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Author Topic: Traitor's Face [AU Adventure, rated T]  (Read 26485 times)
Loopy
Never Gonna Give Yue Up

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Posts: 31837


I'm Loooooooopy!


« Reply #250 on: Jul 30, 2018 10:02 pm »

The Faceless Tribe

Huy, largely considered to be the most reliable lookout working the Northern Seas, didn't notice that it was raining until he was halfway back to his docked ship.

To be fair, the Jinchu City streets kept tilting beneath him just like when he was out to sea, where it was always very wet like a rainstorm, the only difference being that the water went up, not down). And the crystal street lamps weren't shedding much light against the downpour, so it wasn't immediately obvious if the water was going up or down. He didn't know why the ground was swaying so much, but maybe if he stopped for another drink before heading back to the ship, the situation would become clearer.

He blinked through the water running down his face and tried to look around. After a moment, his eyes focused, and he saw that he was outside a smoke-den. That wouldn't do. He didn't go much for that stuff. All he needed was a good mug of-

And then a bunch of guys in black dropped down from the building's roof on dark cords and swung through the paper coverings of the second-floor windows.

Hm.

Maybe he didn't need another drink, after all. Once you were seeing darkly-dressed infiltrators, it was time to call it a night.

Another wave of guys in black climbed down the hanging cords and in through the windows. So this wasn't just your average snatch-and-grab, then.

And then another wave of weird people climbed down the cords. A fourth wave started making their way down.

On the other hand, it was entirely possible that Huy needed three more drinks to make this make sense. Or to forget it ever happened.

And then the air buzzed, and suddenly the cords weren't attached to the roof anymore. The latest wave of people in black clothes dropped down to the street right beside Huy with their ropes still in their hands, splashing heavily into the rainwater puddles. There were grunts and groans of pain, but they got back on their feet a lot quicker than Huy had managed at that last tavern.

"Hey," he said, leaning towards the one of the guys. "Can ya spare s' coins fer a thirrrrsty s-sailor?"

Before he got an answer, a bloody shadow zipped out of the alley across the street and threw itself at one of the guys in black.

And the rain wasn't just falling down anymore. It took Huy a moment to figure out what it was doing, because the ground was still tilting to an unreasonable degree, but it seemed like the rain was following the motions of the guys in black as they reacted to the shadow.

Well, that was odd.

But the shadow-thing wasn't bothered by it. It flitted amidst the fallen rain-movers, twirling and snapping and rolling. Whenever it reached a piece of itself out like an arm, there was a flash of reflected light, and then one of the rain-movers would fly back as though the night itself had gotten offended at all the swirly rain and given a shove. Those rain-movers would fall against the facade of the smoke-den and slump upright as though pinned. But soon another rain-mover would gesture, and the pinned one would be moving again.

As this all played out, the air grew colder, and the shadow began to slow. The rain seemed to grow denser around the shadow, and it disappeared with a cry that could have come from a young lady. That was weird.

Lightning flashed, and Huy looked up as the thunder rolled over the city.

Something flew across the dark sky, a figure that seemed to hold onto the flash of the lightning a little longer than anything around it. As Huy watched, the figure flitted from rooftop to rooftop, passing across the street and back again with little effort. It might have been a goblin of some kind, dancing with glee as it watched the fight in the streets below, but as Huy's vision adjusted, he realized that there were more people up on the rooftops, and they were chasing the thing.

They moved the rain, too, turning the drops into waves that could have come from the ocean- had they not being flying through the air, of course. Bad enough that the rain was going up and now down-

But the figure pushed back against the waves, and they obeyed him, too. So did the storm-winds, which Huy realized were what moved the figure around with speed and ease. And when the rain-movers tried to surround the figure, light itself would burst from the thing's hands to clear a new way.

One rain-mover took a light-flash a little harder than his compatriots, and tumbled down off the roof. The rain seemed to reach for the guy, but its grip was too slippery - it was rain,, after all - and he crashed down on the street within reach of Huy.

Okay, he could see that he'd kind of wound up in the middle of something, here. Best to just leave it be. And find another drink, because getting away from this was worth a celebration.

He was stumbling his way down the street - slower than he'd like, because the ground wouldn't stop moving - when the entire floor above the smoke-den exploded.

Yep, Huy wanted no part of this. And he was about three- no, four, definitely four more drinks away from being able to safely call it all a hallucination.



Katara had only ever fought other Waterbenders one-on-one. She was starting to feel like this was an oversight in her training.

Another wave of black-clad attackers swung in threw the windows, landing in a stance that she recognized. Everyone single one of them used flowing motions of their hands to pull the moisture from their tunics and raise it into floating promises of pain for her, Sokka, and Ty Lee.

She couldn't bring herself to move as another half a dozen warriors in black climbed in through the windows to join the ones who had already blunted her first attack. The cords behind them jiggled with the promise of more on the way. Their faces were all covered with rags the same color as their tunics, blue eyes visible through twin holes in the fabric.

How were this many enemy Waterbenders in Jinchu City?

Yes, she knew that Pakku and his students were working for Iroh, but here? Now? Even if Hahn had betrayed them and was in Jinchu as Iroh's agent, what were the odds that a fighting force of Waterbenders had come along? Hahn hadn't been hunting for Katara and her friends, not if Ty Lee's read of his aura had been correct. Wasn't it more likely for Hahn to have brought the Fire Army for this ambush?

She realized that figuring this out might not be her highest priority right now.

Before she could take action, Ty Lee flipped towards one of the ambushers, hands already clenching into fists-

-the Waterbender dipped back into a flat stance, hands circling and pulling at the air-

-and the rainwater that was soaked into Ty Lee's clothes rose out of the fabric and snaked around her limbs and twisted-

-Ty Lee crashed the ground with a cry of pain.

Katara's heart began pounding, and she yanked with both hands and all her strength. In response, the rain outside surged in through the windows with the force of the ocean surf. The Waterbenders - maybe a dozen in total, now - were knocked to their knees as the liquid exploded against their backs and filled the air with glistening droplets.

And then Sokka smashed a chair over the head of one of the Waterbenders and Ty Lee somersaulted back to her feet to give a paralyzing punch to another one's shoulder and Katara pulled the rain out of Sokka's shirt and whipped it into the face of an attacker trying to get to his feet and everything became one big ugly brawl.

Katara didn't even need to summon her own water. There was so much flying around that it was easy enough to pull some droplets out of the air to cover her knuckles for an ice-punch, or catch someone's waterwhip and send it snapping right back, or seize control of some ice shards flying towards Ty Lee and melt them into a defensive of wall that she let drift in front of Sokka as someone tried to kick at him, or just twist her feet to form an iceboard as all the puddles on the floor came together to rise in an indoor tide so that she could surf around the tumbling furniture.

Everything was in constant motion.

And too few of the enemy was getting taken out of the fight.

Katara was good, but her best trick needed a full moon to work, and there were just too many foes to fight effectively. No more came in through the windows, at least, but getting any of the people already here to stay down was proving hard. The ones with numb, dangling arms fought with their legs, and even armed with the solid remnants of a table, Sokka was no match for a trained, experienced warrior, never mind- one, two, three- waterwhip- eight, nine- oops, dodge around Ty Lee's stumble- sixteen, sev- well, a lot of trained and experienced warriors.

But Weapons of the Fire Nation were supposed to be as good as an army. Katara's best strategy was not to try to fight back against this many foes, but to protect Ty Lee!

(Just like Ty Lee had protected Katara earlier today, when the push of the crowd at the marketplace had once again stolen Katara's bravery.)

She hurried towards a glimpse of pink motion at the other side of the room, circling her arms as she ran to form a vertical ring of water. A trio of Waterbenders were moving in on Ty Lee from behind, and Katara rushed at them and leapt. As she came down on them, she chopped with her right hand so that her water-ring tilted at the same angle to deliver a wet downward smack on the Waterbender's head.

As soon as her feet were on the ground again, she spun and brought her arms in close to her body, shrinking the water-ring and angling it to catch the next attacker's water-whip. She swirled her hands to pull the tip of the whip into her own control and add it to the swirling ring, and then she leaned forward in an arrow-stance as she pushed her it at the last attacker. It struck him hard enough to send him flying off his feet, and for a moment the little space was clear.

Katara came to a stop back-to-back with Ty Lee. "So. How are you?"

Ty Lee made a sound that was half-giggle and half-whimper. "Been better. Can you dry my dress?"

In response, Katara reached back over her own shoulders to tap Ty Lee's back, and when she brought her arms forward again, all the water in her friend's pink and gray clothes followed along. Katara formed it into a wall, and exhaled a frigid gale that froze it solid.

Then she shoved it to slide into a group of approaching enemies.

Bodies went flying, and Sokka ran across the newly emptied space to grab a chair leg to use as a weapon, only to skid and turn and run away screaming from a pair of enemies wearing what looked like ice-armor.

But Ty Lee was already back in motion. At the edge of her vision, Katara caught a glimpse of the lightning-fast movement of her friend ducking under a waterwhip to tap a series of blows on a pair of Waterbenders, and then running up and jumping off their falling bodies to land with snapping fists amidst the ones chasing Sokka, her blows shattering the armor with ease. The whole time, she was somehow managing to twist and twirl and dodge around the ice and water that flew in at her from the rest of the Waterbender armor.

Four more of the enemy fell, either paralyzed or unable to use their element long enough to defend themselves from one of Katara's blows.

But even as Katara was punching a fifth in the stomach with a 'Marlin Form' spike of water over her knuckles to channel the force, there came crunching and crinkling sound from above.

And then Katara realized that, in all this fighting, quite a bit of water was being splashed all over the ceiling.

And now it was being frozen into a massive slab of ice and dropping down on everyone's heads!

She raised her hands and splayed her fingers just fast enough to soften the ice right above her. The slushy impact merely made her flinch, and she caught most of the other Waterbenders around her doing the same.

But Ty Lee was couldn't.

She spun and curled in on herself, just getting her head out of the way as the ice smashed down on her and pressed her straight into the ground. Katara looked around for Sokka-

And then all the ice melted again, manipulated by someone lost in the crowd of attackers, splashing everyone. Katara shivered at having her clothes completely soaked in ice-water.

Wait.

Soaked clothes?

Katara turned back and reached out to try to dry Ty Lee again, but a pair of waterwhips snapped out to seize and hold her wrists, keeping her from Bending. At the same time, the liquid rose out of Ty Lee's clothes to entangle her like a particularly nasty tumble-seaweed. Ty Lee inhaled, and then blew out a gale-force wind that had to come from her Airbending, sending herself skidding across the floor.

It was Katara's last sight her friend, as the enemy closed in again, and how long had it been since she saw Sokka? Was he hurt? Was Ty Lee being hurt? Where-

Katara screamed and pushed, splattering the waterwhips that held her, but even as she took a new stance, the enemy Waterbenders surrounded her. There was nothing but a sea of blue eyes staring at her through black masks, and the reflection of her own eyes in the weapons of ice they raised. They were so close, like the crowd today, and she needed air, needed space!

If only there was a full moon and she could use Bloodbending! Even Pakku had gone down to it. It let her be more than herself, gave her the strength to stand up to crowds, to look up at the big empty sky-

Wait.

The sky.

It was raining outside!

She twirled on the tip of a boots, hands outstretched, whipping all of the water around her feet into a razor-tipped splash that drove the enemy back for a moment. When she was pointed at the tavern's windows, she threw her hands backwards to propel herself across the wet floor-

-towards a table lying on its side in a tilt.

Katara skated right up the table and out a window.

The rain that battered her as soon as she passed outside felt warm after all the ice in the tavern, and it answered her call when she asked it to flip her around in the air. Her hair must have escaped from its braid during the fight, as she felt it flap free in the wind as she spun to see the Waterbenders in the tavern gathering at the windows to follow her.

She bared her teeth and used all four of her limbs to seize control of the storm.

Then she threw it at the upstairs tavern.

The whole front wall of the second story collapsed under the assault, and then the roof in turn collapsed on top of the new nothingness. The rain wasn't so loud that she didn't hear the cries of pain and fear from the Waterbenders who were being buried in the collapse.

She had a moment of satisfaction before she remembered she was falling backwards to the street.

She had to-

Solid arms caught her and a light body carried her up to the rooftops.

Aang!

He deposited her atop the building across the street, where Mai waited with a razor disk in each hand.

Oh. There was a fight out here, too.

Lightning flashed, revealing figures that moved in familiar ways across the rooftops. As the light faded and the thunder came in, their dark clothes made them nearly invisible in the downpour.

This wasn't going to be any better than inside, was it? Katara couldn't win without Bloodbending, and she just didn't have enough Moon for it tonight.

Mai said, "Where's Ty Lee?"

Katara shook her head. "Hopefully on her way to help us."

"Great," Aang groaned. "So, uh, do we just keep fighting?"

But Katara was already moving to attack.
Logged

Loopy
Never Gonna Give Yue Up

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Posts: 31837


I'm Loooooooopy!


« Reply #251 on: Jul 30, 2018 10:03 pm »



Sokka ventured to raise his head over his little fort of broken furniture and check out the remnants of the tavern. He didn't know what Katara had done, but she had made a very nice mess.

A bunch of the Enemy Waterbenders were piled up where the windows used to be, and now the remnants of the wall and a good portion of the ceiling were piled up on top of them. Some were moving, all of them were groaning, and none seemed inclined to get up right away. That completely worked for Sokka.

He looked around for something pink, and found Ty Lee lying on the far side of the room amidst the broken remnants of the furniture. He hurried over and lifted half a table off of her-

She smiled up at him. "I'm an icicle!" Then she shivered. "It's not as much fun as I imagined."

'Icicle' was a good word for it. She was wrapped in ice that pinned her arms to her body and kept her from so much as wiggling. Even the loose ponytail she was wearing her hair in had gotten frozen to her back. Sokka grabbed a chair leg (his favorite weapon of the night, so far) and hammered at the ice, but even his hardest hits just chipped away at it. This was quality ice, the kind you only got at the South Pole. Okay, and probably the North Pole, too.

He needed something harder, sharper. He knew better than to try using the thin knife he carried around, unless he wanted a quick way to snap the blade, but this was a tavern. There had to be something around he could use.

But when he looked around again, what caught his eye were a pair of Enemy Waterbenders who were not trapped under the collapsed wall with the others. These guys must have been at the back of the crowd and knocked clear of Katara's big explosion, and now they were shaking off a few planks of wood in a decidedly grouchy manner.

Sokka didn't rate his odds alone against two Waterbenders any higher than his knife's blade against Ty Lee's icicle jacket. So he picked her up (with only a single strained grunt, as even iced, Ty Lee was a lot lighter than a baby walrus) and dashed for a door that he hoped was a convenient storeroom-slash-hiding-place.

But instead of a storeroom, he found himself carrying his frosted Ty Lee into a kitchen. An occupied kitchen.

There were five people staring back at him from the center of the room- young and old, men and women, but not a one looked like a cook.

Sokka did recognize someone, though.

Hahn.

"You," Sokka said.

Hahn blinked at him. "You're okay! Thank-"

Then Sokka threw Ty Lee at the jerk.



Katara was learning a lot of new Waterbending tricks! Too bad she was seeing them used against her friends.

She was having a waterwhip duel with one of the enemy Waterbenders, both of her arms covered with and directing massive tentacles that drew in the rain as it fell on them. Their every clash and whip and tangle sent waves the size of Katara's whole body splashing around, and she couldn't imagine what the people in the Jinchu buildings below were thinking. It must feel like they'd been hit with a monsoon. Katara felt like she was struggling against one, unable to break through her opponent's defenses. Did this guy wrestle octopuses as a hobby?

On the neighboring roof, Katara glimpsed Mai sliding past her own Waterbender attackers on the slick surface, extending her arms as if to active the bolt-launchers on her wrist, but yet another enemy came up behind her and pushed out a chill that froze her heavy robes into solid ice. She skidded, unable to otherwise move, to the edge of the roof and almost fell over-

Katara's opponent twisted his tentacles around hers and tried to break them, but she slid out a foot to raise herself on a wave that let her keep her leverage-

Aang bounced over and used a waterwhip of his own to snag Mai and bring her to a safe halt. He landed in a crouch and came up with raised arms that reversed the direction of the rain for a moment, creating a wave of his own that slapped both of the Waterbenders off their feet-

But more Waterbenders had gone unnoticed nearby, three of them. While they were no match for the Avatar's raw power, they knew their craft well enough to seize control of the wave at its crest and give it a little nudge to fall back down in Aang's direction.

Katara heard him give a yelp that became a gurgle, but her own opponent needed her full attention again, and she would have to be content with the sounds of Firebending and the sizzle of newborn steam to let her know that Aang was still in the fight and protecting Mai. She needed to be their powerhouse, here. Aang was the Avatar, but he hadn't studied under Hama for very long, and never under Pakku. He had no idea how to make the best use of the storm, but their enemy did.

Katara was learning quickly, but she was something flawed. She thought she'd conquered the sky only to nearly be sent into a panic by a bunch of people bumping into her in a marketplace. Could she ever make herself right again? Had she ever been strong enough, or had a decade in a Fire Nation prison just revealed the weakness that was always there?

Katara needed to change the game. She inhaled, reduced the strength of her giant waterwhip-arms, and let herself lose her duel. The liquid arches collapsed back down on her, driven by her opponent's.

But reducing the strength of her arms didn't reduce her control.

They didn't so much strike her as flow around her, and for a moment all the water of those giant tentacles became a swimming pool balancing without walls or support on a rooftop. She kicked her legs and pushed back with her arms, shooting herself through the water like a dolphilope and popping out at the top to fly through the air.

And flying was exactly what she was going to do.

The rain was thick enough to flatten and bunch together at her sweeping gestures, becoming like a river beneath her feet as she twisted her ankles and froze herself a little surfboard around her boots. She directed and propelled herself with hip motion while the slow, broad swaying of her arms kept the rain-river solid enough beneath her.

She surfed across the sky, rising and dipping in defiance of gravity.

Her opponents must have been taken by surprise, because she was able to surf far enough for her next trick without any kind of opposition. She saw Aang freeing Mai from her ice shell, and as she passed overhead, she motioned at them and pointed down. She could only hope they understood the message to get off the rooftops.

Then she headed into the sky.

When the rooftops were distant beneath her, she let her little river and surfboard fade away in the warm rain, and surrendered her body to gravity. Her momentum carried her upward until she hung in the air for a moment, and at that instant, she brought her hands to her mouth and blew a kiss down on the city.

It was a very cold kiss, and her hands spread the chill across her entire view.

With the dark of the night and thickness of the storm, she didn't even need to think of Bloodbending and the strength it gave her to distract herself from the sky's fearsome vastness.

The rain continued to fall, but every drop that Katara could see had frozen solid.

A storm of hail and icicles fell on all her enemies.



The iced Ty Lee did a great job of taking Hahn straight the floor and pinning him there, but that left Sokka with nothing that could prevent everyone else in the kitchen from pulling out machetes and boomerangs and pointing the pointier parts at him.

Then the doors behind him burst open, and those two remaining Waterbenders came in finish surrounding him.

Sokka decided that maybe now was a good time to negotiate. "Okay, okay, I can admit that throwing Ty Lee at Hahn may not have been the most mature thing I could have done, just then. I am completely opening myself up for constructive criticism, here."

The people pointing sharp things at him just stared.

That was when Sokka noticed that they all had blue eyes.

Sure, with some of them, he would have expected it. The man in blue with the braided steel-colored hair who could have been Bato's age? Obviously Water Tribe. The young woman with the triple-hair-loopies on each side of her face and the water-skin strapped over her shoulder? Again, very Watery in looks. But the young man with the shorter hair wearing a red shirt? The older woman with the green smock over her gray dress? Their eyes were blue, too, and their machetes were the white of whale-bone.

The older man with the braided gray hair took a step forward, and angled his boomerang so that he could slit Sokka's throat with an easy motion. "Give the order for your friends to surrender!"

Sokka blinked. "Assuming we can find them, what makes you think they'll listen to me?"

The threatening people all exchanged glances, and then Boomerang Slashy Man turned back to Sokka. "Hahn said you're the leader."

Sokka gave as much of a nod as he could without cutting himself. "Hahn was correct, despite being a no-good Fire-loving traitor like the rest of you, but I've learned over the last year that being the leader doesn't mean people necessarily listen to me."

From the floor where she was involuntarily pinning Hahn, Ty Lee said, "Wait, you're the leader? I thought Mai was the leader."

"Mai?" Sokka turned away from Boomerang Slashy Man to look down at her. "How could Mai be the leader? She has no leadership presence. I'm the one who makes the plans!"

Ty Lee shrugged as much as she could, being a giant icicle. "Yeah, but leaders don't always make the plans. Aang does everything she says."

"Well, that's because he wants to s-"

"Excuse me," Boomerang Slashy Man said. "I've never been particularly patient with the ramblings of stupid youngsters, and I want to get back to you calling Hahn a 'no-good Fire-loving traitor.' Are you saying Hahn is working for the Fire Nation?"

From beneath the Ty-cicle, Hahn gave a breathless, "I'm not!"

Sokka looked back to the guy threatening to slit his throat. "Aren't all of you guys working for the Fire Nation?"

Boomerang Slashy Man blinked. "Aren't you? You're from the Southern Tribe - that your Waterbender woman can fight proves it - and we've heard of how you've fallen under the Fire Nation's control! You're a spy and a traitor!"

"Excuse you." Sokka folded his arms of his chest as indignantly as he could with people pointing knives at him. "The only spying and betraying I've done has been against the Fire Nation. That's why I'm working with the Avatar."

The title had its intended affect. All of the people with the machetes and boomerangs took a step back and exchanged confused looks. They said things like, "The Avatar who destroyed the South Pole?" and, "The Airbender boy who wiped out a Fire Nation island?" and, "The child who threw a whole Fire Nation fortress so hard that the ground collapsed into a sinkhole and buried it?" and, "The Purifier who fought the Mountain Monster on the remnants of Ba Sing Se?"

Ty Lee added, "And he just destroyed the Fire Nation Capital a few days ago, too!"

Boomerang Slashy Man grinned and didn't move his boomerang at all. "Well, that should settle things nicely. The Avatar child who did all that should be able to handle a couple dozen Waterbenders. If he survives, he's clearly the Avatar. If not-" He nudged Sokka's neck with the edge of the boomerang. "Then you're a lying traitor and we'll send you to Sedna to feed the sharks with your body." He looked to the young woman with the waterskin. "Amka, go tend to your injured brothers."

Sokka resisted the urge to slump, as the woman trotted past him and the Waterbenders at his back, because doing so would cut his own throat. "Well, uh, in the meantime, perhaps you can introduce yourselves? I mean, if you're going to kill me anyway..."

Boomerang Slash Man gave a one-shoulder shrug. "I suppose a man of a sister-tribe deserves that much. We are the Faceless Tribe."

Sokka didn't like the sound of that. Things without faces were never good. "I'm not familiar with the name."

"That's the idea, kid."



Katara panted for breath in the Jinchu street, but couldn't stop and rest, yet. She was fairly confident that she and her friends might be about to win this fight.

Her earlier ice-storm had turned the tide, scattering and injuring the Waterbenders, forcing them to raise their heaviest defenses. And in the immediate aftermath, Aang and Mai had struck, hitting the enemy hard and taking the fight back down off the rooftops, where Aang could use his Earthbending to immobilize and imprison.

As they fought the last of the Waterbenders, Katara saw Aang's clothes icing up on him, but a quick motion of her hand thawed him out before it could even start to inconvenience him. He kicked a fireball at a Waterbender who raised a wall from a puddle to protect himself, but even as it turned to steam from the swallowed flame, Mai slid spinning into the street and kicked out a series of bolts from her ankle launchers. The Waterbender was pinned to the outside of a tavern, and Aang reinforced the situation by raising little walls of stone from the street to cover the guy completely and cut him off from the rain.

By then the puddle beneath Mai was surging and starting to carry her further than she wanted to go, but Katara spotted the Waterbender responsible and beckoned at him, pulling the rain in his own clothes while he was distracted and turning it to ice. Before he could think about freeing himself, Aang was there again, pulling spikes of earth through the ice to pinch limbs in place so that they could make no more Waterbending moves.

And then, somehow, it seemed to be finished. There were no further attacks. The only motion was the continued fall of the rain.

Katara looked at Aang. He smiled back at her. They both looked to Mai, and gave her time to take on an expression of distaste before they both rushed to trap her in a group hug.

"Yay," Mai drawled in the rain, "we won."

Aang laughed. "I'm just glad we're okay. Where's Sokka and Ty Lee?"

Katara let herself lean on her friends. "Up where we were supposed to meet Hahn. I'll check on them in a moment. I just- that was a lot of work. I don't know why we were attacked, but they really wanted us gone."

Aang patted her back. "Well, we're still here. Thanks to you."

Katara smiled, and was about to tell him what a good friend he was-

-and then a huge team of Waterbenders dropped down to surround them.

Katara blinked, and looked up to where they came from. It was the tavern, the second-story one where she had first been ambushed, the one she had collapsed on-

-on-

-on these very Waterbenders. Their black clothes were torn, and even in the rain seemed filthy with dust. And they were glaring at her specifically. How were they all be back in the fight?

Well, it didn't matter.

Katara wasn't going to be able to fight them.

There were over a dozen, and they all seemed ready for battle. They had her and Aang and Mai surrounded, and she was tired.

But wait, if these guys were here, then what had happened to Sokka and Ty Lee?

Katara's heart hammered. She loved all her friends, the people who had become like family to her, but Sokka was real family, was part of her Tribe; he had come to save her when she thought that freedom was beyond hope. And Ty Lee- Ty Lee had traveled with Katara during the trip with Master Pakku, had supported Katara when there was no one else but a ship full of arrogant woman-haters. They'd fought together when Pakku turned against them, and relied on each other during the journey to find and warn their friends about Iroh. Ty Lee was probably the person Katara had spent the most time with since she was freed from Crescent Island, and- and- and life was so much brighter with Ty Lee in it.

Katara looked around at the Waterbenders, as the rain continued to fall. They took attack stances, closing in-

-she let go of Aang and Mai and stood tall, arms stretched to her sides. She took her fear for Sokka and Ty Lee, and her anger at these Waterbenders, and all the frustration at her own weakness- and mixed it together. She took that mix, a jumble of feelings that rubbed and clashed against each other to form a miniature lightning storm, and put it all into her next motion:

She snapped her hands straight up, as if calling everyone around her to a halt.

The Waterbenders didn't listen to her. They started to move-

But the rain did.

The drops all stopped where they were, hovering in the air. The impacts in the puddles on the ground lost their motion, the beautiful circular splashes covering the street like flowers on a field.

The Waterbenders looked around confused.

Then the rain started to reverse.

The drops flew upward, traveling back along the path of their angled descent to return to the sky. The puddles on the ground joined them, the filthy liquid rising it into the clouds that had forsaken it. Even the moisture in everyone's clothes - Katara and Aang and Mai and the enemies around them - seeped out into the air to leave behind dry fabric.

Katara felt her loose hair floating around her head as the water in it left to join the rest of the rain collective. Her loopies floated in front of her eyes as they dried.

She was distantly aware of one of the Waterbenders shaking free from his shock to move at her, stealing some of the rising water into a whip that he aimed at her, but Aang moved like a flash, catching it with his own Waterbending motion and shifting it around his body to stream up into the sky. Mai made a gesture, and the Waterbender gave a sound of pain and dropped to his knees.

Katara wasn't paying enough attention to tell exactly what Mai had hit. She was too busy concentrating on the lake she had hovering above the rooftops.

All of the rain, all of the spare moisture, had floated up at her command to join the precipitation that was still trying to fall from the heavens. She had stopped it all, at least as far as this street and the surrounding buildings, and kept it gathering just above where she and her friends had been fighting earlier. It required all of her mental and physical fortitude to hold it there.

She was vaguely aware of Aang and Mai continuing to defend her, but they couldn't press the attack, couldn't leave her behind.

But that was okay. Katara had a plan.

And the water above desperately wanted to return to the earth.

It was like the sky was pushing back at her, disdainful of all the fear she had given it. The sky hadn't been the source of her fear, but the recipient. The fear came from within her, and if it wasn't intertwined with the sky, it would touch something else. Like the crowd, earlier today. Or danger for her friends. Or any number of things. Katara might always have this fear.

She would find a way to live with that.

The rain she had gathered yearned to fall. The water wanted to join the earth, and the air was helping to push. The elements shouldn't be separated. They naturally wanted to come together to make new and complicated and amazing things.

So Katara let it.

She let it all go.

She didn't just drop the water she'd gathered; she pushed it and guided and swirled it.

Basically, she threw an entire lake of her own making at all the enemies around her.

It worked really well.

Then she let herself collapse.
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Loopy
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« Reply #252 on: Jul 30, 2018 10:05 pm »



It was awkward for Sokka, having a sharpened boomerang held to his throat, but fortunately that came to an end when something exploded outside.

At least, the crash was loud enough for something to have exploded.

And then the young woman - Amka, right, that was what the jerk threatening to cut Sokka's throat had called her - came running back into the little kitchen, shouting, "She stopped the rain and they're coming and we need to- AHHHHHHH!!"

Whatever she had been about to say was cut off when Ty Lee blew her into a wall with a burst of Airbending, and before anyone could react, Aang burst into the room. The two Waterbenders standing guard jumped to face him, but a pair of knives flew in through the swinging door to pierce their sleeves and pin their hands together. The two might have overcome that, but Aang didn't even give them a moment to think before he was doing his Airbender dancing-twisty thing and somehow had them crashing into each other hard enough to tumble into a shelving unit.

Boomerang Slashy Man moved to take in the new threat-

-and Sokka decided to show the guy a little of how they fought on Kyoshi Island. A step backwards, a slap to the elbow, and a shove got the boomerang away from Sokka's throat and sent the guy straight to the floor. The others in the kitchen - the young man in red and the older woman in green - shifted their machetes back to Sokka.

Fortunately, by that time, Aang had freed Ty Lee from her ice.

The whole fight was over a second after that.

Sokka picked up the boomerang that had been used to threaten him as Mai and Katara crammed into the now very crowded kitchen. He didn't like the way Katara had to lean on Mai, but she didn't seem injured, just tired, so he decided to hold off getting mad about it.

So he didn't put his full weight down as he stepped on Boomerang Slashy Man's chest and held out the weapon. "This is mine, now."

Boomerang Slashy Man - who was now probably just Jerky Old Guy - grimaced up at Sokka. "Do you even know how to throw that?"

"No." Sokka shrugged, and held the boomerang out so that the sharp edge was now pointed at Jerky Old Guy's throat. "But you showed me how this part works. So!" Sokka stood up again, tucked the boomerang into his belt, and turned to where Hahn was sitting against a cold oven and trying to catch his breath now the he didn't have an Iced Ty Lee on top of him. "Here we have the Avatar you all doubted. Does anyone want to tell me what's going on?"

He wasn't too smug about it. He could magnanimous in his victory.



"The story starts with Avatar Kuruk," Hahn began a little while later.

They had moved back a storeroom in the back of the tavern, once both Hahn and the older man who seemed to be the group's leader had given their pledge of peace. Katara had only vague memories of such a vow, but she knew she had seen it at least once before she was taken away by the Fire Nation. When her family had first been forced into the mining colony at the South Pole, one of the men from another tribe had continuously gotten into arguments with Dad. Katara couldn't remember what it was about, if she had ever been aware, but she did know that after a while both men had agreed to the pledge so that they wouldn't have to fight anymore. Sokka explained further that it was to keep rivalries within a tribe from getting out of control, and was supposed to be the last word of any kind of conflict between two warriors who made it.

So Katara had allowed the Waterbender girl, Amka, to heal her injuries. But she also made sure that Mai and Ty Lee were keeping any eye out for any trouble.

"Legend has it that Kuruk's wife was taken from him on their wedding day," Hahn continued. He was leaning against a stack of shelves, the clay jars shoved aside to make room for some lamps. "From what I was always told back at the North Pole, the culprit was an evil spirit named Koh who hated life and love and all that stuff. But, uh, my friends here tell the story differently. Right, Toklo?"

The man who Sokka had stolen the boomerang from nodded. Everyone was sitting on the floor, but Toklo and Amka had put some space between themselves and Katara and her friends. "Our histories say that Avatar Kuruk was being punished, but there are a few different versions. Some say he was too aggressive a person, creating conflict and war wherever he went just for the fun of it. Others that he just didn't do enough to prevent the fighting that naturally popped up across the world. Either way, his corruption led him to fail in his Avatar duties, and Koh retaliated."

Katara looked around at her friends. Aang had an expression on his face like he had swallowed some bad seal jerky, and Mai- Mai's brow was creased, and she was leaning forward with her chin on her hand. That was strange; Mai usually didn't like to reveal when she took an interest in things.

"The difference between the stories is the point," Hahn said. "I don't know or care which is right, but back in Kuruk's time, those of the Tribe who thought he had it coming formed their own group and left the North Pole. That's all the history we have about it, until I got swept overboard fighting the Fire Nation- and was found by the new tribe descended from those exiles."

Toklo tapped his fist on his chest, over his heart. "My ancestors felt that the Northern Water Tribe had drifted away from the path of balance. Its great city had become a source of pride, and that pride was keeping its people from seeing the truth. So my forefathers went out into the Northern Seas to found a new tribe. We remember Koh as a warning against failing in duty and letting the world become unbalanced. Thus we are the Toqukiinaq: the Faceless Tribe. We keep our home a secret, but reach out to the world around us, both the natural world and the cities of man. We learn, and keep watch for Koh."

Katara couldn't hold back a grunt. "So you attacked us to keep your tribe secret? Maybe you should just keep Hahn from blabbing about you to people."

Hahn's face went red, and he turned away from her.

But Toklo smiled. "Southern women can't hold their tongues, eh?" His gaze flickered to Amka, but she lowered her eyes and said nothing.

Katara was getting fed up with sexist attitudes and was going to say something about it, but then Toklo continued with, "But you're right. You have wisdom for your age, Katara of the South. We had compassion for Hahn of the North, and gave him a home when he lost his to the Fire Nation, but he does not find our ways of secrecy natural. We let him contribute as a warrior, including going along on excursions to Jinchu City to trade and get news. This is his first failure to uphold our security."

Hahn snorted and spun to face Toklo. "They were of a Water Tribe! I knew they were okay, and look, it turned out that they're not working for the Fire Nation! I was right about them."

Toklo stood up and pointed to where Mai and Ty Lee were sitting together. "Those girls are not from any Tribe. They may serve the Avatar, but you didn't know that. Next time, be more careful, and we won't have to attack anyone. And if we do have to fight, learn the difference between a 'little watermaid' and a real warrior like Katara there, eh?"

Katara had to admit that Toklo had a point (especially that last part), but she wanted to make one thing clear. "Mai and Ty Lee have given up everything to help us. I consider them a part of my Tribe."

Aang gave a clap. His shirt began shifting weirdly, and then Momo popped out and hissed with what sounded like annoyance. "Sorry, Momo, I didn't mean to startle you. But yeah, we vouch for the girls."

Mai rolled her eyes while Ty Lee gave a dazzling smile and said, "Thank you!"

Sokka, though, was rubbing his chin. "But you aren't all Water Tribe, either. The lady in the green smock, and the guy in red- they were with you."

That's right! Katara had seen them, during the little fight in the kitchen. They weren't here, now; once the paralysis Ty Lee gave had worn off, they had gone out to help Amka bring in the injured Waterbenders, and then set about cleaning up all the damage in the common room. They seemed to be the owners or part of the staff of the little tavern, and if it hadn't been for their earlier presence in the kitchen with Toklo, and their blue eyes, Katara would have-

Wait.

Blue eyes?

Katara inhaled. "They are part of the Tribe! You've been marrying here in Jinchu!"

Toklo nodded at her. "In the time of Avatar Kyoshi, our leaders became disquieted when trips to the mainland resulted in- let's call it an 'extended tribe.' But we have long since come to value our sisters and brothers who live and work outside our homelands. Our excursions are partly to keep in contact with them, and sometimes they'll come back to live with us. Quingnu owns this tavern, and she is gracious enough to let us use it as our gathering place whenever we come to port. Arac works in the tavern on nights, and helps his parents in their spice shop during the day."

Sokka chuckled. "So the relatives come over and wreck the place? Not very nice of you."

Toklo scowled and folded his arms over his chest. "I'm sorry, did I misunderstand and you're not looking for our help getting into the city at the North Pole? We had a misunderstanding, we fought, and now we're all caught up. What part of that means you get to insult us? Or steal my boomerang?"

Katara covered her mouth to hide her smile.

Sokka folded his own arms in an imitation of Toklo. "I won that boomerang in fair combat. And isn't it in your best interest to stop the Fire Nation from sandwiching you between colonies here and at the North Pole?"

"That's right!" Aang hopped to his feet, sending Momo skittering away to find a quieter place to rest. "And I'm trying to find a way to restore balance after everything the Fire Nation ruined fighting the war! And you guys-"

Katara cleared her throat. "It's okay, Aang. You don't actually have to convince him. He's just messing with Sokka. Right, Toklo?"

The edge of the old man's lip quirked. "Maybe. But yes, we will help the Avatar. Or, at least, I will take you to our lands and High Chiefs, so that they can commit our tribe to action. Will that satisfy you, Avatar?"

"Oh, yeah. That's great! And you can call me Aang."

"Very well, Avatar Aang." Toklo held out a hand to help Amka to her feet. "The rain will be finished by tomorrow. Then we will take you to our lands."

Hahn straightened. "Don't we have more to do here in Jinchu? We've barely arrived-"

Toklo cut him off with a chop of his hand. "And our warriors had a brawl in the streets in the busiest sector of the city. The storm kept most from noticing so far, but there are always eyes watching, and word will get to the Fire Nation. Better that there are no Waterbenders for them to find, when they come looking."

That made sense to Katara. She looked to Sokka, and got his nod of agreement as well. Then she turned to Ty Lee, and whispered, "How do their auras look?"

Ty Lee winked. "Hahn has a mix of happiness and frustration, and Amka is scared of you, but Toklo is earnest. We can trust him."

Amka was scared of Katara? Why? Katara didn't think of herself as scary in any way.

But then, she had kind of wrecked a little army of Waterbenders. That might look scary to someone who didn't really know her. And Amka was a Waterbender, a healer, but she hadn't been part of the attack force. With the way these people were all reacting to Katara being a warrior-

Amka had never learned to fight, had she?

Yes, Katara could understand how she could seem scary to someone like that. "All right. Then I think-"

"That's great," Aang said, never having even looked at the rest of them. "I can't wait for tomorrow!"

Katara glanced at Sokka, but he just shrugged and shook his head.

"So," Aang continued, "Do you guys have enough room on your ship for my sky bison, or should we meet you somewhere?"

Toklo glanced at Amka. "What's a sky bison?"



Sokka decided that maybe this was a victory.

The sky was still gray the next morning, but at least it wasn't dumping water on everyone. The group had set out early in the morning to get back to Appa, and found him happy at the center of a defoliated cluster of bushes with soggy fur. Now, they were all loading the big guy up (and ignoring the smell as best they could) so that they could fly out to meet their new allies out beyond the harbor.

They hadn't made much of a dent in Sokka's shopping list, sad lost list that it was, but they'd gotten some nice coats. And, presumably, even a 'Faceless' secret tribe would know how to make jerky and be willing to share. They hadn't found charts, but a secret Tribe and a defector from the Northern Water Tribe were better.

He stowed the coats they bought, and would soon need, at the back of the saddle and looked around to see what else was left. He found Mai standing down on the ground, looking at his new (not stolen) boomerang. "I'm not giving that to you."

She turned it over and ran a finger lightly over the sharp edge. "Maybe I'll be able to get one of my own, where we're going."

Sokka leaned over the saddle held out his hand for it. "Just one?"

"At least one. Fifty would be my ideal number." Mai didn't hand it up to him. She worked her wrist back and forth, as if judging the weight. "So, do you know how to throw it?"

"I'll figure it out. How hard can it be?"

Mai looked up at him.

Then she threw the boomerang. It twirled out through the forest, around a copse of trees, and arced back. It passed over Ty Lee's head, making her squeak, and angled up towards Sokka-

He clapped his hands together by reflex and just barely caught it. Then stumbled back to fall on his butt.

Momo came over and sniffed at the boomerang, then scampered away.

Sokka shook his head and crawled over to the edge of the saddle. "You could have killed me! This this is sharp!"

Mai actually looked abashed. "I- uh- I wasn't aiming for you. You can keep that one. I'll get my own." She hurried over to Ty Lee.

Sokka shook his head and stuck his boomerang into his belt.

Soon they had everything ready to go, and they all took their places. Aang sat up on Appa's head with the reins, and everyone else gathered in the saddle. Sokka looked out at the landscape as the rose, spiraling up near the clouds so that they would disappear against the gray sky. When Aang judged them high enough, he steered Appa out over Jinchu, and Sokka took a last look.

He thought he maybe spotted a ship docked at one of the piers, a ship  similar in shape the kind he had seen before his tribe was forced into a mining colony, crawling with a crew who moved in time with the lapping of the waves (those who weren't still sore from the walloping Katara had given them, anyway).

The city gave away to open ocean, and Sokka leaned back so that he was sitting safely in the saddle, next to Katara. "So, uh, I hear you did pretty well in the fight. I mean, I saw you inside, and that great move where you collapsed the wall on those punks, but outside you stopped the rain and then nearly drowned the bad guys? That's neat."

Katara tilted her head. "Yeah, that was fun. Not at the time, but I think I had fun."

Sokka reached up and put an arm around her. "Yeah, that's how it goes. You know, with all this 'secret Water Tribe' and other weirdness, I- uh, well, I'm glad you're a Waterbender."

Katara looked at him. "Okay?"

He wasn't saying what he wanted. "I mean- I'm glad you're our Waterbender. The Southern Water Tribe's. If it had to be just one person- well, I'm not happy it meant we lost you for a while, but you survived it, and you're grown up strong enough to keep us in the fight."

Katara just stared at him for a moment. Then she leaned against him and sighed. "You're a good brother. And I- I don't think I would have believed you yesterday. I hate that I get scared of silly things. But- but I know I can do this. I can help you. So, thanks. Thanks for believing in me. I believe in me, too."

From across the saddle, Ty Lee crawled over and sprawled herself across both Sokka and Katara's laps. "I believe in you, too! I believe in everyone!"

Oh, wow, okay. This was a new experience for Sokka.

Aang waved from Appa's head, and Momo copied the motion. "We have the best team in the world! I believe in us!"

"I agree," Mai put in. "I think we all exist, too."

Ty Lee lifted her head off Sokka to glare at Mai. "That wasn't what I meant by believing!"

"I know. Teasing you is how I pass the time on these boring flights."

Ty Lee humphed and laid her head back on Sokka's lap. Katara laughed.

Well, their plans had changed a bit, but they were still headed for the North Pole. Now they would just have the help of a secret Water Tribe that worshipped something called 'Koh.' That was probably an improvement, right?

Sure.

It wasn't long before Ty Lee was asleep, and her head was cutting off the flow of blood to Sokka's legs.

TO BE CONTINUED
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Colonel_Brian
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« Reply #253 on: Aug 03, 2018 07:24 pm »

The chapter was a little confusing at the beginning, but I really enjoyed it in spite of that. That alcoholic lookout man made for some pretty good comedy -- even if his drinking problem is probably destroying his family. That action sequence was intense. I was beginning to question the likelihood of the ambush party being so big, but seeing how it turned out to be a long lost tribe, I guess it makes sense. And I want to say that I really envy your imagination. One of the things about this story that I really enjoy are the unique fights you come up with. The Act 3 finale was one instance where you take a less obvious match-up, such as Gerel vs Toph, and have it really pay off.

I think Sokka shined quite a bit in this chapter as well. He had a number of comedic moments I really liked, such as using Ty Lee to attack Hahn and his argument with Mai over who the "leader" of the gang was. He could also do heartwarming moments pretty well. His exchange with Katara as they rode Appa's back to the Faceless Tribe was well done. I don't know what about it works, but I guess it invoked that feeling the ending of the original Jurassic Park gave me (and I'm of course talking about the mood conveyed by the scene in the helicopter).

As for the titular tribe, I find them intriguing. Though how important they'll be is a mystery to me. It be strange to have them play too big a role considering they made their debut pretty late in the game, but I guess I'll have to wait and see. The fact that they worship Koh fascinates me, since it suggests that the Face Stealer is going to be playing a larger role in your story very soon. Koh still owes the Avatar a favor, so I wonder what Aang is going to ask him to do once the two meet face to face. Perhaps Aang will ask Koh to alter the course of history by having Iroh choose a career in the army instead of the navy and thus generate the original series' timeline in the process. Koh could also show Aang frightening images of later entries in the franchise (such as the Live Action Movie, LoK's less than stellar moments, and some of the more uninspired creative choices made in the comic books) in order to dissuade him, but Aang selflessly chooses the original series' timeline (even if it means the franchise is going to have a lot of downs) because even if the writing isn't always the best, the world the Traitor's Face timeline is so broken it cannot be fixed. 
« Last Edit: Aug 03, 2018 07:42 pm by Colonel_Brian » Logged
Loopy
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« Reply #254 on: Aug 14, 2018 05:09 pm »

Author's Note: Special thanks to Black' Victor Cachat of FanFiction.net for inspiring (or outright giving me) a bunch of the ideas in this segment.

The Rule of the Earth King

The covered wagon shuddered as it rolled over the rocky ground, and Zuko struggled to keep from spilling any stew from either the bowl or the spoon in his hands. He was sure that Azula would call it a metaphor for the balancing act his life had become, if she were still capable of speaking. Or annoying him.

The cart rolled to a stop for a moment, and Zuko seized the opportunity to bring the spoon to Azula's mouth and press it against her lips.

She didn't look at him. She just sat against the back wall of the wagon staring into space, alone in a world only she could perceive. Not that there was much to see in the little compartment, but she hadn't shown any awareness or reaction to their escape from the Capital, the journey across the ocean, or the trip across the Colonial Continent.

But she did part her lips and eat from the spoon.

Zuko scraped up the last of the stew for one more spoonful, and Azula took that as well. And so another meal came to an end, at least keeping his sister in the realm of the living. That was enough for now, he supposed.

Time to find out what was going on in the real world.

Zuko laid the bowl and spoon down and put his eyepatch back on over his empty socket. He turned and crawled past where Tom-Tom was sleeping on a bag of rice, and swung out the back of the wagon into the sunlight. "Why are we stopped? I thought you said we're almost there."

None of the Earthbender guards responded. They were ignoring both Zuko and the rocky, muddy landscape around them, in favor of something in front of the wagon. Zuko followed their gazes past the ostrich-horse, to where King Toph was talking with someone.

Oh, it was Jojo, the Earthbender rebel who seemed to be Toph's preferred spy. The king had sent her ahead to their supposed 'secret base' several hours ago. And now she was back- with a bundle of chains hanging over her shoulder?

Zuko tensed. "What's going on?"

King Toph swung to face him with a big grin. "Good news! We are almost there, and some important people have come to visit. That will make it easier to scrape together enough fighters to stand up to whatever your uncle is doing."

Zuko still hadn't formed a full opinion on that, so he let it pass. "Then shouldn't we be moving? Why stop if we're almost there?"

Toph nodded and ambled over to him. She made no attempt to avoid splashing through the mud puddles that littered the road, and given the strength of her Earthbending-sense, he could only assume it was because she didn't care. "Well, Prince Patience, we have a little bit of what we call a 'concern.' See, I'm obviously the incarnate goddess of the earth itself, ruling from a divine mandate expressed through the power of my Earthbending. You know, typical royal stuff."

Zuko nodded. "If you're about to tell me that you've been faking this king-thing all this time, I'm going to be very disappointed."

"Ha!" Toph swung a fist into his shoulder. "That's why I love you. But no, I'm really the king. Everyone says so, and everyone can't be wrong, right? Especially after I beat up the ones who said I'm not king. But beating people up takes a lot of time, and I found out there's this stuff called 'politics' that can sometimes be used to avoid a fight."

"The sarcasm is wearing a little thin." Zuko rubbed at his shoulder. It was really sore after that hit. "What are you saying?"

Toph looked up in what was almost the direction of his face. "I'm going to honor my offer of sanctuary to you. But it will be easier for now if you look more like my prisoner when we arrive at the camp. You get it? No one makes a fuss, and I can do politics with the right people later, one at a time."

Zuko looked over to the chains looped over Jojo's arm. "You want to tie me up?"

"And Azula. But I have a feeling she won't give us any trouble about it."

Zuko's chest burned at the thought of submitting to such treatment, but only for a moment. At this point, he didn't have much of a choice, and he was fairly certain that King Toph was being honest about everything. He wouldn't put lying past her, but she really didn't need to bother. She could have taken him from the Capital without his cooperation, and at this point hardly needed to ask him to put the chains on, not with a team of Earthbenders and nothing but rock and mud around them.

And maybe he could use his time as a prisoner to figure out what he was even doing here. He chose going with Toph over a quiet retirement in the care of the White Lotus, but he hadn't really thought about what was going to happen after that. Toph hadn't given any explanations, or promises beyond his safety.

He sighed and nodded. "Fine. But the less time I'm in chains, the better."

"I agree. I want your sunny disposition back in my life as soon as possible." Toph grinned and nudged him with an elbow. "Go ahead and get back in the wagon, and then Jojo will help you and Azula into your new duds."

It turned out that the worst part wasn't being handled like cargo, but rather seeing Azula simply allow herself to be locked in chains.

Zuko averted his eyes to stare out the back of the wagon as they got moving again. It might have been his imagination, but he thought he could feel the ground give a shake every now and then, too quick and sequential to be natural. Earthbender signals of some kind? Eventually, the bumps of the uneven road gave way to the slow squelching of mud. And then the sun yielded to the shade of a cave.

Zuko allowed himself to be carried as a prisoner into the dark.

After a moment, he heard Tom-Tom stir from his little rice-sack bed and say, "It night time?"



Toph stopped where the tunnel opened into a larger cavern, the dark blur in her vision having given away to a light blur that was probably a sunlight (the taste of fresh air spiced up the dank flavor of the typical cavern atmosphere) mixed with fires (she could smell that someone was smoking mudskippers) and crystal lanterns (the way they rang almost beyond the height of sound was unmistakable). The typical noises of community life echoed, giving her a sense of how big the space was.

She summoned her Earthbending and stomped a foot hard enough to make the whole vast place shake. Then she threw out her hands and boomed, "Your king has returned! Go, me!"

The whole cavern went quiet, allowing her voice to reverberate through the whole space, fading slowly into nothingness.

And then a cheer rose up loud enough to make her wince.

It was good to be home. Even if Toph had never actually been in this home, before.

Still, she could feel the Life here. It was just like their old hideout across the lake from Ba Sing Se, a collection of refuges and supplies and people and even some badgermoles. (There should always be badgermoles around.) It wasn't quite as refined and defensible as Full Moon Bay, but some of the rebels who had pledged themselves to her had told about this area and its muddy caves, and it didn't take a genius to realize that it would be a good backup camp. She could feel some of those mud ponds even here, but most of the ground had been smoothed and solidified by Earthbenders, allowing a little city of clay and canvas to be built in the space. As her Earth-sense brought back more detail, she could feel that a whole lot of air shafts in the walls substituted for the big gap in the ceiling that Full Moon Bay had boasted, keeping things from getting too muggy.

Toph wondered how long she'd get to stay here before running off on the next adventure.

She strode into the little kingdom, her spies and Zuko's wagon trailing behind her, and let all of the activity form a picture through her Earth-sense. People came crowding around, some reaching their hands out to her and others falling to the floor to bow at her feet. She moved her focus from person to person, making sure that none of them were preparing weapons or Earthbending stances; it had been a while since someone had tried to assassinate her, but it was always good to check.

Toph slowed to let Jojo and Lee pass and start pushing back at the bit of crowd right in front of her. She had learned that a King didn't do her own shoving unless she really wanted to. Once there was enough of a path, she continued her march, waving to her subjects, slapping a few hands, nodding or pointing at the ones whose shouted welcomes she heard, and generally playing to the audience like this was an Earth Rumble.

It was amazing how similar being a king was to being a Rumble champion. Someday, Toph was going to write a book about it for people to read, which meant she was going to talk about it until she got tired and somebody else would put it on paper all pretty-like.

Her path took her beyond the mass of rebels, and now she felt some familiar figures approaching. They were her direct subordinates, as well as the community leaders of the refugees under her care. She found the Water Tribe granny, Kanna, and pointed for the old woman to approach ahead of everyone else.

Toph whispered some instructions to Jojo, finishing just as Kanna had shuffled over. The Water Tribes didn't have kings, which was probably why Kanna didn't wait for Toph to speak before going, "Your majesty?"

Toph gave a little wave to let everyone know it was okay, and spoke loud enough that the rest of the group would be able to hear. "Your grandkids are doing great. Katara came back with some news, and she and the Avatar's team are off again on business. Everyone else is okay, too. But it turns out that Mai's family - you remember Mai, she's still cranky - are typical Fire Nation jerks and we had to rescue her little brother from them. Do me a favor and take care of the kid?"

Kanna was still reacting to the news, her heart speeding up at news of Sokka and Katara, a little tension easing from her body at confirmation that everyone had survived the trip through the Fire Nation, when Jojo brought Tom-Tom over by the hand. The kid's walk still had enough of a toddle in it to be completely without grace, and Toph enjoyed the feel of it on the rocky ground. Children were screechy, but their way of walking helped her understand what people meant when they said kids were cute.

Toph took Tom-Tom's hand from Jojo. "Hey, Tom-Tom. This is Gran-Gran. We told you about her, right? She's going to give you something to eat and a place to sleep. You get to go camping in a cave!"

Tom-Tom gasped. "Mommy says camping is bad! I wanna camp!"

Kanna gave a low chuckle. "Just like his sister, I see. Very well, Tom-Tom. Let's go meet the other kids and figure out which tent you'll be in."

"Okay, Gran-Gran." He let Toph transfer his hand to the old woman's, and then they were moving away, with Tom-Tom babbling some excitement about tents.

With that promise kept, Toph motioned for the next act in her performance for her Royal Court. "That's not the only prize I've taken from the Fire Nation. Check it out: Prince Zuko and Princess Azula, nephew and niece to the Fire Lord, are my prisoners!"

Toph enjoyed the sounds of surprise that greeted Lee as he guided Zuko and Azula over. She could feel Zuko slumping and bristling in his chains, but Azula just stood where Lee was holding her, her heart not reacting in the slightest to being surrounded by people who would gladly start throwing rocks at a moment's notice.

Toph took a casual little walk that just so happened to put her between the Fire Royalty and everyone else. "I haven't decided what to do with them, yet. Zuko here personally executed a traitor Lavabender who was serving the Fire Lord, and both of them recognize my superiority over their-" She sniffed and held her head high. "-debased royal blood. For now, put them somewhere secure with space and clean water. I'll attend to them later."

As Jojo and Lee moved to comply, one of the figures in front of her dropped to kneel on the ground and made a bow of the head that signified a request to speak.

Toph recognized him, and supposed it was just as well that he was making himself known upfront. "General Fong. The earth sang of your return to us. Welcome. You have something to ask me?" It wasn't even lie, since Jojo was an Earthbender and talked in a kind of sing-songy voice.

Fong looked up at her. "Your majesty, is it wise to keep Firebenders where they could hurt the refugees? This is not a real military base, and not secured for prisoners."

Toph stepped forward so that she was standing right in front of Fong. He was weighed down by the robes and armor of his rank, one of the few military commanders to still wear all that so long after Ba Sing Se's fall, but she was still barely tall enough to lean over him. "Zuko surrendered himself and his sister to me, and I tasted truth on his words."

Everyone else bowed at the waist and gave a little chant in celebration of her ability to sense lies. They loved that.

Fong inclined his head. "As you say, your majesty. And I'm sure having the children of Fire Lord Iroh's brother will benefit us."

Hm. Fong's pulse was steady. Toph had only referenced Zuko as the Fire Lord's nephew a moment ago, and now Fong was connecting that directly to Iroh without a single bit of surprise. "Good, you've heard that Azulon is dead. I guess that's why you're here."

"Your majesty is wise. Yes, I have come to serve you at the hour when our people can finally rise up and take back our country!"

Oh.

Huh.

Well, this was going to be a problem.

Toph gave a regal wave of her hands. "Yeah, yeah. Everyone, I have great tales of my adventures in the Fire Nation, but we'll do storytime a little later. Fong and I need to have a conference, first."
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Loopy
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« Reply #255 on: Aug 14, 2018 05:10 pm »



Zuko kept his eyes on Azula as they were led to the far side of the cavern by the Earthbenders Jojo and Lee. Their pace was slow enough that Azula could shuffle along without stumbling.

Zuko wished he understood this kind of sickness of the mind. It was less worrying when she simply acted as though asleep, even with her eyes open, because at least it looked like a coma or other unconsciousness. That went with bad injuries. But to have her taking food and drink, going where she was led, and not being Azula-

Even a trained animal would act according to its own mind.

Was there any coming back from this? And if so, what exactly would come back?

"Here we go," Jojo said.

Zuko turned his attention back to the matter at hand. They were near what must be the west wall of the cavern, judging from the sun that speared down through the regular air shafts in the rock. They were headed for something like a doorway, and Zuko could see that the room beyond was lit dully with the reflected glow of sunlight. Now where could that be coming from?

Then he passed into the space, and realized it wasn't a room at all. It was the bottom of a very thin ravine, as deep as a well, with the sky visible all the way at the top. Water flowed down into the space through a crack in the far wall, feeding a pool of mud that covered half of the room. But the half by the door was solid rock, so there was no need to get messy.

Zuko supposed it was the best possible jail to be stuck in, under the circumstances. "Thanks. I don't suppose we can get the chains off?"

Lee turned away, while Jojo smirked and produced a key in her hand as if by magic. "The Earth King is generous, isn't she? And if your sister needs any care, just knock on the rock-door I'm going to raise. Someone will be listening."

As Jojo moved to unchain him, Zuko considered all that. "I just hope King Toph can afford her generosity."

On the other side of the space, the mud bubbled.

Once they were free of the chains and the Earthbenders had left, Zuko  guided his sister to one of the walls and sat her down so that she could lean against it. Then he kneeled across from her, so that her unfocused eyes were at least pointed at him. "Azula, do you know who I am?"

She didn't say anything. Of course.

Zuko nodded. "It's okay. I know that you know. I just wanted to tell you that you don't have to be scared. We're safe here, and soon King Toph will let us out."

Once, Azula would have broken out into violence at the suggestion that she might be scared. Now, she did nothing.

Zuko reached out and put his hands on her shoulders. "I need you to come back. Please. Mother said I should take care of you, but- but I don't know how. I don't think this is what she meant, feeding you and stuff like that. I'm relying on Toph, but even she needs to make compromises. You've always been more observant than me. That would help right now."

Azula said nothing.

Zuko let go of her and leaned back. "I'm not lying. I- I never liked you. I admit that. But I respect what you can do. And it's just the two of us, now. But maybe you don't want it to be?" He looked into her eyes, but found nothing but a dull reflection of himself. "If you want to leave me and make your own life, that's fine. I'd rather that than- well, this."

Azula said nothing.

Well, so much for that. Zuko stood up and walked into the center of the room, where he could practice his Firebending without putting Azula in any danger.

But his mind was on what was supposed to come next.



"...so the thing we have to do," Toph finished, "is find out what Iroh wants in the south and get some defenses down there."

Fong was quiet. Toph could feel him stroking his beard, a sign that he was deep in thought.

They were alone, isolated from the main camp by stacks of supply crates. In the distance, Toph could feel some of her rebels putting together a 'court' where she would soon sit on a 'throne' and dish out her propaganda, but right here in the shadows was where the real kingship was being done.

Well, Toph was assuming there were shadows. People got really excited about the symbolism of shadows.

Then Fong said, "I don't agree."

Great.

This was the problem with Fong. Before the war ended, he had been the highest-ranking general outside of Ba Sing Se, and when the Fire Nation came along and burned the place down, that left him in charge of the remnants of the Earth Kingdom's military. But things had been confusing, and not everyone thought that the old command structure was still in place in a world with no Earth King, so Fong hadn't been able to unite the scattered remnants of the kingdom.

At least, not before Toph had come along claiming to be a distant relation to the line of the Earth Kings, and systematically jumping through every hoop necessary to get people to believe it.

Unlike most rebel leaders, Fong hadn't condemned Toph's claims. But he hadn't supported her, either, not until the Earth Sages decided to confirm her kingship. And while he'd accepted her orders, he'd been happy operate at a distance.

In other words, he was smart. He'd waited, listened, and picked the best options available.

The smart types worried Toph. (Unless they were Sokka. He was okay, and smelled like love and hotness.)

And so she knew better than to mess with them too much. "Oh? You still want to rise up against Iroh?"

"I do." Fong began to pace. "From what you've told me, the leadership of the Fire Nation is probably in complete disarray. Iroh is removed from those troubles at the North Pole, so even though he's in command, he can't have settled the confusion yet. News of Azulon's death is still spreading, and some colonies won't know where to look for instructions." He came to a stop and turned to Toph. "We've been recruiting and hoarding supplies for the right time, and I don't think we'll ever have a better opportunity to push back against the invaders."

He was sincere. Toph could feel his pulse quicken as he spoke, could sense his gestures growing more dramatic. In most other circumstances, she'd be happy to take his advice, but the problem was that the world had become weird. "I get what you're saying. And, you know, maybe we can send word for some of the groups to start hitting back. I like that. But there's more going on than just rebels and invaders. The Avatar says the Fire Nation is making the world sick, and Iroh's stuff is part of that."

Fong was nodding. "I respect the Avatar's power, and we can only assume that he's correct. But you don't know Iroh like I do."

"You've met him?"

She could feel Fong's grin. "Never. But I received reports of the war in the north, including what our observers could gather about the Water Tribe. Iroh's tactics always stood out from those of the other admirals. He doesn't just understand navies, he understands people, and he knows how to use it to great effect. Frankly, it's possible that giving our attention to that swamp is exactly what he wants right now. Our best strategy might be to secure as much of the continent as we can, and react when we know more clearly what he wants."

Toph shook her head. "It's not a scam. Iroh really is planning something for the south."

"Maybe he was," Fong said in the same tone that Dad had used whenever telling her that she was too weak to go beyond the estate's walls. "But you said he knows you discovered his plans. He's definitely formulating strategy to take advantage of that."

Toph knew Fong wasn't wrong. Iroh had already tried to strike back by grabbing Tom-Tom, and he wouldn't just take their counter-move on the chin. "Okay, get it. This is why I'm glad you're here."

Fong squared his shoulders and stood taller. "Thank you, your majesty. My service is my life."

"Good." Toph turned away from him. "Because the Avatar said it's important that we check out what Iroh wants. I promised him that I would use all my resources to do that. You know Iroh and you bring up some good points, so I need your smarts to help make this happen."

She could feel his stomach roil. "Your majesty-"

"I know we'd be missing an opportunity, here, but it might not be our last one." Toph didn't like the way Fong's pulse was increasing, so she shifted a bit to lower her center of gravity without actually taking a fighting stance. Just in case. "The Avatar is going up to confront Iroh, and for all we know a new war might be breaking out there soon. It's important that we solve an important mystery when we can, while watching and waiting for a better opportunity to get rid of our invaders. Hey, Aang might even be able to end the occupation without us having to fight, so why jump into things right away?"

Fong didn't speak right away, but he betrayed his unhappiness with every breath and heartbeat. "Well, I'm not going to pretend that I'm comfortable with this decision."

Toph nodded. "I don't expect you to. I just want your help making it work."

Fong sighed. It was much louder than it needed to be. "Then I will do what I must. You are the Earth King, and I am loyal to your Kingdom."

Toph frowned. "That's great for you to say, but change the wording a little: you're going to support my orders when I announce them to the others."

She could feel Fong nodding. "When we are before your court, you will have my support." He tapped his chest with his fist. "My king."

He was stressed and maybe angry, judging from what she could feel, but she detected no lie in him. "Okay. Thanks."

It was good to be king.

Right?



The Mud Man was hearing lots of interesting new things.

That wasn't his original name, of course. It would be pretty strange for a parent to look at a baby and say, "He doesn't look very much like a Wei or a Lee. Why don't we call him The Mud Man?" But the Mud Man's old names - all fifteen and a half of them - weren't appropriate anymore. They hadn't been for the last few weeks or months or years- whenever it was that he'd let himself sink into the mud and began listening. Maybe it had been a full century. Those passed quicker than most people realized.

Even Earthbenders didn't usually associate mud with listening, but that just went to show that people just didn't look at things right. They saw what others told them they were seeing, not what they were actually seeing. Someone would say, "So if you want to hear things from all the way across the world, you need a telegraph system. If you want watery dirt, then mud's the thing." And others would actually believe that! They wouldn't realize that they couldn't actually hear telegraphs, that machines were needed to turn the sounds into something understandable, and you had to have someone on the other end of the line to put the Truth into it before it would work.

Mud, on the other hand, was already all over the place, and it naturally absorbed Truth. And also moisture. And to listen to it, all you needed to do was sink into and let it teach you its very squishy language.

The Mud Man was good at listening.

He had heard about the snowstorms at the bottom of the world, as well as the Big Light that had popped up briefly. He'd heard about the ashlands. Oh, and the volcano! Actually, now there were two volcanos involved, which could be confusing if you weren't paying attention because mud considered all volcanos to be one. He'd heard about the new wars, and the new kings.

There was a lot to listen to right now concerning the littlest of the new kings. That was fine, because the little one was the most interesting, anyway. And now she was the Mud Man's neighbor! How nice. He would come over with a cake, if he knew how to bake a cake. It occurred to him that he could bring a mud pie, being submerged in mud all the time, and he laughed but had no intention actually trying it. He knew that mud pies weren't real desserts. The Mud Man wasn't crazy.

Besides, that would involve leaving the mud, and if he left, he might miss some of the news about the storms in the north, and The Thing that was causing so much trouble up there, and how all that related to The Tree.

The Tree was important. The Mud Man was sure of that.

After all, it had said so itself.

And so the Mud Man stayed in the mud, waiting and listening.

The little king would probably be coming over soon, anyway.


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Loopy
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« Reply #256 on: Aug 14, 2018 05:11 pm »

Toph kept her feet pressed to the ground as the dinner hour fell on her kingdom.

Her stories to her court had gone well enough. Everyone had been happy to hear that Azulon was dead and the Fire Nation capital was now a lava flow, and so sneaking in that Iroh was a traitor who needed to be dealt with was pretty easy. She had made sure she emphasized that the Avatar's spies had uncovered Iroh's treachery before he'd been able to spring it on them (never mind that Katara would probably object to being called a spy) and they had enough information to head off his plans. People liked to know that everything was going according to plan, even if the plan was being made up as it went along.

But it wasn't the immediate reaction to the tale that Toph was really interested in. She remained on her 'throne,' a couch of molded clay made from the mud and dust of this cavern, as some of the listeners moved back into the city-camp. She kept her feet pressed to the ground as everyone gathered in their groups of friends and family to eat and talk.

Toph let the orchestra of heartbeats wash over her.

There was Tom-Tom, practically bouncing in place as Gran-Gran, and the Water Tribe kids she took care of, showed him how to eat a smoked kipper. (Toph resolved to get herself a kipper. She deserved something tasty after all the work she'd done today.)

There was Jojo, trading a kiss for a bowl of rice and asking the soldier who gave it to her what General Fong thought of all this. (Good girl.)

There was Zuko and Azula, off in the little open-sky room that was keeping them safe by its existence, if not the walls that most people around here could just open up at will. (Zuko was Firebending, and Toph took a moment to admire his 'form.')

There was Fong, letting his kipper-wrap cool as he wrote something on a note and passed it to one of his subordinates, setting off a flurry of activity amongst his guard. (He might not agree with Toph, but he was a productive little minion.)

One of the food distributors was moving through the residential area pushing a small cart ahead of him, calling out that there was cabbage available today and how important it was for a healthy diet. (He added that good children might find that some fresh cabbage cookies were available after dinner if they asked nicely, and Toph grimaced and shifted her attention elsewhere.)

A family Toph knew as having come from Omashu was sitting with Bato and some of the Water Tribe hunters, sharing a story about an old Earth Queen who once tricked the Fire Nation into giving her an especially profitable trade deal using nothing but three carrots, an old sheet, and a herd of puma-goats. (Toph had already heard that one.)

There was excitement through the pulse of people, louder voices and more enthusiastic conversations than usual. Toph couldn't parse all the words that were spoken by everyone out there, but she didn't need to. A sample was good enough, combined with the feel of the activity.

Her people were still on her side.

Satisfied, she relaxed her body and let her attention return to her immediate surroundings. Some of her 'court' was lounging in the space around her, enjoying their own dinners and conversations and basking in her presence.

Well, they would have to do without her for now.

Toph snapped her fingers. "I have decided, in my infinite wisdom, that I shall have a conference over dinner with my captured Fire Royalty. Put some of the good stuff on a few plates and come with me. And make sure there's plenty of kippers."

As she stood up, she felt several of her self-appointed attendants jump to their feet to follow her orders. Toph left them to it and made her way over to the edge of the cavern where Zuko and Azula were being kept.

As she walked, Toph noticed that a circle of people were gathering not far from the makeshift prison. They were all men, all of them wearing the heavy armor of the military. She recognized several of them as being under Fong's command. Most of them were wearing boots and none of them had weapons. A few seemed to be weighed down at their belts, and a moment's focus revealed a non-earth container (glass, probably) containing some kind of liquid. And all of guys seemed a little jumpy, their muscles tense and their pulses quick.

Hm.

Seems like General Fong had set some guards, despite Toph assuring him that the 'prisoners' were safe.

But they weren't blocking the way to the prison, and the presence of the liquid probably meant that this was an unofficial posting. It was probably just Fong being cautious.

Toph supposed that she could talk to her general about this kind of thing. But it really wasn't a big deal, and he'd already conceded one argument to her today. He probably needed something like to this to feel like the wise adult looking out for a little girl-king.

Well, whatever kept him on her side, right?

Toph reached the slab that blocked the prison room off from the rest of the cavern. It was a good, solid bit of rock, but it only took her a solid stance and a swing of her fists to push it aside. She felt Zuko freeze, but then he relaxed again in what must have been recognition of her. She waited outside as her attendants brought in the plates of food, and then when they looked at her for their next orders, she nodded back towards the main camp. "Go on, get out of here. No one likes to be watched while they eat."

With the audience gone, Toph went inside and flopped herself down on the ground next to the food. "Well, they found a nice place for you. That's some good mud over there, and I can smell the outside air."

Zuko shifted so that he was in reach of one of the plates and took something. His chewing colored his words as he said, "I don't understand why mud would be a good thing, but there's water and a view of the sky, so it's better than some prisons I've been in."

"I'll have them bring something comfy for you to sleep on tonight, but I think I can let you out tomorrow." Toph scooped up some noodles in her hand and stuffed them into her mouth. "I'll put you on 'parole' and have someone watch over you, and soon everyone will be used to you hanging around. Just don't start any fights or anything."

Zuko snorted. "What if someone starts a fight with me?"

Toph snorted right back. "I can sense truth and lies, remember? I'll know who started what."

Zuko chewed his food for a while. "And then?"

"Then?" Toph wrinkled her nose as she tried to figure out what he was asking. "Well, I figure I'll punch whoever is causing the trouble, but I like to keep my options open. Maybe I'll throw a rock at the troublemaker's head? Or kick them in the-"

"I mean," Zuko interjected, "what's next for me? Once everyone is used to me."

"Oh!" Toph nodded. "That question makes a lot more sense. Well, then you do whatever. Become one of my advisors, or go live with Old Lady Kanna and take care of brats all day, or something. I'm the Earth King, but I don't tell people how to live their lives. Just how to serve me, if that's their thing. And how to bow down to my crushing fist, if their thing is trying to go against me. But that's pretty much it. Anything else is too much work."

She could feel Zuko looking at her. Finally, he said, "Is that going to work when you have your kingdom back?"

"What?"

She felt him motion at the cave around them. "If everything works out how you want - if Aang defeats my uncle and the Earth Kingdom is freed - then you'll be in charge of the whole continent. The Earth King of Ba Sing Se used to rule over a vast, sophisticated land, with Underkings and city-states and formal provinces. You're going to be at the top of all that. And you'll have to pick a new capital to rule from."

Toph frowned.

This wasn't news to her. She hadn't just decided to become Earth King on a whim, and in the months since she had met Aang, the goal of freeing the Earth Kingdom from Fire Nation rule had been something she'd thought about a lot. And that included the aftermath. She knew she'd be ruling most of the world. She was fine with that.

But she had thought that she could rule in a new way.

Well, maybe she still could.

She was about to say so, to test the waters with a real prince who might have actually experienced some Royal Stuff in between being a kid and getting exiled and helping his uncle enact a coup-

When she felt the slapping of boots on the ground. Lots of boots.

People were running towards this room.

She immediately dropped the bread she'd been picking at and slammed her hands on the ground, reaching out with her Earth-sense and demanding details.

The echoes were confused, thanks to the battering of feet, but she knew these bodies. These were Fong's soldiers, the ones 'standing guard' over Zuko and Azula. Why were they running here? Zuko hadn't attacked her. He hadn't even made a pass at her or anything!

Toph stood up and turned to face the doorway.

She could feel Zuko tense. "What is it?" He shuffled over to crouch in front of Azula.

The soldiers arrived, skidding to a stop just outside the room.

Toph called out, "What are you-"

One of the soldiers cried, "The Firebender is attacking!"

Toph took an Earthbending stance, not because she was afraid of Zuko, who was firmly in her Earth-sense, but because anyone trying to trick her had to be an enemy.

The soldiers moved-

Toph punched her fists above her head-

-they were throwing things-

-a wall rose to stand protectively in front of her-

-the projectiles crashed into the ground far short of her and shattered and they were glass and there was a hiss and-

The world lit up around Toph like a hot summer day.

And then her feet screamed.

No, it was Toph who was screaming. Her feet were in agony and she couldn't see and her feet her feet HER FEET-



Zuko had no idea what kind of liquid was in the bottles that had been thrown into his little jail, and that was surprising. He was from the Fire Nation, after all.

He'd expect to know about such a thing as a liquid that bursts into flame when exposed to air.

That's what it had to be, anyway. No sooner had those bottles smashed open and their contents splashed out over the floor than the liquid began smoking, and then-

And then there was light, and Toph was screaming.

Zuko extended his hand in the direction of noise, breathed in and out, and swiped through the air. The flames flattened for a moment and bent away from the petite figure rolling on the ground. Zuko hurried over to her, ducking behind the wall she'd raised as he scooped her up into his arms. He heard the sound of grinding rock that always came with Earthbending-

But no attacks came.

Zuko peeked over the wall just in time to see the doorway become swallowed up by the wall around it. They were being sealed in! His heart hammered, but then he remembered that he wasn't buried alive, that this was really just a deep ravine, and all he had to do was look up above the mud pit-

He still heard the grinding of stone above Toph's screeching.

Zuko turned and looked up in time to see the darkening sky and the first of the stars become cut off by an extension of stone.

He was trapped.

With all this fire.

The air!

He hefted Toph and dashed over to where Azula was still sitting, staring at nothing, not reacting at all to the flaming liquid seeping towards her. He dumped Toph into her lap with a, "Watch out for her," not sure which 'her' he was talking to, and stood up into his most rooted Firebending stance.

He held out his arms in front of them, and moved them back to his sides as he clenched his fists and lowered into a reverse arrow-stance. He demanded control of the flames and let the pulse of their dance synchronize with his breathing. He opened his fists, and curled his arms to push down in front of his chest, settling the energy in the flames to put them out-

The cave went dark for just a moment, and then the liquid hissed and the flames burst back into being. Zuko squinted against he renewed glare, and to him it looked like the flames might not be as high or as strong.

But he wasn't responsible.

Soon, they'd be out of air.

Flames demanded the breath of life just like any person, but they were far more greedy. He didn't have long before there was nothing left in this cave to breathe.

Zuko couldn't get himself out. An Earthbender would have an easy time of it, but Toph was still screaming in a bone-chilling mix of pain and panic. Azula's lightning would be able to punch through the thinner walls, but she didn't seem to care that she was about to die. It was up to Zuko, somehow. But he wasn't strong enough, wasn't powerful enough.

But if he only had a few more minutes to live, there was no point in giving up. He looked around, at the stone walls and the trickle of water at the far wall and the mud beneath it-

Wait.

Even after hanging around all day, the mud hadn't gained any ground on the solid portion of the room.

Zuko was moving even as the rest of his very bad plan began coming together in his head. He went back to Toph and Azula, wrapping an arm around each one. Azula stood in compliance with his tug, but he just went ahead and lifted Toph's weight completely. He brought them both over to the edge of the mud pool and took a moment to look around, but he couldn't see any sign that he might be right.

Oh well.

He clamped a hand over the nose and mouth of each girl, and dived into the mud with them.

It parted slimily around his body as he slid into the pool, but it was noticeably thicker than water, and Zuko soon found himself suspended in the slop. He didn't bother trying to swim; he just bent his legs up close to his body, fed on his Inner Fire, and kicked out with his Firebending. The force struck the mud, exploded, and propelled him downward like a fireworks rocket. He did it again and slid through the mud to hit against a harder surface. He couldn't let go of the girls, couldn't let them drown in this sludge, so he did his best to wiggle around to get his legs were beneath them. He started crawl himself along what had to be rock-

-Toph began jerking around in his arms, trying to pull her face out of his grip. She must be panicking, not realizing that she wouldn't be able to breathe here-

-the ground disappeared in front of him, and he tumbled into a universe of mud. Had he found the outlet? Could there be an air pocket close by? He gave another Firebending kick and flew deeper.

And again.

And again.

Toph hammered her head against his. It was slowed enough by the mud that it didn't really hurt, but it was distracting, and Zuko was trying to keep track of which direction was down. His lungs were screaming and he needed to breath and was this far enough?

He tried to shift and then fire-kicked again. He made a padded crash against stone. He angled himself into a different direction, and tried again-

Stone.

Another direction.

Stone.

Need air.

Stone.

Air.

Kick-

No more fire.

Air.

Swim.

Toph not moving.

Air.

Azula-

Toph-

-air-

And then the mud moved and cradled Zuko and carried him along.

He thought he might be dreaming - or dying - until his head burst up into dark, empty space and he gasped reflexively to fill his lungs with air.

Yes!

Alive!

He let go of the girls' faces, and both immediately gulped for breath.

Zuko let himself float in the mud, luxuriating in the sensation of being alive. It was pitch black, wherever he was, so there was nothing to look at. The air tasted fresh, at least, so there was probably no danger of running out. He decided to risk a light, and unwound his arm from around Azula. He held up the palm of his hand and called for a little flame, casting a warm orange glow.

And Zuko found a mud-smeared face staring into his own with crooked green eyes.

He splashed back as fast as he could and swung his free hand to point at the thing. He hoped it didn't eat people, but if it did, some fire would-

Wait.

The thing remained where it was, staring at him. Mud dropped from its features, from a nose and ears and a beard and-

It was human.

And then it grinned in a very human way, revealing an irregular collection of teeth. "Hello, Prince Zuko of the Fire Nation. This is my mud. Pretty nice, isn't it? Now, calm yourself down. You can call me the Mud Man."

TO BE CONTINUED
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« Reply #257 on: Sep 04, 2018 10:33 pm »

The Mud Man

General Fong couldn't help but wonder at the strange destiny guiding his life.

He had begun his adulthood by joining the Earth Kingdom's army as a grunt, fighting for to save his homeland, and rose up over the years to become one of its most prominent military leaders. And now the war that had defined his entire adult life was lost, and he was assassinating the Earth King to steal control of the remaining resistance. And she was truly the Earth King. Whether the Bei Fong clan (no relation to Fong himself) was truly kin to the Royal Line was immaterial; she'd been awarded the title by the people with the authority to give it. And so the orders that Fong had given out this evening were treason.

But if there was one constant to his life, it was that he did what was necessary for his country and the soldiers under his command.

He paced in his command tent. The troops were ready to move, or as ready as they could be without tipping off the rest of the settlement that he was expecting news of an assassination-

"Sir," a captain said as he pushed into the tent. "It's done!"

Fong took a breath. "Okay. Get the lockdown started. I'm going ahead."

Despite the need for urgency, his legs felt heavy as he ran out of the tent and called for every available soldier to follow him. His shouts were loud enough to reverberate off the distant ceiling of the massive cavern that enclosed the whole makeshift base and refugee village. What kind of a world was he living in, that arranging for a teenage girl to either suffocate or burn to death was the best choice he could make for all the people gathered here? Especially knowing how horrible it could be to die like that.

At least he'd also killed those Fire Royal teens. He could take a little comfort in their suffering.

There was already a crowd by the time Fong arrived at the little side-cave where Prince Zuko and Princess Azula had been stashed. A team of his special operatives were standing in front of the Earthbending-sealed entrance, keeping the civilians back. It was all according to the orders Fong had written out earlier, and he nodded at the squad's commander as he made his way over. "What do we have, Colonel Trung?"

"The Firebenders attacked the Earth King, sir!" Trung made no sign that this was the answer he had been ordered to give. "We were on station nearby and heard the fighting, and arrived to find everything on fire! We were about to intervene, but King Toph ordered us back and sealed off the room."

It wasn't a great excuse, but it was the best Fong had been able to come up with on such short notice. He was a man of tactics, and had been sitting on a method to defeat Toph Bei Fong since he first met her and evaluated her abilities, but he wasn't as comfortable with politics and lies like this. Hopefully, he wouldn't have to actively maintain the deception. "For her own safety, I'm overriding the King's orders. Crack this room open for me and keep the civilians back. I'm going in myself."

His operatives immediately shifted into Earthbending positions and punched a break into the wall that used to be the prison's entrance. There was a pop as the air equalized, and the wall crumbled from the force of the brief wind.

Fong hesitated only a moment.

He wasn't looking forward to what he would find inside.

For all the burned bodies he had seen in his career, he hadn't been able to get used to the sight. Some had been allies, while others the victims of the special weapons he had just used against the Earth King.

But when he stepped into prison cave, there were no bodies. The walls were blackened from the fire, there was the residue all over the floor from the burning liquid mixture his command had invented during the war, and the shattered remains of clay plates were mixed with the charred leftovers of a dinner. The surface of the mud pit on the far side of the room was caked and solid beneath a pool of water fed from a spring in the wall.

Where had the Earth King gone? Where were the Firebenders?

There was no sign on the floor or any of the walls of an Earthbending-made escape route. Then where-

No.

It didn't matter now. Something had gone wrong, and it was time to deal with it. As some of his operatives moved into the cave behind him, Fong motioned for Colonel Trung. "We have a problem, Colonel."

The man wasn't an idiot. His eyes moved around- "No bodies."

"Right," Fong whispered. "Spread word that the Earth King is missing, perhaps injured or dead. I'm taking control to maintain the stability of the camp here and the resistance as a whole. We still think the Firebenders tried to kill her, and my best operatives have been tasked with finding her. Is that all clear? And when Bei Fong is found- we handle it quietly, and then we return the body to the people so that they can mourn."

Trung glanced back at the cave opening. "What if the king is already with her own loyalists?"

Fong shook his head. "We have to remove her from power. She and the Avatar are children trying to fight a war against the most dangerous man alive. Taking control and striking back against the Fire Nation is the only chance our Kingdom has of survival. If we fail, being executed for treason and not having to experience what comes next will be a mercy."

It was a risk even speaking this out loud. Earlier, Fong had given his orders in writing, and then had his subordinates burn the paper once they'd memorized the words. The king could be behind one of the walls, listening now to his confession of betrayal, but it was a risk they would have to take.

Besides, Fong had fought clever enemies before. He was fairly sure that the king would be looking to put distance between herself and treachery at this point, not immediately counter-attacking. She was a fighter who knew the value of waiting to strike the most efficient blow.

She'd never been in the military. Otherwise, she would have learned that all the efficiency in the world is nothing compared to speed and force.

Fong nodded to Colonel Trung. "Go."



Toph hadn't been so blind in years.

(...her feet...)

She had vague memories, in the time before the badgermoles, of not having a constant awareness of the world around her. She'd responded to sounds, smells, and shifts in light and darkness. That was all she had to reveal the world beyond her hands and feet.

(...her feet hurt...)

Then she'd run away from home. She couldn't remember what exactly had made her leave the Bei Fong estate, or even how she'd found the cave; she had just thought of it as a soothing place she liked. She hadn't known about the badgermoles who passed through those caves until they'd crashed across her path and licked her. She'd instantly started copying them (including the lick), and learned how to move the earth, how to feel the earth, how to 'see' what was around her without the need for eyes. The world came alive to her, but she also became more aware of how far Dad and Mom were pushing that world away from her.

(...her feet were hot, roaring...)

She'd relied on her feet to sense the earth beneath her and the vibrations that passed through it- the vibrations created by life and movement. She'd gotten so good at it that it had become reflex, a constant stream of information. Her feet were her life.

And now they couldn't feel anything.

Now she couldn't feel anything.

Her feet were burned.

She couldn't stop herself from whimpering.

She was floating chin-deep in mud, which was already bad for conveying vibrations. There were voices around her, voices echoing against a low ceiling, but she couldn't make herself concentrate on them. It was all she could do to hold back sobs. Her feet were screaming with pain and wouldn't stop. She couldn't focus on using her hands to try to sense who else might be here with her. She didn't even really remember how she'd come to be in mud in the first place. It was something involving Zuko, she knew, but he'd let go of her and she was blind in the sludge.

Or had she always been blind, and she'd just fooled herself otherwise?

Stupid.

Stupid, but not helpless.

She'd held back on showing her true strength for too long, and the Fire Nation had come along and taken her home away from her. Thanks to their flames, there wasn't even a home for her to take back, not anymore. No parents to lock her away, but no parents to finally see and love her for who she really was. She wasn't going to let fire take away anything else, not so long as she was breathing.

It didn't matter that this latest fire had come from her own people. That just made it all the more important.

Toph let herself sink into the muck and curled her body up like a baby in the womb. Her feet screamed at the feel of the mud sliding over her burns, but she fought back against it, managing to keep her mouth shut even if she couldn't stop tears from leaking out her eyes to join the muck. She reached out with her Earthbending, imagining herself as one with the mud, and extended her legs to move them through the sludge. It leached the heat out, but that wasn't the relief she was looking for.

She drew upon both the power that existed in all earth as well as the secret energy that sprung up whenever water and dirt mixed to become one.

Waterbending could restore damaged flesh. Firebending could restore a body's flow of energy.

Mud had its own way of working.

Toph kept moving her legs up and down as though swimming, using the motion to take control of the mud and shift it according to her will. In response, the sludge grasped her feet and massaged them, caressed and soothed them. She let the pain and the heat leak away into the muck, where they were absorbed as a weight without physical form. She raised her hands to take control of that heavier mud and squeezed her fingers into fists. The healing coating pressed against her feet with real power now, seeking to become one with her flesh. It found a ready home on her sole, where the fire had ravaged the skin and muscle.

The mud filled in and firmed up to form a coating over her injuries. She had never liked shoes, but this was something altogether different. The protective mud - almost more like clay, now - would shield her even as it moved as one with her. Her feet were still damaged, and she'd be blind to the world when next she tried to walk on them, but now they would have a chance to heal. It was up to her body, now, and she knew it was capable of great things.

Toph took a moment to savor the relief and satisfaction of a job well done-

-and she was yanked out of the mud so suddenly that she let out a shriek.

Above the pounding of her heart, she heart someone laughing, a cackle that wasn't familiar. It cut off with a snort, and then the same voice said, "So Earth-healing is real! Hooray!"

Toph swung a fist as hard as she could towards the source of insult.


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Loopy
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« Reply #258 on: Sep 04, 2018 10:35 pm »

At sound of a meaty impact, Zuko ripped a hand free of the mud and summoned a flame in his fist. The light reflected off of the surface of the glistening mud that filled the room up to his shoulder and covered the low ceiling and curved walls. He might have felt Azula, propped over his shoulder so that she wouldn't drown in this disaster area, twitch as the fire and flash came to life. But it was probably his imagination. Ever since the crazy old man had popped up, Zuko had been jumpy.

Speaking of whom-

At the edge of the firelight, the weird 'Mud Man' was holding his hands over his nose. Toph floated next him, up to her chin in muck.

The Mud Man said, "What was that for?"

"Touching my royal person, jerkface." Toph scowled at him in the completely wrong direction.

Zuko let some of his worry leak out with a sigh. Toph was awake and acting belligerent, so she was all right. He hadn't failed to save her. That was one person, at least.

He did his best to wade over to her without dropping Azula, but the mud was thick enough to make it a struggle. "Are you okay?"

The Mud Man took his hands away from his nose and looked at them. "I don't think it's bleeding. Oh, do you mean the king? She's doing quite well. Right, your majesty?"

"Go suck on a mudkipper!"

"I like you. And I'm very impressed, too. Healing your feet with Earthbending! I hadn't fully believed in that kind of thing until I saw it just now. Not that I saw it, really, because there's a reason they say, 'As clear as mud,' and it's not to try to get an Opposite Day started up again. But I-"

"Shut up!" Toph lifted her arms free of the mud and pushed in the filthy old man's direction. She didn't touch him, but the motion sent her sailing through the mud to bump into Zuko. "What's going on, Zooks? Where are we? Who's the creepy guy? Why did my soldiers light my feet on fire and dump me in mud?!"

'Zooks?' If there was one benefit to Azula being catatonic, it was that she hadn't just heard this newest nickname. Zuko elected to ignore and hope it went away. "I don't know. After you went down, they sealed us in the cavern. We were either going to burn to death or suffocate, so I grabbed you and Azula, and dived into the mud pit." He frowned, trying to clarify events in his head. "I figured it had to run deeper and maybe into another cave. But I got- I got lost and then the mud flowed and we popped up here. I think this- this guy saved us. He calls himself-"

"The Mud Man!" The stranger let himself fall backwards into the mud, floating on the surface. Only his face was recognizable as human through the filth that covered his whole body. (Zuko couldn't even be sure if the guy was wearing clothes.) "It's one of those names that sounds just the like the person it belongs to. Pleased to meet you, King Toph!"

"Um, yeah, sure." She leaned over to Zuko and whispered, "He sounds like he's either super-old or he's been swallowing weird things."

"Um." Zuko looked over at the Mud Man, who was ignoring them and floating happily. "Probably both."

"Yeah. So, uh, where are we?"

The Mud Man sank into the goop like an anchor, and then a second later popped up somewhere behind Zuko. "My home! You better appreciate this mud bath. This is old mud, ancient mud, very good for the skin. And also burned feet, apparently. But thank you for visiting! I don't get much company these days, aside from slimy creatures and the occasional badgermole. It's nice to have someone to talk to. So, why did you come?"

Zuko turned to keep the guy in his sight, being careful to not drop Azula or push Toph under. "Didn't you bring us here?"

"Bring you? Me? I wasn't planning on any guests today, or I would have gotten out the good plates. And something to put on them. Besides mud." Some sludge dripped down from the ceiling to splatter on the Mud Man's head, but he didn't seem to notice. He just paddled around like a turtle-duck in a pond. "I'm not sure how I even got myself here."

Toph grabbed Zuko's arm and pulled herself so that she was floating in front of him again. "Then how did we get here?"

"Oh, well, obviously the mud wanted you here. It's pretty smart, and it listens to everything. Maybe it will bring more visitors soon, like all those people busy being worried up in your camp, or those nasty soldiers who attacked you."

"The mud?" Toph slapped the surface to make a little splash. "This mud? Mud doesn't move by itself. People need to move it. Like with Earthbending."

"Earthbending?" The Mud Man looked over with what was probably an expression of confusion under all the goop. "No, that's something completely different. The mud doesn't get a say if someone is Earthbending it. But the mud definitely wanted you here. It told me all about you. Want to be friends?"

Toph sighed. "Earthbender or not, you're kind of crazy, aren't you?"

Zuko braced for a bad reaction, readying his fire.

But the Mud Man only made a thoughtful sound. "Am I? Well, that would certainly explain a lot of things. The hallucinations, for one. And most people don't live in mud, now that I think about it. And I did spend a lot of time in that ashland. People don't come out of those things right in the head, you know. On the other hand, this is very nice mud, so maybe all the other people are the crazy ones, and the ashland just made me sane. Oooooooh, I bet that's it! Welcome to sanity, fellow mud-dwellers!"

Ashland? Zuko had to suppress a shudder. That would explain a lot about this guy. He had passed through two ashlands in the last year, and both of the experiences had changed him- in good ways and bad. "Right. So, um, if we wanted to leave, how would we get out of here?" He hadn't taken a good look around yet, but now that Toph was safe and the Mud Man was proving to be relatively benign, he raised his burning hand to shed more light.

It was hard to tell where the immediate chamber began and where it ended. The dome of the low ceiling was pockmarked with tunnels of mysterious length, and the walls gave way in random spots to new paths that curved and twisted out of sight. There were too many to easily count, and mud flowed through all of them, obscuring whatever truth might have been invisible in the darkness.

Zuko didn't have the first idea how to begin finding his way back to the rebel camp. Had he come in through one of the holes in the ceiling, a passage in the wall, or an access point somewhere below the surface of the mud? "This place is a maze."

Toph waded over to a wall, pressed her left ear against its slimy surface, and then slammed both of her fists against the stone. "I can't- It's all- It's not responding to my Earth-sense clearly. The earth is full of tunnels filled with mud, and all that junk is hard to 'see' through. I can sense what's there for a little ways, but that's not going to get us back to the surface."

"Yeppers." The Mud Man sank into the mud with a splash again, and a few seconds later his head lowered down through one of the holes in the ceiling. "The mud moves all around through here. We can just drift on it like time itself. Like a boat on a river. Like a feather on the wind. Like my poor paper boat in the rain-gutter. Why?! Why did no one tell me my boat wouldn't come back?! I spent an hour folding it just right!!" The echoes of his shouts faded, and his voice came back warmly, "Although time and rivers never flow backwards, and I'm pretty sure the mud does that sometimes. So, probably more like the feather thing. Either that or I'm very turned around in here."

"That," Toph bit out, "is probably the truest thing you've said so far. But do you think you can show us the way back to our home? I have some people to destroy."

"Oh." The Mud Man dropped out of the ceiling and slid into the sludge without so much as a splash. His head rose back out slowly until his mouth was clear enough to talk with only a little bubbling. "You want to leave?"

Zuko tensed. "Is that a problem?"

The Mud Man didn't immediately reply.

Then he popped up to his full height and giggled. "Nnnnnnnope, no problem at all. I shall be your guide through the darkness and the mud! A loyal subject to the Earth King herself, as well as the dangerous fallen prince and the not-so-dangerous fallen princess. We can make it an adventure!"

"Or not," Toph said.

"Oh, all right. Maybe next time." The Mud Man spun in place a few times and then suddenly stopped, pointing with both arms down one of the passages. "Come, this way. We'll be back to the surface in either no time or a century. Come!"

Zuko looked at Toph, and she seemed to be as unsure of this as he felt, but what choice did they really have? At least the Mud Man was sane enough to know he was crazy. That was probably a good sign. Right?

Zuko took a deep breath and started wading through the muck. He purposefully bumped into Toph, and she wrapped her arms around his chest so that she was floating off his back beside Azula. Toph gave him a pat over his heart and said, "You steer with your hands. I'll keep us going."

Zuko didn't get it. "What do you-"

And then she kicked out behind her like a frog-squirrel, and Zuko was sailing through the mud like a speedboat. "Whoa! Uh, keep going this direction. The Mud Man is right in front of us." A thought occurred to Zuko. "And, uh- Mister Mud Man, sir?"

"Hmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmm?" The Mud Man looked back.

"You wouldn't happen to be one of those old men like out of the stories? You know, the ones who pretend to be crazy to teach wisdom or something?"

Toph snorted. "That wouldn't be so bad. I could put up with an annoying crazypants routine if that got us some new information or fighting style or something."

"Eh." The Mud Man shrugged. "I'm probably just cracked in the head. Stories like that were old and predictable even when I was young and not living in mud. Really, when the last time a crazy person actually taught you something useful?"

Zuko could only nod. He hadn't really expected anything else, and he'd settle for not being lost in muddy caverns for the rest of his life.



Kanna sat in front of her tent, mending a jacket with a whale-bone sewing needle she'd had since before she left the North Pole over half a century ago. She looked up as another set of Earth Army soldiers ran through the refugee camp on some errand or another, and then went back to her sewing.

The word was that King Toph had been attacked by the Fire Nation prince and was now missing.

But Kanna hadn't traveled and lived long enough to be called 'Gran-Gran' by believing every word that made its way to her ears.

As she worked her needle and thread, a heavy breeze passed over her that had no business in an underground cavern. A moment later, an old woman in pious gold and white robes alighted in front of the tent and bowed her head in greeting.

Mother Malu. One of the few people in the hidden rebel city who was older than Kanna, as well - possibly more unbelievably - an Airbender. The Avatar had found her and rescued her abbey - all Airbenders - from the Fire Nation. It was one of several signs of the strange nature of the world today, along with a refugee nation of the Southern Water Tribe living under the protection of a child Earth King.

If that wasn't a reason for Kanna and Malu to be friends, then fish didn't like water.

Kanna continued her sewing but dipped her head low in greeting. "You honor me."

Malu came over and sat down beside her. "The children are all right?"

"They are." Kanna jerked her head back towards the tent. "Shila is keeping them inside with the new Fire Nation child. They've learned that times like this aren't made for running around. Finally."

And she was proud of that. It was a dangerous world, especially for children who weren't fully of her Tribe's blood, but she'd managed to teach them when it was time to be cautious and how to survive when even caution wasn't enough. Those same lessons had brought Sokka to the Avatar's side, and returned Katara from the clutches of the Fire Nation.

Those lessons had also failed her son and his wife.

Malu leaned closer to Kanna and whispered, "I spoke with one of King Toph's personal Earthbenders, a woman named Jojo. She says that the prince is the king's friend and would not do this."

Kanna didn't visibly react. She kept sewing, eyes on her work, and when she spoke again, it was in a low voice neither loud enough to carry or whispery enough to attract attention. "The Fire Nation child in my care, Tom-Tom, is a chatty one. He's already told me all about his sister, the Lady Mai. According to him, she entrusted him to Zuko's care as well as the Earth King's. This Zuko bowed to the Avatar at their lasting parting, and received a bow in return."

Malu said, "Indeed?"

Kanna gave a single nod. "My grandchildren were also at that parting. Zuko might not be their companion, but he is at least trusted as an ally."

Malu made a sound of interest. "Of course, I have great respect for the Avatar and his companions."

Kanna knew that. They had talked about their respective adventures. She liked hearing stories about her grandchildren.

Malu stood up and straightened her robes. "Well, I would love to stay and rest some more, but my nuns and I are helping to keep the village calm in the face of this loss and betrayal. Most of the leaders here are assembling where the Earth King held court, so that they can help with the search and act on any new information. Maybe a representative delegation from the Water Tribe would be welcome."

"Maybe." So Malu was bringing together people who were responsive to an alternate explanation for the Earth King's disappearance. Kanna pulled her needle through the fabric one more time, and then tied the thread off and cut it with a small knife. "Have you seen Bato around?"

"He's talking with some of the men at the campfire down the lane."

"Good. Let him know that I'm on my way, please?"

Malu nodded, and then another breeze rose up and carried the old Airbender away.

Kanna stood up and turned to poke her head into her tent. Shila sat with Tom-Tom in her lap, and Naklin, Quinyaya, Tliyel, and Shlim all lounged in a circle around her, enjoying their new little friend. They all looked up at her, their faces glowing with the mix of eagerness and wariness unique to children in the middle of a stressful situation.

Kanna smiled at them. "I'm going with Bato to talk to some people. Stay in the tent, and behave."

Shila said, "Is everything okay?"

"It will be. We'll make sure of it." That was the role of the elders in any community.

And if they couldn't, then it would be time to fighters to step forward.


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« Reply #259 on: Sep 04, 2018 10:36 pm »

Toph had no sense whatsoever for how long she'd been wallowing in mud. Not that she had any problem with mudbathes (they were her favorite kind), but she had more important things to take care of.

Like those soldiers who burned her feet and left her for dead.

And Fong.

She wasn't an idiot. (Not completely.) She hadn't detected a lie in Fong, but she'd felt his disquiet after their debate. He never agreed with her about trying to counter Iroh instead of rising up against the Fire Nation colonizers. She'd had enough questions about his resolve to send Jojo to flirt some information out of his troops, and there was no way a whole squad of his soldiers would commit an act of treason without his command. Military guys were big on discipline.

But despite all Toph's caution, all her power, all her well-honed charisma, she'd nearly gone down like a chump. Without Zuko, she wouldn't have made it. Probably. She still wasn't clear on how they survived, unless the Mud Man was an Earthbender and didn't know it.

At least she could take credit for investing in Zuko. Sure, he was missing an eye, had fought to destroy her nation and people, and had one of the biggest attitude problems on the planet.

But Toph liked him.

She kicked through the mud, propelling him and his brain-dead sister in the wake of the Mud Man. "So, are we almost there yet?"

Zuko gave a grunt. "How many times are you going to ask that?" He shifted his weight, getting Azula's limp body higher up on his shoulder but making her leg bump up against Toph. "And how many times have you gotten a useful answer to it?"

Toph stuck her tongue out at Zuko, even though she was stilling floating behind him and he wouldn't be able to see it.

Further up in the cavern, the Mud Man's voice echoed back to them. "Oh, we have a ways to go here. Then we go left at the fork, up when we reach the spoon, right at the chopsticks, and then at the big serving platter we let ourselves sink into the mud and think happy thoughts. Easy, right?"

Toph tried to feel if there even was a fork in the path ahead of them, but there was too much water in this mud for her to get a good picture. Zuko's body was clear in her Earth-sense, but the Mud Man was vaguer, and past him she couldn't even confirm that the tunnel they were in didn't just drop off into the void.

And, unfortunately, being able to sense when people were lying was nothing like trying to tell when they were sane. "Yeah, easy."

"So," the Mud Man continued, "let's make the most of the time! Most of the news I get is so unhappy, even with the Avatar running around trying to fix things. But we should have some fun together before you go! Tell me, what are you going to do when you get back up to your General Fong guy?"

Toph grinned. This was a happy thought. "I'm thinking broken bones, to start with. Maybe his arms." To punctuate the thought, she kicked again, driving her and the fire-siblings further along the path.

Zuko snorted. "If it was your general, then he committed treason against his monarch. Execution is the only proper response."

The Mud Man cackled. "Ooh, that's a good one. Break his bones, eat his scones, then cut off his head for the watching crones!" He snorted. "I bet all his soldier people will like that, too! They'll go, 'Oops, that was our beloved leader! And that was his head rolling in the other direction! Stinks to be him!' And if they don't like, we'll cut off all their heads, too."

Hm. Toph hadn't thought about that. She was the king, and was practically worshipped by most of her rebellion, but Fong had been a general for longer than she had been alive, and his soldiers still looked to him for orders. Maybe immediately breaking his arms wasn't the smartest move.

"Well," she said, "we need to make sure everything is okay so that we can help Aang and protect the Earth Kingdom from Fire Lord Iroh."

"Ooooooooh." The Mud Man's voice echoed from somewhere above her. Was he hanging from the ceiling again? "That sounds like fun. Well, fun to listen to. I'm not going to leave my mud just for a war. But I'm sure the mud will tell me all about it. The epic battles, the comedic bumbling of the sidekicks like Prince Zuko, the fires and ash and all that awfulness." He was silent for a merciful moment, and then added, "Eh, I've seen that kind of thing already. What else you got?"

Zuko muttered something about a 'bumbling sidekick.'

Toph kicked the mud again, leaving the source of the Mud Man's voice behind. "Got? I got burned feet and a need to hurt people, but you know that."

Something popped ahead and the Mud Man's body once came into the range of Toph's Earth-sense. "Oh, I know that, you silly turkey-goose. I mean after the war. If there's nothing to entertain me through the mud's rumor-mill, I might just have to go ahead and die after all this time. And what would the world - or kids lost in underground muddy caverns - do without me?"

Toph gave a laugh. "Well, sorry to disappoint you, but that's the boring part. The Avatar helps me beat the Fire Nation, and then I rule as the supreme power of an entire continent. I'm the Earth King, you know."

Zuko made a sound of some kind as he angled his arms to steer them down the curving tunnel. "You're really going to rule the restored Earth Kingdom?"

Toph wrinkled her nose. "Sure. Why not?"

"Well, I-" He went quiet for a second. "Never mind."

"No. Tell me what." Toph slapped the back of his head to convey the importance of her curiosity.

Zuko sighed. "I just have a hard time seeing it. You seem too-" He didn't immediately continue.

Toph decided to go ahead and be offended. "What? Too young? Too blind? Too unrefined? Too heart-meltingly sexy? Too small? Too stupid?"

"What if I said too muddy?"

"...okay, I would give you that one."

Zuko shook his head. "I was really going to say that you seem too smart."

Toph frowned. "That's the opposite of where I thought you were going."

"Well, think about what we've seen. The Fire Nation has control of entire world and burned everything that wouldn't submit. They had won. The Fire Lord, and my- my parents, and- and Azula, and- they had everything. But we saw how that turned out. It all fell apart. My Uncle is in charge now, but he's turned the Avatar against him. What's the point of ruling? Even you have to deal with Fong now, and the Earth Kingdom hasn't even been restored yet. Maybe we're just seeing the end of nations. Maybe the end of the world."

It might have been the single longest statement Toph had ever heard Zuko make. And she hadn't missed how the Fire Nation was 'they.' It was a strange thought, coming from him. He was all about growling and trying to make people think he was strong.

Toph rested her head against his back, near where one of Azula's legs was dangling. "I think it's more about the people who ruined things than the end of civilization. It takes strength to be a leader, but-" She thought back to how her parents kept her locked up, to the point where no one outside their estate even knew she existed. "You have to know when to let things go. Especially people."

She wondered how that was supposed to work with Fong. She still wanted to destroy him. Metaphorically and literally.

His back moved against her face as he gave a shrug. Or maybe he was just shifting Azula's weight again. "Well, maybe you'll find a way to make it work. I just don't know what a good life looks like anymore."

"Yeah, well, maybe I'm not the only one who's blind, One-Eye."

" I can barely see where I'm going right now. So, yes, you're right."

Heh. Zuko didn't have a good sense of humor, but at least he had something.

"Okaaaaaaaaaaaaaay," came the Mud Man's sing-song call. "Who's ready to dive and find a long secret passage that will maybe drown us all before we get to the end?"

Toph dipped her head in the mud and let her sigh blow some bubbles.



Fong leaned on his desk, a slab of stone raised from the ground to support a map of the Earth Kingdom, and cradled his head. "How can you not find the Earth King after this many hours? She couldn't have gotten far with injuries, and the Prince couldn't drag two people with any speed. Unless your men didn't actually accomplish what was reported."

Colonel Trung bowed low. "Apologies, general, but I saw her get hit and go down myself. Although, she is a powerful Earthbender."

Fong didn't need to be told that. He pushed himself up from the desk and began pacing across his command tent. "It's possible some of the refugees in the camps are hiding her, but we can hardly order that kind of search. We'll just have to accomplish what we can while we have the time. Is the leadership still assembled?"

"Yes, general. They're waiting for news and talking. The guards we assigned for their 'safety' report that no one has said anything against you."

Well, that was something. Although Fong doubted that any of these people were stupid enough to air such thoughts in the presence of his soldiers. They were survivors, and enemies of the Fire Nation. They were all worthy of respect. He hoped he wouldn't have to order their deaths. "Good. I'm going to address them. Notify me immediately if there's news."

Fong didn't even wait to return Trung's bow before hurrying out of the tent and towards the 'court' of King Toph. It was just a perimeter of empty supply-crates with crystal lanterns on top of them, with one box alone at the head of the space to make a kind of throne. It was cheap theater, but effective enough that the 'throne' had been left empty since Toph's disappearance.

The rest of the court was full and bustling. Someone had made a campfire at the center, and gathered around it were the people who Toph had recognized as leaders among her group of rebels. They were all civilians from Fong's perspective, a mix of family heads, clan elders, criminal bosses, charismatic influencers, Earth Sages, and self-styled commanders of irregular rebel groups. Some had military experience, but none now wore a uniform. All these people had drifted into Toph's influence, bringing their groups under the supposed dominion of the Earth King and pooling their resources for her use.

They weren't even all from the Earth Kingdom. Two of the Southern Water Tribe refugees were here, a tall man and an old woman, as well as a handful of Airbender nuns (of all things) rescued from both the Fire Nation and Long Feng.

They all turned to him as he entered the court and stood in front of the throne. "I'm sorry to tell you all that we still haven't found the Earth King. Considering how many hours it's been, we have to consider the possibility that the Fire Royals might have gotten away with her- or her body. They might have even had help waiting for them in the area."

One bearded man with a sigil of the Omashu city guard on his hat stepped forward. "How could such a thing happen? The Earth King herself brought the prince and princess in, and her Earthbenders accompanied them. How could they have all missed Fire Nation spies in the area?"

Fong held up his hands to show his helplessness. "I'm as mystified as you are. I believed in the Earth King enough to pledge my armies to her. But no matter how we look at this, Toph Bei Fong somehow missed treachery coming from right beside her, and now my king is gone."

The court began murmuring at that. Some of them outright worshipped her as divine, and they didn't like the idea of her making a mistake.

All the more reason to bring about the end of such a reign. Fong knew all too well that Earth Kings were not dependable, even if they really had royal blood.

He stepped up on the makeshift throne. "You all heard her tale of the Avatar's need and Fire Lord Iroh's betrayal. I was prepared to follow her call to prepare for a new invasion, but now I worry that even then she was being manipulated by our enemies. The Fire Lord's own nephew was brought into our camp and tried to kill the Earth King! Maybe he succeeded! We obviously cannot trust the people of the Fire Nation. We cannot tolerate them in our lands any longer."

Fong looked out at the assembled court and raised a fist. "In the name of King Toph, I will send out orders to our allies across the continent, telling them that it is time to rise up and strike at the Fire Nation forces! If they have tried to take our king away from us, we will find her and take her back. And if they have killed her, we will have our vengeance!"

Cries of support rose up from some of the assembly, but also worried chatter. One young woman - Jojo, that former bandit trash who Toph had made into a spy - shouted that this wasn't what the Earth King wanted.

That was fine. Fong didn't need full agreement. He just needed everyone's awareness. As long as no one rose to take Toph Bei Fong's place, who could stop a General of the Earth Army from fighting a war with his own soldiers? Secret movements invited suspicion, and so Fong was declaring his intentions.

All he had to do was keep the Earth King from returning, and no one could question him. Some would refuse to fight in his name, but Fong didn't need all of them. It was more important to strike before Iroh could full stabilize his reign.

Fong stepped down from the throne, ready to be hoarded by people wanting to talk to him-

And the ground shook.

The whole massive cavern shook, sending dust floating and falling. Fong looked around, trying to find the cause. That was too large for even a group of Earthbenders, and this area was seismically stable. What could have caused that?

Someone in the court said, "The Earth mourns for the Earth King!"

Even Fong believed it for a moment.



Zuko nearly slipped and sank into the goop when the Mud Man suddenly popped up in front of him and crooned, "We're Heeeeeeeeeerrrrrrrrrrrrre!"

Zuko had been maintaining a small fireball in his right hand, and raised it as he put more energy into the flame. The glow extended to reveal some more of the same old cave scenery, more of the ocean of mud extending from dripping wall to dripping wall beneath a low oozing ceiling.

What he couldn't see was any kind of path in front of them. "A dead end?"

The Mud Man raised his hands out of the mud and covered his own eyes, chuckling. "Nope! The problem with you, Prince Zuko - aside from all that evil you rolled in for so long - is that you see what they want you to see."

Toph finally unwrapped her arms from around Zuko's chest and paddled her way around him. "Who's they?"

The Mud Man lifted his hands and blinked repeatedly. "Them. Surely you know them?"

Zuko shook his head. "You mean the spirits?"

"Nope!"

Toph said, "A secret order of old guys with masked operatives all over the world?"

"Well, sure, that's always a thing." The Mud Man smirked at her. "But isn't it a little paranoid to think they're down here making sure all this mud is in place?"

Zuko had to admit that it was a fairly sane notion, for the Mud Man. "Then who?"

"The magic people sitting in your eyes - or eye, in Prince Zuko's case - who whisper what the world looks like into your brain." The Mud Man raised a fist and knocked on the top of his own head. "They lie to us. We have to open our brains to the possibilities directly, or else we'll always be stuck seeing what they want us to!" Then he laughed, loud and long.

So much for sanity. But Zuko told himself that giving up at this point wasn't an option. "So, uh, what is it we should be seeing?"

The Mud Man actually leaped up out of the mud like a dolphin-stag and came down near the wall opposite them. He popped back up and gave a light push with both hands against the slimy stone.

And a piece like a circle slid easily to fall inward, revealing a new, pitch-black chamber on the other side of the wall.

Toph's head snapped up. "Was that Earthbending?"

The Mud Man blinked at her. "Was it? I thought this room was always here. Well, if there are any invisible Earthbenders around helping us out, let's say thank you and get on with our busy, busy lives." He climbed in through the hole.

Zuko looked at Toph.

She didn't look back at him (of course), but she shrugged and paddled over to the hole to climb in.

Zuko heaved a sigh and followed. He passed Azula's limp form in first, letting go only when he felt Toph's arms around his sister, and then pulled himself through.

He landed on the stone plug. It was floating on top of more mud, somehow, even with everyone's weight on it. He summoned a flame again to reveal that they were in a more-or-less circular little room with no ceiling. It extended upward like a tube, eventually fading into the darkness.

And down the walls flowed a steady supply of mud.

So steady that it was filling the chamber, oozing out the hole in the wall to actually raise the level of the muck back the way they came.

Zuko looked up again. "So we just sit here and float ourselves back to the surface?"

The Mud Man lounged on the other side of the platform as though ready for a nap. "Something like that. You're almost not as dumb as you look. Or you would be if I could trust the evil men in my eyes."

Toph reached out to pat the wall, mud instantly flowing down over her hand. "I could maybe climb up with my Earthbending. But I couldn't carry anyone. Too slippery."

The Mud Man closed his eyes and grinned. "Don't worry about it. This way is much faster. And lots more fun!"

Faster? Fun? Zuko checked to make sure Azula was in a stable position. "I'm not sure I want to know what's about to happen."

"Too bad, Firebender! I burden you with knowledge!" Despite the enthusiasm in his voice, the Mud Man was loafing and bobbing his head as though listening to music in a park. "What we have to do is think really hard about mud. Just sit there, thinking about mud, about how it's as old as the earth itself, about how it oozes and dries and gets wet again and can sweep things away better than an army. Think about how it feels when it gets between your- toes. Become one with it in your mind."

The last thing Zuko needed was to think more about mud. He was covered in it from head to toe, had his boots filled in it, and it was the only thing he could see. "And then what, you crazy old man?! You've led us through this maze and it looks like we're further from the surface than ever and now you want us to meditate on mud?! This is ridiculous!" The fire in his hand flared, shedding more light but revealing nothing new-

-except for Toph laying her head on the stone platform as though listening. "Hey, wait. I-"

"Hold on," the Mud Man hissed.

The entire cave around them shook.

And then everything exploded.
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Loopy
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« Reply #260 on: Sep 04, 2018 10:37 pm »



One moment, Toph had been aware of a trembling in the earth, a build-up of pressure from what seemed like no real source. It made the stone quake and the mud jiggle.

The next moment, all the pressure released.

Right beneath her.

It came up from below the stone platform, below the muck. Whatever it was, it came so fast that even the mud couldn't get out of the way. It was all carried upward, the walls of this shaft of the room channeling the pressure and stifling its release. The stone platform flew up with it, starting with all the speed and power of Toph's worst fart and getting faster with every moment.

She and Zuko screamed as flattened against the stone beneath them and shot into the darkness. She could feel him crawling to his sister and wrapping her in his arms.

Toph clutched the stone platform with her hands, digging her fingers in with her Earthbending, and braced her injured, clay-covered feet.

She was distantly aware of the Mud Man laughing, but each chortle was carried away by the wind of their passage. The air rushed past them like an angry Airbender. Mud fell down on them in a spray. And the mix of the two was favoring the mud more and more.

Toph wished she could sense what was coming.

Of course, it turned out to be more mud.

They slammed a positive deluge of mud with a splat that Toph felt instead of heard, but that didn't stop them. They kept flying upwards, and then all of a sudden they ripped free of the goop and light blazed in Toph's non-vision and they were being battered by nothing but air and the stone platform beneath them tilted.

And Toph knew they were flying. Real flying, like Aang did.

She heard Zuko give a cry, and then the sound of Firebending drifted away from her.

The Mud Man sang, "Ooooooooooopsie," and his voice was carried away by the wind.

Toph tightened her grip on the stone platform. It spun in the air and maybe it was rising and maybe it was falling and her stomach lurched and this was even worse than Appa and she focused on the stone beneath her and extended her Earth-sense through it until she was aware of every facet and nook and cranny and lost pebble and-

-and the instant one little point on the edge of the circular stone platform first touched solid ground, she felt it. Felt the ground, and the people who stood on it.

She knew those people.

She jumped just a moment before her ride shattered from the impact of its landing.

She landed shoulder-first hard enough to dent the rock, and her momentum carried her on into a tumble that she felt in bones. She came to a stop by slamming face-first to the ground with enough force to nearly drive the breath from her lungs.

She just stayed still for a little bit.

But she knew how to take a hit. She sucked in a breath of air that was flavored with campfire smoke and stressed human musk, scrambling to her feet. She gave an Earthbending swipe that ripped all the mud free of her body to fling it to the ground beside her, and said, "Your Earth King has returned!"

For a moment, there was just silence.

And then all the people she had sensed in that instant between the stone platform touching the ground and the crash that nearly killed her - her Royal Court - cheered.

She knew them only by their voices, the sound of their adulation. She couldn't know if they were bowing or jumping up and down in joy. With her injured feet covered in their protective, hardened mud-shoes, she couldn't sense anything while she was standing. But being blind was better than crawling in front of her subjects.

And her ears still worked.

She distinctly heard General Fong say, "Your majesty-"

Toph motioned at the mud she'd cleaned off herself, and then again in Fong's direction. The sound of the mud splattering against him was pure bliss. She pointed in that same direction and stepped forward. "You had your moron troop-boys try to kill me!"

"No, your majesty, the prince-"

"Zuko saved my life and has earned a possible position as one of my royal consorts." Toph raised her hands to summon twin boulders (while Zuko gave a, "Wait, what?" from somewhere behind her) and strode towards Fong. "But I felt your soldiers throw weapons at me that burst into flame! You wanted to attack the Fire Nation occupiers instead of defending the southern territory like I ordered. You betrayed me!" She threw the boulders at him.

But her aim was off. She couldn't sense Fong's precise position, and one of the boulders flew through the air without impacting anything. The other crumbled somewhere ahead of her as Fong blocked it, and then she heard a grunt, followed by the sound of scraping stone that came with all Earthbending.

Fong was attacking her. And Toph couldn't see it.

So she just stood there.

She stood there as Zuko cried out. She stood there as the roar of flames echoed and heat washed over her something in front of her exploded.

Then she reached out with both hands and pulled.

She had no idea where Fong was, but he was still covered in the mud she'd thrown at him. And her motion seized the mud and gave it a pull, not just pulling it off of him but also yanking it from beneath his feet, causing him to slip and grunt and jump to dry ground.

Those sounds were enough.

She walked forward and swung her left fist through the mud that came flying to meet her, then hardened it with a twitch of her fingers. Another step brought her to Fong's landing sight, and using her memory of all the times he had been in her Earth-sense, she slammed that fist into his jaw. Her clean right fist pounded him in the stomach. She lifted her right foot and hooked his left leg, then jerked it out from under him. He lost his balance and went down, but his was good enough to land in a clumsy kneel in front of her.

Then she lifted her left foot, still covered in its semi-hard mud protection, and kicked it sideways into Fong's right knee, the one bent into a stiff position and held in place by the weight of his body.

Hard.

Fong's cry of pain rose up above the wet tearing sound, but Toph could hear the permanent damage being done. It was a cheap move, but this wasn't an Earth Rumble ring.

Champions were held to higher standards, but no one was bothered by royalty pulling cheap moves.

"You all saw it." Toph stepped up on top of Fong's prone form. "He attacked me and Zuko saved my royal person."

Fong groaned.

He had been stupid to attack her in front of everyone, but she'd sensed the tension and turmoil in him before. She hadn't felt any sign of lying when he promised to support her decision to guard the south from Iroh, but that had been a mix of his tricky wording and roiling of his insides. He'd been under stress, betraying her, a tension that no doubt would have been pulled even tighter by her sudden reappearance and accusations.

It was no different than goading a challenger in the ring.

And Zuko had already proven that she could depend on him.

A perfect little demonstration of the truth of her words and the power of her rule.

The members of her court surged towards her. She couldn't tell who was among them, or what was going on with any of Fong's soldiers who might be present, so she held up her hands. "Stop!"

The footsteps tapered off, and one voice that she recognized as belonging to an Earth Sage said, "Your majesty, shall we execute him for his treason?"

Toph blew out a breath, and shook her head. The worst part of being king was being responsible. "No. We're doing things a little differently, today. Fong pulled a real stupid move, but I'm not a Fire Lord. I'm not going to kill anyone and anything I don't like. Fong didn't want to go to the south, so he can go fight his war. Anyone else who wants to join him can do it. And when we send out word to all our allies, we say that everyone has the same choice. They can either come and help, or they can start the fight against the Fire Nation. They can let Fong lead them, if they want. He's awful at treason, but he was a pretty good general back in the day."

Another voice, this one belonging to a woman who had been leading a tribe of raiders in the west for a while, said, "Um, but what about the south? Don't we need everyone?"

Toph shrugged. "Maybe. But we don't have time to fight our own people. We can worry about sorting things out after the Fire Nation has been tossed from our country." She smiled the way her parents had taught her, an expression of grace and gentility.

Then she turned it into a grin that was all teeth and stomped on Fong's head. "Hey, buddy. I suggest you die heroically leading a resistance against the Fire Nation, or find a very out-of-the-way place to retire to when the fighting's done. Someplace I can't find you, because you have no place in my kingdom. And I'm sure that knee's going to make running really, really hard."

She stepped down from him (carefully, because she couldn't feel the ground with anything but the touch of her feet) and turned back to her subjects. "Now, my feet are injured, so someone carry me to my throne. In fact, make a nice stone palanquin for me. Decorate it so that everyone knows I'm a king. I'm holding court starting now, and all soldiers must either pledge themselves to me or go into exile with Fong. Start preparing messages for all our allies, and get the runners going. And be quick. We have lots of work to do."

The sounds of voices and footsteps echoed as everyone started acting on her orders.

It was disorienting, without her Earth-sense to shape the picture for her. (She hoped her feet would heal quickly.) For the first time in a long time, she was surprised when someone suddenly spoke next to her.

But it was just Zuko, saying, "Are you sure it's wise to let your enemies go free?"

She shrugged. "Like you said before, your stupid relatives made a mess out ruling a nation. We'll have to wait and listen to find out if this works better. But thanks for having my back."

"Of course. But the Mud Man is gone. I don't know where he landed. And I have no idea what was going on with him."

Toph wasn't surprised at the disappearance. She was sure the Mud Man had landed fine from his crazy entrance. He might deny being an Earthbender, but it would explain a lot about what had happened back in the mud pits. And as he'd said, he would be listening. Through the mud. Or whatever. If she needed him again-

"Well," she said, "he's part of my kingdom, and he got me back to my throne. That's good enough for now. Speaking of mud, you still sound squishy. Want me to clean you off?"

"Thanks." Zuko sounded kind of relieved. He probably hadn't been looking forward to trying to find a bath. "And if you could get Azula, too, that would be-"

His voice cut out with a sharp sucking of breath.

Toph tensed. "What is it? Are you hurt?"

"-no. But Azula- she was just- I don't know-" His voice kept moving, as if he was whipping his head back and forth. "She's gone! She was right here next to me and now she's gone!"

Oh.

That probably wasn't good.



Azula was good at escaping.

She'd escaped from Mom and Dad. She'd escaped Grandfather and the Fire Nation. She'd escaped from all the confusing thoughts and feelings that hurt so much. She'd even escaped from herself, for a long time. She'd escaped into the dark, going where she could disappear and no longer be a person.

And now she'd escaped from Zuzu.

She crawled into the prison where she and her brother had been kept, earlier today or last year or whenever. She'd snuck away when no one was looking, when everyone was busy making noise, but there was no one here in this little side-cave. She remembered that the blind Earthbender had come to eat with them, before, and then they'd escaped enemies and swam in mud. Those were experiences that had happened while she wasn't a person. They didn't matter to her; they were just information.

She remembered that the strange man said he'd gone sane in an ashland.

Azula wanted to go sane, too.

Then maybe she could understand how Mom could be Dad and Father could Mother.

She needed help to go sane. And Zuzu was bad at giving help.

Dad and Mom were better, but-

Azula shut those thoughts away in the darkness.

She went over to the mud pit at the far side, where the water trickled. Zuzu had thrown her in this mud, before. Then they'd met the strange man. He said he listened with mud.

Azula leaned over the mud and said, "Please take me to your ashland."

The mud bubbled, and a head rose out of it. "My ashland, you say?"

Azula nodded. "I need to go sane. I need to go to the ashland."

The mud-covered face blinked. "Do you know what an ashland is?"

"I do. I was in one before." The strange man didn't react, so Azula added, "I think it almost killed me."

The muddy face broke into a grin that revealed a random splay of stubby teeth. "Well, Princess Azula, far be it from me to deny a Princess of the Fire Nation a look at the work of her people." He raised a hand out of the sludge and held it towards her. "I will take you to where Omashu used to stand."

Azula took his hand, and let him pull her into the mud.

She was looking forward to being sane again.



Zuko still hadn't found his sister when Toph came to him.

He'd had complete freedom to move through the whole underground base, and even the lands around it, but his searching had been futile. Even the Airbender nuns hadn't found any trace of her, not so much as a trail of muddy footprints, somehow. Now he stood outside, in front of the tunnel entrance that he'd been carried through in chains the day before. The sun had risen hours ago, but all it revealed were empty plains of stone and dirt pocked by puddles of mud.

Had Azula run off towards the rising sun? He scarcely believe that she'd mustered the will to move on her own, but he'd been standing between her and the rest of the crowd. No one could have moved her without making a sound, not even an Earthbender.

As he stood going over it in his mind yet again, King Toph came out of the tunnel, holding the hand of the Water Tribe elder, Kanna. Jojo walked behind them, acting as a guard to her monarch, and whispered, "The prince is in front of you."

Toph waved in his general direction. "Gran-Gran here said she'll keep looking for Azula, and take care of her if they find her. She's already taking care of Tom-Tom, so Fire Nation babies aren't a problem for her."

The old woman nodded. "You are an ally of the Earth King, the Avatar, and my grandchildren. If caring for your sister will ease your mind, I will do it."

Zuko spun to face them. "You think I'm leaving without Azula?"

Toph let go of Kanna's hand and stepped towards him. "I'm leaving with the fighters who are coming to fight with me in the south. We're going to meet up with all the other rebels who answer my summons. If you want to fight your uncle, I guess you can always meet us later, but traveling by yourself won't be much fun."

Fight against Uncle? Did she think that saving her life meant he wanted to be her assassin? "Is that why you took me in? To fight under your command?"

Toph didn't meet his glare, of course. "Nope. You can go join Fong, if he isn't holding a grudge. Or stay here, if you want. Be safe and hang out with the refugees. I'll make sure they won't bother you. I don't know that they'll like you, even though you saved me. You are a Fire Nation prince, after all. But you're probably used to people not liking you."

He couldn't help but snort a laugh at her bluntness. "Yeah. I am."

Mother had told him to take care of his sister. He'd tried, first agreeing to enter Uncle's care, but then choosing Toph's alternate hospitality. He hadn't been able to see a future beyond caring for his catatonic sister, relying on the Earth King's generosity.

Meanwhile, everyone else was preparing to defend the good of the world from his Uncle.

The Fire Lord.

And Azula had run away from him. The last of his family that he still had. So was his future to fight against his own nation? Uncle Iroh claimed he was acting on behalf of Lu Ten, but-

-was he really doing this for the greater good, as he claimed?

Could Uncle Iroh or Lu Ten maybe become his family again?

"I don't know that I can fight with you," Zuko finally said. "But I will accompany you on your journey, and witness for the Fire Nation. And- and if my sister is found-"

Toph grinned and swung a fist that slammed into his shoulder. "I'm glad you're sticking with me, Hot Stuff. You've been a good royal bodyguard so far, and who knows how many other people are going to try to kill me this week?"

Kanna bowed her head. "You have my word of honor, Prince Zuko. I will care for Mai's brother, and your sister if she is found."

Honor.

Zuko was glad to know some people who still understood that.

He turned his eye to the path ahead, a rugged path marred by puddles of mud.



In the dark, the Mud Man laughed.

It had been a good day. Very productive. And fun!

And there was still more work to do, before it all came to an end.

TO BE CONTINUED
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« Reply #261 on: Oct 24, 2018 05:50 pm »

Sundering Dusk

The seas were cast red by the setting sun as it fell behind a range of snow-covered mountains on an island ahead. High above, the first smear of cloudy purple night was making itself visible as an icy wind blew down from the north.

"I hate the cold," Mai grumped as she pulled her new (new to her, at least) coat tighter around her neck. She didn't know what filthy animal it used to be, but the fur was a glistening gray she could tolerate. She'd spent most of her life wearing Fire Nation red, switched to Earth Kingdom green for a while to try to make herself into a new (better) person, switched back to red so that she could be Fire Nation enough to get Aang in and out of the Homeland alive, and now she was wearing gray.

So what did that make her, now? Did she belong anywhere? What kind of person was she?

"Of course you hate cold." Sokka said, "Don't you also hate sweating?"

Oh, right. She was a grump. Question asked and answered.

On the other side of the saddle, Sokka stopped fondling his new boomerang for the first time all day to look at her and add, "I think I remember you talking about it when we got to Ember Island. You said it was stupidly humid and you hated it because you're above getting damp under your arms."

The others weren't paying them any attention. Appa was flying through the sky, following the ship of the weird 'Faceless' Water Tribe, and Aang was holding the reins atop the sky bison's head. Katara was right behind him in the saddle, practicing her Waterbending by moving a little ball of liquid for Momo to chase. Ty Lee was slumped next to Mai, dozing and providing a little helpful body-heat that she didn't need to know about.

Everyone who had them was wearing their winter coats, leaving Mai and Aang as the only ones not in blue. Aang didn't seem to have noticed the colder weather as they left the Earth Kingdom behind for the islands of the Northern Seas.

Mai decided that she was bored enough to engage in some banter, as gross as this conversation was. "Thanks for the warning that you've been obsessing about my underarms. But yes, I do hate sweating. What's your point?"

"So is there a climate you actually enjoy, or is this why your face always looks like you're sucking on a raw sea slug?" Sokka snorted at his attempt at cleverness and looked back down at his boomerang.

Yes, he was in a gross mood today. That deserved full retaliation. She leaned over and poked Ty Lee's face, waking the other girl up. "Hey, Ty Lee, please help. Sokka is being mean to me and I'm sad now."

Ty Lee blinked exactly twice and then snapped up to glare are Sokka. "Don't be mean to Mai! She's gloomy but she's a wonderful human being and you're corrupting your spirit every time you give in to bitterness!"

Sokka's jaw dropped. "I- uh- I wasn't- and she, um- but- oh, never mind. Does cynicism count as bitterness? And what kind of corruption are we talking about, here?"

Mai managed to keep a straight face as she said, "Not the kind you want from Ty Lee, I bet."

Ty Lee burst into giggles at Sokka's reddening face and was soon rolling across the saddle. Sokka gave Mai a look that was all sarcastic gratitude for embarrassing him in front of the aura-worshipping girl he'd been trying to flirt with since they left the Fire Nation.

Mai's own moment of corrupt amusement was brought to end when, upon Appa's head, Aang turned back to smile at her and say, "If you're too cold, maybe I can teach you the breathing technique that keeps me warm."

Katara actually looked up at that, of all things. "Isn't it an Airbender technique?"

Aang shrugged. "Well, do we know that Mai isn't an Airbender? Ty Lee didn't become one until recently. Maybe Mai just needs to try."

Perhaps it was a little awful, but Mai's first thought was that it might be nice to make a little hurricane she could fill with razor blades. (Her second thought was that she wasn't quite sure she had the emotional strength to shave her head.) But soon reality came crashing down, and she found herself considering the damage an Airbender could do without a vow of pacifism to hold her back. Mai had killed Lady Gerel and Kei Lo, both deliberate acts. And then there were the lives she had undoubtedly taken defending her friends and running around in Fire Nation fortresses making things explode-

No, she knew there was no chance she could be an Airbender. She felt far too heavy, even without all the blades she wore against her skin.

Maybe that's why she said, "What, you won't like me anymore unless I can Airbend? Knives too creepy for you?"

She immediately regretted it.

Aang's expression fell, but he looked her straight in the eyes. "I'll always like you. Didn't you know that?"

Hn.

Since when were Airbenders supposed to be so direct?

But that was Aang, unpredictable and unstoppable.

Mai realized she was the center of attention, now. Ty Lee had stopped her laughing, and was joining the Water Tribe siblings in waiting for her response. Even Momo had come over to try to nibble at the tip of her hair-tails again.

So, naturally, Mai looked anywhere else, and found that the universe or Destiny or just plain luck had decided to take pity on her. As her gaze swept out over the edge of the saddle, her sharp eyes taking in the ocean and ship below, she noticed a signal flag was being waved. "Oh. Look. I think Toklo is trying to get our attention. Better descend and see what he wants."

Sokka had the gall to laugh at her. Jerk.

But Aang smiled again and turned to face front again. "Okay! We're heading down, Appa. Everyone hold tight! Yip-yip!"

She elected to ignore his advice, and instead crawled her way to the front of the saddle as Appa began descending. She hated to be in motion during changes in altitude (her stomach flipped and she kept her eyes firmly on the stationary saddle), but she didn't yet fully trust their new Water Tribe friends.

Silly her, maintaining suspicions about people who only wanted to be friends after they lost a fight.

And it hadn't even been a fun fight. Aang had brought them to Jinchu City on the northern coast of the Earth Kingdom to get some supplies and map a path to Fire Lord Iroh's stronghold at the North Pole, but instead they had found a secret (heretical) Water Tribe. Mai had been hanging out with Aang long enough to not be surprised by any of it, which was either a very good sign or a very bad sign. After Katara had proved herself to be the most dangerous Waterbender around, the 'Faceless' Water Tribe was willing to help out, to take the Avatar and his friends back to their secret home and then on to the main settlement of the Northern Water Tribe.

Mai would go along with all that, but as she had just said, she was the creepy girl with the knives. She'd keep a creepy, cynical eye out for trouble, and use her knives as necessary.

When Appa touched down on the wooden deck of Toklo's ship, she was crouched just behind Aang and fingering some needles. She'd already worked out how to hide quite the nice arsenal of sharp metal in the sleeves of her new fur coat-

"Tell the Fire Nation killer to stop grinding her teeth like that." The gravelly voice belonged to Toklo himself, and sure enough, the Faceless Tribe's gray-haired excursion leader was approaching across the deck. "If you want to mangle something, use the jerky I gave you people."

Aang started to say, "She's-"

But Mai cut him off even as she kept her eyes solidly on Toklo, "I only mangle things when I have to. But thanks for your condescending concern. Want to try addressing me as 'woman' next?"

Toklo shrugged as they all hopped down to the deck, and came over to rub Appa's nose. "My apologies. I didn't invite you down to insult you. We're approaching our destination. We didn't have room in the ship for a long journey with this magnificent creature, but the desk is large enough to let him have a bit of a rest. And this way, everyone back home will know that we're allies."

Appa gave a low rumble of contentment and shifted all six of his legs until he was sitting down. Despite being a Water Tribe, the Faceless Tribe was sailing a cargo junk of typical Earth Kingdom design. But then, their whole deal was not being noticed, and their supply runs to the northern Earth Kingdom coast would be pretty noticeable if they were sailing distinctive Water Tribe ships. The Northern Water Tribe was not big on trade, by all accounts.

Was that because it was just too far to the North Pole for the trip to be worth it? Or did Iroh's secrecy extend to keeping the entire Northern Water Tribe in his sight?

Well, they'd find out soon enough.

Katara let Sokka help her down from the saddle (Ty Lee had just jumped, or else Sokka would no doubt be asking if he could carry her) and said, "I don't see Amka around."

Mai looked, sure enough, the Waterbender healer wasn't among the crew on duty. But that was hardly a surprise, if Ty Lee was right and this Amka was scared stiff of Katara. Maybe she was hiding.

Toklo motioned vaguely behind him. "My daughter is packing up below decks."

So 'hiding' was still on the table. With that as settled as it was going to get without additional effort, Mai turned towards the front of the ship to watch as they came up on one of the large islands that dotted the Northern Seas.

And she actually gasped at the sight of the mountain ahead of her.

The ship was sailing into a bay that surrounded a solitary mountain right there on the coast. A full range of mountains stood in the distance, but this one was left alone as a sentinel standing right on the border of the sea and the flat icy landscape. From above it hadn't caught her eye, but from here, the mountain was perfectly shaped, a symmetrical snowy peak that reached for the dusk sky and reflected the purplish glow even as it was in turn reflected by the mirror-like surface of the bay. Mai had only ever seen mountains like that in paintings; the real things tended to be as lumpy and irregular as most other rocks.

Toklo came up to the railing beside her. "It's not really that perfect."

"What?" Mai tore her gaze away to face him.

Toklo nodded. "You were looking at the mountain. It only appears triangular from the back and the front. It's long on the other sides. Still looks nice, though. My people say Spirits live on it, so we call it the Sacred Mountain."

"Not one of your Tribe's more imaginative moments." Mai turned back to it. "I'd call it something like Stab Mountain if I was in charge. It looks like it's stabbing the sky. So I guess I'm not very imaginative, either."

Toklo gave a grunt that could have been a laugh.

Aang came over, and Mai saw that his own gaze was locked on the peak. "Do spirits really live there?"

Toklo nodded. "There are voices, at least. When our boys reach the age of manhood, we send them to camp on the slope. They go alone, working their way upward for as many days and nights as it takes for them to hear the spirits. It is a journey that starts them on their life's true path. I heard the voices myself, when I was fourteen. They speak different things to everyone."

Mai wondered what the girls got to do when they came of age. Probably just got taught when to wear extra-thick underwraps at certain times of each month.

But Aang's eyes and smile were wide at Toklo's explanation, and he leaned forward. "Ooh, what they'd say to you?"

Toklo rubbed at his eyes. "I was trying to imply that it's a personal thing. When you meet the rest of the tribe, don't go around asking people what the spirits said to them, okay? You'll just embarrass yourself." He turned and headed for the rear of the ship, where a couple of the crew were working the rudder.

The conversation must be over, then. Mai reached over to pat Aang's back.

He might be enthusiastic about it, but she wasn't sure she liked the idea of visiting more spirits. The last one she met had spit up on her, although it had been eating enough coins beforehand to make it a profitable experience, at least. And if this was anything like the ashland Aang had brought them to back in the Earth Kingdom-

She'd make sure to bring her platinum blades ashore.


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Loopy
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« Reply #262 on: Oct 24, 2018 05:51 pm »

Aang stayed on the deck of the ship and didn't fly ahead to meet all the prospective new friends waiting on the other side of the mountain, but he enjoyed the fact that he wanted to.

Things had been really tough and dark and- and terrible lately, with war and death and betrayal. But he was making new discoveries, meeting new people who wanted to help him set things right, and he thought that Gyatso would approve of his excitement. Gyatso had always found a reason to smile and have fun.

Momo curled around Aang's neck as the ship pulled in towards the hidden camp.

They had sailed around the mountain-island, finding that it was indeed longer than it had first looked. The base was connected to the rest of the rocky, snow-covered coast only by a thin bridge of land, and right across that bridge was a settlement, sprawling between dramatic cliffs and icy waterfalls. It was surrounded by a circular wall of packed and shaped snow, but a wide opening had been left through which Aang could see huts and larger buildings.

"It looks just like home," Sokka breathed.

Katara hummed. "Does it?"

Aang stroked Momo's fur. "It makes sense. The two Water Tribes shared a strong culture, and the Faceless Tribe is an offshoot of the North."

"But this looks nothing like the South Pole," Mai said. "Trust me, I lived there for about a day."

"It doesn't look like the South Pole now." Sokka rolled his eyes. "It looks like home."

"Ohhhhh," Katara gasped. "You mean where we lived before the Fire Nation found us. I barely remember that. I can't even picture it."

Sokka inclined his head towards their destination. "Well, it looked like that. Right down to the way the snow glows the same color as the sky."

Ty Lee squinted at the village. "You probably had more people, though, right? If it weren't for the smoking chimneys, I wouldn't think anyone's home. It looks lonely"

Aang looked back at the village, and found that she was right. There were no people visible at all. Were they all indoors? He used his Airbending to hop over to the rear of the ship, where Toklo was staring ahead at their destination as his crew worked the rudder. "Is everything okay?"

Toklo must have been worried, too, because all he said was, "We'll see." Then he held out his hand, and one of the crew handed him a white horn. Toklo put it to his lips and let out a sound that reminded Aang of the whalesongs he sometimes heard while flying with Appa over the ocean, except with a clear human pattern to it.

At first, nothing seemed to happen.

Then Aang spotted movement in the village ahead. A heavyset man in fur robes came running out of one of the longer buildings, waving at the ship with both arms. His movements were hurried, more than what could be explained by friendly excitement.

"Something's wrong," Aang said.

"Did your Avatar Spirit tell you that?" Toklo tossed the horn to one of his crew. "What are you nitwits waiting for? Let's get everyone on alert. I want two Waterbenders heading for the shore now! The rest are getting us docked as fast as we can. Bring Amka up here and tell her we might have injured. Go!"

As two of the Waterbenders jumped over the side of the ship and began skating across the water, Aang snapped his staff open. "I'll go with them!"

He waited just long enough for Toklo's nod, and then he was in flight. He beat the Waterbenders to the village, passing right over the wall and dropping to the ground beside the waving man. "What's wrong?"

The man's eyes were wide. "An Airbender? But- no, is Amka aboard? Kirima is dying, and we need more healers!"

Aang had to smile. "Wait here." Then a snap of his glider and a gust of wind carried him back into the sky. He zipped straight to the ship, where a whole pier made of ice was in the process of rising from the bay to meet it.

He came in for a running landing on the deck, scooping Katara up in one arm as he went, and finding Amka climbing up to the main deck on the central ladder. Aang steered for her as Katara wrapped her arms around his chest for a firm grip, and he managed to shout, "Hold-on-I'm-going-fly-you-to-shore-really-fast!" and let go of Katara just before grabbing Amka. Then he jumped up into the winds with both girls hanging on to him.

Amka shrieked, which Aang had been trying to avoid, but all he could do now was steer back towards the shore before anyone lost their grip or the weight dragged him into the icy waters.

They landed heavily, but the waving man was there to steady Amka when Aang let go of her. Toklo's two Waterbenders had arrived as well and had taken combat stances as they looked around.

"It's Kirima," the heavyset man repeated, "and she needs help now. In the longhouse!"

"Kirima?" Amka inhaled and squared her shoulders. "Take me."

"I'm a healer, too," Katara added, slipping her waterskin off her shoulder. "I'm coming."

The man nodded, and led the way back to the lodge he'd come out of. The two Waterbenders remained behind, maybe to tell Toklo what was going on when he arrived.

Entering the longhouse, Aang was surprised at how bright it was inside, lit not just by a large firepit in the center but also crystal lamps from the Earth Kingdom and large white candles beneath protective globes of glass. The space was roomy even with the crowd gathered inside, as tall as a barn and wide enough for Appa to walk through without brushing the walls.

But for now everyone seemed to be clustered near the fire.

The heavyset man pushed through to get Amka, Katara, and Aang to the center of all the activity. A Water Tribe woman about Amka's age was lying with closed eyes on a blanket on the ground, tossing and turning and even moaning out loud. About five women were all working together to guide a glowing stream of water back and forth over the sick one, their movements just like what Katara used for healing, but it didn't look to Aang like they were having any effect.

Next to them, a group of Sages - all old men in fur headdresses and unmistakable long robes embroidered with symbols of the Water element - were helping in ways even more familiar to Aang. They were chanting as they shook bone rattles, and two of them tossed a handful each of fragrant dust into the firepit that filled the air with a calming scent of spring flowers.

Aang's guide called out, "Amka is here! And another healer!"

The healers shifted so that Amka and Katara could join the group effort.

Amka turned to the eldest as she began her Waterbending motions. "Ticasuk, what happened?"

"Her life is being drained." Ticasuk tilted her head from side to side, obviously considering her words. "We need to keep her energies up and give her the strength to outlast the attack."

"Attack?" Aang's question wasn't acknowledged. Everyone was either working to help Kirima, or watching everything with a tension that seemed to dim the lights around them.

Katara moved her arms in time with the other healers, helping to guide the glowing stream of water over their patient. "I can feel the draining. It's- it's strong. I don't think we're going to be able to slow it enough."

Ticasuk whipped her head to look at Katara. "And who are you?"

But it was Amka who said, "Katara is from the Southern Water Tribe, and a powerful Bender."

Katara frowned. "Not powerful enough. Aang, we need your help." She looked to him, and it seemed to take everyone a couple of seconds to follow her gaze.

Ticasuk frowned. "The boy? What can he do?"

"Aang is the Avatar," Katara bit out. "So he can do a lot."

Aang figured it was okay to step forward. "What do you need? I'm still not very good with healing. But if you guide me-"

Katara grabbed and pulled him so that he was standing right next to her. She wrapped an arm around his shoulders and shut her eyes. "Just join in. Can you feel the attack?"

Aang shut his eyes, too, and steadied his breathing in time with the Sages' rattles. They weren't toys, he knew; just as the Air Nomads would use cymbals and gongs and flutes to create Sounds of Harmony, these rattles created a spiritual atmosphere that could guide him into an ascended state.

He reached out with both of his hands, feeling the water that the Healers were moving, and joined his Waterbending with theirs. His body swayed with Katara's, and he began moving his arms through the Waterbending motions that Sifu Hama had taught him. He helped steer the stream of glowing water in a circle above the sick woman, and as he became more and more aware of its movements - of the infinite interaction of every drop of water within the whole - he could feel the energies at work.

The water was offering sustenance to the body beneath it and the lifeforce within, but that sustenance was being absorbed the way a desert would consume and quickly forget a single raindrop.

That must be Kirima. She felt like- like emptiness.

Or maybe not.

There was something there, something that was almost slipping away-

And then Aang found the problem.

Guru Pathik had taught him about línghún, the spirit energy in all living things, and how it could mix and form connections with others. It formed around love, around family, around friendship. It was the very substance through which a person could feel a tug on their heart.

And it was the medium through which such a bitter, chilling cold was now burning Kirima.

Aang gasped at the icy bite.

It wasn't real cold, but it was the closest way he could think of it. Just as cold sapped the heat right out of a body, this- this attack was drawing the Qi right out of Kirima's physical substance. The healing water was helping, was strengthening Kirima's Qi, but not fast enough. Not warm enough.

Not enough.

So Aang reached out across the línghún connection to see if he could find the source of this awfulness.

He found a man.

And something more.

As he touched the man's own línghún, Aang felt something from Kirima. It was warmth, and power. It was loyalty.

It was love.

And the same feelings flowed back from the man to Kirima. They were in love. They had formed a connection, and nothing could break that.

Except the man was dying.

It was unmistakable. Aang could feel the man's own energy draining away just as Kirima's was, only faster. Colder. And there was something else here; it was feeding on the man's Qi, draining it away. Slowing the man's body, freezing the breath in his lungs.

Aang sucked in his own breath of air. It was just like what Mai and Sokka had described of the Di Fu Ling undead monsters in the Southern Air Temple. The reanimated forms of the murdered Air Nomads had risen and tried to draw the very breath from the bodies of his friends.

And now it was happening to Kirima's lover.

And there was nothing Aang could do about it. It was all beyond his reach.

The man's lifeforce faded under Aang's observation, and like the way Air rushed in to fill a Void, Kirima's own energies were flowing back through their connection to be absorbed by the killer, dragging her into death as well. He felt the last of the man's Qi flicker - flicker - and then it just disappeared like a candle in a storm. He heard Kirima's cry, a sob buried amidst her moans of pain, and a wave of coldness reached across the universe to grasp for her.

But Aang could feel the connection between Kirima and her dead lover, and although he could not break it - did not want to break it - he could protect it.

"Roku," he whispered, "help me."

And it was like a bonfire began blazing in his heart.

It warmed his body and spirit. His blood sang. He reached out with the strength of a thousand lifetimes and shoved back against the deadly force.

There was a snarl, and then the presence was gone.

Aang opened his eyes.

Everyone was looking at him. The Waterbender Healers had stopped their ministrations, while the Sages were holding rattles loosely in slack hands. The rest of the Tribe was still clustered behind them, and Aang could hear their anxious murmurs.

On the ground at his feet, Kirima was asleep, and no longer restless.

"Um," Aang ventured, "everything okay?"

Beside him, Katara unwrapped her arm from around his shoulders. "You should be the one telling us. You were glowing."

"Oh." Aang smiled and offered a wave to the crowd. "That's nothing to worry about. Just Avatar stuff. And, uh, I think I protected Kirima from something really bad. But, well, there was a man who I think she really likes, but he wasn't here, and there was a- a something and I think the man kind of died? Sorry about that. I couldn't- couldn't-"

And then the door to the longhouse burst open, and Toklo led in a group of Waterbender warriors, followed by Mai, Sokka, and Ty Lee.

Toklo looked around. "What the slush is going on?"

Aang thought that was a really good question to start with.


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Loopy
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« Reply #263 on: Oct 24, 2018 05:52 pm »

Sokka should have known something like this would happen.

It never failed. They were just supposed to be making a quick stopover: meet a new Water Tribe, enjoy the culture, get some supplies (some better jerky than they sold in the Earth Kingdom would be good, maybe even seal-meat), plan out how to go show Iroh 'what for,' and then set off again. Easy-peasy. They'd have the world all fixed up by the end of the week. Probably.

But of course it never worked out that way.

Sokka sat beside the firepit in the longhouse, sharpening the boomerang he'd taken (or rather, won by right of victory in combat, more or less) from Toklo at their first meeting, and listened as someone said, "We think we have a monster problem, good Avatar."

Yup. Monster problem. Distractions didn't come bigger than that. It never failed.

Most of the rest of the Faceless Tribe village had dispersed for now. Night was falling. Waterbenders were sealing up the protective snow-wall around the village, and patrols of warriors were being set up. Everyone else was seeing to their families, and there had been talk of moving the whole village into the longhouse together.

But for now, Team Avatar was being given a not-quite-private audience. Amka and the other Healer women were seeing to their sick friend, who was still sleeping, while Toklo and his crew were seated near Sokka, also waiting for explanations.

Aang bowed his head to the speaker, the round man who had waved to them from the shore when they first arrived. "You can call me Aang. So, uh, what kind of monster problem?"

The man bowed his head in return. "I am Chief Kumaglak. Thank you for your help, and my apologies for my hastiness. As for the monster, have you heard of the Unhcegila?"

Sokka glanced around. Toklo and his warriors stiffened at the word. Mai and Ty Lee exchanged questioning glances. Katara looked over at the sick girl. Aang shook his head.

Sokka held up his boomerang so that he could inspect the cutting edge. "The fact that it has a name means it's a pretty bad one. No one ever bothers naming monsters that only caused a little trouble before getting chased off by a few guys."

Kumaglak's eyebrows rose. "You speak wisdom, of a sort. You are of the Southern Water Tribe, as well?"

"I'm Sokka. Nice to meet you. This is my boomerang."

"Likewise, Sokka of the Southern Water Tribe. And Katara is your wife?"

Sokka couldn't stop himself from making a face. "Ew, no, she's my sister!"

Katara gave a sardonic wave. "I'm on my own. No husband, no father, no man watching over me. And the same for the rest of the girls, thanks."

Toklo added, "The Southern Tribe has modernized, Chief. Get back to the Unhcegila. How long has this been going on?"

Kumaglak sighed. "Which part? You know of the strange weather. Of the boulders that tumble down the mountain and seem to come from nowhere. And the sounds like thunder in the night." He looked back to Aang and Sokka. "We have lived next to the Sacred Mountain since our ancestors split from the Northern Water Tribe, and we have honored and lived in harmony with the spirits. These changes started about a year ago, and now-" He swallowed. "Several days ago, a fishing boat right here on the bay disappeared."

Toklo sat up straight. "Who?"

Kumaglak turned to him. "Ikiaq and Aput."

Toklo scowled, and the Waterbenders behind him traded whispers.

Kumaglak turned back to Aang. "Of course, we sent out our Tribe to search for them. That's when we caught our first glimpses of the creature. No one could discern a definite shape, but it seemed long like a snake, and we found footprints that indicated four clawed legs. That matched the legends of the Unhcegila, according to our Sages. Hunters tried to track it, but-" He frowned, obviously unsure how to continue.

Sokka had to wince. "How many more were taken?"

Kumaglak gave five more names. Toklo swore and hopped up start pacing around the fire.

Aang looked over at the sick girl. "And- one of them- She knew him. Loved him."

Kumaglak's eyebrows rose. "The Avatar, too, is wise. Yes, Aang, Pana was betrothed to Kirima." He also looked over to her. "The others all just disappeared, out of sight for a moment and then never seen again, but Pana stayed close to his friends and managed to cry out. It was night, but the others said they saw him using his club to try to fight off something like a dragon. Again, it matches the legends."

Sokka didn't miss the way Mai and Ty Lee shuddered at the word 'dragon.'

Kumaglak continued, "Then- the accounts are colored by fear, but the creature did something to Pana that paralyzed him, and wrapped its tail around him and carried him off. The hunters chased, but they lost it in the darkness. When they came back, I went with some of the women to tell Kirima. Pana had no other family, and had already taken her into his home. We found her collapsed. And Old Ticasuk said she felt an evil presence around the girl. We brought Kirima here to try to save her, and- and we thank you for your help, Avatar. I mean, Aang."

There was silence for a moment.

Sokka went ahead and ended it. "So does anyone else find it fishy that the girlfriend of the guy who managed to fight the monster is the only one to get sick?"

Aang pointed at him. "That's how I knew! I felt the connection when I was trying to help heal her. The man faded-" Aang hugged himself, and Momo cooed and curled up in Aang's lap. "-lost to the cold. It tried to get Kirima, too, but I pushed back against it. The Avatars of the past helped me."

Toklo brought his pacing to a stop. "So everyone in the Tribe is in danger. If we send out warriors, their families could be killed from afar by the Unhcegila. A close hunting party can be brought down if just one member is taken."

Sokka could do the math. But that wasn't what intrigued him. "But six other people were taken, and their families are fine. Right?"

Ty Lee hummed. "Maybe something protected them. Or the monster only goes after the others if it gets mad? Do monsters get mad like that? Azula kicked a camel-pup once and it hung around outside the palace growling for a week. They had to send guards to remove it."

"All I know," Katara said, "is that we were going to lose Kirima until Aang fought back against the Unhcegila. I'm not sure there is any protection from it."

Oh, that was so reassuring. Sokka shrugged and leaned back. "Well, I'm out of data to work with. I can't make igloos without snow. Hey, Aang, any mysterious Avatar Wisdom you want to add before we run away screaming?"

Aang shook his head. Of course. It would have been too easy, otherwise.

The new quiet was broken by the unmistakable sound of a metal blade sliding against its sheath, and Mai held up her platinum knife to shine in the light of the fire. "So, I take it we're staying and going monster-hunting?"

Katara stood up. "Of course! We have to help these people, right, Aang?"

The kid nodded, to Sokka's complete lack of surprise. "Iroh needs to be dealt with, but it's my duty as the Avatar to take care of stuff like this." He looked to Sokka. "Right?"

Sokka sighed. Logically speaking, it was more important to see about Fire Lord Iroh and save the whole world. Getting involved in a local monster problem was an unnecessary risk. What if Aang got hurt or killed? What, would Sokka go to the north In The Name Of The Avatar, and then pass on notes about how it went with Iroh to the next weird kid in the cycle? No, the smart thing was to ignore this and go after the more relevant threat, then swing around and take care of this once they were done (if they survived and wanted to). There was no question about it.

But Iroh had done something to the Northern Water Tribe. Sokka knew firsthand that the Southern Water Tribe was broken, and maybe couldn't be fixed. This might be a weird, hidden, spirit-obsessed splinter-tribe, but it was a Water Tribe all the same. It might be the last one living like a Water Tribe was supposed to.

There was a part of him that didn't really want to leave it be eaten by a monster. Even if another (very big) part of Sokka didn't want to be eaten by a monster, either.

He didn't say any of this. "We're all going to die horribly here, aren't we?"

Ty Lee leaned over and batted at his Warrior's Wolf-Tail. "If we do, at least we'll all die together."

Somehow, it didn't help.



Mai had seen some weird ways of preparing for a fight: meditation, speeches, and symbolic group-kata with way too much shouting, to name just a few examples. She had grown up in the Fire Nation, after all, the world-capital of People Making A Big Deal Out Of Fights. She herself had participated in a few ritual combats, back in her young and wild days, including one a few weeks ago.

But she'd never before seen anyone get ready for a battle with a party.

The various members of the Faceless Tribe had returned to the lodge after the sky fully darkened. They came with food and supplies and kids as old as Tom-Tom. (Any scared sniffles had stopped when they saw the sky bison curled up at the far side of the lodge.) They also came with musical instruments. And they barely had enough for a band when the dancing started.

"This," Katara said, "is how warriors of the Water Tribe prepare for battle."

Mai snorted. "Classy."

They were sitting off to the side, because apparently women didn't dance around here. (Mai wasn't sure whether she should be offended or relieved.) The men were all gathered around the firepit, organized into lines and moving to the music. It wasn't a particularly fast or shaky kind of jig, so Mai didn't feel especially scandalized. The lines of dancers would take a step, wave their arms and bob a little, take another step in a different direction, wave their arms in a way that was somehow different from the first time, and so on and so on. Sokka was up there, trying not to look like he was really into it, and Aang was grinning up a storm despite what awaited them tomorrow.

Katara turned her gaze away from the dancing to raise her eyebrows at Mai. "What? You don't like dancing?"

Ty Lee giggled.

Mai decided to keep things polite. (Just this once.) "There isn't much dancing in the Fire Nation, unless it also involves trying to kill someone. Dancing without combat is lewd."

"Lewd?" Katara blinked, and then motioned to the party. "That's lewd?"

Mai gave a dismissive little flick of her fingers. "Dancing without combat is movement without restriction. In other words, freedom. People who embrace freedom have no honor, because there is nothing keeping them from disobeying the Fire Lord, or forsaking their companions, or running away with a cutie half their age and leaving their honorable spouse behind with the kids and a mountain of debt."

Ty Lee giggled again. "But leave your grandpop out of this."

Oh, sure, she had to just bring that up. "Whatever my grandfather might have done before I was born, I have thankfully not inherited the inclination."

Katara smirked. "I don't know; you've been disobeying the Fire Lord all over the place for as long as I've known you. I didn't realize you were being lewd in public."

Mai had to stop and think on that for a moment. "On the other hand, maybe I did inherit something from my mother's father, and it's my poor cursed blood that I can blame for all my life's troubles. It's not lewd if I can't help it, right?"

Ty Lee smiled and stuck her chin out. "I can help it, and I danced all the time back in the colonies. I even made it part of my circus act, dancing across the tight-rope."

Mai held up a hand. "Not picturing it, thank you. Keep that kind of thing to yourself."

"Mai, you've seen me dance. Sometimes in the bath-"

Mai placed her hand over Ty Lee's face. "Not picturing it, thank you."

Ty Lee leaned away, freeing her face and landing in Katara's lap. "Hey, Katara, want to dance with me?"

Katara froze. "Uhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh-"

She was saved when Amka came over, carrying a bowl filled with some kind of liquid. The bowl itself was bone-white (and probably made from bone, to Mai's wariness) and its surface was carved to form images of people and animals. It was probably Culture.

Amka knelt in front of them, and held up the bowl. "Women would not be welcome with the warriors, but you will nevertheless be fighting with them tomorrow, yes?"

"Yes," Mai, Ty Lee, and Katara all said at once and with certainty.

Amka nodded slowly. "I do not understand it, but I have seen your skills, and I- I am glad you will be protecting my tribe. I have brought you this drink, so that you can prepare yourselves in spirit and body."

Ty Lee sat up and sniffed at the bowl. "What is it?"

Amka frowned. "It is what the boys drink before going to the mountain to listen to the Spirits. It strengthens them in spirit and body."

Mai started to say, "Yeah, we got that part, but what exactly is-"

But then Ty Lee picked up the bowl and took a gulp.

Mai rolled her eyes and gave up.

Ty Lee lowered the bowl and licked her lips. "I was expecting baijiu, but this tastes like weirdly spicy cream."

Amka blinked. "If it was baijiu I would have said it was baijiu. The Sages prepare it before matters that pertain to the Spirits."

Ty Lee handed the bowl to Katara, who took it with reverence. Katara bowed her head to the bowl - several times - and then at last took a sip. When she finished, she lowered the bowl and whispered something.

Then she handed it to Mai.

Really? Drink some weird Water Tribe cream for superstitious reasons? Mai was going to tell Ty Lee to go ahead and finish it, but then stopped. As Katara had pointed out, Mai had been engaging in a lot of lewd behavior this last year, and she'd already gotten used to living outdoors and making do without a real bathroom. What was weird Water Tribe spirit-cream compared to that?

After all, she hung out with a boy who glowed. This stuff might even work.

She accepted the bowl and took a slow sip.

Ty Lee was right. It was creamy, but there was something in it that added a sharp flavor. There was no taste of wine to it, but somehow Mai felt warmer as it settled in her stomach.

As she puzzled over that, Katara said, "So how is Kirima doing? I heard she woke up?"

Amka nodded. "She did. She asked after Pana, and- thankfully, she is sleeping again. I will stay with her tomorrow. As a friend and as a healer. She was so happy when she moved into Pana's hut. I don't know if she will stay there, or go back to her parents."

Mai shrugged. "She might as well make sure we're not all going to die, before she decides. Why agonize for no reason?"

Amka stared at her, and then shook her head. "I am not used to your Fire Nation humor."

"Hey," Ty Lee said with a snort, "don't blame us for Mai's sense of humor. The Fire Nation has enough things to answer for."

Katara chuckled, but there was no real mirth in it. "That's part of why I'm not going to let anyone stop me from going to help fight, tomorrow. If the Unhcegila can hurt people through their love, then everyone is at risk. I'd rather be out there protecting the people I love than waiting for that love to be turned against me."

"Oh." Amka's voice was soft. "You're right. I hadn't thought of it like that. Now I'm even gladder you will be fighting. If the Avatar is our best hope, then it is good that his love will be there beside him." Then she looked at Mai. "Are you and he betrothed, yet? If it is okay to ask."

It took a moment for Mai to find her voice, and when she did, it just came out as, "Uhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh-"

"They're not betrothed," Katara said.

"What age do Air Nomads get betrothed, anyway?" Ty Lee tapped her chin. "I'm not quite an adult in the Fire Nation, but maybe now that I'm an Airbender I'm of marrying age? Aang is younger than me, and he and Mai-"

"Why," Mai hissed, "is everyone talking like this? Aang and I aren't- we aren't-" She couldn't find the words, so she waved her hands to indicate the obvious meaning.

Ty Lee frowned. "Aren't what?"

Amka's eyebrows drew together. "He looks at you like Pana and Kirima looked at each other. I thought you were-"

"He's ten years old." Mai nodded, satisfied that she'd shut this whole thing down.

Ty Lee shoved her. "He is so not. He's thirteen, at least. His voice is changing. And I was conscripted as a Weapon of the Fire Nation at thirteen after our Agni Budokai."

Mai shook her head. "Well, I'm seventeen. I'm an adult. In the Fire Nation, he's a kid. End of story."

Katara leaned forward and grinned. "Then maybe I'll go ahead and get betrothed to him. Aunt Wu said that if you don't want Aang, I'd get to marry him. Are you stepping aside?"

Mai snorted. "I don't believe in fortunetellers. Do what you want."

Ty Lee lunged forward to stick her head between Mai and Katara's glaring contest. "What? Fortunetellers? What's this about? Why wasn't I informed? And why are you working so hard to claim you don't care about Aang? You're being evil, Mai. Evil. Katara isn't marrying Aang. You are. Evil."

Amka shook her head. "I am sorry I brought it up? I wish you good fortune, tomorrow. For all of our sakes." She took the empty spirit-cream bowl, and left with one last bow.

That left the girls in an uneasy silence. At least, it was uneasy for Mai. She liked to get the last word in.

She looked over at the dancers, where Aang was hop-stepping in a circle with Sokka, while all the warriors did the same around them.

"I'm not evil," she said. "I'll be there with Aang tomorrow, and wherever else he goes. Because I- I believe in him."

The silence in the little group wasn't any less uneasy for having said those words. But then, Mai had never been comfortable saying things like that.

Katara reached over and patted her shoulder. "I know."

And Ty Lee grabbed them both into a hug. "Your aura says it all, Mai. Don't worry about it."

So she didn't.

She worried about the monster they'd be fighting tomorrow, instead.

As soon as the hug was over, Mai sat back in a shadow, took out her platinum sword, and began checking the edge. It was ready for cutting, if that even mattered when dealing with spirits, but as she went to put it back in its scabbard, she caught a glimpse of something both shocking and familiar in the reflection in the blade.

It was a face painted like a Noh-mask, emerging from the body of a giant insect.

Just like her dream, back in the Fire Nation.

Mai froze in her surprise. Then she moved to take a closer look, and just saw her own face in the mirror-like blade, distorted but still fully human.

Weird.

She didn't usually react that badly to stress.

TO BE CONTINUED
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Loopy
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« Reply #264 on: Dec 05, 2018 05:57 pm »

The True Face of Death

Sokka had never been on an actual hunt before.

He'd heard stories of them, and fantasized about them throughout his life (usually with plenty of meat for everyone at the end and maybe a gorgeous girl or two for himself). He'd done metaphorical hunts, too, depending on how much he wanted to stretch the definition; he'd hunted for where he'd lost a boot many times, and this whole 'world-spanning adventure with Aang to save everything' gig was probably a kind of hunt. But this was the first time he was setting out with a bunch of real hunters, across a snowy landscape, to kill a beast. And it was with a Water Tribe, albeit one which was kind of isolated and cult-ish about some face-stealing spirit that fought Avatar Kuruk a kazillion years ago, but no one was perfect. Right?

He resolved to represent the Southern Water Tribe well, bringing bravery and strength to this hunt, and also to not die horribly in the coils of a horrible death-monster.

The day began before dawn, when the whole Faceless Tribe woke up together to the sounds of a summoning drum in the longhouse. Chatter and tuneless music brought Sokka out of dreams about watchful eyes, and he found himself curled up on Appa's tail. Aang was waking up on the other side of the field of fuzz, and up the saddle, he heard some grumbling that sounded like Mai and some testy responses from Katara and Ty Lee. Sokka found Momo sprawled in what looked like it had been one of bowls of that Qi-strengthening drink they had all drank last night, but the bowl was bone-dry now; Momo really knew how to pack it away, apparently.

It turned out that preparing for a hunt was a lot like getting ready for a day of work or travel or infiltrating a Fire Nation fortress. You got dressed, hit the bathroom, checked your supplies, ate something hearty that wouldn't make your tummy rumbly, traded quips with people to hide how worried you were, settled some last-minute plans, hit the bathroom again, made sure Aang hit the bathroom again because seriously we are not turning this whole hunt around in an hour and you don't want to have to go when you're being stalked by a supernatural terror- and then set out to risk your life for the good of the Tribe.

Sokka noticed that the sick woman from yesterday - the one whose husband or something had been killed by the monster, the 'Unhcegila,' and who Aang said had nearly been killed through her magic connection with the guy or something - was packing supplies for the hunters with the other women. There was no time to mourn, it seemed.

It was the old warrior Toklo, apparently acting as Hunt Leader, who came over while Sokka was having breakfast by the central fire and said to him, "So how do we best use your crew?"

Sokka wasn't surprised that he was the one being asked- just relieved. "Well, I was thinking that it would be a shame to waste a flying sky-bison. Appa can pace the hunting party, keep an eye out where we can't, and warn us of any trouble."

Toklo sat down beside him and nodded. "On the other hand, I would feel better having the Avatar on the ground with us."

"No problem." Sokka tilted his head towards where Ty Lee was petting Appa's nose and feeding him some of their dried fruit supplies mixed with what looked like a seaweed harvest. "Appa's smart, and we can all steer him when the weather is okay. I figure Ty Lee can stay with the big guy, since she's an Airbender and can almost fly. Aang's on the ground with us, along with Katara and Mai."

Toklo grimaced. "You're still bringing the women along, huh? They're not of our Tribe, so I won't give them orders, but it could be bad luck."

"Bad luck?" Sokka snorted. "I consider Waterhealing and platinum weapons to be the opposite of bad luck when weird stuff is happening. And Katara is a better Waterbender than your guys. Uh, no offense? We could bring some of your healers along in Appa to keep them out of the fight. Your daughter Amka might-"

Toklo cut him off with, "I will accept their presence of your women. Those of my Tribe will remain behind as is our way."

"I am so glad I have your acceptance," came Mai's voice. Sokka looked up to find her towering over him, already wearing her gray fur coat. "I'd hate to get eaten by a monster because you were distracting me with disapproval."

Toklo looked up at her, looked at Sokka with a clear 'your life choices mystify me' expression on his face, and got to his feet. "The sun will be up, soon, and that's when we'll leave." He gave one last nod, and moved away.

Mai immediately sat down in his place. "I heard you making plans."

"Yeah. You okay being on the ground for this?"

Her eyebrow did that really sharp arching thing she enjoyed so much. "The less flying I do, the better. Especially if Aang is going to be on the ground, too. But that's what I wanted to talk to you about. It's fine that we're helping these people, I guess, but Aang is still the most important person in the world. Right?"

This had been what was bothering Sokka last night. He wanted to help a Water Tribe, but also knew this was a big risk. "Right. Your point?"

Mai leaned close. "I'm going to stay by Aang with my platinum sword. I'll protect him, no matter what."

Yeah, that was Mai's practical cynicism at work. Sokka was glad it was still working. "Okay. I don't think the Tribe is expecting you to take point, anyway."

"That's not where I'm going with this." She glanced around, and then pulled a small blade from her belt. It glinted brightly in the light of the fire, and Sokka recognized it as the platinum knife she'd been carrying since the South Pole, when she helped Aang and Sokka escape. "Take this. I know you'll protect Aang if there's an overly dramatic hard choice, but you also want to help kill this monster. So you need some platinum, too."

Sokka reached for the weapon, but stopped himself. "Are you sure?"

She gave him a Look. "Do I give away weapons when I'm not sure?"

He knew she didn't, but that wasn't what he was getting at. "I mean, the knife versus the sword. You're magic with knives, but you're keeping the sword and giving the knife away."

"Oh." She blinked. "I was thinking that I've shown you how to fight with knives, but the only sword training you've had is with Suki's katana. This isn't the same kind of sword. I want you to be effective, not a danger to yourself and others. More than usual, I mean."

"Wow. Thanks." Sokka took the knife, and slipped it into his own belt. "Someday, I'm going to teach you about the concept of team morale."

"Eh, don't bother." Mai stood up and smoothed her coat. "I never had any to begin with."


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Loopy
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« Reply #265 on: Dec 05, 2018 05:58 pm »

The entire snowy landscape glowed with the light of the rising sun. It reminded Aang of how the white towers of the Southern Air Temple would reflect the colors of the sky. Except here, the closest mountain wasn't below them, but standing tall and casting a spear of a shadow across the snow. The Sacred Mountain, isolated on its own little peninsula in the bay, reached for the sky like an arrow.

And was it Aang's imagination, or did the wind that passed the mountain carry whispers?

He was straining to hear when Sokka came over to throw an arm around his shoulders and say, "So, you ready for a manly trip to hunt down and kill something?"

Aang tried to smile. "You know, we might not have to kill the Unhcegila. Maybe it can be reasoned with. Or healed of dark, corrupting energies and turned into a kind and loving fluffy peace-monster!"

Sokka patted his shoulder. "Well, I guess I shouldn't be surprised that you're maintaining a positive outlook. You've had trouble with being manly, sometimes."

That's when Ty Lee, nearly camouflaged in her Water Tribe parka, crashed into them both from behind and wrapped her arms around their waists. "Positive energy is how success happens! Our minds are more powerful than our bodies or our world, and we can will victory and fortune into existence if we just believe in it hard enough!"

Aang thought about that. "Um, I have no problem with staying positive, but if that's how it works, then why is the world damaged and at war?"

Ty Lee pressed her head against Aang's so that their cheeks were mushed together. "We need more positive energy! I'm going to sing a happy song really loudly so that everyone stays positive!" She suddenly let go of them, and ran off. "Hey, Katara, I need you sing harmony for me!"

"Whaaat," came Katara's voice from somewhere.

Aang looked over to see Sokka lost in thought. "What are you thinking?"

Sokka's eyes continued to stare into the distance. "Have you ever been attracted to someone who you're sure is wrong for you in every possible way and some you probably haven't even imagined yet?"

Aang thought about Mai. "No. Maybe you can work through it?"

Sokka just sighed.

The hunting party soon moved out.

Most of the men of the Faceless Tribe were part of the hunting party. Hahn, the survivor from the Northern Water Tribe, was staying behind, and he didn't look as excited as Sokka or Ty Lee. Remaining with Hahn and a few guardian warriors were the elders, including the Water Sages, and Chief Kumaglak. The women all stayed, and Aang saw them already working to set up a simple hospital area in case any injuries came back. Even Momo was clinging to Aang as they set out across the icy landscape.

As Ty Lee took Appa up into the sky, Aang trotted over to walk beside Toklo at the head of the group. "How come your chief isn't coming? I thought Water Tribe chiefs were also hunt leaders?"

Toklo raised his eyebrows. "In the main Southern Tribe, perhaps. Northern Chiefs are all descendants of Torngasak; they consider it a sacred bloodline destined to lead. That's one of the things my Toqukiinaq Tribe - the Faceless Tribe - chose to change when we split from them. Kumaglak was named chief based on what the Spirit Voices said to him, when he came of age camped on Sacred Mountain. The old chief took him as an apprentice, and Kumaglak has proven himself to be a wise leader. Our hunt leaders are chosen by the hunters alone."

"And you're leading this hunt?"

Toklo nodded, setting his braided gray hair swaying. "Yes. You have a problem with that?"

Aang shook his head. "I'm just curious. I love learning about new places and people."

"Well, then to satisfy your curiosity, I was asked to lead this hunt because I do not feel fear when my Tribe is danger. I just feel anger." He finally turned to reveal his full face, and the glint in his eyes was so sharp that Aang found himself stumbling in his march.

Toklo continued on, his steps steady.

As Aang got moving again, Mai wound up marching beside him, and she said, "Any problems yet?"

Aang shook his head. "No. Just satisfying my curiosity."

Mai glanced at him, and the look in her eyes wasn't dissimilar to Toklo's. "Curiosity might not be the best thing when we're hunting a monster."

It was a point to keep in mind.

The hunting party continued on, away from the mountain and the bay where the tribe's ships rested. They moved fairly quickly, everyone apparently used to long tracks with backpacks full of supplies. Aang had no problem keeping up, but he noticed that his friends - Mai, Sokka, and Katara - were getting a little winded by the pace set by the rest of the group. He looked to Mai with a questioning expression, but she shook her head. As they walked, heavy clouds began streaming in from the north. They grew more numerous as the morning wore on, blunting the light of the sun.

The hunting party took a short break when they reached a river, but not just to rest. Toklo gave a hand signal that brought the whole group to a halt, but then he looked to Aang and twitched his head in a summons.

Aang came over, being careful not to say anything.

Mai followed him, her hands on the handle of her platinum sword. A normal steel sword hung from the back of her waist, ignored for now.

Toklo nodded towards the river, and moved forward with his club and machete held out in front of him defensively.

Aang similarly readied the Monk's Spade he'd brought out of the Fire Nation, the end with the crescent-blade held forward, and tensed himself for an attack. He tried to shoo Momo off of his back, but the lemur clung to him and wouldn't let go, so he had to trust that Momo would flee if any danger appeared. Mai followed him as he in turn followed Toklo.

The hunt leader investigated the area around the river. It was wide, but not so wide that Aang couldn't have jumped across it to the other side. A few rocky hazards rose from the streaming waters, and some spots were covered in sheets of ice. Toklo examined quite a bit of the riverbank on this side, and then finally picked up a fist-sized rock and tossed it into the center of the river.

It disappeared with a plop.

The river continued to run on.

Momo let go of Aang, skittered over to the river, and leaned over to lap the icy waters.

After a long moment, Toklo nodded. "It's not here. We can relax." He raised his hand in another signal, and the hunting party shuffled over to rest at the river bank. Ty Lee brought Appa down near the group and hopped down to the snow, where she immediately launched into some stretches. Katara walked over to talk to her.

Sokka, meanwhile, came over to stand with Aang, Mai, and Toklo. "So what's our path? Up river or down to the bay?"

Toklo looked out over the landscape. "I think to the bay. The disappearances happened near water. If we find tracks, we'll follow them, but otherwise we'll just try to flush out along the water. Did your woman Airbender see anything from the sky?"

Mai snorted. "Trust me, we would have heard the screeching."

Sokka looked up. "Does it look like snow to anyone else?"

Aang turned his attention to the sky, and sure enough, the last of it seemed to have been covered by ugly clouds. "That's going to make this harder, isn't it?"

"Ha," Toklo said completely devoid of any humor. "Only if you value visibility."

Mai raised a hand. "I'll take some visibility, please."

Aang reached over and patted her back consolingly.

Soon the group got moving again, and Ty Lee once again took to the skies. Aang tried to get Momo to go with her, but the lemur seemed to be really attached to him today. He had no idea why, as this area was similar to the type of lands that surrounded the Southern Air Temple. But maybe Momo could sense something else that no human could.

Soon, it started to snow.

It wasn't very heavy, but with it came some fairly strong winds. They kept the snowflakes dancing through the sky, as well as some of the snow and ice crystals on the ground. With the lack of sunlight, it created a very gloomy atmosphere, and as Toklo had warned, visibility suffered. It wasn't too bad yet, as Aang could still see the full hunting party and the area around it, but things could get dangerous if it got worse.

And then, as they followed the river's languorous twisting towards the bay, there were the shapes in the snow.

The sky and the reflective ground had taken on a gray-beige color, and the swirling snow's slightly lighter coloration made it seem like shadows were dancing across Aang's vision. It made shapes appear ahead of him that he would try to focus on, but they all disappeared under his attention. He would get an impression of a form that was almost familiar, like something from a dream he hadn't quite forgotten, but it would slip from his gaze as soon as he focused on it.

The worst were the shapes that were almost like faces. Twin dark splotches within a circular swirl of not-quite-invisible snow and a smear of shadows that were almost the eyes, nose, and mouth of people he might know. But after a blink, they would be gone.

Except for one.

Aang was surprised when he blinked and it didn't disappear, so that he was left staring dumbly until he thought to really see what he was looking at. It was strange, a face-like impression that lacked the kind of details that differentiated a real live human from mimicry like puppets or drawings, and as his eyes met the twin balls of shadows that were the eyes, he felt a shiver build up from his darkest depths to rattle his body.

Momo gave a hiss that draw Aang's attention for a moment, and when he looked again, the face was gone.

Thankfully, he'd heard enough ghost stories to know what to do next. "Hey, I saw something! And I don't think it was my imagination!"

Toklo raised his hand again for a halt. Mai drew her platinum sword.

Aang breathed in and out, steadying himself, and looked again. There were the usual swirls of snow and shade, but not the face he thought he had seen.

Yet Momo's hair was standing on end.

Aang said, "I think there's something out there."

Toklo looked at him.

Aang looked back.

Toklo nodded, and turned to address the hunting party. "Be ready. Waterbenders, build us some defensive walls. You, you, and you, watch the river. Everyone else, circle. You see anything, you cry out. You feel anything weird, you do whatever will let everyone know."

Aang looked up and saw that Ty Lee had Appa circling above them. Good.

When he looked out again, the wind picked up, scattering more snow across his vision. The howl echoed across the landscape, a howl that Aang recognized as mere weather but was still super creepy.

It was Mai who said, "There!" She flipped her sword out to point ahead, and Aang caught a swirl of snow mixed with a shadow moving at the speed of the wind-

-someone screamed-

-Aang jumped forward-

-Momo squeaked and climbed into Aang's shirt-

-Aang landed in a tuft of snow where the shadow had been, finding nothing-

-there was a splash in the river-

-and when Aang turned around, twin lines of animal tracks in the snow led straight through the center of the hunting party, where the imprints of a pair of heavy boots were the only thing left of the Water Tribe warrior who had just been there. The three-toed tracks led straight to the river, which ran on without concern for the life it had just swallowed.

"Go," Toklo roared.

A pair of hunters, Waterbenders, leaped out over the river. The water beneath them turned to ice just before their boots touched down. Standing there solidly, the pair raised their arms high over their head, moving in tandem, and the water of the river responded. Between them, the river itself bent and tore in half straight down to the rocky surface at the bottom, forming a dry valley.

Then Katara leaped out to join them, followed immediately by several other Waterbenders, forming discs of ice that they surfed across the surface of the river. Aang saw that they were converging on something, moving to surround a point within the valley. Some reached to form waterwhips while others pushed to steadily freeze the rest of the river into solid ice-

-and Aang saw something blur across them, something long that had reached up from down within the artificial valley. One of the Waterbenders managed a brief cry before falling off his ice patch-

-Aang summoned a wind that aided his jump to carry him over the scene. He looked down as the warriors struck with their waterwhips, catching a glimpse of something long and serpentine as it twitched and curled around the attacks, too quick for his eyes to make out any real features, invincible in its speed-

-Aang straightened his legs and swung his monk's spade above his head to create a counterforce wind, launching himself downward like an arrow from a bow-

-he slammed into something solid and meaty and hard enough that the impact jolted his legs painfully, and there was a sound like wind howling through tunnel while a Yangchen Festival Chorus screamed in unison-

-and he bounced off to crash on the chilled rocky ground of the forcibly-dried riverbed. Rushing walls of water sprayed frigid mist on him while he tumbled, but he managed to hold on to his Monk's Spade and used it anchor himself into a stop. He stood up and raised his eyes to the shadow-

-and found himself looking into a face the size of his whole body. It had smooth pale flesh somehow reminiscent of both a fresh field of snow and a fattened maggot, deathly white and absolutely frigid, carved with the care of a master sculptor to evoke a beauty that transcended gender or even humanity. Curved horns rose to frame the head like a halo but failed to meet at the center, a broken bridge that fell into the face and the dark eyes that stared out from the center-

-dark eyes that glistened like blood in the moonlight, as deep as the cracked heart of a mountain.

Aang found himself falling into those eyes even as his boots stayed heavy on the ground and his fingers froze in a desperate grip around his Monk's Spade. He fell, a drop so profound it felt like flying, the darkness coating him and sticking to him and sapping every last bit of heat from his body. The darkness seeped into the pours of his skin and melted his bones into icy slush and Roku was screaming and Kyoshi was screaming and Kuruk cried out, "Not again-"

That's when Momo climbed up onto Aang's face, blocking his vision. The darkness and the falling and the inky cold didn't go away, but Aang found that he could move again, just enough, and he heard the sounds of waterwhips and battle cries and his name and the roar of a sky-bison-

Aang realized what was going on and jumped.

His Airbending was slow to answer his call, but it was enough to keep him aloft as Appa slammed down right on top of the creature. Strong hands grabbed at Aang's clothes and swung him into the familiar solidness of Appa's saddle. Momo let go of his face, but Aang was trapped in a cage of dizziness that blocked his senses, as if he wasn't used to twisting and rolling through the open air and needed a moment to recover. But that was ridiculous; he was an Airbending Master. The disorientation didn't go away until Ty Lee's panicked face and reassuring gray eyes filled his vision. She said, "Breathe!"

He was confused for a moment until he realized that he wasn't breathing. He started again, and immediately felt better.

How close had he just come to dying?



Sokka wasn't sure what to do with himself. The fight was happening out on top of the river, where only the Waterbenders were any use. He and the other regular warriors were left out here in the snow to just stand around. At least Toklo was nominally supervising things, but guys like Sokka had nothing to do but observe and maybe offer some kind of near-useless moral support.

He turned to make a comment to Mai, but she wasn't where he expected. He looked right and then left. With those options exhausted, he tried looking down.

She was on the ground, sprawled in the snow, eyes wide and mouth gasping as her hands clutched at her heart. Her sword lay useless beside her.

"Mai!" He immediately dropped to his knees and grabbed her. "What's wrong?"

Her face was pale, even for her, and her eyes weren't focusing on him. They seemed to be staring at nothing at all. Mai's gasping was like a fish on land, almost like she had forgotten how to breathe.

And Sokka had no idea how to remind her.

He'd seen this before. Back in the Southern Air Temple, when Aang's people came back as nightmares in the dark. When he risked his life to save her, even though he had barely known her, and seemed to earn a little bit of respect as a result- respect that all his previous posturing had failed to find. He couldn't fix this then, either. She had just come out of it on her own. All he could do was hold her and vow that if she died, he'd make sure her sword was used against her killer.

Then she cried out, something between a screech and sob, and sucked in a lungful of air with the suddenness of a newborn sealpup. Sokka continued to hold her as she got used to respiration again, and then let go and pretended that she had never needed help and he certainly hadn't seen her so vulnerable.

She was still breathing hard when she picked up her sword again and sat up. "What the slush?"

"I don't know." He gave a smile that he hoped was reassuring. "But between the hunting and the swearing, I think you're ready to be officially adopted into the Water Tribes."

She groaned, but didn't say anything more.

Sokka noticed that the din of the battle had died down, and looked over to see the Waterbenders skating back to dry land - and one swimming back, but as soon as the guy got out of the river he dried himself with a flick of his hands - and Appa landed next to the defensive walls of snow that hadn't done any good. The river was whole again, and everyone looked glum.

He saw that Katara was okay, and then went over to help Ty Lee carry Aang down out of the saddle. "So, we lost?"

"Yeah." Aang let himself be held up. "If it helps, I hung on to my Monk's Staff."

Sokka thought of his new boomerang, and what it meant to him. "Hey, that's, like, the third most important thing about being a hunter, right there."

"What are the first two?"

"Getting the meat for your tribe, and surviving. In that order. So, we didn't do great, but we weren't completely terrible!"

Ty Lee shook her head. "Being a hunter isn't any fun."

"Well-" Sokka tried to shrug, but he was still holding Aang up. "Well, not when there are spirit monsters, no."


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Loopy
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« Reply #266 on: Dec 05, 2018 05:59 pm »

Mai was still feeling shaky, but she clutched her sword harder to make up for it.

She went over to join the rest of the group where they were gathered near Toklo, cutting through the clusters of Waterbenders and spear-throwers checking each other for injuries and/or chanting some kind of prayer.

She announced herself with a preemptive, "I'm fine. So, what happened?"

Aang's eyes met hers, and her gut clenched at how watery they were. His body lacked the strength and confidence it usually had, just like she how she felt right now. But he had no parka to hide his vulnerability, unlike her. "The Unhcegila got away. After Ty Lee got me away from it, it slipped into the part of the river that was still liquid and went downstream."

Mai's stomach clenched even tighter, but she kept the pain from showing on her face. "Back up to the part where Ty Lee got you away. I saw you jump into the fight, but you were out of sight after you dropped into the gap in the river. What did Ty Lee get you away from?"

Aang shuddered. "The Unhcegila had a weird face. When I looked at it-"

"Let me guess," Sokka interrupted, "Cold, can't breathe, spooky, dying, blargh?"

"Yeah, pretty close to that!"

"Yup, just like the Southern Air Temple." Sokka crossed his arms nodded. "Mai can confirm it. She got hit there, and just now I think she got it again when you were being ghosted or whatever."

Aang blinked. Then he turned to Mai. "You, too?"

She sighed as Ty Lee grabbed her in one of those rib-cracking hugs. She wished Sokka hadn't mentioned it.

But he was still enjoying his moment of blabbing everyone's secrets. "Just like the girl Katara and Aang helped save, yesterday. Her husband or whatever was dying, affecting her. So Aang got hit, and he's practically Mai's husband at this point-"

She tried to smack him, but he was too far away, and Ty Lee's hug was keeping her from properly lunging.

"-thus Mai was nearly killed along with him." Sokka crossed his arms and nodded. "I bet that's the difference. People who see that thing's face or eyes or nose - whichever part is cursed, and don't count out its chin just yet - get hit with the weird spirit-sucking thing. But others just get dragged into the water or hit, and die without taking their friends and family down with them. It got one hunter before we mustered a defense, and nearly got a Waterbender during the fight."

Mai took a moment to parse that. "So we can't even look at it when we're trying to kill it?"

Sokka shrugged. "Try looking at its knees. Its eyes are up here." He motioned as if drawing an invisible observer's gaze to his face.

Katara tilted her head back and forth. "It makes sense. I don't know if looking at its knees is the answer, exactly, but the Waterbenders and I weren't affected looking down on it. But we saw Aang meet it face to face, and-" She shrugged.

Ty Lee finally let go of Mai. "It didn't have an aura."

"Of course," Mai said, putting as much confidence into her voice as she could. "Auras aren't real."

No one took the bait. She worried that they'd keep figuring things out and realize what she had realized-

"Time to move," Toklo called out. "We know Unhcegila's path now. We chase it until it stops and fights."

Before Mai could ask if it might be possible to stop and come up with a plan before continuing, the Water Tribe hunters all immediately dropped whatever they were doing and launched into a jog along the river. Mai hissed, "Slush," again (because 'ash' just didn't seem appropriate in these circumstances), and then Aang and Sokka and Katara were running along, too, while Ty Lee was making air-assisted leaps back to Appa.

Momo was the only one with Mai, and the lemur looked at her with a trill. She let him scamper up her coat as she sheathed her sword, and once he was settled in her hood, she ran after the rest of the group.

It wasn't long before she was breathing harder than she would have liked. She was still in Weapon-class shape, but she wasn't used to this level of activity in weather this cold. A burst of fighting was fine, but they'd been out in this cold for hours now.

She caught up to her friends and settled into the same jogging pace as the Tribe members.

Sokka glanced at her, and gave her what she took as an apologetic grin. "This is how the Water Tribes hunt. We run down our prey until it exhausts itself, and then we fight."

Mai didn't bother asking if spirits could get exhausted. She just raised her eyebrows, and Sokka had the grace to look abashed.

They ran through the gloom and the snow, following the river.

At least this kept everyone from figuring out what she had noticed. If Aang getting caught in the monster's power could hurt her, then it must also work the other way. If she got hit, he would die along with her. It wasn't any great revelation, not after what they saw of Amka's friend yesterday, but it made Mai realize that she was a weakness for Aang. No matter his power or Avatar abilities, he was exactly as vulnerable as she was.

She was putting Aang in danger.

She just didn't know what to do about it. She couldn't talk about it until she had some idea of how she fe- how to address it.

She kept her hand on her platinum sword.

They followed the curve of the river, and slowly the shard-like peak of the Sacred Mountain began fading in and out of the snowy view. Funny how the mountain was sometimes visible, while landmarks far closer were hidden in the gloom.



Sokka was pleased that the hunting party's commitment to the chase didn't extend to eating while they ran. Toklo called a break after a while, and everyone immediately sat down on the snow and broke out some food.

Sokka himself made sure he had downed a full seaweed cake with a strip of moistened jerky on top – the work of a whole five seconds - before crawling over to Toklo. "So we haven't seen any sign of the monster. Have we lost it?"

Toklo took a sip from his waterskin. "Not necessarily. We follow the river to the bay. That's where it took Ikiaq and Aput, the fishermen. It hunts there, but we'll make it into the prey."

Sokka didn't like the idea of having to flush the monster out of the huge bay that encircled the Sacred Mountain. Was an 'Unhcegila' like a flint-whale in that it had to surface for air every so often? Could it be driven into nets? Sure, Waterbenders would make it a little easier, but they hadn't helped so much on the river.

He chewed his way through another seaweed cake and swallowed quickly. "How far to the bay?"

"An hour's jog. Why?"

Sokka pictured it. The river curved around so that it met the bay where the land faced the long side of the Sacred Mountain, ninety degrees and maybe an hour or two from the Tribe's village. Theoretically, the monster could cut across to the village while the hunting party kept moving towards the bay. And even if it didn't- "And how fast was the Unhcegila moving? How long until it gets there?"

Toklo shook his head. "It moved fast, but some creatures move better in bursts than over long distances. But it is a spirit."

Sokka crammed one last seaweed cake into his mouth and chewed just enough to speak around it. "Then we need more information, and we need a way to move faster. I think I should take Aang and the rest of my friends up on Appa to rush ahead and cut it off, if we can."

Toklo blinked. "Is that how the Southern Tribe hunts? From the sky?"

Sokka had to laugh. "Considering how the Fire Nation outlawed the use of our own hunting grounds, and how much time I've spent trying to save the world from Appa's back, I guess the answer is now yes."

"Very well. Good luck, brother." Toklo held out a hand.

Sokka put his own out, and they clasped each other at the wrist for a shake. "Come running if you hear us screaming."

And then he was standing up and waving to his friends. "Time to hit the skies! We're doing something that's hopefully not stupid! Feel free to eat some more in the saddle. I will!"



Ty Lee was glad to have her friends up in the sky with her, after being alone with Appa all day so far. She just wished their auras weren't all tainted with the muddy gray color of fear. Mai's coat even matched her aura color, which had to be some kind of bad omen. Usually, her black and grey outfits were a surprisingly stylish contrast to her dingy aura.

They flew along the course of the river, hovering low because of all the snow. It had grown thicker, making it harder to see, so everyone was straining to watch for some sign of the monster. The 'Unhcegila.'

"This reminds me," Aang said slowly, "of the storm that Appa and I flew into when I ran away from home." He was sitting at the front of the saddle, just behind Ty Lee, allowing her to keep steering.

She'd heard of the story of that storm. Katara had told her, having heard it from Sokka, who got it from Mai, who was told from Aang himself. His aura was getting darker.

"But this time you have lots of friends with you." Ty Lee leaned back to plant a kiss on his cheek. " So it's nothing like that, right?"

Aang managed to put on a smile for her, but his aura only lightened a little bit.

Phooey. But Ty Lee wasn't feeling very positive, herself. She was trying to look that way for everyone else, because they couldn't see auras and so it was a lie she could get away with, but the truth was that her hands hadn't stopped shaking all day. This was a spirit monster. It had a name- the Unhcegila. It was a thing without an aura. It hurt people without harming their body. It attacked the very stuff that auras were made of!

Ty Lee had always believed in something beyond the material world, no matter how illegal that faith was, but she'd stopped believing in monsters under the bed a long time ago.

Now she knew that they were real.

Her own aura was muddy gray, too.

"There's the bay," Aang called out.

Ty Lee startled, having lost track of where they were flying, and quickly added, "Yes, I see it! So pretty!" She turned to Katara. "You'll have so much water to work with down there. You'll be able to protect us all!"

Katara's gave a slow nod. "Maybe."

Phooey. Even Katara was gloomy. But she made it look so cute.

Mai said, "So did we miss the monster? Or did it get away?"

Sokka pointed down to the rocky, snow-covered ground. "I think that's our answer! Anyone else seeing footprints?"

Ty Lee looked and didn't see anything. But Mai squinted and said, "I think you're right."

Ty Lee didn't need to be told to take Appa down for a landing. But she didn't need to like it, either.

The mouth of the river was a little waterfall, not even as tall as Mai, that emptied out into the bay. Chunks of ice made loud splashes as they went over the falls, and Ty Lee wondered if she was fast enough to use them as stairs while they fell through the air.

The footprints started at the riverbank right before the waterfall, as if the monster decided not to take the ride, and once she got a chance to look at them up close, they reminded her of a the shapes left by a turtle-duck in the mud. Ty Lee followed the trail with her eyes, being careful not to move around and leave too many of her own tracks. She couldn't see any pattern to them, but she had never really been good at that type of thing. Azula was the one who figured stuff out, and usually was the only one smart enough to see a pattern.

Ty Lee wished she hadn't thought of Azula. She was scared enough already.

"I don't get it," Sokka said. He was smart, and had traced the path of the footprints. But he must not be as smart as Azula. "It came all the way to the end of the river, here, but didn't swim out to the bay. The footprints start where it emerged from the river, and then it walked around. Maybe shaking off the water? But then the tracks just stop here in the middle of the snow. How could they do that?"

Ty Lee said, "Maybe it can fly!"

No one answered her. She didn't think it was a very likely guess, either, but it felt like a possibility that had to be voiced. She turned back to the waterfall, waiting for Sokka to be clever enough to figure out the real answer-

-when something brushed her leg.

She looked down, expecting to see Momo, but all she saw was the bottom of her parka and her boots. "Um."

She looked back up. Momo was still clinging to Aang.

She said, "Um," again.

The others were gathering around the end of the footprints, while Appa was contentedly chewing one of the seaweed bales they had brought for his meals. Ty Lee turned in a little circle, but all she saw were snowflakes falling to the ground. The sounds of ice chunks splashing down into the bay was the only thing she heard.

She said, "Um."

Something brushed her back.

She clenched her fists and turned around.

There was nothing there. She looked at the waterfall, and at the falling snow. She turned back to her friends-

-there was a splash-

-she looked back at the waterfall-

-and a massive face, so white it barely stood out from the falling snow, looked at her with eyes the color of spending her whole life in a matched set. It didn't have features so much as the suggestion of features, like an old weathered opera mask, but it was as smooth as the finest cream.

Ty Lee realized she was becoming colder.

She said, "Um."

And then her heart stopped beating.

As she fell to the ground, she heard Katara and Mai cry out in the same tone as the coldness in her blood.



It turned out that hearing his friends die was worse for Aang than experiencing it himself.

He had been standing just behind Sokka, looking at the end of the tracks in the snow, with Mai and Katara on either side of him. Momo was hanging off of Aang's back, tail curled around his waist. He hadn't noticed that Ty Lee wasn't there, but then the sound of a little impact in the snow worked its way across the wind, and he realized that they were in trouble.

He hadn't even been quick enough to turn around when Mai and Katara both wailed and crashed into him with their full dead weight. He tried to catch them, but Momo began trilling and started scrambling around his neck, and he was trying to hold on to his Monk's Spade, and he wound up just falling with the girls and getting pinned beneath them. "Mai! Katara! Are you hurt? Wha-"

And then they both went into fits, violently convulsing as though in a seizure. He let go of his weapon and tried to steady them, but they were moving with a wild strength, and the last thing he wanted to do was hurt them.

Then he heard Sokka say, "What is- oh no it's back Aang take care of the girls I gotta get Ty Lee here we go Appa yip-yip and WATER TRIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIBE!!!"

Aang caught a glimpse of Sokka leaping straight over him, pulling a gleaming knife from his belt, and he followed the motion to see-

The Unhcegila!

It was looming over Ty Lee, face pointed down at her, and while its reptilian body quickly faded to shadow in the windswept snow, Aang could make out that shadow curving back to the little waterfall at the mouth of the river. It had come out from under the waterfall!

Aang needed to do something. And he couldn't manage two thrashing girls at once. He focused on Mai, trying to cradle her head and pin her arms, but her strength wasn't at all diminished, and he still needed to figure out what to do about Katara-

-Sokka was making a lot of terrified noise, so Aang assumed the other boy was doing okay. Appa stampeded over to join in-

-and then the girls both went limp and stopped breathing.

No!

No!

He patted Mai's cheeks, pushed down on her heart, and even threw snow on her face, but she didn't react. And the same thing was happening to Katara, and he didn't know what to do-

-Sokka went something like, "OOMMMPH!!" and then the only noise coming from over there was Appa's roar-

-which faded into heavy impact and a splash, followed by a deafening silence-

-Aang heard heavy feet crunching the snow beneath them, growing closer-

-Mai wasn't breathing-

-and the storm burst into being within him.

It was not the storm of snow. That was the external world. His internal world was being overcome by another kind of a storm, a storm of souls. The winds of Aang's pain whipped into motion the shades of Roku and Kyoshi and Kuruk and Yangchen and Zhanshen and Shexian and Yuhwa and Dawa and Shushen and Kimsuro and Ikujuri and Jampa and-

But the storm was too much to be contained within, and leaked out of Aang in the form of light and wind and power.

The winds lifted him from the bodies of Mai and Katara, cradling him in the air. The snow was driven to blinding speed, lightening everything but obscuring no longer. He saw the Unhcegila before him, a pathetic worm that pretended to humanity with a face made of death. Ty Lee was crumpled in front of it, and Sokka was on his back a distance away with his arms crossed over his eyes. A piece of metal - a knife - sat in the snow near him, and it was shining, reflecting the light of Aang's own glow, but it was a harsh light and he hated it and averted his eyes from it.

Instead, he focused on the Unhcegila.

It raised its face to look at him, and as those black eyes met Aang's, as the nothingness of death met the glow of life, he felt a chill sweep through him and start to calm the storm within.

But before it could die, he reached into the storm and out into the elements around him. Air and Water answered his call, combining to form a frozen hammer the size of the universe- or maybe a pair of sky-bison. The Unhcegila shifted its face to look at the new  threat, and then Aang brought both of fists down.

In response, the ice hammer was driven into the monster with the full force of the storm.

One hit was enough to sped the winds and scatter the snow and crack rock and send his friends skidding away.

No!

He couldn't hurt them!

He couldn't-

-couldn't-

-the storm-

The Unhcegila roared and scurried away into the obscuring snow. Aang tried to stop it, to follow it, to reach out to it, but the storm within was spiraling beyond his control. He had nearly hurt his friends, and Mai-

-Mai-

-she was stirring.

So was Katara. And Ty Lee. Sokka was up and shouting something. Appa was flying up from the bay, dripping seawater. Momo landed in Appa's saddle.

They were all okay.

And then there was no more storm, and Aang dropped to the ground.


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Loopy
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« Reply #267 on: Dec 05, 2018 06:00 pm »

Mai was getting tired of losing a fight before she even got to join in.

It took a while for warmth to return to her body, and even as she found the strength to move and start opening her eyes, there still remained a chill at the center of her bones that seemed untouchable. It slowed her, made her hands shake, and reminded her of just how vulnerable she was to this monster.

After all, she loved pretty much everyone here.

She finally got her eyes open, and found herself in a world of white. But it wasn't the snow that had obscured things all day, it was the bright white of Appa's fur. She was nestled between two of his limbs. So that's what was so warm. She squeezed herself free and nearly fell to the ground when her legs refused to support her.

Sokka caught her before that happened, though.

"Sure, you would be the one to try to escape," he said, leaning her back against Appa's side. The sky bison sniffled something like an agreement. "Katara was just fine going back for a nap, and I'll bet Ty Lee will stay put until she's strong enough. But you have to go running around as soon as your eyes are open, don't you?"

"Shut up. Where's Aang?"

"Up in the saddle." Sokka turned away from her and scanned the scenery, which seemed unchanged to her eyes. He must have agreed, because he turned around again. "He went into the Avatar State and chased the monster away, but that tuckered him out. He wasn't turning into corpsicles like you girls, though, so he and Momo are hanging out up there. Once Appa dried off – his fur is great at repelling water – he was the perfect thing for warming up half-dead people."

"Well, thanks." At his questioning look, she added, "For cleaning up after the rest of us made a mess of things."

He grimaced. "Well, I didn't do much better. Didn't even get a chance to try the knife."

"I didn't get a chance to try my sword, so we're even." Mai tried raising herself again, this time more slowly, and while her legs remained shaky, they agreed that upright was an acceptable state of being for now. She took the opportunity to look around, and sure enough, Ty Lee and Katara were tucked in between Appa's arms and tail just like she had been. Both seemed to be sleeping.

The snow was still falling, but there didn't seem to be any sign of the monster. Or the Faceless Tribe. So she couldn't have been out for very long. They were still at the mouth of the river, the waterfall gurgling away into the bay.

But as Mai looked out over the bay, she spotted something new cutting through the falling snow. "Is that a Faceless Tribe ship?"

Sokka followed her pointing finger with his gaze and frowned. "It couldn't be. They didn't have any ships that size yesterday- or this morning! And why would they- wait, there's a flag- but that's a moon symbol, like Hahn was wearing, and- and another flag, a red one-"

Mai's eyes found what he was talking about, and the chill in her bones deepened. "It's a Fire Nation flag. Trimmed in gold. It's part of the personal fleet of Prince Iroh.

"He's found us."

TO BE CONTINUED
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« Reply #268 on: Dec 05, 2018 06:02 pm »

Icy Paths

Aang awoke to find his friends scrambling into Appa's saddle, which was never a good sign.

Specifically, he startled into wakefulness when Ty Lee's unconscious body crashed beside him, her landing softened only a bit by the thick parka she was wearing. Then Katara crashed on top of Ty Lee, blinking like she had no idea what was going on. (Aang could relate.) A moment later, Sokka and Mai both tumbled on top of her. Those two were fully awake, and more than a little hurried. Sokka managed to squeak, "Appa, yip-yip!" before Momo landed on his face to complete the party.

As Appa rose into the snowy sky, Aang stretched the fatigue from his limbs and shifted into a sitting position. "Um, what's going on? Should I be terrified?"

Mai extricated herself from the pile of people (prompting a grunt of pain from Katara) and pointed over the side of the saddle. "The Northern Water Tribe just arrived. And they're flying Fire Lord Iroh's flag."

The Northern Water Tribe?! Aang crawled up over the pile of his friends and looked to see what they were fleeing. It was hard to see through the snow, but it looked like a ship - a rugged one with large sails, not one of the metal steamers - was cutting its way across the bay beneath the solitary Sacred Mountain. But he didn't remember anything going on with the Northern Tribe. He'd been helping the Faceless Tribe, who lived right here on the coast of the bay, and-

Wait! The monster! The- the Unhcegila! "What happened to-"

Sokka pulled Momo off his face. "It almost got Ty Lee, we tried to fight it - operative word being tried - and then you glowed and gave it a good smash. Not good enough to solve the problem, but you chased it away. We were all recovering when we saw Iroh's friends joining the party. And now you just woke up in the middle of the subsequent skedaddling. Any questions?"

Aang opened his mouth to ask-

And then Ty Lee pushed herself up from beneath Katara (who went tumbling backwards with a squawk, sending Aang crashing back to land in Mai's parka-padded lap) and said, "We're flying? What's going on? What happened to-"

Sokka groaned.

Mai pushed Aang out of her lap and stood up to straighten the sword scabbard hanging from the back of her waist. "This is why you wait for everyone to wake up before explaining things."

"Noted!"

"Um," Aang interrupted, "what about the Unhcegila? Which way did it go?"

Sokka's face tightened. "It went- It went back up river! Towards the hunting party!"

Aang nodded, pulled an air current to assist his jump over to Appa's head, and grabbed the reins. "We have to help them. We know what the Unhcegila can do now, so we solve that problem, and then we get away from Iroh's people before they catch us. We can do this!"

He turned and offered a smile to his friends.

Ty Lee blinked sleepily at him, but waved with what seemed like encouragement.

Katara got back up and nodded. "Yeah! We can do this! I'm ready!" Momo scampered up to curl around her neck.

"Whatever." Mai didn't even look up as she checked the blades in her sleeves.

Sokka groaned. "Always so positive. I guess I'll just start thinking about everything that could go wrong? Yeah, that sounds good. Contingencies. Let's see..."

Confident that he had the support of the people he loved, he turned around again and steered Appa down close to the snow-covered landscape. The tracks of the Unhcegila were still visible next to the river that they had followed to the bay and the waterfall where they'd fought the monster, leading off into the yellowish gloom of the snowfall. The day had to be getting late by now, so soon visibility would be even worse.

He wondered how they'd actually deal with the Unhcegila, since they couldn't look at its face without starting to die. But he was sure they'd come up with something.

Yeah.



Pakku stood at the ship's prow and stared out across the bay, trying to pierce through the obscuring snowfall with the sheer power of his disapproving gaze. The ship was circling around that striking standalone mountain, revealing more of the coast with each moment. There might have been some movement near a small waterfall where a river emptied into the bay, but staring into a windy snowfall was a good way to see all kinds of things that weren't really there.

But then, his life had been full of seeing things that weren't really there.

Last night, Fire Lord Iroh had visited Pakku's dreams again, complete with the usual tea and related paraphernalia. With something like a jungle around them, the Fire Lord had said, "My guests are departing tomorrow, now that I have been officially crowned. I'll also be sending out my orders to the Earth Kingdom to prepare for the contingency. Is the Avatar still traveling north?"

"If your device is working, then yes." Pakku hadn't bothered drinking the tea. He wasn't sure, due to the nature of dreams, whether it was a figment of his imagination or something of the Spirit World, but either way he wasn't interested in playing Tea Party tonight. "Seems a waste to send us out here to collect him, when he seems to be coming for you anyway."

Iroh had sighed. "I would rather welcome him as a guest than find him attacking me in my bed. I thank you for your efforts in making my first physical encounter with the Avatar peaceful."

"Peaceful. Sure. Because when I show up with my Waterbenders, the Avatar will no doubt just happily surrender himself." Pakku had rolled his eyes. "I don't suppose you can help with that? As I recall, you promised to free the Earth Kingdom from Fire Nation control. If you went ahead and did that, I could tell him-"

"You know," Iroh had interrupted, putting his teacup down with enough force to thump the table, "why that is not possible. If the Avatar cannot help with Lu Ten-"

"No, I don't know why," Pakku interrupted right back. "Not exactly. And I'm sure you're aware of that. Whatever you have going on in your labs - places like Temple Base - is quite the mystery. I wonder why you won't tell me?"

Iroh had sighed, and it was a long moment before he spoke again. "Pakku, I take no pleasure in threatening people. But I need your best efforts. And you know what will happen if you don't give that to me. Your princess-"

"Oh, I know." Pakku didn't need to hear it again. He was well aware of what was at stake. "I have no desire to push you that far. The search will continue, and I will bring the Avatar to you."

And so the dream had faded, leaving Pakku with that strange mix of physical rest and continued weariness. It didn't exactly help his mood now as the snow whipped at his parka. "Are we sure the Avatar is nearby, or are we on history's most pathetic sightseeing tour?"

Saman Wei, a cousin who had been called more to spiritual matters than Waterbending forms, walked up to join him at the prow. "As sure as I can be, Master Pakku. This device-" He held up the metal box that Fire Lord Iroh had provided. It was strangely shaped and the prongs on the front looked like an invitation to a fight, but the most prominent feature was the set of jewels in the face. They glowed painfully in the dim light. "It directed us this far, and now see how it glows? These jewels came from our oldest Avatar Sanctuary, from the eyes of the Kuruk statue itself."

Yes, that was the way of things, now. A sacred statue had to give up its eyes to make a new toy. "If the jewels are so special, what's the metal box for?"

Wei shuffled his feet. "You'd have to ask Fire Lord Iroh. Or one of his pet outsiders. My saman provided the jewels at his request. This is one of the devices that came from the lab of Maker Lian."

Even Pakku had picked up rumors of what was going on in Lian's lab. The fact that Iroh had provided some 'special tools' for this mission that included her work was part of Pakku's unease with it all. And he noticed that despite Iroh's appreciation for Lian's work, she hadn't yet managed to solve the 'Lu Ten problem,' so she was hardly infallible, right?

"Well," Pakku eventually said, "if the magic metal box can't tell us anything more, then we need to look for the Avatar the traditional way. Kinto! Noa! Kam! Get your pathetic selves over here!"

His least favorite students hurried over. Noa and Kam arrived first, but Kinto's limp didn't slow him down by much. Nor had it affected his taste for fashionable parkas, judging by the fanciful wave motif on his coat. "Yes, Master Pakku?"

"It's time to start the search. Take your full teams and start by that waterfall. I think I saw movement over there."

Kinto's left hand clenched into a fist. His right hand twitched, but the fingers barely moved. "And Katara is still traveling with the Avatar?"

Pakku didn't immediately reply. Iroh's intelligence, probably gleamed from his dream-walking, said that Katara had indeed rejoined the Avatar in the Fire Nation capital. Pakku hadn't requested or received any updates since setting out from the North Pole. He would have felt confident in answering Kinto with a 'yes.'

But Kinto's limp was a legacy of his last duel with Katara, back at Temple Base, and that twitchy hand had been outstretched to torture her when the rogue Blue Spirit had buried his sword in the arm.

"Stop wasting an old man's remaining time," was all Pakku said. "And don't forget the special equipment."

All three of his students bowed, and then ran off. Soon, they had their teams assembled. Some were armed with platinum weapons, in case the Avatar Spirit needed to be disrupted, and several more esoteric platinum tools were in the hands of the less capable warriors. The Waterbenders jumped over the sides of the ship to surf their way across the bay.

Once they were all gone, Pakku nodded to Saman Wei. "I'm off, cousin. Try to keep the captain from running aground in this wretched weather." Then he swung himself over the ship's prow and called for his element.

As he propelled a strip of ice across the bay, balancing himself on top, Pakku was able to make out further details of the approaching shoreline. He wasn't headed directly for it, but near the bridge of land connecting the mountain to coast, vague shadows and shapes became a circular wall and the tops of smoking chimneys.

Hm.

It seemed that the Avatar had just made Pakku's day much more complicated. Wonderful.

He crouched on his ice-plank and lifted his arms to raise a tidal swell beneath him, and then before the wave could start to break, he pushed backwards to give it an additional snap. The water beneath his plank practically threw him forward to skip across the bay, racing ahead of even Kinto's group of Waterbender warriors. It wasn't eagerness that drove him to beat his students to the shoreline.

He just needed to let them know of a change in plans.


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« Reply #269 on: Dec 05, 2018 06:03 pm »

Mai's eyes, Azula used to say, were like those of a raven-eagle: sharp, far-seeing, and best suited for hunting other birds of prey. Mai had always taken that as a compliment, as much as she was tired of being likened to various kinds of raven-creatures so often. But her eyes were indeed a part of why she was such a great knife-thrower.

So it was a big surprise to her when the whipping snow and murk suddenly resolved into a fight between a giant monster and a bunch of Water Tribe hunters happening all around them.

Stupid weather!

Appa roared and Aang pulled on the reins and Mai scrambled to grab something to hold on to. She got a glimpse of Appa's tail rising as she looped her arms through one of the holes in the side of the saddle. Sokka and Katara were grabbing on to the other side, and Ty Lee-

Ty Lee was reaching for Momo and completely unsecured.

Mai kicked off from the saddle's side and slid over to slam bodily into Ty Lee. Their parkas absorbed most of the impact, but they both still went careening (with Momo in Ty Lee's arms) into the Water Tribe siblings on the other side. Katara and Sokka linked arms around Ty Lee, and Mai was debating whether to try to hold on to them or quickly crawl over to another armhole-

And then Appa hammered his tail down and the whole world began looping.

They were somersaulting over the battle and Mai got nauseatingly rapid glimpses of the opaque sky and the ground below and sky and ground and sky and ground and she was falling.

Falling!

She barely realized she was airborne before she plopped to a landing in the snow.

Well, at least she hadn't fallen far enough to do any real damage.

Except now she seemed to be in the middle of a war.

She had fallen behind a series of ice walls that seemed to be serving as a makeshift fortress. Behind her, the river was serving as a dead end for anyone who couldn't Waterbend. Ahead, a massive shadow darted from wall to wall, snapping over the top with a sound like something between an animalistic roar and the screeching of a terrified infant. It made her want to shudder, but shuddering always threw off her aim, so she resisted.

With each movement of the shadow, Water Tribe hunters responded. The front lines near the walls were being guarded by spearmen, their bone weapons held at full length, while in the rear the Waterbenders were turning the tufts of snow at their feet into flying spikes of ice that kept the shadow dancing.

Mai flicked her platinum sword free of its sheath and looked around.

She spotted the hunt leader, Toklo, directing things from the center of the action. She hurried to his side, darting between Waterbenders.

His eyes snapped to her immediately. She half-expected some comment giving her grief for chasing the Unhcegila back into the hunting party's midst, or maybe some snark about her being a useless girl, but he just said, "The Avatar?"

Mai pointed up. "On his way."

Toklo whipped his glance forward again, sending his braided gray hair swaying in the wind, and angled his spear towards where the sinuous darkness in the driving snow was once again leaning over a wall. A rain of ice shards arced up according to his gesture. "We have it engaged. We just need to deliver a killing blow. If the Avatar-"

Whatever his suggestion was going to be, it was lost as the wind picked up and one of the ice walls exploded inward.

That couldn't have been from the wind.

And then the screams started. Human screams. Toklo let loose with something like a roar and ran forward.

Mai wondered where Aang was. Still trying to get control of Appa?

She chased after Toklo, falling behind him in the awkward drifts of snow but readying her platinum sword for action. People in blue parkas were running all around her, but no longer in the same direction. The massive shadow moved through the falling snow with the swiftness of the wind, a tornado given form. Where the shadow struck, screams sounded. The snow would thicken somewhere and the person standing there a moment ago would be revealed crushed in the snow. Mai saw something like darkness in the shape of a whip move, and then the Waterbender ahead of her grunted and a red stain splashed the snow around him.

Then the shadow loomed in front of her.

She remembered Sokka's suggestion to look at anything but the Unhcegila's face, and focused her eyes downward to find the lizard-like, three-toed feet slipping in the snow as it moved towards her.

She decided to strike the first blow.

She dashed toward the Unhcegila, keeping her eyes on its knees. She waited until she passed between two legs like the twin pillars of a sacred paifang gate and swiped her sword upwards. She hit something, but not deeply, so she drew her weapon back and then stabbed the sky while keeping her eyes down. Her sword sank into something hard but yielding.

She'd stabbed a legendary monster.

Okay.

But the air tore with a sound like a flock of dying raven-eagles and Mai's sword was nearly jerked from her hands. Instead, she pulled it free, still keeping her eyes down, and she saw the Unhcegila's feet scrambling with enough speed to send snow flying. She raised the sword in front of her, trying to figure out the angle to stab out again, but the shadow above her shifted to reveal the yellow gloom of the snowy day-

-now, something dark was flying at her from the side-

-and a tail as hard as rock slammed into her from the left and knocked her sprawling to the snow.

Ow.

Okay.

Good things she was wearing a thick fluffy coat.

Amazingly, she had managed to hold on to her sword. And she absolutely could not look up, because for sure that thing's face would be waiting for her. She could hear it breathing, even above the wind. The sound reminded her a bit of Tom-Tom's moans when he had a stomachache. But she couldn't let that disturb her. She couldn't look at it.

And so the first she knew of the tail wrapping around her ankles was when she was yanked into the air.



Sokka didn't even realize that Mai had fallen out of the saddle, at first. He and Katara were busy holding on to Ty Lee, while also making sure to keep themselves in the saddle, as Appa flipped around and around. Reality finally stopped somersaulting, or maybe just the sky bison, and Sokka was almost about to believe that they were safe, if just for a moment.

Then they crashed.

Appa slammed into the snow-covered ground without warning, the jolt bouncing Sokka up and down hard enough to knock his tailbone against the saddle, and then Katara crashed into his back and he fell forward just in time to eat one of Ty Lee's elbows.

Then they stopped.

Momo chittered at them angrily from somewhere and flapped away.

Sokka sucked his sore teeth. Ty Lee had a surprisingly hard elbow. "What happened? Is everyone-"

"Appa!" Aang called out. He scrambled down to the ground and rubbed the sky bison's nose. "Are you okay?" Appa huffed and shook snow from his face, which Aang was apparently taking as a good sign. "He just lost track of the horizon. This weather-"

And then Ty Lee stood up in the saddle, nearly stepping on Sokka's hands, and wailed, "Where's Mai?"

Now, the set of possible answers to that question was depressingly large. Mai was nowhere to be found in Appa's saddle or the ground immediately around the bison, and that left a whole lot of reality to rule out. She couldn't have gone too far, of course, but in this weather she didn't have to be 'too far' to be effectively invisible.

But Sokka could make an educated guess, based on past experience, and this group's luck so far. "Probably in the middle of the greatest amount of trouble. So the action looks like it's thataway-"

Aang was already running across the snow, his Airbending enhancing his speed to effectively leave the rest of them behind.

Ugh.

Of course.

Sokka turned to Katara. "How fast can you get us over there?"

She started climbing out of the saddle. "Fast. Come on!" Ty Lee beat Sokka to the ground, but Katara waited for him. She turned her back to the conflict happening ahead and looked at each of them with very serious eyes. "Hold on to me."

Sokka grabbed his sister's waist, leaving some room for Ty Lee to do the same. He clenched his jaw just as Katara shoved at the field of snow behind them-

-the field of white exploded-

-and then they were skidding straight into a war with the speed of a diving lemur.

Sokka let go when they started slowing, allowing himself to scrape to a stop in the middle of a bunch of Water Tribe hunters rushing at something with spears ready. He quickly got to his feet, pulled out his platinum knife, and added his roar to the battle cry that was rising around him. This was it, his chance to finally honor his Tribe and his ancestors by completing a real hunt-

And then the Unhcegila was in front of him.

Oh. He wasn't expecting results that quickly.

Nor was he expecting such a good view-

The Unhcegila was rearing up on its hind legs as bone spears bounced off its dark skin, giving Sokka his first real look at it and turning the shadows of the previous encounters into reality. It was a big, long lizard, like the dragons he'd seen all over Fire Nation architecture, and could have been carved from a kind of stone itself. But what those sculptures had never really captured were the powerful muscles that had to be underneath such a creature, stretching the oily skin. It looked like obsidian, but Sokka really knew his rocks, and wouldn't be surprised if better light brought out blue tones in the scales. Spiky fins trailed down its back, but its twisting neck was free of them.

And at the top of that neck, shining like a sick mockery of the moon, was the creature's face.

Sokka averted his eyes.

And so he spotted Mai dangling by her feet from the long, rope-like tail that lashed back and forth.

The monster roared with a sound like the wind itself being torn in half.

And it was roaring at Aang.

The kid was dancing on the creature's back, trying to catch Mai, but it seemed that even a Master Airbender wasn't fast enough to catch that snapping tail. That pale, dangerous face swung towards Aang, but he used the crescent-bladed end of his Monk's Spade to catch one of the curving horns above the face and vaulted over the whole head.

Sokka watched all of this carefully while, around him, warriors and Waterbenders converged on the creature. Spears and waterwhips and ice shards and boomerangs and all kinds of weapons bounced off the rocky scales. Katara was among the attackers. And while the monster was distracted by Aang, Sokka saw Ty Lee used her Airbending to vault up onto the creature's back, dodging all the falling weapons as she moved towards the tail.

Sokka took out the platinum knife that Mai had given him and ran to join the fight, but then the Unhcegila became a cloud of movement that might have been a dance and might have been a spasm and definitely involved the tail shifting to lash Ty Lee. Both Airbenders were batted away to go tumbling through the air.

A red mist followed Ty Lee, and her torn parka fluttered in the wind.

And the monster's neck curved so that the face was following her, poised to do further damage.

Sokka knew he wouldn't be able to get close enough fast enough. He wasn't anywhere as good at throwing knives things as Mai, but he'd been doing extra practice with his new boomerang, and the Unhcegila was a pretty big target.

The platinum blade glistened, despite the dim light, as it flew from his hand.

And, sure enough, he managed to hit the thing right in its underbelly, between its front limbs. He'd done it! He'd landed a blow on the prey! The knife landed a little off-center, but it was still a pretty good throw if he could say so himse-

What happened next was beyond Sokka's ability to break down. The Unhcegila roared- or screeched, or screamed, or- the sound pierced Sokka's ears to strike right in the center of his head. It made his skin crawl. And the monster was moving, so fast it had become a shadowy blur once again. Cries of pain rose up from the warriors - his friends weren't among them, thankfully - and it became impossible to tell the difference between the Unhcegila's movements and the driving snow. Something as hard as rock hit Sokka, knocking him on his back once again, but the snow was softer than Appa's saddle, so that probably evened out.

And then things quieted, leaving only human groans of pain.

Sokka blinked, and got to his feet. Other people were doing the same, but he noticed that some were remaining still in quickly-reddening snow. He spotted Ty Lee crawling around, one leg of her pants stained dark red, her head whipping from side to side as if looking for something. Katara went over to join her, and they seemed like they were having an urgent conversation, and Aang joined them, and the urgency went up, and Toklo staggered over to them, face crusted with snow, and-

Sokka realized that he didn't see Mai anywhere.

It was just his luck that nailing the monster with the weapon made of magic metal at a critical and dramatic moment would make things worse.

He jogged over to the group. "Do we have a plan yet?"

Aang turned to him with tears already freezing at the corners of his eyes. "It took Mai! We couldn't get her-"

"Ty Lee, stay still, you're bleeding," Katara said. "I need a moment to fix that-"

"Mai will be okay," Ty Lee murmured, still not getting up. "She'll be okay. She knows not to look at the face. She's smart. She's-"

"The Unhcegila left the river," Toklo declared. "We'll have to use its tracks to find it, but the weather is getting worse. It will be slow going-"

"Okay, no plan." Sokka ran a hand over his head and tugged his warrior's wolf-tail. "I'll get Appa. Katara's going to heal Ty Lee. Aang- um, do that thing where you find people half a world away by meditating."

They all stared at him for a moment. Then they got to work, and Sokka felt safe in leaving to go get the sky bison. He made one quick stop on the way, to pick up a certain item from where it sitting in what seemed to be a patch of snow stained by shining green monster blood.

When he returned with Appa, Katara was throwing away some used healing-water and helping Ty Lee to fix up the tear in her parka. Aang was sitting in the snow, arrows glowing and eyes closed, while Toklo stood over him protectively.

Sokka brought Appa in for a landing. "Where to?"

Aang breathed in and out, and then his glowing faded. "Mai's heading towards the mountain. She's cold and afraid, and- and the mountain is calling the Unhcegila."

"The mountain?" Sokka tried looking for it, but the snow was too thick, and it was too far away. "The lone mountain with the ghosts on it? That mountain? The one right next to the village full of women, kids, and old people?" All of the Faceless Tribe's women had stayed behind, both young and old, Healers and the regular folk, including Toklo's daughter Amka. The old men were there, as well as Chief Kumaglak and some guards- too few guards.

Sokka's knife had driven the monster towards what might be the last real Water Tribe left.

So much for his hunt.

Aang was already hopping over to land on Appa's head. "Yeah. We need to go."

But Toklo said, "My hunters are hurt, and the girl Katara is the only healer."

Aang and Katara both immediately clenched their fists. It was Aang who spoke first with, "But Mai-"

Toklo interrupted, "My daughter is in danger! But I cannot condemn my warriors, too!"

Sokka stepped between them. "So Katara stays here, and Appa takes a group to the village, and if it's not in danger, pick up another healer like Amka and head to the mountain." Katara and Ty Lee both started to say something, but Sokka continued with, "And I'll stay with her." Everyone froze at that, so Sokka took the opportunity to take out Mai's platinum knife out and hand it over to Toklo. "Make sure Mai gets that back. She'll take it out on me if she doesn't."

Toklo accepted the knife. "This is the weapon that hurt the creature? I'll take good care of it, Sokka of the South."

Katara put her hand on Sokka's shoulder. "And we'll take care of your hunters. Now go!"

Everyone got moving, Katara heading for the injured hunters and the rest of the group running for Appa. Only Sokka stayed still, watching his friends and allies go off to continue the adventure. He hated staying behind, but he knew there was little more he could add to this fight.

At least he'd gotten a good hit in. Even if it might have ruined everything.


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« Reply #270 on: Dec 05, 2018 06:04 pm »

Pakku waited in the falling snow until someone came out of the village to meet him.

Despite the wind and gloom, he thought this was the least he could do for this village he'd just 'discovered.' He wouldn't appreciate it very much if some stranger barged into his home and demanded a place by the fire; a respectable man waited to be invited in. When he could, he tried to cling to some measure of respectability, at least when he wasn't dealing with students.

Too bad the small army of Waterbenders standing behind Pakku couldn't help but look like a threat. But he could hardly tell them to go stand somewhere over there and stop glowering.

It was a young woman who saw Pakku and his Waterbenders first. The walls around the village opened to create a path to a central longhouse, and as Pakku had approached, her head stuck out of the door for a moment before disappearing with haste. A group of old men had looked out next; Pakku waved at them and stopped several paces from the opening in the village's walls. The old men had disappeared, to be replaced by a pair of young men with weighted clubs who stuck around and stared at the assembly of Waterbenders. One of them almost looked familiar-

Now, a younger, heavyset man in fur robes of obvious rank stepped out into the snow and approached. The two young warriors flanked him. "I am Chief Kumaglak. I take it you are brothers from the North?"

Pakku nodded. "I am Master Pakku, Councilor and High Sifu." He noticed one of the young bodyguards flinch, the one who seemed familiar for some reason. But that couldn't be, as this offshoot Tribe had to be too old for any familiar relations to still be visible on their faces. "I just need to find the Avatar, and then we'll be on our way."

Kumaglak stared back without expression. "The Avatar is assisting my people on a matter of great importance. May I ask your business with him?"

Ah, they were going to be like this, were they? Pakku really didn't want to make any trouble for these people, but Iroh would know if he didn't give this mission his best effort. "The Avatar made a promise to assist an acquaintance. Let's say it's another 'matter of great importance,' yes? My students and I have come to escort the Avatar and see that he fulfills his obligation."

Chief Kumaglak leaned to look behind Pakku at all the Waterbenders gathered. Kinto took a step forward, menace evident in his limp, and Pakku quickly waved the moron to stay put.

Kumaglak looked back to Pakku. "Quite an escort."

"Yes." Pakku let his shoulders slump. He was a teacher and Waterbender, not a politician. And killing a Blue Spirit for Iroh's cause was bad enough, never mind a fellow Water Tribe (no matter how rustic). "Are you getting tired of this diplomacy garbage, or is it just me? You don't want to tell me where the Avatar is, and I don't want to break anything I don't have to, so how do we resolve this?"

If Kumaglak had any suggestions, he didn't get a chance to share them. Kinto hobbled forward again and pointed-

-Pakku was about to tell the thug to keep his threats to himself-

-right at the familiar-looking bodyguard. "I know that guy! You're Hahn, son of Kalicho, aren't you?"

Hahn, son of Kalicho? Hahn. Hahn? Pakku maybe recalled a Hahn. Kalicho was another Councilor, and he had a son, and the son's name could possibly be Hahn. But Kalicho's son was lost during the war with-

Ah.

Hahn, for his part, had turned to Chief Kumaglak. "I do know them, sir, and they're powerful Waterbenders. And- ah, they are very serious about their duties."

Well, however this Hahn (son of Kalicho) came to be here, he at least arrived with a part of a brain in his head. "Good assessment. Now, perhaps if you could just-"

And then someone screamed, "Monster approaching!"

Oh, for- what now?

Chief Kumaglak hissed, "The Unhcegila? Here?"

Unhcegila. Unhcegila? Wasn't that some kind of serpent? Water Tribe lore was full of serpents, but that was only because the ocean was, too. There was a reason Water Tribe ships didn't leave on long voyages without offerings to as many spirits as the crew could name.

Chief Kumaglak was already running back in through the wall around the village, which made him a chief with a good head on his shoulders. Hahn and the other bodyguard were staying behind, raising their clubs, which made them dutiful warriors who were probably about to die pointlessly.

Pakku sighed and motioned to his Waterbenders. "Defend the village! Use those platinum weapons if you have to!"

Kinto blinked. "But the Avatar-"

"This is a Water Tribe village." Pakku whirled on his student. "I won't-"

Then the monster arrived.

The first Pakku knew about it was a strike against the village's circular snow-wall. The sound carried through both the air and the ground, a solid impact followed shortly by the sound of groaning ice. No shattering sound followed, so the wall must have been very solid. But there was an echo of crunching snow growling louder-

Pakku saw the beginnings of a rather large shadow coalescing in the gloom, and immediately pointed and shouted, "There!"

And a swarm of platinum boomerangs flew towards the shadow.

Pakku never got a good look at this Unhcegila. He saw the beginnings of a long shape, making out four legs, a lashing tale, and a curving neck that seemed to end in a pale visage of some kind-

The creature let out a horrible shriek that nearly froze the water in Pakku's veins as the boomerangs cut into its flesh. Pure green light erupted from the points of impact, becoming like liquid in the snowfall.

"Yes," Pakku called out to his students, "more!" He himself focused on boxing the creature in, reaching out and spinning in place to turn the snow in the distance to a curving wall not unlike the one surrounding the village. He was no hunter, but he knew that only a particularly stupid creature would stand its ground in face of an unbeatable weapon, and did not want to let this one escape to strike again.

He heard chanting and drumming coming from the villages. So they had their own sages, and were helping in what way they could? Good.

A handful of platinum spears flew up as the boomerangs returned to their throwers, but the shadow that was the Unhcegila didn't give up quite yet. It dodged most of them, although one landed and stuck in its back, making it thrash as it chose to charge Pakku and his students.

And in that thrashing, Pakku thought he heard something like a human voice crying out. A woman's voice-

He stared, and although the snowy gloom did his old eyes no favors, he thought he saw a gray parka - or a person wearing a gray parka - being whipped back and force at the end of the tail-

And then the moon rose right in front of him. But no, not the moon- it pulled light out of the air instead of giving it. It was a face, a face like what children shaped in their snow-guardians, and the eyes were pure emptiness.

Pakku suddenly couldn't breathe, and felt a cold like he had never felt in all his long life.

It was the last cold he ever felt.



Half a world away, in the underground refugee camp created by Earth King Toph, Kanna supervised the children in her care as they ate their dinner. Most of them were old enough that they didn't need her assistance, but the Fire Nation child Tom-Tom still hadn't quite learned what to do with a hunk of meat. Shila was cutting it for him, and Kanna watched to make sure the child behaved himself and thanked Shila for the help.

Then, after dinner, she would give them all a lesson. Today it would be numbers. Sokka had always enjoyed the number lessons, but most of these children didn't-

Kanna grabbed for her heart as a chill exploded within her.

"Gran-Gran," Quinyaya said, "are you okay?"

Kanna didn't answer right away. The cold feeling was fading, and her heart seemed to be returning to its normal rhythm. "I think so. I just- I had an odd feeling there, for a bit. But I'm okay now." She shook herself, and the chill left her. "Don't think this is going to get you out of your number lessons."

A few of the children groaned, including Tom-Tom, but he seemed to be doing it just for the fun.



The last thing Pakku heard was Kinto, calling over the wind, "Stay back! Keep focusing on the monster! Master Pakku can take care of himself."

That callous brat.

Oh, well. Maybe he'd get himself killed by a monster, too.

Cold filled his body, a cold that he knew would never go away. He tried and failed to breathe, but it still wasn't working, and a calm settled on him. Breathing wasn't so great, after all.

Well, at least this way, he wouldn't have to help Iroh, anymore.

Good luck, Avatar.

And then Pakku was just a body in the snow.



Aang arrived at the village just in time to see the monster escape again from what seemed to be an army of Waterbenders.

He looked down from Appa's head as they skated on ramps of ice around the Unhcegila. The village was barricaded nearby, safe for the moment. But where had this army come from? Had Sokka found a way to get the hunters here before Appa could-

And then Aang saw a trio of Waterbenders skate past the Unhcegila's left side and throw spears the color of the wind itself- platinum! But only the Fire Nation had access to that, and-

Iroh's Northern Water Tribe soldiers!

But the spears found no home in the Unhcegila. It shifted out of the way, leaving behind a blue-clad body lying still in the snow. It moved towards another Waterbender a short distance away, one that wasn't skating all around. The figure started to move, but it seemed to be limping-

-Aang said, "Yip-yip!" and yanked the reins for a dive that would hopefully bring him down in time to save the Waterbender-

-and the Unhcegila's head whipped out and rammed the limping figure. Aang couldn't see what had happened to him for a moment, looking around to see where the Waterbender might have landed, but then he caught a glimpse of blue parka on top of the Unhcegila's head-

-where the horns were-

-Appa was close now, and Aang prepared to jump back into battle. He called out, "Get ready," to the others back in the saddle-

-and then the Unhcegila whipped around so that it was facing right at Aang-

-that dark-eyed death mask that the monster was using to steal the life right out of its victims-

-but even as Aang's breath was slowing in his lungs, something like an expression of pain spasmed across the inhuman face. Its neck snapped around and Aang immediately pulled Appa to turn and get away from the monster again.

He looked as he passed to the monster's right and found it staring at its tail, where the gray figure wrapped in its tail was hacking away with an rod of pure light-

-no, not light, a platinum sword-

-Mai-

-and then the Unhcegila darted into the storm and disappeared.

"No, wait, come back!" But Aang's call died in the falling snow, unanswered.

Behind him in the saddle, Toklo reached up to pat Aang's shoulder. "It's okay, Avatar. We know where it's going." He pointed ahead, and Aang looked.

The dark silhouette of the Sacred Mountain loomed before them.


« Last Edit: Dec 05, 2018 06:06 pm by Loopy » Logged

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« Reply #271 on: Dec 05, 2018 06:07 pm »

Mai awoke to find herself alone somewhere dark and cold, which was never a good sign.

She had blacked out at some point after the Unhcegila fled the Faceless Tribe's village. She'd been trying to cut herself free of the tail wrapped around her body with her sword, been trying to return to Aang. But she'd been squeezed and shook and rattled and eventually her body just gave up.

As light and awareness returned, she found that she had managed to hold on to her sword, at least. When her vision had started going dark, she'd cut a length of her hair and tied it around her fist just in case things got- well, hairy. Assured that she was armed and at least semi-dangerous, she looked around.

She was in a dark, frozen cavern.

And her entire body hurt.

She started to try to lift herself off the ice-covered floor, but something in her stomach twinged and the strength in her arms fled. She took the hint and just breathed for a few moments, taking in her current situation.

She wasn't sure how large this cave was, or how deep it went. Her view from the floor was obscured by stalagmites and stalactites so iced over that there might not be any rock under there at all, and what path that was visible curved and twisted.  One end of the cavern narrowed and trailed into darkness, while the other led to a kind of light. But the sky wasn't visible over there; the light seemed to be taking advantage of all the ice, reflecting down through the caves until the darkness overwhelmed it.

The ice also reflected sound.

She couldn't be sure, but she might have heard whispers. Not human voices, and not any words she recognized. They might have just been the remnants of her dreams, or- Wait. Hadn't Toklo talked about spirit voices on the big mountain? Hopefully the voices wouldn't be as sexist as the Water Tribe that worshipped them.

Mai could also hear the noise of movement, the shifting of something large. Echoes that could have been growls and grunts and snorts and whines bounced around the cave with no sign of their original source, and something soft scraped against the ice. When those sounds quieted, the whispers returned.

There was also the sound of breathing, and not Mai's. Not the Unhcegila's either, because surely a creature that size would be louder. No, this breathing was coming from someone Mai's size. It was human, and-

"Nnnhhhhh," came a voice.

-and it was in pain.

Mai took another look around.

She'd missed it in her first pass because it was lying next to the chunky remains of a shattered column of ice. She looked closer now, noting the blue Water Tribe parka. It wasn't like those worn by the Faceless Tribe; this one made an attempt at fashion, like Hahn's had. It was decorated with symbols and panels and even an impression of ocean waves, and at the center of the chest-

That was not a decoration.

Mai quickly looked away, nauseated.

The wound was about the size of one of the Unhcegila's horns. The pained breathing continued to echo.

Mai wasn't doing so well herself. She was sore from her shoulders to her knees, her stomach worst of all. Something felt- disconnected in there. She was hurt and alone and trapped with a monster. But she had her sword. She looked at the blade-

-and a face not her own, a face emerging from the body of a giant insect and painted like a Noh-mask, looked back.

"Hello again," it said.

This should be startling, but she'd seen this face twice before – a few weeks ago in her dreams and last night in the reflection of the sword like this - and she was hurting too much to get excited. "Go away."

The creature smiled within the sword. "Just when we have this delightful opportunity to get to know each other better? Trust me, this is a conversation you'll want to have."

Mai wanted to unleash one of her sighs, but her chest hurt too much. "But we've met before, haven't we? We discussed traitors. And Aang. And not in a good way." Something about this creature's sophisticated way of talking brought out Mother's lessons, of keeping her face politely blank and not telling people to go lick ash. "I've also heard of you from the Faceless Tribe, now. I trust I'm speaking to Koh, the killer of Avatar Kuruk's wife?"

The Noh-painted face disappeared, replaced by a stern old woman whose scowl remained even as it laughed. "Ah, it's nice to be working with an informed partner! So few these days seem to recall the old stories. But I like to think of myself as quite the memorable encounter. Most never get over it."

"Do you have a point, or are you just here to torture me before a monster sucks my lifeforce out through my eyes?"

The old woman face sighed. "I suppose we don't have much time, do we?" A blink, and then the face of a little boy with a scar on his forehead stared back at her. "And we've come to the point, anyway. Given your situation, I am here to make you an offer. When the Unhcegila returns, it will feast on your spirit, and in doing so, feast on all those you love."

Mai glanced around the cave. The Water Tribe man was still maybe dying, and the monster hadn't come back. "I give you permission to rescue me, if that's what you're proposing."

"Yes, well, in a manner of speaking." The face switched again, now to a thin man with sunken cheeks and eyes that bugged out of his head. "Instead of letting your demise also destroy those connected to your carefully shielded heart, I can make sure they remain safe. All you have to do is put an expression on that handsome face of yours."

It didn't take a genius to read between the lines here. "Is that what you did to Avatar Kuruk's wife? It sounds like you're not so much offering to help me as trying to kill me yourself. No thanks."

"That is precisely what I'm offering. But don't think I was trying to trick or trap you. If I do the deed - if I use the expression on your face to steal it away, ending both your existence and participation in the reincarnation cycle - then your loved ones will remain safe." The skull-like face licked its lips. "Your brother won't be destroyed by your hidden fondness. The friends you've made into a new family won't be dragged down into an abyss along with you. And your grand love with the Avatar won't-"

"I don't love Aang," Mai spat out, a bit louder than she'd intended. She took a moment to master herself again before continuing in whispers. "Not the way he loves me. I'm old, an adult, and he's- he's still a child-"

"Yes." The face shifted once again, back to the painted Noh-face. "You don't need to explain it to me. I do try to stay informed, you know. Perhaps more than any other spirit. It's important to keep up on current events." The gaze of the face drifted, and it almost took on an expression like Ty Lee at her most daydreamy. "I've observed the flourishing of your love, and it's been quite the tale. Your love still journeys but the destination is clear. As you and the Avatar both grow, you will become more and more intertwined, until the two become one, and the one live for the two. You know this. That's why you're considering my offer."

Mai opened her mouth to voice a denial-

And then closed it again.

The fear was too sharp in her chest to deny.

Koh nodded. "All you have to do is let the emotion you're feeling show on your face, and I can save the ones you love."

Mai closed her eye. It was so tempting to save Aang by destroying herself, not just because of the Unhcegila, but because of everything. She did feel her heart pulling her towards this boy who was becoming a man, but there was nothing about her that would be good for him. She had betrayed him once already. She'd killed and enjoyed it. To free him from her-

But when it came down to it, she just refused to go down without trying to get in one last stab. "If you're so informed and observant, you know why I won't."

The sound of Koh's chuckle echoed through the cave. "True. But I thought I owed you the chance. If you ever change your mind, you just have to ask. We'll see each other again, I'm sure."

"I'm sure," Mai repeated. And when she opened her eyes, the only thing staring back at her out of her platinum blade was her own expressionless face.

And beyond her reflection, the Unhcegila was slithering out of the distant shadows at the other end of the cave, scraping against the ice and knocking over a few stalagmites. It had to pull itself along, the cave was such a tight fit, but the twisting path was no problem for it.

Mai quickly averted her eyes before the impression of the monster's face could become real. It would really undermine her grand choice there if she immediately got herself killed in the most damaging way possible.

Thankfully, the Unhcegila didn't seem to be immediately interested in her. It undulated its way over to the injured Water Tribe man and snaked its head around to hang over his body. The man's pained breathing became more frantic, tinged with moans.

"Keep your eyes closed," Mai whispered. Maybe it would help him.

Empty whispers answered her with incomprehensible words.

The Unhcegila coiled its neck, bringing the face down to the Water Tribe man. It dipped suddenly, and the man grunted, but Mai could still hear his breathing. Maybe he had heard Mai's advice. The  Unhcegila's head dipped further, and bobbed as it did something-
 
The man's whimpers became screams. Long, throat-ravaging screams.

Mai tried to get up again, but something in her body was just broken, and pain shuddered up and down her entire trunk. She'd never joke about Ty Lee's crushing hugs again, not so long as she could remember the Unhcegila's tail wrapped around her.

She reached out with her left arm, the one that didn't have a sword tied to the hand, and pressed her palm against the painfully freezing ice of the cave floor to pull herself forward a little. She slid, not painlessly, but not with an intolerable amount of hurt, either. She used her other arm to pull herself a little farther, using the butt of the sword's handle to anchor against the ice, and then the first arm again, and on, and on, escaping a handspan at a time.

The whole time, the Water Tribe man screamed. There were wet sounds. Was he really keeping his eyes closed this whole time? Or did the Unhcegila not care anymore? Surely, a Waterbender who had stood right beside Master Pakku would have many connections, right?

One thing was clear, though: the Unhcegila wasn't feeding. Mai had heard animals eat, and this wasn't that. This was just- just systematic destruction.

She kept pulling herself along the cave, trying to find the source of the light.

She didn't.

Instead, she found her friends.

Well, allies and friends. Toklo came first, leading Aang, Ty Lee, and Amka through the cave. (Where were the others? Alive?) Their eyes went wide when they saw her, but then they spotted the Unhcegila as well, and they quite reasonably kept their mouths shut. Mai made an effort to pull herself closer to them, but they save her the trouble, sneaking their way over to her. Aang actually cupped her face in his hands as he fell to his knees in front of her, and Ty Lee dropped down to try to give Mai a hug.

That was their undoing.

Mai couldn't stop herself from crying out in pain, and the sound echoed in the tunnel.

Over by the darkness, the Unhcegila froze. The Water Tribe man had already gone quiet, but that hadn't deterred the monster from its games. Now, though-

Toklo and Amka exchanged a glance, and then Toklo moved to stand between Mai in the monster. Amka pulled her waterskin off her shoulder and leaned down over Mai. Aang and Ty Lee immediately scooted to give her room.

Amka whispered, "When I tell you to drink, do it. Your injuries are inside. I need to heal them from inside." She flipped the cork on the waterskin, and then motioned the liquid within to fly out and into the air. It started glowing, and Amka set the waterskin aside.

Then she began streaming the glowing water through the air towards Mai's mouth.

Drink?!

Well, okay-

Mai swallowed the freaky glowing healing water. It was like trying to chug a whole bowl of lily wine, and not in a pleasant way. She'd joked before about 'wild' water that didn't come out of wells or aqueducts, but this- the water was like something alive as it flowed down Mai's throat and began swirling in her stomach under Amka's directions. It brought with it a coldness, but also a warmth. It was both painful and soothing, and unpleasantly invasive. It was like having a living thing thrashing inside, trying to break free.

Looking for something else to focus on, Mai looked down at the sword still tied to her hand, at the reflective blade, and saw the Unhcegila's face looming behind her.

She saw its face-

-and nothing happened to her.

The reflection!

She wanted to warn the others, because the reflection also showed Toklo waving a spear in one hand and her platinum knife in the other, putting himself between her and the monster. Aang and Ty Lee moved to join the defense, and they were in danger, and they needed to know-

But it was hard enough to breathe as the lining of her stomach convulsed, as the muscles throughout her chest tightened and loosened and tightened again. She couldn't even remember how to speak. She tried pointing to her sword, to the reflective blade, but Amka wasn't paying attention to that. Her eyes were closed as she moved her hands back and forth over Mai's body, face tight, mumbling, "I can do this, I can be strong, I am a healer, I will fix this..."

"We'll protect you," Toklo called out, his words echoing like a roar. "Keep working!"

Mai only got glimpses of the battle. The Unhcegila was impaired in its movements, in a cave this tight. He slammed the walls and cracked the ice and knocked over every obstruction in its way. As it moved in and out of the range of Mai's observation, she spotted a large glowing wound in its underbelly, just above its front legs. Had that been where Sokka hit it with the knife?

Aang and Ty Lee were more evident in the sudden winds that bounced around the cave than in the quick glimpses Mai got of them in her mirror-like sword. It was impossible to piece it all together, but trying was a good distraction from the glowing water working on her insides. At one point, Ty Lee called out. "Is this Kinto? I think- Amka, we need you here next!" And throughout the fight, Aang was pleading, "Let us help! I can heal you! Or figure out what's upsetting you! Please!"

That contrasted sharply with Toklo's occassional, "Die, monster!" and, "For my Tribe!"

Every time the Unhcegila reappeared in Mai's blade, it had new lines of dripping green light sparkling on its dark body. Toklo was putting that knife to good use.

Until, that is, the Unhcegila got him.

It was inevitable, really. They couldn't look the Unhcegila in its face, and the cave offered limited space. They were going to slip up, one way or another, either being caught by its gaze or missing something critical while their eyes were averted.

Toklo was ruined by the latter. He might have even chosen it, if failure was inevitable.

All Mai saw of it was the Unhcegila following him around a wall-like series of stalactites. There was an impact that shook the cave, a crunch, and Toklo's last choking cry.

Tears filled Amka's eyes, but she kept working on Mai.

"The knife," came Ty Lee's voice, "get the knife!"

It had to be bad if Ty Lee, of all people, was asking for a weapon.

But there was a metallic clatter that couldn't be good news, and a grunt of pain from Aang. Ty Lee gasped, a noise that turned into a startled squeal, and then there was a cacophony of shattering ice.

After that was silence.

No, not quite silence. Whispers. The scraping of tough skin against ice. Heavy, labored breathing.

A shadow covered both Mai and Amka.

She angled the sword to look behind her, and the Unhcegila stared right back at her. It was panting, a horn was broken, and its whole neck was creased with glowing, leaking wounds. It leaned over them-

"Done!" Amka let her arms fall back, and the strange resistance of the liquid running through Mai's body suddenly became a mere drink of water. She swallowed, cleared her throat, and then rose and spun and slashed with her sword.

She put all her strength into but kept her eyes closed. She already knew what she was aiming for, and didn't need to look.

And then there was a heavy thud right in front of her, and she opened her eyes to find the Unhcegila's headon the floor at her feet. It was leaking luminescent green liquid all over her boots. The body thrashed for a moment, shaking the whole cave, and then collapsed. She looked the head straight in the dark, starless eyes, but other than a brief shiver that ran up her spine, it had no effect on her.

It was dead.

Mai flicked the strange glowing liquid off her blade. "Who's still alive?"

Aang pulled himself to his feet from behind the lifeless body with his Monk's Spade, and Mai's heart grew a little lighter. Ty Lee crawled out from a pile of shattered ice-stalactites and waved.

A quick investigation showed that the Water Tribe man - Kinto, Ty Lee had called him - was beyond help.

So was Toklo.

As Amka's sobs started to echo, they made plans to take care of their dead and reunite with their friends. How Mai would deal with what she had learned about herself - or, really, what she had finally admitted to herself - was a problem for tomorrow. And all the days after that.


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Loopy
Never Gonna Give Yue Up

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I'm Loooooooopy!


« Reply #272 on: Dec 05, 2018 06:08 pm »

Aang would have liked to leave it all behind as fast as possible, but finding their way back out of the cave had taken longer, without Toklo's help. It didn't help that they had to carry Toklo's body, as well. Again, Aang was executing the old Air Nomad duty of taking the dead to their final resting place. Appa was still waiting at the cave's entrance, and then it was a short flight down from the mountain.

By the time they got back to the gates of the village of the Faceless Tribe, the Northern Waterbenders were gone.

Sokka and Katara had returned with the hunters. They waited while Aang and Mai passed Toklo's body over to Chief Kumaglak and the sages, and Ty Lee guided a sobbing Amka over to her friends. Then the siblings dashed over, and Aang found himself at the center of a group hug. Mai joined in without prompting. Even Sokka didn't hesitate.

But he did pull away in a few moments and point over to the bay. "The jerks from the North left as soon as they gathered up their dead. They let the Faceless Tribe's healers fix up the wounded, but I think that's just because they didn't bring any of their own and would have run out of bandages. We made them wait until after the Faceless hunters got helped, though."

Katara stepped back and bowed her head. "It was already too late to help Master Pakku. Maybe he and Jet will meet again in another life."

Ty Lee poked her head up. "So they just waited for the healers? That was polite!"

Katara gave a low chuckle. "They weren't happy, but they didn't want another fight. Especially when they saw me. I trained with some of those guys, remember? I'm surprised Kinto wasn't here, though."

"Yeah." Ty Lee chuckled back, and there was definitely no humor in it. "I'll talk to you later about that."

Aang let the hug come apart around him. "We need to do something about Iroh as soon as possible. I don't know how they found us, but they won't stop. Not once they recover from- from all this."

Mai put an arm around his shoulders, and pulled him close so that they were leaning against each other. "We'll do it. With the Faceless Tribe's help, we'll do it. And we'll do it the right way."

It was what he needed to hear. And it came from the person he needed the most.

Momo scampered over to join the group, and together they went back into the village, to mourn the dead and prepare for the coming struggles.



Night had fallen when Saman Wei and a few of the uninjured Waterbenders found the cave where the Unhcegila died. They had used several of the special devices that Maker Lian had developed for their mission, and brought along a few others that might come in handy.

What they found was Kinto's body, and a monstrous head that was all too close to human. All other remnants of that monster were gone.

The Waterbender Noa said, "Kinto's in no condition to be moved. I guess we could freeze the bits-"

"Never mind," Wei interrupted. "This ground is sacred enough for him to rest. There's no need to waste time with that. We need to find a way to transport this creature's head before the Avatar or his new allies discover us."

The Waterbender Kam shuddered. "The head? We're taking it with us? Why? Master Pakku never liked bothering with this kind of thing!"

"My cousin Pakku is dead." Wei dipped his head in a brief moment of mourning and respect. "Now we need to find a way to protect our lives from Iroh, once he learns that we won't be able to complete our mission. And this- this is just the kind of thing he's interested in."

Wei motioned, and the Waterbenders brought the platinum tools.

TO BE CONTINUED
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