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Author Topic: Traitor's Face [AU Adventure, rated T]  (Read 34597 times)
Loopy
Never Gonna Give Yue Up

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I'm Loooooooopy!


« Reply #275 on: Jan 14, 2019 10:36 pm »

Suki didn't spend much time with Sabure while they waited for the 'Avatar Rendezvous.' She wanted to give the other girl a proper chance to betray her.

And, if she was going to die avenging her fallen rebels, she wanted a chance to enjoy her last two days on Kyoshi Island.

She'd used most of her money traveling back from the Fire Nation, and then the local guards had taken their 'cut.' Pickpocketing down in the business sector, where most people wore red, produced enough to pay for food for a few days, but that still put most of the nicer inns out of her price range. (Besides, those were for tourists.) Until she could find something more permanent - until she could tell if permanence was even a thing that would be happening to her - she made use of one of the copper-a-day hammock houses that serviced the sailors passing through. It lacked privacy, but so had lodging in the Unagi Gang's old headquarters. Privacy, for Suki, was an acquired taste.

Besides, the low cost meant she didn't have to find a job, so she was free to properly reacquaint herself with her home.

It was strange, how familiar everything was. She'd grown up here, barely even leaving the port settlement, learning every street and alley and building and plaza. She knew all the fishing boats in the harbor and who captained them. Which food stalls had fresh ingredients and which ones could work miracles with stale bread and which ones sold overpriced junk to Firebenders. The best taverns to beg some dinner. Where to scrounge up a piece of scrap-iron that could serve as a weapon in a pinch. She even had a favorite alleyway to take a piss in, when no more civilized options were available.

It was also strange how little she liked it all. She loved her home, loved Kyoshi Island. She just didn't like it.

It was the same relationship she had with Kirai.

The rest of the world, in contrast, had been so startlingly new. She'd started in a variety of Fire Nation prisons, which admittedly was a poor way of broadening her horizons, but then she'd thrown in with Zuko and got to travel the Earth Kingdom on Princess Azula's coin. She'd seen the haunted remnants of Ba Sing Se and been bowed to by ghosts made of ash. She'd slept in rebel refugee villages and been hosted in the sprawling mansions of Fire Nation nobles, once within a few days of each other.

And it wasn't just the places, either! She'd never before encountered the likes of Aang, or Sokka, or Mai. Azula was a thoroughly unpleasant meeting, but quite an education. Katara was a heartening discovery. Ty Lee was barely believable. And Zuko-

Zuko had taught her just how complicated other people could be, while still being so familiar that they didn't even need words to communicate on some topics. The most important topics.

And now Suki was back home, with the people she'd known all her life. It was all familiar. It was exactly what she'd wanted to come back to. And she was seeing it all again with new eyes, new context.

Before, Kyoshi Island had been her world.

Now, she saw how Kyoshi Island fit into the rest of a world too big to ever fully know.

It made her home smaller, yes. But 'smaller' wasn't bad.

It was just a choice.

Like so many other things.



The place Suki chose for the fake meetup had to be outside of town. No one would ever believe that the Avatar intended to just land in the middle of a Fire Nation colony.

Well, Sabure wouldn't, anyway.

It couldn't be the hidden dojo, because if Sabure was indeed a traitor, then she had nevertheless preserved the dojo up to this point and might still want to do so (and Suki wanted to, as well). The place needed to allow a small army to sneak up unnoticed, because even an Avatar wasn't sufficient bait if he'd be able to see you coming. And, of course, it couldn't be on the shoreline, because nobody, regardless of their expectations or loyalties, wanted the Unagi to crash the party.

But Suki was sentimental enough to want something that had more than random significance, so she picked the clearing that had once been Longshot's archery range.

She and Sabure, katana at their sides and faces painted like the Kyoshi Warriors of old, arrived three hours before the dawn meeting that wouldn't be taking place. A half-moon was shining down through the break in the leaves. Suki took a moment to look up at it.

Sabure glanced back at her. "Danger?"

Suki shook her head. "Nothing. I was just looking. In some of the old dialects, my name sounds like a word for the moon."

"Huh. I never knew that. Did you parents do it on purpose?"

Suki shrugged. "Everyone who could answer that is dead now. I never asked before my parents died. And if Kirai knew-" She shrugged again, and then started doing some reconnaissance of the area. The clearing was in the middle of the forest outside of the port settlement, far enough away that no one could stumble on it randomly. The trees were thick and tall; the upslope logging industry hadn't extended this far- yet.

And from what Suki could see, there was no Fire Nation army waiting.

Yet.

The stuffed dummy that Longshot used to shoot was missing. Suki recalled that he had brought it here himself when he wanted to practice, and now that he was gone it was probably lost. A bad mockup of a Fire Army soldier might molder away in some hidden basement and no one would ever know.

Suki saw Sabure start to do her own reconnaissance, checking the foliage around the edge of the clearing, and for a while the night was quiet.

The girls orbited each other as they patrolled.

The question was how long it would be before they collided.



Suki could smell the dawn approaching.

She was making another circuit of the clearing's perimeter, Sabure once again moving as her shadow on the opposite side. The clearing was longer than it was wide, and when the girls circled to the point where they were closest, Sabure said, "So what are we going to do when the Avatar gets here? You've been kind of vague about that."

Suki slowed her walk. "He can show people that there's hope. A reason to fight the Fire Nation. We can build something up that will eventually push the Fire Nation right out of here."

"Oh." Sabure came to a stop. "Kind of pointless, though, isn't it?"

Suki stopped as well. "What do you mean?"

Sabure turned to face her directly, and her visage was streaked with shadows that hid her more colorful facepaints. "Well, we only have one Avatar. So he's going to risk himself, showing himself here where it's so dangerous, just to save our island?" She rubbed a foot against the ground. "Why?"

"This is the land that Avatar Kyoshi herself created." Suki couldn't hear any movement out in the forest. Which didn't necessarily mean anything. She casually rested her right hand on the sheathed katana hanging from her waist. "Why not start here to free the Earth Kingdom?"

"I guess. I'm not a strategist or politician or anything, so maybe it makes sense to free us first." Sabure's posture stiffened and she stopped kicking at the grass. "But it's definitely stupid to start from scratch here. Especially when there's a magic truth-tasting Earth King with her own big rebellion up on the mainland. Don't you think?"

"Did all of these thoughts just occur to you, or were you maybe talking them over with friends when I wasn't looking?" Suki tightened her grip so that now she was holding the handle of the katana at an angle that would let her draw it and slice in a single motion. Too bad the traitor was so far away.

Sabure stomped a foot, and the grass tore as a rough-edged rock popped up to float in the air. "It's better if you don't fight."

"Yeah, you'd say that." Suki took a moment to put some spring in her legs, and then she dashed towards her oldest friend.

Sabure punched, and the rock flew straight at Suki. She twirled around it without stopping her run, not yet drawing her sword. She'd unsheathe it and strike down her oldest friend in a single motion-

No.

She didn't know for sure yet. She wouldn't draw the sword until she had proof-

And then footsteps were tromping in the grass from Suki's left and she dived out of the way of a log swinging at her head-

A line of metal glinted in the waning moonlight and Suki snagged her fans from her boots as she came up from her dive and flicked them open to strike. One slap of the fan changed the motion of the incoming weapon so that it would miss her completely, and the other smacked below the base of the metal where it encountered a fragile human hand and elicited a grunt of pain-

But then the air flashed like lightning and, the thunder followed with enough force to knock her off her feet.

How she held on to her fans, she had no idea. Nor could she say where in the name of Kyoshi's big boots lightning could come from in a cloudless sky. Ears ringing, and she started to get up-

An arrow struck the grass right in front her, quivering for a moment in implied threat. She looked up from it to see a figure with a longbow at the far end of the clearing. It wore a rice hat tied atop its head.

As her vision cleared from the lightning, she realized she was looking at Longshot. There was no mistaking that stance or the watchful silence.

He was alive.

Other figures stepped into her vision: a hulking body of rectangular shape with what seemed like a whole tree trunk in its hands, a little form that could have been a child with clay globes strapped to sashes crossed over its chest, and a hunched shape with a short sword in each hand.

And Sabure, more rocks hovering at her sides.

No soldiers?

And Longshot-

Suki blinked back tears. "So you both betrayed us to the Fire Nation, huh? Well, you're not getting the Avatar tonight. And I'm not going to make the mistake of being taken alive again."

The figures traded glances.

Suki took the opportunity to lower her arms and tighten her legs in preparation for another dash. If the little guy's globes were explosives as she suspected, she was better off going for him first, and then using him as cover against Longshot, so that she could-

"I think there's been a misunderstanding," Longshot said as he lowered his bow.

Suki blinked. "What?"

Sabure stepped forward. "Weren't you selling us out to the Fire Nation? A trap for the last rebels?"

Suki blinked again. "No, you sold out everyone else and now you're setting a trap for Aang."

"I didn't sell anyone out! You admitted you were a triple-agent!"

"I was! But don't be an idiot!" Suki snapped her fans shut. "There's no way the little bit I told them was used to get everyone!"

"Well I didn't betray anyone!" Sabure stomped a foot, and the rocks floating around her all crumbled to dirt and fell to the ground. "So either you gave them more than you're saying now, or they just figured the rest out themselves!"

"Exactly!" Suki realized what she had just said. "So, wait, no one told the Fire Nation about tonight? We're just fighting each other over a lie?"

Sabure groaned. "And I set up this great ambush! Me! I even brought Longshot out of hiding!"

"Yeah, about that: you told me he died!" Suki took the risk of walking closer to her ambushers. "I cried over it!"

No one attacked her, but Sabure's hands formed into fists. "Well, I cried over you when you disappeared and again when I thought maybe they tortured you to death for information and again again two days ago when you showed up alive and I didn't know if I could trust you!" Sabure stopped and rubbed at her eyes. "Yes, I lied to keep one of my rebels safe."

"Oh." Suki stepped over to her friend and put her arms around her. How could she have misjudged things this badly? "Well, that was a good idea. And this is a great ambush."

Sabure took a deep breath and nodded. "Thanks."

The big figure with the log in its hands finally spoke, raising a voice so deep and resonant that the forest seemed to vibrate with it, "So we're not fighting anymore?"

Sabure shook her head. "No. Turns out we're all friends. (Thank Kyoshi.) In that spirit, let me introduce everyone: this is Suki, former leader of the Kyoshi rebellion and ally to the Avatar. Suki, you know Longshot, the big guy is code-named Pipsqueak, the little guy says to call him The Duke, and the <I>cutie whose fingers you almost broke is Sneers.

"These are my Freedom Fighters."



The forest changed as the daylight brought it to life. What was once cold and covered in shadow was revealed as lush green life.

Suki sat on the grass with the others and listened with rapt attention.

"They came down last season." Sabure motioned at her little rebel group, but her eyes never left Suki. "I'd heard about the Avatar meeting the Earth King girl even before you told me. I just didn't know you were there. The King put out word that there was a rebellion down here that needed help-"

"The actual words," The Duke interrupted, "were, 'I want them to swear life and allegiance to me as their King, and in exchange I will lift them from their sad little Toph-less existence.' She talks like that."

"Thanks, The Duke. Anyway, these guys were kind of kicking around as their own sabotage and acquisitions unit, and decided that they could help us here."

Pipsqueak grinned, an expression that took over his whole massive face. "And we were right!"

Sabure's lip quirked. "You were. Eventually." She turned back to Suki. "You can imagine how much they stood out, but they immediately went to work against the Fire Nation as best they could, and when I decided that they were the real thing, I made contact."

Suki nodded. Sabure had made an act of trust and been rewarded. "And with your knowledge, they became much more effective."

"And I'm an Earthbender. Don't forget how useful and amazing that is."

Suki turned to Longshot. "Of course you're still the best shot on the entire island."

He shrugged. "But not a leader. Sabure has the blood of Kyoshi Warriors in her."

So did Suki, but it didn't need to be spoken. She was wearing the facepaint, and she didn't miss how everyone's eyes went to it after Longshot's statement. Instead, she said, "And my arrival looked just like the Fire Nation trying to find and draw you out."

Sabure snorted. "Especially with this obvious ambush. I bet the Avatar isn't anywhere close to Kyoshi Island right now."

"No, he isn't." Suki frowned. She wondered if Aang and the others had reached the North Pole already, or if they were still trying to find a good approach. Zuko, though, must be in the Earth Kingdom with Toph by now- "We're on our own."

Pipsqueak laughed. "That's more than enough! We've already got something in the works. Right, The Duke?"

The kid pulled the Fire Army helmet he wore down to cover his blush. "It's just a new way to hide small explosives. No big deal."

Sabure leaned over and rubbed his helmet. "But not one we would have thought of. It's pretty smart."

Suki leaned forward. "Tell me more."

They did.

And then she got an intriguing idea.


Logged

Loopy
Never Gonna Give Yue Up

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« Reply #276 on: Jan 14, 2019 10:37 pm »

A day later, Suki was knocking on the door of the guard station where she'd been jailed immediately after her arrival on the island, this time wearing dusty green.

The fishing ships had already gone out, but the morning was young enough that quite a few people were out and about. Nevertheless, not a single person paid visible attention to Suki or the building. That was how survival worked on Kyoshi Island.

The same Corporal Akechi who had overseen her harassment finally answered the door with a frown. It quickly turned into a full scowl. "What do you want?"

"Gold." Suki gave him her most brilliant smile, and she didn't need to fake even a little of her pleasure. "More than you can authorize to give me. Also, I'll need a fresh set of unrestricted travel permits. Contact your superiors and tell them that I can provide the full details of a rebel plot to destroy the Navy base."

Akechi blinked, and then grabbed her left arm to drag her into the station. Seconds later, the jail cell bars were once again locking shut in front of her.

Suki rolled her eyes. They hadn't even bothered to search her, this time. "I would have waited for the gold. You don't need to keep me in here."

"I'm not giving you anything!" Akechi grabbed the bars of her cell and rattled them in what was probably supposed to be a show of intimidation. None of the other guards behind him seemed to be impressed. "There's no rebellion here anymore, and no one trusts you."

Suki sat down on the cell's bench. "Wrong for both. I lived here most of my life. I've made contacts with old friends who are still rebels. They've been hiding from you, but they love me, and they also seem to love stockpiling improvised explosives."

Akechi actually stepped back. "Explosives?"

Suki grinned. "You've been having problems with mysterious explosives, haven't you? Well, that's just been playtime, from what I've been told."

Akechi was silent for a long moment. "I can beat the information out of you."

Suki raised her eyebrows. "Because beaten prisoners are such reliable sources of information? Ask your superiors what you should do- but for gold and travel permits, I'll tell you everything. I'll even wait in this cell until you recover and confirm the explosives. Fair?"

"I-" Akechi frowned. "Why travel permits?"

Suki snorted. "Like I'm going to survive three hours on this island after turning on all my old friends. And they've had help from off the island, so the permits need to be general-use, not anything that specifies my name. My sister taught me how this goes: get a good price, get a way out, and burn it all down behind you."



Suki forgot to arrange for lunch. The Fire soldiers didn't offer one. But, really, it was for the better. She doubted she'd be able to keep anything down.

She made a show of trying to sleep on the cell's bench, but it was all she could do not to jump up and wear her boots out with pacing. Her body was in combat-mode, primed for action and hyper-aware, despite the lack of obvious threat. She was in no more danger than she was during her first stay here, but back then her biggest concern was the Kyoshi Warrior fan she'd been smuggling; her own safety had been secondary.

It was almost time for dinner when Corporal Akechi returned with a pair of his regular guards and a new man, posture stooped, in scratched armor of the Fire Navy.

The stooped man was holding two halves of something like a brick of candied strawberry jelly with a kind of white clay in the center-

Suki recognized its exact nature just before he tossed it to land on the floor right in front of the cell's bars. She jumped to her feet and half-climbed up on the bench before she realized that nothing was exploding. "<I>What was that?!"

The man smiled sheepishly. "Sorry. It won't go off just by being thrown."

"But it's illustrative that you reacted as you did," Corporal Akechi said.

Suki stepped down from the bench. "I'm glad I could be of service, even unconsciously." She bowed, just to make sure no sarcasm had leaked its way into her words.

Corporal Akechi snorted and moved to unlock the jail. "The explosives were found at the sites you mentioned. We detonated the contents of one of these bricks to confirm their nature. And the result matched your own expectations. It seems you gave us nothing but the truth." He swung the barred door open and stepped aside.

Suki emerged from her captivity. "Thank you. And the deal I offered?"

Akechi motioned, and one of his guards brought a small box forward. He took it, and then handed it to Suki.

It was pleasantly heavy, but when she opened it and slid the travel permits out, she found that it was filled with silverish coins. Not even pure silver, never mind the gold she had specified. "What is this?"

"A fair price." Akechi looked over at the stooped man. "Yong, the demonstration is over. Take the last explosive and sink it with the others."

"Sink it?" Suki probably shouldn't have let herself be distracted, but she had to know.

The stooped man - Yong, apparently - nodded as he picked up the halves of the brick he had thrown. "It's the safest method of storage. Underwater, nothing will ignite the material."

"And your friends won't be able to get to it, not before we decide how to turn it against them," Akechi sneered as Yong left. "Not unless they can swim into the bay enclosed by the Navy base and swim back out with all the weight."

Suki had to suppress a smile. "They're not my friends. And neither are you, if you're trying to short me. Where's my gold?"

"You didn't earn it."

"You said the explosives are real!"

Akechi waved a dismissive hand. "And you did your duty as an agent of the Fire Nation and protected denizen of its colonies. Considering how few names you could give us, you're lucky we're paying you anything besides the permits. I should arrest you for contact with murderous rebels, but I'll be content if you leave and never come back."

"Arrest me?!" That might have been too much. Suki took a moment to put on a calm face and inclined her head. "My apologies. What I mean to say is that while I am disappointed, I am of course grateful for the chance to serve the Fire Nation."

Akechi didn't believe it, she could see. But he didn't want to, so nodded his acceptance. "Good. Now get out. If I see you on this island again starting tomorrow, I'll throw you in that cell one last time. Do you understand?"

Suki slid the lid of her reward box closed. "Perfectly."



And so she left her home behind.

After she grabbed one last bowl of noodles to sustain her, the permits did their first job by getting her out of town. She passed through the checkpoint at one of the main gates and onto road that would take her either up the mountains or to one of the smaller coastal settlements. She headed to one particular little beachside town, hurrying as fast as she could manage over the distance, and she still arrived well after dark.

Fortunately, there was stew, a bed, and friends waiting for her.

She spent the night on an old futon in a boat house, and woke up before dawn to say her goodbyes.

Sabure and Longshot walked out on the dock with her, while Sabure's father prepared his small fishing boat. Longshot was quiet, of course, but Sabure groaned and said, "I can't believe we finally trust each other and now you're leaving!"

Suki hugged her. "It's not forever. I have faith that the Avatar will someday save us from the Fire Nation and free our home. Then I'll be able to come back."

Sabure returned the hug but also gave a snort. "Sure, if that Fire Prince doesn't whisk you away to some island retreat to spend the rest of your life lounging on a beach."

"Well you can come visit me on my Royal Fire Private Island anytime you want." Suki stuck out her tongue at her friend, and then put on a more polite expression as she turned to Longshot. "Keep her in line, will you? The blood of the Kyoshi Warriors may carry bravery and honor, but it hasn't stopped her from being silly."

Longshot smiled and nodded. They clasped hands.

And then it was time to leave.

She was halfway to the boat when Sabure called out, "Wait!"

Suki turned around. "What?"

Sabure trotted up, and took two gold objects out of her belt. "Here. You'll need these more than we will. Show the world what the bravery and honor of Kyoshi Island looks like." She pressed the objects into Suki's hands-

Her war fans.

Suki couldn't refuse such a gift, even if she wanted to. She took the fans, snapped them open to cross them over her heart, and bowed. "Thank you."



They had to swing around the island back towards the main port settlement in order to get to the Earth Kingdom mainland. Suki kept out of sight, down in the foul-smelling hold where the day's haul of fish would normally go, but they were still in Kyoshi Island waters when Sabure's father called her out on deck.

Suki emerged and shielded her eyes from the sunlight. "What is it? Trouble?"

"Not for us." Sabure's father pointed from his position at the ship's rudder.

Suki followed his finger back towards the island-

-where the Unagi was attacking the Fire Navy base with a mix of its massive jaws and the high-pressure steams of water it could spit.

Suki laughed. She hadn't expected it to happen this early, but-

She could picture how, last evening, the soldiers of the Fire Nation would have brought all the explosives into the walls of their base. The bricks would be glistening in the light of the setting sun, the looking less like strawberry jelly and more like blood. But the soldiers wouldn't realize how telltale that color was, wouldn't realize that the coating around the explosive center was really a mixture of animal blood from the slaughterhouse district. They'd bring the bricks over to the bay where their ships were docked, to an empty pier, and have a crane lower the explosives down in the water, just as Yong and Akechi had said. And as night fell, none of those soldiers would have noticed the blood-coating starting to dissolve in the water.

-apparently the Unagi was quick to detect the signs of a good meal.

Once again, the Kyoshi Rebellion had managed to draw out the ancient monster that Avatar Kyoshi herself had possibly put in the island's waters, and inflict it on their Fire Nation oppressors. This time, they had done it without an Avatar's help.

Suki watched and enjoyed the sight as Sabure's father steered the ship out into the open seas and the sail flapped in the wind.

Towards the Earth Kingdom, and the bigger war that would soon be fought there. To the Earth King.

And to Zuko.

Suki raised her golden fans, catching the light of the sun, and signaled her goodbye to her home. This time, on her own terms.

And with trust.

TO BE CONTINUED
Logged

Loopy
Never Gonna Give Yue Up

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I'm Loooooooopy!


« Reply #277 on: Feb 04, 2019 10:45 pm »

The Laboratory

The snowstorm's winds howled like the cries of the hungry dead. The tundra was devoid of mortal life, at least as far as Sokka could see, which left him and his friends as the only things a horrible monster might be interested in eating.

"I," Sokka spat past the driving snowflakes, "have a bad feeling about this."

Aang jumped up from somewhere near the back of the group, looking so odd in his regular monk-wear while everyone else was in parkas. "If the wind is a problem, I can use my Airbending to calm it down a little!"

"Better not." Hahn looked back at them from the front of the line, pulling his scarf down to uncover his mouth. "If anyone's watching, we don't want to clue them in to our position with snowflakes that aren't going the right way. Besides, our Great Hunter of the South isn't scared of a little wind, right?"

Sokka rolled his eyes. "Obviously not. But I've had multiple supernatural traumatic experiences with snowstorms at this point. A cautious attitude is probably pretty smart, don't you think?" No one said anything more, but Appa grunted, so Sokka took that as a sign of general agreement and appreciation for his hard-earned wisdom.

They had been walking for a while now, Hahn leading Sokka, Aang, Mai, Katara, and Ty Lee across the snow, with Appa bring up the rear. (And Momo hiding from the weather in Appa's saddle beneath a blanket and the last of the dried fruit, the ungrateful moocher.) This was their grand plan for sneaking up on Fire Lord Iroh. According to Hahn, the Northern Water Tribe's main city was situated where the ocean met the ice, and it was possible to come in the back way by crossing the stormy tundra between the city and the North Pole itself, and then climbing down into some spiritual 'garden' (the word no doubt being a metaphor) with a literal backdoor.

But flying was out of the question, according to Aang. Appa didn't do so well in bad visibility and high winds, and they had no idea who might be listening for a crash. And why was this route stormy? Well, according to their expert, that's the way it had always been. The North Pole itself was smack dab in the middle of an actual climate-inappropriate 'Spirit Forest' (that is to say a forest of spiritual origin, not a forest of spirits, and Sokka had gotten confirmation that point twice) and covered by constant snowstorms. Sokka had noted the similarities to the South Pole's Everstorm, while also remembering how Aang's Avatar State had almost caused it to bury everyone back at the start of their epic life-endangering adventure.

Hopefully, they'd find the Northern Water Tribe before they got buried. And it would have to go a lot better than their snowy adventure at the village of the Faceless Tribe, right?

Sure.

He was, to say the least, a bit pessimistic about this plan.

At least the journey through the Northern Seas hadn't been bad. Once the Faceless Tribe had more or less recovered from the damage done by the Unhcegila, they put together a crew to sail up to the North Pole. It turned out to be a bit more complicated a path than just 'north a bit,' having to look for specific landmarks that Hahn remembered to guide them, and also dodging around the areas that were supposedly watched by Waterbender patrols. Then there were the new Fire Navy patrols that Hahn hadn't known about; that had made for a few interesting moments.

It had reminded Sokka a bit of the sneaky way they'd had to sail to Crescent Island to rescue Katara. Except this time Jet wasn't around to mess with anyone. Hahn was a bit of jerk, but Katara said he wasn't even the worse pig-headed warrior from the North Pole she'd met, so that was probably okay.

Hopefully Mai wouldn't be betraying them at their destination this time.

(Sokka had managed to refrain from making that joke out loud. He did have some tact.)

The regular sounds of the group trudging through the snow was suddenly being broken up by a pair of boots taking on a faster pace. Sokka turned around to find Ty Lee trotting up to the front of the line.

Her muffled voice forced its way through her scarf with an, "Um, are we there yet?"

Sokka frowned. "We took a bathroom break barely an hour ago!"

"No, it's not that." Ty Lee had always seemed a bit stifled by the heavy Water Tribe parka she'd been wearing since they all came north, but she was practically wilting now. "It's- I- uh, you know how I can see auras?"

Hahn said, "You do what now?"

Sokka wasn't sure he believed this aura business; he thought it more likely that Ty Lee combined a high sensitivity to human mannerisms with some form of synesthesia. But Ty Lee was gorgeous, so he put aside his profound distaste for anything unscientific in nature just barely long enough to say, "What about our auras?"

"No, it's not us." Ty Lee pulled her scarf down and looked past him, to the mess of moving white that was the snowstorm around them. "I never encountered anything like this, but- but I think this whole place has an aura."

"Wow," Aang breathed.

"Oh here we go," Mai mumbled. Katara bumped an elbow into her side.

Hahn snorted. "Is that good or bad?"

"I don't know." Ty Lee hugged herself. "What's worrying me is that all I'm seeing is gray. An ugly filthy gray sheen like I'm wearing filthy goggles."

Sokka looked around at the gray snowstorm beneath the gray sky. "You don't say."

Ty Lee stepped towards him. "I do! And you know what that means."

Katara pulled her hood back a little despite the flying snow. "I think I remember. You said- that's right, a dirty gray is blocked energy."

Ty Lee broke out into a huge grin. "That's right! You've really been listening."

Katara's cheeks went rosy. "I try."

A thought occurred to Sokka: his sister's blush might not have anything to do with the frigid winds. She had been talking to Ty Lee about auras, huh? She did seem to be spending a lot of time with Ty Lee, lately. Even more than Mai did. And even worse, it looked like Katara even believed it.

Sokka suddenly realized that it didn't matter how cute he thought Ty Lee was. In a way, it was kind of a relief. "So how does an area have blocked energy? Aang, are you getting any kind of bad Avatar tingling or something?"

Aang shrugged. "I'm cold, but I don't think that counts. I've never really seen energy coming from places like Ty Lee is saying. Usually the spiritual energy of a place is visible in its natural appearance, or you can feel peace or pressure. The closest thing to blocked energy I've encountered was the Capital Caldera; there was a Spirit Gate that kept the volcano dormant."

Until Aang had undone it under Roku's guidance. Then the volcano had exploded and taken the entire Fire Nation Capital with it.

Great.

Ty Lee shivered. "I just know that it's really freaking me out, so I thought everyone should know. And are we almost there yet?"

Hahn turned pointed ahead on their path. "Actually, I think so. I see the start of the Valley of the Spirit Forest, so we can swing south just a little further up and head straight for the back of the city. But something looks weird."

Oh, great. Weirdness. This in top of whatever Ty Lee's problem was, and the concept of a 'Spirit Forest' of green healthy trees that surrounded the actual North Pole despite this being an inhospitable storm-ridden tundra.

Sokka sighed. "What do you see?"

"A line of lights. It's leading- you see where the valley starts? The dip between those two mountains that kind of forms a path?"

"Nope, I don't see any paths." Sokka shielded his eyes with his gloved hands and squinted through the whipping windy snow. It did indeed look like a series of little glowing things was stretching across the horizon. A telegraph line, lit up with crystal lanterns like the ones at the South Pole. "The two closest mountains seem to start to have a dip, but the lights lead to another big outcropping that seems to be- kind of squarish?"

Aang said, "Earthbending?"

Ty Lee said, "Tanks?"

Katara said, "An ancient Lionturtle from ages beyond memory?"

"Oh, for First Flame's sake, it's another Fire Nation base," Mai groaned. "Seriously, people. What else would a telegraph wire lead to?"

"Ohhhhh." Aang nodded. "That would make a lot more sense. Good job, Mai!"

Ty Lee ran over to hug her friend. "Yeah, you're really smart! And now we're going to run away because everything is gray and people get hurt in high-security complexes of doom, right?"

Katara's face twitched beneath her hood. "Ugh, I can't believe I used to look forward to infiltrating a Fire Nation base. After nearly dying in that stupid sinkhole, I've learned my lesson." She blinked. "Oh, no, I'm old and jaded like Sokka now!"

For his own part, Sokka could only nod his approval. "Well, my very intelligent sister is right. But if we keep following Hahn's route, we'll be on the shortest path between that base and the Northern Water Tribe. Any traffic between them will trip right over us, probably literally with the way this snow if coming down. So- we should- ugh- we should- I don't even want to say it."

"Wait," Hahn interrupted, "you want to check out the base? Why?"

Mai pulled her hood down tighter around her head. "To find out if it's any danger to us. To see if there are roads for tanks or trucks that we should avoid. Maybe even check out if there's a cargo transport we can hide on and get past whatever security you don't know about at the city's rear. And for all we know Iroh is hiding in this installation instead of doing the regular Conquering Invader Thing and taking over the local throne room."

Sokka waved at her, which she probably missed with her hood covering her eyes. "What the gloomy girl said."

Aang hopped up to try to get a better look. "And I'm worried that there's a Fire Nation installation right on the path that leads to the Spirit Forest. Especially after what Ty lee said. We can't risk another Ba Sing Se."

Sokka nodded; he was glad to have missed that one, and didn't feel the need to make up for lost monsters. Katara, Ty Lee, and Mai - who all had actually fought the city-sized abomination made of the ashes of entire civilization - nodded more vigorously.

Hahn bowed his head in acquiescence. "Then I will guide you, Avatar Oong."

"Um, it's Aang, but thanks."

The group continued on their path, and Sokka was glad now that they had chosen to walk. They might have missed this, otherwise, or more likely been caught by whatever spotters were in the base. The storming didn't abate at all, but eventually they got close enough for Sokka to take a better look with a spyglass.

"Okay," he told the others, "I can make out some more details. It definitely looks a lot like the Navy base we had at the South Pole, complete with telegraph lines and pointlessly patriotic flame sigils. I bet it's using all of the same heating and insulation technology. But-" Something looked off to him, and a second later he realized what it was. "There's no fencing around this place. I see some poles standing in the snow where they'd normally wrap and secure the fences, but there's nothing blocking us from just walking straight up to the buildings."

"Oh," Aang said, "that's a nice change of pace."

Mai snorted. "Yeah, they're making it nice and easy to walk into a trap."

"You think this is a trap?"

"I think everything is a trap."

Sokka had to shake his head, though, as he lowered the spyglass. "If it's a trap, they're not putting much effort into the bait. We just want a good look at this place so we can tell if it's a threat. But that should only take one of us. I'll go."

Aang reached over and put an arm around Sokka's shoulders. "We'll go. I can fly us out if it gets dangerous."

Katara raised a hand. "I vote with Aang to save my brother from himself!"

Ty Lee did the same. "What she said!"

Mai shrugged. "I don't care, but I'll back my friends."

Appa grunted and shook snow off his face.

That was stupid of them. But Sokka was still a little bit grateful. He hated weird stuff, and this was turning out weirder than expected so far.  "We're wasting time, so I guess vote with Aang. He wins. We'll take a flare, and the rest of you can watch us with the spyglass. If we light it, come and save us, as heroically as you like."



Aang found it very hard not to fly or air-scooter or wind-dash over to the mysterious base. He wanted to get to the Northern Water Tribe, now that they were so close. It had taken all his willpower - and some glaring from Mai - to not just fly Appa straight to Iroh and save the world and restore balance and defeat all evil forever. Or at least stop one bad man.

But even aside from the practical concerns that Sokka and Mai were so good at thinking about, something about this new discovery gave Aang a bad taste on his tongue. He could feel the flow of energies this close to the North Pole, just like he could feel the winds.

In fact, it was exactly like feeling the winds. The winds and the energies were one. This was no ordinary storm.

So he kept pace with Sokka and approached this oddly-placed Fire Nation facility.

The first detail that Aang noticed, as they got close, was that the buildings all had writing on them.

It wasn't a lot of writing. It was just a single character - 'shield' - carved on each a wall. Most of the buildings just had one, sometimes half-covered by the piled snowdrifts, but some of the larger structures had several marked walls. And in every case the 'shield' character was inscribed with some kind of silvery metal.

Aang didn't know how he knew, but he was pretty sure it was platinum.

He didn't see any guards or patrols. Some of the buildings had window-like patches covered with shutters, but they were all closed. There wasn't even anything like a gatehouse. Not that there was a gate. Just those thick poles outlining some kind of perimeter. He tried to spot some sign of the Spirit Forest, but it must have been on the other side of the complex.

Sokka stopped and whispered, "So, what do you think?"

"I don't remember the buildings at the South Pole having any writing on them. And you guys were mining platinum down there, so it's not like you were short on it."

Sokka frowned. "Why write 'shield' on buildings? If I wrote 'optimist' on my forehead, it wouldn't drain my brains out all of the sudden."

Aang had his own opinions on that matter, but didn't feel the need to get into it here. "Right. It's odd. So since we just have more weird and no answers, we need to keep investigating."

"Unfortunately. I'll go first, okay?" He straightened against the wind and led the way closer to the base.

Aang followed.

They got to the widely-spaced poles that marked the perimeter. Sokka paused just short of the invisible line. He looked to Aang.

Aang readied his glider.

Sokka nodded, faced forward again, took a step, and braced himself.

Aang tensed.

Nothing happened.

Sokka blinked and took another step. Nothing continued to happen.

Aang smiled. "Heh, no reason to be scared." He moved to catch up to Sokka-

-and a sound like a gong the size of a mountain echoed over the howl of the storm, sending tingles through Aang's teeth and bones. Rather than fading, it rose in volume, becoming a ragged noise almost like a human scream, and Aang had to cover his ears against it.

And then, abruptly, it stopped.

Only Aang's lifelong training in Airbending allowed him to hear the subsequent click that was carried along on the wind. He turned in time to see the fence-less poles fall apart- no, panels were dropping and tubes were falling out to hang like spokes around a wheel and they began spinning-

Aang hissed as little blossoms of sharp pain exploded in a line across his chest. They felt like stings of a scorpion-bee, and he looked down to see something like burs, little seed pods covered in flexible hooked feelers, caught in his shirt. He moved and his chest stung again and he realized that they were caught on more than just his clothes.

And burs were from plants, just another way that nature protected itself and spread out. These had been shot from the poles, and something about the color seemed to shift and evade being pinned down as any one shade.

He barely had enough time to wonder what they were when his breath became like a roar and his blood surged through his veins. Everything became more - Sokka's cries of, "Aang? Aang?!" were cracks of thunder - and even the dim sunlight that managed to fight its way through the storm made his eyes water.

Then Aang realized that some of the light was coming from him.

He was glowing.

A moment later, the world went away.
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Loopy
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« Reply #278 on: Feb 04, 2019 10:47 pm »



Sokka forgot all about the evil sharp sticky things poking him through his coat when Aang started glowing and collapsed.

Well, at least if the kid was glowing, he wasn't dead, right?

Right?

Sokka had to light the flare and get the others and-

Wait. Mai had been correct. This was a trap. And he might not be a real Water Tribe hunter, but he knew the basic principles. Traps meant hunters, and before the sharp part started, there had been a loud noise. Too loud to be a design quirk. Which meant the noise was a signal and the hunters were listening.

Which meant Sokka didn't have long to come up with a plan.

He pulled the flare out of his parka's pocket, twisted the end off with a scrape of the spark-coating, and stuffed it into a snowdrift as lit up with a dancing red glow. Then began digging, ignoring the burs that were still sticking him through his coat; unless they were poison, they weren't important right now, and if they were poison, then it was too late anyway.

He got himself and Aang buried together in the snow just in time.

The first sign of the hunters were their voices, but between the snow covering him and the continued sound of the storm, he couldn't make out any specifics until they were practically on top of him. They both sounded like men, and despite their proximity, he couldn't even catch all the words:

"... footprints ... flare."

"Spirits don't ..."

"Maybe ... spy?"

"... alarm ... wouldn't ... people."

"Whatever they ... must ... here."

Uh oh, that last part sounded distinctly like the kind of thing which preceded figuring out where to find the stupid people who had just tripped an alarm. Sokka tried to reach for his boomerang, but with Aang's body jammed against him and the light layer of snow above them both, it was hard to get it without moving and giving away their position-

And then, through the snow and the storm, he heard the roar of a skybison.

Sokka smiled.

There was a thud of a landing, the surprised cries of the hunter, the liquidy noise of snow turning to water and deciding to throw itself at people, the crunching of boots in the snow, and then a series of impacts that ended with two bodies falling to the snow.

Sokka stood up and shook off his hiding place, dragging Aang's still comatose and glowing body up with him. The snow fell off his hood just in time to see Mai rushing over to grab Aang from him.

She slapped Aang's cheeks, and scowled when there was no response. "What happened? We heard that noise but couldn't make anything out."

Sokka brushed the remaining snow off his parka. "Let's find out." He went over to where Katara and Ty Lee were standing over a pair of armored Firebenders (in capes?), and extricated one of the weird color-changing burs from the front of his jacket. The Firebenders were laying in the snow with the distinct boneless look of people whose limbs were no longer obeying commands. "What's going on? What are these things and what did they do to my friend?"

The one of the left said, "What did the witch do to us?! I can't move my legs! Or my arms! Or my-"

"Nothing that won't wear off in an hour if you answer our questions." Sokka slid the guy's faceplate off, revealing a terrified visage with a very unstylish pointed goatee- and a silvery circlet across his forehead?

Sokka ignored it and dangled the bur over the man's nose. "Tell me about this thing and why my friend won't wake up!"

The man blinked. "You're Water Tribe. You- those don't do anything to people. They're just sharp. It's something the Maker came up with to deal with- we were having a problem with the spirits from the forest-"

Sokka sucked in some unpleasantly frigid air as understanding dawned. "You built a trap for spirits. The sound went off when Aang crossed the poles, and then these things shot out, but they only affected him!"

The other Firebender, still masked, said, "Aang? The Avatar?! We caught the Avatar?!"

Before Sokka could say something sarcastic and more than a little witty, Mai was pushing him aside and ripping away the other Firebender's mask. She brandished one of her blades with the impractical number of points, pointing it right at the man's face. "You didn't catch anything. How do I fix my friend? Tell me!"

"I don't know!" The color was draining from the Firebender's face. "They're supposed to do something to make the spirits disappear! I don't know how they work! Only the Maker does!"

Sokka pushed Mai back out of the way. He didn't know if she was just putting on a Mean Guard act, and didn't want to risk losing their only source of information. "Maybe you better tell us what's going on here. Quickly."



Aang knew exactly where he was without actually having any idea where he really was.

A minute ago, he had been at the North Pole, but now there wasn't a single snowflake around. Instead, the purple sky was completely clear, except for the trails of light that wheeled through it like playful birds, and twisted trees with spindly little branches reached up into the emptiness as far as the eye could see.

Obviously, he was in the Spirit World. Somehow.

Too bad he didn't have a map of the Spirit World.

Or any idea how to get back to the material world.

But at least he knew where to go for help. "Roku? Roku, can you hear me?"

"Aang?"

The voice seemed to come from nowhere. Aang looked around, but he was alone in this forest.

But all was not still. The trees were gnarled reaching things that might have started as networks of vines that had curled together and solidified. Their twists created plenty of shadows that seemed to move as his gaze passed over them, shadows that had a shape and texture, and his eyes settled on one particular shade that seemed taller and more regal than the rest.

Then the shadow stepped away from its tree, and the shadow was now Roku. He smiled and bowed his crowned head. "Hello, Aang. You've gotten yourself into a bit of trouble."

Aang could only laugh. "Yeah, I do that a lot. Do you know how I get back?"

Roku came forward with regal steps and laid his hands on top of Aang's head. "Something is wrong. The path is closed to you."

"What?" Aang blinked, and looked up at his bearded previous incarnation. "You mean I'm stuck here?"

Roku nodded. "I'm afraid so. You've found something very dangerous, and not just for you, but for the entire world."



Sokka had the distinct impression that the Firebenders weren't telling him everything, or at least not being truthful about it all, but there just wasn't enough time to do a proper interrogation. Besides, they were pretty far from the closest shark-infested waters.

"The main thing I got from them," he told the others, gathered in Appa's saddle, "is that this 'Lian the Maker' is the big brains here, so she's the one we need to fix Aang."

They had left the Firebenders in the snow, under Appa's guard, and assembled here for a quick conversation. They still didn't dare risk flying, especially not this close to a Fire Nation base.

Mai, for her part, said nothing from her position hunched over at the rear of the saddle, and her face wasn't giving anything away, either. But she was twirling a knife as fast as her gloved hands could.

Katara was running some luminescent healing-water over Aang's body. It looked to Sokka like the kid's glowing tattoos seemed to get a little brighter as the water passed over them, but maybe it was just his imagination. Katara sighed, leaned back, and threw the water over the side of the saddle. "He seems healthy, but he won't wake up, and it feels like- like there's something knotted in him. It's almost like-" Her eyes flicked over to Ty Lee. "It's like when you hit someone's pressure points. It feels as if his Qi is blocked, somehow, but not in any specific point- I don't know, that's the best I can put it into words."

Ty Lee reached over and put an arm around Katara's shoulders. "It's okay. You're doing your best."

Good information, if not immediately useful, but Sokka was more concerned about something else. "So maybe I should take Ty Lee with me on my infiltration."

Everyone turned to look at him.

It was Hahn who said, "Wait, did I miss something? Why are you-"

"He's worked in places like this," Mai interrupted, "and someone needs to find this Lian so that we can help Aang." She looked to Sokka, and gave him a nod. "Katara can stay here to keep an eye on him, and I'll protect them. You and Ty Lee can go in and see about this Lian. And Hahn is an idiot who can't keep our names straight but he's still a valuable source on the Northern Water Tribe so he can stay with us."

Hahn frowned at her. "Excuse me, My, but I consider that very hurtful."

"Yeah, whatever."

Sokka turned to Ty Lee. "You good?"

She took a breath, squeezed Katara's shoulders once more, and nodded. "My aura is bright yellow and I'm ready for whatever horrors we are about to face."

"O- kay. Yellow is good, I guess." Sokka checked his weapons. His boomerang was probably small enough to bring along. No need to borrow Mai's platinum knife again, since they were going up against the people forging those things. "But the first thing we need to do is get into costume."
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Loopy
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« Reply #279 on: Feb 04, 2019 10:48 pm »



Aang walked through the gnarled forest with Roku at his side. As they passed beneath the branches of one crooked tree, a leaf broke free and wafted on the breeze. Aang waited to watch it fall, but then the breeze died and the leaf began rising straight into the sky.

He watched until it disappeared.

Then he looked to Roku. "What could force me into the Spirit World? Some new weapon?"

"Whatever struck you did not send you here, Aang." Roku stroked his beard. "Your spirit <I>retreated here, to save itself. The attack was against the energies in your body." He shook his head, but then looked down and smiled. "Your spiritual attunement saved your life. You have come quite far, and that let you retreat here until it is safe to return to your body."

Aang was relieved to hear that he was doing so well, but he couldn't shake the thought that if he had been a little less spiritually attuned, he might be dead now. And he hadn't even seen the attack coming!

He continued walking through the forest. "But how did I know how to retreat here? I've learned to trace connections and see beyond the material world, but I've never just hopped over to the Spirit World."

Roku's long strides quickly brought him even with Aang, and another step took him ahead as he raised his arms to encompass the twisted trees and the shadows in their curves. "You've been to the Spirit World many times- but not as Aang. We all stand with you, and always will."

As they walked, the shadows shifted-

No, the shadows <I>stepped out from the trees.

And the forest around them disappeared, hidden by the countless past Avatars who came forward and bowed their heads to Aang.

He smiled back at them. "Thanks. Because there's something I think I need to figure out."



Sokka knocked on the door.

A panel slid open, and a pair of dull golden eyes looked out at him. "Any trouble?"

Sokka grinned beneath his skull-like face-concealing helmet. The armor that he and Ty Lee had taken from the captured Firebenders was actually a pretty good fit, as beneath the standard plating was heavy padding not unlike a parka. And then there were the thick capes each Firebender had been wearing. It must have been the Super Cold Weather variant of the armor. He was quite comfortable in it, but Ty Lee had needed a few extra layers to get it to sit more consistently on her fairly inconsistent proportions. Then they'd just followed the footprints back to one of the smaller buildings.

The only stuff they hadn't taken from the Firebenders was their underwear and the silvery circlets on their heads. Sokka wasn't really in a royal mood.

He deepened his voice to Evil Firebender Jobber levels and replied, "We didn't find anything. I think it was a false alarm."

The eyes went wide. "We haven't one of those in a while! I'll have to make a full report. Come on in." The panel slid closed again, and Sokka heard a heavy lock squeaking.

He tilted his head towards the door and hurried to take the two paralyzed, gagged prisoners from his partner. Then he watched as Ty Lee, wearing her full Firebender armor (plus padding), cartwheeled through the opening door and began inflicting violence on people.

By the time Sokka dragged the almost naked prisoners into the building, it was all over.

Ty Lee pulled off her helmet and grinned. "It's so warm in here!"

"Yeah, the Fire Nation is good at fire. Who knew?" Sokka spotted a pile of paralyzed bad guys ineffectively calling for help, and dragged his two prisoners over and added them to the collection. Most of them were Firebenders in armor (but not their helmets), but he also recognized the dull golden eyes of the door-opener on a uniformed clerk.

And they were all wearing the same silvery circlets as the first two guards.

Weird.

Sokka looked around and decided that this had to be some kind of guard station; there was a card game no longer in progress on a low table, and a desk that had a stack of papers on it. He went over to look at the latter, after confirming that the card game hadn't been played for money.

He was distantly aware of Ty Lee saying, "Grumpy," as he scanned the papers.

Ooh, this stuff was good. There was a report on daily security concerns, with a schedule! There were no actual names, just code labels like 'Moon Princess' and 'Item NBE08' and 'Shipment Ri Wu Pig 173,' and the buildings were referenced by numbers that had no meaning to Sokka, but this was a good start. One of the few good things about the Fire Nation was that they wrote everything down. And until someone came up with a way of hiding information itself from people who shouldn't see it, paperwork would continue to be among his favorite things to find in an enemy base.

He especially liked the part on these papers that listed a high-priority security need happening right now for Building 4 with listed assets including 'Maker' and 'Teadrinker.'

Well, okay, he didn't like the security or the fact that 'Teadrinker' was going to be there, but the 'Maker' part was at least encouraging. If there was a cure for Aang's condition, she would have it.

He was already moving as he turned to Ty Lee to explain to her, but then reality went away and he was back in his childhood home, watching his mother and father bleed to death on the floor. Their eyes were glassy as they met his gaze, and the spear-wounds gaped like black shadows-

And then Ty Lee was shaking him and he was back in the guard station. "Sokka? Sokka, wake up!"

He blinked, trying to process what he'd just experience. "I'm awake. I think?" He hadn't pictured about his parents' death since- well, since he decided to get Aang to help him find Katara. But his memories had never been this vivid, or real- he'd just smelled the blood and seen the way it pooled on the chilly floor of the prefabricated house in the Southern Mining Colony. But now he was back in the guard station with its dry heat and lamplight and benches and tables and pile of disabled soldiers. "What happened?"

"You stopped moving and your aura went black." She looked straight into his eyes. "And remember how I said this whole place has an aura and it's gray?"

Sokka nodded.

"Well, the gray has gotten darker."

"That's bad?"

"I think it has to be."

Sokka sighed. "Slush. This is going to be one of those days."



Mai lifted the ice-plug in the roof of the igloo and poked her head out. Between the snowstorm and the hood she was pulling down as far as it could go, it was hard to see anything, but she made herself endure the cold and wind until she was sure that there was nothing out there.

She let the plug fall back into place as she crouched down into the igloo, leaving the space lit only by the sizzling red flare. "Still clear."

Katara and Hahn acknowledged her report with a nod, but both of them were giving their attention to Aang. He was lying on a blanket between them, still unconscious, still glowing.

Mai sighed.

Sokka and Ty Lee needed to find something, because she was completely helpless in this situation. Even Appa or Momo would probably be more help, if the animals weren't hiding in another, bigger igloo that Katara had constructed for them; they could at least keep Aang warm. Mai would probably just sap the heat from him if she touched him.

Katara, of course, was a healer and a Waterbender. She was monitoring Aang and had made the igloos that would hopefully keep them out of sight of the mysterious fenceless base.

Hahn was being pretty useless right now, though. But being on the same level as Hahn didn't comfort Mai in the slightest.

She reached into her pocket and, careful not to puncture her gloves, retrieved one of the weird burs that had struck Aang. Despite the red light of the flare, the thing still didn't want to settle down to any one color. That made no sense. Living in the Fire Nation all her life, Mai had been in plenty of red light, and she knew that blue wasn't so supposed to look so bright in it, nor yellow nor green nor purple nor any of those other shades she had no name for.

On a whim, she pulled out one of her knives and tried to slice the bur open-

-except it was surprisingly strong, resisting the edge of the blade. After fumbling with it in her hands for a few moments, she placed it on the icy ground and tried cutting it there. But it still resisted, rolling out from beneath the blade like a stone.

Hm.

Maybe-

She retrieved her platinum knife, the one Zhao had given her as a welcoming present when she'd arrived at the South Pole so long ago. It was a soft metal, not really made for hard cutting, and in this weather had to be handled with gloves because it sapped heat like nobody's business-

-and it sliced easily through the spiky outer shell of the bur.

As expected, what she found inside was a pair of halved seeds.

But what she hadn't expected was for the material of the seeds to be growing tendrils that wiggled as they reached for the other halves.

Disgusted, Mai smashed them with the butt of her knife, reducing them to unmoving pulp.

At the sound, Katara looked over at her. "What are you doing?"

Mai let her gaze fall on Aang. Still glowing. Still unmoving. "Getting very, very worried."



Sokka had another hallucination just as he was passing through some kind of security checkpoint.

One moment, he was walking through the door into the entry room of what he and Ty Lee had determined (after far too much debating) to be Building 4. The next, he was back at Crescent Island - or a version of Crescent Island lacking all color so that everything was either eye-searing white or hungry shadow - passing through the massive Heat Engine on the way to find his sister. He felt the overbearing heat that tried to reach through his leather disguise to pull the moisture from his skin and eyes, just like the Waterbenders he eventually found with their dead stares and dusty skin and-

And then he was back at the North Pole, stepping into the entry room out of the snow, once again in the padded Firebender armor. The staring faces of the old Waterbenders hung in his vision, their unfocused eyes somehow piercing straight to his very core.

Of course, he promptly tripped and crashed to the ground with a metal clatter.

Ty Lee helped him up, but he was barely on his feet before he was looking at a squad of guards who probably weren't disguised friends. "I'm okay. Just took a bad step."

The lead guard scowled at him and put her hand on the sword hanging from her belt. "Who are you? This building is under high security."

"Uhhh," Ty Lee said behind her helmet.

"Uh," Sokka added, and then the lies came flowing from his brain. "There was a perimeter alarm, but the team we dispatched didn't find anything. My partner and I have been sent here to do an inspection for any special trouble."

At the word 'special,' the lead guard's shoulders slumped, and she motioned for the other guards to return to their stations. "Ah. Right. Let me just make a note of it in the logs. What are your names?"

Sokka bowed. "Lee."

But Ty Lee immediately said, "But my name is-"

"Li Li," Sokka cut her off quickly. "I'm Lee, and she's Li Li. No relation."

Ty Lee hesitated, and then bowed.

"Rrright." The lead guard went to her desk at the far side of the room, grabbed a brush, and wrote something onto the sheet of paper there. "Proceed with your inspection. Guo over there will be your escort. And be aware that we are under high security, with important guests, so the staff would appreciate minimum disruptions."

"Of course!" Sokka decided that it couldn't hurt to bow again. (Ty Lee followed suit.) "I'm sure it's nothing, and we'll be out of your hair in no time."

The lead guard waved them through, and a young swordsman who must be Guo stepped out to lead them into the main facility. Sokka wasn't thrilled with having an escort, but on the other hand, he had no idea where he was going, so having someone who could lead him to the most important room and supplies might be helpful.

If only he could stop seeing ghosts.

As they stepped through the next door into an industrial hallway, Sokka caught Ty Lee's gray-eyed gaze through the screen and eyeholes of her Firebender helmet. She seemed concerned.

Yeah, join the club.



The ice-plug resisted her push, so Mai gave it a couple of knocks with the handle of one of her knives. Her next push got it to scrape open, and she once again raised her head out of the Waterbender-made igloo to gaze into the snowstorm.

It looked like a snowstorm. Snowflakes, wind, poor visibility, and so on. Wee.

She still took the time to peek out from under her hood and do a slow circle. Aside from the lump that was Appa and Momo's igloo and the shadows in the distance that were the mysterious Fire Nation facility, it was all just tundra. If the enemy knew they were here, nothing was being done about it for now.

Or so it looked.

Maybe Aang's condition had her on edge, or she was still grossed out by that weird seed bur, but Mai felt like something was off.

Even so, it was a surprise when the black tentacle wrapped itself around her neck and yanked her out of the igloo.



Sokka was starting to like Guo the Guard, at least as far as he liked any Fire Nation soldiers. Sure, Sokka was hoping for a chance to knock Guo on the head, but for now the guy was actually being both dim and helpful, the best kind of enemy combatant.

"Next is the main lab," Guo said, as they moved down a long hallway. More armed guards were posted at regular lengths along the distance, the lack of Firebenders noticeable. "Have you been in here before?"

Sokka and Ty Lee had been shown a few smaller labs, setups that reminded Sokka of the mining experiments he used to perform for the Fire Nation down at the South Pole. Except instead of rocks and metal, the material under research seemed to be twigs, roots, vines, leaves, and seeds. It seemed like a reasonable start to finding something that would help Aang, but the trick was actually getting the right information.

"No, we were transferred out of the reinforcements that came up with all the gold-lined armor. Haven't had a chance to poke around in here yet." Sokka was taking a chance, hoping that extra soldiers did indeed accompany the Generals and Admirals and Sages who would have recently crowned Iroh as Fire Lord.

Guo grimaced. "Well, word of warning, this one is a little weird. And we have guests, so- uh, don't freak out, okay?"

Ty Lee's voice echoed out of her armor in something like what polar bear-dog pups thought was an intimidating growl. "That other ashing stuff was pretty ashing weird. All those ashing plants? We're in the ashing middle of ashing ice-country! Ash!"

Sokka rolled his eyes behind his masked helmet. Ty Lee's bluffing didn't impress him.

"True," Guo allowed. "But that stuff just looks like plants. I don't pay too much attention to it." He stopped at the double doors at the end of the hallway. The two guards stationed here eyed Sokka and Ty Lee, but didn't make any movements. "It's the big monster face that gives me nightmares." He pushed at the doors-

-Sokka was about to ask about this matter of a 'big monster face' because it sounded far too familiar-

-and the doors opened to reveal a sprawl of an industrial space with the severed head of the Unhcegila standing at the center of it.

It was the inhuman face Sokka remembered, that smooth pale flesh that was almost completely white perched on a black neck like a snake, but now it was so much worse. Beneath the sliced base of the neck was some kind of machinery that pumped and clanked. Gears turned and billows of varying sizes pulsed like lungs and from somewhere deep in the machinery was the flash of electricity.

A wide, black tube rose out from the machinery and went straight up the Unhcegila's mouth- But no, the tube wasn't black. It was clear. It was the contents that were black, some kind of oily smoke that roiled within the conduit.

Poles also rose up to position metal plates in front of the Unhcegila's eyes, polished to reflective mirrors. Sokka couldn't tell if the eyes were opened or closed, and he wasn't sure which would be worse.

The most disturbing thing, though, were the hundreds (thousands?) of needles that were plunged into the flesh of the face, each one trailing long metal wires, some drooping to the floor and winding all through the lab space, other trailing up to the ceiling. It was like the Unhcegila's face sat at the center of a web of shining threads, and the various machines and manned stations around the space were like dead bugs caught in the web.

Sokka swallowed against the urge to be sick. He couldn't bring himself to look away, but the sight of all those needles in that inhumanly smooth flesh-

"Ash," Ty Lee breathed, and this time it sounded like she meant it.

"Toldja," Guo mumbled.

Sokka was aware that he was almost hyperventilating, but he managed to keep the contents of his stomach where they were supposed to stay. "That is- that is- one of the most horrifying- th- things I've ever seen. And I've seen- seen a lot."

"Have you?"

That wasn't Guo's voice. Sokka had never heard it before, but it was like soothing ice in his ears, stealing away the heat of his illness. It was a woman's, melodious and sad-

Sokka turned to see a Water Tribe lady, elaborate white hair shimmering with what could have been its own soft light, looking at him with blue eyes that twinkled with moisture. The braided tails of her hair rested on a black cloak that hid the rest of her form. She was stepping towards him, and the grace of her movements was a balm on his spirit. It wasn't the grace of a warrior, a grace he had kind of gotten used to with Mai and Ty Lee around. This was the grace of- of peace.

...

...

Oh.

Wow.

Sokka realized the woman was waiting for a response from him, but he was having trouble remembering how words worked. He was vaguely aware of Guo bowing and saying something like, "Princess Yue," and that reminded him of the basics of communication.

"Yes. Seen things. Me. I have. Usually scary. And. Sometimes nice? Like- uh, you?"

The corners of her pink lips twitched upwards, for just a moment. "Thank you."

And then another new voice added, "It's true, Princess. You are indeed the one beautiful thing in this entire facility. But sadly for this tongue-tied guard, Maker Lian is ready for us. It's time for the experiment to start."

Sokka tore his eyes off the woman - Princess Yue, and he would remember that name as long as he lived - to catch the approach a rotund little man in a red cloak with a golden flame-crown in his gray topknot-

Fire Lord Iroh.

Sokka heard Ty Lee's squeak as he once again tried to keep from throwing up.

TO BE CONTINUED
« Last Edit: Feb 09, 2019 04:15 pm by Loopy » Logged

Loopy
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« Reply #280 on: Feb 18, 2019 10:36 pm »

The Maker

Aang found that the strangest part of the gathering was the smell. Or, actually, the lack of it.

He did indeed have a scent in his nose, but it was the comforting sweetness of ripening fruit, the wet lushness of grass and leaves and damp wood, and the crisp little topping of a north breeze. He didn't recognize the fruit, and the smell of the grass and leaves was a bit spicier than he was used to, but it made sense that plants would be a bit different in the Spirit World. He'd only ever left the material world before at Iroh's invitation, and every time came with a new bit of wonder. While this latest visit wasn't exactly voluntary, that didn't mean he couldn't make the best of it and enjoy this unusual forest.

What he didn't smell at all was people, and that was the strange part. It didn't matter how well-bathed the people might be, or the perfumes they were wearing, or even the foods in their diet. There was always a consistent human smell that arose from any large gathering, a concentration of all the little scents that reflected the lives being lived.

Yet Aang was at the center of a gathering of more people than he could count, and all he smelled was the reaching, gnarled forest around them.

Closest were Roku and Kyoshi, both of them kneeling on the ground with straight backs and high heads. Kuruk was also nearby, hunched beneath his polar bear-dog pelt. Yangchen lounged on the ground behind him, not all bothered by the stones and tree roots that poked up through the grass.

And beyond them were even more Avatars, people whose names rose up from the depths of the darkness behind Aang's eyes as his gaze fell upon them- Jafar and Guojiu and Schonchin and Changchub and Jimmu and Tieguai and Ouray and Sempa and on and on and on. There were no limits to the names hiding in Aang's head.

Aang looked at them all, and knew them all, and said, "I'm going to have to do something about Fire Lord Iroh soon. But I don't know what. He's hurt people and kidnapped Mai's brother and is ready to invade or re-invade the Earth Kingdom and that's only the stuff we've been able to discover! From what Jet passed on to us, Iroh's also been up to some really dangerous stuff with the Spirits. But he says he's doing it all to save his son."

The Avatars all looked back at him. There was no answer, no confirmation or denial in their eyes. He might as well have been looking at a thousand mirrors.

Aang continued, "So what is an Avatar supposed to do about this? If I make him step down as Fire Lord, that's not going to stop him, if the rest of the Fire Nation even accepts it. And that will just do more damage to the people there."

Roku brought his hands together in his lap. "But that would be justice."

Aang leaned forward. "But would it actually do anything? Iroh won't stop whatever he's up to, not as long as he's still trying to save his son. So do I need to give him what he's looking for to save the world? And if I do that, why have I even been fighting him all this time?"



The most unexpected thing about Fire Lord Iroh - other than that he was ruining Sokka's mission to find a cure for whatever was keeping Aang in a glowing coma - was his eyes. The guy was soft and short and round, and the shadows of laugh lines colored his face, but his golden eyes were hard as flint and as piercing as that one fishhook Sokka always forgot on the floor when he was walking around with bare feet.

They were the eyes of a man who knew he was the toughest slushmucker in the room. They glistened with complete and utter confidence.

And yet there something else behind them that really chilled Sokka's spine. Something he couldn't name.

Whatever it was, there was no other sign of it as Iroh and this (gorgeous, white-haired, refined) Princess Yue woman turned towards the Unhcegila head that was propped up in the center of the laboratory amidst a jungle of arcane equipment and fine metal wire. Iroh looked at it with cool interest, but Princess Yue grimaced and averted her eyes.

"Hey," whispered Guo the guard, "we should get out of their way and get on with your search."

Sokka tore his own gaze off of Princess Yue and tried to get back into character as a special Firebender trooper. "Right, my search. For the things that set off the perimeter alarm. That search." His voice echoed through his face-concealing helmet. "On with the search- right, Li Li?"

Ty Lee, in her guise as the hard-cussing special operations Firebender Li Li, gave a short bow of surprisingly smoothness, considering how big her own armor disguise was on her. "Right, Lee. Let's clear this ashing place out so we can get on with our ashing day. Ash."

"Right." It was enough to make Sokka miss Mai's talent for lying. "So, uh, if there are any supply stores in here, we should check those first. In case whatever we're chasing is hungry."

Guo pointed. "We have a bunch of closets over this way."

As they picked their way across the laboratory, moving behind the mounted Unhcegila face, they passed by a woman in a green skullcap and long coat who was scurrying over to Fire Lord Iroh. She seemed to about Bato's age, maybe a little younger, and she had an arcing tattoo beneath her left eye shaped like the teeth of a gear.

She smiled at Iroh and Yue, taking no notice of Sokka, and said, "Thank you both for coming. The NBE08 sample has been a tremendous help in our research, and I think you'll agree that today's demonstration is very promising."

The rest of the staff in the room, their individuality lost behind goggles and hoods, all seemed to be paying attention either to the Gear Woman or some bit of equipment or another. Sokka and Ty Lee were ignored as Guo brought them to a series of doors that Sokka recognized as supply closets of the exact same design as in his workplace at the South Pole. He nodded at Ty Lee. "You open each door and search. I'll stand back and cover you with my fearsome Firebending power." He took what he hoped looked like a credible Firebending stance. "Guo, you stand back. We don't know what kind of horrible, life-sucking creature with fangs and sticky tentacles might have passed through the perimeter."

Guo nodded frantically. "A sound tactical decision, Firebender Lee."

Ty Lee moved towards the first closet, Guo put as much distance between himself and the proceedings as he could without deserting, and Sokka shifted his head so that he could look back towards this 'experiment.'

The Gear Woman was standing right next to Iroh now, putting what seemed to be a tied up bundle of vine cuttings on a wheeled cart- and the vines were writhing.

"...standard sample from the Spirit Forest," she was saying, "no enhancements. The platform is made of platinum - and thank you so much for the latest shipment, Fire Lord; we're putting it to good use - in order to direct the flow."

Iroh inclined his crowned head. "There's no need to thank me, Lian. We're all working together on this, and I appreciate your efforts."

Lian. The one who might know how to cure Aang.

Ty Lee opened a second supply closet and stepped inside.

Sokka watched as Lian moved over to the machinery beneath the Unhcegila head. She reached for a lever as she said, "We will now induce the feeding process." She pulled the lever, and the unmistakable thrum of electrified machinery began. A glow emanated from somewhere in the machinery beneath the Unhcegila head, and the billows and gears began moving with greater speed. The various technicians worked at their equipment stations, and the poles on either side of the Unhcegila's face rotated to angle the mirrored panels in front of the eyes.

Sokka also noticed the tube that went into the Unhcegila's mouth now contained not just the black vapor that had been in there before, but also a red mist of some kind. It flowed up the tube, mixing with the black smoke and disappearing into the severed head's mouth.

Then the writhing vines began turning brown.

Ty Lee went into a third closet.

The rot started at the edges of the vines, but Sokka couldn't see much more than that from this distance. He just caught the change of color, and then what seemed like the rise of a little cloud of dust, and then the vines were just gone.

But they were replaced by plenty of activity. The wires that fanned out from the Unhcegila, the thin metal web that extended from the needles stuck all along the edge of the face, twitched and glowed. There were no fires or crystals, so what could be producing the light? It was golden in color, and getting brighter by the second. The Firebender helmet that Sokka was wearing had a screen over the eyeholes, but it still made him tear up from its harshness. Was the metal heating to the point of glowing? But then-

And then he was standing in Appa's saddle, the air around him gray and tasting of ash and dust and death, while Mai stood across from him in a battle stance. She had her hand on her sword, and her face was twisted with fury and hatred as she hissed, "The pride of the South versus the Fire Traitor. Just you and me settling things up." She strained against Katara's blocking arm and stepped forward-

No, that wasn't here, that was the ashland they'd explored in the Earth Kingdom. It wasn't real.

As Sokka forced the reality of the laboratory back into his mind, the technicians at their stations all seemed to get very excited, and the dials and gauges on their consoles danced. One shouted, "We have four thousand, six hundred and fifty-four point seven lians completing the circuit!"

Lians?

Oh boy, someone had an ego.

Sokka looked over by the human Lian to see Fire Lord Iroh raising his eyebrows at her, too. "Four thousand? Well, that is quite a count! But I wonder, my good Maker, just what that four thousand signifies. Is it enough to solve our problem?"

Lian cleared her throat. "Not qu- Um, no, Fire Lord. The process is still very inefficient. But this proves that it works. And it validates all the equipment we've been designing and building, all the theories about the transference and flesh-fusion! Now we simply have to refine the method."

The Princess Yue lady finally raised her eyes from the floor, but her shoulders remained slumped beneath her purple cloak. "And how long will that take?" Her voice was music, but she sounded so tired to Sokka. Why wouldn't anyone let this perfect human being get some rest? No, they had to drag her here for their horror show. They better at least have a good answer for her.

Lian opened her mouth to reply, but then closed it again.

Sokka knew what that meant. He'd worked in a lab, and although it was in a completely different field, he knew the sight of an engineer who was trying her hardest not to make any type of time commitment for new technology.

Iroh stroked his beard. "Well, that is indeed-"

"So," came another voice right behind Sokka, pulling his attention away from the juicy gossip happening across the room, "are we done here?"

It was all he could do to keep from jumping out of his armor. As it was, he spun just a little too fast to find Guo the Guard standing right behind him, and it was only Ty Lee's steadying hand that kept him upright. "Uh, yes, we're done here. Good job searching, Li Li; you are a credit to Firebenders everywhere. On to the next set of rooms, then!"

Guo quirked an eyebrow, but led the way around the back of the room. Sokka needed to find a way to either ambush Lian and make her help, or else figure out what kind of materials in this house of horrors might work as a cure for whatever was keeping Aang asleep and doing a good impression of the Southern Lights. Maybe Sokka or Ty Lee could knock Guo out and find some kind of inventory list or-

"Oh," came Fire Lord Iroh's voice, "is our friendly security force leaving so soon?"

Sokka just barely managed not to crash into Guo's sudden stop, and Ty Lee did bounce into him with a muffled clang. All three of them looked over to find Iroh approaching their little group.

And Iroh was smiling. "I know Guo quite well, but I have not yet had the opportunity to meet- I believe your names are Lee and Li Li?" His eyes narrowed. "Yes, that's what the ledger at the front desk said. I'm very grateful that Admiral Zhao brought us some Firebender reinforcements, and I feel terrible that I have been too busy to meet every one of you."

"Oh, uh, er-" Admiral Zhao? So the jerk had gotten  a promotion, huh? Getting crowned must have put Iroh in a mood for ascensions. Sokka decided that it couldn't hurt to bow to the Fire Lord. "I wouldn't want to bother you during an important meeting-"

"Oh, we were just finishing. Right, Yue?"

Whoever this princess was, she looked as confused as Sokka felt. Her beautiful blue eyes flickered back and forth between Iroh and Sokka, and then they shifted to gaze over Sokka's shoulder-

-where Sokka heard the lab door opening-

-this stupid helmet forced him to turn to see the new threat-

And Admiral Zhao stalked into the room with a shining circlet on his head, tossed his black fur cape back off his shoulders to reveal spotless gold-trimmed armor, and said, "I was told that there is need of my strength and expertise here. How may I serve, Fire Lord?"

Slush.

Slush slush slush slush kelp-sucking salt-sniffing slush-pups!

Sokka took a step closer to Ty Lee and tried to keep everyone in sight. Guo the Guard was inching his way clear of the sudden convention.

Iroh's smile had turned into a grin so sharp it could gouge an eye. "Admiral Zhao, I was hoping you could introduce me to your old friends Lee and Li Li.

"Or, more accurately, Sokka of the Southern Water Tribe and Lady Caldera Yu Ty Lee, yes? Please, children, take of your helmets and let us get acquainted."


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Loopy
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« Reply #281 on: Feb 18, 2019 10:40 pm »

Mai had been flying around the world for so long, she'd almost forgotten how much she hated it. She got a good reminder, though, when she was wrenched out of Katara's little hideout igloo and flung through the air.

The black tentacle wrapped around her head and neck and shoulders didn't loosen at all as she arced through the blizzard, nor when she landed flat on her back on the ground. It was a hard landing, but between the padding of the ancient layers of snow and her fur parka, it merely drove the air from her lungs in a rush instead of breaking every bone in her body. How pleasant.

As she gasped for breath, a monster came in to loom over her.

It was the same dark color as the tentacle that still wouldn't let her go, and bore an unpleasant resemblance to a catfish, if catfish came in sizes even bigger than Appa (no, thank you) and decided to try the whole arms-and-legs thing. Its whickers floated in the air completely independent of the storm winds, but Mai was more concerned with the wide mouth that hung open to both threaten her with rows of jagged black teeth and reveal a bright blue glow coming from within its body.

Good thing she'd tucked her platinum knife securely in her belt.

As she filled her lungs with air - odd that this creature wasn't taking advantage of the tentacle around its neck to just choke or snap her - she inched her hand towards the special spirit-killer. The monster didn't seem to notice, staring straight into her eyes with its own glowing fish-like peepers. The shining yellow light at the center of its otherwise blue and black eyes reminded her of the kind of sunny days they used to get in the Fire Nation when she was little, when she and Ty Lee and Azula would play in the park and throw grass at each other.

Her fingers reached the handle of the platinum knife.

The monster continued to stare at her.

Why wasn't it hurting her? The tentacle was merely securing her to the ground. She'd let herself get caught in its gaze and yet she wasn't getting her life drained via her eyeballs. It loomed over her with a glowing mouth and wasn't trying to inhale her energies out through her throat. Or even bite her.

Oh, well, if it didn't want to fight, they it would just lose. Fighting was what she did.

She pulled the platinum knife out.

The monster's eyes narrowed and it hissed. The tentacle tightened around her throat-

-fighting was what she did, but she was good at it not just thanks to her speed and skill but also because she took the effort to notice things-

-and the monster had only reacted when she drew her knife.

Mai remembered Aang lying comatose in the igloo. He was who he was because he didn't want to hurt anyone or anything. She was the one who did the hurting, because someone had to-

-but she hated it. It was always necessary, but she never felt good about it.

Aang wasn't here to be the good one.

Mai was running out of breath. One slice with the knife could free her.

But maybe-

-Aang believed in her, he always said-

-she could be good for him, just this once.

She laid the knife down on the snow.

The monster continued to watch her, and its tentacle continued to choke her.

She moved her hand away from the knife and rested.

The monster didn't react.

Aw, ash, she'd just killed herself for sentimentality, hadn't she?

Then the tentacle loosened from her neck and she could breathe again.

She was still panting when the tentacle pulled away completely, and the creature backed up to hunch beside her and hiss. Its eyes had moved away, and as she sat up, she saw that its gaze was locked firmly on the knife sitting on top of the snow.

Huh.

Maybe-

There was a Fire Nation base nearby, one that seemed to be dealing with weird spirit plants and had a perimeter that only went off when Aang crossed it. So maybe this thing was the Fire Nation's enemy, and it knew that the opposing side had platinum weapons.

Mai stood up.

The monster - the spirit creature - continued to stare at the knife.

Mai sidled away, one side-step at a time, until she'd put some distance between herself and the knife.

The creature was still behaving.

Okay.

Fine.

As Mai wondered what to do next, she was nearly tackled off her feet by Katara. "Mai! Are you okay?"

It was like being hugged by Ty Lee- tight and involving far too much forward momentum. Mai barely managed to stay on her feet, and thankfully the stumble added to her distance from the platinum knife. "I'm a little beat up, but none of my life force has been yanked out of my body yet today, so I suppose I'm not bad, as far as these things go."

Hahn came skidding to a stop beside them, and his eyes were wide. "What- what is that?"

Mai shrugged and tried to push Katara off of her. "Whatever it is, I'm thinking that we'll back away slowly to pick up Aang, then get to Appa's igloo and maybe just move away from here." It would be a shame to lose her platinum knife, but she still had the sword, and she really didn't want to fight another giant monster if she-

"There's no need to leave yet," a hard voice cut through the winds of the snow. "Not before we've had a chance to meet."

Mai whipped around, grabbing a pair of razor discs from her sleeves, as Katara took a Waterbending stance and turned some of the surrounding snow into a liquid whip.

But their targets blended into the snow, vague human shapes obscured within the blizzard as though drawing shadows around themselves-

No.

Mai's eyes focused and she realized the newcomers were merely wearing white fur cloaks that blended in with the snow. In fact, all their clothes were white, despite obviously being of the Water Tribe style that usually favored blue. Their faces were obviously Water Tribe as well, and they were just standing there watching.

Well, maybe it could work twice in one day. Mai put her blades back in her sleeves and held up her hands. "We come in peace?"

One of the figures - a tall man - stepped forward and raised a hand in what could have been a greeting or a sign to attack. "You've met Mashenomak and he has given his approval. Who are you, that you carry the weapons of the Fire Nation?"

Mashenomak? Who was-

The giant catfish spirit creature bounded over to crouch beside the white-cloaked figures.

Oh.

Sure.

Why not?

It wasn't much weirder than a pet sky bison, really.

While Mai tried to adjust her view of reality to the idea of people who taught a spirit monster to play fetch, Katara dropped her waterwhip to the snow and gave a formal bow with folded hands. "I am Katara of the Southern Water Tribe. This is Mai, a- a defector from the Fire Nation. We were brought here with the Avatar by Hahn of the Northern Water Tribe." She motioned to Hahn, who hadn't moved all this time, the big useless jerk he-

"Wait," Hahn said, "is that Rafa?"

The leader startled, and moved forward another few steps. "Hahn? You're alive? And here with the Avatar-" He looked over at Mai and Katara, and then lowered his hand. "But where is the Avatar?"

Okay, Mai knew how this part was supposed to go. "About that: we could use a little help."



Ty Lee had known that they were in trouble as soon as she saw Fire Lord Iroh.

She'd met him before, of course. She'd seen him around the palace throughout her childhood, when he wasn't away trying to conquer 'the Northern savages.' Azula hadn't really wanted to spend time with her uncle, so Ty Lee's encounters with him were all fairly quick, but she'd liked him. He was friendly and his aura was a beautiful swirl of reds and pinks and yellows. And sometimes when Azula wasn't able to get away he'd do magic tricks to try to make them giggle! Ty Lee had wished, more than once but not as many as a lot, that he could have been her daddy. He obviously wasn't going to die in a war, and she was sure that he wouldn't have called her stupid for not learning how to fight with a deadly weapon.

She was still certain about all that, even trapped in some really scary North Pole laboratory with him and guilty of treason, but now-

"Uh, who's Sokka and Ty Lee?" Sokka's voice echoed within his armor, but Ty Lee could hear the squeak of stress. "If you're worried about intruders, we can-"

"The Tribal?" Zhao snapped into a Firebending stance, and Ty Lee tensed to move against him if he attacked. "How do you keeping getting into these places?!"

"Please," Fire Lord Iroh said, voice quiet and hard, "your helmets. Let us find the truth, hm?"

Now, Fire Lord Iroh's aura was dominated by the yellow of winter lemons. His fear of loss emanated from him like a stink. Ty Lee and Sokka were trapped between him and Zhao. Zhao, who would hurt or betray anyone to win, even if it was really mean. But that was still less scary than a man so scared of losing something. That kind of person would do anything.

So it was time for Ty Lee to be really mean.

She threw her fist out, aiming for the Fire Lord's right elbow in the hope that she could hit the Qi-point before fire exploded from his palm. She was faster than Iroh, she knew; she was faster than any Firebender. But there was more to fighting than speed, and this was the Dragon of the North-

Her fist smacked into a waiting palm and thick fingers closed in around her hand. She brought her other arm out, ready to jam a knuckle into Iroh's armpit to take out his whole arm, but the twist it required moved her right into an outstretched leg that hadn't been there when she had started to attack and she lost her balance and then there was a blur of red robes-

A hand grabbed the back of her helmet and shoved-

-a knee rose to fill her vision-

The impact smashed the world into pieces.



Sokka couldn't even make out the fight. As far as he managed to catch, it went from Ty Lee launching herself into a storm of robes and limbs and then Ty Lee's head was bouncing off of Iroh's left knee and her helmet went flying and head met knee again with enough force to flip her whole body back upright.

Then she crumpled to the ground bonelessly and stayed there. Her lips parted and she let out a moan as she blinked without focus, but she didn't even make an attempt to get back up. Iroh had taken her down without even using Firebendering.

Sokka started to move, eyes locked on Iroh in search of a spot where he could maybe land an attack while the Fire Lord was distracted-

-but instead he stepped into a ruins of flame and smoke, a neighborhood of what had once been ornate mansions of an exotic style before they had been knocked over and collapsed and undermined. The street itself was a mess of rubble and holes, but that didn't seem to give any difficulty to the massive man with the metal arm and leg who was swinging to stare at Sokka like a drifting glacier, inhaling deeply-

The image of the Fire Nation Capital from the night of the civil war faded, and Sokka found himself being forced to his knees while his helmet bounced on the ground in front of him. His arms were twisted behind him, and he realized that Zhao had gotten him in a lock that they must teach at The Evil Fire School of Subjugating People.

"Looks like this Tribal's not feeling well," Zhao chuckled. "Perhaps he's been away from home for so long that the climate no longer agrees with him."

Sokka tried to jerk and twist himself free, but it was no good. The stupid padded Firebender armor already hindered his movements, and Zhao had a good grip on his arms.

So Sokka found himself looking up at Princess Yue, who was watching the whole thing with wide eyes and hands over her mouth in horror. She caught Sokka's gaze and held it for a moment, and she took a deep breath and brought her arms down to her sides with hands clenched into fists.

Then she stepped over Ty Lee and crouched at the acrobat's side.

Iroh said, "That is a dangerous criminal, my dear. You should step away."

Yue carefully caressed Ty Lee's head. "This is an injured young lady who is no longer a threat to you." She straightened her shoulders and looked up at the Fire Lord. "I will take responsibility for her. Give her to me and my security staff. I will oversee her healing and confinement."

Iroh stroked at his beard. "Ty Lee is a Weapon of the Fire Nation. I'm not sure it's a good idea."

Yue's eyes narrowed. "She's not a 'weapon,' she's a person. And you gave her a bad concussion. It's the boy you really want, correct?" She looked over to Sokka, and her expression softened. "He'll know that his friend is getting proper care while you do what you must with him. That will keep him in line."

Iroh looked at Yue, and then at Sokka. It was no fun being under that regard again. Sokka was starting to understand why any talk of dragons, nicknames or otherwise, gave Mai the heebie-jeebies.

A ghost of a frown flicked across Iroh's face. "And why should he trust you? You are in my power as much as any of my soldiers."

Yue turned her face away from Sokka, so he couldn't tell what might have passed over her beautiful features. "He's perceptive enough to tell the difference between you and me. I can see that much."

Huh. Beautiful and smart.

Sokka tried his best to shrug at Iroh with Zhao holding him in place. "It's true. She doesn't give me the same urge to start kicking people in the head that I do when remember you exist."

The old man had the gall to bark a laugh at that. "Very well. Princess, you may take the Weapon. Zhao, bring our other guest to a secure room in this building and lock him in. And please refrain from using the term 'Tribal.' It is most impolite."

Sokka couldn't see Zhao, but he could hear the confusion in the guy's voice as he said, "This building? Not one of the prisons?"

Iroh took step towards Sokka. "No. As I said, he is a guest. I want to show him something. Perhaps he can help me convince the Avatar of the righteousness of my cause."

Sokka snorted. "Odds are against that, I have to warn you."

"Truly?" Iroh's eyebrows rose. "Well, this would not be the first time I've defied impossible odds. It's just a matter of knowing the right trick. And I have some very good tricks."

Sokka's stomach flipped. He didn't want to see any more tricks.


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Loopy
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« Reply #282 on: Feb 18, 2019 10:41 pm »

It was Avatar Kuruk who finally condensed the conversation down to its main point. He sat up so that his back was straight, almost seeming larger in Aang's eyes than the other Avatars gathered with them. "You seek a path to stopping Iroh that serves both justice and life. But none of us know if such a path exists."

The discussion had been going on for a while. Some of the Avatars had advocated focusing on defeating Iroh and either killing him or imprisoning him- they said that only then could the Earth Kingdom and Water Tribes be freed, and balance restored to the world. Others worried, with Aang, about the fate of the people not just in the Fire Nation, but everywhere if the existing world leadership was suddenly removed. Not having a Fire Lord giving orders was no guarantee that the imperial armies would simply abandon their colonies.

And even if a good compromise could be made, some Avatars pointed out that restoring freedom to the world was only the start of the healing.

Kuruk continued, "I speak to you, Aang, as a predecessor who perhaps suffered the most unique failure in all of our history. Some failed to prevent evil, and some were forced to give their lives to defeat it. But what Koh did to me-" His voice faltered, and despite his proud stance, his eyes watered.

Aang frowned. "I'm sorry about that."

Kuruk shook his head, chasing the tears away. "Some, such as the Faceless Tribe you encountered, say that it was justice. But if so, that justice was an evil. It was an evil I was forced to accept because by the time I knew of it, the only other alternative was worse. If I destroyed the Face Stealer, I would have doomed my Ummi to an even worse fate."

He slumped again, but did not shrink in size. Somehow, he still towered over the other Avatars. "Had Ummi requested it, I would have killed Koh for her. But she was beyond the ability to give voice to her wishes. It was left to me. And I could not make the sacrifice."

Aang wanted to go over and comfort Kuruk, but he didn't know if his past life was solid - even here in the Spirit World - and trying to give a hug only to just fall to the ground somehow seemed even worse than doing nothing. "Are you saying I should kill Iroh, no matter what?"

"No, Aang." Kuruk once again sat straight, towering above the strange groping forest around them all. "I warn you not to let yourself come to the point of the choice. Iroh is involved in strange things, but there might be an opportunity in that. A true hunter uses his environment against his enemy, even on the enemy's home ground. Seek the path that goes where none others would walk, if you wish to find an impossible compromise."

Aang frowned. "But what does-"

And then everything twisted, including the light itself, becoming a spiral that wrapped around Aang and squeezed him and pushed him and he was rushing through the everything as the light grew brighter-

And he awoke in a world of white.

No, not white- snow. Solid, pure snow.

He was lying on his back, the snow spread above him, and he realized he was inside a cavern of some kind. But it was so rounded and smooth, and the ground so flat. It was sculpted, the work of human hands.

Hands.

His friends!

He needed to-

Before Aang could move, gloved hands settled on his shoulders, keeping him on his back. "Easy, young Avatar. Your friends are here. You just woke up, and should take a moment before you move."

Aang wanted to protest, but Mai and Katara both leaned into view. Katara was smiling and her eyes were as filled with tears as Kuruk's had been. Mai's face was blank, of course, and her eyes were dry and pale as they reflected the diffused light.

But Aang could see the depth in those eyes. Perhaps he was the only one. And in those depths was more than he could ever want.

That just left the matter of the old woman kneeling next to him and telling him to take it easy.

She was Water Tribe, obviously, but all her clothes were as white as the snow of the igloo around them. It probably worked as pretty good camouflage. Her hair was darker than her furs, the gray of old steel, but her smile was soft and patient.

Katara reached over and patted the old woman's shoulder. "This is Yugoda. She's a healer. She fixed- well, it's pretty complicated. But you're fine now."

Mai snorted. "As fine as we can be this close to Iroh's forces. But sure, you're hale and healthy again."

Aang couldn't help smiling at Mai's regular sour mood, and turned those good feelings towards Yugoda. "Hi. Thank you for your help."

"Greetings, Avatar Aang." Yugoda bowed her head low. "I am the chief healer of the Dreamcatchers. We are the sworn enemies of Iroh, and the guardians of the liberation of the Northern Water Tribe. I think we have a lot to talk about."

"Oh." Aang thought back to Kuruk's advice- to seek out paths that no others would walk. "Good."



Sokka wasn't sure how he should feel about the fact that the smaller lab where he'd been locked up was such an effective prison. It didn't bode well when a place of science needed a heavy metal door and all its equipment and furniture bolted to the floor. It suggested things.

Fortunately, when the door finally squeaked open, it wasn't a monster that had come to visit him.

Although, that depended on how far he wanted to stretch the definition of 'monster.'

Admiral Zhao and Lian the Maker came in together, one with fists raised and ready for Firebending, the other carrying one of the circlets that seemed to be such a fashion statement around here.

"Hello," Lian said, dipping her head. "You're Sokka, yes? The Fire Lord asked me to speak to you."

Sokka folded his arms over his chest. "Is 'speak' a euphemism for horrific torture? Because I can't think why else Zhao would be here. He's a terrible conversationalist."

Zhao's brow crinkled. "I'm here to make sure you behave, Tribal. The Fire Lord said that your treatment will be nonviolent only as long as you are."

"Oh, good. Then I can be as rude as I want so long as I don't give you the smack you so richly deserve for calling me Tribal."

Zhao's scowl became deeper.

Lian chuckled. "Well, I for one am very glad to meet you. I am Lian, a Privileged Colonial Contractor in service to the Fire Navy's Northern Fleet, specializing in scientific experimentation and engineering. The Fire Lord has told me all about you, how you're an analytical thinker with a good sense of practicality. I'd love to get your insight on what we're doing up here. It's such a new and unexplored field, and I'm sure you've seen many interesting things in your travels with the Avatar."

Sokka decided not to be flattered. What could Iroh really know about him? "Interesting. Sure. You could call it that. But I'm not going to help you."

"Of course not. I haven't convinced you yet." She held up the circlet. "My job here is to break down your sense of self by forcing you to make a series of small compromises. Your resistance will grow more and more exhausted until you are fully under our power."

Sokka blinked. "Um, aren't you kind of undermining that by telling me about it?"

"Oh, not at all." Lian smiled. "That's the beauty of the system. The more clever and knowledgeable you are, the more vulnerable you are to it! And to start, I'm going to convince you to put on this Mind Shield."

Sokka looked over at the circlet Zhao was wearing, and then back to Lian. "Mind Shield?"

"Oh, yes. See, I'm wearing one, too." She lifted her green skullcap to reveal the line of glistening metal glued to the edge of the interior. "It's required safety equipment this close to the Spirit Forest. I assume that when you stole that armor, you either missed the accompanying circlet or didn't realize its significance."

Slush. Was she telling the truth? The Firebenders who Sokka and Ty Lee had stolen their armor from had indeed been wearing the things, but he wasn't in the habit of stealing jewelry. If it really was some kind of shield, then there was no point in resisting. But how could he be sure?

He couldn't, he realized. That was the point of this 'system.' Lian was trying to wear him out.

His vision swam for a moment, the sterile lab around him overlaid by shadows- no, not just shadows, but the darkness of the underground. He was back in the sinkhole of Tiankeng Fortress, after he was captured and separated from Mai and Ty Lee. There had been that explosion. His ribs were hurting and he couldn't see and Zhao's office had collapsed on him and he didn't know if anyone else was even alive and-

Sokka forced himself to breathe in, and breathe out, and concentrate on how much he disliked this 'Lian the Maker.' The lab and the light reemerged; he was once again free of his darker memories.

And, well, if he couldn't win, he could at least get something useful out of this battle of wits. "And what happens if I don't put it on?"

Zhao's scowl turned into a smirk. "It's already happening, Tribal. I saw the way you froze when you tried to help Lady Ty Lee. You're already getting the waking nightmares, aren't you? Either you've been here longer than the Fire Lord thinks, or your mind is especially vulnerable to the nightmares."

Oh, Sokka didn't like the sound of this. And he and the others had only arrived today, so if Zhao was telling the truth, then- especially vulnerable? Why? Ty Lee hadn't been stumbling or showing any signs of getting the hallucinations.

Sokka sighed. "Fine, give it to me."

Lian handed the circlet over. "Well, that was quick. The Fire Lord was right. You are fairly rational."

Sokka turned the thing over in his hands. "Platinum?"

Lian nodded. "Of course. What do you know about it?"

"It's my preferred material for stabbing monsters. A spiritual guru told me it's a material that doesn't contain any of the four elements, and lacks any kind of spiritual energy. So, you know, it's really good for messing with things that have lots of spiritual energy."

"Fascinating." Lian's eyes were gleaming. "We already proved that it's a new element, but the reason it lacks its own energies is because it's a conductor of them."

Sokka blinked. "Wait, a conductor? Like how metal transfers heat and electricity?"

"Yes! It disrupts spirits - beings made entirely of unearthly energies- because it conducts them so well that it ruins their existing organizational structure." Lian raised her arms and gestured around. "We've found that we can use it to direct the energies, hence our work here. The circlet takes the nightmare energies and- well, circles them around rather than letting them affect your mind."

Sokka's jaw dropped. "The needles and wires in the Unhcegila's face! They were glowing because they were transferring the energies that- oh, wow. You had it feed on those vines, converting them to pure energy, and moved it elsewhere."

"You get it!" Lian clasped her hands together. "If you want to defect from the Avatar's side, I am ready to offer you a job right here and right now."

Zhao snorted. "Let's stick to the Fire Lord's plan for now, yes? I notice that the Tribal hasn't put the circlet on, yet."

Lian sobered. "True. Sokka, I'd like you to put that on, but you will not be hurt if you don't. It is entirely your choice. But your mind is being affected by the energies of the Spirit Forest and the materials under experimentation here. You will continue to be subjected to traumatic incidents in your past, and they will grow in intensity if you stay here unshielded. Your mood will be affected, and then your sanity, until you-"

"Okay, fine, stop talking." Sokka put the circlet on his head. He didn't feel any different. "Happy? Iroh's plan is working. Anyway, how does he know so much about me? Aang hasn't been gossiping at their meetings, has he?"

Zhao shook his head. "No, I was the first source of intelligence on you, thanks to our meeting in Tiankeng Fortress. Since then, we've tried to assemble more information from your time working for us at the South Pole, but Iroh himself has been the most significant source."

Sokka frowned. That didn't make any sense. "But I never met him."

Zhao's eyebrows rose. "Not that you remember. But didn't the Avatar tell you that Fire Lord Iroh is capable of visiting people in dreams?"

"But I never-"

"That you remember." Zhao's smirk returned. "Why do you think we caught you so easily? Why do you think I've been waiting up in here in this flame-forsaken wasteland? We knew that you were coming. Iroh has been monitoring and collecting information on your group for a while now. And we know the others are close by."

Sokka struggled to breathe. They knew?! Then- then this backdoor to the Northern Water Tribe city that Hahn wanted to take them to-

"So," Lian said, practically bouncing on her feet, "are you ready for the tour?"

TO BE CONTINUED
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Colonel_Brian
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« Reply #283 on: Feb 26, 2019 01:57 pm »

Alright Loops. I'm now completely caught up, and I couldn't have chosen a better time to do so.

I left off with chapter 64, which, while enjoyable, felt like padding to me. Seeing Bumi was cool, but the subplot with him seemed unnecessary. Though maybe my opinion will change if anything ever comes out of that bit where Bumi promises to take Azula to the ashland that was once Omashu. I actually wouldn't mind if nothing ever comes of it though. I feel as though leaving certain plot threads unresolved makes the world you created through this story more real. In that it makes it seem like there's a lot more going on than what we are privileged to see. Though if you do resolve Azula's plot, I'd be interested in seeing how you do.

I'm curious about Zuko and Toph though. Are they going to be playing any further part in your story? We're pretty much at the end and they're so far away from where all the action is happening.

Chapters 65 to 67 (and 69) were pretty cool. We got to see Koh again and the storyline with the Faceless Tribe and the Unhcegila was pretty suspenseful. You wrote the encounter with the beast very well. Reminded me of the climatic battle in Moby d*ck. I'm also taking mental notes on what Koh's offer could entail. My guess is that Mai will probably die trying to save Aang. Iroh is clearly trying to harness the power of that Uhncegelia creature and I can see Mai choosing to die by Koh's hand over allowing herself to be used by Iroh against Aang. I can't wait to see the full story with Iroh. We still don't know what is going on with Lu Ten or what that map Jet discovered really means.

It was also nice seeing Suki again in chapter 68. Though I was so absorbed with the A plot that her day in the limelight didn't really register as well as it should have. I suppose it was also because I feel like you covered everything interesting about her storyline way back in Act 3 and that her returning home and getting involved in a small misunderstanding with Sabure didn't really tell me anything new about Suki.

Chapter 70 - I'm really excited for some of the big mysteries of this story to be revealed. We are now acquainted with Yugoda and her Dreamcatchers gang, and the chapter ended with the reveal that Iroh knew of the gaang's plot the entire time due to his ability to enter dreams. To me, that either suggests that they'll be instrumental in defeating Iroh, or that they're part of the trap Iroh has prepared. I mean, their timely arrival is really convenient to say the least.

Still wondering how all this is going to go down. The next two chapters should be quite the doozy.

And I'm also keeping an eye in Momo. Zhao did something with him way back on Ember Island (or was it Zamatsu?), but we still don't know what, and Momo somehow knew how to save Aang's life from the Uhncegelia.

Lian is pretty cool. She’s from the video game right? She makes mechas I think. Wonder if that’s a spoiler... And she reminds me of Olivia Ock from the new Spider-verse movie. Particularly from that scene where she’s inspecting Peter B and freaks him out when she says something about wanting to see his molecules disentegrate (or something like that. I just remember she was fascinated by Peter B not fitting in with Miles’ dimension).

Oh, and Zhao is back. I don't think I'll ever not not happy seeing more of him. He's my favorite secondary character. Though I'm beginning to wonder what will become of him? Will he try to betray Iroh? He seems like the kind of person who would. I mean, he blatantly disregarded some of Iroh's orders the minute he was away.
« Last Edit: Mar 04, 2019 09:13 pm by Colonel_Brian » Logged
Loopy
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« Reply #284 on: Mar 04, 2019 11:30 pm »

I answered your other points via ff.net, but I guess you added these later, so I'll answer them right here...

Lian is pretty cool. She’s from the video game right? She makes mechas I think. Wonder if that’s a spoiler... And she reminds me of Olivia Ock from the new Spider-verse movie. Particularly from that scene where she’s inspecting Peter B and freaks him out when she says something about wanting to see his molecules disentegrate (or something like that. I just remember she was fascinated by Peter B not fitting in with Miles’ dimension).

Wow. Full points! Not only do you know that Lian is an existing character, but you nailed the inspiration for how I'm writing her! Smiley It's only a minor quasi-spoiler that she's good with mecha, so don't worry about that one. As for writing her like Liv, I never played the video game, so I'm only familiar with her through a wiki page and some youtube videos of cut scenes, but my impression is that she has a fairly generic personality. I'm taking advantage of the AU to give her a little more pep.


Oh, and Zhao is back. I don't think I'll ever not not happy seeing more of him. He's my favorite secondary character. Though I'm beginning to wonder what will become of him? Will he try to betray Iroh? He seems like the kind of person who would. I mean, he blatantly disregarded some of Iroh's orders the minute he was away.

Zhao sometimes betrays himself just to stay in practice. Cheesy




The Dreamcatchers

So many things were buzzing around in Aang's head, every single one demanding his full attention.

But before he was the world's savior, the Avatar, or even a brother, he had been an Air Nomad, and there were certain responsibilities that had to take priority. So despite his recent discussion in the Spirit World with his past lives, or the new Water Tribe faction that had appeared to save his life, or even the Fire Nation fortress where his two of his friends had gone missing, right now he had to check on his sky bison. He popped out of the top of the igloo Katara had fashioned for shelter, finding that the arctic tundra was still being whipped by a windy snowfall. As he rode those winds down to a soft landing in front of the second, larger igloo, he spotted the spirit creature that Mai had warned him about. As she had described, it looked like a big walking catfish with skin the color of a moonless night. And for a moment, he thought that was the only other thing out here besides him.

Then he spotted the shapes, only vaguely human but impossible to mistake for an animal or spirit, arranged in a defensive circle that encompassed the two igloos. Their coats and even their spears were as white as their surroundings, making the figures almost invisible in this weather, but he could feel their gazes on him as his boots touched down on the snow.

A quick Waterbending swipe opened the front of the igloo up, and Appa stared out from within the cramped space.

Aang could see a fog of anxiety immediately clear from Appa's eyes as the confinement gave way to a glimpse of the sky. The bison lurched to his feet and pushed the rest of the way out of the igloo, destroying it (and making Momo chatter angrily up in the saddle when the roof splatted on the lemur's head) and bringing himself fully out into the open.

Aang wrapped his arms around Appa's nose and cheeks as the sky bison nuzzled him. "Yeah, sorry you had to hide like that. But I'm better now. Are you cold?"

Appa sniffed a negative and lowed his readiness to face the next adventure.

"Good." Aang gave Appa's nose a pat. "We have to go save Sokka and Ty Lee, now. Katara says they went into that weird base where I got hurt."

Appa lowed again, confirming his dedication. Aang knew that the sky bison really liked Ty Lee, and had an odd but deep friendship with Sokka.

But then a new voice said, "I would recommend against that, Avatar."

Aang let go of Appa and turned. One of the Water Tribe men - the Dreamcatchers, the healer Yugoda had called them - came forward and bowed in greeting. He was long-haired and bearded beneath the hood of his white coat, his just-starting-to-gray hair standing out sharply from his snow-covered clothes. Hahn was standing next to the man as if they were already familiar.

Aang gave a quick bow in return. "Um, thanks, but my friends-"

"Are within Fire Lord Iroh's control, now," the man finished for him. "We must leave this place, right away, if you hope to someday help them."

"Rafa's right," Hahn added. "He's been telling me about what's going on up here, or at least what these guys have been able to piece together and-"

"And we're not leaving without Sokka and Ty Lee," Katara interrupted. She had emerged from the first igloo, trailed by Mai and the healer woman Yugoda. "We can't abandon them! I won't!"

Aang shrugged at the Water Tribe man- Rafa, Hahn had called him. "I'm with her. It's what we do. Our friends go into an enemy base and get in trouble, and then we rescue them."

Mai snorted, hugging herself and pulling her fur coat tighter around her in defense against the wind. "It usually works out. More or less. Eventually."

"That's right!" Katara put her fists on her hips. "That's what makes us family."

Rafa sighed. "That's what makes you predictable."

"What do you mean?" Aang felt a chill that had nothing to do with the winds.

Rafa motioned with his hands and spear at the rest of the Dreamcatchers; they had formed a defensive circle, with Aang and his friends at the center. "How do you think we knew to look for you? Iroh is a Dream Walker, and spies where no living person can hide secrets. He learned the art from ancient scrolls, and we- well, we learn from watching him."

Yugoda stepped forward. "That's the true danger of Admiral Iroh. Not in the forces he commands, but the mind that directs them. We can protect ourselves from his Dream Walking, but even so, all of us had to cut ourselves off from our families to oppose him. I lost my children and grandchildren. I lost my students."

Rafa's gaze fell to the fallen snow. "I have a sister. She thinks me dead."

Yugoda turned to Katara. "Iroh has set a trap for you, and he won't kill your brother or friend because he knows you will come for them. Or he might find a way to send them after you. If you go for them now, you will fail. And then you will die. We have lost people this way, and cannot lose any more."

Aang looked to Katara. He saw his own sympathetic sorrow reflected in her eyes, but also his reluctance. It felt wrong to abandon Sokka and Ty Lee.

Then Mai said, "Well, it looks we're past the point where we could sneak in, anyway."

Everyone turned as one to find her pointing the spyglass Sokka had given her earlier in the direction of the Fire Nation base.

Mai squinted through the spyglass. "A group of enclosed crawlers just left with a big team of Firebenders escorting on some kind of ski-vehicles. There's also plenty of soldiers moving in and out of the buildings, now. There's probably a search going on. They know there's a danger and I bet they have surprises planned."

Aang looked to Katara again. She gave him a nod, but her shoulders drooped in disappointment. With the situation, or maybe herself?

Or maybe she was disappointed in Aang. He'd barely even approached that Fire Nation base and had been taken out with one hit from a weapon he still didn't understand at all.

He gave his own nod. "Okay. But we come back for our friends as soon as possible."

Katara put a hand on his shoulder. "Of course."

And then there was a weight on his other shoulder, and he turned to find Mai giving him a smile that was almost lost in the snowfall. "Ty Lee and Sokka are tough. Things worse than Iroh have tried to kill them before, and they were both already kind of brain-damaged so we'll probably barely notice any more."

"And you won't," said Rafa, "be completely abandoning them. We have learned how to avoid Iroh's attention, and still keep an eye on him. I will leave warriors to see what they can find of your friends. In the meantime, come to our village, and learn what is needed to defeat Iroh."

Aang let out a heavy breath, and turned to Appa. "Is it okay if you take some extra people flying?"

Appa roared his agreement.

Barely a minute later they were flying away- Aang on his glider, and his friends with Rafa and Yugoda and some of the other Dreamcatchers in Appa's saddle. The warriors Rafa left behind had already disappeared into the storm with their white coats, and the catfish spirit was loping over the snowdrifts even faster than Appa could fly. All that was left to see was the armored crawlers and the warriors on their motorized ski vehicles, traveling off into the storm. It was so tempting for Aang to reach into himself and trace his spiritual connections to his friends, to follow the trails of light to a daring rescue.

But he'd done that with Mai's brother, before, and now Iroh knew that trick.

He made himself fly away.



This wasn't the first time Ty Lee had woken up with a concussion. It just wasn't possible to spar with six sisters, all of them having mastered the art of hitting people with blunt objects, without some skull-rattling oopsies.

It was part of why she preferred to fight with her fists and aim for Qi clusters. The only damage done was exactly what she wanted to inflict.

She didn't open her eyes right away, and she definitely didn't try to get up. She was laying on something soft, which was good, but her dizziness made it feel like everything around her was vibrating. That was bad. And she still felt so tired, even though she'd been sleeping, and probably didn't have the strength to flip to her feet and cartwheel around a dozen Firebenders while punching their unarmored joints.

Wait.

Dizziness usually didn't make things feel like they were vibrating.

Ty Lee opened her eyes.

She was in a metal carriage.

A bench was beneath her, with a purple stretch of fur - a coat - providing padding. The walls were cold and shining and the only light came from a dull green lamp hanging and swaying on the ceiling. The way the shadows played over the steel threatened to make the world start spinning and Ty Lee closed her eyes against it.

But no. Sokka had been captured, too. And Mai and Katara and Aang and Momo and Appa were still out there waiting for them. (Hahn, too.) She couldn't just be a big dumb sleepy-head.

She opened her eyes again.

This time, a woman was leaning over her. Her aura was such a royal shade of blue that it made Ty Lee want to immediately drop into a kowtow, but there were waves of dark cloudiness that revealed a troubled mind.

It was an aura that Ty Lee had seen before, and she recognized it before the woman's face registered. "You're- you're that Water Tribe noble. With the pretty white hair. The one with Iroh."

"I'm Yue." She offered a smile that struggled to reach her sad eyes. "How are you feeling?"

Ty Lee thought about getting up, but only for just a moment. "Like I got a big ouchie on my head. Did I puke?"

"No." Yue leaned back, and Ty Lee could see that she was crouching on the floor in front of the bench. Her skirt was stained from the slush on the floor. "I think you'll be okay. But you need to rest."

Ty Lee couldn't argue with that, because her body agreed and fighting your body didn't ever lead to good things. "Okay. Thank you for- for taking care of me. I'm laying on your coat, right?"

Yue's smile brightened for just a moment. "Yes, and you are perfectly welcome."

Ty Lee was happy enough with the exchange to hum a few notes of a song that didn't exist, and then closed her eyes again. She was tired. Getting your head slammed repeatedly into a Fire Lord's knee could really take it out of you.

But that reminded her of something. She opened her eyes again to find Yue still beside her, but staring into space as the carriage - or vehicle - rattled on. "Um, are you Fire Lord Iroh's friend?"

Yue blinked and turned back to look at her. "In a way, I suppose I am."

"Oh." Ty Lee tried to work that out. "I always thought that was a yes/no kind of thing."

"I have a duty to his son." Yue frowned, and there was a flash of brownish orange in her aura, right over her head that revealed a retis- retick- hesitation in her emotions. "And- I can admit that there are many things about Iroh to like. But we have our disagreements. It's no secret that some of them are quite profound." He gaze sharpened, and the brown tried to overtake the orange. "How familiar are you with him?"

"Me? Oh, he's my friend's uncle except she's not my friend anymore because she thinks I'm dead and if she found out that I'm alive she'd kill me so now I hate her. Iroh used to do magic tricks for me when I was a little girl and I loved them. And just now he hit my head with his knee. Twice. It really hurt. And he gave me a concussion and I don't think he's sorry at all."

Yue blinked.

Yue blinked again.

Yue said, "You're a Weapon of the Fire Nation, right?"

Ty Lee had a give a little giggle at the question. "I don't know that there's such a thing anymore, but I used to be. Why?"

Yue's head tilted to the side. "I must admit that my expectations for the title were perhaps ill-informed. You're just like some of the girls of the Tribe."

Ty Lee smiled at what she was taking as a compliment. She was getting really tired, so she let her eyes drift closed. "Thanks. You're really nice, too." As sleep began to overtake her, a new thought floated up from the depths of her imagination. "I think Sokka likes you. Are you married to Lu Ten?"

The last thing she heard, before she was once again lost to the waking world, was Yue say, "No. I'm afraid it's quite a bit worse than that."


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Loopy
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« Reply #285 on: Mar 04, 2019 11:31 pm »

The snowstorm stopped right at the edge of the Spirit Forest.

The forest itself sat in a valley like a round bowl, surrounded by snow-covered mountains, making the circle of green leaves look like a stain on the landscape from above. But Aang knew that the real stain was the Fire Nation base situated in the pass leading to the forest through the ring of mountains, the place that had eaten Sokka and Ty Lee.

Aang on his glider, and Appa with the rest of the rest of the group as his passengers, both passed over the forest and emerged from the windy snowfall. In an instant, the sky had become peaceful. Aang had wondered, earlier, if the snowstorm was natural, but now he had to wonder the same thing about this calm.

Over on Appa's head, seated beside Katara and Mai, Rafa waved to Aang and pointed to a specific spot down in the forest. The center of the forest was the North Pole itself, and so every point in the forest in all directions was technically south of it, but the place Rafa was pointing to was about ninety degrees from the Fire Nation base, roughly in the middle between the forest's edge and its center.

Aang dove with his glider into the forest, Appa following him closely. They passed through the soft green canopy and emerged to find a world of black and white.

The trees were tall and only grew branches at the top; the rest of each tree was simply a dark and twisted trunk, not unlike the gnarled forest he'd just visited in the Spirit World while he was unconscious. The ground was covered in snow, although here it was merely a thin coating. Perhaps the canopy protected the floor from much of the snowfall? But if that was the case, wouldn't the green leaves all be covered?

Aang decided, as he came in for a landing, that he didn't need to worry about it.

The village he'd landed next to was much more interesting.

It was unmistakably a Water Tribe village, not unlike what the Faceless Tribe had built much further south. Animal skins and bones figured more prominently in this construction than wood, despite the forest around the village, but Aang approved of the choice of materials. He was a vegetarian and respected animal life on the same level as human life, but he knew the Water Tribes gave great honor to the animals they hunted, and if the other option was to cut down a tree from a spirit forest-

Well, he wouldn't have been surprised if the trees would have responded but cutting down people in return.

Of course, the trees probably wouldn't have to bother, what with the giant spirit monsters hanging around the village.

But 'monster' was probably too harsh a word. As Aang watched, the spirits solemnly came forward to greet the new arrivals. They all had the same catfish-like features as the one Mai had encountered, and all of them glowed with a blue light that reminded Aang of dreams he had forgotten years ago. They lifted clawed arms that shifted into smooth tentacles, and wrapped them lightly, for a moment, around the shoulders of each of the various Dreamcatchers who disembarked from Appa. A greeting?

One of the spirits approached Appa himself. The sky bison snorted and then opened his mouth to lick the spirit, but the catfish thing suddenly lost its coherency, becoming nothing more than an amorphous blob of night and glow that stretched and snapped a distance away. Then it became a catfish-creature once more and turned a luminescent glare on Appa.

Aang laughed as Momo scurried over to perch on his shoulders. "I guess Appa's too friendly for them."

Yugoda waved to him. "Come, Avatar. We can talk and eat in the Gathering House."

He joined Katara and Mai, and together they followed the Dreamcatchers into the village. Hahn was already mixing and talking with some of the warriors like they were old friends, and they probably were. A pair of women brought over bales of what looked like dried kelp and laid them in front of Appa, who immediately began eating.

Something Aang immediately noticed was that this village was a lot smaller than the Faceless Tribe's. Also, there were boxes of clearly labeled Fire Navy supplies stacked up in places. "So, you guys are some sort of rebellion? That's neat."

Yugoda came over to a solitary longhouse and pulled aside the flap covering the doorway. "Our existence is an act of rebellion against our conquerors, yes. But we have yet to strike at them in violence." She ducked and passed through the doorway.

Mai looked at Aang. "Aw, no violence? That's no fun."

He had heard about how she'd laid down her weapon rather than fight the catfish spirit, before, so he could safely take that as a joke. "Good one!" With a chuckle, he led the way into the longhouse.

The Dreamcatchers were all gathering around a fire over which a large pot of bubbling stew was suspended. A smaller pot had been placed next to the fire, and when Rafa caught Aang looking at it, he nodded and said, "This one is for you, Avatar. The scrolls say that the Air Nomads of old forsook flesh as food, so we prepared this for you. I hope you like kelp and Fire Nation spices."

Aang blinked. "You knew I was coming?"

Yugoda sat down next to the fire, and other Dreamcatchers took seats around her. "Iroh knew you were coming, and so did his minions, and thus it was in their dreams that we saw the signs. We have prepared a meat-free broth for you every day for the last week, but none of them have gone to waste. It is our pleasure to finally share our cooking with you."

Wow. Aang was impressed. "So you can visit people in dreams, too? That's amazing!"

"Not with the same skill and power as the new Fire Lord, I'm afraid. We have to take special steps to enter an elevated state of dreaming, and then the glimpses we manage to get of our prey's dreams can be just as confusing as our own real dreams. Master Adlartok here-" Yugoda motioned to an old man seated near her with the bushiest eyebrows Aang had ever seen. "-was a spiritualist in our tribe, and he has greatly aided us in interpreting what we find."

Rafa handed Aang a bowl of the special soup they'd prepared for him. He sat down across from Yugoda and took a sip, finding that it was indeed an odd mix of flavors, very sharp, but not quite what he would call bad. Mai was given a bowl of the stew after she had sat down, which she tasted with obvious caution, and then put on a neutral expression.

Katara was likewise given a bowl, but she just stared at it as she plopped to the ground beside Aang. "I don't know if I can eat while Sokka and Ty Lee are in trouble. How is talk about dreams going to help us?"

Yugoda blinked at her. "Hmmm. Something about you is familiar. Have we met before?"

Katara shook her head. "This is my first visit to the north. I was born into the Southern Water Tribe."

"Hm. We have heard of the hardships faced by our sister tribe, and the wisdom you have been made to forget. Right now, eating is the best thing you can do, so that you will have the strength later to fight."

Mai put her bowl of stew, barely touched, aside. Momo immediately zipped over and began helping himself to it. "I thought you people were pacifists."

Rafa shook his head. "I'll happily jam a spear into Admiral Iroh's neck the first chance I get. We simply don't fight because we wish to survive. Iroh only knows that some of his supplies sometimes go missing, but nothing of us specifically. Secrecy is our greatest weapon."

A short distance away, Hahn lowered his own bowl of stew to frown. "But he has to know about you! You were one of the greatest fighters in our tribe, Rafa, and Master Yugoda taught all the healers. You two couldn't just- just go missing!"

Rafa nodded. "Now you know why we cut ourselves off from our families. As far as the Fire Nation conquerors know, every single person in this village is dead. We recruit one by one, spirit them away with deception and theater, and let the Tribe think our bodies have been sunk to the bottom of the waters."

Yugoda added, "We hide here where even Iroh's minions can't go. They steal from the forest, both its energies and cuttings from the trees. When they enter the forest, they stay at the edge and must bring substantial defenses. Their theft poisons what they take, making it hostile. The energies themselves have become corrosive to everyone in that base, but they seem to have found a defense against that. We, on the other hand, live in harmony with the forest. The spirits accept us here, as long as we don't approach the very center, and don't carry the white gold metal."

Aang saw the corner of Mai's lips twist at that, but only because he knew what to look for.

Just thinking about her choosing pacifism while he was unconscious made him feel warmer, even if it was probably a one-time thing. And now they were making friends with people who weren't just enemies of the Fire Nation, but people who truly understood about living in harmony with the world. "And the forest protects you from Iroh's Dream Walking?"

Rafa finished the last of his stew and belched. "In a way. Dreamcatchers are what we call a kind of protective charm made of broken branches from the trees here. We all sleep beneath them. The sages could probably tell us more of their origins, but the Tribe uses them to extend the care of a spider spirit over our babies, with the father coming to gather fallen branches and the mother weaving them together. We happened to discover that they can protect us from Dream Walking, as well."

Yugoda sighed. "Everything we have has been corrupted by Iroh."

Aang didn't like the sound of that. "What do you mean?"

Yugoda looked across the fire at him. "We have seen images of a spider in the dreams of his people. But to us, it looks like a nightmare."



Sokka wouldn't have guessed that he'd be most interested in a room filled with plants, but then, the fact that it also contained a mechanical spider with scary needle legs probably had something to do with it.

Lian (the Maker) and Admiral Zhao (the jerk) had already shown him the Platinum Casting Room, and the Electrical Power Room, and even the Heated But Barely Big Enough To Do Your Business Bathroom (on request). All of them had their charms, but they were also exactly what Sokka expected. He knew they were working with platinum here, so they had to have some way to melt it down and shape it in different way; just because the techniques and tools for doing so were more advanced than anything he'd seen before didn't make it a big deal. Likewise the machines they had for generating electricity here at the North Pole. And when you had to go, you had to go.

But he couldn't even guess the purpose behind what Lian called the 'Hon Non Bo Room.'

The Maker led Sokka into the wide space through the simple swinging door, Zhao bringing up the rear as a guard. She didn't say anything at first, simply letting Sokka take in the rows and rows of potted trees no bigger than his forearm. They had all been cultivated to mimic the shape and proportions of a fully-grown specimen. Except for colors that usually didn't belong on trees (a blue so bright it was literally glowing seemed to be a favorite around here), it could have any old man's penzai hobby.

But then there was the miniature scale swamp sitting in a big pool in the center of the room, a mess of tiny vines and bubbling water and moss and slow-moving mud and even some buzzing insects. From the center of it all rose a single fat tree with a triangular leafy top of almost mathematical precision.

That's where the mechanical spider came in.

The shining device, clearly made of platinum, sat on top of that central tree. The main body was a riot of links and hinges that somehow gave the metal form considerable flexibility, allowing it to curl in a stable position on the tree's foliage. The legs came in a variety of sizes with various amounts of joints, and every single one of them tapered off into a long needle that was plunged into the tree trunk.

Sokka noticed that there were marks drawn in chalk on the trunk right where the needles were piercing the smooth bark.

He turned to Lian. "Let me guess: you guys just couldn't get used to kelp-chewies, so you figured you'd grow your own apples, and things got really out of hand."

Lian chuckled and smoothed her long green coat. "I'd be worried about eating the fruit of these trees. Tell me, have you seen the Spirit Forest that covers the North Pole?"

"You know, I was thinking of making a stop, but then I tripped over a weird scientific outpost and I somehow wound up captured by freaky mad scientists and racist conquerors." Sokka shrugged. "It's odd how often that happens to me."

Zhao snorted. "It gets old for the rest of us, too."

"Well," Lian said, "all of the plants in this room are made from samples taken from the Spirit Forest. Retrieving them was- there were a degree of engineering and security problems to solve. But these samples have been very valuable for allowing us to simulate working on larger and more robust entities. And they've led to some bonuses, such as the burs we use at the perimeter to fight off spirit monsters."

Sokka looked at the miniature trees. And the miniature swamp. And the metal spider with needle-legs. "Tell me there isn't a giant platinum death-spider hidden somewhere around here that I'm going to have to destroy with my friends."

"Oh, no. That's ridiculous." Lian shook her head. "We had it assembled at the Northern Air Temple base by a specialist in large-scale mechanics. And it's already being moved to a station closer to its mission."

Wait-

A simulated swamp?

Mission?

Northern Air Temple?!

Sokka sucked in a breath of humid, mosquito-flavored air. "This is it! The thing! The thing that- the map that Jet passed to Katara! That weird invasion that didn't make any sense because you guys already conquered that part of the Earth Kingdom! It's all to- to move a weird mechanical insect into a swamp so that it can get freaky with a big tree?"

"Spiders aren't insects. They're arachnids." Lian's eyebrows rose. "And now I know how much you know about it. The Avatar hasn't yet discovered the map's true meaning. See, Admiral? There's no need to interrogate a smart man like Sokka when we can just put a problem in front of him and watch how he solves it."

Sokka could feel his teeth grinding together. He was tempted to fire back with an assertion that now he knew how much she knew about how much he knew, but he was too angry at himself to make it work. He'd let his guard down because Lian was revealing things about Iroh and being polite, but she was still an enemy and working against him.

He wasn't so angry that he missed the surprise in Zhao's voice, though:

"You're after a tree?! Whatever for?"

Lian gave Zhao a look out of the side of her eye. "I expect that Fire Lord Iroh will brief you at the appropriate time, now that you've been given command of Special Operations." She looked back at Sokka and her smile returned. "So what do you suppose the spider does? Remember, there are no wrong answers here. This is a place for encouraging thought."

Sure, thoughts that resulted in playing with severed monster heads. "I'm going to think out loud for moment." Sokka looked at how the spider's legs pierced the trunk at the center of the various clusters of chalk markings. "You said that platinum disrupts spiritual energies by conducting them straight out of their natural structure. You're stabbing spooky ghost plants, or whatever they are, in precise patterns. The plants have energies, and your platinum- it leeches the energies out? You're turning them into batteries?"

Lian's eyes narrowed in a sly way; she apparently thought herself to be a clever girl. "Not a bad guess. That is possible, but there are a number of problems that keep it from being viable, yet. Perhaps you could help solve them for us. But no, that's not the purpose behind this."

Hm. Was she telling the truth? The experiment with the Unhcegila head that Sokka had watched before seemed to be about reducing spirit vines to their fundamental energy, so Lian was definitely thinking along those lines. But- what if the thing with the swamp and the platinum spider-machine was following a different track? The same fundamental principles could be informing completely different explorations, as he well knew from his time working in Fire Nation labs. That was how science worked. And clearly there was something about this specific swamp, and this specific tree, that had them building scale models using actual cuttings from a Spirit Forest.

Sokka shrugged. "I clearly don't have enough information to really say. Maybe if you told me more about the swamp?"

"Maybe you'll figure out yourself. Wouldn't that be more interesting?" Lian winked the eye that had the half-gear tattooed under it. "For now, I think you'll enjoy seeing the siphon we have set up to direct the energies we're stealing from the Spirit Forest."

She led the way out of the humid tree-lab, and Sokka made sure to follow.

He noticed, though, that Zhao didn't fall into line right away. The admiral lingered for a moment, looking at the fake swamp and its central tree.

Then he turned and stalked along in Sokka's wake.


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Loopy
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« Reply #286 on: Mar 04, 2019 11:33 pm »

Katara was truly interested in learning about the Dreamcatchers. After seeing her own tribe yoked under the Fire Nation's control for so long, it was heartening to see that even here in the heart of Iroh's conquests, the Northern Water Tribe had found a way to resist his tyranny.

But she would have liked to rescue her brother first. He had come across the world for her, held onto hope that she lived for a whole decade. She would never be able to match that kind of loyalty.

At least, she hoped she'd never have to.

And Ty Lee. Katara had been traveling with Ty Lee ever since Ba Sing Se, relying only on each other and surrounded by enemies. They'd shared food, rooms, beds, clothes, and a mission. They'd fought together and talked together and laughed together. It was strange to think that someone from the Fire Nation - a noble and a Weapon on top of that - could be such a great friend, but Katara couldn't imagine life with Ty Lee, now. She wanted to learn more about auras, about how Ty Lee saw the world.

She let the talking and explanations go on for as long as she could until everyone's stew was long gone.

Now it was time for action.

"So," she said to the gathering in the longhouse, "what are we actually going to do about rescuing our friends?"

Mai twirled one of her knives without looking at it. "I was wondering about that, myself."

Aang frowned, and Katara could see that he'd really been enjoying all this discussion about spirits and forests and dreams, but he was easily distractible that way. She knew he was someone who could be counted on, as long as he got reminded of the problem at hand every so often, and now he took a breath and nodded. "Katara's right. I came here to do something about Iroh, and it sounds like you can really help me. The entire world is suffering because of the Fire Lord, but what's going on up here is especially dangerous. I need to find a way to stop him."

Rafa grinned in a way that reminded Katara of a wolf. "Then don't bother with the laboratory. That has defenses made to fight the forest, and Iroh knows you're interested in that now. You want the Spirit Oasis in the city."

Hahn groaned. "The garden? I was going to use that to sneak them into the city! I knew we should have just gone straight there!"

Rafa gave a low chuckle. "It wouldn't have given you what you want. Iroh has built a full fortress over it. No one has seen the inside of the Oasis since he conquered us."

Katara couldn't help but roll her eyes. "So you want us to go to another fortress, except this one doesn't have Sokka or Ty Lee. Maybe someone could explain this 'strategy' to me so that it makes sense?"

Mai leaned over and whispered, "You might want to tone it down. You're sounding like me, and no one likes me."

"I like you," Aang whispered back, but Katara didn't bother to respond to any of it.

Yugoda looked over to Katara. "It makes sense when you know that Iroh's son, the Prince Lu Ten, is somewhere in that fortress, and no one has seen him either since the Fire Nation conquered the Northern Water Tribe."

Iroh's son?

The Fire Lord had struck at Katara's family, and now she could strike at his. She leaned forward. "Okay, I can work with this."

Rafa stood up. "Then it's agreed. Come, Avatar. My warriors and I will show you the battle plans we've drawn up. We've been waiting for years for this chance, and now, with you, we can not only find out what's going on, but bring balance back to the North Pole."

Katara stood up to join them, but Rafa glanced over at her and then his eyes fall to the ground. "The women can see to softer matters while we make our plans."

Katara's fists clenched. This garbage again?!

Yugoda put a hand on her shoulder, and leaned in with a smile to whisper, "Let them have their fun. I've been around long enough to have seen all their plans. I can see that you and the Fire Nation lady are warriors, and I'll make sure you get to take part in the fight."

Katara made herself exhale. "All right. I guess this isn't the time or place to fix all this dumb Water Tribe sexism."

Yugoda nodded. "It's an enemy that's eaten away at us for much longer than the Fire Nation. I don't know if it's true, but the accepted wisdom amongst the healers has always been that the 'Word of Avatar Kyoshi' has always been the thinnest book in our sages' archives because most of what she said about us wasn't fit to be recorded."

Katara had to bite down on a laugh. "I'd like to think that, too."

"I'm sure. But-" Yugoda leaned back. "You seem so familiar, especially this kind of anger. You're obviously a warrior. I may not be a fighter myself, but have taught Waterhealing for longer than most of my tribe has been alive. I've seen the way the men move when they use their fighting styles. The way you walk- you understand the flow of water. But you understand it the same way Master Pakku does."

Oh. Katara wondered how to explain this. "I- I learned from Pakku, yes. Aang thought Iroh was an ally for a while, and Pakku- he offered me help, and I accepted. But then he- I-"

Yugoda waved that away. "I can tell that it's painful. So first, explain to me how Pakku was convinced to train a girl in his style. I can't imagine even Iroh had that much control of him."

"Ha." It was a laugh without humor, but Katara felt that it was needed, anyway. "No, it was a favor to someone else. I- I had already been taught Waterbending forms by a master of the south, but I didn't- I grew up in a Fire Nation prison. I didn't know how to really feel the water I was Bending. And I- I'm damaged by what I went through. Pakku saw that feeling the water could help me, and- well, I think he and my Gran-Gran were an item when they were young. She came from the north-"

"Kanna!" Yugoda's jaw dropped. "I knew you and your attitude were familiar! You're the spitting image of Kanna!"

Katara gave a smile, a real one. "Thank you. But, uh, then I found out that Pakku and Iroh were up to no good, so I had to run away. And then not that long ago Pakku died, but it wasn't because I beat him again, it was this spirit monster, and-"

"You beat Pakku in a fight," Yugoda said. There was no question in it, but her eyes were wide. "You must have been quite a student. You have done Kanna proud."

Katara looked down at her boots. "I didn't really beat him. I had to use a trick. Master Hama - my first master, from the south - she had this idea of Waterbending a person's blood, and I-" She looked to see if Yugoda would interrupt her again, but the old woman was just staring at her. "I know it's bad. But- but before I did it, I was scared of the sky. I hadn't seen it while I was in that prison, and- and it always looked so big. But with Bloodbending, I knew I had power, and- and even though I'm still afraid, I can- when I'm feeling good, I know being afraid doesn't really matter, but- but what I was doing to Pakku looked so awful, and- and-"

With no interruption to save her, Katara just shrugged and stopped trying to put it all in words.

Yugoda was silent for a long moment. "I cannot say whether- whether Bloodbending is an art that should be condemned. Perhaps it is. But I think it is your path, Katara of the South, to find the answer. Many a new technique has been created that seems evil at first glance. That is the way of violence. That is why the women of our tribe are asked to shun it. Men do not think we have the wisdom to see the correct path."

Katara looked up again. "Really?"

Yugoda nodded. "But now that you have used this Bloodbending, it is upon you to find whether it should be left to sink beneath the waves and be forgotten, or if it is like the more acceptable forms of violence, something to be used in defense of Tribe and Balance. It is a question that may destroy you." Despite her words, she smiled. "But I think Kanna's granddaughter is more than up to the task."

Katara smiled back. "Thank you. You must have been an amazing friend to my Gran-Gran."

Yugoda snorted. "I said no one could blame her for not wanting to marry Pakku, but only a crazy person would run away across the world over it. I was mostly right."

Katara laughed.

When the echoes of her amusement faded, she saw Aang coming back over to the firepit with Rafa and Hahn.

Aang looked to her. "We know what we need to do. Are you ready?"

Katara stood up and gave him a grin that she put more than a little wolf into. "Just try to stop me."



Zhao's thoughts were still on that strange miniature swamp, and Lian's vague insinuations about it, as the ridiculous tour of the laboratory for the Sokka Tribal continued on. Lian was currently showing off some of the experiments with using words written in platinum to create protective wards.

It was a better briefing than Zhao had gotten, when he was put in charge of it all.

And yet the Tribal was clearly distracted. He responded to Lian's questions, and was saying things clever enough to please the Maker, but Zhao knew that something was wrong. The Tribal had stopped throwing out barbs and insults, never mind trying to make everything he said into a demonstration of his supposed cleverness. And it had been happening since the Tribal got a look at that miniature swamp and the mechanical spider wrapped around the central tree.

And if it had the Tribal distracted, then Zhao wanted to know what was going on with it, too.

As Lian babbled on about how etymology might play into the effectiveness of the magical wards, Zhao spotted a lieutenant signaling from the lab's door. Zhao discreetly took his leave and stepped outside the room where they couldn't be heard. "What report?"

The lieutenant gave a quick bow. "Admiral, the Jorogumo Project sent word via telegraph. They're on station and ready to deploy as soon as you send the command."

And this was why Zhao was so worried about the miniature swamp. The Jorogumo Project - Lian's fancy name for the bigger version of the mechanical platinum spider machine - was well underway and already aimed at the real version of that very swamp. Fire Lord Iroh had declared it the most important and critical program in the entire world, shortly before putting it under Zhao's command.

It had been just after Iroh was crowned, and the assembly of military High Command members and Fire Sages had retired to rest before their trip back to the Homeland. Iroh had sat on a throne of ice in what seemed to be a Tribal banquet hall, a fur cloak beneath him, and said, "Zhao, I think we both know that you've disappointed me as often as you've managed to do as I ask."

Zhao had said nothing. He knew it was true, but he hadn't been commanded to admit it, and he saw no reason to incriminate himself.

Iroh sighed. "But you did complete your critical tasks in delivering the Fire Nation to me. And, thanks to your efforts, the Avatar does live. He might not be my ally any longer, but that is hardly your fault alone."

Zhao had decided, then, that he could venture an opinion, as long as he kept it neutral. "The Avatar is a very troublesome individual. A disobedient child, when it comes right down to it."

A ghost of a smile flickered across Iroh's bearded face. "You are not a parent, are you?"

"I'm sure you know I am not, my lord."

"Yes." Iroh slumped, and motioned to one of the Fire Marine guards standing at ready at the edge of the throne room. "We are entering a very dangerous stage. My becoming Fire Lord is just the beginning. I need to heal the world in order to help my son-"

(And here some further explanation would have been very much appreciated, as Lu Ten had been 'indisposed' for as long as Zhao had been at the North Pole.)

"-but if something goes wrong, I have only my most desperate plan left," Iroh continued. "Lian is making marvelous progress in understanding the nature of his affliction, but there is still so much for us to learn, and the Avatar is coming. I'm afraid he promised me that himself."

The guard returned, carrying a teapot and an empty cup. He set the cup on the arm of Iroh's throne and filled it with steaming tea, and then retreated back to his station. With the pot.

Well, when in doubt, Zhao had never found that flattery could be misplaced. "You have succeeded where many men throughout history have failed, my lord. You have conquered the unconquerable and rose up despite the many enemies who tried to take what is rightfully yours. I have no doubt that you will succeed in this pursuit, too. Now, as to the 'affliction' of Prince Lu Ten-"

"That matter is classified, Commander," Iroh cut in, his voice as hard as a battleship hull and as cold as the ice of his throne. He took a sip of his tea. "But I appreciate your confidence. Desperation has driven me to great heights- hm, and perhaps it has driven you, too. But the truth, Zhao, is that I don't need you anymore."

That's never a good thing to hear from one's tyrant lord. It had chilled Zhao to the bone, worse than any of the cold and ice of this forsaken wasteland. "My liege, I assure you that I-"

"Please, do not be afraid. I certainly have no intention of punishing you. But if you want to make yourself useful, perhaps you can help with the matter of my son."

Zhao had shut his mouth and listened very carefully.

Iroh had smiled. "My Northern Fleet has been stretched thin, given all my activities of late, but I will need to extend great strength to the Southern Earth Kingdom. The Avatar is on his way for a confrontation, and that might very well go poorly for me. Zhao, I offer you a promotion to Admiral, with a position on the personal military staff of the Fire Lord, and direct command of my Special Operations military security here and throughout the Colonial Continent."

Zhao's blood had flared at the word 'Admiral,' but he was too good at staying alive to jump for it- yet. "And why would you offer me this, my lord? I barely know the nature of your special projects."

Iroh took another sip of his tea. "Well, you do have the most direct experience with the Avatar and his allies. And, as I said before, you've fed well on your own desperation. Perhaps giving you a mission that, if failed, will destroy not only you but everything you have worked for since entering my service- well, that is quite the incentive, is it not? And unpleasantly dramatic, but I think we are well past the point of no return on that mark."

Zhao wasn't so sure.

But if Iroh went down, then Zhao had no doubts about what would happen to him. If the Fire Nation even survived, whoever wound up in charge of it would hardly be well disposed to Iroh's direct allies. And if the Avatar was the one who carried the day, it would probably go even worse for Zhao. Exile would be the best he could hope for in any scenario.

So wouldn't it be in his best interest to make sure Iroh's strange little projects succeeded?

(And get a promotion to Admiral while he was at it?)

"My lord, it is my honor to accept your most generous offer." Zhao dropped to his knees and kowtowed on the icy floor. "I will serve you to the best of my strength and abilities."

And sure enough, Zhao had been officially promoted and given command of the Special Operations security division of the Northern Fleet. But that had come with so little information, including about Prince Lu Ten. Even when the Tribal task force sent to find and capture the Avatar had returned with the Unhcegila head, and Lian had gotten so excited about the theories she could then attempt to prove, Zhao was left in the dark about why these theories were so important.

He couldn't help but suspect that he was being played for a patsy.

Well, as the Fire Lord had said, desperation was Zhao's greatest ally.

He nodded to the lieutenant. "Tell them to remain on high alert, and send the confirmations to the colonial divisions that we marked to serve as defensive reinforcements."

"Yes, sir!"

"And," he said as he made sure to keep his face neutral, "I have concerns about the security here with the Avatar and his allies running around. Put the Unhcegila lab on security level five, and prepare for an evacuation of all sensitive materials. We wouldn't want something so important to be damaged in any fighting, now would we?"

"Yes, sir."

Once the lieutenant was running off to pass on the orders, Zhao allowed himself a smile. Iroh might value all the skills and knowledge Zhao had picked up since leaving his backwater assignment at South Pole, all that time ago, but he had learned some things before then, too. And if there was one thing being stuck in a backwater could teach a man, it was how to play petty games with the limited resources at hand.

So the Unhcegila was important to Lu Ten, eh?

Time to found out how important.

TO BE CONTINUED
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Loopy
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« Reply #287 on: Mar 27, 2019 06:55 pm »

The Bastion

Ty Lee's first view of the Northern Water Tribe chilled her more than the weather, and the weather was really really cold.

It was night when the metal-vehicle-thing brought her and the Water Tribe Princess Yue into the city. Ty Lee had been asleep at the time, or at least in a kind of concussed not-quite-wakey-wakey state that was pretty close. The sudden lack of vibration through the metal floor and walls and bench-turned-bed jolted her enough to get her eyes open, and from there it was just a matter to deciding to return to reality.

Yue was leaning over her, her glorious and slightly tarnished blue aura fighting against the dull green light of the crystal lantern hanging from the ceiling. "Can you walk? I can have them bring a stretcher."

"I can walk." Ty Lee decided this was true and sat up on the bench. The world remained stable around her, and while there was still fatigue in her body, it wasn't enough to keep her down. "Being carried sounds fun, but my feet want to feel like they're contributing again."

"O- kay." Yue's dark eyebrows (and why were her eyebrows dark when her hair was white?) drew together like she was confused about something. "Here, I'll help you walk."

Ty Lee was used to walking on a tightrope, sometimes even on her fingers (although she'd never managed to make it work with her ring fingers, just the other four), but she still allowed Yue to take most of her weight as they made their way out of the passenger compartment, where a door folded down to become a tiny set of steps. (Neat!) After all, Ty Lee might need her strength later if she had to fight meanies again. An arctic wind greeted her as she emerged from the vehicle, and she raised her eyes to see where she had been brought.

That's when she saw it.

An entire city made of ice.

Well, mostly ice.

It had started as all ice, at least. It reflected the light of the full moon so brightly that not a single torch was needed to fight back the night. But, appropriately for a Water Tribe, all the ice didn't make the city feel frozen or locked in place. Ty Lee felt like she was standing at the top of the world's biggest, widest waterfall, looking down. Water was even pouring from a fountain somewhere behind her to feed wide canals that spread through the city in place of streets. Most of the canal water, though, came from portholes around the city's walled borders that that released shimmering jets to fall like curtains. They reflected the stars above to project the illusion of movement over the buildings and walls.

With the gentle downward slope of the expanse, it seem like the Tribe here was living on top of a flowing river into forever.

Too bad all the added metal clashed so badly.

Amidst the buildings sculpted from pure white ice, boxy outposts made from dull black metal clashed with the artistic architecture around them. Trebuchets and ballista poked up across each little neighborhood and pointed out to face the iceberg-pocked ocean. And the defensive walls of ice had been covered with big metal plates, forcing all access through portals that Ty Lee knew (from 'Science & Engineering History for the Glory of our Nation' class back at the Royal Academy) could be shut with mechanical strength in the event of an invasion.

Soldiers in the armor of the Fire Navy patrolled those walls, regularly checking the ocean ahead and the sky above. They were expecting an invasion from something that could swim or fly.

Strangely, the city streets themselves seemed to be empty of guards. Ty Lee was used to the sight of a city under occupation, thanks to her time touring the colonies with the circus, and one constant was heavy patrolling in civilian areas to prevent trouble. (Ty Lee knew now how many innocent things could be called 'trouble,' thanks to Sokka's stories.) But here, people in blue parkas moved around without any supervision.

Yet, despite the lack of soldiers in their midst, the people all had auras of drab lifeless shades. They were dying while they were living. Even the poorest, most unfortunate people in the colonies hadn't been this bad; they at least had anger, even if it left them unbalanced. But these people had auras like they had given up all hope and were just waiting for the rest of the world to catch up.

Ty Lee decided that these people badly needed a circus. Unfortunately, she was too busy to start one right now, and besides, she was concussed.

But she did say, "What has Iroh done to you?"

Yue sighed. "So much. And all of it with genuine care and concern. Come, let's get you into the palace. I had them wire ahead for a healer, and if you're not feeling sleepy again when she finishes, I can try to explain."

Ty Lee nodded her agreement (she'd make sure she was awake for this gossip) and let Yue lead her around the vehicle that had brought them here.

And that's when she saw what had to be the Northern Water Tribe's royal palace. It was, of course, made of ice.

It reminded Ty Lee of a fountain, each floor layered with flaring eaves that glistened in the moonlight as if water was running over them. Water had to be coming from somewhere, because a series of small waterfalls were coming out from beneath the palace to join the canal-feeders, but she couldn't see anything. She did notice how the Fire Nation flag covered some kind of sculpture on the top of the palace, though.

And she also saw the big, black, vertical fortress that rose up behind the palace, built into the icy cliffs that bordered the city's rear. That was where Hahn had been intending to take Ty Lee and her friends, to sneak them into the city.

But there would be no entry here. It rose like a dam to hold back the natural world, with a building like an Imperial battleship plopped on top to block out the view of the sky.

Ty Lee stared as she and Yue mounted the palace steps together. "Wow, I guess Iroh really redecorated."

"Actually," came a smug voice, "I designed and oversaw the construction of The Bastion. The Fire Lord merely requested something to protect his two greatest treasures." Coming down the steps was a bespectacled man - a Water Tribe man, judging by his features - in the uniform of a Fire Navy officer. He grinned down at Ty Lee, and his green aura swirled darkly. "Welcome back, Princess Yue. I see you're bringing a guest into my palace."

Yue's blue aura became tinged with red, but she bowed her head as though to a superior. "Chief Maliq, thank you for receiving me. I wired ahead-"

"Yes, your message was passed on to me." He strolled down the stairs and leaned directly in Ty Lee's face. "A Weapon of the Fire Nation to take care of, eh? But you didn't say how beautiful she'd be."

Ty Lee was glad that Yue was holding her up. "Um, thanks, but I got a big ouchie on my head so I'm not very good company right now. Sorry!"

Maliq smiled. "Yes, I've asked my sister Malina to prepare to receive you. You might be a traitor to the Fire Nation, but I greatly admire your culture, and you will be treated with the utmost politeness, Lady Caldera Yu Ty Lee."

Yue, without raising her head, said, "Chief Maliq was educated in the finest universities in the Fire Nation colonies, before Iroh appointed him to lead us." She finally did stand straight, meeting Maliq's eyes. "And while I appreciate your special attention on this matter, I think Misu would be a better healer for Ty Lee. She has more experience with head injuries."

Maliq stared at Yue for a moment, face as frosty as the air, but then looked back to Ty Lee and put a smile back on. "Well, only the best for a noble of the Fire Nation. I think you'll find that we've adapted quite well to the rule of your nation. The Water Tribe's primitive days are behind them."

Wow. Ty Lee hoped that Sokka and Katara wouldn't have to meet this guy. She didn't want to see what it did to their auras. "Great. So, uh, nice meeting you, and-"

That's when the alarms started.

Someone started beating a gong in a steady danger-pattern, and soon horns and additional gongs joined in with the noise. Ty Lee saw the more metal portions of the Water Tribe city come to life, the massive weapon emplacements swinging upward-

-and she followed their movement to see a cloud moving against the wind.

But she knew it wasn't a cloud. It was a sky bison, and he was her friend.

Maliq lost his smile. "Get in the palace. It seems the Avatar has come for my Bastion. I hope he won't make us hurt him."

"Come on," Yue said, and began moving Ty Lee up the steps to the palace again. Ty Lee let herself be led away, but she was no longer focused on taking in the scenery. She'd seen enough to know what was going on.

And how to fight here.

So instead, she cleared her mind and steadied her breathing. She sank into something like a meditation, focusing on the Qi that flowed within her body. It was disrupted in her head, where she'd taken an injury from Iroh's attack, and would need real healing. Hopefully, Yue would be able to arrange for that, but Ty Lee couldn't rely on it. Not with her friends about to go into battle.

So she discreetly poked herself in a few specific places, increasing the flow of Qi to her head.

It wouldn't be as good as Waterhealing, and would take a little longer, but maybe it would be enough for Ty Lee to fight if she had to.

Just because she didn't like being a Weapon didn't mean she wasn't still the most dangerous person in this entire city.

At least, for the sake of her friends, she hoped so.



Katara looked over the Northern Water Tribe city, at the beautiful ice buildings hidden behind an array of defenses, weapons, and soldiers. All of it was assembled to kill her and everyone else up on Appa right now, a force ready and waiting for them, a force created by arguably the world's greatest living strategic genius.

She frowned. "Are we sure we don't want to try attacking the city? Maybe that will be easier."

Rafa leaned over the edge of the saddle beside her, gazing with clear yearning at the city - at the people - he had to abandon to join the Dreamcatcher rebellion against the Fire Nation. "The critical part of my plan is to get through the Bastion to Iroh's son and the Spirit Oasis. There are considerable defenses at the top, and I'd rather not fight through my city, but I will do what I must to liberate it."

Katara winced at the thought of bringing harm to the people, the families of her sister tribe, in a pitched battle against a Fire Nation army. But the alternative was this plan of Aang's, and that plan relied on, among other things, Katara herself. "Yeah, but are we really sure about this?"

Over on Appa's head, Aang turned around and grinned at her. "Now you're sounding like Sokka."

"I- I do not! I'm just being practical. Mai, be pessimistic and back me up!"

Across the saddle, surrounded by more of Rafa's Waterbender warriors, Mai looked up from the chunk of machinery she was familiarizing herself with. "Actually, I like Aang's crazy daring stupid plan. Our team has a high rate of success on those."

"But-"

Mai looked straight at Katara with eyes that glistened silver-gold in the light of the moon. "I really think you can do this. Even with all my cynical lack of hope. Take that for what it is."

Stupid Mai being a stupid good friend. Katara sighed and looked up at the sky, at the full moon shining down on the world. The view made her skin crawl, but she took that nervous energy and welcomed it, let it fill her body without granting it even a little bit of control.

She'd need all the energy she could get to shove an ocean out of the way.

Appa was passing out over that ocean right now, leaving the city behind. Aang steered him over the waters, over the floating icebergs, where the Fire Navy patrol ships were swinging to a defensive array.

And then he had Appa turn around and point them all straight at the city.

Katara breathed in. She breathed out. Then she moved forward to the front of the saddle, along with Mai (who brought along the device she was borrowing from the Dreamcatchers), and together they climbed up onto Appa's head and took the reins from Aang.

Aang himself climbed down onto Appa's face so that he was perched right above the sky bison's nose. "Okay, I'm ready!"

Mai whipped the reins as Katara stood up and began swinging her arms to summon the attention of the lapping waves below. The Waterbenders who Rafa had recruited for this adventure all stood in the saddle as well, synchronizing their movements with hers. They'd been skeptical at having a girl lead this part of the plan, until Aang had described how she'd thrown a rainstorm at the Faceless Tribe's Waterbender warriors.

Mai drawled, "Yip-yip."

Appa snapped his tail and shot forward, diving down on a steep angle towards the outer wall of the city. Or, more specifically, where the lapping waves met the wall.

Katara closed her eyes as the catapults and trebuchets and ballista all began firing at them. There was nothing she could do about any of it, and she needed to concentrate. She reached out with her mind and body and emotion and spirit to the ocean, just as Pakku had taught her. She didn't need to see the water to feel it, not anymore. Pakku might have betrayed her to Iroh, but she knew, at least, that he hadn't liked it. Now his lessons would help liberate his tribe.

Katara leaned forward and pushed with her arms. Behind her, the other Waterbenders would be doing the same thing.

She could feel the ocean respond, curving away even as Appa continued his dive, but it was so vast, so heavy, and it pushed back against her.

But that was okay. Master Hama might have been forced to teach Waterbending, back in that dry Crescent Island prison, without the benefit of any water around, but Katara had made sure to learn the principles. Waterbending was push and pull, transference of momentum, motion redirected along the path of least effort.

So when the ocean pushed back against her, Katara went ahead and started pulling along with it.

And that created more motion, more energy. The ocean rose, the surface cresting.

Then Katara got back to pushing.

She kept this cycle up for a few seconds, and at last opened her eyes.

She barely saw the flaming projectile headed right towards Appa before Aang took care of it. He leaped ahead off of Appa's nose, kicked a wind at the ball of fire to knock it off course, and rode that wind over to a ballista bolt that was angling too close. Katara let Aang work, let him dance in the open space ahead of Appa's dive to clear the way for them all, and focused on the ocean below.

It was moving.

The water right in front of the Northern Water Tribe city's outer wall was rising up to soak the ramparts and then falling again to expose the wall's foundations, and then rising again, and then falling again, and so on. Katara kept up her motion, working with the other Waterbenders in the saddle, adding energy and movement to the unnatural lapping of the waves.

She was doing it!

Katara was moving the ocean enough for Aang's plan!

Appa diving was bringing them close to that wall, now. They had passed beneath the range of the Fire Nation's weaponry, but they weren't out of danger yet.

The water receded again, exposing the solid wall of ice and the frozen rock it had been built upon.

In a second, they'd crash into that rock with the full force of Appa's flight, enough force to kill them all instantly.

But Aang was going to take care of that, too.

Trusting the Avatar was even easier than trusting herself.
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Loopy
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« Reply #288 on: Mar 27, 2019 06:57 pm »



Aang knew what he needed to do, and knew that he'd need a lot of help to do it. Good thing his previous lives were all so willing to help him out.

Katara had done her job, exposing the rocky foundations of the Northern Water Tribe's city. Getting to them normally would have required swimming down through dangerously frigid waters, and while Appa was capable of such a thing, it wasn't something a sky bison could do quickly. They'd run out of air before Aang could do his part, never mind what the Fire Nation would manage to put together as a defense. If they had collaborator Waterbenders working for them-

So Aang had decided that this was a good place to be an Earthbender.

A second before Appa crashed into the stone beneath the outer ice wall, Aang reached within himself, emptied himself of everything but the gentle breeze that was the universe's breathing, and sought for company.

Roku answered him. As did Kyoshi. And Kuruk. Plus Yanchen. Along with Jafar and Guojiu and Schonchin and Changchub and Jimmu and Tieguai and Ouray and Sempa and everyone else. Aang paid particularly close attention to Kyoshi, but he didn't forget that he himself was part of the group, and that his own Earthbending teacher was a particularly clever and subtle warrior.

Together and alone, Aang reached out to the stone just ahead to yank it apart into a tunnel wide enough to accommodate a sky bison and passengers. The stone pushed back against him, of course, but he took on the power that all the other Avatars offered him, and rooted himself on Appa's steady and very reliable head.

It was a strange thing, to feel his own eyes glowing.

And so the rock parted just as the ocean had done for Katara, and they all passed into the tunnel as the waves crashed back down behind them and cut them off from their enemies outside.

Aang had done it! And Katara had done it! And even Mai had called it right!

Up on top of Appa's head, Mai activated the bright spotlight lantern that they'd brought along with a crack of the mechanical lever, stolen by the Dreamcatchers from one of the Fire Navy facilities up here. It lit up the tunnel ahead of them, allowing Appa to fly along easily and Aang to keep extending the shaft. He didn't know exactly where they were going, but he knew the general direction he wanted.

Under the city, towards the fortress called the Bastion.

It was as Rafa was going over the defenses of the fortress, of the metal plating and mechanical gates and ready soldiers and overwhelming weaponry, that Aang had gotten the idea to come at it like an Earthbender. Iroh would be used to dealing with Waterbenders, up here, and any collaborators would naturally be most familiar with those abilities. The Fire Nation in general knew all about fighting conventional incursions, so a direct assault was likely to be fatal.

But coming up from underground? Where the stone was buried so deep that most people had forgotten it was there?

Aang had liked that idea.

Now, he broke apart another layer of rock, but instead of echoes and shadow, the stone revealed an undulating chamber that seemed to shift to regard him as Appa banked into the space. But it wasn't the walls that were looking at him (that would be creepy), it was a whole bunch of slippery creatures with flexible necks and big shells on their backs. They barked in either alarm or welcome as the spotlight played over them, and Aang realized that he'd just found the vacation hideaway of a herd of turtle-seals.

Neat!

He leaped down off of Appa's nose, almost landed in a pool of water before he caught himself with his Airbending and floated over to solid ground. Mai brought Appa down next to him, and everybody in the saddle quickly disembarked in stances ready for battle.

But only the turtle-seals seemed to care that they were down here.

Rafa lowered his spear. "These caverns must have been carved by the shifting ice over the years. I wonder how extensive they are."

Aang shrugged before trying to pet one of the turtle-seals. "Well, if they don't take us to the Bastion, I can just use my Earthbending to get us the rest of the way." The turtle-seal angled its head away and flopped towards one of the small pools that dotted the cavern floor.

"Come on, Aang," Katara said. "We can't stop and play. The sooner we find Prince Lu Ten, the sooner we get Sokka and Ty Lee back."

Aang knew she was right, and hoped there would be a chance later to come back. He'd never ridden a turtle-seal before.

But he had friends in danger, and a world that needed saving.

He knelt down on the ground and swept his hands over it to melt the icy coating and push the resulting water away. He put both of his hands on the dry, bare rock, reaching out just as Toph had taught him back on the island of the Sun Warriors. He'd been able to feel the disturbance there that had destroyed their eternal flame, and used that same sense now to trace the extensions of this cavern and find out where they led. He knew he wasn't as good as Toph, who could 'see' by the vibrations carried through the earth, but he didn't need to be for this. He just needed to find the big empty gaps heading in the direction he wanted to go.

Satisfied, he stood up and pointed down a particular tunnel. "This is our best path for now. I'll lead the way with my Earthbending. Katara, can you keep Appa calm as we go? He doesn't like being underground. Rafa, if you or any of your warriors recognize anything, go ahead and shout. And Mai-"

She stepped into place right beside him. "I'm here. Let's go see what Iroh has locked away in that fortress of his."

Aang nodded. "Keep any eye out. We probably surprised Iroh's army just now, but he's good at surprising us, too."



Sokka's tour of the laboratory ended, as these things always should, with food.

And also Fire Lord Iroh, which completely ruined it.

Lian (the Maker, because some people just couldn't stand possibly sharing a name with other human beings) led the way into an office, where Iroh was seated at a table laid out with a full tea service and plates of steaming food. The smell of grilled meat immediately reminded Sokka that he hadn't eaten in roughly forever, and so he almost missed the other table in the office, despite it being much bigger than the dinner table and also dominating the center of the room.

But then he saw the painted canvas spread across it, and recognized a pretty close copy of the map that Jet had stolen from the Northern Air Temple to pass on to Katara.

"You might as well come and eat first," Iroh said, pouring some tea into cups. "If your friends haven't come to rescue you, yet, then I expect they're in no rush. We'll have time to talk business later."

Oh, great. First they do the whole 'Come gaze upon all my wonderful evil facilities because I don't fear you,' thing, and now it was the 'Let us dine together despite being enemies because we are both civilized people and also you're my prisoner so ha ha you stink,' routine. This was also probably part of the psychological games they were playing, trying to force Sokka to keep compromising his resistance, all to brainwash him or something.

(He almost preferred how Long Feng and the Dai Li had tried real brainwashing, with isolation and hypnotism and all that. It had been unpleasant before King Toph rescued them, but he and Mai had resisted that well enough, and at least it was honest.)

But Sokka was hungry, so he figured he could indulge his captors on this point. "Well, if you insist."

Iroh laughed. "I do. Lian, please join us! You've been working so hard, and I know intellectuals often forget to properly nourish themselves."

Lian's smile grew a bit tight, to Sokka's eye, as they came over and took seats. "Thank you, Fire Lord. It would be my pleasure to join you. But I actually keep close track of my nutritional needs. A healthy mind comes from a healthy body."

"Well said!" Iroh placed cups of tea in front of them. "Zhao, you're invited, too. I don't want anyone standing around hungry."

Zhao? Sokka whipped around, and found Ol' Sideburns standing at attention by the office's door. Where had that jerk come from? He'd ducked out of the tour at some point, when Sokka was paying more attention to all the science and wondering how it would be used to destroy the world.

Judging by Lian's face, she was surprised at Zhao's reappearance, too. So he hadn't been off on her business, then.

"Thank you, Fire Lord, but I will decline." Zhao dipped his head and kept his position by the door. "I could not bring myself to eat while executing such important duty as providing your security."

Iroh shrugged. "Whatever makes you happy, then. Sokka, please, try some of this! It's a variant of a local crab dish, but with Fire Nation spices. I asked the cook to go easy on those, since I expect you're not used to quite that much fire, but there's still enough to add quite a nice flavor." He held up a steaming dish with delicious-looking contents.

Sokka reached out to take it, already thinking of an insult he could deliver to the Fire Lord to ease his guilt at eating the man's succulent, wonderful-smelling food-

-and then alarms started going off.

Harsh, mechanical, and unending, the sound made Sokka and Lian both jump, although Iroh remained stone still. The brass message-tubing on the ceiling shook, and a tinny voice announced, "Wire from the Bastion, they are under attack! The Avatar is at the Bastion! Repeat, the Avatar is at the Bastion!"

Wait, the Avatar? But the last Sokka had seen, Aang was stuck in a glowy nap-time. Was he awake again? Sokka wasn't sure how to feel about the idea that this whole excursion into an evil laboratory might have been a waste of effort. But at least he had gotten some good information out of it-

The alarms continued ringing, and for a moment, no one moved.

And then Iroh snarled, flung the whole table away (including the dish of seasoned crab), and hopped up to stalk towards the door. "Zhao, bring the Tribal. We're leaving."

Sokka was hauled out of his seat by Zhao, arms being twisted behind his back, and force-marched out of the office. Over the sounds of the alarms, he heard Lian mumble, "I'll have this all cleaned up, I guess."

Oh, well. At least now he wouldn't have to feel guilty about eating Water Tribe food with Fire Nation spices on it.

Zhao pushed Sokka through the halls of the laboratory at a run, Iroh close behind them despite his shorter legs. Sokka tried digging his heels in to see if he could at least slow the parade down, but Zhao responded with a smack to the back of his head that left his ears ringing almost as bad as the alarms.

The mandatory journey continued straight out of the laboratory, where an enclosed snow-crawler, motorized ski-vehicles, and even a tank were being brought together in the whipping snow. Night had fallen, but Sokka could see soldiers hurrying about, but most seemed to be taking positions around the laboratory grounds. So they were staying here, then, instead of going to whatever this 'Bastion' was. Good to know. As Sokka tried to take in as many details as possible, he let himself be dragged into the mechanized crawler, where he was actually chained to the rear bench.

Zhao gave him one last smack on the head and then hurried off.

"Goodbye to you, too," Sokka muttered. But overall, he was thinking that his situation might have improved. Zhao was gone now, and Aang and company seemed to be running something. Sokka might be due for a rescue any moment, now.

Then Fire Lord Iroh got into the crawler with a pair of armored Firebender guards. One sat down next to Sokka, while Iroh and the other took the front bench.

Oh.

Sure.

The crawler jolted into motion.



Zhao was still mustering reinforcements to bring to the Bastion when Lian found him. And, for the first time, he got to see her absolutely furious.

"Why," she spat, marching out of the lab with her green long coat flaring out in snowy wind, "am I not being allowed in my biggest lab? I have work to do!"

Zhao didn't have long to deal with this. Iroh was going ahead to help deal with the Avatar if necessary, and the Fire Lord would not be pleased if things went bad because Zhao was late with reinforcements. But Lian had been acting so smug, it would be a shame not to enjoy this moment.

Zhao smirked at her. "It is called a lockdown, and it is part of the security necessities for dealing with the emergency of the Avatar's attack. The Unhcegila head is one of our most important assets. Considering the threat the Avatar poses and how little we understand his plans, I will do what I must to protect the Fire Lord's projects, no matter how important you think your 'work' is."

Lian's face scrunched, turning the gear tattoo beneath her left eye into a jagged smudge. "You're contradicting yourself, you simpleton. If you think my work isn't important, then there's no reason to lock down the lab. You're- you're playing petty games with my science that you couldn't possibly understand and-"

"Then why not," Zhao interrupted, "help me understand? Tell me the purpose behind your experiments, and their importance to Prince Lu Ten. Then I can accurately judge the needs of security against the needs of the project."

Lian pressed her lips together so tightly they lost their color. "Do you really think you can manipulate the Fire Lord? Accept your place, do your job, and I won't bring this to his attention later. Don't you military types have a thing called 'need to know?' You don't need."

Zhao could acknowledge that she had a point, but not one that would sway him. It was true that, under normal circumstances, he would have to accept that some information simply could not be spread be around, and a proper soldier would have to be content to follow orders. But Zhao was not a simple soldier, and Iroh-

Well, part of the resilience of the chain of command was the trust that the people at the top were truly serving their nation to the best of their ability.

And, when it came down to it, Zhao didn't trust Iroh.

Who could? The man had hidden up here at the North Pole for years, only reaching out make deals with enemies and plunge the Fire Nation into civil war. Yes, he had been crowned Fire Lord, and Zhao had happily (more or less) gone along with everything for the sake of survival and profit. But Iroh wasn't even pretending this was all for the greater good. It was to save his son. And Iroh still wanted to make a deal with the Avatar, if at all possible. He was still keeping secrets, even as he promoted Zhao.

And more important than the greater good was Zhao's good, which was even more questionable at this point.

Iroh's secrets involved toying with supernatural forces that had the Avatar's companions spooked. Perhaps Zhao would be the next to be burned as fuel for Iroh's strange ambitions. And, when it came down to it, Iroh was still being stymied by his enemies refusing to be manipulated.

If Zhao was good at anything, it was stealing a good strategy when he saw one.

"Very well," he said to Lian, "I will do my job. As head of security here at the North Pole, I have decided that this entire location is compromised by the Avatar's arrival and infiltration of our facilities. I need to evacuate the important materials elsewhere, until security can be reestablished or a new location made functional."

Lian's jaw dropped. "Evacuate? You- you stupid, stupid man."

"We'll see." Zhao turned in the snow to give the proper orders, leaving Lian to gape like a fish. Then he'd have to hurry to catch up to Iroh at the Bastion, where he'd have to somehow deal with the Avatar's assault.

Perhaps the solutions to all these problems were related.

That would be gratifying.
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I'm Loooooooopy!


« Reply #289 on: Mar 27, 2019 06:57 pm »



Sokka would have liked to say that the worst part of his trip in the crawler was the awkward silence, but he was also chained to his bench and the heating seemed to be on the fritz.

And then there was the fact that the Fire Lord, the baddest man on the planet and maybe the most dangerous Firebender alive, was acting kind of antsy.

Sokka, of course, had no real desire to want to speak to his captors. The guards did their usual unmoving-glowering-presence thing, but with their faces covered by their helmets they might have been napping, and that kind of killed the sense of dread. It was Iroh who was making the whole thing awkward. He shifted in his seat. He leaned forward to look through the little window at the front of the cabin into what was probably the driver compartment. He tapped his fingers on the bench and stroked his pointed chin-beard and then started the whole routine over again.

Eventually, Iroh sighed and turned around to face Sokka. "I'm sorry about this. I wanted the chance to have a nice conversation."

Sokka shrugged in his chains. "I don't suppose you brought along some leftovers?"

He expected Iroh to act amused again, to keep up the routine of an eccentric uncle hosting an insolent nephew, but the Fire Lord's face remained grim. The skin around his eyes was tight, and his fingers twitched. "Do you know what the Avatar is attempting?"

"Sorry. Our plans hadn't gotten any further than infiltrating the lab. I'm guessing that me and Ty Lee not coming back out has set things off." He had no reason to hold back the truth, and hoped the Fire Lord wouldn't want to go all flaming interrogation to confirm it.

Iroh gave a nod, eyes shifting across the cabin. "As can only be expected. But I did not anticipate the form of the response." He tapped his fingers against the bench again. "The Avatar is strangely difficult for me to predict."

"Well, sure." Sokka couldn't believe he had to explain this to the most accomplished military leader in the world. "He's thirteen. And he eats way too many sweets."

Iroh's lip might have twitched. "I am a father. I know what young boys can be like. But this-" He gave a dismissive wave of his hand. "That's what it is really all about. Did the Avatar tell you? I just want to save my son."

Sokka decided to risk a nod. "Yes, he's mentioned that. But- uh- you know, I don't mean to be rude or disrespectful (especially being your captive and all), but none of us are clear on how most of what you're doing relates to your son. Like that house of horrors you had Lian show me-"

"You didn't like it? I thought it would appeal to the intellectual in you."

"Oh, it did. But the intellectual also has to hang out with the me in me who was terrorized by spirit monsters a few times." Sokka cleared his throat. "And that's what's really worrying us. You keep saying, 'It's fine, everything's good, just saving my sick son, la de da,' but then you have a head mounted on a machine which eats spirit vines and that kind of thing just looks kind of shady, you know? We trust our guts on Team Avatar, and frankly your methods are giving us all tummy aches."

"I suppose that is fair." Iroh's gaze lost its focus, and he leaned back. "I have been pursuing this for years. At one time, I suppose I would have been horrified as well. Some of it did scare me, but I made myself endure. I must have gotten used to horrors, and now they are just part of everyday business." His eyes focused on Sokka again. "War is like that, as well."

Sokka snorted. "So is being colonized by foreign invaders. The trick is to not get used to awful things, and actually do something about them."

Iroh raised an eyebrow. "And sometimes, the only way to do something is to first become inured to the horror." He paused and then hissed and gave a wave of his hand. "But we are becoming distracted by matters of philosophy. You have questions, don't you? Ask me. We have a little time before we get back to the Bastion, and we might arrive to find a war in progress. What can I clarify for you?"

Sokka thought it over, wary of a trap. He didn't trust this any more than Lian's Happy Fun Tour. "Let's start with the Unhcegila. Why are using it to convert weird vines into energy?"

"Simple. My son - Lu Ten is his name - is suffering from a spiritual affliction, and it drains him of his Qi. It is like how the Unhcegila itself kills its victims. The methods we are using to help Lu Ten now are crude and inefficient, and we hope to find a way to more directly give him the energy he needs to stay healthy. Imagine-" Iroh's gaze lost focus, and he mumbled something before his voice rose again to say, "Imagine if we could take a 'meal' of Spirit Vines and process it into a form he could consume. Yes, that would be the greatest help, aside from a cure."

Ew. That sounded worse than being a vegetarian.

But Iroh seemed to like the idea. He mumbled some more, and Sokka caught the mention of scrolls of some kind, and 'the Kuoda Crystal,' whatever that was.

Sokka took advantage of the Fire Lord's distraction to attack the logic of the explanation from several different angles, trying to see where any traps might be. It seemed reasonable when explained like that, give or take a giant monster head, but maybe the lack of traps was the trap? Was it an innocuous piece of information to lead up to something more awful?

Sokka waved for Iroh's attention. "But what does that have to do with the swamp and the weird platinum spider machine?"

"The- what?" The Fire Lord blinked, and then his expression brightened. "Oh. Yes. Ah, I wish we had more time to spend on this subject. You saw the map I had set up beside our dinner? I explained to the Avatar that it wasn't what it looked like, but he had already decided that he couldn't trust me. But you've seen the model of the swamp, and the experiments with the trees."

Yes, Sokka had. "Lian said the spider was already being deployed." He didn't mention that King Toph and her Earth Kingdom resistance were on their way to check things out, if they weren't there already.

Iroh smacked a pair of fingers on his bench, as if squashing a bug. "I could have shown you their exact progress on my copy of the map! It details my plans for getting the mechanical spider to a certain spiritual nexus in the swamp, and how to it will deal with opposition from either Fire Nation or rebel forces. That's it. Once that is completed, I will be happy to honor my agreement with the Avatar and begin freeing the colonies."

Sokka leaned back and tried to look as shrewd as possible with chains wrapped around him. "And what's the point? Assuming you're telling the truth, why are you doing it?"

Iroh shook his head. "I don't even know that I'll have to! It's a contingency, in case no other efforts to save Lu Ten succeed. I wouldn't even have deployed the spider, yet, if the Avatar hadn't announced his intention to come after me here. I need to be prepared in case he brings matters to a head."

"Right, sure, but let's go back to what you're actually hoping to accomplish."

"I wish Lian were here to fully explain, but essentially I want to freeze the spiritual energies passing through that nexus in the swamp. Then I can continue working to help Lu Ten at my leisure, although of course I would still want to minimize his time spent suffering." Iroh smiled, and he lowered his voice as if imparting a great secret. "I even suspect that the action might help restore balance to the world, to help undo some of the damage caused by the ashlands. Not bad, eh?"

Huh.

Sokka remembered how the little model of the platinum spider had been perched on the miniature tree with its needle legs sunk into the trunk. Freeze the energies, huh? That- it kind of made sense. If platinum disrupted spirit-mojo, then some precisely placed needles could disrupt an existing flow and knot it up. But a lot of trial and error would be needed, and- slush, all those other trees. An entire laboratory full of them. There had been a lot trial and error. He recalled the chalk markings on the trunk of the scale model of the swamp tree. They'd worked out the calculations, and tried them on the closest they could get to the real thing.

So that part made a kind of sense, or at least matched what Sokka had been shown.

But where was the catch?

Of course, if anyone with an army took exception to Iroh holding onto that swamp, then his time would still be limited to however long he could protect his big spider machine. Was that it? He wouldn't let go of the colonies until his son was cured, because he needed to be able to secure his swamp? But surely fixing the ashlands - or at least de-haunting them or whatever - was worth trading away some useless swampland. In terms of recovered territory, the Earth Kingdom would be gaining land through the trade. Unless the ashland thing was more of a remote possibility than Iroh was hinting?

Sokka decided to circle back to the beginning. "So what does a swamp on the other side of the world have to do with your son?"

Iroh grinned. It was not a nice grin. "And how much do you know about the Spiritual Balance of the world?"

Sokka sat up as straight as he could. "Lots. I spiritually balance all the time since I started traveling with Aang."

As bluffs go, it probably wasn't his best.

Iroh's golden eyes had the look of a wolf that had just found its dinner. "Then surely you'll understand what I mean when I say that the nature of this nexus hangs over us all."

Yeah, surely.

"But what-"

The crawler shuddered to a stop.

"Ah, we're here." Iroh stood up. "Let's hope I can stop the Avatar from doing something that will force me to destroy him."

"Yeah," Sokka sighed as the guard next to him took hold of his chains, "let's."


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Loopy
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« Reply #290 on: Mar 27, 2019 06:58 pm »

Mai did a slow walk around Aang's body where it was silently maintaining a lotus position on the icy floor of the cavern.

She didn't really feel the need to move right now, despite how the cold managed to chill her bones even through her thick parka. But she knew that people got a little freaked out when she spun a knife in a hand and otherwise stayed as still as a statue, and she didn't want to disturb her allies. (For now.) Aang had already frightened them a bit with this trick, and even Mai wasn't entirely comfortable with it, yet. Sure, it had helped her to rescue her little brother from Iroh's clutches, but she just wasn't used to people exiting their bodies and leaving them behind like dirty clothes.

Mai continued her circle around Aang's body, letting her gaze travel over the cavern. It was no different from the others they'd passed through over the last hour, except that Aang was sure that Iroh's mysterious Bastion fortress was above this one, a fortress that supposedly had a garden and a prince at its center. "I keep hearing about this Spirit 'Garden' or 'Oasis.' What kind of place, exactly, should I be expecting?"

Across the cavern, next to where Appa was resting, Rafa and his Waterbender warriors were chewing some jerky. Rafa swallowed and shrugged. "Hard to say. The Chief and his most trusted advisors were the only ones allowed in. When Iroh killed Chief Arnook, the others were imprisoned and never seen again. I just know that it's a sacred place, and it is the duty of the Northern Water Tribe to protect it. It's why we're here at the North Pole. It's one of the most important places in the material world."

Katara petted Appa as she said, "Is that how Iroh has kept the Northern Tribe under his control? By threatening the Oasis?"

Rafa spat on the icy ground. "He holds us hostage with our own duty. He killed our Chief and imprisons our Princess, but we would still fight against that. The Oasis, though? We may not know what is there, but none of us would dare risk it. That's what fuels the Dreamcatchers' secrecy. Hn, until now."

"You don't say." Mai didn't much care about the political significance of the Oasis. She just wanted to know if she'd have room to throw her knives.

Appa let out a groan of greeting, and there was a glow of blue light from above them all, reflected by the ice that covered so much of the cavern rock around them. Aang's-

Ghost? Spirit?

-Aang's essence descended from out of the ceiling and floated down into his body.

Then he opened his eyes, apparently whole once again. "We were right, the fortress is directly above us."

Across the cavern, Rafa and his Waterbender warriors swallowed the last of their and jumped to their feet. Katara gave Appa one last pat and hurried over.

Mai just stood still. She'd already been prepared for a fight. "What are we looking at?"

Aang looked over at Rafa. "You were right. It's a Fire Nation fortress, but it's layered. There's a series of walls, and the only way through them is mechanical doors. And at the center is a last layer of platinum that I couldn't get through."

Rafa nodded. "That's how it was built. I don't know if the platinum was at the center from the beginning, but the Bastion started as a little fort around the garden. They just kept building shell upon shell until it covered the entire cliffside, including the waterfall. But thanks to you, we can bypass all those layers."

Katara straightened the waterskins she had strapped over her parka. "Did anyone see you, Aang? Er- see your spirit self?"

Aang's lip twitched, and it was clear to Mai that he wanted to laugh but was trying to seem professional. "A few. I accidentally scared them, and they set off some alarms."

Mai sighed. "So they know we're coming."

"But they knew that anyway," Rafa said. "And they don't know exactly how. So let's show them."

"But remember!" Aang lifted his staff and gave it a quick twirl. "We're not here to fight the whole fortress. We push through to the center as fast as we can, get to Prince Lu Ten and the Spirit Oasis, and find out what's going on. We're doing this to get our friends back and force Iroh to deal with us honestly."

Katara nodded. "We're ready."

Mai pulled the hood of her parka back to expose her head. It was cold, but she'd need her full range of vision. "Ready, I guess."

Rafa and his Waterbenders arranged themselves into formation. "Ready! For the Tribe!"

Aang looked over to Appa. "We're going now, buddy. Thanks to helping us get this far. Go back the way we came, swim back up to the surface, and you know where to meet the rest of the Dreamcatchers. We're going to be counting on you."

He waited for Appa's grunt of acknowledgement, and then jumped straight up at the ceiling and smashed through the rock.

Katara went into action immediately, liquefying the ice around her and throwing the water right where Aang had just been. It absorbed the falling rubble and then froze into a spiral that she rode up through the hole in the ceiling. Rafa's Waterbenders followed, expanding and stabilizing the ice into something like a staircase. Mai put aside her distaste for ice (there was just no getting away from it, lately) and ran up after them. She felt her boots slip on one of the steps, but Rafa was right behind her and a quick hand on her back kept her up and moving into the dark of the hole in the ceiling.

Stuck behind all the Waterbenders, she didn't get to see what Aang's Earthbending was doing to the metal floor of the fortress, but she did hear it. Rock pressed against steel, and it sounded like Iroh would have to completely replace the plates. Good.

The dark and the ice came to an end, and the Waterbenders ahead of her were vaulting up into a hallway lit by the red gas lanterns that the Fire Nation liked so much. Mai jumped up after them and plucked a pair of razor disks from within the sleeves. She already had the disks ready to throw before her boots touched the floor, and she scanned for threats in the dim light. She saw thin pipes and insulated wiring and caged lamps and bolted air vents- all the typical decor that characterized fortresses and warships, but no enemies. Aang had picked his spot well. But then, he'd already had a look at it.

The only odd thing was the sunken panels in the walls that might have been covers of some kind, features Mai hadn't seen anywhere else. They weren't sliding open and unleashing any attack, so she pushed them back into the part of her perception that kept track of passive threats.

The alarms Aang mentioned - ringing, electrical in sound - echoed through the hallway

"This way," he said. He pointed his staff down the hallway, and the stale, cold air picked up in a breeze the followed him as he started to run. Mai ran along with him, Katara, and the Dreamcatchers, trying to shoulder her way to the front so that she could more easily protect Aang, now that she could trust her footing on proper metal floors.

She heard the soldiers before she saw them, the sound of clanking boots ahead, but she wasn't yet at the front of the line. Aang could probably handle them, and there was no reason any of the others in the group couldn't help out, but- well-

Mai vaulted to her left, kicked off the wall, hooked her arm around one of the pipe-lines running overhead, and threw her razor disks. They sped ahead into the blood-colored murk-

-twin cries of surprise were followed immediately by the sound of armor crashing into a wall-

-and Mai swung herself to land right next to Aang. "Hey."

He smiled at her, his eyes shining even in the dim light, as they ran past a pair of guards pinned to the wall by a razor disk each stuck in their scarfs. "Hey! Nice shot."

"Of course." They came up on a doorway that someone was trying to close on them. "Yours."

Aang didn't slow as he swung his staff, sending a burst of wind at the door. It whipped back the other way, crashing into whoever was trying to close it. They passed through, finding another Fire Nation soldier struggling to his feet. Rafa fell on that guy with his spear, and the rest of them continued running-

-into a chamber with grated flooring and a high ceiling, tall enough that the alarms echoed back onto themselves to create an endless din. The red light of the lamps struggled to illuminate the space, leaving swaths of shadow, but Mai's eyes were drawn to the series of walkways snaking across the space above. They shook and the clanked with the impact of more boots, heralding the arrival of additional soldiers. Firebenders emerged from the shadows to send fireballs down to the group, but Katara and the Waterbenders intercepted them with streams of water that became bursts of steam.

More soldiers surged out onto the looming walkways from the darkness. It was a real party up there.

Mai kept pace with Aang as they ran on. Soldiers with spears rushed across their own floor to meet them, but Aang could manage those with his Airbending before they even got close. Mai focused her attention upward, since the Waterbenders would eventually run out of their element. She had a limited supply of her own element (Glistening Death, a fundamental force in the universe), so maybe they could help each other. Mai raised her arms and shot a pair of bolts from her wrist-launchers up through the grated walkway at a cluster of Firebenders. One of them cried out and tripped over a bolt, while another cried out and fell onto his face from the bolt that had pierced through his boot, and a bunch behind them cried out and proceeded to trip over the first two. Cry, cry, cry.

It was a nice effect. As Aang led them past the spearmen he'd wiped the floor with towards an opening into yet another hallway, Mai produced a pair of razor disks that she could curve around to the top of the walkway-

-and with a grind of machinery, panels beneath the latticed flooring slid aside to reveal a red glow-

-Katara shrieked and cried, "No, no, no, no, not this not again-"

-and Mai was nearly knocked off her feet by a blast of hot air coming from below-

-and then they all reached the next hallway and hurried around the first to corner to escape the suffocating heat. Aang slowed and came to a stop, looking back at the group with wide eyes. "Is everyone okay?"

Mai didn't bother answering him, instead scanning for threats. It seemed clear, but more soldiers would be here soon, and those alarms were still going. "We need to-"

"They have a drying engine," Katara hissed. "Just like at Crescent Island!"

"What?" Rafa peeked his head back around the corner. "What is a drying engine?"

"They powered it with lava," Katara continued as if she hadn't heard him. "They must be doing something else here, but- but- our supply of water is going to run out a lot quicker. And- and we'll get tired. And weaker. And-"

"Firebenders are on their way," Rafa barked. "We need to move."

But Katara hesitated, and Aang in turn hesitated out of worry for her.

Mai rolled her eyes, grabbed Katara by her parka and Aang by his robes, and shoved them both into motion. Then she ran, too. The Dreamcatchers moved right along with them.

"I- I think the platinum wall is around the next corner," Aang said. "But there's a guard station right-"

A section of the wall opened to reveal a door, and a dozen swordsmen spilled out to block the path.

"-there," Aang finished.

The group skidded to a stop.

And then the sunken panels in the walls, the weird things Mai couldn't identify that ran up and down the whole hallway, whined with the sound of gears and slid away to reveal glowing hot metal that radiated dry heat.

Ah.

Iroh was really worried about Waterbenders getting in here. He hadn't expected an Earthbender to come up through the floor, but it might not matter if they if they got stopped here.

Well, Mai wasn't at all inconvenienced by a little dry heat. In fact, it was her preferred climate. She quickly unfastened her parka and threw it to the floor. Then she reached into her loose, flowing sleeves and filled her hands with as many sharp, intimidating pieces of metal as she could fit between her steady fingers.

She had time to give a contented smile to Aang before she dashed towards the dozen swordsmen and filled the air with blades.

The swordsmen actually faltered against her charge, intimidated by a teenage girl with a thing for knives, but then, they had good reason. They were fighting with dao blades, big chopping swords that were the preferred weapon of regular soldiers. Mai usually operated best at a distance, but in these cramped quarters, in the middle of a group of soldiers who hadn't taken the time to properly space themselves out, knives were the ideal weapon. They were small, and quick, and in the hands of someone who knew what they were doing, they could strike where armor couldn't cover.

Mai knew what she was doing.
 
She had taken down half of the swordsmen with debilitating and bleeding injuries when Aang and Katara joined her. The other half went down even quicker.

But that didn't help at all with the Firebenders who came up from the other end of the hallway. Mai heard Rafa's cry of pain first, and turned to find his Dreamcatchers struggling. They were fighting well, but even she could see how each waterwhip, each thrown ice-shard, each shielding splash diminished the water supply that each one was working with. Rafa and his spear might be the last man standing, among the good guys. There would be about twenty men standing on the other side but that point, judging from the sounds of boots echoing down the hall.

Mai could see the reinforcements' shadows stretching into view, extended to giant proportions by the red glow coming from that big room with the walkways and burning floor.

Slushing ash.

Mai might be able to fight all these soldiers, but that sounded dreadfully inefficient. When faced with a tricky knot, she preferred to go ahead and cut it. Actually, that was her solution for most problems.

So she grabbed Aang and Katara and yanked them along down the hallway. If they could get to Lu Ten, they would automatically win.

It was the surprise that enabled Mai to get her friends to the next turn without them resisting, and then they rounded the corner to nearly collide with a trio of Firebenders. Katara threw a wave of water that washed all three into the nearest wall, and the chilly breath that followed froze them in place. But the glowing panels were here, too, and Mai hoped that the ice would last long enough for them to-

"This is the door," Aang said.

Oh. Good.

Mai turned to see that it wasn't an impressive door at all, although it was unique. It was circular, just a bit taller than her, and covered by a spiral metal shutter. Platinum, of course. Even in this red light, it gleamed differently than other metals.

Katara shook her head. "I don't know how to get that open."

Mai didn't either. "I forgot my blasting jelly at home."

But Aang skipped forward. "I have this. I've been thinking about it since I did my spirit-exploring, and- well, it's faster to show you." He landed right in front of the door in an arrow stance that he used to shift his body back and forth, extending one leg even as he bent the other. He moved his arms with his body, almost as if he was pulling a cord, and-

-and the big shutter shook as air began leaking out through the metal slats.

Aang kept it up, speeding his movements up, and the big door rattled as if being battered by a storm.

It was impressive, but Mai doubted that Iroh had built a door that could be knocked over by a wind, no matter how strong.

But Aang was apparently more clever than her. He suddenly snapped forward, making a shoving motion that he transitioned into the circular hand motions he used to create his Air Scooter-

-and a ball of air ballooned into being at the center of spiral shutter, pushing the slats apart to create an opening into what seemed like a royal garden lit by starlight as something mechanical emitted a sharp angry buzz-

"Go," Aang cried.

Mai made a flying leap, passed through a tornado, and landed on soft, sweet-smelling grass.

Okay.

She rose and turned back for her friends-

-and saw one of the Firebenders iced to the hallway wall smash through the weakened ice to throw a fireball at Katara-

-who shoved Aang-

-who landed on Mai, ruining the shot with the needle she'd been lining up-

-and the airball died-

-and the door slammed shut.

For the first time in what seemed like forever, Mai couldn't hear any alarms.

Aang leaped up and over to the door, launching back into the Airbending form he'd just been using on the other side. Mai could feel the wind he was working up, but this time, the door didn't so much as twitch.

"That probably won't work again," a familiar voice said. "If you trip the tampering detector, a mechanical lock activates that can only be removed by a key Dad has."

That voice-

Mai got to her feet and turned.

She was in a garden, all right, but one that somehow existed in a shell of platinum. They were at the bottom of a shaft of some kind, faint light coming from somewhere above, but here in this dark, isolated metal space there was grass and a puddle that looked like a koi pond and a wooden spirit gate and lush bushes covered in flowers and berries. The Oasis.

And in a plush chair right next to the koi pond was a man in the dress uniform of a Fire Navy commander and a precise topknot with a golden crown nestled into it.

The man - a man Mai recognized - stood up and smiled. It was a smile she knew well, a smile of reassurance and confidence. He wanted the person he was smiling at to feel okay, and he had no fear that the situation at hand was anything but okay.

He smiled that way at her when he was first introduced as the man she was lawfully bound to marry.

That betrothal was broken, now, but it was still the same smile. And the same man.

Fire Prince Lu Ten.

"Hello," he said, bowing low at the waist. "I recognize Mai. You've grown older, but you still very much look like you, if you take my meaning." He lifted his head for a moment, eyes shifting over to Aang, and fell to his knees to push his forehead against the grassy ground. "And you must be the Avatar. It is an honor to welcome you into my home, such as it is."

Mai looked around. This had to be the Spirit Oasis, right? "About that-"

"Yes, it's quite a story," he interrupted her, rising to his feet again. His smile quirked into something bitter, and his brow drew together. "But it all comes down to one fact, and it has me very worried. I'm actually hoping for your help with it. You see- well-

"I'm afraid my father has taken an odd turn."

TO BE CONTINUED
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Loopy
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« Reply #291 on: Apr 29, 2019 10:19 pm »

The Crown Prince

Katara's blood was thundering in her veins.

It wasn't just the exertion, not just the weariness of battle. It was the taste in the air, that sharp flavor of metal not quite at its melting point. It was the oppressive blanket of dryness that made her body twice as heavy. It was the way those sensations put her back in a cage that would always be in her memory, a cage that had taken away a decade of her life. It made her heart pound and her breath grow shallow and her blood thunder-

But blood wasn't really the problem. Water was what truly had her worried, or rather the lack of it. As she fought back against the Firebenders and spear-fighters and swordsmen, deep in this fortress of metal and heat, the arid air of the Bastion's deepest passages was sucking the moisture from her waterwhips and skin and eyes and tongue.

But if she didn't solve that problem, then she'd be back to worrying about blood. Specifically, the Fire Nation spilling hers all over the place as they took her life away from her.

Took her life away again. Permanently, this time. She knew she wouldn't simply be locked up, not for this.

At least she had people fighting with her. Here, in the heart of the fortress called 'the Bastion,' the rebel Dreamcatchers stood at her side. To her left, burly Tulok raised his hands to create another shield of water, half it ice thanks to nimble Silla's work behind them, and it did the job of blocking the latest wave of fireballs. But the impacts created bursts of steam that were slurped up by the dry air, splattered the water into droplets that never got a chance to land anywhere. The Bastion was a lesser version of the Dryness Engine that had kept her captive on Crescent Island for her whole childhood, but it was still effective. Katara and the others were running out of water. And with the alarms echoing through the metal halls, the army here wasn't running out of soldiers to throw into the fray.

But Katara wasn't going to give up. Aang had reached the inner sanctum where Iroh's son was supposed to be, and Mai had gone with them. She believed in those two.

They had helped her brother find and rescue her, even though they had no practical reason to. She believed in them so much she was willing to die for their cause.

But she would like to stay alive, if possible.

Rafa's gravelly voice rang out with, "Fall back! Fall back to the door!"

The Dreamcatcher Waterbenders responded instantly to their leader, and Katara followed them back down the hallway to the next - and the last - corner. Fire and spears and even a few arrows nipped at their heels. Once they turned the corner, they had the cover they needed to catch their breath and prepare another defense, but no path of escape. The hallway here led straight to a wall and a spiral-shutter door that they couldn't get open. Aang and Mai had gone through that door, maybe a minute ago, or maybe it was a thousand years, but there was no way to follow them, now.

Rafa strode past them, a machete in each hand and a grim look on his gray-bearded face, to peek around the corner. "The soldiers are realizing that we're not coming out again." He turned back to look at them. "Water supply?"

Katara corked her last waterskin before shaking it. "I have one minute's worth of fighting left and I'm going to need to be very accurate." She leaned against the wall next to her, between glowing red panels that were cooking the air, wincing at the heat but needing to not be standing for a moment.

"Same," said Tarkik. Yuka, Tulok, and the others gave similar reports. Silla added, "I regret going to the bathroom before heading out on this mission. Then at least we'd have-"

"Don't care," Rafa grunted. "Unless the Avatar saves us, this is our last stand."

Katara felt tears welling in her eyes, but she squeezed them shut to preserve the moisture. She wished Sokka and Ty Lee were here. This was all to rescue them, and maybe save the world from Fire Lord Iroh if things went well. Would she even live to see if it succeeded?

Her blood thundered in her veins.

And in that thunder was the whisper of an answer. A way to survive.

A way to win.

"Cover me for a few seconds." She tossed her waterskin to Tarkik and stretched her arms. "Then I'll hold the hallway for us."

Everyone stared at her. Rafa said, "You found something? A trick?"

Katara shook her head. "No trick. It's- it's something I was talking about with Yugoda. I know a way to hold back the soldiers. But I need a little time to concentrate. Can you manage?"

Rafa looked at her. Then he snorted. "You remind me of my sister Misu. When she sets her mind to something- Yes, Katara of the South. We can give you your time."

"I am honored by your faith." Katara brought her hands together and bowed. "Thank you."

Rafa turned to the others. "Get your water ready. The hotheads are closing in. We wait, I take out the scouts, and then you all bring the last of the water. Ready?"

The Dreamcatchers all raised their fists and roared.

Katara raised her arms with them, but her mind was already drifting away from this horrible place, away from the heat that choked the metal halls. She was reaching out and up, to the full moon that was shining down on the North Pole. She had seen it when their group had flown over the city on Appa, before heading underground to infiltrate the Bastion. She had used its power to push the ocean out of the way for Aang's Earthbending, had let it help her lift and push and pull and flow.

Now she would need that power for something else.

Katara heard the vague din of battle start up again, but she was still focused on the moon. She could feel its draw, just as she could feel her blood thundering in her veins. It was almost like the moon's influence was a part of her. She had joined with it.

And it would now let her join with all those Fire Nation soldiers trying to kill her.

She shrugged off her parka and stepped out around the corner. Her boot bumped against a body, an armored figure leaking blood from wounds the width of a Water Tribe machete. She was sad at the loss of life, but her attention was captured by the blood.

She could feel her blood within her, and this blood on the floor.

And she could feel the networks of blood flowing amidst the Firebenders massing to attack her allies.

Katara stepped out past the line of the Dreamcatchers, reaching out as though beckoning all that blood toward her-

-and she didn't need to open her eyes to know that the Firebenders had suddenly stopped, their limbs no longer obeying them. But it wasn't their limbs, not really. It was the flowing blood within them that refused to move. Their muscles tightened against it, the veins and arteries shivered, the meat of the bodies struggled to exert control, but the blood resisted. The blood was Katara's.

So she used it.

She swung her arms to one side, shoving the blood - and with it the bodies of the group of Firebenders - in the same direction to crash into the wall. Then she swung to the other side, arms loose and curled, slamming the Firebenders into the other wall. She let them drop, and they did so, no longer even trying to stand.

That was good. If they didn't try to stand, she wouldn't try to do worse to them.

The wave of soldiers behind the fallen were now exposed, and Katara opened her eyes stare at them, the blue eyes of the little girl their nation had tried to lock away forever. They were all staring back at her.

And they all retreated.

Katara watched them flee down the hallway, into the darker innards of the Bastion. When was sure that they weren't coming back any time soon, she turned to see if the Dreamcatchers were all right, and saw that the spilled blood, the liquid that had leaked from the soldier Rafa killed, had formed concentric rings around her on the floor.

Rafa and the Dreamcatcher Waterbenders were staring at her the same as the soldiers who had retreated.

She nodded an acknowledgement of their fear. "I hate doing this, but I can hold the hallway. Please see if you can get us through that door. I don't know what Aang and Mai are facing in there, and I'm worried it's something worse than what's out here."

She wasn't sure if she meant the soldiers or herself.



Aang stood in the Spirit Oasis of the North Pole, and knew that he had felt something like this before.

When he had returned to the Southern Air Temple a hundred and one years after running away, he found the place abandoned and dusty and dead, but still the same temple that was part of his heart. It had once been a place of peace and tranquility, a place for cultivating balance, with the layout of the paths and shape of the buildings designed to help people slip free of the shackles of the material world and get in touch with something greater. But over that, like a layer of dust, had been a wrongness, a rot that existed beyond the physical senses.

Aang found, a hundred and one years after his people were all murdered by the Fire Nation, that those unjust deaths had corrupted their resting place. The feeling had poisoned the whole experience of his return home.

Poisoned it even before the fall of night brought the walking corpses of his people to terrorize him and his friends.

So he wasn't feeling very good about this Spirit Oasis, even if it was a lot warmer than the rest of the North Pole.

With that in mind, Aang looked at the Fire Nation man in the Navy uniform with the gold crown in his top-knot. "You're Prince Lu Ten."

A smile and a nod met his non-question, although the good cheer didn't quite reach Lu Ten's eyes. "I hope you weren't expecting to find someone else down here. This is awkward enough already."

"You have no idea," Mai mumbled.

Aang chose to ignore the fact that Mai was betrothed to Lu Ten at one point in their shared history. "It's fine, we came to see you. Uh, Fire Lord Iroh didn't make it easy, but- um, you said he's been odd?"

Lu Ten began ambling around the koi pond at the center of the garden, leaving his chair - and a small pile of books next to it - standing out oddly. It was a beautiful place, an island of fluffy grass bordered by leafy bushes and even the occasional smooth white stone. It could have been a spot anywhere in the Earth Kingdom but for the Spirit Gate just behind the koi pond with the ancient character for Elemental Water on its crest.

Aang would have thought this place a little piece of the Spirit World left behind, were it not for the curved walls of platinum that enclosed it and rose up into darkness. Something like starlight twinkled down to light the space, not the harsh red lantern light of the rest of the Bastion.

"My father means well, I'm sure." Lu Ten looked down at the pair of koi - one black with a white spot on its head, the other white with a black spot - that circled each other in the pond. "He- he thinks I'm sick, and he loves me very much. He just wants me to be well." He looked up, and his eyes met Aang's. "But he's going about it the wrong way."

Aang sighed with relief. "Yes, he is. He's planning to hurt people, and we need to find a way to stop the fighting."

"I'm so glad we're on the same page." Lu Ten's face stretched with a wide grin. "I'll do whatever I can to help you, but first we're going to have to find a way out of this place."

Aang began looking around. The door he'd come in through was shut tight with mechanical strength, and according to Lu Ten, a bolt had been activated to keep him from using his Airbending to force it open again. The platinum walls were smooth and thick, the plates welded together until they were one. Fresh air was coming down from somewhere above, but he'd left his glider outside in the hallway with Katara and the Dreamcatchers. Maybe he could jump and float his way up to a perch where he could find a vent?

As an Airbender, he also had very good hearing, and he thought he detected something rumbling or roaring through the platinum walls. Some machinery, maybe?

He was still thinking it all over when Mai said, "So why are you locked up in here? Iroh said you're sick."

"Oh, yeah!" Aang snapped his fingers at the reminder. "This place feels kind of weird, as nice as it looks, and I'm not sure it's good to be here for very long. And then there's the platinum walls. What's with that?"

Lu Ten meandered away from the koi pond, to one of the two pillars of the Spirit Gate, and raised his hands to touch it. His posture slumped. "Well, my betrothed is right. I am sick. Don't worry, you can't catch it." He looked over at Aang, and for a moment, there was a twinkle in his eye, but then the weariness returned. "My father thinks this place is good for me, but-" He turned to Mai, making an obvious effort to smile. "He thought us marrying would be good for me, too."

Aang forced a laugh out. "Well, Mai said that Iroh broke the betrothal, so, sorry about that."

Her eyes flickered to Aang, and he thought she might have been scowling a little. Did she not want the betrothal broken? But she said, "Aang's right. Shortly after the North Pole fell, Iroh sent word that the wedding was off."

Rather than looking upset, Lu Ten's smile finally reached his eyes, and he stood a little straighter and chuckled. "That must have been a relief for you. I tried to make you comfortable at our meetings, but you were just ten years old! When Father conquered the North, you must have been- barely thirteen? I had a long wait for you to be anything but a child to try to protect. A little sister who would become a wife, maybe, just like in the stories. Although, you were never quite like the little girls in the stories, were you?"

"I was eleven and fourteen. I'm a year older than Azula." Mai's face never changed, the whole time he was speaking, and her hands were folded together in her sleeves. "And I never needed your protection."

Aang wondered what Mai had looked like back then, at eleven. She seemed so grown-up now, even more than Sokka, who was the same age. Imagining her as a little girl was hard.

Aang's thoughts were brought back to the present when Lu Ten shuddered, moaned, and collapsed to his knees against the pillar. Aang immediately jumped over the koi pond on a breeze to catch the prince before he could tumble. "Are you okay?"

"H- hungry. <I>So hungry," Lu Ten hissed.

Aang frowned. Lu Ten didn't seem emaciated at all. "Um, I think the Dreamcatchers have some jerky, if we get out of here. I didn't bring food."

"I know you didn't." Lu Ten looked up at him, and a wild smile twisted his face for a moment before settling into a grimace again. "I'm sorry. I- I just need a moment. If only I could get out of here-"

Aang looked up again, into the darkness above the garden. "I was thinking I could see if there's an air vent up there we can get out of. But that's going to be tricky, especially with you and Mai. You don't know of anything like that down here, do you?"

Lu Ten blinked. "Why not just use your Avatar power to break through the walls? There's earth and water and air here. And we carry Fire in our hearts at all times."

"Yeah, about that-" Aang looked around the garden, at this place that should be so tranquil and in harmony with his spirit. "I can't reach the Avatar State while I'm here. There's something- something wrong about this place. The air is muddy. It'd be worse than trying to meditate while someone is chatting right behind me."

"Oh, is that all? Well, this isn't just a garden. It's nice enough, but the thing to really pay attention to is the koi pond. Surely you know of the positive influence that koi fish can invoke?" He pulled himself up and stumbled over to his chair, practically falling into it, but looking more comfortable.

Mai leaned over the koi pond. "Those are some funny-looking fish. But unless they do tricks, I'm not getting it."

Lu Ten abruptly stood up from the chair and motioned theatrically at the pond. "Please, show some respect. You are in the presence of the Moon and the Ocean Spirits themselves."

The Moon and the Ocean?!

Aang looked down into the pond, at the black and white fish circling each other endlessly.

Here?

With Lu Ten?

Why?
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« Reply #292 on: Apr 29, 2019 10:20 pm »



Sokka was tired of being a prisoner.

Sometimes, it seemed like he spent most of his adventures in the custody of one tyrannical entity or another. But at least he was moving up in the world. A couple of years ago, he was just another resident of the Fire Nation's South Pole labor camp. Now, he was the personal chained-up prisoner of the Fire Lord, and was being dragged around to see all kinds of interesting things, like monster-heads mounted on freaky electric machinery, and mechanical spiders made of platinum, and magic trees grown from clippings of ghost vines.

(His autobiography was going to be amazing, if he lived long enough to write it.)

A pair of Royal Fire Crimson Guards marched him out of the snowcrawler that had brought them all from the Spirit Forest Laboratory to- wherever this was? It obviously wasn't the Northern Water Tribe city, not in the light of the full moon, not even with a little snowfall to obscure things.

Sokka made himself look up past Fire Lord Iroh to find a fortress in the shape of a warship looming over them. It was pretty impressive, as far as these things went- not quite a mile-deep armor-plated sinkhole, but still showing some unique style. He wondered why it had been made to resemble a ship, unless- perhaps it really was a ship? Somehow moved up here to serve as a fortress? Interesting idea. Waterbenders could manage it, and for some reason Iroh had command of quite a few.

And, apparently, not just Waterbenders. A Water Tribe man in a Fire Navy uniform and oversized glasses was scurrying through the moonlit snow to meet them. "Fire Lord Iroh! They're in the bottom level! We're closing in and will have them captured soon, but- but the Oasis Lock activated! I- that is, we think one or more of them might have-"

"Lu Ten," Iroh hissed, the heat in his words almost enough to fight off the wind. "You let them get to Lu Ten?! They fought through this whole fortress?! I made you Chief, Maliq, so you could protect my son!"

'Chief' Maliq, in his pressed Fire Navy uniform, dropped to his knees in the snow and kowtowed. "I apologize, my lord! But the- uh, the Avatar did not fight through the fortress. It is still as secure as designed! But- well, it was conceptualized to keep my Tribemates out, and any Fire Nation defectors. The Avatar- he, ah, is an Earthbender, which was outside the design parameters-"

"Shut up." Iroh's voice had gone cold. "Get me down there. If the Avatar has accessed my son's room-"

"Then," Sokka interrupted, "it's time to open negotiations. We can talk while we walk."

Iroh made a sound like glaciers scraping together and turned to regard him, but it was Maliq who managed to speak first, saying, "You're a prisoner."

Sokka shrugged in his chains. "Yes, my release is going to be one of the terms of your surrender. Also, the lives of my sister and Aang and Mai and anyone else down there and also I think you have Ty Lee stashed somewhere? Yeah, all of that and my release in exchange for Lu Ten's life. For a start."

Iroh covered his face with his hands and rubbed at his eyes.

Maliq snorted and stood back up. "You're bluffing. The Avatar is a child and an Air Nomad! He wouldn't hurt anyone like that."

"No." Sokka smiled. "But Mai would. She's mean. And she carries knives everywhere. Including the bathroom. That's confirmed. And then there's my sister, who the Fire Nation imprisoned for a decade, and she's still working through some issues, if you get me. Never mind whatever other rebels they've managed to scrape together while I've been hanging out with Fire Lord Spooky, here."

Maliq opened his mouth to say something, but then stopped and looked at Iroh. Sokka followed his gaze to the Fire Lord.

Iroh had revealed his face again, and he had the same expression that Gran-Gran brought out when she was less than impressed with a child's reasoning. "An admirable attempt, Sokka, but you're going to help me for nothing in return."

Sokka straightened his back, projecting as much confidence as he could fake. "You can't threaten me. I'm expendable. And also none of my friends know where I am, so you can't threaten them with me, either. Ha!"

Iroh shook his head. "We don't have time for this! I'm not threatening you. I'm offering to help you."

What? "What?"

Iroh looked at him - really met his gaze- and Sokka was struck by how old and tired the Fire Lord's eyes seemed. "I am worried for my son, but not for what the Avatar is going to do to him. Aang is the one in danger from Lu Ten."

What?! "What?!"

Iroh motioned, and the Royal Fire Crimson Jerk Guards pushed Sokka along towards the fortress.

Slush.

Sokka didn't resist. It all fit together too neatly. "You have not been doing nearly as much revealing as you could have been, you know."

"Well, there's been so much to tell, and so little time." Spotlights projected from somewhere on the fortress's- roof? Main deck? The spotlights converged on Sokka and Iroh as they approached the gate built into what seemed to be side hull of the ship-

And then big glowing monsters burst out of the snow.

They popped up like eel-sharks leaping for albatrosses, their bodies expanding in the air from something like a fish shape to hulks with arms and legs- although they didn't apparently feel the need to make all the limbs match. Sokka glimpsed claws and tentacles and feet and fists, and always a face like a catfish with whiskers that wafted independent of the creatures' motion. The things were huge, which was weird because the snow here wasn't even as deep as Sokka's knees, but if they could change their limbs then maybe they could alter their size at will, too.

He groaned as the Royal Fire Crimson Stupid Jerk Guards shoved him into Maliq's arms. "This is why you shouldn't mess with spirit stuff! Someone always gets eaten in the end!"

The guards stepped forward punched fire out as the monsters came in at them. Sokka angled his head to try to see the fight as Maliq yanked him along towards the fortress, but all he saw was flashes of flame and scatterings of snow and those glowing monsters moving like darting fish and the one of the guards getting knocked down by a lashing from a back limb black limbs. Somewhere ahead a gong was being rung. The spotlights flashed around, chasing the monsters-

And then the snowy air itself materialized an arm that punched Maliq in the face and pulled Sokka away.

It took him a moment to realize that he wasn't being kidnapped by yet another kind of spirit, but rather liberated by a person wearing white furs and cloaks to obscure their shape and blend into the snow. It took another moment to notice that there were more of the white-clad interlopers with spears and machetes. They moved in towards Iroh, but he held them back with a snapping of his arms and a wave of flame.

Sokka dug his heals into the snow to keep his 'rescuer' from carting him around just like the Royal Fire Crimson Stupid Jerks had been doing. "Hold on, who are you people now? This is getting too complex too quickly!"

The rescuer pulled a hood and scarf away to reveal Hahn, the guy who Aang had recruited to guide them to the North Pole. "Sohkka! It's me! I'm rescuing you. Do you have the key to the chains?"

Sokka blinked. "Why would I have the key to the chains? I'm a prisoner!"

"Not anymore!" Hahn grinned and raised his chin as though summoning applause. "I rescued you, like a true Water Tribe Warrior!"

Is this what Sokka sounded like when he tried to remind his friends of his considerable competence? Wow. He'd have to remember to tone that down.

He looked back at his former captors to find the last of the guards being hammered into the snow by the monsters, who turned their attention to the fortress. Fireballs arced down towards the monsters, but giant catfish with limbs apparently didn't have a problem moving around on land. Meanwhile, Iroh was still holding half a dozen- no, it looked like there might be a full dozen, maybe more (the night and the snow made it really hard to see these guys in their camouflage) of Sokka's rescuers without so much as shifting his feet. Somehow, there was just always an arc of fire wherever one of the white-clad warriors tried to get in close.

The flames died down for a moment, and the Fire Lord stood with his robes whipping in the winds and his hands clenched into fists at his sides. "We don't," he growled, "have time for this!"

The weird thing?

Iroh was right. They didn't. Katara was somewhere else, fighting for her life. Aang was probably having some kind of trouble with Lu Ten. Even if they killed Iroh right now, the world might be saved, but what about everyone else?

"I think," Sokka began to say-

And then a bright light from a new source flicked on to blind Sokka and another snowcrawler arrived on the scene spitting fireballs out of its passenger-compartment door.

Oh, come on.

The newly arrived snowcrawler came to a stop, and Zhao of all people ran out leading a dozen Firebenders and shouting, "Defend the Fire Lord!"

Hahn gave Sokka a shove. "Go with Yugoda! We're going to liberate my Tribe today, one way or another!" He raised a club and rushed at Zhao's troops, along with some of the other snow-camo rebels.

Before Sokka could ask who 'Yugoda' was supposed to be, another set of hands settled on his shoulder, and Sokka turned to find an old woman in white (of course) with Momo perched on her shoulders smiling at him. "You must be Katara's brother. Come along and let's see if I can't freeze these chains so that they'll break."

Monsters attacked Firebenders.

Firebenders attacked ghost-like rebels.

Everyone was fighting.

And no one was paying attention to what was really going on.

"Actually," Sokka said to Yugoda, "I need a way to talk to everyone. If you're a Waterbender, can you make me, like, a big horn I can shout through so everyone can hear me?"

Yugoda regarded him with an evaluating stare that reminded him a lot of when Gran-Gran would patiently listen to some of his more innovative ideas. But she didn't delay too long before nodding. "Yes. But it will draw attention to us, so be ready to run."

Hopefully, they wouldn't have to.

It was the work of only a few moments to turn the snow around them to water and then a sideways whirlpool as tall as Sokka and then freeze it into a big horn. Sokka scuttled over to the tiny end, took a deep breath, and then shouted, "EVERYONE STOP FIGHTING!! AANG AND KATARA ARE IN TROUBLE AND ONLY THE FIRE LORD CAN GET US TO THEM IN TIME!!"

It was louder than Sokka expected, but that was good. It startled everyone into stopping in place, even those in the middle of awkward attack positions. They all looked towards Sokka (including the monsters, which was disconcerting), and then no less than four different spotlights were blinding him. He probably made quite a sight, squinting in his chains next to his big horn.

And then Iroh barked, "Listen to him! I command all Fire Nation forces to cease attacking. Act in self-defense only!"

But Hahn pointed his club at Iroh. "We can kill him now!"

"No," Sokka began. Then he remembered his horn, and moved to speak into it so that his words would be projected again. "NO!! YOU HAVEN'T EVEN TAGGED HIM YET, RIGHT? FIGHTING IS JUST WASTING TIME!! I'VE SEEN WHAT'S GOING ON AND I THINK WE NEED HIS HELP. AND HE DEFINITELY NEEDS OUR OURS. LET ME GO WITH HIM TO SAVE MY- MY PEOPLE!! SORRY FOR THE SHOUTING!!"

There was no immediate response, aside from some growling from the catfish monsters.

It was Yugoda, standing just out of the ear-watering glow of the spotlights, who finally said, "This has something do with the Oasis, doesn't it?"

Immediately, the mood amongst the Warriors In White changed. They didn't quite relax, but they did back away from Iroh and lower their weapons to defensive positions.

That, apparently, was all Iroh needed. He pointed at Sokka. "Zhao, get his chains off. Maliq, order the defenses inside the fortress to stand down. In fact, order all the soldiers out. Evacuate the place and lock down the lowest floor."

Sokka nodded. He liked the sound of getting all the soldiers out of the way. "We'll keep it simple. Just me and you."

"No." Iroh motioned some of his soldiers to drag their fallen compatriots away. "Your people are still inside. We'll take Zhao for my security. And we'll need Maliq to get us through the fortress, and to handle my- handle Lu Ten's room."

Sokka swallowed. He'd be outnumbered again, not that he would have been able to fight against Iroh if a betrayal popped up. Still, it was the principle of the matter. He wasn't even sure if taking any of these rebels would be a help at all.

But then Yugoda said, "You might need a healer. I'll come, too."

Hahn began, "But-"

"If this relates to the Spirit Oasis," Yugoda cut him off, "then this is more important than freeing out tribe. Besides, I think we'll bring Mashenomak and his shole if there is truly a danger to the Avatar."

Mashenomak?

Five of the big catfish spirits lumbered over to Yugoda.

Oh.

Okay.

Iroh looked up at them with something like awe. "You can command them? Amazing. I wonder how- but we have no more time to argue. Very well, I accept your terms."

Zhao stepped into the spotlights with a key and approached Sokka. "Congratulations, Tribal. You've brokered a small truce with a single conversation." The was a click, and the chains loosened. "But you've failed to get anyone to admit what we're really walking into, specifically."

Sokka let the chains fall away, and flexed his arms. "Yeah, that's next. I have some choice questions for Iroh as we walk."



Before he joined the Fire Lord's makeshift excursion to save the Avatar from Prince Lu Ten (and how bizarre was that?), Zhao gave some last minute orders to one of his subordinates. "Move the snowcrawler with the Unhcegila head into the fortress's garage, and keep it under guard but ready to move. Your command, not the Crimson Guard."

The captain nodded. "You have a plan, sir?"

Zhao considered how much to reveal. "No. But I need my most valuable piece ready to play."

Then he turned to follow his Fire Lord.
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« Reply #293 on: Apr 29, 2019 10:22 pm »



Mai looked down at the koi pond and couldn't hold back a snort. "Spirits? The little fish are important spirits? And they just swim in circles while running the moon and the ocean for the world?" Lu Ten must have developed a sense of humor since she saw him last, not that this was her idea of real comedy.

But neither Lu Ten nor Aang were smiling.

Aang came over to crouch over the koi pond. He reached for the surface of the water, but drew his hand back before he disturbed it. "Sometimes the most important stuff don't seem that way. Little things can matter."

Like him.

A kid who could save the world, who had completely twisted the trajectory of Mai's life into something like heroism.

Fine, the fish might be big shot spirits, after all.

Lu Ten strode - showing something like the proper grace of a Firebender, now - to loom over Aang. "The Avatar is wise. The Moon and the Ocean Spirits chose fragile, small mortal forms, but their presence is what nourishes this garden."

Mai reached out a hand to Lu Ten's shoulder and gave him a slow but firm push. "Give Aang some room."

"Don't you trust me, Mai?" He turned his blue eyes to her as he took a step back, and for a brief moment he might have shuddered, but then again this place was shadowy, and maybe it was a truck of the light.

"Getting in someone's personal space is impolite." She kept her face completely blank, and spoke in a tone she had cultivated under her mother's guidance. "I expected better of a Prince of the Fire Nation."

His face twisted in confusion for a moment, and then settled into a smirk. "Of course. My apologies. You've grown into a true Lady." He stepped around to the other side of the koi pond.

Aang looked up at her with a question in his eyes, but Mai didn't have an answer for him. Something was wrong here, but she couldn't figure out what. She felt watched. Her hands were almost shaking in anticipation of a fight. But that couldn't be right, because her hands never shook, especially not when she might need them to throw sharp things at people.

But she was a Weapon of the Fire Nation, and if Lu Ten had been training with his father, she was sure she could beat him in a fight with Aang's help. If it came to that. She was sure of it. So she had no reason to be nervous. Obviously.

Lu Ten meandered towards the locked-down portal that was keeping them all in here, his shoulders hunched. "The spirits give us light in the darkness and the power of Waterbending, the richness of the deep seas and the sustenance of their waters. They give us so much, even when we take." His voice grew soft and trailed off as he turned to look at Mai. The intensity of his blue-eyed gaze sent a chill up and down her spine. "We take, and they give us... life."

Huh. Was a prince of the Fire Nation really praising Water Tribe spir-

Wait.

Wait.

Since when did Lu Ten have blue eyes?!

He was supposed to have golden eyes, just like his father and uncle and cousins. She'd seen them, back when they were betrothed, when he used to crouch in front of her so that their faces were level, speaking softly of how nice she looked and how well his Firebending practice had gone.

She'd tried to avoid spending time with Lu Ten, but she'd failed often enough to get a sense of him. He had been warm and charming and boisterous and all those other things that always scared her. He wasn't like Ty Lee, whose charm was completely lost on Mai. Or Zuko, who was only boisterous when he was angry or sad or frightened. But now Lu Ten was threatening, in a way that had her hands shaking, but-

But he was diminished. And had blue eyes.

Maybe Iroh wasn't the only one who had taken an odd turn.

Ty Lee had said that the North Pole's aura was wrong, and while auras weren't real, Ty Lee nevertheless could be very insightful in rare cases.

Mai reached for her platinum knife. Maybe she'd need to figure out how to gut and clean a fish in the next few minutes.

Lu Ten turned and came back over to crouch down beside the pond, directly across from Aang. "The spirits can help us access your Avatar State. They can provide the harmony you need to join with your past lives."

"Wow," Aang breathed. His eyes were on the circling koi fish, wide and unblinking. Hey, when had that started?

Mai slipped her platinum knife free of its sheath and held it so that it was covered by her sleeve.

"If you forge a connection with the spirits, you can add their power to your own." Lu Ten held a hand out towards Aang, right over the pond. "They've been my roommates for years, so I have my own connection. Explore it, and use it to create one for yourself."

Aang reached his own hand out, his eyes still on the circling fish-

"How," Mai said with the same tone her mother had always used to address Misbehaving, "do you know all this stuff?"

Aang blinked. He raised his eyes from the koi pond and pulled his hand back a little. He glanced up at Mai before returning his attention to Lu Ten.  "Wait, the koi fish are going to- to put me in the Avatar Spirit? Are you sure?"

Lu Ten gasped and dropped his arm. He just managed to catch himself from falling into the koi pond head-first.

Aang nearly jumped up to go to help, but Mai used a firm hand to put a stop to that. She used the other hand to reveal her platinum knife.

He looked up at her, from his side of the water, and actually nodded. "I'm fine. I just- It's getting bad. I need to get out of here. If it gets any worse, Father or Princess Yue will come, and- and they really can't do anything for me. They know that. But Father doesn't want to admit it. It's killing him. And I'm afraid of what he'll do if I- if he gets any worse."

Aang got to his feet to stand beside Mai. Now he was seeing it, too. "Prince Lu Ten, I want to do everything I can to help you and your father. But I need to know what's wrong, first. How, exactly, are you sick?"

Lu Ten curled himself up. "I'm empty. I feel empty. What they did wasn't enough. It can't be taken. And maybe a Firebender can't even receive it, not the way she did."

Mai traded looks with Aang again. "Um, what are we talking about? Who is this she?"

Lu Ten suddenly inhaled, and then he straightened and stood with a polite smile on his face. "I'm sorry. I can get a bit dazed. I'll explain everything after we're out of here, but I'm afraid it's long and complicated, and I might not remain coherent the whole time. Let's get the help of the spirits and find my father. Then we can set everything right."

It was more nonsense. Lu Ten was dangling what he thought they wanted to hear in front of them. Mai's eyes flickered to Aang, but even he wasn't fooled anymore. He squared his shoulders in defiance, and she let a little bit of a smile curl the corner of her lip as she got a proper stabbing grip on the platinum knife.

Aang said, "We need to know what's going on. Right now. Spirits can be dangerous, even if they're not evil. As the Avatar, I have to know what I'm dealing with. Please, Prince Lu Ten. Tell us what's wrong."

Lu Ten stared back.

Then he blinked, and shining tears trailed down his cheeks.

That wasn't an exaggeration. Lu Ten's tears were literally shining. How-

Mai tensed-

"I'm so sorry," Lu Ten whispered, leaning forward-

-and she moved to push Aang out of the way-

-while Lu Ten splashed down into the koi pond. Despite the fact that it was a pond, somehow it completely absorbed a prince of the Fire Nation and his body was lost to view.

But the fish were no longer circling.

They were writhing.

And then the pond began glowing an oppressive red, and the gentle starlight was completely lost.


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Loopy
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« Reply #294 on: Apr 29, 2019 10:23 pm »

Ty Lee marveled at the blue light that danced over her head. "It's so pretty! Katara heals people with glowy water too and that's always pretty, but this is the first time I've gotten healing on my head, and it's much prettier up close. It's weird that I've never gotten my head healed, though, because Mai says I must have taken way too many blows to the skull. But she likes being mean. It's a major character flaw, and I put real work into loving her in spite of it."

Leaning above her and the pelt-covered bed where she was resting, her two Waterbender healers were giving those wide-eyed stares that so many had whenever she tried to be friendly. She had no idea why people had such a problem making friends. It was probably the war; it really hurt the world and made people so much sadder.

Behind the Waterbenders, Princess Yue pulled her attention back from something either invisible or very far away. She blinked as if seeing the large bedroom around them for the first time, and then focused on Ty Lee. "You sound like you're feeling better."

"My sisters fight with tonfa sticks and we used to train together." Ty Lee smiled as the two Waterbenders let their healing water go dull again and together moved it back into a big bowl. "This isn't my first concussion. Hmmm, which might mean Mai is actually right-"

"Well," the younger of the Waterbenders, Malina, blurted, "head injuries can be serious, so we shouldn't make any assumptions. Right, Misu?"

The older Waterbender, Misu, looked straight into Ty Lee's eyes. Ty Lee liked how blue her eyes were. "Correct. This one seems surprisingly resilient, but we'd best not take any chances. I'm sure your friend- ah, Mai was it? I'm sure she'd make a joke about you having a thick skull. Mean people like that one."

Ty Lee giggled. "Yeah, she would. You have mean friends, too?"

Misu leaned back, and her aura - which had been a glorious sky blue - grew dark and muddy for a moment. "I had a brother. He liked to laugh at others."

Oh.

Ty Lee lost her own cheer. "Sorry."

Misu sighed and shook her head. "Thank you. But yes, as well as you seem to be healing, Malina is correct. You should continue to rest. Princess Yue, you will watch over her?"

Malina frowned and opened her mouth to say something, but Yue spoke up first with, "I will. She is my guest. Her welfare is my responsibility." Yue's hands closed into fists at her sides, and her aura went violet. "Fire Lord Iroh granted that to me."

Malina shut her mouth again when Iroh's name was mentioned.

Ty Lee was glad that Yue was staying, because she was nice, but it was also a little worrying. Ty Lee wanted Yue to get a chance to talk to Sokka, not wind up in trouble with all the mean people around here like Zhao and Maliq and Iroh and the many, many, many soldiers.

As Ty Lee settled back to rest on the pelts that formed her bed, six of those soldiers hurried into the room and took stations by the door. Their dark armor, black and red, mixed horribly with the carved white walls of ice, the purple stone of the pillars, and the blue banners with their woven scenes of Water Tribe history.

The soldier bowed to Malina and said, "My lady, we are under a lockdown. On the Fire Lord's orders, your brother is evacuating the Bastion. We are keeping everyone in the palace under guard. It is a matter with the Oasis and the intruders."

Malina's blue-green aura emptied into a muddy gray. "The Oasis? My brother-"

"The Fire Lord is seeing to the matter." The soldier's voice echoed flatly in his armor. "Please remain calm, and do not attempt to move about the palace. We will keep you safe here."

"I-" Malina looked around at all the soldiers blocking the room's entrance. "Yes. I see. Thank you for your protection."

Malina's aura was shifting colors again, but Ty Lee was paying more attention to Yue, now. The princess's aura had gone black.

Yue's whisper was nearly lost in the chilly air: "Lu Ten."

Okay.

Ty Lee knew who that was. And she knew who the 'intruders' were, too. If guards were running around asking people to remain calm, then that meant important things were happening. Her friends might need her.

Good thing her head was feeling better.

She got up from the pelts and moved towards the door.

The spokesman soldier held up a hand. "Do not approach, or we will use force to subdue you."

Well, that was mean.

Ty Lee tilted her head to the right and then the left. It felt pretty good. The Waterbenders said she was doing fine, but should continue to rest. Normally, they'd be right. But Ty Lee had been focusing her Qi to her head, energies that would enhance her physical self and take advantage of the Waterhealing.

Ty Lee was feeling good enough to have some fun.

The soldier didn't speak again. He punched his right fist into the air in her direction and birthed a plume of fire.

But Ty Lee was already flipping over it, landing behind the fire and right in front of the soldier to jam a pair of fingers into his armpit. He cried out and his arm went limp, but Ty Lee grabbed it and spun him around to send him crashing into his five friends.

They didn't catch him, because they were too busy getting ready to fight her.

That didn't help them.

Ty Lee didn't overwork herself. She kept her moves efficient and effective, letting some of that circus showmanship slide so that she didn't stress her body. It was important to pay attention to your body and live in harmony with its needs.

She was feeling very harmonious by the time the six soldiers were all on the ground with unresponsive bodies.

There was the sound of water moving behind her, and Ty Lee spun to find Malina about to throw out a forming icicle-

-and then Yue smashed the empty waterbowl down on Malina's head to drop the Waterbender to the floor.

"Oh my," Misu said.

Yue dropped the last shards of the bowl. "You're good with concussions, Misu. Could you please take care of Malina while we're gone?"

Misu bowed deeply at the waist. "My princess."

Ty Lee clapped. "Thank you? But I didn't want you to get in trouble, too."

"We're all in trouble. You're going for your friends, and they'll need my help, too." Yue's aura was royal blue with purple arching over her head. "My Tribe- the world needs me, and it is time for me to finally do something about this."

Oh.

Ty Lee clapped again. "Wow, that's really brave of you, and you sounded super heroic just now! Are you a trained warrior or acrobat?"

Yue frowned. "Um, no."

"That's fine. I just needed to know so I could plan." Ty Lee grabbed the princess's hand and pulled her along as she raced down the corridor of the pretty ice palace. "I don't usually like to plan, but Sokka says it's the only way to make sure things go right when everything is all complicated. See, I was just going to fight my way to the Bastion, but since you're here I need to be smart about it, like him." She found a staircase and started following it up. "You'd like Sokka, I think, because he's really smart but he uses it to try to help his family and friends. If his sister wasn't super great, and his aura didn't go all muddy every time I talk about auras, I'd give him a shot. So, you know, you should really consider it."

Yue blinked as she tried to keep up. "Um, why are we-" She paused to breathe as they ran. "-going up?"

Ty Lee smiled. "It's my plan." A pair of soldiers peeked their heads into the stairwell, and Ty Lee unleashed her arts upon them like her sisters on a fruit platter. "See, I was saying that we can't just fight our way to the Bastion since you're not a real fighter. So we're going to be clever."

Somewhere, horns started echoing with a standard Fire Navy alert pattern.

Ty Lee huffed. "I was hoping to avoid that. Now we run faster!"

"Hnnnn," Yue said as Ty Lee grabbed her hand again and helped her run.

They reached top of the staircase soon, and to Ty Lee's delight, found a door in the ceiling with an ice ladder leading up to it. "Yay! Now we don't need to climb out a window!" The door was locked, but it was just ice, and Ty Lee knew how to punch to shatter solid oak. Ice wasn't much worse than that. She sent Yue up the ladder first-

-more soldiers rushed up the stairs to attack them, and Ty Lee gave them a little tappity-tappity-tappity to get them out of the way again-

-and then she climbed up. Once she was through the hatch, she gave the ice ladder a very precise, very hard smash. It shattered, stranding them up on the roof of the palace, and she shut the door behind them.

The Water Tribe city would no doubt be a beautiful sight from up here, but Ty Lee had no time for it. She instead looked in the opposite direction, at the dam-shaped fortress called the Bastion, looking for something that-

Ah, that would do.

Ty Lee turned to where Princess Yue was panting for breath. "I'm sorry, I know you're tired, but could you help me untie this?"

"This?" Yue took a deep breath, looked around, and immediately shut her eyes. "Um, we're on the roof and very high up. Very."

"Huh?" Ty Lee needed a moment to switch her mind from thinking about her plan to realizing that there were some people in this world who couldn't dance across a tightrope while laughing. She paused in trying to untie the Fire Nation flag from whatever sculpture it was covering "Okay, so why don't you tell me why you need to be the one to help with Lu Ten? I'll do the untying."

Yue's eyes opened again, slowly, but they were focused on nothing in particular. "I- my birth did not bring joy to my parents. I did not cry. Did not open my eyes. I had been given just a taste of life, not even enough time to be given a name. But my father - the Chief - would not accept it. He brought me to the Oasis and pleaded with the spirits."

Ty Lee moved to the last knot. The hatch was glowing with a flickering orange light. A Firebender was trying to melt through. "What's this Oasis that everyone is so excited about? Hahn just knew that it's special."

Yue turned to look at the Bastion. "The shelter of the incarnate Moon and Ocean Spirits. The Tribe protects them. We have an oath: 'Friends, Family, Tribe, and Oasis.' We give loyalty to our friends, except when it hurts out family. We sacrifice our family for the Tribe, if necessary. But most important of all is the Oasis. Iroh built this fortress around it, and held it hostage. My Tribe would have even let me perish, rather than serve him, but we could not forsake the Moon and the Ocean Spirits."

The actual Moon and Ocean spirits? Wow. Ty Lee would like to see that.

She pulled the Fire Nation flag down, revealing a circular medallion statue made of ice. It had the symbol of the Water Tribe - a crescent moon over the wavy lines of the ocean - at its center. "So the Moon and the Ocean helped you?"

Yue nodded. "That was when my hair turned white. The Moon Spirit gave me the life that I had been denied. Even my name is in homage to the moon. I proudly embody the generosity of the spirits we protect." She finally turned to look at Ty Lee. "And that is what Iroh saw, and helped him realize what he could force us to do." She blinked. "What are you going to do with the flag?"

Ty Lee smiled her biggest, most reassuring, bestest 'don't worry, Mai, I'm sure no one will notice' smile. "It's just going to help us with something. Could you please close your eyes, not react when I grab you, and promise not to scream?" She considered her own words. "And please ignore how that sounds like I'm going to do something really bad to you, mkay?"

Yue blinked again. "What-"

That's when the fireball burst through the hatch.

Oh, fooey. No time for being nice, anymore.

Ty Lee grabbed the flag and ran at Yue, cartwheeled, landed on Yue's shoulders, and then flipped.

They went right over the edge of the roof together.

Before they could drop, Ty Lee spread her arms so that the Fire Nation flag spread out wide above them. It snapped in the wind, but gravity still had a really firm hold on them-

-and Ty Lee puffed out her cheeks and blew into the flag with all the Airbending power she could muster.

The flag billowed, and gravity's hands fell away from Ty Lee's body. She was rising, with Yue flaying in the iron-grip of her legs, the ice palace falling behind them. It made Ty Lee's heart pump in that special way that only the best acrobatics did, but she was a professional and didn't let herself get distracted. She continued blowing air, keeping herself and Yue in the sky, while she watched the front of the Bastion flash by. She looked for the spot she'd picked out over on the palace roof-

-there-

-and stopped blowing, surprising gravity with the sudden weight of two pretty teenage girls. The flag snapped again, helpfully trying to slow their fall, but they were indeed falling, and if Ty Lee aimed this right-

-she and Yue dropped onto a platform halfway up the Bastion with a railing and a metal door that led inside. She relaxed her legs as soon as Yue touched down and flipped off the princess, landing smoothly right in front of the railing.

Yue stumbled on her landing, tripping towards the door that would hopefully be unlocked so that they could get inside and find their friends-

-and the door popped open and Yue came to a stop in the arms of a very surprised Sokka. "Wha- Ty Lee?! And Princess Yue?!"

Behind Sokka, several more figures emerged from the doorway. Fire Lord Iroh and Admiral Zhao had their arms raised defensively, while behind them Chief Maliq cowered and an old woman in a white coat. There were more shapes past the doorway, shapes with glowing eyes that made Ty Lee's skin prickle, but they remained still and the old woman was even reaching to pet one of them.

Ty Lee raised her fists. "Um, who's on who's side right now? I just got here."

Sokka opened his mouth to answer, but Yue clamped onto him with a hug so tight and forceful that even Ty Lee had wince, hissing, "Never let go of me and do not let her throw me off another building."

"Um, okay," Sokka said, looking uncertain whether he was expected to hug her back. Ty Lee tried to give him a nod, but he didn't seem to catch it. "And, uh, as for who's on who's side, we're kind of teaming up for a truce for the greater good, or close enough. We need to go save Katara and Aang and Mai. Wanna come?"

Ty Lee's aura went pink. She'd arrived just in time to save all her favorite friends, and she'd managed to get Sokka and Yue in each other's arms. This was turning out to be a great day!

Then the moon turned red.

The soft white light that had made the city of ice shine even in the night was replaced in an instant with a red glow that reminded Ty Lee of the gas lamps they used in the ships and fortresses of the Fire Nation. It was a light that was also somehow a darkness, allowing her to see but turning all within her gaze to a mix of shadows.

The old woman stopped petting her monster and let out a moan. She stumbled against the doorway, and said, "The ocean! I can no longer feel the ocean!"

Ty Lee hugged herself, wrapping the Fire Nation flag over her shoulders. "What's going on?"

It was Yue who answered, straightening and easing out of Sokka's arms. "Lu Ten. Something has happened with Lu Ten, and that's why you're all working together."

Sokka gaped up at the moon. "Iroh was just explaining about how he breached the Oasis during his final conquest of the North."

Yue nodded. "And I was just explaining to Ty Lee about how the spirits gave me life as a baby when it seemed that I would die. The next part, for both our stories, is how Prince Lu Ten of the Fire Nation drowned during his father's siege. And the Prince-Admiral, in his mad grief, took the spirits themselves hostage, forcing us all to repeat what had been done with me as a baby."

Ty Lee wasn't sure what that meant. If Lu Ten had died, then how could he-

"That's it," Zhao gasped. "That's the key! All this about Lu Ten-"

Iroh lowered his head, and even in the red light, his grief blazed across his aura.

Yue continued, "The Moon Spirit pulled Lu Ten back from beyond death itself. But it was too much. When Lu Ten came back, he was wrong."

Ty Lee felt like crying. First the ashlands, and now this. Was there any end to the ways her nation had ruined the world?


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Loopy
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« Reply #295 on: Apr 29, 2019 10:24 pm »

Aang stepped back from the glowing koi pond, trying to figure out what was going on. "Where did Lu Ten go? What's wrong with the fish?"

"Yes," Mai muttered, backing up along with him and holding her platinum knife up in front of her, "those are the correct questions."

Aang bumped into one of the pillars of the Spirit Gate and came to a stop. He circle-walked around the pillar, ready to dodge or fight or maybe just scream, but the Oasis seemed unchanged except for the red light. Well, it was unchanged as far as Aang could see. But the feel of place had shifted completely, the 'wrongness' increased in pressure so that now it was like a rot. His skin was crawling and the air was thick and foul-tasting. It was all he could do not to gag. The bushes that ringed the Oasis garden rustled in the breeze, and-

Wait.

There was no breeze here.

Yet the whole ring of foliage was shifting the gently, the leaves rubbing to create a chorus of inhuman whispers that nevertheless seemed to singing something that Aang could understand-

He stepped away from Mai to prod one of the bushes with a hand.

His palm came back wet and sticky.

There was a coating on it, something dark, and in this red light, it almost looked like-

Aang quickly wiped his hand on the leg of his pants. "Okay, we're leaving. I'm going to try get into the Avatar State. Mai, can you-"

"I'll do everything I can to keep you safe." She gave him a smile, and then let her face fall free of expression as she raised her platinum knife in a high guard with one hand and pulled a hinged razor disk from her sleeve with the other.

Aang nodded his thanks, and then (stepped away from the maybe-bleeding bush and) closed his eyes as he breathed out slowly, seeking some kind of peace or harmony or maybe just not the feeling that he was being hunted. He asked the universe and his past lives for help.

Instead of peace, he was given a low rumble that he first felt in his teeth. He opened his eyes to find that the platinum walls were vibrating along their full length, shaking the bushes and the ground and the very air itself. Aang  called the air to keep him upright.

But there was a splash and a squeal that could have been from pain or aggression or fear or fury-

-a shadow passed by Mai and she swiped with her platinum knife-

-and then everything went calm again.

Mai's head whipped from side to side, sending her hair-tails flying. "Did I get it?"

Aang tensed his arms and reached for his Inner Fire. Maybe he'd have to win this fight before he could escape it. "Keep an eye in that direction. I'll watch over h-"

A shadow passed in front of him, and he chopped a wave of fire out, flame that was almost invisible in this red light.

And then Mai cried out.

Aang spun to see her stumbling as though shoved, and there was a shadow looming behind her. He let his Inner Fire fade a bit and instead pulled on a wind to catch Mai. She leaned into it as though expecting it, finding her balance again, and she spun and threw her razor disk at the shadow that was no longer there as she came to a stop right underneath the Spirit Gate-

-and then the wooden gate burst into flames, an explosion of light and heat that turned Mai into a a mere silhouette-

And then even that much was gone, leaving Aang along in the garden with the fire.

Mai?

Mai?!

Aang reached for the flames with his Firebending to put them out but found them beyond his control, and he couldn't see Mai anymore and he had to help her-

But she was gone.

At last, he found the path to the Avatar State, but it was not one of harmony and balance.

It was one of loss and fire and rage.

The flaming Spirit Gate flared.

The waters of the koi pond boiled.

The ground shook with the force of an earthquake.

And the air- the air thickened and pushed outward and the platinum walls bent and groaned and tore-

-and then sticky wet hands grabbed him. He was yanked out of the air by arms with a strength surpassing the earth itself, and flung right into the koi pond.

He sunk so far down that the water covered him completely even though the pond couldn't be that deep, and when he flailed his arms he found nothing but empty currents. The only light came from somewhere far above him, a little circle that he realized must be the surface of the pond, but when he tried to swim towards it he gained no distance. He tried Waterbending, tried beckoning the water to carry him back to where he could breathe, but instead of answering, it pushed him further down.

Aang looked up one last time at the circle of light that was the way back to the garden.

And then the red light was eclipsed by the blue-lipped, silently screaming face of Lu Ten.

And then there was no more light.

TO BE CONTINUED
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« Reply #296 on: Jun 03, 2019 10:25 pm »

The Hunger

Beneath the dark waters, Aang could not see, could not hear. He was removed from the world, or perhaps the world was removed from him.

But he could feel. He could feel the tepid waters that engulfed him, could sense the currents within them. Perhaps he was imagining it, a hallucination born of the lack of anything to see or hear, but the currents that flowed over him were almost like the echoes of a scream.

Aang wondered, in the cold and the dark, how he might know he was crying, with the waters submerging him and drinking up all his tears.



Sokka couldn't say his was enjoying his first ride on a mechanical cargo elevator. Usually, even a mysterious, weirdly warm trip to the bottom levels of the Bastion could have some appeal, if just for the chance to speculate on the power source.

But then, the story Yue was telling could have ruined an all-night jerky party, never mind a descent into danger.

Her voice echoed in the shaft as the platform creaked downward on its chains: "Our Tribe was already defeated. The fighting was done. Our city- the palace- our homes- all of it had been taken. My father and I were prepared to declare the final surrender. We expected to meet a conquering hero, perhaps a cruel man, perhaps just one who thought to wipe out our culture and call it progress. What came to us was a confused man carrying frosted body of a youth who had drowned during the fighting. Our conqueror seemed to gaze at nothing until he noticed my hair, and then-"

The group - Sokka, Yue, Ty Lee, the Waterhealer Yugoda, Zhao, this Maliq guy with a Fire Navy fashion-sense, and Iroh himself - had enough room on the platform that they didn't need to crowd, even with Yugoda's pet catfish spirits slithering around in a convenient shrunken form.

No one looked at each other, not even at Yue. They were all trying to grasp the story being told to them. It was one of those slippery stories, without any convenient handles, not even for someone like Sokka who could understand the desire to save family. He could only see himself balking at the idea of raising anyone from the dead with forbidden power. That never ended well.

Case in point: the current situation.

Iroh simply kept his eyes closed.

Yue's tears traveled down her cheeks and went untouched. "It was a choice. Restore life to his son, or watch the Moon and the Ocean Spirits die. I myself carried Lu Ten's body into the Spirit Oasis and then the koi pond. We-" Her voice wavered, and royal dignity faded with a helpless gesture. "It's hard to describe what I experienced next. The pond filled with red light. I'm told by some that the ocean became like blood and the moon glowed the same color. Others disagree, saying that it may have grown darker that night, the seas choppier, but nothing ghostly."

Zhao grunted. "I've had no reports of any such phenomenon. But, as I found while investigating the eternal snowstorms at the South Pole, there are always those who claim to have some extra-sensory insight."

Sokka didn't like the sound of that. He'd seen some weird stuff since signing on with Aang's whole epic quest thing, and now some of it could only be seen by especially weird people? It made him feel like prey. He hated to feel like prey.

And so he nearly jumped out of his skin when the elevator reached the ground floor of the Bastion and jolted to a stop. He did manage to keep from screaming, which was good, because he didn't want to spook his teammates. And he might need his voice for more terrified screaming later.

Sokka tried to cover his alarm by stepping forward to unlatch the gate and lead the way off the elevator into an oddly familiar dry heat. "I think we can figure out the next part. First it was a miracle, Sonny Boy was alive, hooray, let's eat now, and then came the creepy stares, the frigid wind whenever he showed up at dinner even though the windows were closed, and then poor Captain Firehead's bones were discovered in the prince's closet. After that came the fighting and the screaming and the construction of unholy fortresses to hide the monster away while obscene scientists tortured other monsters in vague hope of a cure. A classic story."

The catfish spirits scurried out past Sokka, dashing up and down the hallway in front of them and poking their weird, wide, whiskered heads into every nook and cranny. Hopefully, they were checking for danger or something useful.

But Sokka didn't like the way they were hissing.

They were also, with their strange dark bodies that somehow had a kind of light shining out from within, casting more effective illumination than was already here. The gas lanterns on the walls were dark, and the only light came from glowing metal panels set into the walls at regular intervals. That seemed like a fairly inefficient way to warm and light this place. The amount of energy it had to be taking was ridiculous, never mind how difficult to regulate it would be.

Yue stepped out beside him, and gave him something like a smile. "It was a bit more sudden than that. Iroh had Lu Ten locked in the Oasis, and then this fortress was constructed around it. We worried for the spirits, but they proved to be in no danger. The problem came when Lu Ten's hunger was discovered-"

Sokka's stomach flipped, and he turned as Iroh stepped off the elevator. "Please tell me you didn't run some kind of a lottery where random members of the Tribe were turned into human sacrifices and now their bones are littering this oasis place!"

"Ew," gagged Ty lee.

"What?!" That finally shocked Iroh into opening his eyes, and he stopped short so suddenly that Zhao and Maliq nearly collided with him. "No! Why would you even think that?! Lu Ten merely feeds on Qi energy, and we gave him only pirates and criminals! I'm not a monster. I just wanted to save my son. It's still all I want!"

"Oh, because that's makes feeding people to your monster kid better," Sokka groaned. He tried not to imagine Aang and Katara and Mai having their breath sucked out by something like those Air Nomad Di Fu Ling monsters or the Unhcegila thing. Instead he focused on the weirdly hot hallways, noticing how it seemed to leach the moisture from his tongue as he talked.

Wait.

He knew why this was familiar!

If Iroh wanted to keep Water Tribe rebels out, including Waterbenders-

Sokka squeaked, "This is a Dryness Engine! Like at Crescent Island!"

And 'Chief' Maliq, in his Fire Navy uniform, smiled. "I like that! We just called it the Waterbending Inhibition System. I toured Crescent Island years ago and was so impressed at its effectiveness with the prisoners that I used all my education and intelligence to implement a version here. Although I don't understand why the lamps-"

Sokka slammed a fist into the Maliq's face.

Pain exploded in his knuckles as Maliq went straight down to the floor, but the satisfaction was worth it. He almost wanted to do it again, but Zhao and Yugoda grabbed his arms and pulled him back.

Sokka had been a Fire Nation collaborator, too, once. But he'd never taken pleasure in the damage the work might have done, and never knowingly worked on something as horrible as the device that had tortured his sister for a decade. Maliq had seen it in action and still wanted to duplicate it-

The catfish spirits hissed even louder than before, a sibilant song that echoed off the metal walls. It was the same sound as the rushing in Sokka's ears.

"Maliq," Iroh said, voice sharp and steady, "when you are able, please turn off the 'Dryness Engine.' We will need the help of any Waterbenders still down here, I think."

Down on the floor, Maliq was trying to stem the flow of blood from his nose and lips. "This savage just-"

"I gave you an order, Chief Maliq." Iroh smiled and added, "Please, if you would be so kind."

"Y- yes, my lord." Maliq crawled over to a console near the elevator, one covered in dials and levers, and leaned on it to haul himself to his feet. He produced a key from within his uniform, put it into a slot on the console, pulled a lever down-

"There," Iroh said, "now everyone is happier." He looked to Sokka. "Now, may we proceed?"

The heat was dying, the glowing panels sliding back into the walls. Covers fell into place over them, and the air immediately cooled, although it still wasn't at all comfortable.

And it left them in the dark, the only remaining light coming from the luminescent bodies of the catfish spirits.

"No," Sokka grunted. "Not happier." But he shook the rushing sound out of his ears, and let the tension drain from his body. The catfish spirits stopped their hissing.

A burst of light came into being atop Iroh's raised hand, a Firebending torch that brought something like normality back to the scene. "Nevertheless, I fear we must get moving. Reports put the Waterbenders near the Oasis entrance, but they might have moved after we evacuated the soldiers."

Zhao let go of Sokka and gave him a little push. "Keep moving, Tribal. Let's find out how necessary you are for this mission."

Yugoda let go of Sokka as well, but she patted his shoulder in a way that reminded him of Bato. She and Ty Lee (who gave Sokka a smile and a wink and a fist raised in victory) fell into position right behind him as he followed Iroh, with Zhao and Maliq bringing up the rear of the group like the 'practical' guys they were.

And Princess Yue kept her eyes on Sokka as she walked alongside him.

He bowed his head to her and whispered, "Sorry if punching that guy will make things harder for us. Or your tribe. I- I couldn't keep the Fire Nation from taking my sister away- to that Crescent Island place, with the original Heat Engine. I still have trouble with it."

Yue blinked, and her pink lips parted slightly. She stared at him for a moment, and then bowed her head to him in return and returned her attention to the path ahead.

He wondered what that meant. Maybe, if they all didn't get their hearts eaten by a Fire Prince, he could find out later.

The group moved as fast as they could, with just Firebenders to light the way. Zhao created his own hand-torch, which helped a little. Sokka couldn't keep track of their path, as the halls of this crazy fortress were labyrinthine. But then, that was probably the point, if this was all just to keep people away from Prince Lu Ten. Maliq and Iroh at least seemed to know the way, although even they had to stop every so often to confirm where they were with a landmark of some kind.

The catfish spirits kept pace with Iroh, and no longer seemed to want to go exploring. That was a shame, as their light would have made them helpful scouts.

But Sokka wasn't sure he wanted these strange spirits running ahead beyond his vision to become vague lights bouncing through the darkness. That could get spooky.

And then the group started finding the bodies.

They were soldiers, Firebenders and swordsmen and archers and spear-wielders. Most of them were casualties of a war of some kind. Sokka checked them out (once he was sure they weren't going to open their eyes and jump up and try to suck his spirit out through his nostrils or something), and found that most had standard injuries, the kind that would bleed out or send the victim into fatal shock, and could have come from knives or spears. A few larger cuts might have been made by broadswords or angry Waterbending.

But there were also some bodies that didn't have any injuries.

And they were colder than the others.

The catfish spirits were hissing again, and more insistently.

Sokka glanced at Yugoda. "Does that mean anything?"

"I don't know. I've never heard them do that before." She didn't look like she considered a good thing.

Great.

It was distracting enough that the group didn't hear the attack until it was almost too late.

They turned a corner and the catfish spirits turned their hissing into a roar. Sokka froze mid-step and spotted shadowy figures at the edge of Iroh's torchlight and suddenly Sokka couldn't move his arms or his legs and it was like he had sticks in his veins and he screamed-

A familiar voice said, "Sokka?!"

The tension in his limbs went away in an instant, allowing him to move again. That was freaky. He barely had enough time to wonder what it was when one of those shadowy figures dashed right past Iroh and slammed into Sokka with a crushing hug. A hug as familiar as its voice.

He wrapped his arms around his little sister. "Found you."
Logged

Loopy
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« Reply #297 on: Jun 03, 2019 10:26 pm »



Lian the Maker, the highest-ranking Privileged Colonial Contractor in service to Fire Lord Iroh, was getting fed up with all of this garbage.

When the Fire Lord - merely the crown prince at the time - had come to her, he'd promised the chance to define a whole new field of scientific knowledge. Iroh's troubles with his son had confounded the Sages, Wise Men, Shamans and other spiritualists, leaving no other choice but to apply science to the situation. Lian had already been studying the phenomenon of Bending, how it really worked and if it might be replicated by mechanical constructs, and so Iroh's search had taken him to her doorstep with an offer to explore and classify the very nature of the Spirits themselves. She had no love for the brutish ways of the Fire Nation, but Iroh himself was an impressive person and much more enlightened than most of his countrymen. Plus, the gains to science could not be ignored.

And for a while, it had been nice. Lian had indeed created a brand new science out of nothing, and Iroh had been every bit as supportive as she needed.

Then he became Fire Lord.

And now war and politics were interfering with everything.

So she was hardly in a good mood when she stepped out of the snowcrawler that had brought her to the Bastion, into the strange red moonlight, and greeted the guards with a snarled, "I'm here to reclaim all the materials the degenerate Zhao had removed from my lab. Take me to them or the Fire Lord right now."

The soldiers were the Crimson Guard types who directly served Iroh, so she couldn't see their expressions beneath their helmets as they all traded glances. One of them said, "Admiral Zhao unloaded no cargo. He went with the Fire Lord into the fortress on an urgent matter regarding-"

"Yes, an attack by the Avatar," Lian cut the man off. "That's why it's so egregious that Zhao brought my Unhcegila head here! He's endangering valuable, irreplaceable material for the sake of politics. I bet this oddly colored moon is his doing, too. This is impeding my work regarding Prince Lu Ten's cure."

The Crimson Guards stiffened. She had said the 'magic' words, and they had their orders about the matter. The lead guard said, "Zhao's snowcrawlers have been parked in the garage. Come with me."

They led her to the battleship that had been scuttled at the top of the cliff overlooking the Northern Water Tribe village. Iroh was still using it as the front gate for the Bastion fortress, but Lian had no idea why. Chief Maliq was a good architect and engineer, and could have something more suitable made to replace it. She suspected that Iroh simply liked the look of it, or perhaps wanted a reminder of the early days when he'd needed to cobble together a holding pen for Lu Ten.

The garage was a portion of one of the battleship's holds that had been cut open and given a large door. As expected, a squad of snowcrawlers was parked within, still dripping with slush, under guard from a squad of Zhao's marines. Their body language became wary as the Crimson Guards led Lian into the hold.

She called out, "Which of these contains the Unhcegila head? I presume Zhao took an inventory of the materials he stole?"

One of marines held up a hand. "Come no closer. Admiral Zhao has ordered-"

"Stand aside," the lead Crimson Guard snarled, "on the authority of the Fire Lord." Several of the masked Guards raised their arms into Firebending stances as they walked.

Lian waited to see what would happen. Perhaps Zhao had instilled some true loyalty in his crew, but from what she had observed-

"Okay," the marine said. He shifted so that he was no longer blocking the path to the snowcrawlers and kept his hands down and clearly visible. The other marines did the same. "The chain of command seems clear in this case. Sorry for the trouble."

Lian grinned and trotted past the Crimson Guards.

It didn't take long to find the snowcrawler in which Zhao had stashed the Unhcegila head, and Lian was relieved to see that it wasn't damaged in any way. Of course, she'd need to get it back to the lab and run some tests to truly make sure that nothing had gone wrong. But first, she needed to take the opportunity that had been handed to her. She emerged from the snowcrawler and went back to the lead Crimson Guard.

"Luckily, no damage was done that I can't undo, but we've lost valuable time. Admiral Zhao has impeded my work. I think the Fire Lord needs to know about this."

The Guard gave a shallow bow. "A report will be made. Currently, the Fire Lord is seeing to a matter regarding his son, as I tried to explain-"

And then the glow of the moon, reflecting into the garage off the snow fields, flickered.

Lian was, thankfully, too much of a professional to feel fear.

On the contrary, this was a valuable new opportunity to expand the scope of human knowledge.

"Forget your mere explanations," she told the lead Guard. "I need a full briefing. It looks like I'm going to have to divert from my research to save the world."



Aang could feel the approach of his friends, their energies traveling along the ethereal connections they shared to send both hope and dread to his heart. He tried to warn them away, tried to warn them of what had found them, but when he opened his mouth, his voice was drowned by the infinite waters into less than a whisper. The salt in the water stung his tongue, and the pressure threatened to burst his lungs.

Instead he tried to reach out along the connections, the web of light that bound them all together. But none of his self was able to survive the journey. It was overwhelmed by the hunger that overflowed from another connection, one that had been forced on him. It wasn't a complete connection, as there wasn't a complete person on the other end. Instead, there was a vague remnant of a person, a space that had once been defined as an individual but now was smeared with the glow of the moon and the roar of the ocean and a deep, relentless hunger.

That hunger was so terrible that pushed back against Aang, against everything he was, and filled him up with nothingness. He felt his own definition blurring, and through the gaps flowed names like Roku and Kyoshi and Kuruk and Yangchen and so many others. They drifted out of him, and with each one of them went a little piece of the being that had once been called Aa-

A-

What had his name been again?

Behind him, his only companion here in the dark shook, sending bubbles filled with both laughter and sobs to float up into nothingness.



As much as Sokka would have liked to just pick his sister up and carry her out of this horrible Bastion place, he knew his only real option right now was to let her go. As soon as he did, Ty Lee and Yugoda greeted her with their own enthusiastic hugs.

While Sokka watched it all, he felt a hand rest on his shoulder, and turned to find Princess Yue giving him a smile. She said, "You found your sister when she needed you. Don't forget that. You're a good brother."

Sokka couldn't figure out what to say to that. The combination of Yue's beauty being so close, her warm hand on his shoulder, and the sentiment that he didn't dare accept all combined to keep his tongue firmly stuck to the roof of his mouth.

He was still staring at her in awe as more figures emerged from the shadows into the light of Iroh's torch-like Firebending.

They were obviously Water Tribe, and they wore the same white clothes as Yugoda and the 'Dreamcatcher' warriors who had come with Hahn to attempt a rescue, back up outside the fortress. But only one of them had a weapon (a rather nice machete).

That one kept gaze and weapon pointed straight at Iroh. "I don't suppose the whole Tribe was liberated while we were down here and this colonizer is a decorative prisoner?"

"Rafa!" Yugoda came over to him and examined some of his scrapes. "I must admit, I'm surprised to find you alive, but very glad. And no, I'm afraid the situation has gotten worse since we last talked."

One of the catfish spirits joined the reunion, bopping its head against Rafa's back in some kind of greeting. In return, Rafa actually reached out to pet it. "Mashenomak! Come to help me, have you? Then things must be very complicated, indeed."

To Sokka's disappointment, that seemed to be the extent of the reunions. No one else stumbled out of the darkness to express how glad they were to see him, or even to beg for a way out of here. Specifically, there were two people whose bodies he (thankfully?) hadn't yet found down here. "Where's Aang? And Mai?"

Katara shook her head. "They broke into the heart of the fortress! Aang thinks Lu Ten might be there. But they've been gone for a while, and I- we held the door against the soldiers, but then the whole place shook and the lights went out, and- and-"

The Rafa guy finished with, "There's something here. Besides us and the soldiers. Something hunting us. We had to flee, and we think it managed to get some soldiers, before the rest of them retreated. We've gotten turned around in the dark, and thought you might be the hunter."

"Lu Ten." Iroh sighed. "It's just as bad as I feared. It's likely the Avatar is dead, and the problem is up to us to resolve."

Katara blinked, and seemed to finally realize that this was more than a rescue operation. "What's going on? How can Aang be dead?!"

Sokka said, "It turns out that Iroh's big secret is that the Northern Tribe has these spirit fish that can raise people from the dead but it only goes right in certain situations so now Prince Lu Ten is another one of those crazy monsters that eats people's lifeforce or something."

Katara blinked, and then looked to Ty Lee, who confirmed it with a nod.

Sokka didn't say anything about Aang. He could see Iroh's logic, and they had to assume the worst in this situation. But he wouldn't be leaving this place, one way or another, until he knew for sure. And if Aang was still alive-

Well, then Sokka would have to come up with something clever.

He hated having to be clever.

Iroh looked up at the ceiling, as if he could see through it to the sky above. "The red light of the moon must mean that the darkness within my son is ascendant. He wavers between lucidity and- and more troubled states. I'm afraid bringing him out of those is no easy task. But he has not yet attacked us, so we might have enough power to contain him."

It was Ty Lee who said, "So how do we find him?"

The whole group went quiet.

It was Rafa who eventually answered with, "We won't have to. He knows where we are. He's just waiting for the right opportunity."

Zhao raised the hand he was using as a Firebending torch even higher, as if trying to send the light farther. "Well, we aren't going to give him one. Fire Lord, I recommend we move towards the inner sanctum. The platinum walls might protect us, and perhaps we will find a sign of the Avatar."

Sokka realized that it was a little darker down here than before. That's why Zhao had raised the torch, but he didn't seem conscious of it. What could that mean? Imminent death, sure, but something more specific might help them prepare.

"An insightful recommendation, Admiral Zhao," Iroh said. "Yes, that shall be our plan for now. If I could ask everyone to keep an eye out as we move-"

Maybe the weirdness was having more people around? No, wait, something was missing. But everyone was still here- no, all the humans were still here.

The glowing catfish spirits were gone.

"What was that," Sokka interrupted, "the pet was named? Mashy something? Does he tend to hide in shadows and stop glowing sometimes?"

And then Rafa noticed it, too. "No, he doesn't. Nor any of the others."

Iroh stiffened. "We need to move. Now!"

And everyone did-

-except for Yue. She grabbed Sokka's arm and hissed, "Wait! I feel something-"

From somewhere behind Sokka, Maliq screamed.

And then the path ahead lit up with a light the color of dread.

(Dread was red.)

The source of the radiance was a hulking figure of almost-human proportions, two arms and two legs coming off a central body, but the legs were too short and the arms were too long and everything was still shifting and changing shape. One arm stretched to become a whip-like tentacle and the other grew fingers that came to very sharp points.

The face remained that of a catfish, with floating whiskers that brushed the ceiling and walls as the creature forced its bulk a step forward, but its mouth was that of a shark as it opened to reveal fields of sharp teeth.

A similar red glow was coming from behind them, as well. All the paths were cut off.

"Mashenomak," Rafa called to the creature in front of them, but it only responded with a warbling growl.

Sokka wished he had borrowed one of Mai's platinum weapons, but there was no way he could have kept a hold of even a knife while stuck as a prisoner.

"We'll have to fight our way past," Iroh said. "Firebenders and Waterbenders together!"

Katara shook her head. "We're out of water."

Great. So, what was their plan supposed to be, then? Iroh had wanted to get down here to fix things, and Sokka had kind of assumed that the big bad mastermind with all the secrets actually had a plan. Which was stupid! Never assume things! Never!

Yue was the first to step towards Mashy.

Sokka grabbed her arm. "What are you going to do?"

She looked at him with wide eyes, and her lips were trembling. "I don't know, but I have to try some-"

And then, one by one, those spirits began screaming.

It was a horrible, keening sound, something between an injured polar bear dog and the blade of a knife scraping against a whetstone. It started with Mashenomak in front of them, the din echoing up and down the hall, but it was soon a chorus. Lu Ten was no longer the only thing hunting them.

Or, maybe, he still was. In a way.

But he was Iroh's son, and didn't see the need to get his hands dirty when he could force other people or catfish spirits to handle things for him. So he was a monster and a tactician. Great. And this was his home turf.

But, as Yue had said, they had to try something.

Sokka acted on pure instinct.

He shoved Katara towards Ty Lee and Yue towards Yugoda, and then ran out in front of Mashenomak. "Hey, Mashy! I didn't want to tell you this before, but you're ugly and you totally creep me out!"

Mashy swung a clawed hand towards him, but he dove between the thing's stubby legs and rolled and came up in a run and took the first turn he found. He was yelling the whole time he ran, but only partially because he was terrified. He needed the corrupted spirits to know where he was going.

Away from his friends.

Mashy gave chase.

Lu Ten wasn't the only tactician around here. But Sokka hoped someone else came up with another plan, soon, because this one stunk.

He tore down the hallways, taking turns at random, getting himself hopelessly lost and probably hopelessly dead, as heavy bodies stampeded after him.
Logged

Loopy
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« Reply #298 on: Jun 03, 2019 10:29 pm »



The Airbender boy floated in the endless ocean, surrounded by figures that were both familiar and strangers. He didn't know who they were, but the sight of them bobbing through the currents made him feel like he had lost something. And he was so hungry.

"I feed," hissed a voice through the water, somehow. It came out of bubbles that ticked the back of The Airbender's bald head and burst around his ears. It was a desperate, whining voice, and filled The Airbender with even more hunger. That hunger was like the ocean, endless and surging.

But through the connection to the owner of that voice, The Airbender could feel the anticipation of sustenance. The feeding was about to begin. Right now.

Somehow, The Airbender couldn't help but prefer the hunger.



Maliq had decided that there was no longer any call for his expertise on this mission.

His job had been to keep saboteurs out - and Lu Ten in - the Bastion; he had accomplished the former (...as well as he could since it was unreasonable to expect an Earthbender infiltrator), and now that Lu Ten was free there little more he could do on the latter.

And he had his responsibilities as Chief of the Northern Water Tribe to consider. He had to remember his people! Without him, they might never be made to see the glory of Fire Nation civilization, or the ways their lives could improve if they only embraced a sense of order and mechanical innovation.

Otherwise, they'd be doomed to savagery like this Sokka brute, unable to see the beauty of things like the Dryness Engine.

(But the guy had a knack for names; Maliq could give him that.)

So, completely selflessly, Maliq screamed and ran for his life as the rogue spirits gave chase after Sokka and everyone else tried to flee deeper into the Bastion. He knew this fortress better than the back of his hand, because he'd designed the thing, while the back of his hand was an accident of nature. He knew how long it had taken to construct, the materials used in every system, and the hidden infrastructure that made everything work. He knew that, if the lights were out, the natural waterfall that had been harnessed and locked away to power the Bastion was probably escaping somewhere. And the waterfall was right behind the Oasis.

That's why he didn't take the most direct path back to the elevator. It might be quicker, but whatever else was down here wasn't entirely human, if at all. He knew the effects that platinum had on spirits, and knew where all the hidden platinum components were that might protect him from observation and manipulation. Some of the platinum had gone into walls and pylons to prevent the flow of unwanted energies, and the rest went into ingenious systems like the polished platinum mirror network that brought natural light down into Lu Ten's chamber.

Maliq chose his path based on where those constructs were and how they might shield him from detection. That was how the platinum worked, right? He was a genius, so he was sure he was correct.

It was thinking like that made him stand out from the rest of his tribe, which was looked down upon by the rest of the world. Even his sister Malina sometimes worried about disrupting people's lives with his improvements, as if a few lives could stand in the way of progress. She supported him, but without his influence, would she stay on the true path of Fire Nation glory?

Yes, he had to get out. He had to escape. He had to-

He had to find a light.

He'd let his thoughts wander. Had he taken the second left or the third? Without the lamps or the sound of machinery, it was hard to tell where he was right now. At least he was alone, while the others distracted those awful spirits. Imagine, being stupid enough to take 'tame' spirits into battle. That mistake would cost them their li-

Cold, wet, sticky hands pressed against his face.

Maliq screamed.

He screamed as the darkness faded away, and the sun rose on the horizon. The light reflected off the ocean, making it a beautiful glistening ruby. But as he looked out at the light, he realized it wasn't the sun that was rising- it was the Fire Nation itself! The 'Homeland' that its soldiers spoke of so lovingly had come to the North Pole - to Maliq - to share its glory. The ice would melt, bone tools would be replaced by metal, frigid air would be tinged with the bracing smell of oil and ash, and his genius would finally be recognized the world over!

Maliq reached for that sun-

-but it was out of his grasp.

His body filled with a need, a hunger, and he knew he had to do everything in his power to sate it. He needed the Fire Nation, needed its ways. He would swim the ocean, or walk across the planet, or even learn to fly. It was the only thing that could feed this clawing emptiness in him. He channeled all his energy, all his self, into grasping it. But his hands fell short, and so he gave more of himself, and the horizon grew no closer, and so he grasped and grasped and grasped and grasped-

But he wasn't the one grasping.

Another body, strong and limber and soaking wet, was twisted up with Maliq's, and he was losing heat everywhere it was touching him. The horizon was an illusion, while the dark-

"I feed," something hissed right in Maliq's ear, the breath warm and fetid and more than a little damp.

He tried to scream-

-and the last of his self was yanked up out of his mouth in a gasp, leaving an empty body in the dark of an empty fortress. His last sounds echoed, and then there was only silence.



Mai woke up to the most awful racket. It was like an army of lemurs was making a hooting retreat from a shark-mandrill. She wished the stupid things would shut up and go away. She had half a mind to get up and encourage that thought with some flung razors, but when she tested that idea out with her body, it protested with some whiny excuses about pain. Typical.

So Mai just groaned.

Surprisingly, there was an answer. A bright, familiar voice called back something like, "I heard something! I think it came from over there!" Something about the unoriginal wording made the voice seem fairly slow on the uptake, which struck Mai as completely natural and more than a little comforting.

And she was pretty sure she knew the voice's name.

Ty Lee.

Just thinking the name made Mai feel a little better.

So when soft hands grabbed her, lifting her off the grass, she didn't make an attempt to stab anyone with anything.

There was more talk after that, stuff about someone being burned and gratitude for finding some water. More voices sounded, and one of them struck Mai as reassuringly steady and recognizable. Another name - Katara - emerged into her thoughts. She was pretty sure things would be okay if Katara was here, for some reason.

And then a feeling both warm and cool covered Mai's body, pulling the pain and stiffness straight out of her, leaving behind strength and relief.

Mai opened her eyes to find her two favorite girls leaning over her, something like starlight illuminating their faces. "Hey. Thanks for that."

Ty Lee and Katara both broke into smiles. Ty Lee said, "How did you get so burned?"

Mai sat up gingerly, trying to figure out the answer herself. The pain she'd had was consistent with burns, and her robes were a charred mess but thankfully weren't falling off of her, so all clues pointed to burning, sure enough. She was still in the Spirit Oasis, only now the foliage and wooden Spirit Gate were blackened ruins.

Ah, yes.

She remembered them somehow bursting into flames when Lu Ten went feral or whatever, and she had the bad luck (or perhaps it was more purposeful?) to be standing right in range of the fireblast. But what had happened after that?

The formerly secure platinum walls were twisted and punctured by rocky outcroppings with the distinctive smoothness of Earthbending, which she didn't remember at all and didn't consider a good sign. The back wall had been damaged enough to spring a leak, and now something like a waterfall was pouring through a burst seam to create a moat around the garden.

And standing behind Katara and Ty Lee was some woman with weird white hair along with-

Fire Lord Iroh?!

But he didn't have any soldiers with him, not so much as a pair of guards. Even if Lady Prematurely White was an enemy, the good guys had numerical superiority. That didn't mean they actually could beat Iroh, of course, but he wasn't attacking anyone right now. That was either kind of good or very, very bad.

But there was one thing, one very important thing, that Mai couldn't find anywhere in the Oasis.

Aang.

And the koi pond-

-was completely opaque, as dark as oil.

"Where did Aang go?"

Ty Lee and Katara both frowned. Katara said, "We thought he was with you! How do we keep losing the boys?!"

Boys? Plural? "Sokka's in trouble, too? Is he with Aang?"

"No- Maybe- I don't know!" Katara blinked tears from her eyes. "The Dreamcatcher spirits got- got corrupted and Sokka led them away, and we can't find him now, and we lost Rafa and the other Dreamcatchers while we were running, and we found the entrance to this place twisted nope, and now we're stuck in here while that thing is out there with our friends killing people and now Aang is gone too and-"

"Lu Ten," Mai interrupted, looking at Iroh. "Lu Ten is the thing killing people. And he got Aang." She hopped to her feet, letting the ruins of her sleeves fall over her hands as she sought for some weapons. A rain of needles to throw Iroh off guard before a more lethal attack? Or should she just go for it with her first throw and try to sink one of the bigger blades right in his skull? No matter how she did it, she'd likely leave him a chance to get in a fatal blow of his own, so she was about to die, but that was okay because she'd failed to protect Aang.

That was her whole purpose. She had, at one point or another, betrayed everyone and everything in her life. Aang was the one - the only one - to see her full awfulness and decide to forgive her anyway. Tom-Tom didn't really know her, and Mother and Father were now her enemies. Katara and Ty Lee were too optimistic to really see her, and Sokka was too flawed himself to hold it all against her. She and Zuko had left each other behind. Azula had wanted her dead before losing all sanity.

Aang was the one she had betrayed who went on to eventually- well, fall in love with her. He was the best person she knew, someone who had every right to look down on her, and yet he thought she was the best thing since sharpened flint.

And she'd let Lu Ten destroy him.

The least she could do to make up for it was murder the old man who caused this whole mess, even if it killed her. Not that, without Aang, anyone had any chance at all.

But before Mai could let loose with her last rain of metal, Ty Lee grabbed her wrists and cried, "Wait! I think we can still save them!"

It was such an odd thing to say that Mai could only stop and blink. "How?"

"I dunno." Ty Lee smiled. "But Fire Lord Iroh's aura hasn't gotten any worse since we got down here. So he thinks we can."

Mai looked to Iroh, momentarily not evaluating him for attack, and had to bite back a groan when she realized she'd been trying to see his aura for herself.

Iroh nodded and crouched down beside the fetid koi pond. "I hesitated to say anything, as I do not know for sure, but look at the damage here. Lu Ten cannot Earthbend, as Maliq pointed out when justifying his failures. And yet these rocks very clearly broke the seal of this platinum chamber and allowed Lu Ten to exert his influence before escaping. Nor do I think it was a coincidence that our aggressive Lady Mai was injured by Fire, which is well within Lu Ten's control even during his- er, little episodes."

Ash, it was like listening to Sokka ramble on about his stupid deductions, except slower and coming from someone Mai hated. "Get to the point."

But it was the girl with the white hair who continued, "The Spirit Oasis is a point where the Spirit World overlaps with the Material World. It is how the climate can be so warm. And there is more to this space than we can see. The Spirit World is infinite, its landscape changeable. Entire lands can exist in its shadows." She turned to the koi pound. "And an entire ocean and moon can be contained in a mere pond."

The koi fish spirits. Lu Ten had been going on about them. "And how do you know all this?"

Ty Lee grabbed a bit of the girl's white hair and held it out for inspection. "This is Princess Yue! She's my friend, and she was born dead but the magic fish brought her back to life and made her hair white! She's like a storybook!"

This 'Yue' managed to give a stiff smile. "That's accurate enough. I have a connection to the Moon Spirit. But-" She moved towards the pond, pulling her hair from Ty Lee's loose grip. "Something is wrong. I can feel Lu Ten's influence, but it's never been this strong before. He's been feeding on the people in this fortress, but there's something else going on. Another presence older even than the Moon and Ocean, but far weaker than it should be."

Mai looked at the inky blackness of the pond. "So let me get this straight- the pond is a magic door to the Spirit World, Aang is probably inside waiting to be rescued, and it might be the only way to stop Lu Ten. So, how do we do this?"

"We don't." Yue closed her eyes for a long moment, and when she opened them again, they were as dark and glossy as the koi pond was now. "I share the lifeforce of the Moon Spirit, and am bound to Lu Ten. I will end this." Oily black tears oozed down her cheeks.

Mai found herself taking a step back. "Okay, then. Good luck?"

Ty Lee leaned towards Mai and whispered, "I don't think we should tell Sokka about this. He thinks she's cute."

"Wait," Katara whispered back, "he does?"

Mai chose to not have anything to add to this conversation.

Yue stepped into the koi pond, the sludgy waters coming up to her ankles. The hem of her dress floated on the surface and absorbed the staining liquid. Yue centered herself in the pond as Iroh shuffled away from it, leaving her a lone figure about to undertake a journey into the unknown.

Then the entire Bastion thundered with an echoing, "NO!!" It shook the ground, and Mai was barely able to keep on her feet. The light in the room shifted and flared red, making her eyes water, but she squinted through it and managed to see what was going on just in time to call, "Ty Lee, incoming!"

Her friend moved too fast to have thought about it, moving her arms in a blur. Mai felt a wind rise up and whip at her hair just in time for it to cushion Yue's landing. Even so, the princess still had enough momentum to collide with the other girls, but they grabbed her together and managed to avoid a fall.

The red glare faded, and Yue pulled away to stand on her own. She wiped sticky dark muck from her eyes, revealing vivid blue irises of the normal human variety. "He's coming. Lu Ten knows what I tried to do."

Oh, great. Mai grabbed her platinum knife with one hand and a razor disc with the other. "Then we fight."

Iroh stepped to stand in front of her, a head shorter than her but disconcertingly solid. "No, we defend. And we continue to try to find a solution. There must be something we can do. Perhaps our friends Ty Lee and Katara can disable his Bending and freeze him in place?"

Ty Lee and Katara exchanged glances that didn't have a lot of confidence between them.

Mai eyed Iroh. "And what about me and you?"

"I will direct the efforts. You should guard Yue. The connection she shares might be the key to victory, or the path to our defeat. And you, my dear, have a limited choice of options against a foe who does not lack the strength to pull his clothes free from a knife in the wall. Now, quickly, before my son gets here, we must prepare defenses." He moved over to the entrance to the Oasis, the shutter-like door that Mai and Aang had slipped through, before. It was bent and broken now, with a clear view of the obscuring darkness beyond. Katara and Ty Lee followed him, both of them looking back at Mai with helpless expressions.

She could only shrug at them. Iroh was right, and he was one of the greatest tacticians the Fire Nation had ever produced. As awful as he was, and as responsible as he might be for this, he was their best option for a leader right now. After all, Aang and Sokka might be dead; they were the clever ones in the group.

But maybe Mai could be the surprising one. She'd managed to make friends with the Dreamcatchers by choosing not to fight, before. Perhaps she really was capable of accomplishing things that didn't involve stabbing people.

So she turned to face Yue and whispered, "What's your opinion on this?"

Yue frowned. "The key is still the Moon and Ocean Spirits. We must reach them. But Lu Ten- his power pushed me back from the pond. I- I don't have the strength of spirit to push back."

Mai gave the girl her sharpest smile. "You're not a fighter, are you? Strength is for losers. Real fighters cheat." And then she held up her platinum knife.

Yue blinked at it in confusion, and then she got it. She looked up at Mai and nodded.

And so, while the others worked, Mai and Yue went hand in hand over to the koi pond. They stood at its edge, looking down at the obsidian sludge that glistened in the dim lighting.

Ugh, only for Aang would Mai subject herself to getting messy like this.

She held out the platinum knife in front of her, took a deep breath, and then - together with Yue - dived into the pond.

The tip of the blade touched the surface first, and in that moment the dark muck broke apart into blazing crimson light. Mai shut her eyes against it as she fell, but as the air brushed past her face, the knife in her hand blazed with heat, she reflexively let go and opened her mouth to cry out in pain from the burns on her fingers-

-and her cry was drowned by a torrent of saltwater before it was even born. She was underwater, her clothes soaked and her hair floating around. Her only anchor was Yue's hand in her own. She opened her eyes to try to get some kind of sense of where they were.

The ocean around them was endless, and somewhere in the infinite above, filtered by the depths, a red moon provided the only light.

The platinum knife was nowhere to be seen.

Her only effective weapon was gone.

TO BE CONTINUED
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Loopy
Never Gonna Give Yue Up

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Posts: 32108


I'm Loooooooopy!


« Reply #299 on: Jun 23, 2019 07:05 pm »

The Price

Sokka's death came at the end of sharp claws made of luminescent darkness, which was the kind of stupid contradiction that had always annoyed him. Appropriate that it would be the end of him, really.

He'd led the corrupted Dreamcatcher cat-fish spirits on a merry chase through the bowels of the Bastion's lowest level, if 'merry' meant confused and frantic and far too dark to see anything, accompanied by screaming terror and a few stubbed toes. It was as dark as his stay in the basement of Long Feng and the Dai Li Earth rebels, back before his and the gang 'liberated' the Fire Nation for Iroh, an unpleasant memory that did nothing to improve his hopes right now. In that evil prison basement, Sokka had been forced to endure treatments that had left him tumbling through nightmares and gaps in wakefulness, not unlike the experience of running from monsters in the dark. King Toph's arrival had gotten him out of there, thankfully before Long Feng could do anything permanent, and he knew he wouldn't have been able to do it himself.

This time, Sokka didn't want to escape. Not from this 'Bastion' fortress, or the Northern Water Tribe settlement around it.

His only goal was to lead the spirit monsters away from his friends and family, which he had to hope he was doing because this place had the most convoluted floor-plan of any evil fortress he had ever visited, and that included the impractical vertical one built into a mile-deep sinkhole in the Earth Kingdom, the time he and Mai had fallen on Ty Lee. Either that traitorous Maliq guy was a pretty sub-par architect, or he had done this on purpose, the jerk.

But running and taking random turns and hitting things with a salvaged spear and dodging around the claws and toothy bites could only work for so long.

Specifically, it worked up until the point when Sokka tripped over a long solid object at shin-height that had no business being in his path.

It was tempting to hope, amidst the pain, that it had just been bad luck.

But then the red glow of one of the Spirits Gone Bad - a glow that somehow emanated from dark bodies that didn't have the healthy coloring of Water Tribe skin but rather the substance of shadow itself - lit up the hall in front of him, joining the similar light from behind, and he realized that this had been planned. The pipe had been torn from its boltings on the wall to hang across the path.

Sokka had been set up.

He wasn't fair enough to acknowledge it. He was too bitter as he jumped to his feet and raised his spear- and a massive clawed hand the size of his whole body swung and a cold pain lit up across his middle.

It was just as well that the lighting provided by the spirits was red; the liquid that splattered on the wall - that was dripping on the ground from the holes in his body - looked like water. Still, he knew exactly what it was.

"Aw, man," he said.

He looked up at the spirit in front of him, and was surprised that it wasn't snarling or sneering. It wasn't displaying those endless rows of teeth in that wide mouth. The face was twisted, and the whiskery things on the sides and top of its head were droopy.

Sokka thought it might be Mashy - Mashenomak - the leader of the spirits that had once served the 'Dreamcatchers' Water Tribe rebels. Before Lu Ten had taken over that service without so much as asking. But Sokka didn't have time to wonder about it. His legs decided that they couldn't support his weight anymore and he fell into the puddle of his own blood.

He knew he was dying, alone in the dark, bleeding out on floor. The life and warmth were ebbing from his body. He was on his way to reincarnate as a prey animal, to take on the twin duties of testing a hunter and feeding a Tribe. He could already feel himself being pulled away from this world.

As he listened for the calls of his ancestors welcoming him to his next life, he could only hope that someone else was taking a turn being clever about this situation, because he was obviously going to be done with that kind of thing very shortly.



Mai was about to panic before Yue said, "This isn't real, not in the way you think. Your body is not here, so you cannot drown. Be at peace, my friend."

Clearly, this Yue girl hadn't heard much about Mai, otherwise she'd know that saying garbage like, 'Be at peace,' was a good way to get Mai to do the exact opposite. But, in this case, the opposite consisted of drowning in a panic, and she wasn't quite that spiteful.

So she closed her eyes, shutting out the moonlight ocean she was immersed in. She should be drowning, but Yue had spoken, the words audible without any bubbling or gagging or choking. So the water wasn't real, or breathing wasn't required, or some other stupid spirit nonsense like that. So Mai didn't have to worry about it. She could focus on something else.

Like Aang.

She thought of the boy who believed in her. Who loved her. The kid with more responsibility than a whole dynasty of monarchs. The young man who had been hurt and manipulated and betrayed but who still smiled.

"Ah, that's a good idea," Yue said.

Mai's eyes snapped open.

She was still in the depths of an ocean, her hair and robes bobbing on the underwater currents, but now there was no longer just an endless view of blue.

Now, a glowing line like the light of the summer sun traced a path from the center of Mai's chest across the endless ocean.

And beside her was a water-distorted collection of moonbeams that somehow look a lot like Yue, her illusory body clothed in a glistening, snowy wind.

Yue held out a ghostly hand. "Your connection to Aang is strong. Come, let us follow it. I think we'll like what we find at the other end."

Mai reached out for Yue's hand, closing her eyes just before they made contact, and felt warm skin against her own. She didn't open her eyes again until they started moving through the water, and saw that Yue was still there, still made of light, and somehow was propelling herself without the tediousness of swimming, following the glowing line coming out of Mai's chest. Questions burned in Mai's mind, but she did her best to ignore them, lest they take her down a path of once again wondering why she wasn't drowning.

So she returned her thoughts to Aang and said, "Do you come here often?"

Yue's ghostly lips might have quirked. "I have been here since the beginning of time, and this is my first time here. It's confusing to me, too."

Great.

Stupid spirit nonsense.



The cargo elevator rose into the cold air of the Bastion's surface-level facilities with a racket of clanking chains, and Zhao found himself facing an array of Crimson Royal Guard soldiers in Firebending stances.

Ah.

Well, he'd just survived inhuman monsters from a world beyond mortal understanding. Bamboozling a group of warriors should be no problem, especially considering that they couldn't conceive of greater success than guarding a man who could fight better than them.

Zhao scowled at them and stepped off the elevator platform without fear. "What are you waiting for? The Fire Lord is down there and Prince Lu Ten has escaped! We need to-"

"Admiral Zhao, you will surrender yourself on suspicion of treason." Two of the Guards moved to block his path. "Where is the Fire Lord?"

"That's what I'm trying to tell you! I came back to- to bring reinforcements! Lu Ten has escaped, do you understand?" Zhao couldn't know, though, how much they really did understand. He hadn't been apprised of the full situation. Otherwise, he never would have gone down into that- that disaster on the lower levels. Even now, there was so much about Iroh's plans that he still didn't know.

When the spirits had become corrupted and turned on their allies, Zhao knew it had been time for him to leave the Bastion. He'd let The Annoying Tribal, Sokka, lead some of the spirits away, and then the collaborator Maliq had fled and drawn even more pursuit, while everyone else pressed on towards the supposed Spirit Oasis, a place that (by design) offered no escape. Ridiculous. That's when Zhao had started making his own way back to the elevator, retracing the steps he'd memorized. With his Firebending, he'd had light enough to see by, and he'd ignored the echoing screams that meant the others were serving as excellent distractions.

Really, he'd probably been in more danger back in the Capital, when Piandao had hunted him on the orders of the late ‘Prince Ozai.' If the past year had proved anything, it was that he had formidable survival instincts.

So he didn't flinch when the Crimson Guards all took a step towards him-

"Wait," came the voice of Lian the Maker. "Considering what the moon's been doing, I think we better hear him out."

Zhao couldn't stop himself from grinning.

Lian stepped past the guards, her face tight enough to stretch the tattoo of the gear teeth under her left eye into something like a transcribed telegraph signal. "Lu Ten has escaped? That's confirmed?"

"The Avatar, as Fire Lord Iroh feared, has created the worst-case scenario. The Prince is free, and he's corrupted the spirits that the rebel Tribals took into the Bastion. We already have casualties. We need new solutions, now." Zhao spread his hands out. "And I am here to provide you all the information you need to save the day, Lian the Maker."

Her eyes narrowed. "Don't think you're going to save yourself. You stole my Unhcegila head, and my work-"

"Wait," Zhao said. Her outrage - or rather, the subject of it - gave him an idea.

This.

This was why he pushed forward, and put as many elements in play as could serve him. He might not be the omniscient planner that Iroh claimed to be, but that was fine. Iroh's machinations were currently falling apart, and Zhao was proving skilled at improvising.

Before Lian could start on her rant again, Zhao continued, "We need a weapon to use against spirits down there, and we've seen how limited a platinum blade can be. This 'Unhcegila' thing can destroy spiritual entities at a distance, yes? Like the vines in your demonstration? There must be a way to weaponize it."

Lian opened her mouth to speak, and then closed it again. Her eyes lost focus. "M-aaaaybe if there was a power source. And an amplifier. And enough platinum wiring. And a regulator. And-"

"Don't tell me," Zhao cut in. Honestly, sometimes it was like everyone outside the military lacked all brains. "Get to work. I'll make sure every soldier here is at your disposal. Thanks to my efforts that you call theft, you have materials from your lab, and this is a functioning military base with the best of Fire Navy technology. If you can't cobble together the necessary components, perhaps you aren't the genius the Fire Lord thinks you are."

Lian glared at him. "Don't think this is over. The Fire Lord will eventually get a full report." She spun on her heel and hurried out of the room.

Zhao wondered if he'd have to ensure she suffered an 'accident,' after she put together a weapon he could use to eliminate the threat of Lu Ten. Perhaps the same accident that would befall the Fire Lord.

But he could worry about that later. He was, apparently, very good at improvising.

Zhao looked to the Crimson Guard still standing around at a loss. "Well? Shouldn't you be trying to save the Fire Lord's life? I can point you in his direction, if you like. I am in command here, after all."


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