, landing with an impact that sent any birds still perching nearby to take to the air. “Not to insult your sense of direction, Qin, but I don’t see any villages here. Just trees.”
“Well,” said Assam “remember the last time we landed Amala in a major population center?”
Li thought to himself for a moment. “Oh yea… that poor cabbage merchant.”
“In addition, my young friends,” added Qin, “many of the more rural parts of my country are still reeling from the civil war. It is best not to introduce anything that might frighten the townspeople. Speaking of which, you should probably leave your weapon’s with the bison.” He took a brief glance at the katana hanging at Yalun’s side. “We do not wish to look like a raiding party.”
Yalun nodded in agreement, undid the belt that held his katana’s scabbard, and tossed it to Assam, still sitting comfortably on Amala’s gigantic neck. Nilak did so as well, though with a bit of hesitation. Yalun knew how attached he was to his swords; they belonged to his father, and his father before him for generations. Better safe than sorry though, thought Yalun.
Once all the weaponry was secured, the now completed group departed for the nearby village, with Assam lingering a bit to comfort his bison. Amala was never one to take seperation well. Once more, Yalun felt a resurging confidence within him; the team was together once again. The Avatar knew that together, they would be able to answer the questions that had been keeping him awake for the past few nights.
As they walked, the jungle paths twisted and turned before them as gnarled branches and roots seemed to push and pull the narrow road to suit their liking. The shadows of the trees and creatures of the wild stretched out before them, obscuring the more trecherous features jutting up from the earth. More than once Yalun nearly tripped over a stray root shadowed by its parent tree.
“At least now we know why this place is called Darkhollow” admitted Li. “It’s just after midday and I can barely see ahead of Qin.”
Qin wore a worried expression as the sounds of civilization drifted from the forest ahead. “I will admit, this was a difficult place to track down. Not only is it far from any other settlement, but there were few documents pertaining to it. No tax, census, or trade records to speak of. I had to delve into the deepest depths of the archives in order to get a proper location.”
A twinge of doubt slithered into Yalun’s mind, but was quickly brushed away.Scribes mess up all the time, the Avatar told himself.
With a final brushing aside of forest growth, the group finally reached a clearing. Small wooden buildings with crimson roofs, hewn from the surrounding forest, seemed to spread out almost at random beneath the darkening canopy, clinging to small plots of farming land bursting with grains and vegetables. All around them, villagers worked in silence, the only sounds coming from the hacking of their tools and the footsteps of the Avatar and his companions. As the group went farther along, the buildings seemed to grow more dense, though no less erratic.
“Nice to see the visually impaired still get the odd planning job,” quipped Nilak “Wouldn’t want to think that the Fire Nation-"
The waterbender was cut off by a ragged figure that leapt from an alley just in front of Yalun. The man’s head seemed to be surrounded by a mane of unkempt, filthy hair, and his clothes looked like they had been used for combat practice for some maniacal swordsman. Yellowed eyes stared out from a face caked in ash and dirt as Yalun tried to back away a few steps.The vagabond shook with a nervous energy.“AVATAR! Is he? Well of course he is! Excellent!” the man's voice was low and raspy, almost akin to a blacksmith's grinding stone upon a piece of steel.
Yalun struggled to answer. This wasn’t the welcome he was expecting, and definitely not the sort of person he thought he would meet today.
Before Yalun was able to utter a word, however, the vagabond quickly turned around and shouted “I was getting to that!”
The Avatar cocked his head “No one said anything.”
The vagabond whipped his head around, his eyes wide in his skull “Oh yes, yes yes yes, this is perfect! Perfect!” The ragged man grabbed Yalun’s vest, now screaming at the top of his lungs, “You will save us! You will bring us into a new world” The Avatar nearly gagged on the vagabond’s breath, trying his best to not appear disturbed.
Before Yalun could respond to this odd sign of appreciation, a pair of heavily armored men, presumably guardsmen swooped from the sides of the street and grabbed the jabbering man by the shoulders. For a split second, the vagabond’s face twisted in surprise and anger as he looked upon his captors, then suddenly went limp, lowering his head onto his chest. Without saying a word, the armored men dragged the vagabond down the twisted path, into the shadows of the village.
“Well,” said Yalun, after a brief moment to recollect his thoughts, “that was certainly the most… unique admirer I’ve encountered.” He brushed his vest to remove the bits of dirt that were left behind from the man’s embrace, then continued walking down the darkened road.
“Indeed,” agreed Qin, “when I left the throne to my advisor, raving men with hair like a lion turtles were not high on my list of people I thought I would run into.” He paused in thought for a moment, stroking his beard, “At least he made more sense than the squabbling Fire Lords I had to deal with. I almost wish I hadn’t let them all keep their self-styled titles after the war.”
“And the old man is rambling again” Nilak interjected, “let’s just find the town center and get out of here. This place is giving me the creeps.”
Yalun looked around one particularly acute corner and spied a small market, bursting with the fruits of the land, and the food stores on Amala’s back suddenly came to mind. “Actually, why don’t you and Li pick up some supplies while we’re here? Qin, Assam, and I can take a look at the village records.”
Nilak rubbed his chin. “Hmmm… I do like food… Eh, I’m not a big reader anyway. C’mon Li, let’s see if ash bananas are in season yet.”
Li grunted in agreement, and the two made their way down the market path, Li Chen immediately sidetracked by a stand of slow roasted boar-q-pine.
As the remaining three adventurers wandered through the veritable maze of buildings, the sun began to sink into the western sky. The shadows of the trees above grew long and dark, stretching across the town like a blackened spider’s web. Only after hours of searching did the three find where the city records were kept. The whole building seemed to lean to one side, as if it were slowly sinking into the wet jungle soil, still bearing a worn sign proclaiming its purpose.
Yalun carefully opened the door, afraid that it might be fragile considering the condition of the building. Inside was a long, gloomy room, bare of any decoration or furniture save an elderly scribe at a desk that seemed several sizes too big for her. As the three entered, she didn’t seem to notice them as she scribbled away at a scrap of paper with a piece of charcoal. It was only when Yalun approached her oversized desk that she looked up from her parchment, her cataract-filled eyes barely visible under the dull grey hair that hung in front of her face.
Yalun squared himself, trying to appear every bit the Avatar he was. “Excuse me, madam, I am Avatar Yalun.” He tried to deepen his voice a bit for effect, “It is of vital improtance that I inspect Darkhollow’s records. May I take a look?”
Without saying a word, the scribe raised a gnarled hand in the direction of a door just to her left, then returned to her parchments. Yalun respectfully bowed to the crone in thanks, and led his companions down the saircase, long and spiraling into shadow. At the base of the stairs, the three benders found themselves in a dank stone room, filled to the brim with scrolls and tomes, tediously organized by date and origin.
Assam wasted no time darting to the impressive collection of tomes. “A grand collection, to be sure. Chan’s Astronomicon, Ruk’s Spirit Guide… how does a backwater village collect all these?”
Qin chuckled to himself. “Perhaps you underestimate the intellectual curiosity of the Fire Nation.”
Assam shook his head. “I’m pretty sure I’m not. Mind you, I’ve been in hundreds of libraries and centers of learning all across the world, and there seems to be a fairly strong relationship between the isolation of a town and the written material that can be found there.”
“We can debate the likelihood of this place later” said Yalun, “right now we need info”. The Avatar reached into his pack and produced the old healer’s tome, now bookmarked with the page that held all the dates and locations of jiang shi attacks over the years. Yalun quickly flipped to the marked page and scanned the shelves and cubbies that held the towns records, presumably filled with tax records and daily happenings. He slowly navigated the brass labels on the shelves, searching for the date corresponding with that recorded in his tome. Finally, he found what he was looking for: a pile of scrolls filed under the exact date mentioned in his book.
“Here it is!” he said to the others excitedly. He quickly grabbed one of the scrolls and unfurled it.
Must be a spare scroll, thought Yalun as he gabbed another roll of parchment.
Confusion began to grip the Avatar’s mind as he tore through scroll after scroll, all of them bereft of any written word. Who stuffs a shelf full of blank scrolls?
“They’re all blank!” exclaimed Yalun, tossing aside the last scroll.
“As are all of these.” Said Assam. Yalun turned to the airbender, who was holding up what looked like a copy of Yu’s Wildlife Guide.
“Who in their right mind fills a room with blank tomes and scrolls?” wondered Qin, tossing aside his own tome.
“Someone is trying to hide something…” Assam mused.
“But what?” asked Yalun.
Within an instant, the Avatar was answered with a loud grumble from above, like the earth above them was being churned and thrashed about, soon followed by a cacaphony of muffled shouting, then silence.
A realization struck Yalun like a bolt of lightning. “We need to get out of here!”
Without a word, the three bolted up the staircase as Yalun shoved the healer’s tome back into his pack. Yalun pushed aside the door to the main room, only to find the old scribe missing from her desk. Further confusion and a bit of fear entered Yalun’s mind, but he pushed them aside and made for the front doors, with Qin and Assam right behind. With one final push, Yalun opened the old wooden doors, cracking them with the effort. The Avatar then froze, for the sight before him allowed for nothing else.
Standing just beyond the doors stood seven jiang shi, their horrible glowing eyes fixed upon the Avatar, with a large crowd of villiagers behind them, similarly fixed upon Yalun with blank, soulless expressions.
Before Yalun could even compose himself, the creatures opened their mouths wide, unleashing a demonic chorus of screams. Yalun’s mind tore itself to pieces, as Yalun couldn’t even concentrate enough to provide a token defense. His brain felt like it was boiling in its own juices as the Avatar dropped like a stone, futilely clutching his ears as his companions howled in pain around them. As the mind-bending screech continued, Yalun felt his mind slip away from him, unable to cope with the psychic assault. As his vision blurred and blackened, he heard a single voice, gruff and familiar, before he fell into unconciousness.
Welcome to Darkhollow.
Next on Avatar...
After being ambushed by jiang shi in the village of Darkhollow, the Avatar's companions find themselves imprisoned in a strange dungeon, as Yalun is held in thrall by a familiar face...