Previously on Avatar
Yalun and his companions, captured by a mysterious cult, and confronted by more of the dreaded chi-sucking Jiang Shi, were held captive in an underground labyrinth beneath the village of Darkhollow. Relying on each other and their unique skills, they managed to escape, but just barely. Now they have flown out of the Fire Nation, and into the Earth Kingdom, where they are hoping to find answers about this cult.
Yalun wiped off a heavy layer of sweat from his brow. High above, an unrelenting Earth Kingdom sun blazed, casting down sweltering heat upon the Avatar. As far as Yalun could see, tall fields of blue-green grass swayed gently in the meager wind, unable to give anything resembling shade.
It was better than his situation not a few hours ago, he figured. He and his crew had escaped the mad cultists and their undead pets and put an ocean between them, but now there was a new problem.
"Hold still!" Nilak shouted, slowly moving a faintly glowing sphere of water across Amala's side. The bison's thick brown fur bore deep crimson stains from where the cultist's weapons had bitten into her skin, and her massive tail still bore seeping wounds from where the jiang-shi had been torn off. Assam stood by Amala's head, doing his best to cradle his companion's gigantic head in his arms. Once Nilak's water reached another wound, Amala winced and gave a low, pained growl. "It's ok, sweetie, it's ok," Assam cooed, squeezing Amala's head as Nilak went about his work.
Yalun was impressed Amala could even reach the Earth Kingdom with her wounds, let alone as far inland as they were: Assam has put at least a half hour between them and the ocean before Amala betrayed her injuries. Now she could barely hover, let alone fly. For the time being, they were stuck.
"So," said Li Chen, fidgeting with a piece of grass as he sat cross legged in the dirt, "As long as we're just lying around..."
"Oh, speak for yourself!" snapped Nilak, still working at Amala's wounds.
"Right, as long as those of us without healing abilities are just lying around, maybe we should think of what we should do next?"
"I agree," said Qin, thoughtfully stroking his beard "it is time we laid out a plan of attack." As if Yalun had ceased attempting to do so after Darkhollow was behind them.
It wasn't as if they could just bring this to the attention of the Four Nations. Even the word of the Avatar has its limits; going up to a national leader spouting stories of magic runes and undead terrors would be practically asking to be taken as a madman.
"We should make haste back to the Fire Nation," Qin continued, "I still have a fair amount of clout within my homeland. I shall speak to Emperor Sung and rally the Fire Nation's forces to root out this threat. Afterwards, the other nations will surely follow..."
"If Sung even believes you." interrupted Yalun. "Lets face it, even with the influence we have, we can't just go up to people and speak of jiang shi with no proof and expect people to believe us. We'll be in madhouses before we get leaders of nations to believe undead walk the Earth."
"But what of your own people, Yalun?" Qin replied, "The Coastal Water Tribe? They still have the bodies of the jiang shi that attacked you and Nilak, do they not? Your Chief Arroq may add validity to our tale."
Yalun took a deep sigh. "Its not that simple. The Coastal Water Tribe has been in decline for years now. The other nations think us a backwater people, and this would probably just look like a stunt to get attention on the world stage."
It wasn't something he liked to acknowledge about his people, but there it was. Once, the Coastal Water Tribe had stretched for hundreds upon hundreds of miles along the Earth Kingdom coast, its warriors and waterbenders respected and feared throughout the world. Lilypad Cove once rivaled the Northern Water Tribe capital in size and prosperity. Much had changed in the last two centuries, however; land disputes with the Earth Kingdom and the decline of the giant lilypads that allowed the nation to stretch out into the sea had slowly eaten away at the Coastal Water Tribe's holdings. Even with the efforts of Chief Arroq, Yalun's people were largely seen as a joke among the other nations, a wasting people trying to hold on to past glories.
Qin arched an eyebrow. "A touch pessimistic for you, Yalun," said Qin, "But let us keep contemplating our predicament. Perhaps a more agreeable solution will reveal itself."
Qin began to pace back and forth through the grass, deep in thought, as Li Chen continued to fidget. The firebender's comment took Yalun back a bit. He wasn't being pessimistic, just realistic. They weren't in my shoes, thought Yalun. They don't know how far this goes. This is so much more than just a rogue general or a bandit with a big head.
For a while, nobody spoke, the only sounds being Amala's pained grunts as Nilak patched up the last of her wounds. Yalun tried to go over more possible options in his head, but his thoughts kept going back to the labyrinth beneath Darkhollow, to that first attack on Lilypad Cove. A knot coiled itself into being in his gut as a sense of hopelessness began to pervade his thoughts. Yalun held his head in his hands as every possible path began to seem pointless, every action without worth. These people, whatever they were, made him next to useless on two separate occasions, and he only survived those occasions because his friends were there to drag him along or prop him up. Some Avatar he turned out to be.
"Eureka! The Spirit Library!" shouted Qin, his eyes wide with delight.
Yalun felt his spirits lift slightly. The great Spirit Library was renowned for having the greatest collection of knowledge in the known world. Every tome ever written by human hands, thousands of preserved specimens, and endless scrolls on every conceivable topic. If there was ever a place to find a way to effectively combat the cult and their beasts, as well as back up their claims, it would be there. It was also in the middle of an enormous expanse of hostile desert and several thousand miles from where Yalun's party was now, and with a grounded sky bison they were going nowhere fast.
"My nana always used to tell me about that place," Li said excitedly, "she said you could read for half a century and still not get through a quarter of the books in there."
Yalun shifted in his seat, still unsure. "I suppose... it could be a good place to start for strategy and proof, maybe get some more people on our side..."
"Oh no," interrupted Assam, pointing an accusatory finger at Qin "No no no no no! First off, Amala is in no shape to carry anything a thousand miles to some forsaken desert!" Amala groaned pitifully, as if to vindicate the airbender, "and second, the spirit who runs that library is not one we want to mess around with."
Qin raised an eyebrow and smirked playfully, "Still so suspicious of spirits, Assam. I would have thought the respect of your countrymen would have set in by now."
"I'll give them respect when they give me reason to, firespitter." Assam snapped. "See, I have books too, and I've read in a great many of them that about half the time the spirit who watches over that place..."
"Wan Shi Tong." Yalun interrupted. If Assam were to go on one of his tirades, he may as well get the names right. As long as Yalun had known him, Assam had never had much patience for the spiritual side of the world, especially when Qin's pious nature shone through. Ever the exception, thought Yalun.
"Thanks, so half the time Wan Shi Tong doesn't let people out of his library alive. He's a cold, calculating, callous spirit, and we'd be well rid of him!"
"Do you have another suggestion, then?" replied Qin, with a slight wavering in his voice betraying frustration, maintaining a pleasant smile, well practiced from years at court.
"We take the clandestine approach." said Assam, crossing his arms and squaring his stance. "We go to those other locations in that book Yalun got from the healer he spoke of, find one with a cultist infestation, which shouldn't take long. We sneak in or infiltrate their compound and gather as much information as possible. We certainly don't put our fate in the hands of spirits!"
Yalun knew where this was heading. Assam and Qin always used to have these arguments back when the group first came together, and Yalun wasn't in the mood for a five hour philosophical debate. He also wasn't in the mood for getting anywhere near a cultist stronghold anytime soon. "I think Qin has the better suggestion, at least for now." he said as he sat up straight, resting his arms in his lap. "I don't want to risk anyone's safety when we aren't at our full strength. We need time to recover from our little stay in Darkhollow."
It wasn't his first choice. He would have preferred to just crawl into a cave until he felt like the Avatar again. Deep down, however, he knew he had to keep going forward, he had to keep fighting. He'd seen with his own eyes the threat that lay in front of him, and it wasn't going to go away if he took time to sort out his own problems. He hated having to do it, but he was the Avatar, and combating this sort of thing is what the Avatar is supposed to do.
Isn't it? he thought to himself.
"See, Assam? The Avatar knows the wisdom of the spirits hold the key to victory." Qin said, flashing a perfectly smug royal smile. "Now let us be off. We can walk to give Amala time to recover, but it is unwise for us to stay in one place for too long. We do not know where the cult is hiding, or where they mean to strike."
Assam glowered at Qin, but he turned to re-equip his bison all the same. "Alright, alright. Just know that when Wan Shi whoever tries to eat us, I'm going to rub it in your face for the rest of your days, and probably in the afterlife as well."
"Finally, we're actually doing something aside from flapping our jaws. To adventure!" Li shouted as he leapt to his feet and bounded to Amala.
Before long, the party was off. Amala was healed enough to carry equipment and her saddle, but Assam insisted no one ride her for at least a day. As they made their way on a long, winding merchants path through the grasslands, patches of oak and beech began to shade the road, before enveloping the group's way in forest. Yalun and Nilak walked ahead, just in front of Amala's massive head, while Assam and Qin flanked the great beast (Yalun thought it best to keep the two separate for now) and Li Chen brought up the rear. The shade of the trees and a slight breeze cooled the party, a welcome reprieve from the scorching prairie heat.
Yalun tried to focus on the plan ahead. For now, they had a solid goal. No more moping and doping. Or less, at the very least. He had to remain strong for his friends, for everyone...
Assam interrupted Yalun's thoughts, "I hear steel clashing against steel ahead. Sounds like someone's having a bit of a tussle!"
"I don't hear a thing" replied Li, taking a moment, "Oh, right, soundbending."
"Sounds like there's at least two, maybe three." Assam continued, "Weapons and bendables at the ready, men." The airbender leapt over Amala, grabbed his spade-glider, and vaulted to Amala's other side.
"You think its cultists?" asked Nilak, drawing both his scimitars in a smooth, practiced motion.
"Not sure." said Yalun, drawing his own katana from its sheath on his back. The familiar weight did much to sooth his doubts. "All things considered, I don't know of many ways one can send a message faster than a sky bison can fly. Still, keep on guard, the cultists have strange methods available to them." A softly glowing circlet and an impossibly dark crystal flashed in Yalun's mind. "Assam, keep some of that soundbending handy just in case of jiang shi. Qin and Li to the flank, Nilak with me."
His friends quickly found their assigned spots. Now this thought Yalun, Feels nice and familiar. Like the old days, when I felt every bit the Avatar.
Amala, still tired and worn, elected to hunker down on the side of the path. "Don't worry girl!" Assam shouted, "We'll be right back." Amala responded with a low growl before laying down with an earthshaking thump.
Yalun rushed along the wooded road, his companions just behind him save for Assam, who kept to the trees, if the rustling of the leaves above was anything to go by.
It didn't take long before Yalun heard the clashing of steel Assam spoke of, along with the shouting and screaming and grunting that comes with a true fight. Shortly after the sounds reached Yalun's ears, he spied a break in the woods ahead, leading to a downwards slope.
As Yalun reached the slope, he was able to spy the conflict below. There were three fighters in all, two battling one. The two on one side seemed like common folk: garbed in roughly spun green woolen tunics and trousers, covering their heads with wide brimmed hats, they hardly seemed like seasoned warriors. Both of them wielded pitted, rusty looking jians that hadn't seen good oil or a good wash in a long time. The third, however, looked every bit a warrior. He wore a suit of layered armor, it's black and gold surface glinting in the sun from lacquer and polish, though it seemed like it was covered in empty sockets, where embellishments once were. He wielded a long, gently curved blade, much like Yalun's own sword,but much longer, with the point perfectly aimed at the two aggressors. Yalun couldn't see the warrior's face; it was covered in a long mane of matted hair, caked with blood. Whether it was his own or his opponents, he could not tell, for both were bleeding about their arms and torso.
Before Yalun could think to say something, the armored warrior lunged forward. In a blur of flashing steel and scarlet blood, his two foes were on the ground. One collapsed on to his side, a flood of his lifesblood flowing from a wicked gash on his neck. The other, more fortunate, dropped to his knees, clutching at a bleeding stump where his sword hand used to be. He made no sound, no scream or shout of surprise; he simply stared had his bleeding stump as the armored warrior raised his blade above his head for one final strike.
No, thought Yalun, No no no! Not again! Too many people have been hurt on my watch already! Yalun focused on the solid earth below him and with both hands swung his own blade upwards. With an ear splitting roar, the ground beneath the warrior lept up and held him in place, his blade still above him.
"What in blazes?!" shouted the warrior as Yalun walked down the hill, his companions close behind. "Release me this instant, you dirt-eating son of a hog-monkey!" he screamed, futilely struggling against his makeshift dirt prison. As Yalun got closer, the warrior's face came into better view. Beneath sweat and blood soaked hair was a rough-hewn face, with a strong jaw, a nose that had obviously been broken several times, and about two week's worth of scruff. A bushy pair of eyebrows framed a surprisingly soft pair of jade-green eyes.
"Have a care what you say, butcher" said Qin, "You speak to the Avatar, bridge between worlds, keeper of bala-"
"I can speak for myself, Qin." interrupted Yalun. He appreciated Qin's candor, but he was desperate to feel like the Avatar again, which meant being more bold and not hiding behind a friend's robes. He put on his best Avatar face, grim and serious, hopefully threatening. "What is the meaning of this slaughter?"
"Ah, so you're Avatar Yalun." said the warrior, "Raiden Heihatchi, at your service. Your depictions don't do you justice. Forgive me if I don't grovel at your feet, though I suppose that's your doing." The tone of his voice and his words implied humor, but no smile came over his face.
I'm so not in the mood for this thought Yalun. "Answer me!"
"Just cleaning up the roads" said Raiden, gesturing with his head to his two victims before him. The man with the cut to his throat had quickly expired, while the one who had lost his hand was still on his knees, frantically muttering to himself. Both of them seemed relatively young, with neither looking particularly battle hardened.
"And what crime did these men commit that warrants their murder?" asked Yalun. These men didn't seem the type to carry out anything severe enough to earn them the headsman's block. This guy, on the other hand...
"Robbing already struggling farmers and merchants along these roads, for one," said Raiden, "or twelve, as that's how many were around here when I started. About half of them were earthbenders, as I recall."
"Oh come on," said Nilak, crossing his arms while positioning himself just to Yalun's right. "One guy with a sword-"
"And a bow. And I think I still have that kusarigama laying around here somewhere." interrupted Raiden.
"Whatever," continued Nilak, "one non-bender taking on 12 armed men, half of which were earthbenders does not add up."
"I don't know," said Li Chen as he scratched his head, "I feel like I've heard this guy's name before..."
"Maybe," mused Raiden, "you've heard it along with a different name. In some circles I'm known as-
"Benders-bane!" shouted someone far down the road. A few seconds later, a familiar lanky figure strode down the path. Assam kept talking as he walked, "Not particularly famous, but I've heard it said before in a few villages around these parts. Not too many warriors can face benders head on, let alone a group of them, but this guy has a reputation for being able to cut through them as surely as if they were just swinging swords."
"Oh stop, you're making me blush," said Raiden. Still not smiling, and definitely not blushing.
Yalun looked just behind him and back to Assam, confused. "How did you get way over there?"
"You four were taking forever to get up the path, so I did a little scouting while you caught up. Looks like I missed the fun." Assam pointed with his monk's spade at the imprisoned Raiden and the men at his feet.
It unnerved Yalun sometimes how fast Assam could travel on his own, even through the dense forest. "What did you find?"
Assam stopped next to Raiden and leaned on his weapon, his face turned upwards in thought. "Well, lets see... there were about ten bodies, not too different from those poor sods over by you. By the look of the ground around them, a fair number of them were earthbenders. All of them either had sword wounds, likely due to that," Assam pointed at the still raised sword, "or they had arrows sticking out of them. Since I couldn't hear anyone else around here, I can only assume that was you as well."
"Guilty as charged. My arms are starting to hurt, by the way."
Assam continued, "I also saw a large number of sacks of goods bearing marks from all over the region. My best guess is these guys were bandits, robbing farmers and merchants coming through here."
Yalun glared skeptically at Raiden. Assam may be sneaky and a less-than-honorable fighter he thought, but I've never known him to lie to me. "All right, Benders-bane, it seems your story checks out."
"Indeed," said Raiden, the faintest crack of a smile on his lips, "It would seem your monk friend has more of a commitment to justice than you do."
Yalun let that go, though he felt his grip on his sword tighten. "But why this brutality? Why not immobilize them and leave them for the authorities?"
Raiden lowered his head and hacked out a rough, raspy laugh. "Oh to be young and naïve. These bandits may be green, but they know how to keep themselves from the headsman's block. They know how to evade the patrols, and they know how to keep people from snooping around. Meanwhile, innocent people have their livelihood wrested from them, or worse."
"He has a point." quipped Assam.
Yalun covered his face with his hand. "Not helping, Assam."
"Odd to get support from a monk, but I'll take it." said Raiden.
Yalun pointed at the swordsman. "Also not helping."
Suddenly, Yalun felt something tugging at his shirt. He looked down to find the last living bandit at his feet, holding Yalun's shirt with his remaining hand. His eyes were wide with shock and glazed with tears. "Please, Mr. Avatar sir, I swear you won't see me banditing no more. I was just doing this so I could eat, and now I got no sword hand, the hand I used for everything. Please, just let me get away from this here swordsman and I swear you'll find no more upstanding Earth Kingdom citizen than me. Please, I got no more good hand, please..." With that, the man resumed rambling to himself.
"If you have any sort of spine, you'll slit his throat right now," said Raiden, his smile gone. "lowlifes like him always grovel and promise change when they're at the mercy of those more powerful than them. I guarantee the second he gets out of sight, he'll go straight back to his thieving, murderous ways." Raiden spat on the ground. "Loosing a hand is hardly the end of a criminal career. I've heard of many a pirate who've done well enough without one."
"Do you follow up on all the criminals you've maimed?" Yalun asked.
Raiden looked upwards in thought. "Not sure. If someone attacks me with the intent to kill, as these sods did, I rarely leave them just missing a hand. Besides, these thugs would get executed anyway if the law had its way. I'm just making sure their fate catches up to them as soon as possible, so fewer people get hurt or worse."
Yalun shook his head. His teachers and past lives had shown him different philosophies over the years, often conflicting, but one thing had been ground into his head at every turn; if it is possible, it is always better to leave criminals for the local authorities. Slaughter criminals out of hand, and one betrays the infrastructure of the Four Nations. The Avatar may be high on the totem pole, but he is not above the law.
Yalun looked down at the bandit once more. "Get out of here. Make good on your claims. Go in peace, he won't follow you and neither will we."
The presumably former bandit looked up at Yalun, smiling from ear to ear. "Oh thank the spirits! You won't regret this Mr. Avatar!" he shouted as he took off running down the road.
Once the man was well on his way, Yalun lowered Raiden's stone prison with a downward thrust of his arm. His face twisted in disgust, the warrior brushed off the remaining earth from his armor. "More work for me, thanks for that." he muttered sarcastically.
Raiden's cynicism was starting to wear on Yalun. "If I start killing people who surrender to me, I'm no better than the people who attack the innocent." Yalun rubbed his forehead. "Look, I'm not in the mood for debating ethics, I get enough of that from these two." He quickly waved his hands in the direction of Qin and Assam. "Do you know where the nearest village is?"
Raiden sighed as he sheathed his sword. "Fine, fine. The nearest village is along this road," Raiden pointed to the left fork of the road, "Boulder Post its called. I'm heading there myself, as most of the loot the bandits took was from there. They deserve to have their goods back."
He then walked over to the side of the road into the tall grass that flanked the bare dirt path and picked up a large leather pack, complete with well polished recurve bow, a quiver full of arrows, and a black steel kusarigama dangling at the side. After he hoisted it onto his back with a quick grunt, he said "If that's all, Avatar, I'll take my leave" and started down the path to Boulder Post.
"You sure you should be taking off like that?" asked Nilak, sheathing one of his blades and placing his free hand on his water pouch. "You're still bleeding, quite a lot actually. I can heal, and-"
"No need, waterbender." said Raiden, hardly breaking his stride. "I've been hit with worse." And with that, he was beyond Yalun's sight.
As soon as Raiden was out of earshot, Qin muttered "Such crassness. You would think someone dedicated to any sort of justice would have more respect for the Avatar. I should have given him a piece of my mind..."
"And I am glad that you didn't," said Yalun, "the last thing we need right now is more enemies." He sheathed his own blade. "We should be taking off as well."
Assam quickly whistled for his bison, summoning her from her hiding place. Before long, they were off on the road once more. Qin and Li Chen headed up the front while Assam stayed back by his bison, fussing over every pained grunt or brief limp. Yalun and Nilak walked in the middle, talking about the recent encounter.
"I think you handled that really well" said Nilak, briefly putting his hand on Yalun's shoulder. "Too many men in this world would have killed that man and called it justice. I'm glad you're better than that."
"Thanks, Nilak." Yalun replied. It was good to have validation once in a while, especially from his oldest friend.
"Yeah, you were acting much more like your old self. Not like how you were this morning."
A knot suddenly developed in Yalun's stomach once again. He had hoped he hadn't let his own insecurities out, in case they demoralized the rest of his group. Then again, Nilak was always very perceptive. Well that strategy is out the window, he thought. "That obvious, huh?"
"Not too much, actually," said Nilak. "I'm pretty sure everyone else thought you were just tired, and rightfully so. But I know you better than that. You're not just tired; this cult thing has you scared."
Yalun sighed. He's right he thought. He was scared, of the jiang shi, of the cultists, the madmen who commanded them, and most of all the strange powers at their beck and call. It actually felt good to admit it to himself, but it didn't make him any less anxious. "Please don't tell the others." he whispered. He looked at the others; none seemed to hear what Nilak or Yalun had said.
"Not a chance. What you want to disclose is your own business, to do in your own time. Heck, I think we're all scared at this point, and we didn't even go through what you did."
A brief flash of the Mad Priest's horrid face made Yalun cringe.
Nilak either didn't notice or had the grace not to react. "Which is why I think we need to beef up the group a little bit."
Yalun cocked his head to the side. "You... you don't mean..."
Nilak pointed ahead of the group. "Assam told you himself! The guy took on 12 men, half of whom were earthbenders! How many other warriors do you know who can do that?"
"Not many I suppose." replied Yalun. Even the great Chief Arroq had issues with dealing with benders, let alone a small army, and he was one of the greatest fighters in the tribe.
"Exactly. Not only would he bring more firepower to the team, thus helping us with stopping this cult down the line and keeping us from being captured like chumps like last time, but I think having more muscle on the team might help with your anxieties."
He had a point. Raiden was a very formidable warrior, and at this point a keen arrow or sharp blade on their side was sorely needed. "I suppose you have a point," admitted Yalun, "but he doesn't exactly seem to respect me. Who's going to tell him of our predicament?"
Nilak grinned a rather crafty grin. "Maybe we should leave it to the only person in our group he seemed to sympathize with."
Yalun looked back at Assam, rubbing his bison's head in an attempt to distract her from her wounds. "You think it might work? Even if Assam does get Raiden to buy our story, I'm not sure Qin would like having such a 'crass' person on our team."
"Don't you worry," said Nilak, "Assam's pretty good at convincing people of outrageous things. He's the one who got us into the Bandit King's stronghold under the assumption we were delivering salted pork, after all. And don't worry about Qin; he has too much respect for you. If you want Raiden in the group, he'll just whine every once in a while like he does with Assam."
Yalun rubbed his chin thoughtfully. This could work. "Alright, lets give this a go. The worst he can say is no, right?" He turned towards Assam, inspecting a wound just behind Amala's right ear. "Hey, Assam!" he shouted, "Come here for a second!"
Assam smoothed some of Amala's unique brown fur over the wound, gave her a quick scratch on her pitch black arrow, and dashed over to Yalun. "Need something, boss?"
Yalun and Nilak laid out their suggestions. A thoughtful crease formed above his eyes as the two spoke. Yalun could already see him going over what he could say to Raiden, what he might convey to get him to believe their cause. What they had might not be able to convince a council of rulers, but maybe it would be enough for this swordsman. Not to mention Raiden seemed to have a sizable respect for Air Nomads like Assam. Then again, most Air Nomads weren't like Assam...
We'll cross that bridge when we get to it, thought Yalun.
"Fair enough, I'll see what I can do. Seems a little unscrupulous, though; the guy thinks I'm a monk. Kind of abusing an assumption, all things considered..."
Nilak crossed his arms and lifted a skeptical eyebrow. "You carry blinding powder and super-concentrated shirshu spit darts in your back pocket, and you think letting this guy think you're a monk is unscrupulous?"
"Hey, I keep those for people who deserve them." retorted Assam. "This guy doesn't seem like the kind of guy who deserves to be lied to. He's-"
"It's not a lie per se," interrupted Nilak, "its just not correcting what he thinks is true."
Assam rubbed his forehead with a pale, slender hand. "Alright, fine. I'm not doing sermons, though."
"I wouldn't worry about it," replied Nilak, "He doesn't exactly seem like the spiritual type."
As the road passed beneath them, the forest slowly gave way to farmland, rich with wheat and soybean. Farmhands clad in rough-spun clothing swarmed over their fields, hacking and digging in the hopes of improving their harvest down the line. Looming over the green and golden brown of the fields were the high earthen walls of Boulder Post. Like many Earth Kingdom villages, it seemed heavily fortified to ward off the all too common bands of marauders that infested the land like flies. Imposing towers and fortifications, all hewn from the surrounding earth, ringed the settlement. As they approached, Yalun could hear the frenzied sounds of the market. A dozen sumptuous smells assaulted his nose, amplified by the fact that he hadn't eaten since breakfast, and the evening was just beginning to set in.
Raiden was already past the village gates, conversing with some of the guards. It wouldn't be long before he would be lost in the crowd. Assam had to get to him as quickly as possible, and Yalun doubted the rest of the group would improve his speed.
"Hey, guys, why don't we hunker down here for a little bit?" Yalun announced. Qin and Li Chen halted and spun to face him.
"Why?" asked Li Chen, "The village is right there! I have been dying for some proper Earth Kindom chow since we left from Lilypad Cove!"
Qin turned to Li, visibly insulted. "You don't like my dragonsbreath meatballs? Its a recipe handed down from ancestors beyond living memory!"
Li's face twisted in disgust. "I like food that isn't gonna turn my gut into a furnace. Come on, Yalun, I can smell the roast duck, its calling to me!"
"Assam will go get us groceries... and some roast duck" Yalun half-lied. "He can get it done quicker than we can as a group, but I think he would feel better if we were all here to look after Amala. Isn't that right, Assam?"
"Uh, yeah, pretty much." said Assam, hurling his monk's spade onto Amala's saddle for safekeeping. "She's already walked more than she should have, and some of her wounds may have opened up. Better look her over again, Nilak."
"Can do." Nilak replied, already drawing out water for another round of healing.
"Very well." said Qin, leaning on one of Amala's unwounded pillar-like legs. "See if you can find some good curry powder. I think your mushroom stew could use a little kick."
"I'll try." said Assam as he bounded to the gates, kicking up massive clouds of dust as his airbending pushed him down the road. As Yalun watched him go, only one thing went through his mind: Spirits above, I hope this works. I don't want to feel weak anymore.
My name is Assam, and I am a heretic.
Not all that many of us, really. I think I might be number four or five in all Air Nomad history. I can't be too sure, since Air Nomads tend to shun and avoid those who point out the holes in their philosophies, even in their history books. Some might call that censorship, but the monks and nuns seem content with "protecting the integrity of Air Nomad culture."
Its censorship, don't let anyone tell you different.
It also means I'm not allowed in the Air Temples anymore. Can't have new ideas being circulated where the children can hear. They might develop critical thinking skills.
So now, here I am, slumming it up with the Avatar. I can't say its a terrible existence; most of the time Yalun knows what he's doing, and he's a good leader. Plus, I get to help do some good in the world, as opposed to covering my ears and eyes to the problems of the common man in the name of enlightenment like my fellows.
Never thought I'd be chasing after a swordsman, even a particularly talented one, in the name of more muscle. No offense to Raiden, but the kind of stuff we've been fighting doesn't seem like the kind of stuff that can be more effectively fought with a sharpened piece of metal.
But, since Yalun is the boss, I chased after Raiden anyway. I gave myself a little airbending boost as I ran, propelling me down the road fast enough to where my feet barely touched the earth. Raiden was just turning away from the guards he was talking to by the time I got to the gate. I didn't want to have to take to the rooftops and look for this guy in the crowd; guards tend to complain about that, and that sort of complaining usually involves spears.
As soon as he began to walk into the village, I threw an arm around his shoulders and, in my friendliest, most Air Nomadic voice, said "Raiden, my friend, walk with me, talk with me!"
The direct method tends to work the best for me, in persuasion at least.
Understandably, he was a mite confused. "You again, monk?" he looked around, presumably for the rest of our merry band of cultist curbstompers. "Where are your companions?"
The truth seemed to fit well here. "They're taking a break outside the city walls, looking after my bison. She got herself in a small bind a day or two ago and ended up with some injuries, preventing her from flying."
Raiden seemed to relax a little, though I noticed his hand was gripping the handle of his sword. And after all we'd been through in the past few hours. If I was made of softer stuff that might have hurt my feelings. "My condolences to your bison. Why are you here?"
Polite, yet direct. I think I might like this guy, I thought to myself. Certainly better company than Qin, the high lord of self-righteousness. "Well, you see, Avatar Yalun and I were talking, and I think you might be just what we need."
"Need me for what?" Raiden asked. His grip was loosening on his blade a bit. Good, making progress. "And why did the Avatar not see fit to tell me himself?" And there goes the sword grip again. Touchy touchy.
"He wanted to," I tried to explain, "but he felt the message would come more easily from someone you didn't insult a few hours ago."
Raiden at least had the grace to blush. "Oh, that..." he rubbed his temples with a gauntleted hand. "Look, you got to me just after a long fight, my blood was up, I didn't mean to be that callous, especially to the Avatar."
"I'll tell him that" I replied. "As for what we need you for... well... let me tell you a story."
I then proceeded to tell the guy one of the most ridiculous true stories I've ever told as we both walked through a rather crowded market. When things got too loud I used a touch of soundbending to get rid of some of the ambient noises. Not too much though; people tend to freak out a little when all of the sudden people's lips are moving but nothing's coming out.
Anyway, I told him of the events of the past few weeks. Yalun and Nilak's first encounter with the monstrous jiang shi, our close encounter in Darkhollow, our thrilling escape, the whole works. Well, maybe not the whole works; I tended to leave out when Yalun was at the complete mercy of the cult or their pets. Hearing about the Avatar getting hurt or being knocked out tends to make people loose faith in their Avatar, and I figured that might not help with the whole recruiting thing.
When I finished, Raiden looked like he'd just seen a giant purple pentapus crawl out of a lake and start tapdancing. "You really expect me to believe that, monk?"
To be honest, not really.
"I mean, a doomsday cult I can understand." he continued. All right, he at least gets half of the story. "But evil spirits? Possessed corpses? I don't know... that doesn't seem right to me."
To be fair, I didn't think this would sound right to anyone over the age of five, especially with no hard evidence to wave around. I decided to test the waters a little bit, see what he knew. "Look, you know a lot of spirits aren't what you'd call good, right?"
Raiden sighed and moved his head from side to side, weighing something out in his head. Or imitating a pidgeon, one of the two. "Yes... no... I don't know, monk. I was brought up to have respect for the spirits, but then... the war and... its complicated, all right?"
Alright, I thought to myself, better tread a little more carefully. Don't want to trigger any wartime flashbacks. "Ok, fair enough. But you do realize that not all spirits are paragons of perfection, right? Would that be fair to say?"
"I suppose so, monk" he replied. "you would know more on that subject than me. But I... I don't know..."
The jiang shi angle wasn't getting us anywhere. It was time for plan B.
"Ok, ok, lets drop the spirits of hunger. Lets focus on this cult."
Raiden gave me a sideways glance. "Very well, what about the cult?"
Yalun's encounter with the Mad Priest had given the answer to that question. This wasn't the kind of organization that recruited with a catchy message. "Have you noticed an increase in kidnappings lately?"
Raiden stopped in his tracks. "How did you...?"
We were burning daylight, so I filled things in for him. "Look, these guys are brainwashing people. They aren't content with staying in their little corner of the world and lighting incense. They're slowly infiltrating villages until they completely take them over. We don't know what their end goal is yet, but I can tell you right now it's not good."
Now he was listening. "How are they doing this?" he asked, a desperate curiosity in his eyes.
Spirit magic, I thought to myself, because that worked the first time. This was where a bit of omission was called for. I put on a painful expression, closed my eyes and breathed deeply. Hey, if I'm gonna lie, I may as well do it well. "Its... best not to say." Hopefully he wasn't too desperately curious.
Evidently not, as he simply nodded and said "I understand."
For a few minutes, neither of us spoke. He was visibly processing all the new information and claims I had laid on him, and I didn't think layering on more would help things. I just let him simmer in his thoughts for a while. I had planted the seed, now I needed to see if it would grow.
After his thoughts had simmered to a golden brown, he finally spoke. "So this doomsday cult... you and your companions are going after them?"
Good answers so far. "Yeah, we're trying to put a stop to them before they cause any more damage. They've already attacked one major settlement, and from what the Avatar heard when facing off against one of their leaders, its not going to stop until the whole world burns."
Raiden closed his eyes and rubbed his forehead. He then sighed, turned to me and said "Well monk, you indeed make many bold claims, as does the Avatar. However, I'd like to investigate this for myself, and I believe having a larger group behind me might slow me down.
Definitely not the response I was looking for. I thought. Now I'd have to go back to Yalun and keep pretending I don't notice his nervous fidgeting or sudden lack of will when someone brings up the cult.
"I am sorry monk, but I don't think I would be a good fit for..." Raiden began, before suddenly focusing on someone in the crowd before them. "Hey!" he shouted, immediately drawing his sword. I looked for myself, and after a few seconds I saw what he was after: three men in the crowd were each dragging a child behind them, each no more than seven or eight years old. None of the men wore a badge of office or anything that singled them out from the crowd, and by the way the children were thrashing and clawing at their captors, it was clear they weren't parents or relatives.
Definitely no doubt on the whole kidnapping thing now. I thought to myself. Their ears must have been burning