Here we go, readers! This is one of the big ones: the day of Sozin’s Comet. Now, Ch19 ended up being very, very long—22 pages in Word—so I’ve split it into two chapters for easier reading. This means that Chapter 20 is already done, since it was written at the same time as Ch19. So expect another update very, very soon. Like… tomorrow? :D Read on and let’s see how our heroes fare on this fateful day.|
By the way, there’s an anime reference in this chapter. I won’t say which one, but it’ll be obvious if you recognize it. Let’s see who can spot it!
CAUSE SOME TROUBLE
CHAPTER 19-- SOZIN'S COMET
"Great Spirits and ancestors, this place is amazing!" Kuei exclaimed. Wulong Forest lay ahead, and they had an excellent view from the hill they stood on. The forest itself stretched out before them; it went all the way down to the nearby shoreline and off towards the horizon. To their right was a vast field of towering lava columns, extending into the distance. The soaring structures stood in jagged rows with no end in sight—like giant soldiers, Kuei thought.
"It's incredible," Zafirah said. "I've never seen anything like it!"
"I wonder how all those formed," Basam mused as they started walking along the road again. "It's like a bunch of huge spears."
"Most scholars believe that these columns were formed by water," Kuei piped up, remembering what his tutors had taught him.
"No kiddin'! How'd that work?" Zafirah asked.
"Well, it's said that a large volume of water might have flowed through here at one time, eroding away all of the weaker rock until only these pillars of lava remained. I'm sure the wind carried some of it away as well."
"You got yourself a walkin' library, here, Zafi," Basam remarked, nudging his sister.
"Yep, I'll know everything I could ever want to about rock formations," Zafirah agreed teasingly.
"Well, I'm glad I could be of use," Kuei replied in a dry tone.
Zafirah chortled and clapped her hands. "You're getting better at sarcasm, honey," she said approvingly.
"Yeah, I think we've been a bad influence on him," Basam joked. Kuei had to chuckle at that. Quite frankly, this was one bad influence that he was grateful for. Zafirah ducked behind Kuei to move between the two men, putting her arms around both of their shoulders, whistling happily as they walked along.
The road narrowed down as it entered the forest and wound through the trees. Kuei looked over towards the rock columns again, catching glimpses of them through the woods. They walked in comfortable silence for a while, with Bosco whistling the occasional tune.
"Hey, Kuei, let me see that map again," Zafirah said after a while. He knew which one she meant—the one marking out all of the Fire Nation's slave labor operations in this region of the Earth Kingdom. This was the map that could lead her and her brother to their tribe's whereabouts. He dug it out of his pack and handed it to her.
Examining it critically, she made a low hmm sound under her breath. "Looks like it's still a day's journey north of here," she muttered. Basam peered over her shoulder at it and nodded.
"Yeah, I'd say so," he agreed. Kuei could see the anticipation in his eyes and he hoped desperately, for their sakes, that this map would lead to a happy reunion. The twins grinned excitedly at each other and Basam gave his sister's shoulder an affectionate squeeze.
It was late in the day when they first noticed that something was unusual. Basam glanced up and frowned at the sky while Bosco nudged his hand and growled in confusion.
"Sun's setting awfully early, isn't it?" Basam commented, sounding somewhat uneasy. He tapped his knuckles against his sister's upper arm and gestured for her to look up, which she did. Kuei looked up as well, and then he too was frowning.
"Somethin's not right here. Sun's still where it should be, this time of day," she observed. And yet, the sky was turning a deep shade of red and a second glow, one that had nothing to do with the sun, was visible in the distance over the mountains. Something stirred in the back of Kuei's memory; something that the Avatar had told him… His eyes went wide and he did a quick mental count of the weeks that had passed.
"Oh, Spirits," he whispered, his heart sinking. "This is the day. Today is when Sozin's Comet returns."
"Whose comet?" Basam asked, puzzled.
"This is the day that the Avatar was preparing for!" Kuei said urgently. "Remember what I told you—that is, what the Avatar had told me in Ba Sing Se? On this day, one hundred years ago, Firelord Sozin used the comet's power to wipe out the Air Nomads. Avatar Aang told me that if he couldn't defeat Firelord Ozai by today, the comet's return…" Kuei trailed off, his throat going dry.
"Right, I remember now," Zafirah said grimly. "You said that this comet thing would make Firebenders more powerful—"
"A hundred times more powerful, yeah?" Basam interjected. "I remember it too, now. We'd better lie low for the rest of the day, I guess. If that's really true, and some Firebenders came through here, we wouldn't last a minute."
"Indeed," Kuei agreed. "Let's hurry up and find some shelter." They sped up to a considerably faster pace.
It was Zafirah who noticed the next problem headed their way. "Uh, fellas? Y-you might wanna look over that way," she said anxiously, pointing out towards the ocean. Kuei followed her finger, as did her brother. He saw a line of huge dark shapes in the sky, flying in formation. They were out over the water and slightly ahead of where he and his companions were. They were also worryingly close, and getting even closer very quickly.
"Those look like the flying machines, from back in the desert," Basam said, crossing his arms tightly over his chest.
"And there's much more of them," Kuei muttered. "This doesn't look good, my friends. Let's keep moving and try to get ahead of their flight path." They kept going as the airships drew ever closer. He watched them through breaks in the treetops, keeping them in the corner of his eye. They reached the shore as Kuei and his companions crossed their flight path. Just keep going, he told himself.
Then there was a roar like an explosion, a bright blaze of light, and a searing wave of heat. The sight that met Kuei's eyes as he and his friends turned to look froze his blood in horror: fire streaming down from the lead airship like the wrath of the Spirits themselves, incinerating the trees in its path. He could already smell the smoke carried towards them on the wind.
"Run!" he screamed. He grabbed Zafirah's hand and Basam's sleeve and sprinted ahead. "Run, hurry! C'mon, Bosco!"
"Head inland," Basam gasped as they ran. "Towards the rock pillars—we gotta get out of this forest!" Kuei knew he was right—that much fire would spread through these trees in a heartbeat, and if they were caught in there… They veered deeper into the woods, racing towards the rock columns while still trying to get beyond the airships' path. Branches whipped at Kuei's face and ripped at his clothes, fallen branches and twisting roots snatching at his feet. Bosco roared in terror beside him and Zafirah kept a deathly tight grip on his fingers.
The relentless heat at their backs drove them in their desperate flight, even as the billowing smoke thickened the air and tried to choke them. Then, after what felt like an eternity of running, there came the sound of several crashes and bursts from high above, and the flaming pillar's roar stopped. Kuei dared to pause for just a moment, glancing up. The lead airship was veering away! He could see smoke billowing from it even from where he stood. But the damage was already done, the smoke from the burning forest stinging his eyes and his lungs as flames crackled around him and his friends.
"Go, go!" Zafirah urged them, her voice hoarse with smoke. And they did, plunging through the trees once again. The fire was gaining on them, blown by the wind coming from the sea.
"Keep… moving," Basam croaked, forcing the words out in between coughs. Kuei and his friends pushed themselves onward. Sheer, blind terror kept Kuei's feet in motion despite the scorching, smoky air rasping in his lungs.
At last they reached the edges of the lava column field. The trees dwindled around them as the first lines of rock pillars rose up around them.
"There!" Zafirah shouted suddenly. She pointed at a column close by, one that was fairly short compared to the rest. "That ledge halfway up!" Kuei looked up and saw it, a wide rock shelf set into the colossal pillar.
"We can climb up, get away from the flames," Basam said hoarsely. They were right, Kuei realized. The lower half of the pillar was sloped, with a bunch of narrow, uneven "steps" rising up. It was still very steep, but it might be possible. He glanced down at Bosco in panic, not sure if his companion could make that climb, but there was no time to waste on wondering; they heard another roar from above, one that was much, much louder. Before he'd even turned to look, Kuei knew what he'd see. Massive pillars of fire streamed from the other airships, ripping through the forest like a burning plow.
"Go, go, go!" Zafirah shrieked. She pushed Kuei and her brother forward and dashed towards the column. Basam was the first to reach it, with Zafirah close behind him. Kuei hung back behind them, not wanting to get in their way, waiting and waiting in barely-restrained terror. Bosco sat up on his haunches next to Kuei, nuzzling his cheek. He anxiously stroked the bear's fur, taking some tiny comfort from his pet's familiar musky smell and furry warmth. Behind them, the flames grew ever closer, the snapping and crackling of flames filling Kuei's ears. His vision swam from the smoke in his eyes and his lungs burned.
Finally, to Kuei's relief, the twins safely reached the ledge. "Come on, Bosco," he muttered. Kuei hurried over to the column and started climbing. The stone scraped the tips of his fingers and dug into his knees through his pants. His breath came in choked, rasping gasps as he made his way up the pillar with what felt like agonizing slowness. With the smoke-filled air flooding his lungs, his arms and legs felt like iron weights.
Just a little further, he told himself wearily. When he was halfway there, his foot slipped.
"Kuei!" the twins shouted together, lunging forward and stretching their hands down towards him. He regained his footing and kept going, his teeth clenched too tightly in fear and concentration to reassure them. At long last he was in reach of their hands, and they hauled him up. Once he was on the ledge, he turned back down to Bosco.
"You can do it, Bosco!" he urged. The bear had stopped a few feet below the ledge, where the "steps" reached their steepest point. Bosco looked up at him and let out a low, frightened growl. "It's all right, you're almost there! Just a bit further, my friend! Use your claws!" The bear started moving again, bit by bit, as the flames leaped higher and higher in the trees.
He was up! The four of them safely together on the ledge, they retreated until they were all huddled against the side of the pillar. Bosco curled up in front of his human companions, his back to the burning forest. Kuei sat down on Zafirah's right, and her brother sat on her left. They drew close together, clasping hands and waiting in agonized silence.
And then, suddenly, a series of echoing crashes rose over the roaring flames. They looked towards the airships, through the smoke, and Kuei couldn't help but gape at what he saw: one of the ships was smashing into the others! The fire streaming from the ships ceased as the rogue one hit each vessel in succession.
"What in the world…?" Kuei whispered. With the threat of the airships gone, though, a new set of sounds reached their ears—explosive cracks and bangs, the roar of fire, the thunderous crash of falling rocks.
"Look, there!" Basam yelled. He thrust a finger out towards the lava columns and Kuei and Zafirah both lifted their heads to see. Kuei could just make out two shapes flying about—though they were tiny at this distance, much too small to make out any details. But he could certainly make out the streams of fire that burst from them. It was like watching a Firebending battle, but in midair! And then he saw boulders flying through the air as well, crashing against lava pillars as one of the tiny figures dodged them.
"'S just keeps on gettin' better and better!" Zafirah yelled incredulously, her voice rasping.
"What is going on here?" Basam exclaimed, his own voice rising in panic. "Are they dragons? Spirits?"
"One of them seems to be Earthbending as well as Firebending," Kuei said, bewilderment edging through some of the terror. "Wait…" His heartbeat leaped. "It can't be…What if it's Avatar Aang?"
The three of them drew even closer together as an enormous burst of vivid blue lightning split the sky with an earsplitting crack.
"The Avatar?" Basam echoed, gaping at Kuei.
"I thought you said Aang might be dead!" Zafirah shouted over the chaos, her eyes wide.
"He- he was in an unconscious state of some sort, but—but that has to be him!" Kuei insisted, pulse soaring with a wild, desperate hopefulness. Zafirah opened her mouth to reply, but her words were swallowed up by the crack of another lightning burst.
"Then who's the other guy?" Basam yelled over the noise. Kuei had no answer for that, and the three of them exchanged frightened glances.
The battle raged on, sometimes in the air and sometimes veering out of sight amid the stone pillars. All the while, the comet lit up the sky overhead with its brilliant red blaze. And then the fighters disappeared altogether.
"Where'd they go?" Basam murmured anxiously.
"I don't know, I can't see them anymore!" Kuei said, his gaze searching the area frantically for some sign of life. Finally, he got one: a small figure floating up into the air, just visible from where they sat. Streams of fire, impossibly huge, erupted from it as a vast whirlwind sprang up beneath it. Kuei could even see the pillars before the figure crumbling; boulders floated up towards the hovering figure as water flowed up from beyond his line of sight. The elements whirled around the hovering person, twisting into a sphere, and Kuei felt a surge of indescribable joy.
"It's him! It's Aang!" he shouted, scrambling to his feet. He laughed breathlessly and flung his arms up. "The Avatar's alive!"
Zafirah and Basam both leaped up as well. "I don't believe it," Zafirah gasped, and then she, too, laughed.
"Look at that, all four elements at once! Whoever he's fightin', they're really in for it now!" Basam whooped.
The fight continued even more chaotically than ever, until finally the Avatar's tiny figure ensnared the other with a massive water-tentacle, slamming his opponent down atop a lava pillar not too far from their own. A stream of intertwined elements shot upward into the air—he could see the glare of fire and the blue of water, studded with boulders. The stream twisted up and up before plunging back down—and then falling apart. Kuei held his breath, staring at the top of the pillar in fearful anticipation. Zafirah gripped his hand so tightly that his knuckles popped. From the corner of his eye, he saw Basam watching the pillar with an intensity Kuei had never seen from him before.
Basam bounced on his toes, muttering, "What's happening up the—" He broke off with a yell of shock as three beams of ice blue light burst upward into the sky. A moment later, three beams of fiery orange-red joined them. Kuei and his companions gazed up at them in silent awe. The lights grew ever brighter and began to spread, filling the sky with their supernatural glow.
They gathered close together again as the ground began to shake. Bosco growled in fear and covered his eyes with his paws. Kuei wanted to move, to run, to do something, but he stood transfixed. The lights flared, filling the sky with blinding brilliance and the shaking threatened to knock them off their feet. Kuei shielded his eyes with one hand; his other arm was wrapped tightly around Zafirah's waist as she held onto him. Basam held on tightly to both of them and they stood together, holding each other steady.
The three companions retreated back against the side of the rock column again, huddled against each other, as the fiery-hued light spread. It burned through the blue light until it overpowered even the red light of the comet, enveloping the sky, so that only a thin sliver of blue remained.
But then, the blue light exploded. It flared with a surge of unimaginable power, driving away the orange-red light. And then a single beam of bright blue shot up and pierced the heavens, vanishing into the roiling clouds above with a thunderous crack.
With that, it was over. The light faded away, leaving behind the dull red sky from the comet's passage and the orange glow of the forest fires. Kuei, Zafirah, and Basam all leaned against each other, utterly motionless, with Bosco cowering at their feet. None of them spoke.
Water rose from the ocean and from the rivers and ponds in the forest, dousing the forest fires. Looking out towards the shore, Kuei could see that the damaged airships had all landed amidst the trees; for a moment, with the water swelling up around them, they looked like seafaring ships. The water receded, leaving the forest soaked and wreathed in smoke.
They stayed up there on the pillar for a while longer, though Kuei couldn't have really said what it was that kept them there. Was it fear? Exhaustion? Perhaps it was both. Eventually, though, they did climb down. The charred earth felt dry and crunchy under Kuei's feet and he wondered how the shoeless twins would fare with it. Judging by the distant looks on their faces, though, they had other things on their minds. They set off through the forest again as if on some unspoken cue; it seemed none of them wanted to linger there. They walked slowly, still coughing from the smoke. For a long time, not a single word passed between them.
Zafirah was numb as they picked their way through the burnt remains of Wulong Forest. The once-green trees were now nothing more than charcoal; where there had once been the sounds of life in the forest, she now heard only silence. The lingering smoke in the air stung her eyes and tickled her lungs, an unavoidable reminder of what had just happened. She wasn't sure what to think or feel. She looked around at the blackened trees like they could give her answers.
"So we're sure that was the Avatar?" she asked finally, breaking the unbearably heavy silence over them.
"I… I can't imagine who else it might have been," Kuei murmured.
"But what was that light? We heard plenty of stories about the Avatar's powers back home, and that was never one of 'em," Basam said shakily. "And who was the other one? Was he fighting a Spirit, maybe?"
"I doubt it. The Avatar is supposed to be a bridge between the Spirits' realm and our own." Kuei looked downward as he thought about it.
"Maybe it was the Firelord," Basam said quietly. "You said the Avatar needed to face off against the Firelord, right?"
"Yes," Kuei agreed.
"You might be right about that, Basam," Zafirah said. She searched around for something else to say, to keep that silence from coming back. "I mean, who else could it have been? It had to have been someone really tough."
"Still doesn't explain the lights," Basam mumbled. They fell back into silence again, the stillness only broken by the burnt earth crunching. It scratched against the bottoms of her feet, but she ignored the discomfort.
After about an hour, a metallic gleam caught Zafirah's eye. She turned, searching for its source. She spotted it stuck into the charred trunk of a tree. "Hey, look at that," she said.
"What is it?" Kuei asked. Zafirah pointed at the tree as she walked over to investigate. It was a jian sword—she remembered the type from their weapons shop back at the oasis. But it wasn't like any other blade she'd ever seen. Its blade gleamed jet black, instead of the bright silver of normal steel.
"It's gorgeous!" Basam exclaimed. He darted over to get a closer look at it. Kuei followed him and bent forward to get a glimpse of it.
"It is lovely," he agreed. Zafirah grabbed the hilt and yanked, but it wouldn't budge. Kuei gave it a try after she gave up; being the tallest of them, he had a better angle on it. He couldn't get it, either, so Basam tried next. He wrenched it out of the wood with a crack, then stepped back from the tree and held the blade up.
"Excellent workmanship," he said approvingly, giving it a heft. He handed it to Zafirah, who whistled as she looked it over.
"Yeah, yeah, very nice," she said. "Perfectly balanced."
"May I?" Kuei asked, gazing curiously at it. Zafirah gave it to him and she couldn't help but smile as he swung it awkwardly around.
"You should keep it, Kuei," Basam suggested. "You need a good weapon."
"Oh, I couldn't! I have no idea how to use it properly!" he protested, but Zafirah could see the longing on his face as he examined the blade.
"You can always learn," Zafirah pointed out.
"That's true. All right, I'll keep it!" Kuei decided. Then a puzzled look came over his face. "But where will I keep it? There's no scabbard."
"Wrap it up in some cloth. That's what we did back in the oasis when we had bare blades like that," Basam said.
"Won't the blade cut through the cloth?" Kuei asked.
"Not if you do it right," Zafirah said. She started rummaging through the supply pack strapped to Bosco's side, pulling out a spare canvas sack. She wrapped it around the blade and then carefully tied the bundled sword to the outside of the pack. "There!" she said with a nod. Kuei gave her a grateful smile, looping his arm around her waist, and they set off again.
"That sword is a good omen, if you ask me," Basam commented. "Could be that we'll have more good fortune coming our way."
"You might be right about that," Kuei said. Zafirah had never really held with the idea of omens, but this time, she wanted to think that her brother was right. She heaved a sigh and leaned against Kuei as they walked. He wrapped his arm around her waist, drawing her in. She reached over to Basam, walking on her other side, and linked her arm through his.
High overhead, the comet passed towards the horizon, leaving a cloudy night sky in its wake as the three companions walked on.
Kuei dragged himself into his tent that night and slumped down onto his sleeping bag, utterly exhausted. "Just when you think life can't get any stranger!" he sighed.
"Yeah, tell me about it," Zafirah muttered, flopping down onto her sleeping bag next to him. "It's cold here!" she announced suddenly. She scooted closer to him.
He glanced down at the top of her head. "You think so?" he asked.
"Yep," she said.
"Hmm. I suppose this is much farther north than you're used to," Kuei commented. He slipped his arm beneath her and brought her close to share their body heat. He yawned as he reached up with his free hand to rub his left shoulder, which had gotten sore at some point during their chaotic day.
"Is your shoulder buggin' you?" Zafirah asked, craning her head up to follow his hand.
"Yes," he admitted. "I must have pulled it oddly when we were, ah, well… running for our lives, heh."
She sat up and motioned for him to do the same. "C'mere, I'll give you a shoulder rub," she offered. His heavy eyelids tempted him to decline and simply go to sleep, but a shoulder rub did sound appealing, so he pushed himself up into a sitting position.
"All right. Thanks," he said, smiling.
She winked and tugged at his tunic. "Take this off first," she murmured. He obliged, casting it aside. She smirked and whistled suggestively as he did, making his cheeks redden. The cool air on his bare skin reminded him that they really were quite far north. Zafirah moved to sit on her knees behind him and placed her hands on his shoulders; as she pressed her fingers firmly against his skin, working at the soreness in his muscles, he was glad he hadn't turned her down!
"That feels great," he sighed happily.
"Good," Zafirah purred, working her hands up to the base of his neck. The tension and sore spots in his muscles ebbed away slowly, leaving him relaxed and filled with warmth. "Feeling better now?"
"Yes, absolutely," he said. Then he craned his head around to look at her. "Do you want me to, er, do the same for you? I can't guarantee that I'll be as good at it as you are, but I could try."
"Hmm… maybe some other time," she said. She slid her hands forward over his chest to embrace him, gently kissing the back of his neck. "I've got something else in mind you could do for me, though," she added in a teasing whisper.
He smiled widely. "Anything you want, darling."