Author’s note: In which there is tension mounting, deadlines approaching and a very evil cliffhanger, curtesy of the author.
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Even with Katara’s healing abilities, Azula’s injuries caused the group to slow down its progress. This was not necessarily a bad thing considering that none of them had much of an idea where to go next. So far they had been following the trail of clues provided to them by their friends and allies. Now they found themselves at a loss. Nobody, not even Agni who was by far the oldest in the group knew where the Air Elementals resided, just that they were as flighty and elusive as their mortal counterparts had been. A quick trip to the Library for more clues was out of the question, what with Wan Shi Tong probably out for their blood. The parchments that Sokka had stolen proved to be more unhelpful than they had initially realised. They were written in such a complex code that none of them could make heads or tails of them.
The rendezvous time with the rest of the army was fast approaching, bringing with it nervousness, short tempers and an overall gloominess. Even Ao, who was probably the most careless in the group, seemed to be dragged down by the atmosphere. Lia had taken to not speaking unless absolutely necessary, seemingly convinced that she might admit something she should if she said more than five words at a time. It made the rest of the girls feel worse, since it was their prodding, no matter how well-meant, that had started it. The boys in the group, sensing the nervous tension, were walking on eggshells. It seemed that even the slightest thing might cause an explosion, although when it finally arrived it wasn’t quite in the way any of them expected.
Amongst the many things that Agni had not taught Lia was the art of pickpocketing. However, he lacked the manners (and some might say morals) to hesitate to “borrow” somebody else’s things. Which was how he ended up one night, long after everyone else had fallen asleep, shifting through Sokka’s parchments by the slowly dying embers. True he had had a quick look at them before, but they had been snatched out his hands by some of his more impatient co-travellers before he had a chance to really study them. And despite the tentative truce that had existed since their stint at the swamp the others were still a little wary of him. Add to that Lia’s sudden depression and Agni was determined to end the war brewing at the horizon at his own terms. Not at it would be easy. He had already studied half the parchments and even if he had an idea on how to decode the rest, the text did not seem to offer any help. Determined not to give up he picked another leaf and scanned the opening lines. His eyes widened and he read them again more carefully. Within moments he was frantically searching through his satchel for any sort of blank surface and –after finally finding a few loose leaves- scribbling down the text’s translation. It seemed like Sokka’s strange brand of luck had struck again.
The morning dawn grey, with the promise of storm clouds looming in the distance. The heavy weather didn’t encourage anyone to leave their tent bright and early but at last they all gathered around the rekindled campfire where Katara and Suki were teaching Azula how to cook. Lia and Toph sat next to them, fiddling with their crystals nervously. The quiet conversation between the girls stopped as soon as Agni approached.
“What do you want?” Lia asked warily, her grip tightening around the burgundy red crystal until her knuckles turned white. Her partner gave her an unreadable look before handing her a parchment.
“Courtesy of the Library,” he said simply before moving to stand a little away.
The redhead looked down on the page with a slight frown, her eyes skimming through the lines. Then, to everyone’s surprise, she swore loudly and jumped to her feet.
“We need to leave,” she said, hurrying to the closest tent and starting to pack. “NOW!” she barked when she realised the others were frozen to their spots.
“What’s going on?” Zuko asked her alarmed, moving to help her nonetheless. She waved the parchment she was still clutching to his general direction.
“We had the location of the Air Crystal all along,” she explained exasperated. “We just didn’t know it.” At these words the others jumped to their feet, breakfast forgotten completely and rushed to shove everything in their bags. As soon as everything was put away, and any sign of their campsite hidden or erased, the three Spirits formed a triangle around everyone else, pooling their energy together. A sphere of lightning blue energy crackled around the group for a moment before everything turned white.
When the world re-materialised around them they were standing near the edge of a cliff. In front of them was one of the biggest stone buildings anyone of them had ever seen. Built out of white and grey marble it towered and somehow blended with the heavy sky above. The wind seemed to batter at it from every direction and as they entered it they realised that not even the inside was safe. The deceptively solid walls were littered with small, almost invisible holes that left drafts rush in and created an eerie music in the air. Light drifted in sporadically as well, lighting the dust around them like little floating flakes of silver. Their footsteps echoed oddly inside the empty halls as they ran from one room to the next, desperately looking for any indication that the Air Crystal was still there.
“We need to go to the top,” Aang said suddenly, the only one in the group not breathing heavily. Sokka opened his mouth to add a comment but he could only wheeze for breath. He had never felt so starved for air even when Aang had flown Appa higher than usual.
“Closer to the element,” Azula managed to gasp in agreement as they hurried towards the large staircase that dominated the middle of the building.
By the time they reached the highest floor even Aang was struggling for breath. The grey-white crystal floating serenely in the middle of the room seemed to absorb all the air around it, the soft light it exceeded pulsing mesmerizingly with the short breaths everyone was taking.
“Well, hurry up Avatar!” Agni managed to say through gnashed teeth. He could feel his very essence being distorted by the uncontrolled energy and if Lia’s glazed eyes were any indication she wasn’t doing much better. Aang nodded once and moved closer to the crystal, swallowing down the nausea that almost overtook him as his hand wrapped around it. But before he could actually grab it, the Crystal zoomed upwards meshing itself with the ceiling high above them. The airbender had barely a chance to widen his eyes in surprise before a coil of energy shot from the opposite side of the room and hit him square in the chest.
Too late did they realise that the hall had another entrance and their pursuers had caught up to them again. Toph and Katara where the first to jump to action, their elemental attacks being enhanced by the crystals burning against their skins even as Azula and Suki dragged Aang out of the line of fire despite his loud protests. The others joined the melee, charging against their opponents who looked like amorphous masses of dark energy. However they seemed more ferocious than any previous Spirit the gaang had faced and they found themselves being pushed backwards. Aang, seeing his friends in trouble, jumped in the fray again and his air-based attacks seemed to have more of an effect on their opponents than anything else, forcing them to retreat towards the shadows once more. As the wind outside the building picked up even more a deep groaning echoed around them, almost as if the tower was in pain. Its echoes were drowned by the victorious cries that the group let, thinking victory in their grasp, and the cracking sounds that followed were swallowed by the wind.
Agni was the only one to notice when the stone surrounded them started to break, deep cracks appearing on the floor and spreading rapidly on the walls and ceiling. The others didn’t seem to notice, too focused on their enemy. Any words of warning died in his throat when a massive piece of the ceiling landed next to him, finally drawing everyone’s attention to the fact that they were in a more perilous situation than they had thought. To his surprise however everyone stood their ground, neither group willing to concede defeat. He saw Lia rise to the air, flying towards the Air Crystal, using the power of the one hanging around her neck –now dark like blood that had dried- to counteract the effects. She had almost reached the Air Crystal when a stray bolt of dark energy shot towards her, honing on her aura that was almost visible around her in the effort she was making. With a curse Aang forcibly summoned the Fire Crystal to himself, ignoring the pained scream that escaped the redhead as the energy emitted by her prize hit her, sending her plummeting to the ground. Aang rose to catch her even as the floor finally gave way under their feet and Agni used the Fire Crystal to blast their entire group out of the closest window.