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Author Topic: Traitor's Face [AU Adventure, rated T]  (Read 37133 times)
Never Gonna Give Yue Up

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I'm Loooooooopy!

« on: Jan 02, 2015 08:34 pm »

FanFiction.Net link: https://www.fanfiction.net/s/10942328/1/Traitor-s-Face
deviantArt link: http://loopy777.deviantart.com/gallery/52589076/Traitor-s-Face
Archive of Our Own link: http://archiveofourown.org/works/3099866

Author's Note: This is an Alternate Universe created For Want of a Nail. It's going to be fairly long and contain lots of surprises, and you can rest assured I'm not going to be rehashing the original cartoon for even one scene. The full extent of how Alternate this Alternate Universe is will quickly become apparent. I hope you can give it a chance, and find enjoyment.

Author's Note for Those Who Have Read 'Retroactive': This is not that. Retroactive was a focused, psychological tale, starring what was arguably a villain protagonist, which sought to challenge notions of morality and justice by presenting questionable acts with no judgmental consequences. It was very intricately crafted, such that subtle hints, descriptions, and motifs were meant to pay off chapters later, and those connections not being made could lead to vastly different interpretations of the story. If you found yourself turned off by 'Retroactive,' then you might enjoy this story better. It will be told in a more episodic manner, with clear depictions of Good and Evil, even if good people sometimes do evil and evil people sometimes do good.

Author's Note the Third: This story will not have a Mai/Sokka romance. Just getting that out there.

And now on with the story...

Prologue - The Pact (Centuries Ago)

The tip of the spear was pressed against the oily chitin of Koh's body, the Face Stealer sprawled across the floor of his fetid domain wearing the face of cat-deer, but the smile that was being turned up at Kuruk was anything but defeated. "Congratulations, Avatar. Slay me and rejoice in yet another victory for your Spirit’s glory."

Kuruk wanted to, but more than Koh's death, he wanted to smack that smile off the creature's stolen face. He wanted to see pain in Koh's eyes, and hear his cries of anguish. He wanted Koh to regret every choice in his unnatural life, wanted Koh to regret ever daring to consider joining his destiny with Ummi's. After all, Kuruk already did, and more than anything he wanted Koh to share his pain.

The Avatar tightened his grip on the spear, and forced the rage out of his snarling voice. If he gave in to even the slightest display of emotion, his controlled expression would crack and Koh would have the opportunity to steal Kuruk's face as well. "Give her back, Face Stealer. Give her back or die."

"Oh, my dear Avatar, did you entirely think this ultimatum through?" Koh's face shifted, and suddenly the creature was looking up at Kuruk with the face of Ummi herself. "Are you really going to stab through this beauty in the name of spite?"

It was disgusting to see Ummi's face on Koh's clicking, writhing insect body, but Kuruk forced himself to keep looking. If he lacked the strength to stare his enemy in the eyes, how could he possibly be strong enough to finally finish this? "If you refuse to give her back, then at least I can rid the world of its greatest pest! Do not toy with me, Koh. You don't need to see the rage on my face to know how much I hate you."

"No, I don't.” Koh chuckled, its body matching the action with stomach-churning writhing. “I wouldn't have bothered you in the first place if I couldn't imagine the pain that would come oozing out of your heart. But are we really going to conduct these negotiations with your weapon between us?"

"There's nothing to negotiate." Kuruk pressed the spear down with only the slightest bit more of pressure, but it was enough to draw white stress lines on Koh's carapace. "Return Ummi's face, or die on the floor like the bug you are."

"See, this is why I had to get involved in the first place. The only match for your utter laziness when it comes to your job is your obsession with proving yourself through these tiresome displays of Water Tribe masculinity. Are you also going to roar victoriously after you kill me?" Koh's face changed again, this time to a drooling, tusked ogre. "Let me spell it out for you, just to save us some time. What do you think will happen to my faces if I were to die?"

Kuruk's stomach flipped, and it was all he could do to keep the sickened sensation from showing on his face.

Koh grinned with the ogre's visage, slicing his own lips on the tusks protruding from his mouth. "Kill me, and the faces die with me. The faces, and the spirits of everyone they represent, will shrivel and cease to be. There will be no reincarnation for your Ummi. Just the most terrible ripping sensation, and then... nothing." Koh winked. "And she'll know you made that choice. She's watching right now. Say hello, if you want."

Kuruk's hands had grown numb, and he heard more than felt the spear tumble out of his grasp to the floor of the cave.

Ummi's spirit... destroyed?

Never to reincarnate?


As the Avatar, with conditional access to the knowledge and experience all of his past lives, the very thought chilled Kuruk to his bones. Ummi would be free of Koh's control, but was that worth being ripped free of the life cycle, of the universe itself? To be blinded to the essence of the all?


...just stop?

Koh rose from the floor of the cavern and curled so that his face- now what might have been a human painted like a theatrical noh mask- hung right in front of Kuruk. "By all means, take the time to think about it. I'll be here, if you decide you want to kill me after all. I'll warn you not to expect a very nice welcome, but then I didn't exactly give you one this time, hm?" There was a crackling of chitin, and Koh moved to twirl slowly around the cavern like a restless worm. "Since you've been so reasonable about this, I'll even give you a boon. It's not like I enjoyed stealing what you value most, or punishing you for dereliction of duty and all of that childishly aggressive behavior you enjoyed so much. The look of terror on dear Ummi's face was quite hard to see, believe me." He turned and grinned. "You can tell by the sincere look on my face." There was a motion, and a sneering man with an eye-patch, a long curling mustache, and a gold tooth shifted into view.

The rage bubbled with Kuruk's heart again, and he felt the muscles in his lip tightening with the beginning of a snarl. Time slowed, and it seemed to him like he had a choice: he could choose right now to join his beloved in Koh's collection. They would be together forever, even if that existence was a torment.

Only the thought of associating such horror with Ummi kept him from giving in at that moment. At least if he lived, he could remember her as she was, before he- Koh- Kuruk- before he killed her.

Kuruk turned and hurried out of the cave.

He heard Koh's voice echoing from behind him and all through the cave: "Oh, did you not want to request a boon? Well, that's okay, we can defer it. I'll even make it official. I swear, on the love of my mother, that I owe you what humans call a 'favor.' What's done is done, but if at any point you need my services, I'll do as you ask. You know, just to show it's not personal. Be it stealing a face for you, or retrieving someone from the Fog of Lost Souls, or even something like getting one of the flowers from the center of Iblis' Vortex, I'll be there for you, Avatar. Until the end of time."

Kuruk was running by the time he emerged from the cave, fleeing that voice, and the failure. Beneath him, the substance of the Spirit World responded to Kuruk's anguish, despite its rock-like appearance, churning like the seas of the north in Stormtime. Kuruk stumbled and fell, crashing painfully only a moment after his own tears splashed to the ground. He had come to save Ummi, but he failed because he couldn't let go of her.

He couldn't let go.

Prologue - The Choice (Decades Ago)

The sun was rising, the humidity was climbing, and throughout the Royal Palace, servants were finishing the work that had kept them up all through the night. Fire Lord Azulon was pleased with the start of the day, and had expectations that the rest of it would be equally acceptable. If not, people would die, of course, but it had been a while since he had needed to give an order like that.

Azulon's first order of business, according to his checklist, was to wish his son a glorious Life Anniversary.

He found Iroh in the palace's War Room, as was common these days, staring up at the map of the world hung across the far wall. It was a good map, expressing the truth of the world, rather than mere geographical accuracies. The Fire Nation was depicted as being equal in size to the Earth Kingdom, while the Tribal infestations at the poles were minimized to the point of blending into the border decorations. A disturbing amount of the Earth Kingdom continent was still shaded in green, but Azulon and his armies were actively working to fix that, and he had no doubt that Ba Sing Se would be his in no more than a decade. With luck, by the time Iroh had offspring of his own; the idea of a world not completely ruled by the Fire Nation would be a dusty thing existing only in the history books.

Azulon stepped over to his son, and put a hand on the young man's shoulder. He had to reach down to do so, as his son had the short, stocky build of his mother, but he could feel the solid muscles resting ready beneath Iroh's silk robes. "Have you made your choice?"

"Good morning, Father." Iroh turned and offered one of the smiles that the people of the Capital found so charming. "You ask an interesting question. Have I made my choice? Well, that depends on what a choice actually is. Has the choice been made if there are still second thoughts? Then surely, any great leader must be incapable of making a choice, for great leaders must always keep the consequences in mind, and adjust their thinking when surprises come up. For haven't the great military philosophers throughout Fire Nation history all agreed that no plan survives contact with an enemy?"

Azulon shook his head. "There are choices, and there is dithering. Unexpected consequences will arise from any choice, but then it is the time for new choices, not endless examination of choices already made. Leave that to the historians. Leaders look only to the future, and the greatest of them change the world with every action they take."

Iroh dipped his head. "As ever, Father, you cut straight to the point. To answer your question, then, I do seem to have made my choice." He motioned up at the map. "Although the lands of the Earth Kingdom offer the greatest chances for victory, I find myself intrigued by the lands and the seas we have let slip from our attentions. Water Tribe culture has always fascinated me, and I wonder what secrets they keep to themselves."

Azulon frowned at the reminder. That was why he liked this map, with its focus on the Fire Nation and the Earth Kingdom. "They keep nothing to themselves but barbarian ways and the new Avatar. Their Waterbenders will be purged, and the Avatar will be found, if a new one was truly born after my father's purge. Then they can be left to rot in their snow." A new thought occurred to him, lifting his heart. "Perhaps we will declare the Poles to be playgrounds for our hunters, so that they can make sport of stalking and slaying the barbarians on their own land."

Azulon looked over at Iroh, and his son shrugged in response. "If that is your wish, Father, but I think your advisors underestimate the strength of that foe. Our excursions to the North have all been turned aside, and from what I read in the reports, the threat will require more resources than we have to spare. Let me practice my Pai Sho game against the northern barbarians, and if I succeed there before Ba Sing Se falls, then I will apply my sharpened wits to the Earth Kingdom."

"So your choice is the Navy, then, over the Army." Azulon sighed. "Very well, Prince Iroh. No, Admiral Iroh. It will be as you say." Iroh clapped his hands, and unleashed one of those hugs his mother had taught him to value. Azulon endured it, and then pulled his son away from the map. "Come, your celebration will be starting soon. With the choice of your career settled, you will now have to pick between the smoked meats or the melons for your breakfast."

"As long as there is plenty of tea, that choice cannot fail to be a happy one!"

Prologue - The Memory (Days Ago)

It was a lonely place to be a lemur. This One could remember a time when there had been other lemurs, beings similar to This One who ate and played and slept and flew. They had chased bugs, and scoured the place for fruits, and amused themselves, for as long as This One knew. Then, That One had stopped moving. It was troubling, not to have That One as part of the group anymore, but worse was when another That One stopped moving as well. Then the colds came, a worse cold than This One had ever seen, and all the That Ones in the nest at the Crag Around The Way had all frozen and stopped moving. Then the Danger started happening after the sun went down, and a That One had been caught outside; the next morning, she could not be found. That One's mate had stopped eating, then, and soon he stopped moving as well.

It was not long before This One was the only One left.

This One was left with nothing to do but survive and explore. It was scary to explore, since he had to be careful to not go too far lest he find himself caught outside with the Danger after the sun went down, but This One needed more than the same old Places, now that there was no One else.

Then, one day, This One found a new hole to crawl through, and followed it into the mountain. It was dark, but there were some nice spiders to eat, and at the end of the little tunnel was a massive cave big enough for fly-playing. This One flapped and looped through the cavern, enjoying the echoes that the snapping of his wings made. The only other things in the big room were standing stones, all as tall as eight This Ones and each one unique. Most of them lined the path that spiraled up along the cavern’s walls, while some stood all over the ground floor like a crowd. This One decided to investigate further, and swooped down to land on the standing stone at the very center of the floor space.

A jolt of something This One could not comprehend blazed through his body as soon as his arms and legs grasped the rock, and then he thought, "Oh, yes, I remember now."

The new memories had nothing to do with lemurs.

Well, mostly.

« Last Edit: Mar 01, 2015 04:36 pm by Loopy » Logged

Never Gonna Give Yue Up

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« Reply #1 on: Jan 02, 2015 09:37 pm »

I have been waiting for this fanfiction; and the wait was worth it. The part with Kuruk and Koh was delightfully dramatic. I have always been captivated by the thought of their battle ever since I saw a certain piece of fan art which depicted it. You have likely seen it before. Anyway, I look forward to reading where this particular plotline leads. Though I wonder why you placed it at the beginning of the story. Sure Kuruk's battle with Koh came chronologically before the other scenes, but were you trying to set the tone for the rest of the narrative? If so, it is quite an interesting tone.

I also thought the scene with Iroh and Azulon was well written. I would imagine that it was fun to write the dialogue for those two; in most stories they are in, they aways speak in a slightly more sophisticated mannee and I see that you have done that here.

I am quite not sure what that final ortion was about though. I guess that we will have to find out? Anyway, good luck Loopy. I am invested in this story.
« Last Edit: Jan 02, 2015 09:43 pm by Colonel_Brian » Logged
Never Gonna Give Yue Up

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I'm Loooooooopy!

« Reply #2 on: Jan 04, 2015 09:42 pm »

The Kuruk and Koh scene encapsulates what I think will be the "feel" of the entire finished story, and also provides some foundational information that will become very relevant at a later point. Consider it a taste of things to come. Grin

The final portion is the introduction of Momo, who will rejoin the story in Chapter 5. There are some hints in there about how the return to the Southern Air Temple will not be the same as it was in canon.

Thanks for your support, and I hope to keep everyone invested for the long term!





These are the four elements, the most basic components of the physical world. Everything is either an expression of one of these elements or a mix of them. Life combines all four; from the lowliest bug to the greatest king, all are composed of the same ingredients. From these elements come life, and when life is done, it is to another mixture of these elements that it returns.

Life also commands the elements.

For though these elements are the stuff of the physical world, life exists beyond the physical. Life taps into something greater, and far more dangerous.

It is the duty of the Avatar, whose origins are lost to legends, to be the bridge between the physical world and that greater something. While all life is bound by the reincarnation cycle, the Avatar alone has access to the power and knowledge of previous lives. Thus it falls to the Avatar to take responsibility for the past, and the future, of all humankind.

When the Avatar fails in this duty, the entire world suffers.

Nature falls out of balance.

Things other than the elements intrude on the world.

And that's just the beginning of the troubles...

The Heiress and the Iceberg

Avatar Aang knew nothing but peace, a state beyond suffering.

The place he occupied was no void. Though there was no physical sensation, no touch of time, his senses were filled to the point of gorging. There was light, and there was soft, comforting warmth. There was fresh air, the air of the highest peak of the Axis Mundi, at the spot where the sky met the earth. Aang was floating in the purest expression of the energy of life, and it sustained him like the water of the melting mountain snows. The harmonic ringing of this world sang to him a lullaby that kept him in perpetual half-sleep, a drowsy state where he could see clear to the end of his own existence.

It was enough to sustain him forever.

It was life itself.

Yet the horizons of his existence were so close, and in his dreaming, he imagined that he was poised to fall over the edge.

Mai knew nothing but boredom, a state smack dab in the middle of suffering. She only wished she could say that it was a new state of affairs.

But she couldn't.

Because it wasn't.

She was spending another day alone in her cabin, sprawled as much as she could be on top of the bed without her feet dangling off the end. She would have been doing this even if she was home in the Fire Nation, but one critical thing was missing. Back home, the walls and furniture would have been vulnerable to the knives, blades, and needles she always wore hidden underneath her clothes, and she could have wiled the day away playing at target practice on every inch of the woodwork.

The ship, though, was made of metal. All the ships in the Fire Navy were made of metal. And so the walls of the room were plates of metal that had been bolted together to form a cage that might as well have been made of the physical manifestation of boredom itself. She had tried throwing her knives at the walls, back on the first day of the voyage, but that just produced an unpleasant clanging sound and the need to actually bend over to retrieve her weapon.

Mai was just reconsidering the entertainment value of such effort when the ship's engines cut out.

The new silence was almost maddening, after living with the constant mechanical thrumming during the whole voyage down across the coasts of the Colonial Continent. It wasn't that Mai liked noise- on the contrary, noise was her chief complaint about the giant leech her parents insisted was her little brother- but something about the constant rattling of the ship had helped drive away her seasickness.

No such relief now. The only motion was the bobbing of the ship on the waves, an unpleasant reminder of the ocean’s vastness. Mai sighed and forced herself to crawl out of bed and throw on a fur-lined cloak. At least the deck would offer a breath of (unpleasantly frigid) fresh air, and if the seasickness got worse, the resulting mess wouldn't be fouling up her room. Or cabin. Whatever they called it.

The sky was dark when Mai emerged outside, of course. It had been as dark as night for three solid days now, ever since they had passed into the Southern Seas, and from what her parents had said, it would remain so for months yet. At least here in the sea, the moon and stars provided some light, but once they reached the South Pole, even that much would be lost in the fury of the storms, or so she had been told. Mai wasn't sure how she felt about the whole situation, because while she had always been fond of nighttime and shadows, an unchanging sky was boring. She elected to maintain a cautious disapproval until she could be bothered to think on the matter further.

Taking her eyes off the sky, Mai saw that she wasn't alone on the deck. In fact, it seemed that she was late to an impromptu party. The Captain was up at the ship's bow, along with a number of her crew. They weren't wearing their armor, and no one was holding any weapons, so Mai figured that there wasn't any danger. Not that anything that represented a danger to the crew was necessarily beyond her own ability to handle, but it was a good thing to establish.

Silently gliding across the deck, Mai was soon standing directly behind the captain. Drawing herself up like the noble heiress they expected her to be, she drawled, "What now?"

The captain jumped with surprise. (It was almost amusing.) However, the older woman soon reacquired her dignity and bowed. "My lady, we hit an unexpectedly solid iceberg and our bow is hooked into the ice. We don't think there is any damage to the ship, but we're doing a full checkout while our Firebenders extricate us. You may tell your Lord Father that the ship will be back in motion in an hour. He will be able to take up his position as Chief Governor of the United South Pole Colonies before the end of the day."

But Mai had stopped listening. Instead, her attention was focused on what must have been the offending iceberg. The sharp edge of the bow was indeed jammed into the thing, and a plank had been set up leading down to the main ice body, where a number of Firebenders were applying flames to the problem.

Mai eyed the iceberg. She was no expert on chunks of ice, but she didn't think they were supposed to be perfectly spherical and glowing blue.

That was interesting.

"My lady... ?" Military people like the Captain always needed a direct reply, or they were lost.

Mai threw a glance back at her. "I'll tell my father later. I'm going over to see the glowing iceball."

"Um, my Lady, we're not sure about its structural integrity, and it's bound to be colder over there. I've been charged with the protection of your family during this voyage-"

"Whatever. I'm bored, I'm light on my feet, and I don't think it can get any colder. Your objections are over-ruled, by my authority as a Weapon of the Fire Nation." She stepped out onto the plank without even looking back at the stuffy woman, and moved briskly towards the strange little ice feature. Something like a flat platform of ice surrounded the towering sphere, and five of the Firebenders were lined up in front of it, moving in unison through what looked like a simple Bending drill. They were keeping a steady stream of flame aimed at the center of the ball, but the lack of visible melting left it looking like they would be at it for a while.

As typical proof of the universe's arbitrary nature, Mai had no sooner stepped out onto the extended glacier when the iceball exploded in a shower of steam and light. The Firebenders near it all stumbled backwards, toppling to the ice and nearly sliding off into the ocean water.

Mai alone remained standing. Wind and light so thick it almost felt solid washed over her, yanking at her cape and robes, and the chill was banished from the air. For a moment, the stars and the moon were washed away by a daylight that was so much more substantial than any that Mai had seen before, a daylight the color of the sky on the day she had been born. The wind took on a thick quality, with a taste like life itself, and for a moment, Mai thought she had been knocked into the Spirit World.

Then it faded, and she was once again left standing in the everlasting night of the South Pole, wondering if the light had even been real.

When her eyes refocused, she spotted a figure standing where the iceball used to be. It was child-like in size, with eyes glowing demonically. Its head and hands were also luminescent in spots, although Mai couldn't tell why or if there was a pattern to it. The figure stumbled through a wall of steam, stepping up onto the wall of ice that used to be the foundation of the sphere.

Well, this was different. Mai's pulse quickened and she took a deep, savoring breath. She could feel every single one of her weapons against her body, and began considering which she would use in her opening attack.

The glow faded, revealing a boy- maybe a young teenager, Mai decided- with a bald head and thin sunrise-colored clothes completely unsuited to the South Pole's ridiculously cold weather. Mai raised an eyebrow, waiting to see if the boy had an explanation for all this fascinating strangeness, or if he would just cut to the fun part and attack.

He closed his eyes and fell down off the wall. He tumbled across the ice, and crumbled into a heap at her feet, no longer glowing.

Well. So much for that.

Mai leaned over, reached an arm out from beneath her heavy cape, and poked the boy a few times in the head. The spots that had been glowing were some kind of tattoos, in the shape in large arrows. (Why did that sound familiar?) The boy's eyes opened, and he looked up at her face. He must have been delirious, because his only response to her quizzical scowl was an expression of awe, as though a Spirit had come down from the Heavens to take him to the Happy Land of Fruit Tarts. A small smile quirked his lips.

Mai straightened and kicked him in the side. "Move your iceberg already. I could be in a nice warm palace right now if it wasn't for you."

Aang barely felt the blow that landed on his ribs, so transfixed was he on the vision coalescing above him.

It was a girl.

No, a woman, a blossoming flower of femininity.

The night sky unfolded above her, but to Aang she embodied all of its most beautiful aspects. Her voice was the whisper of a midnight breeze. Her hair was the ebony of the darkness, and her eyes were the small shining diamonds of the stars. Her skin was the milky paleness of the face of the Moon itself, and her nose was just plain adorable.

He couldn't help but smile up at her, and wondered if she was a Spirit. "Will you-"

The woman looked down at him.

"Will you-"

She quirked an exquisitely carved eyebrow.

"Will go pengui-"


The woman looked up at the call, no longer paying attention to Aang. He mumbled, "...penguin sledding with me?" But she wasn't listening any more. Was her name Mai, then? Aang decided it was a beautiful name, his favorite name in the whole world. He wanted to try saying, but was afraid that it might conjure the woman’s attention, and he would be found unworthy.

He felt odd, maybe just a little bit. It was like he had woken up from a dream, and grogginess slowed his thoughts, but for some reason everything around him was so vivid. Almost sharp. It was like... it was like coming back home to the Southern Air Temple after visiting Bumi or Kuzon for a few weeks. He was noticing all the stuff that had been forgotten in the background of life. Only instead of that funny statue of the burping Bison, he was renoticing stuff like light and breathing and the feel of solid objects.

And this place wasn't home.

Aang finally managed to tear his eyes off the woman- Mai- long enough to look around. Ice, water, night sky, stormhead on the horizon, more ice, more water, and some more ice. Well, it looked like he had gotten to the South Pole after all. Oh, and there was a ship! A... big... metal... ship. That was something new. Aang wondered how it was able to float. Waterbending, maybe?

Except the people running down the ship's ramp looked didn't look like Water Tribe. They were definitely Fire Nation- all the red on their clothes and armor was a big giveaway, not to mention the topknots- and their robes and cloaks were high-class stuff, like they wore on Capital Island. Aang listened as the guy who seemed to be in charge shuffled across the ice over to Mai.

Beautiful, beautiful Mai...

Mai waited patiently while Father scooted across the ice to where she and the strange demon boy were hanging out, and let him speak first: "Mai, what are you doing out here? Who is this boy?"

Yes, he would ask the obvious questions. She looked down at where the kid was lying in the snow and ice. He smiled up at her, the kind of smile that she had always associated with drunks and bovines. Then she looked back up. "I came to look at the glowy iceball, and as far as I can tell, the boy is some kind of especially dim Spirit. Shouldn't he be freezing to death?"

That's when the boy finally spoke. "I'm fine. I know a breathing technique that keeps me warm. It's not hard."

Well, that was interesting. Mai knew that such a Firebending technique existed; Prince Lu Ten had demonstrated something like that before he and his father went off to war together. However, the prince claimed that very few Firebenders were capable of it (although he had always been something of a braggart, in Mai's opinion,) and he had actually exhaled a visible flame when he did it. This kid looked like he was just breathing normally.

Then he moved, kicking his feet in an undulating motion that flung his body into the air and landed him standing up.

Mai blinked with confusion. She could do something similar, but it was an athletic, snapping kind of motion. What this kid did, though, was slower.

It almost looked like he had been floating.

"Hi," he said. "My name is Aang."

Rather than confronting this strangeness, Mai turned back to her father. "His name is Aang. You can take over the investigation from here, right?"

Father blinked stupidly. "Er, um, yes. Thank you, Mai. Aang, who are you? How did you come to be out in this... this?"

Mai watched as Aang looked around. "Well, I was coming down to the South Pole on a penguin-sledding trip, but there was a storm..." At this, Mai noticed that Father's eyes narrowed. "...and I think I got a little lost. And I got here on my Sky Bison, of course. Hey, where's Appa? Appa! Appa!" The kid turned back to the remnants of his little ice-egg and ran over with enough swiftness to kick up a breeze.

Mai's cape snapped, and she hugged herself for some warmth. Not that she had any warmth in her blood, according to Mother, but she liked to think that it was a hereditary condition. She looked over at Father to see his reaction to the demon boy's rudeness, and was surprised to find his jaw hanging open.

"What? Shocked that he didn't bow? He probably doesn't know our importance."

Father shook his head slowly. "He said a Sky Bison."

Mai had to admit, that sounded familiar. Where had she heard of such a thing? Somewhere back in the Royal Fire Academy for Girls...

Then the Sky Bison itself appeared from around the base of the ice-egg with a roar, the demon kid riding its head, and Mai found herself holding a pair of knives, although she couldn't remember pulling them from her sleeves.


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« Reply #3 on: Jan 04, 2015 09:44 pm »

It turned out that Appa was still a little sleepy, but Aang woke him up easily enough with a little tugging. "Come on, boy, let's go show off for Mai! You'll like her, she's beautiful and her hair is really shiny." Aang jumped into a gale he summoned with a twirl of his arms and rode it onto his place on Appa's head, right above the arrow.

Appa gave one his happy groans and began moseying out of the ice crater. Aang gave it another quick look as Appa moved, and wondered about how it came to be. The last he remembered, it was storming hard, and he and Appa had crashed into the ocean. How did they get up here on this iceberg? And how did the ice end up curving around them like that?

It probably had something to do with the rain and heavy storm winds. Aang decided not to worry about it, and be grateful that the waves had washed him up on a safe haven like this.

The Fire Nation people- including Mai- came into view again as Appa rounded the ice wall, and Aang waved. "This is Appa! Everyone say hi!" Appa bellowed a greeting like the friendly bison he was.

The Fire Nation people all jumped like they had seen a ghost. Mai's hands moved too fast for Aang to make out the details of the motion, and suddenly she was holding a pair of knives. All the soldiers took Firebending stances, and Mai's Dad's jaw was hanging open like it was unhinged.

Huh. They must not have seen a Sky Bison before. "Don't worry, everyone, Appa's nice!"

Mai's Dad pointed straight at Aang, and said, "Are you- are you an Airbender?"

Aang nodded. "From the Southern Temple!"

"Take him alive!"

It took a moment for Aang to realize what Mai's Dad had just said. Take who? Why take? What was everyone so freaked out about?

Then some of the soldiers up on the ship threw a net at him.

Aang jumped out of the way on pure instinct, grabbing a wind to push up him up into the air. The net landed harmlessly on Appa's head, and the sky bison shook it off with an annoyance that Aang shared. As he neared the apex of his twenty-foot jump, he could see more soldiers- carrying spears and more nets- running across the deck of the ship.

Were these people pirates?

Before he started to fall, Aang pushed out with his arms and let loose a wind that would splash across the whole top of the ship. The soldiers were knocked off their feet and got tangled up in their own nets, and Aang gave a little laugh as he floated back down to land on Appa's head. "I think I'll be going now. Appa, yip, yip!"

Appa roared, crouched on his six legs while raising his tail, and then launched-

-and came crashing back down on the ice. The platform splashed in the water and tipped dangerously before crashing back into place. All the Fire Nation people were knocked off their feet- all of them except for Mai, actually. She remained standing, and stared at Aang with wide eyes.

Unfortunately, Aang didn't have time to worry about her. "Appa, what's wrong? We need to fly!" Aang, of course, could fly away on his glider, but he wasn't about to leave Appa with a bunch of Fire pirates.

Appa groaned, and laid down on the ice.

He must have been tired. Aang also felt a kind of fatigue in his own body, now that he thought about it, but it didn't take as much effort for him to ride a wind as it did for a ten-ton sky bison. Appa wasn't going anywhere unless he swam, and sky bison were far from the fastest swimmers around.

He had no choice. Aang raised his hands in surrender as the armored Firebenders circled Appa and stuck out their fists in obvious threat. Another net was thrown, and Aang let this one land right on top of him. He could feel it weighing him down with more heaviness than just rope should have, and figured it had metal sinkers in it. Of course, that didn't matter; Aang could get the net off quick enough if he wanted, but then Appa would still be stuck with these pirates, and Aang wasn't about to do anything that could get his buddy hurt.

So he let the Firebenders yank the net and pull him down onto the ice. He didn't resist as they began dragging him up the plank to the ship. He let them dump him on the deck and point spears at him.


Aang looked up at the sound of Mai's voice. She climbed down onto the deck and walked right up to Aang, ignoring the soldiers around her. Aang watched as she leaned forward, and he couldn't help but notice her beauty all over again. The tails of hair dangled entrancingly over her shoulders as she said, "If you're an Airbender, do you know what happened to the Avatar?"

Mai grew up around liars. Princess Azula was a childhood friend, so it went without saying that Mai had been able to observe one of the Fire Nation's all-time great liars at work. She had also grown up in the Fire Nation's capital, Caldera City- her family's ownership of a villa there gave her the official title of Lady Caldera Yu Mai- and so over the course of her sixteen years of life she had encountered all kinds of politicians, courtiers, powerbrokers, and snobs. Mai was still a little girl when the lies became so transparent to her that they were boring, but that didn't mean she couldn't still recognize them.

As Mai waited for information about the Avatar, Aang looked away from her. He said, "Um." He stopped, schooled his features to match what he wanted to say, and then stammered, "I'm not- I don't really know. He- we were from the same temple, but- I wasn't really involved in his stuff- and- yeah, I lost track of him. Sorry."

Mai not only recognized the lie, she could tell just how profound a falsehood it was.

And she her own reasons for considering this particular subject to be important.

So an Airbender, of all things, stumbles out of magic ice a bajillion miles from any civilization. Airbenders had not been seen in a hundred years, since Sozin had them wiped out at the start of the Glorious War. This particular Airbender possessed some strong ties to, or knowledge of, the Avatar, and wanted to hide that fact. The Avatar has been missing for around a hundred years, since before the war started.


For the first time in a long time, Mai wasn't the least bit bored.

She whispered to Aang, "Stay safe, and I'll see what I can do." Then she went to follower Father back into the ship.

She had plans to make.

The workshop manager cradled the knife in his hands, turning it every which way so that the light danced across its polished blade. "This is excellent work. I think you deserve an extra Rations Token for this."

Sokka smiled, bowed his head like a good little slave, and resisted the urge to make a profoundly obscene gesture that involved three fingers and a loose fist. He wouldn't have truly meant what the gesture signified, of course, but that was more because of the lack of available tusk-whales than any good feelings Sokka had for his boss.

The manager turned the knife to look at its handle. "The grip is nice."

Sokka refrained from pointing out that his people had been making personal bladed weapons since the dawn of time, thank you very much, and had developed a few tricks of the trade along the way. "Well, the materials you provided were such wonderful quality, Master, that excellence had to follow. It was the only possible outcome, really." Sokka motioned to the left. "Great Fire Nation materials..." He motioned to the right. "Plus well-trained labor..." He motioned directly in front of his chest. "Equals excellent grip on the knife. It's like math. Only with knives." He finished that with his best ingratiating smile.

The manager nodded, and ran a finger lightly over the blade. "The Commander specified that this knife should be suitable for throwing."

Sokka bobbed his head up and down like a penguin. "Yessir, I made sure it was perfectly balanced."

"Balance, eh? And how should it be balanced? I want to check it."

Sokka wanted to demonstrate by way of taking the knife back and throwing it in the manager's face, but decided that it wouldn't be worth the trouble. Or the mess. Probably. "It's right in the center, Master. I also made sure the weapon was properly weighted. Too light, and it will be like throwing a handful of snow, you know?"

"Of course." The manager nodded like he actually knew any of that. He held out a finger and laid the knife flat across it, and sure it enough, it balanced right at the center point, a short length above the hilt. "Well, it's all very nicely done, Sokka. Tell you what, the other lab-helpers have been pretty lazy lately. I'll give you two extra Token Rations. Hopefully the others will realize the benefits of serving the Fire Nation well."

"Oh, thank you greatly, Master! You're so wonderful to me! It's a reward by itself to work here in the lab. But I'll still take the tokens. So that the others see the rewards that loyal service will bring, of course! And I'm so profoundly grateful that you chose me to be the first of my Lesser People to work with the White Gold- ooh, sorry, I meant platinum- medal. It was an inspiration all its own."

The manager grinned like he was considering giving Sokka a pat on the head- and that would have finally inspired Sokka to an act of violence- and fished three of the tokens out of his apron. He tossed over Sokka's daily wage plus the two rewards, and then left with the knife to deliver it to Commander Zhao.

And so Sokka was left alone after-hours in the South Pole Mining Colony's research and development laboratory with the price of selling his life to the Fire Nation.

He wanted to rage.

He wanted to curse.

He wanted to smash his little workstation, roar with manly triumph, walk out into the snowy wilderness to live off the land, and club a Fire Nation moron over the head on the way out. (That last part was just for the fun of it.)

But he had long practice at not doing any of that, of letting the cold of the longest nights settle inside of him, so he decided to keep living like he was dead. Nothing would change if he rebelled in any way, except he would maybe die, and getting himself killed wasn't exactly the kind of change he was hoping to effect. Sure, he could probably take the manager, or one of the other faux-eggheads who worked in the mine's laboratory, but what if he tried that against a soldier? It's not like he had any real fighting training.

Sokka sighed and got a move on. He stopped at the makeshift weather station to record the day's measurements, another extra job he had taken to kiss up. Then he grabbed his coat, stuffed his loose tangle of hair under his hat, and went on to check out at the lab's front gate. As soon as he stepped outside, Sokka was assailed by heavy winds and tiny snowflakes. He huddled against the attack, stomping his way through the snow back to 'town.' His path followed the line of telegraph poles, visible in the dark thanks to the lanterns hanging from them. The light were the Earth Kingdom kind, made from glowing green crystals, and while their glow was kind of dark (if light could be dark), they were the only kind of lantern that could stay lit in the winds out here.

It didn't used to be like this. Even just a year ago, the skies above the mining colony were typically clear and still. At this time of year, the moon would be shining above, its light reflected off of the ice all around to make the entire world shine. The curve of the Azulon Mountains would be visible on Sokka's left, running behind him. The ocean would be a comforting dull sheen on the horizon, a promise that even if the Fire Nation had come here to ruin everything, there were other lands out there where a Man might be able to make his own way. Sure, the Fire Navy base would be sitting like a pimple on the coastline, but the Fire Nation didn't control everything. Probably.

And somewhere in the lands out there, Sokka still had family.


The cold within him intensified, and Sokka turned his gaze down to the snow-covered path. Once he reached town, he hurried over to the Exchange House and turned in his tokens for packs of sausage and rice before the mining shift changed and the place was inundated. Not that Sokka had an aversion to miners in the abstract, but even aside from the Exchange House not always having enough food (fresh or otherwise), a lot of the miners who lived around here were pretty much jerks. Even with as few out and about as there were at this hour, Sokka still heard a few shouts of, "Traitor!" and, "Fire Nation pet!" directed his way on the wind as he trudged his way home.

He ignored those shouts even as he agreed with them.

Father called a hasty conference in his and Mother's room- or cabin or whatever- as soon as he got back aboard. Mai, of course, never had a helpful opinion on anything, so she was left to care for her brother while the adults discussed things. She didn't actually like her little bother Tom-Tom, though, so she devised a way to entertain him without actually touching or engaging him. One of the soldiers had brought to Father a staff, found tied in the sky bison’s reins, and Mai took custody of it for her own purposes. As she sat in the cabin's sole couch, she held the staff out lengthwise, extending it away from herself and balancing it on a booted foot. With lazy motions of her hands, swung it slowly back and forth in front of Tom-Tom.

The kid was delighted and intrigued by the new acquisition, and ambled back and forth in pursuit of the thing. Either he understood that this was supposed to be a game, or else he really was as stupid as he looked, because instead of just moving towards Mai to get the stable portion of the staff, he followed and tried to grab the tip that was waving in front of his face. Mai kept directing it just out of his reach, and had enough of her attention left over to listen to the room's other occupants.

The ship's captain was saying, "We used the cranes to lift the Sky Buffalo into the cargo bay, sir. We had to move some of your luggage-"

"Oh," Mother interjected with a tone that echoed off the metal walls. "I hope your soldiers didn't scratch anything. Some of those furniture pieces are antiques from my father!"

"We were very careful, milady." The Captain turned back to Father and clasped her hands behind her back. "The boy himself has been locked in the brig. Are we taking him with us to the Colony? We'll have to arrange a prisoner transfer."

Father stroked his beard. "See if you follow my reasoning, Captain."


"The boy said he was caught in a storm. The whole reason I've been dispatched to these Water Tribe colonies is to oversee the matter of dealing with mysterious storms that are increasingly plaguing the mining operations. According to the locals, the storms were limited to the South Pole itself, a relatively small area, but over the last few months it's expanded and moved to cover all the United South Pole Colonies. And now we find this Airbender boy, trapped in unnatural ice. Clearly, a lost group of Airbenders, perhaps serving the Avatar himself, have conjured this magic storm to destroy our mining colony. Since it's so important to our platinum initiatives, perhaps they're even part of the conspiracy that's been causing all the other troubles throughout the world."

Both Mother and the Captain gasped, but Mai had to keep from snorting in amusement. It was the most paranoid thing she had ever heard from someone who wasn't Azula.

"There's definitely a certain logic to it, sir," the Captain said, while Mai rolled her eyes. "What are you going to do about it?"

"We'll have to see what the boy knows. We don't have the time and facilities here for a proper interrogation, but surely at the Navy Base- the commander there, his name was- uh?"

"Commander Zhao, sir. He's known as an ambitious sort, so I'm certain he'll be keen to follow any lead."

"Excellent! It looks like we've solved the problem of the storms before we've even arrived!" Father barked a laugh, and Mother began a round of applause.

Mai resisted the urge to sigh. Instead, she slowed her movement of the staff, letting Tom-Tom brush his fingers against the wooden shaft, and then tipped it so that it sprung up above his reach. Tom-Tom turned to look at her with an expression of betrayal evident on his chubby face, and then proceeded to try to jump high enough to reach his prize.

Mai ignored him. She had her own suspicions about Aang. (Or, rather, The Boy.) If she was right and The Boy was the Avatar, then he was the ultimate prize. Once Father and this Commander Zhao knew what they had, they'd be quick to send word back to the Fire Capital. For such a prize, the Fire Lord would reward even the poorest peasant with a position in the Fire Court itself, at the very least. Azulon's old obsession was well known, after all. And perhaps The Boy really was partially responsible for this magic storm thing that Father was supposed to deal with; he might be the key to saving the mining colony and all the platinum that the Fire Nation oh so desperately wanted.

But Mai knew only one person in the entire world who needed to be the one to find the Avatar, the sooner, the better. For everyone else, the ensuing reward would be mere profit, but for this person, it was nothing but the most basic need.

The need to go home.

Mai looked and saw Tom-Tom getting frustrated with his jumping, shaking his tiny fists between each jump, and on his next leap, she subtly tipped the staff so that it just passed into reach as his hands clenched shut. Tom-Tom wound up in possession of a carved antique staff, and delight exploded on his face. He turned to Mai, laughed, and stuck his tongue out at her, never realizing that she had been the source of his victory.

Mai suppressed a smirk. This planning thing wasn't so hard after all. Now she just had to figure out how she was actually going to do this thing she wanted to do.

Mai sighed, while Father and Mother poured drinks to celebrate their good fortune.


Never Gonna Give Yue Up

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« Reply #4 on: Jan 04, 2015 09:45 pm »

"Gran-Gran, I'm home!"

Sokka's call resonated through all three rooms of the ugly, boxy house, bouncing off the artificial stone walls. No sooner did the echoes come back around to him (Sokka really wanted to learn how echoes worked, someday) than he was mobbed by his five little 'roommates.'

"Sokka's back!" That was the oldest, Shila, the girl with the muddy yellow eyes.

"Yay!" That was the youngest, Naklin, the kid with skin as white and delicate as new ice.

"Did you bring jerky?" That was Quinyaya, the boy who never wore gloves outside but always had warm hands.

"Your boots are getting slush on the floor." That was Tliyel, the girl who always shivered.

"Can I have your hat?" That was Shlim, the boy whose eyes glittered like the purest gold, and who had a delicate nose just like the administrator of the Exchange House.

Sokka tried his best to make his way into the kitchen and the warmth of the coal-burning stove there, but his attempts at locomotion were hampered by the cluster of mongrels aged four to eight that seemed to have staked out his legs as their new base of operations. "Yeah, yeah, I'm back from work. It only happens every day, so let's throw a party. Hey, be careful where you're step- Ow! That was my toe!" Sokka tried hopping the rest of the way, but the kids around him no longer seemed interested in supporting his weight, and he went down with a suddenness that made him lose track of his groceries, until they reappeared by way of landing on his head. The bags of rice landed first with all their weight, and then the links of sausages sprinkled down to drape him like cold and clammy scarves.

He still hadn't gotten himself off the floor when Gran-Gran came out of her room. "Sokka, why are you wearing the day's rations?"

Sokka thought about it. "Gravity, mostly."

Gran-Gran shuffled over to him, and the kids finally scooted back over to the warmth of the stove. Sure, they respected Gran-Gran, but not the guy who brought them dinner every day. Typical, really; rudeness was in their blood. Gran-Gran picked up the rice and sausage off of Sokka and carried them over to the sole table in the house. "Three portions today?"

"Yeah, they had a special project for the big Commander up at the Navy base, using that new White Gold metal they're starting to mine. They've lined up a bunch of boring experiments with it for the next few weeks, but at least they're more interesting than tracking the storms." Electing to remain on the floor, Sokka began tugging his boots off. "They're calling the metal platinum, actually. Not sure why it's a big deal, but they wanted a knife and a set of baby spoons made out of the stuff. They ordered the guy who made the spoons to do his work over, but they liked my knife enough that I got extra rations."

Gran-Gran nodded her gray-haired head. "This will help. Thank you."

Sokka said nothing. Some help. All he was doing was pleasing the Fire Nation, and feeding the kids they left behind. He looked over at the five children gathered around the stove. They were nothing but nuisances to him, really, but Gran-Gran had declared an open invitation to any kids with nowhere else to go, which would have been fine with Sokka in theory, but the only children who didn't actually have a home were the ones who everyone could tell on sight.

They weren't Sokka's tribe, and they definitely weren't Sokka's family.

But then, aside from Gran-Gran, Sokka had no family. Everyone else was gone. Mom and Dad were dead, and Katara...

Sokka was pushing that thought aside and taking off his coat when he heard the doors open again, and Bato soon appeared in the kitchen. "Kanna, Sokka! Good to see you. I earned an extra ration in the mine and wanted to drop it off." The kids cheered, and initiated their typical greeting by way of throwing themselves at the visitor. Bato weathered it better than Sokka did, but then, Bato was something like twice Sokka’s height. It must have been spectacular uncomfortable for him in the mines.

Gran-Gran gave a wrinkly smile and took the pack of rice. "Thank you. We always appreciate the help. Would you care to stay for dinner?"

Bato shook his head, and Sokka deflated. He liked Bato; aside from how helpful he always was, Bato had been a friend of Dad's, and had lots of great stories to tell about their adventures, like the time they stole a Fire Nation tug and went for a joyride. And Bato was one of the few miners who didn't give Sokka grief for working up at the lab. Whether that was because Bato wanted to honor his old pal Hakoda, or really didn't have a problem with Sokka's life choices, was a question that Sokka never wanted answered.

"I've got to get home," Bato went on to say. "The soldiers are calling a curfew, and if I don't get back in time I'll have to sleep here until my next shift. Not that you don't keep a good house, Kanna, but it's a little crowded here."

Sokka felt his ears twitch with interest. "Curfew? What for?"

"The new governor's ship is pulling into the port tonight. The base has sent out a tug already, and Zhao is putting together a big welcome. They apparently don't want us 'savages' under foot."

Wait, wait, wait. That didn't sound right to Sokka. Everyone knew that the new governor was coming, and there hadn't been any word about a curfew before now. The Navy base didn't always talk to the mining administration, but you couldn't have a curfew if no one knew about it. It defeated the whole purpose, really. Otherwise, you'd have a cur-many, and mixing marine soldiers with cur-manys never worked out.

The cold that usually resided inside Sokka thawed a little bit, and he reached for his boots. "Hey, Gran-Gran, is it okay if I run out again before dinner? I want to get a quick look at something."

Mai took a few wrong turns trying to find the brig, and when she arrived, deep in the bowels of the ship where the only light was the red glow of the lamps, she found a pair of guards on duty outside the door of Aang's cell.

She indulged in a sigh. This was going less than impressively, so far.

Refusing to accept failure, she marched up to the cell like she belonged here and snapped out, "Lady Caldera Yu Mai, Weapon-class citizen, to see the prisoner."

The guards were both Firebenders, and wore the skull-like masks that completely hid their faces. The look was probably meant to be scary, but those eyeholes were more than big enough for Mai to use as targets. She looked back dully as one of the guards said, "On whose authority?"

"I'm Weapon-class, so technically, my authority is the Royal Family itself. Go ahead and confirm it if you need to."

The guards exchanged a glance.

Mai crossed her arms over her chest. "The ship is pulling up to the dock or whatever you call it, and we're getting ready to transfer the prisoner. You can either drag him out kicking and screaming and tossing tornados, or I can talk to him and get him to cooperate. Your choice, but I heard that when Airbenders scream, they can go so loud they shatter eardrums. Your armor would ring like a weaponized bell."

One guard said, "What do you think?"

The other shrugged with a rattle of his armor. "Let her have a few minutes. She'll just whine to her daddy, otherwise, and then we'll all get a real earful."

Mai had to suppress a snort of amusement. Let them snark at what they thought was a Spoiled Daughter, so long as they gave her what she wanted. One of the guards took a Firebending stance facing the cell, while the other set about unlocking the door. It swung open with a clang, and Aang was revealed sitting at the far end.

His arms and legs were chained to the floor.

Mai stepped inside, and the door shut behind her.

"Please, what's going on?" Aang- The Boy looked up at her with wide gray eyes tinged by the bloody light of the cell's lamp. "Why are you doing this to me?"

Mai crossed her arms and leaned against the wall. "It's the craziest thing I've ever seen. You came out of that iceberg. You were glowing in there."

"I'm in trouble for that?"

"Not exactly." Mai wanted to toy with one of her knives, but didn't dare show a weapon at this point. "It's something like out of a legend. And this legend is about a boy who survived in an iceberg for a hundred years."

The Boy gave her a look like she was crazy. "That's impossible."

"Just like glowing people are impossible?"


"I figure they're both Avatar magic, right?"

The Boy went still. "What do you mean?"

"We know who you are." On impulse, she added, "Avatar Aang."

He let his head droop between his knees. "So you're taking me back to the Southern Air Temple."

Mai took a fortifying breath. "There wouldn't be a point. There are no Airbenders at the Southern Air Temple anymore." She pondered how to say the next part, but then decided to just go ahead and get it out there. "There are no Airbenders, period. Fire Lord Sozin had them all killed a hundred years ago. The Fire Nation went to war with the world, and won."

"No!" Aang stood up suddenly, rattling his chains and stretching them to their full length. "There's no way... they couldn't all be..." He must have seen something in Mai's face, even though she was keeping it completely still. He wilted where he stood, and let the chains bend him like a willow tree. "A hundred years?"

"A hundred and one, if you want to be exact. The war started when the Fire Nation used the power of Sozin's Comet to attack the Air Nomads and the Earth Kingdom. The Water Tribes were later raided. The Southern Water Tribes were whittled down until they surrendered. The Northern Tribe was eventually conquered. The Earth Kingdom took the longest, with their capital and several major city states preserving a pretty large chunk of land under their rule.

"But then last year- a hundred years after the war began- Sozin's Comet returned, and the Fire Nation used the power to conquer the last of their enemies." Mai looked away from Aang, and her vision filled with memories from the quick tour her family had made of the Fire Nation Colonies, before coming down to the South Pole. The entire continent that used to be the Earth Kingdom was under Fire Nation control, now, and the administrators were quick to share the glory of the Homeland's culture with all the new colonies. Some villages had been converted overnight, while others were allowed to eventually accept Fire Nation greatness of their own free will, so long as they were content to remain second-class citizens. Military forces- soldiers and tanks and spies and weapons- were everywhere to maintain order in this delicate time. The most vivid thing that Mai had seen, though, were the vast streaks of ash that stretched over an entire vista, representing where the last of the Rebel Cities had stood when the Comet came. "Ba Sing Se was burned. The last pockets of resistance were overwhelmed. The Fire Nation won everything in a single day. The Earth Kingdom is now the Colonial Continent.

"We rule the world, now."

She heard the clank of metal and the rustle of saffron cloth, and Mai turned back to see Aang crumpled back down on the floor. "The Air Nomads couldn't be all gone. Maybe... maybe they're in hiding, somewhere..."

She shrugged. "My Father has some theories, but he's searching for enemies to defeat so that he can look good. I just know what I've been taught, and the Last Airbender was supposed to be the Avatar. Our forces have been looking for him for a whole century, and now here you are, not knowing about a hundred-year war, glowing like some kind of spirit."

"...this... this is all my fault..."

Mai said nothing. She didn't know the details of how he ended up in that iceberg, but he was probably right. He wasn't there, so it was his fault. Nor was there any way he could fix things. The Avatar was supposedly a powerful Bender, but he could hardly bring back Ba Sing Se with a wave of his hands, and definitely not the people who died there.

There was a sound like a tapping on metal, and Mai looked around the cell, trying to find the source. Worried that mice might be scurrying around, she looked down-

-and saw another tear fall to tap on the metal floor beneath Aang's face.

He was crying.

All of a sudden, Mai felt uncomfortable with this. She had no relief to offer, though. Merely a trap. "Listen, you don't have long. They're going to bring you to ashore soon, to the Navy base there. They’re going to ask you about the storms hitting the South Pole. They'll hurt you if you resist, and if they figure out who you are, they'll send you to the Fire Lord."

Aang didn't respond.

Mai crouched down, and whispered, "I'm working on something. Keep playing along, don't tell anyone you're the Avatar, and wait for me. I'm not going to see these people profit off of you."

Aang still didn't react, and Mai had to get going. She stood, spared him once last glance, and then turned and knocked on the door. It opened a moment later, and soon Mai was on her way out of the brig.

Now came the hard part:

Getting word to the one person in the world who could figure this whole thing out.

With Mai gone, Aang was left alone.

Even when she had been here in the cell, he had still been alone. He had been alone for a hundred years. A hundred years. It was more than he could make himself believe, so he pushed it out of mind.

That still left him with the fact that he was alone.

She was wrong. She had to be. It wasn't possible to kill a whole nation. Just like it wasn't possible to survive for a hundred years in an iceberg. This had to be some kind of bizarre mistake; maybe Aang had stumbled into some kind of isolated Fire Nation pirate society that had been cut off from the world for a million years or something, and they were all mixed up and creating legends out of bad information. Okay, maybe that was a little far-fetched. It could all just be a dream.

Aang watched the tears drip from his eyes to land on the cold metal of the floor.

Yeah, just a dream. Or crazy mixed up pirate people.

Mai didn't seem too mixed up, though. She might be mistaken about all that war stuff, but she was a good person. She wanted to help.

Aang decided to trust her. She would help, and then he could bring her to the Southern Air Temple, show her that she was wrong and everyone there was okay. Maybe Aang could even say that he didn't run away, he found out about a bunch of really confused pirates and had to go out and rescue a beautiful girl from them. The monks wouldn't be mad that he ran away, and they'd see that he didn't need to be sent away from Monk Gyatso.

Everything would be okay.


Aang made himself believe it, but the tears continued to fall.


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« Reply #5 on: Jan 05, 2015 11:53 am »

This was an outstanding chapter. I really like your prose; it has a lot of personality, which goes really well with your characters. Anyway, I love the conflict you have going on with Sokka. The poor guy is probably really torn up inside. I am really looking forward to what happened to Katara. Bato, unfortunately could not have barged in  at a worse time.

I also liked how Aang fell in love with the first girl he saw upon waking up from his slumber. And what is funnier is that Mai is too busy to even make note of it. Mai, or the way you write her, comes off as a very interesting character. She is the only sane character in a cast full of superficial gloryhounds. The manner in which you depict the paranoia that people like Mai's father feel is pretty apt. Though may I ask if the magic storm plaguing the south pole colonies is the Everstorm from Korra? It seems like it. Anyway, let me return back to Mai. I can sense that her selfish reason for helping Aang might bite her in the rear latter. I assume that Zuko is still banished in this AU, correct?  Anyway, what I am trying to say is that for the time being, Aang believes Mai to be his ally. So if he finds out that she is using him to help Zuko out, he will likely become dissillusioned and Mai, who will hopefully grow to like him, will hopefully attempt to make amends. Please note that I am not complaining; I like this kind of plot if that is what you are doing. All I am doing is speculating out loud.

So anyway, good job on Mai's character. For the time being she is just trying to use Aang. That is a much wiser decision than having her hate the Fire Nation.

Keep up the good work. I cannot wait to read how you write Zhao.
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« Reply #6 on: Jan 19, 2015 11:03 pm »

I am going to anticipate your next update by writing that your third chapter was pretty good. I like the way you wrote Zhao (or about him) and it was nice to see how that line about the baby walrus came into play. Your understanding of Sokka as a character really shows. He is my favorite character in this AU. It was a shame, however, that we are going to have to wait to find out what happened to Katara. You also do a good job at capturing Aang's personality, thoughI sometimes feel as if your Aang is a little too exaggerated at times.

Anyway, I am glad you went ahead and named Mai's parents, the fact that they are still nameless in canon bugs me.

I also look forward to reading what Ozai is up to. He is very creepy in this story. Though something tells me that he is still the same guy he was in the show deep down. Something has to be up with the repitition of the phrase "Azula always did what father commanded". Also, I want to read more about Lu Ten and Mai's previous engagement.
« Last Edit: Jan 19, 2015 11:05 pm by Colonel_Brian » Logged
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« Reply #7 on: Jan 19, 2015 11:10 pm »

Yeah, I forgot to update this thread. Cheesy Sorry. I'll post the chapter and then answer your reactions.

EDIT: The names of Mai's parents were changed to match their newly revealed canon identities.

Weapon of the Fire Nation

Commander Zhao, ranking officer of United South Pole Naval Base, had an appointment with Destiny.

The day had started innocuously enough, just another wind-battered collection of hours in this heat-forsaken land of ice and irrelevance. Zhao's official mission was to secure the port against both the possibility of criminal activity from the indigenous Water Tribe slaves, and any incursions from any of the non-existent pirates who might someday prey on the South Pole Seas. It was, needless to say, a complete insult to his intelligence and strength, but Zhao refused to do anything but persevere. That meant surviving the supposedly unnatural storms- what the local dogs called the Everstorm- and supporting the new Governor in restoring peace and natural weather to the United South Pole Colonies.

Now, Zhao stepped quickly through the base's administration building. The new governor's ship had just been pulled into port by one of the base's tugs, and Zhao would be there to personally greet the new arrivals. Servants hurried along beside him, one polishing his armor as he walked and another doing a last minute trim of his side-burns. Zhao waved them back as he stepped outside into the courtyard, and let his cape flare open behind him in the frigid winds, trusting in his Firebending to keep him warm. Aside from wanting to present himself in the best possible light to his subordinates, Zhao refused to relent to something as inglorious as nature, whether the storm was natural or not.

The cold could offer him no new avenues to power, and so he had no interest in bowing to it.

A squadron of his best Firebenders was assembled in parade rows in the courtyard, exactly as Zhao had ordered, but his only acknowledgement was a wave of his hand signaling them to fall in behind him. He led the whole entourage past the walls of the administration building to where the docks of the port extended out to stab into the sea. The new governor's ship was already settled into the largest berth, and Zhao recognized it as a Comet-class military transport ship. That type was the smallest the Fire Navy had for transporting people and goods, but what it lacked in bulk capacity, it made up for in grandeur and luxury. Zhao despised the Comet class, but looked forward to the day when he could hand them out as favors to his allies.

A simple nod was all it took to deploy the soldiers into an impressive line of Fire Nation might. Only an idiot could fail to appreciate the display.

The thought brought a smirk to Zhao's face as the new arrivals filed down the ramp. Lord Ukano himself descended first, leading his family and their personal guards in a stately parade. There was a pomp and ceremony to the whole procession that made Zhao want to shake his head. Even those too weak to join the military as a warrior still sought to cultivate the strength of its image, but such attempts inevitably betrayed the true weakness within. Some of the Governor's guards were hoisting torches that flickered impotently against the winds and the snow, while the rest carried long spears best suited for defending a siege wall. Lord Ukano and his Lady Michi walked down the ramp side-by-side, the woman carrying a squirming human-shaped bundle that was probably their young son. Both of them were trying and almost succeeding to appear regal despite the bite of the storm.

It was the young lady who followed them who made no show or artifice.

She was the daughter, Mai, an ugly child made up to pass as a beautiful adult, but she didn't move like someone who cared that others might be watching. She walked with confidence within her hooded cloak, with the grace and surliness of a warrior without a battlefield, despite the long leather case strapped to her back. No doubt she refused to let anyone else handle her legendary blades. Even down here at the South Pole, Zhao had heard rumors of her importance to the various factions in the Royal Family, and though she had to be feeling the cold through her cape, she made no sign of caring.

But then, they didn't grant Weapon-class citizenship to any but the best, and even being a friend to the Royal Family wasn't enough alone to earn that honor.

Yes, Zhao would do well to keep track of this Mai, for however long he and she were stuck here together.

The procession moved off the ramp and onto the docks, everyone moving gingerly on the icy surface. Zhao pretended not to notice their discomfort and gave a minimally respectful bow. "Welcome to the South Pole, Governor." He signaled to one of his aides with a wave of his hand, and then continued, "Allow me to present some gifts, specially commissioned for your family." The aide brought forth a box, and Zhao took it and presented it to the Governor's wife. "For your son. Tomoshibi, I believe is his name?"

Lady Michi smiled and gave an acknowledging dip of her head. "Yes, but we call him Tom-Tom." She handed the child in question- bundled up in what looked like three layers of heavy coats- to Mai, and accepted the box. She let out a coo when she opened it and saw the intricately detailed metal spoons within. Michi lifted one out and examined the detailing.

Zhao said, "It's made from the platinum we've begun mining here. It's not a hard metal, so be careful not to bend it, but it is resilient enough that even the Great Dragons probably couldn't melt it, and some people say the metal has lucky properties. May it grant your son a long and prosperous life. Don't let him put it in his mouth until you've warmed it, though. These storm winds make metal dangerous."

"Ooh, you're so thoughtful. You have our gratitude, Commander Zhao." Michi bowed at the waist.

Zhao took a second box from the aide, and stepped over to present it to Mai. "It is my honor to meet a Weapon of the Fire Nation."

The young lady stared back without expression from beneath her hood, and shoved her brother back into her mother's arms. "I suppose I'm supposed to say that the honor is all mine." Her voice was every bit as uncaring as her posture.

Zhao held back a frown. "Keep in mind, my Lady, that your position will only take you so far."

Mai quirked an eyebrow. "I'd rather it not take me anywhere. If my Weapon status were worth all that much, I wouldn't have let myself be dragged halfway around the world to the rump end of civilization."

Zhao decided that he didn't really have to deal this attitude right now. He pushed the gift box out to her and lifted the lid to reveal a knife and a badge, both glinting with the same silver sheen as her brother's spoons. "Again, made from platinum. The knife is purely decorative, given the weakness of the metal, but we did sharpen it, and it's balanced and weighted for throwing. The badge is proof of your Weapon-class citizenship, and will grant you access to all of the secure areas here... provided you are operating under orders from the Royal Family, of course. Don't abuse your authority."

Mai took the box without any sign of gratitude, and poked at the badge with a gloved finger. "I know what being a Weapon means. Thanks for the gifts, I guess."

Deciding that he had met the minimum social obligations, Zhao turned back to Governor Ukano. "We have a vehicle ready to take you to your new residence. Unless you'd care to tour the base beforehand?"

Ukano tried to draw himself up to stand tall without risking a slip on the ice. "We have business to take care of, first. My ship encountered an enemy agent on our way here. He's an Airbender, and I suspect he has something to do with the issues with the storms that I've been sent to resolve."

An Airbender? Zhao had to keep himself from laughing. Sozin wrote of his suspicions that some might have survived the purge, but even as far back as Azulon's youth, that was a theory long discarded by all but the most paranoid. Zhao also doubted the local legends about the Everstorm, that it was a magic front of weather that never rested and served as some kind of divine agent of retribution. The storms were unusual, but the whole reason that Ukano was selected as the new governor was because of his science and engineering training. The storms were mostly likely caused by some kind of unforeseen ecological impact by the mining operation, and an administrator who understood the modern ways could properly oversee the investigation.

But if Ukano was now looking at ghosts for the explanation, perhaps he wasn't as educated as he was supposed to be.

Still, even if the face of others' madness, Zhao always saw an opportunity to make himself look good. "Well, we'll certainly look into it, my Lord. My soldiers will take custody of your prisoner, while we get your family safely to your new home."

Ukano looked back at Zhao with a certain glint in his eye. What did he find so amusing? "And what are you going to do about the prisoner's Sky Bison, Commander?"

It was a long moment before Zhao could find his voice. "The prisoner's what?"

The hardest part of getting out there to spy on the new Governor's arrival was finding a baby walrus on such short notice.

The Fire Nation didn't like having its slaves underfoot in their Navy base, so they walled it off from the Tribe's village with a massive fence. Climbing the fence was a very slippery and dangerous proposition, and that's assuming you didn't get spotted by the patrolling guards. Even if an especially manly and clever member of the Tribe theoretically worked out a way to get past the fence, there was still the issue of getting over to the docks themselves and hanging out within sight without being sighted in turn.

So Sokka snuck his way past the curfew. Soldiers patrolled the paths, but even the green crystal lanterns could only do so much against the snow and the night. Sokka stuck to the shadows, and could only hope that with his own imperfect vision didn't leave him trying to stuff himself into a shadow that was already occupied. That type of thing could get awkward.

The going was a lot easier once Sokka passed beyond the edge of the town, where he didn't have to contend with anything but the winds, and opened the shutters on his own small crystal lantern. He wasn't sure he believed the old stories about the Everstorm- it was easy to believe that some property of the South Pole made the weather there harsh, leading to legends about an everlasting storm- but the expanding stormfronts certainly had the Fire Nation worried, and Sokka could respect their science, at the very least. The word was that the new governor was supposed to be doing something about these storms, but then why would his arrival call for a curfew on everyone in the village? Sokka purposefully avoided coming up with any theories until he had more evidence, but to get that evidence, he needed walrus.

He made his way northeast, where the land met the sea at a long line of icy cliffs. He had to do some searching, walking along the coast, but eventually he found a low spot that led out onto a peninsula of ice, where a group of walruses were enjoying the awful weather and showing off their spotted blubber hides. Sokka remembered the lessons Dad had taught him before they were forced into the Fire Nation's village, before his family had-

Sokka remembered those lessons, and cupped his hands around his mouth and began yodeling at the top of his lungs.

The walruses roared back, but they didn't like the noise, and began hauling themselves back into the sea. They bumped into each other as they went, and retreated without any regard for the rest of the group. Sokka dashed into the chaos, and grabbed one of the babies- a baby that was just as long as Sokka was tall. "Don't worry, little guy," Sokka grunted as he began carrying the living, squirming pile of blubber away. "I'll bring you back when I'm done. Your poppa and your momma will be back waiting for you by then. If the Fire Nation hasn't, you know, already killed them or something. I hear that's going around a lot."

The baby walrus barked in what Sokka decided was an agreeable reply. At least, that was how he and Katara had taken such noises back when they had made the treks out of the village to play where the Fire Nation couldn't see.

Heavy as the 'little' guy was, he made an effective sled, and Sokka made great time back to the fence around the Fire Navy base. The fence went all the way to the very edge of the cliffs, but there it stopped. Tying the baby walrus to his back, and- somehow managing not to fall backwards- Sokka gently climbed down the face of the cliff, onto the nearly invisible steps that had been chiseled by the ocean into the face. While the walrus barked curiously and the winds tried to yank him into the sea, Sokka shimmied across and then climbed back up on the other side of the fence. The Fire Nation knew nothing about climbing ice, so they had no idea such a thing was possible. They were just stupid invaders. That Sokka had discovered this route completely by accident one day, while nearly tumbling into the ocean after slipping on a herring, was aside from the point.

After he hauled himself up, Sokka had to let himself drop down onto the snow and take a moment to catch his breath. As the life slowly trickled back into his arms and legs, he reflected that it was never any fun, hauling around baby walruses, especially in this kind of weather. Why did they have to be so fat and heavy, anyway? They could just wear coats like normal people.

Once he was ready to move again, Sokka began crawling along through the snow. With the baby walrus on top of him, Sokka didn't move as quickly as he had when he had been the one riding the walrus, but it was worth the lack of speed. Whenever he saw one of the Fire Nation soldiers coming along, standing out from the whites and blues and grays of the environment in their red-trimmed armor, he'd sink down into the snow and let the baby walrus on his back be his disguise.

He got all the way through the base's grounds to find a new ship moored on one of the docks. Sokka inched as close as he could, when no one was looking, and with the snow and night providing extra cover, he was able to get within hearing range. It helped that Commander Zhao was yelling:

"It really is a Sky Bison!"

Whoa. Whoa, whoa, whoa, whoa, whoa. Come again? What was a Sky Bison? Sokka peaked out from beneath his best walrus friend and watched as a crane lifted a giant... thing off of the big ship and onto a transport pallet on the dock. It was a thing with massive curved horns, six legs, and a flat tail the roughly size of Gran-Gran's house.

Wow. That was pretty neat. Sokka immediately wanted to know more about it.

He looked over at the other people who were watching the bison's unloading. He naturally recognized the resident despot Commander Zhao, and in Sokka's opinion, the less he saw of those massive sideburns, the better the state of the world. He didn't recognize the other people- likely the passengers from the ship- but aside from all the soldier guards, the group wasn't what he was expecting. The leader guy? Sure, he looked like a typical Fire Nation politician, which probably made him the new governor. The lady carrying the toddler was a surprise, though, as was the other girl (Servant? Secretary? Fortuneteller? Political Officer?) who followed them. It was hard to think of Fire types as having families, but there you go, even rake-sharks had to reproduce, he supposed.

Still, it was a rather disappointing discovery for Sokka. Is this what the Fire Nation was so concerned about, that they had declared a curfew? Women and children? And a giant ball of fur?

One of the treaded transports- the kind enclosed for protection against the weather- rolled over to the group, and the governor's family climbed aboard. It headed off soon after, and Sokka saw that it was making for the base's side gate; it was likely going to take the long way around the town to the governor's mansion. The bison thing was rolled away on its pallet, headed in the opposite direction- maybe toward the stables, or one of the supply warehouses- and Sokka figured that the show was over. However, Zhao was sticking around, and as Sokka watched, even more of the commander's soldiers arrived and took up Firebending stances. What was that about?

Another figure was brought down off the ship by another pair of guards. Now, this one was an odd sight. It was a kid, and he wasn't wearing a coat but didn't seem to feel the cold at all.

The guards escorted the boy to where Zhao stood, and the Commander barked, "Well, boy? Are you an Airbender?"

Okay, now Sokka figured someone was messing with him.

But the boy nodded. "I am, but I think there's been some kind of mistake. I don't want to hurt anyone."

Zhao raised his hands, motioning at the wind-driven snow around him. "Then use your powers to end this storm. You can't destroy the colonies down here without killing the Tribals who serve us."

Sokka gasped beneath his walrus, and not just at the slur, but the boy shook his head. "It doesn't work like that. Airbenders can't make storms like this. I'd stop it if I could, but- well, like I said, I can't. Sorry."

Zhao crossed his arms over his chest. "You might be telling the truth, but it doesn't matter right now. My people will make sure, one way or the other. Take him to one of the maximum security cells!" The soldiers holding the boy shoved him into motion, and Zhao followed at a quick clip.

Well, that was weird and mysterious. Sokka felt instantly better, as 'weird and mysterious' were indeed good reasons for a curfew.

After everyone was gone from sight, Sokka began scooting his own way off the docks while his walrus partner dozed on top of him. This was a good start, but he needed more information.

He had a feeling he wasn't going to be back to Gran-Gran in time for dinner.

« Last Edit: Nov 20, 2015 07:39 pm by Loopy » Logged

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« Reply #8 on: Jan 19, 2015 11:11 pm »

It was no palanquin, but Mai had to admit that the enclosed crawler, as noxious as the engine smelled, was much better than walking through the snow and the wind. The problem was that it was an especially boring ride.

The only view out of the transport was through the front port, and that was situated more for the driver's benefit than that of the passengers. Father and Mother were content to bounce regally in their padded seats, and Tom-Tom was treating the whole thing like a religious experience with wide eyes and a big smile, but Mai needed something to do, or at least look at. At one point, craning her head to see around the driver, she caught a glimpse of distant, eerie green lights out amidst the snow. The driver, a woman with dull eyes, noticed Mai's interest and said, "That's the Water Tribe slum. They used to live out in their own primitive village, but when the Fire Nation started the colonies down here, we made it illegal to live anywhere else. Everyone works for their food, either at the mine or in one of the softer postings."

Mother looked up at that. "Are any on staff at the mansion?"

"I believe so, my Lady."

Mother gave a, "Hmmm," and said no more. Mai was already bored with the conversation.

The ride, at least, didn't last too long, and soon enough the transport shuddered to a stop. Mai peaked around the driver again, and the first impression she had was of a monstrous, many-eyed face staring out through the snow. A moment's analysis, though, revealed the truth: she was staring at one of the mountains that the Fire Nation was mining down here, but instead of an industrial site, she was looking at glowing windows and reinforced doors.

Her new home was inside of a mountain. Mai's lip curled in disgust.

Before she disembarked, she spotted dark lines of some kind extending from the mountain, and traced their source to a boxy metal structure set against and into the rock, some distance from the front door. "What's that?"

The driver looked, and then made a sound of understanding. "That's the mansion's Communications office. The governor has access to his own telegraph station, so that he can send and receive messages independently of the base's workload. Until your father officially takes up his office, we're using it as a verification post."

Which meant it would be manned. Mai thought that over while she disembarked with her parents. The cold wind outside nearly chased the notion out of her head, though, and the group made a quick dash for the underground mansion's doors. They were greeted by the servant staff- and yes, there were some dark skinned and blue-eyed young ladies bowing with the more respectable servants- and then given a tour.

If Mai had any doubts about betraying her family, they were extinguished when she saw the labyrinth of caves that was to be her home.

Granted, a lot of pointless and incompetent effort had been put into making the place livable. The tunnels themselves were wide and smoothly carved, and an excess of both carpets and tapestries minimized the visible stone. Wide rooms sprung off of the hallway tunnels, and even though furniture was at a minimum, Mother was already chattering about how she wanted her own household items brought over from the boat and where they should be placed for optimum gaudiness or whatever.

Mai just sighed, and when she had the chance, drifted away to find the Communications center. It took a little searching, but she eventually found it situated next to the room that would soon be her father's office. She yanked the door open to find a startled man in a uniform hunched over a long desk covered in all kinds of equipment. When he recovered his composure, he said, "If you're the new governor, you don't look like how I expected."

Mai gave that remark all the reaction that deserved: she ignored it. "I need to send a maximum priority coded message to the Capital. You need to set that up for me." The one man started to speak again, but Mai cut him off by whipping out Zhao's fancy platinum badge. "I'm a Weapon-class citizen, and this constitutes an order."

The man blinked, and then sat a little straighter. "Yes, my Lady. What kind of encryption do you require?"

"I have one of those cogs. Hold on." Mai slung her leather case off her back, and reached inside. She moved her hand over the blades in their secure cases, past the spare parts for her wrist and ankle launchers, to where her razor discs were stacked and secured by straps. One of those discs was thicker than the rest, one that she been given by Princess Azula herself. Mai slipped it out of the case, and held it up in the lantern light. Unlike her razor discs, this object was no weapon but still had teeth, several rows of them, each one marked by a character that didn't exist in any official list of Words Approved for the Glory of the Fire Nation. They corresponded to sounds that could be used to form a useful working language, while the numbered teeth were used to transform the messages written in those sounds to transmittable codes that were supposed to be completely undecipherable- except for someone with a corresponding cog at the other end of the transmission.

The man nodded much more slowly, this time, and motioned to a large machine with a keypad on the desk next to him. "You can use this encoder device. Insert the cog in that slot, and enter your message. The machine will print the code sequence on a paper tape. When you're done, I'll send that sequence out over the wire. Do you require an acknowledgement?" He suddenly blanched, and then quickly added, "No, of course not. Sorry, I forgot the protocol for a moment. I'll have to vacate the room while you compose the message, but I'll be right outside the door if you need assistance."

The encoding machine took Mai a moment to figure out, but not long after, she had transformed her short message into an encrypted set of signals, and then her treachery was flying across the world on metal cables.

Aang's the theory about these guys being an isolated gang of Fire Nation pirates was falling apart pretty quickly. Their base was huge, and they had all kinds of weird machines that he had never even imagined existed. He caught glimpses of several different kinds of metal 'beasts' as he was dragged to a prison building, but it was the inside of that building that boasted the most amazing technological advance of all.

It was warm inside and there was no sign of a fire whatsoever. Hot, dry air came out of vents in the walls, and there was a metallic strumming sound that made the whole building ring.

The cells of the prison were covered in heavy metal doors, and it was into one of these that Aang was pushed. They unwrapped his chains just long enough to clasp new bindings on his wrists and ankles, and then he found himself being pulled by his arms until they were fully extended. He was forced to stand straight and tall if he wanted to stand at all, and then the chains were locked into place and the guards left him strung up like a sacrifice.

Aang was starting to maybe wonder if trusting Mai might not have been the best idea.

Then that Zhao guy sauntered into the cell, smirking, followed by a bunch of burly soldiers. "Well, young Airbender, perhaps you can shed some light on your situation. Who are you? Where do you come from? And what is going on with this strange storm?"

Aang took a deep breath. "Okay. I don't know anything about your weather, but I'm Aang, a simple monk from the Southern Air Temple. I, uh, well, got into some trouble with the Elders, and they were going to send me to the Eastern Air Temple, but I didn't want to leave, so I ran away. I didn't know where I should fly, but then I remembered that I always wanted to try penguin-sledding, so I started heading south. Then I ran into this awful storm, and me and Appa- he's my Sky Bison companion- got forced into the ocean. Things got fuzzy after that, and when I woke up, I was in this iceberg and Mai and her family found me and started throwing nets at me. And then they brought me here. So, I'm not sure how much I can really help you."

Zhao barked a laugh. "What a load of nonsense. You expect me to believe that your response to being banished by your people was to run away? No, young Airbender, you will help me yet, but I can see that you're not going to make this easy. Perhaps a day without food or water of any kind will soften your stance on this matter." He made a hand motion towards the other soldiers, and then turned on his heel and led his subordinates out of the cell.

The door clanged shut behind him.

Aang hung from his chains and sighed. He really hoped that Mai would come through for him. She was beautiful and pure in spirit, Aang could tell, but things were looking tougher than one person could usually manage.

And Aang was starting to really wonder what the Southern Air Temple would look like, if he got back.

With nothing else to do and needing a little inner peace, Aang did his best to meditate. He wasn't exactly in a comfortable position, but his back was straight, so Aang figured it was worth a try. He closed his eyes and focused on his breathing, steadying it into a soothing rhythm that pleasantly tickled his nostrils. With no distractions, Aang's thoughts gleamed brighter in his awareness, but he didn't let them become distractions to the sensation of his breathing. The flow of air was a calming influence, washing away thoughts, worries, and the scraping of steel chains against his skin.

Aang breathed in, breathed out, and enjoyed a little peace.

Above the South Pole Mining Colony, the winds and the snow abated, for a short while.

By the time Sokka returned the baby walrus to its fellows (with a friendly wave and a promise that he'd like to team-up again, if the opportunity arose), he had come to an intimate understanding of the concept of being 'dead on his feet.'  He wasn't worried about becoming an actual undead horror that stalked the ice in search of manflesh to devour, but only because he barely had enough energy to stay upright, never mind doing any stalking. Besides, those were just legends.

Just about the only bright spot was that the winds died down just as Sokka started making his way back to the mining colony, letting him just stumble along in the newly revealed moonlight without worrying about holding his lantern up or fighting the breeze. It was nice.

The curfew was apparently over by the time he got back, so Sokka was able to blend into the regular foot-traffic that preceded a shift-change up at that mines. Despite the convenience, Sokka had to keep from groaning when he saw all the people out and about; that meant he had a shift of his own coming up back at the laboratory. Hopefully, he'd have enough time to get some food at Gran-Gran's before he had to run off.

He found the house dark and quiet, except for the little kid snores that echoed out of the bedroom. Sokka tiptoed his way to the kitchen stove, and left his boots and coat there to dry. A covered bowl was waiting on top of the stove, and Sokka had to smile at his Gran-Gran's thoughtfulness. The rice and sausage was a little dry, but it was food, and almost as good as sleep.

He was so focused on shoveling his dinner into his mouth that he didn't noticing Gran-Gran herself sneaking up on him until she said, "And just where have you been, young man?" Her tone was no less harsh for her whispering.

Sokka jumped enough to toss the rice out of his bowl, but most of it landed back in. On the downside, Sokka mourned for those lost grains of rice, but on the upside, the jolt of adrenaline had woken him up a bit. "Slush, Gran-Gran," he hissed, "you surprised me."

"We'll have none of that language in this house. Now, where were you?"

Sokka bowed his head in a brief show of shame. "I went to check out the reason for the curfew. Snuck close enough to see our new governor... and get this, he brought an Airbender prisoner with him." While he ate, Sokka proceeded to give his grandmother a quick description of everything he had observed, from the Governor's retinue to the boy in saffron clothes to the giant fluffy monster. He scraped the last bit of sausage into his mouth, and said, "I heard them say that they think the Airbender has something to do with the storm. There's some weird stuff going on up there."

"You took a big risk." Gran-Gran took the empty bowl and shook her head. "Do you think this information is worth it?"

Sokka began doing some stretches, as long as he was awake enough to feel sore. "I dunno. I think this is big stuff, but... I guess there isn't much I can do about it right now." He sighed. "I'm still hungry. Remember jerky, Gran-Gran? We used to always have some, and we could bring it with us wherever we went. I could bring it with to me work. You know, if we had it."

She nodded, and shuffled over to tend the stove. "I remember. I'm surprised you do. You were little when we came to the colony. You teethed on jerky."

Sokka smiled at the memory. "Dad kept some after we came here. He'd give a bit to me, sometimes." He never liked the colony, or living under the Fire Nation's control, but at least he had his family back then. His Mom and Dad were still alive, and Katara... The smile dropped from his face. "I gotta go to work."

Sokka went to get his boots and coat again, but then he noticed a pair of muddy yellow eyes staring at him from within the darkened bedroom. There was still a chorus of snores coming from the room, but once she realized she had been noticed, the little girl Shila stepped out of the darkness into the kitchen.

"Heya," Sokka said, biting back a sigh. "I'm just on my way out. You can go back to sleep."

She nodded, then skipped over and grabbed his hand. "I miss my mom and dad, too, but it'll be okay. Gran-Gran loves us, and we all love each other."

Sokka had no idea how to respond. Love? But the kids were Fire Nation. Well, partially Fire Nation. And he had to work so hard in order to feed them, betraying the Tribe by helping the Fire Nation with their work with platinum. And none of them were Katara.

He missed Katara most of all, which was why he hated thinking about her.

But Sokka didn't want the kids to know about any of that. It would just make things awkward. "Thanks, kid." He ruffled Shila's hair, and then went to get his boots and coat. "I appreciate that."


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« Reply #9 on: Jan 19, 2015 11:18 pm »

Princess Azula was up exactly forty-seven minutes after she normally went to bed, and the change in schedule was an annoyance, but annoyances could be tolerated for the greater glory of her family. She stalked through the quiet halls of the Fire Palace, footsteps muffled by the thick red carpets, holding her missive protectively in both hands. Delivering notes was usually work for servants, but this particular communication was both too secret and too personal. Hands that could have incinerated the paper in a second with the power of Firebending protected the note from even the light of the gas lamps that lined the hallway.

Mai had sent word, and unusually for Azula's dour friend, it was an interesting word, indeed.

Azula found her father's suite guarded, as always, by a pair retired soldiers who worked for him personally. They glanced at Azula as she approached, and one moved to knock on the door behind him. Azula waited patiently, not because these guards had any authority to stop her, but because it was her father's wish that she wait until welcomed, and she always did everything that her father commanded.

He didn't keep her waiting long. He never did, anymore. The door opened, and Father looked out with a smile that positively glowed. "Ah, Azula. You're up late. Please, come in. You know how much I love your company."

The words, the expression on his face, warmed Azula with an intensity that even her Firebending couldn't manage. She gave a quick bow and followed him back into his residential suite. The parlor was lit only by the blaze in the fireplace, and its warmth shielded the room from the chill of the early spring nights. Father took his place on a coach, and motioned at a cushioned chair nearby. "Please, sit down. It's late, and you've been working so hard lately. You need to take care of yourself."

Azula nodded, and took the seat. She didn't really need to rest, but she always did everything that her father commanded. Once she was settled, she held the note out. "Mai sent a message to me over the telegraph from the South Pole. It was encrypted with my personal code, and I decrypted it myself. No one but us knows what it says."

Father's eyebrows rose with interest, but he accepted the note without hurry. Azula had already memorized the contents, of course, in case she had been attacked on the way here from the palace's Communications hub and was forced to burn the note to keep it out of enemy hands. Or the hands of other family, but the distinction was almost invisible, in cases like this.


Father took his time with the note, and Azula had no doubt that he was considering every possible angle. When he finally looked up, he was smiling again. "This is wonderful. As I recall, Mai had an attraction to Zuko, yes?"

Azula smirked at the memory. She had fond memories of exploiting that to embarrass both of them. "To a degree, but Mai is not the demonstrative type."

"Didn't her parents arrange a betrothal to Lu Ten?" Father looked over at the crackling fire. "Yes, now I remember. Iroh sent word breaking it off after he took the North Pole."

"Mai said they were quite put out, but she was relieved, and who can blame her? I have no doubt that her parents will support you against Uncle if you need them."

"Zuko needs us all. Azula, we need to find your brother. He's alive, I can feel it in my heart." Father leaned forward, and his worry for Zuko was plain in the firelight. "His banishment is the greatest regret of my life. It taught me how much I need both of my children. I never expected such generosity from your friend Mai, but she has given us a great gift. If we can arrange things properly with her, we can fulfill Azulon's ridiculous conditions, and Zuko can finally come home."

Azula merely nodded. She had her own doubts about whether Zuko still lived, given how weak he had always been, but if Father insisted on it, then she would believe anything. She was less thrilled about the idea of bringing her brother back home. Certainly, he was the ideal contrast to her own perfection, but his weakness might be a poison to their Royal faction. Also, although Azula would never admit it out loud, she wasn't sure how Zuko would affect her dynamic with Father. He had changed much since the banishment, changed in ways that Azula found surprising, but his displays of affection for her felt so... enriching, even if they were a potential weakness. Would Zuko's presence draw some of Father's regard away from her, the way a Firebender divided her power for each stream of flame she sought to project?

But Father wanted Zuko back, and she always did everything that her father commanded. "Of course. Shall I handle things?"

"Personally. Send instructions to Mai, and give her whatever help and guidance she needs." Father's eyes met Azula's with an intensity he hadn't displayed since before Zuko's banishment. "Then, I want you to go out and bring your brother home. Zuko needs to be the one who captures the Avatar, but he needs to be found, and he must be prepared. Advised. You can do that." Father leaned back, and reached for the small bell on the table beside his couch.

A single ring was all it took to summon Master Piandao out from his shadowy lurking. "Yes, Prince Ozai?"

"We will need a hunter. The best. What do you require to make this happen quickly?"

"Gold, of course." Piandao stroked his chin. "Also, something of Zuko's that still carries his scent. It will be expensive, but the hunter I have in mind will find Zuko, whatever his state."

"It will be done. I'll have the gold prepared immediately, and the contents of Zuko's room have remained untouched. Get word to your contact as soon as possible, and arrange a meeting point for Azula."

The swordmaster bowed, and his voice was not quite sardonic as he said, "As you command, Prince Ozai."

Father turned back to Azula. "And please, stay safe. I want you and brother to come back happy and healthy. I love you both so much. You know that." He extended a hand to stroke Azula's face, and she couldn't help but enjoy the gentle touch. Father had so rarely been this affectionate before Zuko's banishment, calling it weakness, and Azula understood those lessons and appreciated the logic in them.

But such gestures were proof that she was good enough, that she was worthy of her Father, and that he knew she always did everything that he commanded.

"It will be exactly as you say. Anything less would be less than acceptable."


This was an outstanding chapter. I really like your prose; it has a lot of personality, which goes really well with your characters. Anyway, I love the conflict you have going on with Sokka. The poor guy is probably really torn up inside. I am really looking forward to what happened to Katara. Bato, unfortunately could not have barged in  at a worse time.

I also liked how Aang fell in love with the first girl he saw upon waking up from his slumber. And what is funnier is that Mai is too busy to even make note of it. Mai, or the way you write her, comes off as a very interesting character. She is the only sane character in a cast full of superficial gloryhounds. The manner in which you depict the paranoia that people like Mai's father feel is pretty apt. Though may I ask if the magic storm plaguing the south pole colonies is the Everstorm from Korra? It seems like it. Anyway, let me return back to Mai. I can sense that her selfish reason for helping Aang might bite her in the rear latter. I assume that Zuko is still banished in this AU, correct?  Anyway, what I am trying to say is that for the time being, Aang believes Mai to be his ally. So if he finds out that she is using him to help Zuko out, he will likely become dissillusioned and Mai, who will hopefully grow to like him, will hopefully attempt to make amends. Please note that I am not complaining; I like this kind of plot if that is what you are doing. All I am doing is speculating out loud.

So anyway, good job on Mai's character. For the time being she is just trying to use Aang. That is a much wiser decision than having her hate the Fire Nation.

Keep up the good work. I cannot wait to read how you write Zhao.

I've been sitting on the idea for this story for years now, and while it's consistently been the least popular proposal amongst my readers whenever I take a poll, I've always been intrigued by the character dynamics you're describing here. So, I threw caution to the wind, officially entered the "self-indulgent" phase of my fanfic career, and started working on this. Cheesy

I'm glad readers like you have been so positive so far, and I hope I'll do right by your anticipation.

I am going to anticipate your next update by writing that your third chapter was pretty good. I like the way you wrote Zhao (or about him) and it was nice to see how that line about the baby walrus came into play. Your understanding of Sokka as a character really shows. He is my favorite character in this AU. It was a shame, however, that we are going to have to wait to find out what happened to Katara. You also do a good job at capturing Aang's personality, thoughI sometimes feel as if your Aang is a little too exaggerated at times.

Fair point about Aang. He's the character I have the least practice with in this story, so it probably shows. I'll keep in mind about exaggerating him.

As for Katara... perhaps the next chapter will have something you'll find interesting. Wink

Anyway, I am glad you went ahead and named Mai's parents, the fact that they are still nameless in canon bugs me.

I also look forward to reading what Ozai is up to. He is very creepy in this story. Though something tells me that he is still the same guy he was in the show deep down. Something has to be up with the repitition of the phrase "Azula always did what father commanded". Also, I want to read more about Lu Ten and Mai's previous engagement.

As it happens, the chapter I'm working on now (#6) contains a few more hints about some of the context around Lu Ten and Mai's betrothal. Grin

As for Ozai, that's going to be a long-term mystery, but I'm glad to hear you're intrigued.

Never Gonna Give Yue Up

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« Reply #10 on: Feb 01, 2015 11:14 pm »

I almost forgot to update here again. Cheesy

Meetings and Minds

It took Mai three hours, locked in the artfully hewn cave that was serving as her bedroom, but she had finally decrypted Azula's reply.

The return message had come roughly (she had trouble telling time when it was dark all day and all night) twenty-four hours after Mai initiated the correspondence. She had kept her own message short, of course, to make it easier to code and transmit over the telegraph system, but Azula's response had been just as long-winded as one of the Princess' public speeches. The communications technician on duty at the time had actually woken Mai up in the earliest hours of the morning (or the stretch that she was treating as morning, here in this savage sunless land) with a knock on her bedroom door, and kept knocking until she answered. She had to admit, it was an impressive display of the man's sense of duty, since she had at first answered the knocking by throwing a knife at the door without even fully waking up, and then made him keep knocking while she found a dressing robe, muttered an ancient hex on the chill in the air, found her cape, struggled to put both on while preserving access to her knives, and then wrestled her wild bed-hair into something resembling a ponytail.

When Mai finally answered the door and she saw the length of the coded message, she had demanded that the tech bring a decryption machine back up to her bedroom so that she wouldn't be stuck in the cramped office for all the time it would take to render the transmission readable. Only after three hours- not including a break for tea and breakfast- had Mai finally decoded the full message, more time than it had taken the servants to unpack all of Mai's belongings in her bedroom the night before.

But at last Azula's response was revealed in full:


The note went on from there, detailing (with maddeningly minimal use of prepositions) Azula's plan. It was recommended that Mai steal a particular acid from the mine's Research Center (how Azula had acquired, in twenty-four hours, a list of chemicals stocked by the laboratory down here was completely beyond Mai) that could dissolve the chains and locks used by the Fire Navy in its cold weather bases' prison facilities. Then Mai had to infiltrate the Navy base itself to free the Avatar, and Azula recommended just using her Weapon status to get access through the gate, in a way that would make it look like an abuse of power on Mai's part. The next step, freeing the Avatar, had to be done in secret so that Mai could sneak him aboard a particular ship that would take them both away from the South Pole.

When Azula made a plan, she didn't go halfway.

Mai had to admit that she was especially impressed by that last detail. Azula had actually arranged for an order to come from the Processing Center on Kyoshi Island for an emergency supply run. If Mai was able to sneak aboard with Aang, they'd have the whole cargo hold, filled with food and other helpful items, to themselves. It would almost be like a vacation cruise, for a fairly generous definition of the idea of a vacation.

Of course, Azula's attention to detail was characteristically one-sided. Every aspect of the mission was planned except for the part where Mai was running away from home, letting her family think she had become a rebel insurgent or something, and going on the run as a wanted criminal with the most dangerous person in the world until she could somehow guide him into Zuko's path. When Mai had first reached out to the Princess with the idea, she hadn't expected such skullduggery or danger. She figured she'd get a Royal Order permitting her to take Aang out on a return trip to his temple or something, where a nice trap would be waiting for them.

But she had her orders, now. If she didn't obey Azula, only the other members of the Royal Family could possibly protect her from the political fallout. Azula was acting on Prince Ozai's behalf, of course, while Princes Iroh and Lu Ten were all the way on the other side of the world and too busy for the shenanigans of the court- especially for her, given the broken betrothal to the younger prince. And Fire Lord Azulon had no reason to intervene for Mai's sake. Not to mention that even if one of those royals did support Mai for some obscure reason, Azula might very well just decide to solve the problem by killing her, and would almost certainly succeed. It was Azula, after all. Mai liked the princess, but she had no doubt that if she ever gave Azula a reason to want her dead, Mai's ashes would be in an urn within a week. Her only choice was to betray her family, run away from the converted mines that were her passing as her home right now, and hope for success.

Well, at least it wouldn't be boring, and aside from her (tediously empty) life, it's not like she had anything to lose. Mai had no real purpose here in the South Pole, and Azula was the closest thing that she had to a friend; Ty Lee was probably dead, Lu Ten was tiring even when the betrothal was active, and Zuko's exile and disappearance was what this was all about. If everything worked out, he could finally go home and be happy. With all his friends, of course. Mai's family had an estate in the Fire Nation Capital just across from the palace, and surely no one would object if, having done such a favor for a rising faction in the Royal Family, she took control of that mansion away from Father. (She decided that the rest of the family would be allowed to visit on a limited basis.)

Now she just had to figure out how to arrange a visit to the Research Center. With a sigh, she got to packing for an extended trip. Good thing she owned some really nice luggage.

Avatar Aang knew nothing but peace, a state beyond suffering.

Then some loudmouth had to go and interrupt him. "Well, young Airbender, are you ready to tell me what I want to know?"

Aang opened his eyes, coming out of his meditation, and once again saw his prison cell around him. It wasn't a particularly interesting sight, the chains keeping him standing weren't exactly comfortable, and now that Commander Zhao was visiting again the company left a lot to be desired. All in all, it was pretty bad.

Aang smiled anyway. "Hi again! I'd be happy to tell you everything."

Zhao frowned. "So you say. Then what are you doing here in the South Pole?"

"I told you, I came down here to get away from the Southern Air Temple, and-"

Zhao cut him off with a chopping motion. "I see the hunger and thirst has done little to convince you to cooperate. But then, questions have always been inefficient things. In your case, I don't need them. Your answers are superfluous, truthful or otherwise. We know you're connected to the storms. Just minutes after we locked you in here, the winds and snows stopped for the first time in days. That's all the evidence I need. I can have you killed, and all my problems will be solved. But I'm a thorough man, and I want the entire story for my reports. Tell me how you were controlling the storms, and if any more of your people are out there looking to bury us in snow. If you cooperate, I'll be allowed to treat you as an honored ally of the Fire Nation."

Aang blinked. "Um, are you sure about all that? If your storm didn't stop when Mai's dad put me in the brig on his ship, why would it stop because I'm in here?" He tried his most respectful and ingratiating smile, like he was dealing with a cranky Elder after one of Monk Gyatso’s little pie festivals. "I think there's just been a big misunderstanding."

Zhao shook his head, and turned to the guard waiting at the door. "Cut off the heat to this cell. I'll take care of the reports awaiting my attention, and then we'll see if the prisoner is more amendable to our hospitality." He faced Aang once more. "Remember, we already know you're responsible. And if you continue to tell us obvious lies, you'll just be a drain on our resources. The South Pole is too harsh a land to tolerate that for long." The Commander turned on his heel and stalked out of the room.

Alone again, Aang let himself sag, stretching the chains taut. His shoulders burned with weariness, but his legs were even more tired, and he wanted to give them a rest for at least a brief moment.

Why was Zhao so convinced that Aang had something to do with these storms? Airbenders couldn't make it snow, unless maybe they had a Waterbender to help and a lot of preparation. Whether he had been here for a day or a century, storms didn't just pop up to follow the Avatar around, and no one but Mai had any idea that he was the Avatar in the first place.

Aang groaned. He needed to get out of here.

He started to meditate again, but before he let his breathing carry him back into the void, a stray thought tugged at his attention. Figuring that he had nothing to lose, Aang gave into it, and began turning his focus inward. He gazed deep within himself, but while doing so, called out for the storm.

Outside, the winds picked up, just a little.

"Azula wants me to go inspect the mining facilities or something."

Mai stood in the doorway of Father's office while she waited for a reaction to her pronouncement. The room was as nice as the rest of the converted mines that were the South Pole's Governor's Mansion, which was to say that there were enough rugs and tapestries thrown around to almost cover the visible rock. Mai thought that there was still a stony coldness to the air, and so she had taken to wearing her cloak at all times.

Mother and Father, though, seemed to be embracing the atmosphere. They both turned to stare at Mai, caught in the act of inflicting gaudy antiques and vain souvenirs of Father's career on the place. Tom-Tom was sitting on the floor, content to ignore everything around him and play with a model of the extendable bridge that had been used to reach Omashu. The whirring of the little metal wheels in the toy was the only sound in the room for a moment.

Then Father smiled. "That sounds like a wonderful idea. I was going to take the tour tomorrow, but I can adjust the schedule a little bit. It might even be better to surprise everyone down there. Catch them in the midst of bad habits, and all that!" He rubbed his hands together like he was actually having fun.

Mai, in turn, kept her face blank and stood very still. "This is Weapon business. I'm to look for certain things and report back in code. My taking company has been discouraged." Her parents stood straighter at that, and nodded like the good little nothings they really were. Of course. Azula's name was enough to get Mai out of having to eat her peas as a child, and it was still good for enabling treason and sabotage. An idea occurred to her, and she added, "It would also be better to keep this low key. I'm going to request a blue cloak from one of the Tribal servants, to avoid the whole settlement noticing me poking around."

Tom-Tom immediately looked up. "I wanna blue!"

Mother made a tsking sound and reached down to pat his head. "Dear, wearing the colors of lesser peoples is something only spies and dishonorable traitors do. You're not either of those, right?"

"I be spy?"

Mai crouched down, resting her hands on her knees, and gave her little brother her deadest, coldest stare. "You can be a spy, but first you have to cut out your heart and give it to Princess Azula. If she accepts you as her agent, she will devour your heart and make sure you can never feel anything again as you execute her dark will. You will be one of the living dead, bound forever to a greedy crown. Also, blue is a horrible, ugly color, so you'll have to be dead inside to tolerate that, too."

"Huh." Tom-Tom blinked, and then giggled. "Mai silly."

"Yes," Mother said in that disapproving tone Mai knew so well, "your sister is very silly. Mai, must you speak of the Princess that way? We know you two are girlfriends, but other people could get the wrong idea with this talk of cutting hearts out, and now that the war is over, that could be awkward."

Mai resisted the urge to snort at Mother's idea of danger. "No one gets my sense of humor but the illiterate three-year-old." She was struck by her own words, and realized that she was almost serious with them. Sure, Azula always appreciated a good joke about stabbing people, but she still shared the common view that Mai's attitude could use some adjustments. Tom-Tom was the only person who thought Mai was just perfect as she was. Too bad he was a noisy, self-centered, foul-smelling little leech.

She said goodbye to her little brother with a lingering look that wasn't quite fond, and then stood and bowed to her parents. "I'll be going. Thanks for everything. See you later, or whatever."

They waved and wished her well, while Mai turned and walked out without another word, wondering idly if she'd ever see them again. Now, it was time to get a blue cloak and visit the 'South Pole Mining Colony's research and development laboratory.' (What a stupid name.) As Mai stalked through the tunneled halls, she passed a pair of servants hanging a long mirror up on the wall, probably in an attempt to make the place seem larger.

She looked at her reflection as she went on her way to become a traitor, and confirmed that her face was showing no expression at all.

Zhao had a map spread out on a wide table in the center of his office. It showed the South Pole and all the seas around it, with all of the various telegraph lines (aboveground and underwater) and Fire Navy outposts marked.

It was a very detailed visual summary of everything within Zhao's power.

It was the matter of the Airbender that currently captured his attention, though. He was beginning to believe that the child was being at least partially truthful about his ignorance. Governor Ukano was convinced that the boy represented some kind of enemy conspiracy, but Zhao had his doubts. The South Pole was surrounded by harsh landscape, and surely the various patrol boats would have found some sign of settlement if there were any nearby. No, something else was going on. The boy and the storms might be part of it, but it wasn't going to be a simple explanation. Still, Zhao was certain that the Airbender boy knew something useful, even if he didn't realize it, and continuing to push for a confession to the Governor's accusations might yield something.

An aide walked into the office, and after the customary bow, offered up a note. "Commander, we've received new orders over the telegraph. The installation on Kyoshi Island is in need of emergency supplies, and we've been ordered to send out a ship with whatever we can spare."

Zhao frowned. "Kyoshi Island? Let me see that." He grabbed the paper from the aide and scanned it, but sure enough, the man's report was accurate. It seemed odd that a base next to a fishing village was in need of food, never mind that it was so close to the Colonial Continent and all those other islands, but perhaps the area had been hit by some unexpected weather. Could Kyoshi Island be related to this business of storms and Airbenders? Zhao went over to his desk and found some recent reports about his own base's supplies, and there was enough to spare until the next shipment arrived. If worse came to worse, they could let some the Tribals starve for a little while; there were more than enough of them that the mines wouldn’t be left behind schedule.

"Very well. Convey the orders for the supplies to be made ready, and a ship prepared for departure."

He made a point to speak to the assigned captain before the ship departed. He wanted to know what was going on with Kyoshi Island.

« Last Edit: Nov 20, 2015 07:39 pm by Loopy » Logged

Never Gonna Give Yue Up

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« Reply #11 on: Feb 01, 2015 11:14 pm »

Sokka's thoughts whirled as he juggled acids and stone samples. He was alone at his station in the lab, doing the Fire Nation's work, none of it particularly engaging. Jars of chemicals, and rocks with traces of platinum within, passed through his hands like dreams though a sleeping mind. The experimental processes for isolating and purifying the platinum within the rocks mixed with memories of the Airbender boy being marched across the snow in chains, mixed with the gloom of Fire Nation rule, mixed with the empty places in his life where Dad and Mom and Katara were supposed to be, mixed with ghostly images of the baby walrus Sokka had worn as a disguise the day before.

Why couldn’t he do anything about all that loss? Why couldn’t he strike back, at least in a little way?

Sokka had dreamed about that loss, after the long shift he had been forced to work without sleep. Maybe it had been something about breaking into the Navy base, or even seeing the Airbender, but once he finally got a chance to surrender to slumber, his dreams had been filled with the memories of that day a decade ago. Memories of the soldiers breaking down the door, of Mom and Dad shouting. They had pushed Sokka into the family bedroom with Katara, but the soldiers shoved past them- Sokka got a brief glimpse of Dad swinging a fist into the stomach of one of the invaders before three more jumped in- and he and Katara were dragged back out. Sokka couldn't remember exactly what everybody said, but he remembered every possible variation of the word, "Waterbender." Mom and Dad had said it dismissively, the soldiers said it with that hollow, metallic tone, and Katara had said it with screeching desperation. That last use was the one he remembered distinctly; one of the soldiers said that if no one would give up the Waterbender, then everyone would be taken away and killed. Sokka sometimes wondered what Mom and Dad would have done about that, but he would never really know. Katara had spoken up, and said, "I'm the Waterbender! Don't hurt my family!"

And so the soldiers had indeed taken just her. Or, rather, that was their immediate intention.

Mom and Dad had tried to stop it, and soon their blood was spilled out on the floor.

Sokka had known, in that moment, that it was his responsibility to save Katara. To avenge his Dad. To make his Mom's killer bleed like she did. But instead of acting on that, he just sat there on the floor, and watched as his parents bled and stopped breathing, and Katara was taken away. He let his sister be taken. He let his parents die defeated.

Sokka shook his head and forced himself to concentrate again before pouring the pink chemical into the blue chemical to make something much more corrosive, which he would soon be applying to the various rocks he had been given. Around him, other 'assistants' (most of them dressed in red) conducted their own assigned experiments, piling up the resulting data for the lab's overseers. Sokka was idly wondering what would happen if he botched the experiment and had to request more platinum rocks when he a graceful shadow flittered at the edge of his vision. At first, he thought it was another waking dream, but his eyes were drawn to it regardless.

That's when he spotted the woman.

The 'shadow' was merely a blue cloak, dark in shade like those favored by the Tribeswomen who worked as servants in the Governor's Mansion. The fur-lined hood was up, but as Sokka watched, she turned enough to give him a quick glance at the pale face (and the intense expression) within. Her nonchalant pace didn't match that searching gaze. What was she looking for? As Sokka watched, she spotted the sign indicating the chemical supply room, and trotted into it, leaving the door open.

Sokka realized where he had seen this woman before. She was the one trailing behind the new Governor and his wife. Her hair had been really shiny, like someone had worked too much blubber grease into it.

What was she doing wearing a servant's cloak and raiding the lab's chemicals?

Sokka decided to ask her.

He stretched, made sure no one was watching, and then walked over to the supply room like he did it every day, which he actually did, so that part was pretty easy. He found the woman peering at the shelf with all the strongest acids, turning her gaze back and forth between the labeled bottles and a piece of paper in one hand. Stepping quietly, Sokka moved towards her and tried to get a glance at the paper-

-and found himself staring at a very sharp metal thing that was all crimson points and hinges and cutting edges. It took considerable effort to move his gaze off the closest blade and onto the woman, and her glare was every bit as sharp.

Sokka looked at the woman and gave his best grin. "Hi! Are you a thief?"

It was such a stupid grin. The Tribal was obviously trying to hide his fear and surprise, and normally Mai would have enjoyed the moment, but this time she was too busy hating herself. Whatever she was pretending to be in this ugly blue cloak, it certainly wasn't the type of person who would be carrying around customized throwing blades, and now she had blown that cover. Not one step into Azula's plan, and already she had bungled it. She could hardly expect this Tribal to be supportive of her plot to free the Avatar; after all, he was obviously working here in the Research Center, a prized job that would only go to a true collaborator.

Should she just kill the guy and hide the body?

Mai looked at the blue eyes and stupid grin, and her stomach did a little flip at the thought of jamming her blade into the Tribal's face. She had never actually killed anyone before.

She wound up saying, "One gold?"

The Tribal blinked. "Who the what now?"

"Two gold pieces to turn around and pretend this never happened."

"Wait. You're- you're trying to bribe me, right?"

"You want to do it-" Mai nodded at the blade she still had pointed at his face- "the other way? Just tell me how much you want. I'm on a schedule."

"Okay, okay. Slush, give me a moment, would you?" He finally stopped grinning, and glared at Mai like she was keeping him from important business. "I'm a little off kilter from the whole having a scary foldable razor shoved in my face thing, and no one has ever tried to bribe me before. Well, no one who wasn't an official representative of the Fire Nation. Actually, that's a good point; it's hard for me to ask for something if I don't know your available assets..." He looked at Mai expectantly.

"I will stab you in five seconds." Either this guy was a true collaborator and a master manipulator, or he was an idiot and an opportunist. Either way, violence was starting to look like the answer.

From his position in the doorway, the Tribal tried to peek over Mai's shoulder. "So what kind of activity am I covering up here? Are there going to be bodies turning up later?"

"Only yours. Three seconds."

"What, are you one of those private spies? Trying to sabotage our platinum production for some rival of some guy who does leader things around here?"

"You're done." Instead of stabbing the yokel, though, Mai grabbed his shirt, kicked her leg out to sweep his feet off the floor, and yanked him over her shoulder to tumble to the floor. Even before he completed his crash, she was closing the room's door. "That's what you get for wasting my time."

"Ow. Noted."

Mai once again brandished her blade. "You're going to keep quiet, except for answering my question, and then you'll help me find what I'm looking for. Then I'll give you two gold coins, disappear from your life forever, and you'll pretend you don't even know I exist. At this point, you've become enough of an annoyance that stabbing you will not inconvenience me. Understand?"

The Tribal nodded.

"Good." Mai lowered her blade. "I passed through your village on the way here, and saw the guard patrols. Do those extend beyond the village limits?"

The Tribal shook his head. "The only times soldiers leave the village and base is to change shifts at the outposts, those lighthouses that border the bay."

"So if I wanted to avoid any patrols on my way to the Navy base?"

"Just walk out of the Research Center and skirt the village until you reach the fence. Follow it to the left- um, your left when facing it- and you'll find the western entrance to the base."

Mai nodded. This was good information, so far. "And are any of your kind allowed in the base?"

"My kind?"

"You know, Water Tribe." At the look on the Tribal's face, Mai added, "I'm probably using poor wording. This is the first time I've operated outside of the Fire Nation." She didn't actually care about offending Tribals and was even mildly offended herself that they would have the pride to object to their conqueror's terminology, but she didn't want this one to cause more trouble for her.

He seemed mollified, at least. "Okay, sure, no problem. Anyway, no, only soldiers are allowed on base. Except for the people they specifically escort, I guess. And your- um, the Governor and his... people?"

"I'm not his people, anymore." The Tribal's answer meant that Mai would have to lose the blue cloak before she went inside. Well, time to see if Zhao's pompous platinum badge would actually get her through the base's gates without trouble. With that matter settled, she took Azula's message out of her sleeve, carefully folded it so that all of the other instructions were out of sight, and held it up for the Tribal to read. "I need these chemicals."

His face scrunched into a frown. "This is a heavy-duty acid. It'll corrode almost anything. Fast, too. Now what-" Before Mai could cut off his speculation, his eyes went wide. "You're going to free the Airbender! You were there when he was turned over to Zhao. You're going to sneak over to the base, break in, and join up with the Airbender and whatever he has going on, right? You need the acid to get him out of the prison, and then you're leaving together. A universal lock-pick, huh?" Mai's grip tightened on her blade, but before she could make herself do what she had to, the Tribal added, "I want in!"

"In what?"

"This rebellion thing!" The Tribal grinned. "I know a little something about pretending to be loyal to the Fire Nation while still hating them. I want to do something about it, like you. Let me help get the Airbender away from them. You won't even have to pay me. I mean, if you wanted to, that'd be great, too, but it's not necessary. Whatever spare change you have on you is fine."

Mai was barely listening to him. He thought she doing this to fight the Fire Nation? And he wanted to help? Mai's face didn't reflect any of her thoughts as she shifted from surprise to plotting. "Yes, losing the Avatar will hurt the Fire Nation, so we have to get him away. I... have made arrangements to get him out of here with me. You're right about the acid, and then I need to sneak onto a certain cargo ship at a certain time. So this needs to be quick."

The Tribal nodded. "All right. Let's do this thing." He got back on his feet and immediately turned to look at the shelf of acids with much more confidence than Mai knew she had shown. "The name's Sokka, by the way. Ah, here it is." He grabbed a bunch of test tubes filled with a cloudy liquid and held them out for Mai. She took one, gingerly, until she was sure that the stopper was in tight. The glass tubes were undoubtedly fragile, but Mai was covered in very secure holsters. It was a simple matter to make some of her razors temporarily share a sheath and use the freed space to carry the test tubes. By the time she was done securing them, Sokka was waiting at the door. "Let me check outside to make sure no one is watching, and then we'll get you out of here. Where are you going, once you're on your ship?"

She continued to keep her face blank. "Better that you don't know."

"Oh, right, sure. I get it. It's just..." He looked down, and his hands twisted together. "A while ago, the Fire Nation took someone away from me. Family. I was just wondering if you might be going in the same direction."

Mai had no desire to get into this guy's sob-story, so she just said, "We're going to be avoiding anything involving prisons, after this. Sorry."

Sokka nodded. "That makes sense. Okay, let's get you back on schedule."

It felt good to be doing something. It felt good to be hurting the Fire Nation.

It didn't feel so good to have to explain the crazy Knife Lady to the people who noticed them coming out of the supply room after the ruckus ("Sorry, this is a... uh... lady friend... we had a bit of an argument... she's leaving now... I'll be getting back to work."), but Sokka had to admit that there was a warm glow in his heart after he sent her off with the acids that would free the Avatar.

Wait, Avatar?

Back at his station, almost ready to once again measure the rates at which platinum could be extracted from rock samples with various solvents, Sokka frowned. She had said she was going to free the Airbender, right? As Sokka ran back over the exchange in the supply room, one of the Knife Lady's quotes jumped out at him from his memory: "Yes, losing the Avatar will hurt the Fire Nation, so we have to get him away. I have made arrangements to get him out of here with me."


He couldn't be the Avatar, could he? He was just a kid. An Airbender kid.

But then why else would a deep cover agent like the Knife Lady be setting him free?

Sokka couldn't help but feel that someone was being made to look like a fool, and he really hoped it wasn't him.

So what could he do about it? Knife Lady was gone to rescue whoever that was who everyone thought was an Airbender, and Sokka was stuck here at work. Even if he found a way to get out of here without ruining his standing with the lab's overseers, he'd have to get all the way over to the Fire Navy base, get back inside without taking the time to get ahold of a walrus, and then catch up with Knife Lady before she boarded a cargo ship that would take her to parts unknown. How was Sokka going to manage that?

Then he had a thought.

It wouldn't be any problem to walk out of here if he didn't care about coming back. If that kid really was the Avatar of legend and Knife Lady really was a freedom fighter looking to save the world...

...maybe they'd be interested in finding the last Waterbender of the South Pole.

And Sokka could finally save his sister.

It was stupid. It was idealistic. The boy probably wasn't the Airbender, and Knife Lady was probably playing some kind of corrupt game. Sokka might be throwing everything good away for nothing. Gran-Gran and the kids wouldn't have his food tokens to survive on any more. It would be completely irresponsible to take this line of thought any further. But it was perhaps the greatest chance he would ever get to do something worthwhile with his life. Could he live with the regret of ignoring it?

He took one last look around the laboratory, where everyone toiled for the advancement of Fire Nation science, turned, and walked out forever.


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« Reply #12 on: Feb 01, 2015 11:18 pm »

Aang was still trying to find that storm in his heart when Zhao returned. The screech of the cell's metal door snapped Aang's eyes open, and he could feel a warm breeze coming in from the hallway before the portal slammed shut again and left them trapped in cold, dead air.

Zhao made a show of rubbing his hands together and Bending a brief flare of flame over them. "It's quite frigid in here. If you're ready to tell me the truth, I can order the heat turned on again with a single word."

Aang pretended to shiver. It was hard, because he had never actually done it before, thanks to a breathing exercise that could keep him warm even here in the South Pole. It was one of the earliest lessons given to little Air Nomads, at least in the Southern Temple. Aang understood cold in terms of how the air would feel against his skin, but the way it actually affected his body was a very distant memory, something he knew only from seeing it in his friends around the world.

So Aang made himself shake, huddled his head down, and said, "Brrrr! It's cold in here. Really, really cold."

Zhao stared at him.

Aang gave what he hoped was a cold-looking grin.

Zhao sighed. "I've cleared my schedule for the rest of the day, so no matter how much time it takes, I'm going to have the truth out of you before I leave. I command the cold, and I command fire. Between the two, I'm sure I'll be able to arrive at some workable combination to loosen your tongue."

"Gran-Gran, I'm home!"

As usual, Sokka was first greeted in turn by such heartwarming words as, "Isn't Sokka still supposed to be at work?" followed by "He's a lazy-bones!" plus "Maybe he got fired for being dumb!" and "They must'a'sent him home for napping on the job!" with a "Silly Sokka!" bringing up the rear for a rousing conclusion. He endured it all, because he realized this might be last time he ever heard those voices.

He pulled off his hat, not caring how tangled his loose hair was, and waited for Gran-Gran to come into the kitchen. He felt oddly similar to those times when he knew he was about to be caught sneaking treats before dinner. At the sight of him, Gran-Gran tensed up; she always knew when something was wrong. Sokka nodded confirmation of her wariness, took a breath, and said, "I think I kind of walked off my job so that I could rescue Katara."

For once, it was dead quiet while everyone in the house was awake. It was Shila, the oldest of the children, who looked up at Sokka with her muddy yellow eyes and broke the silence. "Katara's your sister, right?"

"Yeah, Katara's my sister. I haven't seen her in a while."

Gran-Gran was very still, and kept her gaze locked on Sokka. "You realize that she might be-"

"-dead," Sokka finished. "I know. But if she is, I have to be sure. And I've learned that the Airbender- you know, the one up at the Navy Base who I lost all that sleep watching? I found out that he might be the Avatar. And if anyone can help me find and save Katara, it's him. Katara used to believe those old legendy things. About the Avatar, I mean."

Gran-Gran gave a slow, single nod of her head. "I remember. But can he save us, too?"

And then Sokka realized just how stupid he had been. He had walked out of work, and even if he wasn't caught helping Knife Lady, it wouldn't take a genius (not that the Fire Nation had any, in his opinion) to link Sokka's disappearance with the Avatar's escape. And then it wouldn't take a genius to link Sokka to his Gran-Gran and the mutts living with them.

Sokka summed up the twisting in his stomach with a single, "Oh, slush."

The kids giggled, and Gran-Gran reached out to swat Sokka's ear. "Language! That word is not allowed in this house."

"Sorry, Gran. About... you know, everything." He clutched his head, trying to think. He might not be nodding off any more, but his tired brain was moving about as fast as an icebreaker in the cold season. He had to think, to come up with a solution for all this. See, this is what happens when people go with their impulses. Impulses were bad. They stomped all over rational thought and danger assessment. You couldn't-



Sokka looked around at everyone in his house. Gran-Gran. Shila, Naklin, Quinyaya, Tliyel, Shlim. He had family outside of this house, too, like Bato. Even the the other people in the Tribe who hated him for working in the Fire Nation's lab.

"I have an idea," Sokka said, "but I'm going to need everyone's help to pull it off. And it's kind of dangerous, but you probably guessed that part already."

Gran-Gran nodded. "Nothing is too dangerous for me when it comes to my grand-kids."

Shila nodded, too. "We'll help, too!" The other kids followed her lead with, "Sokka's smart and he has a plan!" followed by "The Avatar is back!" plus "Anything is better than more rice and komodo sausage!" and "All for us and us for all!" with a "Slush yeah, uprising!" bringing up the rear for a rousing conclusion that even Gran-Gran didn't countermand.

That didn't make Sokka feel good. It made him feel rotten for thinking that these kids weren't his family. But hopefully saving everyone would make up for that, a little. "Thanks, guys. Now, first thing, I need someone to run a message up to the mines for Bato... no, wait, first I need a string. Anyone have one?"

Quinyaya stepped forward and held up a ragged blue string. Sokka reached out to take it, his fingers brushing Quinyaya's as he did so, and he couldn't help but notice the warmth in those hands. Warmth that came from the Fire Nation, originally.

Warmth that felt good, honestly.

But warmth alone wasn't going to fix things.

Sokka brushed his hair back and pulled it into a tail, and then tied it with Quinyaya's string. He tied it tight, a proper Warrior's Wolf Tail that would keep his hair out of his eyes in battle and also evoke the Wolf Spirits that had allied with the ancestors of the Water Tribe, in the before times.

It also, Sokka thought, looked really kick-butt. "Okay. Now we plot to save everyone and knock some Fire Nation heads. Who's taking my message to Bato for me?"


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« Reply #13 on: Feb 02, 2015 06:25 pm »

Excellent work Loopy. This cjapter was riddled with your sigmature humor. I liked the part where Mai told her brother that he would have to sacrifice his heart. His childlike reaction and as well as Mai's mother's reaction was spot on.anyway, I am finally glad that we got more details concerning Sokka's past. Your writing during this sequence is rather subdued and I think it works really well. You could have easily taken an overtly emotional route in describing that tragic even in Sokka's life, but instead you chose the better path.

I also am intrigued about Aang's frequent meditations. I am not sure if I am reading this correctly or not, but I detected in ambiguity in your wording.  Is Aang really causing the stprm, even if unitentionally?

Moving on, I want to say that you did a good job creating sympathy for Sokka and his dilemma. His hands are tied and he has to remember that he has so much to lose. He can't afford to knock some Fire Nation heads, he has a family to think about.

I am glad that things are picking up quite a bit. Azula's letter to Mai lays down what we can expect as far as a general outline for this story goes.

Although you said there will be no Maikka, I am starting to really want it. You capture Sokka's demeanor perfectly. Even better you captute Mai's reaction to that personality of his just as well. Good job.
« Last Edit: Feb 02, 2015 06:31 pm by Colonel_Brian » Logged
Never Gonna Give Yue Up

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« Reply #14 on: Feb 15, 2015 05:11 pm »

Excellent work Loopy. This cjapter was riddled with your sigmature humor. I liked the part where Mai told her brother that he would have to sacrifice his heart. His childlike reaction and as well as Mai's mother's reaction was spot on.anyway, I am finally glad that we got more details concerning Sokka's past. Your writing during this sequence is rather subdued and I think it works really well. You could have easily taken an overtly emotional route in describing that tragic even in Sokka's life, but instead you chose the better path.

Yeah, when it comes to emotions for scenes like this, I like to focus on the hollow feeling of loss, rather than the hotter emotions. Of course, Sokka has been living with those losses for years and years, so for him, it's just a constant ache that's always in the back of his mind. Not that this story won't give him more immediate emotional moments to endure... Wink

Although you said there will be no Maikka, I am starting to really want it. You capture Sokka's demeanor perfectly. Even better you captute Mai's reaction to that personality of his just as well. Good job.

I guess I just can't help myself with these two. Cheesy

Thanks for the continued feedback!

The Everstorm

Zhao had been right about one thing, at least. The platinum badge he gave to Mai was enough to get her though the Navy Base's gates.

She had shed the disguise of the blue robe by this point, exchanging it for her normal crimson cape. Her luggage for her new life as a royally-sponsored fugitive had been waiting exactly where she had left it outside the mine's Research Center, and it was a simple matter to brush off the snow that had covered it while she had been off stealing industrial acids. She had everything she was taking into one of her flat cases that could hang comfortably on her back, folding her clothes tightly and arranging the objects with the same efficiency that she applied to the weapons hanging on her body. Then she had dumped every blade she could fit into the thing, more worried about quantity than keeping them nice. This left the case overweight, but she had strength enough to carry it through a quiet escape.

The only other thing she brought was Aang's staff. It was too nice to leave as a toy for Tom-Tom.

Mai stalked across the snowy grounds of the base, leaning on the staff, hood held against the wind and the flurries. She passed by the docks, confirming that the large cargo ship was finishing the last of its loading and would soon be able to depart on its mission. She moved on to the prison building, went right up and hammered on the front door, and when the eye-slit opened, she held her badge up. "I am a Weapon of the Fire Nation. Let me in, now." The eye-slit closed, and Mai leaned both the staff and her luggage against the wall beside the door. No point in taking them inside, where they would just be a liability. A moment later, the door unbolted and opened for her.

Mai stepped inside, brushed her hood off her head, made sure her hair was still nice, and then turned into a tornado of violence and blades. Every move she made came with an exhalation that transformed her Qi into sheer power and slammed it into each knife that left her hand. The overall effect was enough momentum to yank a heavily armored soldier of average height and weight off his feet and nail him to a wall by the sleeves of his uniform.

Multiply over the six soldiers in the prison's front screening room, and the end result mathed out to Mai having her run of the place.

Lieutenant (Junior Grade) Daizi didn't like this storm. Not one bit. Being regularly stationed at the Navy base's eastern gate, he saw a lot of the weather, here in the South Pole. (Preferably through the windows of his nice, heated guardhouse, of course.) It snowed a lot down here as expected, but it hadn't been until they got word about the big victory over the Earth Kingdom that the snow stopped stopping. It had progressed to storming, to the point where they had the newbies constantly shoveling the base's walkways, until they brought the Airbender boy in the other day. Then it had calmed, ever so briefly, before the storm came back with a new strength.

It wasn't something that Daizi would want his commanding officers to hear, but his grandpop-pop had raised him to fear the Other Folk, back on the farm, and this stunk of Spirit stuff.

Motion outside broke through Daizi's glum thoughts. He poked his head out of the guardhouse, and looked to see a little Tribal child leaning on the bars of the gate. He squinted through the flurries, and recognized her as one of the half-breed urchins who sometimes came around looking for candy. This one was Shila; Daizi remembered her because she reminded him of his cousin, so long as he ignored her big ugly nose, but like his cousin, she could be annoying. He stepped out of the guardhouse and made some shooing motions with his hands. "Get out of here! We're... uh, running a drill, and the gate has to stay locked."

Shila stepped up to the gate and grabbed it in her mittens, staring over at Daizi with her big gold eyes. "Pleeease, sir? It's cold and I have nowhere to go. Can I just warm up in the guardhouse for a moment?"

"Get off the gate and get out of here!" When she didn't do as she was told, Daizi went and grabbed his spear. Conking her on the head with the shaft should teach her a lesson or two. He stuck the spear through the bars of the gate and was about to bring it down on the girl-

-when there was a blur of motion, and a larger figure in a blue parka grabbed the spear by the shaft.

Daizi instinctively tried to yank it away, but the attacker yanked harder, and the last thing Daizi saw before he lost conscious was the bars of the gate rushing forward to meet his face.

The fire went away before it could touch him, and the cold air rushed back in to beat at Aang's body. It sapped the heat from his skin and muscles before he could adjust his breathing to warm himself again, but by then he had already been hit by full-body shivers.

Aang sagged against his chains.

"Why don't we take a little break? To talk." Zhao ambled back and forth across the cell, hands clasped behind his back. "This can all end once you tell me the truth. You just have to confirm what I already know, that your Airbender tribe is trying to destroy my colony here."

Aang wanted to grit his teeth against the words, but he couldn't summon the energy. Even his interrogator didn't seem particularly interested. Aang thought about livening things up by spitting a burst of air to knock Zhao off his feet, but decided against it. What would be the point?

Zhao heaved an artificial sigh. "Very well, time to bring the heat back." He shifted his stance and brought his hands up-

-and went still when the cell door rattled loudly.

It burst open a second later, and Mai stalked inside with a tri-pronged blade in each hand.

Zhao said, "What are you-" and Mai threw one of the blades at him. It streaked through the air like a hummingbirdsnake, but Zhao flicked his forearms up and deflected the projectile with his vambrace. He punched out a fireball that Mai dodged by going into a spinning sidestep. Even while she was still in motion another knife came flying out from her, the blade catching the edge of the sash Zhao wore over his chestplate, and Aang was impressed when the force of the strike actually sent the Firebender stumbling backwards. Zhao hit the wall behind him and turned the momentum of his bounce into dash at Mai, once again throwing fire at her.

Aang watched her practically leap back from the flames, springing with one leg at a time to dance around the edge of the cell. She didn't react to the danger, but Aang's heart was pounding over how close the flames came to unprotected skin.

Then Mai glanced at him, offered a smile so fleeting it might not have been real, and threw something at him. Aang thought it was another knife at first, glittering in the dim light of the cell, but then it shattered like glass against the chain holding his right arm up and bursting into heavy mist. The links hissed and bubbled, spilling to the ground like liquid tarnish. Then the chain was broken, and Aang's arm fell to his side.


All of a sudden, finding the energy to do things didn't seem so hard anymore.

Zhao had time to look over in surprise before Aang swung out a palm strike that hammered him with wind.

As Zhao tumbled against the wall again, Mai threw more vials at Aang. Faster than he could perceive, her hands flicked in and out from her sleeves and more of the dissolving liquids burst against his chains. After only moments, Aang's legs and left arm were freed, and although they still wore the metal cuffs, he was finally able to move as an Airbender needed. Zhao threw one more punch, another fireball aimed at Aang this time, but it was a simple matter to raise his arms and snap out a wind strong enough to turn the flames into dying sparks floating back towards their maker. The air continued unabated through the fire, slamming Zhao into the cell's corner, and Aang added a few crosswinds to bounce him back and forth between the converging walls.

Zhao managed to stay on his feet. When he stopped swaying, he started to take another attack stance, but then a bolt of light flashed across Aang's vision to slam straight into Zhao's head. It was a knife, made of a metal that shined even in the gloom of the jail cell, and it struck Zhao handle-first right in the center of his forehead.

He groaned and fell to the ground.

Aang looked over at Mai. She went to retrieve the weapon, then met his stare with a look in her eye that sent a jolt through Aang's body, and said, "He gave me that knife. The metal is too soft for the blade to be any good, but he was right that it was perfectly balanced for throwing. But we need to leave." She was at Aang's side in an instant, grabbing him and yanking him along.

"Whoa, where are we going?!"

Mai didn't slow as they passed out of the cell and she slammed the door behind them. "There's a cargo ship about to leave the docks. I've arranged for it to have everything we need. We'll figure out where we go once we're aboard."


He was right about Mai.

She was amazing!

Aang could only grin as he let himself be dragged. Mai had saved him, and did it without killing anyone. She was the greatest girl ever! They skidded to another stop in the prison's front guardroom, where were struggling against knives that held them fast. Aang had time enough to wave at them before Mai was hauling him outside and skidding to a stop where his staff and a long black backpack were leaning against the building's wall.

The return of a physical symbol of his heritage reminded Aang of something. "You made sure that Appa is on this ship, too, right?"

Mai didn't say anything as she hefted her luggage onto her back.

Wait, did show know how important Appa was? Aang hadn't really talked to her about it, and he knew from his old (don't think about maybe how old) friend Kuzon that except for dragons, the Fire Nation didn't really do Spirit Companions. "Wait, I need Appa!"

Mai shoved his staff at him. "No time."

"You don't understand, we can't leave Appa, he's my best friend!"

"There isn't any-"

"Don't worry." Aang gave her a reassuring smile. "I can find him really quick. Just wait here." Then he ran, calling the wind that was already there to speed him along. The snow beneath his feet flared up into the sky as he dashed across it, and buildings blurred past him as he twisted through the Fire Navy base. He just needed to find one with an entrance big enough to get Appa through, and then he could go back to get Mai and she could help him-

Fire flared in front of Aang, and he had to make a hard turn to escape it that left him slipping and tumbling through the snow. As he pushed himself up, he heard a gong starting to clang in quick, repeating pattern, and looked around to find Fire Nation soldiers running at him from all directions.


On the proud cargo ship Abiding, Captain Lee frowned at the sound of the base's alarm gong. His crew had just finished loading everything for the Kyoshi Island mission, and with the snow coming as thick as it was outside of the bridge's windows, Lee could see that there was plenty of active Firebending going on across the base grounds. A battle of some kind was happening, but he couldn't see against whom it was being waged. Still, Commander Zhao had always been very clear that Lee's job was not to make decisions, but to do what he was told, and the sounding alarm meant that emergency procedures were active. All crewed ships were to lock down and await further orders.

Lee was just about to convey that to his crew when the helmsman pointed out the window and shouted, "Look, sir! A tug is pulling up in front of us."

Ah, that was either the regularly schedule crew, who needed to have the emergency procedures imparted to them by an officer of great wisdom, or carriers of further orders. Humming eagerly, Lee trotted out of the bridge and across the deck. He held onto his helmet against the roaring wind and leaned over the railing to shout down to the tug boat bobbing in the water. "Ahoy! What word?"

Belatedly, he realized that the tug's crew was all wearing blue. He didn't quite understand the reasoning behind that until he noticed that they were all holding long ropes tied pickaxe heads bent into right angles. Only after those makeshift boomerangs were being swung fast enough to blur into the snow did it dawn on Lee that his ship was under attack.

Then one of ersatz boomerangs struck him in the face before falling to hook onto the ships rail.

Aang really wished it wasn’t snowing.

Now that Zhao wasn't torturing him, the cold wasn't bothering him anymore, but the snow was falling fast enough to make using his staff's glider dangerous. The wings were fragile, and the driving wet snow would eat through them as fast as the fire that everyone was throwing around, so he was stuck running through the base while fighting off his attackers. Firebenders and soldiers with swords and spears were pouring out of all the buildings, but Aang refused to get pulled into a real fight. He still had to find Appa, then he had to find Mai again, and then they somehow had to get out of here. If Appa was rested enough to fly, then they wouldn't need that boat Mai wanted to stow away on, but if not, they might have a really big problem.

Aang ran away from the group of soldiers converging on him with another boost of speed that launched the snow beneath his boots into the air, and was just starting to gain some distance when he realized that a heavy fence was looming in front of him. Aang skidded to stop in the snow quickly enough to avoid a crash, but then fireballs were once again crashing down around him.

Fine, forget running. He planted his staff into the snow like a flag, and then dodged another fireball while he pushed together and molded a little cyclone of air in his hands. He ushered some of his Qi into it to form a ball of swirling winds bigger than his head. Aang ducked under a thrusting spear, and then hopped on his globe-shaped cyclone to finalize the Air Scooter move that had earned him his arrows. It took concentration to balance on top of it while keeping the ball going, but there was no better way to travel on the ground.

No faster way, either.

Aang grabbed his staff and just before he took off through the formation of Fire Nation soldiers, swerving around each one without so much as brushing them, the air scooter's movements as nimble as any circle-walker. Aang passed through the crowd and put on another burst of speed that kicked up enough snow to cover every single soldier, and he made himself laugh as he glanced back at their dejected and slush-covered faces. He cornered around one of the larger buildings, dismissing it as the same prison the he had been stuck in for the last few days, and tried to use it to orient himself. He had already gotten a good look at most of the buildings on the west side of the base, and should really check the east side as well. He passed in front of the docks-

-and caught sight of Mai at the center of a ring of fire, desperately trying to deflect the spears thrust through the flames at her with nothing more than a pair of knives. Why didn't she throw some of them like she did in the prison? But Aang realized that there were a lot of soldiers around her and she was moving slowly with that pack on her back-

-a fireball exploded just short of him and threw him off of his air scooter, sending him crashing and tumbling into the snow. He had to spit slush out of his mouth, and all the weariness from back in the prison was once again weighing down on him. The sounds of boots tromping in the snow grew closer, and his skin complained about the heat of the flames that streaked around him.


This wasn't going well.

Mai might die.

Appa might not even be in the base.

And Aang would get sent back to that prison, and Zhao would bring back the hot and the cold-

-the snow fell around him-

-the world exploded into light, and Aang found the storm waiting for him in the glow like an old friend.

The good news for Mai was that the ring of fire around her went out, and none of the soldiers were giving her any more attention.

The bad news was that the snow and wind suddenly decided to become a storm so big that it broke her imagination.

All visibility was lost. Wind hammered at her and yanked her hair like Azula in a bad mood. Mai crouched to the ground, trying to reduce her exposure. She tightened the ties of her backpack to make sure it wouldn't be blown away, and wrapped her cloak around her body. She began crawling as swiftly as she could to get away from her last known position, in case any of the Fire soldiers decided to take a blind shot. The cold bit through her clothes, but it found no purchase on her concentration. She looked around, hoping for at least some sign of where she was, and found nothing but a sea of flickering gray. Even the cargo ship, previously in sight, had completely disappeared.

Then Mai looked up, and found a beacon in the storm.


There was a bright blue glow in the sky above her, of a shade and intensity that she had seen before. It was the same light unleashed from the iceberg that began her adventures here at the South Pole, the same light that heralded Aang's arrival.

There was no doubt that Aang was the Avatar, now.

Mai called to him, but her voice was lost in the wind.


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I'm Loooooooopy!

« Reply #15 on: Feb 15, 2015 05:13 pm »

Sokka shielded his eyes from the wind and snow, and watched as the last of the Fire Navy soldiers were thrown over the side of the cargo ship. He would have liked to participate in what was probably his people's most daring strike against their crabby oppressors in decades, but he knew he was a warrior in name only, despite his new hair style. The Fire Nation didn't allow anyone in the Tribe to own a weapon, and Dad's lessons from before they left the wilderness hadn't included combat.

Sokka knew his place: watching and hoping he'd be able to do better next time.

The group of miners that Bato had assembled, though, had real veterans amongst them. They moved through the snow, up the ropes from the tug boat that Bato had captured, and across the deck of the cargo ship to attack the crew with their converted mining tools. Sokka knew all those miners; they had been warriors alongside his dad, and they were the same people who had called him names when he went to work in the Research Center. They were the same people Sokka knew that Bato would bring together to hear his message. They were the people who Sokka found he couldn’t bring himself to address, once they were all gathered away from the Fire Nation’s guard patrols. Bato had given the speech that rallied those men to Sokka’s plan.

There weren’t many of them- no more than three dozen- but they were the men who pledged to help free the Avatar and sail away with their families to safety.

The plan was simple. They had taken out the soldier in the closest guardhouse and climbed the fence. From there, the plan was to steal a tug boat, seize the cargo ship that was ready to go, and ride them both away from the South Pole completely. They would escape with the Avatar, and start a new life with the supplies on the vessel. The plan was crazy, but it had been the only way to leave to go look for Katara and keep his family and friends safe. It was the only way to keep them alive if he really did end up finding and freeing Katara.

Of course, compared to tracking Katara down and finding her alive and healthy, this might be the easy part. Sokka pushed that anxiety out of his mind as Bato jogged over. "That's the last of the soldiers. The ship is ours."

Sokka wanted to be happy, but another burst of wind hammered him with snow. "What about this weather? Can we sail in it?"

"The waves are high, but the tug can handle them. Once we're clear of the bay, this is a big and heavy ship, so if we can pull ahead of worse weather, we should be okay. Better than staying here, anyway, and it will give us some cover from anything Zhao tried to send after us." Bato looked out at the Navy base, or rather, the big blur of snow where the base used to be. "What about the women and children? How will they see our signal in this? And what of the Avatar and the traitor woman?"

"I think the Avatar is the big blue flying thing that caused the storm to get worse, so I'm hoping he can handle himself. As for our families..." Sokka knew what he had to do. "I'm going to go out and bring them here. I really hope they all remembered to stay together and stay safe."

"Wow, I've never seen so much fur in one place before!"

The monster shuffled to the back of its cage as Shila led the other kids into the stable. The building was mostly empty, since the South Pole was too cold for most of the mounts used by the Fire Navy's marines. Only a pair of yaks chewed whatever it was that yaks chew on the far side of the stable. Shila's bootsteps echoed in the vast space, but the monster grunted and blew a burst of air out of its massive nostrils, drowning out all other noises. The other kids jumped back, but Shila was no scaredy pony-cat, so she kept moving forward.

The monster rose up to its full height, standing on its back two legs, and then flopped back down with enough force to make the ground shake and send hay flying all around the stable.

Once the echoes died down again, Naklin hissed, "He gonna eat you."

Shila shook her head. "Sokka said he belongs to the Airbender Avatar, and Airbenders don't hurt people. Or didn't used to." She finally reached the cage, and the monster snorted at her, whipping her hair like stormwinds, but she reached for the latch and unhooked it, letting the front of the cage swing open.

The monster stomped out of the cage, and stared down at Shila.

Shila stared back.

The monster's eyes were brown, but there was a golden shine to them that reminded Shila of her own eyes, so different than everyone else's in the Tribe.

Then the monster licked her with a tongue bigger than her whole body.

While Shila tried to decide if she was delighted or completely grossed out, the monster flapped its tail and rose up into the air. Shila heard the other kids gasp, but could only watch as it angled to face the ceiling, and then flapped its tail again to launch itself right through the roof and into the stormy sky outside.


Shila was still standing there, staring and dripping, when Gran-Gran shuffled into the stable. "What are you kids doing in here? Come on, the storm's gotten worse, and we need to find the boat.

"...Shila, why are you a mess?"

Aang was lost in the light, lost in fury, lost in fear, lost in the storm.

He was a fountain of power, filled with so much energy that it was bursting from his body in the form of light and air. He could feel that it was enough to wipe the entire South Pole off the map, but it was still nothing compared to the power of the storm that he had awakened.

The storm had been lurking out there, tickling Aang with its presence whenever he had meditated in his jail cell, but now that he had unleashed his own inner light, the storm had responded with darkness that threatened to drown Aang and sweep him away. His own power was unending, but it couldn't push back against the storm's momentum. It had been waiting for eons in the heart of the South Pole, building its strength, and now it was spilling out to unleash its fury on the rest of the world. It wasn't limitless like Aang's power, its spread would have to halt eventually if it was to survive, but within its borders, nothing could stand against it.

Not even the Avatar.

All Aang could do was float in the focal point of the storm's fury, his own despair reflected in the howling of the frigid winds and the raking of the flying ice, and wonder if he would ever be himself again.

Then Appa called out to him, and Aang remembered who he really was.

The blue light in the distant sky above faded out, and Mai half-expected the storm to immediately die down and everything to be okay. Sadly, it seemed that there was still an optimistic part of her that needed to be put out of its misery as soon as possible. Her other half, the realistic one, noted that the storm was very much continuing. It also noted that a sky bison was falling head-first out of the sky, with Aang sitting bonelessly on its forehead.

Both halves of Mai wondered was what going on.

The wind kicked up, but in a completely different direction from the rest of the stormgusts, and Mai found herself- and Aang's stupid staff with her- suddenly lifted up from the snow into the air. The sky bison swooped down below her, and Mai tumbled butt-first into the giant saddle on the beast's back.

Aang sat up and caught his staff. "You okay?"

Mai blinked at him. "We're flying." She clutched at the saddle's side, not liking the way bison's turns made gravity change directions.

"Yeah, isn't it great?"

"We're flying." Mai swallowed against the way another movement made her weight increase, and then suddenly decrease until she was almost floating.


"We're flying." Mai turned away from the wind that wouldn't stop slapping her face and yanking her hair. She had never given much thought to being in the sky, but traveling by boat across half the world had given her the opportunity to imagine being alone in a vast, bottomless ocean, and flying was worse.

"Are you okay?"

"I'm not sure my reality is ready to handle this." She scooted close to the center of the saddle, and kept her hands splayed out for support. The sky bison was solid enough, and she just had to focus on that.


Mai swallowed again. "I can't see the ground in this storm."

"That's fine. So long as we keep track of up and down, we'll be okay." Aang turned around again. "Whoa, up, Appa, up!"

The wind roared over Mai's ears as the beast swooped upward, and her stomach moved in a way she had only ever experienced the time Ty Lee convinced her to try jumping from the roof of her house. She decided that she didn't really need to know how close the sky bison had just come to crashing. Right now, she had to figure out what should come next. Yes, that would be a good thing to focus on. With the weather like this, could they still sneak aboard the supply ship? Would Zhao still allow it to leave? Perhaps if they could take a hostage...

Mai shook her head. Azula always said that making plans without information was pointless, so information was needed. She pushed aside her air-sickness, telling herself that falling to her death at least wouldn't be boring, and made herself move back to the saddle's edge to peer out into the storm. She had to find something that would tell her what to do.

Kanna, known to most of the people in her life as Gran-Gran, had been in worse spots, but not in over sixty years.

The journey from her birthplace at the North Pole down to the Southern Water Tribe had been full of so many adventures that she couldn't even remember them all anymore, but back then she had been blessed by a workable combination of youthful naiveté and ingrained stubbornness. Now, Kanna knew how easy it was for people to die, having seen her family's next generation murdered by the Fire Nation. She knew how easy it was to disappear in the world, having seen her granddaughter taken away beyond her Tribe's reach. That was why she cared for the kids of the Tribe, even the ones who weren't fully of the Tribe's blood- life was too precious, and Kanna knew how to survive.

Except here in the middle of this storm, in the middle of this battlefield, in the middle of the Avatar's Return, Kanna thought she might not survive this time. She had the children gathered around her, with more women of the tribe following behind her, and she needed to get them all to the cargo ship, but none of them could see anything in the pounding snow. Every new step could just as easily bump them into a Firebender as bring them to their goal.

This was no ordinary storm. Kanna knew the legends of the Spirit’s Everstorm, which was supposed to have raged since the beginning of the world over the center of the South Pole, and she also knew that the weather lately had been worse than usual, bad enough that the Fire Nation had sent a new governor to take over in what was something like an emergency situation. And it had struck its hardest now, that the Avatar had revealed his power. Was it truly the Everstorm? Had it moved to seek out the remnants of the Tribe?

Would it now rage over Kanna's adopted home forever?

She pushed on through the wind, in the direction she thought she had last seen the ship, and wondered if perhaps the Fire Nation's reprisal against Sokka's actions wasn't the only thing their group might be fleeing.

Another step allowed a streak of black and crimson to resolve in her vision, and realized that she had failed. A Firebender had found her. She moved to stand wide in front of the children, in case the enemy hadn't seen them yet, and prepared to join the rest of her family in the Long Hunt.

Then a giant fur monster fell out of the sky, and a boy in the colors of the dawn appeared to strike the Firebender with the wind itself.


This would the Avatar and his bison, then.

The Firebender was lost from view again, but another shape in the same colors approached out of the snow. Kanna tensed again, but the Avatar child moved to support the figure against the wind, as they got close, she realized that the newest arrival was a young woman. She was of obvious Fire Nation stock, and her eyes were bewildered as she said, "What are you people doing out here?"

Kanna nodded. "You must be the young lady who corrupted my grandson into a rebel."

"I did what?"

"My grandson is Sokka. He came up with a plan for me and most of our friends to escape together, on the cargo ship, so that the Fire Nation can't punish us for all this trouble."

The young lady's eyes scrunched closed, and Kanna's old ears were used enough to the sound of wind to hear a mumbled, "I knew that guy would be trouble." Then the Fire Nation woman looked up again. "All right, then, what's the plan? And how do we get it done fast?"

"A group of the miners should have taken the ship by now. We just need to find it."

The Avatar nodded. "Everyone, grab hands. I'll go first, and do what I can with the winds ahead of us. Appa will go last to make sure no one gets left behind!"

The Avatar had a little wisdom, at least. Kanna lined the women and children up and got them holding hands, then took the young Fire Nation lady's hand in her own mitten-covered grasp. "My grandson never got your name."

"Ugh. I'm Mai. Nice to meet you or whatever."

Well, not the most polite girl, but then, that was probably the Fire Nation upbringing. Kanna let it go as the group began moving forward. Mai held on to the Avatar's shoulder, and he walked while twirling his staff like one of the Fire Nation's mechanized propellers. The snow falling in front of him blew away, creating some visibility, and Kanna's old eyes were able to resolve something like a red star shining in the distance.

Once they were close enough, she could see that it was Sokka himself, holding a flare above his head and waving frantically.

He was always an excitable boy, no matter how much he tried to pretend otherwise.

The Avatar led the group up to Kanna’s grandson and said, "Hi, I'm Aang. You're Sokka?"

"Yeah. Need a ride out of here? I have a brand new captured ship I'm dying to try out."

"Wow, just like pirates! Can you take Appa? He can fly, but he's not fond of doing it in giant snowstorms."

"I guess we can take on fur monsters, too." Then Sokka hunched a bit, the same way he used to when he realized he was in trouble with his parents. "There's something I want your help with, but we'll talk once we're out of here. For now, nice to meet you, Avatar Aang."

Kanna had been on ships before, but later when the stolen vessel pulled out of the dock with her little bit of the Tribe aboard, she thought perhaps that it might be her best voyage yet.


Never Gonna Give Yue Up

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I'm Loooooooopy!

« Reply #16 on: Feb 15, 2015 05:21 pm »

They were saying that the Airbender was the Avatar. No one else had a history of glowing.

Zhao’s fury was such that he almost couldn’t feel it.

The first to spread the word was Captain Sheng, who had trained to be a Fire Sage in his youth until he somehow wound up joining the Navy. Sheng was the kind of devout that had him handing out little books titled 'The Call of the Flame' to everyone who didn't claim to already have one, and he was the closest thing they had to a spiritual authority in the South Pole. He was telling everyone that the boy's powers matched all the signs, and the return of the long lost Avatar.

To think that Zhao had the Avatar in a cell until that faithless little brat had decided to make trouble-

Warm again in his own office, surrounded by aides and staff, Zhao pushed the fury back down again. He wouldn’t prove his old teacher right by exploding in front of his subordinates. He turned to face the reporting officer. "And have you been able to confirm who exactly is on that ship?"

"Uh, we're not sure, sir. We're doing a headcount as fast as we can, but we do know that at least a score of the Tribals are missing. They either walked off their jobs or didn't report at the start of their shifts, and their homes are empty. We've found no evidence of an existing plot, so it's possible that Avatar or Lady Mai somehow organized this themselves on short notice, but neither can we rule out an unrelated action with very bad timing."

"An unrelated action." Zhao shook his head. "The Avatar breaks out with the assistance of the Governor's daughter, a cargo ship is stolen, and this freak storm strikes at us all at the same time, and there's doubt of coordination? You're hereby demoted a rank. Do you contest?"

The officer's eyes went wide, and then narrowed in anger. Zhao stared back, projecting as solid a presence as he could command, and waited for the answer. Of course, the officer eventually bowed his head. "No, sir."

"Good." Zhao raised a hand, summoned a bit of flame, and then smacked the demoted officer across the face. The man took it well, not crying out, and quickly returned to a stance of attention despite the burn that streaked from below his left eye to his nose. The modern ways freed warriors from having to fight an Agni Kai over every insult, but the military still demanded symbolic acknowledgement of a loss of honor. "Dismissed."

Once the man was gone, Zhao turned to his assembled aides. "New orders: I want a task force prepared to give chase. We'll need provisions enough to get to the Southern Islands. We won't be able to keep this quiet, not with Lady Mai involved, so I want wires sent out to all points. Say that the Avatar was found, attacked our base here, and escaped with other fugitives. Charge Lady Caldera Yu Mai with treason for helping him, and put out an order for her death, with a request that the Fire Palace confirm it. Also communicate that we intend to pursue, and claim priority because it is crucial to our mission of resolving the issues with the storms here." Zhao stroked his chin. "That won't keep the rest of the military from trying to steal our glory, but it should give us an edge if I outrank whoever gets in our way."

One of the staff broke protocol to ask, "You're going after them?"

"Of course.” Zhao smirked. This was why he liked having an audience; it gave him a chance to look brilliant. “I'm not going to let the Avatar out of my grasp, especially not when this colony has been effectively shut down. Unless this storm abates, even all the technology of the Fire Nation won't stop the mines from being buried in snow in a month. Let Governor Ukano waste his time getting as much platinum out of here as he can, and then he can return to the Fire Nation in time to watch his daughter's execution." Zhao couldn't help but see that girl's ugly, blank face before him, challenging him in his own prison. She would regret undermining him, and he would make sure that regret was as public and painful as possible.

Now, he just had to catch her. And the Avatar, of course.

From the bow deck of the newly renamed Sea Change, Aang looked out over the still ocean, and saw a streak of color at the very line where water met sky, a color that recalled the hues of his own tunic.

They had left the South Pole. The sun was rising.

He turned back to the others, to the Water Tribe boy who had made all of this happen: Mai's friend Sokka. "I'd be happy to help you find your sister. Do you have any idea where to start?"

Sokka shook his head. "She could be anywhere in the world. Probably not the North Pole, but who knows?"

The other Water Tribe leader, the tall man named Bato, added, "The Fire Nation has stolen our Waterbenders for generations. All we know is that they take them to a special prison, or maybe one of many by now." He rubbed a hand over tired eyes. "Everything they do is one of many, these days."

The others- the old Lady Gran-Gran, the kids, the women, and the crew who weren't busy- all nodded. Aang's notions of isolated pirates couldn't survive against the weariness these people all showed every time someone said something about the Fire Nation.

He didn't want to think about that right now. If he tried to imagine what was out there in the wider world, he'd break his brain. It was just too big. But these Water Tribe people all expected him to want to do something about it. Aang was starting to realize what exactly his job as the Avatar was supposed to be about. He shook his head and couldn't help but say, "How does a nation take over the whole world?"

By working at it for a hundred years. Apparently.

Sokka leaned forward. "That's why I think this is a good thing, for all of us. You help me find and free my sister, and in the process you can learn all about the Fire Nation and what they do. It's not like you have to go beat up the Fire Lord right now, since he's already won. Yeah, it's a bad situation, what with the whole crushing-the-world-under-his-heel thing, but you have to be smart with how you handle it. You need to gather intelligence, and fight only once you know how. Strategy!"

"If he needs intelligence, then why would he team up with you?" Everyone turned to look at Mai. She was leaning against the rail, looking at the same sunrise that Aang had been enjoying a moment ago, but she didn't seem very happy about it. She had been quiet ever since the ship got away, except when she was saying something mean or sarcastic, and Aang couldn't figure out why she was upset. Hadn't they gotten away with a bunch of new friends and no one hurt? But she had left her family behind to save him, so maybe she was just missing them. Well, Aang would be there to support her, and make her happy again. He wanted to see her smile, to see that beautiful curve of her lips, just as much as he wanted to fix the whole rest of the world.

So Aang hopped over to her and smiled. "That's where you come in! You know all about the Fire Nation, so you can help guide us and give us all kinds of information while we look for Sokka's sister. I won't know what I need to know until I need to know it, so we'll go out as a team and find the need to know that I need to... uh... know?"

Mai sighed. "I feel better about this already."

Aang decided to take that at face value. "We'll need some supplies, but we don't want to take too much away from the rest of you."

Sokka's Gran-Gran gave a thin grunt. "We know how to live off the land and the ocean. We just need enough to see us to a place where the Fire Nation won't find us. Katara is out there waiting, and we won't leave a member of our Tribe abandoned. And you have your own needs if you're going to someday free my people."

Everyone nodded at her words, and Aang bowed in acknowledgement of his responsibility.

So they made up packs that were loaded on Appa's saddle. Once everything was ready, Sokka gave his Gran-Gran a big hug, and then he went over to the kids who followed her around and got on his knees to let them climb all over him. Aang laughed as Sokka struggled to extricate himself, and then led the older boy over to Appa. The rest of the Water Tribe people began cheering as they walked, and Aang looked over to see Sokka quickly wipe at his eyes.

He smiled, and decided not to say anything.

Mai was waiting beside Appa with crossed arms and her own case of luggage hanging from her back. She watched with obvious wariness as Sokka bounded up to grab some of Appa's fur and lift himself up to the saddle, and then turned to Aang. "Is there a way I can get on top of that thing without climbing like some kind of monkey?"

"Sure!" Aang swirled his arms, and a cyclone sprouted just behind Mai to sprout up underneath her and carry her smoothly into the saddle. He grinned at her stunned expression, and leaped up onto Appa's head. App, for his part, gave one of his eager rumblings. Everyone was ready to go. "All right! Where's our first stop?"

Mai straightened her hair before speaking. "If they took this Katara away from the South Pole completely, then she must have passed through the Southern Islands. There's a large military base on Kyoshi Island. They have a 'processing center' there that all the prisoners in the sector have to pass through. That's where captives are evaluated and assigned either to a labor job that suits their skills and danger level, or a prison that can handle them. The center keeps records of everything."

Sokka punched his fists together. "That's it! Or, you know, a likely lead. At least."

Aang unrolled one of his maps, and held it out for the others to see. Sokka pointed out an island not far from the Earth Kingdom coast. "That's Kyoshi Island. Looks like it would have been one of the first islands down here to be colonized."

Aang couldn't help but notice that the Southern Air Temple was on the way from their current position. A Bender wasn't supposed to be ruled by fear, but the dread he felt at the idea of going back home was a physical pain in his stomach. There had to be Air Nomads still living there, but if not- and if there were Airbenders there, would they be mad at Aang for running away? But he had to know, one way or another. Otherwise, the fear would never go away.

Besides, something strange had happened back at the South Pole, with what Sokka’s Gran-Gran called the Everstorm. It was Spirit-weather, the legends said. Somehow, it had been drawn to Aang's Avatar Spirit, but why? There was a chamber back at the Temple, that might hold answers, and Aang needed to know those, too. One way, or another. "I have our route all figured out."

Sokka shuffled over to one of the handholds at the side of the saddle. "So this thing flies. For real?"

Mai sighed. "Fair warning: I may throw up on you."

Aang just grinned, made sure his passengers could see it, and then said, "Yip, yip!"

Appa launched into the sky.

"This thing flies! It’s flying!" Sokka practically hopped in his excitement, and Aang couldn’t help but laugh. He looked back to see Sokka forcing himself back down and swallowing what looked like a big grin. “It's- (ahem) you know, fascinating phenomena. Nice speed, too."

Mai groaned, and they all flew on to adventure.

It took the bounty hunter three days to find Zuko.

Azula had arrived on the Colonial Continent to find word waiting for her of the Avatar's return and the treachery of Mai. She considered making a show of cursing Mai's name or something dramatic like that, but quickly decided against it. It would be undignified, and the rabble expected their royalty to be composed even in the face of the greatest setbacks. So Azula put all her natural acting skill to use with a pursing of her lips into which she put volumes of betrayed expression, and then got on with her day.

The woman June was waiting as ordered at the port, and overcame Azula's bad first impression of her (really, wearing leather that tight could only impede her maneuverability) by getting down to business immediately, confirming that a scent sample was available and going straight to a stable where a truly ugly mount was waiting. The creature, a "shirshu," seemed to be part mole and proved to be June's preferred method of tracking. One sniff of Zuko's old crown, and the creature was eager to chase. It was an overall pleasing experience for Azula, despite the displeasing need to ride behind June in the beast's saddle while it bounded across the land like a rhino with its tail on fire. Azula took her saddle soreness with the grace appropriate to a princess, because Father would want it that way.

On the third day, the beast arrived at a small village. It shoved its way through the streets with a directness that Azula truly loved, shouldering people and vehicles and all manner of obstacles aside in its single-minded quest to find the source of the scent. The village itself deserved no better, being so small and ramshackle that it didn't even merit a Fire Nation administrator. The buildings looked fragile enough that the shirshu could knock them right over, and only Azula’s dedication to her mission kept her from asking June to give it a try.

The shirshu stopped at the entrance to an alley that ran between two of those ramshackle structures, and Azula wound up looking at Zuko for a full minute before she realized that it was actually him.

She turned from the huddled mass lying at the far end of the alley to glance at June, and the bounty hunter smiled in an almost insubordinate way as she said, "Found him, as commissioned. But I never guaranteed his condition."

Azula shook her head and dismounted from the shirshu. "His condition is his own fault." At the sound of her voice, the huddled figure shivered in its oversized cloak. Ah, so he was awake. And he remembered her. She approached, noting with dismay that he smelled (and not in a pleasant way). "Zuzu? Is that you? Your dear sister has come to take you home."

The hood lifted, but his face was left in shadow. "Azula?"

"Ah, you remember my name. How heartwarming."

"Wh- what do you want?"

"To take you home, dum-dum. I just said that."


"You presume to tell me what I can and cannot do?"

"...hn. You haven't changed. At all." The hood lowered again. "Can't go home. Leave me."

"Ah, as dramatic as ever. Very well, then. Let's do this dramatically." Azula flung her hand above her head, and summoned the flame in her heart. Blue fire- unique in all the world- sprung into existence in her hand, casting the whole alley in harsh, cold light. "Prince Zuko, the Avatar has returned. I call upon you to fulfill the terms of your banishment, and win the right to return home by bringing the Avatar back to the Fire Nation as your prisoner. Rise, and remember who you are!"

Azula wanted to laugh at the ridiculous words, but Zuzu actually responded to them as though they weren't complete nonsense. The hood rose again, and hands emerged from the robe to pull it back and reveal the face of her long-lost older brother.

The flame faltered, and Azula had to work to hide her disgust. She knew about Zuko's injury, of course, and had amused herself many times by imagining his disfigurement-

-but she hadn't expected him to be missing his left eye.

His face was marred on his left side by a burn scar that tapered back over his ear. Long, greasy hair fell to hide most of it, but it couldn't conceal the missing gold of the eye that was supposed to be at its center, or the deep shadow of the empty socket cast by Azula's flame.

Well, she'd simply have to help him learn how to fight without depth perception, then.

Zuko rose, and looked at Azula with something like a trace of his old stature. "The Avatar is back? It’s not a lie?"

"It’s not a lie. My old friend Mai found him- you remember her, I’m sure- and tipped us off. Father wants you back, and sent me to make sure you exploit this opportunity to the fullest. I will get you in fighting shape, and June here will assist in the hunt. She's quite professional, despite her attire."

Zuko was as still as a statue. "Father... wants me back..."

"Yes, I don't understand it either, but I have my orders, and I will see them done."

She waited while Zuko processed that. Given his living conditions, and the smell that was no doubt affecting his ability to think, he likely needed some time to remember how to communicate effectively with other humans. Azula had no hopes of anything approaching a 'thank you.'

Eventually, Zuko met her eyes again with his one. "What do I need to do?" His voice was strong and crisp.

Azula grinned. "Good boy."

« Last Edit: Nov 20, 2015 07:40 pm by Loopy » Logged

Never Gonna Give Yue Up

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« Reply #17 on: Feb 16, 2015 01:16 pm »

An update, nice. Anyway, this chapter does a good job setting up the rest of the story. Mai, Sokka, and Aang are together at long last and you answered a concern I hadn't even voiced, which is to say that Gran Gran and the kids are safe. I was seriously worried that they would all die because of Sokka's decision.

I am also relieved by the fact that Zhao is still alive. Like most of your readers no doubt, I was in shock when I read that Mai seemingly killed him in such a brutal fashion. Your subtlety really shines here. Even though Zhao did not die, I liked how you let us fill in the blanks ourselves on how such a terrible death might have looked.

Moving on, I am enjoying your description of Aang's powers and how it must feel to enter into a state of deep meditation. It isn't too flowery and it sounds kind of poetic actually. And if your description of Aang's meditative state is peaceful, your description of the everstorm is terrifying! I look forward to finding out more about it. Part of me speculates that this is where Kuruk and Koh's plotline ties in. So I am super excited for that.

I think Mai is my new favorite character. There is so much more to her and I like how you hint at that throughout the story. She reminds me Sokka in a way. Both are sarcastic and fairly logical. So it pleases me that they are treated respectfully by the narrative in-universe. Another similarity is that while both tend to be weary about the intelligence of other characters, they are still capable of believing and performing noble things in their better moments.

You also manage to capture "magical" moments very well. I cracked a smile at Mai's incredulity at Appa flying. That was well written and it reads exactly how I think someone coming into contact/experiencing something so contrary to what they experience on a day-to-basis would feel. And of course you do so in a subdued manner, which I like.

Anyway Sheng sounds like my kind of guy.   Grin

And give poor Mai a break Zhao, she isn't ugly. Grin

Lastly, I like the June cameo and I dig the jab that she is actually pretty professional in spite of the way she dress. I also like how that last scene parallels the one in "The Avatar State" even if it isn't exactly like it. It is also nice too read that Azula still think's of Zuko as her toy.

Also, I added your fic to the Avatar tvtropes page. Hopefully, it gets a wider readership.
« Last Edit: Feb 22, 2015 04:20 pm by Colonel_Brian » Logged
Never Gonna Give Yue Up

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« Reply #18 on: Feb 18, 2015 11:01 am »

So Azula going to train Zuko? I hope June has avatarverse equivalent of popcorn.
Never Gonna Give Yue Up

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« Reply #19 on: Mar 01, 2015 04:31 pm »

An update, nice. Anyway, this chapter does a good job setting up the rest of the story. Mai, Sokka, and Aang are together at long last and you answered a concern I hadn't even voiced, which is to say that Gran Gran and the kids are safe. I was seriously worried that they would all die because of Sokka's decision.

My original plans called for Sokka to leave without the other Water Tribe people, but I that same concern came to me during the actual writing, so I quickly shifted that subplot. I'm glad it worked out so well.

Moving on, I am enjoying your description of Aang's powers and how it must feel to enter into a state of deep meditation. It isn't too flowery and it sounds kind of poetic actually. And if your description of Aang's meditative state is peaceful, your description of the everstorm is terrifying! I look forward to finding out more about it. Part of me speculates that this is where Kuruk and Koh's plotline ties in. So I am super excited for that.

In a way, you're right, but the tie-in is going to be a little different than you're perhaps expecting. This next "episode" will shed a little more light on what's going on in that regard...

Anyway Sheng sounds like my kind of guy.   Grin

I should have known you'd like that. Cheesy

Also, I added your fic to the Avatar tvtropes page. Hopefully, it gets a wider readership.

I saw that a few days ago. Thanks much for that, and also for your continued feedback. Smiley

So Azula going to train Zuko? I hope June has avatarverse equivalent of popcorn.

I have some fun planned for this. Grin

Going Home Again

As the last light of the sun drained from the lands, Appa finally glided down over Gale Isle. Aang steered him to a spiraling landing on the southernmost beach, and no sooner did the bison's feet touch the rocky sands than Aang was sliding off his head to stand on the land he once knew. Gale Isle had never boasted much animal life, not counting the Air Temple where the lemurs and sky bison made their homes, and the beach looked forlornly empty in the twilight. It was the opposite of Aang's visits as a child, when he and his cacophonous friends visited to play in the water and hunt for sharks to ride. (They never found any.) Now, as he looked around, he had trouble recognizing anything. Even the quiet lapping of the ocean on the shore was unfamiliar.

Either the beach had changed in a hundred and one years, or Aang had forgotten it.

He heard a soft grunt behind him, and turned to find Sokka disembarked and stretching his arms. "Woo, I am glad to be on solid ground again. Flying is... interesting, but sitting in that saddle all day is harder than a day of work."

"Boo hoo, your butt is exhausted from sitting down all day." Mai jumped from the saddle to land easily beside Sokka, and stood with her shoulders squared. "Trust me, that's the most comfortable saddle you'll ever ride in. Other animals bounce as they move. Ridiculous flying aside, at least the bison is a smooth ride." Mai looked around the beach, and turned to Aang with a questioning eyebrow raised. "So where are we supposed to take shelter around here?"

Aang smiled and threw his arms out. "Right here! The sky is clear and it's going to be a beautiful night."

Mai looked at Aang.

Mai looked up.

Mai looked back at Aang. "I don't get it."

"He means, milady, that we're sleeping outside tonight." Sokka crossed his arms and grinned. "The peasants call it 'camping.' Perhaps you've heard of it?"

"You're joking." Mai looked back at Aang. "He's joking?"

Aang could only shrug in apology. "The only shelter on the whole island is the Southern Air Temple, and we'd have to fly half the night to get there. We can camp here, watch the sun rise over those cliffs tomorrow morning, and then fly over to the temple."

"I hope you brought a tent," Sokka said as he strolled past Mai.

The way her eyes went wide was funny, but Aang felt too sorry for her to let the joke go on. "Sokka's teasing. We have three tents we took from the cargo ship, and I don't even need one. I just sleep on Appa's tail." And because he wanted to be nice, he added, "Appa's tail is nice and warm. You can sleep there with me if you'd prefer," before realizing that it might not come across as innocently as he intended.

Mai, though, just glanced back at Appa, who gave her a welcoming groan. "I'll take the tent, thanks."

Aang caught Sokka giving him a look that said the older boy caught all the possible implications of the offer. It occurred to Aang to hope that Sokka's teasing of Mai was just friendly, and not boy-girl teasing. After all, she was really pretty, and Sokka was a teenager just like her, maybe the same age. Sokka was even posing now, with his arms on his hips, as he said, "Very well, fellow campers. As the resident Survivalist Expert, I'll oversee the setup of our Camp. Since none of you have the necessary expertise, I'll put up the tents. Mai, you get us some firewood. Dry, dead wood only, please. Don't cut any living wood unless you like your campsites covered in smoke. Aang, are there fish in these waters?"

"Um, I don't think so. I never saw any."

"Huh. Well, I guess it's Fire Navy rations for dinner, then. It'll be dark soon, anyway. Aang, you're in charge of digging them out and opening those tin cans. Any questions?"

Mai raised a hand. "Where are the bathroom facilities?"

Sokka pointed at a collection of bushes in the distance to his right. "Girls over there." Then he pointed to another set of bushes in the distance to his left. "Boys over here."

Mai's eyes went wide again. "I want to accuse you of kidding me again, but this isn't a joking manner."

Aang sidled up to her and gave his nicest smile. "Welcome to the life of a Nomad. Don't worry, it's a lot better than it seems. The sky is clear and it's going to be a beautiful night."

"...you said that already."


Sokka had just finished setting up the second tent when Mai stomped into the makeshift campground and dumped a bundle of branches on the rocky sand. He took a quick look to make sure she had followed his instructions about bringing only dry wood, and then motioned at the tent. "Just in time! Your humble abode awaits, my lady."

The look she gave him was frostier than a polar bear-dog's tail.

He grinned. He probably shouldn't mess with her like that, but he couldn't help but enjoy the reversal of the usual Fire/Water dynamic. The Fire Nation liked to lord their supposed superiority over the rest of the world, and it was fun to see one of their warriors so completely out of her depth. Not to mention the way she had tossed him around back in the research center at their first meeting. "Hey, Mai, did you find the bathroom okay? Not too breezy?"

She paused in the middle of unloading her travel case from Appa to hold up a gesture.

Sokka held back some laughter and went over to get the campfire started. While he worked the wood, stacking it in a conical shape and setting up some smaller branches to act as tinder, Aang ambled over and spoke in a soft voice. "Um, I don't think you should say things like that to her."

"Yeah, okay. I've had my fun. It's just weird to get so freaked out about sleeping in a tent."

"But Mai's our friend, and we're going to be together for a while. We should try to be sensitive to each other."

"Yeah, okay."

"So you'll stop teasing her?"

Sokka struck his spark-rocks together over the tinder. It started catching, and he leaned down to blow gently, giving it the air it needed to burst into flame. Once he was satisfied that it was really starting to catch, he leaned back again and slapped a friendly hand down on Aang's shoulder. "Fine, kid, I'll be nice."

"Great." Aang looked down at the fire for a moment before speaking again. "So, what do you think of Mai?"

"Isn't that what we're talking about?"

"She's pretty, right? I mean, pretty neat, right?"

Sokka realized exactly where this was going, and it took him a moment to put the pieces of his mind back together after the realization. Aang, the last Airbender, really did have the shivers for a Fire Nation girl? Granted, Mai was neat, being a traitor to her evil masters and all, but she was still kind of messed up. Aside from being raised in the Land of Evil, she was also a woman who was a warrior, and that had to be doing bad things to her mind. Probably the reason she was so cranky; if she focused more on cooking and sewing, she'd be more easygoing.

Remembering that Aang was still hanging, Sokka shrugged. "Yeah, pretty neat, but not the type of person I'd spend time with for fun."

"Oh. That's good. Or, um, not good good since we should all be friends, but- well, I- I got the ration cans open."

"All right, dinner time! I wonder if we can heat them over the fire."

Zuko would have thought he was dreaming, if the luxuries around him had any resemblance to his usual fevered nightmares.

The warm bathwater warmed him and eased the pain of muscles that had been cramped from days on end of sleeping on the ground. His body was being massaged by massive brushes directed by silent but enthusiastic servants, against which Zuko struggled to remain upright even as they scoured the oil and dirt that had accumulated from months on the road. As they worked, he meditated on the scent of the perfume that had been added to the bathwater and let the sensations wash over him, until the brushes withdrew, and he was left feeling like a new being freshly emerged from a chrysalis. It was almost like being home, swathed in the luxury of the Fire Palace. He hadn't been back there since he had gone with Father to fight in the war. How long had it been? He was sure it had been years since he was- since Father-

There was one major difference from home. With just one eye, Zuko now had to turn his head to see the whole width of the room.

He forced strength into his voice, and looked over to the screen that had been set up on the far side of the room, next to the door. "The Avatar is really back?"

Azula's reply rang out from behind the screen: "You keep asking that. It's almost as if you don't trust me." She gave a chuckle that, even after their long separation, Zuko recognized as completely artificial. "Well, if you won't believe me, then surely you can trust Mai. She's doing this all for you."

One of the servants dumped a bucket of water on Zuko's head to wash away the shampoo in his hair, but he scarcely noticed. So much was happening, for the first time in so long. After arriving out of the night in the decrepit town where Zuko had been kicking around, Azula had whisked him away to a more civilized colony, throwing gold coins around (pure gold, shined so that each one lit up the space around it) to rent the services of an entire luxury inn. Servants had torn Zuko's clothes off and taken them away to be burned. He had glimpsed crimson silks being prepared for him as he was led into a bath bigger than most peasants’ houses. Azula had promised him weapons, and armor, and access to all the information that passed through the Fire Nation's full telegraph network.

All in service to finding the Avatar.

Zuko had seen the Wanted posters, on his way into the hotel. Mai was pretending to be a traitor, bringing the Avatar to him.

After being alone for so long, he hardest thing to believe was that people actually wanted to help him.

He looked back over at Azula's screen. "Does Mai know about... about what I became?"

"Everyone knows about your banishment, of course. Or are you referring to the... state... in which I found you? Even I didn't know what to expect, so no, she's probably still picturing the eager young man prancing about in his armor, so excited to be going to the front." Zuko's felt his face twist at the memory, and it was almost as though Azula could see his discomfort, since her next words were, "Did you do it to impress her?"


"Begging to join Father. Did you do it to impress Mai?"

Zuko sunk deeper into the water, letting it come up to his chin. "Why would I do it to impress her?"

"Well, Lu Ten went off with Uncle just after his betrothal to her had just been finalized. I thought it might have inspired you to seek a military adventure yourself as soon as you were old enough, given the... regard you two always had for each other."

"I don't know what you're talking about."

"If you say so." Azula's voice went lower, slower, as she added, "Uncle sent word back breaking off the engagement not long after your banishment was declared, and Mai remains unpromised. She never needs to know the state in which I found you. Things can go back to the way they were, and we can both pretend you were always the shining prince, if only you can catch the Avatar."

Zuko reached a hand up to brush his scar. If- when he returned home, he could have a glass eye made, to replace the one he lost, but for now, he supposed a patch would have to do. "What do you think you're doing?"

"I'm giving you incentive. One of the nice things about you, Zuzu, is that you're more than capable of dedication. If you want something, you won't stop trying to get it, even if it's completely futile. But you've never been one to take direction, and look where it's gotten you. Do as I say, and you'll be catching the Avatar in no time at all. Then everything you want- home, a reconciliation with Father, perhaps a competent and loyal young lady friend who sighs like a bellow- will be yours. Do we understand each other?"

Zuko said nothing for a long time, and then dashed his hand against his bath water, sending it spraying all over the delicate painted walls. Let Azula pay to have them redone, if they were damaged. "Get out of here. I'm going to get dressed, and then I'm going to bed."

Azula matched the length of his own silence. "Since you asked so nicely. Sleep well, Zuzu. Your exercise regime begins tomorrow."

"And stop calling me that!"

The shutting of the door was her only reply.


Never Gonna Give Yue Up

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« Reply #20 on: Mar 01, 2015 04:33 pm »

Aang stretched into wakefulness, and smiled at the light of the rising sun. He snuggled into the fur of Appa's tail, thinking about snoozing for a little longer, but then he remembered that today was the day he was going home. He bolted upright, and gave a windy leap that took him over to the bushes designated as the boys' bathroom facilities. In the cool light of the morning, he decided that the whole idea of there being no Airbenders left was completely ridiculous. Sure, maybe the Fire Nation had attacked after all, and Aang was willing to allow that some of his fellow Nomads had died tragically, but they couldn't all have been killed, right?

Some wouldn't have been at one of the temples, and even for those who were caught there when this Comet came, there was no way the Fire Nation could cut off every single escape route for people who could fly. Aang was more and more confident that many had survived, and continued the Nomad traditions in secret, and a hundred years later, there wouldn't be any danger in returning to the temples. In fact, if everyone believed that the Airbenders were gone, the temples would be the best place to hide, since no one would think to look there! And the Southern Temple's Sanctuary had that secret that Monk Gyatso had talked about, the person who would teach Aang how to be the Avatar. That had to make the Southern Temple the one most worth returning to for any survivors or descendants.

Even more excited now, Aang finished his business and ran back over to the campsite. "Sokka! Sokka, time to wake up!"

Sokka's tent said nothing.

"Mai! It's a beautiful morning! Want to watch the sun rise with me?"

Mai's tent said nothing.

Aang looked over at Appa, who shook himself fully awake and gave a friendly roar. See, Appa knew how to greet the morning with a smile. Now Aang just had to wake up these lazy teenagers. Grinning, he untied the entrance to Sokka's tent, and blew a blast of air into it that inflated the whole thing like a giant balloon. The noise and sudden rush of pressure jolted Sokka awake, and before he could try to get grumpy, Aang said, "Good morning it's time to get up I'll have some rations ready for breakfast before you get your pants on so hurry up!"

Then he ducked out of Sokka's tent and turned to Mai's. Aang didn't want be as rough with her, so once he untied the tent's entrance, he peeked his head. "Mai, it's time to wake up. The sun is rising, and you can be the first outsider in a hundred years to see an Air Temple! Doesn't that sound great?" It was dark in the tent, but just enough light was streaming in behind Aang for him to make out her shining hair curled at the head of her sleeping bag like a sharp calligraphy stroke.

Then there was a motion, and Aang got a glimpse of a pale and delicate hand just before a blur eclipsed his vision and something really hard smacked into his forehead hard enough to send him somersaulting backwards away from the tent.

Behind him, Sokka laughed.

Aang rubbed his head, and looked down to find a hairbrush lying in the sand at his feet. Apparently, she didn't need to open her eyes to hit a target.


And painful.

Mai wasn't in anything even approaching a good mood.

The day started with a hyperactive, hyper-hormonal Airbender waking her up from a nice dream about fruit tarts, immediately followed by once again having to use a bush as bathroom facilities. That was followed by a less-than-lovely breakfast consisting of cold canned rations of a nutritional nature that Mai couldn't (and wouldn't) guess. Aang wanted to get going right after that, but Mai absolutely refused to spend another day wearing the same outfit.

"Is there anywhere around here I can get a bath?" she had asked Sokka, dreading the answer. His response had been to grin that grin again and point over at the ocean lapping quietly against the beach. Of course. Bad enough that she was forced to use wild water that a whole ocean's worth of fish pooped in, but she couldn't even get it heated. For the first time in her life, she wished she was a Firebender. Without any other options, though, she ordered the boys away, did a quick washing that left her sputtering and shivering from the cool water, and then broke a new outfit out of her luggage.

Of course, if she had thought things through, she would have known to expect her next problem: she had no way to dry her hair. Once again, she endured Sokka's superior barbarian attitude (like knowing how to live a completely uncivilized life was something to proud of!), and had a hard time trying to figure out a reason not to jam stilettos in his ears. After all, she was going to have to ditch him before meeting up with Zuko, anyway. She might have got on with it, just then, if Aang hadn't thrown a gale-force wind at her that instantly dried her off. She was all set to actually thank the kid for it, but then her hair started puffing out wildly from the rough treatment, and she had to make herself remember that Zuko needed the Avatar alive in order to return to the Fire Nation. At least Aang gave her back her hairbrush without having to be asked, but the whole experience was enough to convince her to forgo putting on her usual makeup.

Finally, they all climbed on Appa and got going.

The trip quickly took them up over the cloud cover, as Aang guided his big dumb pet to a range of mountains that stretched across the middle of Gale Isle. Sokka curled up at the rear of Appa's saddle and was soon snoring lightly. That wasn't a bad idea, but just because she was on an arduous mission to help destroy the Fire Nation's most dangerous foe, Mai saw no reason to let her hair lose its shine. As she meticulously brushed it through, ignoring Aang's intrigued glances, she leaned against the side of the saddle and looked down at the swirling clouds. It was almost disappointing to learn that they were nothing more than soggy vapor. Looking at clouds down from the ground, they had almost seemed like they would be interesting to touch, but the truth was so much less.

That was probably a metaphor for life, or something. Mai indulged in a sigh.

She longed to be done with this job, to guide Aang and Sokka somewhere under Fire Nation control, send a telegraph, and let Zuko take care of them. Then she would be done with camping, done with hyperactive twelve-year-olds who had never seen girls before, done with arrogant barbarians, done with doing her business in a bush, done with rebels who thought she was helping them, done with all of this.

Once her hair was returned to its proper straightness and done up her preferred odango style, Mai proceeded to sharpen and polish her knives. Many people assumed that it was a boring task, but it never failed to hold her interest. One had to be careful of the cutting edges, of course, but it also took knowledge and a good eye to get the blades to their maximum sharpness, and kept her fully engaged.

Sokka woke up while she was still working, and gave a wistful sigh at the sight of all the weaponry lying around her. "Wow, what I wouldn't give for some nice weapons like those. That's some quality metal."

Mai snorted. "What do you know about metal?"

"Hey, you met me in the Research Center for the mines, remember? I probably know more about metallurgy than you do." He nodded at the knife in her hand. "That's Liu Shui steel, I can tell by the texture. Nothing stronger."

Mai stopped mid-polish. He was right. "This set came from a metalsmith who works for an old friend's father. Azula- my friend- she commissioned it for me as a going away present when my family was dispatched to the South Pole." She left out all the implications such a royal gift carried, and instead quieted as she reached for the next weapon in the pile.

She didn't recognize this blade at first, but then Sokka said, "Hey, that's my knife! I mean the one I made. The platinum knife." Sure enough, it was the blade Zhao gave her upon her arrival. So Sokka had made it, huh? As Mai looked it over, admiring the grip, he continued to say, "So what's the big deal with platinum, anyway? All of the sudden the Fire Nation wanted to dig as much of the stuff up as they could, and they're trying everything they can to harden it enough to make weapons out of it. Seems pretty pointless to me. That stuff will never work that way."

Mai shrugged. "No one tells me much of anything. I just know that there are some problems on the Colonial Continent that they're trying to keep hushed up, something spreading that our troops are having real trouble with, and the people up high think platinum is the way to solve it. Maybe our tanks and weapons corrode in swamp gas or something, so they want a different metal. I just know there's a hurry, so my dad was sent to keep things on track despite that freaky snowstorm." She held the platinum knife up in the sun, decided it was too shiny, and added, "You want this back?"

"I don't really have a use for it." He blushed, and added, "I mean, yeah, I don't have any weapons, but a bad weapon is more dangerous than no weapon at all, or at least that's what my dad said, and anyway I guess it’s a symbol of my people being oppressed and all so as a sentimental thing it wouldn't really-"

Mai interrupted, "You don't have a weapon?!"

"Um, no, not if we don't count my little razor. The Fire Nation didn't let us keep anything bigger than a kitchen knife, and even though Bato's friends made some stuff out of their mining equipment, I didn't want to take any. They'll probably need those things, when they find somewhere to settle."

Mai hardly listened to his rambling. He didn't have a weapon? At all? In the Fire Nation, everyone owned a weapon, even the lowliest peasant. And Sokka, just like her, wasn't a Bender. In her whole life, Mai knew only one person who was neither a Bender nor fought with weapons, and Ty Lee was probably dead now, showing the wisdom of that philosophy. It was unthinkable that Sokka was embarking on a globe-trotting adventure with nothing but his dim wits to protect him. Didn't he understand what kind of world it was? She was ready to give him one of her Flowing Water blades right then and there, before she remembered that that she might actually have to fight (kill?) him before this whole thing was over and she was back in the Fire Nation.

But still, if Sokka were lying in front of her starving, she'd at least throw a crust of bread at his stupid face, right?

Finding one of her lesser knives, she tossed it over. "Here. Keep it." Then, on impulse, she tossed a second.

"Hey, thanks!" Sokka pulled each blade out of the sheath for a moment, admiring the edges (of course, Mai had just sharpened them), and then tucked them into his belt. His grin looked out of place on a face that usually looked depressed, or scared, or smug. It was a Tom-Tom grin, young and uncaring.

"Please don't mention it. Literally."

Sokka was looking like he was actually going to try hugging her, when Aang sat up in his position on Appa's head, and pointed into the distance. "Hey, guys, there it is! I'm home!"

Mai dutifully looked, and had to admit that the Southern Air Temple was better than she expected.

She had imagined something rugged, something unfinished that was just as much cave as temple. Even if such a thing might have looked halfway decent to non-Fire Nation folk a century ago, surely the passage of time would have rendered it ruins by now, reclaimed by all the wild nature that could be found outdoors.

Instead, she found herself looking at massive towers that rose majestically from a mountain peak. The surfaces seemed to swirl like clouds, but then her sharp eyes picked out the stairs spiraling around the outside of each tower, creating the impression of rising motion as Appa approached. The towers were topped by bright blue spires that reached to the sky. Amazingly, none of the colors had faded over the last century. The blues practically glowed in the light of the sun, and the white buildings stood out brightly against the mountain rock, reminding Mai of snow in the moonlight. They were nestled into the crags of the mountaintop as if they had grown out from within it, reaching to the sky with the eagerness of one of Crawling Trees of Yukuefumei Island.

Too bad it all looked so empty. Shrugging, Mai turned away from the temple and began putting her knives back.

Sokka climbed up to the front of the saddle and pointed at platform connected to the temple complex, a bit lower on the mountain. "Make for there!"

Aang looked back with a quizzical expression on his face. "Why? Appa can just take us right to the temple, and then you won't have to walk."

"Aang..." Sokka glanced at Mai, but she had no idea what he was getting at. Seeing that she'd be no help, her turned back to Aang and put a hand on the kid's shoulder. "I don't see any activity over there. No movement, no... things... flying around, not even a single line of smoke. Let's land outside the temple, and then I'll go scout it out for you."

"Why don't we all just go? We've already waited long enough-"

"Aang, I watched my parents bleed to death on the floor of my home."

Aang's jaw dropped. Mai's head snapped up; she wasn't sure what to make of the sudden declaration. Why would he say such an awful thing? Was it even true?

Sokka reached up to tug his ponytail while his eyes drifted to his knees. "Some things... they're not good things to see, no matter how old you are. It's one thing to know about it, but seeing it- you don't want to see it. Take my word for it, okay? I'll go check things out for you, and if it's all good, you can tease me for making a snowstorm out of a flake. If not, I can come let you know, and- if you don't want to see, then fine, but if you still want to, I can at least... prepare you. You get me?"

Aang nodded slowly. "Okay. I think it will be fine, but- It's not a bad idea. Thanks, Sokka. I'll stay on the platform with Mai."

Oh, goody.

Though, she had to admit, for a barbarian who liked playing the manly macho wilderness survivor, it was surprisingly thoughtful of him. Maybe she'd only stab him in one ear when the time came.

The platform Sokka had picked out rose apart from the main mountain on which the temple was situated, but a bridge connected the two. Sokka could walk over, and then take a series of winding paths up to the temple area proper. Mai wondered if this was some kind of diplomatic receiving area; certainly, the Air Nomads themselves wouldn't have had to park a bison this far away, would they?

Appa landed, and Sokka immediately hopped off and got on his way without so much as a backwards glance. Figuring that he would be a while, Mai decided to remind her muscles of their purpose. She climbed down the platform, and ran through stretches to work some life back into her limbs. Straightening up from touching the toes of her boots, she caught Aang- still up on Appa's head- looking at her with obvious interest. As soon as their eyes met, he quickly looked away and pretended that he had been working on a knot in Appa's reins.

Well, that was worth a sigh.

Finishing with his knot, Aang hopped down and casually ambled over. "I think you'll really like the temple. It's peaceful and rich in spirit, and you can feel it just by breathing in the air! The fruit trees should have some early crop by now, and I'll make you one of Monk Gyatso's famous fruit cakes. The secret is the gooey center that you have to make light and fluffy with Airbending!"

Mai figured that there was no avoiding conversation, at this point. "Fruit cake sounds nice. Who was Monk Gyatso?"

"He's-" Aang looked down. "He was- he taught me everything I know." Aang looked up, a smile growing once again on his face. "He's the most fun monk you could ever meet. He threw some of his cakes at the Temple Elders!"

Mai smiled back. She liked the sound of this guy already. Too bad he was dead for a hundred years. "Did he know that you were the Avatar?"

"Yeah. Everyone knew. Things got weird after that." Aang looked down again, kicking his boots against the stone of the platform. He took a deep breath, and then looked back at Mai with an expression that reminded her of Tom-Tom being caught in the act of licking her hairbrush. "That's why I ran away. The Elders wanted to take me away from Gyatso, so that I could train harder to protect our people. They said a war was coming, and I had to be ready. I guess I messed that up, huh?"

This? This was why Mai hated talking with people. She wanted to say yes, he had messed that up as badly as messes could be up, but obviously that wouldn't do in this situation. She needed Aang to trust her, to like her, so that he would listen to her when she brought him to Zuko. She needed to be his friend. Azula enjoyed blunt criticism, especially since she never actually earned any, while Ty Lee had always bounced back from it fairly quickly. Mai had no practice at this.

So she shrugged and turned away from Aang. "Why come back here? Sokka was right: whatever's up there probably isn't something you want to see."

"I have to really know for myself. And this temple has some secrets that I need to investigate. Gyatso said that the Sanctuary had someone in it who could guide me in being the Avatar."

"A hundred and one years ago, right?"

"Well, who knows what's in there? Legends are full of people who live for centuries."

Mai was going to give her opinion of the academic validity of legends, but she was cut off by the sound of boots on the stone, and she and Aang turned to find Sokka returning.

His face was grim.

Mai could practically feel Aang's mood deflate. He stepped forward and said, "What did you find?"

Sokka took a deep breath of the cool mountain air. "The whole place is empty, except for this one courtyard. Beyond it is a tunnel that leads to a big room with a fancy pair of doors on the far side. I couldn't get that open, it seems like it's locked pretty tight. But all in that courtyard, and through the tunnel, and clustered in that room-"

Sokka swallowed, and then continued, "There are bodies."

Aang's legs went wobbly, and Mai instinctively reached out to catch him and lower him to the ground.

Sokka couched beside Aang, and put a hand on his shoulder. "They're just bones now, and dusty robes. I don't know why they're all clustered like that, but it's not a burial or anything. There's no pattern. It's like they all just collapsed in the middle of a parade.

Aang's eyes squeezed shut, and Mai put her hand on his back and began rubbing. She really didn't care if some crazy Airbender felt bad that his people got on the wrong side of the Fire Nation's glory or whatever, but something about his expression reminded her of Tom-Tom in one of his sobbing moments, and Mai just had an aversion to memories of her brother wailing, is all.

That's all.

Aang's breathing took on a shuddering quality, and it was a long time before he spoke. "I-" His voice hitched, and he took a moment to swallow. "I need to see it. Those doors lead to the Sanctuary I was telling you about."

Sokka looked at Mai, and she said, "Avatar business."

Sokka nodded. "Okay, I'll show you."


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« Reply #21 on: Mar 01, 2015 04:34 pm »

It was everything Sokka said, and more than anything, Aang wanted to retreat into the storm like he had at the South Pole. He couldn't hear the Everstorm here, but there was still that doorway within him, the doorway into which he had fallen when his despair had become overwhelming. He could feel it pulling on his thoughts, and he very well might have surrendered to its gravity now, but there was something fighting against it, something that pushed back against the storm.

Mai and Sokka stood close to Aang, close enough that he could feel the heat of them through their clothes. It was a help, knowing that they were there for him.

The whole Temple also stank of something that made Aang's very being feel watery and weak. It wasn't an actual smell, but a wrongness that Aang could feel on some level beyond his senses. The temples were supposed to promote peace, right down to their very shapes, but as he followed the paths onto the temple grounds, he could feel the wrongness blanketing everything. It smothered the familiarity of the statues and towers he passed, made Aang doubt his steps as he passed through plazas and dead gardens on his search for the Temple Sanctuary. He was starting to think he had actually gotten lost in his own home when he turned down one path and found himself stepping into the plaza outside the vestibule. Piles of bones and dusty saffron robes littered the space, trailing off into the tunnel that would lead to the vestibule.

The statue at the center of the plaza, at least, was some comfort. It was a new statue, one Aang had never seen before, but he nevertheless instantly recognized the figure depicted in tranquil meditation. Whatever had gone on here, however many had died, Gyatso probably hadn't been among them. After all, why make a statue of someone who was still around to throw cakes over the quality of the carving?

The thought threatened to make Aang smile, but then he looked again at the bones all around him. Time to get this over with, then. He had to see what was left in the Sanctuary, if anything.

Mai and Sokka followed him into the temple, to the Sanctuary Vestibule, but when Aang saw the locked doors waiting for him, he gently pushed his friends away and extended his arms into a basic Airbending form. He summoned the wind, and directed it to flow at the doors, to the pipe mechanism set between them. The doors were indeed locked shut as Sokka had described, but all Airbenders had the key. Aang's Airbending sent the wind right into the mechanism's receiving pipes, and it sounded with a horn's call that was not unlike the contented sigh of a sky bison. One carved spiral panel flipped, then a second, then a third, and then the doors parted to reveal the Sanctuary.

Aang saw nothing within but darkness.

He moved forward, Mai and Sokka in step behind him. A little light streamed in from the tunnel behind him, but before Aang's eyes could adjust to the dim illumination, his ears figured out that the Sanctuary was massive. The echoes of his footsteps bounced and expanded in an unmistakably large cavern, the sounds crisp in a way that Aang knew meant there was nothing soft or absorbent in the whole space.

He was right.

As his eyes adjusted, Aang found himself looking at statues beyond count.

He didn't know any of them, but they were all familiar in some way. He was entranced by them, finding strange interest in the features of the faces and the symbolism of their clothing. All the nations were represented, alternating in an unmistakable pattern, the placement of the statues tracing a spiral across the floor. Aang followed their path, for some reason finding it more intuitive than the Air Temple he had just passed through to come to this place, his physical senses fading with every step.

By the time he found Roku, he was lost to the void.

Finally, Sokka couldn't stand it anymore. "What's he doing? He's been standing there for half an hour now!"

Mai turned to look at him with dull eyes. "You realize that you answered your own question?"

Aang said to be nice, and she had given him knives, so Sokka was going to be nice. He didn't growl back at her as he said, "I was hoping for some extra detail, if you have any."

"Oh." Mai turned to look back over at Aang, and Sokka followed her gaze. The kid was standing in front of the statue of the old man at the very center of the sanctuary, looking up at the face with half-lidded eyes. Sokka had half a mind to go over and poke him, but Mai had told some wild stories about the kid glowing and summoning the Everstorm to his Zhao's base, so it was probably not a good idea to go making physical contact while Weird Things were happening. Finally, Mai said, "I guess he's meditating?"

Well, that was as good an answer as any. Sokka didn't really know about meditation, but he was pretty sure it was something that monks did.

Unfortunately, there wasn't a whole lot else to do in the chamber. There were the statues to look at, but once you saw a dozen carvings of dead Avatars- that was the only thing they could be, with all four nations represented- you had seen them all. Sokka looked over at one that was standing near Aang, a big guy wearing a polar bear-dog pelt on his head, and was thinking that he would love to make himself a boomerang like his Tribe's ancestral warriors, when he caught a flash of motion in the shadows behind the statue.

Sokka pulled out one of his new knives, but before the blade even cleared the sheath, the air in front of Sokka sparkled, and three of Mai's blades lodged into the ground around the moving shadow.

The shadow came to a sudden halt, and resolved in the waning light into a little flying bat thing with big, glistening eyes.

Behind Sokka, Mai hissed and said, "Is that a lemur?"

"Well, it's a flying rodent of some kind. Looks kind of small to be good eating, but it's probably better than Fire Navy rations for dinner again." He glanced back at Mai, and she was staring at him like she was waiting for a punchline. In case she was confused, he added, "Meat comes from living animals. You have to kill them and cook their bodies to make them edible."

It was tough to tell what she was thinking, the way her face was so blank, but she certainly did not look impressed.

The lemur thing moved again, and Sokka was ready to give chase, but it simply bounded over to where Aang was still standing in his trance and laid itself down around his neck like it belonged there. Sokka wasn't about to attack it while it was on top of the Avatar, so he put his knife back and gave the Sanctuary another look. "It's starting to get darker in here. The sun must be setting outside."

"Should we leave? We could probably carry Aang between the two of us."

"Nah, I have some flares in my pack that will give us light. I'm not wild about messing with whatever Avatar stuff is going on. Hey, if it weren't for all the dead people outside, I'd just go hang out there."

Mai nodded. "Crypts never really bothered me before, but something about that display out there is gross."

Sokka was about to ask what kind of crypts she had been visiting when the lemur suddenly leaped off of Aang and began flying in circles in the air above them all, screeching like someone had just ripped its tail off.

The last of the light disappeared.

The sun must have set.

Something wasn't right.

Sokka grabbed his sack, and began searching through it by feel. The rodent was screeching the whole time, making every hair on his body stand on end, but Sokka focused on the feel of every item his hand encountered and eventually got ahold of both a flare and his spark-rocks. Then it was a simple matter to get some light going, the flare's harsh red illumination revealing the Sanctuary around him once again.

Mai gasped hard and loud, and Sokka turned to find her staring out the sanctuary's entrance. The flare's glow extended out to dimly show the vestibule chamber, and in the severe mix of light and shadow, Sokka saw movement around the piles of bones.

No, not around-

-on the bones.

A substance like rotting blubber was flowing up from the center of each pile like a spring, oozing over every bone. As each one was covered, the bones themselves started moving against gravity to climb the disgusting spring. They flowed upward like some unnatural inversion of water, filling out the dusty robes and forming the shapes of human bodies. Limbs sprung out, muscles were revealed, toes and fingers made themselves evident, and then faces came forth. The bodies were stiff and awkward in posture, but it was the faces that were the worst part. They were human enough, but the features were exaggerated to the point of being monstrous. Sokka found himself unwillingly captivated by the whole sight until one of the creatures turned a head to stare at him with empty eye sockets and opened a mouth full of glowing green teeth.

Sokka started screaming exactly like the flying bat thing.


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« Reply #22 on: Mar 01, 2015 05:26 pm »

Yay, an update. Anyway, excellent chapter. As usual you capture the feel of the original series very well, the gang are all in character. I especially liked how Sokka teased Mai with his smug knowledge of all things barbaric.

I can already tell that Mai's eventual betrayal is going to break my heart. I would have thought that she would be having second thoughts by now. Still, you do a good job sneaking humanizing moments, such as the part where she catches Aang as he is about to faint as well as giving Sokka a weapon. Sure, these things are not in themselves proof that Mai is an altruistic person deep down, but they do indicate, at least to me, that even with ulterior motives, Mai is still capable of basic acts of kindness. Though the part where she holds back from telling Aang that he is to blame for his people's demise just so that he could like her is giving me second thoughts. I mean, it is in character for Mai, but it still hurts me that she can be so cold at times.

Anyway, I see that you are leading us on with another mystery. Like in the case of Katara, you are going to make us wait to find out more about Zuko and what he has become. This is shaping up to be interesting. Too bad that scene with him and Azula was so short. I would have liked to read more. Their dynamic is an interesting one.

Moving onwards, I like Sokka even more. That part with him scouting the temple was surprisingly thoughtful.

Lastly, that final scene was very spooky. I wonder what it could mean. I have not kept up with the theories on what you plan to do with Momo. Though I remember you writing that that scene with him in the prologue would come into play in an upcoming chapter. My guess is that Momo is Gyatso.
« Last Edit: Mar 01, 2015 05:29 pm by Colonel_Brian » Logged
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« Reply #23 on: Mar 15, 2015 03:31 pm »

I can already tell that Mai's eventual betrayal is going to break my heart. I would have thought that she would be having second thoughts by now. Still, you do a good job sneaking humanizing moments, such as the part where she catches Aang as he is about to faint as well as giving Sokka a weapon. Sure, these things are not in themselves proof that Mai is an altruistic person deep down, but they do indicate, at least to me, that even with ulterior motives, Mai is still capable of basic acts of kindness. Though the part where she holds back from telling Aang that he is to blame for his people's demise just so that he could like her is giving me second thoughts. I mean, it is in character for Mai, but it still hurts me that she can be so cold at times.

Well, Mai has a lifetime of programming that needs to be unraveled, and this is only the beginning of her journey. Too, she's not entirely thrilled with the state of the world created by the Fire Nation, and to a degree, blaming Aang for it allows her to be more comfortable with her own heritage. So she's going to be fairly awful in her thoughts whenever the subject of genocide comes up.

Anyway, I see that you are leading us on with another mystery. Like in the case of Katara, you are going to make us wait to find out more about Zuko and what he has become. This is shaping up to be interesting. Too bad that scene with him and Azula was so short. I would have liked to read more. Their dynamic is an interesting one.

Ask and ye shall receive! Grin The next "episode" is not going to have Zuko or Azula in it, but after that, some more focus will be coming their way.

Lastly, that final scene was very spooky. I wonder what it could mean. I have not kept up with the theories on what you plan to do with Momo. Though I remember you writing that that scene with him in the prologue would come into play in an upcoming chapter. My guess is that Momo is Gyatso.

Interesting guess. Wink

Night of the Di Fu Ling

Aang didn't realize he was on a journey inside himself until he got to the destination. It was a quiet journey, starting with a sense of the familiar when he looked up at the face of the statue in the Southern Air Temple Sanctuary, traveling down the road of a name he had heard only a few times a century ago- Roku- that sprung forth from a memory older than Aang himself, arriving at a dark, quiet place underneath a glowing tree full of silver leaves.

Roku was waiting there.

Aang approached his previous life, stepping across the solid darkness beneath his feet. "You were who Gyatso said would guide me."

"As best as I can, Aang. As best as I can." Roku was a tall man even without the spiked decoration around his topknot, standing as straight as the trunk of tree behind him. He smiled at Aang, softening the regal look imparted to him by the snow white hair and beard that practically glowed in the darkness, and moved towards the tree. He motioned Aang over and sat down beneath the leaves. The movement left his elaborate Fire Nation robes in some disarray, but Roku simply smoothed them out as best he could and returned his focus to Aang. "I've wanted to meet you for a very long time. I'm glad we can finally talk."

"Yeah." Aang sat down next to his old life and leaned against the tree's trunk. It pulsed with life and light against his back. "Can you make any of this make sense? All the other Air Nomads- the Fire Nation- even before that, when I first learned I was the Avatar..."

"Being the Avatar has never been easy, but you have so much to bear. It has ever been our duty to maintain balance, but you need to restore it, after so much has been lost."

"And it's all my fault."

"All?" Roku looked over at him with raised eyebrows. "No, Aang, there is far too much fault to be given to you alone. Fire Lord Sozin was the one who looked at the world with pride and greed, and decided that war was the only solution. I failed to take his threat seriously, because I thought him my friend." Aang blinked at that revelation, but Roku kept going. "Your elders pushed the entire burden of being the Avatar on you, with no thought to your humanity. And yes, you responded poorly to that, but it was Sozin's son, Azulon, and all his descendants, who have continued to push an agenda of destruction on the world. And beyond that, there are many more lines of fault. We can trace all the influences back to the very first Avatar, if we desired."

"I don't. I know that I can't run away, now." Above Aang, the tree's glow increased. It, like Aang and Roku, existed in a never-ending plane of darkness, and so nothing new was revealed by the tree's enhanced light, but its brightness was reassuring nevertheless, and Aang spoke with more weight as the light warmed him. "I just want to help the people who are being hurt. I want to find a way to fix things as best I can. I just don't know how, or if I can really do anything."

"But you can, Aang. Even aside from being the Avatar, you can do great things. And I will be there to help you."

The tree's light grew so bright that Aang was surprised at the lack of pain in his eyes. He didn't even have to squint against the glare. It was a lovely light, a white light, with a beauty brought tears to Aang's eyes. Through the refraction of the moisture on his eyelashes, the light was revealed for what it truly was: an assembly of colors. All the colors were there within it, and together they combined to stand against the darkness. That's when he realized that he had been wrong, before.

There was indeed something in this place, something to be revealed.

Newly visible in the dark distances, Aang could see people standing, watching him and Roku. People from all four nations. Water, Earth, Fire, and Air. The everlasting cycle. As the light reached out, they took shape distinct from the darkness, the crowd stretching out beyond comprehension. It was like the Sanctuary room in the Southern Air Temple, but instead of lifeless statues, they were living people. As Aang stared across the sea of oddly familiar faces, Roku laid a hand on his shoulder, and suddenly he felt full of life. No, two lives.




A hundred.

A thousand.


Lifetimes worth of Aang.

That might have been enough to sustain him forever, but all too soon it faded, and Aang was once again himself, sitting under a tree with his past life.

Then Roku said, "We all stand with you, but the problem is worse than you know."

Mai had taught herself how to throw knives, but it was Princess Azula who taught her how to make war. Being able to pick a target and hit it was all well and good for fun and formal duels, but combat situations rarely offered set rules and fair play.

As Sokka and the flying lemur both squealed in terror, and the undead Air Nomad monsters started marching towards the Sanctuary in the red light of a hissing military-issue flare, Mai went to work at waging war.

She flung an arm out to launch three of her weapons from beneath her sleeve and into the air. Each one clicked in midair and expanded to form twirling razor discs that zipped past where Sokka was screaming like the useless Tribal lump he was and on to strike the first three approaching monsters right in the middle of their twisted faces. The discs sank into the faintly luminescent false flesh with ugly splatting sounds, but no blood issued forth. The discs merely stuck where they were, and while the monsters stopped their approach long enough for their features to reform, they were soon moving forward once more.

Fortunately, Mai hadn't expected that to work. Even as her razor discs were still flying at their targets, she was following them in a run. She shoved Sokka out of her way (his crash to the floor finally shutting him up) and continued on to the sanctuary's entrance. The doors were tall and heavy, but they were well balanced on their hinges, and when Mai threw her entire weight into the left one, it swung closed with enough force to smack one of the monsters back. The others were just a step from squeezing through the right side of the entrance when she got that door closed as well, and the weird Airbending lock clicked as the doors came together.

The lemur quieted at that, leaving the Sanctuary silent but for the hissing flare, and Mai relaxed. The first rule of war was to be the one in control of the impregnable fortress, but the second, according to Azula, was that there was no such thing as an impregnable fortress. Hopefully, those monsters couldn't Airbend into that lock, but the doors were still just wood. Mai looked around the massive Sanctuary, but the flare's light extended only as far as the first floor, and the Avatar statues were casting long shadows that stretched like claws across the space.

She turned to Sokka and said, "We need a plan."

“What-“ From his seat on the floor, he stared up at her with eyes that were a little too wide and danced with the light of the flare. "What were they?!"

"Monsters." Mai shrugged. "The important part is that blades in their faces don't seem to bother them all that much. We need to be ready for if- when- they get in here."

Sokka planted his hands on his head. "Okay, yeah. Defend against the monsters. I'm sure there's a reasonable explanation for why bones can glue themselves together and start walking. Or it's Avatar stuff. I think I'm beginning to hate Avatar stuff."

"I don't care what you hate, Tribal." Mai resisted the urge to kick him. "We need a plan." She left out that she didn't know how to make a good one.

Suddenly, the doors rocked as if struck by a great weight. The booming sound echoed harshly in the stone Sanctuary.

Sokka's gaze had snapped over to the door at the sound, but as the echoes faded, he let out a shuddering breath, and when he looked back at Mai, his eyes had settled into a more normal shape and focus. "Okay, got it, we need a plan. Coming right up." He got shakily to his feet, and threw her a glare. "And don't call me a Tribal."

"Why not? It's what you are."

"Maybe, but the only people who use it are Fire Nation, and the way you- they- say it sounds nasty."

Mai didn't have time for this. "Fine. Sorry. Now are you ready to talk about what to do about Aang?"

Sokka looked over at where the Avatar was still standing in front of the statue of the old Fire Nation man with the fancy topknot, and Mai followed his gaze. The lemur was now standing on Aang's head, looking back at them curiously.

Sokka said, "You think his magic Avatar powers can banish the undead or something?"

"Let's wake him up and try." Mai went over to Aang, ignoring another crash against the doors behind her, and punched his chest. He swayed, and the lemur took flight with a surprised squawk, but Aang stayed standing. She poked his face, but he didn't react. Finally, she swept his legs out from under him with a kick and shoved him to the floor. He crumbled, but didn't wake. "So much for trying."

"Yeesh, you don't fool around when you try. Well, if he's not going to help, then we have to get him out of here."

"Out where?" Mai looked up at the spiraling paths that ran all along the sanctuary's walls, up into the darkness. "Do you think there's an exit at the top?"

There was another crash against the doors.

Sokka's twitch was almost too quick to see. "I don't know. It might not matter. I was just thinking, those things showed up when the sun went down. Maybe we only have to last until dawn, and then they'll go away and we can go very away. So the doors are our first line of defense, and then we can move up the spiral. Maybe knocking the statues over to make walking hazards will help a little."

The doors boomed again while Mai thought it over. "I'm not so confident about dawn saving us, but until we find another way out of here, I guess it's our only option."

Sokka nodded, and came over to pick Aang up and sling him over his shoulder.

The doors shook again, and to Mai's ears, there was a lot more rattling this time.

"Worse?" Aang frowned and leaned forward where he sat. "How can things be worse than me being the last Airbender and the Fire Nation being an evil empire that's taken over the world?"

"The very substance of the world itself is in great danger. Soon, the physical realm may be completely inhospitable to people of any nation." Roku's eyes narrowed, and there was a chill in his voice. "It started when Sozin's forces used the power of a Comet to kill your people. The energies it excited enhanced their Firebending, and gave them power comparable to the Avatar Spirit itself. Using that power for death on such a scale had repercussions. Then the war they started went on for an entire century. So many people died, their natural lives taken from them and leaving echoes of injustice. Burial customs were ignored, and the spirits of the dead were left restless and far from their homes. This went on for a hundred years, Aang, and then Sozin's Comet returned."

Aang nodded slowly. "Mai said that's how the Fire Nation won the war. They attacked the last Earth Kingdom cities with their comet power."

"Yes. More death, countless lives lost, and more power unleashed. More spirits dishonored by the treatments of their bodies. Now, things have reached a tipping point, Aang. Even if the Fire Nation imposed something like peace from now until the end of time, the world has still been wounded, and it cannot heal. The borders between the physical world and the Spirit World are becoming thin, and the natural cycles are breaking down. The order of the physical and spirit worlds are the Avatar's responsibility. Not only does the Fire Nation need to be stopped, but the damage its armies have inflicted must be repaired."

Aang shook his head. Now he had even more to do, and he knew he had to do it quickly, but he didn't even have the foggiest idea how! He went limp against the stress and let the glowing tree prop him up. "What am I supposed to do? I need your guidance, Roku."

"I know, Aang. But I'm not sure, myself, how things can be set right."

Sokka scrunched his legs against the wall of the sanctuary, pressed his back against the statue behind him, and pushed with all his strength. His legs shook as they extended, almost in time with the banging against the Sanctuary door down below, but the statue began tipping, and then it was falling and Sokka quickly scrambled away to avoid any debris-related accidents. The crash against the ramp’s floor echoed through the whole sanctuary, temporarily drowning out the terrible noise against the doors, just as the destruction of the previous ten statues had done. Sokka looked down the ramp, at the skull-sized rocks that littered the path, and nodded. He didn't know how balanced the shambling undead monsters were, but they'd have to step carefully, at least. It was a shame that such an old, neat statue had to be destroyed, but Sokka felt that it would be a worse shame if he were torn apart by monsters.

Sokka lifted his flare and looked up the ramp, ignoring the sounds of the assault on the doors. Aang was still trancing, or whatever, where he had been laid down. The lemur (at least, that's what Mai had called it) was standing on all four paws on top of Aang, tensed and looking around. Sokka nodded at it, grateful that it was standing watch. No need to worry that evil monsters were coming from behind while the screechy bat-animal thing was there.

Sokka was about to get started on shattering another statue when the doors to the Sanctuary finally broke down with one last massive crash.

From down below, Mai's voice rose up over the echoes of the destruction of the doors: "Get Aang out!"

Sokka looked, and saw that as they had agreed, she was standing tall in the center of the room, seemingly unafraid of the monsters marching through the doorway. Sokka had scattered his flares all around the floor, so that she'd have illumination enough to work, and in the harsh red light, he saw the twinkle of polished metal in Mai's hands.

Then she moved.

It was a fighting style like none Sokka had ever seen. Mai simply didn't stop moving- it started with a throwing motion that sunk a knife into the face of one monster, and then she was twirling like a dancer as more arm and hand motions scattered blades, small arrows, and razors amidst her attackers, each strike halting a monster while their bodies regenerated. Her twirl became a somersault on the floor out of which she sprung with a sweeping kick that fired even more bolts from the launchers she apparently wore on her ankles, and then she was upright again, weaving back through the spiraling array of statues.

It was a wonder to behold.

It was also a terrible plan.

Dawn was hours and hours away. They needed every moment they could get. Sokka couldn't fight worth a pile of slush, but the monsters had to be occupied while Aang was carried as high up the Sanctuary as could be gotten. That left Sokka as the Avatar-carrier, and Mai as the distraction. She was supposed to merely fight a delaying action, falling back as needed, but keeping the monsters engaged for as long as she could. That meant she pretty much had to fight flawlessly for about ten hours, and hope that she lasted to dawn.

It was a terrible plan.

But it was their only one.

Gritting his teeth, Sokka ran over to Aang, picked the kid up again, and carried him further up the spiraling path. He heard the echoes of Mai's fighting, but the sounds were increasingly distant as he ran up into the darkness.


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« Reply #24 on: Mar 15, 2015 03:33 pm »

By the light of the moon, Zuko squatted as low as he could go, wincing from the pain that flared through his legs and backside. His body dripped with sweat, despite his wearing nothing but a pair of pants in the cool night air. Ignoring the agony, he pushed himself back up to a standing position and reflexively exhaled at the relief, but he still tottered with a lack of balance for a moment.

"That's it princey-pants, you're done."

Zuko looked with irritation at Azula's hireling, the June woman. She was leaning against the railing of the inn's deck where he had been exercising, watching him with obvious boredom. "No one asked you, bounty hunter."

"Wrong, princey-pants. Your sister, the glorious Princess of Fire, is paying me to help get you into fighting shape. My job is to be the answer to the questions you should be asking."

"I should get on with my workout."

"Wrong again. Your muscles are weak, and I saw that look on your face. You're starting to hurt now, so you're done for the day. In your condition, your body needs rest just as much as it needs exercise, and when you feel pain, that's your body telling you it's time to call it a day. You want to do something useful, relax and go order a fish dinner."

Zuko glared at her as best he could with one eye, but the woman continued to stare back at him with a bored, half-lidded look. Zuko stepped towards her, but she didn't react. Finally, he closed his eye and reached within himself, stretched his will to places that he had ignored for years now, and took hold of the anger in his heart. He tore that anger apart, breaking it down into its component energy, and sent it flowing along his Qi-paths. Finally, he opened his eye again and punched his right fist out at June. He was still several arm-lengths away from her, but that didn't matter. He willed fire to emerge from his strike, just enough to blossom in front of her, blasting her face with dry heat and nothing else as a show of the power he could command, and the respect he deserved.

Yet when his fist snapped into place, nothing flicked out from it but the sweat from his skin.

June's eyebrows rose questioningly, and Zuko turned away from her and headed for the door that would take him back inside.

He found Azula standing in the doorway, looking at him. "You tried to Firebend just now, didn't you?"

Zuko said nothing.

Azula looked over his shoulder at June and snapped, "Leave us."

Zuko stared at his own bare feet and listened to the sounds of June's quick departure. He continued looking down as Azula stepped closer to him.

Her voice was like thorns covered in honey. "You can't Firebend. Not even a little flame."

Zuko looked up again and squared his shoulders, trying to look as big as possible. It had been months since he had tried Firebending, fearing the continued lack of flame, but he was sure that with the Avatar in his sights, it was only a matter of time. "I just have to build my strength back up. I'll be ready to face the Avatar when we hear about his location."

Azula's lips twisted in a way that was clearly not happy. "Strength is one thing, but fire comes from will. I've gone to great lengths to haul you out of that gutter, and I won't look like a failure in Father's eyes because you lacked the will to seize what is being given." The finger she jabbed at him flared briefly with a blue flame.

Zuko reached up and ripped the eyepatch from the damaged side of his face. "Then here, take your 'great lengths' back. I'll capture the Avatar on my own." He threw the patch straight at Azula's face with all his strength.

She caught it in the air and it burst into fire in her grip.

Then, once it was ash, she used that same hand to smack Zuko across his scar.

The heat roared within Zuko, and he gave it voice with a growl as he launched himself at his sister, reached for her throat with his right hand. Her only reaction was to bring her other hand up to deflect his attacking arm, smacking it aside. She put no real strength into the blow, though, and Zuko was still able to shift his aim and grab her skull. He hand settled over her left eye, the same eye that Zuko himself had lost. He squeezed his threat, and stared down at his sister.

She looked back with no expression, her left eye meeting his right eye. "Go ahead, Zuzu. Burn me just like Father burned you. Take half my face for daring to insult you. Take my sight."

Zuko tightened his grip, squeezing her skull with all the strength in his hand.

She reached up to grab his wrist, and pulled so that his hand was pressing even tighter over her eye. "Do it. Show me the man you've grown into. Show me your fire! Burn me!"

Zuko ground his teeth together, but there was no decision to agonize over. He wanted to scream with hatred, but there was no fire in his heart to answer it. He yanked his hand away and turned his back on his sister.

His sight once more fell to his feet.

Azula simply said, in her sweet and sharp voice, "Don't worry, Zuzu. I'll find a way to fix this for you. Father commanded me to help you, and I will not fail."

He stayed out in the darkness after she returned to the inn.

Mai was never more grateful for Ty Lee's friendship.

Back in the Fire Nation, when they were little girls just starting to explore their chosen specialties, Ty Lee had insisted that Mai and Azula both learn some of her acrobatics. Azula had been curious, but little Mai had snorted at her dippy friend and said, "Why would I want to jump and roll around like a hog-monkey? You go ahead and learn your tumbling, but I'm staying with my knives."

Ty Lee had reached for Mai's hand, then, and stared back with a quivering lip. "But knives can't protect you! What if you miss, or there are more baddies than you have knives for? You'll have to be able to dodge out of the way! Please, Mai, let me teach you so that you won't get hurt! I love you and don't want you to get hurt!" And then she started crying, so Mai agreed just to shut her up.

Now, in the Sanctuary of the Southern Air Temple, Mai bent backwards, dipping just below the clawing hand of an undead monster, and twisted into a sideways roll that brought her to safety. She pulled a pair of knives as soon as the roll came to an end, caught another monster's reaching arm between them, and then applied pressure to the captured forearm at a certain angle that snapped the old bone beneath the white glowing flesh. The monster hissed, but didn't chase after her as she scrambled back a few steps. Broken bones seemed to be the only thing the monsters couldn’t heal, so that was one grabbing hand she wouldn’t have to worry about any more.

Mai wished Ty Lee were alive so that she could say thanks, and that she returned the acrobat's love a hundred times over.

Around her, the monsters closed in.

Some of Sokka's flares had gone out a while ago, so the ground floor of the Sanctuary was a twisted mix of blood-red light and shadow. The monsters moved slowly, but dozens, perhaps a full hundred, had pressed into the space of the ground floor. They were all focused on Mai- that part of the plan was at least working- approaching through the forest of statues of dead Avatars and coming for her with their clawing, knotted hands. Mai couldn't help but wonder how far away dawn was; it felt like she had been fighting all night, but she knew that time was always distorted in the middle of a fight, so it might simply have been nothing more than a quarter of an hour. She was starting to think that it might have been better to feed Sokka the stupid Tribal to the monsters to see if gnawing the flesh from his bones appeased them.

Mai backed up and bumped into the statue that Aang had been staring at, the Fire Nation guy with the beard. Her eyes scanned the scene in front of her, measuring placement and distances, while another piece of her attention quested across her body to gauge how many weapons were still pressing against her flesh. The assessment came up with two razor wings, the platinum knife, and way too many monsters.

One of them dashed forward, squealing like a broken duduk, and reached for Mai. She grabbed the tall statue behind her and used it to hoist herself up, then kicked off its stone chest and went flying over the first wave of monsters. She landed right in front of the first monster in the second wave and jammed one of her razors through its rotted robe and into a knee joint. The creature tumbled, its leg no longer supporting it, and Mai took the platinum knife and threw it with all her Qi-enhanced strength at the next monster in line. The blade flashed in the light of the flare, struck the monster in the neck, and kept going. The head popped off, and the blade continued on to land in the monster behind that one with enough force to knock it to the floor.

She was prepared for that one to get back up in a few seconds, but instead it writhed on the floor and gave a sound like a wind over an empty field.

Then it turned to dust.

The platinum knife was left lying in a pile of not-a-monster-anymore.


She would have gone for the weapon again, but she detected a looming presence behind her, and she turned around and slashed horizontally with her final razor. The blade slowed as it dragged through the flesh trying to grab at her, but it wasn’t a substantial cut. The undead army around her closed in.

Mai dashed through the hole she had forced in the assaulting waves, trying to find the platinum knife, but the monsters kept coming, and she lost her sense of direction as she was forced to dodge and weave through the crowd, slashing at anything that came close. Her vision was clouded by pasty white bodies in filthy robes, the lights of the flares struggling inadequately against the obstructions, and it seemed like she was lost in a never-ending forest of corpses. One of the monsters tried to tackle her, but Mai sidestepped it, stabbed at another monster that she wound up brushing against, tried to back away, felt the small razor yanked from her hand as it stuck in the unnatural flesh, shoved against the cold bodies closing in-

- her wrists and ankles were grabbed by ice-cold hands, and Mai was dragged to the floor.

Cold writhing forms piled on her, burying her in a sea of monsters. Mai struggled against them, but it was like a net woven out of bodies. One of the creatures swung down to loom over her, its faces in hers, and as an army of hands tightened all over her, it opened its mouth in a silent scream. Mai's breath stirred within her lungs, and began crawling up her throat and out of her mouth against her will.

Her lips were forced apart, and she watched her breath waft out of her like a mist, spiraling up into the mouth of the monster above her. Her body grew cold, and her limbs became like stone. Mai could actually feel the flow of her blood slowing, could feel the Qi draining from the paths in her body to leave her weak and lifeless. She tried to bite down on her own breath, but the mist resisted her teeth, and she choked on her own spit as it slid down her overwhelmed throat.

The Sanctuary quieted, the monsters on top of her stilled, and the light grew dim as the last of Mai's breath leaked upward-


-and then the roar of a teenage Tribal ripped through the gloom.

A rock of some kind swung out of nowhere to crash into the head of the monster above Mai, and she found herself looking up at Sokka. He had something long in his hands- a stone arm- and was swinging it like a club. The monsters rose up from on top of Mai to reach for their new prey, but with every one of Sokka's strikes, old bones shattered and bodies fell back. Mai tried to get up, to stand and join the counterattack, but her body disagreed, preferring to stay crumpled on the ground. That was annoying, but once Sokka had beaten away enough monsters, he reached for her with one hand, and yanked her up to slump against him.

She held on with what little strength she had in her fingers, and managed to stay upright long enough for Sokka to hoist her up on one of his shoulders and begin running. She clutched his shirt and tried to be as light as possible while he dashed for the spiraling ramp. He slowed as he came to the rubble-strewn path, but pressed on and stumbled around the remnants of the shattered Avatar statues with a clumsiness that was so lacking in grace that it looped back around to have an elegance all its own.

Maybe he wasn't such a useless Tribal after all.

When what seemed like the longest and bumpiest ride of her life came to a stop, Mai saw that they had reached the top of the spiral- leaving all the monsters behind- where one last flare illuminated the dead end that was the peak of the Sanctuary. Blank walls bordered by decorative panels curved up to meet at a point that was solid rock. As she was set down beside Aang and the lemur, she wished for the first time in her life that she was an Earthbender. Her attention was drawn away from the lack of escape by Sokka lightly smacking her cheek.

"Mai! Mai, are you okay?"

She tried to tell him that if he touched her face again, she'd feed him his own hand, but all that emerged from her mouth was a slow gasp. She tried to push herself up off the stone floor, but her body struggled to move at all, and she lacked the strength to counteract her own weight.

What was wrong with her?

She looked up at Sokka and tried to will her distress into her gaze.

Sokka stared back helplessly.

Then Mai felt something soft land on her head, and she thought for a moment that one of the monsters had snuck up on her, but then the lemur walked its way down her face and took up Sokka's role as concerned deliverer of stares.

To Mai's confusion, the lemur leaned forward and started licking her nose. The warmth of its saliva spread down to her face, and she gasped as the strength soaked back down into her body. The sound startled the lemur, sending it bounding away, and she was left alone with Sokka. She tried moving her limbs, and they actually responded. As she pushed herself up into a sitting position, Sokka moved to support her, but she ignored him and looked for the lemur. It was sitting on Aang's sleeping form now, seemingly unconcerned with her.

First crazy platinum knives that turned monsters to dust, and now gross lemur spit that could heal monster paralysis? She was discovering all kinds of weird science tonight.

Sokka leaned into her vision. "You look okay now. Are you feeling okay now? More specifically, are you feeling okay enough to grab a rock and back me up as I make a foolish last stand against the incoming waves of undead horrors?"

"No." Mai stood up anyway, nearly toppled over again, and braced herself against the wall. "Give me a weapon anyway."

Aang could only express his frustration by standing and pacing around the glowing tree. "Well, if you don't know, then how am I supposed to figure it out? I don't exactly think the Fire Nation is just going to stop ruining everything and start looking for all the bodies of their victims if I explain and ask nicely!"

Roku stood as well, his expression never changing. "Your path will be difficult. But I can offer you one thing."

"What?" Aang stopped and looked over. "Some help?"

"I told you, we all stand with you." Roku smiled. "The Avatar State is a defense mechanism, one designed to empower you with the skills and knowledge of all the past Avatars. The glow is the combination of all your past lives, focusing their energy through your body. In the Avatar State you are at your most powerful, and not only because of the strength we can lend you. That which exists beyond the visible world will respond to you."

Aang nodded. "It saved me from that storm, a hundred years ago. And the Everstorm..."

Roku nodded, and his smile drained away. "But you must be careful. If you are killed in the Avatar State, the reincarnation cycle will be broken and the Avatar will cease to exist. And if your death comes from energies or events that are contributing to the world's imbalance, I shudder to think of the effects. It might be the beginning of the end of everything. Are you ready to accept this burden, and this mission?"

The tree's glow had been fading as Roku spoke, revealing the living wood beneath the ethereal light. It was strong, and solid, and Aang wished he could know it better, but now he had work to do. He looked down at his hands, and found the arrows on the back of his hands glowing. He could feel his Qi lines afire, and when he looked back up at Roku, he could sense the light of the tree shining out through his own eyes. When he spoke, it was with the voice of the tree, and every one of the rings on the grain within.

"I've been ready."

Sokka swung the stone arm he had appropriated from a Water Tribe Avatar's statue and knocked the head clean off one of the monsters, but three more surged forward to take its place, and he knew he was about to die.

The monsters had finally navigated their way to the top of the ramp now, and it was hours to dawn yet. Sokka and Mai had swung their stone weapons in defense of every step, and with each blow, he had felt the some of the strength draining out of his limbs. Mai was weak, too; while she had recovered from her corpse-like state, she wasn't at anything close to full strength, and had been forced to play support to his line of defense. He saw her swing the leg from a Fire Nation Avatar's statue into the chest one of the monsters dashing at them, but another two got right past her defenses to rush at Sokka, and their cold hands clamped down around on his body. One on his left shoulder, one around his right forearm, one on his head, as he started to fall- the heat being sucked out of his body by the monsters’ touch- another grabbed his neck.

A wretched face pushed in front of Sokka's, and its mouth popped open like it was screaming, but no sound emerged. Instead, the air in Sokka's own body was moving, pushing its way up and out like a case of bad jerky. He heard Mai cry out for help from somewhere, but it was a distant echo of a world in which Sokka no longer existed. His entire reality was the not-quite-human face looming over his, and the misty breath that was erupting from his mouth to fill the monster's.

Sokka grew colder, and stiller, and the dark cavern became even darker.

His last thought was an apology to Katara.

Then there was a bright light, and he thought no more.

Back in that dark inner space, Roku looked up into the leaves of the glowing tree and said, "Take care of him, old friend. I'm sorry you had to wake up, but soon enough we will all be able to rest."


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