I apologize, because this is a very rough draft. It needs some elbow grease, and I have to fix references to Kaddo's arrival. But this is the gist of it, so let me know how it works.
Convergence, Pt. 2 -So Far
The Avatar sensed his end. There had been times, so many times, that he had wished for his suffering to cease, but not like this. Not by the hand of this terrifying creature that had once been his daughter.
As the sound of thunder filled his ears, the Avatar closed his eyes. He tried to open his mouth, but the strength had drained from him. I’m sorry, Sakura. A tear escaped from beneath his lid. It slid down his cheek, hot against his flesh, like a brand of shame. So sorry.
The pressure eased from his chest. Air filled his lungs as he gasped. His eyes flittered open, wondering if, somehow, Sakura had heard his thoughts.
But no. Her gaze had shifted from him. A dark scowl clouded her gray features, eradicating any familiar trace of his child’s sweet face.
He breathed again, but choked on a sob as another tear seared his cheek.
The sound drew her gaze. Lip curling in disdain, she reached down, grabbing a fistful of his tunic. He didn’t think she had the strength to pull him upright –her arms were smooth and slender– but she hoisted him with ease.
“Come along, Father.” She did not lift him fully, but dragged his battered body across the brittle grass.
The Avatar winced and moaned as new pains exploded with each solid contact against the earth.
“It seems we have visitors.”
Ursa had been smart enough to roll away from the landing site. She was still too weak to stand, but her strength was slowly returning. A quick glance assured her of the foreign surroundings –not a big surprise, considering the strange black hole that had just sucked her into its gut– but it also told her neither Roh-Roh nor Yuki were among the growing pile of inert victims, and she was glad. Scared and confused and suddenly very lonely, but glad.
Where am I?
Sunlight beat down on the white sand. She shielded her eyes from the blinding glare and felt the sand rub against her flesh. It was impossibly soft, nothing like the beaches of Ember Island. Blinking against the brightness, Ursa ran her hands through the velvety granules as she took in the rest of the scenery. A few steps off rested a pond with vibrant blue water and in the distance the sand gave way to a cool, green wood.
Wherever she was, it was beautiful. But it didn’t help answer any of the million questions popping into her head.
She recognized the sound like thunder that preceded the strange portal responsible for her journey here. Shifting around, she watched as a black tear appeared in the clear blue sky. It cracked and widened, opening like the maw of some terrible spirit creature. A second rumbling joined the first and another blemish appeared in the sky. They ran parallel and, as Ursa watched them expand, she thought for certain they would collide.
What would happen then? Would they suck each other in, as they had her? Or would they clash like two hurricanes? She couldn’t tear her eyes away. Though terrifying, the phenomena was also fascinating.
But the two holes in the sky came no where near each other. They widened, their edges stretching out and, as logic would dictate, should have grown closer together. Yet the chasms yawned open, and the space of clear sky between them remained.
Each hole spat something out of their depths. Two figures, caught on a chaotic cross breeze, whirled through the air. Tossed and bandied about like balls for catch, they were thrown together and knocked off course. The playful wind reluctantly released them from its grasp, and they fell to earth.
Out of the corner of her eye, she noticed movement. There was a third person, stretched out beside the pool of water. Muscles trembling, he struggled to stand. He wore the armor of a Fire Nation soldier, and her heart soared with hope. Maybe she wasn’t so alone after all. But when he turned toward her, he heart dropped. His strong features were unfamiliar. Ursa shoved herself away, slipping over the smooth sand with ease. This wasn’t one of the soldiers who accompanied her on her quest, so who was he? A friend or an enemy? Trying to ignore the tripled rate of her heart beat, she demanded,
“Who are you?”
The stranger did not answer immediately. His attention seemed solely focused on forcing the wobble from his stance. Only when he was upright and steady did he turn to her. Gold eyes appraised her carefully. Ursa knew when she was being sized up. She returned his gaze calmly, waiting until he reached a final verdict. He nodded, apparently having made up his mind and Ursa was relieved when it did not involve drawing the sword at his side. Instead, he offered his hand.
She accepted, noticing the captain’s insignia on his uniform. Something about it seemed off to her, but she realized it was probably his age. He did not look much older than herself, and that was uncommon for such a high rank. If his cool demeanor was any indication, he probably gained the title with a level head and common sense. It was certainly not bought or a family privilege. Ursa –rather unfortunately– was far too familiar with those particular types of officers, thanks to her growing political duties and their advisors growing insistence on arranged marriages.
The stranger bowed in greeting, hands joined in Earth Kingdom fashion, which surprised her. “My name is Yun Zhen.”
Ursa mulled the name over. It didn’t sound inherently evil, but as her Uncle was fond of saying, ‘All that is gold does not glitter, and not every shining object is a precious treasure.’ For now, she decided to treat Yun Zhen as a potential ally. Hope for the best, expect the worst. That cheerful nugget was gleaned from Yuki, but it sounded just as wise in Ursa’s current predicament.
“You…” He pursed his lips thoughtfully as his gaze rested once more on her face. “You look kind of familiar.”
“Kind of?” Ursa couldn’t help a giggle. A wave of unexpected relief swept over her at the attempted joke. “I’m Princess Ursa.” She returned his bow with a Fire Nation flourish. “And it’s a pleasure to make your acquaintance, Yun Zhen.”
Amusement flickered in Yun’s eyes at her formal conduct, as though they were being introduced at court instead of under such strange conditions with a pile of groaning bodies a few feet off. Then his brow knit in confusion. “Wait, ‘princess’?”
Ursa chuckled again, but this time it was forced. She studied his face, wondering if he was taking the joke a bit far, but there was no recognition in his eyes. The heat of panic leached back into limbs. “My father is Firelord Zuko.”
“But…” The creases in his forehead deepened. Yun shook his head. “No, that’s impossible.”
A frown tugged at Ursa’s sweet features, her emotions caught somewhere between baffled, annoyed and panicked. “What do you mean, ‘impossible’?”
“I know Firelord Zuko, and he doesn’t have any children.” Yun’s voice hardened. His fingers twitched, as though contemplating the sword’s hilt.
Muscles tense, Ursa stepped back. Was he mad? He was a captain in the Fire Nation Navy! How could not know who she was? Her brain churned with questions, but she forced them aside to focus on the only one that mattered. Be prepared. She studied the subtle change in Yun’s posture, watching for any sign of attack.
“He’s only a few years older than you!” Yun insisted.
Annoyance sparked in Ursa’s rich brown eyes. “I know Firelord Zuko, too,” she retorted, hands planted firmly on her hips. “Because he is my father, and if you think he’s my age then you’re misinformed, and probably not even a Navy captain at all!”
His expression tightened, the muscles in his jaw clenching. Eyes narrowed, he opened his mouth—
“You’re both wrong.”
Yun and Ursa turned in surprise. They had forgotten about the others in the midst of their argument. One lay senseless, his green robes covered in sand, while the second used him as a cushion to prop his elbows on as the fight unfolded before his mischievous blue eyes.
“Who are you?” Yun demanded, shifting his stance to face them both. He gripped his sword hilt, now. Whatever was going on here, he didn’t like it, and he wasn’t afraid to let them know.
Their audience of one –he couldn’t have been more than twelve– pulled a face at Yun. “My name’s Kaddo. And she’s right,” he added, nodding at Ursa. “You are crazy.”
“I didn’t say–” Ursa protested.
“Firelord Zuko is way older than her,” the boy went on. “And he has four daughters.” He turned to Ursa, his nose scrunched up like he’d caught a strange scent. “But you’re not one of them.”
“Of course I am! Why would I lie?”
“How should I know?” Kaddo cried. “Maybe you’re a con artist, trying to trick us into believing you’re royalty.”
“What?” Kaddo scowled at the older boy. “It could happen!”
“I don’t think a con like that would gain her anything, in this situation.” Yun pointed out, gesturing at the strange setting around them.
Kaddo flushed, and his tongue went on wagging to hide his embarrassment. “Okay, so maybe she’s not a con artist. Maybe she’s just as crazy as you are! All I know is that, as the Avatar’s son, I’m kind of in the know about royal families, and Zuko doesn’t have a daughter named—”
A loud sound interrupted them. Ursa winced, at first thinking it another burst of faux thunder, but Kaddo scrambled away from his cushion in alarm. He seized the closest weapon –a canoe paddle– and poked the unconscious man from a distance. The sound erupted again, louder this time. The man grumbled and shifted in the sand.
“He’s sleeping!” Kaddo cried. “How could he sleep through that? It was like a storm at sea without a boat, and he’s asleep?”
Yun’s relaxed his grip on his sword, but not his muscles. He knew Ursa wasn’t the Fire Nation Princess, and he couldn’t fathom why she would lie about it. Nothing made sense right now, yet he didn’t feel threatened by the others. He suspected they were as confused as he.
Ursa crouched down to examine the sleeper. “At least he’s not unconscious.” His face was nearly as pale as the white sand, with dark circles under his eyes. “He looks unharmed.”
Come to think of it, they were all unharmed. It hadn’t occurred to her before, but considering she had been blown off a ziggurat, into the sky, through a black hole on a whirlwind and dumped unceremoniously on the beach, it was quite surprising.
Rocking back on her heels, Ursa peered up at the sky once more. “What were those things?” she wondered.
Eris had never felt so alive. Energy swelled within her, an intoxicating mix of strength and power. The world around her had shriveled and died and she smiled, because it had died purely at her whim.
Her father’s senseless body dragged behind her like a doll, flopping helplessly at every impact. She pulled at him mostly with energybending, but the physical contact of seizing him with her hand seemed so personal, so cruel. And she deserved to be a little cruel, after what he had done to her.
Voices reached her ears and Eris paused. Could it be that someone had come to investigate? No, they were far from any village. She had picked the spot specifically for its seclusion.
And had she not heard the opening of a vortex?
She gritted her teeth, a storm raging inside. Wan Shi Tong had lied to her, had he? The spirit had sworn that no other living creature knew the secrets of energybending. He had said they were too dark and powerful to be entrusted to anyone, but obviously someone else had learned the skill. And Eris had her heart set on being unique.
The voices came from beyond a grassy knoll, cutting them off from her view. Narrowing her eyes, Eris crouched low. She ascended the tiny hill in silence, gripping her father close. Even if he was unconscious, she wouldn’t take the chance of his escaping.
Lying low, ignoring the dead grass scratching at her bare skin, Eris peered over the knoll to survey her new rival.
“What things?” Kaddo asked. He stuck his paddle in the sand and leaned against it with a forced nonchalance, as if to make up for his earlier mad scramble.
Nothing tainted the beautiful blue sky now, but Ursa gestured toward it nonetheless. “Those…holes.” She looked at the others. “Isn’t that how you got here, too?”
“I–” Yun frowned. He rubbed his head in frustration. “I’m not sure. I was sitting with Ty Lee and then…there was this noise and a darkness…” He shook his head. “The next thing I knew, I was surrounded by sand.”
“I remember the hole,” Kaddo declared. “I was just canoeing along, minding my own business, when this flock of salamander seagulls tried to attack me! They lunged at me from all sides, pecking at my eyes. The only thing I had was my paddle so I—”
As the boy seized began to demonstrate his warrior’s prowess, Yun and Ursa exchanged an uncertain glance.
“Is this going somewhere?” Yun asked tiredly, while Ursa tried to suppress a smile.
Kaddo paused, his paddle in mid swing. He scowled at them. “If you don’t want to hear the whole thing, fine. But it’s a great story, so your loss.”
A vein pulsed in Yun’s temple. Ursa coughed into her hand to hide a chuckle.
Letting the paddle drop into the sand, Kaddo crossed his arms. “That’s when the hole opened up and sucked me in.”
As if at his call, the rumble preceding another black blemish shook the air. The hodgepodge of victims looked about but no one noticed the hole as it formed directly overhead.
“Yikes!” Too late Kaddo noticed the shadow of the falling newcomer. He dove away as the figure landed with a muted whump on the soft beach. Sand sprayed up in a thick wave. Yun and Ursa were not so lucky, caught by the unexpected body as its momentum rushed it forward.
Kaddo was the first to recover, rising and shaking himself like a wet polar bear dog to dislodge the sand in his hair and ears. Most of this sand scattered over the sleeping man whom he’d landed beside, covering him like a beach blanket. Blinking granules from his lashes, Kaddo cast a quick glance at the newcomer. “Looks like we’ve got another one!”
The newest arrival had landed face-first in the sand. He jerked up, spluttering, scraping at his dry, coated tongue. Ursa groaned and he whirled round to face her. “Rong?”
“Whoever that is,” Yun said, rising to his feet and once more offering Ursa his hand, “I guarantee they’re not here.”
“No.” The stranger clasped his head, shaking in disbelief. “No, no, no! Where is she? I have to–” He surged to his feet, but Yun caught him by the shoulders.
“Look, just calm down. I get that you’re worried. Spirits, I just got pulled away from my girlfriend! But whatever brought us here isn’t here anymore.” Yun’s words were steady, exuding both calm and confidence. He felt the stranger relax, if grudgingly, in his grip. “We need to sit down and figure this out. Now, what’s your name?”
The stranger heaved a deep breath before answering. “Ling.”
“Alright, Ling. I’m Yun Zhen, this is Ursa, and–”
“I’m Kaddo!” Kaddo volunteered, waving.
“Wh-what’s going on?” Rubbing at his bleary eyes, the sleeper in the green robes struggled to sit up. He glanced about, confused. “Hiroshu?”
“Hey, look who finally woke up!” Kaddo pounded his back, grinning. “Welcome to the party, sleepyhead.”
Ominous shadows darkened the sleeper’s eyes. He scowled at Kaddo, but it seemed to have no effect on the child’s enthusiasm or his back pounding. “Yuhan,” the stranger growled. “My name is Yuhan and–” He flicked his wrist, shifting the sand under Kaddo’s feet, spinning him out of back-pounding range. “–stop that!”
Kaddo danced, trying to keep his balance, but wherever he stepped the sand seemed to spin him in the opposite direction. He landed unceremoniously on his hindquarters.
Yuhan rubbed at his face, trying to remember, well, anything. He and Hiroshu had been on duty and –monkeyfeathers! He hadn’t fallen asleep, had he? Yuhan was always tired, but sleeping on duty would be unforgivable. Still, it would explain this weird dream. Maybe if he closed his eyes, when he opened them he’d be back under Lake Laogai. It was worth a try.
But when Yuhan opened his eyes, only one thing had changed, and it wasn’t the scenery. His eyes crossed to focus on the sword leveled on him. Following the blade back to its owner, he found himself faced with a Fire Nation captain whose face twisted with rage.
“Um, Yun?” Kaddo was still on his rump and clutching his canoe paddle. Dimly, he realized it wasn’t the best weapon if this should break out into a –he did a quick headcount– five-way fight.
Yuhan swallowed. He considered attacking, but the sword was too close to his head and he got the impression this Yun wouldn’t mind relieving him of it. Those were odds he didn’t like.
“Look,” Yuhan began, unconsciously reverting to the calm, reasonable tones that made him such a successful Peace Orator. “I don’t know what you’re upset about, but–”
Yun’s golden eyes flashed. “I’m not stupid. I know a Dai Li when I see one!”
“A –a Dai Li?” Kaddo glanced nervously at Yuhan. Even Ling narrowed his eyes.
Silence fell over the hodge-podge group as the tension rose around them, practically palpable. Yun’s sword wavered mere inches from Yuhan’s throat who, for his part, refused to panic. The Dai Li made no excuse for himself, only returned the captain’s steady, if hate-filled, gaze. Ling nor Kaddo said anything. They watched with wide eyes and caught breath, held in suspense.
Ursa’s heart pounded so hard it reverberated in her ears. She refused to stand by. The Princess took a step toward them. “Yun,” she said, forcing her voice to remain both gentle and authoritative. “Put the sword down.”
Yun clenched his teeth. Fingers tightened around the sword. “Stay out of this, Princess,” he said bitterly. “It doesn’t concern you.”
Ursa scowled. She didn’t like his tone any more than she liked the sudden shift in his demeanor. Gone was the kind and gentlemanly Captain who offered her his hand. In his place seethed a burning cauldron of hatred with burning eyes. There was obviously a reason the Dai Li unconsciously triggered the dramatic shift, but she knew that wasn’t important right now.
“It concerns all of us,” she replied, her words sharp as the sting of a hornet vulture. “Whether we like it or not, we’re in this together. All of us. My Uncle always says that everything appens for a reason, and that coincidences are the universe’s way of pointing us towards our goal and destinies.”
Her words seemed to draw Ling and Kaddo, at least, out of their stupor.
“She might have a point,” Ling said quietly. “I mean, why us? There has to be a reason.”
Yun hesitated. The sword tip wavered at Yuhan’s throat. But the Captain shook his head, vigorously, steadying the blade with determination. “He’s Dai Li. He can’t be trusted.”
“He’s not just a Dai Li,” Ursa soothed. “Yuhan is a person just like the rest of us, and people make their own choices, right or wrong. You can’t know anything about him just because he’s a Dai Li.”
Ursa’s frown darkened. “You said you knew my–” She caught herself. “You said you knew Firelord Zuko. He made a lot of bad choices, too. Would you judge him now for all that?”
Yun knew she was right. He had only to remember Ty Lee’s dazzling smile to know that people could change. Bu this heart hardened when he remembered what the Dai Li had done to her.
“You’re lucky,” he snarled at Yuhan, slamming his sword back into its sheath. “If it was just you and me here, I wouldn’t even waste time digging you a grave.”
The Dai Li didn’t even flinch at his threat. His mournful eyes only stared back at him as he lowered his hands.
“But you’re not alone,” Ling reminded Yun, his voice edge with an unspoken threat of his own. “And for now, I think that the Princess is right. We’re in this together.”
“Right!” Kaddo declared, clapping his hands as though the sharp echo would disperse the remaining tension. “So what next?”
Before anyone could answer, the young waterbender plowed on. “The way I see it, we’ll need a leader, and between the four of us—”
“Excuse me,” Ursa interrupted, “But there’s five of us.”
A peeved frown twisted Kaddo’s face as he turned to her in exasperation. “Yeah, but you’re a girl.”
Genuinely puzzles, Ursa’s brow furrowed. “What’s that go to do with it?”
Kaddo stared at her, oblivious to Yuhan’s full-face wince and Ling’s not-so subtle gestures. “Everyone knows women can’t take that kind of responsibility. It’s men’s work.”
Irritation boiled in Ursa’s chest. Of course she had known that other countries put up boundaries between the abilities of men and women, unlike the Fire Nation, but the idea had always sounded so far away. Actually having someone say it to her face was quite another matter. It was infuriating.
She bit her tongue just as she was about to inform this boy that he was addressing the future Firelord. Instead, she asked, “And what do you expect me to do?”
Kaddo puffed out his chest. “The washing and the cooking, of course. But don’t worry, Princess,” he said with a radiant smile. “We’ll protect you if any danger comes our way.”
Ursa bristled. Yuhan winced again, and Ling covered his face with one hand.
“Enough, you two,” Yun said.
Ursa looked at him in surprised. Though his eyes were still hooded with suspicion, he stood straight and tall.
“What we need to do is figure out our next move.”
Kaddo scowled. “Who died and made you king?”
Yun glanced down his nose at the boy, annoyed.
“The kid’s right.”
Ursa winced just as Yun’s eyes narrowed. They both turned to see Yuhan gaining his feet, dusting the sand from his robes with deliberate movements. To the untrained eye, it would seem that the Dai Li had chosen to ignore the recent thrate on his life, but Ursa caught the flicker of his eyes as Yuhan kept Yun within his sights.
“What makes you think you can call the shots here? Considering you’ve already threatened my life, I’d rather take my chance on my own than with you.”
Yun sneered. “That suits me just fine.”
“Stop it,” Ling cut in.
Yun huffed, then sighed. “As far as I’m concerned, there’s only three choices for a leader here. Me, Ling, or—”
Kaddo puffed his chest out with a grin.
“Hey!” Kaddo protested, instantly deflating.
“Kaddo’s too young,” Yun went on, “And there’s now way in this world or the next I would ever place myself in the hands of a Dai Li.”
Meeting Yun’s cold gaze head on, Yuhan said, “Why would I place myself in yours?”
The others looked at him. He glared back at them all with his shadowed eyes, but Ursa saw the frustration there. He was right, she realized. Why should he trust them, if they couldn’t trust him?
“Yuhan,” she began.
The Dai Li shook his head. “I want to get home as badly as any of you.” His accusing eyes focused on Yun. “But concern for my life obviously isn’t on the top of anyone’s priority list. I won’t become a casualty of your malice.”
Yuhan turned on his heel.
“Yuhan, wait!” Ursa cried. She started after him, but Yun held her back as the Dai Li disappeared between two of the small hills circling the pool of water and white sand.
“If he wants to do it on his own, fine. Let him go. We’ll be better off without him, anyway.”
Ursa shrugged him away. “You can’t know that,” she argued. “What makes you so sure he won’t be helpful, or get himself killed on his own.”
The Captain stiffened. “He’s a Dai Li.”
It wasn’t an answer, and Ursa knew it. What had happened to Yun, to make him hate them so much? She’d heard stories about the terrible things that the Dai Li had done, but that was in the past now. What anger could hold on that long? She was on the verge of asking, when Kaddo’s voice broke through her reverie.
“—it’s unfair and discriminating!” Kaddo cried. “You can’t rule me out just because I’m young. Age has nothing to do with it! Leadership is in my blood. After all, my father the Avatar was only twelve when he—”
The boy’s voice faltered as Yun’s shadow fell over him.
“Listen, Kaddo, and listen well,” the Captain said, his face hard and serious. “Your age isn’t the problem. What you lack is experience. The Avatar had that when he took on Ozai, but you’ve had very little. Worse than that, you’re only after one thing. I’ve known you less than an hour and already I can tell the only thing you want to do is show off. This isn’t a game. This is serious. So when one of us tells you to do something, you do it. Understand?”
Kaddo stared back at the navy captain. Slowly, his grin slipped away, and something cold and hard sparked in his eyes. “I know this isn’t a game,” he shot back. He clenched his fists, seriously contemplating bringing the captain down to his level for a change. “I know this—”
Something about Ursa’s voice, her rigid calm, made the words die in Kaddo’s throat. All three turned to the Princess.
“What is it?” Yun asked.
“Kaddo, did you just say your father is Avatar Aang?”
A bright flush of indignation flooded Kaddo’s face. “Now you think I’m a liar?”
Ursa studied him hard, searching his face for any sign of guilt or jest. “No, I believe you. Only, I know Avatar Aang. Both his kids are just babies, and neither of them are named Kaddo.”
“You’re lying!” Kaddo’s words were strangled by the panic squeezing his chest. “Stop it!”
“That’s ridiculous,” Ling put in. “Avatar Aang doesn’t have any children. He’s only *** years old.”
“Yun,” Ursa began carefully, “Does your Avatar Aang have a son named Kaddo?”
“He doesn’t have any kids.” Yun frowned when her words finally registered. “What do you mean my Avatar Aang?”
“What if…” Ursa frowned. Her brain churned. “What if there’s more than one Aang?”
The others stared at her. It wasn’t a good kind of staring.
“What are you talking about?” Kaddo demanded.
“Think about it! If there was more than one Aang –more than one everything– it would all make sense. Why you’re Aang’s son but none of us know you. Why you would know Zuko’s children and not have any idea who I am.”
Yun massaged his temples. “Let me get this straight: You think we all came from different worlds?”
“Maybe different versions of the same world?” Ursa shrugged. “I know it sounds crazy, but ten minutes ago I was in the ruins of the ancient Sun Warriors’ civilization questing for dragon eggs.”
The others shifted, glancing from one to another. Whatever had brought them here, it was a strange and powerful force. But could it really belong to a different world?
Ursa looked from one to the other, and she saw the question dancing in their eyes. No one was sure if it was true, but no one argued it, either. Though she knew the words would bring dissension, she spoke them. “We need to find Yuhan. This is much bigger than we thought it was, and if we all really belong to different worlds…”
Ling nodded. “He should know about it.”
A scowl darkened Yun’s brow, but he did not argue.
“There’s always another option.”
The three men looked toward Ursa, but she seemed just as surprised as they. If the feminine voice was not hers, then whose was it?
“Up here,” the voice indicated, and they raised their eyes to the top of a knoll. Standing on the crest, a woman gazed down at them. Her skin was a strange gray in color, yet she was beautiful in spite of it, with long silky hair and generous curves accentuated by the slits of her dress.
Unconsciously, the four strangers stepped closer together, forming a loose circle as they face this newcomer.
“Who are you?” Yun demanded.
Out of the corner of her eye, Ursa saw his fingers wrap around the hilt of sword. On her other side, she Ling tense.
“Can you help us?” Kaddo asked.
The woman cocked her head, lips twitching in amusement. That smile reminded Ursa of one she had seen long ago. A shiver racked up her spine.
But Kaddo ignored her. The boy pushed forward between her and Yun and as he passed, she saw the spark of determination in his eyes, and the confident smirk on his lips. She groaned inwardly, knowing that was the look of someone out to prove themselves.
“You said there was another option for us,” he pressed. “So speak up.”
Annoyance flickered in the woman’s eyes at the boy’s sharp tone, but it quickly faded. “But of course.” Her smile broadened and Ursa flinched. “You could always die.”
Eris laughed to herself as she made her new puppets dance. She forced the five intruders down to their knees, watching the panic in their eyes.
And she had thought they might prove a threat. What an idea. She had actually wondered if they, too, were energybenders, but no. Overhearing just a piece of their conversation proved they had no idea what was going on. Their arrival must have been her doing, somehow. Of course, the idea that she had unconsciously brought them all together wasn’t comforting either.
But Eris refused to let her victory become tainted. She shook the notion away with a toss of her head.
“Come along, Father dear. Let us greet our new guests properly.”
She descended the knoll, toting her father’s energy along behind. As she approached, the impressions of their own energies grew stronger –overwhelming grief, blind determination, inner strife… Such a diverse company. A pity the other had wandered off, but he would be easy to track down. She looked over them with cold eyes.
“Who –who are you?” Yun demanded again, gasping. He fought against the invisible vice holding him down, but the only thing It accomplished was exhausting his strength.
“That is something you do not need to know,” Eris said. Her fingers toyed with the air. A thunderous boom rattled the beach.
“You brought us here,” Ursa realized, recognizing the precursor to the portals.
Eris’ composure slipped, just for an instant. She bared her teeth at the young girl in a cheerless smile. “Unfortunatley for you, you’ve interrupted a private party.” As the last word seethed between her teeth, Eris flung out one hand and the sky beyond her fingertips cracked. “I’ll deal with you later.”
Yuhan remained silent as he trekked the unfamiliar landscape, though his dark thoughts rumbled in Yun’s direction. Who was he, to judge him? The Fire navy captain didn’t know the first thing about him!
He continued to fume as he wandered, and when the tugging in his chest began, he thought it nothing more than pent frustration. Then he saw it, out of the corner of his eye.
Yuhan froze, gaze glued to the object. His heart thudded in his chest. He took a step closer and the pull in his gut tugged harder. It tugged him forward.
So that was how it was.
He took antoher step, but this time his heart lurched with guilt. His steps faltered. He should go back and tell the others.
His thoughts returned to Yun and his fists clenched. He could leave the angry captain behind. Yuhan certainly didn’t’ owe him anything. But his thoughts wandered to Ursa and he softened. He couldn’t very well leave her here. She, at least, had stuck up for him as a person, if not as a Dai Li. The other two hadn’t seemed terribly eager to see him hewn in two, so he supposed that put them close to being on his side. And besides, he thought with a smirk, if he didn’t tell them, he would only prove Yun’s accusations to be true.
Yuhan turned smartly on his heel and marched back the way he had come.
Ursa steeled herself for the blow. The sight of the black hold gaping beside her set her heart pounding, but what could she do? Yun already demonstrated that struggling only sapped one’s strength, so—
An image flashed in her mind. A street performer she had watched many years ago on Ember Island. The talented young firebender conjured impressive bouts of fire, but as he produced three of the temperamental mammoth flames and began to weave them together, it took an obvious toll on his strength.
Eris, like the performer, appeared taleneted in her art –whatever it was. But she held five people against their will and now the gaping portal. Maybe Yun’s struggle proved only inconvenient, but what if all five of them were to push her? Would it be too much for her to control?
Ursa gathered her strength. It was worth a try.
As the woman raised her hand to strike, Ursa threw herself against the invisible force. “Fight her!”
The force around her swelled, squeezing tight to push her down. The more Ursa fought, the tighter the vice became. She cried out, but the sound caught in her throat. As she gasped for air, she realized the vice had wrapped around her insides. She floundered. Her vision swam, blacking out around the edges.
She heard the others grunt and struggle as she fell on her hands. The darkness crept closer and the pressure in her head increased. Ursa knew it had been in vain.
Then the vice vanished.
Air, light, sound, sense, all came crashing back upon her in an overwhelming wave. Ursa fell face-first into the sand, too weak to hold herself up. She rolled, gasping for breath, forcing herself to focus.
The woman was still there, and she had a feeling she wasn’t very happy.
Yuhan, crouched low on the small hill, cursed. He watched as the strange woman forced the others down on their knees. Somehow, she managed to manipulate their every move. And that smirk told him she enjoyed tormenting her new playthings.
The thought to leave them once more popped into his head, but he gave it little consideration. To leave them over a disagreement was one thing, but to abandon them in the face of adversity was cowardly. And a Dai Li was never cowardly.
When Ursa’s valiant cry echoed through the empty landscape, Yuhan sense the perfect moment. He struck.
The ground beneath the woman bucked and recoiled. Sand erupted as the earth shifted. The woman fell back, landing on her supple rump with an undignified yelp of surprise. Her hold snapped. The others dropped to the ground, no longer held in her power, and the strange portal shuddered.
Yuhan tugged at the earth, hardening in the tendrils as they snaked toward her appendages. If he could just tie her down…
Something inside twisted sharply. Yuhan let out a cry. As the stabbing pain pulled him forward, he tried to gasp for breath, but a pressure squeezed his ribs together.
Below, the sand settled, revealing the woman’s blazing eyes, locked on him. Her fingers, extended toward him, beckoned and Yuhan’s legs carried him down the hill, half stumbling, half sliding.
Panic erupted in Yuahn’s chest as he watched his body move of its own volition. Of her volition. Out of the corner of his eye, he watched the others struggle to sit upright. The portal’s inky blackness sucked in the sunlight. His head swam as he watched it pulse. Was it getting smaller?
The woman climbed to her feet, blazing eyes never leaving Yuhan as he reached the bottom of the hill.
Not until the man behind her moved.
Kin observed the one-sided fight through slit lids. His heart panged for these poor fools, at the mercy of this terrible creature. If only he could help! Bu the felt what little strength he had and knew it would never be enough.
What he needed was time. Time to recuperate and learn more about his daughter’s strange new powers.
Even without the vice keeping him down, Kin knew he wouldn’t get far if he tried to run. His eyes turned to the black hole and he knew it might be his only chance of escape.
He watched his daughter stalk toward her most recent prey. He pitied the earthbender; Sakura had always been conscious about her appearance.
Kin gathered his feet beneath him. The edges of the portal inched inward, beginning to shrink. He would only have one chance at this.
He leapt, pain screaming through every inch of him. As he hurtled through the black hole, he heard the beginning of her enraged shriek before all his senses left him.
The flicker of familiar energy cleared through Eris’ rage. Jerked out of her fury, she realized that her captives lay free thanks to the earthbender. Including the most important one.
Eris whirled just in time to watch the Avatar disappear and the vortex shudder close behind him. In her anger and humiliation, she had unconsciously dropped all other energies in favor of exacting petty revenge. She shrieked in rage.
“You fools! Have you any idea what you’ve cost me?”
As they struggled to their feet, she backhanded a wave of energy at the quintet, hurling them back several paces, while opening an identical vortex with her other hand.
Releasing one last blow –leeching their energy– Eris followed her father through the vortex.
The first thing Ursa noticed were the stars. In their glittering patterns, she traced the bizarre events of the day, once more familiarizing herself with them before she sat up.
“Welcome back, sleepy head!”
She winced at Kaddo’s enthusiastic cry.
“Don’t worry,” Yuhan said. “The headache seems to be a side effect. It doesn’t last long.”
Ursa rubbed at her temple, but after a moment the throbbing pain dissipated. Yuhan was right.
Her eyelids sprang open and she looked up.
Kaddo sat crosslegged beside her, Ling and Yun standing behind, while the Dai Li agent remained a few paces away.
Ursa smile. “You came back.”
Yuhan shifted uncomfortably, but gave a curt nod.
“Just in the nick of time, too,” Ling added, with a point glance at Yun.
Yuh Zhen pretended not to notice, instead keeping a firm grip on his hilt. “Why did you come back, Dai Li?”
Yuhan’s jaw tightened. Ursa winced again.
“I found something.”
It was only due to the insistence of Ursa, Ling, and even Kaddo that Yun would be persuaded to follow.
Yuhan led the group back over his previous journey. He did not tell them what lay at the end, one reason for Yun’s hesitation; he wanted to see it they felt it, too.
As they drew close, Ursa gasped and Kaddo clutched as his chest.
Ling frowned at Yuhan. “Do you feel that?”
Yuhan nodded, ignoring the half-drawn sword in Yun’s hand. “I think it’s because of this.” He led them around one of the knolls.
A portal yawned before them.
“It’s getting stronger,” Kaddo yelped, leaping back.
Again, Yuhan nodded. “Since this is what brough us here, I thought it might be the way we can get back. I was drawn, just as you are. The other portals were all short-lived, but this one hasn’t vanished.”
Ursa rubbed at her chest, trying to massage the uncomfortable pulling below. “The others didn’t feel like this, either.”
Yun scowled. “You want us to walk through that?”
Yuhan’s shadowed eyes met his, and the friction between them pulsed.
“The freaky lady and the other guy did,” Kaddo piped up.
Yun rolled his eyes. “Another reason not to do it.”
“Do you a better idea, Captain?”
Yuhan’s cold words struck a cord. Yun flushed, because he knew that if he had found the portal, he probably would have suggest the same thing.
“Yuhan’s right, Yun,” Ursa said gently. “There’s a chance this could take us all home.” She glanced around at the others. “And we all want to go home.”
“Just on thing,” Ling said. “Why is there only one?”
The other turned to him, puzzled.
“We were all brought here by different portals,” he explained. “If there’s only one, doesn’t that mean it will only go to one place?”
It was a sobering thought. They gazed at one another, each watching the hope and dread in the other’s eyes, each secretly praying that on the other side lay their own world, not another.
Yun sighed. “There’s only one way to find out.”