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Author Topic: Traitor's Face [AU Adventure, rated T]  (Read 29057 times)
Loopy
Never Gonna Give Yue Up

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I'm Loooooooopy!


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It was the same relationship she had with Kirai.

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

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

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

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

Before, Kyoshi Island had been her world.

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

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

It was just a choice.

Like so many other things.



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

Well, Sabure wouldn't, anyway.

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

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

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

Sabure glanced back at her. "Danger?"

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

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

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

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

Yet.

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

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

The girls orbited each other as they patrolled.

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



Suki could smell the dawn approaching.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

No.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

He was alive.

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

And Sabure, more rocks hovering at her sides.

No soldiers?

And Longshot-

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

The figures traded glances.

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

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

Suki blinked. "What?"

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"These are my Freedom Fighters."



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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Suki leaned forward. "Tell me more."

They did.

And then she got an intriguing idea.


Logged

Loopy
Never Gonna Give Yue Up

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I'm Loooooooopy!


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Akechi actually stepped back. "Explosives?"

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

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

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

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

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



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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"You didn't earn it."

"You said the explosives are real!"

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

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

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

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



And so she left her home behind.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Longshot smiled and nodded. They clasped hands.

And then it was time to leave.

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

Suki turned around. "What?"

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

Her war fans.

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



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

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

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

Suki followed his finger back towards the island-

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And to Zuko.

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

And with trust.

TO BE CONTINUED
Logged

Loopy
Never Gonna Give Yue Up

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I'm Loooooooopy!


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

The Laboratory

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sure.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hahn said, "You do what now?"

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

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

"Wow," Aang breathed.

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

Hahn snorted. "Is that good or bad?"

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Great.

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

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

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

Sokka sighed. "What do you see?"

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

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

Aang said, "Earthbending?"

Ty Lee said, "Tanks?"

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"You think this is a trap?"

"I think everything is a trap."

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

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

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

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

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

Appa grunted and shook snow off his face.

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



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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Aang followed.

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

Aang readied his glider.

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

Aang tensed.

Nothing happened.

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

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

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

And then, abruptly, it stopped.

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

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

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

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

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

He was glowing.

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



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

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

Right?

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

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

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

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

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

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

"... footprints ... flare."

"Spirits don't ..."

"Maybe ... spy?"

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

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

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

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

Sokka smiled.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



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

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

Obviously, he was in the Spirit World. Somehow.

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

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

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

"Aang?"

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Everyone turned to look at him.

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

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

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

"Yeah, whatever."

Sokka turned to Ty Lee. "You good?"

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

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



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

He watched until it disappeared.

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

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

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

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

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

As they walked, the shadows shifted-

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

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

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



Sokka knocked on the door.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Weird.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sokka nodded.

"Well, the gray has gotten darker."

"That's bad?"

"I think it has to be."

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



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

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

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

Mai sighed.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hm.

Maybe-

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



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

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

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

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

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

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

"Uhhh," Ty Lee said behind her helmet.

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

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

Sokka bowed. "Lee."

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

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

Ty Lee hesitated, and then bowed.

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

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

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

If only he could stop seeing ghosts.

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

Yeah, join the club.



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

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

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

Or so it looked.

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

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



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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"Toldja," Guo mumbled.

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

"Have you?"

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

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

...

...

Oh.

Wow.

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

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

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

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

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

Fire Lord Iroh.

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

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

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

The Maker

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ty Lee opened a second supply closet and stepped inside.

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

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

Then the writhing vines began turning brown.

Ty Lee went into a third closet.

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

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

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

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

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

Lians?

Oh boy, someone had an ego.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

-where Sokka heard the lab door opening-

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

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

Slush.

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Her fingers reached the handle of the platinum knife.

The monster continued to stare at her.

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

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

She pulled the platinum knife out.

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

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

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

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

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

Aang wasn't here to be the good one.

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

But maybe-

-Aang believed in her, he always said-

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

She laid the knife down on the snow.

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

She moved her hand away from the knife and rested.

The monster didn't react.

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

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

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

Huh.

Maybe-

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

Mai stood up.

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

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

The creature was still behaving.

Okay.

Fine.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

No.

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

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

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

Mashenomak? Who was-

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

Oh.

Sure.

Why not?

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

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

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

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

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



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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A hand grabbed the back of her helmet and shoved-

-a knee rose to fill her vision-

The impact smashed the world into pieces.



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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Huh. Beautiful and smart.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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Loopy
Never Gonna Give Yue Up

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I'm Loooooooopy!


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Aang frowned. "But what does-"

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

And he awoke in a world of white.

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

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

Hands.

His friends!

He needed to-

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Zhao's scowl became deeper.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"But I never-"

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

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

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

TO BE CONTINUED
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