The moments seemed to slowly stack up on each other like a tower of raw stones, each event in sequence piling higher and higher with no mortar to hold them together. A structure that was unstable, dreadful, headed toward a total and imminent collapse.
The sudden movement of Tagaka’s two escorts drew everyone’s attention. But the two men only grabbed the Earth Kingdom woman by the arms and jumped back down the slope the way they’d come, dodging the blast of fire that Rangi managed to get off. They were the distraction.
Pairs of hands burst from the surface of the ice, clutching at the ankles of everyone on Yun’s side. Waterbenders had been lying in wait below them the whole time. Rangi, Jianzhu, and Hei-Ran were dragged under the ice like they’d fallen through the crust of a frozen lake during the spring melt.
Kyoshi’s arms shot out, and she managed to arrest herself chest-high on the surface. Her would-be captor hadn’t made her tunnel large enough. Kelsang leaped into the air, avoiding the clutches of his underground assailant with an Airbender’s reflexes, and deployed the wings of his glider-staff.
Tagaka drew her jian and swung it on the downstroke at Yun’s neck. But the Avatar didn’t flinch. Almost too fast for Kyoshi to see, he slammed his fist into the only source of earth near them, the stone inkslab. It shattered into fragments and reformed as a glove around his hand. He caught Tagaka’s blade as it made contact with his skin.
Kyoshi stamped down hard with her boot and felt a sickening crunch. Her foot stuck there as the bender whose face she’d broken refroze the water, imprisoning her lower half. Above the ice, Kyoshi had the perfect view of the Avatar and the pirate queen locked together in mortal knot.
They both looked happy that the charade was over. A trickle of Yun’s blood dripped off the edge of the blade.
“Another thing you should know,” Tagaka said as she traded grins with Yun, their muscles trembling with exertion. “I’m really not the Waterbender my father was.”
With her free hand she made a series of motions so fluid and complex that Kyoshi thought her fingers had telescoped to twice their length. A series of earsplitting cracks echoed around them.
There was a roar of ice and snow rushing into the sea. The smaller icebergs split and calved, revealing massive hollow spaces inside. As the chunks of ice drifted apart at Tagaka’s command, the prows of Fifth Nation warships began to poke out, like the beaks of monstrous birds hatching from their eggshells.
Yun lost his balance at the sight and fell to the ground onto his back. Tagaka quickly blanketed him in ice, taking care to cover his stone-gloved hand. “What is this?” he yelled up at her.
She wiped his blood off her sword with the crook of her elbow and resheathed it. “A backup plan? A head start on our way to Yokoya? A chance to show off? I’ve been pretending to be a weak bender for so long, I couldn’t resist being a little overdramatic.” Waterbenders aboard the ships were already stilling the waves caused by the ice avalanches and driving their vessels forward. Other crew members scrambled among the masts like insects, unfurling sails. They were pointed westward, toward home, where they would drive into fresh territories of the Earth Kingdom like a knife into an unprotected belly.
“Stop the ships!” Yun screamed into the sky. “Not me! The ships!” That was all he could get out before Tagaka covered his head completely in ice.
Kyoshi didn’t know whom he was talking to at first, thought that in his desperation he was pleading with a spirit. But a low rush of air reminded her that someone was still free. Kelsang pulled up on his glider and beelined toward the flagship.
“Not today, monk,” Tagaka said. She lashed out with her arms, and a spray of icicles no bigger than sewing needles shot toward Kelsang.
It was a fiendishly brilliant attack. The Airbender could have easily dodged larger missiles, but Tagaka’s projectiles were an enveloping storm. The delicate wings of his glider disintegrated, and he plunged toward the sea.
There was no time to panic for Kelsang. Tagaka levitated the chunk of ice Yun was buried in, threw it over the side of the iceberg toward her camp, and leaped down after him.
Kyoshi grit her teeth and pushed on the ice as hard as she could. Her shoulders strained against her robes, both threatening to tear. The ice gripping her legs cracked and gave way, but not before shredding the parts of her skin not covered by her skirts. She lifted herself free and stumbled after Tagaka.
She was lucky Yun’s prison had carved out a smooth path. Without it, she would have undoubtedly bashed her skull in, tumbling over the rough protrusions of ice. Kyoshi managed to slide down to the pirate camp, her wounds leaving a bloody trail on the slope behind her.
Tagaka’s men were busy loading their camp and themselves into longboats. An elegant cutter, one of the Water Tribe heirlooms she’d mentioned, waited for them off the coast of the iceberg. Only a few of the other pirates noticed Kyoshi. They started to pick up weapons, but Tagaka waved them off. Packing up was more of a priority than dealing with her.
“Give him back,” Kyoshi gasped.
Tagaka put a boot on the ice encasing Yun and leaned on her knee. “The colossus speaks,” she said, smiling.
“Give him back. Now.” She meant to sound angry and desperate, but instead she came across as pitiful and hopeless as she felt inside. She wasn’t sure if Yun could breathe in there.
“Eh,” Tagaka said. “I saw what I needed to see in the boy’s eyes. He’s worth more as a hostage than an Avatar, trust me.” She shoved Yun off to the side with her foot, and the bile surged in Kyoshi’s throat at the disrespectful gesture.
“But you, on the other hand,” Tagaka said. “You’re a puzzle. I know you’re not a fighter right now, that much is obvious. But I like your potential. I can’t decide whether I should kill you now, to be safe, or take you with me.”
She took a step closer. “Kyoshi, was it? How would you like a taste of true freedom? To go where you want and take what you’re owed? Trust me, it’s a better life than whatever dirt-scratch existence you have on land.”
Kyoshi knew her answer. It was the same one she would have given as a starving seven-year-old child.
“I would never become a daofei,” Kyoshi said, trying as hard as possible to turn the word into a curse. “Pretending to be a leader and an important person when you’re nothing but a murderous slaver. You’re the lowest form of life I know.”
Tagaka frowned and drew her sword. The metal hissed against the scabbard. She wanted Kyoshi to feel cold death sliding between her ribs, instead of being snuffed out quickly by water.
Kyoshi stood her ground. “Give me the Avatar,” she repeated. “Or I will put you down like the beast you are.”
Tagaka spread her arms wide, telling her to look around them at the field of ice they were standing on. “With what, little girl from the Earth Kingdom?” she asked. “With what?”
It was a good question. One that Kyoshi knew she couldn’t have answered herself. But she was suddenly gripped with the overwhelming sensation that right now, in her time of desperate need, her voice wouldn’t be alone.
Her hands felt guided. She didn’t fully understand, nor was she completely in control. But she trusted.
Kyoshi braced her stomach, filled her lungs, and slammed her feet into the Crowding Bridge stance. Echoes of power rippled from her movement, hundredfold iterations of herself stamping on the ice. She was somehow both leading and being led by an army of benders.
A column of gray-stone seafloor exploded up from the surface of the ocean. It caught the hull of Tagaka’s cutter and listed the ship to the side, tearing wooden planks off the frame as easily as paper off a kite.
A wave of displaced water swept over the iceberg, knocking pirates off their feet and smashing crates to splinters. Out of self-preservation, Tagaka reflexively raised a waist-high wall of ice, damming and diverting the surge. But the barrier protected Kyoshi as well, giving her time to attack again. She leaped straight into the air and landed with her fists on the ice.
Farther out, the sea boiled. Screams came from the lead warships as more crags of basalt rose in their path. The bowsprits of the vessels that couldn’t turn in time snapped like twigs. The groan of timber shattering against rock filled the air, as hideous as a chorus of wounded animals.
Kyoshi dropped to her knees, panting and heaving. She’d meant to keep going, to bring the earth close enough to defend herself, but the effort had immediately sapped her to the point where she could barely raise her head.
Tagaka turned around. Her face, so controlled over the past two days, spasmed in every direction.
“What in the name of the spirits?” she whispered as she flipped her jian over for a downward stab. The speed at which Tagaka moved to kill her made it clear that she’d be fine living without an answer.
“Kyoshi! Stay low!”
Kyoshi instinctively obeyed Rangi’s voice and flattened herself out. She heard and felt the scorch of a fire blast travel over her, knocking Tagaka away.
With a mighty roar, Pengpeng strafed the iceberg, Rangi and Hei-Ran blasting flame from the bison’s left and right, scattering the pirates as they attempted to regroup. Jianzhu handled Pengpeng’s reins with the skill of an Air Nomad, spinning her around for perfectly aimed tail shots of wind that drove away clouds of arrows and thrown spears. Kyoshi had no idea how they’d escaped the ice, but if any three people had the power and resourcefulness to pull it off, it was them.
The fight wasn’t over. Some of Tagaka’s fleet had made it past Kyoshi’s obstacles. And from the nearby sinking ships, a few Waterbenders declined to panic like their fellows. They dove into the water instead, generating high-speed waves that carried them toward Tagaka. Her elite guard, coming to rescue her.
Rangi and Hei-Ran jumped down and barraged the pirate queen with flame that she was forced to block with sheets of water. Rangi’s face was covered in blood and her mother had only one good arm, but they fought in perfect coordination, leaving Tagaka no gaps to mount an offense.
“We’ll handle the Waterbenders!” Hei-Ran shouted over her shoulder. “Stop the ships!”
Jianzhu took a look at the stone monoliths that Kyoshi had raised from the seafloor, and then at her. In the heat of battle, he chose to pause. He stared hard at Kyoshi, almost as if he were doing sums in his head.
“Jianzhu!” Hei-Ran screamed.
He snapped out of his haze and took Pengpeng back up. They flew toward the nearest formation of stone. Without warning, Jianzhu let go of the reins and jumped off the bison in midair.
Kyoshi thought he’d gone mad. He proved her wrong.
She’d never seen Jianzhu earthbend before, had only heard Yun and the staff describe his personal style as “different.” Unusual. More like a lion dance at the New Year, Auntie Mui once said, fanning herself, with a dreamy smile on her face.
Stable below and wild on top.
He hadn’t been able to earthbend on the iceberg, but now Kyoshi had provided him with all of his element that he needed. As Jianzhu fell, flat panes of stone peeled off the crag and flew up to meet him. They arranged themselves into a manic, architectural construction with broad daylight showing through the triangular gaps, a steep ramp that he landed on without losing his momentum.
He sprinted toward the escaping ships, in a direction he had no room to go. But as he ran, his arms coiled and whipped around him like they had minds of their own. He flicked his fists using minute twists of his waist, and countless sheets of rock fastened themselves into a bridge under his feet. Jianzhu never broke stride as he traveled on thin air, suspended by his on-the-fly earthworks.
Fire blasts and waterspouts shot up from the benders manning the ships. Jianzhu nimbly leaped and slid over them. The ones aimed at the stone itself did surprisingly little damage, as the structure was composed of chaotic, redundant braces.
He raced ahead of the lead ship, crossing its path with his bridge. Right as Kyoshi thought he’d extended too far, that he’d run out of stone and thinned his support beyond what it could hold, he leaped to safety, landing on top of a nearby ice floe.
The precarious, unnatural assembly began to crumble without Jianzhu’s bending to keep it up. First the individual pieces began to flake off. Chunks of falling rock bombarded the lead ship from high above, sending the crew members diving for cover as the wooden deck punctured like leather before an awl.
But their suffering had only begun. The base of the bridge simply let itself go, bringing the entire line of stone down across the prow. The ship’s aft was levered out of the waterline, exposing the rudder and barnacled keel.
The rest of the squadron didn’t have time to turn. One follower angled away from the disaster. It managed to avoid crashing its hull, but the change of direction caused the vessel to tilt sharply to the side. The tip of its rigging caught on the wreckage, and then the ship was beheaded of its masts and sails, the wooden pillars snapped off, a child’s toy breaking at its weakest points.
The last remaining warship bringing up the rear might have made it out, assuming some dazzling feat of heroic seamanship. Instead it wisely decided to drop anchor and call it quits. If Tagaka’s power was in her fleet, then the Avatar’s companions had destroyed it. Now they just had to live long enough to claim their victory.
“You did good, kid,” said a man with a husky voice and an accent like Master Amak’s. “They’ll be telling stories about this for a long time.”
Kyoshi spun around, afraid a pirate had gotten the drop on her, but there was no one there. The motion made her dizzy. Too dizzy. She sank to her knees, a drawn-out, lengthy process, and slumped onto the ice.
Avatar related panel at Comic-Con International, July 20, 15:00-16:00, Room 7AB
Dark Horse Comics, Abrams Books, and Nickelodeon are thrilled to treat fans to a panel worthy of Aang himself! Avatar: The Last Airbender and The Legend of Korra co-creator Michael Dante DiMartino,Avatar: The Last Airbender-Imbalance writer Faith Erin Hicks,and Avatar, The Last Airbender: The Rise of Kyoshi writer F. C. Yee will provide further exploration of the beloved world. Fans will also have the opportunity to showcase their knowledge of the elements in a fun trivia competition for awesome prizes!
Kuvira’s true nature is revealed, and the Earth Kingdom will feel the consequences!
Thanks to Commander Guan and Doctor Sheng’s brainwashing technology, all hope for a fair election in the Earth Kingdom is lost. Korra works with Toph, Su, and Kuvira to plan a means to rescue not just the brainwashed Mako, Bolin, and Asami, but everyone else caught up in Guan’s plan! With the Earth Empire potentially on the rise again, Kuvira pulls another trick from her sleeve . . . but whose side is she truly on?
Written by series co-creator Michael Dante DiMartino and illustrated by Michelle Wong (Goosebumps: Download and Die), with consultation by Bryan Konietzko and Tim Hedrick, this is the ultimate continuation of the beloved television series!