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Author Topic: Traitor's Face [AU Adventure, rated T, Story Complete]  (Read 39113 times)
Never Gonna Give Yue Up

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You're Gonna Carry That Weight.

« Reply #200 on: Oct 06, 2017 02:28 pm »


Keeper of Azula's Lightning Hands.

Super Sidera Votum


~Assyrian tablet, c.2800 BC
Never Gonna Give Yue Up

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Posts: 414

You're Gonna Carry That Weight.

« Reply #201 on: Dec 01, 2017 03:29 pm »

Sooo, writer's block? Life getting in the way?

I should shut up and wait?

Keeper of Azula's Lightning Hands.

Super Sidera Votum


~Assyrian tablet, c.2800 BC
Never Gonna Give Yue Up

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I'm Loooooooopy!

« Reply #202 on: Dec 03, 2017 05:15 pm »

No, I just need to remember to post my chapters here, as well. Cheesy Sorry about that!

Dust to Dust

The explanations started in the first dragon cave, and extended into their walk across the bridge to the second.

Aang, for his part, could scarcely believe what he was hearing. "The Fire Nation killed off all the dragons?! Mai said they weren't around anymore, but I didn't think their own friends had hunted them down!"

As he spoke, the group passed into the second cave. It, too, smelled like an active volcano, but now Aang thought he recognized something else, a scent of age and dwindling life. But maybe he was just imagining that.

As they moved deeper, beyond the easy reach of the setting sun, Zuko said, "You've seen an Agni Kai and completed an Agni Budokai." The unscarred side of his face was covered in the shadow, leaving visible only his old burn and the patch covering his missing eye. "I'm sure you can believe that eventually a Firebender would want to test himself in a duel against a dragon."

Aang could, but it wasn’t a pleasant image. "And that didn't end really bad for the Firebenders?"

Zuko shrugged. "There's a reason defeating a dragon made the winner a legend. Victory even bestowed the lifelong title of Dragon."

Toph snorted. "Now, instead of Dragons, you have Weapons. That's what passes for progress around here, I guess. Oh, wait, didn't that old Weapon lady have a dragon title?"

Zuko nodded. "Lady Caldera Yu Gerel, the Seeing Dragon, and Weapon of the Fire Nation. She and my uncle are the last living Dragons."

Aang blinked. "Prince Iroh?"

"Yes. He is the Dragon of the North."

"A false claim," Chief Alba spoke up. He was the only one of the Sun Warriors to come with them into the caves. "Iroh came here long ago to find and fight the last dragons, but instead the Masters showed him the true Way of the Flame. He withdrew his challenge to them, and kept the secret of their survival."

Aang wanted to ask for more details, especially when that had all happened. It made Iroh sound good, but everyone said he hadn't left the North Pole since conquering it. So had he been 'good' when he was fighting a war against the Northern Water Tribe?

Before Aang could ask, they reached the end of the tunnel and emerged into the lair of the second dragon. He was surprised to find that, although similar in appearance, this one was a deep blue, like the late summer sky above the Southern Air Temple after a rain. The color made this dragon all the more impressive to Aang, giving a fresh focus to its size and strength, the majesty of its wings and the wise air of its whiskers.

Even its miserable pose, sprawled across the cavern floor like a feverish child who couldn't get comfortable, couldn't take away from the impact of its appearance.

"It happened just after the Agni Comet came," Chief Alba finally said.

Zuko flinched. "You keep calling it that. Don't you mean Sozin's Comet?"

Alba scowled and made a sign in the air. "That ca gada did not create or discover the comet. It is the purest expression of the Agni Warrior's power, and so it is and shall always be the Agni Comet."

Zuko dipped his head. "Fair enough."

"So, wait," Toph said, "the comet that makes Firebenders more powerful poisoned the dragons?"

Alba shook his head. "The Masters were empowered by it. They participated in the Comet Ceremony along with the Sun Warriors, and it was a joyous experience for all. But when we returned to our city, we saw that the Sire of all Flames had gone out, and the next morning, when supplicants arrived at the top of the mountain to ask the Masters for guidance, they would not emerge from their caves. That was the beginning of the fading."

Aang summoned a wind to carry him down to the floor of the cavern, floating along the shaft of waning sunlight that stabbed down from the hole in the ceiling. He landed next to the blue dragon's head, and while its eyes twitched to look at him, it didn't otherwise move.

This close, it was even more intimidating. Its size was so real that it almost felt like a threat. But those eyes were old and wet and suffering, so Aang reached a hand out and placed it on the dragon's snout.

Then he breathed in, breathed out, and felt for the substance of the dragon that existed beyond its physical form.

Unlike with Chief Alba, that morning, it was easy to find the dragon's spiritual energies.

It turned out that the dragon was mostly spiritual energies.

What Aang felt was the greatest, most pure glow, a beacon in the world beyond sight. The connection it had with a similar beacon nearby- that must be the other dragon, the red one- was so intense they almost felt like one being. But that wasn't their only connection.

In fact, Aang couldn't even begin to count the paths their energies charted across the world. The persistent Línghún energy of the dragons connected to the mountain, to the mourning Sun Warriors in the city, to the tips of various temples, and out to points far away. Following those paths, Aang felt like he was standing at the tip of the Axis Mundi, looking down from the ultimate mountaintop at the whole rest of the world. The connections spread across the seas to what Aang realized was the rest of the Fire Nation. They even continued on over the vast oceans, to what must be the Earth Kingdom and Water Tribes. They encompassed the whole world, terminating in so many points they might as well be infinite.

Aang followed the trails of some of the closest and found warmth. It took him a moment to realize he wasn't experiencing a metaphor; there really was warmth and light of a physical nature at the end of those Línghún lines.

The dragons were connected to fires. All fires.

Torches, campfires, home hearths, cooking ovens, mechanical factories, candles, wildfires, lightning storms, forges.

But even all of that couldn't account for the number of connections. There were thinner lines that didn’t seem to end with much of anything, just old winds that might have been memories.

That's when he realized how ancient the dragons were. Because those ghostly points- those places where he couldn't find anything, now- were fires that had long ago gone out, forgotten and lost to the world by all but the dragons themselves.

Their physical forms were old, but their spirits were so pure that they transcended age. Perhaps that was how Guru Pathik had lived so long, before Aang had failed to save him from a Firebender. But the Guru's energies- his Qi and his Línghún that bound him to the rest of the world- had felt more solid.

The dragons, by contrast, were tattered.

And growing more worn by the second.

Immersed in the world beyond the physical, Aang followed the shredded motes of Línghún energy that broke off to waft and fade in the ether. They trailed down the mountain, pooling in spots where Aang could feel great history from ages long forgotten, and it was there that he encountered something else.

There were other things living on this mountain, things like the pixiu that the Guru had worked to save, things that were called 'monsters' by people who didn't understand. They had no physical form, but still existed in the physical world and interacted with its elements. And these creatures were eating the drifting motes of the dragons' lost energy.

That's when Aang remembered what one of the Sun Warriors, Ham Ghao with raspy voice and long ponytail, had mentioned on the journey up the mountain: "Parasites."

He opened his eyes and stepped back from the dragon. "There are parasite spirits on the mountain eating the dragons' energy!" He shuddered, and pulled a wind to cradle and lift him. His jump took him back up to the ledge by the cavern's entrance, where his friends waited.

Chief Alba crossed his arms over his chest. "Are the parasites hurting the dragons, Avatar?"

Aang thought about it, and then shook his head. "I don't know much about Línghún energy, but unless we can find a way to keep the dragons' spirits from fading any more, I don’t think it matters what happens to the energy itself."

Zuko stepped forward. "Will making Uncle into the Fire Lord save them? Maybe if we get him on the throne soon?"

"I- I don't think so. Fire Lord Azulon has been in charge for a while, right?" Aang took a moment to sigh, because he didn't like what he had to say and wanted to put it off, even just for another moment. Is that why Mai sighed so much? "The dragons only got sick after the war ended. After the Fire Nation won by using the Comet to destroy so much of the rest of the world. And the dragons are connected to every fire, past and present.”

Toph winced. "Oh."

Zuko looked back and forth between Aang and Toph. "What? What do you mean, connected to fires?"

Aang sat down on the ledge, resting his gaze on his knees. "It's something I learned from a Guru who was a friend to my people. He said that everything is connected." He couldn't help but remember the funeral pyre he had helped to make for Guru Pathik. Had the dragons felt that fire, felt the passing of such wisdom, felt Aang's failure? "It's like how I found the empty hearth of the First Flame, and these caves up here, just from touching Chief Alba. Our emotions create links of spiritual energy, but it can go so much deeper! And the dragons were a part of Fire itself."

"Yes," Alba said. "Fire is Life."

Aang nodded. "Except fire, and the Comet, was used to destroy so much on the day of the Comet. The ashlands were created, and all the bad energy from a hundred years of war was allowed to flow out like a flood. And the dragons-"

"The Comet Ceremony," Alba hissed.

Aang rested his head against his knees. "The dragons felt it all. It hurt in the part of them that gave such long life. And now they can't take life from that, anymore." He didn't want to give voice to the final conclusion, but the silence left him no choice. And it was his duty as the Avatar to tell the truth about this. He had followed the connections of the dragons all the way to the ashlands, and had felt the death there. "I can't save the dragons. Nothing can. The old world died, and the dragons were too much a part of it. I can't help the dragons any more than I can bring back Ba Sing Se. Or Omashu. Or Gaoling. Or any of it.

"What's lost is lost. Forever."

Toph didn't like how depressing this whole jaunt had become.

They spent the night at the top of the mountain, since the walk down would have taken too long. Of course, Toph could have easily moved them all down on a sled or something else a lot faster than everyone's sore feet, but she didn't want a repeat of her last incident with a 'holy' mountain, back when she was campaigning to be Earth King. Besides, she didn't like the idea of these 'parasite' Spirits that everyone was talking about, especially since they were invisible to her Earth-sense.

So instead everyone slept under rock tents that Toph had made for them while she tried not to feel the vibrations of the dying dragons as they shifted around in their caverns.

It was really stupid that the Fire Nation had killed almost all of their dragons. It was like picking a fight with a badgermole: painful enough that no one was going to be happy by the end, no matter who won.

On the other hand, Toph could at least appreciate that she'd never have to deal with Firebenders riding flying dragons into battle. She hated fighting things that could fly.

But it was Aang she was really worried about. She thought she might have heard him crying, in those moments when she nearly drifted out of sleep.

The next day, going down the mountain proved to be easier than going up, and they returned to the ancient city in the afternoon. Once again, the Sun Warriors were doing their thing with the chanting and the dusting themselves with ashes. Now that she knew about the dying dragons, the whole thing made a bit more sense, but not by much. She understood that the Sun Warriors were too few to go to war with the rest of the Fire Nation; it was important to wait for the right moment, but it was also important to listen for that moment.

So while Aang and Zuko brainstormed with the Chief and his advisors about what they might do about the dragons, Toph went exploring.

Most of the Sun Warrior city was empty; the Sun Warriors themselves were clustered in a modest residential complex where they lived communally, all of it about the size of a modest village. The rest of the city was temples and buildings that no one seemed to bother with. Maybe the people only visited at certain times, or the usual visitors were too busy wailing about dying dragons. The automated traps were still set and ready to kill intruders, so it wasn't like the temples were completely abandoned.

Aang had described, on the way down the mountain, what he had felt when he did his glowy thing up in the dragon cavern. (Toph knew he had glowed because even her blind eyes could tell the difference between light and dark, and the glow she had detected was the color of her mother's singing, whatever 'color' was.) He explained how he had sensed connections to people and fire and whatever.

And to some of the temples.

Toph was in one of those now, a ziggurat with a big room at the top. There was some kind of lock on the door, similar to the gate Chief Alba had opened the day before with a crystal, but Toph had used her Earthbending a new door in the wall. The room inside was ringed with some impressively detailed statues that seemed to demonstrate a series of forms, but Toph was more interested in the hidden switches in the floor. From how it felt, anyone who copied the forms would naturally press down on the switches with their feet and eventually get a prize for not screwing anything up. Pretty clever.

Toph went ahead and used a hand motion to trigger the final switch deep in the floor.

The circular center of the room shifted and slid to allow a pedestal to rise up.

Yeah, they definitely hadn't expected any Earthbenders to come poking around here. Toph decided to take that as an open invitation to do whatever she wanted- like, say, take the big metal oblong ball from the top of the pedestal.

(There was a trap on it, a very small lever under the ball that would pop up when there was nothing holding it down. Before Toph took the ball, she took the lever and the stone mechanisms underneath it into her control, and fused them into a solid structure. She could restore it when she was done grabbing stuff.)

Her fingers revealed a smooth surface and egg-like shape, with only a few carved decorations on the sides breaking up the curve of the surface. A quick lick revealed that it was made of gold, or at least coated in it; the object wasn't heavy enough to be solid gold.

So was this thing what Aang had sensed?

People didn't put just any junk on hidden, booby-trapped pedestals.

So she brought the golden egg-statue back with her. Her Earth-sense revealed that Aang and Zuko were still sitting around with Alba and the wise men in the Chief's home, talking more about some way to maybe do something about the dragons.

She walked right into the room (the Sun Warriors didn't do guards, apparently) and hoisted her prize. "Hey, is this important?"

Never Gonna Give Yue Up

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« Reply #203 on: Dec 03, 2017 05:21 pm »

The choking sound that Chief Alba made told Zuko that, yes, what King Toph was holding above her head was indeed important. Zuko couldn't keep the snap out of his voice as he said, "What are you doing? Do you think you can just grab whatever you want?"

"Honestly?" Her head turned towards him, but not her gaze. "Yeah."

Zuko couldn’t hold back a growl as he got up and took the golden treasure out of her hands. "Stop messing around. This is all very serious and-" He trailed off as he focused on the thing he was holding. It was warm, as might be expected of any metal that had been under the sun, but there was something strange about it. There was a deep warmth that made it- it- "It feels almost alive."

"In a manner of speaking." With a sigh, Chief Alba got to his feet. Aang did as well, coming over to look at the treasure in Zuko's hands, but Alba maintained his distance. "What you're holding is the egg of a Great Dragon."

Aang's burst of, "What?!" echoed Zuko's own shock.

There might be more dragons, after all?

But Alba's painted face was downcast. "Normal dragon eggs are exactly like they sound. An untrained eye could mistake them for the eggs of large birds."

Aang nodded. "I've seen them. One time, me and my friend Kuzon, we- well, it isn't important. What about this kind of egg?"

"Sometimes, dragon eggs do not hatch. The dragon inside is not strong enough to emerge at the right time, or its lifeforce fades before it is even born. In those cases, the dragon would normally die, but among the teachings we Sun Warriors received with the gift of fire, there was a technique to help such dragons. The egg is cast in gold in a ceremony by Holy Ones who command the Healing Flames, sealing both the dragon and invigorating energies inside. The egg is then given time, perhaps centuries, in one of our temples."

Toph grinned. "That's where I found this one."

Zuko groaned. "You messed up the egg, didn't you? You weren't supposed to take it out of the temple!"

Toph snorted. "No more than Aang broke his Avatar Spirit. Right?"

Zuko felt the Avatar's hands on his shoulders. "Let's calm down and listen to the whole explanation. Chief Alba doesn't seem too upset."

When Zuko looked over at him, Alba simply shrugged. "A little time doesn't matter. We are talking about a centuries-long process, here. And that egg is more or less ready. But it makes little difference, now. The only way to hatch the egg is by placing it in the Sire of All Fires and summoning the Masters down from the mountain. No other fire will do. Once the gold is soft enough, it melts away to reveal the egg within, and then the dragons take it from the First Fire and cradle it until it hatches. The emerging dragon is a Great Dragon, one with a special spiritual nature. We release them into the wild to find their destiny, but it is always of great significance to the world. We think the Masters themselves are Great Dragons who were born in such a way."

Aang's shoulders slumped. "And now without the Masters or the First Fire, that won't be happening again."

Alba nodded. "I do not know what will become of the eggs. The Sun Warriors will have to convene our wisest to discuss it."

Zuko looked down at the egg in his hands, taking in the sight with his good eye. A dragon was asleep in here, but might never get the chance to emerge. Would it sleep until the Final Flame, when the world was given over to fire to be burned away and reborn? Might the Final Flame allow this unborn dragon to finally emerge?

Zuko couldn't imagine anything lasting that long.

They brought the egg with them to dinner.

For every meal, the Sun Warriors gathered in a massive hall and shared their food. Some sat at low tables, while others just reclined in groups on rugs. Aang and his friends had joined the Chief and some of the other leaders, but it wasn’t a very happy gathering.

Everyone was still stained with the ashes of mourning for the dragons. The food was plain fare that offered sustenance without much else. Aang could deal with that, especially knowing about the dragons, but when he went to visit Appa, he resolved to get some apples out of the supply packs.

Appa had been waiting at the outskirts of Sun Warrior city since that first morning, and when he saw Aang, he bound forward and offered a big lick as a greeting. Aang laughed. "I'm sorry I was so busy! They have a real problem here, and I've been trying to help." He went over to the supply packs they had left behind, and unlatched one with a supply of apples. He tossed one to Appa, and scooped up a bunch more In his arms. "I haven't been doing a very good job with it. The last dragons are going to die, soon." It was strange to say such a thing to Appa. He was the last sky bison, and when he left the world, it would be another permanent loss.

The sky bison had taught the Air Nomads how to Airbend.

The dragons had taught the Sun Warriors how to Firebend.

Aang sighed. "I hope the original Earthbenders and Waterbenders are doing okay."

A voice emerged from the jungle to say, "The badgermoles are doing great. Thanks for asking." Toph stomped into the clearing and went right over to pat Appa's nose. "I don't know what the first Waterbenders were. Probably fish. So, you ready for an Earthbending lesson?"

Aang couldn't hold back a groan. "Great, another thing I can't do."

"Yeah, I've been thinking about that." Toph took an apple out of Aang's arms and held it out for Appa to snatch. "Zuko was right; I'm not a great teacher. And you're pretty bad at Earthbending, so things really aren't working out."

Aang bowed his head. "I'm sorry."

Toph frowned, and then leaned over and slapped his chest.


She nodded. "That's exactly what I'm talking about. You don't think of yourself as strong. I didn't hit you that hard, but you're whining about it. And you're the Avatar with all that power and junk, but you can't make yourself move a few grains of sand. It's ridiculous! I bet there are wise and fancy Earthbending Masters out there who could see what's wrong with you and then say something wise or poke you in the right direction or something, but I just want to shout and insult you."

Aang gave the remaining apples to Appa. "I don't want to be yelled at or insulted."

"I know!" Toph threw her hands into the air. "That's why we have a problem."

"So you think I should find another Earthbender teacher."

"No." Toph let her arms drop to her sides, and she tilted her head. She wasn't quite looking at him, but he could tell that he had her attention. "Like it or not, I'm what you have, and you can't learn keep learning Firebending without learning Earthbending. You're acting as the Avatar, and you need to know the elements you're supposed to be fighting for."

Aang blinked. "So, what do we do?"

Toph stepped over to him, grabbed his shoulders, and shoved him down into a kneeling position. Aang cried out, because she wasn't gentle about it, but before he could ask what she was doing, she was kneeling in front of him.

She leaned forward so that their foreheads were touching.

Aang blinked. It was weird, being this close to someone.

Toph sniffled. "Everything is connected." He could feel the resonance of her words through her skull. "You said that before."

Aang had to keep from trying to nod. "I did. And it is."

Her lips twitched in a smile. "So even though they're different elements, Earth and Fire must be connected, too. The Fire Nation made the ashlands in the Earth Kingdom, and you said that the ashlands are what are hurt the dragons."

"That's right."

"So I got to thinking about those eggs-" the way she said the word made it feel especially resonant- "and how they're supposed to be put in that First Fire that went out. And how I felt something wrong in the ground beneath that temple."

Aang couldn't quite see the shape of what she was saying, yet. In a lot of ways, he was more blind than she was. "Where are you going with this?"

"I don't think you can save the dragons. That's not why you needed to come here. You need to find a way to help the Sun Warriors survive this. I think you need Earthbending to do that, and I have an idea to use its connections to help you learn it." She leaned back so that their faces were no longer touching. "Just now, you could hear my words, but you could also feel them, right? That's how you need to find your Earthbending. Feel it in a different way."

It sounded wise, but like a lot of what Monk Pasang had used to teach, the practicalities were escaping Aang. "What do you mean?"

Toph explained her idea.

And Aang saw a way to make it work.

Zuko had gone to bed before Aang and Toph came back from their visit to Appa, and even though he always woke up with the dawn, he somehow found his sleep being brought to an end by a small, smelly, dusty, calloused foot mashing his face.

He grabbed the foot as he opened his eye, and found himself with a handful of King Toph. His little guest room was still dark, the only light coming in through the windows from the moon, but her dull eyes still found a way glint.

Zuko shoved her foot away. "What do you want?"

Aang poked his head out from behind Toph and said, "Good morning! (Almost.) I have an idea, and need everyone's help."

Zuko rubbed his face and reached for his eyepatch. "And this couldn't wait?"

Aang shrugged. "We have a lot to organize, and we can only do it before the dragons die."

That shook off the last of Zuko's sleepiness. He pushed himself to his feet. "What do you have in mind?"

So Aang explained what he and the little Earth King had come up with during the night. Zuko was skeptical, admittedly, but not so much that he didn't think it worth a try. So as the sun rose, they went off to find Chief Alba and once again run through Aang's idea.

Alba's face didn't move through the whole explanation, and when they finished, he let out a massive sigh. "I almost can't bring myself to hope. Truly, Avatar, do you think this will work?"

Zuko hadn't seen Aang looking so confident since they started on this side-trip. The boy's eyes were steady as he nodded and said, "I feel it. And that's even more important."

Zuko thought it his duty, as a Firebender and Prince, to add, "I trust the Avatar's feelings. I've seen him do things that- that I can't even begin to understand. If anyone can find a way forward in this, he can." He ignored Aang's grateful smile and Toph's approving nod.

More explanations and planning followed, as with the Chief's backing they met with the various leaders and sages of the Sun Warriors. There were plenty of logistics to work out, and of course everyone wanted a chance to ask the Avatar how sure he was of the whole thing.

Aang never wavered, and Zuko continued to support him.

The whole rest of the day was given over to spreading the word to the rest of the Sun Warriors. Everyone, from the oldest grandfather to the youngest girl, had to be informed. Anyone old enough to Firebend had to be included.

Zuko was surprised when he and Ham Ghao were sent to speak at what he was told to be the youngest class of Firebenders, and he walked into a plaza to find a group of children too young even to be taught to read.

Zuko blinked at them. "They're so little."

Ham Ghao snorted. "What age does your people consider appropriate to begin teaching Firebending?"

Zuko still hadn't come to like the man at all. "Well, we usually wait to confirm that a child is a Firebender at all before we start lessons. It helps to avoid wasting time."

"Wasting time?" Ham Ghao gaped at him. "You mean all your people aren't Firebenders?"

Zuko was going to try to say something truly insulting, but then he realized that the other man wasn't being sarcastic. "I- no, not everyone- the Royal Family is, but- but every Sun Warrior is a Firebender?"

Ham Ghao nodded. "As soon as a child can walk, we start them on the exercises. As soon as they can understand, we start telling them about the Flames."

Zuko didn't know what to say to that. So he turned back to the class, and the master who was leading them in some stretches. "Come on, let's get this done."

Zuko was exhausted by the time the day came to an end. He wouldn't have thought that merely talking to people was as tiring as walking across the Earth Kingdom or fighting an Agni Kai, but he was proven wrong. Part of it was the struggle to convey Aang and Toph's idea when it was so far beyond his own understanding, but another part was the lack of friendliness he found in the Sun Warriors. They listened to him, and never showed him hostility (at least, no more than Ham Ghao did), but he could feel their distaste for him and his home.

And really, he couldn't say they were wrong.

His family's war had killed the last of the dragons.

Zuko woke up at dawn the next morning, this time thankfully not with a filthy foot in his face, and quickly dressed. As much work as the explanations had taken, the actual preparations would require even more.

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« Reply #204 on: Dec 03, 2017 05:22 pm »

This time, Toph felt completely justified in using her Earthbending to lift people up the mountain.

When she had proposed the beginnings of this whole plan, she actually hadn't expected to figure so prominently in the build-up. She figured she'd hang around Aang, shout at people for him when he was being too much of a pansy, and maybe offer the occasional wise and sassy (or sassy and wise) word.

But it took a lot of effort to spread an entire civilization across a mountainside, and no one was better at making the Earth pull its weight than Toph.

Camps had to be set up at waypoints along the mountain's slope, and she was needed to create shelters out of the stone. She put stairs where the old or young or weak couldn't climb, although the people in charge tried to keep the less capable down near the base of the mountain. There wasn't time for even the strongest people to fully scale the mountain, so Toph created sleds she could use to speed passengers up the slope.

And then it turned out that she was needed for guard duty, too.

As she was helping to set up one of the waypoint camps where a group would spend the night, a scream echoed over the slope. She realized that it wasn't quite human when a second scream, this one very human and panicked, followed. Several Sun Warriors broke off to investigate, but Toph was way ahead of them, skating across the dust on the mountain's surface.

Some distance away, she found an old Sun Warrior man on his back on the ground, his trembles echoing through the ground as he tried to scoot away from something.

Toph came to a stop beside him. "What is it?" She didn't sense anything else out here-

And then the air was torn by a shriek that couldn't have come from a human throat, the same scream that had started all this trouble, a sound so loud that Toph nearly jumped out of her own skin.

It was the same sound she had heard the other day, when Chief Alba had taken them up to see the dragons.

Ham Ghao had called them parasites, and said they didn't have a physical form. Aang had echoed the term, and said they were feasting on the energy remains of the dragons.


Toph wanted to see one.

A twist of her foot gathered up a good amount of dust, and she kicked it towards where the old man was pointing. Some of the motes flew on back to the ground, but most of the dust settled on a shape in the air, and she could at last 'see' what she was dealing with.

The thing underneath the dust had four limbs, like most creatures, but that was where the points of comparison ended. Toph had never encountered anything with this exact shape, but that made sense. Living creatures were the shapes they were because of the bits and pieces they had to hold together, and all those organs and stuff were there for a reason.

But Spirits?

They could be any shape, couldn't they? Because it didn't matter to them. They didn't have bits that could be smashed. Their shape only mattered to the people who saw them. And what did some dragon-licking Spirit-parasites care about that?

Toph snorted. "Don't worry about this thing. It can't hurt you."

But the old man was still scrambling away just as the other Sun Warriors arrived. One said, "What should we do?"

Toph lowered herself into a horse-stance, and a rising palm created a wall that would block the Spirit from the view of anyone who had to rely on eyes. "There you go. Now you don't have to look at it. If you find any more of those ugly, scary things, I'll hide them for you. And I won't tell anyone you were scared of something that's pretty much a big ghost-bug."

Even after everything was set up, all agreed that they would wait for dawn.

Aang had dinner down in the Sun Warrior city with Appa, and spent the night on his buddy's big fluffy tail. Zuko was up at the top of the mountain, so he'd be ready to play his part in the morning, and Toph was somewhere on the slope, looking over the various camps.

As busy as the day had been, sleep still wouldn't come. Aang looked up at the face of mountain and saw a new constellation made from scattered campfires and torches. Tomorrow, they'd be creating something similar, but far more orderly.

Hopefully, it would be more than just pretty.

The night passed until an hour before dawn, and it was like no time had passed at all.

Aang woke Appa with some nose pats, and soon the two were flying up to the dragon caves. In the darkness, he could only just barely make out the movements of the waking Sun Warriors below as he swooped over them.

When he got to the top of the mountain, to the last set of stairs and the stretch of bridge that connected the two dragon caves, he found the people there already in position, just as planned. Sun Warriors stood in a line within arm’s reach of each other, starting from the caves down the stairs to the plaza and onward to the slope of the mountain.

Zuko and Ham Ghao were waiting for Aang right in the center of the bridge. He jumped down to them and let Appa settle in the courtyard. "Is everything ready?"

Ham Ghao put his fists on his hips. "Does the Avatar question the commitment of the Sun Warriors?"

Aang frowned. "No, I was just asking if you're ready."

Zuko snorted. "I'm set to begin. Let's get to our places." He turned his back and headed towards the cave of the right, the one with the red dragon.

Ham Ghao made a sound halfway between a grunt and a laugh, and then headed into the cave on the left, that of the blue dragon.

Aang, for his part, sat down in a Lotus Position at the very center of the bridge and closed his eyes.

Then he reached into the beyond.

Toph paused mid-step, her attention draining away from the line of Sun Warriors in front of her to the mountain beneath them all.

The earth was resonating with activity, of distant movements and excited hearts and reverent whispers. There was also something else- the ground itself seemed to be awake, paying attention to what was going on and readying itself. Only an Earthbender could have detected that, and only the best could have discerned the tone.

Up at the top the mountain, it had begun.

It was possible that Aang was touching the Spirit World. He knew it was possible, and although he had never tried to do it himself before, the nest of the Masters was a sacred place with a special energy. Maybe he was more than merely focused on the aspects of the physical world that existed beyond the physical; maybe he was halfway into another world completely.

He could sense Zuko and Ham Ghao climbing down the dragon tunnels, to where the Masters laid dying. He couldn’t hear their words, but he sensed the sentiment behind what they said, the requests they were making.

He felt the Great Dragons summon what might be the last of their strength, summon a part of their power that had sustained them for so many years. Even though he was far away, he felt the heat of the fires they breathed. It was a strange kind of heat, but then, Aang wasn't anywhere near it, physically. Perhaps the strangeness came from his distant observations through sliver of reality between the Material World and the Physical World.

Or maybe there was something special about this fire.

Zuko and Ham Ghao both reached into the flames, and pulled the hearts into their hands.

And then they both brought the fires out to Aang.

As they approached, Aang reached out further for the connections around him rendered in mysterious Línghún energy, for the Sun Warriors lined up all the way down the mountain. He could feel them linked to each other, linked to the dragons. He could feel how the dragons themselves were linked to the flames that Zuko and Ham Ghao carried.

Time to complete the circle.

Zuko and Ham Ghao stopped on either side of Aang, held out their flames, and bowed.

Aang stood up and opened his eyes-

-and gasped.

The fires were a rainbow of colors, colors even that Aang hadn't known existed. Gazing into those flames, looking at those colors, was like trying to see the whole world through a pinhole. The beauty revealed was breathtaking, but also only a small hint of what truly was.

Yes, Aang was honored to help preserve this.

He reached a hand into each flame, remembering Zuko's lessons from the preparation for the Agni Budokai. He became one with the flickering of the fires, and so they did not burn him.

But he wasn't here to Firebend.

Instead, he reached beyond, to the Línghún of the fires themselves.

And then he closed his eyes again, took that Línghún energy in imaginary mental grips echoed by the movements of his hands, and reached out to a Sun Warrior- a mere child- waiting at the top of the stairs. Ham Ghao and Zuko helped carry the flames along, and moved closer as Aang brought his own hands together towards that waiting child.

The two flames became one, and the Sun Warrior child reached out and took that single rainbow flame into hand.

And Aang stretched the connection between the dragons and the flames to the child, creating a new link.

But he did not tie it off, did not complete the circle. He left it ragged, left it unfinished, left it dangling in the ether.

And so when the child passed it on the next Sun Warrior in line, the connection spread.

And did so again when the flame was passed to the next person.

And the next person.

And the next person.

The last dragon fire began a journey down the mountain through the hands of every single living Sun Warrior capable of Firebending.

Aang smiled as the sun rose behind him. He'd have to pick up Toph on his way back down the mountain, but there was no rush. The journey of the flame would not be quick.

The important journeys, Aang thought, rarely were.


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« Reply #205 on: Dec 03, 2017 05:24 pm »

Toph was ready and waiting when Aang and Appa came for her. She could feel the sun's warmth on her skin by then, and sensed the Sun Warriors nearby passing on the dragon flame. She could feel the care with which they moved, but also the hammering of their hearts as they touched this sacred version of their element.

It made her wonder about the 'primordial mud' some in the Earth Kingdom swore by, the mud from which the all life had emerged to step onto stone.

It was probably pretty nice mud, if it was still out there.

Toph let Aang help her into Appa's saddle. "So, all good? They're not still going to be passing fireballs to each other when the sun goes down, are they?"

"It's going well." Aang's answer drifted on the wind as Appa started flying and he hopped over to his place on the bison's head. "I think they might get the fire down to the temple by around noon, actually."

When the sun was directly overhead. Toph snorted. "Gotta love it when the symbolism works out all nice-like."

Aang didn't respond. He was probably too into this whole thing to be playful about it.

Toph's only perception of their flight was the shifting of Appa through the air and a change in the feel of her own weight, but she pretended that she couldn't vividly imagine tumbling out of the saddle and finding herself touching nothing but rushing air. Thankfully, the flight was smooth, and soon Appa was touching down on the ground again. She let Aang help her down, and as soon as her bare feet met the smooth stone, her Earth-sense once again mapped out the Sun Warrior city around her.

Just as planned, they were at the first ziggurat temple they had visited the other day, the one with the empty hearth.

Toph waited while Aang retrieved his Monk's Spade from its place in Appa's saddle, and then they took the front stairs straight to the ziggurat's top, careful not to disturb the last Sun Warriors lined up along the climb, healers and sages, to the open room where the First Fire had once blazed. Chief Alba was waiting for them, and nodded at their arrival. "Avatar, Earth King. Is the flame being passed?"

Toph could feel Aang's excited vibrations. "It is! And it's beautiful! Wait until you see it!"

Toph grabbed Aang by his shirt, and he dropped his Monk's Spade. "All right, enough about pretty fires. You, Avatar Aang, have some Earthbending to do. Let's go!" She dragged him straight into the empty hearth, so that they stood on either side of the hole that extended deep into the ground. "All right. So, first we need to just feel it. You're not going to be moving anything if you don't know what you're moving. And if my idea is right-"

"There will be air down there," Aang finished for her. "Air that feeds fires."

They both sat down with the hole between them, and Toph leaned forward so that their foreheads were once again touching. "Straight down. Can you feel it?" She felt him put his hands down over the hole. "There's air down there, of a kind. There's supposed to be fire up here. And there's Earth all in between. Feel the path that goes down." She slapped her own hands down on the stone beneath them. "The Earth doesn't move unless you make it, but it lets vibrations pass through it. Follow them. Follow my voice through your thick skull and down into the ground. Follow your heartbeat."

"Fire," Aang said. "It's like a heartbeat, too."

"Follow the vibrations your body makes when you breathe."

"Breathing is the movement of air, in and out of ourselves."

"Find what you know about those sissy elements and feel the Earth, Avatar."

"I do," Aang said. "I can feel it! This hole goes down as far as the Sanctuary was tall in the Southern Air Temple! I remember Earthbending there, when I was in the Avatar State."

Toph smiled, but kept her forehead pressed against Aang's. "Can you feel the wrongness?"

Aang was quiet for a long moment. "It's a blockage. A fire-feeding wind wants to flow through the earth, but the passage shifted and collapsed and now it's blocked."

"And that's," Toph barked, "what you're going to Earthbend first."


"And if you don't, this whole thing is for nothing and all the dragons and Sun Warriors will die horrible choking deaths!"


That would have been enough to motivate Toph, but Aang was a softy, and she remembered how he was on their first night on this island. Zuko had talked him through Firebending easily enough, but the Avatar's flame had gone out as soon as Zuko suggested that he was a bad Earthbender. Aang needed to feel good about himself, or else he didn't have the strength.

Good thing Toph had strength to spare.

"You can do this. You're the Avatar. You've got, like, a billion past lives who are going to help you, even if you can't feel it. You've fought the Fire Nation and beaten up giant city-ash monsters and manipulated a bunch of Fire Governors into helping you overthrow their leader! You earned the respect of the Sun Warriors and led them to a new beginning, right here! They all love you. Right, Chief?"

She sensed Alba's nod. "You are saving us, Avatar Aang. We believe in you. And the fire approaches."

Toph slapped her hands down on Aang's shoulders. "This is your moment, kid! Show me your power! Let that underground wind flow again to touch the fire!"

Toph focused her Earth-sense on that blockage below. She didn't put forth her full Earthbending, because this wasn't about her. She left that stone in a passive state, waiting for Aang, and as she waited, she felt it start to tremble.

Come on.

Come on.

Aang groaned.

Toph tightened her grip on his shoulders.

The earth started to roll beneath them.

"You're doing it," Toph whispered. "You're already doing it."

There was a snapping below, and the little tunnel began to vibrate with the force of the wind now flowing through it.

"I think I did it," Aang gasped.

"You did! You're an Earthbender, Avatar Aang!" She pulled Aang up to his feet and out of the hearth. "Now make room because when that air hits the fire it’s probably going to really pop."

Aang still couldn’t quite believe that he was an Earthbender when Chief Alba held the last dragon fire, that amazing rainbow ball of fire. Aang took it once again and it was just as amazing as it had up at the top of the mountain, but now, as let himself slip back into an awareness of the world beyond the physical, it might have felt a little heavier.

That made sense. This fire had passed through the hands of the whole Sun Warrior civilization, and they had all added their own Qi to it, had all formed a connection out Línghún energy. This fire was now the sum total of the Sun Warriors, something from the dragons entrusted to their care and made permanent in the light of the hottest sunlight.

Aang released it and the underground wind- the natural gas that had been trapped beneath this ziggurat and closed off somehow when the Fire Nation burned the world- created a conflagration that filled the hearth of the First Flame.

The First Flame was gone and could not be restored, but now the Sun Warriors had another flame to guide them through the night of this age. Aang would let them name it, let them find the most important meaning in it.

He turned to Chief Alba. "You can bring the eggs, now. Let's see if this worked."

The Fire-Healers who had lined the steps of the temple came up together, one of them carrying the golden egg that Toph had found. Aang retrieved his Monk's Spade and held out the shovel-end out to receive the egg. He carried the precious cargo to the flame, and held the staff out to place the egg right in the center of the massive rainbow blaze.

Then everyone watched. And waited.

It was Toph who noticed it first, of course. "The gold is melting! It's getting runny and melting off!"

Aang was soon able to see it. The gold's reflectiveness made it look like liquid rainbow in the center of the multi-colored fire, running down to fill gaps in the floor of the hearth and bringing the carvings there- dragons, of course- to a kind of life.

Once the gold had finished running, Aang put his Monk's Spade back into the fire and pulled out the egg.

The lead Fire-Healers stepped forward, summoning his own flames over his hands, and moved them over the egg, never quite touching it, in a way that reminded Aang of Katara's Waterhealing.

The Healer looked around at everyone and smiled. "The life within is thriving. It is not quite ready to hatch, and we will have to keep it nested and protected until that day, but the egg is okay!"

Aang let out a breath he hadn't realized he'd been holding. As the Healer took the egg from the Monk Spade's shovel, Aang looked to the hearth, to the rainbow fire that would hopefully burn there for as long as there were dragons and Sun Warriors, and maybe even beyond. It was a new beginning, in a way, but also a continuance. It wasn't a perfect solution, and certainly wasn't a proper replacement for what had been lost, but it was something that wouldn't allow more to be lost, and that was important. As long as the Sun Warriors had something, they could build new things and grow.

A hand like solid rock slapped Aang's back. "Good job, Master Monk." Toph's grin seemed to lack its usual feral edge. "You figured out Earthbending and a way to help the Sun Warriors. I guess you're a pretty good Avatar after all."

Aang gave her push. "Thanks to you. I guess you're not as bad a teacher as Zuko says."

Her grin became toothy. "I'm going to tell everyone that I have the Avatar's official endorsement." Then she punched his shoulder hard enough to nearly knock him over.

As Aang recovered his balance, he noticed Chief Alba standing over by the side of the platform, looking out from the ziggurat towards the mountain. "Chief Alba?"

He pointed. "There is a signal."

Aang squinted, and through the glare of the noon sun, he saw a pattern of smoke clouds rising up from the peaks, from what must have been the courtyard between the two dragon caves. "What is it?"

"The Masters have breathed their last. It is truly a new era for the world."

The next few days were such a mix of mourning and joy that Zuko was never quite sure how to react. He found himself adopting a strategy that Azula probably would have recognized- show nothing to anyone until prompted, and then give them what they wanted.

It felt less dishonest than trying to sort out his true feelings.

The mourning was for the Great Dragons, of course, and the joy came from what they had left behind. The Sun Warriors were calling the new everlasting flame 'The Legacy of the Dragons,' and the egg that had been freed from its golden shell was at the center of everyone's attention. Chief Alba had decided that it would be cared for by different people, different families, based on petition; those who asked would be allowed to cradle and warm it for a day and night before passing it on to the next caretaker.

"It's hard to believe that this is part of the Fire Nation, too," Zuko wound up telling Aang at one of the banquets the Sun Warriors were holding. "I can't imagine the noble families, or even the various clans, sharing prestige like that."

"I hope they can learn," had been the Avatar's reply.

King Toph added, "I'd make a comment about that being easier than Aang learning how to Earthbend, but, honestly, that's too mean even for me."

Zuko resolved to take the lesson to heart, though. He wasn't sure how he would be able to use it, if at all, but if he had the chance, he wouldn't let the roots of Fire Nation culture continue to be forgotten.

But all lessons had to end, and eventually it was time for Aang to return to rest of the Fire Nation, to the allies and enemies waiting for them. They left at dawn, of course.

They had Appa loaded up on the shore of the island, and a contingent of Sun Warriors came to see them off. Chief Alba stepped forward and bowed to Aang. "Avatar, we thank you for all you have done. I ask one more thing of you- keep our existence a secret from the rest of the world. What we preserve here can only survive in secret.

"Sure, no problem." Aang bowed back to the chief. "Thank you for sharing your ways and knowledge with us. I only wish I could have done more to help you."

Alba looked to Zuko next, and didn't bow. "Prince Zuko, for your part in the Avatar's works, you have our thanks as well. I charge you with honoring what you have seen here by doing right by your people and element."

Zuko, at least, offered his own bow. "I promise I will follow the path of my esteemed Uncle."

Alba grunted. "Feel free to do better, if you're up to it." While Zuko puzzled over that, Alba turned to Toph. "Earth King, it was an honor to meet you. Keep these two in line, please."

Toph shrugged. "I'll do what I can, but things get weird sometimes."

Alba chuckled, and then made a hand motion. Ham Ghao approached carrying a golden box. He gave Zuko one last sneer before offering the box to his chief.

Alba opened it, and held up the glittering necklace- blue and red flakes that captured the dawn light, linked by gold hoops- that had been resting within. "Avatar, please accept this gift. It is a prayer necklace, made from dragon scales. It will no doubt impress many in the Fire Nation, but I hope it will also guide your further explorations of the element of flame."

Zuko's jaw dropped. Dragon scales?! A treasure like that could buy a whole Inner Island! At least!

Aang took with all due reverence. "I lost my own prayer necklaces that I got when I became an Airbending Master. Thank you for this." He bowed again.

"Farewell, Avatar. We look forward to your continuing work in the world."

Soon after that, Appa had them airborne once again, flying over the ocean to rendezvous with Suki, Mai, Sokka, Zhao, and the rest of the entourage on Ember Island.

It was Toph, of course, who spoke first. "Well, thanks for not embarrassing me, guys. I know it was hard, but you managed not to look like the losers you usually are." She lounged in the back of Appa's saddle, leaning against the boxes of supplies and opening what seemed to be a sack of dried fruit.

On the other side of the saddle, Zuko held back a groan. "We witnessed the end of an era for a whole civilization and the start of a new one. I've seen you commiserate with Aang and the Sun Warriors! Do you still have to throw out this inane sarcasm?"

Toph put on a smug expression that wasn't quite aimed at him. "It's all part of being Royalty, Prince Pouty. But I am glad I was able to help your people save something that they almost lost. I’ll beat up anyone who tries to hurt my nation, but no one deserves that kind of thing."

Zuko had only two words he could offer for that: “Thank you.”

They flew on, back to danger and hope.


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« Reply #206 on: Dec 03, 2017 05:26 pm »

Blood in the Fire

Even as High Sage of the Grand Capital Temple, it wasn't every day that Xinghao hosted a member of the Royal Family. Perhaps it presaged great fortune for him or his Temple.

More likely, it was going to paint a target on his back.

No appointment had been made. Xinghao had been meditating in his chambers when his secretary knocked on the door and announced, "There are two men here to see you, High Sage. They have gold."

Normally, the High Sage was officially too busy to meet with visitors, even those who lived here in the Caldera. However, it was understood that a proper 'donation' called for an audience in which Xinghao would express the thanks of the Temple. So he got up out of his lotus position, wondered what was going to be served for lunch in an hour, and went to meet with these generous visitors.

When he stepped out into his office, he recognized Prince Ozai himself standing there in a red and gold hooded robe.

Then he recognized Piandao Hundredslayer, standing next to the prince in a much plainer black robe.

Xinghao was halfway back through the door to his meditation chamber when Ozai said, "Piandao, go stand outside in the hall while I speak with the High Sage. Be polite, but kill anyone who attempts to enter this office."

Piandao was not here to kill Xinghao.

Piandao was not here to kill Xinghao.

Okay. Right.

Xinghao nodded to his secretary. "Please go stand outside with Master Piandao. Uh, do your best to keep anyone from causing our guests any- er, trouble." Because the last thing the Fire Sages needed at this point was someone being stabbed to death in the halls of the Grand Temple.

That was more something they did while Sozin still ruled.

Ozai kneeled down on one of the mats that had been set out, and Xinghao settled on another to face the prince. "How might I be of service, your highness?"

"It was truly a shame, that incident on Zenmatsu Island. To think, a Weapon-class citizen interfering with an Agni Budokai!" Ozai's face was without expression. "I admire your integrity, returning my father's gold and lands to him in protest. I know the Fire Sages could have used such resources, especially in these times."

Ah. So this would be a matter of treason. High Sage Xinghao tried to smile. "Your sympathy is appreciated, your highness. Of course, I do not directly blame the Fire Lord for Weapon Heiyaoshi's terrible actions, but there are pressures that the Temple faces, and a statement had to be made." And now this would be the part where Ozai would press on and try to convince Xinghao that direct treason against the Fire Lord would be in the Temple's best interests-

"Well, I admire you astute reading of the situation. So few would be able to navigate such a difficult position." Ozai shifted, reaching into one of his sleeves. "And so I brought a gift, in addition to my donation to the temple." He pulled his hand out and held something up.

The office was lit by fine gas lanterns, but the light they shed was dim and red, so it took Xinghao a moment to realize what he was looking at. It was a headpiece, a small crown meant to serve as the base of a topknot, with stylized golden flames on each side that rose up like wings. It seemed familiar, as though he had seen it before-

In the few remaining images of Avatar Roku!

"That-" Xinghao's voice wouldn't quite work.

Prince Ozai nodded. "It was among the belongings of- of Princess Ursa when she- disappeared. It was originally a relic of the Royal Family, passed down through the Crown Princes until Sozin gave it to Avatar Roku. It is believed by all to have been lost when Roku died."

Xinghao cleared his throat. "Obviously, that is not the case."

"No. It is not." Ozai placed the crown down on the floor between them. "I give it to you, now. A secret gift."

Xinghao realized what was truly being said. This was a lost relic of the Royal Family, something of great importance and history, a discovery beyond price or reward. If no one knew how it came to be here in the Grand Temple, it would be easy enough to claim that it had been discovered in some dusty corner or archive, or was spotted by a traveling Sage in the possession of an oblivious peasant. There would be great prestige in restoring such a thing to the Royal Family. Even the Fire Lord would have to express profound thanks. No reward would be enough; the Fire Lord would have to owe the Sages a favor. (All unspoken, of course. Xinghao knew how the game was played.) To have the Fire Lord in the Temple's debt-

Xinghao's hands shook as he reached out to take the crown. "I thank you for this, from the depths of my Inner Fire. Truly, Prince Ozai, this is the greatest generosity I have ever witnessed." The prongs of the crown reflected dully in the light of the gas lanterns. Beyond it, Ozai was staring intently, and Xinghao remembered himself. There was no such thing as generosity. "Surely, there must be some way to express my appreciation."

"Iroh is active again," Ozai said without hesitation. "The way he is using my son is unacceptable. The Fire Lord is exploiting the situation, putting my whole family in danger. I would consider it a great favor if you could assure me, High Sage Xinghao, that no Temple will interfere as the Royal Family- as we bring our house to order."

So Ozai wanted to make sure that the Sages wouldn't side with Azulon or Iroh. Well, after their old political war, no Sage of any real power would want to support Iroh, so that was no great request. The Fire Lord had been a generous supporter of the Temple, so separating from him was something more worthy of the gift of Crown, even after the mess with the failed Weapon.

But the best kind of gift was one that benefitted the giver as much as the receiver.

Xinghao gave a smile, this one easy and genuine. "Your highness, I can give you that assurance, if it is what you want. But it troubles me, greatly, how- well, how sloppy it was for the Fire Lord to bungle the matter with Prince Zuko on Zenmatsu."

"Troubles you?"

"He let the Avatar win favor here in the Fire Nation, and left his own interference in the matter visible to anyone with eyes. And then there is the unresolved trouble in the Colonial Continent, which demands ever more platinum without any sign of progress. Too many matters under the Fire Lord’s control are going poorly."

Ozai stroked his long chin-beard. "Some would say you are dissatisfied with the Fire Lord. But he has been free with his generosity to the Temples."

Xinghao shrugged. "Azulon, while a friend to us, is clearly getting old, and even his advisors cannot keep things running smoothly in these times. They are obviously war-time advisors, not suited to foggier times. Iroh is probably a traitor, and the Sages have never had much respect for him.

"But you, Prince Ozai- you are clearly intelligent and subtle. Your generosity speaks to your character. You have worked to make up for your past mistakes. If- the Fire Lord is old, and if something natural were to prevent him from ruling- or, flames forbid, bring him to his final rest- then I think you would be a much better man to have on the Flaming Throne."

Ozai's eyes went wide, and his hand fell from his beard.

Really, was the offer that surprising? Surely, the prince must have considered the possibility. He had displayed quit the ambitious streak, before Zuko's exile.

But Ozai quickly regained his composure, and bowed his head. "You honor me with your words. I see the wisdom in them, and I- I will consider them. I have not yet finalized my plans. But I am grateful for your friendship."

Xinghao bowed as well.

Friendship was another important part of being High Sage. Choosing who to offer it to was tricky business, but could be very profitable.

And even the Grand Temple had to keep track of profits.


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« Reply #207 on: Dec 03, 2017 05:27 pm »

Mai sighed. "Ember. Island. Ugh. Why couldn't the others be here to suffer through this, too?"

She was slouching with her elbows on the rail of the Earth King Toph’s steamer, watching as they approached the docks in the light of the setting sun. Zhao's navy cruiser was already moored, and she could see the Commander directing his soldiers around the harbor like a little boy playing with toys.

Suki came over and reclined against the rail right next to Mai. "What's so bad about Ember Island? It looks nice enough. No big cities, lots of nice houses-"

"And the most humidity of any island in the entire Fire Nation. It’s impossible not to sweat buckets here." Mai straightened out of her slouch and stretched her neck.

"What's so bad about sweating?" Sokka leaned forward over the railing to look at their destination, with Momo on his head copying the motion, going so far that Mai half-expected him to tip right over. "And why would having the Benders here make it better?"

"To suffer with me." Plus, Aang might be able to distract her from her suffering.

"Yeah, but I think Toph likes to sweat. It turns the dust she's always covered in to something kind like clay or mud. And Zuko is too cranky to sweat. I don’t even think he-"

"Never mind, then. I hope the three of them off of Appa and drown somewhere." Not that Mai really hoped that. But why did Toph get to just blow off this whole stupid political tour and go with Aang and Zuko, while Mai was stuck here playing Heiress with Sokka and Suki? Never mind having Zhao as a babysitter. "I wish we could have gone straight to the Capital."

Sokka shuddered, sending Momo to find a more stable perch around his neck. "I'd just as soon wait until we have some Avatar Power before we knock on the Fire Lord's door. Even Zhao seemed relieved that he was going to have his meeting with the military people here."

Mai decided not to admit that it was a good point. She was in no hurry to being within spitting distance of Azula. Or Piandao. Or whatever other freak-jobs Ozai was collecting. But neither Sokka nor Suki needed to know that.

By the time the ship was docked and Mai could disembark with the others, Zhao had procured a carriage for them. His face twisted as he laid eyes on her, as though he was in the process of trying to swallow a whole badger-frog. "Lady Mai. I see you survived the voyage from Zenmatsu. This carriage will take you to where you'll be staying. My soldiers and I will follow in a cart."

"And where might we be going? Not a lot of fortresses on Ember Island."

"No, you'll be staying as guests in one of the residences. Your hosts have no love for Azulon or Ozai, and they are capable of guarding you. I will be staying with a contingent of soldiers in a boat house on the grounds."

Mai was going to ask if it was anyone she knew, but Sokka cut her off with a groan. "Another guest arrangement? The last one didn't become enough of a disaster for you? Seriously, why can't Iroh just buy a house here of our very own and reinforce the walls with steel?"

"I understand your concern," Zhao bit out, "but this situation will be much more secure than what we had to deal with on Zenmatsu. There will be no servants on hand, here, and no other guests. You'll have to manage your own wardrobes, but I'm sure your safety is worth the hardship." He glanced at Mai, and some of his usual sneer lit up his face.

Meh. As if she hadn't spent much of the last year living on the back of a sky bison. "Why are we still here talking about this? Let's get going." She climbed into the carriage, and Sokka and Suki followed her, with Momo curling up on the cushion to nap.

It was a longer ride to their destination than she expected, and it proved to be as remote as civilization got on Ember Island. The carriage followed a winding path through grassy, sharply rising hills. Beneath the twilight sky, she glimpsed vacation homes in the distance, so far away that it was easy to mistake them for one of the many rock outcrops that stabbed up through the grass. In this area, they weren’t the small, clustered types that even your average noble family could afford on Ember Island. These were the isolated, sprawling places, the kind that had been in families for generations and could be sold for enough to buy a small island. But a place on Ember Island carried more prestige than a spot of sand in the middle of the ocean.

The carriage approached the coast, a private stretch of dark sand beach with a pier stretching out into the surf.

Sokka pointed out the carriage's window. There was a two-story structure at the closest end of the pier. "That must be where Zhao is staying."

"That's," Suki said, "a boat house? You could fit a Kyoshi Island neighborhood in that thing."

Heh, it wasn't even much of an exaggeration. Mai remembered being distinctly unimpressed with the construction on Kyoshi Island. "Welcome to Ember Island, playground of the Fire Nation's elite. (Although I have no idea why they'd want to sweat so much.) No reason to build a boat house just for your boats when you can add guest quarters, storage for all kinds of toys, and maybe a miniature spa so that you don't have to go all the way back to the main house to wash up and change your clothes."

Sokka turned to her. "You don't approve? I thought you were all about decadent luxury and putting your feet up on the backs of peasants and stuff?"

Mai waved the teasing away. "If I had to learn use bushes for a bathroom, then I don't see why my old neighbors should get a break. Besides, I never understood the appeal of frolicking in wild water. Anyone who wants to get that close to nature should just have to deal with the whole package."

Suki leaned her head out the window. "I don't see the main house, though. Wouldn't Zhao want to stay close?"

Mai wondered about that. She didn't see anything else on this stretch of beach. Just a rise where the grass gave way to gray sand and the beach, crowned by series of rock outcrops that culminated in a massive blade-shaped peak.

But as the carriage rolled closer to the stone, she realized what she was actually seeing. The path curved around the stone, and the carriage turned to reveal the mansion nestled behind the natural fortification of the giant outcrop.

And it was an impressive mansion, indeed. Mai had never seen such a large home on Ember Island. The multi-story structure extended into two wings, and judging from the way it was all set off from the large outcrop, Mai guessed that the wings bordered a sizable courtyard in the back. She spotted plenty of walkways and balconies on the walls, but they were empty.

No other servants or guests, Zhao had said.

The carriage stopped at the base of the hill. So they would have to walk up the zig-zagging path up to front staircase. Great, that would be enough to work up a sweat in this humidity.

Zhao's cart came to a stop behind the carriage as Mai was disembarking, and two of his soldiers emerged with him. "I'll set my troops up in the boat house. You go on up. There's no need for me to make introductions."

That brought Mai up short as Suki and Sokka got out of the cart, the latter carrying Momo. "So I do already know them?" She didn't expect that to be a good thing; most of the people who knew her wanted her dead.

Zhao just smirked at her and led his troops across the beach towards the boat house.

Well, great.

"So," Sokka said. "Are we delaying because we're coming up with a plan of attack? Because I left some of my most fatal stuff in my luggage. I wasn't expecting to storm a manor when I was packing this morning."

Suki reached out to put a hand on Mai's shoulder. "Don't worry. Zhao's just winding you up. He wouldn't dare cross Iroh by putting you in danger."

Mai hated having Suki point it out to her. "And what if Zhao is an idiot who doesn't realize he's sending me up to room with an old school rival? Ju Lai grew up playing with knives, too, from what I hear-"

Suki moved behind Mai and began pushing her up the path. "Come on. Let's get this over with."

Mai sighed and started walking under her own power, following the path back and forth across the rise until they reached the stone staircase under the front door. Sure enough, by the time she climbed the last step, a sheen of sweat had accumulated on her brow.

The front doors opened on her first knock, swinging slowly to reveal a receiving hall lit by candles. There were wood paneling and beach murals and a nice carpet and no visible people.

Sokka set Momo down on the floor. "So, if no one's home, who let us in?"

Then two women stepped out from behind the doors, startling Momo (and Sokka), dressed identically except for the colors of their robes. Their faces were hidden in the shadows of the twilight, although the bright blue and yellow of their clothing almost glowed in the candle light.

They each wore a pair of tonfa clubs on their belts.

The women walked past Mai and the others, approaching the center of the hall, even as another four women streamed out of a side door in a perfect line with simultaneous steps. These four, as well, wore the exact same robes as the other two aside from the colors. Green, purple, orange, and something like an aquamarine were joined by the blue and yellow to form a line of colors. All of them had tonfa at their sides.

The six turned to face Mai as one, revealing themselves in the candlelight, but she had already figured out who they were.

"Ty Lin," she said to the one all the way on the left, "Ty Lat, Ty Lao, Ty Lui, Ty Lum. Ty Woo." She bowed her head. "Thank you for taking my friends and I into your- uh, vacation place?"

Ty Woo, all the way on the right in the yellow robes, rolled her eyes. "Haven't been keeping up with the news while you've been traipsing around with the Avatar, huh? Mommy sold our half of our factories in the colonies to buy this place, and then sent us all to 'get away from the stress of the Capital' or some junk. We live here now. Really, the old wolf-bat couldn't look at our faces after we heard about Ty Lee."

Mai suppressed a wince, understanding their mother without harboring one bit of approval. Although the hair was different- these women all shared a short, puffy style that most would have considered cute- their faces were completely identical to that of their seventh, missing sister.

Ty Lee.

Ty Lee, who everyone in the Fire Nation thought to be a few fragments of charred bone in an Earth Kingdom ashland somewhere.

Should she tell them about-

"As this is our house," Ty Lin said, "we welcome you for as long as you need to stay, and guarantee your protection for as long as you're here. Ty Lee loved you, Mai, and we will honor that love." Ty Lin reached to her belt, and took the pair of tonfa fighting sticks that hung there. Gripping the handles, she swung the tonfa so that the main shaft extended out past her fists, and she raised them above her head.

The five other sisters did the same thing.

Then, as one, they smacked their tonfa together twice, producing a sound that echoed through the hall like the rumble of thunder and sent Momo curling up around Suki's neck, and then they all bowed.

Mai bowed back. "We accept your hospitality. With me are Sokka of the Southern Water Tribe and Suki of Kyoshi Island."

After a moment, they all rose together, and the Ty-sisters returned their tonfa to their belts.

"Welcome," said Ty Lum, "Ty Lui will show you your rooms. Ty Lat and Ty Lao can get your luggage. Ty Lin and Ty Woo can finish preparing dinner while you refresh yourselves."

The colored line up of sisters broke up, and Mai went straight to follow the one in the light blue robe.

As they ascended a set of stairs to the second floor, Sokka leaned near her and whispered, "They're septuplets, right? How did you know which one she was talking about?"

Mai glared at him. He better not embarrass her. "She said Ty Lui would show us. I followed Ty Lui."

Suki leaned in from the other side. "Ty Lui always wears blue?"

Really? Even Suki? "No, they like to mix up their colors. They just never wear the same colors at the same time."

Sokka waved his hands. "So, telling them apart..."

Seriously? "I don't know, I just can. I guess it comes from knowing them for over a decade."

"And we're safe here?"

"If they say we are, then we are. And don't mess with them when they have their tonfa out. Ty Lee is pacifist of the group."

That quieted them both.

Finally, Ty Lui brought the procession to a stop in a hallway that had to be at the rear of the mansion, and turned to smile at them. "We've had to rearrange things a bit to fit everyone. My sisters and I are split between these two rooms. Feel free to come in and borrow anything you need, unless it belongs to Ty Woo, but even then she'll only say awful things about you."

So, business as usual, then. "Thanks."

"Mai, you and the other girls will have to share this room here. You should probably save the biggest bed for the Earth King, since she's royalty. Um, Sokka, is it?" Ty Lui's smile grew wider, and she leaned forward. "You get to have this room all to yourself until the Avatar and Prince Zuko get here. Lucky you."

Mai glanced at Sokka out of the corner of his eye, and saw him smiling back with wide eyes. Typical.

Ty Lui's eyes lingered on Sokka for a moment, and then she turned back to Mai. "A message came for you about an hour ago." She pulled a scroll out from her belt, right near her tonfa, and held it out. There was a wax seal on it.

When Mai broke the seal and read the scroll, her doubts about being safe here- even protected by the infamous tonfa of the Ty-sisters- had returned. "I'm being summoned to a meeting in town this week."

Sokka and Suki exchanged glances. Sokka said, "Summoned by who? And can you bring back-up?"

Mai snorted. "Backup won't make a difference. I'm being called to a meeting of all the surviving Weapons of the Fire Nation. Seems that I have to answer for Heiyaoshi's death.

"And I didn't even have the pleasure of stabbing her myself."


Never Gonna Give Yue Up

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« Reply #208 on: Dec 03, 2017 05:28 pm »

Azula had been standing in front of the palace for an hour when Father and Piandao returned from their meeting at the Temple.

She could tell Father was distracted by something as he stepped off of the palanquin, so she waited patiently until he focused his gaze on her. "Azula? Is there a problem?"

"No, Father. I just wanted to inform you that the 'spices' you requested have arrived." Father had said, weeks ago, that he wanted to know as soon as the special materials were on hand. Azula always did what he commanded.

His gaze sharpened at the news, and he gave a slow nod. "Thank you. We can finally get your brother back home. And our courier?" He began leading her back into the palace, while Piandao trailed after them in the proper fashion of a lackey.

Azula nodded. "The courier is on station and ready to go. I've also completed preparations for my own trip."

"Excellent. I have to thank you for all the work you've put into this. Your work, and your refinements to the plan, has been invaluable." Servants opened the tall double doors for them, and they passed into the Hall of Pillars, where dark columns representing the power of the Royal Family were adorned with golden dragons. It was an impressive sight, a sight Azula had long ago become so used to that she barely even saw it. "My own task went quite well, just now. I am more confident than ever of our path."

So the Sages agreed to stay neutral, then. That was good. It would make their plans easier, and Azula wouldn't have to slaughter every single Fire Sage in the Capital. That would be a tiresome task, and take far too long.

She was brought out of her thoughts by some movement ahead-

Li and Lo slid out from between two of the pillars. A step behind them, just like the servants he dressed as, came a stocky man with tattooed red writing on the skin of his face and hands- Mutan, Weapon of the Fire Nation.

Azula came to a stop and raised her fists, letting her Inner Fire flare. She was still formulating immediate tactics when there was a whisper of sound, and she glanced to the side to see Piandao standing in front of Father with his hand on his sword.

Mutan held up his hands in a gesture of surrender.

Li (or Lo) took a step forward. "Prince Ozai, it came to our attention that you were at the Temple for a meeting."

Lo (or Li) came to stand beside her sister. "You so rarely leave the palace, we thought your return worth our personal greeting."

Azula scowled. So the twins suspected that Father was trying to subvert their support with the Fire Sages. It was true, and apparently they weren't going to tolerate even a hint of action against them.

Father stepped out from behind Piandao and gave them a bland smile. "That's quite thoughtful of you. Did the Fire Lord have a message for me? It's been so long since I've had an audience with him."

Li and Lo stared at him for a moment, and then the one on the left said, "The Fire Lord has much that draws his attention."

And the other one added, "His mood is not helped by so much domestic tension."

As they spoke, Mutan started walking, almost casually, around the twins. His arms were loose at this side, but his movements were positioning him into direct line-of-sight at Father. Piandao shifted to mirror Mutan's path, putting himself between the other Weapon and Father like a good bodyguard.

Azula kept one eye on the Weapons, but didn't let them draw her complete attention. That could all just be a distraction from Li and Lo's true purpose here.

The first twin continued, "We think it wise if you have no more contact with the sages."

And the other sister concluded, "Or perhaps you will find that you know nothing of the Fire Lord's worst rages."

The two old women turned as one and strode away.

Mutan glanced at them, but remained where he was as he turned to Piandao. "You received the summons?"

Azula was surprised. His voice was softer than she would have expected of someone like him.

Piandao relaxed his stance and took his hand off the handle of his sword. "I did. Perhaps we can share a ferry?"

"That would be agreeable." Then Mutan turned and followed after Li and Lo.

At last, Azula dropped her own fighting stance and let her blood cool. "That was a rather bold confrontation."

Father nodded. "They are not fools. Too much boldness at this level of power can be disastrous, but no action can be even worse. They understand the threat we represent, especially after what they tried to do to Zuko. I think, for all of our safety, we might have to do something about their level of influence, soon. Azula, Piandao, I would like you think on the matter." With a heavy breath, Father squared his shoulders and resumed the journey back to his rooms.

The little group was still in the Hall of Pillars when Azula completed her task. "I have it."

Father looked over with raised eyebrows. "Have what?"

"A plan for permanently removing Li and Lo." His blank stare made her stomach flutter. Had she misunderstood his command? "You said you wanted us to think on how to defeat them. That's what I did."

Father blinked. "So quickly?"

Azula could not lie to him. "It is a topic I have pondered previously. But your news about the Sages, and the conversation you just had with them, helped me finalize some important details in one of my plans."

Father stared at her.

Azula bowed her head. "I'm sorry. I will continue to think on the matter. I'm sure there's another angle I missed."

Father gave a laugh and reached out to put his right arm around her shoulders. "I very much doubt that. You are brilliant, Azula, and I'm sure your plan is close to perfect. We'll discuss it in my rooms, and see if Piandao or I have any additional suggestions." He paused, and then added, "I'm always proud of you. You have one of the greatest minds in the Fire Nation."

Azula bit down on her tongue to keep from smiling too broadly. "Thank you, Father. I'm sure I inherited it from you."

But he only gave another laugh as they continued on their way.

Zhao rather liked Ember Island.

He had never visited before, but the last few days here had proven quite agreeable. After being stationed in the South Pole, he enjoyed the warmth and humidity, and it was steeped in the highest level of Fire Nation culture. It could have used a bit more structure and a military presence, but perhaps that could change once he accumulated more power.

Being appointed governor of the island as a reward for loyal service to Iroh, for example.

For now, that service involved temporarily increasing the military presence on the island in a very specific way.

In a rented meeting room in Ember Island's main settlement, Zhao looked around the table at the gathered leadership of the Fire Nation's army and navy. A dozen old men in dark armor seemed incongruous with the white walls and potted ferns, but perhaps that would shake them from their usual habits. "Gentlemen, thank you for coming. I'm sure this business will be more rewarding than the last time we gathered."

"As long as one of us doesn't wind up stabbed by Piandao," General Bujing growled, "it will almost have to be. Wouldn't it, Zhao?"

Well, Zhao was expecting the matter to come up. Might as well get it out of the way. "As you say, sir. I was sent word that Piandao and Mutan won't be leaving the Capital until tomorrow, so we should be safe enough, here."

Admiral Li snorted as he stroked his long, bushy beard. "And are your people tracking all of the Weapons of the Fire Nation? Lady Caldera Yu Mai is here on Ember Island, and who knows who she's working for these days! Azulon has being fielding Weapons to manipulate Fire Rites. Ozai has been fielding Weapons to outright murder people, and Azulon can't or won't rein him in. This is madness! We no sooner finished the war than we're turning on each other, and we still don't have a handle on the monsters popping up across the Colonial Continent!"

Zhao nodded an acknowledgement of the point. "Things are becoming more chaotic at a time when we cannot afford to be weak. So many thought our work was done when we won the war, but it has proven to be the start of a new bunch of troubles."

General Shinu leaned forward. "So why are we here, Zhao? You offered us a chance for safety and power. I didn't leave the Capital to gripe and visit the beach."

"But you'll visit the beach anyway," General Mak said, "eh?"

Zhao waved the attempt at humor away. "You all know or suspect who I represent. Prince Iroh saved me from Ozai's killers by transferring me to his command, and I have been assisting him in bringing the Avatar to the Fire Nation."

General Bujing smashed a fist down on the table. "And yet you had us believing that Prince Ozai was the one colluding with the Avatar and the rebels! So much for your theories!"

Zhao shrugged. "I still haven't seen evidence that it wasn't the case, at one time. Ozai has definitely been breaking laws. He wouldn't have had Admiral Chan killed, and tried to have the same done to me, if there wasn't something to my claims. But for now, Iroh has convinced the Avatar and the new Earth King that peace with him is worth more than any other alliances they might forge."

Shinu squinted at him. "It's odd, how suddenly Iroh has gotten himself involved. We don't hear anything from him for years, and then he's sponsoring the Avatar's goodwill tour of the Fire Nation? What is he after, Zhao?"

"Well, you all know Prince Iroh's- uh, eccentricities. He needs the Avatar's powers for a special project. One I can't disclose right now." And the reason was that Zhao didn't actually know, but he was hardly going to admit that to this group. Iroh was guaranteeing his safety and further pursuit of power, and that was all he needed to know for now. As much as he might prefer otherwise.

He continued, "And it's become clear, as Iroh has attempted to end the conflict created by Azulon's hasty actions, that there is no true leadership left in the Fire Nation. Azulon grows in age as he shrinks in effectiveness. He strangles the people at the same time he loses friendship with the Fire Sages. Ozai committed crimes and killed his own countrymen, and then Iroh steals his alliances away without transgression or hesitation. I think it's clear that a new age is rapidly approaching the Homeland."

Li shook his head. "You're not saying anything we haven't already considered, Zhao. Things are happening, that much is clear. But you still haven't clarified what you want of us. I see no reason to launch a coup against the palace."

"Oh, no, sir! I would never advocate such treason!" Zhao hoped he sounded sincere enough. "In fact, that's the beauty of my proposal. It involves no risk for you, beyond what already exists. Prince Iroh is on the rise, and will most likely be Fire Lord before the change in seasons. On his behalf, I simply ask you to support him, to continue to do your jobs with your customary diligence despite a change in leadership. To work towards the stability of the Fire Nation, no matter what happens."

Bujing looked around at everyone before he spoke again. "Are you saying that Iroh is preparing to return to the Fire Nation?"

Zhao offered his most polite smile. "That is a good question, sir, and unfortunately matters require Iroh's continued presence at the North Pole. That's the main reason why he wanted me to speak with you. Should something happen to Azulon, whether his health fails or he abdicates, the crown will pass to Iroh. Ozai will have to be dealt with. And it would fall to you, and your commands, to steer the Fire Nation in Iroh's name and consolidate his rule. As soon as he can return to the Homeland, he will, but until then, he would be counting on your loyalty and capability."

Silence reigned across the table. It was General Mak who finally broke it, saying, "I don't like this."

Zhao motioned around the table. "Hadn't we all agreed that it was our best course of action, the last time I met with you? Admiral Chan certainly said so."

"And now Chan is a pile of ashes," Li said. "Back then, we thought we were simply removing a treasonous prince from power. Now, we know that the whole Royal Family is playing games and keeping secrets. We thought Iroh might be staying away because of some feud, but now he's making plans with the Avatar. General Mak is right. There can be no good end to this. To any of it. Not for us."

Shinu nodded. "I think we're all in agreement. I understand why you're doing what you are, Zhao, but I cannot offer any kind of pledge or support to Prince Iroh until I know more. That doesn't mean I'm declaring loyalty to Prince Ozai. And, of course, I will always serve the Burning Throne."

Bujing stood up. "Well said, Shinu. Now, there should be one more ferry running to the Capital today. I think I will try to be on it. Until next time, Commander Zhao. If you live long enough."

The others rose and began filing out of the room. Zhao stood and watched them go, sensing that even a farewell wouldn't be entirely welcome.

However, he couldn't say he was disappointed with this meeting.

True, no one had thrown in with Iroh, but for now, their reluctance to take a side was good enough. Zhao would give it a little time, meet with some of lesser-ranking leaders in the Army and Navy, and let the general situation grow more dire until even Iroh's mysteriousness would look good compared to the alternatives. The Avatar's return, if he continued to win the civilian government to his side, would strengthen Iroh's position.

It was a long, messy process, and Zhao couldn't say he enjoyed it, but without more empowering paths open to him, it was what he had to do.

Besides, he had done his duty, but he wasn't exactly fond of Iroh, himself. The prince was simply the one who could keep Zhao alive, for now.

But things change.


Never Gonna Give Yue Up

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« Reply #209 on: Dec 03, 2017 05:29 pm »

Life on Ember Island was unchanging boredom leading up to a brief period of terror.

But then, Mai hadn't expected to enjoy herself.

While Zhao went off every day on errands for Iroh, she had spent most of the week waiting for Aang, Zuko, and Toph to return, and building her strength back up now that the stab wound she gotten during the Agni Budokai was healed. Ty Lee's sisters had been more than happy to spar with her, and Mai was grateful for that, as even a team of just three of them was definitely better practice than Sokka or Suki could be.

In fact, Sokka and Suki had even asked the girls for fighting lessons. Mai knew they wouldn't be as good as even a single Ty-sister without a lot of practice, but Sokka had managed to go a whole five minutes without conking himself on the head with a tonfa by the time of the Gathering of the Weapons. So he was obviously really taking to the style.

The Gathering itself was where the terror came in.

It turned out to be taking place in Lady Caldera Yu Gerel's vacation home, right in the main settlement near the Theater district. Mai had expected to have to go alone, but when she tried to sneak out, she found Sokka and Ty Woo waiting for her in the front hall.

Mai had stopped short when she saw them. "There's not going to be a fight. And if there is, you two aren't going to make any difference. No offense."

Sokka had shrugged. "None taken. But you're part of the team, so even if I just go to confirm your horrible, painful death, then that's what I have to do. Besides, you know you love my company."

Mai had sighed, and then turned to Ty Woo. "What's your excuse? We've never really been friends."

"Yeah, I know." Ty Woo had scowled at her, of course. "But you're our guest, so one of us should go to show you around or something, and I drew the short straw."

So the three of them had taken a carriage to the main settlement. Mai's family had vacationed there a few times, staying as the guests of some of father's coworkers, and she found that the town was fairly unchanged. It was still one of the more unique settlements on the Fire Nation, with massive ornate buildings sitting right next to random clusters of palm trees and little beaches. The few roads were wide, plazas linked open-air dining opportunities, and walkways snaked over the undulating landscape and through small patches of tame jungle.

Mai hated it. The sun shined everywhere and it was like it had all been built to maximize contact with nature and other people.

The carriage let them off at the edge of town, the roads in the settlement only permitting foot traffic, and so she, Sokka, and Ty Woo had to walk to Lady Gerel's house.

"I have to admit," Ty Woo said as they passed into the theater district, "I'm kind of jealous."

Mai quirked an eyebrow. "Of what?"

"You're going to a meeting of the greatest assassins in the Fire Nation. You got picked by the Fire Lord himself as the best living warriors. Who wouldn't want that?"

Oh. Mai shrugged. "It's just another job. And you're never off the clock."

"But you've been recognized as the best! My sisters and I have practiced our whole lives to fight, and nothing has come of it so far. But you and Ty Lee did an Agni Budokai, and you got handed it all!"

Mai just sighed. Some people couldn't be taught.

But Sokka piped up with, "Except it kind of ruined Mai's life. It's like when I was the smartest guy at the station in the South Pole. (Smart guy here, feel free to take note.) I got picked to do jobs I hated, and no one cared what it did to me because I was effective. Mai and Ty Lee got used and used until they were used up. Much better to not be noticed. Especially by evil jerks."

Ty Woo rolled her eyes. "You're cute, but you're really stupid. Hey, is this it? Are we here?"

Mai nodded. This was it. They were here. She waved for Sokka and Ty Woo to stay in the street, and stepped forward to the open gate in front of Lady Gerel's building. A private guard stood on each side, but neither bothered Mai as she stepped through, where a servant met her to lead her into the house.

When she was brought into the dining room, she found that she was the last to arrive.

Scattered across the room were the five other Weapons of the Fire Nation.

Piandao, kneeling at the table and sipping tea, his sword at his side.

Bangfei, sitting on a cushion and throwing nervous glances at the others.

The Disciple of the Third Eye, standing silently against the wall with arms crossed and eyes closed, the strange tattoo on his forehead smooth and glaring.

Mutan of Lower Hu Sin, ugly with his own excessive facial tattoos, kneeling at the table and reading a book as he rapidly mouthed something he had to be familiar with.

And, of course, Lady Caldera Yu Gerel, their host, standing at the head of the table and nodding at Mai's arrival despite her large blindfold.

Mai herself made six. Heiyaoshi was dead, and Ty Lee was believed dead.

Gerel said, "Now that we are all here, we might as well begin."

Mai took a breath and squared her shoulders. "I didn't kill Heiyaoshi. I was involved in an Agni Budokai when the Earth King-"

"We know," Piandao interrupted. "We don't care about Heiyaoshi's death. The accounts are clear, and the Fire Lord is largely being assigned the blame. It is tragic, but hardly anything over which to get upset, in our line of work."

Mai blinked. She wasn't being called to account? "Then why are we here?"

Gerel kneeled at the table and reached for the tea pot, finding the handle without trouble despite her blindfold. "War is coming, and since we will probably be the ones to have to fight it, I thought it would be good to get on the same page."


Mai approached the others as Gerel poured herself some tea, casting her eyes over them. "So calling me out was a pretext. You didn't want anyone to know that Weapons can actually get thoughts in their heads. I suppose losing our mystique would make the war go harder on us."

Bangfei shifted on his cushion. "I thought we won the war."

Mutan closed his book and put it down, then turned his tattooed visage on the boy. "There is war and there is war. War was the crucible in which the Colonial Continent was purified and brought under the righteous yoke of the Children of Fire. War rages there still, on the unseen plane, as the spirits of the people transform into what the Flames have always intended for them. The Land of the Sun is eternally at war, a war some call the Way of the Flame, in a beautiful cycle of strength and growth. That war is coming to another climax in its endless span, and that will spark a new war in which we will be the soldiers fighting for the cause of the future."

Bangfei blinked. "Okay. I- I require clarification of some of that."

Piandao set his empty teacup down. "Put simply, tensions have been growing amongst the leadership of the Fire Nation, and that will soon erupt into violence, in one form or another. And we're so much easier to deploy here in the Homeland than armies."

"Piandao is right," Gerel said. "Lady Mai, would you like some tea?"

"No, thanks.” She glanced over at the Disciple of the Third Eye, and found his eyes still closed. She wondered if he needed to see to shoot explosions out of his forehead. “And, you know, there's a simple solution to stopping whatever war is coming. Just go on vacation until after Aa- the Avatar settles things."

Piandao quirked an eyebrow at her. "You would leave the Avatar's side?"

"No, I-" Mai suddenly understood what he was talking about. Those jerks. "You're saying Aang is the cause of it all. Tall, silent, and stupid over there tried to kill him once, already. So did Heiyaoshi. Gerel was nearly set up to kill Zuko, and probably had Aang on her list before we announced the Agni Budokai."

Gerel shook her head. "The Avatar was never a target of mine. But your point about Heiyaoshi manipulating me into the Agni Kai with Prince Zuko is exactly what we're talking about. We will be placed so that we have no choice but to strike at each other, more often and with more danger to those around us, until it truly is a war. Lady Mai, you will defend the Avatar to the death, correct?"

Mai folded her hands in her sleeves. "Well, you know, we hang out a lot. And he's kind of trying to fix the world."

Mutan's eyes snapped to her. "Speak not of destinies you don't understand. Even the Avatar must bow to the Way, and for him to stand against the flames will be to fall to them."

Mai fingered a razor disk. "He performed an Agni Budokai. That means your stupid flames stand with him."

Mutan's skin went as red as the text inked all over his face. The ground beneath Mai's boots seemed to vibrate-

"Not in my home," Gerel barked. "Bangfei, if anyone breaks the peace of this meeting, would you be so kind as to disable them?"

Bangfei nodded. "And there must be something we can do to prevent the greater fighting. Some of us-" He looked over at the Disciple of the Third Eye, still meditating or something on the far side of the room. "Some of our techniques are more given to collateral damage. Are innocent people of the Homeland really going to die over all of this?"

"Heiyaoshi is already dead," Piandao said. He ran a hand over the handle of his sword. "A soldier can be innocent, too."

Gerel tilted her head towards him. "Does that include the soldiers who came to arrest you for desertion?"

Piandao didn't so much as blink at her. "Some of them, in all likelihood."

And what had happened to those soldiers was right there in the name most people used for Piandao: Hundredslayer.

But that wasn’t why Mai was terrified of Piandao. People called her cold and emotionless, and a lot worse, but she couldn't hang out with Aang for a few months without nearly vomiting at the thought of betraying him to Zuko.

If Piandao felt anything when he killed, no one alive had a clue about it.

Bangfei stood up. "So, what can we do? Heiyaoshi being dead doesn't mean we should give up already!"

Piandao also got to his feet, and slowly made his way across the room. "We can do nothing but refuse to fight. Those who do will certainly die."

Bangfei blinked. "Why?"

"Because the rest of us will be sent to kill them."

"But if we all-"

"I," Piandao said, coming to a temporary stop, "will not stand down. Therefore, if I am ordered do something about any of you, it will not matter if you refuse to fight. But you would have my gratitude for sparing me time and effort."

Great. The most dangerous one of all was definitely ready to fight a war. Mai went over to take Piandao's place at the table and poured herself a full cup of tea. "Well, you've all pretty much guessed that I'll protect the Avatar, no matter what. Don't mess with him if the sight of your own blood gives you the willies."

Mutan glared at her. "You would stand against the Fire Lord? The purest expression of the Great Element alive?"

Meh. 'Great Element.' As if the guy wasn't, beneath all his weirdness, an Earthbender.

Still, Mai maintained some survival instincts. "I never said anything about committing treason." Then she gave an innocent blink, or at least tried to copy all the innocent blinks that Ty Lee had given her over the years. Perhaps the obvious insincerity would make more of an impact.

Mutan actually growled at her.

Piandao passed behind him, shifted his sheathed sword. "And we have to consider the Ninth Weapon."

Wait, what? "Ninth? But there are only six of us here."

"Nine Weapons have named, starting when the Fire Lord called me to service. Ty Lee and Heiyaoshi have, unfortunately, left us. One is not present here."

Gerel tilted her head. "I have not heard of a ninth being declared. Who is it?"

"His or her identity is unknown to me, as well as any specialties. I only really know about it because of certain clues I've seen in the Palace. I'm sure Mutan has seen some of the same indicators."

Mutan straightened his back and put his hand on his book. "I am servant and bodyguard to the Fire Lord. Any information I happen to see is seen with eyes that do not belong to me, and the only knowledge I seek is that which brings me closer to heat and flame."

Gerel frowned beneath her blindfold. "He speaks the truth."

Mai wanted to busy her hands with a knife, but instead made herself sip her tea. So there was another Weapon, one who she couldn't see coming, one who wasn't even as social as she was. Hopefully, King Toph would be back soon; Toph was good at 'seeing' things coming that no one else could. On the other hand, that would mean Aang would be back, and Mai wasn’t sure that he’d be safe next to her, now.

Bangfei groaned. "So there's nothing we can do? War is inevitable? We're going to have more people like Ty Lee burned for nothing? Then why are we even here?"

Gerel stood up. "So that we can all make our choices will full knowledge of their impact. And so that I can pass on a warning- the Fire Sages will be the next major disruption. Expect their interference in your lives."

The Sages, huh? That made sense, given the trouble Heiyaoshi had caused.

Piandao finally stopped his pacing, and Mai looked over to find a little smile on his face. He bowed to Gerel. "Then I suppose that concludes our business. Thank you for the tea and the hospitality, Lady Gerel. But I sincerely hope that we will not meet again for a long, long time."

Then he turned and walked out.

Mai knocked back the last of her tea.

The next to move was the Disciple of the Third Eye. He opened his eyes, and strode out of the room without a word. His metal foot clanked with every step.

Mutan left next, throwing one last tattooed scowl at Mai. She held up a gesture that was ten-percent rude and ninety-percent blasphemous, and his eyes went wide before he hurried from the room.

Maybe she should take her leave before she kicked off a war right here. She gave a bow and goodbye to Gerel, and was surprised when Bangfei followed her out, and turned to say "Do you need something?"

He actually blushed as he walked beside her. "I- I understand that you're staying with Ty Lee's sisters. They have- uh, refused my visitations. Could you pass on my condolences about Ty Lee's death?"

Mai gave that all due consideration. "No."

As they said, all was fair in love and war, and it looked like they would soon have a lot more of the latter.


Never Gonna Give Yue Up

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« Reply #210 on: Dec 03, 2017 05:34 pm »

Trusted Betrayers

High Sage Xinghao of the Grand Capital Temple was not used to going out to meet people. 'People' usually came to meet him. The whole situation was backwards.

Also, the situation was going to destabilize the whole Fire Nation and maybe plunge the world into chaos.


Xinghao sighed as his carriage rolled to a stop. He looked out the window at Lower Harbor City, taking in the scenery. It had been years since he'd last been here, years since he came down from the Caldera to the home and workplace of those not quite good enough to be in the Royal Palace's shadow, but who were also far too good for filthy Upper Harbor City. But now even the residences and shops of Lower Harbor City seemed a bit more run-down, still comfortable and ornate, but covered in faded paint and marred by unsealed cracks.

He supposed it was hardly an uncommon state of affairs in the Fire Nation. Their victory in war was not yet even a few years old, and already the paint was faded.

The door to the carriage was opened, and Xinghao heaved himself down to the street. Two of the Temple Attendants he brought hurried to straighten his robes and hat, their practiced hands needing only a moment to have him looking almost regal. Taking a deep breath, he walked across the street to his destination.

The Central Command building of the Fire Nation's combined military loomed ahead of him.

The gates remained locked as he approached, and the eyes of the soldiers on guard duty followed him.

Well, at least they weren't attacking. "I require an audience with the Command Council on an urgent matter." He didn't bother mentioning that he didn't have an appointment, nor did he identify himself. The robes and hat of the High Sage of the Grand Capital Temple were more important than his name, here.

Hopefully the history books would be more concerned about his name, and it would be a favorable recounting.

The gate was unlocked and one of the guards ushered Xinghao and his entourage into the complex. Soon enough, he was seated in a rather nice office (not as nice as his own, of course) and told that representatives of the Command Council would be with him shortly.

He took the opportunity to have the Attendants re-fluff his cape.

He was the very picture of spiritual authority when three men in dark armor and capes entered the room and bowed one-by-one: scowling High General Bujing, in charge of operations on the Colonial Continent; young General Mak, commander of the Home Guard; and old Admiral Li, the longest-serving man in the Navy, if not the most powerful.

It was good to see that the High Sage of the Grand Capital Temple was still being taken seriously by the military. Xinghao gave a brief bow to them all.

"Your eminence," Bujing said, "you do us great honor with your presence."

Xinghao knew for a fact that Bujing lived a stone's throw from the Grand Temple but hadn't visited in twenty years. "It is my honor to be among those who guide our Homeland along the Way of the Flame. I have come on a matter of Fire Nation security, so I will get straight to the point. I believe there are traitors operating in the Palace, and the Fire Lord's life and autonomy are in danger."

Bujing, Mak, and Li all went stiff. Xinghao thought he heard Li grunt something that sounded like, "Zhao," but it was Mak who stepped forward to take the lead. "There has been talk about Prince Ozai-"

"Prince Ozai’s testimony and evidence confirmed my suspicions," Xinghao cut in. "No, my friends, this is about the traitors responsible for Weapon Heiyaoshi's interference in the Avatar's Agni Budokai. These traitors have been blocking the Fire Lord's true will and wisdom, and are no doubt responsible for so many of the troubles that plague our nation."

All three military men looked understandably wary. Bujing squared his shoulders and stepped forward. "I trust you are referring to non-military personnel."

Oh. They thought he had just walked into their secure headquarters to accuse them? Paranoia must have been running high. But then, wasn't there a saying about it not being paranoia if the danger was real? "Of course, my friends. Your loyalty and capability is exactly why I have brought my concerns here. I am hoping that you will accept my evidence and arrest the traitors."

All three men relaxed, as much as military types could. Mak said, "Then stop playing coy and get to the point. Who are you accusing?"

"The sisters Li and Lo."

Bujing, Mak, and Li all traded glances. Bujing stroked his dropping mustache and turned back to Xinghao. "Your accusations go quite high, then. You said you have evidence, but supposing it's all true, even we can't just march into the Fire Lord's offices and slap chains on his closest advisors. We would need a small army to get to those offices."

Mak frowned. "And they have that blasphemous Weapon guarding them all the time."

Li shook his head. "This is a weak ploy. Hardly a step above name-calling during a Council meeting."

Ah, Xinghao did love the theater of this, if nothing else. Had he not joined the Temple, perhaps he could have become a stage actor. "Gentlemen, I know your job is to develop strategy, but just this once you may rest your minds. I have come with a plan for arresting the traitors and putting this whole matter to rest quickly. All you have to do is agree, and then be in the right place at the right time."

Once again, Bujing, Mak, and Li traded glances.

Xinghao smiled. "Why don't I start by showing you the evidence?"

Mai was armed with a paper umbrella to block the sun, but it still wasn't enough to actually make Ember Island comfortable. She stood on the beach, the waves stopping just a hand-span from her boots, and stared out across the horizon. Her sharp eyes picked up nothing but clouds, blue skies, and the occasional crane-fish diving into the water to scoop up a beak-full of water and seaweed.

She didn't see a flying bison, or any signs of hazards that might delay a sky bison's arrival.

She sighed.

Aang, Zuko, and King Toph still hadn't come back from this mysterious mission of Iroh's, which meant Mai was stuck waiting here on Ember Island for them. Several days after meeting with her fellow Weapons, she was running out of things to keep her occupied. There was enough danger that she had to be on guard- she wore her full set of blades and robes despite the heat and humidity- but not enough that it was actually keeping her occupied. The days were filled with tolerating Sokka, training with Ty Lee's sisters, enduring Zhao's daily reports of meetings with old military men, and wondering why anyone thought it was a good idea to drag Suki along on this whole campaign.

That was the only real reason she was anxious for the others to get back. She knew that Aang and Zuko were perfectly capable of taking care of themselves, and of course they also had Toph to watch over them.

Mai wasn't worried about them. At all.

There was a sound of shifting sands, and Mai glanced out from beneath her umbrella as she let her sleeve fall to cover the blade she was readying with her free hand.

It was just Zhao.

Mai kept a hold of the blade. "Is there a reason you're bothering me?"

Zhao snorted. "I'm busy enough that there would have to be. We have guests back at the house. Fire Sages. I would guess that the situation in the Capital is getting more tense."

Although the meeting with the other Weapons had indicated as much, Mai was still surprised. With Aang gone, why would things be moving so fast? But then, she had never really been much for politics. "Let's go, then."

Despite her umbrella, the walk back to the home of Ty Lee's sisters never failed to work up a sweat. Mai dabbed herself with a borrowed handkerchief, and glanced at Zhao out of the corner of her eye. "So, this wouldn't have to do with all your meetings, would it?"

Zhao shrugged. "I doubt it, but who's to say? The Fire Lord has to know that Iroh and the Avatar are closing in on him. The Outer Islands would already support a change in leadership. I've been feeling out the military, and while they don't support direct action, neither are they opposed to Iroh. The Sages and the nobility of Capital Island are the only standing questions."

"So, theoretically, these Sages could be here to kill me."

Zhao barked a laugh. "Why bother trying to kill a Weapon when the boy she's protecting isn't even here? You're a servant, Lady Mai. No one really cares about you."

"My friends do." Mai stopped, mopped her brow again, and threw the handkerchief on the ground. "How many of those do you have, now that you're just a servant to Iroh?"

Without waiting for his reply, Mai opened the doors to the house and sauntered in.

The Ty-sisters were already in the receiving hall, decked out in their matching but uniquely colored outfits, talking to a typical old-guy-with-a-chin-beard Fire Sage. Sokka and Suki, however, were standing apart from that group, and over their shoulders Mai glimpsed a bald head.


No, too tall. Sokka caught sight of Mai, and turned to her with a grin. "Hey, look, it's someone we already met who never tried to kill us!" He motioned as Suki stood aside.

Mai could see now that the bald head belonged to a tall young man in the red robes of a- what had he called himself? Right, an apprentice Inferior Sage, because he couldn't Firebend.

She surreptitiously holstered the blade she'd been holding. "Oh, hey, it's you. Um- Kei Lo, right?"

He burst into a smile and bowed so quickly that she half-expected him to smack his head on the floor. "Yes! I'm so glad you remember me, Lady Mai. It's an honor- and a pleasure- and, uh, so nice to work with you again!"

The older Sage stepped away from the Ty-sisters and bowed to Mai as well. "I am Fire Sage Shyu, from the Grand Capital Temple. I apologize for the imposition, but I have come on a mission from the High Sage. Kei Lo is officially serving as my assistant, but he has been most eager to reunite with his friends."

Mai quirked an eyebrow. Kei Lo was a friend? Sure, he had trained her and Aang for their Agni Budokai, but she was surprised that she could remember his name. However, there was a distinct blush on his face as he looked at her, so apparently the partnership had been much more memorable on his end.

She looked back to Shyu. "And how do you expect us to be working together? Have you come to follow Aang?"

The smile that flitted across Shyu's face was almost as bad as Kei Lo's. "Ah, if only I could. My grandfather taught Avatar Roku, and it would be my honor to serve the child Avatar in some capacity. But I have another duty, for now. In light of Weapon Heiyaoshi's actions during your Agni Budokai, the High Sage felt that it would be beneficial if the remaining Weapons had advisors available who could guide you in the Way of the Flame."

Sokka scratched his hair. "Wait, if it was Mai's Agni Budokai that Heiyaoshi tried to mess up, then why does Mai need a babysitter?"

She nodded. "That's a good question."

Shyu shrugged. "I agree that this probably isn't necessary, especially given your close association with the Avatar. Kei Lo has attested to your character."

Kei Lo did another of his dangerously frantic bows. "Oh, yes, I can testify that Lady Mai is a good citizen and true patriot! Her Agni Budokai was the most beautiful thing I've ever seen. Uh, and the Avatar, too, of course."

Mai had to fight the urge to roll her eyes while some of the Ty-sisters giggled.

Ironically, it was Zhao who saved her, stepping over to Shyu. "What, exactly, does it mean to be an 'advisor?' This compound is secure, and while you've been approved as a visitor, the staff here is all under the command of Prince Admiral Iroh, not the Fire Sages."

Shyu dipped his head. "Quite so, Commander. I apologize if I gave the wrong impression. Kei Lo and I are lodging in the local Temple in town, and while we will present ourselves here daily, Lady Mai is within her rights to send us away. We are not spies or saboteurs."

Suki put her hands on her hips. "Not that spies and saboteurs would go around admitting it."

Shyu chuckled. "No, you are right. The world would be a much better place if we all said what we really mean."

It would be easier, maybe, but Mai learned long ago that few people wanted to hear what she really thought about things. "Well, thanks for whatever it is you do. We have no need of advisors today."

Ty Lui clapped her hands. "Oh, but we must have you over for dinner! It would be an honor to host a Fire Sage, and a cute apprentice, too!"

Sokka elbowed Kei Lo. "Isn't this place great?"

Mai sighed. She hoped the other Weapons were being just as annoyed.

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« Reply #211 on: Dec 03, 2017 05:35 pm »

Lady Caldera Yu Gerel, oldest known Weapon of the Fire Nation, was in her home, meditating before a cluster of fifty-four candles in her window-free meditation room, when she detected a heat source approaching. She turned to face the room's only door, and was ready when the servant entered and bowed. "My lady, a Sage from the Temple is here to see you."

Gerel nodded her assent, and she heard the servant depart as the warmth of his blood moved away.

While she waited for his return, she removed the black blindfold she had been wearing for her meditation and exchanged it for the red one painted with the golden character for 'dragon.'

She had a feeling this would be a business matter.

The Sage was warm in her perception when he arrived, but his voice was unfamiliar. "Fifty-four candles. An inauspicious number, according to tradition."

Gerel said, "Fifty-four is death, but death is ever close to us. I meditate on my trade."

She heard the Sage sigh. "I expect you know why I'm here."

"Would you care to meditate with me, then? I have no desire to interfere with politics."

The Sage warmed a bit in his chest. "Thank you, my lady. I would be honored."

Together, they kneeled before the fifty-four candles.

Bangfei, possibly the youngest Weapon of the Fire Nation, stood on the roof of his inn on Ember Island, feeling the sun and the breeze, enjoying the scent and sound of the lapping waves of the nearby beach, and threw a punch at the bricks he had stacked up in front of him.

His knuckles landed against a single brick in the arrangement, which crumbled to dust at his blow.

None of the other bricks so much as moved.

Bangfei nodded with satisfaction. He hoped he wouldn't have to do that to anyone's heart in the near future, but he was a Weapon, and he couldn't let his skills atrophy. He would have preferred to practice in his personal training room back in his family's Caldera estate, but business was keeping him on Ember Island for now.

A hand reached up from the edge of the roof, waved, and then grasped and pulled up what appeared to be a young Fire Sage. Bangfei took a fighting stance as the Sage climbed up onto the roof and said, "Hi! They- uh, they said you're Weapon Bangfei?"

He nodded. "I am. Do you need something?"

The Sage scratched his head. "Uh, this is going to sound odd, but I'm here to advise you?"

Bangfei supposed this was what politics looked like.

The Disciple of the Third Eye, possibly the most dangerous Weapon of the Fire Nation, was not hard to find. One just had to follow the sound of the explosions to the Caldera's public Agni Kai arena.

A Fire Sage stood outside the arena, listening for the booms, and decided that this constituted the extent of his duty in this matter.

The Royal Palace was visible in the distance. The Weapons Piandao and Mutan should be inside, but no one needed to verify it. Other systems were in place for that.

High Sage Xinghao went through the whole thing for the military, the 'evidence' they would use to justify acting against Li and Lo, and then the precise plan for their arrest. He, in essence, went step-by-step through toppling a government.

Bujing, Mak, and Li's faces remained hard. It was Bujing who finally said, "If you do this, you'll be seen as siding with Ozai."

Xinghao was careful not to nod. "Prince Ozai has expressed concern about his father, and I happen to agree with his doubts. Prince Iroh certainly has not shown interest in anything but the Avatar."

The military men exchanged glances, and despite his pretty words, Xinghao knew they were aware of his true loyalties. After the way Iroh had battled against the Sages' influence, decades ago, the Temples would never fully support him. And they didn't even know how friendly Ozai had been, lately. But  Xinghao, in turn, knew of the meetings Zhao had been holding on Ember Island in hopes of courting the military to Iroh's side.

Here's where it came down to a decision for them.

Xinghao looked at the three men across from him. "Like it or not, the time has come to take action. The Avatar is coming, the Royal Family is on the brink of war, and order must be maintained. The Temples are most in tune with the people, and putting a strong, wise Fire Lord on the Burning Throne is what will give us the power to resist the Avatar and the darkness in the Colonial Continent. It is our duty to remove the fumbling corruption from the palace." He moved his gaze across his audience.

High General Bujing had clearly stopped paying much attention to the conversation several minutes ago. His bored, blank expression was one Xinghao often saw in visitors to the Capital Temple.

Admiral Li's face was coloring and he was biting his lip. Perhaps his anger came from remembering how Admiral Chan had fallen to Ozai's pet killer, Piandao, when the military tried to turn against him.

General Mak simply stared back with narrowed eyes. "Well, we appreciate your bringing these concerns to our attention. Thank you for coming, High Sage."

Xinghao nodded. "Thank you for listening. You all know what will happen, soon. I hope you make the right decision."

They all bowed, and then guards stepped forward to escort Xinghao back out.

Well, he had done what he could with the military. If Prince Ozai decided to go ahead with his daughter's plan, then all Xinghao would have to do was lure the targets out into the open.

And also try not to die when war erupted.

Sokka really liked Ember Island.

Sure, it was in the Fire Nation, but didn't have evil ugliness sprawling all over it. There were few soldiers, and no factories or mines spewing waste. The girls, although racist jerks who didn't even realize how racist they were, looked very pretty. And in this vacation spot, Sokka was able to take a break from having to be an amateur spymaster and watching for all kinds of enemy action.

Part of that came from Aang, Zuko, and Toph being away and probably getting into trouble without him, while Katara was off fighting a war against sexism.

So Sokka just tried to focusing on the fact that he was on vacation, and not that he was really a useless lump. The longer he was on Ember Island, the easier he told himself it became.

For now, though, he had to focus on not getting his bones broken.

He raised his borrowed tonfa sticks and crossed them to catch the staff coming in at his head. His defense was successful, but the impact dug his feet deeper into the sand of the beach. He tried to push back with his tonfa against his opponent, but Suki danced back again and twisted her staff so that one end was coming in low at his left knee.

Sokka dove to the right and ended up with a face-full of sand, which he decided was marginally better than getting his knee thwapped. He began to push himself up, but a warm weight came down on his back and smashed him back down into the sand.

When he looked up, the face of one of the Ty-sisters was smiling down on him. She was sitting on his back.

(Sokka couldn't yet tell the sisters apart. Well, except for Ty Woo, who was The Mean One. This was one of the nice ones.)

She said, "Why did you dodge?"

Sokka tried to twist to properly face her, but her butt was very effectively keeping him pinned. "Well, it has to do with his crazy strategy I like. It involves not getting thwacked with a stick whenever possible. I've found that it really works for me."

The Ty-sister giggled and lightly bopped the top of his head. (Definitely not Ty Woo, then.) "Silly, you're using tonfa. You could have spun your right weapon in your hand to maximize its range, and then just blocked the staff without even reaching down much."

"Well, now that you explain it, I feel very silly." Sokka wondered if he would ever, at some point in any of his travels or life, meet a girl who couldn't kick his butt without even really working at it. Mai was so good she had a special title and everything. Suki had survived stuff that would have killed Sokka twice over, at least. Katara's Waterbending made her a devastating warrior, and she was out learning how to be even better. Ty Lee could kill with her bare hands, or something. Toph was worshipped as a god for her Earthbending. Slush, even Heiyaoshi had taken him hostage without trouble.

Not that Sokka really wanted to encounter a girl who would be entirely dependent on him for protection. No, that would still be a problem, because it was his own lack of ability that really had him down.

But he would keep learning. "So, uh, why did you girls pick the tonfa, anyway? You liked the sound of the name?"

The Ty-sister frowned, but not at Sokka; her eyes lost focus, and her gaze lifted a bit. She remained sitting on him, though, so Sokka looked to the other girls around him. Suki was leaning on her borrowed staff, her eyes curious for the answer as well, while the other sisters all traded glances.

It was Ty Woo who finally answered. "Our dad picked them. I don't think any of us really know why. But he was in the army, and he said that if he was going to be an ocean away, then we had to learn how to destroy anything that tried to hurt us. And we all had to learn the same weapon, so that we could fight as a perfect unit."

The sister on Sokka's back leaned over to rest her head on his, further pressing him into the sand. She said, "I never minded. It was fun fighting together, and it made Daddy happy. Ty Lee was the only one who hated it. She didn't like how a tonfa strike could really hurt someone. Daddy said she was stupid if she couldn't see why cracking a skull was a good thing in a fight."

One of the other sisters added, "Yeah, wasn't that when she quit and ran away the first time? Mai would know." There were sounds from the rest of dubious agreement.

Suki said, "Uh, is your dad still in the army?"

Ty Woo shook her head and scowled. "No, he's retired by way of being dead. One of those attempts to crack Omashu."

Sokka's first instinct was to say he was sorry, because that was what nice people said to pretty girls when they mentioned a dead relative, but he really wasn't sorry that some Fire Nation would-be conqueror had bitten off more than he could chew.

So Sokka just made a show of trying to get up again, making the sister on top of him giggle. "Can I get up, or am I going to be a permanent fixture on the beach?"

That's when he heard the sound of heavy boots crunching through sand, and Zhao's voice rang out with, "Where's Mai?"

The sister hopped off of him, and Sokka quickly got to his own feet and brushed the sane off his clothes. "She's off doing her Mai thing. Why?"

Zhao was standing there in his full armor, as always, the black metal bringing out the darkness of the sand and the harshness of the stones in a reminder that this paradise was right in the middle of the Fire Nation. "An invitation came for her, and I need to talk her out of accepting." Zhao looked down at the scroll he was holding. "Is she in the house? I'll just-"

Sokka skipped forward on the sand and snatched the scroll out of Zhao's hands.

Zhao's eyes went wide for a moment, and then he raised his fists-

And a pair of the Ty-sisters stepped forward to shield Sokka.

Zhao snarled, and then lowered his fists.

Sokka unrolled the scroll and read this supposed forbidden invitation. It was addressed with, 'Daughter.'


So this was why Zhao wanted to talk her out of it.

Sokka nodded. "I'll take this to her."

Zhao said, "And?"

Sokka rolled his eyes. "And if you think anyone can talk Mai out of doing what she wants with this, then I'll just go ahead and save you from wasting your time."

He made his way back to the house, and headed straight for the bedroom that Mai was sharing with Suki. She had been sulking there all day since sending Shyu and Kei Lo away for the something-eth time this week. Sokka found the door open and Mai herself lying on her back on her bed, all kind of deadly sharp things sticking out of the ceiling above her.

Sokka knocked on the door-frame.

Mai glanced over at him. "Oh. Hey. Do you know if there's a ladder somewhere? I got bored, and now a whole set of my blades are stuck up there where I can’t reach."

"I think getting them down is one of the services the sisters will provide to their guests." He held up the scroll. "You have more mail. Your parents are in town and want you to visit."

Mai sat up on the bed and scowled at him. "That's a terrible thing to joke about and you should feel awful about it."

Sokka tossed the scroll to her.

She caught it (easily) and unrolled it to read.

Then she kept reading.

Then she sighed. "I don't want to go."

"Fine by me."

"And, honestly, this is probably a trap of some kind."

Sokka nodded. "I think Zhao figured the same thing. He wanted to tell you not to go."

Mai tossed the scroll to the floor and climbed off the bed. Sokka followed her to where her big case of knives was propped up on a stand, the same case she had hauled all the way from the South Pole. It wasn't in the best condition anymore, but still solid and functional.

Mai began grabbing blades. "My parents wouldn't seek me out. They know I'm deep into all this garbage politics and factions. They're not brave enough to interfere. So someone is making them."

Sokka had a good idea what he would do in that same situation, and thankfully had empirical evidence to back him up in the form of the whole crazy quest to find and save Katara. He was genuinely curious what Mai would say next.

She started slipping blades into her clothes. "At least it will be something to do."

"Sure." Sokka followed her as she stalked off down the hall. He hadn't been able to offer much when she had to go meet with the Weapons, and maybe he wouldn't be able to help much here, but he'd be there just in case. "How much back-up do you want?"

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« Reply #212 on: Dec 03, 2017 05:35 pm »

As it turned out, the Mai could command less backup than she expected.

"We apologize," Ty Lum said, out on the beach, "but our duties as hosts are limited to protecting you here. If you need a guide, I will be happy to show you the way through town, but we cannot travel with you as your guards or strike force."

Mai decided that it was only a mild disappointment. She turned to where Zhao was standing apart from the rest of the group and quietly fuming. "How many soldiers do you want to send along?"

He crossed his arms and scowled at her. "How many will it take to keep you here? Even if this really is your parents-"

"It is," Mai put in. The handwriting was so precise that it gave her flashbacks to Mother's calligraphy lessons- and the sting of the switch that came with a sloppy stroke.

Zhao shook his head. "Your parents are opportunists with few scruples." Showing no awareness of his hypocrisy, he continued, "Did you know your father tried to sell your betrothal to me after Crescent Island in a bid to attach your family to my rise?"

Ty Lee's sisters all gasped. Of course, they had never been forced to deal with betrothals. They were expected to find spouses themselves who could manage the family's colonial factory holdings.

Mai didn't doubt Zhao's word for a second. "I'm sure you're so disappointed that it didn't work out." Zhao's grimace was a delight all by itself. "Regardless, I have been away from home for a long time, and a good daughter would be expected to account for such an absence. I don't expect this to take long."

Zhao stared at her for a moment, and then shook his head. "Let me put together a full security detail. I'm sure we can leave this place light for an hour or two, if our hosts remain attentive."

Ty Lui clutched her fists and nodded. "We promise this will remain a safe haven for you, Mai! And your cute Tribal, too!"

Mai glanced at Sokka, and saw his half-pained, half-flattered expression. She decided that he deserved it for encouraging these stupid girls.

To Ty Lui, Mai said, "Thanks. And we won't need a guide. I'm sure Zhao will want to stick us in a carriage and run this whole thing himself."

Sure enough, Zhao stuck her in a carriage with Sokka and Suki and ran the whole operation up to depositing her at her parents' address.

During the ride into town, Suki said, "I don't think I've ever heard you talk about your parents. Your title means they live near the Fire Lord's palace, right?"

Mai leaned back in her seat and gave a nod. "Mother is old nobility. Father is a newer player who worked with the military in technology development. He was sent down to run the mining colony at the South Pole, and that's how I wound up getting dragged into a life of adventure and stupidity."

"I recall." Suki smiled. "You told the whole story when you first came to Kyoshi Island, remember? Back when you were a liar who was planning to betray Aang?"

"Oh, yes, I forgot. It seems like such a long time since you barged back into our lives helping Zuko to hunt us all down."

Sokka groaned. "Ladies, don't make me separate you! We've been getting along so well since we got here. Let's not ruin that."

Suki gave a slow nod. "Sorry, Mai."

Ugh, that apology came too quick. "Yeah, me, too."

"So did your parents really betroth you to Zhao?"

Mai shrugged. "It seems like something they'd do. The South Pole debacle wouldn't have left them in a good position, and we've seen how messy the politics have been lately. I was only eleven when they betrothed me to Prince Lu Ten, and I don't think I had a conversation with him until after it was announced."

Suki blinked at that, and Sokka leaned closer to her to whisper, "That one fell through, too. She seems to have some trouble getting married."

It was enough to put a smile on Mai's face before they got to their destination. The smile quickly disappeared at that point.

The note had provided the address of their rental, and Mai got out of the carriage to find that she was standing in front of the smallest, dumpiest beach house on the entire island. Here, the coast had no sand or beach, just a long stretch of cliffs above the water. The houses here were just a stone's throw from each other, a far cry from the massive amount of land around the Ty-sisters' place, but the buildings themselves still proclaimed the wealth of their owners by rising up on massive stilts to extend over the ocean and reach down with extensive private piers. The homes themselves were multiple stories, and tall windows revealed the high ceilings of the interior.

But the address in the note was just a glorified shack so small that it almost disappeared into a crag between its two neighbors. The little place had its own pier, but it was a long walk across a path of rickety boards; the house itself didn't extend far enough to reach the ocean.

It still had to be a fantastically expensive rental, because this was Ember Island, but apparently Mother and Father saw no need to bankrupt themselves to visit their traitor daughter.

Mai waited with Sokka and Suki beside the carriage as Zhao and a pair of his soldiers knocked on the front door and pushed inside as soon as it opened. Half a minute later, one of the soldiers came back and waved to Mai.

All clear. Mother and Father hadn't set up a deadly ambush.


Mai brought her friends in to see her parents.

What she saw first was a colorful streak that raced across the floor just as she passed through the curtain between the foyer and the receiving parlor. She was still reaching for a pair of razor disks when the streak struck her legs and let out a screech of, "MAAAAIIIIIIIII!!!"

She looked down to see her little brother, wearing a white and pink outfit that Ty Lee would have loved, clutching her ankles. "Hey, kid. Miss me?"

Tom-Tom gave her an open-mouthed smile that threatened to leave drool trailing down his chin, but then his face instantly scrunched up and he began crying at the top of his lungs. Through the choking sobs, he gasped, "You- you- leave- me!"

Mai was instantly out of her depth. She had never quite gotten used to dealing with Tom-Tom when he was crying. She looked to Sokka and Suki for help.

They were both gaping at her. "What?"

Sokka pointed at her. "You're a big sister?"

"Yeah? I never mentioned that?"

Suki blinked. "And he seems to like you."

Mai glared at them. "I don't think I appreciate what you're-" But Tom-Tom was still wailing, so she threw up her hands and looked around for other help.

Fortunately, Mother chose that moment to step forward and snatch Tom-Tom up. "I can believe that you never mentioned your family to your fellow criminals. You left us easily enough. Hello, daughter."

Mai dipped her head. "Mother." She looked past her to find Father standing at the back of the parlor with Zhao and the other soldiers. "And Father. And for the record, I'm no longer a criminal; I've been recognized as operating under Royal Orders."

"Yes, I know. I was addressing you all in a witty manner to provide amusement," Mother said. Tom-Tom continued wailing in her arms.

Father rubbed his hands together. "Well, why don't we all sit down?" He motioned to some low couches arranged around a round table, and sat down in one. "Mai, I might as well start by saying we forgive you for lying to us and betraying us, considering that you were acting on the orders of Prince Ozai at the time. You will be pleased to know that we, ourselves, aided the prince in his work to bring his son home. And you seem to have made some fortunate alliances since then. Is this boy the Avatar?"

Sokka stiffened just as he was about to sit down. "Um, no, sir? I'm Sokka. I'm just a friend and ally."

Father leaned back in his seat. "You look Water Tribe. Are you one of the rebels who ran away from the South Pole?"

Sokka gave a little laugh that to Mai's ears was far too forced.

Mother sat down next to Father, Tom-Tom reduced to sniffling as she settled him on her lap and glared at Sokka. "Please tell us you're not sleeping with our daughter."

"Hey," Mai cut in. "That's unfair. You should at least ask Suki if I'm sleeping with her, too."

Suki's face went red. "What? I'm just working for Prince Zuko. I have no idea why I'm here."

Mother's face lit up. "Ah, a good Fire Nation girl! And another ally of the Ozai faction! At least my daughter is keeping some good company."

Mai caught Sokka giving her a 'is this for real?' look. In return, she gave him a 'welcome to my life?' grimace.

Tom-Tom started squirming in Mother's lap. "I want to go sit with Mai. Please?"

"Very well, if you promise not to cry again. Such displays of emotions in front of company are unseemly. Mai, take your brother."

Mai wasn't sure she was obligated to accept that order, but Mother thrust Tom-Tom out and she found herself taking him in her arms.

Tom-Tom got comfortable on her lap and looked up at her face. "Why did you leave me? Don't you love me?"

She decided not to fall for it. "I left because I had to go do a job. When a Prince or Princess tells us to do something, that means we have to, if we don't like it. So if Princess Azula told me to spank you, I'd have to do it. And if Prince Ozai told you to punch my nose, you'd have to do that, too."

Father grunted. "Mai, don't tell him such things!"

But Tom-Tom was staring at her with squinting eyes, and suddenly burst out laughing. "You're still funny!"

"And you still have a sick sense of humor," she retorted. Tom-Tom's cackling got even louder, but Mai was able to hear Sokka doing his own chuckling. She wondered if he was enjoying the joke or just amused at her awkwardness with her own little brother. She turned to Mother and Father. "So you’re really just going to brush off what I did?"

Mother frowned. "Why not? You only act as we taught you."

Father nodded. "We were quite upset by what we saw as your betrayal, but Piandao explained the situation to us some time ago."

Mai wondered why she was surprised. She had only lied and abandoned her parents, fantasizing about having their assets taken away from them and given to her as a reward. Aang and Sokka had acted like she was the worst kind of person when she did the same to them, but Mother and Father approved of it all.

Why did she find herself preferring Aang and Sokka's reaction?

"Of course," Father continued, "officially we've disowned you, and you can't inherit anything of ours. We had been denouncing you in public until you returned to the Fire Nation with Prince Zuko, and now we've simply been refusing to talk about you. We haven't quite been able to determine what game you're playing with the Avatar and the Royal Family factions, so we didn't risk ruining things."

Mai shook her head. "I'm not playing a game. The Fire Nation has become too corrupt, and Aang- the Avatar- he's trying to fix things for everyone. Prince Iroh is helping us. Zuko is helping us."

Father stroked his beard. "And I assume they're attempting to remove Azulon from power."

Mai kept her face blank. "Those matters, if they are being discussed, have not involved me. Aang, Zuko, and Iroh are all honorable leaders, and I trust them to do what is best." She didn't dare tell the truth, and she told herself it was because Tom-Tom could hear and blab something treasonous to the wrong person.

Mother gave a bored gesture. "And what are you getting for your assistance? What are you, personally, playing for? Did Prince Iroh offer to restore your contract with Lu Ten? Or is Zuko now the prize?"

Tom-Tom raised a hand. "I want a prize!"

Sokka handed him what seemed to be some kind of food while Mai sighed and said, "I don't suppose you'd believe that I'm helping because I just want them to succeed and stay alive?"

Suki nodded. "These matters are very important to the world. The Ear- Colonial Continent has been troubled by creatures that can only be fought with platinum weapons. The ashlands are alive and trying to kill people."

"And then there's the Everstorm," Sokka added. "It's all being caused by this- this disruption of the world's natural balance. So unnatural things are popping up, like unending storms and monsters. Mai is helping to save the world."

Mother looked back and forth between them. "That doesn't really answer my question. But thank you for telling me, dears. That's very nice."

In Mai's lap, Tom-Tom swallowed whatever it was Sokka gave him and looked up at her. "You fight monsters?"

She nodded. "I killed undead Air Nomads with a platinum knife, and helped fight an ash-monster the size of a city."

Tom-Tom's jaw dropped. "That's the best story I ever hearded."

She had to bite back on a smile. At least one member of her family had his priorities straight.

On the other side of the couch, Suki leaned forward. "I think what we're trying to say is that the Avatar, Prince Zuko, and Prince Iroh all consider Mai to be a precious ally. They are all people who value loyalty."

Father gave a slow nod. "No small thing, that."

Mother turned to Mai. "At least see if you can get a betrothal contract out of one of them? Friendship is good, but hard deals are better."

Mai stared back. "Is that why you called me here? To make sure I'm getting it all in writing?"

Mother's lips quirked. "You are a magnificent warrior, and I am proud to say that my daughter is a Weapon of the Fire Nation, but you are young, and you ran away before you learned all your lessons. My advice to you, as a mother, is to negotiate a real reward for your work before you're no longer needed. And of course I wanted to see my daughter, too. Your form has matured nicely and you've kept your hair well, but you should try to moisturize your hands more. They're looking rough, and no man likes that."

Suki glanced at Sokka. "Is that true?"

Sokka shrugged. "I'm more inclined to get lost in a pair of pretty eyes than examine a girl's hands, but I'm young yet."

Father chuckled. "You're witty for a Tribal."

Mai ignored Sokka’s attempt to explain that it was an outmoded term, and leaned her head down on Tom-Tom's. She whispered, "Kid, you're my favorite family ever."

Tom-Tom giggled. "More," he whispered back, "than Mommy?"

Mai smiled. "Much more."

He shifted out from under her and plopped a wet kiss on her nose. It was sort of gross, but not nearly as bad as having a monster vomit coins all over her. Looking pleased with himself, he said, "I love you so much. Don't go away again. We can play on the beach."

She glanced at her parents, who were talking with Suki about her exact relationship with Zuko while Sokka tried to help her out.

When Mai was sure that no one was paying her any attention, she looked back to Tom-Tom. "I'll try to come back when I'm done with my work. But don't wait up for me. I have a lot more monsters to fight."

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« Reply #213 on: Dec 03, 2017 05:36 pm »

High Sage Xinghao hadn't been in the Fire Lord's throne room for years. He supposed, in retrospect, that it probably should have been taken as a sign.

Regardless, he was doing something about it now. What were a few years of trouble, when he had lived so comfortably?

He stood in the center of the room, dwarfed by the lines of pillars on either side of him but also thrown into focus by the light of the torches attached to their bases. On the other sides of the pillars, an audience watched him. They were nobles and generals and admirals and sages and governors, most of them people who, like Xinghao, hadn't been invited to this room for a long time. Azulon had never been one to hold court, but he at least used to conduct his business in person.

Well, that time was gone.

Another sign of the times was the fact that the Burning Throne itself was dark, most distinctly not burning, and instead of the Fire Lord being seated up on the dais, the sisters Li and Lo stood in front of it.

Their pet Weapon, Mutan of Lower Hu Sin, stood off to the left, close enough to intervene in an assassination attempt but far enough away to make it clear he was just a servant. Xinghao thought it profane that he, an Earthbender, was even in this room, but it was an insult that would have to be tolerated for now.

But then, that was the key to being a successful High Sage. People thought it was about declaring what was supposed to be, but really it was figuring out when to turn a blind eye.

Li and Lo nodded to him, and spoke as one: "High Sage Xinghao, we recognize and welcome you, in the name of Fire Lord Azulon."

He took a deep breath. Hopefully this plan of Ozai's would work. If it didn't-

He forced a smile on his face and stepped forward. "The honor is mine. As agreed, I have come to restore something that rightfully belongs to the Royal Family." He had sent news of his ‘discovery’ on right after he met with the military’s central command, several days ago. Now, one of the two Great Sages standing behind him handed over the golden pillow with the headpiece of the Crown Prince on it-

-the gift that Ozai had handed over in his initial meeting with Xinghao to buy non-interference, now being redeemed as part of Ozai’s plan to steal the Fire Nation for himself. If this worked, Xinghao would always be able to call on the prince for a favor to the end of his days.

-a gift worthy of drawing Li and Lo to this throne room, and to pressure them into summoning an audience.

Xinghao took a single step forward and held the pillow up so that everyone could see the prize on top of it. "The Crown Prince headpiece."

Then he quickly lowered it and handed it to the other Great Sage. "This is an item representing the proper order of succession, of the strength of the Fire Lords and the way they embody the Way of the Flame." He looked straight at Li and Lo. "You have disrupted that, traitors, locking the Fire Lord away and stealing his power for your own corrupt ends! As High Sage, I name you traitors, and demand your arrest!"

The audience gasped.

Now here was the part where Xinghao might very well die.

He braced himself-

The old sisters recoiled in outrage, and the one on the left motioned to the ceremonial Crimson Guard lining the wall.

He prepared his Inner Fire in case they went ahead and attacked him instead of arresting him-

General Mak jogged out from between two of the pillars to stand in front of Xinghao. "Traitors, I place you under arrest!"

The last of his words were drowned out by the sound of boots on the wooden floor, and Home Guard soldiers in heavy assault armor raced into the throne room and began spreading out. Most blocked off the Crimson Guards, while a small contingent pushed to the front of the room and approached Li and Lo.

Xinghao gasped out a breath he hadn't realized he had been holding. General Mak! He'd gone for it! Yes!

And then Mutan of Lower Hu Sin stepped forward and the ground shook. Some of the soldiers stumbled.

Xinghao realized he had to do something if he still wanted to live. He hurried around Mak to stand in Mutan's path, raising his hands. "My child, in the name of the First Fire, stop!"

Mutan halted. "I ask you to move, High Sage. I cannot allow a coup."

"This is no coup! This is the will of the Flames themselves!" Xinghao's mind raced, as he tried to come up with something good. He looked at the red tattoos on Mutan's face, the quotes from the Nawaphon Hnangsux, one of the passages most often reproduced as propaganda during the war for its assertion that all other elements bow to Fire, and even the bones of the earth can melt. "The way of Fire becomes clear in conflict, and truth is revealed in strength. For too long, we have shrunk from the strength of Li and Lo, but if they are truly in the right, if they still truly do the Fire Lord's bidding, then they will prevail. If not, then they have fallen, and must be cast aside."

Mutan stared at him.

Xinghao nodded. "You, Mutan, are the greatest of your people. You have recognized the truth of the Way of the Flame, and your feats of Earthbending have reflected this. I need you, my child. As the High Sage, I need you to hold us all accountable, to watch us as we investigate the sisters, and to confirm that we are ensuring the Fire Lord's power. Will you answer my call, Mutan? Will you show us your true strength? Your true flame?" He bit back a groan. It was the biggest bunch of slop he'd put into words since he first joined a Temple.

Mutan blinked, though, and a pair of tears ran down his tattooed cheeks. He took a step back and said, "I will answer your call, High Sage. The Fire Lord's will be done!"

"The Fire Lord's will be done," a voice echoed from above Xinghao.

He- and everyone else in the throne room- turned to see Prince Ozai striding out across the dais of the Burning Throne.

"You," one of the old twins snarled.

Ozai stood over them all with the true regality of a Prince of Fire, a master actor commanding the stage. "I thank you, Xinghao, and General Mak, for your actions on behalf of my beloved father. Guards, take Li and Lo to the dungeons. The sages and the military can investigate the claims and evidence, and make a pronouncement. In the meantime, I will take charge of the Fire Lord. I make this promise to you all- I will keep my father safe and healthy, and act only in accordance with his will. I swear this on my own life, on my own honor, and on the Homeland itself."

Xinghao clapped once, the prearranged signal, and the two Great Sages hurried over to present him with the pillow and crown again. He once more took it and held it aloft.

And this time, Prince Ozai received it.

The soldiers hurried Li and Lo away, both sisters calling out promises of retribution, while all of the generals and admiral and soldiers bowed.

Xinghao and his sages all bowed.

And then the nobles and governors and all the rest likewise fell to their knees.

Xinghao had just handed provisional control of the Fire Nation to Prince Ozai, having worked to get the military on their side and providing the lure to bring Li and Lo out into the open.

In other words, Ozai owed him big time.

Suki had been surprised at how quickly the visit to Mai's parents ended.

It seemed that Lord Ukano and Lady Michi had no sooner established to their satisfaction that Suki wasn't trying to seduce Zuko than they were standing up and wishing Mai good luck on her future endeavors. Mai had seemed surprised at the abruptness, but she didn't fight to stay. She had just whispered something to her little brother, handed him back to their mother, and bowed a goodbye.

On the way back to the house, Sokka said, "At least no one tried to kill us, right? That was easily the most awkward social event of my entire life, but now we know that awkwardness isn’t fatal."

Suki laughed, because it seemed like something that should be funny, but she couldn't shake the feeling that something about the whole situation was really off.

The sun was setting when they got back to the Ty-sisters' home. Zhao's soldiers dropped them off at the bottom of the path, and then continued on to the boat-house. It wasn't until Suki and the others got further up the path that the first sign of danger was apparent.

All of Ty Lee's sisters were kneeling on the side of the path right at the base of the front steps, their tonfa sticks set on the ground on front of each of them.

As Suki, Mai, and Sokka approached, one of the sisters- the one closest to the house, wearing green robes today- said, "Mai, the beach is lovely tonight. Perhaps you would like to enjoy the setting sun with a walk."

Suki looked to Sokka, who seemed just as confused as she was. They both looked to Mai.

Of course, Mai had no expression on her face whatsoever. "I hate nature. And it's not like I can see a bison flying in, with the sky this dark."

The lead sister lowered her head. "Nevertheless, as your host, I must insist. I know the love that Ty Lee had for you, and I consider it my duty- as a sister, and a person- to make sure you properly enjoy it. Right now."

The other septuplets all bowed their heads in the same way.

Sokka threw his hands up. "Well, I'm still confused. Is this a Fire Nation thing? Is aggressively selling walks by the beach some kind of holy warrior rite?"

Suki shook her head. "Something feels really off about this." She looked to the lead sister. "What's wrong?"

The sister closed her eyes. "What could be wrong? If you and Sokka enter the house, I am confident, as your host, that you will be safe."

'...you and Sokka...'

Mai wasn't mentioned.

Mai herself got it, too. She traded a glance with Suki, and then shrugged. "I guess I'll take a walk. It's a nice night. I hope I find everyone alive when I get back." She turned and walked back down the path, her hands in her sleeves- and no doubt fingering blades.

Sokka groaned. "So we go in without the Weapon of the Fire Nation."

Suki grabbed his arm and dragged him along. "Our hosts said we're safe, remember? But be ready for something, anyway."

And so they walked up the steps and entered the house, leaving the Ty-sisters kneeling.

Candles were providing light in the receiving hall, but only one of the hallways was similarly lit. The rest were dark.

Suki moved slowly and silently down that hall, Sokka right behind her. At the end was a parlor with windows that looked out over the jungle behind the house. Suki slid open the door and stepped forward-

"Welcome back," said Azula, Princess of Fire. She was lounging on a couch with a cup of tea as though she owned the place, and standing behind her-

Suki couldn't stop herself from gasping.

Standing behind the princess, the uniform of some kind of Fire Nation soldier, was Kirai.

Suki's sister.


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« Reply #214 on: Dec 03, 2017 05:38 pm »

A New Sisterhood

Bangfei, Weapon of the Fire Nation, hoped that his Homeland was not about to fall into a civil war.

He was seated at a table outside an Ember Island eatery, surrounded by clusters of boys and girls his age talking and laughing and enjoying life. Did they not know about what was happening in their Homeland? The fact that he could sit here unnoticed was a sign of their ignorance. He wished he could have been like them, carefree and uninvolved, perhaps vacationing here with Ty Lee and falling in love. More in love.

But he and Ty Lee had destroyed that possibility when they each, separately and without knowledge of the other's path, sought the fighting skills that made them so useful to the people in power. The Royal Family had now reached out to Bangfei, and he had no choice but to obey his orders- even if those orders started a conflict that might spread to everyone in the Fire Nation. He was a Weapon, a tool to be used.

Ty Lee had tried to flee this life. It hadn't worked out for her. Bangfei did not want more beautiful Fire Nation treasures to be consumed by war, but Ty Lee's death had shown that there really wasn't any other path.

He put down his drink and headed for the cluster of beach-houses across the path.

He walked at first, and then began jogging, before finally breaking out into his fastest dashes.

Finally, he jumped.

He heard the people at the eatery raise a cry of shock.

As he arced through the air, he let go of all doubts and worries. He was a Weapon. He would not fail.

He landed on the slanted roof of the first house in a run, moving across the peak with total balance. It was a short jump to the next house in the line, and the one after that, and the one after that. His last jump took him to the smallest house in the line, little more than a shack on stilts clinging to existence in the shadows of its neighbors. Instead of landing on this place's roof, he instead dropped onto the balcony that faced the beach.

He did not look at the beach. He turned and flipped inside.

The man and the woman there screamed.

Bangfei had enough time to identify his true target as the child in the woman's arms before the man attacked. It was a clumsy charge, something Bangfei could have easily dodged, but he didn't want the man to get himself hurt by making further trouble. Bangfei hunched low, putting himself fully inside the man's shadow, and then struck up on the inside of one arm- knocking it aside- and then the other. The man came to a clumsy halt as his arms fell uselessly to his sides, no longer obey his commands. Bangfei continued to jab a spot just above the man's right knee, bringing him down, and then stood up and delivered a hard nerve pinch to the side of the man's neck.

He went down like a sack of bones.

The woman had stopped screaming. As Bangfei turned to her, he tensed for an attack, but instead the woman merely stood and glared at him, holding the target- her child- out of reach.

Bangfei held out his hands. "I don't want to hurt you if I don't have to."

The woman snorted. "Do you have any idea who we are? I am Lady Michi, and you just attacked Lord Ukano. We are servants to Prince Ozai himself, here on his orders in an action against a Weapon of the Fire Nation. Leave now and maybe you'll live."

Bangfei sighed. "I could say the same thing. I am a Weapon of the Fire Nation, and I know that your daughter is Caldera Yu Mai. But I do not serve Prince Ozai."

Lady Michi's eyes went wide, and she turned to run-

Bangfei had already somersaulted into her path. The child in her arm screeched as he jabbed Michi's arm at the shoulder, taking away its function and causing the child to drop. Bangfei caught the boy easily enough even in the crook of his left arm as he snapped out a foot to hook Michi's legs and yank them out from under her, and then he snapped out with his right arm right at her heart. She was already unconscious by the time he stood up.

That's when a pair of men in the armor- but not the helmets- of the Royal Crimson Guard thundered down the stairs from the house's little loft.

They were the elite of the Fire Nation's military, which meant that it took almost two minutes to defeat them while holding the child. The fight was a flurry of arms and legs and fire and fists, but armor could only protect the body from physical threats, and Bangfei's specific style of Qi-blocking could strike at more than the mere physical. The metal might stop his fists, but the force of the strike continued straight through the vulnerable bodies beneath.

The fight could be measured in a countdown of the limbs each guard had available for use. When the count reached zero, Bangfei took his leave with the child flailing in his arms. (What a little boy thought he could do against a Weapon of the Fire Nation, Bangfei didn't know, but he appreciated the effort.)

He plunged into the Ember Island jungle, retreating from the civilization he might have started to bring down.

Bangfei's Fire Sage 'advisor' would probably be quite put out when he didn't show up for their daily 'consultation.' But a Sage probably wouldn't have much advice about kidnappings, anyway.

Suki stared across the room at her sister.

Kirai used to look so grown-up to her, so capable and strong. When Suki used to imagine becoming an adult, becoming tall and powerful and beautiful, she had imagined herself becoming Kirai.

No beating, no betrayal, had ever really changed that for her. It wasn't until Kirai left that Suki's idea of growing had finally touched on reality.

No, it wasn't that Kirai had left- she did so by selling the lives of the Unagi gang, the closest thing they had to family besides each other, and joined their oppressors in the Fire Navy. Kirai's last words to her made her think it was all her fault, that if she had been a better sister, no one would have had to die. Eventually, Suki realized the truth, but-

-she loved her sister-

-she hated Kirai.

Mostly, Suki felt like she wanted to throw up.

Kirai stared back with dead eyes and no expression.

But Suki hadn't survived on her own for so long by letting herself get lost in emotions. She exhaled and focused her attention on the real threat here, on the fact that Princess Azula herself was lounging on a couch with a cup of tea here in the beach house of the Ty-Sisters. And the Avatar's lemur was lurking under the couch, looking ready for action.

Suki sank to her knees and kowtowed. "Princess, it is an honor to be in your presence once again."

Beside her, Sokka was still standing. She nudged his ankle with her elbow, and he likewise went down on his knees. "Yeah," he said, "nice to meet you! I've heard such great things."

Suki peeked up to see Azula staring at Sokka. "Who is this Tribal?"

Suki lowered her gaze again. "This is Sokka of the Southern Water Tribe, an advisor to the Avatar. He is a survivalist expert, not a combatant."

She caught Sokka glancing at her, and she hoped he would play along. She didn't think it would be a good idea to link him to Water Tribe uprisings, escaped Waterbenders, or any of the other crimes he had committed as one of Aang's closest friends.

"Hm," was Azula's only response. "And where is Mai? I know she's staying here with you."

Suki rose to her feet. "We just came back from meeting with Mai's parents. She seemed a bit distracted afterward, and parted with us before we-" A horrible thought struck her. "Did you have her parents invite us? Just to set up this ambush?" Suki couldn't stop herself from glancing at Kirai.

Azula put her teacup on the table and stood up, and Momo crawled out from under the couch to investigate it. The princess stalked around the table. "Of course I did. Zhao would have tried to prevent me from calling on Mai, and defeating his security would have been tedious." Her expression grew tight. "I've so wanted to discuss Mai's behavior with her." Her hands tightened into fists- and then it all passed, the princess relaxing once again. "A pity it couldn't work out, but I'm here on other business. Where is my brother?"


Suki knew she had to find an answer, to make nice to Azula, but she couldn't stop her thoughts from drifting to that time when Zuko found her sobbing in a stable, so struck by news of Kirai that she had been overcome with years of mixed emotions. Suki's eyes went to her sister, just standing behind the couch like any other paid bodyguard, seemingly indifferent to everything and everyone-

It was Sokka who finally spoke up as he stood up again. "Zuko's still away with the Avatar. We don't know where they went or when they'll be back."

Azula stepped over to Sokka, her eyes intent.

Over at the table, Momo made a retching sound and scurried away from the princess's tea.

Azula frowned. " That is unfortunate. Father has lost patience with Uncle's games, and wants Zuko home." Azula turned to the back of the room, where the row of windows showed night falling on Ember Island. "But I'm needed in the Capital, and can't just wait around on the beach with you."

Suki said, "I'd be happy to pass on any message you leave."

Sokka nodded. "Yeah. As soon as he gets here, we'll tell him that it's past his curfew and he needs to go home. No problem."

Azula turned back to look at Sokka, a smile twisting her lips. "I like that. It implies that Zuko is too young to be out on his own." The good humor quickly fell from her face. "But I think we all know Zuzu is too stubborn to come when called. Especially since he thinks he owes something to Uncle. No, I'm afraid I'm going to have to take special measures. Kirai."

Suki's sister startled, and then bowed. "Yes, princess?"

"We're leaving. Finish that cup of tea for me. I'm no longer thirsty, but I don't want it to be wasted."

Suki watched from her knees as her sister shrugged, picked the cup of tea up, and downed it.

Azula brought her hands together in a clap. "Excellent. I slipped a poison in that." She parted her hands to reveal an empty glass bottle. "In a few days your innards will have dissolved unless an antidote is administered."

Suki wasn't even aware of moving. Reality blinked, and she was across the room, catching Kirai and blocking an attempted attack on Azula. She realized it was just like when they were children, when she'd step between Kirai and any friend who seemed to be in danger from her sister's fists.

Not that Azula was in any danger. Azula was the danger.

Sokka was the only one keeping his head. He scratched his hair and looked around. "Why would you poison your own bodyguard? I think I missed something, here."

As Suki struggled to hold Kirai back, Azula stepped over to Sokka and grabbed his chin. He grimaced, but didn't pull back, and Azula turned his head to look at one side of his face, and then the other. "Yes, you are a thinker, aren't you?" She let go and turned away from him. "But Suki hasn't given you all the clues, it seems."

Sokka blinked, and his eyes met Suki's. His gaze narrowed, realizing that more was going on than one of Azula's servants simply protecting her from the other.

Kirai made another grab for Azula, so Suki shoved her hard enough to knock her to the floor. "Cut it out!" Then she turned back to Sokka and bowed her head. "I'm sorry. This is my sister, Kirai. Her safety was my price for helping Zuko hunt the Avatar."

Sokka looked at Azula, and then rolled his yes. "Seems like you didn't get a very good deal for us, then."

Azula laughed. "True! But we can still make good on our promise, in the long term. Father has the antidote in the Royal Palace. If you come with Zuko before the damage is fatal, we will give it to you, and consider your service to us at an end. Without Zuko, you get nothing. Except Kirai's agonizing end, of course."

Kirai tried to get up, but Suki spun to sweep her sister's legs out from under her.

(It felt far too good.)

Then she bowed deeply before Azula. "Please, we don't have Zuko! Kirai could die before he even gets here!"

Azula shrugged. "Consider that incentive to find him, then. It's ridiculous that you're so completely in Iroh's thrall you let Zuko go off without knowing where. That is done. Father wants his family home, and Father gets what he wants. If you let Kirai die, know that more lives will be on the line until Father's demands are satisfied. I promise you."

And then Sokka crossed his arms and stood to block the exit. "But you break your promises. And I'm thinking a little liar like you might have an antidote right now."

Suki blinked. Could Azula-

The princess held out her hands at her sides. "Just try and search me. Not only will I defend myself, but I am a guest in the home of Ty Lee's sisters. They'll protect me." She lost her cheer and clasped her hands together. "But I don't have the antidote. You all know that. It would be stupid to march into your clutches with the key to undoing Father's plans."

She was right. Suki knew it. Azula was too smart for that. "Let her go."

Kirai slammed her hands on the floor. "Suki-"

"Shut up," Suki said. She looked to Sokka.

He shrugged and got clear of the door. "You're the expert on Fire Nation royalty. But I agree that the logic works out."

Azula looked at them all, and then nodded. "Suki has consistently displayed intelligence, and now a Tribal as well. It's been a pleasure fooling you both." She glanced at Kirai, still on the floor. "If you live, I hope you learn to think from the others, here. Your sister is much better company than you." She turned and made for the door. "Farewell. Tell Mai I'm sorry I missed her."

And so Suki let her sister's poisoner walk out of the house.

A moment later, Mai climbed in through one of the windows, several of her blades dangling from rings around her fingers. "Well, that was horrible, but at least I didn't need to start a fight. Now what do we do?"

Momo ran over to her and climbed up onto her head.


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« Reply #215 on: Dec 03, 2017 05:39 pm »

Zhao was preparing plans for yet another round of meetings to drum up support for Iroh when there was a knock on the door of his makeshift office.

He looked up from his stacks of reply letters, to see his aide leading one of the Ty-sisters (he had no idea which one, but she wore yellow robes and had her tonfa sticks at her belt) into the room. "Sir, our hosts desire a moment of your time."

Zhao put the letters aside. "Of course. What can I do for you?"

The girl twisted her hands together. "Princess Azula visited the house and now everyone wants to leave for the Capital? They said to-"

Zhao was already to his feet and hurrying out of the office. "Azula is here?! Now?" He doubted he had enough soldiers to stop such a-

"No!" The girl and his aide were jogging behind him as he made his way out of the boathouse. "Azula left! But she left behind Suki's sister who's poisoned and..."

Zhao managed to get the whole story, delivered in a maddeningly non-linear fashion, by the time he reached the main house. He burst into the rear parlor to find Lady Mai, that turncoat Suki, a similar-looking girl who had to be Lieutenant Kirai, the mouthy Tribal, and all the rest of the Ty-sisters (minus the fugitive Ty Lee) gathered in an obviously ill mood.

Zhao stalked into the center of the gathering. "None of you are going anywhere. The Capital is too dangerous until we've gathered the proper assurances, and the Avatar and Prince Zuko will be critical to our arrival. This is not something I can make happen."

Suki crossed her arms. "Not that you're especially motivated to do anything that would help me. You framed me for murder and locked me up, but I bet you still hold a grudge for my escaping with Zuko."

Zhao waved the accusation away. "While I do intend to enjoy your bad fortune, that's merely a bonus to following my orders. Iroh's instructions to me are to keep the Avatar and Prince Zuko safe, and enable their mission. Approaching the Capital can ruin everything. I forbid you to go."

Mai did that insolent eyebrow-quirk she liked so much. "You. Forbid. I wasn't aware that we needed your permission."

Zhao ignored everyone else's glares and focused on her. "I provide your guard details. I arrange your travel. I manage your finances. I report back to Iroh. What can you do without me?"

Mai turned to one of the septuplets. "Ty Lat, can I borrow enough for a ferry to the Capital?"

"For you? Sure!" She looked at Zhao and cringed. "I'm not taking a side, but Mai's my guest, and she was my sister's best friend."

Oh, if only Zhao could reveal that not only was Ty Lee alive, but that Mai had been keeping that fact to herself all this time. But Iroh had issued orders to keep Ty Lee's survival a secret, and Zhao knew better than to tip the balance of the Weapons of the Fire Nation at this point in time.

Perhaps that was a balance that Mai had managed to miss. "And even if you can all get to the Capital on your own, what are you going to do? My understanding is that only Prince Zuko's presence will earn the antidote? What happens when Piandao Hundredslayer asks you where he is?"

"Speaking of which," the Mouthy Tribal put in, "I think it's time you told us where he and Aang and Toph went."

Zhao had to admit that the operational security provided by that secrecy was quickly expiring. And if it convinced these children to abandon their plans- "It's the island of the old Sun Warriors, up past the Boiling Rock. Some spiritualists can be found there who Iroh counts as allies. There is no telegraph station, and the area is not mapped."

Mai displayed her usual lack of facial expression, but she did shake her head. "That's not going to be a quick trip."

That's when Kirai stepped forward, clenching her fists. "So I'm just going to die? The princess poisoned me, the navy won't help me, and all my sister's worthless friends are just going to give up?"

Zhao couldn't help smirking at her. "Welcome to life as a pawn. What did you expect, when you enlisted?"

She was too well-trained, at least, to attack him. But she clearly wanted to.

Mai stepped over, standing at her tallest, and looked down her nose at Kirai. "I never claimed to be Suki's friend, and any worth I have might not be worth spending on you. Suki hasn't even asked me for anything, yet."

Interesting. Perhaps she was smarter than Zhao thought. He ambled back to the edge of the gathering and watched as everyone turned to Suki.

The Kyoshi girl slumped under the scrutiny. "I-"

Kirai came over and shoved at her sister. "You got me into this! I was doing just fine in the navy until you got me involved in this- this- whatever! You practically poisoned me yourself!"

"No! I-"

"Shut up!" Kirai threw a fist-

Zhao couldn't quite make out what happened next. Suki burst into a blur of motion, Kirai gave a pained cry-

And then Kirai was on her knees, Suki behind her and twisting her arm against her back.

Impressive. No wonder those Kyoshi rebels had given Yon Rha such a hard time.

Suki let go of her sister. "Don't touch me. Never again."

Kirai just panted in relief and cradled her arm.

Perhaps Zhao had overestimated this group's dedication to saving Kirai. He pointed down at her and looked around at everyone else. "That is what you would be throwing away everything to save. Do as I say, continue with Prince Iroh's mission, and you will get a chance to save your people. Go to the Capital, and you'd risk leaving Azulon and Ozai in power, all just for a dock-rat loathed by her own family. I think the choice is clear."

Silence was the only reply.

Zhao nodded, satisfied. It was good to see that even traitors and criminals could be practical. He turned to leave-

"I'm asking you all," Suki said into the quiet, "as my friends, to help me save my sister."

Suki looked around at everyone. Zhao was staring at her like she had just offered a personal insult (which she probably had), while Sokka, Mai, and the Ty-sisters all greeted her request with obvious wariness.

She knew the feeling.

Suki sighed. "I- I know it's asking a lot of you. I'm asking a lot of myself. Me and Kirai-" She looked down at her sister.

Kirai's eyes were scrunched in that same expression of confusion and annoyance that had so often met Suki's attempts to improve their lives.

Suki turned to the others. "You're all my friends. Yes, Mai, even you. We don't have to get along to be friends."

Mai clasped her hands in her sleeves. "I suppose that might be true. But then what makes us friends?"

"Respect." Suki nodded at her. "I respect how you've dedicated yourself to helping Aang and trying to restore the Fire Nation. I respect your skills. I respect your loyalty to people, because I have the same loyalty. We've both been put in positions where we had to betray friends to help save other friends, and while I don't agree with the choices you've made, I know I haven't really done better."

Suki looked to Sokka. "I helped your enemies. I tried to balance my loyalty to you guys with the deal I had to make to save myself and my sister, but I know I'm responsible for some of your hardship. I risked a lot to help you when you were trying to find Katara, but I know that doesn't make up for everything else. From what I've seen of your sister, she's wonderful, and you probably have no idea how I can want to help someone like Kirai, but-" Suki again glanced down at Kirai. "She's my family. I don't know what else to say."

Sokka blew out a sigh. "I get it. You think I wanted to collaborate with the Fire Nation down in the South Pole? I had to do what I had to do for my family. Also, you're good at giving speeches."

That got her to laugh, just a little bit, as she looked at the Ty-sisters. She still couldn't really tell them apart, but Mai had picked out Ty Lat, and Suki focused on her. "Please, I know your duties as our host don't extend this far, but any help you can give me and my sister would be greatly appreciated. Kirai and I only had each other, when we were kids."

Ty Lat nodded. "Sisters are unbreakable, no matter what. At least, that's what we tell ourselves about Ty Woo."

Ty Woo, the perpetually cranky one, revealed herself by holding up a gesture Suki didn't know, and then added, "I love you girls, too."

Suki smiled. "Thank you. Everyone."

Kirai made a sound of disgust as she finally got back to her feet. "Yeah, thanks so much for getting me out of this mess that all the rest of you got me into. No one was poisoning me before you all started dragging me into this ridiculousness."

Mai pulled a hand out of her sleeve to twirl one of her blades on her fingers. "Wow, you really showed me. I feel so guilty about everything." She yawned. "But seriously, that whole beautiful pledging of support was nice, but what are we actually talking about doing?"

Sokka stroked his chin. "We are currently down a Zuko, so we can't just hand him over."

Suki nodded. "So we steal the antidote."

Mai snorted. "Which means invading the Fire Palace. Which also possibly means invading the Capital, because Ozai wanting us there doesn't mean that Azulon and the army do, and whether I'm actually allowed to go home is up in the air right now. As far as combat capabilities, I'm just a Weapon, not an entire siege army, and even six Ty-sisters aren't going to make up the gap. Especially if Piandao is there, like Zhao was whining about."

"He is," Zhao said in a heavy voice.

"Great, more sneaking." Sokka sighed. "I do like a good sneaking, but somehow we keep only making things harder on ourselves. We've gone from fenced-in compounds to walled fortresses to volcano-island fortresses to sinkhole fortresses, and now a palace."

Mai raised a finger. "Which is in a city in a very large volcano."

"Thank you, Mai. And now a city-volcano palace." Sokka rolled his head back and looked up at the ceiling. "But a city is actually good, because even a high-security city has things going in and out all the time. Mai, who's in charge of that?"

Suki looked over at Kirai and gave a tight smile. She wanted her sister to appreciate the expertise that was being applied here, and what these people were giving for her.

Mai twirled her blade faster while maintaining her slumped position. "Depends on what you mean by 'the city.' There's the Capital Harbor and Lower Harbor City, both of which are controlled directly by the Fire Navy. Upper Harbor City is where the- the workers and laborers live, and because it's so close to the Caldera itself, the Home Guard maintain gates into the volcano where everyone is checked to make sure they're authorized to enter. Shipments are checked as well, and-" She paused for a second, and then added, "Huh."

Sokka grinned. "That sounded like a good 'huh.' What did you realize?"

Mai snapped her blade closed and smiled. "Carts and open containers are searched, to make sure no one from the Upper Harbor sneaks in, but sealed containers that have been stamped as secured by the Navy are given a pass. That saves time for the Home Guard so they can keep traffic flowing through the gates, especially since the Navy is already doing the work a stone's throw away."

Suki liked the sound of this. She looked to Zhao. "Can you get us those stamps?"

Zhao sneered at her. "No, I can't. As you might expect, the Navy is very careful about that kind of thing, since so much security hinges on it. And right now, no one from Iroh's faction could even ask for such a thing without sounding suspicious. Azulon's pet Fire Sages paid a lot in political favors to get their own stamps."

Sokka clapped. "Great idea!"

Suki looked around, wondering if anyone else understood what Sokka was saying. Everyone looked just as confused as she felt, and Zhao especially seemed to be trying to work out if he'd been insulted.

Suki reached out and poked Sokka. "What idea?"

He winked at her, and then went over and threw an arm around Mai's shoulders. "Darling, I have a favor to ask you. I need you to ask someone else for a favor, actually."

Mai yanked herself free. "Who and what favor? And if it's not good I'm going to stab you."

Sokka backed away a step. "I was just thinking that if the Fire Sages have their own official smuggling network, then we know one Fire Sage who practically worships the ground you walk on, and just so happens to be here on Ember Island waiting to advise you."

Suki gasped. "Kei Lo and- what was the old guy's name? Shyu! Maybe they'll help us!" She grinned at Mai. "Especially if an elegant and mysterious Fire Nation girl asks nicely."

Mai groaned, the Ty-sisters all giggled, and Sokka was giving himself approving nods.

Suki couldn't help looking back at Kirai and saying, "See how they come together to help? This is what the Unagi gang could have been to us. If you hadn't gotten them killed for a ticket of Kyoshi Island."

It felt amazing to say it, after all these years. To acknowledge the horrible things Kirai had done. To enjoy the new people Suki had found in her life. To be free, for a moment, of having to balance competing demands just to keep her friends and family safe.

Kirai rolled her eyes. "We'll see how well they do when they actually have to face the might of the Fire Nation. I'm not saved, yet."

It was a reminder Suki didn't really need.

"And," Zhao said, "I'm certainly not joining the rest of you on this ridiculousness. I need to report this situation to Iroh, but unless my orders change, you fools are on your own." With a last sound of disgust, he left.

Mai made the gesture at his retreating back that Ty Woo had made earlier, and Suki was willing to be there was none of the same sarcasm involved. "So, how do we make me into an 'elegant and mysterious' girl who can get us some help?"


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« Reply #216 on: Dec 03, 2017 05:39 pm »

Mai's first mistake was letting Ty Lee's sisters give her advice on what to wear.

True, she probably didn't need a whole concealed arsenal just to go ask Kei Lo and Shyu for help sneaking into the Caldera, and there was no other practical point to the various layers of all-concealing clothing that she normally wore. Still, Mai liked her regular clothes. She could hide in them, when she needed to.

Bare limbs and bellies were no good for hiding.

But this mission was about being seen, not hiding.

So she sighed as she led Sokka and Suki to the small Ember Island Temple. At least the road was empty right now, the only activity visible at this time of the night being what seemed to be a faraway crowd leaving the Theater's last performance of the day. But those people wouldn't be approaching the Temple; most would break up along the paths leading to the various beach houses near the settlement here, while a small contingent would no doubt head to the Arcade for the overnight gambling scene.

Really, the only reason there was a Temple on the island at all was for the sake of tradition and culture.

Part of Mai's unease was seeing Azula again. She had doubled back to the house as soon as Sokka and Suki had gone in, figuring that Ty Lao's suggestion to go for a walk was a warning of some kind. The light coming through the back windows had revealed which room she should check out, and she had hung outside just below view for the whole confrontation.

Mai didn't know the whole story with Suki and Kirai, but there were enough clues to figure out the important parts, especially having Azula right there with her manipulations and poisons to serve as a comparison. Kirai was to Suki what Azula was to Mai. Suki feared Kirai, but wasn't going to put up with 'antic's anymore. Mai feared Azula, but she was resolved to go down stabbing if they ever met again.

Mai would help Suki, and then they could both get rid of the people who made their lives into nightmares.

She glanced at Sokka and Suki as she approached the Temple's main doors, got their banal signs of encouragement, and went ahead and knocked.

She was on her third set of knocks when Kei Lo answered with a lantern in his hand.

Mai thought about trying to look sexy in the lamplight, but didn't actually know how to do that, so she just clasped her hands behind her back. "Hi. There's an emergency, and I really need your help. Desperately need your help. Yeah." She tried to smile. "Can we come in?"

Kei Lo's face went red, just as planned. Mai would have felt bad about manipulating the poor boy if this wasn't for something almost like a good cause. He finally stammered, "Oh, uh, y- yes," and backed out of the doorway.

Mai was about to step forward when Sokka shouldered past her and stepped right into the Temple, saying, "Thanks, bud, we appreciate it." If Kei Lo had intended to raise an objection to the others coming in, the time to mention it had passed.

Mai was still going to shove Sokka back, some time.

She plunged in after the boys, leaving Suki to bring up the rear.

Kei Lo led them all past the temple's alters and meditation rooms, up a set of stairs. Mai smelled something like incense as they ascended, and at the end found herself on what seemed to be a residential floor covered in a thin cloud. A series of small rooms lined the side opposite the stairs, while the rest of the area was given over to a little gathering space with sitting mats and a dusty tea set on top of a cabinet.

Sitting there already were two old men, trading intent whispers. One was Shyu. The other had a much more wrinkled face and puffed on a pipe. Both quickly ended their conversation when they realized they weren't alone.

Shyu rose from his mat. "I was not expecting visitors tonight."

Kei Lo bowed. "Apologies, master, but they are asking for our help."

The pipe-puffer's eyebrows jumped. "Help? Help with what? Who are these people? Are we in trouble?"

Mai gave her own bow. "I am Lady Caldera Yu Mai, Weapon of the Fire Nation. I need your help to save someone's life."

"Oh my." Shyu moved across the gathering area. "Please, take a mat and sit down, and you can tell us all about it. Let me open a window to clear this funk. Apologies, but Sage Guan's pipe keeps his nerves calm, and he is the Master of this Temple."

Guan sighed, made a Firebending hand motion, and instantly the glow in the bowl of his pipe went out. "Welcome, children, to the Ember Island Temple. I hope you wiped your feet."

Mai took one of the mats, but paused as she tried to figure out what to do with it while wearing a short skirt and a top that was missing its lower half. Sokka and Suki sat down on their own mats in what looked like comfortable positions, but Mai eventually elected to kneel.

A moment later, Kei Lo was kneeling beside her. "So, what can we help with? Whose life is in danger? Are you okay?"

Mai didn't count being half-dressed as 'okay,' but that was hardly relevant. "I'm fine. My friend here is Suki of Kyoshi Island, a servant to Prince Zuko, and it's her sister who's in danger." Mai went through the whole story, happily throwing Ozai and Azula under the charging rhino. It was a risk, admitting that they were asking for help against the Royal Family, but it wouldn't be possible to hide that fact for long, and better to get a refusal now then to be betrayed later. "So we need," Mai concluded, "your assistance getting our group into the Caldera, as quickly as possible. Hence our dropping by this late."

Kei Lo looked to the two older Sages. "Masters, can we help?"

Shyu rubbed at his fuzzy chin. Guan put his pipe back in his mouth and tried to puff, and then realized it was no longer burning and grunted with annoyance.

Shyu said, "We've just received some news that might change you plans."

Guan's eyebrows shot up. "You're going to tell them?"

Shyu shrugged. "I have not been instructed to keep it a secret, and I expect the news will spread soon enough." He looked to Mai. "Azulon's advisors, Li and Lo, were arrested by the military in the palace today for attempting to usurp the Fire Lord's authority. They are being blamed the interference in your Agni Budokai. Prince Ozai is taking charge of his father's office and protection. And he has the support of the Grand Temple; that's how we were notified."

Oh, ashes. Mai closed her eyes and massaged her forehead. "So Prince Ozai is effectively the Fire Lord right now."

Shyu nodded. "That's what we were discussing when you arrived."

Guan looked down at his pipe. "The telegraph just came in. This was my second smoke since then."

Sokka cleared his throat. "So, to us foreigners, what does this mean, exactly?"

Mai shrugged. "Well, for one, we're asking for help from people who are effectively working for Ozai."

"Second," Suki added, "we can expect the entire capital to be against us."

Sokka drooped. "Oh. Yeah, I was afraid of that."

Kei Lo smacked a fist into his other hand. "But there must be something we can do! This- this poisoning and extortion is dishonorable! These people are not to blame for Prince Zuko's gallivanting about on Prince Iroh's orders! If Prince Ozai has an issue with his family, he should take his issues to them directly!"

Shyu stroked at his beard. "I admit, this is behavior that we would decry as criminal in anyone else. I am not at all comfortable with a leader who acts this way."

Guan tapped his pipe in his hands. "Careful, that's treasonous talk."

"Is it?" Kei Lo leaned forward. "Prince Ozai is not the Fire Lord. Iroh is still the crown prince. I'm not saying I support one over the other, but surely giving these people a little help cannot be treason. If Prince Ozai burned down someone's house, and they came begging for food and shelter, would you turn them away?"

Guan barked a laugh. "If the beggar had been banished, then yes, I would be wary of breaking the law. They're asking us to smuggle them into the Capital."

"Hey, now," Mai put in. "That's not technically illegal. Not unless the Sages' operations themselves are illegal. We're just taking advantage of them. Big difference."

Shyu chuckled. "She has a point. Your ship is still Exempt, isn't it, Master Guan?"

"It is. Haven't used it in over a decade, though. It's probably leaky."

Sokka grinned. "Leave that to me. So what's this about an exempt ship?"

Kei Lo looked over to Mai, and she once again tried to smile for him. His cheeks colored, and the turned back to Sokka. "An Exempt ship can bypass inspections, and is met at the Harbor by a Home Guard officer who escorts the crew and cargo straight through the security checkpoints. It is meant to ease the travel of people who frequently come and go from the Capital on business."

Guan sniffed at his pipe. "I was one of the High Sage's mentors. After he got the title, he appointed me to this Temple as a kind of retirement reward. I used to visit the Caldera, but things are so much nicer here."

Mai looked at Sokka and Suki, and got their nods. She turned back to Guan and kowtowed to him. Then she remembered she was in a short skirt, looked back to make sure the kowtow wasn't doing anything obscene, and lowered her head again. "Can we borrow your boat?"

Guan snorted and glanced at Shyu. "What do you think?"

"My orders are to keep tabs on Lady Mai and advise her in spiritual matters," Shyu said. He smiled. "If she takes your ship to the Capital, I'll know where she is. As far as spiritual matters are concerned, I think that honoring friendship and fighting for the lives of others is in accordance with the Way of the Flame."

Guan rolled his eyes. "So is obeying the Royal Family to the point of death."

Mai stayed in her kowtow, but turned her head to Kei Lo. When she caught his gaze, she raised her eyebrows in a silent plea for help.

His eyes moved over her (he was probably enjoying her pose, the pervert) and he turned to Guan. "Master, I can go with them. I can even go to the Grand Temple, and present their petition for intervention with Prince Ozai to the High Sage. It is perfectly all right for a member of the Caldera clan to ask the Sages for assistance in matters where Royalty has issued an order that they cannot physically follow, and we are using the Exempt ship to bring them along because of the pressing nature of the poison. It is all completely legal and honorable."


Kei Lo was smarter than he looked. And usually acted.

Mai was almost glad she was dressed like Ty Lee.

Guan groaned. "Oh, you're going to go far, young Inferior Sage. You have the knack for politics. Fine, whatever, take my ship. If you cause trouble in the Capital, I'll plead senility and deny any memory of ever meeting you."

Mai snapped up out of her kowtow. "Thank you. I'll make sure the Avatar and Prince Zuko learn of your assistance."

Guan shook his head and poked a burning finger into the bowl of his pipe.

It was worth ordering an overnight ferry back from Ember Island, as Azula was able to arrive just in time to see the sun rising over the Capital on the first day of Father's unofficial reign.

A contingent of the Crimson Guard met her at the Harbor with a palanquin. As she seated herself, one of the bearers asked, "To the Palace, your majesty?"

Azula hesitated. As much as she wanted to see Father again, she didn't relish telling him that she had failed to return with Zuko. True, she had implemented his plan for forcing Uncle's pawns to produce poor lost Zuzu, but results were not guaranteed. She believed Suki and that Tribal when they said that they didn't know where Zuko was, and more knowledgeable people such as Zhao wouldn't be compelled by any danger to Kirai.

It was Father's plan, and so Azula was sure that it would work, but she felt like her task was incomplete.

She needed to make sure that Father wouldn't see her as a failure.

An idea occurred to her. "Where are the sisters Li and Lo being imprisoned?"

The palanquin bearer blinked, "At the Capital Prison, it is said."

Azula grinned. "Then take me there. I have loose ends to clean up."

It wasn't a long trip to the stone prison, and when Azula arrived, the staff welcomed her with the equal mix of eagerness and fear that she was due. The order to take her to the traitors was obeyed instantly.

When one of the prison guards brought her to Li and Lo's prison cell, Azula was disappointed to find that it was quite comfortable, as far as cages went. Behind the line of bars, there were two large cots, plenty of blankets, a window that caught the breeze, and a bookshelf filled with reading material in good condition. The sisters were even wearing their own clothes. One was on a bed, reading, while the other seemed to be meditating on a mat on the floor.

At least they were sharing a cell. That would save Azula some time.

She looked to the guard. "You may go. We have matters of state to discuss."

The guard bowed and closed the door behind her.

Azula turned back to the caged sisters and let a smirk overtake her face. "Well, this is quite the reversal from our last meeting."

The sister on the bed (Li?) closed her book. "You will forgive us if we are not in a mood to kneel."

The sister on the floor (Lo?) opened her eyes. "We expected more respect when you finally returned to make a deal."

Azula snorted. Father had prevented her from trying to make peace with these two, but considering how things had played out, he was right not to want to bother. "I don't think we need a deal anymore. You couldn't keep your hold on your power, and you've lost it. You have nothing my Father and I want."

Li (or Lo) climbed down off the bed. "You must know that this cannot last. We held power too long to be removed so easily."

Lo (or Li) stood up from the floor. "Prince Ozai's grasp on power will not be solidified so breezily."

"Believe that if you want, you tedious rhyming crones." Azula stepped right up to the bars, and reached into her sleeve. "But there are no alternatives to his rule. Uncle is far away, and the traitors with whom he is consorting are in the process of failing right now. And you- well, that's what I'm here to take care of." She slid out the hidden bit of metal wire out of her sleeve and held it up in the light.

Li (or Lo) squinted at it and said, "What is that?"

Azula smiled, walked over to the swinging set of bars that served as the cage's door, and poked the wire into the lock that held it in place. She felt the tumblers moving within.

Lo (or Li) added, "You came to help us escape, and not to chat?"

The lock clicked, and Azula stepped back as the door swung open. Then she turned her head and called out in a clear voice, "No, stay back. Don't make me defend myself." There was no urgency, no emotion in the delivery, but that was all right. The words were all that was important.

The sisters both blinked at her. Simultaneously, of course.

Then Azula snapped her arms out to launch a pair of fireballs right into their hearts.

They both went down with identical rasps of breathless pain, but they were not dead yet. Azula hadn't had time to make the fireballs especially explosive. But now it was a simple matter to summon twin jets of flames from her fists, and methodically finish the job.

When she was the only one left living in the cell, she went over and knocked on the metal door.

The guard answered instantly. She would have been right outside the door, of course, and heard everything. She didn't so much as react now to sight of the cell, or the smell.

Azula clasped her hands behind her back. "You heard me. I acted in self-defense."

The guard nodded.

Azula smiled. "Excellent. Now, I'm done here. Take me to my palanquin. My father is eager to see me."

It was good to be the one in power.

And Father, no doubt, would be pleased at having this little loose end settled. Or, rather, a pair of loose ends.

Never Gonna Give Yue Up

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« Reply #217 on: Dec 03, 2017 05:40 pm »

The next morning dawned clear and bright, and Suki hoped it to be an omen for their infiltration of the Capital.

In the receiving hall of the Ty-sisters' beach house, the septuplets were once again lined up with their tonfa clubs in hand. Suki stood before them on Mai's left (with Momo on Mai's right), and Kirai waiting over by the door.

Suki bowed with Mai to the sisters. Momo copied their motion.

"Thank you," Mai said, "for your hospitality. We leave in peace."

The words were part of the ceremony, but Suki herself didn't feel like she had gotten much hospitality. Sure, the letter of the convention had been preserved, since Azula had only done harm to her own servant, but it had been a direct strike at Suki's emotions and responsibilities.

But she also knew that there was nothing the Ty-sisters could have done, even refusing to let Azula into their home, which would have prevented the princess from poisoning Kirai. They had simply done what they could in a horrible situation, saving Mai and trying to ride out the consequences.

Perhaps the sisters had only done what Suki herself had made a career out of.

The six Ty-sisters all bowed back to Mai and Suki, and then rose and lifted their tonfa above their heads. All of them smacked the sticks together as one, and then the sister on the far left said, "Your stay here has enriched our lives. You are welcome to come again." They all cracked their clubs together again. "Once you step outside, you will no longer be under our protection. May your flames burn bright in the wind."

And with that, the ceremony was over, and Suki found herself at the center of a storm of hugs. Sokka would be sorry he missed this. But someone had to go get Sage Guan's special boat ready.

The sisters' enthusiasm continued as Suki picked up Momo and they all headed outside, in the form of waving and jumping and calls to be safe and, in Ty Woo's case, an admonition of, "Try not to die in a stupid way like Ty Lee!"

As they got into the carriage, Suki looked at Kirai. "And yet Ty Woo is still closer to her sisters than we are to each other."

Kirai snorted as Mai got into the carriage and it bounced into motion. "Well, none of them got each other poisoned."

It was all Kira wanted to talk about. Suki couldn't imagine herself as dying and not wanting to make some kind of peace about their past together, but then, Kirai was obviously not someone who put much importance on sentimentality. So Suki said, "How are you feeling? It's been about twelve hours since Azula dosed you."

Kirai grimaced. "My stomach has been hurting since dawn, but I don't know if that's the poison or the stress. I had an awful time in the bathroom this morning."

"Thanks," Mai drawled, "for that vivid update."

Suki faked her way through a chuckle, but she didn't feel much like laughing. The rest of the trip to the pier passed in silence, and Suki stroked Momo's fur the whole way.

They arrived at a little marina to find everything ready to go.

The ship she saw as she emerged from the carriage was certainly impressive. It was a classic wooden junk, no engines or armor. Sokka waved from the deck, while a few men in fancy uniforms moved about untying robes. As Momo leapt out of Suki's arms to go greet Sokka, leading the way up the gangplank, Kei Lo, Shyu, and Guan emerged from below deck, the latter puffing furiously at his pipe.

Kirai grunted. "This looks workable. Should get us to Capital Island in a few hours. Then we'll see if the rest of your plan is any good."

Sokka rubbed his face wearily while Momo perched on his head. "Please don't say things like that. It's just asking for bad luck to come and mess with us. Anyway, Mai, I made sure everyone's luggage was stored below, but you might want to check things over yourself."

Mai quirked an eyebrow. "Why?"

"Because you'll eventually feel the need to check anyway, and it's probably better for you to do it before you start getting seasick and stinky."

Mai snorted. "I hate how well you know me now." But she got moving, heading past Kei Lo to the ladder.

Kirai followed her. "I'm going down below, too. Better to stay out of the way of the people who are actually doing work."

Suki trotted at her sister's side. "I'll go with you."


"Do you really want to be alone, if you start feeling the poison more?"

Kirai grimaced, but didn't say anything.

The deck at the bottom of the latter was a collection of cabins. Suki spotted Mai ducking into the one where all their luggage was piled up and tied down; they couldn't leave their things with the Ty-Sisters, as no one had any idea where they'd be going after whatever happened with Prince Ozai.

Kirai picked a cabin seeming at random and slid the curtain closed behind her, leaving Suki in the corridor.

Well, that was just great.

Suki went into the next cabin over, wondering if she should maybe try getting a nap in. There was a plank made up as a cot, complete with pillow and blanket, as well as a-

Wait. What was it?

It was a package of some kind, the paper wrapping providing no clue as to what might be underneath. There seemed to be some kind of a quiet sound coming from within, but Suki didn't-

That's when the package exploded into a storm of white smoke.

She inhaled before she realized what a bad idea it was, and the constant echo of 'trap' in her mind was quickly dampened into a vague anxiety as her body crumpled to the floor. The smoky air stung sweetly in her nostrils as her vision turned black.

Yes, a nap was a good idea.

The last thing she heard before her senses completely left her was the distinct sound of a Firebender's jet of flames coming from somewhere on the other side of the world.

Zhao disliked being out of uniform, even in a respectable set of robes that wouldn't have looked out of place in his father's wardrobe, but it seemed that his duties now included covert fieldwork. At the very least, if he ever got out from under Iroh's thumb, he'd be able to brag about a wide variety of experiences.

At least the there was nothing particularly dangerous about this particular assignment.

And, he had to admit, it was nice beach, even if it was public-access.

Zhao stood at the edge of the beach, where the dark sand met the road lined by all manner of tourist traps, a single flowered sprig of jasmine in his hand. Around him, children and teenagers frolicked here and there, and thankfully none of their antics took them anywhere close to him. He was one of the few adults around at this time of the day, but no one had given him a second look. He was doing a convincing job of appearing to be just another vacationer enjoying the atmosphere of the shore.

And then a young man approached slowly from Zhao's left. Although dressed in shorts and a light vest, the youth wore a wide hat that hid the upper half of his face and a scarf around his neck that obscured the natural lines of his visage.

Zhao tensed.

The youth raised the rim of the hat to look at Zhao's jasmine flower, and then nodded. "I know someone whose favorite tea is jasmine, although sometimes he forgets that."

Good, this was the Bangfei, Weapon of the Fire Nation. Zhao replied, "The best cup of tea is that shared between friends." With the (hopelessly naive) counter-sign delivered, he summoned a flame to burn the sprig in his hands, and threw the ash to fall to the sand of the beach. "Lead the way."

Bangfei lowered the brim of his hat again, and then together they left behind the oblivious vacationers.

It was a short walk, here on Ember Island, to a spot of jungle hidden from view. Zhao followed Bangfei through giant fronds and under palm trees, until they came to a clearing where a large wicker basket waited. Without hesitation, Bangfei went over to the basket and lifted the lid to show the tied-up child sleeping within.

Zhao nodded. "Well done. That is indeed Caldera Yu Tomoshibi. 'Tom-Tom,' the family calls him." He couldn't suppress a quirk of his lips. "If I had the boy in my possession yesterday, I could have prevented Lady Mai from running off to the Capital. But good timing isn't something that happens often in military service."

Bangfei took off his hat. "Mai is going to the Capital?"

Zhao shrugged. "She's going to try. And in doing so, she is no longer my responsibility. If she survives, her brother will be very useful leverage. If not- well, denying Prince Ozai two allies is no small thing."

Bangfei stood quietly for a moment, and then bowed to Zhao. "I think it is time for me to return home to the Capital as well. I doubt I'll be free to receive orders from Prince Iroh for a while."

Zhao nodded. "Yes, I expect that you're right." He lifted the lid of the basket, examining the sleeping boy within. There were dried tear-tracks on his face; the child had probably cried himself to sleep.  Zhao was thankful that he wouldn't have to deal with the child once delivered to the hired caretakers; then 'Tom-Tom' would be safely out of the way until needed. "Hopefully, at least, you'll survive. It would be a shame to lose a prompt and confident agent."

When Zhao turned to see if Bangfei had any response, he found that the Weapon was already gone.


Never Gonna Give Yue Up

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« Reply #218 on: Dec 03, 2017 06:43 pm »

I feel so terrible for getting this behind. I need to go back and read some of the chapters I've missed, but from what I've read from chapters 50 (or 51 on FFN) onward, this story still possess that magical touch. I don't think I've read a story that mimics the style of the original TV series this closely in a long, long time (or perhaps ever). I'm definitely psyched about a number of developments you've got going. Ozai is starting to take more center stage in the story and his ability to form alliances such as his current one with the High Sage is quite intriguing. I also liked your one observation (or rather Ty Lee's--it was Ty Lee right? It's been awhile) that Iroh has a little bit of "Azula" inside him. I share that opinion too and I also agree with your analysis when you write that the more goofy and well-known side of Iroh is not necessarily an act, but simply one aspect of his personality.

And I am interested in what Aang can do to save this timeline. The Dragons are dying along with the old world. His job then seems to be steering a new path for the world -- one that takes into consideration the fact that unless a miracle happens, there is no going back to what came before. It reminds me of my final thoughts at the end of the original series before the Legend of Korra (and before Harmonic Convergence) came out -- back when we thought that the Fire Nation's genocide against the Air Nomads disturbed the balance of the Avatar universe forever.  So I'm pleased that you're building off that aspect of the franchise in your own way with the ash-lands and how they're doing the same thing (in a different way) in this story.

Anyway, Suki's sister is back. I remember reading about her long ago -- though not a great deal. I recall how she led the Unagi Warriors, how she was abusive to Suki (though not the details), and that Azula got her out of jail some time back. You should probably do a "previously on" for this story. There is simply too much to remember. I still can't remember if Jet is dead or not.  Cheesy


EDIT: And I'm all caught up. What a doozy this story has been so far. Bangfei has been working for Iroh this whole time. I wonder why Iroh needed him to capture Tom-Tom though? Zhao wanted to use Tom-Ton as leverage, but that obviously did not go as planned. So what other purpose could Zhao have? I'll have to wait to find out.

And the whole plan to get the antidote on behalf of Kirai seems to be a ruse. If it is, then I have to hand it to you, you do an excellent job putting yourself in the shoes of an evil mastermind. While Azula might have a few blindspots, she does understand the people she's manipulating. Though, like in the show itself, I have to wonder if her plan isn't a bit contrived. She poisoned Kirai in order to force Suki's hand; Suki would either produce Zuko or she'd take matters into her own hands and try to steal the antidote some other way. The fact that Suki is now unconscious from some kind of knock-out gas clearly planted in her cabin seems to indicate that Azula anticipated Suki trying to pull a fast one on her. Though perhaps I should not assume that this is all part of Azula's plan. The Sages could be enacting their own agenda. 

Anyway, I love how well woven this story is. Details mentioned early on and all coming into fruition. I would have never thought, for example, that Iroh had been driving much of the plot all along. The twist that he was directing Jet, without the latter knowing it was him, and the other Blue Spirits the entire time, was well executed. Though going back to that chapter, I'm curious as to what the incriminating map really means. I  think its pretty obvious that it isn't what Jet thinks it is -- a planned military conquest of the already conquered Earth Kingdom -- but rather, Iroh's plan to subdue the angry spirits. He's probably trying to mass-produce weapons made out of platinum (though that sounds unpractical on the surface level) in order to fend the spirits off. Though what could he need Long Feng for? It's all very intriguing and I'm sure the answer will be obvious in retrospect.

As far as Lu Ten is concerned, maybe he's turning into one of those creatures who walk the line between spirit and man? We know from Korra that spirits who inhabit the body of humans turn them into frightening creatures if they stay long enough, so perhaps my earlier theory that Lu Ten was possessed was indeed on the money after all.

As far as who the Ninth is, I'm not entirely sure. Hopefully it is somebody we've met before. Perhaps it is Azula, or maybe even Ozai or some other royal (Ursa? It's Ursa isn't it?).

Anyway, good work Loopy. You can craft one mean political drama. I'm loving all the details so far and the finale for this Act is starting to look like its going to make everyone go nuts. Ozai is the de facto Fire Lord and that is going to throw a wrench in Iroh's plan to get the Fire Nation behind him. Although we don't know a great deal about what Ozai wants -- restoring the Fire Nation's honor probably isn't on the list. All this excitement, however, is getting me to think hard about the ending of this monster of a story. I feel as though it is pretty obvious that the Fire Nation's political drama and the threat of civil war is going to pale in comparison to what is to come. With a few exceptions, the spirit problem in the Earth Kingdom has only been alluded to. We've seen the ash lands, but something else is going on (the spirit-human hybrids) and we're probably going to figure out what that is by the end of this Act.

Once again, good luck. I'm glad to know that this story is getting close to its conclusion (well closer).
« Last Edit: Dec 05, 2017 03:24 pm by Colonel_Brian » Logged
Never Gonna Give Yue Up

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« Reply #219 on: Dec 11, 2017 11:13 pm »

Family and Flames

The first Mai knew of the attack on their Magic Politics Boat was a solid gray cloud spilling through the door of the luggage cabin.

Stupidly, her first instinct was to grab a pair of knives.

She just barely had time to remember Azula's advice, that everyone always underestimated how important the simple act of unimpeded breathing was to a fighter, and cut off an inhalation just as the smoke's stinging sweetness blossomed in her nostrils. Even that small amount was enough to make gravity into a much tougher opponent. She dropped her knives and grabbed for the stacks of luggage to keep herself upright, and then shut her eyes as the smoke filled the room.

That left her with blind, dizzy, holding her breath, and trapped in a strange ship.

Okay. Mai had worked with less.

Then she heard the Firebending.

Well, ash this, then.

She turned around, stumbled over to the opposite side of the cabin, and traced her way along the wall to the door. She stumbled past the curtain, out into the little hallway, and got three dizzy steps towards where she remembered the ladder to the main deck to be when she realized that the curtain might work as a kind of face-mask. She tried to turn around, but her lungs were starting to sting and her legs were wobbly and she stumbled into the wall and slid to the floor.

Which direction was she facing, now?

She really needed to breathe.

Really really really really-

Then there was the sound of Firebending right above her, and she felt heat against the skin of her face. She didn't realize that she wasn't actually on fire until after she threw herself towards the source of the sound and stabbed with the first sharp objects she found in her sleeves.

The muffled voice of a man screamed out like someone had just jabbed a pair of razor disks into his knees. It wasn't a voice Mai recognized, so she continued stabbing. There were more screams and a heavy body fell down on her hard enough to make her gasp-

-NO cough it out cough it out cough it out-

-the floor shook with more impacts and she heard boots and voices and Firebending-

-need air need air need air need air-

-the air was getting really hot and she was sweating and the backs of her eyelids were glowing from some bright light shining through them and it sounded like fire everywhere-

-she coughed and sucked in a mouthful of air and it tasted like ash and the world swam-





She knew that voice.


As soon as Azula stepped into the palace, a pair of the Crimson Guard came to escort her up to Grandfather's suite.

She smiled the whole way up.

The last time she had been in the ornate foyer of the Fire Lord's personal apartment, it had been for an audience with Li and Lo, and she had left being dragged prematurely out by Father. Now, Li and Lo were dead by her hand, and Father himself opened the doors to welcome her. "Azula! You're back safely!" He wrapped her in a tight hug. "But you've returned alone. Is Zuko okay?"

Azula seized on the chance to think about something besides what one was supposed to do when wrapped in one's father's arms. "Zuko was not on Ember Island, and no one but Uncle seems to know his location. I met with Suki and a clever Tribal the Avatar is keeping as a pet. They promised to pass on the message that Zuko is wanted at home."

Father released her, and gave her a familiar (and much more comfortable) analyzing look. "You used Kirai, then?"

Azula nodded. "Suki received her sister's poisoning with all due concern." Father had provided the poison itself, so she had no doubts as to its effectiveness.

"Then we'll just have to trust that this Suki of Kyoshi Island is as resourceful as she presents herself." Father turned away and began pacing across the room. "Everything is in motion right now. Did you hear about Mai's family?"


Azula had been hoping to finally deal with that traitor, to take a little time for pleasure amidst all this busyness to personally boil her former friend's eyeballs into vapor, but it was sadly not to be. Father's mission was the priority. "I was told that Mai was out of sorts after their meeting. I assume there was some melodrama?"

Father gave a bitter laugh. "If you consider a kidnapping by a Weapon of the Fire Nation to be melodrama."

Azula frowned. "Mai kidnapped someone?"

"No, the description matches Bangfei, and the Fire Sage assigned to watch the boy has track of him. After Lord Ukano and Lady Michi met with Mai, Bangfei broke into their place and took their son. Ukano sent a wire about it, but I haven't been able to learn anything more. I can only assume that your uncle has a hand in this."

Azula nodded. It made sense. "It's a challenge directed at you, trying to demonstrate that you can't protect your allies. A clear statement, but rather weak considering he needed a Weapon to do it."

"As ever, I value your analysis." Father stopped his pacing and turned a smile on her. She received the praise with a bow of her head. "And how do you think this will affect Mai herself?"

Mai? Azula kept her head lowered so that she wouldn't accidentally show any expression that Father might misinterpret as disrespect. "I'm sorry, Father. I don't understand why this would affect Mai."

"Isn't Tom-Tom her brother?"

Azula had to remind herself that Father had barely interacted with Mai. "Yes, but that doesn't matter. Mai doesn't care about her family. Tom-Tom could die and she'd barely take notice."

Father was silent for a long moment. "Perhaps it is just as well that she betrayed us, then. Such a calculating ally could never be trusted. In any event, I have Piandao preparing to hunt the boy, and issued a proclamation summoning the remaining Weapons here in the Capital to my service. They will serve us now, and protect the rest of our allies."

Azula finally raised her head and grinned. "Having the Fire Lord's influence on our side is quite helpful. I see you've taken up residence in your new office?"

Father looked around the room, but he did not seem to share Azula's delight. "I have. Your grandfather is in his bedroom, and it seems that Li and Lo had remade rest of the chambers as their workplace. There are whole archives up here that I'll need to investigate." He closed his eyes and sighed. "The Fire Lord is in sorrier condition that any have imagined. I've never seen someone so gray. Even his skin. No wonder those old spider-snakes were able to act so brazenly. I don't think he even recognized me. I've summoned the Royal Physician to verify his condition and confirm the need for me to step in."

Ah, here was a chance for Azula to really shine! "Well, you won't have to worry about Li and Lo anymore, at least. I've taken care of that for you."

Father blinked. "Taken care of what?"

She smiled. "I stopped by the prison on my way here. Li and Lo died 'attempting to escape' when I confronted them with their crimes. I made sure the wounds were unquestionably fatal."

Father stared at her.

Azula nodded.

Father continued to stare at her.

Azula didn't understand. Hadn't she done well?

Then Father brought his hands to his face and moaned. "Oh, Azula. What have you done?"

Sokka hated sneak attacks. They were a slush of a time to pull off successfully, and whenever the enemy managed to make one happen, it always completely ruined his day.

Sokka was on the main deck of Sage Guan's fancy above-the-law boat when the insides exploded with some kind of thick white smoke. Everyone out there with him- Guan himself, Mai's hot'n'bothered friend Kei Lo, that Shyu guy, and the crew they had hired- all cried out and moved around in confusion, leaving Sokka to try to do something. Unfortunately, his first instinct was to head for the ladder leading inside to find out if Mai and Suki were okay (oh, and Kirai, too, he guessed), but all that got him was a whiff of the strange-smelling smoke.

His legs immediately buckled under him and he dropped to the deck.

Knock-out gas. Several chemical possibilities occurred to him, given the effect and the strange sweet odor, and that was just from what he had managed to sneak-read while working in the South Pole Research Center. He held his breath and dragged himself away from the plume of smoke erupting from inside the ship. People were running around and it seemed like there were more people here than a second ago-

Wait. How had knock-out gas gotten inside the ship? Sokka had looked it over with Sage Guan last night, and then they'd hired a temporary crew and loaded up the supplies and luggage, and Sokka had overseen everything. Maybe one of the crew members had smuggled it aboard, or- well, Sokka had relied on Guan to show him around the ship. Maybe the old pipe-puffer had kept something hidden. Now where was that-

The ship was on fire.

Sokka waved his hand to clear away some of the knock-out smoke from his vision, and sure enough, Firebenders in black clothes with weird masks on their faces were standing on the deck and lighting things on fire. The white smoke was mixing with black smoke and some of the black was coming from inside- oh, no, were there Firebenders inside, too?

And where was the crew?

Sokka forced himself back onto his shaky feet. He saw Shyu lying motionless on the deck, as well as Kei Lo. He couldn't see Guan anywhere, or the crew. The guys in black were focused on setting every available surface on fire-

One turned and looked Sokka right in the eyes.


He was still reaching for his knives when the Firebender dashed over and grabbed his wrist, twisting it in a way that painfully turned off his own gripping ability. Sokka tried throwing a fist with his other arm, but the Firebender easily deflected the blow, and then twisted him around and shoved him forward.

He wound up tumbling face first into one of the plumes of knock-out smoke.

He got a good lungful and choked on the acidic sweetness and his vision went black and his head struck something hard and he was flying and he splashed into some water and his arms wouldn't work and the water closed in over him.

The last thing he heard, muffled and made all squiggly by the water, was what sounded like the world's largest woodwind horn.


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« Reply #220 on: Dec 11, 2017 11:14 pm »

Azula's stomach clenched at Father's words. "I- I thought- I didn't want them to make trouble for us. For you!"

He said nothing. He kept his face in his hands and completely ignored her.

It was the silence that Azula found most disturbing. She could understand rage, but this- was it disappointment? Disgust? Would he send her away? She dropped to her knees and lowered her head. "I apologize for my actions. I acted rashly and with an authority I did not have. I will accept any punishment you consider appropriate."

He finally lowered his hands and looked at her. There was no anger on his face. Instead, his expression was soft, his eyes warm.

Azula could read the emotion there easily.


Father pitied her.

She gritted her teeth against the urge to shudder.

Father kneeled down on the floor beside her and put a hand on top of her head. "This is my fault, not yours."

Azula squeezed her eyes shut. She wanted to run away, but Father had not dismissed her, and so here she would stay. Any punishment would be better than this.

She was being treated as a failure.

"I used to be very different," Father continued, "before Zuko's exile. Seeing what my mistakes did to him, and to you, made me realize that I had to take action. To become a new person. It still surprises people, and I still make mistakes, but I'm not who I once was. My strength is no longer defined by how much hurt I've spread. I act with purpose, now, even at my most violent." Father sighed. "But I've failed to teach these new lessons to you."

Failed. Failure. Azula had failed him. He would never be able to rely on her again. He already kept things from her, and now she'd never earn his full trust. He'd cut her out of his life and give his favor to Zuko and-

"You are what I made you." He moved his hand to pet her hair, making it tug at her topknot. "But I don't blame you for it. I made you, and I love you, Azula. I always will."


No, he had to be lying. This made no sense! He couldn't love a failure! But why would Father lie? Was this part of her punishment?

"Azula," he said. "Open your eyes."

She always did everything her father commanded.

Azula opened her eyes.

Father was leaning down in front of her, his gaze fixed on her. "Look at me. I know how observant you are. I know how easily you see truth and lies. How you command them. Look at me when I say I love you, and that you're not in trouble."

She always did everything her father commanded, and so she let herself see, let herself analyze. Everything from the steadiness of his eyes to the tone of his voice was collated with all of her observations of him, and people in general, over the years. She noticed all the little tells that no one could control. He wasn't trying to hold himself back, like Suki did with her every action and expression. He was being completely open.

And he was telling the truth.

The relief burst out of Azula with a gasp that almost became a sob before she bit down on it. She couldn't show weakness. She couldn't-

Father pulled her head over to rest against his chest, and he wrapped her in a hug. "It's okay, Azula. I know you're upset. It's okay. You'll be all right."

She hadn't cried since- since- She couldn't even remember right now. But now she couldn't stop herself, couldn't do anything to hold back the tears or her whining gasps. The lack of control filled her with rage, and if Father hadn't been holding her in place, she would have lashed out with her fire at everything around her.

"It's okay," Father repeated.

He kept repeating it until Azula finally defeated the swirl of emotions in her chest, hammering them down and choking the life out of them until they retreated into her darkest recesses. Less than perfect was less than acceptable.

She wiped at her eyes and tried to think of something to say.

Father finally let go of her. "Azula, I have a task for you."

A task?

A task!

She could still be useful! She could make up for her mistake! She could demonstrate her strength and show that she wasn't some mewling child in need of comfort!

She straightened her back and nodded. "I am yours to command."

Father smiled. "I want you to work on something for me. You are clever and powerful, and I truly think you might be the greatest warrior alive. So, the next time you face the choice of granting death, I want you think about whether it's really necessary. About whether you can remove the danger of your opponent without death. And if you can, I want you to try. I won't be mad if you- if it doesn't work out. We will likely have to kill the Avatar, after all, and maybe Iroh. I just want you to try. You've very smart, so I know you'll be fine. Is that okay?"

Azula wanted to shake her head. "Wait. So- so the problem isn't that you needed Li and Lo alive? You just don't want me killing people unless I have to?"

An expression moved across Father's face too fast for Azula to catch what it was, and he nodded. "That's right. I don't think that being so cavalier with lives is good for you."

She didn't understand; taking away the power Li and Lo wielded, even putting them in a prison, wouldn't necessarily prevent them from becoming dangerous again. It might take years, but better to kill now than be stabbed in the back in a decade. Yet, she hesitated to reveal her ignorance. She couldn't even fathom where this was coming from. Was this what it felt like to be stupid? "O- okay, I understand. I will do as you say."

Father reached out to pat her head. "Good. I know that this is asking a lot, considering how I've taught you before now. And there will be the need to take lives, in the future. We have to get your brother home, after all, and deal with all those who have endangered him. But if Suki does bring him back, we will give her sister the antidote and then prepare to deal efficiently with our other enemies. And I will be here to help and guide you, Azula. I'll always be here."

"Okay." She bowed. "Thank you, Father."

She didn't understand, but if he would be here, she had every confidence that she could succeed.

Before she could straighten again, a cry sounded from deeper in the suite, a clear call in the voice of an old man:


Father blinked. "That was the Fire Lord. I wonder-" He got up off the floor and hurried to the back room.

Azula was not invited to follow, so she stood up and remained right where she was, ready for more orders. Father said he wasn't mad, but there was no need to try his patience with more presumptions of authority. She did take the opportunity to wipe at her eyes again, and then fix her topknot. Perhaps Father didn't mind her weakness, but she would murder anyone who saw her looking like a sloppy child and drink their blood as a warning to others, and Father said she wasn't supposed to kill people if she could help it.

She wondered what that old fool Azulon wanted. Probably asking where his nurses were so he could get a diaper change. It disgusted Azula to be named after him.

She was exercising her face with a good sneer when Father stumbled-


-into the room. His face was pale and his features slack. His eyes stared into nothing.

Azula immediately tensed and prepared for an attack. "What's happening?"

Father focused his gaze on her. "Azulon's dead. The Fire Lord is dead."

She snapped her hands in the air. "I didn't do it!"

Aang's return to his friends was not the happy reunion he had anticipated.

He had followed the trails of his own connections to them, visible only when he immersed himself into the meditative state that Guru Pathik had taught him, looking forward to sharing his experiences he had with the Sun Warriors, and to working together again to try to save the world from any more tragedies like the deaths of the dragons. Those lines of invisible light had led him here, to what Zuko had called Ember Island, to what seemed to be a marina near one of the island's settlements.

And now, as Appa brought him to that very spot, he saw a thick smear of black smoke against the sky rising from his destination. "Um, anyone else seeing all the smoke coming from where we're headed? I think our friends might be on fire."

"No, I don't see it, but I do smell it." King Toph said. "And it makes sense. Things would probably be dangerous and on fire around them."

Zuko leaned over the edge of the saddle, his one good eye wide. "We have to help them!"

"Right!" It was good to have everyone on the same page. "Appa, yip-yip!" Aang tugged Appa's reins to call of a rapid descent, steering towards the blaze.

The source of the burning was a boat, and in addition to the black smoke rising up from the fires, a strange white smoke was pouring out of every opening to waft heavily across the water. Firebenders in black tunics and masks were all over the scene, some on the ship setting new fires, some on the pier forming a protective perimeter. Someone- it was hard to see with all the smoke and fire- was thrown over the ship's side to crash into the water of the bay, and didn't float back up.

And then something small and white shot up from out of the traveling flames to flutter its way up towards Aang. He didn't recognize it at first, but Appa did, and the big guy roared a greeting as Momo flapped up and came for a landing in Aang's lap. The lemur grabbed at his shirt and wouldn't stop chattering.

Aang took that as a sign that things down on the ground were urgent.

He turned and handed Momo to Zuko. "Here, you take him, and guide Appa down for a landing. I'm going ahead on my own."

King Toph tilted her head. "What with the fire, I know how Princey is going to make himself useful, but what about me?"

Aang smiled, even though he knew she wouldn't be able to see. "There's a whole bunch of Firebenders down there, and Appa can't fight them all."

Toph grinned back at him. "Got it."

Zuko said, "But what are you going to-"

Aang jumped off Appa's head and let himself fall.

He had the winds slow his fall only a little, instead focusing his most of his Airbending on keeping himself vertical. He reached out a hand and pulled on the waters of the bay, raising it into a swell, but just when he was about to splash into it, he pushed it away again to match his falling speed even as he shifted his Airbending to start decelerating. What could have been a nasty impact against the surface of the water was instead transformed into a smooth dive that set him speeding under the waves like a dolphin-fish.

Aang spotted the person who had been tossed off the ship, and recognized the shape: Sokka needed help.

Aang kicked with his feet and pushed with his arms, shooting himself through the water to catch Sokka and carry his friend right back up to the surface. Aang burst out of the water with Sokka in his arms, and then kicked out a burst of air that launched them both back up over the rail of the burning ship to the main deck.

Aang landed right next to one of the Firebenders in black. The guy jumped in surprise, and then Aang spat out a burst of air that pushed the man back to tip over the rail into the bay.

A quick look found Zuko running up the ship's gangplank, already moving his arms to take control of the nearby flames. The fires stilled for a moment, and then shrank into nothing.

Hey, that was good.

Aang ran over and dumped Sokka at Zuko's feet. "Here, keep an eye on him. I think the others must be inside the ship!"

Zuko nodded, and stretched out his arms towards another batch of flames. "Watch out for the white smoke. It smells like knockout gas."

Aang had to grin. "Sounds like a job for an Airbender."

He ran over to the one of the larger plumes of the white vapor and summoned a wind to help him jump high enough to clear its tallest curve. As he began to fall, he punched a fist down in a move more like a Firebending attack and unleashed a hard stream of wind. He kept it up as he dropped, pushing the fog down, and when he landed inside the ship, he slapped the wooden floor hard enough to send a burst of air outward to clear the immediate area of the gas.

It was just enough to see the start of a hallway, a ladder leading up that he had completely bypassed, and a cabin with a curtain over its door.

He heard the distinct sound of Firebending echoing down the hall, and there were flashes of color in the cloudy distance.

Then the fog began closing in again.

As Aang shifted into a real Airbending stance, he called out, "Mai?"

He hadn't seen her up above. If Sokka was here, then she probably was, too, but no one had bothered to toss her overboard so what if she had been-


It was quiet and gravely and more than a little slurred but it could have been Mai's voice.

Aang windmilled his arms, putting all his focus into the movements to guide a fat stream of wind up from behind him, over his head, down to his chest, and then forward.

The wind blasted down the hallway, its twisting made visible by the thick white smoke, pushing and undulating and assaulting the knockout gas the way Aang himself wanted to. The wind ripped the curtains off the doorways of the cabins to reveal people- Suki and another girl who looked just like her but with darker hair- sprawled unconscious on the floor.

Aang also saw that more smoke was coming out of the cabins, the thinner streams being caught and carried away by Aang's Airbending, almost as if they were the sources of the gas.

No, not almost.

Aang moved forward one step at a time, careful to keep his airstream going no matter how much he wanted to find Mai. If he wanted to save her, he had to stay awake, and that meant keeping the bad clouds away. When he reached the first cabin, the one with Suki in it, he relaxed his stance and whirled to kick a leg right above her crumpled body. His foot didn't connect with anything, but the arc of wind it created picked up the smoking lump of something that was sitting on her cot. It flew up over his head and got caught in the airstream to be blasted down the hall.

He moved forward again, repeating the process with the smoking lump in the cabin with Suki's sister.

Then he took another step and nearly tripped over a bloody body.

It was another of the masked Firebenders from above. The legs of the man's tunic were all torn, and from what Aang could see through all the blood, so was the skin beneath it. There was so much blood that it was pooled on the floor, maybe too much for the Firebender to be alive. He wasn't moving, for sure, and-

-and there was another body under him.


With shining dark hair.

Aang's heart pounded as he let go of his airstream and grabbed for Mai.

He shoved the Firebender off of her, and to his horror found her also covered in blood. He couldn't find any wounds, though, and as he lifted her in his arms, his boots bumped up against something metal. A razor disk. No, two disks. Both with bloody blades. So it had been a fight, and maybe she won before she was knocked out.

Maybe she'd be okay. She had to be okay.

The thought reminded Aang that he needed to stay okay, too, but the fog was drifting towards him again. Yet it was moving much slower than before, so getting rid of those things in the cabins must have been a good idea.

He ran back to the ladder and skipped over it again with a wind-assisted jump. He landed on the deck to find that the fires were almost out, so he laid Mai down and said, "I'll be right back."

He dropped back inside to find two more of the Firebenders emerging from the clouds at end the hall. White and black vapors swirled around them to reflect the lights of approaching fires.

He could see their masks more clearly now, could see that there was more than just fabric to them. The Firebenders wore something heavy over their noses and mouths. Maybe that would block the gas in some way?

The Firebenders both punched flame at him.

Aang raised his hands to catch the fireballs, and let them extinguish in his palms.

The Firebenders had a moment to blink before Aang showed them that Air wasn't so easily deflected. The bursts he threw at them sent them careening back down the hall and tore their masks from their faces.

Soon, he had Suki and the other girl in his arms, and was carrying them both out in the daylight.

Zuko and Toph were waiting for him.

"So," Toph said as she cracked her knuckles. Aang spotted a whole bunch of masked Firebenders splayed out on the pier like the aftermath of a particularly wild Yangchen's Festival. "What do you guys figure this was all about?"

Aang could only shrug. And everyone who could tell them was unconscious.


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« Reply #221 on: Dec 11, 2017 11:15 pm »

Piandao had just finished packing a bag to take with him to Ember Island when there was a hammering on the door to his quarters.

Perhaps the hunt for Bangfei had taken a new turn.

He grabbed his sword before answering the door, because even in the palace one could not be too careful, but his caller only turned out be Princess Azula, literally steaming. "My princess, how might I be of-"

"Shut up," she growled, and then she grabbed the front of his robe and dragged him into the hall. She was surprisingly strong for a little girl (but no, she was not so little anymore, was she?), and as a servant it was not his place to contradict royalty. So he offered no resistance as she pulled him to the Fire Lord's suite.

On the way, they passed the Royal Physician hurrying in the other direction. That was more ominous than Azula's sudden touchiness.

But when she pulled Piandao into the suite, he found that Ozai was waiting there, alive and seemingly well but pacing intensely. Azula finally let go of Piandao's robe, and he gave the proper bow. "My prince, how might I be of-"

"Shut up," Ozai growled. "Azulon is dead."


The man who had ruined his life was finally gone. Piandao had just wanted to get away from the war, to remove himself from what he saw as a pointless exercise in bullying played out on a continental scale, but Azulon wouldn't allow it. The counter-argument had arrived on Piandao's doorstep in the form of one hundred soldiers, and he fought another war there to preserve his right to peace. It was a horrible battle, one that Piandao regretted every day, but he had consoled himself at the time with the thought that it was at least a war fought for a good cause, and the last war he would ever have to experience.

Then another one hundred men had shown up some time later, as well as a message from Azulon. The sentiment was simple: "They will come, one hundred at a time, until there remain no more men left to fight in my name."

And so the choice was Piandao's. He could fight one hundred men at a time, wave after wave, dealing out death for the rest of his life, or he could submit to Azulon. The result had been the creation of the title of 'Weapon of the Fire Nation,' and Piandao became the first citizen to bear it. He gave up his autonomy, and appropriately enough, he was labeled as an object for the use of others.

He wondered now if, despite the pointlessness of such a crass action, he might have the opportunity to spit on the old man's corpse before it got to the pyre.

To Ozai, who just lost a father, he said, "I thought you needed him alive."

But it was Azula who stomped her foot. "He died of old age, you clod! We didn't do it!"




No, not so convenient. "So is Iroh the Fire Lord, now?"

Ozai shook his head. "The transfer does not officially occur until the Sages place the crown on the successor's head. High Sage Xinghao is ruler of the Fire Nation for, at most, the next twenty-four hours. The people of the Fire Nation have that long to swear allegiance to a new Lord, and if Xinghao doesn't crown someone by then, everyone is free to submit to their own choice of leader."

Piandao nodded his understanding. Ozai was talking about a succession crisis. "Do you need me to fetch Xinghao, then? It is fortunate that we acted when we did, or Li and Lo might be the ones in control of the situation."

Ozai and Azula shared a glance. The princess opened his mouth to speak, but then he father cut her off with, "Li and Lo died today. They were removed in such a way that leaves us at fault, and that is all that will be said about the matter here."

It didn't take a detective to see that Azula had been her typical bloodthirsty self. So Li, Lo, and Azulon had all died while within Ozai's power-

Piandao put on the politely blank expression of a servant. "I understand. In that case, I suggest just sending a messenger for Xinghao, while I will personally ensure that the military's high command comes here for a discussion." A thought occurred to him. "Unless- but no, the Royal Physician was leaving as I came in. Everyone will know, soon. Unless I chase him down and stop him from talking?"

Ozai said nothing, but Azula's expression brightened. "Father, that might work! We could keep Azulon alive 'officially' long enough to divert suspicion of foul play. It's not like anyone ever came in her to see him, so-"

"Azula," Ozai hissed. The daughter immediately cringed at her father's tone, a rare display of weakness that Piandao found intriguing. "And what, exactly, does your plan say we should do with the body that's currently growing cold in the bedroom? Should we simply pretend that we didn't notice Azulon's death for a week, and ask the Sages to forgo an open pyre? We have no choice. Piandao, see to the military as you said. Azula, you go to the High Sage yourself. I'm going to active the other Weapons here in the Caldera. Gerel, Mutan, and the Disciple will be able to keep peace, if needed."

Even a man like Piandao, who had fought and defeated armies back in the day, had to pause in his consideration of the scale of force that Ozai was talking about. "How stable do you expect this peace to be, my prince?"

Ozai stopped pacing, and turned hard eyes on Piandao. "That depends on how successful you are in convincing the military to come and talk. Please, I need the best efforts of both of you, now. I expect that the politics are about to become messy."

Well, Piandao specialized in messiness.

Despite his best efforts.

Azula told herself that she was being asked to go fetch a servant who was already trained to come when called because the situation was dire, and Father absolutely needed High Sage Xinghao brought back to the palace safely.

The alternative was that 'go fetch' was about his level of trust in her, now.

She couldn't even complete the task as quickly as she would have liked. She had sped to the Grand Temple with the fastest set of palanquin-bearers in the palace, but once she arrived, finding the Grand Sage had been surprisingly difficult. The Inferior Sages at the doors didn't know where their boss was, so they had to find proper Fire Sages who pointed to where his Secretary was taking lunch who claimed that the Grand Sage was meeting with a citizen in great need of spiritual counseling and absolutely could not be disturbed.

"This 'absoluteness' is a matter of opinion," Azula had said, summoning her blue flames to her hand and pretending to stare idly into the heart of heat and light. "I don't suppose you'd care to back your impression up in an Agni Kai?"

And so the Secretary went to fetch the High Sage, who was still chuckling and finishing off a bottle of lily-wine when he arrived. "Ah, Princess, to what do I owe-"

"Come with me right now to the palace or I will kill you and take your successor," Azula said in her most business-like tone. Father asked her not to hurt anyone if she could help it, but he never said anything about threatening violence.

And the secret to threats wasn't to try to be menacing. That was what amateurs did. Azula found that simply being capable of following through, and making sure everyone knew it, was more than adequate.

Xinghao paled and nodded.

Azula made him run alongside her palanquin to help sober him up. He did surprisingly well at keeping up with the bearers.

By the time they arrived back at the palace, the Disciple of the Third Eye was already stationed in front of the doors. It had been quite a while since Azula saw him last, but despite the growing she'd done since then, he still seemed as big as a mountain. It amused her how traditional he was in his projection of strength, embodying every masculine notion with a shaved head, a trim beard, massive muscles put on display, the metal arm and leg, and even the tattoo on his forehead. He was a villain straight out of one of the newer Ember Island Players productions.

Azula, by contrast, was a girl still waiting to catch up to her brother in height, and a perfect princess in her looks.

She wondered who commanded more strength.

Who did Father trust more, right now?

She left the Disciple standing guard and brought Xinghao to the throne room. It was empty, and she made the High Sage wait in silence for the others.

Surprisingly, she didn't have to wait long for Piandao to return with High General Bujing, Admiral Li, and General Mak. He must have raced up from Lower Harbor City. The Army, Navy, and Home Guard were now represented.

No sooner had that group arrived than Father stepped out onto the dais of the Burning Throne. As he had when he executed his coup, he did not light the throne's fires, but still took his proper place above everyone else. Azula personally would have indulged in lighting the fires, if just to make a symbolic play to present herself as the Fire Lord's chosen heir, but perhaps Father felt that a more subtle strategy was needed.

He didn't waste time, at least. "Fire Lord Azulon is dead," he said. "He died of natural causes, and is at last at peace. We need to discuss what comes next, and I-"

"This is not our deal," Bujing interrupted.

Azula's Inner Fire flared. How dare this stupid old man interrupt Father!

But the general was allowed to continue, "I've heard about the stunt at the prison. Word of it has already spread to the Caldera! And now the Fire Lord? You said you'd restore Azulon's power and allow an investigation! Not scorch your way straight to the throne itself!"

Father, somehow, remained stoic in the face of such an accusation, fully and perfectly in control of himself. "General, I did not kill my Father. The Royal Physician can confirm it. I am as troubled by the timing as you are."

No mention was made of Li and Lo. Azula almost wished she could step forward and take the blame, but she refused to steal authority from Father again.

High Sage Xinghao gave a nervous laugh. "Well, you must admit, it looks- uh, somewhat like a- a purge, you know. The populace-"

Father turned to him. "Is that not why I have your support? To keep the populace on my side?"

Xinghao giggled. "Well, yes, the Fire Sages have worked hard to serve as the moral authority of the Fire Nation, but- uh- well, the Fire Lord is- was? Well, for now he's still revered as an icon. They read storybooks about his life and celebrate holidays in his name. That's- that's not something that can just be reversed on a whim. It's why it was so important that you presented yourself as intervening on the Fire Lord's behalf-"

"I will not deploy soldiers against the populace to force obedience," General Mak interrupted. "My Home Guard will keep the peace, but our people are not Earth Kingdom swine to be beaten into submission."

Father held out his hands. "But would you be averse to locking down communications from the Capital for now? We don't want word to spread and cause a panic before we can properly present the news."

Mak was far too slow to nod for Azula's liking. "Yes, for a short while. I expect that announcing the start of an investigation with the news of the Fire Lord's passing would help soothe emotions. But the investigation into Azulon's death needs to be legitimate, and the succession absolutely must be unquestionable."


Father said nothing, but he looked to Azula and raised his eyebrows, and she took that as her cue. "You don't seriously mean to hand the nation over to Iroh?!"

Admiral Li stroked his long beard. "He is the Crown Prince."

Azula glared at High Sage Xinghao, and he took the hint and added, "But he's not here! We have only a day to crown a new Fire Lord before people must declare their allegiance."

High General Bujing snorted. "Don't try to bully us! There have been cases in history where the military and Fire Sages held the crown while the next Fire Lord hurried home. The people need not wait to declare their allegiance to the heir who was supported by the rest of the nation's leadership."

"And that," Azula put in, "is supposed to be my father. You all supported him yesterday." She stalked towards them, putting a little menacing theatricality into her posture. It was a weak kind of threat, the kind she hated to use, but these idiots had somehow missed that she had waltzed into a prison and murdered a pair of her father's enemies without legal repercussion.

But General Mak turned to look at her with an expression of disdain that made her blood boil. "That was when he promised us stability. I arrested Li and Lo because they were undermining faith in the Fire Lord, and supported your faction over Iroh to save the Fire Nation from the Avatar's revenge. But within twenty-four hours everyone who stood between Prince Ozai and power died, and now we're discussing just taking the crown from Iroh? This isn't stability! This could destroy the Fire Nation!"

Azula took another step towards him, ready to remind him what destruction really looked like-

"Peace," Father said. "We all want the Fire Nation to survive. How can I earn your confidence once again?"

High Sage Xinghao inhaled and gave a clap of his hands. "An Agni Kai! If Prince Ozai and General Mak have an Agni Kai over the matter of Azulon's death, then that would publically give the prince a chance to clear his name!"

General Mak nodded. "I would be willing to fight an Agni Kai to determine the right of this matter."

Huh. Azula took a step back from the military men, considering it. She had no doubt Father would win, and it would be a compelling appeal to the populace. People might whisper, but no one could really accuse Father of killing the Fire Lord if he-

"No," Father barked. The sound echoed through the throne room. "I refuse."

Azula whirled to face him, but could find no further clue in his appearance. What was he thinking? She couldn't identify the strategy.

It was Xinghao was said it out loud: "Um, why not?"

Father glared down at them all. "That is none of your concern. Any of you."

Azula blinked. Even her?

Eventually, General Mak bit out, "Very well. I should see to deploying the Home Guard to maintain safety and lock down communications off the island."

Father nodded. "Yes, you should. You are all dismissed."

Mak and the other military men all bowed and filed out. Xinghao hesitated, but then made his own hasty bow and exit.

That just left Azula. "Father-"

"Mak will return to arrest me," he cut in. He paced across the throne's dais, not even looking at her. "We've lost the military leadership's support. We must act quickly to discredit them. I want you to go through the archives Li and Lo kept in Azulon's rooms to see if they had any helpful information on Mak and the others. If we can find something to make people doubt them, we can accuse them of treason and remove them, and then replace them with more loyal allies."

Azula nodded. That must be why he refused the Agni Kai; he knew those fools would plot against him regardless. "I can see to that. I've learned my lesson from Li and Lo, and can make it look like-"

"No." Father turned to look down on her. "Piandao can handle any violence we need, and we will use the other Weapons if necessary. I want you go through the archives. Do you understand?"


She did not.

But she did know that she wouldn't fail him again. "Yes, Father." She bowed low. "All will be as you say."


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« Reply #222 on: Dec 11, 2017 11:17 pm »

It seemed to Suki like such a burden to claw her way back to consciousness, but she felt like there was something very important she needed to take care of. Not something she wanted, but something she needed. She groaned and forced her eyes open.

Zuko stared down at her, scar and eyepatch and all. A night sky was stretched behind above him.

She tried to say, "Hi," but it came out something more like, "Xryexx."

He smiled anyway. "You're awake." He turned and repeated, "She's awake!"

Soon, Aang and King Toph were leaning over her as well, and Momo came over to nuzzle her. Something seemed off about all of this, but Aang held a cup of water out to her, and she found that she was too thirsty to worry about anything else for now. She let Toph and Zuko help her sit up, and then drank slowly, letting the coolness help clear her head.

They were in a jungle somewhere with sandy soil. It looked like Ember Island. But hadn't they wanted to leave for some reason? She looked around.

Appa chewed on some palm leaves and watched her.

A campfire glowed at the center of a pile of rags and packs and buckets.

Kirai, Mai, and Sokka (with a bloody rag wrapped around his head) were all lying unconscious, lined up on blankets a short distance away. Sage Shyu and Kei Lo were arranged similarly apart from the others. Something told Suki that someone else should be there- another Sage- old and with a pipe-

Kirai groaned in her sleep.

And then Suki remembered.

She remembered the poison, the fires, the strange white smoke.

She tried to hop to her feet, sending Momo running, but her body was sluggish, reluctant to obey her commands, and she nearly toppled over before Zuko caught her. She shook her head at him. "Forget me. Wake Kirai up!"

Zuko looked over at the unconscious bodies. "So she is your sister-"

"And yours poisoned her! She's dying!"

There was a moment where everyone stared at her, and then they all moved. Toph crawled over and began smacking Kirai's face, eliciting another groan. Aang snapped into an arrow stance and moved his arms to pull a glob of water out of a bucket into the air. It flew and splashed right in Kirai's face.

She coughed and shook her head, and then blinked.

Zuko pulled Kirai to a sitting position by her shoulders, barking, "Wake up!"

Kirai groaned, coughed, and threw up blood all over Zuko's shirt. Her eyes blinked as she started to awaken.

Aang looked to Suki. "What happened?"

Suki once again tried to stand up. Her legs wobbled, and Aang ran over to grab her arms. She let him take her weight, preventing another fall, and immediately started hobbling over to Appa. "I'll tell you in the air. We're going to the Fire Nation Capital."

To their credit, the others didn't try to stop her. Zuko carried Kirai up Appa's tail into the saddle, and Aang got Suki herself settled while Toph raised a swell of sand to carry the others over. Suki looked over them again, her friends and the Fire Sages who had pledged to help them. "Where's Sage Guan? That was his boat we were trying to use."

Aang glanced back at her as he grabbed Appa's reins. "The only other people we found were those Firebenders. Maybe he was taken away."

Suki sighed. They had their first casualty in the quest to save Kirai.

Piandao decided to have his little chat with Mutan and Lady Gerel on one of the palace's higher floors. It was always better to have difficult discussions with an Earthbender while far above the ground.

It wouldn't help against the Master Firebender, but neither would it impede his own sword.

He was finishing with the commanders of the Crimson Guard when the other two Weapons arrived in the room, holding his sheathed sword behind him and saying, "There rebel elements will try to arrest Prince Ozai with no evidence, without the blessing of the Fire Sages. To preserve the legitimacy of the succession, however it plays out, we must protect Prince Ozai. Do we have your support?"

The soldiers, lined up so precisely, gave an enthusiastic cry at the same time they smacked their armored wrists together.

Well, that answer would suffice. But a nod would have been just as effective. "Dismissed," Piandao said.

And then he was alone with 'The Seeing Dragon' and a man so impressed by old spiritual texts that he had them tattooed across his body.

Piandao turned and offered a polite smile to his guests. "Thank you for meeting with me. I suppose you're aware of the general situation?"

Mutan rubbed at his eyes. "What crimes has our nation committed, that it should lose its guiding light and its people start to tear each other apart?"

Piandao could recite quite a list of the top of his head, and he personally was responsible for about half of it, but he was not so foolish as to get drawn into a conversation with a fanatic. "We can seek the answer to that after we've survived the week. Prince Ozai would like us all to assist in repelling antagonistic visitors to the palace."

Lady Gerel seemed to be staring at him, even though she was wearing her blindfold. "Speak more plainly, Hundredslayer. Is Prince Ozai ordering us into action?"

Piandao brought his sheathed sword in front of him like a shield. "He is."

Gerel sighed. "Then since I have no conflicting orders from the Fire Lord or Prince Iroh, I will go. But I do not know that there is any end to this that could be called a victory."

Piandao had long given up on victories. Certainly, he didn't consider his defeat of Admiral Jeong-Jeong to be one. "Thank you. For now, you may rest. You will be informed if you are needed."

The Seeing Dragon nodded, and then turned to go.

Mutan, meanwhile, stepped forward. "Hundredslayer, do you realize the crisis we are in right now?"

Piandao couldn't help but give a laugh. "I'm coordinating the defenses in case we have to go to war with our own military. Yes, I am aware of the crisis."

Mutan's face was almost white beneath the red text inked on his skin. "No, more than that. Our nation is close to death. And enemies have already entered it. The Avatar is approaching."

It was a fair point, if stated a bit dramatically. "The Avatar and Prince Zuko are off on a field trip, according to their compatriots. They are not expected to be a concern within the next twenty-four hours, which is my primary concern. I would actually welcome the Avatar's presence, as he might help to end hostilities."

Mutan's face twisted into an expression of disgust. "No true peace can come from outside interference. Especially not without a Fire Lord on the Burning Throne."

Piandao shook his head. "You are welcome to your opinion, of course, but it is still not an immediate concern. Once we get through the immediate trouble, I'm sure Prince Ozai will offer a strategy on this matter. Thank you for your concern."

Mutan didn't seem happy- hardly a new state of affairs- but he nodded and went off to make his own preparations for battle.

Well, that went about as well as could be expected. Now Piandao wouldn't have worry about fighting alongside traitors.

The echoes of a first explosion, somewhere outside, rattled the walls.

Zuko was going home, at last. He was on his way to see his father under a crescent moon. And it was all to save the life of a traitor.

It was crowded in Appa's saddle. They left behind of all the supplies that were left from the mission with the Sun Warriors, so that they could pack everyone in for the trip to the Capital. Aang was up on Appa's head with Sokka and Mai, while Toph, Suki, Kirai, Sage Shyu, and that Kei Lo guy were sharing space in the back. They had all regained consciousness, and shared the details of their difficulties. They were tired and sore and Sokka had a nasty bump on his head, but they were all committed to trying to save Kirai.

It was a poor army for invading the Caldera.

But Zuko would make it happen, regardless of what it took.

Over on the other side of the saddle, Kirai- Suki's sister, a dark reflection of a face that Zuko had come to know so well- went into another coughing fit, pressing her blanket up to her mouth. It had once been pink, something picked up from one of their stays somewhere in the Fire Nation, but it was growing increasingly darker. One could almost believe that the pattern was intended and not haphazard bloodstains.

Beside him, Suki huddled in on herself. "I hope we get the antidote in time. I can't believe we wasted a whole day."

Zuko bowed his head. "I'm sorry. I should have tried to wake you sooner."

She gave a one-shoulder shrug. "No, I'm being stupid. You couldn't have known."

But Zuko still felt the shame of failure. "We weren't sure who had attacked you, so we hid you in the jungle and waited for you to wake up."

"I know, Zuko. You saved us from- from whoever attacked us." She still wouldn't look up at him.

But Zuko could at least offer a part of an answer. "The Firebenders fought with a style I recognized. They were Crimson Guard."

Suki finally turned to him. "The who?"

"The elite soldiers who guard the Fire Lord and royal family." He couldn't say how or why they had been trying to kill Suki, Mai, and Sokka, but he at least could narrow down the choices. "To be deployed away from the palace, they would have to have been operating under orders from the Fire Lord himself."

His grandfather had tried to kill his friends.

His sister and father had poisoned a loyal soldier to get to him, and might have seized control of the Homeland.

What was he returning to?

Aside maybe from death.

He wished he could talk with Uncle.

He only became aware again of the people around him when Suki put a hand on his shoulder. He turned to find her smiling at him. "I want to say thanks, Zuko. I know this isn't the way you wanted to see your father again."

He shook his head. "It's fine. If he won't take responsibility for what he's doing, I will." He leaned back against the rim of the saddle. "I wanted to know the truth of what he's really like, if he might have- have hurt me on purpose. What's he doing to you is a strong poor first impression."

Suki shifted to lean back with him. "If someone in your family had been poisoned like Kirai," she whispered, "would you try to save them like I'm doing?"

He didn't even need to think about it. "Yes. I would."

"Yeah." She nodded. "You would."

They flew on through the night.


Never Gonna Give Yue Up

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« Reply #223 on: Dec 12, 2017 12:40 pm »

Since FFN doesn't have an edit button (or perhaps I've overlooked it) I'm posting my finalized review here.

That scene where Ozai tried to soothe Azula had to be one of the most uncomfortable things I've read in a while. If that was intentional, good work! I suppose the naysayers like me, who were skeptical of Ozai's supposed transformation were wrong after all. Ozai could still serve an antagonistic role in this story, however, but he probably won't be the same guy he was in the cartoon. In some ways, I'm reminded of something you wrote concerning Azula and how some writers fail to build on her character after the events of the series finale. What you often see with these writers is that they write Azula with the same "fear is the only way to control people" mindset that got her in her current predicament. That doesn't mean that the only valid path for Azula, post-fall, is redemption, only that she should have to come to terms with the fact that her philosophy was wrong and adapt accordingly.

So...bringing this back to Ozai, perhaps he's in a similar situation. He may still want the throne, but whatever event in his past that made him want to change probably caused him to adapt new tactics. He realizes now that abusing his children is hurting his cause and turning him into a weaker leader. So, he is possibly still an antagonist, but one that has been forced by circumstance to become more well-rounded and balanced.

What that event in his past may be is a mystery...but considering he was very unwilling, for very suspicious reasons, to fight an Agni Kai with General Mak, it might be that he has lost his firebending...possibly because he isn't fueling it with hate and aggression, or because of weird spirit world related reasons.

EDIT: This brings me to consider Iroh more carefully. If Ozai changed because he has had time to think about where his past actions have gotten him, then what kind of person has Iroh become in this AU? Lu Ten's death is what made Iroh into the man he was in the cartoon. Lu Ten, while sick, has not died in this AU and I think that is an important distinction. The original series doesn't tell us a whole lot about who Iroh was before the death of his son. Many people speculate or assume what kind of man he must have been or what lesson he drew from Lu Ten's demise, but aside from the occasional comment from the Bryke, we know very little. I disagree with those who claim that Iroh rejected the War after Lu Ten died. He may have grown sick of it (seeing how he retired), but he wasn't yet opposed to the Fire Nation's ambition. After all, he had no problem serving as Zhao's military consultant during the Siege of the North. He only took action against his homeland once it became clear that the Fire Nation was willing to jeopardize the entire world and destroy the natural order in order to win the War. So, what lesson did he take from Lu Ten's death? I've always believed that he learned life was precious. Iroh might easily have been a similar man to Ozai in his past. He might not have been as unbalanced, but it wouldn't surprise me if Iroh shared his brother's number one flaw, which is seeing other people as tools. This Iroh might not have learned the lesson I believe he drew from Lu Ten's death in the original series. He's learned the first lesson (the one about respecting the spirits and natural order), but he has likely never grown out of that mindset where he sees people as tools or things that can be sacrificed for some (supposedly) greater advantage.  I'm probably going no where with my analysis, but if it is accurate, it might lend further support for what I'm about to say further down.


EDIT: Anyway, I'm going to make a few notes in order to map out, to the best of my ability, the current situation unfolding in your story.

Somebody, likely supporters of the Fire Lord, wants to stop Aang from getting to Caldera. So, they hired Heiyoashi to sabotage the Avatar's Agni Budokai with Mai. This backfired and caused a number of people, including the outer island governors to loose confidence in Azulon and throw their support behind Aang and Iroh. Ozai, wanting to maintain stability, needs to pin the blame on somebody other than the Fire Lord, so he reaches out to the Fire Sages, making them swear neutrality while he gets his house in order, and convinces them that Li and Lo are to blame for the Fire Nation's ills. He then tries to get the military to do the same. Azula bungles up his plan for stability by killing Li and Lo, which makes it seem as though Ozai only wanted power for himself. Since naming Ozai Azulon's successor, instead of Iroh, his rightful heir, would look really shady, the military are no longer reliable supporters of Ozai's faction. Ozai is now enlisting as many Weapons as he can to protect the palace until something can be sorted out.

As for our protagonists' plotline, the following events have occurred: after Heiyaoshi tried to turn Gerel and Zuko against each other, the other Weapons realized that they were only going to have to fight each other with increasing brutality as the power struggle in the Palace grew in intensity. So they call a meeting to let one another come to terms with this fact. Bangfei is the most vocal critic of this situation. Iroh secretly enlist him to kidnap Tom-Tom, likely in order to bribe Mai and stop her from going to the Capital. Xinghao allegedly assigns a number of Fire Sages to advise the Weapons. Why? Perhaps, he wishes to remind them that they serve the Fire Lord. The Fire Nation national religion more or less seems to be a way for the State to control the general populace, so I wouldn't be surprised if the Sages are tasked with at least, trying to nudge the Weapons into siding with Ozai, or at least, remaining neutral.

If I remember the order of events correctly, Zhao wires Iroh to notify him of Mai's plan to go to Caldera to steal the antidote for Kirai's  condition, this brings me to think that Iroh was the one who ordered the attack on the Fire Sage's ship. Zuko claims that the fact that the boat Mai was on was raided by Crimson Guards meant that the Fire Lord ordered the attack, but we know that Azulon was in no condition to order such an attack and that Li and Lo, the next likely suspects, were imprisoned. Ozai has no reason to sink Mai's vessel. He got Azula to poison Suki's sister because he needed to use Suki's connection with Mai to get Zuko to go back home to the Capital. Iroh, as far as I know, has no use for Mai. He's working with Zuko, Toph, and Aang -- not her. Furthermore, Iroh is next in line for the throne. He, therefore, would have access to Crimson Guards, which means he has the means to carry out such an attack. And why would he do it? Well for one, Iroh knows from Zhao that Aang, Toph, and Zuko were not on board on the Fire Sage's ship (so he's not putting his most valuable allies in danger), and two, he likely wants to deny Ozai another Weapon (Mai). He likely thought that he could either bribe Mai into staying on Ember Island, through Tom-Tom, or remove her from the picture entirely. Why would he do this? I'm not sure. Though I think I might be onto something. I already stated why I believe Ozai and Azula had nothing to do with the raid on Mai's boat. They poisoned Kirai because they wanted to use her to force Mai's hand. Why kill their best link to Zuko? Iroh's motivations are mysterious, but just because we don't know his motivation (assuming he is responsible) doesn't mean that there isn't evidence suggesting his guilt (or, at the very least, reasons why we should consider scrutinizing him more closely).  Though if I must speculate, my guess would be that Iroh needs Zuko to stay on his side, and he framed Azulon (and therefore Ozai as well) for the attempted raid in order to further cement Zuko's status as his ally.

Oh, and just for fun, I theorize that the reason Iroh is interested in Momo (Chapter 46 on FFN) is because Lu-Ten is being possessed by the Aye-Aye spirit and Momo looks kind of like what his son is turning into. Grin
Additionally, Iroh probably figured out that there is more to Momo than meets the eye. We know that Momo remembers his past life (from way back in the Prologue) and if Iroh can see people's dreams (such as Aang's and Jet's), than he can probably see that Momo dreams about stuff lemurs normally don't dream about.
« Last Edit: Dec 12, 2017 04:46 pm by Colonel_Brian » Logged
Never Gonna Give Yue Up

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I'm Loooooooopy!

« Reply #224 on: Dec 19, 2017 12:13 am »

Author's Note: I'm really going to try, but if I actually succeed in getting this Act done before the holidays, it will be a Christmas miracle.

War of the Weapons

Azula awoke to the sound of explosions.

She wasn't sure when she had gone to sleep. She had been working diligently at her assigned task, sorting through Li-and-Lo's old records for blackmail material on various military leaders. It was a crucial part of allowing Father to seize the Burning Throne, so though it kept her sequestered, she gave it her best effort.

No amount of effort could make it interesting. Especially after the fighting started.

It was not disloyal to confirm, after some time had passed, that her task was still the most efficient use of an important resource like herself. Perhaps she would be needed to take command of the Loyalists (as she thought of the people supporting Father), so she put the papers down and emerged from Azulon's old suite to find Father himself standing in the hallway consulting with Piandao.

When he saw her, Father cut off his conversation. "Where are you going?"

She couldn't lie to him. "To see what's going on. If there is an attack-"

"No." Father had sliced his hand through the air, but maintained control enough not to produce any flames. "It's too dangerous. Stay indoors, stay away from the windows and balconies."

She hated being coddled, but this was all her fault. She had killed Li and Lo right before Azulon had the poor timing to keel over of his own accord, and now everyone thought Father a clumsy firecracker when he had nothing to do with either death. No doubt he feared another of her failures.

"Very well, Father." She bowed at the waist. "I will do as you command."

His expression had twisted at that, as if something displeased him, but Azula couldn't bring herself to ask for specifics. She had turned around and gone back into L- and-Lo's makeshift office.

She had worked late into the night. There was the occasional explosion, but they were spread far apart. They could have been warning shots from the Disciple of the Third Eye. She wondered if she could finish her task before the fighting really broke out, but eventually she started nodding off as she read, and was forced to yield to her body's demands and folded a carpet over to use as a futon.

She didn't know how long she had slept. She just knew that now the explosions were coming in rapid succession.

The war was on, then.

Azula got up and rubbed her face. Was her work still needed, now? If the fighting had started in earnest, then a little blackmail material on General Mak was hardly going to settle things. But perhaps he would die, and a subordinate would take command of the Traitors (as she thought of the people supporting Uncle Iroh) who they could coerce into cooperation. Her work still might be valuable.

First, she needed to freshen up. A princess could command no power if she didn't look the part.

She rang for a servant, but none came. How odd. She pulled her hair into a ponytail and went looking for someone who could at least set her top-knot and bring some breakfast, but the palace's whole residential tower was empty. She wandered deserted floors just long enough to wonder if Father had abandoned her, too.

Then she got to the main hall, emerging at the top of the staircase that looked down on the massive space, and found an army encamped in her home.

The Crimson Guard was scattered around as if they owned the place. There were spears and swords stacked up. Many of the soldiers were doing stretches optimized for Firebenders. Others were sitting around, meditating or resting or even dozing. Some were in conference over maps.

Azula was just wondering who she could snarl at- without looking like a little lost girl left behind by her daddy- when she spotted Father striding in from the throne room, followed by Piandao. She hurried down the stairs and ran over to him. "Father! What's- ah, I am here to report my renewed availability."

Father smiled at her and reached out to stroke her hair. "I'm so glad you're safe. As you can see, our former allies have made some poor choices. Mak led a contingent of the Home Guard up from Lower Harbor City to demand my arrest. I'm afraid the Disciple of the Third Eye was forced to use his power to- discourage any further action. Piandao can explain it better."

At Father's wave, Piandao inclined his head. "It was a stand-off through most of the night. The citizenry began evacuating the Caldera after the Disciple's first warning shot, and Mak's forces allowed them to pass. I sent Lady Gerel out to bolster the defensive line that the Crimson Guard were setting up at the gate, but she disappeared sometime during the night. I hope she's merely a deserter. In any event, it was only with the dawn that Mak sent his forces forward."

Another explosion echoed through the palace walls.

Father sighed. "We also have the Crimson Guard out covering alternate angles. I don't know what Mak thinks he's going to accomplish. If he defeats us and arrests me, will the Sages declare me guilty of murder without evidence? Will Iroh return from his frigid playground? Will there be a Caldera left to rule from?"

Azula nodded. "Mak is short-sighted and acting on emotion. If I sneak up on him and take him out, I'm sure his forces will-"


Heads turned at Father's outburst.

But he paid no attention to them, keeping his eyes locked on Azula with enough weight to make her want to hunch down. "Azula, it's a war out there. I won't have you running around. " He leaned over her.  "You will stay here in the palace, where you'll be safe. In fact, I don't trust the palace's tower, either, given the firepower that's being thrown around. Have some soldiers move the records down to the third floor, and you can do your reading there."

Azula had to bite her lip to keep from saying what she thought of that. Father had given her orders, and she always did everything that he commanded.

Even if she hated it.

Even if he hated her.

She bowed, and then spun on her heel and headed off without another word.

She wondered if Zuzu would have been allowed to go fight in this war.

Aang had never been the Fire Nation's capital before. He heard that it was a tranquil and beautiful settlement located in the caldera of a dormant volcano, a little hidden paradise from which the Fire Lord ruled. He couldn't help but associate it with Mai's beauty and grace and sophistication, since it was her clan name: Caldera Yu Mai.

So he was more than a little disappointed that when he first saw it, the place seemed to be in ruins and on fire.

There had been clues that something was wrong. Sounds like the crack of thunder had been echoing as Appa flew Aang and everyone- Mai, Sokka, Momo, Zuko, Suki, King Toph, and the Sages Shyu and Kei Lo- in towards the Capital Island while the sun rose behind them. The sky was overcast, leaving the sea below them looking gray and lifeless despite the dawn. When they got close enough to make out the island's bay, they saw that a mass of people were clustered in a giant plaza just past the docks.

Mai had shoved her way through all the people in Appa's saddle to lean over the side, Momo perched on her shoulder and looking down with her. "That's the Royal Plaza. What are all those people doing there? Maybe there's a mandatory presentation?"

Zuko had come up to join her. "I don't know. But it looks more like a refugee camp."

Mai shook her head, sending Momo scampering away.

As they flew over the scene, Aang noticed that more people were making their way down the zig-zagging path on the face of the volcano. "Look, more are coming down! Why aren't they staying in that settlement near the base of the volcano?"

Mai made a disgusted sound. "That's Upper Harbor City. Laborers and thieves live there. The people of the Caldera would never do more than pass through as quickly as possible." She leaned back into the saddle as the plaza passed beneath them, and Appa flew on towards the volcano.

They passed close enough to see over the rim, and got their first glimpse of the war in progress.

Aang could admit that, at one time, the city might have been beautiful. Now, whole blocks were on fire, and there were massive craters where mansions might have once stood. What buildings still stood were either stained by smoke or damaged by flying debris or both.

The streets were still in use, at least. There were people dashing down the lanes, but it was hard to make out details in the inconsistent light.

Naturally, it was Mai with her (literal) pin-precise eyesight who figured out what was going on. "Those are soldiers! Home Guard and Army and- wait, I think they're fighting the Crimson Guard!"

Zuko grunted. "That can't be. The Guard exclusively obeys the Fire Lord, and he's also the supreme commander of the military. Even if they were confused, the palace is right there. It'd be easy to issue orders."

Suki said, "But you told me that the guys who attacked us Ember Island were Crimson Guard."

The Fire Sage, Shyu, nodded. "And there have been tensions here in the Capital between the Temple and the Military, with the Princes courting each to their own side. We heard that the Fire Lord's caretakers, Li and Lo, were arrested two days ago. Perhaps even such a simple chain of command is no longer clear."

King Toph slapped a fist into her other palm. "It's just like when Ba Sing Se fell. I'm not a- I mean, my family's connection to the previous Earth King was very distant, and some people wouldn't recognize it. Nobody wants to build on a shaky foundation, and feuding royals aren't all that stable."

Sokka waved for everyone's attention, and Momo took that as a sign to take refuge in his lap. "So, uh, that's great and all, but what does this mean as far as us landing goes? I don't want to accidentally put down next to the guys who want to kill us. Which may be both sides, for all we know."

Aang was really starting to hate politics. He already hated war, and it seemed more and more like the two were intertwined. "Our first priority is getting Kirai and Zuko to the palace."

"I'm not sure," Kei Lo said, "that would be a good idea. If the Crimson Guard is out here fighting, and we don't know who's in charge of the palace. I think we should go to the Grand Temple. We get the latest news and figure out a plan from there."

"Hrf." Everyone turned to where Kirai went into another coughing fit. She covered her mouth with her blanket, and when she finished, it was stained with more fresh blood. "So much yapping. Just get me to the palace. The Fire Nation is too strong for a stupid little rebellion to bring down the government. Someone is still in charge, and they probably have my antidote!"

She sounded so sure, but as Aang looked down again, there was a quick flash of light, and then one of the mansions exploded like a whole festival's worth of fireworks had gone off in its basement. He wouldn't have been able to explain it, but back on Zenmatsu he had experienced something all too similar. "Hey, guys, I think that weird person who thinks explosions at people is down there. What did Sokka call him?"

"Spark Sparky Boom Man!"

Mai groaned. "He's the Disciple of the Third Eye."

"Oh, sure," Sokka scoffed. "Like that's any easier to say."

"At least it's not silly."

"Says you." Sokka sighed. "I knew I'd eventually have to run into that guy. So, any idea who he's fighting for?"

Mai nodded. "Unless either Iroh or Ozai is down there leading the rebellion, the Disciple will be fighting for the palace."

Shyu added, "I agree. The Sages were dispatched to oversee the Weapons at Ozai's request, and Ozai is the one in control of Azulon, now."

Aang tugged Appa's reins. "So our safest bet is to probably head straight for the palace, like Kirai said. Appa, yip-yip!"

"Thanks," Kirai groaned, and then coughed into her blanket again.

Kei Lo huffed, but Suki bowed her head in obvious gratitude as Appa roared and swung straight towards the palace. It looked like they were about to save the day!

Then there was a flash of light that resolved into a line pointed straight at them-

-and they blew up.

Piandao was on a balcony, taking stock of the state of the Caldera, when he spotted the strange white shape moving through the air. With his mind preoccupied with thoughts of urban warfare and siege tactics, he needed a moment to realize it was a flying furry animal, and another to peg it as the Avatar's rumored sky bison.

A sky bison!

To think he should get to see one soaring through the air.

Prince Ozai came up behind him, also transfixed by the sight. "Is that-"

Piandao nodded. "Indeed."



Well, Piandao could hardly fault his master's priorities. "Most likely, yes. The word Azula brought back was that Prince Zuko was off with the Avatar. I can't imagine that the last Airbender would be parted from his sky bison. It seems the gambit with Kirai worked. We just-"

An explosion lit up the sky, right where Piandao had been staring. When it cleared, there was nothing but a drifting haze of smoke.

The Disciple of the Third Eye had shot the sky bison down.

"ZUKO!!" Ozai almost flung himself over the balcony, as if to run out into the empty air, but Piandao grabbed and held him back. Ozai tried to yank free, and then spun on Piandao with murder written all over his face. "What was that?! Why would he attack Zuko?!"

Unfortunately, Piandao could figure out exactly why it happened. "Our orders to him were to repel all comers. We didn't make exceptions for Zuko's likely avenues of approach." It was a detail of which he had completely lost track, with all the surprises and complications. He closed his eyes, bowed his head, and prepared to be struck down in a blaze of fire for his failure. His only regret was that he was going to do for a foolish error in his service, and not for refusing to cross a moral boundary.

Something thumped to the floor, and Piandao opened his eyes to see that Ozai had fallen to his knees.

The prince's eyes were wide and unfocused. "This is my fault. I just killed my son. My poor baby boy- he- he never got to come home-"

Somehow, Ozai was still finding ways to surprise Piandao. "My Prince, we don't know anything for certain. Perhaps we-" He went to help Ozai up, but his hands were slapped away.

Ozai stood suddenly, his gaze still pointed at nothing in particular. "I need to find Azula. I need my daughter." He hurried out of the room, leaving Piandao alone on the balcony.

He looked back over the balcony to the war that was still going on. Soldiers of the Home Guard were making another rush at the palace. "I'll just take command of the defenses, then."

The first step was probably to get some revised orders to the Disciple of the Third Eye and everyone else who might want to take a shot at the Avatar.


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