"An Avatar?" Sokka gasped. "Aang, are you sure?"
"No," Aang admitted. "I would know her if she were one, wouldn't I? I mean, I'd recognize her, or something. I am the Avatar reincarnated, right?" Aang staggered and leaned against the cold cave wall, his eyes unfocused. "She was so powerful..."
Sokka wondered what the young boy had seen, wishing he could share the visions that burdened Aang so heavily. At least that way he wouldn't feel so alone. Either of them.
"So what do we do?" Sokka asked quietly.
"Into the cave. Maybe we'll get some answers." Aang shuffled toward the light, with Sokka ready to catch the nearly-naked boy. He looked terrible, like a thin old man on the verge of disintegrating.
They walked down the short dirt corridor and squeezed through the same fissure in the rock Zuko had shimmied through earlier, staring around in awe when they emerged on the other side. Their eyes took little time to adjust to the brilliant-seeming light that filled the enormous cavern.
“Wow,” Sokka managed to understate. If this place was hauntingly beautiful during the day, it was spectacularly gorgeous at night. The little crystals winked like stars in the dark granite all around them, casting the earthen cavern in ethereal light.
Sokka could hear the scuttle and flap of wings coming from the dark ceiling overhead. Bats or birds, Sokka thought. He just hoped it wasn't worse than that.
Probably nothing he couldn’t handle, though.
The banished Fire Prince slammed a fist into the spider scavenger that had leapt for his head, knocking it to the ground. He swung about and caught another with his foot, throwing it into the bushes.
Another crawled up to his foot and nipped him sharply on the ankle. Zuko gasped as the creature withdrew a short distance. Those meaty mandibles had ripped right through his silk pants and left a long gash on his foot. He prayed the creatures weren't poisonous, but by the way the cut burned, he knew he was in big trouble.
He growled. This day had gone from bad to worse, and now he was going to die. And Katara would die too, if he couldn't keep those things off her.
He dodged another creature, grabbing two of its hind legs in mid-air. He swung the heavy body over his shoulder and dashed it on the ground, snapping the legs in an awkward bend. The creature writhed on its back, hissing and twitching in agony.
He couldn’t keep this up. There were just too many of them, and Zuko’s vision began to blur again, dizziness threatening to topple him. The adrenaline would run out soon, and when that happened, he would pass out, never to awaken again.
There was no room for pride anymore. Prince Zuko of the Fire Nation could not win this battle. He had to retreat.
He glanced at Katara, his instincts shouting at him to leave her, to run into the forest and let her meaty morsel of a body distract the hungry creatures.
Run you fool! You don’t have any obligation to her! a cold, indifferent part of his brain told him. He ignored it.
This is the honorable thing to do, he told himself. In two steps, he was at Katara’s side. He scooped up the surprisingly light girl in his arms and ran.
“Slow down Aang, you might fall down a hole in the ground if you don’t watch where you’re going.” Though Sokka was in far better condition than the young, shivering Avatar, he could not match the boy’s determination.
“I don’t understand… I just don’t get it…” Aang kept whispering to himself. He seemed bewildered, shaken since his encounter with the Waterbender’s statue. “Why would she do it? If she was an Avatar… why don’t I know her?”
“Aang, maybe you’re jumping to conclusions,” Sokka tried. “You don’t know for sure that she was an Avatar.”
“You don’t get it, Sokka. The power, the rage… I think I know it, but it was so intense…” a tormented look passed over his face.
Of course, Sokka knew the power and rage all too well. The Avatar spirit had overtaken Aang on several occasions, and the raw fury had only died down after the thirst for vengeance had been slaked… or Katara had calmed him down.
Sokka’s thoughts turned to his sister and he worried about her safety with the Fire Nation Prince. Memories of their brief childhood flooded his mind. He wondered if this was it, if she would die and fall into the In-Between realm. Tears burned in his eyes and he wiped them away discreetly.
No. He refused to let that happen.
“Look,” Aang pointed to the back of the cave as they rounded a corner. The small, glowing crystals seemed to grow denser here, as though something had thrown them against the wall and the rest had splattered across the cave on impact. They glowed brilliantly at the centre, so densely packed that there seemed to be no granite behind the shards.
The boys edged toward it, feeling an ominous presence hovering at their backs. Sokka kept glancing behind him, the hairs on his neck standing on end. Both of them were thoroughly soaked and freezing, of course, but the chill that passed through them sunk deep into their bones and left a dark, oppressive blot in both their minds.
Sokka found himself gripping his club tightly, his teeth set on edge. His instincts, though often wrong, screamed at him to run away, but he nerved himself to follow his friend.
And then they were standing in front of the mass of crystals, just within arms reach. They stared at the giant sparkling geode, which no longer held any beauty or mystery for either of them. A cold, hard knot of dread formed in their stomachs and made them tremble sickeningly.
And suddenly, the crystal was staring back at them with cold grey eyes.
Zuko could hear the nasty little spider scavengers behind him, rasping and squealing, their horrible little four-fingered gripping feet tearing up the dirt as they scuttled after him through the dense brush. He had a vague idea of where he was going: to the waterfall, to where the Avatar and the Water Tribe warrior were. At least with three of them, they might be able to fight off this horde of little monsters.
I’m running to my enemy for help, Zuko thought bitterly. I’ll never live this day down. This is so humiliating. My enemies are helping me and I’m helping them in return…
He chanced a quick glance at Katara, bouncing lightly in his hold as he struggled across the uneven ground, his swollen foot aching as he pelted through the underbrush.
Yes, he supposed saving her life was helping the Avatar in some small way. Not that the 13-year-old needed her or anything. As he ran, he wondered what it must be like to be a bender traveling with the Master of the Elements. He wondered how this fledgling Waterbender, who could become powerful with time and training, would allow herself to live in the Avatar’s shadow.
Perhaps she loves him, Zuko’s brained suggested. The prince gritted his teeth as he dodged under a low-hanging branch. Though it presented some intriguing possibilities, he didn’t like the thought of that. Not one bit.
The granite grey eyes blinked at the boys slowly, taking in their presence.
Sokka yelped and jumped back.
“Ack! D-do you see—”
“I see it Sokka,” Aang reassured, not taking his eyes off the crystal mass. The water boy gripped his arm tightly.
The young Avatar narrowed his eyes. He growled lowly, “Okay Fonquay, show yourself.”
Sokka looked at his friend in alarm. Fonquay? Wasn’t he the ghost in the In-Between or something?
Then he saw it move. The crystal mass and the grey eyes heaved themselves up, prying out of the wall, exposing black rock behind the shining crystals. But it didn’t get all the way up: the creature seemed to be half embedded in the granite, its left leg trapped up to mid-thigh, its right elbow grown into the crystals.
The thing was nothing but shards upon shards of crystal. A thin slit that was its mouth parted open as it let out sigh revealing a black granite tongue and pebbly teeth.
Sokka shivered, remembering King Bumi’s creeping crystal rings that had almost entirely encased him and Katara.
“So,” a hideous screech, like the sound of metal on metal, was this thing’s voice. “You’ve figured it out, have you? I knew you were a bright one.”
Aang glared at the crystal Lord Fonquay. “Why did you lie to me?” He demanded. “What do you want?”
“Want? Want?” Fonquay laugh bitterly. It sounded like breaking glass. “All I wanted was her. All I wanted was her love! And she threw it in my face, and took in that… that dirty flame thrower!” The creature struggled in his unbreakable prison. If Sokka wasn’t so horrified by its appearance, he’d have smashed the pitiful creature’s head in, as one would smash an especially ugly spider. It was just so horrible looking, it made the water boy's skin crawl.
Fonquay let out a sob. “She condemned me here for setting her free! I would have loved her, cherished her, been her slave… and what does she do? Doom me to this!” He glared around, his granite eyes full of hate and insanity.
Aang did not budge. He wore an impassive expression, his eyes dull and grey and unforgiving as a winter sky.
Sokka, though still unnerved by the thing’s appearance, found himself asking: “How could a Waterbender do this to you? This isn’t ice.”
The crystal thing’s eyed the boy. “She was much more powerful than that. She prolonged my life so she could leave me here to rot forever. I don’t know how she did it, but she used my bending powers against me to imprison me in the wall. I don’t even have Earthbending powers anymore!” He made a strangled sound in his throat, something between a laugh and a moan.
“You lied to me.” Aang whispered. He was staring at his clenched fists. “And you killed the Firebender.”
Fonquay sneered. “I didn’t kill him, his own kind did!”
“YOU KILLED HIM!” Aang screeched back.
Sokka shrank back. He had never heard the boy react like this before.
“WHY DID YOU DO IT? WHY COULDN’T YOU HAVE LEFT ME ALONE?” Aang’s harsh voice echoed throughout the cavern, disturbing whatever lived in its shadowy corners.
Wait a second, Sokka glanced at the mostly naked monk. Left me alone?
“I DIDN’T WANT YOU AND STILL YOU CAME! I TOLD YOU NO, AND YOU TOOK IT FOR YES!” Aang screamed. His whole body, though small, seemed suddenly enormous, his back erect, his shoulders straight. He pointed at the crystal golem, proclaiming judgment. “YOU WILL SUFFER FOR YOUR PERSISTENCE, AND I WILL GLADLY DISPENSE YOUR PUNISHMENT!”
A blast of wind radiated out of Aang, knocking Sokka over. Oh no, not again…
Sokka leapt to his feet and grabbed the boy’s shoulders. The boy’s Airbender tattoos glowed faintly against the brilliant light of the crystals as the wind whipped around him. “Aang!” He shouted, and spun him around.
The little monk’s mischievous baby-like face was gone. A hard-eyed woman glared back at him, her soft, rounded features marred by a look of pure malice. Sokka leapt back.
The woman's eyes widened, her features suddenly softening.
“Zuko?” She breathed.
The wind died instantly, and Aang collapsed on the ground.