Thank you to CACrest for proofreading!

Chapter 39: The Spirits on the Mountain

Katara could barely stand it. It was like fingernails were clawing down her back. It was like something was always breathing right into her ear. She was also finding loose grains of rice everywhere. They stalked her like unwanted memories. She couldn't take it. She could accept that they had dragged a near-corpse all this way. No, they had dragged a friend all this way. Her tribe would do the same for anyone's body. You had to set them on the ice after all or to the water. You had to say farewell.

This was different, though. It felt like she had failed not only Miki's body, but the remnants of her soul. It didn't feel like the pain of losing her mother, she hadn't known Miki that well, but it still pressed at her … especially when Sokka stopped referring to Miki as a person.

She was just a thing now.

It was like she had never been a girl to Sokka. It was like she hadn't blushed at his back from time to time, forming a crush. She was just a half-dead thing now, waiting to devour them all.

Helping lay some sleeping blankets on the floor along with a musty futon they had found, Katara tried to understand. Yes, Miki had been. She had been a good soul, but they were still here. They still needed to live.

Patting one little girl on the head, Katara helped her snuggle down before she turned her attention to the door behind her. Two of the Kyoshi warriors were waiting for her to finish putting the last of the kids to sleep. The rest of them, the closest things to adults in this little ragtag group, had to discuss the survival of the children. No one was going to come save them. Perhaps if there was still an active Avatar there would be someone to save them. The Avatar existed to save people from spirits like this, but where was he now? Katara had always been told he was the hope of the future.

Katara gripped her parka tightly. She was slowly losing faith in the bridge between worlds. The Avatar, obviously, wasn't going to come and help them. He was in Ba Sing Se, hidden by its walls. He didn't care about the world anymore. They had to save themselves.

The water-bender stood up straight, a grim look of determination in her eyes. She was going to help save them all. Now was not the time to mourn. There would be time for that later, but first … where was her brother?

The mountain had been silent as they made their way upward. The only sound that dare exist was the echo of their arrows being released. It was abnormal and concerning. It did not stall the YuYan in their mission, though. They would collect the children … and maybe find out where the rest of their men had gone.

Up the mountain quicker than most would deem possible, the YuYan all settled quickly on the roof of the old herbal institute and near the windows. They passed each window until there was a voice. A young man's voice, squeaky and edging on manhood.

It seemed they had found their quarry.

The four Kyoshi Warriors and the two water tribesman stood around a small table, a map before them. Their voices echoed through the cracks in the walls. Suddenly, a bump on the ceiling caused all of them to start. Two of the Kyoshi warriors even dragged out their fans.

"What was that?" said Sokka as he stared up at the ceiling, eyes widening as the ceiling shook slightly as if in answer. He expected to hear heavy breathing or some other spirit-worthy sound follow after. Instead, there was just the sound of the wind blowing against the badly sealed window. It was likely the culprit.

"I still can't believe that Miki is …" said Lalli, one of the Kyoshi warriors, her hand covering her mouth. "We were … carrying a …"

Sokka looked away from the ceiling, meeting the warrior's gaze. They stared at each other knowingly, the words hanging in the air in the small room of preadults.

"Yeah … and we are still here. Stuck here. Trapped on this mountain by these jiangshi. We need to get off of this mountain," said Sokka, turning his attention back to the map, his mind picking apart plan after plan he had before they could fully form.

"We do but like you said earlier, it's a normal two-day trip to the nearest river. We wouldn't make it with all the children," said Suki, her brow creasing. "Can't we just wait to leave until after the Rice Festival? It's what stirred them up, right? Or maybe we can take rice with us? We can leave it behind us so they can collect it, eat it, count it, or sleep in it. Whatever it is that they do with it."

Sokka rubbed his chin as if considering it, but then he shook his head. "No. We have to offer it. It's supposed to be a sacrifice or gift. So, I doubt that would work. And even if it did, can we carry that much rice? And where are we going to get it? From the old woman? The pantry doesn't have that much rice."

The other girls sighed and Suki frowned. Sokka was continually irritating, but he was also right. There was too much at stake just to guess. They had eight children, not counting themselves, that needed to get to the Foggy Swamp safely. She just wasn't going to place their safety on a maybe.

Looking to the other girls, Suki asked, "Anyone else have any ideas?"

Meanwhile, above the small collection of teenagers, a group of YuYan shared a look. Their mouths all held a grim line as they listened to the bad news. It was spirits. Wonderful. This was most unfortunate but not unexpected. At least now they knew what happened to the small company that was coming to the stronghold. Now, the only thing left to do was collect the children, especially the teenagers. They obviously knew the local lore and a Fire Sage was bound to ask for a native that personally knew the tale. Too bad, even as teenagers, most of them looked like warriors. Not that any of the YuYan doubted their personal skills. It was just likely that the teenagers would scatter, and the spirits in the mountains would find themselves a feast.

Unfortunate, but unavoidable.

Sensu stared at the boy from the shadows. The blue-dressed teenager knew the most. He was a thinker. A planner and, obviously, knew more than the girls.

"We need the boy. Even if all the others get away," said Sensu to the other archers.

"Agreed," answered Ye Liu, though, he was looking anywhere but at their current leader. Instead, he was grabbing his bow and pulling back the string with calculated ease. His next words caused everyone's heads to snap forward and back to the window. "But, first, we should get rid of that. If we can."

There, behind the six teenagers, stood a shadow in the doorway. Looming and silent. It was more a shadow than a thing of substance. Its only movement was the slow twitching of its fingers. Not that Ye Liu really cared. His arrow would either kill it or not. You never knew with spirits. Some were more corporeal or powerful than others.

Lip twitching, eyes squinting slightly, Ye Liu released his arrow. The sound of cracking glass went nearly unnoticed, leaving only a minor hole in the glass. The thunk of an arrow embedding itself into bone and forcing a body to the floor was what made all the teenagers jump and observe their surroundings. Not that the teenagers really got to react to the body of a gray corpse on the floor nor the arrow embedded in its forehead. Suddenly, there was the sound of crashing glass … a body jumping through the nearby window.

A form in red rolled into the room, war paint and bow included as glass sprayed everywhere. Said archer was quickly following by three other figures, each sweeping into the room like birds of prey. For a moment, all the teenagers could do was stand and stare. It was like their minds couldn't comprehend what was worse: the corpse that had been standing in the dark room over, having entered without any of their notice, or the four Fire Nation soldiers.

Suki, luckily, finally snapped out of it as one the archers shook the glass shards off of his shoulders, the debris falling to the floor with little ringing tones. Said chiming was answered in turn by a rattling breath behind them all, the girl's attention pulled just as quickly from the archers back to the hall. Suki prayed it wasn't Miki in the hall … She didn't know if she had the strength in her to hit the undead girl.

Thankfully, it was not her, but something much, much older. A lady's servant if the clothes were any indication.

Quickly making a decision, the warrior girl cried out, "Girls! Spread out! Katara, check on the children, take Temko with you. Lalli, get some rice on that thing before it gets back up! The rest of us will fight."

Katara wanted to disagree, to say she would stay and fight, but her hands became fists instead as she stiffly turned toward the room the children had bedded down for that night. She could fight later. She could fight when her bending was a blade and shield and not a sloppy mess. Then, no one would be able to hurt her or the ones she loved.

Meanwhile, Suki sprang forward in a collection of fan blades and skirts. Though, they were all archers and far better skilled for distance attacks, none of the YuYan feared close quarters combat. Each had short swords or throwing weapons. Some still clung to their bow, twisting and turning out of the way like wayward shadows.

And so, the female warriors and Sokka met the archers head on.

The herbalist, at this time, was speaking to her cat in a few rooms over, wandering to and fro like a madwoman on a mission. She did not seem to note the cries of battle or the grunts of bodies being slammed into her home's walls. She was too busy talking to her cat. "No, no. We are going on a long trip. We don't need the pear blossom, but we need the black plum. And these herbs as well. We cannot leave without these."

The white cat merely meowed in turn, licking around the strange little saddle bag she had been situated with.

The old woman, in turn, seemed to be packing a heavy traveler's bag with herbs and other oddities. There was also a bedroll tied to the back along with some sparse cookware. She was going places. She had even changed into what looked like traveling clothes.

"Now, where is that Air Nomad pedant? We need to keep evil spirits away," said the herbalist, coming over with a wooden box. A second later Miyuki screeched as she was buried in a pile of pendants, necklaces and other stringed things which were tangled in a knotted mess. "Help me find it, will you?"

Yet, before the cat could even start the struggle from her necklace prison, there was a rain of wood and stone as a boy dressed in blue was kicked through a thin wall. A second later an archer was jumping through said hole in the wall after him, scattering dust everywhere. The archer then preceded to shoot a netted arrow at the boy. Sokka, in turn, took a moment to scream before he rolled out of the way and clumsily onto his stomach.

The herbalist seemed far less shocked than her cat at seeing a battle taking place in her home. She didn't even blink an eye as Sokka got to his feet, released a war cry, and tried to hit the trained soldier with his bone club. The teenager was merely dodged and then kicked back through the wall he came through, the battle once again in the room over. If it could be called a single room … there were quite a few walls missing now. Not surprising, given half the walls were made of rice paper.

Stalling, the old woman blinked as if finally comprehending the situation. She then merely chuckled before leaning over and picking up an Air Nomad pendant that had been knocked loose from the pile. She hung it around her neck and smiled sadly down at it before she looked back up at the YuYan archers in her halls. "Look at that Miyuki. So many visitors today, and they seem quite handsome at that. It's a good thing I put my face mask on today. And you thought I should skip it."

Miyuki gave the old woman a deadpan stare as if asking, 'You know they're Fire Nation, right?'

Nodding as if the cat had spoken, the old woman lifted the angry feline out of the pile of trinkets. "No time to stare, dearie. Unfortunately, so many guests will attract more guests… and not the handsome kind."

The woman then took in a breath and held it as she stared out a nearby window … two shadowy figures just standing outside, still like rotting tree trunks. She stared at the still beings, not even breathing until the two suddenly sprang away, likely hopping onto the roof. It was as if they had lost sight of her.

She released her breath and chuckled in a mad way as she pulled her pack on. "Yes, certainly the unpleasant sort of company. Well, time for the mail chutes, eh, Miyuki?"

And so, the old woman walked through the war zone that had become her home. Teenagers and archers were being kicked through walls while arrows flew every which way. She didn't even have to dodge. She just seemed to walk through the chaos as if she knew it would never touch her. Miyuki, on the other hand, looked petrified as she ran after her owner, tripping a wayward YuYan archer in a way that only a house cat could. Said archer merely grunted and then rolled into his fall as fan blades quickly followed after him.

Katara, staring at the chaos, had a group of children now behind her. Some of the young benders were still haphazardly trying to get dressed while others had their packs on upside down. The water-bender knew she should run, keep the younger ones away from the filthy Fire Nation, and yet, could she leave her brother? The Kyoshi Warriors?

"Will you move, dearie? Some people have escapes to make?" came an old humored voice, interrupting the young adult's thoughts.

Katara, daring to look away from the chaos as one of the Kyoshi warriors was reduced to hand to hand combat because her fans had been shot away, stared at the old herbalist. She just realized that she didn't even know the old woman's name. Had the herbalist even said it? Some people said names were power and you should be careful who you give them to, for spirits liked to eat such things. Did the old woman think a bunch of kids would steal her name?

Pushing the thought way, marking it as unimportant at such a time, Katara choked, "Escape? Where?! Those things are outside!"

"Yes, yes, they are, but we are taking the mail chutes. Nearly forgot they were there. They will take us all the way down the mountain. It should shave off at least a day in our run to the river," said the herbalist as she stepped forward, squeezing passed Katara like a stubborn old cat. "Or the chutes might kill us. Who knows if all the chutes' tracks are still completely intact."

Katara and Kemko, a Kyoshi Warrior next to her, took a moment to share a horrified look. Then again, what other choice did they have? Turning to the kids, Katara made a choice, sending a private prayer to La and Tui for good luck. "We'll have to chance it. Come on, let's follow the herbalist."

"What of the others?" asked Kemko as she gripped her bladed fans tightly, listening to the fight with a wanton heart. "Is there no way we can draw them away from the battle to retreat?"

"You can wait for the other guests," said the herbalist, stuffing what looked like a framed water color painting into her shirt as she walked down the hall, taking small trinkets as she went. "Fire needs to breathe. Earth and water don't. Those elements can hide the breath of their chi at least for a time. Fire Nation cannot. Just hold your breath and maybe the undead won't see you."

"What?" said Katara nearly tripping after the old woman. She wanted more of an explanation, but there wasn't time. A scream, a true scream even as muffled as it was, sounded. It caused all the YuYan and Kyoshi Warriors to look up and stall. There was a scuffle on the roof, grunts and heavy hops. There was then a twak, an arrow shooting right through the ceiling a second later as if it had been knocked away. It was followed by two or three other arrows, each embedding itself into the floor below as it left holes in the ceiling above. It was as if someone was purposely shooting downward and through the failing roof, but why would they do that?

A second later, everyone received an answer as two bodies fell through the weakened roof, rolling as they hit the flooring below. It was Yu Liu, and he was half carrying his bow brother, Zhaoqi. The older man seemed to be struggling just for breath as he held his throat, his lips the lightest of blues. He was struggling just to keep his own feet, and it was obvious that Yu Liu was the only reason he was still standing for that matter alive.

Sensu, frowning, didn't have time to pull Yu Liu and Zhaoqi out of the room that became a battlefield when suddenly something heavy and stiff jumped down into the room with all of them. It threw dust everywhere as it landed, like an earth-bender making a flashy entrance. Yet, when the dust settled, it obviously wasn't an earth-bender. At least, not anymore. It clearly had been one of the militia that plagued Pohuai Stronghold … ten years ago. That type of armor had long since been retired. The rasping death rattle, white open eyes, and dry pulled back black lips were the other signs that this thing was most assuredly not alive anymore.

Well, it seemed they got to see what had been happening to all the Earth Kingdom militia in the area for the past ten years, and it wasn't exactly anything pleasant. Sensu, the YuYan's mission leader, didn't even get to question the creature further when Zhaoqi made a choked noise, dragging in a terrified yet raspy breath. It gained the thing's attention and suddenly it hopped across the room. It was then slamming Yu Liu into a wall before he could even react and was then upon the already injured archer. The undead seemed to breathe in, to close to a sputtering Zhaoqi's face. It appeared to be trying to suck something in. It was like it was trying to steal the archer's very breath and likely … his chi.

Sensu didn't even have to bark any orders. It was an unspoken command to protect their own. Let the children go. They could catch them again, and so they released a rain of arrows.

Suki and Lalli, back to back, watched in horrified fascination as all the Fire Nation archers seemed to forget them. The men were all turning their attention to the bigger threat in the room. It was slightly insulting, and yet, Suki was not the type of look a gift ostrich-horse in the mouth. This was their chance to get away.

Waving her fans, getting all the girls' (and Sokka's) attention as the archers aimed for the undead, the Kyoshi Warriors all headed to a hall Temko was waving them towards. Sokka was only allowed a questioning look when he noticed that all the children were trying to hold their breath from time to time, when suddenly a giant bag of rice was thrown at him, again. What was with people and throwing food at him? Mind you, he generally wouldn't mind, but he wasn't going to get to eat it so it was doubly cruel to him.

"Put some rice in the doorway. It will slow down the jiangshi. Any gift given must always be observed and counted," said the old woman as she stuffed something else into her pack, "But you better pour more than one line. The jiangshi are fast counters, and you breathe too heavily boy. Hold your breath once in a while and they might stop seeing us enough to get away."

Sokka, done with his first line of rice, looked at the old woman in disbelief. He didn't even have time to argue about men needing more air than women when there was a thud right next to him, a form suddenly before him. The teenager immediately screamed, nearly falling backward as what must have once been a farm girl stood before the line. Her milky eyes first looked at Sokka and then at the rice line. She was obviously one of the undead given the worn look over her clothes and the drawn look of her features. She might have even been pretty before she died.

Nonetheless, the undead farm girl released a rattling breath as if sighing and then looked down. She stared for a moment as if irritated by a chore, and then her head started swinging back and forth with sickening cracking noises and unnatural speed. She was obviously counting the rice from sight alone … each and every grain.

Sokka could only stand there, rice slowly pooling on the floor, unable to look away. Kyno, the oldest child in the group and the one forced to bring up the rear with Sokka, stalled next to the water tribesman. He gaped as well. It wasn't until the undead farm girl looked back at the both of them with milky eyes that they both realized their folly. She had finished counting and they had yet to put down another line. They could have sworn the undead girl smiled as she hopping over the rice line.

Both boys screamed for a moment like fools before they slapped hands over each other's mouths to cover their breath. The youngest boy at least was smart enough to grab a hand full of rice and throw it at the jiangshi in order to stall her. Then, both holding their breath as their cheeks turned red, they both proceeded to put down line after line of rice for their escape route.

The jiangshi at least took the time to look irritated before she started counting.

A few seconds later, both boys raced outside towards what looked like a stone track. They were both gasping like fools as the Kyoshi Warriors loaded the last of the children into stone looking carts. The old healer was in the front telling them all to get a move on it.

Sokka, all but diving into the last cart, signaled for Kyno to jump into the fourth stone cart with him. It looked like he was volunteering to take up the rear. Not surprising given he had the rice, but the young earth-bender couldn't help but see a problem with this entire situation.

"Uh … how are we going to get the carts moving?"

The obvious answer was earth-bending, but Sokka didn't even get to try and push the cart when a YuYan slammed through the back door after them. It seemed they were done with the undead inside.

"Earth-bend! Earth-bend!" cried Sokka as he grabbed the oldest youth with them, dragging him into the cart.

"I'm bending! I'm bending!" screamed the youth as he started stomping his legs. The cart, of course, didn't go anywhere at first until an arrow flew over their heads. There were now two YuYan by the door, eyeing the youths as if deciding how to capture them all at once.

"They're multiplying!" cried Sokka as he ducked down into the stone cart. "Do some earth magic!"

"I'm trying!" cried the boy, now slapping a bare foot against the inside of the cart. It wasn't until one of the YuYan peered into the stone cart that Kyno was shocked enough to push the back cart and in turn all the carts in front of them, down the railing like a runaway rail cart.

The YuYan, now all bursting through the back door (Wenzhou carrying Zhaoqi like a sack of potatoes over one of his shoulders), all stood there a moment glowering as all the carts slid towards the first steep decline. All the children, jerking with the awkward movements of the young earth-benders in each cart, took a moment to glare, laugh, point, wave or stick their tongues out. They were getting away!

Looking at each other silently, the YuYan almost chuckled as two of them shot arrows forward, ropes attached to each. Said arrows embedded themselves easily into the children's carts. Three of the archers then jumped into the last cart, two of them (and a potato sack) staying back to act like runners as they pushed the cart forward. All the kids, seeing this, screamed as the fifth stone cart started after them, gravity now taking hold and thrusting them down a steep slope like a roller coaster. The rapid speed ripped the roped arrows from the first carts, but the damage was done … the YuYan were giving chase.

Luckily, most the stone track seemed to be intact, all the kids crying out as a steep descent took place. Unfortunately, the YuYan were also gathering speed. Sokka, watching with a critical gaze, swallowed and looked forward and then back. They had to get rid of the YuYan now while they had speeds advantage. Unused tracks were flying by which meant there had to be change stations to get onto them. Earth-benders probably had stood at these change stations and directed the stone carts to the correct parts of the city. Sokka was going to do the same.

"Alright Kyno, see those switching stations," said Sokka, getting lower into the cart while he pointed towards the upcoming switch-station. "When we go passed that next change station, I need you to use your earth voodoo and switch it over. We can lose our stalkers if they get directed to a different route. Then we can get off of this terrible mountain."

Kyno swallowed. He was barely trained in his bending, but he could do this. At first, he had hated the two water tribe siblings, but a part of him … really wanted to learn. He wanted to learn his element so badly that his teeth hurt and his bones ached. He hadn't realized he had the need until they stepped foot onto the mainland. Just how long had he been in pain, held back from his bending? He just wished … he didn't have to leave his home to do it.

Nodding, the preteen barely got to stand up when an arrow whizzed overhead, embedding itself into a change station. It was obviously a warning. It seemed that Sokka's vague pointing had tipped the archers off to his plan. They really did have sharp eyes.

Sokka growled and gritted his teeth. They needed to get away from the archers now while they still had enough track to get a head start. It was obvious that the soldiers wanted them alive, but the benders in their small group … Sokka knew the rumors. They would be sent away, never to be seen again. His sister, his little sister, would be dried out and the earth-benders would be starved of their element. Worst case for him, he would get a work detail or maybe be forced onto a farm to produce for the Fire Nation. There were a lot of empty villages on the way here, and the Fire Nation probably wanted them filled again. Non-benders were a resource if they didn't fight too hard.

Swallowing the bitter truth of the situation, Sokka made a choice as he watched his sister try and throw an ice ball at the archers behind him. He, of course, got wet as the water missed, but his sister's struggle to fight just encouraged his mindset further. He could afford to be caught. He could be a distraction. Katara could not be caught. After all, Sokka had promised his dad to protect his little sister. He had also made the same promise to Kya, his mother, years before. He had promised her that he would watch his sister as his mother stepped out into the blinding sunlight to meet the raiders. He would not break his last promise to her.

Swallowing, standing up, he barely had time to take his boomerang and deflect an arrow. Then, never knowing if he would get another chance, he met Suki's eyes. She was in the cart in front of them. She was opening her mouth to tell him to get down, but he was already leaning forward. It was awkward and not at all graceful, but he kissed the girl.

He kissed the girl.

Pulling away a second later, Suki looking shocked, he was about to turn around when Suki caught him by the collar and in turn pulled him in for a real kiss. She, unlike him, had gotten practice somewhere along the way. It felt like a real kiss … as well as a goodbye. It was like she already knew what he was thinking. Her words stern, "You better come back to us, Sokka."

Nodding, he returned back to his stone cart, his words simple to Kyno, "You know what to do … and be nice to my sister."

Kyno didn't even know what to say when Sokka was giving a warrior's cry and jumping the short distance into the YuYan's cart with his bone club drawn. The grown men, surprised, went down in a huff to the cart's floor as Sokka landed on the crowded men. Kyno, no longer being aimed at, stood and stomped his foot, the vibration heading through the earth and to the stone switch station. With a grinding jerk, the YuYan's cart turned down a separate direction.

Sokka, flailing his arms as he tried to battle in close and awkward quarters with three trained soldiers, barely got one more glance out of the top of the cart. His sister was crying out to him, her hair-loopies whipping in the wind. He was immediately sorry. He forgot to say goodbye to her, and then one of the YuYan got the upper hand slamming his head into the side of the stone cart. The world went dark before Sokka could even feel any real regret.

"That brat. He broke my bow when he landed on us," came a growling voice.

Another male voice huffed, "Your broken bow is the least of our problems. Take Zhaoqi's for now. He is in no condition to fight. He barely can stand."

"But what about the bender kids and the old healer?"

"The kids?" came a younger voice, a twak sound echoing in the background. "What about these things? They aren't staying down, and I'm running out of arrows."

"Hey," said a voice close to Sokka, "Is the water-jerk waking up?"

"Someone, quick, check his bindings. We didn't see him water-bend, but it's better to be safe than sorry. Most of the other children looked like benders."

Sokka wasn't even allowed to shake off his disorientation when he was slammed onto his stomach, a knee placed on his back. His arms were then roughly jerked, the harsh rope he hadn't noticed digging into his skin.

The teenager grunted, taking in the scene. He was surround by YuYan in a small clearing. They all seemed troubled by something, skittish even, and then Sokka noticed the heavy breathing. His head snapped to the side, his mouth shutting automatically as he caught sight of a girl a few yards away. An undead girl. She was lying upon the ground, clawing at the earth as she turned her milky eyes in his direction. Her black teeth gnashed like a hungry thing, a hoard of arrows in her back like a pincushion. And yet, despite the grievous damage to her form, she made a crawling motion towards him. She didn't even get an inch farther, though, when there was another twak … an arrow entrenching itself right into her skull.

The undead girl was still … for only a moment, a rattling breath escaping her.

"See. It won't stay dead," said Bhao, turning to their unit leader.

Sokka, watching another arrow sink into the undead girl's heart, suddenly found that he was unable to control his breathing. He couldn't hold his breath for the life of him. Instead, his breathing was coming faster and faster. He couldn't calm down and tears were threatening to gather in his eyes. There was a mantra playing in his head: he was captured, bound and trapped on the mountain; he'd soon be one of those things. Maybe his sacrifice was for nothing? Maybe Katara was already dead? Father had asked for him to take care of her. He was supposed to be a man. He was supposed to be strong, but he was just a teenager. He wasn't even officially a man by his village's standards. And the village. He had abandoned the village. Did gran-gran and the others have enough food? He hadn't even wanted to be here. He had to be strong. He had to be a man, but he wasn't a man. He … he was scared. He didn't want to die here.

He didn't want to be an undead boy.

"Hey, hey," finally came a deep voice through the din of Sokka's slowly escalating panic, Sensu suddenly patting the teenager's head. "Come on, breathe, kid. We won't let her have you. We don't need more of those things. Now, just take breaths in through the nose. Nice and easy, count your breaths."

Sokka hated the fire-jerks, but he didn't know what else to do. So, he counted each breath, telling himself that he was going to get out of this. He was the meat and sarcasm guy. He was going to be fine. Just fine. He could do this … he had already accepted this fate when he had jumped across the carts. He was a nobody. It was better for him to be captured instead of his sister.

"There we go. Now, kid. Do you know what these things are?" said Sensu as he pointed to the undead girl.

Seeing no point in lying, part of him knowing that the only way he was going to get off of this mountain was with the help of the fire-jerks, Sokka replied shakily, "It's a jiangshi."

"Okay, got it," said the archer, another twak filling the air as one of the archers pinned the undead girl to the ground with an arrow to the leg. "Do you know how to kill it?"

"It's neither dead nor living. It cannot live nor can it die," said Sokka as he looked away from the undead girl. He was getting sick just from looking at her. She was filled with so many arrows.

"Should we bind it then?" asked Bhao as he started pulling arrows out of the dead thing's back. They obviously weren't hindering it. He just as wells reuse them.

"And then?" said Sensu as he forced the teenager to sit up. "Binding isn't going to hold forever. No, we need something more permanent. We are going to deal with this curse here and now if we can. We might even save the new recruits from the company if any are still alive."

Turning his gaze back to Sokka, part of him hating and yet accepting that they all may be drawn into the spirit world, Sensu asked, "Now kid, what are these things and how can we get rid of them? I need to know the legend behind them … and don't think about lying to me. The girl in blue was your sister, right? Well, there is no way she is getting off this mountain with those things around. If you want her to at least have a chance you will tell me what you know."

Sokka, swallowing, hated the man for knowing his weaknesses so easily. And so, for Katara and the other bender kids, Sokka told them what he could of a hungry forest spirit and the Rice Festival.

A few minutes later, the YuYan were back in the trees.

"Really? Some rice would have solved all of this? Why didn't the locals say anything about spirit payments? I thought the Rice Festival was just a festival. Ugh, we are going to die," said Bhao as he hopped to a new tree, a bag of rice tied to his back. They had detoured to the captured encampment, grabbing what rice they could.

Sensu glanced back from their rush across the mountain to the closest cavern they knew of to offer the rice too. It was a pit. A deep dark hole that the locals feared. The temple that had been before it had been simple and seemingly rushed, but it had been made to last. It had not come down easily. Some years ago, it had been pushed into the pit itself for it was nothing but heavy boulders. Personally, Sensu didn't know why they had destroyed all the small temples throughout the mountains. It seemed an insult to the ancient earth, but the last colonel before Colonel Shinu had been a mean-spirited man. He wanted to hurt the native people merely for the sake of hurting them. Apparently, he had wanted to strip their culture from their bones.

They said that colonel had gone missing in the mountains months later and to this day no one had found him. Not even his bones. Sensu now suspected what happened to that mean-spirited man, and it had not been a pleasant end.

Jumping from tree to tree, jiangshi growing more and more numerous, Sensu was sure that any moment now he would see a flash of red on one of the undead. Jumping to the ground, rolling into the fall, he wasn't surprised at all that the teenager on Gejin's back shouted out in surprise. Gejin had likely rolled with him. All the YuYan were now on the ground, running. They could hear the undead not far behind. You could even hear their hopping, their rattling breaths between the trees. None of the YuYan knew how many were behind them, no one wanted to look, but the undead were obviously waiting near the entrance of the pit. The deepest darkest hole at the base of the mountain.

Coming to the edge, Gejin all but threw the water tribe boy off of his back and near the rim of the cavern. A second later, Sensu threw a bag rice at him. "Say what needs to be said and throw the rice in. Pray, it works or we are all dead."

Taking up the rice bag, looking back at the YuYan who were now all pointing their bows at the gathering forms in the surrounding trees, Sokka swallowed. Well, he was probably going to die anyway. Why not wing it?

"Oh, great … spirit … in the hole," one of the YuYan turned to give Sokka a side glance. Sokka merely smiled nervously and coughed. "We bring you this sacrifice of … rice. Tasty, tasty, rice. Mmmm."

Now half of the YuYan were giving Sokka a look of skepticism. He just ignored it, though, and started to pour bag after bag of rice into the dark gaping hole. Looking over his shoulder, he couldn't help but note there were more jiangshi, some hopping out of the trees. Some stood tall, some hunched over. Either way, they were all wheezing, breathing in deeply with their dried lips. It was as if they could taste the livings' breath all the way across the small clearing.

"That's it? Why are they still coming?" growled Bhao, looking back at the teenager.

There were more and more of the undead now. They were not going to be able to run away and even if they did, Sokka knew he would be dead weight. He was going to get left behind, and there was still the matter of Katara and the bender kids. There was no way they had gotten off the mountain yet, even with the mail chutes.

"The Rice Festival is a festival of sacrifice. The farmers would sacrifice part of their hard work and food from their families. Their blood and sweat. It should work," said Sokka softly. The rest of the old herbalist's words then hit him: in the past, the spirits have been known to take other things. Tell me, boy, what are you willing to give up to protect the ones around you?

The next thought blindsided Sokka and again he thought of his mother. She gave herself for Katara's sake. Should he … do the same? Should he throw himself into the pit? It called for a sacrifice. The undead were going to get them anyway at this rate, especially him. At least he might be able to protect Katara this way.

Swallowing again, his heart rate suddenly escalating, Sokka shakily rose to his legs and looked down into the darkness. His next question was if it would hurt? Would it hurt to fall into the darkness? Would it hurt to be ripped into by the spirit of the mountain? Would it hurt … to become one of those things?

Suddenly, as if coming forward due to his thoughts alone, a glow appeared in the pit. Sokka blinked. He might have been terrified if he hadn't noticed it was just dragonfly-moths. Lots and lots of them. In fact, more and more kept rising out of the pit like little stars, seeming to light up the dark pit. Then, before the water tribesman could even blink, the little lights combined as if they had always been one, a figure forming over the mouth of the cave. It was bright and blinding causing everyone to look away and grunt at its suddenness. The jiangshi, though, they stalled and then fell back into the tree line.

They knew better than to interfere.

Already knowing what was before him, what was standing midair above the cave of the mouth, Sokka immediately didn't want to look. He knew the light, even as it died down, was no longer just firefly-moths. It was like with the old man in the village all over again, and the black spirit he dared not give a name.

A spirit was before him. He didn't want to look. It might take him. It might take them all. He didn't want to look. He just wanted to close his eyes tight and wake in their father's hut. His breaths were now coming in almost panicked little gasps. He was scared. He was really scared, but that was okay. It was okay to be scared. Mom had probably been scared before she died, before her sacrifice.

Sokka swallowed stiffly, he gathered his courage and the pride of his tribe and forced himself to raise his head. He would face this.

The spirit was not a drifting shadow before him. It was light. It was also in the shape of a giant tiger-elk, horns large and sweeping like a tree with far too many branches. There were even bells and charms upon its sweeping magnificent antlers, jingling with a soft song in the wind. It was a sight to behold, a hunting trophy if it was alive, and yet Sokka could see its ribs as if the great beast was starving.

Swallowing, Sokka found that his tongue was heavy, and yet, he dared speak as he got down onto his knees and bowed before what was obviously a great Mountain Spirit. "I-I have come to offer a sacrifice … myself if I must."

The YuYan, who were still eyeing the undead in the tree line, turned in surprise.

There was a silence, just a slight rattling on the wind, and then surprisingly, a voice greeted him, "It has been a long time since one has offered themselves to me."

Sokka swallowed, noting how the voice was heavy little rushing water in a brook. Katara probably would have loved the sound of it. Personally, it terrified him. Was this going to be the last thing he ever heard? Nonetheless, he kept his courage. "I am a water tribesman. A warrior of my tribe. I will do what I must … even jump into the pit."

The great spirit flicked his ears as if in thought and then it shook its head, turning its gaze to its creations: the jiangshi. The tiger-elk stared for a minute before he spoke again. "No. The mere will to do so feeds me, little warrior-sacrifice, but you must offer up an item to take with me. A symbol of your will."

Sokka blinked, the words taking a moment to hit him. He didn't need to sacrifice himself? He didn't have to die today? The teenager almost laughed, but then stilled. If not his life, what was good enough for a spirit?

The teenager almost jumped out of his skin when a sandal landed next to him. Sensu standing over him. The man held a deeply disturbed expression as he stared at the spirit and then looked down at blue-clad local. He could hear a rushing noise from the great spirit, like moving water, but … was the teenager actually hearing words? Sensu's throat seemed dry as he spoke, "Is it saying something?"

The teenager turned and looked at the archer. Was he deaf? Nonetheless, Sokka answered, "He said I don't have to sacrifice myself, but I must sacrifice an item showing my will to do so."

The man stared at him for a moment brows drawing downward. Sensu frowned heavily before he motioned for his bow brother. "The boy's bag, Gejin. He must offer up something to the spirit."

Gejin frowned as well but threw the bag to his fellow archer regardless.

Giving Sokka a look that basically said, 'Don't try anything,' Sensu offered the bag to Sokka.

Taking the bag, Sokka resisted the urge to hug it close. He might never see this again. This deep blue bag, stitched by Gran-Gran. Nonetheless, he opened it and stared inside. What would represent the sacrifice of his body and his soul? Eyeing the sparse items, for this trip hadn't exactly been planned, the boy immediately knew what represented his body. Some seal jerky. It came from the South Pole, just like him. His soul was harder. What could represent a soul? What could one exchange for that? Sokka closed his eyes … and then felt around in the bag. A soul. What made his soul?

Slowly, the teenager fingered the bag's items, a sadness filling his eyes. He immediately picked out his bone club. Bato and his dad had helped him make it. Mom had been sitting in the hut with Katara messily helping her with sea prunes at the time. They had been watching. The bone had been from one of the first kills Sokka had helped his dad and Bato gut and skin. It was one of his most cherished memories. It was a perfect day with the ones he loved.

If a memory could be an item, that perfect day, it would be this bone club. This weapon represented a part of his soul, especially because it hurt. The thought of leaving it behind ached. It stung with a hollowness to think of leaving it, yet he pulled it out, careless of the YuYan that were watching him. Carefully, he placed it on the ground next to the wrapped meat, swallowing the sorrow in his throat. He allowed his fingers to linger on the weapon a moment more before he whispered, "I offer these things as a part of my soul … and body. I'll miss you meat, bone club."

A YuYan behind him blanched, "You are giving a Mountain Spirit meat? That won't appease it!"

Yet, before Sokka could even argue, the spirit chuckled and said simply, "I am appeased, Sokka the warrior-sacrifice. I accept your offering."

Sokka, releasing a breath he hadn't even noticed he had been holding, bowed and stated simply, "Thank you great Mountain Spirit."

Then, to the horror of both the YuYan archers and Sokka, there was a skittering noise down in the hole. Deep, deep down. It slowly grew louder and louder. It was quickly joined with a rasping noise and a clawing noise. Then suddenly a form was crawling out of the pit.

It was a jiangshi.

Sokka yelped and fell back against the archer's legs, his mind grappling for answers. Maybe, it did want him after all? Yet, before Sokka could even hold his breath or Sensu could pull back an arrow, the undead thing knelt to retrieve Sokka's offerings. Being this close, Sokka couldn't help but note how different this jiangshi was from the others. First off, it was old, very old. It looked like it was from an era when warlords still ruled the lands that became the Earth Kingdom when the world was still wild. In fact, the jiangshi looked like a warlord. Perhaps, this was the tax collector from the story and he had actually collected his own taxes.

Nonetheless, unlike the other undead, this one didn't seem so worn. In fact, if it wasn't for the paper charm plastered to its forehead (probably from a past Avatar) and the outdated fur-lined armor, Sokka may have mistaken him for being alive … or a spirit. Luckily, the jiangshi didn't even look at him as it merely wheezed and leaned down, picking up Sokka's offering. A sacrifice of body and spirit. Sokka would miss both, but mostly the club. After all, his father could be …

Sokka buried that thought and refused to dwell on it. He should just be glad that he was probably going to live. His willingness to throw himself into the pit alone had appeased the spirit. The club was just a memento.

Knelt there, finally daring to breathe, Sokka watched as the tiger-elk came forward and nudged the old warlord towards the pit. It was playful and kind like a tiger-elk with one of her cubs. The spirit even whispered, "To bed with you, all of you."

It was then like a flood. All the undead that had been following them, all the ones still in the trees that had been watching them with their milky white eyes, they all rushed forward. The YuYan, terrified, tried to get out of the way as the not-dead rushed forward. Yet, they were not grabbed nor were they tugged into the hole in the earth. The jiangshi merely rushed past them, into the pit, and down its walls like spider-ants.

It was terrifying, and yet, Sokka couldn't help but wonder, in their piles of treasure and beds of rice, did the jiangshi dream? Were they put to bed like small children by the mountain god himself? Did they still have souls attached to them or were they empty husks? In the end, as the great tiger-elk turned to leave, the charms jiggling on his great antlers, Sokka found his voice.

It was a question, a terror that he had bottled down so deep he dared not give it a name, but when else could he ask? Who else could he ask? He doubted he would meet another great spirit … at least not a benevolent one. He honestly didn't want anything to do with spirits, but he feared it was too late because he had looked backward all those years ago. He had glanced into the shadows, and they had looked back.

"S-spirit. Great Mountain Spirit, thingy. Please wait. I … I have something to ask?" dared Sokka, his voice squeaking awkwardly.

The great spirit stalled, ears falling back against its head. It was listening, though, Sokka could tell it wished to return to its creations.

"I-I looked back. I looked back when I was told not to, and I saw it … in the dark. It took him, the old man, and no one mentioned it afterward. He said it took his village. It came to take. Will it come for me as well?" questioned Sokka, trying to ignore the looks he was now getting from the YuYan. They were acting like he was talking to himself. What was so weird about talking to a giant glowing tiger-elk?

Okay, it was weird, but he had to know. He felt like it was eating him slowly from the inside.

The tiger-elk finally turned around and seemed to really look at Sokka. It was as if it was examining him, looking for some kind of blemish or smear on his soul. Sokka tried to not squirm. He had been willing to throw himself to his death a few minutes ago, he could take a little staring.

Giant white eyes blinking, the tiger-elk titled its head, stating simply, "But it already has you for you fear it."

Sokka's spine went stiff. It … it already had him? What did that mean? Ugh, he hated spirits for this reason! Could he even return back to the village knowing that thing was after him? Would it take his village as well?

"The question of importance, little sacrifice, is not if it will take your home, but if it will take you. It cannot take form without you. So, the real question is if you are willing to fight it? For, even the smallest creature in my mountains has the right to live if they fight for it. Including you," said the spirit as it drew closer and closer.

Sokka wanted to back away, especially when the spirit's face got near his own, large horns seeming to encircle him. He knew he could probably roll backward and run for it, but he held his ground, gulping loudly. What was it with spirits being completely terrifying even when they weren't trying to kill you? Why couldn't they be small or tasty looking? Was that a horrible thing to ask for?

The spirit chuckled as if hearing the water tribesman's thoughts. "Well?"

"I want to fight," finally answered Sokka, his tongue feeling dry. "I'm a warrior after all."

The spirit chortled again as if speaking to a child. "Well then, little warrior-sacrifice, I will give you a chance to fight what's inside you. It is the seed of a wendigo, but it is so ravenous. It so hungers for blood, meat and bone. I don't know if you will win."

Sokka, skin going pale, wondering what the great spirit meant by inside him, cringed down as the Mountain Spirit started shaking its head. For a moment, he thought those great antlers were going to gouge him. They did not. Instead, what looked like blue glowing snow seemed to fall from the spirit's antlers, falling onto Sokka's skin and clothing… only to be absorbed a moment later. Sokka, at first, was dumbfounded. He really wanted to ask how spirit dandruff and the sound of bells was going to help him, but somehow, he kept his mouth shut. Not that that stopped the spirit from chuckling at him again and stepping away.

The spirit eyed the teenager once more before nodding its great head as if satisfied, the metal charms ringing as it added, "Be warned little warrior-sacrifice … should you win, it leaves a space for something else to try and crawl in."

Then, before Sokka could question what the spirit meant, it nodded once more and then suddenly burst into a cloud of dragonfly-moths which swooped down into the cavern below. Nose crunching up, his mind now sickeningly reminded he still needed to escape the Fire Nation, Sokka was about to start forming an escape plan. He didn't get very far, though, when a stab of pain raised upward from his stomach and up his throat. He nearly doubled over, hands wrapping around his torso. He ground his teeth and dragged in a raspy breath as he prayed for the stabbing pain to subside.

It did not. If anything, the pain got worse, tears threatening to fall from his eyes as the agony spread throughout his guts. What had the spirit done to him?

Sokka, now all but choking as he struggled to breathe, was distantly aware that one of the YuYan archers was saying something to him when suddenly he threw his hands over his mouth. He had no control over it at all. He couldn't even try to swallow as something seemed to … crawl up his throat. Before he knew it, he was emptying his stomach contents. Something was very, very wrong. This wasn't post-battle nerves. It was coming up black, sliding between his fingers like black tar. It was black like shadows. Black like shadows he dared not give a name, and it felt like something was crawling up his throat. It was a hunger. A want for his meat to be slightly raw. For blood and gore and limbs galore. It was there. How long had this hunger been there, inside him?

It was ravenous.

The next thing Sokka knew he was leaning over the pit, mouth wide open as he started to cough up more and more black ooze. His body was rebelling, shaking. His veins felt like they were on fire … and some dark thing seemed to squirm inside him. It felt like that night when he looked back. Something had crawled in, and now he was struggling to get it out.

He'd either win … or it would tonight.

Eyes rolling into the back of his head, unable to breathe this whole time, Sokka was only vaguely aware that one of the YuYan reached out just in time to grab him before he could fall into the pit.

XXX

Paw07: Hello loves. I wanted to give you all something for the holidays, but it took a while to proofread. Oh well. Anyway, I hadn't planned on Sokka interacting so much with spirits or being infected, but I have been proofreading the older chapters and I latched onto Sokka's backstory in Chapter 38. I kind of decided to force Sokka to interact with two of the things he hates most: spirit things and Fire Nation. Yep. I also wanted to play with the concept of how the Fire Nation deals with integrating the captured population and how they deal with spirits. So Sokka's going to get his own underplot for a while. Katara and the kids really aren't going to have anything interesting happening to them for a while anyway so it should be fine.

Also, sorry for the long wait. I lost my job. It's been very hard on me. I lost a lot of my spare time for things like writing when I finally got a new job. Nonetheless, I hope you all enjoyed the chapter.