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Author Topic: Traitor's Face [AU Adventure, rated T]  (Read 16481 times)
Loopy
Never Gonna Give Yue Up

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I'm Loooooooopy!


« Reply #125 on: Jul 04, 2016 03:30 pm »



Zhao looked down through the sinkhole and tried to calculate the odds that Mai and her Water Tribe companion were dead. He thought it likely, but they hadn't suffered a straight drop, so there was a chance of life. And even with her body bruised and broken, Mai would probably not just lie down and wait for him to come for her.

Well, that was fine. She might be a Weapon of the Fire Nation, but she was only mortal. She was injured to some degree, trapped in the sinkhole, and all alone with just one ally who might even be dead. Zhao had an army, and the battleground was under his complete control.

He looked up at the soldiers standing around him on the large ramp. "Well? Get down there and find them. I'll have two corpses or two more prisoners by dawn, and I don't particularly care which."

The troops moved out, but Zhao took a moment to linger. He was in command, after all, and had to take in all the relevant considerations. Mai was here with her pet Tribal, but so far there was no sign of the Avatar. There were signs of a cave-in near the platform where she had first appeared, but what did that signify? Surely the Avatar, the one who had commanded the Everstorm and powered a whole volcano, wouldn't allow a tunnel to collapse on him. And Mai was wearing green, now, matching the reports from the Rough Rhinos. Perhaps he and Mai had connected with more conventional Earthbender rebels? Signs of enemy activity occasionally popped up in this area, but nothing that local command saw as organized resistance.

And then there was the matter of the Airbender prisoners.

How had Iroh known that they were living in the middle of an ashland? Word must have come from an informant of some kind. Zhao had been given strict orders to take all the Airbenders alive, when they obviously posed a threat to the Fire Nation's domination. And Iroh had specified that the Airbenders should be taken to this very fortress; Tiankeng was an ideal place to hold people who could fly, but perhaps Iroh had more than one consideration in mind.

And then there was the special guest that had prompted Zhao to request further orders with no response. Was it just an ordinary delay or deliberate silence?

Zhao remembered the theory he had presented to High Command back in the Fire Nation- which might even be true- that Prince Ozai had been in cahoots with an organized rebel organization allied with the Avatar. Zhao had implied that it was Ozai's way of trying to seize the throne.

But what if he had implicated the wrong Prince?

Iroh had always been the more superstitious of the two. Iroh was the Crown Prince and had no need of conspiracies to make himself Fire Lord, but if there were other things the Avatar might offer Iroh-

Well, Iroh was Zhao's patron now, and of course loyal service was the best way to get ahead at the moment.

But Zhao would keep all the possibilities in mind.

He looked to his subordinates standing beside him, and motioned to the platform where Mai and her companion had first appeared. "Post some guards over there, and wake up one of the geology specialists on staff here. I want to know what's under all that rubble, and how infiltrators got into the sinkhole. In the meantime, I will lead the search for these intruders, and see what they have to say for themselves before they die."



"Uargh," Mai groaned as she opened her eyes. Wherever she and Sokka had landed, it was dark and there were walls around them, and they seemed to be alone. And they were alive. So far, so good.

Then a blade of doubt stabbed into her heart. Was Sokka alive? That had been a pretty bad series of falls, and he had taken at least as much of a battering as she had. They were still twisted up together, so she untangled her limbs with the same care she used when sharpening her most dangerous blades, and slid away from his body one bit at a time.

When she was free, she sat up and took a quick look around: very dark, small room, furniture of some kind, and lots of wood debris. She glanced up and saw that the wooden ceiling- a nice, reinforced ceiling- had a jagged hole in it, and the tenderness of her body was the only clue Mai needed to identify the hole as their own improvised entrance.

She leaned over Sokka and pressed one hand to the pulse in his neck while she held the other under his nose. The good news was that he was alive and breathing. The bad news was that he wasn't reacting to her touch. Could he have hit his head at some point? She couldn't see any obvious injuries in the dark, and the last thing she wanted was to start prodding without any idea what she was doing.

If Katara was still alive, she would hate Mai for getting Sokka killed.

"Hey, bonehead. We need to get out of here." Mai waited, but there was no response. "There could be soldiers on their way right now. We have to get back on the move." Still nothing. "If this all goes wrong, it's going to be your fault."

Was that a twitch on his face?

"Sokka!"

His eyes flew open, and then immediately shut again as he winced. "Ooh, I am- in so much- pain right now. Hurts to- hurts to breathe."

Mai heaved a sigh and sat back. "I hate you so much. You had me worried."

"Well," Sokka groaned, "you worry me (ow) all the time, so fair's fair." He started to move, but then his eyes went wide again and he twisted like had fallen into a campfire. "AaaAAAAaaaaaAAAAaaaaaAAAAaaaahhhhhH!" He finally stopped in a prone position, panting. "Ow, I think that's a rib." He poked at his left side, and immediately repeated, "AaaAAAaaaahhhh! Yeah, that's a rib. Slush, that's going to (ow) be a problem. I can (hn) barely move."

Mai resisted her own impulse to curse. "Well, we have to move. So suck it up and deal with the pain."

"Did I (nhn) mention that it- it hurts to breath?"

Mai sighed. She patted herself for a knife- it seemed that she had lost some of her arsenal during the falls- and when she found one, she started slicing away at her robe. It hung long over her pants, so there was plenty of extra fabric to spare, and her clothes had dried enough that it was an easy cut. First she sliced just below her waist to turn the robe into a love-sleeved shirt, and then took all the extra fabric and cut it into long strips. "Sit up. I don't care how much it hurts."

Sokka groaned but did as she said, and Mai proceeded to tie the strips over his chest as supportive bandages. She tried to be as gentle as possible, and he only whined like a baby a little before she was done.

She sat back and looked at him. "Well?"

Sokka took a moment to steady his breathing again, and then eased himself up until he was standing with the care of an old man. "That helps. Thanks. I'm still not going to be any good in a fight, but I can move."

"Any really sharp pain?"

"No, I think it's just a plain fracture. I can breathe now."

Well, that was some relief. Sokka had been a help up there in the first fight, but even Mai couldn't fight a whole army on hostile landscape. If it came down to another battle, it didn't really matter whether Sokka could join in. On the other hand, he probably wasn't in any condition for running, either, and that was something he was much more likely to need to do in the near future.

It was starting to look like it didn't matter whether Aang and Katara had survived the cave-in. Mai and Sokka weren't going to live to see them again either way.

But the prospect of dying did keep things interesting, didn't it? She got to her feet and took a better look around their sanctuary. "We'll have to stay out of sight, and see if we can find where the Airbenders might be. If we can get them free before we're noticed, we'll have a- is it just me, or is this room pretty nice?"

Some of the sinkhole's lantern light was shining in through the hole in the ceiling, and now that Mai was really looking, she realized that she was in what seemed like someone's apartment. There was a lounging chair, a small desk, a table with some books on it, a little shrine, and even a decorative wall scroll.

Mai spotted two doors, one of which was much thicker than the other. She checked that one out first, and found it to be a metal thing with a good lock that wouldn’t open from this side. The walls, too, were metal, and there was no chance the door was coming off without specialized tools. Mai had the sinking feeling that she and Sokka had fallen into some kind of weird posh prison, but there was one more door to check.

And maybe someone living in this jail-apartment.

Drawing her sword, Mai waved Sokka to stay where he was as she approached the small door. This one was wood, and slid open without resistance.

The next room was a bedroom, and the bed had obviously been slept in very recently.

Mai raised her sword into a defensive position and immediately sidestepped out of the doorway that- combined with the light coming through it- were making her a target. She had barely moved before she heard the sound of footsteps- the light, graceful movements of a true warrior- and a thin silhouette rushed in at her. Mai twisted out of the way of a series of hand-strikes and then sprang forward with a stab of her sword, but her attacker was already somewhere else. Mai instinctively backpedaled again and heard the distinct sound of fists rushing through the empty air in front of her, and then she ducked and heard the enemy blows missing her again so she kicked out with a sweeping leg but somehow her attacker was already jumping and Mai stabbed up with her sword and there was a little tug of resistance and a few hairs fell onto her face and she rolled forward to avoid what she knew would be the next attack and smiled because this was just like the old days and-

-and-

-old days?

Mai threw herself back towards the doorway in a movement that was half a run and half a jump and grabbed the door to push herself into an even faster stumble that left her crashing to the floor of the room where Sokka was still waiting.

He said, "What is it?"

Mai's fall hurt far more than it should have, which she guessed meant she was covered in bruises from the earlier crash down the sinkhole, but she had accomplished her mission- she was back where the red light of Tiankeng's lamps filtered in through the hole in the ceiling, and Mai could see again.

She could see her attacker follow her into the room.

She could see that her attacker was a cute young lady, loose brown hair flying through the air and white shift straining against her athletic body as she leaped through the doorway.

Mai was on her feet in an instant despite her pain, and her sword had tumbled from hands that no longer had the strength to hold any kind of weapon.

Somehow, she was seeing a ghost.
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Loopy
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« Reply #126 on: Jul 04, 2016 03:31 pm »

The familiar figure landed, fists (arrow fists, with one finger on each raised a bit so that the knuckle could make a precision strike) held high an all-too-familiar extended guard. Her eyes locked on Mai, and then the aggressive expression melted from her soft features as she blinked her big, vulnerable eyes.

"Mai?"

Mai had to concentrate to make herself breathe. "Ty Lee?"

They stared at each other across the apartment.

It couldn't be. Ty Lee was dead. Mai knew this. Ty Lee's circus had been caught in the conflagration started when some over-excited soldiers had turned the power of Sozin's Comet on some stupid fortress no one cared about. The soldiers had investigated it, had found the remains of humans and rare animals, and enough identifiable equipment to confirm which circus it had been. No one could have survived.

And yet here Ty Lee was, at the bottom of Tiankeng Fortress and trying to punch Mai's lights out.

Mai stood there, blinking and confused.

Then she laughed, threw herself forward, and met Ty Lee's hug with a crushing one of her own as she cried, "You're alive!"

"Yes!"

"That's great!"

"I know!"

"I thought you had burned to death!"

"Sorry?"

"You should be!" Mai couldn't make herself let go of her friend. It was Ty Lee's voice, Ty Lee's stupid way of talking, Ty Lee's smell, Ty Lee's smooth skin, Ty Lee's strong muscles, Ty Lee's weird way of wrapping her arms around Mai's neck and pressing their faces together, even Ty Lee's odd habit of humming during any hug that lasted for more than three seconds.

Mai pulled back out of the embrace, but only to gain enough distance to look at her friend again. She was afraid that if she let go, Ty Lee would somehow disappear again, as irrational as that sounded. Ty Lee wasn't a ghost or a hallucination; she was a real girl, the one Mai had known for a decade, that collection of habits and factoids and quirks so familiar that Mai could dream of her with more accuracy than anyone else.

Mai blinked against the itchy feeling in her eyes. "How are you alive? They told us you burned to death."

"I got lucky, and I had some help. It's a long story. But how did you find me? I didn't think anyone knew they were keeping me here."

Mai opened her mouth to answer, but Sokka cut in with, "Sorry to say, but we're not here to rescue you. We kind of fell in here by accident. I take it you're an old friend of our Fire Nation reject here?"

Ty Lee startled and Mai sighed. Sokka had sat himself down on the lounging chair, and was looking at them with what seemed to Mai like a mix of amusement and annoyance. She was going to tell him to go find someplace uncomfortable to stick his head, but Ty Lee got up and reached for a lamp on the wall. A flick of a switch brought the same red glow that had lit the outside, and Ty Lee bounced over to bow formally at the waist to Sokka. "Nice to meet you. You're with Mai?"

Sokka blinked, and Mai bet he found the sight of Ty Lee bowing in her shift to be more than a bit overwhelming. "I- uh- um, nice to meet you, too? And yeah, I- well, I guess I'm with Mai, as much as we both hate it."

"Oh, you two aren't friends?" Ty Lee rose again, and spun to face Mai again. "Actually, you look pretty awful right now. Your aura was completely black before you realized who I was. And your clothes and hair! I didn't think anything would be able to get you out in public looking like that!"

"Gee, thanks." But Mai had to suppress a smile. Hearing Ty Lee mention auras again was just the kind of stupidity she had been missing. "I've had a pretty bad year. But the meathead is right, we didn't know you were here. Finding you is just some kind of crazy coincidence." She braced herself for Ty Lee's disappointment.

Instead, Ty Lee ran forward and grabbed Mai in another hug. "The universe brought you here to save me and you didn't even realize it! That's the most romantic thing that ever happened to me!"

Mai laughed.

She was even more amused when Sokka stammered, "R- romantic? You two-"

In an instant, Ty Lee had cartwheeled over and landed sitting beside Sokka on the chair. She leaned against him and said, "Oh, things can be romantic without being romantic. Don't be jealous of Mai, cutie. I'm still unattached. So, what's your name?"

Sokka's jaw had dropped, and he seemed to be having trouble coming up with a reaction.

Ash, Mai had missed this. Watching Ty Lee wrap a guy around her finger was one of the Fire Nation's most entertaining spectator sports. Still, they were running out of time before someone found them. "That's Sokka, a rebel from the Southern Water Tribe. We've both been working for the Avatar, who's back. I'm a traitor to the Fire Nation and Azula will kill me if she ever finds me. We live on the back of a giant sky bison who flies us around the world having heroic adventures."

Ty Lee looked at Mai. She turned to look at Sokka. Then she looked back at Mai. "I can't tell if you're joking."

"Yeah, it's hilarious. We were here with the Avatar to try to free some Airbenders that are supposedly being held prisoner, but we had some trouble with our infiltration, a cave-in separated us from the Avatar and our resident Waterbender, and Sokka and I wound up trapped in here. We just kind of landed in your apartment-" here, Mai pointed up at the hole in the ceiling- "while trying to survive an attack by every soldier in the entire sinkhole. And now we need to find a way to get out of here alive, preferably with those Airbenders. Any questions?"

Ty Lee raised a hand. "If I help you, can I meet the sky bison?"

"Yes."

Ty Lee was on her feet in an instant. "Great! Let me just throw on some clothes and we'll do a daring escape." She ran back into the bedroom and slid the door closed. Over the sound of clothes being thrown around, she called through the door, "I know those Airbenders you're looking for. They're the ones who saved me from the fires. They live in an abbey that's now in the middle of a big ash desert, right?"

Mai and Sokka exchanged glances before she answered, "Yes. You saw what happened to them?"

"Sure! They used to be an order of nuns, and that abbey was right near the fires. When my circus and a whole bunch of other travelers got caught, they came in to get some of us out. They were amazing! But it was even more amazing after that, when- when they discovered that they had become Airbenders! They were really surprised. They took care of the survivors, and we all worked together, but then one day the Fire Army showed up and arrested us all. I did my Azula impression and was all, 'I am Lady Caldera Yu Ty Lee, and what is the meaning, of this?’ But that Commander Zhao guy didn't care, and just told the soldiers to make me comfortable while he-"

"Wait, Zhao?!" Mai's side- the stretch of skin marred by a burn scar- tightened, and her hands went to it reflexively. "Zhao's in command here?"

The door slid open, revealing Ty Lee in what looked like a circus costume. It was bright pink and left most of her midriff bare, while a redundant dragon-dancer's skirt hung over the pants. Both the sleeves and legs were comically wide, but they were cut short to just past the elbows and knees. Ty Lee had also done her hair up in a braided ponytail.

As if she had no idea how ridiculous she looked, Ty Lee nodded solemnly in the doorway. "Zhao said he'd keep me here until he got word about what to do with me. I've been afraid that he was sending a wire to Azula, but it's been a while, and she'd never take so long to come and punish me."

Mai listened with only half an ear, fighting against the memories of that painful night on Kyoshi Island, when Aang and Sokka had taken care of her while they raced to find her a healer on the Earth Kingdom mainland, all because of a wound she received betraying them.

So it was left to Sokka to ask, "Why would Princess Azula punish you?"

Mai shuddered, and made herself pay attention to the here and now. "Azula doesn't need an excuse for anything. We should definitely get moving. Is there a way out of here?"

Ty Lee looked up at the ceiling. "Well, it looks like you made a pretty big hole?"

Sokka cleared his throat. "Uh, I don't suppose you have way to unlock the big door instead? That hole is pretty high up, and I think I broke a rib when I-"

"Oh no!" Ty Lee cartwheeled back over to him, and gently rubbed the injured area that Sokka had been pointing at. "You hurt yourself coming to save me! Here, let me help."

Mai couldn't be sure in this light, but she thought Sokka was blushing as he stammered, "Um, Mai- she, um- she wrapped it up pretty good, so- well, unless you're a- ooh, that tickles- a Waterbender, then, uh- uh- what are you doing?"

Mai walked over to get a better look. Ty Lee had leaned over so that her face was right next to Sokka's injured side, and she was staring with a serious expression. She held a hand out and said, "I need three needles."

Mai retrieved the weapons from her belt, but hesitated before handing them over. "You're not going to bleed him out, are you?"

"No, the nuns taught me a lot about healing. I'm going to fix his Qi flow with acupuncture."

The only reason Mai didn't dismiss the notion outright was because Ty Lee was probably the most knowledgeable person around when it came to Qi paths and meridians. She knew exactly where to poke to shut down a person's limbs, or even Bending, in the midst of high-speed combat.

Mai handed over the needles, and Ty Lee immediately plunged them in quick succession through Sokka's bandages and clothes deep enough to pierce his body.

Sokka yelped and went stiff, of course, but after a moment he let out a heavy breath and relaxed again. "Hey, that feels a lot better."

Ty Lee nodded. "That should straighten out your energy flow, so you'll be in less pain. Ooh, and it will make you heal faster with regular treatments! But just because it hurts less doesn't mean that it's okay to stress it. It's still broken." She stood up again and put her face right up in Sokka's. "So don't go straining yourself. Let the girls keep you safe, okay?"

Sokka gave a single short nod.

Mai covered her smirk with a hand. Sokka's attitude problems were nothing compared to the power of a flirty girl, it seemed.

It was amazing having Ty Lee back. Maybe, with her help, they could do this. Maybe Aang and Katara were alive after all. Maybe they could save these Airbenders, and get Aang the knowledge he needed to fix the world.

No problem.

That thought caused Mai to frown. Optimism was a good way to get killed.



Sokka hadn't been able to climb up to the hole in the ceiling, even with the bedding from Ty Lee's prison-bedroom all tied together in the form of a ladder. Mai's perky friend had scrambled up first with a series of leaps and springs, carrying the sheet-ladder, and then she lowered it down. Since climbing put too much strain on Sokka's broken rib, he was forced to cling to Mai's back while she climbed up for both of them, which of course wasn't completely humiliating at all.

Once they were once again outside the fortress, Sokka was able to get a good look at their position for the first time. They were on top of a tower, rising up from a complex at the bottom of the sinkhole that was half oppressive fortress and half evil castle. Leave it to the Fire Nation to go for that kind of look.

Sokka glanced over at Ty Lee. She and Mai were conferring, and he distinctly heard the latter mention, "Airbenders." So they were figuring out their next destination, all without Sokka.

He couldn't deny that it made sense. They both knew Fire Nation stuff better than him, and Ty Lee had even gotten a look at this exact fortress when she had been brought in.

Ty Lee was everything they needed right now. She could fight on Mai's level, helped with his rib, was going to lead them to the Airbenders, and then could help them escape. She was friendly, and more than a little beautiful.

But she was Fire Nation.

Sokka found himself not wanting to trust her.

Mai trusted her unconditionally.

But did Sokka trust Mai that much?

The girls apparently finished their planning, and Mai started to climb down the tower. Ty Lee came over with the sheet-ladder again and smiled. "We’re going to make you a harness and lower you down. Hold still!”

"So, uh, Ty Lee," Sokka said as she worked. "Can I ask you a question?"

"Sure, anything you want. But I can't promise I'll tell you anything."

Sokka felt his face heat up. How did she do that with such innocuous words? "Well, uh, Ma- that is to say, the source that sent us here said- well, they mentioned a traitor who had- uh, we don't really know what the traitor did, but obviously traitors are never a good thing to have around, right?"

"That’s a really good question."

Sokka pretended she was agreeing and went on, "So, do you know anything about this traitor? Name, accomplishments, address- that kind of thing?"

Ty Lee stood up and cocked her head to the side. "I don't know anything about any kind of traitors. It's probably better to not think about that kind of thing, right?"

"Yeah." Sokka tugged his makeshift harness. "Sure."

When they all finally got down to another roof, Ty Lee pointed to a low installation at the center of the fortress. "That's where the Airbenders should be."

Sokka looked around at the rest of the base, and noticed all the soldiers moving in groups through the lanes on heightened patrol. He looked up and saw plenty more searches going on all over the walkways running up and down the sinkhole's walls. Only the scale and complexity of the fortress had probably saved Sokka and the girls from being spotted. Someone could look out from above in this red light and miss a few small figures scurrying across the tops of the buildings.

Heh, so much for Fire Nation ingenuity.

"Okay." Sokka stepped over to the edge of the roof. "We'll need to play this smart. Since I'm injured, I'll stay here. You girls will make your way to the prison across the rooftops, but only when I give an all-clear signal. As long as I'm stuck here, I'll be your spotter and make sure no one is looking while you move. Once you're at the prison, I've noticed that all these buildings use the same ventilation technology as the base at the South Pole, so Ty Lee should be able to make her way through- if you're even half as flexible as you seem- and get to the Airbenders. You free them, and Mai can hit the guards at the front door, so you’ll both will work your way to each other, and then once the way is clear come back and get me and we'll see about how we're going to get out of this stupid sinkhole. Sound like a plan?"

Before either girl could respond, something hot and flamey exploded behind Sokka.

He spun around to find Fire Nation soldiers scrambling up ladders and dropping down from elevators to his rooftop. Standing tall on a ramp just above the whole scene was none other than Commander Zhao himself in all his sideburny glory.

"Well, slush," Sokka said.

TO BE CONTINUED
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Colonel_Brian
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« Reply #127 on: Jul 05, 2016 04:46 pm »

Chapter 30:

You're probably used to me saying this by now, but you continue to capture Sokka's spirit in these chapters. His comment about leaving Malu in the ashland was completely in character. And speaking of Malu, her name seems familiar. Is she an original character, or taken from somewhere in the source material. If I recall correctly, the trading card game had a character by the same name. Though I'm probably wrong on that account.

Anyway, back to Sokka. In addition to that line about leaving Malu, he has a good dynamic going with Katara. Someone once commented that your story, while not rehashing the cartoon, tries to recreate its spirit. For example, the chapters featuring Wu were meant to bring back memories of "The Fortuneteller" for readers who watched the original show, or for those who haven't, to give them a taste of how it felt watching that episode. So, returning to my first point, the dynamic between Sokka and Katara is reminiscent of their relationship in season one where Sokka would humorously complain about Katara failing to alleviate some ailment he had, whether it was the time he got fishhook stuck in this thumb or Katara not apologizing to him in the "Waterbending Scroll," and so on. So now that I notice it, it has become something I've really grown to appreciate with this story. I look forward to seeing if you will continue this trend by trying to recapture the feel of the original series' later seasons.

This also applies to other things as well, such as Mai's apology. Although I mentioned last time that I felt the characters were too up front about their emotions. You were correct when you told me that this was something the original show did as well. However, I found this apology to be more deserved, than say Katara's apology to Sokka (at the behest of Aunt Wu) some chapters back. Since the finale of your first season, Mai has undergone a definitive character arc in which he wants to atone for her earlier misdeeds, and for obvious reasons, I'm very partial to the idea of her patiently (or at least, trying to be patient) bearing the consequences of her previous choices, even though they are very humbling (such as allowing her weapons to be taken away). However, you also make the wise decision to make that effort, very hard for her, by allowing her to slip up. That isn't to say that a character needs to slip-up to show they're struggling, but it makes sense for Mai to occasionally break down, like she did a chapter or two ago, and lay bare her anger about not being fully trusted by the gang.

One thing I wish to note, however, is that Malu is a bit difficult to understand. I get that being trapped in the ash land did a number on her, but her thoughts are a bit hard to follow, despite their repetitious nature. This is obviously intentional, so I guess I'll have to re-read this chapter later on and pay closer attention.  Though I suppose this stems from the vagueness of her pronouncements. It took me a while to figure out (before she confirmed it) that the "Gift" was actually a quasi-religious way of referring to airbending.  And you've done this before, such as when you described the initiation rituals of the Unagi Warriors which made use of similar language.

I liked the part where Katara showed Aang how to use waterbending for healing. His meditation on the Southern Air Temple was permeated with a sense of calmness and serenity. A feeling which is really appropriate for the scene.

I'll be paying close attention to how Malu's comment about "the traitor," comes into play. I don't think you're going to rehash the finale for your story's first season again. So perhaps the traitor Malu is warning about isn't a person? I don't know, but as I said, I'll keep a close eye. I wish I was able to pick up the clues you drop better, that way I can make more informed predictions.

Anyway, Team Avatar's debate on how to get into the fortress was pretty interesting. The Fire Nation stronghold has a rather unique design, so reading about the ways bending can be used to creatively infiltrate it showed a strategic side to these characters, which I liked. Usually Sokka comes up with these plans, so having Katara be the one who conceived it  was a nice twist. Sokka, of course, retains his role as the skeptic, who isn't usually sold on these things. And I wonder if, perhaps, this suggest that the plan will go totally wrong. After all, you said long ago that you liked the fact that he was usually right when he rained on Aang and Katara's parade.

And he's right! Their plan was depressingly vague.

Chapter 31:

So Ty Lee is alive, eh? Could she be the traitor, Malu alluded to? Her response to Sokka on the matter was rather indirect, and even though Sokka is supposed to be smart, he's probably the kind of person to fall victim to her wiles.

Anyway, I don't have strong feelings on Ty Lee, so I can't say I'm relieved to see her as some of your other reviewers are. I'll just wait to see how her presence in the story works out. Hopefully, it doesn't involve much innuendo, even if innocent.

I'm glad, however, to see Zhao. His speculation on Iroh mirrors my own, and for whatever reason I enjoy following his exploits. Hopefully he sticks around long enough to influence the second half of this epic. Though, I always feel as if his days are numbered each time we see him. I find it scary that I like him at all. I blame "Water Tribe," for making me a fan of his. It's carried over to every portray al of his character I encounter. Though, you do his character some justice. His characterization here manages to capture the feel of the original series, while also exploring it by putting him in situations the show did not (such as having him play a big role in a political drama).

I'm also beginning to wonder how some of these plot threads tie together. Again, your end goal for this story isn't as defined as the original show. We, at this point, can only guess how the arrival of new airbenders is related to the apocalyptic future Aang must prevent (the war has thrown the Spirits completely out of balance, and if Roku is to believed, this will have dire consequences).

My prediction, as of now, is that Iroh is after something more important than just the throne. I don't think his plan is going to be as ridiculous as Unalaq's, but probably close in regards to its ambition. Jong Jeong seems to believe that his patron has something visionary in store for the world. Something that rises above the comparatively petty interest of the Fire Nation's global ambitions. The airbenders are probably important because they act as a restorative force, meaning that they can bring back the balance between the four elements. Though this all very vague, so maybe my prediction isn't shedding any new light.
« Last Edit: Jul 07, 2016 09:10 pm by Colonel_Brian » Logged
Loopy
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« Reply #128 on: Jul 18, 2016 05:48 pm »

New Friends

Aang stood in a fortress of ice that might soon become his tomb.

He raised his crystal lantern a little higher, trying to hold it so that the ice pillars around him caught and reflected more of the light. It was a marginal improvement, but that only meant that he could see Katara's worried expression more clearly as she used her Waterbending to reinforce the existing ice from the water that still filled the cave up to his knees.

As soon as she finished, Katara sagged. "That should do it for now."

Aang knew the feeling. The lantern was heavy in his hand as he said, "We can't keep this up forever. We're either going to run out of air or the cave-in will shift enough that the ice won't be able to hold it up anymore."

A drop of melting ice plopped down on Katara's head- she had lost her hat in the cave-in- as she nodded.

Aang let his gaze fall to the dark waters around him. The worst part wasn't even the danger that he and Katara were in- it was not knowing what had happened to Mai and Sokka. They had jumped through the hole Aang had cut into the tunnel wall, right into the red light of Tiankeng Fortress, but he hadn't even been able to see their feet touch the ground before the cave-in started. Katara's reflexes had been quick, and she had grabbed Aang's waist with one hand as she shoved the hand down at the water running through the tunnel, resulting in something like a small explosion that had sent them both flying backwards. The collapsing ceiling had followed them, though, and overtook them even before Aang's Airbending-assisted running could them back to the surface. Only quick-thinking and panicked Icebending had saved their lives.

Temporarily.

But at least their final moments would be peaceful. Who knew what was happening to Sokka and Mai. They had a whole Fire Nation fortress to fight, and they had been on the verge of turning on each other for a while now. Aang had a bad feeling about their chances.

Katara came over and put her hands on his shoulders. "You're worried about them?"

He nodded.

Katara pulled him into a hug, an embrace that felt all the warmer for the ice-water surrounding them. "I believe in them. Sokka worked for ten years and crossed the whole world to help me. He'll find a way. Even if- even if it's too late for us, he'll get himself- and Mai- out of trouble. He’s a pretty reliable guy, in certain ways."

Aang wondered if he could just let himself believe that. It didn't really matter what he or Katara thought if they couldn't get out, but sharing her optimism would be a comfort before the end, at least. He opened his mouth to say something in reply- what, exactly, he didn't know- but then the little fortress-tomb of ice shook, and he looked up to see what he expected to be a mountain of rock coming down on him with finality but-

-but instead a shaft of light fell down to illuminate him. There was a hole in the rock above him, and although it seemed to be a deep hole, a spot of color at the end glowed like the dawn sky.

The silhouette of a man shifted into view to eclipse that dawn glow. "Ah, the Avatar child! What a fortunate surprise," he said in a deep, cultured voice. Aang noticed a long braid hanging over the speaker's shoulder. "It looks like you’ve started my work for me. Might my men and I be of some assistance?"



Sokka raised his hands high above his head, making his broken rib twitch, but he clenched his jaw and focused through the pain. He couldn't be distracted now, with a whole platoon of Fire-jerks surrounding him. Most of them were above him, on the platforms and elevators that clung to the massive sinkhole's sides, but a growing number were approaching right in front of him. Sokka, Mai, and Ty Lee had been standing on the edge of the rooftop of one of the many sprawling buildings that made up the bottom level of Tiankeng Fortress, and what had once been a cozy-if-slightly-suspicious solitude had become the worst party ever as more and more troops climbed up onto the roof under Commander Zhao's direction.

But the Fire-jerks weren't attacking. Sokka looked around, and noted that despite all the arrows, spears, and cocked Firebender-fists at ready, the soldiers were being very disciplined and only ready to kill him ten times over. They wanted at least part of Sokka's little group alive.

Well, okay then. He could work with that.

Standing very still with his arms above his head, Sokka whispered, "Can Ty Lee fight well?"

Mai's voice came back equally soft: "Better than me. She's probably the second best Weapon of the Fire Nation alive."

"Aw," Ty Lee chirped. "Thanks!"

Oh, another one of those Weapon things, huh? Well, in that case, Sokka's plan might actually have a remote chance of almost kind of working. "Who's the first?"

Out of the corner of his eye, he saw Mai shiver as both she and Ty Lee simultaneously said, "Piandao."

"Is he here?"

"No." Mai sidled a little closer to him, while keeping her own dangerous hands up. "What are you planning?"

Sokka looked back at the soldiers. Zhao motioned, and several Firebenders began approaching with slow steps. Their fists were raised so that they could attack with only half a moment's notice, three-quarters of a moment on the upside. "Okay, we have one last chance. If you can sabotage the source of the natural gas powering all the sinkhole's lanterns, the lights go out and there's still a chance of getting to the Airbenders even though everyone knows we’re here. You probably won't make it without Ty Lee, but watch out because she's keeping a secret from you and I hope it's not the kind that leads to lies and betrayals." He heard Ty Lee give a squeak at that, but before she could start an argument, he pressed on, "Tell Katara I'm proud of her and please find a way to justify what I'm about to do."

Mai got as far as saying, "What are you-" when Sokka turned around and shoved both her and Ty Lee so that they stumbled and fell right off the roof.

Zhao shouted something and suddenly the air was filled with deadly things but Sokka dropped to his knees and scrunched himself as small as he could get with a broken rib and his hands held up in what he hoped was an acceptable sign of surrender.

Then something slammed into his back and crushed him down to the ground, making Sokka's broken rib scream and-

No wait, that was him screaming.



That idiot!

That idiot!

Mai wanted to call Sokka a lot worse things in her thoughts, but she was too distracted by the running fight with an entire army to get creative with her insults. From the moment he had shoved her off the roof, she had been forced to work to survive, kicking out against the fortress building's edifice to transform her straight drop into something like a rolling landing that rattled her bones and sent waves of pain through her already sore body. Then, from the moment she and Ty Lee had touched the ground, they were at the center of a whole fortress’s accumulated bad intentions. Spears and arrows and fireballs streaked down towards them while soldiers with swords and spears and staffs and chains and all kind of weapons rushed in at them.

If she had been with anyone else, Mai wouldn't have survived it.

But Ty Lee was back from the dead (Sokka said she might be a traitor) and if a Weapon of the Fire Nation was a person capable of fighting a small army, then she and Ty Lee (Sokka said she might be a traitor) were ash-streaked, goose-ducking Tanks of the Fire Nation when working together. After all, that's what Azula had wanted them to be, and Azula always got what she wanted.

They didn't even need to make plans. Mai came up shooting bolts from her wrist-launchers at the soldiers above who still had a viable vantage point. Those soldiers needed a few seconds to adjust their aim now that she and Ty Lee (Sokka said she might be a traitor) weren't on the roof anymore, but in those few seconds her bolts snapped bowstrings and sunk into exposed fists and poked into all those little places that armor couldn't cover if its wearers wanted to move.

Then she and Ty Lee (Sokka said she might be a traitor) started running.

They met a wave of soldiers, of course, but Ty Lee (Sokka said she might be a traitor) didn't even have to slow down as she engaged the whole lot with her acrobatic dodges and jumps. Mai ignored the brawl because it was no danger to her; she trusted Ty Lee (Sokka said she might be a traitor) to take down every soldier before a single one could so much as even think about making trouble. Instead, she kept her sharp eyes looking for distant threats, sending more bolts at distant attackers and noting the enemy reinforcements coming up the lane. Her body was sore and weary, but that was just background noise as she pushed herself into that perfect state where she was at the center of a world of targets and there was nothing was beyond her reach.

Meanwhile, she knew that Ty Lee was twisting and tumbling and leaping and spinning around her attackers, each movement coming with three or four fist-strikes that landed in those same impossible-to-armor spaces that Mai liked to target. Ty Lee's punches were far stronger than a girl her size and slimness should have been capable of, but the power behind them wasn't what made them dangerous. Ty Lee didn't strike at muscle and bone, like Mai had to. She struck at the body's invisible power points, the spots where flows of Qi converged and pumped. When Ty Lee struck those points the Qi was disrupted, so limbs fell dead and Bending snuffed out and pain exploded into horrifying numbness.

This all happened so fast that Mai didn't even need to slow her run, which was good because she wasn't sure she would be able to get back up to this speed. The soldiers fell and she called out, "Fifteen degrees, twenty-five degrees, and one-hundred-sixty degrees," and continued on her shooting.

And so Ty Lee adjusted her run to match Mai's directions and found new battles to wage without having to stop and look for them.

Azula had come up with that system. After all, as long as Mai needed to be looking at things in the distance and calculating vectors, why not figure out where Ty Lee needed to take her magic fists next? It was a little more efficient, and Azula had always said that entire battles could be lost based on a few seconds worth of bad timing.

With this pattern of attack, they made rapid progress through the bottom level of the fortress, and Mai was able to keep too busy to wonder if Sokka was right and the girl her life depended on right now was planning to betray her.

An eternity and an army later, they reached the furnace station where coal would be burned in such a way as to release the flammable gas within, providing fuel for all of the fortress’s lanterns and machinery. Mai and Ty Lee plunged into the heat so that they could find a way to plunge the fortress into darkness.

She hoped Sokka survived to see it.

He said Ty Lee might be a traitor.

Mai's friend might be keeping harmful secrets from her.

Is this how Sokka felt at Crescent Island?
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Loopy
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« Reply #129 on: Jul 18, 2016 05:50 pm »



The Tribal boy was obviously in pain, but he managed to grin as he was dragged onto the platform and said, "Commander Zhao! I just have to say that- going all the way back to the South Pole, really- I have always admired you as a leader and administrator. I even tried to grow sideburns like yours, but I just couldn't make them work as magnificently as you do!"

Zhao nodded to the guard holding onto the boy, and enjoyed it when she shoved an elbow into the Tribal’s side.

When the boy stopped groaning, he brought the smile back. "S- so, my name is Sokka. What can I- hng- do for you?"

Zhao glanced out over the sprawl of the fortress. He couldn't see Mai or Ty Lee anymore (and was already composing a report that would blame Iroh’s lack of orders for the latter’s escape), but it seemed that the troops were converging on the mechanical sector. He frowned at the thought of the kind of damage a pair of Weapons could do there, but at least they were still stuck on the bottom level of the sinkhole. Eventually they would be overwhelmed.

Right?

Zhao turned his attention back to the prisoner he actually had. The fortress’s regular commanders could direct the troops just as well as he could, and he had real gains he could make here. "I'm glad we could finally speak, Tribal Sokka. We have much to discuss."

He expected the boy to play dumb or spit back some defiance, or maybe even just shut up. He didn't expect Sokka to nod and say, "I have a feeling we have a lot of misconceptions to clear up. What do you want to know?"

Very well, Zhao would play the game for now. "Who are you working for?"

"The Avatar, unfortunately. He's the one who sets the agenda."

"And who is the Avatar working for?"

Sokka's eyes narrowed. "Avatar Roku, I think? I'm not really sure how that works, though. Is he a ghost with his own opinions, or some kind of facet of Aang's mind that acts as a delivery method for subconsciously stored knowledge? Either way, it's spooky Avatar stuff."

Zhao decided that the answer was too stupid to be fabricated. "And what about Lady Caldera Yu Mai? Where do her orders come from?"

"Oh, that's a whole thing." Sokka looked around, then leaned forward and spoke in a quiet voice, "See, up until Crescent Island, she was working for you guys."

Zhao suppressed a grin. He knew it! "And what happened on Crescent Island?"

"Well, she met up with the guy she was working for, Prince- um, Prince Z- er, something with a Z. He has one eye."

This time, Zhao did grin. "Prince Zuko?"

"Yeah, that's the name! You're not a fan of him either, huh? Well, she found out that this Zuko guy is apparently an even bigger jerk than she is, so she kicked his butt and saved Aang. More or less. Now she says she's working for us, and I haven't seen evidence of that not being the case."

"And what was she supposed to do for Prince Zuko?"

"Help him capture Aang. I think he's on a quest or something, and it would be a big glorious deal if he succeeded? So she joined up with us, helped us get away from all the other Fire-heads, and then told Zuko we were headed for Crescent Island so that he could ambush us himself."

Zhao nodded. It all fit, all matched his theories. And if Mai had truly betrayed Zuko- and Ozai's faction with it- they had lost their link to the rest of the conspiracy. "And what of the rebellions?"

Sokka blinked. "Um, which ones?"

"Your people rose up using the power of the Everstorm. Now you're traveling the Earth Kingdom, striking at Fire Nation forces."

"Oh! Okay, yeah, I see what you're getting at. So, see, that's where we get back into the Avatar junk. Roku told us that the war broke the world, so we're trying to fix it. That's why we're getting ghosts and monsters and ashlands and stuff. And new Airbenders! The only reason we're fighting the Fire Nation is because you guys keep coming after us, and Aang likes to help anyone he feels sorry for. I know you have a beef with Avatars since they don't like it when you steal the whole world from the people who are supposed to share it, but it would actually be better for you if you let us take care of these problems. You can't enjoy dealing with monsters any more than we do."

Zhao sighed. And so the flow of information ended. "Yes, I'm sure you'd like me to think that. But don't worry, we'll have the opportunity to discuss your true purposes now that you're in my power." He nodded, and the soldier started to drag Sokka away.

That's when the lights started going out.

It was like the stars were leaving the night sky as one by one the lanterns throughout the sinkhole faded into darkness. It started at the top of the vertical fortress and worked its way down. A blanket of shadow descended on everything, broken up only by the few solid-fuel torches scattered throughout the structure. Some of the Firebenders on active duty brought up their own flames, but it was a futile struggle. When Zhao had ordered the fortress put on complete lockdown, the top of the sinkhole had been covered by a system of linking platforms that formed an armored lid, cutting off any view of the sky and what would by now be a dawning sun. They were sealed in a pit beyond the light of the outside world, and it could get very dark beneath the ground.

Zhao raised a hand and chased away the darkness that had covered this particular platform with a small ball of flame. He immediately looked in the direction that the guard had been dragging the Tribal Sokka, and found that they had paused when the lights went out. The Tribal himself was maintaining a carefully blank expression.

Noticing Zhao's stare, Sokka blinked. "What? I didn't say anything."



Mai sighed in the darkness. "Well, I'm out of bolts, and I'm down to only seven blades. At least I still have my sword."

The sabotage of the gas supplier had gotten hairy, since survival was no longer just a matter of running and striking. Mai and Ty Lee had been forced to take cover behind machinery and strike when even the narrowest opportunity presented itself. It was tense work, and each attack had spent a little more of the desperate strength Mai was forcing into her body. About the only thing that had gone smoothly was the sabotage itself, thanks to her experience aboard Fire Nation warships when her family had been touring the world before their journey to the South Pole. The coal-burners here had worked on the same principle as the ones aboard the ship, and supplied gas to the lanterns through the same kind of pipe-based distribution system.

Ty Lee had acted as defense while Mai had gone about breaking machinery, and the ensuing darkness had allowed them to escape the building and finally evade their pursuers. There were enough torches and Firebenders to produce a very dim ambient light in places, but it was just enough to avoid walking into walls. Mai and Ty Lee had put some distance between themselves and any patrols, and had sat down beside a supply shed for a rest and maybe some planning. They just had to figure out, now, how to free the Airbenders.

And find Sokka. Katara and Aang wouldn’t like it if they thought Mai had traded their brother for an old Fire Nation friend.

She had to bite back another curse for that Water Tribe moron's overblown sense of responsibility. What did he think he was accomplishing? Even if she found the Airbenders, it wasn't like they'd have a herd of sky bison with them that could carry everyone out of the sinkhole. It was a pointless sacrifice, and she would probably die trying to give it meaning.

She heard Ty Lee shift somewhere beside her, and then her friend said, "Seems like we're clear to get going again. No torches, and no auras glowing in the dark."

Mai would have rolled her eyes if she thought the detail would be visible. "I don't believe in auras, and I certainly don't believe that if they did exist you would be able to see them in the dark."

"Then how do I know what a sour yellow color your aura is right now?" There was enough ambient light that Mai could see Ty Lee's held tilt to the side, and long experience filled in the amusement that was supposed to go with it. "Come on, the prison is just over this way."

They joined hands, and Mai suppressed a groan as her sore muscles protested being on the move again. As they flitted down the lane, the ground gave a shake beneath their feet. It had been doing that every so often since they stopped for a rest, and Mai could only hope that her sabotage to the gas system wasn’t going to destroy the whole sinkhole. At least, not before she and Ty Lee found a way to get the Airbenders- and Sokka- out of here.

She was relying on Ty Lee, just like when they sparred together before their lives had dragged them apart. Back then, they had kept no secrets from each other. Mai knew all about Ty Lee's family, about her issues with being a septuplet, about her mother's addiction, about her father's apathy. Ty Lee in turn knew what Mai had been like before she found her courage, about the punishments she got speaking out of turn in public, about her anger when Tom-Tom was born. They had both trained with the princess, and had learned together where the Azula's boundaries could be found.

And now after knowing her for just half an escape attempt, Sokka claimed that Ty Lee was keeping secrets.

Only the fact that his stupid plan had worked out so far gave Mai any doubts. So she decided to go ahead and prove him wrong. "Hey?"

"Yeah?"

"What aren't you telling me?"

Ty Lee froze. She turned around, and Mai could almost make out the glistening of her eyes in the glint of distant torches. "Please."

"Please what?"

"Please don't ask me that."

Mai's stomach flipped. "Sokka was right."

"Um, kind of?"

"Oh, no." Mai shut her eyes against the sight of her friend's silhouette and yanked her hand away. Sokka was right. That moron was still right. He was right about everything- Ty Lee had secrets, sinkhole fortresses needed lamps to operate, digging tunnels with water was a bad idea, Mai couldn't be trusted with anything, and all their plans were destined for failure. Maybe next time he told her to take a flying leap off of Appa, she'd go ahead and do it. If she ever saw Appa again, of course. "Oh, why do I bother?"

"I'm sorry!"

"You're supposed to-" She bit off the rest of the thought: that her only friend was supposed to be better than an honorless maverick like Mai, but why bother saying it? Reality didn’t care what it was supposed to be.

"What?" Ty Lee’s voice was quivering. "What am I supposed to do?"

"Never mind." She opened her eyes and forced her face back into a neutral expression before she remembered that Ty Lee couldn't see it anyway. She wondered if she was supposed to pull a weapon on her friend now. "Don't you have something that you want to say?"

"I'm sorry!" Ty Lee's voice had gone hoarse, a tell-tale sign for those that knew her that she was deeply stressed. "I really am!"

The squeak of the last word was like a hot needle down Mai's throat, and she found herself hissing, "You're not supposed to lie and betray your friends and-"

"Whoa, wait!" Ty Lee lunged forward and grabbed Mai's shoulders with soft hands. Her breath splashed against Mai's face. "I didn't betray any friends! I'm not betraying you! I just- I did something bad. Really bad. I- I don't want anyone to know about it. I know that's stupid and you're going to find out, but-" Mai heard her friend's breath hitch. "I don't want you to look at me like I'm a monster. At least for a little while longer. Please, let me keep my secret? It won't hurt you. I'd never hurt you! I love you!"

The ground gave another shake.

Mai sighed. Ty Lee loved everything she didn't actively dislike, and she could be just as catty and hurtful as Azula when she was cranky, but the truth of the words didn't matter. Ty Lee couldn't actively lie; at worst, she could just say incorrect things that she honestly believed, but mostly she just avoided talking about anything that made her uncomfortable. She was mistaken about a lot of things- like auras- but that was because she was as dumb as a bag of rocks.

Mai was supposed to be the smart one, of the two of them, and she knew that right now she was being dumb as well. Just because she hated herself didn't mean she had to hate Ty Lee, too. She breathed out, expelling all the stale air in her lungs. "Okay, fine."

"Okay?"

"That's what I said. Keep your secret for now." Mai couldn’t help but wonder if Ty Lee had done something to sell out the Ozai faction. If so, it had probably been an accident. "And when it comes out and you're revealed as the monster you are, I'll be glad that you're not the dippy pink clown you've always acted like."

The darkness was silent for a long moment, and then Ty Lee gave a laugh and Mai was suddenly being hugged to death. "Thank you! You’re the best person I ever knew who likes to dress like swamp spirit!"

She patted her friend's shoulder. "Yeah, pink auras all around. Now let's go free these Airbenders and figure out if the plan we don’t have has a next step."

Once again traveling hand in hand, they reached the prison without incident (aside from the intermittent trembles from the ground), where another full platoon of soldiers was waiting with torches and hand-held lanterns. They hid themselves well short of the light, taking cover behind the foundations of a tower of some kind, and then both peeked out to discern the enemy numbers and positions. There were no more than two dozen, arranged in a fairly sensible defensive formation all across the front of the prison. No doubt there was a full guard staff inside, as well.

Once she was satisfied, Mai gave Ty Lee’s hand a squeeze and let go to unsheathe her sword, and then they both dashed into battle again. The soldiers didn’t know they were under attack until Ty Lee dropped out of a massive leap behind their front lines, when they turned to face her, Mai’s blades struck home.

As the fight dissolved into elegant chaos, Mai acted as the eyes of the team. While Ty Lee flipped and cartwheeled into each fight, Mai hung back and kept track of the wider situation. The torches and lanterns the soldiers were carrying made their carriers easy targets, and she only had to dash, jump, roll, and even kick off the building’s face to appear instantly at the side of anyone who thought to strike at Ty Lee while she was distracted. Each time someone rose against her friend, Mai would swing her sword against them. The armor they wore wasn't a problem, because she didn't need- or want- to kill anyone. She could slash at exposed faces, stab at unshielded joints, and shove at anyone in an unbalanced stance. It was enough to temporarily disable her targets, because Ty Lee would soon be there to shut down their joints and disable them on a more long-term basis.

Then they both slipped back into the shadows and struck again from a different angle before their disappearance had even fully registered.

In the end, Mai and Ty Lee left behind a pile of not-quite-dead bodies as they entered the prison and locked the front door behind them. They weren't locked in with the prison’s guards- the guards were locked in with them.

As Mai turned around in the darkness of the building's vestibule, her boots splashed in a thin puddle of water that had somehow accumulated on the floor.
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Loopy
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« Reply #130 on: Jul 18, 2016 05:51 pm »



Sokka had spent a lot of his time, back in the South Pole, imagining what course his life would take. Even now, traveling with as part of some kind of Wandering Hero Group, he tried to anticipate the various fates that might await him. Despite what Aang might think, thinking on the fly was a good way to run over a cliff.

Even so, Sokka never expected to be chatting in Commander Zhao's tower office by candlelight. It could almost have been a parody of something romantic if Zhao weren't threatening light Sokka's hair on fire between questions.

"I repeat: where are the other Water Tribe refugees hiding, and what aid have you all received from mainland rebels?" Zhao was standing somewhere behind Sokka's chair, and he could feel the heat of a flame against the back of his neck.

Sokka groaned. "Look, Commander, I have two ways I can answer this. Either I can make up something that sounds true so that you get off my back, or I can repeat the answer I've been giving to this question for the tenth time and say that I have no idea because I immediately took off with the Avatar to go make trouble elsewhere. At this point, I'm going to let you make the call."

"Hm. You think you're clever, don't you?"

"Well, I never thought I was recruited to the South Pole laboratory for my singing voice." As soon as he finished speaking, Sokka realized that he might have been getting a bit too mouthy considering that fire still held near his neck. He cringed as much as he could without irritating his broken rib.

Then the office door slid open to reveal a panting aide with a hand-held lantern. "Commander, we have a problem!"

Sokka was professionally interested in all of the Fire Nation's problems, especially any that would have flunkies running up all the flights of the tower's stairs to deliver a report, and so listened as Zhao stepped into view with a scowl on his ugly, sideburn-framed face to say, "Is this about the traitor girls?"

"No, sir! Guards on the base level are reporting-"

"Are you telling me no one has managed to find them yet? Is this a fortress or a day spa?"

"Sir, please, the girls are holed up in the prison building, and two whole platoons are surrounding it now, but we're also getting-"

"Then what about the lights, why haven't they been fixed yet?"

The aide grimaced, and Sokka almost felt sorry for winding Zhao up like this, but the woman soldiered on and said, "Those girls did a lot of damage to the piping around the furnaces, and the system is building up a lot of pressure. The technicians say they have to divide their efforts between repairs and just keeping more damage from accumulating. But sir, we're also getting reports of heavy flooding on the base level!"

Zhao blinked. "Flooding? You mean water is coming up through the floor?"

Sokka himself was thinking of the water that had been running underground in this whole region, the water that Katara and Aang had used to carve a tunnel straight into the sinkhole's interior. What had happened to it after the cave-in? He couldn't imagine that their little Waterbending venture was now flooding the whole massive sinkhole. To push up through the metal plates that were supposedly covering the whole bottom of the fortress, there had to be a lot of water accumulating.

He also thought about all the equipment here in the fortress, and what the aide had said about the repairs to the gas system.

He stood up. "I think you should consider evacuating. Right now."

Zhao glanced over at him, sneered, and gestured at the aide. "Get this Tribal out of here. Perhaps he'll be more helpful after being locked in a dark supply closet for a day or two."

Sokka found himself taking a step towards the commander, but the aide's hands clamped down on his shoulders with enough force to make his broken rib twinge again. "You don't (hrg) understand, that water will be cold, and if it gets into the equipment you're trying to fix, there could be a huge reaction!"

The aide yanked, making Sokka cry out, but then the fire in Zhao's hand suddenly went out, leaving only the candles and the aide's lantern to keep darkness from completely filling the little office.

"Wait," Zhao barked.

The aide relented, and in the dim light Sokka found Zhao looking at him with wide eyes. "Yeah?"

"How huge a reaction?"

There was a clap like thunder outside the tower office, and it felt like the whole sinkhole shuddered in sympathy.

Sokka just had time to say, "That huge," when something smacked into the tower with enough force to knock them all of their feet. The candles all went out at the same time that gravity decided to try some new things, and Sokka's world became nothing but darkness and pain.



Hunting through the prison building of Tiankeng Fortress was almost too easy, even as tired and pained as Mai was. Just like outside, the guards were forced to carry torches to see anything, giving away their positions. Their every step through the puddles of water on the floor echoed through the claustrophobic corridors, revealing their every movement. Whenever Mai lunged at them from the darkness, her sword extended like a monster's talons, she saw fear explode on their faces just before she struck. She had more than enough time to pick non-fatal targets, and in the few events where she missed at first, Ty Lee was soon coming in low and snap a punch into unarmored thighs to remove the guards’ ability to stand.

The last one flopped to the ground with a splash and a wail, and Mai caught his torch before it could finish falling. She stretched her arms to try to work some life back into them as the ground shook again. "All right, I give up- what's with the water and the quakes? Does that happen often?"

Ty Lee shook her head in the light of the torch. "Not that I've ever noticed. Do you think we did something when we closed off those pipes for the gas?"

So even Ty Lee was thinking on those lines. "Maybe, but there's no reason there should be water down here because of that." She thought back to Katara's plan to get into the sinkhole. Maybe this was a sign that she and Aang were alive? "Whatever's going on, it would probably be best if we hurried." She looked down hallway to the door at the end. "One room left."

Ty Lee turned to look, and even in the haphazard glow of the torch, her expression fell noticeably. "If there's one room left, then they must be in there, right?"

"Along with whoever else is being kept prisoner, yes. And there might be a last guard or two." Mai shifted her grip on the torch so that she could throw it like one of her knives if needed. "I'll go through first, you follow and save me from whatever we find?"

Ty Lee nodded, and they started forward. They barely got two steps before the whole world shook and the entire building rocked down into a tilt that slammed Mai into the wall on her left. She dropped the torch, and it sputtered as it landed in a puddle and its light almost went out. She quickly picked it back up. Most of the material was wet and refused to burn now, but a section still maintained a flame. "I have a bad feeling about this."

Nevertheless, she forced herself back into motion.

When she reached the door, she started by giving it a good kick. She was fairly sure that her boots were thick enough to protect her from breaking her foot if the door was locked, but it proved to be a moot point. The door flew open when she struck it, and she dove into the darkened room and drew her sword.

She landed in a crouch and moved the torch around to shed light in one direction at a time, but the only company she found was the shrieking and cowering women behind the bars of the cells.

Mai rose up and sheathed her sword again. There were four cells, and the women- their ages ranging from girls her own age to Mother Malu's contemporaries- occupied three of them. They all wore the same set of robes, heavy things of white and gold that even recently might have been clean and in good repair. Now, they were streaked with the unmistakable stains of ash, torn and burned in ways that spoke of a sudden and inadequate education in combat.

The women blinked against the slim torchlight, and made sounds of fear.

Mai sighed. "Hi." She poked into her belt to produce the set of keys she had taken from one of the guards. "I'm guessing that you're Mother Malu's Airbenders. Potential issues about quality aside, this is a rescue."

To a chorus of relieved sighs, Mai went to unlock the first cell. One of the nearby women, who looked in the torchlight to have quite a few years on Mai, said, "I am Sister Matagi. Our abbess sent you?"

"And the Avatar." The lock clicked, and Mai stepped back as the door swung open. "As much as I’d like to personally meet each and every one of you to exchange stories, we’re in a rush. I need you to keep everyone organized and moving, okay?" She didn’t wait for Matagi’s reply before moving on to the second lock.

It wasn’t until Mai was unlocking the third cell that she realized that Ty Lee hadn’t come into the room with her.

She looked back at the door, but the light of the torch didn’t reach that far. She pushed her way through the nuns and Matagi gathered them in her wake. Mai, however, only had eyes for the empty doorway. Where had Ty Lee gone?

It didn’t turn out to be a long search. Mai only had to walk down that first corridor, Matagi and the others hurrying after her, when she found Ty Lee leaning against a wall in the dark.

"Ty Lee," came Matagi’s almost horrified wail.

For a moment, Mai was trying to remember how she could have mentioned her friend to the nun, but then then she remembered that Ty Lee had been sheltered at the abbey, and the Airbenders would all know her.

Ty Lee gave a wan smile and waved. "Um. Glad you're all okay."

The silence that followed prompted Mai to turn around and raise her torch. The nuns were all glaring at Ty Lee, some with thin-lipped anger and others with wide-eyed hurt. Did this have to do with her secret, the one that would supposedly make Mai look on her as a monster?

The ground shook again, once again sending her stumbling into a wall, but at least this time she held on to the torch, despite the exhaustion nipping at her heels.

Then there was a lurch and suddenly the whole building was in freefall.

It didn't last long, maybe not even a second, and ended with a crash that broke gravity. Mai found herself floating during the fall- perhaps this was what it felt like to be a sky bison- and instinctively let go of the torch and pulled her limbs in before her sudden landing. She wound up in a crouch that still had enough momentum to turn into a tumble, but the floor decided that it didn't want to stay put, and suddenly gravity was pulling her towards the prison's front door, making her slide across a flat floor that had become a downward ramp and then another jolt sent her rolling towards a wall that suddenly became a new floor and finally Mai was dumped shoulder-first up against the locked front door just before gravity shifted so that she was lying on the world’s first door-floor.

It hurt, but she was too tired to do anything more groan.

A light descended on her, and Mai looked up to find Ty Lee skidding to a safe stop with the recovered torch in her hand. As the nuns- all them landing softer than Mai had managed but not as gracefully as the a professional acrobat from the Fire Nation- came to a stop around them, Ty Lee helped Mai to her feet and said, "You okay?"

"Okay enough to not give you a real answer." Mai stepped to the side of the door so that she wasn't standing directly on it, and crouched down to undo the lock. She doubted there were any soldiers waiting outside now, which was one nice benefit of the scary disasters. "How about everyone else? All Airbenders accounted for?"

Matagi conferred with them for a moment, and then announced, "We are well enough. But please, what's going on? What happened to the building? And why is Ty Lee with you? I thought Mother Malu sent you."

"Ty Lee is my partner. Any problems you have with her can wait until we’re all out of here. As for the building-" The lock finally came undone, and the doors popped open to reveal a swirling, muddy rapids some distance below. The doors swung in the empty air, and the whole building creaked with disturbing promise. "I don’t know, but I think the whole sinkhole is dying and we're stuck in it."



Reality came back to Sokka with the sound of angry cursing and the distant echoes of rushing water. He stretched, made a high-pitched sound when he was reminded of his broken rib, and opened his eyes to see what new disaster he had fallen into.

He was still in Zhao's office and the lights were still out. Zhao himself was still here, standing on the other side of the room. A military flare hissed on the floor at Zhao's feet, filling the office with harsh red light and revealing that everything seemed to have picked up an unusual case of The Sideways. Sokka blinked a few times, tilted his head, and blinked some more. Yes, the room was sideways. He was willing to bet that was the reason the furniture was all thrown around in a pretty sorry state. Either that or he had slept through Zhao giving a truly legendary tantrum. "What happened?"

Zhao turned around just as a rope snaked down through a hole in the ceiling- no, that was the window that had originally looked out over the sinkhole- behind him. "Ah, you're alive. Are you in any state to climb, Tribal?"

Sokka bit back his annoyance at the slur and said, "I have a broken rib. I don't think I can."

"Oh." Zhao shrugged, grabbed the rope, and tied it around his waist. "Too bad. You would have made a useful prisoner." He tugged the rope once, and was quickly lifted up through the window and out of sight.

What a jerk!

No, seriously, what a jerk!

Sokka got up and went over to the space beneath that ceiling-window. Looking up, he could see a steady stream of torches moving up the sinkhole’s dark ramps, with shadow that might have been Zhao rising up towards a crane lit by its own set of military flares. Sokka squinted and looked for other flares, taking in what details were revealed by the harsh light.

Those details all told the same story- Tiankeng Fortress was in pretty sorry shape. Equipment was thrown around, ramps and scaffolding were broken, and everyone seemed to be in a big hurry to go up. The flares seemed to be congregated around the remaining functioning equipment, all of it fairly high up. And there was still that matter of the echoing water.

Sokka had a hard time believing that Aang and Katara's Waterbending had somehow managed to destroy a whole mile-deep sinkhole in a single night, but until he got other data, it was his only theory. And if the Fire Nation was evacuating, then he probably should make that his mission, too.

He proceeded to scour the sideways office, hoping to find a whole sky bison hidden beneath the crushed desk and scattered papers, but was predictably disappointed. There were no ladders, either, and even the few chairs were in pieces. If he could find some string or binding agent, maybe he could cobble together something he could climb, but even without a broken rib he'd be hard pressed with these materials. Maybe if he leaned some the larger pieces against the wall, he could-

The soft sound of stone scraping against stone somewhere above him pulled Sokka straight out of his musings.

He looked up and in the light of the flare found a man in a long robe and cone-hat crouching on the ceiling.

Sokka blinked, and quickly scanned the room around him. The office was still sideways, the ceiling had once been a wall, the wall to his left had once been a floor, gravity was still pulling things down, and how was this guy sitting on the new ceiling?!

The man peered down with an expression like a tundra-hawk's. "Are you Sokka of the Southern Water Tribe?"

Sokka blinked. "Yes! Yes, I am! Did Aang and Katara send you?"

"I'm not at liberty to say." The man's face was about as expressive as Mai's. "Do you require assistance?"

Sokka shrugged as carefully as he could to avoid stressing his broken rib. "If you don't have anything better to do."

The man nodded once and then dropped down from the ceiling straight onto Sokka’s head. He tried to get out of the way but the man was reaching for him and then stone hands clamped down on his throat and he tried to fight back but his head became heavy and the light of flare receded into oblivion.
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Loopy
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« Reply #131 on: Jul 18, 2016 05:51 pm »



Mai looked up to see Ty Lee grinning down at her in the torchlight. She groaned, reached up with a trembling hand, and was quickly grabbed and pulled the rest of the way to solid ground.

"Well," Mai said as she collapsed on the floor, "that was kind of terrible."

And it truly had been. Back down in the prison, she had sent Ty Lee to climb out with the torch to see if she could find a way to safety that didn't involve falling into muddy rapids. That had left Mai sitting in absolute darkness with the Airbender nuns, and while she had been tempted to start a conversation about their reaction to Ty Lee, her inability to see who she would be talking to had made her even less eager to converse with other human beings than normal. So instead she listened to the nuns talk amongst themselves, using names like Heni and Keiki and Ipo and Anahira and Vea and Ulani and whatever. Eventually, Ty Lee came back and described the grueling climb that would allow them to make their way down and around the prison building (which had fallen to wedge in a brand new mini-sinkhole-within-the-big-sinkhole), and up into the main chamber.

The only good news had been the confirmation that no soldiers had stuck around to see if anyone in the prison survived.

So they had all climbed by the light of a single dying torch. The Airbenders were practiced enough with their new elements to make some rather effective giant leaps, but Mai had been forced to climb up the old fashioned way. Ty Lee had helped, of course, but now that Mai was back on solid ground, she realized that she was done.

Or, more accurately, her body was done. Her limbs were so weak she doubted she could throw a knife further than her own toes even if she had any blades left. Every inch of her was sore and tender from the various falls and beatings she had taken. She had a headache, and of course she was just filthy. It was just as well that she had cut up her green robe because it was probably a lost cause after everything else, and not doing up her hair anymore was seeming like a better decision every second.

Mai just plain had no more fight in her.

And now Ty Lee and Matagi and all the other nuns were looking at her for the next step in her daring escape plan.

Mai sighed, but it was lost in the noise of the rushing water coming from the pit behind her. "We can't stay down here. We need to find a ramp and do our best to stay out of sight of the local traffic." Speaking of the local traffic, Mai wondered if the Fire Nation had bothered to evacuate Sokka. Was he even alive, or had whatever was killing the sinkhole killed him, too? She could only imagine meeting up with Katara again, passing on his last message, and noting that the last she had seen him was at the bottom of the Sinkhole of Doom.

Matagi looked at the other Airbenders and stepped forward in the torchlight. "And if we're able to find a way up, what then? We saw when we were led into the fortress that the Fire Nation has defenses stretching all around the sinkhole. Do you know a way past them?"

The question made Mai want to burst into tears, but she kept her face blank. "One step at a time. I might have allies outside waiting for us." She got moving before Matagi could ask any more questions.

Ty Lee quickly trotted up beside her. "Do you really? I thought you said-"

"I’m not inconsiderate like Sokka," Mai interrupted. "So I’m letting you know right now that there’s a possibility I’m going to have to leave the nuns in your care. I might need to take care of some things, things only I can do. If that happens, will there be a problem with you taking command of the nuns?"

Ty Lee looked away. "They don’t seem to like me anymore."

Nothing else was said, and Mai let it be.

The journey across the bottom of the sinkhole was the longest walk of Mai's life. Or so it seemed. The sinkhole continued to shake as they went, and the damage that had already been wreaked by the seismic activity had turned the whole area into a wasteland. None of the land was flat anymore. New streams and geysers had dampened the place up considerably. Some buildings had sunk like the prison, leaving behind gurgling holes, while others were covered with debris. Some of the wreckage looked like it came from the fortress towers that had risen above the rest of installation. Mai felt even more tired at the thought that Sokka's dead body might be buried in some of that debris. For all Mai knew, she was the last member of their little group still alive.

For all she knew, she'd soon be joining them.

The thought lodged in her mind and wouldn't go away. She had faced death many times already, not the least of which was when she had been ready to sacrifice herself for Aang's survival after Crescent Island had erupted, but at least that had been her choice. This situation now just seemed like the culmination of a thousand mistakes, a marathon of bad judgement that looked just enough like a workable situation to keep her going until she finally reached a dead end. She continued to lead the others across the sinkhole floor, but her walk was more like a continuous stumble, and she was pretty sure that if she stopped, she'd fall to the ground and never get back.

So she kept going, and nearly died when the ground beneath her shifted, collapsing and dumping her into freefall.

It happened so fast, and her body was so sluggish, that she never had time to react. She just fell with a gasp, plummeting into darkness. She had only enough time to register the sound of more rushing water somewhere below when the air around her came alive, slowing her fall and pushing her into a lazy drift. Then strong but thin arms wrapped around her waist and a body was pressed against hers while the air shifted direction. It was almost like being back in Aang's arms, riding the winds with on the ash-filled winds of Crescent Island, and her savior even kicked off a wall in a similar way to gain altitude.

Mai closed her eyes and wondered if she had in fact died, and Aang was the one sent to carry her into the reincarnation cycle.

Then she landed with a jolt on cold hard ground, and the pain convinced her that such a mercy had not been granted.

Mai opened her eyes and looked around. The nuns were gathered and Matagi was holding the torch. Mai was back on the sinkhole's main floor, and there was a new pit beside her that she had apparently fallen into. One of the nuns must have caught her, which was unusually quick thinking but-

-but-

-Mai turned around to look at the person whose arms were still around her waist, and found herself gazing into goldish-gray eyes that were all too familiar.

Despite her exhaustion, Mai's mind snapped into motion: Ty Lee's secret, the shame she had displayed, the promise that she would never betray her friends, the worry that she would be considered a monster… it all made sense now.

"First Fire," Mai hissed at Ty Lee. "You're an Airbender."

TO BE CONTINUED
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« Reply #132 on: Aug 15, 2016 08:28 pm »

Good riddance to the sinkhole!




Raise Up the New

Zhao blinked.

He had just seen an armored sky bison smash straight down through the metal shutter covering the sinkhole and somehow survive the process.

Silence descended upon the soldiers around him, and he could see that all movement had stopped on the other side of the sinkhole. Tiankeng Fortress's surface-level defenses were designed to repel attackers coming from around or above the sinkhole; they had nothing up here on the surface that could now be aimed into the sinkhole's interior, where the Avatar and who-know-how-many allies were free to collect the captured Airbenders and anyone else still down there.

That brought Zhao out of his shock. He could not lose those prisoners. "Get in there," he shouted to his soldiers, "and keep those Airbenders underground!"

As they moved out, Zhao hung back and watched to see what the rest of fortress defenders were going to do. He commanded the specific marines detached by Prince Admiral Iroh for this special mission, but all the other soldiers in the fortress were free to follow other orders. They had no reason to keep the Avatar alive.

Zhao, on the hand, did- even if he only had his suspicions as to why Iroh wanted the Avatar to remain an active threat.

He grabbed one of the colonels before she could run off and hissed, "Remember our orders. If we have to attack our countrymen in order to follow those orders, then we cannot hesitate. Do you understand?"

The colonel's eyes went wide only for a moment, and then she got control of herself and nodded.

Zhao let her go and looked to see if there was a tank nearby he could commandeer. Until it came to the point where he had to order an attack on the Fire Army, he intended to help pour fire down into that sinkhole.

And if it did come to an attack, his soldiers knew what to do.

There was no reason for him to stick around and deal with the consequences.



Fire and spears and arrows and chains all rained down into the sinkhole, but Ty Lee only had eyes for her pursuer, the bald boy in saffron clothes with the big blue arrow on his head. He scowled as he flew through the air towards her, carried by winds that responded to him like music under the command of a conductor.

He was a true Airbender.

The Avatar.

And he apparently wanted to smack Ty Lee silly.

She had tried to run, but he had followed. She had jumped out to the twisted, hanging wreckage of the ceiling that used to cover the sinkhole- the edges of it still clinging to the rock but the center having been ripped open by a swooping sky bison- but he had leapt after her. He would not be denied. He had crashed into an underground fortress in order to reach his fellow Airbenders, and now he was putting his house in order.

Mother Malu had called Ty Lee a traitor, and the Avatar had responded like an attack dog. Mai had said that she was working for him against the Fire Nation, and as much as Ty Lee loved her, Mai was not a nice person. So what did the Avatar employ her to do?

Mai had said she was having a rough year. Her normal fastidiousness had been worn away by experiences that had turned her aura black, and there had been no flashes of happier colors when she mentioned her allies.

The Avatar might be Ty Lee's only chance to find a new home now that she had been gifted (cursed?) with Airbending, but so far he did not seem like a very nice person, either.

She hoped she could stop him without hurting him too much.

She hoped she could stop him at all.

The Avatar landed on the same wide metal slat as Ty Lee, and he had barely touched one foot down before he kicked out to the side with the other and flicked a steel pole into the air in front of him. As the second foot touched down he grabbed the pole with both hands and spun it like a staff into a guard position, all without fully stopping. He shifted into a light run that barely disturbed the slat beneath his feet, charging at Ty Lee and readying his makeshift staff for a strike.

She raised her arms and squeezed her hands into fists. She was a Weapon of the Fire Nation, and would prove it again today.

Ty Lee let the Avatar strike first, waiting for him to swing one end of the staff into a quick strike at her feet. She hopped over that, and as expected found he following that up with another attack, a thrust with the other end at her center line that she curled around before throwing herself into a butterfly twirl over the pole that got her clear of it. The Avatar followed without hesitation, spinning the staff in front of him before directing it into a strike at her head from the right. It moved with enough speed that she knew attempting to block with any part of her body would result in broken bone, so instead she shifted her weight and slumped so that she was no longer in the staff's direct path.

As it passed over her with an ear-splitting whistle, she smacked at its underside with her right forearm to send it arcing wildly upward. She took the opportunity to throw a left-punch in at the center line of the Avatar's chest and set up for a right, but he kept control of his weapon and used the momentum of the part that had missed her to bring the other end around to smack both punches off course with quick swipes.

Ty Lee twirled away even as the Avatar did the same, and they orbited each other for a brief moment. She tried to shove in with her left shoulder, but he leaned back and lifted his right leg high enough to catch her, and then kicked out like a coiled spring to send her sailing up into the air.

But Ty Lee was at home in the air. Maybe not as much as him, but it was still her friend. She tucked into a ball with enough force to spin herself around, and when she struck another hanging slat, it was with flat feet and tucked legs, and she jumped off with her own spring-like power, shooting back at the Avatar. He had come to a stop by then and yelped at her sudden return before lifting his staff horizontally above his head in a last-ditch defense.

She could work with that. She reached out as she came down on him and grabbed the staff with both her hands, and then swung her legs up to spin her around like she was on a trapeze bar. She spun around the staff until she landed standing back-to-back with the Avatar, and then yanked with all her strength to lift him up and throw him over her head.

He cried out and fell down into the wide empty center of the sinkhole, still holding his stick.

Ty Lee jumped right in after him.

Part of her wondered what she was doing, continuing the offensive like this, but she told that part to be quiet and go sit in the corner. She had to show her strength, if she was going to avoid persecution without end. It was what she had learned from a lifetime of being hated for seeking uniqueness: unless people knew you would hit back, they wouldn't hesitate to beat you into submission or death, whichever came first.

That's what the Fire Nation had done to the Air Nation, a century ago. No doubt that was what the Air Nation had wanted to do to the Fire Nation first.

The Avatar slowed his own fall with his Airbending, the winds making his orange shawl snap and flutter like it was a crazed animal trying to escape. Ty Lee swung her arms forward to summon her own wind, a new skill she had taught herself since becoming a Bender, speeding herself towards her opponent. She crashed into him hard enough to make them both gasp, but she grabbed onto his staff with one hand and pulled herself close enough to throw a punch with the other.

When her fist connected with his body, she realized she had made a mistake; she missed the Qi point she had been aiming at. He threw a backhand at her head, but he encountered the same problem she had. Tumbling like this, buffeted by the air and twisting around the staff, they were moving too much to fight with any precision.

So they proceeded to fight with no precision at all.

Punches and kicks and smacks and shoves and pokes and chops and elbows were exchanged in a flurry, a dozen blows going back and forth in the space of a second. They fought a whole war in the time it took them to fall three stories and land on one of the wide ramps bolted to the side of the sinkhole. They both lost their grip on the staff with the first impact and went skipping in separate directions as the staff clattered away on its own trip.

Ty Lee managed to turn her motion into a roll and came to a stop in a crouching defensive stance, but her brain hadn't caught up with the rest of her body and when she opened her eyes the world was still spinning. She shook her head, trying to make the dizzy go away and come back another day, but instead she became conscious of waves of pain sweeping in with the languid fury of the tides as her body complained about everything she had just put it through.

Owie.

Jumping after enemies she had thrown down a sinkhole was a bad idea.

Ty Lee shook her head again and the world finally stopped doing loopy-loops around her. Her eyes focused again and she saw that the Avatar was getting to his feet a short distance away. She sprang into a leap that would cover that distance, and threw another set of punches even as she landed right in front of him. He cried out with an, "Whooooaaaaa!" as he stumbled backwards, but she followed, keeping up her attack. He jerked and twitched as he stumbled, his eyes locked on her fists the whole time, and then he clapped his hands together to produce an explosion of air.

The gust was strong enough to knock Ty Lee back, and she couldn't help but give a, "Waaaaah!" as she went flying to land on her butt.

As she got to her feet and rubbed the sore spot, she resolved to figure out how to do that one.

Then she heard a rapid movement of air, almost like the propeller of a large ventilation unit, and looked up to see the Avatar riding a spinning ball of dusty wind straight at her.

She leaped high enough to reach the next ramp above her, grabbed the edge, swung herself up to curl so that her feet were propped up against the ramp's thick side, and then jumped out across the sinkhole again. If he had to ride around the whole edge of the gap to get to her, she'd have time to figure out how to deal with his approach.

Instead, pushing herself over the vast space with a wind summoned by her outstretched arms, she looked down and saw that the Avatar's little scooter-thing was carrying him around fast enough to get to the other side ahead of her.

Ty Lee bit her lip and clenched her fists. She couldn't change her course now.

The Avatar reached the other side, executed a quick turn on his air-ball, and rode it into a leap that would take him up and out to meet her in mid-air.



Katara was in a hole in the ground, in a pit where the Fire Nation had built another of its engines of destruction, a dark place where a new nation had been locked away to wither.

She felt like she had come home.

She could leave her borrowed hat back in Appa's saddle as she leaped out to join the battle, and ignore the glimpse of the sky visible through the torn metal ceiling. It was a bright but distant thing that could have been a painting on a solid ceiling for all it mattered right now.

The Airbender nuns had been surrounded by Fire Nation soldiers when she had joined Long Feng's Earthbenders in battle. Katara’s waterskins were full of the same water that had nearly collapsed a cave on top of her, and she unleashed it in defense of the nuns before she even landed. She focused on protecting the women, dousing any fireballs flying in their direction and flinging icicles to block more solid weapons, while the Earthbenders took on the Fire Army directly. After all, they didn't need to conserve their element; they were surrounded by it.

Katara had used to watch the Earthbenders in Haru's village, had seen how they moved and sparred. What Long Feng's followers did was similar in certain ways, but very different in how it looked. In place of the grand, powerful movements were quicker, snapping gestures. Instead of boulders, these Earthbenders threw fist-sized stones. When it came to a choice between defense and offense, they went on the attack every time.

It wasn't until all the enemies within the sinkhole were defeated that Katara realized what their fighting style reminded her of- the Fire Army itself.

They fought like Firebenders.

But they were Bending Earth, and wearing green. That was what was important, what allowed Katara to differentiate in the chaos of battle.

Then that part of the fighting was over, all enemies were down, and it was time to prepare for an escape. Too bad there were more Firebenders outside the sinkhole throwing fire down through the tear in the ceiling.

Katara ran over to the nuns, now clustered together against the wall, and waved her hands. "Hey, we need to get out of here! Everyone onto the sky bison."

That caught their attention. She heard chattering, and even a gasp of, "It is a sky bison!" Some of the Earthbenders pulled protective walls out of the sides of the sinkhole while other threw rocks back up at the Fire Army, and Long Feng was directing them to form a continuous cover over to where Appa waited.

Katara turned back to the Airbenders. "This isn't going to be easy. Appa- the sky bison- can't carry too much weight, and there's only so much room in the saddle. But we have rope waiting, so we need you to use it to anchor yourselves to the holes in the saddle's side, and when we take off, you'll have to use your Airbending to make yourselves lighter. Can you all do that?"

The nuns made sounds of affirmation, and one of them stepped forward. "We can. I am Sister Matagi. You are with the Avatar?"

Katara nodded. "And we have Mother Malu in the saddle waiting for you. Now, you all need to move-"

"I saw the Avatar chase Ty Lee into the depths of the sinkhole. He needs to be stopped. Ty Lee is not a friend, but neither is she an enemy right now."

"But-" Katara looked at the nuns, and they were all nodding. "But Mother Malu said she was the traitor, the one who-"

Sister Matagi cut Katara off with a wave of her hand. "I have no time for this. If you will not stop the fight, I will do so. Sisters, follow the Waterbender." Then she jumped, a leap that no normal person ever could have managed, sailing up and then swooping down the center of the sinkhole.

Katara tried to call out after her, but then shook her head. There was nothing she could do now. Aang would have to handle it. She grabbed the nearest nun and guided the older woman behind the cover that the Earthbenders were maintaining, moving towards Appa, but then the platform beneath her shook, and one of the large stone walls ahead crumbled, allowing a fireball to arc through the defenses and splash down on the platform.

The fire had not yet gone out before the platform began tilting.

"The sinkhole’s structure is collapsing," Long Feng shouted. "We have to leave now."

Katara nodded, threw her water forward to form a wall of ice that would continue to protect the escaping Airbenders, and hurried them all along.

She had no sooner reached Appa with the first wave of escapees when one whole side of the sinkhole- a shard the size of a palace- broke off and fell into the darkness.
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« Reply #133 on: Aug 15, 2016 08:29 pm »



Aang had never actually fought an Airbender before.

Sure, he had sparred against his fellow monks, and got into arguments with the other kids. He had even participated in a formal debate as part of a visit to the Northern Air Temple, something that had turned a boring lesson about some controversial bit of bison-herding history into a fun event.

But now he was locked in a brawl with the Airbender Traitor girl, and he wasn't sure he was going to win.

She was definitely a novice when it came to Airbending. Her fighting style was already heavily focused on dodging and jumping, but it lacked the fundamental circularity of the monks' Baguazhang style. Yet she was still defending against all of Aang's attacks and her punches moved with such speed and force that they made the air snap. She had an attack drive completely unlike anything he had encountered when sparring with his friends, and also a capacity for movement and retreat that no Firebender ever could have managed.

That's why he was trying to keep her up in the air.

Having cut off her latest jumping retreat with the speed of his air-scooter, Aang was now leaping up to meet her in the center of the sinkhole. He coiled his right leg, and waited until they passed each other to snap out a kick that struck with a burst of Airbending.

The Traitor used her own Bending to spin herself in midair, taking the kick with a forearm block that transformed the force of the blow into more spinning and even used the Airbending strike that came with it to gain some height on her leap.

And then Aang was sailing past her, landing on the opposite side of the sinkhole. He was as far from victory as he was from the Traitor.

And he still didn't know what she had done to Mai and Sokka.

Aang was about summon another air-scooter when everything around him shook and groaned, and the platform beneath his feet fell along with the whole wall it was attached to.

He was barely able to jump in time, instinct driving him into the center of the sinkhole again.

And of course he found the Traitor already in the middle of her own jump in pursuit of him, the surprised expression on her face revealing that she had not been expecting to see him returning to meet her for another joust, never mind find herself now heading towards a disaster area in the making instead of a safe landing.

Even so, she punched out again as Aang passed her, but he puffed out his cheeks and blew down with a burst of Airbending that popped him up and over her. As soon as Aang landed on the sinkhole's far side, he turned and watched to see if the Traitor would survive.

He hoped she did. He hated her, but he didn't want another Airbender to die ever again.

And his eyes went wide as the Traitor did indeed land on a platform just before it fell away with its supporting piece of wall, but she leaped straight up to another falling platform and then jumped again to a piece of falling stone and she was running and jumping up a collapsing wall.

Aang summoned an air-scooter and hopped on. He aimed it straight at the closest stable wall, pumping enough speed into his travel so that instead of crashing, a quick shift of weight was enough to race straight up the wall. Gravity pulled at him, slowing him, so he eased into that pull and let it guide his air-scooter into a spiral up the walls of the sinkhole, curving his path back towards the Traitor and the collapsing stone while maintaining enough speed to keep from falling.

He wasn't sure what he was trying to accomplish, whether he was going to save her or attack her, but he just knew that he needed to get close.

And even though she was busy running up a series of falling rocks no bigger than her head, feet barely touching each one before pushing off with just enough power to kick the stone downward even faster and propel herself to the next one in line, she had enough spare attention and energy to grab for Aang as soon as he reached her, clinging to him and pressing herself against his back as he sped on his way.

Whatever he had been expecting, it wasn't that. Panic seized him at finding her on top of him and wrapping her arms around his neck, and he twisted to try to get out of her grasp, unbalancing him atop his scooter and falling prey to that annoying gravity again so that he fell into his own tornado ball.

Aang endured a chaotic moment of being spun and tumbled along with the Traitor until he had no sense of direction whatsoever, and then the ball of wind collapsed and spat him out with speeds not unlike Appa's sneezes.

He liked to think it was his skill that made sure he wound up flying upward, but he wasn't that good at lying.

He and the Traitor crashed together through wrecked scaffolding and support structures, and he knew they'd find no safety here. "Push against the wall," he growled, and threw his hands in that direction to unleash all the Airbending power he could muster.

Something about that reached the Traitor clinging to him, and she let go off his neck with one arm and threw her own palm strike at the crumbling wall at the same time to let loose with a burst of wind.

And so they shot themselves out into open space, to the other side of the sinkhole, and crashed together on a stable platform.

Aang and the Traitor girl hugged each other before shoving apart and attacking again.

The Traitor tried to hit him with a left arrow fist, but this time Aang was ready for it, taking a half step that moved him out of the way just enough but still keeping him close enough so that he could wrap his right arm around her extended limb and trap it. She tried to use her free fist to punch at his right shoulder, but Aang slapped up with his own free hand to knock the attack out of the way-

-and that's when the Traitor swept at his feet with her left leg, hooking him and twisting him off balance so that he lost his grip on her and they both crashed to the floor.

As they were getting to their feet again, a woman in torn robes of white and gold- so like those of Mother Malu- appeared between them from above, her landing softened by winds that Aang knew all too well. He and the Traitor both looked to the new arrival.

And then the nun raised both of her arms to poke Aang and the Traitor hard right on their foreheads.

Aang plopped right back down the floor, and he heard the Traitor do the same. "Ow," he grunted. "Why did you do that?"

The nun looked down without a trace of sympathy. "I am Sister Matagi, helper to Mother Malu, and both of you are acting like cranky children. You are not enemies. The Avatar is the guardian of balance, and Ty Lee is many things but no ally to the Fire Nation right now. You two will stop fighting this instant or so help me I will leave you in this sinkhole!"

Aang blinked. "But- but Mother Malu said-"

Sister Matagi poked his head again. "Ty Lee is like family to your friend Mai. She would do nothing to hurt her." Then she turned to the Trait- to Ty Lee and delivered another forehead poke. "And you try talking things out before jumping into a fight."

Aang rubbed his forehead. For the first time in a long time, everything was making sense. Being yelled at by a strict nun was a sign that all was finally right in the world.

The guilty feeling in his chest over the enormity of his mistake was all too familiar, as well.



Ty Lee rubbed her forehead and bowed as well as she could while sprawled on the floor in a show of remorse and obedience. "I'm sorry, Sister Matagi. I guess I panicked."

The nun nodded with only the slightest trace of satisfaction. "Good. Now, we must leave. The sinkhole is collapsing, and the others should be ready to flee now."

"What," the Avatar said as he stood up, "about Mai and Sokka? I haven't seen them, and I thought- we need to take them with us!"

Sister Matagi shook her head. "Your friend Mai went to investigate something before the Fire Nation attacked us again. I have not seen her since. I know nothing of this 'Sokka' but-"

Ty Lee was up on her feet in an instant. "He got captured! He pushed me and Mai off a roof and told us to free the Airbenders and then Zhao's soldiers got him! I hope-" She shook her head, needing more than hope right now. "He had to have been taken along when the Fire Army evacuated the sinkhole." She looked over to the Avatar, and found his big eyes welling with tears. "I'm sorry. He didn't give us choice, and I don't know where he could be now. Him or Mai." Ty Lee felt her own eyes starting to water. After the insult she had given Mai by not trusting her, now she had let her friend be captured by the Fire Nation, too.

Sister Matagi's finger jammed into Ty Lee's forehead again. "No crying! We have to leave, and you can rescue your friends another day." She grabbed Ty Lee's arm with one hand and the Avatar's with the other, and leaped.

With no choice now, Ty Lee kicked downward to create her own Airbending lift, and she could feel the Avatar doing something even more complicated with motions of his free arm that swirled the air and formed a rising tornado. The three of them sped up through the sinkhole, getting closer to the sunlight spearing down through the wrecked ceiling to reveal the war that was being fought at the top levels.

Fire and rock filled the air as Sister Matagi guided their landing to one particular platform where the biggest fuzzy thing Ty Lee had ever seen waited. Easily twice the size of a Fire Army tank, it roared when it saw them with a volume that shook loose more of the sinkhole walls, and Ty Lee was ready to yank her arm free and run away again.

Except the Avatar broke free first, and he ran towards the animal, throwing his arms wide and giving a hug to the creature's massive nose.

Oh.

This must be the sky bison.

Ty Lee instantly wanted to hug it, too.

But Sister Matagi shoved her, saying, "Get aboard," and Ty Lee remembered that there was no time. She ran to the creature and flipped up to its back, where the other nuns were clustered. They were in some kind of a boat-like saddle, most of them pressed as close together as newborn camel-puppies but some hanging off the saddle's sides and even clutching the bison's tail. Ty Lee had no sooner landed on one of the bison's six shoulders than a nun- little Ata- was tying a rope around her waist.

Then the Avatar said something that sounded like, "Yip, yip," and a girl's voice shouted, "Everyone Airbend with all you have!"

And then they flew.

The sky bison rose up out of the sinkhole, riding the winds being generated by all the nuns the way a manatee-lion glides through the ocean depths. Fire and arrows zoomed past them, and Ty Lee could feel the heat of their passage, but the bison's powerful muscles kept it undulating through the air currents with power like a machine press, and the winds being created by all the nuns worked together to sweep most of the attacks off target.

Inspired, Ty Le brought her own hands up, clenched them into her signature arrow fists, one knuckle in the center of each extended for precise application of force, and began shadow-boxing at the incoming flames and arrows. Though her fists struck nothing but empty air, that air responded to her, jabbing out in mimicry of her punches to snap arrows in half and puncture fireballs.

The flight seemed to go on forever, and it might have been the greatest experience of Ty Lee's life. It was like her performances in the circus on the tightropes, except there was no rope, and instead of being by herself above everything, she was part of a team working in tandem to survive.

Eventually, the sky bison left the ground far behind, and the attacks stopped. Ty Lee was free to look down at the world without fear, watching Tiankeng Fortress pass away beneath her. The ugly fortress gave way to rocky landscapes brought to life by luscious green plant-life. It all glowed in the sunlight, and she was so transfixed by this unique perspective on the world that she only noticed that the sky bison was moving through clouds when the moist wisps brushed her skin.

Ty Lee had often wondered what clouds felt like, thinking them like pillows or feathers, but discovering now that they were actually bright mists willing to welcome her with a refreshing embrace almost made her faint from the shock of happiness.

By the time the sky bison landed again, Ty Lee was a sobbing mess. She had gained the sky, but in exchange she had been forced to give up Mai.



The sky bison had no sooner been lost to sight in the sky before Zhao was ordering his soldiers away from Tiankeng Fortress and away from this failure. The Avatar was gone, alive, but the Airbender prisoners had escaped.

Zhao needed to report this to Prince Iroh, needed to deflect blame as much as he could, and get new orders. By the time anyone else identified him as being at fault, he would hopefully have more victories to make up for everything that had happened here.

After all, he certainly hadn’t designed the defenses in the fortress. If two Weapons of the Fire Nation could survive them, then that was hardly his fault. Who kept losing these Weapons, anyway?

Well, Prince Ozai was a good candidate.



It wasn't until they had gotten away from Tiankeng Fortress and landed in a sheltering valley that Katara had been able to ask Aang where her brother was, and his explanation had frozen her blood in her veins. "What do you mean, he was captured?"

Aang looked over to the girl in pink, the supposed Airbender traitor (who turned out actually wasn't or something) where she was curled up on the ground crying. Some of the nuns were trying to console her, but she wasn't responding to any of them.

Aang looked back to Katara. "I'm not sure of the details, but the Tr- Ty Lee said he gave himself up to buy her and Mai time to free the Airbenders. She thinks he's their captive somewhere."

Katara shook her head. That didn't make any sense! "Then why did we leave?!"

"Because-" Aang gave a slow, heavy shrug. "Because we couldn't stay."

Katara reached out and shoved him. He looked at her with wide, surprised eyes as he stumbled back, but she pulled her hat low and refused to accept his lies. "Sure, we had to stay and fly into that hole to save your Airbenders, but when it's my brother, then it's too dangerous!"

He blinked and rubbed his eyes. "That's not how it is. You know that."

"Do I?!"

"I left Mai behind, too. Do you think I don't care about either one?" He blinked again, and a pair of tears ran down his cheeks. "That'd I'd replace any of you?"

And with that, the ice on her heart shattered into wet snow. "Oh, Aang." She let him draw her into a hug, and kept murmuring, "I'm sorry," until she thought he might believe it.

As they waited for Long Feng and his Earthbenders to meet them- there hadn't been room on Appa for everyone, and it made sense for Earthbenders to be the ones to make their way through the tunnels- they took care of the survivors. Appa was relieved of his saddle and allowed to nap, after all the weighed-down flying he had done. As Momo flew around and hunted bugs, Katara and Aang tried to make the Airbender nuns comfortable. Katara healed any injuries they had, and all the camping supplies and blankets were laid out for everyone to rest on.

Mother Malu had laughed and greeted each of her sisters one by one.

Meanwhile, Katara was the first to approach Ty Lee.

The Airbender 'traitor' was probably really cute, Katara decided, when her face wasn't smeared with tears and snot and mud, and her hair wasn't a tangled wet mess hanging in a half-escaped ponytail. "Are you okay? Do you have any injuries?"

Ty Lee had stopped crying a while ago, but she still blinked at Katara's question as if she only had one ear in reality. "What?"

"Are you hurt? I'm a Waterbender healer. I can help you."

Ty Lee shook her head and then lowered it into her hands.

Katara sat down next to the other girl. "Sister Matagi told us all about what happened in the sinkhole. That you helped everyone, and what good friends you are with Mai." She left out how Matagi had also shared her views of Ty Lee's past. Katara didn't exactly approve of all of Ty Lee's life choices, but neither had she approved of Mai's. What was important to her right now was the decision and ability to change. "We're not clear on some of the details. What really happened after Zhao's troops came for you all?"

Ty Lee raised her head just enough to look at Katara with wet eyes. "I tried to stop him. I really did. I told the soldiers who I was and tried to intimidate them. You know, how royalty would do it, or those other girls from the Academy? But it didn't work. They didn't hurt me, but they took me and brought me to Zhao. He was worried about politics stuff because of my family and me being a Weapon, but he still locked me up. I thought if I hid my Airbending, then maybe Princess Azula would get me freed, and I could maybe ask for the nuns to be set free, too, but- but-" She lowered her head again, and her next words were muffled. "But I'm a stupid airhead who doesn't understand how anything works. I just get my friends hurt and killed. Like the circus. Like- Like M- M-" Ty Lee's next breath came out like a sob.

Katara leaned over, put an arm around the other girl, and said, "Hey, you might not be the brightest, but that's no call for using slurs."

Ty Lee looked up again, confusion evident on her face. "Huh?"

"You know, 'airhead?' And you're an Airbender. No need to be like that."

Ty Lee blinked.

Katara smiled.

Ty Lee blinked again. "That was terrible."

"I know. My brother is really the one who makes the jokes. I hope we get him back soon."

Finally, Ty Lee smiled back. "I'll help you save him. He's one of the most generous people I've ever met. I don't think he even really liked Mai or me, but he risked himself to save us. And if he's funny, too, then I definitely want him around." Her smiled turned a little sharp.

Katara put on an expression of mock sternness. "Hey, my brother is off-limits to circus acrobats. He deserves a girl with a much more boring job."

Ty Lee giggled.

Katara angled her hat back a little, satisfied. She might not be able to help Sokka right now, but she could at least make people feel a little better.

And if that resulted in another Weapon of the Fire Nation on their side, and a new team capable of rescuing Sokka and Mai and then saving the world, then that was great, too.
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Loopy
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« Reply #134 on: Aug 15, 2016 08:30 pm »



Aang quickly gathered everyone once Long Feng and the other Earthbenders arrived at their little sanctuary, but the word was not good.

"We found no one else in the sinkhole," Long Feng said, sitting down on a stone he had raised from the ground, "so we finished collapsing it and retreated. The Fire Army was already pulling back when that first wall went down, so they escaped with few casualties beyond what they suffered during our battle. So I consider it likely that your friends are still out there, somewhere, safe but captive."

Aang supposed that was good news. "Then how do we find them? Once Appa is rested, we could go back and try to sneak into whatever camps they have set up, and-"

"Avatar," Long Feng interrupted, "you have to understand the reality of how this works. With their fortress gone, the Fire Nation will be angry and cautious. They'll expect you to come back, and they'll already have moved the prisoners to safe locations. Even now, reinforcements are probably on their way, and news of the loss of the fortress is already spreading across the world on the Army's telegraph lines. I'm sorry, but there is no easy solution to this."

Aang looked to Katara, and then to Ty Lee. He saw similar hurt expressions on both their faces, hurt that echoed the twisting in his own gut. "So you're saying we can do nothing."

And then Long Feng actually smiled. "Now might be a good time to become better acquainted, Avatar. My Earthbenders and I aren't just unusually capable rebels. We were once the elite protectors of Ba Sing Se's culture. When the city fell, we escaped, and we took all of our skills and intelligence with us. Our secondary objective today was to destroy Tiankeng Fortress, but our primary goal was the acquisition of certain intelligence. Finding things out, you might say, is our specialty. We are the Dai Li."

Aang felt a slow grin creeping up on his face. "So you're saying you can find out what happened to Mai and Sokka."

Long Feng nodded. "The Fire Nation will be sloppy, after the loss of their fortress. My people will be listening, and hunting down the specific information you want. However, this will take some time. The Dai Li do not rush things, and that is why we have survived and thrived. That's how we maintained order in Ba Sing Se throughout the war. So I want you and your friends to rest, to figure out what you can do while we wait for news. And on that note, I am hoping that you can help me with a little project."

That sounded reasonable. Just camping out would get boring fast, and Sokka and Mai would want them to keep trying to make the world a better place, he was sure. "What project?"

Long Feng leaned forward, and spoke in an intense whisper. "I'm sure you've felt how wrong the world has gone, since the war ended. Ashlands filled with ghosts, reports of monsters from legend, sickness amongst people forced to leave their ancestral homes- the world is suffering for the Fire Nation's greed."

Aang nodded. This was exactly what Roku had told him about, what he had been trying to find ways to fix. Guru Pathik had tried to teach him how, but that had just ended in tragedy. And sure, it was great that there were more Airbenders in the world, but Aang wasn't sure how that was supposed to actually fix stuff like evil ghosts.

Long Feng said, "Amongst the culture of Ba Sing Se were writings, the old lore of the Avatars and the Earth Kingdom's greatest shamans. The Dai Li rescued those writings from the city's fall, and I think I've found a way to restore things."

"Restore?"

"To take the haunted ashland that Ba Sing Se has become and save it. To free the ghosts back to the reincarnation cycle, or maybe even restore them to life! After all, the ash is just another form for their lost bodies. Who knows what heights we can achieve with the right materials and the rituals I have found?"

Aang blinked. Restore ghosts to life? That sounded impossible, sounded bizarre. But Long Feng was saying it was only one possibility; he was just speculating, really. Putting the ghosts in the ashlands to rest sounded more manageable, and exactly what Aang was trying to do. "What kind of materials do you need?"

"The reason I came to Tiankeng Fortress was because of that Commander Zhao who has given you repeated trouble. He oversaw the mining of platinum at the South Pole, and even as he's chased you, he's received regular reports about the Fire Nation's platinum assets. One of my agents recovered a report about deliveries to a certain storehouse, and a significant amount of platinum that we can liberate for our own purposes. You see, the metal is-"

"I know how special platinum is," Aang interrupted. "It does strange things to spirit energy. The Fire Nation is using it to hunt spirit creatures, and my friend Mai used a platinum knife to fight-" He couldn't stop a wince from overtaking him as he remembered the Airbender undead they had encountered at the Southern Air Temple. "She fought unnatural enemies."

Long Feng leaned back and nodded. "Exactly, Avatar. So will you help me, while I help you find and rescue your friends?"

Aang looked to Katara. She nodded and said, "When we bring Sokka back, I want to show him a better world. I'm in."

Aang was going to agree and pledge himself to Long Feng, but then he remembered the other person standing nearby. The Airbender from the Fire Nation. The girl he had almost hurt. A stranger who might be a powerful ally, or might be a profound disappointment. He looked over to Ty Lee and said, "What about you?"

Ty Lee startled, as if she had thought no one knew she was there. "You want me to help steal this platinum metal? To fix the ashlands?"

Aang nodded. "You see, the Fire Nation-"

"I'm in."

Aang paused before he could explain anything. "You are? Just like that?"

Ty Lee hugged herself and nodded. "I lived with the nuns in an ashland for a while, remember? I want to help you bring peace to those voices. For so long I've just been concerned about- about bringing balance to myself. I didn't care about anything else. I just ignored the war. But I've always known that the Fire Nation has some things wrong. It's why the other Airbenders all hate me." She blinked, and blushed. "I think it's why you hate me, Avatar. I don't want to hurt the people of the Fire Nation, but I want to start doing what I can to help the ones they've hurt."

Aang was going to say that of course he didn't hate anyone, but opened his mouth to speak and then stopped. He had kind of hated Ty Lee when he saw her in the sinkhole. And that hate had nearly made him hurt this confused girl who now wanted to help him. "Okay," he said at last. "I think that will be good for all of us."

Long Feng eyed Ty Lee for a moment, and then shrugged. "I thank you all for your help. Now, it's time for us to rest, and then we'll have to see about relocating. I have a base that we can use as shelter. It has room enough for the nuns, and it's close enough to our platinum target."

That sounded good to Aang. It just showed how the world worked- they had lost Mai and Sokka in that sinkhole, had suffered and nearly died, but they had emerged with both the beginnings of a revived Air Nation and capable new friends who could help Aang in his quest. The world never took without giving, never gave without taking.

And the Air Nomads had taught how to both receive and let go.

But that didn't mean he couldn't find his friends again someday.

The world could count on that.



Sokka was becoming an expert on waking up in dark caves after a beating, and he was not happy about it.

Nor was he happy about the chains around his wrists and ankles, or the fact that when he followed those chains with his hands, he found them sunk deep into stone floor as thought they had been dunked into liquid, and then the liquid hardened into stone.

Nor did he have any affection for the fact that when he called out, "Helloooooooo," his voice echoed in a way that told him the walls and ceiling formed little more than a closet around him.

He was almost happy when a light appeared in front of him, revealing a small barred window in the door of what was apparently his prison cell. But then a man's face appeared in that light on the other side of the bars, the face of the man who had knocked Sokka out in Zhao's office rather than providing a normal rescue like normal people did. The man wore a cone hat with a gold spike at the top, and the man's hands were encased in what looked like segmented stone gloves.

"Hello," the man said. "You just make yourself comfortable. You have a long stay ahead of you, and a busy schedule. You and the Fire Nation trash have lots to learn before the two of you can go back to the Avatar."

Sokka was definitely not happy to hear that.

Not one slushing bit.

TO BE CONTINUED
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Loopy
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« Reply #135 on: Aug 29, 2016 06:29 pm »

Platinum Raiders

It had been a week since Katara had lost her brother in the sinkhole, and the pain was still sharp in her heart.

She stood now beside a babbling river in a densely-canopied forest, seeking solace in the Waterbending arts but finding nothing. The movements, the philosophy, the stances- all of it was knowledge given to her by Master Hama in the scorching bowels of Crescent Island, whispered from cage to cage and demonstrated when they weren't watched. Katara had trained in Waterbending for years without ever manipulating so much as a drop of liquid, until the day when she at last escaped her imprisonment-

-until the day when Sokka came to rescue her, bringing her a gift of full waterskins and freedom.

Becoming one with the water of this river now, moving it and fighting with it, just reminded Katara of her missing brother all the more.

It didn't help that there was little to distract her, here in this forest. Long Feng had stressed the dangers of this mission, of the desperate need for diligence and timing, but his briefing had utterly failed to prepare her for all the waiting that seemed be necessary before the Dai Li went into action. She had been forced to find her own distractions, but it never pushed away the aching emptiness for long.

Sighing, Katara turned back to her sparring partner. "So how many are there?"

Ty Lee shrugged. "Too many to count. Here, I'll show you."

The two girls had been filling the time by becoming familiar with each other’s fighting styles. They might be fighting as allies soon, and needed to be prepared. Just past this obscuring forest, past Katara's vision where the river met the ocean, a Fire Nation settlement belched smoke and radiated heat. According to Long Feng, it was to that settlement that the Fire Nation was shipping its raw ore from the South Pole and other nearby mines to be melted and cast into ingots. Thankfully, Long Feng's plan didn't require Katara or her friends to infiltrate the settlement or even the forge; she’d had more than enough of Fire Nation installations for a long time, after Tiankeng Fortress.

She had lost more than enough to Fire Nation fortresses already.

But until word came that it was time to put Long Feng's plan into action, there was nothing for Katara to do but wait, practice her Waterbending, be reminded of the brother she had failed, and learn something about the newest Weapon of the Fire Nation to join the Avatar's quest.

Ty Lee stepped over to Katara and grabbed her left arm, and then began tapping spots all up and down the limb. "Here, here, here, and here." She leaned over and moved down to Katara's leg. "Here and here, too. This one is a really good one. And then there's this one, this one, this one, and this one on this side." She stood up again, moved so that she was standing behind Katara, and began tapping up and down her back. "There's lots more spots starting here, here, here, here-"

"Okay, I get the idea" Katara said, hopping away. With each spot Ty Lee had pointed out, she had tapped Katara's skin to illustrate it, and just that much contact had sent shivers racing up through Katara's bones. She couldn't help shuddering, imagining how it would feel to be punched on one of those spots with the kind of strength in Ty Lee's deceptively lean arms. "I never realized there were so many Qi meridians in a body. Can my Waterbending heal the blockage?"

Ty Lee's eyebrows furrowed. "I'm not sure? Your healing works by using a person's Qi to promote the healing right?"

"More or less."

"Then probably not." Ty Lee gave a shrug. "The Qi itself would be disturbed after I hit a meridian, so I don't think your healing could even make use of it until it's restored."

Katara bit her lip. This 'Dim Mak' was a seriously powerful fighting style. It was a good thing it was such a hard skill to learn, or else the Fire Nation wouldn't have needed a hundred years and a comet to conquer the world. "How did you learn to fight like this, anyway?" She moved to the edge of the river and took a Waterbending stance, summoning a small stream to fly up and hover over her outstretched arms, just like she had tried when Sokka first gave her the waterskins.

Ty Lee took her own fighting stance, but didn't close the distance. She was giving Katara a chance to attack first. "Well, there's this hidden temple in the Poison Jungles on Souhou Island that can only be found by the pure-hearted."

"Sure," Katara grunted as she shifted her body and flung her right arm into a slash. The water hovering above the limb snapped forward like the tongue of a turtle-frog, whipping at Ty Lee's feet.

But the acrobat was already dodging with a series of butterfly kicks, chattering the whole time. "A mute master lives in the temple who will give visitors a quest to prove their strength."

"Make sense." Katara rolled forward and crossed her outstretched arms, creating a pincer attack with both ends of her water supply.

"Once you satisfy the quest," Ty Lee said as she crouched under the reaching tentacles and then sprang up in a forward-flipping jump, "the master's teaches by movement alone, since he can't talk."

Katara found Ty Lee landing right in front of her, and tried to summon her water back to form some kind of defense, but it was no use. Katara's belly got an idle poke- no Qi-blocking punch, but just a normal poke like one would use in a tickle attack- that sent her tripping backwards to fall into the river.

When Katara resurfaced, Ty Lee was stretching on the riverbank and immediately returned to her explanation with, "It took me about a whole summer to learn the basics from the master, but he gave me some scrolls to take home with forms to practice. Of course, the writing on the scrolls is only visible after meditating on the swirl of the cosmos for about an hour."

"Of course." Katara spat out some water and climbed back up to dry land. "So how many people have managed to do all that?"

Ty Lee paused in her stretching, and her face pinched into a frown. "Just me and one other person that I know of, another Weapon of the Fire Nation. But not everyone would go out of their way to tell people about those kinds of skills, you know?"

Katara was going to ask about this other Weapon of the Fire Nation, but she was distracted by Aang's sudden arrival. He burst from the thick foliage of the forest to skid to a stop just at the edge of the river.

His gaze was drawn to Ty Lee first, and the excitement on his face faded for a moment. Katara had been training with Ty Lee all week, but Aang had yet to so much as spar with her. And he certainly hadn't trained her to make better use of her Airbending.

But Katara knew all too well the kind of pain Aang had to be feeling around Ty Lee, who was supposed to be Mai's most beloved friend. It wouldn't be all that different from what she felt about Sokka every time she used her Waterbending.

Aang quickly recovered once he turned his gaze to Katara, and the excited light returned to his eyes. "Time to get dressed," he said. "Agent Zhuang says the ship is here."

Katara grinned as she used a quick bit of Waterbending to remove all the dripping water from her skin and wrappings and fling it back into the river. It was time to strike back at the Fire Nation after they took her brother and Mai from her.

They would learn the vengeance of the Water Tribe.



Mai knew what was being done to her. Keeping her in darkness, denying her all contact with other people, not giving her enough food and water to satisfy her hunger, waking her up with loud noises whenever she fell asleep, even keeping her in an underground cell with no access to any timekeeping devices or methods- it was all straight out the handbook for preparing a prisoner for interrogation. Azula had discussed such tactics, and Mai had remembered them in case she ever wound up on the receiving end. The Fire Nation wasn't the only group out there in the business of breaking people.

Unfortunately, it turned out that knowing what was happening didn't stop it from happening, and didn't stop it from driving her crazy.

That thought made Mai laugh, maybe a little too loudly, her body shaking enough to rattle the chains that connected her wrists to the floor. Now she knew how Mother Malu felt. Maybe Katara could restore Mai's sanity, too, with a little helpful Waterbending.

If she ever saw Katara again.

If she ever saw Ty Lee, or Aang, or even Sokka again.

Not for the first time, she found herself suddenly breaking out into sobs. This rattled the chains, too.

When the door opened with a loud scraping sound, Mai was so startled that she screamed. Her heart hammered in her chest so powerfully that she was afraid it was going to burst, and she was left gasping on the floor of her cell as dull, eye-searing green light shone in through the opening, and a man in a spiked cone hat and black robes walked in.

"Who-" Mai panted for more breath before she could continue her question. "Who are you?"

The man said nothing. None of them ever did. He simply leaned over, grabbed Mai's chains where they were sunk into the floor, and lifted them out as if the stone ground itself had suddenly liquefied. Her chains turned out to be a single set of links joining her wrists together, the center having been buried in the floor by an Earthbender.

The man then turned and walked straight out of the cell, never having said a word. The door remained open behind him.

Another tactic: the man wanted Mai to follow him of her own free will, to choose to play his game and submit to his authority. And she knew it was only the illusion of choice, that to remain sitting in her cell until she died wasn't really an option, and the door would remain open for as long as it took her to run out of patience.

Just because she knew what was being done to her didn't mean she could do anything about it.

Mai rose with the clanking of her chains and walked out of her cell.

The man was waiting just outside. The corridor around him was made of the same dark stone as the cell, but out here there were green crystal torches lining the walls at intervals, leading off into the distance. Without a word, the man began walking down the corridor, not even looking back at Mai.

She followed, knowing she had no choice.

The man took a deliberate path through the underground complex, turning with confidence down certain hallways. Mai found all the other paths blocked by other men in the stupid hats and robes, all standing silently and denying her ability to do anything but follow their compatriot. Eventually, her guide came to a stop in a room that seemed to be nothing more than a larger copy of her empty cell in construction. A stone chair rose up out of the ground in the back, and some kind of circular metal rigging stood waist-high in the center. No doubt her hosts wanted Mai to sit in the chair and watch a show.

Instead she spun and whipped her chains to her guide's face.

But he was ready for that, no expression on his face as he caught the chains with a single hand covered in segmented black stone, and then the ground itself was moving beneath Mai's feet to spin her around, the speed of it whipping her own chains to wrap around her.

She continued to struggle, but in short order was made to sit in the chair. The man used his Earthbending to turn the segments of his gloves into binding for Mai's arms and head, and then he took a position at the center of the metal rigging.

Another goofball in the robes and hat brought a lantern with old-fashioned, warm candlelight inside of it. The lantern fit neatly into the metal track, and then her guide set it into motion with a wave of his hands. The light moved around him as his friend left, the motion steady and boring.

It went on like that for a while, and Mai grew sleepy. She knew she needed to stay awake, that this was probably part of some kind of crazy Earth Kingdom interrogation, and her mental health was in great danger in this room, perhaps more than even in her cell.

"You ash-lickers," she growled as loudly as she could to chase away the eerie silence, "are all going to die. Someone is going to come for me, and then I'm going to cut my way through every single one of you and mix your blood together."

Her guide didn't react, and the circling lantern didn't stop.

Maybe he knew she was lying.

By the time he began asking questions, she was beyond the ability to hear them clearly, but she nevertheless found herself giving detailed answers.
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Loopy
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« Reply #136 on: Aug 29, 2016 06:30 pm »



Aang felt a little weird, working with a complete plan and even some contingency scenarios.

But the fact that he had just lost two friends showed the need for that level of preparation. Sokka and Mai had been captured by the Fire Nation while he had been stuck underground as the result of a poorly thought-out plan. They were the first two people he had met in this strange new world, two people who he-

-he-

-he cared about. Sokka had been Aang's dedicated friend since they left the South Pole, always loyal and always looking out for everyone. And Mai-

Aang just knew that it hurt to think about her being in the clutches of the nation she betrayed for him. Long Feng had said that Mai was too valuable to the Royal Family to kill, but how could he really know for sure? How could he even be certain that Mai hadn't decided to go down fighting?

But those were questions Aang didn't want answered, so he focused on the here and now, on the wind battering at his face, on the reins in his hands and the sky bison beneath him. He glanced back at Appa's saddle, confirming that the Dai Li agents were all settled. Katara hung over the saddle's side, ready to drop down when they were in position, holding her hat down over her eyes.

And beside Aang on Appa's head, Ty Lee sat waiting.

He looked over at her, and her own gold-ish gray eyes shifted to meet his gaze. There was caution in her gaze, but whether it was for the mission they were about to embark on for Long Feng or something to do with Aang himself was a mystery he wasn't sure he wanted to solve. She was Mai's friend, according to what Aang had been told, and wanted to help his cause now that she was a fellow Airbender. She had been on the receiving end of the Fire Nation's awfulness and, like Mai, wanted to combat its worst elements.

But Aang still couldn't be comfortable around her. He had fought her, thinking her an enemy, and found a foe he couldn't beat. If even Mai could betray him, what could this girl do? Had his initial bad assumptions about her planted the seeds for future betrayal? And what did it mean that one of the Fire Nation's greatest warriors had been given the gift of Airbending?

What did it even mean that Airbending had returned to the world?

Most importantly, what was Aang supposed to do about it?

But he kept those questions in the same place where he kept his worries about Mai, and tried to smile at Ty Lee. "Are you ready?"

She nodded, and leaned down to rub the fur on Appa's head. "This is going to be a dream-come-true, up until we get to the part where I have to fight my countrymen. That part isn't going to be as much fun."

Aang decided to accept that at face value and looked to the waters below.

Appa was flying out over the bay, leaving behind both the forest where they had been hiding for the last week and the settlement they had been hiding from. The bay was a natural formation taking advantage of by the Fire Nation for its defensibility; large stone cliffs circled the bay, leaving one lone entrance just large enough for a cargo ship to sail through safely. One such cargo ship bobbed just outside the entrance now, waiting for the tug boat that would guide it through the walled passage.

The cargo ship's arrival had been what spurred Aang and the Dai Li into action. Their objective, as described by Long Feng, was fairly simple- to steal the whole ship and the platinum in its belly.

The execution would be a little more complex.

"There they are," he said, spotting the two Fire Nation destroyers that guarded this bay from pirates and rebels. Those warships were much faster than any cargo vessel, and so had to be stopped from interfering or giving chase. That part was Aang and Katara's job. He handed the reins to Ty Lee, added a quick, "Good luck," and then jumped straight off of Appa's head.

Behind him, Katara did the same.

Rather than using his Airbending to slow his fall, Aang moved into the same Waterbending form that he knew Katara would be using right now. He focused on the bay water below, calling it to him with gathering motions of his arm, and as a wave rose to catch him, he threw his arms out wide. The water, rather than stopping his fall, embraced it, and Aang straightened his entire body to become like an arrow in flight. He sped through the water, angling so that his plunge would turn into a climb, and he popped back out of the bay with enough speed and force to land skidding on the deck of one of the Fire Nation destroyers.

Katara, he trusted, was having a similar experience. Aang had worked with her to develop this plan, planning out everything they would have to do and refining it with some practice in a lake before they came to the area to wait. Now, they each just had to take out an entire Fire Nation destroyer.

It wasn't even going to be a challenge.

Before the sailors and soldiers on the deck even registered who he really was, Aang was launching himself into an Airbending-assisted run, his right hand stretched out to the edge of the deck as he moved. He couldn't see it, but he could feel the water of the bay responding to that beckoning arm, splashing up to follow even as he plunged into the entrance to tower that held the ship's bridge. People gasped at his movement, and some were quick enough to even try to grab at him, but Aang kept pouring on the speed, knowing exactly where he was going and unafraid get there as fast as possible. The wind of his passage buffeted at everyone who tried to get close, and the spray of water following him cut off any attempt to Firebend at his back. He reached the bridge before the crew even had time to sound an alarm, still trailing an arm's length of bay water.

The bridge crew turned to him in surprise, but they weren't ready for a fight. Aang transformed the momentum of his run into an offensive assault, using fists and feet and bursts of wind to knock everyone out of the fight they didn’t even know was already over.

Then he got down to the important part. He pulled the last of water he had brought with him up off the floor, and swung his whole body in a movement like the blow of an ax. The water responded, thinning and taking on his strength, serving as his blade as he hacked apart all of the bridge controls.

In just a few minutes, the whole bridge was reduced to a storage room for scrap.

By that time, the alarm was not only sounding, but going crazy. Aang could see, through the front viewports, a stream of soldiers towards the tower, and he heard frantic boot-steps on the stairs leading up to the bridge. They thought they had him trapped, and that he wouldn't be able to fight alone against the numbers they were bringing to bear against him.

They were right about the last part. The first part? Not so much.

Aang took a running leap straight through the wide viewport at the front of the bridge, landing in the comforting embrace of the winds to be carried safely on the deck. Two more hops were all that he needed to jump over the ship's side back to the waters of the bay, but this time he didn't let himself sink into them. After all, he had to get over to the cargo ship that Ty Lee and the Dai Li would be stealing right now, and without his glider, the fastest method of travel available right now was a wind-enhanced run.

The water of the bay shot up behind him as he dashed across its surface, and as he moved close to the bay's exit, he saw Katara coming to meet him, speeding away from the other destroyer (which now had some ugly smoke coming from its engine) on a surfboard of ice.

Aang hoped the rest of the mission was going this well.



Ty Lee got to fly the skin bison! Ty Lee got to fly the sky bison!

It was just for a short distance, taking over for Aang after he and Katara jumped off to go sabotage the destroyers, and doing nothing more but keeping Appa steady and then signaling him to land on the cargo ship's main deck. Yet Ty Lee still couldn't hold back a joyful laugh as the wind pulled at her braided hair and rustled her clothes and Appa mooed (or whatever) beneath her and she felt the power of their dive in her stomach. She didn't know what the future held for her right now, but she dearly hoped she'd be able to get her own sky bison. Then she could spend whole days flying around!

But for now, the joy faded as she brought Appa down into a warzone.

The Dai Li agents leaped from the saddle even before the sky bison's feet had touched the deck, throwing punches that sent fist-like constellations of stone flying out at the sailors who were still gaping at the arrival. Ty Lee could see that these were no warriors, no soldiers; they wore simple red tunics and the only things hanging from their belts were tools. Their postures were the experienced solidity of sea-legs, not the loose stances of trained fighters.

The stones of the Dai Li struck them, and then they didn't get up again.

Ty Lee could feel her aura becoming streaked with tarnished silver.

When Long Feng had first formulated the plan with them, back in the large cave the Dai Li were using as a base in this region, Ty Lee had piped up with, "What's going to happen to the sailors on the cargo ship? Are you going to take them prisoner?"

Long Feng had looked at her with an unreadable expression, but she could see that his aura swirl with deep black and painfully bright yellow. "In situations demanding speed and exact timing, taking unnecessary prisoners is not a viable option."

Which was fancy talk for killing everyone.

Ty Lee was about to object when Aang had actually beaten her to it, saying, "You're not going to slaughter those people. They're not warriors, they're people trying to survive and feed their families."

"Avatar, I do not seek to murder anyone." Ty Lee had watched Long Feng's aura for the muddy pink of dishonesty, but instead it was the deep red of strong will and practicality. "I will have no problems taking prisoners if any of the sailors surrender, nor will we cull the wounded. But the fighting forms of the Dai Li are about efficiency and effectiveness, and the results can be fatal. Asking my agents to specifically fight to wound in complicated combat situations will put them in danger and jeopardize the mission."

Katara had put a reassuring hand on Aang's shoulder at that point. "I understand what you're saying- Water Tribe warriors don't hold back, either- but why would the protectors of a city's culture be trained like soldiers?"

Long Feng had offered a shrug that was the most artificial thing Ty Lee had ever seen. "You'd have to ask Avatar Kyoshi. She was the one who established the Dai Li and trained the first generation. Everything we are has been passed down directly from her."

"Avatar Kyoshi?!" Aang had pulled away from Katara to turn his back on the gathering, and Ty Lee could see his aura becoming tainted with a muddy gold shade. "I thought- I was always taught-"

"Avatar," Long Feng had interrupted, "I'd be happy to give you a history lesson on the Dai Li, but I'm afraid it's not a quick story, and we don't know when exactly the cargo ship will be arriving at its destination. If you're going to take it before it enters the protection of the bay and after it has passed beyond the protection of its military escort, then you'll need to be on station and ready to go as soon as possible. This plan has many factors, and you'll need to practice some of it before you'll be ready. Now, if I may continue?"

Aang had sighed and faced them all again, but Ty Lee could see that his aura was still troubled. His gaze found Long Feng as he said, "I understand that not everyone has the respect for life that I do, and I try to accommodate the differences of other cultures. But I'm going to be watching to make sure your agents keep to your word."

"As you say, Avatar." Long Feng had bowed low. "Discipline is the primary weapon of the Dai Li, and I have every confidence that you will have no cause for disappointment."

Except now Ty Lee was standing on the deck of the cargo ship looking at the bodies of some of the sailors while the Dai Li agents moved ahead of her to continue their piracy, and she knew that no one had actually made any out-loud offer of surrender. Long Feng's agents were keeping to his word, all right, but that still didn't seem to be leaving much room for life.

Ty Lee wondered if this was what Aang's people had been like. He seemed like a good person, but he couldn't control Long Feng. He wouldn't have been able to control his elders in the Air Nation, either, as they prepared to invade the Fire Nation.

Ty Lee took a deep breath and moved into a run. She raced ahead of the Dai Li, dancing right across the vectors through which they were launching the small black panels of stone they were wearing under their robes like armor, and threw herself in amongst the sailors who were trying to mount some kind of defense of their ship. She threw her fists out and found weak, yielding flesh. Each person she struck cried out first in pain and then in panic, horrified when their limbs would not respond to their commands. Then it was a simple matter to shove or trip them to take them out of the fight. She struck hard and didn't hold back.

If the Dai Li creeps were going to be all rough and mean about this, then was going to see how many of the 'enemy' she could disable before the Earthbenders had a chance to kill them. After all, Long Feng had promised that no one who was unable to fight would be executed, and Ty Lee's fists were really good at taking the fight out of people.

She raced down into the bowels of the cargo ship, ready to personally capture even nook and corridor if she had to.
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Loopy
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« Reply #137 on: Aug 29, 2016 06:31 pm »



Aang reached the ship just ahead of Katara and summoned a tornado ball to sit on while he waited for her. He watched as she surfed in a circle right in front of the ship's bow, crouching and rising again on her ice-board with arms outstretched, and the water at the center of her motion began coiling and pulsing. When she rode out into the center of it, Aang hopped over and grabbed onto her back, giving a quick, "Hi," that earned him a blue-eyed smile.

Then the water exploded like a spring and shot them both up into the air.

The sailed up parallel to the massive cargo ship's hull, and Aang used his Airbending to make sure their angle kept them going straight up, rather than smacking into the ship like a bug against a flying bison's teeth. They soared up and over the deck of the ship, and Aang shifted as they reached their apex so that he was now carrying Katara, and it was his winds and legs that took the brunt on the landing.

As soon as he set Katara down, Dai Li Agent Zhuang marched over. "Avatar, we've captured the ship. My people are establishing a skeleton crew right now, and as soon as we've confirmed that no vital equipment has been sabotaged, we can be on our way."

Aang reached out a hand, Katara smacked it in triumph. He looked back to Zhuang and said, "Great! Katara and I took care of the destroyers. They'll have to completely replace the bridge equipment before mine can run again."

Katara nodded. "I flooded the engines on mine. I think one of the boilers exploded."

Zhuang didn't smile, but the tension around his eyes loosened a bit as he nodded. "Good work, kids. Now we just have to sail this thing to the rendezvous. The Fire Nation shouldn't have any assets nearby that they can redirect to pursue us before we're gone, but diligence is the key to survival. If you're up to it, I'd like you to take your sky bison up and keep a watch for any threats."

Aang was going to agree and get going, but then a shout of, "Avatar!" echoed across the deck.

Aang turned to see Ty Lee stalking over. The bounce he could usually see in her step was gone, and her face was twisted in a serious expression.

He bit back on his nervousness and tried to smile at her. "Yes?"

Ty Lee threw a look at Agent Zhuang, and then she put her arms around Aang's shoulders and guided him away. "I wanted to talk to you about these Dai Li. They're meanies."

Meanies? Even after they helped capture this ship with such finely tuned plan? He wondered if one of the agents had been harassing her about her Fire Nation blood. "Ty Lee, is this something important? We still have some work before we can get away."

She started to say, "I-"

"Incoming!" came Katara's shout.

In an instant, Aang was beside her at the rail, looking back at the bay. The destroyers he and Katara had sabotaged were still floating there, seemingly helpless, but as he followed her pointing finger, he spotted a line of foam across the water, and spotted a speedboat at its head. It was heading straight for the cargo ship, and was definitely of Fire Nation manufacture.

Agent Zhuang was came over to take his own look. "Get rid of it. It's an attack of some kind."

Katara nodded and extended her arms in front of her, and then swung them up to her right as she shifted from standing straight into a reverse-arrow stance. The ocean rose up with something like an explosion at her command right in front of the speedboat, but the craft swerved and avoided the hazard.

Katara tried again and again, but failed to stop this strangely small attack. "I can't get it," she gasped, pounding fists lightly against the rail. "It's too fast, and I'm too far away."

That's when Aang realized something. "It's not slowing down. Even if it cuts its engine, it's not going to be able to stop in time. It must not be coming for us after all."

Ty Lee said, "You mean it's just going to go around us?"

"No." Agent Zhuang's voice had gone cold. "It's going to ram us."

There was a moment of silent horror amongst the group as the craft drew close enough to be lost from their view.

Then the speedboat slammed into the cargo ship and exploded.

It wasn't a large explosion, but Aang distinctly felt the force of it traveling up through the ship's hull. "Was that enough to sink us?"

Agent Zhuang shook his head. "Not immediately, but there's a good chance we're taking on water down there. I'm not sure what level that would be on, but-"

"On it," Katara said, turning and running across the deck. She called back, "I'll keep it iced up," as she plunged down the stairs and was lost to sight. Agent Zhuang followed her.

That left Aang alone with Ty Lee. Should he go down and help with the damage, or was this a good time to talk to Ty Lee about whatever it was that was bothering her? The whole matter of the speedboat was still bothering him, but it seemed to be over now.

On the other side of the deck, Appa let out a roar. The sky bison seemed just as uneasy as Aang, and Momo flapping above his horns in an agitated state. They must not have liked that explosion.

That got Aang wondering about the boat. Someone must have been steering it, if it avoided Katara's attacks. Had the pilot been on a suicide mission?

Or was this not about punching a hole in the hull after all?

Aang stepped back over to the railing and looked over-

-and jumped back just in time to avoid the plume of blue fire that heralded the flying arrival of a girl in black armor. She flipped in midair and landed on the deck of the ship, and Aang spotted smoke coming from the bottom of her boots (had she used Firebending to fly?) just before she kicked a leg out to shoot more blue fire to arc around Aang and cut him off from the rest of the deck. In the distance, he heard Appa roar in fear.

Wait, what had happened to Ty Lee?

Aang looked around and found himself alone with the Firebender girl. She stared back with shining golden eyes, but she didn't seem to be talking to him when she said, "Come on up, Zuzu. I've found your little friend."

Beside the girl, a hand came up to grasp at the rail. A second followed it, and then their owner pulled himself up into view.
 
The scarred face of Prince Zuko of the Fire Nation looked straight at Aang and scowled.

Aang took a defensive stance, missing Mai more than ever.



There was no transition. One moment Ty Lee was seeing the blue fire flaring through the air in front of Aang, and the next she was below deck, crouched under the staircase leading outside and holding her head in her hands. She was struggling to breathe, trembling all over, and her heart was hammering in her chest so hard that it was almost painful. She wondered if she was dying, if her fear was about to kill her, and the new terror brought on by that thought made her dizzy enough to fall over.

Azula was here.

Azula was here.

Azula was here.

Ty Lee loved Azula because they were friends and the princess had offered so many opportuntities and she was such a perfect, beautiful person.

Ty Lee also feared Azula more than anything else because she would do anything and there was no force on this planet that could stop her from getting what she wanted.

And now Ty Lee was an Airbender and had sided with Mai and now was helping the Avatar and she hadn't gotten Azula's permission for any of it.

Azula was here.

Azula was here.

Ty Lee curled up on the floor, crippled by fear, of no use whatsoever to her new friends and allies. She had failed them, as she was always destined.



Sokka listened with his ear to the cold stone ground, unmoving so as to avoid rattling his chains, eyes closed pointlessly against the darkness of his cell. All of his concentration was on detecting the sounds carried through the stone.

He could detect the irregular beat of stumbling footsteps, the whispery sound of a swinging door, and the louder and unmistakable sound of rattling chains. Another prisoner was being brought back from one of the Earthbenders' crazy "interrogation sessions." Sokka winced in sympathy, remembering- or mostly not remembering in a way that made him feel sick- his own sessions, of being bound in the chair in the darkness to watch that moving light for hours on end. He had steeled himself to resist like a true Water Tribe warrior, but that hadn't gone well at all. It wasn’t until the second session that he discovered his best defense was not resistance, but distraction. Letting his mind wander to thoughts of chemistry and physics and other abstract matters was the best antidote to moving lights and droning voices, but even that only worked for so long.

It was with no malice that he assumed Mai would be especially vulnerable to the whole ordeal. She was a person of fierce attacks and defensive walls, exactly what the hypnosis was designed to combat.

And he knew Mai was here, somewhere. He had seen the weird Earthbenders capture her, using him as bait.

He was thoroughly offended by that.

He put those thoughts out of his head, though, and focused once again on what he could hear through the ground. As enjoyably guilt-ridden as the sounds of what was probably Mai's return were, that wasn't what he was trying to hear.

He was more curious about the vrssssshhhhhh sound he had heard while trying to sleep earlier. It had gone away when the-prisoner-who-was-probably-Mai was brought back, and now was starting up again. That indicated that whatever was causing the sound was trying to avoid the attention of the guards here, which meant it was either a skittish subterranean animal of some kind of enemy action.

Sokka was hoping for enemy action.

But he still wasn't prepared when the ground beneath his ear opened up and someone's nose poked up into it.

Hissing in surprise, Sokka scrambled back as far as his chains would let him, and then a burst of green glare exploded in his face. His poor, light-deprived eyes took a while to adjust, but he eventually realized he was being spotlit by a shuttered lantern, and the light was being generated by those green crystals the Earth Kingdom liked so much.

And the lamp was being held by the first of three strangers who were climbing into his cell.

Well, this was either very good or a disaster in the making.

They had to be Earthbenders, given their mode of entry, but not the same kind of Earthbenders who had captured Sokka and Mai. These people- two men and a woman- wore simple green tunics. Returning the inquisitive glare they were giving him, Sokka noticed that they all had a cloth tied somewhere to their body- hanging from a belt, or tied around one arm- that bore the circular symbol of the Earth Kingdom, the same one it used for the shape of its coins.

Rebels?

Sokka decided to cut to the chase and whisper, "Who are you guys?"

The one with the lantern (the one who Sokka suspected had given his ear a nose-poke) scowled. "The Earth King will be the ones asking the questions, boy."

The who now?

Wasn't the Earth King supposed to be dead, burned along with Ba Sing Se on the day of Sozin's Comet?

Then one last shape climbed up out of the hole in the center of Sokka's cell. It was a small form, almost child-like, and when it stepped into the light of the lantern, Sokka couldn't immediately tell if it was a boy or a girl. More concentrated examination revealed what he thought was a slightly feminine outline to the body and chin, but the savage grin the newcomer was displaying was a bit distracting.

Then he noticed the newcomer's eyes.

They were dull and unfocused. This girl was blind.

He started to say, "What-"

The girl immediately cut him off with, "You are in the presence of Earth King Toph Bei Fong, first of her royal line and incarnate goddess of the earth itself. I order to tell me, right this instant, who the mud you are and what you're doing in Old Man Long Feng's basement. If your explanation satisfies me, I might not leave you here to rot in your own stinking breath."

Oh, really?

Sokka put on his most ingratiating smile.

TO BE CONTINUED
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Colonel_Brian
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« Reply #138 on: Aug 29, 2016 09:00 pm »

I feel pretty bad for allowing myself to fall so far behind. These chapters were long!

Chapter 32

I already saw the twist at the end coming. Though I am interested in why Ty Lee is so ashamed of her newfound abilities. This is the second chapter she has appeared in, and I can't recall if there were any hints on why she would feel this way from the last chapter. It has been so long, I feel as though I am being introduced to these wonderful characters all over again. Though I will try to offer some theories nonetheless.

Ty Lee might be ashamed of her powers because she either can't control them very well (meaning she often hurts people unitentionally) or because...well, that's all I got.

Anyway, even though I can't figure about why Ty Lee thinks she's a monster, I theorize that she's a red herring to the mysterious traitor sub-plot. Who could she be a traitor to? The nuns are evidently mad at her for some reason, but that doesn't make her a traitor. The traitor could be Long Feng. Speaking of Long Feng, I wonder what he's up to? Is the Fire Nation keeping him locked up for any special reason? The Tiankeng fortress seems to be repurposed to detain captured airbenders, but Long Feng is an earthbender. This is all very mysterious, and I feel a bit frustrated that I can't conjure up any insightful opinions on how all this is tying together.

Sokka's exchanges with Zhao were the highlight of the chapter for me. The former's biting sarcasm always drwas out a smile on my usually straight face. Though he was lucky he didn't get his head lit on fire. The guy needs to learn to supress these comical remarks for his own good.

Zhao interests me though. I'm trying to work out the criteria he uses when accepting information extracted from prisoners. Does he refuse to believe Sokka's answer concerning the Gaang's mission because of pride? He believed the part about Roku even though he found out it to be ridiculous, so sheer plausibility isn't his only criteria.

Anyway, I'll continue to read on and post reviews, though I feel as if everyone else already offered more insightful post than mine. So with that said...

Chapter 33

It seems as if two of my misconceptions have been addressed. Long Feng is not a prisoner, but on a rescue mission (I wonder why) and Ty Lee is a traitor to the nuns.

I can see why Ty Lee thinks she is a monster, she did a terrible deed and she knows that once things begin to settle, that news of her betrayal will become public. Though I need to try to remember if Ty Lee knows what Mai is up to. I can't imagine that Ty Lee would feel guilt about being a Fire Nation spy if she thought that Mai was still on the Fire Nation's side. So maybe there is a part two to this subplot and Ty Lee feels guilty about some future action she intends to take? Or maybe it is neither of these and Ty Lee is keeping her actions a secret simply because she feels ashamed of the act of betraying the nuns itself.

You're a subtle writer, and can be quite insightful of the human condition, which is why I have such a hard time trying to peel back all the layears in this story. Characters could be acting on any number of motives, which makes them more real.

Alright, my third misconception has been addressed. It's like this story naturally knows which way my thoughts would go and acts accordingly. Ty Lee is ashamed because she feels as though by being an airbender that she has betrayed her people. The nuns concur with this point interestingly enough.

In addition, you used this opportunity to shed light on Mai's state of mind. It's been awhile since I've read this story, but I don't remember previous chapters addressing Mai's self doubt in this kind of detail. When she and Sokka fought at the ashlands, she revealed how angry she felt whenever Sokka would remind her of how she betrayed Aang or how she was untrustworthy, but her comments here in response to Ty Lee offers some more insight on how this is affecting her psychology.  Mai is beginning to doubt herself. The fact that even her best friend thinks she would betray her to Azula suggest that Mai might think that others know her better than she knows herself...at least, that is my current reading on the issue. It could just be that Mai is offended that nobody trust her.

I have no idea what those Dai Li agents are up to, but I'm intrigued. I should have been more cautious about this Long Feng fellow, he probably decided to go on his rescue mission for his own benefit, but what could it be? I'm guessing he's anticipating Hou-Ting by several decades in trying to capture airbenders for his own personal army. The Fire Nation may have won the war, but I feel as though these rebels from the main land could be referring to the Dai Li (or maybe they refer to Jet's outfit) who are still working to seize power.

Zhao is always a joy to read. His thoughts about being too dependent on Iroh I'd interesting. I suspect that he's going to end up being a wild-card of sorts who is on no body's team but his own. Iroh is just a temporary stop for him, and after he's done securing his position, he'll hopefully make a claim for greater independence.  Though that brings up the question if Iroh knows that Zhao is basically Starscream.

Anyway, we got some more insight on Ty Lee. In this universe, Fire Nation textbooks didn't just claim that the Air Nomads had armies, but that they instigated the war. So with that said, it makes a lot of sense why she is so upset with her newfound powers, she is now part of a race that has "menaced" the Fire Nation. I'd like some commentary on why you made that choice, provided that it doesn't spoil anything!

And now we're going to get a Ty Lee and Aang fight!

Chapter 34

The fight was pretty good. I admire your battle descriptions. You must have a pretty good imagination if you are able to visualize these fight scenes so well. There is always something exciting happening and you avoid limiting yourself to basic movements, meaning that you often produce battles worthy of the original series itself.

Zhao is once again interesting. My hope is that he continues to find ways to rebound until the very end. Though eventually he's going to come across a situation in which the consequences of living to fight another day aren't worth it. But hopefully that day is fsr, far from the present moment. Dies it surprise you that Zhao is so well received? You like him, but I wonder if you were amazed that your readers like him that much.

Anyway, back too the fighting. As I said, I liked it, but I thought it went on too long. Though maybe that's just one of the downsides to using prose. If this were animated, it might have not been noticeable at all.

As for Sister Matagi, she makes me laugh. Though believe it or not, I have no interesting stories regarding strict nuns, but I appreciated the humor of the scene nonetheless.

That part with Aang and Katara was kind of weird though. The change in her emotions from angry to apologetic was a bit sudden. Though she redeemed herself in my eyes when she told Ty Lee that bad joke. Once again, you do a good job mimicking the original show, that's one of the highest compliments I can offer a fanfic writer.

Long Feng is definitely  not to be trusted. He has Sokka, and is withholding his release in order to keep Aang for as long as he needs to. I wonder what his goals are? Like Zhao, I think Long Feng is looking out for himself first of all. So him helping Aang steal platinum and getting rid of the ashlands using shamanic rituals might actually be a bad thing.

I look forward to what is next.

Chapter 35

I'm caught up. Hopefully, I wisely decline from falling behind from now on.

Anyway, I liked this chapter. The part with Mai as many have commented already was really good. The Dai Li make for some good psychological thriller bad guys, with their hypnosis powers and all.

Using Ty Lee's aurora seeing abilities was likewise good. They provide for some neat visual commentary on their owners state of mind. I read the part with Long Feng having the red aurora of practicality to mean that he is really adept to believing his own lies. Though perhaps he speaks the truth when he denied wanting to murder anybody.

With that said, I applaud you for refusing to rehash yet another Fire Nation prison infiltration subplot. This time, the gang is just stealing some cargo.

Now that Azula and Zuko are back, I wonder if a misunderstanding will arise between Aang and Ty Lee. It might make for some interesting drama, but part of me would like to see that trope denied, and for there to be no fighting based on misunderstandings Ty Lee "disappearing" right when the extremely nice Princess Azula shows up.

And finally, Toph has made her debut. I always like poking fun at her appearance. I know it's a little immature, but mistaken in her for a boy always makes he smile. Don't know why, but it does.

FINIS
« Last Edit: Aug 31, 2016 09:07 pm by Colonel_Brian » Logged
Loopy
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« Reply #139 on: Sep 12, 2016 09:49 pm »

You're a subtle writer, and can be quite insightful of the human condition, which is why I have such a hard time trying to peel back all the layears in this story. Characters could be acting on any number of motives, which makes them more real.

Thanks! I love hearing this, as character-motivation is a major concern for me as I work out my plots. I'm a very introspective person, and perhaps too analytical, and I think echoes of that come across in the way I develop my characters. It can bog things down sometimes, but I enjoy it, and my readers seem to, so it's all good.


Alright, my third misconception has been addressed. It's like this story naturally knows which way my thoughts would go and acts accordingly. Ty Lee is ashamed because she feels as though by being an airbender that she has betrayed her people. The nuns concur with this point interestingly enough.

You'd be surprised how often I time plot-beats based on my own reactions to the story I'm writing as I type it out. Cheesy


Anyway, we got some more insight on Ty Lee. In this universe, Fire Nation textbooks didn't just claim that the Air Nomads had armies, but that they instigated the war. So with that said, it makes a lot of sense why she is so upset with her newfound powers, she is now part of a race that has "menaced" the Fire Nation. I'd like some commentary on why you made that choice, provided that it doesn't spoil anything!

It just struck me as something that would naturally emerge from the Fire Nation's psychology and propaganda machine. Everyone knows the Air Nation was wiped out, so they make a convenient scapegoat. I think this could even be compatible with the canon timeline.


The fight was pretty good. I admire your battle descriptions. You must have a pretty good imagination if you are able to visualize these fight scenes so well. There is always something exciting happening and you avoid limiting yourself to basic movements, meaning that you often produce battles worthy of the original series itself.

Thanks! It took me a while to figure out how to write action, studying the way my favorite writers do action scenes compared to others whose stuff I want to skim. I actually do have trouble visualizing that kind of thing, or at least turning the vague visual impressions I imagine into something other people can understand. I always end up trimming what I originally want to depict, too, since I imagine more movements that would be fun to read. That helps me hone in on the best stuff, probably.


Zhao is once again interesting. My hope is that he continues to find ways to rebound until the very end. Though eventually he's going to come across a situation in which the consequences of living to fight another day aren't worth it. But hopefully that day is fsr, far from the present moment. Dies it surprise you that Zhao is so well received? You like him, but I wonder if you were amazed that your readers like him that much.

Yeah, I wasn't expecting him to have this large a presence in the story, but readers have left good comments about him, so I'm giving you all more. It helps that I'm modeling him on some of my favorite sub-villains, so I'm having fun on my side, too. Despicable traitors can be so amusing. Cheesy


Anyway, back too the fighting. As I said, I liked it, but I thought it went on too long. Though maybe that's just one of the downsides to using prose. If this were animated, it might have not been noticeable at all.

Agreed. I struggle with the right balance, and it seems to be different for every reader. I try to limit things to what wouldn't be a chore to read, while offering a believable problem-solution sequence. Prose is probably the hardest medium for martial arts action, but I'm not an artist, so I have no idea what I'm talking about. Grin


As for Sister Matagi, she makes me laugh. Though believe it or not, I have no interesting stories regarding strict nuns, but I appreciated the humor of the scene nonetheless.

My favorite teachers were strict nuns. I'm with Aang on this one.


That part with Aang and Katara was kind of weird though. The change in her emotions from angry to apologetic was a bit sudden. Though she redeemed herself in my eyes when she told Ty Lee that bad joke. Once again, you do a good job mimicking the original show, that's one of the highest compliments I can offer a fanfic writer.

Fair point. I meant Katara's anger to be a shield for her shock and sadness, just a brief stage of grief, with the true emotions she was feeling coming out after Aang broke through.


With that said, I applaud you for refusing to rehash yet another Fire Nation prison infiltration subplot. This time, the gang is just stealing some cargo.

I was dismayed, after writing the whole Sinkhole Sequence, to find that my outline called for another infiltration. As far as I'm concerned, if I never write another fortress-infiltration again, it will be too soon. Cheesy Not that I didn't enjoy the Sinkhole Sequence, but it was a long stretch with a lot of intense parts.


Now that Azula and Zuko are back, I wonder if a misunderstanding will arise between Aang and Ty Lee. It might make for some interesting drama, but part of me would like to see that trope denied, and for there to be no fighting based on misunderstandings Ty Lee "disappearing" right when the extremely nice Princess Azula shows up.

Grin


And finally, Toph has made her debut. I always like poking fun at her appearance. I know it's a little immature, but mistaken in her for a boy always makes he smile. Don't know why, but it does.

Grin Grin Grin




Fear and Friendship

Air Nomads weren't supposed to hate. Part of their respect for life was finding beauty and worth in everything. Certainly, it was okay to be sad, sickened, and even angered by things that some creatures do, but long-burning hate was an emotion that would inevitably hurt the hater most of all. Sorrow could lead to empathy, affliction could lead to healing, and fury could lead to strength, but hate was just poison. A good monk existed beyond a place of hate.

Except Aang was pretty sure that he was starting to hate the ugly, one-eyed face of Prince Zuko of the Fire Nation.

Facing each other on the front deck of a captured Fire Nation cargo ship, surrounded by a ring of blue fire being controlled by the other Firebender to have boarded, Aang could see the same hate reflected in Zuko's expression.

"Avatar," the prince growled.

"Zuko," Aang said back.

They were both in fighting stances, but for the moment neither felt the need to move.

Zuko's hands tightened into fists. "Where's Mai?"

Aang felt his hate blaze up within his stomach, remembering how Mai had been working for Zuko during the whole search for Katara- remembering the pain of her betrayal. "You tell me. She was captured by the Fire Nation."

Zuko blanched momentarily, but then he schooled his expression back into a combat-ready scowl. He stared at Aang, and Aang stared back. The fight was inevitable, but Aang was content to delay it as long as possible in the hopes that his allies would come to his aid.

"Come on, Zuzu," the other Firebender, the girl, said. "We didn't come all this way to exchange pleasantries. Beat him into submission so we can all go home."

"Zuzu?" For a moment, Aang's hate was washed away by a brief giggle that erupted from within him. "So, little sister or girlfriend?"

Zuko roared and punched out a plume of flame.

Even without his glider staff, it was all too easy to dodge such a wild attack. Aang sidestepped in a spin that let him build up enough momentum that his subsequent palm strike unleashed a good gale, but Zuko crossed his arms and leaned into, enduring the force without losing his footing. As soon as the wind died, Zuko charged forward again with a flurry of punches and kicks that sent out waves of fire, but Aang was ready, giving ground using short crosswinds to sweeping away any flames that came close.

It was his usual strategy for dealing with a head-on attack, and it nearly got him killed.

Aang felt heat at his back and stopped his retreat short, realizing that he had come up against the border created by the Blue Fire Girl. He turned and decided to risk a jump, but before he could take action on that, a stream of blue fire shot out right over his head. He glanced at Blue Fire Girl, and found her in an arrow stance with two smoking fingers still extended and a smirk on her face.

"No, no," she cooed in a voice like thorns covered in honey. "You and my brother have business to complete."

She was somehow maintaining a thick wall of fire at the same time she could still unleash precision attacks?

Who was this girl?

But it didn't matter. He already had a date.

Aang decided to dodge another wave of Zuko's plain orange flames by throwing himself into a forward roll that carried him under the attack. He had a brief glimpse of Zuko's surprised face before Aang came up again for a solid tackle. Together, they crashed to the deck, and Aang made sure that Zuko was flat on the ground before flipping up again to land on his feet. Zuko himself was quick to recover and scrambled back to his own feet, but by then Aang was behind him, completely out of sight. Zuko tried to turn, but Aang circled towards the prince's blind side, staying functionally invisible.

The trick had worked pretty well back on Crescent Island. There was no reason it wouldn't work just as well right now.

Except Aang must not have spent enough time thinking of reasons, because Zuko suddenly bowed at the waist and snapped his right leg back for a fully-extended rear kick. Aang backpedaled from the boot that nearly buried itself in his stomach, but couldn't move fast enough to keep the resulting fireball from exploding in his face.

Reality became a burst of blinding light and a crack like the sky shattering.

When it came back, Aang found himself face up on the ship's deck of the ship with the skin on his face and hands flaring with pinching pain. He heard a roaring, and it took him a moment to realize that he wasn't the one making the sound. It was too loud, too deep, too vibrant.

Appa had decided to enter the fight.

But when Aang cautiously cracked open his eyes to see what was going on, he spotted Blue Fire Girl making a stand between Zuko and Appa's flying approach, taking a strange stance and moving her arms in wide arcs.

Electricity began to crackle between her hands and the deck of the ship.

Aang shrieked in denial and lurched to his feet as the girl unleashed the power of lightning at Appa.


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Loopy
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« Reply #140 on: Sep 12, 2016 09:50 pm »

Mai emerged from the darkness of her own numbed mind when she felt a thin finger poking her face. She opened her mouth to tell Tom-Tom to knock it off and go annoy Mother when she remembered that they were both probably dead, executed by the Royal Family in retaliation for her betrayal of Zuko.

But wait, hadn't Mai also maybe gotten Zuko killed when Aang's Avatar State had blown Crescent Island's volcano?

Confused at whose deaths, exactly, she was responsible for, she opened her eyes. She was chained once again to a dark stone floor, back in the cell where the place the weird Earthbenders had been keeping her in between those odd questioning sessions.

Just remembering the lantern and the droning voices made Mai shudder and shut her eyes again.

But the finger kept poking her face, so Mai opened her eyes and sat up. There was a girl in her cell - a petite teenager with a helmet of hair and clothes that might have green and yellow at some point in a distant age- standing and grinning like she was this was a pleasant day at the park. Mai started to say, "Who-"

But the girl shoved a hand over Mai's mouth, whispered, "Don't scream," and then stomped the floor to turn it into a steep slide that started right beneath Mai's butt.

She didn't scream, but she did forget to breathe for the duration of the trip.

Mai skidded to a stop into the dull but still eye-searing green light of a crystal lantern. She raised a hand to shield her eyes as the petite Earthbender let go, but didn't get a chance to acclimate before she was attacked with a crushing hug. She squeaked with pain even as the mad hugger did the same thing in a voice that she recognized. "Sokka?"

Mai blinked her eyes rapidly to make them adjust to the light, and sure enough, the image of a stupid Water Tribe boy holding the side resolved itself in her vision. "Ahhhhhhhh," he gasped. "I keep forgetting about my broken rib." Straightening, moved gently to pat Mai's shoulders, and she noticed that he didn't seem to be wearing chains like she was. "Still, I'm glad you're okay. You took a pretty bad hit when they got you. And I- you know, I saw how you- you made the choice to try to save me- you know, instead of properly defending yourself, and that really just got us both captured by freaky evil Earthbenders, but- well, it's the thought that counts, and I appreciate it."

Mai blinked at him. "Um, you're welcome?" She wasn't quite sure how to deal with this, considering that not long before they had been captured, she had actually tried to pull a sword on him as a result of a stupid argument. The whole thing just made her feel embarrassed, so she shoved his hands off her shoulders, making her chains clink annoyingly. "Us broken down warriors have to stick together, I guess?" She decided that was about all that needed to be said about the matter, so she turned to look around at the rest of the gathering.

They were a ragtag bunch, men and women in dirt-stained clothes that made them seem like the spawn of the tunnel walls around them. Yet Mai could see that their bodies were hard and strong, and they stood in ways that projected the appearance of relaxation but really were just a shift of weight away from solid attack stances. Their bare feet gave them all away as Earthbenders, and the symbols of the Earth Kingdom they all displayed somewhere on their clothes gave them away as rebels.

The only one Mai couldn't peg was the girl who had freed her. That one also had the bare feet of an Earthbender, but she stood with hands on her hips, presenting herself as a target without fear, and she didn't have the circular Earth sigil anywhere on her.

She was also staring at nothing, and yet was also clearly paying attention to Sokka's gushing.

He noticed where Mai was looking, and whispered, "She says she's the Earth King. Play along."

"Play along? Play along?" The girl grinned in a way that reminded Mai all too much of Azula, and twisted her right foot in place. A shaft of stone rose up out of the ground to strike at Sokka's left shin, making him bark with pain and hop backwards, which made his bark become a hiss as he shifted to favor the side with the broken rib. The girl laughed and added, "I am the Earth King, by right of blood and combat. And don't you forget it, Dunderhead!"

Mai was suddenly very aware of her complete lack of weapons. She stood up and bowed low at the waist with enough smoothness that her chains didn't even rattle. "Your Majesty, I apologize for my rube of a companion. I am Lady Caldera Yu Mai, and you have our gratitude for freeing us from our captivity."

The girl claiming to be the Earth King stuck her nose in the air. "Your manners please us," she said in sarcastic mockery of a formal tone. "Perhaps we won't order you fed to our Royal Badgermoles."

Well, she certainly had a better sense of humor than Azula. Maybe this wouldn't be so bad. "Your Majesty, may I ask who you were before taking your station? I was under the impression that all of the Earth Kingdom royalty had been purged by the Fire Nation."

"Then you were clearly misinformed. The Bei Fong clan shares some distant blood with the Kings and Queens of Ba Sing Se, as formally recognized by all of the living Earth Sages after I beat them up. You may address me as 'King Toph,' or 'Your Royal Super-Strongness,' or-"

"Or maybe you'd like a kick in the teeth, you stuck-up child," Mai drawled. She knew of the Bei Fongs, of course, and given the oddness surrounding the victory at Gaoling, she could even accept that this petite girl was one of the family's survivors. However, they had no relation to the Earth King's line, just their own substantial money and history. And Mai had the feeling that this kid was a kindred spirit when it came to the ways of Fancy. She put on a smile that she usually reserved for joking with Ty Lee. “I hope my boots are worthy of bloodying royalty.”

'King Toph' barked a laugh, walked over to Mai, and punched her in the shoulder. It wasn't a soft punch, either, and Mai had to bite back a hiss of pain. "I like you, Lady." Toph shoved Mai back against the wall of the tunnel with one hand, and then placed the other flat on the stone beside Mai's head. "Just answer me one question, and I'll let you sass me to your dark heart's content. Your Water Tribe buddy there told me this great story about the Avatar and epic quests and all that mud, including the part where you lied to everyone like a heelsucker and wound up betraying everyone who gave two shakes of badgermole's butt about you. So who are you loyal to now?" Toph moved her face so that her strange, milky eyes filled Mai's whole field of vision.

Fortunately, she didn't even need to think about the answer. "Aang. I'm loyal to Avatar Aang and how he wants to fix everything for everyone."

Toph tilted her head a fraction of a degree. Then she moved back and smiled. "Glad to hear it, Lady Caldera Yu Mai." The faux-formal tone was back again.

Mai stepped away from the tunnel wall and brushed her clothes off. Of course, her robes were all completely filthy past the point of ever getting the stains out, but it gave her chained hands something to do. "So what was all that about? You're satisfied with my word of honor?"

"Nah. As the incarnate goddess of the earth itself, I can taste the difference between truth and lies." Toph stuck her tongue out at Mai and wiggled it. "Right, my loyal subjects?"

All of the other Earthbenders fell to their knees and bowed, saying simultaneously, "The Earth King separates the truth from the lies and guides us!"

"That's right! Go me!" Toph pumped a fist in the air and sauntered off down the tunnel. "Someone get those chains off of her, and then the last one to the badgermoles is a hog-monkey!"

Mai couldn't bring herself to do anything but stand there blinking as one of the Earthbenders began picking the locks on her wrist manacles while the rest trotted off after their supposed monarch. She was only prodded back into sanity when Sokka tapped her shoulder. "You okay?"

Mai shook herself. "Other than wondering if I lost my mind after that last interrogation session, sure, I'm just keen."

"Well, if you've lost your mind, I've lost mine in the same way. The Earth King girl is- she's a bit much, huh?"

"Could she really have some kind of spirit power that lets her see lies? Her eyes are pretty weird."

He hissed and motioned for her to lower her voice. "She's blind, not magic. Slush, and here I thought Aang could say some embarrassing things."

Blind? "Seriously?"



It took Ty Lee an eternity to uncurl herself on the floor and climb the metal stairs back up to the cargo ship's main deck. At several points, her limbs shook too hard to support her weight, and she collapsed on the cold, sharp steps, fighting the urge to barf.

At those times, she would remember all those little incidents from her childhood, when she or Mai would do something that Azula didn't like. Sometimes, it would be as simple as doing a cartwheel better than her princess, and getting shoved to the ground for it. Other times, it would be loving something that Azula didn't have under her complete control, like a nice teacher or sparkleberry pudding; in those cases, she would make it her mission to poison any feelings about those things with bad experiences.

And Azula could make experiences very bad.

Ty Lee knew Azula did those things because she was insecure and dependent on her friends. She felt sorry for the princess, what with her mom all disappeared and having the pressures of being royalty and stuff. She had liked being Azula's friend and getting all the perks and uniqueness that came with it.

But that didn't mean she couldn't be terrified of Azula.

Eventually, she managed to make it to the top step, and poked her head out just enough to see what was happening on the main deck.

The first thing she saw was blue fire, and she reflexively ducked back out of the view and whimpered.

When Ty Lee realized that she couldn't feel heat and so the fire couldn't be anywhere near her, she tried taking another look. This time, she got a better view of the situation. There was lots of blue fire, but most of it was at the far end of the ship, at the front or the bow or whatever, cutting it off from the rest of the main deck. Ty Lee caught a quick glimpse of the tattooed top of Aang's head popping up over the top of the flames, but then he was lost to sight again.

Then Ty Lee spotted Azula herself.

She was wearing black armor with gold trim, just like Prince Admiral Iroh had the few times Ty Lee saw him, and she fighting with all the grace and efficiency expected of royalty. Dai Li agents were attacking her, shooting those hard black panels of stone out from under their robes, but even Ty Lee could see that they were running out of rock. Those meanies probably shouldn't have thrown so much of their supply at simple sailors. Azula knocked the rocks aside with the vambraces on her forearms, only dodging when she needed a new angle on a target.

As Ty Lee watched, several of the Dai Li attacked in quick succession, firing stones in a pattern to try to box Azula in against the ship's rail. Ty Lee shook her head at the pointlessness of it, and sure enough she saw Azula move in an unexpected direction, punching through one of the stone projectiles with a fist covered in flame and following that up with a series of kicks that sent waves of flame toward her attackers.

Several of the Dai Li agents fell to the fire, joining the rest of the bodies scattered across the deck.

There was no small number of them. Quite a few Dai Li agents had fallen, and although some of them still showed signs of life and motion, none seemed to be in a condition to rejoin the fight. The one that hurt Ty Lee the most was Appa's still form, all the way over by the wall of fire that had Aang trapped. The sky bison was lying on his side, a line of fur above his legs blackened and smoldering.

Ty Lee wasn't sure if Appa was breathing.

She ducked back down on the stairs and let out a sob. Azula was here to destroy everything, to kill everyone. And it was all because Ty Lee had been bad and somehow became an Airbender.

It was all her fault!

Which meant it was up to her to do something.

She reached for the top stair again, intent on pulling herself up to join the fight, but her hand was shaking too much to get a grip on the metal.

That was when Ty Lee heard steps on the stairway behind her, and she turned to find Katara rushing up to the main deck.

"Ty Lee!" Katara blanched and moved to uncork one of her waterskins. "Where are you hurt?"

Ty Lee shook her head. "Not-" A sob threatened to escape her throat, but she forced it back down. "Not hurt. A- a- afraid."

Katara blinked.

Ty Lee nodded. "P- Princess Azula is- is out there." Then she cringed, ready to be screamed at for her cowardice.

Instead, she felt Katara's soft hands on her back.

Ty Lee looked up into blue eyes beneath a dark hat, and Katara said, "I understand. I'm afraid, too. Every time I- I go outside and- and look up, I-" She shook her head. "I'm afraid of the sky. It's the stupidest thing. But I am. And I need to go out there wearing my dumb hat. I'm going to do that now, because they need my help. Please, if you can, come out and help us. I think we're going to need your help, too."

Then Katara was gone, and Ty Lee was alone.

The body of another Dai Li agent fell near the stairs, one more casualty of her cowardice.



Aang knew why he was losing.

He was filled with anger, sickness, and sorrow, but instead of being able to deal with those feelings, being able to turn them into portals to serenity, they were anchored in his body by the sheer hate that was poisoning him after Appa's fall. Blue Fire Girl had somehow harnessed the power of lightning itself in her hands, and unleashed it at Appa as he flew towards her.

It was a miracle that Appa hadn't been turned to ash on the spot. Instead, he had used a twitch of his massive tail to slip out of the Blue Fire Girl's line of sight, escaping the actual bolt of lightning.

The problem was that lightning wasn't content to simply pass its victims by.

Electricity had crackled between the sky bison and the near miss, setting a patch of Appa's fur on fire and knocking him twitching out of the air with a pop. His body had fallen behind the wall of blue flames, beyond Aang's sight. With nothing else to go on, Aang couldn't stop the fear from flooding in, from letting him picture the lifeless body of the last sky bison lying charred on the deck.

And it was all Zuko's fault, all the result of his insane quest. First it had cost Mai's friendship, and now maybe Appa's life.

That's why Aang hated Zuko so much.

That's why he was losing.

He could feel how sloppy his Airbending forms were. He knew that he needed some kind of strategy even as he simply pressed a straightforward offensive, but couldn't bring himself to focus long enough to make one. He even knew that Blue Fire Girl was the more dangerous of the two, and that she should be his main target, but never quite found an opportunity to go after her.

Aang could do nothing but stupidly attack Zuko.

He was losing, and he had the burns to prove it.

Distantly, as Aang hammered at Zuko's crossed arms with a stream of wind that didn't seem to be accomplishing anything, he could hear the sounds of whipping and surging water that always followed Katara into battle. And yet he couldn't see her, so she must have brought the fight to Blue Fire Girl.

More fear struck at his heart, and more hate filled his mind.

Aang's wind died, and Zuko surged forward with flaming fists. Aang dodged each one, but he moved by instinct and found himself tripping over a foot that had been placed into his path. He had no sooner smacked into the deck then Zuko's weight was on top of him, twisting his arms behind him and hooking his legs.

Aang was caught.

Caught in his hate.

"It's over," Zuko growled, and Aang couldn't disagree, even if Katara won her duel. Aang just didn't have any more worthwhile fight in him.

That's when the arrival of a newcomer eclipsed the sun in the sky.

Aang angled his head to look up, and could vaguely see Zuko doing the same at the edge of his vision, but he couldn't quite make out the details of who was falling towards him. The silhouette was almost like that of a Dai Li agent, with the same hate and flowing robes, but the shape wasn't quite the same, and rather than long, wide sleeves, this newcomer had thin, feminine arms.

The she landed just beside him, standing tall, and Aang had a glimpse of gray-ish gold eyes- mostly gray in this sunlight- before she slammed a fist right into Zuko's face.


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Loopy
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« Reply #141 on: Sep 12, 2016 09:51 pm »

Wearing the remnants of a Dai Li uniform- the spiked cone hat, a shirt that she had torn and tied up to fit her, half an outer robe turned into billowing pants, and a mask over the bottom half of her face made from a strip of leftover fabric- Ty Lee flew into battle with the power of the winds and her fists. She knew she couldn't fight like she usually did, targetting Qi-meridians and striking to disable. Azula would recognize that. So Ty Lee did something she had never let herself do before.

She struck to hurt.

She punched Zuko right in his nose and followed it up with a pair of chops to his ears. He cried out and raised his arms reflexively, so Ty lee shoved him. He swung back, falling off of Aang and crashing down on his back. Ty Lee never would have done anything to him while he was down, not the nervous boy she remembered, so for the sake of her disguise she proceeded to kick him repeatedly. She kicked his thighs, kicked at the arms that protected his head, kicked anywhere he wasn't wearing armor.

Zuko was always tough, though, and weathered it as he fought his way to his feet.

So Ty Lee grabbed the front of his armor, spun around once, and threw him-

-right over the ship's railing.

Bye-bye, Zuko!

Time to deal with Azula.

Ty Lee left the same way she came, getting a running leap at the walls of blue fire and then summoning a wind to slam into her and carry her body as far as it could. She wasn't a very good Airbender yet, so she still wound up passing through the tips of the flames and picking up some burns. But no one who had a problem with pain could become a Weapon of the Fire Nation.

She landed in a run and went straight for Azula.

Ty Lee could hear her princess's laughter, could hear the sneering taunt of, "You're good, Waterbender, but it's obvious your training was lacking. You're as much a stranger to your element as you are to the sky."

She hated that taunt, hated Azula's cruelty, hated that it was something she could hear herself saying with different and less sophisticated wording. She hated that she would have enjoyed the hurt in Katara's eyes.

But it took too much work to worry about hate. Instead, Ty Lee focused on not throwing up in her mask as she charged at her princess.

Azula heard her coming, of course, and even as she was dodging a wave of icicles from Katara she turned to Ty Lee and flung a wave of flames. Ty Lee leaped over the them in a forward-flip and kicked out with both legs, slamming into Azula on her armored chest and then somersaulting off for an easy landing.

Then she was charging forward again, raising her fists to Azula.

Her princess was fast, but Ty Lee had fought faster back in that sinkhole, when she was locked in combat with Aang. Azula was still reeling from the kick when Ty Lee was in back and attacking, chaining together punches to the face and an elbow-smash to the throat and knee-strikes to thighs and kicks to the knees and a shove with both arms and Ty Lee realized that she was screaming herself hoarse. Only about a third of Ty Lee's blows got through Azula’s frantic attempts to defend herself, but at the speed she was hammering away at her princess, a third was still enough to send Azula into a panic.

Ty Lee didn't even stop when Azula stumbled backwards against the ship's rail. She just increased the speed of her blows, screaming all the while.

She wasn't sure how long the fight had been going on when Azula dropped any attempt at defense and let the hits land home. Ty Lee's fist slammed into Azula's cheekbone hard enough to hurt her knuckles, and it was so startling that she froze for a second.

That's when Azula reared her head back and took a breath, and Ty Lee realized what was about to happen just in time to flip backwards and avoid the fireball that her princess spat at her.

Stupid, stupid, stupid! She shouldn't have hesitated like that! Now Azula was going to kill her! She'd lost her chance to stop the fighting!

Then a small river slammed into Azula and knocked her straight over the railing.

Ty Lee stood there, blinking, and heard a distant splash.

She stood there, blinking, as Katara called for the Dai Li to get the ship moving again.

She stood there, blinking, as Aang came over and crushed her in a nuzzling hug, followed by Katara joining in, followed by Aang asking Katara to come look at Appa, followed by both of them running off.

She stood there, blinking, until she burst into tears.



Zuko's life was saved only because Suki hadn't double-knotted the ties of his armor. When he had been thrown off the ship by that terrifying berserker-girl assassin, he had still been dazed by her attacks, and it wasn't until he plunged into the water that he came to his senses. He tried to swim back to the surface, but had too much weight on him. He yanked at the knots as he sank beneath the waves, tearing off each piece of armor until he could swim back up to the surface.

The cargo ship was in motion by that point, and although Zuko had tried to paddle after it, ready to cross an ocean if needed, he wasn't a strong enough swimmer to fight against the waves that emanated from the ship's passage. He was carried back into the bay to either swim to the port or wait to be rescued.

He was just starting to wonder if Azula was going to have to complete his quest for him when her head broke the surface a distance away from, coughing and sputtering. Zuko could see that she had shed her armor as well, and most of her hair had escaped from her topknot.

"Azula?" Zuko started swimming over to her, but she ignored him. She treaded water at the same time she tried to raise an arm and throw a fireball at the retreating ship, but the only result was a burst of heavy steam and another dip beneath the waves. Zuko reached her as she popped back up and hooked an arm around her. "Just concentrate on staying afloat. There's nothing we can do, now." He shut his mouth as Azula's floundering gave him a brief dunking again, and then once he kicked himself back up he added, "June still has the Avatar's staff, and we're on his trail now. The ship can't go fast enough to lose us."

Azula glared at him, but she stopped her struggling and began treading water properly. Able to get a good look at her now, Zuko could see that the berserker girl must have gotten a few really good hits in; his sister's face was split and bleeding, and bruises were already starting to show.

"Wow," he found himself saying.

Azula's glare darkened. "I will kill that girl. I will have every bone in her body broken one by one and I will make her scream the name of her every loved one so that I can have them killed in front of her and then I'll make her drink the- argrrgrgrgrgrrglll!" Azula had stopped swimming for a moment, and Zuko struggled as she dipped underwater again. She was soon back, spitting. "Keep me afloat you moron!"

Zuko sighed as he treated water.

Then he spotted the tug boat making its way across the bay towards them.

Zuko waved as much as he could while keeping himself and Azula afloat, and was gratified to see that the tug stayed on course. Soon, it was bobbing alongside them, and a rope was thrown over the side. Zuko let Azula climb up first, and only after she was aboard did he get himself to safety, hoisting himself up and over the side to stand beside his sister on the small deck.

He wiped away at the water dripping down his face, and found that he had lost his eyepatch at some point.

His stomach flipped when he saw Suki staring at him from across the deck. She had never seen his empty eye socket before. Her face was blank, hiding whatever she was thinking, but Zuko couldn't help but feel that she had be disgusted on some level.

Azula interrupted his shame by stomping forward to the bridge, sending water spraying everywhere. "Well, what are you waiting for? Get us back to land! We're losing time." She was already steaming, drying herself with her Firebending, when she disappeared into the wheelhouse.

Suki gave Zuko a brief smile. "I better go. I kind of stole this tug, and I'd be embarrassed to return it with scorch marks on it." She hurried off after Azula, leaving him standing alone on the deck.

Zuko watched her go, and then looked over to the bay's far side, where the cargo ship had passed from view beyond the parallel cliffs that formed the only exit. He couldn't help but wonder what the Avatar wanted with a Fire Nation cargo ship filled with Southern metals. It had something to do with Earth rebels, no doubt, but such a raid seemed to be a waste of the Avatar's power.

Unless, of course, there was something going on that he wasn't aware of.

Zuko shivered in the wind, and summoned the flame in his heart to keep him warm and dry him off. With any luck, he'd be fighting the Avatar again soon.



Sokka had to admit that traveling by badgermole was better than he expected.

The giant beasts seemed scary at first, but King Toph or whatever she called herself had a good rapport with them, so they allowed passengers to step off the rock platforms she created and onto their backs. They were even bigger than Appa, so with the smoothness of their Earthbending-powered passage through the underground, it was like riding one of the Fire Nation's big motorized tread-vehicles, only with a different kind of stink than engine oil.

He and Mai were sharing a badgermole with one of the Earthbenders, leaving enough room on the furry back for the pair of them to find some privacy and exchange information. He filled her in on his conversations with Commander Zhao, his almost-escape after the fortress had exploded, and his subsequent capture by one of the creepy Earthbenders in the hats. She in turn told him a great story about freeing Mother Malu's Airbenders before she got taken by the same creeps.

"So," he said when she finished, "you never found out if Katara and Aang are okay?"

She gave a single shake of her head. "I don't even know what happened to Ty Lee and the nuns. We could be all that's left."

Sokka thought about that. "I don't think so. King Toph said we were the only prisoners in this 'Long Feng' guy's basement. And as much as I'd like to think otherwise, there's no way I'm as valuable a prisoner as Fire Nation Weapon girls or brand new Airbenders."

Mai's expression didn't change as she said, "Maybe we were the only ones they could take alive."

Sokka crossed his arms and stared at her. "You said there were about thirty nuns, and all or most of them had no fighting experience whatsoever. Do you really think it would be that hard to take at least one of them prisoner?"

Mai broke eye contact first. "No, I guess not. But then what does that mean for Aang and your sister?"

Now that was a good point. Sokka let out a heavy breath and shrugged. "I don't know. That's a big unknown right now, and if we're going to deal with whatever it is we're going to have to deal with, then we should leave it that way."

Mai was silent for a moment, and then leaned forward and spoke in a softer voice. "So how much do we trust The Girl Who Would Be King? The Bei Fong family isn't royalty, but she wasn't giving me the impression that she cared if anyone believed it."

Sokka thought back to the quiet conversation he'd had with the girl in his cell, and then the continued conversation in the deeper tunnels where he'd convinced the rebels to rescue Mai as well. "I'm not sure. We seem to have stumbled on some kind of Earthbender civil war. She told me that this 'Long Feng' guy used to be an important rebel, but he got offended when she crowned herself and took his toys and left. She wouldn't tell me anything about her own rebels, though. Said she wanted to keep it a surprise."

Mai brought her hands together, awkwardly intertwining the fingers. "I wish I had a knife."

"I wish you had a hundred knives." Something like a smile flickered across Mai's face, and Sokka decided that to take this moment as a successful reestablishment of peace after the argument that led to him demanding she be completely disarmed when they weren't going into battle. "One thing I do know, though, is that King Toph isn't lying about knowing when we're lying. She gave me the same treatment as you, backing me up against a wall and putting her hands on the stone. So it's not 'magic eyes' or whatever, it's probably an Earthbender trick of some kind. Because she did catch some of the little lies I threw in. Nothing that got me killed, thankfully, but it annoyed her enough that she's had no problem kicking a rock at me whenever she feels like."

Mai did a good job pretending she wasn't thoroughly amused by that; he appreciated the effort. "I'll watch what I say, then."

"Speaking of my injuries, I don't suppose you know any of that acupuncture that Ty Lee used to make my rib feel better?"

She raised an eyebrow. "Even if I did, weren't we saying a second ago that I'm out of weapons? Including needles?"

Oh, right. "Well, I guess I'll just suffer in silence, then."

"That should make for a nice change of pace."

He had to admit, he’d missed Mai-flavored banter.



Mai wasn't sure how long the trip took, beneath the earth where she only had her breathing, Sokka's complaining, and the undulations of the badgermole beneath her to mark the time, but she had passed beyond boredom into complete brain-numbness by the time they arrived at their destination.

At least it was worth seeing. The cavern into which the badgermoles emerged was easily the biggest underground space Mai had ever seen. The smoothly curving domed ceiling stretched up farther than she could throw a knife, leading up to a distant hole through which a dark pink sky was visible. The furthest side of the ceiling danced with light reflected off of some kind of body of water, but the stone walls that rose up out of the ground halfway across the cavern blocked Mai's view of it. That far side of the dome had a vertical crack in it wide enough for an entire cargo ship to sail through, and past the gap, Mai could see another stretch of pink sky and a massive body of water. She didn't smell saltwater, so it couldn't be the ocean, but it had to be the next best thing.

At the base of the wall that bisected the cavern was a whole settlement- bigger than the Tyro and Haru's secret village in the mountain ravine- that stretched and pulsed with life. Mai spotted torches and campfires illuminating a mix of sturdy buildings and what seemed to be skin huts, and even a few Fire Nation tanks parked in a line at the settlement's edge.

Mai kept her eyes on the view as she stepped off of her badgermole and onto an earth platform with Sokka, and continued to stare as it lowered her to the ground under the command of one of the Earthbenders. She didn't shift her gaze as 'King' Toph went to join a welcome-wagon coming from the settlement, although she did note out of the corner of her eye that most of the newcomers were carrying weapons, and some even wore armor.

She wouldn't give them her attention until they asked politely for it.

That moment came when Toph said, "Okay, newbies! You guys have one more test to pass before I show you all my Royal Earth Secrets."

Mai looked over at the self-proclaimed monarch. "Your magic truth powers weren't enough?"

Toph closed her eyes and waved a limp hand. "Naturally, I have many things occupying my attention, and can hardly be bothered to keep track of every stupid rumor my loyal subjects hear. I have people for things like that."

Sokka stepped up to stand beside Mai. "You mean a Spymaster."

"Sure, sure. Anyway, Jet, come on out and tell me if either of these losers are famous assassins or something that represent a danger to my Royal Person."

Jet?!?

As Mai's jaw dropped, the wild-haired miscreant himself stepped out of the group of warriors to leer at her.

She didn't realize she was stepping forward with clenched fists until one of the Earthbenders grabbed her arms and brought her to a halt.

Jet had the gall to wink at her. "Lady Mai, I'd almost think you weren't glad to see me."

"Lick ash and choke on it!"

Behind her, she heard Sokka groan and say, "Jet, why aren't you dead? Not that I wished you dead, but seriously, why aren't you dead?"

Jet approached until he was just out of Mai's punching range. (She thought about spitting at him, but spitting was gross, so she decided against it.) He finally moved his gaze off of her and looked to where Sokka was stepping forward. "I was rescued from Fire Nation captivity. Thank you for asking. I needed some time to recover before I could tussle like I used to with our Fire Nation beauty here, so I was sent by my 'friends' to aid the Earth King by sharing our knowledge. Lucky for you, because I can vouch for you and even arrange a reunion I'm sure you'll enjoy. Not so lucky for the cutest Fire Nation girl to ever lie to the Avatar."

Mai's arms were still being held, but her hands were free, so she held up a pair of gestures that told Jet exactly what he could do with himself and the kinds of curses he could expect to suffer as a result.

Sokka just sighed. "Yeah, we know already. You missed all the drama, but we found out that Mai was working for the Fire Nation. She's working for us now, for real this time."

Jet laughed, but Toph reached over and shoved him off his feet. "The Water Tribe guy is telling the truth. I already did my thing both with his story and Lady Caldera Yu Mai's claims of loyalty. I just want your confirmation that at least one of these hobos is worth my time and resources."

Jet got up and dusted off his pants. "Yes, your Highness. I can confirm that these are two of the most important people in the world right now, and the Avatar will be very grateful for their safe return."

Even though she hated the guy, Mai found herself saying, "Have you had knews of him? Aang? Is he okay?"

Jet looked at her with no trace of teasing on his face, but didn't say anything.

Beside her, Sokka nodded. "We got separated during an attack on a Fire Nation fortress. We're not- it looked pretty bad, but- we don't know-"

Jet nodded. "The Avatar is alive. I haven't had any specific news, but I have 'friends' in the Great Temples. We'd know if the Avatar Spirit passed through the cycle again."

Mai deflated in the arms of her captors, unable to believe her luck. Both Ty Lee and Aang had survived their dangers?

She didn't deserve that.

But she would still happily take it.

Beside her, Sokka was inhaling loudly enough to create echoes through the cavern. "So Katara is probably alive, too!"

Jet's eyes narrowed. "It sounds like a story I need to hear."

Toph shoved him to the ground again. "Soon enough, my loyal Spymaster. I bet our special refugees are going to want to hear this guy's story, too, and we might as well get it all done at once. Break out the food, get a bonfire going, and we'll have a Story Time! I know it will be disappointing not to hear about one of my epic victories, but I'm sure you'll all survive."

Both Mai and Sokka said at the same time, "Special refugees?"

Toph blinked innocently while not looking anywhere near them. "Did I forget to mention that earlier? I don't suppose either of you know an old bag named Kanna?"

Once again, Mai and Sokka spoke simultaneously: "<I>Gran-Gran?!
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Loopy
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« Reply #142 on: Sep 12, 2016 09:51 pm »



Aang spent most of the voyage sitting numbly at Appa's side.

His friend was alive. He would be okay.

It was enough to bring tears of gratitude to his eyes.

Katara had gone to work without hesitation, Waterbending up enormous quantities of water from the ocean and using her healing powers on Appa's wound. "His heart will be okay," she eventually said, tossing the spent water back over the side of the ship and then wiping sweat from her brow. "But from what you told me, his body absorbed lots of energy from that lightning bolt. I can heal the flesh and muscle that was burned, but his Qi flow is weak. I don't think he should fly or move much for a while."

That had worried Aang. "He will be able to fly again, right?"

Katara had looked especially tired as she answered, "I don't know anything for certain, Aang. I'm just doing my best."

So he bowed low before giving her a hug and saying, "Thank you." Only after that would he let her heal his own burns, and then she'd gone to see what she could do for the rest of the survivors.

He sought out Ty Lee, asking if she knew anything about how to survive Lightningbending. That had just made her start crying again, so he hugged her and left her to recover. What she had done was amazing, and he wanted her to know what it meant, even though the shame of his original thoughts about her had choked most of his words in his throat.

They sailed all through the night, Aang staying awake beside Appa and petting his nose to let him know that he wasn't alone. Momo had mimicked the gesture for a while, before curling up and going to sleep some time before dawn.

Aang hadn't been able to sleep.

The sun was rising when Agent Zhuang and the surviving Dai Li scuttled the cargo ship on a beach with a view of an ashland on the horizon. Long Feng and even more of the Dai Li were waiting for them, as planned, and they raised ramps out of the sand leading up to the main deck.

Aang wanted to stay with Appa, to make sure that his big friend was unloaded from the ship gently, but a Dai Li agent he didn't recognize right away came up to him and said, "I am Agent Laotao, Avatar. Long Feng asked me to bring you to join his breakfast."

Aang was about to refuse, but Katara came up to him and put her hands on his shoulders. "It's okay, Aang. I'll look out for Appa. And if anyone gives us trouble, I'll send Ty Lee after them. Between the two of us, we'll keep him safe." Momo fluttered up to curl around her neck, and she gave a soft laugh. "Momo will help us, too."

So Aang let Agent Laotao lead him down to the beach, where Long Feng was sitting on a throne of sand, eating fish and rice from an earthen bowl. "Avatar! I see that the operation was a success."

"Barely." Another Dai Li he didn't recognize handed Aang a bowl of rice and vegetables, and a quick glance confirmed there was no meat in it. He nodded his thanks and continued, "We ran into a pair of Firebenders who gave us trouble before. They hurt Appa so much he can't fly, and a lot of your agents were hurt or killed. I'm sorry."

Long Feng nodded heavily. "I got a report from Agent Zhuang, yes. I mourn for my comrades, but their service has given us a great victory. Once we unload the platinum, we'll have what we need to restore the ashland that used to be my city."

"Ba Sing Se." Aang looked over at the brown smear on the horizon as he chewed. "Do you really think this will work?"

"I think it could, enough to be worth trying." Long Feng stood up, and moved stand at Aang's side. "And I've taken great pains to give us every possible chance at success. If this doesn't work, then there's no hope left for our world."

All of a sudden, Aang wasn't hungry anymore. "When are we going to do this?"

"No reason to delay, is there? As soon as we have the platinum ready for transport, we might as well head straight into the ashland. I've prepared all the other components, and if you are being pursued by hunters, then the sooner the better, yes?"

Aang wished he could agree with that. But he couldn't disagree, so he said nothing, and continued to stare at the ashland that marked the grave of the great city of Ba Sing Se.

TO BE CONTINUED
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Colonel_Brian
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« Reply #143 on: Sep 13, 2016 02:03 pm »

I read this last night and many of the details are already slipping from my head! Better get that checked out.

Anyway, I must say that I found that hilarious remark about Azula being either Zuko's little sister or girlfriend to be a little too biting for Aang. He had a few good zingers in the cartoon, but that line was too good.Cheesy

And I keep forgetting Zuko got his eye removed. Pictuing him with an eyepatch requires effort (though it's an opportunity to crack silly pirate jokes, so it's all good).

I wonder though (since I already forgot) if Azula knows who was the girl in the Dai Li uniform? I don't recall her mentioning Ty Lee in particular, though I suppose the reference to her attacker's "many lovers" could be an allusion to Ty Lee's popularity (?) with men. I don't know, but I'm sure it will be rewarding to find out.

I'm not sure if Azula knows her friend is alive, but seeing how she lost her mind when Ty Lee defied her in the original show, I'm guessing that she won't take the news very well in this universe either. Though who knows how far reaching the whole "for want of a nail" concept this AU really is? Maybe Iroh choosing the navy over the army subtly affected his niece's psychology in ways we don't yet understand and that Azula will react to this betrayal very rationally? Wink

The parts with Mai, Sokka, and Toph were very enjoyable. I was actually wondering, as I read this, whether there would be some sort of ambiguity regarding Mai's confession and Toph's lie detecting powers. Not so much in rehashing the Mai's betrayal subplot, but in shedding light on her feelings toward serving Aang. She is still a bit of an outsider to the gang at this point and harbors a lot of guilt for betraying them, so perhaps she isn't fully convinced that she is sincerely sorry for her past actions and her desire to amend her life? Though, you probably made the right choice, since casting doubt on her confession would have likely slowed the progress being made between her and Sokka and retreading the same ground could prove very tiresome in the long run. So, I'm glad I'm just the consumer in all this!

Anyway, great work. I have a feeling that we are entering the finale for part two of this story, which makes me both thrilled and a little sad. I'm sure you'll dazzle us again like you did the last finale, but once the finale is over, who knows how long it will take to get the next installment?

Good luck!
« Last Edit: Sep 13, 2016 02:04 pm by Colonel_Brian » Logged
Loopy
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« Reply #144 on: Sep 27, 2016 06:00 pm »

Anyway, I must say that I found that hilarious remark about Azula being either Zuko's little sister or girlfriend to be a little too biting for Aang. He had a few good zingers in the cartoon, but that line was too good.Cheesy

I did wonder about that, but then I remembered how he said, "I don't know why, but I expected you to be better than Zuko," to Zhao, and figured that Aang can have some bite when the time is right. Grin


I wonder though (since I already forgot) if Azula knows who was the girl in the Dai Li uniform? I don't recall her mentioning Ty Lee in particular, though I suppose the reference to her attacker's "many lovers" could be an allusion to Ty Lee's popularity (?) with men. I don't know, but I'm sure it will be rewarding to find out.

Nope, you're misinterpreting Azula's pronouncement that she wants to kill everyone who Ty Lee loves, a generic threat against family/friends/etc. She doesn't know that it was Ty Lee. (Yet?)


I'm not sure if Azula knows her friend is alive, but seeing how she lost her mind when Ty Lee defied her in the original show, I'm guessing that she won't take the news very well in this universe either. Though who knows how far reaching the whole "for want of a nail" concept this AU really is? Maybe Iroh choosing the navy over the army subtly affected his niece's psychology in ways we don't yet understand and that Azula will react to this betrayal very rationally? Wink

Keep in mind, Ozai has been very supportive and affectionate towards her. Losing her friends might not be as strong a blow against her worldview.


Though, you probably made the right choice, since casting doubt on her confession would have likely slowed the progress being made between her and Sokka and retreading the same ground could prove very tiresome in the long run. So, I'm glad I'm just the consumer in all this!

Mai has gotten dirty enough at this point that she's clear on her loyalties. Cheesy More seriously, the bit in the ashland where she pulled a weapon on Sokka and submitted to the subsequent shame is actually what solidified her view of her loyalties. If there had been any wavering, she probably would have quit then rather than render herself so vulnerable, but she hit her lowest point and kept going, making her devotion clear.


Anyway, great work. I have a feeling that we are entering the finale for part two of this story, which makes me both thrilled and a little sad. I'm sure you'll dazzle us again like you did the last finale, but once the finale is over, who knows how long it will take to get the next installment?

Good luck!

Thanks! My plan is to kick off Act 3 in February 2017, but it might be sooner in January. I'm definitely taking the rest of the year off, though.




Life for the Living

It was possibly the most surreal thing Sokka had ever encountered.

There was a little Water Tribe village underground in King Toph's cathedral to off-the-map living. The refugees living under the protection of the Earth Rebels called it 'The Middle Pole' and its inhabitants were known for both their blue clothes and being able to really serve up some tasty seafood. The 'Middle Polers' favored skin huts instead of the stone boxes everyone else was living in, freshly made from the local wildlife aboveground. Sokka passed into the little neighborhood and saw the people in blue beginning their day, slowing as he recognized each face, finally coming to a stop when he saw one particular wrinkly visage as familiar as his own.

He had flown all over the world on the back of a giant fluff monster with a boy from a dead civilization and a girl from Evil Land, and none of it compared to unexpectedly finding his people again.

Thus, he didn't really think he could be blamed for greeting his Gran-Gran with, "Is it really you?"

Gran-Gran squinted at him. "What, you don't recognize your grandmother anymore? You haven't been away that long. Now come here and give your Gran-Gran a hug."

Yup, that was Gran-Gran! He wrapped her in an embrace that wouldn't stress his broken rib, and didn't even get a chance to say how good it was to see her before he was being assaulted by a coordinated convergence of mini-hugs that very much did stress his bad rib and sent him screaming in pain as he crumbled to the ground.

It was so familiar he couldn't help but grin through the pain.

Clustered on top of him (how they managed to land on top of him when they were the ones tripping him, he would never figure out) were Shila and Naklin and Quinyaya and Tliyel and Shlim. Shila seemed like she had grown a full hand-span and her yellow eyes sparkled in a way they never had before. Naklin's hair was long enough now to tie it in a small Warrior's Wolf Tail that looked good despite the baby fat still on his face. Quinyaya's arms had gained some muscle, and he had a new balance to his movements that gave away the training he must have started. Tliyel, who had always shivered in the South Pole, now wore a dress with no sleeves and was laughing without reservation. Shlim had gotten his ears pierced, and a pair of shiny blue hoops proclaimed his allegiance to the Moon Spirit.

Despite the growth, their cacophony as Sokka tried to push them away from his rib was unchanged in tone or content:

"Sokka! He found us!"

"He's taller! Right, he's taller? Maybe not?"

"Yay, it's Sokka!"

"Didja bring us anything?"

"Your clothes smell funny!"

"Is King Toph your friend?"

"Did you come back to live with us?"

"Did you come back because you beat the Fire Nation?"

"Did you come back because you're hungry?"

"Want some of my jerky?"

It was just like coming home from an extended shift back at the South Pole Mining Colony's research and development laboratory, except now he was free of the crushing need to do something. He used to resent these kids, abandoned half-breeds and living runny-nosed symbols of the Fire Nation's occupation of his people's home, but now he felt tears in his eyes at the chance to hold them again, and it wasn't just because Shila had buried her face in his bad side. It was amazing what destroying a few Fire Nation fortresses and causing massive loss of enemy life could do for a guy's outlook.

He was back to not knowing what happened to his sister, though. He had a pretty bad track record on that score.

That reminded him. Pushing Naklin and Tliyel off of his head, he looked up at Gran-Gran. "I found her, Gran. Katara was alive, and the greatest Waterbender in the world!" Ignoring the resulting gasp, a response of wonder and surprise that he didn't deserve, he plunged on with, "I- I lost her again, I wasn't thinking about what the water would do the structural support, but I just found out that there's a good chance she's still alive- and- and I'm sorry, so-"

And then Gran-Gran got down on her knees and joined the group hugging session, making him squeak briefly as his rib took another hit. "You did what you set out to do," she said, "and Katara sounds like the strongest person our family ever produced. I'm sure we'll all see her again." She looked at the kids, at the abandoned souls she had taken in after the deaths of Dad and Mom and Katara's capture, and said, "Thank you, Sokka. You did good." She smiled, and slapped his head. "Next time, don't lose her."

Sokka laughed.

He dimly heard King Toph saying, "He's just a big softie, isn't he?"

The only thing more humiliating was Mai's reply of, "Could have fooled me, before just now."



Mai had only met Sokka's extended family briefly before setting out on an epic and very messy adventure, and at the time she had been too cranky about the whole 'running away from home to be a double-agent' thing to bother getting to know anyone. She remembered Gran-Gran as a tough old lady willing to walk through a snowstorm to escape the Fire Nation, but her only memories of the kids who were apparently Sokka's self-appointed younger siblings was their size and number.

It was only now that she realized the kids were all only half Water Tribe. Some were more obvious than others, but there was no mistaking any of them.

And they were living here in Toph's domain alongside a little Water Tribe and plenty of Earth Kingdom refugees.

She turned away from Sokka's efforts to extract himself from the pile of kids and said to Toph, "Where are we?"

It was Jet who answered first. He had run off while Toph was leading everyone over to the Water Tribe settlement, but now he was walking over with his infuriating smirk back on his face. "Officially, this is Full Moon Bay. There used to be a port here where refugees could buy passage to Ba Sing Se. Right across the water is the ashland where the city used to be."

"Now, this is my kingdom!" Toph flung her hands out to encompass the whole settlement. "It's perfect! It has secret entrances that only Earthbenders can open, but anyone can retreat out onto the sea by taking one of the boats. There's lots of space, so we can sprawl out with enough left over for the badgermoles to play, and the ceiling is so high that none of the wussies get claustrophobic! And Ba Sing Se used to be right over there, so when the Avatar kills the Fire Lord, we'll already be ready to become the new capital of the Earth Kingdom!"

Mai had to admit, this girl may have been blind, but she certainly had vision. "And anyone who will bow to you is welcome?"

"That's right! I'll be friends with anyone who recognizes how great I am, and I'm the best kind of friend you can have!" Toph brought her hands down and stomped her left foot, making the ground beneath her rise up like a platform so that she stood taller than both Mai and Jet. "I'm the greatest Earthbender who ever lived! While other people look for enemies with their eyes, I can feel the pulse of every heart right through the ground. Move a speck of dust around me and I'll feel you coming from your exact position! I've fought my way free of Gaoling while it was burning, whipped the survivors of the war back into fighting shape, and protected people who couldn't find a home anywhere else! I even discovered this bay after its old owners had given up on it!"

"Then why haven't you kicked the Fire Nation out of your country already?" Mai felt herself at the center of a lot of gazes, and she was glad she was still wearing green clothes. "You know, if you're so great and all."

Toph tensed visibly, but of course she didn't need to look at Mai. "Are you saying I can't?"

"That's right. You're just one Earthbender, and even all the people here could be wiped out by the Fire Army in a single battle."

There was a brittle silence for a moment, and then Toph grinned. "You're sassy and smart. I like you, Lady. But yeah, you're right. We can't win the way we are now. So I'm waiting, bringing in all different kinds of people who can make the rest of us stronger. When the time is right, we'll hit the Fire Nation where it hurts the most, and they'll realize they've never had control of this country. Not as long as I've been free." She stomped a foot again to lower her platform back to the ground, and reached over to throw an arm around Mai's waist. "And now I'm good friends with two of the Avatar's best buddies. I wonder if that will help me and the Airbender kid get acquainted. He's the only important person left who hasn't officially recognized my Kingship."

That's when Jet broke in with, "If we can get him away from Long Feng."

Mai remembered the dark prison where she had spent a time she couldn't measure, and those interrogations sessions that had faded into her mind like nightmares she could only partially forget. "Who is this Long Feng guy? I owe him a blade between the ribs."

Jet nodded. "He's not very well known, but he's a major player. He was some kind of minister in Ba Sing Se, and ran a secret police force that helped keep the city strong all throughout the war. There's a lot that's still a mystery about him, but he was somehow able to survive the rest of the city's destruction. He preserved a lot of resources and was making like he was going to start his own rebellion, but then Her Majesty set up shop here in Full Moon Bay."

Toph squeezed Mai's waist tighter, constricting her airflow. "I tried to be a good neighbor, sharing my stuff and letting him lend me soldiers for important raids, but then he got all huffy when I took in the Water Tribe and defectors from the Fire Nation. So I started getting the Sages and Shamans to declare me the new Earth King, and that really got him muddy. Said that girls have to be Queens and the Royal Lineage was sacred blah blah blah. Then he insisted he should be the one giving orders for stupid reasons I didn't listen to. So I punched him."

Mai let herself grin as she pushed Toph off of her. In the Fire Nation, such a dispute would be settled by Agni Kai; according to the Way of the Flame, truth would be expressed through superior fighting and Firebending. Mai, quiet heretic that she was, thought it sounded like an excuse for bullies to get their way, and she only supported such a practice when it was her own bullying that was carrying the day. Mai didn't know if Toph was as strong as claimed, but she liked the idea of a little girl punching a grown man because he insisted she couldn't call herself a king if she wanted. "So what's Long Feng's link to Aang?"

Jet frowned. "We're not sure. We've had scouts watching Long Feng's activities, since he's been too busy lately for our liking, and we've gotten reports of Dai Li agents- those are Long Feng's soldiers- seen with a sky bison and a boy in dawn colors. In fact, I just heard that the Avatar and a group of Dai Li were  doing something at the edge of the Ba Sing Se ashland this morning." He turned to Toph. "A runner came here to warn us while the rest of the scouts stayed to observe. Do you want them to make a move? It will take a few hours for our fastest runner to carry word back across the Serpent’s Pass."

Toph went still, and she pointed her face at nothing in particular. It was even hard to tell she was breathing. The only movement across her entire body was the wiggling of her toes against the rocky ground.

Then she swung so that her face was directly pointed at Mai's, those dull and unfocused eyes staring at something that wasn't there. "No! We're not going to send a runner. We're going to check out Long Feng's agenda ourselves, wave the Avatar's girlfriend here like a flag in front of him, and tell him that all the best people are hanging out with Earth King Toph! Someone get Lady here a sword, just in case. Jet, you're in charge until I get back. Knuckle Squad comes with me. The Water Tribe dunderhead with the broken rib stays here. And lookouts should be watching the ashland until I get back in case the Avatar slips out between my muscular little fingers."

Mai nodded as Sokka squawked and finally crawled his way out from his family. There was a whine in his voice as he said, "I should go with you! My sister might be out there!"

Toph snapped her arm out and pointed at him without so much as turning to face him. "No! Lady Caldera Yu Mai can make the introductions, and in case there's a fight, I don't want you bumbling around with your injury making things all muddy. You stay here and catch up with your Grandma. Eat some soup and take a nap. We'll bring your sister to come and kiss your booboo later." She stomped her right foot, making the whole ground shake, and shouted, "So Says Earth King Toph!"

No Jet, no having to worry about Sokka, and a chance to find Aang again? Mai winked at Sokka and then made a sarcastically elaborate bow to the self-proclaimed monarch.


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« Reply #145 on: Sep 27, 2016 06:01 pm »

Katara's bad feeling began when she watched the emptied Fire Nation cargo ship be set adrift. It was carried out into deep waters by the waves generated by the Dai Li's Sandbending, a ghost ship left to bob on empty seas until it would be taken by a storm.

Emptying the ship had been a quick and efficient process. The Dai Li had used their Earthbending to raise and move large stone tubs onto the ship, and the ore in the cargo hold was simply shifted into the tubs and carried back out to the beach. They used the same process to move Appa off the ship. Katara and Ty Lee had ridden alongside the injured sky bison, and Katara found the ride to be smoother than sledding across a field of ice. Momo had slept the whole process away in her arms, waking up only when he smelled the food Long Feng's welcoming crew was handing out on the beach.

Of course, Aang had been there to greet them. "How's Appa doing?"

Letting Momo go find something to eat, Katara reached out to rub the bison's nose. Appa sniffed, and she could see his eyes moving beneath their closed lids, but he didn't otherwise acknowledge any of the activity around him. "Still weak, I guess. There's supposed to be a full moon soon, and I'd like to give him a full-immersion healing session before it's over. That might help him. The moon is very important to Waterbenders, and might provide something that my normal healing can't."

Aang's eyes lit up a bit. "Wow, that sounds worth a try. Thanks, Katara! You're really smart with this stuff."

Katara felt her cheeks heating up at the praise. She wanted to deny it, since it was really just a guess and her Waterbending has so far been of little help to the ailing sky bison, but if the idea gave Aang a little hope, she didn't want to take that away from him.

Ty Lee had shifted on her feet at that point, leaning over and hissing, "Incoming jerk!"

Katara looked to see what that meant, and found Long Feng approaching them. He had a perfectly polite smile on his face as he said, "Yes, I heard your sky bison was injured during the fight. I hope it makes a full recovery."

Ty Lee immediately stepped forward. "Don't try to distract us! Your Dai Li were being meanies on the ship and killing everyone! They just- they didn't stop for even a second to give anyone a chance to surrender! All those people got hurt!"

Katara had blinked at the outburst. She hadn't been on the ship during the fight to take control, but she didn't have any reason to distrust Ty Lee. Aang's own eyes were wide, and he looked to Long Feng and said, "Is that true?"

Long Feng lost his smile. "Of course. I said that my people would need to fight efficiently and to preserve their own safety. And certainly, the first wave of sailors might not have had a chance to surrender, but the rest of the ship must have soon heard the fighting. Those people had a chance to refuse to join the defense, but they chose to fight for the ore they stole from Water Tribe lands, ore mined by Water Tribe slaves forced to submit or be wiped out. Those sailors feed their families with the profits of slavery and theft, and our little Fire Nation traitor here thinks they should have been given formal terms of surrender."

Ty Lee bristled visibly, but Long Feng continued, "I wish I could say I was surprised, but this kind of attitude is all too common in Fire Nation defectors. They say they've seen the truth, but they're still so blind to what their people are doing to us."

Aang had looked uncertain, so Katara said to Ty Lee, "Were any of the injured later killed? Or anyone who had stopped fighting?"

Ty Lee deflated before answering, "No."

"Well, then." Long Feng turned back to Aang. "We should be leaving soon, Avatar. We're about an hour away from the ashland, and then we'll still have a long journey to the center."

Aang had given Ty Lee an apologetic look, but she was already wandering away to watch over the disembarking of the small group of prisoners. They were chained up and taken away to Long Feng's base by a squad, and soon afterward the whole group of Dai Li was moving out, standing on the sides of the ore-filled tubs and using their Earthbending to turn the stone beneath their feet into vehicles that slid across the earth as though on wheels.

Katara rode with her friends in Appa's transport, looking back at the cargo ship as it drifted away and wondering about the lump of ice in her stomach.

It took an hour to get to the edge of the ashland, just like Long Feng promised, and the air took on a terrible taste long before that. When Katara had previously visited an ashland, it was by descending from above on Appa, with Aang going ahead to settle the winds. This time, Aang was saving his strength for when the ash became thick enough to be dangerous, so that he would have the energy for this ritual of Long Feng's. Instead, they all made use of scarves over their faces to filter the air.

The procession came to a stop when ash was starting to lay like drifts of snow on the ground.

Aang gave one last nose-rub to Appa. "Stay safe, buddy. I have to go help the Dai Li now. When I get back, Katara and I will give you a new healing session. Does that sound good?"

Appa rumbled with less resonance than he usually had, but he shifted his head to lean into Aang's hand.

Momo came over as well and landed on Aang's head, eliciting a pat and a, "Okay, you stay safe here, too." Aang turned to Katara. "Will you stay with Appa? Take care of him?"

Katara took a steadying breath before she spoke. "No."

"No?" Aang blinked at her.

Katara shook her head. "I'm coming with you. I want to help Appa, but you're important, too, Aang. You'll need a friend out there." She glanced at Ty Lee. "You can stay with Appa, right?"

Ty Lee nodded eagerly. "I wasn't crazy about going back in- in one of those places. The nuns and I were stuck in one for a long time, and it- it- sometimes I dream about it." She leaned her body on Appa's head. "We'll stay here and rest up. Won't that be fun, you big fuzzy buddy, you?"

Katara looked back to Aang. "Well?"

"I guess that's okay, then." He took a step towards her, stopped suddenly- and then continued on to give her a hug. "Thanks for coming."

She hugged him back, relieved that he was going to let her protect him.

She had already lost Sokka. Lost Mai. She didn't want to lose Aang, too.

Aang trotted off to go join Long Feng, and Katara was about to follow when she remembered something. Her waterskins were full, but something told her she might need an extra edge. She went to Appa's saddle, lying beside him in the transport, and dug around in the supplies until she found Mai's space sword.

The platinum sword.

Katara strapped the sheathed weapon to her belt and then ran after Aang.



Zuko felt his inner fire flicker when he realized they were following the Avatar's scent straight into an ashland.

He, Azula, Suki, and June had been riding all night, three ostrich-horses following the shirshu underneath the light of the nearly-full moon like the Eternal Riders from the old legends. Although they couldn't follow the Avatar's path directly on the ocean waters, June's shirshu was capable of detecting the remnants of his scent on the winds. They had paralleled the coast eastward even as the sun rose up ahead of them.

Zuko wasn't sure how he could have been the first to realize they were heading towards the Ba Sing Se ashland. The shirshu's nose should have picked up on the smell before any human, and yet they were all still riding when Zuko felt the shadow fall upon his spirit. Maybe he had been unconsciously aware of the city's position, or he had some kind of supernatural connection with ashlands after his previous-

-encounter.

Either way, when the group had stopped for a brief break while the shirshu sniffed around to confirm their trail, Zuko looked into the distance and announced, "We're heading towards Ba Sing Se's pyre."

Azula had been in the process of stretching and immediately froze in position. Suki gasped from atop her ostrich-horse. June just went still for a moment, and then said, "Well, it's time for a decision. We either wait for the Avatar to come back out and try to pick up the scent again, or I'm done with this job right here and now."

Azula's voice was a clear as the chopping gesture she made. "We wait."

Suki looked to Zuko. "Why wait? Will the ash interfere with scent?"

Before Zuko could enter, June cut in with, "Yes, but that's not the real reason. The royal siblings and I have been in an ashland together before, and we found out that the stories are true. They're haunted. And dangerous. I'm not being paid enough to risk my life against something I can't even fight. Not like that."

Azula nodded. "There are supernatural forces at work in there. It would be stupid, tactically speaking, to attempt to capture the Avatar while such interference is in play."

Suki's eyes never left Zuko. He could feel the weight of her gaze, and it was almost a relief when she said, "Zuko wants to go in."

June snorted.

Azula's eyes went wide and her nostrils flared. "No! Didn't I just use the world 'stupid?' To reiterate, it would be stupid."

Zuko supposed there was no avoiding an argument. "Why would the Avatar willingly go into an ashland? He's up to something."

"Of course he's up to something!" Azula threw her hands into the air. "Everyone is up to something! We have no reason to go shove our faces into this particular something."

Zuko shook his head. "He knows we're chasing him, now, and something about this feels- it feels important." He had to think about how to put it into words, how to describe the apprehension he was feeling not just at the ashland ahead of them, but at the idea that the Avatar was going in with all his power and strange abilities. "We can't turn away from this. The Avatar in the center of the world's biggest ashland is something that can only be a disaster for the world. Remember what he did to the volcano out in the middle of the ocean? Imagine that. With whatever it is that lives in ashlands. Here. Believe me, I'm scared, too."

Azula's face twisted in a snarl, and before Zuko could even register it, she was in his face, shoving him to the ground and twisting his arms and screaming, "I am not scared! Nothing scares me! I am beyond fear! I am Azula, Daughter of Ozai and Heir to the Lightning!" Saliva flew from her mouth as she screamed to splatter on Zuko's face.

He could only weather the storm until she stopped to catch her breath. Then he looked into her eyes and said, "I'm going in there. I understand if you have obligations that prevent you from coming with me."

She let go of one his arms to slap him. There was enough force in the blow to make his head ring and his jaw ache, and when he could see straight again, he realized she had knocked his eyepatch right off his face. "And what would you have me tell Father," she whispered, "about why I couldn't bring you home as ordered?"

He lowered his eye. "You won't have to tell him anything. I came out of the last ashland. I will come out of this one, and I will have the Avatar as my prisoner. The only way I will allow myself to fail is if there's no world outside the ashland to come back to."

"Well." Azula's eyes narrowed and she stared at him as the wind picked up and a cloud passed in front of the sun. When the light came back, she stood up and folded her arms. "I can hardly let you show more backbone than me. I'm coming."

June groaned. "Can I ask you both to sign a paper attesting that you're both doing this against my advice, and I have no responsibility for your deaths?"

"Gladly." Azula walked over to June as if they were going to discuss travel expenses.

Zuko got up off the ground to find Suki waiting beside him. She leaned forward and whispered, "Zuko, please, don't do this." He shook his head, not intending to get in to the argument again, but she continued, "I believe you when you say you'll survive. But going into something that even has your sister wetting herself, to drag out the Avatar- I'm afraid of what this will do to you."

"Do to me?"

She nodded. "I understand why you're doing this all. After our talk in the stables that time- about family- and their holds on us-" Her voice trembled, and her gaze fell to the ground for a moment, no doubt thinking about the sister who used to beat her as a child.

All of a sudden, Zuko remembered that he wasn't wearing his eyepatch, and his empty eye-socket was visible to her. He snatched it off the ground and yanked it back on.

Suki didn't acknowledge his actions, but did find her voice to say, "We can't stop loving them, but we can't destroy ourselves, either. We can't let them change us into something worse than we already are."

Zuko didn't want to think what 'worse than he already was' could be. "Isn't that what you're already doing? Helping us find the Avatar?"

She sniffled. "I'm already a traitor, Zuko. Why do you think my sister hit me in the first place? I did what I thought I had to, not what she told me."

Zuko considered that, looking over to where Azula was painting her mark on several papers for June. They finished, and June began leading the shirshu back in the opposite direction of where they had been traveling. "And what do you think I am now, that going into this ashland might destroy?"

"An honorable man."

His gaze snapped back to her. "Why would say that?!"

"Because only someone with honor would work this hard out of love, and would give that love to people who might not deserve it." She pushed a weak smile onto her face.

Zuko couldn't keep looking at her. He turned his eye elsewhere- anywhere else. He looked at the sky, at the ground, at Azula, at his ostrich-horse. He looked at the vague smear on the horizon that might be the ashland.

Only then did he turn back to Suki. "That's why I have to keep going. My honor demands it."

She sighed, and nodded. "Put in danger of losing what you are, by what you are. You're like a Prince out of an ancient legend, Zuko. I consider it a privilege to know you. And that's why I'm coming with you."

He knew better than to take the bait. He nodded to acknowledge her bravery, and then went to get ready for what might be the most harrowing experience of his life.


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« Reply #146 on: Sep 27, 2016 06:02 pm »

Aang's previous foray into an ashland led to a conversation with a friendly ghost. He wasn't expecting this new visit to be as benign, but he was still surprised when, between one step and the next, he went from dirty air and fields of soot to an entire crowded neighborhood of apartment buildings made of ash.

The buildings rose up around him, and for all that they were made of gray clumps of cinders, the level of detail was amazing. He could see ragged awnings undulating in the wind, buildings with cracks and worn walls sagging against each other, little piles of garbage and animal droppings scattered throughout the streets.

It was like a monument to a city that was no more, made from the city's own remains.

The most unnerving part was the people.

They were all mixed together: crowds of refugees wailing that they needed a place to stay, soldiers thrusting spears at rock-throwing revolutionaries, chanting shamans sanctifying land against disease by throwing handfuls of salt. They all wore clothes from distinct eras, but when two figures collided with each other, their ash forms would merge and twist and writhe and finally rip apart, having exchanged pieces of clothing and maybe a body part or two.

Aang found himself frozen in horror at the sight of it all. Katara gasped beside him and snapped into a defensive stance.

He didn't even hear Long Feng come up from behind until he spoke. "I lived in Ba Sing Se all of my life. I was born in the Lower Ring, and worked my way up through the ranks until I was a minister to the King himself. Truly, it was the greatest city in the world."

Aang watched as a woman made of ash crawled past his boots, clutching a screaming ash-baby and begging for food. "Yeah. Great."

Katara reached down to touch the baby, but pulled her hand back at the last moment, shuddering.

"This is what the ashland always shows those who set foot within. What we're seeing is the exact neighborhood that used to be here, before the Fire Nation burned it down and killed the residents. The ghosts, though, are from throughout Ba Sing Se's history. The very earth itself must contain echoes of the spirits of all the people who lived their lives, here. The rebellion the soldiers are putting down over there happened in the era of Avatar Kyoshi."

Aang had to step back as the fighting from that rebellion spilled over close enough that he was well within spear-range. "This is what we have to fix? Giving peace to the remnants of these spirits?"

"Exactly." Long Feng reached out and touched the shoulder of one of the chanting shamans, knocking some of the ash loose to swirl in the air. "I know I'm not a good person, Avatar. I've done dark things for my city, and your Fire Nation friend, Ty Lee, is right. I'm ruthless at times when perhaps I could be kinder. Life is complicated, and it is hard to know when we're making the wrong choices. But if ever someone was to doubt my mission, doubt what I'm trying to do, I would only have to point that person to all of this." He motioned at the ghost-neighborhood around them, and the cacophonous spirits locked in parodies of their lives. "This is what the Fire Nation chose, what the Fire Nation stands for. Even when I make the wrong choices, could I ever produce something like this? The very idea turns my stomach."

Aang could say nothing. He was never fond of the concept of shades of gray, and here in this world of ash, he could find no other color.

The journey didn't get any better after that. Aang let Long Feng steer the platform he and Katara were sharing deeper in the ashland, followed by the other Dai Li and their own moving tubs of platinum. He noticed that whenever one of the ghosts stumbled into contact with the glistening ore, the whole construct would lose its power, crumbling to a pile of soot. Even the fake city seemed to loathe the metal, losing cohesion around the moving tubs to fall back into biting, filthy winds.

Aang wasn't sure how many hours it took to reach the center. It seemed like they were riding for days, but the ash blocked out all view of the sun above. Katara even removed her borrowed hat, saying, "It feels like I'm back in a prison."

Aang wasn't sure if that was supposed to be a good thing or a bad thing.

Still, the light eventually began noticeably dimming, and Long Feng called for everyone to make camp for the night. The Dai Li used their Earthbending to dig holes in the ground, scattering the ash with bursts of stone, and then tarps were nailed to the ground over the shelters to keep the cinders out. Food was dried rations, and neither Aang nor Katara found it satisfying.

Still, it was more satisfying than sleep. In the 'morning' when Long Feng called for them to get up and resume their journey, Aang rubbed bleary eyes to find Katara grimacing. He said, "Didn't sleep well?"

"No. Bad dreams, but I don't remember them. You?"

Aang didn't try too hard to remember his own dreams, this once. "Yeah."

They rode for the whole day again. Long Feng pointed out the University of Ba Sing Se during the lunch break, and Aang saw students made of ash hurrying to class while ancient astronomers argued against star-worshippers with shouts so strong that soot flew from their mouths. In another spot, Kings made gifts of ancient books while small dog-like animals carried tomes away in their mouths.

The light was dimming again when they finally reached the rendezvous.

"There's something up ahead," Katara called, pointing ahead of the procession. The ground here was flat, the neighborhoods having grown less cramped as they moved deeper into the ghost city. The Upper Ring came with lots of empty space that Long Feng had said were public gardens, river-like aqueducts, and uninhabited estates belonging to wealthy families who maintained property in the capital even though they lived elsewhere. Aang turned away from the sight of an Earth Palace made of ash, and sure enough, a long metal pole stood in the distance with a black flag fluttering in the tainted wind.

"It's our rendezvous!" Even Long Feng sounded relieved. "This is where we'll enact the ritual. I sent a part of my agents ahead to mark the spot and prepare the ground. All we need to do is set up the platinum."

The procession hurried forward, and they were indeed met by a squad of Dai Li. Aang spotted a small building, a squat bunker made from the stone of the ground beneath the ash, nearby. Ahead, a circle of stone pillars stood like something ancient and arcane.

Long Feng finished talking with his agents, and hurried over to Aang. "We can begin whenever you're ready, Avatar. If you'd prefer to rest, the bunker has space for us, but I'd personally prefer not to spend another night in here."

"Yeah." Aang looked over to Katara, and her fervent nod confirmed his own feelings. "Let's get this done."

Long Feng gave a hand signal, and the Dai Li went into action. The stone tubs carrying the platinum pieces crumbled, spilling the chunks of ore across the ground, but their tumbles barely came to a stop before the rock of the ground was rising up to grab each piece. The entire cadre of Dai Li moved in sequence. They couldn't bend the metal itself, but with the chunks wrapped in earth, they could move it as they willed, stacking the pieces up and aligning them to form shapes.

Aang watched as strange characters were written on the ground in pieces of platinum around the circle of pillars, while the pillars themselves were attacked by other stone-wrapped metal-bits like spider-ants over picnic food. The pillars grew shining, misshapen talons that reached up into the sky and curved together to meet at the center of the circle. The stone wrappers then crumbled, leaving a balanced structure of platinum chunks.

Aang dodged around some more pieces being maneuvered across the ground, forming paths around the strange characters, and hurried over to Long Feng's side to ask, "Where do you need me? At the center of the pillars?"

Long Feng shook his head. "That's where the energies are going to be funneled for purification. We'll keep some of the Dai Li at the bunker as guards and in case we need substitutes. Most of them will be placed at points throughout our little arrangement to guide the energies. They'll be moving like they're Bending, but not any form that has ever moved Earth. You, Avatar, will be at the head the formation, not far from the bunker. I was originally going to take your job, but I think you're much more qualified. You'll be where the purified energies will be exiting the formation, meditating on life to show the energies the proper way of being. It might be overwhelming, having that much energy flow through and over you, but once we begin, we cannot stop."

Katara had trotted beside them, and Aang didn't miss the way she kept a hand on the sword she had taken from Mai's supplies. "How long will Aang and the Dai Li be at this? This place is so- so massive!"

Long Feng nodded. "It is, but I have no intention of doing everything all at once. This is where the Earth King died, the center of Ba Sing Se. If we can purify as much as we can here, I think that should settle the ashland. The rest will have to be treated, of course, but we or some proper sages can do that at later times. The importance is to free this place of the twisting that is hurting it."

It made sense to Aang. He looked to Katara and smiled. "Keep an eye out for me, okay? I'll be busy, so I'm counting on you."

She looked back at him with hard eyes. "I can feel the full moon above us. I'll be more than ready for any kind of trouble. And then we'll get back to Appa and heal him, too."

Aang took a deep breath, but then remembered where he was and fought against a coughing fit. He sneezed out the ash on the air, and then shrugged. "I guess we're ready, then. Let's save Ba Sing Se!"

Long Feng stood tall and looked out over the constructions of his Dai Li. "Yes. Let's."



A full twenty-four hours after leaving June behind and plunging on into the ashland, Zuko was prepared to admit that he had perhaps made a mistake.

The ostrich-horses had been skittish as soon as the ash was visible in the air, and they had a tendency to randomly stop and shake the cinders from their feathers. The group also had to stop every so often so that Azula could consult her navigation tools and figure out where they were and where they should be heading. Zuko remained convinced that the Avatar was heading towards the center of the ashland, but that was a difficult thing to define without landmarks.

And there was the pressure.

The pounding, overwhelming pressure.

It wasn't a physical thing, nothing that seemed to affect the bird-steeds, or even Suki. Zuko and Azula alone were left at the center of what felt like the angry attention of an entire nation. Zuko felt like he was being watched constantly, every movement being judged, his name on the lips of billions of billions of people, and all it would take was one wrong move for all that to transform into an unending wave of violence.

It was like being back home in Father's care.

Azula hadn't spoken of it, of course. When Zuko asked, she simply said through her scarf, "I can handle anything you can." But he noticed how pale her skin was, the way her eyes twitched, the shake in her hands as she squeezed her ostrich-horse's reins.

When the city of ash rose up around them, and the cinder-ghosts began walking around, Azula had fallen out of her saddle.

Zuko hadn't been much better; he only kept his seat because his bird-steed had been sitting down at that point and refused to get up.

What was truly strange was that the cinder-ghosts always stopped to bow to Suki as they crossed her path.

Azula had hissed, "Why? I'm royalty, not you!"

Suki just shook her head. "I grew up on the streets of a Southern Island. My family has lived on Kyoshi's lands since the day she split them off from the mainland. I have no idea why anyone would bow to me."

They kept going, letting Suki lead the way in case any of the ghosts weren't as apathetic to the Fire Royalty passing through their lands.

Even so, the pressure alone was giving Zuko a splitting headache.

But they kept going, fighting through the ash, through the streets that weren't really there, under the watch of spirits that could just be leading them to a slaughter. They went on through the night, and beneath the sickly, invisible sun.



Katara didn't like any of this.

Not.

One.

Bit.

On the face of it, this was all fine. Long Feng wanted to heal the grounds of his old city and set the spirits of the dead to rest. Aang would be doing his Avatar job, helping fix a small part of the damage done by the war.

But none of this looked right to her.

She had been very little when her people had been forced by the Fire Nation to abandon their village, to cram into the ghetto at the base of the Azulon Mines, but she had memories of the old days. She remembered when her tribe had been able to live according to their culture. She remembered the festivals and the dances. She remembered how her people honored the spirits of their ancestors, and respected the spirits of the lands. She remembered what that looked like, and the feeling of peace that came from it. She had connected those memories to the lessons of Master Hama, back in the heart of Crescent Island, detailing not just the movements of Waterbending but the culture and meaning behind it.

None of what Long Feng was doing felt right at all.

These strange characters written on the ground, the paths swirling through the area, and this ring of pillars with such horrible claw-like platinum arches built on top of them to meet in the middle.

It was unsettling.

It wasn't like what Katara remembered, nor was it of the Earth.

So she had paced around Aang for a while as the Dai Li started their dance-like motions. She paced as Aang sank into a meditation and his eyes started glowing. She paced as the winds picked up and the ash began pelting everyone. She paced (and tugged her robe up to cover her nose and mouth) as Long Feng's eyes brightened and he grinned at the whole display. She paced as the howling of the wind became something more like the howling of a crowd in pain. She paced as the Dai Li standing guard around the bunker watched in fascination.

She began wishing she was wearing a hat again.

To that end, she made sure no one was looking at her and then trotted over to the bunker to pick out one of the spares that Dai Li had brought. (They were big on proper uniforms.) And if that gave her a moment of relief from the strange display and maybe let her check out what Long Feng had set up before she and Aang got here-

Well, Sokka would approve of her efficiency, she was sure.

The inside of the bunker was very plain, just a single big room with supplies stacked in one side and bed-rolls laid out in even rows across most of the space. Katara grabbed a hat, looking around in the light of the crystal lantern hanging from the center of the ceiling, and almost missed the straight-lined gap in the floor running out from beneath one of the food barrels.

She moved the barrel to reveal a trap door.

She opened the trap door to reveal a basement.

She grabbed the lantern off its line and shined it down into the basement to reveal the Airbender nuns tied up and gagged in the secret room, a secret room with walls covered in more of the strange characters from outside. They shined in the light of her lantern, and she saw that they were formed from platinum pebbles pressed into the stone.

She freed the Airbender nuns to stage her first jailbreak.


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« Reply #147 on: Sep 27, 2016 06:03 pm »

Aang had never felt such pressure.

The energies that the Dai Li were channeling to him, the energies being stripped out from the ash-heavy winds, the energies that had once been the lives and emotions and dreams of the people of Ba Sing Se- those energies were flooding on such a scale that even the Avatar Spirit seemed tiny in comparison.

How many Avatars had lived and died since the dawn of the world? It was beyond count, Aang knew, beyond even the oldest records of history. (Of course, the oldest record of history was probably that statue room in the Southern Air Temple, and Sokka and Mai had done a lot of damage while saving his life. He didn't blame them, but it was very unfortunate.) All of those Avatars, thousands- maybe thousands of thousands-

It was nothing compared to the number of people who died in Ba Sing Se on the day of the return of Sozin's Comet.

As Aang meditated, trying to be an oasis of peace in the midst of the ashstorm, he realized it wasn't just about those millions who had died on that day, either. Ba Sing Se was a city that might very well be as old as humanity, and the full scale of its history- all of those people who had lived in it and shaped it throughout the ages- had its own energy. That had been murdered by the Fire Nation, as well.

And now it was being driven towards Aang.

Even so, he knew he could do it. He could feel the strength of the Avatars behind him, bolstering him, helping him. The energies of Ba Sing Se were also being regulated, being ordered by the control of the Dai Li and their ceremony. And Aang had been through this trauma before, when he managed to recover his Airbending back on Crescent Island after Mai's betrayal, when he had directed the energies of the Spirit Festival to save Aunt Wu, when he had healed Mother Malu in the heart of that wilderness ashland. He knew he could do it, centered by the needs of the world and the training of the Air Nomads.

He could feel those spirits settling, could feel the winds settling, could feel the ash coming to rest on the ground, could feel the ash rising again to form bodies and housings for the energies that Aang was settling and-

Wait.

Wait!

This wasn't supposed to be what was happening!

The ash wasn't supposed to be coming to life again!

But Aang was trapped in the wash of the tide of the energies, and his thoughts were being hammered by voices speaking the sounds of the unknown characters written by the Dai Li on the ground. He wanted to stop this, wanted to tell Long Feng that this wasn't the way, that Ba Sing Se couldn't live again, but the pressure was too much, and opening his eyes was like trying to hold up the entire world.

But as he struggled, he heard Katara's shouts, heard the calls of Mother Malu and Sister Matagi and the other nuns he had saved from Tiankeng Fortress, heard Long Feng's angry snarl: "The sacrifices!"

The flow was disrupted as some of the Dai Li stepped out of their dance, as Katara and the nuns became the center of a fight. The spirits here didn't like further violence, Aang could tell; the winds howled with the cries of, "There is no war in Ba Sing Se," and those words were a crushing spirit all their own.

That's when the spirits of Ba Sing Se's ashland got mad.

He didn't need to open his eyes to see the way the ash was responding now.

He could feel it.

He could feel it driving, could feel it rising, could feel it swirling, could feel it compressing, could feel it screaming.

It was the scream that finally let Aang open his eyes. The screams brought all of the Dai Li, all of the Airbender nuns, all of the living things in the ashland to their knees.

It was the sound of ten million people screaming.

Ten million people, but one mad spirit.

Aang looked up over the stone pillars, over the platinum arches, to see a single creature forming out of the ash as big as the sky and twice as wide. It was one massive city-sized creature, with a head and four limbs like most animals, but its makeup was all of the ash figures that Aang had passed over the last two days. Their screaming faces peered out from the mass, all of Ba Sing Se's dead screaming, their movements giving an awful texture to the monster. They writhed and struggled and wrestled, never stopping their screaming, as the monster lowered its legs and arms to the ground to stand upon the grounds of Ba Sing Se.

It filled the whole sky above Aang, and kept growing until all the ash in the entire vista been absorbed.

Then the creature looked down with a head shaped like the ancient Earth Palace and roared a sound like the material world itself cracking within a fire.

Aang struggled to his feet, knowing he had to fight this thing-

-but having no idea how.

TO BE CONTINUED
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« Reply #148 on: Oct 17, 2016 09:59 pm »

Life for the Dead

On the second day of his trek through the ashland that used to be Ba Sing Se, Zuko finally found relief from his pounding headache, from the pressure that threatened to make his eardrums burst, from the simulacrums of murdered citizens that glared at him as he passed.

It came with a wind, an instantaneous hurricane, a scourging air that blasted Zuko with cinders rendered as sharp as glass by their speed and forcibly ripped every trapped grain of ash from his body, the joints of his armor, his nose and lungs- everywhere. He was proud of himself for enduring it stoically, but then his ostrich-horse mount screeched in panic and jumped up beneath him, panicked by what was going on. It seemed to try to actually take flight for a moment before crashing back down and dumping Zuko and the saddlebags on the ground.

It was unexpectedly hard. The ash was gone, the cinder-formed images of a street long gone, leaving just dry and cracked rock.

Zuko hit his tailbone, of course.

When he forced his way through the wince of pain, he found Azula and Suki on the ground as well. He spotted their birdsteeds all running off in the same direction, back the way they had come. He looked to the girls to see if they had any ideas about how to proceed, but found Azula staring in a different direction completely.

His sister, ever the tactician, had immediately looked to see what their mounts were running from.

Zuko finally looked as well.

That's when he saw the monster.

He thought at first that it must have been approaching faster than a charging rhino, but by the time he scrambled to his feet and took a defensive stance, he realized that the monster wasn't moving at all. Rather, it was growing, drawing the ash unto itself, and it wasn't at all close enough to represent an imminent danger.

It was just-

That.

Big.

The horrified silence was broken, of course, by Azula: "Well, Zuzu, I have to give you credit. When you said the Avatar might be creating a disaster for the world, you were right." Most others might have missed the quavering undertone in her voice, but Zuko didn't. "I don't suppose you'd care to retreat at this point and come back with artillery? It's the only tactically sound choice."

He looked to Suki, who was getting to her own feet. Suki checked her sheathed katana, and then nodded back to him.

Zuko, rather than answering Azula, went to the luggage that was dumped by his ostrich horse. He grabbed a waterskin and the Avatar's staff, stolen and carried all the way from Crescent Island. June might have abandoned them with her scent-tracking shirshu, but Zuko had no doubt that the staff might still prove to be an asset.

Then he began jogging towards the growing ash-monster.

Suki ran at his side, and after a moment, he heard Azula following them. Zuko knew he would need them.

He had to save the world from the Avatar's profane creation, and in doing so, earn the right to return home.



Katara stood in front of the monster made from Ba Sing Se's ash and couldn't stop herself from shaking with terror.

It wasn't the screaming faces that covered the surface of the beast, nor was it the roaring head shaped like a palace. It wasn’t how all the noises crumbled into the hoarse groans of a crowd clamoring for everything from food for the famished to gold for the King; the most consist moaning was, “There is no war in Ba Sing Se” and Katara wasn’t inclined to argue. It wasn't even that the monster was made from cinders that clung together in defiance of gravity, four twisted legs supporting a bulbous body like a storm cloud.

The thing that made her fall to her knees was the open sky above the monster, the blue expanse revealed by ash's gathering, and the way the massive cinder-creature loomed so far into the air. It was massive beyond her comprehension, and all her mind could focus on was that the sky was still above it. The emptiness that surrounded the monster was every bit as intimidating as the monster itself.

Katara normally retreated from the sky, lowering her gaze and shielding herself with a hat. A Dai Li hat was hanging on her back now, and she could pull it up to block the sky from view.

But that would mean tearing her eyes from the monster, and she couldn't find the will to do that.

So the sky stretched above her and tears streamed from her eyes and her whole body was shaking but this was all wrong and no one was doing anything so she bit down and ground her teeth together and forced herself to <I>get up.

Once she was on her feet, the rest was easy. Her body knew what to do in the face of danger, knew the exact Waterbending stance to take. She let her terror fuel her awareness as she reached her mind out to her water and found an unexpected strength. Although the land around her was a desert, she felt the call of water deep beneath the ground, a flowing source not unlike what she had used to cut a path into that sinkhole weeks ago.

What worked on solid stone should work just fine on ash monsters, right?

Katara began moving, began the Waterbending form that would summon that liquid from beneath the earth. It was some distance away, but the ground was porous and cracked, and water could find a way through even the smallest path. Katara's eyes were locked on the monster as it roared and swung its palace-head towards the gathering of Dai Li and Airbenders, but her body moved smoothly through the form as she bent her knees and lowered her outstretched arms to the ground before rising up and reaching to the sky (so empty) before repeating the motion. She could feel the water answering her, but the monster was moving like a stormhead on the horizon and lowering its head towards them.

Her fear of being too late momentarily eclipsed her fear of the sky.

Then the water began flowing up through the cracks in the ground.

It was no surge, no dramatic splash, but the water rose all the same, covering the ground around her in a thick puddle and flowing out with just enough force to turn a ripple into a small wave.

The water spread and flowed and soon its darkness touched the first foot of the monster and kept going.

The monster-

-this horrid, impossibly massive creature of ash and death-

-a monster almost as big as the sky itself-

-stumbled.

Even through her shock, Katara didn't stop her Waterbending. She needed more water, needed everything the earth here could give her. She could see that the puddle, her shallow and spreading puddle, was washing away the ash that made up the front of monster’s foot. It was doing so only a thumb's length at a time, but it was doing so at the lowest level, stealing the monster's balance.

She could do this!

She could conquer this!

Then the monster turned its palace head to her and spat a glob of ash straight at her.

It smacked into her with enough force to knock her off her feet, but even before she hit the ground she felt the cinders clustering and becoming solid and forming hands that grabbed at her limbs and twisted. The ashes became bodies that wrestled with her and shoved skull-like visages in her face. They began screaming, just like the faces on the surface of the monster's body, admonishing her that there was no war in Ba Sing Se, and a light began shining in their mouths and-

-and then the sky was the only thing in Katara's reality.

She had no body. There was no ground beneath her. There was nothing else within her vision. She could hear nothing, feel nothing, taste nothing, smell nothing. There was only the sky, the sky of the whole world, shaped so that its entirety was visible to her. The infinite was curved so that she could see it all, could experience it all, could know it all.

The whole sky.

All at once.

In comparison to it, she was nothing.

Nothing.

How could one fight against the entire sky?

And yet she struggled enough to find the memory of having a body, worked up the will to move an arm that was frozen like stone, found the grit to wrap freezing fingers around the hilt of her sword- the platinum weapon that Mai had stolen from the Fire Nation and Katara had worn on this outing just in case.

Even against the entire sky, she managed to draw a blade of shining light.

It took all her energy, her entire life-force.

Everything went black even as the sky faded, the monster turned away from her, and the sword tumbled from her grip.

Katara’s last thought was that this would be a good death, worthy of her Tribe.


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« Reply #149 on: Oct 17, 2016 10:01 pm »

It was the sight of the monster flinching away from the shining metal in Katara's hand and the ash-corpses that held her melting away from the blade's glare that finally allowed Aang to move again.

All at once, his fear faded and he could see that fighting back was possible. Katara had raised the water to wash away the ash, and the platinum scared the monster. It could be hurt. It was vulnerable to the elements.

And if there was one benefit to being an Airbender, it was that there was always a lot of your element around.

Aang ran over to where the Airbender nuns- the sacrifices Long Feng was going to feed to his ceremony and Aang couldn't let himself think about that now if he didn't want to start glowing to create a new volcano where he stood- had clustered during the fight between Katara and the Dai Li. They were cowering from the monster, too, but Aang found where Mother Malu and Sister Matagi were clutching each other and skidded to a halt in front of them. "We need to make lots of wind!"

It was Mother Malu whose eyes found their focus first. "What? Wind?"

"Yeah! Katara washed away the bottoms of that thing's feet, and it got mad at her!" Aang pointed at the massive animated remains of Ba Sing Se helpfully. "If all of us work together, I bet we can blow away a nice chunk of ash monster!"

Sister Matagi's eyes turned to him and stopped trembling. "But then won't the monster come after us like it came after Katara?"

Aang hadn't considered that. "It's a good point. But! Um, maybe I can find a way to use my Avatar powers to stop it while it's distracted?"

Mother Malu frowned. "Are you asking or telling?"

"Telling?"

"Ugh." Mother Malu shook her head, let go of Sister Matagi, and stood up. "Sister, we need to rally the other girls to help the Avatar. Please assist me. Aang, we're counting on you."

Right. He nodded, and took an Airbending stance as Sister Matagi shouted, "Everyone, master yourselves and get ready to use The Gift you've been given! This might be the moment that Destiny has chosen us for! We are the new Air Nation, and we have to fight for our survival right now! Everyone who won't contribute will have to scrub the floor of the abbey as soon as we get a new abbey!"

Aang began moving through an Airbending form as the nuns slowly shook themselves and separated. He used wide motions of his arms to swirl the air in front of him and give movement to the general atmosphere. Mother Malu was the first to join him, adding her own motions to the effort, combing her power with his own. Sister Matagi came next, and Aang could feel a surprising strength in her arms just by the way the winds responded to her motions. (No doubt from lots of floor-scrubbing.) One by one, the nuns joined the effort, and soon Aang's robes were snapping with the force of the moving air around them. There was no spare ash to provide visible form to the winds, but Aang had lots of experience with them, and he figured they were getting a tight, powerful tornado going.

He waited for it to get nice spin on it, and then shoved out towards the monster. The nuns did the same, and their invisible tornado followed the motion.

As soon as the swirling air hit the monster's writhing skin, the tornado snapped into view.

The creature shook as the tornado ate into its side like a saw, and it stumbled on legs the size of the entire Southern Air Temple, shaking the ground not unlike an earthquake. Aang jumped from the shuddering ground even as he continued the motions needed to build another tornado, and the nuns followed suit, fluttering slowly the ground with their flapping robes even as they worked the winds around them.

Aang heard Long Feng shouting, "Look! The Waterbender stood against it! The Airbenders stand against it! Can the last children of Ba Sing Se then refuse to stand against the remains of our city? Fight back!"

As Aang led the way in unleashing another tornado, he saw rocks torn from the earth rising up to join the attack. They impacted against the creature's writhing form with massive plumes of ash at each impact site, and some of the chorus of screaming ghosts cut off with each impact. Some of the calls of, “There is no war in Ba Sing Se,” faded from hearing.

They were all fighting back!

And-

And it was utterly pointless.

The tornados tore at the monster's being and the crashing rocks sent plumes rising up like steam from wounds, but the damage was so small. Tornadoes and boulders could do damage on a scale that could wipe out small towns, but the monster's massive body and four limbs were still there. The head like the Earth Palace still swung to regard them, and its roar was not lacking in strength. When that roar was followed by an emerging tongue as large as the Eastern Air Temple's Dawn Spire, Aang realized that while they might be fighting back, they were almost certainly losing this particular fight.

The tongue lashed at the ground where the Dai Li had formed up, ravaging the earth into clouds of dust and scattering bodies in black and green robes. Aang briefly heard Long Feng's scream before another strike of the tongue cut it off.

"Run," Aang said.

Mother Malu stopped her Airbending. "What?"

"Run!" He demonstrated by grabbed a wind and throwing it at the gathering of nuns, blowing them all out of range of the whipping tongue. It struck the ground where they had been forging their tornadoes, shattering the rocky surface. The nuns took control of their tumbling and dived back down to the ground in a run that would take them away from the monster, and Aang was glad to follow.

"This way," Mother Malu called, motioning from the head of the group. "I can smell water on the wind! There's water in this direction, a lot of it!" It was a good idea; if Katara’s attack had inconvenienced the monster, a beach might be the only safe haven in the world. The other nuns followed their Mother, but Aang looked back to see if he could find Katara. He couldn't leave her behind to suffer the same fate of the Dai Li. She was his friend- no, his family- and she had been the one to realize Long Feng's treachery and save his new nation again.

He spotted her still lying where she had fallen, the gleaming platinum sword stuck blade-first in the ground beside her.

He turned and ran back for her even as the monster began chasing after the nuns.

It didn't need to run. It didn't even need to hurry. It moved with the slow majesty of the rising sun, but every step carried it a day's march and every footfall hammered the earth hard enough to send shockwaves out to the horizon. Aang could feel the nuns running with hurricane winds at their backs but it was still barely enough to keep them ahead of their pursuer.

But his eyes were locked on Katara as one of the monster's feet came down carelessly towards her, covering her in a shadow the size of a whole mega-herd of sky bison-

-so he put on speed enough to make typhoon winds sit down and respect their elders and whisked Katara out from under the pillar of ash just before it smashed down.

She gasped in his arms but didn’t open her eyes.

Aang figured that as long as he was going this fast already, he might as well aim himself right at the next ash-leg in line and begin thinking more vertically. Running up a giant pillar of solid ash covered in screaming imitations of faces was a lot more unsettling than running up a wall, but it was no more physically difficult, even with Katara unconscious in his arms. He ran up the limb to the main body, never decreasing his speed no matter how much gravity insisted, leaving geysers of cinders trailing after him from the force of his steps. Maybe he could run this creature to death, circle it bit by bit until it dissipated back into the cloud of ash it had been before Long Feng's crooked ceremony.

Then something tangled his legs, yanking him to a stop that nearly ripped the teeth from his gums by sheer momentum and did jerk Katara's body right out of his arms. Aang didn't even have time to scream before he was falling through the monster's body into a whole world of soot.

He couldn’t tell how long he plummeted in that world of torment, but when he emerged from the monster's underside to fall to the earth, he realized he wasn't alone. Bodies were grappling all over him, hardened forms of ash that pinned his arms and legs and climbed up to stare into his face with screaming skull-like visages that insisted there was no war in Ba Sing Se even as a light began shining out through their mouths.

Aang didn't even have time to be horrified before everything went away to be replaced by the Sanctuary Hall of the Southern Air Temple. The statues of the past Avatars were all there, just as Aang had left them months and months ago, but the rest of the room was not as he had left it at all.

He, Sokka, and Mai had cleaned the Sanctuary out, removing the pale dust and bones that were the remains of his people after he had been forced to destroy the undead creatures they had become.

Now, the dust was back, thicker than ever. Bones and faded robes stuck out of it, and as Aang looked over everything, the Sanctuary warped in his vision to stretch as far as he could see. The dust continued on from horizon to horizon, the remains of every Airbender who ever lived. He could even see the rotting robes of Mother Malu, Sister Matagi, and the other nuns flapping like flags from collapsed skeletons.

He was all alone.

The last Airbender.

Everything went dark, just like his future.



It wasn't until Zuko arrived at the site of the battle that he began having flashbacks to his previous visit to Ba Sing Se.

Part of the denial up to know was how different the landscape was. When he arrived those years ago, barely more than a boy but given command of one of the armies assigned to bring down the Outer Walls, the landscape had been completely different. It had been alive where the actions of the Fire Army hadn't torn the earth and rendered it into the killing fields of mud and slime. Now, everything was dead, and the dry and cracked ground had been warped beyond all recognition. Ba Sing Se itself had been the anchoring landmark against which everything had been situated, and with the city turned into the vague smear of an ashland, the memory of the area was adrift in Zuko's mind.

Now, the monster made of ash was landmark enough to dredge those memories back up from the depths of Zuko's mind.

It didn't help that his most recent experience with a battle in this area had been the Spirit Vision he experienced in another ashland, an offensive hallucination designed by a vengeful Spirit to break him.

Nor did it help that he had only freed himself from that vision- a vision in which he had seen a boy not unlike himself attacked by his own father- by burning the whole vision away.

Burning the vision-

-and the boy.

Burning himself.

Zuko shook himself free of the memory. Where there had once been a city was now a monster so massive it was beyond comprehension. Where once the Fire Army had uselessly thrown itself against the Outer Walls, a group of women in white and gold robes rode the winds out of reach of a lash tongue of cinders. Where Father had commanded his honor guard in an assault on the Outer Walls, broken bodies in black and green robes were now scattered across the torn earth.

And where Zuko had fallen with his face on fire in what was officially a friendly-fire incident but could have been something else, skin being eaten by the flames of his own father that may have been aimed or may have been accident, the Avatar was laying in the arms of skeletal bodies made of old cinders.

"Well," Azula's voice broke into his daze, "we're here. Now what?"

Zuko made himself look at her and found that her act of nonchalance didn't quite extend to her trembling eyes. "You're our tactician. What do you recommend?"

She breathed in and out, nostrils flaring. "I have no strategy for you. There are too many unknown factors. I'm not even clear on our objective. Can we simply remove the Avatar from the situation? Do we need to- to- to confront that creature? You're the one that got us out of the ashland that time; do you have insights to share?"

Zuko thought about it. "I think we win by conquering ourselves. If that helps."

Azula's eyes briefly stopped trembling as she threw a scowl at him. Then she inhaled sharply, and looked over at the third member of their little group. "The ash-ghosts we passed on the way here all bowed to Suki. Perhaps she can go and pull the Avatar out of this mess for us. At the very least, she's the most sensible choice for gathering more information."

Zuko looked to Suki as well, and found her standing very still with her gaze fixed on the ground at her feet. "Well, Suki? Will you investigate for us?"

She took a deep breath and then looked up at Zuko with steady blue eyes. "No, Prince Zuko. I won't."

Azula moved all at once, coming up behind Suki in an ambush. It took no more than a second of grappling for Azula to use one hand to lock Suki's arms behind the back, and then bring her other hand to hold a blade of blue flame at Suki's throat.

"Traitor," Azula hissed musically.

Zuko felt the impact of the word in his gut. After everything he and Suki had shared, the personal pain they exposed to each other, still she failed him at the critical moment. "Just like Mai," he found himself muttering.

"No!" Suki's eyes were pleading, and she seemed to have no care for the azure fire at her throat. "I'm not betraying you! I'm doing this for you!"

Azula barked a laugh.

Zuko wanted to be as dismissive, but the pain of betrayal was still radiating from his gut, and he truly didn't think he could survive much more. Mother, Father, Mai, Azula (well, Azula hadn't betrayed him yet, but he was sure it was only a matter of time)- how many people in his life would turn their back on him? "Explain, then."

Suki kept hold of his gaze with either the conviction of truth or the audacity of an expert liar. "Zuko, look at this situation. Do you think the Avatar is the one doing this?"

Zuko blinked. The Avatar had to be in control of it, didn't he? Who else could raise all the cinders in an ashland and make a monster out of them? Who else had that kind of power? That much power? Zuko would be doing the world a favor by destroying the boy-

"Zuko, look at it. Don't see what you want to see. See what's really there. Those women in danger are commanding the winds. Aang is being held captive. And the monster is hurting them all. I know you can tell when someone is being hurt. The reason why is there if you just look at it."

Zuko forced himself not to look. This was traitorous talk, a strike at his weakest points. Suki had just been learning about him like the spy she had claimed to be, setting him up to strike at the most critical moment. "Then what do you want me to do?!" He motioned over at the battle in front of him, fire bursting from his hand as he moved. "Run away from my duty?!"

Suki didn't so much as flinch as tongues of flame wafted on the winds near her face. "No, Zuko. I want you to be who you really are. Not who you think you have to be. Show me your true face, not the face you think you need to turn to the world."

"Is that what you were doing when you sold your people out for your sister's safety?"

Suki's lips quirked into a smile. "Everything I've done has been with a true heart. If I'm lucky, people will someday realize exactly what I've done and why. But if I die here, now, then it will be with my own honor intact. My honor, and my friendship to you."

Azula snorted. "Zuzu, if you want, you can look away while I kill her. I promise I'll make it quick for her. Well, quick enough that she won't make any noise."

Zuko ignored his sister. He met Suki’s gaze, and then, straining all of himself, he made himself look over at the battle.


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