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Author Topic: Traitor's Face [AU Adventure, rated T]  (Read 14768 times)
Loopy
Never Gonna Give Yue Up

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« Reply #25 on: Mar 15, 2015 03:36 pm »

Aang woke up with a start and was standing before he even knew where he was. The only light was the harsh, hissing glow of a military flare, and it the terrible red glow he saw an army of Air Nomads trying to kill his friends.

Bodies were everywhere, a terrible mockery of the nation that Aang had once called his own, flesh glowing inhumanly with features exaggerated in a twisted parody of the people he had once known. Elder Pasang was holding Sokka down and stealing the Water Tribe boy's soul, while Elder Tashi had pushed Mai up against a wall so hard that cracks were radiating around her. And all around them were gathered the defiled corpses of Tsering and Rabten and Tseten and Chodak and Tsewang and Thokmay and Lobsang and Gyaltsen and Yonten and Jinju and Choejor and Dhargey and Ngawang and Sngye and Choden and Samdup and Afiko and Tinley and Kalsang and...

Everyone.

They were all here.

They were all dead.

They were all twisted.

And it was all Aang's fault, and all Aang's responsibility.

So he accepted the help that Roku had offered, and surrendered to his pain.

The flare's red light died out, but it was no longer dark.

Aang was supplying all the light anyone could need, the blue glow of life.

Aang himself was in a waking sleep, and his dream was the dream of vengeance. He summoned the winds of a tornado, and let them lift him up off the floor. The Di Fu Ling monsters- ghosts looking for justice for their deaths- turned to regard him, and Avatar Yangchen supplied an answer to their questioning gazes with her Wind Launch move, which used deceptively simple hand-motions to compress the tornado around Aang's body into the form of a spring that launched him straight at the army of undead corpses. He landed with the breeze shields of Avatar Dawa cushioning his own body while they slammed into the monsters with enough force to send them flying off the ramp. Aang's body kept going, guided down the winding path by the Wind Tunnel of Avatar Jampa, knocking monsters away as he went.

This was no brawl, no accident. Aang dreamed that the other Avatars had a plan.

By the time he reached the bottom and was once more held aloft by a harmless little tornado, the Di Fu Ling had all been herded to the Sanctuary's ground floor, piled up in an uncoordinated, writhing mass of bodies. The ones broken apart by the fall were even now knitting themselves back together, while the monsters which were still whole fumbled to escape the pile and once more try to kill Aang's friends. He dreamed that he didn't want that, and Avatar Norbu answered with a plan, but it was plan that required Earthbending.

A name in Aang's dreaming mind lit up, the name of the island where Sokka wanted to look for his sister- Kyoshi- a name that became a path leading to a massive woman with a painted face. Avatar Kyoshi had Earthbending and knew what to do. She guided Aang to raise a slab of stone from the floor where the doors to the Sanctuary had once stood, preventing all escape. The slab fused with the walls, forming an airtight seal. Kyoshi kept acting, extending her will into the walls of the Sanctuary, and they grew thinner as a new ceiling extended several stories above Aang. He dreamed his agreement with that move, because Sokka and Mai were still at the top of the Sanctuary, and would need to be protected.

The new ceiling was strong, and also airtight, leaving Aang's sleeping, flying body locked in with every single one of the Di Fu Ling. They screamed their desire to destroy him, to once more make him one of them, but Aang was asleep, and all the Air Nomad Avatars since the beginning of time instead offered a response.

Guided by the Avatar Spirit, Aang's body slammed its hands together, putting all the power of the assembled Avatars into creating a burst of air that would fill the Sanctuary.

But the Sanctuary was already full of air, and sealed so tightly that there was nowhere to which that air could displace.

So instead it compressed.

Instantly.

The noise of the Di Fu Ling cut out all at once as the atmosphere around them pressurized hard and fast enough to shatter every single one of their bones into the finest dust.

The new ceiling crumbled, and the slab over the doorway blew out, but by then, Aang was alone once more.



Sokka awoke to find the lemur standing on top of him, looking at him with what seemed like curiosity. "Mmmmmmrrrghhhhh. 'm fine, and 'm awake. Don't suppose you've seen the others?"

The lemur cocked its head.

Sokka groaned and made himself get up. The lemur bounded away at having its seat suddenly start standing, but parked itself just a short distance away as it continued to watch Sokka. It turned out that Mai was right behind where the lemur landed.

Sokka hurried over to her. "Hey! Are you alive? Are you awake? Are you capable of answering those questions?"

Mai groaned and opened her eyes. She glared up at Sokka and said, "Why are you waking me up? I'm pretty sure I didn't sleep well."

Sokka laughed in relief and nearly slumped back down to the ground. "Come on, we have to find Aang. Before I lost it, I think he was glowing again."

"Oh." Mai squeezed her eyes shut, and forced herself to her feet. "This is going to be bad, isn't it?"

Sokka didn't answer until he had shuffled over to the ramp that would take them down. In the open space of the Sanctuary, he could see all the way down to the ground floor, where new sunlight was streaming in through the massive doorway to make the white walls of the place positively glow. That explained why Sokka could see, but he didn't like what he saw. Ragged rocks the same color as the walls were scattered around the floor, as was a massive amount of white dust that wasn't quite the same color as the walls and the rocks. Knives and blades of various shapes and sizes were also scattered about, all them coated in that pale dust. And lying in the center of the mess, eyes closed, arms and legs splayed out like he was making a snow spirit, was Aang.

Sokka hoped the kid wasn't dead.

He hurried down the ramp, Mai right behind him, and was soon kneeling beside Aang. Sokka hesitated to touch him, not sure if it was safe, but Mai pushed right past him and pulled Aang into a hug. As Sokka watched, Aang slowly opened his eyes, but not in a sleepy way. There was weariness there, but also sadness.

When Mai pulled away, Aang said, "My people are dust now."

Sokka looked around at the mess on the Sanctuary floor. "Better than being abandoned bones or monsters. And the Fire Nation burns their dead, so I bet Mai can tell us how to respectfully deal with the ashes."

Mai blinked in surprise, but then nodded. "We put them in urns, which are housed in crypts. Sometimes, people request that their ashes be scattered some place special to them."

"Not like that." Aang shook his head. "They can't remain here, where they died. It isn't safe. We'll give them to the winds."

Sokka pulled the kid into his own hug, and said, "All right. Let's clean all this up, and take it outside. As many trips as it takes."



An hour into 'The Great Dusting,' as Mai thought of it, she found the platinum knife.

She half expected to feel something as she picked it off the Sanctuary floor, but there was nothing but the usual cool bite of the metal. The blade itself was slightly bent from being thrown through the head of a monster, and she could see that the edges had been worn, but there was nothing to indicate the way it had disintegrated the monster in which it had been imbedded.

Had that really happened?

Was that why the Fire Nation wanted platinum so badly and so quickly?

If that was the case, what was the Fire Nation fighting, that it needed weapons of this nature?

Silent but full of questions, Mai discreetly returned the knife to one of her holsters, and continued to help with gathering the ashes of the Air Nomads. She could always fix it up and sharpen it later.



Hours later, Aang overturned the clay jar in his hands, and let the last of the ashes fall out to catch the wind. He was standing on the Sunrise Observation platform, Appa behind him creating the wind with reverent tail motions, and watched as the ashes blew out into the clear air over the mountains, to be carried out into the desolate lands.

It wasn't ideal, but it was appropriate.

"Come on, Appa. Sokka and Mai are waiting for us." He started to lead the Sky Bison back to the Temple area proper, but as he started walking, a flying lemur flapped to a landing right in his path. "Oh, hi, little guy. I didn't think any of you were left."

The lemur chittered, and scampered down a set of stairs to the right of the main path. Aang recognized that they would lead to the lowest level of the Temple on the mountain, where there was a small building used as a sutra repository for beginner-level texts. Aang had studied there with the other kids, learning the basics of Airbending and the wisdom that went into the style. Curious, he followed the lemur and found the repository building exactly where he expected. The lemur ducked under the ragged tarp covering the entrance.

Aang stepped within after only a moment of hesitation.

It turned out that instead of a repository for books, the building was now a tomb.

The texts had all disintegrated, or perhaps were deliberately burned. Either way, the Firebender armor scattered around was a clear sign of who was responsible. The suits of armor were not whole; it was like they had been torn apart, but not before they had been struck with blows hard enough to dent every piece. Aang could see pieces of human bone littering the floor as well, and could guess what had happened here. Judging by the rust and dust on the armor, these Firebenders had died long ago, and had likely lain here until the Di Fu Ling of the Nomads had come to unlife. Whether the monsters would have known that the Firebenders were long dead was a mystery, but Aang could easily see them attacking the bodies and breaking them up like this.

Then he heard the lemur chittering, and looked over to find one last corpse hidden in the corner.

It was a whole skeleton, wearing familiar orange robes. Around its neck hung a wooden prayer necklace with a pendant bearing the sigil of the Air element. Aang had seen that necklace before on Monk Gyatso.

So his mentor hadn't died before the Comet came, after all.

Looking at the skeleton, Aang smiled, and felt tears running down his face. However Gyatso had died, he had passed on in peace. Otherwise, he would have become one of the Di Fu Ling attacking the night before. Gyatso was at rest, and had reincarnated. Aang hadn’t been forced to destroy his body.

It was as much as he could hope for, for any of his people.

"Thanks, little guy," he croaked to the lemur. "I needed to see this." It chittered back, almost as if it understood, and scampered over to Aang and up his body to perch on his shoulders, then settled in to lie around his neck.

Aang would have to take care of Gyatso's bones as well, but he'd need Sokka and Mai's help. He went to go find them, petting the lemur as he walked. "Come on, little guy. You can come with us. We're on a quest to save the world, but first we have to find my friend's sister. You'll like him, he's kind of grumpy, but he's a good guy. And Mai is just perfect. You'll need a name, too, if you're going to be part of the group. How about... Hey, do you know what Monk Gyatso's favorite food was? Fruit pies with peach filling! So how about we call you the Old Word for peach- Momo!"

The lemur- Momo- cooed, and snuggled against Aang's neck.



As the sun set, they left the Southern Air Temple, and Aang couldn't help but think that it would be the last time he would ever see it.

TO BE CONTINUED
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Colonel_Brian
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« Reply #26 on: Mar 15, 2015 04:55 pm »

Another thrilling chapter. I am most interested in your story's version of the "Comet", the idea that a century-long of sacrilege would anger the spirits is indeed quite fascinating, one that I have not encountered before.

I am also glad that we got some answers regarding Zuko's past. It appears that he is suffering from a Firebending block like he did in the original series. The part where he tries to burn his sister was wonderfully done. Azula, as you know, is a hard character to write, but you did a good job capturing her knack for driving Zuko over the edge quite well.

I am glad you are ignoring the Roku of the comics in favor of the more tender Roku of the show. I was always a fan of their relationship. In addition to that the scene with all the past Avatars was majestic. You can write quite beautifully when you want to.

If there is one complaint I could make, it would be that the climax of this chapter is quite confusing. I found it cool how you depicted the various Avatar's stepping in to help Aang, but the scene still read a little strange. I am not sure how I would go about improving it.

Though after reading other people's reactions I think I am the only one who feels this way.

 The fight scene with Sokka and Mai was fun. Even against the legion of the undead, they manage to be an interesting team. I like how Sokka pesters Mai with rapid fire questions. It is simply wonderful that he can be so unintentionally, or not, annoying. Grin

So Momo is the reincarnation of Gyatso? Interesting. I wonder if you plan on doing more with that or if it is your version of the hermit crab metaphor (from the Northern Air Temple) in the original series,  in that it is supposed to be a symbolic of something. Or maybe it is both? Also, I cracked a smile at the line about Mai being introduced to all sorts of strange science. It is good that you know how to poke fun at the situations your characters find themselves in. That kind of humor is up my alley.

« Last Edit: Mar 17, 2015 12:19 am by Colonel_Brian » Logged
Colonel_Brian
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« Reply #27 on: Mar 30, 2015 07:07 pm »

Have you forgotten about us again, Loopy?  Grin

Anyway, I am pleased with this chapter. I can't tell how much the idea of Zhao and Yon Rha teaming up pleases me. Though your version of Yon Rha isn't as pathetic as the one in the cartoon.

I also liked how Mai is beginning to show more respect toward Sokka. Although refraining from using slurs isn't really that laud worthy, it does show that the three are beginning to develope a bond. At least, that is my hope.

Though one thing I think I should comment on is your use of parenthesis inside your characters dialogue. Are they supposed to be the characters thoughts or something like that?

Moving on, I thought the brawl in the baazar was quite fun. Things always go wrong for our heroes.

Which leads me to my final thought, your introduction for the Kyoshi warriors was well done. The fact that they are a mix of the Freedom Fighters is a plus.
« Last Edit: Mar 30, 2015 08:30 pm by Colonel_Brian » Logged
Loopy
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« Reply #28 on: Mar 30, 2015 08:48 pm »

Have you forgotten about us again, Loopy?  Grin

Nope, just haven't had a chance to log onto ASN with a convention this weekend and lots of catch-up stuff today. Grin



Another thrilling chapter. I am most interested in your story's version of the "Comet", the idea that a century-long of sacrilege would anger the spirits is indeed quite fascinating, one that I have not encountered before.

This is the impetuous for the whole story. I've been sitting on this idea of a Maiaang-centric AU for years, and it wasn't until I came up with the idea of a post-Comet quest, and the possible spiritual repercussions, that I found my hook for a full novel.

So I'm really glad you like it.

I am also glad that we got some answers regarding Zuko's past. It appears that he is suffering from a Firebending block like he did in the original series. The part where he tries to burn his sister was wonderfully done. Azula, as you know, is a hard character to write, but you did a good job capturing her knack for driving Zuko over the edge quite well.

"Best Served Cold" and "Retroactive" taught me to love writing Azula, so little moments like this are a treat for myself as well. Zuko and Azula won't be appearing during the Kyoshi Island arc, but afterward we'll be back to them in a big way.


I am glad you are ignoring the Roku of the comics in favor of the more tender Roku of the show. I was always a fan of their relationship. In addition to that the scene with all the past Avatars was majestic. You can write quite beautifully when you want to.

Thanks! Your thoughts about Roku mirror mine.


If there is one complaint I could make, it would be that the climax of this chapter is quite confusing. I found it cool how you depicted the various Avatar's stepping in to help Aang, but the scene still read a little strange. I am not sure how I would go about improving it.

Though after reading other people's reactions I think I am the only one who feels this way.

Well, I can see how it wouldn't work for everyone. All the writing around Aang's POV sections in this chapter were a bit more stylized than the rest of this story, and rather than focusing on the action, I was trying to highlight the feel of being in a functional form of the Avatar State (as opposed to what happened with the Everstorm earlier in the story), and how it would work. It was deliberately different than any other depiction I've seen of the State, and trying to put into words something that would (I feel) exist beyond conscious thought.

So I was going for something new and complicated, and I can see it not working as well for everyone, depending on the reader. As I go, hopefully this kind of POV will be further refined, and work better.

The fight scene with Sokka and Mai was fun. Even against the legion of the undead, they manage to be an interesting team. I like how Sokka pesters Mai with rapid fire questions. It is simply wonderful that he can be so unintentionally, or not, annoying. Grin

Maikka, on the other hand, is something I've refined so much I can practically mass-produce it. Cheesy Glad you like it!


So Momo is the reincarnation of Gyatso? Interesting. I wonder if you plan on doing more with that or if it is your version of the hermit crab metaphor (from the Northern Air Temple) in the original series,  in that it is supposed to be a symbolic of something. Or maybe it is both? Also, I cracked a smile at the line about Mai being introduced to all sorts of strange science. It is good that you know how to poke fun at the situations your characters find themselves in. That kind of humor is up my alley.

Yeah, everyone seems to have figured it out, so I'll confirm that Momo is a reincarnation of Gyatso. There's a certain awakening of the part that is Gyatso, but it's not complete; Momo the Lemur is still very much in there. This is a seed for very long-term plans.



SPOILERS FOR THE NEXT CHAPTER FOLLOW

Anyway, I am pleased with this chapter. I can't tell how much the idea of Zhao and Yon Rha teaming up pleases me. Though your version of Yon Rha isn't as pathetic as the one in the cartoon.

Well, he's gotten away from his mother. He's still a lazy bum, though.

I also liked how Mai is beginning to show more respect toward Sokka. Although refraining from using slurs isn't really that laud worthy, it does show that the three are beginning to develope a bond. At least, that is my hope.

Though one thing I think I should comment on is your use of parenthesis inside your characters dialogue. Are they supposed to be the characters thoughts or something like that?

The parenthetical within quotes should be read more as asides, like something said quickly in a lower voice, or said in an off-hand and distracted manner. Out of quotes, they're just asides that don't fit neatly with the narrative progression.

Moving on, I thought the brawl in the baazar was quite fun. Things always go wrong for our heroes.

Which leads me to my final thought, your introduction for the Kyoshi warriors was well done. The fact that they are a mix of the Freedom Fighters is a plus.

Well, there's one identified Freedom Fighter, at least. I'm using Longshot's blue tunic as evidence that he might be from the Southern Islands, and the only one that will be appearing in this story (as currently planned) is Kyoshi Island, so that's my avenue for bringing him in. Other Freedom Fighters will be appearing, but their paths did not bring them together into a single team.




The Warlords of Kyoshi

From the level of the clouds, Aang looked down at a land named for one of his past lives and said, "I think it looks nice." And it did, aside from the sprawling military complex that sat like tarnish on the warmly-hued eastern coast.

Appa bobbed on the air currents high above Kyoshi Island while Aang, Mai, Sokka, and Momo all leaned over the side of the saddle and checked things out. Aang was pleased to see that there was active sea life in the island's bays, brightly-colored elephant koi that jumped above the waves and splashed back down in rainbow sprays of seawater. Those things must be fun to ride.

In deeper waters, a fleet of old fishing ships were hunting smaller prey, while merchant vessel traffic clustered around the docks that extended from various points on the island. Amidst all the activity, it was almost possible to miss the Fire Nation patrol boats that watched over the proceedings. Aang shifted his gaze back to the island to admire its clean and quiet beaches, paralleled by green, pulsing forests that moved in time with the winds. He couldn't help imagining that the entire physical world wasn't in trouble, that he was just on another trip to see more of life and could spend a week enjoying the beaches with his friends.

On that note, Aang scooted closer to Mai, startling Momo and sending the lemur hopping to the other side of the saddle. "Maybe we can visit one of the beaches before we go. Just an afternoon, and I can teach you how to surf! First we'll do it on a board, and then those giant fish!"

Mai's face didn't move, but her voice took on that tone, the one she used whenever talking about camping or using bushes as bathrooms. "Pass. Beaches are nothing but sun, sand, and ocean, and I don't like any one of those. And I think if I touched a fish that wasn't well-cooked, I'd probably throw up."

Aang decided that Mai just hadn't spent time at the right beaches. They'd have to fix that, but not just this moment. He looked over at Sokka to see the older boy staring down through a telescope with a grim face. "Hey, Sokka, what do you see?"

"Trouble. I've been scoping out the main village around the military base; it's got defensive walls- wooden and simple but fairly high- and there's a decent soldier presence in the town itself. The base has its own metal walls, and a lot better security than the one at the South Pole. This thing is more like a fortress, which actually makes sense if they hold prisoners here, even temporarily."

"We'll need papers to get into town," Mai said. "Anytime the military takes over a settlement like this, they put posts at all the entrances and check all newcomers for transit papers. It lets them track the perpetrators of any dissent or rebellion. Of course, as a natural born citizen of the Fire Nation, I have a passport that allows me to travel anywhere, but I'm thinking that I should probably avoid using my name, considering that everyone at the South Pole saw me rescuing Avatars and throwing in with Tr- Water Tribe rebels."

Sokka put the telescope down, and looked over with a big grin on his face. "So if we don't have transit papers, we need disguises and a good story! The key to selling it is having backstory which naturally supports our appearance. Mai, you and I are the same age, so we'll be twin Fire Nation siblings. (We'll need to raid your wardrobe for costumes.) I'm Wang Fire, a traveling student doing research for a book about the human condition that I'm hoping will win me entrance into a prestigious university despite my lack of status. You're my sister Saaf Fire, accompanying me in order to get away from a betrothal that our father- a retired military man with a bad leg who tries to make up for a lingering sense of failure in his life by controlling ours- has set up for you with one of his drinking buddies. You're perpetrating a correspondence romance with an Earth Kingdom boy you met during our travels, but you're keeping it a secret from me because you hate feeling emotionally vulnerable and you're not sure how serious the relationship is yet. Aang, you're my assistant, Tok-Tok, who we found living alone in a tree on an island in the Crucible Sea. You decided to join us after you helped us foil the plans of a group of evil poachers who- you're both laughing at me."

Aang wanted to deny it, because he didn't want to make Sokka feel bad, but he wasn't so good a liar that he could explain away the high-pitched braying he was doing, so he merely covered his mouth his hands. Mai herself wasn't actually laughing, but she was giving that smirk that always made Aang's heart hammer like a nervous Earthbender.

"Fine, you think you can do better?" Sokka crossed his arms over his chest and sat back against the edge of Appa's saddle. "Then don't blame me when we're all arrested by the first soldier who takes a good look at us."

Mai leaned and grabbed Aang under his chin, pulling him over so that their faces were side-by-side. He felt his cheeks burning up at the closeness, but Mai ignored him and said, "See our skin tones? Aang and I are a lot closer in looks than anyone from the Water Tribe will ever be to me. I'm thinking Aang is my little brother Lee, we're from the Fire Nation, and you're our servant from the colonies. All the backstory in the world isn't going to get us over the village walls, though."

"No, but Airbending can!" Aang offered a hopeful smile and luxuriated in the continued pressure of Mai's hand holding his head up. "I can hop us right over those walls. Appa will have to stay outside town, though, but there's a pretty thick forest out there, so he'll be out of sight and have plenty to eat, right, boy?"

Appa gave an agreeing roar.

Sokka rubbed his chin. "That should work well enough. Of course, getting into the village without being arrested is the easy part. Once we're in, we have to study that fortress up close, then figure out how to get in and find the records that will tell us where Katara is."

Mai finally let go of Aang, to his disappointment, and said, "I can find the records, but that whole 'in' thing is going to be a problem."

Aang stood up, and hopped over to Appa's head to grab the sky bison's reins. "We'll figure something out, I'm sure of it! And the sooner we start, the sooner we'll be done. Appa, yip-yip!"

With a tug of the reins, Aang directed Appa into a curving descent that would take them out over the sea again so that they could approach the island again more discreetly. As tough as the situation was, it wasn't anything that couldn't be handled by staying smart and thinking things through.

Aang was sure everything would work out for the best.



Kyoshi Island was sunny, and warm, and gorgeous, and Commander Zhao hated that.

He stepped off his flagship and onto the fortified docks of island's Fire Navy garrison, not even attempting to hide his discontent. Even aside from his purpose here, he didn't have any good feelings for this place. A more prestigious posting than the South Pole, and infinitely more comfortable, a command post on Kyoshi Island had long been one of Zhao's personal goals. Of course, just because he was now chasing the Avatar and looking for a promotion directly to the Homeland didn't mean that he couldn't still resent the situation.

And then there was the navy base's commander. Zhao approached and didn't bow.

The man himself, Yon Rha, didn't seem bothered by Zhao's attitude. He was frowning, of course, but that was because his face naturally fell that way, either by design or many years of ugly expressions. Even his smiles were more like grimaces, but Zhao was spared that sight for now. Yon Rha gave a lazy bow and said, "Welcome to my port, Commander Zhao. It's a pleasure to see you again, but I'm surprised you came up from your little snow fortress. I presume you found an excuse to chase that Avatar the telegraphs are all so excited about?"

"The Avatar is my jurisdiction, and my task force is pursuing some leads that have brought us to the seas here, but until something takes me away, I'm here on other business. Your base issued this response to a query I sent before I left the South Pole." He thrust the paper with the copied message out, hoping to see Yon Rha flinch.

In that, he was disappointed. Yon Rha merely took it and gave it a glance, his frown never changing. "Yes, I stand by this. We are fully stocked in all supplies, and have been so for quite some time. I made no request to Command asking for emergency provisioning."

Zhao pulled another roll of paper from his belt. "Then how do you explain this? Just before the Avatar escaped, I received orders for a supply run to this island, and it has all the proper codes and headers. The ship I prepared for that mission was stolen by a coordinated effort between the Avatar and local Tribals, as if they knew it would be waiting for them with all the provisions they could want for an escape. I sent a message to Admiral Chan, and he confirmed that he received a request from your base for the listed supplies. The admiral has authorized me to investigate, as long as I'm in the area. How do you explain what happened?" Zhao put on his best sneer. "Rebel activity?"

Yon Rha merely raised his eyebrows. "Admitting to being that thoroughly compromised is hardly an excuse. No, there are some troublemakers in the village here, but it's nothing I don't already have a handle on. Either the headers and codes on the message were faked- which would be a considerable embarrassment to Admiral Chan's security- or someone on my staff is operating without authorization. I don't suppose you'd care to stay and investigate for me?"

Zhao blinked with surprise. "You're inviting me to interrogate your people?"

Yon Rha gave one of his trademark ugly smiles, his wide mouth pointing up at the ends like a smear, and started walking back towards the main complex of the base. He waved Zhao to follow. "I remember my old allies, Commander Zhao. Perhaps we didn't part on the best of terms, but I'm well aware that it was your work that identified the Waterbender, and it was her capture that got me my promotion. I'm quite content ruling my little island paradise here, so if you want to seize the glory in this situation, the least I can do is help. Of course, if this leads you to the Avatar, and his capture is your path to returning to the Capital, then having a friend in Command certainly isn't going to hurt me, is it?"

A grin tugged at Zhao's face, and he strode with proud shoulders as he stepped into the Kyoshi Island command center. "No, Commander. Having friends has never hurt anyone."

Destiny was truly on his side.


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Loopy
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« Reply #29 on: Mar 30, 2015 08:50 pm »

Watching Sokka and Aang strut around in some of her favorite clothes, Mai's only consolation was that if everything worked out and she delivered the Avatar to their hands, Azula and Zuko would have to buy her a whole new wardrobe at least in order to properly reward her.

Aang had landed Appa in the one of Kyoshi Island's forested areas, and Mai went into her luggage case to dig out what clothing she had managed to fit. She had cycled through wearing each outfit a few times over the course of the journey from the South Pole, and while it would have been nice to get it all washed while she was on Kyoshi Island, it was all needed now to assemble a proper set of disguises. Aang's tattooed head, of course, was the most important thing to hide, so she gave up several of her favorite black scarves to turn into a head-wrap for him. A pair of her shorter black pants tucked into his boots worked well enough, and the long sleeves of her only bright red shirt would hide his arrow tattoos until they could get him a pair of gloves. Still, a maroon shawl was needed to hide how baggy the shirt was on his little body, but the overall effect was enough for him to pass as both Fire Nation and not a hobo.

The worst part of the process was how quickly Aang had stripped to his small clothes right there in front of her. Mai had quickly averted her gaze and focused on finding an outfit for Sokka.

The Tri- Water Tribe boy was simpler to outfit. He was only a little taller than Mai, and her preference for loose and baggy clothing meant that everything would fit fairly well on him. Since he was playing a servant, she gave him a plain robe and a puffy cap she had never actually worn to hide the shaved sides of his head. (Why did she even have the cap? Was it a present from someone?) Sokka had started pulling off his shirt right there, but moved behind a tree when he noticed her offended glare.

Of course, neither boy had offered to bathe before touching Mai's clothes to their sweaty skin, and she was well aware that the last time they had indulged in a washing was when they had cleaned off after the Southern Air Temple. (Mai briefly remembered the feel of that dust on her hands, dust that she kept telling herself was the remains of monsters, not humans. She pushed the thought away, not wanting to flash back to the gritty feeling between her fingers and they were monster remains, not humans.) Mai herself, who bathed every day, but was still looking forward to buying a bar of soap as long as they were in town infiltrating military complexes, didn't intend to change what she was wearing, but before they got going, Sokka held up a hand. "Shouldn't you do something about your face? Your parents would have been able to provide a description of you, if not a full sketch."

She suppressed the urge to kick him. "Are you saying that my mother and father are aiding the military in hunting me down and killing me?"

"Am I?" Sokka blinked. "I guess? Isn't that a worry?"

"Huh?" Oh, right, everyone thought she was the worst traitor in the history of the Fire Nation. But would Mother and Father really want her dead? "Maybe. What's your point?"

"Well, there might be an alert out for you. Something to keep everyone on the streets from seeing your face would be a good idea."

Aang had bounded over with one of her longer scarves, left over from his improvised head-wrap. "Here, put this over your head like a hood, and only people who stare at you straight on will see your face." Perched on Aang's shoulder, Momo made a grab for the bolt of cloth, but Mai took it first. While she artfully arranged her hood around her hair-tails, Aang said goodbye to his animals, and then the group got on with their infiltration.

As they walked through the forest, Mai said, "I've actually been here before. My family stopped at this island on our way to the South Pole, but I didn't see much. We had a fish dinner with the commander in his personal residence, and there was some kind of talk of local trouble, but it was all very boring."

"Trouble?" Aang said. "Like spirits and ghosts trouble, or high taxes trouble?"

Memories her breath being torn out of her lungs through her mouth flashed through Mai's mind, but she pushed the thoughts away. "Eh, probably pickpockets. I think I've heard that lots of colonies with direct Fire Nation oversight have problems with pickpockets."

Sokka hopped down from an outcropping and came to a rambling trot beside Mai. "You know why that is, right?"

"What?"

"Why all those places have problems with thieves?"

"Bloody-minded hatred for the Fire Nation?"

"Oh, well, sure. Partially. But people also have to be really frustrated with the lives the Fire Nation makes them lead. The military comes in, forces everyone into 'manageable' settlements, designates what jobs are available based on what the colony is supposed to produce, and won't even let people have their culture to help them get by. Combine that with the low wages- if they even get paid in money, which I wasn't- and people want to strike back in a way that will improve their own lives, hence petty crime."

Mai snorted. "Because uprisings are too much trouble?"

"Because uprisings are too fatal." Sokka gave her a raised eyebrow so sharp, it might have come from her own face. "People don't like dying, if they can help it. Usually."

Well, that point at least was fairly sensible. Mai would have been content to let the conversation drop there, but Aang scampered ahead a few steps and turned around so that he was walking backwards and looking directly at her. "I visited the Fire Nation a few times, a hundred years ago. Sounds like the leaders now are trying to do something similar to the Vassal Islands."

Mai had to think for a moment before she remembered the term. "That thing Sozin's father did?"

"Yup! My friend Kuzon explained to me that after the civil wars, the people on the Outer Islands were given a chance for peace by becoming vassals to the Capital. The people and the Fire Lord didn't really trust each other, so the agreement was a way to connect them and make them trade partners, uniting all the islands under the Fire Lord's name. There weren't any punishments for the general uprisings, just a chance to make the whole nation a better place."

Mai vaguely recalled the story, but the account she knew was more about how the Fire Lord had quelled the uprisings with a show of strength and the Outer Islands submitted to his power, becoming the Vassals. It had inspired Sozin in his plan for the rest of the world, or something like that. "So why isn't that working for the colonies? They get the jobs, and the chance to produce something for the Fire Nation that makes them important."

Aang shrugged. "Well, no one asked the Earth Kingdom and Water Tribes if they wanted to do that, right? And from what Sokka's saying, the deal being forced on them isn't fair. During my visits I saw that the people on the Vassal Islands were pretty comfortable. They got a fair trade for what they produced. You can't just expect it to work because this system looks kind of like the old one."

Beside Mai, Sokka nodded. "Yeah, the shape is kind of the same, but the details are completely different, not to mention kind of evil. And then there's what Avatar Roku told you about everything else."

Mai ignored him. "I'm not a You."

Aang blinked, and then made a quick convulsion that ended with him grabbing his shirt. What was that about? Rather than commenting on it, though, Aang spun around to look where he was going again and said, "What do you mean?"

"You said 'you can't expect it to work,' about the new Vassal system, but I never said I expected it."

"Oh, yeah, I meant 'you' like... you know, people. You're obviously on the right side, helping save us from the Fire Nation." Aang turned again to give her a quick thumb's up. "You're our friend!"

"Okay." Mai let things go at that. It wasn't that she was against what the Fire Nation was doing- obviously, she was one of the most loyal servants it had, both by bringing down the Avatar and aiding in the rise of the best faction of the Royal family- but she didn't theoretically have a problem with loosening up some rules if they really were causing crime. And if Prince Ozai wasn't smart enough to see that when he became Fire Lord, then surely Azula would figure it out for him. The Earth Kingdom and Water Tribes were too backward to govern themselves, but Mai was on the side of the people who wanted to do it smartly. And whatever the ghost of Aang's Avatar predecessor claimed, the platinum mining was probably proof that they wanted to fix that problem, so they couldn't be causing it. It was only logical. "Is that the village wall?" Sure enough, as they emerged from the tree line, the stripped and planted logs of the defensive wall became visible. The tops of the logs were carved into points, but they didn't seem particularly sharp. "So, up and over, huh? Please no tornados this time."

Aang grinned. "Then all you have to do is rest in my arms!" His grin abruptly faltered, and his face went bright red. "I mean, you know, I can carry you. You and Sokka. Both. One at a time, I mean."

Mai sighed. "Maybe the tornado would be faster."



It was the most disappointing interrogation of Zhao's entire career, made all the worse by the fact that he was getting all the information he wanted. "What do you mean that you take all responsibility?"

Sitting in a rusty chair at the center of the cramped little room, Warrant Officer Lee's face was as blank as an empty sky. "I do, sir. Now that you describe the incident, I realize I miscoded the whole transmission and attached the wrong headers. The request for emergency supplies was completely erroneous, and entirely my fault. I was not paying sufficient attention."

Zhao ground his teeth together, trying to decide how to handle this. It was just like his attempts to interrogate the Airbender, but in this case, he didn't even have the luxury of a theory to confirm or disprove. He turned to look where Yon Rha was leaning against the door, but the other commander simply shrugged. Looking back to Lee, he said, "If that's true, then you're guilty of gross incompetence. You'll be forced to defend your career in an Agni Kai, which might result in your death. If you survive and lose, you'll be dishonorably discharged. If you decline the Agni Kai, you'll be branded and dishonorably discharged. If by some strange contrivance you actually win the duel and survive, you'll be transferred to the worst hole in the entire world, and given tasks that will be designed to result in your death. No matter what happens, you will be miserable for the rest of your days."

Lee's face didn't move, and he nodded as if told what the weather was like outside. "I understand, Commander."

This was ridiculous! Zhao refused to accept that a mere accident of transcription resulted in an order that was perfectly constructed to appear legitimate, and played such a large and beneficial role in the Avatar's escape. There was no doubt that this man was hiding something.

Well, if interrogations wouldn't work, there were other options. "Commander Yon Rha, I believe you mentioned that you had active rebels on this island?"

"Every colony has some rebel activity, but I told you, I have a handle on it. It's a small group, and I have an informant planted there. I would have known if they had any interest in the Fire Nation's telegraph network, never mind my communications center."

"Well, there's certainly nothing guaranteeing that just one group of rebels here, now is there? I recommend adding a full regime of physical coercion to the interrogation to confirm that Warrant Officer Lee hasn't betrayed you. I trust you have experts available? I've no objection to doing it myself, but having to coordinate the search for the Avatar in this region, my time is limited."

Yon Rha shrugged again. "If you want him tortured, then we'll torture him."

"Good." Zhao turned to look once again at Lee, but even that failed to get a reaction from the man. "Don't hold back. I don't care if he dies." He spun on his heel and marched out of the interrogation room, Yon Rha falling into step behind him.

As they walked, the other commander said, "Did you mean that about killing him, or were you just trying to provoke the moron?"

"No, I mean it. His claim is ridiculous, and if he is a traitor, then we'll have to kill him either way." It was unnerving, though, that rebel forces could have turned a skilled soldier so thoroughly. Such loyalty was unheard of. But then again, maybe not. "Commander, could I ask one more favor of your staff?"

"Get to the point, Zhao."

"I'd like a message sent back to the homeland. I want Warrant Officer Lee's family investigated."

"Why? I doubt foreign rebels have much influence over civilians back in the Fire Nation, and there's nothing special about Lee's family."

"Oh, I'm sure." Zhao felt a grin spreading on his face as he considered the possibilities. "But a person doesn't have to be special to be useful as leverage."


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Loopy
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« Reply #30 on: Mar 30, 2015 08:51 pm »

After that comment about having Mai in his arms, Aang wanted to smack his head against the village wall, but Monk Gyatso had always said that wisdom could not be beaten into a mind, it had to be carefully planted.

At least there hadn't been any trouble getting Sokka and Mai over the wall. Aang had hopped up to the top, listened and watched to make sure there were no witnesses, and then summoned a wind that launched his friends up and over, with a supplementary gust to cushion their landing. With a pause only to adjust their disguises again, the three made their way into the village proper.

Of course, Aang had to be careful of his clothes. Mai's stuff was loose on him, but that was only the start of the problem. While she had been tying her hood and Sokka was admiring his cap in a reflection in a puddle, Aang had tried to say goodbye to Appa and Momo, but the lemur had been antsy, and kept grabbing for Aang's mouth as a sign of wanting food. Since leaving the Southern Air Temple, fruit had been scarce, and Aang had only been able to feed his new pet a few dried bits each day. Momo had been forced to catch bugs to round out his diet. No doubt he was hungry for something sweet again.

So Aang had whispered, "Okay, you can come and I'll get you a peach or something, but you have to hide and behave." And then he had made use of all the extra room in his shirt by letting Momo cling to his chest, just like the lemurs back home had clung to trees when sleeping.

So with a lemur hiding in his shirt and his arrows hidden with a head-wrap, Aang walked down the streets of Kyoshi Island's main village.

The people of Kyoshi Island mostly wore blue, like the Water Tribes, and their presence in the streets became like a flood as Aang and his friends approached the civilian docks. There was scattered red in the crowds, both civilians and armored police soldiers. The armor of the latter wasn't full-body like the soldiers at the South Pole, and the helmets even left their wearers' faces uncovered.

The crowd spread out a bit as Aang and company stepped into a plaza not far from the biggest docks. There were all kinds of merchants hawking raw and cooked seafood, carved trinkets, foreign fruits, clothes from the Fire Nation, practical goods, furniture made from local wood, toys from the Earth Kingdom, and everything else needed for a glorious day of bargaining.

Aang wasn't much of a shopper himself, but he loved the chance to haggle. "Hey, do you think we have time to look around a little before we check out the navy base? This place looks like a lot of fun."

Sokka scratched his chin. "On the one hand, I almost feel like any indulgence we take that isn't strictly part of our mission will be punished with disaster. I mean, we're in an occupied town, so lots of things can go wrong."

Aang heard Mai give a little snort and mutter, "Paranoid."

Sokka didn't seem to pick up on that, and looked around the market with eyes that reflected the sun. "On the other hand, I would like to get a few things as long we have the chance, but I don't have any money." He glanced over at Mai.

Her face was blank, but Aang caught her eyes shifting over to look at a stand that was selling soaps carved into all kinds of neat shapes. "We should probably check the base first, in case there's trouble. And since neither of you brought your own money, hanging out here for too long would maybe be a waste of time." Her eyes turned back to Aang, wide and a little pleading. She was looking for him to contradict her!

"Well," he said, "maybe if we talk to some people, we can learn things about the base that we can't get just by looking at it."

Sokka stood up even straighter. "That's true! Even if the navy personnel live on the base, they'd have to come out here on their off-duty hours, just to live a little. There are probably all kinds of useful intelligence waiting to be uncovered."

Mai was silent for a moment, and then nodded. "Okay, we'll look around. I'm buying some soap."

She was instantly on the move, but Aang quickly stepped to cut her off. "First, can I borrow some coins?"

"What for?"

"Some fruit- er, you know, some fresh food for dinner tonight. I'm getting tired of military rations, aren't you?"

"Ehhhhh, okay, I guess you can have-"

Sokka suddenly stepped right between Aang and Mai. "Can I have some money, too?"

"What do you-"

"Supplies! We left most of the supplies on the ship with my Gran-Gran, and we could use some practical stuff."

"I don't have a lot-"

"Won't take a lot, I'm just getting some of the basics."

"How much will-

"Oh, you know, not more than a couple of silverish pieces."

Aang hopped so that he could see Mai's face over Sokka's shoulder. "And I can help him haggle! I've visited bazaars all over the world, so I know how to talk those prices down!" He felt Momo shift position under his shirt, and ducked down so that Sokka would be blocking the view.

Mai sighed. "All right, just try to keep it low key. We're fugitives, remember? And- really- watch what you spend. I only have what I could steal from my parents, and I don't know when we're going to be able to get more." She produced a bag of coins from somewhere in her robes and tossed it to Sokka, then went on to the soap seller.

Sokka divided up the coins, and Aang immediately went over to the stand with all the fruit. He made sure his head-wrap was on right and smiled up at the old man running the place. "What's this one?"

"That, my boy, is an ash-banana from the Fire Nation. You have to boil them before you can eat them."

"How about something soft that can be eaten raw?"

"I have some white pears in fresh from the mainland."

"Ooh, how much?"

"Well, for a first time customer like yourself, I can do- hey, it's nabbing my juicy fruits!"

Aang looked down to find that Momo had poked out from the bottom of his shirt, and was grabbing whatever he could get his hands on and stuffing it in the folds of the cloth. "Um, I can pay for all this."

"How much have you stolen?" The old man was shuffling around the stand, to confront Aang directly. "Open your shirt! I won't be ripped off by you Fire Nation tourists!"

"No, it's okay, we'll round up, just don't-"

"Aang, what's going on?" Sokka stepped up from behind, a shopping bag in his hands. "If this is how you haggle, I'll do without your help, thanks."

"Sokka, I'm going to need some more coins-"

"Off with the shirt! My melons are being hijacked!" Aang backed away as the old man grabbed for him, but bumped into Sokka, and then Momo made a break for it and took flight with his mouth full of cherries, and Aang tried to grab after the lemur, but the old man tugged at the shirt at the same time, and the next thing Aang knew, there was a tearing sound and he and a part of his disguise had parted ways.

Standing there in the market, the arrows on his back and arms exposed to the world, Aang really wished he had brought his glider. And had left his lemur back with his bison.

Mai was going to kill him.

There was a long moment where the entire marketplace came to a halt as eyes took in the ancient, honorable tattoos, and the meaning registered in minds. Then, like a single organism spread across multiple bodies, all the Fire Nation soldiers in the plaza stepped forward, emerging from the crowd to form a loose circle around Aang and Sokka and taking tonfa clubs in hand.

"It's the Avatar!"

Sokka shifted position, and Aang heard the sound of a knife being drawn from its sheath.

Then a blood-red skull sailed out of nowhere to smack one of the soldiers right in the face. The man went down like a sack of ash-bananas, and Aang followed the macabre projectile's path back to the source to find Mai standing in front the soap stand, a carved soap-skull in each hand. Behind her, the salesman squeaked and crawled beneath his booth.

As the shopping crowd receded from the scene like waves from the shore, some of the soldiers charged at Mai, but novelty soaps traveling at hurricane speeds stopped them in their tracks with sounds of meaty impact. The other soldiers closed in, and Aang shoved Sokka- knives, shopping bag, and all- out of the way as he also took a spinning sidestep. Tonfa attacks came in at him while Aang ducked and bobbed through a circle-walking maneuver, and when he saw one of the soldiers shifting his attention to Sokka- who was holding up one of his knives defensively as he clutched his shopping bag- Aang let loose with an Air Blast sent both the soldier and Sokka flying in opposite directions.

Even if he had brought his glider, Aang couldn't abandon Sokka to this fight. Mai was a true warrior, and would be all right, but Sokka had no training, and these were real soldiers used to keeping the peace on a populated island. It would be no contest.

Aang ducked one more swinging club, then reversed his dodge into a forward step and brought both his hands up to smack the outsides up against the chestplate of the soldier. The impact summoned an explosion of air that sent the man crashing into the fruit stand where all the trouble had started.

When Aang looked around again, he realized that he had lost track of Sokka, and more soldiers were streaming into the plaza.



Across the plaza, Sokka lunged forward to stab with his knives at the soldier he had chosen to challenge, but his aim was off, and the blades impacted harmlessly against the small chestplate. The man swung his tonfa weapon and connected with Sokka's right side, but luckily it smacked against the shopping bag hanging from his shoulder. Instead of breaking a rib, it was only enough of an impact to bring tears to his eyes and send him sailing into a stack of furs piled up on one of the market's abandoned tables. The thing held for precisely half a second before it crumpled to pieces beneath Sokka and deposited him on the plaza's dirt ground.

This was what happened when he tried to be a true warrior.

A shadow rose up to block the sun, and Sokka looked to find the soldier bringing his tonfa down in an arc aimed right for Sokka's head-

Another shadow cut across the club's path, a fast-moving human figure that grabbed the soldier's outstretched arm and twisted in some way that was made the two shadows merge. The next thing Sokka knew, the soldier was flying through the air above him to go crashing into a barrel of supposedly fresh fish. Sokka looked back at the rescuing shadow, purposefully not hoping that this might be a good thing because hoping was just asking for trouble, and grabbed his knives. The figure shifted so that it was no longer backlit by the sun, and the shadowy for resolved into-

-a girl?

Yes, it was a girl, wearing the same shade of blue (a warrior girl in blue?!) as everyone else in the market, but she was obviously no idle shopper. She was lean and tough, tensed in a fighting stance that loudly told the world to back the slush off. Sokka looked to her face, and gasped at the inhuman whiteness unto which blood-red lines of fierce expression had been drawn. He couldn't tear his eyes off that face as she reached down, grabbed him by his shirt, and yanked him back up to a standing position. "Come on," she said in a clear, steady voice, "we have to get you out of here."

Sokka replied, "Huh?"

The girl ignored him, turned to the wider brawl where Aang was blasting soldiers with hurricanes and Mai was throwing whatever she could get her hands on, and let out a shrill whistle. Sokka caught a quick blur of motion that moved in a direct line down from the sky into the center of the brawl, and he had only a moment to register the item as an arrow before it exploded into a world of white smoke.

Sokka's vision was completely obscured, so he experienced the next part solely as a series of yanks on his shirt carrying him in a stumbling, twisting path through the marketplace that had his shopping bag bouncing painfully against his chest. The girl with the painted face (it had to be paint, it would be too much to deal with spirit monsters twice this month) didn't seem at all inconvenienced by having to drag Sokka along, her auburn hair bouncing as she ran.

When she finally came to a stop beside a stack of crates and an abandoned hay cart, the strength in her arms was enough to decelerate Sokka so that he didn't so much as bump into her. "Down here," was all she said as she crouched and began brushing sandy dirt from the marketplace ground. Sokka was about to ask her if she planned on digging her way to safety when he noticed the trap door that was being uncovered, a crude wooden affair with a metal lifting ring bolted to the center. The painted girl flung the door open, and pointed at the ladder within extending down into a dark shaft. "You're not afraid of caves, are you?"

Even if he was, he couldn't let a challenge like that go, not after his pathetic showing in that fight.

The climb down was no fun with his bruised side, but Sokka managed it without dropping his shopping back or falling. He found himself in a small room of some kind, the walls formed from old planks of wood hammered together to hold back the sand and dirt. Still, they couldn't keep the moisture out, and the place had a decidedly funky smell to it. Sokka was almost glad that the only illumination was the sunlight that made it down the shaft, because he did not want to see what was growing in the corners down here.

He heard the painted girl hop off the ladder behind him, and he turned to face her. "What about my friends?"

Her facepaint practically glowed in the low light. "They're coming right now." She nodded at the top of the ladder, and sure enough, Mai was climbing down, with another painted girl behind her. Once those two reached the bottom, Aang (still missing his shirt, but clutching that ungrateful flying rat Momo) dropped down through the shaft, completely ignoring the ladder. Another face-paint girl followed, and when she got off the ladder, the one who had rescued Sokka said, "What about our sniper?"

"Right behind me, chief." Sure enough, a young man with a conical hat on his head and a longbow on his back began coming down the ladder, and when he was safely in the room, the painted girl who had spoken swung her hands above her head. In time with her motion, the top of the shaft closed off by itself, and before the light completely disappeared, Sokka caught a glimpse of the dirt and sand of the marketplace's ground moving of its own accord to cover the opening. Huh. Earthbender.

In the pitch darkness, there was only silence until Mai's voice echoed through the little underground room: "I remember now: the problems on this island were small uprisings by warriors with painted faces. I don't know how I confused that with pickpockets."

There was the sound of sparkrocks being struck together, and then a flame lit up to chase away the darkness. The painted girl who had rescued Sokka was holding up a candle, her eyes shining in its light. "Avatar, it is our honor to assist you. I am Suki, the tall girl is Chijin, the Earthbender is Sabure, and our sniper calls himself Longshot. Welcome to Kyoshi Island, but I'm sorry you couldn't have had an easier homecoming."

The kid grinned. "Pleased to meet you all! And thanks for rescuing us. I'm Aang, he's Sokka, and she's-"

"Hey," Mai interrupted. "No names until we know we can trust these people. Just because they don't want the Fire Nation to kill us doesn't mean they're friends."

Suki smirked in the candlelight. "Lady Caldera Yu Mai, your reputation precedes you. And by that, I mean I've seen your Wanted poster."

Sokka couldn't help but chuckle.

Aang laughed, too, as he petted Momo. "Good one!"

Suki let the mirth continue for a moment, and then she dipped her head to Mai. "Seriously, though, you have our thanks for returning the Avatar to the world. Just the rumors of his return have brought hope to Kyoshi Island after many years."

Mai didn't say anything, and Sokka decided to rescue her from what must have been an awkward moment. "This is a smuggler's hideout, right? It must let out somewhere besides the plaza."

Suki smiled. "Good guess! The sandy soil made it tough, but some enterprising Earthbender smugglers dug tunnels to avoid the Kyoshi Warriors who used to police this island." She turned and held her candle out to illuminate the wall behind her. Sokka could see now that there was another hatch set into it. "We'll take the tunnel here to one of our safe houses. There's track laid down for a cart, but it's all rusted, so we'll have to walk. As you can probably guess, it didn't quite work out for the smugglers, but the tunnels remained in the secret lore of the Kyoshi Warriors."

Aang gasped. "That's where I recognize the face paint! You're wearing it just like Avatar Kyoshi!"

"So, wait," Sokka said, "that means you're these 'Kyoshi Warriors?' What are Kyoshi Warriors?"

"Guardians of this island, inspired by Avatar Kyoshi." Suki shook her head. "We wear their faces, but there haven't been any for a generation. The paint hides our identities from the Fire Nation, and serves as a symbol to the people of Kyoshi Island. Or, at least, that's the idea. I'd be happy to explain more, but we should get moving. The Fire Nation will be looking all over for you, but we have a safehouse where you can rest comfortably." She turned and yanked open the hatch, revealing the smuggler's tunnel in all its dark, dank, dusty, spider-fly-webby glory.

As the group got moving, Sokka heard Mai mutter, "Great, more dust, and I didn't even get to buy my soap."


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Loopy
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« Reply #31 on: Mar 30, 2015 08:51 pm »

Yon Rha shook his head at the sight of the wrecked marketplace. "This is exactly the kind of trouble I didn't want."

Zhao had to keep from rolling his eyes. Some things were just not becoming of an officer of the Fire Navy, no matter how stupid the provocation. "Don't you see what an opportunity this is?"

"The opportunity, Commander, would have been if my soldiers could have caught the Avatar." Yon Rha looked over to where a group of merchants were haranguing one of the squad commanders about the ruminations they thought they deserved for their wrecked merchandise. "Now, we'll have to search the whole town- probably the whole island before we're done- and disrupt all the sea traffic with a blockade. This will be expensive."

Now, Zhao allowed himself a smirk. Propriety was one thing, but no proper officer would pass up a chance to look good. "On the contrary, Commander, the situation couldn't be cheaper or easier. If your soldiers could have captured the Avatar here, yes, that would have been perfect, but the reports implicated your local rebels in his escape."

"So?"

"So, he came to this island for a reason, and he's going to stay until he gets what he wants. All you have to do is keep the pressure on, put on a little show of force to scare him from operating openly, and he'll have to rely on the rebels for as long as he's here. And you mentioned before that you had an informant in the rebels- do I really need to spell out how that can be exploited to guide the Avatar right into our hands?"

Yon Rha's frown wasn't as deep as usual, but he was still clearly skeptical. "I would be taking a big risk, all based on your suppositions."

Zhao waved the notion away. "The risk can be all mine, since the reward will be for me as well. After all, I have jurisdiction in the search for the Avatar, so you naturally had to defer to my command. That should be more than enough insulation for you, yes?"

Not only could Zhao's destiny not be denied, it was practically eager to be fulfilled, and he would do whatever it took to prove worthy.

TO BE CONTINUED
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Loopy
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« Reply #32 on: Apr 12, 2015 02:41 pm »

The Rebels of Kyoshi

"We're trying to find the last Waterbender of the Southern Water Tribe, my sister." Sokka said, to the gasps of his audience. "But our story begins a hundred years ago, as Avatar Aang made his way to the South Pole..."

The face-paint people all leaned forward with interest, but Mai just rolled her eyes and began tuning the proceedings out. It wasn't easy, because interesting sights were at a minimum in this supposed 'safehouse.' It was really just an undocumented basement below a lumber warehouse, and the only good thing about it was that it wasn't a smelly fish warehouse, an equally likely option given Kyoshi Island's trade practices. There was just enough space for three people to survive a single day without getting on each other's nerves, and so of course Suki the Chief Face-Paint Girl had brought her whole rebel posse to cram in for an Avatar meet'n'greet.

Reclining on a long box that had been repurposed as the world's most uncomfortable couch with Momo hiding behind her from all the strange people, Mai idly looked over the assembly. Aang stood at the front beside Sokka, and was visibly thrilled at the attention and ready to start an official fanclub. Sokka was holding forth about their mighty quest to save the world and puffing up his chest like a robinjay in mating season. The rebel women were happily giving him their attention, and Mai took a brief moment to examine the horrible colors of their facepaint. Most of them had decorated their visages like Avatar Kyoshi, even the men, while a minority favored an alternate form of face-painting done in grays and blacks, evoking what one man had said was, "The unagi who lives in the ocean and eats elephant koi." Because it wasn't bad enough that they were rebels, it was apparently mandatory that they look ugly, too.

The only one without paint on his face was the sniper, 'Longshot.' Mai decided that he was her favorite of the bunch.

"And so we need to get into the Fire Navy's prisoner processing center right here on this island," Sokka was finishing. "They have to have some kind of records somewhere, and we can use them to find my sister."

Longshot crossed his arms tightly over his chest while everyone else chattered.

It was Suki who eventually stepped forward to voice the consensus. "That's going to be tough. Security is really tight around the base, and if these records go back years, then it's not going to be a quick search."

Mai stretched on her couch-box. "We can probably thank your team here for the high security. Whatever you've been doing, you've probably kept the base on some level of constant alert." She saw Sokka grimace at that, but didn't care enough to find out why.

Suki, for her part, just shrugged. "Probably, but it's a prison and processing center for all the captives taken in the Southern Seas. I doubt things would be lax even if everyone here had spent out whole lives bowing to statues of Fire Lord Azulon. Blame all the local piracy, too."

"Pirates?" Aang's expression visibly brightened. "Maybe we can recruit some to help us! We can form a pirate army and capture the base!"

Everyone was silent for a moment, and then Longshot gave a loud snicker-snort.

Suki smiled. "Our sniper is right, that's probably not our most likely plan. Still, the idea of an attack isn't a bad idea. Maybe we can cause some trouble on the other side of the village, and when the police and soldiers turn their attention to us, a small team can sneak into the base."

"Sneak," Mai repeated. Ashes, that woman's painted face was so bright and ugly. "Yes, an installation of the most advanced naval force in the entire world is going to completely empty itself over a small rebel uprising, allowing a bunch of obvious infiltrators to make their way into one of the administrative buildings simply by tiptoeing from shadow to shadow." Realizing that everyone was glaring at her, she added, "Sarcasm is a viable and effective method of criticism. You all got my point, didn't you?"

Everyone's painted faces ranged from annoyed to outright angry, except for Longshot (who showed no expression whatsoever) and Suki (whose look seemed more evaluating than anything, just like Azula's whenever Mai had talked back to her).

To Mai's surprise, Sokka then said, "She's right; we're going to need something better. Back at the South Pole, I was able to do my share of sneaking, but even just from my few minutes of running around the marketplace here, I can tell the Fire Nation is taking things a lot more seriously. Let's not rule out a distraction of some kind, but our plans need to detail the whole path to the records room and back out again, or we're going to wind up learning the hard way how prisoners are processed here."

NO, that wouldn't do. Mai needed the Avatar to be captured by Zuko, not whoever the local overlord was. (Her family had taken dinner with the guy on their way down to the South Pole, but it was such a boring experience that Mai hadn't paid much attention.) Moreover, if she failed Azula, there was a good chance that she would be left to rot in the Fire Nation's prison system, and even her uncle's influence as a High Warden probably wouldn't help her.

Suki stepped over and leaned against Mai's box-couch. "It sounds like we need some time to think and work out all the details, and for that, we'll need to get you out of the village. The longer you stay here, the better the chance that Commander Yon Rha's forces will notice something going on. Don't worry; we have someplace comfortable in the forest. Right, Sabure?"

The Earthbender rebel grinned. Mai wanted to know the joke, but didn't want to risk appearing interested.

Suki continued, "And while we plan, the other rebels can assemble the provisions you couldn't get at the marketplace earlier. Speaking of which, I can personally offer some aikido lessons to anyone in need of more fighting skills." She looked over at Sokka, who blushed in return.

Mai raised her hand. "I'll take some lessons, too. Sounds like it's going to be a long time without something to do."

Suki nodded, and turned to one of the men with the unagi facepaint. "Ryoushi, go get some cloaks for our guests so that we can move in public. Everyone else, time to start leaving. Remember, only one or two at a time, and wash off your paint first. Nagori, that goes double for you. I don’t want a repeat of the Noodle Stand Incident."

Aang said, "Where are we going?"

Suki smiled. "The birthplace of our legacy, and the start of yours on this island."



At the stroke of midnight, the report came in that Yon Rha's informant had observed the Avatar and was ready to report on any plans made with the rebels.

Zhao was in Yon Rha's personal parlor, having a late night lychee-chili agrave, and happily knocked back the last of the spicy drink at the news. "See? Now all we need to do is set a nice little trap, and the Avatar will be mine."

Yon Rha still sipped at his own glass. "Yours, thanks to all my resources. And once you have the Avatar, I better not have to clean up any mess."

"On the contrary, I'll be more than happy to present the entire Avatar Conspiracy to the Fire Lord." Zhao grinned, and sat up out of his chair to walk over to the parlor's balcony. With the warmth of spring finally reaching the island, its doors were left open, and Zhao could see out over the Navy base to the fishing village sprawling out along the coast. "Of course, your informant's cover will probably be ruined, but I'm sure some compensation for your inconvenience can be arranged." He looked back at Yon Rha, and saw the man give a nod before finishing his own drink.

Then there was a knock on the door, and an aide came in with hurried steps. "Sirs, there is a medical emergency in the prison!"

Zhao looked over at Yon Rha, wondering if he should be concerned, but the other commander didn't even stand up as he said, "Which prisoner?"

"The traitor, Warrant Officer Lee, sir. He used his clothes to- to hang himself."

Zhao couldn't help but give a snicker. "Well, that was quick. Just one afternoon of the full interrogation regime and he cracked completely. It would have been nice if we could have gotten answers from him, first, but he probably knew to take his own life before he got to that point."

Yon Rha shrugged, and looked back at the aide. "Is he dead yet?"

"There is no breathing. The healers are trying to revive him."

"Well, Zhao, I hope your other lead pans out, because it sounds like this one is finished."

"Oh, I'm sure Lee's family will be able to tell us something useful." Zhao looked back out over the open balcony. "And if not, I've already identified and removed the traitor, and the rest of the conspiracy will still be an important prize. Either way, I can make it look good in my final report."



So late it was almost morning, Aang lowered his hands and let his winds fade away, leaving everyone to drop softly to the ground right outside the village's protective wall, not far from where he and his friends had entered earlier that day. While Mai straightened her hair and Sokka summoned Momo with a wave, Suki laughed and said, "That was amazing! I just flew on the winds!"

"If you think that's fun, I'd love to let you ride on Appa some time." Aang glanced over at her and smiled. Everyone was wearing concealing cloaks, and Suki herself looked quite different in a green cape and no facepaints, bright-eyed but plain enough that she would be easy to forget. That was probably what made her such a good secret rebel warrior. "If you give him an apple to eat, he'll be your friend for life."

"I'd love that. But for now, we need to get going." Suki exhaled, and unclipped a small lamp from her belt that she lit with a pair of sparkrocks. She started the march into the forest, and Aang hopped up to walk right behind her, eager to see what this 'legacy' was that she had mentioned. As they walked under the trees in the night, Suki leaned over and said in a low voice, "Avatar Aang-"

"You can just call me Aang. It's fine."

"-Aang, how sure are you about your companions? Sokka and Mai?"

Aang blinked. What was that supposed to mean? "They're good people. If it wasn't for them, I'd probably still be a prisoner of the Fire Nation in the South Pole."

"I know, I heard Sokka's story. It's just... people aren't always up front about their motivations. Like how do you know that Sokka really has a sister, and isn't looking to use you in some other way?"

Aang couldn't help but recoil at the thought. "No, I met Sokka's Gran-Gran, and you could see the way she talked about it that she was really worried for her granddaughter. It was like the thought of it hurt her. And Sokka likes to pretend he's okay, but he's really torn up, too. We monks can tell these kinds of things."

Suki gave him a side-eyed glance. "And what about Lady Caldera Yu Mai back there? Little Miss Attitude?"

"Hey, that's something I've been wondering," Aang said quickly, not wanting to talk about Mai's latest cranky mood. "What is that title you keep calling her? I know the central district of the Fire Nation's Capital City is called the Caldera, but when you say it like that, it sounds like a clan name."

"You don't know?" Suki stopped, looked around in the light of her lamp, and adjusted her path a few degrees to the left. A little ways behind them, Sokka and Mai continued to follow, chatting about something related to cooked eel. "The Fire Nation did away with their clan loyalties. Now, everyone owes allegiance to their residence and the governors who lord over them, who in turn of course pledge loyalty to the Fire Lord. The most prestigious of all the new 'clans' is the capital city. I've heard that anyone from the Caldera gets treated like royalty in any of the colonies. Your friend Mai is very well connected."

Aang considered that. It wasn't anything he didn't already suspect, given what he saw of Mai's father in the South Pole and their family's position there. And then there was her other title, the ‘Weapon of the Fire Nation’ thing that Aang was still vague on. "Well, Mai left all of that behind to help me. I don't think she likes what the Fire Nation has been doing. Yeah, she's kind of ignorant about some things, but so am I, and I know I want to fix the world. She does, too. She's pretty great. You should see her with her throwing knives!" Suki looked over at him, and Aang realized he was babbling. "Sorry, you get the idea."

Suki turned her gaze back to the path. "Just be careful. My family has long experience with the Fire Nation, and even the best of them can have odd ideas about honor. Expect her to surprise you, and not in a good way." She sighed, and when she spoke again, her voice was so soft that Aang could barely hear it. "We have to watch who we trust in our war against the Fire Nation, and that includes my own rebels. We may look like a unified force, but we've had a string of bad luck lately, too much for it to be a coincidence. Even if you weren't staying long, I'd have moved you out of that warehouse tonight anyway. I think I have an informant in my team."

Aang didn't know what to say to that. He looked up at Suki, and found her gazing back at him with hard eyes. "You seem like a nice boy, Av- Aang. But someone in as dangerous a situation as you can't be nice all the time. Please, be careful." She looked forward, and then said louder, "We're here."

Aang looked forward again, pushing all that stuff about trust out of his mind, and couldn't see what Suki was talking about. "These are just more trees."

Suki smirked, and called out, "Sabure, are you here?"

From behind one of the pine trees, the Earthbender rebel girl stepped out and waved. Without her facepaint, Aang wouldn't have recognized her at all if Suki hadn't said her name. Sabure straightened her body, and then took a wide horse-stance. She stuck her arms out and formed tight fists with her hands, and then swung her arms together diagonally up into the air. Aang made sure to memorize the movements, since he'd have to learning Earthbending someday, and looked around eagerly for the results.

The ground shook, and a stone that had been barely peeking out of the ground rose up. It turned out to be big, as tall as Appa and almost as wide, and Aang was impressed by the display of Bending power until he realized that the rock was sliding on an existing track. Peering past the rock in the waning light, he saw a ramp leading underground.

Suki marched right down the ramp without hesitation, and the rest followed.

It was just a short walk, but when they reached the bottom, Aang was once again impressed, this time with no take-backsies. It was a full stone cavern, brightly lit by crystal lanterns from the Earth Kingdom, and at the center of the wide space was a building, a real building, with windows and a slanted roof and even a raised foundation to avoid flooding.

"Wow, what's this doing here?"

Suki bowed at the waist. "This, Avatar Aang, is the humble dojo you established in your past life as Kyoshi, the place where your chosen girls trained to protect the people of the island."

Sokka stepped over and scratched his ponytail. "Kyoshi made an underground dojo for girls? Why?"

"It wasn't always here. It used to be closer to the village, but when the last of the Kyoshi Warriors were disbanded, it was abandoned. Eventually the Fire Nation ordered it torn down, but our people disassembled it carefully, and smuggled the pieces to safety. Sabure's mother was an Earthbender, too, and she was part of the group that put it back together down here. Only the descendants of the Kyoshi Warriors know its location, even among the other rebels, so you'll definitely be safe here." She grinned in the lamplight. "And we've stocked it up with all the Kyoshi Warrior relics we could get our hands on, so it's a real functioning dojo. If you want to learn aikido, you're going to have to get used to eating those mats inside."

Sokka gulped, and Aang laughed.


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Loopy
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I'm Loooooooopy!


« Reply #33 on: Apr 12, 2015 02:45 pm »

Thus their stay on Kyoshi Island took an annoying permanent status, and Mai was depressed to find that it didn't even come with access to a civilized bathroom. A bucket was left next to the weird underground dojo for emergencies during the night while the fake boulder-entrance was closed, and when the morning came, the Earthbender girl Sabure would come along to open up access to the surface and the bathroom-bushes.

Of course, that didn't distract Mai from the way the situation mirrored being held prisoner. Suki, Sabure, or Longshot were always around to watch over them when they weren’t locked in the dojo. Sure, in theory, they could leave at any time, but it was convenient how no one but Mai wanted to.

There were some perks, though. On the third day of their stay, Sabure brought Mai some soap that smelled of milk and honey. As she gave an approving sniff to the new bar, Mai said, "So, what are the chances of getting a bath here in the dojo? Heated? I can pay." She hadn't been able to wash since landing on the island.

Sabure blinked. "Wow, they heat baths in the Fire Nation?"

Mai sighed. "So cold water it is. Is there a tub I can use?"

"Um, not that I know of." Sabure tapped her chin. "Yeah, arranging for one to be carried out of town would take a while. It's easier for me to just walk you over to one of the southern bays."

It was a sad reflection of Mai's existence that she was getting used to washing in wild water. She had even learned to use a handful of sand as a makeshift scrubber. "Why the south? That's a long walk."

"Well, the unagi swims in the northern waters." Sabure leaned forward. "See, legends say that Avatar Kyoshi created the island when she broke off her village's peninsula from the Earth Kingdom mainland in order to save it from Chin the Conqueror!"

Mai had heard of Chin the Conqueror- he was some kind of warlord a few centuries ago who had tried to unite the chaotic Earth Kingdom and was murdered by an Avatar for his trouble- but didn't quite see the connection. "So she put the unagi in the ocean as a guard pet or something?"

"Kind of!" Sabure's grin grew. "Chin refused to retreat when his army did, so when the island broke off, he fell into the ocean and died. But the Avatar can take control of the reincarnation cycle, so Kyoshi made sure he would be reborn as an eel on the north side of the island. His arrogance and anger made him grow until he became a giant sea monster, the unagi. So, yeah, we use the beaches on the south side. Come on, it's not that long a walk, and I think the water might be a little warm today with all the sun we’ve been getting!"

Mai sighed again. Some 'perks' were perkier than others.

One of the better ones came from Longshot. While Sokka wrestled with Suki and Aang played with facepaints, the sniper took Mai out into the forest and showed her how to shoot with a longbow. He brought her to a little valley hidden within the trees, at the end of which a stuffed scare-lizard-crow stood watch, made in the shape of an armored Firebender soldier with a finger-painting of the skull-like faceplate on the head. Longshot didn't speak (Mai would have said this was ideal behavior in a man, but it proved to be a very frustrating quirk in a teacher) but simply demonstrated the form and function of his craft. He would then hand Mai the longbow and guide her in duplicating his actions.

The first time, she missed.

That was all the impetuous she needed to obsess on the matter.

After a week of practice and only marginal improvement, Mai finally began to wonder what a sniper of Longshot's caliber was doing on Kyoshi Island. She broached the matter to Sabure during one of their daily bathing trips to the southern coast.

"Oh, Longshot was born here," Sabure said as they walked, "but he didn't come back until after the war ended."

"You're telling me he left as child, and he came back as a mute emotionally-stunted death machine on legs? I’ve read picture stories like that."

Sabure stopped and stared. "We try to phrase it nicer than that." She shook her head and resumed walking. "And he does talk, sometimes. Rarely. Over time, we got the story. His family left the island to get away from the Fire Nation, did it all legal even with papers and stuff. But then the war... did what the war does, and Longshot was on his own. Once there was no more fighting to be done over on the mainland, he came back here, to do what he could."

"And he conveyed all that with a word here and there, and some significant eye contact?"

Sabure sighed, and Mai hid a smile. Stick her out in the middle of the boring woods with no heated baths, will they?



"Wow! I can see the whole island from up here!"

Aang looked back over his shoulder, and saw Suki leaning out over Appa's saddle so far she was at risk of tipping right over. He didn't stop her, though, because he liked that kind of enthusiasm, and if she actually fell, he could always direct Appa to swoop down and catch her. (That was how Aang had learned how far was too far in these saddles.) "Be sure to tell Appa how much you're enjoying yourself!"

Suki laughed and reached a hand down to pat the bison's furry bulk. "Thanks, boy! I'm really glad your kind is back in the world." Appa roared a friendly response, but Aang had to turn away then, because he didn't want to risk Suki seeing the expression on his face. They flew around for a little while after that, but eventually, Suki let out a heavy breath. "Okay, I guess we should get to our observations. Hold Appa steady and I'll grab the telescope."

Aang complied, tugging the reins to convey the request, and Appa's motion slowed to a stop. Just like when Aang had first come to Kyoshi Island, he was hovering over it with an ally spying for the greater good. While Suki observed, Aang left his position on Appa's head and walked back to the saddle. He retrieved a brush and paper from the supply storage, spread it out beside Suki, and waited. Once she was finished with her observations, she put the telescope down and took the brush to begin drawing. As Aang watched, a sketch of the Fire Navy's base- a detailed layout of its walls and buildings- took shape.

"It's strange," Suki said as she sketched, "that this is the first time I've seen the inside of that base. It's been there my whole life, and I've looked at the outside more times than I can remember, but this is a whole new perspective."

"Well, you've never been this high up before. It puts a new perspective on everything."

Suki looked up and gave him a brief smile before turning back to her work. The sketch was a necessary part of their planning for breaking into that base. Sokka said that if they knew where they were going, knew how the soldiers moved around in the base, they would have a better chance of getting in and out safely, and would be prepared in case something went wrong. Sokka was really taking the whole thing seriously, and Aang didn't have to wonder why; this could be Sokka's only chance to really find out what happened to his sister.

As Suki worked, Aang briefly wondered about the purchase Sokka had made back in the marketplace on that fire day on Kyoshi Island, before Momo had ruined things. Sokka was keeping it wrapped in the bag, and said it was something personal he'd need for bringing his sister back home. Aang couldn't help but be curious, but resolved to respect Sokka's privacy.

Of course, there were other curiosities he could satisfy. "So, Suki, where in the village do you live?"

She didn't even look up. "Oh, I don't have a home. I just stay here and there, depending on what needs my attention."

"What about your family?"

Suki paused in her sketching, and finally met Aang's eyes. "They're no worry. My grandmother was a Kyoshi Warrior who couldn't stand to see the Fire Nation ruling her home. My parents had an accident because a drunk shipwright ripped them off on repairs to their fishing boat. And my big sister left the island a while ago." She gave a small smile that didn't reach her eyes. "I appreciate your showing an interest, but I'd like to finish the sketch." She looked back down.

Aang stayed quiet for a while, watching her draw a hexagonal security wall around the base layout, but finally felt compelled to say, "I'm sorry I wasn't here to make a better world."

Suki looked back up, and reached her free hand out pat his shoulder. "You're here now. Let's focus on that."



Yon Rha had provided Zhao an office to make his own for as long as he was on Kyoshi Island, and it was from there that he coordinated his search for the Avatar. Ships from both Zhao's command and the base here on Kyoshi Island were sailing to the various Southern Islands- Whale Tail, Kangaroo, Nunya, the Kuril Cluster, and all the others- searching for signs or sightings of the Avatar's sky bison. Zhao was confident that the boy was either still on Kyoshi Island or planning to come back soon, but it was better to play it safe.

Besides, all those ships brought with them the flag of Zhao's personal command, so everyone in the entire region would be associating his name with the search for the Avatar. That was just as important as actually catching the boy.

Besides the reports resulting from those investigations, there was also the regular day-to-day business for which a commander of Zhao's standing was responsible. Reports of matters in the South Pole came twice daily by telegraph, detailing the results of the increased pace of mining and the worsening effects of the Everstorm.

One day, a report came in that a ship carrying platinum back to the Homeland had been attacked by pirates, and the cargo taken. The pirates had let the surviving crew go once the theft was complete, and left the engine damaged but functional. The ship had limped to a dock on Whale Tail and immediately reported.

Zhao frowned as he read the details of the incident. It was very rare for pirates to attack military vessels like that, and the cargo of platinum would be fairly useless to such scum except as something to sell, and most of the world had no idea of the rare metal's special classified properties.

Well, that was a mystery to be resolved after the Avatar was caught. In the meantime, Zhao wrote out an order for all cargo ships carrying platinum to be assigned a destroyer escort. That should keep the pirates away.



Sokka's time on Kyoshi Island might have actually been the happiest time of his life since Katara was taken. Sure, he was living in an underground hideaway and stuck eating whatever could be smuggled out of town, but he was also finally learning how to fight, and the fact that his teacher was a fun and pretty girl wasn't lost on him.

Too bad he spent most of his time with her getting his butt kicked to the North Pole and back.

Suki normally gave her lessons in the hidden Kyoshi Warrior dojo, but today they had taken the lesson outside so that they could play with a pair of old katana swords. Safe from enemy eyes in a deep spot in Kyoshi Island's forest, the two of them were moving through an exercise sequence. Sokka brought his katana down in a quick chop, mimicking Suki's graceful movements, enjoying the weight of the weapon in his hand.

The air smelled of seawater and pine, and the only sounds were the rustling of trees and the swish of the blades through the air.

Suki brought her sword down in one last chop, and then flipped her grip around to sheath the sword in one smooth motion. Sokka tried to do the same thing, but forgot which side he was wearing the scabbard on, and wound up having to quickly shift it over when his first guess was wrong. His sword safely put away, he looked back up and found Suki giving a smile that was half-smirk and made his stomach flip. "Very smooth. A little more practice and you'll be sheathing your blade like a master. Of course, that doesn't leave much time for learning how to actually use the sword..."

Sokka gave a laugh. "Maybe by the time we're ready to break into that base, I'll be good enough that I won't completely embarrass myself." He hid the ambivalence he felt about that statement, which was probably truer than he would have liked, and he was rewarded by Suki's own pleasant laughter. It was weird how she was a great warrior but also so pleasant, unlike the fighter girls from the Fire Nation.

As if sensing Sokka’s thoughts, Mai's voice cut into the fun: "If something goes wrong with this infiltration of yours, embarrassment is going to be the least of our problems. Because we'll be dead or prisoners for life." Sokka turned to where she lounging on a blanket, not far from him and Suki, and gave his best Disapproving Glare. She just met his gaze with that blank face and dead eyes of hers, clearly unimpressed. "By the way, I think I figured out what the big distraction part should be in our plan."

"Great. I'm so looking forward to hearing about it." He turned back to Suki and said, "So, should we run through another set of drills, or go back to the dojo for aikido practice? I do owe you a few flips from yesterday, and I wouldn't mind the chance to slam you down on the mat. Uh, in a strictly professional way, of course."

Suki's jaw dropped in mock-shock, and she fanned herself with her hands while she suppressed some obvious laughter. "Sokka, you flatterer! I-" She tried to say something else, but she interrupted herself with a burst of giggling. "Heh. Now I don't remember what I was going to say. Anyway, you can try, but trust me, the chance to throw me is all you're going to get unless I'm feeling merciful." Sokka just nodded at the obvious truth, and Suki frowned. "I was just teasing."

"Oh, I thought you were having a moment of arrogance. Not that it's a bad thing! A good warrior deserves a moment of arrogance every now and then. It's the manly thing to- I mean, it's the- well, even girl warriors are kind of manly, I guess- not in a bad way! I just-"

"What," Suki broke in, "are you going on about?"

"Um, well, the Water Tribes don't really have women who are warriors. I know the other nations- well, the Fire Nation at least, and now Kyoshi Island- I know others do, but everything I've always learned about warriors is kind of oriented around them being men, and so- so, well, I say stupid thing sometimes and please don't hurt me!"

Suki snorted. "Well, at least you know that you're wrong. That's a point in your favor." She reached up and patted Sokka's cheek. "You're forgiven. But if you like warriors so much, why didn't you learn to fight before now?"

Sokka suppressed an urge to grimace and maybe walk away and pretend the question had never been asked. "Let's just say there was a lack of opportunity and an overabundance of regret."

Suki eyed him for a moment, and then nodded. "Okay."

"Warrior or not, I hope that my sister is just as strong as you. If she is, then Katara could survive anything the Fire Nation has thrown at her."

Suki stared, blinking, and then turned away. "I really hope your sister is all right. Strength doesn't always have much to do with that, and I- well, I have a sister, too."

Aang had mentioned that, but no other details. When Sokka spoke, it was in a slow and quiet voice, and all of his sympathy was in it. "Did something happen to her?"

Suki gave a laugh. "Kind of. She signed up to be a marine soldier for the Fire Nation as soon as she was of age. If she's still alive, she's somewhere out there wearing their armor and following their orders."

When feeling came back to Sokka's face, he realized that his jaw was hanging open. He pushed it back up with a free hand. "That's- huh, that's not what I was expecting."

"Right? But my point is that whatever strength you see in me, I couldn't do anything about my own sister. So, don't hope that Katara is like me. You've never forgotten her after all this time, and now you're looking for her. Maybe you never learned how to fight, and maybe you need to learn a little more about the ways girls can be strong." She raised her chin, and smiled. "But you're strong, and I have to think that your sister got a little of that, too." She reached out, and poked Sokka in the chest. "And right now you're about to get stronger in aikido. Before we head back to the dojo, let's make sure the swords are properly cleaned and oiled. The fumes from that can get kind of thick in the dojo, even with the surface passage open." She turned and went to get the rags and oils where they were resting safely out of the way of the drills.

As soon as Suki was out of earshot, Sokka inched over to where Mai was examining her fingernails and whispered, "Mai, you're a girl."

"You’ve found me out, but I'm not providing proof."

"...so, since you're a girl, can you tell if Suki likes me?"

"Well, she's giving stupid speeches about how you're not completely useless, and she hasn't arranged to stab you with a katana in a 'training accident' yet, so I think the odds are fair that she doesn't hate you."

"No, I mean that she likes me in a... a, you know, lovey-dovey way."

"Lovey-dovey?" She finally looked up at him. "What are you, three years old?"

"You know what I mean," Sokka hissed

Mai stared at him, glanced over to Suki's approach, and then met his eyes once again. "Using all my profound wisdom and feminine instincts, let me assure you that I could not possibly care less."



Time had passed, practice had been done, and Mai was improving. She released the bowstring, and the arrow's flight began and finished in the time it took her to blink. It had landed right on the black mark that was supposed to be one of the scare-lizard-crow's eyes, exactly where she had been aiming.

She couldn't stop the smile from reaching out from within her.

Once she got her face back under control, she looked over at Longshot, and he nodded approvingly. Then she looked back at her target, and saw it for what it represented: A soldier of the Fire Nation, with an arrow through his eye.

This time, Mai was able to keep her face under control, but she was well-used to concealing disgust.

She let out a small sigh, and turned back to Longshot. "I hit my target, but I'm still very slow to draw and aim. I need to get better at that."

Longshot nodded again, and held out his hands for the bow. Mai passed it over, and watched as he demonstrated his graceful drawing style once again. She pushed the whole concept of rebels and soldiers out of her head, and began analyzing the efficiencies of his movement.


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Loopy
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« Reply #34 on: Apr 12, 2015 02:46 pm »

Almost two weeks into their stay, Aang found himself in a moment with Sokka where they could really bond as men; they were out on one of the cliffs overlooking Kyoshi Island's coast, chatting and tossing stones into the ocean far below as they waited for the rebels to gather back at the old Kyoshi Warrior dojo for another planning session. It was the perfect time for some guy-to-guy talk. "Hey, do you like Suki or something?"

Aang watched as Sokka's body tensed so suddenly that he nearly knocked himself over, which as close as they were standing to the cliff, was no laughing matter. Sokka caught himself before Aang had to, though, and straightened quickly into a dignified posture. "Wha- (ahem) What makes you think I like Suki?"

"Well, you stare at her whenever she comes around, and you obviously respect her fighting skills. And then there's how you've been talking about how great she is for the last two hours-"

"Okay, I get it." He turned so that he was no longer facing Aang, and threw another stone into the distance. "I mean, we don't know each other all that well, but it's nice to spend time with her. And even though she fights well, she's just so... nice and normal. It's... nice to spend time with a girl like her."

Aang nodded. He knew exactly how it was. Just being around Mai was the best possible thing, even when she was complaining about stuff. She was so different from everyone else Aang had ever met, worldly in her concerns, but capable of a calmness that was almost enlightened in its purity and detachment. And even after all this time together, her beauty was capable of stilling Aang's breath and taking him to places he had never before dreamed-

"Hey!"

Both boys turned at the sound of Mai's voice, to find her standing at the treeline. She waved lethargically, and added, "Everyone's ready! Stop wasting time and making me entertain the ugly face paint people!"

Aang felt a hand on his shoulder. Sokka patted him consoling, and said, "Good luck, kid. You're going to need it."



Mai identified her plan of attack, clutched her weapon in a sure grip, and struck with delicate strength. She was a master of this tool, knowing exactly how the nuances of her grip would generate precise amounts of torque, and the red that spilled out as a result did so exactly according to her design. Thus her foe was defeated, and she had one more transgression to add to her guilty conscious.

She felt mildly dirty for thinking of painting in such dramatic terms, but she was very good with a brush thanks to the calligraphy lessons her parents forced on her, and there was nothing wrong in taking pride in even unwanted skills.

She blew gently on the red trim she had painted onto the armor chestpiece, making sure that it was dry enough not to run, and put the metal aside. "I just finished my fifth," she told Longshot.

They were at their little archery range, but instead of practicing the art of the bow and arrow, they were preparing the equipment that would be need for Sokka's big plan to break into the Navy base. The plan had been finalized the day before, and the most important part was disguising the infiltrators as Fire Nation soldiers. For that, they needed official armor.

Mai went over to the tarp spread on the forest ground, where a hundred of bits of metal were laid out so that their new red and black paintjobs could dry. Suki's rebels had been building this collection for a while, working with metalsmiths across all of Kyoshi Island to collect pieces of real Fire Nation armor, discarded as broken or rusted or merely scratched beyond beauty. The protection these pieces offered might be compromised, but the important thing was that a fresh coat of black paint would allow them to look like better armor.

Longshot brought over a freshly painted helmet and found it a spot on the tarp. Mai looked over the assembly, and did a quick count. "Looks like that's all of it. Now we just let it dry, and then haul it back to the dojo. Ourselves." She sighed.

Longshot shrugged, and walked over to where his longbow and quiver were leaning against a tree. That was a good idea; they might as well get some practice in while they waited.

Mai was getting faster on the draw, but she still wasn't as quick as she was with her knives. That might be an unreasonable comparison, but sometimes life demanded unreasonable things of people. She was on her own in a difficult mission, working other difficult missions as part of her cover, and at any point, her 'allies' might realize who she really was. She needed to be prepared for anything.

A thought occurred to her as he walked over to Longshot. "Hey, sniper, how is it going to feel to wear that armor and pretend to be Fire Nation?"

Longshot gave a quick grimace.

"Yeah, undercover operations are the worst."

Longshot nodded, and drew an arrow to shoot.



Two weeks after Zhao had sent the initial query, word finally came back on the late Warrant Officer Lee's family. Zhao was in Yon Rha's office, going over some reports, when an aide delivered a telegraph message from back in the Homeland.

Yon Rha took it, and his perpetual frown deepened as he read. Finally, he handed the paper over. "Here, you make sense of it."

Zhao had been eager to see what might have influenced the late communications officer in his actions, and was disappointed with results: Lee's family could not be found, and interviews with their former neighbors revealed that they had suddenly left weeks ago with no word as to their destination. At least the investigators had looked further into the matter, and uncovered accounts of Lee's father paying off all his local debts in coin before leaving.

"Clearly," Zhao said, "there was a bribe. The family got money they needed, and then left to make a new life. Lee's sabotage was paid for with his family's prosperity, and once he realized there was no chance of joining them, he permanently removed himself from the situation."

Yon Rha's frown deepened. "But who paid? And why?"

"There must be a rebel network with much greater coordination than we had realized. They either found out about the Avatar's return, or he was in the South Pole working for them from the beginning. Their plan to free him involved stealing the emergency supplies, as proven by the Water Tribe rebels' capturing that cargo ship with such precise timing. The power of this group ranges from the South Pole all the way to the Homeland."

"That's... unbelievable. We've had no other clues before now?"

That was a good question. Unless someone in High Command was lying, Zhao himself had personally stumbled across the first signs of this danger, but as he thought about it more- thought about the top secret incidents in the Earth Kingdom that had the Fire Nation desperately digging up platinum wherever it could be found, and the recent pirate activity against the platinum shipments- he realized that the scope of the threat might be larger than even he could imagine.

But then why hadn't any of this been seen before Sozin's Comet? Why wait until after the Earth Kingdom finally fell to begin operations against the Fire Nation?

All Zhao knew was that he was missing something, and he didn't like it.



As unmanly as it would be to admit, Sokka had come to the conclusion that wearing Mai's clothes was a hundred times more comfortable than soldier's armor.

It was three weeks after that first disastrous shopping trip, and Sokka had finally returned to Kyoshi Island's port settlement. He was once again dolled up in the fashion of the Fire Nation, but instead of red robes, now it was a set of the local guard armor. It felt oversized and even stiffer than he had imagined, never mind the way the edges dug into his skin where he could have used more padding. Sokka had no doubt that he would cut a pretty poor figure in full daylight, but the torches of the port village couldn't beat back all of the night's shadows, and so there was a good chance that no one would realize he wasn't a proper soldier until it was too late. (Too late for whom, Sokka didn't want to speculate.)

He and the others had donned their newly painted armor back in the forest, and then marched back to the village walls. Once again, Aang was responsible for getting everyone over them, but with the weight and noise of their armor, they had been forced to go a lot more slowly. Aang himself hadn't been given any armor to wear, since no amount of metal tied to his body would make someone that short look like a soldier, and so he had dressed once again in some of Mai's clothes, all in dark colors to allow him to hide in the shadows (with a black shirt provided by Longshot to replace the one Aang had lost in the marketplace, and this time Momo was staying back with Appa, thank you very much). Once everyone was over the wall, they had broken into the smaller groups, ready to enact their parts in the plan.

Sokka was left with Suki and Longshot to march the streets of the village, pretending to be a trio of soldiers on patrol.

It turned out that metal was a pretty heavy thing to wear; how Mai walked around with double her weight's worth of knives was completely beyond Sokka. He glanced over at Suki to see if she was as uncomfortable, and caught her eyes already looking back at him. She winked, and then schooled her face into an expression of blankness and stared forward once more.

It was hard not smile.

Sokka had just gotten his Soldier's Grimace back into place when the group turned the corner of an intersection and ran into another group of soldiers, these three very much the real thing. Sokka held up a hand in greeting and was all set to start some companionable griping about villagers and night patrol, but the lead soldier immediately said, "White smoke!"

Sokka's gaze darted around, but he didn't see any smoke. Slush, it was probably the opening to a code exchange. He was hoping to put this off until he could get closer to the soldiers, but there wasn't anything to do now but roll with it and-

Sokka heard movement behind him, and he turned in time to see Longshot springing forward with an arrow clutched in a tight fist. Sokka reflexively started to raise his hands, but then Longshot wrapped an arm around his shoulders and spun him around, then brought an arrow up so that the point of it jammed up against the fleshy bottom of his jaw.

Sokka went very still as Longshot called out, "These are not soldiers, they are rebels!"

Suki spun and took an attack stance. "You traitor!"

Sokka tried to swallow, but the arrowhead was pressed very tightly against his skin.

One of the soldiers raised a small object to his mouth that glinted of metal in the torchlight, and let out a loud whistle. It was a pattern, three short bursts, and when the final one faded into the night air, even more soldiers were streaming into the intersection. Sokka looked back over at Suki, and found her shaking with the coiled tightness of a spring. Longshot remained still as he held Sokka in a grip like a vice.

Then Suki sprang forward, and Longshot shoved the arrow's tip into Sokka's flesh.

TO BE CONTINUED
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« Reply #35 on: Apr 22, 2015 11:07 pm »

I finally got around to reading this chapter. Although we are still very early on in your story, I was wondering, how long do you project this story to be? I can easily see it dwarfung Retroactive in sheer length.

Anyway, I think the highlight of this chapter was the budding romance between Sokka and Suki and how it causes Sokka to interact with his team mates from a different angle. Mai was especially hilarious, her apathy and sarcastic responses to Sokka's romantic pursuits was not only appropiate but well done. I also enjoyed Sokka and Aang's "manly" conversation. I feel as if their friendship in the original show was not explored as much as it should be.

I feel as if you really grasp Sokka's character, even when you change it up a bit. It would appear as if Sokka's upbringing in this story has made him less sexist. He still comes off as a little ignorant/insensitive in his remarks, but it doesn't appear to be on purpose, just an ingrained personality trait that he has picked up from his culture. I attribute that to a lack of pride. In you story, Sokka is self-loathing (or at least was). So it makes sense that after having almost all hope torn away that he no longer views himself as the Southern Water Tribe's champion.

Another highlight in this chapter is your commitment to world-building. The myth of the Unagi's origins was an interesting read and the concept of Kyoshi Island's underground dojo was likewise interesting.

You also included a lot of hints for what is to come. I look forward to seeing what Sokka got at the market and what it means, as well as Aang finding the truth about Mai (Suki warning Aang  to watch out for his "allies" was brilliantly done, especially in light of the twist), and what the deal with platinum is.

Lastly, that twist was a doozy. I thought Sabure was the double-agent, but nope, its Longshot. Good job on that well-executed twist!

« Last Edit: Apr 22, 2015 11:13 pm by Colonel_Brian » Logged
Loopy
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« Reply #36 on: Apr 26, 2015 03:56 pm »

I finally got around to reading this chapter. Although we are still very early on in your story, I was wondering, how long do you project this story to be? I can easily see it dwarfung Retroactive in sheer length.

Yeah, this is going to be much bigger than Retroactive. We're in the middle of the first 'Book,' and there are five planned in total. It's hard to say anything more exact, as everything seems to wind up twice the size of what I planned, but something comparable to 'Lord of the Rings' in length isn't out of the question.

I'm glad you're still enjoying all the character moments, as they're what's making everything run so long. Cheesy


You also included a lot of hints for what is to come. I look forward to seeing what Sokka got at the market and what it means, as well as Aang finding the truth about Mai (Suki warning Aang  to watch out for his "allies" was brilliantly done, especially in light of the twist), and what the deal with platinum is.

Trust me, half the hints aren't even detectable yet. Grin


Lastly, that twist was a doozy. I thought Sabure was the double-agent, but nope, its Longshot. Good job on that well-executed twist!

[Dundee]That ain't a twist. This is a twist...[/Dundee]




The Traitors of Kyoshi

Aang watched as Longshot murdered Sokka beneath a full moon.

Perched on the rooftop of a tavern a short distance away, Aang could only make out the broader motions, so he didn't see what precisely Longshot did. The sniper had been holding Sokka as a hostage in the middle of the empty streets, holding an arrow like a knife with the head pointed right under Sokka's chin, but then Suki attacked, and everything became a blur. When it was resolved, Suki was struggling on the ground beneath Sokka's still body, viscous red liquid clinging to both of them, while a dozen soldiers closed in around them.

Aang grinned. Everything was going exactly as planned.

The soldiers arrested both Suki (sobbing dramatically) and Longshot (surrendering peacefully), and a pair of them picked up Sokka's body in a careless manner. The original soldiers- the trio of patrollers who had whistled for backup after Longshot's betrayal- watched the proceedings with what Aang thought were bewildered demeanors. One of the new soldiers went over to talk to them, and after a quick conversation, the whole group came together into marching lines and headed off in the direction of the Fire Navy garrison. Aang followed along, hopping across the dark rooftops.

The Navy base resolved itself into view as he paced the soldiers in the streets. Its massive outer walls loomed up even above his own vantage point, lit with torches that gave a false sense of life to the dead metal. Soldiers stood on duty within the pagoda-roofed stations at each of the wall's six corners, and one of the guards stepped out onto the dark ramparts above the main entrance as the group of patrollers approached. He was a pudgy man who even Aang could see was straining against the shape of his armor, and as he stepped out to stand directly over the base’s front doors, he called out, "White smoke!"

The patroller in the lead, the one who had whistled for reinforcements, shouted back, "Black smoke!"

"Wet wood!"

"Coal!"

"What business?"

"Rebels, sir, wearing stolen armor! One dead, two captured. One is claiming to be an informant for the commander, requesting protection in exchange for information about the Avatar!"

Aang had to keep from giggling.

The pudgy guard made a motion back towards the nearest pagoda-station, and the doors to the base swung open with a mechanical groan. The patrollers marched through the portal, shoving Suki and lugging Sokka's dripping body, and the doors closed behind them.

Aang nodded with satisfaction. Now he had to meet with Appa for the next phase of the plan. He took off across the rooftops once again, heading for the edge of the village closest to the forest, where Appa and Momo would be waiting. Aang avoided the light, but didn't worry about any sounds he might be making; the winds he was summoning weren't just carrying him along on his jumps, they were also intercepting any noises, catching and diffusing them so that he could pass right over someone's head and they would never know.

It similar to the trick he had pulled when Longshot 'killed' Sokka, and the soldier had whistled for reinforcements. That patrolman probably hadn't noticed the way the winds picked up a little bit, and he definitely didn't realize that the sound of his whistle had traveled up into the empty sky, rather than outward to where other patrols would hear it.

And so Aang had been able to ensure that the reinforcements who had come to that patrolman's aid weren't real soldiers of the Fire Nation.



It was the most awkward trip Sokka had ever made, and that included his recent journeys on the back of a Sky Bison. Still, he managed to play dead with the true skills of a thespian (if he did say so himself), even adding little touches like letting his tongue hang lifelessly outside his mouth. He had to ignore the odd smell of the gallons of twice-smashed tomato pulp splattered across his chin, neck, and armor; Suki had supplied the mess from hidden waterskins when she 'crashed' into his body. It looked disgusting enough that the real soldiers hadn't investigated. Of course, Longshot's trick collapsible arrow had also looked quite real (even if it hadn't collapsed fast enough for Sokka's taste, leaving a sore spot under his chin where it had poked him), and the fake soldiers who pronounced Sokka dead had also very much looked real, so it was an understandable series of mistakes.

With his eyes closed, he could only listen as he was dragged through the streets of the village, then into the base, and finally into the building where Suki would be incarcerated and Sokka's body would be examined- the base’s prison, the same building where all permanent prisoners taken in the Southern Seas were transferred for further processing, and where their transfer records were kept. It was in that building where the ruse fell apart, as Sabure- one of the disguised rebels carrying Sokka- stumbled over a loose plate on the floor, and her lurching bounced his head against the metal wall. His, "Ow!" didn't sound very dead, so he added a groan-like burp to make it seem like his corpse was just getting rid of excess breath.

Sokka heard a cries of surprise from the three real soldiers, one prayer calling for the destruction of the undead, and Sabure hissing something like, "Unagi breath!" and then he was dropped to the floor. Sokka’s eyes popped open during the crash, and he got a quick glimpse of Mai throwing off her helmet- for she was also one of the fake soldiers who had been lying in wait for Operation: Fool One of the Patrol Groups Into Bringing Us Into Their Base- and then everything became a big fighting ball of people in black armor.

Sokka could only sit there as the Rebels of Kyoshi struck at the Fire Nation in the heart of its own base. By the time he stood up again, the soldiers were down and the rebels were cleaning clubs and knives. Mai dashed off down the hallway on the right, the one leading to the building’s administration offices according to her knowledge of Fire Nation construction, while Sabure and Longshot were leading the rest of the rebels down the hallways to the left.

According to the plan, the entire first floor of the prison would be cleared in another two minutes.



It would have been fun if it weren't an act of treason.

It was a short dash from the prison's vestibule to the administrative office, and Mai slowed down only a little as she kicked the door in. It produced a sound that jolted all the clerks inside, but even as their heads snapped up from their desks to look at her, she was already throwing some of the blades she had been able to hide in her soldier disguise. She didn't have enough ammunition to pin everyone to the walls, and even the clerks in this building wore some basic body armor, so she had to play it smart. Tendons, veins, and arteries were Mai's targets, and she hit every one.

Screams and splashes of blood heralded her success.

There was no other way to pretend to be on the side of the rebels, on the side of Aang.

Of course, Mai was authorized by Azula to do whatever was needed as part of the ruse, and that included killing loyal servants of the Fire Nation. And, really, Mai didn't care about a bunch of military drones. It's just that she had never killed anyone before, and she hated that Azula had asked it of her. In an instant, the fight for the administrative office was over, and Mai hurried to try to give some aid to her targets before they died for a cause they were never understand.



Sabure led the way down the left-hand hallways, and although she was well aware of the danger of this mission, her responsibility gave her all the courage she needed to complete it.

As an Earthbender in Kyoshi Island’s rebellion- the only known descendent of an Earthbending Kyoshi Warrior to be carrying on that legacy- Sabure had lots of responsibility given to her, from controlling access to the old Warriors’ Dojo to watching over the Avatar and his friends as their guide and guardian. Now, she was responsible for leading the sweep of the prison building's first floor, for quickly and quietly taking out anyone who could interfere with Aang and Sokka's search for Katara of the Southern Water Tribe.

Sabure rather liked the idea of the last Kyoshi Warrior Earthbender helping to find the last Southern Waterbender.

The first rooms she came across were small holding cells and interrogations closets. She passed those in a run- Suki, Longshot, and the other rebels trailing behind her- coming to a stop only when she glimpsed someone moving in what looked like an infirmary. The man was wearing a plain uniform with no armor over it, so he barely had time to turn and widen his eyes before Sabure landed a pair of heavy chops on his neck. He dropped in an instant, and she nodded with approval. She could have immobilized him with the power of the Earth, of course, but that would have been noisier, and the time hadn't come for that yet. Leaving her friend Yuujin to tie up the unconscious infirmary worker, Sabure went back into her run, but skidded to a halt when she came across another interesting room. It was a bare-bones shower room with all the piping left exposed, and while it was as empty as the holding cells, that wasn't what interested her.

She motioned, and Chijin came over with her backpack of supplies. Sabure opened it up and dug around until she found what she was looking for- the white Yungi rocks. The rebels used these stones to make Longshot's trick smokebomb arrows; the heads of the arrows contained one of these stones small enough to fit neatly into a fist, along with a compartment of water that would break open on impact. When the stones met the water, they dissolved, turning into an almost explosive cloud of chalky dust.

Sabure took the whole supply of the Yungi, dumped them all beneath one of the shower heads, and turned the water on.

The 'smoke' erupted out like a volcano had gone off, but Sabure was already running along, her arms swinging in a basic Earthbending move. Without a proper rooting, such motions wouldn't have been able to lift even a small rock, but the small chalky particles in the cloud didn't require much power at all. And so the cloud followed Sabure in her run, and when she turned the corner of the hallway, she punched both fists ahead of her, sending the cloud streaming forward to blanket the halls. It was the closest she’d ever come to Airbending.

She heard cries of surprise and alarm from the guards up ahead, and one at a time, she waved a hole in the dust cloud to reveal the soldier who had made the sound, just for a few seconds.

A few seconds was all Longshot needed to aim and fire an arrow.

A few seconds was enough for Suki to sneak up and start spraining joints.

Overall, it took no more than a minute to clear all the hallways and lock the doors leading to the stairways. The first floor of the prison officially belonged to the Rebels of Kyoshi Island, and Sabure had fulfilled her responsibility.

This time.



When the rest of the infiltration group arrived, Mai was in the process of coaching one of her targets in pressing his wound closed. ("Keep your hand there and push down hard, or you'll bleed to death. Press hard.") If her 'allies' didn't take too long to find the location of Sokka's stupid sister, then these soldiers would probably get treatment and be saved; the Fire Nation knew a lot about how fire could close even deep wounds. Mai stood up and nodded to Suki, noting that the other woman’s armor was still covered in Sokka’s fake blood. Reminded of the mess on her own hands, Mai tried to scrape the blood off on her armor, but it stuck to skin much better than metal. It was like mud in that respect, but she had never found the touch of blood to be anywhere near as gross as dirt sludge.

It struck Mai that it was a fairly odd double standard.

The last to arrive in the office was Sokka, still covered in his own mess of fake blood. It was apparently the fashion for the night. "Okay," he said, "are we all set here?"

Suki nodded. "We're right on schedule for Aang's distraction. Longshot, start setting up for our exit. You three, back him up and guard these captives. Everyone else is on the Records Team." She turned to look at Mai. "Still with us?"

Mai ignored the way Sokka was grinning beside her and said, "It will be marginally less boring than standing guard here, so I guess so."

Of course, it wouldn't be boring at all. They would have to locate paperwork from a decade ago without being discovered, and then Mai would have to somehow break away from the rest of the group and sneak off to the building's telegraph to code a message and send it off to her true master.

Katara's location, wherever that might be, would be the rendezvous with Azula and Zuko.



Appa let out an unhappy roar as he sailed through the night sky over the bay, and Aang couldn't disagree. "I know it smells, but we'll get rid of it soon. Just a little longer!" However, the cargo hanging in a massive tarp from Appa's body didn't just smell; it was outright turning Aang's stomach.

He was a lifelong vegetarian, and would never be able to tolerate fresh raw meat.

While Momo tried to bury his nose in Aang’s shirt, the Airbender chose to put all his attention on guiding Appa to the Navy base's shipyards. He picked out one particular vessel- a big metal battleship that didn't seem to be crewed- and steered for the space above it. Flying at night was usually hard, but the soldiers had hung lanterns on everything, so there was plenty of light to see by.

Plenty of light to target by.

When he was above the ship, Aang directed Appa to slow down, climbed down across the furry head, and yanked the 'trigger rope' that would release the tarp. It flopped open below Appa with unpleasant squishy sounds, and pounds of bloody chum dropped through the sky to land with a massive splat all over the ship. Since Appa hadn't entirely stopped, the chum trailed through the air as he continued to fly over the base itself, creating a handy little line to match the dripping that the cargo had be doing the whole time Appa was flying in over the bay.

After that, it was only a matter of waiting, and Aang was gratified that it didn't take even ten minutes to spot a giant fin cutting through the bay, following the trail of blood in the water to the Navy base.

The alarm bells and gongs in the base were going off even before the notorious Unagi reared up from the waters- an eel as tall as the Dawn Spire at the Eastern Air Temple- and began attacking the chum-ship.

Aang waved and wished the big guy luck.
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« Reply #37 on: Apr 26, 2015 03:57 pm »



Yon Rha was just about the have dinner- the steaming plate of grilled eel fillets over rice was being placed in front of him by a servant- when the alarms gongs started going off. He was tempted to ignore them for a moment and at least sample the dish while it was hot, but the gongs sounded like they were having dents pounded into them, so with a sigh he rose and jogged out of his private quarters.

He met an aide before he even made his way out of the parlor, and the man broke protocol by speaking first: "Sir, the Unagi is attacking the Calamitous, and we just completed the repairs from its last-"

"Shut up! What's the status of the catapults?"

"Being loaded, sir! And the watch captain is scrambling everyone we have on base!"

"Good. I don't know what riled the monster up, but we need to convince it that whatever it wants isn't worth the trouble we can cause. I need to get out there and-"

At that moment, Zhao poked his head into the parlor, eyes wide and his characteristic sneer nowhere in sight for a change. "There's a giant eel attacking one of your ships."

"Yes, we noticed."

"Does this happen often?"

Regulations prevented Yon Rha from giving the answer that first occurred to him.



Even Mai was impressed at the size of the administrative building's archives, but the symbols on the sides of the filing cabinets were the standard military markings. "These are organized by date and will discuss the transfers in and out of the prison," she said as she strolled past one long cabinet. "These three contain complete records for each individual prisoner who has ever been incarcerated here, organized by name as represented in the official Fire Nation orthography, including medical records for the duration of the stay here. And those will be numbered communications, and won't make any sense without the reference numbers listed in each prisoner's records." When she turned around, at the far end of the room, she found the others staring at her. "What?"

Sokka blinked. "Not that I'm not really, really grateful, but how do you know all this?"

"My uncle runs one of the most secure prisons in the Fire Nation, and he needed someone to bring along on 'Take Your Heir to Your Honorable Occupation' Day. Every year I got a shank confiscated from one of the prisoners"

They stared for a moment more, and then Suki clapped and strode forward. "Okay. Sokka, check the ones by date, I'll start on the ones by name, and everyone else can help us out. Mai-"

"I'll check out the telegraph room. There's usually some indexes to the communications references, and if Katara was transferred more than once, there may have been some queries directed back here that would have been recorded."

"Okay, sounds good. Let us know if you need any help."

Everyone got to work, and Mai slipped into the side room. It looks just like the Communications office back in her 'home' at the South Pole, with the same long desk, paper supplies, and equipment.

Including an encoder device.

Mai slipped her Royal Encoder Cog out from beneath her armor, and slotted it into the machine. She typed 'Avatar Rendezvous is' and left it at that. The rest would be supplied when Sokka found his sister's location.

While she waited, Mai prepared the telegraph. It had been a while since she last used one, but Azula had insisted she learn when she was awarded the Encoder Cog, saying something about the possibility of being stuck alone on a secret mission and needing to communicate without assistance.

As usual, Azula had proved really good at predicting things.



It wasn't that Zhao was <I>afraid to join the efforts against the giant sea monster, but he was a valuable resource with expert knowledge of the hunt for the Avatar, and he didn't know the full capabilities of the Unagi as well as those stationed here on Kyoshi Island, so it made sense to be cautious and remain far back from the main excitement.

And it wasn't like helping would get him anything.

Plus, his position deep in the center of the parade grounds allowed him to inspect the base staff, to make sure that responded according to protocol. He observed as the personnel in each building locked down their premises, and then hung a green lantern over the main entrance when everything was checked out as safe and secure.

He also noticed that the prison's administration building had no one emerge, despite the excitement, and a lantern was never hung outside.

While Yon Rha worked to conquer the mighty sea monster, Zhao decided to investigate this other small matter.



"Found her!"

Sokka crossed the distance between himself and Suki before she even finished speaking, skidding to a stop in the perfect position to look over her shoulder. Sure enough, she was holding the a stack of papers for 'Katara Water Tribe' convicted of 'Subversive Bending' and held for two weeks, before a 'Parch Cage' was available to transfer her to specialized facilities at...

"Crescent Island. My sister is on Crescent Island."



At the Encoder Device, Mai typed in the two final words of her message, and then took the encrypted output over to the telegraph.



Zhao didn't like empty hallways. There should always be underlings around.

He had entered the prison building through the rear door, the one secured by a one-point-Firebending lock, as if he was conducting a surprise inspection. Even from behind closed doors, the clamor of the machinery room covered the sound of his entrance, with its engines and gears and massive fans, and the sounds of the equipment's thrumming echoed through the empty rear halls. Zhao found no guards to berate for not following emergency procedures, no clerks carrying records to the archives or equipment to the armory or even a prisoner to the infirmary. There was nothing but a chalky dust coating the floor and much of the walls. What was this mess? Where was everyone? Should he go upstairs to the prisoner cells, or stick to the first floor and head to the administrative offices in the front?

Zhao chose to press forward. He slowed as he moved away from the noise of the machinery room, and thought he detected the echoes of voices ringing through the metal halls. It sounded like there were people in the Archives. Zhao knew that there was a telegraph station adjoining it, with a back door he could use to sneak up on whatever was going on in the larger records room. As he approached it, he steadied his breathing, and prepared the fire within.

Zhao eased the door open, and found Lady Caldera Yu Mai leaning over the telegraph itself, tapping out a message.

He was so surprised to see her there that it took him a moment to make sense of it. His gaze ran over the room, taking in the Encoder machine loaded an encryption key cog- one of the special ones with the red trim. Mai hadn't noticed him yet, focused as she was on her transmission, and Zhao just stood there in his confusion. Why would a traitor to the Fire Nation be sending a coded message out across the network?

Then Zhao remembered Warrant Officer Lee's betrayal, and the ease with which his family escaped justice.

He remembered his theory of a rebel conspiracy that stretched to the Fire Nation itself.

Could the conspiracy extend all the way to the Fire Palace?

Zhao gasped, and the sound brought Mai's surprised gaze over to his position.



The look in Zhao's eyes said it all; he knew that Mai wasn't the defector she was pretending to be. Did he realize Azula's involvement? Zuko's? It didn't matter. He knew something, and that knowledge was dangerous.

Mai would have to kill him.

Her first deliberate murder.

Her hands went for her weapons, the small collection of razors she had packed into the belt of her stolen armor, while her eyes and mind tried to adjust to this new objective. She was used to looking for stray bits of clothing to pin, for unprotected flesh that was an avenue to mere injury, for vulnerabilities that would lead to death only after unreasonable amounts of time. She wasn't used to trying to kill so surely, so quickly. She had to devote actual mental effort to the task.

Zhao got the first blow in when he punched a fireball straight into her.

Mai was in the process of turning, of bringing her razors up for a backhanded throw while she picked her target, and so the concussive flame struck her right side, exploding against the armor over her ribs. She was knocked off her feet, flying backwards. She struck the door to the records room and crashed right through it, landing with a jolt and a clang on the floor. Before she could figure out which way was up, the pain surged out from her side to rack her entire body.

But through the burning, and the sickening way her armor was sticking to her skin, Mai had one comforting thought- her landing had been noisy.

Even as Zhao was rushing at her from out of the telegraph station, she heard the cries and hurried footsteps of her friends.

Before Zhao could Firebend again, Suki was leaping down on him from atop a filing cabinet, landing a blurring palm strike straight into his face. The other rebels- Repai and Kosokoso, Kowagaru and Yuujin, Chijin and Shisuta and Sonkei- closed in, attacking Zhao with clubs and knives, but as Mai watched, he snapped his arms, sending waves of flame out. Everyone retreated except for Suki, who ducked and danced around the fire to get right up close to Zhao to shove him straight back into the telegraph room. He disappeared within, and then a wall of earth burst up through the metal floor to take the place of the door Mai had destroyed.

Mai turned to look behind her and found Sabure at the far end of the Archives, coming out of an Earthbending stance. She called, "The path is clear, let's exfiltrate already!"

Mai let out a heavy breath that made her wince in pain. She needed to kill Zhao, but she could hardly explain that to everyone here and get Sabure to take down the wall. She'd failed Azula again.

But at least she was alive, thanks to the rebel of Kyoshi. That was something.

Then Sokka was leaning over her. "Are you okay? Can you walk? Do you need to be carried?"

Mai tried to get up, but way the motion twisted her torso made her shake with pain again. "A little (ow)- a little help would be (ugh) acceptable."

Sokka got on her good side, Suki grabbed her waist, and together they got Mai standing.
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« Reply #38 on: Apr 26, 2015 03:59 pm »

Of course things couldn't go perfectly. They had done well all the way up to finding Katara's location, but now Mai was injured and the whole escape plan would have to be slowed down.

Well, they'd just have to improvise, then.

While Suki helped Mai along, Sokka led the way back to the prison's administration office. As he walked, he untied his chest armor- still sticky and smelly from the fake gore- and dropped it to the floor of the hallway. As soon as he stepped into the office, Longshot tossed him a short oilskin rain cloak that would cover his lack of proper uniform, and he quickly draped and fastened it. That should withstand most casual scrutiny. He took Suki's place as Mai's living crutch while the rebel leader traded her own messy armor for an oilskin and got everyone into something like a marching formation, and then they all headed straight for the prison's front door.

They burst into the navy base's courtyard to find a battle underway.

Balls of fire were flying through the air to crash into a giant eel monster that was snapping and harrying the base's dockside. Sokka hadn't seen the Unagi before, and found it a terrifying sight with that massive fin and long teeth-filled beak-snout, but fortunately, the plan didn't call for him to have any involvement with the sea monster besides silently wishing it thanks for the great distraction. It was bigger and longer than any single object Sokka had ever seen, including various Fire Nation warships. The overgrown eel had laid waste to several of those warships that had been docked at the base, and was long enough to reach over them to bite at the soldiers trying to lob spears and fire at it. A large flaming tar ball arched from the center of the navy base to smack into the Unagi's glistening skin, but while there was plenty of sizzle, the monster didn't seem too inconvenienced by the blow. It opened its mouth to spray a high-pressure stream of water in the direction of the catapult that had launched the attack, soaking several buildings and even collapsing the roof of one.

All around the base's courtyard, soldiers ran every which way on direct paths, carrying equipment and setting up archery positions and conveying orders to distant points. Sokka was relieved that no one paid any attention to his group as they trotted along like they were in a hurry (which they were) to help with the fighting (which they were not), and he indulged in turning to Mai and giving her a reassuring smile as he they hobbled along in the wake of the rest.

Then a voice called out, "You there! Halt!"

The rebels stopped on their heels, and Sokka killed his smile.

A gray-haired commander with what looked like industrial-strength frowning capabilities jogged over to the group, followed by several aides, and examined at the rebels from beneath a tight brow. "Where are you going? I ordered all guard staff to secure their buildings. What's happening in the prison?"

Sabure bowed. She said, "Sir! We had an equipment malfunction. A- uh-" Her voice faltered.

Sokka stepped forward, and Mai grunted with pain in his arms at the sudden motion, but he had to ignore her as he took over the fabricating. "We took a hit from the monster's water spray that backed up our ventilation. It- uh- must have clogged something critical. Equipment over-hearted and- uh- a pumping unit exploded. We evacuated the first floor and are taking the injured for healing." He jerked his head towards Mai, in case the commander was stupid enough to fail to make the connection.

The man stared, and Sokka couldn't help but think that something about the guy was familiar. Had they met before? At the South Pole? The commander's frown deepened. "What's your name and rank?"

Not so stupid after all, then. By way of reply, Sokka said, "Slush."

That was the signal for the rest of the plan to happen all at once. Most of the rebel group began running away while Longshot whipped his bow off his back and drew an arrow in one smooth motion; as a series of bolts buried themselves in the necks of the commander's aides, Sabure was swinging a fist into the air, and a small gray ball was following the motion to whip high into the sky. It exploded into fireworks as Sokka let go of Mai, reached out to grab the surprised commander's chest armor, and yanked him into a fall. Just like Suki had yanked Sokka to smack face-first into the training mats in the Kyoshi Dojo so many times over the past weeks, Sokka guided his opponent so that the commander landed on the paved ground with the sound of a shattering nose.

He turned to find Suki holding Mai, smiled at them both, and then ran with them in the opposite direction of the Unagi attack. Longshot followed at a steady walk, stopping to fire an arrow at anyone who called to them, but that merely delayed the pursuit. Eventually, enough of the soldiers would notice to mount an unstoppable attack.

Fortunately, Sokka and company didn't have to wait that long.

A heavy lowing sound filled the air, drawn by Sabure's clay fireworks ball, and Appa stomped to a landing right there in the Navy base. Without even slowing, the other rebels ran straight up the bison's tail and jumped into the saddle. Sokka and Suki took their time getting Mai aboard with a bit more care, while Longshot played rearguard and made harassing shots back at the scattered pursuit.

Sokka settled Mai against the back of the saddle and helped her loop her arms through the hold-holes. "You still doing okay?" He expected a snarky reply, but she just pressed her lips together and gave a shaky nod. Was it Sokka's imagination, or was she looking pale- er, paler than usual?

Suki settled down beside Mai and took one of her hands. "I'll watch out for her. Get us out of here."

Sokka gave her a quick salute and then shoved his way to the front of the saddle, where he found Aang ready at his usual spot on Appa's head. Aang looked back with raised eyebrows, and Sokka nodded. "Mission accomplished."

A 'yip-yip' later, they were flying through the night sky, leaving the soldiers and sea monster behind them.



Aang didn't find out about Mai's injury until he landed Appa out in Kyoshi Island's forest and all the rebels had disembarked, leaving the small group alone in the saddle. "What happened?!"

He watched while Suki probed at the armor over Mai's right side. Mai grunted, and Suki shook her head. "She took a fireball, and the heat did damage straight through her tunic. I don't want to risk taking the armor off in case any skin goes with it. We have healers on Kyoshi Island, but after tonight..." She shrugged.

Aang didn't understand. He turned to Sokka. "We need to get her help as soon as possible! Real help!"

Sokka scratched his chin. "I agree, but Suki has a point; even if we take Mai to the other side of the island, can we be sure that anyone who sees her will keep quiet about a soldier in old armor showing up with a large burn? But we do need to find help fast. Where's the nearest healer not on Kyoshi Island?"

"Chin Village, on the mainland," Suki said. "It's about half a day by boat."

Aang felt his fists clench of their own accord. "Appa can get us there in two hours." He looked to Mai.

She swallowed, and nodded. "The burn will keep that long."

"I'm worried about shock," Suki said, standing up in the saddle. "Longshot, bring a blanket!" She turned back to Aang. "You need to keep her still, warm, and comfortable."

Aang nodded, and let out a heavy breath. "I don't know what we would have done without you. This whole time- you've been-"

Suki put a hand on his shoulder. "I'm happy to help. I was starting to think that this rebellion was pointless, before you came here. You've given a purpose to all our preparations, all the equipment we've been collecting. Thank you for making it all matter."

Aang nodded and gave her a hug, then stepped back and let Sokka have his moment.

It was almost funny, how the older boy suddenly couldn't look anyone in the eye as he said, "I'm- well, I'm really glad I met you. Even aside from the whole finding-my-sister thing. It's been- um, I want to say- well, I hope we get to see each other again. Soon. Or sooner rather than later. But later is better than never, so-"

Aang smiled as Suki stepped forward and cut Sokka off with a hug. She leaned her face towards his, but then slowed, and stepped back. "I hope so, too. But if not, I'm glad I could help you- all of you- move forward."

Then Sabure and Longshot were among them. Sabure had an enthusiastic handshake and wishes of pleasant roads. Longshot, of course, didn't say anything, but Aang could see the warmth in his eyes, and he even gave Mai a nod as he draped the blanket he brought over her. The two rebels leaped down from Appa, and Suki moved to follow them, but as she leaned over the edge of the saddle, she turned back to look at Mai. "Keep an eye on them, Mai. They need you, and I know you'll be back in action soon."

Mai said nothing, but she did wave back.

Suki leaped down, and even before her feet hit the ground, Aang had scampered back over to his place on Appa's head. "Yip-yip! And fast, for Mai!"

And so they left Kyoshi Island behind, flying out over the ocean waves while the moon lit their way.



In a moment of irony that even Zhao could appreciate, he and Yon Rha met the traitor in the navy base's prison building.

It was well past midnight when a group of soldiers dragged the young rebel into the interrogation room, shoved her down into the chair, and yanked the bag off of her head. While she caught her breath, the soldiers filed out and locked the door, leaving her trapped in the room with Zhao and Yon Rha. Zhao stood at the back of the room, waiting for the show to begin, and found himself reaching up to massage his bruised face again. He quickly put his hands down and returned his attention to the others.

"Agent Suki," Yon Rha said in an especially nasal tone, thanks to the broken nose he sustained 'battling' the rebels. "It's a shame we must finally meet under such circumstances."

The girl with the hard eyes and auburn hair maintained her composure, staring back at Yon Rha with a frown smaller than his but no less intense. "You had your soldiers lying in wait for me at the drop-point. You might have blown my cover."

Zhao had to admit he found her strength worthy of respect.

Yon Rha apparently did not agree. "And so what if I did? Your sole purpose in life is to notify me of all rebel activity on this island, especially action against my forces. You were supposed to let me know when and where I could set a trap for the Avatar. Yet a group of your people came strolling in to my base tonight, right into this very prison, while others incited the Unagi into a rampage. Do you have any idea how much damage that thing did before we drove it away? It wrecked an entire battleship!"

Suki's own voice never rose above a perfectly even tone. "I can only tell you what I know. You're aware that I'm just a foot soldier in the rebellion. The Avatar and Lady Caldera Yu Mai kept their full plans between themselves and only one or two others. I showed up at a regular meeting tonight to find out about the mission, and then I couldn't leave to send word to you about it."

"What was their objective?"

"Something in the prison records. I wasn't part of the primary team."

Zhao cleared his throat and spoke up. "And what team were you on? What did you do tonight?"

Suki looked over at him. "Who are you? My deal is with Commander Yon Rha only."

"Commander Zhao is an old friend. Answer his questions or I'll let him burn out your tongue."

Suki finally scowled at that, but faced Zhao and gave a small dip of her head. "I was part of the group infiltrating this building, but my job was to secure and hold the way out. The rest went deeper for reasons I was never told. They might have talked with some of the prisoners on the upper floors."
   
Zhao found that to be interesting speculation. He had encountered the rebels in the Archives, of course, and by the time he backtracked out of the communications office to chase them down, the whole group had already left the building and was running for the rendezvous with the sky bison. It was possible that this Suki was truly ignorant of what went on in the prison, but he doubted it. Was Yon Rha similarly suspicious? Thinking the situation over, Zhao rubbed his face, right where one of the rebels had delivered a palm strike that felt like it had been made of stone. Idly, he said, "Who was the best warrior amongst those on the primary mission?"

"Best warrior?" Suki's hands tightened into fists. "Hard to say. There's an Earthbender with a pretty good left hook-"

"Never mind that," Yon Rha cut in. "I want to know about the leader of your group. During the escape from the prison, a young man with vivid blue eyes tried to trick me into letting the group pass. He was supporting an injured young woman. Something about him was familiar... those eyes..."

"The woman was Lady Mai herself, but I don't know how she got injured. The guy with blue eyes was a Water Tribe companion to the Avatar. I never caught his name."

Yon Rha sighed. "You're being singularly unhelpful tonight. What about the Avatar? Where is he now?"

"He left on his sky bison right after the mission was completed. Given how the rest of this operation was run, do you expect that he announced where he was going?"

Yon Rha actually growled at that. "This is a complete disaster! I lost soldiers, equipment, and an entire warship, with nothing to show for it!" He whirled and jammed a finger into the air aimed right at Zhao. "This is your fault! You had me sitting on my hands doing nothing while my enemies planned to make a fool of me!"

As if Zhao was any happier about the situation. His chance to catch the Avatar and punish Lady Mai were gone, although he had at least gotten a good hit in on the latter. Fortunately, Firebending wasn't the only skill Zhao possessed. He started to smile, but his sore face made it a painful exercise. "Those orders all came from you, my friend. Of course, officers talk and give each other advice all the time, but none of it is ever recorded. To suggest <I>after your failure that it was someone else's fault..." He saw Yon Rha tensing, and casually moved his hands to rest over his uniform's sash. "Well, I wonder what Admiral Chan will think when I give my report on the lack of initiative and discipline here on Kyoshi Island. You yourself co-signed my report on the rebel infiltrator in your communications office-"

Yon Rha actually attacked, punching a stream of flame, but it wasn't entirely unexpected. Zhao brought both of his hands up to form a wedge, using his own Firebending to divide the blaze in half and send the twin gouts of fire flowing to either side of him. Zhao moved forward against the pressure, careful to keep himself properly rooted, and between the light of the flames and the slowness of his movement, his progress remained unnoticed until Yon Rha ceased the attack. The other commander stepped back in surprise at Zhao's proximity, but it was too late.

In a proper Agni Kai, Zhao would have been happy to prove his Firebending skill by defeating Yon Rha with nothing but flame. This, however, was a much more practical affair, and so he instead brought his holdout knife out of his sash and jammed it straight into Yon Rha's throat.

Suki gasped and leaped to her feet, but when Zhao saw that she was merely taking a defensive stance, he returned his attention to Yon Rha. The commander of Kyoshi Island had collapsed to the ground, covered in his own blood, but he was still managing a wheezing respiration. To Zhao's surprise, Yon Rha was actually trying to say something. Curious in spite of his himself, he leaned forward to catch the final words.

"Mo-

"moth- er," Yon Rha said. Then his strength deserted him, and the body sagged with one last bubbling sigh.

That was disappointing, but then, what did he expect of a man so lacking in creativity or initiative? Zhao turned to Suki. "You killed him, traitor."

She blinked. "I- but it was you-"

"Yon Rha briefed me on you weeks ago. I put through a transfer for one Lieutenant Kirai of Kyoshi Island, an Earthbender serving the Fire Navy. She's now a marine assigned to one of my ships. It is entirely within my power to order her into battle without any weapons or armor, against... oh, say, pirates."

Suki paled, and Zhao knew he had her.

He nodded. "So here's what happened. Yon Rha discovered that you had betrayed him, allying yourself with the Avatar and becoming a triple-agent. When he realized that, you killed him, and I bravely managed to subdue you, albeit too late to save my old friend. I won't have you executed as you deserve, though, because of your knowledge of the Avatar. Instead, I'll have you put in the brig on my command ship, so that I can continue to question you as I conduct my search. You'll be safe enough, and I'll make sure your sister isn't given any unpleasant assignments. Perhaps I can even quietly grant you a position in my service, once I catch the Avatar. It might not be ideal for you, it's a better fate than most traitors earn, and much more than Yon Rha ever intended to give you. Now, with all that in mind, is there any information you might have forgotten to include in your earlier answers?"

Suki stood there for a long moment, and then let out a sigh that deflated her whole body. "Crescent Island," she whispered. "The Avatar's ultimate destination is the Waterbender prison on Crescent Island."

Zhao smirked again, but this time, the pain of his bruised face couldn't stop it. "Good. Now, it's time to inform Yon Rha's subordinates of his untimely demise. I'd better get you on my ship quickly, as I doubt you'll last long here before you suffer an 'accident' of vengeance."

"Whatever you say, Commander Zhao." Her arms tense briefly as Zhao grabbed and twisted them behind her back, as though he had taken her prisoner, but then she went slack in his grasp. He might have lost an ally in the Navy, but Yon Rha could do no more good if the Avatar was leaving the Southern Seas, and now he had a new resource in his path to glory.

Zhao’s smirk threatened to blossom into a full grin, and he had to work to school his face into an expression of anger and mourning as he opened the door to report the tragic assassination of his old friend.

TO BE CONTINUED
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Colonel_Brian
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« Reply #39 on: Apr 26, 2015 10:11 pm »

Great chapter. The twist here make the last chapter seem tame in comparison. I can't believe Zhao killed Yon Rha like that! And now he has another clue in the conspiracy.

Anyway, I like how Sokka is beginning to like Mai (as a friend) while Mai continues to view her team mates as simply people she needs to manipulate long enough to accomplish her larger plans.

Can't wait for the next chapter.
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AtoMaki
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« Reply #40 on: Apr 27, 2015 12:14 pm »

Wow. Zhao really has that Darwin Award coming, just like in the canon story. This time however, he enlists the help of an elite infiltrator who obviously plays a double game instead of a fallen general who maybe plays a double game. His threat about throwing an expert unarmed fighter and earthbender into battle without weapons and armor (like it would matter) truly shows that he didn't make his homework  Smiley.
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Keeper of Suki's firebending ancestry, the Kyoshi Warrior dojo, the love potion made from rainbows and sunsets and the mecha tanks.

My fanficions.

My Avatar RPG system.
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« Reply #41 on: Apr 29, 2015 01:20 am »

Wow. Zhao really has that Darwin Award coming, just like in the canon story. This time however, he enlists the help of an elite infiltrator who obviously plays a double game instead of a fallen general who maybe plays a double game. His threat about throwing an expert unarmed fighter and earthbender into battle without weapons and armor (like it would matter) truly shows that he didn't make his homework  Smiley.

To be fair to Zhao earthbenders might find it problematic to bend in ship to ship combat over ocean for example.
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Atren
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« Reply #42 on: May 12, 2015 02:26 am »

I was thinking about traitors and came into conclusion that using very loose definition of traitor there are 5 (alive) in this story so far. Not in public of course and yes some of them can be classified differently.

From most strict to least I would put them in order of Suki, Mai, Ozai, Azula and Zhao. Also those 2 adults are more from their own choice while girls are due to the two adults. Actually I am bit curious who was initiator between Suki and Yon Rha and what were their terms, but regardless with Zhao she certainly was not initiator.

Mai showing disdain while Azula gives me creepy vibes of Joo Dee. You would not do that to her after retroactive, would you Loopy? As I typed this I got theory that Ty Lee and Azula did something together that got Azula to current state and Ty Lee presumedly dead. But I hope I am wrong.

Ozai is still a mystery, but I am still leaning towards not so nice. Zhao is more clear even if I was surprised by him killing Yon Rha and I admit corrupted would be better desciption. You know, you could make case of most major fire nation characters being traitors/corrupted and Zuko banishment being catalyst for current situation. Without that Aang would probably already be in Fire Capital and I was going to say forgotten, but I am actually curious what will Fire Nation want to do with Avatar this AU due to extra problems. Maybe they going to want to use Avatar to fix that somehow, would need a way to leash him.

EDIT: Oh, also did Zhao kill Yon Rha with knife instead of fire to avoid being suspected as fire burns would been difficult to explain or did he just get lucky?
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Loopy
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« Reply #43 on: May 17, 2015 03:16 pm »

Wow. Zhao really has that Darwin Award coming, just like in the canon story. This time however, he enlists the help of an elite infiltrator who obviously plays a double game instead of a fallen general who maybe plays a double game. His threat about throwing an expert unarmed fighter and earthbender into battle without weapons and armor (like it would matter) truly shows that he didn't make his homework  Smiley.

To be fair to Zhao earthbenders might find it problematic to bend in ship to ship combat over ocean for example.

This, plus we have to keep in mind that an Earthbender living on Kyoshi Island and serving in the Fire Navy probably doesn't have a lot of actual Earthbending skill. Even on dry land, Suki's Sister's ability to create armor and weapons for herself is probably worse even than the Earthbender bully from Zuko Alone.


I was thinking about traitors and came into conclusion that using very loose definition of traitor there are 5 (alive) in this story so far. Not in public of course and yes some of them can be classified differently.

From most strict to least I would put them in order of Suki, Mai, Ozai, Azula and Zhao. Also those 2 adults are more from their own choice while girls are due to the two adults. Actually I am bit curious who was initiator between Suki and Yon Rha and what were their terms, but regardless with Zhao she certainly was not initiator.

It probably won't come out in the story, but it was Suki. She joined the rebels first, and then later felt the need to sell some small information in exchange for keeping Yon Rha from doing something that Suki saw as worse than usual. It was supposed to be a one-time or occasional thing, but Yon Rha drew her in deeper than she wanted and she began giving regular reports.


Mai showing disdain while Azula gives me creepy vibes of Joo Dee. You would not do that to her after retroactive, would you Loopy? As I typed this I got theory that Ty Lee and Azula did something together that got Azula to current state and Ty Lee presumedly dead. But I hope I am wrong.

Interesting speculation. Grin


Ozai is still a mystery, but I am still leaning towards not so nice. Zhao is more clear even if I was surprised by him killing Yon Rha and I admit corrupted would be better desciption. You know, you could make case of most major fire nation characters being traitors/corrupted and Zuko banishment being catalyst for current situation. Without that Aang would probably already be in Fire Capital and I was going to say forgotten, but I am actually curious what will Fire Nation want to do with Avatar this AU due to extra problems. Maybe they going to want to use Avatar to fix that somehow, would need a way to leash him.

The Fire Nation's plans for Aang are as complicated as the number of factions that are active in it. Cheesy And yes, if the Fire people were all united, this would have been done in Chapter 1.


EDIT: Oh, also did Zhao kill Yon Rha with knife instead of fire to avoid being suspected as fire burns would been difficult to explain or did he just get lucky?

It was planned. If you look back in the description, Zhao was getting his hands near the knife in his sash as Yon Rha was losing control. It never hurts to have a holdout, and even better if it's deniable.




Into the Ashland

In some places, fire could be a very difficult thing to find.

Zuko took another breath, focusing on the air's passage through his nostrils and down into the lungs where it became fuel for his Qi. He could feel the Qi within his body, the network of energy that stretched throughout his fibers and touched the edge of spirit. It was stronger now than it had been in years, thanks to his body's restoration over the last month. He actually felt alive once more, yet the flame within still refused to answer his call, no matter how loudly he called, no matter how long he meditated. The absence within tried to push him away, but he would not back down against a mere absence. There were much greater things to fear, like-

"Pack your bags, Zuzu! Mai has finally come through."

Zuko startled from his cross-legged lotus position, nearly disrupting the short table in front of him and the candles arrayed across its surface. The tongues of flame danced at the wind of his movement, their light splaying chaotically across the walls of his oversized room. It was the first time they had moved since he began his meditation.

Teeth reflexively grinding together at that thought, Zuko turned to regard his sister with his good eye. "I told you to knock before coming in here."

"Oh, I'm so sorry." Her tone was anything but contrite, and she didn't even try to hide that she was rolling her eyes. "I merely thought that you would be interested in news of the one woman in the world with the poor taste to expend effort on your behalf. Mai has determined the location where you can at last restore your honor."

Zuko waited expectantly, but Azula simply leaned against his bedroom's door frame and stared back at him.

His patience ran out before hers. "Where?"

"I'm so glad you asked. Her message was short, little more than the proper codes and headers to get it to me, but the content was quite informative- Crescent Island. I don't suppose you know where that is?"

This time, it was Zuko who refused to speak.

Azula favored him with a smile before continuing, "It's the last Outer Island shown on most maps, and I took the liberty of requesting some additional information while I was at the outpost. The Fire Sages used to keep a temple there, but they sold the land to the military when the Grand Sage needed to make those reparation payments to Uncle. If the name has any ring of familiarity to you, it's for the Waterbender prison that was built there. I presume the Avatar is looking for a teacher, and considers breaking one out of the most secure prison on the planet to be preferable to infiltrating the Dragon of the North's territory."

Zuko ignored Azula's attempt to flaunt her information sources and focused on one core fact. "That island is part of the Homeland. I'd have to break my banishment to ambush the Avatar there."

"Ah, so you can think." Azula gave a nod that was almost approving. "Yes, that's an awkward point, but I've already communicated the problem to Father. Between his influence and outright bribery, I'm sure we can shape the story so that the Fire Lord will accept it. After all, it's just a spot of dirt in the ocean boasting nothing but a prison for foreigners, far from the rest of the Homeland, so perhaps some creative reclassification can be done."

Zuko wasn't so sure, but even if it was true, he'd be putting more trust and dependence on Azula. And Father.

He wondered if having the flame within back would make him feel warmer. "What's our timing for the ambush?"

"Mm, Mai was less than helpful in that regard, so our only choice is to hurry to the island and then wait around for as long as it takes. I've already arranged for a ship to take us there, and June shall convey us to the port on her shirshu. It's better to keep our travel accommodations unofficial, for now." Azula straightened, and gave one last parting nod. "We leave at dawn."



Zuko remembered his first ride on the shirshu as being both painful and unpleasant, back when Azula had first found him and was bringing him to be 'cleaned up.' Now, it was no longer a painful experience, but not the least bit more pleasant.

The company was only part of the problem. June was at the front of the saddle, with Azula behind her, and Zuko at the rear.

The mole-like beast loped quickly across the landscape, cutting a path through the colonies. Zuko watched them pass by, finding a kind of unreality in the sights. He knew the colonies well, had slept in the gutters of little towns and massive cities both, had clawed through the waste of the people of Fire and Earth in search of something to eat, had been pushed around by bullies in armor and bullies in farming rags. He knew the smells, the textures, the windings paths of the colonies, and still experienced them in his dreams. To see them passing so quickly, distant images on the horizon that might as well have been mirages, made the dreams seem more alive than the waking world.

It was a silent trip until they stopped for the first night. While the group had dinner around the campfire, Azula gave a monologue about the path she wanted to take to the port (complete with dramatic motions towards her map). Afterward, June spent the whole evening having a conversation in baby-talk with her shirshu. Zuko kept silent, and endured Azula's regular barbs.

They set off again early the next day, but things did not go as smoothly as they had the prior day. The ground grew rockier, like a mountain had died and its bones were left to sink slowly into the ground. Sharp gray cliffs rose up out of nowhere to twist the roads, and there seemed to be a thickness to the air. Zuko didn't understand until midmorning, when June brought her mount to a halt, and pointed ahead. "This is bad. That's an ashland."

He had heard the term, but never seen one. Zuko sat taller in the saddle, and sure enough, he could see a brown smudge on the horizon.

Between the bounty hunter and Zuko, Azula squirmed to try to get a better look over the shoulder of their guide. "A what?"

June snorted. "They're relatively new. When the Fire Nation made that big Comet Offensive, a lot of landscape got scorched. Some of it was so bad, the only thing left were dunes of ash. The Earth Kingdom- sorry, the Colonial Continent- got a lot more little deserts, that day."

Zuko's vision was suddenly eclipsed by Azula's topknot as she craned her neck for her own look. "Interesting. I wouldn't mind seeing such a thing up close."

"Yes, Princess, you would." June shook her head. "When I called them dunes, I wasn't exaggerating. The embers are piled up like sand, except they’re lighter and softer, so they gets picked up by the wind much easier. Trying to see or breathe in an ashland isn't fun, not unless some rain is really coming down. We need to go around or wait for more accommodating weather."

"We can't wait." Azula gave a small huff. "Very well. Pick the path you think is best."

June snapped her whip to the right, and the shirshu took off in that direction on a path that would angle around the devastation on the horizon. The creature's pace slowed within the first hour, however, as the road disintegrated into a badlands. The stone cliffs became even sharper and more sudden, and Zuko could see the obvious signs of Earthbending in the structures. For there to be so many, a great battle must have been fought, here.

That would explain the ashland.

The hours slowed. The shirshu was doing more climbing than running, soon, and June had to bring it to a halt regularly to check their course against her compass. Each time, it seemed they had drifted back towards the ashland. Zuko looked up to find the sun at one point in the journey, and discovered that they had passed straight into the late afternoon. With each stop, the shirshu was getting more and more off-course. The air grew harsh with the smell of fresh smoke, and the horizon visible even from the cliff peaks drew shorter and shorter.

It wasn't until Zuko began coughing that they realized what was going on.

"Oh no," June hissed, as he brought the coughing under control. "There's ash in the air."

"I thought we were going around," Azula said.

"We tried, Princess. We're still going to try, but this isn't looking good. They say-"

"Who says?"

"Travelers. Other bounty hunters. Soldiers coming back from long patrols." June turned around in the saddle, and for the first time ever, Zuko saw real emotion on her face.

She was worried.

If Azula saw the same thing, she gave no sign. "And what do these experts say?"

"That the bigger ashlands- the ones where more people died- are haunted."

"And you believe this nonsense?"

"I believe that people say things for a reason, Princess. Sometimes it's because those things are true and sometimes it's because people just want them to be true, but there's always something that inspired the talk. Maybe the ashlands drift more than anyone realizes, and the winds sound like Spirit voices, but it's still looking like we're going to have a tough time outrunning this one."

"Hmph." Azula slid down off the saddle, and went back to where her luggage was lashed to the shirshu's side. "Then we'd better prepare ourselves to handle the inevitable."

She produced a silk tunic, as black as ash, and tore strips off of it. Those became masks worn over noses and mouths, and the rest of the robe became a muzzle for the shirshu. The creature was lucky in that it didn't have eyes worth worrying about; Zuko and the others would have to simply squint at any trouble. Thus prepared, they set off again.

They didn't get far before the world turned to soot around them.

The winds picked up, and with them came the biting of the cinders. Even through the silk mask, the air took on the taste and smell of a pyre, and Zuko had to exert all his will just not to gag. June leaned forward in her seat, patting the shirshu's head and shouting some encouragements to it, but the words were lost to the wind by the time they reached Zuko's ears. Azula curled up and covered her eyes, and every so often Zuko would feel her shaking with coughs.

At last, Zuko had to close his good eye against the storm of ash.

He wondered if he would die, here, in the howling detritus of the Fire Nation's war of conquest.



They had no eyes, but nevertheless looked down through the ash, seeing the son and daughter of a traitor- the heirs of a kingdom of blood- and felt hunger.


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Loopy
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« Reply #44 on: May 17, 2015 03:17 pm »

Years, months, days, hours later, Zuko felt a presence looming over him, and risked cracking his good eye open enough to look ahead. The sky was nothing more than a brownish glow behind the storm of soot. It reminded Zuko of a nightmare he had, a year or so ago, when he passed out in a heap of garbage in one of the colonies and dreamed of an endless swarm of flies. The memory made him shudder, but he forced himself to truly see the world around him, not the old nightmare. It seemed like a shadow, darker than the semi-night of the rest of the sky, was rising up ahead. He reached over Azula- she was almost bent double in her seat, the ash piling on top of her- to grab June's shoulder, and forced her to turn in the direction of the shadow. He wasn't sure if the bounty hunter was even conscious at first, but after a long moment, he felt her muscles stiffen in his grip, and she snapped her whip towards at the shadow.

The shirshu, head covered by its silk muzzle, moved in that direction.

It proved to be a mountain, perhaps the offspring of the one that had died farther back on the road. Even at its base, it rose steeply into the sky, and by hugging the side, at least some of the wind could be blocked. June guided her mount along the mountain's roots, and Zuko wondered if they would be doomed to circle it forever, but then they encountered a new sound, the snapping of canvas in the gales. The shirshu took on new life, bounding towards the whisper on the wind, and before Zuko even realized what was going on, the whole group had passed beneath some kind of covering into a cave.

He brushed the ash from his hair, from his face, and only when the stinging had settled into dullness did he open his eye to look around. It was indeed a cave, blocked from the outside by a canvas tarp hammered into the stone, but the chamber was larger than he expected. The ceiling was as high as the Fire Palace's Grand Hall, or at least as high as Zuko remembered it, and it stretched back beyond easy sight. Rather than growing darker in the distance, Zuko could see a glow like firelight deeper in the cave.

They all dismounted, Azula finally coming back to life to hurriedly shake off the cinders that clung to her body, and then they all worked together to run their hands through the shirshu's fur and relieve it of the weight of the accumulated ash. When that was done, they turned to regard the light in the distance.

"Doesn't make any sense," June said. "No one could live in the middle of an ashland, whether or not they have a handy little cave."

Azula crossed her arms over her chest. "Some of this continent's communities have advanced forms of fungus farming. If they have a water supply, there could be a settlement trapped in a network of caverns here, living off of mushrooms or somesuch. I say we go raid them for supplies and information."

Zuko looked at the distant light, and the emptiness within howled at the sight. "I have a bad feeling about this."

"Oh, well, if dear Zuzu has a bad feeling, then by all means, let's go back into that wasteland and stumble around until we die. That will be so much better!"

Zuko looked over at June where she was stroking the shirshu's nose, but she shrugged at him. "The princess has a point. Even if it doesn't make sense, we don't have much choice. And there were villages in the great forest that used to be here. I guess the survivors could have taken refuge in here when the Comet came and the armies fought." She stepped over to the saddle and swung herself up into it. "Besides, if there is trouble, we've got the advantage in speed and size."

Zuko shook his head, but Azula ignored him and began walking deeper into the cave, towards the beckoning light. June rode the shirshu behind her, leaving Zuko in the dark.

After a moment, he hurried after them.

It was a shorter walk than he expected, and soon enough the light resolved itself into torches and campfires. Each flame emitted a smoke and stench that implied rancid things about the fire's fuel. Their weak, dancing light spilled out in patches across the cave, battling against the darkness to reveal little snatches of civilization: A thin, ragged person here, a cluster of patched tents there, even one moo-sow lying in an alcove with struggled breathing. Everywhere Zuko looked, there were twisted and decaying reflections of his journey through the colonies.

One little shadow darted away from a nearby campfire and scampered across Zuko's path. He stopped shorted and the shadow dashed in front of him, but he felt an impact against the toe of his boot and the figure toppled to the ground. There was a cry of a child's pain, and a little face turned back to catch the light of one of the fires. Zuko was instinctively reaching to help the child when he realized he knew that face.

It was the face of his own youth.

Zuko froze, unsure of his sense of reality, trying to see past the illusion to find the true face of the child on the floor in front of him. From behind, a gruff voice called out, "Where are you, boy?! When I catch you I'll shove your filthy hide in the campfire and see how you talk back then!"

The boy gasped and scrambled away into the darkness, while Zuko stood there and tried to make himself believe that it wasn't his face on the child, it was just his single eye fooled by the low light. Eventually, he sighed and turned around to find the owner of the gruff voice stumbling into view. The man might have been heavier once, perhaps even muscular, but now his skin hung just as loosely from thin arms as his ragged clothes. He slowed when he saw Zuko and the others, his gaze coming to a stop on the shirshu. "Fire Nation." He spat into the darkness. "Where did you fools come from?"

Azula stepped forward with her shoulders squared, and Zuko expected her to simply kill the man for his impertinence, but she merely said, "We're travelers who became lost in the ashland. We require survival supplies, along with any other assistance which your people can offer."

The man snorted. "Do we looking cracking rich to you? You want to wait out the storm, we aren't going to bother to stop you. And if you see that boy again, you tell him he better run." With that, the man whirled and shuffled back towards one of the tents.

Azula threw a glance at Zuko, but he could only offer a shrug in return. They both looked to June as she slid out of her saddle and found her regular cheeky smirk back in place as she said, "Well, if we're lucky, these losers will have some hooch they can share. Let's go find out!"



To Zuko's relief, the refugees did not have any alcohol of any kind they could share. As soon as June learned that, she had declared that she was done for the day, and went to set up her sleeping bag beside her shirshu, at the edge of the tent town.

Unfortunately, the refugees also didn't seem to have any water, either, which was a bit more distressing.

"You're sure the ash-storm won't last past tomorrow morning." Azula's question sounded more like a statement to Zuko's ears, but the old woman who had consented to share her campfire for the night- Youling- didn't seem to notice.

She scratched at her oily gray hair and answered without ever looking at any of her guests. "Stands to reason. Only so much wind to go around, right?"

Far too familiar with the sight of Azula’s rolling eyes, Zuko turned his attention away from the others and to the campfire itself. It reeked just like all those in this camp, but he was growing used to the smell, to the thickness it gave to the air in the cavern. There was a smothering feeling to the atmosphere that reminded Zuko of the heavy blankets he had as a child, piled up on his little body during the cold months. He had found them oppressive in their weight, pinning him to the bed and discouraging him from movement even in his most restless sleep. Now, he experienced the memory almost like a fond dream, and felt his head growing heavy. Perhaps he would rest his eye for just a moment, close it and think back to his days in the Fire Palace, when things had been better and Azula hadn't discovered cruelty yet and Mother was there and Father-

"Ah!!"

Zuko's eye snapped open at Azula's cry and he turned to find her standing, staring at a group of refugees who were passing by. "What is it?"

Azula ignored him, dashing past the campfire and grabbing at one of the people. She yanked her target’s arm to reveal a woman in a cloak, one Zuko did not recognize. The woman didn't seem to be alarmed by Azula's accosting, her eyes dead and posture drooping. After a moment, Azula released the woman and returned to the campfire. Youling ignored the entire incident.

Zuko shifted so that he was sitting closer to his sister. "Why did you do that?"

Azula gave him a glare, but then sighed and turned to look into the flames. "I thought that woman looked familiar for a moment. It must have been the poor lighting and abysmal air quality in here."

"Familiar? Who did you think she was?"

Azula did not look at him. "It doesn't matter. It wasn't her, and it never will be her. Now be a good big brother and kindly shut up."

It was too strange for Zuko to take any offense; Azula usually had more control than that. Unable to figure it out, he turned his own attention to the campfire, seeking the heart of the flames, the brightest and hottest point within the burning. Perhaps if he meditated, here in this soporific atmosphere, he could find the core of fire within himself. Zuko took a lotus position, tucking his legs together and extending his arms loosely, and began regulating his breathing, sending his conscious within himself.

His concentration was ruined when he heard his mother ask, "Have you seen Zuko?"

Zuko's eye snapped open again, but she was nowhere to be found. Instead, the same woman Azula had accosted was talking to Youling, saying, "My son and husband were fighting again, and when I got home just now, the neighbors told me that little Shugao ran off. I can't find him anywhere."

Somehow, Zuko was absolutely sure that the child he had collided with before was this missing Shugao.

For her part, Youling shrugged. "Haven't seen him. If he's missing, then he probably went into the ashlands and choked to death."

Shugao's mother sighed. "That's a shame. I was hoping we'd die together."

Youling scratched at her hair again. "But choking on ash is better than starving. And this way, he won't get shoved into a campfire by his father again."

Even Azula looked up at that, and the ash-streaked expression she directed at Zuko conveyed her weariness. "Is it just me," she whispered, "or are these people even stranger than the usual oppressed and traumatized peasantry?"

Zuko ignored his sister, and watched as Shugao's mother began limping back the way she came. As she passed away from Youling's campfire, the shadows writhed across her face, and when the light touched her features again, Zuko found himself watching his mother walk away in filthy refugee rags.

He stood up, eliciting a grunt of surprise from Azula, and reached out for the woman. "Wait!"

Shugao's mother turned, and once more wore an unfamiliar face.

"I'll find your son."

Youling said, "Out in the ashland?"

"Yes." He immediately turned and headed off in the direction of June and her shirshu, dodging the tents he found in his path.

Azula came trotting up behind him and hissed, "What do you think you're doing? Risking your life for a peasant?"

"I can't let a child die out in that ash."

"Funny, that's what you've done your entire life." Surrounded by the camps of the displaced and the lowly, Zuko came to a halt and whirled on his sister, but she stared him down. "What? Did you develop a taste for rescuing children during these last few years? Or do you expect this to prove that you're the Fire Prince Restored, committing acts of charity from out of the old legends?"

The anger flared in Zuko's heart, but he remembered the last time he had tried to turn that against Azula. He reached within and hoped to feel the flame that had been missing for so long, but the familiar absence was the only thing he found, and he knew that could not stand against the cutting edge that was his sister. So rather than pushing up against her, he met her eyes with his one, and said, "That woman reminds me of Mother."

Even in the poor light, with her face covered in the smeared filth of the ashland, he could see Azula pale at that. "Why- why would you mention- mention her?"

"What do you mean? Why wouldn't I?"

Azula shook her head. "She's not here. It doesn't matter what you see, she's not here."

"See?" Zuko found himself grabbing his sister's arms, pulling her closer. "Did you see her, too?"

Instead of an answer, he got a solid knee to the stomach, crumpling him with a sickening pain that radiated out to his whole body. When he looked up again, Azula was gone. He was alone on the floor of the cavern, ignored by people who blurred together in the dim light and went about their lives as if they had already died.

At last, Zuko understood.



Azula didn't understand.

Mother was gone. Azula didn't even like to think about her, so there was no chance of latent psychological issues coming into play. Azula was possessed of flawless mental health; she knew because Father had told her so.

And yet she still saw Mother's face.

Zuko had, too.

There was something wrong here.

Given the evidence, and with the only alternative being that Azula and Zuzu both were suddenly going insane, she was forced to revise her earlier opinion about ashlands being haunted.

The only question, then, was the extent of the threat.

Azula had left Zuko on the floor of the cavern, clutching his stomach. Father had charged her with taking care of her brother, of making sure he caught the Avatar and came home, and given that he had no Firebending with which to protect himself against Spirits, the most direct way for Azula to complete her mission would be to stay by Zuko's side. However, Azula also knew that sticking to defense was no way to win a fight- just ask the Airbenders. She had to confront the threat, go on the offensive, and Zuko would just be a liability in that situation. Besides, this fight might very well transcend physical considerations, so staying near Zuzu might be no different than leaving him behind.

And he kept talking about Mother. Azula didn't like that.

When she got back to Youling's tent, Azula marched right up to where the old woman was sitting and reached out a hand to seize complete control of the campfire. It shifted into vivid shades of blue and leaned so that the tips of the flames licked at her hand like a loyal hound.

Without moving, Youling said, "That's a neat trick."

"It is the purest expression of Firebending that a human has ever demonstrated. Unless you want to fully understand what that means, you will answer my questions."

"Seems fair."

Azula took a fighting stance, ready to strike as soon as she detected a lie or a deflection. "Are you a Spirit, or are you and the other filthy peasants here merely victims?"

Youling hunched forward, casting her face into shadow. "Can't say I've ever really thought about it."

The lack of answer didn't bother Azula, as it was easy enough to determine by experiment. Human skin would burn at contact with fire, while Spirits would- according to the legends- have their manifested forms reduced. Azula swung a hand covered in flame and aimed for Youling's closest shoulder, something non-vital that could be damaged without threat to life. The blow was about to land when Youling snapped her head up, and looked at Azula with Mother's face.

Azula's flame immediately went out, and it was just a plan fist that smacked into the bony shoulder.

Then something wrapped around Azula's ankles and yanked. She fell to the ground and everything when dark when her forehead struck the stone floor.


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Loopy
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« Reply #45 on: May 17, 2015 03:18 pm »

Zuko couldn't find his sister, and when he went looking for June, the bounty hunter and the shirshu both were nowhere in the cavern. It was as though they had transformed into refugees, melding into the huddled masses sitting around the various campfires. Zuko wondered whether they would realize if such a thing had happened to them; he wondered if he himself was wearing the face of one of the refugees, and even now his sister was searching fruitlessly for him. Would she search? She said that Father had sent her to bring Zuko back, and Azula always did everything that Father commanded. Would Father-

Zuko let his doubts fade away. In this situation, they would be a liability. He felt that the only way out would be to save the boy Shugao, and he would have to do it alone.

He scrounged up enough cloth for a hood and protective mask that would protect him from the ash, grabbed a torch from one of the braziers scattered between the tents, and made his way back out of the cavern. The fire revealed a lone set of child-sized footsteps leading to the canvas tarp protecting the cave entrance, and the only thing that surprised Zuko was how unsurprised he really was. There should have been tracks from when he, Azula, and June had walked through the tunnel hours earlier, or failing that, the signs of the shirshu's passages still should have been visible, but Zuko now understood that what he was seeing wasn't necessarily connected to reality.

It was just like those stories Uncle had enjoyed telling, before he left for the North Pole.

When Zuko threw aside the tarp, he found not the ashland, but the battlefield outside Ba Sing Se beneath a red sun.

It was just as he remembered it. The Outer Wall was the most obvious feature, standing tall and solid on the horizon, massive even at this distance. The killing fields stretched out between it and Zuko, muddy and ravaged from the days and weeks and months of fighting. The landscape was just as devastated as the ashland, but at least it wasn't trying to rise up and choke anyone. Zuko lowered his torch, and pulled back his hood and mask as he wandered forward, gaze swinging back and forth in the hope of detecting any threats before they found him. He was at least fortunate in that there were no bodies on the killing fields, so it must have been a while since any fighting had taken place.

He tried to reach inside for his fire but found only fear, and he withdrew from that sensation like a hand yanked from a flame.

Voices carried out through the dead air, and Zuko followed them away from the Outer Wall. The mountain with the cave full of refugees was missing, just like the ashland itself. As he walked, he came to recognize the land around him. This was near where the army had camped during his time in service. He remembered the shape of the land, the color of the dirt beneath his feet. He picked out a shape on the horizon that he knew would be the main camp, the collection of tents where the mighty would-be conquerors of Ba Sing Se rested their heads in anticipation of a glory that would never come to them. When he had arrived with Father all those years ago, he had been given a collection of tents that was more like a suite of rooms, decorated with silks and wall-scrolls and weapon racks to hide the cloth nature of the walls. It was Zuko's first home away from home, the first time he had slept and lived outside of the Fire Palace with no exact knowledge of when he would be able to return.

The sounds of voices rose and fell again in the distance with a consistent beat, rising discordant cries of exultation.

Zuko's blood chilled as he recognized those calls. They were a traditional war chant, something soldiers used to prepare their hearts and minds for battle even as they strapped armor to their bodies and stretched their muscles.

He had heard this specific chant for the first time just before the last battle he would ever fight in the war.

Zuko's stomach clenched and his legs turned to rubber, dumping him in the dirt of the path and making him drop his torch. He shut his eye against the crimson glare of the sun and tried to push himself up, willing away the nausea that was threatening to overcome him. None of this was real; it was an illusion of a past that was dead and gone. Father wanted him back now, had sent Azula to make it happen. The Avatar was back, and Zuko would catch him.

And Father was nowhere near the fighting that day. He couldn't have been.

Eventually, Zuko's strength came back. He heaved himself to his feet, opened his eye, and found himself in a forest beneath a sliver of a moon and a sky filled with stars. His torch was gone.



Azula sat in front of the campfire, trying to remember who Azula was. She knew, of course, that <I>she was Azula. Her name was Azula, and that fact was not in dispute. It was a grand name, a powerful name, a name that spoke of a superlative history and proud ancestors. It was just that she couldn't remember any of that history or who those ancestors might be, and she found that worrisome.

It didn't take a tactical genius to know that memory problems were never good.

Azula pulled her dusty green cloak tighter, and looked around at the other people sitting around the campfire. She couldn't remember any of their names either, although their faces seemed familiar. The two who most disturbed Azula were the sad, smiling woman and the scowling man with the long thin chin-beard. She feared to attract their attention, but at the same time, she craved it with a heat that warmed her skin. It wasn't as bad as with the other people- the old fat bearded man, the young man with the white skin and blue lips, the sighing girl, the giggling girl, or even the cobweb-covered corpse that wore a flame crown in its brittle hair- but something about them all nipped at the edges of her lack of memory.

It also felt like someone was missing, but she couldn't imagine who.

Perhaps they were all waiting for him.

Why was she so sure it was a him?



Zuko had no idea what forest he was in, but he could no longer see any signs of the Ba Sing Se landscape, and that was some small comfort.

It was hard going at first, making his way through the forest. With such a small moon, barely any light made its way down through the clusters of little leaves. Zuko stumbled his way from tree to tree, occasionally calling out for Shugao with as much hope of finding the boy as he had that the boy would find him first. But slowly, Zuko realized there was more light to work with than that of the moon and the stars. As his eye adjusted, he could detect a faint luminescence in the trunks of the trees themselves, allowing them to stand out from the darkness around them. It felt like he was wandering for hours, but things became more distinct as time passed, until the entire forest was reflected in dim shades of gray.

With the ability to see came the knowledge that he was being hunted. It was a human, or something shaped like it. The silhouette was shapeless, but the figure was the same general size as a human, taller than it was wide, and it moved like a person, albeit with uncanny grace. Zuko bided his time, letting his eye become more and more attuned to the dim light, letting his ears learn the sounds of the hunter's whispering movements.

When he judged that his perceptions were as good as they were going to get in this forest, and he more or less had an idea of the hunter's position, he bent his path to take him around a copse of tall trees. In that instant when he was lost to the hunter's sight, Zuko turned and took an attack stance, ready to leap on his stalker as soon as the figure stumbled into his trap.

He hadn't expected the hunter to double back around the other side of the copse of trees.

Zuko's only warning was a whistle through the air, and he jumped away just into time to avoid the flying talons made of shadow itself that almost landed in his back. He quickly turned to face his attacker, and in the glow of the nearby tree trunks, he could finally get a good look at her. The woman was young, Zuko's age or perhaps a little younger, with skin so pale it almost glowed in the night. The face was the only part of her that was easily distinctive from her surroundings, as her hair and cloak were both the darkest black. There was something familiar about her, and it wasn't until she moved and threw another set of shadow talons with a snapping motion as fast as lightning that he realized who she was. The throwing style was almost as much of a giveaway as the girlish ox-horn buns style in which she wore her hair. Mai was all grown up, now.

The realization slowed Zuko, and he couldn't dodge this latest set of projectiles. They bit into his clothes but didn't slow, their speed fighting back against his inertia and winning enough to drag and pin him against a tree. Zuko tried to pull away, but his clothing resisted and the talons- no, this close to the glowing bark, he could see that they were shards of volcano glass- refused to relinquish their hold in the tree. Zuko's continued pulling tore at his clothes, but before he could rip free, Mai was standing right in front of him holding a dagger beneath his chin, the blade a sanded and polished work of black volcano glass.

Her eyes met Zuko’s single one, and he felt his face burning in shame. "Wha- what are you doing here?"

She tilted her head and shrugged, pushing her cloak to fall back off her shoulders, revealing the pure white funeral garb she wore beneath. "Isn't it obvious? I'm here to mourn for you, Prince Zuko. You'll fail to find the boy Shugao, and then you will die in fire."

TO BE CONTINUED
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Colonel_Brian
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« Reply #46 on: May 18, 2015 11:57 pm »

You can write creepy things very well! I am really digging the mystery and suspense in this chapter. I might however have to give it another read, the dream quality of the chapter is a little difficult to digest, but I think you conveyed it very effectively. I can't wait to know more about Zuko's past.

Also I love the worldbuilding. The ashlands are a very appropiate testament to the legacy of the war.
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Loopy
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« Reply #47 on: May 31, 2015 02:11 pm »

You can write creepy things very well! I am really digging the mystery and suspense in this chapter. I might however have to give it another read, the dream quality of the chapter is a little difficult to digest, but I think you conveyed it very effectively. I can't wait to know more about Zuko's past.

Also I love the worldbuilding. The ashlands are a very appropiate testament to the legacy of the war.

Thanks! I hadn't intended things to go this creepy and dark, or even to try to replicate the dreamy tone of some chapters of Retroactive, but these events seemed to call for it. Strangely, I consider myself bad at writing horror, but somehow I seem to please people with my 'creepy moments' without really thinking about it. Perhaps I just don't have a conscious handle on what horror should be.




Zuko's War

Aang didn't quite understand, yet, the full nature of being the Avatar. It came with responsibilities and powers that he was only beginning to taste. So it was hard, sometimes, to say when he simply had a bad feeling like everybody else got, or when some perception granted by the Avatar Spirit was detecting a manifestation beyond her normal ken. How much was imagination, and how much was wisdom from beyond his humanity? Nevertheless, Aang had woken up just now, in the middle of the night, with the distinct impression that his Avatar Sense was tingling.

He was sleeping as he usually did, atop Appa's head in the great outdoors, beside the hut where a healer lived and worked near Chin Village. Grass shifted in the soft breeze, and the road in the distance was completely deserted. Aang slid down from Appa and snuck around to the front of the hut. Sokka's tent was pitched nearby, and the older boy was presumably inside, dreaming about killer food or something like that. Aang turned to the hut itself, and leaned his head through the entrance. The only light within came from the glow of the moon and stars through the windows, casting just enough illumination to reveal the pallet where Mai was sleeping, recovering from the burns she had received on Kyoshi Island. She was tossing and turning beneath her blanket, which Aang didn't think was good. The healer had said that Mai needed to avoid moving, so that the skin of her side could heal properly. On the other hand, she also needed her rest, so waking her up in the middle of the night wouldn't be good, either.

Aang compromised by tiptoeing up to her, thinking to perhaps straighten blanket or something soothing, but as he approached, she rolled over again, muttering and breathing laboriously. Was she having a bad dream? Aang leaned over her, unable to help noticing that her normally shining hair was matted with sweat. She spoke again, and this time, Aang caught the word: "Zuko... fire..."

What was a zuko? A Fire Nation term? Something to do with her injury?

Before Aang could decide what to do, he heard a familiar cooing, and Momo flew into the hut through a window to land right on top of Mai's blanket. The lemur turned in a quick circle before settling down as if to sleep, and Mai immediately calmed. Her breathing slowed, and the tenseness in her form faded. Aang waited a little longer to confirm it, but she seemed to be okay now, sleeping peacefully and no longer moving. Satisfied at his luck, he headed back to Appa, looking forward to his own sleep. If Mai was feeling well, they'd have to move on in the morning, in case word of their visit got back to the Fire Nation.

A fight would be the last thing Mai needed.



Pinned to a tree by shards of volcano glass in a glowing forest that couldn't be real, Zuko's mind was racing as he tried to make sense of things. In front of him stood a woman who could only be Mai- the girl from a place of memory in his heart where even he feared to tread- brandishing a black glass knife and claiming to be here for his death. "How- how can you be here? Where is here?"

"Oh, Prince Zuko. There's so much you don't understand." Mai lowered the knife and stuck her tongue out at him. "Destiny knew what it was doing when it gave your little sister more than the usual share of brains. Too bad you didn't bring her along." She pulled her cloak back over her white funeral garb and pranced over to a copse of trees, coming to lean against one of the trunks and turning sultry eyes back to Zuko. "I'm here to save you, my Prince! My body and heart are yours forever!"

There was no doubt that she was beautiful, surpassing all the fantasies that Zuko had ever conjured of what Mai would be once she left childhood behind, but all he felt from this sight was a coldness that calmed his mind and revealed the answers he had been seeking. "You're not Mai."

"How can you say that? You haven't even tasted me yet."

"There's more to humans than how they look."

"There is?"

"Much more."

"Huh." The Thing That Was Not Mai stood up straight again and raised her hands to touch her face. "You humans give so much weight to how things look, I thought that it was all you care about. Too bad I couldn't borrow her full personality as well, but I like her manner of speaking." She skipped over to Zuko and placed a hand- warm through his clothes, almost burning- on his chest. Their faces were so close that he could feel her sweet breath on his lips as she whispered, "Would it hurt more if I tore out your heart while wearing this face?"

Zuko did what he did best and completely ignored the uncomfortable question. "What is going on? Why are you doing this?"

"Why?" Not-Mai backed away from him again, cocking her head to the side and giving him a confused stare. "Now you're just messing with me. I know humans are experts in revenge. You love it more than you love each other."

"Revenge for what?"

"Oh, why limit it?" Not-Mai smiled and licked her lips. "Your nation has had a hundred years to accumulate guilt for what it's done to the entire world. Let's not devalue that kind of effort by pinning it down in the form of a list."

It was as Zuko suspected. "You were the Spirit of this forest. You want revenge for the ashland."

"<I>A Spirit of the forest, you ignoramus. Do you think all that ash came from a handful of trees? The forest stretched from horizon to horizon. Entire villages of humans lived in its comfort, so far apart that they forgot about each other centuries ago, and did homage to a variety of Spirits. And yet they all contributed to the one army that marched off to save the Land of Earth." Not-Mai giggled. "You probably would have liked that army. It was very, very big, and they all had nice shiny armor. You humans love things that are big and shiny. But then again, your people chased them back to this forest, and then used the power of the Comet to kill every last soldier, so maybe you wouldn't have liked it so much. You're not supposed to burn the things you like." She stepped forward and caressed the scar on Zuko's face. "Right?"

Zuko yanked away, finally ripping his clothes enough to tear away from the shards of volcano glass that had been pinning him to the tree. He took an attack stance and faced his opponent.

Not-Mai shook her hands free from her cloak and planted them on her hips. "I didn't think scars were so sensitive," she said, winking.

"Are you going to talk me to death, or are you going to get this revenge you want?"

"You're right! The night is old, and if we're going to get this done, we need to do it before your Patron lights up the sky again." Not-Mai raised a hand above her head and a shaft of moonlight broke through the forest's canopy to light her up. She swung her hand out, and Zuko tensed for an attack-

-as she pointed off to her left. "That way."

Zuko blinked, and looked where she was pointing. It was just more of this Spirit Forest. "That way for what?"

"The boy you're looking for. Shugao. He went that way. Off you go! I want to see your cute little butt bouncing along in that direction. Quickly, now!"

Zuko didn't relax out of his stance. "I thought you wanted revenge. You're trying to send me in the wrong direction."

"Wow. I can see why your Mai likes you so much; humans love the chance to nurture and control other humans." Not-Mai pushed her cloak back fully, once again revealing the white mourning robes beneath, undyed and unsullied. They were robes without life, but also robes on which anything could be written, the turning point of the reincarnation cycle. "There is no wrong direction here, Prince Zuko. Either you will fail in your search, and wander the ashland until you choke to death in the foulness of your own people, or you will succeed in your quest to rescue Shugao, and walk into the bright world once more, ruined by the experience. Ask your sister sometime about the strategic importance of no-win situations. I doubt you'll understand, but it should make her happy, at least."

Not-Mai yanked her black cloak off and tossed it at Zuko's face. He grabbed it in midair and pulled it away so that it wouldn't entrap him, removing it from his vision so that he was only left blind for less than a second-

-and the Spirit that had been wearing Mai's face was gone.

Zuko got moving a moment later in the same direction that the Spirit had pointed, leaving the cloak behind, and found a path through the underbrush of the forest, a dirt path on which child-sized footsteps led off into the night.



Zuko walked for years until he came to a fork in the path. It split neatly, with a thick swath of trees down the middle, the two new paths completely invisible to each other. Zuko looked for the tracks, and found them leading clearly down the path on his right. It was so clear that he expected a trick, and scouted the left path for a short distance to make sure that the tracks wouldn't magically switch.

Eventually, he decided to go back and take the right path, and turned around to find his mother walking towards him.

Zuko jolted to a stop and blinked his one good eye, but the vision didn't change. His mother was walking slowly down the path in her old red and gold cloak, her hood up and her head bowed. Beside her was a darker figure, matching her pace, and as the pair approached, Zuko's stomach clenched. He recognized the person walking beside his mother, and realized what Not-Mai had meant by this experience being ruinous. The person escorting his mother was Piandao, his father's trusted servant. It was exactly like the last time Zuko had ever seen his mother.

He backed away from the approaching figures, one step at a time, and as he walked, the packed dirt of the path hardened, and his boots clacked against the polished marble of the Fire Palace's courtyard. Zuko whirled, finding a mix of the familiar and the foreign, the palace he had grown up in looming above him even while the glowing trees of the Spirit Forest refused to give way, standing incongruously in the palace courtyard and blocking the longer view with their leaves. Mother and Piandao were close enough that their own footsteps were now clacking on the marble as well, and Zuko turned to face them. He couldn't let this be like all those years ago. "Mother," he called out, and realized with dismay that it had been the same opening he had used back then as well.

Mother looked up at last at the sound of his voice, and she once more wore the same wary expression beneath her hood. She moved towards Zuko, but Piandao stepped to block her path and said, "Prince Zuko, what are you doing out here so late? Getting in some extra Firebending practice?"

That was indeed what he had been doing, the first time, but this was different. He was in this forest to save Shugao, but perhaps he could save Mother as well. "Where are you taking her?"

"This has nothing to do with you, my Prince. Go back inside, go to bed, and everything will be fine."

Piandao was repeating himself like a memory, but this time Zuko would not just stand there in confusion. Even as Mother was nodding, saying, "Don't worry yourself about me. Good night, Zuko. I will always protect you," Zuko was moving forward, advancing on Piandao. He might not have his Firebending, but he was a man now, and he wasn't afraid of Father's thug. He could fight, even without fire, and would save his mother.

Five steps from where Zuko planned to begin his attack, Piandao drew a jian sword from its scabbard and pointed the blade directly at Zuko's face. Strangely, the blade was not metal. Zuko had seen Piandao's sword many times in his youth, during all those court demonstrations of trick swordplay. The sword had a metal blade, no different from any other jian.

This sword had a blade of black volcano glass, twinkling in the light of the moon and the stars and the luminescent trees.

Zuko tried to twist and dash around the blade, but Piandao moved to block him, slicing the sword across his path. Piandao's footwork kept his body between Zuko and Mother, his sword held out in an effective guard position. Zuko feinted to his left, and then tried to circle around the other way, but Piandao tilted the long blade to cut him off, and then let loose a flurry of stabs that made Zuko stumble backwards to avoid having his chest poked full of holes. He stumbled when he found not the flat marble of the courtyard, but a dip in the packed dirt of the forest path, and fell to the ground. Piandao drew his sword back even before Zuko finished his tumble.

When he looked up again, Piandao was once more leading Mother deeper down the path. The Fire Palace was gone.

As they moved away, rain began falling from a completely clear sky.

It started with a drop that smacked down on Zuko's head. As he got to his feet, other drops fell loudly around him. Zuko hurried after his mother, and the rain became denser, wind blowing it with extra strength to lash coldly.

Before he could reach Mother, Zuko realized that the rain was going to wash away Shugao's tracks on the other path.

Mother and Piandao continued on their way, not even looking back, moving briskly in the rain. Zuko was sure he could catch them, but what would he do, then? Could he fight Piandao? Could he convince Mother to flee?

Was any of it even real?

Zuko realized that this was the trick of the Spirit Forest. It was taunting him with failure, trying to sway him from his goal. A little refugee boy would be lost in this nightmare forever, and it would be Zuko's fault.

With one last look at his departing mother, Zuko turned and headed back for the fork in the path, to take the option that would actually let him save someone.


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Loopy
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« Reply #48 on: May 31, 2015 02:14 pm »

At the end of the path, as the rain trickled to a stop, Zuko found a familiar house and Not-Mai waiting for him. He was ashamed that his eyes fell on Not-Mai first where she was lounging on the forest floor, her black cloak spread beneath her. She looked up at him, her funeral robes in disarray and falling from her bare shoulders, and cooed, "Hello, sailor."

Behind her, a man's tortured scream rang out from the house, and a shudder moved up Zuko's spine.

Not-Mai rolled over to lie on her back and continued, "Oh, but that's right, you're not a sailor. Not anymore. How long did your glorious captaincy last? Three days? Four?" More speech came from the house, worried and urgent, but another scream- the same familiar voice- drowned them out.

Zuko found his hands tightening into fists. "I was captain for almost two weeks. We visited the Western Air Temple, and then sailed for the Earth Kingdom. We visited several ports in the colonies."

"And then they sent you ashore to ask your questions about arrow tattoos and ran for the setting sun, fleeing the sour tongue of their prince." Not-Mai giggled, twisting on her cloak. "I suppose your crew became pirates. Your nation has no love for deserters, even if the captain the left behind was just a boy whining for his mother's bosom."

Zuko reached down, grabbed the cloak spread on the ground, and yanked it from beneath Not-Mai, spinning and spilling her onto the mud. She laughed as Zuko marched past her and dragged the cloak along the ground, ruining both sides of it before casting it in a puddle. He approached this ominous house in his path, and as he really looked at it for the first time, he sucked in a pained breath.

He knew this place. It wasn't just a home; it was a small clinic, a place of healing for its village, though the village itself was nowhere to be seen in this forest. The scream rang out again from within, and Zuko hurried to the door and slid it open.

It was bright inside, thanks to the combination of crystal lamps and flame lanterns that were hung in clusters from the ceiling. The people who worked here needed as much light as possible when surgery was necessary, and it seemed to be necessary now. Two large men were holding a thrashing patient down on the central table, while a woman worked on the man's face, blocking it from Zuko's view. A second woman was mixing something at a table off to the side, furiously grinding herbs and calling, "I'm making more!"

The first woman, her hair close-cropped but her hanbok flaring out as she turned, shouted back, "No! He's had too much already! He's burning it right out of his own blood! He'll have to just ride this out." The patient thrashed again beneath her, and Zuko finally noticed the man's hands. They were battered, bloody, and filthy, but not yet calloused.

And little tongues of flames danced across them, not yet bursting into sustained fire.

One of the large assistants glanced at the patient's hands, and then back at the first woman. "Song, how much longer?"

"The infection runs deep. I think- I think I'm going to have to take the eye."

She did something that made the patient scream again, and this time, when he flung his hands out, a burst of fire popped into the air.

The assistant said, "Uh, maybe we can take a break first?"

The woman- Song- shook her head and took a deep breath. "If the infection gets to his brain..." She trailed off as she got back to work, and the patient roared.

Zuko was leaning against the wall, not trusting his legs to support him. He knew this clinic. After he had been marooned in the colonies by his traitorous crew, he had continued his quest to find the Avatar on his own, but he had little in the way of supplies, and his money had run out quickly. He hadn't been able to change the bandages on his eye, not with anything clean enough for the job, and soon the fevers had set in, but he didn't let that stop him on his quest, pushing on to the Eastern Air Temple, sure that there would be some clues there as to the Avatar's location.

He had found this clinic when he wandered into a remote peasant village, and it was the last thing he saw before he blacked out.

He couldn't quite remember what happened when he woke up. There had been fire, and he ran from it.

Song gasped and stepped back from the table. "Done! Bandages!" The other woman quickly stepped in, wrapping the patient's face as the assistants held him down, and Zuko watched Song go to a bowl of water and wash the blood off her hands. So far, no one had taken notice of him. He began to doubt that they would, and he no longer felt any need to see this.

Outside, he found Not-Mai waiting. Her funeral robes were stained with mud, no longer pure, but her skin and hair were unsullied. "Why come back out? The path led here, and the rain has washed away the tracks, so the people inside are your best bet for finding poor abused Shugao. I suppose you could always just take your best guess and start walking through the forest, but I think that's entirely missing the spirit of this whole thing. No pun intended, I think. (It's hard to tell with this face I'm wearing.)"

The clinic was quiet now, but Zuko's worry didn't decrease. His fragmentary memory burned in his mind, and the echoes of terrified shrieks rang in his ears. The clinic was quiet now, but he wondered for how long.

Not-Mai grinned at him and hugged herself, caressing her bare shoulders. "That Song seemed very nice. What ever happened to her? She worked so hard to protect that useless brain of yours; I hope you rewarded her properly for her efforts."

Zuko turned and ran back into the clinic.

It was darker than before, with only a single crystal lantern left uncovered. The others must have departed, leaving only Song and the patient. He was lying on a pallet, his head mostly covered with bandages, while she precisely bathed his fevered brow with a cloth so that the dressings didn't get wet. It didn't look easy, with the patient shifting and muttering, but Song's patience seemed to know no bounds.

Zuko resolved to find a clue to Shugao's whereabouts as fast as possible, before-

Before.

Even in the low light, the muddy child-sized tracks were visible on the floor. They led right to the patient's pallet and stopped, but Zuko felt no need to follow them. He searched the ground in the general area around the tracks, running his hands over the dark floorboards, and was rewarded with the touch of metal against his fingers. Zuko grasped his find and raised it up close to his eye, so that the object would catch the light, and discovered that he was holding a pin made in the shape of the Fire Nation sigil. It was pure gold, making it a decoration that by law was reserved only for officers with noble blood. That it was shaped as a symbol of the Fire Nation itself meant this specific token belonged to someone whose whole person represented the Homeland.

Zuko had worn a token just like this, in Ba Sing Se. It had been a gift from his Uncle.

A pained groan broke Zuko out of his reverie. The patient was stirring on his pallet, and Zuko couldn't stop himself from turning to look.

Song was holding the patient down. "Don't move, sir. You're weak, and if you get up-"

"NOT WEAK!!"

With that roar came a burst of flames, and Song fell screaming to the floor, the damage to her hands obscured by the steam pouring off of them.

Zuko leaped to his feet and positioned himself in front of Song, facing down the patient as the bandaged man pushed up off the pallet. The patient advanced, his single visible eye unfocused, probably not even seeing Zuko.

But Zuko could see him.

Or rather, Zuko could see his own past self.

The other one lunged, fire flaring to life on his hands, but Zuko was quick, grapping his other self around the wrists and inhaling sharply. He didn't even realize that he was trying to Firebend until the flames went out at his instinctual command, and poisonous warmth flowed into the Qi-lines of his arms. The threat ended, he yanked and threw his past self across the clinic, disgusted at the very sight of the wild, bandaged face. The other's body crashed against the table stacked with herbs and medicines, and he collapsed to the floor. Zuko waited, but the other didn't move again.

Zuko crouched down beside Song, needing to see how badly she was injured. She was sobbing, holding her shaking arms out in front of her as though she couldn't make herself move them, and Zuko forced himself to examine the burned skin. It looked terrible, would at least leave rough red scars all over her hands and arms, and could very well lead to the arms having to be amputated. Song had her tearing eyes shut against the sight, and as she sobbed, Zuko reached out and took her burned hands in his own. Once again, that corrosive heat flowed into his arms, and before his eyes, time passed like the rapids of a rushing river, and Song's injuries became old scars. Her cries stopped and her tears dried, and she opened her eyes to look at Zuko and smile.

"I'm sorry," he said.

She nodded. "I know."

When Zuko stood and made to leave, his past self was gone.


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Loopy
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« Reply #49 on: May 31, 2015 02:15 pm »

The flame-sigil pin did not tell Zuko what path he needed to take, but he was beginning to understand something about this place. The path itself wasn't real; it was a series of tricks to guide Zuko to these waypoints of his history. The forest itself wasn't even a forest, but rather a labyrinth that was shaping him into the person he needed to be to find the exit. It was less a maze and more a process, with Zuko himself as the result.

Zuko was the result, and he was the path. He needed to know where to go within himself, and then he would find Shugao.

And the pin told him exactly where the boy was waiting.

Zuko strode through the forest with confidence. The glow of the trees no longer mattered, as he could find his way now even with his one eye closed. Instead, he sought for the fear, the confusion, the pain he had felt when he first stumbled out of the refugee cave and into the illusions of the ashland. When he had first left in search of Shugao, in search the boy who ran from the terrors of an abusive father, Zuko had found himself in a world that looked like the battlefield outside Ba Sing Se. Looking for the swirl of emotions that he had felt when he first saw the Outer Wall, the killing fields, the Fire Nation camp, Zuko could find his way back to that illusion.

And so he passed around an especially thick copse of trees and was suddenly walking in the village of tents that made up the Fire Nation's base on the frontlines of the Conquest of Ba Sing Se.

Soldiers were moving around, some of them injured, some of them with the unfocused stare of the battle-fatigued, all of them covered with the dust of landscape. Barked orders rang out and mixed with echoing groans of pain, and there was the metallic taste of defeat in the air. Zuko did not recognize this specific vantage point, but he knew the scene well. Father had finally showed some confidence in Zuko and given him the 41st division to assault the Outer Wall. They had been given catapults, and explosives, and archers, and orders to hold position until sunset, when Father promised that a surprise would be waiting.

Zuko had taken his troops and directed them to concentrate the full might of the Fire Nation against the Outer Wall and its barbarian defenders.

An hour later, they were running in retreat.

Zuko wandered through the camp, wary of whatever twisted surprise the Spirits had in store for him. Even so, it didn't strike him as at all out of the ordinary when one lieutenant came up to him, bowed, and said, "Your Highness, the camp is deserted! We couldn't find either Prince Ozai or any of the commanders!"

Zuko turned an incredulous stare to the soldier. "What? Were they ambushed while we were gone?"

"There- there are no signs of battle, my prince, and all the equipment needed for an attack was taken..."

And Zuko realized what was going on. "We were a distraction."

"You- you didn't know? Your Highness?"

Zuko looked down at his feet. "No. I- I-" What was he doing? He did know. Not at the time he led the attack, but after- wait, he had already realized this years ago. This wasn't happening now. This was another echo of the past. Zuko looked at the lieutenant speaking to him, and saw that the man wasn't wearing armor at all, but rather the green rags of the ashland refugees. There was no sharp Fire Nation beard on the man's chin, but rather gray, uneven stubble. Zuko looked around him; all the 'soldiers' here were refugees, men and woman dying a slow death in a cave in a mountain in an ashland. The sky and land around them might be that of Ba Sing Se, but the people were not the same as that day, years ago.

But where was Shugao?

With a sickening lurch of realization, Zuko knew exactly. No sooner did the truth blossom in his mind than the refugees were once again armored soldiers, and those who could were all running, answering the call to arms sounded by the horns of their commanders. As they fell into ranks, Zuko could see squad leaders waving directions at their subordinates, shouting, "Form up! Back to the wall!" and, "Double-time, march!" and, "Prince Zuko has ordered us to support his father's assault on the wall!"

It was happening again. When Zuko had discovered that his true mission was to be a distraction, he had taken a spyglass and rode with some scouts back to the wall, and sure enough, found another battle going on at the Outer Wall's northeastern side, behind the curve of the wall where Zuko wouldn't have been able to see it while he and the 41st conducted their own assault. He and the scouts had met a group of injured who were retreating, telling of mounting casualties and increased resistance, and Zuko knew that it was his fault, that he hadn't been able to hold position as he was ordered and split the attention of the wall's defenders. So he did the only thing he could do, in the face of his failure.

He had led his troops to reinforce his father.

Now, Zuko ran after the soldiers. He had to find Shugao, and if he had any sense of the way this farce was being conducted, the boy would be exactly where Zuko himself had been years ago, in the saddle of a komodo dragon at the head of the charge.

Somehow, Zuko was able to run faster than the soldiers- no, they were once again refugees, stumbling along on bleeding feet to rescue Father. He outpaced komodo rhinos that became bloated moo-sows, and the dusty landscape whirled around him, becoming ash and forest and mountains and finally mud. He arrived at the foot of the Outer Wall to find the battle fully joined, Fire Nation soldiers wearing the Phoenix badge of his father's personal command fighting alongside ash-streaked refugees against Earth Kingdom soldiers and laughing shadows. Death was all around him, but he had to find Father-

-no, Shugao-

-no, himself.

He arrived at the heart of the fighting, where Father and his squad of guards were clustered in a defensive formation, holding back the spears of the enemy, and Zuko saw a komodo rhino ride into the fray, driven by a little boy with Zuko's old face, dressed in rags with gold flame sigil pins on his collar. The boy was throwing fire from his fists at the enemy, no form or discipline in his attack, just pure desperation to save his father. The spearmen shifted against the surprise assault, and Zuko-

-Shugao-

-Zuko made himself look for Ozai, and instead found Shugao's father, the old shuffling man with loose skin and thin bones, standing in the midst of the Phoenix Guard. The man raised a fist and summoned a flame, and surely he was going to help his son, to strike at the Earth Kingdom soldiers that were their common enemy. It was a risky move, because aim could be off and shots could miss, but-

-but-

-Father's gaze was fixed on Zuko-

-Shugao-

-a fist was flung forward-

-the fire arced with a perfect, precise curve-

-no, the report said friendly fire from one of the Phoenix Guard-

-Grandfather said it was an accident, and so not serviceable punishment for a coward who disobeyed orders and fled from a battle-

-Azula said that Father wanted him back now-

-the fireball slammed into Shugao's face and knocked him right out of the rhino's saddle.

Zuko screamed and fell to his knees, and the battle froze around him. Not-Mai's laughter rang out over the newly quiet battlefield, and she sauntered into view with her funeral robes on full display, once more straightened and in place, perfectly white and glowing with cleanliness amidst the dusty and bloody warriors.

"Well," she said when she was finished chuckling. "That was informative! And here I thought you were going to run away, or at least close that eye of yours, but no, you took in the whole view and never thought about denying it. You've won a modicum of my respect, Prince Zuko." She came to a stop in front of Zuko and laid her muddy cloak over his shoulders, soiling him with the filth of the battlefield. Zuko didn’t move as she bent down and kissed his brow. Her hands stroked his face, and as Zuko closed his eye against the assault, she whispered, "Take solace in this face, and let me take your pain away."

Zuko rose and wrapped her in his arms, held her close against him, and willed the fire in his heart to come to life.

For the first time since he burned Song, the flame in his heart responded, and Not-Mai screamed as the fire ate at her illusion of flesh.

Her body convulsed and she let go of Zuko. He felt no need to continue holding her up, so he allowed her writhing to twist her out of his grip, and she dropped to the mud. Her funeral robes had burned away, but instead of Mai's pale flesh, scorched, wart-covered green skin was revealed. Zuko waited, holding the flames within.

“You-“ Not-Mai eventually looked up. " You could have- just said- you weren't in the mood."

Zuko took an attack stance, a Firebending position that would let him go on the offensive in an instant. "How do I get out of here? I saw your little show, and now I need to be on my way. Do I have to kill you to make the illusion end?"

Not-Mai barked a laugh, but it immediately made her cringe and twist with pain. "Ow. Don't make me giggle. If- if the way out really was to kill me, then do you really think I would tell you? You- you've come so- so far tonight. Don't ask- don't ask stupid questions. Hnnnng."

So be it. Zuko drew a fist back, ready to end this Spirit with one clean blow-

"Wait! Don't!"

Shugao ran up out of the forest of frozen soldiers and grabbed Zuko's arm.

Zuko pulled back in surprise. Was the boy real, then? He had started to think that Shugao was just part of the illusion- or was this another trick of the Spirits?

The boy looked up with the same face that Mother had so gently caressed when she was still alive. "The Spirit won't have any power over you when the sun comes up! Just leave it! Take me back to my home."

Zuko blinked, trying to shake the vision of his own face, to see what this boy really looked like. "Your father- I saw what he- what he did! I can't take you back!"

"Then why do you want to go back so badly?"

The flame within Zuko snuffed out in an instant, and a chill breeze licked at his fingers.

The cold spread from his heart all along his Qi-lines, racking his body with shivers. Why did he want to go back? He had seen the truth here, but- but how much of it was real? Zuko's memories had informed all the lies that had been built for his torture, but he didn't actually remember what happened in that battle. He had been fighting, and then he had been struck, and he knew no more until he awoke later. Perhaps it really had been an accident, perhaps Father hadn't even been the one responsible, and that old nightmare of the glimpse he got out of the corner of his eye was just childish fear that the Spirits had given form for their amusement. It might not be true at all. And yet it had felt true, a moment ago.

But Azula said that Father wanted him back.

That Father regretted the banishment that Grandfather had placed as a result of the accusation.

Either way, Zuko could not shrink away from his path. He had wasted the last few years of his life, and couldn't continue to live in fear and failure forever.

One way or another, Zuko would embrace his Father, and take his rightful place as a Prince of the Fire Nation.

The warmth of that thought flooded Zuko's body, and it was a simple matter to punch, exhale, and set Not-Mai on fire.

She burned as though made of wood, completely engulfed in an instant as she screamed and hissed and smoked. The flames spread to the ground around her- mud turned to dried leaves and dead branches- and soon a bonfire was roaring in front of Zuko. He backed away, knowing he had to assert control over the flames, but his heart was beating and the heat was boiling his blood and now the soldiers were all trees and the Outer Wall was the canopy of leaves above his head and the fire was spreading and the forest was burning and-

-Shugao screamed as he burned, too.

The world became flame, and Zuko succumbed to the heat.



He awoke in complete darkness, and before he could think about it, he raised a hand and summoned a flame to light the way.

Zuko was in the cave, the heart of the mountain in the heart of the ashland, and it was a place of death. No torches fouled the air, and no people gave dying life to the place. The remnants of a camp were strewn all over the place, but they were covered in dust and mold and hardened wolfbat droppings, well on their way to nothingness. Here and there were bones as well, and Zuko looked carefully to make sure there were no signs of burning on them. However long ago this camp had lived, its remnants were undisturbed.

He found Azula, June, and the shirshu at the center of what had been the camp, all of them huddled together in sleep. He awoke June first, since she would be needed to keep her animal companion calm, and when she looked up at Zuko, she said, "Forsaken ashland. Is it over?"

Zuko nodded in the light of his flame.

"Good." June then got up and began seeing to the shirshu, while Zuko went on to his sister. She was cringing in her sleep, her body was tense, and it was with great care that he woke her, calling her name and being sure not to touch her. Her eyes snapped open and her hands formed fists, but when she saw Zuko, she relaxed. Marginally.

Azula got her feet and dusted herself off before she spoke. "So. Was it truly caused by Spirits?"

Zuko nodded. "I don't know if I chased them off or destroyed them, but they seem to be gone now. We should get out of here while the sun is up. I think it will help protect us from whatever might still be here."

June cracked her whip. "Don't have to tell me twice, Prince Zuko. Let's saddle up!"



The ashland they found outside was without power. A rain must have fallen during the night, for when the shirshu bounded out of the cave, it was into a shining sun and onto a muddy terrain that was content to stay where it was and not attempt to ride the breeze. If the shirshu was having trouble with the slippery, gritty ground, it gave no sign, and made great time as it loped as fast as it could.

While they road, Azula turned to look at Zuko in the saddle and said, "I couldn't help but notice that you were Firebending back there. I assume that you resolved your problem while dealing with- well, whatever you were dealing with?"

Zuko took deep breath, focusing on the air's passage through his nostrils and down into the lungs where it became fuel for his Qi. He could feel the Qi within his body, the network of energy that stretched throughout his fibers and touched the edge of spirit. It was stronger now than it had been in years, thanks to his body's restoration over the last month, and the flame within answered his call and flared out along the paths of energy. Zuko exhaled a thin stream of smoke, and looked at his sister. "I'm once again who I should be."

"Excellent. Well, it's as Grandfather always says, that which doesn't kill you just makes you stronger. I suppose that goes for Spirits, as well."

Zuko thought back to his quest, and how Shugao-

No, how he himself had burned.

"I suppose it does."

And he would have to be strong, if he was going to defeat the Avatar.

TO BE CONTINUED
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