The silence stretched for what seemed like infinity, and Korra’s grip on the phone tightened with every passing second. “C’mon,” she said, “c’mon…” All her attention was fixed on the radio speaker, willing that her warning wasn’t coming too late. She was just barely aware of Mako and Bolin and Lord Zuko standing anxiously behind her.
“ Hello, this is Tenzin .”
Words couldn’t describe the relief that swept through her. I’m not too late. But time was of the essence, and Korra couldn’t waste a single moment of it. “Tenzin! Listen to me carefully. Zaheer is on his way to the temple. He’s coming for the airbenders, you have to get everyone out of there immediately . Drop everything! Leave! Now!”
There. She’d done it. The warning was delivered, they’d get out, they’d be okay. Everything would be okay.
That hope came crashing down with Tenzin’s next words. “ Oh, no… ”
Korra felt a ball of ice drop into her gut. “What is it? Tenzin! Tenzin what’s happening?”
“It’s too late,” Gyatso said. “They’re here.” His eyes were ever so slightly unfocused, gazing into the distance, but whatever he was seeing certainly wasn’t this bright mountain meadow here in the Spirit World.
Pathik was a noted guru well on his way to enlightenment, used to grappling with difficult emotions to open his chakras and find inner balance - but in that moment, he was gripped by a sudden, intense, inescapable wave of fear. “You need to go,” he said. “Go. Now . If you hurry, perhaps you can escape - ”
Gyatso’s eyes refocused on him. “Perhaps,” he said quietly, but his tone held little hope.
Pathik thought back on the information he’d received and tried to pass on - the Fire Nation was coming, personally led by Fire Lord Sozin and his children, with thousands of troops and ironclad ships and dragons and a comet that increased their power tenfold. It’d been passing overhead as he’d meditated his way into the Spirit World, painting the sky a violent shade of red.
If only he’d heard earlier, if only he’d been able to contact Gyatso sooner, even if only by a day, even if only by an hour -
“Please do not blame yourself for whatever happens,” Gyatso cut into his thoughts. “You did the best you could.”
Pathik took a deep, steadying breath, the kind he took when meditating. “My best was unable to help.”
“Oh, on the contrary,” Gyatso said. “You’ve given me advance warning of their numbers and assets and mission. I might be able to do something with that information. However,” he added quietly, “I’m afraid it’s most likely that we won’t be seeing each other next Yangchen’s Festival, as we’d planned.”
“In that case, you owe me fruit pies,” Pathik said, because it was the only thing he could think to say. “Many fruit pies.”
Gyatso’s smile was sad. “I’m sorry, old friend. Maybe in the next life.”
Around them, the green grassy meadow was bright and peaceful. A butterfly spirit flew past, sparkling pink. Some of the flowers were singing.
“You need to go,” Pathik said.
Gyatso met his eyes. “Yes,” he said. “I do.” He didn’t move from his lotus position. “Promise me something?”
It was the last thing he could ever do for his long-time friend. “What is it?”
“Aang is still missing,” Gyatso said. “I can only hope he is safe. But wherever he is, whatever happens, I doubt I’ll be able to help him anymore. Should he return…”
“I will help him,” Pathik promised.
Gyatso smiled. “Thank you.” His eyes unfocused again. “I have to go.”
Impulsively, Pathik said, “I will wait for you here.”
Gyatso gave him a final smile. “Goodbye, old friend.”
And then he faded away, his spirit returning to his body in the Southern Air Temple and whatever horrors awaited there.
Pathik sat in the meadow for hours, anxious and agitated until he noticed the effect it was having on the world around him. The grass was turning a sickly shade of yellow, the sky a dark gray, and the spirits themselves eyed him suspiciously.
Calm. He needed to be calm. He focused on his breathing and slipped into meditation, contemplating the world and balance and fear and loss.
Gyatso never returned.
When Pathik finally went back to his body where it sat on an Earth Kingdom mountaintop, he opened his eyes to find night had fallen, the last vestiges of cometfire burning red in the western corner of an otherwise empty sky.
Korra stared at the silent radio for what felt like hours, a silent, mocking mantra running through her head. Too late, too late, you were too late too late too late -
The downspiral of her thoughts was cut through by Lord Zuko’s soft voice. “What are you going to do?”
She thought back on the counsel he’d given her just a little while ago - but not the most obvious part of it. Of course Aang would want to sacrifice himself to save his people, and it might even be considered selfish of him to do so and leave the world without its Avatar. But Korra thought of the other advice Lord Zuko had given.
“As the Avatar, he was concerned with people of all nations.”
The Air Nation may have just been reborn, but they were still a nation. The fourth nation. And the fourth element. The world had been out of balance for far too long.
Lord Zuko was watching her with worried eyes. Korra wondered if it was her he was seeing.
She took a breath and gave him her answer. “Whatever it takes.”
Bumi watched the circling airship warily, mind racing with potential explanations and strategy and lots and lots of cursing. They should have been prepared for something like this. The Earth Queen had considered Earth Kingdom airbenders her property, and the bison rustlers had made it clear that some people didn’t think the budding Air Nation was worth respecting. They should have kept a lookout for trouble, should have set up a perimeter around their small territory, stationed scouts to report suspicious activity. He’d brought it up to Tenzin once or twice after they’d escaped Ba Sing Se, but when it’d become clear the Earth Queen wasn’t actively chasing them they’d decided not to bother. They just didn’t have the manpower or the training for such endeavors.
His father’s people had consisted of nothing but a handful of airbenders and adopted acolytes and scattered herds of wild bison for far too long.
The ship itself was green and bore the Earth Kingdom insignia, and for a brief moment Bumi thought it might be the Earth Queen, or at least her Dai Li agents, here to retrieve her runaway subjects. Judging by the looks on his fellow airbenders’ faces, they were thinking the same thing - Tengfei looked ready to bolt, Xueyou stood stock still, Aroon’s hands were clenched in nervous fists, and young Qiu gaped up with wide eyes. Bumi watched the sky with a sharp frown, already thinking up ways to fight off the Dai Li if it came to that.
But no - Queen Hou-Ting was dead. They’d heard it over the radio just a few days ago. It couldn’t be her.
A pair of figures came gliding around the side of the temple as the ship passed overhead. Bumi turned around as his brother and nephew touched down with a whoosh of air; he needed a sitrep badly. “What’s going on, Tenzin?”
“It’s Zaheer,” Tenzin said. “Round everyone up. We need to get to the bison and evacuate immediately.”
“Are you mad?” Shanti yelped as they ran, gesturing out at the canyon, at the fires already consuming the plants that grew up the steep stone walls. “They have the high ground and there’s no way out!”
It was true. The Western Air Temple, with all its beautiful and unique architecture carved straight into the canyon’s cliffside, was a deathtrap. They were surrounded by stone on all sides save one - and that single escape route was guarded by a force of dragonmounts hovering over the mouth of the canyon.
“Do you have any better ideas?” Hariti demanded, shepherding their charges along. One of the children stumbled with a cry, and she scooped the girl up with a bit of airbending and kept running.
“No,” Shanti admitted, glancing behind her to check on the others. The children they’d managed to gather were from all age groups, and Hariti was gratified to see the older ones helping their youngers along. Two of them had smaller girls riding piggy-back, another carried two more in her arms, and a ten-year-old clutched the hands of a pair of children half her age, pulling them along as fast as their little legs could run. They were confused, they were terrified, but they were working together. That, at least, hadn’t changed.
“Then we have to try it,” Hariti said. Die in the temple or die in the sky. It didn’t give them much in the way of choices, but at least one of those options had a slim chance of getting out alive. “Come on, we need to get to the stables before they cut us off - ”
She broke off as they entered the courtyard that housed the giant pai sho table, only to find a troop of Firebenders waiting for them. Yellow-clad bodies were strewn across the playing board, smoking, and the little girl in Hariti’s arms whimpered at the sight.
The Firebender captain was standing up on the giant knotweed piece, gazing down over the playing field, and he regarded Hariti and her ragtag band with a lazy smirk. “Kill them.”
Hariti dropped the girl to the ground, ignoring her frightened cry as she whipped up a strong wind to shield against the sudden fire blast. Shanti was beside her a moment later, and then the older children as well, all of them working together to hold the flames at bay. It should have worked - a good, strong, well-wielded wind was usually a perfect defense against a fire blast. Hariti would know, she had plenty of friends in the Fire Nation with whom she’d had many a friendly spar. But this fire was stronger than any Hariti had ever encountered, and the wind couldn’t dissipate it - only swirled it around even more. One of the teenagers shrieked as the flames grazed her side.
Desperate, Hariti gathered up another gust of wind, but instead of aiming it at the inferno, she aimed it at the Firebenders themselves.
The soldiers were thrown back with surprised cries, and a vicious part of Hariti was pleased to see their captain knocked off his pedestal and hit the ground hard. “Come on!” she shouted, scooping the little girl up again and vaulting over the troops. There wasn’t a moment to lose - the soldiers were groaning, some already stirring, their armor having protected them from the worst of the fall. Shanti was right behind her, carrying a five-year-old, and one of the teens had two children in her arms and one on her back, and another helped the burned girl limp as fast as she could, and there wasn’t time to do a headcount - Hariti hadn’t even done an initial headcount, she didn’t know how many she’d started out with, but she didn’t see the ten-year-old, and - and -
There wasn’t time. They had to get out.
They made it to the stables, and to Hariti’s intense relief there were still bison there. The animals were lowing fearfully, some hiding in the back stalls, others watching the burning canyon with wide eyes. “Hurry,” she said, dashing to the nearest animal, “get on!”
Shanti threw the five-year-old onto a second bison’s back and jumped onto its head, picking up the reins.
“There isn’t a saddle!” one of the smaller children protested as a teenager hoisted her up.
“No time,” Hariti said, helping the injured girl up. She took the time to finally do a headcount - three young teens, two children who couldn’t be more than eight, six more who were anywhere from ages three to six. The ten-year-old and one of her young charges were definitely missing.
I need to save the rest of them , Hariti thought, jumping to her bison’s head and grabbing the reins. “Yip yip!” she shouted, Shanti’s voice echoing a moment later, and the bison started moving. Spirits bless this animal - this terrified, confused animal that was obviously aware of the danger but trusted in her orders and took off anyway.
Outside was an inferno. The sky was blazing red, and fires burned up and down the canyon walls. Hariti got a quick glimpse of the temple overrun with flames, but forced herself to turn her attention away from it - she had to focus on what was ahead of her and get out of this alive. Dragons swooped overhead. So did Firebenders. Apparently, with the power of the comet, Airbenders weren’t the only people who could fly.
A small flock of gliders suddenly flew right past their bison, aiming directly up in an attempt to break through the blockade. A moment later they fell straight back down in flames.
“Stay low!” Shanti shouted at Hariti. “Maybe if we follow the canyon, we can get out eventually!”
“Good plan!” Hariti shouted back, already steering her bison so that it followed the canyon wall. It was difficult going. The poor animal was clearly spooked and kept trying to fly up - it wanted to get away from the blaze. “No, no,” Hariti ordered, pulling on the reins. “Stay low. Just stay low and keep going, we’ll go up once we’re out of here, just keep going - ”
It was a good strategy, but it wasn’t good enough. Ahead of her, Shanti’s bison was suddenly engulfed in a massive fire blast, and it fell from the sky with an agonized cry. Amidst the children’s screams and her own bison’s sudden panic, Hariti looked up at the dragon looming overhead.
Airbenders had no military, but even they understood the importance of having the high ground.
We never stood a chance, Bumi thought, crouched behind his brother while Zaheer yammered on. He’d already done a headcount - everyone was here, except Otaku - where was Otaku? - but he didn’t have time to worry about their missing member. Maybe he was making trouble somewhere. Bumi doubted it, but he could hope. He kept one wary eye on the airship flying above, timing how often it passed. It was a worryingly short loop.
But Tenzin was poised and steady in front of him, and Bumi watched his little brother’s back, ready for whatever came next. Plan A: Evacuation, had been a no-go. Hopefully Plan B: Escape, would go better.
“I want Korra,” Zaheer said, “and I’m tired of chasing her.”
“You’re using us as leverage,” Tenzin surmised.
Pema was tense beside him, more with readiness than fear, and Tenzin took solace in the fact that at least she understood. Things weren’t easy for their family - not as friends of the Avatar, nor as members of a reborn nation the world often sought to manipulate or destroy. But for all the danger it put them in - had put them in repeatedly - they were in this together. And Korra was family .
Tenzin stood. “I will never let you get to Korra.”
Zaheer’s eyes narrowed, and when he spoke, his voice was flat with fact. “Unfortunately, you don’t have a choice.”
“Yes I do,” Gyatso said, and Fire Lord Sozin and his honor guard were thrown back by an air blast.
Gyatso worked quickly, gathering the wind around him and swirling around in a miniature tornado, tossing the soldiers about like leaves in the wind. He managed to send several of them over the cliffside before the rest shot out concentrated streams of fire, and at that point Gyatso had to drop the wind before it engulfed him in flames. A particularly large fire blast shot at his head, and he just barely managed to dodge it. Turning, he saw Sozin back on his feet, glaring at him.
“Where is he, Gyatso?” the Fire Lord demanded. “Where is the Avatar?”
“I don’t know,” Gyatso said, smug.
Sozin scowled. “We know he’s here at the Southern Air Temple, and we know you’re his teacher! Where is he?”
“How do you know that?” Gyatso asked. Aang was only twelve, and while the Council had informed him of his identity four years early, they certainly hadn’t informed the rest of the world.
“The second fact is simple common sense,” Sozin said. “You were Roku’s oldest friend amongst the Air Nomads; of course you’d be given responsibility for his reincarnation.” He said Roku’s name with a growl, and Gyatso felt anger bubble in his heart. “As for how I know the first the first, well. I have my ways.”
Like he had his ways of knowing the ins and outs of the Southern Air Temple, and exactly how to attack it. The Air Nomads had a traitor amongst themselves. It was the only way.
Gyatso thought he might even know who it was. Afiko hadn’t been at all fond of Aang.
Well. No use dwelling on the past or what could have been done differently. He couldn’t focus on what had been , he had to focus on what was .
And currently, what was was an angry, murderous Fire Lord, whose attention Gyatso had complete control of. He could make use of that. If Sozin was distracted, more focused on Gyatso than on his troops, maybe some Air Nomads could escape.
“So,” Sozin said, hands poised to blast fire. His guards stood ready, hemming Gyatso in a ring. “Where is he?”
And even more importantly, if Sozin’s attention remained fixed on Gyatso, who definitely wouldn’t give any information about Aang, then perhaps he wouldn’t think to ask anyone who might have looser lips.
Gyatso allowed himself a few seconds to breathe. He glanced up at the fiery red sky, and he knew he wasn’t going to see it turn blue again. He thought of Pathik, waiting in a Spirit World meadow for a reunion Gyatso couldn’t give him. He thought of Ta Min’s sad eyes at Roku’s funeral, when they hadn’t even had a body to burn. He thought of Roku, weighed down by years of responsibility and the pain of losing his oldest, greatest friend, but still able to greet Gyatso with a genuine, brilliant smile.
He thought of that same smile on Aang.
He brought his gaze back down to earth, met Sozin’s furious golden eyes, and smiled cheekily. “I’m sorry,” he said politely. “You just missed him.”
Sozin snarled. “Where is he?”
Sozin would never find the Avatar, not if Gyatso had anything to say about it. He wouldn’t even let him know what direction he thought Aang maybe possibly might have headed in.
“You’ve already killed one Avatar, Fire Lord Sozin,” Gyatso said, already readying himself for the volley of fire that was sure to come. “I think that’s quite enough for one lifetime.”
Zaheer and his companions hit the far wall hard, but Tenzin knew he couldn’t count on them staying down. There wasn’t much time, but hopefully there was enough . He barked out orders. “Jinora! Get everyone out of here! Bumi! Kya! Help me hold them off!”
There was a snapping noise like lit gunpowder, and Tenzin just barely had time to throw up an air shield before the explosion hit.
“And stay out of her line of sight!” Pasang ordered, pointing at the combustion bender circling on the dragon overhead. “Go! Go!”
His brothers and their few visiting sisters dashed out of the courtyard, toward what Pasang could only hope was safety and not straight into a firestorm. Only he and two other elders were left to hold off the attackers.
“Well, Sister Choden,” Monk Tashi huffed from his place at Pasang’s left, “I’m sorry you’re having such a terrible visit.”
On Pasang’s right, Choden managed a laugh, her eyes fixed on one of the Firebenders before them. “Worst festival I’ve ever attended, I must say.”
They were faced off against two overpowered Fire Nation soldiers who held flames at the ready...and a bearded, unarmored, red-clad man who stood between them, a blue arrow tattooed on his bald head. Afiko had disappeared a month ago, shortly after the council had named young Aang as the Avatar. Pasang had thought nothing of it at the time - they were nomads, and traveling was a way of life. If anything he’d been glad to not have to deal with Afiko’s sour nature, and he hadn’t spared much thought as to where the man might have gone.
Clearly, he should have.
He wanted to ask why - why was this happening, why was Sozin doing this, why was Afiko doing this? He’d known the Fire Nation had been growing more hostile towards the Air Nomads, but he’d never dreamed they’d be this hostile. Why was this happening?
“Afiko,” he said.
“Pasang,” Afiko said evenly. “Would you happen to know where dear young Aang is?”
“No one has any idea,” Tashi snapped.
Afiko tsked . “The Council of Elders managed to lose the Avatar? You’ve proven yourselves so incompetent I almost wish you were lying. Clearly I’ve made the right decision.”
What decision? Pasang wanted to ask, but he couldn’t get the words out before Afiko’s spoke again.
“These three are of no use to us. Kill them.”
Twin plumes of fire barreled toward them, and it took the effort of Pasang and Tashi and Choden working together to blow the flames away. “ Spirits !” Choden cursed.
The hem of Tashi’s robe was on fire. “No way we’re getting out of this,” he grunted, swirling the wind around them in a spherical shield.
“I know,” Pasang said, his eyes fixed on Afiko, who was nearly obscured from his sight by the blaze.
“We can at least keep them from following the others,” Choden said, her arms swinging in circles around her head. “We can hold them off for as long as we can.”
Until we’re dead , she meant.
“I’m sorry you’re here with us, Sister,” Tashi said. “I’d much rather have you safe at the Eastern Temple.”
Choden grunted, and her gray eyes flickered up to the blazing red sky. “Something tells me it’s just as on fire.”
Pasang refused to think about that. Bad enough that the Southern Temple was under attack. He didn’t want to consider that the rest of their people might be too.
He had to focus on what was happening here and now.
“When the flames drop,” he said, “attack. No hesitation.”
Choden grimaced but nodded. Tashi looked grim.
The flames stopped suddenly, and the Firebenders looked surprised to see them still breathing. Afiko looked annoyed. The three master Airbenders stood tall, singed and steady, and Pasang allowed himself a split-second to think that if it had to end like this, at least he was flanked by two of his best friends in the entire world.
Bumi was on his left, arms at the ready and eyes filled with determination, and Kya was to his right, water swirling dangerously around her. Tenzin took a deep breath and watched the Red Lotus members regroup, watched Zaheer swing his staff around, and thanked the spirits that his older brother and sister were here, that he wasn’t going to have to do this alone.
Zaheer launched forward, and Tenzin moved to meet him, and the courtyard exploded into a flurry of winds and ice and molten rock.
The explosions came fast from above, and when Kai leapt back into the safety of the corridor his clothes were smoking slightly. He pressed himself against the wall, breathing rapidly.
“It’s too dangerous!” Pema said, clutching Rohan. “We’ll never make it to the stables with her up there.”
Kai glared up at the circling airship for a moment before leaning against the wall, his gaze turned downward. There had to be a way out of this. He’d made a lot of escapes in his life - from the sheriff, from the Dai Li, from the bison poachers. There was always a way out.
The airship made a second pass, and then a third, each time shooting blasts down at their hiding place. There were more craters than solid ground out there now - if they waited much longer, the combustion bender would probably blast apart the entire mountainside, and then where would they be? Daw was the only one with a glider - and even if he wasn’t, Kai was still the only one of the new Airbenders who could fly reliably.
That was it.
“I can’t wait any longer!” he said, snatching the staff from a startled Daw’s hand.
Jinora gaped at him. “Wait, what are you doing?”
“Whatever I can,” Iio answered, snapping the wings open. “Get to the bison! Get out of here!” She flew.
Immediately the air to her left superheated, and she just barely managed to dodge the explosion. There wasn’t much room to maneuver. The sky here was thick with dragons and their riders, strategically placed to keep the Airbenders separated from their bison - and how did they know this was exactly where the stables were, anyway?
Iio didn’t have the time to think about that disturbing fact - she dodged a fireblast, narrowly avoided a dragon’s whipping tail, and suddenly veered to the left when she heard the snapping sound of an imminent explosion. The space she would’ve been flying through had she not changed course burst into a fireball.
The combustion bender, she decided, was the real threat here. One she’d have to eliminate if Anandi was and the others were going to escape.
The thought of eliminating was almost enough to make her stomach curdle. Iio was a master Airbender, a devout nun, and had a seat on the Eastern Temple’s Council of Elders. She’d never killed in her life.
But today she’d seen the charred corpses of her friends and students scattered across the temple grounds, and she knew she couldn’t afford a philosophical debate with herself right now. If she didn’t want Anandi and the rest to end up just as dead, she needed to act.
Just think of it like sports , she told herself, swooping under a dragon and looping around so she could get a good angle on the combustion bender. Take out your opponent, score one for the team. As a championship airball player, it was an analogy she could live with.
But this was nothing like airball. In airball, there was no fire, and your opponents weren’t trying to kill you with it.
A plume of flames shot in front of her, and she ducked under it and kept flying, trying to keep her trajectory steady. If she could just finish this curve, she’d be able to aim at the combustion bender.
There was a panicked lowing from below, and Iio chanced a glance back down at the burning stables. The bison were panicking. Some of them were burning . Most of the animals were fearfully shuffling about on the ground, caught between their burning home and the threat in the sky. A few hovered mid-air, including Binishma, Iio’s favorite cow, who eyed the looming dragons warily.
That wariness turned to outright anger when a terrified calf, its tail in flames, came running out of the burning stable and flew, squealing, into what it presumed was the safety of the sky. It didn’t see the dragonmount waiting. A moment later it fell in a ball of flames, screeching in agony. Iio wanted to cry.
Iio knew what the old cow was going to do before it even happened. She’d named Binishma for her brave heart when the bison had still been an unweaned calf unafraid of stomping on viper-rats to protect her siblings. In her middle age she’d lost half her horn while guarding her young from an attacking tigerdillo. The tigerdillo had lost its life. Now, Binishma lowered her head and beat her tail, aiming herself directly at the nearest threat.
Ten tons of angry mother sky bison slammed into the dragon, and the animal shrieked and writhed, spouting fire indiscriminately. Its rider screamed as he fell off his mount, his saddle and harness torn apart.
Iio finished her curve and had a clear trajectory towards the combustion bender, who was completely focused on the chaos Binishma was causing. Iio thought of airball again, of teammates running interference and causing distractions so the one with the ball could score. She could use this.
Thank you, Binishma, she thought, and she flew straight at her target. There was a snapping sound, like a firecracker, and Binishma and the dragon died in a sudden explosion. A moment later, the combustion bender was thrown from her mount by a sudden gale that sent her dragon flailing. Her safety harness remained unbroken, however, and she dangled from the saddle, scrambling at her dragon’s scales as the animal struggled to balance itself. Iio took care to deliver the woman a scathing windslap as she flew by. She had the briefest glimpse of furious yellow eyes.
Her victory was short-lived. When Iio looked back at the temple, she saw that Anandi and the others had made it to the stable - along with a troop of Firebenders, who had them surrounded. The bison were running around in terror, even more panicked after Binishma’s death, utterly useless as a means of escape.
No , Iio thought, desperately trying to think of another way around the problem, no, it can’t end like this, it can’t -
The firecracker snapping sound came again, far, far too close to where she flew. Instinctively, she pulled at the air, trying to form a wind sphere to shield herself.
It wasn’t enough to save her.
Down below, surrounded by Firebenders, Anandi only had eyes for the limp figure falling from the sky. Her last words before the flames engulfed her came out in a strangled shriek. “Iio!”
“No,” Jinora whimpered, biting back a sob.
Zaheer was good.
Meelo had told Tenzin as much when giving a report on the Airbenders who’d started out at Air Temple Island. The others had been unused to katas and unsure of their newfound abilities - but the scarred man who’d given his name as Yorru had picked up the exercises quickly and passed through the spinning gates like a leaf on the wind. Tenzin wasn’t surprised - Zaheer had been a tough fighter even as a nonbender, and in his Acolyte days he’d always been quick to understand ancient Air Nomad philosophy. Of course he’d end up being a practical prodigy the moment he got gifted airbending.
He was a fine strategist, too, immediately heading for higher ground, leaping up the balconies towards the roof where there’d be more room to maneuver, more room to call the wind. Tenzin followed, knowing full well he was being baited - Kya and Bumi were still below, it’d be better to stay with them and fight as a team, but he had to keep Zaheer occupied and away from his family and students. He’d have to trust his brother and sister to handle themselves.
He knocked Zaheer down the second he reached the roof, pleased to see that he landed a hit - Zaheer might have been the best new Airbender Tenzin had seen so far, but he was still new, and he’d been used to fighting as a nonbender for most of his life. He’d used his arms as much as his element to hoist himself up to the rooftop, and now he didn’t use air when he scrambled away from Tenzin, narrowly dodging another wind blast with some quick footwork and ducking under another as he made his way to the next wall. Then he remembered to bend again, leading Tenzin up walls and over roofs, clinging to window frames with all four limbs and holding his fists at the ready when he could.
He was good. Not classically trained as Tenzin had been, but still good. Definitely a challenge. Tenzin hadn’t fought an opponent like this since his father had died.
He couldn’t say he was enjoying it much. Despite that, however, he knew he could win. Given enough time to tire Zaheer out, given Kya and Bumi keeping their other opponents occupied, given his mastery over his element, Tenzin was certain that he could win this. Zaheer was good, but Tenzin was better - a fact made obvious when Tenzin leaned back far enough on a single leg that he was parallel to the ground and delivered a powerful blast of air that knocked Zaheer to the ground and tossed him farther along the wall they fought on. Tenzin ran at him, hoping he had enough time, he could finish this if he just had enough time - but just as he took a spinning leap above Zaheer, there came the telltale sound of crackling air. A fireball exploded off the mountainside, the rush of flame and hot air pushing Tenzin’s spin off-balance and sending him tumbling down into the courtyard below.
Pasang got a cushioning airball underneath himself before he broke his neck, but that was all he managed. He rolled several feet before he came to a stop, right next to a charred pile of - no, no, he didn’t want to look at that. Focus. Pasang turned his attention away from the bodies and the burning cliffside garden and looked back to where Afiko was sailing through the air in a graceful arc towards him. Pasang raised his arms, preparing to wipe Afiko’s landing aside - only to suddenly, instinctively whirl his arms about when he felt the heat coming towards his right side. He caught the flames and swirled them around himself, mostly harmlessly, only for another massive fire blast to come at him from the other direction. It missed by inches, but the wave of hot air was enough to knock him to the ground.
Up, he thought desperately, get up. He managed to get to his feet while dodging more fireballs, and then a wall of wind hit him from behind, knocking him back to the ground far, far too close to the cliff’s edge. Pasang didn’t let himself feel it - he forced himself back up with a challenging glare at the Firebenders and the traitor surrounding him, shooting off air blasts faster than he ever had in his life. Somewhere in the distance, he heard a pair of screams, but he didn’t have time to hope it wasn’t Tashi and Choden.
There was another, terrible cracking noise in the air, and he was knocked to the ground again by the ensuing combustion blast.
He allowed himself a second to regain his breath. Breathe in. Out. In. Out. Amazing - such a simple action, done without any conscious thought until you weren’t sure how much longer you’d be able to do it for.
“Are you done?”
With a grunt, Pasang pressed his hands against the ground and pushed himself up to look at the traitor.
In his red robes, surrounded by Firebenders with flames at the ready, Afiko merely smiled back down at him.
Pasang breathed again. In. Out. In. Out. Victory breeds hatred. The defeated live in pain. “Happily the peaceful live,” he said, “giving up victory and defeat.”
Afiko rolled his eyes at the ancient saying. “Quaint,” he drawled, and he held up a hand, likely to hit Pasang with an air blast he wouldn’t be able to recover from. The cliff’s edge was far too close.
At that moment, a soldier entered the courtyard, heedlessly stepping over rubble and bodies and she ran towards Afiko. “Sir! The Fire Lord needs you! He’s found Gyatso, but the Avatar is missing and Princess Saki - she - ”
“What, your beloved princess can’t handle an old pacifist?” Afiko huffed.
“She’s dead! Her dragon - ”
Afiko’s eyes widened. “Kill him,” he ordered, immediately handing Pasang’s demise off to his underlings and turning away.
But he’d let Pasang breathe for too long.
With a final grunt, Pasang made a decisive swipe with his arms - and the wind rushed from behind them, pushing them forward, straight over the cliff. Afiko went with them, shouting angrily, and Pasang saw the traitor’s arm flail towards him. The wind around him picked up speed, and a moment later Pasang found himself falling as well.
Air cushion, he thought to himself, already moving tired, burning arms through the proper motions - but then he saw a flash of red robes in a controlled fall, blue tattoos, angry gray eyes, and then the wind blasted him against the mountainside and into darkness.
The water whip that threw Bumi out onto the balcony was more vicious than any Kya had ever cracked at him, even as an emotionally out-of-whack teenager. He couldn’t hold in his yelp as he hit the ground, but he got up quickly - staying down was a death sentence. He saw Kya solidify her own water into ice just in time for chunks of rock and temple walls to hit it - and oh, wasn’t that nice, it was only chunks of rock and the temple walls, not lava. How lovely. Bumi backed up a few steps, wary of the balcony’s edge at his back, and yelped again when Kya’s ice shattered, the shards nearly sending him over the cliffside. He turned around and grimaced - it was a long way down, airbending or not.
Before them, the Earthbender hit the ground, sending out a ripple of stone blocks - and oh, still only stone, no lava, how very lucky. Clearly the Red Lotus wanted them alive. Ish. The stone hit Kya, knocking her back into Bumi, and they flew over the edge together.
Bumi shouted as he fell - Uncle Sokka had once given Bumi the sage advice that screaming was a good way to panic while coming up with a plan - but Kya wailed. She had no water, and there was nothing to grab hold of. Bumi was already instinctively moving, but Kya’s scream gave him strength. He shot off a focused air blast with his right hand even as he reached back with the left, hoping that he’d miraculously find - yes, there, a handhold, thank whatever spirits were watching - and a split-second later his right hand found Kya’s wrist. Bumi gripped his beloved, amazing, strong, terrified baby sister tight and didn’t let go, even when her weight came to a swinging halt beneath him.
“I’ve got you,” Bumi grunted. Kya was staring down, gasping heavily, her pulse fluttering beneath Bumi’s fingers - he couldn’t blame her, this wasn’t the playful air tosses their father would do with them, this was real. But there was hope - he’d grabbed onto a windowsill, if he could just get her up and inside they could -
The airship came sailing around the cliff, and the combustion bender had them in her sights. Bumi stared at her, wide-eyed, and then Kya spoke, sounding far calmer than she had a second before.
“Bumi! Let go!”
He looked down at her. “But we could die!”
“We’re gonna die if we hang on.”
The little boy clinging to her back with one arm and the cliff with the other stared at her, and Kitsi gritted her teeth, tilting her head so she could look at him. She didn’t know this kid - he hadn’t said much since she’d whisked him away from a blazing inferno that’d already consumed his family. He’d screamed a lot, but when it came to words she hadn’t even been able to get his name. Now he’d gone silent and wide-eyed, and Kitsi could only assume it was some form of shock. How did you help people in shock? Weren’t you supposed to keep them warm?
Not a problem here, Kitsi thought sarcastically as embers flew past her face. Up above, the orchard was burning, along with the rest of the Eastern Air Temple. The air was hot and hard to breathe in, and Kitsi could feel her muscles weakening. Her right hand was shaking where it clutched the stone of the cliff face.
“I need to let go,” she told him. “I can’t hold us up” - her entire left arm and half her side was in blistering agony - “and even if I could we can’t stay here, we need to move. I need you to let go of the rock. Okay?”
The boy didn’t let go of anything. He couldn’t be more than five. Kitsi wanted to cry.
“Listen,” she said, trying not to gasp as her left side decided to remind her that she’d narrowly avoided getting charbroiled. “Listen, I know you’re scared, okay? I’m scared too. But I’m not gonna leave you. No matter what happens, we’re in this together, okay?” She looked down at the green forest so very far below. “Look down there. It’s not burning.” Yet. “If we can get down there, we’ll have a chance. But I need you to let go and trust me.”
The boy was chewing on his lip.
“Please,” Kitsi said. “I need you to - ”
There was a roar overhead, and she looked up to see a dragon swooping towards them, its rider already punching fire.
“LET GO!” Kitsi shouted. “NOW!”
The boy shrieked and wrapped both his arms around her neck, and Kitsi let her fingers go slack just as the fireball erupted over them.
Oh, she thought as they fell, that’s a lot of smoke. Both from the blast and the blazing orchard above. Okay. That worked. They needed cover.
“Hold on!” she shouted to the boy, already moving the air beneath her feet. She felt him tighten his hold around her neck, bury his face between her shoulderblades. At least he wasn’t touching her burned side much.
There was a tree growing out of the rock below them - she aimed for it, using air to cushion her fall as they broke through the branches. Further down was an outcropping of rock, and she aimed for that next, sloppily sliding under the overhang and continuing downward, keeping her body vertical in a plummeting freefall that was meant for speed. Briefly, she chanced a glance back above, and saw the dragon flying back up toward the temple.
We might actually survive this, Kitsi realized, turning her attention back to the ground below and the cliff whizzing past them. There was a trail of trees growing out of the mountainside here, and Kitsi intended to use every one of them to get herself and the nameless child whimpering into her shoulder to the bottom.
Tenzin hit the wall hard and fell to the ground harder. He got up shakily, one hand gripping the wall for support, the other hanging uselessly at his side. Pain twinged in his right shoulder, and he grasped it with his left hand, groaning.
Before him, the Red Lotus stood at the ready, the Waterbender’s arms floating menacingly, the Earthbender straight and still as stone. Where were Bumi and Kya? What had happened to his brother and sister?
Zaheer stood in the middle, flanked by the other two, and he gave Tenzin an unimpressed look, like Tenzin’s continued resistance was more of a annoyance than an actual problem. Well, too bad - Tenzin had no intention of stopping, no intention of allowing the Red Lotus to take him easily. Every moment he continued fighting was another moment his people had to get away. Every moment he continued fighting was another moment Korra had to plan.
Never give up without a fight. Uncle Zuko would be proud.
Zaheer didn’t even have the decency to look respectful of Tenzin’s efforts. “Give up,” he said. “It’s over.”
“As long as I’m breathing,” Gyatso retorted, “it’s not over.”
Sozin snarled, breathing fire that somehow miraculously did not set his beard ablaze. Gyatso maintained his air sphere, carefully shielding himself from the flames licking around him - Sozin’s soldiers really didn’t know when to quit. He watched the Fire Lord carefully, ready to deal with whatever fire came his way. Air Nomads were peaceful people, and Gyatso had dedicated his life to his people’s philosophy, but right now, he was willing to make an exception. Sozin needed to die, as much as it made Gyatso’s stomach curdle to consider killing anyone - this wasn’t about him anymore. This was about the world. This was about the Avatar. This was about Aang.
Aang wouldn’t be safe if Sozin survived this day. The Fire Lord would hunt the Avatar down. Gyatso was willing to kill Sozin to keep that from happening.
He thought he might even be able to manage it. Sozin was dangerously angry right now, his emotions out of control from grief, his flames powered by his rage as much as they were by the comet. Killing the Avatar and wiping out the Air Temples may have been simple political strategy at first, but things had just become personal.
Not five minutes ago, Princess Saki’s dragon had made the sudden decision to chomp on its rider.
Gyatso could see her crumpled body across the field, lying in front of the burning bison stables under the watchful gaze of two guards. He could hear her dragon’s screams as Firebenders fought to subdue it, smashing through walls as it writhed blindly, its eye sockets charred pits thanks to Sozin’s rage. What had caused the creature’s inexplicable actions, no one seemed to know, but in the chaos a number of bison had been able to safely flee. Gyatso had made use of the distraction himself, putting space between himself and Sozin, luring the Firebender soldiers to a building at the base of the cliff holding up the main part of the temple.
Small space. Confined. Not an ideal place to fight with airbending, but Gyatso didn’t plan to fight much longer.
He hoped this worked.
The air swirled around him in a perfect sphere, shielding him from the fire blasts. He needed them to shoot more. Shouldn’t be hard - Sozin was down an heir and dealing with his grief by becoming enraged. Anger was a weapon only to one’s opponent, and Gyatso intended to take full advantage of it.
“You’ll never get to the Avatar,” Gyatso said, looking Sozin right in the eye. “Not while I still draw breath.”
“That can be fixed!” Sozin snarled. Fire coursed toward Gyatso, and he dropped his air sphere and turned, flames licking at his clothes as he dashed into the building behind him. He stumbled briefly - just as well, since fire shot over his head as he fell - but he pushed himself back up and glided over the floor to the farthest wall. Only then did he turn around, the wall solid at his back, and he noted with grim satisfaction that Sozin and his Firebenders had followed him inside.
Gyatso held out a hand, a whirlwind in his palm.
“Kill him!” Sozin bellowed, and Gyatso watched the wall of flames bear down on him.
No time for fear. No time for anything but action.
The whirlwind in his hand grew, gathering the blaze within itself, the wind growing stronger and stronger until it was a swirling inferno. Gyatso felt his skin blistering, but he gritted his teeth and focused on the fiery air, focused on making the whirlwind wider and wider, until it spun through the entire room.
A funny thing, fire. It needed air in order to exist just as surely as a human did. But it was greedy - a person could last maybe three minutes without breathing, but a flame would snuff out the second it had no oxygen, and it burned air faster than humans could breath. Get enough fire in one place...
Firestorm. A blazing inferno sucking all the oxygen out of its encircled space.
Gyatso saw Sozin’s horrified face as the Fire Lord realized what he’d accomplished. He wanted to laugh, but he was starting to feel dizzy. Couldn’t waste his breath. Had to finish this. Three minutes. He had to keep this up for three minutes.
The soldiers couldn’t find their way out of the building with the flames swirling around, obscuring the exit. Disoriented as they were, they couldn’t even control the inferno they’d sparked. Gyatso watched them collapse, the wind shoving their bodies around until they piled up in a corner. Two minutes.
Sozin raised a fist and attempted a fire punch, but the few sparks he managed only swirled away into the rest of the flames - firebending came from the breath, and there was nothing left to breathe in here. Sozin crumpled to his knees, hand grasping at his throat, and Gyatso thought, Good. He was going to die here, but he was taking Sozin with him. Aang would be safe.
One minute. He only needed to keep this up for another sixty seconds, and then he could rest. Forever. Gyatso had meditated for thirty-six hours straight - sixty seconds was nothing. It was almost over, he just had to keep this going until his heart stopped beating. Darkness was encroaching on the edges of his vision, and his feet wobbled under him as the dizziness grew stronger, but it was almost over.
At two minutes and fifty-nine seconds, through the pinprick of vision he had left, Gyatso thought he saw Afiko burst through the firestorm and kneel at Sozin’s side. But he didn’t have time to process that. By the time his body fell back against the wall, he was already far away.
Something wet licked the side of his face, and Kai winced. He came to slowly, incrementally aware of a number of weird sensations - his head felt funny, and his leg was wedged in something, and he couldn’t feel anything supporting his body, and he was -
Holy spirits he was hanging upside-down from a tree over the edge of a cliff.
“Whoa!” he yelped, and then he realized he wasn’t alone. He turned to his left and saw a baby bison hovering beside him, and he grinned. If he was getting the fur pattern right, this was the same one that’d been stuck in a poacher’s cage with him the other week - and had since decided Kai was his favorite human.
“A sky bison is a companion for life,” Jinora had told him, very seriously. Kai had seen Tenzin talking with Oogi, had seen the tame bison herd enjoy the Air Acolytes’ attention as much as any other pets.
This was more than a pet. This was friendship, and intelligence, and loyalty.
People said that the original benders were more than mere animals. Kai thought he was starting to understand what they meant by that.
He freed his leg from the tree above as the calf maneuvered under him, and he fell neatly onto his back. “Thanks buddy,” he said, rubbing the furry head. Straightening up, he hoped that the preliminary training exercises Ikki and Meelo had been guiding the calves through had started to sink in. “Yip-yip!”
The calf - Kai really needed to come up with a name for the little guy - immediately obliged, taking off toward the valley below. Kai’s mind raced as the wind rushed past his face, trying to come up with a plan. It was sunset and he’d been missing for a while, but no one had come to find him, which meant the others were probably still in trouble. Kai had to help them get out of it. And wasn’t that amazing, that he was even thinking that - a few months ago he’d have only thought to save his own skin. The old Kai would’ve abandoned the others without a second thought, but the old Kai had never had anything worth fighting for. He’d changed since Ba Sing Se, since the Dai Li, since meeting the Air Acolytes, since the bison. Kai had grown up in an orphanage, had never had anyone he’d considered close, but now…
Otaku was a bit of a know-it-all, but he honestly did enjoy sharing his vast wealth of knowledge. Daw was an anxious person, but he was finding confidence thanks to his newly-bald head, and if nothing else it was hilarious watching him try to convince everyone else to get shaved. Yung was turning into something of an older brother, repaying Kai’s kindness under the Dai Li with life advice, late-night conversations, and agreements to cover for him when he went a-wandering. Bumi was ridiculous but also an admirable leader, Kya had a knack for explaining spiritual stuff that usually flew over Kai’s head, Pema was sweet and calm and a good listener, Tenzin was actually a really good teacher when he wasn’t overdoing it. Meelo was as terrifying as he was endearing, Ikki was a constant source of cheer and entertainment, and Jinora…
Jinora was the first real friend Kai had ever had. There really weren’t words for what she meant to him.
They were his people, and he wasn’t going to abandon them. He’d regroup in the safety of the valley, get some water from the stream, find some berries to eat, and come up with a plan. Keep an eye on the temple from afar to see if anything changed. Wait and see if anyone came to help. Come up with a plan and rescue everyone as soon as he could.
Those people were his family, and he would come for them.
Around him and his bison, the mountains loomed dark against the orange and yellow sky lit by the setting sun.
The red cometfire was almost completely overtaken by dusk when Malu finally peeked out from the safety of the cave. Ash fell from the sky like snow, and looking up to the cliffs across and above from her hiding place she saw that the blazing inferno that had consumed the Eastern Air Temple had died down. The buildings still glowed red with embers, but there were few visible flames. The sky around the temple was empty, and she knew that the tiny figures she saw walking around up there were not her people.
Mom hadn’t come to get her yet.
Malu wasn’t ready to think that she wouldn’t. She’d seen people escape the temple while the flames raged - at least, she was pretty sure they’d escaped. Little dots of orange and yellow diving over the mountainside in generally-controlled falls until they’d disappeared into the forest below. Sure, some of them had been on fire, and...and yeah, the Fire Nation had eventually started burning the forest too, but...surely some had escaped.
Mom had told Malu to hide in the cave until she came back for her, so Malu was going to do exactly that.
She didn’t want to think about what she’d do if Mom never came back. The Eastern Air Temple was her home, always there to welcome her and Mom back after a long journey. Malu had grown up running through the gardens and flying around the towers and eating fruit from the orchards. She was a nomad and she’d traveled all over the world, but she couldn’t imagine living anywhere else. She couldn’t imagine leaving.
Just as well. She didn’t even have a bison. Just her glider, which she clutched in her hands as she watched the embers glow on the temple up above.
In a few days, the Fire Nation would clear out completely, leaving Malu with nothing but an empty, charred husk of a temple and a lifelong grief. In a few weeks, it would become apparent that Mom was never coming back. In a few months, Malu would carve out her own territory in the forest near the temple, careful to keep away from the local Fire Army garrison. In a few years, she’d take the fight back to the Fire Nation soldiers and make their lives hell. In a few decades, she’d be known as the Ghost-Witch of the Mountain, a legend of the local villagers, a guardian spirit of the forest.
But tonight she was just a lonely, frightened child, hoping her family would come for her.
Raava is a spirit and she is a human; she is all of her avatars at once and none of them at all. Together they are as timeless as they are ephemeral, ageless and mortal, ancient and young. She knows each of her avatars as surely as she knows herself - Korra might have lost the connection, but Raava still holds the knowledge. She is Wan, trying to make up for past mistakes and creating future ones to be passed forward; she is Roku, repaying treachery with mercy and regretting it; she is Aang, carrying on in the face of unfathomable loss and grief; she is Korra, determinedly trying to bring the world back into balance.
Raava has lived ten thousand years as a human, and she remembers every single one of them. Birth to death to rebirth, she remembers her avatars’ lives with perfect clarity, even the moments they themselves forget.
She remembers Aang’s every breath in the ice. A hundred years should be nothing to a spirit of her magnitude, but for humans a century holds multiple lifetimes and a world of change.
She returns from the ice to find the world engulfed in war and the Air Nomads extinct. She sneaks into an Equalist rally to find Aang’s family bound to stakes and airbending on the verge of being wiped out. She stares at a silent radio receiver emitting nothing but static and thinks not again not again not again.
She is Wan and she is staring up at a sky full of smoke and ash, dying with a heart full of regret and a promise that he’d have so many more chances to get it right.
She is Roku and she is Aang and she has found Monk Gyatso’s skeleton surrounded by Fire Nation soldiers and it finally sinks in that the Airbenders are gone, they are gone, they are gone, and the grief and guilt are so intense that she lights up every single one of her temples across the world.
She is Korra and she is listening to Lin and Su argue over how to stage a rescue mission, and she knows that this time, there can be no room for error.
“My people needed me, and I wasn’t there to help,” Aang says to Katara, knees hugged to his chest as he stares into the fire. Outside the cave, the storm rages on. “The world needed me and I wasn’t there to help.”
“You must be decisive,” Roku’s spirit tells Aang before fading away.
“The only plan that will work,” Korra says, “is for me to give myself up.” There are protests, but she insists. “The world has been out of balance for far too long. It needs the Air Nation back again. I can’t let Zaheer destroy it and everyone we love.”
She is as frightened as she is determined, and Raava loves her for it. This might cost Korra her life. It might cost Raava her Avatar. But the world is unbalanced, and it has been their job to fix it for ten thousand years. Raava has been with this soul for all of its lifetimes...
“I’m sorry, Raava… There wasn’t enough time.”
“I wasn't there when the Fire Nation attacked my people. I'm gonna make a difference this time.”
“You release the Airbenders, and then I’ll turn myself over.”
...and she will never give up.